“INTO THE STORM” (2014) Review

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“INTO THE STORM” (2014) Review

When I first learned about the theater release of the 2014 disaster movie, “INTO THE STORM”, my first instinct was to go see it. The summer of 2014 proved to be a very hot and dry one for Southern California. And I had longed to see rain of any kind – even on the movie screen. But in the end, I never did. 

Caution eventually overrode my desire to see “INTO THE STORM” and I had decided to skip it. After all, movie tickets these days are not as cheap as they used to be. I was enduring a period of financial straits at the time. And “INTO THE STORM” had been released in August . . . a graveyard period for summer movies. So, I decided to watch the movie after it was released on DVD. And you know what? The movie turned out to be everything I had imagined.

“INTO THE STORM” is basically as disaster movie about how a team of storm chasers and citizens of a small Oklahoma town deal with a series of major tornadoes and rain storms. The movie begins with the deaths of a group of teenagers killed by a major tornado in some nameless small town. Unfortunately, the storm chasers led by a wealthy man named Peter Moore, failed to be in the storm’s vicinity, thanks to the team’s meteorologist, Dr. Allison Stone. The latter eventually discovers another storm/tornado heading in the direction of Sillerton, Oklahoma. Among the Sillerton citizens unaware of the incoming storms are Gary Fuller, vice-principal of the local high school and his two sons, Donnie and Trey; and Donnie’s fellow classmate, Kaitlyn Johnston. Since his wife’s death, Gary has been somewhat withdrawn and brusque toward his sons. Donnie seems to resent his father’s cold behavior, despite his willingness to video record the upcoming graduation ceremony for the town’s time capsule. In fact, Donnie has no trouble handing over the video recording task to younger brother Trey, when the latter suggests he do the job. Instead, Donnie helps Kaitlyn video record a school project at an abandoned paper mill as a means to get emotionally close to her. In the end, the lives of the Fuller family, other Sillerton citizens, Allison, Pete and the rest of the storm chasing team are endangered by on coming hail storms and tornadoes.

I would never classify “INTO THE STORM” as a major disaster movie on the scale of “EARTHQUAKE” or “2012”. It felt more like a small scale production limited to a small town or farm community setting. To be honest, it reminded me of movies like “DANTE’S PEAK” or “TWISTER”. Especially the latter. And like the last two mentioned films, “INTO THE STORM” almost seemed to have a B-movie veneer. Only the film’s special effects, which impressed me very much, made it difficult for me to view it as a B-movie. In the end, I am not surprised that “INTO THE STORM” was released in August.

Brining up “TWISTER” reminded me that this movie has more in common with the 1995 movie than any other. Both featured the following – heavy rain, hail, tornadoes, storm chasers and a Midwest setting. “TWISTER” was publicized as more of an “A” quality film and featured well-known actors in the lead. And yet . . . I came away feeling more impressed with “INTO THE STORM”. How odd. Mind you, “INTO THE STORM” was not perfect. As I had earlier pointed out, it seemed to have a B-movie veneer about it, despite the production values and special effects. But the movie also possessed two aspects that failed to impress me. One, I could have done without the two yahoos who had decided to face the storms for the sake of thrills. I found their characters so idiotic and not worthy of remembering their names. And two, I was not that impressed with the movie’s dénouement in which the storms’ survivors express their relief over being alive and what their experiences meant to them. I found the sequence a bit wince inducing, pretentious and a bore. I honestly could have dealt without the “meaning of life” speeches.

Despite these annoyances, “INTO THE STORM” proved to be an entertaining movie for me. Director Steven Quale and John Swetnam’s screenplay kept the narrative taut, well-paced and to the point. Some might say that the screenplay could have delved more into the characters’ background before placing them in the midst of the storm. I am not sure if such a ploy would have been necessary. The few scenes that focused on the private lives of the Fuller family and the storm chasers pretty much told me all I needed to know about them. Swetnam was pretty blunt about the characters’ personalities and their situations in their lives before the storms hit Sillerton. I also have to comment on the movie’s production values. I was very impressed by Brian Pearson’s photography. Surprisingly, the movie was shot in Michigan, instead of Oklahoma. Michigan or Oklahoma, I cannot deny that I found Pearson’s photography sharp, colorful and rather beautiful. Pearson’s photography also enhanced the work of the movie’s special effects team. Speaking of speacial effects . . . I thought the movie makers did an outstanding job in creating both the storms and tornadoes featured in the movie. I was especially impressed by the movie’s last tornado and one particular scene in which one of the characters ended up in the center of the storm – namely the eye.

