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.
Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is now available on Blu-ray and is currently playing at your local theater in 3D.
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
by Charles Beall
2011 was the year of vintage Spielberg. Along with J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” we were treated to the first animated feature film by this legendary filmmaker; these two films, for me at least, reminded me why I fell in love with the films of Steven Spielberg in the first place.
So we have “The Adventures of Tintin,” and boy is this a great film. I will admit that when I first saw the trailer for this movie, I aired on the side of caution. I had been familiar with the name Tintin, but had no idea as what to expect, and in a way, Spielberg knew this. Both he and Peter Jackson had a great challenge ahead of them, adapting a uniquely European comic for a worldwide audience. As someone who has no idea about the source material, and who thoroughly enjoyed the film, I can say their gamble was a success.
To delve into the plot of “Tintin” would be a disservice to the reader. But I will tell you this: this movie is a grand adventure in the style of the movies we grew up with. There is an underlying mystery, a legend, and it is up to Tintin and his sidekick Snowy to solve it. And I’ll tell you this, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, consumed in a child-like giddiness that I rarely experience while watching a film.
Spielberg, like Scorsese with “Hugo” (a magnificent masterpiece), uses 3D technology to add, well, another dimension to the story; it is a tool, not a gimmick. We are literally immersed in Spielberg’s world of Tintin and we see shots that no live action film could accomplish. There are chase scenes that come out of the imagination of an eight year-old, and it is obvious that the filmmaker is having a blast. The detail in every scene is impeccable, from the distorted reflection in a bottle to the consistency of the pores on a face. The love of film and serials past is evident; there is an homage to “Jaws” that made me want to go up to the screen and give it a big ol’ kiss.
But, most important, what we have in “The Adventures of Tintin” is a filmmaker who is constantly challenging himself and whom is willing to revisit the films of his childhood, and ultimately, the films that made him the artist he is today. Tintin will be, hopefully, a character that kids will embrace on this side of the pond. He is a smart character, who uses his intellect and imagination, not an iPhone and Google to solve mysteries or to have an adventure. I for one cannot wait to have kids, mainly because I want to see them discover movies, and “The Adventures of Tintin” will definitely be in the “Spielberg section” that I will indoctrinate them with.
Mr. Spielberg, bravo. (And I love you, please give me a job.)
War Horse (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After a string of producing gigs this past summer, Steven Spielberg jumps behind the camera and gives us War Horse, one half of his directorial efforts this past holiday season (The other is The Adventures of Tintin). War Horse, based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a finely polished Oscar vehicle that lures out the tears while also bringing families together and making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Spielberg, you sly dog, you! Put your notion that War Horse is just a big budget Hallmark movie that should have been straight to video on the back burner and embrace this sweeping, innocent tale that makes you, the viewer, feel like it is being told to you by your expert storytelling uncle next to a flickering fire on a snowy night. Like any good story, it does take a little while for War Horse to really hit its stride, but when World War I breaks out, the film really draws us in and gets intimate with our easy emotions. War Horse is unabashedly old fashioned, but that actually adds to the event and sent my enjoyment of the film through the roof.
War Horse begins with the birth of a beautiful thoroughbred horse and grows up being admired by Albert Narracott (Played by Jeremy Irvine). A few years pass and Albert’s father Ted Narracott (Played by Peter Mullan) ends up at a horse auction where he is looking for a horse to plow his fields. He finds himself hypnotized by the horse’s beauty and ends up biding all of his money for the horse and brings it home to his horrified wife Rose (Played by Emily Watson) and the delighted Albert. Albert convinces his mother to allow him to keep the horse and train it. He ends up naming the horse Joey and the two bond instantly. Soon, Ted’s landlord Lyons (Played by David Thewlis) comes knocking for rent, but due to the high price Ted paid for Joey, he is unable to come up with the money. Albert agrees to train Joey to plow the fields so that his father can come up with the money owed to Lyons. Shortly after their agreement, World War I breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army for the amount he owes Lyons. Distraught and furious, Albert volunteers for the army to find Joey and be reunited with him. This takes both Joey and Albert on an adventure they will never forget across lush countryside and bombed out no-mans-lands.
