Thursday, March 31, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review: Lots of Spoilers

Since my last update a certain movie has become the internet's new whipping boy. Yes I'm talking about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This gargantuan effort from Warner Bros to kick their own shared shared cinematic universe into high gear has been met with buckets of cash and plenty of scorn. Seeing as I'd been dreading the outcome of this one for sometime I wasn't exactly shocked by the response it received. Still; being a superhero fan meant it was time to head to my local theater, the same place I've watched comic cinema like Batman Forever, Spawn, Blade, Spider-Man, Superman Returns, Rise of the Silver Surfer, etc. Was the experience truly as bad as critics and my fellow audience members seemed to think it was? Read on for answers but be warned there will be loads of spoilers.

Before that lame accusation of “you're just a Marvel fan” pops up, I'd like to note that I totally want a DC film slate to succeed. Can you imagine how great it would be to have both companies pushing out quality flicks on a regular basis? We're talking nerd heaven, especially for those of us who keep Batman and Spider-Man hardcovers on their bookshelf. Hell; I've even harbored my own concept for a Superman film, and yes it would be at least 3 hours long. I want all my superheroes to flourish on screen but I can not get behind crappy movies. There's a reason I've never watched all of Iron Man 2.

The biggest issue with this film, well other than it's garbage script, is that it approaches the subject matter of superheroes with zero passion. Every scene is a trudge through another dramatic speech or grimaced face. Even when there's an attempt at humor, it usually falls flat only to be followed by another slow motion pose. Locations are interchangeable and largely ugly, astounding feats are at an all time low. There's simply nothing resembling a heartbeat here. Thankfully I didn't seem alone in this feeling as I watched heads sink in the audience. Three adult men left after the first hour, and folks walked out as the ending was still transpiring. There was never a clap or a cheer, at best there some laughs at the two jokes that actually worked.

Despite a double billing, this leans more towards being a Batman affair. I am not one of those people who threw a fit about Ben Affleck being cast as the big bad bat. I usually enjoy his work and the mere fact that he directed Gone Baby Gone earns him a fairly large hall pass. Even those who trashed this movie have been impressed with Ben's performance and he does indeed do a good job with what he's given. That may account for all the scenes were he appears bored out of his mind.
For decades, writers have struggled to remember that Batman's power is his intellect. Guy's the world's greatest detective after all. Here he's more of an overbearing bully. He's stubborn, selfish, cruel, and crazy easy to manipulate. When Superman shows up for the big battle asking for help, Batman's response is to beat him nearly to death and even throw in a little torture all while insulting supes for not being as good as humans. In 2016, a time when racial and class divides are the hot-button issue billionaire Bruce Wayne's goal in life is to bully a minority.....yikes.
You've probably heard that Batman kills people this time around. That is true. He's killed in other films and different comic variations over the years which means you could have a whole editorial on this topic. Rest assured that he probably has the second highest body count of the film behind Lex Luthor. What bothered me most about his violent attitude is a scene I haven't seen many people discuss. The scene in question involves Lex Luthor returning to his offices only to the guard shack on fire, ambulances in the parking lot, broken glass, bullet casings, the whole shabang. Batman stopped by to steel some kryptonite off camera and in the process saw fit to terrorize and injure presumably innocent civilians. Ya know I'm kind of with Superman on this one. The bat guy has got to go.
Another element of Batman's role in this tale are dream/premonitions. The first one where a flock of bats lift him into the air earned some chuckles and murders from the audience. The second one with what seems to be Man-Bat earned confused glances, then we got to the big one.
The first time we actually see Batman in action is during a vision of a hellish future where he gives the Chuck Norris treatment to a band of Superman worshiping soldiers before being captured. That's when we meet evil future Superman who slices people in half with his laser eyes. This all caps off with The Flash making his first appearance as a screaming banshee delivering cryptic messages from beyond. So that's the Gotham City portion of this tale, what about the other guy?

