Wednesday, September 30, 2009

“It is finished then. You have restored peace and justice to the galaxy.”

And so at last, at long last, we reach the final installment of the Star Wars saga, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith from 2005. The nightmare will soon be over and I might need to wash the taste out with some good Star Wars movies. “But Kestifer!” you may interject. “Isn’t the general consensus that Episode III the best of the Prequels because of the action and for tying the two trilogies together??” Well, gentle reader, we’ll see about that.

So the epic Clone Wars have raged for three years. Three years? That’s it? I mean, sure a lot of fighting can happen in three years, but its hardly epic when compared to the seven years of WWII or the ten years of the mythological Trojan War, that last year of which became the subject of one of the defining tales of the Epic as a genre. Eh, whatever. So three years into the war and the Chancellor/boss of the Republic is captured and being held in a Separatist flagship during an epic space battle, conveniently above the Capital of the Republic, Coruscant. Our two hero Jedi invade the flagship, rescue the chancellor and safely crash land on the planet below in, admittedly, a friggin’ awesome action sequence that lasts twenty minutes. Some politics happens where basically both the Jedi Council and the Supreme Chancellor ask Anakin Skywalker to effectively spy on the other group. The leader of the Separatist armies is found hiding out on a planet and Obi-Wan Kenobi is sent to confirm his presence before the Republic drops the hammer on the bad guys. Meanwhile on Coruscant, Anakin keeps waffling back and forth on the “will he/won’t he” scale of becoming a Sith to save the life of his secretly pregnant secretly wife. Of course he does, and as soon as that happens and the Separatist leader is killed, the Chancellor declares himself Emperor before ordering the extermination of the Jedi. More violence happens and finally and thankfully, rocks fall and everybody dies, except for Master Yoda (who was conveniently (and luckily) surrounded by Wookiees) and Obi-Wan, who is too awesome to be killed (and also because plot armor demands they survive to the next trilogy). Pacing and Plot-wise, this movie is easily the most watchable of the Prequel Trilogy.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan MacGregor continues to be the best thing about these movies. I’m being completely serious. Now a general for the Republic in the Clone Wars (which, I’m not sure how that works that a member of an order that exists outside the military structure of the Republic can become a general in said military unless--oh right, forced plot element because the first movie called him General Kenobi). Anyway, Kenobi continues to possess a warmth and wit that the rest of the trilogy completely lacks. As far as Jedi go, he’s competent, situationally aware without being paranoid and doesn’t suffer any critical observational failure. Anakin is his friend and he is actually concerned about his apprentice/former apprentice’s unsettling traits. Even when Anakin inevitably falls, Obi-Wan still holds out some hope for him, even going easy on the new Darth Vader in the climactic fight scene as he tries one last time to talk a little sense into him. Truly, the badass of not just the movie, but of the entire trilogy.

Padme (Skywalker) Amidala: Natalie Portman again, though with less screen time. Her acting is her strongest in the trilogy (though that’s not saying much) but the character is about as uninteresting as they come. She’s on Coruscant, keeps having blocky conversations about politics and ideology with Anakin (that she continues to not have chemistry with) that are flat, overly simplistic and uninteresting. At this point she’s little more than a plot device; Anakin keeps dreaming about her dying in childbirth and he becomes obsessed with preventing that, whether or not she has any say in the matter. Interestingly, the movie makes it a point so hammer home the “loving each other but also really concerned about the way things are going” point. Padme and Anakin discuss their love for each other, and then a little later, the movie has them on Coruscant in two separate buildings longingly looking out the window across the city and the way its edited makes it look as though each is looking at the other. The scenes achieve the same effect, and if the latter were the only one included, it would’ve been great, but since both are in the final cut, its just redundant and boring. The worst thing that the movie does to Padme, though, is completely undermine the action-oriented heroine of the first two movies. A bad character, certainly, but at least she was a scrappy little survivor. Pregnancy will change that, I suppose, but in this movie all she does is look worried and helpless, and (SPOILERS: though not really since you already know she’s not showing up in the original trilogy) after getting choked out by Anakin, she gives birth to Luke & Leia, lives long enough and then expires. The reason the medical droids give for it is “she has lost the will to live” and a shrug of their metallic shoulders. Never mind the fact that even in our world of less advanced technology we can keep braindead people alive with science, the best these floating mechanical interns can manage is an “I dunno, chief.” It completely removes all heroic credibility for Padme. Sure, a broken heart is a rough thing, but she was a friggin’ Queen in charge of a planet. So Anakin proves that all along he was a rotten apple and she dies because. She. Gives. Up. Yeah, never mind that she just gave birth to twins that need to be raised (because dad sure as hell isn’t going to be a good father figure). So she dies. Not because Anakin’s outburst of rage at her supposed infidelity caused her to die of her injuries (no, that would only have cemented his status as a great villain by having him self-fulfill the premonitions he was desperately trying to avoid). No, she dies because she has to for the plot. How…heroic.

Anakin Skywalker: Hayden Christensen’s acting is improved in this film, largely because he’s supposed to be glowering all the time as he descends into full-blown bad guy status. He displays piloting competence during the first battle scene, which is nice, and there are moments where he wrestles with his obligations to the Jedi and his own dark desires. Still, the audience knows that he’s going to fall from grace (and if you’ve been reading these reviews, you know its been clearly telegraphed from the very first movie) so there’s no tension on that part. Also, the Midi-chlorians get a callback during one of Palpatine’s temptation speeches to Anakin, talking about how some Sith Lord named Darth (I’m not making this up) Plagueis (or however its spelled) was able to manipulate the midi-chlorians into creating life. Cue meaningful sinister look at Anakin. Now, by itself that’s not a problem, but in the framework of everything else swirling around Anakin, it completely removes any and all credibility of him actually being the Chosen One. You can’t be genetically engineered to be the mystically prophesied Chosen One. It just doesn’t work that way. So add that to pile of things the prequel Jedi got completely wrong. It comes as such a relief when Anakin finally does officially switch teams. They even brought James Earl Jones to read some lines when Anakin finally gets encased in the Darth Vader armor, but even his delivery can’t make the lines sound cool. “Noooooooooo!” indeed. The biggest gripe with Anakin in this movie is that they write his fall as basically him being duped into evil, like its an accident (which cheapens the evil that he actually does). Looking closely at Anakin through the prequels, you can tell that he’s obsessed with power more than anything, so Palpatine’s offer to train him is not something that he’s hostile towards (and the resistance he gives it is pretty token anyway). It should be a deliberate decision to cast aside Jedi ideology because its no longer enough for him, adding depth and a “fatal flaw” to his fall, but instead of Tragedy, we get what Arthur Miller called, in an essay I read back in High School, Pathos: bad things happening to a character that aren’t really his fault.

Yoda: Frank Oz’s voice returns and the CGI Yoda is greatly improved, but aside from somehow being able to sense the sudden betrayal right before it happens so he can survive the trilogy, he has little actual bearing on the movie. He does get his ass beaten by Emperor Palpatine though, which is karmic punishment enough for his “Fightin’ Yoda” status. (Little bastard’s broken as all hell in Soul Calibur IV, too)

Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson finally gets some real screen time, just in time for him to finally realize the shit that’s going down. Actually, the Jedi in this movie finally begin to suspect that Palpatine’s actually a jerk, and so they start planning ways to deal with him. Once Windu’s got clear evidence of his Sithiness, he basically attempts a coup, which 1) doesn’t end well for him, and 2) completely goes against everything the Jedi have been spouting about truthfulness and lawfulness and the Republic. They even talk about the Jedi Order establishing a “temporary regime” when/if Palpatine gets removed from office so that they, the Jedi can select a new leader that is to their liking. The implications of this, should Mace Windu and his squad of ludicrously-easy-to-dispatch Jedi Council members win, are…not comforting.

Count Dooku: Hey look it’s the fantastic Christopher Lee again as the head of the Separatist forces- oh look he’s dead in the first scene of the movie. Glass Badass confirmed.

R2-D2: The plucky little astromech returns, though aside from one scene where he single-handedly destroys two battle droids with little more than oil and fire is pretty cool (despite being obviously CGI), doesn’t really do a whole lot for the plot.

C-3PO: Anthony Daniels’ droid is newly gold-plated and, go figure, is a protocol droid working in the service of a diplomat. Now that’s just silly. While it is comforting to see Threepio as he should be, he still has absolutely no bearing on the course of events whatsoever and at the end of the movie, Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) orders his memory wiped, which…makes his entire existence in the Prequel Trilogy COMPLETELY MEANINGLESS. Galaxy the size of a trailer park, right there. Everybody is related to everybody else, just because.

General Grievous: The cyborg leader of the Separatist armies (after Dooku bites it) voiced by Matthew Wood, he’s a well done CGI monster, combining a large, hunched skeletal frame with a nasty cough and an audacious method of getting away from the Anakin and Obi-Wan in their first encounter. He’s also incredibly cowardly, running away from the good guys A LOT. And then guess what? Glass Badass.

Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious: Ian McDiarmid continues his deliciously evil performance as the scheming Palpatine. Here he really works his mojo on Anakin, constantly tempting the young Jedi to jump off the deep end. At the climactic point of Anakin’s journey, Palpatine fully reveals his “POWER! UNLIMITED POWER!” and zaps the hell out of someone. Somehow, doing this transforms him immediately into the leathery, wrinkled old geezer that we later see in Return of the Jedi, which I guess is okay, but the makeup effects actually end up making him look ridiculous and actually not that much like how he looked like in Jedi. I’m serious here, the 1983 makeup job is superior to the 2005 job on the same actor. I mean, he’s got a crease on his forehead that looks like he’s got a second ass up there.

Oh yeah, and Chewbacca shows up for a completely random cameo with Yoda. Just because the galaxy is the size of a trailer park.

