Val and Raven at the Movies
Val: Hello, we're back.
Ray: She's not really Senator Padmé Amidala.
Val: And she's not really Anakin Skywalker.
Ray: We just went for the look because my dear life-partner is obsessed with all things STAR WARS...
Val: Well, it is the obvious choice for discussing EPISODE 2: ATTACK OF THE CLONES...
Ray: While young Wittek draws a portrait of us.
Val: First time we have an official artist with us at the show, thanks to the good folks at Rostfrass. Tilman tells us that Wittek has a thing about watching Episode One late after midnight, when all his friends have fallen asleep whenever there's a party at Jo 84's place in Minden.
Ray: So, your ex-majesty, you must have seen the film a dozen times at least, what can you tell us?
Val: Hey, that's not true!
Ray: But I've gone there with you it at least six times, so surely...
Val: No, apart from the three times we took out Reney, the one time with Rogue and Magneto and the two times we went alone, there was just last Sunday, when Mandy and I took out the children while you spent some quality time with Kurt.
Ray: Really? You never saw it alone?
Val: Yes, really. Of course when the DVD comes out, all bets are off!
Ray: Heh. Anyway, back to business. So how did you like it?
Val: Well, in my view The Empire Strikes Back is still the best, but I liked this one a lot.
Ray: Well, you liked The Phantom Menace.
Val: That's nothing to be ashamed of. And I'm not the only one!
Ray: Touchy, touchy! So I guess what you're saying to that movie's detractors is: "No, it is you who are mistaken. About a great. Many. Things."
Val: Ha! Got it in one. Anyway, I think the only thing I really disliked about Episode 2 is its title, which sounds like a cheesy B-movie from the 1950s.
Ray: Where you're right you're right.
Val: Are you sassing me, my young Padawan?
Ray: My queen, I'm considerably older than you!
Val: Then behave accordingly.
Ray: Would you really want that?
Val: Heehee, when I think about last weekend, probably not. Okay, onward. While Episode 1 indulged in cuteness a bit with young Anakin and Jar Jar Binks, Episode 2 goes into high romance and political intrigue. And we learn a bit more about the Jedi order, its inner workings and facilities, and we get to see its members in massed action for the first time. All in all I think they did a very good job of satisfying the fans' curiosity about a number of questions, even managing to bring in the odd surprise, which is really quite hard because a lot can be deduced merely because Attack of the Clones comes after The Phantom Menace and before the original trilogy.
Ray: Yes, that is a problem which will be even greater with Episode Three in a few years' time. I don't envy George Lucas on that one, especially as the ending will definitely have to be quite a downer, having to include the triumph of the evil Empire, the death of most Jedi, Anakin turning to the dark side of the Force and quite likely the death of Amidala. And fans thought Empire Strikes Back had a depressing ending!
Val: On the other hands, Boba Fett's many fans should be very pleased with his appearances here and the large part played by his clone-father Jango Fett.
Ray: I wonder how many Star Wars fans are aware that 'Fett' is German for 'fat'.
Val: Well, that's one of the joys of Star Wars names. 'Nass' is German for 'wet', which makes the name Boss Nass for the Gungan leader quite appropriate. And 'vader' is Dutch for 'father' (and close enough to German 'Vater'), so the big surprise in Empire Strikes Back was perhaps less surprising in the Netherlands and Germany. But I think the intentionally or unintentionally funny names are part of the charm of the saga.
Ray: You mean things like Poggle the Lesser and Sio Bibble?
Val: Uh-hmh. Well, Episode 2 was filmed mostly in Australia, and one of the side-effects of that was that a lot of the new parts were filled by Australian and New Zealand actors.
Ray: As Pyro put it: About bloody time.
Val: Which also brought in a few Maoris, which adds an ethnic type we hadn't seen before in the series, and some interesting accents. But we also get new blood from other parts of the Commonwealth, most notably Christopher Lee as the renegade Jedi Count Dooku...
Ray: A rather cute choice considering his long-time Hammer Films partner Peter Cushing had played Grand Moff Tarkin in A New Hope. Have to say I found him better than as Saruman in Lord of the Rings.
