Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Top Five DVD/Blu-rays Of 2015

Once again it is time for me to reveal my personal top five DVD/Blu-rays of 2015. I've made a list like this every year since 2012.

As usual, I need to remind everyone that my picks come from my own personal home video collection--in other words, the entries are limited to whatever I bought in the past calendar year.

Kino has always managed to obtain a huge share of my hard-earned income, and this year it was especially so. The company released several obscure genre films in 2015, along with some interesting items from their "Studio Classics" line. Ironically there are no Kino discs on this list--but it wasn't for lack of quantity, I can assure you.

1. ARMY OF DARKNESS (Blu-ray) from Shout Factory
One of my favorite films, and a great goofy piece of entertainment. Shout Factory outdid themselves with this release--four versions of the film, and a boatload of extras, spread out over three discs. I wrote a post on this one in November.

2. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Blu-ray) from Arrow Video
Mario Bava's seminal giallo gets a superb presentation from England's Arrow Video. 2015 marked Arrow's debut in the American release market, and they didn't disappoint--the company holds down two slots on this list. The transfer on this Blu-ray is stunning, and the extras are momentous. Can't wait to see what Arrow has in store for the future.

3. NIGHTMARE CASTLE (Blu-ray) from Severin
This is really the equivalent of a Barbara Steele box set. Along with the featured title, you get two other Steele shockers, and extras for all three films. Overall, an impressive tribute to the Queen of Spaghetti Horror. I wrote a blog post on this Blu-ray in September.

4. DAY OF ANGER (DVD/Blu-ray) from Arrow Video
This year was a huge one for Lee Van Cleef fans--no less than four of his films received major home video releases. DAY OF ANGER is the best of them all, and Arrow treats it the way Criterion would treat a European art film. I wrote a post on this in April.

5. DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (Blu-ray) from Olive Films
One of the most requested titles from movie buffs to be released on home video finally gets proper treatment on Blu-ray. I know that there is a Region B release of this title with a ton of extras, but American fans should be more than satisfied with this Region A disc. I wrote a post on this one in October.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


It's been a week since the opening of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, so I believe it's safe enough for me to discuss the film in greater detail. (WARNING!! If you have not seen the film yet, DO NOT read this post.)

As I said in my first impressions post on the film, I liked it. I thought it was a very good film....but not a great one. The main reason I do not think it is a great film is that it is essentially a remake of the original 1977 STAR WARS.

Let me run this synopsis by you to prove my theory.

The movie starts out with a group of soldiers from a militaristic dictatorial government searching for secret information in the possession of a small band of resistance fighters. One of the resistance fighters hides the information inside a droid, and the droid is stranded on a desert planet. The droid is stumbled upon by the main protagonist of the story. The main protagonist is living an underwhelming existence on this desert planet and is unaware of his/her personal background.

The main protagonist learns that the droid must be returned to the main base of the rebel fighters. The protagonist meets up with an older, father figure-type character who volunteers to help. The father figure brings the main protagonist to a space bar to seek transport. Meanwhile, the dictatorial government has built a giant-sized device that has the ability to destroy entire planets. The main protagonist winds up trapped on this device, and must fight to escape. The father figure is killed in front of the main protagonist by a masked super villain. The masked villain has a personal connection with the father figure.

The band of resistance fighters sends a squadron of space ships to destroy the giant-sized planet killer before the fighters' own base is blown up. With help from the main protagonist, the giant-sized planet killer is wiped out. The masked villain has been defeated in battle....but not killed.

I've just given you a rather generic description of the storyline for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. But this could very well be a story description of the original STAR WARS. Yes, there are major differences but the plot is basically the same.

Now, I've had a number of people tell me, "So what if it's a remake of the first Star Wars movie?? Isn't that you're favorite film of all time, Dan?? Shouldn't that make you happy??" Well, if I wanted to see my favorite film of all time....I'd actually go and watch it. I don't need to see a copy of it.

Once again I have to go on about how I don't like remakes and reboots. When you are dealing with the science-fiction/fantasy genre, you have the ability to do shouldn't have to remake other stories. I have the feeling that the Disney executives wanted to make a movie that pleased the ordinary Star Wars fan, so they set out to make it as familiar with the Original Trilogy as possible.

It's not just the story of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS that's familiar--the "new" supporting characters are as well. General Hux is a version of Grand Moff Tarkin, Maz Kanata is a version of Yoda, Supreme Chancellor Snoke is very reminiscent of the Emperor, and Captain Phasma is a watered-down version of Boba Fett. And then there's Kylo Ren, who basically takes over the Darth Vader role. The Rebels are now the Resistance, the Empire is now the First Order, and both groups are still using X-Wings and TIE fighters. 30 years may have passed since the end of the Original Trilogy, but it appears as if nothing has changed. The bad guys are still stuck on the Death Star route--doesn't anybody learn anything?

Once again, I must reiterate that I don't think THE FORCE AWAKENS is bad...I just wish it had been more original. Hopefully the next Star Wars films will expand upon what happened in the last 30 years of this galaxy. THE FORCE AWAKENS leaves more questions than answers--and I think that was what Disney wanted. Remember, there's a whole Star Wars Multi-platform Universe now--so all the questions we have about THE FORCE AWAKENS will more than likely be explained with a whole line of books, comics, TV shows, and other movies. I know I sound cynical, but I'm convinced the vagueness of the backstory of THE FORCE AWAKENS has to do with more money-making opportunities than plot convenience.

