Bombshell Review

Bombshell is the 2019 biographical drama film that chronicles the 2016/2017 sexual harassment cases against Roger Ailes , the CEO of the Fox News Network, and the women who worked for the network who ended up exposing the story, primarily Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. The film stars Charlize Theron as Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Carlson, and while the acting is great and this is a relevant, timely story, the good intentions of Bombshell can sometimes get clouded by Hollywood-style creative liberties.

The most glaring such creative liberty being the film’s third central character, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Though Margot Robbie’s performance is another highlight of the film, I found myself unfamiliar with who Kayla Pospisil was, since the name didn’t ring any bells. Turns out the reason I couldn’t figure out who she was is because she’s a fictional character, composite of a few different women’s stories from real life. While  adding such composite characters to biographical films is pretty common, it does seem kind of cheap to add a fictional character to a real life story that’s still so fresh in the memory. Especially seeing as the film revolves around three central women, it just feels odd that one of these women isn’t based on any real world counterpart.

It’s probably no surprise that the film mostly focuses on Kelly and Carlson, who played prominent roles in bringing down Ailes (portrayed in the film by John Lithgow in a fatsuit). Ailes is fittingly depicted as a pompous and often paranoid propaganda spewer, though his enforced political biases pale in comparison to his crimes against his female employees. Along with creating a toxic atmosphere for the women working for him, Ailes would eventually be outed for sexual harassment by over twenty women, including Kelly and Carlson.

Bombshell also covers the 2016 presidential election, with its opening moments focusing on Megyn Kelly’s moderation of the Republican debate, and her now-infamous feuding with Donald Trump (or, more accurately, Donald Trump’s immature responses to Kelly’s perfectly reasonable questioning). Megyn Kelly then becomes the target of harassment by Trump supporters both online and in her personal life. And although Ailes at first seems supportive of Kelly (if maybe paranoid at times), as soon as Trump becomes a ratings-grab for Fox News, he quickly shifts priorities.

Meanwhile, Carlson is removed as a co-anchor on the Network’s Fox and Friends program, after she began defending herself against sexist remarks both on air and off. Carlson then meets with lawyers to file a sexual harassment suite against Ailes. But she’ll need evidence and testimony from other women to bring down Ailes. When the case is made public and no other women speak up, Carlson starts to lose face. But Megyn Kelly, having been a victim of sexual harassment in the past, begins uncovering other women who have been victims of Ailes’s in the past, which – in the film – includes the newly-hired Pospisil.

As stated, this is a recent and very relevant story worth telling in a film, and the cast is excellent, particularly of its three leads (most especially Theron) as well as John Lithgow. The film’s focus on some fictional characters and elements does seem to undermine some of its relevance, however.

Another troublesome aspect of Bombshell is that it sometimes seems to be using the serious issue of sexual harassment as an excuse to take shots at some of Fox News’s on-air personalities who aren’t guilty of any crimes other than having differing politics than Hollywood, which seems beyond petty. For example, the film has one moment that needlessly takes a stab at news anchor Neil Cavuto, which seems particularly strange given the man’s now-famous spiels against Donald Trump. But he’s a republican, so he has to get some comeuppance! I don’t know, it just seems so petty to throw those kinds of jabs into the film when it’s supposed to be focusing on the much bigger issue of sexual harassment, which certainly knows no partisan politics (funny how we aren’t seeing a similar movie being made about Harvey Weinstein. I wonder why that could be?).

could potentially write that off as Hollywood being Hollywood. However, there is one scene in the film that ultimately makes me unable to recommend Bombshell. Yes, even though I think the film is well-made in most respects, and makes good use of a stellar cast, there is a single scene in Bombshell which I feel undermines the integrity of the film.

The scene in question happens later in the film, and sees Pospisil – who has since been a victim of Ailes’s sexual harassment – question Megyn Kelly about why the latter didn’t come out about her past victimizations sooner, as it may have prevented the same thing from happening to others. Think about this, for a moment: we have a fictional character essentially victim-shaming the character based on a real person who actually suffered through sexual harassment. This scene may have had a chance to be redeemed, if Pospisil later came to acknowledge that Megyn Kelly is in no way responsible for Ailes’s continued harassment, but no such scene occurs. So again, we have a fictional character (written by a man, no less) putting part of the blame on a real life victim. Despite Bombshell’s merits as a film, this one scene ultimately plays against its very purpose.

The real life Megyn Kelly, when discussing the film, rightfully found the scene in question to be a case of victim-shaming. Although Kelly acknowledged that she could have done more sooner after seeing the film, that in no way makes her responsible for what happened to other victims in any way, shape or form. It’s nothing short of despicable to accuse a victim of any responsibility for the crimes committed against them.

Again, I can’t help but feel this is a case of petty politics getting in the way of something much bigger and more serious. It’s like the film is saying “yeah, these women are victims and we should feel sympathetic, but they’re still conservatives so we can’t feel too sympathetic.” Bigger picture here, people!

I do have to reiterate that Bombshell is a well-made film, and I appreciated it for the most part. But because the film needlessly wags its finger at one of the real life victims of the story it’s covering, I feel I can’t really recommend it. Though the story and issues Bombshell is dealing with are timely, this is a rare case of a single scene undermining that story and those issues.

 

4

Knives Out Review

2019 was an interesting year for films. Though it provided a few great movies, and fittingly capped off the movie decade in regards to franchise closures for Avengers and Star Wars, it was also a year that really magnified the disconnect between “serious” Hollywood and the moviegoing public. Not only were films that pandered directly to critics lavished with predictable praise – resulting in the baffling acclaim towards films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a virtually plotless bore – while popular movies were widely ridiculed for being just that (as is evidenced by Martin Scorsese’s blatantly ignorant statements against Marvel films being met with acclaim by the filmmaking community, who applauded contempt for the average moviegoer like a bunch of trained seals).

Often at the heart of this disconnect was Rian Johnson, who in 2017 divided critics and audiences to a whole new degree with his take on Star Wars, The Last Jedi. Critics lauded the film for its supposed “subversion of expectations” and how it painted a normally ethereal series with a more hard-edged, cynical brush. Meanwhile, fans tended to feel The Last Jedi was so desperate to “subvert expectations” that it both abandoned logical narrative choices and betrayed character personalities.

Granted, The Last Jedi also exposed the more cancerous side of the Star Wars fandom, but critics often used that unsavory corner to blanket the entirety of The Last Jedi’s critics. If you didn’t like The Last Jedi, you weren’t simply a disappointed fan who felt the film undid all the goodwill J.J. Abrams did for the series with The Force Awakens, but you were automatically lumped in with the more toxic fans of the internet as an easy means to be discredited, thus allowing “serious Hollywood” to stroke its ego all the more.

This made the warm critical reception of Rian Johnson’s follow-up film, Knives Out, a foregone conclusion. But like all too many of 2019’s critical darlings, Knives Out is a film that feels undeserving of its ludicrous praise.

I admit I went into Knives Out with high hopes. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a whodunnit murder-mystery in theaters, and with a pretty stellar cast, Knives Out looked like it could have been the shot in the arm Hollywood needed to resurrect a long-dormant genre.

Unfortunately, Rian Johnson’s obsessive desire to “subvert expectations” once again shows up at the expense of a fluid narrative. After a strong opening act, the film takes a sharp detour in both genre and structure that robs the film of much of its potential enjoyment. It may pick things back up a bit by the end, but by that point, it’s too little too late for Knives Out.

The film starts off well enough, with wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) being found dead on the night of his 85th birthday by one of his maids, in what appears to be a suicide. Despite this, an anonymous party hires the aide of detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the scene, suspecting foul play.

It seems just about everyone who attended Harlan’s birthday celebration is a suspect, with Harlan making enemies with just about his entire family.

Harlan fired his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his position as the CEO of Harlan’s publishing company, and threatened to expose the affair of his son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) to Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s eldest daughter and Richard’s wife. Harlan also removed his lazy grandson Hugh “Ransom” (Chris Evans) from his will, and cut off the allowance of his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), after discovering she had been stealing money from him.

Benoit Blanc interrogates each member of the family, including grandchildren Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell), as well as the housekeeping, most notably Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who was Harlan’s caretaker and nurse, and probably the person Harlan was closest to in his later years.

Marta has a unique quirk that makes her a valuable asset in Blanc’s investigation: she gets sick when she lies. That’s not a metaphorical attribute, but she literally gets sick to her stomach and vomits from the stress and guilt of lying. Because of this, Blanc has Marta aide in his investigation, but Marta might know more than she’s letting on about what happened on the night of Harlan’s death.

Honestly, this aspect of the film is very well done. We get a good setup for the premise, most of the characters get a decent amount of time to showcase their personalities in their initial interviews with Blanc, and Marta’s presence – and unique ailment – add a fun twist to the proceedings. The first act suggests that maybe Knives Out is indeed the revitalization of the whodunnit it marketed itself as.

Then we abruptly get a revelation about Harlan’s death that kind of spoils the fun. Without spoiling too much, this particular revelation is only part of the bigger story, with the film letting the audience know there are additional details lying in wait. But once this revelation takes place, the whole ‘whodunnit’ premise that the film brags up so strongly largely disappears, and Knives Out instead becomes more about suspense than mystery. Sure, there are a few details about Harlan’s death that need solving, but because the film gives us a fakeout reveal pretty early on, all the other potential suspects become considerably less important, which makes an otherwise great cast feel sorely underutilized.

The film also has a bad tendency of breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule of visual mediums, by means of literally telling the audience who these characters are, instead of letting the characters’ reveal their personalities themselves. For example, Harlan’s grandson Jacob is often referred to as an “alt-right troll” and a “fascist” by his family, but all the character does is stare at his phone the entire film. I get that the implication is that he’s being a troll online, but because the character doesn’t do much of anything else but stare at his phone, he may as well be checking his email or looking at models on Instagram. You can’t just have the character stare at the phone the entire movie and have other characters say that he’s a stupid little punk. Make him a stupid little punk!

Sadly, after the film’s strong opening, much of Knives Out feels similarly dumbed down. Though the early parts of the film make a genuine attempt to make the audience think any member of Harlan’s family could have committed the crime, as the film goes on it’s so desperate to throw us off the scent of one particular character, that it becomes apparent that no one else could have done it except THAT character. That’s a rookie mistake in any murder mystery.

Again, the film does pick back up during its finale and the ultimate reveal, but by that point, the damage has been done. When Knives Out works well, it works very well – with sharp writing, great performances (particularly by Craig and Plummer), and a fun mystery…when it’s a mystery – the problem is that Rian Johnson’s need to “subvert expectations” through twists and turns ultimately ends up getting in the way of the films stronger aspects. Knives Out is a whodunnit in a time when such a film even existing is a rarity, yet it feels compelled to try and change up a genre that is the exact opposite of oversaturated in today’s movie landscape. It’s like digging up buried treasure, then emptying the treasure chest and putting different treasure inside. It’s like, okay, you already found buried treasure, what was the point of changing it?

To be fair, certain twists work fine (again, having a character who literally can’t lie without being found out is a fun little gimmick), but when one of those twists is blatantly revealing the majority of the murder details early on in a murder mystery, it makes the films other elements suffer. I can’t help but think Knives Out would have been a much better film if it were willing to just be what it is, and allowing the characters’ personalities to make it standout, instead of trying to reinvent a genre that already feels like a breath of fresh air in this day and age just by showing up. Knives Out is so busy trying to add twists and turns to the whodunnit genre that much of its middle act loses that whodunnit identity.

