The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Dark Humor and Despair of the “Old West”

      I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lewbowski” are some of my favorite films of all time and I love the desolation and farcical nature that is brought to so many of their dramas. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is certainly up there with those films, but doesn’t quite reach their level of perfection. Lately they’ve been doing more collaborations but this is wholly a Coen Brothers film as they wrote, produced and directed this film.

    “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a Western anthology that follows the tales of the gunslinger, the thief, the conman, the prospector, the cowboy and the bounty hunter. Each story is haunted with tales of death and destruction as all are faced with choices told in a storybook fashion. The name of the anthology also is the name of the first story within the anthology itself.

I’m judging each story individually before an overall take on the whole, since though they are each connected in theme, it is still an anthology film.

SPOILERS ahead

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the happiest of the tales, as even though death and destruction happen, Buster Scruggs always has a song on his lips and his sheer joy rubs off on the events throughout the story. The story follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) the Gunslinger as he goes about from town to town, taking out people who challenge him. It finally all comes to a head when the Man in Black finds him and it is the duel he finally loses, that brings his story to an end. This one was great as a musical and I love Tim Blake Nelson’s energy as Buster Scruggs. He is fun and funny and even though is willing to kill always treats people as a good person first and always has a song on his lips. This is what makes his death tragic, but he does get to go to Heaven and gets angel wings, so his story isn’t entirely tragic…especially compared to the stories that come up later.

Score: 9.4 / 10. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is great and if we’d had more time with characters it could have been a perfect Musical Western.

Near Algodones

This story is comparable to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in how absurd it is, though it differs in that it doesn’t have the joy of that story. This is a story of desperation and lack of luck where every situation leads to a worse one. The story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who is attempting to rob an isolated bank. He fails and is about to be hung by local law enforcement, when some Native Americans attack and leave him to die. Another band of thieves takes him and and they are caught and brought to town to be hung. This is the young cowboy’s second hanging and the one where he finally dies. This was the story that made me wish we’d gotten the Native story in these tales. They are all from the perspective of the privileged old west, which does have intriguing stories, but the Natives are only ever antagonists or in the case of this story, indifferent. Some of that tribe’s story could have been explored in this but instead Franco’s character just takes the long way around to finally getting hung.

Score: 7.5 / 10

Meal Ticket

This story was by far the most haunting and probably my most favorite. There are two characters, the Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his actor Harrison (Harry Melling). Harrison doesn’t have arms or legs and performs speeches and Shakespeare as the Impresario travels through towns to make money. We don’t know how they came about together but we soon see how little the Impresario doesn’t care about Harrison at all leading into a tragic ending, where the Impresario buys a chicken who can do basic math and it is implied he drops Harrison into the river. This is after Harrison has stopped bringing in the money he once did. Liam Neeson plays the Impresario and is wonderfully creepy. He reminds me of a much worse version of Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver” and seeing just how much he disregards Harrison is powerful as well as Harrison’s fear as Harrison only acts through his eyes and the acting he puts into the shows. This story is all about exploration and despair and how powerless the only good person (Harrison) is in a world that sees him as a burden or something to be exploited. It is a tragedy and easily the best story of the bunch.

Score: 10 / 10.

All Gold Canyon

“All Gold Canyon” is a film focused on the beauty of nature and the ravings of an old prospector (Tom Waits) searching for gold in the wilderness. I really enjoyed this story as so much of it is Man v Nature as the prospector goes through the process of finding gold flakes and eventually hitting the gold but finding himself attacked by a young man who was watching him as he is no longer facing the wilderness but facing the selfishness of humanity. He ends up killing the man after he outsmarts him and buries him in the small hole he created in his search for the gold. It is a really great story with the only problem being how distracting the CGI deer is. There was no reason not to use a real deer given how beautiful the landscape is and the owl looked real at least. If there hadn’t been the deer and bad CGI this story would have been perfect for what it was. I was rooting for the muttering prospector who talks to himself, I wanted him to find the gold and I was happy when he did and survived.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Gal Who Got Rattled

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the weakest of the stories and brings everything else down. There are far too many characters, none of them are really likable or interesting and it has nothing profound to say and lacks a coherent point. The story follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling west with her brother to marry. Her brother dies along the way and we learn she’s been conned and now doesn’t have any money. One of the cowboys falls in love with her and that goes nowhere, and later she is with her brother’s dog when they are attacked by Natives and she ends up killing herself when the leader of the caravan says she should do it cause it is a better fate than getting captured. This one has the same problems as “Near Algodones” in how the Native Americans only exist as a threat and also in that we never get to really know any of the characters. They are doing things but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. This story is cinematically beautiful, but when that is the only thing I’m saying as a pro, you kind of failed.

