Film Review: Murder Mystery (dir by Kyle Newacheck)


There are actually two Adam Sandlers.

First, there’s the Adam Sandler that everyone knows.  This Adam Sandler is the comedian who has won multiple Razzie awards and who has produced and starred in some of the most critically derided comedies of all time.  This is the Adam Sandler who often seems to make movies specifically so he can either take a vacation or give some work to the less successful members of his entourage.  This is the Adam Sandler whose movies were cited as a tool of patriarchal oppression in the “cool girl” speech during Gone Girl.

And then there’s another Adam Sandler.  This Adam Sandler is a sad-eyed character actor who is probably one of modern cinema’s best portrayers of existential malaise.  This is the Adam Sandler who starred in movies like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, Funny People, Spanglish, The Cobbler, Men, Women, and Children, and The Meyerowitz Stories.  Some of those films were very good and some of them, admittedly, were very bad but what they all had in common was that they featured Adam Sandler giving a surprisingly good dramatic performance.  In fact, if someone only saw Adam Sandler’s dramatic work (and not his work in films like Jack and Jill or Grown-Ups, to cite just two examples), they would be justified in assuming that Sandler was one of the most acclaimed actors around.  (One reason why we get so much more annoyed with Sandler’s bad comedies — as opposed to all the other equally bad comedies out there — is because we actually have evidence that Sandler’s capable of doing so much better.)

Unfortunately, almost all of Sandler’s dramatic films were box office disappointments.  Punch-Drunk Love is now widely viewed as being a classic but, when it was first released, it failed to even recoup its production budget at the box office.  Audiences consistently indicated they preferred silly Adam Sandler to dramatic Adam Sandler and so, Sandler continued to make silly theatrical films until even those started to bring in less money than they had before.

As of now, Sandler does most of his work for Netflix and the results have been mixed.  His performance in The Meyerowitz Stories was rightfully acclaimed while his comedies have been considerably less celebrated.  And then you have the just-released Murder Mystery, which seems to straddle the line between the two Sandlers.

On the one hand, Murder Mystery is just as silly and implausible as a typical Adam Sandler comedy.  Sandler plays a New York police officer named Nick Spitz.  Nick has failed his detective’s exam three times but that still hasn’t stopped him from telling his wife, Audrey (Jennifer Aniston), that he’s been promoted.  Nick’s living a lie and he deals with his guilt by taking Audrey on a long-promised trip to Europe.  On the flight over, Audrey meets the charming and wealthy Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans) who invites Audrey and Nick to a party on his family’s yacht.  The yacht is owned by billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terrence Stamp) and, when Malcolm’s murdered during the party, it’s up to fake Detective Nick to figure out who is responsible!

Was it the glamorous actress, Grace (Gemma Arterton)?  Or the handsome race car driver, Juan Carlos (Luis Gerardo Mendez)?  Or how about the genocidal warlord, Colonel Ulenga (John Kani)?  Of course, the local Interpol detective (Dany Boon) thinks that it was Nick and Audrey and he even threatens to reveal that Nick’s been lying about his job!  Can Nick and Audrey solve the murder and rekindle the romance of their stalled marriage?

As I said, it’s all pretty silly.  Most of the film’s humor comes from just how out-of-place Nck and Audrey are in the world of high society.  Audrey is excited because the murder mystery is just like the plot of one of the paperback novels that she likes to read.  Nick spends most of the movie trying to keep his wife from discovering the truth about his job.  While everyone else is scheming and plotting and trying to kill one another, Nick and Audrey are literally searching Wikipedia for information on all the suspects.  It’s dumb and occasionally amusing and it’s also rather innocent.  If your grandmother ever wants to watch a comedy with you, Murder Mystery would probably be the one to go with.  There’s nothing to offend grandma but, at the same time, the shots of Monaco and Italy are nice to look at and the film is occasionally amusing enough to hold your attention.

