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Posts tagged “samuel l jackson

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2I do like this sequel.  I’ve never vocalized any criticism of it because it is fun and enjoyable, but yeah, it does have some problems that should be pointed out.  Probably its biggest is a few too many plot threads running through it.  They never make the film incomprehensible, just a little bloated, but there is the fact that the film constantly veers off track by following the wrong story after not too long.  It had promise at the start, but let’s see how exactly they dash that.

Now that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has revealed to the world that he is Iron Man, the entire world is now eager to get their hands on his hot technology – whether it’s the United States government, weapons contractors, or an unknown enemy.  That enemy happens to be Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) – the son of now deceased Anton Vanko, Howard Stark’s former partner.  Stark had Vanko banished to Russia for conspiring to commit treason against the US, and now Ivan wants revenge against Tony – and he’s willing to get it at any cost.  But after being humiliated in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sees Ivan as the key to upping his status against Stark Industries after an attack on the Monaco 500.  All the while, an ailing Tony has to figure out a way to save himself, stop Vanko, and get Hammer before the government shows up and takes his beloved suits away.

Simply said, I think Iron Man 2 could have been a better movie if it didn’t overload itself with so many plots.  The story we get with Tony dealing with a self-destructive mentality has some great stuff in it.  Instead of dealing with alcoholism, which has been a major issue for Stark in the comics, it deals with his failing health due to issues with his arc reactor.  What’s saving his life is also killing him is a fine idea.  I do like that this ties into Ivan Vanko and Howard Stark, creating something that appears cohesive in concept.  Yet, adding in all the unneeded machinations of Justin Hammer and the S.H.I.E.L.D. plot elements convolutes things, taking away the focus and poignancy of the core story.

I feel that everything directly involving Tony dealing with his father’s legacy, and rebuilding himself is excellent.  It creates the weight and gravity of the film, and it is what I love about Iron Man 2.  While it does seem like the filmmakers kind of took Tony back a step from the more altruistic and compassionate guy he became in the last film, I can see how Tony’s deteriorating health could alter his personality and disposition.  Once Tony’s health is on the upswing, and he becomes inspired by his father’s legacy, he rises back up to being that hero we knew.  Still, that kicks in for the third act, and so, for the majority of the picture, we have the more self-absorbed, self-destructive Tony Stark.  Downey continues to do a fantastic job in the role bringing his charm and charisma into the fold to maintain Tony as likeable even if he’s being a belligerent ass.  You know there’s a better guy underneath and he just needs a kick in the back side to open his eyes and mind again.

Obviously, I really liked Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but after a disagreement over money, Marvel replaced him with the equally talented Don Cheadle.  He does a fine job following up on what Howard did, but admittedly, I can’t help but constantly think how Howard might’ve played things a little differently.  That’s not a knock on Cheadle, who I love, just the unfortunate fact of having to re-cast a role.  Regardless, Don Cheadle is a strong fit for this role focusing more on a character of serious candor and conviction with a few touches of humor.  We still get moments of compassion from Rhodey, but he’s forced into a more conflicted role of trying to help Tony, even went it turns adversarial, while maintaining loyalty to the U.S. military.  Cheadle takes the role and runs with it adding his own vibe and depth to it while not betraying what was done previously.

Scarlet Johansen is amazingly sexy and killer as Black Widow.  She’s got some sharp, alluring chemistry with Downey.  Natasha Romanov is able to lead Stark on while also never giving into his advances, making her a very smart and assertive character.  When it comes time to kick ass, she is immensely impressive handling all the agile fighting skills beautifully.  She’s a wonderful and vibrant fit for this role.

On initial viewings, I found Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to be nearly insufferable and obnoxious.  He came off like the lame guy at the party trying to act like the coolest guy at the party and failing.  I understand that this is sort of the intention with the character.  Make him seem like a second rate Tony Stark who is more lame by trying to be cool, but annoying is sort of what I got out of the performance.  The film sets him up as this inferior and incompetent competitor to Stark, and he never becomes anything but incompetent and egotistical.  No one in the film is really buying any of the bull he’s selling, especially Vanko, and you can see that even he views Hammer as a foolish, abrasive joke.  Rockwell is a highly talented actor with many various talents, but I think this character is too much.  He eats up so much scenery and screentime while being one of the least consequential characters in the movie.  At times, I can enjoy him more now, finding some humor in what Hammer is doing, especially during his weapons presentation to Rhodey, but the film really would have been far better off without this character.

It’s almost sad that Hammer has so much screentime compared to Mickey Rourke.  While Ivan Vanko’s story is simply revenge, it has more potential substance than Hammer’s purely ego-driven scheme.  It would’ve pushed the more internal conflicts with Tony into the foreground, and have Vanko represent everything wrong and twisted with his family’s legacy.  Rourke can be a fantastic actor, or in the least, a very entertaining one.  There are scenes here where Rourke does very solid dramatic work, especially when Vanko and Stark meet after the Monaco incident.  Rourke makes this a great, intimidating, and menacing villain that should have been the main threat throughout the movie.  Yet, he quickly becomes relegated to be a minor character after he joins up with Hammer, and even the conclusion to his part of the film is very dismissive as a generic “villain in a suit” throwaway action sequence.  With so many plot threads weaving through this film, it seems the filmmakers lost sight partway through of what was pertinent to the core story and what was just entertaining fluff.

The scene between Vanko and Stark after the race track incident is the best scene of the film, and it is terribly wasted.  The thematic material Vanko brings up in it and the questions about the Stark family legacy are barely followed through on in the remainder of the film.  This scene establishes a serious, dramatic tone that is not really revisited.  Even in the trailers, this was the dramatic hook for me.  If this set the tone for the remainder of the film, it would have been a tremendously solid film, but alas, that was not to be.

Again, the film is a little over bloated and a bit indulgent.  Stuff about Vanko obsessing over his bird is entirely frivolous, but thankfully, doesn’t take up more than a few minutes of screentime.  Yet, the film has little moments like this where it indulges in extraneous junk, such as in the Senate Committee meeting.  The film gets cluttered with too much junk that it can’t see the track to stay on it.  The main plot of this film deals with Tony Stark falling apart and having to rebuild himself by rediscovering his father’s legacy.  That’s apparent right from the beginning, and it would have flowed very well if the film dealt mainly with Ivan Vanko’s intentions of revenge.  It would all thematically tie in solidly, but again, it is the Justin Hammer aspect that disrupts that plotline of the film.  The first part of the film through Vanko’s incarceration is great to me.  It felt like the film was on-track, for the most part, towards a meaty story filled with emotional resonance.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that because the filmmakers felt it was necessary to add a second, frivolous villain who overshadows the more superior and relevant villain.  This really is my main gripe with the movie, and it is why I keep harping on it.  Vanko has strong motivations based in bitter emotions that make him a formidable adversary.  Hammer just has ego going for him, and that is just not very interesting.  Beyond that, he’s just a lame character good merely for small jokes, not a forefront storyline.

