Tag Archives: Series

Comics for Superhero Movie Fans- All-New Wolverine

Today marks the release of “Logan,” the latest entry in the X-Men movie franchise and, assuming Hugh Jackman isn’t lying, his final turn as Wolverine after 17 years and eight prior outings as the character. The movie is earning rave reviews, particularly for its realistic violence (it’s rated R, somewhat of a rarity for superhero movies, though there are notable exceptions), lived-in Western aesthetic and compelling character work from Jackman as Wolverine/Logan, Sir Patrick Stewart as an aging Professor X and newcomer Dafne Keen as Laura, a young girl with claws of her own and superpowers similar to Wolverine’s. You may remember her from this final trailer for the movie:

Laura’s who we’re going to focus on here today. While the obvious recommendation as a tie-in to this movie would be “Old Man Logan,” the story upon which the movie is very loosely based, the fact is “Old Man Logan” is problematic in a number of ways and the movie basically just borrows some elements of the “Old Man Logan” setting and not much else. However, there is currently an ongoing series from Marvel about Laura having taken up the mantle of Wolverine after he died (minor spoiler; he’s been dead in the comics since late 2014), and it’s great. Presenting: “All-New Wolverine.”

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Copyright Marvel Comics

“All-New Wolverine, Vol. 1: The Four Sisters.”

Creators:

  • Written by Tom Taylor
  • Art by David Lopez, David Navarrot and Nathan Fairbairn

Necessary backstory:

Wolverine died in the aptly named “Death of Wolverine” miniseries in 2014, but before he died he discovered he had a female clone codenamed X-23 that been created as part of the Weapon X program, the same program that had given him his claws and indestructible skeleton. Wolverine helped X-23 escape from that life and learn her name, Laura Kinney. Now that Wolverine is dead, Laura has taken up his costume and superhero career.

Why this story?

Marvel has made a significant effort in recent years to diversify its superhero lineup, both by creating new heroes (most notably Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani Muslim teen with shapeshifting powers) and by passing old superhero identities on to either new characters or previously established ones. There’s a new woman Thor, Sam Wilson shares the Captain America identity with Steve Rogers, and most recently there’s a new black, teenage, female Iron Man. But of all these transitions, Laura taking up the mantle of Wolverine is arguably the most successful for one simple reason: The old Wolverine is dead.

While Steve Rogers is still fighting crime as Captain America, the original Thor is still having his own adventures and Tony Stark is lying in a coma, Laura doesn’t feel like an asterisk because her progenitor is well and truly gone. While it’s true that almost nobody stays dead in superhero comics forever, Marvel has really committed to making Laura the new Wolverine, freeing her to have her own adventures without constantly trying to get out from under the shadow of her predecessor.

It helps that Tom Taylor, David Lopez and the other creators do a phenomenal job telling Laura’s story. While there’s the necessary fluid, occasionally bloody action…

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Scene from “All-New Wolverine No. 2.” Copyright Marvel Comics
anw-4-fight
Scene from “All-New Wolverine No. 4.” Copyright Marvel Comics

…Taylor also makes sure to give Laura a compelling personality and arc. In this first story, Laura discovers a group of clones of her that have been created by an evil pharmaceutical company for nefarious purposes. The story revolves around Laura becoming a protector and mentor figure for the girls, just as she was taken in and mentored by Logan before he died. It also shows her struggling to curb her more violent tendencies and showing the girls how they need to do the same, because none of them need to be defined by the fact that they were created to be weapons. It’s a great introduction to Laura Kinney and a great superhero story in its own right.

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Laura’s first appearance in full costume in “All-New Wolverine No. 1.” Copyright Marvel Comics

You can find “All-New Wolverine, Volume 1” at your local comics shop, online at Amazon.com and digitally at Comixology and other platforms.

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‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 7: ‘The Force Awakens’

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Copyright Disney/Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: My pithy, two-word review of “The Force Awakens” after seeing it in theaters was “Good enough.”  I can see why “The Force Awakens” was such a big hit; the things it does right, it does very well, including introducing us to a group of compelling characters and giving us a number of exciting moments in cool locations. But it is also one of the weaker Star Wars movies, in my view, because for all its technical wizardry and thrills in the moment, the screenplay is severely lacking, leaving us with half-baked mysteries and incomplete characters papered over with reference and nostalgia. The plot is an almost beat-for-beat retread of “A New Hope” (orphan on a desert planet has to get a droid containing the plans for a super weapon to a group of rebels), and the details about our characters and the groups they belong to are so vague in the name of “mystery” as to be essentially meaningless. We get the destruction of an entire planetary system and the death of Han Solo, but no reason to care about much of any of it, leaving us with a sugar high of echoes from Star Wars history. However, there’s enough good stuff to leave room for optimism regarding future installments, so all hope is not lost. Let’s enter the post-Lucas Star Wars galaxy.

Movie diary:

  • 00:00- Especially after watching episodes I-VI in rapid succession, it’s weird to not have the 20th Century Fox fanfare before the Lucasfilm logo and the opening crawl.
  • 00:05- Still have John Williams as our anchor.
  • 00:10- “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” OK, there’s a good hook right off the bat.
  • 1:00- OK, so the First Order is the remnants of the Empire, and they want to kill Luke, so we kind of get what they want. But why would the Republic not go after the First Order directly if the Republic is the new, legitimate government in the galaxy? What separates the Resistance from the old Rebel Alliance or just the modern Republic? This is important stuff to know so we understand the scope and nature of the broader conflict, but we never get answers to any of it. This is why J.J. Abrams and his “mystery box” obsession drive me nuts.
  • 1:20- Leia sends Poe Dameron to find an “old ally” who has a clue to Luke’s whereabouts, but I’m fairly certain we don’t get the name of that ally (he’s played by Max Von Sydow), nor do we know how exactly he got the information on Luke. Again, this is important stuff to know so we can better understand the stakes of what’s happening, but we don’t get it. Story structure matters, and it’s an area where Lucas rarely struggled but Abrams frequently does.
  • 4:00- The opening Imperial raid on Jakku is pretty well staged, and it certainly reacquaint us with the Empire/First Order’s brutality. Abrams makes pretty much every individual scene sing, it’s how they’re put together and the connective tissue that’s lacking.
  • 5:45- The moment when the Stormtrooper leaves the bloody handprint on Finn’s helmet is really well done. Finn’s arc is, like that of most of our main characters, only about half-realized, but the idea of a Stormtrooper growing a conscience and deciding to fight back against his former superiors is something we haven’t seen before in Star Wars, and John Boyega is a blast to watch in the part.
  • 6:45- Kylo Ren gets a suitably intimidating entrance and musical cue. Ren is easily the best part of “The Force Awakens”; he’s got a great look, he’s the only one of the new characters who gives us a full look into their psyche, and Adam Driver makes him into a fascinating creature of unchecked anger and self-doubt.
  • 7:00- Kylo Ren and the old man clearly have history, and the old man gives us a hint that Ren is a fallen Jedi when he mentions that the First Order “rose from the dark side. You (Ren) did not.” We still don’t get a name for the man before Ren cuts him down.
  • 7:45- Ren stopping the blaster bolt in mid air is admittedly really cool.
  • 8:05- Oscar Isaac is great as Poe Dameron, giving us a variation on the Han Solo type with some new wrinkles. Abrams’ incredible gift for casting helps make up for his missteps; all of the new actors are so good in their roles that it’s easy to overlook the movie’s flaws at the script level.
  • 10:30- Captain Phasma is suspicious of Finn after his apparent refusal to kill the villagers on Ren’s orders. Boyega conveys Finn’s struggle to contain his growing fear and doubts in admirable fashion.
  • 11:00- Rey scavenging through the old Star Destroyer contains a number of memorable images, including the first shot of her opening up the panel in the dark, and some great moments of her dwarfed by the fallen ship. Small moments like that help sell the idea that the struggles of the past movies belong to an older generation. It’s too bad we don’t get more time with and a better story involving the new heroes instead of simply an update of “A New Hope.”
  • 14:00- Daisy Ridley does the best she can with Rey. The performance is solid throughout, it’s the script that fails her; Rey’s entire backstory being essentially put on hold for this movie hurts her character more than anyone else.
  • 16:00- BB-8 is admittedly adorable. His little noises are especially cute. Very nicely done by the live-action and CGI teams who brought him to life.
  • 17:45- Ren’s Force interrogation of Poe Dameron is a good scene for both of them; it gives Driver another chance to show off Ren’s anger and power, and Isaac gets to show off his charisma as Poe endures Ren’s wrath.
  • 20:00- Finn’s rushed, improvised escape is a good scene, and his friendship with Poe is another highlight of the movie. All the ingredients are here for a great Star Wars story; they’re just not very well utilized.
  • 20:15- Finn talking to himself as he nervously walks Poe through the hangar is fun. Abrams definitely has a knack for humor Lucas does not. The funny moments in “The Force Awakens” are unforced in a way they rarely were when Lucas was at the helm.
  • 22:00- Poe gives Finn his new name, which is a nice touch. And the two of them working together to escape Ren’s ship is a nice twist on Han and Luke fighting off the TIE Fighters in “A New Hope.”
  • 24:15- Finn crashes on Jakku and finds Poe’s jacket, with no sign of Poe, and yet Poe miraculously turns up to save Finn and the others later on with nary an explanation. It’s another really sloppy subplot in the script. It’s a bit of a personal thing, I’ll admit, but stuff like that drives me crazy.
  • 26:30- Domhnall Gleeson is a lot of fun to watch as Hux. And he had worked with Oscar Isaac in “Ex Machina” earlier in 2015. Hux and Ren’s jockeying for power is a fun subplot, in part because they’re both kind of petty.
  • 32:00- The Millennium Falcon escape sequence is pretty well done, even if the narrative justification is slim at best.
  • 34:00- BB-8 rolling around the Falcon as the ship twists and turns is fun to watch.
  • 35:30- Rey with a pretty sweet move to set up Finn’s final shot.
  • 37:20- Ren going ballistic on the ship console with his lightsaber is a good moment; it helps differentiate him from Vader, the Emperor and the other villains. His emotions are much closer to the surface than Vader’s, so it would make sense that he’s much more of a raw nerve.
  • 40:30- Han and Chewie appearing on the Falcon is an impossible moment to resist. It’s undeniably great to have them back on their beloved ship, even if again the narrative justification is really slim.
  • 42:30- Enough time has passed that Han, Luke and Leia are more legends than actual historical figures. Gotta figure news may sometimes be hard to come by when you’re talking about an entire galaxy of star systems.
  • 44:00- Harrison Ford didn’t lose a step between 1983 and 2015. Han is right back where we left him, trying and failing to talk his way out of a dangerous situation.
  • 48:30- The Rathtar escape sequence is pretty lackluster. Not exactly sure why; the creatures have a cool design, but somehow the scene just doesn’t really pop. It might be in part because the bad guys are mercenaries we don’t care about instead of being affiliated with the First Order. It takes away from the main conflict that’s been set up to this point.
  • 49:45- First appearance of Supreme Leader Snoke, our new Emperor to Kylo Ren as our new Vader. It’s a fine bit of motion-capture work from Andy Serkis, but his motivations and goals are also frustratingly vague.
  • 50:15- Snoke approves Hux’s plan, and Hux gets one over on Ren. Again, their rivalry is fun to watch, but it’d be nice to know a bit more about what their overall goals all.
  • 50:30- Snoke says “There has been an awakening,” giving us the title of our movie. It’s not exactly clear what Snoke is referring to, though presumably he means Rey; her broader significance in the Jedi-Sith conflict will most likely become more clear in Episode VIII.
  • 50:45- Snoke also spills the beans about Ren’s identity: Ren is Han’s (and Leia’s) son. So many strained parental relationships in this series.
  • 51:00- Ren is the “master of the Knights of Ren,” whoever they are. He’s the only Sith we see in the movie outside of Snoke, but I suppose there could be more of them elsewhere.
  • 53:00- BB-8 showing us the map as Han gives us Ren’s backstory is a good scene. For all the ambivalence Ford has had with his fame as Han, he does a great job giving the movie some real stakes.
  • 54:30- Rey’s surprise at seeing so much green after growing up on a desert planet is a nice moment for her.
  • 55:15- “Women always figure out the truth.” Han, with some good advice for Finn. And really, his secret about being a former Stormtrooper is just a source of potential manufactured tension. The First Order is clearly after him, so why not just dispense with the secrecy?
  • 57:45- The hideout where Han brings Finn, Rey and BB-8 is another in the long line of great Star Wars locales.
  • 58:45- Starkiller Base looks cool, I’ll give it that.
  • 59:16- Ren talking to Vader’s burned helmet as he discusses feeling the pull of the light side is a great moment for his character.
  • 1:01:30- Finn’s desire to run from the First Order has never really scared with me. He started acting against them by breaking out one of their prisoners, and now he just wants to run? Something is lost in translation along the way with his character out.
  • 1:04:15- Rey’s hallucination leading into her discovery of Luke’s lightsaber is “The Force Awakens” at its best and worst: It’s incredibly well staged, with the eerie sound design as Rey moves deeper into the building and we hear the echoes of a little girl’s cries (presumably Rey earlier in life). And then we get Luke’s lightsaber, but the only explanation is Maz saying “A good question for another time.” Rey is our Luke analogue in this story, and by this point we knew a lot more about Luke and had seen him start to change, which is more than we can really say for Rey.
  • 1:09:00- Hux’s speech before the First Order blows up the Republic capital is straight out of Nazi Germany, making the parallels unmistakable. Anyone who says Star Wars isn’t political is lying or misguided; the entire series is about standing up against the forces of tyranny and oppression.
  • 1:10:00- The Republic capital being destroyed is clearly meant to echo and even surpass the destruction of Alderaan, but because we have no knowledge of what that system is or why it matters to any of our characters, the moment rings hollow. We cared about Alderaan because we knew it was Leia’s home planet, and that they weren’t even directly involved in the Rebellion. Alderaan makes for a much more vivid demonstration of the Empire’s cruelty, even if more people die in “The Force Awakens.”
  • 1:13:15- Ren knows Rey is significant for some reason beyond the fact that she’s protecting BB-8; it’d be nice to know what that reason is.
  • 1:14:20- Finn shouldn’t be the first person to wield Luke’s lightsaber; Rey’s our Jedi-to-be. It’s cool to see Finn use it, but think about what a payoff it would’ve been for Rey to activate the lightsaber we once saw Luke use for the first time.
  • 1:16:15- Poe shows up to rescue Finn, Han and Leia, with absolutely no explanation of how he found them, where he’s been or how he managed to survive crashing on Jakku and escape the planet. Sloppy, sloppy writing.
  • 1:18:30- Ren shows classic Sith overconfidence and just takes Rey, assuming he can get the map from her, instead of continuing to look for BB-8.
  • 1:19:45- Leia just looks C-3PO off when he gets in the way of her reunion with Han. Carrie Fisher could do a lot with just a look. Rest in peace, princess.
  • 1:21:45- Poe and Finn bro out when they reunite. They’re a good pair.
  • 1:23:45- BB-8 finds R2-D2 sitting in a corner, waiting for the movie to end so R2 can get us ready for Episode VIII.
  • 1:25:30- Leia tries to convince Han to go after Ren because she thinks Han can find the good still hidden in their son. It makes sense, given the events of the previous movie, though in the end Han proves unable to get through to his son. Han’s death is still a pretty lackluster moment compared with what it should be, but it is tragic that he couldn’t reach his son in the way Luke was able to redeem Vader.
  • 1:28:00- Ren’s interrogation of Rey is a pretty good scene, even if we get some Lucas-worthy lines where they both explain each other’s flaws. Driver is especially good with showing how hard Ren is trying to hide his fear and appear intimidating.
  • 1:31:00- Rey is suddenly able to use the Jedi mind trick because…she just can?
  • 1:31:45- The Stormtroopers just turning around and walking away to avoid Ren’s freak-out is another good moment. Clearly the First Order has learned to just sort of accommodate these occasional tantrums from Ren.
  • 1:33:00- A bunch of technobabble as the Resistance explains their plan to blow up Starkiller Base, but basically we’re in “Jedi” territory again: Somebody has to blow up a shield generator before the pilots can go up the big weapon.
  • 1:35:00- Han and Leia’s final moments together are very heartfelt.
  • 1:35:45- There’s no way Han and Chewie could pull off their landing on Starkiller Base, but it’s a cool moment and Abrams makes it look plausible enough.
  • 1:37:00- “That’s not how the Force works!” Han, for the win.
  • 1:38:00- Captain Phasma and Finn clearly have history; it’d be nice for her to have more than do than look cool, say some exposition and get tossed in the trash compactor after being forced to help Finn and Han. It’s also just a waste of Gwendoline Christie.
  • 1:40:00- Abrams has a better knack for hand-to-hand combat and ground battles than Lucas, at least in general, but Lucas was better with the aerial dogfights and space battles. The Resistance attack on Starkiller Base has nowhere near the tension or excitement as Luke’s trench run in “A New Hope.”
  • 1:43:00- I have to admit that having the sky grow darker as Starkiller Base charges and the tension rises is a nice visual touch.
  • 1:45:30- Most of “The Force Awakens” is a riff on “A New Hope,” but Han’s confrontation with Ren is straight out of “Empire,” complete with a platform over a dizzying height. It’s cinematic reappropriation straight out of the Tarantino playbook, except Tarantino is a lot better at how he repurposes his influences.
  • 1:49:00- Han’s death should hit a lot harder. It just should. The fact that it doesn’t is one of the more significant flaws in the movie. And it’s because we don’t have enough reason to care about Han and Ren’s relationship.
  • 1:52:30- Finn should not be fighting Ren with Luke’s lightsaber. I’m sorry, it just diminishes Rey and her role in the movie. And Ren, as a powerful Sith Lord, should not struggle against a non-Force user at all. That said, Rey’s moment where she takes the lightsaber for herself is very well done.
  • 1:54:30- Poe gets his trench run and blows up Starkiller Base. It’s no Han saving Luke’s bacon in “A New Hope,” but it’s pretty well done.
  • 1:58:00- Rey’s fight with Ren is pretty good from a choreography perspective, but dramatically it’s a little flat because we don’t get to see her change in any real way. All of a sudden she can just use the Force in ways she couldn’t before. She even looks pretty angry when she gets the upper hand on Ren, which doesn’t fit with the general Jedi cosmology we’ve seen to this point in the series. Luke’s growing Force abilities reflected his long arc across the prequel trilogy, but with Rey there’s no method to how she becomes strong in the Force.
  • 2:00:30- It’s been said elsewhere, but it’s absolutely right that Leia should hug Chewie when Rey and the gang get back from Starkiller Base. Leia and Chewie were the ones who were closest to Han, so they would be the most upset at his death and want to comfort each other.
  • 2:01:30- R2 comes back to life for no reason to give us the missing information on Luke and wrap things up.
  • 2:03:15- Why wouldn’t Leia go with Rey to find Luke? Luke and Leia are siblings, after all.
  • 2:04:30- Rey finds Luke on a planet with an endless ocean, which Ren mentioned when he talked about Rey’s dreams. So I guess Rey has prophetic dreams like Anakin did?
  • 2:06:00- The final scene where Rey finds Luke is pretty good. Mark Hamill got lots of money for this one scene; nice work when you can get it.

Wrap-up: “The Force Awakens” is probably the one Star Wars movie where what went wrong is a failure of ideas, not of execution. The movie looks great, has a lot of fun characters brought to life by a good cast and contains some exciting moments of action, but the end product fizzles because not enough care went into the story itself. It all works in the moment, but as soon as it’s over you find yourself trying to remember anything that really stood out. Episode VIII has a lot of potential to build on what “The Force Awakens” started, but I’d be more excited if we’d gotten a better beginning to the next phase of the Star Wars saga.

And that brings “Star Wars” Revisited to an end. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this project, and I hope all of you who have been reading have enjoyed it as well. I’ve definitely learned a few things and had some of my ideas about Star Wars challenged, and with any luck you’ve had some new insights as well. We’ll be leaving the galaxy far, far away behind for now, but Star Wars will be with us forever, certainly if Disney has anything to say about it.

‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 6: ‘Revenge of the Sith’

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Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: “Revenge of the Sith” is my go-to movie whenever people dismiss the entirety of the Star Wars prequels. It completes Anakin’s transition from Jedi hero to Sith tyrant in dramatically compelling and logical fashion, it shows us the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, the cast is finally comfortable in their parts, and we get some great payoffs, including Obi-Wan and Anakin’s showdown and the birth of Luke and Leia. George Lucas’ struggle in “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” was to find and tell a compelling story to go along with his knack for world-building and grand set piece moments, and in “Revenge of the Sith” he rediscovered the heart of Star Wars just in time to break our hearts as we witness Darth Vader’s birth. Before we can find our new hope, we have to see our chosen one fall. Revenge is nigh.

Movie diary:

  • 00:00- This is the final Star Wars movie with direct involvement from George Lucas. It’s still weird to think of a post-Lucas Star Wars world.
  • 1:30- Kidnapping the chancellor is indeed a big move by Dooku and the Separatist forces, though I’m not sure exactly how it fits with Palpatine’s ultimate plan since he’s the one who’s been behind the war all long.
  • 2:30- The opening shot of Obi-Wan and Anakin joining the battle above Coruscant is definitely Lucas showing off, but it’s still a pretty incredible sequence. Star wars, indeed.
  • 3:15- The long-hair look for Anakin is definitely an improvement, though the facial scar is a bit try-hard. Christensen is noticeably better throughout “Sith”; he’s good with the conflicted loyalties and growing obsession with power stuff, it’s his scenes with Portman where he’s noticeably lacking.
  • 5:00- Anakin is the better pilot of the pair by a long shot, and they both just go with it. It’s an interesting little detail in their dynamic, and Ewan McGregor and Christensen are much more comfortable with each other.
  • 6:30- Obi-Wan and Anakin are good partners, and their camaraderie is believable. It’s sad to see their relationship fall apart, much more so than the relationship between Anakin and Padme.
  • 7:30- Obi-Wan’s got style, leaping out of his ship into immediate ass-kicking. He lives up to his later reputation as a war hero by the time of “A New Hope.”
  • 8:45- General Grievous is a great addition to our roster of villains. His wheezing cough is almost too close to Vader’s, but he’s got a great visual design, and it’s a great voice performance as well. He’s an upgrade over Jango Fett as far as secondary villains go.
  • 12:00- Count Dooku’s entrance is suitably intimidating, especially since he beat Obi-Wan and Anakin pretty handily in “Attack of the Clones.” Palpatine even makes a remark about it. And Christopher Lee continues to excel in the part.
  • 13:45- Anakin with a pretty brutal move to beat Dooku; he cuts off the guy’s hands. Jedi combat can get messy.
  • 14:00- Palpatine orders his future apprentice to kill his former apprentice. Ruthless. And McDiarmid is all snakelike evil. He even manages to give Anakin an easy out with “He was too dangerous to be kept alive.”
  • 15:00- Palpatine knows Anakin slaughtered the Sand People. It’s unclear if Obi-Wan does, but either way Palpatine has clearly been growing closer to Anakin for some time.
  • 16:15- Moments like Grievous’ ship nearly crashing with Palpatine still aboard illustrate that his plan as shown in the movie doesn’t totally hold together. He doesn’t want to die aboard the ship, otherwise he doesn’t get to rule.
  • 19:30- Grievous collects the lightsabers of fallen Jedi, a grisly touch for his character. Nice payoff to it later on, though.
  • 20:45- Grievous escapes by blowing out a window and then climbing along the outside of his ship. But he still needs to breathe, otherwise he can’t cough, so he shouldn’t really be able to survive in space. Minor thing, but still.
  • 22:30- Anakin successfully lands the falling ship, a pretty genuinely impressive feat.
  • 23:00- “We’re coming in too hot.” Christensen’s delivery here is…not good.
  • 24:30- Obi-Wan gives Anakin a moment in the spotlight, and he’s proud to do it. Again, these two are close. It’s sad to see them torn apart.
  • 26:00- Padme and Anakin’s reunion on Coruscant is actually pretty well done. A couple awkward lines, but they both sell the right emotions and seem to really care for one another. And Anakin’s terror at the prospect of being a father fits naturally; it’s more for him to potentially lose, which is the root of what drives him to the dark side.
  • 29:00- Palpatine writes off Dooku as a necessary loss. Getting to Anakin is clearly his long game, and seeing it come to fruition is tragic.
  • 31:00- We don’t know if Anakin’s visions are 100 percent prophetic or not; Yoda tells us “always in motion, is the future” in “Empire,” but so far all of Anakin’s dreams have come true. More importantly, it’s the fear of losing another loved one that powers his downfall. Yoda spelled it out in “Phantom Menace”: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Yoda called it, but Anakin was allowed to train anyway, and the Jedi’s blindness proves to be their undoing.
  • 31:45- Padme is still wearing the necklace Anakin gave to her in “Phantom Menace.”
  • 32:00- Padme knows firsthand that Anakin’s dreams shouldn’t be taken lightly, because she knows about the dreams he had about his mother prior to her death. Yet she maintains an optimistic outlook and tries to get Anakin not to worry. Anakin isn’t willing to go to Obi-Wan or the others with the truth, though, giving Palpatine an opening.
  • 34:15- Yoda tries to help Anakin as best he can, but Anakin needs a more empathetic, grounded response than “Everybody dies, get over it.” This is where Obi-Wan could and should step in.
  • 35:30- Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council are suspicious of Palpatine, as they should be; politicians ignoring term limits and accruing more power to themselves unchecked is generally shady.
  • 36:15- Palpatine playing off Anakin’s good nature and then ordering him to have a seat on the Council, which Anakin has always wanted, is a masterstroke. He knows exactly how to push Anakin’s buttons to make him feel betrayed by the Jedi while feeding his desire for power.
  • 37:30- The Council giving Anakin a seat while not naming him a master is actually a pretty fair compromise. But Anakin feels cheated. His greed is growing.
  • 39:00- The Council ordering Anakin to spy on Palpatine is a bad move for several reasons. One, he’s clearly close to Palpatine, and two, it’s trusting someone with a history of instability to carry out an assignment requiring the ability to operate in moral shades of grey, which doesn’t fit Anakin’s nature. It plays right into Palpatine’s game, because it’s more evidence of the Jedi conspiring like the Sith.
  • 40:00- The scene where Yoda, Mace Windu and Obi-Wan discuss Anakin’s assignment and the prophecy spells out another key theme. Clearly there were reservations about giving Anakin the gig, and yet they did it anyway, in part because of what Obi-Wan says about Anakin supposedly being the Chosen One. The Jedi rely on prophecy instead of looking at what’s right in front of them.
  • 42:30- The scene where Anakin meets Palpatine at the concert, or whatever it is (it looks awesome), is fantastic. Here’s where we see Palpatine really reel Anakin in with his tale of the Sith Lord who conquered death. And he’s right that the Jedi are plotting against him, even when the council is actually right to distrust Palpatine. Palpatine expertly plays Anakin’s insecurities against him. And both actors step up, especially Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine. His slithering, slippery evil is positively unnerving.
  • 47:30- John Williams is really the anchor of this whole franchise. No matter the scene, he’s there with the right music to make sure the right emotional tone is set. Here we get some great use of strings to sell the creeping dread.
  • 47:45- “Not…from a Jedi.” This is the first time Palpatine drops the mask, if only for a moment.
  • 49:15- The council gives Obi-Wan the assignment to kill Grievous, another slight against Anakin, in his eyes anyway.
  • 50:00- The battle on the Wookiee home world is really cool, even if it exists mostly to get Yoda off of Coruscant.
  • 51:00- Obi-Wan tries to give Anakin one last lesson before heading off to face Grievous, and it’s a lesson in patience. Anakin’s too far gone, though.
  • 55:00- The planet where Obi-Wan finds Grievous, with its sinkhole-covered landscape, is another really inventive world. You can always count on Star Wars to take you interesting places.
  • 56:50- The internet tells me the creature Obi-Wan rides as he tracks down Grievous is called a Boga. It’s a fun design.
  • 57:30- Obi-Wan just dropping into the middle of the group of droids is a pretty bold move. But to his credit, it turns out pretty well.
  • 58:30- The reveal of Grievous’ extra arms and that he also uses lightsabers is a great, fun reveal. Makes him into a formidable physical threat.
  • 1:00:45- Obi-Wan loses his lightsaber chasing after Grievous. Bad form.
  • 1:02:30- Palpatine continues play off Anakin’s ego. Their scenes together are all fantastic.
  • 1:04:00- Finally, after three movies, our real villain reveals himself. It’s not a great surprise, as Lucas doesn’t really do a great job of hiding it, nor is it meant to really be a surprise for the audience, I think. The prequels make much more sense when you view them as Lucas’ thematic response to the first three movies, even if they take place earlier in the series timeline. And really, that makes sense for Lucas, because he knows that basically everyone knows the end point for Anakin. So the focus shifts to making sure we understand the tragedy of Anakin’s fall along with the broader downfall of the Jedi.
  • 1:07:30- “So uncivilized.” Obi-Wan has to get creative and kill Grievous with a blaster, to his distaste. It’s a good moment.
  • 1:08:30- Keeping Anakin away from the Emperor as the Council goes to make their arrest is probably the smart move, but it plays into Anakin’s doubts of about the Jedi nurtured by Palpatine. Really, by this point it’s too late. We’ve been primed for Anakin’s fall, and now the inevitable happens.
  • 1:10:30- Anakin and Padem’s silent exchange across the Coruscant skyline is well done. And it’s gorgeous.
  • 1:11:00- Samuel L. Jackson finally earns his paycheck with his work as Mace Windu in “Sith.” He’s good, and he’s fun to watch opposite McDiarmid.
  • 1:12:45- The fight between Mace and Palpatine isn’t great, no doubt because of McDiarmid’s age making it difficult to do a lot of intense stuntwork.
  • 1:13:30- Palpatine unleashing the lightning is a nice nod for the fans and an impressive display of his power. And finding out that Palpatine is responsible for his own scarred appearance is another good bit, giving us his transformation into his appearance from “Empire” and “Jedi.”
  • 1:14:30- “He’s too dangerous to be kept alive.” Good callback to Palpatine’s line from earlier when Anakin killed Dooku.
  • 1:15:15- “What have I done?” Christensen gets this scene exactly right, to his credit. This is where Vader is born, as evidenced by Palpatine giving him the name in this moment.
  • 1:17:00- “Rise.” The Imperial March returns as Vader rises.
  • 1:17:45- The moment when Palpatine puts on his hood really cements his transformation. It’s uncanny.
  • 1:19:15- Things get dark in a hurry here. Vader leads an army of clone troopers into the Jedi Temple to wipe them out. The Emperor’s plan is ruthlessly efficient, though if some of the mechanics of said plan are a little murky.
  • 1:21:30- The music during the montage of all of the Jedi being slaughtered is gut-wrenching. The whole scene packs a punch, especially the bits of Yoda grieving as he feels all of the deaths through the Force.
  • 1:23:15- Yoda isn’t caught off guard. Granted, we know (sort of) that he lives, but it’s a pretty good fake-out.
  • 1:23:45- Anakin slaughtering the younglings (Jedi trainees) is brutal. Lucas didn’t hold back with showing the depths to which Anakin has fallen.
  • 1:25:55- Brief appearance from Chewie. The fan nods are mostly pretty subtle, or at least, unobtrusive in “Sith,” unlike the walking pile of fan service that is Jango Fett.
  • 1:27:45- The exception to the unobtrusive fan nods is Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa, whose significance is only really justified if you make the connection that he is Leia’s adoptive father (Leia grew up as Leia Organa on Alderaan).
  • 1:30:45- Going back to Coruscant to alter the signal urging the Jedi to come home is a brave move from Obi-Wan and Yoda, even if it’s also dramatically necessary so Yoda can fight the Emperor and Obi-Wan can find his way to Anakin on Mustafar. Nice bit of plotting from Lucas.
  • 1:32:30- Lucas makes subtext text with Mustafar. Anakin has sold his soul to the devil and finds damnation on the lava planet. Subtle it isn’t, but damn if it doesn’t work.
  • 1:34:30- Obi-Wan and Yoda touring the carnage in the Jedi temple is very well done. It’s sad without being melodramatic, and we get bodies without buckets of blood. “Sith” is the only Star Wars movie with violence that’s really questionable for younger audiences. I think it’s justified narratively, and it’s not exploitative, but I’d question letting someone 10 or younger see it.
  • 1:34:45- The hard cut from Obi-Wan saying “Who could’ve done this?” to Anakin mowing down the separatist leaders is a really nice bit of editing.
  • 1:36:15- “So this is how liberty dies: With thunderous applause.” Lucas, you were 11 years too early.
  • 1:37:45- Obi-Wan’s grief as he realizes what Anakin has done is palpable. Ewan McGregor really grew into this role as the prequels went along.
  • 1:38:00- Of course Yoda goes to fight the Emperor while sending Obi-Wan after Anakin. It has to be Obi-Wan and Anakin. It’s so inevitable. Lucas does a great job of playing off our knowledge of what has to happen with these characters. “Sith” is an excellent story on its own, but as the final piece of the long history of Darth Vader it gains an extra element of inevitable tragedy.
  • 1:41:00- The tour of Mustafar culminating in Anakin weeping on the bridge is an elegant sequence. And Williams’ score is perfect. Anakin is no more; Vader has taken over.
  • 1:42:00- The showdown between Palpatine and the Emperor is cool and necessary, but the real drama is on Mustafar. The emotional stakes are so much higher. We get the dissolution of Anakin and Padme’s relationship and Obi-Wan and Anakin’s inevitable showdown, both of which are more personal than the battle of the Force wizards.
  • 1:44:30- The cinematography is noticeably better in “Sith.” Lucas finds the shadows again, often literally, and the compositions are generally a lot better too. What makes “Sith” the best prequel is relatively simple: It’s the best story told in the best fashion. Lucas had finally found his footing again, but he’ll likely never make another movie in the universe he begot.
  • 1:45:15- Vader is already plotting against the Emperor. The power’s gone to his head.
  • 1:45:45- “You’re breaking my heart.” Portman brings it here.
  • 1:46:30- Anakin lets Padme live, and thus Vader will eventually lose. Fitting he’s brought down by his last of mercy as Anakin.
  • 1:47:15- “Your new empire?!” Obi-Wan, incredulous at Anakin’s lust for power.
  • 1:47:30- “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” It’s a clumsy line, and yes, it is an absolute, but you can see what Lucas and Obi-Wan are getting at.
  • 1:48:00- The music throughout the Obi-Wan vs. Anakin fight is stellar.
  • 1:51:30- Yoda and the Emperor fighting as the spire slowly rises into the empty Senate chamber is a great visual. And the soaring choral voices make the moment stand out.
  • 1:52:30- The gradual escalation as the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel goes on is pretty incredible, building to the great final fight on the lava river.
  • 1:53:00- Reprise of “Duel of the Fates.” Nice callback to the earlier battles between Sith and Jedi throughout the trilogy.
  • 1:54:00- The end of the Yoda/Palpatine fight is a little anticlimactic because they both have to live and Yoda has to escape to later train Luke. The Obi-Wan/Vader fight dodges this because their relationship has more stakes and doesn’t essentially change once the fight ends, even when they meet again in “A New Hope.” Plus we get the physical emergence of Darth Vader as we know commonly know him, which is a nice little bow on their arc. Anakin is essentially dead at that point.
  • 1:55:30- Some nice visual flourishes as Obi-Wan and Vader fight against the backdrop of a lava planet. And modern stunt techniques and CGI make it so they can have a battle between two young Jedi at the height of their powers in a way the original trilogy couldn’t.
  • 1:57:45- Vader managing to escape the collapsing bridge as it goes over the lava waterfall is a genuinely impressive feat.
  • 1:59:30- Obi-Wan tries to talk Vader into not making the leap.
  • 1:59:50- “You were the Chosen One!” Ugh. McGregor sells how hurt he is, and Christensen’s animal rage as he bellows out “I hate you!” is a genuine shock.
  • 2:00:00- Waching Vader burn is rough. You want Obi-Wan to put him out of his misery. And maybe he should have.
  • 2:02:15- Vader manages to survive long enough for the Emperor to arrive and “save” him. Hate leads to suffering, indeed.
  • 2:03:30- Padme’s death feels a little cheap. It’s hard to think of another way for her arc to end since we know she has to be dead before the original trilogy, but still, something feels off. She does get to name the kids, though.
  • 2:05:30- The contrast of Padme giving birth as Vader is fitted with his new limbs and mechanical enhancements is harsh, enhancing the small moments of joy amid the harrowing agony Vader is in and his tragic downfall.
  • 2:06:49- The first breath after Vader puts on the mask is haunting. And we only get one before cutting back to Padme.
  • 2:08:01- James Earl Jones’ familiar baritone is a welcome return, even if only for a few lines.
  • 2:08:45- The “Nooooooo!” gets a lot of grief, but it’s fine. You try expressing the grief and anger of killing the mother of your unborn children immediately after betraying everyone and everything you loved for power, only to have your body mutilated.
  • 2:10:15- Yoda teaches Obi-Wan about Force ghosts so we can have them in later movies.
  • 2:11:15- Padme is holding the necklace she got from Anakin during her funeral.
  • 2:11:30- Nice shot of Vader and the Emperor overlooking the construction of the Death Star.
  • 2:12:00- Leia lucks out and gets to live the life of a princess on Alderaan. Though I guess her planet does end up destroyed. Requisite snippet of Leia’s theme from the original trilogy.
  • 2:12:45- Obi-Wan takes Luke to the Lars homestead on Tatooine, where he’ll watch over Luke. As Luke’s theme plays, we get Owen and Beru standing on the same spot with Luke where Luke will one day look out over the Tatooine sunset, reminding us that hope remains.