Had it stayed the course and focused on Blanc’s interrogations with the Thrombeys and their associates for the entirety of the film, Knives Out could have been something special: a whodunnit with several colorful personalities making the mystery more and more intriguing. Instead, by desperately trying to “subvert expectations,” Knives Out willingly abandons  its best elements just as it gets going. And by the time it picks the pieces back up, most of its characters haven’t developed past what we saw of them in their introductions, a great cast feels underutilized (why wasn’t Jamie Lee Curtis in more of this movie?), and the potential kind of feels wasted.

Knives Out has moments of brilliance, and word has it a Benoit Blanc sequel is already in the works. I can imagine that character being in a great movie, but unfortunately, Knives Out isn’t it. In this day and age, when everyone seems to be believe twists and turns automatically equate to originality and creativity, Knives Out is a reminder that, sometimes, you can better unleash your own creativity and voice if you aren’t trying so hard to reinvent the wheel.

You really don’t have to be Benoit Blanc to figure that out.

 

5

Frozen II Review

When Frozen was released in 2013, Disney had no idea what they had. What seemed to be planned as simply the “two princesses” Disney movie – with most of the marketing focusing on the comic relief – ended up being a worldwide phenomenon the likes of which Disney Animation hadn’t seen before. Disney found themselves unable to keep up with the demand for the merchandise surrounding the film, its songs instantly became iconic, and fans – adults and children alike – would dress up as the characters. It was a pop culture landmark whose impact was more akin to the likes of Star Wars than a Disney animated film.

It was an earned reputation as well. Frozen was a terrific movie that gained its popularity organically. Audiences fell in love with it, and through word of mouth, it continued to grow. Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, its characters quickly became some of the most beloved in cinema history, and it connected with audiences around the world (being particularly popular in Japan).The world couldn’t get enough of it.

Making a sequel seemed to be an inevitability on Disney’s part, but thankfully, the studio didn’t simply churn one out as quickly as possible. While other animation studios these days green light multiple sequels immediately after a decent opening weekend, Disney didn’t pull the trigger on a sequel to its biggest homegrown hit for well over a year, and even then, it didn’t officially begin production until a few years thereafter.

After over six years with only two short films to tide audiences over, Frozen II has finally become a reality. Thankfully, it’s a sequel that’s well worth the wait. Frozen II brings back the iconic characters and provides musical numbers as beautifully infectious as those of the original, while simultaneously setting itself apart from its predecessor in some incredibly bold ways.

Frozen II is set three years after the original, though its opening moments take us back to Anna and Elsa’s childhood, where their father, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) tells the princesses how he became the king of Arendelle. When he was a young boy, Agnarr travelled with his father to an enchanted forest found far north of Arendelle. The forest was home to the spirits of nature: earth, fire, wind and water. This forest also served as the home of the Northuldra people, who lived in harmony with the magic of the forest. Under orders of the king, Arendelle constructed a mighty dam in the forest as a gift of peace for the Northuldra people. But the celebration was short-lived. During the festivities, something went wrong, and a battle broke out between the people of Arendelle and the Northuldra. During the fighting, the former king of Arendelle was sent plummeting off a cliff, while Agnarr was knocked unconscious.

The spirits, angered by the fighting, sealed off the forest with an impenetrable fog, and went into a deep slumber, thus trapping everyone already inside the forest, and preventing anyone else from entering. Luckily for Agnarr, a “mysterious voice” rescued him from the forest before the fog fell. He then returned to Arendelle as its new king. Agnarr ends his tale by warning Anna and Elsa that the spirits of the forest could reawaken, and should that happen, to expect the unexpected.

Fast-forward to the present (three years after the first film, and six years after Anna and Elsa’s parents died at sea). Elsa (Idea Menzel) is now the beloved queen of Arendelle, while her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is its equally-beloved princess. One day, out of the blue, Elsa begins hearing a mysterious voice calling out to her. The same mysterious voice that rescued her father all those years ago. The voice seems to have a connection to Elsa’s magical ice powers, as she is the only soul in the kingdom who can hear it.

As the voice persists to haunt Elsa, it eventually draws out an inner power within her, and Elsa ends up reawakening the spirits of the enchanted forest. This results in a bit of chaos in Arendelle, with all traces of fire and water vanishing from the kingdom, while the movement of the earth and a powerful wind force all of Arendelle’s residents out of the kingdom. The citizens of Arendelle (or “Arendellians” as we learn) take refuge with the magical trolls, whom inform Elsa that she must travel to the enchanted forest, calm the spirits of nature and uncover the secrets of the past in order to restore peace to her kingdom.

Anna, ever the adventurer and always willing to stand by her sister, accompanies Elsa on her journey, as does Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and lovable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who now has a permafrost body to prevent him from melting. Lead by Kristoff’s reindeer-drawn sled (good ol’ Sven has to be involved as well), the group make their way to the enchanted forest, where Elsa’s magic allows them to penetrate the fog to enter the woods. But the group quickly realize they can’t get back out unless Elsa accomplishes her mission and permanently frees the forest.

While the characters are as endlessly likable as ever, and the film remains a musical, Frozen II is a very different movie from its predecessor. Not only does it meld into action-adventure territory, but it also takes on a darker, more mature tone (while younger children can still very much enjoy it, Frozen II seems to acknowledge that the kids who watched the original are now six years older, and the narrative has fittingly grown up alongside them). While the first film may have been a fairy tale, Frozen II doubles down on fantasy logic in both its narrative and world-building.

At first glance, these elements may make Frozen II seem alienating to fans of the original. But by being so radically different from its predecessor (while still, of course, retaining the characters we all grew to love), Frozen II is not only following the path of all the best sequels, but is actually the perfect kind of follow-up the original Frozen could have asked for.

Frozen has become so popular and so engrained in pop culture over the years, that we might actually forget why it gained that status in the first place. Frozen was all about bucking trends. It celebrated the things we love about Disney movies, while dismantling the cliches and outdated elements. It turned Disney archetypes into fleshed-out characters, who dictated the direction of the story, instead of being directed by it.

Disney could have gone the easy route with this sequel, and simply repeated the same beats as the original. It would have been easy money, to be sure. But by going in a very different direction narratively and tonally, it’s not only a brave, intelligent sequel, but it’s also – in a roundabout way – keeping in spirit with its predecessor by being different than it.

Sequels so often get derided for being “more of the same,” but Frozen II should be viewed as one of those rare sequels that justifies the artistic merits of franchises. Just because we’re revisiting a familiar world and characters doesn’t mean we can’t be given new stories. And Frozen II very much provides us with a different story.

Admittedly, this sequel is a bit more plot-focused than the original’s character-driven narrative, with the opening moments delivering the necessary exposition, but this isn’t an inherently negative thing. The only issue is that after we get the backstory with Agnarr retelling the events of the enchanted forest to Anna and Elsa, we immediately enter the brunt of the plot with Elsa beginning to hear ‘the voice’ as soon as we’re reintroduced to her. It’s not a big deal, and the film definitely delivers more than a few great character moments, but the story may have benefitted further if we got a few such moments before jumping into the plot. But that may be my love of the original film and its structure talking.

The characters are as likable as ever. Anna and Elsa remain Disney’s strongest lead characters, and Frozen II still wisely puts them and their sisterhood at the heart of the story, albeit in a very different way than the first film. While the original had Anna in the protagonist’s role trying to connect with Elsa – who more or less filled the role of antagonist – here both sisters are on the adventure together. This allows the film to showcase their interactions more, which brings more out of both characters.

Olaf still serves as the film’s primary comic foil, but again, in a different way than what the first film did with the character. In the original, Olaf was determined to experience Summer, being gleefully naive to how the hot Summer weather would affect a snowman such as himself. Here, Olaf’s character arc is all about growing up. Being the de facto ‘kid’ character of the lot, Olaf is – in his own words – dealing with “the increasing complexity of thought that comes with maturity.” While Olaf’s newfound inquisitiveness is mostly played for laughs, it does echo the film’s overall themes of maturity.

Kristoff does admittedly get something of the short-end of the stick in the storyline, but I suppose not everyone can get the same time in the spotlight. Kristoff’s story arc this time around is his attempt to work up the courage to propose to Anna, with every such attempt falling apart in one way or another. It’s a fun sub-plot, and it does get to showcase Kristoff’s character (including giving him a proper musical number all to himself, after Jonathan Groff got shortchanged in that area in the first film), but he is left out of most of the film’s third act.

Another great thing about Frozen II is how it handles its returning characters. It’s often easy for sequels to turn their characters into exaggerations or parodies of themselves, or to seemingly hit a reset button and undo the developments their characters went through in their first go-around. But Frozen II instead enriches the key players of its franchise. The film acknowledges how the the characters have grown from the events of the first film, while also staying true to their personalities.

Elsa, for example, may no longer be ruled by the fear of her powers, and is now willing to embrace the world and people around her. But Elsa still has a solemn and melancholic aspect to her, and still showcases a vulnerability and social awkwardness that is unique in movies, Disney or otherwise. Anna, meanwhile, is more worldly after everything she went through in the first film, but she’s still a bit naive when it comes to personal interactions (which humorously plays into Kristoff’s fumbling proposal attempts). This character growth goes back to what makes Frozen II such a special sequel: it doesn’t try to simply replicate the original, but instead builds upon it.

There are a few new characters introduced once the story enters the enchanted forest, the most prominent of which being Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown), a Lieutenant who served Arendelle under Anna and Elsa’s grandfather who has been trapped in the forest ever since that fateful day. Another commendable aspect of Frozen II is how it so easily avoids the pitfall of so many animated sequels of overemphasizing new characters at the expense of the returning ones. The new characters who are present in Frozen II help enrich the world and story of the film, but they all play the roles they need to without overstaying their welcome, as opposed to needlessly playing roles that are already covered by the established characters (no talking sporks or swashbuckling cats in this sequel).

Frozen II is a visual wonder. While the first Frozen showcased snowy landscapes, Frozen II’s setting of the Northuldra forest is drenched in an Autumn pallete. There are a lot more Earthy-colored environments this time around, while Elsa’s ice powers, as well as the purple flames that emanate from the Fire Spirit, keep the hues of the original film intact. Between its gorgeous environments and many magical happenings, Frozen II is an astonishingly beautiful film. And much like the story itself, the art direction and settings distinguish this sequel from its predecessor. There’s not a moment in Frozen II that doesn’t look like a work of art.

The voice cast is every bit as enjoyable as they were in the first film, and remains among the best vocal cast of any animated feature. Josh Gad provides charm and warmth to Olaf without making him too cutesy. Jonathan Groff gives Kristoff heart and humor. And most notably, Kristen Bell and Idena Menzel are perfect in the roles of Anna and Elsa. Bell has a unique combination of heroism and innocents to her performance that brings Anna to life, while Idena Menzel’s unrivaled ability to capture both vulnerability and raw power in her voice make her the one and only person who could’ve voiced a character as unique as Elsa.

Also new to the cast is Evan Rachel Wood as Anna and Elsa’s mother, Queen Iduna. Though her role is primarily in the film’s opening flashback, she proves to be another stellar addition to the Frozen cast.

That brings us to Frozen II’s songwork. Frozen II is the first musical sequel in the entire Disney canon (those straight-to-video cash-grabs of the 90s and early-naughts were created by third-rate subsidiaries of Disney). As such, Frozen II had a unique uphill battle. Making a sequel to a beloved film is a difficult enough endeavor in itself, but how do you follow-up something like Let It Go?

