Saturday, May 07, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar (1981): "The Lord of Time" (September 26, 1981)

In “The Lord of Time,” the third episode of Filmaton’s sci-fi/fantasy cartoon Blackstar (1981), a minion of the Overlord called a Time Lord -- where have I heard that title before? -- attacks the Trobbits.

In particular, the villain named Kadray uses his time scepter to revert the magnificent red tree to an acorn. Because the Trobbits “will be done for without the tree,” Blackstar attempts to prevent the Lord of Time from collecting the acorn.

Unfortunately, he fails on his first attempt, and the Lord of Time plans to drop the acorn into the fountain of fire: “a source of great evil” located in the Castle of the Devil Spirits.

“The Lord of Time” is a fun episode of this series that sees a minion of Overlord with an amazing power.  He can use his time scepter to send age or de-age any object.  He not only turns the Trobbit tree into a big red acorn, he evolves a Sagarian insect to turn into a giant, buzzing menace.  The episode is very creative in its use of the specter.

For instance, the Time Lord discovers that the Fountain of Fire is guarded b peaceful sprites who won’t do his bidding.  Therefore, he reverts them to a prehistoric form, as savage, cruel warriors who will do his bidding.  Quite a weapon.

The other intriguing element of this episode is that it attempts to imbue John Blackstar with a bit more in terms of distinguishing personality.  He wise-cracks a lot in this episode, which is new. “It’s time for a rewind,” he jokes.  Or “my how time flies,” he observes. 

While these moments may sound goofy, in fact they go a bit towards making him a larger-than-life hero.  In the previous two episodes I noted that Blackstar, while a great fighter, doesn’t have much personality or drive.  In fact, Mara seems a far more important “rebel” in “City of the Ancient Ones,” and “Search for the starsword.”  Through his bad punning here, Blackstar begins to take on some color, at least.

Next week: “The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Ming's Last Battle" (January 5, 1980)

We arrive today at Chapter 16 of Filmation's Flash Gordon (the last chapter of the series' freshman season). It's titled "Ming's Last Battle," and is written by Ted Pederson.

While Flash Gordon is frozen in suspended animation to be a witness at the (shotgun) wedding of Dale Arden and Ming the Merciless, King Vultan and the allies plot the final battle for control of the planet. In one hour, Vultan reveals from his restored throne, "the free people of Mongo" will "march on Ming's palace."

In Mingo City, Dale reminds Captain Erzine (Ming's right-hand man...) of Earth atrocities carried out in the name of "following orders" in hopes of stoking his conscience (a veiled reference to Nazism and World War II...).  This is entirely appropriate, given that the series’ first season is a recreation, on another world, of that conflict, with Flash acting as the Exceptional American, or Exceptional Earth Man, as the case may be.

Next in the story, Aura rescues Flash from his prison of ice.

At the same time, the war rages between Ming's fleet and the Hawkmen over Sky City. At the last minute, the others Allies show up to save the day.

Queen Undina (from Coralia...) arrives in the nick of time to help Flash and Aura destroy a mobile gun fortress, and Fridgia's Queen Fria turns the tide in air battle, delivering the necessary Orium power supplies to prevent Sky City from dropping out of the sky.

Alas, Gundar "the desert Hawk," Azura (the Magic Queen) and Tropica's Queen Desira are MIA. Which kind of stinks. We've spent fifteen chapters building allies, making new alliances and so forth, and it seems like this is the time for the reunion. Hope they don't get to share in the spoils once Barin is "regent" of Mongo.

Anyway, the final campaign for control of Mongo occurs in the ornate throne room as Dale and Ming are to be wed. Ming and Flash fight it out on ledges, in corridors, and on high city spires. Ray guns, flame swords and fisticuffs all get play.

Inevitably, Ming speaks the classic line "Now You Die!" I waited a dozen episodes for that bit of dialogue. In the climactic duel, there's a surprise and a shock and...well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?

Summing up the Flash Gordon experience: "So many strange many new friends."

And, just a teaser: the season ends (appropriately) with a kiss...

We'll pick up with Filmation's Flash Gordon season two next week.

The first episode “Gremlin the Dragon/Royal Wedding.”

Friday, May 06, 2016

Guest Post: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America Gets By With A Little Help from His Friends

By Jonas Schwartz

The more friends around Steve Rogers, the better. 

Chris Evans is a charming looker but his charisma level only goes so far. Both the previous Captain America films were my least favorite in the Marvel Universe, though Evans was quite compelling in both Avengers films. By surrounding him by more members of the team, the creators of Captain America: Civil War have smartly defused the actor's blandness with the more dynamic Robert Downey Jr, Paul Rudd, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Renner for a vastly enjoyable action/adventure.

