Sunday, May 10, 2015

Film Review: Avengers–Age of Ultron

Avengers_-_Age_of_Utron_PosterI wanted to come up with a witty opening for this, but Avengers: Age of Ultron may have stolen all of the witty one-liners. In the universe as directed by Joss Whedon, quipping is a superpower, and there is enough raw power in Ultron to make Thor look like just one of the guys. Even the Big Bad gets in on it, which is normally not something you expect a robot bent on destroying the world to do. Unless they're cyborgs written by Russell T. Davies.

The comedy is the biggest difference between The Avengers and Age of Ultron. Where in the first movie, we got clips of Stark and Rogers – or the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers – bickering, in this movie we get the team working together and doing their best to out-quip one another. Both are fairly common in Marvel comics, so no complaints there. Less common but not by any means unheard of, is the villain joining in. Ultron's not trying to convince Cap to understand his side, or to intimidate him – he's just giving him a hard time.

Unfortunately, this robs Ultron of some of his threat. While most homicidal AIs are cold and calculating, Ultron is jokey, quick to anger and immature. He dismemebers a potential ally simply for mentioning Stark's name – then apologizes for it. In the end, the virtually indestructible, superintelligent death machine is reduced to stealing a jet and firing futilely on Avengers that are mostly bulletproof, and only manages to kill one because it's too much of a hassle to argue with Fox every time a new movie comes out.

More threat is provided by the Maximoff siblings, Wanda and Pietro. Quicksilver comes out quipping straight off the bat, taunting the Avengers for not being able to keep up with him, taken out of the fight only by Chekov's...hammer...introduced in a comedic scene earlier. Wanda is even more deadly, taking out most of the team single-handedly and sending the Hulk on a rampage, which takes both him and Iron Man – in his Hulkbuster armor – out of the fight. This is before she brings in her physical powers – a combination of telekinesis and force blasts which make her even more effective in combat against Ultron's underlings than Thor or Iron Man.

There has apparently been mixed information as to whether actress Scarlett Johansen's pregnancy limited her scenes, but Black Widow has much less of an action role in this film, instead continuing the process of self-discovery and opening up as she did in Avengers and Winter Soldier. This, coupled with the fact that psychological mastery is useless against insane robots and neural manipulators (can I just call her a Sith sorceress?) and for some reason not attempted against the impatient young man means that her role is reduced to Natasha Romanov trying to seduce Bruce Banner by being earnest, a few short motorcycle scenes, and the Widow disappearing from the plot for a while and reappearing in a cage. If there weren't cuts due to the pregnancy (as Whedon claimed during production) this is even more awkward than it already is. Even the characters were confused.

The biggest weakness of Ave of Ultron was the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A less successful series would have gone into this movie focusing on the new characters, going into the Maximoff twins, their descent to darkness and their redemption, giving the film a cohesive story rather than spending so much time with the returning characters that the man fans know as a bitter young man struggling with the legacy of his absent father and wholely devoted to defending his sister became reduced to a string of one-liners and motion blur. The first half of the film feels like Joss Whedon squeezing every joke he can with the Avengers cast into as short a time as possible before he doesn't get another chance – a series of hilarious moments that another director would have left in the “deleted scenes” directory. This tone is what ultimately makes the Romanov plot fall so flat: it is completely out of tone with anything else in the movie, and falls to ride the highs and lows of comedy and drama.

The end result is that Age of Ultron feels less like a movie and more like someone trying to fit a 20 episode season of television into two and a half hours. It's packed with brilliant moments, but these moments are leaves in the wind of a hurricane that is equally concerned with honoring its past and setting up for its future as it is with telling a story.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: The Daleks

In our 101st episode, the AUP crew begins the Dalek invasion of the podcast with Terry Nation's "The Daleks". Instant classic, or does it need to be exterminated?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Novel Review: Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith

Lords of the SithFresh off the release, take a look at my spoiler-free review of the latest Star Wars novel!

It wasn't hard to market Lords of the Sith. Give it a title like that, give it a cover with Darths Vader and Sidious working together, and just to top it off, set it between The Clone Wars and Rebels and give it a protagonist that ties into both. There's no reason for this book not to sell, regardless of its quality.

And there was reason to be concerned for the quality. It wasn't too long ago that Lords of the Sith author Paul S. Kemp brought himself under the very uncomfortable scrutiny of the blogosphere with an article about the virtue of hypermasculinity of the sort that had many of us expecting his next Star Wars publication to be a “hero tries to keep the damsel out of the refrigerator” story of the sort that Star Wars stopped being the moment when Leia shot open a garbage chute.

