Old-Fashioned Notions — Marvel’s The Avengers

Review:  May 4th, 2012 was, in keeping with geek tradition, ‘Star Wars’ Day.  On that most, uh, Force-full of days, we the guardians of sci-fi, fantasy and comic books take a moment to remember when we first got to see the saga of a ragtag team’s struggle against cosmic evil on the big screen.  Let’s never forget those days.  They were very nice, though some of us were eleven in those days, or as yet mere concepts in the hearts of teenage lovers, or not even proper inklings in anyone’s head, really.  But in counterpoint to ‘Star Wars’ Day nostalgia (which is only too appropriate, given “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”) on that particular May the Fourth in the U.S. we were blessed with the frankly stunning apotheosis of the cinematic superhero genre: ‘The Avengers’.  And the future — at least of sci-fi action-adventure cinema — seems very bright indeed.

Capping off Marvel Studios’ ambitious (and actually quite sudden) plan to finally approximate the diverse world of comic books (with their multitude of clashing heroes, villains and subgenres) in the movies, ‘The Avengers’ is a major coup for everyone involved in its creation.  Especially writer/director Joss Whedon, who, having previously built up a well-deserved but continually frustrated cult fanbase, successfully helmed one of the biggest summer movies of all time, and if he were to die young, he would die having proven to the world that he really knew what the hell he was doing after all.  Outside the rewards reaped by its creators, however, the whole of genre filmmaking stands to benefit from the film’s success, since, like the original ‘Star Wars’ before it, it can serve as a roadmap to properly realizing fantastic concepts in an appealing human manner.

For as big and silly and wonderful as ‘The Avengers’ gets, it’s grounded by honest, fallible and likable characters that remind us, by their magnetic presence, why we ought to enjoy any of this ballyhoo.  Any hack filmmaker can pit a superhuman against an alien invasion force and call it drama; it takes a real storyteller like Whedon to assemble a team that feels, despite their colorful and disparate personalities, inevitable.  These people — indeed, they are people first, heroes second — compliment each other perfectly.  Flaws become strengths by virtue of the team’s unlikely unity.  Out here in the real world, such moments of cohesion do occur, and tend to generate shockwaves when they do.  Because the film’s structure builds to the point where the team finally coheres, the expected trope of the climatic battle suddenly becomes organic, and the team’s fight against evil, instead of being rote action, is raw humanity gloriously unleashed.  Audiences react to this instinctively in a way they never will to ‘Transformers 3’.  They may not know why the dynamic in ‘The Avengers’ thrills them so deeply, but it surely does, and some of the kids who see the movie in theaters today will turn their quest to replicate the experience into a career in filmmaking.

The team dynamic is not the only secret to the film’s success, but it’s arguably the most important one to discuss in terms of its immediate cultural impact.  It’s the team itself that excites the (to use a word I dislike) zeitgeist.  ‘The Avengers’ is incredible optimistic and fun only because the team coalesces, by doing so healing all wounds and overcoming all evils within the team and without, at least as long as the team is together.  So ‘The Avengers’ is not obviously important like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Citizen Kane’, because it’s not a critique or a deconstruction of societal forces, but it absolutely is important and resonates so widely because it strongly affirms human community.  Basically all ‘The Avengers’ says is “We need each other.”  But does anything else really need to be said?

Let’s not presume that every work that captures the zeitgeist must include riffs on relevant real-world conflicts, i.e., the Joker-as-archetypal-terrorist plot of ‘The Dark Knight’ (which, I hasten to add, is extremely good) or the military’s presence on Pandora in ‘Avatar’ (which, like it or not, struck a chord with audiences to the tune of billions of dollars.)  Of course, even if we were to say that ‘The Avengers’ must include such imagery to resonate properly, we can easily find it in the film’s central conflict.  Eleven years after 9/11, here’s a massive hit movie that features a hostile force appearing suddenly in the sky and killing thousands in New York (sound familiar?) only to be thwarted by a team led by the embodiment of American heroism.  It’s an optimistic statement that draws (explicitly) on old-fashioned notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice and patriotism.  Indeed, while the film’s thesis is pretty much on-the-nose, so, for that matter, is ‘The Dark Knight’.  As much as I appreciate that film, it’s not exactly subtle; in fact, I’d say one reason Batfandom can be so irritating is that they do not understand how simple ‘The Dark Knight’ is, and flatter themselves for understanding a pretty damn obvious thematic message.  That, of course, is part and parcel with the common fantasy among Batfans (and I count myself among their number) of being the brilliant, dark, misunderstood vigilante — as much as I like it, the Batman concept appeals to (typically teenage male) arrogance.  It’s like walking out of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ convinced you’re the only one who realized that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and then thinking you’re the wise Jedi master who has to explain it to everyone.  But ‘The Avengers’ lacks the haughtiness of ‘The Dark Knight’; it isn’t trying to be important, it just is, because Whedon and company have their hearts in the right place.

