Review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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This film is Episode IX in the Skywalker saga. It is #3 in the current trilogy of episodes, following The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). It was directed by J.J. Abrams, produced by Lucasfilm and Bad Robot and released in December of 2019 by Walt Disney Studios. Stars include Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Ben/Kylo Ren, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe. There are also appearances from Carrie Fisher as Leia, Mark Hamill as Luke, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca. Composer John Williams is featured as Oma Tres. This review contains spoilers.

Emperor Palpatine has returned and is building an armada on the planet Exegol. Kylo Ren captures a Sith wayfinder device that leads him to the Emperor, who demands that he kill Rey. Meanwhile, Rey is training to be a Jedi under Leia Organa. Finn and Poe obtain intel that Palpatine has returned, and a group of Renaissance fighters leaves on the Millennium Falcon in search of a wayfinder device so they can get to Exegol. On Pasaana they encounter Lando Calrissian, who gives them helpful information. Ren locates Rey through their Force bond and arrives on Pasaana, where Rey confronts him and Chewie is taken prisoner. C-3PO has seen the inscription that leads to the wayfinder, but is forbidden by its programming from translating. The group goes on to Kijimi to find a hacker, where Poe encounters an old friend/enemy Zorii. After obtaining the information, they mount an expedition to rescue Chewie from aboard an Imperial battleship. Ren tells Rey she is Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter, and General Hux reveals himself to be a spy, allowing Chewie, Poe and Finn to escape. The group moves on to Kef Bir, where Rey locates the wayfinder on the remains of a wrecked Deathstar. Ren destroys the device and the two duel. Leia is dying and tries to reach Ren. Rey takes advantage of his distraction dring the duel and deals a killing blow, but then relents and heals him with her own life force. Upset by what she has done, Rey takes his ship to Ahch-To where she means to become a hermit like Luke, but Luke appears and convinces her she is wrong. She takes Luke’s ship and leaves for Exegol, where she expects to face the Emperor in a final battle. Is there any way the Renaissance can win?

In general this went very well. The actors have grown into their roles since the first film of this series, bringing a dignity and authority to their characters. It’s a fairly long movie at 1 hr. 22 min., but the plot keeps everybody moving, jumping from planet to planet in a quest to find the Emperor’s hidden stronghold. We encounter various colorful characters along the way while Rey and Ren keep up their personal conflict from within the Force. An interesting symbolism emerged when Rey was revealed as the Emperor’s granddaughter. She and Ren/Ben are a dyad within the Force, two sides of the same creature, presumably, we expect, representing good and evil. They grapple with love and hate and swing first one way and then the other, seeking for balance. Besides this excellent screenplay, Abrams has produced a visually artistic movie using both the live and CGI elements. He’s also made amends to the older fans, bringing back characters from the previous films, including Leia Organa, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker and a host of others, through various glimpses and voices. The story ends, as it began, on Tatooine.

I was mostly pleased with this. On the not so positive side, the action sometimes seems a bit frantic; there were no quiet moments of reflection/decision, and it skips from world to world like driving down the street. Supposedly the Emperor’s battle fleet is docked within the planet’s atmosphere, but I wondered about action on the wing of one of the battleships. Shouldn’t the air be a little thin for that? Can’t the people inside the ship get out there to deal with things? And why do people keep disappearing? I know they’re supposed to be absorbed into the Force, but it still irks me.

Controversies: Others weren’t quite so happy with the screenplay. Social media producer Klaudia Amenabar complained on Twitter about Rey needing men to help her succeed when she should have been powerful enough to do it on her own. Joonas Suotamo (a.k.a. Chewie) replied, calling this toxic fandom, and a squabble ensued. See a summary article about it here. Also, I’ve seen some comments about this installment generating the widest split between fan and critic ratings of any of the Star Wars films: 86% to 54% positive at Rotten Tomatoes. This is a gap of 32 points, apparently for catering to the masses.

Although this film didn’t quite pack the sense of wonder the first Star Wars movie did, it’s a very satisfactory ending to the series. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Review of Little Darlings by Melanie Golding

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This novel is a dark fantasy/psychological thriller and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. Golding is a UK based author, and this looks to be her first novel. I also notice it’s soon to be a major motion picture. It was published by Crooked Lane Books in April, 2019, and runs 315 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After a difficult delivery, Lauren Tranter is the new mother of twin boys, Morgan and Riley. A crazy woman in the hospital ward tries to take Lauren’s babies and substitute her own. Lauren hides in the bathroom and calls the emergency number for help, but when the police arrive, there’s no sign of anyone there. The doctors suspect mental health issues. The Tranters take the boys home to the Peak District, and after his brief paternity leave is over, Lauren’s unsupportive husband Patrick moves into the guest room, leaving her to care for the boys both day and night. Lauren struggles with exhaustion, but with encouragement from her friends and a shove from Patrick, she finally gets it together and takes the boys out for a walk along the river. The babies are kidnapped–quickly found in the brush. But, the creatures now looking out of their eyes aren’t Lauren’s babies any longer. What does she need to do?

