Reviews

A Cybernetic Cinderella

These days it feels like we are inundated with re-tellings and re-imaginings of Fairy Tales. Despite very favorable reviews from people I respect, I was hesitant to begin reading Cinder, by Marissa Meyer, because it was (yet another) Cinderella story. Ultimately I decided to take the plunge, and I’m glad that I did.

The Good

The initial setup for Cinder’s story is very easy to map to the elements of the classic story: the step-mother and step-sisters, the prince, the upcoming ball. But as this story is set in a futuristic world of robots and cybernetics, we get some interesting twists on the original story as well.  Instead of talking animals, we get a quirky household servant android.

The primary antagonist for the book, and the series, is the Lunar Queen Levana. A colony, established on the moon hundreds of years ago, has developed into a powerful nation, and the Levana is apparently intent on conquering Earth, one way or another. Part of the reason the Lunars are so powerful is because of their ability to manipulate bioelectric energy, sometimes helpfully referred to as ‘magic’ when discussed by Earth-based characters. This power allows a Lunar to manipulate what another character sees, feels, and does when under the direct influence of the Lunar. The character easily maps to the “evil queen/witch” character found in many fairy tales, and in particular to the queen in Snow White, given the cover text from later books in the series.

One of the interesting twists that I really appreciated is the cultural perception of cyborgs, and how it influences the characters in the story. Cyborgs are literally viewed as being less than human. And as Cinder is a cyborg, that little detail gives the step-mother character an additional motivation for her unkindness, as well as significantly changing Cinder’s motivations. This Cinderella doesn’t want to go to the ball. Cinder has completely different plans for her life. As you might expect, she does eventually attend the ball, but largely for reasons other than what you generally expect from a Cinderella story.

The Bad

There’s an additional ‘special’ ability that Cinder is revealed to have late in the book, and one of the other characters mentions that it is very distinctive and reminiscent of another character, but we get no additional information on what that means. The connection between Cinder and that other character have already been established by that point in the story, so telling us “your power looks a lot like hers”, but not telling us what that means or what it looks like, is frustrating as it feels like the author is deliberately withholding information that you would expect to be revealed at this point.

(I do see the irony in expressing frustration with how vague the book was regarding this point, while myself remaining vague about what that power is and the ‘connection to another character’, but I’m chalking that one up to trying to be as spoiler-free as possible.)

The most frustrating part of the book is how it ends, because it feels very much like the story had just gotten really moving.  In essence, the story ends shortly after Cinder has fled the ball, and nothing has really been resolved. It feels very much like this story was written with the expectation that you are going to have to pick up the next book in the series to see how this plays out, even though the next book in the series appears to center, at least initially, on a completely different character.

The Verdict

Cinder is a very fun book to read, and, in all likelihood, I’ll be picking up the sequel in the near future to see how the story proceeds. Cinder is very much not the traditional helpless girl, waiting for a prince to save her. She’s competent, motivated, and tries to do what is best for herself and the people she cares about. It’s the best kind of princess story these days. The prince is there, and he’s part of the story. But it really is Cinder’s story, and does not revolve around him as the center of her universe. And that’s wonderfully refreshing take on this story.

A Cybernetic Cinderella

Star Wars Rebels Season 2 Movie Review

Things were looking pretty good for our heroes at the end of Star Wars Rebels Season 1; however, the Empire is not one to turn the other cheek and makes sure that the rebels pay for their actions by sending along an expert in dealing with such matters, Darth Vader.

WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND!

Overview

Following a huge victory at the end of season 1, Rebels picks up where it left off with the crew of the Ghost helping out the new rebel fleet. Some of the crew, in particular Kanan, feel a bit overwhelmed by their new circumstances. The idea of serving as a sort of intergalactic Robin Hood against the Empire was fulfilling. Fighting a full on fight against said Empire, on the other hand, is almost out of their league. So when the crew receive a message from Lothal concerning the smuggling of a high ranking official off world, it seems like the perfect opportunity to get more Imperial information as well as return to their roots in small-time rebellion; however, little do they know that this is a trap laid by none other than the Sith Lord, Darth Vader.

