Saturday, May 21, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sci-Fi Violence and Light Saberplay

Preconceived Notions: Ep. I was imaginitive, Ep. 2 dragging, hopefully we can build up steam. And at last we get reacquainted with Darth Vader.
The Bottom Line: Why couldn't the first two have been this good?

Complete, this saga is. A bridge to the past, we have crossed. Enough Yodaspeak. A lot of people dumped on Episode I because they didn't find it emotionally satisfying or witty enough. Patience, young Jedi. One must understand the full workings of The Force. It took three episodes to get there, but at last, we're there.

Episode III is more of what every Star Wars film has excelled at and less of everything it has sucked at. It is a tragedy fueled by love and lust for power. At times it is profoundly sad and sadly profound. Many have already written about parallels to the War On Terror and the U.S.-Iraq conflict, even though Lucas denies it as an influence. He was more influenced by Vietnam. But then again, our angst over Iraq parallels Vietnam, so everything's connected.

Episode III wastes no time pluging into action, including an over-the-top rescue mission involving Anakin Skywalker (Christensen), Obi-Wan Kenobe (McGregor) and R2-D2, that little droid who could. Saving kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) begins to accelerate Anakin's decent to the dark side, as he is seduced by the promise of power greater than he has ever known -- and Palpatine can show it all to him. His motives, however, are not for himself but for the protection of Padme (Portman), the former queen who's now about to become a mother. Anakin senses she will not survive childbirth, and it haunts him constantly. At the same time, he is growing impatient and suspicious of the Jedi council, fueled by the plotting of Palpatine. Both sides want Anakin's help in thwarting disaster, and it is no wonder this young man is left confused and vulnerable. Unfortunately, the dark side proves too powerful, as we all know.

George Lucas wrote Episode I, without the dialogue spark of his first efforts. Episode II improved things somewhat, and III improved them much more. Much talk still has the nuance of an earth mover, but at least the corny, shallow romance and longwindedness is gone. And yes, people, Jar-Jar is still there, but he only appears in one scene -- with no dialogue. At least we get to see Chewbacca. (I really miss Han Solo.) This film actually says things in its sit-down scenes, and I liked it.

As for the effects, what can you say about a franchise that redefined the art? Lucas takes us to new places and re-mixes everything we've seen. Even the light saber battles have new jawdropping twists. And don't forget the showdown between Obi-Wan and Anakin on a burning planet. But frankly, I didn't watch this film for the effects. I wanted to understand how this Jedi Knight Anakin gets caught up in the Axis of Galactic Evil. Now I do.

If Episodes I and II made me hungry for sequels, it was because I knew something better was coming -- something had to be better than this. If Episode III leaves you hungry, it's because you've become involved in the storyline. You want to know what happens to these people, especially Anakin, now Darth Vader. Love him or hate him, you can't help but feel some sort of sympathy for him now.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Graphic Martial-Arts Violence, Language, Brief (female) Nudity

Preconceived Notions: Jet Li gets to kick some butt as a killing machine.
The Bottom Line: Even the meanist dog has a heart.

Unleashed breaks a cardinal rule of action flicks. It has warmth and feelings. And that doesn't mean a horny throwaway sex scene, although that's nearly here. For this film, it's a man discovering a world outside his violent existence as somebody's bitch.

Yes, I used that word correctly. Okay, nearly correctly. The gender doesn't fit but everything else does. Li plays Danny, who's been turned into an attack dog -- right down to the collar he wears when he's not attacking somebody. He's fed like a dog, caged like a dog, and sicced on people like a dog. Bart is his master (Hoskins, in a deliciously evil role), a loan shark who bangs around Glasgow, Scotland, siccing Danny on anybody who hasn't paid up. When you don't pay up, the collar comes off, and Danny puts some serious hurt on you and whatever tough guys you throw at him.

For all Danny knows, he is a dog, with some fuzzy memories of the boy he once was. When the collar is on, he's not much different than a frightened puppy, laconic and shy of people. One day, Danny is standing around alone in an antique shop, surrounded by pianos, waiting for his gangster owners to sic him on somebody when he recconects with a memory from his past. In strides Sam, (Freeman) a blind piano tuner with a heart more golden than Fort Knox. He coaxes Johnny into helping him tune a piano, and soon, this dog will have his day as he's taken in to a new family.

