Sunday, July 15, 2018
(December 1973, U.S.)
In 1973, I was six years-old, which means I basically knew nothing about the movies. I knew not what was hot and what was not, and as far as I was concerned, "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin was a new and popular tune and the history of the Great Depression was still an education that was years away. Paul Newman and Robert Redford were unknowns to me, as well. In fact, it's pretty safe to say that in 1973, the only entertainment that existed for me were SESAME STREET and MISTER ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD on PBS Channel 13. THE STING would not exist for me until the night of November 5, 1978 when it premiered on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. I remember it began an hour earlier than the usual broadcast start time of 9 pm, which meant I could stay up to watch a lot more of, if not all, of the movie on a school night.
Although I had some knowledge of what a con artist was (though as a kid, I would have called such a person a cheater), I didn’t fully understand the intricate plotting of the cons and scams that took place in the old city of Chicago during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still, there was a degree of fun and pleasure involved in watching a group of men that included Newman as Henry Gondorf and Redford as Johnny Hooker, who were scheming to con a large amount of money from Chicago gangster Doyle Lonnegan (played by Robert Shaw) who was responsible for the murder of their friend, Luther Coleman, a con artist and grifter himself. The film took its time in developing up the sets, the schemes and the performances that would ultimately bait Lonnegan into believing that he was betting his money on legitimate horse races. In the end, when they managed to pull off their con and I learned that Hooker was only pretending to be dead after Gondorf only pretended to shoot him, I felt a huge smile develop on my face, as if I’d been privileged to be let in on the whole thing in the end. This was, perhaps, the first time I learned what the craft of the twist ending and the big pay-off meant in screenwriting. In this case, it meant the good guys won and the bad guys lost, and that’s what was most often fun about the movies, even on television.
Today, the late George Roy Hill's film continues to prove just how effective the on-screen chemistry was between the late Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It was their second (and last) film together after BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID in 1969, and it’s a real shame they never worked together again. It’s a simple film that easily influenced others like it of crime, cons, scams, and heists, though none of them, in my opinion, come close to the charm and grace of THE STING. It can be called a stylish costume piece, but there’s also that right touch of deception and nastiness to remind us that it’s not just a tale of the innocence of a forgotten era, but rather a twisted reminder that in life, it’s not necessarily how you play the game, but how you ultimately win it.
THE STING won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1973. As much as I love the film, I still think that honor should have gone to George Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI (with all due respect to THE EXORCIST!).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Doyle Lonnegan: "Your boss is quite a card player, Mr. Kelly. How does he do it?"
Johnny Hooker: "He cheats."
Wednesday, July 11, 2018
(October 2015, U.S.)
Since late March, I've posted nothing but STAR TREK and STAR WARS films. I have to say, it's somewhat of a relief to be back on the planet Earth again (sort of).
I live in among a small minority of people who do not praise the giants of our modern technological world as heroes. Men like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates mean nothing to me. Perhaps my negative attitude is derived from the fact that I've never adapted well to the machines and devices of the 21st century that everyone else around me seems to be addicted to like junkies. Sure, I a computer for my job, for my writing and I own an iPod (two, actually) and an iPhone (for only two years now), but that still doesn't mean I don't enjoy the times when I can simply read a good book and listen to my favorite classic rock radio station without the need to check my Facebook status. Still, my purpose here is to judge the world of movies, and if they happen to take me inside the life of the man who seemingly revolutionized the entire way we live our lives today (damn him!), then so be it. But like so many other so-called biographical films on the life of any person, we have to take its content with a grain of salt regarding how much is accurate and how much is simply based on "true events".
I can start off by telling you that Danny Boyle's STEVE JOBS is a far greater improvement over JOBS (2013) which starred Ashton Kutcher as 'ol Steve (not that Demi Moore's ex didn't bear a striking resemblance). Irish actor Michael Fassbender bears little-to-no resemblance, but like Oliver Stone's NIXON (1995), lack of physical characteristics is wonderfully compensated with story structure, dialogue and performance. This is not a film about the life of Steve Jobs, but rather a carefully-crafted three act structure that documents three pivotal moments over the course of Jobs's life on the very day he was set to launch three of his most quintessential products. Act I (as I'll call it) takes place in the year 1984 shortly after Apple's "1984" Super Bowl commercial that made television history. As Steve and his tech and marketing team, led by Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet) are scrambling around like chickens without heads trying desperately to make their new Macintosh say "hello" to the anxious crowd, Steve is personally tormented by his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan who insists that her five year-old daughter Lisa is his. Steve rants and raves, denying that he's father, while still trying to control a world of technology that seems uncontrollable. Meanwhile, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak insists that Jobs acknowledge the Apple II team in his presentation. Jobs refuses, citing that mentioning a computer he feels is now obsolete, is unwarranted. Well, I suppose any of us that actually owned a Macintosh (I didn't) know of its history and ultimate downfall.