The biggest, and most shocking, moment in THE FORCE AWAKENS is without doubt the killing of Han Solo by Kyle Ren. When I saw it on opening night, I couldn't believe it was allowed to happen. I realize that Han's death is the "Vader kills Obi-Wan" moment....but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I'll fully admit that one reason why I don't totally love THE FORCE AWAKENS is because Han Solo gets killed in it. It bugs me that we won't get a reunion with Han and Luke, or more scenes with Han and Leia. But I also think killing Han was a bad idea for the future Star Wars films. Han Solo was a charismatic, humorous, and likable other words, a character the Star Wars prequel films were sorely lacking. Look at it this way.....what would THE FORCE AWAKENS had been if Han wasn't in the film at all?

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a huge success, financially and critically. There are some comparing it to the original STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. It is nowhere near that level, no matter how much the general public has embraced it. All over the internet and social media people are going crazy over it--it's as if the millions of Star Wars fans throughout the world are finally allowed to feel good about their favorite franchise again. I'm sincerely not trying to poop on everyone's parade--I liked the movie, I had fun seeing it on the very first night, and I'll see it multiple times. But it could have been better.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

THE HATEFUL EIGHT Original Soundtrack On Vinyl

One of the trendiest things going on today is the buying, selling, and collecting of vinyl records. If you are a major film buff who enjoys listening to movie soundtracks, chances are you have had a sizable record collection for years. The main reason for that is many original film soundtracks are only available on vinyl. There are music scores for several renowned movie titles that have yet to see the light of day on CD.

If you have never bought an original film soundtrack on vinyl before, there is a new release that will give you the perfect reason to go back to the needle. Ennio Morricone, the man many consider to be the greatest film composer of all time, has written a brand new original score for Quentin Tarantino's highly anticipated Western THE HATEFUL EIGHT. This is the first time in 40 years that Morricone has created a new score for a Western film. Morricone of course redefined the Western, and film music in general, with his legendary work for director Sergio Leone in the 1960s.

I've been a huge Morricone fan for years, and I own a number of his soundtracks. When it was announced that Morricone would do the music for THE HATEFUL EIGHT, I hoped that it would be released on vinyl--what could be better than getting a new Morricone Western film score on a record? Third Man Records has released THE HATEFUL EIGHT soundtrack on a double-album collection which even includes extras.

I'm not very articulate when it comes to describing or defining music--the best I can come up with is "It sounds good to me". What I can tell you about this soundtrack is that it is based on a driving, haunting main theme that seems more akin to a mystery-thriller story than a tale about the 19th Century American frontier. When I listened to this score, I got the feeling that someone was being pursued or stalked. I must point out that it's always a dicey proposition trying to describe soundtrack music when one has not even seen the visuals that are supposed to accompany it. When I finally do see THE HATEFUL EIGHT my opinion on the soundtrack may wind up being totally different. But whether the sounds remind you of a Italian giallo rather than an American Western, the end result is unmistakably Morricone. Just don't expect a rehash of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY....this score is far removed from the Morricone-Leone collaborations.

Morricone's work on THE HATEFUL EIGHT is the very first original score created for a Quentin Tarantino film. The score is not 100% Morricone, however--as usual for a Tarantino picture, there's a few obscure songs from such artists as The White Stripes and Roy Orbinson. Both albums also feature dialogue snippets from the film, which means the listener will be able to hear the quirky, foul-mouthed exchanges I refer to as "Tarantino-speak".

This Third Man Records release also comes with two different fold-out THE HATEFUL EIGHT posters, and a booklet containing images from the film. Third Man Records puts out excellent material, and this package has the feel and look of a special edition release.

No matter what sort of critical and box office reception THE HATEFUL EIGHT gets, the fact that it carries a brand new Ennio Morricone score gives it a special advantage. Quentin Tarantino has used Morricone film music for years--albeit Morricone music written for other productions. The only thing more amazing than Tarantino and Morricone "officially" working together may be that the now-87 year old composer is still creating exemplary product.

Friday, December 18, 2015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS--First Impressions (No Spoilers)

I went and saw STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS last night. There's all sorts of things I want to say about this movie, and all sorts of story theories I'd like to share with you....but I realize that many of you have not seen the film yet, so I'm not going to totally delve into it until about a week from now. I don't want to ruin any one's enjoyment of it. 

That means that this post is going to be rather short, but I'll try my best to give you my immediate impressions on THE FORCE AWAKENS. 

First of all, I liked it and I had a great time watching it. It is a true Star Wars film, and it is more engaging than any of the prequels. 

Is it a fantastic film? I think it is very, very, good...but I wouldn't say it is fantastic. I have issues with some of the incidents in the film, and I can't really go into them until later. These issues are more geek-related than whether the movie is good or not.

THE FORCE AWAKENS has a more down-to-earth (yes, I know that sounds ironic) attitude than the Star Wars prequels. All the prequels had a cartoony, CGIish, video game look to them. THE FORCE AWAKENS doesn't come off as a video game. There's a sense of texture here. 

The dialogue in THE FORCE AWAKENS flows a lot smoother than the dialogue in the prequels. You can believe in these characters, and their actions. 

