Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Wars - The Force Awakens" by David Pretty


Non-specific spoilers there are here. Tread carefully you should. 

Sorry, but someone has to say this: The Force Awakens is an unmitigated disaster. It doesn't jibe tonally and stylistically at all with the last three Star Wars films. It has an engaging plot that leads to a thrilling finale. The characters are sympathetic, engaging and connected to one another in interesting ways. The dialogue between them is authentic, witty and funny. The practical sets and special effects create tangible, immersive environments. There's a genuine sense of peril and serious consequences are triggered. Tantalizing mysteries are proposed and then left dangling, making you want more instead of dreading what's to come.

Of course, you might mistake these things for positives if you're, say, anyone other than George Lucas.

The movie takes place thirty years after the events in Return of the Jedi. Inspired by the defunct Empire, a military faction known as the First Order has come to power, seeking to subjugate the worlds of the New Republic with a Death Star-inspired super weapon. The Force-sensitive muscle behind this group is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a former apprentice of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who betrayed and murdered his brethren. Crushed by this failure, Luke has gone into a self-imposed exile and no-one has any inkling where he is.


This set up is all director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt need to craft a spiritual remake / greatest hits package that plays out like a loving tribute to the original Star Wars trilogy. Don't believe me? Well, here are the similarities:

(1) After falling under attack, a resistance fighter is forced to entrust a droid with vital information.
(2) By happenstance, good fortune and / or kismet, the droid meets up with our main protagonist, a resourceful and noble youth who turns out to be a font of mystical power.
(3) A masked Sith Lord tortures the droid's owner for information.
(4) Our hero's journey is facilitated by two smugglers and involves a trip to a seedy, alien-filled cantina.
(5) The forces of darkness have built a super-weapon powerful enough to destroy entire planets.
(6) Thanks to insider info, the Resistance discovers a flaw in the design of the battle station and a desperate attack is launched to try and destroy it.
(7) In order for the plan to work, a strike team must first land on the surface of the planet and deactivate the shield generator.
(8) Family ties are revealed, leading to a shocking and emotionally powerful confrontation.
(9) A desperate and passionate lightsaber battle occurs just as the Sith hits the fan.
(10) The heroes temporarily triumph, but for how long?


But The Force Awakens still has its own sense of self-worth. How does it pull this off? Count the ways I shall:

Right from the opening text crawl, the film grabs you. There's no mention of taxation, trade routes or senate meetings. Instead we get: LUKE SKYWALKER HAS VANISHED, THE FIRST ORDER WANTS HIM DEAD and RESISTANCE LEADER LEIA HAS SENT HER BEST PILOT OUT TO FIND HIM. With these three simple paragraphs familial strife, an intriguing mystery, some pissed off villains and the promise of a new generation of champions has us off and running.

Gotta love any movie that casts Max Von Sydow as a minor character. He's the one who supplies Resistance fighter and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) with the movie's main MacGuffin. Issac, by the way, is thoroughly awesome. He lights up the screen and his chemistry with Finn (John Boyega) is contagiously ebullient. Whether he's nobly resisting the mind probe of Kylo Ren or exhibiting beast-mode level X-Wing skills, Poe is sure to become a new fan favorite. I can't wait to see the character's role expand in future entries.

We also meet new droid on the block BB-8, who really showcases the sort of design evolution we'd expect after thirty years. At first I was concerned that she'd be all uber-cutesy in an Ewok-y kinda way, but puppeteers Dave Chapman and Brian Herring strike a perfect balance between endearing, feisty and plucky. They really deserve ample praise for wringing so much expressive behavior out of what amounts to a beach ball and a medicine ball magnetized together.


But BB-8 isn't just a design wonder, she's a fun character as well. I love watching her throw shade on Finn when he fibs about his connection to the Resistance and then get all stressed out when she's pulled in two different directions at once. Watching BB-8 and R2-D2 share a scene together made me think of a sprightly, inquisitive young kitten trying to snag the attention of an older, wiser cat.

During the First Order's harrowing and brutal attack on Jakku we're introduce to the film's main heel Kylo Ren, played to perfection by Adam Driver. Upon first inspection, Ren cuts an impressive figure. Clad in flowing black robes and an imposing face mask and wielding a three-pronged lightsaber, Ren comes off as your typical villainous badass. Especially when he stops Poe's blaster bolt in mid-air and then drags him across the battlefield.

But then something really, really interesting happens. Ren's holographic overlord, Supreme Leader Snook, er Snoke (Andy Serkis) warns his pupil that he may be tempted by the light side of the Force. Whatta twist! When things don't go his way, he throws nasty temper tantrums, raging out and destroying shit with his lightsaber like a spoiled brat. He worships Darth Vader's melted mask with the same level of adoration of your typical neck-bearded Star Wars fanboy.


This level of depth and complexity is precisely why Kylo Ren is my favorite new character. His cloak, his scary voice modulator, his mask; its all a case of "methinks thou dost protest too much". This interesting new concept is perfectly realized by Adam Driver who is, in turn, focused, intense, enraged, vulnerable and even oddly jovial at times. He's like the Anakin we sorely needed in the prequels and I look forward to seeing him reach a level of Darkside mastery that actually justifies his nefarious appearance.

Another conflicted and equally interesting character is Finn, played with boundless energy and "OMG!"-style sincerity by John Boyega. Apparently the First Order is done with using clones and is now stealing a move right out of the Jedi playbook: I.E. abducting and indoctrinating infants into their weird ISIS-like cult. I have no idea why Finn is the only member of the First Order to have an attack of conscience; hopefully his story will be fleshed out in the next entry. Just suffice to say that it's fun to watch a stormtrooper go rogue.

There's a palpable sense of fun, adventure and peril as Finn springs Poe from the Star Destroyer detention block and they make their escape. Between Poe's exemplary piloting skills and Finn's accuracy on the guns, the two make a stellar duo. It amazes me that Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt somehow manage to generate more chemistry, camaraderie and joie de vivre amongst Poe and Finn then George Lucas did with Obi-Wan and and Anakin over length of the entire prequel trilogy.


Finn's character arc continues to grow when he meets up with Rey. Boyega does a tremendous job playing a tentative, embryonic hero; someone who wants to do the right thing and make a difference but he's terrified that he'll be exposed as a fraud. By the time he bravely squares off against Kylo Ren you're really rooting for the guy. This is a star-making turn for Boyega and I look forward to seeing him in more films that don't have the word "Star" and "Wars" in the title.

But the movie's M.V.P. by far is Daisy Ridley as Rey. When we first meet her she's scavenging loose bits of scrap from a downed Star Destroyer and trading the parts for barely enough food to survive, so right away we're in her corner. And unlike Luke who just happened to end up with R2, she actually fights to liberate BB-8 from capture, which makes us like her even more. Her market value continues to rise when she gets paired up with Finn. I love how she's constantly railing against the clearly-repellent concept that she needs to be protected and ends up schooling her male brethren in the art of being a hero.

Fresh-faced, plucky and boundlessly charming, its great to watch Daisy subvert expectations during the course of the film. Even though the script packs waaaaay too much of her development into too short a time span, Ridley makes these transitions very convincing. The biggest piece of praise that I can give to her is that we really care about Rey. We hiss at the villains who harm her and cheer when she kicks ass in the finale.


But perhaps the biggest revelation to me was Harrison Ford as Han Solo. I always saw Han as a supplementary character in the Original Trilogy, someone who spontaneously helped out the heroes because he had an attack of conscience and would never really thrive in the role of military man and / or doting father. That's why the Han on display in Return of the Jedi and in the Expanded Universe always seemed like a boring, domesticated, neutered version of his former self. Well, I'm pleased to report that our favorite dashing rogue is back in fine form.

After watching The Force Awakens I now understand why Ford agreed to come back and why he's stumping so hard for the movie. This is Han's story and, thankfully, the writers had the balls to follow though on the smuggler's story arc. The beautiful thing about Harrison's performance here is that he isn't crusty, grumpy Harrison Ford pretending to be Han Solo, he's the willful, smarmy, cocksure smuggler through and through.

Han's appearance led to a series of progressively-emotional scenes for me. For the sake of full disclosure, l really don't think that I can review certain elements of this film with complete impartiality since I was on the verge of tears half the time. Seeing Han and Chewie back in action together after so long was about all that I could handle. In fact, in many ways, the movie's title should have been Star Wars: Attack of the Feels.