I am please to say that George Lucas and ILM have fixed most of the uncanny valley problems in this movie. The clone troopers move like human beings now (despite still being obviously CGI) and the critical lighting failure of Episode II has been mostly done away with. It also looks like the sets have a lot more practical props and backgrounds in them, which is a step in the right direction. The action sequences are generally fantastic, with the first battle over Corsucant and the final duel on Mustaphar standing out. Like I said in the plot summary, easily the most watchable of the Prequel Three. The scenes where Palpatine finally enacts Order 66 to wipe the floor with the Jedi are generally very well done as dark, gritty “end of an era” moments as the Jedi are cut down by the clone soldiers and Anakin crosses the moral event horizon into full villain. However, after three movies chock full of idiot Jedi doing stupid things and enforcing stupid rules onto their order that will only turn around and bite them in the ass later, so I was quite honestly torn between feeling sympathy for the suddenly betrayed superhumans being knocked down from their ivory tower to outright cheering on the white armored test-tube henchman with no superpowers as they clear the table for the better movies to take place. If you feel like it, go back and watch those scenes with “Yakety Sax” playing from the Benny Hill Show. If you dare.

George Lucas alone on writing credit here, and the action oriented nature of the film means that there isn’t much room for people to sit around and mouth bad dialog at each other. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t find its way into it, there just isn’t a lot of it. The Republic of the Prequels is ultimately not a place you really feel like fighting for. The Old Republic is little more than a complacent, decadent society that is willing to let its fate be decided by an army of genetically bred slave soldiers who know no other profession and by genetically lucky supermen with laser swords. That’s a level of apathy that I don’t think even modern America has reached yet. At least the Rebel Alliance felt like a genuine rag-tag group of out-gunned but determined resistance fighters that you can root for against the faceless “The Man.” My hatred of the Prequel Jedi can be summed up with one line of dialog. Obi-Wan says “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” to Anakin, which is the height of hypocrisy. Put aside the fact that that sentence alone is an absolute statement, there is nothing, nothing, in the movies that show Palpatine as being a man who deals in absolute dogmas and black & white morality. He’s always slithering around rules and ideologies and all that stuff while the Jedi themselves are dogmatically hell bent on enforcing their view of what’s right. Hell, you can’t even say that Palpatine’s really all that bad for the Galaxy. After all, his ascension to Emperor ends a war (admittedly one he engineered himself) that lasted three years in which (going strictly by the movies) the only casualties were clones, robots and the occasional Jedi. After that you get about twenty years of relative peace before the Rebellion blows up the Death Star to really challenge Palpatine. According to the movies themselves, that doesn’t really seem so bad. Its bad storytelling when you have to have the Expanded Universe elaborate to the audience just how bad the Empire is. Pacing is good but the story itself is jammed full of various badly handled shout-outs and origins to the Original Trilogy, as though throwing a Chewie cameo into the mix is an acceptable substitute for ironing out plot holes and throwing aside consistent characterization. The story tries too hard to connect everything to the Original Trilogy, and fails to do so in a convincing way. Instead, and I hate to say it, it comes off more like pandering to the hardcore fan boys, who at this point are about the only people (along with children, who are easily impressed by colorful ‘splosions and fightin’) still left in the “eagerly anticipating” camp.

This will probably be the last time I get to say “John Williams on the score and Ben Burtt on sound editing” for a while. Instead of quietly cherishing this treasured moment, I will say that the heroic level of quality that these two movie demigods have brought to this trilogy is incapable of being over hyperbolized. If we lived in an ancient Pharaonic society, they would be deified after they shuffled off the mortal coil and worshipped like Imhotep for making the world a better place.

Saying that Revenge of the Sith is the most enjoyable of Prequel Trilogy is like being told you have the most treatable form of cancer: it still sucks to be stuck with it. In the case of this particular movie, it is a step up, but it all comes too little, too late. The movie just kept on digging plot holes for itself when it should’ve just left some of the connections to the original movies to the imagination. As a mindless sci-fi movie, yeah sure it entertains, but here’s the problem with the Prequels; the Originals were entertaining without being mindless. They left the imagination open for expansion of characters and concepts. For the prequels, an overdeveloped imagination is required to make the remotest sense of what’s going on. Sitting down and watching the Prequels in one week has been a painful, painful experience, particularly since I’ve pretty much washed my hands of the franchise since 2005 because I didn’t want to keep coming back for more abuse because “I still love Star Wars.” I do still love Star Wars, but I also refuse to keep being disappointed by the husk its become due to “battered audience” syndrome. No matter how many times you come back hoping it can change, it never will. No, better to go our separate ways, franchise. I’m saying it because its true. Inside of us we both know that. You’ll know it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. We’ll always have Empire.

…Sorry, got caught up in the moment, there.

The prequels are completely and totally NOT recommended aside from their technical visual and audio merits. If you’re a fan of good movies, take warning from Star Wars fans, who have turned arguing and bitching about the Prequels into high art (I’ve read somewhere that to be a true Star Wars fan, you have to hate the series now. Sad, yes, but also rooted in quite a lot of truth). If you have children, for the Force’s sake, don’t show them this trilogy first, and if you absolutely must subject yourself to the prequels, do so through another medium. Lego Star Wars is probably your best bet for enjoying it, and I also recommend the web comic “Darths and Droids.”

Its so…maddening. So…infuriating. So…impossible to not want to wish evil upon the world.

What’s that? Tomorrow’s October First? Well, I guess sinister dreams can come true.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Worst Teaser of All

Now, normally teasers are posted months, possibly even a year in advance of an event taking place.

Not here at RMWC HQ. Nope. Here, we tease an event that's been in the works for over a month now two days before it happens. Because that's how I roll. That, and I got really busy in September what with personal obligations being none of the interwebs'es business. (though it may have to do with my efforts to bring -'es back into popular use) But that's not important right now.

You (the hypothetical reader) may be wondering, nay, fantasizing wildly as to the nature of what this event may be. Well. I'm. Not. Telling.

However, seeing as today is September 29th and the event is scheduled to start two days from now... well, it doesn't take a genius to put Two and Two together and get Necronomicon.

Monday, September 28, 2009

“I want to go home and…rethink my life.”

2002 rolled around and Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones arrived. By now, fans had been burned by the underwhelming Phantom Menace but many were still optimistic that maybe George Lucas was just rusty and needed a movie to shake it off. Well….

The Republic is in a real pickle. Thousands of planets (this is in the title scroll) have seceded and have joined a separatist movement. Signs point to civil war and the Senate is facing a dilemma as to whether or not they should raise an army. Wait. The government of the largest political body in the galaxy doesn’t have a standing army?? Its established that its not the only government in the galaxy, just the biggest, and while its peaceful generally, there have to be flare ups on planets, ambitious pirates and crime lords chipping away at the innocent civilians. Apparently the Jedi take care of all that messy stuff, but that doesn’t sound like a trustworthy investment for the Republic. The Jedi don’t answer to the Senate. The Jedi don’t answer to anybody except themselves. They have no check to balance them. What if the Republic asked them to step in to stop a planet’s civil war and they say “No. Don’t feel like it.”? But I digress.

Former Queen/current Senator Padme Amidala (Queen’s do not work that way!) arrives at Coruscant and survives an assassination attempt. She gets two Jedi assigned as bodyguards, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. After another attempt gets thwarted, Amidala goes underground with Anakin to protect her and Obi-Wan investigates the assassin. Anakin and Padme get into a really awkward romance and Obi-Wan tracks down the assassin and discovers a clone army being grown for the Republic in the name of the Jedi. Anakin goes home and finds his mother, who dies in his arms. He takes the death badly and slaughters some aliens. Obi-Wan tracks the assassin to Geonosis where the bounty hunter/would-be-killer meets with the Separatist Leader, a former Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan gets captured but gets a message out to Anakin, who gets the message out to the Council and heads in with Padme to rescue his mentor. They get captured, are forced to fight some GCI beasties in a Harryhausen-esque fight scene and then the Jedi show up and shit gets blown up. Cue the beginning of the Clone Wars, a galactic civil war.

Right off the bat, the pacing of the plot is greatly improved. Things keep moving at a really brisk pace and scenes don’t linger nearly as long as they did in the last movie. This is a good thing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor is the film’s unquestioned badass. Now a full Jedi Knight with his own apprentice and an authoritative beard, he’s competent, witty, decisive and charismatic. He’s a leader and a great choice for the main character. The strongest scenes all involve him and he just delivers a rock solid performance and can handle acting with CGI all around him incredibly well. It is no exaggeration to say that he carries the entire movie on his shoulders, and for that, I salute him.

Senator Padme Amidala: Natalie Portman returns and her performance is improved, though still not great. I’m not sure what went wrong because I’ve seen her act well in other movies. Anyway, her term as Queen ended (wait, Queens definitely DO NOT work that way) she is now a Senator and fiercely opposed to the formation of a Grand Army of the Republic, despite the opening title crawl stating that THOUSANDS of dissatisfied planets have left the Republic. Clearly, diplomacy has already failed and the Republic would be stupid not to start mustering an army for its own defense if the Separatists start getting ideas. Also, her unilateral opposition to an army completely ignores the lessons the character has learned in the previous movie: There, she ended up completely disregarding prudence and diplomacy after a few days at the capital in favor of storming her planet like a cowboy to reassert her powerbase while a large army of allied aliens fought and died so she could accomplish this. This “dedication” to peace is clearly untrue, but then again, she’s a politician. Anyway, for reasons never ever made truly clear as to why she’s such an important target, someone’s trying to assassinate her, which ham fistedly sends Anakin to be her bodyguard and they have a terribly developed romance together because the plot demands they get it on so we can get Luke and Leia. Oh, and where the character fails utterly is on Tatooine when Anakin comes back from finding his mother. He killed the Tusken Raiders responsible for her death and confesses to killing an entire camp: men, women, children. All Padme does is essentially say “Well, we all get mad sometimes.” A wellspring of compassion, she is. She’s much more action capable this time around, but the character is still a flat and ultimately unsympathetic aristocrat.

