Saturday, March 21, 2009

Season 1, Episode 22 - Hostage Crisis

As a season finale, Hostage Crisis owes something to the original Clone Wars microseries. Instead of tying up loose ends, they're teasing what's next. Grievous made his debut at the end of the first season the original Clone Wars cartoons.

The first season of the new The Clone Wars also comes to a close with a debut. Less a stand alone story than an introduction, Hostage Crisis features Cad Bane, a Bounty Hunter inspired by Spaghetti Westerns. Impressively, he storms the Senate Building with some other well-paid scum (notably fan favorite Aurra Sing) kills a whole lot of Senate Guards, and quickly has the place in lockdown. His demand: release Ziro the Hutt.

Oh God No. Please don't release Ziro the Hutt!

I mean it. Any episode with Ziro the Hutt in it instantly loses a half star from me, at least. Because Ziro the Hutt is just plain ... oh boy. Not good.

What could possibly make up for him? Cad Bane pretty much being as cool as promised. He fits well into the gunslinger feeling one which much of Star Wars lore is built, and he was given the benefit of getting the best of our well-known characters in his first appearance. It's always good to have a character around who plays to win, and is a wild card (see Omar in The Wire). Cad Bane has great potential for the upcoming season.

The episode itself was good, but not one of the best. It was hard not to notice that the Senate Building on the Capital of the entire Republic is guarded incredibly poorly. (Meaning: not credibly.) The way in which Anakin lost his lightsaber was also overly contrived. His scene with Padme was yet another not terribly good love scene between them (you'd think they'd just leave it alone at this point) and it gave new meaning to the phrase "Giving Padme my Lightsaber."

I'm sorry. I had to.


Anakin's own attempts to fight and win without a weapon were certainly entertaining. The direction was solid in these action sequences. The dimly lit hallways, the Senate chambers, all felt a bit eerie with the place locked down. I also enjoyed Anakin's hand to hand combat with the Assassin Droid - energetic, fun to watch, all around cool.

The Anakin and Padme dynamic, too, even if some of the dialouge is clunky, is a key one to the Star Wars story. It is, after all, the reason Anakin becomes Darth Vader. So kudos to the writers for bringing that front and center even as clone troopers and bounty hunters populate their frames. Star Wars isn't about cool killers, in the end. It's a heroes journey. Everything else is decoration.

Rating (out of five): *** 1/2

And so, the first season comes to a close. Thanks to everyone who has followed this blog so far. If I find time, I'll do first season recap (some of those star ratings could change in retrospect!) and a little bit of posting here and there. I'll be sure to be back with reviews when Season 2 appears, and a write up of the DVD release when it arrives.

May the Force be with You!

Season 1, Episode 21 - Liberty on Ryloth

The final third of the Ryloth Trilogy, Liberty on Ryloth, features Mace Windu front and center for the first time in the first season. He leads a ground assault against the capital city of Lessu, on Ryloth. When he appears overmatched, he turns to the local rebels, led by Cham Syndulla, to lend him support.

This is the third episode directed by Rob Coleman in the series, and his experience and talent are as apparent here as they were in Duel of the Droids and Jedi Crash. He's got a sense of what's cinematic (he was, after all, the Animation Director for the prequel trilogy) and he's careful not only to fill up the frame with action, but make sure the "camera" swoops and dives. Liberty on Ryloth never looks less than amazing, and the action scenes are pumped up and creative. Windu's escape from the disappearing bridge is definitely one for the series' highlight reel.

Coleman also has a strong feel for how to animate emotion. Cham Syndulla is a soulful new character, an his scenes with Mace Windu had an honesty to them that is hard to pull off within the Thunderbirds design. As with the last episode, Innocents of Ryloth, Libery on Ryloth doesn't shy away from showing us the costs of war, and the citizens and their particular issues. The episode was mostly action (the politics are shallowly played here) but it doesn't forget there is more to war than laser pistols.

That, unfortunately, doesn't help Mace Windu become more interesting. On screen, Mace Windu has always been sort of character-less. He's stalwart, wise, careful, and has a glare. But those are qualities. Who is he? What does he care about? Where is he from? What drives him? Watching Mace Windu is always a thrill - much like Yoda, the showrunners love to leave most impressive displays of Force Power to him - but I've never much cared if the character is happy or sad. That trend continued here.

On the other side (isn't this always the way) the villains have a lot more fun. In a fun subplot, it's clear the Wat Tambor and is Tactical Droid are not seeing eye to eye. I'd love to see some more episodes from the Separatist side for this reason - there's a sense of fun and play with those characters that the writers rarely seem to have with the heroes.

Liberty on Ryloth, as a stand alone episode, is well-executed and well done. As the third part of a trilogy, it shows some flaws. Although there is a tacked on Episode I style parade at the end of the episode, the three individual episodes don't connect particularly well, and don't seem to all add up to this one. Sure, there's a logic to their order (Get on the Planet, Secure the Planet, Take the Planet) but it would have been almost better to simply see three episodes of Mace Windu, or Obi-Wan, or even Ahsoka. The diffuse nature of the episodes, and their differences in quality, didn't help make this episode a stirring triumph. Just another episode with really cool battles.

Rating (out of five): *** 3/4

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Season 1, Episode 20 - Innocents of Ryloth

War stories shouldn't just be about soldiers. If there are costs of war, we need to see and feel them in order to care about the outcome. The Clone Wars series could very easily be a series of well produced video games that you don't get to play. Episodes like Innocents of Ryloth, therefore, become a key to the series' potency as effective storytelling.

In The Phantom Menace, we were often reminded that the people of Naboo were "suffering...dying." Words like "we must do something quickly" were spoken. But the camera never once lingered on a camp of Naboo citizens in dire straits. It was never even clear how they were suffering. Were they not being given food? Were they being shot? It made investment in their salvation (being entirely fictional characters, after all) that much harder.

With Innocents of Ryloth, we not only see Twi'leks, but a Twi'lek child named Numa. We see the Separtists using civilians as living shields. We get a sense of just what it is our heroes are saving the Twi'leks from. Much like the episode Defenders of Peace, this episode puts a face to those caught up in the war, and gives us a sense of what they might lose to it.

Of course, all the best intentions in the world aren't much without execution. Storm over Ryloth was intended to deepen Ahsoka's character, but it didn't acheive its task. Innocents of Ryloth, though, performs its duties with efficiency and heart. We see not only thrilling battles and daring escapes, but linger on the relationship between two clone soldiers, Waxer and Boil, as they interact with the frightened and plucky Numa. We're also given a fun villain in Commander TX-20, a "tactical" droid. As a Separatists droid, it seems that a tactical droid can't help but be a bit on the amusing side...but TX-20 balanced that out with a whiff of threat.

All in all, therefore, this might not have been the most stunningly designed or most fresh episode of the bunch, but it tells an excellent story and does so with vibrant characterizes and a solid script.

Innocents of Ryloth also marks the first "solo" adventure for Obi-Wan Kenobi. I'd be happy to see more of these. Obi-Wan is one of the richest characters in the Star Wars mythology, and here, he shows why. Clever, cunning, funny and caring, he lacks the shruggy teen angst of Anakin and is a fine example of what Luke aspires to be in the original trilogy.

Rating (out of five): ****