Val: Oh yes, but it's a more subtle part, one where you wonder longer what his agenda is and which side he is on. But Lee is a great actor.
Ray: Also one of the few British actors who can dub himself when they do German versions of his movies, Kurt tells me. But then he's a former colleague of mine (he was a secret agent before he became an actor).
Val: Name-dropper! And then of course there's Hayden Christensen from Canada, who was chosen to play the eighteen-year-old Anakin Skywalker.
Ray: Which makes him the fifth actor to play that part in as many movies.
Val: I thought he was ideal for the part. Not as cute as Jake Lloyd (the kid who played Anakin in Ep. One), not as pretty as some of the actors whose names had been mentioned before the casting of this movie...
Ray: Leonardo DiCaprio. Ugh.
Val: In fact, a bit gangly so Anakin looks as if he's still growing up and he is appropriately awkward in the romantic scenes with Amidala. And he also brings over his youthful impetuosity and overconfidence that will turn out his undoing.
Ray: Yes, a casting decision I can live with very well. If I had to describe the type Christensen projects here, I'd say a young Jimmy Stewart with an edge, or a dark side.
Val: And then we'll have to mention Samuel L. Jackson, who now has more to do then in the previous episode as Jedi Master Mace Windu.
Ray: While, in an answer to many fans' prayers, Jar Jar Binks' part is a lot smaller than in Episode 2.
Val: Still, as Senator Amidala's substitute he tellingly illustrates the Peter Principle.
Ray: 'Every person rises to the level of his or her incompetence.' I'm not sure you can say that, after all wouldn't that mean that he had been competent at anything in Episode 1?
Val: Okay, you win. Among the smaller parts we have Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa, who will presumably get a bigger role in Episode Three, as he'll become Leia's adoptive father. But lest we forget, another 'casting change' was that Yoda is now entirely computer-generated. Which really paid off in the big fight scene where we get to see Yoda fighting with a lightsaber for the first time.
Ray: Yes, that was very impressive and could not have been done with puppetry.
Val: And one of the new characters was Zam Wesell, a shape-changing assassin. Your comments as an expert, Raven?
Ray: Amateur. To lose control of her shape just because she's startled by young Skywalker...!
Val: Heh. In any case, the computer animators had a field day once again, from the delightful Dexter Jettster (who speaks with a kind of maritime West Country accent) to the somewhat overwhelming mass battles at the end. Also some nice designs, from the places on Coruscant and the planets you get to see for the first time, to the clone army's equipment and vehicles, which are very convincing as precursors of those seen in Episodes 4, 5 and 6.
Ray: John Williams did his accustomed good job, including a new, more tragic love theme for Anakin and Amidala.
Val: And the screenplay includes a lot of parallels and foreshadowings to the later parts of the series.
Ray: Such as when Obi-Wan jokingly says to Anakin: "Why do I have the feeling that someday you'll be the death of me?"
Val: Or more obviously when Anakin loses a hand in the fight at the end, just as his son will lose his near the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Or in another parallel with that movie, in the way Amidala confesses her love only in a moment when it seems all hope is lost and they are about to be killed, not unlike the way Leia would tell Han on Bespin.
Ray: Indeed. And in some cases you get clues that help explain some things in the other films. For instance, if the storm troopers of the original trilogy are also clones genetically engineered to follow orders without question, one can see why they are so stupid on various occasions...
Val: Or why they're so susceptible to Obi-Wan's Jedi mind tricks in the 'These aren't the droids you are looking for' scene. They couldn't help being weak-minded! And of course when you see how often Anakin keeps losing lightsabers in Episode 2, you no longer wonder why Ben Kenobi has one of his to give to Luke in A New Hope.
Ray: One thing that struck me about Attack of the Clones was that it has people talking about politics than any of the others. Even when they're hanging out on some Naboo nature resort, Anakin and Amidala discuss political theory. Especially noticeable was that even though the Republic is in the process of sliding into disintegration, we hear impassioned speeches for democracy by Amidala and her successor, Queen Jamila (at least we now learn that the monarchy of Naboo is an elective office). Which must have been much to your taste.
