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Aisle Seat EPISODE II Review

Plus: RAMBO Trilogy Special Edition and VANILLA SKY on DVD

By Andy Dursin

At one point in STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (**1/2), Jedi Master Yoda feels the anguish of Anakin Skywalker, and describes his turmoil by using adjectives like "pain" and "suffering."

He could have added boredom and disappointment to the list, since this second installment in George Lucas' prequel trilogy is a talky, muddled mess of political intrigue and outer-space saga, bogged down by a cliched love story and pedestrian script barely a cut above "The Phantom Menace."

At the center of the trouble is the leaden Hayden Christensen as the now grown Jedi apprentice to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor again in a relatively thankless role), sent to protect now-Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) after an assassination attempt nearly claims the former Queen of Naboo's life.

Set a decade after "The Phantom Menace," a separatist movement headed by an ex-Jedi -- the mysterious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, basically playing the same role he did in "Lord of the Rings") -- threatens the stability of the Old Republic, with the overwhelmed Jedi Knights trying valiantly to keep the peace just as the Dark Side begins to manifest itself.

Despite not yet being a full-fledged Jedi, Anakin is placed in charge of Padme's safety, which naturally causes a problem since he's a cocky, arrogant young man with a major crush on the ex-Queen. While the two retreat to a summer hideout on Naboo, Obi-Wan attempts to find the man responsible for the assassination attempt -- a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), who turns out to have been the model for a Clone Army constructed at the request of a long-deceased Jedi. The two stories intersect at the end for a non-stop succession of action scenes and special effects, none of which are especially fresh or all that much fun.

Alas, that latter sentiment is the main problem with ATTACK OF THE CLONES: the energy level, the plot, the romance -- none of it comes together. The last 30 minutes aside, most of this Star Wars effort is spent in tiresome, seemingly endless conversations establishing the political backdrop for what will be the rise of the Empire, and the pseudo-classical love story between Anakin and Padme. The film is wrapped up in its own mythology in a way that none of the earlier films were (not even the relatively unpretentious "Phantom Menace"), and it completely lacks the "gee whiz" energy level present in not just its predecessors, but also the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the '30s that inspired the whole series.

Since Star Wars has never been known for its witty dialogue in the first place, you can imagine what kind of trouble ATTACK OF THE CLONES is in when there's more of it here than in any previous series entry. Lucas and Jonathan Hales' script proves unconvincing when addressing Anakin's growing dark side, and includes a handful of moments (particularly when Anakin visits Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his mother) that -- when combined with Christensen's lifeless performance -- prove embarrassing to watch.

In a way, it's downright sad that -- considering Lucas had likely every young actor under the age of 30 interested in the part -- the filmmakers chose to cast Christensen, whose limited range and stilted dialogue readings take whatever emotional charge the script might have had and deflate it like a lead balloon. The scenes in which Christensen has to emote -- and all of his scenes with the more confident Portman -- simply don't work, failing to make us care about the character or understand the inner-conflict he's going through. At one point, I thought that even "Dawson's Lightsaber" (i.e. casting James Van Der Beek in the role) would have been more satisfying, just as Christensen's unintentionally funny outburst about wanting to be "The Best Jedi Knight Ever" made more than a few audience members giggle in their chairs.

That said, it's not entirely Christensen's fault. The story, as written, doesn't quite work, either: there's just too much talk and not enough action. Lucas once again throws some in-jokes our way, but his insistence on grander and more elaborate backdrops -- sets achieved through the razzle-dazzle digital technology he so proudly boasts of -- doesn't resemble the original films at all (and wasn't the point to evoke the surroundings of Episodes IV-VI more in this film than the last one?). Sure, some of the settings are impressive, but many resemble matte paintings drawn on a PC, and none match the Italian backdrop that was actually used for the Naboo sequences -- one of the only "real" locales present here.

