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Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D

The problem with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D is that it’s not in 3D. So the only reason why I would even consider going to see this latest LucasArts circle jerk turns out to be for nought. Because guess what kids – George Lucas Hates You.

I imagine George Lucas sitting in a sunken hot tub (ala Tony Montana in Scarface) at his Skywalker Ranch, paid for by the merchandising of the original trilogy (that’s right – the money that bought his space fortress came from the collector’s edition toys he shilled to children everywhere – like the remorseless Space Santa he is), being amused by that light-skinned protocol droid from the opening scene of A New Hope.

He’s just slouched in the soapy water of our dreams making disgusting Jabba the Hutt noises while lesser beings work to pleasure him like the spineless sycophants they are. Because George Lucas, like so many Premiership football players in so many hotel rooms, surrounds himself with people who can’t say no to him.

“I don’t care if Han shot first. Greedo had it coming, and Han is a criminal. That’s why I like him.” This is something nobody at Skywalker Ranch ever said to Lucas, for fear of being force-choked in front of all their friends. Lucas is the intimidating Darth Vader of his own little empire, surrounded by peons who don’t believe in him or his sad devotion to an ancient religion – but follow him instinctively out of naked fear.

That’s how Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D got made. It’s all still here. The lousy, clunking stilted dialogue and endless political noise. And the heart-breaking death of The Force when we learn that it’s all just microscopic bacteria, because George Lucas is a magician who can’t help but reveal his secrets.

But then here too are the Pod Races, still breakneck fast and exhilarating – the closest analogy this movie has to the breathless excitement of the Death Star trench run. And that’s not to mention our first introduction to oldschool Lightsaber combat – when the blast doors open and there stands Darth Maul, poised for his Duel of the Fates with Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Everything about that scene, from the arbitrarily opening and shutting shield doors to the unstoppable, kinetic frenzy of Obi-Wan coming at Darth Maul after the death of Qui-Gon, still gets me.

And that’s what I really hate about this movie. I Love the Star Wars universe. I love Lightsabers and X-Wings and The Force and the Millenium Falcon and the Skywalker family and droids that aren’t welcome in bars and giant slugs with criminal empires and faceless bounty hunters with jetpacks and the overwhelming feeling that all of this is my own imagination better realised and snapped to a more logical frame of reference by a master storyteller.

And that’s what the original trilogy was. It didn’t need CGI, I was fooled by the models. I bought Frank Oz’s Yoda as a real person. It didn’t need green-screen – even though I Know where Tatooine was shot in our world, Mos Eisley is still more real to me than anything I saw in the prequels.

What it needed, and this is something Irvin Kershner and to a lesser extent Richard Marquand (the directors of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi respectively) understood a lot better than George Lucas (A New Hope and all three of the prequels), was Story.

Phantom Menace has no Han Solo, it has no plucky princess or indomitable farmboy. It’s got Jar-Jar Binks, Natalie Portman doing a Keira Knightly impression and the kid from Jingle all the Way.

There’s no Empire to strike, unless you count the Trade Federation – a nebulous consortium that’s about as threatening as Global Warming. There’s just no impetus here, I mean come on – “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is being disputed.” This is supposed to be STAR WARS!

George Lucas has turned his back on everything that made the Star Wars story part of our cultural psyche in the name of perpetual modernization and unchecked revision. He’s made it a franchise and devoted that franchise to the masturbatory display of modern technology. And Yet, here he is again at the forefront of trendy techno gimmicks – 3D – and he comes out with a movie that ISN’T EVEN IN 3D!

Do Not Go See This Movie. If you find yourself tempted at any time to indulge the morbid curiosity George Lucas is banking on hooking you with, I want you to leave a comment for me on this post and I promise to do everything in my power to talk you down.

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Chronicle

The problem with Chronicle is Alex Russell. He plays Matt, Andrew the Apex Predator’s cousin and outer-circle friend to Steve Montgomery – school quarterback and all-round awesome human being.

This movie is dangerously close to a perfect storm. The story is fresh, authentic and expertly paced – with the slow build of power skilfully contrasted against the rising discord in Andrew’s home life and his deepening, and for him troubling, connection to Matt and Steve.

The powers themselves feel legitimate. They all seem to come from straight-telekinesis which, if you’ve learned anything (or if you’re me, everything) from comics and Steven Spielberg, is the most common extra-terrestrial power available. For once suspending disbelief doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s more like a treat.