Now, people say that this film being a setup for The Avengers is its biggest problem.  Frankly, that is barely part of the movie.  Yes, there are ways you could have written Nick Fury and Black Widow out of this for a tighter, less crowded movie, but let’s look at what they contribute to the film.  They provide Tony with an injection that curbs the symptoms of his ailment, provide him with further knowledge into his father which leads to Tony discovering the new element to power his Arc reactor, and Black Widow helps to stop Vanko’s assault with the Hammer Drones.  They don’t actually impede upon the plot, or wedge their own plot into the film, they are part of the on-going plot of the movie.  They assist Stark with various aspects of it, and while they are there in order for there to be a segue into The Avengers and more concretely establish S.H.I.E.L.D., they don’t hijack the movie from Iron Man.  It’s still his movie, and they just happen to be in it.

On the upside, Iron Man 2 does feature some excellent action sequences.  They are all different and exciting from Vanko’s attack on the race track, which creates a sense of grave peril, to the fast-paced finale teaming Iron Man and War Machine together against the Hammer Drones.  It does have less action than the first film, but what Jon Favreau and his creative team of filmmakers achieved with these sequences is still excellent.  There’s enough plot going on to maintain a rhythm and pace in the film for it to survive and mostly thrive without the aid of additional action sequences.  I do feel that the Hammer Drone attack is far more satisfying than when Vanko shows up in his Whiplash suit.  This is mainly because the Hammer Drone segment is just an action scene with the sole intent of delivering excitement in a smart and slick fashion.  Vanko’s conclusion, again, feels flat and secondary, at best.

Regardless of its problems, I still do find Iron Man 2 quite an enjoyable film with plenty of excitement, charisma, mostly great performances, and some very smart ideas for evolving Tony’s character.  I do think that Marvel Studios had all the right talent and elements, but weren’t able to either trim them down for a leaner story or arrange them in the most effective order.  You could have Justin Hammer be in the film without him dominating so much of the plot.  He could easily be a more minor character enabling Vanko, who remains in the forefront enhancing the thematic elements of the story.  In any case, many do see this film as a stumbling block in just the Iron Man franchise, but I’m far from thinking it’s terrible.  I know others disagree.  It’s a film that still had substance and evident talent behind it which still manages to be entertaining, in my view.

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

So, it all came down to this.  Both  previous prequels were met with mixed reactions, at best, but the advocates for the negative seemed to shout much louder than the positive side.  As I have covered in my own reviews here, there were some improvements from the first to second film, but many glaring problems existed with lapses in logic and intelligence, to be brief.  Coming to Revenge of the Sith, it is difficult to be entirely objective as I have fond memories surrounding the release of this film.  I thought that might impact my review a good amount, but after some refreshers and a deep analysis of the film, I’m going at it just as hard as the last two.  Again, it’s not a stubborn stance of hate against something new or different, it’s an objective point of view of seeing what is good and what is wrong about the film.  One thing that irritates me with sequels is when the filmmakers don’t have enough objectivity to actually fix the obvious problems from one film to another.  So, you know I have a few axes to grind down even further, and there is some summation needed for the overall prequel trilogy.  So, get real comfortable because this is gonna be a lot longer than I expected it to be.

After waging the Clone Wars for three years now, the evil Separatist cybernetic commander General Grievous has boldly kidnapped Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the capital of the Republic.  Quickly sent into action on a rescue mission are Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as a space battle is waged above Coruscant.  However, despite their ultimate success in this mission and the death of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), more foreboding threats lurk ahead for the Jedi and the Republic.  Anakin reunites with his secretly wed wife Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) who reveals she is pregnant.  This sparks repeated visions for Anakin of her death during child birth, and he becomes consumed with finding a way to avert this event.  As Obi-Wan is sent on a mission to track down and dispose of General Grievous on the planet Utapau, Chancellor Palpatine further manipulates Skywalker towards a dark path which is meant to see the fall of the Jedi and the Republic, and the rise of the Sith Lord’s Galactic Empire.

Let’s just get the bad out of the way first.  The film’s pivotal faltering crux is that Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is exceptionally weak.  It stems from the foundation of a romantic relationship that made no sense to exist in the previous film, and never felt truly believable to begin with.  It came off more like teenagers in some glorified storybook romance with both having some delusion of what love really was instead of a naturally and organically developed relationship.  Anakin never matures, or really changes as a character at all.  I can take dark, troubled, and brooding, but the reasons behind it are just very one dimensional.  Yes, anyone who had a vision of their loved one that Anakin does here would have a flood of emotional reactions, but what Anakin does because of it and why he believes it will save Padmé comes off as naïve.  All of Anakin’s suspicions are unfounded.  He is disillusioned by his own built-in paranoia and distrust because he isn’t the all-powerful Jedi he was prophesized to become.  A prophecy that no one ever explains where it came from, or who created it.  A prophecy that causes a lot of damage to the conceptualization of the prequels.  Yes, Palpatine constantly puts ideas in his head, but remember what Ben Kenobi said in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.  “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.”  Nowhere in this film does it seem as if Anakin is “seduced” into turning evil.  He’s a desperate man searching for a long shot desperate solution, and as always, is selfish enough to not care if hundreds or thousands of Jedi have to die for what he wants.  It doesn’t feel like he’s truly tempted or lured there by way of its power tapping into his darkest impulses.  While the opera scene surely tries to support that idea, Anakin clearly states that the only reason he’s joining the Sith is to save Padmé’s life.  That is all that matters to him.  If the Jedi could do the same as Palpatine claims he can do, he’d stick with the Jedi.  There is no seduction involved.

My personal belief is that Anakin should have been a mature, honorable, and confident man who is swayed and consumed by power.  A man who seeks the means to restore order in the galaxy, which aligns with Vader’s statements to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  I would expect that his motives are broader, encompassing a larger landscape instead of being manipulated into believing everything he does.  I surely have no qualms about the Emperor being manipulative as that’s always been part of who he is, but Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side is more a result of Palpatine molding him there through lies and deception instead of Anakin making these choices of his own free will.  Darth Vader was a confident, intimidating individual with a sense of self-control.  I would’ve expected to see those qualities reflected in a young Anakin Skywalker.  A man mature beyond his years, and amazingly proficient in the ways of the Force.  Someone to be admired, not tolerated.  His fall is meant to be tragic, but instead, it only comes off as selfish.  It’s difficult to care about a character when he is not likeable in the least, and that is a failing which extends to nearly every aspect of these prequel films.

