STRANGER THINGS: Turning TV upside down

From the perfectly 80s genre opening title card, through the eerie opening scenes, into that glorious, magnificent, hitting-every-pleasure-center title sequence, STRANGER THINGS started its journey flawlessly, and only got better from there.

ST titles

It was the breakout hit of the summer — the show we never knew we needed, but that we couldn’t get enough of. The showrunners — The Duffer brothers, identical twins — served up a beautiful mix of all the Spielberg movies and all the King novels that we loved from the 80s, along with a massive helping of other 80s movie references, but all done in an aggressively fresh and original way. It tapped those memories of long, hazy summers reading IT and seeing Stand By Me and E.T. And yet it felt so new, so modern, even as it hit those nostalgia buttons, and kept hitting them. Too much was never enough.

What made it perfect?

It all starts with the writing. This was storytelling at its finest. Swift characterization, distinct and authentic dialogue, and the careful unfolding of the mystery. The deeper we got into the story, the more the characters evolved. Over 8 episodes, each titled as a chapter, there were numerous arcs, surprises, reversals, shocks, and SO MANY EMOTIONS.

Without the great writing, we wouldn’t all be obsessed with the show. But without perfect casting, the show would be a shadow of itself. And the casting on this show was some of the best casting we’ve ever seen. The kids — Gaten Matarazzo as fan fave Dustin, Caleb McLaughlin as the conflicted Lucas, Noah Schnapps as the vanishing Will Byers, the epically named Finn Wolfhard as Dungeon Master Mike, and British newcomer Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven — all looked like 80s-style Spielberg kids, which was a feat in itself.

ST kids

Even better, they were all fantastic actors who invested their roles with heart, humor and conviction. But it didn’t stop there: David Harbour, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery all delivered grounding, haunting performances, as did Shannon Purser, brilliant in her first ever role, playing Barb, who ended up being one of the most beloved TV characters of the year. And of course, Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine brought veteran class and skill to their respective roles, Ryder’s highly strung Joyce, and Modine’s cool, sinister Dr. Brenner.

Assembling a legendary cast like that elevated the show to rare heights.

But those performances still need to be part of a bigger picture, a richer tapestry, and the Duffer Brothers more than delivered. They directed seven of the episodes, with exec producer Shawn Levy taking the eighth. This was such a visually rich show, with incredible cinematography from Tim Ives. Whether it was the wood-paneled suburban feel of Hawkins, Indiana, or the futuristic labs, or the horror-spookiness of the Upside Down, each world felt lived-in and authentic.

They played with the iconography of their favorite movies (E.T., Aliens, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, The Thing, and many others), but did it in a naturalistic way. All this, coupled with the hypnotic, immersive, none-more-80s, instantly iconic synth soundtrack from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band S U R V I V E (and that soundtrack is available in suitably epic form, 75 tracks across 2 albums, utterly essential listening), brought us a mesmerizingly atmospheric world, rich in detail and emotion.

ST soundtrack

It’s no wonder the show took off and generated instant and sustained buzz and excitement. This show is exactly what TV needed. It turned expectations upside down, and showed us a new way forward.

To be fair, it has had some criticisms, mainly for its supposedly negative treatment of women. But such criticism seems to almost willfully ignore the facts.

The show’s most powerful character, in all senses, including agency, was Eleven. No one and nothing on the show had more literal power than her. If it wasn’t for her, the boys, who, let’s face it, are often hapless idiots, would be dead. Also, probably everyone in the town would be dead. As she goes on her own journey, she helps the boys go on theirs. That kiss with Mike wasn’t just for his emotional development — they both needed that moment. Character and story were one in Eleven.

ST 11

The character with the biggest arc, the one who travels the furthest, was also female: Nancy, who, as played to perfection with always believable emotion and heart by Natalia Dyer, journeys from neat-sweater-wearing-girl-next-door-in-an-80s-teen-movie to Sarah Connor in T2 style badass.

ST Nancy

 

The show’s most beloved, legendary character was a woman. Let’s take a moment of silence and pour one out for Barb.

ST barb

Much criticism has been leveled for the fact that she goes out like a punk pretty early on. We should refocus that: she’s brilliantly written, and perfectly played, and that’s why we all so desperately wanted her to be saved. (And btw, she’s not 100%, absolutely, conclusively dead, you guys — sure, things didn’t look good at the end there, but she was just cocooned, and as fans of Newt from Aliens know, being cocooned ain’t necessarily the end)(apparently switching directors is the end, so let’s be grateful the Duffer Brothers are still on board).

