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Jumpin' Jupiters! It's June Already

Or: Yet Another Potpourri from The Aisle Seat

By Andy Dursin

Greetings fellow readers and welcome back from the holiday weekend! If you didn't brave the crowds during the first week of THE PHANTOM MENACE, perhaps you did over the last few days, when George Lucas's latest failed to cave in to the second week drop-off and past the $200 million mark in less than 10 days. The Julia-Hugh Grant romance NOTTING HILL also fared well with a solid box-office gross of $26 million, and although I did not partake in the picture this weekend, I'm betting that I'll be there come next Saturday night -- if only because I'll need to provide a review here in this space next week (being the FSM trooper that I am, although it's not the ONLY reason I'm going of course!)

In the meantime, more reader comments have trickled in on STAR WARS -- all of which follow below, as well as some quick DVD takes. And remember to send in your comments to me at dursina@att.net - we're always looking for a few readable emails!

Aisle Seat Reader Bag

I don't usually encourage lengthy emails but the following messgae I received really hits upon so many relevant points in EPISODE I that there's no reason not to run it unexpurgated.

From Andrew Doughty (ADoughty1@aol.com):

    For whatever reason--despite the undeniably intense interest in the film--it has suddenly become tragically unhip to talk about The Phantom Menace. Even the more rabid fans are apt to sigh in the midst of those still sifting through the details of George Lucas' latest opus, either furthering their appreciation or finding new ammunition with which to damn the picture, or perhaps a little of each. At any rate, I say bring on the hecklers!

    Here's my two cents on the subject... The Phantom Menace--a terrific title by the way; it has that B-serial vibe, and also is a kind of "mission statement" for the film--left me with the feeling that George Lucas sort of wanted to "slip in through the back door" on his original trilogy...already in progress. We drop in on characters we don't know on a murkily defined mission, then the screen explodes with state of the art, meticulously conceived, rip-roaring action (the droid battle on the Federation ship). Shades of A New Hope's kick off here, as--whether we're fully comprehending or not--this Universe hurtles along, dragging us with it at breakneck speed. No sooner have we gotten our bearings than we're literally immersed in a new environment, en route to the aquatic, Gun-Gun City.

    With Episode One, Lucas has delivered a ride-film; a scene setting, aesthetic establishing prelude, that--living up to its title--is haunted by the first low rumblings of the coming storm of the Galactic Empire as it begins to slowly take shape from within. Fittingly, Phantom is not as punchy, thunderous or hammy as any of the other Star Wars films; this is the place of origin of that musty old light saber--the "elegant weapon"--Obi Wan presents Luke in A New Hope...a "more civilized age," and hence, is a little more buttoned down--though astonishingly textured, visually--and all around less explicitly "Star Wars" as we have come to know it. But Phantom positively crackles with the old Force Fire with the appearance of Darth Maul--apprentice of that other specter, Darth Sidious, Evil Galactic Emperor Palpatine to be, if I have my lore right--who, as any "menace" worth his salt will try to do, delivers us into calamitous new times more resembling Lucas' original three episodes (IV, V, and VI); Episode I is about the process of that "delivery".

    Menace, I think, asks something unprecedented of the Star Wars audience for much of its running time...to be attuned to subtlety and be patient, not with respect to Pod races or gun battles, per say, but in their hunger for the really good stuff: i.e, the betrayals, the seductions by the Dark Side, the romantic elements (which were very nicely alluded to in Menace's closing scenes, by the way, with an already amorous Amidala smiling broadly at young Anakin, her future sack mate. Incidentally, what with Jabba the Hutt lurking, any word on whether Natalie Portman insisted upon a "no bikini clause" in her contract? If not, she could be in trouble--prone to chill in a good, stiff breeze--in Episode III; like mother, like daughter).

    Why bother with patience? What's the point? I think Lucas felt that there was great power in allusion, that a slower burn style of unfolding his tale was a nice way to exploit what we think we already know about what's going to happen. What seems like a mere pin dropping--the new Chancellor Palpatine promising to "watch the career of young Anakin closely," for instance--reverberates with grim portent for the "in the know" audience. The seeds of evil here are nascent, but I find that compelling; it's the anatomy of the coming apocalypse hidden in the minutiae, and the deceptively offhand quality of much of the film is quite chilling. There's the rub for Lucas: To an audience desiring a film with wall-to-wall, "...I am your father..." styled revelations, the subtle rippling on the pond formed by the modest, dramatic stone George chose to toss this time were not the whitecaps people were looking for.

