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Here’s an example of a good movie trailer…

I know what you might be thinking. What makes this trailer particularly good and others not? Well, this trailer doesn’t force the entire film’s plot down your throat. It leaves something to be desired – teasing you with a short sequence of scenes that don’t make a lot of sense in isolation but hint at a bigger, more sinister picture…

Interestingly the last trailer I saw that I felt was as well done as this one was for Star Wars: The Force Awakens – another J.J. Abrams film. Sure, this guy’s not perfect, but he is one of the few of the current generation of directors in Hollywood (with the exception of Spielberg and Scorsese, who I suppose are still considered ‘current’) who genuinely understands, respects and appreciates the art of good storytelling in cinema. Dare I say he’s even approaching ‘auteur’ status (I suspect those who get snobbish over the term may have a problem with my usage of it in this instance); which, by extension, allows him more creative control over the marketing of his films.

Trailers for Abrams’ films are quickly becoming the only ones I can bear watching (as it pertains to mainstream cinema at least) without getting irritated that they’ve spoilt too much of the movie.

Some may say they do need more than this in a trailer to be intrigued enough to see a film, in which case we’re probably not going to agree. I like to be surprised when I see a new movie, rather than know too many details beforehand. When I watched the second Batman v Superman trailer a few months ago, I found myself wishing it didn’t give so much away especially when, let’s be honest, everyone who is a fan of either of its two central characters will be going to see the film anyway. That trailer actually went some way to diluting the hype I had for the movie beforehand.

So here’s what I’m going to do. Any time I come across a movie trailer I find interesting, I’ll share it here and comment on what to expect from the movie. This way I’ll also have more of a chance to talk about films that I don’t see at the cinema to review immediately, which will naturally extend to foreign movies that are harder to come across in certain parts of the UK – where I’m currently living, it isn’t always easy to see the films I’d like to see.

I’m going to do this because from my point of view it has become just as important to reward this kind of marketing campaign (over the heavy-handed kind that is commonplace in Hollywood) as it is to reward good movies. Otherwise, the Transformers series and others like it could continue to dominate this industry indefinitely.

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Words, whims and writing.

Often when I take a break from writing it can be a bit of a struggle getting back into it. This is why, as much as possible, I try to avoid taking that break.

Now I’m not talking the kind of writing tasks that one does on a daily basis – my day job involves doing said activity to a fairly decent quality and so to ‘take a break from writing’, for me, is not to take a break from the entirely necessary technical and creative aspects of it that are required for everyday living (in my case at least).

Rather, what I mean when I say ‘break’ is really just referring to a break from the amount of in-depth thought and all-round work I put into the ideas, reviews and articles formulated for this blog on a regular basis, or likewise the creative writing I may do in my own time to further my personal interests away from prying eyes.

That’s what I’ve taken an impromptu break from in the past month and a half. In the time since my last film review, Christmas and New Year have passed, the first full month of 2016 has passed… and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is still performing strong at the box office a full seven weeks after its release.

This break wasn’t exactly planned. It just kind of happened, and that’s just the way I work. If I did schedule a “break” into my writing plan, followed by a brief period of feeling good about myself for doing so, then I’d likely spend that break wishing I was writing instead. While I often try to fight whatever my body or mind is telling me when it comes to this, if it wants a break there’s usually not much I can do to combat that.

But of course there comes a point when one must forcefully attempt to kick back into gear, and I’ve got a whole bunch of ideas that I’m planning to catch up on imminently. The first of which is an in-depth look at my favourite film of 2014 (The Babadook) that I started last October and have continually put on the back-burner for one reason or another.

Once I put the finishing touches on that piece, I’ll finally get around to posting a roundup of my favourite films from last year, which will tie in nicely with awards season. While most people like to post these kind of lists at the end of every calendar year, I actually find February to be more appropriate timing, as it gives me a chance not only to catch up on any films I may have missed at the cinema last year, but also to check out some foreign releases that may have only recently arrived here in the UK.

I’m a sucker for little details like release dates, as I’m sure some of you know, though I’ll set out and explain my own rules pertaining to this when we get to my list (which won’t be limited to the typical ‘top 10’ either). Needless to say I don’t strictly stick to films ‘released in the UK during the calendar year’ – if I did, as some do, then at least two or three that make the list would actually be from last year’s awards season; the very point of which was to award the best films of the previous year.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was first screened at the very beginning of 2014 at Sundance, before being released in the US and Canada later that year; therefore for it to appear on a list at the end of 2015 doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. From my point of view it is certainly not a 2015 film (coincidentally it was one of my top three films of 2014, so it’s not that I have anything against this amazing movie).

There is another subtle detail that makes the timing of my own personal list seem almost planned to perfection; that being the upcoming UK release of a film screened at London Film Festival in October last year and one that quickly shot into my top three. I’ll hold you in suspense for exactly one more week on that.

And… I think that wraps things up for now.

Film reviews

Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Force Awakens pic 1.