The character who first figured that weird shit was going down was a woman — Winona Ryder’s heartbreaking Joyce.

stranger things joyce

It’s Chriiiiiistmaasssssss (that’s one for fans of UK Xmas music)

Of course, did any of the men in her life believe her? They did not. Kind of like how the boys don’t trust Eleven entirely until late in the game. Let’s face it, if the men did believe the women right off the bat, that would actually be less believable that the Upside Down and the monster.

Far from having a “female problem,” as some articles and commenters have suggested, it’s pretty much operating at Jim Cameron levels of female badassery.

It was, basically, a glorious love song to 80s Stevens (and Stephens), but one that couldn’t have been more now in its execution. Netflix sure made us sweat it out, but they finally announced that season 2 will be coming, set one year after the first season. Which means that the masterclass in how to make truly great TV will continue.

Stranger Things 2

We can only hope they call it this

Time to go fireball a demogorgon.

Rating: Five out of five Eggos.

10 reasons to watch 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

10 Cloverfield Lane was the movie no one was expecting.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Shot under the codename Valencia back in 2014, it had vanished from the radar during its lengthy post-production. Then early in 2016, a trailer dropped out of nowhere. Only the title of the movie was not Valencia anymore.

Thrillingly and mysteriously, it was now 10 Cloverfield Lane. Producer J.J. Abrams had done it again, repeating the trick he pulled off back in 2008 when he released the trailer to Cloverfield; a trailer to a movie no one knew was even being made.

The frisson from the name recognition got 10 Cloverfield Lane instant buzz and anticipation, as did the set-up in the trailer: Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character appeared to be some kind of hostage (maybe), kept captive in a bunker (maybe) by John Goodman, whose warnings of something terrible up on the surface might or might not be real.

Expectations were high (what was this? How did it tie into the “Clover-verse”?). When the movie came out weeks later, those expectations were paid off and then some.

Here are 10 reasons why.

MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD: As Michelle, Winstead is absolutely perfect, on every level, giving a transcendent performance. The opening of the movie has no dialogue; Winstead wordlessly communicates a character, a life, a terrible decision, dealing with that decision, and a journey. And that’s all before the titles. (We’ll get to those titles in a minute).

MEW 10CL 2

From the time she wakes up in the bunker through to the ending of the movie, we utterly feel her terror, uncertainty, rawness and power. It’s a visceral performance, hovering equally over hysteria, despair and horror. It’s stellar, emotional work from Winstead. A new career high (in a career full of career highs).

JOHN GOODMAN: We’ve seen him be scary before, sure, but not like this. Here, he’s a monumental, hulking, terrifying presence, quivering that high-wire tightrope between violence, stillness, menace, kindness and compassion.

JG 10CL

Thanks to Goodman’s electrifying performance as the perpetually dismissed survivalist Howard, whether he’s trustworthy or not hangs in an unsettling balance over a yawning abyss.

JOHN GALLAGHER, JR: While 10 Cloverfield Lane often plays like a Goodman-Winstead two-hander, Gallagher Jr as Emmett is a crucial part of the proceedings. He brings the charm but also the possible unreliability of the unknown. He may be an innocent guest, he may be working with Goodman, he may have another agenda entirely.

JGJ 10CL

Gallagher Jr plays those notes perfectly while also making us like him and even, possibly, trust him. It’s a hard role to make an impact in, given the slow burning acting fireworks going on around him, but Gallagher Jr shines brightly, bringing just the right amount of scuzzy likability to his wildcard character.

DAN TRACHTENBERG: Although Trachtenberg cut his teeth on two shorts in particular that gained a lot of attention (Portal: No Escape and More Than You Can Chew), this is his first feature, and boy, did he knock it out of the park.

DT 10CL

It’s an extraordinarily accomplished debut from the Temple graduate and Philly native (yes, there are Tastykakes on the kitchen set). His grip on the material and the tone is rock solid throughout. The movie is visually sophisticated, stylish in the most restrained, necessary of ways. He shoots that wordless opening beautifully, and then slams us off the road with the shocking, brilliant titles, interwoven with scenes of a car crash that erupts into sound and violence, cuts out, roars back — it’s disconcerting, throws you off balance with style and verve, and puts us in the same emotional place as Winstead when she opens her eyes in the bunker for the first time. Trachtenberg then delivers unbearable suspense by the visually stunning truckload, and by the time the movie reaches its outstanding conclusion, he truly cuts loose, opening things up in a way that is best appreciated in IMAX. A fantastic, powerful debut.