You'd be forgiven for thinking this was a Superman movie. Poor bastard practically fades into the background of what is in essence a sequel to his last adventure. Perhaps if the writers had chosen to bless him with a personality things would be different, but alas no. Confidence, joy, a sense of humor, this Superman knows not these things. Even after saving people his most upbeat response is to crawl off to the nearest dark corner and have a cry. Perhaps he deserves it since the quality of his heroics varies wildly. Early in the film he can hear Lois Lane getting into trouble in Africa, while later on he can't locate his own mother in the same damn city. Even he can't believe it when he fails to notice a bomb a dozen feet away.
There is one montage where we're treated to the blue boy scout doing his thing and rescuing people all around the world but lord knows it wouldn't be complete without tons of Christ imagery and debate over whether his existence is a bad thing.
Then there's his problems with Batman. First we have to get past the idea that Clark has never heard of Bruce Wayne or the dark knight despite living across the bay from Gotham where bat antics have been occurring for the last twenty years. Now that he's caught up with the rest of the world, Superman is morally outraged, so guess what he does. Maybe give this tack down this vigilante and engage in a proper conversation? Nope, he just tears apart the batmobile and makes thinly veiled threats. Alright, he might deserve an ass kicking for that one.

So what about the villain who's arranging this battle of titans? Full disclosure, I can't stand Jessie Eisenberg but even I won't lay all the blame for this version of Lex Luthor on him. Once again an actor has to work with the material, and when they say be the twitchy, quirky, annoying villain with a million speeches about lies, gods, and power, you try your best to make it work.
For the life of me I can't fathom how anyone thought turning Luthor into a mix of Jim Carrey's Riddler and punchline Marvel villain Arcade was a good idea yet this is what we're subjected too. His dialogue is such that you dig your fingernails into the seat everytime he appears. And then there's all his needlessly goofy shit like force feeding jolly ranchers or leaving a mason jar of urine in the middle of the senate building.
Lex's villainous scheme this time around? Well thank god for once it doesn't involve real estate. No, Lex is concerned with showing Superman to be a fraud. To this end he he tries to frame him for murders in Africa, and a bombing at senate hearings, all while pushing Batman to kill him, and even growing a cave troll knockoff for good measure. All of these plots are easily traced back to Lexcorp, unless you're Batman who can't even put in the same amount of legwork as Lois Lane. Granted these evil schemes do provide a certain amount of threat but it all feels a little weak seeing as all our heroes have plentiful opportunity to smack this guy down, if only they weren't so far up their own asses. Oh yes, we have one more hero to talk about.

Having only seen Gal Gadot in the Fast and Furious flicks, I was a bit concerned she wouldn't work as Wonder Woman. Color me surprised then when she actually turned out to be fairly entertaining despite her abysmal amount of screen time, most of which is spent attending social functions in various cocktail dresses.
In all I'm still not totally convinced she can carry an entire movie on her own but that's because I largely have no idea what this version of Wonder Woman is all about. She barely speaks to Superman and while it's nice to see one of these three characters shows signs of a smile there's little else to set her apart.

While we're on the subject of ladies, let's talk about poor Lois Lane who is handed a subplot so lame I actually forgot it was happening. After her trouble in Africa she goes in search of the source of a fancy bullet used in the massacre. This takes over an hour only to of course point back to Lexcorp. None of it matters though as no one will confirm her findings. Still unlike, Bruce Wayne the girl at least knows how to investigate.
Once the bullet plot line is finished it's right back to being a damsel in distress. Clark has to rescue her at least three times in this movie, maybe more. Oh and for fans of that lady dialogue test, she and wonder woman never speak to each other opting instead for the movie's bread and butter of sad glances.

So what about the other characters who've been shoved into this mess? Fellow Justice League members Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg are almost exclusively reduced to glorified youtube videos. The only exception being Flash's brief appearance as a screeching phantom from the future in a particularly hammy scene that comes across as purposefully vague in case they need to make course corrections in later films.
Jimmy Olsen's in here. He's a C.I.A. Operative who takes a bullet to the head.
Perry White is just kind of there.
The fairly small supporting character of Luthor's assistant, Mercy Graves as played by Tao Okamoto has been reduced to generic mysterious Asian lady who's clearly up to no good....that is until Lex blows her up.
Cold War era Batman foe, KGBeast is here as your standard issue terrorist.
Oh and let's not forget Wallace. The former Waynetech employee who lost his legs after being crushed by a girder during the climactic finish of Man of Steel. He spends his days hating Superman until Lex gives him a shiny new wheelchair that house a bomb.
Diane Lane gets to be a damsel in distress as well as the clunky plot point that bonds the heroes when Batman discvera their moms have the same name. The ghost of Pa Kent shows up as well and my first though was “oh thank god it's Kevin Costner!” His folksy wisdom nearly provided actual emotional content.
Holly Hunter as Senator Finch provides plenty of irritating southern cliches until she's blown up next to a jar of piss.
Doomsday fails to even register as a character. He's just a larger laser eyed version of a cave troll. While not handled as poorly as Origins era Deadpool, his appearance amounts to about as much. He's just there to provide a CG punching bag for the big finale.
Oh and Alfred Pennyworth is in there too. Tasked with the thankless task of trying to convey what a moron Bruce Wayne has been of late.

