Sunday, December 31, 2006

Random Movie Report #16: Quintet

[Image comes from]

I apologize for the long absence. Holiday business is a pain- I enjoy Christmas but never the organizing-where-everyone-is part that precedes it. I also caught a wicked flu, and have been trying to finish a novel (was going for NaNoFiMo, but that's not happening.) But I decided I shouldn't let a Rob Liefeld book be my last review for the year, and though this one isn't really a rave either, it's more interesting and I can at least use it to acknowledge the talent of someone who passed away this year.

Though I'd heard nothing good about QUINTET, I was still compelled to seek it out- it's Robert Altman's only science fiction film, and an example of the then-rare phenomenon of A-list American filmmakers working in the genre. The post-STAR WARS generation has had no problem indulging in horror and fantasy and so on, but you didn't see it that often from the older masters. What's more, Altman co-wrote the script and the story, implying he wasn't just a hired gun (if he ever was)- though it's not typical of his work, it reflects some of his concerns and recurring themes. While not really successful, and at times a bit boring, QUINTET is a unique little movie which demonstrates that an ambitious failure can often be something worth looking at in itself.

The film takes place in the future, in the midst of what appears to be a new Ice Age. Essex (Paul Newman), a hunter who has helped to finish off the last of the seals, is returning to an unnamed home city along with his pregnant wife Vivia (Brigitte Fosey), to visit his brother Francha (Tom Hill). The city, like all of civilization, is not faring well; people essentially live at a medieval level of technology, and being of the opinion that mankind is pretty much doomed, bury themselves in an abstract game called "Quintet", the rules of which are never explained but which has a theme of hunting and pursuit. A shadowy assassin rolls a bomb into Francha's apartment after Essex has stepped out to gather firewood, and everyone inside, including Vivia, is killed. Essex hunts the assassin, named Redstone, into the depths of the city, only for the mystery man to be killed by yet another mystery man. Essex does find the body, and on learning the assassin's name and that he was involved in a city-wide Quintet tournament, impersonates Redstone and enters the tournament himself. Living inside a gutted hotel with the other players, "Redstone" discovers that some of them have effectively been contracted to hunt and kill each other, in emulation of the game itself. But he still needs to know why.

Unfortunately, you might piece that together fairly early on yourself- in fact, for a time I assumed it had been implied. I'm not going to give it away as such, suffice it to say that when it's revealed, it's unsurprising and makes much of what has gone on in the interim kind of pointless. QUINTET is structured much like a film noir, a genre Altman had worked with before, but the main plot is actually fairly sparse, and more time is given over to the existential question of what to do when death awaits at every turn.

A certain vagueness about things harms the movie. That civilization has gone downhill as a result of the climate changing is fairly understandable, but people behave as though mankind itself is about to go extinct, and the fairly young Vivia is referred to as possibly the youngest person alive. Her being pregnant is treated as a surprise, thus making her death more of a tragedy, but it's never actually stated that there is a problem with people reproducing- we don't have CHILDREN OF MEN taking place, as it were. So WHY people aren't at least trying to have kids is never made clear- if anything, one would expect the snowed-in and underworked inhabitants of the city to turn to mankind's most popular indoor sport pretty quickly. Lack of food seems like it should be a problem, as with the seals' extinction, but the whys and hows of it are also never talked about (no major character in the film ever actually dies of hunger or suffers from malnutrition, so who knows?). Even the game of "Quintet" is never shown in much detail, and we see absolutely none of it after Essex/Redstone enters, though we see the players paying to stay in each morning.

Strangely for an Altman film, the characters aren't developed very well- they seem to be acting more as symbolic representations than as people, which keeps them kind of cold and distant. So, without much in the way of plot detail, or much in the way of character growth, we get some philosophical conversations and a lot of wandering around the city. To the film's credit, the visuals are stunning, and one definitely gets the feeling that a lot of work was put into creating the world in which the film takes place. There are some interesting recurring images as well, including a pack of dogs who regularly show up to feed on the bodies of everyone who dies. Even with the atmosphere, though, the picture can't help but become dull.

Certainly, the point of the film becomes clear in the end, and the symbolism is effective. But what makes the best of science fiction work so well is the way the genre makes the abstract into the concrete- how it can embody bizarre ideas in forms specifically fitted to them. The game of "Quintet" could perfectly show life's mad struggle for survival, and the apocalyptic surroundings do a decent job of boiling existence down to the purest essentials, but neither the game or the apocalypse have much weight or reality to them. In addition, the feeling of pointlessness starts to bleed over to the viewer as well; once Vivia and the child have been killed, that's pretty much the last hope for humanity gone, so why mess around with the motives of a killer who's killed soon after anyway? There are no real stakes for anyone after a time, and since the ultimate answer is a predictable one, it's not enough motivation to pull you through the movie.

It's all a bit of a shame, since a lot of work clearly went into creating the world of the film. I've no doubt that there is more detail to the setting than we are allowed to see, something which is common to Altman's work, but which also makes me wish that what we saw was enough. As it is, there is a lot of unrealized potential here, and I can't really fault the filmmaker for trying, even if he failed to make the last essential connection. I may not be able to recommend QUINTET, at least not to general readers- Altman fans, however, as well as science fiction fans, should at least take a look for curiosity's sake. This isn't a good film, but I can't regret having seen it.

Story by Robert Altman, Lionel Chetwynd, and Patricia Resnick
Screenplay by Frank Barhydt & Robert Altman and Patricia Resnick
Directed by Robert Altman

Grade: C+

See you next year, everyone!

