Friday, January 30, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: The Next Doctor

 

We return again for the last unreviewed Christmas special. This is “The Next Doctor”!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Cabin in the Woods (2011)

the-cabin-in-the-woodsI should stop you. I really shouldn’t even write this. Writing a review of Cabin in the Woods, talking about Cabin in the Woods in a public forum is like talking about the ending of The Sixth Sense in front of a movie theatre in 1999 or being the first person to shout “Snape killed Dumbledore” in July of 2005. Even the title, Cabin in the Woods is a spoiler once you know how to look at it. So please, for the love of god, if you haven’t watched this movie, do so now, before you read another word.

There are three layers to this movie. You can watch it as a tired old film cliche with boobs and a body count, the kind that most people attracted to this film probably wouldn’t mind watching but would definitely like to see something greater than. You can watch the film literally, as it prepares a ritual sacrifice to keep Cthulhu sleeping in R’lyeh (or a similar, unnamed Old One). Or you can take that step one step farther, peel back the layer of satire, and realize that you are Cthulhu.

An unnamed corporation with chapters all over the world is constructing a scenario. These are regular office workers, what you might call “average Joes”. They gamble, they drink, they do anything the boss will allow and are careful to keep anything they won’t under the table. They hate their client’s customers and they’ll do whatever they can to keep the client happy. And they’re working to save the world from certain destruction.

Their clients are “the ones who came before”, which means this is probably part of writer Joss Whedon’s “Buffyverse”. The fact that Tom Lenk and Amy Acker work here are only an added bonus. Of course, the twist is, the customers that they’re serving in order to satisfy the clients are human beings, whom they’re sacrificing in traditional horror movie fashion in order to keep the Old Ones aslumber.

Describing what comes next would just be too much detail. Cabin in the Woods is every horror movie ever made, in more ways than one. It’s a movie that distinguishes between “zombie” and “zombie cannibal family” and delivers on both. A man is gored by a unicorn, another is fed to a giant snake, and nameless Cenobites (the Hellraiser kind) make their appearance, among other things. If that’s not enough to sell you on this story, a secret stash of weed keeps Topher Brink from Dollhouse sober enough to upset everybody’s plans.

Not only is this a perfect homage and satire of ‘80s horror, but it’s a perfect 1980s’ creation in its own right. The only thing that’s more a child of the ‘80s than the horror film set in a cabin the woods is the evil corporation beholden to nobody. Lex Luthor isn’t in charge here, but the film loses none of its appeal as a result of it.

If you’ve never seen a student on full academic scholarship turn into an alpha male who calls people “egghead”, an equally studious blonde act in the role of the sacrificial bimbo, or a “virgin” who just broke off a purely sexual relationship with her teacher with an “I knew what I was getting into” attitude, then I’m still telling you too much. Watch Cabin in the Woods if you’ve ever liked a horror movie.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Silent Night (2012)

Silent NightSnapshot of my life: it’s 3am (in the morning, morning) and I’ve just finished my ironing for work tomorrow morning. I could be going to sleep, or I could be writing. What kind of writer would I be if I’m not writing?

In all honesty, some movies are just made to be reviewed. They just fill themselves with points against them so that nobody with the slightest hint of critic in them could possibly bypass the opportunity to review them. I really had no intention of reviewing 2012’s Silent Night, but after watching the film, I really just can’t pass it up.

Watching Silent Night, it’s pretty clear that it is in no way a remake of the classic film Silent Night, Deadly Night. While the original film was a story about a boy who was subjected to the wrong set of horrible experiences and lost his sanity in the process, this is a film about a guy in a mask killing anybody he comes across.

Except it’s pretty clear that the writer had a vision of this film being a remake to the original- or at least, a very strong homage to the original. I counted no less than four scenes that were included as direct references to Deadly Night or its sequel, none of them done well. One of these is so far removed from the plot of this film that the only reason to include it would be as a direct reference to the older movie. Which points to a remake that doesn’t include the plot, premise, or atmosphere of the original film. Unless you’re a modern film writer, which only sees “guy in a Santa suit killing people” as the premise.