Act II jumps ahead four years to the year 1988, and we're caught up with the progress of Apple and Steve Jobs through authentic news coverage of the past. Following the Mac's failure, Steve was fired from Apple and has founded his new company NeXT. It's another day and another launch presentation, and Steve's personal demons don't seem to have improved. Lisa is nine years-old now and his relationship with her still feels strained, though he hasn't rejected her entirely, continuing to pay for the needs of her and her seemingly unfit mother. Apple CEO John Sculley (played by Jeff Daniels) insists on knowing why the world believes he fired Jobs, feeling they don't know the truth. Through much of the backstage antics, we learn that Steve actually designed his NeXT computer to entice Apple into buying the company and reinstating him. It would appear that the last four years have been spent as a building process for Steve's revenge against those who fired him. I can only say that if that account is accurate, I can't but feel a certain degree of admiration for someone who's not willing to stand by and allow others to betray him without penalty...even if it takes four years.
Act III is now ten year later in the year 1998 and the world is primed for the launch of the all-colorful iMac (again, never had one). Steve is back on top at Apple, is still full of himself, and Scully himself has been fired. Honestly, by this time, I've practically lost interest in the tech world of this film and am more intrigued to see what shall become of Steve's personal life. Lisa is nineteen and on the verge of attending Harvard as long as everyone involved can just get her tuition affairs in order. Steve's final redemption rings true when he finally apologizes to Lisa for the kind of father he's been to her, citing that he's "poorly made" (geez, the guy can't get his head out of the circuits for a moment, can he!). The film ends with his third and final launch of his new product that will continue to keep him on top of the world, but not before a great moment when he confesses to Lisa that he's sick and tired of watching her carry around a large Walkman and promises that he's going to "put a thousand songs in your pocket", thus verbally originating what will one day become the first iPod.
Like many films that depend on real people to carry out a film's actions STEVE JOBS is a highly intriguing and entertaining story in which effective dialogue and almost electric tension from a vivid man like Michael Fassbender and those around him allow the story to be told of a man who's never entirely sure of where he fits into the larger picture of life, both in business and fatherhood. Through the crisis of others, we can't help but feel just how important and critical everything in the computer world really is, even if it means nothing to us personally. I'm not saying this film will deeply affect how you perceive a man like Steve Jobs because that's depends completely on your own realities about him and how much of this film you want to accept as accurate or not. Simply put, STEVE JOBS is riveting entertainment on film because it works in showing us who a man like Steve Jobs could have been.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Steve Jobs: "I'm gonna put music in your pocket."
Lisa Brennan: "What?"
Steve: "A hundred songs. A thousand songs. Five hundred songs. Somewhere between five hundred and a thousand songs. Right in your pocket. Because I can't stand looking at that ridiculous Walkman anymore. You're carrying around a brick playing a cassette tape. We're not savages. I'm gonna put a thousand songs in your pocket."
Lisa: "You can do that?"
Steve: "We're very close. All I have to do really is wipe out the record business as we know it, and we'll be all set."
Sunday, July 1, 2018
(December 2017, U.S.)
At the end of THE FORCE AWAKENS, I and many other fans were left with high hopes and high expectations for the next film in the STAR WARS sequel trilogy. Luke Skywalker was back and we fully expected him to take his rightful place against the First Order. We fully expected to learn just how Luke's original lightsaber made it off of Cloud City and ended up in the hands of Max Kanata. We fully expected to learn that Rey was very likely the daughter of Luke Skywalker (I mean, let's face it, all evidence from THE FORCE AWAKENS seemed to point in that direction). We fully expected Princess Leia to be dead by the end of THE LAST JEDI because it seemed only logically since Carrie Fisher had died in December 2016, and it seemed only poignant and meaningful that Luke Skywalker's end would inevitably come by the end of EPISODE IX, thus ending the long and legendary saga that's been in our lives since 1977.
