john williams

Revenge of the Lists: All 11 Star Wars films discussed in detail!

Did Harrison really cause Erik and Rob to walk off the show?  Did Rob drop two “F-bombs”?  Did Harrison actually smile in the featured image?  Was this one of our best shows ever?

“It’s true.  All of it.”

Our esteemed panel of Jedi masters tonight were:

  • Erik Woods – movie and soundtrack expert
  • Robert Daniels – movie and soundtrack expert
  • Harrison Kopp – young fella who grew up on prequels and Clone Wars
  • LeBrain – old fart

Opinions veered wildly on the 11 Star Wars films we examined in great detail tonight.  While you may never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, I also will contend you will not find a more passionate Star Wars discussion than the one we had this week.

Truly one of our best shows, and we barely scratched the surface of these films.  Perhaps a deeper dive is in order for the future.

 

Tonight! May the Rankings Be With Us: All 11 Star Wars films rated by our panel of experts!

The LeBrain Train: 2000 Words or More with Mike Ladano and Friends

Episode 108 – All the Star Wars films, ranked!

 

This is a show that has been in the works a long time.  A long time.  I understand you’re Star Wars fans yourselves!  Then you will love this show we have lined up for you tonight.

The Nigel Tugnel Top Ten list format — a top 11 — is perfect for cases like this.  Tonight our panel of experts (top men!) will rank all 11 films (9 Saga movies plus 2 spinoffs).  This is sure to get hairy (Wookiee style) due to the diversity of the panel:

  • Erik Woods – movie and soundtrack expert
  • Robert Daniels – movie and soundtrack expert
  • Harrison Kopp – young fella who grew up on prequels and Clone Wars
  • LeBrain – old fart

Note:  We are only counting the 11 live action theatrical films, not any made-for-video films, or the animated Clone Wars (which did have a brief theatrical run).  Oh sure, Harrison might try to throw a curve ball but the rules are clear.

At the end of the night, will we have consensus?  I sure hope not!  What I do expect is plenty of lively conversation with maybe a little trash-talk.

Friday May 13, 7:00 PM E.S.T.  on YouTubeFacebook and also Facebook!

#985: Do You Know How Quickly a Pair of Glasses Melt in a Fire?

RECORD STORE TALES #985:
Do You Know How Quickly a Pair of Glasses Melt in a Fire?

The trip up to the lake was blissful.  I picked up my dad, loaded the car, and hit the road to short-sleeve weather and zero traffic.  You could see for kilometers ahead with no cars in sight.  Blissful.  With 2 terabytes of music on the hard drive, I selected a folder called “Tee Bone Tunes” by Tee Bone Erickson.  Songs my dad knew from the show.  But it was just background noise as we discussed every subject under the sun for a solid two hours.  After the Tee Bone songs, I played John Williams’ soundtrack to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was awesome and brought back lots of good memories.

“The pen, Henry!  The pen is mightier than the sword!” I quoted, in my best Denholm Elliott impression.

We discussed Indiana Jones and Back to the Future.  “Only the first and third movies,” we said of both series.

We spotted a wild turkey on the way and noticed a few new businesses.  Every year is different, I reminded myself.  You never knew what new things you would see, or how the beach would change from year to year.

This year, the beach is covered with stones.

“Good,” says my dad.  “It’ll keep the Sooners away.”  Hopefully, anyway.

We opened up the cottage in record time.  No snags, no hitches.  Got the water going, the hot water tank a-boiling, and the cable and internet were both running perfectly.  I installed four new phones to replace the dying ones that should have been replaced last year.  Four new phones…there used to be no phones!  Phones used to be considered a hindrance to the relaxation at the cottage.  Now you wouldn’t be without one.  Landline, cell phone, and laptop computer are now the norm.

After getting the barbecue out of the shed and setting up it, the next step was to burn all the brush that had fallen over the winter.  It was a windy winter and this was evident by the amount of fallen branches, needles and bark.  My dad got out the leaf blower while I swept.  The plan was to burn up all the scrub, so I got out some cardboard and started a fire.