Wrap-up: “Revenge of the Sith” makes up for many of the weaker moments in the prequel trilogy. When it came time to show us how Anakin became Darth Vader and took the Republic with him, Lucas showed us he could still tell a Star Wars story with a rich emotional experience along with the requisite action beats. Furthermore, watching “Sith” again only seems to confirm my hypothesis that, for better or worse, the prequels gain much by being viewed as thematic responses to Lucas’ earlier works and as parts of a larger whole rather than standalone stories. Lucas sets up a series of moments wherein Anakin might just pull back from the blink even when we know he won’t, but we still see how it all ties into his fear of loss. It gives the whole movie a feeling of inevitable tragedy, giving it a heft the series sometimes lacks. Lucas may have taken a beating over the prequels, but I hope he’s proud of what he and his team accomplished with this movie.

‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 5: ‘Attack of the Clones’

aotc-poster
Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: “Attack of the Clones” is Peak George Lucas when it comes to the Star Wars series. It’s a movie that only barely hangs together at the plot level while having one of the worst-realized love stories in recent memory, yet manages to almost work on the strength of several noteworthy set pieces. The plot is a mess, and the Anakin and Padme love story is completely flat, in no small part due to a wooden, bordering-on-petrified performance from Hayden Christensen. Yet there are a handful of moments in “Attack of the Clones” that stick out prominent in my cinematic memory, namely the chase through Coruscant at the opening, the entire Kamino sequence, and the massive third-act brawl that begins with Padme, Anakin and Obi-Wan fighting off beasts in the coliseum before evolving into a massive battle between the droid army and the clone troops. Plus we get to see Yoda kick some butt, and that’s more or less worth the price of admission right there. Let’s get  through this together.

Movie diary:

  • 00:0- “Attack of the Clones” is one of three Star Wars movies where the first word of the title is a verb, along with “Return of the Jedi” and “Revenge of the Sith.”
  • 1:15- It’s difficult to believe the Republic didn’t have an official army of its own prior the Clone Wars. You’d think people would recognize the Jedi can’t handle everything.
  • 2:00- More sleek, metallic Naboo ship designs
  • 3:30- The bombing attempt on Padme is a pretty bleak opening. Shows that this insurgency against the Republic is serious.
  • 4:00- Once again, Natalie Portman’s body language and facial expressions are all right when she’s expressing her grief over the death of her body double, but her delivery is that flat monotone that Lucas insists she and Hayden Christensen speak in. It’s really distracting; the minimum standard for good acting is to not distract with your performance.
  • 6:00- Padme is totally right that Count Dooku is behind the assassination attempt, despite what Mace Windu says about it not being in Dooku’s Jedi nature. The Jedi are frequently shown to be the victims of hubris.
  • 6:45- Again, the plot mechanics here are murky. It’s hard to believe Palpatine would know about Anakin’s relationship with Amidala, so why would he want them together? And (I think) he ordered the second attempt on Amidala’s life, so why give her Jedi protection? This is the rare Star Wars movie that suffers from real basic plot structure problems.
  • 7:30- Ewan McGregor is much more at ease as Obi-Wan this time around. And he’s managed to replicate some of the dry wit Alec Guiness brought to the role the first time around.
  • 8:20- “Ani? My goodness, you’ve grown.” Ugh. Not exactly a red-hot start to this would-be romance.
  • 9:00- Anakin makes the admittedly rational move of thinking they should investigate who’s trying to kill Padme, while Obi-Wan insists on playing things by the book and following the literal order of the council. It misses the mark in trying to portray Anakin as the rash, undisciplined one. He comes off as the humane one here.
  • 11:45- Anakin and Obi-Wan get into a snit over whose Jedi senses are more powerful when it comes to watching Padme’s rooms.
  • 12:15- Anakin is having dreams of his mother, setting up his visions later on.
  • 13:15- The worms as instruments of assassination is a nice bit. They’re genuinely creepy.
  • 14:00- Obi-Wan and Anakin also disagree about whether or not Palpatine is a good guy. It’d be nice to see why Anakin views Palpatine so favorably prior to now.
  • 15:00- The speeder chase through the Coruscant is very well done. Chases with the element of verticality are pretty rare, even in major blockbusters.
  • 16:00- As usual, John Williams brings his ‘A’ game. The chase music is top-notch.
  • 17:15- Anakin is a bit of a thrill junkie, coming pretty close to crashing the speeder into the large ship as they plummet through the streets. And Hayden Christensen’s monotone laugh makes the moment somewhat unintentionally menacing.
  • 19:15- Give Anakin credit for guts. Jumping into free fall to pursue the assassin is a pretty incredible move.
  • 20:20- Obi-Wan snags Anakin’s lightsaber as it flies by. Nice touch.
  • 22:05- “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” Obi-Wan, to Anakin. Real cute, George.
  • 23:00- Obi-Wan uses the Jedi mind trick to get a drug dealer to go home and rethink his life. It’s a nice, quick moment of subdued humor.
  • 24:15- One of Hayden Christensen’s stronger moments in the movie is when he’s interrogating the bounty hunter. He’s a believable bad cop alternative to Obi-Wan’s good cop.
  • 25:15- Anakin gets the assignment of protecting Padme while Obi-Wan investigates the bounty hunter who killed the would-be assassin.
  • 26:00- First of several great scenes between Palpatine and Anakin, and Ian McDiarmid does a great job of showing how Palpatine flatters Anakin’s ego while also sewing doubt about the authority and honesty of the Jedi.
  • 27:30- Padme shuts up Jar Jar when he goes into his speech after being named interim senator.
  • 28:00- Padme is very much against the Republic having a standing army, and the Republic gets its army despite her best efforts.
  • 29:00- Anakin, like his son in the future, chafes against Obi-Wan’s authority because he thinks Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council are holding him back. But Luke had pretty good tutors, while Anakin has a somewhat naïve Obi-Wan on the one hand and Palpatine whispering in his ear on the other hand. The Jedi really fail Anakin, though it’s hard to see because it’s not very well dramatically realized and because of Christensen’s performance.
  • 31:30- I love Obi-Wan going to the hole in the wall diner as part of his investigation. It adds a little bit of rule-breaking character to the otherwise straight-laced Obi-Wan.
  • 33:30- The Kamino cloners are a pretty fascinating addition to the franchise; we’ve never really heard about clones before in the series, but they end up having a pretty big impact on the galaxy.
  • 35:28- Anakin’s awkward explanation for how love is allowed by the Jedi code despite the seeming prohibition against it is another scene where you need a director with a stronger feel for actors to really make the scene work.
  • 36:30- I love that Yoda is the one who works with the youngest students at the Jedi temple. And he even gets the correct answer for what happened to Kamino’s location from one of the kids. It’s a nice little slice of Jedi life from when there were more than just a few Jedi in the galaxy.
  • 38:45- Naboo is actually a pretty beautiful, romantic spot. Too bad there’s no real romance between Anakin and Padme.
  • 41:20- All of the music during the Kamino scenes is top notch.
  • 41:45- The Kamino aliens themselves are a very cool design, with how tall and slender they are.
  • 43:00- Obi-Wan is understandably confused upon finding out a dead Jedi master apparently ordered up a clone army.
  • 44:30- The “I don’t like sand” speech is really, really bad. Oof.
  • 45:30- The music swells, they kiss, and…fizzle. Portman and Christensen just have no chemistry and no basis in the script for their relationship. It’s just very poorly done.
  • 47:00- I’ve never really understand the love Boba Fett gets, and I’m not sure having Jango Fett as his father and the original blueprint for the clone troopers adds a whole lot. That said, he’s a pretty fun secondary villain in this movie.
  • 50:00- Anakin and Padme do have a pretty good scene together after their discussion about politics. It’s one of their better moments together.
  • 54:00- The transition from the relatively playful dinner scene to the super melodramatic fireside scene between Anakin and Padme is really rough. Just when we start to see them show believable affection, we get right into the super serious relationship business. This love story is just very poorly done.
  • 55:45- Portman gets closer to the mark than Christensen. His emotions are too…childish.
  • 58:30- Yoda continues to be one of the few Jedi who has any inkling of Palpatine’s larger schemes. But even he can’t see the web around them fully.
  • 59:45- Christensen is stronger in the scenes involving his mother. He’s more honed in on the appropriate response instead of a childlike impression of grown-up emotions.
  • 1:02:00- The Obi-Wan vs. Jango fight is pretty entertaining, and Jango acquits himself well for a non-Force user.
  • 1:04:45- Watto has fallen on hard times since we last saw him. He’s in just enough of the movie to be a fun callback without overstaying his welcome.
  • 1:07:00- The chase in the asteroid field between Obi-Wan and Jango is also really well done. Seeing all those asteroids blow up and Obi-Wan have to dodge them is a lot of fun.
  • 1:09:45- Shades of “Empire” as Obi-Wan dodges detection by hiding his ship on an asteroid, similar to Han’s move with the Star Destroyer.
  • 1:11:45- Good to see 3PO again. And nice to see Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in their pre-“A New Hope” days.
  • 1:14:15- The shot of Anakin and Padme talking as we look on their shadows is a nice little touch. And Anakin gets a “Duel of the Fates” reprise as he sets out on what will prove to be a rather dark mission.
  • 1:16:30- It’s a little convenient that Obi-Wan stumbles upon the Separatist leaders, but at least we get a glimpse of the great Christopher Lee as Count Dooku. Lee had a good run in the early 2000s as traitorous bad guys, between his work in the prequels and “The Lord of the Rings.”
  • 1:18:30- The Sand Peoples’ treatment of Shmi is a legitimately dark moment. She’s clearly been through hell. Her moment with Anakin before his rampage is really touching.
  • 1:20:30- The moment when Anakin’s rage takes over and he goes berserk on the Sand People is really effective. Christensen sells the anger and then the ruthlessness as he cuts them down. We’re definitely in Vader territory here.
  • 1:23:15- Anakin returning to the moisture farm with his mother’s body is a suitably grim moment.
  • 1:24:45- Anakin’s quest for power being fueled by grief is a good moment. And we get a preview of Vader’s hatred and bloodlust when Anakin describes his joy in killing the Sand People. His downward spiral is moving quickly now.
  • 1:29:45- Padme shows some spine in deciding to go help Obi-Wan when the Jedi Council wants her to stay put.
  • 1:30:45- Palpatine plays Jar Jar into being the one who proposes the measure to give him emergency executive powers. Nice move as part of his plan.
  • 1:32:15- Making Dooku Qui-Gon’s master, thus making him a natural foil for Obi-Wan, is a good move, and Christopher Lee is great in the part, using their shared history to toy with Obi-Wan’s emotions while also engaging in some classic Sith backstabbing with his genuine reveal that there’s a Sith Lord manipulating the Republic and the Jedi.
  • 1:33:30- “It may be difficult to secure your release.” Lee brings just the right amount of very subtle menace to this line, making Dooku into a memorable antagonist.
  • 1:34:30- Palpatine’s faux-humility as he “accepts” emergency powers and vows to return the powers once the crisis abates is great to watch. McDiarmid plays it so sincerely it comes around to just a shade of too over earnest.
  • 1:37:30- The bug-like Geonosians are another cool alien species first seen in this movie. Lots of small and large moments of visual imagination on display.
  • 1:38:30- Never been a huge fan of the big scene inside the droid factory. Just seems a bit too obviously CGI, so the sense of danger is minimal. And the droid antics are a bit too much.
  • 1:43:00- Padme’s big confession just falls so flat because we just haven’t been given enough reason to believe these two care deeply about each other. Portman gives it her best effort, though.
  • 1:44:30- The coliseum wherein our heroes nearly get eaten is a really cool set. And the build as the sequence evolves is very impressively done.
  • 1:45:45- The praying mantis-spider thing that goes after Obi-Wan strikes me as the most intimidating monster of the bunch, but they’re all pretty cool.
  • 1:48:00- Anakin Skywalker, creature whisperer.
  • 1:50:00- Mace Windu’s surprise arrival on Geonosis is pretty cool, and his purple lightsaber is sweet. Samuel L. Jackson can do roles like this in his sleep.
  • 1:51:00- One advantage of the prequels is we can have lots of Jedi show up and fight, which is really cool to see. You can see why they’re such fearsome combatants and what it really meant to see all of them die.
  • 1:53:15- Mace Windu with a pretty brutal decapitation of Jango Fett.
  • 1:54:30- Obi-Wan terminates the monster that tried to kill him with extreme prejudice.
  • 1:55:30- The Jedi and Padme are definitely doomed before Yoda shows up with the clone troops. Ironic, then, that the clone troopers are the ones who end up whiping out the Jedi.
  • 1:56:30- CGI Yoda just doesn’t look as good as puppet Yoda, which says a lot about how good the puppet work was in “Empire” and “Jedi.”
  • 1:58:15- The droid vs. clone army battle is very well staged, large in scope but with a clear sense of the action. All of the big action beats are well done, but they don’t work as dramatic payoffs, because the story is otherwise lacking. So you have a movie that’s pretty, has a few fun moments, and is otherwise inert. Like I said up top, Peak Lucas.
  • 2:02:30- The droids and clones fighting in the dust after one of the ships crashes to earth is a really cool visual.
  • 2:04:00- Obi-Wan finally gets through to Anakin by pointing point that Padme would go after Dooku were she in his position. Obi-Wan should definitely be concerned about Anakin with what he knows at this point, but it never really comes up again.
  • 2:06:45- Anakin using two lightsabers against Dooku isn’t as cool as Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber, but the fight in the near-dark as the combatants are lit up only by their lightsabers is really neat.
  • 2:07:45- And then Yoda shows up. Easily the best part of the whole movie.
  • 2:09:00- Yoda just shrugging off Dooku’s Force attacks is fantastic. We know who the top Jedi around here is.
  • 2:09:30- Yoda is a jumping, flipping, twirling machine as he fights. He’s fun to watch.
  • 2:11:00- Dooku is the one who cuts off Anakin’s right hand, as we saw in “Jedi.” He’s also Yoda’s former apprentice, starting the tradition of Jedi falling under Palpatine’s sway.
  • 2:12:15- Dooku is secretly Palpatine’s new apprentice, meaning they control both armies in the conflict, able to spin it to their advantage however they see fit. It’s a pretty solid plan.
  • 2:14:00- The Imperial March plays as we get our big shot of the clone army now at Palpatine’s disposal. It’s quite the image. The rise of the Empire now seems inevitable. And, of course, seeing as these are prequels, it is.
  • 2:15:15- C-3PO and R2-D2 are the witnesses to Padme and Anakin’s marriage. Big secret to entrust to the droids.