Anakin Skywalker: Hayden Christensen glowers and sulks his way through this movie (can‘t really blame him since so many people still call him Ani to his adult face), but everybody already knew that. The romance between Anakin and Padme is unwatchable in its lack of chemistry, but everybody already knew that. Let’s talk about the character himself. Anakin is Obi-Wan’s Padawan apprentice (with standard issue stupid haircut). He’s got a reputation for impulsiveness, recklessness and unreliability. Obviously he’s the perfect bodyguard for a senator. He’s also disturbingly obsessed with Padme. He says that he’s been thinking about her non-stop for the ten years after they first met (she of course, barely recognizes him). That’s really not a heartwarming trait, considering he was ten when he met her. Of course, the Jedi are not permitted to marry, which has been completely pulled out of nowhere just so there can be extra drama and so the lovers can be star-crossed. Worse, Anakin is clearly a mentally unbalanced individual. He is having vivid nightmares about his mother dying that grate on him so much that despite his forced and awkward love for Padme, he clearly expresses that he will abandon his post as her bodyguard so he can travel to Tatooine on the off chance that he might find his mother. There is no negotiation involved, he’s just polite enough to say that he’s leaving her, whether the assassins know where Padme is or not. Of course, she agrees to go with him because of the almighty plot. Throughout the film he’s moody, selfish, unreliable and defensive to the point of hostility, all good traits for the villain he will become, but the movie insists on painting him in a heroic light. It doesn’t work because instead it paints all the characters surrounding him as incompetents who persist in giving him crucial missions that will only drive him further over the edge into insanity. And speaking of insanity, the Jedi Council knew where his mother was this entire time: Tatooine. You would think that the mother of the “Chosen One” would be a person of interest for them to find and bring in for a nice chat. It would take like one Jedi with a wallet to buy her freedom. Its not like they couldn’t pony up the money.

Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson returns as the mean looking Jedi Master. I normally really like Jackson, but here the lines he’s given just make the character echo Yoda most of the time still. He also gets a lot of lines where he expresses absolute incredulity that the Jedi might possibly not have everything under control.

Yoda: Oh man, this is gonna be weird. For the first time in the franchise, Yoda is completely CGI. The model is detailed and a lot of work went into it, but there’s something off about the character visually. Frank Oz’ voice is still great, but Yoda just doesn’t look right, especially considering that in puppet form he was a triumphant success. Then again, a puppet wouldn’t be able to get into a lightsaber duel at the end. I honestly don’t have words for how much I hate the concept of a Fightin’ Yoda. Visually, sure its kind of cool, but on a philosophical level, Yoda was presented as a Zen like master of the Force, the Star Wars equivalent of Buddha in the original trilogy. A figure so powerful and so connected to the Force that he could accomplish more with the wave of a hand than an army of Jedi could. I realize this is drifting into a rant, but personally, the idea of Yoda fighting was as abhorrent to the perception of the character as Ghandi firing a rocket launcher. It made no sense.

C-3PO: Anthony Daniels returns, and so does the protocol droid’s body, a battered, silver casing that at least looks like him. He’s there and what he does is okay, but he serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever for the story. None.

Senator Jar Jar Binks: Oh God, the bastard’s a Senator. Did they hate him so much on Naboo that they figured the only way to get him off-planet was to send him to the Capital? You know, like bumping him up to a desk job? The role of the character is drastically diminished, but he’s still there, and when he speaks the sound grates on the ears with the fury of a thousand fingernails on a thousand chalkboards. Padme gives him a simple directive while she leaves Coruscant: make sure her stance on the army is represented. Instead, Jar Jar directly endorses the creation of the army. Now, I’m all for a standing army for a Republic the size of this one, but we all know how well this is going to end, and it makes Jar Jar a backstabbing douche for betraying the ideals of a friend. Moreover, Jar Jar fulfills a Neville Chamberlain-like role, proudly doing a Neville Chamberlain “Peace in our time” kind of thing before all hell breaks loose. While this amuses me to no end, it does not bode well that a character designed to appeal toward kids becomes an example of political unreliability and appeasement. You know, for the kids.

Count Dooku/Darth Tyrannus: The always awesome Christopher Lee plays the leader of the Separatists, a classy cape wearing nobleman and smooth talker who used to be a Jedi Knight. Sadly, the character doesn’t get any more developed than that and spends most of the movie as a name lurking in the background.

Jango Fett: Temuera Morrison plays a bounty hunter wearing very familiar looking armor. Turns out he’s both the guy behind the assassination plot AND the genetic template for the Clone Army of the Republic, though he’s working for Dooku. Clearly he’s playing both sides in the conflict, but the way it comes off is just confusing and never fully explained. Jango is a type of character that has been showing up a lot in Star Wars. I shall call him a Glass Badass: a character with a really eye-catching design, mysterious background, and interesting (if gimmicky) weapons and/or skills. The character will do something incredibly awesome and badass during his first encounter with a hero, but after that, he gets sidelined because of the goals of the Plot and then gets unceremoniously killed in a punk-ass manner that completely negates any badass achievements. Jango, who can capably fend off Obi-Wan on a landing platform in the rain, is just such a glass badass. His grown up (in the original movies) clone-baby Boba Fett is another example and so is Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace.

Supreme Chancellor Palpatine: Now the boss of the Republic, Ian McDiarmid turns in a great performance as the duplicitous, lying mastermind who is behind a large and extremely complicated plot to usurp control of the Republic. As far as the prequels go, he’s really been the most interesting villain, without question.

On paper (and I’m sure the storyboards as well) George Lucas’ visual ambitions make sense. Vistas are stunning, action is impressive and the CGI work has an incredible level of craftsmanship behind it. However, there was always something that bothered me about this movie, and I’ve finally figured it out. There is a concept called the “Uncanny Valley” which in brief states that (originally it was robots, but movie effects can also apply) the more something looks human, the more favorably people will receive it, but only up to a certain point. Thus, the polygonal video game characters of the late 90s are more likable than the chunky pixels of the Atari systems of the 80s. However, there reaches a point where human imitation becomes so uncanny that it becomes unsettling because if its not a 1:1 match for human behavior, it becomes really, really disturbing. Example: The Droid Army of the Separatists are clearly meant to be obviously mechanical, but also humanoid in basic appearance (arms, legs, heads). They look fine in the movie, looking like how they are intended: mechanical, slightly comical goons. The clone troopers are meant to be cloned humans, but they are also entirely CGI and encased in white armor that foreshadows the Stormtroopers. The modeling on them is extremely detailed, but they are also disturbingly off. The way they move is jerky and puppet-like, the rendering on their armor is just a little too clean and slick for a universe famous for its weathered look. The visors are wayyyyyy too shiny. In short, they exist in the uncanny valley. This is a shame, because it could’ve been helped a little bit by actually making up some armor for extras to wear. It would help a lot of scenes (and probably would’ve been cheaper).

Actually I'm going to go out on a limb and say the entire movie takes place in a place like the Uncanny Valley. There’s something off about Yoda. The clones don’t move like natural humans. But what really messes up the visual effect of the movie is how the lighting of scenes goes into the valley. Scenes shot on normal sets or exteriors have natural, reasonable lighting that looks perfectly fine. Most of the movie however was shot on blue/green screen soundstages with minimal props and backgrounds. The obvious problem with this is that not all actors are equally adept at handling an entirely blue screen set (MacGregor can though). The more subtle issue is the lighting. The characters are lit one way, and the CGI details/backgrounds/etc. are lit another and the twain shall not synch up. The end result is usually a really bright aura or corona of light surrounding the actors that is completely unnatural in an otherwise plausible scenario. I’m not saying the lighting is bad for the entire movie (sometimes the lighting is fantastic, like in the duel between Anakin and Dooku), but it pops up so damn much that its impossible to let it slide.

Jonathan Hales helped Lucas on the script this time around, and while the overall pace of the movie is a tremendous improvement over the last, the writing is not. Characters that are supposedly competent play a game of “catch the idiot ball” for the sake of fitting the plot into the established trilogy and then the romance. Ugh. The romance between Anakin and Padme is filled with so much purple prose that you’d think it was bad fan fiction. Dialog is usually stilted and characters often start blabbing off how they feel and the political discussions are painful to listen to.

John Williams on the score and Ben Burtt on sound editing. Oh if only the rest of the movie was as reliable and solid as these two heroes. Still, I actually do have to fault the sound editing on one small point. Oh, and spoilers, I suppose. Anyway, there’s a point where Yoda is meditating and hear’s Qui-Gon Jinn’s voice call out “Anakin! Anakin! Noooo!” The “Anakin” parts are fine and in Liam Neeson’s voice, but the Noooo is a pained and garbled sound that doesn’t match up with Neeson’s voice in the least. Its…a botched moment and jars you out of the tension of the scene. Oh God, even the sound editing has something off

If it sounds like I’m being harsher on Episode II than Episode I, its because I am. Being harsher. While the plot pacing has been noticeably remedied, the rest of the movie suffers from generally worse dialog and generally terrible character development. The plot holes in the first movie, while abundant, aren’t as offensive to the continuity of the saga as the ones in this film, which are just digging deeper holes. We are told that this is supposed to be Anakin at the beginning of his heroic prime and he comes off as a petulant loose cannon who’s only real love is the power to do what he wants and is just waiting for an excuse to explode. The visual effects of the movie may be the biggest selling point of the film, but that’s a lateral move at best compared to the last film. The over-reliance on (admittedly very well done) CGI sterilizes the feel of the Star Wars universe, giving it a polished unreality that is directly at odds with its vaunted “lived-in galaxy” feel. I can’t even say that the eye candy is improved because of the prevalence of the uncanny valley. Only “recommended” for the truly hardcore fans, and even then it’s still a disappointment.

