“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

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“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

About eighteen months ago, I had posted a list of my favorite Season Two episodes from the 1993-1998 syndicate series, “BABYLON 5”. And one of those episodes happened to be (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”. For the sake of sentiment, I recently re-watched the episode to see if my views on it had changed.

The series’ second season – titled “The Coming of Shadows” – introduced a new character to the “BABYLON 5” universe. Captain John J. Sheridan first appeared in the season’s premiere episode, (2.01) “Points of Departure” to replace Babylon 5’s first commanding officer, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. Like the latter, Captain Sheridan was a veteran of Earth Alliance’s last major conflict, the Earth-Minbari War, which was fought over a decade before the series’ setting. Sheridan was the only Earth military commander who scored a major victory over the Minbari, who possessed superior forces and weapons. Sheridan was also a married man, who became a widower following the death of his wife, Anna Sheridan. Two years earlier, Anna was killed while serving as a member of a planetary expedition aboard a ship called the Icarus for a mission to explore an obscure planet called Z’ha’dum.

The episode (2.02) “Revelations” dealt with Sheridan allegedly coming to terms with Anna’s death. But the events of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” proved otherwise. The story began with the arrival of a Human named Mr. Morden to Babylon 5. Following his first appearance in the Season One episode, (1.13) “Signs and Portents”, Mr. Morden managed to form an alliance with Ambassador Londo Mollari of Centauri Prime. Using his connections with an ancient and powerful race of aliens known as “the Shadows” – whose homeworld happened to be Z’ha’dum, Morden helped the Centauri deal with its main enemy, the Narns. During Morden’s latest visit to Babylon 5, Security Chief Michael Garibaldi unintentionally identifies him as a regular visitor to the station during a private conversation with Sheridan. When the captain realizes that Morden had been a member of the Icarus expedition that led to Anna’s death, he has the man arrested and placed in a holding cell. Sheridan becomes obsessed with learning about the details of Anna’s fate; and also the details behind Morden’s survival and failure to inform Earth Alliance. This obsession leads the good captain to break security rules, alienate members of command staff and attract the attention of the Centauri, Minbar and Vorlon ambassadors.

During my latest viewing of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”, I tried to pinpoint what I did not like about it. I managed to find one aspect that struck me as unappealing. Sheridan’s manipulation of resident telepath Talia Winters’ only meeting with Morden struck me as rather forced. David J. Eagle’s direction and Christopher Franke’s score tried a little too hard in making this scene dramatic by amping up the suspense. The scene’s build up struck me as over-the-top that it almost overshadowed the pay-off of Talia and Morden’s actual meeting. It is a flaw I have spotted in other “BABYLON 5” episodes – even in some of its best.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not have be perfect, but I believe it might be one of the best episodes of Season Two . . . and in the entire season. The ironic thing is that hardly any action occurred in this episode, aside from a well deserved slap that Sheridan received from Talia. And yet, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum not only helped drive the series’ main narrative forward, it also foreshadowed two major story arcs in future episodes – Sheridan’s conflict with the Shadows and Garabaldi’s role as Babylon 5’s security chief. It also foreshadowed a minor plot – namely Morden’s future fate. These story lines are major examples of series creator J. Michael Straczynski’s use of foreshadow in his writing. And as far as I am concerned, no one else did it better other than George Lucas for his “STAR WARS” movie franchise.

However, I believe the best thing about “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” was the development of the John Sheridan character. Many fans had not been pleased when Bruce Boxleitner replaced the late Michael O’Hare, who portrayed Jeffrey Sinclair, as the series’ new leading man. They accused the Sheridan character of being lightweight and dubbed him with the nickname of “Captain Smiley”. Personally, I never had any problems with Sheridan before this episode. But this is the first time the series ever focused upon the negative aspects of Sheridan’s character. And I found it very interesting. “Revelations” had revealed that Sheridan had yet to recover from his wife’s death. “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” revealed that Sheridan’s inability to recover from his grief brought out the worst of him – his temper, his penchant for brooding, his stubborness, his talent for manipulation and most importantly, his ruthlessness. Sheridan’s reputation as “Captain Smiley” disappeared after this episode. For good.

The episode also featured a minor story line regarding the arrival of an Earth Alliance official named Pierce Macabee. The latter represented Earth Alliance’s Ministry of Peace, which served as a security and propaganda machine for President Morgan Clark’s administration. Macabee arrived at Babylon 5 to recruit the station’s crew into Earth Alliance’s new paramilitary organization, Nightwatch. These members were instructed to uncover and report on what they perceived to be “subversive” activities – namely open criticism and defiance of Clark’s Administration. This story line was introduced in such a subtle manner that it almost seemed like afterthought. Almost. It allowed audiences to hear Macabee’s speech about Nightwatch and watch him recruit some of the station’s crew – including Zack Allen, who served with Babylon 5’s security force under Garibaldi. Although Zack joined Nightwatch simply to earn extra credits, his decision will prove to have a major impact upon the series’ main narrative, early in Season Three. The Nightwatch story arc proved to be another example of Straczynski’s talent for using a minor story line as foreshadow. Very few writers and producers seemed capable of using this narrative device with any strong effect. Pity.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured some first-rate performances. Regular cast members such as Claudia Christian, Mira Furlan, Jerry Doyle and Richard Biggs gave strong supportive performances. Although I was critical of the scene featuring Talia Winters’ encounter with Mr. Morden, I certainly had no problems with Andrea Thompson’s performance. The actress did an excellent job in conveying Talia’s horror and later, outrage over Sheridan’s actions. Jeff Conway really made the role of Zack Allen his own in this particular episode. I have always believed that one aspect that made a performer a first-rate screen actor or actress, is his or her ability to react to other characters. Conway was very effective in utilizing this acting tool in his scenes with Boxleitner and Doyle. And his performances in scenes with certain supporting characters struck me as effective and subtle at the same time. Especially in one scene in which Zack arrested Mr. Morden. I also have to commend Alex Hyde-White for his guest-starring turn as Nightwatch recruiter, Pierce Macabee. He did a superb job in projecting the Ministry of Peace’s menace with such subtle charm.

Ed Wasser, who made such an impression as the quiet, yet menacing agent for the Shadows – Mr. Morden – in previous episodes, continued his excellent work in this episode. However, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured other dimensions to Morden’s personality – fear, surprise and impatience – that Wasser conveyed with great skill. I especially enjoyed his work with both Stephen Furst and leading man Bruce Boxleitner. I have always been a fan of Furst since I first saw him in the 1978 comedy, “ANIMAL HOUSE”. His time on NBC’s “ST. ELSEWHERE” and “BABYLON 5” revealed his talent for dramatic acting. Furst effectively combined his skills for both drama and comedy in one particular in which Centauri Ambassador Aide Vir openly expressed his dislike for Morden. It is one of my favorite moments from the series.

Although the “Captain Smiley” nickname for the John Sheridan character disappeared after “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” first aired on television, Bruce Boxleitner’s reputation as an actor suddenly gained momentum among the series’ fans. I do not understand why. I have seen Boxleitner portray the darker aspects in previous roles very effectively. But I must say that I believe his performance in this episode may end up being regarded as one of his best. Boxleitner was superb as a ruthless Sheridan, obsessed with not only learning the truth about his wife’s death, but also Morden’s survival and revenge. It is a pity that the Emmys rarely acknowledge excellent acting or writing in the Science-Fiction/Fantasy genre.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not be my favorite Season Two episode from “BABYLON 5”. But it is definitely my second favorite. And it is certainly one of my favorite episodes of the series. J. Michael Straczynski wrote an excellent episode about the consequences of grief for the series’ main character. Thanks to fine writing, first-rate direction and excellent performances from a talented cast – especially series lead Bruce Boxleitner.