This incongruity is all over this film. Silent Night goes so far as to feature a porn shoot to get a topless scene. That’s the only topless scene in the film, however, despite the fact that the killer interrupts a sex scene in order to re-enact a topless murder from the original film. Well, a foreplay scene. Everything about this film is like that generic ‘80s slasher film you always hear about, but almost never see because most ‘80s slashers were actually more original than the stereotype. Except that this film doesn’t take any chances. Everybody’s a slut, but nobody has sex.

This carries over to the violence as well. A woodchipper scene is safe- all you need to show is a bit of red spray and the audience can imagine that it’s one of the most gory scenes they’ve ever witnessed. The scenes that should be really gory, however- like the climax- the movie starts using camera filters like a ‘20s film, coloring every scene bright red or bright green. You know, because Christmas! Or maybe because the trend is PG-13 horror movies, even when the boobs-and-cocaine porn shoot ensured the film get an R rating, because for a direct to DVD feature, it’s better to have the R rating appeal even while maintaining the PG-13 content.

Besides the red and green filters, this film also features brief moments of the overly bright Christmas lights seen in Black Xmas. Thankfully, Silent Night doesn’t go that route, and prior to the last Act I have less complaints about the visual style of this film than I expected to from Act I. There are plenty of well lit scenes, but there are also some decent dark scenes. The fact that the visuals are in the style of 2012 film throughout hurt this as a slasher, but there are other modern elements that hurt it worse.

For example, Malcolm McDowell returns as Zombie-Loomis. Yes, you read that correctly. I’m blaming Rob Zombie for this character, because it seems that now, McDowell is the go-to guy to play a dick with a slight hint of good intentions, and he does not do that well here. I don’t know if I can say that the normally convincing actor is losing his touch, or what, but what I can say is that as the biggest name actor in this film, he shouldn’t have been the least convincing actor.

Another inspiration that Silent Night takes from 2007’s Halloween is the brute force killer- the killer that needs to show you how strong he is. In the ‘80s, a lot was attributed to the strength of madness- that the sheer insanity and evil of the killer would allow them to do things like crush a human skull with their bare hands. Recent slashers, however, have preferred large, wrestler-size men with hulking figures, giant footprints and, in the case of Silent Night, brass knuckles repeatedly ground into the victim.

Ultimately, I was expecting an average film from Silent Night, and in some ways it succeeded. Unfortunately, the film didn’t know what sort of average film it wanted to be- or it intended to be a conglomeration of an average ‘80s film and an average modern film. Ultimately, the haphazard approach to its averageness is what makes this a slightly below average film. I’d still recommend it to the hardcore slasher fans- the sort of person who hears “dumbed down, direct to DVD version of Silent Night, Deadly Night,” and rents it anyway- but it’s a little disappointing, even for that. I mostly chalk that up to the ridiculous red and green filters, myself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Equestria Girls–Rainbow Rocks

My_Little_Pony_Equestria_Girls_Rainbow_Rocks_DVD_cover_artOne of the more interesting aspects of the 2010s is the '80s/'90s cartoon nostalgia projects. Almost any property that was popular in the United States between 1980 and 1995 is seeing a resurgence. Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon are seeing a comeback; Power Rangers is having a nostalgia-laden 20th anniversary special series; and Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe have all seen a cinematic revival. The age 25-35 demographic wants the shows of their youth back, and as most of these were of the “30 minutes toy commercial” variety, sponsors like Bandi and Hasbro are only too happy to give them what they want.

In the midst of this, it was inevitable that My Little Pony would see a revival, culminating in the highly successful Friendship is Magic series, targeted at kids and parents of all genders. Just as inevitably, Hasbro put out a toy that they could not sell with a regular episode, causing the show to move into off-season theatrical productions. Enter the Equestria Girls series of movies. The first film, released in 2013, made a splash by being the most obvious toy commercial in a series of them, and taking the series a bit outside its animation wheelhouse by moving on to bipeds.

