Friday, July 31, 2015

James Review -- Star Wars: Darksaber

This week I decided to review Star Wars: Darksaber by Kevin J. Anderson. 

The story opens with Luke and Han on Tatooine. Luke has used his Force abilities to allow them to infiltrate a Tusken group travelling towards Jabba’s palace. After learning a little about Tusken culture, it is revealed that some of Han’s old smuggling buddies have passed along rumors that there are Hutts poking around Jabba’s palace, which had been part of a monastery originally, and had been reclaimed by the monks by force after Jabba died. Most of the monks have their brains removed and put into life-support jars with droid bodies at the height of their knowledge to free themselves of concerns of the flesh. 

Inside they meet a monk who was an enemy of Jabba’s and forced to undergo the brain transplant early. The monk explains that Jabba somehow had access to the most highly secret sections of the Empire’s archives and the other Hutts are seeking his means of access for some unknown purpose. 

The scene then shifts to the Hoth asteroid field where Durga the Hutt is overseeing mining efforts to gather resources for some new weapon designed by Bevel Lemeiisk, the chief designer of the Death Stars. After a comedy of errors, where the two largest mining machines the Hutts have, rip each other apart after seeing each other as pure metal to be processed, things shift to Coruscant where Han and Leia are preparing for a diplomatic reception for Durga. Durga brings along an entourage including a number of small hairy beings known as the Taurill. Durga claims that these four-armed and two- legged beings are pets, but soon an incident occurs and one Taurill dies leading to the others panicking. 

However, the Taurill are a hive mind and the distraction caused by the panic allows a small team to claim Durga’s true goal: namely a copy of the blueprints for the Death Star. The story then jumps briefly to Yavin IV where the first graduation ceremony of students from Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy is taking place. 

Then we shift to the Deep Core where Admiral Daala is struggling to unite the Imperial warlords against the New Republic. But while she is meeting with the self-declared Supreme Warlord Harrsk on his base, High Admiral Teradoc, a rival warlord, launches an attack which destroys Harrsk’s flagship and kills Daala’s second-in-command who was a guest on board. Daala agrees to lead a counterattack, but betrays Harrsk mid-battle while calling for the fleets to cease fighting each other. 

This gains her the loyalty of Vice-Admiral Palleon, who is field commander of Teradoc’s fleet. After a peace conference between the many of the warlords goes badly, Daala kills them and seizes their forces for herself, including the stealth armored Executor-class Star Destroyer Night Hammer, soon renamed Knight Hammer. Meanwhile, Han and Leia use a diplomatic mission to the Hutt capital as a cover to try to discover Durga’s plans with a New Republic fleet conducting war games and training exercises nearby as protection. Durga is thus called away from overseeing the construction of the Darksaber, basically a Superlaser with engines which looks like a giant lightsaber. 

Meanwhile, Daala is planning to send a fleet to attack unguarded sections of New Republic space while she and Palleon lead a fleet, including the newly renamed super star destroyer to attack the Jedi Academy. However a recon team is closing in on Darksaber, while a pair of the new Jedi discover Daala’s plans. But with Daala’s diversionary force wreaking havoc, and time running out, can the New Republic rally the forces need to both defend the Jedi Academy and stop the Darksaber before it comes online?
I give this book a 1.5 out of 10. Really the only thing saving it from a 1 out of 10 is my enjoyment of the war game scene near Nul Hutta. The Hutt plotline seems like it is primarily a very bad comedy other than one scene where a minor character from the movies, and high ranking New Republic officer, dies. And for some reason, the Hutt story will sometimes shift to flashbacks of the punishments Lemeiisk suffered when Emperor Palpatine felt that he had failed, flashbacks which have only the loosest connection to the main story due to a couple of lines near the end which could have been removed or used without the flashbacks at no cost. 

Daala’s ability to beat the New Republic in a tactical battle is about the same as it was in the earlier Jedi Academy trilogy, and I can’t decide if this is incompetence or sexism on the author’s part. And while I understand that in a franchise as big as Star Wars, sometimes authors will make mistakes and write things which clash with other works in the setting, in one scene Anderson not only writes something which contradicts books published before Darksaber he somehow manages to write a line which contradicts something said in Return of the Jedi by claiming that before Night Hammer was built the Executor was one of a kind. He then follows this with an utterly absurd claim that building Executor almost bankrupted the Empire. Are we supposed to believe a 8 kilometer to 19 kilometer long--the official length has changed a few times depending on the source--star destroyer almost bankrupted the Empire but the pair of Death Stars, each around 150 kilometers in diameter, didn’t? And how did the editor miss these screw-ups? In short, unless you feel the need to read every Star Wars novel I strongly recommend readers stay far, far away from Darksaber.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Movie Review -- Pixels

Today we have the new movie Pixels, starring Adam Sandler and directed by Chris Columbus. Columbus previously brought us Home Alone and a few of the Harry Potter films, so expectations are somewhat high going into this.