Cynical assholes will probably see this as a demerit and tell you that the movie relies too heavily on fan service, with the producers winking gratuitously at the audience and saying "Hey, kids, remember this?" Yes, the movie has issues, but nostalgia isn't one of them. After the disastrous prequel trilogy, which felt like the cinematic equivalent of a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I think that we needed to be reminded why these movies were so popular in the first place. Remember: from 1977 to 1983 Star Wars wasn't nerdy and insular at all. Everybody, and I mean everybody, loved that shit.

I started struggling with tears again as soon as Han reunited with Leia. I still have no idea how Carrie Fisher managed to channel this character again so effortlessly, especially since she came across as everyone's favorite crazy drunk aunt during the press tour for the film. In the movie she's all business, re-imagining our favorite Princess as a no-nonsense General. She's exactly what you'd expect Leia to be like after thirty odd years: world-weary, cynical and tired of the eternal struggle.

All of our old favorites are treated with the same level of respect. For example, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is legitimately funny, not just some pun-spewing, pratfall artist who's there only for cheap laughs. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) gets a great little scene where he's lavishly praised by a medical attendant for his bravery and later we get to see the true meaning of Wookiee rage. I was also gutted to learn that R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) has been dormant since Luke skedaddled, reminding me of a loyal puppy that sits eternally by the door, patiently waiting for his master to return.


But its not just classic characters that crank up the nostalgia. When Rey, Finn, Han, Chewie and BB-8 are all hanging out in the Millennium Falcon, I couldn't help but get a little misty-eyed. If you take the familiar scream of T.I.E. fighters, the wail of an X-Wing engine, the crash of lightsabers, the Death Star-style white noise of Starkiller Base, the familiar "pyew, pyew" of Han's DL-44 blaster and wrap it all up in the glorious auspices of John William's stellar soundtrack, you've got a visual and auditory panoply that will swell the heart of even the most lapsed Star Wars fan.

Throughout all of this, the direction of J.J. Abrams is sure-footed and engaging. Even though his style is terrible for Star Trek he's pretty much spot-on for Star Wars. Except for occasional hyperactive editing, micro close-ups and shaky-cam indulgences, the film is actually well-shot and assembled. Lens flares are virtually non-existent and there's a certain gritty, grounded quality to the film. Witness the climactic lightsaber battle; its the sort of quick, vicious, emotional, sometimes sloppy tilt that we deserved for Revenge of the Sith, as opposed to the boring, protracted, overly-choreographed, video gamey plea for attention that we ended up with.

This is also the first Star Wars film since 1983 that I actually want to see a "making of" documentary for. As opposed to the horde of programmers who labored in the virtual salt mines of the prequels, I'd love to hear from the artisans and craftspeople who created all of the practical sets, costumes, models, props, and creature designs. Having real, physical environments to look at certainly helped my immersion in the film and I'd imagine that the actors were equally relieved to have something to hang their performances on.


It's also amazing to me when decent designs, good dialogue and a restrained vocal performance bring CGI characters to life. Maz Kanata, voiced by the delightful Lupita Nyong'o, has a fighting chance to become this generation's Yoda. And then there was the genuinely surprising epiphany I had regarding Supreme Leader Snoke. The first thought that went through my head when I saw him was "Whoa, they grow 'em big in this part of the galaxy!" Needless to say, I chuckled out loud as soon as I realized that holographic technology has also improved considerably over the past three decades.

I really can't overstate the benefit of shooting in real-world locations. Using Abu Dhabi for Jakku and an abandoned R.A.F. base in England for the Resistance headquarters really expands the visual panoply of the Star Wars universe while giving the viewer's unconscious mind something to hold on to. But perhaps the most interesting location is Skellig Michael islands off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland, which stands in for the first Jedi Temple. Visually its one of the most interesting new environments in the Star Wars universe.

But, alas, there are also some grave-ish disturbances in the Force as well.

Even though I can let a most of the reruns cataloged at the start of this review slide, some of them are borderline inexcusable. For example, I can't believe that yet another "all-powerful" battle station gets trashed, apparently with the same level of effort that a kid uses to dismantle an erector set. At least the Death Star in Star Wars got some proper build up; here we're just told that Starkiller Base is bigger, badder and "moar betterer" then anything that came before it. A part of me was really hoping that the screenwriters would subvert expectations and just cripple the thing instead of destroying it. That way it could have come back next time as an increasingly escalating threat.


The other thing that's a tad lazy is the ludicrous amount of coincidence that occurs in the story. Even though we're talking about the surface on an entire planet here, BB-8 just so happens to cross Rey's path. At least in Star Wars R2-D2 and C-3PO had to schlep all over hell and creation to get to Owen's moisture farm. Not long after this incredibly fateful meeting, Finn crashes within walking distance of Rey. The Millennium Falcon is also conveniently sitting around collecting dust on Jakku. Han unwittingly takes Rey to the one place in the galaxy where she can experience her ancestral recall / psychic residue episode.

There's also plenty of stuff that either gets glossed over or feels rushed. From time to time I really wanted J.J. and company to just SLOW DOWN for a few seconds and explain a coupla things. For example one character miraculously reappears back at the Resistance base looking no worse for wear. Very little happens at the beginning of the film that hints at Rey's potential. Luke's lightsaber, once impossibly lost on Bespin, just turns up like spare change in the couch cushions.

Then there are a swarm of questions posed by the film itself. The New Republic still appears to be in power so why are the good guys called "the Resistance"? Shouldn't they be called "the Army"? How widespread is the First Order? Did Ren start the whole thing up or was it Snoke? How did they manage to build such a massive battle station without the resources of the entire galaxy behind them? And if the lion's share of the galaxy still supports the New Republic, how does the First Order expect to generate sympathy to their cause by blowing up a bunch of planets?


The first Star Wars also threw us into the story head first, but the set up was so simple and clear that we had a lock on the story right away. An evil Empire controls the whole galaxy and has the resources to build a moon-sized battle station. Check! The whole thing is controlled by a mysterious autocratic Emperor with a Sith attack dog. Check! And all those poor, hard pressed, clearly unfunded schmucks are members of the Rebel Alliance. Easy peasy!

Yeah, yeah...I know, I know...we're just getting started and it's likely that these questions and many more will be answered in the next installment. But cynical, crusty ol' me can't quite shake the feeling that the answers are already out there...for the right price. Back when the prequels were coming out, I often felt sorely tempted to read the supplementary novels or watch some cartoon just to see what more gifted writers could do with George Lucas's fuck ups. At least now I feel compelled to seek these things out just to complement the awesome. Well played, J.J. and Disney, well played.

Just know that for every one thing that irked me there were ten things that I loved, which is a pretty darned good ratio. For example, just thinking about the ending is enough to make me slavishly hooked for the rest of this series.

And honestly, that's the highest praise I can give to The Force Awakens. I actually care again, to the point where I feel like a kid who's willing to wantonly fritter the time away just so we can all see what happens next.


Tilt: up.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" by David Pretty


Under the auspices of a talented screenwriter and a patient director, a romance *slash* detective story set in the Star Wars universe could have been awesome. Episode II could have been the Empire Strikes Back of the prequel trilogy: an elegiac and thoughtful adagio-style character study spiced up with a few original and innovative action beats.

Instead we get George Lucas frantically scribbling away on his yellow legal pad, trying to cobble a shooting script together before the paint dried on the sets that he'd already decreed, Kubla Khan-style months prior. But even the most rank amateur film student knows that this is no way to make a movie and the script needs to be locked down cold before so much as a single man hour of pre-production begins.


Contrary to the 20'th Century Fox fanfare, Lucasfilm logo and assurances that what we're about to watch did, in fact, occur "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," there's little on display here that jibes tonally, spiritually or even chronologically with the original trilogy. In fact, I still maintain that Attack of the Clones is actually worse then The Phantom Menace because it's even more destructive to the lore of the original trilogy than its reviled predecessor.  

It doesn't take very long to realize that the nuts and bolts writing in this entry is going to be just as bad this time out, if not worse. Within nine minutes we're subjected to the following three nigh-identical lines:

Mace Windu: "We're keepers of the peace, not soldiers."
Beldar Conehead: (referring to Count Dookie) "He is a political idealist, not a murderer."
Obi-Wan: "We are here to protect you, Senator, not to start an investigation."

