the force awakens

#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.

 

 

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!

#459.3: 2015 Year-End Lists, part 3 – LeBrain!

GETTING MORE TALE #459.3:
2015 Year-End Lists, part 3 – yours truly, LeBrain!

Unlike my companions in rock, Tom and Uncle Meat, I’m going to be a bit more verbose here with my top lists of 2015.

I thought I had my top five albums down.  I didn’t expect any changes, but then a couple respected writers started praising the new Def Leppard album.  I decided, against my better judgement to go ahead and buy it.  What can I say?  Those reviewers were right.  It’s a good album.  Def Leppard 2015 cracked my top five list, necessitating a top six.

LeBRAIN’S TOP SIX(!) ALBUMS of 2015

6. Def Leppard – Def Leppard
5. Stealth – …listen
4. Queensryche – Condition Hüman
3. The Darkness – Last of Our Kind
2. Faith No More – Sol Invictus
1. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls

2015

LeBRAIN’S TOP FIVE TV SHOWS of 2015

I actually watched enough TV this year to make up a list!

5. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
4. The Big Bang Theory
3. Star Wars: Rebels
2. Better Call Saul
1. American Dad!

BIG BANG

LeBRAIN’S TOP MOVIES of 2015

As far as I know, only one movie came out this year, right?

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

FORCE

2015 IN SUM

The high quality of new albums by returning bands continues to amaze me.  The last band I expected a quality album from this year was Def Leppard.  Of course, on the flip side of that, we have Bon Jovi who choked to death on pop dreck.  Given what was coming out this year, and what the stakes were (a possible final album from Iron Maiden, the first Faith No More CD in 18 years), you couldn’t have realistically hoped for better than we got.  Meanwhile on the new music front, it is hard to find a better debut than …listen, by Stealth.  Not rock in any way, but more mind-expanding than anything else I heard in 2015.

And talk about high stakes on the movie front!  The most anticipated movie of all time is going to be the most successful movie of all time, thanks to it pushing all the right buttons while moving the story into its next phase.  Because of my wife’s health condition (epilepsy) I don’t go out to movies very often, preferring to wait for the blu-ray.  Age of Ultron and Ant-Man pleased me immensely.  But worth more than just an honourable mention is Mad Mad: Fury Road.  Unlike Star Wars, Mad Max rebooted while going off into a startling new direction.  It was probably the most impressive film of the year…but even so, my 2015 was only about Star Wars.  Just trust me — see Mad Max: Fury Road.  See it many times.

Finally:  Rest in peace Lemmy Kilmister, Philthy Animal Taylor (that’s 2/3rds of the classic Motorhead lineup, wiped out), Scott Weiland, Chris Squire, Ornette Coleman, Ben E. King, Percy Sledge, A.J. Pero, Andy Fraser, and of course, B.B. King.

Happy New Year, everybody!

 

fnm

 

#459.2: 2015 Year-End Lists, part 2 – Uncle Meat!

GETTING MORE TALE #459.2:
2015 Year-End Lists, part 2 – Uncle Meat!

List #2 for 2015 comes from the Uncle of the Meat. He needs no introduction here. Looking for some integrity? Then have a gander below.

MEAT

Meat, Bucky, Tom

UNCLE MEAT’S TOP FIVE ALBUMS of 2015

5. The Book of Souls – Iron Maiden
4. Meloria – Ghost
3. Terraplane – Steve Earle
2. High Country – The Sword
1. Psychic Warfare – Clutch

CLUTCH

UNCLE MEAT’S TOP TEN TV SHOWS of 2015

10. Ash vs. Evil Dead
9. F is for Family
8. Daredevil
7. W/ Bob and David
6. True Detective
5. Mr. Robot
4. The Affair
3. Better Call Saul
2. Game of Thrones
1. Fargo

BOB AND DAVID

UNCLE MEAT’S TOP TEN MOVIES of 2015

10. Straight Outta Compton
9. Ant-Man
8. Trainwreck
7. Avengers: Age of Ultron
6. Amy
5. Spotlight
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
3. The Revenant
2. Jaco: The Movie
1. Love and Mercy

AVENGERS

Last list tomorrow!  It’s MY turn next….

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Spoiler-free]

NEW RELEASE – SPOILER FREE ZONE!

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterSTAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Directed by JJ Abrams

“Faster, more intense!”

