john williams

#772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)

GETTING MORE TALE #772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)

If you can believe it, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is 20 years old this year.  2019 is a significant year in the history of Star Wars.  It is the 20th anniversary of its return with the prequels, and it will also witness the final movie of the Skywalker saga in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.  Back in Record Store Tales Part 209: The Phantom Menace, I said I wasn’t “interested in contributing to the background noise” regarding the movie, but I’ve since changed my mind.  Now that George Lucas is out of the picture and J.J. Abrams is helming the finale of the sequel trilogy, it’s hard not to get a little nostalgic for 1999, when things were…simpler.

Netflix has different movies available in different countries, but you can sidestep this with some VPN software.  Some countries have no Star Wars, but between them, all of the films are available.  Bahamas is the only territory I’ve discovered so far with the first two trilogies, so I’ve been re-watching from I to VIII.  And for all its flaws, with the benefit of hindsight, The Phantom Menace is still quite enjoyable.

George Lucas had his own ideas about where to take Star Wars, but the fan hate that Phantom Menace (and the other prequels) received took the wind out of his sails.  He laid the groundwork in Phantom Menace, with that talk about the highly maligned midichlorians.  Now, midichlorians were an awful idea.  J.J. Abrams is right to leave them out of the sequel trilogy.  The idea of little microscopic organelles in your blood giving you the ability to tap into the Force?  It creates so many problems.  Like, if you have more midichlorians in your blood than someone else, does that automatically make you more powerful?  Can we therefore rank numerically every character by midichlorian count and deduce who the most powerful is?  Can you get a blood transfusion from a Jedi and steal his or her Jedi powers? That’s the kind of shit that fans hate on.  Why couldn’t Lucas leave the Force alone with all its mystery intact?

Because he was going somewhere with that.  Lucas came up with the name and concept of midichlorians back in 1977; the idea is very old.  Now we understand why.  George was also setting up the final trilogy, the one that J.J. is currently finishing. Episodes VII through IX “were going to get into a microbiotic world,” George Lucas told James Cameron. So, like Ant-Man?  “There’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.”  Fans recall that “Whills” is an old word.  The first Star Wars novelization refers to the entire saga as The Journal of the Whills.  In Lucas’ own sequel trilogy, Jedi were to be merely “vehicles for the Whills to travel around in…And the conduit is the midichlorians. The midichlorians are the ones that communicate with the Whills. The Whills, in a general sense, they are the Force.”

Like Ant-Man meets Dr. Strange meets The Fantastic Voyage, maybe.  With lightsabers?  Terrible; undoubtedly awful.  I can’t even fathom how he would have executed this idea.  The fans would have rioted.  You think the hate that fandom gives Disney today is intense?  Imagine if George’s microscopic version got made.

But at least George had a vision.

Lucas wasn’t about making the trilogies the same.  Having watched both The Force Awakens and Phantom Menace recently on Netflix, it’s clear that J.J. made a better movie that feels more like Star Wars.  Flawed, yes, but it seemed to be setting up some pretty epic storytelling (until Rian Johnson took a shit all over it with his left turn Last Jedi.)  J.J.’s Star Wars is better acted, paced and edited.  The dialogue is far less stiff.  But George’s Phantom Menace has something that J.J.’s Force Awakens does not:  daring imagination.

One of the most successful sequences in Episode I is the pod race.  It’s completely irrelevant to the story, which is one of the many problems, but on its own, it is a glistening example of George’s unfettered imagination.  In 1999, this race was unimaginably new.  The only thing that came close was the speeder bike chase in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, primitive as it was.  Lucas broke new ground in multiple ways with his prequels, whether you like his innovations or not, and primitive CG characters aside.  People complain that J.J.’s Star Wars is just a soft reboot.  Well, watch Phantom Menace if that’s not your cup of tea.  The pod race, at least.  Lucas combined his love of race cars with science fiction and directed one of the best race sequences in the genre.  In any genre.  Even little Jake Lloyd shone in that cockpit, confidently flying himself to victory.

It’s a shame that pod race sequence was completely unnecessary.  I mean, you’re telling me Liam Neeson couldn’t figure out any other way to get off that planet, other than a complicated scheme of betting; gambling on a child pod racer?  Liam was supposed to be a goddamned Jedi master.  They keep talking about how much time they’re wasting on the planet, but they wait to see how this damned race plays out?  A race that could have killed a little kid!  Weird choices.  If you were a Jedi, you could have figured out dozens of faster and safer ways to get off that planet, right?

Once they do finally get off that planet, the Jedi arrive home on the capitol world Coruscant.  This was a bit of fan service, something that they wanted to see more of, since it had been such an important part of comics, novels and production artwork.  Cloud City aside, it was the first real time we saw an urban city environment on Star Wars.  True to form, Lucas made the whole planet one environment, in this case a city.  It was also some of the most brilliant visual designs on the prequel trilogy, one which would set the tone for the two movies that followed.