One of Captain America's past nemeses leads him and his friends Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) on a death-defying mission to Laos. They disarm the villains but the collateral damage is devastating. The UN have decided an unsupervised Avengers is as dangerous as an uninvolved Avengers. It forces the team to sign a proclamation adding accountability to the superhero's actions.  Tony Stark (Downey) and James Rhodes (Cheadle) accept the flack as a necessary evil and sign, along with Natasha Romanoff (Johansson). Rogers believes that this resolution will cripple the good The Avengers accomplish and refuses to sign. 

The team members who were part of the Laos mission stand by Rogers. The line has been drawn and the tension only intensifies when a colleague from the past is, according to Rogers, wrongly accused. Roger has faith that his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), once brainwashed into being the murderous Winter Soldier, is now a good man and couldn't have led the terrorist act of which he's accused. Rogers protects Bucky, and the already volatile relations amongst the Avengers becomes an all-out war.

So many action films forgive the heroes a vast amount of collateral damage for the greater good. In the seminal Superman II, Christopher Reeve's character must have himself clocked hundreds of casualties while battling Zod in the middle of Metropolis. Though audiences would not hope that our Clark Kent would go to prison for mass murder when he was doing his best to stop megalomaniacs from destroying Earth, it always seems odd in this and other films like it that no one mentions the "oh well" attitude of major innocent deaths when a hero throws a villain through a building. Cleverly, Civil War brings this factor front and center. 

The world acknowledges that The Avengers have saved humanity on multiple occasions, but that being unchecked, they have also devastated cities and torn apart families. The film also shrewdly plays on the concept of guilt and justice vs. revenge. The Winter Soldier is an intriguing proxy for these themes.  Should a decent person being controlled by outside influences be responsible for his crimes?  Would destroying him regardless be considered justice or revenge?

Civil War's first act falters due to convoluted action scenes and cliché after cliché piled upon each other. Scenes, like one between a father and son at the UN, are so overwritten, they not only skywrite the foreshadowing but leave the audience with sore muscles from eye rolling. But once the team separates, both the writing and direction rise exponentially to a superior level.

Though they didn't write the film, Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who rose from several recent brilliant sitcoms Arrested Development, Community and Happy Endings, bring their sense of humor and genius for building camaraderie to the shooting script. The action sequences wherein teammate clashes with teammate are coherent, stirring and lead the audience to empathize with all the characters, no matter the side. 

By adding new members to the mix, Rudd's Scott Lang (Ant-Man) and Tom Holland's Peter Parker (Spider-Man), the Russo Brothers and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely revitalize the group's dynamics. Both Rudd and Holland add buoyancy and flippancy to the combat.

Downey continues to kill it as Tony Stark, both authoritative and egomaniacal in his dealings with his colleagues. Cheadle adds support as Stark's right hand, as does Bettany as his simulated sidekick. Evans is earnest as Rogers and passionate towards his causes. He seems more relaxed when not forced to carry the entire film on his shoulders.

Just as her character tries to find her place as a hero, Olson is still trying to make her Eastern European accent believable. Though she garners sympathy for her character, that accent needs to fade away. The antagonist character is puzzling and unconvincing in his motives, but as portrayed by the always dynamic Daniel Bruhl, Zemo is so captivating and methodical, nobody will care that his reasoning makes zero sense.

Though released under the Captain America banner, Civil War is truly Avengers 2.5 which is partially why it excels as a rowdy, rousing movie. The battle between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers becomes mythic -- Cain vs Abel/Javert vs Valjean -- not just an excuse to pit one franchise against another for no purpose than to make $862.9 million globally (I'm looking at you Zack Snyder and Warner Bros).

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Movie Trailer: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Mission: Impossible: "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" (1969)

A suspenseful game of Cold War chess, "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" gets my vote for the all-time best episode of Bruce Geller's Mission: Impossible (1966-1973). 

This third season installment -- originally aired in mid-January of 1969 -- commences with a close-up shot of Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) unlocking a small padlock to gain entrance to a secret location and receive his taped orders. 

The remainder of the episode involves how Jim unlocks the mind of his opposite number in a foreign intelligence unit: one wily and devilish mastermind named Stefan Miklos (Steve Ihnat). 

Specifically, Phelps must establish for the brilliant Miklos that a man named Townsend (Jason Evers) is still working for Miklos' government and is not, in fact, a double agent for the Americans, as has been suggested by another foreign agent, the conniving Simpson (Ed Asner). 

Why the con? 

Because Townsend possesses top-secret but false information that the U.S. government wants Miklos' government to believe and act upon.  

Therefore, Miklos must believe that Townsend is still trustworthy, along with his information. 

Yet in order to believe this carefully constructed-lie, Miklos must "discover" what he deems the truth himself. He must see through a carefully-constructed "frame" of Townsend that Phelps has painstakingly created.  His ego must be satisfied that he has arrived at the right conclusions.

Got that? 

Good...because "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" is almost impossible to explain in terms of language, yet perfectly understandable -- perfectly plain -- in the watching.

