A Movie A Day #275: The Awakening (1980, directed by Mike Newell)


Charlton Heston is Matthew Cormbeck, a driven archaeologist.  (Could an archaeologist played by Charlton Heston by anything other than driven?)  In 1961, he discovers the long-lost tomb of an Egyptian queen named Kara.  Ignoring both the birth of his daughter and the warning inscribed over the doorway, Matthew enters the tomb and discovers the mummified Kara.  At the same time, his stillborn daughter, Margaret, comes back to life.

18 years later, Cormbeck is a teacher at a British university.  He has since divorced Margaret’s mother and has married his longtime assistant, Jane (Susannah York).  Matthew is still obsessed with whether or not the Egyptians are taking proper care of the mummy and wants to bring it to England.  At the same time, Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist) defies her mother and comes to England to meet her father.

Like Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, The Awakening was based on Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.  Unfortunately, The Awakening is never as good as Blood from Mummy’s Tomb and gets bogged down in the lengthy Egyptian prologue.  (Blood from The Mummy’s Tomb skipped over the first part of Stoker’s novel and started with Margaret already 18 and possessed.)  The Awakening tries to take a more cerebral approach than the Hammer adaptation but both Heston and Zimbalist are fatally miscast.  Especially in the Egyptian scenes, Heston grits his teeth and lets his ascot do most of the work.

When it comes to Heston in Egypt, stick with The Ten Commandments.  When it comes to mummies in England, stick with Hammer.

Sci-Fi Film Review: Return of the Jedi (dir by Richard Marquand)


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As you’ve probably noticed, we’ve devoted this month to science fiction here at the Shattered Lens.  Gary Loggins reviewed THX-1138.  Valerie took a look at everything from The Star Wars Holiday Special to Turkish Star Wars to Return of the Ewok.  Ryan the Trashfilm Guru reviewed such Italian classics as Cosmos: War of Planets and War of the Robots.  Patrick Smith reviewed a terrifying Christmas movie about Santa. Myself, I’ve taken a look at such films as Contamination and 2019: After the Fall of New York.  

We’ve reviewed a lot of science fiction and we’ve got a lot more left to go.  (Keep an eye out for my reviews of Starcrash and The Humanoid over the upcoming few days.)  However, from the beginning, this month has always been centered around Star Wars.  You may have heard that there’s a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens and it’s opening this week.  Apparently, a few people are excited about it.  Since we love reviewing little known art films here at the Shattered Lens, we decided why not review all of the previous Star Wars films during the week leading up to the release of The Force Awakens?  Jeff (a.k.a. the blogger known as Jedadiah Leland) started us off by reviewing The Phantom Menace.  Then Alexandre Rothier took a look at Attack of the Clones, followed by Jeff’s look at Revenge of the Sith.  Leonard Wilson was the next to step up to the plate, reviewing both A New Hope and The Empire Strike Back.

And now, it’s my turn to add my thoughts to this project.  It’s time to review the 1983 film, Return of the Jedi.  And I have to admit that, when I first thought about what I wanted to say in this review, I was totally intimidated.  Unlike my fellow writers here at the Shattered Lens, I’m hardly an expert when it comes to Star Wars.  Don’t get me wrong — I know the basics.  I know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.  I know that Han Solo flies the Millennium Falcon and that Princess Leia is in love with him.  I know there’s an evil Empire and I know that there are rebels.  I’m not a virgin when it comes to Star Wars but, at the same time, I’m definitely not as experienced (with Star Wars) as most of my friends and fellow movie bloggers.

"Dang, Lisa, get over it!"

“Dang, Lisa, get over it!”

So, late this afternoon, when I sat down to watch Return of the Jedi, it was with more than a little trepidation.  My obvious panic and welling tears convinced Jeff to watch the movie with me and I was happy for that.  He loves Star Wars so I knew he could explain to me what was going on.

Finally, we watched Return of the Jedi and I discovered that I was panicking over nothing.  Return of the Jedi may be the third part of trilogy and I may not be an expert on the films that came before it.  But, even with all that in mind, Return of the Jedi is not a difficult film to figure out.  As opposed to the finales of Harry Potter, The Hobbit, and The Hunger Games, Return of the Jedi keeps things simple.  A good guy has been kidnapped by a bad guy.  The other good guys come to the rescue and then go to another planet so that they can fight an even bigger bad guy.  It’s not complicated.