Final Score: 6 / 10

The Mortal Remains

“The Mortal Remains,” is also one of the best stories of the bunch. This is a story that has an element of magical surrealism to it as for a good portion of the film I thought all the characters might be dead. The story follows 5 characters in a carriage on their way to Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. The conversation unfolds as we learn about our characters and their relationships. From an old religious lady who is coming to see her husband, the Frenchman who says that her professor husband was probably cheating on her, a trapper who has no internal editor and is looked down on by the lady for how unclean he physically is and the Irishman and Englishman who we learn at the end are Bounty Hunters. There is an heir of foreboding through the entire conversation and outside it is dark and covered and mist, this made me think of the afterlife and if they were all being transported their. The fact that the carriage doesn’t stop until they reach Fort Morgan played into this. We see this theme in the hotel they stop at has a stairway of light leading up that the bounty hunters carry the dead body up and in the carriage driver whose face we never see and is always moving. My favorite characters were the bounty hunters as the others with them were a bit bland. We learn their backstory but they are more interesting in how they reacted to their situation and the bounty hunters. Their fear and not knowing what to do made them more compelling than the backstories they shared, which made the story work.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great. Would have been better with more interesting characters outside of the bounty hunters.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is well worth your time if you are a Coen Brothers or western fan. This film captures so much of what works and doesn’t work about westerns and I loved the absurdity, detachment and sorrow that the Coens bring to their films. This is a beautiful anthology and I would have watched more stories if it had been longer. When it is great it is perfect and when it is flawed it is still enjoyable. Not many anthology films can claim that, as average is easy. This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites, though it might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year. This year is a year of steep competition and the things that bring the anthology down are enough to keep it from landing higher up on the list of greats this year. Still, this is a film I highly recommend. Check it out.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The bad stories bring it down, though the great stories make this score still very high.

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Batman Begins (2005): The Power Behind Overcoming Fear and an Amazing “Batman” Film

Batman Begins poster

    “Batman Begins” is a great start to “The Dark Knight Trilogy” and a solid film on it’s own. Nolan could have lost the rights to make more of these films and this would be the best of the “Batman” Films at this point. Nolan creates a world that feels lived in and captures the noir feel of Batman as well as integrating the more fantastical aspects of Batman’s backstory into something more believable. This is supported by a strong score that Zimmer and some absolutely brilliant performances. There is very little wrong with this film.

      “Batman Begins” it was directed by Christopher Nolan who also co-wrote the screenplay along with David S. Goyer. The film was produced by Charles Roven, Emma Thomas and Larry Franco.

   The story involves the death of Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) parents and his leaving Gotham city to get training in order to take on the criminal world. This leads his meeting Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who trains him to become a member of the League of Shadows, which he rejects leading to his return to Gotham and becoming Batman. But all is not as it seems.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography in “Batman Begins” is beautiful. The world is full of shadow with light used to illustrate the characters and creatures who make up the dark. Whether it is ninjas in the League of Shadow’s fortress or the criminals who inhabit the Gotham underworld. Wally Pfister did a fantastic job.

The Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard created a beautiful score for this film. It manages to capture the darkest points for our heroes and also their highest or most epic moments. From Batman calling in the bats for reinforcements…to anything related to the League of Shadows or Scarecrow. The main theme is also glorious and anytime I hear it I remember this Trilogy.

The Writing – The writing is fantastic, David S. Goyer when working with Christopher Nolan as a collaborator can actually tell a great story. The fact they pull from great stories like “Batman: Year One” and others helps. They pull from the best and make it fit their own universe.

The Characters – The characters are the strongest part of the Trilogy and “Batman Begins” is a great introduction to all our heroes, giving them arcs that mean something as they explore and reveal different parts of themselves and of Batman in their relationship with him. The only downside are some of the one-note antagonists, but I’ll get into them further down.

Lucius Fox – Lucius Fox’s arc involves his rise of power within Wayne Corporation again as he sees the big picture and uses cast off Wayne Tech to help Batman mount his fight against crime and the underworld. He saves Batman and the city by coming up with an antitode to the League of Shadows’s fear gas they use on Gotham and that Scarecrow uses on Batman. Morgan Freeman is great too and gives a lot of humor and depth to the character as he knows what is going on pretty early on when Bruce comes to him.

Carmine Falcone – This guy is a great baddie. He owns Gotham and it takes Bruce Wayne leaving Gotham in order to find a way and training to defeat him. Even after he’s arrested he only falls when Scarecrow shoots him up with fear gas. Before that point, Falcone didn’t fear anyone or anything and you had to respect the guy. He got the underworld and his tough talk with Bruce before throwing him out really illustrated just how thoroughly he owned Gotham and how broken the city is. Tom Wilkinson is really good in the role.

Alfred – Michael Caine is an awesome Alfred! He is the one who brings wisdom to Bruce and is someone Bruce can throw his ideas off of. He’s also Bruce Wayne’s only connection to his family and past as so much of his Batman self is his living of an idea where he has no room for personal connection because there is only the mission. Alfred brings him back down to Earth and centers him.