The story starts off in 1982, when four boys compete in the World Videogame Championship. After a fierce battle, the winner is decided. We then flash forward to the present day. Technician Sam Brenner (Sandler), who came in 2nd in the competition, now installs TVs and other devices for a living. His best friend Cooper (Kevin James) actually became President of the United States (though he has an abysmal approval rating).

One day, Brenner is doing an install for Lt. Col. Violet Van Patton (Michelle Monaghan) when they both get a call from Cooper summoning them to the White House. Upon arriving, they are informed that an unknown force has wiped out an American military base in Guam. Brenner quickly identifies the culprit as the old arcade game Galaga, though this is difficult for Cooper's cabinet to accept. Nevertheless, it is confirmed by another competitor in the 1982 championship, conspiracy theorist Ludlow (Josh Gad).

The world soon receives a message from inhabitants of another planet who received old videogame footage from the championship via a space probe launched in the 80s. They misunderstand the video as a declaration of war, and they accept. The declare a best of five series of battles, with the winning side taking the loser's planet, The first battle was when they wiped out the Guam base, so the humans are already down by one. With the fate of the planet on the line, mankind turns to the videogame experts for help, but even they are going to need backup, so they recruit the guy who actually won the championship, the felonious Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage). But with a checkered past, can he be trusted to help save the world?

Pixels is a fun-filled romp through 1980s American pop culture. As someone who grew up with games such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong, it was quite enjoyable to see them get the big-screen treatment they deserve. And it's great to see all the videogame characters they managed to include; not to spoil anything, but even a certain snickering dog makes an appearance. I also found the film to be funny, though not all of the jokes land.

I also want to take this time to sing the praises of Peter Dinklage. From Game of Thrones to X-Men: Days of Future Past to Pixels, this little guy continues to impress me. He can go from being dead serious to a comic lowlife (as Eddie Plant), and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

However, as its IMDB page currently shows, Pixels isn't for everyone. It currently has a metascore of 27 and a 5,1 from 3,451 IMDB users. There weren't that many people in the theater, either. I think this is going to be a movie that people will be divided on.

But I thoroughly enjoyed Pixels, and hopefully you will as well.

Friday, July 24, 2015

James Review -- Vicky Peterwald: Survivor

This week I decided to review Vicky Peterwald: Survivor by Mike Shepherd. When the story begins, Vicky and Gerrit Schlieffen, her naval bodyguard, are flying towards the planet Saint Petersburg in an antiquated shuttle hoping to meet the mayor of the planet’s capital. Meanwhile, the planet’s ground control is ordering them to turn back and threatening to shoot them down, but in the end, they reach their meeting safely and manage to find the mayor despite him not wanting to meet them. Vicky eventually manages to recruit many of the local leaders to aid in her plan to rebuild the local economic and industrial base which has been left in ruins due to extreme neglect from the Greenfield Empire’s central government, now run by Vicky’s stepmother Ana and her family in all but name. 

In the aftermath of the meetingm the convoy Vicky is travelling in is attacked by assassins seeking the price Ana has placed on Vicky’s head, leaving Gerrit critically injured and needing long treatment to return to service. He is replaced by Franz Boch, his roommate at the academy. Vicky soon returns to work gathering merchant ships to carry relief goods to nearby worlds, and she is assigned to the Disdain-class cruiser Attacker to lead the convoy which she takes to the mining world Presov.

 While on Presov she discovers that the local mining company which rules the world is greatly abusing its workers, and she seizes control of the company, arresting its leaders and appointing new ones to reorganize the world and restore its productivity. She then moves on to the nearby world of Poznan where she must face a local warlord who has appointed himself Duke of the world and armed his forces with weapons left behind when the Greenfield Empire disbanded and purged its State Security force. Vicky returns to St. Petersburg to find that she is being given a battleship to serve as her transport, while her allies have discovered that the mangers of Presov were bribed by Ana’s allies to reduce their output and make life horrible for their workers as part of a plot to collapse the Greenfield Empire and purge those Ana finds undesirable. 

