REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith”

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When it comes to the prequels Star Wars mastermind George Lucas certainly saved his best for last. “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” is a fabulous final chapter to the sequels and a movie that stands firm on its own individual merits. Rewatching it I was reminded of just how much I enjoyed it not only during its initial release, but during every subsequent viewing.

Episode III begins three years into the Clone Wars. The opening sequence is an eye-popping rescue attempt in the atmosphere above Coruscant. Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been captured by General Grievous, the commander of the Seperatist’s droid army. Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) lead the successful rescue but fail to capture Grievous. It’s an exhilarating way to start the film full of action, stunning visuals, and some meaningful story nuggets. It also gets in some genuinely funny humor before the inevitable darker turn.

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 Lucas moves things along at a much faster pace than the previous two films mainly because he has a lot of ground to cover. Obi-Wan sets out to track down Grievous with hopes that his capture would end the war. Palpatine continues his quest for power through the manipulation of politics and war. But the Chancellor’s biggest target is Anakin who he secretly works to sway to the dark side. Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman) continue to hide their marriage which proves tougher after Padme reveals she is pregnant.

The sheer number of dangling story threads is pretty daunting but Lucas ties them up nicely and his management of both narrative and tone is superb. He keeps his focus and doesn’t wander off into needless side-stories. The movie stays centered on Anakin and those closest to him – Padme and Obi-Wan on one side, Palpatine on the other. We already know Anakin becomes Darth Vader and Lucas chronicles His turn in a powerful and often heart-breaking way.

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That doesn’t mean other key characters and plot points are overlooked. Yoda (so perfectly voiced by the great Frank Oz) gets some big moments as does Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu. Lucas answers questions concerning the Jedi Order, the Trade Federation, and of course a few bigger ones that directly connect to Episode IV. As a long time fan of the original three Star Wars pictures it’s pretty amazing to watch these two trilogies connect in such a satisfying way.

Several things take a step up from the previous film, most importantly the performances from Christensen and Portman. Christensen takes a huge step up which is impressive considering he is given much trickier material to work with. The range of emotions and the level of character transformation isn’t easy to pull off but he does a nice job. You’ll cringe at a couple of line deliveries but as a whole its a solid performance. Same with Portman who just feels more comfortable with her Character. McGregor is outstanding as is the conniving McDiarmid).

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 Even visually Episode III seems more focused. The special effects are simply stunning but we get none of those shallow sequences that feel like nothing more than a CGI showcase. Here everything serves the story, the environments, and the atmosphere. And of course you have John Williams. The man is a musical genius and has 51 Academy Award nominations to his credit. Star Wars fans know him best as his music has played pivotal roles in the storytelling for every Star Wars film (minus “Rogue One”). Episode III features some of his best work especially in the darker second half.

In case you can’t tell I still love “Revenge of the Sith” and that enthusiasm was only strengthened with this rewatch. It’s a fantastic conclusion to the prequels and a satisfying segue to the classic original films. It all but wipes away concerns for the previous episodes especially when watching them in succession and viewing them all as one 415-minute whole. They most definitely have a place in the Star Wars universe.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode II – “Attack of the Clones”

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For many the second film in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy holds a rather unflattering honor. More than a few consider it to be the worst movie in the entire franchise. As someone who truly loves the series to varying degrees, it’s hard for me to christen any of the films with such a title. But that doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to its flaws.

“Star Wars: Episode II – “Attack of the Clones” does hold a particularly surprising movie record for me. I saw it six times in the theater, more than any other film. Overkill? Perhaps. Star Wars fandom run amuck? Most definitely. I’ve seen it a few times since then but this recent rewatch was the first time in several years.

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“Attack of the Clones” takes place ten years after the events of “The Phantom Menace”. Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice Anakin Skywalker (now played by Hayden Christensen) are summoned to protect Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) after she narrowly escapes an assassination attempt. The former Queen of Naboo and now Senator holds a key vote in the decision whether or not to create an army to fight a growing Separatist movement.

For me one of Episode II’s biggest attractions (and often overlooked strengths) is in how it draws from numerous classic movie genres. It’s very much a political drama. But there is also a mystery element to it as Obi-Wan sets out to investigate and track down Padme’s potential assassin. We get winks to old-school fantasy pictures in the vein of “Sinbad” and “Clash of the Titans”. And of course the influence of war films, particularly World War II documentary footage, is clearly seen in the final act.

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I also think the writing deserves more credit than it receives (at least a portion of it). For me it’s a tale of two parts – the story and the dialogue. Lucas and co-writer Jonathan Halles give us a well-conceived story with tons of depth that moves the overall narrative forward in a satisfying way. I remain impressed with its numerous threads, none better that puppet-master Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and his secret, multi-layered quest for power.