Thankfully, Lords of the Sith is not that story. At least, it avoids being that story as much as a “boys' club” novel with a cover featuring two men whose interpersonal skills are known to consist entirely of “do as I say or die” can be. Nobody expected a groundbreaking work of emotional depth here, but this story holds the line. For one thing (though I wasn't going to begrudge it if it couldn't, considering the premise), Lords passes the Bechdel test, if only barely. For another thing, this is a groundbreaking work in that it features the first definitely LGBT individual of the new canon. Considering that the Legends universe gave us one gay couple, one lesbian (or bi woman; there is shockingly little on Juhani that I can find without simply Knights of the Old Republic in as many ways as possible before finally reviewing it) and a few questionable but unstated individuals in 35 years, this is an accomplishment. There is some damseling, but the fact that it is resolved by a troubled woman suffering from mental illness goes a long way toward showing that either Kemp thought better of his attitude, or his editors put a few words in on behalf of the 21st century. Whatever the case, I applaud the diversity in this novel – again, under the constraints of what it is.

Let's take a look at the main feature, then. I did find myself a bit disappointed with the scene on the cover once I got to it in the novel. From the blurb and the cover, I expected a lot more Sidious action than we got here. In Darth Plagueis, James Luceno set the gold standard for what an action scene including Darth Sidious consists of, and Lords of the Sith did not hit that mark. Part, but not all, of that is because of the emphasis that is placed on Darth Vader. Another one of my hopes going into this novel was that it would be the first entry of the new canon to establish Darth Vader as being as much of a badass as he was in Legends entries such as The Force Unleashed. Lords does this in several ways, starting with giving us a look at Vader we've never gotten before: through the eyes of someone who has never seen him and has no idea what he can do yet has earned his full attention.

I heavily enjoyed Lords of the Sith. The novel included plenty of glorious moments, giving us Darth Vader in his true prime. Despite the minor disappointment of less Sidious action then I expected, it was a joy to see Palpatine working alongside Vader for once, and the supporting cast on Ryloth definitely earned my attention due to the diversity of the cast. Lords of the Sith gets my approval, but if you need more details, keep an eye out for this review to continue in the next few days on my personal blog, Insomniatic!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review: Ultimate Star Wars

Ultimate_Star_WarsThis is the first of a series of articles stemming from Star Wars Celebration Anaheim. It's taken me a week to get caught back up to the real world, but you won't have to wait for me to read the pre-releases I picked up at Celebration (that were released today). So let's kick off with the big one: Ultimate Star Wars, by Patricia Barr, Adam Bray, Daniel Wallace and Ryder Windham.

Ultimate Star Wars is sold as the current canon of the new Star Wars. Everything Legends is trimmed out, with the remaining information split between The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, The Clone Wars, Revenge of the Sith, Rebels, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi – and thankfully, a few more.

I normally don't buy the DK reference guides, for a number of reasons. The format is a bit haphazard for me (I much prefer the format of the Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia) and I find the tone of the Essential Guide series more to my liking. Generally, I find the LucasBooks releases to be generally more complete while the DK books seem to be more accessible to casual fans. This alone would not prevent me from buying them, but the fact that they tend to be fairly large and expensive and the fact that I have a limited budget often causes me to lean toward new fiction releases (or Essential Guides with new ficiontal elements). In this case, though, I felt compelled to buy the same book that Leland Chee was using as a reference when answering questions at a panel during an era when there is not yet sufficient material to be other than a casual fan.

Let's start with the information, then. I mentioned that there are more sources than simply the six theatrical episodes and the TV shows, and that was mostly true. Considering that there were two published novels in the new canon as of January and that there are four new, that doesn't leave a lot of room for the information contained in them, or in any of the 2014 comic story arcs. Couple that with the fact that books like this take a lot of work and need the manuscript to be submitted well in advance of the publication date, and one gets the impression that the details of Kanan's origin included from A New Dawn probably came from an email from Dave Filoni rather than from actually having the chance to read the novel. It's notable that a number of previously established Legends characters that were referenced in James Luceno's 2014 novel Tarkin (such as Armande Isard, a character whose details include far-ranging implications for fans of many Legends characters) are not referenced here.

