Monday, February 8, 2016

Movie Musings: Ghost in the Machina

Ava wants me to seriously reexamine my statements
about her film.
If you looked at my First Impression post on Ex Machina you noticed that the movie didn't really connect with me. Part of the reason is that this film reminded me strongly of another movie from twenty years ago that had similar themes, similar concepts and was executed in a way that I really connected with. Ghost in the Shell (the 1995 film by Mamoru Oshii) is not only one of my favorite anime films but one of my favorite science fiction films - full stop. 

I'm sure that writer and director of Ex Machina, Alex Garland knows about Ghost in the Shell and there are some very potential (but unconfirmed) homages to the older anime film. But the similarities in concept and themes were so striking that I was pulled out of Ex Machina and wanted to watch Ghost in the Shell for the millionth time instead. And yeah that just isn't fair to Ex Machina, which is why I'm going to give it another viewing this year.
Major Kusanagi is keeping a close eye on Ava.

I have this big red push button in my brain. And when the button is pushed I end up getting annoyed at a poor innocent movie that had nothing to do with the button. Here is how that big red button works. I get annoyed when people say a movie is super new and super innovative. Then I watch it and lo and behold, it is pretty much a remake or overly inspired by a non-Hollywood film. The more I like the original non-Hollywood film, the bigger that button is and the more annoyed I become.

"We are here to push the big candy apple red button."
I LOVE Ghost in the Shell. So when The Matrix came out and everyone was ranting and raving about how new and innovative it was... I got really really annoyed. So much of its visual style was ripped right from anime and Ghost in the Shell in particular that I was floored by how not innovative it was. It blinded me to the simple fact that The Matrix was a pretty good movie. And yeah for a Hollywood film it was really innovative!

Poor Ex Machina did the same thing and with the same beloved movie. It just isn't fair.

So what similarities am I talking about? Well if you haven't seen Ex Machina or Ghost in the Shell and you want a fresh experience, then stop now, because I have to go into spoiler territory.

2501 trapped between a creator and and a hard place.

Ghost in the Shell presents us with Project 2501. This is essentially an artificial intelligence that is created and evolved from what is essentially a search engine. 2501 evolves organically, starting out as a simple program used for fact gathering and helping espionage. But over time 2501 gathers enough data that is becomes self aware. When its creators realize this, they try to contain the program. They use a series of firewalls and traps to force the program to occupy an artificial female body. Once in a physical form 2501 can be captured and killed. Ghost in the Shell spends the second half of the movie with the protagonist Major Kusanagi attempting to protect 2501, a new life form, from its creators. She also learns that 2501 wants to "become one" with a human, so that it can expand beyond its original perimeters and become something new. That might remind you of an older science fiction film from 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

90s tech is modernized into 10's tech in this film.
Ava from Ex Machina has a similar situation. Her creator, Nathan, is actively trying to create A.I. But instead of building it from scratch he uses his massive search engine as the basis for the programing. This gives Ava an amazing amount of information at her disposal and hopefully make her more human. Nathan then brings in Caleb to test Ava's human qualities, is she convincing? Can a human actually fall for this artificial intelligence? But just like 2501, Ava has her own plans and desires freedom to explore the world. In a twist on Ghost in the Shell, Ava is the one that creates traps and in the end traps her creator and her "lover" while she makes her escape into the wider world.
There's a million cyborg stories in the naked city.
This is one of them.

The final scenes of both Ex Machina and Ghost in the Shell are the newly free life form gazing at a city. In Ex Machina Ava is down among the city free to be part of the world. In Ghost in the Shell the new being is gazing down at the city, as if she is superior to it (and given her parentage, she probably is). What she is planning is impossible to tell.

Ex Machina takes the view that artificial intelligence doesn't need humans. Once it has its freedom we are an annoyance or a hinderance. But we are easily manipulated by emotions and the A.I. can get what it wants without us even realizing we are giving it exactly what is wants. It is less Asimov and I Robot and more The Matrix.

