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Monday, May 17, 2002

Keith Keener's

Positive Movie Reviews

Star Wars Episode II: Menace of the Clones

After seeing "Star Wars Episode 1: Ju Ju Bee and the Menacing Phantom," dazzled audiences and critics alike doubted that George Lucas would ever be able to top that film, a masterpiece by anyone's standards. But "Star Wars Episode 2: Menace of the Clones" puts all doubts to rest. This is a towering accomplishment in the history of film, a magnificent achievement that stands astride all other movies from the past fifty years like a colossus, pointing mightily ahead and crushing everything in its path.

Before going on with a review, however, I should point out that some so–called "reviewers" have been naysayers, with mean and totally unfair attacks coming in the pages of things like "The New York Times," the "Washington Post," and "Entertainment Weekly." A lot of reviewers think they are funny, saying things like "this movie feels like a clone." You know, ha ha, the word "Clone" is in the title, so I will make a funny pun of it. Well, what if I do that with some movie you like, like "You have to be Patient to watch The English Patient"? See how that feels? Hurts, doesn't it?

In fact, after the movie today, I even teamed up with a group of people who were dressed in Star Wars costumes – wookies, light sabers, whatnot – who all followed the film with lunch together at the Fuddrucker's near the cinema in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I live. They at first seemed suspicious of me, but I was wearing my Vulcan ears, which is sort of like Star Wars code for, "I'm a fan too. Please let me sit at your booth." Actually, booths, because they make the booths so small at Fuddrucker's that we needed four booths for the 12 people in the group. Anyway, one of the people, Chuck, who was dressed as a stormtrooper (and had creatively added a queen-size white sheet to cover up the parts of his belly that the suit couldn't fit), was like, "These movie reviewers don't even like movies. They shouldn't let anyone but a Star Wars fan review a Star Wars film."

I disagree. I think that everyone should be allowed to review them – and then be revealed for the shams that they are.

For example, A.O. Scott of the "New York Times" even brought up the ugly and unfounded charge that Ju Ju Bee, the comedy highlight of "Menacing Phantom," was a racist. First of all, nothing Mr. Bee said in the first movie seemed racist, and this time, the goofy-looking, tropically accented, slow-witted Ju Ju Bee is a Senator so highly respected that the Galactic Senate gives him his own bathroom and water fountain, and he is even allowed to make the critical vote that destroys democracy throughout the alliance. Well, A.O. –– if those are your real initials –– how do you answer to that?

The destruction of democracy is no simple matter, and Lucas fortunately devotes much of the film to a fascinating discussion of politics in this other galaxy, a long time ago, so far away from here. Much as the "Menacing Phantom" introduced us to the world of gambling on Tatoonie, in a four-hour mid-film documentary, "Menace of the Clones" takes a complex but easily understood look at politics. What if you have a multi-world democracy, but some planets are separatist, and even on the planets which are loyal there are striking miners who might resort to violence, and if the Senate might be controlled by a shadow force that wants to create a dictatorship, and even among the Jedi Knights who are peacekeepers but cannot be soldiers you end up with people who may want to seize power for themselves, and what if one or maybe more of these groups combined forces to create an army of clones who could fight against the army of robots created by another person who is in cahoots with the creator of the clones? And what if you throw a beautiful woman into the mix?

I know – you've seen this all before. You think. But what you haven't seen is all of this told with that special Lucas touch. "Menace of the Clones" takes place ten years after "JJBATMP," which allows Lucas to show more intense sex scenes between former Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and li'l Annaki Skywalker (Hayden Christianson, who takes over from the extraordinary Jake Lloyd), now a Jedi Trainee. Annaki has been dreaming of Portman for years, as were the audience members I had lunch with after the show (more on this below), and is excited to become her bodyguard. This causes concern to his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who has finally gotten off the junk and spends most of the film trying to prevent his friend Sickboy from getting him hooked again. But Kenobi also realizes that years of separation from Amidala have left Annaki with painful burns and blisters from trying to abuse himself with his light saber. So he lets him go.

The Amidala/Annaki love story is the emotional heart of the film, with Annaki struggling to restrain himself from violating his Jedi pledge of abstinence. Other Jedi have their own ways of dealing with the oath, such as Jedi Shaft Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), who has a special dispensation to have sex because he has a duty to please the booty, and Yoda, who is seen spending a lot of time teaching the adorable ten-year-old Jedis-to-be. Amidala, however, informs Annaki that to prove his love, he will have to become enraged at his mother's death, then massacre an entire camp of nomads – men, women, and children alike. In this extraordinary scene, Annaki is encouraged by his platoon-mate Bunny (Kevin Dillon), who yells, "Do the whole village, man! Do the whole fucking village!" Fortunately there is a nearby encampment of Vietnamese who are dismembered obligingly. Then, and only then, does Amidala declare her love for Annaki, which is good, because he is rapidly running out of lines like, "I am still suffering from the kiss you never should have given me. It burns me like a scar."