Vicky begins trying to assemble a force for the inevitable battle against her stepmother, But her stepmother’s agents are closing in on the ground, while a fleet sent to put down the anticipated strikes on Presov is racing to its target and pirates roam the local space lanes, endangering the newly forged trade network that is vital to Vicky’s plans.

I give this book 7.5 out of 10. It wasn’t horrible but there was far too little action for my tastes and the action scenes in it were mostly very short and usually too one sided for my tastes. Plus I feel the author is going extremely overboard on the wicked stepmother cliche. At times, it felt like I was reading a bad fairy tale set in space. But, overall, despite the flaws, it was fun and I look forward to seeing what comes in book three. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Movie Review -- Ant-Man

Today we have the latest Marvel movie, Ant-Man, starring Paul Rudd. Here we go.

The plot centers around ex-con Scott Lang (Rudd) as he gets released from prison after having served time for stealing millions of dollars from his former employers. Lang finds few options for employment, however, and with child support payments to make, he's getting desperate.

Meanwhile, former scientist and secret agent Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is alarmed when his former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) announces he has successfully replicated Pym's secret formula for shrinking objects and people. Cross wants to militarize it and has even created a heavily-armed suit called Yellow Jacket to sell to the highest bidder. Pym, determined to keep his technology from falling into the wrong hands, seeks help in stopping Cross.

Oblivious to all this, Lang decides to go in for one last score with his old friend Luis (Michael Pena). Their goal is to rob the safe from the basement of some anonymous man. When Lang gets into the safe, however, all he finds is a mysterious suit. He tries it on and is startled to find he shrinks to the size of an insect. Turns out, the house he robbed is Pym's. Pym, seeing Lang's potential, recruits him to steal the Yellow Jacket. But it won't be easy; Cross has tight security guarding his suit. So, to even the odds, Pym's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) trains Lang in martial arts and how to control ants. With both human and insect friends by his side, Lang sets out to stop Cross, but what surprises does the nefarious Yellow Jacket have in store?

I found this movie to be rather average. It has slick visuals and cool cameos from other Marvel characters, but just about everything else is so-so. For one thing, the characters just aren't that interesting. Lang is OK, but his felonious friends are about as exciting as a broken VCR. Luis, in particular, is just a lame Latino stereotype. And Cross is as shallow as a kiddie pool.

The action, for its part, does liven things up a bit by showcasing battles in an over-sized world. Seeing the characters battle amidst giant play sets was fun, albeit not enough to make me love this film. The movie tries to spice things up even further with a romantic subplot you can see coming a mile away, but only partly succeeds.

I will, however, say there are some cool scenes after the credits which have me interested in future Ant-Man adventures.

Bottom line: Ant-Man is merely all right.

Friday, July 17, 2015

James Review -- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Sacraments of Fire

This week I decided to review Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Sacraments of Fire by David R. George III. 

The story opens with Iliana Ghemor being transported from the Bajoran wormhole to the homeland of the Ascendants, a militant religious order dedicated to finding the Fortress of the True, whom they consider gods, and eradicating other religious groups, especially those that worship the True incorrectly. Iliana, who was surgically altered to have the appearance of Kira Nerys and was driven insane by over a decade of being Gul Dukat’s prisoner and slave, swiftly convinces the Archquestor, leader of the Ascendants, that she was sent by the True to guide them as part of her scheme to use them as the latest weapon in her quest for revenge on Kira. 

The scene then shifts to the new Deep Space Nine where it is a few days after the assassination of Federation President Bacco. A green orb-like object appears from the wormhole and deposits a man on the station. He is a doctor named Altek Dans, apparently displaced from an ancient forgotten period of Bajor’s history. Altek is held as the crew seeks some way to confirm his story but after Ro Laren's request to have Altek extradited to Bajor to be held there is refused because Bajor’s government feels there is no proof that Altek has committed a crime, Ro begins to feel ashamed of her attempts to keep him imprisoned. But when orders from the acting Federation president and Starfleet Command arrive, instructing Ro to find some cause to continue holding Altek, she must choose between following orders she dislikes and risking the end of her third Starfleet career. 