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Comics Page #8: Onslaught Reborn #1

If I'm late reviewing ONSLAUGHT REBORN #1, it's for a very good reason: this past Saturday was the first time I was able to find it. Defying any and all logic, the issue was a sell-out. Then again, the original Onslaught event, and the entire HEROES REBORN project, is still classed as a commercial success by Marvel. (Granted, this was close to the very bottom of the steep plunge the industry took in the mid-Nineties, and arguably any title with a readership greater than that of this blog could be counted a success.) Of course, WHY I'm reading it, much less reviewing it, is a very good question in itself. Suffice it to say, the project is a call back to a period of comics history I find utterly fascinating. I had to look. Honest.

The early Nineties were a particularly odd time for the industry. Big events like the Death of Superman were drawing mainstream media attention, which in turn meant a lot of speculators were buying up issues of said important events under the belief that the issues would be incredibly valuable in the future, just as ACTION COMICS #1 and so on had become. In response, Marvel and DC, along with newer companies like Image, put out more "important" and collectible comics than ever. Sales went through the roof. This is actually the most interesting part of the whole sordid saga, since comics publishers must have felt that anything would sell, and as such writers and artists went kinda nuts. Eventually, speculators began to realize that not everything with a hologram cover or big even number was going to rake in the bucks, and from a period of around 1994 to 1997, sales dwindled spectacularly. Comics shops went out of business across the country, several good smaller titles vanished, and the industry basically fell into a hole that it's still slowly crawling out of.

At one point during the decline, Marvel figured it could garner more attention for several of its properties by rebooting them. They used an X-MEN event called "Onslaught", in which a giant creature of the same name, created from the dark depths of Charles Xavier and Magneto's minds when the former tried to brainwash the latter into being nice (or something), went on an unstoppable rampage, destroying the world basically for the heck of it. The X-Men fought him over several issues, but in the end, it was the non-Mutant heroes- the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, etc. who defeated the monster by merging with him, containing his essence and letting themselves be destroyed, eventually being reborn inside a parallel universe formed from Onslaught's essence and contained in a small sphere watched over by Franklin Richards, Reed Richards' reality-bending son. The upshot of all this nonsense was that all the sacrificed heroes were farmed out to indie comic superstars like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, etc., drawn in the popular mid-Nineties hyper-exaggerated style, and presented as HEROES REBORN, a new line-up. This lasted for about a year or so, then the rebirthed heroes were handed back to the Marvel bullpen and the main Marvel Universe, and nobody spoke of such things again, until now.

So, the present. As a result of the Scarlet Witch's declaration of "No More Mutants!" at the end of the glacially paced HOUSE OF M, a bunch of mutants (not all of them, for reasons I forget) lost their powers, and this energy somehow goes to the middle of Central Park and reforms Onslaught. Onslaught is obsessed with destroying Franklin Richards for reasons I'm probably better off not knowing, and takes control of the Fantastic Four's Reed Richards and Johnny Storm to try and kill him. Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing, and Frank's mother Sue are unaffected by Onslaught's attempt at mind control, and help defend him, but Onslaught himself somehow bursts in. Fortunately, Franklin has kept the pocket universe in his room, and escapes into it. Whereupon he meets the Heroes Reborn version of Bucky, Captain America's sidekick, who it turns out has been narrating this whole thing, and then Onslaught appears and it's a cliffhanger.

The important thing to know about this series is that it's drawn by Rob Liefeld, who came to epitomize the 90s style of drawing at its most bizarre. Liefeld is known for not only exaggerating the anatomy of characters, as many artists do, but for making basic anatomical mistakes. Characters with hundreds of teeth, nonexistent waists, and giraffe legs often crop up, and a number of non-anatomical continuity errors can often be found as well. A lot of people have done more work cataloguing Liefeld's various eccentricities, so I won't harp on his career in general. But the art in this book is extremely crude. There are about twice as many pencil marks as there need to be (Liefeld the inker failing to clean up after Liefeld the penciler), goofy angles and poses galore (Bucky greets Franklin with a truly bizarre facehugger stance, complete with jazz hands), photographs are dropped in as backgrounds (and not in a creative Kirbyesque way either); it's all just so rushed. There's a particularly horrific splash page of the Thing being knocked out of a building by the Human Torch that just happens to fall at the center of the book, meaning that's the page it keeps opening on. It symbolizes so much of what went wrong on the art end that it's almost fitting.

Not that Jeph Loeb, the writer, is getting away with anything anytime soon. The narration, only revealed to be Bucky's in the last two pages, is overwritten and strangely stilted. The characterization is generally pretty flat; Ben Grimm is his usual self, Onslaught is evil, Franklin is innocent, Bucky is weirdly spunky. Despite this, there's not a whole lot of action, either, and the story hasn't gone very far by the time the first issue wraps. Basically, we get a lot of splash panels taking the place of actual epic scope.

And yet, I don't hate this. I don't like it, but it's an inconsequential piece of 90s nostalgia that exists to give the people who happened to like this era something they'd appreciate. Perhaps it's just that the ways in this is bad aren't the same ways in which other modern superhero comics are bad; it's free of the kind of slow existentialist brooding where grizzled veteran superheroes (i.e. everyone who's not explicitly called a rookie) reflect that their best days are behind them but they must fight on nonetheless. (It also lacks ALL STAR BATMAN & ROBIN's vague feeling that the writer is just playing a massive joke on his fanbase.) Granted, just being different from the mainstream isn't the same as being good. But ONSLAUGHT REBORN is at least trying to be fun. It's not wholly succeeding, but as a failure it's still vaguely pleasant.