The Force Awakens is quite possibly the most anticipated movie release since The Phantom Menace (1999), and unlike the first episode of the prequel trilogy, this is a Star Wars film that fully justifies its hype. This feels like the film people would have wanted when they first entered movie theatres 16 years ago expecting the series to pick up where it had left off.

There’s little doubt for me that most Star Wars fans will lap up what this movie offers. Yet that’s not to say it’s just two-plus hours of fan service. There is a genuinely gripping, fresh story here; the older characters we once loved are now mythic in a similar way to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original, with the narrative instead driven by newcomers Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Those new additions to the cast are all, frankly, amazing. They give astounding performances and encapsulate characters that fit perfectly into the Star Wars universe while moving it forward to the next generation. Daisy Ridley especially, who is an absolute revelation and the centrepiece around which the entire film revolves. She played my favourite character in this movie, closely followed by Ren who feels like a refreshing, original villain.

Within the first ten minutes of The Force Awakens I already felt it was better than anything the prequels had done. Characters feel like real people; even the Stormtroopers, previously no more than cannon fodder, are portrayed from a human perspective, and in fact a main character’s back story involves working for the ‘First Order’ (this film’s equivalent of the Empire) in this capacity before leaving the profession behind.

Dialogue is refreshingly engaging too, free from George Lucas’ insistence on explaining everything to the audience while his characters stand around talking. Here there are still explanations offered for what’s been happening in the intervening 30 years between Return of the Jedi and this film, but exposition is delivered with a sense of urgency; something the prequel trilogy severely lacked.

There’s also not too much CGI used in this movie; certainly less than you’d expect from the biggest science fiction franchise of all time. Another issue I had with the prequels was the over-reliance on blue screens; not a problem here. Real environments were used for shooting, and it helps give the film a true sense of authenticity. Everything, for the most part, feels so much more real.

So let’s cut to the chase. Will you enjoy this film if you are not a Star Wars fan, and do you need to have seen the previous films in order to appreciate this one? This being the start of a brand new trilogy, you really get the sense that it is its own self-contained narrative. I believe you could get invested in this particular chapter of the universe and mythology even if you come to it with no prior knowledge.

At the same time the nostalgic throwbacks are likely to please fans, but they never feel forced. There is an all-round organic feel to the film – one of the most important aspects of any cinematic experience for me. Having said that, if one was going to search for any criticisms it may be for certain aspects of the movie that reflect the original Star Wars; some may accuse it of a slight lack of originality in places.

But even should that criticism be justified – and I found it had no lasting impact on my overall enjoyment of the film – it is vastly outweighed by the strength of the characters portrayed and the sheer pace of the action. There wasn’t a single moment in this movie where I felt it was starting to drag; though it lasts close to two and a half hours, you likely won’t notice the time going in.

Obviously at this point I won’t touch on the plot to any great extent. Suffice to say, I felt it delivered in all the right areas – there is an issue that I had with one particular part, but I’ll touch on that another time. Beginning, middle and end are all handled brilliantly. At no point do you feel the film is rushing through a checklist of what it feels it needs to include (hello again prequels), instead confident enough to hold off on certain things until the right time. Oh, and it ends on a brilliant cliffhanger that is likely to leave some feeling they’ve been sold a little short… but let’s remember how a certain other Star Wars film ended as well, and many people consider that the best one.

I honestly believe this one, The Force Awakens, is the finest instalment in the Star Wars saga since The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, in my opinion it’s superior to Return of the Jedi and (as if it needs to be said) all three of the prequels. Perhaps after another viewing or two I’ll update you on where I stand on this, but for now I’m willing to say there’s a chance this could end up being my favourite Star Wars movie overall.

That’s the kind of potential I knew this production had with J.J. Abrams at the helm, and for now, going on first impressions, it seems he’s delivered. I already can’t wait to see what he does with the next one. The force has indeed awoken, and you’ll be relieved to know it’s as strong as ever.

9 / 10

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Why (some) trailers suck.

If there’s one thing I haven’t liked in the lead-up to the new Star Wars movie, it’s the furore that surrounds every new little piece of footage or plot detail divulged before anyone’s had a chance to actually see the film.

A lot of us would agree that spoilers are annoying. What’s curious though is the contradictory way that many people react to trailers. In the case of The Force Awakens it’s not the trailer itself that bothers me – marketing has actually been handled quite slickly for the new movie, with little offered to spoil the overall experience – but rather it’s this culture of ‘needing to know’ as much as possible before going in. It perpetuates the ‘geeking out’ notion in the immediate aftermath of release, meaning a lot of people will end up having the experience spoiled for them by others – and they accept it willingly. The rest of us have to do our best to avoid that for as long as we want to enjoy it for ourselves, to form our own thoughts and reactions rather than having them forced onto us via preconceived conceptions.