Rainbow Rocks comes a year later, and brings with it the experience of making the first film, as well as the established universe. The film features Pony leader Princess Twilight Sparkle as she returns to help her human friends against a trio of villains exiled in Equestria's past. The film improves on the original in several ways, but ultimately struggles to reach the depth of the average Friendship is Magic episode. Twilight Sparkle comes to this film after learning her place as a Princess of Equestria and leading her friends to gain Super Saiyan-like alicorn powers they can use as a team. For the humans, most of the school year has passed, and while their shared experience has made them friends, the rest of the school still looks at Sunset Shimmer as the villainess who tried to take over the world a few months back. As a dedicated calendar and school year are among the things the Friendship is Magic series at large lacks (its main cast generally depicted as though they are the equivalent of young twenty-somethings), it is difficult to discern if this is due to Season 4 taking place in a short period of time, lazy writing, or a difference in the passage of time between dimensions, though the cast questioning why millennia-old sirens were surfacing in the modern day suggests the latter.

The first Act focuses on bringing together the elements – not of harmony, but of the plot. The five humanoid counterparts have formed a band, with Sunset Shimmer having seen the error of her ways and becoming their...mascot? Sidekick? Groupie? She seems to be their only friend who is not in the band, but not for lack of interest. This may have to do – as the characters keep reminding us – with the fact that she almost destroyed the school a few months back, but it might have to do with the fact that these are selfish, pre-season 1 counterparts of the cast. If it were me, it would be because when confronted with a trio of girls making sinister comments about magic and making people do what they want, it didn't even cross this ex-sorceress's mind that this would be a problem until they cast a spel on half the school. Sunset Shimmer did prove her worth, though, by providing a link between the movie world and that of the series in a way that should remove the need to make a new movie every time Hasbro releases a new anthropomorphized pony figure.

The other side of this link, of course, is Twilight Sparkle, the only member of the main cast to truly feature in this movie. This is oddly fitting, as the last episode to focus heavily on developing “The Princess of Friendship” was the last Equestria Girls film. Twilight starts the movie off strong, in the vein of the Victorian inventor using Sunset Shimmer's communications to open a portal between worlds. She explains this by...randomly quoting a Calculus tectbook, probably because she expects her audience not to understand her no matter what she said. Twilight isn't called on until after the threat is established, so the exposition scenes of the villain origins fall to her. Her research is not enough, however, and she realizes that participating in the plot of the film is the only way to activate her allies' latent magic.

While I rarely go out of my way to watch a musical, realizing within the first few minutes that this film would be one of those did not bother me. One reason for this is that Friendship is Magic is a musical series, with characters often bursting into unexplained song. More importantly, they are good at it. Besides, if you need to find a way to pad out a 20 minute episode concept into a 75 minute feature film, going with your strengths and providing a variety of music is not the worst way to do it. In this case, the villains are based on music, Twilight comes from the aforementioned musical series, and the humans discover that their own magical powers are tied to music. It's a good thing they formed a band between films.

The first Act – songs and all – highlights the biggest strengths Rainbow Rocks has over Equestria Girls. Much of Equestria Girls was about Twilight Sparkle as the fish-out-of-water. This is one of the best known tropes in fiction. Aside from a few stand-out moments such as Thor demanding more, however, it's not because the audience enjoys it; it is because it is immediately recognizable and because nearly everyone on the planet is familiar with it. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and literal torture for the viewers to watch as they cheer on the fish attempting to breathe air in order to reach the next stage of the story. The sequel film does away with this, allowing Thor, Captain America, or Twilight Sparkle to jump into the action and move the plot along instead of stalling it for twenty minutes.

While the fish out of water segment is gone, that doesn't save the film from cliches altogether. Once the film is set up, the next third of the film is the spiral into bickering. Next to the fish out of water, this is probably the most-used “familiar but not entertaining” trope. This isn't new to Friendship is Magic, but by and large the show has moved past this. There are only so many times a close-knit maturing group can believably be made to hate one another.