The next issue stars the Incredible Hulk, and I might be tempted to pick that up to see if the story actually goes anywhere. There are a huge number of people for whom this book will be insufferable, and you know who you are. There are also some people who like this sort of thing, apparently, and you know who you are as well. Me, I'm just a vaguely interested spectator. I'm not quite sure who I am. But it is, perhaps, saying something that ONSLAUGHT REBORN #1 is NOT the most unpleasant comic-reading experience I've had this year.

Grade: C-

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Search Term Extravaganza!

So, I've got Statcounter, and in addition to telling you just how many folks visit your site, it gives a bunch of other information, including the search terms people use when an engine points them here. Some of these make more sense than others- many are fun.
But before we go into that, a quick word to all the people who come here searching for various pieces of media on Youtube. It's because of that damned tag, I know. But, folks, honestly- Youtube itself has a robust search engine which searches its entire collection. It's not like Bittorrent where you have to find a remote host. Everything's at the site. Why are you looking for this stuff on blogs?

And on we go:

"Thou I suppose I'll show all the cool and cold self-control"- I suppose this is a song lyric of some sort.

"Ann Margret's breasts"

"led matrix cocoon club"

"Loch Ness quicksand artwork"

"the best movie I've ever seen blog x-men last stand"- I gave the film a positive grade and all, but let's not push it.

"Raymond Burr abused"- Ladies and gentlemen, I think we've found the non-joke equivalent of "Roy Orbison in clingfilm."

"x men the last stand what bride in movie"- Maybe this is referring to one of those alternate endings.

"fairly meaty mash up"- Led to the BLACK DAHLIA review. Don't ask why.

"breasts shown by flash photography"

"Japanese film quicksand"- And again with the quicksand.

"sexy Cassandra Murata"

"saffy matrix online"- If there's a Saffy Matrix, I want in.

"slightly shady ladies heroes and villains"- Sounds like a superhero strip club.

"richard ayaode girlfriend"

"how to start an awesome wizard's club"- I'd make fun of this, but it'd be downright hypocritical of me.

"how tall is paul dinello"

"pam anderson in masterbation outfits"- I understand people searching for this, I'm just not clear on how it led them here.

And finally, an early and eternal favorite, perhaps because it's something I wouldn't mind seeing myself:

"tracey ullman spandex"

Thanks for reading, and more actual content soon enough.

Friday, December 08, 2006

May the Saga Be With You: Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Like the last piece of a puzzle, REVENGE OF THE SITH completes the vast picture that is the STAR WARS saga, and as such manages to enhance all the surrounding films to some degree. Putting the "opera" back into space opera, the film is a classical tragedy surrounded by rich, moody visuals, high adventure, and even the occasional bit of humor. It's arguably the second-best film in the entire series, and a fine high note for the saga to go out on.

[I can't NOT spoil this one, folks.]

The Clone Wars are raging, and the film opens in the midst of a gigantic battle over the Republic capital of Coruscant, where the Separatists have managed to capture Chancellor Palpatine. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, now both full Jedi Knights, manage to blast their way into the Separatist flagship in a daring rescue operation. Anakin kills Count Dooku after a long battle, at the encouragement of Palpatine, and the three face off against the droid commander General Grievous (a full CGI creation with the voice of Matthew Wood) before effecting a crash landing on the planet. Grievous escapes, and the war continues, but Anakin is distracted by the news that his secret bride Padme is now pregnant with their child. Soon after hearing the news, Anakin has a vision of Padme dying in childbirth. Because neither of them can reveal their relationship, it's hard for them to get medical advice, and Anakin can't get much help from the Jedi Council, either. However, Palpatine, who has befriended Anakin and pushed to get him admitted to the Council (much to their chagrin), hints that the Sith may have had knowledge on how to stop people from dying, and that he may be able to help rediscover that knowledge. As Obi-Wan is sent off to a distant world to hunt down Grievous once and for all, Anakin puts two and two together and figures out that Palpatine is the Sith Lord that the Jedi have been searching for ever since his apprentice was cut in two on Naboo. Between the danger to Padme and Anakin's growing distrust of the Jedi Council, Skywalker's loyalty to the Republic and to the Order is strained to the breaking point (if that's not mixing a metaphor- and if it is, well, you have to do it sometimes.) When the Council come to arrest Palpatine (and in so doing stage a sort of coup), Anakin steps in on the Sith Lord's side, becoming his apprentice, Darth Vader. And all Hell breaks loose.

This may well be the darkest film in the series, moreso than THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and it goes without saying that the two share a tonal similarity in this regard. But it's a different kind of dark, a broader, more melodramatic sort of tragedy where the face of evil itself is revealed. Palpatine's use of half-truths and deception to tempt Anakin- this time successfully- echoes Vader's revelations to Luke in EMPIRE and Dooku's attempt to sway Obi-Wan in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. It's worth noting that in each case, the Sith lords do not actually lie- rather, they tell what parts of the truth best serve them at the time. Particularly brilliant is a scene where Palpatine tells the legend of an ancient Sith Lord who discovered the secret (of life?) of life (itself?) itself (*applause*) and was killed by his unnamed apprentice; we know he knows more than he lets on, and the juxtaposition of this exposition with a zero-gravity water ballet being performed in front of the characters adds an ominous beauty. A lot of what happens both before and after this episode is brought into further perspective. Yoda confronts the Emperor and fails (in an entertainingly symbolic battle where the two fight inside and largely demolish the Republic Senate, hurling the now-familiar floating platforms at each other with the Force), and gives up being a warrior to live the life of an exile. Obi-Wan faces Anakin in a fierce battle on a volcanic world (a story element that Lucas had in mind for some time before the original trilogy was even finished), and though Obi-Wan prevails and leaves his opponent for dead, his reluctance to finish off an old friend leads to Anakin surviving as the half-robotic Vader, thus explaining his insistence to Luke in JEDI that Anakin is lost to the Dark Side and must be destroyed. Anakin, meanwhile, is ultimately turned to evil because of his connection to Padme, but at the same time because the Jedi have forbidden romantic attachments; if relationships between Jedi and Senators were considered completely acceptable, Anakin could have openly sought out and gotten the best medical care for his wife. There's a lot to chew on here in terms of the morality of the setting and how evil wins this time around. Death itself emerges as a theme; Anakin wants to stop the people he loves from dying, and the Sith offer him a way of defying death, while the Jedi offer ways of coping with it, and in the end, discover a more spiritual means of returning from the dead.

