Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

★★★★

Director: George Lucas

Release Date: May 19th, 2005 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid

Three years after the onset of the Clone Wars, Revenge of the Sith sees the galaxy ravaged by fighting. With Jedi dispatched all over battling the Separatist droid army, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is assigned to exterminate their leader, General Grievous, while at the same time a now more powerful Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becomes drawn ever closer to Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Fearing the loss of his wife Padme (Natalie Portman) and their child, seen through his visions, Anakin goes to extreme lengths to prevent such an event taking place, with disastrous Sith-related consequences.

By far the best of the prequels (and from what I have read, the best of the four Lucas directorials), Revenge of the Sith has a variety of positive things going for it. For me, of the blemishes held by the previous two instalments, the main falter of both was the fairly shoddy dialogue and script-writing. In fact, Lucas has even admitted in the past that writing has never been his strongest asset. This time around, however, there is a vast improvement. Partly, this is to do with Revenge of the Sith driven more-so by action and battle scenes, as opposed to the number of pure dialogue scenes slowly bulging out of the previous two instalments (around half of Attack of the Clones‘ main plot-line was dreary dialogue between Anakin and Padme). With that being said, to Lucas’ credit, I also think there is a general overall improvement in writing here. Yes, portions of that clichéd dialogue pop up every now and again between those two aforementioned characters, but on the whole the quality of interaction is much better and much more meaningful in Revenge of the Sith than before. Scenes between Anakin and Palpatine in particular stand out, which leads me deceptively impressively to my next point…

Something in your eye?

Hayden Christensen is much better here. So much better, in fact. I mentioned in my review of Attack of the Clones that he comes across as stale at times, but his efforts this time around pretty much put the reasoning behind that to bed — he was simply not given good enough material to work with. In Revenge of the Sith, on the other hand, he is given vastly greater material and his depiction of an increasingly misguided Jedi and seemingly helpless husband is very good. By no means does he put in an Oscar-worthy performance (nobody does), but it is one worthy of the platform he finds himself rooted to. The ‘best performance in the film award’, without a doubt, lies with Ian McDiarmid as Chancellor Palpatine. He exudes vileness, but at the same time remains engrossing and delightful to watch as the manipulative Darth Sidious (it is not a spoiler if it is in the trailer). His calm-yet-menacing tone during scenes with Christensen actually remind me of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films — which is a very good thing. Again, Ewan McGregor is solid here and probably puts in a trilogy-best performance, which all of the cast do to be fair.

The best aspect of Revenge of the Sith, and the aspect which makes it Lucas’ best directorial performance out of his three prequels, is the character development throughout. The unravelling of Anakin into Darth Vader is the primary focus of the film and everything else fits in nicely around his capitulation. The seeds of self-doubt, originally planted in Attack of the Clones, come to fruition in a harrowing nature here and, as I mentioned before, Christensen does a fine job at portraying the evolution of one of the best and most well-known villains in cinematic history. Obviously, it is fairly straightforward to keep a character on a consistent path throughout a number of films when the films are prequels and therefore his (or her) fate is already known by both director and audience. But what I would absolutely commend Lucas on is the way in which he delivers the consistency in Anakin’s transformation — from his resultant actions after discovering his beaten mother in Attack of the Clones, to the outcome of his duel with Count Dooku and their subsequent dialogue, both Lucas by way of direction and narrative and Christensen through his delivery on-screen ensure that the birth of Darth Vader is an appropriately emphatic one.

“Is it just me, or is it hot in here?”

To have Anakin pulled in a number of directions here is the key to the film, and this actually makes me sympathise (and, I guess, empathise) with the character. Having visions of his wife and unborn child dying, feeling unappreciated by his master Obi-Wan and being shut down at almost every opportunity by influential Council member Mace Windu — I do not like that guy, and I am still not sure if I am meant to or not — certainly provides a substantial basis for reason to go off the rails. And that is not even taking into account his manipulation at the hands (and speech) of Palpatine/Sidious. Natalie Portman plays a necessary and potent role in generating much sympathy for Anakin, and the simultaneous sequence of the two towards the end is rightfully one bursting with emotion.

Having blabbed on about the content of film itself, it would be unjust for me to ignore the sheer visual spectacle that is Revenge of the Sith. The improvement from film to film to film between the prequels is tremendous, and by the time Revenge of the Sith comes around, the magnitude of visual achievement is protruding the pinnacle of the scale (bearing in mind that the film was released in 2005, over eight years ago). The final battle scene between Anakin and Obi-Wan (in the trailer thus not a spoiler) is the most visually enticing of the entire trilogy in regards to battle sequences, and those in the CGI department deserve a huge amount of credit for their creation of a number of stunning set-pieces (at its absolute primitive, the whole saga is one massive, impressive set-piece after another). From the first scene until the last, the effects are on point and, for a film which is more or less dominated by fight scenes, I was encapsulated throughout and this is not only a testament to the stunt people, but also to the actors themselves — for the battle scene at the end, Christensen and McGregor choreographed the sequence for the most part on their own, and did not use stunt doubles at any point. Well-played.

Revenge of the Sith is everything that modern cinema is all about: intelligent film-making with a clear, effective narrative, emotionally-investable characters and awesome visuals. I would even go as far as saying that Revenge of the Sith makes both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones better films, whilst remaining an outstanding piece on its own.

*Reading this in 2015 hurts.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

★★★

Director: George Lucas

Release Date: May 16th, 2002 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman

Set 10 years after the events of The Phantom Menace and in the midst of a Separatist rebellion, Attack of the Clones sees an older Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) undertake a mission to discover who is behind the assassination attempt on former Queen and now Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), whilst a talented-yet-over eager Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is tasked with protecting Padme, whom he has strong feelings for. Meanwhile, the creation of a massive clone army and a potential conspiracy at the head of the Republic both threaten the beginning of a destructive and uncontrollable war.

Often regarded as an improvement on The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones certainly lays the foundations for a slightly more sinister Star Wars going forward — which is a good thing in my eyes. We see a number of these more sinister traits come to the forefront as the film progresses: elements of Anakin’s darker side and his ambition to “become the most powerful Jedi in the world,” the introduction of Jango Fett and his son Boba along with all that goes on surrounding them, and the themes of betrayal, conspiracy and abuse of power amongst leaders of the Rebellion. All three of the aforementioned plot-points are positives not only in terms of Attack of the Clones as a film on its own, but also in terms of the Star Wars saga going forward as they provide the basis for key narrative in the future.

No jokes from me this time around, just admiration.

Firstly, I do think that Hayden Christensen is a little bit hit-and-miss here. This is partly to do with the rather cliché-laden script — he is far better at the beginning of the film and towards the end, as opposed to the middle section where both he and Natalie Portman are hindered by, for lack of a better term, soppy dialogue. But his performance is also probably a result of his inexperience on the big stage — back in 2002, Attack of the Clones was only his fourth or fifth film, and his first significant one in terms of scale. Having said that, however, and having seen Christensen in other films later on in his career, I would like to think that his performance, which is a tad wooden at times, is on the whole an unfortunate product of an uninspired script. To clarify, the whole romance sub-plot between Christensen and Portman is absolutely fine, but the execution is poor and this is primarily down to the wishy-washy dialogue between the two. I like Christensen as an actor and am a big fan of Natalie Portman, but it just did not quite work this time for me. Ewan McGregor does well in carrying his half of the proceedings where the goings-on tend to be more exciting and eventful as he is involved in uncovering an assassination plot rather than a romance (just like it would be, right?). Yoda, voiced by Frank Oz, gets a bigger role this time around and, unlike Jar Jar Binks (who thankfully has a minor role here), is a necessary character who adds to the film. We also see Christopher Lee in a familiar bad-guy role, which he executes with charisma and typical bad-guy exuberance.

Although the script is questionable at times, in general, I do think that Attack of the Clones has a better story than its predecessor. More things are happening this time around — exemplified by the two main characters splitting up and following different agendas for the majority of the film, unlike The Phantom Menace — and, although there is more going on, the plot is still easy enough to follow and makes sense on the whole. With neat nuances such as Anakin’s exploits when he goes back Tatooine to look for his mother and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s trip to the ocean planet of Kamino, the key events of the film have not only more meaning than those in The Phantom Menace (we did not really need to see Anakin as a child or pod-racing), but also an increased sense of direction as the eventual intersection of the varying plot-lines makes sense. Although middle films in trilogies are often looked upon as not much more than a device to further the character development outlined by their predecessor and set up events for their successor, Attack of the Clones veers just enough away from this stereotype to be a success on its own — however there is an element of my latter point in the film.

“Gladia- Jedi, are you ready?!”

Again, in tune with The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones is an awesome visual specimen from start until finish. It would even be fair to say that it overtakes The Phantom Menace in the looks department, which is expected considering a lot can happen in three years in regards to image and special effect technology (and evidently did happen, as Attack of the Clones was one of the very first films to be shot entirely on the high definition digital 24 frames-per-second system). Apart from the opening scene with the pod chase — which by all means looks fine, but drags on a little too long — the film moves forward at a decent pace and boasts a fair amount of enjoyable action sequences, with the Gladiator-style battle on Kamino between the Republic and the Separatists towards the end being the pick of the bunch. On that note, I do think Attack of the Clones is missing a really evil villain, and in that sense it does act as more of a buffer between the first and third films in the trilogy. Do not get me wrong, as I mentioned before, Christopher Lee does a fine job as the main villain of the piece, but he does not quite exude that total evilness and heartlessness that Darth Maul did in the previous instalment.

That is all I really have to say about Attack of the Clones. For me, this is perhaps a minor improvement on The Phantom Menace due to the overall more intriguing plot and the introduction/reinforcement of a few key characters, however the clichéd, flat dialogue between Christensen and Portman, which consumes a good proportion of the film, lets Attack of the Clones down slightly.

Pontypool (2008)

★★★★

Director: Bruce McDonald

Release Date: March 6th, 2009 (Canada); October 16th, 2009 (UK)

Genre: Horror; hriller

Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

Set in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) drives through blizzard-like conditions to work and on the way has an odd encounter with a woman who repeats muffled sounds over and over. When he reaches his radio broadcasting station, he is joined by the station manager, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and the technical assistant, Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) before going about his day-to-day activities. After an average, less-than-noteworthy few hours of news, Grant receives information from the station’s helicopter reporter, Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) that an apparently violent mob has infiltrated the office of one of the town’s doctors. From then on, it becomes apparent to Grant and the others that something is not quite right with the ‘mob’ in question, and the radio employees’ situation quickly becomes one of doubt, fear and worry.

Originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, Pontypool is a completely different take on the zombie/post-apocalyptic genre. Whereas the focus of such films tend to be on gore and exhilarating action, Pontypool certainly is exhilarating, but far more in the psychological sense than in anything to do with flying body parts. The first thing to say about this film is that it is set, for the most part, in one location — the radio station — which benefits the film hugely. Director Bruce McDonald could very well have taken his cameras to various locations and opted for visual scares, but instead he centres the slow building and uneasy atmosphere on dialogue alone. Having the film play out in one location, and through the eyes of the three characters in the radio station, also places the viewer in the station with the characters — as opposed to he/she being repeatedly removed from film due to it jumping all over the place.

“Kevin, I told you not to watch ‘The Red Wedding’.”

Having shot the film in a single location, McDonald is able to fully develop his main characters and show off their every emotion while they receive word about various horrible events taking place elsewhere in the town. Stephen McHattie pulls out an over-the-top, yet thoroughly entertaining performance as a tiring radio presenter who seems to irritate more than anything else. The over-the-top element of McHattie’s performance ensures that the film does not slip completely into a downbeat, hopeless realm and even gives Pontypool a slightly humorous tone at times. His somewhat distant nature at the beginning quickly unravels as the situation dawns on McHattie and his colleagues. Lisa Houle is decent in her portrayal of a considerably controlling station manager. Her character grows as the plot develops, and for her first film role (she is married to McHattie, I wonder how she got this gig?) she puts in a solid effort which is sometimes let down by her less-than-believable attempts at displaying grief. Each of the supporting actors step up to the plate when called to do so meaning there really is no weak link in the cast.

“Let me guess, she watched it too?”

I am not entirely sure what McDonald had in mind when he was making Pontypool, in terms of what he wanted audiences to take from it, but I would love to know. For me, it is clearly a film about how we, as society and as individuals, are so wound up and led on by dialogue — regardless of who or what the source is. The film evokes connotations about how governments rule us and how the influence, and existence, of a global media order thrives on our reaction and acceptance of what they tell us. Throughout the film, our lead characters are relentlessly relayed news and it is their reaction to each snippet of news (one of acceptance over ignorance) that the film is built on — their lack of dismissal means the viewer goes on a journey of weariness, anxiety and fright alongside the radio trio. For all the viewer and characters know, the information they are receiving could be a hoax — again, the ploy by McDonald to keep the focus of the film in one location is essential here — but without seeing what is going on externally, they (and we) end up putting faith in unfounded knowledge. Sounds vaguely familiar, right?

“You all watched it? Brilliant.”

In terms of logistics: visually, at a budget of around one and half million dollars, Pontypool looks great and includes some neat gory, non-CG effects. I noted a few paragraphs prior that the film chooses atmosphere over gore for scares, but what is a zombie film without a few zombies and some blood and guts? Pontypool is far from loaded with the aforementioned though, which is a good thing because it certainly would have been easy for McDonald to set the film off in a clichéd zombie-fest direction during the last thirty minutes or so, but his avoidance to do so benefits the overall product greatly. The script is well written and smooth, particularly in the first half of the film where words are the primary purveyor of scares. The lack of drag (not that kind) during the film is a testament to the writers’ ability to keep their writing slick and interesting.

Just like in my Star Trek Into Darkness review, I am going to avoid giving away too much here (I reckon I should just get rid of the whole spoiler thing anyway, it is slightly disrespectful to the film industry I think), however I will say that the ending worked for me. I have no idea what was going on during the post-credits scene though, somebody will need to fill me in on that one.

Pontypool is a unique film in that it successfully combines the zombie genre with psychological horror, offering up a thought-provoking and generally gripping thriller in the process.