This is, by far, the most blatant example of screenwriting laziness I've ever seen in a major motion picture. Even the worst, piece of shit Jennifer Aniston rom-com wouldn't stoop to this. Any wordsmith worth his or her salt knows that repetition is the cardinal sin of writing. This is the tell-tale sign of an early draft script and / or an environment where the actors have little to no input with regards to the dialogue.

"Know our asses from a hole in the ground we do not."

Except, apparently if you're Samuel L. Jackson. This leads to one of the dumbest lines in the entire prequel trilogy when Mace Windu miraculously gets the jump on Jango Fett and proclaims "This party's over."  Really?  Really?!?  Why didn't Lucas just let him say "I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHERFUCKING SEPARATISTS IN THIS MOTHERFUCKING ARENA!" At least that would have been deliberately funny as opposed to unintentionally funny.

There are plenty more real-world references that always jettison me out of the movie like a malfunctioning escape pod. For example, it's dumb enough that some guy in the bar offers Obi-Wan "Deathsticks" but when you learn that Lucas's original name for this dude was "Elan Sleazebaggano" you quickly realize that not a single solitary fuck is being given. It also begs the question, did Elan change his name to suit his chosen profession or did inheriting such an unfortunate surname dictate a Freakanomics-style self-fulfilling career path in sleazebaggery? 

Later Obi-Wan visits the Anachronistic Cafe, has a cup of Jamba, er...Jawa Juice and meets up with hitherto unknown bestie Dexter Jettster, a short order cook and walking health code violation. Apparently this fat fuck knows more then all of the Jedi elders combined, which further serves to diminishes that once-hallowed order. Hey, put down that spatula and apron, my friend, and get yer rotund ass to the Jedi Library! Apparently dementia is setting in for that Jocasta chick.

"Dex, there's a fly in my Jawa Juice. At least I hope it's a fly."

By the time we get Saruman bombing around on a flying Harley, I was just like..."Okay, done! Check, please!" 

Sorry, let's get back to the dialogue. Now, I don't know if it was George Lucas's intention to make the Jedi, and Anakin in particular, sound like a bunch of antisocial hermits. Maybe he wanted to show that the cloistered and emotionally-stunted Jedi lifestyle is harmful to young minds. But eventually I'm forced to concede that Lucas is an anti-social hermit and this is the only dialogue he's capable of producing. He's like the H.P. Lovecraft of the cinematic blockbuster world.

Sadly, if the film had been approached as a legitimate Anakin character study and Hayden Christensen had gotten some decent lines, it probably could have worked. But as soon as Anakin gets Padme alone he starts giving her these creepy, stalker-ish glances and then follows this up with a slew of highly inappropriate comments. As such, you really can't fathom why Padme would be attracted to this guy, especially after he acts like a total dee-bag and then gets publicly emasculated by his boss.  

Things continue to deteriorate when Padme and Anakin are forced into a series of clunky, deus ex machina scenes together. Anakin pitches a hissy fit about Obi-Wan being a big meanie face and I think he even cries at one point. He caps off this mini meltdown with some of the most straight-up pervy leering ever captured on film...and I've seen most of Jack Nicholson's movies. BA-dum...tssh! 

An overheated Anakin, clearly pondering the rohypnol-style applications of the Jedi Mind Trick. Ewwww.

Eventually Anakin does get a few scripted moments that generate some sympathy with Padme. He carries her luggage, lightens the mood with some edgy astro-droid humor and then scores major brownie points when he tells her that the Jedi put severe limitations on physical and emotional freedom. But then he goes and blows the whole thing by telling Padme that she's been "in his dreams" for years, presumably the same sort of dreams that would necessitate the changing of one's Jedi Jammies™. Ewwwww.

Even though Naboo is probably the most unlikely place to keep Padme safe, it does give Lucas an excuse to shoot in romantic, real-world Italy in a vain effort to compensate for the dearth of chemistry between his two young leads. Actually, I feel kinda churlish bitching about this since it's one of the few times when we get see the actors in real, exterior environments instead of the usual green fabric romper room gussied up with gaudy digital curtains.     

Clad in a backless dress and alluding to skinny dipping and nude sunbathing, Padme inspires Anakin to give his notorious "I hate sand" speech. Despite being the target of the worst come-on lines in cinema history, she still decides to swap spit with the guy. The scene is so ham-fisted that it leads to an inadvertently funny moment when Padme inflicts snoggus interruptus on Anakin and the swelling, florid soundtrack suddenly just stops dead. The only thing missing is a sad trombone noise. 

Padme leaves Anakin hanging with an ignited lightsaber in this scene from Attack of the Blue Balls.

Anakin then continues his campaign to become the Galaxy's Most Creepy Bachelor by telling left-leaning Padme that galactic fascism really hasn't been given a fair shake yet. That isn't quite enough to get her senatorial juices flowing, so Anakin displays his aptitude for obese cow surfing and actually earns himself a literal roll in the hay. Is anyone else buying this crap?

Displaying further evidence that he know less about women than Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, Lucas dresses Padme up in this black, S&M fetish gear and then has her lure Anakin into some sort of fireplace-lit love nest / sex lair. Why didn't Lucas just put her in black yoga pants with the word "JUICY" embroidered on the ass?

This results in Anakin delivering some mock-Shakespearean dialogue by way of Lucas's damaged prepubescent brain:

"From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven't thought of you. And now that I'm with you again, I'm in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you, I can't breath. I'm haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating, hoping that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me. What can I do? I will do anything you ask."

Padme slips into something not even vaguely more comfortable.

In other words, Anakin has been reduced to begging for table scraps from Padme who keeps insisting that she can't fuck the guy because "she's a senator". Wow, talk about art not imitating life.

But, hey, hold on to your gag reflex, kids! 'Cuz about forty minutes later, just before these two crazy kids get wheeled into a fake looking digital arena to face certain doom, Padme suddenly comes down with her own case of  Juliet-itis. She tells Anakin from out of no-where that she's "been dying a little bit each day since you came back into my life" and that she's truly / madly / deeply in lurve with L'il Orphan Annie. Dafuq? 

But it's not enough that Anakin and Padme's story gets bungled, beloved older things get ruined too! Do you guys remember back in the glory days (I.E. before the prequels) when Obi-Wan and Yoda made us think that the Jedi Knights were all enlightened, noble, insightful and intelligent? Well, these new films make a compelling case that the Jedi were all just a bunch of emotionally dead, totally oblivious assholes who were about as useful as a screen door on the Millennium Falcon.

For one, I completely understand Anakin's hatred for Obi-Wan. After ragging on Anakin for doing impulsive and / or stupid shit, Obi-Wan then proceeds to ignore his own advice and hurl himself bodily through a plate glass window in an ruckless  attempt to catch the assassin droid. This also doesn't jibe with his earlier assertion that they're just there to guard Padme and not go after the killer. Hey, practice what you preach, asshole!   

"Okay, I probably deserved this."

And so much for the Jedi Knights being "guardians of peace and justice" in the Old Republic. Just check out the scene where Obi-Wan and Anakin work Zam Wesell over like Vic Mackey and "Popeye" Doyle. Then, of course, there's the genuinely disturbing moment when Mace Windu casually lops Jango Fett's head off with the same level of hesitation one reserves for hacking the greens off the of top of a carrot. And contrary to Mace's assertion that the Jedi are "not soldiers", they certainly have no qualms about sparking off and then presiding over all-out war by the end of the film.

Then there's a scene which virtually parodies Luke's training on the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.  Obi-Wan seeks out Yoda for advice and finds him training a pack of "younglings" (read: brats). We see this swarm of prepubescent larvae all clustered together, indiscriminately waving their little laser swords around like they're trying to crack open a "Minions" piñata at a birthday party. There's even  one precocious little snot in the background (who vaguely resembles Chunk from The Goonies) who's holding his lightsaber with the blade pointed directly at his own chest. Pity the fucking safety wasn't off...

Blinded by child-worship and clearly keen to patronize the next generation of consumers, Lucas has one of the lisping little imps school Obi-Wan on what happened to his missing planet. This prompts Yoda to gush like a senile Grandmother, saying "Truly wonderful the mind of a child is." Hey, Yoda, you wanna know what a kid's mind is really like at that age? It's like fucking mush. Creative, yes. Clever, sure. But certainly incapable of the kind of deep reasoning that you'd hope to expect from the adults in this film. That's why Palpatine never visited the Jedi Temple; those lil bloodhounds would have sniffed him out in a second.