The fire grew large and hot very quickly, gobbling up the now-dry wood and needles.

I can see the next moments in slow motion.

To preface, I will admit that my glasses, which I need to drive and do basically anything, have grown loose.  I kept putting off getting them adjusted.  “I could live with it for now,” I would reason to myself as an excuse to not go to the mall.

Well I no longer have to live with it.  In one smooth, liquid motion, my glasses fell off just as I was throwing an armful of brush into the fire.

I searched the ground frantically, hoping they just hit the dirt.  My dad joined me, both sweeping and searching.  Giving up hope, I began to dig through the fire.  I found nothing there either.  I searched the ground again, still nothing.  I can’t drive without my glasses.  Hell I can’t watch TV without my glasses.  I can barely use the computer without them.

We kept looking.  I called Jen to see if she could find my spare pair at home.  I knew a couple places to look.  No luck.  I dug through the ashes of the fire, spreading them out on the patio stones.  Nothing!  And then I saw it.  A thin stick that was too undamaged to be wood.  I reached down to find one remaining scorched arm to my glasses.  The lenses and assorted plastic had melted away.  That was all I could find in the detritus of what had been up to this point an awesome day.

I went to go sulk on the couch a while, tired from the search and miserable that I would have to spend the next day or two unable to see clearly.  Then I thought, “You know, I haven’t looked inside the glove box in a long time.  I don’t remember what’s in there.”

I went out to the car and emptied the glove box, and there it was:  an old hardshell glasses case.  Joy!  I couldn’t even remember my old glasses.  But there they were, and they would do for now.  I could see!

But I was severely rattled by this near miss, and had to chill out.  My dad and I went into town to have lunch and see what was open.  I realized that I had not been in downtown Kincardine for two and a half years.  In fact there were many things I did this weekend that I have not done in two and a half years.

It was my first time inside a Boston Pizza and the old Fincher’s Leisure World since before the pandemic.  I missed Leisure World.  For decades it was our main spot for model kits, art supplies, toys, games, books and magazines.  On this occasion I bought a Lego Star Wars Dagobah diorama for my sister as a surprise gift.  She’s recovering from a severe concussion and I thought she’d enjoy it.  Which she did!

It was nice to see Boston Pizza still there, and Fincher’s as reliable as ever.  My dad and I had a great lunch and an enjoyable afternoon out.  We headed back to the lake to meet up with Dr. Kathryn and my mom who arrived separately.

After a little more organising and relaxing, my dad and I headed back home.  We decided to go home a slightly different way, and we saw one of the weirdest sights we’d ever seen in cottage country.  And we’ve seen gaggles of wild turkeys.  On a stretch of road in the middle of farmtown, we saw a castle.  A brand new castle, with two turrets and a full-on stone rampart.  The imposing wall of rock could have housed a dozen archers!  Somebody had obviously decided to build their home in the shape of a castle and I daresay, they did it.  They really did it.  The windows may be glass and the driveway may be asphalt, but that there be a castle.  I’ll have to stop and take a picture next time.

The drive home was accompanied by the music of Jon Lord, with his Concerto for Group and Orchestra, featuring Bruce Dickinson singing the second movement.  That was some cool, lively music.  I was dead tired at this point but the music and conversation kept us going.  After this, I selected Johnny Cash’s American III: Solitary Man.  Another great album, this one with the outstanding Neil Diamond title track, and a cool rendition of “I Won’t Back Down” with Tom Petty.

We made it home safe and sound, and we celebrated with some Chinese food.  New glasses this week.  I wonder what they’ll look like?  We’ll see soon enough — pun intended!

