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Escape Plan (2013)

Escape PlanStallone and Schwarzenegger finally teaming up in a big action movie should be a major event, and Escape Plan seemed like it had that potential from the trailer and the general premise.  In the right hands, this could have been forged into a highly entertaining and exciting film.  Unfortunately, at no fault of Stallone or Schwarzenegger, Escape Plan falters in a lot of ways stemming from the fact that it’s backed by a director, screenwriters, editor, and cinematographer that really have nothing of good, special note to their credits, and that really shows.

Ray Breslin (Sulvester Stallone) is the world’s foremost authority on structural security. After analyzing every high security prison and learning a vast array of survival skills so he can design escape-proof prisons, his skills are put to the test. A new, shady job to test out a CIA prison facility goes awry when he is abducted and incarcerated in a master prison designed based on his analytical work.  Once inside, he finds an ally in fellow inmate Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who agrees to help him find a way out.  Now, Breslin needs to escape and find the person who put him behind bars.

This is not a bad movie, but it has a number of obvious flaws that prevent it from really capitalizing on its assets.  Escape Plan’s problems really begin with the screenplay.  I don’t think this movie is very well written, let alone well executed.  Firstly, the film becomes so pre-occupied over and over again with showcasing Ray Breslin’s long-winded analyses and exposition of his elaborate escape plan scenarios that it sucks up valuable, extensive screentime for it.  Screentime that could have been used to actually establish and develop some characters and personalities in this movie.  A good screenwriter could have deconstructed these moments far better and streamlined them for a much snappier, more succinct narrative.  Instead, screenwriters Miles Chapman and Jason Keller decide to overcomplicate matters to the detriment of the film.  For a while it seemed like Schwarzenegger’s character was merely there to give Stallone someone to dump exposition upon because it was so bluntly handled, and it doesn’t progress too far beyond that.  Anyone who has read my reviews before knows how in-depth I go into performances and characters, but there is really next to nothing to comment on about these performances.  It’s not a fault of the actors, but the material they are given.

I own a good thirty movies starring Stallone and/or Schwarzenegger with Rocky III and Predator being my respective favorites of theirs.  I’ve seen them in great movies and bad movies, but they’ve always delivered on their exceptional charismatic screen presences.  Here, there’s just extremely little material for them to inject any charisma into because it is so entrenched in exposition.  There are one or two sparks of fun chemistry between them, but it’s very fleeting when that’s exactly what should have been here in abundance.  What depth of character we get is merely a few lines of dialogue talking about a single aspect of their back stories, which is just more exposition and doesn’t give us much of a personality to grasp onto.  There’s more gained from Breslin than Rottmayer, but it’s very marginal.  The fact of the matter is that the script is very flat and unimaginative.  If Stallone and Schwarzenegger were not cast in this movie, I don’t think I’d care to maintain any attention on Breslin or Rottmayer at all because the screenwriters do nothing to actually create any characters to care about.

However, even if the characters aren’t all that interesting or dimensional like Marion Cobretti or John Matrix, if the film they are placed into is exciting and entertaining enough with clever, sharp dialogue, it can still work and bring out the better qualities of the actor.  Unfortunately, while Escape Plan maintains a solid pacing that doesn’t make it feel like a nearly two hour long movie, the action is very minimal.  There are some prison riots, a few beat downs, and an attempted prison break or two, but in terms of straight up action like shootouts and fights with the villains, there’s very little until the climax.  The film was a decent, easy watch, but never did anything ever come out and blow me away.  There are even points in time where it seemed like it was edging towards something purely awesome, but then, it comes up quite short.  So many things factor into that including some poorly structured and executed sequences.

To that point, the editing in many cases is very incoherent.  The prime examples are that there are montages of sorts showing Breslin getting tortured, or simply showing his plans going into motion.  These sequences are so sloppily edited that I couldn’t understand the narrative or linear flow through them at all.  They’re a real mess of chronology that was quite confusing.  Tying into that is the flat, bland direction that really never gives life to the proceedings of the plot.  Intercutting between The Tomb and Breslin’s team throughout the second act just felt clunky and uneven.  There’s little coherency or urgency put into what Breslin’s team is doing to give a crap about them.  They ultimately don’t do crap until the last three minutes of the movie, anyway.  And those characters are poorly conceived and flatly written to be either very obvious or simply not worth devoting your attention or interest in.  Again, the actors aren’t bad, they just have crap to work with.  Scenes are just strung together very haphazardly giving you a lack of context, narrative flow, or natural segues.  While I’m certain that a better editor couldn’t have radically improved this movie, it at least would have made it far more coherent and smoother.

Now, the only real shining quality of this movie, which is also the one person who seems to be having a delightfully fun time, is Jim Caviezel.  His villain of Warden Hobbs is very charismatic, smarmy, and particularly sadistic, but Caviezel avoids going over the top.  He keeps it low key and fairly subtle while still delivering an especially enjoyable adversary.  He definitely was putting his full commitment into this role, and he embraces it with plenty of imagination and zeal.  I love the little nuances he adds to Hobbs such as being very meticulous in his appearance and manner.  Caviezel is an actor I really like I lot from The Count of Monté Cristo to Outlander to Person of Interest, and seeing him as a villain here is wonderfully entertaining.  He made the movie particularly enjoyable, and Vinnie Jones does quite a charismatic job as Hobbs’ right hand man Drake.  There’s also an unexpected appearance by Sam Neill as the prison doctor.  He also does a fine job with what little he is given to do.  It’s clearly another case of having an actor I really like making the role any bit enjoyable or interesting for me.

Escape Plan attempts to have some semblances of plot twists or turns, but some are so obviously telegraphed or simply amount to nothing that you wonder what the point was.  I believe to have a good movie you really have to start with a good script, and this movie didn’t have one.  Even then, this film needed a far better, more talented director to maximize its potential.  If you handed this project over to a highly experienced action director like Renny Harlin, John McTiernan, Walter Hill, or, if he were still alive, George P. Cosmatos, I think this could have had some potential for success.  They would have molded and refined the story and given it the competency and life it needed.  They also would have tailored the script to the strengths of it leads so that charisma and personality could have lived and thrived on screen.  Alas, we are left with the movie we have, which is probably good for a rental, but not much better.  There’s no need to see Escape Plan on the big screen, unfortunately.


Get Carter (2000)

Get CarterIn the early 2000s, Sylvester Stallone was struggling to rebuild himself from some of his cheesy action movies of the 90s, and these efforts didn’t all meet with much success.  Get Carter is a remake of a 1971 film of the same name starring Michael Caine in the title role, and this remake was received with negative criticism and a poor box office take.  However, I saw this film on opening weekend, and I have very much liked it ever since.  Having still not seen the original movie, I imagine I have the ability to view it much more objectively.  Still, almost any movie promising Sylvester Stallone in a fist fight with Mickey Rourke and a hilarious John C. McGinley is pretty cool to begin with, but I honestly feel the film has a lot of worthwhile merit in many regards.

His name is Jack Carter, and you don’t want to know him.  When it’s your time to settle your debts, you pay what you owe, or Carter will make you pay.  While working for the mob in Las Vegas, Carter (Sylvester Stallone) learns that his brother has died, and returns home to Seattle in order to learns the how’s and why’s.  His brother left behind a wife, Gloria (Miranda Richardson), and a teenage daughter, Doreen (Rachel Leigh Cook), which Jack feels he must now take care of since he was not around when it mattered most.  Though, when digging into the death of his brother, Jack comes to suspect that is was no accident, and that someone has to pay up.

Now, what even some of the middle of the road reviews gave credit to was that Stallone is solid as Jack Carter, and I enthusiastically agree.  I really like that Jack is a guy who carries a weight of regret with him to where he has this post-facto sense of responsibility.  He might be a guy who beats people up for a crime syndicate, but there’s a certain moral compass to Jack which Stallone grasps onto perfectly.  There’s a lot of subtlety to his performance showing the superb reversal on the over-the-top action hero roles of Judge Dredd or Demolition Man.  He brings with him a low key presence of intimidation, but still finds those moments of clever signature Stallone charm and wit.  Jack Carter has a warm heart and compassion for those he cares about, and this comes so very naturally to Stallone.  There’s such a great depth of dimension to what he does here.  Sly gives us a complex character who intensifies the emotional drive of the film.  It’s also amazing seeing how bulked up Stallone got for this movie.  He’s larger than ever, and it really works for Jack’s tough, bad ass presence.  Yet, it is that softer side of Jack Carter that really impresses as he shows a lot of pain after a certain point really hitting you deep in the heart, and that translates into a venomous vengeful determination in the film’s third act.  It’s an awesome, compelling performance by Sylvester Stallone that amazingly reminds you that he can be a stunning, complex actor.  I think it’s one of his best performances since First Blood.

A lot of the depth of heart and substance is carried on through Miranda Richardson and Rachel Leigh Cook.  Richardson is great as Gloria who is in this constant uncertainty about Jack.  At times she can confide in him about her problems with Doreen, but at other times, can condemn Jack for bringing further trouble upon them and being absent from their lives until Richie died.  Richardson has pitch perfect chemistry with Stallone standing strong on her own while showing the emotional turmoil inside.  Meanwhile, Cook very easily endears herself to Jack and an audience with some sad sweetness and sympathetic charm.  As certain things are revealed, and far more tragic layers are peeled back from Doreen, Cook is really able to demonstrate the soul of her heartbreaking talent.  It really ends up being the pulsating emotional core of this film.

I really like the scenes between Stallone and Mickey Rourke.  These are two actors who genuinely seem like they enjoyed working off each other.  They’ve got the right rhythm and chemistry that these two characters should have being old acquaintances and all.  Rourke has the right charisma and air of sleaze as Cyrus Paice which makes him very entertaining to watch, but also, a real piece of scum that you want to see get busted up by the end.  Rourke and Stallone are two buffed up bulls ready to lock horns regularly, and when they do finally trade punches, it’s a straight up bad ass brawl.

Anyone who loves John C. McGinley’s comedy work would also love him here.  He plays Con McCarty, an associate of Jack’s in the Las Vegas syndicate, and I swear he ad-libbed the majority of his dialogue.  It is just so brilliantly quick witted, off the cuff, and hilarious that he’s an utter, endless joy.  It’s a performance like this which shows that this is a film that is interested in balancing the heavyweight drama with sharp beats of levity.  And Alan Cumming is quite good as the geeky wet rag dot-com millionaire of Jeremy Kinnear who has gotten in way too damn deep with seedy individuals.  He is a pleasure to watch in this role as Stallone looms over him with his brute intimidation.  Of course, Michael Caine does a fine job in a somewhat small role as Richie’s now former employer, and Caine and Stallone have some solid scenes together.  Apparently, even Caine endorsed Stallone as a respectable successor to his original role, and including him in this cast was a really nice touch.

I really adore the look of this film from director of photography Mauro Fiore.  It’s soaked in this somber tone of overcast gloom of blues and greens that really absorb you into the tone of the movie.  Director Stephen Kay really pushed hard to have this filmed in Seattle, and the beauty of the rain soaked city makes the film feel a little more unique.  There’s also some unconventional style to Get Carter that might not work for many films, but all of the artistic flourishes really meld together beautifully, in my opinion.  The strategic slow motion beats add a sense of grace to the photography, and Fiore moves the camera extremely competently with plenty of steadicam.  I like that when Jack’s whole world turns upside down so does the camera accentuating a particularly unique filmmaking style that I really like here.  There is some stylish editing with a few jumpy cuts, flash frames, and speed changes.  I could see how some would find that irritating, but I really got absorbed into the mindset of this movie.  Stephen Kay uses these stylistic choices to slip you into a character’s perception such as Jack’s world fracturing.  Get Carter was edited by Academy Award winner Jerry Greenberg who also edited The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Scarface.  Here, he superbly executes Stephen Kay’s vision right from the opening credits sequence onward.