As I watched Return of the Jedi and realized that I was having absolutely no problem following the film’s plot, I also realized that the Star Wars films are such a huge part of our culture that, regardless of how many of them we’ve actually sat through, everyone has absorbed them by osmosis.  Bits and pieces of it are everywhere, showing up in everything from TV sitcoms to political commentary.  (Remember how everyone used to compare Dick Cheney to Darth Vader?)  The Star Wars franchise is almost biblical in that respect.  At the same time, the fact that everyone knows about these movies makes them a little difficult to review.  You don’t so much watch a Star Wars film as you join in a universal experience.  As a reviewer, you definitely find yourself wondering what you can add to a conversation that everyone else has already had.

As a stand alone movie, Return of the Jedi is actually three separate films mixed together.  The first film deals with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) showing up at Jabba the Hutt’s palace and rescuing Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and two robots from being tossed into a creature called the Sarlacc, which is basically a giant vagina out in the middle of the desert.  The second film deals with the rebels teaming up with a bunch of teddy bears and fighting the Empire on a jungle planet.  And the third film features Luke and Darth Vader (body of David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones, face of either Sebastian Shaw and Hayden Christensen, depending on which version of the film you’re watching) dealing with their family issues while the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) cackles in the background.  Some parts of the film work better than others.  The end result is entertaining but definitely uneven.

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Jedi‘s heart belongs to that third film, the one dealing with Luke and Darth Vader.  I’ve read some pretty negative online comments about Mark Hamill’s performance in New Hope and Empire Strikes Back but, in Return of the Jedi, he brings an almost haunted intensity to the role of Luke.  In theory, it’s easy to be snarky about all the talk about the “Dark Side of the Force,” but, when you look in Hamill’s eyes, you totally understand what everyone’s going on about.  You see the fire and the anger but, even more importantly, you see the struggle between good and evil.  There’s a very poignant sadness to the scenes where he and his father prepare to meet the Emperor.

And speaking of the Emperor, he is pure nightmare fuel!  AGCK!

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As for the other two films to found within Return of the Jedi, the jungles of Endor didn’t do much for me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I thought the action scenes were handled well and, unlike apparently everyone else in the world, I was not annoyed by the inclusion of the Ewoks, the killer teddy bears who helped to the Rebels to take down the Empire.  I thought the Ewoks were cute and I actually got pretty upset when one of them was killed in battle.  If I had been alive when Return of the Jedi had been released, I probably would have wanted a stuffed Ewok and, I imagine, that was the main reason they were included in the film.  (I also imagine that’s the main reason why a lot of people can’t stand them.)

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So, no, the Ewoks did not bother me.  What did bother me was that under-construction Death Star floating out in the middle of space.  It bothered me because I really couldn’t imagine any reason why — after the first Death Star was apparently such a colossal failure — the Empire would insist on trying to do the exact same thing all over again.  This, along with the fact that they were rather easily defeated by a bunch of teddy bears, leads me to wonder whether the effectiveness of the Empire was just a little overrated.  I mean, the Emperor was scary but otherwise, everyone involved with the Empire was pretty incompetent.

Far more impressive, as far as villains go, was Jabba the Hut.  In fact, Jabba and his decadent entourage were so memorable and colorful and evil and icky that they pretty much overshadowed almost everything else in the film.  I mean, Jabba even had a blue elephant playing music for him!  And I know that I’m supposed to be critical of the film for putting Leia in that gold bikini but you know what?  Leia may have been forced to wear a gold bikini but she never gave up her dignity or her defiance.  And when it came time to take out Jabba, Leia used the tools of her oppression to do so, strangling him with his own chains.  In that one scene, Leia proved herself to be a true rebel.

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There’s a lot that’s good about Return of the Jedi but, as I said earlier, it’s definitely an uneven film.  Richard Marquand’s direction is perhaps the epitome of workmanlike.  It’s efficient and it’s dependable and there’s absolutely nothing surprising or particularly challenging about it.

It’s interesting to note that, before Richard Marquand was selected as director, the job was offered to both David Lynch and David Cronenberg, two directors who are all about surprising and challenging the audience.  What would David Lynch’s Return of the Jedi been like?  Well, here’s one possibility:

As for David Cronenberg’s Return of the Jedi, it might have looked something like this:

For better or worse, the world got Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi, which I imagine was pretty close to what George Lucas wanted the film to be.

As I sit here finishing up this review and wondering just why exactly I was so intimidated earlier (seriously, this turned out to be one the easiest reviews that I’ve ever written), I estimate that 75% of the people that I know are currently sitting in a theater and watching The Force Awakens.  Keep an eye out for Arleigh’s review in the next few days!

And in closing, here’s that blue elephant that I mentioned earlier.  Dance!

Maxrebo

Sci-Fi Review: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005, directed by George Lucas)


Star_Wars_Episode_III_Revenge_of_the_Sith_posterThe year 2005 was a dark time to be a fan of Star Wars.

