Sunday, March 28, 2010

Star Wars marathon: Attack of the Rebuttal

Attack of the Rebuttal

As part of the ongoing Star Wars marathon, a rebuttal formulated by each co-host is presented each Sunday following the publication of our individual reviews. Naturally, in order to fully appreciate this article, a proper reading of Bill’s review over at Bill’s Movie Emporium is required.

Upon reading your sentiments about Episode II’s central love story, I was under the impression that the Dark Side had begun to cloud your judgement. Your assessment of the Anakin/Padmé love story and the comparison with your own dating experiences was...interesting, but ultimately insufficient in convincing me of their qualities, both the movie's theme and your dating skills. Saying that it differed from typical Hollywood romantic epics didn’t garner many points in my book either. Different doesn’t always equal better. The main problem I have with the crucial love scenes in Episode II is how there is an odd shift in tone whenever Anakin and Padmé ‘argue’ about their feelings for one another. The scenes before that feel more natural with both actors putting on a decent show. As I said in my own review last week, I can detect at least a little bit of chemistry working between the two. But moments like the bedroom fireplace scene will begin and everything turns so awkward. The manner in which both characters speak is wooden and the dialogue they’re provided by Lucas doesn’t help either. So there are people that use worse lines in real life? Alright, and then? So for that reason it’s alright to hear it a movie? It doesn’t make their love very inspiring if they’ll be talking like that the rest of the way (which they do in Episode III). There is a dreadful stiffness to the acting during those critical moments which kill whatever mood Lucas had succeeded in establishing beforehand. I’ve said it before but good acting and directing can make the worst lines and scenes fun and digestible for the audience. Somewhere in those scenes there was a way to make the awkwardness feel more natural, or cute, or funny. There being a certain awkwardness between the two is not a problem per say. They both understand the dangers of falling in love but cannot suppress these feelings they have for each other. I’m fine with that, I really am. But what’s delivered on screen is simply not fun to watch or listen to. The acting and exchanges in the few important love scenes feels out place and out of whack with the rest of the movie, as if we were suddenly watching a bad play. Poorly handled and I still have trouble getting your side on this debate.

Fighting Yoda is less of a problem. I didn’t spend much time dwelling on that element of Episode II, but I sensed that you felt the need to fully elaborate on a defence for Lucas’ decision to award the tiny Jedi master a proper battle. I think it was about high time fans and audiences see what Yoda was capable of. We had seen him in 3 films already, 2 during which he was essentially an old crusty fart practically on his death bed and another in which he merely sat around and blabbered. If he’s so powerful to be sitting on the Jedi Council, why doesn’t get off his butt and-oh, I see. The Force battle between Yoda and Count Dooku was very entertaining and did a wonderful job of showing what Yoda was made of. Just his entrance into that room was hilarious, what with that slow and difficult walk, crutching his walking stick as he advances, and then: Wham, here’s some Force for thought! My moderate complaint pertained more to the actual lightsaber duel with Christopher Lee (bit of a strange casting choice. He’s a great actor, but do you think he really added anything to the film?). I think using Yoda in a sword fight ends being somewhat of a lose-lose situation. He’s smaller than everybody else, therefore his particular advantage almost has to be quickness. That’s exactly what we get. Makes sense. But, a bit like what I wrote in my rebuttal regarding the love story, just because their is a logical reason for what’s happening doesn’t mean it looks good. I don’t want to leave you under the impression that it looks bad either, only that it was somewhat underwhelming to witness Yoda flying all around the hanger bay with Dooku swinging madly so many times you’d think he was trying to catch up with Pedro Martinez curve balls. I’ve never been under the impression that the fight looked terrible, it’s more in the nature of: ‘Huh, so that what it looks like when he fights? Okay...’

I didn’t even bother to tackle the issue of C-3PO in my review. I felt I had dispensed sufficient energy in relating to the readers my feelings towards Jar Jar Binks in the previous review, so there wasn’t a bloody chance in hell I was going to do the same again. I completely and 100% agree with you on this one. I was never the biggest C-3PO fan, even in the original trilogy, but his presence in Episode II is more than a little bit irritating. There is only one line he delivers which I found clever (the one about machines making machines being perverse), but that was it. It was such a bizarre decision by Lucas to have C-3PO be a comical sidekick. Nobody (except you) liked Jar Jar Binks, so he chooses to replace him with C-3PO? Why does a Star Wars movie require a comical sidekick?

Other than the first two points I elaborated on in this rebuttal, I think you and I are on the same page this time. The style and presentation are very good. We often criticise Lucas for his writing and directing, but I like how he let’s the camera rest on certain faces and places for longer than we typically expect. It’s a style I like and not enough directors do that anymore. The scale of Episode II, the witty banter between Anakin and Obi-Wan, the action, all of that worked well for me as well. The plot is convoluted at times, but I think that actually works more in the movie’s favour here than it did in the previous instalment. Like you said, this is pulp. There’s fun to be had, it’s a journey with some fun characters and kick-ass action scenes. That, and the story ties in very well with what is to come. I honestly don’t see why so many people loathed this instalment to such an intense degree. Judging by the way some people compare the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy, a newcomer to the franchise would come think the earlier films we’re absolutely perfect, no questions asked. Of course you can’t best perfection, but the problem is that none of the films in this franchise are perfect. That, however, is a debate that will have to wait for our future reviews.

P.S. What was your take on the scenes in which the Jedi revealed that their abilities to channel the Force had weakened? I thought it was an interesting concept that was sort of left on the table. An actual decline in their powers? Palpatine screwing with their minds and they just don’t know it?

Also, how about that title?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: Samurai Fiction (1998)

Samurai Fiction (1998, Hiroyuki Nakano)

I adore samurai films. Along with spy movies and tales of cops and gangsters, the samurai story is a genre I would rank especially high were I to suddenly write a quick list of film genres that I adore. A cursory glance in the Between the Seats archives revealed that I haven’t written very much about the genre over the 1 ½ years we’ve been around. Let’s give it a go and take a look at something special.

A film genre can be bent and toyed around with by any writer or director with a modicum of creativity and imagination. For the spin to work well however, there must be a sound understanding of the genre in question which the filmmakers wish to tamper with, otherwise, what was the point of the exercise? For his first feature length movie, Japanese director Hiroyuki Nakano chose to tap into the rich tapestry of the samurai legends and give new, younger audiences of the late 1990s something maybe they hadn’t seen before. The story of a young buck samurai named Inukai Heishiro (Fukikoshi Mitsuru) who against his father’s wishes vows to avenge the theft of his clan’s prized samurai blade, committed by a renegade and master-less samurai named Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei), would be told be with some nods to certain elements of cinema’s past as well as include some other, more modern ingredients. For one, Samurai Fiction is presented in brilliant black and white cinematography, which reminds some of us more astute samurai fans of the great classics. The main character, while brash and often setting foot into trouble without much planning, chooses to fight for the honour of his clan, just like any good samurai should. But he is a young, less experienced warrior, a lad who, if he isn’t watchful of where he points his weapon, will be served an unforgettable can of ass whopping. He is also accompanied by two long time but rather bumbling friends in his quest for justice. Together, the three of them form somewhat of a Three Amigos type of chemistry. Not really samurai material if you ask me. Finally, director makes use of a rock soundtrack to amp up the mood.

The end result is a curious affair, one in which several very, very different elements come together to form a strange beast of a film, a samurai tale which is part comedy, part romance and part action. When Inukai first catches up with his enemy, the latter puts a significant dent into the young man’s hopes of becoming a great hero. The battle is over in about a minute, with Inukai seriously wounded. Thankfully he is found by a middle aged man and his stunningly beautiful daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa), who take our protagonist to their home. With time Inukai finds his health and love in the form of Koharu. His persistence in wanting to retrain in order to find and vanquish the devious and deadly Kazamatsuri irritate the peace loving father and daughter couple, but soon the stakes will be risen too much for anyone to stand idly aside.

As a first time director, Nakano takes all these unique ingredients and cooks a rollicking good time for audiences. The first few minutes of the movie were a bit challenging to sink my teeth into because I was under the impression that the director was trying too hard in emulating the ever popular Quentin Tarantino style of filmmaking, what with some fancy editing, a mixture of violence and laughs and a hip, ‘too cool for school’ soundtrack. The characters and all of their personalities and quirks soon won me over and I was tagging along joyously with this rambunctious but ultimately honourable hero and the wonderful supporting players. Looking back on the film, I feel rather silly for thinking that Nakano was too desperate to lend his project a Tarantino-esque sense of style (the title, Samurai Fiction, deliberately pokes fun at the title of the popular Tarantino film Pulp Fiction). After, it was Tarantino himself who, only a few years later, would make his own hip samurai epic consisting of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. So it was really Tarantino aping Nakano who was aping Tarantino. Or something of the sort...