During this bickering, Sunset Shimmer starts to become a problem. It's not because she is unfairly scrutinized or heavily (and deservedly) involved in the bickering. It's because she's a witness. She's not even a witness – she's an audience member. In a series with ten main characters that normally does its best not to need a dedicated audience surrogate, Sunset Shimmer seems locked into the role in this film. She's not like Twilight, bringing her outside experience to the strange problem. She's not like the human cast, caught up in the plot in a situation they can barely handle. She's just...there. She isn't part of the problem; she's not part of the solution until it's too late. Both of these could be forgiven if she played a unique role, like that of Hikari in Digimon Adventure's version of this plot, but she doesn't even do that. This is particularly apparent as the story attempts to engage her and falls flat. She has ample reason to stand up, and never does.

The Problem of Sunset Shimmer is a prime example of why the Equestria Girls series is an inferior knockoff of Friendship is Magic. While the show seeks to engage the viewers, challenge their habits and ways of interacting to push them to grow, Equestria Girls and Rainbow Rocks are ultimately interested only in providing a spectacle. This is no more apparent than in the case of a song written for character development was written, but never fitted into the script, resulting in it being used only in the opening credits. Sure, the characters learn from the situation...in one scene, the cutting of which would impact nothing else in the movie.

I say Equestria Girls and Rainbow Rocks are out only for the sake of a spectacle...that's not entirely true. I've made the occasional references throughout this discussion to the film being a 75-minute toy commercial, and these films wear that fact on their sleeve. Trixie – a character popular with fans due to her flamboyant attitude – is a character reintroduced in human form in Rainbow Rocks. Trixie holds almost as much screen time as a member of the main cast, and there are several other Friendship is Magic characters that get a similar treatment. Surprisingly, the third of the four princesses that rule Equestria – Twilight's friend Cadence – does not get a redesign in this film. Perhaps they're saving that for the next release, but I would have thought this film's plot lent itself perfectly to, say, the Principal of a Crystal High School having reason to visit.

Cut down to twenty minutes, Rainbow Rocks could have been a standard quality episode of Friendship is Magic. At full length, it's a passable spectacle, but extremely muddled in its execution both in plot and character development. Its animation is a step up from Equestria Girls to the point of being what you would expect from a higher budget version of Friendship is Magic, save a few out of place animations that are probably left over from the previous film (unless Celestia and Luna were simply intended to be as creepy as possible), and the plot has grown along the same line. Give it two or three more films, and Equestria Girls might even reach the level of quality one expects from the Friendship is Magic name...but does it deserve that many tries?

Monday, January 26, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: Voyage of the Damned

The full crew returns for the next Christmas review. This week it's “Voyage of the Damned”!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Carrie (2013)

CarrieThe Carrie that I'm a huge fan of is a novel by Stephen King. It is his first published work and is about the tragedy of a girl set up for failure who just happens to have powers beyond her understanding or control that are set off by her misery. It's an early look at several of what would become Stephen King's tropes, and a splendid look at the human condition as envisioned by someone whose gift is to look at things in the most disturbing way possible.

Of course, a good film cannot exist without someone capitalizing on it. Since its release, Carrie has inspired 4 films that I know of: direct adaptations in 1976 and 2002, a loose adaptation/sequel in 1999, and the adaptation we're looking at today, made in 2013. The original version, created and released within the year following the publication of King's novel, is widely considered to be the best by fans, despite taking a small number of liberties with the source material.

Perhaps out of knowing that the MPAA would be unlikely to pass anything that could honestly compete with the opening shower room scene of Brian De Palma's classic, this version starts a bit differently from the others. This film starts with Margaret White, screaming about how she is dying of cancer, lying on a bed covered in blood...as she gives birth to a baby girl. We watch as she tries to bring herself to kill the child as atonement for her “sin” of conception, but can't bring herself to do it.