 

REVIEW: Kevin Kiner – Star Wars “Rebels Theme” (Limited edition picture single)

STAR WARS “Rebels Theme” (Limited edition Disney 2015 picture disc single)
Music by KEVIN KINER

You know where I stand on remixes, right?  Most of them are shite, especially when you try to dance-ify music that was not intended for dancing.  If that kind of remix is your thing, that’s cool.  You appreciate something that I do not.  I just recommend that you hit the “back” button on your browser right about now, that’s all.

I liked Star Wars Rebels.  Although it did come across more “kiddie” than Clone Wars, the era and characters it covered were more to my liking.  The Imperial era, not the Republic.  Of course, it later grew and merged with Clone Wars into a greater lore, but that is not for this review.  Just saying, check it out if you haven’t.  It’s on your Disney Plus.

Rebels’ composer, Kevin Kiner, was tasked with coming up with a new theme cue.  He did this by incorporating and adapting John Williams’ original cues.  It’s almost like a mega-mix of hero themes, in 55 seconds.  It’s just a cartoon after all, not a feature film.  Kiner’s rendition of these landmark themes is perfectly suitable to the show and honours the era in which it is set, and the spark of rebellion.

Though Star Wars Rebels has two volumes of music available on soundtracks, they were never issued on physical formats.  This single is the only place you can get a physical copy of Kiner’s “Rebels Theme”.

Unfortunately, the exclusive B-side of this single is the horrid “Flux Pavilion’s The Ghost Remix”.  It adds digital beats, noise and manipulations to the “Rebels Theme” and extends the thing by five times!  For the hell of it, there’s some laser blasts, some Wookiee howls, and some yelling.  This is utter garbage that young kids might enjoy, but makes me wanna hurl.  It deviates so far from the blueprint that it’s clear the ol’ hyperdrive needs some recalibrating.  The remix is at least memorable, for whatever that’s worth.

The picture disc is nice though.  On the A-side (which is unfortunately the remix side!) it’s hero Ezra Bridger with Jedi Kanan Jarrus and droid C1-10P, aka “Chopper”.  On the B-side, the original “Rebels Theme”, you get an Imperial Stormtrooper taking aim to fire (and miss)!  One of the coolest things about the Rebels show was that it used old Ralph McQuarrie designs from Star Wars pre-history.  Chopper is based on preliminary drawings of R2-D2.  Likewise the loveable character of Garazeb Orrelios is based on early designs for Chewbacca.

Being that the decent B-side is 55 seconds long while the remix is five times that length, the rating for this single cannot be high.

2/5 stars

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars (1977)

STAR WARS – Original theatrical (1977) version
As released on the 2006 Lucasfilm Limited Edition DVD

Directed by George Lucas

In 1977 my parents took me to see Star Wars for the first time, like millions of other kids my age.  By the end of the year, terms like “The Force” and “Millennium Falcon” were commonly spoken among children like secret code, while remaining merely gibberish to their teachers.  Because of the availability of cool action figures and vehicles by Kenner, Star Wars became much more than a mere movie.  Its world building potential meant that kids were using the characters and settings to make their own adventures.  It became…forever.  A part of culture.  The image of Darth Vader will be found by future archaeologists the same as ours today find carvings Apollo and Zeus.

We memorized this movie.  Lines like “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”  We could recite them with perfect cadence and intonation, albeit an octave high.  But we didn’t understand all the words we were saying, or what it really meant.

Reviewing this movie is like revisiting an old friend to reminisce about the good times.


For the most authentic Star Wars re-watching experience, the 2006 Lucasfilm double DVD edition provides the theatrical version most of us grew up with and knew by heart.  There was no A New Hope, no episode number.  We saw Star Wars three times in the theatres.  After that, everyone had to wait for TV broadcasts or video rental if you wanted to watch Star Wars.  Except back then, there were only “fullscreen” tapes available for rental at the local store.  For many years, we completely forgot about certain alien creatures that were cropped out for home video!  This DVD is a reminder of those times, and how lucky we are today to have so many viewing options available.  (Including a new 2019 Disney+ version of the film. I say “Maclunkey!”)