Here's what happened instead: Luke Skywalker never even left the island he was exiled on, his lightsaber has still not been explained, Rey turned out to be just what she appeared to be on the surface; the abandoned daughter of junk dealers (at least that's where we are with her character at this point in time), Princess Leia was still alive and well by the end of the film, and Luke Skywalker was gone! So, if it seems that I'm getting things off to a sour note here with THE LAST JEDI, you're not wrong. Like RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE PHANTOM MENACE, the latest film in the new trilogy is exciting and fun to watch, with good moments of darkness and drama that generally live up to our expectations, but flawed in its story, nonetheless. Maybe I'm being too judgmental about a trilogy that's not concluded yet, or maybe I'm just being a sore sport. It's very easy for fans to judge and discuss what they would have done differently, and I'm no exception, but it's still all difficult to swallow when you're expectations are hell and gone from what actually happens.
So just to sum things up here - Rey is still on the island with Luke Skywalker who refuses to leave, content with his daily routine of, well...nothing. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa and Poe Dameron, spend most of the film escaping attacks from the First Order (not too unlike the plot of EMPIRE, I suppose) who can now track them through lightspeed, while the Resistance ships burn fuel as they try to keep their distance and stay alive. Meanwhile, Fin and his new companion Rose are on their own secret mission to decode and disable the First Order's tracking device. Kylo Ren, son of Han and Leia, is (almost predictably) questioning his commitment to the dark side as he hesitates to fire upon his own mother during a space battle (didn't you also think this was when Leia would meet her doom when you watched the film's trailer?? I did!). Luke inevitably agrees to train Rey in the ways of the Jedi, but it all seems rather lame in comparison to what we've seen before during the prequel days of the Republic. One noteworthy exception to this is the newly discovered ability within the Force for Rey to project her presence to another location and join with others without actually leaving where she is. In other words, traveling without moving. This is an important plot point because it not only serves to show how Rey will influence Kylo Ren's actions against his Supreme Leader Snoke and take his own place in the First Order, but also in how Luke will ultimately fit into the scheme of things as he is repeatedly declared the one spark of hope that will turn the tide against evil in the galaxy, which I suppose turns out to be the greatest disappointment in THE LAST JEDI. As previously stated, Luke Skywalker never leaves the island and his moments of action turn out to be just one great, big illusion. To be fair, though, it is good to see Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher on screen together again, even if it's just for a brief moment, and even if that moment turns out to be one great, big illusion, too.
Like THE FORCE AWAKENS, I'm still asking the question of the purpose of the color red in the new trilogy. On the planet Crait, where the film's final battle takes place, the ground is rich in a red salt content, which splatters all over the damn place like blood in an '80's slasher film. Luke's appearance and confrontations, illusion or not, is exciting to watch, nonetheless, because it's a pleasure to see Mark Hamill back in action any way we can get it. But that pleasure is temporary because we're forced to deal with the fact that Luke Skywalker has passed on following his final battle. His death is peaceful, much like Yoda's on Dagobah. But since Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi were not final or forgotten characters ever after their deaths, I suppose it's safe to presume that the presence of Luke Skywalker isn't finished yet. The biggest question I have right now is how do they continue Princess Leia after Fisher's death? And just what are we supposed to presume is to follow when a STAR WARS film ends with a small child holding up a broom and gazes into space? Do we believe the children are our future...even in a galaxy far, far away?
And so, after eight films, and with the exception of ROGUE ONE, we're all finally caught up in the ongoing saga of what simply began as the story of a boy, a girl and a galaxy. But what are we really left with at this point? THE LAST JEDI is surely a passionate adventure with heroes and villains we've come to regard as traditional, if not cliché, and it can even be accused of lagging a bit in the second half, not nearly packing the same punch as its preceding film. Performances are solid enough, particularly from Mark Hamill who seems perfectly happy to be back home where he belongs, though I seriously question the casting of Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern in roles they don't seem to know exactly what to do with without the constant support of others. I don't know, maybe it's me, but I always felt that STAR WARS films were best helmed by unknown actors, despite the desires of some famous movie actors to have a STAR WARS film under their belt (even Samuel L. Jackson). And let's face it - subtle wit is one thing, but cheap jokes simply don't work in STAR WARS films, in my opinion. I mean, what exactly was writer Rian Johnson (also director) thinking when he decided to have Poe Dameron make what can only be described as a phony phone call in space to Genral Hux at the beginning of the film? I don't think I've seen anything that stupid in the entire saga since See-Threepio's ongoing bad puns in ATTACK OF THE CLONES.
I suppose all I can do is sit back an wait until December 2019 when EPISODE IX finally brings things to a close and confusing issues are resolved. That's my new hope!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Luke Skywalker: "Where are you from?"
