Movie Review #364: Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones

A reminder that mistakes of the past can still be corrected

By mitigating the errors done in Episode I, such as the noticeable drop in Jar Jar Binks’ screen time, Attack of the Clones manages to distance itself from the lone bad entry to the Star Wars franchise and at the same time becomes more associated with the original trilogy.

Replacing a race car scene with a cheesy romantic story arc isn’t a huge improvement, but at least I it felt more necessary and important. There is a sizeable improvement in Natalie Portman (Amidala) and Ewan McGreggor’s (Obi-Wan) acting; and the addition of Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker served as a catalyst for me to connect more with their characters. As we inch closer to Episode IV, the plot becomes more intense and while most already know what happens eventually, there’s a bonus nostalgic element to the movie that made me enjoy it much more.

The resurgence of Master Yoda which I have grown to like also delivered this time around. And while he may not be his former (or eventual) funny self, his action moment was no doubt one of the highlights of the whole movie. As more lightsabers are used and the display of the Force become more powerful, it becomes more fun and fortunately ‘fun’ is what represents Episode II.

GRADE: B

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Movie Review #363: Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Paves the way for future installments, sacrificing itself in the process

Let me just get this clear: Jar Jar Binks is no Chewbacca. He is a joke of a character that insults the intelligence of new and old Star Wars fans alike. He is neither funny nor interesting and it saddens me that George Lucas resorted to this to propel the story forward. Because no matter how fantastic the visual upgrade was compared to the original trilogy, its weak narrative prevents the film from joining the ranks of its predecessors.

The Phantom Menace is a filler movie. It establishes a foundation that eventually paves the way for the next two episodes that will bridge the gap between the old and the new. But in the process it becomes a sacrificial lamb. It’s almost as if Lucas wanted us to lower our expectations so that we would be able to enjoy the rest. It’s a big-budget mess that serves as a grim reminder of how visuals are recently prioritized over great storytelling. I found less importance watching the whole thing. After all, it’s not as if we didn’t have a clue of what was going to happen.

As for its characters, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) is the most charismatic. Obi-Wan (Ewan McGreggor) and Queen Amidala’s (Natalie Portman) youthful energy are refreshing, but I didn’t really connect with them as much. Jake Lloyd’s portrayal of young Anakin was much better, but is offset by a rather stale CGI Yoda. Plus there’s Jar Jar, who plainly tips the scale towards the unfavorable.

I have only recently seen this despite being released 12 years ago. The echoes of online fans had me doubting it from the start, but I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Coming in with low expectations, I was still quite disappointed. All things said and done, it’s unequivocally worse than any Star Wars film made before it.

GRADE: C

Movie Review #362: Star Wars Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi

An acceptable ending to a groundbreaking trilogy

It’s a simple case of too high expectations working against it. After a very solid sequel, Return of the Jedi just couldn’t muster enough surprises to be as memorable as its predecessors. Instead we get a revisit to the Star Wars world, which is not as amazing as before though still has enough entertainment to keep you satisfied to the end.

Imperfections of practical effects mar the opening of the film where the screen is mostly occupied by non-humans. A big (pun intended) example would be Jabba the Hut, which wasn’t really as convincing as Yoda was in terms of believability. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why George Lucas decided to release the prequel trilogy much later, to better suit his artistic vision.

This installment doesn’t add much to the franchise, but I would be crazy if I told you to skip this after having invested so much into this universe. It wraps up the historic battle between good and evil quite nicely but is also the weakest among the first three episodes created by Lucas. The trio of Hamill, Ford and Fisher still bring in the charm and humor we’ve grown to love from them, but none of them had any praiseworthy moments that really took it to a heightened emotional level.

GRADE: B-

Movie Review #361: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Everything its predecessor did, it did better

This is what you hope for in every sequel. Empire Strikes Back transcends the franchise to even greater heights in all aspects, especially on an emotional and visual level. What I found lacking in A New Hope this movie corrects: More interaction among the main cast; new worlds are explored and the action turns more intense; questions are answered and the epic ending leaves viewers clamoring for more.

I was hoping for some character development, and my prayers were answered. The trio of Luke (Hamill), Han (Ford) and Leia (Fisher) give better performances this time around and their chemistry works like a charm on screen. Han Solo was my favorite, but in a weird way I also enjoyed the antics of Chewbacca and the robots. The adversary was also more evil and powerful than ever. This was the first time I took Darth Vader seriously and his terrorizing use of the force just makes him even more of a popular antagonist.