There is a great, moody collection of music here in addition to Tyler Bates’ unique and stylish score.  The original theme for the 1971 film by Roy Budd is utilized and remixed for this remake, and it is a beautiful composition that just tingles my senses.  There are some techno tracks infusing some dance club style vibes into the movie.  I particularly love the ethereal Moby track during the funeral scene.  All of this music creates a very soulful or energized originality to this film that melds well with its visual stylings.

There is some really well put together action including a couple of very smart, tense car chases.  Action directors who love their shaky cam could learn something from this film.  Stephen Kay does make use of some unsteady photography and tight framing, but the editing is properly paced so to not confuse an audience.  There are quick cuts, but because the lighting is clear, the compositions are just right using good angles, it all works.  The latter car chase is really great, and it has a really cool stunt crash at the end.  Yet, while there is exciting action, this film maintains that emotional and character based focus as Jack Carter delves further into the seedy underbelly of Seattle.

When Jack goes into full-on revenge mode, this movie gets dead-on bad ass.  The grit really surfaces in the visual style and Stallone’s performance.  Everything gets pretty dark and intense as Jack deals out his sense of personal justice in violent, sometimes lethal ways.  This is a revenge movie driven by a lot of emotional depth and substance.  Jack is going to clean out the trash, but the mending of emotional wounds is just as important to him, if not more so.  It’s all wrapped up in his personal sense of obligation to the extended family he’s neglected, and a need to prove to himself and others that he can be a better man than his history has shown.  There’s also a subplot where Jack Carter is involved with the syndicate boss’ woman back in Vegas, and this runs through the film a little.  It’s another emotional tether that puts stress upon Jack especially when Con is sent to “take care of business” with much intended finality.  Most revenge movies are just about the violent retribution, but this movie really delves you deeply into the hearts and souls of its sympathetic characters.

Get Carter is damn good, in my opinion, because it does take the time to develop its character and give you a dimensionality to connect with.  You feel Jack’s pain and his need to put things right, and your sympathy easily flows for Doreen as the film progresses.  Stephen Kay did do a really exceptional job with making these characters feel poignant, and have the consequences of everyone’s actions feel like they carry the weight of the world.  This is really the kind of revenge thriller that truly captivates me because it’s not just gunning people down for ninety minutes, which does have its satisfying qualities.  The substance of everything here saturates the film, and Stallone carries it all so amazingly well.  The ending might have used a little more weight and veracity, but the payoff  is satisfying regardless.  I highly recommend this remake of Get Carter.  If you’re a Stallone fan, like me, you should definitely give this a watch.


Strange Days (1995)

Strange DaysMany know Kathryn Bigelow from her Academy Award winning and nominated films of recent years.  However, her earlier work features some stunning films that showcase a brilliant visionary style, and no other movie reflects that better than Strange Days.  Released in my favorite year in film, 1995, it bombed at the box office, but gained quite a lot of praise.  Roger Ebert even gave it a four out of four stars, and it was nominated for several Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film with Bigelow winning for Best Director.  Time has since allowed for this film to gain a wider appreciation from genre fans, and I’ve wanted to share mine with you for quite a while now.  Strange Days is essentially the Blade Runner of the 1990’s, but even Blade Runner doesn’t do to me what Strange Days does.

It’s the eve of the millennium in Los Angeles, December 31, 1999.  Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned street hustler who preys on human nature by dealing the drug of the future.  A new technology, called “wire tripping,” allows for anyone to re-live actual life experiences tapping directly into the cerebral cortex for the ultimate escapist high.  However, Lenny is soon tangled up in a deadly plot, alongside limousine driver and security specialist Mace (Angela Bassett), when a set of murderous and controversial wire trip recordings end up in his possession that could have radical implications upon the entire city.  It’s an environment that will lead him deep into the danger zone when he falls into a maze filled with intrigue and betrayal, murder and conspiracy.

Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a time, and even after their marriage ended, they remained regular collaborators.  Cameron was a producer on this film, co-screenwriter, and an uncredited editor.  I can definitely see his creative influence at work.  It’s that real depth of humanity on display with all of these colorful characters, real penetrating emotion, exciting science fiction ideas, and the exciting energy of storytelling which harkens back to The Terminator.  His creative fingerprints are clearly here, and they are wrapped up in Bigelow’s razor sharp pacing, incredible direction, and mind blowing visuals.

The look of the movie definitely has that dystopian vibe with a lot of grit, smoke, neon, and seedy locales.  Yet, it doesn’t look depressing, but instead, it’s exciting and intense.  The cinematography is just simply stunning, and it will escape me to no end how Batman Forever got nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography this year while Strange Days was entirely snubbed as well as The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys.  All of those are vastly superior looking and shot films on every level, and Strange Days is really in a league all its own from the signature James Cameron blue tinge style to Bigelow’s really dynamic visual edge that absorbs us fully into this dark, vibrant, mind-twisting reality.  The camera work is amazingly dynamic, intriguing, and inspired.  It’s a visual feast that really embraces a kinetic energy without ever sacrificing artistic integrity.  If you took Blade Runner and hyper-charged it with adrenalin and a riveting edge of flash, you would get Strange Days.

The movie jacks you into a wire trip from the start to clearly convey the language of the experience.  People are buying these recordings to experience the forbidden pleasures in life like armed robbery or sexual desires.  It’s an extremely tempting thing that gives you all the rush and excitement without consequence, but it’s entirely illegal forcing Lenny to be the king of this underground business.  Thus, he comes into the center of two related criminal plots.  The first involves a pair of corrupt cops, portrayed by William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio, tracking down a damning wire trip recording that could erupt the entire city in violence and outrage.  The second is someone who stalked, raped, and murdered a friend of Lenny’s, and now is focusing his sick and disturbing torment on Lenny himself.  All of this melds together into a larger conspiracy that engulfs these characters into a powerful dramatic story that rips and tears at emotions with severe risks and consequences.

Now, I absolutely love Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero.  He’s the real crux of this whole film energizing it with his slick charm and charisma.  He’s a mesmerizing salesman selling fantasies with the sensation of pure, raw reality.  Yet, he never comes across as sleazy.  Fiennes makes Lenny very genuine in everything he does, and thus, he is the perfect unlikely hero with a yearning broken heart, a life of down and out black market seediness, and a real vulnerable quality to him.  Ralph Fiennes is an incredible actor, and he makes this a very deeply human and emotionally vulnerable character that draws you completely into the film.  Lenny Nero is not a man who views himself as a hero, but the frightening descent that he is caught up in forces him to take action, especially with his former love Faith, portrayed greatly by Juliette Lewis, at the center of it.  Faith has fully fallen into the deep end of the sleaze as a rock singer hooked up with Michael Wincott’s wire trip addicted record label owner Philo Gant.  Lenny desperately wants to win her back, or at least, pull her out of that deep end.  As a side note, I really love the wardrobe of Lenny Nero.  It’s very stylish and flashy with plenty of unique personality, much like Lenny himself.

Angela Bassett is absolutely bad ass here in a very gritty, powerful way.  Mace is exceptionally tough not taking any crap from Lenny, who hustles and leeches favors off her when he’s down and out, and as a security specialist, she can back up every ounce of that attitude.  Bassett exudes energy and strength in every frame, and intensifies every moment.  I’ve always been impressed by Bassett’s mixture of tough exterior with a tender interior.  She definitely brings that out in Mace with all the raw emotional power possible.

Now, you talk about Academy Award quality work, I honestly believe that both Bassett and Fiennes achieved that in this film.  Had Strange Days not fallen under the radar, I believe it would have been heralded with that kind of reverence at the time.  Both Bassett and Fiennes deliver stunning, deeply powerful performances, and the script fuses Lenny and Mace together in a very personal way born out of tragedy and heartbreak.  Furthermore, the chemistry between Bassett and Fiennes is spectacular.  They spark off amazingly whether it’s sharp wit and humor, vehement conviction, or deep emotional drama.  They are an electrifying pair which forge a riveting gravitas around them, but also make it a fun ride with their great rhythm and heart.

This film is just filled with an array of exceptional acting talents putting forth their best.  From Tom Sizemore to Juliette Lewis to William Fichtner to Vincent D’Onofrio to Michael Wincott, the supporting cast is bursting with charisma, awesomeness, and solidarity.  Everyone is equally as compelling and vibrant creating a very electrifying ensemble.  Under Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, everyone delivers a powerful and intensely memorable performance.  Bigelow seems to very much favor Sizemore as he appeared in Blue Steel and Point Break with much smaller roles, but here, he’s given a very prominent role as Max, a friend of Lenny’s who is still on the police force that weaves himself tightly into this plot.

On top of having that mind-blowing, amazing cast, Bigelow delivers an exciting, riveting thriller.  The mysteries are wonderfully interwoven with all the character dynamics, volatile social climate, and science fiction tech elements.  There’s wickedly tight tension and heart-pounding excitement at every turn.  The powder keg of Los Angeles is building towards an explosion, and the lethality of the situation only builds as forces converge.  This is a movie that constantly pushes further and further along the razor’s edge of madness, suspense, and danger.  Surely, there is action here handled with the riveting intensity that Bigelow demonstrated with Point Break, but saturated with larger doses of style and exhilaration, if that’s even imaginable.  The two corrupt cops dousing Mace’s limo with gasoline and lighting it on fire forcing her to drive it into in the bay, and then, make a shotgun glass shattering escape to avoid drowning is superbly executed, as is everything here.  This film is soaked in emotion and thrilling, edge of your seat suspense, but still finds those moments of pure entertainment to make it a greatly fun experience.

Surely, the odd aspect of the film is that it was released in 1995 and takes place in the year of 1999 featuring a very radical decline in society.  It’s a very narrow jump into the future.  However, I really do like that it uses that “end of the millennium” sort of craziness and chaos to enhance every aspect of the film.  Strange Days also reflects a lot of early 90’s Los Angeles culture with the earthquakes, riots, and police brutality incidents, and so, it feels very encapsulating of what one could pessimistically feel the future of that Los Angeles could have been.  People are packing assault rifles, cops are wearing tactical riot gear, and the entire city looks like it’s on the edge of all our war.  This is the vibe and energy that Bigelow injects into the fiber of the film, and it really erupts in the film’s climax.  Strange Days is more than just a cyberpunk thriller, it has real social commentary on the darkest parts of society with shocking consequences.  The climax leaves me speechless.  I really don’t have the words reserved to describe it.  There is no easy road taken in this story, and nothing is handled lightly.  This is a hard hitting, gritty, visceral film that holds nothing back on any level.

Fueling all of that is a stellar score by Graeme Revell and a very aggressive soundtrack of mid-1990s electronic, heavy metal, and edgy music.  Every creative element of this movie is jacked into that kinetic, cyberpunk style that soars to magnificent heights.  It’s a pure encapsulation of a stunning vision by Bigelow built on the foundation of a rock solid, stunningly intelligent screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.

Strange Days is a brilliant, incredible movie with a lot of strong thematic material, wickedly amazing performances, and a spectacular visual style.  This is one of the best and most original movies I have ever seen.  My mind was blown all over again watching it for this review.  Kathryn Bigelow would not be nominated for an Academy Award until 2010, but the evidence of her shockingly amazing talent was evident in 1995 with Strange Days.  This is a film that deserves vastly more exposure, credit, and accolades than it has received.  Surely, Point Break fulfills every action film adrenalin rush satisfaction for me, but this is the remarkable, awe-inspiring film experience.  This is surely, without a doubt, the far superior film of the two, but both deliver on every promise and exceed expectations every step of the way.  My recommendation is that you must see this movie no matter what!