The rest of the film is divided between fight scenes and warmth scenes. I'll not describe them for you only to say that the warmth scenes put the fight scenes in a different light. Usually in martial-arts films, you're rooting for the tough-guy hero to smash the bad guys to bits. That doesn't change, but with an ounce of humanity stirred into the mix, this film yields a pound of compassion, and the brutality emerges for what it is.

I'm reminded of what Rex Reed said about John Wayne in The Cowboys: "Old Dusty Britches can act." Well, Jet Li can act too. This may not be the role of his career, but it's certainly a notch above what I've seen from him so far. Somebody give him a shot at a film without the martial arts.

Parts of Unleashed come together a little too perfectly. It's annoying at times to watch Freeman have all the answers like Obi-Wan Kenobi. The characters also sidestep logicial decisions, such as maybe realizing Danny needs professional help when he hides under the bed and slurps his soup like a cocker spaniel. However, as Sam himself points out, he doesn't ask many questions. I didn't either.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Kingdom Of Heaven

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Eva Green
Rated: R
Red Flags: Ye Olde Copious Violence

Preconceived Notions: Troy, Alexander, and now this Crusades epic.
The Bottom Line: Oh it's beautiful, but get me the scissors. It's time to start cutting.

Director Ridley Scott's latest is about passionate people with passionate beliefs fighting passionate battles filmed with passionate attention to detail. And yet this film lacks so much passion, except in spurts. Worship service at my parents' church has more heart and soul as this film plods along. At times I thought this film could have been called Kingdom of Heaven's Gate, with its sprawling length and mess of multiculturalism.

Bloom is Balian, a blacksmith who's just lost his wife and child. He's estranged from his father, Godfrey (Neeson), who's gone looking for his son after years fighting in one of the many battles of the Crusades. Reluctantly, Bailian follows his father back to Jerusalem, where he is knighted as his father's last act before dying.

Jerusalem's populations of Christians, Jews and Muslims are holding together under a leper King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton). He and the knight Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) defend a shaky truce between crusading knights and Muslims. However, one all-balls-and-no-brains boor of a knight Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) is just itching for a fight to kick out anything without a cross. But attempts to raise hell are futile as long as the king is alive and willing to negotiate with the Muslims led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).

However, there's a woman conveniently involved. Sibylla (Green) is Baldwin's sister, heir to the throne with the power to make Guy king. So you can see what's coming just like the great armies in the distance. Yet she loves Bailian, and would marry him if given the chance, which Baldwin is eager to give to stave off Guy getting his seat on a throne.

Bailian, however, needs to be pounded out like the iron he once hammered. Here a man, still obviously in mourning, who doesn't seem to know where his center of gravity is until three-quarters of the way through the picture when he finally delievers his Great Heroic Speech. It's supposed to be a powerful moment, and it is, but more for what it isn't. Bailian doesn't give a sermon but a reality check: "We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended." This is where the film shines, when this unlikely knight rises above the radicalism to bring people together. Bloom's character, I should point out, doesn't owe his allegiance to God but rather to defending the helpless.

Much of the strife between Christians and Muslims can be traced back to the Crusades, but Kingdom Of Heaven misses a chance to probe the radicalism, merely saying, "It's God's will," when necessarily. God's Will is used more like an excuse than a bedrock belief. It's God's Will people live. It's God's Will people die. It's God's Will people fight. It's God's Will people surrender. But really, the trouble is that people are cloaking their own ambitions as God's Will.

Kingdom stages battles impossible to get on film without CGI. Gargantuan armies attack and throw firebombs. The attack scenes on Jerusalem are electrifying, along with one earlier scene where the Christian and Muslim armies meet and nearly come to attack.

The film runs a bloated 2 hours and 25 minutes. Twenty-five minutes less and you could've come away with a more dynamic film, still beautifully photographed, and heaven knows more passionate.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Idol Chatter

Media Professor and game-show guru Steve Beverly has a great analysis of ABC's Fallen Idol report. A colleague of mine asked "Who cares?" if Paula Abdul was doing Corey Clark. Beverly compares it to offering performance-enhancing drugs. What puzzles me is why Fox hasn't tried to get to the bottom of various problems with the telephone voting on this show, including one foul-up which required a sing-over earlier this season. To me, that's more scandalous than anything between Corey and Paula. Also note Beverly's insightful comparisons with the 50's quiz-show scandals -- and why this show isn't in the same league as Twenty-One.