Interestingly, even though the film’s a silly comedy, Sandler gives one of his more grounded performances.  There’s no silly voices or sudden yelling or any of the typical Sandler shtick.  Instead, he’s rather subdued and it works for the film.  He and Jennifer Aniston (another performer who often seems to settle for material that’s beneath what she’s capable of) make for a likable and believable couple and they both play off each other well.

Murder Mystery is a likable, lightweight comedy.  It’s not necessarily something that you’re going to remember much about after you watch it, of course.  It’s not that type of film.  Instead, it’s a perfect Netflix film.  It’s entertaining but you can do other stuff while you’re watching it without having to worry about accidentally missing a brilliant moment of cinematic history.

As for Adam Sandler, he’s following this up with Uncut Gems, a crime drama from the Safdie Brothers.  The Safdie Brothers worked wonders with Robert Pattinson in 2017’s Good Time.  So, who knows?  This time next year, Adam Sandler could be the new Superman….

Celebrate National Trivia Day With The Actors Who Could Have Been James Bond!


 

Today is National Trivia Day so I thought why not share some trivia?  I love film trivia.  I especially love trivia about who was considered for certain films.  Hell, one of my most popular posts on the Shattered Lens dealt with all of the actors who were considered for the Godfather!

(I even came up with an alternative cast for The Godfather, even though I consider the actual film to be the best cast film in history.)

I also happen to love the James Bond films.  (Well, not so much the recent Bond films.  I’ve made my feelings on SPECTRE clear.)  As a franchise, I absolutely love them.  So, with all that in mind, here is a look at the actors who could have been Bond.  I’ve compiled this article from many sources.  And yes, you could probably just find a lot of the information on Wikipedia but then you’d miss out on my editorial commentary.

Hoagy Carmichael

Ian Fleming himself always said that his pick for Bond would have been the musician, Hoagy Carmichael.  He even made a point, in Casino Royale, of having Vesper Lynd exclaim that Bond looked like Hoagy Carmichael.  Of course, the first actor to actually play Bond was Barry Nelson in a 1954 television adaptation of Casino Royale.  Nelson is probably best remembered for playing Mr. Ullman in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Barry Nelson, the first James Bond

When Dr. No went into production in 1961, many actors were considered for the role before Sean Connery was eventually cast.  Many of them were very well-known actors and, had they been cast, Dr. No would not have been remembered as a Bond movie.  Instead, it would be remembered as a star vehicle for … well, let’s take a look at some of the better-known possibilities:

Among the famous actors who were mentioned for Bond in 1961: Cary Grant, Richard Burton, James Mason, Trevor Howard, Stanley Baker, George Baker, Jimmy Stewart, Rex Harrison, and David Niven.  (Of that list, I think Burton would have made for an interesting Bond.  If the Bond films had been made in the 1940s, Grant would have been my first choice.  Trying to imagine Jimmy Stewart as a British secret agent is … interesting.)

Once it became obvious that a star was not going to play Bond, the role was offered to Patrick McGoohan and Rod Taylor.  McGoohan had moral objections to the character.  Rod Taylor reportedly felt that the film would flop.  Steve Reeves, the American body builder who became famous for playing Hercules in Italy, was reportedly strongly considered.  At one point, director Terrence Young wanted to offer the role to Richard Johnson, who later played Dr. Menard in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2.

Of course, the role went to Sean Connery and made Connery a huge star.  In 1967, after Connery announced that he would no longer play the world’s most famous secret agent, there was a huge and widely publicized search for his replacement.  Some of the names that were considered are intriguing.  Others are just bizarre.

Oliver Reed

To me, perhaps the most intriguing name mentioned was that of Oliver Reed.  Reed definitely would have brought a rougher edge of the role than some of the other actors considered.  However, that’s one reason why Reed wasn’t picked.  Apparently, it was felt that he did not have the right public image to play the suave Mr. Bond.