Thankfully, Anakin’s growing paranoia and suspicions leave us with very few scenes of him and Padmé gushing over one another, but we do get one scene too many.  Personally, said scene is cringe inducing.  The dialogue is horrendous, and the acting from Portman and Christensen do nothing to make it more bearable.  Outside of said scene, Natalie Portman comes off a little more mature than her performance in the previous movie.  This is likely due to her not being forced into a poorly conceived romantic storyline.  However, I do wish the “Seeds of Rebellion” scenes were kept in the film because they actually give Amidala an active storyline to personally involve herself with.  In the film as it is, she essentially sits around her apartment waiting for people to inform her of the latest plot developments and get emotional over them.  Again, Natalie Portman is one of the most talented and diverse actresses around today, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from her performances in these films.  There is some improvement from the flat, hollow Queen Amidala back in The Phantom Menace, but even with strong emotions injected into her character, it still lacks depth.  The relationship between Anakin and Padmé only ever feels fabricated.  It’s presented to us with a minimum of effort put into making it feel earned.  What makes it worse is that Natalie and Hayden have no chemistry whatsoever.  A really good actor can take something not so good and turn it into something worthwhile, but everyone has their limits.  You can’t do it all on your own, and George Lucas seems to have a tough time conveying his ideas to actors.  That is all I can chalk this up to because, outside of these Star Wars prequels, I have yet to see anything less than great performances from Natalie Portman.  She really can do it all, and she always does it exceptionally well.  So, while it sounds redundant, it seems necessary to say that I have to attribute the sub-standard acting qualities in these films to Lucas’ inability to communicate the depth and detail of his characters to his actors.  Of course, the poorly written dialogue doesn’t help matters, either.

With Samuel L. Jackson, I can understand the marketing appeal of casting him in these films, but he wasn’t made for a role like Mace Windu.  The wise, seasoned Jedi Master role would be better filled by a Morgan Freeman, Forrest Whittaker, or even a Laurence Fishburne type.  Jackson does have plenty of talent, but he seems to shine in more passionate roles.  Characters that aren’t conservative with their emotions, but that’s exactly who Mace Windu is.  Windu could have been the elder Ben Kenobi allegory for the prequel trilogy, if written with more perceptive wisdom and cast with a more appropriate actor.  Alas, he comes off just as one dimensional and clueless as all the other Jedi.  Many of his line deliveries are as flat and hollow as they get, especially when confronting Palpatine.  Samuel L. Jackson can be a marvelous actor.  Probably my favorite performance of his is in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film I love very much, and his Ordell Robbie is a performance filled with a lot of charisma, wit, and dramatic weight.  That’s the sort of role Jackson shines in, and shows what kind of talent he has to offer.  Mace Windu never offered that for Jackson because, unfortunately, it was never a role designed for him.

Fortunately, Ewan McGregor seems to pull through fine.  This is probably because he has full context of where Kenobi has been and where he will go to draw on.  He knows where to take his performance to sync the character up with Alec Guinness’ portrayal in the original films.  His heart wrenching performance at the start and conclusion of the final duel is everything it should have been.  It’s only too bad that the rest of the prequel films never earned those deep moments of character and emotion.  McGregor makes this younger, yet still wise Kenobi charming, compassionate, and overall a pleasure to spend time with.  He truly had a dimensional handle on the character, and filled it with personality and emotion to spare.  Ewan really gave it his all, and it shows through in every second he’s on screen.  The character might not have been written too greatly in these three films, but Ewan was able to rise above that more than anyone else.

Moving onto fresher ground, some of the lightsaber duels here are rather mixed.  The good ones are the opening duel with Dooku and the climactic Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle.  My main gripe is the sequence where the Jedi go to arrest Chancellor Palpatine.  Lightweight choreography between Samuel L. Jackson and Ian McDiarmid along with some bad editing to terrible close-up shots of cringable facial expressions make it tough to sit through.  Neither actor is convincing as a master swordsman.  Even before that, the editing of Palpatine slaying the other Jedi Masters is clumsy, shoddy.  It makes the movie feel like cheap B-movie schlock that couldn’t hire a competent choreographer or editor to make the sequence look decent.  Then, there’s the horrible line deliveries of bland dialogue at the latter end of the scene which makes the entire thing worse.  At times, it seems like Jackson, McDiarmid, and Christensen aren’t even trying as if the script drained the talent right out of them.  And this is the scene which directly leads to Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side.  I couldn’t ask for a worse build up to the saga’s most pivotal moment.  It encapsulates everything that is primarily wrong with the prequels – bad writing, bad acting, uninspired editing, and poor plotting.  Again, Anakin doesn’t strike out and join the Sith because of a sense of injustice at hand, it’s because Palpatine can maybe save the woman he loves.  He even shows regret and remorse over what he just did to Mace Windu, but still goes along with joining forces with Palpatine because of what he claims he might be able to do to save his wife.  Again, a desperate guy looking for a long shot solution.

Since I jut touched upon it, I do need to address the technical aspects of these three films, in retrospect.  What really strikes me is how dull the cinematography is.  There’s hardly ever any camera movement to punctuate emotional or dramatic moments, and scenes are blocked and plotted out with no originality.  While the action sequences are dynamically quite well handled, the dialogue scenes are very point-and-shoot, by-the-numbers work.  Very little effort is put into making them visually interesting aside from the CGI blue screened backgrounds.  I think not working on practical sets or locations greatly affected how these films were shot.  There are no environments to envelope the film in, to really move the camera around in to take advantage of what’s actually there.  Shooting in a tangible environment inspires a filmmaker to interact with it, and play with camera angles and movement.  Instead, everything is shot against a flat blue screen which inspires nothing for both the filmmakers and actors.  And as I said before, the editing is also very uninspired.  With the original Star Wars, George Lucas went for a less conventional method of editing the film by having the cuts drive the rhythm of the scene instead of it being dictating by the actors.  It created energy, pace, and urgency in the way scenes unfolded and how the story was told.  With the prequels, Ben Burtt approaches everything very conventionally, very clinically.  It’s just like the cinematography.  There’s nothing original about it, nothing creative in how anything is presented.  It’s all just there.

