Review: The Force Awakens (Spoilers)

The Force Awakens is a good movie – eminently fun, beautifully filmed, and wonderfully acted. The pacing is relentless, flowing from action to action in typical Abrams style. There are only a few brief pauses for characters to reflect and process what’s happening. In this case, I feel safe saying that The Force Awakens is a non-stop thrill ride without it being hyperbole. All in all it’s a very modern take on Star Wars and that’s a good thing. Releasing a relatively slow, methodical, contemplative adventure film in the modern cinema landscape isn’t something a director can get away with anymore.

There’s a fair bit of ink spilled below on flaws the movie has. Don’t take this to mean I didn’t like the movie. I did. It’s fun, rollicking, and epic. It’s not perfect, but hardly any movies are. There needs to be a place for fans to discuss the flaws in the film as much as what they love. My final consensus is two lightsabers up.

I reiterate: this review will contain spoilers for the film. I’m also interested in discussing the movie so hit me up in the comments to know what you think. Continue reading

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Rebels in Review: Brothers of the Broken Horn

The past two episodes of Rebels showed us a remarkably mature Ezra. Brothers of the Broken Horn takes a step back to show us he’s not perfect.

Leave it to Ezra

The episode opens with Ezra training under Rex’s guidance. Kanan shows up to remind Ezra he has Jedi training to tend to, as well. The multitude of responsibilities clearly bother Ezra, to the point that he asks, “What if I don’t want to be either [a Jedi or a soldier]?” When Hera sends the rest of the rebels out to search for power generators, Ezra is ordered to stay behind and scrub the Phantom of “ion scoring” he’s neglected twice. Rather than doing his chores, Ezra responds to the distress call of the Broken Horn, a ship of known acquaintance and criminal Cikatro Vizago. What follows is a fun, little criminal romp involving three of the greatest scoundrels in Star Wars animated history: Hondo Ohnaka, Azmorigan, and Vizago. Watching the betrayals and counter-betrayals play out in rapid succession makes for a fun episode.

Fundamentally, this is a story about Ezra finding himself and coming to terms with his place in the galaxy. He ventures from unhappiness to acceptance. He hasn’t resolved his major issue – the conflict between the expectations of Rex and Kanan – but he realizes that his place is with the crew of the Ghost.

If I have a major criticism of the episode, it’s with how neatly it ties everything together with a bow. The lesson at the end is a little too tidy for my taste. It comes off a little too much like Leave it to Beaver. However, there is a lot to like in this episode. Fans of Hondo will love him in Rebels – he’s absolutely just as much of a scoundrel as he was in The Clone Wars. Jim Cummings ages up Hondo quite a bit. He sounds more ragged and tired. We can hear how he’s been through hard times. James Hong is a delight as Azmorigan. The gleeful cruelty and petty vindictiveness makes him an excellent Star Wars baddie.

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Rebels in Review: Always Two There Are

The third episode of season 2, “Always Two There Are“, gives us the first horror story in Star Wars Rebels. We got a few scary stories in The Clone Wars with zombie Geonosians. The exploration of fear has long been a theme in Star Wars – from Tarkin’s doctrine of ruling through fear to Anakin’s fear of loss in Revenge of the Sith. What better way to explore fear than a haunted house story a few days before Halloween?

The Haunted Hospital

The bulk of the action in the episode takes place on an abandoned medical station once used by the Republic. It’s similar to the ones we see used in The Clone Wars – not at all surprising – but it’s striking just how creepy the interior can be when turned into a dilapidated, abandoned mess of its former self.

Space can be a lonely, desolate place.
Space can be a lonely, desolate place.

Watching “Relics of the Old Republic” and “Always Two There Are” back to back is an excellent lesson in cinematography. Both episodes make great use of the camera to convey mood and tone. Where Relics emulates the slow, methodical shots of classic submarine movies for drama and tension. “Always Two There Are” uses off-kilter camera angles to create a sense of unease and disquiet.