Val: Well, I suppose so. The lesson seems to be that while democracy is not a perfect system, it is at least, to paraphrase Churchill, preferable to the alternatives. The members of the Senate of the Republic may not be the most effectual lot and perhaps too keen to win their re-election, but when you consider what will replace the system...
Ray: And of course you get to see that some of the idealists who wish for a better system end up paving the road to the evil Empire. And people who distrust politicians in general, such as most Jedis, never become sufficiently suspicious of the villain of the piece.
Val: Hehee. Just as often happens in real life where so many people who say 'all politicians are crooks' fall prey to political crooks who manage to fool them into thinking they are different from the other politicians... Well, I suppose the large part played by the military-industrial-trade-and-financial complex in the forces of evil was more to your taste?
Ray: Ah yes, our old friend Nute Gingr-, er Gungray...
Val: What I found intriguing was the way in which the designs of the Dark Lord Darth Sidious inexorably progress through the measures taken to deal with an emergency situation, the special powers given by the Senators to Chancellor Palpatine and an expansion of the military. One is almost tempted to apply the lesson to...
Ray: Whoa, Val dear, watch what you're saying. Remember who signs your paychecks!
Val: Tut, tut. Well, this may be as good a place to finish as any, seeing that Tilman is already pointing to his watch. So anything else you want to comment about before we finish?
Ray: No. Actually I'm glad we're ending it now. Means we'll won't get around to making any stupid comparisons between you and me and Anakin and Amidala.
Val: Awwww, and I was so looking forward to that! Well, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, our remarks about the latest instalment of the Star Wars saga. With that it's good-bye from Mystique...
Ray: And good-bye from me.
Val: Ah well, the old jokes are still the best!
Ray: You're welcome. We'll be discussing some of the other recent releases we had to give a miss today at some later point, I hope. So remember: The Force will be with you. Always.
Val: Just take care to which side you attach yourself!
Postscript: Our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Movie
Valerie Cooper and Raven Darkhölme live in a reality where there is no Spider-Man movie, so I'll have to do the job of making a few remarks about that myself. When I went out to see it on June 7th (one day after it was launched in Germany), I was very pleased, and that even though my expectations had been raised quite a bit by Maikel Das (the lucky so-and-so had seen the film while he was in America for a science-fiction con).
Once again, the credits show the problems of "Where do you stop?" At the beginning of The X-Men it said "Based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby", even though about half the characters had been created by Wein, Cockrum, Claremont, Byrne and others (Storm, Wolverine, Rogue, Mystique, Sabretooth, Senator Kelly,...) and even Magneto's biography and previous friendship with Charles Xavier was based on Claremont's version). Here it says: "Based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko", but part of me wishes there would also have been a way to mention John Romita (after all, the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn story including the schizophrenia aspect belongs to the Lee/Romita era - supposedly Ditko left the title because he would not have it), Gerry Conway (whose ASM #121-122 were referenced in the final battle), Tom DeFalco (who is largely responsible for the Mary Jane we saw in the movie) or even Brian Michael Bendis (whose Ultimate Spider-Man retelling of Spider-Man's origin seems to have been the model for the movie version).
I have not seen every superhero movie there is, so I don't know if this is the first one to feature first-person narration (at the beginning and end), but it may have been. I liked it, it is very appropriate to Spider-Man and funnily enough seemed an old-fashioned touch, running to some extent against recent trends in comic-writing where some of the more fashionable writers tend to imitate movies by eliminating captions and thought bubbles. But then Spider-Man, even though it did a great job of adapting the story to the present day (genetically engineered, not radioactive spider etc.) and to the needs of the cinema, also manages to recapture the spirit of what has been best about Spider-Man as a comic-book since the 1960s. It is largely unaffected by the grim and gritty, black-leather and cynicism trend of recent years than. There is something about Spider-Man that, for all the tragedy that surrounds him, always imbues him with a sense of light-heartedness and optimism (this is also very noticeable in Marvel's Ultimate titles - Ultimate Spider-Man is a so much more upbeat title than Ultimate X-Men that it is hard to believe the two titles are supposed to happen in the same universe).