In large part this is due to director Robert Butler's frequent use of extreme close-ups and insert shots to highlight important narrative clues (an airport locker key, a passport, etc.).  

This is one reason I have always admired Mission: Impossible: because the series' creators always understood that television is primarily a visual medium and acted upon that knowledge. 

During the episode's opening briefing with Cinnamon (Barbara Bain), Rollin (Martin Landau), Willy (Peter Lupus) and Barney (Greg Morris), Phelps describes his foe, Miklos,  as "cold, calculating and ruthless," and a man with "no weaknesses, no flaws," thereby setting up the character as a truly worthy adversary; one quite different from the run-of-the-mill villains featured on the series.  

Miklos is a man quite expert at mind-games, one not easily led to a conclusion, so Jim must make certain his plan for Miklos is not too obvious...but also not so byzantine that he can't decipher it. 

To employ a cliche, it's a tightrope walk all the way.

The only way to defeat Niklos - a man "invulnerable" except "to himself" --  is for Jim to play on Miklos' own cunning; to manipulate his belief in himself and his abilities. To accomplish this, Jim and his team lead Miklos through a precise maze of small clues and have him think his way to the "right" (or is it wrong?) conclusion.  

Rollin plays Miklos, with Simpson.
Those clues -- also revealed in true M:I-styled economical, visual  storytelling -- involve small, simple things: a match-book, a painting and a small time discrepancy.

Each clue is surreptitiously offered to Miklos only once, but Phelps gambles on his enemy's photographic memory (shown as almost subliminal flash-cuts or freeze-frames in the body of the episode).

Phelp's only advantage over Miklos in this "sting"-type tale is the fact that one foreign agent (Simpson) has never seen another foreign agent (Miklos). 

Therefore, Rollin impersonates Miklos with Simpson; and then turn around and impersonates Simpson with Miklos. What brass!

Rollin plays Simpson, with Miklos.
This gambit -- with Rollin playing two roles --  permits series regular Martin Landau to craft two truly fine, very different performances: one aping the suspicious Simpson (Asner) and one mimicking the cool, brilliant Miklos.  

What's even more amazing about these tour-de-force performances is that Landau dances between them, back-to-back, scene-to-scene and -- again -- the viewer always knows precisely "who" Landau is supposed to be. 

It's terrific work, and Landau pulls it off with real joie de vivre. If you look at the two photos of Rollin featured in this post, you can see that Landau's face actually looks different when he's playing Miklos and Simpson, but no make-up or prosthetics are employed. It's all done in the way this actor carries himself.

The tension in "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" keeps spiking for two reason, primarily.  

The first involves split-second timing. Barney and Willy must get Rollin's photograph into a hollow statue base, taking out Asner's photo in the process. 

But Miklos is en route from the airport and arrives to pick up the statue (and the secret package inside) early...necessitating Barney speed up his delicate work (which involves cutting through a display shelf with a saw...).  Here the plan nearly falls apart. 

The matchbook of a left-handed man?
The second reason for suspense involves the fact that Jim's entire strategy hinges on the idea that Miklos is that "cool, calculating" mastermind, and not a man subject to whim or the vicissitudes of the moment. 

At one late juncture, Jim realizes how much is riding on his assumption about Miklos' character. 

"He's letting his emotion affect his reason," Jim complains. "He's never done that before. Maybe I was too clever. Maybe the matchbook and the painting and the time discrepancy were too subtle for him to pick up!"

Finally, Miklos does fall into Jim's trap. He sees through the carefully orchestrated frame job, and puts together the final three clues (the aforementioned match book, painting and time discrepancy.) He thus concludes that since someone is trying to sabotage Townsend, his information must be true...and accurate. 

Jim has led him to his downfall.

And finally, this is why this Mission:Impossible episode is such a classic.  Miklos -- his conclusion reached -- stops to experience a moment of empathy for his unseen, unnamed opponent (Phelps). 

"I wish I could meet the man that masterminded the operation," he says. "He played the game brilliantly, but he lost. It'll destroy him."

A watch set back a few minutes...

The irony here is powerful. Miklos doesn't know it, but he's actually talking about himself. 

He has arrived at the wrong conclusion (that the information belonging to Townsend is correct) and it will, indeed, destroy him. Miklos played the game well, but Phelps played it better.


What I adore about this moment, is that just as Miklos notes how "losing" will "destroy" his unseen nemesis, the episode cuts away from Miklos to a close-up of Jim

Yet Jim is not gloating or swaggering at having beaten his genius opponent. Instead, he is composed and there's sympathy evident on his face. He knows what Miklos does not; that Miklos is speaking about himself.

Game over and mission accomplished: Miklos believes the wrong man.

Jim also knows that there but for the grace of God goes he

It could have very easily been Phelps and the Americans who were "tricked" in such an elaborate covert operation. The roles might have been reversed. 

