Nothing But Star Wars Episode Two (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, 2002)

Attack_of_the_Clones_PosterThe Star Wars machine keeps plugging on.  Episode one had a rather mixed reception, but it made money.  It would have taken a catastrophic return to derail new trilogy.

The film would make a jump and start to try and “right the ship” so to speak.  As much as Lucas tried to defend Jar Jar Binks, his role gets diminished greatly in both this and the next film.

And let us go back on our spoilerific journey!!!! Send in the clooooooones!

 

 

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Picking up around ten years after the Phantom Menace, Amidala is now a Senator.  This is, funny enough how they move Jar Jar out of the picture…he is a representative for Naboo. But anyways, after an attack on her ship as she arrives on Corsucant, the Jedi Council sends Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker to protect the Senator.

Anakin apparently still has his crush on Amidala, who is shocked to see Ani went from nine year old boy to a good looking teenager. They plan to stand guard in her apartment as they also try and determine how best to investigate the attempt on her life.

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The investigation gets a boost though when a second attempt is made by letting to poisonous bugs into her bedroom.  Artoo derails the attempt by alerting the Jedi.  They pursue the shadowy killer through the skies of Corsucant (the skies are full with levels of traffic).

This leads to an exciting chase sequence with Anakin being incredibly reckless.

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Really, it is a pretty enjoyable scene.  It ends with them crash landing in a seedy part of town.  They follow their target into a bar.  It turns out she is a shape shifting bounty hunter.  She starts to confess, only to be shot with a poison dart, dying almost instantly.

The Jedi Council formulate a new plan.  Anakin will accompany Amidala undercover to a remote part of Naboo, while Obi Wan will focus on the investigation. Obi Wan starts by focusing on the dart.  But he really cannot connect it to anything.  He visits a friend who runs a dive restaurant who tells him that the dart belongs to the Cloners of Kamino.

This starts a new mystery, as Kamino does not appear in any star maps he can find.  With Yoda’s help, he locates his destination.  When he arrives, he is surprised to find that they were expecting a visit.  Not from Obi Wan, but another Jedi Master who Kenobi reveals died several years before.

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He discovers that the previous Jedi master had hired the Kimino people to create an army of Clones.  He is introduced to Jango Fett, a bounty hunter who is the basis of the clone army.  Jango had one requirement, and that was a clone untouched by the Cloner’s programming to raise as a son (can you see where this is going?). Lucas actually added actor Temuera Morrison’s voice as Stormtroopers and Boba Fett in the original trilogy.

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There is a fight and Jango escapes with Boba, but Obi Wan follows them to the planet Geonosis.  There, Obi Wan discovers the Separatist army, led by Count Dooku.  Dooku is an ex-Jedi (and gets cool points because it is Christopher Lee).

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Meanwhile, Anakin confesses feelings for Amidala.  At first she pushes back due to her career and the Jedi rules against love and marriage. Anakin argues they can love, and follows the Jedi tradition of loopholes.  But he becomes distracted by nightmares of his mother in trouble. He returns to Tatooine.  He discovers that his mother was sold to the Lars family.  However, rather than keep her as a slave she has married the farmer.  She was kidnapped by Sandmen.  Anakin locates the Sandmen village and discovers his dying mother.  In a fit of rage, he slaughters all of the folks in the village.

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As they ready to depart, they get a message from Obi Wan.  Anakin and Amidala head off to Geonosis (taking C-3PO, who was with the Lars family,  with them). When they arrive, they are instructed to wait, but Anakin gets impulsive and they enter a factory making a droid army.  Elsewhere, the Galactic Senate gives approval to the Clone army.

Obi Wan has already been caught, but Anakin and Amidala are fighting their way through the factory, dodging the automated machines building droids. Instead of saving Obi Wan, they end up captured as well.

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After getting caught, the three are brought into an arena to fight to their deaths against three very unique monsters.  In the midst of this battle Amidala gets a totally implausible rip to her uniform…like, comically implausible.  Just as it looks like the Separatists will when, the other Jedi arrive along with the Clone Army.

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There is a big fight in the arena between the separatists and the Jedi and Count Dooku runs off.  Everybody takes chase after he and the retreating droid separatists. Anakin and Obi Wan reach Dooku’s lair.  Dooku manages to incapacitate Kenobi, but Anakin puts up more of a fight.  Dooku manages to sever Anakin’s hand and get the high ground so to speak.  Suddenly, before he can dispatch the two Jedi, Yoda walks in and they have the fight nobody knew they wanted.

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Once Dooku realizes he probably won’t win this fight, he retreats to his ship and escapes to fight another day.  The Clone Wars have begun.  Anakin gets his robot hand and secretly marries Amidala.

