sci fi

#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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DVD REVIEW: THX-1138 (George Lucas Director’s Cut)

THX-1138 (Originally 1970, 1998 George Lucas Director’s Cut, Warner DVD)

Directed by George Lucas

Anyone claiming to be a Star Wars fan that hasn’t seen THX-1138 isn’t really a Star Wars fan…yet.  You really can’t grok one without assimilating the other.  They are reflections of each other.  Themes and techniques intertwine.  Sometimes they are opposites, at others, cousins.

This is hard sci-fi. There are no cute furry Ewoks, there is no “villain”, there are only glimmers of heroics. This is a dystopian future brought to you by the once-brilliant director George Lucas, unhampered by his own commercial drives. This is as pure a vision as it gets.  One viewing is not enough to digest THX-1138.  There is little dialogue or exposition. There is no traditional music, and the story plods along in a very Kubrickian fashion.

The setting is not a long time ago, nor far far away.  It is the future right here on Earth, and humanity now lives in a vast underground city.  It is so vast that nobody ever ventures out to its superstructure where malformed, monkey-like “Shell Dwellers” remain. Perhaps they are mutants, victims of a long-forgotten nuclear holocaust.  It is a surveillance society.  Like today, there are few places you can escape the view of a camera lens.  Humanity lives in the bubble of a sterile, pristinely white city that resembles the dullest of shopping malls.  They are told to consume.  At strange Catholic-looking confessionals, one prays to the State and the Masses and a weird Christ-like face. Children are taught entire school courses via a chemical IV. Sexual activity is forbidden unless you are scheduled to produce a child. Sedation by drugs is compulsory. Failure to take your medications will result in drug offences and rehabilition. Some humans are deemed defective and left to themselves in a strange white prison, an asylum that seems to go on forever.

Our protagonist is THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), called “Tex” for short.  He does not feel well. He is sick, shaky, because he is secretly off his medication. Feelings of love and lust are stirring for his roomate, LUH. The lack of sedation has allowed those feelings to surface for the first time. It has also, however, affected his work, and one error is all it takes to clue in the powers-that-be that THX is a drug offender.

Themes turn up again in Lucas’ later films. See the totalitarian faceless government, complete with masked law enforcement (not Stormtroopers but robot officers).  Constant, overlapping staticky background dialogue makes up the most of the soundtrack to this film. Lucas has taken sound effects and used them as music, yet they still convey information crucial to the plot. For further comparison, some shots are even duplicated in Star Wars; see if you can spot them.

THX-1138 isn’t Lucas’ fairytale vision of sci-fi.  Scenes are chilling. THX is channel surfing and comes upon a program of an officer beating a human repeatedly for no apparent reason. This is the entertainment of the future.  The brutality is so iconic that Trent Reznor used the sounds in Nine Inch Nails’ song “Mr. Self Destruct”.  In another scene, two techs are tormenting THX’s body, but their dialogue betrays absolutely no connection whatsoever to the human being they are hurting. “Don’t let it get above 48,” says one, as THX is writhing in agony. “Oh, you let is get above 48, see, that’s why you’re getting those readings.”

The theme of escape, which was common with Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars, is what drives THX. He eventually finds an ally in a “hologram” (Don Pedro Colley) that he meets in the white asylum. SEN (Donald Pleasance) is suitably creepy as a man obsessed with THX and LUH.  Can they escape the city and see what is beyond?

Lucas loves tampering with his films and THX is one of them. CG race cars and cityscapes enhance the film, while CG Shell Dwellers look phony and out of place. I would have preferred the original Shell Dwellers, but in the cityscapes, the new effects certainly add depth and believability.  Just like the Star Wars special editions, some things work and others do not.  Cloud City worked well in the Star Wars digital tweaks, just as the underground one does here.