I’m happy to say that, somehow, songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have done the impossible and created a selection of songs that match those of the original film. The songs of Frozen II vary wildly, from its opening lullaby sung by Queen Iduna (“All is Found”) to an 80s power ballad (Kristoff’s aforementioned musical number, “Lost in the Woods”). Every major character gets a new song, all of them catchy and infectious in the best way. We even get an ensemble (“Some Things Never Change”). And perhaps knowing that recreating Let It Go simply wouldn’t be  possible, Frozen II avoids having to deal with said comparison by giving Elsa two musical numbers, thus making them more likely to be compared to each other, as opposed to their indelible predecessor. While all of the songs of Frozen II are great, it’s no surprise that Idena Menzel’s vocals make both of Elsa’s songs (“Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself“) the biggest highlights.

As a fan of the original film, I was excited for Frozen II, but admittedly a little cautious. How exactly could Disney (or anyone) make a worthy follow-up to a film that was such a pleasant surprise to begin with? It turns out any such cautions were misplaced. Frozen II retains the spirit of the beloved original, and much like said original differentiated itself from Disney traditions, Frozen II differentiates itself from its predecessor. The beloved characters and terrific songwork return, but the story, its structure and its tone are unique to itself.

Frozen II is an ideal sequel, then. One that creates a wonderful continuation to the stories of the characters audiences have grown to love, while telling a story of its own. Frozen II is the best sequel of recent years, and is such a strong and unique film of its own that I find this to be a rare instance of me wanting to see where Anna, Elsa and company can go next with a third chapter in their story.

Frozen II could have been an easy sequel that road the coattails of the original. Instead, Frozen II follows its own advice, venturing into the unknown to create the best animated sequel since Toy Story 2. Frozen has become so endearing that we can’t – ironically enough – let it go.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope Review

*Caution! This review contains spoilers for not only A New Hope, but the entire original Star Wars trilogy. But seriously, if you don’t know the plot of Star Wars, particularly THIS Star Wars, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Star Wars – retroactively known as ‘Episode IV – A New Hope’ is the most famous movie ever made. That may sound hyperbolic, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that statement. Sure, there are other iconic films like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca or Gone with the Wind that put up their own arguments to the claim. But I think, in the end, the very first Star Wars feature wins out. It has as indelible place in movie history as any of those films, plus it has had an additional impact on pop culture (and just culture in general) that the others couldn’t hope to attain. Ever since its release in 1977, Star Wars has changed the way movies are made (much to the chagrin of more prudish types who seem to take offense at the idea of people wanting movies to be fun). By combining fantasies and fairy tales with a science-fiction setting, and adding elements of classic movie genres like westerns and samurai films, George Lucas created a movie that ended up being more than a movie. Between the impact it made on filmmakers and audiences, the influence it’s had on pop culture and media, the dedication its created towards its mythology, and the longevity it has had in all the above categories, Star Wars is in a league all its own. While many of the edits and alterations George Lucas has made to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope since its original release may remain polarizing, the film itself has held up incredibly well all these years later.

Taking place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars weaved a rich mythology into a coming-of-age hero’s journey. The story centers around a young farm boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who lives on the desert planet Tatooine with his aunt and uncle.

Meanwhile, a great conflict rages across the galaxy. The tyrannical Galactic Empire has constructed the Death Star, a space station with the power to destroy entire planets. The Rebel Alliance has managed to retrieve the plans for the Empire’s new super weapon, which are in the hands of Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). But Leia’s ship is quickly boarded by Imperial Stormtroopers – lead by the wicked cyborg Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) – so the princess entrusts the plans to a little droid named R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). R2, along with the panicked and uptight protocol droid C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) evacuate the ship via an escape pod, while Vader and his forces take Leia hostage to uncover what happened to their stolen Death Star plans.

The duo of droids end up on the planet of Tatooine where they are taken by hooded scavengers called Jawas, who ultimately sell the droids to the uncle of Luke Skywalker. When Luke uncovers a hidden message from Princess Leia within R2-D2 requesting the aid of an ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’, Luke begins to suspect there’s something more to these droids than meets the eye.

R2-D2 soon runs away in search of Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Luke and C3-P0 in pursuit. During their search for the droid, Luke is attacked by Tusken Raiders, who are then scared off by a hooded figure before they can do any more harm. When Luke comes to, this figure is revealed to be Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), who then tells Luke about his history with Luke’s father (though he may leave out a few key details).

Obi-Wan tells Luke that his father, Anakin Skywalker, was once a great Jedi Knight. Under Obi-Wan’s tutelage, Anakin became powerful in the ways of the Force (“a mysterious energy field created by all living things”). But another pupil of Obi-Wan’s, Darth Vader, was seduced by the dark side of the Force, betrayed and murdered Luke’s father, and has become a servant of the Emperor.

Luke soon discovers in horror that during his absence, Imperial troopers – searching for the droids and the stolen Death Star plans – have murdered his aunt and uncle. With no family left, Luke decides to accompany Obi-Wan on his quest to save Princess Leia and learn the ways of the Force to become a Jedi Knight like his father.

“By combining the “friendly giant” archetype with, well, a dog, Chewbacca instantly became one of the most beloved characters.”

Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids search for a pilot to take them to their destination in one of the film’s most iconic scenes (the Mos Eisley Cantina, whose many alien patrons made it the best “look at all these wild creature designs” moment in movie history up until Hayao Miyazaki took us into the bathhouse of Spirited Away). They find such a pilot in a smuggler by the name of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his co-pilot, a ‘Wookie’ named Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). The group then departs for Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, only to make the horrifying discovery that the entire planet has been destroyed by the Empire. Their quest then takes them aboard the Death Star itself, where Princess Leia is being held captive by Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing).

Honestly, the storyline needs no introduction. Star Wars (more specifically, A New Hope) has become so iconic in pop culture and the public conscious, that even on the off chance you somehow haven’t actually seen it, you still know it.

When it was released in 1977, Star Wars completely changed the game. Audiences had seen nothing like it. From its revolutionary visual effects, original take on mythology, sweeping score, and refreshingly innocent imagination (films of the 1960s and most of the ’70s were predominantly grim and defeatist), it was an entertainment spectacle like no other.

A number of critics, cinephiles, and even filmmakers often ridicule Star Wars for “ruining” the movies. In actuality, the exact opposite is true. The ‘New Hollywood’ generation had their day in the sun, and though George Lucas was a product of that generation, it was his creation that allowed cinema to move forward and branch out. While there’s nothing wrong with artsy and auteur films, one can’t help but deduce that the reason the ‘arthouse’ crowd deride Star Wars and its ilk (other than to give themselves a false sense of superiority for going against the mainstream) is because their preferred style of cinema lost its dominant power because of it. They had their time on top, but couldn’t accept when times changed.

Indeed, Star Wars was that change. Perhaps most interesting of all in this scenario is that, despite the fact that Star Wars singlehandedly created the tent-pole film and made merchandizing movies a thing, Star Wars was still very much created with an auteurist approach. Star Wars was the product of George Lucas’s imagination, and with the visual designs fleshed out by concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, the film was built from the ground-up from the filmmaker’s vision. But, y’know, it’s fun and it’s in space and there’s magic, so I guess it doesn’t count as art. It’s just timeless for no reason, evidently.

In all seriousness, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope has earned its iconic status. Again, its critics say it’s all about the visual effects, but while it’s true that said visual effects were the most revolutionary in all of cinema up to that point (perhaps they still are), that’s a narrow-minded view of things. The real reason Star Wars has endured is because of its aforementioned innocents.

By combining mythology and fairy tales with science fiction, cowboys and samurai, George Lucas created a fantasy world that not only appealed to children, but to people in general. Like any great work of fantasy, Star Wars bypasses age and cultural barriers, and touches on human emotion in simple but powerful ways through the imagination. The more prudish side of cinema would do well for itself to wizen up and accept that just because something “isn’t realistic” doesn’t mean it can’t be affecting on a very real level. Star Wars is as inspiring as it is entertaining.

That’s not to say that A New Hope is perfect, however, Some of the acting can be kind of cheesy, particularly by the three leads. While it’s commendable that George Lucas sought to hire ‘unknowns’ for his main characters (Hamill and Fisher were brand new, while Ford had worked with Lucas previously on American Graffiti, though he was still a newer talent at the time), the inexperience of the leads is more than a little noticeable at times. That may sound harsh today, given how everyone involved became a household name because of the film. But it’s also no secret that very few people involved with Star Wars’s production had any real high hopes for this ‘kids’ sci-fi movie,’ and that included its actors.

Whether it was the inexperience of the actors, their lack of faith in the material, or a combination thereof, there are more than a few moments where their acting is a little – shall we say – “lacking.” Thankfully, by the time The Empire Strikes Back came around, the actors had found their footing, and the unprecedented success of Star Wars meant those involved took things a lot more seriously.

That’s not to say that the acting is utterly horrible in A New Hope (this isn’t the prequels), with Alec Guiness serving as an anchor that helps keep the film grounded (Guiness being the only well-established actor among the heroes of the film, which is appropriate given the character). James Earl Jones’s voice work needs no explanation for its commanding presence, and Peter Cushing easily makes Govenor Tarkin an unflinchingly evil villain. Perhaps the most under appreciated of the lot is Anthony Daniels, who from the get-go made C3-P0 one of cinema’s great comic foils.

If there’s any other source of fault with A New Hope it’s – somewhat uniquely – not anything to do with how the film was made, but in the many unnecessary ways its been edited over the years.

In 1997, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the franchise, George Lucas released the ‘Special Editions’ of the trilogy, which featured added computer-generated effects into the films. Lucas claims that the technology that came about in the years since A New Hope’s original release gave him the opportunity to “fully realize his vision” for the films. But in execution, most of these edits feel like needless bloat that exist for the hell of it. And these edits didn’t stop in 1997, but have continued through subsequent DVD and blu-ray releases. Even now on Disney+, the film has received a minor new edit to an already heavily-edited scene (an edit that Lucas had originally planned for the film’s 3D theatrical release, before the plans for such releases were scrapped).

The scene in question is of course the notorious “Han shot first” moment. For those unfamiliar, the scene sees Han Solo held at gunpoint by the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo. In the film’s original cut, Han Solo shoots Greedo before the latter has a chance to pull his trigger. But in the many re-edits, the film has been altered to have Greedo shoot first (thus making Han shoot in self-defense), and later having both shoot at the same time. Because reasons.

It sounds like a minor issue, but it does have repercussions for Han Solo’s overall story arc in the original trilogy. Lucas claims having Han shoot first makes him look like a cold-blooded killer (which wouldn’t necessarily be true, considering Greedo definitely intends to kill him). But at this point, Han Solo is a smuggler on the run from mobsters. He’s a rogue. He isn’t supposed to be a true blue hero (if Luke were put in this situation, we’d have an entirely different story). That’s why as the series progresses and Han does become more heroic, it shows a great sense of character growth.

That’s not to mention that George Lucas contradicted his own reasoning when he made the prequel trilogy. Naturally, the prequels told the story of Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, turning him into a more tragic figure and ultimately making his redemption in Return of the Jedi more impactful.

The problem is, in the prequels, there are at least two instances when Anakin commits an unforgivable evil by murdering children. I don’t care if Vader’s last act in life is killing an evil sorcerer-dictator to save his son, if he killed children, that’s unforgivable. Meanwhile, Han shoots a guy who had the full intent on shooting him. It may not be heroic, but Han’s path towards enlightenment is a lot easier to swallow than Vader’s. So who knows why the edits have persisted after all these years.