Friday, September 25, 2009

“The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. Now get out of here.”

Fifty reviews ago, we (in the royal sense) started this insane project of breaking down and analyzing movies and their component parts with a franchise that was near and dear to my heart. If you would’ve asked me ten years ago what my favorite movie franchise was, without hesitation I would’ve answered Star Wars. Of course, that was 1999 and I was sixteen and…things began to change. 1999 was the year of the hotly anticipated return of Star Wars with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Before the movie was released the anticipation was at such a fever pitch that you would’ve thought it was the Nerd Rapture, and I was one of the faithful. Then the movie came out and the world found itself scratching its head trying to figure out what the hell happened. Now RMWC returns to Star Wars to examine the Prequel Trilogy.

I hope you appreciate this.

So two super-powered warrior/monk/diplomats visit some alien businessmen who are blockading an entire planet over some sort of trade treaty hissy fit. The aliens don’t like the fact that there are Jedi on their ship, react violently and the Jedi are forced to fight their way down to the planet so they can warn the locals that the ships above are sending down an invasion force. That’s the first ten minutes, and you know what? Its great. Sure, the hook of a “trade negotiation” isn’t really interesting, but then it reveals that there’s more going on than that and we get action and pretty quick pacing. Sadly, around the ten minute mark, the heroes accidentally rescue a character who is nothing but dead weight, travel to his undersea alien city, travel through the…aquatic center of the planet in a submarine?? Okay… Arrive at the planet’s capital, rescue the beleaguered leader and run the blockade so they can tell the universe about the shady dealings going on. The dead weight character really is the point where the movie starts falling down, but the pacing is still fairly good (except for the sub scenes).

Their ship gets damaged running the blockade so they have to touch down on a backwater desert world for repairs. One of the heroes, along with the dead weight and the obviously disguised female leader of Naboo travel into town and meet a kid who’s got crazy Jedi abilities who also happens to be the slave of a junk dealer with the only part in town that can fix their space ship. A lot of words are thrown around and ultimately its decided that the kid’s going to pilot his custom built pod racer in an all or nothing race. He wins: he goes free and the ship gets repaired. He loses: it sucks to be the protagonists. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens here, and it doesn't, but it takes up a lot of time.

Anyway, the kid wins (obviously) and the Jedi have a brief encounter with a Sith (their evil opposites) that they kind of freak out about since the Sith are supposed to be long gone. They get to Corsuscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic and here’s what follows: “Words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words.” A chancellor gets ousted from office and the Jedi Council decide that the boy, while powerful, is too dangerous to train and refuse to enroll him (which implies the alternative of an incredibly powerful Force prodigy running around the galaxy without ANY kind of training or discipline whatsoever until he gets taken under the wing of the Sith that the Jedi now know are out there, gets himself killed, or blows up a planet, or some combination thereof. You know…the Jedi are stupid). Oh yeah, and the dead weight character mentions in passing that his people have a grand army, which prompts the Queen of Naboo to return to her planet to take it back. That’s all that happens on Coruscant, and it takes over twenty minutes!

Ugh, moving on. They get back to the planet, meet up with the Gungan Army, plan their assault and go to it, which, is actually kind of fun. I mean, at least its got wars going on in Star Wars at that point. There’s a ground battle, a skirmish/city fight as the Queen tries to retake her city, the Jedi square off against the Sith in a final duel and there’s a space battle. They win (obviously) and this unevenly paced almost-ADVENTURE! film finally ends at the 133 minute mark.

Qui-Gon Jinn: Veteran actor Liam Neeson does a very good job of trying to make all of the scenes he’s in interesting, even the “words words words” ones. He’s a veteran Jedi who’s been around, has tremendous street smarts and is incredibly capable. He’s also constantly in the dog house with the Jedi Council for questioning their decisions (and, as their stupidity is already established, I can’t blame him). For the first half of the film I’d say he’s easily the badass as he talks back to the Queen and politely but consistently insults Jar Jar, but then he finds Anakin and becomes single-mindedly obsessed with him being the Chosen One. Sigh.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan MacGregor is Qui-Gon’s apprentice (padawan) and really does his best to be the understanding, supportive but by-the-book apprentice to Qui-Gon’s renegade. He’s really pretty good, but doesn’t get a whole lot to do in the movie aside from fight scenes.

Queen Padme Amidala: Natalie Portman plays the newly-elected Queen of Naboo, which isn’t how queens work. Maybe Naboo works under an Elector Count System like the Holy Roman Empire did, which, while not an efficient government system, has some precedent, even though its for Emperors/Empresses not Kings/Queens. Dammit, I can’t even throw the movie a bone without stretching too far. Okay, so the Queen is a fairly wooden character with a wardrobe bigger than Barbie’s entire backlog and a mess of “handmaidens,” young girls of around her age (including Keira Knightley) that hover in her background and wear identical hooded robes that can serve as decoys when need be. That…doesn’t sound like a royal entourage, that sounds like it belongs in Thulsa Doom’s snake cult. Also, why would a planet that is so fanatically committed to pacifistic ideals that they don’t even have a standing army and the Queen’s own personal starship is completely unarmed, use young women in the same way that Castro used doubles?? That’s barbaric! This kind of dissonance reflects on the character of the Queen herself, who’s all about protecting her people’s lives, but she also escapes into space, leaving her occupied planet behind in the hands of a bunch of aliens who promise to oppress the people if she won’t sign a treaty. Why didn’t she just sign the goddamn treaty and take it up with the courts as an illegally extorted document instead of being all selfish and “I need to tell the Senate personally that my people are being oppressed instead of actually making selfless decisions for their greater good.” She’s a shitty queen. As for Portman’s performance, I thought it was wooden, uninspired and unsympathetic, all bad traits for a main character, but then again, look at the material she had to work with.

Jar Jar Binks: A vein is throbbing in my head at the though of having to write about him, but I shall persevere. Ahmed Best did the voice and motion capture for the all-CGI gungan outcast. Qui-Gon rescues him by chance and for the rest of the movie Jar Jar just won’t shut the hell up. The root of the rage is in the way he talks. Obviously it got a lot of flack for being “ethnically offensive” and I won’t beat that dead horse (not when there are other related horses that deserve sound thrashings). For an example of his speech “Yoosa should follow me now, okeeday?” He’s like that FOR THE ENTIRE MOVIE. I’ve heard excuses saying that he’s innocent like a child and as smart, but no. That’s no excuse because the character is too dumb to live and wouldn’t if not for the fact that he’s surrounded by competent characters. The CGI effects for the character have also started to age too. He’s also completely useless to the plot. Sure, they make it seem like he’s the one that brings the Naboo and the Gungans together against the Droid Army, but really, the line about how “the Naboo don’t like the Gungans very much is because of their military inclination” could have been explained early on, or told by another character in the Naboo government: Information like that should be common knowledge for the leaders of said planet. Jar Jar is Dead Fucking Weight.

Anakin Skywalker: Jake Lloyd’s generally bad performance is common knowledge, so we won’t beleaguer that point. Little Anakin is blessed with all sorts of “plot-hax.” He’s a mechanic that builds a robot and a pod racer in his spare time, knows all sorts of local lore despite being a slave, its implied that he was conceived by the “midi-chlorians” which is a bullshit way of dancing around immaculate conception (made worse because after this movie they quietly brush that aside in the next movies. Yes I hate those two concepts, but Lucas went so far as to include them in his movie as important plot points and its lazy storytelling to completely ignore it rather than come up with some way to make it work in the context of the greater story), and his Force levels are OVER 9000!!!!! Clearly, he must be the Chosen One!

But wait. Is he really a great mechanic? During the pod race, his ride gets sabotaged by having a part broken off, but that only explains one of the breakdowns. His racer almost doesn’t even start at the beginning of the race, costing him time and one of the connecting cables to an engine flies loose during the second lap. Neither of these look like they’re related to the sabotage, so the only explanation for that is slipshod mechanical skills that aren’t as good as he says they are. Then there’s the whole feelings of self-importance he has. Sure, kids are disobedient, but he’s consistently so and, oddly for a slave, goes un-reprimanded for the most part. When he confronts Qui-Gon about his Jedi status, Qui-Gon playfully tries to hide it and Anakin gets incredibly defensive about the possibility that maybe he’s wrong about something, which is fantastic villain building actually because it makes him a budding egomaniac, but I don’t think its intentional. He also gets some flashes of crazy. Padme, from her sheltered, aristocratic life, innocently enough asks if he’s a slave. He snaps back with “I’m a person and my name is Anakin,” which I guess is normal, but he gets a look in his eyes like he’s going leap at her with a wrench and a feral howl if she so much as mentions it again, which is not a normal reaction to give to a character that you’ve just hit on moments before. Which is actually pretty fun villain foreshadowing, but again, the way the character is being sold to the audience is as a heroic, kind, honest boy when that’s clearly not the kid we’re actually seeing. Also, his “big damn heroes” moment where he blows up the enemy flagship is so damn contrived that it hurts. The damn fighter’s on autopilot most of the fight and its through blind luck and plot armor that he is able to hit the critical juncture. Force powers my ass.

Captain Panaka: Hugh Quarshire plays the stoic, loyal captain of the Queen’s bodyguards. He’d probably be an interesting character if they’d actually given him anything to do other than look concerned.

R2-D2: So Artoo it turns out was a maintenance droid on the Queen’s starship. Artoo is Artoo, and thank god they didn’t derail the character. Still, connecting him to the main action of this movie doesn’t serve any purpose whatsoever for the original trilogy and only serves to make the Star Wars universe a much, much smaller place where everybody knows everybody somehow. This is going to be a recurring theme.