DVD bonus features are awesome, including ample documentaries.  For a treat, check for the original black and white student film that Lucas made: THX-1138-4eB – Electronic Labyrinth. See how his vision survived intact to the big screen, and see how ideas such as dialogue acting as the soundtrack was present in the original short.

A fantastic visionary sci-fi film, and a warning to us today. We must not allow our society to become as controlled as THX’s.

Not for everybody. Only for those who like thinking man’s sci-fi.

4/5 stars. Near-perfect dystopian vision.

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

Blu-ray REVIEW: Star Wars – The Complete Saga (2011 9 disc set)

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 coffee or tea!

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 Star Wars prequel trilogy (John Williams). Join Us THIS Saturday 12:30-2:30am (ET)”

 

STAR WARS: The Complete Saga (2011 Lucasfilm 9 Blu-ray set)

Includes:  Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and three bonus discs.

Star Wars on blu-ray…it took a lot less time than it did for Star Wars to arrive on DVD!  In special features and deleted scenes alone, it was well worth the wait. You can’t do a box set like this without the bonus of unseen footage. The good news is, The Complete Saga is loaded with unseen special features and deleted scenes. In fact, the Tosche Station scene (deleted from A New Hope) is worth the purchase alone for the true fan. It’s that great.

Will this be the last time we buy the first two Star Wars trilogies? Heck, no! When 3D comes out, everybody will be having the same discussion all over again!  And when the sequel trilogy is complete, we’ll be doing it again.  Will Greedo still shoot first? Well, in my mind I have long accepted that Han shot first. Only in some weird Lucasverse is there a way that Greedo could shoot and miss at that range. That close, I’m sorry, Han is toasted smuggler stew.  Disney says there is no way to re-release the original trilogy without its Special Edition enhancements, as the original film materials are too far gone.

However about 10 years ago or so, Lucas did an official DVD reissue of the ORIGINAL original trilogy, which I went out and bought on day one. It was satisfying, it looked better than my old VHS copy, but it wasn’t cleaned up nice like the special editions were. Which, in my opinion, is fine. It looks good and it’s as close to your childhood memories as you’ll ever get. After all, we didn’t have 1080p TV tubes.

Accepting that a Blu-ray version of the “ORIGINAL” original trilogy will never happen, I am very satisfied with my Blu-ray of the Complete Saga.

The sound is awesome, very deep, and annoying to the neighbors.

The video is perfect; I realize there are probably some colour changes here and there but I’m not about to do an A/B test and find them. I don’t care, it’s sharp and bright and clear and even Phantom Menace looks good!

Content wise, you know what? Hell, I’m actually enjoying Phantom Menace. I’m lost in that moment in 1999 or whatever it was, when we sat there watching it the first time, trying to figure out who the new baddies were and checking out all the cool designs, which all stand up today. Except Jar Jar. Take him out and the movie’s not half bad at all, flawed as it may be.

Bonus featues: I wanted to watch the deleted scenes and there is good news and bad news. The bad news is, I hate how the deleted scenes are organized. You have to click the movie you want, click the planet you want, and then pick deleted scenes from the features. You can’t just go to a menu called “Deleted Scenes”. Anyways, these were mostly great although some action scenes were just animatics. And, I don’t think these deleted scenes overlap at all with the scenes provided on previous DVD editions. For example there was no Greedo scene in the Episode I deleted scenes, but there certainly was on the original DVD release for Episode I. That goes for the special features in general…I don’t think there are many that overlap at all with the ones you already have.  That could be good or bad; for most fans that’s good.  You’re buying new stuff, not the same stuff you have already.

Highlights: As mentioned the Tosche Station scene, which has all the soul of old Star Wars along with finally tying up the Biggs storyline. Also welcome was the attack on the droid control ship from Episode II — previously only available to subscribers to Lucasfilm’s ill-fated Hyperspace service.