The film ends one this note, with a rather weak cliffhanger.  The Empire Strikes back ended on the note of the big reveal.  Here there is no big reveal really. “Luke, I am your father” drives discussion and anticipation for the nextr installment.  Here it is just…”Well, there is one more!”

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So…about the whole romance.  Amidala was about fourteen when she met Anakin.  And generally I would not balk at a five year age difference. But as they are tied together by her time where he was just a cute kid…it seems like the intended romance might have been able to spring more organically had they started out more like a year or two apart (her sixteen and him fifteen or something). Christiensen and and Portman also lack any chemistry to sell the fast moving relationship. The relationship just feels so rushed it is hard to buy it ever happens.  And again, had they been much closer in age in the Phantom Menace, the seeds could have been laid much more organically.

This film is really the first to make a big show about the Jedi rules forbidding marriage and attachments.  Frankly, it is a dumb and terrible rule that calls into question the concept of the Jedi as an organization.  How is not having attachments going to make you a better protector? But then, we have seen that the Jedi are pretty sketchy.

To a certain extent, I don’t see this concept as bad.  The original films gave us only Obi Wan’s portrayal of the Jedi as noble Knights who fought oppression and stood for Justice in the galaxy.  That the prequel films are revealing a far more political organization is not a problem…but how it pulls it off is leaving a lot to be desired.  It is kind of dull, and in spite of their ineptness, it is pretty obvious we are supposed to be rooting for the Jedi.

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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) Directed by George Lucas Shown: Hayden Christensen (as Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman (as Senator Padmé Amidala), Samuel L. Jackson (as Mace Windu), Ewan McGregor (as Obi-Wan Kenobi)

The whole subplot with Boba Fett is really pointless.  It is, in fact, one of the most pointless fan service moments of the franchise.  Jango is killed, beheaded by Mace Windu in front of Boba.  We see young Boba holding his father’s helmet to his face.  And, this might have been a powerful image had Boba Fett been a major player who we saw a lot of in the original trilogy.  But he has, like, three lines including a scream before he dies Between Empire and Return of the Jedi.  This gives us no insight, and frankly, undermines part of what made him popular.  He was mysterious.  Things in Star Wars that needed no backstory? C-3PO and Boba Fett.

One thing that stands out is how lazy the world building is. In the original trilogy, things that paralleled our world still felt unique.  When Obi Wan is offered an illicit substance, he refers to it as “Death Sticks”.  I know there have been cigarette brands with ironic names like that…but really? Obi Wan’s friend with the diner? The diner looks just like a fifties diner.  And they have drinks like “Jawa Juice”. It just feels like there was no effort put into this world.

In spite of my complaints, this is a step up from the Phantom Menace.  We get some cool lightsaber duels, for one. Seeing Yoda in action turns out to be surprisingly fun.

Lastly, remember how I said Amidala gets an implausible rip in her outfit?  A cat monster things takes a swipe at here…this is the result:

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Haunted People Chapter 2 (Insidious Chapter 2, 2013)

Insidious_Chapter_2_PosterIn the first film, it was established that part of what made young Dalton such an easy target was that his father had a similar experience with the same spirit as a boy.  Opening in the first film’s tragic aftermath, Insidious Chapter 2 jumps back to that story.

Younger Elise is helping Lorraine save her young son Josh from a frightening spiritual attack.  Here we are introduced to an associate of Elise’s named Carl. When the film picks back up in the present, Carl comes in to try and help the family finish what was started in the first film and save Josh.

 

 

The film gives us more background into the old woman (who turns out to not be a woman, but a serial killer who killed at the behest of his mother).  The ghosts and spirits are as visually striking as in the first film. The same year he released this film, he released the Conjuring.  Wan really knows what he is doing with his modernized ghost stories.  I really enjoy his sense of style and his commitment to the realities of his haunted cinematic worlds.  And again, the sound design is every bit as powerful in Chapter 2 as it was in the first film.

Chapter 2 flows pretty organically from the original film, avoiding a feel of being a tacked on sequel.  Wan is a solidly dependable horror creator, giving real life to a genre of horror that was somewhat stale.

Haunted People Chapter One (Insidious, 2010)

Insidious_PosterDirector James Wan made his name in horror with Saw, which launched a thousand torture themed horror films, though often made by less skilled people.  But in 2009, Wan found himself creating a more unique form of horror.  He accomplished this be exploring an older school of fright, the supernatural thriller.