 

 

R.I.P. Stephen Furst (1954-2017)

 

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. I find it unsurprising that John Boyega managed to win the BAFTA Rising Star Award. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. She should have received an award for her work. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “A NEW HOPE”that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in “RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS”movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

The Problem With Rey

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THE PROBLEM WITH REY

I suspect that many do not want to hear or read this. But I have to say something. I feel that Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams went TOO FAR in their creation of Rey for “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. She is a Mary Sue. She is too perfect. And I am not afraid to admit it.

Why is it that STAR WARS fans demand that the saga’s leading women characters should be written as ideal or perfect? That is not a good idea for a well written character. A well written character should have a balance of flaws and virtues. Rey is ALL VIRTUES. She has no flaws. Not really. In a short space of time, she learned to fly a spacecraft and tap into the Force in order to use the Jedi Mind Trick and use a lightsaber to defeat an opponent already trained with the ways of the Force – namely Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. If it were not for her interactions with the former stormtrooper Finn, I would find her completely boring.

This is why I prefer a character like Bathsheba Everdene from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd”. As a character, Bathsheba was an interesting mixture of virtues and flaws. She was a better written character than someone like Rey.  EvenSTAR WARS characters like Leia Organa and Padme Amidala managed to be better written, due to the fact that the two characters possessed both virtues and flaws – despite fandom’s demand that they be regarded as ideal.

As for Rey, I hope and pray that Rian Johnson, who is now serving as director and screenwriter for “EPISODE VIII”, has made her character more complex. If not, I cannot see myself being interested in her story for the next two films.

The Meaning of Colors

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THE MEANING OF COLORS

Several years ago, I came across an old website about Wiccan practices and meanings. I was surprised to discover that even before the advent of Wicca in the early 20th century, Pagan worshipers associated colors with certain meanings. And those meanings turned out to be quite different than many people would today assume.

Unlike today’s societies – especially in the Western world – white or light did not automatically mean something good, pure or noble. In fact, even the white wedding dress has nothing to do with the lack of sexual experience or innocence of the bride. The white wedding dress started out as a fashion trend . . . and remains one to this day. This fashion trend was created by Britain’s Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840. The young queen wanted to show that she was just a “simple” woman getting married, so she wore a white dress. She also wanted to incorporate some lace into her dress. Queen Mary of Scots wore a white wedding gown when she married Francis, Dauphin of France. Why? Because white was her favorite color. Before Victoria, women usually wore their best outfit for their wedding.

But there are the exceptions in which white is used as a negative form of symbolism in Western culture. One of the major villains in C.S. Lewis’ “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA” literary series is Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia. There is nothing dark about this character’s physical appearance and wardrobe. She is all white. Another example of a villainous character who wore a white costume is Thomas Arashikage aka Storm Shadow from the “G.I. JOE” movie franchise. Ironically, Storm Shadow is a Japanese character portrayed by South Korean actor Lee Byung-hun. And white is usually associated with negative traits and death in Asian cultures.

Albinism is also associated with the color white and negative traits in various forms of popular culture . Albino characters can be found in movies like “COLD MOUNTAIN”, “THE DA VINCI CODE”, “THE MATRIX RELOADED”; and in novels like “The Invisible Man” and “Blood Meridian”. And all of these characters are either portrayed villains or those with negative traits. However, these are rare forms of white used as negative symbols and stereotypes.

So, what was the color white associated with . . . at least in Pagan circles? Simple. The color was associated with psychic pursuits, psychology, dreams, astral projection, imagination and reincarnation. Apparently moral goodness or purity has nothing to do with the color white. At least in old Pagan terms. Which leads me to this question . . . why do today’s Western societies insist that white has anything to do with moral compass of any form.

Finally, we come to the color black. As many people should know, modern Western societies tend to associate black or anything dark as something evil or negative. There are probably other societies that do the same. Fictional characters associated with evil in many science-fiction/fantasy stories are usually associated with black. Sorcery that has a negative effect upon someone is either called “black magic” or “the Dark Arts” (at least with the “HARRY POTTER” and Buffyverse franchises. And in the “POTTER” series, wizards and witches who have given in to evil are labeled as “dark”. The “STAR WARS” franchise usually refer to evil as “the Dark Side of the Force”.

In the “ONCE UPON A TIME” television series, the Rumpelstiltskin character was also called “the Dark One”. Why? As it turned out, some entity called “the Darkness” had entered his body after he had stabbed the former holder of “the Dark One” title. Apparently, show runners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz could not find a name for the entity and called it “The Darkness” – automatically associating its black coloring with evil. Now it seems that the series’ main character, Emma Swan, has been given the name, due to the entity entering her body. The ironic thing is that Emma’s physical appearance – her skin, her eyes and hair – have become pale or white. Yet, she dresses in black and is called “the Dark One” or “the Dark Swan”. I am still shaking my head over this contrast. As for magic, sorcery, or even psychic abilities in many of these movies and television shows, it is clear that their creators/show runners associate dark or black with evil and light or white with goodness. The only fictional character I can recall that go against this grain is Snake Eyes from the “G.I. JOE” movie franchise. Not only is he villain Storm Shadow’s main adversary and one of the main heroes of the G.I. Joe team, he also wears a black costume.

Ironically, long time Pagans associated the color black with the following – binding, protection, neutralization, karma, death manifestation and will power. Someone might say – “A ha! Death manifestation! This is a term can be regarded as something negative or evil.” But can it? Why is death constantly regarded as something negative? Because people are incapable of truly facing the idea of death. It is a natural part of our life span and yet, many people cannot accept it. And because of this negative attitude toward death, society associates death with . . . you guess it . . . the color black. Apparently the Pagans believed differently and did not associate black with anything evil or negative. I was surprised to discover that Chinese culture regard black as a symbol of water, one of the five fundamental elements believed to compose all things. The Chinese also associated black with winter, cold, and the direction North, usually symbolized by a black tortoise. Black is also associated with disorder – including the positive disorder which leads to change and new life.

I have one last statement to make. I have noticed a growing trend on Internet message boards and forums for television shows and movies that deal with science-fiction and fantasy. This trend features a tendency by many of these fans to automatically associate white/light with goodness and black/dark with evil. The fans on these message boards no longer use the words “good” and “evil” anymore. Honestly. I am deadly serious. These fans either use the words light (lightness) or white; or . . . dark (darkness) or black. Why? And why do the creators of these television shows and movie franchises resort to the same behavior? I have to wonder. By associating anything black or dark with evil, are they associating anything or anyone with dark or black skin with evil? I suspect that many would say “of course not”. Considering the notorious reputation of science-fiction/fantasy fans (or geeks) of being racist, I have to wonder.

 

Rumple

The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

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“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (1980) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (1980) Review

From a certain point of view, I find it hard to believe that the 1980 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”has become the most critically acclaimed STAR WARS movie by the franchise’s fans. And I find it hard to believe, due to the film’s original box office performance. 

I was also surprised that “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” was released in the first place. Despite the ambiguous nature of villain Darth Vader’s fate in the 1977 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”, I had assumed that film’s happy ending meant the story of Luke Skywalker and his friends was over. But my assumption proved to be wrong three years later. Many other filmgoers and critics also expressed surprise at the release of a second STAR WARS movie. More importantly, a surprising revelation and an ending with a cliffhanger resulted in a smaller box office for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” than either “A NEW HOPE” or the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Yet, thirty-three years later, the movie is now viewed as the most critically acclaimed – not just among the first three movies, but also among those released between 1999 and 2005.

“THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” begins three years following the events of ” A NEW HOPE”. Despite the Rebel Alliance’s major victory above the planet of Yavin and the destruction of the Galactic Empire’s Death Star, the rebellion continues to rage on. Luke Skywalker, now a wing commander at the Rebels’ base on Hoth, patrols beyond the base’s perimenter with close friend and former smuggler Han Solo. After the latter returns to base, Luke is attacked by a wampa and dragged into the latter’s cave. Meanwhile, Han receives word from Princess Leia, one of the Rebel leaders and a friend of both men, that Luke has not returned. He leaves the base to find Luke, while the latter manages to escape from the wampa’s lair. Luke stumbles into a snowstorm and before losing consciousness, receives a message from the Force spirit of his late mentor, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, to seek out another Jedi named Yoda on Dagobah for further training. Han eventually finds Luke before a Rebel patrol finds them both. 

While Luke recovers from his ordeal, Leia and General Rieekan learn from Han and his Wookie companion Chewbacca have discovered an Imperial probe. They surmise that Imperial forces know the location of their base and might be on their way. The Rebel Alliance forces prepare to evacuate Hoth. But an Imperial presence on the planet served as a bigger problem for the heroes. Unbeknownst to them, Darth Vader seeks out Luke, following his discovery of the young man’s connection to the Force three years ago. Although the three friends will separate for a period of time and experience adventures of their own, Lord Vader’s hunt for Luke will result in great danger and a surprising revelation in the end.

I once came across a post on the TheForce.net – Jedi Council Forums message board that complained of the lack of a main narrative for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. A part of me could understand why this person reached such an opinion. Despite the circumstances on Hoth and the finale on the Bespin mining colony, our heroes barely spent any time together. Following the Rebel Alliance’s defeat on Hoth, Luke and R2-D2 traveled to Dagobah, where the former continued his Jedi training under Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Han and Chewbacca helped Leia and C3-P0 evade Darth Vader and Imperial forces on Hoth and in space before seeking refuge on Bespin. I believe this person failed to realize that other than Luke’s Jedi training with Yoda, most of the movie’s narrative centered on Vader’s attempts to capture Luke – the Imperial invasion of Hoth, his pursuit of the Millennium Falcon with Leia and Han aboard, and their subsequent capture on Bespin. Even Luke’s Jedi training was interrupted by visions of his friends in danger and journeyed into the trap set by Vader. And this is why I found it hard to accept this complaint about “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”.

Most fans tend to regard the movie as perfect or near perfect. Despite my feelings for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, I cannot agree with this view. I believe that the movie has its flaws. One could find cheesy dialogue in the movie, especially from Darth Vader. He possessed an annoying penchant for constantly using the phrase “It is your destiny” in the movie’s last half hour. Some of Leia and Han’s “romantic dialogue” in the movie’s first half struck me as a bit childish and pedantic. Speaking of those two – how did they end up attracted to each other in the first place? “A NEW HOPE” ended with Han making a brief pass at Leia during the medal ceremony. But she seemed to regard him as a mere annoyance and nothing else. Three years later, both are exchanging longing glances and engaging in verbal foreplay at least ten to fifteen minutes into the story. I would have allowed this to slide if a novel or comic story had explained this sudden shift toward romance between them. But no such publication exists, as far as I know. This little romance seemed to have developed out of the blue.

There were other problems. The movie never explained the reason behind Leia’s presence at the Rebels’ Hoth base. She was, after all, a political leader; not a military one. The base already possessed a more than competent military leader in the form of General Rieekan. Watching Leia give orders to the pilots during the base’s evacuation made me realize that she really had no business interfering in the Rebels’ military command structure. It would have been a lot easier if she had been a military officer or a spy for the Alliance. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” also failed to explain why Han was being hunted by Jabba the Hutt after three years. I thought the payment he had received for delivering Leia and the Death Star plans to Yavin was enough to settle his debt to the Tattooine gangster. Apparently not. And the movie failed to explain why. Perhaps there is a STAR WARS novel or comic book story that offered an explanation. I hope so. For years, I never understood the symbolism behind Luke’s experiences inside the Dagobah cave during his Jedi training. And I am not sure if I still do. Finally, how long did Luke’s training on Dagobah last? And how long did it take the Millennium Falcon to reach Bespin with a broken hyperdrive? LucasFilm eventually revealed that both incidents took at least three months. If so, why did the movie failed to convey this particular time span?

Thankfully, “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” more than rose above its flaws. For me, it is still one of the best science-fiction adventure films I have ever seen. I am amazed that such a complex tale arose from two simple premises – Darth Vader’s hunt for Luke Skywalker and the continuation of the latter’s Jedi training. From these simple premises, audiences were exposed to a richly detailed and action-filled narrative, thanks to George Lucas’ story, Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay (which was also credited to Leigh Brackett) and Irvin Kershner’s direction. The movie featured many exciting sequences and dramatic moments that simply enthralled me. Among my favorite action sequences were the Millennium Falcon’s escape from Hoth, Yoda’s introduction, Han’s seduction of Leia inside the giant asteroid worm, the Falcon’s escape from the worm. For me, the movie’s best sequence proved to be the last – namely those scenes on the mining colony of Bespin. I would compare this last act in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” to the Death Star sequence in “A NEW HOPE” or the Mos Espa podrace sequence in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. The Bespin sequence featured a few truly iconic moments. Well . . . if I must be honest, I would say that it featured two iconic moments – Han’s response to Leia’s declaration of love and Darth Vader’s revelation of his true identity.

Naturally, one cannot discuss a STAR WARS movie without mentioning its technical aspects. In my review of “A NEW HOPE”, I had failed to mention Ben Burtt’s outstanding sound effects. I will add that his work in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” proved to be equally outstanding. I could also say the same for the movie’s sound mixing, which earned Academy Awards for Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Greg Landaker, and Peter Sutton. Composer John Williams’ additions to his famous STAR WARS score were not only outstanding, but earned him an Academy Award nomination. Those additions included a love theme for the Leia/Han romance and the memorable “Imperial March”, which is also known as “Darth Vader’s Theme” As far as I am concerned, the tune might as well be known as the Sith Order’s theme song. The team of Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, and Bruce Nicholson did an outstanding job with the movie’s visual effects – especially for the Battle of Hoth sequence. I can also say the same for Peter Suschitzky’s photography. However, my favorite cinematic moment turned out to be Luke’s initial encounter with Darth Vader on Bespin. Even to this day, I experience a chill whenever I see that moment when they meet face-to-face for the first time. Although John Mollo’s costumes caught Hollywood’s attention after “A NEW HOPE” was first released (he won an Oscar for his effort), his costumes for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” seemed like a continuation of the same. In fact, I found the costumes somewhat on the conservative side, even if they blended well with the story.

It is interesting that the performances of both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher garnered most of the attention when “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” first came out. The Leia/Han romance was very popular with fans. Mind you, both gave very good performances. But I believe that Mark Hamill acted circles around them. And not surprising, he won a Saturn Award for his performance as Luke Skywalker in this film. Billy Dee Williams also gave a first-rate performance as the roguish smuggler-turned-colony administrator, whose charming persona hid a desperation to do anything to save the inhabitants of Bespin from Imperial annihilation. James Earl Jones and David Prowse continued their outstanding portrayal of Darth Vader aka Anakin Skywalker, with one serving as the voice and the other, the physical embodiment of the Sith Lord. Julian Glover, who later appeared in “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” made a brief appearance as the commander of the Imperial walkers, General Veers. Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew continued their excellent work as C3-P0, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. But I was particularly impressed by Frank Oz’s voice work as the veteran Jedi Master Yoda, and Kenneth Colley as the Imperial Admiral Piett, whose caution and competency led him to rise in the ranks and avoid Vader’s wrath for any incompetence.