Then there's that ending. This is big spoiler area here, people. So Superman dies fighting Doomsday because, why not? Jesus, Clark, stab the monster in the fucking back why don't ya? Director Zack Synder has admitted this was done so there's a reason to put Batman in charge of forming the Justice League. In the meantime not a tear was shed in my theater cause no one bought this death as anything other than a stunt. By this point the movie had already hinted at Superman being alive and evil in the future. Plus they introduced something called a genesis chamber which could presumably be used as a means of resurrecting the man of steel. To top it all off the closing shot of the movie is the dirt on Clark's coffin starting to vibrate and float, hinting that he's still alive. How is anyone in the audience supposed to take this seriously when the filmmakers pull a Search for Spock before the credits roll?

Much as it may seem like I hate this movie, it doesn't inspire anywhere near that amount of passion. More than anything I'm baffled by its existence. Through all two and half hours nothing of substance takes place. The whole thing comes off as something we'll look back on years from now as a cinematic curiosity. The most comparable movie I can think of is Avatar, another hollow endeavor that made tons of cash entirely on the merit of being shiny. Perhaps this DC film universe will one day provide us with a good flick. For now; I'm just happy there's a new episode of Arrow on my DVR.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Batman Chocolate Strawberry Cereal Review

(Note: The following article was originally written in January 2015 as a writing sample for a job as a junk food reviewer. This means it it is done in that site's format and all that jazz. The review actually went over well enough with the webmaster that it launched me into the second round of submissions where I ended up losing out to other writers. Not willing to let a good post go to waste, I now present it to you fine folks in its entirety. Just in time too, considering the movie this junk is based on rolls out this weekend.)

Several years ago, I set a personal goal of viewing every single Batman movie. Not just theatrical releases, mind you, but all those straight-to-video features, as well. Ultimately I failed to complete the project, but an interesting phenomenon revealed itself during the process: no matter your mood, there's a bat film to suite your needs, whether that be the kooky horror of Batman vs. Dracula or the head-slapping stupidity of The Dark Night Rises. So while it seems the world's greatest detective has his bases covered in the film world, how does he fair in the breakfast nook?

The caped crusader has returned to the cereal aisle for the fourth time in history with a chocolate strawberry flavored entry based on the upcoming Batman v. Superman. Now let's talk about that flavor for a moment. It makes sense from a marketing standpoint. There's a lot of competition in the chocolate cereal arena, so any newcomer needs an angle to get noticed. Yet from a thematic viewpoint, it's totally senseless. It's bad enough to doubt this character's ability to sell licensed foodstuffs, but if you're going to pair him up with fruit, at least have the good sense to pick something grim like blueberries. On the other hand, maybe an unexpected flavor isn't the worst approach. Otherwise we'll likely encounter Aquaman caviar gummies in a few years.

Like many other licensed cereals, Batman Chocolate Strawberry Cereal comes with a rather high price point. For anyone out there with keen shopping sense or a limited budget this is a fairly notable issue. At least one can't deny General Mills' dedication to presentation as the box is both embossed and textured. Anyone who suffers from a strange urge to touch those weird fish scale style costumes should find at least a few minutes' worth of amusement fondling the box art.