I was also surprised that “INTO THE STORM” avoided the usual cliché of a romance between the two leading characters. There was a great deal of potential for romance between the Gary Fuller and Allison Stone characters. Both were portrayed by very attractive performers. Gary Fuller was a widower with two sons and Allison Stone was a single mother with a five year-old daughter. Whether she was divorced or single, I have no idea. The chemistry between the two seemed pretty obvious when they first met. And yet Swetnam’s screenplay merely allowed them to become friendly acquaintances and co-survivors . . . and nothing else. I would have been disappointed, if I had not found their lack of a romance surprisingly refreshing.

Considering that “INTO THE STORM” was not exactly a major Hollywood production, I felt rather relieved that the cast managed to give decent performances. Aside from the two actors who played the two thrill seeking yahoos, I was very satisfied with the rest of the cast. Both Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies clicked on screen as Gary Fuller and Dr. Allison Stone, despite the fact that they were not portraying a romantic pair. And Armitage’s American accent struck me as a bit of an improvement over his accent in 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. Max Deacon and Nathan Kress gave solid support as Fuller’s two sons – Donnie and Trey. I could also say the same about Alycia Debnam Carey, who portrayed Kaitlyn Johnston, and the actors who portrayed other members of Pete Moore’s storm chasing team. Speaking of the Pete Moore character, he struck me as quite a pip. I could not decide whether to like or dislike him. And I have to give kudos to Matt Walsh for making him such an effectively ambiguous character. I thought he gave the best performance in the movie.

In a nutshell, “INTO THE STORM” did not strike me as a particularly mind blowing or memorable film. I am not saying that it was terrible or even mediocre. I would say that it was a pretty solid and entertaining film, despite its flaws or 89 minute running time. I thought director Steven Quale did a good job in creating a decent film, backed by superb special effects and competent acting by a solid cast led by Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies.

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

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“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 nineteen 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 back in 2012, 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 19 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 had not lost its magic on the big screen.

 

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

I had nothing against the news of New Line Cinema’s attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” for the screen. But I had no idea that the studio, along with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Brothers would end up stringing out the adaptation into three movies. Three. That seemed a lot for a 300-page novel. The first chapter in this three-page adaptation turned out to be the 2012 release, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”

Peter Jackson, who had directed the adaptation of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy over a decade ago, returned to direct an earlier chapter of the author’s tales about Middle Earth. He nearly did not make it to the director’s chair. Guillermo del Toro was the first choice as director. However, del Toro Del left the project in May 2010 working with Jackson and the latter’s production team, due to delays caused in part by financial problems at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He did remain with the project long enough to co-write the movie’s screenplay with Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. To my utter amazement, the efforts of the four screenwriters and Jackson’s direction has produced a good number of negative backlash against the film. Ironically, most of the film’s backlash has been directed at Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s use of high frame rate for the film’s look. Others have simply complained about the movie’s length and its inability to match the quality of the “LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy released between 2001 and 2003.

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began on the elderly Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday (shown in the 2001 movie), when he decides to recount the full story of an adventure he had experienced 60 years ago, for his nephew Frodo. Bilbo first reveals how the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor was taken over by a gold-loving dragon named Smaug. The Erebor Dwarves are scattered throughout Middle Earth. The Dwarf King Thrór was killed by an Orc, when he tried to settle his people in Moria. His son, Thráin II, was driven mad from one of the Rings handed over to his ancestor by Sauron before dying. Thráin II’s son, Thorin Oakenshield, became determined to not only recover Erebor from Smaug, but also recover their treasure. At Gandalf the Gray’s suggestion, Thorin and his followers traveled to the Shire to recruit Bilbo’s help in achieving their goals (they need the Hobbit to act as a burglar in order to get their Arkenstone back). At first, Bilbo was reluctant to join their quest. But he caved in at the idea of an adventure and eventually joined the Dwarves and Gandalf. Their adventures led them to an encounter with three Trolls; pursuing Orcs who want Thorin’s head for cutting off the arm of their war chief, Azog; a respite at Rivendell, due to the hospitality of Lord Elrond; and deadly encounters within the Misty Mountains with Goblins and for Bilbo, the current Ring bearer Gollum. The movie ended on the slopes of the Misty Mountains with a deadly encounter with Azog and his orcs.