Luke: "No one's from nowhere."
Luke: "All right, that is pretty much nowhere."
Saturday, June 23, 2018
(December 2015, U.S.)
THE FORCE AWAKENS can best be described in one word: redemption. Redemption for the sour taste that the saga's finale, RETURN OF THE JEDI, left in my mouth for decades (bad acting and bad dialogue!). Redemption for Han Solo and Princess Leia, whose characters I felt had been completely lived out by the time JEDI came around. Finally, redemption for J.J. Abrams. While I deeply admire the man who wrote REGARDING HENRY when he was still a kid and later created ABC-TV's LOST, there's not a single film of his that I enjoyed before THE FORCE AWAKENS. I also have to acknowledge what a challenge it must have been to be bestowed the legendary space opera franchise after Disney acquired the rights in 2012. How do you pick things up more than thirty years since the timeline was severed? What's more, how do you win back an audience that felt disenchanted and alienated by George Lucas with his less-than-embraced prequel trilogy? I suppose in all fairness, THE FORCE AWAKENS had plenty of good luck on its side from the beginning. The return of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were an immediate incentive. For myself, the return of writer Lawrence Kasdan at the helm (he wrote EMPIRE and JEDI, though JEDI had its many flaws) was nothing to sneeze at, either.
And so, thirty years later, we're all back in that galaxy far, far away we've known and loved since 1977. The Empire is long dead, but the First Order has risen to destroy the New Republic once and for all. Like the Rebellion, they are opposed by the Resistance, backed by the Republic and General Leia Organa. Luke Skywalker has also disappeared, and his sister has never stopped her desperate search for him. Like the first STAR WARS film, a charming little droid (BB-8) carries a secret message in the form of a map that will lead to Luke. The opening action also takes place on a sand heap of a planet, Jakku, and Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac) is captured after an attack on his village by stormtroopers led by the saga's new arch villain, a Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver). Like Vader, Kylo Ren hides behind a sinister black mask and is all-knowing and all-powerful with the Dark Side of the Force. What he cannot predict is that one of the stormtroopers, who we'll later know as Finn (played by John Boyega), decides in a moment of consciousness and righteousness, to defect from the First Order. Meanwhile, BB-8 meets Jakku scavenger Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) who, while simply trying to survive every day, knows that there's something mysteriously special about her.
After helping Poe to escape his captors, Finn and he return to Jakku to try and find BB-8, but end up crash landing the Tie Fighter they've stolen. Finn and Ray meet and join forces to not only survive the First Order, but to try and locate BB-8 also so that the ultimate mystery of Luke Skywalker's whereabouts can be solved. The film's true turning point is not just the rediscovery of the junked Millenium Falcon in action, but that all-too wonderful moment when Han Solo and Chewie return "home" when they board their beloved ship. Yes, we've waited more than thirty years to see the mighty Han Solo back where he truly belongs and now we've got it. Tell me that you don't smile yourself when you watch Harrison Ford smile at the sight of the cockpit he's missed for so long.
As the story and all-too familiar space action of any great STAR WARS film continue to lead closer and closer to Luke, Rey's true identity and past continue to mystify. We're given many hints that would indicate her own personal connection to Luke Skywalker (her father, perhaps) and the powers of the Force, which she progressively discovers for herself as she matures into a warrior that would rival the legacy of the Jedi's past. We're also reminded of the past by the existence of the Starkiller Base (Starkiller, by the way, was the last name for Luke that Lucas first came up with when he was writing the first STAR WARS film), an echo of the Death Star, with enough fire power to destroy many planets at once. In fact, during its primary testing of its fire power, I'm quite sure one of the planets that's destroyed is Coruscant from the prequel trilogy (am I really the only one who can recognize that??). Other questions that never quite answer themselves are just how Kylo Ren came into possession of his grandfather's (Vader's) burnt-up mask. And just how did cantina owner Maz Kanata come into possession of Luke's original lightsaber, which supposedly fell into oblivion when Vader severed his hand during their Cloud City duel in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK? She actually tells Han that that's a story for another time and another place. To date, we still haven't heard that story.