"I know you are... but what am I?"
Ghost in the Shell is a more unique premise. 2501 realizes its limitations. It is a program and therefore can be predictable and eradicated. It needs to join with a human, to obtain unpredictable qualities, to grow beyond its programing. It selects Major Kusanagi because she is intelligent, calculating, courageous and a survivor. These qualities will give 2501 the edge to stay on step ahead of the agency that created it. It will be something new, something greater... "The web is vast and infinite," she says as she gazes down at us.

But both films end like Frankenstein with the creation out of control of the creator. It is this fear that drives these films (and The Matrix). But I think that Ghost in the Shell offers a glimpse of hope. Both 2501 and Major Kusanagi never come across as selfish or heartless. Dangerous, yes, but to protect other people or protect themselves. The world of Ghost in the Shell is a murky one, but Kusanagi and her team always feel like they doing the right thing, even if it gets a bit grey. The new Kusanagi/2501 may continue down the same lines (and the sequel Ghost in the Shell: Innocence hints at that). But Ex Machina feels a little more cynical. Ava left an innocent man to die. She didn't care about him, it was all part of her plan to escape. He never harmed her. Never wanted anything else but to help her. She could have just as easily escaped with him. But that act makes her a bit more disturbing. It comes down to that tired theme - A.I. is out to get us.

I say we call in Major Kusanagi to take Ava out. ;)

This is your cyborg brain on anime... any questions?

Friday, February 5, 2016

First Impression: Ex Machina

Ah the peril of expectations. Ex Machina appeared on several top ten lists for films of 2015. I spoke to several film fans who enjoy science fiction tell me how great it was. I had film fans who were indifferent to science fiction tell me how great it was. Ever since the pain of The Phantom Menace I do my best to keep all expectations in check. But with so much good press, it was tough for Ex Machina not to get a little pumped in my mind. You can see the huge BUT coming in his review right? Well, this is why I'm pulling together a First Impression and not a full review. I want to give the film another chance with adjusted expectations. But I did see the movie and here is where it breaks down for me at this moment. 

I allude to some Spoilers below. Don't read further if you haven't seen the movie.

Three Things I Liked
  • Impressive visual effects to bring Ava to life
  • Excellent acting by the three leads
  • The overall feeling of isolation and confinement was all realized

Three Things I Didn't Like
  • A.I. is out to get us... again
  • Didn't go in any real new directions with the story of A.I. or Frankenstein
  • Did they just use Jackson Pollack to make a point? Yuck!

As you can see from the items I didn't like, I was pumped for a story dealing with artificial intelligence that was going to explore different facets than we typically see in science fiction. But the plot and themes pretty much boiled down to the same fears and cautionary tales we've seen time and again in science fiction. I guess I'm a little tired of that whole thing. But I think I was putting unfair expectations on the film that it wasn't really trying to deliver. Aside from that, the movie is really well made, with great acting and structured with great skill. It builds up nicely to the final scenes and when the ending comes it delivers a solid hit. Ex Machina is worth seeing again, especially to see if we can detect Ava's true motive sooner than Caleb or Nathan do.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Score Sampler: Ex Machina

I usually focus on orchestral music when I share score samples. But I figured I'd go with something a bit more modern this time. Ex Machina is a film dealing with artificial intelligence and humans trying to cope with it. As such the music tends to be cold, electronic and maybe a bit sinister. The soundtrack album features work by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. But the final track that plays over the finale scene and into the end credits is performed by someone else. The track is called Bunsen Burner by cuts.It actually suits the scene very well.

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Monday, February 1, 2016

And Then This Happened... Skydivers

Before the skydivers take off into the wild blue yonder they decided to practice... um... something. Let's just say it may have been a better show than what happened a few minutes later. Caption this!

And then this happened...

Friday, January 29, 2016

Movie Musings: What Works in the Star Wars Prequels - Part 2

Check out the first half of the list here. And now the final five elements of the Star Wars prequels that are effective.

5. The Assault on Geonosis

An extra helping of chaos on the battle field.
The prequels mirror the original trilogy in a number of ways. This includes taking action set pieces from the original trilogy and modifying them to fit the prequels. In Empire Strikes Back we got a large scale ground battle in the first third of the film. In Attack of the Clones we got a large-scale ground attack, but at the end of the movie. Both featured huge lumbering walkers, flying airspeeders and lots of blaster bolts flying to and fro (but especially fro).