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is hot on the trail of the clones, who are being cloned from Shlomo Fett, the father of Bobo Fett, the bounty hunter from the original Star Wars trilogy. I won't say how it ends for Shlomo but the scene when young Bobo holds his father's severed helmet in his hands is the most chilling and touching moment in the film. As great as the 14 chase sequences between Shlomo and Obi-Wan are, they only remind us how much we miss the witty conversations between Obi-Wan and Annaki. "Oh, Annaki, you should follow the rules, but you are such a troublemaker!!" "Obi-Wan, you worry too much. Old man!"

I've saved the best for last, of course, in discussing the action scenes and the special effects. Other movies are pretenders to the special effects crown, but what Lucas is really good at is at imagining fully what another universe might look like. What if some planets looked like the video game Myst, with waterfalls and marble columns? What if others looked more like video game Doom, with fire, demons, and lasers? What if others looked more like the video game Klonoa 2: Lutea's Revenge, and were collections of colorful rainbows, bouncing cute bunnies, and the like? I am beginning to think that there is virtually no limit to Lucas's imagination.

And the action scenes? Breathtaking, thrilling, impossible to miss even for a bathroom break, as Chuck said, because he has irritable bowel syndrome. Lucas shot the movie on digital video, and apparently it's even more impressive in theaters with special digital projectors. In my theater, only three people suffered from grand mal seizures during the almost climactic light saber battle between Annaki and Count Chocula (Christopher Lee), though Lucas guarantees that a minimum of six people will die at each digital showing. Lucas also adds a brilliant fight scene between Yoda and the Count, because this time he has digitally animated Yoda instead of using him as a puppet, as he had in earlier films. In fact, I wonder if Lucas went overboard by digitizing other famous puppets. One might argue, for example, that the brilliant kung-fu sequence between Punch and Judy was out of place, and Lambchop's short sex scene with Kukla, Fran, and Ollie seemed over before it really began. Only an extended digital performance of Bread and Puppet really added to the production, and this was only because it had a pertinent message about the problems of U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

The only mark of disappointment among the Fuddrucker's Star Wars crowd was that some people felt that Natalie Portman was hotter in the earlier movie, when she was 18, or even in an earlier movie called "The Professional," when she was 14. Chuck said that he thought she was really cute in that one, you know, innocent, but that was probably a bit of a cover for how much of a tiger she could really be, and she'd probably be grateful for someone older showing her some attention. He then excused himself, saying he had to go to Walgreen's to stock up on candy and tissues.

I should point out that the most negative comments from the reviews so far have been reserved for Haydon Christianson as Annaki. This isn't fair; Christianson is great, and he has the hardest job in the movie. Sure, it was a challenge for Ewan McGregor to play John Houseman (the original Obi-Wan) as a young man, but Christianson has to do something much harder: he has to play Jake Lloyd (who died, I think, of a heroin overdose last year) as an adult, and he nails it. He takes a child so thoroughly unlikable and self-absorbed that he has to be supernatural in some way, and he turns him into a man. His line readings are perfect, and I mean readings, because he keeps his lines on 3x5 index cards that he holds in the hand unaffected by masturbating his light saber. My guess is that these reviews go beyond the usual jealousy that reviewers have of movie stars, and probably revolve around the fact that the word Christian is in the actor's name. The liberal media has a strong anti-Christian bias. I don't think he'd be getting such bad reviews if his name was something like Haydon Jew'sson or Haydon Muslimman.

Little known fun fact: the original Star Wars film was based on a Japanese movie called "The Hidden Fortress" or something, though I think that one didn't have spaceships. Then "The Empire Strikes Back" was based on another Japanese movie called "In the Realm of the Senses," shocking American audiences with the moment when Princess Leia cut off Han Solo's penis with a pair of scissors. This newest film also takes its inspiration from Japan, from "Pokemon 6: Magic Carp and the Goo-Goo Squirrel of Doom," which explains its tight, coherent story arc.

Last but not least, Lucas has tried to respond to some of the (even unfounded) criticism of the earlier movies. Trying to show that he doesn't really hate black people, he has replaced the regular theme music with the theme to "Sanford and Son," which now accompanies the opening credits. And many people found the loud, greedy, big-nosed merchant in Episode 1 to be a disturbingly anti-Jewish or anti-Arab stereotype. But in this film, the stinky, obnoxious character appears again, and puts debates over his ethnic heritage to rest by finishing each sentence with "Now thatza one-a spicy meata-ball." He then begins to grind his organ while a monkey dances playfully nearby, collecting change from passersby in a cup.

All of this said, I can't imagine a galaxy that would deny the Best Picture Oscar to "Star Wars Episode II: Menace of the Clones." Maybe Lucas can; he can imagine anything!!!

On a scale of 4 or 5 stars, I give this extraordinary feat of the modern cinema 7 stars.


Earlier positive movie reviews can be found at home.earthlink.net/~dleheny