It's also an astonishingly beautiful film. The visuals are rich, colorful, full of detail and moody as Hell to boot. It helps that the movie, setting up the events of A NEW HOPE, takes on some of the "used", grimy look of the original films, as opposed to the shinier and somewhat more austere appearance of the first two prequels (meant to convey the grandeur of the Old Republic.) It makes it easier for the actors to fit in with CGI backgrounds and characters, and gives a vaguely 70s look to some of the picture as well, to good effect. There's a lot of pure spectacle, as in the opening, a colossal space battle which makes up for the relative lack of space battles in Episodes I and II (the movies are called "Star Wars", after all), in Obi-Wan's extended face-off against General Grievous, which turns into a chase sequence through the caverns of Utapau, and in a battle on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. But the visuals, like everything else in this film, are geared towards conveying a sense of darkness and apocalyptic betrayal. Much of the film is rendered in rich, fiery reds and oranges, while the gadgets and ships become more black-and-white, foreshadowing the monochromatic universe of A NEW HOPE. (There's something symbolic about this, as, with the Sith coming out in the open and taking over the Galaxy, the morality of the universe also becomes more black-and-white.) The film basically features the same technical innovations as its previous installments (and maybe a few more on its own), but applies them towards creating a stronger, more primal emotional response. It's a sad film, and during a montage where the forces of the Republic turn on their Jedi commanders across the galaxy, I got a lump in my throat.

To be sure, the Anakin/Padme romance still isn't much fun to watch, though its presence is toned down substantially from the last movie. The dialogue is still corny (despite an uncredited polish by Tom Stoppard.) And Padme doesn't get to do much (scenes involving her helping start the Rebellion were dropped from the film after a rough cut ran over three hours.) But once again, Ewan McGregor is in pure swashbuckling form, channeling both Alec Guinness and Errol Flynn in a performance that reflects the enthusiasm he brought to the prequels, despite Lucas never being an actor's director. Ian McDiarmid delivers a performance that is both over-the-top and completely appropriate for the character, with some well-timed moments of subtlety; when Palpatine tells Anakin "the Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural", you can hear him very carefully selecting each word. When he delivers a speech to the Senate which essentially transforms the Republic into the Empire, he speaks with a Hitlerian intensity that sweeps the body into applause even though they've just surrendered all their power.

I don't feel I can actually do justice to this movie. It's not the best of the series, still lagging behind THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but I have to side with A. O. Scott who says it's better than the original STAR WARS. It's a wonderfully rich and moving science fiction film in its own right, and it also makes the later films more resonant. In light of the cataclysmic fall of the Jedi and the Republic, the situation at the start of A NEW HOPE seems all the more desperate. Vader becomes a more tragic figure, at first just a scared boy sent into a strange world, then a troubled teenager, and granted power well before he could learn the wisdom to use it. And the end of Luke's heroic journey also becomes the culmination of a prophecy by which Anakin finally does destroy the Sith and restore balance to the Force, resolving an ancient conflict through his own sacrifice. In short, REVENGE OF THE SITH does what the prequels set out to do, and though I hold the first two episodes in higher esteem than most, I admit that this is what we all expected from the start. The new STAR WARS films could never be as innovative and revolutionary as the originals, but they have managed to expand and deepen the universe of the films, as well as some of the philosophy beneath it. Looking back at the STAR WARS films, I'm most impressed by the totality of what Lucas has managed to create: a living, breathing fictional universe as distinctive as Middle-Earth and Narnia, its details filled in by legions of novelists and fanficcers and RPG writers and cartoon makers, rendered for cinema with exquisite craft. All in all, a Hell of a ride.

Grade: A

(And now I can finally get started on NaNoFiMo. To say nothing of my Netflix queue. And comics fans, I haven't forgotten you, I swear.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

May the Saga Be With You: Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones

And now we come to the most difficult film to review, and as such maybe the most controversial movie in the already-not-well-loved prequel trilogy. Released 25 years after the debut of the original STAR WARS, ATTACK OF THE CLONES takes the franchise back to its pulp sci-fi and B-movie roots, for better and for worse. Sleeker and sharper than Episode I, it also moves more heavily into the melodramatic, and also is the only film in the entire saga whose tone can't be easily classified as "up" or "down." This ambiguity hurts the film in some places, but overall elevates it above the sum of its parts.

[Spoilers Below- couldn't help it this time]

It's ten years after the events of THE PHANTOM MENACE. Led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a number of star systems have formed the Separatists, intending to secede from the Republic. With only the relatively few Jedi to maintain order, the Senate is considering creating an Army of the Republic. When former Queen and now Senator Padme Amidala returns to Coruscant to vote on the issue, her ship explodes on the landing platform, and she only escapes because she flew on an escort fighter. Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (now a young adult, played by Hayden Christensen) are assigned to protect her, and when her would-be assassin strikes again, it's decided that Padme should go back to Naboo, under Anakin's protection. This turns out not to be the greatest idea, as Anakin is falling in love with Padme and the Jedi Code forbids forming close personal attachments. Obi-Wan, meanwhile, tracks the trail of the bounty hunter who hired the assassin, and flies to Kamino, where a group of whisper-thin aliens has engineered a clone army at the behest of a Jedi Master who was killed well before he could place the order...