Like films of the past, the climax will come together in a pivotal lightsaber duel between good and evil, this time between Rey and Kylo Ren. These are moments we come to expect. What we cannot possibly expect or imagine (not without spoilers, anyway) is that Kylo Ren is actually the son of Han and Leia, who turned to the Dark Side after the teachings of his former Jedi Master, Luke, failed. What's even more shocking to us (again, only if we walk into the movie theater completely unaware) is that Han Solo will die before the film is over. This is a moment that many of us STAR WARS fans must face with a heavy heart. We've watched the mighty Solo in action for four films, and now the time has come to say goodbye to his character forever. We almost can't help but want to shriek ourselves along with Chewie at that moment when Kylo's lightsaber penetrates Han's body. Solo was a renegade who once told Obi-Wan Kenobi that he'd "seen a lot of strange stuff". But never could he have ever fathomed the idea that he would die at hands of his own son. The shocked and mystified look on Ford's face before falling into the abyss says it all. As THE FORCE AWAKENS comes to its moment of truth, we wait in anticipation for its ultimate conclusion. This has been primarily a film about finding Luke Skywalker, and find him we eventually will. In a final moment that is without dialogue, Rey and Chewie arrive in the Falcon to an isolated island and Rey climbs her way to discovery. It's been more than thirty years, and we know look upon the face of the legendary, if not mythical Luke Skywalker; alone, older, worn out, beaten, and unsure of what his ultimate destiny in the universe will be.
Admittedly, there's a strong sense of drama in the way I write this post. I think that J.J. Abrams intentionally tries to create an equal sense of drama in this film. He recognizes that it's been decades since we've been with these characters and it's surely a major challenge to not only pick things up after so long, but to try to account for a timeline we've been unable to be a part of for so long. There's also an equally strong sense of mystery and awe in having been away for so long, and yet one cannot help but feel cheated at the same time in our inability to have been a part of what's happened up until now. We're given the backstory of Luke's establishment of a new Jedi order and its ultimate failure that led to the son of Han and Leia turning to the Dark Side. We know that the love and marriage of Han and Leia failed, too (hell, maybe we even expected that), and yet it does our heart good to see Ford and Fisher reunited in unity and strength. Because even as we embrace new faces and fresh blood, we cherish the familiarity of the past in not only our heroes, but in our beloved droids, as well. THE FORCE AWAKENS reminds us of what STAR WARS was in the past; energetic, joyous, thrilling, surprising and filled with solid performances by credible actors (well, at least that was the case in STAR WARS and EMPIRE, anyway). It celebrates the STAR WARS of the past while finding new ways to expand and continue it.
Now let me ask a question that I still haven't found the answer to anywhere on the web. Does anybody else notice this bizarre, ongoing consistency of red patches on many things and characters in the film? Take another look and you'll see a red patch on the shoulder of Poe's jacket, a red patch on the shoulder of the commander of the stormtroopers, a red patch on the side of the Tie Fighter that Poe and Finn steal, and finally, an entire red arm on See-Threepio. This red is just too damn consistent to be merely a coincidence! It must mean something, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what! Somebody please help me with this!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Han Solo (upon returning to the Millenium Falcon): "Chewie...we're home."
Saturday, June 16, 2018
(May 2005, U.S.)
In May 2005, I was so excited to see REVENGE OF THE SITH, that I could hardly retain any other thought in my head. This was, after all (at the time), supposed to be the last STAR WARS movie ever. Set now three years after the start of the Clone Wars in ATTACK OF THE CONES, this was also to be a darker STAR WARS movie, with a PG-13 rating for the first time in the history of the saga. Anakin Skywalker was older now and steering closer and closer to what we all knew would turn out to be his ultimate fate of becoming Darth Vader. We also knew that his wife Padmé Amidala (I guess she never changed her last name to Skywalker after she got married - LOL!) was to be pregnant with twins whom we would come to know as Luke and Leia. Yes, we knew of all things to come, but we still couldn't wait to see the process in which it would all come down and the ultimate destiny the galaxy would face.
At the start of the movie, civil war is now in its darkest and most serious state. Anakin and young Obi-Wan Kenobi are on a perilous mission to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine from the clutches of General Grievous, who by the way, is perhaps one of the worst creature creations George Lucas has ever come up with, in my opinion. Forgetting for just a moment the horribly wooden dialogue that comes out of that stupid droid throughout the movie, his constant coughing and wheezing is enough to make Jar Jar Binks more than tolerable (he's hardly in this movie, thank goodness!). Following Anakin's beheading of Count Dooku, and Grievous's escape, the mission is nonetheless successful and our two heroes return to Coruscant, where grown-up "Annie" learns that he's going to be a daddy.
