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Army of Darkness (1992)

Army of Darkness 1

by Steve Habrat

In 1987, director Sam Raimi remade his 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead, dropping the simple stone-faced terror that turned the original into such a hit and planting the tongue of the series firmly into its bloody cheek. This slapstick remake, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, would go on to become even more wildly popular than the terrifying ’81 original. Personally, I’ve never cared for Evil Dead II nearly as much as the original film and I was never convinced the film struck the proper balance of Three Stooges comedy and hair-raising terror. Hey, that’s just me! In 1992, Raimi and his ever-game star Bruce Campbell brought the series to a close with the even sillier Army of Darkness, a medieval epic that, at least to this guy, was infinitely more entertaining than Evil Dead II (I can just hear some of you horror fans now). Dropping almost all of the scares and embracing more action and adventure, Army of Darkness wins the viewer over almost instantly with its ever-quotable one-liners and its never-ending string of comic book gags. Yet while Army of Darkness does keep your eyes glued to the pulpy thrills, the jokes and the plot end up getting stretched to the breaking point, causing this brief eighty minute romp to wear out its welcome near the climax. Luckily, Raimi has the good sense to wrap everything up before Army of Darkness really falls to pieces.

After briefly flashing back to the events of Evil Dead II, which concluded with Ash (Played by Bruce Campbell) getting sucked into a portal opened by the Book of the Dead and spit out in medieval England. After tumbling out of the sky, Ash is immediately confronted by Lord Arthur (Played by Marcus Gilbert) and his men, who instantly accuse Ash of working with Duke Henry (Played by Richard Grove), Arthur’s sworn enemy. Ash is taken, along with the captured Henry, to a nearby castle where he is forced into a pit, which houses a snarling Deadite waiting to rip souls to pieces. Ash dispatches the ghoul and in return, he wins the trust of the terrified villagers, the beautiful Sheila (Played by Embeth Davidtz) and the castle’s Wiseman (Played by Ian Abercrombie), who bargains that if Ash is to venture into the haunted countryside and retrieve the mysterious Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, he can return to present day. Ash reluctantly accepts the offer, but after goofing the magic words he was supposed to say upon retrieving the book, he inadvertently awakens an army of the dead. To make matters worse, this army is led by a demonic twin of Ash. After Sheila is captured by a flying Deadite, Ash decides to align himself with the medieval soldiers and destroy the advancing demonic army.

Leaving most of the toe-curling thrills and chills in that legendary cabin, Army of Darkness quickly opts for Three Stooges style humor and heaping doses of fantasy action. For those who love blood and guts, the only carnage to be found is at the beginning, when one poor sap is shoved into the pit with a Deadite and a geyser of gore sprays into the heavens. It is absolutely hilarious and almost like Raimi is purging all of the gore from his system before launching headfirst into seventy minutes of solid belly laughs and action. Most of the time, it feels like Army of Darkness is poking fun at the action genre, from the tough-as-nails hero Ash and his bottomless pit of one-liners (“Give me some sugar, baby!” “Name’s Ash. Housewares.”), to the gratuitous explosions that rain down on the final showdown. Never once does it feel as if Raimi is taking all the action and adventure too seriously and he launches it at us at breakneck speeds. While this certainly keeps Army of Darkness very interesting, it also exhausts the film by the grand finale. It appeared that Raimi was moving at such a furious rate that he almost wore himself out and lost his grip on the entire project. Luckily, Mr. Campbell and his glorious lantern jaw comes to the rescue.

Army of Darkness 2

The true success of Army of Darkness rests on the chain saw of Mr. Bruce Campbell, who seems to be having an absolute blast jumping and throwing himself around like a madman. Right from the get-go, Campbell’s Ash chews right through Raimi’s dialogue and he does it with plenty of fiery confidence. Just wait for the scene where he has to recite the magic words before retrieving the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (cinema buffs will remember those magic words from The Day the Earth Stood Still). When he isn’t muttering a classic one-liner (trust me, it is LOADED with them), he is busy socking, slapping, and poking himself in the face or busy battling a handful of feisty miniature versions of himself. His enthusiasm for the role is infectious and it is an absolute blast watching him throw himself into every scene with such gusto. In a way, it is almost a shame he is so good because every other actor or actress in the film is caught in his shadow. As for everyone else, Gilbert and Grove are largely forgettable as Lord Arthur and Duke Henry. Davidtz is just a pretty face until she gets to unleash her dark side near the end of the film, but most of her sinister vibe comes from the prosthetics applied to her face. Abercrombie checks in a fine performance as the Wiseman who believes that Ash is the savior that they have been waiting for. Keep an eye out for George A. Romero alum Patricia Tallman as an evil witch, Sam Raimi’s brother Ted in a number of different roles, and Bridget Fonda as Ash’s gal Linda.

