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Friday, August 2, 2002

Keith Keener's

Positive Movie Reviews

Keith Keener is exploring the wonders of movie theaters in Eastern Russia. In his absence, the Call reprints an old but still timely review:

Star Wars Episode I Ju Ju Bee and the Menacing Phantom

As a film critic, I think it's my job to tell it like it is, not to "get involved" in the process. After all, my readers expect balanced, tough-minded reviews that aren't tainted by some kind of behind-the-screen shenanigans. So in the interest of full disclosure, I am admitting here that I wrote a letter to George Lucas two years ago, when it first came through the grapevine that he was making a new Star Wars film, to give him my two cents' worth. What I wrote was basically that although it would be impossible to improve on Return of the Jedi, I had a few minor suggestions. First, play up the Ewok aspect, but change the Ewoks to some comically slow-witted species that speaks heavily accented English. Second, drop the Force mumbo-jumbo and the action and spend more time discussing the political economy of a galaxy far, far away, a long time ago. Third, for God's sake, don't skimp on the fart jokes this time! I can't say for sure whether my letter had an effect, and it's possible that Lucas would have come to these fine conclusions entirely on his own, but I want to point out at least for me, this movie satisfied all my wants and hopes.

As many hard-core "Warries" know, Star Wars Episode I - Ju Ju Bee and the Menacing Phantom (Menacing Phantom below, to save space for more adjectives) is the newest Star Wars film, though as the title implies, it is actually supposed to be the first part. And what an opener! The film features a tow-headed moppet who will grow up to be Darth Vader; a clownish species of goofy muscleheads who speak with Jamaican accents and play music by the Howard University Steppin' Band; and the Federation, an evil species of greedy, cowardly, inscrutable merchants from the Eastern part of the galaxy, at least as far as I could tell from their accents. The Menacing Phantom will be loved by whites of all ages!

I should be careful not to give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that when some trade deals between planets go bad and the evil Sith warriors (The Emperor and Darth Mall) join up with the Federation, Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Gin (Liam Neeson) and Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) must come to rescue of the planet Naboo and its Queen Amidala (Natalie Coleman). This is especially difficult for Obi-wan, who, as the film begins, is stockpiling canned foods as part of his effort to "get off the junk." Without pausing to dwell unpleasantly on the characters, their motivations, their relationships with one another, or the critical invasion of Naboo in which we are told frequently that people are suffering and dying, the film races into a fast-paced discussion of interstellar trade treaties and takes us on a fascinating, 25-minute introduction to the economy of gambling on the planet Tatoonie.

In less capable hands, this might have started to seem like a corporate training room or an especially exciting M.B.A. thesis for Penn State. But three words save this movie from becoming overly educational: Ju Ju Bee. Ju Ju Bee is from Naboo, and with his floppy ears and penchant for zaniness, I can see now why I confused him with the syphillitic MC in Peter Jackson's Meet The Feebles in previews. But Ju Ju Bee is a masterful comic creation in his own right, whose tropical accent combined with his humorous misuse of the Queen Amidala's English and his penchant for touching things he shouldn't make me sad only that Jimmie Walker couldn't be alive today to play him. Or maybe he is alive. In addition to Ju Ju Bee, who seems to be in almost every single minute of The Menacing Phantom (and is in the backs of our minds even as we try to focus on other things in the film), the movie introduces little Annaki Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, Christopher's son I think) and his mother Lemon Kinan. Annaki is a delightful little imp for whom "The Force is very strong," as Qui-Gon notes. Using the Force, Annaki wins a thrilling land-cruiser race, made all the more exciting by the 25 minutes preceding it, when we learn much about gambling on Tatoonie, the slave trade, the relationship between Annaki's mom and his father (I won't say who, but Jesus Christ! What a mind fuck!), Annaki's remarkable abilities with machines (he builds C3PO, thereby making C3PO and Luke Skywalker brothers, sort of another twist on the Star Wars legend!), etc. Qui-Gon takes Annaki under his wing to teach him to use the Force, primarily to combat The Bedwetting Menace that Annaki embarrassingly faces each night.