Excessive Force (1993)

Excessive ForceIn the 1990’s, there were a lot of action movie stars popping up, but most didn’t have what it took to break out of the direct-to-video market.  However, I think Thomas Ian Griffith really had the talents to make it, but never really did.  This might be a simple fact of not having a breakout film or role like Steven Seagal or Van Damme had early on.  Regardless, Griffith had two vital qualities of a successful action hero in the 90’s.  First off, he was trained in Kenpo Karate and Tae Kwon Do, so, he could do far more than just shoot things up.  Secondly, he had charisma to spare making for some fun, lively performances.  All of this could be seen as the villain in The Karate Kid, Part III, of which he was the best thing about that movie.  So, I want to explore some of Griffith’s action films and find out exactly what he had to offer.  With Excessive Force, Griffith is supported by such solid actors as Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Tony Todd, and Burt Young for something that looks very solid, but let’s see if it really holds up to that appearance.

When $3 million disappears during a drug bust, undercover Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) is pitted against Sal DiMarco (Burt Young), a sadistic mob boss who will do anything to get his money back, and a conspiracy of corruption from within the police department.  After McCain’s partner is brutally murdered and his ex-wife is threatened, he strikes back the only way he knows how – with force!  Framed for a murder he didn’t commit and hunted by his own friends on the force, McCain finds refuge with his old pal Jake (James Earl Jones) and his ex-wife Anna (Charlotte Lewis) as he’s lead into a desperate showdown with dangerous forces.

This movie has a fairly straight forward plot with only a few clever turns, but it’s not intended to be a wickedly twisting and turning crime thriller.  It starts out as a revenge movie, but then, shifts into a web of deceit as McCain goes on the run once people start gunning for him.  The script by Thomas Ian Griffith really makes good use of Chicago to this effect.  He really incorporates the crooked politics and mobbed up history of it in a couple of smart ways.  There are corrupt cops and deceptive allegiances at play in this story, and it really feels like authentic Chicago organized crime.  The story twists around enough to where Terry doesn’t know who he can trust, and thus, he feels betrayed by every friend he has left living.  It’s never a very taut sort of plot thread that forces McCain into heavy paranoia, but its place in the story is dealt with quite well and where it’s most effective.  It also has some good pay-off and turnarounds at the end.

Thomas Ian Griffith leads this film very solidly.  Having wrote the script himself, the more personal depth of his performance is apparent.  Early on, we see the driven, charismatic, and lively cop who can kick ass with the best of them.  He sets the energy for the film from the start, and continues to keep it exciting and interesting.  As events progress, we see the drama and emotion sink into Terry McCain with plenty of weight that propels him forward through the film.  Griffith has great chemistry with everyone especially Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd as a fellow cop Frankie Hawkins, and Lance Henriksen as the soon-to-be Police Chief Devlin.  Terry and Anna gradually reconnect and spark off some steam later on, but it’s very brief.  Surely, a hot, erotic sex scene would be gratuitous, but I would not have complained if they injected some of that.

And of course, Griffith delivers on the action.  I was really impressed with the martial arts moves he employed, mainly the number of high and roundhouse kicks he dished out.  He really kicks some guys silly, and bashes up a lot of heads on a regular basis.  While its not as intense as what Seagal was doing at the time, Griffith has his moments of bone breaking bad assery.  If there’s any one shortcoming is that there’s no adversary that’s a real physical challenge for him, and so, there’s not a great single fight that stands out.  Regardless, the action scenes are all very competently shot, choreographed, edited, and solidly executed overall.

Burt Young is pretty impressive as a ruthless Mafioso.  He’s bluntly violent killing someone with a pencil through the ear, and having peoples’ legs bashed in with a baseball bat.  He’s quite convincing with the balancing of the supposed sophisticated businessman and the merciless big crime boss.  However, his screentime is shorter than you’d expect, but it leads to more interesting plotlines.

Also, the role of the police commander can often fall into clichéd territory, but thankfully, Lance Henriksen does a very subtle, understated job with Devlin.  While he and McCain aren’t the best of friends, they can have respect despite their friction, and it’s really that relationship which gives Henriksen something fresh to work with.  I also especially like the turn he has about halfway through as he becomes a bit more sleazy and brazen.  As he gets deeper into this character, Henriksen gets more and more awesome.

I dearly love Tony Todd.  Many know him as the horror icon Candyman, but he has such a wide range of talent that he also excellently displays here.  He has one great scene in this film of emotional depth and strain which really sets him apart as a special, standout actor.  A lot of other actors wouldn’t have put as much real heart and passions into such a small supporting role, but Todd does nothing less than superb work in everything he does.

These characters are interwoven into this decently forged conspiracy effectively.  There’s a surprise or two to be had, and the characters themselves are fleshed out by the performances even if the dimension isn’t written on the page.  A really good actor can always add and enhance what’s written in the script into something special or at least entertaining.  I’ve seen enough standard fare action movies where lackluster performances make the film nothing but mediocre.  Yet, vibrant and solid ones can make all the difference, and that’s certainly the case here.  Like I said, when I saw the cast list I was impressed and intrigued if that acting quality would show through, and I think it really, really did.

The score of this movie was surprisingly done by Charles Bernstein, who I’ve only known from A Nightmare On Elm Street.  His work here is distinctly early 90’s action, but he mixes in enough dramatic cues and moments of tension in certain scenes to give it some personality.  James Earl Jones’ character of Jake runs a jazz club, and so, we get some smooth, lively sounds out of that early on.  Bernstein’s score surely isn’t going to stun and amaze you, but it does its job very, very well.  I would suppose that’s a good summation of the whole movie.

Excessive Force is not a great action movie, but it’s a really good effort that I did like.  The script is well written, and very well directed by Jon Hess, but it’s really the exceptional acting talents of its admirable cast that allows this movie to be as good as it is.  If filled with lesser grade talents, this would really falter, but putting guys like Griffith, Henriksen, Todd, Jones, and more into it gives it some extra substance.  Each of them really put a real dedicated effort into their roles, and it made the film enjoyable outside of the nicely put together action scenes, of which Excessive Force does have a nice even helping of.  Something exciting does happen about every ten to fifteen minutes, but the pace overall is quite consistent and well balanced to make it feel natural.  There’s never action just for the sake of action.  It all flows from the slightly twisting story, and Griffith’s athletic talents really make it all work.  He certainly shows a lot of potential here in all aspects, and he’s a really fun, exciting lead.  While Excessive Force doesn’t have the makings of a blockbuster success, I think it deserved better than grossing less than half its $3 million budget at the box office.  It’s not a big explosive thrill ride, but it’s quite an enjoyable piece of low budget action fare.


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek VI The Undiscovered CountryI have heard a few extensive reviews of Star Trek VI in recent times, all of which praising it glowingly with nary a blemish.  This is definitely one of the better films of the franchise, and the first Star Trek movie I ever saw, on cable no less.  It used to be my favorite, but over time I’ve come to feel as if this film lacks a certain something to get it all the way to greatness.  I certainly know what that is, but let’s give you a plot first before I share that with you.

On their way home from their first assignment, the U.S.S. Excelsior, now at the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), monitors a massive explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility.  This incident signals an eventual crippling of the Klingon Empire within fifty years, and thus, motivates a push towards peace between the Federation and the Klingons, championed by Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner).  Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to a peace conference on Earth.  This does not sit well for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) who is vocally opposed to the idea of peace for many personal reasons, not the least of which being the murder of his son by the Klingons.  However, despite his efforts to support the peace initiative, the hope for it is soon crushed when the Chancellor’s ship is fired upon and Gorkon himself is assassinated.  A malicious conspiracy becomes evident as all evidence supports that the photon torpedoes and assassins originated from the Enterprise.  Meanwhile, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are arrested and convicted for the crime, and banished to the frozen penal asteroid of Rura Penthe.  Now, the crew of the Enterprise must expose this plot, and rescue their comrades before all hope for peace in the galaxy is destroyed.

Before I actually point out the shortcomings of the film, I think it’s fair to detail a few behind-the-scenes points first.  Mainly, this film was rushed, to an extent.  Paramount Pictures wanted this out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, and it just made it with a late December, 1991 release.  So, the filmmakers didn’t have an abundant freedom of time to really develop this film fully, but this is not some train wreck where you can tell things were slap dashed together.  This is quite a well-made and conceived movie.  I merely say that if they had the luxury of no forced deadline, perhaps a few of my concerns with the script could have been resolved.  They are not glaring issues, but ones that I feel take away from the potential of the movie which require some in-depth analysis.

Let me also say that there is plenty of greatness in this film.  The ideas of prejudice and the struggles of overcoming those feelings for the cause of peace are very relevant.  This film was made at the time of the fall of Soviet Russia and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  So, our world was going through a change of perspective and socio-political ideals.  The Klingons here were essentially Soviet Russia, and Praxis was an obvious allegory for Chernobyl.  This was a necessary story to be told considering that the Federation and the Klingon Empire became allies by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel this story was handled very well, in general.  For both sides, who had gotten used to hating one another, to finally have to reach an accord of peace and allegiance would not be easy at all.  Kirk is portrayed excellently in this story with him having to overcome his prejudice from the murder of his son David by Klingon hands and a life full of distrust towards them.  He truly goes through an arc that re-instills the outlook of hope and humanity that Star Trek has always strived for.

This film also rebounds amazingly well from the poorly executed and conceived Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  The serious tone is brought back with very solid and respectable performances by the entire cast.  Every regular cast member is given some forefront time, and I love the exchanges between Spock and McCoy in the climax.  Spock asks if McCoy would assist him with surgery on a torpedo, and McCoy responds with, “Fascinating.”  It’s a nice sly piece of dialogue that shows the respect and camaraderie between two characters that have not always seen eye-to-eye.  It’s also a treat to have seen Sulu be promoted to Captain, and given command of the U.S.S. Excelsior.  I like that Scotty gives praise to the ship now because of its captain when he was ragging on it back in The Search For Spock.  It’s another subtle show of growth for these characters, and the cast embodies those moments beautifully.

Now, there have been extended cuts of the film released on home video, and each cut of the film has their advantages.  The original theatrical version is quickly paced punctuating some dramatic beats a little better, but the extended versions make the film feel a little fuller.  The extra scenes don’t amount to too much with characters or plot, but sometimes, it helps to draw sections of a film out for more prolonged build up, such as going into Kirk & McCoy’s trial.  The pacing of the film in any incarnation is quite consistent, even if it is rather gradual.  What the film really lacks is a sustained sense of urgency.  I believe this stems from the fact that no one knows who the villains are until the final thirty minutes or so of the movie.  If the villains either don’t have a sustained presence in the film to maintain a threat level, or you don’t have them actually doing anything in opposition to the protagonists, you lose urgency in the plot.  The mystery plot isn’t enough without the dramatic pressure of active villainy going on around it.

Since Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I feel it’s appropriate to draw a comparison to that film.  In Star Trek II, the film was able to establish its villain in Khan and build him up as a substantial threat, and continually cut back to him to keep tension and suspense present throughout most of the movie.  As long as Khan was out there plotting his next move, there was a near constant sense of unease and immediacy throughout the film.  In Star Trek VI, the villains are completely hidden from us during the vast majority of the runtime.  There is surely an adversarial quality to General Chang, but all the way up to and through the trial, he’s never seen acting outside the bounds and expectations of his military position.  He’s not an overt villain until he’s revealed to be one until the end of the second act.  And while this film has the same general runtime as Wrath of Khan, it feels much slower and thinner.  There’s not all that much developing in the plot to build up momentum or create dramatic tension.