Aside from Christensen, the cast fares as well as can be expected given the limited range of their roles. McGregor turns in solid work as Obi-Wan, though I'm still debating whether it's just the script or his lack of screen charisma (at least in a leading role) that's to blame for the part simply being not that interesting -- it's just hard to imagine this Kenobi turning into the legendary, war-tattered warrior that Alec Guinness portrayed in the original films. Terrible dialogue aside, Portman seems more comfortable as Amidala here, and certainly could have made the love story work if she was acting opposite a more convincing leading man. The rest of the cast is OK but has little to do but stand in front of a blue screen: Ian McDiarmid briefly reprises Palpatine, Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu gets to participate in the movie's climactic melee but that's about it, and Jimmy Smits has a tiny role as Bail Organa, a part one imagines will be of more importance in the next go-around. C-3PO and R2-D2 turn in some comic relief, but it comes across as forced, as if Lucas knew the story needed some laughs somewhere but wasn't quite sure how or where to do it.

Regrettably, John Williams' score turns out to be the disappointment some thought it would be after hearing the soundtrack album. As previously discussed on FSM.com, countless cues are haphazardly edited in the film, with what sounded like tracked material from "Phantom Menace" even played during the film's climax. The redundant chase music gets a workout not only during the Zam the Assassin sequence at the beginning, but also in the conveyor belt chase at the end -- something that leads one to believe that music editors played mix 'n match with Williams' original cues.

That problem aside, the score isn't particularly inspired to begin with (as evidenced by the lack of thematic material), and the repetitive, HOOK-like "Love Theme" fails to send chills up the spine the way so many of the composer's past romantic melodies have. I never thought the day would come when Williams' music didn't stand on its head to support this kind of film, but his ATTACK OF THE CLONES score simply doesn't rise to the occasion.

Despite all of the complaints, EPISODE II remains intriguing, though that's mainly due to its connection with the Star Wars universe that we all know and love. It does boast some fun moments, especially at the end when Yoda wields a lightsaber in a frantic and wickedly edited confrontation with Dooku, but it's too little, too late -- the movie needed that kind of energy during its first half, never mind the last half-hour.

Although "The Phantom Menace" had its detractors, I admired its energy and sense of fun -- the way it set the table for the rest of the series to follow. ATTACK OF THE CLONES should have been a film probing the inner-psyche of Anakin Skywalker and how he begins to turn to the Dark Side just as he finds love with Padme. With Christensen's performance and Lucas and Hales' script unable to elevate the material to the level it needs to be successful, we're left with a purely technical exercise that seldom resembles what we've come to love about that galaxy far, far away. (PG)


New On DVD

VANILLA SKY (**, 135 mins., 2001, R; Paramount, $29.98): Tom Cruise is in nearly every scene of "Vanilla Sky" -- Cameron Crowe's American remake of Alejandro Amenabar's overpraised "Abre Los Ojos" -- and that should tell you something about this overheated relationship drama/sci-fi thriller that suffers from all of the same ailments that plagued Amenabar's original Spanish version.

Cruise plays a pretty boy magazine mogul who falls for gorgeous Penelope Cruz at the same time his jealous, long-time sex partner (Cameron Diaz) decides to commit suicide with Cruise along for the ride. What happens thereafter is difficult to describe without giving the entire film away, but it involves Cruise's possible disfigurement (or does it?), his murder of either Cruz or Diaz (or both?), a possible corporate takeover of his magazine, and a virtual reality company that intrigues not just Cruise but also psychiatrist Kurt Russell.

If you haven't seen Amenabar's film, VANILLA SKY offers few surprises, incorporating almost all of "Abre Los Ojos"' plot twists and developments as they occur. For a while, the film is fascinating, but as it unravels -- with so many outlandish plot revelations thrown at the viewer -- it becomes harder to stay with, with Cruise's memorable line "what the $&#! is going on?" a rallying cry for the audience as well. In the American version, Crowe slings some humor at the viewer, as well as a handful of pop culture references (from album covers to film references), but if anything, they serve to further clutter the already-tangled story, particularly for those who didn't see the Spanish film.

Cruise has a tough part in VANILLA SKY, having to convey a wide range of emotions and anchor the story at the same time. While some of his improvised sequences come off as being a bit excessive, more often than not Cruise does as well as expected given the improbable nature of the story. Cruz plays the same role she did in the Spanish version but seems more relaxed here, while Diaz is effective in an atypical bad-girl role. Russell's shrink, however, never fully conveys the ersatz "father figure" that Amenabar's counterpart in "Abre Los Ojos" did, and comes off as one of the film's weaker elements.