But what’s the difference between this, and reading or watching a review before seeing a film? Oh yes, I have heard that response before. These two things are not the same, providing the review is doing what a review should be doing, but the ethics of that I will get into in another post. Suffice to say, a review in basic terms is meant to inform you on whether or not you might enjoy a product; essentially whether it’s worth spending your time and money on.

The marketing department is not so much interested in that kind of thing. It wants your money by any means necessary, and is going to make itself appear as attractive as possible, to start as many hashtags as possible and make it seem as cool as possible, in order to work its way into your wallet.

A trailer’s job is to sell you the film; I understand that as well as anyone. The kind of criticism I have for trailers is often greeted with flimsy explanations along the lines of “this is just the way things work”. Yes indeed, that’s exactly right. I don’t disagree.

People want to know what they’re getting and don’t have the time – or more accurately, the inclination – to actually put thought into it for themselves. They’d rather be spoon-fed the information. To search out a decent review or even look at a synopsis takes effort. A lot of people simply can’t be bothered doing any research on new films or video games, and the only information they receive for new releases is that presented to them in an attractive, cleverly edited fashion.

The reason we’ve got to the point where trailers need to show you an entire ‘movie in a nutshell’ in order to get your ass in the seat is because we’ve given studios the impression that we’re fine with it. There’s an undercurrent of indifference; of “let’s just have casual fun” because none of this actually matters in the grand scheme of things. With so many important issues seemingly competing for our attention in today’s society, we need to know everything about the film now. This is the way the industry works because of our flippant attitude towards it; they didn’t just come up with the idea on a whim one day.

Consumers often make ill-informed decisions based purely on marketing, mistaking that marketing for critique that tells you whether or not something is worth paying for. A trailer wants to make you think this thing is worth paying for, whether it actually is or not. And protesting ‘that film was terrible’ isn’t a valid excuse for a refund afterwards, so once they’ve got you in, it’s job done.

Furthermore, perpetuating this problem is the fact that people don’t seem to care. As long as they’ve had a good time with friends, mission successful. The cinema is not for the movies, but for sitting next to someone who makes you feel like your life has meaning. You’re important because you have people to hang out with. Supporting bad movies is fine in that case; that part doesn’t really matter after all, does it?

No I suppose not… if you’re not interested in enjoying good movies, or in experiencing one for yourself rather than relying on others to validate your thoughts and opinions.

So far, so very cynical, you might be thinking. What sparked off this little rant? Well two things actually, on rather different ends of the cinematic spectrum.

Here’s one case. While in London back in October I caught a screening of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, which was showing as part of London Film Festival. It’s an excellent film that intrigued me because I had bothered to put a little research into what was on around that time. The synopsis sold it to me – it sounded interesting. A powerful, emotional movie, it turned out to be one of the top five films I’ve seen in 2015 and looks set to be a major player in awards season early next year.

In the past few days I unwillingly saw the trailer for Room, and it made want to punch the screen in frustration. Why? Because had I seen that trailer before watching the film, there would, frankly, have been little reason to see the film at all. The trailer was the film. It had the beginning, middle and end all wrapped up in a 2 minute 30 second package. It made me feel almost sorry for those unfortunate enough to see this trailer before experiencing the film for themselves.

On the other hand we have the trailer for a film many more people will be going to see, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This one is interesting not only because the most recent trailer for the film, released last week, spoils the first, second and third act, but also because there was no real need for it to do so. This movie finds itself in a similar situation to Star Wars in that it already has an established fan base and audience that will be going to watch it – in a sense, those people don’t need to be convinced. Even those who expected the film to disappoint would still go to see it out of curiosity.

Yet the second half of the trailer gleefully shows you everything, from surprise appearances to a previously unseen enemy to the (perhaps rather obvious) reveal that Batman and Superman will end up working together to defeat a greater enemy. Now, fair enough, they may still be holding certain things back and it’s always possible that this trailer represents some kind of red herring. But this is a major Hollywood studio we’re talking about. Their pocket books don’t deal in subtlety.

This side of the film industry is firmly in the hands of studio executives who don’t truly care about the experience of film in a movie theatre; that much has never been more obvious. They’re interested in one thing: your money. They let others deal with the creative, artistic side of the business. I don’t hold that against them. I do hold it against the people who continually support this cycle; who need a trailer like the one for Room to even consider going to see such a gem, or who geek out at the various reveals in the Batman v Superman trailer to the extent where they’ll leave little to be desired from the film itself when it’s released next year.

I look forward to watching The Force Awakens and giving it as fair an assessment as possible. I hope others can do the same and call it how it is. Please stop giving movie studios the impression that they’re the ones in control around here.

Film reviews

Revenge of the Sith (2005).

Revenge of the Sith Palpatine.

The dark side is a pathway to many abilities; some considered to be unnatural.”

Let’s rewind ten years. I was fifteen years old. Had enjoyed the first two Star Wars prequels but knew, deep down, they weren’t perfect films. Despite the disappointment that had greeted those movies across the board, anticipation for Revenge of the Sith was pretty high. This was, after all, the episode on which the entire saga rested; the one we had all wanted to see coming into the prequels from the start. Anakin was going to become Darth Vader. The Jedi would be wiped out. The Republic somehow twisted into the Empire. This was the film in which it was all going to come together.