For better or for worse, Lucas spent much of the prequel trilogy defining who the Jedi were.  What they could do, what they couldn’t, and what they believed in.  We learned of the “living Force”, and oodles of Jedi wisdom about attachment and fear.  Jedi couldn’t marry, which was surprising, considering the Skywalker bloodline is the entire focus of the saga.  Yet George was throwing tons of ideas at us.  Stuff that he had been keeping in dusty old notebooks for years.  Nothing in the sequel trilogy comes close to revealing as much about the Star Wars universe as the prequels do.

Though Phantom Menace is the movie with the most cringe-worthy moments, wooden dialogue and shitty acting, there are the odd scenes that George did artistically and perfect.  Take the moment that Anakin and friends arrive on Coruscant, an overwhelming moment for the little boy.  George shot some of the footage from kid-height, allowing us to experience Anakin’s anxiety without clumsy dialogue.  The aforementioned pod race sequence is brilliant, and so is the final lightsaber duel.  For the first time, serious acrobatics and martial arts moves were incorporated into the laser sword battles.  This went on to define how the Jedi normally fought throughout all the prequels:  with a lot of jumping, leaping, and somersaulting.  For all the epic duels in the saga, one of the greatest (if not number one) is Kenobi and Jinn vs. Darth Maul.  From John Williams’ score (“Duel of the Fates”) to the choreography by Nick Gillard, it was focused through George Lucas’ lens into something absolutely brain-melting.  Until Darth Maul lost like a chump.  No excusing that; although remember that George did something similar to Boba Fett in Episode VI.

The droid designs were also pretty cool.  As iconic as a stormtrooper?  No.  But sleek, interesting, new and believable?  Absolutely.  This helped shape the visually stunning Naboo land battle scenes.  J.J. didn’t introduce any new infantry troops in his movie, he just updated the existing ones.

There was one thing that The Force Awakens and The Phantom Menace did equally well.  One very important thing that neither gets enough credit for: they made us anticipate the next film in the trilogies with hunger.  (Until Rian Johnson pissed all over J.J.’s ending, that is.)  Both films’ endings felt like the setup for events we couldn’t wait to see on screen.  The training of Anakin/Rey, for example.  A clue to the truth about the big bad guys (Sidious/Snoke).  The next meeting between good and evil.  J.J. and George both succeeded in creating this feeling of heavy anticipation.

By the time all three prequel movies played out, each problematic with wooden acting and stiff stories, fans were burned out on prequel-era Star Wars.  The Clone Wars TV show did a better job of living in that universe, but fans longed for the old familiar again.  X-Wings and Han Solo and the Empire and all of it.  So that’s what J.J. delivered.  And J.J. Abrams learned what we all know:  there is no pleasing Star Wars fans.

We fans take this stuff too seriously sometimes.  You’ve just read 1500 words, comparing Star Wars movies’ strengths and flaws.  That’s excessive, for both the reader and the writer!  We take this too seriously, friend.  Sure, we don’t go and harass the actors on Twitter like some juvenile delinquents do, but we’ve invested so much time and thought into a goddamn space movie series.  Too late to turn back now.  I think it’s important to take a break, step back and appreciate the movies from a different perspective.  Having done that with Phantom Menace, I can see it has its mitigating traits that still make me smile 20 years later.

 

 

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#763: L’Empire contre-attaque

GETTING MORE TALE #763: L’Empire contre-attaque

We didn’t have a VCR in 1980.  You could rent them; this was usually reserved for special occasions.   That meant, unlike today, we couldn’t just watch the latest Star Wars any time we felt like it.  The best way to re-experience the movie was on your own, with action figures and soundtracks.  The Empire Strikes Back was my favourite album at that time.  I played certain tracks on those records so often with my kid fingers that they started to skip.

I used my parents’ big living room hi-fi.  Giant wooden speakers as heavy as oak doors.  A turntable, an 8-track, and a receiver.  Once I discovered Star Wars, I think I used it more than they did.  The Empire Strikes Back came in a luxurious gatefold, with photos from the film, liner notes, and a generous booklet.  It didn’t take long for the rips and tears to set in; that record was well loved.  Usually, I would plug in the set of headphones and listen quietly while turning the pages of that booklet.  On weekends, my sister and I would probably set up a big battlefield and re-enact the movies, with the soundtrack playing in the background.  The most frequently played tracks were “Yoda’s Theme”, “The Asteroid Field” and of course “The Imperial March”.  Sometimes we would ambitiously re-enact the entire movie in sequence using the whole soundtrack.

We had to improvise.  There were lots of characters and vehicles we didn’t have.  When the Wampa ice monster attacks Luke Skywalker and knocks him off his tawn-tawn, we had to use Chewbacca as a stand-in for the monster.  Before we had a Boba Fett, we used a Micronaut with an actual missile-firing backpack.  We didn’t have an AT-AT, so we used my sister’s cardboard Jawa sandcrawler.  The centrepiece of our play time was usually my huge Millennium Falcon toy.

Before anyone gets too nostalgic for the good old days, I’ll remind you those Kenner toys were actually quite shit.  My two biggest toys, the Falcon and the X-Wing, both broke immediately out of the box.  The wings on the X-Wing never worked right and I had to wedge marker lids in the wings to keep them open.  The hinge for the boarding ramp of the Falcon snapped when my dad put it together.  He tried to glue it, but ultimately the door was held on by an ugly piece of masking tape.  Sturdy toys they were not, and parts were always popping off.  The guns refused to stay on the wings of the X-Wing.  The canopy of the Falcon always popped open mid-flight.  It too eventually got locked down by masking tape.