The relationship between the trifecta could easily have been a lazy, hackneyed Dawson’s Creek montage – “this week the popular and just plain lovely quarterback, cool if a little lazy stoner and prickly outcast with a heart of liquid hot magma all get powers and have to learn to be excellent to each other …” – but instead Trank and Landis decided to go all out and actually create characters.

Yes Andrew has a thoroughly depressing and abusive home life, Matt is in love with the girl who doesn’t think he’s good enough, and Steve is just the best person in the world ever. Period.

But it’s what happens when these three intersect that really sets Chronicle apart. Instead of a by-the-numbers origin story we get to watch Andrew come out of his shell Despite the powers. It’s the influence of Steve and the support of Matt that allows him to overcome his crippling shyness.

Instead of Becoming his emotions (with great power comes great yadda yadda yadda…), his power becomes a way for him to Express his emotions. So when he’s on a high, out having fun with Matt and Steve, he’s playful and enthusiastic with his displays – like building a Lego replica of the Space Needle (also, foreshadowing – welcome back to cinema). But when he’s angry or upset he quickly becomes withdrawn and tacit, and displays his power more as a matter of course – such as when he waves the truck of an obnoxious tailgate off a bridge.

Despite his obvious position as the ‘Big Bad’ from the get go, Chronicle doesn’t try to write Andrew off. He’s obviously a raw and damaged person, but he still has aspirations. And he’s also not the Only character capable of being a dick – Matt displays some petty jealously when Andrew appears to get a handle on his powers quicker than the others.

Despite its hasty running time Chronicle manages to tell a better story than most two-hour monsters, and even gives us characters that actually Change throughout the course of it. My only problem, and it’s a Tiny one, is with Alex Russell when he tries to emote. He can’t cry, but he scrunches up his face anyway and puts on his emotion-voice and I wish he wouldn’t, because the most crucial part of any found-footage movie is the ‘genuine’ aspect.

But Chronicle feels genuine anyway, from start to finish, because of Andrew’s unashamedly emo rampage, Steve’s just plain nice-guyness, and the clever ways Trank uses the found-footage restriction to his advantage. Also the dancing bear. Just freaking inspired.

The Raid

The problem with The Raid is a lack of foreplay. So eager to get to the gunplay and, admittedly, outstanding violence; it eschews pedestrian conventions like characterisation and narrative in favour of watching bullets fly into children in slow motion – á la Lord of War (the Nicolas Cage movie based on a hilarious misunderstanding of the English language).

Still, that doesn’t stop this movie being able to rock you like a hurricane. Never since the Stallone/Schwarzenegger era have I seen such a gratuitous celebration of straight-body-count violence.

The Raid follows the new school of martial arts in film – hit hard and hit constantly(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9z5aWAQQ34). That is to say, the fight sequences are as breathtakingly fast and intricate as ever, but recently it’s been more about literally beating-the-other-guy-almost-to-death(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0p7TS7I728).

For this reason, the action scenes sort of teeter on the brink of ridiculous for minutes at a time. But more often than not, the director manages to keep them grounded long enough to hit that sweet-spot between ultra-violence and astonishing choreography.

Special mention goes out to the music. None other than Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda provided the score for this release of the film – and he’s got chops. He knows just how to lay it on thick, coming at the audience with a chunky, guitar-driven industrial wall-of-noise when the action sets in – but also how to scale it back to something more taut and atmospheric, often incorporating sound-effects from the film, when he wants to build tension.

The star, Iko Uwais, doesn’t have quite as much personality as Tony Jaa – current kingpin of the martial arts movie world, or as much charm as Jackie Chan – undisputed godfather of every stunt-heavy movie genre, but then that’s the law of diminishing returns.

This isn’t entirely his fault though, he’s not given many chances by the script to display much more than the conflicted-cop-on-a-mission cardboard cut-out this genre relies on. Even his martial arts talent is wasted at times, when overkill basically switches you off to the sheer grace of it.

The best fight scene actually takes place between two secondary characters that we actually know even less about – simply because their fight is the only time when the director slows down long enough to actually introduce the combatants. So in exchange for an extra 60 seconds of lead-in, we get the most compelling fight of the movie – because it’s the only one where we don’t already know who’s going to win.

The translation is a bit spotty at times – either that or Indonesian SWAT police talk like they’re in a Jane Austen novel – but it hardly matters.

It’s a good movie. The good guys wear fingerless gloves and half the bad guys look like members of LMFAO. More than once the audience I was watching with quietly broke out in nervous laughter at just how silly the violence got. It has a similar appeal to District 13 – a small group of do-gooders attempt to liberate an area under the total control of a heavily-armed gang of maniacs led by a well-connected psychopath. It’s a good action-movie premise that seems to be more popular outside Hollywood for some reason. Go see this if you want to watch Iko Uwais pound dudes to death with the frenetic energy of a psychotic Indonesian woodpecker.

Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance

The main shortcoming of Ghost Rider Spirit of  Vengeance is Not-Enough-Ghost-Rider. Neveldine/Taylor went and put all kinds of thought into the Rider’s look, feel, motion and even sound – then doled his appearances out sparingly like the withholding teases they usually aren’t.

You might remember a documentary by NevTay on the effects of bafflingly badly engineered Chinese poison on psychotic British hitmen with troubled childhoods and gorgeous full-baked Californian girlfriends.

Crank was one of those few movies I would actually compare to a rollercoaster ride. It started off all Nice’n’Easy from Clairol, with post-human badass Chev Chelios waking up to find himself on the way to dead – stumbling around his apartment in real-life slow-motion as the “Chinese shit” set in, stopping his heart or whatever. Then Chev gets in his (badass) car and sets off to exact revenge on the overgrown Latin babyman, Ricky Verona, who injected him full of what turns out to be basically diabetes, from what I could tell.

But as he’s driving, his body is shutting down. That is until he puts the hammer down and discovers that the only thing that’ll keep his heart pumping is pure, undiluted adrenaline. This is the part where the rollercoaster reaches its apex and you get your first glimpse over the edge. What follows is 90 minutes of sheer, unadulterated pandemonium. It’s…Glorious.

That’s the strength of N/T. All-go-no-quit-never-say-die-Action. They shoot action movies like Ben & Jerry make ice cream – thick and fast. So why isn’t there more of it in Spirit of Vengeance?

The first time we see Nicholas Cage he’s shirtless and looks like he just got out of bed yet is already wearing leather pants. So far so good then. Since we last saw him Johnny Blaze has decided to go Bruce Banner and try to contain his malefic alter-ego.

Enter Idris Elba (best known as Stringer Bell in the definition of television – The Wire). He plays a French monk or something. Doesn’t matter – point is, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) is dead and he needs Johnny Blaze’s help. More specifically, he needs Blaze to Ghost-Out and rescue the Anti-Christ from Lucifer. Pretty standard day for Cage thus far.

It’s an awesome movie mired in a more level-headed one. Too often it holds back when it should go full retard, especially when you consider who they’ve got at the helm. In one scene Cage does his best Bad Lieutenant parody while interrogating some hapless criminal at his own party and struggling to contain the Rider, who is literally bursting to get out and lay the smackdown on this den of inequity.

It’s interesting, because they depict the Rider almost like an addiction – something Blaze feels like he has to hold at bay but is at the same time desperate to release. It’s one of those scenes where you Need all present to commit entirely in order to break the wall of inanity – but where N/T would usually indulge the impulse to caricature, here they restrained themselves for no good reason. Thankfully, the same can’t be said for the Ghost Rider‘s scenes.

The first time we see the Rider is equal parts bewildering and transfixing. He arrives like a meteor, the ominous drone of his motorcycle echoing throughout the scene as he closes distance. When he finally lands, he doesn’t immediately attack – he takes a moment to himself, relishing his being before he sets about his work. In action, the Rider is a force of nature – utterly unstoppable and brazenly primal. He revels in the mayhem he causes – which makes me enjoy it all the more.

Everything about the Ghost Rider feels authentic. The way his leather jacket bubbles beneath the flames of his skull, the lightning-fast and creepily staccato way he moves (well he Is a skeleton), the primitive, ape-like way he yells, fights and even carries himself and the pitiless Penance Stare he uses, with great bliss, to “burn the souls” of his victims. Neveldine/Taylor clearly put an incredible amount of work into making the Rider feel like a tangible and extremely intimidating entity on screen, down to the jarring and tense rock music that accompanies his rampage.

Where are my manners? Ciaran Hinds is effortlessly menacing as, you guessed it, The Devil. Christopher Lambert is pointless as obviously-sinister monk Methodius. Johnny Whitworth is enthusiastic but a little out of his comfort zone as kidnapper turned darkness generating decay monster Blackout. Fergus Riordan and Violante Placido do ok as Anti-Christ and mom – it was good to see a kid take some initiative for once and not just be a screaming crash-test dummy for Cage to rescue. And Idris Elba, currently the most underrated actor in Hollywood, is great to watch despite the silly French accent.