It opens three years after Attack of the Clones, in the midst of a space battle that looks better than anything its two predecessors had done. This film is still full of CGI and that undoubtedly causes issues (some CGI environments are so blindingly obvious that certain scenes lose any sense of realism or immersion), but here it isn’t quite as jarring or intrusive on the whole.

You immediately feel that Anakin has also matured from the whiny, tantrum-prone teen we knew previously, now more Obi-Wan’s equal as a Jedi. Hayden Christensen’s portrayal remains a point of contention, but he has improved, and much of his problem again stems from the material he’s given to work with here.

One of the biggest issues I have with Revenge of the Sith, in fact, is Anakin’s eventual turn to the dark side, which feels abrupt and slightly forced when it eventually happens. In the course of a few moments Anakin goes from saying “what have I done?” in horror, having prevented Mace Windu from killing Chancellor Palpatine, indirectly causing the Jedi Master’s death, to then kneeling and pledging himself to the Sith, agreeing with Darth Sidious that all Jedi should be eliminated.

No real person would act like this. Once again this film, like its predecessors, suffers greatly from a lack of organic development in its plot and character arcs; always coming across as if it’s heading towards some fixed destination and needing to tick off various checklist points on the way there.

Some sequences, including the first twenty minutes when Anakin and Obi-Wan are rescuing the Chancellor (which reportedly lasted over an hour before being edited down), feel excessively cut to the extent that you lose much of the emotional substance they otherwise could have had. George Lucas’ original version of this film was apparently four hours long, and that we ended up with a running time half this amount sums up, for me, the main problem. Lucas simply left himself with too much to get through in Revenge of the Sith, and seemingly wasn’t willing to stretch the film’s length to what it arguably needed to be to do itself justice.

Having said that, there are some surprises lurking here that automatically put this film above the other two Star Wars prequel movies. For example: the soundtrack – not so much in what it adds, but the times when it remains quiet. This is probably the quietest Star Wars film, with certain scenes completely absent of sound apart from the characters voices. The scene where Darth Sidious reveals himself to Anakin is most evident of this, as it begins without any sound, and the soundtrack subtly starts to build as Sidious builds up to revealing his true identity.

Speaking of Darth Sidious, Ian McDiarmid is once again excellent in this movie. Go back and watch the scene where Palpatine is talking to Anakin at the opera – probably the film’s best scene overall – and observe what he does with his inflections and subtle facial expressions. In that one scene you see him play his two characters at once; the gentle, kind Palpatine, looking out for Anakin as one would show concern for a nephew; under the facade, Darth Sidious, who shows the slightest hint of glee as he recounts the story of Darth Plagueis and remembers killing his former master.

Due to the film’s use of silence, its soundtrack is all the more effective when it is used. Seeing the clone troopers turn on their Jedi generals via Order 66 is especially poignant and harrowing thanks to John Williams’ score, while the iconic Duel of the Fates makes a return in the final climactic lightsaber battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan.

That final fight itself is a disappointment though. Yes it’s long and epic… but most of all, it’s over-choreographed to the point of absurdity. We don’t get the sense that this fight is real, or that there is any genuine emotion involved outside of dialogue and close-ups on the actors faces.

The dialogue is, I’m afraid, still unreasonably bad. It’s a slight improvement over the two films that preceded it, but George Lucas insists time and again on verbalising certain emotions and actions rather than trusting his actors to convey them.

Padme, for example, has to spell out for Anakin (and the audience) that “you’re breaking my heart” after hearing that he’s turned to the dark side and killed younglings. Honestly, watching the film back now, I almost feel sorry for Natalie Portman because of the numerous occasions she has dialogue fed to her that completely negates or undermines any acting on her part.

There’s another simple scene that exemplifies this issue, and it makes me want to punch the screen in frustration more than any other in this movie: it is when we see Darth Vader in his full body suit for the first time. He asks ‘where is Padme?’ and is informed that, in his anger, he killed her. Vader is angry and heartbroken. We see him crush the environment around him through the force; showing that his power is as strong as ever. And then, as if we hadn’t received the message, he shouts, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” The scene immediately becomes almost comical with that line.

But despite these misgivings, what I was saying earlier still stands: this is the best of the prequel trilogy. It is the darkest Star Wars film, and was the first to receive a PG-13 rating – after all, its plot deals with the Sith exterminating every Jedi; the Empire standing tall at the end, with Yoda and Obi-Wan, facing defeat, forced to go into exile. Within the first fifteen minutes Anakin, one of the film’s main protagonists, beheads his adversary Count Dooku in cold blood. Throughout the entire running time there’s an impending sense of unease, the likes of which Star Wars viewers hadn’t truly felt since The Empire Strikes Back twenty-five years earlier.