Of the original STAR WARS films, the one this puts me most in mind of is A NEW HOPE. The two share a similarity in visual style, both with a sparer, cleaner look than other entries, and both stay closer to the vintage sci-fi look and feel that inspired the saga. While THE PHANTOM MENACE played more on the mythical elements of the series, ATTACK OF THE CLONES has a less dignified, more dime-store-novel approach. The Jedi here act mostly in the role of galactic policemen, a trope they share with E. E. Doc Smith's Lensmen and the Green Lantern Corps. Obi-Wan's attempts to find out who's gunning for Amidala unfold in a way that amusingly apes the conventions of detective stories, including a scene where he discusses his findings with a crusty alien prospector who now runs a 50s-style-diner. An early chase between flying cars through the 3-D streets of Coruscant has a similar vibe. There's something enjoyably primal and playful about the whole thing; during the chase Anakin and Obi-Wan seem almost to be enjoying themselves, and trade quips as they perform superhuman stunts. It's a good feel for a STAR WARS movie to have.

Unfortunately, the old-fashioned approach extends to a key subplot of the movie, namely Anakin and Padme's romance. There's just too much idyllic beauty and purple prose; the dialogue in these films is rarely good, but here the stiffness really hurts things (strangely enough, Lucas had help writing the screenplay; Jonathan Hales had a hand in several episodes of the late, lamented YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES.) Natalie Portman makes the best of things, and is no less lovely than she was before, but Christensen, though he has the right look, falters in his delivery. On subsequent viewings, there's something vaguely authentic about the adolescent quality Anakin displays, but it's still grating. The same applies to the romance in general, really; I buy it, but it's still not that fun to watch.

Fortunately, Lucas is in a better position to break up the action than before, and the romance scenes are alternated with the far more entertaining adventures of Obi-Wan, Space Detective. (Ewan McGregor also brings a nice sardonic touch to his performance as the older Jedi.) And to be fair, Anakin gets some better material later on when, summoned by a dream, he returns to Tatooine only to find his mother kidnapped and eventually killed by Sand Peoples. Anakin's subsequent grief-induced massacre leads to the most mysteriously affecting scene in the movie, a short cutaway to a half-lit room where Yoda sadly senses the young Jedi's pain from across the universe. It has no impact on the story, and is very simply composed, but it lends an ominous gravity to the proceedings.

The STAR WARS films are known for their black-and-white morality; even THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK doesn't bend this too much. ATTACK OF THE CLONES, on the other hand, seems to introduce more grey into the proceedings than before. Not only does Anakin show signs of the darkness that will eventually overtake him, but the Jedi as a whole become part of Darth Sidious' increasingly apparent plot to take over the galaxy. It's actually kind of clever: by following the clues to Kamino, where a spare clone army happens to be available, and following bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) from there to the Separatists' base on the planet Geonosis, Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme (who travel to the planet to rescue Obi-Wan when he is captured), and the rest of the Jedi (also trying to rescue their own) unwittingly trigger the start of the Clone Wars, the conflict spoken of in soft tones in the original STAR WARS. So, while the bad guys are on one level obvious- the Separatists and their armies of droids and flying bugs- at the same time, the putative "good guys" are also working for the future Emperor. This lends a heavy irony to the climactic and increasingly chaotic battle on Geonosis, especially in a moment where the gunships of the Republic appear, with ships and weapons and insignia recalling the Empire of the original trilogy, and with clone troopers wearing distinctly stormtrooper-esque outfits. That single visual has the feeling of authentic history, where sometimes doing what seems like the right thing leads to greater wrongs being done in the future. (That the film came out in the early stages of the run-up to the Iraq War was an amusing accident.) Similarly, in the inconclusive battle between Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Count Dooku, we see the Jedi's power starting to wane, but are given an affirmation of the true power of good when Yoda enters to save the day. There's also a theme of duty and how it conflicts with personal attachments, and though Anakin's love for Padme and his mother seem to work against him, it's Luke's devotion to his father and his friends that ultimately saves everyone.

One drawback to all this is you don't get the same emotional highs from the conflict that you do in the other movies. Instead, there's a subtler feeling of discovery and revelation; we see more of how the Empire came to be, how Anakin began to fall, and how the seemingly superhuman Jedi found themselves all too vulnerable. As bumpy a ride as ATTACK OF THE CLONES may be, it has an interesting staying power, and, like all good middle chapters, leaves one eager to see how it all ends. This may be the most obviously imperfect of the STAR WARS movies, but that doesn't mean it's the worst.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

May the Saga Be With You: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace

[Image from]

Every saga has a beginning, and for some reason, this one comes in the middle. Fair enough. THE PHANTOM MENACE is arguably the most heavily criticized of the STAR WARS films, and it's easy to see why. One of the most heavily hyped and anticipated movies in the history of the medium, it was almost destined to disappoint at least some of the audience. On top of which, it was clearly aimed at an audience younger than the fans who had grown up with the original trilogy, who were obviously going to be the most vocal in their response. And then there was Jar Jar. But despite its flaws, THE PHANTOM MENACE is a grand spectacle, and may even be a better film than RETURN OF THE JEDI. The canonical beginning of the STAR WARS saga, this "Episode I" tells its own relatively self-contained story while effectively setting the larger myth in motion.

