Tag Archives: Natalie Portman

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)

Attack of the Clones is bad. The beginning almost seems all right, with Ewan McGregor and new addition (and astoundingly terrible actor) Hayden Christensen on a mission. It plays like a thirty minute TV pilot slapped on the front of an otherwise tedious Star Wars entry. This time around, director Lucas is so lazy, he doesn’t even bother clearing out the discarded red herrings. They all just hang around, daring the viewer to stare into one and plunge into the abyss.

Lucas’s vision for the film is cheap and manipulative. Not just playing on viewer expectation, but on feigned sympathy. Lucas manipulates the viewer into accepting the cheapest, most exploitative narrative twists. Even though the film’s awful–the acting’s awful, the writing’s awful, David Tattersall’s photography’s awful, John Williams’s music is awful–Lucas’s vision for Clones is a success. He’s pandering. Lucas is acknowledging he’s no longer a defining vision in blockbuster movie-making (regardless of ILM’s involvement) and he’s showing he can do the same thing as all the other guys are doing.

Right down to Natalie Portman having her midriff exposed after a vicious attack from a giant bug. Strangely, Portman’s medical condition is never questioned. There’s no plot points about the giant bug talons injuring Portman or an infection. It’s just a ploy to get her suggestively clad.

It’s desperate. But it’s acceptable. It’s the new norm, the one Lucas didn’t do anything to create. But he can mimic it, he can mimic other styles–Lucas’s ability to adapt established film narrative approaches to new, entirely different material has always been one of his more uncanny skills. But there’s not a thing he cares about in the film. If it isn’t some new effects shot, it’s a direct response to some critical dig at the previous film in the series.

It’s petty. Lucas isn’t insane. He can tell Christensen is bad and has absolutely no chemistry with Portman, partially because he’s a stalker and a jerk. Lucas doesn’t like Christensen’s character and gives him nothing likable in return. Still, even though the script fails Christensen, he’s still an awful actor. Portman gets a lot of sympathy, just for what Lucas puts her through with Clones.

McGregor does better than his costars, but he still isn’t any good. Lucas is so particularly bad at directing his actors against the digital cast. Especially Sam Jackson, whose scenes with Yoda make one wonder if Lucas even told him where to look.

Temuera Morrison is bad too. Ditto Christopher Lee.

No one’s good in Clones. Lucas and co-screenwriter Jonathan Hales don’t even give Anthony Daniels anything to do it. Lucas has no enthusiasm for anything in the film. It’d be funny if the film weren’t so long.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by George Lucas; screenplay by Lucas and Jonathan Hales, based on a story by Lucas; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Ben Burtt; music by John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Rick McCallum; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Frank Oz (Yoda), Ian McDiarmid (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Silas Carson (Viceroy Nute Gunray), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) with Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) and Christopher Lee (Count Dooku).


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Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

Hi. My name is Andrew. And, from 1999 to sometime in 2000, I was a Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace apologist. When writing out the title, I forced myself to type it Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Because having two colons in a title is too lame.

It was a dark time. But, every day, as the ramifications of Phantom Menace (and its critical and cultural reaction) played out and destined mainstream American cinema into a bottomless pit of cynical opportunism masked as fan service, things got brighter. For my film appreciation, anyway. All the rest of the world got was a couple more Star Wars prequels, which I avoided like the plague at the time.

I refused to return to Phantom Menace, after it had become clear there was no way to justify any of it. Jar Jar Binks, the moron who saves a planet, becomes the scapegoat for a film with a gentle, kindly, oftentimes humorous look at slavery. In his screenplay, director Lucas talks about adorable little Jake Lloyd, who’s so Aryan and sweet, we can’t imagine him growing up into Sebastian Shaw, much less James Earl Jones, being a slave almost as much as he talks about those stupid midi-chlorian. He thinks they’re really cool. Just like slavery. And Jar Jar Binks.