Yoda orders Obi-Wan to grab a dunce cap and head to the back of the class.

Sure, the kids are on point but the elder Jedi clearly have no fucking clue what's going on. As if the Jedi don't already have enough egg on their face to constitute a Big Bird omelet, both Beldar and Mace flat-out dismiss Padme's assertion that Count Dookie is trying to kill her and then the rest of their condescending, neutered, ignorant brethren fall right into step with them.

I just love it when Count Dookie eventually gives a trussed-up Obi-Wan a crash course on Darth Sidious, which, to me, is about as Machiavellian as putting glasses on Clark Kent. Even if we buy the bullshit script convenience that the Jedi have had their insight diminished by the Dark Side, they still have working eyes and ears, don't they? 

But it's Yoda who comes off the worse here, by far. The script constantly forces the diminutive Jedi Master to admit his ignorance about Palpatine's persistently shady behavior, something that should be self-evident to anyone with an upright gait and a body temperature over thirty-six degrees. I'd chalk this up to senility but didn't all of this crap happen twenty years or so before the other films? Even though Yoda clearly thinks that Palpatine's sponsorship of Anakin stinks worse then a pile of dead Jawas, the little green bastard just sits there and says absolutely nothing.

"Suspicious Palpatine is. Confront him I should. But first, find my car keys I will."

Plus, based on his teachings in Empire, I never in my worst nightmares ever expected the wise, Zen-like Jedi Master to utter such boring, mock-tactical, junk dialogue as:
  • "Around the survivors, a perimeter create!"
  • "To the forward command center take me!" 
  • "Concentrate all your fire on the nearest starship!"    
Then they commit the single dumbest travesty of the entire prequel trilogy: they give Yoda a tiny l'il lightsaber. As Empire firmly established, Yoda always saw weapons as crude toys that were beneath him. But here he's reduced to wielding a paring knife-sized laser-sword and leaping around like Super Grover after a flat of Red Bull.

But the Jedi aren't the only things that get borked into oblivion; the following once-cool things also get irreparably fucked, as if George didn't even know how to write for his own universe:
  • During Obi-Wan's tour through the Kamino klone kartoon, we learn that the notorious stormtroopers are actually a bunch of Kiwis.  
  • We also discover that Boba Fett isn't Mandalorian after all, but Māorian. This one really pisses me off since it resulted in voice actor Jason Wingreen being ret-conned out of The Empire Strikes Back as the original voice for Boba Fett. It's heartbreaking to hear Jason recount this story about getting the job, which has since been relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history. 
  • R2-D2 has fucking rocket booster jets?!?  Man, that could have come in handy in, oh, I dunno, THE ENTIRE ORIGINAL TRILOGY. 
  • The C-3PO / battle droid head switch is the greatest indignity the character has ever suffered.  And I've seen the Droids cartoon. 
It's scenes like this that convince me that George Lucas is just fucking around with all of us.

While all of this is happening we're subjected to an endless parade of idiocy that makes The Phantom Menace look like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For example, why does Padme's decoy apologize for "failing her"? As a decoy, isn't it her job to get blown up instead of the Senator? Plus, for someone who's supposedly in constant danger of assassination, Padme sure likes livin' on the edge. She has a one-eyed bodyguard with no depth perception, dresses in distinctive costumes and hangs out in an apartment with more windows then Trump Tower.

Maybe she knows just how brain damaged her assassins are. Despite the fact that Jango is presented to us as a total bad-ass, he sub-contracts Zam Wesell out to kill Padme. Why he doesn't just jetpack to Padme's apartment and tap on her bedroom window with A FUCKING ROCKET is beyond me. Clearly accuracy isn't an issue for Jango since later on he tags Zam with a tiny poisoned dart from what looks like a hojillion miles away. 

Instead of going with "Plan A" he gives Zam a snack pack of killer centipedes (?) to deposit into Padme's room while she's sleeping. So, just as Obi-Wan and Anakin are summing up their fifth and final stupid line of tin-eared dialogue, they sense the intruders, rush in and dispatch the critters with ease. See what I mean? If Jango had just cared enough to send a ROCKET-O-GRAM in the first place the whole thing would have been over and done with and could have all gone home early.

"Special delivery, sweetheart!"

Oh, and let's come back to Obi-Wan crashing through Padme's picture window like Batman. How did he know that the assassin droid wouldn't shoot straight up into the air or turbo-boost away from his leap? Better yet, how did he know that the droid could support his weight? The thing could have plummeted to earth like a sparrow being tackled out in mid-air by Val Kilmer. 

Zam is also quickly revealed as a rank and file moron. She manages to ditch Obi-Wan and Anakin in a busy bar but instead of taking this as an opportunity to escape, she tries to shoot Obi-Wan in the back. That's like Suge Knight trying to cap a police officer in the back of the skull on a busy night at 1 OAK. Actually, we need to add Jango to the dipshit list as well since he could have easily doubled back to Padme's apartment and ganked her now-unprotected ass. Seriosuly, none of this shit makes any sense.  

Want more examples? For no other reason except to shoe-horn two characters together, the Jedi Council gives Anakin the delicate task of escorting Padme to Naboo which, need I remind you, is the planet that capitulated quicker then France in Episode I. Clearly Padme's life is in terrible danger so why don't they just lock her up inside a Panic Room in the heart of the Jedi Temple?

The only thing more indefensible than an open field is this stupid script.

And then, just before Padme leaves, she confers all of her senatorial powers to that brain-damaged, cock-holster Jar Jar Binks. And with that, my last hope that there was at least one intelligent person in the galaxy started circling down the drain.

Now, since Lucas doesn't have a smidgen of Irvin Kershner's directorial flair, he's forced to borrow visual cues from previous entries in a vain effort to keep viewers engaged. Sure, Obi-Wan and Jango's asteroid duel is superficially exhilarating, but it cribs shamelessly from The Empire Strikes Back without generating any of the same peril or suspense. And even though Jango is a crack shot with a dart, he really needs to turn in his marksmanship badge after failing to annihilate Obi-Wan with those twin Bushmaster laser guns.

By the time we get to the big, dumb ending the inconsistencies start piling up at a dizzying rate. Sure, we know where the clones came from but where did Yoda get all of the shuttles, tanks, command centers and Godzilla-killing laser cannons? "Award the lucrative defense contract to Lockheed Martin did I!" How the fuck did Padme know that Dookie was headed for a "hanger" after she got thrown out of the shuttle? How did all of those foreign-looking Jedi strategically place themselves around that huge arena without being noticed, especially when they stand out like Bill Gates at a Drake concert. 

Nope. Not conspicuous at all.

But perhaps the movie's worst sin is that it's a black hole of visual cinematic story telling. The non-mystery surrounding Count Dookie is a perfect example of this.

Padme: Do you have any idea who was behind this attack?
Mace Windy: Our intelligence points to disgruntled spice miners on the moons of Naboo.
Padme:  I think that Count Dooku was behind it.
Beldar: He is a political idealist, not a murderer.
Mace Windshield: You know, milady, Count Dooku was once a Jedi. He couldn't assassinate anyone. It's not in his character.

Now it's bad enough that these conversations sound completely stilted and unnatural, but what's much worse is that George is telling us how to feel about something instead of showing us something and letting us make up our own mind how we feel towards it. Ergo, if we'd actually seen Count Dookie do something in the previous film or at the start of this movie then maybe we could have formed our own opinion about the guy. 

I find it especially sad to watch Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen gamely bash out one stilted, utilitarian, contraction-free line after another in a vain effort to convince us that they're "best buds". This is summed up in the scene where Obi-Wan and Anakin reminisce about all the fun adventures they've had together since The Phantom Menace en route to Padme's er...pad.

Obi-Wan: You seem a little on edge.
Anakin: Not at all.
Obi-Wan: I haven't felt you this tense since we fell into that nest of gundarks.
Anakin: You fell into that nightmare, Master, and I rescued you, remember?
Obi-Wan: Oh, yes. (chuckles)

"OooOoo.. and then there was that time when we got drunk on Hoth and you stuck your whole arm up that Tauntaun's a..."
"You don't need to bring that up, my young Padawan."

Pity we don't get to see this gundark scrap since it sounds like a pretty epic dude bro bonding moment. What we do see moments later is a very awkward public spat between Anakin and Obi-Wan that makes it seem as if they can't stand ot be in the same room with one another.