Another lackluster lightsaber duel is the overly long battle between Kenobi and General Grievous.  There’s some dramatic license taken at the beginning as Obi-Wan just stands there waiting for Grievous to throw off his cape, talk trash, and unfurl four lightsabers before even getting into a fighting stance.  Then, the scene goes on and on from a duel to a ridiculous chase to a more straight up fight.  There is something to be commended for a short, straight to the point action sequence.  Long and elaborate can work when it leads to a point, but the end result is the same here no matter the length.  The Yoda / Emperor duel is entirely pointless, and just sucks up time that could’ve been used to better story-driven effect.  It’s more of that ridiculous action hero posturing from Yoda which is entirely out of character.  Removing this fight sequence from the film would have no effect on the story or characters, and that is the very definition of a frivolous action sequence.

While the Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle is well choreographed, and I enjoy the action quite a lot, the dialogue exchanges within it also terribly lack passion and depth.  One would think it would be the most impassionate confrontation in the entire saga, but it just lacks that visceral emotional intensity.  The entire sequence could have benefited from being a shorter fight with more substantive interactions like the original trilogy duels.  The biggest difference with lightsaber duels in the prequel trilogy versus the original trilogy is the over reliance on high speed fight choreography instead of character-based conflicts.  You can only maintain interest in a high speed fight for so long before it has to boil down to substantive moments with the characters.  This is an impressive sequence, but Anakin and Obi-Wan are so evenly matched that there’s barely any back-and-forth peril.  While Anakin might be more powerful, Obi-Wan has the experience and discipline to compensate, and that’s what ultimately allows for him to defeat Anakin.  The sequence has plenty of merit with the magnificent digital effects, the changing location of the battle, and the slow descent into a hellish environment.  John Williams’ music reaches a major apex here with “Battle of the Heroes,” one of my favorite prequel trilogy cues.  Ewan and Hayden showcase immense physical ability and discipline making this an action highlight of the entire saga.  Despite any flaws, this confrontation has added so much more depth to the Ben Kenobi / Darth Vader duel in A New Hope for me.  It does feel like “the circle is now complete.”  The context now given offers up a more epic atmosphere to it like two old Samurai from an era long past battling for the last time.  Both men have been through this personal history that no one else in the film is really aware of, and so, that adds to the personal strength of it all.

The opening space battle sequence has always impressed me.  I know there are those out there that have their gripes with the entire rescue mission section of the film, and I can understand their issues with it.  There’s some extraneous humor that really isn’t needed with R2-D2, and a few bits and pieces in the space battle that could have been trimmed up or cutout for a tighter sequence.  Plus, it is extremely difficult to discern what ships are fighting on what side of the battle.  There’s no visual context to apply to it, and the scene is very jam packed with all kinds of crossfire and visual depth.  That’s how a space battle should be, but it really just becomes random background to the main action with Skywalker and Kenobi.  I can entirely advocate for all of that criticism, but with the sentimentality I have for the film, it does not bother me.  I enjoy nearly every moment of it because it does feel very Star Wars to me, and I think it’s a welcomed change to start one of these films out with an action sequence like the original film.  For a few of the films in the saga, a slow start works nicely by establishing an appropriate dramatic tone, but others like The Phantom Menace or Return of the Jedi just seem to drag along before anything exciting or interesting occurs.  For Revenge of the Sith, it definitely needed an energetic, dark, and dangerous tone set from the start, and I truly love that aspect of the movie.  Of course, the tone does become rather inconsistent with the humorous bits intercut with the darker or more perilous moments here, and tone has gotten more inconsistent with each subsequent prequel film.

Also, one has to beg the question of what the purpose was of abducting Chancellor Palpatine.  If this was a plot devised by Palpatine and Dooku, I can’t see how that particularly benefits Palpatine’s overall master plan.  Him being abducted removes him from his seat of power in the Republic to manipulate events towards his agenda, and gives the leverage of power to the Separatists in the war.  It’s kind of a long way to go to assume that it was an elaborate scheme meant to result in Anakin killing Dooku.  No guarantees that it would be Anakin being part of the rescue since he and Obi-Wan only just returned from assignments in the outer rim of the galaxy, and no definite guarantee that Obi-Wan would get knocked out for Anakin to potentially give in to killing Dooku.  If it was Grievous’ plan, that makes more sense since he doesn’t seem to know that Sidious is Palpatine, but then again, Grievous is depicted as being fully subservient to Darth Sidious and Dooku.  So, it’s highly unlikely he’d launch an offensive without their approval especially since Dooku is on board the ship.  Of course, as usual, these prequels hardly adhere to any sort of storytelling logic.  Characters do what they do because that’s what the script needs them to do.  This really harkens back to the nonsensical story of The Phantom Menace where the surface plot does not align with the behind the scenes machinations of Palpatine.  If Palpatine is not manipulating events to his benefit, all of this makes good sense, but George Lucas seems to not think beneath the surface of what he’s writing.  He approaches the story from the wrong perspective, and thus, it results in these different elements at play not aligning with one another.

George Lucas leaves a lot to be desired in this film because of many hanging plot threads, character motivations that are not explained, the lack of character development, and the stupidity of certain characters.  For instance, while I am a very knowledgeable Star Wars fan, and even own the Star Wars Encyclopedia, the average movie-goer never has a single thing explained to them about who the Sith are and why they are seeking revenge.  Everything about them is taken for granted as if you just happen to know this, or worse yet, don’t need to know this.  Because I am a knowledgeable fan of this franchise, I generally know that the Sith were driven to near extinction by the Jedi a thousand years ago.  Also, they have had only had a single master and a single apprentice since then because the Dark Lords of the Sith were too power hungry and deceitful to co-exist as a large organization.  They would all backstab one another for their own personal agendas to be furthered, and that contributed to their extinction as well.  However, none of this is ever mentioned or hinted at, let alone explained in these films.  In the original trilogy, the term “Dark Lord of the Sith” is never mentioned either.  So, even the term is brand new to those who’ve followed nothing but the films.  It is a gross oversight that the history of the Sith is never explored or implied in these films to give context to their motivations, and those motivations are the real crux of the entire prequel trilogy storyline.  In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council mentions that the Sith had been extinct for a millennia, but go into no detail as to why or how.  It’s a revenge movie that never says what the person is getting revenge for.  Quite frankly, that’s utterly ridiculous.