Lucas loves Jar Jar Binks. He doesn’t love a lot in Phantom Menace. He could care less about almost all of it, until he gets to the end and thinks he’s directing a sixties MGM war movie. Because there’s nothing original in Phantom Menace. Lucas is just cribbing from other movies–so much Spielberg, so much Cameron–and trying to put something together. It’s like a demo reel, which–if I was being nice–could be used as a rationalization for Lucas, Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s godawful editing, which goes out of its way to distance the viewer from the characters. Because if the viewer has to get close to the character, to the actor, it’d all be over. Lucas can’t be taken seriously, because he’s so disinterested. He’s copping out.

It’s easy to tell the effects sequences Lucas cares about–with the exception of the visuals of the city planet (yeah, I know what it’s called, but can we just pretend for a second I don’t–I’d have to look up the spelling and I don’t want to)–has flying birds in the shots. Just like Spielberg would have. Because Lucas is jealous. He’s seen ILM do amazing work, both practically and then digitally, and none of it really had anything to do with him. But Lucas hadn’t been making movies, he hadn’t been doing anything, with the Star Wars brand for a decade until the twentieth anniversary edition. And what did all those new special effects, which gave Lucas a chance to have ILM aggrandize him instead of someone else, do? They got a reaction. That reaction emboldened Lucas. It probably emboldened him from the first tests they would have had to do. I’d love to know how that project happened.

All of the effects shots in Phantom Menace attempt to top one another. None of them inform the story. Not even the good ones. Those shots just happen not to be some of the awful ones, which usually involve compositions or first person point of view. But for the effects shots to build in expectation, well, you need a plot to back that approach up. Because Ray Park’s idiotically terse villain doesn’t pay off with that build-up. Neither does Lloyd’s space adventure, which is just a bad Top Gun knock-off for kids. Lucas either doesn’t know what to rip off from somewhere else or he does know what to rip off, but can’t rip it off successfully. The direction is awful.

So what’s good about Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace?

Not Liam Neeson. He’s terrible. Not Ewan McGregor. He’s even more terrible. Not Natalie Portman. She’s better than those two guys. Pernilla August is comically bad. Jake Lloyd’s crappy but it’s hard to blame the kid, Lucas didn’t know how to do this movie. He paces the thing like a bad Saturday morning cartoon.

It’s hard to dislike Ian McDiarmid. He’s almost fun. If Lucas had any ambition for the film, he would have made so much questionable at the end of it. He was bluffing. Phantom Menace is a conceptual bluff, which most entertainment ends up being. Only Lucas got called on it because he’s so bad. It’s so bad.

Though it’s hard to dislike Anthony Daniels. His idiotic cameo at least has sincere acting, which isn’t present anywhere else. Not even from McDiarmid. He’s just too bemused.

Then there’s Terence Stamp looking like he’s working for quaaludes. Or Hugh Quarshie, who’s desperate to make an impression even though Lucas refuses to let anyone make an impression except maybe Sam Jackson just because Lucas is a political animal.

Low mediocre score from John Williams. Awful photography from David Tattersall. He’s overconfident, trying to cover for his inability with the effects work.

Is there anything good about it?

No, don’t be silly. It’s awful. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace or even if you were crazy and really thought The Phantom Menace was more important than the Episode I part… it’s awful.

And, just like the original, it’s changed Hollywood. Lucas disrupted the system once again. Only this time, he did it too well. He figured out a way to make movies for everyone, whether they knew it or not. I mean, there’s not a single real conversation in this film. There’s not a single time the viewer has to ask a question or have a thought. Lucas pats your hand and takes your money, one stupid scene after another.

I used to defend this movie. I used to say it was okay. I got people to see it.

You know what, I like Andy Secombe’s Watto. I’m just going to say it. I always have. Even now, when it’s obvious Lucas is painting him as a benevolent slave owner. He’s an endearing rip-off of Quark. I wonder who came up with that characterization for the film. It wasn’t Lucas.

I’ve rationalized this film to people. I shouldn’t have. It was wrong. It’s so lame it’s awful, but it’s so lame it can’t actually be awful, because it can’t be taken seriously. Not as a film. Not as a toy commercial. Not even as an expression of Lucas’s ego. Phantom Menace can’t even be that.

Because The Phantom Menace is in vain.