Apparently angered by the Galactic Republic's taxation of their trade routes, the greedy Trade Federation, secretly led by the sinister Lord Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), have decided to make a point by putting up a military blockade around the idyllic world of Naboo. Two Jedi Knights- Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor)- are sent to negotiate things, only for the Federation to try and kill them while it sends its droid armies to the planet's surface for an all-out invasion. The two Jedi escape to the planet's surface and, after meeting with klutzy Gungan refugee Jar Jar Binks (a CGI creature with voice and movements by Ahmed Best), help Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her entourage escape from the besieged planet, hoping to go to the galactic capital of Coruscant. Their spaceship takes some damage on the way out (though shipboard droid R2-D2 helps things), and they're forced to hide out on the remote desert world of Tattooine. In order to get the right parts to repair their vessel, the Jedi, accompanied by Jar Jar and the Queen's handmaiden Padme (also Portman- hmm), none of whom have currency that the locals will accept, are forced to ask help from a young slave worker and racer named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd)...

THE PHANTOM MENACE operates on two levels. On the first, we have a single planet in jeopardy, menaced by an evil space-corporation headed by scheming green aliens and their armies of skeletal robots. But from the very first conversation between the two Jedi Knights, we're given hints that something deeper is going on. Though it was never said in RETURN OF THE JEDI, the Emperor's proper name was "Palpatine", and that just happens to be the name of the Senator representing Naboo, who is also played by Ian McDiarmid, who is also Lord Sidious, who looks and talks a lot like the Emperor. And we know that this trilogy is going to show the rise of the Empire, among other things. So, when Palpatine suggests that the Queen, stymied by the gridlock of the Senate, call for a vote of no confidence in the current Chancellor (played briefly but memorably by Terence Stamp), which leads to his nomination for the position, we get a sense of what's really going on. We also have the introduction of a prophecy: Qui-Gon believes that Anakin is the person who will bring Balance to the Force, something as-yet undefined but may become more apparent once you work out what the kid goes on to do in the very end. He wants him trained as a Jedi, the Jedi Council senses something dangerous in that, but fate intervenes.

Doubling is actually a theme and motif that recurs throughout the film. We have two Jedi, two Sith (Sidious and his fearsome apprentice Darth Maul, played by stuntman Ray Park), two races on Naboo, two Trade Federation executives, the Queen and her double, etc. More explicitly, the idea of symbiosis comes up a lot- Obi-Wan tries to persuade the Gungans to help the human inhabitants of Naboo by pointing out that their fates are intertwined, during a high-speed Podrace Anakin fixes his vehicle by transferring power from one engine to the other, and there are the midichlorians- microscopic organisms apparently found in all living cells which make life possible, and also channel "the will of the Force" (hence, when Anakin is revealed to have an extremely high midichlorian count, it's a sign that there may be something more to him than just having good luck.) That last bit was and is particularly controversial with fans, as it appeared/appears to give a scientific explanation to the Force, but I don't think it quite goes that far. It's more of a plot device. There's also a broader theme of faith and risk; Qui-Gon takes a particularly desperate gamble in essentially staking the entire mission on Anakin's ability to win a Podrace when he hasn't even finished in the past, betting the party's ship while calmly recognizing how this could leave them stranded for a very long time, and later he is willing to accept the risk of taking Anakin on as an apprentice when the Council has already decided not to train him (while the Queen decides to travel back to Naboo and risk everything on a final battle with the Federation.) At heart, STAR WARS is about desperate gambits and long odds, but that element is emphasized here.

As mentioned earlier, Jar Jar Binks is probably emblematic of the problems people had with this film and the prequel trilogy in general (though his screentime was increasingly reduced in the next two movies.) With a high-pitched voice, a goofy patois that seems to include the Wayne's World expression "Exsqueeze me", and a cartoonishly exaggerated clumsiness, he's an attempt at a comic relief character that just doesn't work. (There was even some controversy owing to him vaguely resembling black stereotypes of the thirties and forties.) For some, he completely ruins the picture, but I think I'm partly immune to characters like this (i.e., bad comedy sidekicks.) By their nature they don't do much and usually stand off to the side while the protagonists do the actual busy work of the story. I find Jar Jar tolerable because of that. The real weak link is Jake Lloyd as Anakin; apparently cast for his cherubic appearance, Lloyd makes the obvious Child Actor mistake of over-enunciating and emoting his lines, putting way too much emphasis on individual words and generally being rather plastic-y. On the up side, Neeson and McGregor make a very good duo, combining badass swagger (this is the first film where we truly see the Jedi at the height of their power) with Zen-like detachment. Portman is convincingly authoritative as the Queen, and not without her charm, and McDiarmid is wonderfully innocent as Palpatine. (I also have an inexplicable fondness for the battle droids, the most helpless mooks in all of cinema, with twitchy gestures and halting voices that seem to convey a deep sense of being completely screwed.)

Pacing is a bit of a problem here, as it was in JEDI, though it's not quite as bad. The first twenty-five minutes or so are pure cliffhanging, but there's a stretch of about twenty minutes starting when the ship lands on Tattooine and ending with the Podrace getting underway that simply drag a bit, and could easily have been cut down. (This was Lucas' first time in the director's chair since the original STAR WARS, so understandably he was a bit rusty.) Of course, the Podrace itself is a great pick-me-up; expertly cut and matched with some great sound effects, it's a thrilling, hectic and upbeat little mini-movie on its own. A later portion on Coruscant also goes on a bit, but that's okay because the planetary-metropolis offers some jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals. Indeed, one of the unsung virtues of this picture is just how good it looks; the CGI effects are convincing, yes, but there's so much visual detail and harmony of design and composition in some shots that they reveal more little bits on subsequent viewings.