There’s also an hour and a half (!) of spoofs from all over the place, including The Simpsons, Family Guy, Robot Chicken, Saturday Night Live (including that hilarious Kevin-Spacey-as-Christopher-Walken-as-Han-Solo one), Colbert, That 70’s Show, and many more. Most of these, I have never seen.

This is exactly what anybody who had reasonable expectations wanted.

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Rogue One – A Star Wars Story soundtrack (2016)

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 coffee.

Rob says:  “Star Wars For A New Generation – 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 Star Wars – The Force Awakens (John Williams), Star Wars – Rebels (Kevin Kiner) and Rogue One – A Star Wars Story (Michael Giacchino). Join Us THIS Saturday 12:30-2:30am (ET)”

ROGUE ONE: A Star Wars Story original motion picture soundtrack (2015 Lucasfilm/Disney)

A Star Wars soundtrack without John Williams?  Blasphemy!  Right?  Right guys and girls?  No John = No Star Wars, right?

Wrong!

It’s not like Rogue One is even the first!  20 years before, Joel McNeely composed Shadows of the Empire, the soundtrack to a massive multi-media Star Wars story.  It accompanied a novel, a comic, a video game and action figure line.  The only thing missing was a movie.  Since Disney’s $4 billion acquisition of Star Wars, Shadows of the Empire is now considered “legends”, or non-canon, so if you’re not aware of it, that’s OK.  The point is, a non-Williams Star Wars soundtrack is nothing new to long time fans.  And Rogue One is the perfect vehicle for such a soundtrack.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first non-episodic, non-Skywalker-saga Star Wars film ever.  There are two very obvious ways that it differentiates from the main line of films.  One is that there was no opening crawl (nor should there have been).  The second is that Williams didn’t do the music.  Michael Giacchino did, a man who has plenty of credits on his resume including a large number of J.J. Abrams productions.

Giacchino wisely didn’t overuse established Star Wars music.  You won’t hear the fanfare.  The sudden crash opening music of “He’s Here For Us” was actually a pretty cool moment of shock, and it’s right there at the start.  The music feels like the storyline.  When Director Kennic suddenly pays a surprise visit to his “friend” Galen Erso, you couldn’t ask for more abrupt and appropriate music.  The threat has arrived.  Better hide.

Though Giacchino borrows music only sparingly from John Williams, he seems to embody that classic style.  While unfamiliar, these new pieces sound like part of that universe.  There are memorable parts; not so many as the classic films, but they are there.  “He’s Here For Us” introduces one such theme, and there are more, such as the main theme contained within “A Long Ride Ahead” (and again in “The Master Switch”).  You’ll notice the Rogue One theme music in “A Long Ride Ahead” is very similar to the Star Wars main theme, in particular the first two notes.  It’s the same interval, transposed down to a different key.   That’s why the Rogue One and Star Wars themes sound similar, but different.

Other tracks like “When Has Become Now” have bits and pieces that recall prior Star Wars music without copying.  Another fantastic theme is “Jedha Arrival” which really captures the vibe.  You will get to hear the legendary “Imperial March” in “Krennic’s Aspirations”, in which he meets the Dark Lord Darth Vader in his castle on Mustafar.

For action scenes, “Jedha City Ambush” hits a double:  It’s different from past Williams work, but really gets the adrenaline running.  “Star-Dust” is more contemplative, and very unique.  The drama of “Confrontation on Eadu” has that awe-inspiring mix of ingredients that good Star Wars music always has.  Then, for sheer terror, the ironically titled “Hope” gives you all you need in pure musical form.  The solo violin on “Jyn Erso & Hope Suite” will make you weep.

The crux of the soundtrack is this:  It’s nearly impossible to listen to it without consciously or unconsciously comparing it.  That’s natural.  No matter who composed it, fans would notice it’s not John Williams.  Just like fans can tell the Kiss band of today is not the Kiss band of 1978.  What else could Disney do?  John Williams is 85 years old, and they plan on making these movies for years and years to come.  It’s reasonable to think John Williams will be able to complete the third trilogy of Star Wars, as we hope.  It’s not realistic to think he’ll be around as long as Disney plan on making Star Wars movies, as sad as that is.