Needless to say, Samurai Fiction breezes along and before I knew it the final showdown was taking place. The story is kept light enough and avoids falling into any terribly serious drama, yet we can easily understand Inukai’s perspective in the story and want to cheer him on in his adventure for restoring clan honour and of blossoming love. Almost everyone involved brings solid doses charisma and by the end there wasn’t a single character that was annoying, disappointing or that felt out of place. One should pretend that they have no clue towards which sort of conclusion is film is headed, but the lack of surprises is more than made up for with the deliciously entertaining cast and set pieces. Everyone is clearly having a good time while also showing respect to their characters in bringing them to life. From the lead actor to the jolly fellow playing an aging ninja servant to the clan’s headmaster (and who awkwardly lands from the ceiling whenever the clan master calls for him) is giving it their all. From the information I gathered in the DVD’s bonus material, the chap Tomoyasu Hotei who plays Kazamatsuri is actually a rock musician who supplied much of the film’s score. In all honesty, he isn’t asked to do very much, but he too is pretty good in his role. Kazamatsuri is one of those villains who doesn’t need to say much in order to create a presence about him. Well, he doesn’t say a whole lot and there is indeed a presence about. A dangerous, dangerous crook with a glare that would make Superman and his laser ray vision turn around and run like a chicken. Oh my! Koharu's father also ends up being a terrific character, a former samurai officer who long ago gave up on violent means to resolve problems when a terrible incident for which he is directly responsible sealed his fates and that of his daughter.

The addition of a rock score, despite whatever reservations I might have had before popping in the DVD, did add a fun flavour to the experience. On paper one would think that ‘samurai’ and ‘rock music’ don’t rhyme very well, but I guess that when a talented and ambitious director shows prowess at inventing his own bloody alphabet, anything ends rhyming and making harmony. Samurai Fiction was a deliberate attempt at opening the world of that genre to entirely new generation of movies fans, many of which grew up on music videos and basically the type of music featured in this movie. It’s easy to claim that the result should be putrid because, after all, greatness shouldn’t be tampered with, but sue me if I found the music complemented the story wonderfully.

To say that I adventured into Samurai Fiction with some reservations wouldn’t quite be accurate. To be honest I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. However, I can now tell you the readers what to expect: plenty of samurai, plenty of fiction and plenty of kick-ass fun. I don't think it's going to blow anybody's mind, but the fun factor is just too high to be ignored.

Review: 35 Rhums (2008)

35 Rhums (2008, Claire Denis)

The main protagonist of Claire Denis’ latest outing is Lionel (Alex Descas) a Parisian train conductor. He is widowed but still holds a strong bond with his daughter, Joséphine (newcomer Mati Diop) with whom he shares an apartment. We meet him as he stands alone overlooking the trains rush by as the sun sets on another day in Paris. In a sense, our lives do resemble a train ride. There can be so many great moments during the trip, so many wonderful things to see and people to meet, but eventually we arrive at our destination and life must go on. It is interesting that 35 Rhums opens during the day’s twilight, for we soon discover that the current chapter in the lives of Lionel and Joséphine is about to come to a close. Joséphine is a beautiful young woman studying anthropology at university who also happens to be the object of admiration for a young man living in the same condominium. In essence, much of what Lionel has come to love and get accustomed shall soon end while for Joséphine, a completely new and hopefully fulfilling life is about to begin.

35 Rhums is a tightly packaged look into a theme which is very familiar in the art of cinema. Stories of father-daughter relationships have been told time and time again in the history of cinema, so the quality of yet another entry into the genre will be determined on factors other than whether or not the story is good, because we already know that it is, otherwise filmmakers would cease to tell it. Rather, the merit of the film rests in whether or not this story is well told. Claire Denis is a writer director we’ve studied a little bit before, most recently in the European Female directors marathon. The marks of her sensibilities and her style are all over 35 Rhums. She proceeds to tell her stories calmly, quietly and without ever rushing unnecessarily into plot points in order to elicit some unwarranted emotions from the audience. In 35 Rhums, what reactions the viewer feels find their thrust in the natural and realistic progression of the scenes. In fact, this latest effort is constructed in such a way that the movie can be seen as a whole or as a series of brief capsules in the lives of a father, his daughter, and the people close to them. On their own the scenes are succinct and can say a lot about the protagonists. When woven together by the director, the end result is just as satisfying as was watching the individual moments. The small window we are privileged to see through gives a personal, succinct and emotionally satisfying idea of what the family’s nucleus is like. Much like in our own daily lives, we may remember the larger, more significant events in our lives, but it is primarily the smaller, more subtle moments and interactions we have with one another that shape us and our relationships with friends, family and lovers. Claire Denis and her cast have an understanding of this reality and bring much of it to the world of 35 Rhums. The looks, the smiles, the little gestures that denote love and respect, these are what create and sustain the bonds we have and it is through these brief but essential moments in the lives of the characters that we can better understand who they are.

It was enjoyable to see that no considerable conflict existed between Lionel and his daughter’s boyfriend, Noé. That might not be entirely accurate, for Lionel is definitely wrestling with the truth of the matter at hand, that slowly and surely his place as the single most important man in Joséphine’s life slipping away. He will eventually have to share the throne with the young buck for whom Joséphine has taken a great liking to. Still, the movie opts to avoid anything too melodramatic. That isn’t to say such a road would have proven ill, but there is a feeling of maturity about the way Denis chose to handle the dynamic between the three characters. There is no disrespect between Lionel and Noé, but they aren’t terribly close either. One can sense a slight awkwardness between the two but nothing outlandish ever results from it. Much credit should be given to the actors, who all give natural and convincing performances which do such a film justice. Alex Descas, who has worked with Denis previously on Trouble Every Day, has fantastic screen presence. His character may only be a widowed train operator, but there was also something reassuring about his presence. The love for his daughter is a strong one, just as the love of any father for his daughter should be, but it feels so controlled. He and Joséphine don’t trade banter all day long or have any ‘Ah, dad!’ moments, but we can detect definite a warmth in Lionel’s attitude towards Joséphine and the neighbours.

Although Mati Diop and the other players receive a decent amount of screen time, 35 Rhums does center more on Alex Descas’ character more than anybody else. The film begins with a personal moment belonging only to him and, without giving too much away, I can say that the movie closes with a very personal moment belonging to him. The character is endlessly watchable. Seeing him live through the changing tides with a quiet but no less difficult acceptance is, in my humble opinion, the highlight in a film with many highlights. Somewhere near the middle of the film, our cast of characters (Lionel, Joséphine, Noé and another female neighbour who fancies Lionel) are heading to a concert but due to car problems choose to spend the evening in a quaint little African themed restaurant. The owners play some romantic songs and so begins a sublimely constructed dance sequence in which the emotions rushing through everyone present switches from one moment to the next. There are in fact two very distinct dances occurring. One is the literal dance performed by the characters while the other is the difficult dance their emotions must endure. While I was affected by roller coaster ride everyone experiences, it was again Lionel, with that sad but always mature gaze that struck me the most. The realization that things around him are definitely changing whether or not he likes it rears its ugly mug once more and his reactions (or lack of a reaction) is a fine example of intelligent acting. I wouldn’t want to leave readers with the impression that no one else holds their own in the acting department (which isn’t true, the other players do just fine), but Alex Descas truly owns the film.

There isn’t much more I can say about 35 Rhums that would further dissect the finely tuned qualities it is blessed with. That’s often a difficulty in writing about films in which for long periods of time one has the impression that not much has happened in the traditional sense of a plot driven narrative, but one eventually realizes a plot driven narrative is pretty much beside the point. This is about a critical passage in time in a person’s life, but lived through a series of small moments. It’s about the complexities in life which emerge from apparently simple events and interactions. It isn’t very big nor is it very loud, but it packs a solid punch.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Star Wars marathon: Episode II

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)

After the lofty expectations embedded within the minds of Star Wars fans and geeks were crushed with the oddity that was The Phantom Menace during the spring of 1999, movie goers approached 2002’s Attack of the Clones with slightly more caution. Still, the fact remained that this was a Star Wars film, and with recent memories of what little Episode 1 did to fit into the franchise’s overarching mythology (or do very much that was of genuine interest), any ideas of Episode II sweeping into theatres with low expectations was wishful thinking. After all, with one chapter having not fulfilled the dreams of fanboys already down, Episode II simply had to deliver.