Since there is no urgency, there’s also an extreme lack of action and excitement in the film.  It would’ve helped to put more dramatic pressure on the crew of the Enterprise to uncover the evidence in their investigation either by way of a time constraint or consequence.  While Starfleet keeps demanding they return to Space Dock, it’s really a hollow plot device since there are no consequences or conflict involved with them constantly making up excuses to not return home.  It would’ve added a sense of urgency if there was more risk put upon them for disobeying orders, such as in The Search For Spock.  Even when the Enterprise infiltrates Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy, there’s no real threat to contend with.  Throughout Star Trek, we’ve always seen Klingon ships patrolling the Neutral Zone border, protecting their Empire, but the Enterprise whisks in and only needs to fool some lowly Klingon at a patrol station with clearly the most primitive sensors around since they cannot even identify what ship it is detecting.  It doesn’t help that the entire scene is done humorously.  If it was handled as a tense and serious situation where they had to evade and strategically slip passed Klingon ships during their rescue mission, it would have, again, created urgency.

Tying into this is the lack of impact with the conspiracy and mystery.  Aside from one character who was briefly featured in The Voyage Home, none of the conspirators are anyone of note or poignancy to an audience.  They are just one-off characters that either don’t matter or are of no surprise that they are villainous.  The mystery of discovering who the assassins are has a strong setup, but eventually falls flat due a lack of tension.  The crew knows that treasonous murderers are on board, but no one ever feels a sense of unease aboard the Enterprise.  No one worries that two assassins are lurking on their ship capable of further ill-doings.  The assassins themselves are also throwaway, nobody characters.  Aside from Chang, there’s no real time spent with most of these characters to build them up one way or another to give their role in this conspiracy any weight.  In most part, they could have been just about anyone and it wouldn’t have made any difference.  It’s surely an aspect of this script that could’ve used a lot more work to integrate some character development and substance into this revelation.  I could’ve seen a plot like this working nicely during a season long arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the writers could take their time to build up numerous characters in twisting arcs, and have a startling reveal later on.  In a 110 minute movie where relatively very little time is spent with anyone but the regular cast, it’s not likely to work out very well.

My other main bother with the film is the portrayal of the Klingons.  While the very honorable Next Generation Klingons could get tiresome and stereotypical after several years of overly treaded concepts, this film was made right at the strong suit of that portrayal.  While it had room for flexibility and expansion, these Klingons, in general, appear to have little substance or texture to invest any interest in.  Firstly, their uniforms had long been set in place as very hard and metallic, but here, most of the Klingons are wearing very soft, padded outfits which take away a lot of their visual edge.  It’s the only appearance of these outfits that I know of, and it doesn’t suit this aggressive alien race that has always been very vocally opposed to softness and comfort.  They are a harsh race never indulging in luxuries, but that ideal is not supported by this costume design.  Their attitudes are also watered down somewhat.  We already had the cunning and verbose Commander Kruge, the outspoken and aggressive Klingon Ambassador from The Voyage Home, and the rather brash and hard-headed Captain Klaa generally establishing the attitude and personalities of Klingons in this time period.  However, The Undiscovered Country simply tones them down far too much for my taste.  The bold and intimidating qualities which have made them such a great fan favorite are generally evaporated.  The fierce, proud warrior isn’t there.  While they are mostly political officers, I would expect more conviction and assertiveness in these portrayals.  Furthermore, the Klingon make-up is scaled back severely.  At this time, the great Michael Westmore was heading up all of the special make-up effects work and designs on The Next Generation, and the special make-up results here would’ve been far better if the filmmakers had employed his talents.  The vast majority of the alien prosthetics lack a sense of fine detail or organic feel to give them a sense of life and texture.  The Klingon forehead ridges are all too smooth and toned down.  They mostly appear rather obviously fake and rubbery.  It further adds to the out of place feel of these Klingons.  They simply do not fit into what had come before or after in the chronology of the franchise.  At times, they seem like a cheap imitation of a Klingon.  Gene Roddenberry himself was displeased that the Klingons came off as generic villains with no exploration of their society or cultural viewpoints, and Leonard Nimoy later agreed with him after the film’s release.  I agree with him as well.  Time has shown the vast potential of exploration for the Klingon culture, and I think not caring to acknowledge that here results in a very flat and uninteresting presentation of the Klingons, in general.

Now, I do very much like what Christopher Plummer did as General Chang, who is a distinct exception to my Klingon gripes in this film.  Right from his first moments, you can tell that he is someone to contend with.  He’s a definite skilled warrior with an intimidating quality.  He doesn’t give into hostility, instead he projects a patient and cunning demeanor.  Plummer works excellently in the trial sequence prosecuting Kirk and McCoy with great zeal.  He brings a fine theatrical sensibility to the character which allows him to command many scenes, and truly is the one that makes that trial compelling.  However, at no fault of his, but of the screenwriters, is Chang’s painfully excessive quoting of Shakespeare.  The bit was good for a little while, but it wears thin very quickly.  Eventually, the vast majority of his dialogue is directly quoting lines from Shakespeare plays.  I agree with Ira Steven Behr, who recorded a commentary track for the theatrical cut, that it’s simply lazy screenwriting.  The screenwriters couldn’t come up with anything original or freshly poignant for the character to say, and so, they just flippantly copy lines verbatim from another literary work.  When Khan was quoting literary works in Star Trek II, it did have a thematic purpose.  His obsession for vengeance or pain of exile were parallels to Ahab in Moby Dick or Lucifer in Paradise Lost, respectively, and these quotes were used at generally the most purposeful moments.  They had weight and meaning behind them for Khan.  With Chang, he just spouts these lines out randomly.  They hold no thematic weight or meaning at all because he has no thematic purpose in the film.  He might as well be quoting anything, or saying nothing at all, because it really makes no difference what he’s saying.  This lazy screenwriting becomes very irritating during the film’s climax.  Even Dr. McCoy says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.”

The film also makes blatant references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sherlock Holmes, and the only one I really thought was worthwhile, Peter Pan.  It eventually feels like too much referencing of other material instead of the screenwriters strengthening their own original material.  Whether they are appropriate references or not, it just feels as if almost every poignant piece of dialogue is lifted from another source, and that reflects a major weakness in the dialogue of the script.  Nicholas Meyer can be a great screenwriter and filmmaker, but at times, I feel he doesn’t view Star Trek to be good enough to stand on its own.  He has to prop it up by injecting ideas from other sources to make it great.  It worked brilliantly in The Wrath of Khan, but it simply does feel like lazy, uninspired writing in The Undiscovered Country.

The great and always respectable David Warner does a fine job as Chancellor Gorkon.  Nick Meyer envisioned the character as a meshing of Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Lincoln aspects definitely show through with both the make-up design, and Warner’s regal, wise performance.  However, I do believe Gorkon was grossly underused in the film.  His goal of peace is the crux of this story, and we are barely given any substantive time with him to grasp his ideals and values.  Essentially, all we know is that he wants peace, period.  This feels like another mark of an underdeveloped script.  Surely, the script had a good, solid foundation, but given some more time to refine and flesh it out, it could’ve had so much more dramatic impact, exciting tension, and a far wider scope.  This film feels like it needed a tighter pace and an extra half hour of runtime to fully flesh out and setup all of its ideas, characters, and conflicts for maximum effectiveness.

I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood with my critiques.  This is a mostly well-conceived and nicely executed film.  Production values are great as is the cinematography.  This truly looks and feels like a high grade film with a very polished cinematic style.  The acting overall is exceptionally good across the board with the entire regular cast giving it their all.  Even Kim Cattrall is very impressive as Valeris utilizing subtly in her performance, and striking a fine chemistry with Nimoy especially.  Not to mention, there’s plenty of fun dialogue and moments throughout.  The film lightly pokes fun at Kirk with the scenes opposite the shape-shifting Martia on Rura Penthe who continually seduces Kirk’s trust, and the brute of an alien that Kirk fights in the prison.  Even Kirk fighting Martia after she takes Kirk’s form harkens back to the original series episode The Enemy Within.  There, Kirk was split in two by a transporter accident, and he does battle with himself.  These bits pay tribute to classic Trek moments and Kirk traits for this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, without betraying the film’s tone in anyway. Star Trek VI has plenty of character building moments for James T. Kirk as he comes to terms with his prejudice and resistance to peace.  Spock gets a few moments of depth and growth, primarily with Valeris and Kirk.  The Undiscovered Country has a wealth of great qualities which both vastly succeeded in their potential, but also some that didn’t quite get developed as deeply as they could have been.

The visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic are some of the best of the film franchise.  Granted, the floating CGI blood in the zero gravity sequence leaves a little to be desired, but it’s certainly up to the standards of 1991’s other big special effects in Terminator 2.  Of course, I believe phaser fire should cauterize a wound, and not allow blood to go gushing out like this is a slasher film.  All other effects are superb.  The model work on all the ships is amazingly detailed holding up to great scrutiny, and being photographed beautifully.  The Praxis shockwave is a stunning feast for the eyes that starts the film off on a powerful note.  All the way through, you can see the remarkable quality that ILM was worth, and what Star Trek V was lacking without their talents.

With previous franchise composers James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith both turning down this project for their own vehement reasons, Meyer had to seek out someone new to provide a musical landscape for this darker toned film.  Cliff Eidelman delivered something right on the money.  It’s certainly not the rousing fanfares of old, but surely appropriate for the heavier subject matter and dangerous implications of the story.  He nicely throws in the right lighter cues at the perfect moments.  When Kirk and Spock have a discussion just before the third act, Eidelman brings out a poignant, warm feeling in his score.  His work complements the film’s various dramatic facets beautifully, and the film concludes with a gorgeous composition that sends the original crew out with class and style.

I find it difficult to express a counter-balance to my criticisms to support my opinion in that this is still a good movie.  I will never deny that is, but I think it succeeds only well enough instead of exceeding where it could have.  Simply put, what I’m saying about Star Trek VI is that it is a good film that still had plenty of room for improvement.  It’s themes are smart and topical for the time, and still have some resonance today.  Peace is a difficult thing to strive for, and some people are more comfortable with continuing to be at war with a lifelong enemy than try to learn to co-exist with them in peace.  These are ideals that primarily Kirk has to deal with and overcome, and that is the best handled thing about this entire movie.  While there has been a lot of criticism in this review, it’s simply to point out that many of the good aspects of this movie could have been great, if given more time to fully develop them at the script level.  As I said, I have felt as if there was something lacking in this movie, and in short, that something was a lack of tension and urgency in the plot as well as a need for more substance added into many of the newly introduced characters.  It has great, strong subject matter which felt like a necessary story to be told in the annals of Star Trek, but for as much as you can read into them, there’s just as much that didn’t end up on the page or the screen to flesh out those details.  This is a movie I still like very much, and I think it is a respectable send-off for the original cast of Star Trek.  I give it a very strong recommendation.  Again, being that it was the first Trek film I ever saw, I think this is one that could draw you into the franchise, and show you it does have substance and relevance to offer.


Total Recall (2012)

I never cared for the original Total Recall from director Paul Verhoeven.  It has always come off as a little too low grade and too strange for my aesthetic tastes.  So, I had no qualms about this remake or re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”  Plus, trading the corny camp fun of Verhoeven’s movie for a more serious action thriller tone does more consistently appeal to my tastes.  Although, I also did not have high expectations for this movie.  The film seemed mildly worth checking out, and it turns out to be just exactly that.  It’s surely not a bad film by any stretch, just an underdeveloped one that fails to truly grab hold of an audience tightly.

In the late twenty-first century, global chemical warfare has made the vast majority of the world uninhabitable, and Earth is divided into two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, who are locked in a battle for supremacy to unify the world.  Citizens of The Colony and the UFB travel between the two nations via a super massive underground gravity elevator, called “The Fall”, which takes them directly through the core of the Earth, emerging on the opposite side of the planet in under 20 minutes.  Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who, despite having a beautiful, loving wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is plagued by violent nightmares and has grown tired of his monotonous life in The Colony.  Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories.  For  Quaid, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs.  However, when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man.  His wife tries to kill him revealing herself to be a highly trained undercover UFB agent.  Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with rebel fighter Melina (Jessica Biel) to find Matthias, the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy), and stop Cohaagen.  The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.