The front of the box claims there's no high fructose corn syrup, something of a cheat considering they use regular corn syrup instead. Likewise the notion of zero artificial flavors isn't very believable once you open the package. The strong cocoa scent seems completely legit, but there's an odd underlying berry smell that comes across as horribly fake and overpowering. As someone who enjoys a good shock to the system now and then, I wouldn't call the sensation unpleasant so much as bracing. Those with more sensitive sniffers may not be quite as forgiving.
Once it actually comes time to dig in, I strongly warn against eating dry pieces. Doing so quickly reveals sawdust-textured generic bits used in countless low-grade cereals. All the flavor is housed in a thick powdery coating that activates the very instant it's introduced to milk. The result is similar to any cheap off-brand cocoa drink though the moisture greatly helps to counteract the texture issues.

No one can say for sure how the newest Batman film will turn out, but his latest breakfast offering leaves much to be desired. There are definitely worse cereals on the market, but very few seem this pointless. The ingredients aren't good enough to qualify as healthy, and the flavor isn't tasty enough to compete with similar offerings. I'd paraphrase that whole 'hero we need vs. hero we deserve' speech, but let's face it; nobody understands that spiel anyway.

Item: Batman Chocolate Strawberry Cereal
Purchased Price: $3.99
Size: 11.9 oz.
Purchased at: Meijer
Rating: 4 out of 10
Pros: Spiffy packaging. Novel choice of flavor. Remembering how good Mask of the Phantasm truly is. Knowing there's a chance Superman's cereal might be decent.
Cons: Resemblance to dog kibble. Lackluster taste. Overpowering stench. That new bat logo kinda looks like a lump of coal.
Nutrition Facts: Serving Size ¾ cup. Servings Per Container about 12. Calories 120. Calories from Fat 25. Total Fat 3g.Saturated Fat 0.5g. Trans Fat 0g. Polyunsaturated Fat 1.5g. Monounsaturated Fat 1g. Cholesterol 0mg. Sodium 120mg. Potassium 90mg. Total Carbohydrate 22g. Dietary Fiber 2g. Sugars 9g. Other Carbohydrate 11g. Protein 2g.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger Episodes 1-5 Review

We're still a little over a week from officially declaring Spring but you can totally feel the season in the air. Birds are chirping, clocks have jumped ahead. Along with this thrilling renewal we're treated to yet another installment in the Super Sentai franchise. That's right kiddies, after a brief hiatus from the subject it's time once again to talk about Japanese people in spandex.

my original plan was to write this up after the third episode, which later became the more popular four-episode test, thanks to a wealth of other topics to cover I've been able to hold off until episode five and the results are looking good. In simplest terms this series is already proving to be more confident and comfortable in its skin than Ninninger, and it may even have the brains to avoid some of the issues that affected ToQger. I can hardly believe it but maybe I'll actually be able to cover a truly excellent Sentai for once. Let me tell you what I'm going on about.

Storyline: Right at the start of Episode one we're introduced to Yamato, a young man who serves as a forest tour guide, loves animals, and carries a strange cube around for luck. Within minutes he's warped into an alternate realm where Zyumens (animal folk) live. After a quick series of misunderstandings, Yamato returns to our world with four Zyumen in pursuit.
While all those dimensional antics play out, a strange space vessel belonging to a group known as Deathgalians marks Earth as the newest target of their death games. Apparently destruction, agony, and mass extinction are considered the highest form of entertainment for these buggers.
During the first Deathgalian attack, the Zyuman use cubes, henceforth known as champion symbols to transform into Zyuohger, a multicolored hero squad that enhances their animal based powers. Battle quickly ensues, during which Yamato becomes the first human to transform in such a fashion. The gateway between our world and the zyuman's is damaged during the tussle, causing our heroes to be stranded.
So far that's the main thrust of the story. The Zyumans crash with Yamato and his uncle while searching out the missing cube that will allow them to return home and also defending the world from evil aliens. There hasn't been any major twists as yet but there have been small hints as to he nature of the champion symbols along with a Zyuman who helped Yamato as a child.

Theme: As you can probably gather, animals are on full display with this series. Not only are four of our heroes animal people, but Yamato's uncle is a strange fellow who dresses as different species and takes on their mannerisms for the sake of “cough” science. It's totally not some kind of twisted role playing. Every episode even has a little post credit bumper showcasing different beasts for kids to learn about.
The secondary theme is cubes. We're talking Minecraft style blocks here. From the changeable weapons to different animal zords, they're all blocks of some kind. I'll admit I'm not quite sure what this has to do with anything other than the Japanese catching on to block based gaming, though one of the villains was likewise composed of blocks and some of their small aircraft are pyramid shaped. Seems like there's a plan in place for something but I'll be damned if I know what it is.
Speaking of the villains, they're an odd sort with a gaming bent to their activities. Not only is global destruction a fun activity for them but they even give underlings continues in the form of arcade tokens laced with genes from the big boss. Perhaps at some point this will serve as a commentary on the difference between natural and artificial life but for now it's just a fun splash of flavor.