When it comes to television, information is a bit more inclusive. Not only does The Clone Wars share equal spotlight with each of the theatrical episodes, but I found information in this book that did not seem to appear in any of the episodes currently available on DVD, meaning that the information included in the Clone Wars Legacy storyboards that were never completely animated (which we have been told was to be considered canon, unlike deleted Return of the Jedi scenes) made their way into this book. Rebels, with only one season rather than six, does not have the same amount of space, but there is a fair amount of material dedicated to the crew of the Ghost. It is worth noting that the events of the Season 1 finale are not included, meaning that this reference book is safe for those looking to avoid major spoilers to read.

Regarding the theatrical episodes – particularly the Original Trilogy – there is a whole other question. In fact, this one was brought up at the panel regarding the new direction of Star Wars. There are many characters that were never named in the Original Trilogy, characters that were named after their costumes in ways that a modern audience would identify as a racial slur (Walrus Man, Hammerhead, and others). Because these names did not appear in canon material, there was the question as to whether they were still canon. Uitimate Star Wars confirms that with a few exceptions (Tycho Celchu was named in an X-Wing novel rather than in reference material) most of these names have remained intact. Some information, however – such as highly disputed Death Star and Super Star Destroyer dimensions – has been expunged from the record, waiting for new information to fill the hole.

Despite this wealth of information, this book is clearly intended to be a brief introduction to these facts, rather than a new encyclopedia. Entire story arcs of The Clone Wars are often reduced to a blip on a timeline, whereas smaller details are sometimes cut altogether. This makes room for more focused guides down the line.

Visually, the book is all it can be. Like other DK reference books I've experienced, it forgoes some of the background art that readers of the later-generation Essential Guides, but includes no less artwork as a result. Every entry – whether a two-page spread or a corner paragraph – has a visual if a canon one exists. Of course, larger entries have more visuals (Yoda's article, for instance, features eight images from his scattered appearances), making this book as jam-packed with things to look at as it is things to read. Each section starts with a visual timeline featuring major events relevant to the topic.

Where I feel the book starts to fail is in the “Event” entries. Rather than having their own sections such as Characters and Creatures, Locations, Technology, and Vehciles, events are scattered among the book. In some cases, these are tied in some way to the nearby topics (for instance, Chancellor Valorum's vote of No Confidence is located in between entries of characters that feature heavily into The Phantom Menace) whereas in some situations they just seem to be entered haphazardly (such as Vader's revelation of Luke's paternity being well apart from either Skywalker's entry, in between articles about Rebels and the introduction of Lando Calrissian). As somebody who is familiar with all of these events, I mainly just treated them the same way I would an ad on Hulu: took a sip of my drink and skipped to the next entry of what I was actually reading.

Ultimate Star Wars is a great coffee table book. It's not as fun to read or as chock-full of new information as the Essential Guide series, but equally, it manages to avoid obscuring between reference and new stories. My friends and I spent our time in lines pouring over this book to find out who was still canon, what we do and don't know about them, and while there was a cry of disappointment at the lack of a “Celchu, Tycho” entry, the blame for that does not lie at the hands of those who wrote the book (though I tend to hope at least one of the authors asked the story group about that one). I tend to wish that Ultimate Star Wars was a little more, well, ultimate, even if that added an extra $20 to its price, but it's a good book for $40 and one that I don't regret picking up.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trailer Update

I normally don’t make posts like this personally – this is more SQT’s area of interest. However, I spent the latter half of my week in Anaheim watching trailer after trailer, so here we go.

To start with, in honor of Celebration Anaheim, 3 Star Wars-related trailers. In order of release:

Star Wars Rebels Season 2

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars Anthology (Spinoff) #1: Rogue One (sorry for the relatively low quality!)

Now that we’ve gotten Star Wars out of the way, how about some other long-awaited movies:

Fantastic Four

Jurassic World

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Teaser 1

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Teaser 2

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Television Shows Watched: March 23 to March 29

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Had I realized that I wasn't missing anything, watched all of the episodes on time, and there were only three episodes, I probably would have posted this...in the first week of April, at least. So here's my TV shows followed from March 23 to March 29.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Love in the Time of Hydra is, interestingly enough, named for two former Hydra agents. Still, Ward's plot is the main one of this episode, so that's fitting, even if the cliffhanger from the end of the previous episode is the plot that this episode will be remembered for. I'm a little surprised it wasn't given more focus, honestly, but I suppose they knew they needed a setup episode before getting this plot involved with the main cast. This is an okay episode, but I'm kind of tired of following Ward as the morally grey character and would love to just see him get punched out.