THE ORIGINAL WRITERS: Although several writers worked on this movie, we gotta give credit to where this all started — an indie script called The Cellar, written by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stucken. This got the attention of Paramount, who handed it to J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot to develop. Without this script, which told the story of three people in a cellar, not all of whom were trustworthy, while some unknown catastrophe raged overhead (possibly), was the heart of the project. Without Campbell and Stucken’s brilliant inspiration and ideas, 10 Cloverfield Lane wouldn’t exist.

THE REWRITERS: Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle was brought in to rewrite The Cellar, changing key character dynamics and scenes throughout, and adding the gonzo ending (more on that later). You can see the connective tissue between this and Whiplash: both are tight, taut character pieces with hulking, possibly untrustworthy authority figures, and more naive central characters who discover a world much bigger than the one they thought they knew. Chazelle was actually slated to direct 10 Cloverfield Lane, but Whiplash was greenlit, calling him away and allowing Trachtenberg to step in. During shooting, Daniel Casey was the writer on set, tweaking scenes, adding new ones, making any necessary changes. And Gennifer Hudson, currently adapting Victoria Aveyard’s dark YA fantasy Red Queen for director Elizabeth Banks, also contributed at least one crucial scene for Michelle. Oftentimes, multiple writers are seen to be a bad sign, but movies are always a collaboration on every level, and on this project, each writer, from the originals through to the rewriters, helped contribute to making this movie so damn perfect. The end product feels seamless and assured.

SOUND DESIGN: Robbie Stambler, Will Files, Lindsey Alvarez and the rest of the sound team deserve Oscars for the stellar work they put into this movie. Sound design is always important, giving movies an invisible depth, but for 10 Cloverfield Lane, sound design is critical. It’s absolutely part of the story, deeply integrated with the narrative. We don’t know what to believe about John Goodman’s character and the things he says are happening on the surface above them, and the sound design adds to the deeply unsettling sense of weirdness and WTF that drives the story. Sound design is 100% another character in this movie. Here’s an interview with Files about his work on the movie.

J.J. ABRAMS: The Star Trek and Star Wars-rebooting main man. Via his company Bad Robot, he had the vision to take The Cellar and turn it into Valencia, and then 10 Cloverfield Lane — this not only boosted the movie’s visibility, but gave it the extra dimensions that make it such a brilliant piece of pop culture.

JJ on set

And as Trachtenberg tells it, Abrams, unsurprisingly, had endless genius creative suggestions, like the stylized credits, how to shoot the car crash, Winstead’s “oh come on” line (I won’t tell you how or when she says it, but trust me, it’s genius), and other things about the ending that I won’t spoil. He basically sprinkled the movie with that J.J. movie DNA — another crucial part of the tapestry, and further proof of the beautiful power of collaboration. (This movie would make a brilliant double bill with Super 8).

BEAR MCCREARY: Damn, son. Melancholy, otherworldly, beautiful, creepy, ominous, terrifying, intimate, epic… McCreary’s essential soundtrack is all these things and more, weaving in and out of the sound design to give this movie an unsettling and cinematic extra dimension throughout. Originally the score was going to be more minimalist and restrained, but it was another of Abrams’ ideas to give it a huge score to elevate it. Of course, he was right. McCreary is a fantastic composer: this score is one of his absolute best pieces of work.

DAT ENDING THO:  I absolutely can’t say what it is — there’ll be no spoilers here — but it’s bonkers and brilliant, perfect, epic, intimate, and creates a great movie-long character arc for Winstead to play. It’s cathartic, thrilling cinema. It’s magnificent.

So there you have it. 10 huge reasons to try to catch 10 Cloverfield Lane while it’s still in some theaters, or to buy it as soon as it comes out to own. Pre-Captain America: Civil War, it’s the first contender for movie of the year. It’s that good.

 

Star Wars Rebels: Shroud Of Darkness

Star Wars Rebels is one of those rare shows that blasted out of the gate knowing exactly what it was, and what it wanted to be. In the hands of Dave Filoni, Simon “all the franchises” Kinberg, Henry Gilroy, Kiri Hart and Carrie Beck (and the rest of the amazing writers room), Rebels has outdone itself time and time again, tapping into that sweet, sweet Original Trilogy vibe for sure, but also doing a perfect job of integrating everything that was great about the prequels and the Clone Wars too.