Films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers’ impact audiences in deep, unconscious ways, making their particular brands of storytelling popular again.  Before ‘The Avengers’ hit the screen, there were many unqualified rumblings about superhero films dying off, but those diagnoses were really prescriptions, trying to cure cinema of a trend many believed was sapping the movies of their popularity and importance.  It’s much harder to make such statements now without coming off as hopelessly cynical or snobbish, because the superhero genre has just now come into its own, injecting Hollywood and audiences with new enthusiasm for superheroes and other related genres.  For the guardians of geekdom, who have taken over the multiplex yet again, May the Fourth can serve as a reminder of past glories and the possibility of future revelations.

Wild Tales of Wonder — John Carter

Review: Film fans of my generation tend to gripe about the lack of quality genre fare these days.  Where’s the heir to ‘Star Wars’?  Can’t somebody make a film as innocent and tearjerking as ‘E.T.’?  Whatever happened to weird and wild fantasy films such as ‘Legend’, ‘Conan the Barbarian’, ‘The Neverending Story’, and the ‘The Princess Bride’?  Why did they stop making good movies?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is that my generation is blinded by nostalgia and cannot see the fantastic stuff that’s right in front of them.  For the most part, if a movie comes close to the pure fun quotient of ’80s classics, it ends up oddly ignored, or worse, needlessly criticized. For example, J.J. Abrams’ ‘Super 8’, the heir apparent to ‘E.T.’, nailed the tone so precisely that it was largely rejected by geekdom as a suspicious attempt to cash-in on nostalgia.  It’s happening again with Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton‘s first live action film, ‘John Carter’, which successfully adapts Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novel ‘A Princess of Mars‘ into a film as gleefully exciting as the original ‘Star Wars’.  And so, ironically, the generation weaned on Lucas’ fantasy films refuses to embrace the very thing they want.

If Stanton made a major mistake in adapting ‘John Carter’, it’s in assuming that people actually buy into this stuff anymore.  Not that you can blame him.  One would think today’s audiences, who complain endlessly on the internet about Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers movies, would eat up a genuine film adventure if they had the chance.  Of course, today’s audiences have shown their true feelings by rewarding the likes of ‘Transformers’ with billion dollars grosses, so it should come as no surprise to Stanton if ‘John Carter’ fails to make bank.

Which isn’t to say that today’s audiences can’t reward a great movie when it arrives. Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Inception’ deserve all the attention they get.  So does the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise.  But note that even ‘Harry Potter’, which got its start overflowing with childlike wonder, became steadily darker and grittier — and so the box office grosses got higher.  Cynicism, violence, tragedy, and brooding seem to resonate with audiences far more than ever.  Critics often highlight the ’70s as the most “adult” cinematic decade, but I’d argue that the 2000s threaten its crown, since even the family fare, Pixar aside, tended to reward cynicism over wonder.  You couldn’t have a ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ in the ’10s.  People wouldn’t understand it.

Wonder, therefore, is the crucial ingredient of all those beloved childhood classics. Stanton and company get it.  They infused ‘John Carter’ with it, creating a vigorous, heedless, and beautiful film.  It’s not always pure cinema, but then again neither was ‘Star Wars’, which is something people tend to forget.  For my money, ‘John Carter’ has more wide-eyed wonder in a single scene than James Cameron’s derivative ‘Avatar’ had in its entirety.

Consider the hero’s arrival on Mars, or, as the inhabitants call it, Barsoom.  As he tries to  walk, he accidentally catapults into the air repeatedly, comically landing in the dust over and over, until he realizes that he can jump hundreds of feet with a single step.  In the course of two minutes, we’ve gone from shock, to frustration, to comedy, to revelation and wonder.  In short, in but two minutes, we’re caught up in true adventure.  This is what we’ve been missing — a flexible tone, rooted in character, exercised to exhilarate the audience.  This continues through the entire film.

