Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Star Wars Month Re-review

Fine, I give up. I loved the original series, but I never learned the names of all the random stuff on-screen. And I never thought I'd write so much about any of those films unless new ones were released.

I briefly reviewed the SW prequels a year ago, but it's Star Wars Month, so the latter series is worth a second shot. I will discuss each picture last. As a bonus, I'm also reviewing the SW filmumentaries I recommended earlier, as well as the audio commentary Red Letter Media made for the 3D re-release of The Phantom Menace. I'm doing the last part first.

Mr. Plinkett's Phantom Menace Audio Commentary

It's sort of jarring. A 2-hour, 16-minute commentary track represents a lot of time for one person to talk. And it's a performance piece... It's even odder still, considering Red Letter Media's "Mr. Plinkett" character is supposed to be an elderly socio/psychopath who killed his wives, plays mind-games with his cats, and bakes pizza rolls.

This means that part of the commentary is a discussion of the problems with TPM - and, to the creators' credit, it's different criticism than what they used for their earlier Star Wars Prequels reviews. The points aren't nitpicky. They simply highlight the glaring flaws in a movie with barely a line of sensible dialogue.


But the other part of the commentary is a series of random, insane skits where Plinkett babbles on about his retirement home, his dead wives, or whether his cats will get revenge on him. Hell, the guy makes random comments about his fictitious bowel/urinary problems!

Plinkett is a weird and rare comedy routine - the humor is incredibly dry, and the writing works hard to buck your expectations. It's not that the performance is different from Plinkett's earlier material - it's just that there's a lot more of it.

The non-movie material might seem weird or tiresome, but at least (a) some of the jokes are funny and (b) it'a all in character. You, as a listener, just have to be ready to deal with the weirdness. And, in my opinion, it's likely that the commentary track could become tiresome if all it did was talk about the actual movie.

In short, it's funny and strange, but also makes great statements about TPM and its problems.. I recommend you give it a listen, if you can handle it. 

Star Wars Original Trilogy Filmumentaries

These could more accurately be called "composite commentaries." Anyone who's seen a video with pop-up information will understand the basic idea. In this case, there isn't just static information - you'll be shown behind-the-scenes filming of the crew while they set up, or the actors' practice takes, or you'll see the scene but with audio from a table-reading.

The effort put into these, and the results, are exceptional. It's almost a given - because so many people love SW, and because it was so well-documented, there's a lot of information available. This must have given the filmumentaries' creator the tough/easy task of picking the best material to add onto a cut of the original film. All I can say is that the choices were excellent. They were also surprising, yet fair.


Quotes from George Lucas span the length of Star Wars' success; some are from each of the last 4 decades. It's shocking to hear the younger George, explaining good aesthetic ideas about how films work and the use of fx. Then you hear quotes from 2000 and after, a super-successful older man who simply describes and defends a lot of odd decisions that he made...

The biggest obvious difference between the original and new Star Wars' Trilogies is that one set has an alluring set of characters, while the other has an alluring set of special fx. I simply became less forgiving because we're talking about one of the wealthiest men in the country, and he produced 3 movies with the sort of glaring problems that happen when a fresh director is steam-rolled by his studio. Lucas had no excuse to produce something this weak.

The filmumentaries do a great and smart job of fleshing out the world  of SW, ESB, and RotJ. I can't tell which is my favorite, so far; I think Star Wars probably has the edge for information value. Empire and Jedi are both very good, tho. I say you should watch/listen to them all.


Really, this is sort of the ultimate idea of a commentary track, where the audio and video tell the story behind the story while still showing you the actual movie. I'm very happy that the people behind it used every thing that they could - audio, video, text...

Longer Thoughts/Mini-Reviews re:the SW Prequels

If I ever seemed angry about all this, it's at seeing
  • an inexplicable waste of opportunity 
  • seeing material that shouldn't survive a first pass become a financial success

The Phantom Menace

Is like someone I briefly dated: Drop-dead gorgeous, but prone to spontaneously acting with nothing like human behavior; there's just too much negativity to enjoy the experience. It doesn't matter that TPM's fx are great and some of the action scenes are pretty cool. It doesn't matter that it's Star Wars.

The story is awful, the dialogue is no good, and the acting can be stiff. I can't believe the result considering the talented people on both sides of the camera, Lucas included. Nothing that is said or done in this movie makes sense.

The President of a super-UN in space wants to send a fact-finding mission to a planet that's been attacked. But the ambassadors he just sent to resolve the problem were nearly killed and they're also law-enforcers and they saw the whole thing. What's to verify? Why? Wha-

At 1:40, you get a brilliant, hilarious look at Quigon's stupid podrace bet.

Wait, in the next film, we learn that this Republic has no damn army for some reason. So what did Natalie Portman's queen expect the Senate to do? Write a tersely-worded letter? 

I guess if you want to turn your brain off and enjoy a bunch of pretty pictures, it's ok. The sound fx is also great. Yet I can't keep from noticing that nothing really works. A mystical birth story is dumb, as is the need to focus on Darth Vader, age 6.