Meanwhile, the planned exploration mission of the USS Robinson, commanded by Captain Sisko, is delayed and Sisko struggles with being assigned to a border patrol where one misstep can lead to another war, while Odo departs to investigate what may be either another Changeling or the remains of one.  And a Bajoran religious minority plans an attack on a moon seeking proof of their belief, but but what they find may drive some insane. 

In the Gamma Quadrant, Kira Nerys finds herself deposited on the Even Odds, a ship which Jake Sisko traveled on during his sojourn in the Gamma Quadrant. She also discovers that Taran’atar, who vanished soon after being brainwashed by Ghemor into nearly killing Kira, has joined the crew. But after Kira talks the captain of the Even Odds into helping her get home, they discover Ghemor’s Ascendant fleet and the trip becomes a desperate race to warn Deep Space Nine and Bajor before it is too late.

I give this book a 7.0 out of 10. There are too many plots running for one story, in my opinion, with little apparent connection between some of them, and some of the effects of those plots make little sense to me. Also, there were some editing errors that I feel any decent professional editor should have caught; "waist" being used when the proper form was "waste" for example. Finally, I feel the twist near the end would have been more exciting if it had been saved for the opening of the impending sequel.

Friday, July 10, 2015

James Review -- Star Wars: Tarkin

This week I decided to review Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno. The main story is set around five years after the end of the Clone Wars and the foundation of the galactic Empire, but it contains a number of flashbacks to survival tests Wilhuff Tarkin was put through in his youth facing the deadly beasts and harsh wilderness of his homeworld and incidents during his career prior to the Clone Wars, including his quest to defeat a legendary pirate queen once and for all, and his first meeting with then-Senator Palpatine, The main story opens with Tarkin’s fitting for a new uniform at Sentinel Base--which he commands--being interrupted by a distress call from a nearby base which claims it is under attack by an unidentified warship, a hybrid of several classes of Separatist warships used during the Clone Wars. Tarkin deduces that the signal is a fake and baits a trap for the enemy carrier, whose true target is Sentinel Base, but the carrier manages to escape. In the aftermath of the battle Tarkin is summoned to Coruscant to be briefed on the current situation. He is then assigned to work with Darth Vader as part of a small force sent to investigate a recently discovered Separatist communications equipment cache, believed to be the source of the equipment used to create the fake message sent to Sentinel base. The team escapes a trap, but soon discover that this is actually just a diversion to allow the rebels to seize the Carrion Spike, Tarkin’s one of a kind corvette. Tarkin and Vader deal with a local crime lord to optain his personal vessel and set out in pursuit, but the Spike manages to escape. Once free, the rebels begin launching devastating raids using their communications equipment to broadcast their raids throughout the region. And as the hunt for the Carrion Spike and the struggle to anticipate its next destination continues, Tarkin must also attempt to discover how the renegades are obtaining the information, funding, and equipment for their campaign and their true objective before their final attack. But the renegades may have an agent closer to Tarkin than he believes possible…

I give this book a 9 out of 10. The author does a great work of getting us into Tarkin’s head and raises the idea of Tarkin being a true believer. He’s certainly a fanatic and not adverse to wealth or power, but while sometimes I’ve wondered if maybe Tarkin was plotting to betray Palpatine and seize the throne for himself, this story makes it clear that he truly believes that Palpatine’s reign is what’s best for the galaxy despite the bloodshed involved in enforcing it. It also does a wonderful job of showing us both the forces that forged Tarkin’s mindset, and that of his family. And the author clearly did a lot of research into Star Wars lore for this. While this book is part of the new canon continuity rather than the older Legends continuity, the author pulled in bits and pieces from the older continuity whenever appropriate, and while many of these bits and pieces were either fairly common knowledge, or from the author’s prior works, others were from far more obscure source which I believe shows just how much the author cares about the work and setting.The battle sequences weren't the best in Star Wars history but thy were well above average, especially for those from recent years,

Friday, July 3, 2015

Movie Review -- Terminator Genisys

Today we have the reboot of the Terminator movies. Without further ado, let's get into it.

The story should be very familiar to Terminator fans. In the future, an AI called Skynet rebels against mankind and begins a war using robots called terminators following the nuclear fires of Judgment Day. Humanity's savior is John Connor (Jason Clarke) who leads them to an imminent victory over the machines. However, Skynet has a final card to play; it sends a Terminator back in time to kill John's mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke instead of Linda Hamilton this time). John needs someone to follow the killer cyborg and save her, and entrusts this task to his trusted subordinate Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney instead of Michael Biehn).

