Tag Archives: review

Review: Allies

Allies
Allies by Christie Golden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, I have a confession: series books {a.k.a. a book like Star Wars Fate of the Jedi: Allies by Christie Golden} are my guilty pleasure. I don’t read as many as I used to and I don’t read as many series as I used to, but my love of “Star Wars” knows no bounds and so therefore, I gobble up any and everything related to that long ago and far away galaxy.

It’s been a while since a “Star Wars” EU series has captured my attention like Fate of the Jedi. I’ll admit that I missed some of the Yuzhan Vong hoopla (I have always believed that aliens belong in the Star Trek ‘verse, not SW), but when I found out that the end of the series featured a showdown between Solo twins, Jacen and Jaina, I quickly got up to speed. Because not only am I sucker for Star Wars, but I am a huge sap for Han and Leia’s kids, and Luke & Mara’s son, Ben. Which is probably another reason why I am so digging FOTJ.

The premise of the series is interesting and different from other EU works. Instead of being worshipped like a demigod by the powers in charge, Luke Skywalker has been banished, cut off from the Jedi Temple and the universe at large by dictator–er, leader–of the Galatica Alliance, Admiral Natasi Daala. (Yeah, she’s a chick and she’s ex-Imperial. This ain’t your mama’s Star Wars.)

The series begins with Luke and Ben leaving Coruscant, deciding to travel the galaxy together, while being forced to leave behind their family, including Leia, Han, Jaina, and Jacen’s illegitimate daughter, Amelia. (Babies out of wedlock? What would George say?) But, I digress, for many of these events happened during the whole Yuzhan Vong series.

Let me get back to Star Wars: FOTJ Allies. This book finds Ben and Luke in the soup, forced to ally with Sith (Yeah, those Sith.) and find and destroy an ancient creature that someway, somehow is causing Jedi the galaxy over to go crazy. Not a little bit crazy either, but batshit, I-think-the-moon-just-winked-at-me crazy. Meanwhile, Daala is warring with the Jedi in a pissing contest for control that would make Palpatine proud. This of course means, Han and Leia are alternately Prime Suspects No. 1 and 2 for anything that appears to go against the GA, appears to aid the Jedi or might involve Luke getting illicit help from his former students.

But where FOTJ and Allies in particular really shine, is in the illustration of the relationships. Gone are the semi-uncomfortable realization that you once kissed your sister, replaced with complex emotions. These characters grieve and struggle to find meaning in a galaxy that constantly disappoints and amazes them, just as we all do. While Han and Leia deal every day with the fact that both of their sons met early deaths, Jaina must also deal with being the last surviving Solo offspring, the Sword of the Jedi, and oh yeah, the fiancee of the GA’s top military leader. She must also contend with the fact that her Jedi ways and her boyfriend’s ex-Imperial leanings don’t always mesh and may end up costing her love in the name of family loyalty.

And then there’s Luke. Another confession for you: He’s my favorite original Star Wars character. I love Han and I love Han-and-Leia, but I have always had a special place in my heart for Luke, an orphaned farm boy on a distant planet dreaming of something more. And for the most part I have been quite pleased with how the EU has treated young Skywalker, especially Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series, which is still the shining achievement in established trilogy EU (in my opinion).

And I loved Luke and Mara Jade together. I loved it when they had a son and I loved it when they named him Ben. I thought it was even more interesting when this son, while he was just a toddler, but already strong in the Force, eschewed his father’s and his family’s legacy, afraid of what wielding such power might mean. What an interesting place to put our hero, looking at his own child who wants nothing to do with the family business.

Luckily, Ben came around and he is now quite the Force user. But along the way, he lost his mother and Luke lost a wife. And this is something that Allies brings to the fore so very well. In a twist I won’t reveal, Mara comes back to help both her boys and it’s Luke reaction to seeing her again that resonated deeply with this particular reader. The knowledge that Mara is gone, but can never really be dead (because she is now one with the Force) is at once the greatest gift and the harshest cruelty.

Perhaps the best part is that Allies set up a hell of an ending that has left me eager to get my hands on the next book in the series, Vortex. I’ve had some luck recently reading series of books that have made me anxious to read the next and that is such a gift as a reader, and so enviable as a writer. I for one am immensely glad that the Star Wars EU is still alive and well. And that all of our intrepid heroes still are too.