The first two parts of the highly anticipated prequel trilogy had been released and had left fans feeling as if millions of voices had cried out in terror and suddenly been silenced.  No sooner had fans started to recover from the trauma of The Phantom Menace then Attack of the Clones was unleashed and they were stunned to learn that a movie could be even more pointless than The Phantom Menace.

The summer of 2005 promised the release of Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith.  Fans were excited because they knew that Anakin Skywalker would finally be transformed into Darth Vader but they also knew that he would still be played by Hayden Christensen.  Many of us who went to see the movie on its opening weekend did so with low expectations and mixed feelings.

“WAR!” the opening title crawl of Revenge of the Sith declared, as if it was trying to reassure those of us in the audience that it would not be another boring Star Wars prequel.  There was nothing in the crawl about taxation or trade routes.  Instead, it was all about how the Galactic Republic was at war with separatists and how Chancellor Palpatine was being held prisoner by General Grievous.  After an exciting battle on Grievous’s flagship, Anakin not only rescued Palpatine but also decapitated Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku, despite the fact that Dooku had surrendered and was unarmed.  That’s when those of us watching knew that Revenge of the Sith was not going to be like the other two prequels.  Revenge of the Sith was going to be darker and edgier and not just for kids.  A headless Count Dooku action figure would not be sold at your local toy store.

Looking back, it is easy to forget how relieved many of us were that Revenge of the Sith was not terrible.  After the bitter disappointment of the first two prequels, we were happy that Jar Jar Binks only appeared during one shot towards the end of the film and he did not speak.  We were happy that Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman both finally got to give performances that justified casting actors of their caliber as Obi-Wan and Amidala.  We were happy that, since Anakin and Amidala were secretly married between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, we did not have to sit through any more scenes of them falling in love.  Many of us had found Hayden Christensen’s performance to be petulant in Attack of the Clones and, intentionally or not, Revenge of the Sith seemed to validate our suspicions by having both Yoda and Mace Windu say the same thing about Anakin.  After the embarrassment of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, this was a prequel that we felt we could get behind.

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And we were really happy with the climatic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin.  After Anakin had gone over to the dark side, he and Obi-Wan dueled on a volcanic planet.  “You were supposed to be the chosen one!” Obi-Wan shouted after chopping off Anakin’s legs.  After being left to die by Obi-Wan, Anakin was rescued by Emperor Palpatine.  It was only after being encased in that famous black armor that Palpatine told the new Darth Vader that Amidala had died.  Darth Vader’s “Nooooooooo!” would go down in history.

At the end of the film, Jimmy Smits was seen giving an infant Luke to Owen and Beru Lars and Darth Vader and the Emperor were seen standing on the bridge of an imperial ship and looking out at the skeleton of the Death Star.  For the first time since the prequels were first released, some of us applauded at the end of a Star Wars film.

When, ten years later, I rewatched Revenge of the Sith for the first time in a long while, my immediate impression was that it was nowhere close to being as good as I remembered.  Without a doubt, it was still the best of the prequels but how much was that really saying?  Of all the prequels, it came the closest to capturing the sense of awe and excitement that made the original trilogy (even Return of the Jedi) so entertaining but, at the same time, it still had many of the same flaws that afflicted Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.  Hayden Christensen was as stiff and inexpressive as ever, as was George Lucas’s dialogue.  (When Obi-Wan tells Anakin that Palpatine is evil, Anakin actually replies, “From my point of view, the Jedis are evil!”  He shouts this in the middle of a light saber duel.)  Even the movie’s most shocking moment, when Anakin murdered a group of children, was no longer effective because everyone in the movie insisted on calling the children “younglings.”

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Throughout the entire prequel ordeal, George Lucas would insist that it was necessary to see all three of the prequels to really understand the story he was trying to tell and how it fit in with the original trilogy.  However, of all the prequels, Revenge of the Sith is the only one that feels as if it adds anything to what we had already learned from watching the original trilogy.  Nor is there anything to be gained from having seen the first two prequels before watching Revenge of the Sith for the first time.  The main accomplishment of Revenge of the Sith was to prove that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were entirely unnecessary.  (Revenge of the Sith actually works better if you have never seen Phantom Menace because there is no way that the Anakin played by Jake Lloyd could have grown up to be the Anakin played by Hayden Christensen.)

Why, when we originally watched Revenge of the Sith, did so many of us think that it was so much better than it actually was?

In the year 2005, we were just happy to have a Star Wars film that did not totally suck.