We’ll leave this review with just some fun speculation.  It is widely known that, at some point in the late 1970s, George Lucas mentioned there would be 12 films.  Not 3, 6 or 9.  12 films.  He later backtracked and said, “Yeah, no, I meant 6.”  And of course he also used to deny he’d even make the prequel trilogy at all.  Then we found out he was already writing Episode I.  And recently, we learned he was actually planning to do the sequel trilogy after all, meaning you can’t trust anything Lucas backtracks on.  Fans always assumed 12 films meant 4 trilogies.  A fourth trilogy (probably focusing on Rey, Finn, Poe or Kylo’s children) does not seem impossible any more.   As long as these movies make money, it’s feasible that Disney could continue the actual saga beyond just these anthology films.  If we imagine that one day we’ll get Episodes X, XI and XII then who could compose the music?  Certainly not John Williams, since this could not happen until the mid-2020s at the soonest.  If it ever comes to pass, the fourth trilogy would have to be composed by somebody new, be it Giacchino or someone else.   Giacchino established himself as a real contender on Rogue One.  Well done.

3.5/5 stars

Blu-ray REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Full-on spoilerific]

NEW RELEASE – SPOILERS

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015, 2016 Lucasfilm Blu-ray DVD set)

When we last saw our heroes in 1983, Evil had been defeated.  Seemingly, Luke Skywalker fulfilled the prophecy of the chosen one who would bring balance to the Force, via his father Anakin Skywalker.  Appealing to the good still within Darth Vader, the evil henchman of the Empire turned back to the light and betrayed his Sith lord, Emperor Palpatine.  The Rule of Two was broken and the Sith were destroyed, along with their ultimate weapon, the second dreaded Death Star.  In death, Vader redeemed himself.  Luke smiled when he saw the ghost of his father standing next to those of his old masters Yoda and Ben Kenobi.  He turned to rejoin his friends in the celebration of victory.  Roll credits.

For decades, we were told “that’s it”.  That’s the end of the story, said the man who wrote it, George Lucas.  Sure there was talk of a sequel trilogy before, even two sequel trilogies!  This seemed highly unlikely in 1983 as George was adamant that he was letting Star Wars go to work on other projects.  The legacy of a sequel, of “what happened to Luke, Han Solo and Princess Leia later” was left first to novelist Timothy Zahn and then to a whole new generation of writers who filled the galaxy with stories of what came next.  Of course, we all knew that should George actually change his mind and allow sequels to be made, all of that old stuff from the books would go out the window.  No way was anybody going to try and adhere to continuity that somebody else wrote in a novel.

In 1994 there was hope.  Lucas re-emerged and began working on the mysterious and long-awaited Star Wars prequels, Episodes I, II and III.  Questions now could finally be answered.  Who were the Jedi?  Who is Luke Skywalker’s mother, only briefly mentioned before and never seen or named?  Most importantly, how did Anakin Skywalker transform into Darth Vader, and why did the Repulic fall to be replaced by an Empire?   One of the problems with this situation was that some questions are often best left to the imagination.

It was undeniably wonderful to finally return to the Star Wars galaxy, but it is also impossible to overlook how ill-received by fans the prequel movies were.  The stiff acting, the wooden dialogue, the unlikely scenarios and muddled plots of these movies made them difficult to fully enjoy.  Although entire cottage industries had grown out of anticipating the possibility of a sequel trilogy, many fans were happy all the same if they never got made.  Lucas pooh-poohed the idea, now claiming Star Wars was always two trilogies, six movies, and the story of Anakin.  There were no stories beyond that, he continued.  It would be fun, he said, to see what Luke and Han were up to later, but ultimately they would just be extraneous to the actual story of Darth Vader.  The end.