This sets the tone for the Margaret White of Kimberly Peirce's Carrie. Throughout the film, her affection toward Carrie seems completely at odds with the rest of her personality. Equally at odds with her affection are her occasional steps toward killing her daughter, approaching her room with a knife as the lights flicker in the night and finally stabbing her in the back during the climax of the film. While Margaret was always a caricature of an extreme fundamentalist and the type of person you would never want to expose a developing child to, here her disturbance is less in the form of Biblical outbursts (often, as Carrie points out, passages that “aren't even in the Bible”) and more often in the form of self-harming, even going so far as to repeatedly stab herself as penance for making a prom dress for a customer.

None of this makes Margaret's parenting any more normal – if anything, it would make growing up in her home a bit worse. Despite this, Carrie seems to have come out more normal than she has in any other version. While growing up in an emotionally abusive home is generally likely to produce either fears to stand up for their self, lashes out, or both, Carrie has grown into a girl who can stand her ground and evenly argue with her mother without fear. This is made even more patently ridiculous by the fact that it's clear that she needs her telekinesis to do even this as Margaret is unrelenting.

Carrie being in more control than she should be doesn't only hurt the realism of the story, but it hurts the story itself. The story of Carrie is about a girl with an incredible power that she can barely control, that is keyed more into her emotional state than her rational thought. She is hurt and humiliated and lashes out, with the faintest glimmer of control when her thoughts and emotions coincide. But Carrie in this movie is studying telekinesis, practicing it. When she's humiliated for the second time, rather than lashing out, she makes clear, calculated decisions to kill in specific ways. Her level of control lessens the tragedy: she can do other things and she knows she can do other things, but she makes a conscious decision to hurt people.

A relatively minor, but still distracting thing about this movie is the Youtube product placement. There is a scene – a short scene, but still an unnecessary one – whose primary purpose seems to be to demonstrate that Youtube videos can be played in full screen. And no, it's not a generic video site – the scene in which Chris uploads a video for the purpose of cyber-bullying clearly demonstrates a Youtube logo.

Kimberly Peirce's Carrie isn't the worst movie I've ever seen, but it's certainly not the best. What it is, is the worst movie with the Carrie title that I've seen. The Rage: Carrie 2 is a better Carrie remake than this was, and I see no reason to recommend it to anybody unless they're trying to watch the full set.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy

GOTG-posterIt almost doesn't feel right to look at Guardians of the Galaxy as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2. Not that it isn't; it clearly is. It features the end credit scene villain from Avengers who is said to be the villain of Avengers 3 as the all-but creator of the Big Bad, the Big Bad's Lieutenant, and and one of the heroes, and it features a metaplot that started in Captain America and continues through The Avengers and Thor: Dark World. But while Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (seriously, is Hulk the only one who gets his superlative?) featured well-known characters that were part of the early team of Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy features an obscure team of heroes from a branch of Marvel that the movies have all but ignored, unless you count the ones that aren't part of the MCU (Silver Surfer is part of the Marvel Cosmic line). While the aforementioned movies are primarily action-dramas that draw comedy from the larger-than-life personalities of their protagonists, Guardians is arguably a comedy first, then an action movie. And while the other MCU films have all featured members of the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy...does not.

Comparisons aside, one of the things I like best about the MCU is that its films don't all have to fall into a single genre. Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier are more along the lines of what I'd expect a James Bond film to be like (knowing of the series only second-hand) than something like Spider-Man. Each film is unique, or at least they can be. And as Phase 2 continues, they only become more unique.

When Guardians was announced, I was extremely excited. How could I not be? The studio behind Avengers was producing a space opera. I wouldn't be myself if I could suppress my excitement at the idea of a cross between Star Wars and The Avengers. That isn't exactly what we got, however. As I described earlier, Guardians of the Galaxy is far more of a comedy than either of these features and, unfortunately for me, it was not the type of comedy that I look forward to. Rather than the type of comedy exemplified in Joss Whedon's writing – characters that match the dramatic stylings of the universe but surprise you with their whit and reactions due to simply being intelligent snarking people - this is the type of comedy that has a character trying to force their self-described “outlaw name” down the throats of everyone he meets and a bunch of characters using the phrase “a-hole”. This detracted from the film somewhat for me, though I am well aware that not everyone shares the same feelings.