But like all his other movies, this is a Cage film. Some real effort was put into making Spirit of Vengeance feel fresh, unusual and genuine, it’s just too bad they had to try and cage the Cage.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The problem with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is pacing. It consistently relies on wunderkind Thomas Horn to carry scenes that should be weightless – if only the intervening narrative wasn’t so dense. Having said that…

First off, let’s hear it for Thomas Horn. The guy went from winning Kids Week on Jeopardy! to starring in this year’s most-blatant-Oscar-bait so far. And he’s Good. We’re talking Corey Feldman good here.

There’s something very engaging about him, in an earnest, endearing sort of way. Like a young Owen Wilson. He’s believably wise, while innocent enough to still come across like a kid – even if his dialogue does get a bit pretentious at times.

Spurred by a perceived message from his late father, Oskar Schell (Horn) goes on a systematic search through the five boroughs of New York for answers to a question too vague for him to put into words. Superficially, he’s found something that belonged to his father and wants to know more about it. But the subtext here doesn’t so much hide between the lines as hover between the screen and your face.

On September 11th, 2001 – Oskar’s father jumped from the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. In the same way that if it weren’t for World War 2 we wouldn’t have The Pianist, Band of Brothers or the Call of Duty franchise, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wouldn’t exist were it not for 9/11.

What’s effective about this film is the frustrating reality of the WTC attacks. More than once Oskar laments the maddening concept that his father was killed by someone he never met, because they decided to fly a plane into a building.

So we watch him try to make sense of something that basically doesn’t make any. And somehow it manages to feel simultaneously abnormal and authentic. I’m gonna put that one mostly down to the casting.

With just a few short scenes Tom Hanks, once again showing us why they pay him the big bucks, quickly creates a character that you miss as soon as he’s gone. There’s never a question why Oskar is so driven to maintain the fresh memory of his father – you can Feel Hanks’ absence in the latter half of the film.

Equally compelling as the shell of Oskar’s mother is Sandra Bullock, reminding us why she used to be famous by delivering a careful performance as a numb, hollowed out mom trying to keep it together. Her shaky relationship with the undeniably difficult Oskar forms the raw, exposed heart of the piece.

Playing Hanks’ understudy is Max Von Sydow; a mute, similarly shell-shocked neighbour-with-a-secret who stands in as ‘daddy’ during the second act.

And rounding it out is the sprawling network of surprisingly fleshy bit parts given to the dozen or so strangers who act as stops along Oskar’s locomotive quest. Most prominent is Abbey and William Black (Viola Davis and Jeffery Wright) – a couple in the midst of a divorce (in America – can you believe it?) when Oskar comes knocking on their lives waving his tambourine.

Oskar also suffers from what looks like extreme agoraphobia, with the noise of his tambourine standing in for the calming presence of Hanks while he’s out on his solo adventure. The scenes that elucidate his fears are some of the most visceral in the film. The volume of certain things – doorbells, sirens, planes overhead – is uncomfortably loud and serves to put you in his mind-set as he tries to steel himself against his own fear.

Despite its dark subject matter it’s an optimistic film. In fact it left me thinking that, cynicism notwithstanding, if this film is anything to go by – maybe America is finally starting to get over 9/11.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

The significant aspect with Journey 2 is The Rock’s appearance and the big screen embracing his topless physique. I know you can’t get The Rock to star in your movie and Not put a tight shirt on him, but do you have to keep the green-screen stage so bracingly cold?

Obviously The Rock is an upgrade on Brendan Fraser(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9XXaU8xnV0). Too bad they blew their budget getting him. I mean I assume that’s what happened. Either that or the writer had a stroke mid-script and everyone was too polite to say anything.

The Rock makes one seriously irresponsible stepfather though. And who has the standby cash for a drop-of-the-hat jaunt to Palau in this economy? And with a few thousand left over to hire Luis Guzmán and daughter for a quick helicopter ride into a dangerous storm. Wasteful.

Why are their cobwebs on the Nautilus? Who brought spiders onto a submarine? How did Atlantis survive, hidden, for thousands of years only to crumble beneath the feet of The Rock almost as soon as he arrives? A volcano that erupts gold? What is going on in this movie?

Oh and daddy issues. The kid from the first movie has grown up to be the kid from Tron: Legacy. He rides a motorcycle, wears a cool leather jacket, has no respect for the law, and his youthful hijinks are actually just a cover for his earnest efforts to maintain the family heritage. That’d be Adventuring(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHjg6cTxmrQ).

What is the American obsession with daddy issues? Name me one character on Lost(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wr2nURO0xDg) who didn’t have them. Go on, try. I double dare you. What, you didn’t watch Lost? What is wrong with you?

