Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, November 30, 2015

MEMORIES: Suncoast Motion Picture Company

Most people probably don’t anticipate their first job with much excitement. Most teenagers figure they’ll get a job at a fast food joint or a big box store so they can have gas money and some walking-around cash. Not me. I knew where I wanted to work and couldn’t wait for the day when I reached the right age. Suncoast Motion Picture Company was a place I spent a lot of time at when I was around twelve or thirteen years old. My love of film can be directly linked to it. I made friends there. Probably about half of my DVD collection was bought there. I really wanted that to be my first job. Unfortunately, the place went out of business before I could get that job. The last remaining Suncoast in the area, about an hour’s drive from my current home, closed up shop a little over a year ago. They’re all gone now. So let me regale you with the tragic tale of Suncoast Motion Picture Company.

For those too young to remember… Back in the days before you could just stream anything you wanted on Netflix, people actually had to go to video stores to buy movies. You could find VHS tapes, and later DVDs, most anywhere. However, if you wanted something a little rarer, one had to seek out a video store: Mysterious, long gone businesses with names like Sam Goody, Tower Records, Media Play, or Suncoast.  As you who where there may recall, these stores were usually located in malls. Mine was just up the road in the next major town, about a fifteen minute drive from my high school. These stores usually sold all sorts of items, like music or computer games. Suncoast was unique, in its total devotion to movies. The only other items they sold were related to the movies, such as film magazines, posters, or toys.

Also setting Suncoast apart from similar businesses was its atmosphere. At least the one I frequented, anyway. The store front had a large black border, shiny and partially transparent. The store name was above the entrance in red-pink neon lettering. A huge display window was to the left, displaying items usually tying into whatever the big release was that week. My Suncoast was located right outside of the J.C. Penny’s, so the glowing sign could be seen as you entered the mall. Moreover, the atmosphere of the business was entirely different then other video stores. There were monitors overhead, usually playing movies or TV shows. The sound was down though, to a soft murmur. The lighting was low, relaxing and calm. The general mood was laid back. Unlike other stores, where there’s usually loud music playing to encourage a mood of brash commercialism, Suncoast seemed to encourage customers to hang out for a while.

Something to remember though: It’s never the places but the people in them. My Suncoast had the friendliest staff I’ve ever known. The store manager was a guy named John, a jovial balding man in glasses that loved to converse with shoppers. John had a resounding, friendly voice that greeted anyone who stepped inside. My Mom and I were in the place often enough that it didn’t take long for John to be on a first-name basis with us. He liked a lot of the same movies I do, weird-o horror movies and eighties action flicks. He was friendly enough to joke around with. I can recall one time, I asked if they had Fritz Lang’s “M” in stock. John grabbed a copy of the crappy remake of “The Fog,” a release that week, quickly taping a piece of paper with “Fritz Lang's M” written on it. I can recall another time discussing “High Tension,” a new release at the time, and giving him a hearty recommendation.

There were other employees I became friends with. Scott was a tall, lanky guy with glasses and a slight goatee, only a few years older then me. When I bought the nifty “Book of the Dead” edition of “Evil Dead,” I can recall Scott sharing an anecdote about a friend freezing his copy for some reason, giving it a really weird texture and smell. (That was an experiment I didn't replicated.) Leslie was a short, heavy-set lady with thick black hair. She was more sardonic then her co-workers. She had enough problems in her life that I can remember my mom, a naturally empathetic person, having long conversation with her, discussing her strife and troubles. Johnathan was a sprightly young guy, a dancer and a singer. I can recall him leaving for two weeks, traveling to New York to audition for a Broadway musical. I also remember him returning later in the month, after learning he didn’t get the part, his ever-present confidence shaken slightly. There are other names I remember, like Bethany, a tall and skinny, fair-skinned redhead with a bubbly sense of humor. Or faces with names I can no longer recall, like the younger guy with the thick-rimmed glasses. Not all of them stayed for long but I remember them nevertheless.

Something Suncoast would do in order to bring in customers was give away free stuff with pre-orders of popular titles. Packed away somewhere in my basement are the 3-D lithographs I got from pre-ordering “X-Men” and “Titan A.E.” I’ve got framed film stills of “Shrek” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” around here somewhere, for the same reasons. One of my favorite freebies was Mez-Itz – small Lego-style figures – of Freddy and Jason that I got with “Freddy vs. Jason.” This was a routine that was eventually discontinued for whatever reason. A memory that especially sticks with me is, after receiving a pre-order of some sort, my mother jokingly asked for “free stuff.” John, grabbing whatever was on the desk, tossed a handful of stuff at us. This included a “Goodfellas” pin, a Mickey Mouse magnet, and one of those rubber sliders you put under furniture. This is but one example how the employees made shopping fun.

Part of the appeal of Suncoast and other specialty stores was things you couldn’t get at any of the big boxes stores. My earliest memory of the place is a rotating wrack of Godzilla movies, my fingers thumbing over the colorful box covers. The huge wall of anime-related VHS tapes is something else I’ll never forget. At the time, anime was only beginning to wiggle into the mainstream. Suncoast was the only place you could get “Tenchi Muyo!,” “El Hazard,” “Darkstalkers,” or a hundred other titles. To a developing young nerd, that made it essential.

Gazing over huge walls of obscure titles provided a sense of discovery that’s hard to replicate today. As DVD replaced VHS as the primary format, Suncoast shifted the store’s layout around. Separated by genre, the movies sat sideways on shelves arranged through the store. The horror section especially appealed to me. That shelf faced the inside of the room, across from the action section. I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted looking through the DVDs. I don’t know how much of my current collection I owe to that place. Lots of it, I’d bet. One memory that sticks out concerns a birthday spending spree, which sent me home with a lot of titles but especially Peter Jackson’s “Dead/Alive.” On one day, my mom and I ended up hanging out there until the close of business, unaware of how much time had passed.

My first Memories column was devoted to my toy collecting. This is something else I owe Suncoast. The store had a glorious wall devoted to toys and collectible. It moved around during the store’s lifespan. At one point, it was situation near the entrance of the place. Another time, it was caddy-cornered by the huge display of TV-on-DVD titles. By the time Suncoast went out of business, it was moved towards the back of the store. I’m not kidding when I say I had dreams about the figure wall, as I took to calling it. I would save for months, aware of what releases where on their way. Yet you never really knew when something would come out. The sense of excitement and anticipation is something a truly young person can only understand. Going home with a huge handful of collectible figures always made my day.

Inevitably though, things end. As Amazon gained prominence, more and more video stores were put out of business. We heard rumbles from John and friends that many Suncoast chains were closing down. Somehow, our local Suncoast stayed in business for years after these mass closures. Yet for a long time, the threat of going out of business hung over our favorite store and the employees we had made friends with. It happened, eventually, and bummed me out far more then a store closing should’ve. I don’t remember how John or the others reacted. I mostly remember being really sad about it. Any time I would be in that mall in the years afterwards, I would always notice the black frame that surrounded the entrance and think of the place that gave me so many happy memories. A Build-A-Bear store was there for a time before it became an athletic equipment business. Last time I was in that mall, the space was unoccupied, a sad reminder of what once was.

Now, the Suncoast Motion Picture Company is totally extinct. We live in an age of unbridled access. If you can't stream a movie, you can probably buy it and have it at your house in a few days. Sure, that convenience counts for something. Yet I miss the human element. I miss being able to strike up unlikely friendships with someone behind a desk. Or learning the names of those who work there, their personality and quirks. As silly as it is, that Suncoast store was a special place for me. If there are video stores in heaven, they probably look something like it did, comforting, friendly, and always opened.

Bangers n' Mash 78: Invaders from Space!

If you wondered why I randomly decided to review some alien invasion movies the other day, this is why.

Yep, it's a new Bangers n' Mash Show in which JD and I discuss alien invasion movies. It's a jam-packed episode and I'm pleased with how it came out. This is a topic we've been wanting to cover for quite some time now.