Anankin and Palpatine are growing closer and more trusting of each other, as Anakin slowly becomes disenchanted and distrustful of the entire Jedi order. The Dark Side of the Force and an overall plot to destroy the Jedi are sensed throughout the Republic and Jedi Council, particularly by Mace Windu and our beloved Yoda, though none of them can completely sense the role that Anakin will play in all of it. The dark times of good against evil finally come into place when the Emperor, having finally seduced Anakin under his wing and the Dark Side of the Force, issues what he calls Order #66, an implanted command that will turn the clone stormtroopers against the Jedi order with instructions to hunt down and kill them all. Anakin travels to the volcanic planet of Mustafar and eliminates the Separatist Council. Meanwhile, Palpatine, now the Emperor, addresses the Galactic Senate declaring the treasonous actions of the Jedi and that the Council will be restructured into the new Galactic Empire. It's at this moment that Natalie Portman, whom I still consider the worst part of the entire prequel trilogy (the girl can't act!), ironically states what I consider to be the best piece of dialogue in this film (and the entire trilogy, for that matter), but I'll tell you that at the end of this post.
Anakin's (now a pre-masked Darth Vader) turn to the Dark Side reaches its peak when he finally duels Obi-Wan with lightsabers, believing he and even Padmé to have betrayed him. Their duel is fast paced (too fast, if you ask me) and intense as it takes place throughout the mining facility and lava rivers of Mustafar. Upon achieving the higher ground, Obi-Wan takes position and manages to sever both of Vader's legs and his remaining arm, leaving him for dead, but not before declaring his sorrow over Anakin's turn to darkness and evil. Yoda, once again, shows us his skill with a lightsaber when he battles the Emperor and narrowly escapes with his life. Into exile he must go, and we know that will be the swamp planet of Degobah (though we don't get to see that in this film).
So now, Anakin dies, Darth Vader is reborn as the dark lord of the Sith, Padmé dies in childbirth (as Anakin envisioned in his dreams), and in the shadow of dark death, new life is born and their names are Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa. They'll be separated for their own safety, and Leia will be raised on the planet Alderaan, while Luke is raised by his Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen on Tatooine, until the day will come that they'll both meet on a space station that has just begun construction in space, the Death Star.
REVENGE OF THE SITH ends on a very dark note, but it does, nonetheless, bring everything that we've known about STAR WARS since 1977, full circle. It's surely the strongest of the three prequel films, though my criticism of its acting performances change very little from the first two films. Much of the dialogue is still very wooden, and like the first two, I still give the proper credit to actor Ian McDiarmid in the role he was built to play. Hayden Christensen, admittedly, is doing his very best to bring about a dark and tense attitude toward a character that's surely a big challenge to live up to, though there are moments where he's still behaving like a whining child. The entire film packs a far more serious and emotional punch than its predecessors and makes it very clear the global impact the actions of heroes and villains have, while remembering not to sacrifice any of the entertaining fun we've all come to expect from the STAR WARS universe. It was fun, and for ten years, we thought it was all over...we thought.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Padmé Amidala (listening to the reactions of the Galactic Senate): "So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause."
(I hope George W. Bush was listening to that when she said it! I hope Donald Trump is listening to it now!)
Thursday, June 7, 2018
(May 2002, U.S.)
Okay, it was three years later and it was time for all STAR WARS fans who were left with a sour taste from THE PHANTOM MENACE (not me) to see if things had now improved in the galaxy. But more important than that, it was eight months since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, and more than ever, we needed the magic, the fun, and the escape of George Lucas. We needed STAR WARS!
The story of ATTACK OF THE CLONES is set ten years after the events of the EPISODE I and the Republic is on the brink of civil war. Led by former Jedi knight Count Dooku (played by the late Christopher Lee), thousands of planetary systems threaten to separate from the Republic. After Padmé Amidala (no longer queen, but now a senator) survives an assassination attempt, Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker (played by Hayden Christensen) assigned to protect her, while his master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor again) investigates the attempt, while throughout the galaxy, the plot thickens that will brings the onset of the Clone Wars we've previously heard so much about. While Obi-Wan Kenobi plays detective to find out just what the hell is going on, we're learning of the pieces of the elaborate puzzle that is building the grand army of stormtroopers whose initial purpose is to defend and protect the Republic against the Separatists. We're also learning that it's Jango Fett (the father of bounty hunter Boba Fett), who's the clone host to the hundreds of stormtroopers who have been designed and programmed to obey any order without question.