The Good

Kanan expresses his uneasiness with joining the larger rebel cause.

Kanan expresses his uneasiness with joining the larger rebel cause.

1. “The Siege of Lothal” changes the dynamic even more than the season finale. We honestly were not sure where the series was heading after finding out that the small band of rebels aboard the Ghost were actually one sect in a larger group. The option of them still operating in Lothal is completely thrown out by the end of this episode as Vader makes that an impossibility. Getting off of Lothal was a good and bold move on the show’s part, as it throws our characters out of their comfort zone.

2. Darth Vader is used properly and it looks like he will not return for quite awhile. At first, it seems that our heroes will outwit and escape Vader. This would have been a concern since Vader cannot lose like the villains in the previous season; however, “The Siege of Lothal” uses Vader perfectly. Even when it looks like the rebels had escaped Vader’s clutches, we find out that it was all apart of his plan. Also, as expected, Kanan and Ezra are no match for Vader in lightsaber combat. That scene, in and of itself, was an awesome treat to watch as Vader toyed with the duo.

Ezra and Kanan observe the destruction of Tarkintown.

Ezra and Kanan observe the destruction of Tarkintown.

3. The inhabitants of Lothal have had it rough. Many of them have had to move to Tarkintown, a refugee camp that the rebels often helped out. The name of Tarkintown is a clear call-out to the Hoovervilles of the 1930s when the poor would move to these places and mockingly name them after President Hoover, but Tarkintown also serves as an important plot point as it is burned to the ground by Darth Vader. Why did Vader do this? To take advantage of our heroes’ “weakness” for compassion. Watching Tarkintown burn into ashes really brought the idea home that there was little else our heroes could do in Lothal.

4. When Vader reported to the Emperor of his mission’s completion, we did not see the Emperor. Rather, we simply heard his voice (as performed by the very talented Sam Witwer). I am sort of hoping we do not see the Emperor’s face at all in the show, as his disembodied voice would make him more mysterious and foreboding. Of course, now that Vader knows Ahsoka lives and has already told the Emperor of this, we can only imagine what their plans might be. Vader clearly is not going to turn Ahsoka to the Darkside since he already informed the Emperor of her presence. Sith lords do not inform each other when they want to usurp the mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith.

The Bad

Darth Vader reports the status of his mission to the Emperor.

Darth Vader reports the status of his mission to the Emperor.

1. Within the first few minutes of the episode, John Williams’ music was already being used. I am not talking about a small theme. Rather, the show used quite a bit of the asteroid field music from The Empire Strikes Back for much of the scene. This was a problem throughout the first season, and, unfortunately, it would seem that it will be a problem in this season. George Lucas himself pushed the production team of the Clone Wars to use Williams’ music sparingly. That show would throw in a theme here and there, but we would never get a full track pulled from one of the films. Overusing John Williams’ themes and even copying and pasting them into the show, instead of creating new themes, not only devalues their worth but is also lazy.

2. Darth Vader’s voice sounded a little bit off. This is not a stab at the work of the awesome James Earl Jones; however, somebody in the sound department did not do the best job at making the voice sound mechanical. It actually sounded too mechanical. Maybe minimization is the goal of the show, but, for those of us who grew up on the original trilogy, this sounded wrong.

Meet Lando's droid (left), W1-E1, the droid with a Southern accent.

Meet Lando’s droid (left), W1-E1, the droid with a Southern accent.

3. Lando shows up again to help out the crew of the Ghost; however, this could easily have been handled by an unknown smuggler since Lando had a total of maybe thirty seconds of screen time. Minimizing nods to the original trilogy is key since they could steal the show from our core heroes… of course, I might be able to forgive this one since we were introduced to Lando’s awesome southern-accented droid.