One thing I hadn't expected was that the theme from the old Spider-Man TV series was referenced in the movie (in the scene with the subway singer with the cute rhyme 'bug' - 'let's give him a hug') and then played in full at the end of the final credits. It seems hard to imagine that being done with Timothy Burton's Batman. Maybe it is that, although Spidey has been re-invented a few time for the big and small screen as well as for different comic lines (the newspaper strip, Spidey Super Stories, now Ultimate Spider-Man), he remained essentially the same, so invoking a spin-off from three decades ago is not as fraught with potential embarrassment as in the case of the Bat. Shades of Mark Gruenwald's famous dictum: "At Marvel we don't have to revamp our characters, we got them right the first time."
Comparisons with Batman seem hard to avoid, and not just because Danny Elfman wrote the musical scores for both films, there are scenes involving big balloons in both, and because in both cases the director came up with an unexpected but very viable choice for the male leading actor. But of course the differences between Batman and Spider-Man are quite evident in the film treatments as well. For all the personal tragedy in it, Spider-Man does not lose the sense of fun and for instance, while Batman's Gotham City is not so much a real city as a stylized (art déco) hell, the New York of Spider-Man, for all the science-fiction aspects of its labs and the gothick look of Norman Osborn's penthouse is very much like the New York one knows either from real life or representations in other films and on TV. And while in Batman everything happens at night or if a scene happens in daytime, the sky is always overcast, here you actually get sunny days!
I'd also say that the characters in Spider-Man are a lot more three-dimensional than those in Batman, where at least the villains tended to be caricatures. Here Norman Osborn is portrayed not as a pure villain (which is essentially what Byrne et al. tried to turn him into after bringing him back from the dead), but as a tragic figure, a man who tries to be a good father (and a friend to Peter) and who loses control over his life. Peter Parker, on the other hand, is wonderfully portrayed by Tobey Maguire in his uphill struggle of dealing with the changes in his life brought on by puberty and a certain genetically engineered spider. The awe and sense of wonder this sometimes creates in him is brought over well. Of course one cannot speak of Peter Parker's innocence, for the important thing about Spider-Man's origin story is Peter's guilt, his sin of omission. Here the film makes some interesting changes that give an added punch to the story by not showing Peter in the best of lights. For in his self-absorption he is not exactly receptive to Uncle Ben's friendly advice (rather different to the good-buddy relationship in the extended version of Ultimate Spider-Man) and actually parts with him on somewhat angry terms before he goes off to the fight. (By the way, the Uncle Ben of this movie is a little more crusty than in any other version I've seen so far, in fact, he does come over a bit like a Jack Kirby character, but that's okay by me). And because the fight manager stiffs him (giving him only $100 instead of the $3000 promised for staying in the ring with Bonesaw for three minutes because he flattened him in two), you sense that he actually feels a degree of schadenfreude when the manager is robbed and he wants the thug (not a burglar here) to get away, with terrible consequences.
The other actors also were very good in their parts, in particular Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May (in answer to our recent discussion about religion in superhero comics she is shown praying before going to bed in one scene), and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane (also shown as a complex character, putting on a bold face to cover her insecurities). And, gratifyingly, as in the comics, MJ is shown a wee bit quicker on the uptake about her boyfriend's secret identity than a certain investigative reporter for a major Metropolitan newspaper!
Notes: Views expressed by Valerie Cooper and Raven Darkhölme are not necessarily those of Tilman Stieve, even though he wrote this dialogue, which first appeared in Naboo Menshevik #75 (a fanzine produced for MZS-APA, July 2002). Val & Ray at the Movies and the postscript are (c)Tilman Stieve.
Dr. Valerie Cooper, Magneto, Mystique (Raven Darkhölme), Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner), Rogue, Amanda Sefton, and the X-Men are (c) and TM Marvel Comics.
Hope and Irene Cooper and Errol Wagner are (c) Tilman Stieve.
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