Not long after, we see Obi-Wan, Yoda and Mace PhotoShopped into a Jedi Temple desktop pic. They casually stroll around and talk about Anakin's increasing volatile behavior but let it slide once again thanks to this nebulous and cryptic "Balance of the Force" prophesy. Once again, Lucas opts to play "keep away" with any pertinent details, most likely because even he has no clue what he's on about.

Later, amidst the equally fake and cartoonish environs of Kamino, we get several maddening references to some dude named Sifo Dyas. Once again, Lucas does the screenwriting equivalent of "neener, neener, neener" and refuses to disclose any helpful information about this guy. And don't you even dare say that the answer is in some cartoon, comic book or Expanded Universe novel or I swear I'll track you down, march up to your house, ring your door bell and then punch you right in the pee-hole.   



Speaking of fake and cartoonish, the actions scenes are so laden with CGI that you never feel as if the characters are in a real environment and subsequently in any peril. The tone for this is set right out of the gate during the Obi / Anakin / Zam Wesell chase. Physics and logic are quickly dispensed with and the rest of the sequence is about as engaging as a cutscene from Assassin's Creed.

But it gets much, much worse. The droid assembly line set piece is totally pointless and by the end of it, you're fifty percent bored and fifty percent exhausted. Now I've used the "video game" analogy before but this time I'll be even more specific and go call this whole segment a "platformer". Uh-uh! Anakin totally borked his boss fight against Jango and the Destroyers! OooOooo, what a great name for a band! Sorry, it's easy to get distracted. Bottom line is: you know this movie's in trouble when C-fucking-3PO features prominently in the action. 

Then there's the entire arena sequence which is just a bloated, fake-looking mess designed for people with terminal ADD. Ergo, there's nothing going on here that a normal, empathetic human being can relate to. Ergo, our desire to give a shit about what's happening on screen is seriously diminished. Then, like a hypoglycemic kid on a Froot Loop bender, Lucas give us yet another seizure-inducing pitched battle between two armies of clones and droids that we care little to nothing about.

The clones attack...and I fall asleep.

As already established in The Phantom MenASS, Lucas continues to pursue a life-time dream of purging those bothersome flesh and blood actors from the big screen. No sooner do the Jedi arrive at Padme's flat, then we're forced to endure a greeting by that cock-smack Jar Jar Binks, resulting in an instant one-star demerit for the film. In a clear invitation for fans to tuck into a heaping bowlful of Penis™-brand cereal, Lucas reveals that it's none other then Monsieur Binks who's responsible for the single most cataclysmic decision in the entire saga. How the fuck can the Senate take this clueless twat seriously after he addresses them as "dellow fellowgates"?

And, hey, we get to see Watto again! Yep, still an incredibly insulting racial stereotype! Replaced by a digital doppelganger, Yoda now looks about as realistic as a character from ReBoot. And who can forget Dexter Jettster? Everybody? Right, I forgot, he's completely disposable. It's here that I really have to pause for a second and praise Ewan McGregor; clearly he gives a shit and he's trying his best. Despite being paired up with a giant computer-generated basilisk who's neck waddle always reminds me of a certain flannel-clad director, McGregor sells it to the (lightsaber) hilt and makes the scene tolerable to sit through.

Now at one point during the scrap between Obi-Wan and Jango I actually started to feel a fleeting sense of happiness and disorientation when I realized that I was watching something that vaguely resembled a Star Wars movie. Despite the completely fraudulent-looking digital backdrops, it's still a tense, fun scene. Again, I'm tempted to give Ewan more credit here, but I honestly don't know if it's him half the time or some sort of digital stuntman.

Will the real Ewan McGregor please stand up, please stand up?

And then there are the drunken tonal shifts that have plagued every single one of George's movies since Return of the Jedi. In a sequence that gets a lot of mileage from nostalgia, Anakin goes back to Tatooine to rescue his moms. For one brief moment we're back in the guy's corner, that is until he snaps and commits genocide. I can't say that I blame him, though, since he does find Shmoo trussed up by the Sandpeople like a Pledge Night rookie at an S&M club.  Honestly, is there anyone still left out there who thinks these movies are "just for kids"? 

Just like in Jedi when the fucking Ewoks started acting like assholes during Endor battle, every single bit of dramatic tension in the film just drains away whenever C-3PO is on screen. I really love how the protocol droid's incessant clowning and corny one-liners are juxtaposed against Mace Window's brutal decapitation of Jango Fett. "Hey, kids!  Wanna see the new Star Wars movie?  It's got some funny bits with C-3PO! Oh, and some traumatic scenes of parental murder.

The sad fact of the matter is that Attack of the Clones is a colossal piece of junk, and I'm not talking about an endearing piece of junk like the Millennium Falcon. It's a cinematic shit-heap with little redeeming value. It's not just bad as a Star Wars movie, it's straight-up bad cinema. In fact, it's just about as bad as a series of consecutive moving images strung together to tell a story can possibly be.

I'm hoping that my next review will be The Force Awakens. I'm going into that one with a "there's- nowhere-to-go-from-here-but-up" attitude but, as Clones will attest, I've been burned by blind optimism before.

Tilt: down.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" by David Pretty


1999: a year of hope for Star Wars fans across the galaxy. Two years prior the classic trilogy was re-released to much fanfare, driving nostalgic Gen X-ers into a slavering frenzy for new content. When the teaser trailer for Episode I dropped in November of 1998, people were so starved for a few fleeting glimpses of George Lucas's table scraps that they bought tickets to movies like Meet Joe Black, watched the trailer and then promptly walked out of the theater again.

Although not nearly as rabid, I also got caught up in the hype machine. Completely entranced by the dazzling full-length trailer that followed I dared to dream that The Phantom Menace would be a worthy addition to the hallowed Star Wars pantheon. I rushed out on opening day to see it and came out the other side feeling slightly baffled. Assuming that I'd missed something profound, I decided to see it again. And again.

I was such a died-in-the wool Phantom Menace fanboy apologist was I that kept watching the movie over and over again to try and convince myself that it was good. This led to some incredibly awkward conversations with some of my closest but obviously more discriminating friends:

Dean: Jar-Jar sucks Death Star-sized balls.
Me: Actually, Dean, I beg to differ. I believe that George Lucas really wanted to do something different this time out so he came up with lighter and more comedic side-kick character to contrast with, say, Chewbacca...
A Friend: Jesus Christ, man, listen to yourself! You're defending a clumsy, goofy, irritating, mentally challenged cartoon duck with rabbit ears that destroys all tension and drama whenever he's on screen! Get George Lucas's dick out of your mouth and see the movie for what it is already! 

"Oh, mooey, mooey, I love you!"

Eventually I had to admit that he was absolutely right. This long-awaited prequel was infected with the same tragic palsy that neutered Return of the Jedi, hobbled Willow and rendered those two supremely shitty Ewok T.V. movies virtually un-watchable. This dreaded condition, which I'll call "Lucasitis", first emerged from the bowels of Marin County California circa 1982. When a film is diagnosed with this affliction the prognosis is crippling if not outright terminal.

But before we move on to cataloging the symptoms, we have to indulge in some back-story. 

Back in the late Sixties, it was George's cinematic mentor Frances Ford Coppola who first recognized a major chink in his protege's creative arsenal: he couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. Coppola's best advice to George is that he had to learn how to write in order to be a decent film-maker. Unfortunately, the first first thing Lucas turned in was the cold, sterile and impenetrable THX-1138. Sure, it had some cool production design, editing and visuals but it read as if it was written by a habitual shut-in. Does any of this sound familiar?

When THX-1138 understandably tanked at the box office, Coppola challenged Lucas to come up with something with more mainstream appeal. By all accounts, American Graffiti started off as a great concept and a solid story but the dialogue was pretty heinous. Mercifully screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz came in manage to make it sound as if real human beings were talking to one another. The recipe worked perfectly and the film turned out to be a huge success.

George Lucas should have a shrine dedicated to these two at Skywalker Ranch.

This gave Lucas an opportunity to lens his dream project: a technically-updated homage to the Buster Crabe Flash Gordon serials of his childhood. Unfortunately the first script he turned in was a rambling, bloated mess. Don't believe me? Then I dare you to click on the following link and try to read just one page of the gibberish you'll find there. Mercifully Huyck and Katz were once again called in to save the day and the script was eventually hammered into something vaguely film-able.