 

"Everyone said, 'Well, are you going to do sequels to the first three?' But that was an afterthought; I don't have scripts on those stories. The only notion on that was, wouldn't it be fun to get all the actors to come back when they're 60 or 70 years old and make three more about them as old people."

“Everyone said, ‘Well, are you going to do sequels to the first three?’ But that was an afterthought; I don’t have scripts on those stories. The only notion on that was, wouldn’t it be fun to get all the actors to come back when they’re 60 or 70 years old and make three more about them as old people.”

 

Or not.

Quietly and in secret, Lucas once again had a change of heart and began work on the Star Wars sequel trilogy.  Realizing that he would not be able to undertake such a massive project at his age, he made the brave choice of handing Lucasfilm over to Kathleen Kennedy, and selling Star Wars to Disney.  Lucas’ story and characters were thrown out, but used as inspiration for what would eventually become Episode VII.  Artists dug way back into the Ralph McQuarrie archives for inspiration, and so decades-old designs for Star Wars were finally able to leap onto the big screen.

Much of this information is the included documentary, Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey.  Though that feature does document the emotion and gravitas of what a sequel really means, it fails to really express the true feeling of it all.  For decades, we were told this movie was never coming, but Episode VII was what we all really wanted, not Episode I.  After the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi, did we all not grab our action figures of Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie and try to play out what happened next?  The toy company Kenner tried to come up with new villains (I’m sure “Mongo Beefhead Tribesman” would have been a big hit), and Marvel Comics introduced a new villain called Lumiya, the Dark Lady of the Sith.   Mace Windu, Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn did not exist.  The truth is, even in 1983, we didn’t really care about prequels.  We wanted to know what happened next much more than what came before.  So the dual challenge with Star Wars Episode VII was to not only make a movie that continues the story of the Skywalker family appropriately, but also to live up to everything we imagined and played out as kid.  No pressure, right?

Director JJ Abrams felt the pressure, but what he and his creative team emerged with in The Force Awakens is everything that fans needed it to be.  Not that there were no complaints.  The heaviest criticism laid against The Force Awakens is that it imitates the first Star Wars (A New Hope) slavishly.  Some derisively refer to The Force Awakens as a “reboot”.  The parallels are there, but let us also not forget that Lucas himself tried to make his trilogies “rhyme” with similar circumstances.  Did they go too far trying to copy the original?

A cute heroic droid carries a secret message on a desert world that must get back to the heroes.  A new young character, a loner who is unwittingly Force sensitive, meets this droid and decides to help it.  The desert world is escaped in the Millenium Falcon.  They are pursued by the bad guys, led by a Force-using guy in a black mask and cloak with a crimson red laser sword.  The bad guys have an ultimate weapon, a planet destroyer, and they use it.  Our heroes must stop them from using it again.  This large spherical weapon must be blown up, and a battle of X-Wings vs Tie Fighters will decide the fate of the galaxy.  An old hero from a prior trilogy makes the ultimate sacrifice.  Finally, our young new hero character concentrates to use the Force, and defeats the evil.  Roll credits.

That paragraph describes both A New Hope and The Force Awakens perfectly.   But a lot has changed, too.

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Although we know the events that occurred 30 years prior off by heart, we know very little about what actually took place between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.  Here is what we do know.

After the Battle of Endor and the defeat of the Emperor, Han Solo and Princess Leia had a son named Ben.  The Blu-ray special features reveal that Ben Solo was powerful in the Force, but with equal portions of light and dark within him.  Director JJ Abrams tells us that the man known as Snoke, a dark side user, had his eyes on Ben Solo from the very start.  So, much like his grandfather Anakin Skywalker, young Ben was being watched by a dark side master from the very beginning, and slowly seduced to the dark side.  We also know that Luke was training a new generation of Jedi, but that Ben destroyed it all.  Luke went into hiding, feeling responsible for his failure.  We do not know anything concrete about this Snoke, or where he comes from.  All that we know is that he seems very, very afraid of Luke.  Ben Solo wants to find the map that leads to Luke’s hiding place.  Snoke on the other hand wants that map destroyed if it cannot be recovered.  He would rather that Luke never return to the affairs of the galaxy, where Ben is desperate to find that map, and therefore his uncle Luke.