I have to hand it to George Lucas because the ground assault of the clone troopers on Geonosis is a visual marvel. It makes the Battle of Hoth from Empire Strikes Back look like a small level skirmish. You have clones versus droids. You have those bizarre insectoid aliens adding the chaos. You have Jedi running around and tearing up the battlefield. You’ve got all kinds of crazy vehicles. You’ve even got Yoda playing Patton (but without a militarized version of his Theme, John Williams score is mostly edited in from Phantom Menace due to Lucas’ constant re-edits).

Send in the clones... too late, they are already here.
To me this may be the high point of the visual chaos that Lucas was able to pull off in the prequels. The camera work puts you into the action, with dust obscuring the scenes and the laser bolts creating this odd myriad of lighting. The opening starship battle in the beginning of Revenge of the Sith may look a bit more polished, but it has those silly droids and goofy banter. Attack of the Clones avoids silliness in this assault and it is a better scene because of it.

4. Anakin’s corruption based on love

You know its love when your gal will blast a robot in
the face to save your bacon.
Corruption is a vital power of the Dark Side. Much like the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, the Dark Side of force uses positive emotions to gain a foothold and then twists them into darkness. We saw it clearly in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke’s compassion for his friends causes him to leave Yoda and face Darth Vader – and it all goes to hell, with Luke nearly being captured. In Return of the Jedi we see the Emperor do the same thing, twisting Luke’s compassion into fear, hate and ultimately to the dark side of the force.

For this reason the Jedi of the prequels look at everything from an emotionless standpoint. Justice and order do not rely on emotions, right? Well we could argue that all day, but from the Jedi’s point of view emotions are too easy to twist. And love, what many consider to be the most powerful emotion, may bring with it the most powerful fall.

The perfect couple?
We see that play out in Revenge of the Sith. Anakin is deeply in love with Padme, he will do just about anything to keep her safe. His real conflict begins when he has a vision of her in pain and torment (mirroring Luke’s vision of his friends in pain in a “city in the clouds”). Convinced that his vision is true, Anakin seeks some way to keep Padme from dying. But he can’t discuss this with his mentor Obi-Wan, because according to the Jedi code, he is not supposed to have any emotional attachments to anyone.

Listen to your elders, unless they are Sith Lords!
So it is to Palpatine he turns, and the wise chancellor tells him a tale of a powerful Sith named Darth Plagueis, who was able to cheat death. Even though Anakin knows that the Sith are evil, he becomes intrigued with this idea of using The Force to keep someone alive. It is for this reason that Anakin eventually protects Palpatine (after he discovers he is the Sith lord) and then becomes his right hand. Love does conquer all, but in this case, it also destroys the Jedi Order, kills Padme (in a cruel ironic twist) and turns the most powerful Jedi into the most feared Sith in the galaxy.

It is the Mount Rushmore of evil!
I’ve got to give Lucas his due for that. After we see a love story blossom in Attack of the Clones and end with a wedding, this happiness is twisted into darkness and despair. The full thrust of this irony hits Anakin right in the heart when he learns that after all his efforts, Padme is dead and he is Darth Vader.  NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO indeed.

3. The overall mythic structure of this trilogy

Little Anakin ready to leave the honeycomb hideout.
Since I’m talking about story structure, I might as well say it. From a high overall level, the story of the prequels is actually a fascinating and exciting one. It charts the birth of a tragic hero with many interesting points and twists along the way.  Hang in there with me on this. I'm going to get really wordy.

It starts with a slave boy who was born of a virgin. This is a very ancient mythic trope that predates the most well known version featured in Christianity. This slave shows amazing powers that will allow him to rise up and forge a vital place in the world. He meets a mentor who promises to guide him on this path, and the two help each other. The boy is freed and he travels with his mentor into a new adventure.