People constantly say stuff that's supposed to be important, like "we will use all our resources to ---"or you do realize that our fighters are --- and so might easily die." There is never, however, any follow-through or building on these moments - it's just people saying important stuff so that what we see sounds important.

I have to think that the stiffness in the acting is due to the lack of sets. Apparently, sets were only built to the head-height of the actors. As such, there are no real objects around for the actors to look at, fuss with, or use. These real, natural objects not only help make the film-world real for audiences, they provide something for the actors to connect to. And in this whole prequel series, you'll see a lot of actors not connected to anything they're doing or saying.

I'd think that someone with Lucas' success and hard-earned access to money and technology, he'd just focus on the technical aspects of directing for a while. I say this because his talent as a writer and story man no longer inspires even the slightest confidence. And even technically, there is one big failing. Real sets look more natural and interact with the actors and add to the movie's believability.

Attack of the Clones

Let's see... everything that was bad about the first movie is now worse, but we don't have a little kid who can't act very well; also Jar Jar is largely gone.

The desperately odd thing about this movie is that everybody acts like some weird-ass alien. Unfortunately, that's not intentional - it's just bad writing and (again) stiff acting. We're talking about a movie in which everyone is so dumb that Obi-Wan finds that an entire army was created with no one's knowledge - and the Republic decides that they may as well use the army they just found but didn't order but the dead guy who ordered the army said that the Republic ordered it!

Bonus points if anyone is wondering how the hell that got paid for.

I could almost give the writer credit for making the villain's plans so unclear. Sadly, it seems more like the work of a bad writer; and honestly, if I knew this stupid plan it'd just be one more ridiculously-contrived, improbable bunch of bs.

The teen-ish Anakin Skywalker is weird and creepy; he's also loud and impossibly whiny. There is no fun watching him on screen or anticipating the character's downfall. The action scenes here also lack any emotional importance, but they're crazier, too. His lines feel like they're being read at gun-point - or maybe that he's the lead's understudy in a high school play.


Hearing people call Natalie Portman "milady" all the time - as if we were in Europe 600 years ago - is incredibly annoying. The choice to cast Christopher Lee as a bad guy was both great and dumb because he's too old to be physical, yet Lee's a great performer; of course, then you give him a moronic name like "Count Dooku" and you get the impression that George Lucas might not have been trying to make a good movie. And no one acted like a mature adult employed in the film industry by stopping him.

I was shocked to think that after helping rescue an entire planet, nobody paid to liberate Anakin's mom from her life of slavery. They just left her there for who knows what to happen.

Perhaps worst of all is that this film actually plays to its weaknesses instead of its strengths. There's all this time devoted to these uninteresting, unappealing characters. Why? They're flat and their lines are generally painfully bad. Why not just film the lives of the Jedi, the workings of this Galactic Republic, or the clever treachery of some cool villain?

If I broke my right hand, I would start using my left; George Lucas would enter a damn knife-throwing competition, blindfold himself, and insist he can still hit the bulls eye with his right. I guess the people he employs would tell him that he hit the mark every time.

Revenge of the Sith

I liked the end because I liked seeing one of the crappiest characters in film history get turned into a shishkabob. I don't think this is what the filmmakers intended. The rampant stupidity and bad decision-making continues. There might've been a couple of cool scenes, but it's hard to keep them in mind when you have someone become evil through raw idiocy and laziness.

I cannot fathom how George Lucas defends these pictures are kid's movies. For one thing, kid's movies don't need to be dumb. For another, they don't often have implied rape, multiple people having limbs amputated and/or being helpless, ruthless execution much less kids getting slaughtered. Just sayin'.


The fight at the end is ridiculously long. Seeing Jimmy Smits in this movie made me laugh, especially since he barely got to even act. I also adored his ridiculous but prominent line:
I'll take her. My wife and I have always wanted to adopt a baby girl.
Wow. What a convenient and detail-rich response. It, like this whole trilogy, lacks any emotional depth or reality or engagement with the viewer.

Because the story was derailed so badly already, the film was free to just show what it had to show. Even still, a lot of scenes were laughable or silly, the romance between the leads was mostly-DOA, and there was no one role to really connect with. It's shocking to think of so much money, publicity, and expectation being poured into a project that was barely thought-through.


The logic and the horror of this murky war/coupe d'├ętat/massacre are really weak; the dialogue is mostly reserved to people directly saying what is happening or what they're feeling; no other element (great acting, great cinematography, great score) comes through to make any of this more emotional or satisfying. In this case, "operatic" means loud and bombastic, not sweeping and emotional.

Maybe these flaws existed in the Original Trilogy (and Indy 1 & 2), but there was always something that could reach out to you and connect; somehow, 3 movies only gave "so glad to see that guy get hurt." It's not the resolution or satisfaction I was hoping for, and it's not the kind of resolution or satisfaction that any smart artist would want to achieve. And none of it involved frequent references to the movies I'd already seen.

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