The narrative on the station plays out in classic haunted house fashion – the characters enter a creepy, abandoned place only to slowly realize they are not alone and are, in fact, trapped with a malevolent force. Chopper chases after strange noises. Zeb gets lost in the twisting corridors. When the enemies hunting the rebels finally reveal themselves as Inquisitors, things do not go well for our heroes. They are each captured or injured in rapid succession. In the end, they manage to escape through subterfuge rather than confrontation. In combat, Ezra, Sabine, and Zeb are clearly outclassed by the Inquisitors.

The off-kilter angle is unsettling and a staple in suspense films.
The off-kilter angle is unsettling and a staple in suspense films.

The most disturbing moment of the episode for me was when a seeker droid plays Chopper like a puppet to send a distress call to the rest of the rebels. It actually really bothers me the way it sticks its pincers into Chopper’s body and starts moving things around to make Chopper talk. Seems unnecessarily gruesome to me.

Seeker droid plays Chopper like a puppet.
Seeker droid plays Chopper like a puppet.

The Inquisitorius

We first saw The Fifth Brother at the end of “Relics of the Old Republic” in a brief scene as he arrives on board Admiral Konstantine’s Star Destroyer. This episode sees him in action and also introduces a second Inquisitor hunting the rebels: The Seventh Sister.

The two are substantially different. The Fifth Brother is rash and quick to violence, relying on his size and power. He is direct and immediate. While in action he is constantly in motion, never stopping. In quieter moments of reflection he sits stock still.

The Seventh Sister is more calculating, devious, and manipulative. Where The Fifth Brother simply wants to kill Ezra, The Seventh Sister plans to use him as a means to a greater goal – Ahsoka Tano. Her fighting style emphasizes her agility and speed more than power. She also relies on her small army of seeker droids to gain the upper hand.

Physically, their movements seem inspired by animals. Fifth Brother’s slow, purposeful meandering turns into a sudden, violent burst of speed. It reminds me of a shark patrolling its waters. Seventh Sister is more angular and unsettling in her movements – she perches with her knees akimbo and weaves her lightsaber in an eerie pattern as she stalks forward. It’s hard not to compare her to a spider.

Working together, the Inquisitors can stop a ship.
Working together, the Inquisitors can stop a ship.

Both Inquisitors wield personalized versions of the spinning double-bladed lightsaber we saw The Grand Inquisitor wield last season – Seventh Sister reveals that Jason Isaacs’ character was The Grand Inquisitor of the Inquisitorius.

What is fascinating about the Inquisitors is that they are shown to be in competition with one another. “The kill is mine!” Fifth Brother declares when Seventh Sister stops him from cleaving Ezra in twain. Seventh Sister even states that the death of The Grand Inquisitor presented opportunities to the rest of them. There are clear plays for dominance between the two of them through their interactions.

The most telling thing about the Inquisitors is Kanan’s reaction when Ezra reports their existence. Kanan is shaken and speechless. Hera covers for him, deflecting the conversation neatly back toward military procedure, but Kanan is clearly rattled. I love this moment – Kanan losing the bravado and cocksure attitude he’s had through most of the series is very honest. More still, we see Hera step in to comfort him. Seeing them react to one another in such an emotional moment leads me to believe more than ever that they are a couple – it’s just not made to be a big deal or defining element of the characters.

A tender and romantic moment of comfort.
A tender and romantic moment of comfort.

Character Arcs

Sabine Takes Command. This is the first time we see an official rebel mission underway without Hera or Kanan there to act at field commander. Sabine is tasked with recovering medical supplies and given command over Zeb and Chopper. While there isn’t much as far as tactical planning and execution, it is a sign of Hera’s trust and shows maturity on Sabine’s part.

Zeb learns wits trump brawns. As the muscle of the group, Zeb is the most likely to punch his way through a problem. Thing is, not all problems can be punched. He learns a nice object lesson in fighting smart, especially when victory means just surviving.