Sonically, the film has a very strong backbone, courtesy of Academy Award winning composer Michael Giacchino — who really is the new John Williams.  The main theme conjures up ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, meshing perfectly with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp universe.  In my view, a film composer’s responsibility is to richly evoke every unique character and scene, tying the emotional core to the viewer.  Of course, this assumes that there’s an emotional core to tie, but Stanton doesn’t let Giacchino down.

Since its tone and its overall execution are spot-on, one would think people would respond as strongly as they once did to this kind of thing, but nay!  Audiences are suspicious of it.  ‘John Carter’ has far fewer script issues than the ‘Star Wars’ prequels and ‘Avatar’, but people readily bought into those films, only to trash them later.  Truly worthy blockbusters are rare.  More often than not, great films are ignored, only finding audiences long after the fact.  Here’s a movie with a brisk, familiar narrative, elevated by strong characters, inventive action, stunning visuals and a stirring score.  You know, like ‘Star Wars’.  Yet ‘John Carter’ is poised to land soft in the U.S. box office.  We don’t know what the hell we want.  There’s still hope that ‘John Carter’ will hit the world box office hard, but regardless of how it does in theaters, I believe what we’re looking at here is a cult classic.  Considering how many fantastic films have taken ten years or more to get the recognition they deserve — Keaton’s ‘The General’, Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’, to name a few — this bodes well for ‘John Carter’.

If you truly love the movies, if you thirst for adventure, then this wonderful film is for you.  Don’t let the magic of cinema go unrewarded.  See it now.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: Not awful, but confusing and disappointing.

Review: On the same grounds that James used to write one review for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — that the individual films were all made together and were intended to complete a story — I am going to review the ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’, as one movie.  That and I’m just too lazy to write two separate reviews for each film, especially when I have the same to say for both.  ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ were both released in 2003, about six months apart from each other, and while not particularly awful as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, they are very disappointing follow-ups to the awesomeness that was the original Matrix.

Awesome though it was, ‘The Matrix’ at its core is not a particularly original or complex story. Yeah, the whole mankind-trapped-in-the-computer-thing was an original enough premise for the late 90’s, and the obvious references to genre films (martial arts, western, 80’s action) were cool and all, as was its Eastern philosophical bent.  But the actual narrative itself is just the classic Hero’s Journey/Noble Rogues story-type.  I don’t say that to be negative; it’s the basis for many a good movie, including the original ‘Star Wars’.  Hmmm, come to think of it, ‘Star Wars’ also uses science fiction, genre tributes, and Eastern philosophy to flesh out its simple yet effective tale, making it the most obvious and direct stylistic predecessor to this film.  And while they are not up to par with George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers do a good job with it in their first picture.
Good, yes, but perhaps too thorough and complete. You see, they wrap things up rather nicely at the end of the first movie.  The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) fulfills the prophecy of being The One, a person who has infinite power within the Matrix; The main villain Agent Smith, a personification of the Evil Machines who control mankind, is destroyed; and while the machines themselves have not yet been defeated, Neo’s closing words and new Godlike powers guarantee that their days are numbered.  The reality is that this is a movie that didn’t need a sequel.  It tells a classic tale to a fulfilling end, we as the audience have a sense of completion and catharsis, and that should be all, folks.  Right?  Well, no, as it turns out.  These two sequels came along, and did much to undo everything that made the first film so cool.

Let’s make one more comparison between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’. The classic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is an example of how to do sequels the right way.  The ‘Matrix’ trilogy is not. Quite simply, George Lucas planned for sequels when he made his first entry.  The Wachowski brothers clearly didn’t.  At the end of Star Wars, even as the Rebel Alliance celebrates a great victory and Luke Skywalker has learned something of The Force, Darth Vader still lives (and therefore the Empire is still an urgent threat in our minds) and Luke is not yet a Jedi.  (Much to learn, he still has.)  My point is that there was an obvious-somewhere for Star Wars to go in its sequels.  With the Matrix, it’s a bit harder to find an obvious thread to follow.  When we already know that Neo is digital Jesus and has already defeated the machine’s most powerful program in the form of Smith, there’s simply doesn’t look to be any real conflict anymore.  If they had wanted to make sequels the Wachowski’s should have saved those two plot points for later.  So what is there, exactly, to expect from ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’?  Confusion.