This second instalment features a significant shift in the timeline, occurring a solid decade after the conclusion of the previous story. The Republic and its heartbeat, Coruscant, are experiencing political and social strife as several planets and systems have expressed disillusionment and a clear desire to gain independence. With the possibility with full out war ever growing, the Senate, still with Palpatine (McDiarmid) as its Chancellor, debates the possibility of creating a Republican army. As former Queen Amidala (Portman), now a senator, arrives on Coruscant to participate in the debate, a vicious attempt is made on her life. The Jedi Council bring in Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and his student Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to protect her. The adventure that follows sees Obi-Wan and the Jedi witness the beginning of the great Clone War while Anakin and Padmé realize that they cannot suppress the deep feelings they have for one another...

Attack of the Clones gets many things right. I liked it back in 2002 when it was originally released, I enjoyed when it came out on DVD some time later, and I had a good time watching it earlier this week for the purpose of the current marathon. Till this day I’m surprised that such a great number of Star Wars fans think ill of it, practically lumping it into the same category as Episode 1. The movie is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but some of the criticism it receives is particularly harsh, to the point of being uncalled for.

One of the most important elements that works well in Episode II is the tone of the film. In contrast to its immediate predecessor which was too often content with remaining childish and family friendly, this episode has a far more serious and murky feel to it. Gone is the sweet 8-9 year old Anakin, Jar Jar Binks’s screen presence is refreshingly limited, many of the locations visited by the characters have a pressing sense of mystery and danger about them, and by the movie’s conclusion one has the sense that not only are the scores between the forces of good and evil not settled, but that even greater troubles lay ahead for our heroes. It’s this sense of foreboding danger and mystery that I as a viewer required to really get into this prequel trilogy. Let’s not kid ourselves, this thing is supposed to end poorly for the antagonists, am I right? It isn’t as if there are any questions about the eventually fate of the many heroes we see go through the trials and tribulations of Attack of the Clones. Lucas sets in motion many plot points, all of which will directly lead into the creation of the Galactic Empire as well as the fall of the Jedi and I truly thought most of them were interesting. In Bill’s review of Episode 1, he explained how it was the politicking and slimy manoeuvring on the part of Senator Palpatine that interested the most, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was the politicking that retained my attention more than anything else in this chapter, I did feel that the few moments which dealt with big political decisions (such as the Senate vote for a Republican army) or the secret meetings between Count Dooku (Sir Christopher Lee) and the representatives of the independence seeking planets had greater meaning to them.

Going hand in hand with the tone is the scope. Attack of the Clones doesn’t prance around with trade disputes, no sir. Right from the get go it is made clear that the fate of the entire Republic is in considerable danger. There is a greater sense of immediacy to this film which was sorely needed from the outset. The viewer has the sense that the actions and decisions made by the characters in Episode II will carry over into future instalments from greater impact than almost anything done in Episode I. The birth of the Clone army, Anakin and Padmé meeting once again after so many years of being apart, Count Dooku and Darth Sidious conniving behind the entire galaxy’s back to start a galactic war, etc. This episode feels very much more in sync with the rest of the saga which, and I can’t really help the fact that I feel this way, it is a considerable improvement because of that.

The superior quality of Attack of the Clones can also be discovered in the presentation of the key players, most notably Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Episode II Anakin is compelling and possesses far more revealing personality features that hint at what is to come, and yet if only he could control some of them, he could easily become a great hero. He is brave but also brash, passionate about many things but approaches them with too much intensity at times, skilled in the Jedi ways but demonstrates sporadic and foolish overconfidence. He is a complicated and fully realized character in Episode II, one that, if the circumstances are right, could prove to be virtuous and just, but there are many darker aspects to his personality which set him apart from the rest of the Jedi. But not all the credit can go to Lucas for finally giving us a compelling Anakin. Hayden Christensen gives a fine performance. He embodies all the fantastic ambiguity about Anakin that we should expect. Not since Han Solo in Episode IV has there been a character with such contradictory features. Protagonist or antagonist? There seems to be a little bit of both in him.

One of the central plotlines of the film is the flowering love between him and his long time dream girl Padmé Amidala. This is perhaps were Lucas loses his way somewhat. I don’t mean that nothing about their relationship is satisfying, nor that the two actors don’t work well with one another. On the contrary, the two have some nice early scenes together. In fact, in the general scheme of things, I didn’t think they were that bad. I’ll even do you one better: I thought they were decent together. I even felt that were was indeed a modicum of chemistry between the two actors. That’s correct readers, just cringe as I give passing marks to the performances of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman! Hold on a moment now. Did I not mention that it is in the love story element of the film where Lucas showed signs of weakness? Well, it is, but those signs are mostly relegated to the moments when the two lovers pour their hearts out. On each occasion (the Naboo palace balcony scene, the fireplace scene and during their entrance as prisoners into the Geonosis gladiator arena) everything which I liked about their relationship was given the shaft. They suddenly spewed wooden and forced dialogue which sounded as though Lucas was desperately searching for fantastic and memorable lines (memorable for the right reasons, mind you) but it all fell flat on his face. Actually, allow me to correct myself: it all fell flat on the face of the actors because the quality of their performances seemed to diminish considerably during these moments. I don’t think anybody on that set knew it is meannt to tell a love story. This is the only aspect to Episode II that truly irks me. By the end of the story, I’m always under the impression that Padmé and Anakin fall into each other’s arms because the script say so, or because they’re hot, or because they have to make Luke and Leia, or for whatever contrived reason. I just don’t fully buy their romance and most of that stems from those poor scenes when they reveal their feelings, because a lot of what happens before is just fine. It’s frustrating, but you can’t win them all I suppose.

Even though he has no love interest, the best character in Attack of the Clones is unquestionably Obi-Wan Kenobi. The same character was terribly bland in the previous chapter and Ewan McGregor’s performance was among the worst in that movie. 10 years later (the movie’s universe) and Kenobi is a more experienced and more powerful Jedi. He also has more of a personality. He too shows good range as a character. Teacher, parent, friend, warrior, Obi-Wan too is more interesting here than he was not so long ago. McGregor is really beginning to sink his teeth into the role in Attack of the Clones, giving his character the impression of being wise, brave and, interestingly enough, sometimes just as ill tempered as his student (I love the scene when he barks at Anakin to find an assassin hiding in a Coruscant bar while he walks off to buy himself a drink). Lucas was wise enough not to make this young Obi-Wan too virtuous and perfect. Anakin complains about his mentor being overly critical, and in many ways he is correct in that assessment. Obi-Wan behaves like a pain in the ass. We’ve all dealt with teachers, parents and co-workers who were above our pay grade that always found that annoying negative thing to say even when we were so sure to have things all figured out and under control. McGregor reminds the audience that Obi-Wan is not just a stuck up snob however. There are moments, albeit brief, when he expresses admiration and feelings that can only stem from a legitimate friendship. I actually really like how the Obi-Wan/Anakin relationship is shaping up in the prequel trilogy. I get the impression that the eventual downfall of Anakin Skywalker is not merely his own doing, but results from the often complex relationship between he and his mentor. I think Obi-Wan really likes Anakin, but they are not siblings. They are teacher and student. For that reason I’m under the impression that Obi-Wan feels he needs to always distance himself to a certain degree from his young learner and never really become a true friend. Because of that, Obi-Wan does not fully equip himself with the necessary tools to help Anakin when the latter begins to reveal his less compelling character traits. They have a far more complex relationship that I had expected at the outset of the prequel trilogy and I like it even more than I thought I would because of it.

In writing my Episode 1 review, I mentioned how I enjoyed the world in which that movie occurred, even though the story left to be desired. Much of that had to do with the prequel trilogy taking place at a time when the Jedi are numerous and apply the law throughout the galaxy. Attack of the Clones ups the ante in that department with a 20 minute climax (it’s longer if you count the gladiator battle which immediately precedes it)featuring more Jedi action than I think anyone could have anticipated. As someone who enjoyed the action sequences in The Phantom Menace, I was even more entertained by those featured in this film. As the climax evolves, Star Wars fans are given a double treat: e a full scale war on the plains of Geonosis and the actual beginnings of the Clone War, with battle droids, tanks and ships participating in a massive battle against the newly created Republican army of clone soldiers who...oddly look like some villains we shall discover later in the series. The final confrontation in the film pits the nefarious Count Dooku against the unlikeliest of all warriors, master Yoda. Admittedly, I think the concept of a lightsaber battle involving Yoda must have sounded great during the pre-production meetings, but I’ve always been lukewarm to the final product on film. It’s different, I’ll give Lucas and his team that much credit, but is it really a good fight? I’m not sure. It looks as if Count Dooku is swinging madly at a ball of Blubber more than anything else.