I have to say that seeing the Immortal Trio--Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher--back on the big screen in a Star Wars film was a moving experience. And no, I'm not ashamed to admit that. As many of you know, the original STAR WARS is my favorite film of all time. It is the film that gave me my love of cinema, and the film that has personally impacted me more than any other. It was very important to me that this film worked, and it did. 

If you have not seen THE FORCE AWAKENS as I am writing this, I suggest you see it right away. There are major revelations and surprises in store, and those revelations and surprises are all over the internet. You don't want to discover what happens in THE FORCE AWAKENS through a clickbait should discover what happens in a movie theater, as intended. 

I will be discussing THE FORCE AWAKENS in more detail here soon. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015


A lot of people find it easy to make fun of Sylvester Stallone, but the man is a pop-culture icon. He has been a part of three different highly successful film franchises, and not just as an actor--he's also written and/or directed entries in each of those three series.

His greatest work has to be the creation of Rocky Balboa. The character of Rocky is ingrained into the modern-day collective world consciousness. Whenever a Rocky in-joke is used, everyone will get it--even those that say they don't like the Rocky movies. It's amazing when one realizes that Stallone has been playing Rocky now for a span of almost 40 years. Has any other performer portrayed the same character on the big screen for as long a period? I can't think of an example as I am writing this.

A couple of generations have grown up watching the Rocky films, and the result is that millions of film goers are more familiar with Rocky's fictional life than they are the lives of most of their relatives. The general public has a true affection for Rocky--an affection that very few 21st Century film characters receive. All the Rocky movies are entertaining and well-done--even the much-maligned ROCKY V is a lot better than most give it credit for.

That affection is one of the reasons why the latest entry in the Rocky saga, CREED, works so well. You care about Rocky, and you want to see good things happen to him. Sylvester Stallone projects such an earnest ordinary likability as Balboa that you can't help but root for him.

But as the title of the film reveals, CREED is more than just the continuing story of Rocky. The actual main character is Adonis Johnson, played very effectively by Michael B. Jordan. Adonis is the illegitimate son of Rocky's old rival/friend Apollo Creed (Adonis was born after Apollo's death in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago in ROCKY IV).

Having an entry to a film franchise revolve around the son of a long-dead supporting character is an inventive concept. When I first heard about it I thought it sounded too gimmicky, but co-writer/director Ryan Coogler makes the situation work by bringing an almost semi-documentary style to the Rocky series. The 1980s excess which flows through ROCKY III and ROCKY IV is nowhere in evidence here.

Adonis wants to be a fighter just like the father he never knew, despite the fact that he lives in relative comfort due to his being raised by Apollo's widow. All those around Adonis refuse to help him in his boxing dream, so he travels to Philadelphia and cajoles Rocky Balboa into being his trainer.

Both Adonis and Rocky have to face personal demons along the way. The storyline--and the climax--may be a bit predictable (there's only so many ways you can make a Rocky movie, after all)--but Coogler establishes the situation and the characters so well that the viewer goes right along for the ride.

There's been a lot of buzz about Sylvester Stallone getting a Best Supporting Actor award nomination due to this film. I don't put much stock into major entertainment awards, but it would be nice to see Stallone get some acknowledgement for his performance in this. I'm sure that any such recognition will be more for his overall career, but that's fine too--he has an impressive resume as an actor/writer/director (movies like OVER THE TOP notwithstanding).

CREED is not just another Rocky movie--it is one of the best films of 2015.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


ATTACK OF THE CLONES is a better film than THE PHANTOM MENACE, but that's not really saying much. The second film in the Star Wars prequel trilogy has plenty of problems, the biggest being that it is essentially supposed to represent the love story between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala. The last hour of the movie is basically one long action scene, broken up into a number of mini-sequences. These are all technically impressive but a bit too much like watching a video game. One saving grace about ATTACK OF THE CLONES is that it has less George Lucas-style humor than THE PHANTOM MENACE.

The movie begins with an assassination attempt on former Naboo Queen, and now Naboo Senator Padme Amidala, as she arrives on the planet of Coruscant. Many star systems have left the Galactic Republic, and this separatist movement is led by the mysterious Count Dooku, a man who left the Jedi Order on his own accord. Chancellor Palpatine asks that the Jedi give Padme special protection, and Obi-Wan Kenobi and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, are assigned to the Senator.

Obi-Wan and Anakin of course helped Padme ten years ago in THE PHANTOM MENACE, and Anakin has been obsessed with her ever since. Another assassination attempt leads Obi-Wan off to chase down a clue while Anakin escorts Padme back to Naboo.

While on Naboo Anakin and Padme fall in love. Wait, let me rephrase that. We are supposed to believe that the two fall in love. And--as far as I am concerned--you don't believe it.

And if you don't believe it--then the whole point of the prequels gets thrown out the window. Because if you don't believe that Anakin and Padme love each other, then you don't believe in the main reason that Anakin supposedly turns to the dark side of the Force. And if you don't believe in that, then there's no real point in Anakin becoming Darth Vader. Vader might as well be just some ordinary bad guy. The entire Star Wars Universe springs from the relationship between Anakin and Padme, and if that relationship doesn't work--then the Star Wars Original Trilogy has less of an impact.