To me, the fact that Army of Darkness isn’t simultaneously trying to be funny and scary is why it works better than Evil Dead II. I understand that many will not agree with me, but I just never thought that Evil Dead II was as funny or scary as it thought it was (I was left longing for the slow build and straight faced terror of the original). Army of Darkness is well aware that it is just a roller coaster ride and it makes absolutely no apologies about it. There are small tastes of the horror that Raimi unleashed in 1981, but for the most part, this is strictly an action comedy ripped from the pages of a comic book you have never heard of. And while the medieval action does wear thin, Raimi picks it up for one last boomstick blast of demonic action in the aisles of present day S-Mart. Overall, as a gonzo send-up of the action and fantasy genre, Army of Darkness is about as giddy and playful as they come. The action may start to slip from Raimi’s grasp, but this is Campbell’s show from the first frame all the way to the last. He may very well be the grooviest action hero of all time, and his shotgun never runs out of ammo. Gotta problem with that?

Grade: B

Army of Darkness is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi (2012)

by Steve Habrat

If James Cameron’s day-glo spectacle Avatar had you longing for another visually immersive event movie, then you need to run, not walk, to Ang Lee’s shipwrecked epic Life of Pi. Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same name, many fans of the book argued that the story would never transfer properly to the big screen but we all know that will never stop Hollywood from trying. There is no argument that Lee’s Life of Pi has plenty of emotional force and spiritual weight behind all the dazzling visuals and eye-popping 3D but the major problem with the film is that it does seem to loose its way more than a few times. At slightly over two hours, Life of Pi does get a bit long in the tooth, especially when the film trades the dry land whimsicality for Pi’s soggy Pacific adventure. Still, Life of Pi has plenty of cutesy humor, young love, religious curiosity, and tough life lessons worked into the first half of the film to shape the towering second half. Despite boredom setting in here and there, you can’t ever take you eyes off of star Suraj Sharma and his growling travel buddy, Richard Parker, a savage Bengal tiger eager to claim their little slice of lifeboat heaven for himself. It is a joy to watch these two try to establish a mutual trust so they can work together and ultimately be saved.

Life of Pi begins in the present with a Canadian writer (Played by Rafe Spall) approaching Indian immigrant Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Played by Irfan Khan) about an incredible story that would make a great book and make him believe in God. Pi agrees to share his story, which begins in Pondicherry, with how he got his unusual name (he’s named after a swimming pool in France) and how he got his nickname Pi (he gets sick of being called “Pissing” Patel by his classmates). Pi also dives into how he became interested in religion (he follows THREE religions) and how his family owned a local zoo that contained a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. At the age of sixteen, Pi (Played by Suraj Sharma) and his family decide to close up their zoo and move to Canada. They board the Japanese freighter Tsimtsum along with their family of animals and they settle in for what they assume will be a relatively smooth journey. Shortly after setting out, the ship encounters a terrible storm and Pi’s entire family is killed as the ship sinks. Pi manages to find his way into a lifeboat but a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker soon join him. All alone and fearing for his life, Pi has to learn to work together with his wild travel buddies and hold on to his faith in face of the impossible.

Considering that a majority of Life of Pi is set in a lifeboat, one could assume that the film would get awfully dry very fast. How do you keep the viewer hooked and entertained visually? Lee seems to understand this so he crafts a number of hallucinatory sequences that boast Avatar’s neon glow and 3D that expands Pi’s watery environment. Near the end of the film, Pi stumbles upon an island that is paradise by day for the hungry and thirsty traveler and then a glowing Hell in the same vein of Pandora by night. The island is inhabited by armies of meerkats, who munch on the algae and roots in the sunshine but dash into the trees when the sun sets to avoid the acid that takes the place of the fresh water. Even Richard Parker can sense that something is off in this island that may or may not exist. Then there are the moments where Pi’s boat drifts silently over smooth waters that reflect the starry sky above. It would seem that Pi is floating through the stars. And we can’t forget the humor from David Magee’s screenplay, which infuses a little more pep in Life of Pi’s step. The crown jewel is the scene in which Pi tries to establish territory on the boat using urine. Of course, Richard Parker doesn’t take kindly to this and proceeds to pee on Pi.

