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Review: Ahsoka (audiobook)

Ever since Ahsoka Tano walked into the sunset in the season five finale of The Clone Wars, I’ve hoped for a novel or a comic series detailing her post-Jedi existence. The release of Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir and Dark Disciple, a comic and a book, respectively, based on storied intended to be The Clone Wars story arcs, heightened my anticipation. Fortunately, right on the heels of the Rebels season two finale — which showed Ahsoka once again striding away from the camera into an uncertain future — we got the announcement that everyone’s favorite Togruta Padawan would indeed be getting her own novel. Heightening the excitement was the later announcement that the voice of Ahsoka herself, Ashley Eckstein, would be performing the audiobook.

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To the jump!

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REVIEW: Star Wars Rebels: complete season two Blu-ray set

It’s safe to say season one of Rebels was a success, though it was criticized by many as being too small scale and low stakes. Season one certainly had a limited scope — by design, and, in my opinion, smartly so — though the three-part season finale, which reintroduced Grand Moff Tarkin, included a spectacular battle in orbit of Mustafar, and teased us with the arrival of both Darth Vader and Ahsoka Tano, hinted at a somewhat wider scope and scale for season two. Did season two build on what season one laid down in a logical and satisfying way? Was the show able to continue to develop its characters while achieving a larger scale? And is the recently released Blu-ray set of season two worth picking up, even if you’ve already seen all the episodes? That, my friends, is what I’m here to tell you.

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The second season set of Star Wars: Rebels looks and feels a great deal like the season one set. As before, the video is 1080p, presented in the show’s original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. English, French, and German audio tracks are available in Dolby Digital 5.1, while Spanish-speaking fans will have to be satisfied with a 2.0 mix. The season’s 22 episodes are spread out across 3 discs, along with each episode’s corresponding installment of Rebels Recon, the YouTube after-show hosted by Andi Gutierrez, StarWars.com’s social media correspondent. Disc three also includes two short featurettes, “Connecting the Galaxy,” and “From Apprentice to Adversary: Vader vs. Ahsoka,” both of which I’ll discuss below. Continue reading

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Review: Stranger Things, season one

The following review endeavors to be as spoiler-free as possible. Obviously, however, there is some discussion of plot and character elements. If you’ve already decided to watch the show and want to go in as fresh as possible, maybe save this review until after the fact.

Netflix, by this point, has well-established itself in the original programming department. From flagship programs like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, to more esoteric shows like Sense8 or Hemlock Grove, Netflix’s shows run the gamut in both genre and quality. Its latest effort, Stranger Things, which premiered Friday, July 15th, was announced out of the blue a month ago, promising a nostalgia-driven science-fiction/horror drama set in the eighties. The trailer evoked the adventure and innocence of ‘80s adventure films like E.T. or The Goonies, as well as the harder edge of classic horror fare like The Thing or The Evil Dead. The show stars Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine — stars emblematic of the eighties — alongside an ensemble of relative unknowns, in a story of a small town besieged by mysterious disappearances, bizarre occurrences, and shady government operatives. It is created, produced, and many of its episodes written and directed by Matt & Ross Duffer, The Duffer Brothers. Two more relative unknowns, the brothers are probably best known for working on the Fox series Wayward Pines.

The trailer generated a lot of excitement, not only due to the fact that Netflix had stealthily made this show without hardly anyone hearing about it, but for the promise of its intoxicating blend of sci-fi, horror, and ‘80s paranoia. Does the eight-episode series live up to that promise, or is it just another empty vessel for self-indulgent nostalgia?

 

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Review: Aftermath: Life Debt (audiobook)

By now a great many of you have likely already purchased and read Life Debt, the second novel in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy. Some of you may be waiting, however — for payday, for a free moment … or for someone to help you decide between the print version and the audio version. Likewise, there may be some of you who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to (or prefer not to) read the print version, and may be waiting to hear if the audiobook is an acceptable presentation of Wendig’s prose. Hopefully this review will help those folks, as well as anyone else who might be considering the audio version, decide if it’s for them.

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Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray

Finally, after an interminable wait of three and a half months (anyone remember when films took a year or longer to come to video? No? Just me?), we have the home video release, on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD, of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Is it the home video release we’ve all been hoping for, or a bare-bones offering designed to tide us over until a sequel trilogy boxed set is released with the real goods? A little from column A, a little from column B, it turns out. Read on to see what I mean.

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Lego Winter 2016 sets coming to U.S. in March

Gird your wallets, fellow U.S.-based Lego fans! The Winter 2016 wave of Star Wars sets — already available in other parts of the world, grumble grumble — are finally coming to our beleaguered shores in March, according to reports from The Brick Fan and AZ Central. This wave features the sets we previously reported were coming, including an updated ETA Interceptor for Obi-Wan, a Bespin carbon-freezing chamber, and an updated version of the droids’ escape pod from the original Star Wars film. Have a look at the box art below, and let us know in the comments which sets you’re planning on picking up.

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Star Wars: Industry Prophet

My hopes for The Force Awakens are somewhat broader than simply hoping the film is entertaining, or that it ushers in a new era of quality Star Wars live-action content the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1980. Each Star Wars film, good or bad, has had a considerable impact on not only the pop culture conversation, but on the disposition and direction of the film industry itself. The idea that The Force Awakens will be no different seems a foregone conclusion. My hope, then, is that the resulting shift is a positive one.

Look out New Hollywood, the Stormtroopers are coming!