Hayden Christensen certainly deserves a fair share of blame for Anakin coming off so underwhelming in ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH. But in all fairness, Spencer Tracy could have tried to recite Anakin's dialogue and it still would have come out flat. The highlight (or lowlight) of Anakin's wooing of Padme is his declaring that he loves her because she does not remind him of sand. Anakin isn't a teenager in love--he's a whiny creep. He may be infatuated with Padme, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's in love with her. This younger version of Darth Vader isn't dark or dangerous--he's annoying and childish. Anakin might be played by a pretty boy actor, but it's hard to see why any young woman would fall for him--even if you buy into the theory that good women usually wind up with bad men. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman have very little on-screen chemistry (pro that she is, Portman still looks genuinely uncomfortable during their love scenes). The most important romance in modern day popular cinema simply does not work. (I must point out here that Natalie Portman must wear about 30 different costumes in this film. Portman is a gorgeous woman, and I'm not complaining....but it's kind of hard to take her seriously as a strong-willed politician when she looks as if she just got off a catwalk.)

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan's clue takes him to the planet of Kamino, where he discovers that the natives of that world are creating a giant army of clones for the Galactic Republic. The clones are all based on one being--a Mandalorian bounty hunter named Jango (not Django) Fett. The Kaminoans have given Fett his very own clone--a young boy named Boba Fett.

Now, here I've got to start venting. Re-watching ATTACK OF THE CLONES made me realize that there is absolutely no reason for Boba Fett to be in this movie, no matter what his age. I can buy the idea that Boba Fett's dad was the wellspring for the Clone Army--but why is a young Boba around? Just so the audience can exclaim, "Hey, look! It's Boba Fett as a kid!!" You don't need a little Boba present to make people realize that Jango Fett is his dad--Jango wears the same type of armor that Boba would wear, and Jango uses the same spaceship that Boba would fly. If Boba wasn't in the movie, I'm sure those watching it would figure out on their own that Jango was his daddy. The little Boba sub-plot feels forced....and how can you look at the adult Boba Fett the same way again once you know that he was a curly-haired, cackling kid??

We are told in ATTACK OF THE CLONES that the Clone Army was ordered by a Jedi named Syfo-Dyas ten years ago. Lucas missed a great opportunity here--he should have revealed that Qui-Gon Jinn was the one that ordered the Clone Army. This would have given more weight to Anakin's future decision to go to the dark side, especially if he knew that his mentor was so upset over the status of the Republic and the Jedi Order that he went behind their backs and started up an army on his own. It would also have made the separatists and Count Dooku appear more than just typical bad bad could they be if Qui-Gon Jinn had something to do with them? The entire sub-plot on how the Clone Army really got created gets thrown under the rug, and that is a mistake--Lucas could have used it to give the storyline more dramatic tension.

Obi-Wan tries to capture Jango Fett, but the bounty hunter and his little boy get away. Obi-Wan tracks them to the planet of Geonosis. It is there that Kenobi stumbles upon a Trade Federation droid factory (yes, the lousy villains of THE PHANTOM MENACE are back) and a meeting between Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and the separatist leaders.

I can't helped but be biased when it comes to Christopher Lee. He brings a huge amount of welcome gravitas to the role of Count fact, you can say that Lee has more screen presence than the rest of the human cast combined. Just like Darth Maul is the most memorable character in THE PHANTOM MENACE, Count Dooku (also known as Darth Tyranus) is the most memorable character in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. His backstory--a powerful Jedi who left the Order because he was disgusted at the state of the Galactic Republic--is fascinating. Did Dooku go to the dark side because he was truly evil, or did he go that route because he felt it was the best way to make the Galaxy better? The complexity of Dooku's situation is not explored nearly enough--by the end of the movie he's just the main bad guy.

Back on Naboo Anakin is having bad dreams about his mother who was left behind on Tatooine. He tells Padme that he must go to her, and the couple (along with R2-D2) head out to the desert planet. Upon arrival Anakin learns that his mother was freed by a moisture farmer named Lars, who she married. Anakin and Padme go to the Lars homestead, where they meet Cliegg Lars, his son Owen, and Owen's girlfriend Beru. The Lars family tells Anakin that his mother was kidnapped by the Sand People, and Anakin goes off to find her. Anakin sneaks into the Sand People's camp and comes upon his mother, but she dies before he can rescue her. Seething with anger, Anakin kills everyone in the camp. (Movie buffs are going to cringe at me saying it, but this sequence owes a great deal of debt to THE SEARCHERS).

Back at the Lars homestead Anakin breaks down and tells Padme what he did to the Sand People. This is the scene where Hayden Christensen is at his most annoying, and any underlining meaning the scene might have had goes out the window.

On Geonosis Obi-Wan is captured, and he is confronted by Count Dooku. It is one of the best moments in the film, and it would have been even more striking if Dooku had told Obi-Wan that Qui-Gon had been behind the separatist movement. Before his capture Obi-Wan was able to send out a distress message. Anakin and Padme receive the message and transmit it to Coruscant. The message enables Chancellor Palpatine to be given emergency powers by the Imperial Senate. Mace Windu decides to take as many Jedi as possible and go to Geonosis to help Obi-Wan. Yoda chooses to go to Kamino and see firsthand what the Clone Army consists of.