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi is basically a one-man show in the acting department. Sharma is incredible as the crafty Pi, who has to figure out a way to keep away from his ferocious travel buddy. Lee allows him to pepper in some physical comedy as well as play with his faith to give his performance a powerful punch. He did move me when he shouts at the sky in a storm, demanding to know what else God wants from him. We share in his joy when he catches a massive fish and feel his disappointment when he spots a ship far in the distance ignoring his flares and sailing the opposite direction. You may even fight back a tear when Pi attempts to grieve for his dead family but he doesn’t get much time to properly mourn. In the present, Pi is portrayed by Khan, who is basically the storyteller and boy, does he sell it. His tear jerking final moments will floor you. Spall’s writer is there just to move the story along and to act as a Ryan Reynolds lookalike (Maybe Reynolds was too busy?). Tabu is another stand out as Pi’s loving mother, Gita Patel, who is tickled by Pi’s curiosity in religion. Adil Hussain leaves a mark as Pi’s strict but wise father, Santosh Patel. And we can’t forget Richard Parker, a mostly CGI creation but one that really seems to be flesh, hair and blood. The relationship that builds between him and Pi is wondrous.

While I hate to criticize Life of Pi for loosing my interest in a few parts, I feel as though a film should hold me every single second it is on the screen. I should be wrapped up in every single moment, big and small, but sadly, there were parts where I found myself drifting out of Pi’s adventure. No matter how much spectacle Lee threw my way, I wanted the story to progress and at times I felt as though it wasn’t. I did enjoy the out-of-left-field twist at the end, which does leave a lump in the viewer’s throat. I also really liked Pi’s mini pit stop on that seriously astonishing island. If you are planning on checking out Life of Pi on strictly an entertainment level, you are going to be broadsided by how heavy the film gets at points. The film makes the bold claim that by the end of this story, you will believe in God. Whether it accomplishes this task is completely up to you but I wasn’t necessarily swelling with faith by the end credits. Overall, like a moth to a light, you can’t help but be drawn to it’s idea that even when facing impossible odds, hope will deliver you through it. It will also be very hard to resist Lee’s marvelous direction (I smell a Best Director nomination) but at over two hours, Life of Pi is a bit bloated. It may not rank at Lee’s best film but Life of Pi is certainly a rousing and tender work of art that will have a heavy presence come awards time.

Grade: B+

The Gate (1987)

The Gate (1987)

by Steve Habrat

I had never heard of director Tibor Takács’ 1987 demons-in-suburbia horror flick The Gate until a buddy at work recommended it and let me borrow his copy on DVD. Made in the heyday of stop-motion special effects and flashy explosions, The Gate is what you would get if you combined the rollicking adventures of The Goonies, the spacey wonder of E.T., and the funhouse scares of Poltergeist. Borrowing heavily from early Steven Spielberg, Takács crafts a solid little eighty-five minute sleepover distraction that will send the kiddies off with a few nightmares and the adult viewers away inebriated on drive-in nostalgia. In addition to all the goofy fun you’ll have, you’ll also marvel at how well the film has held up through the years. Only once or twice do the incredible effects look dated or slightly cheesy. Even more incredible is that the film was made for a measly $2 million, which makes it even more astonishing that it has barely aged a day. The Gate is also worth a look to check out the performance from a young Stephen Dorff as our pint-sized hero who has to face Hell on earth in mundane old suburbia. And you thought searching for lost pirate treasure was stressful!

