Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Director: George Lucas Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz, Samuel L Jackson

The first of the notorious Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace kicks off Anakin Skywalker’s storyline that sets him on the path to becoming a Jedi, and ultimately a Sith. After a chance encounter with two Jedis on Tatooine, Anakin is taken to start training as a Jedi himself.  Meanwhile, Senator Palpatine plots to take over the Republic by provoking (and this is the really thrilling bit) trade disputes.

When I first saw this at the cinema as a kid, I loved this movie. Obviously now, however, my cinema palate has matured and I can see that it’s actually pretty rubbish, but to be honest I have to give it credit for giving me the same enjoyment that I had when I first watched the originals. The plot and particularly acting (with a couple of exceptions- more on that later) is pants but generally speaking the film does embody classic Star Wars elements- the sound effects, the screen wipes, the aliens, and it’s actually cool to see Yoda et al before the events of A New Hope.

I’ll start with the bad points to get them out of the way. My main issue is that I just can’t find it believable that the Anakin from The Phantom Menace goes on to be Darth Vader. Obviously there are two more movies before he finally gets there, but there’s just no hint at all of his susceptibility to the dark side, or to be honest even his Jedi skills. Qui-Gon just “senses” that Anakin is really powerful- but as a viewer I just can’t join the two together. Sure he’s a good pilot, but so is Han Solo and I don’t think his flying reflexes are evidence enough of his so-called powers. It makes the leap into the next instalment, Attack of the Clones, unconvincing as he’s basically had a total personality transplant. Darth Vader is such an iconic character and the whole point of the Star Wars saga is effectively the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, but this movie just doesn’t build him up enough to become the badass but ultimately heroic character that we see by Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to tell if it’s the script or the acting that makes it not work (probably a combination of both), but either way Anakin is a let-down.

Other minor problems include the cringe-inducing script- the original trilogy is full of excellent lines that have become iconic in cinema, but can anyone remember anything from this? There’s also Jar Jar Binks- arguably the most universally hated Star Wars character but aside from his general grating personality, he doesn’t bring anything to the plot really so is surplus to requirements. There are a couple of casual racist stereotypes too, in the form of the trade federation reps and the Gungans. Finally, just the bad acting in general: too much stilted and unconvincing delivery, and I think the abundance of characters put quantity over quality.

The other main issue people have with this movie is the plot. Yes, it’s pretty dull but actually as a Star Wars fan I do think the events of this film are important. It paves the way to how we end up with the Rebel Alliance and the events of the original trilogy, and given what I’ve said above about the Anakin story-arc, the Senator Palpatine/Emperor story-arc actually works well in the prequel trilogy and is one of the trilogy’s overall redeeming features. As a kid I had very little idea of what was actually going on, but now as an adult I watch it thinking “ah, so that’s how that happened”. Perhaps it’s fair to say the key points are there but the execution fell short of the mark.

To end on a high note, the positives. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are super cool and it was good to have some context for Obi-Wan’s and Darth Vader’s relationship. While the script is terrible, both Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor manage to salvage their characters and they’re easily the highlight of the movie. (Mace Windu- Samuel L Jackson- is in this, but he doesn’t really get going yet until the next episode.) Darth Maul is also awesome, and while he only gets about three spoken lines (probably best given the rest of the script) he has some seriously cool moves in the final fight scene.

This isn’t the worst of the prequels but also I’d say not the best. In terms of storyline it’s good for Star Wars nerds for the general context/history of the Republic and the Empire, but for those who are lukewarm towards the originals I would say probably best not to bother as it won’t add anything for them.

2 stars

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

rogue-one

Director: Gareth Edwards Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mandelsohn, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed

Set between Episodes III and IV of the Star Wars films, we follow the group of rebels that set out to find the plans to destroy the Empire’s Death Star in order to destroy it.

FINALLY, you must be thinking, it’s a review for Rogue One. I’ve been very very slow on this one- I’d like to say it’s because I wanted more time to really digest the film but in reality I’ve just been very very lazy. Anyway, I’ve now seen it twice so feel reasonably well-informed, and here we are.

First time around, I came out of the theatre thinking this was ok, pretty good, not as good as The Force Awakens, but enjoyable nonetheless. However, as time passed I started to appreciate more and more what this films adds to the cinematic Star Wars story, and now I think it was excellent. As many people have said, the first hour or so moves quite slowly as it takes time to line up all the tangents of storyline that are necessary for the second half of the film. Although it feels quite bitty, I’d much rather they did it this way than set aside a whole movie just to set up the actual subject matter of the film (as The Hobbit unfortunately did…). It was important to bring all the necessary elements together, so it’s worth sitting through.