    As an allusive film, however, Menace leaves little doubt that Darth Sidious' brewing storm--still far out at sea--will have those waves crashing into the shore in no time. The last thing those contemptuous of Episode I may want to hear is that they should see it again. Freed from the punishing expectation that derived from everyone essentially projecting their own version of the film over Lucas' upon the first viewing, The Phantom Menace's subtle brand of charms--gut pleasing action sequences notwithstanding--are allowed to filter through for the first time. My stunning conclusion upon my second viewing, taking into account Phantom's flaws (flaws being intrinsic to every Episode from "A long time ago..."), its merits: It's Star Wars. We shall not look upon its like again...at least until "Episode II".

It's amusing that you run into very specific camps on this movie: people not really into STAR WARS in the first place who tend to hate it, the fans who can't stand the fact that this isn't the original Trilogy and also despise it, and then others who take TPM for what it is and accept it as the starting point for a series, a movie that works as a backstory for what will follow not only in the second Trilogy we all know, but also EPISODES II and III -- which will comprise the real drama of this first Trilogy. TPM is a film that very much works as a primer for what's to come, and indeed, a second viewing of this film will make you realize that -- the small details, lines of dialogue, that casually hint at what's to come, and the intergalactic politics that comprise the origins for the rise of the Empire and Luke's story in Episodes IV-VI. This movie is setting the table for what will follow -- the story that some viewers and critics complain is missing from this picture. I think once the "new" Trilogy is finished, this picture's merits will be looked at from a more positive standpoint from critics, although audiences seem perfectly content right now with the finished product -- and that's the most important element, after all.

From Brian W. Ralston (bralston@email.msn.com)

    Having now seen STAR WARS: EPISODE 1 (twice actually), I thought I would pass along some of my feelings on the film. I found this film to be very enjoyable. I went into the film expecting to be entertained for 2 hours, 12 minutes and I was. I have to admit that the film seems to be a little slow moving at first. But, what should we expect? The title says it all. This is Episode 1. The beginning of a long story yet to be told. It has to start somewhere. I didn't expect the movie to start in the middle of the clone wars or anyplace too quick and exciting to follow. I completely enjoyed John William's wall-to-wall scoring of the film. Star Wars would not be the same without his musical contributions. I believe THE PHANTOM MENACE does a very good job at setting up the next two films in the series. I am dying to know how the Queen and Anakin get together. I am anxious to see how Palpatine becomes the Emperor and how Anakin becomes Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, destined to hunt down and murder all of the Jedi. [Will we actually get to see Mace Windu (A.K.A. Samuel L. Jackson) or Yoda fight in the next two films?] That is yet to be seen.

    George Lucas has, in my opinion, set another standard in the movie industry. The special effects in this film are incredible. Most of the time, I did not believe I was watching a computer generated Jar Jar Binks, or a CGI of the city of Coruscant. Perhaps this is Lucas's greatest contribution to the world of film. Not the Star Wars films, rather the technical wizardry needed to create masterpieces like Star Wars. Companies like Industrial Light & Magic, THX and Skywalker Sound are setting the standard in their various areas of expertise. Like it or not, George Lucas (who really started as an independent movie director) has worked hard and made a significant impact on the movie industry. To me, it is inspiring to follow his success story.

I agree with you, Brian. People seem to forget, or simply not notice, that the entire Naboo battle at the end of the film is all-CGI. The troops, backdrops, characters -- in a word, EVERYTHING -- is computer generated, and it is indeed an amazing achievement that is being lost in the shuffle with all of the various discussion about this movie that's going on. Viewers who complain about a lack of story seem to be missing the point that this film is the start of a trilogy -- and others who carp about the acting in relation to the original series are thoroughly off-the-mark. As much as I love the original STAR WARS (and prefer it to this film, obviously), I'll still take Natalie Portman over Carrie Fisher any day of the week.

Of course, not everyone agrees -- including Recordman!