Sgt. James Gordon – Gary Oldman is amazing at Sgt. James Gordon! This is the first film version of Gordon that is actually explored as a character as we see he is the one who comforted Bruce as a child and like Batman strives to live by ideals in a world that is broken. He doesn’t rat on his friends but he doesn’t take mob or anyone’s money. In this way he is able to make change and it is in working with Batman his vision to help save the broken city helps come about as he is promoted, showing his ideals were heard. He is the reason Ra’s Al Ghul is defeated too as he destroys the train that was carrying Ra’s and the weapon.

Scarecrow

Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow – Cillian Murphy truly owns the role of Scarecrow and I get why Nolan kept bringing him back to be in later films. In this we see his rise to the most powerful (his institutionalizing of Carmine Falcone) but later see he is just a puppet of the League as he only sees power and holding the city ransom. This isn’t the whole story though as he gets pumped full of his own fear gas by Batman (revenging for nearly killing Batman with it earlier in the film) and this leads to him going fully mad and becoming the Scarecrow. He escapes the cops and Batman and is missing at the end of the film, showing just how resilient he is.

Ra's Al Ghul

Henri Ducard / Ra’s Al Ghul – Ra’s Al Ghul is smart at hiding himself as he presents someone else as himself to Bruce Wayne when he is training Bruce (to be a possible replacement in the long run, in the short run to destroy Gotham) and becomes Bruce’s mentor and friend. In the end he can’t even bring himself to kill Bruce and opts to give Bruce the same treatment he received as he burns down Wayne Manor and leaves Bruce under a burning log. This is a character I couldn’t help but respect as I got how someone who had been through so much could come to believe that you can only save civilization by destroying it so that people can see the full corruption and plant a new way of being. Neeson’s performance also lended a lot of empathy to the role.

Bruce Wayne / Batman – Christian Bale makes a great Batman and I like the idea that he is only Batman and Bruce Wayne is a mask, even though it gives his Bruce Wayne identity and overly artificial feel sometimes. In the context of Nolan’s universe he really works because he is the ideal of Batman so there isn’t much room for the Wayne identity beyond enough to create cover for the vigilante and the true self that is Batman. His Batman manages to be both threatening, charming (jokes that don’t break the tone of the film) and real as we see just how new he is at this role and how far he’s come since his exile. His arc is going from one based in revenge akin to “The Punisher” to that of one based in a code of Justice where fear should help stop threats and the law should still rule.

Becoming Batman – From the scenes with Alfred discussing the idea, from the finding of the Batcave below Wayne Manor and finally working Lucius Fox to make the costumed identity…all of this is gold and some of my favorite parts of the film.

To Defeat Fear – One of the running messages and themes of the film is the confronting and defeating of fear. In all cases it is seeing that the bottom and falling is not that end and that every time you stand and face it you can defeat it. All the moments in Ra’s Temple really illustrate this well.

Batman’s Rule – “Do not kill.” This is what sets Batman apart from most vigilantes and most film versions of Batman have ignored this rule (as later broken versions of him don’t follow this rule). I’m glad Nolan brought it back as his striving for this role sets him apart, even from most of our Marvel heroes who kill without a problem. He strives for this, even if he doesn’t always succeed and that is commendable.

The World – The World is an amazing one, which is why I’m giving it it’s own section. We get to see a modern day take on Gotham, what the League of Shadows would do in the modern age (economic war) as well as the type of tech. Batman would need tech. that was used by military contractors to do what he does. I also like how powerful the mob is in this world and the fact that there are so many different players. It makes the politics of this world and Gotham fascinating.

Okay: Rachel Dawes – Katie Holmes is okay. She largely focuses as a plot device for Bruce Wayne to get beyond his “Punisher” mindset and to seek justice and a higher ideal than revenge…and besides that she is the love interest, but it never goes anywhere. The fight against the League of Shadows and Bruce Wayne against himself and his fears is much bigger.

Pacing – “Batman Begins” can be slow at times. Sometimes this works, so I’m not putting it at as a con…but it can be a con sometimes depending on your state of mind. This is a film to watch fully aware and if you are tired you most likely won’t enjoy the film. It takes time to meditate in scenes and characters and I know that isn’t everyone’s thing. It is also the reason for the pacing issue.

Okay / Cons: One-Dimensional Side Antagonists – There are only a few of these guys, and they are a stock Nolantype. Any large scale movie he does will have some of these characters I’ve realized as they are an easy way to show our protagonist(s) having victories.

Commissioner Loeb – Loeb is against Batman but we never get the reasons beyond him stealing the light from Loeb’s city. I never got Loeb’s anger which is a shame as fighting Batman and his relationship with Batman via Gordon’s actions could have been explored a lot more. Instead he is another faceless antagonist.

Detective Flass – Flass is just a stooge to show how corrupt the Gotham Police Department is. He is a bully and there is no depth to the character.

William Earle – The guy is just a corrupt CEO whose motivations we never learn of beyond power. He is a plot device to be defeated by Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne.

