Star Wars: The Clone Wars

It’s no secret that I love Star Wars — and not just “the old ones” but all six movies: their mythic scope, their conceptual and visual inventiveness, the cheesy characters and blunt dialogue, the structural complexity, the joy they take in speed and color. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the all-new animated Star Wars adventure, is a worthy addition to the original six-film cycle, staying true to the spirit of the series while overhauling it in a number of important ways. Read the rest of my review on About.com.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Dave Filoni, 2008. ****

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The Dark Knight vs. Revenge of the Sith

Like any critic who dared to show themselves less than impressed with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight juggernaut, I caught a lot of abuse for my dismissive review. Being called a mouth-breathing mountain dweller and a hat-wearing Brooklynite is fine by me, but when my nerd cred was insulted, I knew it was time for a fanboy throwdown: The Dark Knight vs. my favorite film of 2005, George Lucas’s much-maligned pop masterpiece Revenge of the Sith.

Click over to About.com to read why Star Wars beats Batman in every respect — and then I’ll promise to return to your regularly scheduled coverage of art house films, including the lovely In Search for a Midnight Kiss, Johnny To’s Mad Detective, and the much anticipated Fear(s) of the Dark.

Attack of the Clones: The First 90 Seconds

Prompted by a comment at The House Next Door, here’s a contribution to Edward Copeland’s Star Wars blogathon: a close reading of the opening minute and a half of Attack of the Clones.

The beginning of Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones isn’t quite in the league of the overhead star destroyer of the original film or the bravura extended space battle take of Episode III, but it sets the scene for a moody second act. The very first shot, the traditional pan toward a planet that follows every Star Wars crawl, moves upward, toward the city planet Coruscant. We see two Naboo fighters and Amidala’s royal cruiser. (In The Phantom Menace, she flies a “yacht” and in Revenge of the Sith a”star skiff,” but they’re always silver.) I adore the deep growl of Amidala’s ship–this sound is the first thing that makes me happy to be watching this movie.


The ships begin spinning around their axes, putting the lie to our idea of up and down. By the second shot, the camera has spun too, and now we descend toward the surface of Coruscant. Right away, this introduces the theme of Attack of the Clones: nothing is what it seems. The Star Wars cycle consists of a tragic half and a comic half (otherwise known as “the prequel trilogy” and “the classic trilogy“), and Episode II is the second act of the tragic half, a time of schemes, subterfuge, and confusion.

Next, in the first of the film’s many stagy interiors that I like to enjoy as intentionally campy allusions to Flash Gordon, a person we only see from behind is addressed as Senator. This makes the first word spoken in this film a lie.

In Star Wars, everything keeps repeating, but with variations. In this case, whenever somebody’s name requires a honorific, it will be unique: Emperor, Boss, Vice-Roy, Supreme Chancellor, Hutt, Princess, what-have-you. By the same token, there are always new planets as well as new vistas of old ones: this time, Coruscant, which we’ve already seen, is covered in fog, again hitting the theme of deception and mystery. The trails left in the clouds by the tips of the cruiser’s wings please me. This shot also echoes the approach to Cloud City, in the second part of the comic half.



The following shot of the landing spaceships plays a peculiar trick on our attention: we think we’re looking at Amidala’s ship, but as it passes, we realize that we were watching the fighter flying alongside all along. And of course: here comes, announced by his signature noise, the first recognizable character in the film, the comic sidekick who knows as much as anyone in the series, the guy who has the first word in Episode IV and the last in Episode III: the real hero of the show, R2-D2. (The mindboggling first shot of Revenge of the Sith comes, after an actual kitchen sink explodes on screen, to rest on him.)

My minute and a half is about up now, but the rest of the scene continues the theme of deception and duplicity. It also caps the decoy storyline that was central to The Phantom Menace. Next to its visual imagination, the iconic success of Star Wars rests on its rigorous but inventive structuring: Lucas often begins and ends familiar stories in unpredictable ways. The belated death of Padme’s double exemplifies this Star Wars principle. For instance, Revenge of the Sith begins with what could have been the climax of Clones--much like the opening forty minutes of Return of the Jedi could have provided a more upbeat ending to The Empire Strikes Back. Each act of the two halves (which wrap around like Moebius strips) corresponds to its counterpart: Menace/Hope, Attack/Strikes Back, Revenge/Return.

My point is this: the first 90 seconds of Attack of the Clones, ominously scored by John Williams, set up the next 8430 very well. They promise more visual splendors, more games played with archetypal structure, more explosions, more tacky dialogue delivered to the hilt. Clones was the film that got me excited about Star Wars again after initial disappointment with Phantom Meance. It satisfies by itself, makes Episode I a better movie, and lays the groundwork for the superlative payoff of Revenge of the Sith.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. George Lucas, 2002. *****

Cleopatra, Sith, Death Proof

Prompted by the grand finale of Rome, we took another look at Cleopatra, which is one of those movies I can rewatch every few years. Compare-and-contrast is a fun enough game, and Marcy, who was never entirely sure which of the HBO characters were fictional, was entertained by noting differences in motivation and plot. Every frame of Cleopatra must have cost more than an entire episode of Rome, but the storytelling is much more contemporary on HBO. The movie nearly bankrupted Fox because it was designed to trump TV by outspending it. Forty years later, it has been shown up by… a TV show. But the images are still twice as wide, and the characters twice as grand.

Here’s what fascinated me, though: the palatial sets, outlandish backdrops, and outsized drama of Cleopatra resemble another, much more recent epic about larger-than-life figures. Along with forties serials, The Hidden Fortress, Ray Harryhausen and all the other usual suspects, there is no doubt that the Cinemascope epics of the fifties and sixties, and specifically Cleopatra, served as a blueprint for the Star Wars films. Archetypes in ever-morphing hairdos and caped costumes acting out eternal tragedies and reciting awkward, overwritten lines of dialogue — especially Revenge of the Sith, the episode in which the galactic shit hits the fan, is the spiritual and cinematic heir of Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s four-and-a-half-hour epic.

Read on for more about Star Wars, Grindhouse, and why Jar-Jar Binks is cooler than Stuntman Mike. Also, lots more screenshots.

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