Anyways, so ‘Reloaded’ opens up and the first big shock is that Smith is back… somehow.  What? I’m pretty sure that at the end of ‘The Matrix’, when Neo jumps inside him and literally blows him apart, that Smith has been killed for good.  Wiped out.  Deleted.  Terminated.  Whatever, the point is he should be gone.  But here he’s back. What’s the explanation?  Well there’s some techno-philosophical babble about something called A Source where deleted programs go… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  The long and short of it is that he didn’t die because he didn’t want to.  That’s not even a mean-spirited generalization.  Smith literally says that he was “compelled to stay” even after he was destroyed.  This is what I mean when I say the Wachowski’s screwed up. Smith was clearly too awesome a bad guy to keep out of any possible sequels, but, oops, they didn’t think that there’d be any and they went ahead and killed him in the first movie.  That was a mistake, plain and simple, and they were going to have to undo it somehow, but did they really have to be so lazy about it?
So, okay, Smith has returned of his own accord and is now determined to destroy Neo, but this time he’s no longer working for the machines.  He’s some kind of rogue program, infecting every human he sees as well as other agents of the system.  Oh, we need to talk about the programs here.  So, even though the entire Matrix is run by machines, actual programs within it appear able to choose sides too.  It’s interesting, sure, but definitely confusing.  Basically it brings a third party into this conflict.  I mean yeah, that makes it arbitrarily more complex, but we lose the nice simplicity of man vs. machine from the original.

So Neo spends his time going around finding different programs in the Matrix while in the real world returning to Zion, the last remaining human city.  And boy, what a strange place that is.  Everyone in Zion dresses and acts like the worst possible mixture of 80’s techno and some insane fashion show.  Their hair styles in particular are atrocious and bizarre.  They hold weird dancing parties where they bang drums and jump around and spray each other with all manner of bodily fluids.  Again I say, what? Between that and the Matrix, I’m a little tempted to just stay in the confines of virtual reality.

But back to the main story, so amidst all the crazy martial arts battles (why would Neo ever fight anybody anymore if he can just jump inside them and blow them up?) and the erotic dances and the random computer programs with weird accents and the Zion inhabitants who arguably seem less human than said programs and Smith occasionally showing up, Neo finds The Architect, the program who supposedly made the Matrix.  He tells Neo that, basically, The One is nothing new.  It’s a systemic anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix that the machines have dealt with before in previous incarnations.  Or some crap like that.  I don’t know.  So wait, what?  All that buildup from the first film about Neo being digital Jesus and some weirdo tells him, “Oh yeah, you still can’t stop the machines.”  What a rip-off!  Did the Wachowski’s really sink so low as to go back on their whole “The One” premise.  Really?  This is how they’re making up for not waiting until the sequels to reveal that Neo is The One — by saying that there is no One?

After this point, I basically lost track of the story in my frustration, and that bleeds over into ‘Revolutions’, which gets even more confusing.  So much so that I’m not sure how much of it is even worth explaining.  But hey!  Let’s take a stab at it…
Well, no, actually.  Sorry folks, but if I tried explaining it I’d have to go all the way for it to make any sense, and this is already the longest review I’ve ever written, so let’s just get to the point here.

Of all of what happens in these sequels (and there is a LOT), the only thing of particular interest is Smith’s saga.  Though I don’t like his clumsy return, I am partial to his development in the sequels.  Smith, who has turned viral, keeps expanding within the Matrix, assimilating it bit by bit, eventually growing beyond the control of the machines.  The true significance of this is that it shows that the machines are as fallible as human beings.  Just as man lost control of his artificially intelligent creations, so too do the machines lose control of a creation of their own.  It’s a nice little piece of irony. Unfortunately, Smith never actually takes over any machines or does anything interesting like that.  And so, it just feels unfulfilling.  And besides all that, there’s too much other stuff going on to really appreciate that thread for all of its possible depth.
Simply put, there is an unacceptable degree of incomprehensibility when it comes to the ‘Matrix’ sequels.  They are too convoluted, too strange, and just not fun enough.  In the midst of listening to a bunch of self-important characters spouting phrases like “It is inevitable”, “systemic anomaly”, “he is your negative” and “I didn’t know, but I believed”, you realize how tedious this whole thing feels compared to the original’s simplicity.  ‘The Matrix’ was about one thing: Good vs. Evil.  You can throw in whatever philosophy, spirituality, or religious undertones that you want in there, but that’s the bottom line.  These two sequels don’t want to be that simple about it, which would’ve been fine if it didn’t mean compromising the first film in the process.  I’ll repeat that the Wachowski brothers were obviously uncertain if the first film would be a success, and so, not knowing if they could continue, they decided to try and tie up as much as possible in it.