The Gate introduces us to Glen (Played by Dorff), a nerdy suburban kid who passes the time with his heavy metal loving buddy Terry (Played by Louis Tripp). After Glen’s parents have a large tree dug out of their back yard, Glen and Terry find a mysterious rock in the hole that looks suspiciously like an egg. Meanwhile, Glen’s sister, Al (Played by Christa Denton), is busy trying to convince their parents that she is old enough to babysit Glen while they are away for the weekend. After a lot of pleading and begging, Al is allowed to look after Glen but as soon as their parents leave, she kicks off a big party for her friends. What the kids assume will be a fun-filled weekend takes a sinister turn when they find a rotten corpse buried in the walls of their house, suffer from bizarre hallucinations, and are stalked by miniature demonic creatures that crawl out of the hole in the backyard. As the paranormal activity increases, Terry and Glen begin to suspect that the hole in the backyard is really a gateway to Hell and if it isn’t closed soon, the world will be reduced to ashes.

The Gate does start out a bit choppy in its opening moments, with awkward editing and lots of silly dissolves. It doesn’t help that the acting has trouble finding its groove but things start to click when the special effects kick in. Once the little demonic critters start wrecking havoc all over the house, things start to be a little more fun and surprisingly eerie. The Gate also has a number of hallucinatory moments that are capable of scaring the crap out of both younger and older viewers. A scene in which Terry comes face to face with his deceased mother is a major creep-out as is the one where Glen embraces a demonic form of his father, only to pull his head off and gouge his eyes out. There is also an eyeball in the palm of Glen’s hand, bedroom walls bending in on themselves, and a demonic version of Terry emerging from a closet and trying to take a bite out of Glen’s hand. It’s through these otherworldly moments that The Gate achieves a fairly creepy atmosphere that lingers until the final frame of the film. The creature effects add more of an action element to all the insanity and I have to say that they have held up better than you think. If you think the alien-like demons that scamper around are spooky, wait until you get a look at the rat like creature that bursts through Glen and Al’s living room. It’s actually better than most of the computerized monsters that Hollywood comes up with today.

The Gate (1987)

Considering that The Gate is a kiddie horror flick, our protagonists are all below the age of seventeen. The young Dorff is passable as rocket-obsessed Glen but he does very little to really blow us away. When combined with Tripp, the two convey a legitimate friendship that is heartwarming, especially since Tripp’s Terry is nursing a broken heart. I’d honestly have to go with Tripp’s performance over Dorff’s since there is a bit more depth there. Then there is Denton’s Al, who is handed lots of 80’s slang that is sure to nab more than a few unintentional laughs from those who didn’t grow up then. If her slang doesn’t get you, her style and variety of friends will certainly have you chuckling. Deborah Grover and Scot Denton drop in briefly as Glen and Al’s worried but loving parents. There is a very fine scene that finds Glen and his father discussing Terry and how he is coping with the loss of his mother. It is a scene that actually made me want to see more from their father but if he remained in the picture, we wouldn’t have all the funhouse horror that we do.

While The Gate has some mighty fine monsters and some surprisingly disturbing images, the film is the victim of its own plot cheese. I supposed that if The Goonies and Poltergeist never were made, The Gate would have had a bigger impact than it actually had. Still, if your someone who really enjoys a good stop-motion special effect over rubbery CGI, you’re going to go wild for this one. Even if all this madness shouldn’t work, I’m still a huge sucker for these types of films, the ones where extraordinary events break the peaceful tranquility of the idyllic American suburb. These films are almost like comfort food, especially since I can remember checking out films like The Goonies and E.T. when I was just a squirt. It’s the rollicking adventure that wins out and makes The Gate a fun Friday night barging bin watch.  Overall, the kids will find it scarier than the adults, but The Gate still keeps the entertainment light and accessible, something that you just can’t argue with. A forgotten B-movie gem that will do the trick when you’ve exhausted all the other horror classics the video store has to offer.

Grade: B

The Gate is available on DVD.

Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith (2005)

by Steve Habrat

After the numbing Attack of the Clones, it was anyone’s guess where the Star Wars saga would go next. Would Lucas improve it and finally catch the rollicking spirit that made the original three films great or would he continue to bog every frame and actor down with relentless CGI garbage? The answer is that he would do both with Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. The third entry in Lucas’s modern trilogy would be the closest to the original films, both visually and spiritually, but the film would also suffer from his refusal to ease up on the CGI that practically splits every frame of this overly busy and rocky final installment. In the time between The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, one would think that Lucas would try to improve his communication with his actors, fine tuning how to instruct them to be somewhat believable, especially with the misguided Hayden Christensen, who acts more like a rebellious teenager rather than troubled man consumed by demons, both internally and externally. Instead, Lucas seemed to be more interested in making Darth Vader unintentionally funny and dreaming up CGI aliens.