Is “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” my favorite STAR WARS movie of all time? Almost. Not quite. For me, it is tied in first place with one other movie from the franchise. But after thirty-three years and in spite of its flaws, I still love it, despite its flaws. And I have give credit to not only the talented cast and crew, but also director Irwin Kershner, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and especially the man behind all of this talent, George Lucas.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (1977) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (1977) Review

Long ago (thirty-five years and seven months, to be exact) and in a galaxy far, far away, producer-director-writer George Lucas made film history with the release of his movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Only, during the summer of 1977, it was simply known as “STAR WARS”. And this science-fiction/fantasy homage to Saturday morning serials and mythology was something that moviegoers had never seen before. 

Now considered as the fourth film installment of Lucas’ STAR WARS saga, “A NEW HOPE” chronicled the adventures of a space-aged farmboy named Luke Skywalker, who finds himself swept up in a galactic conflict between a tyrannical empire and a band of rebel fighters determined to return freedom to the galaxy. Not only did the film introduced the concept of the summer blockbuster and created a movie/television/literary franchise that made billions for its creator, it also became the second highest grossing film in Hollywood history (as of 2012) and ushered in a new age for movie special effects. This movie has made such a major impact upon Hollywood that its effects are still being felt to this day.

“A NEW HOPE” began with an opening crawl describing a galaxy in a state of civil war. Spies for the Rebel Alliance have stolen the plans for the Galactic Empire’s new weapon – a heavily armed and armored space station capable of destroying an entire planet called the Death Star. One of the Rebel Alliance leaders, Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, is in possession of the Death Star plans when her ship is attacked by Imperial forces under the leadership of the Sith Lord Darth Vader. Before she could be captured, Princess Leia hides the plans and a holographic recording into the memory of an astromech droid called R2-D2. The small droid and its companion, a protocol droid named C-3PO flee to the surface of the desert planet Tatooine. While Darth Vader sends a contingent of stormtroopers to look for the droids, R2 and 3PO find themselves captured by Jawa traders, who sell them to a moisture farmer and his nephew named Owen Lars and Luke Skywalker.

Luke, who is an orphan, yearns to leave his uncle’s farm and find adventure in the stars. He finds it when he releases Princess Leia’s holographic recording, while cleaning R2-D2. The recording is for a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi. Surmising that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ben Kenobi, who is a neighbor of his Uncle Owen, are one and the same; Luke delivers the droids and the message to the aging hermit. The young man also discovers that Kenobi is a former Jedi Master, who knew his father Anakin Skywalker, who used to be a Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan suggests that Luke help him deliver the Death Star plans to Princess Leia’s father on Alderaan. At first, Luke rejects the offer. But when his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are found murdered by Imperial stormtroopers looking for the droids, Luke decides to join Obi-Wan on the latter’s new adventure. They recruit the services of two smugglers – Han Solo and Chewbacca – to convey them to Alderaan. The journey proves to be a new beginning not only for Luke, but also his new companions.

I have a confession to make. When I first saw “A NEW HOPE” during the summer of 1977, I did not like it at all. Looking back, I realize that my hostile feelings toward the movie stemmed from a sense of being overwhelmed by something I found mind blowing and completely new. The release of “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and “RETURN OF THE JEDI” eventually eased the impact of Lucas’ saga upon my psyche. But it took several years for me to first warm up and eventually embrace “A NEW HOPE”. Despite my eventual love for the movie, I have never viewed it as my favorite of the saga (so far) . . . or as one of my top favorites. But I can honestly say that after thirty-five years, it still has quite a punch. In fact, I believe that it is probably the most entertaining of the six STAR WARS films produced by George Lucas.

It is easy to see why “A NEW HOPE” is so beloved by many fans of the saga. The plot, written by Lucas, has the hallmarks of a first-rate adventure filled with space battles, escapes, daring-dos, a lightsaber duel, snarky dialogue, a roguish smuggler, a villain in black, a royal damsel-in-distress (who becomes a protagonist herself), a wise mentor and an innocent boy who answers the call to adventure. I suspect that another major reason why “A NEW HOPE” is so appealing to many of the saga’s fans is the “good-vs-evil” aspect of both its tale and its characters. It must have been very easy for moviegoers to identify with the movie’s protagonists and their fight against the tyranny of the “evil” Empire. For me, the movie’s pièce de résistance proved to be the entire sequence aboard the Empire’s Death Star. From the moment the heroes’ ship the Millennium Falcon found itself forced into the depths of the large battle station, to the moment when they escape some 20 to 30 minutes later, the entire Death Star sequence seemed to be one major fun fest that crackled with humor and action.

With the exceptions of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, the cast of “A NEW HOPE” was filled with unknowns. I do not recall any well-known movie that Mark Hamill had appeared in before he became famous as Luke Skywalker. But Carrie Fisher, who portrayed the sharp-tongued Princess Leia, had already appeared in 1975’s “SHAMPOO”. And Harrison Ford, who would become a bigger star than either of his co-stars, had worked for Lucas before in the latter’s 1973 classic,“AMERICAN GRAFFITI”. But all three actors created an excellent screen team. Actors such as Peter Mayhew, who portrayed Han Solo’s first mate Chewbacca; along with Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker, who appeared in all six movies as the droids C-3PO and R2-D2; added their magic to the mix. Many people have made a big deal over David Prowse’s physical and James Earl Jones’ vocal portrayals of Sith Lord Darth Vader. And they were quite right to do so. Both actors contributed a great deal to the character. But I have rarely come across any comments about Peter Cushing’s performance as the cold-blooded and arrogant military commander of the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin. I find that a shame, because I thought he made a very effective villain . . . even more so than Vader. And of course, there is Alec Guinness, who portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi. Guinness earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of the iconic Jedi Master. And I believe it was well earned. He did an excellent job as Luke’s wise and patient mentor, who was haunted not only by his past, but past deeds.

I was not kidding when I had stated that “A NEW HOPE” was not one of my top favorite STAR WARS movies. I believe that it has its flaws. While I found the movie’s innocent air and joie de vivre approach to its story very appealing, I feel that the movie lacked a complexity that I believe gave an edge to the other five movies. I am not stating that the story and its characters lacked an emotional depth. There is some depth to both the story and the characters. But aside from the Han Solo character, the other characters seemed to be a bit one-dimensional in comparison. They were either good or evil. I can even say this about the Darth Vader character, who was given an opportunity for a bit of complexity in a scene in which he tried to explain the Force to the Death Star’s senior officers staff. While there are many who have no problems with a lack of moral ambiguity, I do. And I have to say that I was more than relieved when Lucas finally injected some moral ambiguity into his characters, in the franchise’s later films.

If there is one movie that initiated my dislike of Tatooine, it is “A NEW HOPE”. From the moment the camera focused upon 3PO and R2 trekking across the planet’s desert, I found myself struggling to maintain my interest on the movie. It is possible that Tatooine has a talent for putting me to sleep. Only something really exciting has to happen – like Luke and Obi-Wan’s first meeting with Han Solo and Chewbacca, along with their subsequent escape from the planet – could keep my interest sharply focused. I also have to admit that I am not a fan of the Battle of Yavin sequence that marked the destruction of the Death Star. It smacked too much of a World War II aerial dog fight, straight out of a 1940s movie. Speaking of that particular decade, I was not that impressed by Harrison Ford’s attempt to sound like a 40s tough guy, during Han’s argument with Leia following the escape from the Death Star in the following scene:

LEIA: That doesn’t sound too hard. Besides, they let us go. It’s the
only explanation for the ease of our escape.

HAN: Easy…you call that easy?

LEIA: Their tracking us!

HAN: Not this ship, sister.

Frustrated, Leia shakes her head.

LEIA: At least the information in Artoo is still intact.

HAN: What’s so important? What’s he carrying?

LEIA: The technical readouts of that battle station. I only hope that
when the data is analyzed, a weakness can be found. It’s not over yet!

HAN: It is for me, sister! Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution,
and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in
it for the money!