Within the framework of the series

I’ve already mentioned how part of the enjoyment I gather from the movie is in how it sets story elements in motion that will carry over into the rest of the franchise. That isn’t limited to the large scale plot points, it carries over into the smaller details, such as the human source for the Republican clone army. If you weren’t a Bobba Fett fan back in the day, then this Episode II detail doesn’t mean much to you, but for the rest of us, the history of Bobba Fett, the infamous bounty hunter, and how that ties into the overall arc of the saga was interesting. The same goes for the cameo appearance by non other than everyone’s favourite weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star.

The most ambiguous one is certainly the Jedi’s diminishing ability to use the Force, as Samuel L Jackson’s character puts it. That revelation is never really explained. Is this due to stagnation in the evolution of the Jedi? Is it because they can sense a greater force (no pun intended) than theirs gathering a storm against them but are uncertain of its source? Do they even know why? I don’t think the issue is tackled very well, although I like the notion of the Jedi, because they are so in tune with the flow of the Force, actually sensing their own decline. It’s what a people can feel when the river starts to dry up: they can still perform some tasks but they are suddenly confronted with serious limitations in their resources and with the worries of what to do once all of it is gone.

It is a shame that the critical moments of Anakin and Padmé’s tragic love don’t create sparks on screen, otherwise I’d gladly heap even more praise onto the movie. The characters are interesting, the acting is better, the plot makes more sense in the grander scheme of things, and Lucas succeeds in creating even better actions sequences than we witnessed in the previous episode. Now things are getting interesting.

Now go read the review at Bill's Movie Emporium!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Three Colours marathon

Trois Couleurs: Blanc (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

With Three Colours: White, the viewer begins to better understand exactly what type of project writer director Kieslowski had launched himself into. The first instalment, Blue, was a refreshing, memorable and unexpected take on what freedom can mean. The sequel White,if it can be called a sequel, does much of the same and yet does so in a radically different manner. The next theme championed on the French flag is equality, but like freedom, it too can be interpreted in ways one might not necessarily think of, at least not at first.

The film opens in Paris, where a dopey and harmless looking man named Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is heading to court. His wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy) has filed for divorce. What we understand to have begun as a fantastically romantic adventure now ends in sorrow and even bitterness, especially on Dominique’s side of things. Karol, a Pole who speaks mediocre French at best, is devastated by Dominique’s emotions revealed in court and by her ruthless attitude towards him in the following days. Karol is completely and unmercifully rejected by his ex-wife, to the point where she mocks him over the phone by moaning while being pleasured by another man as Karol listens, dumfounded and distraught. The result of this breakup is tremendous inequality, as Karol has almost no money left and nowhere to live. It is only when a fellow Pole living in Paris named Mikolaj discovers him playing music with a comb (Karol is a professional hairdresser) in the subway that things start to turn around. Mikolaj helps Karol return to Poland and restart his life. Karol has much more on his mind than rebuilding his life however. With some time, careful planning and the proper funds, Karol will create a little bit of equality between Dominique and himself.

If one were to guess the type, or genre of film I’ve described above, ‘drama’ is the one genre that would cross most peoples minds. Kieslowski is cleverer than that however, and instead of giving the viewer a desperately bleak affair, with the central character of Karol being the center of all the bad luck and on the receiving end of everyone’s ruthless behaviour, he sows together a dark comedy, a film not without several appropriate dramatic beats, but one that will leave the viewer smiling on many an occasion.

The source of the peculiarly light-hearted nature of many scenes is to be found in their setup and the characters that inhabit them. Zbigniew Zamachowski’s facial features and naturally friendly nature lend the character of Karol such a demeanour that one can’t help but feel we are in the presence of an all around decent human being. He has been wronged and is afflicted with a thirst for vengeance, and despite the fact that his ultimate plan on striking back at Dominique is indeed harsh as some might put it, I couldn’t help but cheer him on during the entire journey. There is a dopey but lovable look to the actor which suits the growth of the character within the context of this story. In the early goings we don’t think Karol will display enough courage, wit or cunning in order to put forth in motion his plan. This is sometimes due to his funny and uncomfortable demeanour (the ‘stranger in a strange land’ setting helps in this regard) , at other times due to his terrible misfortune. We witness a rapid series of events which not only make it clear that Karol’s luck has run out, but that even in his attempts to earn a fighting chance, such as his failed seduction of Dominique in her store one morning before she has him flee from the authorities, this man is pretty much worthless. Zamachowski’s performance is one that shines for its many comical elements, but there is an intelligence and a courage which belies his harmless facial features. I think it's precisely this intelligence which delivers an added layer of quality to Karol’s journey and our appreciation, or at very least our fascination with the character. While earlier in the film there may have been some pity felt towards him, about halfway through we begin to understand that there is far, far more to this man than we believed. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski is quite clearly fascinated with creating characters that can elicit many emotions and thoughts from the audience. On a more surface level, Karol is a kind and sadly unfortunate soul who requires our support, but once the full extent of his intentions towards Dominique are exposed, there is a definite malice behind the man’s actions. ‘An eye for an eye’ or ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ and so forth. I shan’t fully reveal what it is he does to his former wife, but suffice to say that it is very cold, borderline evil. So why do I still feel an attachment towards Karol, even during the bittersweet final moments of the White? Ah, well, that is the magic of great acting and storytelling.

The comedic quality of White is also in plain sight in the setup and evolution of many sequences. Shortly after meeting Mikolaj in the Paris subway, the two begin to better understand one another and become so enwrapped in their sudden friendship that there is sense that they no longer pay attention to the fact they are sitting on a bench in the subway. Card tricks, drinking straight from the bottle, Karol even does Mikolaj’s hair! As with its predecessor, the titular colour is very throughout the film, but its first appearance is an oozing drop of bird dung which lands on Karol’s shoulders. The fascinating thing about all of this is in how such silly oddball moments fit in perfectly with the rest of the film. It isn’t at all a case of a film trying desperately to find a just balance in tone but never quite attains it. On the contrary, Kieslowski appears to pull all of this off effortlessly.

The golden nugget in White is its treatment of the theme of equality. Once more we witness Kieslowski take a much cherished and of course worthy ideal from the French flag and puts a drastic spin on it. Karol fights for equality and so he should, but what sort of equality is he fighting for exactly? The opening scenes suggest that we are about to witness a story of an immigrant’s fight for equality in a new country where his rights are currently limited, but that is not even close to the notion of equality White is mainly concerned with. The equality of White is on a more personal level, one that reaches into interpersonal relationships, the difficulty in satisfying two peoples emotions equally and how easily we humans forget that even in the darkest of scenarios, a little of respect and equality is required by both parties, otherwise rash decisions are made which in turn lead to harsh reactions. Like the best films, such assessments are always open to interpretation and someone may very well discover another aspect to the ‘equality’ studied in the film. That’s also what sets Kieslowski apart from many other filmmakers. He displays an ability to continuously suggest with ever telling the viewer something specific. Every scene is filled with enough information and clues to chew and ponder on, but rarely can we quickly and with certainty arrive at a definitive conclusion.

There is no Three Colours trilogy without the inimitable effort from score composer Zbiniew Preisner . How in heaven’s name that man succeeded in creating scores that simultaneously suggested they were part of the same series but also retained their perfectly unique individuality is beyond me. That’s without even mentioning how simply beautiful and memorable the music is. Whenever the main theme for White began to kick in there was a ridiculously wide grin on my mug, each and every time.

Kieslowski takes some unexpected turns in White in regards to the tone and mood, which sets it apart from the rest of the trilogy, but makes it no less an effective piece of cinema. I suspect that one could make a case for White being Kieslowski’ mainstream film (I wonder how many people cringed just now). It has a more straightforward plot than many of his other films, has an easily lovable central character and often goes for outright comedy. Make no mistake however, Three Colours: White is still a prime example what can result of art and cinema crashing into one another to make sweet, sweet love.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Review: Green Zone (2010)

Green Zone (2010, Paul Greengrass)

‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.’ That’s a fantastic saying, one which frequently proves to be true. When it comes to film however, a filmmaker’s decision to stay the course with the typical themes, stories and cinematic styles he or she is known for could come back to haunt them. After all, it is nice to see some variety every once in a while. In the case of English director Paul Greengrass and his Bobby DeNiro, Matt Damon, the time for him to explore new movie horizons has not yet come. He’s still great at what he does.