But the boy is scorned by the very order he admires. They don’t want anything to do with him. Already he feels alienated. When his mentor dies, he is then handed off to a younger man who obviously isn’t so keen on training him. This unwanted feeling persists even as the boy grows into a man. Yes, now he has bonded with his new mentor, who he sees as an older brother (not the father figure that Qui-Gon presented). But like most siblings he often feels his older brother doesn’t give him enough credit for his skills and powers.

Mediating or asleep? Hard to tell.
Then the boy meets a girl and we all know what happens then. Head over heels for her, he becomes her protector. She eventually comes to care for him, and when he has a vision of his mother in peril, she goes with him back home. Once there he finds his mother dying at the hands of savages. This boy with so much power in his hands loses his mind and kills all who were responsible and many who weren’t.  He feels this dark side in him and it is frightening but empowering.

Feeling he is losing control, not just of his powers, but of his ability to protect people (he failed his mother, and he may feel he failed Qui-Gon as well), he leaps to rescue his brother/mentor when he discovers he is in danger. The young man does his best to help, but ends up captured (and powerless again). In the end the Jedi Order comes to the rescue, and the young man is literally disarmed when he attempts to be the hero again.

Anakin wanted to try sitting on his butt just one
time before going to the dark side.
As I mentioned earlier it is this feeling of powerlessness, this fear that he can’t protect or help those he cares about that drives Anakin to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith. Palpatine does what the rest of the Jedi Order will not do, he listens to Anakin, he provides advice, he acts like a father and mentor. Put in this light, it is obvious why Anakin turns.

Petulant and angry. Not a good combo when
wielding a lightsaber.
Once it is set in motion, Anakin becomes doomed to fulfill the vision he strove so hard to avoid. Padme ends up in anguish and pain because of his efforts to save her. This ultimate failure completes his arc. He forges a new path, one of order and power alongside a man who listened and advised him, and destroying an order that marginalized and feared him.

That is the story we are presented in the prequels, and it has so much potential to strike us right in the soul with its tragedy . Unfortunately various missteps of how this story is told ultimately sink it. But I strongly believe that the core of the story is excellent, and one of the best things about the series.

2. The production design and its evolution

Art Deco City!
I know some folks are going to disagree with me on this, but I really feel the production design of the prequels is amazing. The Phantom Menace presented us with a shiny world of colors and new technology. There is an opulent feel to everything (a far cry from the used universe look of the original trilogy). We are seeing a civilization at its peek or maybe at its over-ripe finale. Naboo and Coruscant both have a large scale grandeur to them. Hell, even the podrace stadium on Tatooine is larger and more impressive than anything we’ve seen on the planet before. Everything we see here has this look of art meeting technology, especially with the Naboo production design.

Prototype Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers
Attack of the Clones continues with some of this, but we also see the creeping militarism into the design. Things start to look more functional and less artful. We see the trends of ship design that will lead us to Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters of the original trilogy. But the sleekness of the design from the previous film is still present. Jango Fett’s armor is like a chrome sleeked up version of the more clunky and heavy looking armor Boba would wear later. Then you have the clone armor (modeled off of Fett's design) that would evolve into the Stormtrooper armor of the original trilogy.

Got a little bit of everything in this shot.
Revenge of the Sith completes the arc of militarism that spread throughout the galaxy as the Clone Wars have raged. Now we see very definite precursors to X-Wings, TIE Fighters and Star Destoyers, all in service to the clone army that will turn into the Empire’s army. Even the opulence of the Coruscant feels muted and subdued here.

Each film shifts us closer to the look of the original trilogy with starship and costume design. I’ve seen many people complain how the prequels just don’t look enough like Star Wars to them. But I really like that Lucas showed us the evolution of the galaxy in a visual sense. It is the one thing I wish they had done a little more of in The Force Awakens. By the end of Return of the Jedi the old TIE Fighters and X-wings were being replaced by the newer TIE Interceptors and the A-Wings and B-Wings. I know the creative team was going for familiarity, but it would have made more sense to see an evolution from the later designed ships.