How do I feel about “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Well for one thing, I still believe it was unnecessary for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. It is simply not big enough, despite the fact that this first film is shorter than the three “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. I really do not see how Jackson would be able to stretch an adaptation of the novel into three movies, each with an average running time of 160-170 minutes. Judging from the movie’s first 30 minutes, I see that Jackson is going to stretch it as much as he can. Many people have commented on the new high frame rate that Jackson and Lesnie used for the film. Yes, the movie has a sharper and more colorful look. In fact, the film’s visual look reminded me of the use of Blu-Ray DVDs. Do I care? No. Hollywood critics and moviegoers have a tradition of ranting against any new film innovation – sound, color, digital cameras, CGI . . . you get the point. It has been ten years since George Lucas first used digital cameras for “STAR WARS: EPISODE II-ATTACK OF THE CLONES” and people are still bitching about it. Did I have a few problems with “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Sure. Although many people have problems with the movie’s first 20 to 30 minutes, claiming that the Shire sequence seemed to stretch forever. I only agree with that criticism to a certain extent. I had no problems with Bilbo’s humorous first encounter with the Dwarves. But I thought Jackson lingered unnecessarily too long on the sequence featuring the elderly Bilbo and Frodo. And although I enjoyed the mind game between the younger Bilbo and Gollum, I have yet to develop any fondness for the latter character. And if I have to be brutally honest, I found Howard Shore’s score for this movie less memorable than his work for the “LORD OF THE RING” films.

Despite the conflict over using three movies to adapt Tolkien’s novel and Jackson’s use of a new high frame rate, I have to say that I enjoyed “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” very much. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I did the second and third movies from the “LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Like 2001’s “LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”, this new movie is basically a tale about a road trip. And there is nothing more dear to my heart than a road trip. Because Tolkien’s 1937 tale was basically a children’s story, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” featured a good deal of more humor than was found in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” films. A great deal of that humor came from twelve of the thirteen Dwarves, whom Bilbo and Gandalf accompanied. Four of the funniest sequences turned out to be the Dwarves’ arrival at an increasingly irritated Bilbo’s home in the Shire, the traveling party’s encounter with three Trolls obsessed with their stomachs, the Dwarves’ reactions to Elvish food in Rivendell and Bilbo’s mental duel with Gollum. Like the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies,“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” also featured some outstanding action sequences – especially the flashbacks about the downfall of the Erebor Dwarves; the traveling party’s efforts to evade the Orc hunting party with the assistance of a wizard named Radagast the Brown; and their battles with both the Goblins, and Azog and the Orcs.

The movie featured some solid performances from the cast. It was good to see Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as Lady Galadriel and her son-in-law Lord Elrond again. Although I am not a fan of the Gollum character, I must admit that Andy Serkis gave another memorable performance of the malignant changeling. However, I am a little confused by his portrayal of Gollum with a split personality, since the character’s moral compass was not challenged by any acts of kindness in this film. Ian McKellen was commanding as ever as the wizard Gandalf the Gray. And it was also nice to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as the elderly Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins again. I was a little taken aback by the presence of Christopher Lee reprising his role of the wizard Saruman, but merely as a supporting character and not as a villain. But I have to give kudos to Lee for revealing certain aspects of Saruman’s personality that made his eventual corruption in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.

But there were four performances that really impressed me. I really enjoyed Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. He did an exceptional job of projecting the character’s emotional development from a self-satisfied homebody to the adventurer who wins the respect of the Dwarves with his heroic actions by the end of the movie. I first noticed Richard Armitage in the 2004 television miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and have been impressed with this actor ever since. I realized that his character Thorin Oakenshield is being compared to the Aragon character from “LORD OF THE RINGS”. I would not bother. Thorin is a more complicated character. And Jackson chose the right actor – namely Armitage – to portray this heroic, yet prickly and hot tempered Dwarf. Thanks to Armitage’s superb performance, it was not hard to understand Gandalf’s frustrations over the character. If I must be honest, my memories of the twelve other Dwarves is a bit shaky. But there were two of them that stood out for me. Ken Stott was very effective as the elderly Balin, who provided a great deal of wisdom in the story. And I really enjoyed James Nesbitt as Bofur, who injected a great deal of charm and liveliness not only in his role, but also in the story.

I realize that “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” has been receiving mixed reviews from critics. And honestly, I do not care. Mind you, it is not perfect and I see no need for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But I really enjoyed watching the movie. It reminded me of the joy I had experienced in watching the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie,“Fellowship of the Rings”. And I believe that Peter Jackson and a first-rate cast led by Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage did an excellent job in adapting part of Tolkien’s novel.