But then there is the dialogue which ranges from good to atrocious. There are times in Episode II where the dialogue is painfully bad. We see it in a handful attempts at humor but mostly its in some of the film’s heavier scenes. Accentuating the problem is the fact that a couple of the performers haven’t the chops to overcome it. Christensen’s performance is all over the map. There are scenes where he is really good, but others he simply can’t sell and Lucas’ dialogue doesn’t help a bit. Portman is a little better but not much.

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Visually you can see Lucas and company flexing the new technology available to them in a variety of ways. There are a couple of scenes that feel like nothing more than showcases for the special effects – an overly long care chase through the city planet of Coruscant, a battle in a Geonosian droid factory. But the CGI can also look extraordinary and it often adds a ton to the settings and action sequences. The clone army battlefield scene is nothing short of spectacular.

Fans of Star Wars have some legitimate gripes about Episode II, but overall I think they often undervalue its contributions to the franchise. It advances the stories of its three pivotal characters in meaningful ways. It’s a technical marvel despite some visual overindulgences. Plus it supplied the framework for what was a fantastic television series “The Clone Wars”. Those are just a few of the key reasons Episode II still works for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”

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It’s the 20th anniversary of the first film in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. It landed in theaters on May 19, 1999 and fans still debate them today. What better time than now to rewatch and finally review these three fascinating movies.

There is perhaps no better monument to geekdom than the Star Wars franchise. Sure, Marvel’s MCU may have something to say about that, but it was George Lucas’ sprawling epic and personal cash cow that first leapt outside the bounds of movies and into television, novels, comic book series, and tons more. That doesn’t even count the loads of money brought in through toys and other merchandise. You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to appreciated Lucas’ monumental accomplishment starting back in 1977. “A New Hope” was ground-breaking in regards to its visual style and special effects. The film spawned two intensely popular sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”. But you already know that.

A jolt hit the Star Wars community in 1993 when Lucas announced he would be making a new trilogy, a prequel to the original three films. They would connect directly to the original trilogy and complete Lucas’ vision for the saga. In 1999, “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was released and I’m not sure any movie has ever released featuring more hype and scrutiny. Fanboys and critics alike looked for cracks and flaws in characterizations and continuity. And rarely did it escape comparisons to the original trilogy. This made judging Episode 1 on its own merits nearly impossible. But Episode 1 had a lot on its plate and while it may be among the weaker Star Wars pictures, after revisiting it yet again I found myself once again caught up in this universe I have always loved.

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Since Lucas’ intent was to connect the two trilogies into one cohesive saga, I was always curious to see how he would begin his tale. In Episode I, Lucas sets everything in motion by focusing on (of all things) politics as the biggest weapon of manipulation. It’s politics that is first used to kickstart the tragic events that we all know will unfold. Lucas also showcases the Jedi in their prime. We spend most of the time with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as they go from political negotiators to planet liberators. A young Natalie Portman plays a Naboo queen who has a major impact on future events. Another key part of the film is the introduction to Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd), a young child slave on Tatooine who we know later becomes Darth Vader. Lucas’ focus on Anakin in the first three films ends up reshaping the actual focus of the overall saga, and for my money in a good way.

As a whole, the structure of “The Phantom Menace” is pretty impressive. It was a daunting task to make three films that could directly connect to the beloved original trilogy and do so in a way that’s cohesive and that survives the mythological scrutiny from fans. Episode I does a nice job of putting its key characters in place while only occasionally getting bogged down in its first half table-setting. Rewatching it I was surprised by the narrative layers and interesting world-building. I like the political unpinning and see it as often undervalued and underappreciated.

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To no surprise several new characters are introduced. Some of them work really well while others, not so much. The dislike of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) has been well documented and understandable. Lucas overplays his hand by making the character nothing more than comic relief. Every scene and every line of dialogue seems aimed at nothing more than generating silly laughs. The result is an annoying and often distracting presence. On the flip side is the sinister Darth Maul, physically played by Ray Park and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz. Not only is he one of the coolest and most fercious looking Star Wars characters ever but his lightsaber fight with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon remains a highlight for the entire franchise.

With “The Phantom Menace” Lucas clearly wanted to show off the benefits of the new technology available to him. In many ways it’s a good thing but in other ways it works against the film. There are instances where the movie becomes a barrage of “watch this” CGI moments. There are several scenes that could have easily been left out and the film would have been better for it. But there are also scenes where the special effects present Star Wars in a dazzling new light. The pod race on Tatooine is breath-taking and the space sequences are amazing. Most of the CGI characters share the space well with human actors and fit flawlessly into their environments. It’s certainly a visual step up in many regards but at times a bit overkill (something that becomes clearer in the next film).

