Saturday, October 17, 2009

Death Troopers

Even though I post here anonymously, I will reveal this much

1) I personally know the guy who provided the vocals for the audio book version of Death Troopers
2) I think he does a terrific job!
3) you should get the audio book version from audible or iTunes and enjoy!

I'm about half way through listening to it, and it's quite a fun story. Certainly different, even grisly, but a well-told yarn so far. Not for little kids, but I think it's fun. Star Wars has always encompassed all sorts of great genre fiction. Why not horror?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Season 2, Episode 4 - Senate Spy

I would like to applaud the impulse that undoubtedly drove “Senate Spy.” This episode of the Clone Wars was focused solely on character and plot; it was the only episode in the 26 aired episodes that featured exactly zero clone troopers, space battles or lightsaber duels. If the creative team was out to prove that the Clone Wars was about more than fighting, they did that much.

What they didn’t do was give up the best possible version of a character driven episode. The tone of the episode seemed to shift from slapstick, to politics, to jealousy, to life-and-death without much warning. It never felt entirely coherent, even if intermittent promise was shown.

In this episode, we see a rare visit between Anakin and Padme interrupted by Jedi business. They suspect that new character Senator Clovis is a spy for the Banking Clan, and they’d like Anakin to convince Padme to use her influence with Clovis and doing a little spying herself. Anakin tells her he won’t allow her to get into harm’s way, she takes this about as well as can be expected, and, she winds up traveling with Clovis to Cato Neimoida.

There were a few head-scratchers here. First of all, it seemed contrived that Anakin was deemed the only person capable of convincing Padme to spy for the Republic. No one knows they’re married (always a suspect oversight on its own considering the amazing powers of the Jedi), so why couldn’t Yoda or Obi-Wan or anyone else just tell her why they wanted her to spy for them?

Furthermore, the reason that Padme has been deemed the best choice for this mission is her previous "friendship" with Clovis. I have to say, the insistence on using the word friendship (even when Padme and Clovis are alone!) made the whole thing sound a lot more sordid. Is friendship a euphemism for something in Star Wars? Like S&M? Otherwise, I don't get why they couldn't say "our old romance" or "Clovis used to take me to the Opera" or "Clovis tried to court my affections" or something.

Also, why would a Republic Senator travel to Cato Neimoida with so little concern for her safety in the middle of a war? The Separatists never seemed that hidden to me after Attack of the Clones. Would Padme not be aware for Lott Dodd’s affiliation, even after the Battle on Geonosis? Would Cato Neimoida be about as welcoming to the Republic as Naboo would be to the Separatists? Or am I missing something?

It also bothered me that Clovis never seemed entirely dastardly enough. Perhaps we’re intended to sympathize with him a bit. If so, Anakin’s final act towards him comes off as especially callous. Certainly Clovis is a traitor…but he comes off as relatively honorable and even emotionally invested in Padme. I couldn’t tell if my mixed feelings about him were because that was what was intended, or because the creative team missed the mark a bit.

Finally, Padme’s “I made you doubt me” admission at the end seemed to come entirely out of nowhere. If anything, Anakin’s jealousy in the episode is barely touched on, and when it does come out, it’s juvenile and barely an issue. Even in the second he sees Padme and Clovis embrace, it takes less than a moment for him to understand Padme’s worldless explanation.

I don’t love to nitpick this way, but those were distracting issues for me.

What worked?

I think that even if this episode tried to do a little too much, it did show that the animation could support dramatic scenes on its own merit. The dinner scene with Amidala and Clovis felt entirely natural and well-realized. So did Anakin’s argument with Padme in the Senate. The fact, even, that I had mixed feelings about Clovis’s fate is telling: he became a character with some weight after a few scenes. The dialogue was all snappy and solid. It was nice to see Anakin and Padme scenes that felt clear and fun, without clumsy declarations or forced moments. The more those two come together as characters in this series, the more they deepen the overall mythology of Darth Vader.

So…all in all…”Senate Spy” falls more into the “miss” category. But I’m excited by the direction they’re going with the story telling, and hope to see more episodes like this in the future.

Stars (out of five): **

Monday, October 12, 2009

Star Wars: The Clone Wars Season 1 Episode Reviews

For all of you who would like them in one place, here is a roundup of each review from Season 1 of the Clone Wars.

Clone Wars: The Movie

Episode 1 - Ambush

Episode 2 – Rising Malevolence

Episode 3 – Shadow of Malevolence

Episode 4 – Destroy Malevolence

Episode 5 – Rookies

Episode 6 – Downfall of a Droid

Episode 7 – Duel of the Droids

Episode 8 – Bombad Jedi

Episode 9 – Cloak of Darkness

Episode 10 – Lair of Grievous

Episode 11 – Dooku Captured

Episode 12 – The Gungan General

Episode 13 – Jedi Crash

Episode 14 – Defenders of Peace

Episode 15 – Trespass

Episode 16 – The Hidden Enemy

Episode 17 – Blue Shadow Virus

Episode 18 – Mystery of a Thousand Moons

Episode 19 – Storm over Ryloth

Episode 20 – Innocents of Ryloth

Episode 21 – Liberty on Ryloth

Episode 22 – Hostage Crisis

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Season 2, Episode 3 - Children of the Force

The third episode of the Clone Wars second season closes up the first of what are doubtless mini-arcs to come. In this, the production team is nearly showing off: in less than 30 minutes we visit half of the planets in the Star Wars universe. Or, at least, it felt that way. It was a great way to conclude the first mini-trilogy, if not quite as strong as the prior two episodes.