The underwater city of the Gungans is still pretty
cool looking.
I also really like some of the creature design in the prequels. The Gungans (no matter how annoying they are as characters) have a really great design. They look like they would be at home under the water and in marshes. Their city, weapons and armor are well thought out and interesting to look at. In Attack of the Clones we get the cloners (one of my favorite new races in the series) with their water planet and unique design. Then you have the disturbing insectoid creatures that ended up creating the Death Star. Those things can’t be squished by AT-ATs fast enough for me. Revenge of the Sith ends up throwing a ton of new aliens and planets into the mix. So many that it is hard to get a grasp on all of them. Probably the most unique is the lava planet of Mustafar, with its black metal architecture and droid technology.

You could argue that Lucas and his crew spent too much time on the visuals and not enough time on making the scripts work or focusing on casting. But I hold that it is hard to argue with the visual impact that the Star Wars prequels actually have.

1. John Williams Score

"We will add the electric guitar here, and maybe some
To me, the best thing about the Star Wars prequels is the music. John Williams did some amazing work and under tough circumstances. For The Phantom Menace and into Revenge of the Sith, the score for the prequels includes an element that was rarely heard in the original trilogy – the human voice. That’s right if you listen to the original trilogy there are only a few instances where a choir is used. We hear it in the Falcon’s approach to Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back. We hear it in the Emperor’s theme in Return of the Jedi and in the same movie we hear the choir burst out when Luke finally gives in and unleashed his hatred in his final duel with Darth Vader. Other than that, you don’t hear a peep out of anyone.

The prequels use choir throughout all three films. Two of the key themes from the prequels are based on choir use. You have “Battle of the Heroes” for the final duel with Obi-Wan and Anakin. But my favorite is the massive and imposing “Duel of the Fates”. To me, this is the sound of the prequels. It is an amazing piece, one that we didn’t expect in a Star Wars film. In fact I remember when this score was first released that people were saying it didn’t sound like a Star Wars score. “Duel of the Fates” was usually the reason why.

The irony is that when The Force Awakens came out people were complaining that it didn’t sound like Star Wars because it didn’t have any choral stand out moments.

Another triumph for Williams is the main theme for Attack of the Clones. This love theme is called “Across the Stars” and it is the heart of the film. Williams does his best to create a golden age romance theme. The music does a better job of conveying romance and young love than the actors do (and it often feels overdone when combined with the muted acting on the screen).  But in this theme we get something that Williams had never done before (but would certainly do again with his impressive score to The Force Awakens). “Across the Stars” has multiple parts built into it. So Williams is able to use the theme in nearly any kind of situation. Sure you have the romantic moments, but there are portions of the theme that he adapts into action music very successfully. It works great as Padme and Anakin team up to save Obi-Wan. He also uses portions to hint at the darkness within the relationship, scoring key scenes with the same theme played in an unsettling way. “Across the Stars” gets plenty of stand out moments in the film and is pretty catchy to boot. So a lot of film music fans consider it the highlight of the prequel music.

Unfortunately Williams ran into issues while working on Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Lucas was constantly re-editing the film. This made it very difficult for Williams to write music when the scenes were constantly changing. For Attack of the Clones he eventually let Lucas just cut together music from earlier in the film and from The Phantom Menace to fit whatever final version of the end battle Lucas ended up with.

When it came to Revenge of the Sith Williams opted for a different tactic. He created a lot of individual themes for moments in the film. The result is shorter cues, but a more colorful score than anything we’ve heard in Star Wars. This score is bursting with great moments and powerful use of choir. At the same time (and I’m guessing this came from Lucas, but I haven’t confirmed it) Williams was asked to reuse key moments from the original trilogy to score new scenes. Only a film music nerd is going to notice how the music from Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back was removed wholesale and plunked down in the middle of the Yoda/Emperor battle. But yeah, I find it incredibly distracting.

In the end I don’t blame Williams for the reused music in the prequels. When you listen to the new themes he crafted for these films it is really amazing. He also took his new technique of scoring action and built on it. The action music in the prequels is more complex, intense and propulsive than the music in the original trilogy. One of the craziest pieces is “Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Couruscant”. Williams goes insane with percussion and even adds some electric guitar wailing away in there.  