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

Filed under Reading, Uncategorized

REVIEW: Iron Man 2 Reminds Us Superheroes are Fun, Not Perfect

SPOILERS INCLUDED – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

*** *** ***

Let’s be clear: Iron Man 2 is not going to change the way movies are made or force anyone to wax philosophical or prompt tweets about how much better living in Pandora would be, as another highly-anticipated and over-hyped sci-fi movie did this past winter. However, it may ease a few fears in Hollywood about the sophomore sequel slump and should solidify Iron Man as one of movie-dom’s most bankable franchises, revving up the anticipation for Thor, Captain America and the mother of all exercises in ego management, The Avengers.

Why? Because it’s good. It’s a superhero sequel that actually manages to be entertaining, advancing the story of the protagonist by introducing new characters and a credible villain. It also continues to debunk the myth that superheroes must be virtuous, retiring, and hidden from the public eye.

Watching Iron Man 2 on opening weekend, I was struck, maybe for the first time, at the differences between Tony Stark/Iron Man and his Marvel brethren (and not-so-distant DC Comics cousins). Based on comic mythology, Tony Stark should be Iron Man’s villain—he’s narcissistic, attention-seeking, insubordinate and quite honestly, ethically challenged. He’s also intensely witty, which is a far more common characteristic of antagonists than protagonists. True, his origin story is full of similarities to Spider-Man, Batman and the rest: tragic accident deeply affects and/or physically changes the character, forcing him to further examine life and his place in it, making him realize he is meant for greater things and should therefore don some type of costume, invent some unreal gadgets and fight bad guys under cover of darkness while maintaining an eccentric and aloof public persona.

This latter distinction is where Iron Man deviates the most from his counterparts. At the end of Iron Man (and retold cleverly as voiceover in the beginning of the sequel), Tony Stark reveals to the world that he is Iron Man, and as Iron Man 2 opens, it’s obvious he’ll make no apologies for his role in the current state of world peace; in fact, he might just make a spectacle of it. (Well, we know he will, because this is Hollywood and it’s Tony Stark).

It’s impossible, of course, to have a discussion about Tony Stark without mentioning his portrayer, Robert Downey, Jr. A clear definition between the two is oftentimes hard to spot: they both have well-documented histories of bad boy behavior and run-ins with the law (for Tony, substitute military for law), as well as a long list of accolades for their work. And Tony’s snark wouldn’t be half as endearing if anyone else was delivering those lines, I’m convinced of that. In Iron Man 2, Downey, Jr. stresses Tony’s egotistical and sardonic nature (sometimes, to excess) and continues to make no excuses for his less-than-defendable behavior.

In fact, it’s his grandstanding that draws the attention of the piece’s villain, Ivan Vanko, a menacing Russian played with menacing aplomb by Mickey Rourke. Rourke, taking the role fresh off his Oscar-winning performance two years ago in The Wrestler, manages to do what few other character actors have done before—adopt a Russian accent that doesn’t make us groan or giggle. Side note: isn’t it interesting that even 20+ years since the end of the Cold War, Russians are still Hollywood’s go-to bad guy?

Ivan’s backstory is a little fuzzy. Told through a short scene between Ivan and his dying father as well as some well-placed, yellowing newspaper articles papering the man’s apartment, I’m not sure I would have followed his motivation (or believed it) if I hadn’t read about it before sitting down in the theater. About two-thirds through the movie, more of Vanko’s history is revealed to Tony, filling out the story, however, it felt too late to make the necessary impact. But this ill-timed exposition doesn’t detract from Rourke’s performance or the very awe inspiring site of his character wearing electric whips that cut through cars like butter.

However, Ivan’s lack of planning brings about the wrong kind of attention, landing him in a French prison. Enter his sponsor, another Stark hater who has already made it pretty plain that he feels entitled to everything Tony has and is capable of throwing very petty and technology-fueled temper tantrums. Justin Hammer, head of a rival weapons company believes Vanko has the tech to not only wrest Tony’s U.S. Department of Defense contract away from him, but destroy the smug superhero, too. Played perfectly by Sam Rockwell, Hammer is the guy you want to feel sorry for, but just can’t, because, unlike Tony, his snark is not charming, it’s slimy. Rockwell has made a successful career playing smarmy guys who make you feel like you need a shower, and he doesn’t disappoint here. While incredibly smart, it’s clear from the start that Hammer cannot be allowed to win—and secretly, you want Iron Man to rough him up, just to knock that smirk off his face.