The characters are a mixed bag. While Avengers introduced one hero to the audience and seven to one another, Guardians of the Galaxy has Rocket, Groot, Starlord, Gamora, and Drax to introduce both to the audience and to one another – and without the help of the creator of Buffy Summers and River Tam to introduce the only female in the team (seriously...I'm hoping that Carol Danvers, Janet Van Dyne, Doreen Green, Jessica Drew, and Jennifer Walters all make their way into the MCU by the end of Phase 3 to even things out). The result is that all characters are given a motivation and a backstory, but not much else. There are one or two scenes designed to explain why they are willing to work as a team, but they leave the hope for further development and deeper relationships with one another for the next film.

The result of this, along with other elements, is that Guardians of the Galaxy feels like it is playing it safe for much of the film. There is enough focus on female posteriors and arbitrary default love interests that people who think superhero stories exist for that have them to see, but not enough that people who notice them have a whole lot to complain about. The anthropomorphic raccoon is played completely seriously, contrasting with the comedic stylings of the world around him so that the two seem to have an equal level of ridiculousness for those who are assumed to scoff at the idea of Rocket in and of itself. All of this combined says to me that Marvel carried no faith in the film on its own and did everything in its power to avoid any sort of criticism that could be leveled at it, rather than allowing the film to live on its own merits.

Despite all of that, though, Guardians is a good, and enjoyable film. Its soundtrack is amazing. I love films and television shows that combine sounds and scenes that would normally not be expected but create a memorable experience together, and I'm never going to be able to hear “Hooked on a Feeling” without thinking of its use in the film again. Some of the comedy is particularly good, even if I don't care for about half of it. And, of course, the action.

Fist-fights. Armed fights. Shoot-outs. Super-powered brawls. Starfighter battles. Name a kind of action you would want in a superhero film, and Guardians of the Galaxy probably has it. No, there are no Phantom Menace-esque protracted duels in the film, with the primary unarmed combatants being played by Nyota Uhura and Amelia Pond, but quantity does its best to make up for quality here. Besides, seeing Rocket Raccoon live up to his name is worth the absence of Ray Park any time.

Speaking of which, the sheer magnitude of Sci-Fi actors appearing here is worth all the geek cred the film loses by playing it too safe. Park might not show up to do battle with Ronan the Accuser, but the other half of Darth Maul – Peter Serafinowicz – has a role. I already mentioned Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan. Vin Diesel of Chronicles of Riddick appears as Groot, Benicio Del Toro (brother of Pacific Rim director Guillermo) plays a recurring MCU role, and Nathan Fillion, Lloyd Kaufman and Seth Green all have cameos. The week after the film's release felt like a game of Bingo trying to recognize various actors from Sci-Fi franchises that appeared in the movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy has been a huge hit, largely winning over fans and, depending on how you see it, either proving to executives at Matvel Studios that the film didn't need to play it so safe to be a huge hit or proving that it appealed to the largest possible audience by doing so. Regardless, the first films of all of these franchises are usually a flop for me, and with Guardians doing so well, I'm expecting Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to be my favorite Marvel film. If any form of fun Sci-Fi film appeals to you, odds are that you will also come to love Guardians of the Galaxy.

Friday, January 23, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: The Runaway Bride

Slim crew, Bill, Matt, and Ran-San talk about the second Christmas Special. P.S. Sorry for the opening, live show problems.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Captain America 2

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-PosterCaptain America was not one of my favorite superhero films. It was yet another hero origin retelling, so it already had an uphill battle to get on my good side. Perhaps more importantly, it was boring to me. It was a story about an unlikely candidate fighting in a war, winning the day and taking the MacGuffin away from the bad guy. I don't watch those types of movies, because I normally look for something a bit more engaging, with unique elements. When I do watch action movies, they are martial arts movies, and while Cap can fight, he's nowhere near as entertaining to watch as Jet Li. The only thing that made the movie stand out was a sub-plot designed to justify the costume, as though the filmmakers were a little embarrassed to include it. It wasn't the worst movie of Marvel's Phase One – that honor goes to Thor – but it was the least memorable.