I’m rambling a bit. The point is many of these ‘Special Edition’ edits have retroactively cheapened certain aspects of the series. Another instance is a previously deleted scene involving Jabba the Hut. When the scene was filmed, a human actor was portraying Jabba, but after the scene was cut and Return of the Jedi eventually established Jabba as a grotesque slug monster, the scene was re-inserted into the film with the original actor replaced by a CG Jabba. I can understand why Lucas may have wanted to experiment with the scene for the 1997 release, but it is kind of a shame it’s now just become a permanent part of the film, as it robs Jabba’s character of his mystique. Originally, the character was only mentioned in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, before Return of the Jedi finally revealed him as the loathsome mess of a creature that he is. It’s kind of sad knowing that generations of Star Wars fans haven’t experienced that build-up, instead being introduced to the character with his abrupt and unceremonious entrance in the largely unnecessary scene here (or in his equally unnecessary role in The Phantom Menace).

I suppose those are the majorly disappointing edits, with the rest mostly just being needless special effects (“Dewbacks! A rock in front of R2-D2! CG background droids!”). Though perhaps another example – and possibly one last middle finger by George Lucas before the Disney buyout – was the altered sound Obi-Wan makes to scare away Tusken Raiders. It’s intended to be the roar of a creature called a ‘Krayt Dragon,’ and in the original cut it indeed sounded like a roar. But ever since the 2011 blu-ray release, it sounds more akin to Ric Flair being sucked into a vortex. It’s just goofy.

Still, even with the most egregious of these edits, none of them truly take away from what a special film A New Hope is. The original special effects that are still present have held up shockingly well, the story is timeless, the characters – though archetypal – are given well-defined personalities and remain iconic. But it’s probably the sheer imagination of it all – from its mythology that so effortlessly weaves together so many different elements, to its childlike sense of wonderment – that has probably made Star Wars endure above anything else.

There are timeless movies, but only a handful of them can be so confidently described as such without a second thought. In many ways, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope may be at the very top of that shortlist.

 

9

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, they not only sought to continue the main saga with a sequel trilogy, but also to branch the franchise out with standalone features and even entire series separate from the primary ‘episodes.’ After the sequel trilogy got off to a successful start with The Force Awakens in 2015, the first standalone Star Wars feature, Rogue One, was released the very next year.

Rogue One tells the story of the ragtag group of rebels destined to uncover the plans for the Galactic Empire’s newly-constructed Death Star. These are, of course, the same plans that will eventually end up in possession of R2-D2 and, subsequently, Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars film, A New Hope.

While Rogue One’s focus on connecting its narrative directly into A New Hope may rob it of surprises, it was a good point to start with for the first Star Wars standalone film. It’s familiar enough to make the transition easy, but different enough for it to stand on its own two feet.

The heroine of the story is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a renegade who’s been on the run from the Empire since she was a child. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was once a research scientist for the Empire, but defected and went into hiding with his family once he learned of the true devastation of the Death Star he was helping to build. The Ersos were found by the Empire, including their Director of Advanced Weapons Research, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Krennic’s troops kill Jyn’s mother, and take Galen hostage to continue his work on the Death Star. Jyn, meanwhile, slips away, and is found by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who raised her as both a daughter and one of his fighters.

“Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)”

Fast-forward to the present, and an Imperial cargo pilot serving under Galen, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), defects from the Empire, and delivers a secret message from Galen Erso to Saw Gerrera. When Jyn Erso is finally caught by Imperial forces, she is set free by a band of Rebels. These Rebels are captained by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid companion, K2-S0 (voiced by Alan Tudyk…because Disney), who have received word of the Death Star and Galen’s message by an informant. They’ve rescued Jyn to help them retrieve the message from Saw Gerrera, as he’s such an extremist they’ll need someone close to him just to gain an audience with him.

Jyn, Cassian and K2-S0 are eventually joined by Bodhi, as well as Chirut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) – a blind man who draws strength through the Force – and his accomplice, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), who was once just as devoted to the Force as Chirut, though now relies more on mercenary weaponry to aide his friend.

Once Jyn sees her long-lost father’s message, she learns that he secretly built a weakness in the Empire’s seemingly indestructible Death Star, and the ‘rogue’ group sets out to retrieve the Death Star plans to give the Rebel Alliance a fighting chance. All the while, Krennic and his forces are hellbent on preventing the plans from falling into Rebel hands.

There are some issues with the plot. Namely, the film features a few sub-plots that don’t end up going anywhere. The most notable example sees Saw Gerrera wiping Bodhi Rook’s memory by means of a Lovecraftian alien, only for Rook to regain his memory the next time he shows up in the film by…having someone recognize him as a pilot. Okay.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story provides a fresh take on Star Wars movies. It deviates away from the hero’s journey format of the series and replaces it with military espionage. In doing so, it separates itself enough from the main series, while still retaining the franchise’s exciting action sequences and epic space battles.

There is a slight double-edged sword aspect to Rogue One’s take on the Galaxy far, far away, however. The film creates an intriguing plot out of a passing reference from A New Hope’s opening crawl, and it’s consistently entertaining. But it’s also a case of an interesting plot coming at the expense of memorable characters. The cast of characters in Rogue One aren’t bad, but their personalities don’t extend beyond what we see of them in their introductions. Star Wars may have always been a series built on archetypes, but it always (well, mostly always) knew how to build upon those archetypes. K2-S0 gets some funny moments, but otherwise, the characters of Rogue One don’t exactly measure up to the main heroes of any of the Star Wars trilogies.

Perhaps the one exception is Director Krennic, who continues in the Star Wars tradition of memorable villains. Contrary to other Star Wars foes, Krennic is neither a wielder of the Dark Side of the Force or a ruthless bounty hunter, but a recognition-hungry survivalist trying to rise the ranks of the Empire. Unfortunately, there is still some missed potential in Krennic. It would have made for a nice change of pace to have an Imperial higher-up in the Star Wars universe who actually believed what he was doing was for some greater good. Such a concept is briefly hinted at during the character’s introduction, when Krennic tells a defiant Galen Erso “we were this close to providing peace and security across the galaxy.” Galen responds with “you’re confusing peace with terror” to which Krennic ultimately retorts “Well, you have to start somewhere.” It’s a brief character moment that suggests there might be more to Krennic than the usual Star Wars villain, that maybe he believes the Death Star to be a necessary evil that – in his mind – would ultimately lead to greater good. But the film robs Krennic of this nuance later on, such as when he comments on how “beautiful” the destruction caused by the Death Star is.

That’s a shame, because it at first looks like Rogue One is painting things with a gray sense of morality not usually seen in Star Wars. Cassian Andor – a Rebel – kills one of his informants in cold blood during his introductory scene. Later, Rebels bomb an Imperial facility filled with scientists who are only there under duress. We see the darker side of the Rebellion in Rogue One, but we still can’t get an Imperial villain who isn’t cartoonishly evil?

This is especially curious when you consider that Rogue One brings back two classic Star Wars villains: Darth Vader (voiced of course by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (motion-captured and voiced by Guy Henry, with CG resurrecting the likeness of the late Peter Cushing). Krennic often butts heads with Tarkin in what is probably the film’s best sub-plot, and like anyone who isn’t Palpatine (or Tarkin, I suppose), Krennic cringes in fear at the mere mention of Darth Vader.

With two such iconic villains making a comeback, it further begs the question as to why Krennic couldn’t have been a little more morally ambiguous, since he was never going to be as threatening as either Vader or Tarkin, anyway. Though Krennic is the film’s best original character, he still feels like a missed opportunity.

“My homeboy CG Tarkin.”

Talking of Tarkin, the decision to recreate Peter Cushing as a motion-captured character was a bit polarizing during the film’s release. Many considered the visual effect an example of the uncanny valley, though I personally never found it to be too bad (except maybe the stiff shoulders). Though “CG Tarkin” seems to be a rare instance in which a visual effect looks better on the small screen than it did in theaters.

The visual effects elsewhere also look great, continuing with the trend started with The Force Awakens of combining CG with practical effects to make things (appropriately) look like a modernized take on the world of the original trilogy, as opposed to the prequel/special edition route of CG everywhere for CG’s sake.

Rogue One may have its missteps in the character department, and its over-reliance on A New Hope makes this first standalone Star Wars feature not especially standalone. But it is undeniably a welcome entry in the Star Wars canon. It’s consistently entertaining, visually captivating, and it finds creative technical ways to separate itself from the main Star Wars saga (no opening crawl, transitional screen wipes, etc.). And it’s just refreshing to see a prequel to a Star Wars movie that actually cares about maintaining continuity with the original. For example, in A New Hope, Tarkin mentions the destruction of the planet Alderaan as the first test of the Death Star’s “full power.” Sure enough, every time the Empire uses the Death Star in Rogue One, the film makes a point to acknowledge it’s only a limited taste of its strength. If only the prequel trilogy had committed as much to keeping continuity with the overall plot of the original films as Rogue One does with even such small, throwaway lines like Tarkin’s emphasis on the words “full power” from A New Hope. History may have remembered them more fondly.

Rogue One is a thrilling chapter in the Star Wars universe, one that both enriches the overall mythology and retroactively adds even more heft to the plot of A New Hope (again, if only the prequels could have done something similar). It may not boast the most memorable cast of characters in the franchise, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is very much a story worthy of the Star Wars name.

 

7

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers for both the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies. But if you don’t know the story of Star Wars by this point, well, I don’t know what to tell you.*

By the time 2005 came around, fans were burnt out on the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The disappointment of The Phantom Menace was massive enough, but when Attack of the Clones fell flat and two-thirds of the trilogy left fans sour, the excitement had extinguished. Combine that with the fact that the infinitely superior Lord of the Rings trilogy had been released around the same time, and expectations for the final installment of the Star Wars prequels were low.

When Revenge of the Sith was released in May of 2005, many were surprised to find it a marked improvement over its two predecessors, with some even comparing it favorably to the original trilogy. The latter may be a bit of a stretch, however. Revenge of the Sith, despite having a clearer focus and better narrative than the preceding prequels, still suffers from a number of their same faults.

Set three years after the events of Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith begins in the midst of the Clone Wars. Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent on a mission to rescue Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has been kidnapped by Separatist forces.

The two Jedi infiltrate the flagship of General Grievous (Mathew Wood), a cyborg leader of the Seperatists’ droid armies, where they once again encounter Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). The Jedi do battle with the Sith lord, and during the fight Obi-Wan is knocked unconscious, when Anakin manages to disarm Count Dooku in a most literal fashion. With his opponent defeated, Anakin – at the behest of the chancellor – decapitates Count Dooku (in a little over the thirteen-minute mark, making Dooku yet another underutilized Star Wars villain). Anakin rescues Obi-Wan and Palpatine, but Grievous manages to escape.

When the Jedi return to Coruscant – the capital planet of the Republic – Anakin is confronted by his (secret) wife, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), who reveals she is pregnant. The Jedi Council sends Obi-Wan Kenobi on a mission to track down Grievous, while Palpatine – who has become a dictator in all but name by this point – appoints Anakin as his personal representative and informant on the Jedi Council. Though the council allows Anakin to join them, they do not grant him the rank of Jedi Master. Distrusting the chancellor, the Jedi Council then assigns Anakin to report Palpatine’s actions back to them. All the while, Anakin begins to have visions of Padmé dying during childbirth, similar to the visions he had of his mother before her death.