Revenge of the Sith opens with the Republic and the Separatists still waging the Clone War. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Played by Hayden Christensen) have been sent to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Played by Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of the dreaded half alien and half robot General Grievous. After a narrow escape, Anakin returns to his wife Padmé (Played by Natalie Portman), who reveals to him that she is pregnant. Anakin has recently found himself suffering from visions of Padmé dying during childbirth. Soon, Chancellor Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, the man controlling the conflict between the Republic and the Separatists. Darth Sidious begins convincing Anakin to become his Sith apprentice in the absence of Obi-Wan, who has gone after General Grievous. As Anakin slowly falls under the spell of the wicked Darth Sidious, Obi-Wan returns to try to save Anakin before he is consumed by the dark side of the force. Anakin, however, believes that Darth Sidious is the only one who can save Padmé’s life.

Lucas includes a few more of the original characters in Revenge of the Sith. We get a brief cameo by the Wookies and a quick glimpse of Chewbacca, one of the greatest characters from the original trilogy. Yoda begins to seem weaker and appear much more feeble than in the previous two installments. R2D2 and C-3P0 have heavier roles here and seem more at home in Revenge of the Sith over The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Even Emperor Palpatine pulling the dark hood over his head will send an electric jolt of excitement through you. It also doesn’t hurt to finally have Anakin in the iconic costume of Darth Vader by the finale. Yet Lucas poorly paces much of the action in Revenge of the Sith, making it incredibly difficult to get excited about the events setting the stage for the classic trilogy. A battle between General Grievous and Obi-Wan is way too short and unsatisfying. A brief showdown between Anakin Skywalker and Count Dooku (Played by Christopher Lee) seems thrown in just to let us know that Dooku is still in the picture. Even the climatic showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan is lumpy and inconsistent, a bit too cartoonish and by the end is just the two men glaring at each other as computerized lava splashes around them.

The bane of the first half of the Star Wars saga has been the acting, an issue that I still can’t believe that Lucas overlooked. It’s been about the visual effects with Episodes I-III and sadly, the same problem plagues Revenge of the Sith. Here we have epic shots of planets that largely failed to capture our imaginations that feature characters we are only slightly acquainted with getting killed.  Lucas is convinced that if the score mourns for these characters, so will we. He gives us several shots of the Jedi being wiped out, Jedi that we only see from time to time, but not ones we know. He fairs better with the departure of Yoda and the death of Mace Windu (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). Christensen fairs no better in Revenge of the Sith, his acting actually being worse here than in Attack of the Clones. Here Lucas slaps some red contacts in Christensen’s eyes (Actually, he probably just digitally made his eyes red. Lucas wouldn’t dare do anything authentic. Who am I kidding!?) and expects us to quiver in our seats. He didn’t frighten me in the least, but when the Vader suit emerges, you will quiver. That quiver will quickly fade into laughter when he delivers the worst line of dialogue ever written (“NOOOOOOOO!”). It’s the furthest thing from a Vader response and ruins a tense emotional moment. Way to go, Lucas!

Portman and McGregor are the true veterans who deserve a round of applause. They do a fine job with the hodgepodge that Lucas hands them. By the end of this film, I had grown to care about Kenobi. McGregor injected a soul into his character and made him more than just a sloppy outline. Portman isn’t the strong female force this time around, which was slightly depressing, but understandable due to her character’s pregnancy. Lucas did not execute the shift from strong to heartbroken gracefully but Portman handles it like a professional. You catch brief glimpses of regret for putting her heart on the line and devastation that the man she loves is filled with brimming such cruelty. Jackson’s composed and astute Mace Windu is also a standout here, another character that worms his way into your heart. It was truly difficult to watch his final moments unfold on screen. This credit should go to Jackson, though, because I’m sure Lucas was more concerned with how many spaceships he could think up and cram into the background.