Anakin and Padme also decide to help save Obi-Wan. They take C-3PO with them (the droid was left behind on Tatooine along with Anakin's mother). The rest of the movie now becomes one long battle after another. Anakin and Padme arrive on Geonosis and are trapped inside one of the droid factories. There they are captured, and sentenced to be executed along with Obi-Wan inside a Geonosis arena. The arena sequence feels like an example of what Ray Harryhausen might have made out of the script for GLADIATOR, with the trio of heroes fighting various large, strange creatures.

Suddenly Mace Windu and the Jedi show up, and a large battle breaks out between them and the Trade Federation droids. It appears the Jedi are licked.....but then Yoda and the Clone Army show up.

Okay, I realize that for the last decade the Clone Army was being prepared on Kamino....but Yoda just picked them all up, and they were all totally ready for a war? And not only that, but they just happened to be properly fitted out with arms, artillery, and numerous battle vehicles? Yeah, I know I'm nit-picking, but hey, that's what geeky bloggers do. An even larger battle starts between the Trade Federation droids and the Clone Army, while Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme go after Count Dooku.

The two Jedi catch up to Dooku, and a lightsaber duel begins. The Count is too strong for both Obi-Wan and Anakin, and the latter gets his right hand cut off (this is a Star Wars movie, after all). Dooku is about to dispatch the Jedi when Yoda shows up.

When I saw ATTACK OF THE CLONES on opening day, the audience went absolutely nuts over the Yoda vs. Dooku lightsaber duel. I loved it too....but after seeing it a number of times, I have come to the conclusion that it wasn't that much of a great idea after all. The Yoda of ATTACK OF THE CLONES bares little resemblance to the Yoda of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The peaceful, wise, spiritual Yoda has been replaced with a creature that is a combination of John Wayne and Errol Flynn. I know that this is supposed to be a "war-time" Yoda....but seeing him leading troops and engaging in lightsaber duels feels wrong somehow. The ATTACK OF THE CLONES Yoda is a prime example of how CGI can give a filmmaker too much freedom. Just because you have the ability to create something doesn't mean you have to create it. It's fun to see Yoda swing a lightsaber....but is it an integral part of the story, or is it just showing off?

Yoda stops Dooku from killing Obi-Wan and Anakin, but the Count gets away. The aftermath sees the Galactic Republic preparing for all-out war with the separatists, while Anakin and Padme secretly get married on Naboo (the thing about that is, how secret could it have been?). Begun, this Clone War has.

George Lucas tried to make ATTACK OF THE CLONES have some parallels with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Both are the middle films of a trilogy, both have scenes involving spaceships in an asteroid belt, both have C-3PO getting torn apart (it works in EMPIRE, but in CLONES it is a bad excuse for comedy), and both have the young hero getting his right hand cut off in a lightsaber duel. But the two movies are as different as night and day. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK may be the greatest special-effects film of all time, while ATTACK OF THE CLONES is so filled with CGI that the audience is removed from caring about the characters or the situations. An expansive war between droids and clones will not move anyone. It make look exciting, but it's all very pretty, and very empty, pictures. (Ironically, the animated series STAR WARS; THE CLONE WARS did make the conflict between droids and clones exciting and interesting....and the actor who voiced Anakin Skywalker gave more impressive line readings than Hayden Christensen.)

ATTACK OF THE CLONES could have been so, so much better than how it turned out. There's the makings of a great, epic story here...but it's stifled by an unlikable leading man, a weak romantic sub-plot and an excess of CGI.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


With opening day for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS fast approaching, I've decided to go ahead and do a series of posts on the Star Wars prequels. This is an idea that I have been mulling around in my head for a while, and a number of people have told me that it is an idea that I should follow through on.

I do have some trepidation on writing these posts. I mean, what more can I say about these movies? In some ways, it is the equivalent of beating a dead horse. My brother Robert wrote a guest post on this blog (in April of this year) about the prequels, from the perspective of a parent. Robert's take on the series, as a father watching them with his children, is a rather enlightening and welcome change from the usual "The prequels suck" style of commentary.

There are many who consider THE PHANTOM MENACE a terrible film. But it is more disappointing than terrible? Could any Star Wars movie had lived up to the power of the original Sacred Trilogy? This calls into question whether the idea of having Star Wars prequel films to begin with was a good idea.

One of the reasons given for the creation of the Star Wars prequels is that George Lucas was so impressed by the use of CGI during the making of his TV series on Young Indiana Jones, and the use of it on JURASSIC PARK, that he felt now he could fully create his visions for the Star Wars Universe.  I've also read that the real reason for the prequels was that in the early 1990s Lucasfilm as a company was stagnating. The Star Wars prequels were a way to keep the company's main property viable. Not only did Lucas start writing the prequels in the mid-1990s, an entire new Star Wars action figure line was produced by Kenner, and Lucasfilm re-released the original trilogy on home video, supposedly for the "last time".

The very thought of what happened in the Star Wars Universe before Luke Skywalker was born had been playground and water cooler fodder for over twenty years by the time THE PHANTOM MENACE was released in 1999. Everyone had their own theories on it....I certainly had mine. The imagination of one individual is far more powerful than anything you can put on the screen. No matter how THE PHANTOM MENACE turned out, it never would have lived up to the hopes and dreams of millions of fans (let this be a warning to all the folks desperately counting down the days till STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS). In a way George Lucas was competing with himself.