Meanwhile, Anakin and Padmé are busy falling in love against all the codes of the Jedi order. As a love couple, I don't think I've ever seen a young man and woman so mismatched on the screen - like watching Alley Sheedy and Steve Gutenberg in SHORT CIRCUIT (1986)! Their lovestruck romp and roll around through the lush fields on Naboo would be tragic if it wasn't so damn stupid to begin with. Wonder what Julie Andrews would say if she agreed with my opinion that it (badly) replicates her dancing through the hills alive with music at the opening of THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)? Anakin's heartfelt confession of his love to her by the fireplace might almost be beautiful (almost) if it wasn't such a heap of wooden dialogue and if it also wasn't being told to the likes of Natalie Portman (the girl can't act!). Still, like it or not, their secret love (and secret marriage at the end of the film) is necessary if we're ever going to see Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia live and breathe.
Like THE PHANTOM MENACE, let's be fair with ATTACK OF THE CLONES, as well. There are many improvements over its predecessor, including a serious reduction in Jar Jar Binks time. Like any STAR WARS film, the thrills and action of battle (both in space and on the ground) and lightsabers never falls short. After twenty-two years since first meeting Yoda, we finally get to see him in action with a lightsaber, too, and it should come as no surprise to us that the little green guy has got some serious moves on him. Despite its enormous fun, there's a darker, more serious tone in this film as we watch Anakin slowly progress into the darker nature of himself as he grieves over the death of his mother and struggles with his forbidden love toward Padmé. Because we're witnessing events that we know very well will lead us to the galaxy far, far away of the '70s and 80's, it's important information, even if we don't quite understand all of it. And yet, there are still some surprises here and there. Never in our wildest imagination would we have guessed that it's ultimately Jar Jar Binks who's responsible for the rise of the Empire when he makes the decision as Padmé's representative in the Senate that Senator Palpatine should be given emergency powers to combat the threat of the Separatists. Well, congratulations Jar Jar PUTZ! You just gave away the perfect reason for the Emperor to not only begin design on what will become the Death Star someday (we get a quick glimpse with a hologram), but to also take power and control over the whole galaxy!
Like many other critics and fans, I too, find the dialogue and acting in this film wooden, stiff and quite cliché, though not nearly as bad as RETURN OF THE JEDI. I do, however, give the proper credit to actor Ian McDiarmid, whom I believe is doing the best he can with what he's been given beyond the character he's brought to life since 1983. He knows how to be the Emperor, it's that he has to do it while surrounded by many actors who are, at best, going through the motions. Even an intense actor like Samuel L. Jackson is reduced to really nothing more than a player in a grand video game (though I love the badass look on his face when he ultimately beheads Jango Fett during the arena battle on Geonosis. Perhaps by EPISODE II in our beloved saga, we should all be practically used to the idea of quantity of quality (seems a shame, though).
I must confess that until ATTACK OF THE CLONES, it never, ever occurred to me that the Empire actually rose out of the Republic. No kidding. I'd always presumed that the evil had taken on a separate birth and life of its own. I never imagined that the good that was once the Republic would eventually turn on itself and become the very power they were previously trying to fight and prevent. Is it me, or does that sound a lot like the current state of the United States under Donald Trump?? Is it any wonder images like this are all over the web...
Does this mean we need to dread our own Clone Wars?? Or I should I not overthink it so much? It is, after all, just a STAR WARS movie.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Anakin Skywalker: "You call this a diplomatic solution?"
Padmé Amidala: "No, I call it aggressive negotiations."
Sunday, June 3, 2018
(May 1999, U.S.)
History dictates itself. It was now sixteen years since RETURN OF THE JEDI. Young boys were men, young girls were women, the President of the United States was again a Democrat and the 1980s were now at the dawn of the new Millennium. In the fall of 1998, people actually paid to see a dud like MEET JOE BLACK simply so they could witness the new teaser trailer for STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE. Yes, my friends, George Lucas was back in the director's chair and with him came the return of our beloved STAR WARS universe!
But wait! Suddenly May 1999 arrived, and with the advanced ticket sales and overnight camp-out sidewalk lines also came a shock that no one in the enormous circle of fans of a galaxy a long, long time ago could have ever imagined possible - many thought the new STAR WARS movie sucked! Was this even possible? Yes, Lucas was already skating on thin ice by alienating his fans with his three 1997 Special Editions of the original trilogy, but could he have really given us an altogether bad movie? I had to see for myself as quickly as possible. Now, while I wasn't insane enough to stand on insane ticket lines just to be able to say I was one of the first ones to see THE PHANTOM MENACE, I and my girlfriend (later my wife) did manage to secure tickets to a late night show on a work night (this after already having seen THE MUMMY at another movie theater that same night). Needless to say, we didn't sleep much that night.