And of course, several characters go grossly undeveloped.  Count Dooku used to be a Jedi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s mentor, but no one ever gives any background on why he left the Jedi Order.  Just implying that he might’ve had contrasting opinions isn’t enough.  What kind of man was he really before he became a deceitful Sith Lord?  What we see of him is generally an act put on to fool everyone into following him to secretly benefit the agendas of the Sith.  Possibly the only honest scene we see of him is when he has Obi-Wan imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and he is truly a fascinating character in that scene.  However, we are never given any further true insight into the man.  He’s just another pawn of Palpatine, and with such a talented actor in Christopher Lee, it was a deeply wasted opportunity to not flesh out his character more.

Also, Padmé Amidala might seem to have character development, but in reality, she’s a hollow vessel made to be whatever the plot needs her to be at any moment.  In Attack of the Clones, she consoles Anakin after his Tusken Raider mass murder confession, saying “to be angry is to be human,” and then, later marries him despite this cold blooded act of violence.  In Revenge of the Sith, she learns he killed Jedi Younglings, is shocked and dismayed at hearing this because she can’t believe that he’d do something like that, and then, says she can’t follow Anakin to the dark places he is going.  These are entirely contradictory behaviors and reactions that cannot be reconciled in my mind.  Padmé should be one of the most level headed, clear minded, and intelligent people in these films, but instead, she is written with so many incompatible and contradictory character traits that she should have canceled out her own existence.  Also, her dying of a broken heart or having “lost the will to live” comes off as terrible in this because of this.  Not to mention, she can’t find the will to live so she can raise and love her newborn twins?  Seriously, Lucas could’ve had her dying of a crushed windpipe or hemorrhaging or any number of medical complications from Anakin’s Force choke, but he chose “she’s lost the will to live.”  That puts an ugly nail into a so-called romance that was contrived and ridiculous to begin with.

Back to Anakin himself, it is hard to actually say he has “fallen to the Dark Side” when he’s still the whiny, selfish, impulsive, bratty person he always was.  He’s no different a character when he was a Padawan to when he becomes a Sith Lord.  All his turn to the Dark Side really does is free him up to not have to apologize for being the arrogant jerk he’s always been.  And of course, he contradicts himself as well.  His entire reason for joining the Sith is to find a way to save Padmé from dying in child birth, but once his megalomaniacal streak kicks in on Mustafar, he goes right ahead and tries to kill her himself while jumping to another unfounded conclusion.  There’s just no motivational consistency with these characters.  In many films, I’ve seen someone striking someone they love, but then, they quickly snap out of it when they realize the horrible thing they just did.  They come back to their senses.  Here, Anakin just keeps being an disillusioned arrogant jackass.  Again, this is not the Darth Vader we know from the original trilogy who is confident, intimidating, and in control.  Anakin is the direct opposite of that.

Fortunately, I can give a lot of praise to the Order 66 sequence.  From the newly dubbed Darth Vader assaulting the Jedi Temple to the Clone Troopers turning on their Jedi Generals, the sequence is rich with sorrow, dread, and ominous imagery.  The moment of Jimmy Smits’ Bail Organa witnessing a young Padawan being gunning down on the landing platform is tragic and unsettling.  Right from the start of Anakin marching the troops into the temple to the final shot of smoke billowing out of it the next morning, the whole sequence is really well done.  It’s only a shame that, one, some bad child actor has to have a line of dialogue in it, and two, we don’t get to know any of these Jedi that are murdered.  There was an opportunity in these films to do something with a few of these characters so that an audience could come to care about them to some extent.  While the sequence itself earns my general praise, these are just interchangeable background characters being killed off who never had any emotional resonance on the story or audience.  It’s ultimately less about those who are killed, and more about those either doing the killing or who have to deal with the repercussions of these events.  That’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but it’s just a missed opportunity to have the sequence hit the audience harder on an emotional level.

A rather pointless character comes in the form of General Grievous.  He makes no independent decisions like a General would.  He demonstrates no tactical proficiency or command authority.  He just mindlessly carries out the orders of Dooku or Sidious, and is really just around as a plot convenience.  He’s also a comedic “mustache twirling” type of villain giddily laughing when he cowardly sneaks off to escape, or likes to strut around boasting his unearned ego.  It probably would have been better to have Dooku hang around for a while, and give more weight and purpose to his death instead of burning run time on this CGI waste of a villain.

The Jedi themselves consistently display an almost willful ignorance to what’s going on around them.  Maybe Lucas was trying to present them as having become overly confident in their perception of the absolute clarity and power of the Force, but so much blatantly unfolds right in their face that one would have to be willfully ignorant to not take action.  Every major negative event that impacts the Republic strategically comes to greatly and solely benefit Chancellor Palpatine, and none of the Jedi seem to find it all that suspicious until the war is over and Anakin actually tells them that Palpatine is a Sith Lord.  And of course, by this point Palpatine has almost indomitable control over the entire galaxy.  It’s even worse that it takes them well over a decade to perceive that there is a plot to destroy them at work.  I understand Palpatine is using his Sith powers to cloud peoples’ minds, but I doubt he’s so powerful that he can cloud the minds of every single Jedi throughout the galaxy every hour of every day.  Even then, they hardly need to use the Force to perceive this threat as the obvious evidence right there in front of them.  It never seems like anyone followed up on the investigation into Darth Maul’s origins after his death, or discover any allies he had that could further threaten the Jedi.  Even Obi-Wan’s investigation into the Clone Army is never resolved.  The Jedi never truly discover the hard facts on how or why Jedi Master Syphadias ordered the army, if it actually was him, how Jango Fett got tied up into it, who erased Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or anything else that weaves into and out of that mystery.  The Jedi remain willfully blind to these unanswered mysteries which are clearly ominous signs of a conspiracy that could threaten them and the Republic.  Fett himself says he was hired by a man named Tyranus, who is later revealed to the audience to be Count Dooku.  It’s likely to speculate that Dooku impersonated Syphadias after he was killed, and ordered the Clone Army himself in conjunction with hiring Jango Fett.  So, if the Jedi actually followed the investigation to full conclusion, they would’ve uncovered an elaborate conspiracy against them.  Instead, the plot requires them to be stupid so that these obvious hanging plot threads can come back to bite them in their collective posteriors.