By deciding to do the prequels, Lucas also put himself in something of a box. There was only one way they could end--with things going bad. The climax was already known--the Galactic Republic was going to fall, along with the order of the Jedi Knights. The original STAR WARS was influenced by thousands of legends and tales from throughout human history. Most of these tales are really just a different way of saying the same thing--which is why STAR WARS has been accused by so many of being nothing more than a rip-off of various storytelling concepts. One thing that these tales have in common is that the main hero must achieve a goal, or set something right. A major problem with all the Star Wars prequels is that no matter what the heroes do, they are not solving a problem--they are just playing right into the hands of the future Emperor. It is a backward type of story telling, and one that is very hard to translate on screen.

This backward storytelling results in having a lot of Star Wars history "explained". As I mentioned before, most of the explanations did not live up to the imaginations of the fans. The danger in providing background on movie characters and ideas is that it could very easily wind up like telling someone how a magic trick is performed. Once you know the magic trick, you're not enchanted or just say, "That's all it is??" It might seem a cool idea at first to see Boba Fett as a kid--but when you really do see a little Boba Fett up there on the big screen, adult Boba Fett doesn't seem so mythic after all.

The best example of "explaining the magic trick" in THE PHANTOM MENACE is the scene where Qui-Gon Jinn tests young Anakin Skywalker's blood for midi-chlorians. What the heck are midi-chlorians? We find out in the film that midi-chlorians are what makes someone intuitive to the Force--in other words, the more midi-chlorians one has, the more powerful in the Force that being will be. Anakin has more midi-chlorians than anyone else....we're even told he may have been conceived by them!

Now, up till THE PHANTOM MENACE I had always assumed that the Force was really a metaphor for a person's ability to believe in themselves, and to use that belief to achieve great things. Supposedly, according to the Original Trilogy, the Force could be found in "all living things". But after the revelation of the midi-chlorians, it appears that the Force isn't for everybody--you have to be born with it. This reduces the Jedi Knights to an elitist group of "pure-bloods" instead of an ancient order of heroes. Sadly, this is how the Jedi act throughout the entire prequel trilogy--they come off as arrogant hypocrites who are constantly saying they are not soldiers, while at the same time they are fighting everybody in sight.

Did George Lucas really want the Jedi to look bad in the prequels, to set up Anakin's fall from grace? Maybe, but the fact is the whole Galactic Republic doesn't look too appealing in THE PHANTOM MENACE. A system belonging to the Republic, Naboo, is under blockade due to some type of tax dispute with the Trade Federation (when the opening crawl of a Star Wars movie talks about taxation and trade routes, you know you're in trouble). The Republic's response to this is to send only two Jedi Knights (I know the Jedi are supposed to be bad dudes, but only two of 'em??) who are supposed to mediate the dispute. Naboo is a democratic planet that has elected a young teenage girl as its "Queen". (I have to say here that George Lucas' political beliefs have always fascinated me. He's apparently left of center, but he's also a billionaire who continually creates characters who have something to do with royalty and nobility). Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi arrive just as the Trade Federation is beginning its invasion of Naboo. The two Jedi run into Naboo native Jar Jar Binks, and the group eventually helps Queen Amidala escape the planet and the clutches of the Trade Federation. (During this sequence we are introduced to R2-D2, and as soon as he comes onscreen he starts saving everybody's behinds.)

We all know how beloved a figure Jar Jar Binks is among the geek community. Jar Jar was the result of George Lucas' obsession with having a fully-fledged CGI main character in his film. Jar Jar's characteristics come from the George Lucas idea of humor, which seems to be aimed at the level of an American fourth grader. The Lucas humor ruins all sorts of scenes in THE PHANTOM MENACE, and it would leave its goofy traces through the entire prequel trilogy. The Trade Federation leaders are also set up to be comic, and this would have great repercussions for the prequels. In the Original Trilogy, we have villains like Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. In the prequels, we get guys with fish faces who have generic "Foreign Bad Guy" voices. In other words, there's no danger to them...they just come off as pathetic. The Trade Federation relies on an army of robots who act just as goofy (the average bad guy droid has a Hanna-Barbera cartoon-like generic sci-fi voice). There's a rumor that the reason the Trade Federation has a droid army is because George Lucas wanted to have all sorts of battles, but he didn't want any blood or guts to go along with them. So....he created an army of robots, that way the heroes can destroy thousands of them and the movie can still get a PG rating.

The group of heroes wind up stranded on the backwater planet of Tatooine, where Qui-Gon makes the acquaintance of a young boy named Anakin Skywalker. Queen Amidala disguises as one of her handmaidens and goes by the name of Padme (if the Jedi are so wise, how come they didn't figure this out?).  Anakin and her mother are slaves--but they seem to be very well off, since they have a decent place to live. Not only that, but Anakin is building a protocol droid (C-3PO of course) and he even has his own pod racer. If Lucas came up with the idea of Anakin being a slave to show where the boy's dark side comes from, it backfired....there's a lot of young kids that would probably trade places with Anakin. The Tatooine sequence in THE PHANTOM MENACE contains most of the movie's biggest problems.