Of course many of this film’s fans, including myself, were not alive when the originals had their first theatrical run. I must admit, at fifteen years old, I considered Revenge of the Sith my favourite film of 2005. For me it more than delivered on its hype. With each subsequent viewing over the intervening years I’ve increasingly found little annoyances with the film that almost spoil my memory of enjoying it so much first time round. But I will say in its favour, even now, it’s hard to dwell on those flaws for too long – because it goes along at such a pace that you’re unable to. There are five separate lightsaber fights in this film, and while some of them really aren’t great at all (Obi-Wan against Grievous technically shouldn’t even count), this is what the essence of Star Wars was all about.

So where does it rank in the overall saga? For me it’s just a notch short of Return of the Jedi, as even though I prefer the tone of this one, the problems with its script and the fact that Lucas simply found himself with too much to get through in the plot almost cripple the finished product. It’s a good Star Wars movie – but could potentially have been a great one.

7 / 10

Film reviews

Attack of the Clones (2002).

Attack of the Clones pic 1.

I killed them. Not just the men… but the women, and the children too. They’re animals, and I slaughtered them like animals! I hate them!!” (said by the teenager who, three years from now, will become Darth Vader. The illusion is shattered…)

So this is it. Having stuttered through Anakin Skywalker’s childhood in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars fans were eager to see how the character’s inevitable path towards the dark side would progress in Attack of the Clones. George Lucas’ answer was to insert a love story around which this sequel would revolve – a love story that begins weird on Anakin’s side and evolves in a way that doesn’t make much logical sense.

After the disappointment expressed towards the first part of the prequel trilogy, everyone was hopeful that Lucas had learned his lesson and that this sequel would be a much improved addition to the Star Wars universe. And in some crucial ways, it is. This film goes along at a much better pace than its predecessor – there is rarely a let-up in the action. Acting is also marginally improved, though still often held back by the fact that everyone is expressing themselves in front of blue screens or reacting to CGI that would be inserted in post production.

Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) takes more of a central role here as Anakin’s master, and you do get the sense that the two men have developed a bond in the intervening ten years between Episode 1 and this film. For me Hayden Christensen is not quite as bad as some say – unless he’s “looking longingly” at Padme (Natalie Portman), which comes across more like he’s preparing to rape her than falling in love with her.

Still, Christensen’s main problem is the material Lucas gave him to work with here. Anakin’s portrayal as a whiny, slightly creepy lovestruck teen is not quite the prelude to Darth Vader that we all imagined.

There is one brief moment in which we get a cruel hint of the Anakin we actually wanted to see. It is when he finds his mother on Tatooine, who has been held captive by the ‘sand people’, and she dies in his arms. For a moment Anakin gets a certain look – a look of anger, of hatred, of wanting to hurt people very badly – and the soundtrack picks up in a way that makes you think ‘yes, finally we’re going to see some edgy shit’ go down around here.

So what does Lucas do? Well as this film is primarily for the kids, he cuts from the scene immediately as Anakin cuts through his first victim. The next time we see Anakin, he’s crying and spitting in front of Padme, his outburst with the sand people seemingly the result of a tantrum.

Whatever intensity existed in the previous scene is quickly extinguished in favour of painting his character as a boy with emotional problems, perhaps still at the tail end of puberty. Lucas tried to get us to feel sorry for Anakin when most people surely felt Darth Vader should have been a more rogue-like Jedi whose edginess covered a kind-hearted nature deep down.

Once again in Attack of the Clones, as with its predecessor, we’re presented with logic that insults our intelligence. Despite knowing from the opening scene that Anakin clearly has feelings for Padme, and having warned his padawan that his commitment to the Jedi Order means he’s forbidden from acting on such feelings, Obi-Wan nonetheless approves a mission in which the two are sent off alone together to her home on Naboo.

Anakin is appointed Padme’s personal Jedi protector. Did Obi-Wan ask himself what they’ll do together on Naboo I wonder… you know, when it’s just the two of them, and Anakin has to make sure he stays close ‘for her protection’? Someone needs to think logically here, as it seems the Jedi don’t bother… because logic would only get in the way of the script, after all.

On Naboo, Anakin and Padme have romantic dinners and picnics in the sun. They roll around and play together on the grass. They sit by a fire in the evenings. Padme wears increasingly revealing clothing during their time together. It all seems so perfectly crafted… as if to make it seem like, say, I don’t know, they were going to fall in love or something.

This gets cringeworthy real fast. That George Lucas sees fit to blatantly spell everything out for his audience is infuriating. That he doesn’t know how to write a decent love story in the first place is irritating. Less is more with this kind of thing in a Star Wars movie – Lucas himself should have known that after The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Han and Leia never needed this treatment to fall in love… but then again, their love story felt organic. Anakin and Padme’s love story only happens because the plot needed a vessel in which to insert Luke Skywalker into the continuity later.