Insidious tells the story of a young family, headed by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne.  Rose’s Renai is staying home with their young baby and she is the first to notice strange occurrences.  But they start to get more frightening, to the point of seeing things and hearing aggressive and angry voices. Josh (Wilson) is struggling at work, and coming home late, all the while thinking his wife is just unnerved by the new house.  But when their son Dalton falls into a coma, things get more desperate.  Josh’s mother steps in to help the couple, but she quickly comes to believe Renai.  They call in help from an old friend of the mothers, Elise.  Elise is a known psychic and has a paranormal support team.

It is revealed that the house is not haunted, rather Dalton is.  Dalton is able to astrally project himself.  Elise explains he has been likely able to do this so long, that it never scared him.  However, it leaves his physical body available and other spirits are trying to get back to his body by keeping Dalton from returning.

The film is visually striking, with a beautiful combination of old school gothic horror and modern scary monsters.  The primary two spirits attacking Dalton are an old woman with a long black dress and veil and an old school gargoyle type of demon who looks truly ghoulish.

Along with the visual designs of the ghosts and demons, the real star of the film is the sound design.  Much like Hitchcock, Wan gets how important timing of stings and the volume of your surroundings can play in frights.  The use of sound is near perfect in this film, with noises that can be emotionally unnerving.

The film has a good cast.  Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson provide some good humor to lighten the intense atmosphere, but not at the expense of seeming competent.  Wilson and Byrne are very sympathetic as the couple.  The standout is Lin Shaye. She has a warmth and kindness, but also a strength.  This is one of her best roles (and no surprise they keep bringing her back to the films).

Insidious is a solidly made modern horror film that pays homage to classic horror and ghost stories.

Rebirth (X-Men: First Class, 2011)

X-Men-First-Class-PosterAfter the cool reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine the producers stepped back to determine their next step.  So they went back to the drawing board.  X-Men First Class starts at the beginning with a Young Charles Xavier and Magneto.  It also gives an origin of sorts for Mystique.  Oddly, for a character who mostly served a function of henchman for Magneto in the original series, the latest set of films are heavily focused on Mystique as a tortured soul torn between Professor X and Magneto.  One of the interesting things that happened as the film came together was the return of Matthew Vaughn as a director.  He dropped out of X3 for family reasons.  Returning for First Class was a good move.

While the first trilogy gave no hint that Prof X and Mystique know each other, but early in the film we see them not only meet, but young Charles Xavier takes her in to live with him in his giant mansion.  But the film opens with a faithful recreation of the first X-Men film’s opening.  Young Magneto is brought into a concentration camp where he is seen as a great weapon by Nazi Officer Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  It is pretty clear that the X-Men Origins Magneto film morphed into this one and we get a well constructed scene where a grown up Magneto (now played by Michael Fassbender) finds two retired Nazis in a bar and torments them for information.  We return to Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) with a full head of hair and Raven (Mystique, now played by Jennifer Lawrence).  Xavier is recruited by the government for help regarding Sebastian Shaw, who has not aged a day.  He is trying to play governments against each other in the midst of the cold war.  The world does not know mutants are out there, but the government does and they want them.  This help brings Professor X and Magneto together when Magneto tried to take down Shaw, messing up the sting.

They start working with CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and A Man in a Suit (Oliver Platt) to locate new mutants.  The entire time, Magneto struggles with his desire for revenge against Shaw.  Raven finds herself drawn to Magneto’s pride as a mutant.  Meanwhile, Shaw and his henchmen (Including Emma Frost, inexplicably a grown woman in a film set years earlier than X-Men Origins Wolverine) are working to incite nuclear war (the film is really set around the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Overall, First Class is fun, exciting and compelling.  Magneto: Nazi Hunter is a great introduction.  The collection of characters is an intriguing mix from the X-Men comics.  You have longstanding members like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Havok (Lucas Till) and newer characters such as Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi).  The film is extremely well cast and is filled with strong performances.  There is a lone exception.  January Jones once claimed her ex Ashton Kutcher told her she cannot act.  I am inclined to agree.  Her Emma Frost is dull and lifeless.  Emma Frost is a character who should be intensely arrogant and cold.  And here she feels entirely inconsequential.

While the original films irked people with the leather outfits, this film pays homage to the early costumes, with black and yellow color schemes.  This is one of the strongest films in the franchise, full of life and character.  There is much to admire and enjoy with First Class.

There are some slipups in the choices they make, such as the film kills some characters with great potential for the old “See How Great the Danger Is?”  It also just happens to be one of the few minority characters in the story.

And yet, it starts some continuity cracks.  First Class is going back to the beginning, not pretending the first three films never happened.  Moira McTaggert is a scientist in the third film, played by Olivia Williams.  First class has the same character in another job altogether decades earlier.  They use characters without concern for whether they appeared in the previous films with entirely different incarnations.  Jubilee appeared in the third film ad then in Apocalypse.  Apparently never aging.  The quality of the film overcomes these issues, but it starts a series of problems.