For example....Qui-Gon is a Jedi Knight, and supposedly a very powerful one--but he gets himself stuck in a situation where his only recourse is to gamble on a ten-year kid to win a dangerous contest. I realize that the pod race is just a contrivance for Qui-Gon to take Anakin away from Tatooine, but it makes Qui-Gon look weak. How many of you, while watching THE PHANTOM MENACE, have felt the need to yell at the screen, "Just take the damn ship parts, Qui-Gon! You're a Jedi!!" It doesn't help matters that Qui-Gon tells Anakin, "I didn't come here to free slaves." What exactly are the Jedi supposed to do?? They can't interfere in this, they can't involve themselves in's no wonder that Sith Lord Darth Maul is by far and away the most interesting character in THE PHANTOM MENACE.

Darth Maul is the apprentice of Darth Sidious, who is the real "phantom menace" behind the Trade Federation's decision to attack Naboo. Darth Sidious is actually Galactic Senator Palpatine, which 99.9% of all Star Wars fans figured out way before the movie opened. (It cracked me up how all the pre-publicity for THE PHANTOM MENACE tried to set up Darth Sidious as a mysterious figure.) We get no background at all on Darth Maul, which makes him an even more intriguing and charismatic being. Lucas wisely limits Maul's appearances in the film until the climax.

The pod race sequence is impressive....but like a lot of things in this movie it gets watered down by Lucas' attempts at humor, such as farting alien creatures and race announcers who sound like 20th Century American stand-up comics (great way to pull the audience out of the moment there, George). At the end of it, you still don't really buy into the idea that Anakin is somehow special.

Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin, gets a lot of blame for why the character is so bland. One of the major criticisms I kept hearing about him was, "He acts just like a kid!" Well, he was a kid. I've never been a big fan of child actors who act like adults....a kid in a movie or a TV show should act like a kid, not a wise-cracking 40 year old. I guess fans wanted Anakin to act more Vader-like. I don't really know how you can do that successfully with a little kid without it looking ridiculous. Lloyd isn't helped by the dialogue Lucas gave him, or the fact that he is supposed to be laying the foundation for a future romance with the much older Padme. I think the reason why Lucas didn't have little Anakin be more Vaderish is because Lucas was determined to get a PG rating (that determination, I believe, had a lot to do with how this movie turned out).

Anakin wins the race, the heroes get the parts they need for their ship, and they take off, just as Darth Maul is zeroing in on them. (One question: If Anakin had not won the race, what was the group going to do? Just sit around for a while?) The group heads to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic. The planet of Coruscant is one giant city, and its representation in THE PHANTOM MENACE is one of the highlights of the film--it is a prime example of how CGI should be used. The Jedi Temple is on Coruscant, and Qui-Gon takes Anakin there to go before the Jedi Council, whose members include Yoda and seemingly always pissed off Mace Windu. The Council turns down Qui-Gon's request to train the boy, the reason being that Anakin is "too dangerous". Once again, the Jedi wind up appearing badly....if Anakin really is dangerous, shouldn't they want to attempt to train him, or keep him within their control? Meanwhile, Queen Amidala appeals to the Galactic Senate in hopes that they will decide to come to the aid of Naboo. The Senate proves that politicians are alike everywhere by basically doing nothing. The Queen feels that she must go back to Naboo to help her people personally, and the Jedi Council send Qui-Gon and Obi-wan with her. Anakin tags along as well (Coruscant must not have many day-care options).

The climax of the film revolves around the Queen's plan to take back Naboo. The Queen goes to Jar Jar's people, the Gungans, for help (which means we have to put up with Jar Jar's antics during the final battle). The Gungans face off against the Trade Federation droid army in an all-CGI action sequence. Because Jar Jar, the Gungans, and the droid army have been portrayed for the most part as comic figures, the battle has no emotional resonance whatsoever (it's kind of like seeing The Three Stooges facing off against stereotypical Germans and Japanese in one of the comedy team's WWII shorts). The Queen attempts to get to the Palace to capture the Trade Federation leader, and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan face off against Darth Maul in a lightsaber duel.

The Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber duel is without doubt the best part of THE PHANTOM MENACE. Backed by John Williams' stirring "Duel of the Fates" music, you can't help but get geeked up for it...and it's nice to finally have the Jedi duo actually do something (Obi-Wan, in particular, has a rather insignificant role in this film). Ray Park as Darth Maul shows his stuff here, and he makes such an impact that you're almost sorry to see him get killed by Obi-Wan. The death of Qui-Gon makes sense story wise, but it is a bit of a waste--the character could have been used in all sorts of unexpected ways for the future movies. (For example--what if Qui-Gon had lived, and sided with Anakin against the Jedi?)

While all this is going on, Anakin (along with R2-D2) inadvertently gets himself into a Naboo space fighter heading for the Trade Federation main battle ship. The space battle sequence is a mini-version of the Original Trilogy's Death Star's the old "We have to destroy the main power source of the facility" plan again. Through mostly dumb luck Anakin takes out the Trade Federation ship (all the while saying things like "Whoa!" and "Wow!"), and just like the pod race, you go away still not seeing Anakin as "The Chosen One".

The ending shows Qui-Gon's body on a funeral pyre (did Anakin give this idea to Luke before he died?). Obi-Wan promises to Anakin that he will train him to be a Jedi, Yoda and Mace Windu discuss whether there are more Sith Lords out there, as we get a close-up of Senator Palpatine's face (just in case anyone hasn't figured things out yet). We are then treated to a celebratory parade on Naboo, featuring a brigade of pimp-walking Gungans.