Our new hero, the girl known only as Rey, has a Force vision in the movie that tells us a little bit more about what happened.  We see brief clips of a massacre in the rain.  Betraying Luke’s students by surprise in the night, it appears Ben, now known as Kylo Ren, has slaughtered Luke’s younglings with the help of his henchmen, the Knights of Ren, about whom we know nothing at all.  We glimpse Luke placing his robotic right hand on his trusted droid R2-D2, perhaps shutting him down.  And most interestingly, we see Kylo Ren killing someone through the back with his lightsaber, from the perspective of someone down below.  Someone small like a child perhaps.

In that vision, which seems to be from the perspective of Rey as a little girl, Kylo Ren appears to be killing one of his fellow Knights of Ren.  Is that indeed what is happening?  Why did Kylo kill that man from behind?  Did Kylo spare Rey from him?  And who is Rey?

There seems little question that Rey is indeed a Skywalker.  It also seems clear that Kylo Ren knows, or at least feels, that there is more to Rey than anyone else knows.  It is Kylo who freaks out every time somebody mentions the scavenger girl from Jakku.  Why?  What is it about the idea of a girl from Jakku that has him so on edge?  Rey is powerful enough to not only resist Kylo’s mind probe, but also reverse it and read Kylo’s mind.  “You’re afraid,” she boldly proclaims, “that you will never be as powerful as Darth Vader!”  She is strong enough to defeat Kylo Ren, at least semi-trained in the lightsaber, in a dual.  Much like three other key characters in Star Wars (Luke, Leia and Anakin Skywalker), she has latent Force talents that are emerging on their own.  And this terrifies Kylo Ren, very much.  “You need a teacher!” he tells Rey, trying to avoid being bested by a girl.  “I can teach you the ways of the Force!”

Kylo Ren is an interesting and complex villain.  He has the fiery temper of his grandfather, but even more wild and untamed.  His unfinished lightsaber is amaturish and dangerous.  Unlike Anakin, he does not feel pulled to the dark.  “I feel it again.  The call to the light,” he confesses to Darth Vader’s melted helmet in meditation.  “Show me again, the power of the dark side,” he begs the spirit of his grandfather.  Wait…”again”?  What’s this “again” business?  When Anakin died, did he not revert to good?  It seems highly likely that Kylo Ren’s master, Supreme Leader Snoke, is manipulating him with this Vader business.  We will not know for sure until Episode VIII…or IX.

As for Snoke, we know he’s a Force user because we are told that he senses Kylo’s weakness, his compassion.  We also know this because he says he’s going to complete Kylo Ren’s training.  And that doesn’t sound too good for Kylo!  His mucking around, trying to retrieve the map from Rey instead of destroying it in BB-8, caused the First Order to lose their gazollion-credit superweapon, the Starkiller.  Think Darth Vader was in shit when he let the first Death Star get blown up?  Just imagine the shit that Kylo Ren is in now.  That new scar across his face his the last of his worries.  When Snoke finds out that he not only got the base blown up, but also let the girl get away and the Resistance find Luke Skywalker…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be Kylo Ren right now.  The “completion” of his training will result in an even meaner and more intense Kylo Ren in Episode VIII.

Kylo’s father Han Solo went down a hero in The Force Awakens.  Now, true Star Wars fans could have seen this coming right from the day they announced the movie was going to be made.  Han Solo was supposed to die in Jedi.  At first, George Lucas wanted balance.  The victory of the heroes should be balanced by a tragic loss, because that’s life.  He eventually backed out of this.  It seemed obvious that the idea would be resurrected for The Force Awakens.  But for Han to go down the way he did?  Perfect.  Flawless.  Some complain that Han should have had the last word;  he did though — his hand on his son’s face says 1000 words.