I know, I know. It does not seem like much. But hearing Ford spew those lines still make me wince after so many years. I was also disappointed by how Lucas handled the Princess Leia character in this film. I can already see heads spinning over this complaint. Superficially, Leia seemed like the perfect embodiment of a fictional female character of the late 20th century. Her intelligence, courage and razor-sharp wit practically screamed “I am woman, hear me roar!” And yet . . . Lucas dropped the ball with her character in one very significant moment in the film. His screenplay never revealed Leia’s reaction to Tarkin’s use of the Death Star to destroy her home planet, Alderaan. Not once. The moment Alderaan blew to smithereens, the movie cut back to the occupants of the Millennium Falcon and Obi-Wan’s reaction. Audiences saw Leia’s reaction to Tarkin’s order to destroy the planet. But we never saw the aftermath. We never saw Leia mourn over the deaths of millions of Alderaaneans – including her parents. Instead, Lucas allowed audiences a look at Luke’s reaction and grief over Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death at the hands of Lord Vader. Even worse, Leia seemed so focused over comforting Luke that she seemed to have forgotten about Alderaan’s destruction.

The production values for “A NEW HOPE” still holds up today after so many years. However, I suspect that one can attribute this to Lucas’ decision to utilize CGI to make the special effects for the 1977 movie and the other two from theOriginal Trilogy more effective and less dated. I realize there are many veteran fans of the saga who claim that Lucas’ CGI retouches were unnecessary. They have also expressed their dislike of the revamped movies. All I can say is that they are entitled to their opinions. I simply do not share them. However, John Williams’ score remains as stirring and iconic as ever. John Mollo did an excellent job for his simple and elegant designs for the movie’s costumes. However, I am a little peeved that he managed to snag an Academy Award for his work on this film; whereas the Motion Picture Academy failed to give Trisha Biggar even a nomination for her outstanding work in the Prequel Trilogy.

In conclusion, I can happily state that STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” stands up very well after thirty-six years. The movie and the five other films of the STAR WARS franchise remain among the best adventure films ever made in Hollywood, as far as I am concerned. And I can only wonder if George Lucas and 20th Century Fox Studios ever released what it had unleashed upon the world when the movie was first released in theaters back in May 1977.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (1999) Review

 

“STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (1999) Review

Sixteen years after the 1983 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” hit the movie screens, producer-director George Lucas returned to the world of STAR WARS for a new trilogy that depicted the years before the 1977-1983 movies, starting with the 1999 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”.

“THE PHANTOM MENACE” was received very poorly by critics and veteran STAR WARS fans when it was first released in 1999. Many believed that it failed to capture the spirit of Lucas’ saga first established in the first three films. Despite the negative opinions, the movie proved to be a blockbuster champion at the box office. But public opinion of the movie in the following thirteen years remained negative. In fact, public opinion has not been that kind to the two movies that followed. When Lucas announced his intentions to re-release “THE PHANTOM MENACE” in 3D, many either wondered why he would bother or accused the producer of trying to milk the STAR WARS cash cow even further. As for me, I received the news with mixed feelings. When the movie was first released in 1999, I must admit that I enjoyed it very much, even though I would never view it as one of my top favorite STAR WARS movies. On the other hand, I despise the 3D process. I despised the use of it in movies like 2009’s“AVATAR” and my feelings for it had not changed when I last saw it used for “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER”. But my love for STAR WARS overcame my distaste for 3D and I went to see the movie.

Like other STAR WARS, this one began in a galaxy, far, far away . . . thirty-two years before the events of the 1977 movie. Instead of an empire, this story is set during the Old Republic in which knights and masters of the religious Jedi Order serve as “the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy” on behalf of the Republic Senate. A Jedi Master named Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice (or padawan) have been dispatched by the Senate’s Chancellor Finis Valorum to negotiate a peace between the planet Naboo and the Trade Federation, an organization who has decided to establish a blockade of battleships in response to a taxation on trade routes. The Federation has made this move on the “advice” of their partner, a Sith Lord (and enemy of the Jedi) named Darth Sidious. Unfortunately for Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, the Trade Federation attempt to kill them on the order of Darth Sidious. Both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan escape from the Trade Federation battleship and make their way to Naboo’s surface, during the former’s invasion of the planet. The pair enlists the help of Jar-Jar Binks and his fellow Gungans (Naboo’s underwater inhabitants) to reach Queen Padme Amidala, the planet’s 14 year-old ruler. They save her and her entourage, before making their escape from Naboo. Due to a failing power converter, the entire party make an emergency landing on the remote Tatooine in order to find the parts to fix the ship. In one of Tatooine’s major cities, Mos Espa; Qui-Gon, Padme (who is disguised as a royal handmaiden), and Jar-Jar meet a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker. It is not long before Qui-Gon Their meeting will prove to not only have major consequences on the outcome between Naboo and the Trade Federation, but also upon the galaxy.

My recent viewing of “THE PHANTOM MENACE” made me realize that after 13 years, I still love the movie. Nothing has changed my view of the movie, including the addition of the 3D effects. However, I cannot deny that “THE PHANTOM MENACE” is perfect. I have my complaints. My major complaint was Lucas’ addition of the 3D effects. They were not impressive. I had expected them to be, considering the outstanding 3D effects of the updated STAR WARS attractions at the Disney amusement parks. But the movie’s effects proved to be a poor comparison and a not-so-surprising disappointment. My second complaint centered around the use of Tatooine as a setting. In fact, the saga’s use of Tatooine has proven to be a major disappointment since the first movie, 1977’s “A NEW HOPE”. Aside from a few sequences, Tatooine proved to be a major bore. After Qui-Gon and Padme’s first meeting with Anakin, I had to struggle to stay awake before the podrace sequence. Lucas’ slow pacing and John Williams’ less-than-stellar score nearly put me to sleep. The only movie in which Tatooine proved to be interesting from start to finish was 2002’s“ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. I realize that many STAR WARS fans dislike the Gungans and specifically, one Jar-Jar Binks. There are times that I feel I could write a detailed essay on the fans’ dislike of Jar-Jar, but this is not the time or place for such an article. Although I harbor no dislike of Jar-Jar, there were a few times when I had some difficulty understanding his and the other Gungans’ dialogue.

It may not be perfect, but I cannot deny that I found “THE PHANTOM MENACE” enjoyable as ever. George Lucas wrote a complex, yet comprehensive tale that set in motion the downfall of the Galactic Republic, the Jedi Order and most of the major characters.“THE PHANTOM MENACE” offered a great deal for all ages and tastes. It provided a complex political tale that culminated in an exciting military battle that freed Naboo from the clutches of the Trade Federation. It provided an exciting duel between the two Jedi – Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan – and Sith Lord Darth Sidious’ apprentice, Darth Maul. The movie provided characters such as a nine year-old Anakin Skywalker, his Tatooine friends and Jar-Jar Binks for children. But the one thing that really impressed me was the exciting Boonta Eve Podrace that Anakin participated in order to win parts for Qui-Gon, Padme and their ship. In fact, if I had to choose my favorite sequence in the entire STAR WARS movie saga, it had to be the one featuring the podrace. This sequence began with the Skywalkers, Qui-Gon, Padme and Jar-Jar arriving at the Mos Espa arena and ended aboard the Nabooan starship when Qui-Gon introduced Anakin to Obi-Wan, following his brief duel with Darth Maul.