Another major part of Attack of the Clones is, as the title suggests, the introduction of the conflict we heard about from Obi-Wan in the original trilogy: the ‘clone wars’. Its set-up in this film left a fairly major plot hole that was never resolved: that of Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas and Count Dooku’s involvement in the commissioning of a ‘Grand Army of the Republic’. Incidentally, these details were explored in the Darth Plagueis novel (published in 2012 and, for what it’s worth, an immensely enjoyable read in its own right), but as that is no longer considered canon – nor should viewers be expected to go elsewhere for such a crucial plot point – it isn’t a valid excuse for Lucas brushing over these details.

In fact this entire plot thread is again indicative of a script that is forcibly driven towards a fixed future destination rather than allowed to develop organically (my biggest criticism of the entire prequel trilogy if you hadn’t noticed). Logical jumps can be found all over the place if one looks close enough.

We learn at the end of this film that the whole thing was a plan masterminded by Darth Sidious and helped along in its execution by Count Dooku, which is a nice idea, but it breaks down to an extent when one stops to think about the factors that went into it.

Obi-Wan discovers the planetary system Kamino only because of a toxic dart used by Jango Fett, the bounty hunter commissioned to assassinate Padme. He then discovers Geonosis, the planet on which the clone wars begin when the Jedi all rush to rescue him, because he manages at the last moment to lob a tracking device on to Fett’s ship as the latter escapes. Fett then almost succeeds in killing Obi-Wan in an asteroid field (with very cool sound effects); had he done so then the plot would have ended there. The Jedi would have had no way of knowing where Jango Fett had fled to.

Then we have the Jedi themselves. Oh boy. Once again the Jedi Council shows a complete lack of logic in almost every department, from letting Anakin (a nineteen year old padawan who still bears the unresolved emotional issues Yoda perceived in him ten years before) escort Padme across the galaxy by himself, to then sending their entire force over to Geonosis to save one Jedi and attempt to wipe out all those who had decided to secede from the Republic. They jump into full-scale war so fast that you wonder how exactly they managed to be the ‘guardians of peace and justice’ for a thousand years beforehand.

Yes, on one hand it’s nice to see more action in this film. It’s cool to see Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) whip out his purple lightsaber and to see the Jedi do something other than sit around in a circle talking. But the lack of critical thinking on their part is absurd – it’s something we’re not really supposed to notice as those cool elements distract everyone from it, and George Lucas certainly isn’t going to let critical thinking get in the way of the direction in which he wants his story to go.

Christopher Lee and Ian McDiarmid give admirable performances as Count Dooku and Chancellor Palpatine respectively; the latter again making an otherwise drab political backdrop bearable. Jar Jar Binks is instrumental in helping Palpatine secure power in this film, meaning the character was indirectly responsible for the rise of the Galactic Empire and over twenty years of tyranny in the galaxy. Maybe that’s some kind of karma at work or maybe you consider it an insult that he was given such an important role in the saga. Make your own mind up.

In a lot of ways this film was all about fan service. Harking back to The Empire Strikes Back, we get another sequence in an asteroid field – though I’ll leave you to work out for yourself which one is clearly superior. Jango Fett plays a significant role, as does his son Boba Fett in Empire; both are involved in those respective asteroid scenes.

Most of all though, many fans wet their pants at the prospect of Yoda whipping out his lightsaber in a confrontation with Count Dooku towards the end of the film. The fight itself is easily the weakest of the prequel trilogy; fan anticipation and excitement once again helping to paper over an underlying lack of substance.

On the surface Attack of the Clones is an improvement over its predecessor. One can sense here that George Lucas was getting closer to the story he really wanted to tell, and the one we really wanted to see (that being the fall of the Jedi and rise of Darth Vader). Getting to that point, however, proved a bit of a problem, certainly when you peek behind the curtain to find the rather flimsy skeleton around which this film is built.

Sure it was technically an improvement, undeniably fun in places, but I’m a sucker for good storytelling and well written characters… unfortunately those elements are what this movie lacked most.

4 / 10

Film reviews

The Phantom Menace (1999).

Darth Maul pic 1.

At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.”

Let’s establish something straight away. There are certain things about The Phantom Menace that are just atrociously bad no matter what way you look at it.

One of those things is dialogue, which is not only written badly but delivered in the same bland style by every character. With the monk-like Jedi, who are taught to keep their emotions under control, one can maybe let it pass – but they lose their sense of uniqueness when you have Natalie Portman as Padme and even a nine year old Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd, who we’ll be getting to later) also talking like they do.

It’s telling that this film’s best character is one who only has a few lines of dialogue in one scene. Darth Maul is a badass for this very reason – in his case, the lack of character development only adds to his shadowy mystique. Everyone else in this movie wasn’t so fortunate.

Liam Neeson, when he heard about the chance to play a Jedi knight in a new Star Wars film (the first in a trilogy of prequels intended to fill in the backstory of iconic characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, as well as show what led to the fall of the Jedi and rise of the Empire), reportedly accepted the role without first looking at George Lucas’ script… which may hint at one of the main reasons why things went south with the finished product.