Like RETURN OF THE JEDI (the prequel films each share a tonal similarity with a different entry from the originals, though it doesn't work like you'd think), the film is essentially a big, colorful extravaganza, offering exotic sights and sounds, a fairy-tale story and lots of thrills and spills. On this level it works quite well, and if it's just a bit too bright and sugary for its own good, well, that's about to change anyway.

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 03, 2006

In Theaters: The Fountain

[Again, image courtesy of, but beware of pop-unders.]

I apologize for interrupting the STAR WARS reviews, but this is worth drawing attention to now. THE FOUNTAIN is worth seeing before it leaves theaters, and judging from the box office, that should give you up through next Thursday. Not that we've heard the last from it, I think; I sense the stirrings of another BLADE RUNNER-style cult of people embracing a unique and challenging genre film even as mainstream audiences and critics reject it. Darren Aronofsky's latest film is a stubbornly fascinating science fiction drama which, obtuse and po-faced though it may be, demonstrates a stark, elemental beauty, a good bit of thought, and in the end, genuine emotional heft. (Take the last with a grain of salt, as I was off my antidepressants.)

The film takes place in three separate time frames, ranging from modern times to the Spanish conquest of Central America to an incalculably distant future. In the modern frame (which is perhaps the most likely to be "real",) Dr. Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) is working on an attempt at a cancer cure while his wife Izzie (Rachel Weisz) is suffering from a brain tumor. His work causes him to neglect his relationship, but he's devoted to saving her. He begins looking at a chemical compound derived from a tree found in Central America. In the past frame (which is also part of a novel that Izzie is writing,) a conquistador named Tomas (Jackman again) is sent by Queen Isabel of Spain (Weisz again) into the heart of the crumbling Mayan Empire to find the Biblical Tree of Life. Finally, in the future (which may also be part of the novel), a man who may be Tom is soaring into the heart of a nebula inside a transparent sphere which also carries a tree, a tree he believes also carries the spirit of a woman who may be Izzie.

In retrospect I don't see what everyone's problem is. Makes perfect sense to me.

I keed, I keed. It's at least a half hour before you can infer all that anyway, and I may be missing some of the finer points. Suffice it to say, in each timeframe a man is looking for the secret of eternal life to save a woman to whom he is devoted (Isabel promises Tomas that when he has found the tree, she will become his Eve.) Once the central thematic thrust becomes clear, you may or may not be able to work out some of what's going to happen next- it's predictable in a poetic sense, because the imagery is so clearly pointing in one direction. But the point of the work seems neither to be the plot nor the message, such as it is. What we instead have are three variations on a theme, interwoven and progressing towards something resembling a common end.

Despite its apparent simplicity, there's still something less-than-accessible about the picture. The opening scenes are dark, murky, not-very-well-miked (I'm not sure how much of this is the fault of the filmmakers or the people who struck the prints, or for that matter the movie theater), and until we reach the "present" frame it's all a bit vague. Even then, the emotional grasp is not immediate. The one major flaw I would point to in this film is that the relationship between Tom and Izzie is just a bit too generic. He loves her, she loves him, and she's dying, but we don't get a lot of nuance to that. What attracts them to each other? What first attracted them? What problems, apart from an inoperable brain tumor, has their relationship had? I couldn't help but be reminded of other "art" science fiction films with a romantic relationship at the center, specifically THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and both versions of SOLARIS, all of which worked harder to make things more believably imperfect. (And can we have a moratorium on dreamy POV shots chasing a laughing lover in an idyllic, playful fashion? I swear this footage was recycled from THE CONSTANT GARDENER.) To their credit, Jackman and Weisz both turn in strong enough performances that we gradually become convinced of the emotional reality of their marriage even as it draws to a close. (And, to be fair, asking why any given man would be attracted to Rachel Weisz is a bit like asking why anyone eats.)

So the film does eventually get its emotional tenterhooks in, and there are a couple of real tearjerking scenes. It helps, of course, that the film is gorgeous. I wasn't sure about the aesthetic at first- mostly amber and gold with blacks and whites for contrast- but it has a stark and funereal beauty, and the elegant spareness of the compositions helps to keep the parallels of the three stories close, and the symbolism of the images clear. The music score has a similarly minimalist power.

If anything I wish the film had aimed even higher. A greater complexity, a measure of ambiguity to its images and its implied themes could have put this up on a level with Tarkovsky's SOLARIS and Kubrick's 2001. More time might have helped, as well- the film comes in at well under two hours, and if Aronofsky was insistent on making an art science fiction movie with the commercial potential of GIGLI 2, he may as well have gone for broke on length and fleshed out the central relationship and some of the more literally confusing moments. Instead, the film is short, beautiful, and pointed. The cycle of life and death is not for us to defy, and though we are consciously painfully aware of this fact, a sharp reminder can be a good thing.

Grade: A-

Saturday, December 02, 2006

May the Saga Be With You: Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

I got into writing this thing because of holiday nostalgia, and RETURN OF THE JEDI is probably at the epicenter of that wave. I was born in 1981, so it was the only one of the original STAR WARS movies that came out when I was actually alive, and though I don't think I saw it in theaters, I may as well have given how often I saw it on TV during my formative years. Though probably the least effective entry in the series, it's still a lavish and imaginative romp, the ideal space opera for a child of the eighties. It also, especially in light of all six movies, makes a superb finish to the saga, wrapping up its supreme conflict between good and evil in a way that's surprisingly personal and touching.