Wrap-up: “Attack of the Clones” is definitely one of the weakest of the Star Wars movies, maybe the worst of the bunch. It has moments that shine, but a threadbare screenplay and a romance that’s DOA really hurt its standing and effectiveness in the broader franchise. I rarely single out actors for criticism, but this is a case where it noticeably impacts the overall quality of the movie, and Hayden Christensen is really lackluster as Anakin. This movie is a showcase of George Lucas’ best and worst instincts, which explains the uneven final product. Next time around, he’d show us that he still had one more great “Star Wars” movie in him.

‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 4: ‘The Phantom Menace’

tpm-poster
Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: There may be no set of movies more difficult to talk about in a rational manner than the Star Wars prequels. While the movies are undeniably flawed, the whole experience surrounding them is bound up in overinflated expectations that resulted in an inevitable backlash. The prequels, particularly “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” are not great movies on their own or in the context of the Star Wars series, but there was almost no chance George Lucas could recreate the alchemy of the original trilogy (see also: “The Hobbit”). And there is no bad movie on the face of the Earth that justifies the once-popular “George Lucas raped my childhood” meme. So, let’s all calm down and try to give the prequels a fair shake, OK?

Movie diary:

  • 00:00- I saw the original trilogy in theaters during the Special Edition re-release, but “The Phantom Menace” is the first Star Wars movie that I saw first on a big screen. For kids of a certain age, it’s indelibly embedded in our memory. I saw this movie at least three times in theaters. This is also the first movie that I don’t have to pick which version to watch (I watched the theatrical cuts of the original trilogy, which I snagged during the last-ever DVD release of the movies. You can’t get the theatrical cuts on Blu-ray, at least not yet.)
  • 1:00- The “Why is ‘Phantom Menace’ about a trade dispute?” meme gets a lot of traction in certain fan circles, but that ignores the fact that A) This is all part of Senator (later Emperor) Palpatine’s plan to gain power and B) The Trade Federation invades the planet. This is not a “trade dispute” in the usual sense, even for a galaxy far, far away
  • 3:15- It’s a nice touch to make Obi-Wan our point of continuity, and it fits with the timeline and our knowledge (assuming you’ve seen the original trilogy) that Obi-Wan is the one who trains Anakin and fails to prevent his fall to the dark side. Qui-Gon also gives Obi-Wan a lesson in being aware of the moment instead of drifting off into worries about the future, a very similar lesson to what Yoda has to teach Luke later on.
  • 5:00- As I said in the prologue to this series, I feel like you can’t fully understand the Star Wars series by watching it in chronological order; the prequels are full of thematic, visual and dialogue callbacks to the original trilogy, but they don’t make sense without having seen the first three movies. This is somewhat a detriment to the prequels, because it means they don’t stand as well on their own, but it does give you a clearer picture of Lucas’ aims. And if there’s any movie series that almost everyone is guaranteed to have seen, it’s the original Star Wars trilogy.
  • 7:00- Some of the effects work hasn’t aged well, but the prequels are full of great little visual moments, including the rolling droids with the shields who attack Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon during the opening battle.
  • 8:30- I can see why people criticize the presentation of the Trade Federation leaders as Asian stereotypes, but it seems a bit of a reach. The accent is somewhat Asian, but there’s no corresponding visual representation, so we’re supposed to think George Lucas is disparaging Asian people because…they happen to be good at trade and are kind of sneaky? I don’t know, it doesn’t hold water with me, but I’d be willing to hear an argument from the other side.
  • 9:30- The throne room scene on Naboo is pretty clunky, mostly because Keira Knightley, playing Queen Amidala’s double, is really flat and monotone. It’s gotta be a directing note from Lucas, because Knightley can be very expressive, but it really shows here. Also, I know we have to preserve the big secret about Padme really being the queen for later, but it makes no sense that the double would be present during a major meeting of the queen’s top advisors. You could even argue that showing Padme as the real queen and how she’s pretending to be a handmaiden earlier on would add dramatic tension, both in her relationship with the Jedi and Anakin. Just a thought.
  • 10:30- The Trade Federation theme is no Imperial March, but it’s a solid piece from John Williams nonetheless. Williams brought his ‘A’ game throughout the prequels, even if everyone else struggled in spots.
  • 11:25- “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.” Qui-Gon is more right than he knows.
  • 11:30- So, about Jar Jar: He is a nuisance, no doubt. But to single him out for such overwhelming hatred when the prequels have much bigger, fundamental flaws is a case of fan projection. Jar Jar is basically a lesser version of the droids in the original trilogy: He’s the ordinary guy caught up in the extraordinary things around him.
  • 13:30- Mic drop moment from Lucas and Williams. The Gungan underwater city is a gorgeous visual unlike anything we’ve seen before in the series, and Williams’ score is magnificent. Pure Star Wars.
  • 15:00- The Gungan/Naboo relationship is an interesting subplot, in that it shows there are tensions between races on planets similar to our world. Star Wars has never been known for its politics in the way, say, Star Trek is, but it’s an interesting wrinkle here.
  • 16:30- Jar Jar does prove useful in guiding the Jedi through the core. So there. Also, Qui-Gon plays pretty fast and loose when it comes to using his Force powers to get what he wants, which separates him from most of the other Jedi we’ve seen in the series.
  • 17:30- Ewan McGregor eventually grows into Obi-Wan’s robes, but he’s noticeably out of his depth in this movie; he’s good at the physical fight stuff, but many of his line readings are flat. Lucas has never been a great director of actors; it’s one of his biggest weaknesses.
  • 20:00- The big problem with Jar Jar is he goes too broad. C-3PO made many similar “We’re doomed!” exclamations in the original trilogy (remember his line about the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field in “Empire”), but Anthony Daniels made sure it didn’t cross the line into overbearing. If Jar Jar was just dialed back a couple degrees, he’d be fine.
  • 22:30- The Jedi rescuing the queen and her inner circle without breaking a sweat is a good scene; the action scenes are all pretty solid throughout the prequels, even when the narrative falls flat.
  • 23:45- “There’s something else behind all this, your highness.” Qui-Gon, sensing what we already know, and he’s right. He’s one of the few Jedi to make this leap, and it dooms them all in the end.
  • 25:15- I love the design of the Naboo ships, all sleek and metallic. The prequels show tons of visual imagination, even in small moments.
  • 26:15- R2-D2 saves the day. A bit contrived, perhaps. But considering they’re on a civilian transport ship, it makes sense, since they probably don’t have weapons and can’t go out and fix the ship themselves.
  • 27:30- The first appearance of Darth Maul is fantastic. He’s instantly memorable, and Ray Park makes him into an intimidating figure.
  • 28:30- Sabe, the queen’s double (Keira Knightley), has some fun ordering the queen to clean up R2 as a reward for saving the ship. The little smile that flickers across her face is a nice bit.
  • 29:00- I suppose this is as good a time as any to admit I had a massive crush on Natalie Portman after this movie came out.
  • 30:00- Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan sense a disturbance in the Force on Tatooine. This desert planet does have a way of coming back again and again.
  • 32:30- “Are you an angel?” Jake Lloyd also gets a lot of flak for his portrayal of Anakin, which is totally unfair. Being a child actor is really hard, especially when you don’t have a great director to work with, and the script does him no favors. Anakin’s backstory as a former slave, someone who didn’t have the relatively nice upbringing that Luke did to ground him, is a good starting point on his way to becoming Vader, who’s obsessed with power.
  • 34:16- “What, do you think you’re some kind of Jedi, waving your hand around like that?” A genuinely funny moment in the movie, and it’s all in the dialogue and timing.
  • 39:00- Old-school C-3PO is a great design, and Anthony Daniels didn’t lose a step in the years between “Jedi” and this movie. It’s good to have him back.
  • 40:30- Darth Maul mentions a trace when he says he’s headed for Tatooine to find the Jedi, but we never see it, and hopefully nobody on the ship would send a transmission after Obi-Wan explicitly told them not to. It’d be nice to see that scene.
  • 41:15- “The Republic doesn’t exist out here.” Subtle bit of insight into Anakin’s world. Padme says the Republic has outlawed slavery, but the government has lost its influence on the outer territories. It’s ripe for a fall, and Palpatine orchestrates it perfectly to leave him in charge.
  • 45:30- Qui-Gon’s a gambler, again setting him apart from the more reserved, austere Jedi we’ve seen. He’s an intriguing character, and Liam Nelson is great in the part.
  • 47:15- I’m not sure the virgin birth bit for Anakin is strictly necessary, in that it doesn’t add much that an otherwise absent father wouldn’t.