Had they been willing to gamble, they might have been able to craft a nice enough trilogy, over the course of which Neo could discover that he is the One, much in the way that the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy follows Luke’s becoming a Jedi, and Vader’s redemption.  Instead we have a messy trilogy whose punch-line was delivered in the first film and then spends the length of two films trying to stretch that out.  The result is disappointing.

All that being said, if you happen to like a lot of action and special effects, these aren’t bad movies as far as Hollywood blockbusters go.  I can’t say they’re fun, but for the right people I’d imagine that it’s worth it to see these two.  But again, I just wouldn’t expect anything spectacular.  Personally I just pretend that ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ simply don’t exist.  There is only the one, ‘The Matrix’.  And it ends with Neo flying off to save the day and kick some machine-ass.  I don’t need anymore, nor do I want anymore.

The Tree of Life

Summary: A highly emotional, philosophically rich story, beautifully told with all the subjectivity and hypnotic effects of a dream.  It is not for amateurs.

Review: Films run along a spectrum of complexity.  On the one end, there stands the average romantic comedy or action film, with a plot recycled with new faces, locations and set pieces; the outcome is predictable, the box office dollars practically guaranteed, and its only goal is to entertain for a couple of hours.  On the other end, there is pure creativity, meat so rare it is nigh-impossible for average moviegoers to digest; this is film as dream and art, a trip of the mind and soul, and its goal is to baptize the viewer.  Here stands ‘The Tree of Life’.

Now to clarify, a film closer to the entertainment side is not necessarily any less a valuable work of art.  A light adventure like the original ‘Star Wars’ is impossible to compare with a philosophical journey like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.  They are both perfect, though one is comparable to a circle and the other to a sphere.  This is why I abandoned quantitative rating systems, as they end up cutting apples and oranges with the same slicer, so to speak.  There are now two films that stand as my favorites of the summer, and they cover the spectrum — one is ‘Super 8’, previously reviewed, and the other is ‘The Tree of Life’.  Both are emotionally powerful, but they access different parts of my spirit.

The film’s writer and director, Terrence Malick, has a simple method of breaking a potentially rudimentary plot down into a meditation — instead of following a three-act structure, he explores every moment as a memory, fragmented and disorganized, overlapping and meandering, not even coming together in the end to form a cohesive whole.  The structure, in short, belongs to the viewer.  We have to assemble the film into a story, much as we do our own memories.  The beauty of this is that there is never a single beat of Hollywood artificiality to shield us from the action.  It is there, as frustrating as life, engaging us.   The picture is hypnotic, even when you feel its length.  Malick’s fluid narrative allows him to duck in and out of perspectives and realities, sometimes jumping into dreams and fantasies without warning, presenting everything as an immediate, pressing question.  These questions pack the film, without answers, from start to finish.  To say ‘The Tree of Life’ is challenging is to say that fish swim in the sea.  Not everyone is a fisherman, and not everyone will be up for ‘The Tree of Life’.

If acting were my profession, there are several auteurs I’d love to work with — Scorsese, Nolan, Spielberg, Tarantino, and now I can add Malick to that list.  Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, not to mention the remarkable child actors who anchor the picture, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan, never once blandly read their lines or strike an artificial pose for a composition.  They simply live in the frame, buoyed by the organic nature of Malick’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s cinematography.  This is a surely a dream for any performer, the chance to disappear completely into a person who, interpreted by the randomness of Malick’s narrative, is at once naked and mysterious.

Usually I try to explore the philosophical themes of films I review, but in this instance I think it’s better for the film itself to pose its questions.  That is, after all, the entire point behind it.  I can’t sufficiently answer them, either, and even if I could, I doubt that articulating it here would affect anything of your potential experience.  The movie is a paradox, a story without a moral conclusion that forces you to make one, but lacks the hopelessness of ambiguity.  This is why it is an artistic experience and not entertainment; it does not check boxes.  It forces you to change to better appreciate it, or simply discard it in disgust.  Fools will complain about the money they wasted on admission; they are free to spend it on ‘Transformers’, next time, and be all the poorer for it.