Ezra’s two dads. Kanan and Rex don’t get along, as we saw in the first two episodes this season. Unfortunately, the battlefield they’ve chosen for their contest of wills is Ezra’s continued training and development, a battlefield Ezra finds irksome. The two get into an argument, obviously not the first, and Ezra joins the away team rather than stay and be fought over. This seems to be a long-term source of conflict in the team. The only good thing is that as soon as there was a more serious issue, the revelation of more inquisitors, the two set aside their quarrel, Kanan and Rex can function as a team when it’s needed.

Ezra the hero. This season continues to demonstrate how far Ezra has come as a person since his introduction in Spark of Rebellion. He’s finally reached a point where he’s comfortable with the crew and welcomed as a valued member. What’s more is we see him make noble self-sacrifices in this episode. Ezra is maturing well into a good young man.

Final Analysis

This is easily the episode of the season so far and matches all but the finale of last season. Five stars.

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Campaign Pitch: Behind Enemy Lines

If I were to run an Age of Rebellion campaign, I would want to pitch it during the Clone Wars rather than the Galactic Civil War. The clones are incredibly rich characters and ripe for roleplaying.

Stranded on an Abandoned Planet

There would be room for 3-5 PCs in the campaign. One would be a Jedi padawan and the others would be clone troopers. The game would kick off after their ship is shot down during a disastrous Republic assault on a Separatist world. They are the lone survivors of a repelled invasion force. The padawan’s Jedi master has been killed. The squad’s CO died in the crash. They are alone.

Now the squad is trapped behind enemy lines and presumed dead. They must find a way to survive and escape the planet. Or perhaps they decide to complete the mission their battalion was sent to accomplish, now against impossible odds.

A Bit of Spin

Characters would be straight out of Age of Rebellion. The clones would all be human and could be any Career and Specialization in the book. The padawan would be out of Force & Destiny, with 75 additional XP. It’s not enough to reach knight level play (as outlined in the GM’s screen supplement) but it’s enough to invest in some Force powers.

The spin comes in from 13th Age. I’d give each character One Unique Thing. It’s a great bit of tech and can lead to some incredible roleplay. The hope here is that the characters would do fun, interesting things like the Bad Batch. My dwarf monk in the 13th Age game I’ve been playing has the One Unique Thing of “First dwarf born of stone in Ages.” It’s been great fodder for plot hooks, Icon relationships, and characterization. Like 13th Age, it would be a narrative tool but I may throw in a bit of a mechanical hack where players can spend a light side Destiny Point to do something cool related to their One Unique Thing.

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Rebels in Review: Relics of the Old Republic

Echo station 3-T-8, we have spotted Imperial walkers.
Echo station 3-T-8, we have spotted Imperial walkers.

Last week’s episode, The Lost Commanders, was mostly spent setting up conflicts for the second season of Rebels. It was a bit light on action but measured in its pace. It took time to let the characters simply exist in their situation. The same cannot be said for the second episode the season. Relics of the Old Republic hit the ground running and didn’t so much as stop to breathe.

There are spoilers for the episode below. Continue reading

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Episode VII Schedule

I imagine it’s possible I could be more excited for The Force Awakens but I’m not sure how. Last night was a frenzy of ticket buying, scheduling, consulting with friends, and downed web servers. I knew I wanted to do the Star Wars Marathon, a showing with my wife, and try to get to IMAX in opening weekend. These three were necessarily mutually exclusive. Anna didn’t want to do the marathon. 18 hours leading up to the main event is too much, especially when it starts at 01:00. All the IMAX showings I could find were in 3D and, honestly, we both prefer 2D cinema. So. Minimum three showings in the opening weekend. (I will likely try to finagle more.)

In the end, I got tickets to my preferred theatre for the Star Wars Marathon for myself and two friends (also hardcore Star Wars fans), tickets for Friday at 12:30 for Anna and I, and tickets for Saturday morning at a Regal IMAX (fulfilling both the IMAX desire AND getting us a nifty collector’s edition BB-8 art ticket). Sundays at AMC theatres there’s another promotion for a free poster. I’ll try to swing that one but it will be dependent upon how I feel after three days living at the cinema.