You had a writer-director at the helm who was responsible for conceiving what became one of the biggest franchises in cinema history. His record for making successful movies spoke for itself; and who was really going to turn down the chance to be involved in the hotly anticipated next instalment? Moreover, who was going to stand up and tell him some of his ideas sucked when he seemed so childishly excited about the whole thing?

This documentary about the film’s production sums up why we got all the bad – and admittedly some good – parts of The Phantom Menace. Coming alongside Lucas for this film after working with him on the similarly polarising Star Wars special editions was producer Rick McCallum, who was clearly as excited and passionate about the project as its original creator.

McCallum’s favoured area was CGI, and his extensive work on The Phantom Menace went some way to ushering in the new era of digital filmmaking that is so prevalent today. If one is to praise the film for anything they must surely start here – though it’s debatable whether it has aged well overall.

Many shots in the film are so clearly dominated by CGI, and acting performances suffer as a result of often being placed in front of a blue screen rather than in real environments. In time The Phantom Menace risks looking increasingly dated, whereas the original trilogy for the most part is still enjoyed by many today. The reason for that perhaps is; while the original trilogy was certainly also impressive in its use of special effects for the time, it relied more so on strong characters and an engaging script to connect with its audience. Here we don’t find any such luxuries.

Indeed this film is at least significant within the context of cinema history in that, among other digital advances, it featured the first fully computer generated character: Jar Jar Binks. Many people have criticised this infamous character extensively – and their issues are largely justified. Sure, you rarely hear anyone complaining about Jar Jar because of a terribly unconvincing design. On a technical level the character is undeniably impressive. The problems most people had pertained not to this aspect, but to pretty much everything else about him.

When I recently viewed the film again for this review, the first moment at which it loses me completely is that same moment when Jar Jar first appears on screen. Master Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, who along with his ‘padawan’ Obi-Wan Kenobi has just narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, is running for his life from the droid army that has just touched down in the forests of Naboo. The tone is reasonably well set in this opening sequence – while the dialogue may be dry, it is (as I’ve alluded to) more forgivable when spoken by a Jedi.

Seeing Jar Jar standing there like a goof with his hands in the air, unable to decipher Qui-Gon’s simple command to ‘get out of the way’ while making all sorts of embarrassing noises, I find my feelings change instantly. Jar Jar Binks, each time he unceremoniously appears in any given scene, turns me into an angry viewer – because if I’m being totally honest I think everything about his character is utter trash, garbage, outside of his aesthetic value as a piece of CGI. And that is a very shallow defence.

I realise his main purpose was to appeal to the kids. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like him. Perhaps some adults may say they find him funny; that Lucas’ cringeworthy attempt at ‘comic relief’ actually worked on them here – though I dare any grown man with a sense of self respect to admit to that.

Jar Jar’s presence offsets the tone for the entire film. One could argue; if the rest of this movie had been superb, most audiences may have been prepared to look past their gripes with this irritating, child-friendly ‘gungan’. But I’m not sure this film was even capable of being good once George Lucas had uttered the line “Jar Jar is the key to all this” (check the documentary). Lucas was right – Jar Jar was the key… to why The Phantom Menace sucked so badly in the eyes of so many people.

In a way the Jar Jar character perfectly sums up how and where it all went wrong. During production of this film, George Lucas came across as a big child; one with lots of unquestionable influence over others. While that is no bad thing in itself – Hollywood could do with more independently minded directors like him – I think it had a large part to do with why he thought his sillier ideas for The Phantom Menace were good, and why they all made it into the finished product.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not closed-minded towards this film’s appeal. Indeed from my own experience I can say yes, it is actually rather good from the perspective of younger eyes.

When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, I was at the prime age for it, and I still remember enjoying my time watching it at the cinema. As a nine year old I was blown away by the action sequences; the Jedi seemed cool as hell; I ended up owning the action figures and played the video game based on this film. Even buying and reading the novelisation was pretty exciting.

Back then I glossed over trade disputes, political meanderings and any related dialogue in favour of cool lightsaber battles and an exhilarating pod race; things that people often point to in defence of this movie. And make no mistake: the climactic lightsaber fight in The Phantom Menace is hands down the best one in the entire saga – on a technical if not emotional level – though looking back at the pod race, I can’t help but think that particular scene is overrated (every shot is from the right, often panning right to left as it follows the pods, and as a viewer the scene quickly becomes bland when you realise that).

As fun as they are, what these well executed set-pieces highlight is how poorly paced the rest of the film is. Watching it now feels like a grind before Darth Maul’s appearance, as his appearance signifies something’s going to happen soon; his first fight with Qui-Gon is pretty damn thrilling, though far too brief. It does leave you wanting more, but honestly, if the second lightsaber fight towards the end wasn’t there to look forward to, it’d be somewhat of a struggle to keep watching all the way through on repeat viewings.