Talented screen-writers weren't his sole ally back them. In order to get this epic project bankrolled, Lucas had to collaborate with a host of talented actors, a contentious crew and a willful producer. Even fellow director Brian de Palma got into the act, editing the opening text crawl into something succinct and interesting. Like it or not, these tense dynamics resulted in the perfect conditions to produce a classic.

By all accounts, shooting Star Wars on location in Tunisia and Elstree Studios in London was a complete nightmare for Lucas. Studio pressure and logistical nightmares took their toll on him and at one point Lucas was hospitalized for hypertension and exhaustion. To make matters worse the original edit of the film was a static, lifeless, unmitigated disaster. Mercifully, the original editor was turfed and the raw footage was handed over to Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas, who was George's wife at the time. When ILM's special effects and John William's rousing score was added to the mix, the whole thing came to life and became a worldwide phenomenon.

Richard Chew, Marcia Lucas and Paul Hirsch won well-deserved Oscars for their editing work on Star Wars.

George was so poisoned by his on-set trauma that he gave Irving Kershner full directorial control over The Empire Strikes Back. Artistically shot, well-acted and expertly-mounted, the film is now regarded as one of the greatest sequels of all time. Unfortunately, Lucas was irked by the additional time Kershner spent with the actors and his set-ups. In the film business, time equals money and Lucas, ever the shrewd businessman, decided that he needed to be a lot more hand's-on for the entry. So, even though Richard Marquand was credited as the director for Return of the Jedi, Lucas was on the set just about every day.

By that time, Lucas was universally regarded as the sole creative "force" behind the success of Star Wars and his more vocal detractors had been purged out of his inner circle. As a result, Jedi started to creep closer and closer to the saga's bargain basement pedigree, I.E. the schlocky chapter-play cliffhanger serials that he was weaned on as a kid. This leads me to believe that Lucas keeps tweaking A New Hope because it was born out of adversity and collaborative "compromise".

I also get the distinct impression that he was downright baffled by Irvin Kirshner's reverential attitude towards the Grade B subject matter. Tonally, it's really hard to reconcile the drama, intelligence and artistic flourishes in The Empire Strikes Back with the rest of the series. Lucas also probably knows that he'd get pilloried by fans if he ever dared to alter that particular entry very much. To this day George seems unable to acknowledge that collaborative and creative fission is exactly what made Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back two of the best movies ever made, sci-fi or otherwise.

On oddly telling image of Gary Kurtz and George Lucas on the set of Star Wars circa 1976.   

So, by the late Nineties, Lucas was the sole arbiter in a cinematic universe of his own design. No one dared oppose him as he bashed out the script of The Phantom Menace on loose-leaf paper. Unlike Gary Kurtz and Howard Kazanjian before him, new producer Rick McCallum said nothing when George turned in a deeply flawed and low-rent screenplay. Indeed, no-one dared to tell Emperor Lucas that he wasn't wearing a stitch of creative clothing. As such, we shouldn't be surprised that The Phantom Menace arrived stillborn, the victim of an acute case of Lucasitis.

So what are the symptoms of this dread disease? Let's begin the autopsy, shall we...

(1) Lowered Expectations. There's a quiet, but powerful, moment in Star Wars when Ben Kenobi drops a few tantalizing tidbits about the fabled Clone Wars. For every child who heard this it was like lighting a fire in the tinderbox of your imagination. For twenty odd years we pondered what amazing revelations a hypothetical prequel would reveal, but I'm willing to wager dollars to doughnuts that it didn't involve taxation, trade routes and senate hearings. When people rightfully took The Phantom Menace to task for being underwhelming, Lucas actually had the temerity to blame it on "unrealistic expectations". Sure, the bar was set high but fan's aren't just gonna lap up your slop just because it has the words "Star" and "Wars" in the title.

(2) Actors Are A Necessary Evil.  Lucas has a clear philosophy: hire talented actors that require absolutely no direction so that your interactions with them are kept to a bare minimum. Not a bad idea in principle but it's terrible in practice, expecially when you see genuinely accomplished actors like Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor reduced to "cut and paste" puppets reciting the most dispassionate, boring, perfunctory dialogue ever committed to film. As Harrison Ford once famously told Lucas: "You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it."  Not long after the release of Episode I  Ewan McGregor was quoted as saying: "There was no spontaneity. Your job, as an actor, was just to get it out. I was frowning a lot. It just became a frowning exercise."  By no co-incidence, Liam Neeson nearly quit acting because he was tired being treated like a prop. Every Star Wars fanboy who complains about the performances in prequels really deserves a swift kick square the cubes. Even Daniel Day Lewis couldn't have done anything with this schlock.

Natalie Portman takes a bead on her agent, Ewan McGregor tries to remember where he parked his motorcycle and Liam Neeson urges Jake Lloyd to find a more fulfilling career in this pivotal scene from The Phantom Menace.

(3) It's Fine To Use Camp Serials From the 1930's As Inspiration, But Did We Really Need To Port Over The Racism, Too?  My jaw literally dropped when I first heard the Neimoidians speak. 'Why would Lucas make these characters sound like Japanese stereotypes from Back To Bataan?' I though to myself. My horror only deepened moments later when Jar Jar Binks, nothing more than a walking, talking Stepin Fetchit parody, came flailing onto the screen. I honestly don't think that George Lucas has a racist bone in his body but this is just one example of the sort of supremely stupid shit that would have gotten weeded out early if The Phantom Menace had been produced in a normal creative environment.

(4) "WON'T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!?! A Little Bit Less, I Mean."  Actually let's talk about Mr. Binks for a minute since he's a major indicator of George's head space at the time. As much as fanboys want to deny this, Star Wars is intended for kids, but it's important to note that Lucas didn't become a dad until 1981. By the time he sat down to write the Phantom Menace in 1994, he'd been marinating in parenthood for about fifteen years and, more importantly,  he'd just adopted a one-year-old boy named Jett. Like most kids, Jett exhibited a pretty vivid imagination as soon as he started to talk. After all, he's the one credited with coming up with the Gungan race and the character of Jar Jar Binks and I suspect that he probably told his doting papa all about it in the cutest Pidgin English imaginable. Completely besotted by fatherhood, Lucas decided to import the creative ramblings of a child into the most anticipated film in cinema history. At the time someone needed to remind him that there's a big difference between child-like and childish. After all the original trilogy was also kid catnip, it just wasn't marketed directly to toddlers.

(5) CGI Characters Never Ask For Their "Motivation." To add to point # 2, CGI monstrosities like Jar Jar Binks really demonstrates George's borderline contempt for flesh and blood actors. It's not bad enough to have Jar Jar competing with them for screen time, but the annoying fuck has to constantly upstage people with his goofy pratfalls, manic screeching, flailing limbs, wanton shoplifting, overt fibbery, and just constantly fucking around with stuff that doesn't belong to him. It's like a giant "fuck you" to all the real, live human beings on screen who've actually dedicated their lives to perfecting their craft. 

"Yousen being in myen light, ookieday?"

(5) An Obsession With Bodily Functions. This annoying trend started with Return of the Jedi which featured several creatures belching as if they had acid reflux disease. In Phantom Menace, Lucas doubles down by having Jar Jar step in digital crap and then clownishly overreacting when another critter farts in his face. Look, I wasn't exactly expecting Bleak House here, but this is ridiculous.

(6) Tonal Schizophrenia. By casting a ten year old as Anakin, including Jar Jar as a pivotal character and consistently stooping to infantile humor, you'd be forgiven for thinking that The Phantom Menace was just a cynical attempt to get a whole new generation of kids hooked on Star Wars. That is until you watch scenes involving static senate hearings, a one-sided ground battle involving wholesale slaughter and some dude getting sliced in half. 

(7) Expository Dialogue.  "Coruscant... the entire planet is one big city. There's Chancellor Valorum's shuttle. And look over there, Senator Palpatine is waiting for us."  To quote uber-sarcastic Han Solo in a much better movie: "I'm glad you're here to tell us these things!"

"Coruscant... the big shitty."

(8) Shitty Dialogue In GeneralIt boggles the mind that Lucas typed up the following chestnuts, looked at it and said "Yep. That's perfect."

***

Anakin: Mom, you said that the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other.