As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible not to have a visceral response to a film like this.  To carry my meat analogy further, if a person with an immature taste in movies tries to chew ‘The Tree of Life’, they are likely to spit it out and complain.  Steak is not for babies.  You need teeth and knives to take in an experience like this, and it helps if it’s not your first meal.  It is, even for an experienced cinephile, positively dizzying.  There are many “gateway drugs” I’d recommend before taking the plunge, among them the works of Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Frederico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick and the Brothers Coen, though the latter four all have advanced entries in their filmographies that stand right alongside ‘The Tree of Life’.

In short, this is a film I recommend for people who unabashedly love movies as an art form, not a diversion.  It is almost guaranteed to surprise you.  It will, one way or another, move you.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Not the best of fantasy, but a traditional, playful, even melancholy adventure still.

Review:  The third entry in Walden Media’s adaptation of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ may, unfortunately, be the last.  This is due to diminishing box office returns, Disney’s abandonment of the franchise, and the sad fact that the movies weren’t great.  That isn’t to say that they are not good.  I like all three films in varying degrees, mostly for the impressive cast, production design, music, and source story by the inimitable C.S. Lewis, but despite being entertaining adventures, they lack that blissful hypnotism associated with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’ that demand endless excursions into the fantasy world.

‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, despite tying the titular voyage together with a new, rather rote plot, stays mostly true to the book’s events.  The difficulty in adapting this episodic story into a movie is that, as Stanley Kubrick observed, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.”  Considering that several of Kubrick’s films were literary adaptations, it doesn’t mean that a story like ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ should not or cannot be filmed, but rather that the focus should be on the repeating themes and narrative melodies at play.  Thankfully, the filmmakers obviously understood this and plucked the proper notes, retaining the thoughtful, playful, even melancholy tone of the source material in a suitably cinematic way.  I always thought that ‘Dawn Treader’ was rather sad.  It is the last Narnian Chronicle with the Pevensie children in a lead role, as they grow wise from their adventures and the Christlike Aslan informs them that they won’t return.  It’s an end to childhood.  This makes for a rather fitting end for the Walden Media series, if technically premature, as there are two books left to go.  Still, it is satisfying to know that we got to see the Pevensies complete their Narnian tenure.

What ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ lacks, I already mentioned above: Blissful hypnotism.  While the characters express a longing to return in each installment, we don’t necessarily hear the call.  The trouble is, while the stories are good, the setting is simple like a fable or fairy tale and doesn’t have the richness and complexity of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.  Peter Jackson’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ perfectly captured Middle-Earth so to as convince us that such a world may exist.  Light revealed earthy wonders, and shadows concealed things unimaginable.  While Lewis’ ‘Chronicles’ are children’s books and don’t burden the reader with details, the filmmakers had the chance to enrich Narnia and generally muffed it.  When the Pevensies became royalty, it was believable in a sort of storybook way, but without a picture of what great things they wrought in their time, it felt awkward instead of wondrous.  When the Dawn Treader sails beyond Narnia, there should be a solidity to the realm that lends contrast to the proceedings and thusly greater adventure.

Complaints aside, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ is an entertaining, whimsical, accessible journey that plays like a ’40s serial, with debts owed to Michael Curtiz pirate pictures, Ray Harryhausen monster movies, and even a moment or two from ‘Ghostbusters’.  The best sequence is the climax, an excellent battle with a scary, demonic sea serpent summoned from Edmund’s nightmares.  It was fun to watch a sea serpent and an English boy-turned-dragon do battle above a ship populated by minotaurs, dwarfs, fauns, and the occasional child royal.

In total, ‘Dawn Treader’ isn’t at the head of the pack, but it isn’t a waste of time at all, especially if you’ve seen and enjoyed the previous two entries and the novels which inspired them.

Revenge Of The Sith (Episode III)

Stars:  ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  Big darn space tragedy.  It’s a been a long wait, and I’m satisfied.  Thanks, George.

Oh, yeah.  That's what this movie really needed.  Too bad he only shows up for 5 minutes at the end.

Oh, yeah. That's what this movie really needed. Too bad he only shows up for 5 minutes at the end.