Employing the shaky cam style/ quick editing he masterfully constructed the latter two Jason Bourne films with, he and star actor Matt Damon team up again to tell audiences another story involving shady U.S. government wheeling and dealing. This time they turn back the clock (so to speak) to 7 years ago, in March of 2003. Roy Miller (Damon) and his team form a special unit of WMD investigators. In essence, they receive intelligence about the presumed locations of stockpiles of various deadly bombs and chemical materials, travel to said locations and confirm or deny the existence of those weapons. The strange thing is, time and time again Miller’s team has been coming up empty, and it isn’t because they perform their searches in the wrong places. No, Millar rightfully suspects that the actual intel which higher ranking officials are providing is bogus. Along with a journalist and a CIA data analyst, Roy Miller chooses to follow his own path and learn the truth about the American military’s source of information.

Tackling such subject matter is dicey for one significant reason: very generally speaking, the audience knows what happens. The Iraq war and the many debates and politicking which led to its initiation have been made known to everyone the world over, not to mention that the raging arguments about the legality of such a war and what factual or fabricated evidence existed to engage in combat took place only a quaint 7 years ago. Spoilers for history: the war is still raging on. Matt Damon doesn’t prevent the Iraq war in Green Zone. It becomes crucial for the filmmakers to create suspense, action and a credible tale through other means than a ‘protagonist must prevent a war from starting’ plotline, because that probably wouldn’t do. So if the macro doesn’t work, then go for the micro, which is precisely the approach adopted by Greengrass and company in this fairly thrilling hunt for an infamous and mysterious source of intel known only as Magellan.

My immersion into the film was not immediate, mind you. The qualities of the movie are strikingly reminiscent of last year’s The Hurt Locker (reviewed here), another Iraq war film which followed American soldiers who dealt with weapons of mass destruction of a certain kind (they formed a bomb diffusion unit) and which made heavy use of what is now known as ‘shaky cam’ cinematography. I was afflicted with a slight sense of ‘been there, done that’ uneasiness in the early stages of the film. It was the quintessential Greengrass immediacy that thrust my attention into this deadly and treacherous world in the streets and alleyways of Baghdad. He’s a director who enjoys taking just a little bit of time to set up all the elements for the ride to come so everyone knows who is who and what they are doing here, and then he lights the biggest match you’ve ever seen when the suspense kicks in. Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and now Green Zone are all graced with this up tempo method of storytelling. It’s an intense style that requires expert control of editing and cinematography because, if used improperly, it can become an utter mess. I can only fathom the amount of time spent in the editing room for this man’s films, but I tip my hat to him and his team for creating lively action sequences that, while characterized by a certain messy quality, nonetheless retain coherency. If I may share a gripe, it would be in the late stages of the movie, during which time an extended and elaborate chase sends our protagonists and antagonists through buildings and streets at night. Most of the intense moments in Green Zone benefit from natural sun light, which I have to assume comes to the assistance of the shaky camera cinematography. At night, especially when the chase is occurring in tight spaces, it became a tad difficult to follow. It never became an incomprehensible thankfully, but there were some brief moments when I wasn’t sure how Damon got to where he was and where exactly the antagonists were heading, this despite that fact that there is a helicopter team following them from above with radar assistance.

Greengrass also shows tremendous deft at handling the intercutting of scenes in offices or bureau’s with those that transpire in the dust filled sweaty streets of downtown Baghdad. Because events and scenes are moving along at such a brisk pace, the editing choices required precision and attention so viewers don’t lose themselves among this apparent cacophony of sights and sounds. Film editing is an art that’s equally if not more important than cinematography. Greengrass and his crack team are without question up to the task yet again.

A peculiarity that should be pointed out is Matt Damon’s screen presence. There was a bit less depth to his character, Roy Miller, than I had anticipated. His raison d’être can be boiled down to questioning the same weapons hunting methods that most of us observing the real life events 7 years ago questioned. He’s a soldier and wears the American flag on his sleeve, but has a conscious in that he’ll only go along for the ride if his country is at war for the right reasons. It’s not a role for which a great amount of originality went into the writing, but there is an honesty and even a ferocity to Damon’s performance that is more than welcomed. It’s a case where the actor adds as much as he can to his role to make up for what I assume lacked on the page. Brendan Gleeson, as a senior CIA agent, hides his British accent in a decent performance, although nothing to shout about. Greg Kinear, an actor I always enjoy seeing, is also fine as the slimy high ranking official fighting for the U.S. interests. It was interesting to see some scenes featuring only Iraqi characters speaking purely in Arabic, a bit of respect to the home team after all. Unsurprisingly though, many of the Iraqi characters pretty much remain random Arab faces throughout the film.

Because we know that there is only one way the ‘bigger picture’ of the story can end, Green Zone contents itself with a fast paced plot in which characters are mostly just going from point A to point Z in a wild chase to either reveal or cover up the truth, one that audiences, if familiar with recent historical events, are already informed of. In that respect it is a bit of a strange viewing experience. The action is properly intense and well executed, there are some fine actors giving decent performances and the setting is appropriately exotic and dangerous. Having said that, there can’t possibly be any surprises for the audiences, so the enjoyment must rest in the experience of the hunt, not the story. Greengrass wears his politics on his sleeve, which some might not appreciate, but in the case of Green Zone’ s story setting, there’s no controversy. After all, there were no WMDs hidden anywhere. It’s not as though there’s a debate raging about that till this day.

I don’t predict Green Zone will retain the attention and imagination of movie goers as dramatically as some of Greengrass’ previous work. It’s a fun ride, it has its moments and it makes for a solid outing at the theatre, but in the wake of The Hurt Locker ’s Cinderella success story, Green Zone, at least until something else comes out, is the second best Iraq war film.

Star Wars marathon: The Phantom Rebuttal

The Phantom Rebuttal

*As part of the ongoing Star Wars marathon, a rebuttal formulated by each co-host is presented each Sunday following the publication of our individual reviews. Naturally, in order to fully appreciate this article, a proper reading of Bill’s review over at Bill’s Movie Emporium is required. Besides, if there's a link to a site or blog here at Between the Seats, it's because it has our stamp of approval.

Bill, let me start by saying that I appreciated your attempt at shielding yourself early on by admitting that you consider yourself to be somewhat of an oddball Star Wars fan and that such a reality would lead to opinions that wouldn’t jive well with most fans of the franchise.

Yeah, nice attempt.

In fairness, I shall begin by revealing the areas where we find common ground. Strangely enough, the more I thought about your assessment of the Darth Maul character, the more I found myself understanding such a point of view, the fact that his existence serves no other purpose other than to show a peeved off Sith who relishes at the chance of destroying the Jedi. No other depth is required for Maul and any attempt at creating some would incurred great risk of tampering with the main reasons why we like him: he’s a visually cool bad ass. I think what turned me around regarding Maul was when I sat and thought about some counter examples I could use to make you look like a fool. I began to think of a franchise I myself am extremely familiar with, the James Bond franchise, and reminisced about the various heavies in those films and realized that pretty much all of them had a) little screen time b) only made the full extent of their strengths known in the late stages of the stories.

Oh, and the medi-chlorians suck. High five!

With that out of the way, it’s time to get down to business. Tatooine. I’m willing to concede that a bit too much of the film’s running time is spent on the desert planet. Maybe things could have been sped up a bit, but I’ll defend a lot of what transpires there. This is in fact the crux of the story. Why is there an original trilogy? Because Anakin Skywalker went from heroic Jedi to evil Sith Lord, thus creating a huge clusterfuck of problems around the galaxy. To fully understand where all these problems started, one must return to the beginning and discover the character as he was. The time spent on Tatooine serves two primary purposes. The first, and one that I think is the less important of the two, is the sense of familiarity which the viewer can appreciate. Tatooine is Star Wars after all. It is where the two most important characters of the entire saga hail from, therefore in the telling of their respective stories, a decent amount of time will be spent there. The second purpose is that of character background. I liked that notion of Anakin Skywalker coming from nothing, literally nothing, to eventually become the most feared person in the galaxy. I liked how Qui-Gon Jin and company come across the boy, almost accidentally and how that fateful encounter gains in significance through Qui-Gon’s realization of the boy’s Jedi potential and how he must deal with Watto to take Anakin away, otherwise an amazing opportunity is lost. It was one of the few moments in Episode 1 where I think the story elements came together and became interesting. The culmination of the Tatooine sequence, and one that importantly leads to Anakin’s freedom, is an amazing podrace, something I don’t think Star Wars fans saw coming based on the type of action we had witnessed in the original films. The time spent on Tatooine is not perfect, I’ll grant you that, but I liked it enough.