Yamato, Zyuoh Eagle/ Zyuoh Gorilla (red)

For the past several years, the basic personality type for red rangers has been stubborn and stupid. Yamato is a considerable change from that as his defining characteristics are kindness and affection for all living things. He's may be the nicest sap on TV today.
When he was a child, Yamato ran away from home and got injured in a storm until a hawkman helped him out and gave him a lucky cube which later serves as his champion symbol. Ever since that moment he's studied animals so he actually has a little bit of brains to back up his heroics.
In case you're wondering why he gets a double animal listing it's because in episode five, a gorilla Zyuman grants his powers to aid in battle. This allows Yamato to flip a portion of his helmet up and change to his gorilla form which is really just an inflatable muscle suit. The common belief right now is that every team member will eventually receive such an upgrade. I just hope the girls don't turn into muscle monsters too.

Sela, Zyuoh Shark (blu)

Sela is possibly the least developed member of the team thus far. She's the toughest of the two girls, a skilled fighter with a slight chip on her shoulder. Most of her development has revolved around here rivalry with Leo who she rightfully believes went easy on her during a martial arts tournament. So far this issue remains unresolved so expect a few more tussles between these two as the show continues.
I really hope Sela receives some good developments separate from that sub-plot as there's something just plain interesting about her. Maybe it's the actress or perhaps it's that she doesn't quite match any other Sentai heroine from the past few years. Whatever it is, cute girls in shark tights deserve better.

Leo, Zyuoh Lion (yellow)

Leo may be my favorite member of the team so far. A chivalrous blowhard whose actor plays him loud and proud. I imagine his role over time will be both the comedic relief as well as pillar of strength. Since a portion of his development is tied up with Sela's rivalry, there's a chance we may see him grow and start to accept the power of women. Or maybe he'll just continue to be a fun jackass. Either way, I like this guy.

Tusk, Zyuoh Elephant (green)

Tusk serves the rather thankless role of the smart and grumpy team member. When the show first started, he didn't want anything to do with Yamato as he did not wish to owe anything to a human. That rough, judgmental tone as come down a bit in the following episodes but I wouldn't be surprised to see it pop up again sometime. Naturally his stick in the mud nature has already been used for comedic effect.

Amu, Zyuoh Tiger (white)

Under normal circumstances, Amu would be the adorable ditsy girl and while she is cute as a pet store display there's already been hints that's she's got more going on upstairs than most would figure. I think what we've got here is the sensible member of the team. While everyone else is driven by pride, passion, or intellect, she keeps things more balanced and in focus. It's a smart design for the team dynamic since she's more traditionally girly than Sela while packing enough brains to serve as a decent role model.

Review: What stuck out immediately for me during the first episode is how retro this series feels. From the costume design to the action end even the theme song, it all feels like an older Sentai. I consider that a great move as some of the more recent series have gone for a shiny streamlined style that ends up washing away some of the franchise personality. There's very little here that separates Zyouhger from the older Sentai series other than it not being quite as dark and cruel.
As it stands, the villains are despicable and provide a real challenge, the heroes have a wide range of personalities, the action is tight, the girls are cute, and the whole thing just feels like a more confident production than what we've been treated to over the past few years. All this could change over time as every series seems to alter course at one point or another. For now this feels like a fine upgrade over last years model. Ninninger was a completely serviceable series but it always felt like it was holding back. Zyuohger on the other hand feels like it has so much to cover than it can barely fit it all in to each episode. That wealth of riches makes for very refreshing viewing.