Somewhat inevitably, Michael Caine was sought out for the role.  Caine, however, refused to consider it because he had already starred in three back-to-back spy thrillers and didn’t want to get typecast.  Caine’s former roommate, Terrence Stamp, was another possibility but wanted too much control over the future direction of the Bond films.  Future Bond Timothy Dalton was considered to be too young.  Another future Bond, Roger Moore, didn’t want to give up his television career.  Eric Braeden has the right look for Bond but was German.  Rumor has it that producer Cubby Broccoli even considered Dick Van Dyke for the role, though I find that hard to believe.  An even more surprising possibility was the nobleman Lord Lucan, who was offered a screen test in 1967 and who, ten years later, would vanish after being accused of murdering his children’s nanny.

Lord Lucan

Among the actors who auditioned before George Lazenby was cast in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Michael Billington, Jeremy Brett, Peter Purves, Robert Campbell, Patrick Mower, Daniel Pilon, John Richardson, Anthony Rogers, Hans De Vries, and Peter Snow.

After the mixed reception of both Lazenby’s performance and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby was soon out as James Bond.  Even today, there’s a lot of controversy about what led to Lazenby being dismissed from the role.  Some say Lazenby demanded too much money.  Some say that Lazenby was merely used a pawn to try to get Sean Connery to return to the role.  Regardless, Lazenby only made one film as Bond.  (Of course, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has retroactively been recognized as being one of the best of the series.)

With Connery still claiming that he would never return to the role, the film’s producers went through the motions of looking for a new Bond.  Once again, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were considered.  Connery suggested that a talk show host named Simon Dee should play the role.  An actor named Roger Green auditioned.  So did Michael Gambon, though he later said he was turned down because, in his own words, he “had tits like a woman.”  Interestingly, several Americans were mentioned.  Clint Eastwood as James Bond?  Burt Reynolds?  Adam “Batman” West? The mind boggles but their names were mentioned.

John Gavin

And interestingly enough, an American was cast.  John Gavin is best known for playing Sam Loomis in Psycho but he was also, briefly, James Bond.  After Gavin accepted he role and signed a contract, Sean Connery announced that he would be willing to return to the role.  Gavin was paid off and Connery went on to star in Diamonds are Forever.

After Diamonds, Connery left the role for a second time and, once again, Bond was recast.  This time, Roger Moore would finally accept the role.  However, before Moore was cast, several other actors were considered.  Some of the regular possibilities were mentioned again: John Gavin, Simon Oates, Timothy Dalton, and Michael Billington.  Others considered included Jon Finch, Ranulph Fiennes, Peter Laughton, and Guy Peters.  Some of those names are probably as unknown to you as they are to me but it’s intriguing to think that Guy Peters may not be a well-known name but, at one time, there was a possibility that he could suddenly become one of the biggest stars in the world.

Looking over the history of the Bond franchise, it’s interesting to see the number of times that Moore tried to leave the role, just to be talked into returning.  Every time that Moore considered quitting, a new group of actors would be considered for the role of Bond.  In 1979, when Moore said he might not return after Moonraker, Timothy Dalton, Michael Jayston, Patrick Mower (who was also considered for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and Michael Billington were all considered as replacements.  So was Julian Glover.  Ironically, when Moore did agree to return to the role, Glover was cast as the villain in For Your Eyes Only.

David Warbeck

To me, the most intriguing actor mentioned as a replacement for Roger Moore was David Warbeck.  Warbeck was a television actor and model who subsequently had a nearly legendary film career in Italy.  Not only did he play a key role in Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker!, but he also starred in Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat and The Beyond.  He also appeared in the best of Italian Apocalypse Now rip-offs, The Last Hunter.  In interviews, Warbeck claimed that he was under contract to Cubby Broccoli to step into the role in case Roger Moore ever walked off the set.  The likable and rugged Warbeck would have been an interesting Bond.