What the viewer thus detects of Jim Phelps in "The Mind of Stefan Miklos"  is this sense of respect for the opponent and for the game. But also Phelps' intrinsic humanity. He executed the checkmate perfectly, but he still feels compassion for the loser. He knows there are professional and personal consequences for the (brilliant) Miklos.

Moments like this -- told only with a silent expression on a chiseled face or through clever editing selections -- put truth to the oft-told lie that Mission: Impossible was a show just about the job, and never about the people doing the job. 

In "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" the viewer gains a clear sense (again through the careful visuals) of Jim's respect for his enemy, and also the jeopardy that Jim puts himself in every week to defend this country. The episode thus becomes very much about character. 

For Jim, this is not just an impossible's personal.

Pop Art: Mission: Impossible (TV Guide Edition)

Pop Art: Mission Impossible Novels

Video Game of the Week: Mission: Impossible (1988; NIntendo)

Comic-Book of the Week: Mission: Impossible (Dell)

Pop Art: Mission: Impossible Annuals

GAF Viewmaster: Mission: Impossible

Model Kit of the Week: Mission: Impossible (MPC)

Board Game of the Week: Mission: Impossible (Ideal)

Theme Song of the Week: Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

May the 4th Be With You: The Force Awakens (2015)

At long last, the anticipation is over. The hype no longer matters. The time for spoilers, fan theories, and trailers has passed. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is here, right now, on our movie screens.

And, it’s fair to state it’s a good film.

A good film; not a great one,

How do I make this particular assessment?

I’ll tell you. 

“I hope the movie is coherent, joyful (in J.J. Abram's words), and exciting.

I hope it has something to tell us about the world we live in today, while also transporting us to one of the most fascinating fantasy worlds of all time.”

I also wrote: “I hope The Force Awakens meaningfully reacquaints us with characters we love, and introduces us to new ones who are love-worthy and can carry the torch forward.

That’s it. That’s all I wanted. That’s all I needed to write a positive review in this space.

The movie didn’t need to be the Second Coming, or the best Star Wars ever. I just wanted those particular Christmas presents from it.

J.J. Abrams delivers on quite a few of those deeply wished for items, and deposits coal in place of a few others. But overall I like the film a lot. It’s a solid, if not particularly inspired foundation for the new trilogy to build upon.

I’m rather surprised that what The Force Awakens accomplishes well (and what it doesn’t do well) failed to line up with my expectations.

For instance, I would say that the film is indeed joyful, though not particularly coherent or exciting. 

Furthermore, the action scenes are shot in undistinguished fashion, and don’t build suspense in any careful or sustained way. The film’s major threat -- Star Killer Base -- is a rehash of a rehash that never feels like a significant threat, or even a fully-formed plot-point. The film's big villain, Snoke, is a bust.

Nor does The Force Awakens speak meaningfully about our world today, as -- love or hate them -- the George Lucas prequels definitely did. Abrams usually shies away from any kind of subtext in his work (the much derided Into Darkness [2013] is a stark exception), and so perhaps it is no surprise that this Star Wars pretty much works on a surface, soap opera level, and leaves it at that.

However, The Force Awakens does transport us back to the Star Wars universe with a lot of gusto and energy. That fact also seem undeniable.

Where I feel the film succeeds most --- and the reason why I say it is “good” -- involves my final laundry list of qualifications. 

The film very meaningfully, and touchingly re-acquaints us with characters we love, and it beautifully -- and very successfully -- introduces us to new characters who are worthy to carry the torch. 

Harrison Ford is amazing in this movie in his attempt to revive and deepen the Han Solo character. He delivers a great, affecting performance. He is the film’s most valuable player, by a long shot.

And that fact takes nothing away from the rest of the cast. The newcomers -- Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver -- are nothing less than terrific. The casting for the movie is great, and I can already envision great moments from this group still to come in the rest of the trilogy.

Given J.J. Abrams’ track record, however, I expected the film’s action to be achieved in more accomplished fashion and the treatment of the characters to be only mediocre, when in fact, the precise opposite appears true.

This Star Wars movie earns major kudos because of the characters, first and foremost. They resonate, and never feel like cartoon stand-ins for real human beings.

The reason to return to this galaxy far, far away in 2015 is, clearly, the people you meet there.

“There are stories about what happened.”

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, conflict still rages.

The survivors of the Empire have re-formed under a new name, The First Order, and under a new Leader called Supreme Leader Snoke. The Republic is reformed too, and the former rebel alliance is now a resistance force battling the Order.

Both sides seek to know the location of the last surviving Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who disappeared years ago, and whose whereabouts are unknown. 

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) sends a hot-shot resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Isaac) to the far-flung desert world of Jakku to recover a map revealing Luke’s location.