“THE PHANTOM MENACE” provided some solid acting, despite George Lucas’ cheesy dialogue. This is no surprise, considering that a combination of solid acting and cheesy dialogue has been the hallmark of STAR WARS movies since the first one in 1977. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ahmed Best, Hugh Quarshie, Terence Stamp, Andrew Secombe and Ray Parks all did solid work. It was nice to hear vocals from STAR WARS veterans Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker. The movie also featured brief moments for British stars such as Keira Knightley, Oliver Ford-Davies, Celia Imrie, Brian Blessed, and Richard Armitage. But there were a few performances that stood out. One came from Ian McDiarmid, who returned to portray Senator Palpatine of Naboo aka Darth Sidious for the second time in his career. Unlike his portrayal of Palpatine in 1983’s“RETURN OF THE JEDI”, his performance was a great deal more subtle and layered with much charm. Jake Lloyd may not have been the best child actor in existence, but I cannot deny that his Anakin Skywalker was like a ball of solar energy that charmed the pants off of me. The good-bye scene between Anakin and his mother, Shmi was one of the most poignant in the saga. Both Lloyd and Pernilla August did such a superb job that their performances brought tears to my eyes. And aside from a few wooden moments, I thought he handled the role rather well. But if I had to choose the best performance in the movie, I would select Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. First of all, he did a great job in conveying Qui-Gon’s warmth and appeal. He made it easy for many to see why both Anakin and Obi-Wan viewed him as a father figure.

Since this is a STAR WARS movie, one might as well discuss the technical aspects of “THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Without a doubt, it is a beautiful looking movie. It was so beautiful that I did not know who to single out. But I can think of a few. First of all cinematographer David Tattersall did a beautiful job in photographing the movie’s locations of England, Tunisia and especially Italy. Thanks to Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s editing, the podrace and the Battle of Naboo proved to be two of the best sequences in the movie. And what can I say about Trisha Biggar’s dazzling costume designs? Just how beautiful are they? Take a look:

 

It seems a crime that Biggar’s work was never acknowledged by the Academy Arts of Motion Pictures and Sciences or the Golden Globes. At least she won a Saturn Award for the costumes in this movie.

However, it was George Lucas who put it altogether in the end. Twenty-two years had passed between the time he directed “A NEW HOPE” and “THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Personally, I thought he did a pretty damn good job. The 1999 movie was not perfect. And if I must be perfectly frank, I was not impressed by the movie’s 3D effects. But I am glad that I went to see “THE PHANTOM MENACE” in the movie theaters again. It reminded me that the STAR WARS saga had not lost its magic on the big screen.

“PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME” (2010) Review

“PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME” (2010) Review

Recently, I had listened to a radio talk show in which a movie reviewer compared Disney’s new movie, ”PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME” to the 1962 Oscar winning film, ”LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”. Much to the detriment of the Disney film. And as I sat there and listened to him bash ”PRINCE OF PERSIA”, it occurred to me that there still were plenty of idiots in this world . . . including radio disc jockeys. 

Directed by Mike Newell and based upon the 2003 video game, ”PRINCE OF PERSIA” is about an orphaned street urchin in sixth century Persia named Dastan whose gallant and courageous act at a marketplace attracts the attention of King Sharaman and leads to his adoption into the Royal Family. Fifteen years later, Dastan, his royal-blooded foster brothers, Prince Tus and Prince Garsiv, and his uncle, Prince Nizam are planning an attack on the sacred city of Alamut, which is believed to be selling weapons to their enemies. However, Persia’s successful invasion of Alamut eventually leads to a great deal of trouble for Dastan, when he is framed for the assassination of the king. With the help of Tamina, Princess of Alamut, Dastan eventually discovers that the invasion was nothing more than a means for the real assassin to search for a magical dagger that Dastan has already managed to get his hands on. The dagger enables to bearer to travel back in time. The assassin wants to use the dagger to overthrow the Persian Royal Family and seize the throne.

I had mixed feelings about watching ”PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME”. A part of me was attracted to the idea of viewing another Disney live-action movie with a fantasy setting. Another part of me recalled my disappointment over Tim Burton’s rather flaccid movie, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Attraction and curiosity won out and I went to see the movie . . . despite my low expectations. Needless to say, I ended up enjoying the movie a lot.

Granted, the movie had its share of flaws. First of all, one had to endure some of the over-the-top dialogue that has plagued movies like ”SPIDER-MAN”, and from the ”STAR WARS””LORD OF THE RINGS” and ”THE MUMMY” franchises. Some of the action sequences that featured actor Jake Gyllenhaal jumping all over the place struck me as a tad too frantic. It almost seemed as if Mike Newell and cinematographer John Seale had channeled Paul Greengrass and photographer Oliver Wood from the”BOURNE” movies. I love actor Alfred Molina. I have been a fan of his for years. But I must admit that I found his performance as an ostrich racing-organizer named Sheik Ama waaaay over-the-top. Speaking of ostrich racing . . . WHAT THE HELL? I have never seen anything so ludicrous in my life. I mean . . . I could understand camel racing or even horse racing. But ostrich racing?

Yes, I do have some quibbles about the movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an example of artistic Hollywood movie making at its height. It is certainly not the best movie of this summer. But dammit! I liked it a lot. One, screenwriters Jordan Mechner, Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard wrote a very entertaining adaptation of the video game. I am certainly not familiar with it, but I did like the story. Not only was it filled with plenty of action and fantasy, it had a good, solid mystery over the identity of King Sharaman’s assassin. This mystery also served as the background of a well-written family drama involving Dastan and the Persian Royal Family. Most importantly, the movie’s script featured a funny and spirited romance between Dastan and Princess Tamina.

Speaking of the cast, I never thought I would see the day when I actually enjoy a sword-and-sand fantasy that featured Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead. He is not the type of actor I would associate with a costume movie from the Disney Studios. I must admit that for the movie’s first ten to twenty minutes, I found it difficult to accept Gyllenhaal in the role of a street urchin-turned-adopted member of the Persian Royal Family. But he seemed to be doing such a good job and I was becoming engrossed in the movie that I eventually overcame any unnecessary problems I had with him in the role. Most importantly, Gyllenhaal had great chemistry with Gemma Arterton, who portrayed Tamina. The only other movie I had seen Arterton in was the latest James Bond movie,”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. Honestly? I had not been that impressed by her performance in that movie. But I was impressed by her performance as Princess Tamina. She gave the character a strength and drive rarely seen in female roles from the past five or six summers. She also seemed to have better chemistry with actors that are from her generation . . . like Gyllenhaal.

Ben Kingsley gave a very subtle performance as Dastan’s adopted uncle, Prince Nizam. He did a great job in portraying the one character that acted as the Persian Royal Family’s backbone. Both Richard Coyle and Toby Kebbell gave solid performances as Dastan’s two royal brothers. However, I must admit that I did not find them particularly memorable. Steve Toussaint did a good job in portraying the dependable, yet intimidating Ngbaka knife thrower Seso. I certainly enjoyed his performance more than I did Alfred Molina’s. It seemed a pity that the latter’s character annoyed me so much. I also have to commend Gísli Örn Garðarsson, who portrayed the leader of the Hassansins, hired to kill Dastan and recover the dagger. For a character that did not say much, I found his performance particularly intimidating.

I have another confession. I was not that particularly enamored of Mike Newell’s direction of the 2005 movie, ”HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE”. And when I heard that he was the director of ”PRINCE OF PERSIA” . . . well, I was not expecting to be impressed by his latest work. ”GOBLET OF FIRE” had convinced me that Newell should avoid the science-fiction/fantasy genre. However, his direction of ”PRINCE OF PERSIA” proved me wrong. Sure, I could have done without some of the frantic action sequences. And I would never consider the movie to be on the same level as the ”PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” movies. But I thought it was a pretty damn entertaining film.

Which brings me back to the radio disc jockey. Why did I consider him an idiot for comparing ”PRINCE OF PERSIA” to”LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”? Who, in their right mind, would compare a summer Disney movie based upon a video game, with an Oscar winning film about a World War I hero? Who would be stupid enough to do this? Apparently that radio disc jockey was stupid enough to do so. And why did he do this? Because both movies were set in the Middle East. Go figure.