The Flash: Rogue Time infuriated me. This is one of the cheapest tricks in television – to introduce momentous changes to the story for shock value and then erase them to avoid having to advance the story. The end of the love rectangle – and of the sneaking around Iris - was as much a part of why I loved “Out of Time” as the introduction of Thawne's real name and seeing it all taken back was just infuriating.

Arrow: Suicidal Tendencies is a Deadshot background story, which tells me that the ending is false. Deadshot is almost certainly going to show up in a later episode, probably the next Diggle-focused one. Beyond that, this isn't bad. Roy and Ollie are working together, which is one more step toward the televised Justice League that I expect to see soon (particularly with the title of an upcoming Flash episode).

Not a whole lot to say on this week's episode, but there's going to be a whole lot more to say with the post for next week!

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: Episode 100

 

In our 100th episode, Flynn and Fyrehart join Mad Matt, Ran-San and the Man in Black to discuss Series 7A now that we're older, wiser, and know what the hell we're doing!

Monday, April 06, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: The Best of Both Worlds (April Fool’s Special)

In our 99th episode, Probably the most unusual episode of Doctor Who. But it still has Cybermen!

Happy April Fool's Day 2015!

Sunday, April 05, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: Closing Time

 

In our 98th episode, It's "Closing Time", but The Doctor and the AUP crew are still for a Series 6 episode. Join us as we walk through one of our last modern Cybermen episodes!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Television Shows: March 16 to March 22

NoSpoilersIt's time for another round of TV commentaries! We've got a full board this week; at least as full as it will be for the foreseeable future.  

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: One of Us focused mainly on Skye's father, whom I had actually forgotten about in the months since he last appeared on the show. That, and examining Skye after it was finally revealed in the previous episode what was going on with her. Here, we have a group of supervillains up against S.H.I.E.L.D., which may bode well for the future. On a personal level, I did find this to be a fun episode, as the villains built up their team and we learned more about May's past.

The Flash: Out of Time is just what a show needs after coming back after a break. Sisko discovers who Wells really is, and gets the reward of his real name (thereby saving us from the risk of an unnecessary retcon). Barry and Iris's relationship changes – implicitly changing the other relationships, unless this turns out to be a Xanlow. Honestly, while I applaud their finally getting together, the constant dating drama that the Arrow/Flash team thinks is necessary to maintaining viewers is probably the most frustrating part of the shows. We know that Black Canary and Green Arrow have dated for decades, we know that Iris was always with Barry, please let's just move past that to something interesting, okay? Not that a little bit of it is a cardinal sin, but they are severely overdoing it with both shows. Oh, and Iris knows who Barry is, which is also cool. I'm sure this will cause drama at work, so maybe the relationship drama can...who am I kidding?

Arrow: The Offer has convinced me that Oliver Queen chose Intelligence as his dump stat. It would have taken two minutes to explain why he didn't tell Laurel's father about Sarah, and he's considering turning his back on all of his own arguments because a girl that he broke up with is dating someone else. Admittedly, taking someone who is both gorgeous and brilliant off the market is a blow to everyone in that universe who dates women (and no, it would not surprise me in the slightest to find Nyssa and Felicity boinking in a season or so), but Oliver's decisions in this season have had me starting to wonder if every success he's ever had was the result of dumb luck. Oliver Queen was never known for his smarts, but at least he used to be charming and have a best friend who was Green Lantern; this version has neither of those virtues.

Power Rangers Dino Charge: Let Sleeping Zords Lie. After all the KyoryuCyan memes lately, I’m going to have trouble getting used to “Aquamarine”. I can understand why they did it, but that doesn’t mean that assuming kids these days are too stupid to figure out what Cyan is is the right call. Interesting how successful the bad guys are at finding Energems. I sure hope there’s not a Navy (or will they call it “Dark Blue”) one out there that they might find before the Rangers.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Casey Jones vs the Underworld was an episode I actually expected to be Casey-focused. Well, it was to the extent that any other episode has been, but not entirely. It's a story about Casey going off half-cocked and surviving as a combination of dumb luck and having friends. It works as a story about how even a lone wolf benefits from having friends to fall back on, but the start of the episode (focusing on how he was left out of the Battle of New York) plus him being the butt of the turtles jokes (Leonardo is the first to laugh when he point out that while he succeeded in stopping a crime, no, he didn't beat the Purple Dragons, and the rest of the turtles follow suit) does a better job of making it seem as if Casey is completely inept and wears that mask because he should be wearing a helmet. I've never been a huge fan of Casey in this series (I'm an Apritello fan), and even I feel this one was a little harsh towards him.