The First Order sends a sinister agent, Kylo Ren (Driver) as well. Dameron is taken into custody by Ren after giving the map to his droid, BB-8.  But he is freed from custody and torturous interrogation by a Stormtrooper who has rejected his training, Finn (Boyega)

BB-8 meets a wily scavenger, Rey (Ridley) and she takes responsibility for Dameron’s mission, a mission that brings her into contact with Finn, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the Force itself.

Now these new friends must get to know one another even as the First Order prepares to launch an attack with its deadly new weapon at Star Killer Base.

“I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people.”

I have lived long enough to see Star Wars re-use the same plot-line three times.

The assault on the Death Star (Star Wars), the second Death Star (Return of the Jedi) and Star Killer Base (The Force Awakens) all repeat key plot points. First, there’s a weapon that can destroy planets in an instant. Then there’s a sustained fighter attack on the base. And finally, there’s a weak point on the evil base that can be exploited during that sustained attack. In two of the three attacks, there’s also a shield that needs to be brought down by a ground-team during the assault.

The first part or movement of each Star Wars trilogy so far also features the youngster who is taken under the wing of an elder-statesman or wise-man. That wise-man -- as part of the hero’s journey -- must die before the story ends. Anakin loses Qui Gonn Jinn in The Phantom Menace. Luke loses Ben Kenobi in Star Wars. And Rey lose someone who fits that role in The Force Awakens.

And then of course, we have our young hero. This person lives on a backwater world (Jakku or Tatooine), and experiences a mundane life as a farmer, slave, or scavenger. Soon, however, the galaxy comes knocking on the door of that character (often in the form of a droid), and the hero's true potential and destiny is realized. Thus we have Anakin/Luke/Rey.

A couple of things we can consider here. 

The first is that each trilogy serves as a reflection of the earlier one(s). This is the grand saga of the Skywalker Family across three generations, and in each generation, the same events (attacks and deaths, as noted above, for instance), recur. If one accepts this line of reasoning then the repetition of similar events in The Force Awakens is intentional, and an attempt at a genuine artistic flourish, a sense that although the generations pass, the story remains the same. 

Another way to explain this is that although our generations pass, we keep looking to the same, unchanged mythology (especially in terms of the Monomyth) to understand our world. Star Wars keeps giving us new characters taking the same steps because the overall myth underlining the saga doesn’t change. It is universal, and eternal.

Another line of defense for the over-familiar plot-line is this. Star Wars has always been first and foremost a pastiche: picking out and harvesting plots, characters, and set-pieces from other Hollywood and non-Hollywood movies and literary sources. 

By now, Star Wars is actually a pastiche of itself, so a case can also be made that J.J. Abram has fashioned the whole 2015 film as a kind of tribute to the 1977 edition, deliberately sprinkling in familiar ingredients and plot points. And that’s why we get the new cantina (a poor reflection of the original, alas), and the McGuffin device of the Luke Skywalker map, which fills in for the Death Star plans of the original.

Yet by the same token, not one of these familiar plot points (with the possible exception of the death of the wise elder) is handled with enough flair or color to mask the fact that we are watching a very expensive narrative rerun, or hide that the plot has little or no originality, and thus little or nothing to offer in terms of real surprise.

By comparison, the final trench battle in Star Wars was exciting, but also tense. The scene was incredibly suspenseful and it was constructed like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Jedi’s Death Star battle was a shadow of the first in terms of complexity and tension, but the film’s frenetic three-way cross-cutting between the Emperor’s Throne Room, the battle raging in space, and the boots on the ground on the moon of Endor, nonetheless created a kind of fever pitch intensity. The final battle in this film is totally devoid of any sort of escalating tension or suspense.

At this point, it’s a foregone conclusion in a Star Wars film that the evil battle station will get destroyed with just seconds to spare before Princess Leia, C3PO and the rebel leaders -- standing grim-faced in their control room -- buy the farm.

The film’s other action scenes aren’t any better, and many of them are actually tiresome. Much of the action in the film involves endless battles with Stormtroopers as they get shot up and blown through the air in explosions.  The point, I believe is to show the practical nature of this Star Wars. Real people in costumes, in real locations, with real pyrotechnics. This is a rebuke to the prequels, I understand, but there is a sameness to all the action in this mode.

Indeed, many of the film's act action sequences seem interchangeable, set in long, poorly lit, gray and red corridors. 

I said I wanted coherence, above, and the movie doesn’t always satisfy on that front, at least in terms of visual coherence. 

For example, it isn’t always clear when Ren is on the ground base or in the star destroyer -- the sets all look alike -- and it similarly isn’t clear whether the Star Killer Base destroys Coruscant or some look-alike planet. 

Leia mentions the Hosnian System, but as far as casual Star Wars fans know, Coruscant could be in the Hosnian system, right?  I had to look it up on the net when I came home to see that Coruscant survived the film.  Otherwise, I was going to complain that Abrams apparently possesses some kind of mean fetish for blowing up canonically-important planets (see: Vulcan).