What is wrong with Hollywood? Here they’ve got this mecca for actors, directors and screenwriters and they can’t churn out one decent movie with The Rock & Luis Guzmán(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enOx5YZ-Uco)? I mean I went into this movie knowing it was going to be nonsense. But I had faith in The Rock. He’s a charming motherf****r. I saw The Tooth Fairy(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqnjK79fGSw), I know what he’s capable of. But this…

So this kid’s grandpa spends his half his life trying to find The Mysterious Island Verne was on about, deciphering codes hidden in the works of three different authors from different periods and then he goes and gets lost and The Rock figures out the same code in (no exaggeration) 30 seconds.

I get that The Rock was trying to ingratiate himself with his disobedient step-brat by entertaining the whole grandpa-found-a-fictional-world thing, but he took the kid to the middle of the Pacific and then hired a helicopter that looked like it had just crash landed to fly them out to a hurricane. They only picked Guzmán’s helicopter cause his daughter is played by that girl who was in High School Musical(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1h82bqloNE). I bet The Rock got a nipple boner as soon as he saw her.

Oh, and Michael Caine(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFIQIpC5_wY) is in this movie. Enough said.

Man on a Ledge

The problem with Man on a Ledge is inconsistency. What we’ve got here is a film that wants to be Phone Booth, The Negotiator, Mission: Impossible and The Italian Job all at once.

So we’ve got the misunderstood-man-in-a-precarious-situation dynamic of Phone Booth, but none of the innovation. Instead of studying our hero’s psyche by simply watching him as the day unfolds – still Colin Farrell’s shining (Hollywood) moment – Man on a Ledge shoehorns in some of everybody’s favourite plot device: flashback narrative.

Then we’ve got the I-want-that-one-specific-cop-I-can-trust aspect of The Negotiator, but who the hell thought it’d be a good idea for Elizabeth Banks to play Kevin Spacey in this scenario? Don’t get me wrong, she’s cute and can act – loved her as the psychotic nympho in 40 Year Old Virgin – but I don’t want her talking me down off a ledge unless either Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith are writing her lines.

Finally we’ve got the Mission: Impossible/Italian Job scenes with Jamie Bell. What happened to that kid? Last time I saw him he was making Hayden Christensen look good in Jumper(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maMBKOZDDm0). These parts are pretty good, if absolutely fucking ridiculous.

It’s not giving anything away to tell you that Bell plays Ledgeman(not in the good way)’s brother. Or that Ledgeman isn’t actually suicidal. He’s causing a major ruckus right across the street from the building his brother is concurrently breaking into (with improbably skilful girlfriend in tow) in order to keep attention away from said building long enough for brother Bell to find proof that Ledgeman is innocent of the crime he’s “about to jump off a building over”.

It’s preposterous. As far as I could tell from the backstory, the brother is a regular guy with a girlfriend who used to “break into houses and shit”, and here he is bypassing sophisticated security systems and Tom Cruising his way through ventilation shafts in order to burglarise an impenetrable vault and crack the top-of-the-line safe within. But fuck it – Jamie Bell is awesome, and fun to watch – so I’m gonna let him have this one. Better if the girlfriend wasn’t there though – Zero chemistry and a useless character.

It’s an alright movie. Sometimes the dialogue is spot on, character-authentic and fresh, other times it’s lame, cliché and insultingly expositional. The exchanges between Bell and Ledgeman are the highlight, but again this is mostly down to Bell’s personal magnetism. Where’s Jamie’s flashback?

You might have noticed I havn’t mentioned the actor who played Ledgeman. That’s either because he was so in character that I couldn’t see him as anything but a Man on a Ledge, or because Sam Worthington literally cannot act and has the dead eyes of a gay shark.

Ed Harris and Titus Welliver do a bang-up job as the primary antagonists, though that’s pretty much a go-to role for both of them now. William Sadler has great fun playing the inexplicably helpful bellhop.

The world and the press watching below are suitably unsympathetic, alternating between chanting for him to jump and jostling for some face-time with one of the camera crews – which makes their turn upon discovering the true nature of Ledgeman’s plight all the more convincing.

For all its faults, the man-on-a-ledge diversion is actually a pretty clever idea. It’s fun to watch Ledgeman manipulate the macabre crowd – miming jumping in order to produce a swell of noise from the mob, masking Bell’s explosive entry into the action; or throwing fistfuls of cash into the throng, causing a mad scramble that impedes the security detail below – buying Bell some much needed time to make his escape. Plus, silly as it is, Ledgeman’s ultimate moment of redemption – his Shawshank moment, if you will – is tremendously satisfying.

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