With his mentor Obi-Wan gone, his faith in the Jedi Order shaken by the council’s distrust of his friend Palpatine and what he perceives as a lack of confidence in himself by his peers, as well as his nightmarish visions, Anakin is at a loss. It’s at this point that Supreme Chancellor Sheev Palpatine reveals his secret to Anakin: he is the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Sidious. And with his knowledge of the dark side of the Force, he may hold the power to prevent the death of Anakin’s beloved Padmé.

What’s great about Revenge of the Sith is that it’s a much-more focused movie than either of its preceding episodes, and it makes an honest-to-goodness attempt to get the series back to its roots, while also trying to make it more thematically mature. It isn’t always successful, mind you, but Revenge of the Sith’s attempts to recapture the magic of the original Star Wars trilogy shine through enough to make it a more worthwhile effort than either Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones.

The film opens with a genuinely exciting space battle, which is then followed by equally exciting scenes of lightsabers slashing through droids and, finally, the aforementioned duel with Count Dooku. It’s almost as if the film’s high-octane opening moments are a kind of apology on the part of George Lucas for the profuse amount of scenes involving debates that slowed down its two predecessors.

Granted, the political stuff is still present, but it doesn’t feel so needlessly in the way of the action and adventure the series is known for this time around. Naturally, Revenge of the Sith focuses on Palpatine’s master plan coming to fruition, and sees him ultimately dismantling the Galactic Republic and creating the Galactic Empire. It’s all necessary to the plot and never feels like it drags on this time around.

Of course, the big story at play here is the downfall of Anakin Skywalker and the birth of Darth Vader. The film takes a number of dark, dramatic turns, especially once Palpatine instructs the execution of the Jedi, with Anakin himself carrying out a good deal of it. Of all the Star Wars features, Revenge of the Sith remains the most (appropriately) bleak of the lot. There is, however, one major issue with the fall of Anakin and the rise of Vader…

Hayden Christensen still can’t act!

Okay, so Christensen’s performance may have improved marginally since Attack of the Clones, but it still puts a hamper on what would otherwise be a well told story. And no, Natalie Portman still couldn’t be bothered to put in the effort. So once again, the emotional core of the prequel trilogy still falls dead-flat because the relationship at the center of the story just doesn’t click.

“Hello there!”

Thankfully, the acting is better elsewhere, with Ewan McGregor still holding things together, and Frank Oz’s vocal performance as Yoda is still memorable. On the interesting side of things, Ian McDiarmid seems to completely ham it up this time around. I don’t mean that as a negative, though. There’s a comical, intentional sense of overacting from McDiarmid in this third prequel outing that makes this film’s depiction of Palpatine feel different from his other appearances. I don’t know if it was the reception of the two preceding films that lead McDiarmid to throw caution to the wind, or if he just decided that since this film saw the transition of Chancellor Palpatine to the evil Emperor we first saw in Return of the Jedi, that he should do something different with it. Either way, the end results of McDiarmid’s take on the character in Revenge of the Sith are inarguably entertaining.

The film is also highlighted with a number of fun action sequences. I’ve already addressed the first fifteen or so minutes with its space battles and lightsaber duels, but Revenge of the Sith features a number of other, equally entertaining action scenes. Obi-Wan’s showdown with General Grievous, though admittedly silly at times, is a lot of fun. And the final two lightsaber duels – one between Obi-Wan and the newly-turned Darth Vader, and the other between the two most powerful Force wielders in the series, Yoda and Darth Sidious – are among the best in the franchise (though Yoda welding a lightsaber still looks a bit silly, at least his fight ends up being more Force-driven this time around).

It’s because of these elements – as well as a captivating last few minutes that sees the events of the original trilogy set in motion  (Owen and Beru Lars taking in baby Luke as Obi-Wan goes into hiding on Tatooine; the haunting image of Palpatine, Vader and Governor Wilhuff Tarkin overseeing construction of the Death Star) – that elevate Revenge of the Sith well above the other two entries of the prequel trilogy. With that said, Episode III isn’t quite a return to form.

Along with Christensen and Portman’s acting (or lack thereof), George Lucas’s infamous writing rears its ugly head once again in a very bad way. Though we are mercifully spared of any monologues about sand, some moments that should be dead serious can come across as unintentionally humorous because of the writing. When Obi-Wan confronts his former friend on the fiery planet of Mustafar, the former Anakin Skywalker proclaims that “if you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.” To which Obi-Wan retorts “Only a Sith deals an absolute.” (a statement which, in itself, is very much an absolute). Moments later, when Obi-Wan tries to reason with Anakin that “Chancellor Palpatine is evil” the latter comes back with “From my point of view the Jedi are evil!” Well yeah, we figured that, Anakin. If he believe Palpatine were evil and still believed the Jedi were good, why would he be doing what he’s doing at this point? The audience is smart enough to pick these things up without having the characters literally shout them, George…

“Behold, I have another set of arms! Now excuse me as I slowly stab at you in the same spot with all four arms, which surely won’t make it easy for you to cut off my hands or anything.”

Yet another drawback that’s carried over from the past two episodes is the weird “villain of the week” scenario with the antagonists. Count Dooku was built up pretty strongly in Attack of the Clones before he actually showed up in the film’s third act. Though his screen time was minimal, we assumed he’d have a bigger role this time around. But as mentioned, he’s cleared out of the picture before we even hit the fifteen-minute mark. Then we have General Grievous, a character who is introduced as the “action villain” of the movie, who then spends most of his time on-screen running away from the action. And when he finally does battle with Obi-Wan, revealing a second set of arms, he acts like a total doofus and gets his extra limbs lopped off almost instantly, and is then abruptly killed a few moments later.

What’s weird is that George Lucas has admitted he wanted to go this route with the villains in the prequels. But that begs the question as to why? The same series that brought us arguably the most iconic movie villain ever in Darth Vader suddenly decides its villains aren’t worth developing into memorable characters? I don’t get it.

This goes back to a mistake in The Phantom Menace that, if avoided, could have benefitted the entire prequel trilogy greatly: Darth Maul shouldn’t have died in his first appearance, and should have been in all three prequels! Maul had a great look that set him apart from Darth Vader, and had all the makings of being an iconic villain in his own right. It would have made for a more fluid narrative if Maul – the villain who killed Qui-Gon, a man Anakin idolized – had been the one destined to fall to Anakin Skywalker as Palpatine’s apprentice.

I like Count Dooku, and Christopher Lee is always a bonus, but he never really seemed like a villain who needed to be a Sith, and was seemingly only made into one because Maul got killed off and every villain in the prequels needed to use lightsabers apparently. Plus, it kind of undermines Palpatine’s determination to turn Anakin to the dark side if the Dark Lord of the Sith goes through apprentices like they’re going out of fashion. And why does General Grievous even exist other than to have a new “badass looking bad guy” after Maul and Jango Fett bit the dust? The prequels would have felt more cohesive if they featured at least one consistent villain of their own.

“Don’t get me started on why Palpatine’s lightning morphs his face when Force lightning did nothing remotely like that to Luke in Return of the Jedi. And really don’t get me started on why the Force Lightning makes Palpatine temporarily look like a Who from the live-action Grinch movie.”

Once again, the visual effects are a bit of a mixed bag. I don’t have a problem with CGI, but there’s something about it here in the prequel trilogy that feels overdone. Some of the creatures and locations look great (like Mustafar, which is essentially the final level of a Super Mario game turned into a planet), but others don’t hold up too well (the Clone Troopers don’t look any better here than in Attack of the Clones). On the bright side, the soundtrack is an improvement over that of its immediate predecessor, and features some of the more memorable tracks in the series, which is saying something.

Sadly, there are bigger demons of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones that are still at play in Revenge of the Sith. Namely, the same kind of strange creative decisions that alter the original trilogy, including some glaring plot holes.

The biggest inconsistency still being why C3-P0 is not remembered by anyone by the time the original trilogy takes place. C3-P0 gets his memory wiped by the end of things, but that doesn’t explain why no one remembers him. This situation is made even stranger in Revenge of the Sith by the fact that R2-D2 does not get his memory erased.This essentially means R2 knows that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, that Leia is his sister, and knows pretty much everything else that’s happened up until now, but never tells anyone because reasons. So I guess R2 is retroactively the Galaxy’s biggest jerk for not telling Luke any of this.

Another unfortunate plot hole is made for Return of the Jedi. In Episode VI, Princess Leia remembers the little she can of her mother to Luke (remembering that she was “very beautiful, kind, but sad”). Except here, we find out that Padmé died about a minute after giving birth to Leia. So who knows how Leia remembers her mother – both in looks and personality -when she only saw her for a brief second as a newborn infant.

Normally, plot holes can be forgiven, but considering these three movies were long-gestating prequels to a well-established narrative, the fact that so many glaring plot holes for the original trilogy are created in the prequels gives the impression that George Lucas didn’t even re-watch his own movies to polish up the story and make a proper connection between trilogies.

To add insult to injury, we also get another instance of the Star Wars Galaxy feeling really, really small and condensed. It’s not as bad as Anakin building C3-P0, but it’s still a bit silly. This particular instance involves Yoda fighting alongside none other than Chewbacca on the Wookies’ homeworld of Kashyyyk. I can accept a cameo of Chewbacca during the fight, but when Yoda blatantly acknowledges him as an an old friend, it’s just another “wow, really?” moment.

“And there he is, the man himself: Darth Vader. I can’t imagine how they could ruin this moment… unless Darth Vader shouted “NO” in an overly dramatic fashion or something.”

Still, I have to admit that these elements aren’t nearly as bad as those featured in the past two films. But it would have been nice if Revenge of the Sith could have avoided these pitfalls, considering all the improvements it makes to its predecessors elsewhere.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith may not have completely redeemed the prequel trilogy, but at least it ended it on a (relatively) high note. It feels different from the other Star Wars films, due to its darker content, but it works in the end. If the entire movie were as good as the last few wordless minutes, Revenge of the Sith may have been one of the best Star Wars features. As it is, well, it’s the best of the prequels, anyway.

 

6

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers for both the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies. But if you honestly don’t know the story of Star Wars by this point, well, I don’t know what to tell you.*

After The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 to mass disappointment, the second installment of George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel trilogy had a lot to prove. Audiences held their breath for three years in anticipation whether Episode II would be a return to form for the beloved saga, or a continuing downward spiral following in the wake of The Phantom Menace.

2002 saw the release of Attack of the Clones, and while at the time it was considered an improvement over its immediate predecessor, it was still seen as an underwhelming installment in the Star Wars saga. In the years since, however, Attack of the Clones is often seen as the weakest entry in the entire series. It may feature less Jar-Jar than its predecessor, but Attack of the Clones frequently doubles down on all the other aspects fans despised about The Phantom Menace – from poor writing and flat-out bad acting to a garish overuse of CG and the creation of plot holes for the original trilogy – making Attack of the Clones fall short even of its immediate predecessor.

Set ten years after the events of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones sees the Galactic Republic shaken by the separatist movement – a collection of different planets and factions throughout the Galaxy planning to separate from the Republic – orchestrated by former Jedi Master Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who in turn is working under direct guidance of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Sidious. With the Separatists growing, the Galactic Republic is in debate over the creation of an army of their own, as the Jedi are too few in numbers to fight an entire war.

Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is set to vote on the military creation act, but quickly becomes the target of multiple assassination attempts. Padmé is then placed under the protection of Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). Obi-Wan and Anakin thwart a subsequent assassination attempt, with Obi-Wan subduing the assassin who is then killed by her client – the bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) -before she can reveal his identity to the Jedi.