     Besides the issue of pacing and the more one-dimensional antagonists connected to Bruce Wayne and Batman this movie is untouchable. The world that Nolan creates is one that feels lived in and corrupt enough that it would create a vigilante like Batman who would seek to right the wrongs within it. I also appreciate Bruce Wayne’s striving for virtue in all of his choices. This is something that is never an issue in any of the films before this. In this he takes seriously his rule of “Do not kill,” even if he doesn’t always succeed in that. Bale’s Bruce Wayne fits this role where Batman is his true self and Bruce Wayne is merely a mask he presents to the outside world. This fits Nolan’s style of writing and direction where exploration of ideas and how characters inhabit those ideas creates the story worth being invested in.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10 A nearly perfect adaptation.

“Batman” in Film – Upcoming Reviews

Batman Symbol

     After the “Disney Marvel Franchise Adventure” I figured it was time to return back to DC and to visit the area of DC Comics where the greatest amount of live action films have been good…so Batman, which seems to be the only thing that DC live action can seem to get right some of the time versus their other heroes which have either not been tackled beyond television (Flash, Green Arrow) or have even more bad films to their name (Green Lantern, Superman). Batman is the only one has enough live action films to really show a range in quality that can give a full illustration of what keeps bringing us back to this amazing character.

     I’ll be staring with the Adam West “Batman” from 1966, going through Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” as well as doing “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin” before I get to Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy.” I’ve already reviewed “Batman v. Superman” but will include it when I get to rating the different takes on Batman and rating all of the Batman films as a whole from Worst to Best.

    This is going to be quite an adventure and also a change of pace, which should be good. Batman is one of my favorite parts of the DC Universe and I can’t wait to see the Affleck’s solo flick if it comes together. This is a character who speaks to human vulnerability and strength better than nearly any hero in comics, which is why there has been so many films made about him.

   Many of these films are my favorite and some are some of the worst to come out of cinema. Suffice to say this is going to be a fun reviewing adventure and I look forward to hearing your own thoughts on the films that are reviewed and the final ratings at the end.

Darkman (1990): A Masterpiece Exploring the Transformative Nature of Revenge

Darkman

    “Darkman” is a fantastic film and really gave me a huge appreciation for Sam Raimi’s work outside of the first two “Spider-man” films. This is a film that has depth to it’s characters, fascinating villains and a protagonist who is one of the more original to be created in fiction. Darkman is a character who changes over the course of the film and his creation is tragic, which lends strength to the story’s narrative and kept me watching.

     Sam Raimi directed the film and wrote it along with Chuck Pfarrer, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin and Joshua Goldin. It was produced by Robert Tapert.

    The story involves Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) who is scarred when Durant (Larry Drake) the mobster attacks his lab to steal a document his girlfriend Julie (Francis McDarmond) was planning to use to explore city corruption. He survives the experience and goes underground becoming Darkman and seeking revenge against the mobsters who killed his assistant and scarred him.

The Pros: The World – The world reminds me of Gotham with there always be darkness and smoke over everything and the mob being in bed with big business as they pretty much do a takeover of the city. It makes sense why Darkman isn’t an idealistic hero, this city has no room for idealism.

The Transformation – The transformation is dark and powerful as Peyton is dropped into a vat, has his arms burned and loses his ability to touch. This leads to him getting super strength and also making him mad.

The Cinematography – Bill Pope did an amazing job on the cinematography. The scenes are clear and there is great use of shadows and light to give the tone of the world and our characters. This is a dying city.

The Soundtrack – Danny Elfman did a fantastic job on this soundtrack! His haunting score captures the horror of what Peyton Westlake goes through and captures how his desire for hate and revenge transforms him.

The Characters – The characters are all solid and have reason behind what they do, even the villains who would be lesser under different direction and actors.

Louis Strack Jr. – Is the corrupt billionare who wants to rebuild the city with the stolen money from the mob. He’s ambitious and was a man who came from nothing. He is also smart too and figures out when Darkman has taken the identity of Durant to get close to him and to rescue his girlfriend. He is tough to beat and his words about Westlake losing himself are proven correct. Colin Friels did a good job.

Robert Durant – Durant is the mobster who has a pretty great team. He works for Strack and is the man who nearly kills Darkman on multiple occasions, once when he is still Westlake and he kills Westlake’s assistant, the second when he targets Darkman’s hideout. Larry Drake was great.

Durant’s Minions – The minions are a lot of fun. One of them is a curly haired nerd, another has an artificial leg that works as a machine gun (and is used to kill a rival gang at the beginning) there is the muscle who looks like the Kingpin and the brains who survives until the end.

Julie Hastings – Frances McDormand is awesome! I really liked her in this where we see her see past Westlake’s appearance even when he can’t…and the fact that she was the one trying to reveal the corruption in the city. She’s a great character and I wanted to see more of her in action.