 

Notes and Observations of “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (1999)

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The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”.  I hope that you enjoy them:

 

NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS OF “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (1999)

The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. I hope that you enjoy them:

*Both the Trade Federation and Darth Sidious seemed surprised that Supreme Chancellor Valorum had dispatched Jedi Knights to act as mediators between the Trade Federation and Naboo. Apparently, this discovery had led Sidious to order a premature invasion of Naboo.

*Why were the Trade Federation fearful of the Jedi, acting as ambassadors?

*Why would Boss Nass and the Gungans want Jar-Jar Binks banished for simply being clumsy? Why did his clumsiness bother him so much? Was this an indication of the Gungans’ lack of tolerance toward imperfection? Could one say the same about those STAR WARS fans who dislike Jar-Jar with a vengeance?

*”You overdid it.” – Was that Obi-Wan Kenobi admonishing his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, for making Jar-Jar too relaxed?

*Isn’t it ironic that it was Obi-Wan who led Qui-Gon, Padme and himself to Anakin, by suggesting that the Queen’s ship seek repairs on Tatooine?

*After two attempts, Qui-Gon discovered that the Jedi Mind Trick did not work on Watto and other Toydarians. Perhaps this is why he had failed to free both Skywalkers from slavery.

*Many have complained that Lucas should have shown the Nabooans suffering under the Trade Federation’s invasion. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But after Sio Biddle had sent that message to the Queen about the suffering on the planet, both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan expressed suspicion that the message might be a trick to lure the Queen back into the Trade Federation’s clutches. Of course, they were wrong.

*Darth Maul managed to track down the Queen’s whereabouts, via Sio Biddle’s transmission to Tatooine.

*Anakin told Qui-Gon and Padme that he had been working on a scanner to locate the transmitter in his head. As many know, the transmitter will blow up any slave attempting an escape. I wonder what would have happened if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had made an attempt to get Shmi away from Tatooine.

*Apparently, the idea to enter Anakin into the Boonta Eve Podrace was his own idea . . . supported very reluctantly by Shmi.

*”What if this plan fails, Master? We could be stuck here for a very long time.” – Obi-Wan’s remark seemed to foreshadow his own fate on Tatooine.

*Qui-Gon’s plan to free Anakin seemed to have been instigated by Shmi’s request that he find a way help Anakin leave Tatooine and slavery.

*If Watto believed that Sebula would win the race, why did he agree to support Qui-Gon’s backing of Anakin? I believe that Watto felt he would get his hands on Queen Amidala’s ship if Anakin had lost. And if the latter had won then he and Qui-Gon would split the victor’s fee. But Watto’s greed and lack of faith in Anakin allowed him to be manipulated by Qui-Gon into betting against his young slave.

*I LOVE the podrace sequence. I love every detail about it. Along with the Battle of Naboo, it is the highlight of the movie.

*Interesting. Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Panaka and Anakin had all bowed before Valorum and Palpatine. Yet, both the present and future chancellors did not bow before Queen Amidala, upon the latter’s arrival on Coruscant.

*Amidala seemed certain of Valorum’s support in the Naboo/Trade Federation matter. Yet, Palpatine immediately set out to undermine Valorum in Amidala’s eyes . . . and suggest that a new chancellor be elected.

*Yoda seemed particularly aggressive when questioning Qui-Gon’s belief that Anakin might be the Chosen One to fulfill the prophecy.

*Why does Palpatine want Padme to accept the Trade Federation’s control of Naboo? What plans did he have for this situation, once he became chancellor?

*Many have accused The Phantom Menace of lacking in emotion. Yet, there seemed to be a heavy undercurrent of emotion in the movie. In the scene which featured the Jedi Council’s initial rejection of Anakin, Yoda, Mace Windu, Ki-Adi Mundi and other Council members seemed smug and arrogant over their decision. Anakin looked angry at the Council, and Qui-Gon . . . disappointed.  But most surprisingly, Obi-Wan looked both surprised and angry at Qui-Gon’s support of Anakin. I suspect that he felt a little rejected.

*Why did Palpatine warn Darth Maul to allow Padme, the Naboo and Gungan forces, and the Jedi to make the first move?

*I never realized that Anakin had saved Padme, Panaka and the Nabooans in the hangar, by shooting at the droidekas.

*So . . . R2-D2 wanted Anakin to return to Naboo, once they had joined Ric Olie and the other Nabooan pilots in their battle against the Federation ships.

*Anakin had ended up inside the Federation ship, because his fighter had been hit. And he had accidentally destroyed the shield generator.