This film showcased some potential.  I think it had some very good talents behind it, and a solid, fresh direction on where to go with itself.  As I said, there is nothing outright bad about this Total Recall.  The action is sensational most times.  There are very inventive action sequences all over this film backed up by some mostly excellent cinematography and editing.  There are few hectic moments where it gets close to that shaky-cam quick cut mentality, but backs off it enough to avoid raising my ire.  The more physically demanding action set pieces are greatly conceived and executed.  Director Len Wiseman has always believed in doing stunts and effects as much practically as possible, and that always adds more punch to his action.  Everything looked like real people doing real stunts, and that is immensely admirable.  More effects heavy sequences are also nicely done with no CGI ever looking cheap.  The visual effects teams did a remarkable job creating a very realistic, seamless futuristic world.  Even the robotic soldiers appeared entirely photorealistic and interacted with the actual actors naturally.  However, despite this, I couldn’t really get into the film like a normal action movie.  Despite seeing it on opening night, the very large theatre I was in was barely one quarter full, if that much, and no one else ever seemed to have any rousing reaction to what was happening in the movie.  It’s not the action that’s the issue, it’s the underdeveloped characters.

I don’t necessarily feel anyone was miscast in the film.  I do feel that the screenplay did very little to develop Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid or any of the other protagonists.  The beginning of the film is nicely setup as most anyone can relate to Quaid’s situation.  He’s an everyman that’s a slave to the grind who just has the need for something more in his life, some kind of release.  You can really sympathize with him through this part of the film as every element of it is wonderfully executed with the right emotional touches.  However, once the plot kicks in, and he is thrust into this intense situation where he doesn’t know what’s happening or why, his character becomes terribly lacking in development or depth.  The film has little moments here and there that try to have the audience connect with Quaid, but it’s just never enough.  These moments just fall a little too flat because there’s no real substance behind them.  Colin Farrell can be charismatic and very fun in the right roles.  He does have the ability to give a very strong, dimensional, and entertaining performance.  However, the script just doesn’t give his character enough depth for Farrell to sink his talent into.  I never got all the way invested in Quaid to feel the peril or excitement of the situations he was in.  I truly tried because I wanted to enjoy this movie, but these characters are not exciting.  You never get into the soul of this character to feel his struggle, or wrap yourself up in his potential mind-bending confusion.  While the action sequences are excellent, I just couldn’t get emotionally invested to care all that much of what happened in them.

The exact same goes for Jessica Biel as Melina.  She’s supposed to be the love interest to Quaid’s alter ego, but there’s no spark present.  The screenplay almost never gives the characters a moment to connect for the audience’s sake.  I never felt a single strand of emotional bond between the characters, and that’s such a sorely missed opportunity to give the film some emotional substance.  It’s so hard to even say whether or not Farrell and Biel have any chemistry together because the love interest angle is barely played up at all to know that.  It’s really just 98% action sequences between them, and 2% character development.  Even beyond that, the Melina character just doesn’t bring anything substantive to the table.  Again, there is no emotional depth or scripted material to offer up an exciting performance.  I was left with a rather blank impression of the character.  Again, I don’t think the fault falls on Jessica Biel, it’s a failing of the script.

I also strongly believe that Bill Nighy was criminally underused in this film.  His character of Matthias is meant to be an integral figure in this world, but he has essentially one scene which is not written the best it could have been.  Matthias talks some philosophy about self-identity, but it’s very abrupt and clunky how the conversation starts.  There’s no natural flow to it.  It’s clear that his words are meant to have some meaning, but ultimately, become terribly hollow as the film explores none of the ideas he brings up.  It feels very shoehorned in as a quick attempt to make him an insightful character, but it just came off as rushed and purposeless.  I anticipated a more poignant and climactic meeting between Quaid and Matthias.  I anticipated it being a scene where we learn more in depth about the man that Quaid was to gain perspective on the dichotomy between who he is now and who he was before.  It would be a pivotal moment where Quaid has to make a real decision on who he wants to be, and what path he wants to take from here on out.  No such moment exists in this film.  The screenwriters seemed to give the minimal effort towards the conflict of identity in Douglas Quaid.  There’s more confusion from him over the grand scheme plot than his own internal conflict, which is a gross missed opportunity in a film that seemed to have a lot of potential on the surface.  It was also distracting that Bill Nighy put on an American accent for this role, which seems to have had no true purpose.  He is also greatly low key.  One would think that the leader of a resistance movement would be a naturally charismatic or inspiring individual, but Nighy plays Matthias with none of those qualities.  I will say that it’s a nice change of pace to see the usually more intense and theatrical Nighy put forth a more reserved performance, but it just didn’t seem to fit here.

Conversely, the villains of this film are greatly charismatic, energetic, and very enjoyable.  Kate Beckinsale is easily the best thing about the movie.  Her scenes at the beginning as Doug’s wife are very heartfelt and genuine.  There is no question about the authenticity of their relationship and love.  However, once everything turns around on itself, she becomes an amazing villain.  She drops her American accent and plunges full into her natural British one with a wealth of devilish charisma and dogged motivation.  Lori loves the violent requirements of her job, and takes great, ruthless pleasure in hunting down her prey.  Beckinsale can kick ass with the best of them as she is involved in some fantastic and stunningly impressive fight scenes which are very physically demanding.  It’s amazing what she does in this vicious and entertaining role.  She just eats up every ounce of villainy, and clearly has a wealth of fun in the process.  I consistently loved what the film did with her right from the start all the way through to the end.  I can’t say enough about Beckinsale’s performance here.

Also, Bryan Cranston just storms into the film with authority and charisma.  He portrays a great bad guy in Cohaagen.  He throws a lot of power into the character making him a force to contend with.  You don’t need much convincing that Cohaagen is a cutthroat, menacing bad guy.  He unquestionably feels like a man in power, a man in control that has some very sordid and diabolical plans setup.  This is a role that could have easily gone over the top, but Cranston keeps the character grounded and realistic, as do all the actors.  No one ever indulges in cheesy or corny contrivances.  Tonally, it’s a far more serious and straight forward movie than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger version.  That’s a refreshing take, and all the actors really grasp onto that cohesively.  It is great that the villains are very formidable and enjoyable, but when the heroes are downplayed so much, it really takes the overall entertainment value out of the movie.  Had the heroes been as exciting and entertaining as the villains, this would be an immensely fun movie.

I noticed this next thing from the trailer, and it started to hit me more as the film got going.  Total Recall seems almost like a science fiction version of The Bourne Identity.  How Quaid just instinctually takes down all the armored police is dead-on to how Jason Bourne assaults the two police officers in the snowy park early on in The Bourne Identity.  There’s even a secretly hidden safety deposit box number where Quaid goes to obtain passports and other spy trade gear, just like in The Bourne Identity.  There are more vague connections here and there, but this issue dissolves quickly after the safety deposit box scene.  It’s not something that really bothers me much now, but more something that snagged my scrutiny in the moment.

Again, the film mainly takes place in two different locations.  The early part of the film is largely contained within the Colony, and I love the production design of it.  It was nice to see Len Wiseman break out of his monotone funk, and give us a more varied, yet still restrained color palette.  The Colony is almost always seen at night with shadowy lighting schemes which give the film a dark richness.  Colors are not vibrant, but they have a strong atmospheric presence.  Blues, greens, reds, and ambers accented by moody lighting really were a pleasure for my eyes.  Everything had a seedy, almost noir quality to it.  Considering this is all based on a work by Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise that there is some Blade Runner feel to the design of this world, but it has plenty of fresh ideas to offer as well.  The design of the city’s housing comes off as very utilitarian and modular that is continually built upwards.  It looks very logical as a world that could practically exist in our own possible future.  It also certainly makes for a great design element for the film’s early chase sequences as Doug Quaid is constantly falling downwards to street level as it progresses.  However, it did seem odd that while the Colony actually used to be Australia, everything about the culture seemed more like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Singapore.  I think it’s an amazing world that was created, but nothing is ever explained why Australia now has a predominantly Asian cultural aesthetic.

The United Federation of Britain has a far cleaner, but also sterile and bland design.  While the film starts off with a very moody and dark visual style, it now loses a great deal of visual pop when moving into the UFB.  Those scenes are almost entirely during the daytime, and I do very much understand and endorse showing the visual differences between the low class Colony and the more prosperous UFB.  I just think a little more color could’ve gone a long way to improve the visual flare of this portion of the film.  Everything is very white, very clinical making a lot of locales very indistinct.  There’s no character or personality to anything in this environment.  Much of this is meant to be London of the future, and that is definitely a city with a lot of cultural personality today.  So, it would’ve helped to reflect some of that in these designs since the bulk of the movie takes place there.  As it is, after a while, it all just blends into forgettable backgrounds.

Regardless of these production design choices, director of photography Paul Cameron does an amazing job shooting this film.  It looks very slick and smart all the way through.  His cinematography showcases a great sense of geography and composition in the hectic action sequences, and brings fine visual credibility to the dramatic scenes.  It’s very beautifully shot and lit all the way around giving us a film that shows us where the money went.  I truly got a wonderful cinematic visual sense from this movie.

Everything in these worlds is smartly designed.  The robotic soldiers, the hover cars, the weaponry, and computer interfaces all appear to be part of a cohesive world.  With this futuristic Earth being what it is, there are likely very few corporations or manufacturers, and so, much of this technology would likely be produced and designed by the same organizations.  Everything has a practical and logic design to it.  Nothing’s overcomplicated or ridiculous, which some future-based movies can lose sight of sometimes.

However, ultimately, it all has to come back to the script.  I think Total Recall could’ve done with a little less action and little more time spent focusing on the plot.  The action seems to just whisk an audience away to another part of the plot instead of the plot developing itself.  We get explanations and motivations, but the details of this world are never fleshed out.  We never get the true sense of division between the Colony and the UFB.  We don’t get to know how both worlds live, and what the true cultural divisions are between them.  We never learn if there’s a deep seeded resentment between the two, and “The Fall” is not given any poignancy by the characters.  They never comment on it being a “symbol of oppression.”  That’s only ever stated by news people in the film, and the film shows how the media is easily manipulated.  While the Colony does feel like a lower class lifestyle, I never got the sense from the characters that it was an oppressive society let alone why a resistance movement was necessary.  The story also never gives us a sense of breadth or impact on a larger scale.  I didn’t really fear for the residents of the Colony later on when there’s a invasion force on its way.  The film doesn’t take the time to build up the threat level to a fever pitch, or give us a foreboding sense of dread.  The focus is too narrow and too shallow to make the stakes feel big enough.  Total Recall had the tools and talent in most areas to develop these issues with some purpose and depth, but really didn’t push for it.  Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have done work on films that I have very highly enjoyed.  Wimmer co-wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake and Street Kings while Mark Bomback wrote the Hugh Jackman / Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and did re-writes on Constantine.  So, I know they have potential for producing more well rounded and satisfying scripts, but Total Recall feels too focused on action and not enough on substance. That would likely make for a thrilling video game with elaborate action sequences, one different than the last with a lot of unique obstacles, but only moderately developed story strung between them.  It’s certainly not that bad in this film, but you could probably take this exact script and hand it over to a video game developer without changing much.

There is a plot hole that puzzled me in how Cohaagen and his forces were able to locate Matthias.  No reason is ever given on if they tracked Quaid and Melina, or even how they might’ve done it since the two of them traveled to meet Matthias via subway and Cohaagen’s forces all flew in.  They just happen to be there, somehow, and storm in out of nowhere with no explanations.  This is definitely a plot hole that none of the characters attempt to plug up at all.  Total Recall doesn’t feel like a film with multiple plot holes, just a film that doesn’t develop it’s plot details or characters as well as it could have.