Peyton Westlake/Darkman – Liam Neeson is a wonderful hero. As Westlake he plays an eccentric mad scientist who is a strong empath and who loses all of that when he is burned making him a man who lives only for revenge. He is lost in it even as he is able to get his face back due to him being a scientist creating artificial skin…in the end that can’t change how his actions of revenge against Durant and Strack have changed him. In the end he becomes Bruce Campbell and disappears into the crowd knowing he can only be the avenger as his humanity is lost.

How Revenge Transforms – In the beginning Westlake is holding onto who he once was, but when he goes to Hastings in the pouring rain she runs away and fear and he sees his appearance and blames that and not the fact that he couldn’t speak, from here he seeks revenge and we see how the manipulation and his anger come to consume him to the point that he reacts at a a Carnival and attacks a man, which later leads to him going underground as he fears what his anger will make him do to good people like Julie.

   There really isn’t much that can be said that this film does wrong. It has a unique feel and flavor to it, our characters change over time and have to make choices that advance the plot, and in the end it sticks to the tragic tone as Westlake is forever alone when he realizes the person he has become is a danger to everyone. The only reason I didn’t give it 10 is I wish Strack had been less slimey and that we’d gotten more time with Julie doing her job before the transformation. Regardless, I highly recommend it and find it to be one of the best superhero films I have ever watched. I am going to be checking out more of Raimi’s work later. I really like his style.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) – An Unfocused Mess Ruined by Child Actors and Comedic Relief

The Phantom Menace

    Before I say anything specific about “The Phantom Menace,” I have to admit now that I’m not looking forward to “Attack of the Clones” and can fully understand why George Lucas lost the rights to “Star Wars.” I wanted to like this film, it’s “Star Wars” after all and a part of my childhood, but nothing can save this mess of a film and script. No amount of nostalgia can change the bad ideas that lead to the creation of certain characters and how they were portrayed and this film is easily a net negative versus net positive neutral in overall quality.

     The film was directed and written by George Lucas and produced by Rick McCallum.

     The story involves the Trade Federation blockading Naboo to force a treaty that favors their monopoly leading to Chancellor Valorum sending the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to resolve the dispute. Manipulations of the Sith soon complicate things leading to the Jedi on the run as they seek to protect the Queen (Natalie Portman) and save Naboo.

The Pros: The Universe – The Old Republic is fascinating and there is so much we could have been shown instead of told. The Republic is corrupt and the Sith are clearing manipulating a lot behind the scenes but we don’t get any of that…we don’t even know how the Trade Federation really works and they are the main antagonists besides the Sith. Still, a lot of good ideas here just poorly executed.

The Soundtrack – It’s John Williams, you can’t go wrong with the soundtrack and even with very crappy dialogue and characters we still have a soaring score that works really well, especially in the fight with Darth Maul.

Qui-Gon Jinn – I actually liked this character. He is very much the maverick and a bit of a sociopath in how he manipulates others but it makes him compelling. I wish we had gotten more on why he clashed with the Council and the reason behind his focus on the prophecy. He is very much the chaotic monk and it makes him a lot of fun. Liam Neeson does a great job too. I actually cared that Darth Maul killed him and I wish he’d done something about the slave trade on Tatooine as the Council was clearly doing nothing.

Darth Maul – Darth Maul is wonderful and really should have survived this film. He has the same threatening feel as Vader did being the Emperor’s dragon and keeping him around would have given the chance to grow his threat and establish him as the corrupting influence on Anakin and even Obi-Wan. He is the enforcer and a truly terrifying character with an awesome character design. I know he was brought back in the “The Clone Wars” but he deserved that same chance in the films as the mystery of his character gives so much to explore.

Palpatine/Darth Sidious – The guy is surrounded by idiots and manipulates them so well. From setting up Padme to call the vote of no confidence leading to him becoming Chancellor to never revealing his intentions and remaining cypher so he can use all the factions of the senate. Ian McDiarmid is fantastic and is one of the interesting characters in the films as it really is about his rise to Emperor.

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Ewan McGregor was a great casting choice for young Obi-Wan and we see echoes of who he will become as he is cautious and tends to go with the Council versus Qui-Gon who could care less. In this we already see the Lawful Good Jedi Master he will become. He is also cold in his own way too as he talks about how Anakin should not receive training to Qui-Gon in front of Anakin…so he isn’t prefect and we see how his duty to the Council and Qui-Gon is why he decides to become Anakin’s master in the end. He also avenges his Master and is the one to defeat Darth Maul.

Okay: Tatooine – The Pod Race is cool but useless in the end as they could have found another way since all they had to do was get in contact with the Capitol, though we do get some good exploration of Padme, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon at least.

Padme – She’s a cipher and she doesn’t approve of a lot. In the end she makes peace with the Gungans and is shown to have humility (learned from the Jedi?) but that is about it. She’s okay as a character but not great.

The Cons: The Jedi Council – These bland folks are not fleshed out at all and are oblivious to the corruption around them. It’s a sad state but we are never able to fully see just how corrupt and inept they are because they are heroes simply for being Jedi. I hated Windu and Yoda in this as they are just tools who fail to see past the Temple and never send any help out even when they know a Sith is probably going to be on Naboo. They are useless.

