Monthly Archives: February 2012

Review – Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (U) [2012; originally released in 1999]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Star Wars, the saga that revolutionised special effects, has returned to the cinema. Thirteen years after it left the big screens, and now poorly adapted into 3D, Episode I: The Phantom Menace provides viewers with a convenient excuse to review the franchise from the beginning, and once more enjoy enlarged lightsaber v sith duels and mesmerising sci-fi-style battle scenes. (Warning, spoilers in this review.)

Young Anakin (Jake Lloyd). It is hard to see him as the masked villain of the saga at this point.

The Phantom Menace begins with turmoil engulfing the Galactic Republic. The Trade Federation has put up a blockade around the planet Nabu, due to a new taxation in trade routes. The Trade Federation wants to bring Nabu’s queen, Amidala (Natalie Portman – Black Swan, Thor, Lawless), to her knees and make her yield to their demands, using any means at their disposal.

Unknown to the Trade Federation, the Jedi Council have sent two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson – The Next Three Days, Unknown, Wrath of the Titans) and his apprentice, Obi-Won Kenobi (Ewan McGregor – Star Wars I-III, Beginners, The Impossible), to rescue Amidala. That way she can bring her case to the Senate. Yet, as they fly past the blockade, their starship is damaged and they are forced to land on Tatooine to repair the ship.

On Tatooine, a planet outside of the republic’s orbit, Qui-Gon and Amidala come across a cute, little slave boy, called Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd – Jingle All The Way, The Pretender, Madison). Qui-Gon sees something in Anakin, believing him to be the one who will bring balance to the Force.

After buying Anakin’s freedom, via the young boy’s pod race success, Qui-Gon takes him to the Jedi Council, where he hopes the council will allow him to train Anakin as his second apprentice. But the council is wary of Anakin. Yoda (Frank Oz – Star Wars I-VI, Sesame Street, Monsters University) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson – Star Wars I-III, Coach Carter, The Avengers Assemble) sense ‘great fear’ in him. They’re not wrong because Anakin fears for his mother’s survival. But, still, fear can only lead one way: the dark side.

Simultaneously, the unknown (phantom-like) Sith Lord and future emperor, Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid – Star Wars I-III & VI, Crime & Punishment, Margaret), urges his stooges in the Trade Federation to find Qui-Gon and Obi-Won. When they fail, Darth Sidious orders his apprentice, Darth Maul (Ray Park – X-Men, Heroes, Avarice), to find and kill the Jedi knights.

Queen Amidala/Padmé (Natalie Portman) leading from the front in the fight for the freedom of her planet.

The plot for The Phantom Menace is enjoyable and surprisingly intelligent. The film has a thrilling pod race tournament and the second best lightsaber v sith battle of the franchise (second after the epic duel between Obi-Won and Anakin/Darth Vader in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith); yet, the disputes over the trade blockade also make for a fascinating insight into the political workings of the republic.

More than anything, the disagreements in the republic reveal the cunning of Senator Palpatine (also Ian McDiarmid), as he slowly lays down the foundations for his arrogation of power. Behind the scenes, Palpatine commands the Trade Foundation (which will become the Separatist movement later in the series) to declare war on Nabu. To Queen Amidala, though, his advice is to go to the Senate and urge Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp – Wanted, The Adjustment Bureau, Big Eyes) to take action against the Trade Foundation. But knowing that the chancellor is incapable of doing that, due to being hamstrung by ‘bureaucrats’ (most likely Palpatine’s cronies), Palpatine recommends Amidala to call for a vote of no confidence in Valorum in the Senate to pave the way for a ‘stronger’ chancellor. (And guess who Palpatine might mean by that? Isn’t it a coincidence that he just happens to be voted in next?)

At the same time, Palpatine promises young Anakin that he will ‘watch over’ his Jedi training and be a father-like figure to him. The kindness of the gesture is unsettling to watch, knowing that Palpatine intends to exploit Anakin’s vulnerabilities to groom him as his long-term apprentice.

Ian McDiarmid plays well as the duplicitous Palpatine, despite the character’s crudeness. Yet, the star of the film is undoubtedly Liam Neeson. Even the most ridiculous of lines seem (almost) plausible when he speaks, and nothing looks (overly) contrived either. The same cannot be said for Natalie Portman or Ewan McGregor, who both give very poor and detached displays; whilst Jake Lloyd’s performance is passable at best. His enthusiasm and confidence (obnoxiousness) is refreshing at first, but becomes repetitive and annoying after a while.

The fantastic three-way fight scene between Qui-Gon, Obi-Won and Darth Maul. Who will not survive?