15 minutes ago, I was sitting in my theater seats.  That’s how fresh this review is!

As mentioned in this morning’s post, Star Wars Episode VII is the movie I really wanted to see, ever since 1983.  We didn’t care about backstory, we didn’t want to see prequels.  All we cared about was “What happens next?  What happens to Han, Luke and Leia?”  That’s one reason Timothy Zahn’s written sequel, the “Thrawn Trilogy”, was so well received by fans worldwide.  But that’s just a book — what really happens after the second Death Star is destroyed?

Now I know, and I am not disappointed.

Director JJ Abrams has re-captured the magic.  The lived-in universe is back.  The wooden, stiff dialogue and exposition are gone.  The new quartet of leads (Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and especially the impressive Daisy Ridley) are everything we wanted out of a new generation of Star Wars heroes and villains.  They will now join the pantheon of characters that live on in our hearts.  The camaraderie and friendships that were never believable in the prequels have finally come back to life.  Without the misguided hands of George Lucas at the tiller, the Star Wars sequel trilogy has begun anew, with life.

Rey is a scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku.  The parallel here to Tattooine is unmistakable and obviously intentional, but Jakku has its own charm by being strewn with original trilogy space junk.  In fact, the whole movie is littered with original trilogy callbacks, from certain objects on a familiar starship, to the overall look and deco of the universe.  The galaxy has seen a lot of wear and tear, but a new threat called the First Order has risen, and wants to see the end of the New Republic.  The Republic (which we don’t get to see much of), is defended by a secret organization much like the rebels, called the Resistance.  They are led by General Leia Organa, continuing on doing what she knows how to do best.  How does Rey fit in?  When a droid carrying a secret message for the Resistance (sound familiar?) and an ex-stormtrooper fall into her life, it will never be the same again.


Uber-fans will like to know that there are some shots and lines in the trailers that are different in the movie.

The new characters serve the archetypes that worked in classic Star Wars movies.  You have an orphan on the desert world, a hotshot pilot (or perhaps two), and the cute but witty little droid who helps out at all the right moments, but mostly needs rescuing.  Original?  Not hardly.  The original trilogy, with its familiar set pieces and dialogue, are omnipresent.  Fans have set the bar much lower since the prequels, and a group of re-tread heroes will have the fans satiated.  Then we have the villain, Kylo Ren, the enforcer of the First Order, and face of the Disney marketing campaign.  Much has been made of Ren’s wimpy voice, but in full theater sound it works much better.  Adam Driver, an extremely talented and distinguished looking actor, fit the role like a glove.  His epic temper tantrums rival those of his idol, Lord Vader himself.

But don’t worry.  There aren’t any dreadful “Noooooooooo’s” or lines about sand being course and getting everywhere.  There aren’t wishy-washy speeches about love, although Finn and Rey have a bond that could develop into romance later on.  Writer Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on the classic trilogy and knew where Lucas wanted to take this thing, helped tremendously.  From opening crawl to final scene, this feels right.

In many respects, The Force Awakens is Han Solo’s movie.  When he and Chewbacca hook up with our new heroes (in a totally believable way), he takes over the lead and drives the plot forward.  Harrison Ford seems to have turned his “Han Solo” knob up to 11.  The older, wiser and sadder man has seen it all, now.  As another character once said, “It’s not the age, it’s the mileage”.  Solo and Chewie’s presence make the whole thing really feel like Star Wars.

My biggest concern going into this was that a Star Wars sequel trilogy would not feel like it was part of the whole; it would feel tacked on to the end.  That is not the case.  While George Lucas had nothing to do with the film, it does carry his wish that a new Star Wars trilogy would focus on a new generation of heroes, while remaining a story about the Skywalker family.  JJ Abrams has done that, in an appropriate and lively way.  The new Star Wars is the most exciting in many years, and what it lacks in originality it makes up in spirit.  I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

My only serious beef is about this new superweapon the First Order have.  Superweapons are a part of Star Wars, and always require blowing up.  This one made no sense at all, especially how it was visually depicted.  We need Neil DeGrasse Tyson to do a pop-up video and tell us just how stupid that thing is.  If you thought the “red matter” and destruction of Vulcan sucked in Star Trek, wait until you see this stupid thing.  Just pretend it makes sense and watch the pretty starship dogfights.