During these huge play battles, my sister and I would take over the entire living room floor.  There was a coffee table that usually acted as Imperial headquarters.  You could park a TIE fighter on the shelf underneath.  All the while, John Williams and the London Symphony spun behind us.  I’d flip sides and cue up another track, or just play “The Imperial March” again.

When we were done playing Empire, we would do our own original stories.  We usually set these “pre-Empire“, since Han Solo was frozen in carbonite at the end of the movie.   He was a favourite character and we had two Han Solo action figures:  original Han and Hoth Han.  I loved Hoth Han.  Not only did he look cool but he was the only figure you could take his gun and plug into a holster on his hip.  It was hard to really make good coherant “pre-Empire” stories though, because we also wanted to play with other cool figures like Lando, and Yoda.  It didn’t particularly matter because we had tremendous fun without a logical story.

I’ll say it again:  improvisation.  We built a custom multi-level Cloud City out of cardboard boxes.  It had sliding doors and sort of an elevator.  We made our own figure-compatible vehicles out of Lego.  Before I had a figure of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, I took my Solo and put him in a glass of water.  If I put him in the freezer for a few hours, I’d have a frozen Han ready to go for the next adventure.  My dad was bemused to go into the freezer and find Han Solo in there so frequently.

No matter the story or setting, the Millennium Falcon was there.  You could fit several figures in it, with two in the cockpit, one in the gunner’s chair, and several tossed into the opening rear compartment.  The cool thing about the gunner’s chair was that it rotated in sync with the top quad-cannons.  The Falcon’s rear compartment was equipped with a space chess table (called Dejarik), a Jedi training area (you know, for that one scene), and a smuggler’s compartment with secret hatch.  This made it more of a playset than a ship, but it did have several features that made it more a ship than a playset as well.  Close up the rear compartment, raise the working landing gear, and you are airborne.  The Falcon also had sound effects and a large battery compartment where the escape pod would have been.  While playing on the living room floor, if the track “The Asteroid Field” was playing, you just had to get the Falcon ready for take off.  Close the ramp, the canopy, and the rear compartment.  Raise the landing gear and you were space-bound!  Then I’d fly the ship around the living room in sync with the swells and crescendos of the theme.  It really felt like Star Wars at that point.

In 1981, the first Indiana Jones soundtrack was released, also composed by John Williams.  It was official then:  Williams was my favourite.  I didn’t have very many records; most of the others were “Story Of” soundtracks with full narration and dialogue.  That was another way to re-live a movie in a pre-VHS household, but I kept coming back to the actual movie scores.  I outgrew the “Story Of” records but not the scores.  Even so, nothing topped the original two-record set of The Empire Strikes Back.  When Return of the Jedi was released in ’83, it was only a single record.  It didn’t have as many memorable cues.  I loved and cherished it, but not as much as Empire.

Besides, in 1983 something else happened besides the end of the Star Wars trilogy.  I was getting older, and there was this new song out.  I heard four words — “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto“, and my world shifted once again!  But that, friends, is another story.

 

REVIEW: Solo – A Star Wars Story soundtrack (2018)

SOLO: A Star Wars Story original motion picture soundtrack (2018 Lucasfilm/Disney)

The second Star Wars spinoff movie, based on that ol’ scoundrel Han Solo, is also the second Star Wars movie with a soundtrack by someone other than John Williams.  He still helms the main “Saga” films, but this time out John Powell had the difficult task of writing new Star Wars music.  Powell’s career has mostly centred on kids’ movies like Antz and Shrek.  He had an Oscar nomination for How to Train Your Dragon.  He’s also known for action scores, like the Bourne movies and and X-Men: The Last Stand.  Though Solo has plenty of action, Powell doesn’t go for tired action cliches in his score.  And of course, there are plenty of callbacks and reprises of old Williams themes that you’ll never forget.

The opening cue “The Adventures of Han” begins sounding like an old film reel, before settling into something Marvel-like and heroic.  This track was actually composed and conducted by Williams himself, providing the essence of a new theme for Han.

Solo is a different kind of Star Wars movie, even from Rogue One (conducted by Michael Giacchino).  Likewise, its score is different too though still living in the same universe.  Modern percussion and instrumentation can be found alongside the traditional.  Han comes from a dark corner of the galaxy, and the score is fraught with tension over oceans of calm (“Flying with Chewbacca”).  The characters of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian are loaded with panache, and so are parts of the score.  Some of the best tracks are the dark “Spaceport”, which is contrasted by the rhythmic action of “Train Heist”.