The Senate – The Senate like the Jedi is useless as we see that everyone is either a tool (Valorum) or a manipulator to their own ends (Palpatine). Like the Jedi they are a useless organization and how they got that way is never explored at all.

Naboo – Naboo is a blank slate as the Gungans are just aquatic rabbits and the people are people we never interact with or see. We hear about their suffering and dying but never witness any of it. We have to take everyone’s word on things when we have no reason too given the corruption established in the opening credits.

Midi-Chlorians – The force is not physical, Yoda establishes this in “The Empire Strikes Back,” I remember that and I haven’t watched the film for years. The very existence of these things cheapens the force and turns Anakin into “The One” which misses the point of the force being something that binds “All” of us together and is always with us. If only special people have it, than it ceases to be what binds us together it becomes something no more than genetics.

Anakin Skywalker – I’m sorry Jake Lloyd, but you can’t act. His lines all fit the “perfect child” syndrome that is a problem in a lot of movies and making him “The One” gives him plot armor enough to destroy a Droid Base in space when he’s never flown a ship before…and it all happens by accident! If he’d been a young adult at least there would be the excuse of him having experience from delivering stuff for Watto or the huts like Luke got experience playing with his friends.

Jar Jar Binks – Comedic relief and bad comedic relief at that. There is no point to Jar Jar as he is there for fart jokes, poop jokes, his stupid voice and mannerisms and trying to appeal to kids. Yet he is made core to the plot! He hooks up with Qui-Gon and is there through the entire film distracting from whatever is going on and making scenes worse. There can’t be a serious tone when Jar Jar is around so it makes all the other threats moot. This idiot was made core to the film which was one of the worst decisions George Lucas made. He gives nothing to scenes and only makes them worse as his jokes break the tone, his mannerisms and voice are incomprehensible…and yet he is made to be one of the heroes alongside the Jedi…

The Ending – Anakin destroys the reactor and there is peace on Naboo. The only interesting thing that kind of works is Obi-Wan adopting Anakin as his apprentice and the final fight with Maul. The Celebration at the end doesn’t mean anything because the people of Naboo are invisible to us. We never saw their struggles only heard about it. The planet was nothing more than statistics.

The Writing – The writing was the biggest problem. From having Anakin be a child, to Jar Jar being core to the plot and from the motivations of the Trade Federation, Senate and Jedi being big giant question marks. No one’s motivations are clear except Obi-Wan and Palpatine which is sad given how large the cast is. There is so much that could have worked if this script had not been written George Lucas as his world is compelling, “The Clone Wars” and “Clone Wars” are living evidence of this…but not so for “The Phantom Menace.” When George Lucas wrote and directed this story he killed whatever promise there was with a lot of poor writing and directing decisions.

    Anakin should have been a teenager already or Luke’s age, Midi-Chlorians should have never been a thing and Jar Jar should not have been in this film and Obi-Wan should have been the character we were following with Qui-Gon along as a rogue Master. If these things were done this film would have actually been good, even with the stilted dialogue as the circumstances of these changes would have forced a greater exploration of the world like the corruption of the Senate and the ineptness of the Jedi Council. Instead we got very bad comedy and mostly uninteresting characters in a world that didn’t feel lived in. The CGI isn’t the problem I remember, the problem is the script and the character choices that were made. You take away those things and we would have had a good film where what happens in the film would have felt real, had stakes and in the end, meant something. I get why Disney owns “Star Wars” and George Lucas no longer does. The choices made in making this film are ample evidence that George Lucas clearly had no idea what he was doing.

Final Score: 5 / 10. 50%, the reason it isn’t lower is because of Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmond and the fact that Darth Maul was used very well as a Dragon.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005): Redemption and a Secular Society as the Road to Peace

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        “Kingdom of Heaven” is a great film! I’m at the point now where with historical films…I know there won’t be a truly historically accurate films, but how goes the story and how well is it capturing the world of our characters? I’d say on these counts “Kingdom of Heaven” captures this wonderfully. This film is also a good “Spot that ‘Game of Thrones'” character. I must say Ridley Scott does know how to do Epic as well as personal and this film manages to do both really well.

     The film was written and directed by Ridley Scott and produced by William Monahan.

      The story involves Balian (Orlando Bloom) seeking redemption in Jerusalem and the Crusade after the suicide of his wife and his learning from Baron Godfrey (Liam Neeson) that he is his bastard and heir and must go to serve the King of Jerusalem. Once he arrives he finds himself pulled into the politics as the Templars seek to break the peace with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) while Balian seeks some sort of peace after he spares the life of Saladin’s second-in-command Nasir (Alexander Siddig) and to protect the Queen Sibylla (Eva Green) who is the woman he loves.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning and Ridley Scott knows how to cast memorable scenes. From Balian being lost in the desert or the darkness of Jerusalem during the siege or time of trial. John Mathieson did a wonderful job on this and created stunning visuals.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is truly epic! It is good at incorporating traditional Arabic instruments and classic instruments and creating rising tension throughout the piece as well as some truly amazing fight music too. Harry Gregson-Williams was the right guy to choose for this soundtrack.