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And you can’t talk Episode I without mentioning the return of composer John Williams. He delivers yet another incredible score full of call-backs to the original trilogy and with new music that blends beautifully with the old.

“The Phantom Menace” has always been a satisfying Star Wars installment for me and nothing changed during my rewatch. It opens itself up to criticism through some shaky creative choices while other popular gripes don’t hold water (sorry, but I still don’t find Jake Lloyd insufferable). Most importantly it lays some intriguing groundwork, sparks more conversation between the Star Wars faithful, and offers a return to the magical universe I’ve loved since childhood. It may be flawed but it does what’s most important – it looks, sounds, and feels like a Star Wars picture.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Support the Girls”

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The trailer for Andrew Bujalski’s “Support the Girls” left me expecting an amusing but lightweight little indie comedy. Turns out I was selling it short. In addition to serving up some genuinely funny laughs, the film surprised me by revealing a ton of heart and an attention to its characters that I wasn’t expecting.

Writer-director Bujalski doesn’t worry too much with plot. Instead this is entirely character-based and follows an overloaded yet resourceful manager of a locally-owned Hooters-styled Texas sports bar. Her name is Lisa and she’s played by a delightful Regina Hall. Essentially she’s the glue that keeps Double Whammies together, whether she’s looking out for her staff of underpaid waitresses or trying to keep the overbearing oaf of an owner (James LeGros) satisfied.

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What makes Bujalski’s film work so well is the focus he puts on the bond of sisterhood. Hall gives one of last year’s truest and most lived in performances, strikingly authentic at every turn. Just as important are some of the wonderful supporting work specifically from Haley Lu Richardson (so brilliant in 2017’s “Columbus”). She plays the kind-hearted and always cheery Maci whose sudden bursts of air-headed energy make for some of the movie’s brightest moments.

Even with its layers of warmth and wit there is also a subtle undercurrent of heartache. Bujalski provides plenty of playful moments and certain characters have inherently entertaining personalities. But each have personal real-world problems to deal with – a fractured marriage, an abusive boyfriend, a single mother struggling with child care. And then there is shadow of uncertainty when it comes to their jobs, their futures, and so on.

The opening credits lets you know that the film is operating on a shoestring budget, but within five minutes I was already invested in this slice-of-life working class comedy. The characters aren’t punchlines nor do they feed into common stereotypes. This makes them interesting and worth our time even when they’re doing nothing more than their daily work routines. So I found it easy to believe in what “Support the Girls” was showing me. And while it may seem a bit light, I enjoyed my time with Lisa and her girls.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Shazam!” (2019)

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I feel the need to start off with a confession. After seeing the first trailer for DC’s “Shazam!” I pounced on the opportunity to voice my skepticism. It wasn’t due to a desire to be some kind of contrarian. I genuinely disliked DC’s decision to make a joke out of a truly iconic character. You could say I was armed and ready to push back hard on this movie.

Funny thing though, despite my prefabricated negativity, it was hard to hate on the trailer too much. It’s star Zachary Levi is a genuinely likable guy and it did sport some humorous ‘reluctant superhero’ moments. I kept thinking of Will Smith’s “Hancock” except actually funny. But enough about the trailer. What about the actual movie itself? Let’s say it lands somewhere in the middle.

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“Shazam!” is the seventh film in the DC Extended Universe and easily the most light-hearted of the bunch. The heads at DC Films seem to have panicked and pivoted to making their movies much more MCU-like instead of carving out a their own unique identity. I actually appreciated their darker and more serious tone as it offered a different flavor to the superhero genre.

David Sandberg, known more for his work in horror, directs from a screenplay written by Henry Gayden. He opens with a prologue featuring Djimon Hounsou as a wizard decked in full Gandalf the Grey garb. He basically serves as a crash course on the Shazam lore you’ll need for the two-plus hours that follow. We get things like the Rock of Eternity, the Eye of Envy, the Seven Deadly Sins each in monster form. You know, the normal stuff.

Now jump ahead to present day Philadelphia where teenaged Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has ran away from one foster family after another. Child services gives him one more chance, putting him in a group home ran by Victor and Rosa Vazquez (sweetly played by Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans). But Billy has no interest in a new family. Instead he’s intent on finding his birth mother who he was separated from as a child.

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The house is made up of a fairly interesting array of characters. None are particularly deep but they serve their purposes. His gabby, superhero enthusiast roommate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) gets most of the scenes. He’s a little annoying but proves to be a big help after Billy magically encounters the wizard from the prologue who imbues him superhuman powers in the form of a super-buff adult body (played by Zachary Levi). It’s Freddy who helps him sort through his crazy new abilities.