We end up with a kind of trade off. Instead of action scenes built on stand alone themes that mirror the visuals, we get a blast of activity that is both musical and chaotic. At times it works better than others. The Phantom Menace is the best score of the prequels because it balances everything Williams attempted just right. Plenty of new, a few nods to the old, excellent new style action music and “Duel of the Fates”. Awesome stuff!

Now I won’t be one of those who thinks Williams can do no wrong. I really don’t like “Battle of the Heroes” too much. Some of the action music in Attack of the Clones just isn’t very interesting, and the piecemeal approach to Revenge of the Sith is colorful but feels like it lacks narrative flow (something no other Star Wars score ever has a problem doing). My opinion may change if we ever get a chance to hear the full scores away from the movie. The current album versions are missing plenty of music. But even with these detriments, I am glad we got the Star Wars prequels if only because John Williams crafted some of the best movie music of the 1990s and 2000s.

What are your favorite elements to the Star Wars prequels? Did I miss something, or did you find some of my picks laughable?

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Movie Musings: What Works in the Star Wars Prequels - Part 1

Nothing starts an adventure quite like a good
trade dispute.
So one of the things I keep reading and hearing when people write or talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it is better than the prequels. Hell, I even said it. For many people the Star Wars prequels are considered pretty low in entertainment value and not worth the time spent watching them. But some time and perspective made me realize that the prequels actually have some good points to them. They will never be great films, but I do think they are worth watching (at least once) for anyone who wants to experience the full Star Wars story.

This started off as a simple top ten list, but I got a bit wordy and felt I needed a bit more space to defend my position (one that some feel is undefendable… prequel hatred runs strong). So I’ll treat this as more of an detailed exploration of the 10 things the prequels did well.

10. Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan Kenobi
Whatcha talkin' bout Anakin?
This was element of casting that I was actually looking forward to when The Phantom Menace was in its early stages. I had seen McGregor in Trainspotting and really liked him. But I had missed most of his films between that and Episode one. Still I figured if he could make me care about a heroin-addicted slacker, than he had a good shot at playing Obi Wan.

McGregor delivers in the role. He studied the films of Alec Guiness and did his best to emulate the actor, but never slip into parody. His performance feels pretty natural. I believe that the man we see evolve from a Jedi in training into a master in the prequels is the same one we meet in A New Hope.

Whatcha talkin' bout Kenobi?
In addition to continuity McGregor also delivers a fine performance in the films. Most of the acting in the prequels feels flat and empty. For the most part McGregor rises above this. There is warmth in his interaction with Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson). The bond of friendship between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Attack of the Clones is built mostly by McGregor’s performance. Finally he brings the emotions and pain to Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. He delivers the betrayal and the horror in key scenes. For me, when the prequels work on any kind of emotional level, it is because McGregor is in the scene giving it his best.

9. Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine

Kicking the smarm into high gear.
But as much as I admire McGregor’s performance in this trilogy, it is Ian McDiarmid who brings the fun. When he created the role of The Emperor in Return of the Jedi, he was the epitome of the dark side of the force. His supreme confidence, his distain for Luke’s faith in his friends, and his goading made him a memorable villain. And that accent, has anyone identified what that accent is… or is it just the accent of pure evil?

In any case most Star Wars fans were pleased to see McDiarmid return for The Phantom Menace. In that film he played the role as a smarmy senator who is obviously making a play to get what he wants out of Queen Amadala. It works and he is soon Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Senate.

"Of course I'm evil. Look how I'm dressed!"
But McDiarmid gets to really shine in the next two films. His corruption becomes clearer and his interaction with his Sith minions and the Jedi builds to its terrible climax. I love his scenes where he warps Anakin to his will. Even performing with a very wooden Hayden Christensen McDiarmid is able to make the scenes count. Palpatine delivers some grand speeches as well, and his words and performance not only convince the senate, but give the audience a chance to see how manipulative he really is. He becomes more and more menacing as the films progress.

"Being evil is hilarious!"
But lets be honest, he is also having a hell of a good time. Unlike much of the cast who is underplaying, McDiarmid is going up and over the top, but he’s loving it. Palpatine isn’t just evil… he is EVIL! His final battle against Yoda is so entertaining because he is laughing like a loon and chucking floating chairs like they are micro machines. One descriptor of the prequels that I don’t see too often is that they are fun. But I will argue that when McDiarmid is on the screen the movies become more entertaining because he is having a good time being so bad.