This is the classic changeling story, placed into a modern setting. Best points are the depth of the characterizations, the details of Lauren’s postpartum struggle, and the uncertainty throughout the whole thing about whether Lauren is suffering from postpartum psychosis or whether the crazy woman who wants the babies really is fay. There are some other themes here, too, including how women struggle with the heavy responsibilities of motherhood and how bonding can so easily turn to an unhealthy anxiety. Police investigator Joanna Harper follows up with research on historical events that suggest the problem is a recurring issue in this locale, and the narrative dips into some real horror as Lauren falls into the clutches of the mental health establishment.

It’s hard to find something to say on the less positive side of this. Maybe Joanna’s background seems slightly contrived. The author is trying to give us reasons why she’s so obsessed by the case, but she comes off more rebellious than conscientious, and not always a clear thinker. Patrick is something of a stereotype, too, put through some unflattering motions.

Regardless of little niggles, this story really delivers the goods. It’s no surprise it’s won the Dragon and been picked up for a film.

Five stars.

Writer Walter Mosley Quits Star Trek: Discovery

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So, this is still a very interesting cultural collision that I think is worth discussion. Again, here’s my comment that was censored by Mike Glyer at File 770: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Why did Glyer think this would generate an uncomfortable discussion? One comment on the story at File 770 suggested Mosley’s reaction was about privilege and entitlement. Is this the problem we can’t talk about?

There have been previous issues with the use of abusive language at this particular studio, which may have set up, at least, encouragement by Human Resources to report any language that might lead to discomfort among the writers, if not a mandatory reporting rule. Next, Mosley has a very light complexion, so it’s possible some onlookers may not have realized he considers himself African American (and therefore, by US custom, entitled to use the N-word without sanction). Accordingly, here’s what he says about it: “If I have an opinion, a history, a word that explains better than anything how I feel, then I also have the right to express that feeling or that word without the threat of losing my job.”

If neither of these issues above supports why someone reported him to HR, then is it possible the issue is something similar to the NRA suing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for calling them terrorists, or Ahrvid Engholm filing a complaint about Jeanette Ng’s Hugo-acceptance speech where she seemed to associate white males with the word fascist? In other words, backlash. Was the reporting co-worker annoyed that Mosley was exercising some sort of special privilege and entitlement in using the N word?

Some prominent discussions have recently emerged about the success of minority groups in American culture, in particular, and how this generates backlash. For example, over-achieving Asian students recently sued Harvard University for discrimination in Affirmative Action admissions. Jews are perennially targeted for their economic success. And, likewise, black Americans are becoming concerned that backlash from other groups will curtail some of the gains they’ve made. Some sources frankly called the Mosley case an example of cultural backlash against a minority writer. Mosley, himself, called it an action of the political culture, writing: “I do not believe that it should be the object of our political culture to silence those things said that make some people uncomfortable.”

So, how do we sort this kind of conflict out? Is Mosley responding from a position of privilege and entitlement, or does he have a real case that the N word is necessary to express his life experience? Comments?

More on Suppression of Speech

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Suppression of speech is always a danger signal that any republic is headed in the direction of totalitarianism. Control of a national conversation is one of the requirements for total power—because speech actually is dangerous. The reasons are 1) that saying something can make it real, and 2) asking questions reduces certainty and makes people think about the issues.

The reason this topic has come up again in my blog is that more examples have accumulated recently about US groups trying to 1) control public perceptions through particular speech, and 2) to control what’s said and who can say it through suppression of speech. First, here’s an example of a government entity trying to frame an activist group (with a membership of 5.5 million) as a terrorist organization. On September 3, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring the National Rifle Association a “domestic terrorist organization.” The officials then went on to urge other cities, states and the federal government to follow suit. So, not only has the San Francisco government body said something fairly radical about an interest group that peacefully advocates, but they’re also encouraging other government entities to say it, too (trying to make it more real). The NRA, always responsive, filed an immediate lawsuit for defamation and infringement on their constitutional rights.

Next, here’s an interesting article on the state of free speech at colleges. This is an opinion piece at Bloomberg, written by Steven B. Gerrard, who teaches philosophy at Williams College in Massachusetts. Concerned by contemporary issues in suppression of speech, Gerrard offered a course in the fall of 2018 called “Free Speech and Its Enemies.” Although he was pleased with the results among the students enrolled, he was later attacked during a faculty meeting on freedom of expression by a student group that named him an “Enemy of the People.” This group presented a letter that said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” Notice that this student group is attacking both right-wing and liberal parties with their condemnation—this suggests they see themselves as neither. Does this mean they’re anarchists? The student group went on to present demands including reparations and segregated housing.