Long story short, I did not think THE PHANTOM MENACE sucked. In fact, I saw it three times that summer. But since its release, I've tried very hard to figure out why many people hate it so much. There are some obvious reasons that I can certainly relate to, the most important one being what a horrible annoyance a comic relief character like Jar Jar Binks is. To listen to his speech patterns, as well as those of his fellow Gungan mates is an exercise in patience and tolerance beyond recognition. For myself, however, I find him a lot easier to tolerate that the Ewoks of JEDI, which I considered nothing better than a cross between the classic Teddy bear and the Munchkins of THE WIZARD OF OZ (maybe that was the point, by I hated it, nonetheless!). I'm left with only the question of why comic reliefs have ever been considered a necessary element in any STAR WARS movie. There's also the plot element of Anakin Skywalker as a young boy, which left many fans feeling as if THE PHANTOM MENACE had specifically created for ten year-old boys and no one else. That may be true, but many criticized the original 1977 film of exactly the same thing. Then there's the Pod race which has been famously cited for paying homage to the infamous chariot race sequence in William Wyler's BEN-HUR (1959). While I certainly have no problem with paying homage to such a classic film that clearly influenced a man like Lucas, there's a matter of execution, and it can be argued that the Pod race falls short of any credible excitement beyond speed and mayhem. Finally, there is, in my opinion, the worst element about THE PHANTOM MENACE (as well as the two films that followed), and that is the poor casting choice of Natalie Portman! I've been knocking this girl every since her debut in THE PROFESSIONAL (1994) because of her childish, whining, and often somber demeanor in everything she's ever done on film (she's the single reason I couldn't sit through all of THOR!). Put simply - the girl can't act!
But now let me tell you why I defend THE PHANTOM MENACE against all those who seek to condemn it. One of its strongest points is its strong political theme. Let us recall that we are now in a galactic period before the rise of the Empire, and with that comes the necessary story of just how and why it rose in the first place. As logic would suggest, the rise of any political power usually begins with a single political crisis. The Trade Federation has upset the galactic order by creating a blockade of trade to the planet of Naboo, the home planet of Queen Amidala (Portman) in preparation for a full-scale invasion. Senator Palpatine (whom we also know as Darth Sidious) is playing both sides, as he seemingly seeks to solve the problem for the good of the Republic while secretly plotting to rise as the Emperor of what shall one be known as the Empire. We know all of this already from the first three films, and we're now witness to how it all came about. Political crisis and intrigue is challenged by the Jedi knights, including a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan McGregor) and his master Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson). While we are forced to sit through childish antics from Jar Jar Binks and even young Anakin, whom too many people insist on calling "Annie", we must remember that we are in the midst of crisis that inevitably leads to an uprising of power that will bring (unwanted) order to the galaxy. Let's also try to remember that, like it or not, we're watching a STAR WARS movie, and that always brings the excitement of laser fire, spectacular space battles and the climactic lightsaber duel we've come to know and love. THE PHANTOM MENACE offers us one of the best and most original duels, in my opinion, since EMPIRE, particularly in the use of the double lightsaber that Darth Maul (played by Ray Park) so expertly sports. I also appreciate the original look of the battle droids, which I suppose are meant to be viewed and appreciated as a precursor to the stormtroopers we're so familiar with later.
While THE PHANTOM MENACE can never be considered as fresh or original as STAR WARS and EMPIRE (and let's be honest, it would be practically irresponsible to try and make any fair comparisons between them), it does have the gift of fine British and Scotish actors as Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid, who reprises his role from JEDI. In fact, it's the diabolical scheming and plotting of McDiarmid as Palpatine that I find most enjoyable in the entire prequel trilogy, the character so well commanded in its dark intensity. And while we know the story and fate of young Anakin Skywalker already, having to sit through the likes of Jake Lloyd in order to have the story come to pass is, like Binks, an exercise in patience and tolerance. Samuel L. Jackson is a welcome addition to the cast that brings to mind the joy we first felt when we met Billy Dee Williams in EMPIRE and it's also good to see Yoda (and Frank Oz) alive and well again.
So, while THE PHANTOM MENACE may never find its way into the STAR WARS hearts of millions the way other films have, let's all try to at least be fair with it, shall we? If absolutely nothing else, it's a perfect example of Hollywood movie mediocrity: it ain't the worst and it ain't the best.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Yoda (to young Anakin Skywalker): "Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate...leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you."