Paramount's Special Edition DVD includes some excellent special features, namely an introductory segment shot by Crowe for the DVD, as well as a 10-minute segment that follows Cruise, Cruz, and Crowe around on the film's whirlwind worldwide press tour. These sequences, narrated by Crowe, are interesting to witness as you rarely see filmmakers reaching out to the home viewer the way Crowe does here.

Other extras include two interesting trailers that illustrate the challenge the studio had in selling the film to the public, a solid commentary track with Crowe and composer/wife Nancy Wilson (incorporating a pre-recorded Cruise conversation), a music video, and an interview segment with Paul McCartney culled from Entertainment Tonight, of all places.

Visually, the 1.85 transfer is good -- with John Toll's atmospheric cinematography lending a strong assist to the film -- and the 5.1 soundtrack easily one of the best I've heard recently. There are passages in the film when the surround channels are specifically employed to represent Cruise's mounting anxiety, and the sound mix is outstanding when called upon to do so.


RAMBO TRILOGY SPECIAL EDITION (Artisan, $59.98, available May 28): Whenever you think of big-time summer action blockbusters, the name John Rambo instantly comes to mind. After all, Sylvester Stallone's Vietnam vet/super-hero single- handedly ignited the whole run of gargantuan '80s action films with RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, which became a mega-blockbuster in 1985 and set the standard for many an idiotic-yet-gleefully-entertaining carnage epic that followed.

Artisan first released all of the original RAMBO films on DVD a couple of years ago with audio commentaries and various documentary featurettes. Unfortunately, the 16:9 enhanced transfers left something to be desired, and the compressed 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks were even more problematic, failing to do justice to Jerry Goldsmith's remarkable scores.

The bad news is that -- if you owned those DVDs -- you're going to have to buy them all over again, since Artisan has remastered all three titles as part of a dynamite RAMBO TRILOGY SPECIAL EDITION box-set. The good news, at least, is that the transfers are a substantial upgrade on the old discs in every way, with sharper DTS/Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks and new documentaries on each disc justifying the price for fans.

As far as the movies themselves go, easily the best of the bunch is Ted Kotcheff's 1982 introduction to the Rambo character, FIRST BLOOD (***1/2), which is lower-key and far more believable than the comic-book shenanigans that followed in the bigger- budgeted -- yet less entertaining -- sequels. Here, Stallone plays Rambo as a disgruntled vet who drifts into a Pacific Northwest town overseen by a dictatorial sheriff (Brian Dennehy, in an excellent performance capturing both the character's antagonistic yet sometimes sympathetic traits). The two come to blows, but Rambo ultimately escapes from the sheriff's clutches and hides out in the woods, where Dennehy and company are treated to a display of Rambo's incredible survival skills and self-defense tactics.

Based on the novel by David Morrell, FIRST BLOOD is a great action flick. Stallone's Rambo isn't so much a killing machine but a survivalist, which Dennehy's team (including a young David Caruso) learn first-hand as Rambo dismantles the authorities one by one. William Sackheim and Stallone's script is well-written and allows Stallone, Dennehy, and Richard Crenna -- as Rambo's sympathetic Army colonel -- the ability to flesh out their characters while simultaneously enabling Kotcheff to carve out some terrific action set pieces.

FIRST BLOOD was written in the early '70s and was originally developed for a handful of actors and directors -- from Steve McQueen to Sam Peckinpah and Sydney Pollock -- as it passed through Hollywood development hell. Finally, in the early '80s, it fell into the lap of future Carolco heads Andy Vajna and Mario Kassar, who intended for the film to star Stallone and Kirk Douglas (in the Crenna role of Col. Trautman). Promotional campaigns (seen here) vigorously promoted Douglas' starring role, but after being on the set for a few days, the actor insisted on extensive script revisions and the filmmakers reluctantly showed Douglas the door.

The film's intriguing behind-the-scenes history is discussed in an excellent new documentary included on the FIRST BLOOD Special Features. Recent interviews with Stallone, Kotcheff, Crenna, and producers Vajna and Kassar are included, along with author David Morrell, whose excellent commentary track from the previous DVD is reprised here. There are even still-photos of the film's original ending (where Rambo dies!), though it's disappointing that the actual footage of the discarded finale wasn't included.