And to those people out there who tried to tell me I was wrong back in 1999 and 2000 during those dark, apologist days and I didn’t listen to you… well, I was a dirty bird. You weren’t grungy, you were bitchin’.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George Lucas; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith; music by John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Rick McCallum; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Hugh Quarshie (Captain Panaka), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) with Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum) and Frank Oz (Yoda).


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Heat (1995, Michael Mann)

Until the final scene, director Mann is still carefully plotting out Heat. The film’s narrative construction–when he introduces a character, when he returns to a character, how he transitions from one character to another–is magnificent. Heat is a delicate film, with Mann never letting a single element carry a scene. He’s always working in combination–sound and actor, photography and sound, editing and actors. All of these elements should cause distance between the viewer and the film; instead they bring the viewer in closer.

Much of the film deals with the relationship between the various men and their suffering women. Even if one of the male characters’ women doesn’t know she’s suffering, she’s going be soon. Mann posits his driven male characters are unable to function in relationships, then he explores the relationship between the driven male characters.

With crooks Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro, Mann sets up something near a protege and mentor relationship. With De Niro and cop Al Pacino, Mann goes with an alter ego. The scene between Pacino and De Niro, where Pacino finally gets to let down his guard–up almost entirely in the rest of the film–is startling. It’s an island in the chaos.

Great supporting performances from Amy Brenneman, Diane Venora, Dennis Haysbert, Mykelti Williamson and Kevin Gage. Brenneman’s the closest thing Heat has to a sympathetic character. Everyone else is just extant.

Nearly three hours, Heat never gets unwieldy. Mann’s deliberateness keeps it painfully, depressingly, beautifully, devastatingly subdued.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Mann; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dov Hoenig, Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg and Tom Rolf; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Art Linson and Mann; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Al Pacino (Lt. Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto), Diane Venora (Justine Hanna), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Dennis Haysbert (Donald Breedan), Ashley Judd (Charlene Shiherlis), Mykelti Williamson (Sergeant Drucker), Wes Studi (Detective Casals), Ted Levine (Bosko), William Fichtner (Roger Van Zant), Natalie Portman (Lauren Gustafson), Tom Noonan (Kelso), Kevin Gage (Waingro), Hank Azaria (Alan Marciano), Susan Traylor (Elaine Cheritto), Kim Staunton (Lillian) and Jon Voight (Nate).


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Thor: The Dark World (2013, Alan Taylor)

Thor: The Dark World toggles between cloying and disinterested. Between Alan Taylor’s limp direction and the tepid script, it never really has a chance. Either the world will end or it won’t. The film doesn’t waste any time getting the viewer (or even the characters) invested in caring about it. The lack of danger is palpable–even with supporting cast members dying.

The front half, which mostly deals with futuristic people fighting with the Bronze Age technology, is long and boring. The finale, inexplicably–or for tax breaks–set in London, isn’t bad. The script establishes Natalie Portman, Kat Denning and Stellan Skarsgård as goofy scientists–but the only ones who can save the world–and running them through a disaster scene is fine.

The film completely flops regarding Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. Around halfway, someone remembers the characters are brothers; there’s drama and history and a really weak scene.

The film doesn’t just ask for suspension of disbelief regarding flying men, it also asks the viewer to ignore the idea characters should have depth. Portman does a good job hiding her embarrassment, actually.

Hemsworth is appealing as always, Hiddleston is good. Anthony Hopkins is awful, so’s Christopher Eccleston as the villain. Taylor really can’t direct actors.

Both Rene Russo and Idris Elba do fine in their bit parts.

Truly atrocious music from Brian Tyler doesn’t help things.

Someone really should have come up for a reason for the film except the first one’s box office warranted the investment.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alan Taylor; screenplay by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on a story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat and on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber; director of photography, Kramer Morgenthau; edited by Dan Lebental and Wyatt Smith; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Fiege; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Natalie Portman (Jane Foster), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Christopher Eccleston (Malekith), Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Zachary Levi (Fandral), Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Rene Russo (Frigga), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Algrim), Kat Dennings (Darcy Lewis), Stellan Skarsgård (Erik Selvig), Alice Krige (Eir), Jonathan Howard (Ian Boothby) and Chris O’Dowd (Richard).


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