“TWO THUMBS UP!” [G] – 1/1

Here is a “CHARMED” fanfic I had written over six years ago. It is an Alternate Universe story set in Season 5:

———

“TWO THUMBS UP!”

RATING: [G]
SUMMARY: Old and new movies become a topic for Cole and the McNeills, and in turn, he rediscovers an old favorite movie series. Set three days after “Neighbors”.
FEEDBACK: deerush76@yahoo.com – Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: Cole Turner, the Charmed Ones, Leo and other characters related to Charmed belong to Spelling, Kern, Burge and WB. Dammit!

NOTE: I suggest that you read “Neighbors”, to get an idea of how Cole became acquainted with Olivia McNeill and her family.

————-

One stream of bright light flickered inside the wide room, located on the ground floor of the McNeill manor. The light came from a large television set, situated on one side of the room. It seemed almost as large as a movie screen. On the other side, the McNeill family and two guests occupied seats and the sofa, as they watched the movie being shown on the television screen. An old movie called SUNSET BOULEVARD.

Cole Turner held his breath, as he watched the final tragic moments of the movie played out before his eyes. Once it ended in its famous fade-out, he let out a gust of breath. Someone turned off the television and the CD player attached to it. Another switched on the lights.

A deep sigh escaped the mouth of the 78 year-old Elise McNeill. “Great movie, wasn’t it?” she said to no one in particular.

“Are you kidding?” Cole replied. “I’ve been a fan of “SUNSET BOULEVARD”, since I first saw it over fifty years ago.” All eyes focused upon him. “What?” he demanded. “That’s when I first saw the movie.”

A cross between a smile and a smirk touched Olivia McNeill’s lips. “I suppose that you also saw Gloria Swanson and Bill Holden at the premiere.”

Cole rolled his eyes. “Of course not,” he retorted. Then he paused dramatically. “But I did appear in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. One of their early ones called “THE GAY DIVORCEE”.”

The McNeills, much to Cole’s amusement, stared at him in shock. Olivia’s dad, Jack, was the first to recover. He added sarcastically, “Now that I have got to see. Who did you play? One of the background dancers?”

“No. Just a guest at the seaside resort, in the second half of the movie. You know, during that ‘The Continental’ dance number.”

Jack chuckled slightly. “Next thing you’ll be telling us is that you were an extra in “BEN-HUR’ – both the 1925 and the 1959 versions.”

Cole smirked. “Sorry. I have never developed a taste for Biblical movies. Not quite my forte.”

The McNeill matriarch looked upon her guest with envy. “Well, I’ll be damned. An extra in an Astaire-Rogers movie. You lucky man.” She sighed. “They certainly knew how to make movies, back then.”

Groans from the other McNeills filled the room. Doubt creased Cole’s forehead. “You think so? Hollywood movies haven’t really changed much, as far as I’m concerned. Just the usual batch of good movies, along with the usual crap. Both then and now.”

“Are you serious?” the elderly woman demanded. She stared at Cole, as if he had just committed sacrilege.

Cole opened his mouth to speak. Fortunately, the youngest McNeill sibling came to his defense. “Oh, c’mon Gran!” Harry cried. “You’re not going to start that ‘they don’t make movies like they used to’ stuff again, are you? I can think of plenty of old movies that you don’t like!”

“Oh? Name one.”

Harry replied, “I’ll name more than one. “GUNGA DIN”, “CIMARRON”, “STELLA DALLAS”, “BACK TO BATAAN”, “STRANGE CARGO” . . .” A long list of movies continued to roll off his tongue. He added, “And I can think of many recent movies that you love. “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE”, “BULLETS OVER BROADWAY”, “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, all of the Indiana Jones movies, ““X-MEN” . . .”

“Wait.” Cole faced Mrs. McNeill. “You actually liked “X-MEN”? I didn’t think it would be your type of movie.”

Mrs. McNeill shot her younger grandson a dark look. “Actually, it’s not bad. It could have been longer. I thought the theme of bigotry was interesting. And I found it interesting that the characters had powers similar to ours, while being called mutants.”

Bruce McNeill, who was Olivia’s older brother and a younger version of Jack McNeill, added, “Oh yeah. Olivia has red hair and telekinesis – like that Jean Grey character. Mystique is a shapeshifter, like Dad and me. Storm has electokinesis, like Mom. And like Gran and Harry, Professor Xavier is a telepath, who can control the minds of others. Come to think of it, you have that power, right?” he said to Cole.

The other man nodded. “But I can’t read minds. Only send telepathic messages.”

“And don’t forget that you have a self-healing power as well,” Olivia added. “Like Wolverine.”

Bruce rolled his eyes in mild disgust. “Oh Lord! I wondered if you were going to bring up old Wolvie. I forgot that you’re a big fan of his.”

An indignant Olivia shot back, “I happen to be a fan of the actor who played him! Hugh Jackman.”

“Who?” Cole asked. “Are you talking about the guy with the sideburns and claws, who dresses like trailer trash?”

Chortling, Harry replied, “That’s him!”

Cole grunted. “Huh. If you ask me, I think they chose the wrong actor to play this Wolfman. In the comic books, he was at least 5’3″ tall.”

“His name is Wol-ver-ine!” an irritated Olivia retorted. “Not Wolfman!”

This time, Cole snorted. “Wolfman, Wol-ver-ine, what’s the difference?”

“Has anyone ever told you that you might be perverse? The difference is that Wol-ver . . . I mean, Wolverine is not a character from a Universal horror movie!”

Cole rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Like I said, the guy in the comic books is at least 5’3″. This Wol-ver-ine who’s in the movie,” he ignored Olivia’s dark glance, “is at least six feet tall.”

Olivia added with more enthusiasm than Cole cared for, “Six-feet-two-inches tall. Hugh Jackman is 6’2″ and is from Australia.”

“Really?” Cole replied with a small smirk. “I didn’t realize you had a thing for 6’2″ Australians. Since I’m the same height, would it help if I adapt an Australian accent?”

Staring pointedly at the half-daemon, Olivia shot back, “Unless you happened to be a shapeshifter and can morph into Hugh Jackman, you would be wasting your time.”

Cole responded with another smirk.

“Maybe if Hugh Jackman had been in “THE ENGLISH PATIENT”,” Harry added, “Olivia might have actually liked it.”

Mrs. McNeill shook her head in disbelief. “I really don’t understand you sometimes, Livy. You can’t stand “THE ENGLISH PATIENT”, but you’re crazy about “LOVE STORY”?”

Olivia retorted, ““LOVE STORY” doesn’t put me to sleep. And “THE ENGLISH PATIENT” does. I mean, c’mon Gran! It’s so damn long!”

“Long movies don’t bother me,” Gweneth McNeill commented, in her soft Welsh voice. “If it’s done properly, that is. Like “LORD OF THE RINGS”. The first one – “FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”.” Sighs of deep satisfaction from the McNeills, filled the room. Joined by Cole’s own contented sigh. The middle-aged version of Olivia stared at him. “Oh. I didn’t realize you saw that movie.”

Cole replied, “At least five times. I’ve also read the Tolkien novels, and once met the author at Oxford, back in the late 40s.”

Bruce asked, “What about the others? Your in-laws? Did they liked it?”

Cole hesitated as he remembered. “Well, both Paige and Leo loved it. Especially Paige. She saw it seven times. Phoebe . . . like it a lot. At first. But after two times, she got tired of it. And as for Piper . . . well, I don’t think she really cared for it. In fact, I don’t think she liked fantasy movies that much.”

“Rather odd for a woman who reads fairy tales to her unborn child,” Olivia commented dryly. “At least according to Leo.”

“Perhaps impending motherhood has made her changed her mind,” Cole said with a shrug.