  • 48:45- “You know, I find that Jar Jar creature a little odd.” C-3PO, saying what we’re all thinking.
  • 49:45- C’mon, you know for a minute there you wanted to drive a pod racer. They made a great video game out of it.
  • 50:45- Midichlorians are dumb. They’re not movie-wrecking dumb, but they are dumb. Given that we’ve previously heard the Force described as a mystical energy field, having it as something that’s measurable in your blood takes away the more ephemeral nature of it. There should have been some other way of demonstrating Anakin’s affinity for the Force.
  • 53:30- Qui-Gon tips the dice in his favor so he can win Anakin’s freedom, and thus a tyrant is eventually born. One of the times where Qui-Gon’s rule-breaking has serious consequences. Once again, overconfidence proves fatal; the long arc of the prequels is that the Jedi are doomed by their complacency and unwillingness to see the danger right in front of them.
  • 56:30- The whole pod racing sequence, from the introduction of the racers until the end, is spectacular. The race itself is excellently staged, the variety of racers and pods is a lot of fun, Anakin gets to beat the cheater Sebulba, and Qui-Gon even gives him a Jedi pep talk. Excellent stuff.
  • 1:02:55- I have to say, I love the two-headed race announcer. Imagine John Madden and Pat Summerall sharing the same body. Pat would probably be miserable.
  • 1:07:15- The music as Anakin works to get his pod back in order and win the race is fantastic, and it’s also good that we get to see Anakin’s ingenuity as he makes repairs on the fly. He’s a genuinely great racer.
  • 1:09:00- Sebulba gets his comeuppance as he crashes and watches Anakin cross the finish line. A moment of triumph for our heroes.
  • 1:10:45- “Whenever you gamble, my friend, eventually you lose.” Qui-Gon’s look of smug satisfaction as he goes to collect on his wager with Watto is great, as is his suggestion that they can take it up with the Hutts if Watto doesn’t like the outcome.
  • 1:15:00- Anakin’s final moment with his mom is genuinely touching. Both Jake Lloyd and Pernilla August, who played Anakin’s mother, do great work, and we get the minor key variation on the Force theme (Luke’s theme from the original trilogy) to help sell the moment. This, for better or worse, is the beginning of Anakin’s downfall.
  • 1:16:45- The short battle between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon as the group flees Tatooine is a fun teaser of what’s ahead. Maul is aggressive and clearly a match for Qui-Gon, despite the considerable skill we’ve seen Qui-Gon display with a lightsaber. Qui-Gon even notes his training in the Jedi arts.
  • 1:20:00- Anakin and Padme get a nice moment on the ship when they leave Tattooine, and the necklace Anakin gives her becomes an important token throughout the prequels.
  • 1:20:30- Coruscant is another great visual set piece. It makes sense that the capital of a galactic government would require a city the size of an entire planet, and Lucas and his team brought it to life in stunning detail.
  • 1:21:15- Ian McDiarmid is back as Senator Palpatine, later the Emperor. He does a fantastic job of seeming to be a good guy while suggesting the hidden layers of malice underneath. His line about procedure is a callback to his earlier conversation with the Trade Federation leaders, another clue (if we needed one) that Palpatine is the Sith Lord behind the scenes.
  • 1:23:00- “The Republic is not what it once was.” Palpatine clues us in to one of the big themes of the prequels: Complacency and institutional corruption (stoked in part by Palpatine, no doubt) have led to stagnation and degeneration, leaving the Republic vulnerable. Palpatine manipulates Padme into doing his bidding in getting him elected Chancellor, and even the Jedi aren’t immune: In about a minute, Mace Windu says “I do not believe the Sith could’ve returned without us knowing.”
  • 1:25:15- “You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force.” This is another big downfall of the Jedi: Once Anakin begins Jedi training, his behavior is excused because he fits the prophecy, and in the end it gets the Jedi killed. As I wrote in my piece looking at the history of Star Wars fandom a few months back, Lucas botched the execution when it comes to the prequels, but his overall intent is pretty clear when you look at the broad scope of the first three episodes, and it’s a good idea.
  • 1:28:30- Palpatine’s plan is brilliant: Get himself elected using the Naboo invasion as a springboard, playing off the sympathies of both Padme and the broader galactic populace. And McDiarmid excels throughout, subtly hinting at his hidden nature. McDiarmid’s performance is stellar in all three prequels.
  • 1:30:45- Fittingly, Yoda is the one person on the Jedi Council who’s mistrustful of Anakin.
  • 1:31:45- Of course Palpatine is the “surprise” nominee to be chancellor. And his smug look when he relays the news is one of the few moments where he threatens to betray his plan.
  • 1:33:15- “No, he will not be trained.” Samuel L. Jackson gives Mace Windu a perfect amount of unquestioned authority. His delivery of this line is spot-on.
  • 1:40:00- Jar Jar also gets Padme her army to take back the planet. Again, not totally useless.
  • 1:41:45- Padme and the others humbling themselves before the Gungans is a good moment. One of the recurring themes of the Star Wars series is how cooperation is important in fighting tyranny.
  • 1:43:30- Padme switches to the same flat affect that her body double used when she was pretending to be queen. Lucas must think that’s how royalty sounds? It’s a bit odd for sure. She’s got the steely resolve look down, and that’s good, but her delivery is all wrong. This is where directors matter.
  • 1:44:55- “Wipe them out. All of them.” Seriously, guys, Ian McDiarmid is fantastic.
  • 1:45:00- Much like “Return of the Jedi,” “Phantom Menace” finds its footing in the third act once all the action kicks in again. From the moment the Gungan army emerges from the fog, everything builds to a satisfying finale, and we get some well-done action scenes along the way, including what is probably the best lightsaber fight in the entire series. Lucas is great at staging big moments in his movies; it’s the little details that sometimes elude him.
  • 1:48:30- The mechanical precision as the Federation deploys their droid army fits perfectly with how you think a robot army would fight. And John Williams is there with a wonderful score to make it all sing.
  • 1:50:20- From the moment the door opens to reveal Darth Maul standing there as the opening notes of “Duel of the Fates” kick in, you know something serious is about to go down. This sequence earns Lucas a lot of forgiveness, in my book. Qui-Gon’s “We’ll handle this” as Padme and the others run off to the throne room is great too. The Jedi and Maul even shed their robes. This is how you stage a fight scene.
  • 1:52:00- John Williams, we’re not worthy. “Duel of the Fates” is one of the best pieces of work he did in the entire franchise.
  • 1:54:00- Anakin ending up in the middle of the outer space dogfight is a bit of a stretch, but he is a natural pilot. The main problem is it’s about several coincidences too far when the screenplay already relies pretty heavily on coincidence. You can only go to coincidence so many times before it gets old.
  • 1:55:00- I’ve always loved the little moment in the lightsaber duel where Qui-Gon just slaps Maul and sends him flying over the side.
  • 1:56:15- The hallway of laser beams that separate Maul from Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan from Qui-Gon is ingenious, and it pays off perfectly. Maul pacing as Qui-Gon meditates and Obi-Wan stands nervously reflects all of their characters in great fashion.
  • 1:58:00- We’re at three or four “Jar Jar accidentally does some good in the battle” moments too many by this point. The gag has definitely worn thin.
  • 1:59:30- Obi-Wan forced to watch helplessly as Qui-Gon fights Maul and then loses is a really tense, well done bit. And Ewan McGregor sells the shock and pain of seeing his master fall.
  • 2:00:45- The decoy queen bit finally pays off, as the Trade Federation leaders get fooled by the double, giving Padme a chance to gain the upper hand. She even shows some real emotion when she says “Now, Viceroy, we’ll discuss a new treaty.” It’s a great cast, they’re just not allowed to emote due to misguided notes from Lucas.
  • 2:01:15- Maul taunting Obi-Wan before they start fighting again is another great moment.
  • 2:03:15- Anakin destroys the droid control ship, wrapping up two of our battles. We still have the matter of Darth Maul and Obi-Wan, though, as it should be.
  • 2:04:15- Darth Maul gets one of the great movie deaths, as his torso separates from his legs after Obi-Wan makes the leap and slices him in half. A memorable end for a memorable villain.
  • 2:04:30- Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon’s final moments are a good showcase for both actors. And you can see why training Anakin means so much to Obi-Wan after he promised his master he’d go through with it.
  • 2:05:45- Palpatine is nothing if not adaptive; even though his Trade Federation lackeys lost the battle and he’s lost an apprentice, he’s still Chancellor, and his comment about watching Anakin’s career shows he’s already thinking ahead and changing his plans.
  • 2:06:30- Yoda, to his credit, remains skeptical of training Anakin.
  • 2:07:15- Qui-Gon gets a funeral very similar to Vader’s funeral pyre in “Jedi.” We also get Yoda and Mace Windu talking about the Sith, complete with a lingering shot of Palpatine, as if it wasn’t already obvious who our Sith mastermind is.
  • 2:08:30- Gungan victory parade! A fun musical and visual moment to end the movie.