Another problem that has plagued Episodes I-III is the fact that Lucas hasn’t truly given us multifaceted villains to fear. They have become iconic strictly in physical appearance. Personality wise, they have been stiffs who are only present to cackle menacingly and serve as the other end in a lightsaber battle. Revenge of the Sith shakes this curse in the final moments when Vader stands next to Emperor Palpatine as they watch the construction of the dreaded Death Star. Familiarity was key for Revenge of the Sith, which is what ultimately allowed the film to be slightly better than Attack of the Clones. It still lacked a truly adventurous side–the one that I believe saved The Phantom Menace from truly sucking. Yet in a strange way, familiarity is what also gave The Phantom Menace another leg to stand on. I felt like I was watching a Star Wars film the first time I saw it and I still do when I see The Phantom Menace, a plus that allows me to overlook Jar Jar Binks. I can’t say the same for Attack of the Clones, a film that felt like a knock off of Star Wars film rather than actually seeming like one of the installments in the series. In Revenge of the Sith, I sometimes felt like I was watching one, and half is better than none, in my opinion. Revenge of the Sith is painfully middling, but it is worth sitting through the monotonous to get to that familiar and proficiently composed fifteen-minute finale.

Grade: C+

Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith is now available on Blu-ray.

Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999)

by Steve Habrat

If you are looking for a review of the 3D converted re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, you won’t find it here. I don’t feel the need to shell out thirteen dollars for a film that wasn’t filmed in 3D but rather converted to milk more money out of fans. The re-release and my recent purchase of the Blu-ray set has pushed me to revisit the saga in crystal clear HD and I must say, it does look remarkable, but a pretty picture does not make a great film, folks. Lucas, a master showman when it comes to special effects, lost the magic that his original three films had and instead, his new trilogy consisted of countless CGI backgrounds, aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and relentless rubbery action scenes. What made the original three Star Wars films such a success was that they heavily relied on the tale that was told. The characters didn’t seem to have coached interaction, but rather sincere emotions. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas showed us that he had lost control and had instead focused more on creating and selling toys than creating and selling a timeless tale that would extend across generations. But, I will also admit that I found The Phantom Menace to actually be the best of the new Star Wars films. Believe it or not.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… The evil Trade Federation led by Nute Gunray has set their sights on the peaceful planet of Naboo, which they aim to invade. When two Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Played by Liam Neeson) are sent to negotiate the blockade issued by the Trade Federation. Upon their arrival, the evil Darth Sidious (Played by Ian McDiarmid) orders that the droid army kill the Jedi. They nearly escape and find themselves on the planet of Naboo, where they befriend an irritating Gungan creature named Jar Jar Binks (Played by Ahmed Best). Jar Jar Binks takes them to the capital Theed, where they rescue Queen Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman) before the Federation can take her. They narrowly escape (again) and then find themselves on the planet Tatooine, where they befriend a salve boy known as Anakin Skywalker (Played by Jake Lloyd). As their friendship grows with Anakin, the Jedi begin to sense that the Force is strong with the boy and that he should be trained as a Jedi. Soon, they find themselves being tracked by a gruesome horned Sith known Darth Maul (Played by Ray Park), who aims to kill the Jedi. The Jedi must also convince the underwater Gungan city Otoh Gunga to help the people of Naboo and aid them in retaking their planet.

The Phantom Menace does achieve the task of opening a door to another galaxy, one that leaves us asking, ‘what will Lucas think of next?’ It really is incredible taking all the creativity in and waiting for little cameos from classic characters. Yoda shows up, R2D2 is in the mix, and, heck, so is Jabba the Hutt for a brief period. The new characters that are introduced are largely wooden in their performance, which is surprising due to the cast of players Lucas has at his disposal. Liam Neeson does the best job with the clunky script that Lucas provides. He is compassionate, kind, and when need be, totally kick-ass. He is a wise father figure for both Obi-Wan and the probing Anakin. McGregor also plays his character the best he can, resisting the constricting grip of Lucas every chance he gets. He’s the true gung-ho hero who is up for an adventure, which is, after all, why we are visiting this far away galaxy.

Natalie Portman also does a stand out job as Queen Amidala, the monotone and ornate ruler who surges with life once Lucas takes us to Tatoonie. Lucas had the good sense to not make her a complete damsel in distress. When she is handed a laser pistol, she fires back at the frail droid army who are persistent in their attacks. The true annoyance comes in the form of young Anakin. Lucas clearly had absolutely no idea how to make a connection with Lloyd and furthermore, how to guide him in a convincing performance. Every single line he utters seems like Lucas is telling it to him through a megaphone just off camera. The young Lloyd also suffers due to there being basically being nothing for him to actually interact with.