“Marauders Arrive” features a children’s choir and a clue.  At this point in the film, the masked pirate Enfys Nest enter the scene to pilfer the score that Solo’s crew was in the process of stealing.  Later on, [SPOILER] we discover that Enfys Nest is actually a young girl.  A Rebel, in fact.  Some of her crew were first seen with Saw Gerrera’s rebels in Rogue One.  The quite awesome sound of the children’s choir in this scene is a clue to Enfys’ true nature — a child herself.  [END SPOILER]

Much of this score just sounds like a heist film.  “Is This Seat Taken?” has that kind of quiet tension (with some peaks of themes in the background).  It’s all very appropriate for sneaking around and trying to steal stuff like a scoundrel.  There there are some more familiar sounds, like when the Falcon shows up.  When it does, expect more hi-jinks, excitement and drama from this soundtrack.  It rarely gets dull, but strap yourself in for “Reminiscence Therapy”.  It’s a virtual greatest hits of themes, including the ones from Solo.

To be charitable, two tracks don’t work as well as others.  Star Wars movies tend to have a lounge or bar scene with a band.  “Chicken in the Pot” has annoyingly modern R&B beats, just not right for Star Wars, weird languages aside.  “Dice & Roll” is also a bit too close to home for a galaxy far, far away.

Solo turns out to be one of the pleasant surprises of 2018.  It’s a soundtrack far better than expected.

4/5 stars

GUEST REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2018) Blu-ray bonus features

We’ve already reviewed the movie ad-nauseum, so here is something fresh:  a review of the Blu-ray bonus features by guest writer Kovaflyer!

Guest review by Kovaflyer

STAR WARS: The Last Jedi (2018 Lucasfilm blu-ray)

Directed by Rian Johnson

If you enjoyed The Last Jedi or if you have mixed feelings about the newest instalment of Star Wars and are trying to make sense of the film, the bonus features are a great in-depth look at where Rian Johnson took the galaxy that is so very far far away.

 

The Director and the Jedi – Full length documentary feature

The Director and the Jedi is your first behind the scenes look at The Last Jedi and the hard work that went into making this Star Wars movie. This part of the bonus features takes you behind the scenes of the building of up to 120 different sets, the creation of all the creatures that we have come to know and love, the eye-pleasing costumes, as well as the amount of detail involved in the makeup artistry; like the work done to create Kylo Ren’s scar.

The Director and the Jedi also features discussions with Mark Hamill about Luke Skywalker and the direction that Rian took with Luke in the film. Mark tells us that he was going to play the Skywalker that Rian envisioned regardless of how he felt about his own image of Luke. Early footage of Mark and Daisy going over lines and choreographing the Luke vs. Rey scene was fantastic.

The interviews and interactions with Carrie Fisher are both heart warming and fun and showcase Carrie at her best; the only way that Carrie knew how to be. Carrie was excited about the direction of Leia’s character in the movie, calling her strong and in charge.

 

Balance of The Force

Rian Johnson really wanted to hit the re-set button on “the Force” and what it means. He wanted to show new Star Wars fans that the Force is not a super power, but a balance between all things, the light and dark, in all living things.  It is a gift, and not all about moving rock or things across a room.

When he started writing The Last Jedi he had a look back at Star Wars and the main characters in the story and what challenges they would eventually come up against.

Rey is looking to find herself and where she comes from; who her mom and dad are and where they have been, and what her new powers mean and how to use them. With Rey there are no easy answers and if she wants them she is going to have to find them herself.

Finn has just woken up on a ship after being injured in a fight on Starkiller Base while trying to save Rey and the Resistance. He wakes up with the ship under attack and Rey missing, and therefore he has to think fast and take action to save Rey, himself and the ship.

Leia, facing more and more loss is taking charge and leading the Resistance in the biggest fight yet.

Luke is fighting his own internal battle that the Jedi must end. In his view, the Jedi have done nothing but added to the problems of the galaxy, and if he were to bring back the Jedi, the Sith would rise again. Luke believes if the Jedi die, that a new light could rise and win. Therefore, Luke Skywalker has exiled himself; he is being selfless. Rian knew that there was a reason why Luke went into hiding, that it was a selfless act and that he was not just cowering away.

Yoda, yes that Yoda (the puppet version brought to life by Frank Oz), comes to Luke when he needs him the most. Yoda reminds Luke of the same lessons he once taught him, to stop with all the big plans and to focus on the here and now, to be the Luke Skywalker that everyone needs; to be the myth, to be the legend of Luke Skywalker and to not let the light burn out. So, Luke must train Rey and keep her in the light. The most important message Yoda had for Luke, was that failure is the greatest teacher of all. Johnson insisted to have the original puppet version of Yoda and his puppeteer Frank Oz for the film. He wanted Mark Hamill to interact with Oz and not a CGI version of Yoda, and even procured the original Yoda puppet mold in order to fashion the latest version of the Jedi master.

 

Scene Breakdowns

The bonus features also offer the following scene breakdowns.

Lighting the Spark: Space battles are massive undertakings. You get the big explosions, the visual and auditory effects. However, Johnson explains that he felt that in this space battle, he wanted to show the humans behind the spaceships; to make you feel connected to what is happening based on the relevance of the battle to the characters. It is interesting and fun to learn where some of the sound effects that were used in the battle came from (e.g. a roll of duct tape), how some of the spacecrafts and battle sequences were modelled after WWII aircraft and aerial footage (e.g. a B-52 bomber), and how Kylo Ren’s spaceship was of course modelled after Vader’s own tie fighter. In this battle, that saw so many Resistance fighters lost, Johnson chose to highlight Leia’s struggle with loss and grief and her deep love for her people.