***

Jar-Jar Binks: Oh, mooey, mooey, I love you!
Qui-Gon Jinn: You almost got us killed! Are you brainless?
Jar-Jar Binks: I spake!
Qui-Gon Jinn: The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. Now get out of here.

***

Beed: I don't care what universe you're from, that's got to hurt!
Um...Lucas knows that there's only one universe, right? 

***

Sebulba: You won't walk away from this one, you slave scum!
Anakin: Don't count on it, slimeball!
Sebulba: You're Bantha poodoo!

***

Captain Tarpals: Hey, you-sa! Stop-pa dere!
Jar-Jar Binks: Hey yo, Daddy Captain Tarpals. Mesa back!
Captain Tarpals: No ah-gain, Jar Jar. You-sa goin' to da Bosses. You-sa in big doo-doo dis time!

***

I could have just as easily have cut and pasted the entire script here, but you get the point.

(9) Urchi-kid Skywalker.  I don't care what all you neckbeards out there think: Jake Lloyd did a serviceable job with what he had to work with, but my point is that he shouldn't have been there in the first place. As previous mentioned, I think George cast a ten year old partly because of the indirect influence of his own kids plus he probably though that it would be a sure-fire way to create a new generation of fans. One really telling moment in the Making Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace documentary occurs during the final casting session for Anakin Skywalker. Just check out the second kid at the 4:35 mark in the video right here; he's got a lot more gravitas and even vaguely resembled a young Mark Hamill. Instead Lucas went with Jake Lloyd because he was "edgier".  Personally I would have cast an angst-y unknown teenager since you would have gotten a more sophisticated performance and subsequently and more relate-able character. Plus it would have diminished the following major issue...

Who would have known that Luke and Leia's mom would have the same sexual proclivities as the average American female grade school teacher? Ewwww...

(10) Unnatural Relationships. Luke and Leia's "unconventional" relationship in the original trilogy has nothing on the inexplicable and profound weirdness that develops between Padme and Anakin. Think about this for a second: when they first meet, she's fourteen years old and he's fucking nine. If Lucas knew anything about women he'd know that Padme would be permanently repulsed by the concept of boning someone she first met as a ten year old kid. If anything, she should be crushing on Obi-Wan. But clearly the dynamic Lucas established in Phantom Menace shows that he knows less about women then Andy Stitzer from The 40- Year-Old Virgin.

(11) Everything Old Is New Again. Phantom Menace takes place thirty odd years before the events in A New Hope but you can't tell that by the film's visual style. Yes, things look cleaner and slicker but nothing feels retro or technologically inferior. Lucas could have used this as a great opportunity to world build and play around with continuity but instead we get the same speeders, droids, and blasters and we see later on the timeline. I think it would have been cool to see R2-D2 and C-3PO come straight off the assembly line and into the story as brand new, state-of-the-art iDroids. But instead we get absolutely no sense of progress, history or evolution at all. 

(12) Fleeting Moments of Promise Are Quickly Dashed. Even though the lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is heavily choreographed it looks fake and we've barely been given any reason to care for these characters and the jeopardy they're in, it's still one of the few moments in The Phantom Menace that feels vaguely Star Wars-y. Unfortunately the whole thing is undone in a flash when Obi-Wan dispatches the Sith Lord in one of the most implausible and inadvertently funny ways imaginable.

"Duel of the...*Yawn*"

(13) "I Find Your Lack Of Logic...Disturbing." Credibility is certainly strained when a nine year old kid wins a race that would surely kill Dale Earnhardt within thirty seconds and then single-handedly destroys a Trade Federation battleship. But there's so much more than that. Why would Jedi Knights be dispatched as diplomats? Aren't they essentially space cops, I.E. "guardians of peace and justice" in the Old Republic? Why are the Neimoidians risking their operation and, ultimately, their lives to help Sidious? Are they being paid? Bribed? Manipulated by the Force? We'll never know. Why do Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan take two separate ships down to the planet? Wouldn't that double their odds of getting caught? And how did they know that the two ships would land in the exact same place together? And how convenient is it that the Gungan city is within walking distance of the Trade Federation landing site? Also wouldn't it take forever to pilot a sub through the core of a planet to the other side? Why do the Neimoidians only assign a small detail of frail battle droids to guard the Queen, I.E. their most important prisoner? Why do so many Naboo people start dying so quickly? Is it because of the blockade? Well, that can't be it because the blockade only started a few days ago. Is the droid army killing people wholesale? Who knows? Once again, Lucas doesn't show us what's going on and as a result, we never feel involved in their plight. How does a ship's shield generator get hit when the shields are still up? What exactly is "leaking" out of the hyperdrive? Ignition fluid? Why doesn't Qui-Gon just sell the Queen's damaged ship and book passage off Tatooine just like Obi-Wan did in Star Wars? Or trade it for a smaller ship? And why does he take Watto at face value when he tells him that no one else has the part he needs? Qui-Gon refers to Watto was one of the "smaller dealers", so why doesn't he check with one of the larger ones? Why would Anakin build a virtually useless protocol droid like C-3PO for his moms and not something more useful, like a Roomba? Why does the Senate not believe Amidala when she tells them about the droid invasion? Didn't the Senate already send the Jedi to Naboo to investigate what was going on? What is the deal with the prophecy that will "bring balance to the Force"? Who said it? When did they say it? With the Jedi reigning supreme right now, wouldn't it be a really bad idea to "bring balance to the Force"?  Ergo, why is Qui-Gon so intent on training Anakin? Is he looking to win some sort of Jedi Nobel Peace Prize? Why can't Obi-Wan sprint to his master's aide during the duel with Maul like he did at the start of the film? It's pretty clear that Obi-Wan doesn't trust Anakin at all, so why would he agree train him, even when Qui-Gon makes him take an oath? Even more critical: why does the Jedi Council completely change their collectively minds and give Obi-Wan carte blanche to train Anakin as his Padawan? Sure, some of this stuff is a little nit-picky but a lot of these are perfectly legitimate questions. Every movie, especially sci-fi, needs a certain level of internal logic otherwise the whole edifice falls apart and you're left with a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

(14) Hideously Bad Continuity Errors. As a it turns out a lot of re-shoots were required in order to make the film even vaguely watchable. One major indicator of this is the frequent and drastic changes to Ewan McGregor's hair style. In one scene it's spiky and normal looking and in the next it's reddish and slicked back. There are even some scenes in which he looks older and chunkier than previous scenes. It's so detracting and so glaringly obvious that it never fails to jettison me out of the movie every time I watch it.  Which isn't very often.

(15) Who Am I Rooting For Here?  Unlike the classic trilogy, there's no "everyman" character like for the audience to get emotionally invested in. Jake Lloyd's Anakin is too young for most people to relate to, plus he vanishes for long stretches of screen time. Liam Neeson might get top billing as Qui-Gon but his character is a black hole of personality. It's bad enough that he's stoic, pig-headed, and dull but he also has no qualms engaging in child endangerment, illegal betting, fraud, and abandoning a child's mother to a miserable life of indentured servitude. Ewan McGregor's spot on Alec Guinness impersonation is likewise wasted on a whiny second banana role. Buried under pounds of geisha makeup and costumes, the normally delightful and animated Natalie Portman was clearly instructed to just let her dialogue tumble out of her face without a hint of panache. The Phantom Menace has absolutely no likeable characters which, in turn, keeps us at arms length from the proceedings.

"Pyew! Pyew! Pyew!"

I could go on, but what's the point? For the sake of full disclosure, the film isn't a complete write-off: the designs are solid, the costumes and props are great, there are a few cool-looking practical sets and John William's score, featuring the genuinely rousing "Duel of the Fates", almost single-handedly  redeems the whole sad mess.

Now I'm not one to say that "George Lucas raped my childhood", even if he did fondle it inappropriately. It's hard to hate or be pissed off at a guy who, by all accounts is a generous philanthropist, a good family man and a creative innovator. I just wish he'd handed the Star Wars prequels off to someone else, someone who had more respect and admiration for the subject matter. As such, I don't see The Phantom Menace as personal affront to our generation, just a monumental wasted opportunity to add to the grandeur and mythos of one of the greatest imaginings in film history.

Comedian Patton Oswalt says the the first thing he would do with a time machine is go back to 1995 and kill George Lucas with a shovel.  My feelings may not be quite that extreme, but I'd certainly like to have serious sit-down and chat with the dude.