I may sneak out another update tonight. If I don't, you'll see me tomorrow. December 1st marks the beginning of the Christmas season... which means I'm going to try another Christmas movie marathon for the blog. It's usually a disaster but we'll see how it goes this year. See you soon, Film Thoughts readers.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Recent Watches: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

There was a time in the eighties when a number of respected directors remade classic science-fiction films from their childhoods. This is how we got John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” among others. Many of these were considered untouchable classics yet now, their remakes are equally well-regarded. Yet at no point did someone attempt to remake “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” proving some things truly are untouchable. Eventually though, Hollywood would realize the value of a recognizable name and try to cash in. A remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” rolled out in 2008, a very different era for science fiction and special effects.

Helen Benson, a highly regarded micro-biologist, is summoned by the government among with the other brightest minds of our generation. They are informed that a massive astral object is headed towards Earth and will strike New York City in a few hours. When the object arrives, it slows down and lands. A massive sphere stands in Central Park. A man emerges, shot by a nervous soldier. Soon, the visitor sheds his organic space suit and reveals his identity. His name is Klaatu and he has an important message for mankind. The government detains him, forcing the alien to escape. He teams up with Helen and they go on the road, determined to return Klaatu to his ship. Meanwhile, the military attempts to harvest Gort, the giant robot protecting the ship, with disastrous results.

Here’s the good news: 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is not an abomination. Here’s the bad news: It’s not a worthy successor to the original either. Instead, it’s overwhelmingly okay. The story is updated to modern times. The government is more aggressive in detaining Klaatu, making the alien more aggressive in response. The Christ metaphor is dropped entirely. Instead of hiding in a tenant building, Klaatu goes on the road. (This is smart as, in our post-Patriot Act world, it’s unlikely Klaatu could remain undetected while in one place.) The general outline of the plot isn’t too changed though. Klaatu still encounters a scientist, helping him solve his unsolvable equation. He still develops a relationship with Helen’s son, now a step-son from her deceased husband’s first marriage.

The remake really hammers home that last point. 2008’s Klaatu lacks the humanity of 1951’s Klaatu. Instead, the remake is largely about him learning the value of human life. He pauses at the beauty of Mozart’s music. While visiting the boy’s grave, Klaatu is moved to understanding. Instead of being a humanist drama about the good inside everyone, 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” features a cheesy subplot about a little kid teaching an alien to love.

Slow paced, thoughtful sci-fi wasn’t much in vogue in 2008. In order to match its big budget, much of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is transformed into a standard disaster flick. Gort has been given a size boost, though the design stays basically the same. Instead of just encasing him in a super-plastic, the robot is taken into custody. When threatened, Gort dissolves into a storm of nano-bots who proceed to decimate the world, breaking down our cities and structures. The hyped up destruction ties into the movie’s revised plot. Perhaps a message of nuclear disarmament wouldn’t resonate as much in 2008. Instead, Klaatu is punishing man for his mistreatment of the planet. Okay, so global warming and the abuse of the planet is a valid concern. However, this – when paired with the beefed up destruction – essentially turns “The Day the Earth Stood Still” into a standard, ecological disaster movie.

Despite putting a less interesting spin on the material, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” has one or two clever moments. Klaatu’s iconic space suit is now a fleshy, bio-mechanical creation. It later slips away like fish scales. As I said, the remake is smart enough to mostly maintain Gort’s iconic design. I miss the flying saucer but the giant, shimmering orb isn’t too bad either. As for the cast, there’s some interesting moments there. Jennifer Connelly, like she always does, gives a very committed performance. Though the subplot with the boy is fairly trite, Connelly at least attempts to invest the movie with some emotions. Though Jaden Smith has become a blight on the world, he’s actually okay here. What about Keanu Reeves? When utilized well, Reeves’ limited range isn’t a problem. Playing an emotionless alien feeds into his worst tendencies as an actor. Keanu’s Klaatu is flat and overly blunt. Among the supporting cast are some notable names, like a decently bitchy Kathy Bates, a typically eccentric John Cleese, and an underutilized Jon Hamm. Hamm probably would have been way better as Klaatu but I guess he wasn’t a big enough star in 2008.

The remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” stays just on the right side of a bad remake. It doesn’t miss the point of the original because it’s approaching the material from a totally different angle. However, that other angle makes the film into a generic modern day genre flick. The remake did alright business internationally but didn’t make much of an impression at home. By and large, it’s already been forgotten. In ten years, the original is the version people will still be reaching for. [5/10]

Friday, November 27, 2015

Recent Watches: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

When it comes to science fiction films, few decades defined the genre like the fifties. The Atomic Age was upon us and, with it, came new fears and anxieties. The monster movies of the forties and thirties usually looked towards mad science or ancient curses as the source of their threats. In the fifties, the world of science exploded, causing writers and filmmakers to look towards the skies. There are few sci-fi movies of this era more influential then 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” It’s look, story, and concepts would ripple through countless other films. Many films about visitors from space followed in the decade to come. However, few were as thoughtful or insightful as Robert Wise’s classic.

A normal day in Washington, D.C. is interrupted when the incredible happens. A flying saucer lands on the national lawn. An eight foot tall robot, who can deatomize rifles just by looking at them, emerges. Following him is a man in a space suit who wishes to speak with the leaders of the world. Calling himself Klaatu, he is soon shot by a soldier with an itchy trigger finger. While recovering in a hospital, he expresses a desire to speak with all the world’s leaders, not just the president. He has an important warning for the people of Earth. Soon, Klaatu sneaks out of government custody and winds up living with a widower and her young son. He continues to seek a forum for his message.

Compared to the alien invasion flicks that would follow throughout the decade, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a far more thoughtful film. Though the special effects are fantastic, the story is more about characters and ideas. The alien is not the aggressor but is, in many ways, the hero. Klaatu is an ambassador, with a diplomatic approach to the situation. He’s also a scientist, meeting with the country’s brightest mind and helping him develop his theories. However, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” doesn’t truly have good guys or bad guys. The soldiers who fire on Klaatu and Gort are scared. The governments that prevent the alien’s message from being heard can’t put aside their petty difference. Gort is simply following his master’s orders, protecting the ship. The film’s message is one of peace and cooperation. Klaatu reveals his message at the story’s climax. Earth must cease the use of nuclear weapons or face destruction. Coming off of World War II, it’s a message the world needed to hear. Once you strip away “The Day the Earth Stood Still’s” sci-fi allegory, it becomes a film about this: A nuclear war will destroy the world. The movie’s not wrong.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” is also a humanist film. It’s a story about cosmic circumstances set among normal people. Accordingly, the performances are top-notched. Michael Rennie has an interesting balancing act as Klaatu. He has to be alien enough to be believable as an extraterrestrial, yet he can’t become too off-putting. It’s a precarious balance Rennie achieves. Klaatu has the knowledge to resolve the most complex mathematical equation yet can still relate to a little boy. Patricia Neal is equally sympathetic as the widow that takes Klaatu in. When she learns the man’s true mission, she is surprisingly willing to go along with it. The script is smart enough to give every character a fair chance. The little boy, played by Billy Gray, is realistic for a child his age while maintaining an interest personality. Sam Jaffe is eccentric but sympathetic as the scientist whom Klaatu talks to. Even Hugh Marlowe, as the slightly antagonistic man courting Neal, has understandable motives. A flying saucer landing in our nation’s capital would probably be pretty scary.

(Also of note: The film’s obvious Christ metaphor. The human name Klaatu takes is “Mr. Carpenter” and, later, he rises from the dead. Not sure where the movie’s going with that, as Klaatu is not exactly a savior, but it’s more subtle then it sounds.)