The acting and dialogue may not be noteworthy, but the special effects are enthralling (even if they’ve been touched up considerably since 1999). It is just a shame that the 3D is hardly visible. The three-way duel at the end would have been even more of a spectacle had it been properly adapted; especially, with the atmospheric theme ‘Duel of the Fates’ for accompaniment.

Although the 3D is inadequate, The Phantom Menace is an entertaining movie. Once more, audiences can enjoy the impressive battle scenes and pod races; be dazzled by the special effects and lightsabers; and be intrigued by the way Palpatine abuses his powers for his ultimate goals. But most importantly of all, The Phantom Menace starts to explain how and why Anakin becomes Darth Vedar.

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Review – The Woman In Black (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 2/5

For years now, the horror genre seems to have lost its way. Few horror films, such as Audition, Martyrs and The Orphanage, have been genuinely scary. More often than not, horror movies have been poor excuses for comedy, such as Jennifer’s Body and The Wolfman. The Woman In Black continues this worrying trend for a genre that’s in a crisis.

Arthur approaching the derelict Eel Marsh House. Who would want to go in there during the day, let alone stay overnight?

The Woman In Black is based on the book with the same title by Susan Hill, which has also been adapted to the theatre. The film is set at the turn of the twentieth-century. It is about Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe – Harry Potter I-VII(ii), Kill Your Darlings), a young lawyer and single parent, following the death of his wife, Stella (Sophie Stuckey – Driving Aphrodite, The Dark, Comedown). Arthur is on his final warning at the solicitor’s firm he works for. Consequently, when he is given the task of managing the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned Eel Marsh House, a mansion in the middle of nowhere in the gloomy north-east of England, he cannot say no.

The estate is old and slowly rotting. No-one has lived there for years. Those who dwell in the nearest village, except for Daily (Ciarán Hinds – The Debt, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Carter), who befriends Arthur, urge Arthur to stay away from Eel Marsh House. The villagers believe that the estate is haunted.

Arthur, though, is determined to see his task through and goes to Eel Marsh House to do his investigation. But whoever goes there sees the woman in black. And whenever she’s seen, children die mysteriously soon afterward…

The movie’s plot is as original as The Wolfman and Fright Night. Alike those laughable films, The Woman In Black has merely a few instances of the shock-factor. One would think that a creepy horror thriller would hold its audience in suspense, as The Shining and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer did so well. But, akin to Jennifer’s Body, The Woman In Black hardly makes the adrenaline pump.

Daily (Ciarán Hinds), sitting in his armchair in his home, listening to Arthur tell him about how he has seen the woman in black over a glass of whiskey.

The Woman In Black’s storyline is made to look even worse because it makes as much sense as John Carpenter’s (abominable) The Ward. By the end of the film, amongst many failings, one knows little more about the woman in black than when he/she started the movie. Viewers are aware that this dead woman has an eye for vengeance, but what drives her? Why does she appear every time a child dies in the local village? (Indeed, why would she limit herself to that small place when she can terrorise all of England or the world?) One cannot help but ask oneself why director James Watkins (Eden Lake) did not at least try to explain the woman in black’s motives.

The plot’s poverty is reflected in the acting (even if the script gives them little chance to shine). Daniel Radcliffe hardly plays better here than he did in the Harry Potter series. He shows little emotion when trying to be affectionate towards his infant son, or when he is grieving for his deceased wife. This entails that viewers cannot feel anything for Arthur when he has to temporarily leave his son to go to Eel Marsh House. Radcliffe is also unable to shirk off his type-cast in The Woman In Black. As a result, whenever phantoms go near Arthur, one secretly believes that Harry – I mean Arthur – will simply pull out the Elder Wand and zap the dark ghosts into oblivion. This undermines Radcliffe’s attempt to be a professional solicitor in this movie.

Similarly, the quality of the acting from the supporting cast fairs equally badly. The usually reliable Ciarán Hinds performs below his normal standards as Daily. Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds, Island, Albert Nobbs), Daily’s wife, appears little in the film, and when she is given screen-time she plays a two-dimensional mentally unwell person. And the rest of the cast, the villagers, merely play one-dimensional unwelcoming, superstitious freaks, meaning that the audience cannot relate to them or take them seriously.

Arthur holding an axe, scared, as he goes upstairs to investigate where the noise is coming from in the abandoned estate.

Just like the acting, the make-up and special effects in The Woman In Black are neither poor nor noteworthy. The woman in black, herself, just looks like a gaunt and hideous doll behind a blurry veil, whilst the dead children look like they have life in them. Additionally, the costumes and the hairstyles don’t look plausibly like they’re from the early-1900s either, which gives viewers more reason to view this movie with contempt.