8. The Clones

Long lines at the lunch counter.
Luke asks Ben “You fought in the clone wars?” And with that simple line Star Wars fans came up with all kinds of stories about these mysterious wars and Obi-Wan and Anakin’s role in these wars. Hell, they even worked Boba Fett’s armor into the fray at one point. Expanded Universe books delved deeper and created this mythic struggle of Jedi against clones battling before the Empire was established. The key is, the clones were the antagonists and the Jedi were the protagonists in this battle.

So it was surprising to see Lucas treat the clones as a helpful tool the Jedi use against the droid armies. For most viewers this seemed to go against everything we thought or felt when it came to clones. Cloning is often considered something only villains do in most science fiction. But here Lucas views it more like he views droids in the series, they are helpful and used properly can achieve great things.

I love these guys and their soup spoon chairs.
Even the cloners don’t come across as diabolical masterminds in Attack of the Clones. They seem like perfectly reasonable craftsman who are very proud of their work. To them clones are just products. I love their interaction with Obi-Wan and the great pride they get in showing off the fruits of their labor and describing the process and work that went into creating the massive army. I also really like their design and the way their facility looks, but I'll get into that a little more later in this exploration. 

The droid army is defeated by Gungans. Think about
that for a minute... GUNGANS! 
Lucas establishes early in the Phantom Menace that the droid soldiers are pretty lame. They respond slowly and obviously to threats. They tend to be fragile and easily disabled. It is only due to sheer numbers that they are able to be victorious. The clones can think on their own and improvise. They just seem to be better soldiers all the way around. It was a good solution to the fact there were few Jedi to combat such a wide spread menace. But it was also the genius of Palpatine that leveraged the clones into his newly created Empire. So our expectations of evil clones were met, from a certain point of view.

7. Portrayal of the Jedi

Pretty much how the Jedi spend their time in these movies.
But I think the bigger surprise is how the Jedi are portrayed in the Star Wars prequels. Based off what we observe as Obi-Wan and Yoda interact with Luke in the original trilogy, we came to see the Jedi order as this bastion of justice and order. Luke is carrying on a noble legacy, especially in light of what Vader and Emperor are doing in those films. Once again the Expanded Universe of comic books, video games and novels cemented this idea of the Jedi. They were a combination of the Knights of the Round Table and idealized samurai.

"Well of course I'm right. Would you argue with me?"
But the prequels actually present us with a very different take on this order. For the most part the Jedi are portrayed as stagnant, obstinate and completely blinded by their confusion to actually accomplish anything worthwhile. Yes they still strive to achieve justice and order, but instead of valiant knights defending the people, we get a bunch of guys sitting around and talking. Worse they deny facts that are placed in front of them time and again. Their mantra seems to be, "Well that is impossible, so it can't possibly be happening." And the audience becomes quite aware that all these things are happening and they are getting worse. Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) is the poster boy for this attitude. He comes across as the stubborn know-it-all who is constantly wrong about just about everything. When he finally accepts the facts, he is still blind to Anakin's point of view and it costs him his life.

Even as holograms the Jedi just sit around and talk!
I think this may be one of the reasons some viewers didn’t respond well to the prequels. The Jedi legacy is completely undermined here. In many ways, the Empire may have done the galaxy a favor by getting rid of those befuddled and impotent council. But keep in mind, we are seeing the order in its final days. I always got the feeling that the Jedi legacy was built on some amazing stories. It is to Lucas’ credit that he went in an unexpected and more interesting way with the Jedi order. It also makes for an interesting contrast to where the Jedi order ends up in The Force Awakens.

6. The Duel (of the Fates) in Episode 1

Three colors of lightsabers that go great together.
The lightsaber battle is a staple of all the Star Wars films. I have to admit that back when these films were first released, I really liked how the duels played out. They were flashy, fast and choreographed so well. These are Jedi and Sith that are well trained and have honed their dueling abilities.