Going both ways on the issue of character is Palpatine.  He is given a good amount of depth and a hint of back story to give him some dimension.  Ian McDiarmid has generally done a good job in the role, but there can be too many instances of disingenuous emotion that just make the character’s façade horribly transparent.  It’s only by way of everyone else being dumb as a post that no one ever notices how obvious Palpatine is every time he opens his mouth.  Also, when he unveils himself as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid starts hamming it up like crazy.  I don’t view that as a good thing.  How he portrayed the Emperor in Return of the Jedi is vastly different in tone than how he is in the prequels.  In Jedi, he was a deeply serious and intimidating villain who was creepy and ominous.  McDiarmid’s chilling portrayal penetrated deep into an audience’s consciousness, and deeply into the heart and soul of Luke Skywalker.  He had a grim, imposing aura to him that was more dreadful than Darth Vader which elevated the psychological threat in the situation.  He was over confident but subtle, and that’s what is missing here – subtlety.  McDiarmid’s performance in this movie is far too obvious and overt.  While he has solid low key, compelling scenes, such as his telling of the story of Darth Plagueis, he simply allows Palpatine’s ego to increasingly overflow throughout the movie.  Instead of transitioning into that fearsome character we experienced in Return of the Jedi, he becomes a cackling, over the top madman.  McDiarmid’s performance in The Phantom Menace was actually far superior and more consistent with his original portrayal.  It was a more serious, dramatic approach to the character with subtlety and intelligence.  Unfortunately, it only went downhill after that.  Also, it’s never explained why Palpatine becomes deformed from the Force lightning.  Nothing of the sort happened when the Emperor unleashed it on Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.  With these prequels, George Lucas seemed more interested in having things cosmetically align with the original trilogy instead of conceptually.  He really can’t have it both ways.

When you go ahead with a prequel you can’t change your mind on the established back story and representation of the characters.  You can only flesh out what’s already there, and bring clarity to the more vague areas of these histories.  George Lucas just failed at that.  Everything about an honorable, noble, and admirable Anakin Skywalker that Ben Kenobi spoke about in those original three films is entirely eradicated in favor of this selfish, egotistical, and violent person that never seems like a hero.  The Jedi never seem like an order of wise protectors of peace and justice.  They come off like short-sighted, dumb as dirt, full of themselves fools who never follow through on any course of action they set out on.  Yoda continually acknowledges a swirl of negative and even violent vibes coming from Anakin, but he continually ignores the severity of what Anakin’s going through.  Considering that the Jedi had a bad feeling about Anakin from the start, one would think they would keep a close watch on him to make sure he doesn’t go off the rails.  Also, after Mace Windu learns that Palpatine is a Sith Lord, he originally goes to arrest him, but then, he insists to Anakin that Palpatine must be killed on the spot.  Beyond just the conceptual inconsistencies in these films, the writing itself can’t keep a character’s motivations and intentions consistent throughout a single scene.  It really is atrocious on so many levels.  Again, the problem is that there is no one to challenge George Lucas’ creative direction.  Whatever he wants, he gets even if it doesn’t make any blasted sense.

Some people say that the anticipation and hype built up for these films could never be lived up to.  I say that’s a pithy excuse for churning out substandard movies.  Plenty of films have been able to live up to immense hype time after time.  You can’t tell me that The Empire Strikes Back didn’t have massive hype around it leading up to its release, and that clearly exceeded all expectations.  It comes down to talented, competent filmmakers putting care and intelligence into what they do to produce a high grade feature film.  Over time, it seems that some filmmakers lose their focus or ambition to be as good as they once were, or in some cases, certain filmmakers lose sight of the fact that film is a collaborative process and they reject anyone’s attempt to offer an alternate point of view to potentially improve the film.  I am a filmmaker myself, and my stance has always been, “I know I have not thought of every great idea in the world.”  I encourage my cast and crew members to always help in the creative process so that we can make the best film possible.  However, George Lucas seems intent on his word being the only one that counts, and that is the first step towards creative failure.

As I’ve alluded to, I have a lot of fond memories from the theatrical experiences I had with this movie.  I saw it twice on opening night with a glorious digital projection screening the following week.  I went to see this in the theatre, at least, four times in 2005, and even did a DVD marathon of the entire saga when Revenge of the Sith came to home video.  I highly enjoyed this movie, and I still find good qualities in it that I continue to enjoy.  However, while all of these fond memories project some sentimentality onto the film for myself, they do not excuse the critical analysis it deserves.

The original Star Wars trilogy captured the imagination and wonder of people all over the world, and for me, it still inspires and entertains me greatly.  Unfortunately, these prequel films have not done the same for me.  They lack the vibrant, memorable, and iconic characters that came to define Star Wars, and are plagued with amateurish screenwriting wrought with underdeveloped concepts.  Lucas was trying to tell a story he didn’t have the skill to competently write.  There were too many elements at play that he could not put into a cohesive whole, nor was he able to flesh these ideas out so they had some depth and relatability.  I have no problems with telling a more complex Star Wars story with political aspects, but it has to make sense.  All three of these films are excellent examples of terrible screenwriting, or in the least, a screenwriter’s ambition outreaching his skill.

There was no ambition behind these movies, or creative drive to make them original or innovative.  More effort was put into advancing the technology of digital effects than crafting a solid, sensical, and lively screenplay.  Everything just reflects a lack of passion from most everyone involved – the wooden acting, the dull dialogue, the clinical non-action sequence cinematography, the by-the-numbers editing, and the clunky plotting.  There are a few positives to credit the films for such as mostly great lightsaber fight choreography, some good action sequences, John Williams’ incredible music, and a few bright spots with the casting such as Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee, and even Jimmy Smits, for what little he was given to work with.  However, these few highlights are grossly overshadowed by all the poorly executed elements of these movies.  I hope that I never commit myself to reviewing films requiring this deep of an analytical deconstruction, again.  However, I had to complete what I started so that I could move onto the praise heavy reviews of the original trilogy in their original theatrical versions.  Those will come in time, but for now, it’s time to rest my mind.  Thanks for bearing with these excessively long, in depth reviews of these disappointing movies.


The Avengers (2012)

Marvel Studios has spent a lot of careful time and resources into building their cinematic universe.  For the record, these films include Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.  They have all been excellent films that I have highly enjoyed, and found a lot of depth and strength in.  After many studios licensing the rights to their characters, and coming up with very mixed results, Marvel finally took it upon themselves to do it right.  Its ultimate culmination is The Avengers, and while it is a highly enjoyable and entertaining film, there is an emotional depth that it lacks which its predecessors were quite rich with.  These are great characters realized exceptionally well by a stellar cast, and balanced well by a filmmaker who specializes in ensemble casts.  Still, there is plenty to discuss on both the positive and negative side here.