As the Empire decides to celebrate its rout of the Rebellion by building a second, more powerful Death Star under the personal supervision of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, returning from EMPIRE), C-3P0, and R2-D2 have all traveled to Tattooine to rescue Han Solo- still frozen in a block of carbonite- from the evil gangster Jabba the Hutt. Leia, disguised as a bounty hunter, infiltrates the crime lord's palace and manages to revive Han, and though everyone ends up taken prisoner and offered up to a giant sand monster, Luke, now acting as a full-fledged Jedi Knight, leads a daring escape. Heading back to Dagobah to finish his training, Luke finds a dying Yoda who confirms that Darth Vader is his father Anakin Skywalker, corrupted by the Dark Side. He tells Luke that to truly become a Jedi, he must face Vader again. Obi-Wan drops the other shoe by revealing that Leia is in fact Luke's long-lost twin sister, and warns that Luke may have to kill his father to save the galaxy. Meanwhile, the Rebels have discovered that the new Death Star is under construction, and that the Emperor is aboard, meaning that a successful attack could pretty much bring down the whole Empire. The station is protected by an energy shield projected from the forest moon of Endor (where it's in orbit, natch), and Luke joins Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids in a mission to bring down the Imperial shield generator. After the Rebels meet up with the short, furry Ewok natives, Luke, sensing that Vader is on the Death Star, sets out to try to bring his father back to the side of good. The Emperor, meanwhile, plans to turn Luke to the Dark Side of the Force, and has laid a trap for the attacking Rebels...

The end of a heroic saga is in some ways the culmination of its themes; when good defeats evil, it's usually not through simple chance, but some quality of either or both concepts (at least as seen by the author), most often a fundamental failure of "evil". The One Ring is destroyed because of the very obsession it creates in those who come near it; the White Witch meets her end because she doesn't account for the laws of her world; Agent Smith fails to understand free will and so is destroyed by it. Similarly, the Emperor's own attempt to turn Luke Skywalker seals his fate by ultimately turning Darth Vader against him. He is undone by his self-interest and his certainty- he allows Luke to live because he believes he can be made his servant, and continually exclaims that things are unfolding as he has foreseen up until the moment when Vader picks him up and throws him down a deep shaft. Meanwhile, the various good guys seem to adapt to whatever happens, while making sure to look out for each other as often as possible.

There's also an element of maturation in this, the true culmination of Luke's heroic journey. In THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, he defies the advice of Yoda and Obi-Wan by rushing off to rescue his friends and fight Vader. This appears to have been a mistake, as he is maimed by Vader and Han is still frozen and taken to Tattooine. However, in rushing off, he has learned an important truth that his masters weren't willing to reveal. In this film, they advise him that he will have to face and destroy Vader, and "bury his feelings"- instead, he continues in his attempt to bring his father back to the good side. And, after much suffering and disappointment, it works, and Anakin Skywalker is redeemed. Luke can now exercise his own judgment and do what he feels is right.

For all of this, the film suffers greatly from pacing issues. From some accounts, the late Richard Marquand (who, like EMPIRE's Kershner, had done mostly smaller films), had difficulty with the effects-heavy JEDI, and Lucas had to step in at points, perhaps contributing to an uneven feeling. To start, the film takes a while getting all the heroes together in Jabba's Palace, with three separate "entrance" scenes before the action begins in earnest. It's the longest such opening lull in any of the movies, though the following scenes- a battle with the giant Rancor monster and a chaotic skirmish over the pit of the man-eating Sarlaac- are impressive enough to make up for it. Unfortunately there's a similar lag in the scenes on Endor, coming after a brilliant chase through the trees on flying speeder bikes; there's a lot of business with the Ewoks that could have been, if not cut, certainly trimmed down. Again, it's saved by the action that follows; the climax brilliantly intercuts Luke's confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, the battle between Stormtroopers and Ewoks and Rebels on Endor's surface, and a wonderfully chaotic and grandiose space battle overhead. It's very much a film of ups and downs.

The STAR WARS movies have never been praised for the acting on display, but though most of the performances are simply adequate, much credit must go to Ian McDiarmid's gloriously over-the-top and scummy Emperor. He spends most of the film gloating over his impending triumph, at the same time using this to tempt Luke into unleashing his anger and thus becoming his servant. This could have gone very wrong, but McDiarmid modulates the Emperor's satanic arrogance and rage quite well.

Despite the somber undercurrent of Luke's final confrontation with the Dark Side, the film is quite upbeat and cheery overall, a celebratory progression to the ultimate triumph of the Rebellion. This is matched with a high level of visual playfulness, which is the source of much of the criticism the film has received from science fiction fans. The fandom case against was rather aptly summed up in CLERKS, when a character said "all JEDI had was a bunch of Muppets." And as a matter of fact, the Jim Henson workshop had a substantial hand in creating the many, many alien creatures present in the movie, and there is a vaguely Muppety vibe to many of them. But, of course, to a kid, the strict divisions between space sagas and Muppets and Lucas and Spielberg and so forth don't really exist, and something like THE DARK CRYSTAL (released the year before) just blurs the lines even further. And in the end there's no real reason why the proceedings of the film need to be especially dignified, at least not throughout. There's always been something vaguely fun and silly running through the heart of these movies, which, after all, owe a debt to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon as well as Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell. In some of its wilder moments, RETURN OF THE JEDI sums up the STAR WARS experience: weird alien monsters, spaceships that go whoosh, and lightsabers, all with a bit of mythmaking in the background. However imperfect the execution, its heart is in the right place.

Grade: B+

(I suppose I should close out the OT reviews with a word on the new DVDs. Though I do think it sucks that the transfers of the theatrical releases aren't widescreen-enhanced, and hence look worse on a widescreen TV, that they're not remastered like the special editions were doesn't bother me too much. It's enough just to have them available on a durable medium for historical purposes- demanding that they meet a certain standard smacks a bit of fan entitlement. And the graininess of the image does give viewing the discs an oddly cinematic quality.)