Almost every scene is filled with exposition, and not the exciting kind. When we first see the Jedi council on Coruscant, over an hour into the film, we discover their main purpose is to sit in a circle and talk. They discuss Anakin Skywalker and the return of the Sith in a calm, collected manner.

There’s no urgency in any of these performances, and I think that can be attributed more to the director than his actors. You get a strong sense that they’re all following a tightly laid out process, with little room for improvisation or manoeuvre. Lucas knew exactly what he wanted to achieve on paper and everyone followed it almost too rigidly in practice. Ewan McGregor, though reaction to his casting as Obi-Wan is mixed overall, is one of the few actors in the movie to show some much-needed urgency in his performance towards the end.

Then, of course, we have Jake Lloyd as a young Anakin, who perhaps would have become known as the most irritating aspect of this movie if not for Jar Jar taking the spotlight. This is the ‘boy who will become Darth Vader’, whose origin story was among the main attractions of these prequel films. The biggest criticism of his performance is, again, attributable to the dialogue fed to him by his director – dialogue which simply doesn’t fit. No normal nine year old boy would talk like that.

Furthermore, seeing a nine year old Anakin leaving his life as a slave on Tatooine to become a Jedi creates a slight continuity issue (I say ‘slight’ because there are bigger ones to be found elsewhere in this prequel trilogy). In the original Star Wars, both Luke’s uncle and an older Obi-Wan speak of his father as if he was a young rogue-like man who followed Obi-Wan off on a journey to the stars. His uncle never approved of this way of life, feeling Luke’s father should perhaps have stayed and helped out on the farm. There was never any mention of him being a slave.

In The Phantom Menace, we get little indication from his portrayal that Anakin is set to become a villainous tyrant in the future, aside from what Master Yoda describes as ‘fear of losing his mother’ (which apparently will lead to anger and then to hate); a mother who he has had no problem leaving behind to start training as a Jedi on the other side of the galaxy. This fear never comes across from Anakin himself and we once again have to rely on being told rather than shown what is supposed to be a vital element of his character.

Also, having spent his childhood as a slave on a desert planet, a far more humbling upbringing than the privileged, detached surroundings of the Jedi temple, one would think Anakin is in a better position to become a thoughtful, kind, understanding Jedi than most?

But let’s say it’s true – that Anakin is at risk of ‘turning to the dark side’ due to his inner fears. Are we to believe then, that the Jedi do not have some sort of counselling service to help their younger members deal with such issues? That a Jedi counsel full of wise sages, one of whom has 900 years experience, couldn’t come up with ideas for combating an issue that they themselves acknowledge could eventually lead to evil?

And then, that the Jedi would just approve his training anyway at the end of the film (presumably because the plot needed to move forward), having seen firsthand the dangerous untapped emotions in him? Their policy of simply avoiding the issue is a terrible example to set.

This whole situation was nonsensical, and it is indicative of a plot driven by the fixed destination George Lucas saw ahead of him, rather than organically developing in its own right. Numerous parts of this film don’t make narrative sense (and its sequels would be worse when it comes to this kind of thing) unless you come to it knowing yourself where it’s heading and therefore justifying it in the same way Lucas must have done when he was writing it.

Now, here’s the thing; for all the criticisms I’ve thrown at this film, I don’t hate it. I don’t even consider it ‘bad’ overall. Part of me still looks forward to watching it even today. My reasons for this are slightly unconventional.

First, I kind of like that The Phantom Menace inverted certain rules that most other mainstream films follow. For example, there is no real central protagonist in this movie. And the Jedi, the perceived good guys, are vastly overpowered compared to their flimsy adversaries – at least until they come up against Darth Maul.

Speaking of which, the Sith are the underdogs in this trilogy. The roles we saw in the original films, in which the Rebel Alliance was up against the oppressive, unstoppable Galactic Empire, are here reversed: the Jedi knights and the Republic are the major force in the galaxy, and it is the Sith planning to overthrow them.

Second, I must admit to actually (almost) enjoying the political backdrop against which this film is set. In large part this can be attributed to Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine. Even at my young age when I first watched this movie he quickly became my favourite actor, based on his performances in The Phantom Menace and its two sequels. Also, on that first viewing – and even up until I saw Attack of the Clones – I didn’t connect the dots that this guy was the same evil Emperor from Return of the Jedi. This part of the plot, with Palpatine’s subtle manipulations in the political background, I thought was executed well, though much of that rested on McDiarmid’s capable shoulders (undoubtedly the best performance in the film). People can say the focus on politics was boring – but I think that was the entire point from the perspective of a Sith.

That awkward dialogue, the terrible pacing… these things contribute to what I’d say is essentially one of the most unconventional mainstream films ever released. For all of the criticisms you could justifiably throw at George Lucas, his outright boldness in making this film the way he did is something one can almost respect – at least until you remember… Jar Jar was the key to all this.

5 / 10