When he conceived Star Wars, George Lucas had plenty of backstory sketched out.  He assumed he only had one shot at making it, and so chose what he felt was the best and most exciting part of the overall story.  In a way, Star Wars always had a leg up on everything that came later for that reason.  The origin story of the farmer boy that leaves home to save the world is a setup taken from classic lore, and put on screen in an original way by turning it into a space fantasy.  With the benefit of hindsight, could it even lose?

Actually yes — if the special effects weren’t as convincing as they are.  Those artists took Ralph McQuarrie’s crucial conceptual art and turned drawings into filmable 3D objects that look worn, used and real.  Using bits of plastic battleship model kids and parts taken from cameras, a universe that looked as real as the world we live in was created.  Then they innovated further using blue screens and skill, creating dynamic space battles that surpassed anything we’d seen before.  One key innovation was the idea to choreograph the space battles based on actual World War II dogfight footage.

Sir Alec Guinness (Ben Kenobi) and Peter Cushing (Tarkin) were the two most recognizable stars to the parents in the audience, but Harrison Ford was an up-and-comer who impressed everyone that loved George Lucas’ other coming-of-age story, American Graffiti.  Even though Cushing and Guinness had no idea what their dialogue was really about, they turned in incredible character performances.  The hero trio of Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were perfectly tuned.  Meanwhile, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker provided the roles of perspective for the film.  Indeed, Lucas said that only C-3P0 and R2-D2 witnessed the events of the entire saga.  Finally, Peter Mayhew and David Prowse provided the physical acting necessary for the roles of Chewbacca and Darth Vader.  These performances were topped off with sound effects by Ben Burtt and a brilliant Vader voiceover by James Earl Jones.

Lucas has been mocked in his later years for getting terribly wooden performances out of great actors in the prequel trilogy.  When he was young, making Star Wars, he was different.  His direction is alive and he gets spontaneous feeling performances from the entire cast.  Whatever he was doing in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, he was a different director in 1977.  Of course, much credit must also be given to the editors who carved this movie out of the celluloid.  Yet none of that would have had the same impact without the groundbreaking score by John Williams.  Williams is so important to the entire saga that he composed the scores to all nine films.

In other words, Star Wars is all but a perfect film.  On its own, without any sequels or prequels, it was already one of the best things ever, and what kid could resist that?  On a technical level, it’s a masterpiece achievement.  All this contained within a simple, engaging story drawing upon the tenets of classic mythology.  Consciously it’s blowing your mind, and subconsciously it’s tugging at your Jungian psyche.

The best part about watching the 1977 theatrical version of Star Wars is simply the ease of slipping into that world and really believing it.  When the 1997 special editions hit, the effects may have been improved, but awkwardly jarring additions were made:  The insertion of jerkily-moving Dewbacks.  An extended entry into Mos Eisley with distractingly fake looking Rontos.  A poorly-edited reimaginging of the Greedo faceoff.  And of course, Jabba the Hutt himself, perhaps the most hideous of all the additions due to the extremely primitive animation of the 1990s.  The rest of the changes, such as a restored Biggs Darklighter scene and an improved Death Star battle, are not so bad.  Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with the Death Star battle as it was in ’77.  The problem is that every time an addition is made in every reissue of a Star Wars film, it takes you right out of the movie and into reality once again.


Further Observations

When you pull the focus back and look at Star Wars in a greater context, more insight and meaning can be wrenched from the stone.  Both in terms of cultural impact, and how it relates to the Skywalker Saga as a whole, we can look deeper into this film and enjoy it even more.

One thing we appreciated a little bit as kids, but I really admire today, is the amount of sheer labour that went into making Star Wars.  It’s so much easier to appreciate in this original unrestored version.  If you can see the line between matte painting and live set, you realize:  oh my God, all of that big portion of the screen is actually a set!  And that matte painting is really, really good!  The amount of work to do both, and match them as close as they did is quite impressive without the aid of a computer.  Also, observe techniques used to make shots more dynamic.  The Falcon flying, for example.  The actual model isn’t moving much, but the starfield behind it is.  That makes it look as if it is really burning some rubber.