Review: By the time the esteemed Mr. Lucas got around to unleashing the final produced installment in ‘Star Wars’, the Prequels already had a pretty mixed reputation among hardcore fans, for varying reasons. It’s safe to say you can’t please everyone, and the expectations were so high that it was all too easy for Lucas & Co to let the audience down. The biggest complaint I remember ringing in my ears, as a young ‘Star Wars’ nut, was not in regards to plot or character or even Jar Jar Binks; it was the lack of Darth Vader, arguably one of the greatest bad guys ever put to celluloid. After ‘The Phantom Menace’, I think people understood that George was going back and telling the origins of Vader specifically, and that would be the dominant story arc over the Prequels. In Episode II, when Hayden Christensen — who is not a bad actor — showed us an Anakin Skywalker that was less cool than we had expected, I think folks were just ticked and wanted their favorite helmeted villain back.

Unfortunately for the large population of the movie audience that wanted all the Vader they could get, Lucas had other things in mind, and we were just going to have to live with it. To the satisfaction of many, however, Episode III proved to be the best of the Prequels, making up for our disappointment pretty well. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is much better conceived and executed than its Prequel predecessors. It’s the most fun, the most emotional, and the most like the Original Trilogy.  It also provided me with an Eureka moment about Lucas, the Prequels, and really the entire saga.

Lucas is actually a whole lot more clever then people give him credit for.  The melodramatic hammy dialog of the Prequels is apparently by design.  I don’t have this confirmed exactly when it comes to the screenplay, but I do have a yes in regards to how the dialog is delivered on screen.  Considering that he had a major hand in writing all of the Original trilogy — especially Episode IV — I think it’s safe to say he does know the difference between good and bad dialog.  The huge effort creative effort he put into realizing the Prequels is indicative of his lack of laziness when it comes to ‘Star Wars’.  It appears to be that the melodrama is intentionally operatic and expresses a different kind of story than the Original trilogy did with its witty banter and frontier mentality.  Sometime during the production, didn’t any one of the very competent actors turn to George and give him the classic “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it”?  My impression is, they didn’t.  Lucas probably clued them in on what they were doing.  The Prequels are truly space opera; the Originals are space adventures enriched by space opera.

Episode III is very good.  It shows how well Lucas’ intentional “mistakes” work.  The exaggeration prevents the intense tragedy from punching us in the heart, but the tragedy still works phenomenally well, and reminds us that yes, Lucas does know how to write an effective, emotional story.  Even with a sad lack of suited Darth Vader, it feels like a fitting bridge to end the saga, and it has become my second favorite ‘Star Wars’ movie after Episode VI.

Philosophically, this is one of the richest of the saga.  Anakin’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader is predicated by the fear of loss.  We already know that “Fear is the path to the dark side!” According to Master Yoda, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate… leads to suffering.”  Yoda adds in Episode III, “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side… Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”  This is closely related to Buddhist and Orthodox Christian philosophy.  In Orthodoxy, the triumph of Christ over death is paramount, and says that death itself is dead.  It’s unable to truly destroy any longer.  The fear of death and loss, then, is a perversion of the truth and is a path to suffering and evil.  To let go and trust God in the face of death is essential.  The next major theme is Darth Sidious’ rise to power and the creation of the evil Empire.  Lucas based its evolution on the creation of real dictatorships.  When a person is given power in time of crisis, what guarantees that they will let it go when the crisis has abated?  What happens when the leader created the crisis as a power grab?  History and the Prequels both testify that it is terrifyingly easy for a corrupt leader to engage in a Xanatos Gambit and twist their organization to their own ends.  Other themes also exist in the film, but I covered them in my review for Episode II.

I’m very glad the Prequels were made.  They’re highly imaginative and they really do feed into and enhance the awesomeness of the Originals.

Attack Of The Clones (Episode II)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Still plagued with problems similar to its mixed predecessor, ‘Clones’ shows us just a little more of what we wanted to see, and when it works, it works.

Thank God for Drew Struzan.

Thank God for Drew Struzan.

Review:  As the ‘Star Wars’ Prequels carried on, Lucas kept pushing technological innovation, enabling the crew to achieve a vision of the space opera that is much closer to Lucas’ original conception of it.  Circa 1974, Lucas had written a spectacular and veritably impossible-to-make film called ‘The Star Wars’, which included hundreds of elements that would show up in all of the final films.  The technology necessary to transfer this rough draft to the screen in a convincing manner wouldn’t exist until the early 2000s.  Along with its wild action and splendor came story elements, especially in the second Prequel, ‘Attack Of The Clones’.