I saw THE PHANTOM MENACE on its opening day. My first reaction was "Uh...well....". I didn't all out hate it, but I knew that it wasn't the movie that I hoped it would be. The movie's idea that you have to be born as a Jedi, instead of being able to become one, struck me as wrong....just like the idea of Anakin being the result of an immaculate conception (you can imagine the jokes that sprung up over that one).

I watched the film again last week and my opinion on it hasn't changed much. I don't hate it or love it...I guess I'm lukewarm toward it. I'm a huge Liam Neeson fan, and he's stalwart as always in the role of Qui-Gon Jinn. An actor with a lesser screen presence would have made Qui-Gon look even weaker than he does in the script. It's not Neeson's fault that Qui-Gon comes off as a underwhelming character. Ewan McGregor does what he can with the young Obi-Wan, but his best moments are during the lightsaber duel. Natalie Portman as Padme is meant to remind viewers of Carrie Fisher (Portman even uses a fake English accent during her "Queen" scenes, just like Carrie sometimes did during the first STAR WARS film). The separation between the ages of Portman and Jake Lloyd do make their budding friendship somewhat uncomfortable, especially considering that their future romance winds up being the turning point in the entire Star Wars Universe.

The FX in the movie, like in all Star Wars movies is spectacular--perhaps too spectacular. The Original Trilogy had a "lived-in" used-technology look...and the environments of THE PHANTOM MENACE seem too new, too clean. One reason may be that this story is set during the time of the Galactic Republic, and the Original Trilogy is set during a time of war across the galaxy. But I think the abundance of CGI had to play a part. I also think George Lucas chose to give THE PHANTOM MENACE a spiffier look than the Original Trilogy.

Like all Star Wars films, THE PHANTOM MENACE moves fast (Lucas re-uses the multi-climax ending featured in RETURN OF THE JEDI). It's not boring....but I must say that it is nowhere near as entertaining as any entry in the Original Trilogy. The only character that grabs your attention is Darth Maul--the "good guys" are constrained due to the mechanics of the plot. The story is missing the excitable innocence of a Luke Skywalker, the feisty attitude of a Princess Leia, and the cool swagger of a Han Solo. This is a different Star Wars from the first three films. When Lucas does try to refer to the Original Trilogy in THE PHANTOM MENACE, it feels forced--such as the revelation that Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO, or the appearance of Jabba the Hutt at the pod race.

What hurts THE PHANTOM MENACE the most is that it feels like a kid's movie. I know some of you reading this will reply that all the Star Wars movies are kid's movies, but this one is definitely designed for the younger set. Re-watching it made me realize how much so-called "comedy" is in it. I'm not suggesting that all Star Wars movies should be 100% serious--the Original Trilogy had numerous laugh-getting moments--but in the Original Trilogy the comedy came from the situation, instead of the comedy being the situation.

No matter how THE PHANTOM MENACE had turned out, it would not have exceeded the expectations that so many people had for it. It may go down in history as a failure, but like a lot of presumed cinematic failures, it made a huge amount of money. For better or worse, George Lucas made the film he wanted to make. Star Wars fans can disparage Lucas over the prequels all they want, but the fact is it was his universe, not yours or mine.

The other two Star Wars prequel films are better than THE PHANTOM MENACE--but they also have several problems of their own, as we shall see.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

More ROCKY Spin-offs We'd Like To See

The latest entry in the Rocky Balboa saga, CREED, is getting critical acclaim and doing very well at the box office. Apparently the idea of using a relative of a supporting character to continue a film franchise is a good good, in fact, that it gives me some ideas on how the Rocky story can keep going on and on and on. If anyone would like to take these ideas and turn them into a screenplay, go right ahead--just make sure I get paid.

To his surprise and consternation, Rocky Balboa finds out that his old rival, Ivan Drago, had an illegitimate son! And not only that...Ivan Jr. (played by Chris Hemsworth) is the secret heir to the Romanov fortune! Rocky and Ivan Jr. team up to prevent the Romanov's gold from falling into the hands of the dastardly Vladimir Putin (played by Kevin Spacey).

To his surprise and consternation, Rocky Balboa finds out that his old rival, Clubber Lang, had an illegitimate son! Clubber Jr. (played by Lance Briggs) is on the run, because of a crime he didn't commit. Rocky and Clubber Jr. team up with an ex-army Colonel who's a tactical genius, a smooth-talking con man, and a wacky pilot who may or may not be actually insane. Together the group travel around the United States, helping out people who have nowhere else to turn.

To his surprise and consternation, Rocky Balboa finds out that his late brother-in-law Paulie had an illegitimate son--Paulie Jr (played by Jonah Hill). The pudgy, slovenly youth just might get a shot at a promotion to the main office of the meat-packing plant--but can Rocky clean him up in time??

To his surprise and consternation, Rocky Balboa finds out that he has two identical cousins--and they're both hard-as-nails cops! Lt. Ray Tango and Lt. Marion "Cobra" Cobretti are not too impressed with Rocky's easy-going ways. (The fantastic wonders of CGI allows Sylvester Stallone to play all three roles.) There's a huge drug deal getting ready to go down in the heart of Philadelphia--can Rocky and his new-found cousins learn how to work together in time to stop it??

Well....can they???