The true reason we watch a Star Wars film is to escape for two hours and loose ourselves in the inspired characters of his space opera. Lucas does provide some seriously cool creatures to bug out at. One of his neatest is Darth Maul, a relatively quiet Sith with black and red tattoos covering his face and a collection of horns atop his head. Lucas always has dreamed up interesting foes for our heroes to confront and Maul nears the top as one of the best. He is mysterious, acrobatic, and murmurs only a few lines of dialogue. I also took a liking to Darth Sidious, the throaty and flaccid evil emperor who would appear in flickering transmissions. But the show belongs to the one-man killing machine Maul, who faces off against Qui-Gon Gin and Obi Wan set to John Williams’ epic score. The battle between the two Jedi and the Sith is without question one of the best lightsaber battles the saga has.

The Phantom Menace does have its fair share of negatives. The film tries to appeal more to a younger audience rather than the diehard fans, which leads to Lucas adding heavy doses of comic relief and little in the way of true sinister moments. There is a scene where one character is cut in half but it is far from graphic. Lucas gives stale one-liners to Anakin, who has zero comedic timing. Once again, I honestly feel that this is a reflection of the dry personality of Lucas. The other dreadful addition is Jar Jar Binks, who is more infuriating than funny. His character relies on slapstick to cut the tension, but what Lucas forgot to add was the tension. His droid army is supposed to strike fear in our hearts but the Jedi cut through them like paper thrown at them by a baby. The droids almost come close to cute, something a villain should never be. You’ll also find yourself cringing at some of the most poorly written dialogue of all time.

The adventure spirit is alive and well in The Phantom Menace, which narrowly saves it from being downright appalling. For those who follow the saga closely, there will be much to complain about but Lucas will certainly do some right by you. That right comes in the form of classic characters, an expansion on the iconic John Williams score, and an incredibly awesome climatic lightsaber duel. But it is the countless fakery that ruined the new trilogy of Star Wars films. There was such a heavy focus on the merchandise that could be pushed onto kids that it becomes maddening. Many film professors, intellectuals, and brainwashed film students criticize Star Wars for lacking depth. We know what to expect when watching one of these films and that is creativity and thrills. I certainly don’t go in expecting to see a political satire. I go in for the eye candy and The Phantom Menace delivers on that. It just a shame Lucas went overboard with the sugary visuals. Overall, the Force was strong here but sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to make something great.

Grade: B

Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is now available on Blu-ray and is currently playing at your local theater in 3D.

Twilight (2008)

by Steve Habrat

I finally did the impossible. I pushed all my preconceived notions to the side, suspended all my incredulity, ignored my expectations for what a vampire movie should be and I sat through the entire first Twilight film. Sure, I seethed over the constant sensitivity and soft tones, the lack of any horror, and the cheese filled dialogue. I overlooked the plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon and came to the decision that the film is relentlessly average. Teeny director Catherine Hardwicke drenches the film in of-the-moment pop culture references and slang. It’s all tight jeans, indie pop music, mopey sleek, and speedy editing, all tailor made for those who get their eyeliner at Hot Topic. For a film I anticipated to loathe on all levels, I just found it to be like soda that’s gone flat. It needed a little fizz to liven the mood. The setting for the film is absolutely perfect—dreary and humdrum. The film is also grossly misguided in it’s aesthetic, under the impression that it is telling a gritty tale of forbidden love. It’s actually an elaborate soap opera stretched out for two hours and preaching a shallow message to its viewers: love is eternal. Making things worse is the fact that Hardwicke treats the material like child’s play, never aiming high and making anything more ample that would reach a wider audience. This is strictly for the pre-teens.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Twilight whether you like it or not. Clumsy Bella Swan (Played by Kristen Stewart) moves to Forks, Washington to shack up with her stiff sheriff father Charlie (Played by Billy Burke). She quickly makes friends but is mesmerized by a mysterious and brooding boy in her science class. His name is Edward Cullen (Played by Robert Pattinson. Ya know, the guy who makes every girl want to tear their hair out), and he doesn’t take kindly to Bella at first. The two finally strike up a conversation and end up falling for each other. Bella, however, has suspicions about Edward, mostly when he saves her from being seriously injured or killed when she is almost crushed by an out-of-control van. As Edward and Bella’s love affair blossoms, a trio of rabid vampires tears through the woods and kill anyone in their path. This trio consists of James (Played by Cam Gigandet), Victoria (Played by Rachelle Lefevre) and Laurent (Played by Edi Gathegi). Upon meeting Bella, James sets his sights on her and sees her as pure food. Edward and the rest of his eccentric vampire clan scramble to protect her as James closes in and threatens her entire family.