I'm gonna continue with Zyouhger recaps and experiment with the format and style until I find something I like. Right now, I have to go deal with the real world. You all stay classy.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane Review (Light Spoilers)

The selection of films I've seen on premiere day is pretty thin. Even smaller is how many I've seen during their first scheduled screenings. Hell, all I can think of on that front are “The Avengers:, and “The Woman in Black” (odd double feature, I know). Thursday night brought that up to a trilogy with the premiere of “10 Cloverfield Lane”, the surprise “spiritual sequel” to 2008's found footage kaiju flick. Surely you can imagine I must be a pretty big fan of the first film. I also didn't want to spend the weekend dodging spoilers on the internet. Since I was lucky enough to actually be on top of pop-culture for the moment, I figured I should bring you all a review. Now I'm going to do my best to avoid spoilers for you fine folk but since I have to mention certain instances of story for the sake of this review, those who wish to see it without any clues should maybe go watch TV or something.

First up is the big question of what “spiritual sequel” really means. For anyone who doesn't wish to know about connections (or lack thereof ) with the previous film, please skip to the next paragraph. You gone? Last chance. Alright, so back in the early eighties the viewing public was treated to a little gem called “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” It was an attempt to change that series from being solely about a masked killer to an anthology franchise. It still focused on the same wonderful holiday and shared several themes but audiences simply didn't dig it.“10 Cloverfield Lane” makes a similar gambit, sharing themes and concepts with it's predecessor while forging it's own path. There are elements that could be used as an argument for this being an actual sequel, but let's face it, this is something new. You're either on board with that or not.

As far as the story is concerned, there is some truth in advertising. The vast majority of the film is about three people in a survival bunker. One is a young woman who wakes up after a car accident, another is a fairly basic country guy, and then there's Howard. Played by John Goodman, Howard is the king of this particular castle and from the moment you see him there's doubt if his story of a destroyed world is legit. Thankfully the movie doesn't take too long before revealing whether there or not there is any truth to his wild theories. This allows things within the bunker to unfold at a nice pace without driving viewers up the wall as they wonder what's true or false.

Performances are excellent all around with Goodman being the standout in possibly my favorite role of his since “Arachnophobia.” Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr both prove to be up to the task of standing up their hosts unique brand of crazy. It's a blessing to have such talented performers with a script like this as the character focused narrative could easily turn insufferable if even one actor failed to pull their weight.
The strong acting helps to hold your attention which in turn helps the pacing. I didn't even realize the movie was and hour and forty-three minutes long until I checked IMDB for this review. Watching it felt more like a breezy eighty minute flick.
There's plenty of suspense, drama, comedy, and even a teeny bit of gross stuff for those of us who like that sort of thing. It's a very well-rounded tale that keeps things moving and leaves just enough room for later twists which thankfully don't feel out of place. There's very little to complain about, though a few details of the bunker didn't seem fully thought out. Mainly the air vent area being so hard to access. It really felt out of place for a guy otherwise fully prepared for the end times.

Overall it's a damn fine film, possibly one of the best we'll see all year. But is it as good as it's namesake? In my opinion, no. I much prefer Matt Reeve's giant monster opus yet I'm still happy with what's here. Director Dan Trachtenberg has crafted a fine thriller with enough juicy details to elevate it above more traditional fare. I'm hopeful we'll see another “Cloverfield” someday, maybe a little sooner than eight years next time.

Oh and a major thumbs up to Howard's snack selection. I don't know what the shelf life is for Fruit by the Foot but I'll be damned if I didn't have some around for the end of the world.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Star Wars Book Club: Lost Stars

As far as rare comforts are concerned few provide me with as much of a tickle as an article completed far in advance. See, I'm trying to keep these Star Wars book reviews at a rate of about one a month. That was until late February provided what I like to call “reading weather.” The kind of disgusting cold slop that serves as a permission slip to relax and take in all the entertainment you can get. I'd say I used the time wisely and plowed through one of the better received entries in the new cannon, Claudia Gray's young adult romance, “Lost Stars.”

You can imagine I was a little apprehensive to approach a book that can be easily summed up as Romeo and Juliet: The Star Wars Version. Yes we're dealing with one of those classic lovers from different worlds tales. First as childhood friends of different social classes, and later as lovers on opposite sides of a war. It's a common narrative, one that can quickly go nosedive if handled poorly. Thankfully, the author surprised by providing a gripping yarn about the two most co-dependent mopes from a galaxy far far away.