Still, Avengers was a game-changer. It brought action, comedy and drama to the right levels to make it my favorite comic book film up to that point, and set a new standard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to live up to. While Iron Man and Iron Man 2 continued a trend of uninspired, okay-but-not-great superhero films, Iron Man 3 met the standard set by The Avengers, taking the story in multiple directions with a primary crime of not being completely faithful to decades of not-always-coherent comic continuity. While I missed Thor: Dark World for personal reasons, I was still psyched to see the rest of Phase 2, Winter Soldier included.

Captain America: Winter Soldier follows the events of The Avengers with the continuing adventures of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov, Maria Hill, and Nick Fury in a world influenced by Tony Stark. One of Marvel's strengths as a comic book company has always been how easily Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Wolverine, and its other properties fit together (except for the occasional mutant prejudice strangeness) into a shared world that is different from our own but with key similarities, compared to the DC universe where it often feels like any crossover between Batman and Superman involves hopping between disparate worlds. That is on full effect here and, once faced with the idea that Stark is making suggestions and doing contracting work for S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Armed Forces, it's not too much of a stretch to believe that the military is running tests with the equipment that gives Falcon his name.

Amidst all this, plot-lines from Captain America return. Hydra gives Cap and his fellow agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. an external opponent while they also deal with internal issues of trust and identity. Identity also plays a role in Cap's personal struggle, in which he must go toe to toe with his cybernetically enhanced and memory-wiped former sidekick.

Did Winter Soldier live up to the bar set by The Avengers? I'd have to say it did. Unlike the standard action fare, there are enough elements to the climax to provide true suspense, as it seems almost impossible for the five heroes to faces the forces that have been arraying themselves against them for seventy years. Like Iron Man 3, the story bleeds personal drama, spy movie action and mystery, and super-heroics to create a balanced breakfast.

The only thing I'm not completely sold on is the titular subplot. While it's thematically appropriate and definitely a challenge that Cap will have to overcome, nothing came of the Bucky plot except for a few fight scenes and a lead-in for the next sequel. While this sort of lead-in would work perfectly for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode this sort of is, it doesn't make for a very complete movie. It's almost enough to make the case that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is less a series of movies and more a premium version of something like BBC's Sherlock, a show that airs three feature length episodes per season.

Despite the thirty minutes of lead in for the next movie and the misleading title they lend the film, it's still great fun. The character interactions are handled excellently, and it is quite possibly the first thing to get me excited about Captain America. It also does the job of selling a Black Widow film, with the Widow having somewhere around the second or third most screen time of the five featured heroes. Despite this, the film doesn't feel crowded, and Steve Rogers has plenty of time to shine.

Captain America: Winter Soldier is a great film for anybody who loves superheroes – in film or comic form – or anybody who enjoys movies in general with a bit of action in them. As with any other comic film, there's a hearty bit of Science Fiction in there to go along with everything else, and of course plenty of fight scenes. With so much more to this film than the action scenes, though, you don't need to be a fan of the genre to find something to like.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Novel Review: Star Wars–Tarkin by James Luceno

TarkinCoverWhile my review of Darth Plagueis has only been seen by myself and my editors due its being held in reserve for my temporarily delayed chronological look at the Star Wars (Legends) universe, I find it no less worth referencing as I dig into its spiritual successor. The review, written in 2013, starts by discussing “the singularly named Palpatine” and ends with contemplating a sequel book, jokingly named Tyrannous. It's worth acknowledging these things because Tarkin is both a novel that addresses Palpatine's singular name and functions as a sequel to Darth Plagueis.