When the Asgardian enemy Loki (Tom Hiddelston) arrives on Earth to utilize a cosmic power to unleash the alien force the Chitauri to destroy humanity, the director of the covert agency S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), proceeds to unite a mismatched team of superheroes as the Avengers.  There is the charismatic billionaire industrialist and scientific genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), aka Iron Man.  Loki’s brother, the Asgardian god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth).  The super soldier and World War II hero Captain America (Chris Evans), a man out of his time and era after being frozen in the arctic for decades.  There is also the brilliant scientist Dr. Bruce Banner who becomes the monstrous Hulk when provoked.  And the two master assassins Clint “HawkEye” Barden (Jeremy Renner), and the Black Widow, Natasha Romanov (Scarlet Johansson).  This immensely powerful collection of extraordinary people must learn to function as a team in order to save the world.

There are some mixed qualities here, and I can’t help but just get the negative off my chest.  First off, the invading aliens, the Chitauri, come off as a completely generic and disposable force.  They are given no build up or personality in the film.  They could be anything or anyone, it doesn’t make a difference.  No threat is built into who they are, just that they are a hostile force invading our planet.  These days, we get numerous alien invasion movies per year – such as Battle: Los Angeles, Battleship, Skyline, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon – and so, this is a well treaded concept that requires more effort behind it to make it fresh, unique, and better than the rest.  Not to mention, the design of the Chitauri ships and technology is very evocative of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  So, it feels even more tired and generic.  Ultimately, they never seem to be more than the heroes can handle.  They are easily dispatched with to the point where it seems like the Chitauri are the ones hopelessly outmatched.  The filmmakers throw in a mild moment where the Chitauri gain an upper hand, but it’s not enough to sell the epic resonance of the battle.  While I am not fanatic for or against Michael Bay, I do have to say that, in this area of filmmaking, Joss Whedon is no Michael Bay.  Everything that was done in the climax of The Avengers was done on an exponentially more cinematically epic scale by Michael Bay in the last Transformers movie.  It simply had more scope, more dire consequences, and bigger stakes.

Also, for the life of me, I cannot understand why Whedon shot this in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.  All the other Marvel films have been filmed in the far more cinematic format of 2.40:1, my personal favorite.  These days, almost all major studio films are shot in 2.40:1, the widest film format in current use.  The use of the standard 16×9 format you see on most any current television show just takes something away from the visual potential of this film.  When it’s meant to be the epic culmination of this franchise to date, you’d think they’d go the extra mile to boost the visual format.  Of course, this is all a personal irritant of mine.  Most people won’t even pick up on it, let alone have it affect their experience of the film.  The cinematography of Seamus McGarvey is generally good with a couple of impressive shots, but I just feel like some of the composition would’ve been tighter and stronger with that wider format.

Now, let me shift into the positive for a while to better reflect my mixed feelings on the movie.  While we already know from the previous Marvel Studios films that the cast is fantastic, the question is how well are their characters handled and realized?  Quite well.  The good thing about bringing in Joss Whedon is that he does done nothing but work with ensemble casts for the last fifteen years.  All of his shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, & Dollhouse – have been as such, and he always did a remarkable job balancing out the various personalities of those characters.  In The Avengers, everyone has their fair time to establish themselves and make an impression.  However, it seems mostly focused on Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo as Tony Stark and Dr. Banner, respectively.  One might’ve expected a more prominent role for Captain America since he’s really the true leader of the team in the comics, or at least, co-leader with Stark.  However, his forefront time is really in the heat of battle, but still, there seems to be an emotional resonance that is missing with him.  I would’ve expected some substantive material with him coming to grips with being a man out of time as a symbol of an era long past.  I’d like to see Steve Rogers trying to care about and save a world he doesn’t fit into anymore.  I’m sure they are saving that for his proper solo sequel, but it feels heavily glossed over here.

Now, everyone that’s taken on the role of Dr. Bruce Banner has had their own style to it.  I recently caught some of Ang Lee’s Hulk on cable, and man, is that an atrocious film.  Beyond the stylistic gripes I have with it, Eric Bana didn’t strike me as much to be interested in, but in such a overbloated film, it’s tough to really care.  Edward Norton was far superior in the role, and I really liked The Incredible Hulk film from 2008.  His Banner was very Bill Bixby-esque, but still with its own identity and drive fueled by Norton’s creativity and talent.  Mark Ruffalo’s performance is distinctly different than Norton’s, but still quite good and interesting.  His Banner is a bit more awkward, and less socially comfortable.  So, he’s a bit of an eccentric genius, and while the development is never detailed, Banner has evolved from his struggles in The Incredible Hulk.  Yes, while the role was re-cast, that film is still part of continuity.  Ruffalo makes Banner quite interesting as both a sympathetic and admirable person whose initial purose in the film is scientific until circumstances require the green beast to be unleashed.  Generally, it comes down to taste in how you prefer Banner to be portrayed if you like Ruffalo in the role or not, but I found his interpretation quite satisfying.

Downey remains hard to compete with.  The charisma and charm of his Tony Stark can be scene stealing, but it remains in line with the character’s ego and personality.  He and Ruffalo share a lot of screentime, and they have good chemistry.  When it’s just them, the Stark charisma is toned down a little as he seems to enjoy having another brilliant mind to connect with.  Tony appears to admire Dr. Banner, but constantly prods him about unleashing the Hulk, as if it’s a joke.  It’s just like Tony Stark to dance with some danger.

I still love Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  He just brings a powerful presence and majesty with him.  I reviewed Thor here some months back, and I gave it glowing praise.  I think of all the upcoming Marvel Studios sequels it will be Thor 2 that I most anticipate.  The vast possibilities with the character just excite me.  Hemsworth continues to be an excellent choice for this character able to bring solid acting talent along with great physical ability and a strong presence worthy of a god.  He has a lot of formidable acting talents around him, and he stands tall amongst them.

What the filmmakers did with Jeremy Renner’s HawkEye changed my mind about the character.  Before, I couldn’t grasp what an arrow slinging marksman and a gun toting lady spy could contribute to combating an alien invasion when they are surrounded by such super powered and technology enhanced heroes.  I loved how Clint Barton helped with spotting strategy in the battle, giving tips to Iron Man on how to out-maneuver the Chitauri’s aircraft.  Plus, I loved his arrowhead selector.  Different arrowheads for different purposes, and with a touch of a button, he could have the arrow mechanically shift to another selection.  Explosive arrowheads really inflicted some damage.  Black Widow did well in the combat with the foot soldiers using some of their tech against them.  Both Renner and Johansson are given their time to show a connection between their characters and some depth.  It’s a very nice touch to make sure neither gets lost amongst the larger than life characters.