Okay, yes, fine Obi-Wan, many of the truths we cling to may well depend on our points of view… but even subjectively, Rebels started magnificently, and has only gotten better from there. Season one was fantastic, but especially so in the second season, the show has powerfully accessed the dark, mystical and  beautiful currents that have always flowed through the Star Wars universe.

Ahsoka

Shroud Of Darkness somehow managed to eclipse last week’s The Honorable Ones, which was itself a powerful series highlight. Both episodes accessed what is greatest about this world: the conflict between light and dark, complex moral situations, humor in the face of challenges, entertaining droid action, and really, seriously awesome sound effects. Shroud Of Darkness takes all that much further.

The episode opens with a ferocious four-way lightsaber battle (which isn’t even the craziest lightsaber battle in the episode), and brings back many old friends as the story progresses. It’s full of thrills, fear, danger, and a great Freddie Prinze Jr / Sarah Michelle Gellar moment. It also clearly reveals the threat to Ezra’s future that has been hinted at before, while also making things a whole lot more difficult for the Ghost and its crew, and further setting up that truly epic showdown that we’re all waiting for. You know the one.

No spoilers here: it’s just a really, really great episode. It’s everything this show is aiming for, and it’s a rare show that almost always exceeds its target: Rebels does it consistently.

Rating: five out of five cool lightsaber sounds

2015 in review

2015 was a great year for pop culture — even aside from the multi-platform global pop culture-consuming behemoth that was Star Wars, this year was inspiringly full of rich, exciting and immersive books, TV shows, music and movies. And awesome droids.

So let’s get to it.

MOVIES:

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. Could the movie of the year have been anything else? Spoiler: no. It was beautiful, full of wonderful old and new characters, and so many emotions. And no, Rey wasn’t a Mary Sue — she was a complex, capable woman whose entire life had prepared her to be ready when the call to action came (if you don’t believe me, read Greg Rucka’s excellent Before The Awakening, which gives you backstories for Finn, Rey and Poe. Rey’s is particularly engrossing — she really is one of the great characters of the Star Wars universe. (Here’s my full spoiler-free Star Wars review)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. This was fresh, inventive, stylish, witty, engaging, with rich characters and a propulsive story, and a genuinely and gloriously bonkers sense of fun and glee. It also showed us how devastatingly great a Matthew Vaughn-directed Bond movie would be… but if he had made one of those (he came close to making Casino Royale), we wouldn’t have this. And we needed this. Colin Firth kicked ass entirely convincingly, and newcomer Taron Egerton delivered a swaggering, young Han Solo-like breakout performance. Genius all round.

The Martian. Yes. Yes yes yes! Ridley Scott scienced the shit out of this, giving us one of the great space movies of all time, taking Drew Goddard’s sharply funny script and giving it the bad-ass disco soundtrack we never knew it needed. Expertly shot, brilliantly acted by Matt Damon (the majority of whose scenes were alone and direct to camera), and the best Lord of the Rings reference you’ll ever see.

Inside Out. This was Pixar to the power of infinity. This was heart-achingly emotional, which you’d expect since it’s a movie about emotions, from the company who brought you the most emotionally devastating opening to a movie EVER (Up). What you might not expect was how heartfelt, humorous and bitter-sweet it all was, plus how the mesmerizing story managed to be utterly profound as well as relentless entertaining. Warning: contains achingly funny moments, and some that are utterly gut-wrenching. You will cry.

Straight Outta Compton. Director  F. Gary Gray delivered a breathlessly gritty and fiercely kinetic look at the birth, rise and fall of Compton’s NWA, from their loose beginnings to the evolution of their personal empires (Dre’s Beats, Cube’s movie career). The heart of the movie was Jason Mitchell’s cherubic, charismatic and ultimately heartbreaking performance as Eric “Easy E” Wright; his story is the true center of the movie, with the others woven tightly around it. It gives you the thrill and danger of the music, the harsh realities that made it necessary, and the often uncontrollable dynamics within the band. A great script kept tight control over the sprawl of events, and excellent performances from the actors playing the band (including Ice Cube’s son playing Cube) made this utterly gripping.