Even the light saber duel in The Force Awakens is not orchestrated in any sort of overtly memorable or suspenseful way we have come to expect; one that would suggest the outcome could be uncertain. 

In this regard, The Phantom Menace’s light saber duel is far superior. It is clever, indeed, to give us a fight between two (or three, actually…) untrained saber fighters in The Force Awakens, but as a result of the characters’ inexperience, the fight lacks any kind of visual distinction. It’s just people hacking and charging at each other in a picturesque setting.

Although Abrams occasionally lands on a memorable shot (like TIE fighters silhouetted against the glowing orb of a burning alien sun), there are very few compositions in The Force Awakens that stir the emotions, or ignite the imagination.

There is no equivalent here of that famous “sunset” shot, for instance; that moment of yearning in the original Star Wars. Even against 21st century contemporaries, The Force Awakens is a letdown in terms of its action and visualization. This film doesn’t have one-tenth the visual brawn of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), for example, which sustained a car chase for two hours, essentially, via dazzling cinematic chops.

What Star Wars: The Force Awakens lacks in spectacle, suspense and real adrenaline, it absolutely makes up for, however with a lot of good humor, sly banter, and strong characterizations. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher bring grace and charm to their roles. They don’t get a whole lot of screen time together, but they make the most of it, for certain. Fisher has less time to make an impact that Ford gets, but she registers strongly. Ford is fantastic in this movie.

It’s funny, but Harrison Ford’s persona in later years -- Air Force One (1997), even Ender’s Game (2014) -- is, well, kind of dour. I wondered if he could find the Han Solo within, after all this time away from the part. He sure as hell does. 

The interlude that involves his discovery of the Millennium Falcon, a smuggling deal gone wrong, and some hungry living cargo that gets loose aboard his ship is, in many ways, the high point of the film. 

Here, Ford performs the miracle of reminding us of the devil-may-care young Solo, while projecting, simultaneously, the idea that he has lived through all these years and adventures since the last time our paths crossed. And when later scenes require Ford to tread into trick emotional territory, he is also up to the challenge. He nails every nuance of the character.

It’s also great to see returning characters Chewbacca, R2-D2, and Admiral Ackbar, but the film’s best introduction of an old friend belongs to none other than C3PO (Anthony Daniels) who -- with typical lousy timing -- inserts himself into the middle of a Han-Leia reunion. This scene really made me laugh, and brought back memories of the characters as they interacted in The Empire Strikes Back. Like so many moments in the film, this scene is delightful.

The new characters -- Finn, Poe, Rey, Ren, and BB-8 – are also handled very, very well. There isn’t a bad actor or bad concept anywhere in the bunch. These new individuals all manage to come across as vivid and real personalities, with Ridley’s Rey being the obvious stand-out. She’s a real find. The camera loves her, and so, I suspect, will every fanboy (and girl) in the universe. Rey is strong and resourceful, independent and funny, vulnerable and tough, at the same time. I can’t wait to see her character grow over the next two films and I am glad she so capably takes center stage here. I look forward to Rey being the central character in this chapter of the Skywalker Saga.

The one character who didn’t work for me at all in the film is Supreme Leader Snoke. He is composed of (bad) CGI, and looks like uncomfortably like Lord Chaos from Skylanders, right down to his choice of wardrobe. I didn’t find him particularly menacing or interesting. He’s like a weird-place holder or something, until the trilogy’s real villain shows up, or takes center stage.  My son Joel insists we haven’t really seen Snoke at all, only his holographic image, and that the real Snoke will look quite different when we finally meet him in the flesh.  I hope so, because I couldn’t take him seriously in this guise. Of all the characters, he is the one who transmits as a cartoon, a parody of the kind of villain we would expect in a Star Wars film.

Finally, I should add that The Force Awaken’s climactic scene packs a punch, in part because of the location shooting, in part because of the return of another major, beloved character. This is the best filmed scene in the movie, and will be a great leaping off point for Episode VIII. It feaures the visual coherence or poetry that the remainder of the film seems to lack. It is also, finally, suspenseful.

The Force Awakens is an entertaining and solid Star Wars entry, and that’s what I hoped it would be. I was satisfied with the film on many fronts while feeling that -- much how I felt about The Phantom Menace -- there is also significant room for improvement as the saga continues. 

The Force Awakens is a good beginning to the third Star Wars trilogy, but it's not the greatest show in the galaxy. 

As the nostalgia and hype wear off, people will begin to see this film and its values and deficits more clearly, I believe.  

May the 4th Be With You: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Revenge of the Sith (2005) finds the Galactic Republic embroiled in a Civil War with Separatists. Indeed, "War" is the very first word that appears in the film, on that famous yellow crawl.