You go on to say that the 'meat and potatoes' of Episode 1 are found in Palpatine’s politicking on Coruscant. Although I can understand why you would say that, I have trouble getting behind that statement. Much of what worked in the original trilogy rested in the character relations, not the wheeling and dealing between Galactic Empire officials or whatever debates Palpatine had with his councillors, something I briefly touched on in my original review last week. It’s funny because you and I seem to be coming from completely different places when analyzing Episode 1. You think the more important element rests with the politics and Palpatine’s slimy manoeuvring whereas I champion more of the character driven storytelling elements, not to mention a lot of the dryness in those politics scenes. I always feel like the only one who understands what in carnations he’s supposed to be doing on set is Ian McDiarmid. Remind me again why Terrence Stamp is the movie... To me it just feels as though the politicking on Coruscant is something one of those Lucas Film approved authors could write about in a spinoff novel. Lord knows how many of them there are by now. In an actual Star Wars movie? I’m not so sure that was a good idea.

Ah, the idiocy of the Jedi Council in their decision to have Anakin trained. It is absolutely idiotic, it is one of the worst decisions they ever made (actually, it is the worst because they eventually all end up dead). Your assessment of that decision is spot on, which is why I’m surprised by your reaction to it. The Jedi are held up to such high standards I think it becomes difficult to imagine them as imperfect. But as the case of Anakin will demonstrate down the road, everyone, even an ‘I’m supposed to have no desires or emotions’ Jedi, is imperfect. The opportunity presents itself before the Council to train a boy who may, may, become the most powerful Jedi ever. Jedi, not Sith. They’ve been training these guys for centuries, they know what they’re doing. The fallibility in the Jedi Council’s behaviour in Episode 1 is but an extension of the fallibility we the viewers witness in the character of Anakin later in the saga. They saw an opportunity to cash in, recognized that there was in inherent danger in the choice (emphasized by the fact that the Council refuses at first to have Anakin trained), but thought about it twice and gave in to the potential of having a demi-god on their side. It’s this ‘idiotic’ decision which shows the first signs of cracks in the almighty Jedi armour. Their wisdom is suddenly put into question. They might not be as bright as they think they are and, in the long run, it leads to their destruction. There are reasons why the Galactic Empire rules the universe at the start of Episode IV, one of them being that the Jedi got caught up in their so called greatness and messed up royally.

This has been strange article to write. My overall opinion of the film is lower than yours Bill, and yet here I am defending so many aspects to Episode 1. Not much of what I have written above forgives the film for its inherent blandness in countless scenes and the horrible acting which permeates throughout. Story elements are one thing, and as I wrote last Sunday, I like the world in which Episode 1 transpires, but if it isn’t conveyed in a manner that feels interesting, then the film is problematic in my opinion. You and I both attacked certain aspects of the film, only that we rarely attacked the same ones. Have you tried to use reverse psychology on me, Bill?

N.B. Hey Bill, what did you think of the film's title, The Phantom Menace?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Three Colours marathon

Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

In the purest sense, film is about moving images and sound. If a filmmaker and his crew can get that part right, they more than likely have a film on their hand. If, however, they use the moving images and sound to create a great story, convey emotions and transport the viewer to a different place, have the viewer feel what the characters feel and react to what the characters are reacting to, then the filmmakers have hit the preverbal ‘jackpot.’ Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski knew how to do just that, and while the man’s career boats an impressive body of work (such as The Decalogue), it can be argued that he is most remembered for his sumptuous Three Colours trilogy, a collection of films inspired by the French flag, with each strip of colour and, by extension, each film representing a thought, a feeling, a desire, an ideology cherished and defended by the French.

Blue represents freedom, and in the movie Blue an unfortunate woman named Julie (Juliette Binoche) discovers the most terrible kind of freedom. As the movie opens she, her husband and daughter are driving in the French countryside on vacation. Their car smashes into a tree, the result of which ends up being the death of the two members of her immediate family. With her husband and daughter gone, Julie chooses to set herself completely free of her former life. Not the sort of liberty one would expect to be studied in a film about ‘freedom.’ Relinquishing the past is a daunting task in Julie’s case. Her late husband was a famous and highly regarded music composer. Not only is the artist’s legacy a lasting one, but his colleagues know full well of the remarkable piece of music he had begun to work on before his sudden demise and wish to finish the man’s work and make it public. At first Julie will have none of it, preferring to sell off their beautiful property and destroy the music sheets written by her late husband, but certain things may persuade her to behave otherwise...

Story, growth of character and emotional beats are told in the most unique ways sometimes in Three Colours: Blue. Consider, for example, the visual setup for the scene in which Julie learns of the death that befell her husband and daughter. It is a marvellous, but at the same time devastating close up shot of her eye which reflects the vision of the sorry doctor who must deliver the news. Later we witness, in a sense, the burial ceremony through a small television set Julie is watching underneath her hospital bed covers. In both instances there is an intimacy and urgency to the scenes, all the while presenting some story development with visual flair. The colour blue itself makes consistent appearances throughout the film, be it the wrapping of a candy bar, the water in a swimming pool or the light’s reflection on a chandelier made of blue coloured rubies. In each instance, a different emotion is vividly evoked. What is so surprising is how this never comes across as obvious or, as the saying goes, ‘ham fisted.’ There is brilliance to how the camera angles, lighting and colour schemes of scenes all help to tell the story of this lonely and emotionally bruised woman. Never did I think that Kieslowski’s methodology was heavy handed or redundant. On the contrary , I was continuously impressed with how the filmmakers made succinct, intelligent and visually pleasurable use of cinema. True, pure cinema comes to the assistance of the storytelling. If the term ‘auteur’, often used by cinema buffs in reference to directors who make films with similar themes, stories and filming techniques, could only be applied to a select few directors, I cannot imagine how one would not put Kieslowski on that list. I don’t even see how one could hesitate.

But the visuals alone do not make up the staggering qualities of the film, no sir. To describe the music score, provided by Zbigniew Preisner, is a daunting task. At times gentle, at times operatic, the musical cues never clash with what the viewer sees on screen. Rather, they compliment the visuals. They aid Kieslowski and company tell this sad but hopeful story of a woman wishing to start anew after the tragedy to end all tragedies presents its cursed self. The music and editing are married together and provide the viewer with a unique experience that so few other filmmakers could ever replicate. The moments when a character asks a question or makes a remark which reminds Julie of her past life, she closes her eyes while the screen fades to black for a brief moment and a stunning piece of operatic music blasts its way into our ears. There is a sheer, naked force to Preisner’s score at times that struck me like a lighting bolt. Rarely had I witnessed a film in which virtually every piece of the cinematic puzzle (isn’t making great cinema a bit of a puzzle after all?) came to together as perfectly as they do in Three Colours: Blue.

I’ve discussed about nothing but visuals and sound thus far, which is rather unusual given how the actress at the center of this milestone picture is the talented and ever classy Juliette Binoche. Binoche’s resume is littered with interesting films and fine performances, but her abilities are, for some obvious reasons, put to the test in Blue. With so much of interest to be found in the music and cinematography, it could become quite easy for the main actor or actress to disappear, so to speak, in this plethora of cinematic creativity. Such is not the case with Binoche as Julie. She is living her character and all the technical aspects I have showered with praise until now really form an extension of who she at this point in her life. Her actions and mood changes are guiding the technical storytelling elements, not the other way around. And this is just as it should be in a good movie. That isn’t to say that if everything else took precedence over Binoche’s performance that Blue would be a disappointment, but it is reassuring to know that Kieslowski, who is so adept at giving life to such audio and visual experiences, respects the art of acting. Julie, as a character, is a fitting role for an actor of Binoche’s calibre. Despite the shocking early developments in the story, she never becomes purely embittered and distanced from those who live around her and choose to interact with her. Late in the film a character expresses how she had known all along that Julie is guided by a tender heart regardless of the circumstances, and this complexity in the emotions Binoche must convey only makes the performance all the more impressive. The interesting thing was how the quality in her performance that I describe now mostly made itself evident upon my second viewing of the film. I did like her when I first watched Blue, but perhaps I was too occupied with everything else on the screen at the time to take full notice of just how good Binoche is in this.

Which brings me to the warning I would like to share with certain movie audiences, some of whom may be reading this review. Three Colours: Blue might, and I stress the word ‘might’, come off as a bit overwhelming for certain people. It is different, it is bold, it is quiet, it is loud, it wears some emotions on its sleeve, at other times it is subtle... Not everyone will ‘get’ Blue. It is less of a film where character X does A, then B, then goes to point C to accomplish goal Z, and more of an experience through which the viewer is invited to understand someone befallen by tragedy and how they are pushed to overcome their initial period of darkness. There’s art house cinema and then there’s art house cinema. Blue is art house cinema. It is an opera, a painting, a collection of pictures which tell a thousand stories, a soundtrack. It is a perfect movie.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Star Wars marathon: Episode 1

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

Warning: Even though I provide a brief plot synopsis, most of this review will assume that a) the reader has seen the movie and b) the reader is familiar enough with the Star Wars saga as to not start asking questions when I casually drop names like, for example, ‘Senator Palpatine.’