The movie's breakneck pace owes much to Lucas's directorial skill. Using the editing team that made MacGyver such a monumental television program, Lucas invests a lot of time in showing how weapons, plans, tactics, economic strategies, trade negotiations, peace treaties, parliamentary systems, sexual harassment rules, Thursday night network TV schedules, and adult diapers are often gerry-rigged rather than created far in advance. To make more time for feverish discussions of votes of no confidence in the Galactic Senate, he wisely cuts out the connective tissue in the middle of battle scenes, which end up being refreshingly brief and baffling. Many had worried that since this is Lucas's first time behind the camera since the original Star Wars (he did not direct the 1984 film Princess Laid, with Amber Lynn, as I erroneously stated last year; that was "Jorge Lucas," no relation, and apparently a fictitious name anyway). But Lucas shows that he's still a major player.

As many of you know, the theatrical opening of the film was delayed for several weeks to make last minute cuts in the wake of the shooting at Columbine High School (I hope they catch the people who did that! Enough already!). Fortunately, luck was smiling on Lucas, and they managed to open the film on a long weekend without any other films opening! Anyway, I applaud the film for the changes, since now there are practically no deaths and the violence is kept to a nice minimum, with only robots and heavily accented aliens bearing the brunt of it. Still, there is a lot of talk of people suffering and dying, and I wonder if this might not give impressionable children the wrong idea about how we adults handle trade disputes. I think maybe a bit more editing of the dialogue, talking about the "inconveniencing" of the people of Naboo during their benign incorporation by the Federation might have been better. I mean, George, is it too much to ask that you look at your own responsibility for our society's problems? I know I wrote the term "mind fuck" above, but I'm normally pretty good about censoring myself, recognizing that artistic license can only extend to a certain line. And you, my friend, may have crossed it, with your dour and ultraviolent references to "star wars" and "Jedi Knights."

Anyway, we have to to give Lucas some credit for making changes throughout production, in response not only to public events but also to his own muse. The Federation with their inscrutable ways were in fact last minute replacements for the Hai Meze, a greedy race of merchants who claim they are selling carpets at cut-rate prices, but are really raking in the cash. Also scuttled were the Tau El Hedz, whose in-your-face haggling style and sudden willingness to die for their God were dropped when it turned out that all the actors for these parts had been contracted earlier to The Mummy. And although the version we see now still shows the heavy-duty attraction between Annaki and Queen Amidala, the more explicit sex scenes between the 18-year-old and the 8-year-old were dropped when the promo version was banned in 49 states (all except Kentucky) and most countries except for Japan. Stripped of anything disconcerting to the audience here in Wisconsin, The Menaching Phantom lunges daringly ahead like an episode of Walker: Texas Ranger with amazing special effects.

Other delights abound. We learn more about the power structure of the Jedi Council, in which the Jedi Masters (including Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson, whose references to Yoda as "my main muthafucka" are among the dicier parts of the film) give orders to the Jedi, who then inform the Council that they will ignore the orders. John Williams' soundtrack is as subtle and unobtrusive as we've come to expect of The Master. Ray Park as Darth Mall adds an element of martial arts splendor to the film, which otherwise is forced to rely on the computer generated Ju Ju Bee and his wide-hemmed Gap Khakis for much of the action. Though the use of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" on the soundtrack makes his scenes really soulful. Oh, and best of all, the meaning of the title "The Menacing Phantom" is extremely clear once you've seen the film.

The Menacing Phantom is probably the most eagerly awaited film since The Mummy, and I know it's difficult for me to say anything that hasn't already been said by Jeff Craig of "Sixty Second Preview." But I should mention here for the record that The Menacing Phantom is definitely the best film I have ever seen in all my life.

I predict that next April, this "Phantom" will "Menace" all other films for the Oscar!

On a scale of four or five stars, I give Star Wars Episode I: Ju Ju Bee and the Menacing Phantom ten-and-a-half stars.

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Earlier Positive Movie Reviews can be found at home.earthlink.net/~dleheny