C-3PO: First, the puppet is really nice and Anthony Daniels returns as the voice of the fussy droid. That’s the good part. The bad is that Anakin builds a protocol droid skilled in complicated diplomatic procedures for his penniless slave of a mother. Second is that he serves no purpose whatsoever to the plot. Third is that a character crucial to the original trilogy and a unique character just happens to be built by Anakin Skywalker just so you can have the “first meeting” between him and Artoo makes the universe smaller.

Supreme Chancellor Valorum: Terence Stamp (Zod from Superman II) has a really small role as the head of the Republic and an established ally of Naboo and the Queen. His loyalty and friendship are rewarded with Amidala triggering a vote of no confidence in him. That’s awfully considerate of her.

Watto: Andrew Secombe voices the Toydarian junk dealer who owns Anakin. The CGI on the character is well done and the guy’s an interesting character in a sleazy, backwater way.

Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious: Ian McDiarmid returns to the franchise as the man who will be Emperor. He’s really good as a Senator from Naboo who is constantly working angles against other characters for his own ends. He’s also obviously the Sith Lord who’s the man behind the scenes, but the movie plays the duality straight, never outright showing it. As a manipulator and magnificent bastard, he’s pretty great for his screen time.

Yoda: Frank Oz returns as the ancient Jedi master. There’s a new puppet to reflect the younger Yoda, and it works great. That, combined with Oz’s voice work, keeps the character a welcome sight, despite giving him some pretty cheesy lines and being part of the idiot ball carrying Jedi Council.

Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson is the other member of the Jedi Council that gets major screen time and lines. He and Yoda mostly just echo each other’s thoughts.

Boss Nass: BRIAN BLESSED lends his booming voice to the CGI leader of the Gungans. It was he who banished Jar Jar from their city (good so far) and after making peace with the Naboo, he makes Jar Jar a general, throwing the coward into harm’s way (likely in the hopes that it’ll get the guy killed in action, or perhaps fragged by his own men. Oh, if only). For that, I salute him.

Sebulba: Lewis Macleod lends the voice of the CGI pod racer with a bad attitude and a bizarre physiology. He’s played up as the local racing hotshot and asshole who cheats to win. He’s Anakin’s racing rival, but he also beats up Jar Jar, so he’s a pretty cool guy.

Darth Maul: Talented martial artist Ray Park is the demonic-looking Sith Apprentice. Sure, he’s a little bit gimmicky with his dual bladed lightsaber, but he’s there to bring the pain, and he does. Unfortunately, he’s given no development whatsoever, few lines, and is dispatched in a punk-ass way. His bitch death is what’s holding him back from being the movie’s Badass. If he’d been better handled as a credible threat, it would’ve worked.

The Niemoidians: The Trade Federation honchos. They dress in odd clothes, have ridiculous accents, but are animatronic heads on top of actors, and that’s kind of cool. They are cowardly and more than a bit silly, so they’re not a credible threat as legitimate villains, but as manipulated minion fodder for Sidious, they get the job done. They’re not even really villains. The worst thing they do is invade Naboo and threaten pain upon the Queen and the people. Throughout the movie we’re repeatedly told that people are dying on the planet, but we never ever see anything to support that, which is bad storytelling. The Trade Federation just wants their stupid little trade agreement signed, probably for a monopoly or something. The invasion is meant to bring the hostile party to the bargaining table (and it fails). Sure they threaten violence upon the people, but in all honesty, in what way would systematically executing potential customers be a good business strategy?? Lackeys? Sure. Major, murderous villains? No.

The Battle Droids: The mechanical soldiers of the Trade Federation. I actually really liked these guys. Sure, they’re no stormtroopers, but as far as low level minions, they get the job done. Hell, they’re even pretty sympathetic when it comes down to how outclassed they are against the Jedi. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guys as they get violently dismembered on screen. And during the final battle, they also manage to secure a legitimate victory against the “vaunted” Gungan Army. Seriously, they overwhelm the amphibians and start rounding up captives with the intent to get shit done, and its only the plot railroading of Anakin’s piloting “skills” that snatches victory away from the hapless droids. I’m going to go with these thankless workhorses as the movie’s badasses. Roger, roger, you selfless metal men. Roger, roger.

Eye candy. That’s what George Lucas has done as the director. The pacing of the film might be awful, but at least the boring parts are pretty to look at. The movie features a mix of live action, physical effects and puppets and CGI, and on that technical level, it works great. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous in the film, with shots framed beautifully and progressing mood or story. It would make for a great graphic novel that way. Action scenes are usually really solid, but I have to talk about the end battle.

The end battle is divided into four concurrent storylines, which could be a problem, but the way its edited, its actually pretty coherent. Unfortunately, not all of the segments get proper development time. The land battle between the Gungans and the Droid Army is bright, flashy and pretty inventive (even with the Jar Jar stuff), the problem is that it feels like a cutscene from a game and not a climactic moment. The city fight with Amidala’s men is pretty well done too, but there’s not a lot of it and it doesn’t really feel dangerous either because the only casualties are droids and nameless stuntmen. The three-way fight between Darth Maul and the Jedi is absolutely fantastic and everything you could ever want in a fast-paced lightsaber duel to the death. It’s the highlight of the movie, easily. The space battle. Star Wars was known for its incredible space battles, but what the hell happened here? Let’s explore. First, Anakin “Lucky Shot” Skywalker is not a legitimately plausible fighter pilot. Second, it has no flow, no choreography whatsoever. Its just fighters flying up to space where the battle plan is to “blow up the control ship” (sounds like they got handed a suicide mission by their wise and benevolent leaders). Third, it has no tension whatsoever. A total of four other pilots get any kind of face time and only one of them has received any kind of development whatsoever because he was on the Royal Starship during their jaunt through the backwater planets. Out of those four, only one gets a fiery death in cold space. An epic battle with emotional investment in their success this ain’t.

George Lucas probably should have had help tightening up the script. The dialog is stiff, stiffer than the original trilogy, and the pacing is, as already mentioned, awful. The ideas are pretty neat though, and the plot isn’t bad if you boil it down to its bare minimum structure without the ponderous overuse of “words words words” Its also abundantly clear that Lucas does not write political drama/thrillers very well because he fails to capture the nuance of the subtle game of diplomacy and instead the Senate scenes are just exposition vomited out onto the screen (with the exception of McDiarmid’s oily delivery).

John Williams on soundtrack and Ben Burtt on sound editing. It feels so good to write that sentence again. They again do glorious and fantastic work.

It was twenty-some years between the first movie and Phantom Menace. The technology has progressed in making Star Wars but the storytelling has degraded. The end result is a long, ponderous but lushly-shot film that makes great use of special effects, but is dragged down by its delivery. Some good performances are countered by really bad performances, and of course, there’s Jar Jar Binks to assault the audience. Visually it and its effects pushed filmmaking tech forward, but the movie as a whole lacks the energy and fire that made the original trilogy so damn infectious. This movie is a yo-yo of quality. When it actually clicks, its pure Star Wars magic. Sadly, it doesn’t click as often as it misfires. If you love Star Wars, of course you’ve already seen it and more than likely been disappointed (or at best found it “okay”). If you love awesome movies with heart and soul, this film will not satisfy you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

“What do you mean, “Don’t deny it?” I’m not denying anything!”

Who here has ever had a burning desire to see a game made into a movie? Okay, hands down. Now, who’s had a burning desire to see a board game made into a movie? Considerably less this time. Well, for you stalwarts holding out for big screen adaptations of “Hungry, Hungry Hippos,” “Candyland” and “Battleship” there is one spot of hope for you: the 1985 mystery/comedy Clue: The Movie (or Cluedo for those silly monarchists across the pond).

So it’s the 1950s and a group of unrelated characters are invited to a mansion where it is revealed that they are all being blackmailed by the same man, a Mr. Boddy. Then the murders start with the main characters all trying to figure out who did the killing. Hilarity ensues and so do three alternate endings.

Mr. Boddy: Anybody who knows the game Clue knows that it’s a bout a murder. The stiff’s name is appropriately “Mr. Boddy” and Lee Ving isn’t (alive) in the movie very long to get anything other than to make him a smug bastard who you’re just waiting to get killed. He’s apparently blackmailing all of the major characters, so they all have motives to kill him.

Mrs. Peacock: Eileen Brennan plays a senator’s wife. Haughty and easily flustered, she chain smokes when nervous. She’s really great at overreacting to everything going on.

Mrs. White: Madeline Kahn plays a rich widow who’s outlived two husbands already. Kahn’s always solid comedic timing is incredible in this film.

Miss Scarlet: Lesley Ann Warren plays the vamp-like madam of a Washington DC brothel. Miss Scarlet frequently engages in fast paced belligerent banter with just about everyone.

Professor Plum: Christopher Lloyd plays a lecherous scientist with connections to the UN. He’s fairly understated in the film (compared to Doc Brown) but always manages to stare at women’s chests with a completely straight face.

Colonel Mustard: Martin Mull plays a high placed military man who’s been a frequent visitor to Miss Scarlet’s business. Compared to the rest of the actors, he’s a bit of a weak link. Not terrible, but there’s something in his delivery that doesn’t work for me.

Mr. Green: Michael McKean plays a government employee blackmailed for being homosexual. Goes through the movie repeatedly insisting that “he didn’t do it!” in reference to the murders.

Yvette: Colleen Camp plays a maid with an outrageous French accent and a more outrageous outfit. This film probably helped contribute to the maid fetishes of millions of males. Um, not that I would know anything about that…

Wadsworth: At last we come to the film’s badass. In a movie filled to the brim with talented actors trying to out-ham one another in the scenery chewing department, but none of them, none, out-ham Tim Curry as the butler. Curry throws everything he’s got into a character who goes from collected organizer and butler to a frantic whirlwind of exposition and then back again. Curry doesn’t just steal the show, he owns it from the very start.