Relentlessly sentimental with emotional cues from John Williams’ majestic score, War Horse is pure Oscar gold that will effortlessly nab a Best Picture nomination by the Academy. Trust me, I’m not complaining about that as I absolutely bought every cheap emotional tug this film sold me. The message is as simple as they get, Spielberg once again praying for peace and begging us to all get along. This time, he uses a regal beast in the form of Joey to send this message. Many may also quickly label the film nothing but child’s play, but that only lasts for the first forty minutes of the movie. Once World War I breaks out, War Horse shifts from wispy children’s tale to muddy and weary war film. Spielberg makes these transitions fluently and he more than makes up for the slow opening by molding a crowd pleasing ending that will add fuel to the fire for those who dislike the blockbuster director and satisfy those who enjoy his work (People like me). One sequence at the end is absolutely stunning and spellbinding, forcing enemies to work together. I will reveal no more than that.
If the film somehow doesn’t nab a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, the actors surely will. Emily Watson’s Rose conveys infinite amounts of hope, support, and affection with a stare. Her eyes really sell her character and she gets some of the films sappiest lines, ones that will really tickle the fans of the Best Adapted Screenplay department. Tom Hiddleston shows up as the gracious Captain Nicholls. His commiseration for Albert’s heartbreak really makes his character memorable. I’ve always found Hiddleston to be able to really morph into his characters he takes on and Captain Nicholls is no different. Niels Arestrup shows up as a French grandfather who radiates with warmth. Mullan’s Ted is a haunted soul; one who has been exposed to the horrors life has to offer. But War Horse really benefits from the performance by Jeremy Irvine as Albert. His love for Joey is unbearably authentic and his dedication for his family can’t be matched. He is old fashioned and cheesy at times, but it fits for a project like this.
Spielberg crafts war sequences that rival what he produced in Saving Private Ryan and they truly are rousing. A tracking shot in the trenches shows us petrified yet proud young men laying down their lives for their country. His cinematography is crisp, spotless, and his scope is extensive and detailed. His battle scenes are bloodless, appropriate for young viewers and a bit easier to swallow compared to his gruesome battles in Saving Private Ryan. A scene involving barbed wire wrapped around a galloping Joey may frighten some young viewers and make adults cringe at the sight. War Horse does effectively show us how pointless war can really be. Are we really any different than our enemies? They have normal lives, professions, and names. Just like us. Condemn him for taking the easy route but Spielberg has found an effective route nonetheless.
War Horse is a must see for craftsmanship alone, a piece for viewers to marvel at the big budget ingenuity, classic storytelling, and proficient performances. The relatively unknown actors give the film a hearty does of vigor. They become real to the viewer versus the alienation of seeing a well-known star. Its message will undoubtedly get lost in the crowd of countless films preaching the same message of hope and unity, but in a way, I feel like some of the blame rests on the shoulders of Michael Morpurgo’s story. Despite some of its clichés, War Horse is a magnificent film and pure Spielberg. Much like the ambiance of War Horse, Spielberg may be starting to become a little traditionalist himself but a little old fashioned conservatism every now and again never hurt anyone. War Horse really finds its stride in the traditional vein of filmmaking.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Did you miss him? Robert Downey Jr.’s motor-mouthed brawler/detective Sherlock Holmes blasts his way back into theaters and the people are flocking to his latest case. While I found myself smitten with Downey Jr.’s magnetic performance during the first case, I found the events swirling around him too tortuous. I understand what British director Guy Ritchie is trying to achieve, which is to put us in Holmes’ rutty boots and work along side him in racing the clock and solving the diabolical plot. Yet Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows gets tangled up in its own reveals, twists, turns, and fake-outs. I found myself backtracking to pinpoint which character Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson were chattering on about. Do not interpret this as me saying the film was over my head, but I just wish these movies would slow down for a minute and let me catch up before it dashes off again. The film leaves you mentally exhausted. I suppose that the modish action sequences are there to let us rest our brains, but Ritchie goes above and beyond the normal slam-bang intensity that is rampaging through action films of late. He stages some of the most rousing action sequences of the year, with precise slow-motion halts to give us a clear glimpse of the bone snapping action. It’s exhilarating and you can’t peel your eyes from it. So much for a second to catch my breath.
After a string of seemingly unrelated crimes throughout Europe, the peculiar detective Holmes (Played by Downey Jr.) suspects that there is more to these strange events than meets the eye. He begins applying his usual unorthodox detective work and enlists the help of the less-than-patient Dr. John Watson (Played by Law) to aid him in discovering the truth. The trail leads them to Professor James Moriarty (Played by Jared Harris), a genius that can match Holmes every step of the way. As Holmes tries to piece together what all these crimes are leading up to, he crosses paths with a dagger-throwing gypsy named Sim (Played by Noomi Rapace), who is the next target of Moriarty. Sim proves to be useful in aiding Holmes and Dr. Watson in figuring out what Moriarty’s plot is, which turns out to be more destructive than Holmes could have ever imagined.