Cargo of Doom (the previous episode) skipped over exposition and threw us directly into the action mid-stream. Children of the Force begins at the exact moment Cargo of Doom ends and flies full throttle for the rest of the half hour. Bane is tasked with finding four force sensitive children and taking them to Mustafar for… experiments. Creepy. The Jedi use all their resources to hunt him down and try to save the children. Good old fashioned premise, brought to fruition in style.

Definitely lots of “wow” factor all over the episode. The planets looked terrific all around, including some wonderful new looks at Rodia, moody lighting on Coruscant (which seems to have three possible wide shots with various lighting choices available), Cad Bane’s lair certainly seemed fresh and imposing, and the above ground Gungan City was a cool new vision. Children of the Force shows how the animation has evolved to great effect.

Also, the season continues its dive towards the Dark Side. Stealing innocent kids from their parents? Putting them in secret labs to mess with their tiny brains? Yikes. The scene where the Jedi triple mind trick Bane also portends some problems for the Jedi. Their behavior is aggressive here, unethical. Still, they are trying to save children. The question being asked, subtly, is: what is the war doing to the Jedi? Great scene, new concept, intriguing.

A few minor quibbles. The episode felt a bit crowded to me. In an effort to move the heroes all over the galaxy in style, it felt like there was a bit too much story for a half-hour and I kept thinking “Wait…how long did it take them to get from here to there?” At a certain point, it felt like a bit like everyone was using teleporters and not spaceships. Obviously, it’s more a problem of perception than logic: we just don’t see the travel time. But it still tested the limits of how much you can pack into a single episode.

Also, the children of the episode, adorable as they were, had an almost Muppet-babies vibe that didn’t really sit right with the gravity of the situation. They all seemed a little too cartoonishly cute, and it was hard to imagine them as children in actual danger. The scripts insistence of referring to them as “kids” and not “children” also seemed to lighten the proceedings accidentally.

And finally, this episode did quite a bit of quoting. Obviously, this is all over Star Wars stylistically, and it made sense in the films (to tie the story of Anakin to the story of Luke.) In the cartoons, though, the quoting can feel a bit overly clever and cute. I understand the choice, but sometimes it takes me out of the moment.

And yes...Anakin apparently went to Mustafar before Episode III. I don't have a solid opinion on that choice, but it's sure to the subject of some consternation among plenty of fans.

Rating (out of five): *** 1/2

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Season 2, Episode 2 - Cargo of Doom

I'm not sure if it's my enthusiasm for the new season clouding my vision, but Cargo of Doom, the second part of the season premiere, is the first five-star episode of the series. The characters are vividly drawn, the action sequences are stunningly rendered, the story is thrilling.

Skipping the perfunctory search that was set up in the previous installment, we literally cut to the chase, in Star Wars tradition. From the first moment to the last, Anakin is forced to anticipate and guess as Bane proves a slippery mark. We see Anakin's boldness, of course, but also how it can be used against him. We also see the strains it seems to have put on Anakin's relationship with Yularen, who is finally given an attitude worthy of his position and future in the Empire.

Obviously, the death of Bolla Ropal was calculated to establish Bane's threat: a smartly executed scene, chilling without being grisly. It's also the darkest the Clone Wars series has gone by far. We're unlikely to see many scenes like these in a show that is being billed as family friendly, but it was gratifying to see it here.

The action sequences were all some of the best of the series: the anti-gravity shoot out likely to be a signature of any fans Clone Wars highlight reel. Bane's battle with Ahsoka, the boarding of the ship with walkers... fantastic.

The character work does not get short shrift. Ahsoka's headstrong behavior is put into a far better context now as she is clearly aping Anakin's behavior. Anakin's confrontation with Bane shows just what sort of danger the two of them can get into when faced with a villain more impressive than a Battle Droid. Yularen's anger at the utter failure of their mission is well founded, especially if eagle-eyed viewers catch Bane's escape.

The episode was directed by Rob Coleman, animation director of the prequel trilogy. He directed Downfall of a Droid, Jedi Crash and Liberty of Ryloth...some of the most cinematic and sweeping episodes of the last season. With this episode, he's directed some of the best original Star Wars of the last five years. Someone needs to give the man 120 minutes and a story arc and let him play. His work could easily produce an amazing new Star Wars animated picture.

Rating (out of five:) *****

Friday, October 2, 2009

Season 2, Episode 1 - Holocron Heist

We're back! Holocron Heist signals a strong second season, without a doubt.

As promised, the animation is stronger, with a larger range of models, sets and more confident uses of perspective and light. It looks terrific, even as it maintains the tone of the previous season. The scale that's dealt with in the season premiere is impressive. We flow from Felucia to various locales in Coruscant with the smooth confidence of the films. The uses of wipes and the speed of the storytelling felt very, for lack of a better description, Star Wars. The opening battle isn't long, but it's beautiful and thrilling all the same.

As wonderful as the animation is, the first episode, written by the always impressive Paul Dini (who also penned last season's Cloak of Darkness), offers up some fantastic story choices. We see a bit of the downside of being Anakin Skywalker's apprentice in Ahsoka's behavior in the early battle, which is a welcome change from the mixed up character arc of Ahsoka last season. We also get a Cad Bane that's just as dangerous as promised. As stock as his character is, he is also written as having some impressive proficiency. Certainly his first appearance at the end of last season was fun, but it didn't hold a candle to Bane in this episode (and the next, especially.) He's starting to feel like they're fighting Batman.

You also have to love the fan-friendly moment of watching Ahsoka battle "Jocasta Nu." I mean, c'mon. No one even knew they wanted to see that.

The other good omen is that the story arc that's set up here is not only compelling, but felt original. The MacGuffins (the Holocron, the Kyber Crystal) work very well, and haven't been overused. Sure, the episode doesn't have closure, but really can't do set up better than this.

Extra half star for finally saying Kyber Crystal, by the way.

Rating (out of five): **** 1/2