Jar

Sci-Fi Review – Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (dir. by George Lucas)


Attack of the Clones is, at least in my opinion, the worst Star Wars film ever made. Hands down. That is not to say it’s not mildly entertaining, but it demands a great deal of good will from its viewer to keep him from sneering at the movie constantly, especially if said viewer is a fan.

Christ, where do I even begin.

It’s important to note that Episode II is a transition movie. If that’s not clear enough, what I mean is that it’s a movie that exists to connect both the childish, yet potentially endearing Episode I, and the much darker and edgier Episode III. Episode II is somewhere inbetween these two moods, trying to make the transition smoother, disastrously so. It’s catastrophic in many levels, but mostly because of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker. We’ll get there soon.

Episode II starts as a movie about politics. Now, I like fictional world politics as much as the next person. I honestly do. Especially in a space opera setting. But in Star Wars the politics are dull and barely explained. Padmé Amidala’s two terms as democratically elected Queen of Naboo (wait, what?) are now over, and she continues her career as a politician by becoming a senator. The story begins by trying to make it interesting that people are trying to kill Amidala, on what appears to be politically motivated crimes. We don’t get much context, except that she opposes some other senators. Palpatine, being the super trustworthy guy everyone always knew he was, assigns the Jedi Order to protect her, and finds that Obi-Wan is a suitable bodyguard for Padmé, considering their friendship way back in Episode I. Of course, Obi-Wan must take his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, with him. And hilarity ensues.

Now, you’re probably familiar with whom Anakin is to become, and you probably know whose father he is, so this movie must establish one very important thing; an origin to the affection between future Lord Vader and an unwitting woman, so that we can learn whose womb was it that those guys from the original trilogy came from. Therefore, in addition to being about lackluster politics, this is a movie about love.

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DAMN SON.

Now, I have to agree with Padmé. You can preach all you want about how you have a massive crush on Hayden Christensen’s mini braid, but that piercing sex offender gaze made me uncomfortable. Throughout the first act, Anakin goes from flirting with the poor woman to actively doing stuff very similar to sexual harassment. I mean, seriously, look at this lecherous, leering asshole.

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Darth Vader has always been regarded as one of the greatest villains of cinema, but I never figured that he was also one of the sleaziest. 

I wish this was the only problem with Anakin. Maybe it’s not Mr. Christensen’s acting, but the poor writing (though I suspect that, considering his absence in major movies this decade, his acting was definitely a factor). Young Skywalker is a very gifted Jedi, being immaculately conceived by midi-chlorians and all (I can’t stop laughing), and he is painfully aware of his skills, which he shows through an overpowering arrogance. Now, arrogance when done right can be charming, and perhaps that was the intention; to make Darth Vader a badass even as a teenager, a daredevil, someone who just barely succeeds, but does it with style. Anakin, however, comes across as impudent, annoying, and exceedingly stupid. It seems Anakin can’t go two scenes without doing something that would displease the Jedi council, and entirely aware of it too. ‘Cause that’s just how he rolls. James Dean from a galaxy far far away.

Second act comes. Anakin grows more and more adolescent and fascist. More politics happen. Then there are some cool action scenes that seem to save the film. Obi-Wan is written as barely having a personality, aside from comments that try to make it evident that he is growing older and grumpier, even though he can’t be much more than 30. Regardless, he is arguably the saving grace in the main cast, at the very least as far as really cool fights go. He pilots fighter ships, he fights with a lightsaber; the man sees some action. It’s almost depressing to see an actor of Ewan McGregor’s caliber being reduced to action hero and grumpy mentor to an angsty teenager.

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Their dynamic is oddly reminiscent of Gran Torino

Jar Jar also appears. Fan favourite Jar Jar. I feel this is worth mentioning because in an extremely important scene he proposes (as stand-in senator for Amidala) to convey supreme power to Chancellor Palpatine. Yes, that Chancellor Palpatine, and I have to wonder why they couldn’t task this burden to an unnamed senator. Don’t people hate the poor gungan enough? It’s as if George Lucas is just fucking with his public to see how far they can go, at this point.

And then, in the third act, we are introduced to the big bad: Count Dooku, played by the late Sir Christopher Lee. You’d think that bringing this legend of acting might infer that this character is the highlight of the cast. Might have been. Dooku is a character full of potential. He’s obviously evil, but with just the right amount of idealism to seem more shades of grey than the cruel, pure black villains the series are accostumed to. But apparently all he does is some exposition, then pave the way for the epic arena fight scene that kind of defines this movie as a Star Wars film (perhaps one of the only things that defines this as a Star Wars film), some more exposition, a lightsaber duel (a really cool one, wrapping up the whole two things that make this a Star Wars film), and then he’s gone, apparently having started a war. The movie is over, without fully explaining why things escalated, and who exactly Count Dooku represents that the Republic is at war with.

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WAR AGAINST WHOM???

I’m serious when I say this can be an entertaining movie. The fight scenes can be fun and you can laugh at what ridiculous situations the actors are subjected to. But it’s mostly incredibly dull. It’s a film that throws you into an extended torrent of politics you need to understand beforehand to appreciate, and that lead to Clone Wars, a pretty cool spin-off that most people never got to see and that might as well have been properly included as crucial to the continuity since it’s much better than this. As a standalone film, the story is a confusing, rushed mess even at two hours long. As a Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones makes it obvious that the series is not infallible. Horribly, gapingly, obviously not infallible.

Sci-Fi Review: Stars Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999, directed by George Lucas)


Star_Wars_Phantom_Menace_posterA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The time was May of 1999.  The place was a movie theater in Baltimore, Maryland.  The theater was packed with people waiting to see the most anticipated film of their lifetime.  The film was The Phantom Menace, the first prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy.  For two years, the people in the audience had followed every detail of the film’s production.  Some of them had gone to showings of Meet Joe Black and Wing Commander, just so they could see the first trailers for the film.

Sitting out in that audience was one 16 year-old boy who, a few nights earlier, had been standing outside a Target at midnight so that he could be one of the first to buy Phantom Menace merchandise.  He bought two Jar Jar Binks action figures because, even before Phantom Menace opened, he suspected Jar Jar would be the most controversial character.

When the lights went down, the audience cheered.  At the start of every trailer, someone in the dark theater shouted, “I bent my Wookie!”  The audience laughed the first two times.  By the fifth time, there were only a few pity titters.

Finally, it was time!  The first few notes of John Williams’s Star Wars theme echoed through the theater.  Again, the audience cheered as the familiar title crawl appeared on-screen.

The 16 year-old read the opening crawl and he started to get worried.  What was all this talk about taxation?  Trade routes?  Trade Federation?  Blockades?  It seemed more appropriate for Star Trek or even Dune.  Except for the mention of Jedis at the end of the crawl, it did not sound much like Star Wars.

Things started to look up as soon as Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor made their first appearance as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  Obi-Wan’s first line was, “I have a bad feeling about this.”  A few people in the audience clapped.  “I bent my Wookie!” a familiar voice shouted.  Nobody laughed.

When a hologram of Darth Sidious appeared and told the Trade Federation goons to kill Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, everyone in the audience knew that Darth Sidious was Palaptine, the future Emperor, and the excitement was palpable.  When Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fought off the battle droids and escaped to the besieged planet of Naboo, the audience started to relax.  Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as the critics were saying.

Then Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan met Jar Jar Binks and the whole movie went to shit.

In the months leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, everyone had heard about Jar Jar Binks and how he was a totally computer-generated character.  Jar Jar Binks was the future of movie technology and, from the minute he first appeared, the future was fucking terrifying.  Jar Jar was a Gungun, an amphibious creature who was characterized as being clumsy and cowardly.  He shrieked in a high-pitched voice and spoke in an indescribable dialect.  As much as the audience tried, there was no way to avoid or ignore Jar Jar Binks.  He was not in the entire movie but he was at the center of every scene in which he did appear.

As Jar Jar led Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to the underwater city of the Gunguns, a voice in the dark theater shouted out, “I bent my Wookie!”

“Shut the fuck up!” the 16 year-old snapped back.

The 16 year-old was not sure if anyone heard him but the voice was silent for the rest of the movie.

Sorry, Ralph.

Sorry, Ralph.

No sooner had the audience recovered from their introduction to Jar Jar then they met young Anakin Skywalker.  Anakin’s story was the whole reason that The Phantom Menace had been made.  The audience knew that the prequels would show how Anakin Skywalker would grow up to the greatest and most evil badass in the universe, Darth Vader.  But in Phantom Menace, he was just a 9 year-old slave on the planet of Tatooine, conceived by immaculate conception.  Even before Phantom Menace was released, the word was out that Jake Lloyd, the child cast as young Anakin, was not exactly the best actor in the world.  But even though they had been forewarned, the audience was not prepared for just how terrible little Jake Lloyd was in the role.  There was no darkness to Jake Lloyd’s cutesy performance.  There was no sadness or toughness.  Jake Lloyd came across like the type of hyperactive child who would end up in the ensemble of a Christmas play, breaking character and waving to his parents during the Crucifixion.  Not only could the audience not see him growing up to be Darth Vader but they could not imagine him as a slave living on an inhospitable desert planet.

Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Jar Jar, Queen Padme (Keira Knightley), and Padme’s handmaid, Amidala (Natalie Portman) were stranded on Tatooine when they first met Anakin.  Qui-Gon felt that Anakin was “the chosen one,” who would bring balance to the force.  It was hard for the audience to believe him when they heard Anakin shout, “Yippe!”

For that 16 year-old who had stayed up past midnight to buy two Jar Jar Binks action figures, that “yippe” was the final straw.  He had watched the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS tapes.  He had gone to the re-releases.  He loved Star Wars and he wanted to love The Phantom Menace.  Instead, he felt so let down by the film that he could barely look at the screen.

The 16 year-old wondered why C3PO and R2D2 were in the film.  Phantom Menace revealed that they were built by the future Darth Vader.  R2D2 would even help Anakin in the film’s final battle.  It made no sense.  The 16 year-old wondered if anyone else in the audience was as confused as he was.  He wondered why, if he could see that this made no sense, George Lucas could not understand the same thing.

Anakin won a pod race and was allowed to leave Tatooine.  The film’s action was moved to the Coruscant, a planet that was covered with one huge city.  Samuel L. Jackson appeared as Mace Windu and, when he stared out at the audience, he seemed to be saying, “I fucking dare you to yell anything about bending your motherfucking Wookie!”  There were scenes set in the galactic senate, presumably to appease everyone who wanted a meticulously detailed portrait of how a galactic Republic would be governed.  Padme turned out to be a fake and Amidala was revealed as the real queen.  There was a final battle between the forces of the Republic and the Trade Federation.  Qui-Gon was killed in a duel with the evil Darth Maul (Ray Park) but Obi-Wan promised to train Anakin in the ways of the Jedi.  Palpatine promised that he would be watching Anakin’s development.

And, of course, there was this:

For many in the audience who truly loved the original trilogy and who had spent the past two years scouring every corner of the Internet in search of news about The Phantom Menace, the midi-chlorians was the point that they give up on the movie.  The Force added a hint of mysticism to the original trilogy.  Because it was so mysterious and its origins so deliberately obscure, fans of Star Wars could imagine that The Force was inside of them as well as Luke and Darth Vader.  “May the force be with you,” was more than just a catch phrase to those fans.  It was a reminder that, even in a galaxy far far away, there was still mystery and faith.  When Qui-Gon talked about midi-chlorians, fans realized that not only did they understand the appeal of Star Wars better than George Lucas but George Lucas did not even care why they loved his film.  For those fans, the midi-chlorians not only ruined The Phantom Menace but cheapened the original trilogy as well.  The Force was no longer special or mystical.  Anakin might as well have just been bitten by a radioactive spider.

For the 16 year-old, it was somehow even worse that, before asking about the Force, Anakin apologized to Qui-Gon for causing so much trouble.  Sitting out in the theater, he knew that the boy who would grow up to be Darth Vader would never yell “yippie!” and he would never apologize for causing any trouble.

At the end of the movie, the audience did not know how to react.  The 16 year-old talked to his friends as they filed out of the theater.  Everyone was in a state of denial.  They knew that they had seen something very disappointing but, after all the excitement leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, they did not want to admit how disappointed they really were with the actual movie.  They talked about what did work.  They talked about the pod race, which had been fun.  They talked about the exciting light saber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul.  Being teenage boys, they also talked about Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.

Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley

They tried not to talk about Jar Jar Binks, beyond agreeing that he sucked.  They tried not to talk about Jake Lloyd as Anakin.  It was too painful to know that Star Wars had been reduced to Jar Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd.  They did make fun of the “I bent my Wookie” guy.  In the face of grave disillusionment, it was all that the 16 year-old and his friends could do.

Today, enough time has passed that it is easier to laugh about Jar Jar Binks and The Phantom Menace.  Though the initial trauma may have faded into memory, it all came rushing back to me as soon as Lisa asked me if I would be willing to review The Phantom Menace for this site.  I cautiously agreed and hoped that, since I already knew what I was getting myself into, The Phantom Menace would not be as disappointing the second time around.

It was a strange experience rewatching The Phantom Menace.  While I remembered how bad the movie was, I’d forgotten how equally boring it was.  Jar Jar Binks was even more annoying than I remembered and Jake Lloyd was even worse.  Of the film’s best scenes, the pod race went on too long and the duel with Darth Maul was too short.  For such a badass villain, Darth Maul was underused for much of the film, as if George Lucas did not understand that the kids he claimed to have made the film for would be far more interested in the dynamic Darth Maul than the histrionic Jar Jar Binks.

Emphasizing Jar Jar Binks over Darth Maul made as much sense as emphasizing the Ewoks at the expense of Boba Fett.

Emphasizing Jar Jar Binks over Darth Maul made as much sense as emphasizing the Ewoks at the expense of Boba Fett.

Worst of all, the entire movie felt even more pointless the second time around.  When the prequels were first released, George Lucas always said that all three of them should be viewed in the context of the larger story that they were telling.  But what do we really learn from The Phantom Menace or any of the prequels?  Did anyone really want to know about how trade was regulated before the Empire?  Did we really need to know the exact details of how Anakin became a Jedi?  Watching The Phantom Menace, the answer is no.

I was especially surprised by how bad the CGI looked.  When The Phantom Menace was first released, the CGI was often the only thing that was critically praised.  Critics may have hated Jar Jar Binks as a character but they all agreed that it was impressive that a major character had been created by a computer.  It is easy to forget just how big a deal was made about The Phantom Menace‘s special effects.  At the time, we had yet to take it for granted that an entire movie could be made on a computer.

But seen today, the CGI not only seems cartoonish but, like the midi-chlorians, it feels like a betrayal of everything that made the original Star Wars special.  The universe of New Hope and Empire Strikes Back felt lived in.  It was imperfect and real.  It was a universe where even the most fearsome storm trooper could accidentally bump his head on a doorway.

But the CGI-created universe of The Phantom Menace was too slick and too perfect.  There was no chance for spontaneity or anything unexpected.  The universe of the original Star Wars trilogy was one in which you could imagine living but the universe of The Phantom Menace seemed only to exist in the computers at Lucasfilm.  With The Phantom Menace, George Lucas seemed to be reminding those who loved his films that the Star Wars universe belonged to him and him alone.  Our imagination was no longer necessary.

As for that 16 year-old who first saw The Phantom Menace in that Baltimore theater, I still have those Jar Jar Binks action figures.  I keep one of them on my desk at work and I enjoy the strange looks that it gets.  If you push down its arms, Jar Jar sticks out his tongue.

It just seems appropriate.

Quick Review: Dragonslayer (dir. by Matthew Robbins)


DragonslayerPosterBefore I came on board here at The Shattered Lens, I joined in on Live Tweeting, where you watch a movie with a group  of people, while tweeting about it at the same time. Imagine being one of those audience members in Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and you’ve a rough idea of how fun it can get. Our own Lisa Marie Bowman does this every Saturday with her group, the Snarkalecs, as they cover the SyFy Movie of that week.

On Saturday Nights around 11pm Eastern(or just about every Saturday), Kevin Carr (over at Fat Guys at the Movies) hosts his Late Night Live Tweet, which I’ve participated in from time to time over the last 3 years. Tonight, they’re talking on 1981’s Dragonslayer on Netflix Instant.

Dragonslayer is one of those films that flopped at the box office, but remains iconic for its representation of dragons and for having been Industrial Light and Magic’s first Visual Effects production outside of any of the Lucasfilm movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark and the first two Star Wars films). Even though ILM was popular for what it did for those films, they were considered somewhat exclusive (or rather it’s my belief that they were). Dragonslayer became ILM’s test of whether they were a go to effects studio for the rest of Hollywood. It didn’t quite work out for the film, but at least ILM did well. At one point, the amount of lens flares in this movie would make J.J. Abrams proud.

Walt Disney Pictures, wanting to get into something a little more adult, came up with Dragonslayer just before Tron, but because of then graphic nature of the film (at least by their standards) supposedly had Paramount Pictures handle the distribution of the film and keep their hands clean. The movie contains blood, immolation and a hint of nudity, which seemed unbecoming of the Disney label. Over the years, Disney would come up with Touchstone Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures, and Hollywood Pictures for their more adult fare. I think Disney even had Miramax at one point.

The story behind Dragonslayer is pretty straight forward. In a faraway land in the Dark Ages, a group a people seek out an old wizard named Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson – Watership Down and one of my favorites, Time Bandits) to have him slay the dragon known as Vermithrax Pejorative. Why would anyone want to kill a dragon? Well this particular dragon spends it’s time burning nearby villages and to keep it from doing so, the land has a lottery where the winner – a young maiden – is offered as a sacrifice. On looking at the evidence provided – some scales and a claw (to which Urlich exclaims “That’s not a claw, by the gods….that’s a tooth!”), the wizard refuses and asks the team to look for another Dragonslayer. They inform him that he is indeed the last of his kind. His apprentice, Galen Bradwarden (Ally McBeal’s Peter MacNicol) feels that maybe they could do the job, but before Ulrich can get on his way, he is challenged by the head of the King’s Guard, which leads to the wizard’s demise.

Galen, on cleaning up the wizard’s castle, stumbles upon a glowing amulet that enhances his magic ability. then takes it upon himself to get rid of the Dragon after discovering one of Ulrich’s glowing amulets and the ability to perform magic. As a kid, I thought that amulet was the coolest thing. There are of course some complications, mainly the fact that the Monarchy believes having the sacrifices and the Dragon are a good thing, but like all Disney movies, it all works out.

From an acting standpoint, Dragonslayer is okay. None of the performances are really award winning, and actor Peter MacNicol has gone on to say that he was embarrassed to have done the film, and doesn’t even mention it when referencing anything he’s done. Actor Ian MacDiarmid, who played Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films, plays a priest in Dragonslayer, which was nice to see.

ILM’s biggest contribution to Dragonslayer was the use of a then new effect called “Go-Motion”. The idea was that most effects at the time were stop motion, similar to what you’d see in a Harryhausen film like Clash of the Titans, As a result, it was often very easy to tell when stop motion was being used due to the jerky but accepted movements of characters. Go Motion used puppets on computers to track their movements, inducing a motion blur and give the appearance that puppets were moving more naturally. I guess it was a lot like rotoscoping for the Lightsaber effects. ILM tried this out with some success in The Empire Strikes Back, and a combination of either Stop Motion or Go Motion was used in many films right up until CGI came along. The look of the Dragon itself was very aggressive and its look can be seen in similar films like Reign of Fire. Most of the effects haven’t held up very well at all under HD, and you can clearly see some of the areas where effects start and end.

It should be noted that Stop Motion is still in use today and is very popular with animated fares like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and the Academy Award Nominated Film, Frankenweenie.

Quick Review: Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D


 

This isn’t so much a review of The Phantom Menace, as it’s one about the 3D aspect of it. I can’t imagine there isn’t a single person who doesn’t know what The Phantom Menace was about.

Historically, Unless it happens to be a cartoon, I really don’t do very well when it comes to 3D films. The effect for me tends to wear off really quick. The only real movie exception for me lately was last year’s Drive Angry 3D and Hugo (which to talk about in full requires it’s own review). The tail end of 2011 saw some of cinema’s Old Schoolers jump into the 3D scene, with Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin adding to the lot. So really, it was just a matter of time before George Lucas would blow the dust off his legacy and take all six of the Star Wars films into the 3-Dimensional arena.

I grew up on Star Wars, like many kids born early enough to have seen the Originals. I remember the lines, the scenes, all of that. With the release of the Prequels, I took my little brother on Midnight premieres for all three of them. Those are by far the biggest and best memories of the series, the sharing of those “wow” moments either with my family or with friends growing up. Of all of the films, The Empire Strikes Back remains my favorite (as it is for a number of people).

So, here I was, back for The Phantom Menace on 3D. You’d think that Lucasfilm and ILM would go to some great lengths to make sure that the effects were great, and I have to admit that there were really only a few key scenes in the movie where the 3D really shined – The Opening Credits, the Podrace and one of the fight sequences. Still, for me the ability to see the 3D faded within 15 minutes, so I was pretty much left with watching a film I wasn’t particularly fond of, save for the key scenes.

That isn’t to say that The Phantom Menace is a dreadful film, Jar Jar and all. The movie was made with kids in mind, and watching it from that position, the story does make some kind of sense. Ideally, 3D really isn’t a compelling reason to have the Star Wars films return to the cinema, yet at the same time, that they’re there may actually warrant a theatre visit if you like watching them. If any film is going to use the 3D well, it’ll probably be one of the Originals. What the film does excel at is it’s use of sound. Ben Burtt is always great when it comes to sound cues and The Phantom Menace is easily a good example of this. Lightsabers hum, sparks are loud and it flows well.

Back in 1999, George Lucas it was necessary to give us a reason why Darth Vader became the man he was, and decided to create the first installment of Star Wars films that would focus on Anakin Skywalker’s rise and eventual fall. Sitting in the theatre and hearing the Fox fanfare go up, one can’t help but smile as the “A Long Time Ago…” phrase appears. Of course, that quickly fades as the cast actually starts talking. Man, the Phantom Menace was a hot mess, but a beautiful mess at that.

The Podracing scene was just as fun as it always was, and the Darth Maul Double Bladed Lightsaber reveal is just as hair raising, but watching it, I had moments where (just as I did on the first run), I wondered how much better it could be if Lucas didn’t hold on so tightly to his creation. Star Wars overall is an awesome concept, but there are just so many better writers and filmmakers out there. The material feels a little wasted, just a little.

If anything, The Phantom Menace does work as something to bring the kids to see, but if you already have the movie on video, it’s not completely required.