I’m sure there are those who will find some excitement and fun with this film.  The action is marvelously well done and inventive.  Len Wiseman has evolved into an excellent director of action.  He knows the mechanics of creating solid and thrilling action sequences with competent, coherent editing and cinematography.  There are absolutely no flaws at all with those aspects of this film.  Leading up to the climax, there’s actually a zero gravity shootout in “The Fall” that was smartly done, but still lacks a sense of wit or rousing action to really rile me up.  There’s plenty here to potentially enjoy, but I just never got enough substance from the film’s heroes to feel gung ho about them kicking some ass.  Had the script given more time to the characters and developing the details of the world of Total Recall, opening it up for more depth, texture, charm, and emotional dynamics, I likely would’ve highly enjoyed myself.  I would not be opposed to a second viewing of the film, but I wouldn’t expect too much of an improvement on my opinion.  I would never classify 2012’s Total Recall as a bad movie, just fairly okay one.  Its potential really shows on screen, but on the page, it just didn’t deliver.


Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here.  The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore.  However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted.  Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all.  So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic.  This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic.  After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her.  After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers.  The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety.  Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector.  However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them.  Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril.  Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.

While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film.  Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered.  It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it.  Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand.  Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures.  So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking.  Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations.  Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin.  It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit.  So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.

On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez.  That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist.  Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre.  That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.

Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters.  Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes.  He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around.  A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi.  He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now.  His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace.  It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character.  McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here.  Of everyone in the prequels,  his performances feel the most natural and dimensional.  I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.

The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku.  I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film.  This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie.  And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well.  There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth.  Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view.  He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain.  His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions.  It is a pleasure indeed.

Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow.  Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions.  While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism.  The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced.  For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter.  Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations.  She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence.  She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film.  She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities.  She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought.  However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals.  There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.

Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents.  Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all.  He played the character that was on the page.  There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character.  Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden.  Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality.  As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said.  Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled.  Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels.  So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.

There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms.  However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut.  So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool.  He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them.  And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea.  Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga.  They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing.  However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.

For example:  the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan.  The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War.  In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss.  This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader.  Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force.  Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further.  Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime.  The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker.  So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes.  They serve a very specific plot purpose.  That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.

They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along.  Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose.  In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose.  By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku.  And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin.  In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease.  There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat.  This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies.  Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force.  If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited.  This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength.  By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi.  Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.

Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence.  I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate.  That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion.  As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power.  Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army.  This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen.  Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this.  I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up.  I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate.  Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic?  As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds.  Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.

I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones.  I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting.  However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character.  Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba.  There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions.  I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself.  It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing.  Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter.  Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot.  It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin.  Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.

Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role.  He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman.  Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant.  He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words.  It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.

On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film.  The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku.  The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades.  It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle.  It’s shoddy work.  There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences.  However, the sound design in the film is excellent.  The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard.  The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.

What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story.  The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly.  The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film.  As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango.  The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable.  Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive.  This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.

Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates.  It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild.  It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points.  In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told.  It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous.  Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers.  Here, it’s just a nice visual.  There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film.  The duel itself is not that impressive, either.  Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film.  It’s entertaining and exciting.  While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.

While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever.  Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino.  Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers.  Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do.  This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could.  It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it.  Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved.  I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done.  Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out.  It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence.  It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party.  However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.

Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together.  The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love.  The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions.  It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them.  Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days.  Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is.  They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong.  What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction.  And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too.  Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror.  I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness.  No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this.  It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man.  She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator.  That doesn’t compute in my brain.  No other reason is ever given.  She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date.  That’s her entire reason.  No expansion on that at all.  It’s ridiculous.

Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences.  While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed.  They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point.  The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes.  Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time.  While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding.  It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out.  This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant.  It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point.  If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.

Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO.  I won’t get into it.  It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners.  This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development.  It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.

I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw.  It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me.  I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality.  I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it.  I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something.  Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets.  Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed.  Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so.  I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive.  Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it.  But that’s another review for another time.  As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it.  I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.


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

I grew up on Star Wars.  Being born a matter of months before the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back made that inevitable.  The first of the films I saw theatrically was Return of the Jedi, and I have vague recollections of the experience with loud noises and the unsettling image of the unmasked Darth Vader (for a three year old, it was like A Nightmare on Elm Street to me).  These films have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember, and I feel it’s about time I share my thorough thoughts on the entire saga.  With the 3D theatrical re-releases on the horizon, it seems timely.  I don’t plan on seeing them in 3D, and I do not own the Blu Rays at this point.  When reviewing the prequels, it will be their original DVD versions.  When reviewing the original trilogy, it will be the original theatrical versions.  I have many editions of the original trilogy on VHS & DVD, but this is about what I grew up on.

For The Phantom Menace, I was part of the madness in 1999.  I stood in line with a lawn chair, a brand new CD Walkman, and a sunburn to get advance tickets for opening night.  I ended up sitting next to a guy dressed as Darth Maul that first night, and I did see the film multiple times in theatres.  However, with time comes perspective and maturity.  I know everything that needs to be said about this film has been said, but this is a forum to share my thoughts.  It also an opportunity to express what these films mean to me.  So, this is not me trying to add to a worn out battle cry against this film.  I’m just here to offer my point of view.  All eight pages worth.

Two ambassadors from the Jedi Order, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet of Naboo to resolve a trade taxation dispute.  The politically powerful Trade Federation has setup a blockade of battleships around the planet to force their position, but they are actually working with someone of ulterior motives named Darth Sidious.  Viceroy Nute Gunray works on his behalf to manipulate the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to give into their treaty, but the Jedi soon learn of the Federation’s invasion army.  After surviving a battle droid attack, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan escape to the planet’s surface where they are joined by the bumbling Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and rescue the Queen and her contingent to escape the planet.  With their ship damaged, they land on the outer rim desert planet of Tatoonie where they try to barter for replacement parts, but they are soon hunted by Sidious’ apprentice Darth Maul.  On this planet, Qui-Gon discovers Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave of the junk dealer Watto who has unusually strong Force abilities.  Qui-Gon believes Anakin could be the one prophesized to “bring balance to the Force,” and later champions him to be trained as a Jedi.  However, the Jedi Council is apprehensive about the boy’s future sensing danger and fear in him.  Meanwhile, Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tries to coach the young Queen in the political matters of the Senate, and manipulates her into forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) from the head of the Galactic Senate.  Eventually, all things converge back on Naboo where Queen Padmé Amidala attempts an assault to end the invasion and captivity of her people, and for the Jedi to learn the truth of whether or not the Dark Lords of the Sith have returned from a millennia of extinction.

What really strikes me about this story, beyond plot holes born out of illogical actions, is that there is no central main character.  With the original Star Wars, it was crystal clear that Luke Skywalker was our hero that would guide us on this journey through a galaxy far, far away.  It was his arc that was mainly at play as he goes through emotional trials that would forge him into a heroic figure.  I have never seen any character arcs in The Phantom Menace.  No one ends up any differently from when the film began to when it ended.  They don’t evolve and grow into something more than they were before.  The film has no prominent focus on any one character.  Looking at the saga as a whole, perhaps it should have been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arc.  The film would show an eager, young Padawan who matures from student to mentor, truly earning his stature as a Jedi by the end by facing the breadth of this adventure alone.  Unfortunately, he’s left out of the meat of the story and action so much that he ultimately has little to say for himself.  Ewan McGregor is an exceptional actor with a wide range of talent who could’ve carried this film quite well, as he demonstrated in the following two films.  He does have flourishes of endearing charm that create some bright moments, but his potential is sadly suppressed to a minor supporting character.  Earlier drafts had it where Obi-Wan actually was the one mainly involved in the story on Tatoonie, and he forms a bond with Anakin championing his path to becoming trained.  That would actually follow what was stated in Return of the Jedi¸ but for whatever reason, George Lucas decided to overhaul continuity in the prequels.  It is clear that the way Lucas potentially envisioned the prequels in the early 1980s was very different from how he saw them in the late 1990s.

Anakin is an even less likely main character since he doesn’t enter the story until forty minutes in, and once they’ve left Tatoonie, he becomes mostly a background character.  Jake Lloyd certainly didn’t have the spark of great talent that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg is usually able to find in his child actors.  Lloyd makes Anakin almost a nuisance in the film.  He can become quite annoying acting like some kid on a rollercoaster ride instead of someone of mythic potential.  I would’ve anticipated a slightly more matured Anakin, despite his youth.  Someone that showed not just strength with the Force, but someone with the character traits to be the “great Jedi” Obi-Wan speaks of in the original trilogy.  Ultimately, Anakin never stops being the whiny annoyance he started out as until he is voiced by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.  Here, not having Obi-Wan or Anakin as a main character works to the detriment of the prequels since their relationship is the linchpin of the saga.

This leads us over to Qui-Gon Jinn.  I really have a generous amount of respect for Liam Neeson.  He always does admirable work, and I have enjoyed his wave of action thriller successes in recent years.  With Qui-Gon, it’s hard to say much about him.  He’s stoic and little else.  There are brief, light touches of heart, but they lack substantial depth to be impactful.  Knowing Lucas’ direction style, I would definitely have to say that Neeson wasn’t given the proper direction to breathe appropriate life into the character.  Given the right context and perspective on Qui-Gon, I believe Neeson could have brought more depth to him.  Qui-Gon is the mentor, and I suppose he is meant to act as some form of main protagonist, but there’s not enough bold dimension in the characterization for him to standout amongst the blandness of the film.

Another amazing actor that occasionally comes off like a dull wooden board is Natalie Portman.  Anyone who has seen Léon (aka The Professional) knows that Natalie has had a wealth of stunning acting ability from an early age, and that talent has continued to flourish to this day.  She is one of the finest actresses around, and has been so for a long time.  She could’ve done so many impressive things with Amidala had she just been given something of substance to work with.  Instead, it’s all dry political ramblings that never give Portman an opportunity to break out and show some character depth.  There’s a little of that in her scenes with Anakin where the humanity of the character surfaces, but that’s not in the forefront of the picture.  It’s definitely there to lay the groundwork for the following two films where Anakin and Padmé develop a relationship, but outside of that, she seems almost robotic.  As the Queen, her line deliveries are entirely monotone, reflecting no humanity, concern, worry, or urgency.  I believe some of her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress due to Lucas’ intention to maintain the ruse of the bodyguard decoy scenario.  As Padmé, Portman does have more natural warmth, but I know she’s capable of much more than what I saw here.

George Lucas is not an actor’s director, and that tends to be his biggest failing.  I think he’s a great producer.  He manages all aspects of production with confidence, decisiveness, and skill, but he just doesn’t know how to bring greatness out his actors.  An actor brings their own talent to the table, but it is the director’s job to focus and filter that talent into a unique performance.  Without that, an actor has no guidance to know what to put into their character.  George’s writing also leaves something to be desired.  Sometimes, you get a Harrison Ford who just gets it right from the start because the character practically wrote itself, but for potentially more complex roles, it needs more on the page.  You can’t expect every actor to simply see more than what’s written.  It requires the director’s input to make it more than that, but Lucas simply doesn’t know how to approach those interactions.

However, the one actor who really shows something of substance and nuance is Ian McDiarmid.  While the story follows no reason or logic with the schemes of Palpatine / Sidious, McDiarmid captures a subtle subversive quality that makes him intriguing.  While the film never blatantly states it, the two are one in the same, and McDiarmid clearly integrates that into how he plays Palpatine.  He’s a man with sinister motives playing out in the back of his mind while keeping up the friendly personae of Senator, observing and manipulating people and events to achieve his goals.  McDiarmid brings Palpatine’s ominous perspective into his performance adding the right touches of restraint and foreboding malevolence to draw in an audience’s attention.  You can see in McDiarmid’s subtle expressions the moments where Palpatine’s plan is coming together, and he relishes it with silent restraint.  Conversely, as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid captures a straight up villainous and intelligent performance that is quite unsettling.  As the prequels went on, Ian surely delved wholly into the character playing up the feigned sincerity nicely, and having a broader canvas to work with than others were given latitude to do.