As well-made as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is, most of its imitators would not copy the film’s thoughtful story line. Instead, it is the movie’s production design that would be widely copied. Klaatu’s ship is the iconic version of a flying saucer in pop culture. A dome that smooths out into a round plate, the surface level and metallic. Gort is one of the most recognizable robots in sci-fi. The machine’s skin is similar to the ship, with a stiff, stocky body that towers over everyone. Gort’s eye, a single visor that shoots a concentrated laser beam, is equally iconic. Even Klaatu’s space suit, with his baggy silver body and rounded helmet, would be copied endlessly. The commanding words that control Gort, “Klaatu Barada Nikto,” would become a repeatedly referenced in-joke. The theremin-driven score would also define the sound of sci-fi movies for years to come. Sci-fi movies looked very different before “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Afterwards, the genre would fall in line. That’s how effective the film’s production design was.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” is truly a classic, a beautifully written science fiction story with a powerful, meaningful moral for the whole world. The political environment has changed since it was made. Yet its message, about fear, peace, and understanding, remains relevant. Beyond that, it’s an extremely well-made picture, with moments thrilling, funny, and touching. [9/10]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Independence Day (1995)

Let me roll my “Why Do I Own This?” and “Memories” column into one for a paragraph. My strongest memory about “Independence Day” involves a birthday party. I honestly do not recall whose birthday it was, so I’m guessing it was either a school mate’s or a friend of a friend's. I remember the puke-green wallpaper in the back room of a sleazy roller rink. (Though it might have been an arcade...) I remember the kid unwrapping an action figure of one of the aliens from “Independence Day.” That should show you how disassociated with the kid I was, that I remember the toy more then him.

That’s how omnipresent “Independence Day” was back in 1996. The “ID4” logo was slapped everywhere. The image of an exploding White House was impossible to escape. I don’t remember many people owning them but the merchandise was still very easy to find. It’s one of the earliest times I can recall taking note of a movie’s box office performance. The film was a monster hit, the first blockbuster Will Smith scored on his path to becoming the world’s highest grossing star. All of this is despite “Independence Day” not being that good of a movie. Maybe that’s why, two decades later, the film isn’t that widely discussed. “Independence Day” mostly survives as an artifact of nineties nostalgia and an internet meme. Despite Roland Emmerich’s insistence on making a sequel – which is finally coming into being next year – the movie is far from a universally beloved classic. Which brings me to the central question: Why do I own it?

Maybe that success can be laid at the film’s easily understood log line. This is a standard-issue alien invasion story, the nineties blockbuster variation on “War of the Worlds.” In the days leading up to July 4th, satellite signals are being interrupted all over the world. This is because a giant alien mothership has taken up residence in our atmosphere. Soon, that ship sends its still-massive cruisers down to Earth’s surface, one floating over the capital of every world power. The public is both panicked and curious about the visitors, until they start destroying whole cities with their massive death rays. Now, a divergent group of people – the President of the United States, a newly-wed fighter pilot, an eccentric tech expert, an alcoholic crop duster – come together to protect what remains of Earth from the hostile invaders.

Certain scenes in “Independence Day” left a bad taste in my mouth upon this viewing, the first time I’ve seen the movie in probably a decade. Modern blockbusters thrive on images of urban destruction. I don’t know how many essays have been written about “destruction porn” but it’s a common topic. “Independence Day” probably isn’t the first movie to focus on massive collateral damage but it, no doubt, shares some responsibility for pushing modern summer movies in that direction. The alien spaceships don’t just blow up the White House or a single skyscraper in L.A. They decimate both cities. Washington and Los Angeles are reduced to giant fireballs. Millions die. This was before the days of the hyper-grim blockbuster. “Independence Day” is full of goofball comedy and silly screenwriting. Yet it’s hard to keep the tone light when the movie incinerates a huge portion of the country’s population. Here’s one example of the movie’s weird double-standard: It has no problem murdering nearly every person in Los Angeles but it spares one of the main character’s dog. It’s excessive, impersonal chaos, huge explosions in the name of nothing.

Despite being a huge hit, “Independence Day” did not usher in a new era of alien invasion movies. (Though it doubtlessly led to Will Smith being cast in “Men in Black,” a far more amiable blockbuster.) Instead, it birthed a revival of interest in disaster flicks. The screenplay definitely resembles a seventies disaster flick. Those movies always had a huge cast of frequently disconnected character, brought together by some cataclysm. “Independence Day” directly emulates this structure. Will Smith is the hot-shot fighter pilot, only getting to show a fraction of the charm that would make him a huge star. The most expendable subplot concerns Vivica A. Fox as his stripper fiancé, who somehow survives the destruction of L.A. Bill Pullman is overly grim as the President. Sure, he has to make some heavy decisions but he’s relentlessly white-bread. Not even the relationship he has with his daughter is enough to humanize him. Of the big stars, only two make an impression. Jeff Goldblum makes a thin character a living being with some of his trademark nervous energy. Randy Quaid, meanwhile, brings a bawdy manic quality to a two-note character. The script brings everyone together through incredibly unlikely circumstances, as is the way. It takes far too long to get the cast together. Smith isn’t even introduced until the twenty minute mark.

Truthfully, “Independence Day” is both too dumb to be a serious alien invasion epic and too slipshod to be a popcorn time-waster. That dumbness manifests itself in a number of ways. Like the aforementioned dog somehow surviving an exploding tunnel. Or Goldblum’s dad being a broad Jewish caricature. Or, for that matter, Randy Quaid being the most facile of redneck stereotypes. How about Smith’s best friend, who naturally exist to die in a dogfight with the aliens? So, you know, the hero’s quest is personal now. Or the President’s defense secretary, whose habit of keeping secrets (otherwise known as his job) paints him as a stuffy bad guy? Unlike a Michael Bay movie, Emmerich at least acknowledges that other parts of the world have worthy militaries. Granted, Africa is represented by some spear-carrying tribesman… But at least they are represented at all. Naturally, no dumb scene in “Independence Day” is more dumb then that climax. The alien forces are destroyed when a computer virus is uploaded to their mother ship. Never mind an extraterrestrial computer being compatible with Earth technology. The human heroes being able to operate an alien ship and slip into the mothership undetected strain inevitability.

So why did “Independence Day” become such a hit? Of course, the continued massive success of Michael Bay’s movies shows that the public has an appetite for great big explosions and casual racism. And summer cinema was a little different in ’96. Movies with this many booms and CGI chaos still held a certain novelty. Of course, there’s less CGI in “Independence Day” then you’d think. The movie primarily uses some excellent miniature effects. The alien spaceships are an imposing sight, especially when looming huge over cities. The invaders are a clever creation. Small, big-eyed creatures inhabit bio-mechanical suits, with lots of tentacles and claws. The sequence set inside Area 51, when the movie resembles a smaller-scaled horror film, is probably the best scene in the film. Because the movie relied on practical effects over computer-generated ones, the special effects in “Independence Day” actually hold up pretty well.

Why Do I Own This?:
I’m honestly not sure. “Independence Day” is dumb and not in a way that’s especially likable. It sets out to be a big fun action movie, full of stupid one-liners and crowd pleasing pyrotechnics. Yet it’s scenes of destruction are too mean-spirited. Like-wise, the characters are too thin to be memorable. The plot holes and logic gaps in the script inevitably draw the audience’s attention, defusing any attempt at “turn your brain off” fun. I guess I own the movie because it is a touchstone of nineties pop culture. The VHS box, which featured a lenticular image of the exploding White House, definitely sticks in my memory. Yet the next time I get rid of some DVDs, this one is likely to be atop the pile. [5/10]

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2015)

24. Spectre

Despite being a franchise that is over fifty years old, a new James Bond movie is still an event. In our era of massive blockbuster series, Bond’s appeal remains evergreen. Even in 2015, we still can’t get enough of the adventures of an alcoholic spy who loves killin’ and fuckin’. “Skyfall” was an enormous hit, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in the UK. Eon Productions knew not to mess with a good thing. “Spectre,” the twenty-fourth official James Bond adventure, maintained director Sam Mendes and most of the same writers. That uniformity paid off, as “Spectre” has predictable been another huge hit. For long time Bond aficionados, “Spectre” was destined to be an even bigger event. The film would feature the return of SPECTRE, the villainous organization that vexed Bond back in the sixties, and its leader Blofeld, Bond’s fabled arch-enemy.

After M’s death, Bond receives a video from his deceased boss, informing him to keep on eye on an assassin named Marco Sciarra. After encountering, and killing, Sciarra in Mexico, Bond uncovers a new conspiracy. He discovers a secret organization – SPECTRE – that connects many of his previous enemies and, most frighteningly, features a familiar face from his childhood. Meanwhile, a new security merger threatens to make MI-6 and the 00 program obsolete. After teaming up with the daughter of an old adversary, Bond realizes the shake-up in the British government is directly connected with SPECTRE.