*Before striking down Qui-Gon, Darth Maul seemed frustrated by his inability to kill the Jedi Master.

*If the Jedi Council had finally approved of Anakin’s entry into the Order, why didn’t Yoda use a less strident manner to convince Obi-Wan to allow someone else – someone more mature – to train Anakin? Who knows? Perhaps he may have been more convincing.

*The moment the camera focused upon Palpatine’s face during Qui-Gon’s funeral, you can hear the cheers of triumph that would lead to the victory celebration.

*Both Anakin and Obi-Wan seemed uneasy in each other’s company during the celebration. In fact, Anakin seemed unusually sober . . . until he exchanged a smile with Padme. I suspect that Obi-Wan had noticed that exchange, judging by his expression.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” (2011) Review

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: (2011) Review

I have been aware of the Marvel Comics hero, Captain America, ever since I was in my early teens. And I might as well say right now that I was never a fan. Captain America? Why on earth would someone like me be interested in some uber patriotic superhero who even dressed in red, white and blue – colors of the flag? This was my initial reaction when I learned that Marvel Entertainment had planned to release a movie based upon the comic book character seven or eight years ago. 

My condescending contempt toward this movie had grown deeper when I learned that Chris Evans, of all people, had been hired to portray the title character. I have been aware of Evans ever since he portrayed another comic book hero, Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the 2005 movie, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”. And aside from the 2009 movie, “PUSH”, I have seen Evans portray mainly flashy types with a cocky sense of humor. So, I really could not see him portraying the introverted and straight-laced Steve Rogers aka Captain America.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby first conceived the character of Captain America sometime around 1940-41 as a deliberate political creation in response to their repulsion toward Nazi Germany. The first Captain America comic issue hit the stores in March 1941, showing the protagonist punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the jaw. The comic book was an immediate success and spurred a comic saga that continued to last over the next six decades – more or less. I had already seen two television movies based upon the Captain America character in my youth. Both movies starred Reb Brown and they were, quite frankly, quite awful. They were so awful that I deliberately skipped the 1990 movie that starred Matt Salinger. After those encounters with the comic book hero, I approached this new movie with great trepidation. But since it was a comic book movie and part of “THE AVENGERS” story arc, I was willing to go see it.

Directed by Joe Johnston (“THE ROCKETEER” (1991) and “JUMANJI” (1995)), “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was basically an origin tale about a sickly Brooklyn native name Steve Rogers, who had been making and failing attempts to sign up for the military, following the U.S. entry into World War II. While attending an exhibition of future technologies with his friend Bucky Barnes, Rogers makes another attempt to enlist. This time, he is successful due to the intervention of scientist and war refugee Dr. Abraham Erskine, who overheard Rogers’ conversation with Barnes about wanting to help in the war. Erskine recruits Steve as a candidate for a “super-soldier” experiment that he co-runs with Army Colonel Chester Phillips and British MI-6 agent Peggy Carter. Phillips remains unconvinced of Erskine’s claims that Rogers is the right person for the procedure, until he sees Rogers commit an act of self-sacrificing bravery.

The night before the treatment, Dr. Erskine reveals to Rogers about a former candidate of his, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, who had underwent an imperfect version of the treatment and suffered side-effects. Unbeknownst to the good doctor, Schmidt has managed to acquire a mysterious tesseract that possesses untold powers, during an attack upon Tønsberg, Norway. Schmidt has plans to use the tesseract and the Nazi science division, H.Y.D.R.A., to assume control of the world . . . without Adolf Hitler and the Nazi High Command in the picture. Before Steve can face off Schmidt, he has to travel a long road to assume the persona of Captain America.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” really took me by surprise. I never really expected to enjoy it, but I did. Not only did I enjoy it, I loved it. Either I have become increasingly conservative as I grow older, or Joe Johnston’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely managed to avoid the unpleasant taint of smug patriotism. Perhaps it is both . . . or simply the latter. But I certainly did enjoy the movie.

One of the aspects about “CAPTAIN AMERICA” that I truly enjoyed was its production design created by Rick Heinrichs. With the help of John Bush’s set decorations, the Art Direction team and the visual effects supervised by Johann Albrecht, Heinrichs did a superb job in transforming Manchester and Liverpool, England; along with the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles into New York City, London, Italy and German between 1942 and 1944-45. Their efforts were enhanced by Shelly Johnson’s beautiful photography and Anna B. Sheppard’s gorgeous photography.