It’s quite remarkable how certain films become ingrained in popular culture. Throughout the years and decades, the lasting power of these films is not merely limited to a hard core fan base, but is etched in the memories of many, many people in our society. People can quote lines, they can correctly guess which elements are being borrowed when spoofs and rip offs are created (the mere fact that a spoof of a film exists is already a strong indication of its popularity) , they even recognize references to said films in other films! What it boils down to though is how they continuously entertain us, regardless of how many times we’ve seen them. Whether it is our first viewing or our seventh, we are transported to the fictional worlds of those movies and follow the memorable travels of our protagonists, especially when they occur a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Like many mentally sane boys and young teenagers, I too was a big Star Wars fan back in my day. I owned the original trilogy on VHS, I owned a few novels, I owned a few video games, I even recall taking a crack at what is commonly known as ‘fan fiction’ whereupon an admirer of a franchise will write a poorly constructed and embarrassingly shallow story inspired from the universe of said film, purely out of admiration. All guts and no glory, as they say. However, as I grew into the later stages of my teenage years and eventually into adulthood, the intensity of my appreciation for the Star Wars franchise waned somewhat. Gone were the novels that populated my bookshelf, gone were the video games I no longer played (with perhaps an exception or two) and my career as a Star Wars fan fiction story teller proved to be short lived (1 story, and not a very good one at that if I even remember what it was about). My enjoyment of the films always remained however. Today, in 2010, if you say ‘Star Wars’ I think about the films only and not the hoard of merchandising that comes along with the territory. I may not watch them as frequently as I had during my youth, but till this day I still think the franchise is massively entertaining, strengths and flaws both taken into consideration.

It was with excitement that me and Bill from Bill’s Movie Emporium (and the Filmspotting message boards) agreed upon watching the 6 film saga and writing reviews for each instalment. The last time I watched any of the films must have been about the time when the final one released, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, came out on DVD. 4 ½ years ago at the earliest essentially, and that would only count for Episode III. The last time I had sat through any of the others was surely 5+ years ago. And so after a long hiatus (and I’m serious when I say this. If I don’t watch a Bond film for 4 months I’ll consider that a long hiatus), I dove back into the world created by writer director George Lucas so many years ago.

The film

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, released a full 16 years after Episode VI, turns back the clock in the Star Wars universe and begins to show audiences where our favourite characters such as Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi and C3PO come from and how they came to be who they are in the original trilogy. Sounds like an exciting prospect? It most certainly does, especially if you enjoyed the original trilogy as much as I did. But as some other film franchises would demonstrate a few years later, it is mightily difficult to return to form after so many years. 16 years between instalments is a heck of a long time, not to mention that audiences already know the outcome since the new film tells a back story rather than a continuation of what we have already seen. With this massive endeavour resting squarely on George Lucas’s shoulders (in the sense that he wanted to go back and tell the prequel stories, he wrote them and he directed them), could Star Wars fans such as myself ever be satisfied with the results?

The galaxy in which The Phantom Menace takes place is vastly different from the one we knew in the original trilogy. Rather than the evil Empire ruling with an iron fist, it is a Republic attempting to govern as a democracy from the galaxy’s core planet, the very metropolitan Coruscant. Instead of Stormtroopers being the policemen of choice, it is the Jedi. Instead of constant war, there is mostly peace. I shan’t delve into a lengthy plot description because, firstly, I don’t think anyone reading this hasn’t seen the film, and secondly, I think the plot is fairly complex and convoluted enough so that a short paragraph to provide a synopsis would amount to nothing more than ‘The characters do this, then they do that, then they do this, then they do go there...’. Very, very generally: a fabricated trade dispute aimed at the peaceful planet of Naboo, orchestrated by a mysterious Sith lord named Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) with the help of a massive and surprisingly well armed company known as the Trade Federation (although come to think of it, maybe they specialize in armaments) causes panic in the Republic, who send two Jedi delegates, Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor respectively), to settle the matter and protect Naboo’s queen, Amidala (Nathalie Portman). This wild adventure will take them to Coruscant, but also the desert planet of Tatouine, where a fateful meeting between Qui-Gon Jin and a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Loyd) takes place.

Enough of this prancing around with exposition already. Is the movie any good? We need to know what Edgar thinks of it! Well, even after all these years since I last watched it, I think the movie is decent but still not what I had hoped for. It’s also a strange film in that many of the elements I like are also hampered by things that annoy me to a certain degree. Take for instance the mechanized soldiers utilized by the Trade Federation to conquer the planet of Naboo. It lends a completely different feel from what we had back in the day with the Stormtroopers. These are sophisticated battle droids who look sleek and even have personalities to an extent (I even felt that many of their lines as well as the delivery of said lines were quite funny). But when faced with a considerable opposition, such as two Jedi, they are terribly feeble, dare I say pathetic. Another element was when our protagonists arrive at Coruscant near the middle of the story to meet up with Senator Palpatine (also Ian McDiarmid) at the Senate to plead for Naboo’s cause. Now, I majored in Political Science, so talks of Senates, delegates and votes of no confidence interest me, and I will admit as much that seeing Palpatine, who we know will eventually become the gruesome Emperor Palpatine, play the bureaucrats like puppets in his attempt to slowly ascend to ultimate power is interesting in many ways. Whether he is using the Force on everybody’s mind or whether everyone really is being duped I’ll allow the reader to ponder on, but it is an important element to want transpires in this prequel trilogy. On the flip side, I did think the pacing of the movie, which already showed troubled signs up until that point, was hurt during this 10 or 15 minute sequence. Scenes of politicking are intercut with scenes at the famous Jedi temple where Qui-Gon Jin tries to convince the Jedi Council that the young boy he has discovered on Tatouine, Anakin Skywalker, is especially gifted in the Force and must be trained to become a Jedi Knight. Both of these story elements are important, but neither prove be very terribly interesting on film. My feelings regarding the political scenes of Episode 1 are indeed ambiguous, but I can’t hide the fact that while that aspect of the prequel stories is relevant, they feel out of place in a Star Wars film. It felt as though I was watching a different movie suddenly. In the original trilogy, we knew there was an Empire and an Emperor, but we never saw Palpatine sit on his thrown debating about what he was going to do next. We just saw the results of his actions and decisions. It was then up to the Rebel Alliance to fight back against the injustice done to the innocent. Episode 1 seems to want to show us everything, and as a consequence stretches itself too far and slows down to a crawl at times. I like the world in which the characters live in, but I didn’t need to see everything in it or have so much explained.

I think that is a major concern which plagues much of the film. The hosts of a favourite podcast of mine often remind us that directors should ‘show us but not tell us’ what’s going on or what elements in a film refer to, and I do think George Lucas, certainly a visual story teller if there ever was one, attempts that but sadly fails on many accounts. Not only are a ton of things shown and explained, I feel that there is a stale quality to Episode 1 which I cannot abide by. The setups of many scenes, various dramatic beats that should resonate, revelations which are meant to surprise the audience (such as when Padmé reveals herself to be the actual Queen of Naboo), so many of them feel as though a certain energy was lost in the translation from script to screen. The most glaring example of this is in how dry much of the line delivery is. There are moments when I feel the actors are still preparing to get into character on set and are not actually having conversations with their opposites in the film’s world. Ewan McGregor and Nathalie Portman, who have both, in my opinion, given good performances throughout their careers, seem to suffer the most from this. A lot of what they say sounds really, really boring. I’m a believer that a good performance can make a terrible line sound fun, or interesting, or at least passable. Such is not the case with the acting in Phantom Menace. I suspect that was the first time many of them found themselves on humungous sets for a film of unimaginable proportions. They felt lost and Lucas, who is known to for his prowess regarding editing and special effects supervision but not his moulding of performances, probably didn’t help much. Liam Neeson is one of my all time favourite actors, and even he has some poor line delivery in the film. I mean, come on. When Liam freaking Neeson sounds a bit stiff in a movie, something’s up. With poor line delivery, it becomes difficult to invest one’s emotions into the characters. Obi-Wan in A New Hope is a person. Obi-Wan in the Phantom Menace is a pretty face with a lightsaber. Things only become stranger when fine actors like Terrence Stamp and Samuel L. Jackson are just there for decorating the set with accomplished performers and not much more.