Before one discusses the new James Bond movie, one must discuss the new James Bond theme song. Sam Smith, some British pop crooner I’m not really familiar with, had been considered a foregone conclusion to sing the title song. When the song – inexplicably entitled “The Writing’s On the Wall” – premiered, fan reaction was not great. Many criticized it for sounding “wimpy” and lacking energy. Indeed, the romantic ballad doesn’t crackle. Smith’s high-pitch vocals grate at first, the lyrics are somewhat awkward, and the production is overly maudlin. Still, after a few listens, it started to grow on me. The melody is pretty, if nothing else. As for the opening credits’ sequences, it features lots of octopi and skeleton imagery, shattering glass and smoke. Sometimes these elements are incorporated in slightly goofy looking fashion, like the nude dancers wrapped in tentacles. It’s not destined to be an especially well remembered Bond opening but it’s not bad either.

“Spectre” not only keeps much of the same talent behind the camera, it also has a similar tone to “Skyfall.” It’s a serious story but incorporates more humor than Daniel Craig’s first two outings as Bond. Some times, this is handled with more grace then others. Bond coolly dropping out of the sky after making a daring escape is perfect for the character. On the other hand, a random by-stander’s airbag going off feels like something out of the Roger Moore era. After sticking with the character for ten years, Craig has developed a fine handle of sarcastic, wry one-liners. Despite its humor, “Spectre” is willing to get surprisingly moody at times. A long sequence has Bond infiltrating a SPECTRE meeting, quietly observing the enemies’ actions. Another lengthy scene involves James and his love interest spending time in her parent’s old vacation home. Perhaps it speaks to Eon’s confidence in Sam Mendes and his team, that they allow slow moments like this inside a big budget, action-packed Bond film.

Occasionally in the past, a James Bond movie has incorporated modern day news events into the super-spy narratives. Such as 24 hour news networks in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” tension between the Koreas in “Die Another Day,” or global water shortages in “Quantum of Solace.” “Spectre,” meanwhile, attempts to integrate concerns about government surveillance into its story. M and the other heads of MI6 are being slowly forced out by the Joint Intelligence Service, a new agency that seeks to monitor the data of everyone in the country. Throughout the film, characters are constantly watched by surveillance cameras or have their cell phone conversations recorded. “Spectre” makes its stance on this issue clear. The organization that want to push aside traditional spies in favor of data-mining is affiliated with a global terrorist cabal determined to conquer the world. “Spectre” doesn’t comment on these pertinent issues in any detailed way, besides saying spying on innocent citizens is bad. Still, it incorporates this more smoothly then previous attempts at merging a Bond story with a real world concern.

When it was announced that the current right-holders finally retrieve the rights to use SPECTRE and Blofeld, there was much rejoicing. Of course, the Craig series had already cooked up a stand-in for SPECTRE, the mysterious Quantum. Despite initial concerns that it might just skip them, “Spectre” directly references the events of “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” Mr. White, a minor antagonist from those films, plays a small but pivotal role in this one. Revealing that Quantum is but a small part of SPECTRE is a natural step. However, “Spectre” goes one further. It reveals that, throughout all three of his previous adventures, James Bond has been fighting the same threat. Everything ties together, Blofeld being the mastermind behind it all. "The author of all Bond's pain," as he says. While I appreciate the attempt to wield these stories together, “Spectre” never explains how Silva’s personal revenge in “Skyfall” connects with Blofeld’s master plan. In truth, the reveal that everything is connected is not so much a natural story decision. Instead, it’s a slightly sloppy way to make Bond’s new/old arch-enemy seem bigger and more important then he is.

Something that the films starring Craig’s Bond have done is create bigger roles for the Bond Girls. “Spectre” has two, Monica Belluci’s Lucia Sciarra and Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann. Lucia’s seduction is fairly incidental to the plot. Mostly, she’s in the movie to get the always glamorous Belluci her long overdue Bond Girl role. Swann, on the other hand, is a major character. She gives Bond a prickly reaction at first. However, as the two continue to survive this ordeal, she falls into his arms. The gorgeous Seydoux proves a decent foil for Craig. Swann is head-strong enough, and handy enough with a Walter PPK, to make a worthy companion to Bond. As the story progresses, we discover that Swann is not just a Girl of the Week for Bond. He seems to be developing serious feelings for her. The romance is slightly rushed. Whether or not Bond is truly in love is a question left for the sequels. However, Craig and Seydoux have fine chemistry, making the relationship between Bond and Swann worthwhile.

As always, this James Bond movie is full of explosive action. “Spectre” begins with an incredible long shot of Bond walking across the rooftops of Mexico City. This escalates to an exploding building, before climaxing with an exciting, beautifully orchestrated rumble inside a spinning helicopter. “Spectre” also contributes several pretty great vehicle chases to the Bond canon. The first takes place through the tight corridors of Rome, Bond and his adversary racing around tight corners, swerve around debris, and avoid other vehicles. (Amusingly, the film also defuses the typical Bond car expectations.) The film tops itself with an even bigger chase later in the film. Around the snowy mountains, Bond pursues the villains’ truck in an airplane. This sequence goes to some crazy planes, especially once Bond is directing the wingless craft down the slopes. Though it once again arguably pushes “Spectre” towards Moore territory, it’s still an exciting sequence.

In the press leading up to “Spectre’s” release, the film promises that Mr. Hinx, played by up-and-coming tough guy Dave Bautista, would be a Bond henchman of equal standing to Jaws or Oddjobs. It’s a nice thought, especially since we haven’t gotten a good henchman in a while. Bautista is certainly intimidating in the part. Hinx has a few nice touches, like the polished thumb nails he uses to gauge out eyes. Hinx isn’t defined too much beyond that. However, he does participate in maybe the film’s best action scene. Hinx corners Bond on a train, leading to a brawl that tears through the dining car. Bond improvises some weapons, like a bottle or a corkscrew. The combat is brutal, with plenty of audible slams and cracking bones. The pay-off is especially satisfying as well. Though Hinx could’ve been a great henchman, he doesn’t have enough personality and exits the film too early to make a truly iconic impression.

Like “Skyfall” before it, “Spectre” dutifully respects the formula of the Bond franchise. The villain has an elaborate lair, a huge facility inside a giant asteroid crater. Bond and his love interest is captured, before the secret agent is brutally tortured by the villain. This time, Blofeld drills into James’ head, which is as painful as it sounds. Thanks to a gadget devised by Q, Bond is able to make a daring escape. Said escape is a blast, in more then one way. There’s plenty of dramatic diving and shoot. The sequence climaxes in a massive explosion, apparently the biggest fireball ever created for a movie. “Spectre” is devoted to topping itself though. The film has an additional last act, a dramatic run through the ruins of Vauxhall, about to explode. This is an equally tense, exciting sequence, concluding with a helicopter skidding across London Bridge. That’s a wrap-up any Bond movie could ask for.

“Skyfall” went out of its way to re-establish the traditional James Bond supporting characters of Moneypenny, Q, and a more traditional M. Instead of sticking the characters to the sidelines like they usually are, “Spectre” involves each of them in the story proper. Q has an intense encounter on a ski lift with some shifty fellows. His hacking skills become an important plot point. Ben Whishaw retains a likable balance of nervousness and smug superiority, while developing a decent rapport with Craig. Naomie Harris as Moneypenny does more then just flirt with Bond at the story’s beginning, though there’s some of that too. She helps out Bond’s investigation. Ralph Fiennes’s M even gets an action sequence all to himself, confronting the movie’s secondary antagonist. It’s nice to see the film utilizing its rich supporting cast.

“Spectre” has its share of call-backs to previous Bond adventures. Some of them are easy to spot. A clinic among alpine mountains, obviously invoking “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” will probably be picked up by most. A business front called “Hildebrand” is a little sneakier. Yet “Spectre” biggest call-back to Bond lore is a dramatic reveal of a character’s true identity. As we all figured out months before its release, Christoph Waltz is playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The elegant and verbose Waltz is perfectly cast as the iconic villain. His way with dialogue makes the bad guy classy but no less sinister. After playing coy with the Nehru jacket and the white cat, the film cleverly introduces the facial scar. Still, I have a qualm with “Spectre’s” take on Blofeld. Having him be the mastermind behind the last three movies isn’t enough. Instead, “Spectre” makes Blofeld James’ foster-brother. It’s a story element that doesn’t truly pay off. Connecting Blofeld and Bond seems like another attempt by the script to punch up the series’ biggest villain.