Chewbacca’s rage in that moment reflected the shock of everyone in the movie theater.  Rey and Finn’s shock and sorrow was what we all felt, even though it was telegraphed from a mile away.  If those gangsters chasing Solo earlier in the film didn’t hint that his luck was running dry, then the moment Solo walked out onto that catwalk surely indicated it was time for his end.   If there is one rule in Star Wars, it’s be careful of catwalks.  Have these people not yet invented the safety rail?  On Earth, that catwalk would have violated so many regulations that General Hux would have been busted down to Colonel.

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The Blu-ray has deleted scenes, and some of them reveal a little bit more detail.  In one, Rey is told that Finn is going to be just fine, something left ambiguous in the final film.  In another, Kylo Ren and a squad of Snowtroopers board the Millenium Falcon after its crash landing on the Starkiller planet.  Knowing Ren would have grown up on that ship, you can only imagine his feelings as he stands in the cockpit.  Other cut scenes, like a battle with Finn and Rey using Snowspeeders, would have made the movie drag.  So here they are for your enjoyment, and separate from the film on a bonus disc.

The bonus disc also includes interesting bits about the different BB-8 droids that were built for the film, and the various creatures and monsters.  Composer John Williams is the star of one featurette.  The CG effects are gone over, and so is the end lightsaber battle with Kylo and Rey in the woods.  Few lightsaber battles in past movies were filmed in a night time setting.  In order to get the reflective glows on film, the actors used actual glowing lightsaber props for the scene.  The result is more realistic lighting in a scene featuring many trees and lots of snow.  Finally, there’s a bit about the famous “table read”.  When the cast were assembled and the script was read in one room for the first time, the photo of this epic “table read” went viral.  You may wonder, what did Mark Hamill do during this table read?  Did Luke have zero dialogue or not?  Good question:  Mark read the narration.  It’s only a shame the full two hour table read wasn’t included.

That brings us to Mark Hamill and Luke Skywalker, the ideal place to leave this epic review.  There he was at the end, after 30 years of wondering “What happens to Luke, the only Jedi left in the galaxy?”   Hamill’s face speaks volumes of what happened to Luke.  Epic pain…sad wisdom…incredible knowledge.  Luke has seen these things and much more, and it is in his eyes.  His light beige cloak is a sharp contrast to the black clothes we last saw him in.  In Star Wars, this communicates a purity awash in the good side of the Force.  Whatever he has done in the years since he left, it is implied that Luke has become as powerful as the Emperor predicted.  Probably more powerful even than Darth Vader ever was.  Supreme Leader Snoke fears Luke Skywalker more than anything the pitiful Resistance can muster.  Who do you think gave Snoke those horrific scars on his head?  Perhaps the reason Snoke fears the last Jedi so much is that he has tasted the blade of that Jedi.

The Force Awakens may take all its plot cues from the original 1977 Star Wars, and that is a fair critique.  As we have shown here, there is also much more to it.  There are layers of mystery that are waiting to be peeled.  When George made the first Star Wars in 1977, he didn’t know he would ever make another one.  There were not as many questions to answer.  What Kathleen Kennedy, JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt came up with here was a story once thought impossible to write.  They succeeded in coming up with a sequel idea that continues the story of the Skywalkers, introduces new heroes and villains, and doesn’t seem tacked on or mismatched with the original movies.  It feels completely organic and natural.  Indeed, The Force Awakens feels far more like Star Wars than any of the three prequels did.  That’s something many thought impossible, like making the Kessel run in 12 parsecs.