Tony has allies too, most notably, his long-suffering assistant and sometimes Girl Friday, Pepper Potts, and Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who must appease his military commanders while managing Tony’s giant ego and maintaining access to the tech. The replacement of Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle in the role caused a stir when it happened approximately eighteen months ago, but in practice, nothing really changed. Cheadle and Howard obviously bring something different to the screen and the role, but I didn’t feel anything was “missing” with Howard’s absence. Cheadle even managed to better convey Rhodey’s conflicted conscious, although some of his actions in the movie seemed supremely out of character. (I’m still not sure why Rhodey thought the only way to talk Tony off the ledge during his girls-gone-wild-birthday-party was to don another suit and fight him for it. Given Rhodey’s respect for the tech, it seemed inappropriate.)

However, it was fun to watch Iron Man and War Machine take down Vanko in the film’s climactic battle sequence. Especially when the director allows us to see their faces and expressions through “in-suit” close-ups. Both Downey, Jr. and Cheadle have green screen acting down to a science.

And then there are the girls: Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Natasha Romanov aka Natalie Rushman, played by Scarlett Johansson. One day, I will ask Stan Lee about the redhead in his life who inspired all of these female characters, but I digress. Back for her second shot at Potts, Paltrow’s quiet exasperation and dwindling patience for Tony’s behavior continues to win us over, as does her evolution in the sequel to CEO of Stark Industries. Pepper’s talent for damage control cannot be overlooked as she deftly attempts to take over the company while keeping Tony on some kind of leash.

Johansson’s role seemed more of a set-up for a possible part of The Avengers movie rather than integral to this story. Yes, it’s nice to watch Tony drool on his shoes and even better to watch Johansson take down a hallway full of men in a skintight cat suit, but I’m not convinced she needed to be there, although the men in the audience would probably disagree. What I actually enjoyed most about her role was her interactions with returning S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, played by the ultimate badass Samuel L. Jackson. In fact, Fury’s beefed up presence in this film was a welcome addition, providing us with not only insight into his agenda, but also a hint at what the S.H.I.E.L.D.’s true purpose may be. (As a peripheral comic book reader, I know a little, but not a lot, so this added exposition is welcome to me.)

Also, only RDJ can go head-to-head with Jackson and appear completely unaffected by the latter’s intimidating presence. Their scene toward the end of the movie is probably one of the best.

I have to give a shout out to John Slattery as well. The man who plays boozy ennui so well on “Mad Men” turns in a great, nuanced performance as Howard Stark, Tony’s aloof, dead father. Shown only through clips of video recorded in the 1960s, Tony and the audience are given insight into the man who built the empire Tony reluctantly inherited. His messages “from beyond the grave” were a great way to introduce needed backstory while also honoring another man who built an empire in the 1960s, Walt Disney. The tone, look and content of the videos was far too similar to be a coincidence. (Maybe an early tribute to Marvel’s new owner?)

Jon Favreau, the film’s director and Tony’s upstanding driver/bodyguard, still brings his “everyman” funny to the part, while keeping all the film’s intricate pieces moving. Garry Shandling’s turn as a pompous U.S. senator was also notable, although I’m pretty Shandling long ago established his dominance at playing pompous.

The true beauty of Iron Man 2 however, is that it’s fun. While other superhero movies have gotten darker—I’m lookin’ at you The Dark Night—Iron Man has managed to stay light-hearted and still tell a convincing, engaging story that you’re invested in. There’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night is a remarkable film or that Heath Ledger’s performance was inspired. However, I can tell you for certain, I’ll never watch it again, once in the theater was plenty. But Iron Man, and Iron Man 2, will become go-to “fun” movies for me, similar to Indiana Jones, Spider-Man and its sequel (but not three, I do have some taste), Star Trek (old and new) and of course, the mother of all sci-fi movies, (and my personal favorite), the original Star Wars trilogy.

For me, that’s the testament of a great movie—a desire to watch it over and over again, to spend a protracted time with those characters and their story and to find that no matter how snarky they are, you actually care.

Leave a comment

Filed under General Post

Book Review – Catching Fire, Book 2 of “The Hunger Games”

I just finished reading this book and wrote a quick review on GoodReads (which is an awesome site and everyone should join). I hope you’ll enjoy reading it and you should totally pick up both “The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins.

My Review of “Catching Fire” on GoodReads.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Reading