I imagine that, given the importance of Anakin Skywalker in the saga, Jake Lloyd’s performance should be assessed. Evaluating child performances always troubles me. On the one hand, I feel I shouldn’t be too hard on a kid because he or she clearly lacks experience, but on the other hand I know the director chose them for a reason, and therefore I expect a result. Much like the other performances in the movie, Llyod’s is a mixed bag. I find it interesting how he seems more engaging earlier in the movie, but he grows more uncomfortable as the story moves along. I don’t mean that in the sense that Anakin is taken out of his element and therefore feels lost as a person. I truly mean that Jake Lloyd’s acting grows worse the more we see of him in the movie. His character isn’t given many favours either. I just don’t think the Episode 1 Anakin is very interesting. Nice kid, good at pod racing, seems to have been bitten by the Force bug. That’s it. I think Lucas knew how to introduce him (slavery on Tatouine, a touch I actually like) but wasn’t sure what to do with him afterwards. His involvement in the climax is rather groan inducing if you ask me. I also find his innocent and pleasant demeanour a bit off putting considering that he will eventually become a complete monster later in life. I can understand that he is but a child wishing to be free from slavery, but good luck finding hints that this boy will become Darth Vader at some point.

I can’t go on indefinitely about the hoards of characters which populate the film, but it would be a shame not to touch on Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and Darth Maul (Ray Park), Darth Sidious’s apprentice. Jar Jar is such a bizarre creation in that he ended up being a rather significant milestone in filmmaking. His existence in a movie showed how good computer generated imagery had become. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if when Peter Jackson, who I’m sure was preparing his Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1999, saw Jar Jar, his immediate reaction was ‘well, now I know we pull off Gollum!’ Having said that, the character of Jar Jar per say is more than a mild annoyance. I know perfectly well that he has been scolded countless times on the internet, so I won’t spend time creating new insults for him. Suffice to say that he isn’t funny, isn’t useful to the story (Lucas could have easily, easily created a more likable sea-lizard creature to accompany the protagonists) and speaks very poorly. I swear, till this day there are lines I don’t understand! It’s not Jamaican, it’s cheap imitation Jamaican. As for Darth Maul, he sadly ends up being nothing more than a curiosity in the story. I remember being so pumped up in the weeks leading up to the film’s release back in 1999. I somehow believed the villain would play a greater part in the story, so to see him for about 20 minutes in a 120 minute movie was quite disappointing. There is absolutely going on with this guy. He literally just stands around and waits for orders from Darth Sidious. He looks soooo cool, but hardly does anything at all. Feel free to disagree, but that was one of oddest decisions made for Episode 1 if you as me.

Speaking of looks, that is one department in which Episode 1, 11 years following its theatrical release, never ceases to impress. The film is gorgeous to look at. There is an attention to detail that is truly wonderful to behold. The set design, with the exception of perhaps the interior of Trade Federation starships which look rather drab and uninspired, is beautiful and clearly shows off the hard work the crew invested into the project. Every place looks different and adds a new flavour to the scenes which unfold. While the costume design for the Jedi may not be very memorable, it’s the polar opposite with Queen Amidala’s wardrobe. Holy cow, those costumes are elaborate! They certainly strike a perfect balance between fantasy royalty. But probably more so than any costumes or set design, it is the visual effects that carry a lot of weight. Some movies made several years ago feature CGI that might not hold up very well by today’s standards, especially in our post-Avatar world, I’d wager that The Phantom Menace still boasts some massively impressive shots. Time and care went into the creation of the effects in this film I truly appreciate such craftsmanship. This in turn spruces up a lot of the action sequences. The pod race near the middle of the film still blows tons of action sequences we see today right out of the water. I honestly don’t think it’s close. Everything about that sequence feels different and unique. Notwithstanding the few minutes involving speeder bikes in Episode VI, we hadn’t seen anything like that in a Star Wars up until that point. Not to mention that the actual design of the pod race vehicles is impressive and unique in their detail and structure. I really think that is an excellent, excellent sequence, not to mention that is one of the few times when the story elements come together in the right way, what with Qui-Gon Jin having placed a bet against Watto (a slave owner who currently has Anakin and his mother under his ownership) to win the boy’s freedom in the event that the young lad emerges victorious from the race. Qui-Gon knows Anakin is far too gifted with the Force to rot away on Tatouine and must use this final resort to get the boy off the planet and to the Jedi temple.

And while I’m on the topic of the action in the movie, the eventual lightsaber duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at the end of the film is still rather cool after all these years. Much like with the podracing sequence, I think the story elements come into play nicely during this battle. The Sith have mysteriously reappeared, taking the Jedi by complete surprise and forcing them to show off some epic skills. It also goes back to what I said earlier about liking the world in which the film takes place even though the film gets bogged down into too much detail at times. It’s interesting to finally see an era when the Jedi were in their prime.

Finally, I would just like to mention the John Williams score. As a great admirer of film scores, I think this is some of Williams’s best work, and not just in the Star Wars franchise. I think it’s some of his best work, period. The emotional cues are terrific (to the point where they almost make up for the dry line deliver by the actors), the actions cues are rousing and instantly memorable, and finally the score is impressive in how it melds together both new themes for the prequel trilogy and some of the older themes heard years ago in the original trilogy. I encourage anyone with an appreciation for film scores to have a listen to the music of The Phantom Menace.

The film’s place in the franchise

This is a special section of the review created specifically to discuss how The Phantom Menace fits into the overall story arc of the Star Wars saga. Seeing as how till this day people, including myself, still see the original trilogy as the benchmark by which the more recent films are judged, I thought this might be an interesting tool.

Overall, I believe The Phantom Menace’s connection to the rest of the franchise is very average at best. Because I keep forgetting that Palpatine is a senator from Naboo (it always feels like an afterthought to me) the entire plot of a trade dispute opposing the Trade Federation and Naboo seem pointless. There is nothing very epic about that storyline and following Episode 1, Naboo is not at all important in the saga. The notion of Palpatine, as a senator from Naboo, using this crisis to gain power is interesting in a way, but it feels like a rather wishy washy Star Wars plot. Trade disputes? Really?

Ah, the midi-chlorians. Yeah, that’s pretty different from we saw in the original trilogy. Before Episode 1, I thought the Force was a gift, an energy you could control or you couldn’t, which made you a Jedi...or not a Jedi. Its description in the original trilogy was vague enough to keep its mythology interesting, but enough was said for the viewer to understand sufficiently what it was and how it was used. Much like with the politics of this prequel instalment, a heck of a lot about the Force is explained in Episode 1. I’m not among the rabid fans who felt the mythology of the Force was completely butchered. No, I just thought it was a boring explanation. I just didn’t care for it. To be perfectly honest, I now find it interesting that this more scientific explanation of the Force is never mentioned in the original trilogy. It’s as if Ben Kenobi, Yoda and Darth Vader agreed that the midi-chlorian proof behind the Force sort of killed the ‘cool factor’ of their powers so pushed it under the rug. More to the point, it’s sounds silly and boring.

So what we’re left with is a 120 minute film to show the viewer how Palpatine becomes Chancellor and how Obi-Wan becomes Anakin’s mentor. That’s a lot of beating around the bush if you ask me. The counter argument to that might be that George Lucas wrote a story, whether closely or loosely connected to what happens later, in order to introduce the characters we know and love as well as some newer ones that we know will probably die at some point. Fair point, I get it. I just don’t think he told a particularly interesting one and, if I may be picky for a moment, yes I would have liked a story that was more closely connected to the original trilogy. Without giving too much away on my thoughts about the next two prequel films, when I view the saga in its entirety, I can’t help but feel as if Episode 1 is the odd one out in terms of relevancy and story. But of course, more on that in my reviews of Episode II and III in the coming weeks.

For me, the best aspects of Episode 1’s place into the Star Wars mythology was finally seeing the Jedi during their glory days as well as space battles made with special effects to wow audiences.


Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is often hurt by wooden acting, some pacing issues, as well as story elements which simply don’t feel necessary. However, there is little doubt regarding the quality of the sights and sounds of this more modern looking Star Wars world. There are some fine action sequences (there is pleasure to be had in finally seeing the Jedi slice through a room full of enemies) and, despite some story-specific problems, I enjoyed that overall setting in which the story occurs, that is, the Old Republic in which democracy is breaking down and the Jedi are the sheriffs. Now if dear George can give us a cooler story that fits into the overall saga as well as some more interesting characters, things might be really interesting...

I wrote this review at my own pace without consideration with what Bill has done, so whether or not he went all out and into as much if not more detail than myself, I do not know at this time. I think I’ve gone on long enough, but even if there are certain elements you, the readers, believe I should have touched on but didn’t, remember that next Sunday is for our rebuttal posts, which could easily open the door to deeper analysis of Episode 1.

Make sure to check out Bill's review at Bill's Movie Emporium.