Once we’ve got all our characters established, the film really gets going and it’s uphill from there. We have just enough back story of the main characters to feel sympathetic towards them, and we start to see how all this is heading towards the events of Episode IV. We see a side of the rebellion that isn’t really explored in the original trilogy, one that is more violent and involves *gasp* actual death. Plot-wise it all makes sense, and it fills the crucial plot hole that was why on earth did the Empire allow such a weakness on the Death Star that allowed the rebels to destroy it with relative ease. Well now we know, and no more sleepless nights for Star Wars fans.

The part that made me appreciate this film gradually was the use of Darth Vader. He only appears for a very short time, and if you’re not really a Star Wars fan I think much of the Vader sub-plot in Rogue One would go over your head, but it really builds upon his characterisation as the villain. We see Vader in his castle on Mustafar (the volcanic planet where Obi-Wan chopped off both of Anakin’s arms and legs in one legendary swish of his lightsaber), showing how much Vader is consumed by his pain and suffering from the past- which is what keeps him on the Dark Side of the Force. His spell in the bacta tank is a short relief from his physical (and mental?- deep) pain, emphasising his continuing struggle with being pulled between both sides of the Force. The final Vader scene was probably the most epic 60 seconds of cinema I have seen in a long while, cementing his place as my number one favourite villain (and even movie character?!) of all time.

Vader obsession aside, there are soooo many nods to the original films. I liked seeing Senator Bail Organa again (one of the few redeeming characters from the prequels), and the sound effects of X-Wings and TIE fighters will never get old, among many other little cameos.

Rogue One is absolutely a must-see for any Star Wars fan as it fills in a lot of holes and only adds good things to the wider Star Wars universe. If you haven’t seen the originals, probably not worth it (but then I would obviously recommend watching the originals anyway…). Family-friendly, fairly easy plot to follow, and of course Darth Vader who will only ever be awesome.

4.5 stars

Jumanji (1995)

jumanji

Director: Joe Johnston Cast: Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, Jonathan Hyde

A young boy somehow finds himself pulled into the world of  magical board game, and ends up stuck there for 26 years, until a couple of kids start playing again and release him. But he’s not the only thing they release from the world of Jumanji…

With a sequel coming out December 2017, I thought I’d give this childhood terror another whirl. And, yes, I mean terror- this movie used to absolutely scare the pants off me, hence why I think this must be the first time I’ve watched it since I was about 8.

Fortunately for my sanity, I’ve grown up a bit since then and it’s not so scary anymore. Watching it in 2016, the graphics are unsurprisingly quite terrible, but the animatronics are still pretty good and I think actually much more effective than the CGI. It’s not as rip-roaringly hilarious or as comedically clever as some of Robin Williams’ other films (all time fave: Hook), but it’s standard family humour and is easy to watch. Let this be said though, there is still something very foreboding about those drums when the game is out to get you.

Having watched this movie as a child soon after it was originally released, I think I appreciated Jumanji for its nostalgic value. Watching it for the first time today however might not have quite the same impact, and it’s just another family film among many others. That said, there’s nothing bad about it particularly, it’s just fairly standard. It’s inoffensive and will probably be enjoyed by most audiences: solid.

3 stars

The Santa Clause (1994)

Ⓒ Walt Disney Pictures
Ⓒ Walt Disney Pictures

Director: John Pasquin Cast: Tim Allen, Eric Lloyd, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson

Divorced dad Scott Calvin (Allen) accidentally kills Santa Claus, and due to a clause found on a business card in Santa’s jacket, he has to become Santa himself. Although reluctant at first, he gradually settles into his new role and enjoys the respect he gets from his son, the only person who believes that he is the real Santa. However, others (including his ex-wife) think he’s going crazy, leading to some difficult choices.

I don’t think I have ever despised a child in a movie as much as I despised the one in this, Scott Calvin’s son Charlie. He whines all the time and is unbearably spoilt- it’s no surprise Scott doesn’t relish looking after him. Yet somehow this annoying kid becomes the hero of the story, and manages to end up getting his own way. Add this to the generally crap storyline, and this is probably one of the worst Christmas films I’ve watched in recent memory. None of the parts of the story seems to flow into the next, nor does the setting: one minute we’re in America and the next we’re in the North Pole, with the same main characters but it’s like it’s a different film. I don’t know what it is, maybe the set design, the writing, or something, but none of it seems to fit or really make sense. The film isn’t funny, heart-warming, and it doesn’t teach a lesson- it doesn’t really fit into any of the usual Christmas film moulds. Not fitting into a particular mould isn’t necessarily a problem, but it is when the film ends up being unsure of quite what the point of it is.

I would not recommend this film. I like Tim Allen in general, and the few moments written for his character in the script make a small step towards saving the film, but overall it’s boring and the characters are annoying and pointless. There are many more far better Christmas films to watch this festive season.

1 star