I don’t really want to dive into many more details about the plot of the second entry to the Sherlock Holmes franchise; the slow reveals of this one prove to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the first installment. A Game of Shadows benefits from a much better villain, one who can go toe-to-toe with Holmes both in a fight and in brains too. The film does have some incredibly exhaustive art direction, featuring some lavish costumes, realistic CGI, and some sets that are to die for. It maintains the steam-punk industrial aesthetic that Ritchie established with the first film. Yet my qualm about Holmes stems from its overly busy inner workings, mostly in the plot department. Everyone speaks in a thick British accent and rambles on about characters that are hard to remember. Trust me, there are a TON of characters so I would advise you bring a notebook to scribble them all down in. The film also moves at a breakneck speed that left me wishing I could just have a brief intermission and review everything that had just happened before piling on more plot points. This one will leave you exhausted but I commend its unremitting energy.
The one aspect that I love about Sherlock Holmes is the driven, fanatical performance from Downey Jr. I think he may be a bit sharper with Holmes than he is with Tony Stark, a role many love a bit more than Holmes. Credit should be given to his spot-on and rich British accent that pours effortlessly through his mumbling mouth. He sometimes comes off as a ranting lunatic that would seem more at home in a straightjacket rather than an overcoat and bowler cap. He’s unpredictable (He shows up on a train dressed as a woman), brash, and poised in every move he makes. When at one point he admits he made a mistake and lives are lost, we feel his distress in himself. It’s only one of two times we see a crack in his self-assured manner. Law’s Dr. Watson acts as the voice of reason when Holmes goes on a brain-frying rampage. Law also has perfect comedic timing to Downey Jr.’s deadpan delivery. Truth is, their relationship is given room to grow and evolve here. We get to see their affection for one another. They are an odd couple but, hey, opposites attract right?
Moriarty is a memorable villain, one who spits his words out with vitriol to spare. He truly does have a diabolical plot and I love his final moments with Holmes. Harris look like he had a good time playing evil. Rachel McAdams returns for a brief cameo as Adler, one that seems a little bit pointless, as she wasn’t in the original all that much. Rapace, for all the celebration around her performance in the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to just be a pretty face stuck between Law and Downey Jr.’s stubbly faces. I would have liked to see more range from her, as all Ritchie has her doing is running from bullets, hitmen, and cannonballs. Stephen Fry turns up as Mycroft, Sherlock’s posh brother who is just as deadpan and batty as the good detective.
As someone who is always rallying for more intellectual blockbusters, I have to hand it to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It refuses to dumb itself down too much, even if it is just escapist fluff. If there is another Sherlock Holmes, and I’m sure there will be, I would love to see the screenwriter shave things down a little bit and I’d love for Ritchie to ease up on the pace. Don’t be in such a rush to push Holmes through the case, as I enjoy watching him tick. I’ll definitely have thirds on the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson, as that acts as the heart and soul for this franchise. The action should also be noted, as it turns out to be much more epic the second time around. Just wait until you see the gunfight between Holmes, Sim, and Watson against a gang of German soldiers. All I will say is that it involves stellar slow-motion effects and a gun named Little Hansel. Funnier than the original, a bit more straight forward (Just slightly!), with style and energy to burn, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the ideal thrill ride to distract you from all those Christmas presents you still have to buy.
Sucker Punch (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After all the gun smoke had cleared and the credits crawled across the screen, it became crystal clear to me how Christopher Nolan settled on Zack Snyder for the reboot of Superman: Snyder simply showed him Sucker Punch. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Nolan gushed over it either. Sucker Punch is a trippy puzzler that sends you stumbling from the theater to debate what the hell just happened with your friends, which is quite similar to what Nolan did with his towering Inception. But where Inception pulled off it’s elusiveness with refined sophistication, Sucker Punch takes the dirty, dusty road where dragons swoop from above, girls in fishnets wield 50 calibers, WWI zombie German soldiers leap from trenches, and our heroes bop around in a WWII bomber. And that is just naming a few of the oddities that Snyder lobbed into his obvious pet project. I’m sure by this point you’ve seen the other reviews of Sucker Punch and, to use a term from Mr. Obama, the film has taken quite a “shellacking.” Sure it’s big, loud, and completely overblown, but I oddly found myself enjoying the madness. What actually appalls me is that Battle: Los Angeles, a film that makes no attempt to be about anything except blowing everything up, actually received better reviews than this film did! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! Did we see the same movie?