Chancellor Palpatine (in office long past his term...) has been captured by the Separatists, and after an incredible space battle, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) board the craft of General Grievous and Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to rescue him. During the mission, Anakin slips towards the Dark Side by letting his vengeance get the better of him with aan act of murder urged on by Palpatine.

Meanwhile, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) reveals that she is with child, and this revelation terrifies Anakin, for he has been experiencing terrible visions (like the one about his mother, in Attack of the Clones.)

He fears that Amidala will die in childbirth and feels impotent to prevent this grim fate. Angry and feeling powerless Anakin seeks out the tutelage of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who tells him that there are ways to save Amidala, if only he explores the Dark Side of the Force.

Eventually, feeling he has no option, Anakin succumbs. He betrays the Jedi Order but in doing so, no longer remains the man that Amidala loved. On opposite sides of the war now, Obi Wan and Anakin duel, and Obi Wan wins, leaving a hobbled, burned Anakin to die on the side of a volcano on the planet Mustafar.

While the Galaxy slips into darkness and an Empire is born, Amidala dies of a broken heart after giving birth to the twins, Luke and Leia. Anakin survives, but is now more machine than man, locked into a mechanical suit -- a cage -- and re-named Darth Vader.

In 1755, Benjamin Franklin wrote "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." 

That is the essential idea at the heart of Revenge of the Sith, both in terms of the Republic, and on a more personal level, Anakin himself. And, in the tradition of all great art, this is a message that relates directly to the times we live in.

What has happened to the Republic? Well, to face a grave and gathering threat (the Separatist movement), the Senate voted for the creation of a "standing" clone army to fight evil renegade Count Dooku. In thousands of years (and presumably having vanquished many other threats), the Republic never required such an army, but rather was safeguarded by the noble protectors of peace, The Jedi Knight.

But now?

Fear-mongering often makes people make bad, rash decisions.

The first chip away at individual liberty in the Republic thus occurs when the Senate sacrifices the principles it has honored for so long, and puts a huge military force under the control of one man, the Chancellor. 

Then, by appealing to the Senate's sense of patriotism, the Chancellor is given further "Emergency Powers." He remains in office well past his appointed term, and then -- claiming an assassination attempt -- alters the structure of the Republic in the name of security. Now, he tells the Senate to "thunderous applause," it shall be a strong and safe Empire...but committed to peace.

This is how -- as Amidala says -- democracies die. The scared masses practically beg a "strong man" to protect them.

And he does. As he says to Darth Vader: "Go bring peace to the Empire." Alas, it is the peace of subjugation; the peace of oppression.

There are a number of interesting factors about this set-up that relate directly to America in the last several years (the time the prequels were made and released). 

The first thing to consider is this: we saw in Phantom Menace exactly how an Emperor began his ascent, chipping away at democracy a piece at a time. A Dark Lord and his allies, using the technicalities of the law removed the Supreme Chancellor (Valorum) from office, consequently gaining power for themselves. 

They did so by claiming that the Senate's bureaucracy had swelled to unmanageable and non-functional levels -- an anti-government argument -- and that Valorum himself was a weak man beset by scandal. The antidote was a self-described "strong leader," someone who could rally the Senate and get it to work again, someone like, say Palpatine. In other words, a man was chosen to replace a flawed leader, a man who could restore "honor and dignity" to the Republic.

In real life, of course, George W. Bush ascended to the Presidency, after the scandal-plagued Clinton. And after the attacks of 9/11, cowed Americans willingly accepted a massive new surveillance state with the passage of the Patriot Act.  And Bush had this to say to the World on November 6, 2001:"You are either with us or against us" in this war on terrorism.

In May 2005, George Lucas explicitly put the following words into Anakin Skywalker's mouth: "If you're not with me, you're my enemy."

And Obi-Wan's rebuttal? "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." 

Clearly, George Lucas has crafted Revenge of the Sith as a direct rebuke to the path America took post-9/11. Those who whine and cry that there is no such political message here are advised, simply, to grow up. You don’t have to agree with the message.  You don't have to like it.  But to deny its presence here is infantile.

What is clever and artistic about Lucas’s metaphor is not merely that it is timely (and frightening), but that Lucas tells his story on two parallel tracks. Fist, in terms of sweeping galactic governments, and second in personal, individual terms. Anakin goes through the same journey personally that the Republic citizenry undergoes on a wide scale.

Consider that he too is "terrorized," or rather, the victim of a terrible attack. Not necessarily by the Separatists, but by the Sand People on Tatooine. They kill his Mother. That loss hurts him deeply, and he pursues (mindlessly) his revenge against the agents who hurt him.

But then Anakin begins experiencing visions that he will also lose his beloved wife. So, like the Republic itself, Anakin willingly exchanges freedom and liberty for safety and security. He surrenders his golden ideals and turns to the Dark Side because he fears more "attack;" he fears the loss of his family.  He does not heed Yoda's warning that "fear of loss is a path to the dark side."