Tilt: down.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1" by David Pretty


IN A NUTSHELL

Snapped up by District 13 rebels after the chaos of the Quarter Quell, inadvertent heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is slowly fashioned into a symbol for mass uprising. Unfortunately, her willingness to spearhead the resistance is severely curtailed when nominal love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) emerges as a mouthpiece for the status quo. Kiefer Sutherland's dad guest stars.

IN THE WHEELHOUSE

For the love of everything holy, if someone suggests that you watch this movie and you haven't seen any of the previous films or read the books, go out for some frozen yogurt instead. Why? Well, it's because your enjoyment level for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is entirely predicated on how emotionally invested you are in the saga of one Mistress Katniss Everdeen.


PROS
  • Production designer Philip Messina brings a level of devastation to District 12 that gives Katniss all the motivation she needs to become the avatar for insurrection. Also the sterile environs of the subterranean District 13 provides the perfect contrast to the ostentatious extravagance of the Capitol. Credit is also due to costume designer Christian Cordella for the frumpy but functional District 13 uniforms, the intimidating stormtrooper-esque Peacekeeper armor and Jennifer's bad-ass Mockingjay outfit.
  • Early on we're introduced to the President of District 13, Alma Coin, played by the always-watchable Julianne Moore. She does her usual outstanding job, selling the character as a commanding reservoir of strength and competence. She particularly effective whenever she's calmly issuing orders, bolstering Katniss or addressing residents of the District. 
  • Not to sound like a broken record, but Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress. She might not be subjected to yet another Hunger Games competition, but she does get to witness the brutality of President Snow first hand. In a series of emotional body blows, Katniss visits the ruins of her home District, sees a hospital callously flattened by Capital attack ships and then learns that Peeta has been brainwashed into a mouthpiece for the regime. Jennifer Lawrence sells all of these scenes to the hilt; delivering a level of emotional heft that feels quite genuine. But my favorite moment comes when she's told to act like a flag-waving partisan in front of blue-screen battlefield. Jennifer's "performance" is so calculatedly awful that it's downright hilarious. It's a welcome moment of levity in an otherwise morose and turgid film. 
  • Man, do I ever miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. His portrayal of defected Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee is organic and seamless and not once does he ever reveal the pretense of "acting". Your eyes are glued to him whenever he's on screen, if only to marvel over the the small, subtle things he does with his voice, his body language and his face to sell the character as one-hundred percent genuine. You want high testimony? I'll give you high testimony: he actually eclipses Julianne Moore. And that ain't no small feat.
  • After finding Josh Hutcherson's Peeta Mellark to be a complete irritant in the first film, I'm now completely turned around on the guy. Via a series of propaganda interview segments hosted by a comparably-sober Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Hutcherson gives us increasingly obvious tells that something is horribly amiss. He does a good job, especially when he goes completely off the rails towards the end. His trauma feels genuine and you really start to feel bad for the poor bastard. 
  • The supporting cast also adds a lot to the film's limited appeal. Since alcohol is banned in District 13, we're treated to our first glimpse of a stone-cold sober Haymitch Abernathy. It's fun to watch Woody Harrelson school Coin and Heavensbee on what makes Katniss tick, which allows her to become a more sincere and believable symbol of freedom. And since overt fabulousness is also banned in District 13, our favorite snooty fashionista Effie Trinket gets re-purposed as the budding Mockingjay's style consultant. You get the impression that Elizabeth Banks is having a blast dealing with Effie's ultimate nightmare of being like everyone else. Jeffrey Wright is understandably twitchy and nervous as Beetee Latier, District 13's answer to James Bond's "Q". As a former rival in the Games, Katniss is still leery about BeeTee's motivations but he's clearly passed inspection by the end of the movie. And since I've been a fan of hers ever since I saw The Tudors, I was pretty stoked to see Natalie Dormer pop up as the Mockingjay's film-team director Cressida. IMHO, her cool authority and on-screen charisma is a welcome addition to any series of moving images. Finally, sharp-eyed viewers will have fun spotting Eldon "Foggy Nelson" Henson (try saying that five times real quick) as the mute half of Castor and Pollux. Hopefully he'll get more to do in the next movie.
  • The sequence where the team drops in on the beleaguered District 8 is the highlight of the film. In addition to showing the audience just how far Snow will go to preserve his position, it also instantly transforms Katniss into a spontaneous and authentic hero of the people. Returning director Francis Lawrence does a great job with this sequence, infusing it with plenty of emotion and tension. By the time Katniss trick-shots two attack ships out of the air and then launches into a fiery anti-Snow speech, you'll feel compelled to track Donald Sutherland down at his next red carpet event and kick him square in the cubes. 
  • Speak of the devil, I relish any moment when Sutherland is on screen. As the series wears on and the stakes become progressively higher, he's bringing more and more passion to role of Snow. Just look at the gleam in Sutherland's eye when he tells Katniss "It's the things we love most which destroy us." The sheer despotic glee he exhibits is glorious and a part of me would be perfectly content if Part Two just consisted of Sutherland and Lawrence sparring over coffee for two hours.
  • Props also go out to Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne. Thankfully, his character has finally come full-circle, evolving from "Alterna-Hunk #2" to someone who actually effects the plot. Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong (as well as original author Suzanne Collins, presumably) give him a great scene where he recounts the Capitol's merciless extirpation of District 12. He's equally adept during the Tribute Center raid sequence.   
  • Personally I'm a really big fan of this "book to movie series" trend, if only because there's a consistent creative team and the story unfolds like a good novel. For example, the raid on the Tribute Center only happens because Katniss inspires a civilian uprising which destroys a hydro-electrical dam which, in turn, cuts power to the Capitol. This is in stark contrast to the sequels of yore which often boiled down to "more of the same but 'splodier".  

CONS
  • The movie suffers from a severe case of Hobbit-itis. I'm not entirely sure why the film was split up into two acts *cough, cough* money, but there's some really pointless and redundant filler in this script. Characters such as Mahershala Ali's Boggs and Sam Claflin's Finnick barely register as blips on the plot radar. Look, I really don't mind quieter moments on screen; it gives contrast to the inevitable bombast and gives a chance for the characters to reflect. But there are tons of completely superfluous scenes here that don't add up to anything. Sure, the hunting trip was nice a nice touch and all, but we've already established that Katniss was traumatized by the Games. Plus we get no less than two scenes where she rummages through the Victor's Village house. *Yawn*
  • The film's climax hinges upon the Tribute Center raid which is pretty tense but all of this drama is completely deflated when the team just returns to District 13 safe and sound. As a result, the real "cliffhanger" ending hinges directly on Peeta's wigged out emotional state, but it's just not enough to hang a satisfying finale on. 
  • I'm glad to see Katniss re-unite with her family, especially considering that Primrose (Willow Shields) is kinda the reason all of this got started in the first place. But did we really need a scene in which l'il sis is put into jeopardy because of a stupid, fucking cat? Man, talk about the world's laziest writing cliche. 
  • Much to my dismay, President Snow is still is the running for the "WORST FICTIONAL DESPOT" Award. Doesn't he know that people can easily be coaxed into an apathetic rut so long as abuse and mass murder isn't rubbed in their faces? And that's why I'll always find the dystopian state in The Hunger Games to be so far-fetched. As if the youth-centric public death-sports wasn't extreme enough, Snow fire-bombs large segments of the population, makes prime-time public execution viewing mandatory and then expects the average schmoe to just go back home, watch Netflix n' chill. And that's a major point that a lot of these speculative writers seem to be missing: when people finally realize that society has slipped into fascism, the biggest revelation is that it actually happened a long, long time ago. 
  • When Katniss and company finally go topside after the Capital attack, the so-called "devastation" took me completely out of the movie. It just looks like a rock quarry with a few burning mosquito coils placed strategically around the set.
THE BOTTOM LINE

If I say "Katniss" and "Peeta" together and the first thing you think about is an unconventional but satisfying taste treat for felines, then I urge you to tread carefully RE: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Even as a self-identified fan of the film series, this one really tested my attention span and my patience. Which is a real shame, especially after coming off the lean and mean Catching Fire.

However, if you've been following the Hunger Games cinematic saga up to now, I suppose this is prerequisite viewing before donning your "SUCKER" sign and dutifully marching off to the theater to pay for the other half of the story. All I'm saying is that it better be worth slogging through this pedestrian time-killer.

  

 Tilt: down.