But every hero needs a villain, right? Mark Strong can make the silliest material seem menacing and here he plays Thaddeus Sivana, a power-hungry baddie with serious daddy issues. In the prologue we see him encountering the aforementioned wizard as a child. But he was deemed unworthy of the power Billy now possesses and has been seeking the way back to the wizard’s realm ever since. And once he gets wind of Billy, well he begins doing bad guy things.

While Strong’s performance is fun, as villains go the movie version of Sivana is pretty shallow. Instead of giving him any meaningful depth Sandberg digs his heels into the comedy element of his story. It turns out to be a double-edged sword. Some of the film’s most playful moments are its best. Take when Shazam/Billy and Freddy are going through their checklist of superpowers testing every one. And much of it too the smile-inducing “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.

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But eventually the whole ‘kid in an adult body’ wears a little thin. And when so much time is put into youthful frolicking, it’s hard to buy into his sudden shift to superhero. Not to mention the tonal clashes particularly as the movie transitions back-and-forth between Billy’s angle and Sivana’s. It’s tough to balance Shazam flossing (that’s a dance for you older folk) with a demon creature chomping someone’s head off.

There is no denying that “Shazam!” has charm and heart. You also can’t help but enjoy the fun and energetic Zachary Levi, padded suit and all. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the original Captain Marvel (sorry MCU, it’s true) deserved a better movie. A part of me thinks “Shazam!” would work better as an all-out spoof instead of attempting a balancing act. Then again I would probably push back on that even harder. So we are left with a fun but lightweight DC installment that uses a ton of humor to mask its otherwise noticeable flaws.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

 

RETRO REVIEW: “Spaceballs” (1987)

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Some movies are such a product of their time that you can’t help but wonder how they would hold up for modern audiences. Take Mel Brooks’ wacky science-fiction parody “Spaceballs”. It’s a movie that is so distinctly 80s it’s all but certain to push away some people seeing it today for the very first time. It’s one I’ve been anxious to give the Retro Review treatment.

Ever since first seeing it in the summer of 1987, “Spaceballs” was never among my favorite Mel Brooks comedies. And when put up next to his truly great films like “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” (I would also argue for “Silent Movie”), it’s pale in comparison.

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But that doesn’t mean “Spaceballs” is a bad film especially for those with their own nostalgic connections to the movie or the decade itself. It has several genuinely funny gags and it never passes over a chance to riff on all sorts of science-fiction movies. “Alien”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Star Trek”, and it’s most obvious target “Star Wars” all find their way into Brooks’ comedic crosshairs.

From the opening crawl (ala “Star Wars”) it’s crystal clear this is Mel Brooks leaning heavily into some of his more absurdist humor. As the story goes Planet Spaceball is running out of fresh air so its buffoonish President Skroob (Brooks) devises a plan to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the nearby planet Druidia. He’ll only set her free if her father King Roland (a hilariously cast Dick van Patten) hands over the keys to Druidia’s plentiful air supply.

To carry out his nefarious scheme Skroob calls on the villainous (and utterly preposterous) Dark Helmet. He is hilariously played by the least menacing actor Brooks could have cast – Rick Moranis. But just as everything seems to be going according to plan, in flies renowned space scoundrel-for-hire Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and his furry sidekick/best friend Barf (John Candy). Their mission is to rescue the princess and save Druidia from being destroyed.

As much as I love the 80’s and have a soft spot for so many movies from the decade, I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that “Spaceballs” hasn’t aged particularly well. It goes without saying the effects are well below today’s standard but that’s expected and easy to look past. In fact you could easily argue that the old-fangled visuals are part of its charm. But at times it’s the humor itself that feels terribly out of date (will any younger viewers recognize Michael Winslow and the Doublemint Twins?). And Brooks sometimes gets a little lazy, leaning too much on juvenile humor often filled with cheap double entendres.

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While there is an inconsistency to the comedy, there are also times where you can’t help but enjoy the unbridled goofiness. I still laugh at Pizza the Hutt, the wise and pointy-eared Yogurt, and Dark Helmet’s collection of oversized headgear. We get other really fun jokes that break the fourth wall and poke fun at filmmaking, merchandising, and big franchises.

“Spaceballs” first hit theaters during the 10th anniversary of the original “Star Wars”. Over time it has developed a fairly devout cult following despite hardly being considered as some of Mel Brooks’ best work. For me the nostalgic pull is undeniable even after all these years. At the same time I fully admit that it’s hard to see the movie the same way I did over thirty years ago.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars