Monday, November 29, 2010

Irvin Kershner has died

Sad news for Star Wars fans...Irvin Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back, has passed away at 87. It goes without saying that The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the six films and the best Star Wars story ever committed to any medium. It goes beyond that though: it was massively influential through the culture. It's echoes are felt everywhere, with memorable lines and characters and images that have become a part of the cultural landscape.

It wasn't automatically going to work out that way. We all know that sequels do not always surpass their predecessors, let alone entirely deepen and expand on them. This was a truly great piece of popular art, and Kershner was at the helm.

Thank you for what you did for all of us. May The Force Be With You, Always.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Season 3, Episode 10 - Heroes on Both Sides

I find myself conflicted as I write this review of Heroes On Both Sides, a landmark episode of the Clone Wars series, that highlights the inherent Catch-22 of the prequel-era storytelling. The episode moves the scattered chronology of the series forward significantly, aging Ahsoka and moving Anakin's attitude and wardrobe closer to that of his ultimate fate in Revenge of the Sith. It also fully embraces the muddled political story that Lucas is telling in the prequel-era.

In many ways, the prequel-era politics are a large dramatic setback for the stories. Our heroes are never clearly fighting for anything except the idea of the status quo and "Democracy" even as we see that the very ideals they fight for are subverted by leadership. The Separatists interests in leaving the Republic are entirely confusing: are they leaving because they believe in the idea that the Republic is corrupt? If so, why do they have their own Parliament? What policies have driven the Separatists away? And if they are so against, for example, corporate influence, why are the stand-ins for the Separatists always members of the Corporate Alliance or the Banking Clan?

Making things worse is that, essentially, the war itself and the issues involved are entirely an invention of the Sith. Both leaders are in cahoots, escalating an invented conflict in order to push the galaxy towards Imperialism. Why? Because the Sith are bad, basically, and they want to rule the galaxy. Power, in a sense, for its own sake.

In short, it's hard to keep track of why our heroes are at war, and with whom. It makes for stories that are harder to tell, and have a bigger barrier for mainstream consumption.

What's both wonderful and terrible about what I've written above is that it is, in fact, no more or less complicated than real war, especially the wars of today. Like it or not, the prequel-era stories are a mirror to their time.

The wars of the United States do not have popular support. They were started on evidence that is discredited, and the countries we invaded were states not directly related to the loose affiliation of terrorists that attacked us. These wars have abstract goals, have complicated players, have costs and benefits that are hard to pin down. We've done unethical, even criminal, things (torture, for example). We're not at war with the Nazis in the US; we're at war with ourselves and our values. It's unsatisfying and unresolved, and perhaps that's one of the things that the prequel-era stories get exactly right. Whether or not you're on the left or the right in the US, it's impossible to feel as if our reason for fighting is clear cut and fixed.

My attitude towards this episode, in that context, is also unresolved. In a lot of ways, it's tough to sit through and be entertained by a plot driven by deregulation of the banks (which shoehorns an unrelated contemporary hot button issue in an uncomfortable way) and a lot of chat in sitting rooms. Some of Ahsoka's lines are inelegantly shoved into scenes for the utility of speaking for the younger members of the audience ("I don't understand!" "All I know is the Separatists are bad!" "Politics sure aren't black and white!"). I can't say I don't see the reasoning, but I did wince a few times.

Also, the moment where a young man "checks out" our newly early teen Ahsoka struck me as, shall we say, in poor taste.

All that being said, though, I can't help but admire the goals of and existence of this episode's major themes. The Republic has killed good people. That the Separatists may simply have different political ideas. That sometimes what drives people to fight is fear, not reason. That there are those that profit from war financially. The message is anti-establishment, deeply subversive. This is a story about questioning the reasons for fighting, questioning unthinking loyalty, and about not judging the "enemy." Considering the demographic of this audience likely skews below 15, I have tremendous respect for the audacity of presenting those messages in this way. Even as we know the outcome, to watch politicians manipulated away from peace, even as its offered to them, is painfully resonant.

Imperfect and clumsy as moments in this episode may be, Heroes On Both Sides reflects reality back to us, and asks us what we see. Our political landscape is foggy, dramatically slippery. The stakes, though, remain life and death, freedom or tyranny. The story of finding, or losing, ones moral compass in a confusing world may not always be as fun as the story of dogfighting with the bad guys. That doesn't make it a story that shouldn't be told.

Ratings (out of five): ****

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Season 3, Episode 9 - Hunt for Ziro


That's a bit more like it! The ninth episode of season three picks up the pace decidedly from the last few episodes. Chronologically following the debut of Cad Bane (the season finale from Season 1, Hostage Crisis); Hunt for Ziro follows Obi-Wan Kenobi and the screen debut of EU darling, Jedi Quinlan Vos.

I've made no secret of my dislike of the Ziro the Hutt character. From his original introduction in The Clone Wars movie to his subsequent appearances, Ziro is simply an ill-conceived character. He's silly, he's mildly offensive (the big city Hutt is sexually ambiguous and swishy). He makes Jar Jar Binks seem like a breath of fresh air.

How fantastic, then, to see the creative team focus on his creepiness, as opposed to his silliness. His love scene with Sy Snootles is nothing less than audaciously vile: weird in a way that actually made me laugh out loud.

Her eventual betrayal of him is perfect, of course. It reinforces the dangerous world of Jabba's palace. The Hutts have lost a whole lot of steam in The Clone Wars series. Jabba's "son," and the silly looking Hutt Clan, Ziro's Mamma, and Ziro himself...they all contribute to the Hutts as sight gags, as opposed to dangerous criminals. In this episode, the split the difference nicely. Ziro is wicked and manipulative. Sy Snootles? A murderer. (The death of Ziro gets this episode an extra half star from me, just for giving me the satisfaction.)

The episode was full of imaginative touches. The dance sequence homage to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; the mummified Hutt; the nasty little lizards that crawl on Mamma the Hutt. It had a sense of whimsy and ideas that I really enjoyed.

Furthermore, we meet Quinlan Vos at last. For me, his debut was fun, if not iconic. Obi-Wan refers to him as "crazy" but I never really understood why he was more brash or distinct from, say, Anakin. I'm hoping they can go a bit further with that aspect of his character, but I liked him well-enough.

The action sequence, though, between Vos, Kenobi and Cad Bane was easily the best action sequence of the season and, I would say, among favorite action sequences of the series. Bane comes off as creative and dangerous, and it was a thrill to watch him and the Jedi leap and tumble through the new (and intriguing) world of Nal Hutta.

One hope for Vos is that now we have a character whose adventures can be new to us. He's a loner, he's got a history to establish (I loved that they made reference to a previous run in with Cad Bane), and he's got unique powers. I look forward to Vos-centric episodes, and maybe, an extended rivalry between him and Bane. It's set-up here perfectly. I hope they see it through.

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Season 2 Blu Ray thoughts

I picked up the Clone Wars Season 2 Blu-Ray. Love the presentation of the discs. Season 2 looks amazing in high definition.

One little quibble: the extras are a bit buried. The Season 1 set has an icon next to each episode, which allows you to see a quick mini-documentary about the making of the episode, and it lets you know if that episode has additional footage. All of the Season 2 extras are buried in the Jedi Archives feature. In fact, it took me a minute to realize where the "deleted scenes" were... and I'm a huge fan of DVDs. It shouldn't be hard to find that sort of popular material.

So...great set, great season, but the Season 1 set is laid out in a slightly more fan friendly manner, I'd say.

Savage Oppress Previews

Two of 'em. Picked up from TFN. Savage Oppress versus Quinlan Vos FTW!


Monday, November 8, 2010

Season 3, Episode 8 - Evil Plans

I wouldn't say it's actually bad because it's just so bizarre that it's worth watching. I love the droids, and it's nice to watch them have their own episode. Anthony Daniels continues to be the hardest working man in Star Wars.

I do think, though, that I hope that we'll see more of the Artoo and Threepio from A New Hope. Notably, that Threepio is not the funny one in that duo...he's the straight man. Watch it again. Artoo is beeping away what are undoubtedly rude or off-color comments, and Threepio is offended or horrified. Lately, we see Artoo seem amused by this Felix Unger counterpart. But to me, Artoo is the one with all the jokes. We just only hear half the line: that's what's funny.

Not too much to add to review this episode other than it made me half-smile and half-scratch my head. You have to sort of see the Artoo gets a massage/Threepio gets tortured scene to believe it.

Thank the Maker next week is something worth getting excited about: Quinlan Vos. (Sadly...Zirro.)

Rating (out of five): **

Season 3, Episode 7 - Assassin

Ahsoka Tano is having terrifying visions, which lead her to believe that Senator Amidala's life is being threatened by Aurra Sing. Another episode that is focused on our female cast ("You've come a long way, baby!"), Assassin puts Ahsoka in charge of protecting Padme during an important speech on Alderaan.

Before I go into the details of this episode, I'd like to quote the official site:

This episode, more than others, reveals the convoluted chronology of stories from the first two seasons. The Season Two finale, "Lethal Trackdown," actually takes place before the Season One finale, "Hostage Crisis."

In a chronological flow of events, the series begins with the action on Christophsis ("Cat and Mouse," "The Hidden Enemy"), which introduces Ahsoka to the Clone Wars ("The New Padawan," which was incorporated into feature film). Then, the kidnapping of Rotta the Hutt introduces Ziro the Hutt, and the movie ends with Ziro's incarceration. Many Season One and Season Two episodes then follow, with Season Two's trilogy of Boba Fett episodes introducing Aurra Sing into the storyline. The crashing of the Slave I leads the Jedi to mistakenly believe that Aurra is dead, until she surfaces in this episode, which brings back Ziro -- chronologically -- for the first time since his imprisonment. The story continues in the next Season Three episode, "Evil Plans", and Aurra will somehow be freed from captivity in time for Cad Bane's attack on the Senate in Season One's "Hostage Crisis." The drama surrounding Ziro and his freedom then picks up in "Hunt for Ziro," the ninth episode of this season.

Get that? Right. Look, I really don't mind any of this if the episodes are good. But in upcoming episodes (see: the next episode Evil Plans) the Secrets Revealed theme might as well be "Retcon - The Season." Continuity is important to someone - but let's face it - I'm someone who follows this stuff closely and even I don't care exactly when Ahsoka got good at using a Jedi Mind Trick or when Aurra Sing bit the bullet. Continuity isn't plot.

That being said, this is yet another Perfectly Fine Episode. Aurra Sing seems threatening enough to warrant a few moments of stylish action and Ahsoka's visions are cryptic enough to have some mystery about how they play out. Padme, even, gets into the action is absolutely fun ways.

The problem though (and it's not small) is that we know that Padme is not killed here. Our visions of the future are 100% more accurate than Ahsokas. We are absolutely certain of the future, because we have seen Padme's funeral already, folks. We also know that Ahsoka's attempts to be the best Jedi she can be and believe in herself will have little bearing on the larger Star Wars narrative. Certainly, there might be a little girl watching who is learning to trust her instincts and be confident (and hey, I'm not completely heartless) but without a whole lot of help from some expert animators, this story lacks much tension, and this type of story deals entirely in tension.

Not that I have any illusions about being listened to by the creative staff - but maybe if Ahsoka were to protect another Senator whose fate is unknown, the exact same episode would have been doubly effective.

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

Season 3, Episode 6 - The Academy

Following on the heels of Corruption is The Academy, an Ahsoka focused episode. In The Academy, Ahsoka has been brought to Mandalore to educate the elite children of Mandalore about, you guessed it, corruption. The kids get into all sorts of trouble, Scooby Doo style, as they try to figure out how high up the government the criminal element goes.

Prime Minister Almec, featured in each Mandalore episode, features prominently here too, along with Satine as well. Those characters are especially effective, and Ahsoka isn't as terrible as she is capable of being. Still, the incorrigible youngsters at the center of the episode's action didn't exactly thrill me. They felt light-weight and expedient, and barely distinguishable from one another. Also...Cadet Korkie? Really?

Certainly, there's little doubt about who the villain turns out to be if you've watched the previous episode or you've watched a mystery in your life. I will admit, though, that the final act of the episode was played in a more harrowing way than the opening of the episode led me to expect. So, whatever half star I might remove for giving Ahsoka so much to do, the creative team gets back in making our heroes appear to be in real jeopardy.

All that's done well here, though, falls prey to the same general malaise I felt when watching the previous episode. I love Star Wars (I mean, no one's paying me to write this blog, folks) but episodes about Smart Alec kids saving an entire planet from bad guys just leave me cold. At the end of the episode I though: Okay what moment was new, exciting, shocking, grand? Even retreads like Grievous Intrigue - which offer little new plot - have action and spectacle on their side. Here, though, between plucky Ahsoka and her kiddie Cadets, I felt no such resonance or sense of wonder. Just a workmanlike episode in an oddly workmanlike season.

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

Season 3, Episode 5 - Corruption

In Corruption, The Clone Wars returns to Mandalore and Dutchess Satine, one of the best characters introduced in Season 2 (and from the best of the story arcs as well). The episode itself is actually the first of a duology, although it stands up perfectly well on its own.

Here, we see the complications inherent in attempting to remain outside of the system. The pacifism of Mandalore has meant that they are neither dealing directly with the Republic nor the Separatists. Resources are scarce, and a black market rises to fill the hole left where regular commerce is failing. When the profit motives and unethical business practices become a real hazard (unhealthy doses of a toxin leak into children's meals) it's up to Satine, with Padme's help, to move beyond the political squabbles and discover the culprits.

The episode plays out in a relatively straightforward manner. Satine and Padme follow leads, find themselves in danger, are horrified by the corruption around them, and unravel the mystery. The animation has evolved to the point that little character moments are far more nuanced, and Mandalore's design is always fun to see. I also enjoyed the relationship between Satine and Padme well-enough, although geniality isn't exactly dramatic.

Which is, perhaps, the biggest issues. Corruption is never exactly ho - hum, but it never feels inspired either. There's no villainous character whose invention seems sinister enough to be more than generically greedy, and never a heroic moment that's unexpected. Neither disappointing nor exhilarating, this episode sort of left me feeling unmoved. Which is, shall we say, not a good thing.

As with Supply Lines, it's admirable to see the writers tackle complex issues like political corruption and greed in a way that's palatable for younger viewers. Unfortunately, it's a delicate balance to communicate this type of nuance to children, and there were, for my taste, a few too many lines that bring down the subtlety hammer in order. The word Corruption itself is stated...five times? More? In 22 minutes? Is this overkill for a viewer like me, or simply necessary for some viewers? Hard to tell. For me, as a longtime fan, the hamfisted "teaching moments" stick out a bit too often.

Again, watching this episode never made me feel unhappy to have tuned in, or overly bored. But a lesson in civics followed by a couple of gun fights? Bring on Savage Oppress please.

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