Conclusion

“The Siege of Lothal” was a huge opening episode that set the course for the entire season. Our heroes no longer have a planet for their headquarters (poor Ezra’s old home was even destroyed), Vader and the Emperor are plotting, the rebel fleet is on the run, and, on top of that, it looks like we are getting a new Sith Inquisitor! There was very little not to like in this episode. All in all, season 2 is off to a great start.

 

Star Wars Rebels Season 2 Movie Review

Inside Out – Review

Inside Out gets it.

What does it get, you ask?

Well, it gets everything, actually.  Let me explain.

I originally went into this thinking that I was going to write a review about how important it is that female characters are presented to our child audience as complete, multi-faceted, fully capable of growing and changing.  Well, of course Inside Out provided me with that. But! Pixar rarely produces films where the main characters DON’T come equipped with such traits (I’m looking at you Cars).

What I left the movie with instead was an overwhelming sense of comfort that somewhere out there someone understood just how each one of us and all of our intricate emotional cogs work. Here’s where the spoilers come in, so I’ll just skip to the best part:  Inside Out was a fantastic film worth every penny. Take the family, whoever is your family, and see this movie this summer.

We start with Joy.  She’s the first emotion for Riley to have, which gave her the keys to the console, and the console is incredibly important to each and every person because it drives our whole air which we present ourselves.  So from the beginning of Riley, she’s driven by Joy.  Very soon after, Sadness appears, and obviously Sadness is important too, just no one can tell why. As Riley grows, they’re joined by Fear, Disgust, and Anger, helping to round out her individual emotional spectrum.

Joy & Rainbow Unicorn

Joy & Rainbow Unicorn

Riley is now 11 and she’s happy.  All of her core memories are fueled by happiness, her Personality Islands of Family, Friendship, Honesty, Hockey, and Goofball stand strong.  A proper story doesn’t move along without conflict, which is why everything and everyone is shaken by the big move from Minnesota to San Francisco.  The Emotions do their best to keep Joy at the helm, but the panic gets the best of Sadness and her well-intentioned attempts at helping end up skewing the core memories.

With the memories altered, Joy takes it upon herself to fix Riley.  She’s so focused to do so that she completely forgets the other emotions are just as invested in Riley as she is.  Sadness especially feels the need to help and with a very well done scuffle, her and Joy find themselves whisked away from headquarters to the long-term memory bank, core memories in hand.  That leaves Anger, Disgust, and Fear to run the console, making a very sensitive and irritable Riley.  She loses interest in hockey, she skips school, and eventually, those three emotions convince her run away, back to Minnesota.

Joy & Sadness

Joy & Sadness

All this time Riley is going through the most troubling period of her life (remember she’s only 11), Joy and Sadness are on their own odyssey back to headquarters.  The emotional turmoil is causing literal damage to Riley’s psyche, making navigation of the brain an even more daunting task.  Bing Bong, an imaginary friend that’s mostly cotton candy, teams up with them so that he can be remembered and the two can continue on their adventures together.

They make it through Abstract Thought where they almost get broken down into the most basic of concepts that almost destroyed them. They traverse Imagination Land and meet Riley’s new boyfriend, who’s from Canada.  Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong end up coming across Dream Productions, the Subconscious (it’s a prison for all the troublemakers), and the Memory Dump (the place where we forget).  Those emotions would have done anything to protect their Riley, and that was sure put to the test.