Our story begins eight years after the prequel trilogy. The empire is firmly in control of the galaxy and is in the process of spreading their doctrine and oversight to every planet within reach. A rocky world called Jalucan is inducted into the Empire one day in a ceremony attended by two young children. One is Thane Kyrell, youngest son of an abusive, emotionally cold family from the ruling class. The other is Ciena Ree, a nature loving, honor bound, low class country girl. The two kids are brought together by a chance meeting with Grand Moff Tarkin and their shared love of flying.

Over the years, the children forge an unbreakable friendship as they push each other into joining the Imperial Academy. Once they join up is when things start to sour for these kids. I wont spoil too much in this regard but their childhood years are really fascinating as we see what the Imperial era is like for regular kids who are taught an inaccurate version of history where the Jedi have been redacted to the level of being fairy tales. In these kids eyes, the Empire serves as the structure that will whip the galaxy into shape.

As the years pass each of them continues their careers and befriend others with some tragedy along the way. Let's just say we finally know someone nice who died on that Deathstar. Eventually one of them grows too disillusioned to carry on and abandons their responsibility, eventually finding their way to joining the Rebel Alliance.

Knowing about the eventual part where one character joins the alliance initially worried me since a weaker writer would go the easy route and have country girl join the rebels in poor cliched fashion. Well color me surprised when the opposite proved to be true. The abused rich kid joins the good guys while his lady love totally drinks the Kool-aid! Taking that twist with an otherwise cliched set-up is what makes this story unique. Despite being an enormous sad-sack, Thane eventually finds a life among the rebels while Ciena digs a deeper grave everyday so that when she finally realizes her folly, it feels too late to turn back.

Reading the trials and tribulations of these two lovers proves to be some mostly fine reading so long as you can accept their bizarre mixture of co-dependency and constant disagreement. Thane has a fairly successful character arc as a lovesick puppy who eventually finds some measure of peace. Ciena on the other hand continues to baffle with her depths of self-denial and stubborn foolishness. There's plenty of details to help us understand her choices and of course we have the advantage of greater knowledge but there are still moments when this girl just comes off as an absolute asshole.

Part of the strength of this book is that you don't really need to know much about Star Wars to dive in and enjoy. However; for those of us with a longtime fascination for the franchise there are plenty of references and cameos to tickle our fancy. Consider that our two leads are essentially the same age as Luke & Leia, and there story stretches from when they're children to a year after Return of the Jedi. That timeline allows for alternate takes on major events plus small appearances by favorites like Darth Vader, Princes Leia, Mon Mothma, and the aforementioned Tarkin. You even get to learn a few neat details like who picked up Darth Vader after the first Deathstar was destroyed, and how that Star Destroyer ended up on Jakku.

Sadly there are a few elements that come across as forced or simply out of touch with the franchise. For instance, being a young adult novel means there are instances of dialogue that come sacross as far too dramatic or or simply out of place. I never thought I'd read an SW novel with multiple utterances of “badass” yet here they are, and each one takes you out of the proceedings for a moment.
A couple other issues present themselves within the story itself. First off is that a few sections seemed rushed. Seeing as these are usually the sections that coincide with major moments from the movies I think the idea was to avoid messing with established events. None of that is as big an issue as the ending which comes across as indecisive and a little unfocused. The last section about the battle of Jakku is certainly climactic but the final chapter feels like it's holding back. Weirdest of all is that the final scene is completely removed from the main couple, focusing instead on a villains vow of revenge. Since we have no guarantee of ever seeing these characters again, it would feel better to get something more concrete and dramatic.

Even with some misgivings as to the overall execution I still had a damn good time with this book. It's so unlike any other Star Wars story I've encountered that it feels incredibly fresh while having enough recognizable elements to potentially lure in new fans. I'm gonna start keeping a leaderboard for this feature from now on and this title has jumped right to the top.

1. Lost Stars bu Claudia Gray
2. New Dawn By John Jackson Miller

3. Tarkin by James Luceno

Thursday, March 3, 2016

CosmicSparky Visits a Bernie Sanders Rally

Longtime readers may have noticed I don't say much in the way of political views. To a certain extent this is a survival technique. Steering conversations away from major issues helps to keep the work environment friendly, a pretty important thing when working as a contractor. I generally hold true to this practice when blogging as well. Though, let's face it, reviewing energy drinks and old movie novelizations leaves little room for statements about gay rights and social justice. I do demand a certain level of human decency so the only way anyone ever draws out my opinions is by doing or saying something downright despicable. Then I gotta give em some act right. In simplest terms, I'm a Bernie Sanders supporter, a role that on Wednesday afternoon landed me in a stadium for my first ever political rally.