Snoke and Mirrors: Rian explains that in bringing Snoke to life, he wanted to ground him in reality; make him have a physical presence. He was worried, however, about the complexity of creating a believable character completely out of CGI technology. In utilizing a complete motion capture suit for Snoke’s character, however, they were able to use every nuance that Andy Serkis brought to the character’s physical being; every facial expression, every twitch, etc.

Showdown on Crait: Johnson explains that the scene of the showdown on Crait was one of the first visions he had when he started working on the movie. To create the visual effects for the shots fired on the salt planet, the film crew went to the salt plains of Bolivia and filmed shooting sequences. It is amazing to hear just how many different options they went through when creating the red under the salt (e.g. shredded dyed red paper), how they reinvented the Walker from Empire into the Gorilla Walker using various sounds bytes to create its own unique ‘voice’, or how they used sounds from old beaten down cars in order to obtain the sounds for the Resistance fighter ships.

 

Andy Serkis Live! (One Night Only)

This part of the bonus features offers a look at the first meeting between Rey and Snoke with Andy Serkis in the full motion capture suit. It is amazing to see Andy’s performance in the raw without the CGI effects. To say that Andy’s performance was intense is a serious understatement!

 

Deleted Scenes

The bonus features also provide a look at some of the scenes that did not make the final cut for the movie; fun to watch but one can understand why they were left out for the most part.

 

In closing

In closing friends, I give this bonus footage 4/5 stars and highly recommend that you pick up the Blu-ray edition of The Last Jedi as you will enjoy some fabulous bonus features that will enhance your enjoyment of this Star Wars film.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi soundtrack (2017) [spoilers]

STAR WARS: The Last Jedi original motion picture soundtrack (2017 Lucasfilm/Disney)

Rejoice, dear soundtrack fans, for John Williams is slated to compose the music for the final Star Wars saga film, Episode IX.  It will be a fitting close for the saga, because Williams will have done all nine films.  Star Wars is about the saga.  The anthology films are extraneous to the core Skywalker story.  Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, is mostly about two Skywalkers:  Luke, and his nephew Ben Solo, inheritor of the mighty Skywalker blood.  The film score revisits many classic cues related to the main characters.  Even Darth Vader’s shadow still looms, musically and spiritually.

The Last Jedi spends much time revisiting classic musical cues, such as “The Asteroid Field” from The Empire Strikes Back.  One of the best revisits is of more recent vintage.  It’s also very different.  “Rey’s Theme”, from The Force Awakens, stands atop the mountain in company with the best of the best Star Wars music.  Hearing it again in The Last Jedi is a ready reminder that Williams has the magic.  Rey is the hero of this particular trilogy, and in The Last Jedi she proved herself.  It’s all up to her, now.

One of the biggest and most delightful surprises was the return of Yoda.  Yoda’s theme recurs within “The Sacred Jedi Texts”.  The beloved Jedi Master brought hope to the film, and his music lifts the soul.  The Last Jedi, however, is a dark film and much of the music matches.  It could be argued that The Last Jedi is the darkest film of the whole saga, even more so than Revenge of the Sith.  “Revisiting Snoke” reflects the dark, while tension-filled pieces like “A New Alliance” keep you riveted to your seat.  There are some fantastic percussion beats in the latter.

The military-style marching of “The Battle of Crait” recalls classic Star Wars action, and the music for the Luke scene is stunningly emotional.  In fact, the music for any of Luke’s screen appearances gives goosebumps.  John Williams’ score is, in many ways, more successful than the movie at hitting home.  I think this soundtrack release will receive more home play with the average buyer than the overlong movie.

There are two minor critiques to be addressed.  One is when Leia’s theme is dropped into the end credits for the touching Carrie Fisher tribute.  Yes, it’s heartbreakingly appropriate, but the music doesn’t fit well.  It comes across as a cut and paste job without enough transition.  A second is in regards to the Canto Bight casino music.  On many Star Wars soundtracks, Williams has a chance to go outside the box.  “Cantina Band”, “Lapti Nek”, “Yub Nub” and the music by Maz Kanata’s castle band are prime examples.  The steel drumming in “Canto Bight” sounds a bit too much like a retread of the original “Cantina Band”, but with more…samba.

John Williams did it again, but will we ever see a proper 2 CD edition with all the music?  That would be nice.

4.5/5 stars

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi [Spoiler-free]

NEW RELEASE – SPOILER FREE ZONE!

STAR WARS: The Last Jedi (2017)

Directed by Rian Johnson

Writer/Director Rian Johnson brings his own slant to Star Wars with Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.  JJ Abrams played it safely to fans of the Original Trilogy with The Force Awakens, and he did so successfully.  He did little to expand the mythos, but Rian Johnson has certainly stepped up in that regard.  Some fans are already going apeshit.  The old “George Lucas ruined my childhood” has been replaced by “Rian Johnson and Disney have ruined Star Wars”.  They’re also upset because just about every single fan theory…was wrong.

Some fans will have difficulty accepting certain revelations about The Last Jedi.  There are also stylistic choices that are questionable, such as the return of lens flare, and lazy gimmicky slow motion.  Johnson also chose to tell parts of this story by use of flashbacks, something that Lucas generally avoided.  These factors, plus the recurring symbolic use of the colour red, make The Last Jedi feel like the odd man out of the saga.

Now, somebody hand Mark Hamill an Academy Award, because he earned it this time.  His curmudgeonly older and wiser Luke Skywalker is note-perfect.  Some fans have complained that this Luke is not the Luke they hoped for, based on the old Expanded Universe (EU) novels.  On the other hand, this previously unseen Luke rocks because it’s completely different from previously told stories, which is what the Sequel Trilogy needs to be.  Remember, Lucas never would have followed those old books any way.  He never has.  Regardless, Hamill has clearly done his best cinematic work in The Last Jedi, fulfilling the wishes of every fan who wanted to see the most powerful Jedi master in the history of the order.

This isn’t really a spoiler, but The Last Jedi does prove that Luke Skywalker has indeed fulfilled his destiny of becoming more powerful than any other.

Don’t worry, fanboys, there is lightsaber action to be seen; and don’t forget the original 1977 Star Wars had very little to start with.  Instead of prequel-esque lightsaber stupidity, Johnson gives us a more contemplative Skywalker.  The stories of Luke and his new student Rey (Daisy Ridley) are so compelling that other heroes are left by the wayside.  Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) have their own mission on the side, to cripple the evil First Order.  Unfortunately, and perhaps just due to the gravity of Luke’s story, these side missions only prolong the wait for more scenes with Luke.  Or, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Vader wannabe with the temper of his grandfather.  Ren has a strange connection through the Force with Rey, and the two are eventually brought together to face each other again.

The Last Jedi should satisfy some who thought The Force Awakens didn’t acknowledge the Prequel Trilogy enough.  There is a reference to Darth Sidious (better known as the Emperor) and the new setting of Canto Bight would fit in with Attack of the Clones.  Finn and Rose must find a master hacker in Canto Bight, a posh gambling centre frequented by rich weapons dealers making money off both sides in the war(s).  New character DJ (Benecio Del Toro) is sceptical of both sides, because he knows it doesn’t matter.  The same people are getting rich no matter what side wins.  This is a relatively new concept in Star Wars, although Darth Sidious did control both sides of the Clone Wars, he didn’t do it to get rich.

Poe, Finn and Rose are among those under the command of Princess Leia, still a badass, and so sad knowing that Carrie Fisher has gone.  Leia has her own moments in this movie, and we know that she was to be the main focus of Episode IX.  Now that Carrie is one with the Force, it is very unfortunate that she didn’t have a larger part of The Last Jedi.  She has a few good one-liners, and Carrie portrayed Leia as a strong and immediately charismatic leader.  There is also one Leia sequence that has fanboys destroying their action figures in anger.

Also noteworthy: Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke (via motion capture). Serkis makes Snoke more three-dimensional, and though his scenes are short, they satisfy. Laura Dern’s new character Admiral Holdo was memorable for the scenes she had. Unfortunately, Gwendoline Christie was wasted for a second time as Captain Phasma, in what was little more than a cameo. General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) does a little better as the token second-in-command.

John Williams did it again with another fantastic score, although even here reviews are mixed.  Bass clarinettist and fan Kathryn Ladano was disappointed that there were not many new themes involved.  Radio personality Jason Drury on the other hand called the score “possibly the best of 2017” and “another triumph for John Williams”.  I was pleased to hear the return of Rey’s theme and a few other favourites from the olden days.

Expect the unexpected with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Don’t pay too much attention to the extremely negative or extremely positive reviews.  The truth is, as always, somewhere in the middle.  And that is part of the story of The Last Jedi.  The truth depends largely on your point of view.  The two other main themes here are hope, and the power of a symbol.  If the title wasn’t already used in another movie, you could have called it Episode VIII:  A New Hope.

3.5/5 stars

#618: Qui-Gon’s Noble End

GETTING MORE TALE #618: Qui-Gon’s Noble End

The excitement for a new Star Wars movie was never higher than it was in May of 1999.  After all, before Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, George Lucas could do no wrong.  Sure, sure, he hadn’t actually directed anything since the original Star Wars in 1977.  That only added to the mystique.  He had served as a writer/producer on all three Indiana Jones films, but other than that his credits were not that impressive.  Surely, with George Lucas directing Star Wars again, we’ll get something just like we always wanted, right?

Were we ever naive.

There is one figure that never let us down, and that is composer John Williams.  His soundtracks always had a few key themes that would stick with you forever.  And he was busy through the 80s and 90s, working with his pal Steven Speilberg frequently.  Of course, Williams had to return for the new Star Wars.  There was nobody else who could do it.

The hit single “Duel of the Fates” premiered worldwide before the movie itself.  Hit single?  “Duel of the Fates” had a stunning music video…really, a long kick-ass extended trailer.  It made the rotation on MuchMusic and MTV, for good reason.  Not only was the video a showcase for Darth Maul and our heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn, but the music resonated with people too.  It’s tense track with a choir, which Williams always saves for the most dramatic moments in Star Wars.  It’s fraught with drama and it’s brilliantly composed, and performed by the London Symphony.

The sheer scale of everything Star Wars in May 1999 meant that we would be stocking The Phantom Menace soundtrack front-racked at the Record Store.  That was rare for us.  Previously, we stocked James Horner’s Titanic soundtrack, but that boasted Celine Dion’s massive “My Heart Will Go On”.  In a sense, perhaps “Duel of the Fates” was the “My Heart Will Go On” of Star Wars.  It wasn’t as big but it sure helped put the soundtrack CD on the racks.  There were some incredible themes on the soundtrack, but unfortunately also a lot of music that, to use a phrase of my friend Erik Woods, was just “sonic wallpaper”.

The CD was released on Tuesday, May 4, 1999, in advance of the film.  We received our copies on Friday, June 30.

Of course I was going to buy my copy right then and there, but I couldn’t believe what I saw when I scanned the back cover.  Track 15 caught my eye.

What.  The.  Hell?

“Qui-Gon’s Noble End”.  Everybody knew that Liam Neeson was playing a new Jedi character named Qui-Gon Jinn.  A little after that, another track includes “Qui-Gon’s Funeral”!

Why…the fuck…would you advertise that Liam Neeson is dying in the fucking movie, two weeks before the movie is even out?  Who named these tracks?  Why the hell would you spoil the end of the movie so badly for everyone?

It was baffling.  It’s still baffling.

The track list for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has leaked.  I’ve seen it.  There are really no colossal spoilers on it.  You’ll still want to avoid it if you wish to remain completely spoiler free, but at least they’ve learned their lesson about naming tracks.

One of the most anticipated movies of all time was bound to sell more than a handful of soundtracks in advance.  That’s why The Phantom Menace was on our charts!  Every single person who bought that CD knew that Liam Neeson was going to die.

The Phantom Menace came out on May 19.  My sister and I sat there, watching the final duel.  As lightsabers ignited, “Duel of the Fates” began to play.  We both sat wondering exactly when Qui-Gon was going to meet his noble end.  It became obvious when he and Obi-Wan Kenobi were separated by a force field.  Right on cue, Darth Maul impaled him with his red-bladed weapon.

It could have been shocking, but the bigger surprise was that they killed off such a cool villain as Darth Maul after just one movie.  (Yes, I know he was resurrected on Clone Wars, a good TV series.)

As we gear up for The Last Jedi in a few short days, let those who wish to remain spoiler-free do so in peace.  There will hopefully be no Death Star-sized screwups like “Qui-Gon’s Nobel End”!

 

 

#591: My Rock and Roll Lullaby

GETTING MORE TALE #591: My Rock and Roll Lullaby

When I was a young child, I used to hum myself to sleep.  My favourite music was movie themes.  Whether it be Superman, Indiana Jones or Star Wars, soundtracks were 99% of what I liked to listen to.  And 99% of those soundtracks were John Williams.  Come bedtime, mom or dad would tuck me in, and I’d hum a favourite theme until I was asleep.

As I entered the pre-teen years, my parents bought me my first ghetto blaster.  It was a Sanyo, built solid like a Brinks truck.  The Sanyo brought music back to bed time, only now I didn’t have to hum!

By the time I had the Sanyo, I was getting in to rock and roll really seriously.  Kiss tapes were great for falling asleep to.  They were just the right length, and I loved each and every album.  Sure, you’d have to get up halfway through to flip sides (no auto-reverse on my first Sanyo), but suddenly I had a new bedtime routine.  I’d literally rock myself to sleep.

This nightly habit soon became nightly necessity.  It was hard to fall asleep without music!  If we were away from home, I’d bring a Walkman, but falling asleep with earphones on was uncomfortable to say the least.  Cheap 1980s earphones were not designed with comfort (or sound quality) in mind.

The bedtime music habit continued through highschool and into university.  Sometimes I worried, “What happens when I get married?  Is my wife going to want to fall asleep to Kiss Alive with me?”

No, no she wouldn’t.  But I did manage to start falling asleep without music.  When I got my own place, I’d stay up a little later and go to bed when I was exhausted.  If I tossed and turned, then I would throw on a CD to help me fall asleep like the old days.

Have you ever needed musical accompaniment to fall asleep?  What tunes did you like?


No, no no!

#577: Wedding Tunes Tales

GETTING MORE TALE #577: Wedding Tunes Tales

Mrs LeBrain and I have been married nine years.  It is an incredible feeling, to have found the one made for you.  I thank God every day.  We still frequently talk about the wedding day itself, the most amazing day of my life.  The bachelor night before was legendary, but the wedding was perfect.

Well, except a few minor details.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there is one thing that really bugs me today, and that is our wedding CD.  Specifically, one track on that wedding CD.

I personally selected and approved most of the music for the day.  I was very proud to work Frank Zappa into the reception music (“Peaches En Regalia”).  I also had to make sure I had a Kiss song, so I chose “And Then She Kissed Me” from Love Gun.  We focused on Johnny Cash and the Beatles for the ceremony, killing two birds with one stone on “In My Life” for the signing of the registry.  As soon as we started sending out the “thank you” cards to all the guests, I compiled and burned dozens of copies of what you might call The Official Soundtrack Album to Our Wedding.  I squeezed in everything I could, but Jennifer insisted we include one specific song for her maid of honour, Lara.  [Note:  Lara is not evil, but she will be portraying the antagonist in an upcoming store called “Seven”.  Stay tuned.]  I guess when they used to work together in a video store, they would play “My Own Worst Enemy” by Lit a lot.  Some customer gave Lara a CD with that song on it and only that song…on repeat.  I guess this inside joke meant that “My Own Worst Enemy” was Lara’s entrance music at the reception.  And I guess that justified it being on the soundtrack CD.  That is, by far, my biggest wedding regret.  It never should have been on the soundtrack CD.  It’s the only song I absolutely have to skip every time.  It’s shit.  Sorry Lara, but your tribute song sucks!

Jen has her own decision that she would go back and change if she could.  We had the proverbial “bridesmaid from hell”.  Bridesmaidzilla, or ‘Zilla for short, was drama from start to finish.  Without getting into too much detail, ‘Zilla was at the bottom of the bridesmaid totem pole but tried to manipulate certain things to be about her.  The highlight of these efforts was what we call the “caesar salad saga”.

It’s quite simple, really!  Jennifer has a seafood allergy, and any decent caesar salad dressing has anchovy paste in it.  We never take any chances, so we requested a regular garden salad for the dinner reception.  No big deal, right?  It’s a salad, but most importantly, it’s Jennifer’s wedding.  You wouldn’t believe how this salad became a bone of contention between them!  ‘Zilla looked up recipes for vegan versions online.  The salad was repeatedly brought up, but Jen had never really had caesar salad before due to her allergy.  Why would she suddenly want one for her wedding?  Bottom line, Jen chose the salad she wanted.  And for the record, since that time, she has tried vegan caesar salad and likes it.  But why would she gamble on something like that for her wedding night?  No, pick the salad you want.  Bottom line, end of discussion.

Drama continued right up to the morning of the wedding day.  As maid of honour, Lara was in charge of the bridesmaids and all communication was to go through her to relieve the pressure from Jen.  Lara would take care of any minor details so Jen would not have to be bothered.  Well, apparently a bra was needed on the wedding day, and so I received a 7:00 am phone call about it.  ‘Zilla didn’t want to call Lara because they were not getting along, at all, so they thought it would a good idea to call the groom on his wedding day, about a goddamn bra.  They actually called me to ask where you can get a bra on a holiday weekend.  Are you kidding me?

They must have called Lara and gotten it sorted because they got the bra situation taken care of without the groom having to intervene.  The wedding went off perfectly and the reception was even better.   I did my best to curate some cool music, and as a special treat, my sister Kathryn performed at the reception.  It was a jazz quartet — bass, bass clarinet, drums, guitar.  The crowning moment of their performance was a jazzy rendition of the “Cantina Theme” from Star Wars.  My sister had to order the sheet music which wasn’t cheap.  Her band’s performance that night was her wedding gift to us, and that reminds me that I do have one more regret.  That is, I wish I had filmed it.

After dinner, after the cake was served, and I was taking a rest between songs (I was a dancing fiend) I sat at ‘Zilla’s table for a bit to chat.  Jen’s friend Gordie, who is hilarious by the way, and married to one of the good bridesmaids, was also sitting with a few others at the table.  Knowing full well the drama that had gone down, Gordie mischievously commented, “That was a great wedding, Mike.  Everything was perfect and I am so happy for you and Jen.  The cake was great…the only thing I would change is the salad, if it was caesar it would have been perfect.”  Then the husband of ‘Zilla said, “We even gave them the recipe to make it…”

The last bit of ‘Zilla drama happened later in the evening as they were leaving.  The DJ played one of the special songs I picked, which was “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.  My mom, sister, aunt and new wife started dancing to it and I shouted “It’s the Ladano girls dance!”  My sister, who was right drunk at that stage, yelled out, “LADANO GIRLS, YAAAY!”  They joined with me in a circle and we danced away to Neil, singing along, having a blast, laughing.  ‘Zilla was, apparently, standing nearby waiting to say goodbye.  I felt a tap on my shoulder and she very bitchily said “BYE!” while making a talkie-talkie motion with her hand.  Yeah, bye!

Jen and I will soon be celebrating our anniversary again, and we’ll probably play that wedding soundtrack CD and relive the good memories.  And I’ve convinced her to skip Lit from now on.  Small victories are still victories.

Star Wars radio tonight! The original trilogy on Visions In Sound

I will be going LIVE at 12:30 AM (ET) Saturday morning with Robert Daniels on VISIONS IN SOUND. Tune in on your dial to 98.5 or internet to CKWR!  You folks in the UK can tune in as you enjoy some morning java!

Rob says:  “May is Star Wars month on Visions In Sound and we will be celebrating the 40th Anniversary with a slew of special shows. Joining me this week will be special guests Jason Drury, Michael Ladano & Erik Woods to help with the celebration. Featured music will be from the original Star Wars trilogy (John Williams). Join Us THIS Saturday 12:30-2:30am (ET)”