Bruce added, “Makes me wonder how Piper felt about the latest “STAR WARS” movie.”

Surprise caused Cole’s heart to leap. “New “STAR WARS” movie? I had heard about it, but I never got to see it.” He added wryly, “Considering I was trapped in the Wasteland at the time.”

“You’re a “STAR WARS” fan?” Bruce stared at Cole.

Bruce’s father nodded. “That’s right! Now, I remember. When Gwen and I were trying to keep that amulet from Cole back in ’77, we had a friend trail him all over London.” Jack turned to Cole. “She told me that you saw the original “STAR WARS” four times.”

“Wow!” The word came out of Harry’s mouth like a gunshot.

Incredulity was stamped on Cole’s face, as he stared at Jack McNeill. “You had me followed? How?”

“Oh, due to an associate of yours named Orobas. Of course, he was in human form at the time we had captured him.” Jack continued. “Oddly enough, he didn’t really put up a fight when we . . . uh, persuaded him to tell us about you. In fact, he didn’t even bother to lie.”

Cole rolled his eyes in disgust. “Damn Orobas. He always prided himself on being honest. That damn honesty of his nearly got me killed.” Then he asked, “But how was your friend able to . . .?”

A knowing smile stretched Jack’s lips. “Teleportation. Our friend possessed it. She blinked. Made it easy for her to track you. And no, she wasn’t a warlock. There are a good number of witches who can blink. Like Olivia’s friend, Nathalie Green.”

“Unbelievable,” Cole murmured with disbelief. “By the way, speaking of that new “STAR WARS” movie . . .”

Olivia spoke up, “It’s called “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Unfortunately, the movie has been pulled out of the regular theaters since last August.”

Disappointment reflected in Cole’s voice. “Oh.”

Olivia continued, “However, it has been re-released in the IMAX theaters. Just recently.”

“Really?” Cole failed to repress the hope in his tone. “Is uh, is anyone in the mood for Jedi Knights and the Force, tomorrow night?”

* * * *

The last strains of John Williams’ score filled the dark theater. Cole stared at screen, still in a trance over the movie he had just watched. After the last credits disappeared, the lights brightened the theater. Cole heaved a long sigh.

“What did you think?” Olivia asked. She, along with Bruce, Harry and Bruce’s fiancée, Barbara Bowen, had accompanied Cole to the movies, tonight. The entire party of five stood to their feet and edged their way toward the aisle. “Did you like it?”

Another gust of breath left Cole’s mouth. “Are you kidding? I loved it! How many time have all of you seen it?”

“Bruce and I saw it three times, before tonight,” answered the blond and gregarious Barbara. She linked arms with her fiancé.

Harry added, “This is the sixth time I’ve seen it. And for Olivia,” he nodded at his sister, “this would be her ninth time.”

“Tonight would be my seventh time, moron.” Olivia gave Harry a quick jab in the arm. “Learn to keep count.” Then she turned to Cole. “As for you . . . Dad wasn’t kidding. You really are a “STAR WARS” fan!”

Cole explained that the second movie in the series, “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, happened to be his favorite. “But this new one might turn out to be my second favorite. A very close second. I think for the very first time, I’m really beginning to see both trilogies as one continuing saga. And that actor who played Anakin Skywalker . . .” He shook his head. “Whew! That was some scene when he confessed to that massacre.”

“Wasn’t it marvelous?” Olivia cooed. “Hell, I didn’t know whether to be frightened out of my wits or feel sorry for him. Maybe a little of both.”

Barbara added, “I’ve heard that a lot of fans couldn’t understand why Padme Amidala would marry Anakin after that confession.”

“Maybe they can’t understand that she loves him, no matter what,” Olivia replied, drawing stares from the others. Especially Cole. The five people stepped out of the theater and into the night. “Padme seems like the type who’s willing to accept others for themselves. And she’s very compassionate and forgiving. There aren’t many people like that in real life.” Cole frowned, as he found himself musing over Olivia’s words.

A wry smile touched Bruce’s lips. “I forgot that Anakin Skywalker happens to be Livy’s favorite character.”

Olivia gave her older brother a knowing look. “Qui-Gon Jinn from “THE PHANTOM MENACE” is my favorite character.” She paused. “Anakin happens to be my second favorite.”

“Well, he happens to be my favorite,” Cole interjected. He smiled mischievously. “Even when he was Darth Vader.”

Cole, the McNeills and Barbara reached the theater’s parking lot. They exchanged goodnights, before Bruce, Harry and Barbara entered the former’s dark-blue Jaguar. Seconds later, Cole and Olivia climbed into his black Porsche convertible. As the Porsche sped along one of the streets, Olivia asked Cole how long since he had been back from the Wasteland.

“On a permanent basis? Since last September,” Cole replied. “Why?”

The cool wind ruffled Olivia’s red hair. “I don’t know. I wondered how many summer movies you may have missed, this year. I mean, we had “SPIDER-MAN” . . .”

“I saw it,” Cole said, interrupting her. Olivia stared at him. “Right before I had been vanquished. Wasn’t bad. The drama was better than the action.”

A quirky smile stretched Olivia’s lips. “It was also the number one movie, this year . . . believe it or not. And it’s on video and DVD. So is that new Jack Ryan movie, “THE SUM OF ALL FEARS”. Now that’s pretty good, although most critics had put it down.”

“What else did I miss?” Cole asked.

“Well . . .” Olivia rambled off a list of movies, including “SIGNS”, and “MEN IN BLACK II”. So far, there have been two new spy movies – a new version of “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” – which is pretty good – and “XXX”. And a new James Bond movie is supposed to be released in about a week. “DIE ANOTHER DAY”, I think. And there was “ROAD TO PERDITION”.” She heaved a heartfelt sigh.

As the Porsche reached an intersection, Cole eased it to a stop. He glanced at his companion. “I take it that you enjoyed that very much.”

“Hell, it was great!” an enthusiastic Olivia crowed. “It’s a gangster movie with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. Set in the early 1930s.”

Cole wondered if he had heard right. “Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in a gangster movie?”

“Yep. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Hanks played a hitman for the mob. He turns against his boss, Newman, after his wife and younger son is murdered by Newman’s son. Real nut case, by the way. I loved it! Very complex.”

Cole murmured, “I’ve got to see this. Unless . . . it’s out of the theaters by now. Right?”

“Well, I know it’s still playing at this theater in Sausalito. We can go see it tomorrow, if you like.”

For a moment, Cole hesitated. “ROAD TO PERDITION” sounded interesting, but he still had another movie in mind. “Sounds great,” he said. “But can it wait until we see “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” again?” He stared at Olivia. Who stared right back. Then she smiled. “What?”

“You should see the look on your face right now. You look like a young and very eager Anakin Skywalker,” Olivia replied, the smile still fixed on her face.

Cole grunted and the light turned green. He stepped on the gas and the Porsche shot forward. “Funny that you should say that. Because you also remind me of someone from the movie.”

“Like who?”

“Padme.”

From the corner of his eye, Cole saw Olivia frown. “Padme? Anakin’s Padme? I don’t see how. I’m not exactly the reserved type. In fact, I can barely keep my mouth shut.”

Cole smiled. “Maybe. But like Padme, you’ve got a very big heart. What did you call her? Compassionate?”

The Porsche approached another intersection and stopped. Cole turned to face Olivia. Thanks to the street lamp above, he noticed that her face nearly matched the color of her hair. “Are you . . . blushing?” he asked.

Her eyes fixed on the street light, Olivia quickly shot back, “I’m not blushing! I’m . . .” She glared at Cole, who allowed himself another smile. A huff escaped her mouth. “Never mind!”

“If you say so.”

Seconds later, the light turned green. Cole allowed himself a private smile, as the Porsche quickly roared into the night.

THE END