This was British writer/director Jonathan Lynn’s (The Whole Nine Yards and, err, the 90s’ Sgt. Bilko movie) first feature film. The film does a great job setting up the atmosphere before knocking it down by the parody of the whole thing. Things are well lit and shot, though the film does have a “theatrical” feel to it in a lot of places that works for the movie. Still, I wouldn’t mind living in a mansion like that.

John Landis (who’s done a ton of films) and Jonathan Lynn wrote a script that was far better than anything a movie based on a board game had any right to be. They invent a fairly reasonable conceit for all of these characters and weapons to be in the same house, create characters that their actors can run with, and the banter is rapid fire awesomesauce. Campy, yes, but deliberately so. The movie even has three endings which aired separately in theaters (though the DVD has all three for your convenience).

John Morris does a very good job with the original score. There isn’t really anything theme that stands out, but its all great for the mock tense atmosphere of the film. A couple 50’s rock & roll songs round out the soundtrack quite nicely.

Watching Clue gives the impression that everybody on set was having an awesome time making it. The movie’s a light, airy comedy that can’t take itself seriously and neither should the audience. Its become a cult classic because of the sharp writing and even sharper comedic delivery of the actors, and its one of my favorite comedies. Definitely worth a look.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

“Ahhh! Take off you hoser!”

So, like, good day and welcome to our website.

While Saturday Night Live was a huge vehicle for getting comedians in the national spotlight here in the US in the 70’s and 80’s, Canada had its own sketch comedy show that did the same thing up north. Second City Television isn’t nearly as famous down here in the States, but it was where people like John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas got their starts, so yeah, the show is a little bit more than a rambling way to introduce the next movie. Two of the characters created for SCTV were Bob & Doug McKenzie, added to the show’s lineup because the network wanted “identifiably Canadian” content on the show. The result were two idiot brothers who drank beer, wore tuques all the time and said “eh” at the end of sentences a lot. This was immensely popular, leading to 1983’s The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew.

Okay, so we’ve got two brothers in Toronto who drink beer a lot, don’t have jobs but sort of have a cable access show and start the movie off by airing their disaster of a movie before an audience that hates it. Needing money (and needing to buy their dad some more beer) they put a mouse in a bottle in an effort to try and get free beer from the brewery, which happens to be going through some regime change. The old owner was murdered by his brother and the owner’s daughter is trying to assume ownership (and find out if her dad was murdered and by whom). Allied with the usurper is the brewery’s Brewmeister, who happens to also own the asylum next door and is working on a special mind control beer with which he will TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!! Hockey is also involved. All of this happens in 90 minutes. Now, sharp viewers will notice that this movie has a lot of plot points, characters and names lifted right out of Hamlet. Not the mind control beer, obviously, but Shakespeare wasn’t perfect, eh?

Bob McKenzie: Rick Moranis plays the shorter, meeker brother. He’s sort of the idea man, but he also gets pushed around a lot by his brother. He does, however, have an incredible capacity to drink more beer than is humanly possible, which comes in handy. Bob McKenzie also takes a shine to the heroine of the movie, but its not reciprocated.

Doug McKenzie: Dave Thomas (the actor, not the guy who founded Wendy’s) is the dumber, more aggressive brother. He’s also something of a idiot MacGyver, able to intuitively get technology to work for him. Individually, the brothers don’t have much personality, but together the banter flows fast and furious and they play off of each other brilliantly. As far as Shakespeare analogues, they’re the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of the movie, except main characters and not killed off by Hamlet’s douchebaggery.

Pam Elsinore: Lynne Griffin plays the heiress to the Elsinore Brewery. Obviously a Hamlet analogue, she’s a plucky, stubborn lass who wants to take over the family business like dad intended.
Jean “Rosie” LaRose: Angus McInnes plays an employee of the brewery and also a patient at the insane asylum who was a hockey star before a mental breakdown. He’s a nice guy, a little slow on the uptake, but, well, generally more competent than the McKenzies. Bob looks up to him (since he has Rosie’s rookie card). He and Pam take a liking to each other. That and the mental sickness makes him this movie’s Ophelia.

Hosehead: The McKenzie Brothers’ dog, a large, beer loving pooch that gets very, very, very protective of his beer.

Claude Elsinore: Paul Dooley plays the sniveling, weasely villain who takes over the brewery after his brother’s death. Well, yeah, obviously he did it. He’s Claudius (hell, his wife’s name is Gertrude) and a very ineffectual villain, but also gets a lot of funny lines as he blatantly tries to deflect any culpability on his part.

Brewmeister Smith: Max von Sydow plays the real villain of the movie, a doctor of psychology and the Brewmeister at Elsinore. Smith is the guy behind the guy, and von Sydow plays him up as a serious, credible mad scientist who can also crush people’s heads with his bare hands. He’s actually really badass in this movie. He also has an assistant named Ted (Brian McConnachie) who works the computers and gets the crap beaten out of himself frequently.

Dad McKenzie: The cantankerous old dad of the brothers, which wouldn’t be worth mention except for the fact that Mel FRIGGIN’ Blanc did his voice, making him sound a lot like Yosemite Sam. This is awesome.

Directed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, the movie knows its not high art, so it really goes more for comical effects. The special effects are pretty low budget and the matte painting backgrounds are obviously so. This isn’t to say the movie isn’t visually interesting in places. The hockey game in the basement of the facility, where lunatics hopped up (zing!) on mind control beer put on odd plastic armor (black and white are the teams) and play hockey to synthesizer music. Its…odd and actually a little creepy, but also pretty cool.

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas again, which makes sense. Dialog is sharp and funny and the plot spirals wildly into the realm of the absurd. Sure, it wouldn’t be able to hold up to serious scrutiny (there’s a hell of a lot that just isn’t physically possible for a comedy that takes place in “the real world”), but here, rule of funny supersedes fixing plot holes. As far as stupid comedies go, this one’s really good with some great comedic bits (like a dog flying off to drink beer, a lawyer who physically fights off the press with kung fu, and an underwater gag that- no, I won’t spoil that one).

The original score by Charles Fox is okay but nothing particularly worthwhile or memorable. There are a lot of moments where the music gets appropriately creepy (for comical effect). The title song, “Strange Brew” that plays over the beginning credits by Ian Thomas is about as interesting as the soundtrack gets.

Strange Brew is a really funny movie and totally recommended with the caveat that it’s a willingly stupid movie that refuses to take itself seriously. I mean, it has Max von Sydow plotting to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!! with mind control beer. If the thought of that appeals to you, you’ll have a good time. If not, you’ve been warned.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

“You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude.”

The creative team collectively known as the Coen Brothers (Joel & Ethan) have a reputation for experimenting with stories, both in their content and in the method of delivery. 1998’s The Big Lebowski, while not a commercial success like their earlier film Fargo, has earned itself quite a popular afterlife on video.

Los Angeles, shortly after the first Gulf War in the 1990s. An unemployed bowling enthusiast and past-his-prime hippie gets his rug peed on by thugs who confused him with a millionaire who shares his name. At first only concerned with restitution for the rug, he gets swept into a dirty world of corruption, violent nihilists, and double crosses. The plot is pretty much lifted from the classic film noir and pulp novel style of the early-mid 20th century, only instead of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, we’ve got a slacker who prefers to be referred to as the Dude. Now, I’ve heard/read various things saying that the plot of the film is totally unimportant and irrelevant, but I, I say bollocks to that. The plot is absolutely integral to the story of this film. Without the opening action that disrupts the Dude’s lifestyle, there is no action, there is no spiraling out of control for several characters, and ultimately, there would be no movie. Just because the characters are the ones firmly in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean the plot isn’t an essential part of the movie. The plot’s there, its vital to the story, and its also a part of the overall parody/tribute to the film noir genre. Sure there are red herrings and dead ends that ultimately don’t lead to the main resolution, that’s a staple of the genre, and the Coens are throwing those into the blender of this film to play with, subvert, but ultimately validate, because they did use those tropes.

The Dude (Jeffrey Lebowski): Jeff Bridges is the Dude, a laid back, unemployed, aging stoner who just wants to drink White Russians and play in his bowling league. Of course, that doesn’t last and he gets his rug peed on by two thugs, tracks down the millionaire Lebowski, gets a new rug, loses the new rug, gets called in to help the big Lebowski ransom his kidnapped wife, loses the ransom money, goes bowling several times, gets laid and is generally inconvenienced by the events of the movie. It’s a lot to take in, when you think about it, but the Dude never really falters in his own ideals, which are pretty much centered around getting his rug problem fixed, getting into the bowling finals and generally abiding.

Walter Sobchak: John Goodman plays the Dude’s best friend, a Vietnam veteran with anger issues and access to firearms. Walter is the foul mouthed, gun-toting foil to the Dude’s more passive attitude, and the chemistry the two have on screen is fantastic. Hell, even though I think the Dude’s a great character, Walter, with all of his insane quirks that keep surfacing through the film and his dialog exchanges with the Dude (most of which are unprintable for the loosely “PG-13” level I’m going for with these reviews) steal the show for me. He’s a badass. A thoroughly insane badass.

Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos: Steve Buscemi is the third member of the hero trio, but isn’t really involved in the main plot. He’s pretty much there to hang out at the bowling alley, throw strikes and piss off Walter into a frenzy when he asks what’s going on.

Jeffrey Lebowski (The Big Lebowski): David Huddleston (who played Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles, yeah, a bit of an odd aside, I know) is the title character. Wealthy, wheelchair-bound and a self-made man, he has incredible disdain for the Dude, but turns to him when his trophy wife goes missing and a ransom note is presented.