My last example is more related to the SFF community. Walter Mosley is an African American writer most noted for mysteries, but he also writes occasional science fiction. After finishing a writing stint on the FX show Snowfall, he was hired to write for CBS’s show Star Trek: Discovery. After using the N-word in the writer’s room, Mosley received a call from Human Resources telling him he was free to write this word into a script, but that he could not say it because it had made one of the other writers “uncomfortable.” Rather than accept this attempt to “silence” him, Mosley quit. Apparently he forgot to mention this to the studio, which learned about it by way of Mosley’s op-ed piece in the New York Times detailing his experience.

This was reported at the SF newszine File 770, where editor Mike Glyer immediately applied his own suppression of speech. Intrigued by the issues in this example, I submitted this comment: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Alert readers may notice that the comment was never posted at File 770. It was edited out by Glyer, who said it “amounted to trolling.”

Irony, anyone?

So, I’ll end with a quote from Mosley, “The worst thing you can do to citizens of a democratic nation is to silence them.”

Review of Alita: Battle Angel

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This is a science-fiction action movie based on the 1990s Japanese manga series Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro. The film was released by 20th Century Fox in February 2019. It was directed by Robert Rodriguez, co-produced by James Cameron and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. Weta Digital created the special effects. Rosa Salazar stars as the cyborg Alita, Keean Johnson as Hugo, and Christoph Waltz as Dyson Ido. I notice this is on the ballot for the Dragon Award.

Iron City is a noisy, industrial dystopia after The Fall. It’s full of decaying tech, dangerous street gangs and bounty hunters stalking their prey. Above it floats the pristine sky city of Zalem where the rich and powerful live. A dismembered cyborg falls from the sky city into a trash heap in Iron City and is found by Dr. Dyson Ido. He attaches her head and torso to a body he previously built for his daughter, and calls her Alita. When she wakes, she has no memory of who she is. Alita makes a best friend in Hugo and starts to explore her capabilities, which seem to be very physical. She competes in Motorball against other cyborgs and does well. When corrupt forces in the city suddenly come after her, she finds she has high-level fighting skills. Can she save herself and her friends?

The most unusual feature of this film is the protagonist Alita, a CGI animated character created with the aid of motion capture, while most of the other actors seem to be live-action. Alita has huge eyes and first appears as just a head and torso, which is later attached to different bodies. Unlike early efforts at placing animated characters into live-action films, Alita fits in well and has fairly natural movement, though she’s still clearly animation. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead explores Iron City, presents Alita’s backstory through flashes of memory and introduces characters who are apparently emerging from her past. There’s plenty of action and fight-choreography, and an emotional climax when Hugo is at risk.

On the not so positive side, Alita’s character remains flat, regardless of emotional moments and pained facial expressions. This makes the sentiment seem forced. Clearly the film is aimed at an audience who is familiar with the manga, but if you’re not, the plot is confusing because the flashbacks aren’t enough to explain the full situation. There are some apparent cameos among the characters, which suggests the main purpose of this installment is to set up for sequels.

Two and a half stars.

Dragon Award Finalists 2019

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The Dragon Award final ballot is out, revealing the finalists. The awards will be presented the first week in September and there’s not much overlap with other awards. That means I won’t really be able to look at many of the finalists I’ve not already reviewed. I will try to review the fiction winners in September.

Interestingly, there does to be more intersection this year, which shows the fan groups that normally drive the Nebula and Hugo Awards are becoming more active in voting for the Dragon Awards. This is especially visible in the fantasy category. However, the Dragon still looks to be a heavily male-driven award.

P.S. On August 31 time to vote on the awards is getting short. I’m happy to see that various people have done some background work on the finalists. See a helpful rundown by Cora Buhlert here also includes links to other analyses.

Best Science Fiction Novel
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
A Star-Wheeled Sky by Brad R. Torgersen
Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

Best Fantasy Novel (Including Paranormal)
Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch
Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
House of Assassins by Larry Correia

Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel
Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand
Armageddon Girls by Aaron Michael Ritchey
The Pioneer by Bridget Tyler
Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard
Imposters by Scott Westerfeld
Archenemies by Marissa Meyer
The King’s Regret by Philip Ligon

Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel
Uncompromising Honor by David Weber
Order of the Centurion by Jason Anspach, Nick Cole
Marine by Joshua Dalzelle
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
Sons of the Lion by Jason Cordova
A Pale Dawn by Chris Kennedy, Mark Wandrey

Best Alternate History Novel
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling
The World Asunder by Kacey Ezell
Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Iron Codex by David Mack

Best Media Tie-In Novel
Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher
Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove, Nancy Holder
Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray
The Replicant War by Chris Kennedy
The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack

Best Horror Novel
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
Little Darlings by Melanie Golding
Riddance by Shelley Jackson
100 Fathoms Below by Steven L. Kent, Nicholas Kaufmann
Zombie Airman by David Guenther
Cardinal Black by Robert McCammon

Best Comic Book
Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, Dave Stewart
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
Mister Miracle by Tom King, Tony S. Daniel
The Batman Who Laughs by Scott Snyder, Mark Simpson
Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man by Chip Zdarsky, Adam Kubert
Batman by Tom King, Tony S. Daniel

Best Graphic Novel
Berlin by Jason Lutes
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Hey, Kiddo by Jarret J. Krosoczka
X-Men: Grand Design – Second Genesis by Ed Piskor
I Am Young by M. Dean
Monstress Vol. 3 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series
Game of Thrones, HBO
Good Omens, Amazon Prime
The Umbrella Academy, Netflix
The Orville, Fox
Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access
Lucifer, Netflix

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie
Spider-Man: Far From Home by Jon Watts
Alita: Battle Angel by Robert Rodriguez
Aquaman by James Wan
Avengers: Endgame by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Captain Marvel by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy PC / Console Game
Life is Strange 2 by Dontnod Entertainment
Apex Legends by Electronic Arts
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth by Blizzard
Assassin’s Creed: Odysssey by Ubisoft
Red Dead Redemption 2 by Rockstar Games
Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mobile Game
Reigns: Game of Thromes by Nerial
Elder Scrolls: Blades by Bethesda Softworks
Cyber Hunter by NetEase
Grimvalor by Direlight
Sega Heroes: Puzzle RPG Quest by SEGA
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite by Niantic, WB Games San Francisco

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Board Game
Nemesis by Awaken Realms
Root by Leder Games
Cryptid by Osprey Games
Everdell by Starling Games (II)
Betrayal Legacy by Avalon Hill Games
Architects of the West Kingdom by Garphill Games

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures / Collectible Card / Role-Playing Game
Fallout: Wasteland Warfare by Modiphius Entertainment
Magic: The Gathering War of The Spark by Wizards of the Coast
Keyforge: Call of the Archons by Fantasy Flight Games
Magic: The Gathering Ravnica Allegiance by Wizards of the Coast
Call of Cthulhu: Masks of Nyarlathotep Slipcase Set by Chaosium Inc.
Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team by Games Workshop

Review of Spiderman: Far from Home

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This is a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film co-produced by Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios, and distributed by Sony Pictures. It is the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), directed by Jon Watts, written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and staring Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Zendaya as MJ, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio. This review contains spoilers.

Peter Parker was one of the population blipped out of existence for a while by Thanos, so he’s having to do extra school work to catch up. The high school has planned a summer tour in Europe to provide credits, and Peter is hoping to get closer to MJ on the trip. Meanwhile, a mysterious elemental has appeared in Mexico, along with Quentin Beck/Mysterio who says he is there to fight these interlopers. Nick Fury tries to recruit Peter to help against the elementals, but he ignores the calls. However, when the school trip is in Venice, a water elemental appears and Peter gets involved in the fight along with Mysterio. Peter then meets with Fury, who gives him a pair of glasses containing an AI that Stark meant for his successor. Peter doesn’t want the responsibility, so passes the glasses off to Mysterio, who turns out to be false—only a former employee of Stark Industries and his cronies who are faking the elementals with technology. Can Peter prevail against the empowered Beck? Can he work up the nerve to tell MJ how he feels about her? And is that really Nick Fury he’s been talking to?

This is a great plot in the time-honored Spiderman tradition. Peter is trying to concentrate on his personal life while Nick Fury wants him to step into Tony Stark’s shoes within the Avengers organization. Peter thinks this is ridiculous and makes distracted, half-assed decisions that leave him in trouble. Under pressure, of course, he regroups, gets it together and comes through with a solid performance. Were we expecting anything else? Things seem great for a little while. The tour is safely back home; he’s established a relationship with MJ—and then things go wrong again, leaving us with a couple of cliffhangers in the post-credit scenes. I also have to give special mention to the poor clueless teachers who were trying to chaperone this tour.

On the not so positive side, it seems a little bit of a stretch that Stark would have chosen the 16-year-old Parker to step into his leadership position. Maybe he saw the potential, and of course Peter does step up when the pressure is on. Also, the post credit scenes involving Nick Fury call the reality of what’s going on into serious question. This was also a very long movie, though it turned out to be worth the investment in time.

Great fun. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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