The Jedi protagonists, Anakin and Obi-Wan, inherited the relationship between the “Jedi Bendu” master and apprentice in the original ‘The Star Wars’.  Their bickering, Anakin’s desire to be free of Obi-Wan’s wise restrictions, etc. are all there.  This works pretty well in the ’74 script, but seems kind of out of place in this film because Anakin and Obi-Wan have been master and padawan for about 12 years, while in the ’74 script the apprentice had been transferred from the tutelage of his dying father to this new master, and was bitter about it.  No such bitterness aught to be here.  This criticism aside, once again, the master-apprentice relationship is the strongest interplay of the movie.  The other relationships are somewhat lacking, or just bad.  In particular, and infamously, the romance between Anakin and Padme, which is pretty badly written.  The weakest aspect of Lucas’ original ’74 ‘The Star Wars’ draft was the dialog, and it comes back from the dead to torment the Prequels.

Thankfully, though, the technology had finally caught up with Lucas’ idea of what the action should look like and feel like.  The visceral scope and feel of the birth pangs of the Clone War are pretty spectacular.  Their main weakness is a lack of the warm character interplay familiar to the Original Trilogy.  Part of this weakness is again the dialog, especially in how the actors choose to deliver it.  It comes across as either stilted or overblown, most of the time, and the actors who seems most comfortable with the material and sound more convincing are Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Frank Oz (Yoda), and Christopher Lee (Count Dooku).  These folks are good enough at their trade that performing against a soulless blue screen — a major drawback to the new tech — doesn’t hamper them too much, even when the writing lets them down.

The best part of the movie, the part worth seeing, is Obi-Wan’s travels across the galaxy to unravel the mystery of the Kaminoans and their clone army.  The action is much, much closer to the tight, visceral tone of the Original Trilogy in his scenes, and he’s a likable guy going up against a well-done enigma.

Philosophically, the film suffers a bit, because the romance is so trite (despite being of great importance to the story), the clone army isn’t examined in the ethical light that it should have been, and the Separatists bad guys are never given a sympathetic light that would have explored the degeneration of the Republic.  Nevertheless, I will do what I must.  I’ll try to dig in and infer things from the narrative.

The forbidden romance seems to be an attempt to explore the ancient struggle of love vs. duty, which also shows up in classic works like ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’.  Is following one’s feelings, especially love, more imperative than performing one’s previous high obligations?  A possible solution is to suggest that the particular duty be judged in a utilitarian manner, which, in addition to being hilariously ironic if you know anything about ethics, would allow a person to weigh the benefits of either path without a blind devotion to his duty, or his love.

The clone army is pitted against the Separatist’s mechanical army.  The clones, being human beings, can react rationally and creatively to any number of situations, despite being genetically altered to be obedient without question.  The droids are easily taken by surprise and require a great deal more control from their flesh-and-blood masters.  The clone army contrasts with the droids while shedding light on something more terrifying, something directly connected to the rise of Darth Vader and the Empire:  The blending of machines and mechanical principles with sentient beings, a kind of “Anti-Force”.  The clone army are created with mechanical manipulation, they eventually lead to the creation of the Empire (which dominates and manipulates people as if they were mechanical), and the Empire is also created with the help of Darth Vader, who is transformed into a person who is mostly machine.  The enemy droids themselves are just a part of the Sith gambit to capture the Republic.  To contrast with the Sith use of machines to manipulate life, Lucas holds up the pristine planet Naboo in the Prequels, and the planets Yavin, Endor, and Degobah in the Original Trilogy.  They each are tied to characters that represent biological communion with the Force and oppose the Empire, the Sith, and the perverse use of machines.  Here’s what I think Lucas is saying:  Biology and spirituality are symbiotic, but machines should never have this kind of relationship with biological beings.

The Separatists, an evolution of the villains from Episode I, are the great dupes of the Prequels.  They’re portrayed as unsympathetic and unjustified in their separation from Republic control.  The only time that a major character makes a statement that shows some understanding of their point-of-view is in Episode III.  The Separatists are basically greedy.  There’s no indication (in this film) that they have a good reason for waving goodbye to the Republic.  So, we’re never able to explore in greater detail the real underlying problems with the present system that Darth Sidious exploits.

I’m surprised I was able to get that much out of it.  This is a good movie, but it could’ve used a rewrite.

(Future me:  Actually, I had a chance to read the whole second draft of this movie, and was very impressed.  It dragged on at a couple points, but was overall much better than the final film.  Ironically, the rewrite might have hurt it this time, though it was probably necessitated by length.)