After some investigating, and consulting with old friend and restauranteur Dexter Jettster (voiced by Ronald Falk), Obi-Wan traces the attacks to the planet of Kamino. Obi-Wan is then sent to said planet for further investigation, while Anakin is to remain by Padmé’s side and escort her back to the planet of Naboo.

While on Kamino, Obi-Wan learns that Jango Fett has served as the basis for a clone army, apparently ordered by the Galactic Republic over ten years prior. Meanwhile, a romance begins to blossom between Anakin and Padmé, though disturbing visions of his mother’s fate on Tatooine leads Anakin back to his old home planet, where Anakin must confront tragedy in a way that will determine his allegiance in the Force.

All the while, Supreme Chancellor Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is gaining more and more power within the Republic, with senator Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) – though well-intentioned – being easily duped into granting the chancellor emergency powers, which eventually leads to the utilization of the clone army.

On the plus sides, Attack of the Clones has much less sub-plots going on than its predecessor. While The Phantom Menace often felt like it couldn’t decide which characters should be the focus at any given time, Attack of the Clones simplifies things a bit by being structured around Obi-Wan and Anakin’s respective plots, while occasionally taking a break to showcase the goings-on of the Jedi Council and Galactic Republic. Ewan McGregor remains a highlight, as does McDiarmid, while the Jedi Council’s promoted role gives Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) more to do this time around. And the addition of Christopher Lee is definitely a plus, even if his character doesn’t really get a whole lot of screen time.

Unfortunately, those highlights are in limited supply. George Lucas seemingly listened to the complaints targeted towards Jar-Jar Binks – giving the bumbling Gungan considerably less screen time than in the previous film – but then seemed to have defiantly ignored the criticisms elsewhere in The Phantom Menace, and doubled down on them with his second go-around in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

“Find someone who looks at you the way Padmé looks…blankly into the abyss at any given moment.”

Anakin Skywalker may have been poorly-acted by Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace, but there’s a bit of leeway when it comes to criticizing bad child actors. But in casting Hayden Christensen as the older Anakin, George Lucas kept the spirit of bad acting alive and well in the series’ central character. Despite being an adult, Hayden Christensen’s acting is way worse than Jake Lloyd’s ever was. Natalie Portman also seems to not give a damn about putting any effort in her performance.

“I don’t ship it.”

To top it off, George Lucas’s writing abilities are at their most egregious here. George Lucas is infamous for his dialogue (to the point that the cast of the original Star Wars trilogy altered the script and birthed most of the series’ most memorable lines), but Attack of the Clones shows us what happens when George Lucas tries his hands at sappy romance, and then relies on Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman to deliver it. Good lord, does it ever provide the cringe!

This romance between Anakin and Padmé is supposed to be the emotional heart of the film, but at its best, it’s laughable. At its worst, it’s downright embarrassing (let us not speak of Anakin’s monologue about sand, or the very uncomfortable way he touches Padmé’s back immediately thereafter). Every time the film switches gears to Anakin and Padmé, it makes you count down the seconds until it switches back to good ol’ Obi-Wan and his far more entertaining, action-filled plot.

The visual effects of the film are also pretty inconsistent. While the inhabitants of Kamino still look impressive these seventeen years later, the clone troopers they create look much less believable, especially when they remove their helmets and we get glimpses of some uncanny valley Temuera Morrisons. Sadly, it was also here that George Lucas decided that Yoda should be just another CG creature in an overly CG world (The Phantom Menace has retroactively replaced its puppet with CG in re-issues, but in its original release, Yoda remained a practical effect). CG Yoda looked unconvincing even back in 2002, a point that was reinforced by the fact the same year brought us The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and properly introduced audiences to Gollum, an infinitely better CG character who still looks impressive today.

It’s not just bad writing and acting, and overly garish visual effects that rob Attack of the Clones of much of its potential charms, but also some questionable creative choices.

For example, it’s a fun idea in theory for Obi-Wan – a character audiences associated with wisdom and experience – seeking guidance with what amounts to a grizzled old diner operator in Dexter Jettster. It’s a fun little detail that, sometimes, even wizards need help from old friends. But the off-putting aspect of Dexter Jettster’s introduction is that his diner is, quite literally, a 1950’s American diner. I can kind of understand the joke Lucas was aiming for, but this is probably the one instance in the series in which the Star Wars universe doesn’t feel like the Star Wars universe. The ‘joke’ may have worked a lot better if Dexter’s diner looked retro within the context of the Star Wars universe. The “Star Wars equivalent” of a ’50s diner, if you will. Instead, it’s literally a 50s diner, but in Star Wars.

That’s probably the least offensive of Attack of the Clones’ wonkier creative choices though. This may be a bit of an unpopular opinion, but seeing Yoda wield a lightsaber and flip around the place in his duel with Count Dooku is far more silly than it is badass. It’s cool to see an entire army of Jedi going into battle, lightsaber’s ignited. But Yoda always seemed like he should be above physical combat. He’s the Jedi master. I can imagine him using the Force in battle when necessary, but trying to make him “cool” with all the flipping and sword-swinging, I don’t know. It just always seemed out-of-character.

Another problem comes when Anakin Skywalker avenges his mother Shmi (Pernillia August). Anakin rescues her from a tribe of Tusken Raiders, only for her to die in his arms. In his rage he slaughters every last Tusken Raider in the tribe, “Not just the men, but the women, and the children too!”

It makes sense from the perspective of Anakin’s downfall and eventual transformation into Darth Vader. But what makes this moment fall flat (aside from, y’know, Hayden Christensen) is that Anakin confesses his mass murder to Padmé, who reacts by… not doing anything, really. The man tells her he killed women and children, and she consoles him as if he were a kid who wrecked their new bike. I can buy that Padmé doesn’t want anything bad to happen to Anakin, but she never so much as questions Anakin’s character again, and everything is back to the same old grind afterwards. He murdered women and children! That’s kind of a red flag that, maybe, this guy’s not worth it, Padmé.

Additionally, much like his son Boba Fett in the original trilogy, and Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, Jango Fett follows the Star Wars tradition of underutilized villains. He probably has a bigger role in the story than his son did, I have to admit. But Jango Fett still falls victim to the series’ tendency of killing off a villain with all the potential in the world way too soon.

Now we get to Attack of the Clones’ single biggest piece of creative befuddlement. A plot hole so big it actually puts a damper on the original Star Wars film. The seeds for this atrocity were planted in The Phantom Menace, when it was revealed that Anakin Skywalker – Darth Vader himself – built C3-P0. Which is dumb. But now we find out that, after Anakin departed Tatooine, Watto sold Anakin’s mother to a man named Clieg Lars, who freed and eventually married her. She then became the stepmother to Clieg’s son Owen (Joel Edgerton). But when Shmi Skywalker joined the Lars family, she wasn’t alone, and she brought C3-P0 with her. So C3-P0 has, for years by the point he’s reintroduced in Attack of the Clones, been the Lars family’s protocol droid.

Hold on!

In the original 1977 Star Wars feature (or ‘A New Hope’), Owen Lars, the uncle and parental figure for one Luke Skywalker, purchases both R2-D2 and C3-P0 by chance from some Jawas. And given the interaction and dialogue between Owen and 3P0, it’s made abundantly clear that C3-P0 is just another random droid to Owen, indistinguishable from any other potential protocol droid he could have purchased in his eyes. But here, we find out that Owen’s family had owned C3-P0 for a number of years! Yet in A New Hope he’s clearly meeting C3-P0 for the first time?!

Lucas tried to rectify this glaring, C3-P0-shaped plot hole in Revenge of the Sith by having C3-P0’s memory wiped by the end of things. But that doesn’t explain why Owen Lars has no recollection of his history with C3-P0. I’ve been re-watching the Star Wars films in episodic order recently, and by the time I got to the original film, I couldn’t help but laugh at Uncle Owen’s faithful ‘meeting’ with C3-P0. Attack of the Clones retroactively makes an important moment in A New Hope’s plot utterly nonsensical.

Maybe next time you should re-watch your own movies before making prequels to them, Georgie.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones isn’t a total disaster of a movie. I reiterate that Obi-Wan’s plotline features some genuinely fun and exciting action sequences and intrigue. The final battle between the armies of Jedi and clone troopers against the Separatists’ battle droids is quite the sight. There’s a bit more focus here than in The Phantom Menace, and though the soundtrack isn’t one of the better ones in the series, it’s still John Williams so it’s still good.

But Attack of the Clones is unquestionably the weakest entry in the entire saga in retrospect. There’s an underlying arrogance to it on the part of George Lucas, who refused to listen to criticisms targeted at its predecessor and instead emphasized its creative and technical shortcomings all the more in this sequel. And I am usually forgiving of plot holes, because they’re usually forgivable, but the whole C3-P0 paradox at play here is just way too loud and prominent to ignore.

At the time of its release, Attack of the Clones was considered an improvement over The Phantom Menace. In retrospect, it makes me long for the days when Star Wars’s biggest issue was an annoying Gungan.

 

4

Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers for both the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies. But if you honestly don’t know the story of Star Wars by this point, well, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Rewind the clock back to 1999. It had been sixteen years since Return of the Jedi wrapped up the original Star Wars trilogy, a series that had an unparalleled impact on film and popular culture. The Star Wars universe had expanded to video games, comic books, novels, and other media in that time (remember those made-for-TV Ewoks movies?), building on the overall mythology of the Galaxy far, far away. Of course, fans longed for a return to the film series which started it all, which George Lucas had indeed promised would happen after he retroactively christened the original Star Wars film as “Episode IV,” indicating that a second trilogy, which served as prequels to the originals, had become an inevitability.

After the original trilogy saw theatrical re-releases through their “special editions” in 1997, George Lucas finally began work on his long-promised prequel trilogy, taking on the role of director for the first time since the original Star Wars film. Anticipation for Episode 1’s release in 1999 was unrivaled at the time. Audiences were camped out at movie theaters weeks ahead of release (keep in mind this was still before securing your ticket online was a thing), and fans speculated on how the story would unfold. Obviously, with the fact that this was a prequel series, we all knew where it would eventually end up, but that didn’t stop the excitement of guessing how it would all play out to get there. We all had glimpses of the new and returning characters through the obscene amount of merchandise that preceded the film’s release, and couldn’t help but get excited. How did R2-D2 and C3-P0 meet? How did Palpatine turn Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force? Was that badass Darth Maul dude going to be this trilogy’s answer to Darth Vader?

Then, in May of 1999, what was surely going to be the biggest movie ever finally happened in the form of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

And it was a bit underwhelming.

“Meeting Jar-Jar Binks…Can’t see how this could go wrong.”

In its day, the disappointment associated with The Phantom Menace was unheard of, and it reverberated to the subsequent prequel entries. While the negative reception back in 1999 may have been a tad extreme, it wasn’t undeserved, either. While the prequel trilogy may not have been the “worst movies ever” that many fans liked to paint them as, they are nonetheless incredibly flawed and clunky films that even create some glaring plot holes for the original trilogy.

Normally, I’m the kind of person who can look past a plot hole, as I understand the immense undertakings required of storytelling and filmmaking mean that mistakes are bound to happen somewhere. But the plot holes created in these Star Wars prequels are so monumentally contradictory to what the original films established, it seems as though George Lucas himself hadn’t seen his own movies to attempt to tie the stories together.