Now, the original trilogy were groundbreaking films in special effects that revolutionized the industry.  That’s a big reputation to live up to, and the success here is a little mixed.  This was 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, and while I’m no major fan of that film, it’s achievements in digital effects were more consistent and eye opening than The Phantom Menace.  It’s difficult to be entirely fair since the DVD transfer of Episode I is not the best.  The film comes off a little too grainy to grasp the clarity of the visual effects, and it has this odd pinkish hue.  Generally, the visual effects are quite good for 1999, but the leaps and bounds taken in CGI evolution would allow the following two prequels to be vastly superior in that area.  So, in comparison, The Phantom Menace looks a little undercooked in the visual effects realm.  It’s not a constant, but as I said, it is a mixed bag.  Most stuff is great, but some things just lack detail and depth.  Many of the hover tanks in the Gungan-Droid battle often look like an animatic or something from an old video game.  I would hope that these issues would be resolved with the Blu Ray and 3D releases, but Lucas doesn’t always fix what you think he will.  On the positive side, many of the computer generated characters are impressively detailed, creating very finely textured creations.  While Jar Jar is an insufferable character that grates on my nerves incessantly, visually, he is an amazing achievement.  If he had been as good of a character as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, maybe people could give more credit to the CGI work put into him.

Production design here is quite impressive.  Naboo is certainly a world with a lot of culture and sophistication, and that comes out in the architecture and their design of technology.  The capital city of Theed is exceptionally picturesque partly due to the location shooting in Caserta, Italy.  Coruscant entirely captures the intended scope and scale that Lucas always wanted for Star Wars.  There is an inevitable Blade Runner influence here, but instead of smog, rain, and industrialism bearing down upon the environment, Coruscant is a perfectly wondrous planet that stands as a beacon for the entire Republic.  However, I can’t say I care much for anything surrounding the Gungans.  Every element of them just seems to pander to the child audience.  It is sufficiently alien, but there’s just too much of a cartoonish element to all of it to accept it as anything but child oriented.  There is nothing about them that I can take seriously in their culture, characterizations, or dialogue.

Focusing more on the story itself, I find it quite dull and illogical.  I could probably write, at least, ten pages worth of criticism about the plot holes in this film, but let me dig into what’s most annoying to my intellect.  The actions that different characters take have no sense to them.  Darth Sidious orders his minions along a certain course of action that should lead to the opposite outcome for himself, but because all the characters apparently just read the script so that they can follow along an illogical course of action, it all works out right in the end.  Sidious wants the Trade Federation to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty making their blockade legal to the point of invading the planet, but if they had succeeded in doing so, Palpatine could not have achieved placing himself as the head of the Galactic Senate.  Palpatine could not have foreseen all these plans going awry where the Jedi Ambassadors survive the Federation’s assassination attempt, escape to the planet, run into Jar Jar, make a deal with the Gungans for passage through the planet core to arrive in Theed just in time to rescue the Queen, and escape the planet through the blockade of battleships so that Amidala could reach Coruscant to ask for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum.  That is an impossible series of events to foresee or predict when your plan is clearly setup to kill the Jedi and keep Amidala locked up in a prison camp while keeping the Senate blind to what’s really happening on Naboo.  My only conclusion that allows this to make any sense is that Palpatine and Sidious are split personalities with conflicting motives intent on screwing each other over like a pair of warring siblings.  Obviously, that’s not the truth of the matter, but I can’t find a rational stream of consciousness to resolve this issue.  If Palpatine was playing both sides, pretending to help the Trade Federation as Sidious while actually focusing his success on Queen Amidala’s side so that he can ultimately seize control of the Senate, that would’ve worked brilliantly.  He would really use the Trade Federation as ignorant pawns who were always meant to fail for Palpatine’s further success.  He would get them to setup the blockade, but then, sabotage their plans from the inside out so that Amidala can easily escape to Coruscant and set the political stage for Palpatine to ascend to Supreme Chancellor.  Instead, every action Palpatine initiates is towards the ends of supporting the success of the blockade.  Sending Darth Maul to hunt down and attempt to kill the Jedi and drag the Queen back to Naboo to get the treaty signed is entirely counteractive to Palpatine’s endgame.  And this is the entire plot of the movie!

Other plot holes arise from the need of Lucas to make the characters dumb as a post so they make moronic decisions that move the so-called plot forward.  A single vote of no confidence from one representative of one planet out of thousands of governments, star systems, and planets immediately usurps Chancellor Valorum from office, and forces a new Supreme Chancellor to be voted into service.  I always say that the system works, it’s just the people within it that make it suck.  Here, the system sucks, and the people within it are stupid.  I can’t imagine how a government body like this could actually function if all it takes is for one person to voice their loss of confidence in its leadership.  You’d be voting in a new Chancellor every week.  Worse yet, this is not the last time this ridiculous plot device will rear its ugly head.

Further ridiculousness comes on Tatoonie as Qui-Gon goes to one dealer to find the parts they need, and then, since that dealer, Watto, won’t accept Republic currency, Qui-Gon simply gives up trying to locate the parts elsewhere.  Just because Watto says no one else would have these parts doesn’t make it true.  I wouldn’t trust Watto to be an honest businessman for a nanosecond, especially when he has a young boy and his mother as slaves with explosive devices implanted in them.  He’s clearly not moral or ethical.  So, why trust him to be an altruistic salesman?  Qui-Gon could’ve attempted to charter passage off Tatoonie like the elder Obi-Wan and Luke did in the original Star Wars, but again, the script requires the characters to be intellectually stunted so that the incoherent plotline can be furthered.  Because of this, all cunning and ingenuity that could’ve been injected into these characters to make them smart and innovative in tight situations is discarded.  These brain dead moments happen again and again and again in nearly every scene.  I have seen hundreds of films, and many bad, horrible piles of cinematic trash.  However, I can’t recall experiencing a film with such a shoddy script with dozens upon dozens of plot holes that mutilate all common sense from its pages.  It’s not like the plot is that interesting to really sacrifice intelligence for it.

I also have to say that Anakin Skywalker being the creator of C-3PO was ridiculous.  It adds nothing to anything in the saga, and is a pure fan service addition that, again, has no intelligent thought behind it.  A protocol droid is good for language translation and little else.  Shmi Skywalker has no practical use for such a droid, and I don’t know how anyone could believe otherwise.  And the fact that he builds the exact same droid that is mass produced throughout the galaxy seems stupid.  A real world allegory is that when people build their own custom personal computers, they don’t go constructing exact replicas of something they could’ve bought at Best Buy.  They customize it to their needs so it is a optimal tool for the work they need to do.  If Anakin had any ingenuity, he would’ve built something entirely original that could assist his mother with daily chores.  A protocol droid is not designed for manual labor.

Of course, I also have to address the sad attempt at humor in this film.  You see, in the original trilogy, the humor really arose from conflicting personalities and witty banter in heightened situations.  It could be a little immature, but Han Solo was a little immature at times and Luke was on a journey to maturity.  So, it fit the personalities of the characters.  Here, the supposed humor is so blatant and in your face, it’s not funny.  It’s like a bad stand-up comic trying too hard for a laugh through cheap physical comedy.  Jar Jar is here only for stupid comedic antics.  Yes, he is a conduit for certain plot developments, but this film already demonstrated that logic holds no substance here, so, I’m a little surprised he has any plot related function at all.  Everything he does is clumsy slapstick humor which couldn’t be more out of place for this saga.  Star Wars was originally created with the idea of bringing mythology into the modern era as adventurous films for the whole family.  I’m sure poop and fart jokes were not part of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book of mythological archetypes that heavily inspired Lucas.  It really is sad how far George had degraded his standards for entertainment here.  He went from creating a fantastical world of colorful, iconic characters and thematic mythology-inspired stories to a world of flat, dull, lifeless characters that are devoid of intelligence and humanity in ass-backwards stories that follow no reason or logic.

Despite all this, people still thought there was something cool and awesome to be had in this movie in the form of Darth Maul.  I respect Ray Park’s athletic talents immensely, but it is only that mixed with a very stunning character design that makes Maul cool.  He has no character.  He’s a plot device to make a few action sequences dynamic.  He’s a henchmen with nothing to say for himself, and nothing of substance to add to the story.  Maul exists because Sidious needs a competent ally to go out into the field and do his dirty work him.  Yes, he makes himself intriguing through an air of mystique, but frankly, as soon as he departs the film, none of it matters.  He’s a disposable villain whose loss makes no impact on the story because he never added anything to it.  This is different from Boba Fett who had a cunning role in The Empire Strikes Back by outsmarting Captain Solo’s escape plan, and actually had something to say for himself that reflected a sense of character, personality, and attitude.

The action sequences are a little mixed, but mostly excellent.  All the lightsaber battles are amazing!  The choreography of these segments show what fully trained Jedi could do, and what a fully capable Dark Lord of the Sith could accomplish.  They are dynamic and exciting, but they can seem a little too choreographed at times.  I see many behind the scenes featurettes on action movies where they strive to maintain a spontaneity to their fight choreography.  While it is all well rehearsed, the choreographers, stunt performers, and actors focus on keeping it real in the moment.  They inject character and emotion into those moments so it never looks to be so ‘by the numbers.’  The lightsaber battles can tend to come off like a dance instead of a physically intense series of actions and counteractions where a single error could cause doom.  It lacks emotion and danger.  It also lacks a psychological aspect due to the absence of dialogue.  Before, there would be Darth Vader or later Dooku trying to play mind games through cunning dialogue and strategic intimidation.  They would try to put their Jedi opponents off-guard this way, and it made for a more multi-dimensional fight.

Meanwhile, the space battles are okay.  There are very few of them, and none of them really capture that urgent speed and suspense that most others in the saga have offered.  The climax ultimately gets sliced up too thin between four interconnected action sequences to really give enough coherent importance to more than one.  That being the Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel, and it’s the least consequential fight of the film since there’s nothing at stake between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul.  Regardless, its speed and physical intensity give it the rousing action sensation that was needed in more abundance here.  The film starts so slowly and flatly laying out plot elements and briefly introducing a few characters while pouring out redundant dialogue that there’s not enough momentum to keep the film going.  It has a consistent pace, but that pace is a bit too sluggish here without anything of importance happening.  A methodical pace is workable when, like in The Empire Strikes Back, you are getting character development.  The Phantom Menace has no substantive character development.  Anything you learn of them is really surface stuff, very one dimensional insights.

The Gungan-Droid battle is uninteresting to me since I don’t care about the Gungans or the Droid Army.  It also comes off highly cartoonish and pathetically unfunny.  I wish like hell there was a way to excise this from the film, but Lucas himself realized that plot elements were too interwoven to do such a thing.  Another frivolous action sequence is the pod race.  It’s gratuitous in my eyes.  Theatrical or DVD cut, it’s far too long for such a minor element in the story.  This is not some sports movie where the entire film builds up to this critical sequence where everything is laid on the line, and all character, story, and emotional threads tie into it to make it pivotal and crucial.  Yes, it determines whether Anakin goes free or not, but Qui-Gon had already well demonstrated how much he was willing to cheat and manipulate events to get what he wanted.  I have no doubt that he would’ve done something unethical to free Anakin even if he had lost the race.  Simply said, the pod race overstays its welcome, and once it is done, it has no further relevance to the film.  Never has such a fast paced sequence slowed down a film so much.

