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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.

PG’s Tips


Review – Thor 3D (12a) [2011]

Star Rating 3.5/5

Another superhero movie? Haven’t we seen it all before? In fairness, one probably has seen a great deal of what Thor has to offer; especially if one is interested in this genre. Nevertheless, despite being a predominantly male-orientated film, Thor is an enjoyable movie with some awesome special effects.

Thor, left, standing behind his father, King Odin, and alongside his brother, Loki as they approach their enemies..

Thor is about (surprise, surprise) a young man called Thor (Chris Hemsworth – Star Trek, Red Dawn, The Avengers Assemble). He is a ferocious, unnaturally powerful warrior and heir to the throne of Asgard. Yet, Thor is arrogant and cruel. After disobeying his father, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins – Hannibal series, Mission Impossible II, Fracture), he is stripped of his powers and his hammer (the source of his powers); and banished from Asgard.

He wakes up to find himself in the desert of New Mexico, America, to be surrounded by a scientist called Jane (Natalie Portman – Black SwanStar Wars IIII, Lawless), plus her assistants Darcy (Kat Dennings – The 40 Year Old Virgin, The House Bunny, Lives of the Saints) and Erik (Stellan Skarsgard – Pirates of the Caribbean II & III, Angels and Demons, The Avengers Assemble). Thor is determined to do whatever it takes to regain his god-like powers and return to Asgard. Meanwhile in Asgard, in Thor’s absence, a traitor increases his influence over the ailing Odin and his court. This will set Asgard to war, again, against the frost-people of Jotenheim.

Despite being about fictional realms, the plot for Thor is easy to follow. The director, Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Frankenstein, Valkyrie), has structured the film well so that each scene flows nicely after the other and the pace of the film is just right. As a result, Thor is a very entertaining movie. Undoubtedly, the action scenes in the film are the highlight as they are superb and will leave viewers wanting more.

The movie may lack the goriness of Watchmen (not to mention the political connotations of that film); yet, Thor makes up for it in special effects. Regardless of whether they are accompanying the action scenes or are merely backgrounds for the fictional sceneries of the different worlds, the special effects throughout are fantastic. In some ways, they are so good they almost rival those in Avatar. It is a shame that Asgard is explored less than Pandora because some of the sceneries in Thor have the same ‘wow’ factor; particularly during the credits at the end. The 3D assists and makes the effects a little more spell-binding; however, on the whole, Thor is another example of a 2D film that has been converted, post-production, into 3D.

Thor promising Jane that he will return to Earth to see her.

Unlike the action scenes and the special effects, the acting in Thor is quite average. Chris Hemsworth performs adequately as the main character. But, as Thor, he is not given the depth of personality to make himself stand out in the same way as Christian Bale does as Batman. This results in him coming across as quite immature and superficial.

It is a shame that less attention is given to Thor’s younger brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston – Conspiracy, Midnight In Paris, The Avengers Assemble), as it could have made for interesting viewing. But, alas, we are deprived of this. Instead, we have the standard ‘lesser’ brother who wants to emulate his older, more decorated sibling. The other characters, for better or worse, are not given much time on screen. Again, they all have little by way of depth and do not add much to the film. (Yes, even the gorgeous Natalie Portman.)

Ultimately, Thor may initially have the feel of ‘yet-another-superhero-movie.’ It may not have the violence of Watchmen or the deep characters of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, or the political nuances of those films. Nevertheless, Thor is a fun film with plenty of action and some awe-inspiring sci-fi-style special effects.

PG’s Tips

Review – Your Highness (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

We’ve had spoofs of horror films, action films and even vampire love-stories. Now, for the first time since the amusing Robin Hood: Men In Tights, there is a parody on a medieval-based kingdom; albeit, this movie has elements of fantasy and magic in it. Your Highness may not be the most hilarious film one will see this year, but it certainly has many funny moments.

Thadeous (Danny McBride) watches as Fabious (James Franco) waits for the magical compass to indicate which way will lead them to the Sword of the Unicorn.

The film revolves around Thadeous (Danny McBride – Due Date, Despicable Me, Up In The Air), the fat and lazy second son of King Tallious (Charles Dance – Game of Thrones, Aliens 3). Thadeous is a stark contrast to his older brother, Fabious (James Franco – 127 Hours, Spiderman I, II & III, The Rise of Planet of The Apes), the handsome and athletic heir, who is the hero of the nation. Not long into the film, Fabious’ fiancée, Belladonna (Zooey Decshanel – Yes Man, 500 Days of Summer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), is taken by the evil sorcerer, Leezar (Justin Theroux – American Psycho, Megamind, Miami Vice). Fabious must rescue her, and do so before the two moons come together. Otherwise Leezar will defile Belladonna, impregnating her so she can give birth to a dragon that will enable him to take over the kingdom.

As Leezar is a powerful sorcerer, the only way Fabious can defeat him is with the mystical Sword of the Unicorn. Thus, Fabious, Thadeous and a couple of others go on a quest to find the fabled sword. En route, they come across the beautiful warrior Isabelle (Natalie Portman – Star Wars I-III, Black SwanThor), who has her own reasons for wanting to defeat Leezar.