Honorable mentions:

Avengers Age Of Ultron / Ant-Man. Marvel’s two movies this year both came with some serious baggage. Ultron had to follow up the massive success juggernaut that was Avengers, but do it even bigger this time, while Ant-Man had a hugely troubled production with the removal of Edgar Wright weeks before filming was due to start. Both films were mandated by the studio to fit the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: oddly, Ant-Man fared better with this, given extra resonance and benefiting from being bolted into the MCU, while Ultron seemed to suffer from one extra layer too many in a movie that was jam-packed with too much greatness — it’s a long movie that actually would have been better with an even longer four hour extended cut. There’s just so much Joss Whedon genius-level awesomeness to love and not enough time to truly love it. Ant-Man, on the other hand, was short, sweet, quick on its feet, and full of Edgar Wright DNA (no one handles exposition like him. No one!). Both movies were fun; Ant-Man was just a little more so. But Ultron was still a wonderful Whedon-fest, and a towering achievement of screenwriting and direction.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The best of the MI bunch. Written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, this was tight, entertaining, and it barreled along through plot points and set pieces without ever releasing its grip on us. A huge amount of fun, with crowd-pleasing performances, hair-raising stunts, and the type of twisty-turny plotting you’d expect from the man behind The Usual Suspects.

BOOKS:

Book of the year: Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This was one of those books that make you realize all the many beautiful possibilities of what books can be. Composed of emails, security logs, and many other things that I won’t spoil, this was an utterly engrossing sci-fi story, rich with complex characters you immediately care about, viscerally thrilling space stuff, and fiendish plotting. Totally unputdownable. Full review here.

Close competition: Patrick Ness’s The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and Robert Galbraith’s Career Of Evil (Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling). Two perfect five star novels here. Ness delivered his usual blend of thrills and compassion, while Rowling gave us her most exciting Cormoran Strike novel yet, with an absolute kicker of a throw-the-book-across-the-room ending. *shakes fist at J.K. Rowling!!*

Honorable mentions:

Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray; The Weapon Of A Jedi, by Jason Fry; Smuggler’s Run, by Greg Rucka; Moving Target, by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry; Before The Awakening, by Greg Rucka. AKA, the Star Wars novels. Lost Stars (reviewed here) was stellar, Jedi, Run and Target were beautifully written standalone adventures featuring Han, Luke and Leia during the Original Trilogy, and Before The Awakening focused on key Finn, Rey and Poe backstories. Fascinating, entertaining stuff.

MUSIC:

Two artists dominated: Adele with her insanely anticipated beautiful powerhouse of an album, 25, and Carly Rae Jepsen with her EMOTION album, which was light years ahead of her previous effort. While Adele did exactly what you’d expect her to (albeit brilliantly, beautifully and flawlessly, of course — with I Miss You and The River Lea as particular standouts ), it was Jepsen who delivered the year’s biggest surprise: an extraordinary, gorgeously 80s, mesmerizingly hook-y set that didn’t have one filler — full of massive choruses drenched with bittersweet melancholy and honesty, all delivered with gloriously soaring vocals. Why this wasn’t on more year-end best-of lists is a mystery. It’s brilliant.

TV:

Special mention for Downton Abbey‘s magnificent final season and majestic final ever episode, which was this year’s Christmas special (for those who have seen it… it airs in the US in January). The perfect send-off, full of warmth, wit, and, yes, feels.

Supergirl. This show is bright, beautiful, full of verve, grit and hope — all about finding your truest self and being it. Melissa Benoist embodies all of that in a vulnerable, complex, utterly engaging performance. She brings Supergirl to life in a way that makes perfect sense.

Jessica Jones. Epically gritty, dark and messed up, but sweetened with some killer sarcastic putdowns, a damaged and soulful performance from Krysten Ritter, and a horrifyingly charming villain in David Tennant’s brilliantly played Kilgrave. Thrilling TV throughout, perfectly paced, full of heart and rage and loss and becoming the person you’re meant to be.

Supernatural. 11 seasons in, it’s still slaying. Here’s my breakdown of why this show STILL kicks ass.

Honorable mentions:

The Walking Dead. This half of the current season delivered three monster, high octane, real-time  episodes that were likely the greatest consecutive episodes in the show’s run… then pulled out of that very suddenly and slowed things way down for the standalone Morgan flashback episode, before reconnecting with the current storyline again. Although Here Is Not Here contained great writing, beautiful character work, and killer acting, it really did stop the momentum in its tracks at a particularly tense moment, and consequently the show took a while to pick up speed again. But by the mid-season finale, it was BACK. It’s the best it’s ever been, and that’s saying something.