Whether or not Daniel Craig will return for a fifth James Bond movie isn’t currently known. Craig has been open about his disinterest in returning, in no uncertain words. Producer Michael G. Wilson, meanwhile, has said they are willing to pay Craig whatever it takes to get him back for at least one more. “Spectre,” however, ends on a fairly definitive note. Most everything is wrapped up, save for the fate of one major character. (Maybe the next one’s beginning can recall “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s” ending…) I’d liked to see Craig return, if only because every James Bond actor deserves one movie were they’re too old for the part. If “Spectre” is destined to be Craig’s last crack at Bond, it’s a very satisfying conclusion. The action is great, the cast is superior, and the film puts an entertaining spin on the series’ established mythology. [Grade: B]

THE 007 SEVEN: 6 out of 7

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vodka Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

Monday, November 23, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 77: New Wave Slashers

And the Bangers n' Mash Show is back. Anybody who follows the show through this blog know that I'm shameless about recycling reviews I write for show notes. Since the Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-Thon is still only recently behind us, the next few episodes will draw from what I watched last month.

If you followed the Blog-a-Thon, you probably noticed that I watched a bunch of slasher movies from the late nineties and early 2000s. This show topic was picked for a specific reason. Rob, you previously co-hosted our "Sleepaway Camp" episode, is a fan of these types of movies. JD and I had hoped to bring Rob back and agreed on this topic with Rob earlier. However, we couldn't work scheduling out so Rob didn't put in an appearance. Still, Mr. Mash and I were able to cook up a decent episode.

Come back tomorrow for my "Spectre" review. Also look forward for some more stuff on "Film Thoughts," including new "Why Do I Own This?" and "Memories" columns, within the next few days.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (2005)

6. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Everything that has a beginning has an end. When “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” came out, it was the end of an era. It didn’t matter that the previous two prequels were mediocre and perceived as such. “Star Wars” was and is a genuine pop culture phenomenon and, as far as we knew at the time, this was going to be the last “Star Wars” movie ever made. That alone warranted a huge amount of hype, maybe even more then what proceeded “The Phantom Menace.” When “Episode III” received easily the best reviews out of the entire prequel trilogy, it only seem to confirm fans’ anticipation. Time has passed and there’s a new “Star Wars” movie just around the corner. Now, the opinion of “Revenge of the Sith” is less unanimous.

The galaxy is gripped by war. The war between the Galactic Senate and the Separatist Armies has drained the resources on both sides. Senator Palpatine has been granted more and more power. When Chancellor Palpatine is kidnapped by the Separatists, Jedi Knights Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent in to rescue him. A relationship between Skywalker and Palpatine begins to form. Anakin is haunted by nightmares that Padme, his pregnant wife, will soon die. Palpatine lures Anakin over to the Dark Side, with a promise of powers that will allow him to prevent this premonition from coming to pass. With Skywalker by his side as his new apprentice, Palpatine reveals his master plan: To destroy the Jedi order and rule over the galaxy as an all-powerful Emperor.

Since the beginning of the prequel trilogy, George Lucas has been insisting that the entire “Star Wars” cycle is the story of Anakin Skywalker’s rise, fall, and redemption. If one takes this idea seriously, then “Revenge of the Sith” is the fall part of the cycle. Anakin succumbs to the Dark Side for all too human and understandable reasons. He fears death and loosing the ones he loves. Instead of accepting the Jedi’s mystic belief about accepting death and moving pass loss, he is consumed by them. “Star Wars” has never been an especially deeply emotional series. It botches in some other ways too. Yet “Episode III” is built upon some sturdy, strong ground. The film also shows the rise of the Empire, setting up the original series by chopping away all the fat that clogged up the last two pictures.

Before we can get to the truly compelling stuff about Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side or the destruction of the Jedi, we have to first get on with all that business about wars and stars. Large portions of the film are concerned with the same intergalactic battles and political hand wringing that characterized Episodes I and II. The opening battle scene has the camera swooshing around Anakin and Obi-Wan’s star ships as they cruise through a crowded, CGI battle field. The escape from the ship is full of dramatic dives down elevator shafts and yet more droids being sliced through with ease. Once again, the light saber duels are too acrobatic, fighters swirling their blades around in an unnecessary ways. Or spinning through the air in ridiculous manners. There’s far less focus on the Separatist Army and Galactic Council, as if even George Lucas was growing tired of such matters.

Since this is a “Star Wars” movie made after 1983, there’s a gimmicky element to the movie. As always, Lucas is deeply invested in introducing new characters, vehicles, and aliens that can be made into toys. General Grevious had previously been introduced on “The Clone Wars” animated series. Within the movie, he’s a wheezing, towering robot who spins pilfered light sabers around like a cyclone. Like Boba Fett or Darth Maul before him, Grevious is another visually compelling but kind of useless villain. His role is rather small, his contribution to the plot is minimal, and his death scene lacks impact. There are robe-wearing droid sentries, grappling hook guns, and spinning wheel vehicles that seem unlikely to function. Obi-Wan spends a large portion of the battle riding a giant lizard that makes an annoying noise. All of these things make bitching action figures but limp characters. Further fan pandering comes when the Wookie home planet is visited. A whole race of shaggy bigfoots is fine. Chewbacca appears, as seemingly the only original character that hasn’t shown up in some form yet. Yet I wonder if this stop was necessary.

“Episode III” roots itself in some honest emotion and features some satisfying pay-off, correcting some flaws of the previous two episodes. Yet one major problem remains intact. Hayden Christensen continues to be a massive weenie. Even after a movie that ends with him becoming the most iconic cinematic villain of the last century, Christensen is still not convincing. His performance evolves in new, awful ways. Anakin grows from the petulant, whining teenager of “Attack of the Clones’ into the dull, constipated adult of “Revenge of the Sith.” The opening scene, where Skywalker scraps robots off Kenobi’s space-jet with his space-jet, Christensen seems visibly bored. After killing a man in cold blood, he acts more confused then shocked. He brings no pain to Anakin’s descent, making the character seem more self-assured then conflicted. His fears, grief, and pain comes across as gassy whining.

“Episode III” is the first “Star Wars” movie to be rated PG-13. (Considering the current state of sci-fi/action flicks, it is unlikely to be the last.) This is a break from the previous films’ PG ratings. On the page, “ Revenge of the Sith” is no more violent then the earlier movies. Limbs are still cleanly, bloodlessly hacked away with light sabers. Robots, spaceships, and droids die harmlessly in explosions or via laser blasts. However, the film’s treatment of violence is different. There’s a cruel streak to what happens. This is basically a kids’ movie that has the main character murdering children. When Anakin strikes down the Separatist warlords, the camera lingers on their pain as he wantonly cuts them down. When the Jedi Order is exterminated, the murders are focused on, the heroes of the Republic betrayed by their friends. One Jedi is gunned down. Another is cruelly exploded. The violence is not especially explicit. But it has weight and effect, driving home a point.

Hayden Christensen’s lead performance may be a joke. As with all of the prequel films, the quality of the other actors are all over the place. Natalie Portman mostly worries for the men in her life, her ability further strangled by Lucas’ stiff dialogue. Samuel L. Jackson seems barely interested in the material. Other supporting turns are better. Ewan McGregor embraces his inner swashbuckler, imbuing Obi Wan with an adventurer’s spirit the movie needed more of. His cocksure performances is the most interesting thing about the movie’s overly long battle scenes. Frank Oz turns Yoda into a fully formed character with only his voice. Christopher Lee, though his role is small, still brings plenty of dignity and grace to the part.

One actor clearly dominates the film. Ian McDiarmid has had to hide his sinister intent under a smile in the last two films. His master plan fulfilled, McDiarmid can cut loose as the Emperor. Boy, does he ever! He decimates the scenery, screaming about “unlimited POWAH.” Even when buried under the Emperor’s make-up, he hams it up furiously. I don’t know if it’s a good performance. It’s certainly not a subtle one. Yet it’s definitely an entertaining one and enlivens whole portions of the film.