On the brighter side, as is always a highlight that elevates the quality of any movie is John Williams’ score.  “Duel of the Fates” still is a brilliant, operatic piece that gives the climax a sweeping, epic majesty.  It was a perfect composition that has always marked what I call, “where the movie really begins.”  The only thing the score lacks is due to the lack of it in the picture is rousing adventure.  The action sequences are few and far between, and so, it requires the score to be more in the background instead of crashing into the surround sound with heart soaring excitement.  Regardless, I own two versions of the CD soundtrack including the two disc ultimate edition, and it is a fantastic listen.  So, I give it high marks all around.

The only other thing to address are the midichlorians.  You see, the Force used to be something entirely spiritual where it required great commitment and discipline to master.  It’s a power anyone can tap into it if they are willing to open their minds and trust in it fully.  Yoda spoke to this perfectly in The Empire Strikes Back in that the Force doesn’t rely on the physical.  It’s all about the character of the person which determines how great of a Jedi they could become.  Now, George Lucas tells us that everyone’s ability to use the Force is based on how many of these microscopic organisms are present in your bloodstream.  This means you are biologically limited to how potent of a Force user you can be, and you can never become anything greater than that.  No amount of spiritual strength or Jedi training you go through will make you as good as someone with more midichlorians in their body.  That entirely crushes the sensibility the Force was originally built upon, and that is another terrible idea injected into a film already ripe with terrible ideas.  Before, it was an inspiring idea and philosophy that added a fantastical quality to Star Wars that captured and enthralled peoples’ imaginations.  Now, it’s cold science.  Just like how I don’t need to know where immortals came from in Highlander, I don’t need to know the clinical origins of the Force.  Magic is magic, and that’s all I need to know.  And the fact that Lucas uses these midichlorians to say that Anakin Skywalker is the result of a virgin birth created by the midichlorians themselves is just a smack in the face to me.  There was never any need to inject such an idea into the saga, and it has extremely little relevance to anything.  It is only ever mentioned again in Revenge of the Sith by Palpatine, and it’s practically glossed over entirely by Anakin in that same scene.  I suppose it’s meant to give Anakin a more mythic or prophetic aura around him that neither Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christiansen ever remotely live up to.  While I’ve never had an overt issue with the whole “prophecy” aspect, it is another idea that Lucas developed exclusively for the prequels.  This revisionist mentality is no surprise to anyone now, but frankly, it gets to being a bit aggravating in the prequels as George keeps altering the original trilogy to accommodate it.

That’s really the perils of making prequels.  How do you introduce something new to the story that hasn’t already been said without betraying what has already been established?  It is not impossible, especially considering Ben Kenobi’s line about “a certain point of view.”  There are many things Lucas could’ve altered that could still be true if looked at from a different perspective, but nothing about prophecies, midichlorians, Qui-Gon (not Obi-Wan) discovering Anakin, or anything else can be taken in that way.

As I said, I could go on and on about the flaws and failures of this film that bother me, but this has already been an obscenely long review as it is.  Still, it feels like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it all.  There are people who think we just don’t “get” the prequels as if we’re unable to accept them for what they are, and that’s why we rag on them.  The truth is that we are fans who just expect a product with a little thought, care, and integrity be put into it.  A plot that makes sense with smart, entertaining characters.  Frankly, that is not difficult to deliver, but somehow, George Lucas failed on all fronts.  Again, I enjoyed the film upon release in 1999 because I was just in awe of the spectacle, but as I have matured, I can see beyond that to focus on how poorly conceived this film was at its most base level.  I’ve said for a while now that if this was the original first Star Wars movie, it would not have sparked the same phenomena that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years.  It just doesn’t have the rousing adventure aspect or lively, iconic character qualities that made Star Wars so successful in the first place.  I don’t enjoy watching this movie, and I don’t believe seeing it in 3D would give it any more actual dimension or entertainment value.  My reviews on the entire saga will continue as the prequels do improve beyond this point, but flaws still exist.  In one case, my fondness for one prequel film will allow for some forgiveness.  In the least, I believe my following reviews will be no more than half as long as this one, thankfully.


Unknown (2011)

Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us.  Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.

Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit.  However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days.  When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity.  Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth.  Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.

I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality.  I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary.  My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well.  Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel.  So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it.  Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting.  Unknown did not achieve that for me.  It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough.  There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it.  The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.

Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him.  Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all.  It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around.  Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with.  What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie.  His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well.  That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents.  He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck.  I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles.  However, this does work as an example of the movie.  Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre.  It’s all standard fare, average offerings.

The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot.  I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do.  Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions.  Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.

The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days.  More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff.  I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences.  There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time.  There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies.  That time seems almost entirely behind us, now.  Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago.  Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any.  The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra.  Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake?  I think that explains enough.

As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film.  It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller.  It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions.  Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented.  The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent.  However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.

I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken.  Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller.  This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons.  However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue.  Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie.  I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success.  It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.


Street Kings (2008)

This is one of those films I did not see in theatres.  It was a DVD rental discovery that I have been very pleased to have discovered.  The cast is really what drew me to Street Kings – Hugh Laurie, Forest Whitaker, and what might seem like a swerve in Keanu Reeves.  I am very much a Keanu fan from Bill & Ted to Point Break to Constantine and beyond.  Yeah, I get why people takes jabs at him, but I’ve always enjoyed his work.  Here, he turns in a very strong performance holding his own opposite some heavyweight acting talents.  This is a very well conceived and executed film from David Ayer that I feel is exceptionally worthy of your time and attention.

Keanu Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, a veteran LAPD Vice Detective who has struggled to navigate through life after the death of his wife.  He’s a cop who chooses to cutout procedure on the street taking violent action against known criminals to close a case.  He is well protected by his Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whittaker) every step of the way.  However, when evidence implicates Tom in the execution of his former partner turned Internal Affairs informant (Terry Crews), he is forced to go up against the cop culture he’s been a part of his entire career, ultimately leading him to question the loyalties of everyone around him.  He is regularly confronted by Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie) who probes for the truth, but Ludlow views him as an enemy to be combated.  However, as he partners with the untainted Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans) to weed through this shady, twisted maze towards his own answers, Ludlow comes to realize just how crooked this world is, and who his real enemies are.

I am a definite crime genre lover spawned from numerous Michael Mann films, and I also enjoy a solid cop drama.  This brings it all to the table in a very grounded, emotional, but also entertaining package.  It’s very smartly written to keep an audience on its toes as the secrets slowly rise to the surface.  Bits of action are peppered throughout to keep the energy flowing in support of the plot.  Ludlow goes on a shady journey trying to find out exactly where he stands in this crooked world of corruption and deception.  This tangled tapestry unfolds to reveal a wealth of dangerous, twisted people with dark agendas.

Keanu really does kick it up to a higher level as Tom Ludlow.  The character can be crass in certain moments, but also, show compassion when it matters most to him.  There are some fine dynamics to the character that Keanu balances out with ease.  There’s the ass kicking cop that throws down shots of vodka after wasting some criminals.  There’s the contemptuous man trying to shake loose the truth that everyone seems very quick to sweep under the rug.  There is also the slightly humorous side of Ludlow with a couple quips here and there which add to the crass attitude.  He’s been protected through everything, and thus, has developed an attitude where he doesn’t take anything from anyone.  He has an ego and a self-serving nature, but is able to direct it to his advantage on these unforgiving, violent streets.  Everything he does, he believes is for the best, even if it’s crooked, but he grows and changes when confronted with just how crooked and screwed up everything has become.  He’s the kind of character who is hardened by his fractured life and his harsh job, but when it comes down to it, he has a strong sense of humanity that he reserves for those who deserve it.  Those who don’t get the ill end of his personality which is full of contempt and the will to act it out.  Keanu Reeves handles this satisfyingly textured character with a lot of passion and charisma.  He is an excellent lead for this film.

Of course, Forest Whitaker is amazing!  The man has such a wealth of charisma and passion that it bleeds through in every scene.  He inhabits Captain Jack Wander with a strong ego and bravado that none can contend with or deflate.  He has pride in his men, but also conviction and authority over them.  He’s very much a king high atop his throne where he has garnered respect and fear from those around him.  He never comes off as a straight arrow, but supposedly does what he does because Ludlow is his creation.  He covers up and cleans up whatever he needs to so that his star cop can keep burning down the street trash.  Whitaker makes Wander an increasingly despicable person, but not one you can take your eyes off of.  He has a larger than life presence that commands a scene, and that’s what the character needed.  A man of power and guile that has the audacity to take on anyone that challenges him or his men.  A man with his own dirty secrets that holds all the cards to play people however he wants.  It is a brilliant performance that motivates his co-stars to push themselves further and harder.

Meanwhile, on a more reduced role, Hugh Laurie delivers an intelligent, subtle performance as Captain James Biggs of Internal Affairs.  He carefully probes Ludlow throughout the film just giving him a little nudge here and there.  As Laurie has proven in his many years portraying Dr. Gregory House, he can hold a scene smartly opposite anyone.  It’s only one scene, but Forest Whitaker gives him a challenge to contend with.  Laurie, as Biggs, stands his ground well.  However, the rest of his scenes are opposite Keanu, and they both play them with an electric dynamic.  They both portray strong characters offering up conflict fueled by Ludlow’s misconceptions.  He doesn’t know what Biggs is really after, and Biggs doesn’t show his cards.  He just let’s things play out with a little encouragement to make sure Ludlow takes the right critical steps.

The film is shot with some sharp style and edge.  The cinematography continually maintains the energy of the narrative, and providing numerous inspired camera moves to punctuate certain dramatic beats.  Thankfully, the style and edge never compromise the story being told, it merely services and enhances it.  Everything in this film is conceived and executed properly.  Every role is cast with a lot of thought and detail.  Strong actors are implanted throughout the movie from the leads to the supporting roles.

Chris Evans adds an extra, different dynamic as the slightly green Detective Diskant.  A cop interested in doing the right thing, and willing to push past his experience and limits to do so.  He might not have as much streetwise mileage as Ludlow, but has the conviction to maintain his sense of justice.  Evans strikes the right balance with him offering up enough inexperienced uncertainty mixed with confidence through trust.  Evans & Reeves have a fine chemistry that is born out of the characters’ contrasts, as with most great pairings.  That helps to maintain a lighter mood between them, and gives the film its balance of humorous moments.  I feel Diskant is definitely a conduit for the audience to better connect with the story.  Ludlow is clearly the lead, but Diskant is a little more relatable and helps to give Ludlow someone to connect with on the journey.  Someone he can trust, and through Diskant, you can come to relate more with Ludlow.

What I really like about this film is how smart it is written.  No character is conceived without a motivation for their actions, and nothing is dumbed down for the convenience of the plot.  Everything fits together amazingly well.  Screenwriters James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, & Jamie Moss delivered something very satisfying on multiple levels, and director David Ayer realized that with great balance and competence.  The entire plot is well constructed, and gradually develops on-screen in a very coherent and intelligent manner.  All the characters are written and played with a lot of personality and realistic depth.  They all work well opposite one another to create a very diverse and interesting landscape for this crooked world.  I literally have nothing negative at all to say about this film.  To me, it should be considered a classic in the genre.  I love the energy and momentum throughout the story to keep you hooked into where it is leading Tom Ludlow.  That doesn’t mean there’s action all the time, just that the plot continues to develop adding new elements that drive the characters forward.  Everything that develops motivates people and events towards more dangerous consequences until Ludlow is faced with the truth, but it’s not without it’s costs.

With Street Kings, there’s plenty of violent action, emotionally charged drama, serious danger, and fine dashes of humor to make it a very powerful, entertaining ride that’s worth taking.  This is one of my favorite films of the last few years, and I give it my full, wholehearted recommendation!  There is no fat in this film, just lean, strong talent that punctuates the story and characters.