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!!!

How Star Wars Conquered The Universe

A long time ago, in a small mining town far, far away, a young Chris Taylor discovered Star Wars via the back of a cereal box. Much like Luke on Tatooine, he only experienced the action in brief glimpses — comic books, more cereal boxes — until finally, his small town built a movie theater, and he was able to watch a Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back double bill right before Return Of The Jedi came out. Which I guess is the equivalent of Luke arriving on Yavin 4? The rest is not exactly history, but is contained in this wonderful book.

how star wars conquered the universe

 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the staggeringly brilliant How Star Wars Conquered The Universe is not just the only complete history of the entire franchise from its Flash Gordon inspirations all the way through to its acquisition by Disney, but it’s also one of the most insightful and entertaining books ever written about movies and pop culture in general. It’s the only place you’ll find a combination of detailed behind the scenes info and a fascinating look into the fandom that has sustained the franchise. And on top of all that, it really is, as advertised on the front cover, an enthralling creativity manual.

Taylor, who by day is deputy editor of Mashable, illuminates the creative development and decision-making process as each movie evolved from scribbled notes to drafts, rewrites and edits. If you’re a writer, you will learn much from Taylor’s Yoda-esque teaching (he lifts up some major metaphorical X-Wings) as he breaks down how and why the various stories had to change on their way to narrative greatness (he also covers the prequels, but there are lessons there too). Side note: this book has helped me with my current creative projects immensely, on a practical and inspirational level. Thanks Chris!

If you’re not a writer, that’s OK, because this is also an expansive overview of the Star Wars universe from its earliest inception. We see Lucas struggling with his vision for “The Star Wars” while making other movies (THX-1138, American Graffiti), and watch its complex development through four drafts and an uncredited “humor polish”, with Brian De Palma apparently responsible for the final version of the opening crawl. That on its own would be enough, quite honestly, but Taylor goes so much further, like a Padawan becoming a full Jedi. He breaks down Empire and Jedi, the infamous Holiday Special, the Ewok movies, the comics, the novelizations, Alan Dean Foster’s “back up” Star Wars sequel that never was (Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye), the Expanded Universe, the Clone Wars, and, most impressively perhaps, the prequels. The chapter devoted to The Phantom Menace follows the fans who lined up for weeks beforehand and builds and builds until it reaches a symphonic, Spinal Tap-esque crescendo with the reactions of those fans as they stumbled out of the midnight showing. Taylor also takes time to walk us through the various stages of grief that many of us experienced after listening to discussions about trade laws and watching Hayden Christensen talk about sand. With the able assistance of Bryan Young (a novelist who also co-hosts the amazing and essential Full Of Sith podcast with Tha Mike Pilot (possibly not his real name) — btw, if you haven’t listened to it, subscribe now), Taylor goes through intensive Prequel Therapy. It actually helps.

Fans waiting for The Phantom Menace. Therapy not pictured

Fans waiting for The Phantom Menace. Therapy not pictured

It’s a book about the fans as much as the franchise, and Taylor gives us a compassionate, even-handed view of all aspects of the fandom, from the 501st to the R2 builders, from Steve Sansweet’s Rancho Obi-Wan (the world’s largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia which therefore serves as a de facto time machine back to all of our childhoods) to those fans who wait in line for weeks at a time, to the homemade spoofs and homages (like the classic Troopers). There are many realms in the fandom, just as there are in the franchise itself; Star Wars has created a fandom that reflects it, and its fans are incredibly dedicated and creative, which Taylor wonderfully illustrates.

The book backs up its title over and over again, showing how the world has been swept away by what ultimately comes back to an R2 unit telling a story to the keepers of the Journal Of The Whills. It’s engrossing, moving, inspiring, and at every point, reminds you why you fell in love with this world. Even if you’re not a hardcore fan, it’s essential reading. If you’re more of a casual fan, and just want an entertaining and frequently very funny analysis of movies, pop culture, merchandizing, and how all of this has changed in the wake of Star Wars, you’ll love it. And if, like me, the original trilogy defined your childhood, with Star Wars as the first movie I ever saw in the cinema (right around the time I was watching those same black and white Flash Gordon serials that originally inspired Lucas on TV), and catching the 70mm first run of Empire with Roger Christian’s Black Angel short in front of it… if you’re one of so many who have special, cherished memories of these movies and the toys (oh god, the toys! Taylor spends a lot of time on this phenomenon too, from the “cardboard for Christmas” beginnings to the peak where there were more Star Wars figures on the planet than U.S. citizens), then this book approaches the miraculous.

That’s a lot of praise, but then, this is a book that works on so many levels, is written so well and flows so smoothly even with the many thousands of details that Taylor somehow weaves together, that even this level of praise doesn’t do this masterpiece justice. It’s more level-headed than this review, that’s for sure, and it’s that clear-eyed, patiently wise tone that helps this book make sense of the sprawling universe that Lucas set into motion. Written with an elegant, clear style, laced with generous quantities of British wit throughout, it’s always engaging, and full of knowledge, information, and entertainment.

Basically, to sum up: the force is strong with this one (sorry, I had to go there).

TL;DR It’s great, buy it.

(And then probably buy it again when the revised — “special” perhaps? — edition comes out with all the skinny on Episode VII).

Rating:

Five out of five binary sunsets

New writing alert! Altered Sequence book two published!

Hello. Just wanted to drop an update: book two of my YA sci-fi series ALTERED SEQUENCE is now available! It’s called CORRUPTED, and picks up right where ALTERED left off… As of right now, ALTERED is $0.99, and CORRUPTED is $2.99. Details of both books below!

 

CORRUPTED is available for Kindle at Amazon US and nook at Barnes & Noble.

Also: Buy For Kindle UK

Get CORRUPTED in paperback!

Altered Sequence Book One: ALTERED

ALTERED is available for Kindle at Amazon and nook at Barnes & Noble.

Also: Buy For Kindle UK

Get ALTERED in paperback!

Grasshopper Jungle

In the very best of ways, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is one of the more unusual novels you’ll ever read. Smith has delivered a genuinely unique experience: spikily soulful and inventively propulsive YA sci-fi in a contemporary setting, with an escalating horrific and hilarious R-rated apocalypse; in short, it’s about the end of the world as experienced by Austin, a confused teen in a very, very small town in Iowa.

GrasshopperJungle

Everything about this book is twisted in just the right kind of way to feel completely fresh and new: its evocation of the endless feeling of teenage summers, the intense hormonal confusion and heightened emotions, the torture of high school and parents who just don’t get it…. Oh yeah, and the unstoppable horror that is set into motion by a series of mundane, by-chance accidents.

Basically, they unleash a bunch of 9 foot tall armor-plated bugs that just want to eat and f**k.

The extreme day-to-day reality of the setting, as well as the obsessive limitations of the narrator, create a very grounded environment, which makes the sci-fi all the more terrifying and visceral.

Austin is not necessarily the most likeable of narrators, but there’s still something very engaging about his honesty and loyalty. He’s also very funny. He’s a skewed perspective through which to see a bunch of giant horror bugs tearing apart life as we know it, but that’s just what this story needs. Side note: talking of skewed perspectives, the fact that Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead, The World’s End, formerly of Ant-Man…sadface) is directing the movie adaptation is cause for massive geek rejoicing and celebration – his quick-witted, hyper-stylish visual and emotional genius is beyond perfect for this story.

All in all, this is an insane, gripping, unputdownable, novel. It’s an Unstoppable Read.

Rating: five out of five Unstoppable Soldiers