Brandt: Philip Seymour Hoffman is the Big Lebowski’s sycophantic assistant. Not much to say about the character, but Hoffman does a great job of being a sniveling go-between for the two Lebowskis.

Bunny Lebowski: Tara Reid is the Big Lebowski’s trophy wife, and huge slut who’s disappearance triggers the rest of the plot. Is she really kidnapped? Is it a trick to get more money from her husband? What’s her sordid past? A huge chunk of the mystery comes out of her disappearance.

Maude Lebowski: Okay, it’s the last character named Lebowski. Julianne Moore is the Big Lebowski’s daughter from a previous marriage, an avant-garde artist with a distinctly femminist bent. She has a flamboyant friend with a penchant for giggling played by, and I didn’t recognize him until IMDB told me, David Thewlis (yeah, from Dragonheart).

Jackie Treehorn: Ben Gazzara plays a porn kingpin to whom Bunny owes money. His thugs were the ones that peed on the Dude’s carpet.

The Nihilists: Peter Stormare, Torsten Voges and Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) are three German nihilists (who believe in nothing) that are ransoming a very large sum of money from the Big Lebowski.

The Stranger: Sam Elliot plays the, for lack of a better word, Narrator of the film, an easygoing, sarsaparilla-drinking cowboy. He shows up in the film to talk to the Dude at a couple points as well.

Jesus Quintana: John Turturo is a scene stealing rival bowler who gets some fantastic lines, dresses all in purple, and licks his bowling ball before throwing it. Indeed, nobody fucks with the Jesus. But if the character’s so scene stealing, why isn’t he the badass of the film? Eight year olds, dude.

And yes, that is Jerry Haleva as Saddam Hussein in that one dream sequence.

The visual directing by Joel & Ethan Coen is really solid all around, traveling into the sublime at many points. The dream sequences in particular have a kind of Busby Berkley/Expressionist/Surrealist bent to them that is simply hilarious on a gut level but incredible to watch on a composition level. The shots in the bowling alley are pretty much the most gorgeously done frames in the film, effectively serving as “bowling porn.” The pacing of the film does lag a little bit in the middle of the film, but there’s always something going on, and the tight focus on the Dude’s character keeps you anchored through the slower parts.

Joel & Ethan Coen again. The dialog is tight. Really tight. Like I said above, the movie is ridiculously quotable. The structure of the film is built as a character piece, focusing on the Dude and his reactions to the events around him, but if you’re paying attention and are at all genre savvy, you’ll realize it also follows the structure of film noir, which is brilliantly done, because it integrates all sorts of elements from the genre with wild twists.

The soundtrack for the movie is fantastic. A mix of songs, particularly some classics from the 60s fit their scenes perfectly, particularly the Creedence Clearwater Revival songs (since the Dude’s car has some Creedence tapes in his car).

The Big Lebowski is a fantastic movie. My experience with the Coen Brothers’ films hasn’t been very deep so far (I for one, didn’t care for Burn After Reading in the least), but this film is a tightly and meticulously crafted project with fantastic performances and a willingness to experiment with narrative structure. Perhaps not their most experimental film, but certainly a solid, well-recommended effort.

Friday, September 18, 2009

“Now, when I say, "Who's da mastah?" you say, "Sho'nuff!"

How can I possibly introduce Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon? Made in 1985, it’s a martial arts film that dips its toes into blaxsploitation, but not really. It’s a martial arts musical comedy, but how much of that is intentionally funny, I’m not quite sure of. It is an unapologetic B movie with a cult following though.

Dateline: Harlem (as opposed to Haarlem, which is in the Netherlands), the Mid-80s. A young black student of martial arts seeks to perfect his skills by finding a master who will help him achieve the power of “the glow.” Alongside his quest, he runs afoul of a beautiful, young singer/MTV vee-jay who is almost constantly being harassed and kidnapped by the goons of a deranged arcade owner who is trying to push his girlfriend’s terrible music videos on the world. Yes, really. Our hero also has to reconcile with his much “hipper” brother and deal with a belligerent rival. All of this happens in 109 minutes.

Leroy Green/Bruce Leroy: Taimak plays our Hero, the honest, innocent, almost painfully naïve student of kung fu who goes around Harlem dressed up in a Bruce Lee like outfit with a Coolie hat. Virtuous and peaceful, he teaches at a dojo and is really just interested in perfecting his own abilities for most of the film. To that end, he seeks out “The Master,” rumored to work in a fortune cookie factory, but he gets swept up in a rivalry with Sho’nuff and with always ending up rescuing Laura. He’s an interesting character, a little bit on the stock side of things, but likable in his wide-eyed “good guy-ness” (I know its not a word).

Laura Charles: Vanity (singer and former protégé of Prince) plays the damsel in distress who just can’t seem to catch a break from the villains. She starts falling in love with Leroy, as happens in these films.

Eddie Arkadian: Christopher Murney is the Villain of the movie, an insane, short, bald man who would kill to get his girlfriend’s terrible music video played on the air. Which is as goofy as you’d think it sounds, but the character never lets up on his mania, so he actually ends up being pretty creepy. He’s also got a former boxer named Rock as his henchman. They’ve got a fish tank with…something in it that can strip meat off the bone in seconds.

Angela Viracco: Faith Prince plays the ditzy but not evil girlfriend of Eddie with quite a few Cyndi Lauper touches.

Richie Green: Leo O’Brien plays Leroy’s kid brother, who keeps talking big about getting Laura as his girlfriend and basically asking his brother “what the hell’s up with you?” for his Asian fixation. Ultimately, he’s there to serve as a comic foil (as a sassy, streetwise black kid) to his forthright, uptight brother.

Sho’nuff the Shogun of Harlem: Julius J. Carry III plays the film’s badass and is the reason you watch this movie. I’m serious. He has a posse, a custom-painted van, beats the living hell out of anything that looks at him crosswise (movie-goers, furniture in a pizza shop, etc) and has a pair of those solid plastic, Venetian blind style shades big in the 80’s (that Kanye tried to bring back). He talks smack and has the muscle to back it up.

There’s also an appearance by a very, very, very young Ernie Reyes Jr. (from TMNT 2 and, uh, Surf Ninjas) and also frickin’ William H. Macy in a small part as Laura’s assistant who tries to warn her about how dangerous Eddie Arkadian is.

Bearing in mind that we are in cheesy 80’s film territory, the directing done by Michael Schultz (who’s done a lot of television work) is not bad. In terms of an overall visual impact, the watchword is “colorful.” Hair is big in this film, and so is the neon lighting. You’ve been warned. The influence of Bruce Lee is all over this movie too, with some footage from his film, particularly Enter The Dragon.

Now, as an action movie, the martial arts stuff was actually really good and fun to watch. The climactic fight scene between Leroy and Sho’nuff is actually pretty kickass and features quite a bit of the desired Glow when used by both combatants as a surprisingly good special effect.

The script by Louis Venosta tells the story without too many hitches. Things happen and fight scenes are not withheld from the audience. The story seems to be almost self aware, like the filmmakers are giving a wink to the audience, but its never really clear when the ridiculous stuff is supposed to be part of that joke or was just a budget/time thing. Probably the most interesting thing the writing does is play around with stereotypes, with various characters that either play up their ethnic stereotype or play against it completely. It’s a nice touch, actually.

The original music by Bruce Miller and Misha Segal gets the job done, but the real draw is the crazy, over-the-top 80’s songs from DeBarge, Vanity, Stevie Wonder and even Smoky Robinson. Still, probably the best song for the movie is “The Last Dragon” written by Bruce Miller & Norman Whitfield, performed by Dwight David and played during the final fight. Its an ear worm that’ll lodge itself into your head, telling you that you are the last dragon and do in fact, possess the power of the Glow.

It’s a cult movie, and that factors into my assessment of things. As such, yeah, The Last Dragon is pretty hilarious, memorable and full of plenty of scenes that are both awesome and induce head scratching. The movie is apparently being remade with Samuel L. Jackson taking over the part of Sho’nuff, and that sounds promising, but the original is a pretty fun action/comedy that has a subplot of Leroy trying to get into a fortune cookie factory run by three Asians that are more ghetto than he is. That’s the kind of movie this is, so you should know if that’s the kind of stuff you want to sit through. As for me, yeah, it was a lot of cheesy fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

“A real man sheds his blood before he sheds his tears.”

So, fun fact, after seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in theaters, the next martial arts movie I saw was 1993’s Siu nin Wong Fei Hung ji: Tit Ma Lau (hereafter referred to as Iron Monkey) as one of my early experiences in college and it kind of got the ball really rolling for me as far as kung fu cinema goes. You may have heard of it when it got a 2001 re-release with a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” stamped onto it.

China in the mid 1800s is plagued with disasters (flooding, refugee migration, corrupt officials and, uh, plague itself). In a southern town, a corrupt governor is milking his subjects dry, something which a local Robin Hood type of character who dresses in black and covers the lower half of his face does not take kindly too. Angered by the impudence, the governor blackmails a traveling monk/herbalist into hunting down the criminal while imprisoning his son. The monk meets a kind doctor who helps him out, and the stakes get raised when an imperial minister arrives to put a stop to the Iron Monkey’s actions. Hilarity and ADVENTURE! follow for the next 85-90 minutes.

Dr. Yang: Rongguang Yu plays the town’s kind, benevolent doctor who gives the poor peasants free subscriptions and the rich folks expensive subscriptions. Obviously he’s the Iron Monkey, but the mystery of the thief’s identity isn’t the point. He knows a lot about medicine and Shaolin kung fu, and is a pretty likable guy. As Iron Monkey, he’s really badass, throwing money at the poor folks with notes attached and making sure that nobody tries to steal any of it away.