Housing Problems (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, 2016)

neighbours_2_posterI have to be upfront here. I did not enjoy Neighbors.  I thought it was just a random set of sketch ideas, most of which were not super funny.  I don’t have strong opinions on Efron and really, sometimes I like Rogen, sometimes I tire of his gimmick early.

So, honestly, I thought I would sit Neighbors 2 out.  But I ended up checking it out when someone suggested that the film might have something more going on than the previous outing.  And Neighbors 2 does.  It actually has a story, and characters I liked.  We are quickly re-introduced to Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) who find out their life is about to get a big change.  Then we see what the frat boys Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco).  They two are facing a life changing event… Pete’s boyfriend proposes, and then they suggest Teddy move out.

At the same time we meet Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein).  The three girls were pledging the Phi Lamda Sorority.  They are disappointed to discover that sororities cannot have their own parties.  And when the girls go to a frat party, they find it all very creepy and off-putting.  So they set out to start their own off campus sorority.  They end up renting the house next to Mac and Kelly, with help from Teddy.  Mac and Kelly were planning to sell their home, but it is in escrow for thirty days.  And then the mayhem begins, as they worry the new buyers will back out when they see a busy sorority next door.

As the situation escalates, both sides take more and more risks, with mostly funny results.  This part seems pretty much like a repeat of the last film.  Except, the difference here is that you can actually sympathize with everyone in the film.    You know exactly what worries Mac and Kelly…you also can see what is compelling the sorority girls.  They want to create a sorority that is able t have it’s own parties, sans date rape drugs, attempts to bed them or get them generally naked.  The film indicts the frat culture as one less than friendly to women, and these young women are making a stand.

Truthfully, this is Efron’s movie, as he steals the scene almost every time.  As much as the film codes Teddy as being real dumb, he shows himself to be smart and helpful when he feels appreciated and wanted.  He wants to connect with people, whether it is his best friend Pete, Mac and Kelly or the Sorority.  And he also learns.  When he is talking with Shelby , Beth and Nora early in the film, he asks why they do not pledge an existing sorority.  They explain how they cannot throw their own parties, but instead must go to frat parties.  Teddy does not see the problem.  The girls offer up the rapey nature of the parties.  They cite how every theme incorporated women as “Ho’s”.  Teddy defends frat parties at first…but as he starts naming their themes he pauses…and then is horrified at just how disrespectful their parties were.  Teddy listens to people.  He takes them seriously and he learns from people.

The story ultimately celebrates relationships.  When the Sorority tries to sabotage Mac and Kelly’s marriage by sending them each messages that the other is freaking out about the marriage.  But both Kelly and Mac have, as their first instinct, to seek each other to talk it out.

The jokes in the film are effective, I laughed out loud often throughout the film.  But the jokes serve the story far better than they did in the first film.  This is the rare comedy I can think of where I enjoyed the sequel more than the original.  A lot of that is the way the story unfolds.  The film has a lot of raunchy and gross out humor, so if you really dislike that type of humor, this may not be the film for you.  But I found it all very effective and I was engaged by the film.

Temporary Apocalypse (X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016)

X-Men-Apocalypse-IMAX-posterThere is a scene in X-Men Apocalypse where, as a group of students are leaving Return of the Jedi, Jean Grey states “But we can all agree the third movie is always the worst.”  It is a pretty clear shot at X-Men: The Last Stand.  That was the movie Apocalypse Director Bryan Singer skipped and is pretty widely seen as a disappointment after X2.  Except, whether they realized it or not, the joke is kind of a jinx.

See, X-Men: First Class and X-Men:Days of Future Past?  They were quite good.  They are entertaining and filled with terrific performances and nice use of characters from the vast history of the X-Men Comics.  After the Last stand and the damage done by X-Men Origins: Wolverine the series went back to the beginning.  Introducing us to Young Charles Xavier and Magneto.  McAvoy and Fassbender brought characters we knew as aging leaders to young men trying to make the world a better play, but always coming to odds with how to do that.  Then, in Days of Futures Past, they brought the past and future together, to try and fix the timeline, fixing the flaws of Last Stand and Wolverine.

And this brings us to X-Men Apocalypse.  I was looking forward to it, as it was most of the team that brought us the last two installments.  Yet again, the central focus is the relationship between Xavier (McAvoy), Magneto (Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).  Beast (Nicholas Hoult) retuns, as does Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne).  We are also introduced to a younger Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Jubilee (Lana Condor).  Of course, smartly, the film brings back Evan Peters as Quicksilver…and he steals the show a lot…again.