Tom Hiddelston as Loki remains a fun, menacing, and treacherous villain.  He’s an excellent actor who fills the role well, and conveys Loki’s ideals and intentions with exceptional vigor.  However, the problem is not the performance, it’s the threat level.  Loki himself gets beat up on by almost the entire team throughout the movie – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk all give him a beat down.  In combat, he’s not formidable.  Only through his use of magically empowered manipulation does he become problematic.  He uses his skills of trickery and deceit to attempt to forge a wedge between the heroes, to get them at each other’s throats, but that is only a small cog in his plan, not his endgame.  This ties back into my initial negative mark against the film.  In the end, there is no sense of a perceived insurmountable threat here.  Loki can’t hold his own in battle, and his invading force is terribly generic with no sense of what true destructive power they possess.  This is only one of a few failings of the film.

Since the film has to spend so much time dealing with the character dynamics of a reluctantly formed team, there’s no time to really build up an emotional resonance in the main plot.  Because the enemy is so nonspecific no one has a real, direct personal and emotional conflict to resolve.  Emotion is ultimately what makes a story epic.  Explosions and flashy action sequences might have visual scope, but they alone don’t make the story epic.  You need emotional stakes.  The Avengers are fighting to save the planet, but there are no ideals they are fighting for, no thematic elements in the story for them to grapple with that will make them more than what they were at the start.  All the other Marvel Studios films have had these elements to varying degrees.  In their respective solo films, Thor had to evolve from a impulsive, thick-headed warrior to a noble, more wiser leader.  Tony Stark had to stop being a self-centered merchant of war to becoming a selfless hero intent on stopping war.  Captain America had to learn to take his weakness and turn into his strength, to push himself to becoming the hero he knew he could be, despite everyone else’s doubts.  Bruce Banner had to struggle with the monster inside him.  If he could not be rid of him, he had to find a way to control him.  In The Avengers, there is no substantive emotional or character development.  They just learn to work as a team, which is important, but that just leaves the film feeling flat.  Again, the threat level is never build up enough to draw out emotional strain.  While it’s certainly not as shallow as a Michael Bay film, to turn the earlier comparison around, it definitely doesn’t add up to its predecessors.  The only moment where the filmmakers try to milk some emotional poignancy feels clichéd and contrived.  It’s just there as a cheap heartstrings manipulation which evaporates within a matter of minutes.  It has no real lasting impact.

“A special effect is just a tool, a means of telling a story.  People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves.  A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That was said by George Lucas, circa 1983, and is the filmmaker quote that has held the most weight and relevance with me through the years.  Why I’m mentioning it here is that while this film has very good visual effects, none of them left a real impression on me because the story was so weak and thin.  It’s not a bad story or that there’s a lack of one, it’s just not very meaty.  Action scenes don’t hold much weight unless the story has enough substance.  While the visual effects are generally good, the one CGI fall off for me was with the Hulk.  Ang Lee’s CGI Hulk was just down right bad on so many levels, and was done by Industrial Light & Magic,  Digital effects house Rhythm & Hues got it perfect with Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.  They made the Hulk visceral, textured, and raw.  He had realistic qualities in his muscular structure, and the weight in his movements.  In The Avengers, the digital effects have gone back to ILM, and the Hulk goes back to not looking very good.  He seems almost flabby with too much flesh jiggling around instead of the tight physique he had in the Edward Norton film.  He looks partly cartoonish, and that is not good at all.  I was also disappointed that there wasn’t one good dramatic transformation from Banner into the Hulk.  Having grown up with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, getting that good transformation has always been a necessary element to my satisfaction of the character.  The two transformations we get are not impressive.  The first is all in shadows, showing us next to nothing.  The latter is far too smooth, and done in slow motion.  It doesn’t reflect the rage-filled metamorphosis of the Hulk.

The action scenes are impressively well handled.  They are all exciting and unique with their own rallying moments.  Each hero is given the time to shine.  Everything really gets going when Captain America is sent to capture Loki in Germany.  Cap’ gets a ‘standing tall’ moment with a solid, yet succinct speech after saving a man’s life.  As the fight goes on, Iron Man joins in, and then, Thor makes his first appearance looking to retrieve his mischievous brother so to bring him back to Asgard.  Then, Iron Man and Thor throw down themselves, and it’s just great stuff.  Later on, as Loki manipulates the team to force his plan forward on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, Banner Hulks out under Loki’s subtle influence and fights with Thor.  That is one excellent fight sequence as you’ve got to know how they match up, strength wise, and seeing Hulk fighting to pick up Thor’s hammer, yet not being able to (since he is not worthy of the power), is also a stellar touch.  Many of the action scenes in the early half of the film help to evolve the team dynamic.  Showing Captain American and Iron Man working together to trying to get the hellicarrier’s engine operational again was good.  The Captain doesn’t know jack about modern technology, let alone any of Stark’s scientific talk, but they make it work.  Trust is slowly built up as they shake loose their individual trepidations about teaming up.

All in all, the character interactions are well balanced and greatly played by the cast, and they are the richness that makes the film enjoyable and entertaining while wrapped up in some exciting action sequences.  There are plenty of light-hearted beats and flourishes of humor that give it levity.  It opens up the characters further than before to be even more accessible and entertaining.  This is sort of the superhero equilivent of Ocean’s Eleven.  An ensemble cast rich with talent and chemistry that know how to share the spotlight and maintain the right tone throughout.

Leading up to this film I was not enticed by the marketing campaign.  It was just big explosions, action scenes, and a few comical quips from Downey.  It was not giving me what I wanted to see.  It was only a little word of mouth that gave me some hope for The Avengers.  So, while the film was not as bad as I feared it would be, it certainly wasn’t as good as many people have said it would be.  There is a lot of good action with good effects work and solid character realization and execution, but the plot just doesn’t have much substance.  I don’t get excited over spectacle alone.  I need a strong plot and story to make the action mean something.  The film could have been more than it was with more attention to thematic material and emotional depth.  Some fluff action or comical scenes could’ve been excised to make room for more character building segments.  Personally, I just ask for more than this from a superhero film with a lineage of strong, well-rounded outings like Superman, The Crow, Blade, Iron Man, Captain America, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight.  So, it’s sad for me to say that The Avengers is the least of the Marvel Studios films when it should have been the best.  Regardless, it is still a mass audience crowd pleaser, and for many, that is all they desire.  I just know that the filmmakers should’ve strived for more than that as others have before them.


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.