It’s evident that the budget was increased and it was utilized very well. With practical effects we get Master Yoda who looked surprisingly animate and I was impressed with his facial gestures, not to mention his funny personality which is a huge comic relief. The set design improved significantly and is more noticeable than the scenes from outer space. This added level of detail gave me a better appreciation for the setting, which ultimately increased my enjoyment while watching the film. The movie just did so well in adding value to the franchise without forcing itself to be better that there really isn’t much to complain about. The only problem they have to face now is how do they move on and top what they’ve already accomplished. That remains to be seen, at least for me. And I’m very excited to see how it all concludes.

GRADE: B+

Movie Review #360: Dark Shadows

A Burton film with an identity crisis

Dark Shadows is no doubt a dark film, but it’s a cross-breed of comedy, horror and drama that never quite blended well. And it seems as if Tim Burton himself didn’t know what he was making. From the surface it looked promising – with the team of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green and Chloe Moretz front-lining, it seemed that no matter what script you hand to them a movie would turn out great. It turns out that despite their admirable acting the inconsistent tone and weird plot got the best of them. All things in place it’s simply a ho-hum film, never really engaging you despite having an interesting story and characters with unique and fascinating personalities.

GRADE: C+

Movie Review #359: Epic

Animation that wows is the highlight of this adventure.

Set in an undetermined area is Epic, a family friendly, nature-centric pic filled with lots of humor and beautifully integrated animation. Not much can be praised about its story, but it holds its ground well enough to keep things afloat.

The animators were very inventive in making the characters seem one with the forest. There really was that wow factor all throughout the film, especially during fight scenes where you get to see poisoned arrows rotting parts of the tree when it makes contact or leaf men parachuting down towards the enemy. The visuals were seamless and is worthy of being watched just because of that.

Comedy is what also saves this film from being another dull feature: Epic packs a wallop! It’s lowbrow humor more than anything else, but there are so many good ones you won’t even notice the awful. Most of these are offered by a slug and a snail voiced by Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd, a one-two punch that won’t even let you recover. They pretty much stole the show and sometimes were even better off being the focus because the main characters felt too restrained and lifeless. It’s ironic that the animals felt more human than the actual humans, but with Christopher Waltz and Jason Sudeikis providing their voices, it’s a bit difficult for Amanda Seyfried and Josh Hutcherson to stand out (also, anyone who wouldn’t notice Beyoncé’s voice must be crazy). I don’t necessarily think dubbers have to be known actors, as they seem to be a bit distracting sometimes and it works against the animated film.

The extended cast helped expand the story; however it also became a weakness as I wasn’t able to connect with the main cast more that I wanted to. The lack of focus did not improve character development and it could be attributable to a weak script. But despite some poor material I believe it’s still a solid film thanks to what I’ve mentioned above. Its funnier when watched with friends based on experience and most likely you’ll also have a better time in doing so.

GRADE: B

Movie Review #358: Friends with Benefits

Begins on a high note then gradually stumbles to the bottom

Romantic comedies these days follow a similar trajectory: it gets good to bad to worse. Is it forgivable? Due to its formulaic plot, maybe, but it needs to have a couple with good chemistry and enough allure to keep you invested into watching their relationship unfold. For the most part, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis achieved this. But the ending simply left a sour taste in my mouth that made me forget how much fun I had watching the early stages of their romance.

Anyone expecting soft porn and full frontal showing will be disappointed. It’s no doubt the selling point of the film, although the movie seems eager to hide the ‘essential’ parts during sex scenes, despite the R-rating. This is not what you’re getting, so don’t expect it and find some other things to enjoy.

The Timberlake-Kunis tandem is entertaining. They’re both decent actors who occasionally can pull off good performances. They may not have been at their best in this one but they succeeded in squeezing out the wit and humor from the script. They even tried to save the film at the end, but unfortunately to no avail. I don’t want to spoil much, but let’s just say some realizations should’ve been made by a character way earlier. The result of what happened rendered the conclusion less believable and ineffective, at least for me. If you offset the good and bad things found in the film, it boils down to just another average rom-com that can be as easily picked up as it is left untouched.

GRADE: C+