It was nice to discover that Joe Johnston still knew how to direct a first-rate movie. Okay, he had a bit of a misstep with “WOLFMAN” last year – unless you happen to be a fan. With “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, he seemed to be right back on track. I knew there was a reason why I have been a fan of his work since “THE ROCKETEER”. Some directors have taken a first-rate script and mess up an entire movie with some bad direction. Johnston, on the other hand, has managed through most of his career to inject his projects with a steady pace without glossing over the story. His handling of the movie’s two major montages were also first-rate, especially the montage that featured Steve’s experiences with various war bond drives and U.S.O. shows. And with period pieces such as this film and “THE ROCKETEER”, Johnston has maintained a talent for keeping such movies fixed in the right period. He certainly did this with “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, thanks to his pacing, exciting action sequences and direction of the cast.

Speaking of the cast, I was surprised to find that so many of the cast members were not only British, but veterans of a good number of costume dramas. This particular cast included Richard Armitage, J.J. Feild, Dominic Cooper, Natalie Dormer and especially Toby Jones and leading lady Hayley Atwell. In fact, it was the large number of British cast members that led me to realize that a good number of the movie was filmed in the British Isles. They performed along the likes of Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Sebastian Stan, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci.

I have been a fan of Toby Jones since I saw his performances in two movies released in 2006 – “INFAMOUS” and THE PAINTED VEIL”. He continued to impress me with his subtle portrayal of Joachim Schmidt’s quiet and self-serving assistant and biochemist Arnim Zola. Richard Armitage was equally subtle as H.Y.D.R.A. agent Heinz Kruger, whose assassination attempt of Dr. Erskine and failed theft of the latter’s formula led to an exciting chase scene through the streets of Brooklyn and a funny moment that involved him tossing a kid into New York Harbor. Trust me . . . it is funnier than you might imagine. Dominic Cooper was surprisingly effective as the young Howard Stark, scientist extraordinaire and future father of Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, J.J. Feild, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci were great as members of Captain America’s commando squad. One, all of the actors created a strong chemistry together. Yet, each actor was given the chance to portray an interesting character – especially Choi, who portrayed the sardonic Jim Morita. The only misstep in the cast was poor Natalie Dormer, who was forced to portray Colonel Erskine’s assistant, Private Lorraine. Personally, I thought she was wasted in this film. The script only used as a minor plot device for the temporary setback in Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter’s romance.

Samuel L. Jackson had an entertaining cameo in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. His appearance guaranteed the continuation of the Avengers storyline. I believe that Stanley Tucci’s performance as the brains behind the Captain America formula, Dr. Abraham Erskine, was one of the best in the movie. He managed to combine warmth, compassion and a sly sense of humor in at least two scenes that he shared with leading man Chris Evans. I had never expected to see Tommy Lee Jones in a Marvel Comics movie. His Colonel Erskine struck me as so witty and hilarious that in my eyes, he unexpectedly became the movie’s main comic relief. Sebastian Stan was convincingly warm and strong as Steve’s childhood friend and eventual war comrade, Bucky Barnes. He and Evans managed to create a solid screen chemistry. Hugo Weaving . . . wow! He was fantastic and scary as the movie’s main villain, Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull. I have not seen him in such an effective role in quite a while.

I have enjoyed Hayley Atwell’s performances in past productions such as 2007’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and 2008’s “BRIDESHEAD REVISTED”. But I was really impressed by her performance as MI-6 agent and the love of Steve Rogers’ life, Peggy Carter. Atwell infused her character with a tough, no-nonsense quality that is rare in female characters these days. She also revealed Peggy’s vulnerability and insecurities about being a female in what is regarded as a man’s world. She also did an effective job in conveying Peggy’s gradual feelings for Steve. And it was easy to see why she fell in love with him. Chris Evans really surprised me with his performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. I was more than surprised. I was astounded. Evans has always struck me as a decent actor with a wild sense of humor. But for once, he proved . . . at least to me that he could carry a major motion picture without resorting to his usual schtick. His Steve Rogers is not perfect. Evans did a great job of conveying his character’s best traits without making the latter unbearably ideal. This is because both the script and Evans’ performance also conveyed Steve’s insecurities with a subtlety I have never seen in any other Marvel film. Superb job, Mr. Evans! Superb job.

I have to be honest. I tried very hard to find something to complain about the movie. In the end, I could only think of one complaint . . . and I have already mentioned it. But aside from that one quibble, I really enjoyed the movie and so far, it is one of my top five favorite movies from the summer of 2011.

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