Here’s something to think about.  One of the biggest action set pieces of this movie involved Luke and Leia swinging across a chasm from a rope.  It blew everyone’s brain, that huge looking vertical shaft with the retracted bridges.  The Stormtroopers are coming at them from two directions, as Luke takes his leap of faith.  While in 1977 we also saw the male and female lead together as a team with possible romantic foreshadowing, today the scene actually has more meaning.  Now, it is the children of Anakin Skywalker finally united after two decades of separation.  The New Hopes.  It’s actually a pretty heavy moment in the whole saga when you think on what that means.  Obi-Wan and Yoda hid those children away as babies in the hopes that one day, they would take over the fight.  The moment we see them swinging across the chasm, we realize that dream has been realized.  From whiny space brat to brave hero in two hours.  It’s also clear from her courage and familiarity with a blaster that Leia is a “Force” to be reckoned with too.

Children loved the adventures but didn’t fully appreciate what Luke was experiencing.  You can feel that Uncle Owen tried, but wasn’t the father figure that Luke wanted.  Then Luke loses the only parents he ever had, his aunt and uncle, and is whisked off-planet for the first time in his life by a new father figure, Ben Kenobi.  In addition he’s told a bombshell of a truth (with a hidden lie):  his real father wasn’t a navigator on a spice freighter.  His uncle had been lying to him his entire life about who his father really was:  a Jedi knight, who fought in a “damn fool idealistic crusade” called the Clone Wars.  He then learns, in a second revelation, that the universe itself is more than it seems, and that an all powerful Force is behind everything.  And then he loses that father figure almost immediately after!  Today that would send most of us into months of therapy, but Luke soldiers on and picks up on this Jedi stuff pretty quickly!  In the end battle, he is forced into a leadership position when Red Leader is shot down by Darth Vader.  “We’re going in, we’re going in full throttle,” he says to the remaining squad.  His older best friend and role model Biggs is on board, and so is hot shot pilot Wedge.  “Right with you boss,” he says without hesitation.

A weighty moment is the final (corporeal) meeting of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  A physically imposing David Prowse in the Vader costume has the presence necessary to convey the anger behind the words:  “Your powers are weak, old man.”  You can almost hear the voice of Hayden Christensen from the Episode III Vader behind the voice of James Earl Jones.  The hate, as he now calls the man he once knew as “master” by the epithet “old man”.  It was always a foregone conclusion who would win this battle, but we children were amazed when Old Ben disappeared before our very eyes.  And what did those final words of his really mean?  “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”  Surely a disembodied voice was not the “more powerful” that Ben was referring to?  This is something that the oft-criticized sequel trilogy finally delivered and expanded upon, where the prequels did not.  In episodes VIII and IX, we learn that powerful Jedi spirits can even interact with the physical world, and join with the living to defeat the ultimate evil.  In this way, Obi-Wan Kenobi has a role in concluding the nine-story arc of the Saga (even utilizing the voices of Sir Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor).

Another minor tie to the sequel trilogy is Han Solo’s offering to Luke Skywalker to come with him instead of joining the Rebellion on their “suicide” mission.  The only other person we see him offer to “job” to is Rey in Episode VII.  Any viewing of any Star Wars movie is always enriched by watching other Star Wars movies.  Last week I watched Rogue One.  Since that standalone film was designed to add backstory and blend the saga together even more tightly with the original movie, watching it adds richness and foundation to the original.  Knowing what happened to the previous Red Five, for example.  All the films have this ability to amplify the others.