In The Phantom Menace, we are introduced to a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), a Jedi ‘Padawan’ under the tutelage of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a Jedi knight whose independence from Jedi traditions leads him to often butt heads with the Jedi council. Although Qui-Gon Jinn is one of the best characters introduced in the prequels, his very existence already creates a plot hole in regards to the original films. In The Empire Strikes Back, we are informed that Yoda was Obi-Wan’s mentor, and that Obi-Wan took on the ill-fated Anakin Skywalker as his apprentice, believing “he could teach Anakin as well as Yoda taught him.” But apparently Yoda didn’t teach Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon did. This could have been rectified in the subsequent prequels, but George Lucas seemingly forgot his own story, and failed to make the established connection between Obi-Wan and Yoda, making their reflections in Empire retroactively seem like the senile ramblings of forgetful old men.

Sorry, am I getting sidetracked? No more than George Lucas did when writing The Phantom Menace, I’d say.

The story here is that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan have been sent by the Galactic Republic to negotiate with the Trade Federation, who have blockaded the planet of Naboo as they prepare for a full-scale invasion of the planet. But the Trade Federation is under the influence of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Sidious, who commands the Trade Federation to kill the Jedi and begin their invasion of Naboo.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan narrowly escape the Federation’s battle droids, and return to Naboo to warn the planet of the impending invasion. They end up saving a local “Gungan” called Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who manages to sneak the Jedi into the capital city of the planet, where they rescue Queen Amidala, her handmaidens and her royal guard before the Federation’s battle droids completely occupy the city.

The groups’ ship is heavily damaged during the escape from Naboo, and would have been destroyed if not for the efforts of a little astrodroid named R2-D2. Unable to complete their journey to the capital planet of the Republic, Coruscant, the group make an emergency landing on the desert planet of Tatooine to find spare parts and repair their ship. Qui-Gon, Jar-Jar, R2 and Padmé (Natalie Portman) – one of the queen’s handmaidens – investigate the surrounding areas of the planet to find repairs, when they stumble across a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).

Anakin and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves owned by the greedy Watto (voiced by Andy Sacombe), who has the parts Qui-Gon is looking for. But Qui-Gon senses there is more to Anakin than meets the eye, detecting an unheard of strength in the Force in the young boy. When Qui-Gon learns that Anakin is an expert ‘Podracer,’ he makes a wager with Watto. If Anakin can win an upcoming Podrace, Watto will not only grant him the repairs he needs, but also free Anakin, as Qui-Gon wishes to teach him the ways of the Jedi, believing Anakin to be the fabled ‘Chosen One’ of legend.

As the film goes on we delve deeper into the political aspects of the Republic, including the ascension of a certain Naboo senator named Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), as well as the Jedi council learning of the reemergence of the Sith after Qui-Gon Jinn encounters Darth Maul (Ray Park), Darth Sidious’s mysterious apprentice.

Admittedly, The Phantom Menace has more merits than it gets credit for. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor work well in the leading roles, some of the action scenes – such as the Podrace and the final confrontation with Darth Maul – are exhilarating, the musical score (composed by John Williams, naturally) is one of the best in the series, and even though everyone and their grandma may revile Jar-Jar Binks, the character was actually quite groundbreaking for visual effects. Not since Eddie Valiant butted heads with Roger Rabbit had an animated character worked so seamlessly with live-actors, and Jar-Jar helped open the door for CG characters like Gollum and, subsequently, the likes of Davy Jones, Thanos, and countless others. Not all of the visual effects of The Phantom Menace have held up well (other CG aliens, such as the Podracing ‘Dug’ Sebulba, look glaringly fake today), but the ones that do stand the test of time, do so surprisingly well.

Sadly, there are just too many issues holding The Phantom Menace back. Even though it may feel more like a proper Star Wars film than the subsequent entries in the prequel trilogy, it’s so overstuffed with needless, dare I say ‘stupid’ elements, that it still falls flat. Some atrocious writing and acting also don’t help things.

There’s no way around it, George Lucas is a brilliant filmmaker from a technical perspective, and definitely has one of the most influential imaginations in the medium, but the man can’t write dialogue. With the original trilogy, Lucas had other directors and/or actors bold enough to alter some of what he wrote in the script, and made it better. But here it seems Lucas must’ve been surrounded by yes men behind the cameras, and actors in front of it who had too much faith in the director to speak up.

I remember when I first saw The Phantom Menace in theaters at nine-years old on that May Day of 1999. Even at that young age – when The Phantom Menace was a good movie to me by the simple fact that it was Star Wars – some of the dialogue still seemed, for lack of a better word, “dumb.”

I distinctly remember on that day, when the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, believing to have killed Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan with poisonous gas, informs his battle droids that “they must be dead by now, destroy what’s left of them.” Even at nine-years old, that line was just bad. What, did the Viceroy want the droids to shoot the supposed corpses with a barrage of lasers or something? Surely there were many other, better ways to word what amounts to “take no chances.”

The movie is filled with other such goofy lines. “I’m a person and my name is Anakin!” is another standout for all the wrong reasons. It’s like George Lucas wrote the first draft, filled it with basic, placeholder dialogue, and then forgot to revise it and add more flavor and personality.

Another issue with the film is some of the acting is as stilted as Lucas’s writing. Sure, there are good actors here (Neeson, McGregor, McDiarmid), but Natalie Portman’s  portrayal of Padmé has nothing of note to speak of. And while I’m usually a bit easier on child actors for the obvious reason, it unfortunately has to be said that Jake Lloyd was just a bad actor. I feel guilty about saying that, knowing what we do of Lloyd in retrospect, but I’m not gonna lie. There can be legitimately good child actors (see Stranger Things), but Jake Lloyd certainly wasn’t among them, and you have to wonder what George Lucas was thinking when casting the series’ central character.

Perhaps the biggest sin committed by The Phantom Menace is its baffling pacing. There’s just way too many plots going on at any given time. Instead of stopping for a few moments to focus on one story, we continuously switch back and forth between various different character perspectives.

“This fight is so cool! Too bad it keeps getting interrupted every five seconds…”

This is especially egregious in the film’s final act, which sees Qui-Gon and Obi-Won dueling Darth Maul at the same time that Padmé is storming the Naboo palace at the same time that Anakin is inadvertently thrown into a space battle with the Trade Federation’s command ship at the same time that Jar-Jar is leading a Gungan army into war with the battle droids.

The epic duel of Jedi and Sith and the storming of the palace are attempting legitimate action and a hefty emotional weight, while Anakin and Jar-Jar’s bumbling adventures come across as more comedic. And the film switches between each segment at poorly-timed moments. Some fans argue that the finale of Return of the Jedi does something similar. But in Jedi, all the scenes in question share an emotional connection, they’re all dramatic. Here in The Phantom Menace, we’ll go from Darth Maul fatally stabbing Qui-Gon as Obi-Wan looks on in horror, to Jar-Jar tripping over himself and Anakin spinning during a dogfight because “That’s a neat trick.” What are we supposed to be feeling here?

Then of course we have two big questionable character decisions: giving Jar-Jar Binks far too much screen time, and giving Darth Maul far too little.

“Don’t do that again…or anything…ever.”

To be perfectly honest, I don’t innately hate the idea of Jar-Jar. As much as the fanboys would never admit to it, Star Wars is first and foremost a children’s franchise. Having a comical, bumbling sidekick character isn’t exactly out-of-place. The problem is that Jar-Jar is the kind of comic relief that talks down to his target audience. He’s annoying and loud and is involved with a few bathroom gags (now that actually is out-of-place in Star Wars). He was designed with the purpose of appealing to children, but under the belief that children need a loud, obnoxious character to be entertained. It seems strange coming from the same series that brought us the lovable likes of R2-D2 and Chewbacca.

As for Darth Maul, he’s arguably the most underutilized villain in cinema history. I mentioned how, ahead of release, Darth Maul was a particular point of interest. With his red and black tattooed face and horned scalp, Darth Maul certainly looked like a terrific villain. Maul was the right combination of menacing and cool to be a memorable foe, and different enough from Darth Vader to stand as his own character.

Too bad in the film he gets only a handful of minutes onscreen before being unceremoniously sliced in two. Sure, the “expanded universe” would later retcon Darth Maul’s death, shoehorning him back into the fold in the worst way imaginable (he’s gots robot legs now!). But that only cheapens the character further. Much like Boba Fett before him, it was an example of too little, too late. Sometimes, fans just have to accept that a character’s potential was wasted, and bringing them back through such cheap means is a bone not worth being thrown. The simple fact is Darth Maul should have been the Darth Vader of the prequel trilogy. Instead, he was just the villain of the week. Yeah, he looks cool, but that’s literally all he does.

Jar-Jar and Darth Maul’s misgivings are creative decisions I could potential separate from the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the creative choices that create blatant continuity errors with the original trilogy.

I already mentioned how Qui-Gon’s very existence creates a bit of a plot hole with Empire Strikes Back. But at least we got a good character (and Liam Neeson) out of that. Less forgivable is the ludicrous decision that Anakin Skywalker built C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels). Again, this was something that seemed like a stretch back when I was nine. Now that I’m thirty, it just seems all the more ridiculous. Isn’t Star Wars supposed to take place in a vast galaxy? Then why does it seem so incredibly small that it’s centered around such a small group of people who all just happen to know each other? I get that having C3-P0 and R2-D2 be the one consistency throughout the entire saga was George Lucas’s plan from the start. But surely, surely there were better ways to introduce C3-P0 into the fold than having Darth Vader himself be the one to have created him. It just makes the Star Wars galaxy feel so… small. Not to mention it creates the most massive plot hole in the entire series come Attack of the Clones.

Another point of contention with fans is the existence of Midichlorians. As The Phantom Menace quite needlessly tells us, Midichlorians are microscopic organisms that determine whether someone is or isn’t attuned to the Force. Much like Star Wars being a series primarily aimed at kids, another aspect of the series that’s hard for some fans to swallow is that it’s far more rooted in fantasy and fairy tales than it is science-fiction. Although Star Wars has science-fiction elements, this is also a series primarily about space wizards fighting each other with laser katanas.

Trying to give a logical explanation for the Force seems unnecessary, and robs the essence of the series of some of its mystique. It isn’t one of the bigger issues with The Phantom Menace, but Medichlorians are an example of one of the big issues of the prequel trilogy: over-explaining things that really don’t benefit the story or characters! The same goes for most of the political narratives going on in the sidelines. There’s just way too much of it, considering Star Wars was always an action-adventure series. How many people really wanted the fantasy action to pause for the sake of political exposition at every other turn? If I wanted to be bored with science fiction, I’d be watching Star Trek, not Star Wars.

Despite the many, many, many misgivings I have with The Phantom Menace, I do have to reiterate that it can be a fun movie, and unlike the other prequels, it at least feels like a Star Wars movie (just not a particularly good one). I admit that I myself still have a nostalgic soft spot for it. But for all the fun The Phantom Menace can provide, it’s riddled in far too many janky elements – in plot, pacing, writing and acting – and seems so gleefully ignorant and unwilling to maintain continuity with the original series, that it ultimately becomes a mediocre movie. It’s certainly not the vile, “childhood ruining” disasterpiece that fans made it out to be in 1999, but The Phantom Menace – despite some merit – still isn’t a very good Star Wars movie.

 

5

Frozen and Me

I just got back from seeing Frozen II and I have to say, as a fan of the original, that was a very rewarding sequel.

I plan on writing my review for Frozen II soon, but first I’d like to give some early impressions of the film, due to reasons that I’ll explain right now.