Everybody’s going to buy this Blu-ray, so the only question left is which version to buy?  I chose Walmart’s which came in a BB-8 case with a little “trading disc” inside.  Only humbug: all those trailers we sat around and watched are not among the bonus features.  But there are many versions out there and here’s a breakdown of them:

  • Walmart – BB-8 case and trader disc.
  • Best Buy – Steelbook case.
  • Target – 20 minutes of additional bonus features including interviews with John Boyega and Daisy Ridley.
  • Disney – free lithographs.

Buy accordingly!

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens soundtrack [spoiler free]

NEW RELEASE – SPOILER FREE

Scan_20160103 (8)STAR WARS: The Force Awakens original motion picture soundtrack (2015 Lucasfilm/Disney)

After seeing The Force Awakens on December 18, my radio pal Rob Daniels who had not seen it yet asked me, “How was it, seeing a Star Wars movie without the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare at the start?”

It was strange.  Not unexpected of course; we all know the reason there is an Episode VII today is because Lucasfilm sold Star Wars to Disney.  The old 20th Century Fox fanfare does not commence the soundtrack, which instead begins with the main Star Wars title theme.  This quiets and slows, as the covert start to the movie begins.

“The Scavenger” introduces the character of Rey.  Add this to yet another intriguing piece of character music from the mind of John Williams.  “The Scavenger” is unlike any of the other Star Wars cues; it’s brand new, just like the character of Rey.  I get goosebumps hearing it again, such is the power and identity of the score.  It also has the tone to connect this new chapter to the other instalments of the saga.  This is only a brief respite.  Much like the movie itself, the action resumes shortly.  The title “I Can Fly Anything” suggests you should fasten your seatbelts for this cue!*  Williams allows you to close your eyes and picture the flurry yourself.  He always has; that’s his magic.  As kids, we would drop the needle on the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back while navigating an asteroid field with our Kenner Millenium Falcons.  Or, you would flip the pages of your Marvel Star Wars comic movie adaptations, while listening to those records.  The experience still works today.  Through the drama and occasional quiet moments of reflection, you will notice callbacks to cues from the classic trilogy — “The Falcon”, or “Han and Leia” for example.  These pieces of music are warmly remembered.

When the soundtrack to The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, the track “Duel of the Fates” became a bit of a hit single.  There is no “Duel of the Fates” here, but “Rey’s Theme” serves well as the memorable track this time out.  With more subtlety (and perhaps even femininity?), “Rey’s Theme” is a new kind of Star Wars music.  I have high hopes that the character and story arc will unfold in a way just as emotional and satisfying as her theme music.  Star Wars deserves to have characters that you can invest your emotions in.  With the prequel trilogy, I could never feel much for Anakin Skywalker.  You always knew that no matter what happened in the prequels, he’s just going to end up in the black suit and blowing up Aldaraan.  Rey’s future is unwritten.  Having a strong theme will help her character going forward.

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Vintage Star Wars fun can be had on the tension-packed tracks “The Rathtars!”, and “Kylo Ren Arrives”.  Somber beauty is “The Starkiller”, ironic considering the scene in question.  For deeper listening, check out the tracks “Maz’s Counsel” and “Snoke”.  Perhaps there are musical clues buried in these pieces to help us identify who some of these characters may be?

The soundtrack is a wild ride like the movie from which it came, picking up suspense as it nears the end.  The less said about the last few tracks on the CD the better, except to mention that Williams continues to forge new ground for Star Wars right to the finale.  With passion and precision, every track is the perfect accompaniment.

My only disappointment, although not unexpected since this is only a single CD release, is that some music is naturally omitted.  The one track I wish was available is the neat rasta-space-blues song playing when our heroes arrives at Maz Kanata’s tavern.  It’s the “Cantina Band” or “Lapti Nek” of the movie, but it’s not on the CD.  There are whispers that a 2 CD deluxe edition is forthcoming this year.

5/5 stars

* The Millenium Falcon has seatbelts, but the USS Enterprise does not.  Discuss!