Visually, the new 2.35 transfer (16:9 enhanced) easily trumps the earlier DVD right from the opening credits. The picture is crisper and clearer with less grain, and the aspect ratio looks better composed as well. On the audio end, the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital tracks show their age, but they're more than acceptable and have far more of a presence in 5.1 than they did on the earlier 2.0 DVDs (though the DTS track has a warmer sound than its Dolby counterpart). Trailers and production notes are also included.

Though a favorite of action fans and a financial blockbuster, I've never been a big admirer of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (**1/2), which takes Rambo, turns him into a one-man wrecking crew, and accentuates all of the outlandish comic-book elements inherent in the material while abandoning reality altogether. The James Cameron-Stallone script (from a Kevin Jarre story) sends Rambo back to Vietnam to rescue a handful of living American POWs still interred in prison camps.

With credibility and the strong characterizations of "First Blood" thrown out the window here, RAMBO II is a silly guilty pleasure all the way, sustained by Jack Cardiff's widescreen cinematography and another marvelous Goldsmith score. The maestro's kinetic action cues are stunning and represent some of his strongest work written during one of his most productive periods (the mid '80s).

The movie's no-brain script notwithstanding, Rambo nevertheless became a cultural phenomenon thanks to the film, and that aspect of the character is addressed in another strong new documentary with recent interviews with the cast and crew. Trailers and production notes round out the release, which includes another substantially improved 2.35 transfer and more active 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks.

The recent developments in Afghanistan and the world post-9/11 have given the somewhat underrated RAMBO III (**1/2) a reason for rediscovery.

The troubled 1988 sequel (and box-office under-achiever) has Rambo venturing into war- torn Afghanistan in a one-man attempt to find Col. Trautman, who has been captured by the Soviets. In the Stallone-Sheldon Lettich script, Rambo allies himself with Afghan freedom fighters as he tracks down and wipes out the Russians -- a story line that was already dated by the time the movie was released (with the U.S. and Russia having established a diplomatic line of communication), and is, of course, even more dated now, since the kind of freedom fighters portrayed here ended up becoming part of the Taliban regime many years later.

As purely a piece of action filmmaking, RAMBO III is certainly no worse than its predecessor and is actually an improvement in terms of pacing. Russell Mulcahy ("Highlander") was the film's original director but was fired a few days into shooting, replaced by then-newcomer Peter MacDonald. Despite the friction behind the scenes, and some haphazard editing (which does no favors for Jerry Goldsmith's heavily-truncated score), RAMBO III is still solid entertainment, a nice farewell to the character and an unofficial end-of-an-era for one-man-wrecking-crew, '80s action filmmaking -- a genre that would be altered, and revived, with the release of "Die Hard" a few months after RAMBO III's opening.

The 30-minute new documentary on RAMBO III is excellent since it not only touches upon the logistical nightmares of the film's production, but also the historical aspect of the setting -- featuring interviews with historians and professors, all of whom discuss how the 1988 film relates to Afghanistan in 2001. One professor talks about how none of the movie's Afghan accents are realistic, while there's some enlightening discussion about how the film's Afghan protagonists would have fit into the Taliban some time later.

The remastered 2.35 transfer is, once again, a marked improvement on the earlier DVD effort, and the 5.1 DTS/Dolby Digital soundtracks are the best of the trilogy due to the movie's more modern sound design. Alas, because of the film's constant editing, many of Goldsmith's cues are either inaudible in the movie or were cut altogether, with tracked material from RAMBO II popping up in a few scenes.

The metal-plate packaged RAMBO TRILOGY box-set includes a bonus fourth disc, basically comprised of all the shorter featurettes that Artisan included on their earlier DVD releases from 2000. The booklet notes include chapter stops for all three films, along with new liner notes from author David Morrell. Each disc includes trailers and a worthless pan-and-scan transfer on the DVD's flip side.

Retailing for $60, this is an excellent package highly recommended for buffs, but if you're on a budget, each of the three films is available separately for $20.


NEXT WEEK: More DVDs, more of your comments. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. 'Nuff said!


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