Though dense with unfamiliar terms, throwaway dialogue built worlds.  The Kessel Run, for example, spawned half of the movie Solo.  Some of the most iconic lines in the whole original film were throwaways:  “You fought in the Clone Wars?”  Apparently so, when he was known as “General Kenobi”!  We didn’t learn a damn thing more about the Clone Wars until Episode II, released a quarter century later.  And so watching the prequels and even the animated Clone Wars series adds depth to the experience.  When Luke asks “How did my father die?” you see the hesitation on his face before Obi-Wan lies to Luke.  In that hesitation lies all the prequels and animated series.  The line about the Clone Wars planted the seed for pretty much everything about the prequels.  The only difference was that as kids, we assumed the clones were the bad guys not the good guys.  (Well, I guess they were both but we won’t delve further here.)

The quality and success of Star Wars were both necessary to launch a thousand imitations.  As kids we became familiar with the concept of “knock offs” pretty quickly.  Battlestar Galactica seemed like a B-level Star Wars.  You could even buy knock off toys at the store like glow-in-the-dark “space swords”.  For the real thing, there could be no substitute.  We were able to prolong and expand our love of the movie with the Kenner action figure line, the Marvel comics, the John Williams soundtrack records, and even “The Story of Star Wars” on vinyl.  This really gave kids a canvas to use their imaginations.  Today, some of the kids that played with Star Wars toys in a sandbox are making their visions real in official spinoff shows like The Mandalorian, that hearken back to what we liked about Star Wars in old ’77.


Conclusion

If you really want to recreate the authentic 1977 Star Wars experience, you won’t find it on your Disney+.  Even hardened cynics must concede that Disney has done some cool stuff with Star Wars recently, but if they really wanted to do something “Force”-ful, they could reissue the ’77 cut one more time.  If they never do, the 2006 DVD is always out there.  There’s nothing better than the real thing.

6/5 stars

REVIEW: Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker soundtrack (2019)

STAR WARS: The Rise of Skywalker original motion picture soundtrack (2019 Lucasfilm/Disney)
Music by JOHN WILLIAMS

There are very few film series with soundtracks that can do what The Rise of Skywalker does.  John Williams has now built up such an expansive list of familiar themes, that it takes just one note to anticipate which one is coming next.  Whether it be Leia’s, Rey’s, or Emperor Palpatine’s himself, The Rise of Skywalker is loaded with music you already hold deep in your heart.

Let us all be grateful that John Williams scored the complete nine-movie saga.  If inconsistent writers and directors make the series as a whole a bumpy ride, then John Williams’ steady hand is the glue that holds it all together.  Something like the movie itself, the soundtrack to The Rise of Skywalker attempts to conclude more than just a trilogy, but the Skywalker Saga.  In the liner notes, Williams says that he hopes the nine movie scores will be seen as a “singular, organic whole”.  Because of his consistent but always evolving vision, this is exactly what has happened.  The Rise of Skywalker is the finale.

Rey’s theme, as heard in “The Force is With You”, stands out as the strongest of the sequel trilogy.  What is interesting about that is how different it is from previous Star Wars motifs.  It is light and delicate, but part of the new universe.  It is difficult not to get emotional when you hear everything coming together in the end.  There are surprises and an ample number of weighty moments.  Of course, there are also new things to enjoy, and old things put together in new ways.

I like that the people who designed the packaging avoided the boneheaded spoilers of the past by putting the track listing inside.  It’s unfortunate this final trilogy had the most boring cover art of the entire saga, but be forewarned:  a deluxe Rise of Skywalker soundtrack has been announced for March.  We can hope for a better sleeve on that edition.

John Williams has been an integral part of Star Wars since the beginning, and this time he was rewarded with [SPOILER] his very first cameo on screen.  The circle is truly now complete.  This thoroughly enjoyable score should be universally beloved even if the film is not.

5/5 stars

 

 

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker [Spoiler free] 2019

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

Directed by JJ Abrams

The greatest saga of a lifetime; the story that began in 1977 when I was 4 years old has finally come to its end.  And what a satisfying end it is.