When Frozen was released in 2013, it was quite unlike anything I’d seen. Internet cynics would probably lambast me for saying that, seeing as it’s a Disney musical and thus ‘can’t be art’ yadda yadda yadda. But as someone who has been a lifelong fan of Disney, I admit there were still things about the animation studio’s output that I always felt were outdated. Frozen, as it turned out, was the Disney movie I always wanted, but never knew I’d actually get.

As much as I appreciated Disney films, I never would have put them on the same level as Studio Ghibli or Pixar’s animated features. Ghibli and Pixar would craft stories that were driven by the characters. Disney, meanwhile, used characters who were defined by a small handful of archetypes, and seemed to exist for the sole purpose of pushing the plot forward. Compared to the characters of Studio Ghibli or Pixar, well, there was no comparison.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a plot/concept-based movie. But knowing what animated storytelling was capable of due to the likes of Ghibli and Pixar, it felt like Disney was unable/unwilling to break away from their formula. Granted, Disney movies were mostly good, but kind of interchangeable really. I could name several Studio Ghibli or Pixar movies that would rank among my favorites, because they all felt distinct. But I felt I could pick one Disney movie to represent the entire lot because, well, they very much had their formula down pat (in case you’re interested, I would have listed Beauty and the Beast in a pre-Frozen world).

But Frozen changed all that. In one fell swoop, it addressed and rectified the issues I felt were holding Disney back. Sure, the archetypes were there, but there ended up being so much more to these characters than what was on the surface. What seemed to be marketed as “just another Disney Princess movie but with two princesses,” ended up being the most thoughtful and meaningful film in the Disney canon. Said princesses were fully fleshed-out characters, the comic foil (Olaf) existed for more than just comic relief (though he was also great at just that). Even the Disney Prince, the most bland and uninteresting of Disney’s archetypes, was given an overhaul, and the film featured one of the very few plot twists that genuinely surprised me.

Frozen subverted expectations before subverting expectations was cool. And honestly, it did so way, way better than the works that have attempted it since. Perhaps The Last Jedi would have been less polarized if Rian Johnson had studied how Frozen subverted expectations, as opposed to seemingly writing off what J.J. Abrams and company started with its predecessor. No doubt Frozen did to Disney traditions what Rian Johnson could only hope to do with Star Wars.

On top of defying tradition and giving new depth to Disney storytelling, Frozen was also a hell of a lot of fun, and the catchiness of the songs needs no explanation. Again, the cynical and snarky would love to ridicule me for saying something like this, but Frozen was a perfect movie (and certainly THE perfect Disney movie). Sure, naming my favorite Disney movie still has an easy answer, but now it’s because there’s one that’s just so damn good, as opposed to one I simply feel best utilized the studio’s formula (I still love you, Beauty and the Beast).

Now I have to get a bit more personal. On top of being the Disney movie I always wanted/never expected, Frozen also had a profound impact on me personally. Sorry to sound like a sad sack, but I suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Depression and Social Phobias. I have my entire life, and in that particular point in time I had been feeling especially low. But Frozen, a Disney movie about a magical snow princess and her sister, believe it or not, helped me better understand and subsequently deal with my demons. And I have been improving myself ever since.

Through Elsa, the snow queen who gives Frozen its name, Disney somehow created a character who serves as a universal and sympathetic allegory to such issues (and many others). Many people have also viewed Elsa as an allegory for homosexuality, and more power to them. But that goes back to what made Frozen so special: What other Disney movie featured characters and elements that were allegorical and left so much room for interpretation?

Again we go back to the internet smartasses, who would no doubt laugh at me for claiming Frozen – a kids movie (and perhaps even more so, a popular movie) – of all things, is what has helped me better understand myself. Surely they would point out all the arthouse and indie films that deal with mental issues and such in a literal manner. Well, I’ve seen a good number of such films, but even with the good ones, I’ve felt a bit of a disconnect with them. Along with a tendency to feel more than a little bit like award-bait, many such films tend to display mental issues and the like as a hopeless tragedy, or something that is simply to be pitied or vilified. But through Elsa, Frozen told audiences how these issues – even though they may be hard, and sad, and tragic – are a fact of life for many. These things shouldn’t be feared, but we should learn to accept them and be willing to face our issues to better ourselves. Elsa may have been the antagonist, but not because she was the typical Disney villain who was out to cause evil because reasons, but because people were ignorant and feared her, which caused her to run away from her problems and create the core conflict of the movie. It’s through the selfless love of her sister Anna, the film’s protagonist, that Elsa in turn learns to love herself.

Yeah, it’s a bit deeper than the usual Disney fare.

For one reason or another, Elsa was a far more relatable character to me than anyone found in “more intellectual” films. I may now be a 30-year old male, and (as far as I know) I lack magical ice powers, but Elsa is indeed the movie character I relate to over all others. I am not the slightest bit ashamed to admit that.

Frozen, of course, eventually became a worldwide phenomenon. Along with Pokemon and Harry Potter, it’s probably among the biggest pop-culture phenomenons to have occurred in my lifetime. While it was great to see something so good be rewarded with recognition, the fact that we live in the often-abhorrent internet age naturally meant that as soon as Frozen became popular, it became ‘cool’ to ridicule it (how dare children like things!). But despite generic internet contrarianism (a YouTuber complaining about stuff? Oh, how original), that first year or so of Frozen-Mania, when the film was absolutely ubiquitous, was probably the first of maybe two instances in the 2010s where the world seemed to find something that made it genuinely happy and brought people together in a way that’s incredibly rare in this cold, disconnected internet age (the second instance would be the release of Pokemon Go).

Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film in the world for nearly six years (it was somehow displaced by that uncanny valley Lion King remake. Though I suppose Frozen can still claim to be the highest-grossing good animated film). And yes, a sequel became an inevitability. As with any sequel, it’s a risky move. That’s especially true of something that had no pre-conceived expectations (Frozen may be very loosely inspired by Hans Christen Anderson’s The Snow Queen, but really only in the fact that it features a snow queen). Again, Frozen originally just looked liked the “Two Princesses” Disney movie. No one would have guessed it would become what it did.

I should point out now that, ahead of its release, I myself rolled my eyes at the advertisements to the film, as I – in my certain knowledge – knew it was just going to be another example of the Disney formula. Never before or since has a movie made me look like a fool so beautifully.

Here we are, six years later, and Frozen II is a reality. I’m sad to see a number of ‘professional’ critics were cynical even ahead of its release (and some after). Yes, the success of the original surely swayed Disney to make the sequel, but if this were a mere cash-grab, it would have happened years ago, and simply repeat the same beats as the original. This is a genuine sequel, and it’s sad to see some still write it off basically because it’s a sequel and thus “can’t be art.”

Earlier this year, Pixar released Toy Story 4. While that particular movie was decently good on its own merits, it paled in comparison to its three preceding films and, at its worst, retroactively rendered its immediate predecessor pointless. Yet Frozen II is the one cynics are targeting as being “all about the money.” It seems a bit hypocritical, considering that Toy Story 4 is the fourth entry in a series that already wrapped up with its third entry, and is a series that’s literally about toys (I love Toy Story, and Toy Story 4 certainly wasn’t bad, but c’mon, if any party in this scenario is guilty of milking a franchise, well…..).  I am aware that Toy Story 4 currently has higher meta-ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and its ilk, but I don’t see that as a reflection of the actual quality between the movies, so much as yet another reason why we should stop giving Rotten Tomatoes and company any credibility and form opinions ourselves. It also seems kind of strange that franchises primarily targeted at young girls are usually the ones that come under fire for “being greedy.” But that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.

Having seen Frozen II, I genuinely felt it was a worthy follow-up to the original. I hope to review it ASAP, but part of me wonders if I should review it. After all I’ve said of the personal impact Frozen had on me, no doubt many would think I’m an unreliable source due to my love of its predecessor (which seems a bit strange, when you think about it. Who exactly are sequels made for if not fans of the original?). But I would say, if there are means to justify biases, x-thing helped me understand and deal with mental illness seems like a pretty decent one. It certainly has a stronger case than it’s a sequel ergo it’s bad, I like to think. And in my defense, I do try my best to still be fair and honest when I review things. Sure, I have preferences (I am a human being, after all, not a robot), but that doesn’t mean I can’t also view things from a critical lens. I could have easily awarded every Hayao Miyazaki directed film a 10/10 based on personal feelings and history, but of the eight of them I’ve reviewed so far, their scores range from 7s to 10s (Miyazaki still unquestionably makes good movies, so nothing on the lower half on the scale from him, admittedly).

Yes, I honestly felt that Toy Story 4, while decent, was a retrograde sequel that undermined Toy Story 3, while Frozen II felt like a meaningful continuation that added to the growth of the characters and world of the original.

The big question has to be: Is Frozen II as good as the original? Well, that’s kind of an unfair question at this point in time. Again, I have been praising Frozen as Disney’s finest achievement for six years now, and it has played a surprisingly big influence in my life for that same amount of time. It’s kind of difficult to compare. I will reiterate that Frozen II is an exceptional sequel that – like any good sequel – feels different from its predecessor while simultaneously adding to it. It was worth the wait, and it feels like something that came from the heart of its creators, as opposed to a token sequel merely capitalizing on the success of the original.

I hope to review Frozen II in the near future, and maybe after better analyzing it and contemplating it, I can give a proper comparison between it and its predecessor. But at the moment it feels like an unfair task on myself. Frozen II is an incredible sequel, but with the impact the original had on me, can I of all people make that comparison? It would be like if I saw a really great anime movie, and someone were to ask me if it compares to Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. It’s like, well no. Of course not. It’s an unfair battle.

I loved Frozen II, and yes, I even cried. When I do review it, expect it to be pretty glowing. It genuinely saddens me that a number of critics are writing it off because of that ‘II‘ in the title, because the film is more than that. But whether or not I think it matches the original is, for once, not a matter of the film’s quality itself, but a testament to what the first film accomplished, and what it did for me.

200 Movie Reviews!

I have finally amassed 200 movie reviews!

That’s right, Kevin! My review of Joker marked the big 2-0-0!

Okay, so technically speaking I am now at 203 movie reviews, and Maleficent was actually the 200th. But, if we go back in time in the Dojo’s DeLorean, three of my movie reviews were for short films that were about five minutes in length (Frozen Fever, Sanjay’s Super Team and Riley’s First Date?). I listed them as “mini-reviews” and, although all three reviews were positive, they weren’t given a number grade. I just didn’t know how to rate something that’s five minutes using the same scale as I use for feature films (or even just half-hour shorts). So if we view the ungraded “mini-reviews” as separate, then Joker is my 200th movie review. Huzzah!

Admittedly, it did take me quite a while to reach this milestone. This Christmas will mark Wizard Dojo’s fifth anniversary, and I’ve only just now reached 200 movie reviews. Compare that to my game reviews, when I reached 200 in about April of 2017. A bit quicker there, and I really don’t know how, considering video games tend to be exceedingly longer than movies. Well, I suppose if I stick to my plan of only purchasing a handful of new games next year, I can catch up with the movies.

You can check out all 200(plus) of my movie reviews on my aptly-titled Movie Reviews page. Here’s hoping the next 200 won’t take me so long. Pick up the pace with my movie reviews. Y’know, on top of learning video game design, making videos and that other stuff I want to do… Maybe I’m stretching myself too thin.

Anyway, thanks for sticking around for 200(plus) movie reviews! Here’s too many, many more! Onto the next milestone!