Though “Revenge of the Sith” has its problems throughout, the film comes together for a truly satisfying last act. The Republic as we know it is destroyed. The Emperor assumes power. The Jedi is hunted down and exterminated. Anakin has committed fully to the Dark Side. The newly christened Sith Lord even neatly handles the dangling subplot of Padme. All that is left are two fights. Anakin and Obi-Wan duel over a lava planet. They leap on moving platforms over the molten magma, not unlike video game characters. In the Senate, Yoda and Palpatine come to blows. Seeing the two elderly master fight is surprisingly powerful. These are strong characters, unleashed, pulling no punches. I especially like Palpatine tossing around the floating platforms or Yoda shrugging off Force Lightning. Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fight is less visually dynamic. However, I admire the film taking its time. The fight goes on for several minutes, going in all sorts of angles. While Christensen’s performance is typically flat, Ewan McGregor brings some much needed gravity to the scenes.

“Revenge of the Sith” could have easily been titled “The Birth of Darth Vader.” The movie grants Vader’s creation the proper weight. We see Anakin’s visceral transformation, his skin burning off from the lava’s heat. (Never mind that the heat would have roasted him alive long before this.) Strapped to a table, his surgery is painful, Skywalker screaming in pain. Vader’s mask being lowered onto his face is given the attention this obviously momentous occasion needs. He rises from the slab, like the Frankenstein Monster. A low key version of the Imperial March plays on John Williams’ score. He breathes through his iconic breathing apparatus for the first time. Anakin Skywalker is dead. Darth Vader lives.

And then the movie undermines the drama of this sequence with some unintentional comedy. Yes, I’m talking about the “NOOOOO!” scene. Such an overwrought dramatic cliché being inserted into such an effective sequence sinks the scene. There are other moments of unintentional humor in “Episode III.” Stumbled or awkward lines bury key scenes. “Killing younglings!” Or “To me, the Jedi are evil.” The audience shouldn’t laugh when a hero becomes a villain. Or when children are killed. The writing of George Lucas makes both of these things so.

What perhaps saves “Revenge of the Sith” is a strong sense of dramatic ironies and parallels. Early on, Palpatine tells a story about his Sith Master, Darth Plagueus. He mentions how his lord conquer death for everyone but himself. Likewise, Anakin ends up bringing about the events he worked so hard to prevent. Originally, the film was going to include a scene where Palpatine informs Anakin that he created him, manipulating the Force to lead to his birth. In other words, he’s his father. That would’ve been distracting and relegating the revelation to subtext is ultimately more effective. As Padme gives birth, squirming on the operating table, Anakin’s transformation into Vader happens on a different operating table. These are two births of different types. In the film’s final minutes, two people look ahead to different futures. Vader and Palpatine glare at the under-construction Death Star, foreshadowing the Empire’s reign. Meanwhile, Uncle Owen holds a baby Luke in his arms, the sun rising before him. An empire rises while a new hope looms in the distance.

“Revenge of the Sith” is easily the best film of the prequel trilogy. Many of the ridiculous story decisions of the last two pictures are dealt with. The story builds a satisfying, dramatic scenes unseen in the last two movies. There are still problems, mainly in the acting and dialogue sections. Yet it successfully concludes one story while setting up another. This is probably not anyone’s ideal conclusion to the epic “Star Wars” cycle. But Episodes I and II prove that it could have been a lot worst. At times, it’s even pretty good. [Grade: B]

As a director, George Lucas seems more-or-less retired. Disney owns "Star Wars" now and is determined to release as many new films as possible. Lucas himself has been kicked upstairs, his own creation taken away from him. It's actually kind of sad. He created something that millions of people love dearly but eventually became incredibly bitter about that fanbase. Though he occasionally mentions wanting to return to making small, experimental movies, I think the odds of seeing "Directed by George Lucas" on a movie again is extremely unlikely. "Star Wars" will continue on without its father.

Thus concludes my retrospectives for both Lucas and "Star Wars," at least until that new one comes out. I've got some more stuff planned for November so stick around. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (2002)

5. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

The reaction that faced “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was mixed, to say the least. But it’s not like Episode II was never going to get made. “The Phantom Menace” was, predictably, a huge box office event, becoming the highest grossing film of year and racing all the way up to the second spot on the all-time highest grossing chart. Whether or not George Lucas learned anything from the first prequel’s response is debatable. When you’re as successful or popular as Lucas is, you’re probably shielded from most criticism. “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” would face nearly as much criticism as its predecessor and suffers from many of the same problems. Yet I’m confident in saying it’s the superior of the first two prequels.

In the decade since the last star war, the politics of the galaxy have grown even hotter. A separatist army threatens to break away from the Galactic Republic and plunge the galaxy into civil war. Someone within the separatist movement wants Padme Amidala of Naboo, now the planet’s senator, dead. Obi-Wan, now a Jedi master, and Anakin, now his arrogant if powerful apprentice, are sent to protect her. Obi-Wan’s investigation of the assassin leads him to a planet where a clone army has been created, uncovering a conspiracy. Anakin, meanwhile, falls deeper in love with Padme and makes an awful discovery about his mother.

A complaint I had about “The Phantom Menace” is that its plot was needlessly complicated compared to the elegant simplicity of the original trilogy. Well, “Attack of the Clones” isn’t much better in that regard. There’s still a two-prong conspiracy at work here. You see, Senator Palpatine is also the Sith Lord, who is secretly funding the separatist movement. As a politician, he gathers more and more power in response to this conflict. A villain benefiting from a war he himself creates is an interesting idea. Unfortunately, “Attack of the Clones” does not take a direct A-to-B route to get there. There’s some false leads, with the Trade Federation still floating around along with some other shifty, corporate organizations. A more concise writer then George Lucas probably could have made this plot work. In his hands, it's jumbled and often difficult to follow.

However, “Episode II” is mostly a superior film to “Episode I.” First off, it utilizes its cast much better. In the previous episode, Ewan McGregor was mostly wasted as the teenage Obi-Wan, relegated to a supporting role that left him with little to do. “Episode II” elevates himself to a lead role. Left to his own for most the film, McGregor gets to be a man of adventure, investigating leads and being a general bad ass. Speaking of bad asses, Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu is actually given something to do. The last act has the Jedi master swinging a purple light saber around in the middle of the action. Best of all, Christopher Lee is brought into the “Star Wars” fold. Lee easily overcomes the ridiculous name he’s given. Lee brings an unbelievable dignity to the part of Count Dooku. Lee was always respectable, even in the lowest of material, and this film allows Lee to lord over lots of people. A legendary figure, Lee’s presence elevates the entire movie around him.

While some actors that were underutilized last time get more to do this time, there’s still a major problem. Many established names auditioned for the role of Anakin Skywalker. Ryan Phillippe nearly got the part, while Lucas reached out to Leonardo DiCaprio at one point. Instead, an unknown named Hayden Christensen won the role. Christensen has one of the most obnoxious screen presences I’ve ever seen. From his first scene, Christensen is whining. The character is meant to be an arrogant teenager. The writing is too good in this regard, as the audience frequently hates Anakin. Even after loosing his mother, and massacring a village of Sand People in his grief, Christensen isn’t believable. He always comes off as petulant and irritating. Christensen has never gone on to much of a career probably because he’s so fucking annoying in this movie. It’s hard to believe that Darth Vader, ruthless leader of the Imperial army, started out as this wienie.

While “Attack of the Clones” was generally better received then “Episode I” but one aspect was heavily criticized. While Anakin and Padme are left on Naboo, their romance blooms. Or it’s suppose to anyway. The romance in “Episode II” is embarrassing. If Hayden Christensen’s attempts at emoting rage or arrogance is bad, his attempts at being a romantic lead are even worst. Then again, I don’t think anyone could make Lucas’ attempts at romantic dialogue work. Natalie Portman, a wonderful actress who looks wonderful in a series of elegant gowns, also stumbles under the terrible dialogue. “I don’t like sand” is the most infamous example of Lucas’ attempt at romantic dialogue. When Anakin starts talking about how he burns for Padme, I actually think that’s even worst. Anakin frolicking with some sort of space cow is supposed to be charming but is just uncomfortable. The entire subplot is like that, making the audience cringe in the worst way. The romance is utterly impossible to believe.