JJ Abrams had an unenviable task: fix the mess that Rian Johnson created with 2017’s Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.  Instead of winding towards a logical conclusion, the Johnson film steered the story into strange new directions poorly suited to the second-last film in a nine movie saga.  The death of Carrie Fisher the same year threw a giant wrench into the whole thing.  How was JJ to wind up a massive story like this, finishing not only his trilogy but the other two as well?

I’m not going to tell you, except that he managed to do it.  It’s not perfect, but no Star Wars movie has been perfect since 1980.  Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is the best movie of this final trilogy, and is certainly better than 66% of the prequels.  He managed to pick up the ball that Johnson shat out, weave it tighter, and make lemonade from lemons.

The Carrie Fisher scenes are somewhat difficult to watch.  You know the actors are not reacting to her, but performing to pre-recorded scenes.  Her dialogue is necessarily vague and cloudy.  It’s unfortunate because Episode IX was supposed to be her film.  Nothing can be done about that.  But wisely, JJ recruited Billy Dee Williams back into the fold as the debonair rogue, Lando Calrissian.  Lando’s role is larger than expected which will please many fans.  The film is also bolstered by cameos from just about every living Star Wars actor (no, not Jake Lloyd) in ways that brought nothing but smiles.  Look for Hobbits and late-night talk show hosts too.

The villain this time, as you know from the trailers, is Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine.  How did he survive the events of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi?  It only takes one line of dialogue to sell it.

With the stakes higher than ever before, the Sith and the Jedi meet one last time.  If you’re looking for an inkling of the plot, read the old Dark Horse comic series Dark Empire.  Not only did that series feature a resurrected Palpatine, but also Luke Skywalker doing Force projections.  It’s highly likely that JJ Abrams took inspiration from Dark Empire, though The Rise of Skywalker is far superior to that old book.

Suffice to say, our heroes once again must face incredible odds with little on their side except friendship and heart.  The movie stumbles after we are told repeatedly that they must succeed, or all of this – everything – has been for nothing.  Then they go on a silly rescue, instead of completing their mission.  There are also, perhaps, too many meetings between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) which blunts their overall effect.  At least the heroes, Rey, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) bond like the classic trio.  You’re aware that you are watching a knockoff Luke-Leia-Han trio, but don’t forget, that’s the kind of stuff fans used to say they wanted.  “No more wooden crap like the prequels,” they moaned.  Now they moan when it’s what they said they wanted before.  Sceptics will not be won over by The Rise of Skywalker.

Another possible weakness that fans might resist is a tenuous connection to the Disney+ TV series The Mandalorian.  Rey and Kylo Ren can do something that a Mandalorian character can do.  Some will accept it as fitting in with classic Star Wars lore.  Others will baulk and call it “Disney ruining Star Wars again.”

The cutesy stuff is kept to a minimum (though there is a new droid called D-O introduced for no reason) and emotions run high.  Nostalgia is heavy.  Action is fast, though JJ unwisely resorted to slow motion techniques again, which breaks visual style from the six Lucas-guided movies.  He would have insisted on the movies being consistent.  Lens flare, though, is gladly reduced.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and The Rise of Skywalker must stand up to repeated viewings and further analysis.  It does drag at various times in the middle, but when it drops bombs, it goes nuclear.  Special mention to Keri Russell for a fine performance as spice runner Zorri Bliss, and again to Billy Dee Williams.  He never abandoned Star Wars, you know.  He returned in the animated series Star Wars: Rebels as suave as ever.  And of course, John Williams.  His score contained some really cool motifs, like a re-imagined Emperor’s theme that fit like a glove.

The Rise of Skywalker is probably the best ending to a saga we could have expected (and certainly better than what Lucas had planned).  If you want to live your life as a person who only has six Star Wars movies in their head-canon, that is absolutely fine.  (I know people who to this day consider Star Wars to be three movies.)  It can easily be argued that this entire trilogy was just tacked on.  But JJ did his best for it not to feel that way; for it to appear like this was always the ending.  Did he succeed?  That’s up to you.

4/5 stars

#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.

rey and the midichlorians of doom

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.

 

#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