Over-all, The Woman In Black is (yet) another pitiful horror film. It has few redeeming features, save for a couple of scary moments to justify the movie’s place in the genre. The Woman In Black is not as risible as other recent, aforementioned horror films. But the movie’s inadequacies are symptomatic of a genre that’s in dire need of a revamp.

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Review – The Artist (PG) [2012]

Star Rating: 5/5

In recent years, Hollywood has been dominated by films with colossal amounts of special effects, outrageous action scenes, and sequels to entertain viewers. Quality acting (the very factor that enables actors to win the prestigious awards) has seemingly become secondary to the aforementioned features for movies. Refreshingly, the French drama, The Artist, in outstanding fashion, illustrates that audiences can still be wooed by a relic of the past: a silent movie.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) dancing together for a film. The two actors have great chemistry on set.

The Artist is set in Hollywood between the late 1920s and the early 1930s. It is about George Valentin (Jean Dujardin – OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117: Lost In Rio, The Wolf of Wall Street), a man who has starred in many silent films throughout his acting career. Now though, George is being told by his boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman – Pope Joan, Red State, 10 Cloverfield Lane), that the times are changing and that cinema audiences want dialogue and fresh faces. (‘Fresh meat’ as Zimmer calls it.)

The fresh faces include an upcoming young, pretty woman called Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo – A Knight’s Tale, Prey, The Scapegoat), who had been randomly photographed with George. Rapidly, she is replacing him. Between her and the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, George’s world is rapidly falling apart. He has to adapt to the times, something he’s loathe to do, or he faces the axe.

The Artist’s plot is straightforward and surprisingly easy to follow. Despite the lack of dialogue, one always understands the situation. The performances from the cast throughout the movie are brilliant. Jean Dujardin plays magnificently as the proud and stubborn actor, who is unwilling to be pragmatic. Bérénice Bejo is superb as the ambitious young actress. John Goodman plays well as the ruthless boss, who realises that public opinion has changed. Penelope Ann Miller (Kindergarten Cop, Blonde Ambition, Saving Lincoln) performs commendably as George’s trophy wife, who has no desire to be with a man whose best years are seemingly behind him. James Cromwell (The Green Mile, 24: Day 6, Still) does a fine job of being George’s loyal valet. And George’s dog, which is linked to him seemingly telepathically, adds a cute, sentimental aspect to the storyline.

Clifton (James Cromwell), looking concerned for his master, George.

But the brilliance of the acting is very different from other exceptional performances, such as Colin Firth’s in The King’s Speech or Christian Bale’s in The Fighter. Remarkably, using body language and emotion, the actors stunningly demonstrate that words are not necessarily needed to portray human relationships and circumstances. Director Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117: Lost In Rio, The Players) does occasionally use bubbles of words to explain the context, which help, but they’re infrequent and hardly worth a mention.

If anything, it is not the words on the screen that aids the audience, but the music. The score greatly aids viewers to empathise with the characters. The 1920s-style music may not be like the enchanting scores of The Lord of the Rings or Inception, but it always captures the mood of the characters in The Artist. Whenever their temperament changes, so does the music to enhance the scene.

The magnitude of the acting and the music are more noteworthy considering that The Artist is a small budget film, which has close to no special effects and action. It is such a wonderful contrast to the (hideous) amount of computer generated images (CGI) and explosions used in most blockbusters today, such as Transformers III and Captain America. Consequently, The Artist feels cleaner and is more pleasant to watch. (Indeed, The Artist almost makes one want to beg Hollywood to fund more movies with fewer special effects and loud bangs.)

Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), George’s wife, disgusted with her husband for being photographed in the papers with a younger, more beautiful woman than herself.

Similarly, the movie has no breathtaking landscapes to charm viewers, like in The Way Back or True Grit. The Artist though captures its era magnificently, from the clothes the characters wear; to their hairstyles (Bérénice Bejo looks strikingly similar to Marion Cotillard in Midnight In Paris); to their cars; to their cameras; to the interior designs of their houses (which have some resemblance to the First-Class rooms and halls in the sunken Titanic). One could perhaps criticise the film for not depicting the Great Depression of the 1930s adequately. Yet, this was not the purpose of the film either, so one should not blame the director on this matter.

On the whole, The Artist is a work of art. It brings us back to pure cinema and makes viewers realise that when a film has acting of such phenomenal quality, then dialogue, special effects and action are not absolutely necessary to make an entertaining and dazzling film.

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