Thus Anakin is a follower. Might as well be a clone.

Anakin is prone to this weakness early -- as we can tell from his discussion on Naboo with Amidala in Attack of the Clones -- when he notes that a Dictatorship would make things easier, and thus prove preferable to democracy. Indeed it would be easier, which is why some Americans so gladly, to this day, accept the idea of a Unitary Executive.  But why would we give up our own paper, and hand it to someone else?

Only fear can make us do something so stupid.

For all his skills as a pilot and a warrior, Anakin is a weak-minded individual who would rather follow than lead; rather cede individual power and freedom to a dictatorship than make the hard decisions that go hand-in-hand with a democracy. 

Again, Anakin's path is a metaphor for the American populace in the post-9/11 milieu. When attacked, the first thing we do is scream for the government to protect us. We allow the Patriot Act to pass, and don't complain. We allow habeas corpus to be suspended...and we don't complain. We permit the Geneva Conventions to be violated...and we say nothing. We essentially become mindless, quivering "robots,' victims of politically-timed "Terror Alerts."  In other words, we all become Darth Vader: mechanical shells of our former selves, one now obedient to our Master. What remains of us appears humanoid, but functions mechanically and automatically; doing what is ordered.  Fear has programmed us to surrender our freedoms.

And when does Darth Vader/Anakin finally reject the Emperor? 

When his family is threatened...again. When it once more becomes a personal matter for him. He turns on his master not because it is the right thing to do, not for the ideals of democracy, but because he has been ordered to murder his son.

So the journey of Darth Vader is the journey of us. Anakin/Vader is explicitly a reminder of what happens to citizens when they cease to be rational; when they become so fearful that they trade away liberty for safety.

What remains so commendable about Star Wars, and in particular Revenge of the Sith is that George Lucas has given us a story about our times, but he has done so utilizing the language of mythology. There is no "Abu-Ghraib" episode; there is no "post September 11" mentality. There is no obvious metaphor for Islam and sleeper cells (spelled C-Y-L-O-N). On the contrary, Lucas has shown us that a galaxy far, far away holds much in common with what has occurred in human history; and what is happening now. It's all vetted on a symbolic level, not an obvious one.

Consider that the Star Wars films are about - over and over again - man's battle against the "dark side." Unlike many fans who respond to the films on a somewhat superficial level, I don't see that battle necessarily as occurring with light sabers, blasters and spaceships, but rather inside the human soul.

First Anakin, then Luke Skywalker is tempted to fall before darkness, to give in to hate and fear. The father does so; the son does not (at least in the OT).

But the movies repeat these themes (from one trilogy to the next), because that's humanity's constant battle. I can apply that battle to the context of post-9/11 age, and you can see how so much of it fits together, but you can also apply the films to other historical periods and cultures. The Rise of Fascism in the 1930s, for example.

That's why Star Wars resonates so much on a simple storytelling level. It's not just about "here and now," but rather man's perpetual struggle to fend off despotism. Revenge of the Sith tells us that people would give up any cherished right, just to feel, temporarily, “safe.”

It's no accident that so much of the final film's imagery is Hellish in color and dimension. Anakin and all those cowards who gave up their freedom for safety will dwell in that Hell of their own making.

Revenge of the Sith, to its credit, features a strong sense of inevitability. We know where it is headed, obviously, and yet are still shocked by the rapidity of the Republic's fall, and the regime change. This tidal wave of inevitability, which brings us right back to the beginning of Star Wars, is the film's greatest strength.

The film's first half-hour is its greatest weakness. Here, as if Lucas can't quite commit to Anakin's fall from grace (another reference to Hell, in a way...), we get a sustained action sequence in space and aboard Grievous's battleship. This set-piece is pacey, beautifully-filmed, and involving.  And yet, one can't help but feel the time would have been better spent on Anakin and Padme, and their feelings for one another, the feelings that, finally, cause Anakin to spiral to the dak side.

The film's  best scene, unequivocally, involves the Emperor's recitation of the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise.  This scene is fascinating in terms of the saga's history, in terms of the Emperor's back story, and in terms of the Sith.  It is absolutely riveting.  So many fans seem to hate the prequels, and yet I read constantly on the Internet these days speculation about Plagueis.  Clearly, this scene and its story of the Greatest Sith, works brilliantly. It is a foundation for a thousand speculations.

Finally, I love the film's great (largely un-discussed) punctuation or irony. Anakin goes to the dark side to discover immortality for those he loves.  He never finds it there.  But Yoda, and Obi-Wan, thanks to Qui-Gonn, discover that very immortality on the light side of the force (as we see demonstrated in A New Hope). 

Had Anakin stayed true -- and had faith in his friends (in democracy?) -- he might have had the very answers he so desperately sought.