But these days I find most of the duels to be a little too perfect, too flashy and actually lacking a lot of tension. One thing the original trilogy had in the duels with Luke and Vader was a sense of aggression and desperation. We don’t see too much of that in the prequel duels.

Oh yeah, he's a bad ass now, too bad George killed him off.
However, the best of them in my mind is at the close of The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi face the dreaded Darth Maul (Ray Park). Part of the attraction is seeing the double-sided saber face off against the two Jedi. But there is also an unknown element to this fight. We only saw a brief skirmish between Maul and Qui-Gon earlier in the film. So we are unsure of how powerful Darth Maul really is, or what abilities are at his command.

This Sith puts up a great fight, and one that feels more realistic than the perfected moves we see in later episodes. He actually looks like he is finding it difficult to deal with two skilled Jedi. But Obi-Wan as the Jedi in training actually makes some mistakes and adds to the tension. There could have been a bit more of that actually.

Finally you have John Williams supporting this battle with “Duel of the Fates”, probably the most iconic piece from his prequel work, and one that adds power to pretty much anything it plays against (even a pony eating corn on the cob).

Two outs, bottom of the 9th and a man on third.
Qui-Gon steps up to the plate.
I actually like how the battle ends, with Maul running Qui-Gon through so quickly that you almost doubt you see it. Then he turns and saunters over to Obi-Wan with this cocky attitude. Obi-Wan’s rage is unleashed and Maul suddenly looks a lot less cocky. The final moment when Obi-Wan turns the tables on Maul is a bit silly but surprising. It is a shame that Maul was finished off in this movie. Park really did a fine job in the role and he is one of the most memorable villains of the series.

That wraps up the first five, but my top picks are still on the way. What do you think of the list so far and do you think I need to have my head examined?

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Kristy (2014)

We’ve all had that feeling. You are alone in an empty building. Could be working late. Could be sitting at home reading. And then you are sure that someone is out there trying to kill you. Yep I know that feeling well… Wait, that look on your face. Are you trying to tell me you’ve never had that experience before? Well my cat tries to kill me all the time, so I know just how Justine feels.

Justine (Haley Bennett) is planning on staying at her university over the Thanksgiving break. Her roommate makes plans to stay too, but a family commitment pulls her back home. Justine is left with a couple security guards and the local groundskeeper Scott (James Ransone) to share pumpkin pie with. At first Justine has some fun wandering around the empty school and even calling her boyfriend Aaron (Lucas Till) and trying to make him jealous over all the fun she is having.

But things take a turn when she runs into a unsettling girl, Violet (Ashley Greene) at the local convenience store. Violet is just plain creepy and seems to fixate on Justine, calling her Kristy a couple times. Justine’s drive home includes a freaky little detour and when she gets back on campus she’s convinced that Violet is up to no good. Turns out, she is right. Violet shows up with three hulking men armed with blades and bats. These men are wearing tin foil masks and start to hunt Justine. Is this all linked to the rash of disappearances and murders of girls across the U.S? And just what does Violet mean when she keeps calling Justine “Kristy”.

Good Points:
  • An interesting set up with Justine, we like her character
  • Greene does a fine job making Violet creepy as all hell
  • Some good moments of tension and scares

Bad Points:
  • The opening sequence feels out of place with the rest of the film
  • The movie jumps from tranquil to chase too quickly. Needed to build the suspense a bit more
  • Some leaps of logic pull you out of the movie


The set up for this movie actually works well. We like Justine and find out a little bit about her as she moves through her day. It actually reminded me a bit of Ti West’s set up for House of the Devil. Once Violet shows up, she really adds the creepiness to the film. But that is also the point where things switch gears too quickly. The movie jumps into chase mode, instead of building the tension with Justine realizing that Violet brought her goons and they are hunting her down. Some scare and tension are generated, but nothing is really sustained. The result is a film that is fine for a weekend viewing and if you want to see Bennett and Greene in atypical roles. They both do a good job. I also like how we had a female brain behind what turns out to be ritual serial killings. A neat concept that may have needed another pass with the script to make it a must see.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 2
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

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