In 1983, when Moore again said he might not return to the role, Michael Billington (who actually did appear in a Bond film when he played a KGB agent killed at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me) would be once more considered as a replacement.  British TV actors Lewis Collins and Ian Ogilvy were also considered for the role.  In a repeat of what happened with John Gavin in Diamonds are Forever, American actor James Brolin was actually put under contract until Moore agreed to play the role in Octopussy.

James Brolin, in a screen test for Octopussy

After A View To A Kill, Moore left the role for the final time.  Famously, future Bond Pierce Brosnan was actually cast as his replacement until the surge of interest created by his casting led to the renewal of Remington Steele, the American television show in which Brosnan was starring.  Once the show was renewed, Brosnan could no longer work the Bond films into his schedule.

Among the other names mentioned: Sean Bean, Simon MacCorkindale, Andrew Clarke, Finlay Light, Mark Greenstreet, Neil Dickson, Christopher Lambert, Mel Gibson, and Antony Hamilton.  Sam Neill was another possibility and reportedly came very close to getting the role.  Watch any of the films that Neill made when he was younger and you can definitely see hints of Bond.

Sam Neill

In the end, Timothy Dalton finally accepted the role.  Ironically, for an actor who spent 20 years being courted for the role, Dalton turned out to be a bit of a flop as Bond.  He made two movies (both of which were considered to be disappointing when compared to the previous Bond films) and then left the role.

Looking over the contemporary reviews of Dalton as Bond, one thing that comes through clearly is that a lot of people resented him for taking a role that they felt should have gone to Pierce Brosnan.  When the Bond films resumed production with Goldeneye in 1994, Brosnan finally stepped into the role.  Reportedly, if Brosnan had turned down the role, the second choice was Sean Bean.  Much like Julian Glover, Bean may have lost out on 007 but he did end up playing the villain.

Sean Bean

Among the other actors who were reportedly considered before Brosnan accepted the role: Mark Frankel, Paul McGann, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, and Lambert Wilson.  Ralph Fiennes, who has been M since Skyfall, was also considered.

As opposed to his predecessors, Brosnan seemed to be very comfortable with the idea of playing Bond and never threatened to leave the role.  Looking over the Bond-related articles that were published from 1995 to 2004, I found the occasional speculation about whether Rupert Everett would be the first gay James Bond or if Sharon Stone would be the first female James Bond but I found very little speculation about Brosnan actually leaving the role.  Indeed, when Brosnan officially retired as Bond in 2004, it was less his decision and more at the prodding of the franchise’s producers, who felt that the series needed to be rejuvenated with a new (and younger) actor.  After Brosnan left, the series was rebooted and Daniel Craig played the role in Casino Royale.

In the past, I’ve made it clear that Daniel Craig is hardly my favorite Bond.  I loved Skyfall (and I consider it to the 2nd best Bond film, after From Russia With Love) but, even in that case, I felt that the film succeeded despite Craig instead of because of him.  With Casino Royale, we were supposed to be seeing a young and inexperienced Bond.  That’s never come through to me, probably because Craig looked like he was nearly 50 years old when he made Casino Royale.

Among the actors who were mentioned for the role before Craig received the role: Ralph Fiennes (again), Colin Salmon, Ewan McGregor, Henry Cavill, Rupert Friend, Julian McMahon, Alex O’Laughlin, Clive Owen, Dougray Scott, and Goran Visjnic.  Dominic West, who I think would have been great in the role, reportedly ruled himself out because he heard a rumor that Brosnan would be returning to the role.

Dominic West

Daniel Craig, of course, has been talking about leaving the role ever since he was first cast.  I think Skyfall would have been a perfect movie for him to leave on.  (It would have saved the world from SPECTRE.)  However, Craig has apparently agreed to do at least one more Bond film.  Maybe two.

When Craig does leave, who will replace him?  Idris Elba, of course, is probably the most widely discussed possibility.  James Norton has also been named as a possibility.  Others that I’ve seen mentioned: Tom Hardy, Jack Huston, Aidan Turner, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, and Henry Cavill (again).

My personal choice?  Dominic Cooper.  He’d be an off-center Bond but I think it would still be an intriguing pick.

Dominic Cooper

Who knows what the future may hold for 007?  All I know is that I look forward to the speculation.

Happy National Trivia Day, everyone!

Short Horror Film Review: Spirits of the Dead — Toby Dammit (dir by Federico Fellini)


Directed by Federico Fellini, Toby Dammit was the third and final part of the 1968 anthology movie, Spirits of the Dead.

All three parts of Spirits of the Dead were based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  Toby Dammit was based on Never Bet The Devil Your Head.  It seems appropriate that Fellini was the only director to rename his adaptation.  While Toby Dammit may be based on Poe’s story, it’s definitely Fellini’s film.

Terrence Stamp plays Toby Dammit, a former Shakespearean actor turned dissolute film star.  As is quickly established, Toby is an alcoholic.  As we watch him stumble through this film, alternatively bitter and flamboyant, we’re reminded of the stories of other British thespians who were legendary drinkers: Oliver Reed, Trevor Howard, David Hemmings, Peter O’Toole, and others.  With his Shakespearean background, it’s tempting to assume that Toby is meant to be a stand-in for Richard Burton but he actually bears a greater resemblance to Richard Harris.

(If you’re wondering how I came to be an expert on British alcoholics, might I recommend a short but informative book called Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole & Oliver Reed.  It was written by Robert Sellers and it makes for very interesting reading.  Especially the parts about Oliver Reed.)

Toby has come to Rome, to work on a film.  He doesn’t seem to be quite sure what the film is about or what role he’ll be playing.  (Judging from what the people around him say, it appears to be a biblical epic and Toby will be playing Jesus.)  While Toby floats through the city in an alcoholic haze, sycophants and fans surround him.  While he sits in the back set of a limo, a fortune teller looks at his palm and gets a worried look on her face.  Toby doesn’t care.  He just wants to get the Ferrari that the film’s producers promised him.

The only thing that worries Toby is the little girl that he keeps seeing out of the corner of his eye.  She bounces a white ball and whenever Toby sees her, a truly evil smile cross her face.  Interestingly, Fellini always frames the girl so that, like Toby, we only seem to be seeing her out of the corner of our eye.  Is she real or is she a figment of Toby’s alcohol-addled brain?  And what are we to make of the fact that Toby’s normally noise-filled world goes silent whenever he sees the girl?

On a talk show, Toby is asked how he visualizes the devil.  He says that he doesn’t see the devil as being a demon with horns or an old man.  (Interestingly enough, that’s how Poe portrayed the Devil in the original short story.)  Instead, he sees the devil as being a little girl with a ball.

However, Toby can’t spend too much time worrying about the little girl.  He just got his Ferrari…

Toby Dammit is the only unqualified success among the three short films that make up Spirits of the Dead.  I think it helps that, unlike Roger Vadim and Louis Malle, Fellini updated Poe’s story to the 20th Century and set it in the international film world.  If Malle and Vadim both seemed detached from their segments, Fellini knew the world that he was depicting.  I imagine he certainly was acquainted with plenty of actors who were just like the brilliant but self-destructive Toby Dammit.

The images of frequently dream-like.  Everything is filmed slightly off-center, mirroring Toby’s hazy view of existence.  When he sits in his limo, the world outside looks like the ruins of some sort of apocalyptic hellscape.  When he is on a talk show or at an awards show, Toby still seems to be isolated from all of the adoring people around him.  The few times that he does talk to other people, he does so without looking at them.  In fact, the only person who seems to truly capture Toby’s attention is that little girl with the ball.

Speaking of which, it seems obvious that Toby Dammit was meant to be a bit of an homage to Fellini’s friend and fellow director, Mario Bava.  Not only is the film’s color scheme very Bavaesque but that little girl will look familiar to anyone who has ever seen Kill, Baby, Kill.