Maybe I was rooting for Snyder to actually pull off the impossible. Everyone under the sun has seen the unruly trailer. Snyder seemed like he wanted to shove every possible genre of film into one film to make one hulking masterpiece. One that encompasses everything from the kung-fu films to epic medieval fantasies. I truly found Sucker Punch to be a noble, and at times, refreshing attempt at it even if it was beginning to show signs of collapsing on itself. The film also has had a slight hypnotic affect over me in the sense that I am confident that there is more to this particular film than first meets the eye. The first time seems to be a shock and awe campaign to pin you to your seat but the more my mind wanders back and evaluates the little touches, the more I’m lured into wanting to uncover more about it.
I won’t dive to deeply into the plot of the film because some of it is up to you to piece together, but the film follows the starry-eyed, pig-tailed Babydoll (played by Emily Browning), who is admitted into a mental institution by her unhinged stepfather after she accidentally shoots her baby sister. It’s here that she falls under the care of the at times menacing and at times motherly but always vampy Dr. Gorski (played by Carla Gugino). Behind the walls of the institition, she embraces her new life in a brothel and learns to dance for the seedy men that come to drool over the young girls. Babydoll soon joins forces with the tough-as-nails leader Sweet Pea (played by Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea’s gung-ho little sister Rocket (played by Jenna Malone), the uneasy “pilot” Amber (played by Jamie Chung), and the big guns specialist Blondie (played by Vanessa Hudgens). The gang rapidly starts plotting an escape from the institution/brothel and through their wildly untamed imaginations, envision elaborate dream-missions to find the supplies they need to break out of the big house.
While the film marvelously finds a perfect balance between the hectic dream worlds and the rotting walls of the institution, the film tries to cram so much in that points are a little to overpowering. There is an incredibly inspired sequence that takes place on a WWI battle field complete with zombified German soldiers wearing ghastly gasmasks, biplanes falling in flaming ruin from the sky, earth shaking explosions and a lofty android walker with a rabbit face that Amber maneuvers into a outrageously bad ass death machine. It’s a truly breathtaking action sequence that is worth the trip to see the movie alone. Sadly, the film stumbles when it ventures into the realm of medieval fantasy in a war sequence that smashes WWII together with the Lord of the Rings. I give it credit for being atypical but it’s shockingly monotonous and lacking in any sort of looming danger. This leads me to my next compliant, which is the fact that all the girls are magically scrappy superheroes. There is never any concrete justification and we are supposed to just embrace it. One sequence that is especially irritating is when Babydoll confronts three giant samurais. She flips through the air so repeatedly that I almost wanted to shout “ENOUGH ALREADY! WE GET IT!”
Ultimately, Sucker Punch overcomes the obstacles and still manages to be engaging. I still found myself consumed by much of it and the writing, although uneven, is never less than interesting. The dialogue is good but not great and the premise alone never lost me. The performances’ by the young actresses are finely tuned and convincing. I was extremely worried that they would be wooden. The standout is without question the wounded Rocket. She kicks ass while nursing the burden of a broken heart. I actually breathed a huge sigh of relief that the film never descended into a perverse fantasy for Snyder. While the girls are adorned in fishnets and lingerie, the film is surprisingly tame. We never get a glimpse of the burlesque dance sequences and instead are substituted with the dream world. An even bigger relief is that the film counters Snyder’s fixation with masculine heroes. I enjoyed the girl power feel that he explores this time around. It’s more substantial than his homoerotic bloodbath 300. It still comes in third to his colorful Dawn of the Dead remake and spacey adaptation of graphic novel juggernaut Watchmen. On top of it, Snyder further refines his coarse camerawork and his fluid montages of slow motion into real time. It all flows so gorgeously and it’s impossible not to eat it all up.
The aspect that truly wounds Sucker Punch is the ending where, like Watchmen, it crams all of it’s “profound” ideas in a brushed over climax that feels curiously unsatisfying. This is where the film truly flat lines. It piles on nonsensically cryptic monologues on top of some obvious visual symbolism. The film is convinced that it is a fine wine that will be savored as the taste sticks in your mouth. Unfortunately, it’s just a high-end, calorie-loaded beer that is surprisingly tasty in the beginning. A taste that you and your buddies exclaim about for the first few sips but when you reach the bottom of the bottle, you just gulp down the last drops to finish it. It wasn’t as refreshing as the first few half but it wasn’t impossible to polish off. You’ll oddly find yourself wanting to experience it all again to peel back some more layers and it will make for some good conversation in the long run.
Sucker Punch is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.