A good majority of Twilight is spent watching Bella and Edward lock eyes, Bella biting her lip, and the star crossed lovers arguing with each other about the fate of their relationship. Edward denies that they can ever be together and that Bella should leave him alone even though he is always the one that seeks her out. You’d think Bella would point this out to him but she inexplicably goes right along with it. Everyone suspects something is strange about Edward, a suspicion that could stem from the fact that he walks around with too much powder on his face. It’s cringe inducing when we first see him. It doesn’t help that Hardwicke has him sitting in front of a stuffed owl with a hulking white wings, making it seem like Edward himself is an angle sent to Bella. While watching it, it’s truly hard to figure out why this material drives girls crazy to the point of hysterics. I can understand the fantasy element here, about your dream man sweeping you off your feet. Seriously, Edward really does this at points, throwing the love drunk Bella on his back as he scampers up a tree like a giant, baby-powder covered monkey. It can only get better, right?

Further frustrating is the love-is-eternal implication that flows forth from the film. It’s chaste to the point of being sickening, all heavy breathes and light pecks between Bella and Edward. For a film that is meant to relish in contemporary portrayal, it’s clueless about teens today. It’s a little too clean and lacking in fun. The bit players are all mostly annoying clichés; the only one who really makes a stand in her character is Anna Kendrick’s Jessica, who has a few good one-liners. I suppose they are good not because they are well written snippets of dialogue, but because Kendrick herself is better than this garbage she finds herself in. This takes me to the dialogue itself, which seems like the screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg pulled dialogue straight from the book itself. I’m sorry but there are just some things that sound better on paper and Stephanie Myers’ dialogue is one of them. It should have stayed in the book and more thought should have gone in to what these kiddies have to say.

But I will be fair here and eat my words. I was quick to label Robert Pattinson overrated and lacking any skill when it came to acting. Throughout the duration of the film, he mostly resorts to staring longingly at Plain Jane Bella, but he is surprisingly self-aware in his character. When he cracks a joke, he flashes a genuine grin, obviously chuckling at the absurdity on display here. It could also mirror his sense of humor over the swarms of teens that go gaga over him. When he says, “Everyone’s looking” and follows it with an impressed grin, I believed his astonishment. Go figure! Who would have thought Pattinson would slap on a few complexities to this thing? The antagonist James is no more of a threat than a month old puppy. It is said that the Cullen clan needs to rip him apart and burn him, which sounds really cool until you realize that Hardwicke will hide the process through trick editing and blurry cinematography. Stewart’s Bella is about what you would expect, radiating a novice approach to acting. She’s not terrible, but there is definitely some room for improvement. It’s hard to blame her because she is still fairly young here.

Truth be told, what Twilight could really use is more of a sense of adventure and dropping the starry-eyed theatrics. Making the villains a bit more sinister and not like they are troupe of homeless hippies would help. Give Bella a bit more confidence and leave the two-left feet shtick on the cutting room floor. Give Edward more to do than just lurking around in the shadows and starring at Bella and no, I don’t mean give him more driving time. It should be noted that I think Edward also stepped out of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, as he can apparently drive like he earns money street racing. Dropping the out-of-place slow motion shots would make a difference and also a better make-up and special effects team would do wonders. Seriously, watching the vamps leap around like Red Bull addicted apes was absurd. There is a smidgeon of potential here, but the film is too vain to even explore it. It couldn’t care less about providing a story worth telling and instead concerns itself with beauty. The only reason for the film version to exist is to exploit Robert Pattinson’s looks. Way to aim high, Twilight. Worse, way to respect yourselves, fans.

Grade: C-

Twilight is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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