Valerio Valeri in Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill

Marina Yaru in Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit

Toby Dammit is definitely the best part of Spirits of the Dead.  It’s a true Italian horror classic.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Alfie (dir by Lewis Gilbert)


alfie_original

One night, in the UK, in 1965…

In a London flat, a phone rings.  Up-and-coming actor Terrence Stamp answers.  On the other end, the producers of an up-coming film called Alfie ask Stamp if he would be interested in playing the lead role.  In many ways, Stamp seems like the obvious choice.  After all, he already starred in the stage version of Alfie.  He knows the character and everyone knows that he’s going to be a big star…

And that’s why Stamp turns down the role.  The character of Alfie is an irresponsible and self-centered womanizer who, over the course of the play, has numerous affairs, arranges for one illegal abortion, treats almost everyone terribly, and, at the end of the movie, ends up alone.  Not only will the film’s risqué subject matter provide a challenge, even if it is being made in “swinging London,” but Alfie just isn’t a heroic figure.  He has some good lines.  He makes a few good jokes and, after arranging an abortion for one of his girlfriends, he realizes just how empty his life really is.  But, as written, Alfie is hardly sympathetic.

Stamp says he’s not interested in playing Alfie on screen and then he hangs up.

Two minutes later, the phone rings again.  Stamp answers.  It’s the producers of Alfie.  They ask to speak to his roommate, a cockney actor who was born Maurice Micklewhite but who, at the start of his acting career, changed his name to Michael Caine.

And that’s how Michael Caine came to star in the 1966 film, Alfie.

Alfie not only made Michael Caine a star, it also landed him his first Oscar nomination.  It was especially a popular film in the States, where it tapped into a youth culture that was obsessed with all things British and a desire, on the part of many filmgoers, to see films that deal with “adult” topics that American films, at that time, wouldn’t dare touch.  Though Alfie may seem rather tame by today’s standards (for a film about a man obsessed with sex, there’s actually not much of it to be found in Alfie), one can still see why it would have taken American audiences by surprise in 1966.  At a time when American films still starred Doris Day and Bob Hope, here was a British film about a working class cockney who screws almost every woman he meets, both figuratively and literally.

And really, it’s fortunate that Michael Caine accepted that role.  Along with Stamp, Alfie‘s producers also tried to interest Richard Harris and Laurence Harvey in the role.  All three of them would have brought a harder edge to the character.  However, Michael Caine has just enough charm to make Alfie likable, even when his actions are not.  Since a good deal of the film is made up of Alfie breaking the fourth wall and talking straight to the audience (and, often times, not exactly saying that most charitable of words), that charm is essential to the film’s success.  Michael Caine’s Alfie is self-centered but, at the same time, you never doubt that there’s a better man lurking underneath the surface.  You forgive Alfie a lot because, thanks to Caine’s performance, you can see the man that he’s capable of being.

Alfie is pretty much Michael Caine’s show but he’s ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially Jane Asher as a poignantly insecure hitchhiker and Shelley Winters as a cheerfully promiscous American.  And then there’s Denholm Elliott, who plays an abortionist with a seedy intensity that catch you off-guard and drives home the dark reality lurking underneath Alfie‘s charm.

For a film that is often described as being very much a product of its time, Alfie holds up surprisingly well.  It was nominated for best picture but it lost to something far more sedate, A Man For All Seasons.

 

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.

Scenes I Love: Superman II


OG General Zod

“Rise before Zod…kneel before Zod.”

The latest reboot of Superman by DC and Warner Brothers has now arrived. It’s bound to rake in the dollars and shake the foundations of cineplexes worldwide with its dizzying array of genocidal-level action and mayhem. Yet, we must not forget that before Michael Shannon donned the mantle of General Zod for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel the megalomaniacal Kryptonian general was played by none other than The Limey himself, Terrence Stamp.

In one of the best scenes (and a favorite of mine) from Superman II (itself a film shouldering a continent-sized and kryptonite-laced amount of controversy over it’s filming) we find the original Zod easily subduing the defenders of the White House and matter-of-factly instructing the President of the United States to rise and kneel before him. Thus an iconic piece of pop-culture dialogue was born that day.