Marathon Schedule

THE PHANTOM MENACE 01:00

ATTACK OF THE CLONES 03:30

REVENGE OF THE SITH 06:15

A NEW HOPE 10:15

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK 12:45

RETURN OF THE JEDI 15:15

THE FORCE AWAKENS 19:00

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Rebels in Review: The Lost Commanders

Star_Wars_Rebels_logo

This is going to be the first of a weekly series where I review the most recent episode of Star Wars Rebels. As a contributor to addisonrecorder.com, I’m writing reviews bi-weekly. Reviewing Rebels seems like a good way to keep exercising those skills I’m developing.

Spoiler Policy

I will do my best to avoid spoilers. Where I can’t avoid them, I will be sure to put a spoiler warning at the top of the article. 

The Lost Commanders

Screenshot 2015-10-15 17.09.30
The Phantom approaches the clones’ modified AT-TE.

The second season proper of Star Wars Rebels wastes no time setting the stage for big conflicts and story arcs. Commander Sato’s fledgling rebellion is on the run from the Empire – the destruction of their flagship has left them too weak to fight. They need a hidden location to use as a base of operations. The crew of the Ghost is dispatched to find an old acquaintance of Ahsoka Tano’s who may know of such a place. This brings Kanan face to face with a trio of clone troopers, reminding him of the terrible events we saw in Kanan: The Last Padawan. Kanan doesn’t react well to the clones nor they to him. It will be a touch-and-go relationship.  Ahsoka splits off from the fleet to investigate the mysterious Sith Lord Darth Vader. “There are questions. Questions that need answering,” she tells Kanan and Ezra. Lastly, the clones decline to join the Rebellion. Though he hates the Empire, Rex is weary of war and has no desire to get involved in another one. Ezra seems determined to change his mind.

The episode if chock full of story, but it’s a bit light on action, moving along by dialogue. To its credit, the exposition is handled well by being featured in strong character moments. Freddie Prinze, Jr. turns in a stellar performance when Kanan breaks down and talks about Order 66 and why he distrusts the clones. Ezra continues to grow as a leader among the rebels – he took point on diplomacy with the clones and no one so much as batted an eye. He’s come a long way from the Loth-rat of a kid everyone picked on.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 17.07.10
The Ghost approaches orbit around Seelo.

My only real complaint with this episode is that Hera was sidelined. The Ghost’s hyperdrive shorted out when they arrived in orbit around Seelos. She and Chopper remained aboard to fix it while the story happened dirtside. I hope it sets her up to be the hero next episode but for now it’s a bit irksome.

Art

The animation of Rebels has always been beautiful. The sweeping majesty of the plains of Lothal, inspired by Ralph McQuarrie, are just sublime. What I appreciated in “The Lost Commanders” is the facial expressions. The animators are getting incredibly sophisticated with what they can do. Particularly with Ahsoka, we get some great, subtle moments conveyed only through facial expressions. It’s hard to believe that animation this complex can also be so subtle and affective.

Ahsoka cracks a wry smile over Ezra's exuberance.
Ahsoka cracks a wry smile over Ezra’s exuberance.

In addition, I’d like to nominate whomever draws the clouds in Rebels for a special Best Animation of Clouds Emmy award because, hot damn, have the clouds in both seasons been phenomenal. Last year we got the swirling, voluminous clouds of Lothal. Last night we got the wispy, stretched clouds of Seelos. I’ve paused multiple episodes just to look at the clouds.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 17.07.56
The clouds actually make the desert look kind of nice.

Tell Me of Your Homeworld, Usul

This episode features a new desert planet – called Seelos – with blasted, cracked earth rather than the rolling dunes of Tatooine. There they seek the help of the desert dwelling nomads and must undergo a ritual involving the capture of an enormous worm, eventually winning the respect of those they came to find.

It all sounds more than a bit like the first third of the book Dune – and since the episode ended with a “To be continued…” we may well have more Dune-inspired Star Wars ahead of us.

Dave Filoni drew upon the cinema canon during The Clone Wars, entire story arcs are homages to classic films. I think we’re seeing a literary homage in “The Lost Commanders.” Granted, there have been several film adaptations of Dune over the years but the visuals on display more closely match the covers from the novel’s original publication in Analog. Filtered through a McQuarrie-esque sensibility, to be sure, but still reminiscent.