From Mike Murray (recrdman@ican.net):

    Sorry Andy,

    It actually bored me for most of the film so that I found myself concentrating on the marvelous computer special effects to the detriment of the story. I've been avoiding reading any reviews of plot lines until I saw the film. I found myself feeling sorry for those few who were seeing this and had not followed all three of the previous films. It would be like coming in on a long running soap opera and not knowing the characters. I couldn't understand what that Jar-Jar character and his breed were saying at least half the time [IMHO no sound Oscar for that alone].

    I'm sure others have made some of the following comments [but I haven't seen them]. The space vehicle race which the young Anakin Skywalker wins was to me a direct up-date lift from the chariot race in Ben-Hur [with better crowd effects :-)] When the droids mass in formation to fight Jar Jar's people in the big fight, I was reminded of similar scene involving Pompey's legions in Spartacus. With the emphasis on the young Anakin and the Jar Jar character it was obviously geared towards the young audience, as perhaps it well should have been, Disneyfied. And I'm sure the young kids were suitably impressed, though how than ever they followed the plot line, is beyond me.

    I did enjoy it but probably for the wrong reasons. Visually stunning, but it actually somewhat bored me.

    Sorry, I just wasn't impressed with Williams' music. Best picture I've enjoyed lately was The Mummy, and I even liked the Goldsmith score [for a change].

Mike, as always your comments are well-respected and appreciated. However, in terms of those sequences you mentioned, I'm not entirely sure that they're "rip-offs" or "lifts" so much as they are homages to scenes like BEN-HUR's chariot race. (You can make the same claim about BRAVEHEART's battle sequences as you can about the Naboo fight in THE PHANTOM MENACE as well).

DVD Corner: That ALIEN Box Set and Anchor Bay Goodies

If you haven't ordered the remastered ALIEN DVDs from Fox Home Entertainment (due in stores today), you may want to splurge for the ALIEN 4-DVD Box Set since -- as mentioned here last week -- buying the box-set is the only way to get ahold of Sharpline Art's eagerly anticipated 68-minute documentary feature, THE ALIEN LEGACY. However, if you're a bit hesitant about the price, you'd be wise to do some internet shopping and knock a few dollars off that $110 retail price.

A quick comparison study shows that while internet vendors like Reel.Com and Ken Crane's are offering a sizable discount, the best buy out there is 800.com's $59.96 price (includes shipping). Again, I'm not affiliated with any of those sites but I did happen to buy the box-set from 800.com and have been informed the set is in-stock, and that's the lowest price out there for this set. (We'll try to get a review online for you next week).

Anchor Bay, meanwhile, has unloaded a sweet payload of genre flicks that fans of both Disney live-action and Hammer Films should find especially appealing.

While we'll look at the Disney releases next week, AB's latest triumvirate of Hammer epics includes THE VENGANCE OF SHE, PREHISTORIC WOMEN [SLAVE GIRLS in the UK], and THE VIKING QUEEN, all of which are highly entertaining in their own respective ways. Made during the mid-late '60s and sporting letterboxed transfers (only PREHISTORIC WOMEN was shot in an anamorphic process, however), the popcorn-munching B-quality of these films makes for ideal DVD viewing, and AB has included trailers and other extras on each disc, which retail for $24.95 a piece.

While THE VIKING QUEEN is good fun and PREHISTORIC WOMEN includes plenty of campy laughs (including one hysterically over-the-top score by Carlo Mantelli), the best of the batch is THE VENGANCE OF SHE. This 1968 follow-up to their 1965 success (which starred Ursula Andress and unfortunately is not a part of AB's catalogue) is, for a change, a relatively lengthy Hammer movie (over 100 minutes) that actually doesn't move at a snail's pace. Even more impressively, it includes all sorts of eye-candy -- the majority of which is provided by shapely Olinka Berova as a confused young woman who is lured into the land of the immortals by being brainwashed by ruler John Richardson, reprising his role from the original (and is dubbed throughout).

Among the highlights are a mellow, jazzy Mario Nascimbene musical score (with a title song that recalls "Tangerine"!) and an opening half-hour set on the French Riviera for no other reason than the filmmakers must have received a free trip for the occasion. Whatever the case may be, this is an appealing brew that will hold your attention from beginning to end, directed with more gusto than to be expected by Cliff Owen. Recommended escapist absurdity.

NEXT WEEK... NOTTING HILL and more DVDs. Until then, 'Nuff said!


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