Oh, and Luke Skywalker?  Some will be disappointed, but those who love Star Wars will have the same goosebumps that I did.  Mark Hamill is the man.  Luke is back, looking weary but powerful and wise.  There are a lot of loose ends to tie up.  Get ready, galaxy.

4/5 stars

Don’t forget to tune in tonight at midnight (ET) for Rob Daniels’ Visions In Sound, when he and I will be playing the brand-new Star Wars soundtrack composed by John Williams!  Tune in locally on your FM dial to CKWR 98.5, or elsewhere, just click “listen live” via their website!  The show runs from midnight to 2 am (ET).  Coffee?

20151217_181733

EDIT: Stream the whole show here!

#455.5: More Star Wars radio, tonight!

SWTFA

Tonight at midnight, you can again catch me LIVE on Robert Daniels‘ radio program VISIONS IN SOUND.   Tune in locally on your FM dial to CKWR 98.5, or elsewhere, just click “listen live” via their website!  The show runs from midnight to 2 am (ET).  Coffee?

Tonight’s subject:  STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS!  The brand spanking new soundtrack by John Williams.

This will be our first time hearing it.  Last week, Rob and I covered the music from the classic trilogy also composed by John Williams.  We had an amazing time talking about the music, what it means to us as fans, and what it does for the films.  Tonight will be interesting because I have no idea what the music sounds like!  I am hoping to see The Force Awakens this morning or afternoon.  One thing I mentioned to Rob last week (and I can’t even remember if this was on or off the air) was that this is the movie we have really been waiting for since 1983.

In ’83 when the credits rolled, all we really wanted to know was “what happens next?”  Lucas had long teased us with the idea of three trilogies, but after Jedi it soon seemed unlikely that a sequel trilogy would ever happen.  In 1983, we didn’t care about whatever happened Episodes I, II, or III.  Many of us consider that to be backstory that would be better off left to the imagination.  Kind of like reading the indices in a Tolkien book.  We really wanted to see what happened next with Luke, Leia and Han.  Would Luke become the most powerful Jedi ever?  What new threats would emerge now that Vader and the Emperor were dead?  And most interestingly, would Luke find and train new Jedi Knights, as Yoda instructed him?  “Pass on what you have learned.”

That’s what we wanted to see.  Then Lucas crapped out and said, “No more Star Wars.  We’re done.”

By the time 1994 rolled around, his tune changed.  It was Jurassic Park that did it.  Lucas became enamoured with computers and said, “Now we have the technology to go and do Star Wars the way I always wanted to do it.”   He began work, and as the prequels emerged from 1999-2005, Lucas often said “I only have ideas for six movies.  That’s all there is.  There are no sequels.  The story is about Anakin Skywalker’s fall and redemption.”  Yada, yada, yada….

I’ve always believed that George Lucas, much like his creation Han Solo, was just “making it up as he goes”.  Although George did come up with story ideas for Star Wars Episode VII and beyond, what we will see today is a brand new creation.  Lucas always said that if there were to be any sequels, they would be about Darth Vader’s grandchildren with Luke playing a mentoring role, like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Today, we finally find out.

But tonight, I hope you’re able to tune in and catch what I assume and hope to be some incredible music.  The Force Awakens will be the seventh Star Wars film composed by John Williams, and I am certain that it will be a treat.  I’ve already reviewed all the classic trilogy soundtracks already, so if you need to catch up before the awakening, here they are:

Check in tonight, and may the Force be with you!  Always.

EDIT: Stream the show now, right here:
Visions in Sound archive

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – new TV spot featuring Finn

This is one of the coolest spots yet. A few weeks ago, Hasbro released a “riot control stormtrooper” figure featuring some kind of electro-baton. In this clip we get to see Finn facing off again this guy with the blue Anakin saber. Looks just awesome.

December 18 is less than a month away…
Poe_Dameron_FO_Riot_Control

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – New TV spot

“I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people…I see your eyes…I know your eyes…”

 

 

Even more new footage and dialogue! Does this confirm that Rey is a Skywalker? The teasing for this thing has been brilliant.

The Force Awakens comes out December 18.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Japanese trailer

“I know all about waiting…for my family.”

First of all, JJ lied!  He said there were no more trailers coming.  Well, here is a new one from Japan, with tons of new footage and plenty of Rey dialogue we haven’t heard before.  Who are her parents?  Find out December 18.