Film Review: The Adjustment Bureau (dir. by George Nolfi)


This weekend, I saw The Adjustment Bureau, a film that I’ve been looking forward to ever since I first saw the trailer back in November.

In The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon plays a New York politician who loses a race for the U.S. Senate and falls in love with Emily Blunt on the same night.  Inspired by some advice from Blunt, Damon gives a concession speech which, to me, sounds kinda whiney but apparently, the voters of New York find it to be amazingly compelling.  You should understand, of course, that this is a mainstream Hollywood version of the American political system.  What that means is that Damon’s character, of course, is a Democrat who would have won that election if not for the fact that apparently, a newspaper ran a photo of him mooning some people in college.  Now, seriously, consider that.  Not only does this movie start out by asking us to believe that a Democrat could lose a statewide election in New York but it also asks us to believe that he would lose for that reason.  Meanwhile, in the real world, Massachusetts (one of the few states more Democratic than New York) is electing a Republican who used to be a Playgirl centerfold to the Senate.  Anyway, the film continues to show its political sophistication by having Damon give a speech in which he says that political consultants have too much influence in the American political system and apparently, every voter in New York goes, “Oh my God!  He’s right!”  I don’t claim to be an expert on politics but seriously, all of the “political” scenes in this film just ring so amazingly false.

Anyway, Damon’s speech is apparently so amazing that his career is revived and soon, he’s being spoken of as a front-runner for the other senate seat (apparently, this film takes place in a world where New York would not only elect one Republican to the Senate but two).  In fact, some people are apparently talking him up as a future President.  But Damon doesn’t care about that.  All he cares about is winning the heart of Emily Blunt.

The Adjustment Bureau, however, has other ideas.  What is the Adjustment Bureau?  Well, the movie tries to keep it all ambiguous and mysterious but essentially, the members of the Adjustment Bureau are angels and the Chairman they answer to is God.  And God has already mapped out Matt Damon’s destiny and Emily Blunt is not meant to be a part of it.  (How Calvinistic.)  However, Damon insists on pursuing her until eventually, he finds himself being continually pursued by three members of the Adjustment Bureau — the blandly corporate John Slattery, sympathetic Anthony Mackie, and finally the cold and intimidating Terrence Stamp.  The whole thing finally culminates in an Inception-like chase through the streets of New York City with Damon insisting that he has free will and the Adjustment Bureau insisting that no, he does not.

What a frustrating film!  The plot is intriguing and potentially thought-provoking but the film doesn’t bother with following any of its themes to any sort of real conclusion.  In the end, all of the questions raised simply turn out to be an excuse to film Matt Damon being chased across various New York landmarks.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m always more than happy to spend money to watch Matt Damon get chased.  He looks good running for his life.  But still, it’s hard not to look back at the movie and think, “After all that set-up, that’s it?”  The Adjustment Bureau is like Inception without that spinning dreidel.

Still, I enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau despite myself and I can’t exactly say that I’m proud of that.  With each of its vaguely New Agey themes and its rather simplistic emotional content, this is the type of film that invites me to be cynical.  However, I enjoyed the movie even if I did find myself rolling my eyes during some of the more “sincere” moments.  A lot of this had to do with the chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.  They made a likable and cute couple.  As well, Mackie, Stamp, and especially Slattery were well-cast as members of the Adjustment Bureau.  Director George Nolfi comes up with a few striking images and, if nothing else, he knows how to film people being chased.  Then again, it may have just been the fact that I saw this film with a special someone and therefore, I didn’t feel like I had to be cynical.  I could just embrace all the emotional silliness in all of its simple-minded glory and as a result, I had a good time.

That said, I don’t think I’ll be seeing The Adjustment Bureau a second time or buying it on DVD.  Unlike 0ther guilty pleasures, I don’t imagine this is a film that’s going to hold up well on repeat viewings.