MAY 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 5


Star Wars Saga Returns

The Phantom Menace Review
The Matrix Reviewed

Top Ten Darth Vader Secrets

Analyze This
Tribute to Stanley Kubrick


Short Takes
Grading from A-F

I was lucky enough to see this wonderful film seven months ago when it was first released in England. Now, it holds the title as the top grossing movie in English history and deservedly so. A British Pulp Fiction, the story follows a twisted plot of drugs, robbery, hit men and unpaid gambling debts all tied together perfectly by a pair of antique rifles. The action scenes are vivid and exciting. The dialogue, although slightly difficult to understand (there are subtitles in one scene) is extremely witty and pointed. Like Pulp Fiction the ending brings together many seemingly unrelated plot devices into a tight bundle of irony and cheekiness.

For what on the surface seems contrite and overdone, this movie was a pleasant surprise. Forgive the writers for taking the easy way out in may scenes and enjoy the characters' chemistry and underlying current of teenage anxiety. Much of the film plays out by the Hollywood blueprint for romance, but there are enough twists and quirkyness to even out the balance.

- Kevin Ridolfi

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  Stars Wars Returns

Opens May 19

Starring Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Jake Lloyd, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz. Directed by George Lucas.

Read our review of Star Wars Episode I

Natalie Portman


"The Phantom Menace", to state the obvious, is the most anticipated film in many years. Indeed, the interest could accurately be described as bordering on an obsession. We've all seen the guy from Australia with the beret (giving new meaning to the term Misspent Youth) who wants to be first in line because there will be no advance ticket sales which is, in itself, a wonderful little gimmick: seeing this film will be egalitarian and democratic. The gauntlet is thrown down.

Level playing field. How much of a fan are you? The savvy use of website promotion with the ability to view behind the scenes video tantalizes without revealing too much about the film itself. And as the anticipated day approaches, more scenes appear, especially a wonderful visual of the young Darth Vader, a cute little kid (Jake Lloyd) except the shadow on the wall is the outline of the very familiar adult Darth Vader shape. Then George Lucas appears in a teddy bear cuddly episode of 60 Minutes talking about his family and life. Even Lesley Stahl couldn't come up with any really challenging questions, and Spielberg and Coppola have to field questions such as whether they think Lucas, single billionaire, will ever get remarried! There is hardly a more powerful combination than great film making, marketing and media relations. Stories are created and populated in the press as much as the film itself. Lucas knows that because he is a great businessman.

But is the movie any good?

That of course, is not possible to answer right now. It does not seem possible that the film can live up to such lofty expectations. It would have to achieve the same alignment of planets of which Star Wars benefited (besides being a great movie). It was aimed at youth, a generation hungering for technology, for intelligence in screen writing and special effects yet with a traditional western plot. The sequels delivered upon that promise even more (more so "The Empire Strikes Back" than "Return of the Jedi"), a generation literally growing up with these films.

Perhaps the biggest legacy of Lucas' work is that he has created an environment where new special effects and techniques ("Industrial Light and Magic"), and post production for both special effects and sound is a major industry. Plenty of film makers in dire need of the expertise, the new look, sound or technology go to Lucas' company. But the audience is demanding as well and anything that does not live up to expectations will quickly be forgotten, perhaps replaced by The Matrix sequels.

To step back for a moment, for anyone who was alive when Star Wars was originally released it is hard to describe the phenomenon of seeing the film. The film was released in a time period when summer was the dumping ground for movie companies, but "Jaws", two years previously, had changed that. Summer was now a potential market. Lines literally seemed to stretch for miles, not because everyone in America wanted to see it, but because everyone in America wanted to see it again and again. That was new. The movie didn't look like other science fiction films, no sterile sets and spandex, but places and machines that were junk shops and salvage yards, memorable characters, and an almost Jungian Archetype undercurrent that made the story absorbing. Darth Vader sounds like Dark Father, doesn't it? The struggle that we all have, free will, destiny, falling in love, losing love, achieving manhood. Lucas himself has admitted that the inspiration for his film came from a 1958 film by Kurosawa called "The Hidden Fortress". A traditional story in a new skin, reworked, revitalized, dazzling.

When "Star Wars" was re-released last year (another smart marketing move to reintroduce the films to a new generation) with a restored print, improved sound, and a few tweaked scenes there were a few comments about how it's dated. The film seems rather tame now, fine for kids. This is the challenge of "The Phantom Menace", can it find the mass appeal without being a cartoon, can it strike a chord with filmgoers?

"The Phantom Menace" has similarities to the "Star Wars" films (which actually occur "later' in time), but does not carbon copy it. Familiar characters, but at different points in their lives. A young Yoda and Kenobi. This approach will likely be very effective and intriguing, reminding us of the other films but recasting them into new adventures. The key will be how the ensemble cast works together. Much of the excitement of the older Star Wars films was generated by Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. And technically, the film looks nothing less than spectacular, given the scenes released. Curious creatures of all kinds, a phalanx of advancing robot soldiers that evokes Kurosawa films such as "Throne of Blood" or "Ran."

Will this film be aimed at that same group from 1977? If so, there'd better be some updating, and will need to be in touch with the sensibilities of that generation. And for the new generation, weaned incessantly on the overwhelming violence of movies and video games, the challenge this film faces is reaching that audience. George Lucas threw in a severed limb in "Star Wars" to escape from the dreaded G rating. What he faces with "The Phantom Menace" is much more daunting, the ultimate unknowable: the whim and fickle nature of audiences.

TIM CLIFTON is Renaissance Online Magazine's staff movie reviewer.

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