Miss Orchid: Jean Wang plays Dr. Yang’s assistant/nurse and an accomplished martial artists as well. She’s in on the Iron Monkey’s activities.

Wong Kei-Ying: Martial arts superstar Donnie Yen plays the traveling monk/doctor, famous martial artist kind of guy who’s got his young son with him. During an altercation where he proceeds to beat the asses of several thugs, he gets arrested on suspicion of being the Iron Monkey. Blackmailed into tracking the thief down, he finds out that the common people won’t sell anything to him because of his publicly stated mission. He comes across Dr. Yang and they become buddies, but of course things get complicated when a new minister comes into town.

Wong Fei-Hung: Kei-Ying’s son, played by (female) Sze-Man Tsang. The character is a little kid, but training in martial arts and in herbal properties and a habit of calling out the names of his attacks. Normally, kids in these movies are really annoying, but here, it’s a little badass in training, who would grow up to become one of China’s great 19th -20th Century folk heroes (which doesn‘t mean a lot in the West, but over there the character is very well-liked). The little kid can kick some serious ass.

Chief Fox: Shun-Yee Yuen is the bumbling, corrupt but likable Chief/Master of security. He’s crooked enough to take bribes from local criminals, but draws the line at said crooks trying to force a woman into prostitution or torturing a kid. He gets his butt whupped quite a lot in the film, being a whipping boy for both the bad guy and the Iron Monkey, but he’s sympathetic, likable and actually smarter than he lets on.

The Governor: A corrupt, hedonistic official who’s bribed his way into office and leeches off the people to support the luxurious lifestyle of his nine wives. A comedic villain who nonetheless gets some actual tyranny done before being replaced by the serious villain.

The Minister: The REAL villain of the movie. He’s a big, bearded Shaolin practitioner who’s a disgrace to the tenets of monasticism. Lecherous and violent, he’s got a squad of Shaolin monks who follow him in deed and creed, as well as two minibosses in the shape of a scarred swordsman and an ugly nun with a major facial blemish. He’s serious business and shit gets real when he finally shows up.

Woo-ping Yuen is a major name in the action choreography world, having directed the fight scenes of countless kung fu movies, as well as The Matrix and Kill Bill films. As the overall director of the film, he’s also very good, but the movie never leaves behind his area of expertise. The fight scenes in this film are both awesome (at all times) and hilarious (when need be). The climactic fight is the ultimate set piece of the film, featuring three characters fighting it out on narrow wooden posts above a courtyard that is ON FIRE.

The writing team was Tai-Muk Lau, Cheung Tan, Pik-yin Tang and Hark Tsui. Now, I don’t know any of the Chinese dialects, and I’m always a little leery of subtitle quality, so I can’t really comment on dialog. However, the characterizations are clearly defined (which works in a story like this) and the pacing is excellent, all while being its own movie full of ADVENTURE! and not simply a “Chinese Robin Hood” film.

The score by Richard Yuen is entirely appropriate for the action on screen, but it does its job without superseding the movie. I can’t remember any particular moment that really stood out.

Iron Monkey is a really fun film. I am somewhat aware that the version that has reached American shores is allegedly bastardized, but if the version I watched has been chopped up, I didn’t notice anything really amiss. It’s a light, enjoyable and primarily fun kung fu movie that, while it doesn’t reach say an artistic level that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does, is still highly entertaining. It was my “gateway drug” into Kung Fu movies, and I can actively recommend it to others.

Monday, September 14, 2009

“His horn is his life! Tear out the horn!”

1984 brought Conan, and Arnold, back to the big screen. The success of the movie made a sequel inevitable, but with a different director, writing team, tone and a PG rating as opposed to R, the follow up didn’t really go for a similar feel to the original. The end result was Conan the Destroyer, an altogether lighter film in the franchise that isn’t nearly as fondly remembered as the first one.

Our hero is summoned before a powerful queen to perform a task for her. He is to escort a princess on a coming-of-age quest to recover (steal) an ancient artifact. In return, he is promised that his (spoilers, yo) lost love will be restored to life. A party of adventurers ventures forth on an ADVENTURE! and there are of course, betrayals.

Conan: Still the main character, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as the muscle-bound Hyborian Hero. True to the title, he destroys quite a few things, is still a thief and adventurer, but the film has a much less bleak attitude toward his character. Still, they reconnect to the first movie by having his entire motivation for the quest his desire to bring back the woman he loved. It’s a nice touch, and you get to see Conan in much more of a leadership position as he tells people what to do. He’s still very much a badass, punching out the SAME CAMEL from the first movie, and he gets to do a little comedy when we see Drunk Conan. “The promise I was kingdomed” indeed. I don’t know why, but I found Drunk Conan hilarious. Still the biggest badass in the film.

Malak: Tracey Walter plays Conan’s thieving sidekick this time around, and the character is a weak link in the movie. Subotai in the first one was a competent, fairly badass archer/thief in his own right. Malak, well, Malak’s there for straight up comic relief. He’s not strong, not brave, not wise, and not at all dexterous, so its really a question of why he’s around.

The Wizard/Akiro: Mako plays the only other returning character. Despite being on screen more in this one, he doesn’t say as much, though when he does the enjoyably hammy acting continues.

Princess Jehnna: A very young Olvia D’Abo, who’s done a lot of voice work, is the princess who’s job it is to go on a quest so that she can find a powerful artifact that will help resurrect the sleeping god Dagoth. She’s also to be sacrificed if she successfully returns, but that’s not part of the flyer she’s been given. She’s a princess, and has all of the standard cliché fantasy movie baggage that goes along with it, like being snooty and outraged when her authority is undermined, but she’s also a young girl on the cusp of puberty and is starting to think about stuff like “why do I have to be a virgin.” She kind of develops a crush on Conan, which gets a little awkward since she’s very, very, very jailbait in this movie.

Bombaata: Basketball legend Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain plays the evil Queen’s captain and the bodyguard of the princess. He’s sent on the quest to both make sure Jehnna makes it back alive so she can be sacrificed, but also that she stays a virgin. He’s a competent, big, warrior with a silly morning star that has a blade sticking out in addition to the spikes, and is pretty clearly trying to screw Conan over at every opportunity.

Zula: Grace Jones plays an Amazonian warrior/bandit woman that Conan frees on a trip into a town. Zula is just batshit insane in this movie. Frequently screaming her head off at enemies during/before a fight, there’s one point where she basically tilts (as in jousting) at Bombaata because he said “no” to her request to see Conan. He whittles her spear down to a nub and then she flying tackles him to the ground. The one part of the character that I don’t get is why she has a little fox tail thingy attached to her thong? Its never explained, never mentioned, and the only time its even pointed out is during a very brief musical tag when she comes up out of the water when they’re infiltrating a tower.

Queen Taramis: Sarah Douglas plays the evil queen devoted to bringing Dagoth back to life. She uses magic and trickery to convince Conan that she’s going to resurrect his lost love if he helps her out, but of course it’s a lie. Because she’s evil. Sexy evil.

Toth-Amon/Man Ape: Pat Roach (who was, among other things, the bald German mechanic in Raiders of the Lost Ark) plays the wizard from whom a jewel (the something something of Ahriman). He traps Conan in a room full of glass mirrors (fine so far) then has a bunch of red-cloaked images step out of the mirrors then walk around him, slowly merging into one figure (which is pretty cool) and then…lifts the cloak to reveal a really, really, really bad costume. There’s a fight scene, which has a bunch of wrestling moves thrown at Conan (which isn’t bad per se) but the costume is…I can’t even really describe how silly it looks.

Dagoth: According to IMDB, the guy in the rubber suit was none other than Andre the Giant. You would think this was awesome, but, well, when they finally do awaken Dagoth, he starts throwing a fit and killing dudes and lightning crashes in the sky, but the costume…just doesn’t look right for a Conan villain. It looks more suited to one of the kaiju that fight Godzilla, tearing up a cardboard Tokyo.

Richard Fleischer was a hell of a prolific director from the 50s-80s, making films like the classic Tora! Tora! Tora!, Soylent Green, Doctor Doolittle, and, uh, Mandingo. And he’s certainly a competent director here. Scenes are interesting to look at, sets are nicely done, lighting is rather good and the fight scenes are great (rubber suit sections notwithstanding). It does lack the mood of the first movie though.

I’ve already discussed the not very impressive monster costumes, but in general the special effects are fine. There’s one part where a sorcerer turns into a smoky, misty dragon and flies over a lake to kidnap Jehnna. Its an animation, but you know what, I liked that scene.

Again, Robert E. Howard gets credit due for the original idea and hey, guess what? Marvel writers Roy Thomas & Gerry Conway teamed up again to tackle a barbarian movie script, but then a guy named Stanley Mann gets the full “screenplay” credit, so I’m assuming he came after and made changes to the original script. Dialog is usually pretty fun, the pace moves quite nicely, and the writers go a little more into the whole “grrr, magic bad” thing that Conan himself has going, but it doesn’t really have that underlying tension that the first movie had that made it feel epic.

Basil Poledouris returned for the score of this film and the rest of the paragraph may get a little confusing. The score for the Destroyer is overall not quite as iconic as the first film’s (but by no means terrible). However, the “Riders of Taramis” piece is, individually, my favorite piece in the franchise, and is very, very, very awesome.

Conan the Destroyer is not as glorious as the first one. Hell, I can even see why some people hate it. I, however, don’t hate it, because every now and then, the movie does deliver a great idea, camera trick funny line that makes it fun. For some reason, Drunk Conan made this movie for me. If you’re like me and have access to the “Franchise Edition” of Conan, then you might as well watch it. Its as easy as turning the disc over.

And for giggles, does anybody else remember this show? I hope so, since Conan fighting a guy who looks identical to Serpentor should just be a product of my fevered mind.