In “The Phantom Menace,” the many references and call-forwards to the earlier/later films were often distracting. C3PO’s random appearance was only the most egregious. “Attack of the Clones” does a slightly better job with this. The fans adore Boba Fett despite the fact that he never did anything interesting in his movies. “Attack of the Clones” has another Fett, Jango Fett, Boba’s father. Unlike his son, Jango actually does something. He gets to blast people with his ray gun, fly through the air on his jetpack, and faces off against monsters and jedi. The second episode also shows the origin of R2D2 and C3P0’s partnership. Threepio is incorporated into the film in a far more organic way. The puns and buffoonery he gets up to are embarrassing. However, the scenes between the two droids are actually quite charming and amusing.

Some origins, however, are harder to rate. The very first “Star Wars” movie featured an off-hand reference to the Clone Wars. For years, fans wondered what in the world that could be. “Attack of the Clones,” naturally, expounds on this. And not in the most satisfying way. First off, we learn that the Clone Wars is called that because the victorious army was made up of clones. That’s odd. Aren’t wars usually named after who the aggressor was? Secondly, the origin of that clone army is a bit strangled. Basically, the clone army became the empire’s stormtroopers. And each one has Jango Fett’s face, a frankly bizarre screenwriting decision I can’t justify. It’s not as ridiculous a reveal as Anakin building C3P0 in his bedroom or the midi-clorians but it definitely creates some pauses. (Oh, we also find out how Luke got an Uncle Owen, for all that’s worth.)

Mostly, “Episode II” is better than “Episode I” because it has far better action. The second prequel is just as CGI heavy as the first, if not more. However, the effects have aged a lot better. You can actually believe the various CGI droids, monsters, and vehicles exist on the same plain of reality as the human actors. (There’s also less kiddy bullshit, excluding Obi-Wan’s odd trip to an alien diner.) Take, for example, the early scene of Anakin and Obi-Wan chasing an attempted assassin through Corusant. It’s an exciting sequence, the characters diving between moving vehicles and careening around buildings. Unlike the super-safe action in “The Phantom Menace,” there’s actually a bit of danger and excitement in these scenes. Obi-Wan’s duel with Jango Fett is even better, as the characters dangle over the ocean in the pouring rain. The following space chase is also effective, as the bounty hunter’s mines clip through an asteroid field.

Proof that Episode II utilizes its effects way better comes near the end. After Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme are all captured by the bad guys, they’re put in gladiatorial combat against a trio of monsters. Unlike the ridiculous CGI creations in “The Phantom Menace,” these creatures feel alive, having weight and character. They’re just generally neat too. One is a dinosaur-like beast, his facial markings resembling an executioner’s mask. The other is a giant praying mantis-like crab creature. The final one is a weird rat/tiger monster. Watching the heroes survive and dismantle these beasts is loads of fun. Natalie Portman in the tight white uniform, which is quickly torn away, had the same effect on a new generation as Carrie Fisher in the iron bikini did on the previous one. The sequence later explodes into an all-out war between the Jedi and an army of battle droids. After years of hearing about how bad ass the Jedi Knights were, actually seeing them in mass combat is a satisfying sight.

As much fun as those sequences are, “Attack of the Clones” eventually degrades into too much combat between zeros and ones. The human element is removed entirely as we’re treated to long sequences of droids, battleships, and clone troopers firing at each other. By the time the weird tanks on giant wheels roll in, any semblance of humanity is once again gone. Just minutes ago I was having fun with this stuff. Now, it’s a heartless CGI orgy of destruction. “Attack of the Clones” is actually the longest of all the “Star Wars” movies and these scenes could have easily been clipped. What are you gonna’ do? Also weird are the rough zooms Lucas utilizes a few times. Since all of these films are homages to old Hollywood sci-fi serials, I’m not sure why he would employ a thoroughly modern technique like that.

The ultimate bit of fan service in “Attack of the Clones” occurs near the end. Count Dooku easily beats back Obi-Wan and Anakin. After he’s been such an annoying jerk throughout the whole film, it’s satisfying watching Christopher Lee beat the shit out Hayden Christensen. The movie even makes that silly Force Lightening a creditable threat. Out of the shadows waddles Yoda. For the first time, we see the wrinkly, green muppet pick up a light saber. We see why Yoda is such a respected warrior. He leaps and spins through the air, fighting off the Sith Lord’s abilities. Some people have criticized the sequence as ridiculous or comical. When I saw “Episode II” in theaters, people were cheering. Hate me for it but I still think it’s awesome. It’s the kind of silly, unaware fun these prequels maybe needed more of. I especially love how, right after the sword fight, Yoda hobbles back off with his cane.

The dialogue is still stiff, bloated, and quotable for all the wrong reasons. The romantic subplot is a tumor that drains the entire film. Hayden Christensen is woefully unprepared. The plot is still self-serving in complications. On the plus side, the CGI is incorporated much more cleanly. The action is exciting and focused. The characters are given more to do. Jar Jar has less then ten minutes of screen time. Comparing “Attack of the Clones” to “The Empire Strikes Back” won't do the prequel any favors. Yet it’s still a major step up from “The Phantom Menace.” Maybe George Lucas can learn… [Grade: B-]

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (1999)

4. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was perhaps the most anticipated film in cinema history. It was the first proper “Star Wars” film released in sixteen years and the first time George Lucas himself had directed a movie since the original film. In that time, the public’s love for the series and the fandom obsession with it had only intensified more. Though the re-edited “Special Edition” re-releases were frowned upon by hardcore fans, the films reignited “Star Wars” fever, leading to a new wave of toys, books, and merchandise. What excited people even more was this being “Episode I.” The new film would fill in the backstory of the universe’s most beloved characters, showing us Darth Vader became Darth Vader. Even better then that, they’re would be two more movies after this one. Hell, the premiere of the movie’s trailer was an event, people buying tickets to unrelated films just to see it and leaving afterwards. The hype for “The Phantom Menace” was unparalleled.

When people actually saw the movie, that hype soured into disappointment. “Episode I” is the film that made George Lucas simultaneously the most beloved and hated man in nerd culture. Though a huge financial success, many people were more then happy to share their disappointment with the film. In the years since, “The Phantom Menace’s” reputation was only grown harsher. A lot of people hate the movie and even more seem to hate what it represented. For many, this signaled the point when “Star Wars” went from the grandest science fiction universe ever put to screen and became an excuse to sell French-kissing Jar Jar Binks lollipops. What does someone like me, whose interest in “Star Wars” has always been casual at best, think of this widely loathed feature?

Set decades before the events of the original trilogy, “The Phantom Menace” takes place in a very different far, far away galaxy. The Galactic Empire has yet to rise. In its place is the Galactic Senate, where senators from hundreds of planets argue and squabble about issues. One such squabble gets serious when the Trade Federation blocks contact from the lush, swamp planet Naboo and threatens war. Two Jedi Knights are sent in as negotiators. What they don’t know is that the Trade Federation is in cahoots with a Sith Lord, an evil Jedi, who has conceived a conspiracy that will bring him to power. Fleeing an assassination attempt, the Jedi and the Queen of Naboo land on distant, desert planet Tatooine. There, the Jedi meet a young boy who will change the course of the galaxy.

The very first “Star Wars” was a simple story. Lucas himself has admitted it's not much more then a tale of good versus evil, the good rebels fighting the evil empire, with Luke’s progression from boy to man happening alongside the war. The prequel is no more complex in its themes. Its story, however, goes off in all sorts of unwieldy directions. There’s way more political intrigue, with lots of screen time devoted to the Senate arguing and deciding about what to do. Trade regulation does not seem like the most exciting basis for your epic, sci-fi adventure. I’ll admit, as a kid, I never entirely understood what the Trade Federation’s goals were. Even as an adult, the how and why of what the Trade Federation is doing isn’t explained the best. Turns out, it’s all a long plan for Senator Palpatine to come to power, ensuring the existence of the Sith-controlled Empire. Watching “The Phantom Menace” in theaters back in 1999, all that shit was years off. While Lucas’ world is no less vivid, the story within it is less clear.