Dune Analog Cover
Cover of Analog, March 1965

Frank Herbert’s Dune had an impact on the original Star Wars. Narrative similarities between the stories come from their similarly mythic storytelling. Both are a classic hero’s journey and feature a young man triumphing against impossible odds. Large portions of both stories take place upon a desert world inhabited by dangerous, mysterious nomads. There are even parallels between the Herbert’s Bene Gesserit and mentats and Lucas’ Jedi. I seem to recall an interview with George Lucas where he discussed the impact Dune had upon him but I can’t remember the specifics.

The Joopa "Big Bongo." Kanan for scale.
The joopa “Big Bongo.” Kanan for scale.

In the joopa hunting scene we were a single shouted, “Worm sign!” from Arrakis. Every space opera epic since Dune has needed a sandworm. Mass Effect has its Thresher Maws. Now Star Wars has the joopa (arguably, in addition to the space slug and the sarlaac). Beyond the cosmetic similarities, there are thematic ties to the sandworms of Dune.

First is the space the joopa occupies in the narrative of the episode: the newcomers must prove their worth to the desert people in a trial of the worm. In Dune, of course, this is when Paul calls a great worm and uses his maker hooks to keep it from submerging so it can be used as a mount. Thus he is finally accepted fully as a Fremen. In Rebels, Ezra, Sabine, and Zeb all play key parts in bagging “Big Bongo” for Gregor. Ezra even uses a pair of staves to get Bongo to surface, in a corollary to Paul’s maker hooks.

Second is the symbiotic nature between the desert people (the clones) and the worm. Gregor says that catching a joopa can feed them for a year – it’s a major food source and likely economic windfall for the clones. The Fremen in Dune worship the sandworms as gods and much of their culture is based around the massive creatures. The clones’ survival is as tied to the joopa as the Fremen’s survival is tied to the sandworm.

If “The Clone Commanders” really is the first episode in an arc inspired by Dune, the next two episodes ought to be exciting. That’s when all the really crazy action and revelations happen. We all have to temper our enthusiasm, though. Our little band of Rebels isn’t about to topple the Empire and dethrone the Emperor the way Paul Muad’dib and the Fremen of Sietch Tabr did by the end of Dune. We know how that happens.

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Late Year Update

Hello, all! It’s been a while since I posted here and I thought I’d give an update.

The Good

First up, the good stuff. Three Rocketeers nears publication. I believe it’s just waiting on final art at this point and, well, that’s pretty darn exciting. The sample are that Fred has shared is absolutely phenomenal. I can hardly believe someone created such a beautiful drawing based on my words.

therocketeers_of_gallia
A Rocketeer of Gallia

 

sword_stunts
Swords in the Streets

I have more work with Evil Hat, as well. I’m the systems lead designer on Fate of Cthulhu, a game which asks the question, “What if Skynet were Cthulhu instead of a malevolent AI?” Stephen Blackmoore is the lead writer and Sophie Lagace (whose War of Ashes RPG: Fate of Agaptus is just now available in stores!) is riding herd in an experimental role where she’s in charge of making sure the mechanics and setting text line up. Sean Nittner is our project manager. This is an exciting project for me. Action horror is quite the challenge in Fate and this is a project that comes straight from Fred Hicks and Chris Hanrahan. It’s a big vote of confidence in my abilities that I got assigned this project. Continue reading

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Pitch: A Good D&D Movie

This started as a twitter rambling of mine a couple days ago. A new D&D movie is being discussed in Hollywood with Hasbro having wrangled some legal win or some such. I’m not up on the particulars, just that I’ve seen articles about a new D&D movie in the works. And then there’s the new Vin Diesel movie The Last Witch Hunter due out next month – a movie that I describe as, “Vin Diesel finally got to make his D&D movie.”

This is all a long way of saying that I’ve been thinking about what would make a good D&D movie. So here’s my pitch. Continue reading

Posted in Actual Play, Movies, Original Fiction | 1 Comment