The plot is ridiculous and amusing at the same time. Your Highness does not take itself remotely serious and nor do the actors. If one were expecting another award nominating display from James Franco and Natalie Portman, one should think again before seeing this movie. The actors see the film for what it is (a joke) and play their roles accordingly. Indeed, one wonders how they kept a straight face whilst they recited some of their cliché and ludicrously laughable lines.

The evil one, Leezar (Justin Theroux), smirking as he waits for the two moons to merge.

Nevertheless, the dialogue in Your Highness does make viewers laugh quite frequently. It is a very modern, crude dialogue though; devoid of any real reflection of the medieval era. This is not necessarily a criticism; however, if one were going into this film believing it to be a satire of a by-gone age then one will be disappointed.

There is little else to note about Your Highness. The structure of the film has been done reasonably well by the director, David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, The Sitter, Joe), but the special effects are nothing special,  and the music is a comical mishmash between Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lord of the Rings (plus probably a handful of other scores from films that I am unaware of).

Ultimately, Your Highness makes people laugh and, as a comedy, it therefore fulfils its prime purpose without being anything noteworthy. One will not be in hysterical laughter throughout the entire film, but will find much of the movie amusing if one likes crude humour.

PG’s Tips

Review – Black Swan (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

Obsession is a dangerous mindset to fall into. It has the power to consume its victim, and drive him or her to madness. Black Swan may look like it is about ballerinas and Ballet in general, but it is not: it is about obsession, and the psychological effects and the physical strains it can cause someone. Yet, if the film meant to tackle these complex issues acutely, it goes preposterously too far to be taken seriously.

The movie is viewed through the eyes of Nina (Natalie Portman – Star Wars I IIIBrothers, Your Highness), an innocent, pretty but mentally unstable ballerina, who lives with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey – Falling Down, Hannah and her Sisters). Nina has seemingly devoted her whole life to becoming Odette, the White Swan, in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But the company she works for has made a slight altercation to the performance: the girl who plays Odette will also have to play her evil twin-sister, Odile, the Black Swan. Whilst Nina fits the role of the White Swan perfectly, she has to learn how to become manipulative and provocative in order to play the Black Swan.

Thomas urging Nina to ‘feel’ and ‘respond’ to his touch as the latter needs to learn how to become the Black Swan.

Nina is determined to play both roles flawlessly. But her obsession with perfection exposes her already fragile mind, as well as her various insecurities. It is not long before reality and Nina’s perceptions of reality (hallucinations?) start to thread together to look like one and the same. Paranoia goes hand in hand with this too. A younger and, perhaps, even more beautiful girl, called Lily (Mila Kunis – Family Guy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Friends with Benefits), joins the company making Nina believe that she is going to be replaced as the lead performer. Consequently, Nina works ever harder, pushing herself to the brink (and beyond), in order to please and convince her demanding boss, Thomas (Vincent Cassels – La Haine, Derailed, Trance), that she is right for the dual role. Regardless of the personal cost.

The acting in Black Swan, across the board, is exceptional. Natalie Portman is without a doubt the star of the show. Portman captures the mental anguish that Nina goes through with remarkable consistency and concentration. One is never sure what mental state Nina is in, or what is real and what is not real with her. Portman is solely responsible for this and rightly deserves the credit.

This is not to say that Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey or Vincent Cassels do themselves an injustice; far from it. But Portman’s performance as Nina is Oscar-winning material. It has also finally enabled her to remove the shackles from her piteous performance as Padmé in Star Wars I, II and III. Yes, Portman’s performances in Closer and Brothers showed us that she had the potential to be a great actor, but in Black Swan she reveals that she has more than just mere potential with stunning effect.

Lily, played by Mila Kunis, looking beautiful despite having done some intense ballet practice.

It is not just the acting that is superb throughout the movie. The director, Darren Aranofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) has done the choreography and the music brilliantly too. As a result, just like in Pi and Requiem, the disturbing nature of Black Swan has the maximum effect upon the audience. (Think of the masturbation or the lesbian-sex scenes to mention but two.)

The travesty for Black Swan is that it is neither as intense nor as shocking as it should have been. It is certainly not in the same league as Requiem. Whilst Requiem is harrowingly realistic, Black Swan becomes a little farcical towards the end. This is a pity for cast and director alike. It is unlikely that Aranofsky, judging by his previous works, intended to turn this movie into a pantomime.

These are by no means the only flaws in Black Swan either. Although the film hints at how dedicated one must be to become a top ballerina, it fails to detail the positive aspects of the industry. Instead, the movie focuses upon many of the negative stereotypes, such as eating disorders and overbearing parents. (Apparently, much of these are out of date in the West.)

Black Swan is by no means an objective portrayal of the Ballet world. The film also lacks the jaw-dropping, stomach-churning ability of Requiem. Then again, Black Swan is still a very entertaining psychological thriller and is quite distressing. Moreover, the acting is of the highest quality. Few actors will better Natalie Portman’s performance over the coming year, and she rightly deserves the nominations and awards she is receiving. It is just a shame for her and Aranofsky that audiences have laughed more at the absurdity of Nina’s descent, than taken note of the possible consequences of obsession.

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