Quantico. One of the greatest new network shows in a long time, this is gripping, unstoppable, incredibly tense, and twist and turns and twists and turns, and then does that some more. The cast gives deeply accessible and charismatic performances, and the story just does not quit. Very, very addictive, very tightly written (the show has two ongoing strands, past and present, which interweave and comment on each other and keep the story flowing), and very addictive.

But, if I had to pick the ultimate “things of the year”….

  • Star Wars
  • Illuminae
  • Jessica Jones
  • Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION

And, if I could only pick one thing overall… It’s pretty clear… this little guy won 2015!

BB-8

The breakout star of Star Wars (with fierce competition from the fresh and energetically  great performances of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver), BB-8 owned 2015. The little droid was the heart and soul of Episode VII, and we loved him. Let’s be honest, we would all happily sit there and watch a  two hour movie that was JUST BB-8 AND NOTHING ELSE. Search your feelings… you know it to be true.

So, hope you enjoyed 2015… Have an awesome 2016!!!

LOST STARS by Claudia Gray: Journey to Stars Wars The Force Awakens

LOST STARS is Claudia Gray’s latest novel, and her first in the Star Wars universe, part of a raft of novels published to bridge the gaps between the original movies and The Force Awakens. It’s YA, focusing on two teenagers, Thane and Ciena, both growing up on the forsaken Outer Rim planet Jelucan, both dreaming of flying across the stars for the glorious Empire.

Lost Stars

The novel follows them as they grow up, go through training, and discover that the Empire is not all that it seems. The story weaves deftly through the original trilogy timeline, giving us glimpses at many moments from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return Of The Jedi, but all from angles and perspectives we’ve never seen before. This is one of the novel’s many strengths: if you’re a fan of the movies, you’ll get a kick out of seeing all-new Darth Vader scenes (what happened after he went spinning off into space at the end of Star Wars? You’ll find out!), deep dives into the Empire and the Rebellion from the inside at key moments including the blowing up of the Death Star, and a hugely thrilling take on the final space battle around Endor, to name just a few. But even if you’re not a huge fan, it’s ok, because Gray makes all of this make sense in a genuinely affecting and involving love story between two passionate, driven individuals who ultimately have to choose between wildly different paths.

Gray is great at making you FEEL the angst, the love, the passion, the hope, the despair, the excitement that Thane and Ciena feel as their story brings them together and throws them apart. Gray keeps the action and characters moving and developing, and brings the whole thing to an epic conclusion, before zigging off in a direction you wouldn’t expect, but which works really well.

It feels like a Star Wars novel, in all the right ways. It captures that sense of wonder at the distant stars, the thrill of space, the terror of the Empire, the fierce idealism of the Rebellion. It also has like, cool aliens and robots and shit. The only critique is that Gray doesn’t put you in their heads enough at the start of the novel — Thane’s burning desire is to fly a TIE fighter, but we never get to see or feel his first time at the controls of one, which is a shame, because any reader who is a Star Wars fan would love to see what that feels like. Yes we all know the Empire is bad but damn it flying a TIE fighter would be bad-ass! While she doesn’t give us that, by the midpoint on, we do get the visceral nature of Thane and Ciena’s experiences, and she dives into the Endor battle with gusto and force.

This book truly evokes the spirit of the Original Trilogy, magically weaving itself into the narrative tapestry of the OT.

It’s fascinating to see the psychology of the Empire (and the Rebellion to a lesser extent) laid bare. We really see how so many decent, intelligent people could be led to think that the Empire was a force for good, even as it begins to take ever-darker actions. Speaking of the force, the book also does a  great job showing how little impact the force has on the everyday folk. Luke really is the last Jedi, and not many people even believe that to be true.

LOST STARS also contains clues about The Force Awakens. If you’ve seen the second trailer, you’ll enjoy one of the revelations in particular (although the book cover does kind of give it away…)

All in all, this is an engrossing, engaging, exciting read, a thrilling look at the universe we know and love from a genuinely fresh angle we’ve never seen before.

Rating:

Four out of five Original Trilogy references

Gotham: a Shameless-ly brilliant performance from Cameron Monaghan is no joke

I’ve watched a lot of television the last few days, and one thing has become abundantly clear: with a pair of standout turns in Gotham and Shameless, Cameron Monaghan owned TV this week.