What strikes me the most about “The Phantom Menace” is how completely different it looks compared to the original trilogy. The events of this film and the next two takes place long before “A New Hope.” Then why are the robots, spaceships, and technology so much more advanced? Even as a kid, I understood that effects had come a long way in sixteen years. Yet you’d think Lucas would be more interested in maintaining visual continuity between the two trilogies. More pressingly, what was cutting edge in 1999 looks incredibly dated in 2015. The CGI effects now come off as incredibly cartoony. Look at the Gungan mounts, which are weird space camels, or the one pod racer, who is just a big yellow head. These characters don’t have the interior logic that the aliens of the original trilogy had. They don’t look like things that could actually exist. Moreover, the movie’s reliance on CGI quickly becomes a weakness. The computer generated characters lack heft or weight. They don’t look like they exist on the same field as the live actors. They don’t, of course. But effects should strengthen the illusion of the movie, not wreck it.

One special effect, specifically, definitely brings the whole film down. Is there a more hated character in all of sci-fi fandom then Jar Jar Binks? He’s introduced shrieking, wailing, and nearly getting a more important character killed. Throughout the film, he contributes little to the story. He’s supposed to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan navigate the Naboo ocean but they seemingly do okay on their own. He does nothing but cause non-plot-related trouble on Tatooine. During the war on Naboo, he stumbles, screams, and survives only through pure luck. He adds nothing to the plot. Jar Jar is also incredibly annoying. His voice is annoying, a high-pitch mush-mouthed whine that is frequently difficult to understand. He has both the vocal dialect and the attitude of a blackface minstrel performer. Not only is this racist, it’s also embarrassing. (Also not helping the movie are the other characters that can easily be read as offensive Asian or Jewish stereotypes.) That Jar Jar is in so much of the movie effects the viewer’s enjoyment of it.

Why Jar Jar is in the film is a question worth asking. Lucas himself has been quoted as saying the character was there to appeal to young kids. This isn’t the first time George has done this. “Return of the Jedi” was negatively affected by cutesy Ewoks and lots of new, unnecessary vehicles that could be made into toys. Lucas has said that all of the “Star Wars” have been intended to be children’s film. Lucas misunderstands, seemingly thinking a children’s film must be juvenile. That attitude gets us a farting space camel, Jar Jar stepping in alien poop, and incompetent droids that speak in obnoxious voices. It gets us flippy-floppy aliens and vehicles that seemed to have been designed as toys first and characters second. The entire tone of “The Phantom Menace” is soft and harmless, removing any danger or tension from the story. There’s nothing wrong with a “Star Wars” movie being a children’s movie. The problem is a film this expensive, technical, and involved shouldn’t be a bad children’s movie.

“The Phantom Menace” shows some of George Lucas’ other flaws as a writer. The reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father was a shock. Princess Leia being Luke’s sister was a less natural reveal, coming out of nowhere and having little effect on the plot. Not only is everyone related in a galaxy far, far away, everyone knows each other too. Luke and Leia’s mother was close friends with Senator Palpatine. R2D2 just happened to be on the same ship. The most baffling decision was to have Luke’s dad create C3PO. What are the odds that the robot that would crash-land on the same planet fifty years later just happen to be created there? For that matter, what are the odds that Qui-Gon would end up on a planet where a powerful Jedi-in-the-rough was born? Or that Vader would never think to search his home planet for his son, in all the time he led the Empire? The Force works in mysterious ways. So does hacky screenwriters.

Some time before “Episode I” was filmed, George Lucas had rolled with the obvious retcon that the “Star Wars” saga is the story of Anakin Skywalker, of his rise, fall, and redemption. Though he’s not the main character of the film, Anakin is given undue importance to the story. He has no father, being conceived by the Force. His midi-chlorians – an awkward attempt to justify the spiritual with the scientific – are weightier then anyone else in the galaxy. He’s a brilliant inventor at only nine years old, creating highly advanced droids and pod racers in his bedroom. He succeeds in the pod race by pure luck. Later, he jumps into a space ship fighter jet, masters its controls in seconds, flies into space, survives a war zone, and successfully destroys the villains’ ship. In fan-fiction parlance, Anakin Skywalker is a Marty Stu, a character who is competent at everything, has no apparent flaws, and succeeds at every endeavor the plot throws at him. The characters’ unearned hyper-confidence is another result of the movie’s kid-friendly focus. The stiff, childish performance of Jack Lloyd does not justify the character’s extravagant abilities.

As the prequel trilogy went on, fans would become more critical of George Lucas’ ability to write dialogue. This massive flaw is readily apparent in “The Phantom Menace,” though. Lucas assembles a cast full of talented actors but few of them are capable of navigating his egregiously bad dialogue. Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley play the duel role of the Queen and her decoy. Both of these talented actors are saddled with the film’s stiffest dialogue, smothering any hints of a decent performance. Samuel L. Jackson, an explosive performer when utilized correctly, sits in a chair, reading broad dialogue in a calm, bored voice. Ewan McGregor, another fine performer, seems similarly baffled by Obi-Wan’s dialogue. It doesn’t help that the character has little to do until the last act. McGregor marches along to the script’s clunky beats, trying and failing to imbue Lucas’ rigid writing with some sort of natural life. Even Yoda, who was brought to life so vividly in “The Empire Strikes Back,” becomes a mouth piece for awkward, unnatural exposition.

Despite a horribly dense screenplay that leaves little room for likable performers, a few actors emerge from “The Phantom Menace” with their dignity intact. Liam Neeson’s career has evolved from notable bit-player, serious performer in serious movies, a wise mentor in popcorn genre fare, to action hero throat puncher. “Episode I” launched that third act of his career. Neeson, even when trading barbs with cartoon characters, maintains a respected air of wisdom. He turns Qui-Gon, one of the most thinly written parts in the script, into a fully formed character. Ian McDiarmid reprises his role as Senator Palpatine, before he became the evil Emperor. Though the movie ladles on foreshadowing of Palpatine’s future villainy, McDiarmid is still having a ball. Every wink and glad hand is laced with malicious intent. He is simultaneously incredibly charming and likable, while hinting at a capacity for great evil. Which is perfect for the character.

A main factor in the movie’s advertising was the character of Darth Maul. At first, Maul looks like another Boba Fett. That is, a villain that looks cool but doesn’t’ actually do anything. Maul is certainly striking looking – those red facial streaks and forehead horns make an impression – but he actually does contribute something to the story. Ray Park’s physical performance exudes complete control and vicious purpose. He’s a genuinely threatening presence. As an action movie, “Episode I” is less successful then it sets out to be. However, the climatic light saber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul is impressive. The flips and saber spins are acrobatic and exciting. John Williams’ score propels the scene with energy and mythic importance. It’s the only time the movie’s stakes actually feel real. That a major character dies in the duel only hammers this point home.

It’s a shame the rest of the movie’s action sequences aren’t that intense or exciting. The pod racing sequence got a lot of press at the time. The scene isn’t bad and it’s appropriately speedy. A sequence of Anakin’s pod flying into the air still works. However, today the scene’s reliance on poorly aged CGI drains it of tension or thrills. That Anakin, such a thin character, is at the center of it doesn’t help matters. The Jedi slicing through Battle Droids also doesn’t impress, since the droids are such comical characters and such obvious CGI creations. A similar problem sinks the battle between the Trade Federation and the Gungan forces. The constant Jar Jar schtick undermines the seriousness of the situation. Meanwhile, the laser shields and floating tanks seem horribly ineffective. Even the space battle at the end, the titular war among the stars, feels hopelessly untethered. That a nine year old with no flying experience can not only survive, but win the war, makes the war seem like no big deal.

It’s true that “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” never could have lived up to the hype surrounding it. That’s the risk of being probably the most anticipated film in cinema history. The reviews at the time were mostly negative and the fan reaction was even worst. “The Empire Strikes Back” got some disappointing reviews to, when it came out. There has been no reevaluation of “Episode I”s” quality in the years since. It’s just as flimsily plotted, overly juvenile, and excitement-free now as it was then. The saga would continue but the fan base’s faith in their mentor’s abilities would be forever shaken. [Grade: C]