Wrap-up: “The Phantom Menace” is not a great movie, but it’s also not an especially horrible one. It has the problems of many modern blockbusters: An over-reliance on CGI, an unpolished script and a slightly bloated run time. It also has several noteworthy set pieces that still thrill today, some absolutely fantastic music from John Williams, and a few quality performances, mainly in the form of Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon and Ian McDairmid as Senator-turned-Chancellor Palpatine. “The Phantom Menace” showcases many of George Lucas’ strengths, but also his weaknesses. It may not stand up with the original trilogy, but it’s time to ease up on the hatred. Hatred, after all…well, you heard Yoda.

‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 2: ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

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Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: Of all of the Star Wars movies, “The Empire Strikes Back” is the one I’m approaching with the most trepidation as part of this series, because it’s the movie where my opinion is the most out of sync with the general consensus. “Empire” is most frequently cited by Star Wars fans and general movie buffs alike as the best of the series, with the first movie coming in second. I’ve never really agreed with that notion. Don’t get me wrong; I like “Empire” a lot, and there’s a lot to recommend it, but it’s never been my favorite of the original trilogy. When I was younger “Return of the Jedi” was the one I watched the most, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve grown to appreciate the original “Star Wars” more, but “Empire” has never connected with me in the same way. I don’t really know why that is, and it’s something I’d like to try to figure out, so hopefully rewatching it now will give me some insight. Here we go.

Movie diary:

  • 00:00- I’m going to likely be taking fewer notes with this one, because “Empire” is one I really want to see how and if my assessment of the movie has changed at all in recent years.
  • 1:00- The value of the title crawl as a device for exposition is really pretty strong; it fits with the pulp adventure feel George Lucas was aiming for, and it’s a good way to knock out some of the early setup business and jump right into the action.
  • 2:00- Right away, John Williams lets us know we’re in for a different ride. The ominous, subdued score is a far cry from the rousing battle music that “A New Hope” opened with.
  • 4:00- The wampa attack on Luke and his tauntaun is a pretty good jump scare, though it’s a subplot I’ve never really been a fan of. “Empire” has a bit of an odd structure, which may be part of my hesitancy to name it the best of the series.
  • 6:45- “I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee.” Once again, you’ll be missed, Carrie Fisher.
  • 8:15- Han’s decision to go out after Luke even after saying he had to leave the Rebellion to get the price off his head is a nice bit of character work. It shows that he, Luke and Leia have remained close after the events of “The New Hope” and that he’s more willing to risk his own life now.
  • 9:30- I will say this for the wampa subplot: Luke using the force to pull his lightsaber to him and free himself is a great moment, and it shows that he’s growing stronger in the Force, leading to his vision of Obi-Wan and eventual training with Yoda.
  • 12:15- The look on Carrie Fisher’s face as the base doors are closed, sealing Han and Luke outside in the cold, is a great bit of non-verbal acting. She clearly cares for both of them.
  • 14:30- “I thought they smelled bad on the outside.” Even as he’s in danger of freezing to death along with his friend, Han always has a one-liner ready.
  • 17:30- Han seems genuinely wounded when Leia calls him “scruffy looking,” and Ford has great timing with the line. Lucas neither wrote nor directed “Empire,” and the dialogue is all-around less clunky and more natural (though to deny his role in the movie when he served as producer and received a “story by” credit would be a disservice to him).
  • 18:00- The smug look on Luke’s face when Leia kisses him is great.
  • 19:30- It’s hard to not gush constantly about how good John Williams is, but seriously: The first appearance of “The Imperial March” as Vader’s giant ship literally overshadows the rest of his fleet is perfect. “Empire” is the movie that really cements Vader as the villain of the original trilogy, and he gets a fantastic piece of music to give him that extra touch of menace.
  • 23:30-“You have failed me for the last time, admiral.” Vader does not suffer fools lightly.
  • 24:30- The whole Hoth battle sequence is stunning, far and away the best large-scale ground battle of the series. It’s also a much larger battle than anything in “A New Hope” at this same point in the movie. “Empire” definitely ups the scale with the “war” part of “Star Wars.”
  • 31:30- Han returns to the command center to make sure Leia’s OK, even when she questions why he’s still there and after he’s repeatedly said he doesn’t really love her. It’s a classic “can’t you two see how much you two like each other?” moment.
  • 32:45- Luke takes down an AT-AT himself even as things fall apart around him. Our farm boy has become quite a soldier.
  • 38:30- The asteroid chase is another great set piece coming hard on the heels of the big battle. Like I said, “Empire” ups the scale quickly. And Williams is masterful as ever with the music.
  • 41:00- “Empire” also gives us a bigger variety of locations than “A New Hope.” Whereas before we had a desert planet, a space station and a forest planet, in “Empire” we get an ice planet, a swamp planet, an extended sequence in an asteroid field and a floating city hovering above a gas giant. Lots of imagination on display from the production designers.
  • 44:00- Mark Hamill has never really gotten the praise he deserves as Luke, I think, in part because it’s a less showy role than Han, Leia or Vader. Especially in “Empire” he has a number of scenes where he’s acting opposite a droid and a puppet, not exactly the easiest thing to do, and he’s got a complicated arc as Luke learns to become a Jedi, faces Vader and then has his world blown apart from underneath him. Hamill excels throughout.
  • 47:15- Frank Oz is the best as Yoda, and he did it all with just his voice and talent for puppeteering. Frank Oz is the man.
  • 47:30- “Wars not make one great.” Yoda’s first lesson for Luke, and Luke doesn’t even know it.
  • 50:00- In hindsight it’s obvious there’s more to Yoda than meets the eye, but Oz does a great job making him unassuming, especially since we (and Luke) assume a Jedi master would be an imposing warrior figure closer to Obi-Wan.
  • 53:40- “He will join us or die, master.” The knowledge that Luke is Vader’s son makes this line even more chilling. Vader is so ruthless that he will sacrifice his own son if Luke won’t join him in his quest for power.
  • 54:45- Yoda practically spells it out for Luke that he’s the Jedi master Luke is looking for when he talks about Luke’s father, which makes Luke’s impatience and stubbornness all the more obvious and shows how deeply he failed Yoda’s test of him. Luke has found purpose, but he has much to learn about the ways of the Jedi beyond being able to wield a lightsaber.
  • 56:00- Yoda sums up Luke’s personality quickly and with brutal honesty: “All his life has he looked away to the future…never his mind on where he was.” If Obi-Wan gives Luke the weapon of the Jedi and helps him learn the basics of the Force, Yoda is the one who teaches him the Jedi philosophy and mindset, which is what ultimately separates Luke from Vader.
  • 59:50- “I am not a committee.” Leia refuses to let Han belittle her, even as they’re trying to escape a giant killer space slug in an asteroid.
  • 1:03:00- Luke repeatedly fails all of the tests he’s given in the movie, and it’s always for the same reason: Impatience and overconfidence. He can’t see Yoda is the master he’s looking for; he brings his weapons into the cave (ignoring Yoda’s admonishment) and ends up killing a vision of himself, thinking it’s Vader; he can’t bring his X-Wing out of the swamp; and he ultimately loses to Vader in their final encounter. Only in “Return of the Jedi” does he learn to rein in his emotions, though not before almost failing in the worst possible way.
  • 1:13:45- Han hiding the Falcon by attaching the ship to one of the Star Destroyers is a nice move, and it fits with his nature as a former smuggler.
  • 1:18:30- Cloud City is a genuinely inspired location. And the first shot of it ahead of the setting sun as the Falcon flies in is a great visual.
  • 1:20:00- Billy Dee Williams is great as Lando. With knowledge of what comes later, it’s clear his charm is a smokescreen meant to disarm Han and Leia, but Williams still pulls it off with aplomb.
  • 1:21:00- 3PO getting blown to pieces by an unknown assailant is an immediate clue that Cloud City is not as hospitable as it appears.
  • 1:22:00- “I feel the Force.” “But you cannot control it.” Obi-Wan spells out Luke’s arc in the movie here, but it’s still a good moment.
  • 1:24:30- “That boy is our last hope.” “No; there is another.” You can argue about whether it was a good move to eventually reveal that Luke and Leia are siblings, but it’s set up here, even if it isn’t revealed until “Jedi.”
  • 1:27:15- It’s been foreshadowed, but Vader just sitting at the table waiting for Han, Leia and Chewie before shrugging off Han’s blaster shots is a great power move.
  • 1:30:00- Lando does try to help Leia and the others as best he can, given the circumstances. He’s one of the few characters in the series who operates (at least for a while) in shades of grey, especially since Han is now firmly on the side of the good guys.
  • 1:34:00- Han is the calm one even as he’s being led to the carbon freezing chamber. It’s a good moment for him.
  • 1:34:55- “I love you.” “I know.” One of the great unscripted moments in movie history, perfectly delivered.
  • 1:37:00- “I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further.” Only one person gets to tell Vader what to do, and it’s not Lando.
  • 1:40:00- The lightsaber fights definitely get better as the series goes. The duel between Obi-Wan and Vader in “A New Hope” was great from a dramatic standpoint, but the fight choreography is somewhat lacking, whereas the Luke/Vader fight in “Empire” is both convincingly staged and has a big dramatic payoff.
  • 1:44:00- Luke gets a couple good moments in his fight against Vader, but the scene where Vader just starts throwing stuff at him with the Force and beating him up shows how out of his depth Luke really is. Vader is essentially toying with Luke.
  • 1:50:10- “No; I am your father.” I don’t think I was old enough to appreciate the big reveal when I first saw “Empire.” Finding out your father is a monster who’s slaughtered countless people at the behest of an oppressive regime just doesn’t quite register when you’re 10 or 11. I understand it better from a dramatic perspective now, and it’s an important moment for Luke in his growth as a character, but it just doesn’t have the same emotional heft it should. That’s not the movie’s fault, but it’s an undeniable factor in how I feel about it, if that makes sense.
  • 1:56:30- “Ben, why didn’t you tell me?” Luke is shattered by his experience on Cloud City, so he reaches out to the one person he counts on most for answers, even after finding out Obi-Wan hid the truth from him.
  • 1:59:30- We’re definitely at a low point for our heroes, but the shot of them looking out as Lando and Chewie set out to find Han tells us that there’s still hope.

Wrap-up: I definitely think I have a greater appreciation for “Empire” after this viewing. It’s still not my favorite of the original trilogy, but I feel like going back and really looking at what the movie was trying to accomplish gives me a better understanding of it. “The Empire Strikes Back” does what all good sequels should try to do, which is add new depth to the characters while expanding the world in interesting ways. I don’t think it’s necessary that every middle entry in a trilogy be the “dark” or downer one, as has often been the case post-“Empire,” but if you’re going to take that approach, this movie shows you how to do it right.

‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 1: ‘Star Wars’/’A New Hope’

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Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: It’s hard to put into perspective just how massive a movie “Star Wars” (later titled “A New Hope”) is and how much change it wrought upon the film landscape. While “Citizen Kane” is the movie that most cinephiles would cite as the “greatest” movie of all time based on technical acumen (though many of those same cinephiles ignore how great a story “Citizen Kane” tells), “Star Wars” is unquestionably the most influential movie in terms of how the industry works today. For better or worse, you can thank George Lucas and his crazy idea (big-budget, science fiction blockbusters like this were nowhere near the norm in 1977 when the movie was released) for our franchise-driven, superhero- and science fiction laden movie landscape today. But “Star Wars” still stands the test of time; in fact I’d argue it’s the best standalone movie of the franchise, in part because Lucas didn’t know if there would be a franchise when he made it. All of the other “Star Wars” movies are made with the knowledge of future installments; for this first entry, Lucas put everything he had into this one shot at greatness. And he delivered. Let’s get this party started.