The Action – The battle scenes are amazing! The final battle of the Siege of Jerusalem is really well done as we get to see both siege weapons and a whole bunch of other styles of attack including the final attack after Saladin destroys the wall. Each of the action scenes has purpose too and it is only a few times where it feels like it drags.

The Characters – The characters are one of the strongest part of this film. I wanted to spend more time with them and not getting enough time in a 3 hour film really says a lot for how well they were written and acted. There are not many films that can make me say that, and “Kingdom of Heaven,” did.

Nasir – Alexander Siddig (Bashir of “DS9”) is wonderful as the second-in-command of Saladin and the mystic perspective in Islam as we see he cares about the Christians and sees that it is the good a person does that matters in the end. He attributes that good to God’s will but unlike one of the advisers he is always looking for another way as he has seen the humanity of the people he fights, for example Balian sparing his life and refusing to enslave him lead to him returning the favor and always acting with virtue wherever he was and whatever situation he was in. He was one of my favorite characters.

Sibylla – Eva Green brings a lot of depth to this role as we see someone torn in her role as she loves her brother the King who is a leper but also wants freedom and feels trapped in her role as she is seen as others as a political tool, except for the bastard Balian who never wanted power to begin with. Eventually she finds freedom giving up her role as Queen and becoming Balian’s wife while caring for her people who are now refugees after Saladin spares them.

Guy de Lusignan – Martin Csokas is the main villain in this as he believes God wants the destruction of the heretic and the ascension of the Templars. He is a good antagonist too and nearly succeeds in the assassination of Balian. His life is spared at the end so he still has the chance to become a good person, but given his scheming I think he’d most likely rebuild the Templars who Saladin destroyed and join with King Richard for the next Crusade.

Baron Godfrey – Liam Neeson plays Godfrey, a man who seeks redemption in his son and bastard who he eventually convinces to come to the Holy Land and who he defends against the corrupt local authority. He is injured in the process but is able to point Balian on the right path. He is the man who almost killed Saladin and is respected by all the factions in the region besides the Templars. Neeson plays the flawed wise man really well.

Balian – Orlando Bloom plays the broken noble hero really well. In this he is seeking redemption for his wife who committed suicide and in the end finds himself and realizes that a good God would not put her in Hell, especially as she is still in his heart. After the death of his father and releasing of Nasir he rules over his Baron which is a religiously plural land. This informs his perspective and why King Baldwin respects him as they work towards a peace with Saladin. It is knowing the danger that religion can bring that leads him to threaten to destroy all the holy places too so the fighting will stop…and Saladin agrees showing they both see that the places are hot-spots for instability among both their populaces. After the Siege he leaves with Eva who has become his lover and they give up their titles in order to live with peace simply and care for the refugees. It’s a cool arc and his denial of his role as Baron to King Richard shows that he has finally found peace away from the “Holy Land.”

Saladin – Saladin in the warrior king who we learn is conquering in order to appease the locals who want power and prestige (like the Templars). He is smart though and we see him try to make just decisions while dealing with his own fanatics. Eventually he does attack Jerasulem as he promised but he spares the populace after Balian negotiates terms as we see they both have a similar perspective and that there can’t be real peace if there is only death and loss.

King Baldwin – I didn’t even recognize Edward Norton in this role until I looked it up after. He is wearing a mask and does a wonderful job as the secular king ruling a religiously plural land. He is willing to to anything to keep the peace with Saladin including punishing his own religious fanatics (The Templars) and it is his example and strength that rubs off on both Saladin and Balian as he proves that you don’t need physical strength to have moral strength, and that morality doesn’t come from religion or the rules of religion.

The Importance of Secularism – Secularism is the point of this film as all the good leaders know that only in a place where Christians, Jews and Muslims can live in peace can there be peace…and this means no religion ahead of the others or passing laws against and oppressing the others. This is something the protagonists understand while the antagonists are driven by religion and the power they get from their position within the religion, be they Muslim fanatics or the Templars. Only in a society where there is room for multiple ideas and freedom to express those ideas, can there be peace.

The Danger of Religious Fanaticism – The danger of religious fanaticism is a huge theme too as it is this that leads Saladin to eventually attacking Jerusalem and it is the Templars who keep trying to start the war too as they see the Muslims as heathens and that only those who fight for God will be rewarded. Saladin and King Baldwin in the end are unable to control these factions which eventually leads to war and a breaking of the peace.

The Cons: Pacing – Sometimes it feels like it stretches for too long of time. For example when Balian first becomes Baron over his lands. These scenes stretched too long when we could have got more character moments with the Templars and the other factions in play. For example, I would have loved more time with Saladin.