Cameron Monaghan owning TV this week

Like I said, Cameron Monaghan, owning TV this week

I’ll start with Gotham, in which Monaghan took on the iconic role of the Joker. It was a star-making turn in a show that has become essential viewing. In just 16 episodes, Gotham has carved out an iconic spot in the TV schedule. Full to bursting with grittily memorable performances, with Ben McKenzie’s beleaguered crusader for justice Jim Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor’s beautifully off-kilter Penguin leading the pack (“hello, old friend”), the show has a rock-solid grip on its world.

Gordon and Penguin face off... face... off...

Gordon and Penguin face off… face… off…

Gotham is a perpetually cloudy, ominous, dirty, baroque version of itself, like an L.S. Lowry steel mill nightmare, peopled with lowlifes and hoodlums, iconic freaks, and lost souls. It’s dark, uneasy, but it’s shot through with a rough, raucous humor, a wild and wide-eyed glee in its strangeness. The show takes a particular kind of comic book sensibility and runs with it; it’s a fractured, monstrous reality that feels 100% grounded.

It’s also, of course, the home to the future Batman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, the Riddler… Chief amongst these, of course, is the young Bruce Wayne, and the show has done a fantastic job showing us his slow, steady journey towards becoming the Batman. It does make you kind of wish for a spin-off teen Batman and Catwoman show, since David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova have been consistently fascinating as their younger versions. The producers have said that the show ends when Batman first puts on his suit, which is on one hand a shame, but on another, completely understandable, since Gotham is Jim Gordon’s show, and Ben McKenzie delivers raw, fearless, intense, hilarious and gripping performances week after week.

This week’s episode, “The Blind Fortune Teller,” took on the circus, which allowed the show to dive even deeper into its beautiful weirdness. This circus is run by the Lloyds and — future sidekick alert — the Graysons, two families at war. McKenzie’s Gordon is on an awkward date at the circus with Morena Baccarin’s Dr. Leslie Thompkins, when a fight breaks out in the middle of the show… a fight which ends with the discovery of a body: the snake lady has been murdered, and her son, played by Monaghan, is distraught.

Or so it seemed. Monaghan brought the kind of sensitivity we’ve seen from him in Shameless, at least to start with, as he played the lonely, upset son struggling with his mother’s death. Gordon didn’t buy it though, and in a you-can’t-handle-the-truth showdown in an interview room, Monaghan revealed his character’s true self in an absolutely brilliant and unforgettable 3 minutes of television. We saw flickers of the future Joker rippling across his face as he danced between madness, sadness and psychosis, often in the same beat. And then there was that laugh. Chills. In just a few beats, Monaghan gave an extraordinary, indelible performance that would have been the most iconic moment of the TV week… if Monaghan hadn’t already claimed that title the night before.

Because he also plays Ian in Shameless, a gay teen who has been struggling with bipolar disorder for most of this season. In “Crazy Love,” Ian kidnapped his boyfriend Mickey’s baby and went on a terrifying 18 hour joyride while his friends and family slowly disintegrated with worry and fear. It was a bravura, revelatory performance, culminating in some jaw-droppingly heartbreaking work as Ian finally gets checked in to a mental institution. He played the fear, the overwhelming sadness, the almost total inability to process what was happening, in the most understated of ways.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

 

“Crazy Love” was written by John Wells, himself one of the most iconic figures in TV today, the creative force behind E.R., The West Wing, Third Watch… and of course, SouthLAnd and Shameless, which made the Gordon-Joker face-off something of a SouthLAnd-Shameless mash-up, since McKenzie played Ben Sherman on 5 seasons of the always amazing and canceled-WAY-too-soon SouthLAnd.

Moment of silence for that show.

We miss you, SouthLAnd

We miss you, SouthLAnd

So in this week’s Shameless, Wells did what he does best: create visual and emotional moments of pure television. He did the heavy lifting at the start of the episode (although he’s a brilliant writer, so it seemed effortless), so that by the end, we were coasting on pure emotion, and it was all down to the actors to play the heartbreak. And play it they did.