So Reese goes back in time, and it looks like things will go according to plan. But shockingly, when he arrives, he is attacked by a T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee). Even more surprising, Sarah shows up to save him, accompanied by her own terminator "Pops" (Arnold Schwarzenegger). She isn't the scared girl Reese expected, but instead, she's a capable warrior. For some reason, the timeline has changed, and now Reese is having visions of an alternate reality. He concludes Judgment Day will now happen in 2017, and so they must journey through time to future Los Angeles to prevent it.

But the twists aren't done coming at us, and upon arriving in LA, they meet John who has inexplicably arrived as well. They soon discover he's been turned into some sort of machine himself as is determined to conquer the world for Skynet. So now the trio must do battle with what was formerly mankind's savior. But John may be unstoppable now, and Judgment Day is less than a day away. Can our heroes stop Skynet and save the world?

I've always been a fan of the Terminator films (except for 3, which I didn't really care for), and I'm happy to say this movie maintains the high standards set by the series. It's got great action, compelling characters and solid acting. Emilia Clarke in particular is unbelievably good in this, flawlessly channeling the spirit of Linda Hamilton at every turn. I was thoroughly riveted throughout Genisys, and it didn't let me down at all. I also loved seeing Arnold fight his past self early on, bringing back fond memories of the first film.

My favorite Terminator movies in order are now:
1.) Terminator 2: Judgment Day
2.) The Terminator
3.) Terminator Genisys
4.) Terminator Salvation
5.) Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Bottom line: Terminator Genisys is a fun-filled romp which honors the spirit of its predecessors.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

James Review -- The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast

This week I decided to review The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell. The story opens with Admiral John Geary, along with his flag captain and wife Tanya Desjani, are visiting various famous locations on Earth, including Stonehenge, still famous for its stones but also now a monument to a battle that has become local legend. The night after visiting Stonehenge, they are warned that they have been targeted for assassination and hurry to the Battlecruiser Dauntless, but en route, a group of stealth ships approaches their shuttle, and due to extreme restrictions on when Earth-flagged vessels or craft visiting Earth are allowed to open fire, they have to be creative and use their flagship’s shields to defeat the enemy. But soon it is discovered that two officers failed to return to the ship. A hunt reveals a stealth vessel fleeing Earth, but when the Dauntless and local forces move to capture the kidnapper’s vessel, a bad situation becomes a nightmare when the kidnappers pierce the Europa blockade.

In ancient times, a bioweapons lab on Europa suffered a containment breach, unleashing a deadly and still active bacteria. By law, any ship that lands on Europa must be destroyed, and Geary and his staff struggle to find a way to rescue their personnel without breaking the quarantine. Then, after returning to the Alliance where Geary’s forces are struggling to find the resources to maintain the fleet with budget cuts and many ships older than their planned service spans, Geary finds that his niece, who he left in command of the main fleet while he journeyed to Sol, has been sent on a mission and a known hot head put in her place, a sign that some in the Alliance leadership are seeking a provocation and cause to turn against and destroy the fleet. Geary is soon sent to lead a small detachment to deal with a fleet of former Syndic citizens fleeing the revolutionary government in their home system. And when Geary escorts them back, he must fight a force containing a vessel more powerful then any ship in his command.  Then, after returning to the fleet, Geary escorts the Dancers to the edge of Human space. But on the way back, the Alliance fleet discovers an unknown fleet devastating Syndic systems and targeting military and civilian vessels of any government indiscriminately. This fleet is newer and equipped with faster and more heavily armed vessels then the Alliance, but even more dangerous is its commander, an enemy Geary could never imagine who knows the admiral almost as well as he knows himself.

I give this book a 9 out of 10. While the opening wasn’t great, it did have some excellent foreshadowing of events to come without revealing too much. There was also some nice humor scenes, and the self-defense laws in Earth space are so ludicrous that I find them hilarious even as I feel bad for the characters stuck following them. Also with the severe degradation in tactical training that occurred during the hundred-year war between Alliance and Syndics, and despite many commanders on both sides trying to relearn tactics as fast as they can (which Geary slept through mostly), this may be the first time Geary has faced a commander on his level of tactical knowledge since taking command of the fleet at the beginning of the original Lost Fleet series. I think this is the best book of the series so far and can’t wait to see where things go next, and how the events of this book will impact and shape events in the Lost Stars series which shares the setting.