Bing Bong

Bing Bong

Inside Out is one of Pixar’s best, which is more than evident while watching the film.  Every casting choice was spot on.  Every scene was beautifully animated. Every moment was entertaining. But the moral focus found at the center of the film may just be the most important concept Pixar has conveyed yet: Sadness is special.  That’s a huge realization that we often don’t want to admit to ourselves, especially when we’re children.  Yet the truth remains that Sadness is necessary. Sadness makes us feel something at times when we would much rather feel nothing.   We are able to pull ourselves out of the darkest hours of our lives because of Sadness.  The other emotions inside us will do everything they can to fight it; they don’t want us sad either.  The fact that Pixar managed to grasp one of the most intense and complicated lies we as humans tell ourselves as well as unravel it before our eyes in only 102 minutes shows just how high the standard is for not only children’s films, but films altogether.

I’ve seen a lot of movies this summer, this year.  I’m going to see a ton more.  It’s what I do. This movie is by far the most important one out there now.  It’s these emotional affectations that keep Pixar at the top.  They refuse to ever dumb down a movie for children, knowing well enough that everyone, young and old, can relate to the tales they tell.  If their beautiful interpretation of the human mind doesn’t leave you cinematically fulfilled by the ending, I’m not entirely convinced that anything ever could.

 

Inside Out – Review

Jurassic World – Review

Overview:

Disregarding the events of The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, Jurassic World is a film that takes place over 20 years after the Jurassic Park incident. During this time period, InGen Corporation has regained control of the island and has now opened the park to the public. Despite the success of the park, InGen has tasked their geneticists with creating a bigger, scarier, “cooler” dinosaur called the Indominous Rex. It is believed that this dinosaur will increase park attendance and gain worldwide acclaim.

 

 

 

The Good:

Dr. Wu & Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park

  1. The previous sequels unfortunately relied on characters from the first film to sort of be a “root” for the film. What would happen instead is that that character, or characters, would overshadow the new characters and make the viewer not care about the new characters. In Jurassic World, there are no main characters from the original movie, save for the head geneticist who had only a minor role in Park. This allowed the plot and the new cast of characters to breathe and become their own.
  2. Since Park, every single film has featured animatronic dinosaurs in addition CGI ones. This has most certainly helped the actors give better performances, as well as made the films have a more realistic look. World is no exception, also using animatronics. That being said, CGI has come a long way in the past 20 years. The marriage of CGI and animatronics is nearly flawless, making this one of the best looking Jurassic Park films to date.Injured dinosaur in Jurassic World
  3. Michael Giacchino does a fine job with the musical score, not overly relying on the previous themes established by the legendary John Williams. The original themes are used sparingly and in a meaningful fashion. One particular music cue is used very well toward the beginning of the film.
  4. With a good look and a good sound, this film also proves to have a pretty good plot as well. Coming up with a new dinosaur might seem trite, but it is actually handled quite well and draws the viewers into the movie. In addition to the plot, the characters and their relationships with each other come across as fluid and realistic. You actually care when you see them being chased down by dinosaurs, which is a testament to creating likable characters.Owen and his Raptor gang.
  5. As demonstrated in Guardians of the Galaxy, Chris Pratt proves that he is a fine fit for action flicks. Pratt plays Owen, a raptor trainer who imprints on the raptors when they are born and serves as the “alpha” raptor. This relationship with the raptors (named Blue, Echo, Delta, and Charlie) is both intriguing and fun, as each raptor seems to have a personality of its own like a dog or a cat.

The Bad:

Jurassic World actually has a couple of plot holes that are fairly minor. In one instance, an InGen head honcho executes a plan that he most likely knew would fail. Then again, corporate executives are rarely portrayed as being very bright. So it is possible that the film was merely reflecting that aspect. In another instance, the two boys’ parents are undergoing a divorce. The film emphasizes the divorce throughout. However, it never really resolves, though it did serve as a decent way for developing the relationship between the two brothers.

Zach and his little brother Gray in Jurassic World.

Conclusion:

It seems the years have been kind in allowing the Jurassic Park franchise to simmer. World has pretty good plot with a good cast. There is plenty of humor, which is surprisingly not too reliant on Chris Pratt. All in all, Jurassic World serves as an entertaining and fun summer blockbuster.

Jurassic World – Review