New Hollywood was NOT trampled under the jackboots of the Stormtroopers, despite what some critics and historians claim.

Even claiming the Star Wars films were responsible for those shifts in the industry is an oversimplification. The first Star Wars film, in 1977, is often cited as the death knell of the “New Hollywood” era, a period auterists tend to look on as a golden age of cinema, when filmmakers were given the creative freedom to realize their artistic visions without much, if any, studio oversight. Easy Rider, The French Connection, Taxi Driver — even films such as The Exorcist and The Godfather are considered part of this wave of unbridled creativity and artistic freedom. And then, if you believe certain critics, Star Wars came along — a big-budget, crowd-pleasing “popcorn” film of dubious artistic merit — made a ton of money, and ruined everything for the “serious” filmmakers.

Films like William Friedkin's The French Connection were an example of studios' "hands off" policy during the '70s. [20th Century Fox]

Films like William Friedkin’s The French Connection were an example of studios’ “hands off” policy during the ’70s. [20th Century Fox]

This is, of course, not precisely fair. The shift away from “New Hollywood” and complete creative control from filmmakers was already well under way by the time Star Wars came along. Disastrous productions like Apocalypse Now, and self-indulgent bloated flops like Heaven’s Gate were the primary catalysts for a re-establishment of studio control. Huge moneymakers like Jaws, Grease, even Rocky, helped pave the way for the era of the “blockbuster”. And the then-unheard of practice of wide-release — that is, releasing a film simultaneously in theatres across the county — standard practice today, of course, was not pioneered by Star Wars or even Jaws, but by The Godfather.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather pioneered the now-standard practice of wide release. [Paramount]

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather pioneered the now-standard practice of wide release. [Paramount]

It may be more fair, then, to look at a new Star Wars film (or, perhaps more practically, a new Star Wars trilogy) as less the direct catalyst for a shift in the industry, but more as a signpost, an indication of which way the wind is blowing. Computer-generated special effects were not exactly new when The Phantom Menace came along; morphing effects had long been used in films like Terminator 2 and Star Trek VI; Jurassic Park, Jumanji, and Dragonheart all featured computer-generated creatures; and even Independence Day, praised for it’s realistic practical effects, utilized computers to generate the F-18 Hornets, missiles, debris, and other elements. Indeed, digital effects had already been introduced into the Star Wars universe by way of the Special Editions. The CGI effects in The Phantom Menace were undoubtedly more numerous (and more noticeable) than in any film that had come before, but films like Titanic, The Matrix, and The Mummy were already proving that more complicated effects could be created using computers. If The Phantom Menace hadn’t pushed the proliferation of CGI forward, something else would have.

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We have Jar-Jar to thank for The Lord of the Rings. Kinda.

So, what are my hopes for The Force Awakens? My hope for The Force Awakens is that it gives me hope for the industry as a whole. Studio films are becoming larger and more unwieldy as time goes on. Blockbusters are all the studios are producing nowadays, at the expense of low or even medium-budget films. Most key, quality has been replaced by spectacle, nuance by noise, character by destruction. Now, a shift away from this is an unrealistic expectation to place on a well-known, highly-anticipated franchise film with a huge special effects budget and owned by one of the largest companies on the planet.

Films like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness (pictured) proved that bigger isn't always better. [Paramount]

Films like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness (pictured) proved that bigger isn’t always better. [Paramount]

But what if Kasdan and Abrams bring nuance and character back to the blockbuster? What if the change in the air predicted by and reflected in this film is of a smaller and more manageable scale for big-budget studio extravaganzas? I’m not expecting Star Wars to make studio heads suddenly start pouring their resources into smaller films — how could I, since Star Wars is, at this point, as big as it gets (and is primed to make truckloads of money)? If anything, The Force Awakens would seem primed to reinforce what studio heads already believe — that bigger is better, and original scripts are a loser’s game.

IS an awakening coming?

IS an awakening coming?

But what if there’s a sign, a hint woven into the fabric of the film, a quality to the movie’s texture — something, anything that might indicate this industry is stepping back from the abyss it finds itself teetering at the edge of? I’m grasping at straws, I’m well aware. But the industry can’t sustain this “bigger is better” business model for much longer. The bubble is going to pop. I’m not claiming the “death of cinema” is on it’s way, but a change is coming. Realistically, it has to be. And what if The Force Awakens is, in some small way, a harbinger of that change?

Star Wars has always been a signpost of things to come. My hope for this film, in a nutshell, is that the signs are good ones.

New peeks at Lego 2016 sets & figures

More details about Lego’s upcoming slate of Star Wars sets for 2016 are beginning to trickle out. Over the weekend, a sheet of paper included in the Finn minifig polybag was discovered, which includes more official looks at the sets we caught glimpses of back in October, as well as a couple new sets.

In addition, an Instagram user has gotten their hands on the Maz Kanata minifig from The Force Awakens, and we’ll have an image of that after the break!

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2016 Lego sets: sneak peek

Over the weekend, the good folks over at The Brick Fan posted some images of forthcoming Lego sets found on Lego’s servers. Close to a hundred images were posted, but of course we’re only interested in the eight Star Wars-related ones. Let’s have a look and get speculating, shall we?

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Right away I’m not sure what to think. We’ve got a fairly detailed and intricate build of a speeder bike, the coloring of which suggests it’s meant to represent the bikes seen on Endor in Return of the Jedi. However, this one has a stud shooter on the back, along with what looks like room for a gunner to sit.

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