Movie diary (I’ll be noting the run time of the movie as I jot down my notes):

  • 00:00- God, that John Williams score. You could argue Williams’ work on “Close Encounters of the Third Kid,” which came out the same year as “Star Wars,” is the better score in terms of pure craftsmanship, but there is no more iconic theme in all of movie history than the “Star Wars” title music.
  • 2:30- The model work in “Star Wars” still holds up more than 40 years later. The iconic shot of Princess Leia’s ship being chased by the massive Star Destroyer instantly sets up the Empire as an imposing force.
  • 4:30- Vader’s first entrance is a great moment. The change in score from the frantic battle music to the more subdued, ominous theme is a great touch, and his respirator noise is chilling. An unforgettable entrance for an unforgettable villain.
  • 6:00- Holy smoke, I can’t keep going at this rate. I’ll try to slow down.
  • 6:15- I lied. Given her passing, it’d be cruel to ignore Carrie Fisher’s first appearance as Princess Leia. Leia definitely gets more depth as the series goes, but she’s headstrong, forceful and capable from the get-go. Leia’s theme is also a nice change of pace from the bombast in much of the rest of the movie.
  • 10:30- C-3PO and R2-D2’s misadventures on Tattooine is a great bit. The droids are very much our point-of-view characters in “Star Wars,” in that they’re bit players caught up in bigger events unfolding around them, and their contentious friendship rounds them both out. Props to Tony Daniels (3PO) and Kenny Baker (R2)
  • 15:00- The contrast between the tiny Jawas and their giant Sandcrawler is a fun visual gag, and I’ve always liked the massive industrial design of the Sandcrawlers.
  • 17:00- Luke gets the first recurrence of the title music when we see him. Here’s our hero, about to set out on his journey.
  • 18:00- “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done.” Even in galaxies far, far away, adolescents still have chores and parental figures to chafe against. The relationship between Luke and his aunt and uncle is sketched out quickly and efficiently. He clearly cares for them, but like all adolescents he yearns to escape his familiar surroundings and find himself. We’ve got a pretty good grasp of his psychology within just a couple minutes of meeting him.
  • 20:47- “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Great little mystery to tease the audience after the hectic battle scene and the Jawas sequence. And the hologram is a nice bit of special effects, especially for 1977.
  • 23:15- The look between Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru tells us there’s more to Obi-Wan Kenobi than they let on. Nice way to build mystery without derailing the main narrative thread.
  • 25:20- Lucas doesn’t get much credit as a visual stylist, but the shot of Luke watching the setting suns as he gazes out in longing says a lot with no words at all. It helps that Williams is crushing it with the music, but it’s a gorgeous shot.
  • 29:50- The late, great Sir Alec Guinness was never really comfortable with the fame he got for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he’s really good in the part. He’s got the gravitas necessary to convincingly play an aged warrior monk, with plenty of wit (“He’s not dead; not yet”) and pathos as well. You can trace a line from Guinness in “Star Wars” to Ian McKellen in “Lord of the Rings” and all of the great British actors in the likes of “Harry Potter” and other big franchises.
  • 33:00- The first activation of Luke’s lightsaber makes it so damn cool. Everyone who saw this movie instantly wanted one. Hell, I still want one.
  • 38:20- “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” James Earl Jones, for the win.
  • 40:00- Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s deaths still sting. It’s a credit to how the scene is staged and how well the actors did to create a convincing relationship with Luke, even with limited screen time. It’s much more tragic than, say, Rey’s backstory in “The Force Awakens” (another desert orphan) because we’ve actually seen what Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru mean to Luke. Lucas gets a lot of flak for being a bad writer, and he definitely struggles with dialogue, but he’s always excelled with pure story structure, which counts for a lot (and is something J.J. Abrams could use more of).
  • 44:00- The Mos Eisley cantina. It’s a whole galaxy in and of itself. An absolutely fantastic bit of world building from Lucas and his team.
  • 46:00- The way Obi-Wan just nonchalantly deals with the guy harassing Luke in the cantina is a great touch. There’s clearly more to him than meets the eye, and the way he looks off the crowd and they go back to their business is a nice bit of humor.
  • 47:00- I want to someday be one quarter as cool as Harrison Ford is at first viewing in “Star Wars.” The man is unquestionably a born movie star.
  • 50:00- Han definitely shot first. He’s a smuggler who doesn’t care about honor; he cares about survival. His arc in the movie is learning to care about something other than himself, which makes him shooting Greedo without warning a good demonstration of his…let’s call it comfort with playing dirty.
  • 54:00- “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy.” Harrison Ford famously told Lucas “You can write this stuff, George, but you can’t say it,” but Ford sells even clunky lines like this. That’s what great actors do.
  • 56:00- Vader is definitely the main villain of the original trilogy, but the late Peter Cushing (resurrected digitally for “Rogue One”) makes Grand Moff Tarkin into a great secondary antagonist. His moment with Leia before Alderaan is destroyed is very well done.
  • 58:00- Luke’s exercises with the training droid as Obi-Wan looks on is a great way to visually illustrate how the Force works, along with Luke’s growing affinity for it. And Han’s skepticism fits perfectly with his character and his arc; even the smuggler who’s been all around the galaxy has things to learn.
  • 1:01:00- Technically sound doesn’t carry in space (no movie except maybe “2001: A Space Odyssey” has gotten that right), but the sound of the TIE fighters is great. Little details like that go a long way, and it’s a credit to the technical team on the movie.
  • 1:09:00- Once again, Han is motivated by a material reward to do the right thing when it comes to rescuing Leia (“I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit”). He clearly wants no involvement in the broader political conflict raging around him; he wants his ship and his paycheck. It makes his eventual turn to altruism all the more heroic.
  • 1:11:45- A bit of George Lucas trivia: Luke tells the detention center guards that Chewie is a transfer from cell block 1138, a reference to Lucas’ prior sci-fi movie “THX 1138,” the namesake of the THX sound company.
  • 1:13:30- “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” You’ll be missed, Carrie Fisher.
  • 1:15:00- All of the blaster shots in the various firefights were added in postproduction, which must have made shooting those scenes a little awkward for the actors. Even bit players like whoever played the Stormtroopers have to trust that the technicians will make what they’re doing look credible, because the actors are just pointing their prop weapons at their intended targets.
  • 1:17:30- The dianoga (the monster that grabs Luke in the trash compactor) continues to creep me out. It’s a great monster design, and a genuinely scary moment, especially coming after the more visceral gunfight just a minute or two prior.
  • 1:20:30- Being crushed to death is way up there on my list of ways not to die, and the cross-cutting between Luke and the gang in the compactor and 3P0 and R2 elsewhere in the Death Star is really well done. And as always, Williams’ score gives it the extra boost of tension.
  • 1:26:00- First instance of the infamous Wilhelm scream during Luke and Leia’s fight with the Stormtroopers as they try to cross the chasm.
  • 1:28:15- “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” One of Obi-Wan’s many instances where what he says isn’t meant to be taken literally; if Vader kills him, he’s dead, but Obi-Wan’s death is part of what spurs Luke to become a Jedi and eventually defeat/redeem Vader.
  • 1:30:00- Obi-Wan’s death is also very well done. Luke’s scream clearly conveys the anguish he’s feeling, especially so soon after losing his uncle and aunt. It takes Obi-Wan’s ghostly voice to get Luke to leave the Death Star and not die in a blaze of glory taking down the Stormtroopers.
  • 1:32:00- The whole sequence where Luke and Han have to take out the TIE fighters is absolutely phenomenal. That is all.
  • 1:39:00- Luke and Han’s final confrontation before the battle against the Death Star is perfect; we see that Luke has found a purpose outside of farm life, and Han continues to resist, even if we see the façade crack at the end with “May the Force be with you” and “I know what I’m doing.”
  • 1:42:00- This final battle sequence is still unbelievably impressive, especially given the effects available at the time. Perfectly shot, perfectly scored, perfectly edited, great dramatic payoffs. All blockbusters should strive for this level of excellence.
  • 1:43:00- “Look at the size of that thing.” That’s what she said.
  • 1:52:00- Obviously the bulk of Luke’s Jedi training comes later, but it’s a great moment when Obi-Wan tells him to use the Force instead of his targeting computer as he nears the end of his Death Star trench run.
  • 1:53:00- Han saving the day is how you perfectly cap off a character’s dramatic arc. His cheer as he swoops in is so good, and then Luke takes the shot.
  • 1:55:00- The medal ceremony is a bit odd looking back, but again, Lucas had no idea if he was going to get a sequel when he made this movie, so it’s a good way to wrap things up while still leaving room for additional stories.

Wrap-up: As I said up top, it’s difficult to overstate what a profound change “Star Wars” wrought in the world of movies, and looking back even now it’s easy to see why. Beyond the then-revolutionary special effects, well-executed action scenes and incredible world building, this is a movie with a great story told through memorable, fun characters. Its foundation is a rock solid screenplay, and Lucas and his team brought it to life in incredible fashion. “Star Wars” was and remains the model for blockbuster storytelling.

‘Star Wars’ Revisited: Prologue

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Copyright Disney/Lucasfilm

Boy, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Short version: Right about the time I launched this blog last year, my life got very complicated and very busy. Combined with a sustained mental funk late in the year, any urge to write mostly vanished.

But things have turned around somewhat, and I finally have the time for a series I’ve had kicking around my mind for more than a year now: A personal re-evaluation of the “Star Wars” saga.

As I said in my inaugural post, “Star Wars” is my movie touchstone. While I had watched many movies before being exposed to “Star Wars,” it’s the series that began my deep love of movies, and I’ve returned to the movies many times over the years. This past October I wrote a piece analyzing the history of “Star Wars” fandom (one of the few things I wrote all last year), and that got me thinking again about rewatching the series in its entirety. The original plan was to do this ahead of “The Force Awakens” — yes, I was thinking about this project as far back as 2015 — but now I can include that entry as part of the series. I will not be including “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” as that movie is too recent for any sort of reappraisal and isn’t available for home viewing anyway.

So, here’s the plan: Starting on Monday, Jan. 9, I will watch one episode per day and post a blog that day. The tentative outline is to include a few thoughts prior to each viewing, then take notes as the movie plays before compiling everything into a running movie diary along with a postscript.

I will be watching the movies in the order of their theatrical release, meaning I’ll be starting with the original trilogy (“Star Wars”/”A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”) before circling back to the prequels (“The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”) and then jumping ahead to Episode VII (“The Force Awakens”). Why start in the middle? For one, that’s the order in which I viewed the movies. More importantly, the prequels and “The Force Awakens” are all responses to the first three movies, including thematic, visual and dialogue callbacks. To fully appreciate and understand how the “Star Wars” franchise has evolved over time, you have to look at the movies as they came out, not in the order of series chronology

These posts are not going to be reviews of the movies, strictly speaking. This doesn’t mean there won’t be analysis and discussion of the films, rather that it will be couched in different terms. I don’t need to tell you whether or not to see the “Star Wars” movies; they’re some of the most beloved movies of all time. This is about looking back at “Star Wars” as a whole and how different elements of the movies affect me now versus how they affected me on first viewing.

That’s all for now (consider this the opening title crawl that sets the stage, complete with the necessary John Williams accompaniment). Join me on Monday as we start this trip back through the galaxy far, far away.