First, the good.  Again, as I said, Quicksilver is just fantastic.  Yeah, he is not really like his counterpart from the comics.  In the comics, he is arrogant, impatient and snippy. This is explained in the comics by Quicksilver essentially seeing life as being a continuous wait at the DMV, at least when he has to move at the rest of the worlds pace.  Evans approach is more of a lighthearted goofball who enjoys and savors his speed.  And it really works.

The performers are good choices.  I like that they kept the faith element for Nightcrawler.  I know his creator never cared for that addition…but I always liked the combo of swashbuckler swordsman Christian who happens to look like a demon.  Setting young Storm in Cairo was a nice touch, acknowledging her history from the comics.  There are a lot of great visuals. And yet…

The story is just a mess.  There is so much going on, so many introductions, characters get lost.  Jubliee, who was a pretty big character in the comics for over a decade is barely a side character.  We never even see her mutant powers in action.   Angel is just a random passerby in the film, for all intents and purposes.  Both he and Psylock (Olivia Munn) get precious little to do and zero character development.  The film routinely feels like it is advertising “There will be a deleted scene on the blu-ray fans!” as it transitions from moment to moment.  Maybe those deleted scenes will make Apocalypse feel threatening.  When some of us expressed concern about the pictures of Apocalypse on Entertainment Weekly’s cover last year, we were told to not assume this was the final look, they will Fix It In Post, so to speak.They did not.  Or at least not enough.  In spite of hiring a terrific actor (Oscar Isaac), Apocalypse just never feels as frightening as the film keeps telling us he is.

And it is clear the film is going for epic.  But it just never feels that way…because the film takes forever to get through it’s big dramatic moments.  There is a sequence that is supposed to be the big Jean Grey moment.  She walks dramatically into battle towards Apocalypse.  There is a standoff going on the mental plane involving the psychic characters…and the film spends a ridiculous amount of time on dramatic shots of Jean Grey walking.  And walking.  And walking.  Instead of being thrilled by a big moment, I was just wanting them to get to the moment.

And there is a dramatic image from the trailers…that turns out to be the filmmakers taking a cue from Superman IV: the Quest for Peace.  The film just shambles along from scene to scene, never feeling coherent or particularly great.  And after the last two films?  A pretty big disappointment.  I mean, it is okay, but it was a real drop after the last two films.  And Deadpool.  It is okay for an X-Men movie means it might be slightly better than the Last Stand.

The Argh of Apocalypse

The X-Men films started off strongly (X-Men was decent, X2 was very strong) faltered in the middle (X3 and X-Men Origins Wolverine were big stumbles),  X-Men:First Class started the films back to a solid footing that X-Men: Days of Future Past continued with.  The Setting in the past helped give the films a sense of purpose.  And as they go into the 80’s with the X-Men: Apocalypse, introducing Apocalypse makes a lot of sense.

In the Marvel comics world, Apocalypse was the first mutant.  He is ancient.  And he looks like this:

x-men-apocalypse-coming-in-2016Entertainment Weekly recently revealed the look of Apocalypse for the film:

ew-x-men-leg-05ApocalypseHeaderAnd it just feels…off.  People slammed it quite harshly.  My own reaction was that it looks like a lame Doctor Who villain or a rejected idea from the Wishmaster franchise.  I mean, maybe there is going to be a barrage of digital yet.  But some folks quickly jumped up to point out that folks complained about Quicksilver and look how that turned out.

And, this is fairly true.  People howled loudly about how awful Quicksilver’s outfit looked.  And yet, Quicksilver was one of the most engaging characters in the film.  His sequence in Days of Future Past was a real standout.

And so, folks are understandably saying, the character could still be awesome.  And true, the performance may turn out to be awesome.  I am not expressing a dissatisfaction with the performer.  But I am rather unexcited about the characters look…and no performance is going to suddenly make it look cool.  I may like the performance and character, but unless there is a lot of post production touch up, I cannot see the character looking less comedic.

As an aside, the inclusion of Jubilee feels odd… Jubilee is really very much an element of the 90s X-Men comics. Yes, she technically first appeared in the 80s.  May of 1989.  The actress seems like a good choice and they do seem to have hit her style near perfectly.

Oh yeah, Moira McTaggert is in this one…if it’s not archival, there is a 20 year jump in time since we last saw her…are they aging Rose Byrne (the character would be pushing 50, if not older)?  And really Entertainment Weekly and Filmmakers…if Scott Summers is a “bad boy” in your film…crap, that is a big misunderstanding of the character.

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