I want to take a second here to call out Noel Fisher, who has been one of the most underrated but consistently excellent actors on this show. He plays Mickey, the most-feared motherf**ker on the South Side, who is also Ian’s boyfriend. Fisher has been brilliant throughout, conveying the constant struggle as Mickey fights to maintain his rep while also trying to actually be happy. In “Crazy Love,” Fisher showed Mickey coming apart at the f**king seams. His moments in the car ride back from finding Ian, where he realizes that Ian has to be committed, and in the institution at the end, were genuinely astonishing.

No I wasn't crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

No I wasn’t crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

But ultimately, the show was really Monaghan’s, as was Gotham. He owned them both with connected, naturalistic, grounded and heartfelt work, and with these back-to-back performances of troubled, unstable characters, Monaghan has surely put himself on the Emmy map.

Gotham is going from strength to strength with dizzying speed, and Shameless is in the midst of one of its best seasons to date.

I love TV.

 

Jupiter Ascending: The Wachowskis in space

The Wachowskis first original story since The Matrix Trilogy is a boundlessly inventive, sprawling space opera, full of none-more-Wachowksi elements (blue-haired cyberpunks on space-bikes, gravity defying martial arts, a chosen one), as well as many surprises (Sean Bean as some kind of bee-master, Channing Tatum as a wolf-man with jet-boots), and a vampiric Eddie Redmayne. It’s completely over the top; shamelessly, beautifully so, and, as such, is hugely entertaining.

Doona Bae as a cyberpunk biker

Doona Bae as a cyberpunk biker

Mila Kunis is the titular Jupiter, the chosen one here, a humble cleaner of toilets who turns out to be something far more important. Multiple factions are hunting her for various reasons; only Channing Tatum’s wolfy Caine Wise can truly protect her from the warring, intergalactic Abrasax family and their treacherous, genocidal ways.

It plays as a frenetic, gorgeous melange of Star Wars (partly the original trilogy, partly the prequels), Guardians of the Galaxy, Speed Racer, Flash Gordon and The Matrix, with a massive injection of  Wachowski imagination and verve. Brilliant ideas collide and explode in a nonstop orgy of concepts and action; there’s a really f**king great movie in here, but there’s also a less impressive one too. It feels like the script could have done with a couple more drafts to really bring out the ideas and the awesomeness to their fullest potential.

They set out to write a story featuring an empowered, kick-ass heroine, hence the title. What they inadvertently ended up with is something that probably should have been called Caine Ascending, since Tatum’s character has the most complete and satisfying arc of anyone in the film, frequently relegating Kunis to the role of scared bystander in need of constant saving. It’s a shame, because a movie about Jupiter actually ascending would have been very cool. If the Wachowskis had switched those character genders, making the movie about a female Caine protecting a male human chosen one, and staging it from her perspective, the Wachowskis would have had their female-led powerhouse movie.

Still, there is much to love here. The Wachowskis do pulpy, visceral sci-fi thrills better than almost anyone, and it’s frequently glorious to behold. The aerial chase scene across the Chicago skyline at sunrise (filmed in six minute batches over many weeks to get the light perfect) is beautiful.

Chicago chase scene

Chicago chase scene

The various species and spaceships are visually stunning — the angry flying dinosaurs are bad-ass! (Yes, there are flying dinosaurs). Michael Giacchino’s score is often lovely. There’s a brilliantly manic Terry Gilliam cameo. And by god, no one, I mean NO ONE, can ground a scene and make it gritty and real like Sean motherf**king Bean. MVP. He has some crazy exposition to say, including the immortal line “bees don’t lie” (much like hips, I presume), and he makes it INTENSE. He could have played the scene in squeaks and grunts and we’d still buy it. He is the man. Him and Tatum come out of this movie with full honors, as both of them are all in, in terms of performance and committing to their roles.

Tatum and Bean. Truthful bees not pictured

Tatum and Bean. Truthful bees not pictured

Overall, this is a freewheeling, entertaining couple of hours from two of the most original and exciting filmmakers around. Could it have been tighter? Yes. Did it need more work to bring out a more propulsive, emotionally connected story? Kinda. Is Sean Bean a bad motherf**ker? You know it. And you should go and see this movie. Original stories need our support, and this is fully worthy of a trip to the cinema. The Wachowskis are legends at this point, having brought us two of the greatest movies ever made (The Matrix and Cloud Atlas). They have incredible imaginations, visceral creativity, and a wholly unique position in Hollywood; let’s help them keep it. Because I want more Wachowski movies.

Lots more.

 

Rating: Four out of five flying dinosaurs