  This was a powerful film with a message I fully endorse. The dangers of religious fanaticism cannot be warned against enough and this film does that while telling a powerful story and showing just how diverse this region of the world has always been religiously, politically and racially. It is also beautifully filmed, acted and written and is one of the best films to be created by Ridley Scott. If you are looking for a truly epic tale with a message that is timeless and will always ring true, you will probably like this film.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 3, Episodes 15-17 – “The Mortis Arc” – Dark Destiny and Philosophy of the Force

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     “The Mortis Arc” is an arc that has a lot of great character development and some interesting exploration of philosophy and the force, but also has some cons to in that the Family functions as archetypes and not actual characters. For this reason I wish it had truly been all in the heads of our characters and not an actual plain of existence as it made things to great when it was powerful just when it was personal without all the “Chosen One” bs that pervaded the Prequels.

     “Overlords” was directed by Steward Lee and written by Christian Taylor, “Altar of Mortis” was directed by Brian Kalin O’Connell and written by Christian Taylor and “Ghosts of Mortis” was directed by Steward Lee and written by Christian Taylor.

    The story involves Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka being sent to explore an ancient Jedi Distress call that pulls them into Mortis where the Father and his Daughter (Incarnation of the Lightside of the Force) and Son (Incarnation of the Darkside of the Force) do battle as he strives to keep them in balance. We learn he brought them there so that Anakin could take his place as he can control both, fulfilling his role as the Chosen One. Things go wrong though after the Son kills the Daughter and it is up to our heroes to stop him before he destroys the Universe.

The Pros: Mortis – Mortis is a really cool world. There is destruction and creation in flux as the Father keeps the balance between the two. It has reminds me a lot of some of the Ancient Sith Worlds and Dothomir as we see that the three beings cannot be defined as Jedi and Sith, for all of them are beyond that in different ways. That was a cool idea, that should have been explored more.

Qui-Gon Jin – Qui-Gon’s ghost makes an appearance and counsels both Obi-Wan and Anakin! Sadly since he can’t see the future he doesn’t know what the Chosen One prophecy means and the destruction that Anakin will wrought, only the Father knows and it dies with him. This makes Qui-Gon’s appearance sad, even though his moments with Obi-Wan especially are touching. Liam Neeson came back to play this role too!

Ahsoka – Ahsoka gets infected by the son and we see what Darkside Ahsoka would be like. Her pride and anger are great and she is a good fighter. One she is healed by  the Daughter’s sacrifice it is her thinking that stops a turned Anakin and the Son from getting off the planet and we also learn she is a tech. as she was the one fixing their ship. Her fears come from her future self who warn her to leave Anakin so she won’t fall. Her future self is right too as Anakin will become greater than Dooku in the Dark Side when he becomes Darth Vader.

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Obi-Wan experiences echoes of things to come as he tries to have them leave the planet no matter what as the longer they stay the more they risk the Universe with the Son’s escape. He isn’t wrong either as Anakin going to face the son alone leads to his turn as he sees the future and is willing to risk everything so he doesn’t become Darth Vader, even the Universe. It shows Anakin’s naivety and how his ends justify the means  and attachment will lead to his downfall.

Anakin Skywalker – In this we see how Anakin’s guilt and fear drive him to do horrendous acts. From slaughtering the Sand People and to what he will do later as in his vision he sees the slaughter of the younglings and the strangling of Padme and loss of Obi-Wan. It is this that leads him to work with the Son as he will go to any means, even becoming the Dark Side now to prevent that future. It is that drives Anakin at his core and where Darth Vader’s need for control comes from as he has lost so much already.

The Philosophy of the Force – The Force is about balance, the Son and Daughter need each other and the Son mourns the Daughter’s murder by his hands. It takes the Father doing away with it all together for the world to end and for the Force Gods to finally die out. The Dark Side and Light Side need one another just as all people need passion and calm, anger and kindness…all are a part of the whole.

The Cons: The Limitations of Archetypes – It didn’t feel like the Father, Son and Daughter had personalities beyond what they represented. This was the hardest part of the story for me as they were meant to be a new species but that is mostly unknown, they function more as a plot device for Anakin’s reveal of his power and destiny which for meant this could have worked as a force vision or our heroes trapped in their heads as them facing their fears was the best part.

Dark Side Like a Virus – The Son infects Ahsoka by biting her, this simplified the Dark Side a lot and made me wonder why he just didn’t bite Obi-Wan and Anakin and take over from there. It cheapened choice by having Ahsoka have her choice to go dark taken away from her. She was the Padme stand-in for Episode III and it sucked as she is just as possible at going Dark as Anakin.

   I really enjoyed this arc, even with all it’s limitations. It gives us a chance to understand the Force better than we ever have before and to get the motivations and fears of Ahsoka, Anakin and Obi-Wan who are some of the best characters in this series. This is reason enough to watch the arc in the entirety and even though the Beings of Mortis don’t work as well, what they do and what it reveals about our heroes is reason enough to see it.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10