I first head about Bernie's visit from my brother who wanted to check out the gathering. Usually I would've avoided the whole scene but lord knows I've been craving some new experiences lately. The announcement my brother had received told us to get to the Breslin Center in East Lansing by 4 PM. Earlier that day some radio hosts talked up how big the lines were and how interested parties should get there early. Advice like this is probably why radio is a dying art form. I can't say as arriving saved us much hassle though it did provide us with the chance for ground floor viewing. They were right about one thing, the lines were indeed long.

Seeing as this rally was taking place right on Michigan State University territory, a large subset of the gathering was from the student body. Here's the part where my inner grumpy old man shines through. I didn't much enjoy the company of colleges students when I counted among their ranks. Nowadays it's like being surrounded by a whole different species. I just can't understand someone who talks about duck language vines while wearing 8-bit graphic socks. put on Still; if these kids can help someone decent get into office I'll have to cut em a little slack. Just not on the socks, never forgive the socks.

Eventually we entered the Breslin Center, the first time in my case since I'm not a big public gathering/concert kind of person. The whole place is a tad outdated in design. In fact, it feels somewhat like an enormous bathroom. MSU's working on some renovations so maybe when I visit again in another thirty years it'll be upgraded to quaint.

Our first seating arrangement proved troublesome as the traditional fold seats were two small for some party members necessitating a need to move down to lower bleacher style seating. This eventually caused trouble for me as I had to keep my legs in childbirth position so as not to drive my knees into the spines of two college girls. It was at this time that I asked my brother a rather important detail. We were told to get there by four, but when was the actual speech supposed to start? Turns out at that very moment, Bernie was giving a speech in New England and wasn't supposed to be on stage for us until seven. No way was my ass gonna hold out in that spot for two more hours.

Suddenly, inspiration struck the group. At the very bottom of the stadium was the pit where the actual event takes place. Contained therein was essentially the woodstock of this gathering along with the press area. Only so many people were allowed into that level and gifted with a wrist band that allowed them free passage. We slunk down just in time to nab enough bands allowing us to roam the halls freely. This was a life saver not only for my poor ass but for my body that was screaming for a cup of coffee. Even at stadium prices, black coffee is haven.

Once we returned to the pit, it became apparent just how many people had showed up. The place was a madhouse of chants, woos, waves, and cellphone flashlight shows. I've seen events described as electric but you could honestly feel a charge in the room much different from the usual blah feelings you get from town festivals and the like. The people here were pumped to an extent that could energize even the sleepiest of cynics. That mood only continued to grew along with the size of the audience until it finally came time for some speeches.

Several people came out before the big guy, the best of which was Ja'Mal Green. I hadn't heard of him before but he's apparently an activist out of Chicago and I gotta say the kid knows how to get people revved up. I mean there were some deafening roars of applause for his speech but nothing matched the noise when Sanders himself showed up. The experience could best by described a rampaging herd of elephants funneled through a loudspeaker straight into your skull.

Bernie's speech was fine as always. I'll admit the guy repeats some of the same beats a bit too often, but when it's actual positive ideas about giving people a shot at making this world even a moderately better place you can't fault him. It's good, agreeable stuff that I hope catches on. People like to claim he's some sort of crazed wizard but is there really anything all that odd about wanting a world where people actually have opportunities and access to jobs, education, food, clean water (a big one in Michigan these days), and health care? The message was good enough that I felt I should at least do something to help spread it around. That resulted in this post.

There's plenty more primaries coming our way. Michigan folk have ours next Tuesday, and I think there's something this weekend as well. Basically I want to encourage folks to get out there and vote for Sanders. No, I'm not going to try and convince you he's some golden god who will save us all, but I do think he's our best chance at fixing some social issues. Given the state of our culture wouldn't you at least like to try and make things better? I mean it's worth a shot, right? So get out there and do something worthwhile. Oh and don't worry about this site, we'll be right back to superheroes and candy before you know it.