It's not a perfect sequel, of course: the default mode of being for the Emperor being in the shadows, even if fans such as myself are always clamoring for more of an inside look – but it does the job as closely as can be expected. In this vein, there are even scenes of the Emperor and Vader that the titular character is completely unaware of; these are included, it would seem, for the sake of fans of Luceno's previous novel.

Starting with this review, my look at Star Wars media is going to have manifold purposes. As always, I do my best review the material both with a look at the established Star Wars timeline and the real-world events surrounding the publication. Starting with Tarkin, however, I have two independent Star Wars universes to look at: the original universe spawned from the films in 1970s (and more seriously, in the early 1990s) and the rebooted universe, which is establishing a new timeline with an alternate take on a universe that can produce the seven theatrical films (as of January 2015 and discounting the two films not released Stateside) and the two most recent televised spin-offs.

Before I look at Tarkin compared to what came before, though, what is Tarkin? As I said before, it is in many ways the successor to Darth Plagueis. While Wilhuff Tarkin does not have Force powers and lives only as long as a regular human, the novel nonetheless does its best to tell the same type of story about Tarkin that Plagueis does about Palpatine. Palpatine takes Plagueis's place as a form of mentor character, although in this case he is neither the only nor a point of view character. His role in Tarkin's story is similar to his role in Skywalker's, providing guidance and encouragement to nudge him into the direction of future Imperial leadership over time.

With Wilhuff being an adult before he meets Palpatine, there is much more room for his own story. The story is split up three ways: the present-day story, set in what was once – or may still be – known as the Dark Times, approximately five years following the Battle of Coruscant; the origin story, featuring Tarkin's childhood training on Eriadu; and the interim story, featuring the details of how he made his way from Eriadu to Sector Moff. This third story receives the least attention, given just enough to get from Point A to Point B, although given that distinction it could certainly have included less of worth than it did.

The narrative focus – the story featuring stakes beyond those of character development and inspirations – is the modern-day story, featuring a mission in which Tarkin works alongside Darth Vader. The novel reveals that this is a turning point for both Tarkin and the project he oversees: the Death Star.

I was a big fan of Plagueis, with the exception of preferring more in-depth stories over the “movie adaptation” style in which the novel is written. That is not to say that I dislike movie adaptations or Darth Plagueis, only that in attempting to be understood by the widest audience possible, the total amount of content in the novel tends to be diluted. This means that the chance for a miss is severely diminished, but equally diminished are the chances to be the next great space opera epic. Like its author, Tarkin shares its tone and quality with Plagueis, certainly doing a good job of providing the definitive origin story of a key character in the new continuity.

Which is what this is. In the reboot canon, seven films, two television shows, two comic series and two novels define what is and what isn't. Of these, Tarkin has appeared in two films and one television show. Tarkin begins Wilhuff Tarkin's story well before The Clone Wars and ends it in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, telling a complete story about how a young noble from an Outer Rim planet went on to become the man that would one day unilaterally destroy a Core world (which must have been cathartic for him), and doing it fairly successfully. The novel includes many references to The Clone Wars, with it being the primary source of canon in this universe (and in any other, at this relatively early point in Tarkin's career). The novel also includes heavy references to Sheev Palpatine's past in Darth Plagueis, doing its level best to bring the events of Darth Sidious's training into the rebooted canon.

As for the Star Wars Legacy universe, this is a fairly easy choice in that most of the sources overlap and it would be very difficult to contradict established continuity without contradicting The Clone Wars. One of the ways in which Luceno could have done so would be to establish a first name other than “Wilhuff” for the Grand Moff, and it is telling that such a decisive break was not made.
Tarkin is a novel that lives up to James Luceno's reputation as one of the premiere writers of Star Wars media, and it makes me optimistic for the revitalized future of the Star Wars franchise. This might not be the best novel for those who cannot root for Imperials, even in dire circumstances, but I do believe that most fans of Star Wars will find Tarkin to be more than worth it.