Ewan McGregor

Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

Haywire’s plotting is meticulous and exquisite. And entirely a budgetary constraint. It’s a globe trotting, action-packed spy thriller with lots of name stars. The action in the globe trotted areas, for instance, is more chase scenes than explosions. Haywire doesn’t blow up Barcelona, lead Gina Carano chases someone down the streets. She doesn’t land a 747 in Dublin, she has a chase scene on the rooftops. And director Soderbergh does phenomenally with those sequences. While Carano’s in real danger and Soderbergh’s shooting realistic DV, David Holmes’s music riffs back to sixties spy movie music and contextualizes things. You still get to have fun watching the spy movie. You’re supposed to have fun. It’s just a different kind of spy movie.

One where the action set pieces are what Carano does, whether it’s stunts or fight scenes, she’s the action. Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs space out the action sequences, sometimes not actually going with a big Carano sequence in the situation. Sometimes the film focuses on her adversaries or allies. Soderbergh and Dobbs do a lot of action thriller without a lot of money.

The film starts with Carano–former Marine and spy-mercenary–is on the run. We don’t know from who, because when Channing Tatum shows up to bring her in, they don’t say the character’s name. It becomes obvious pretty soon, but Soderbergh and Dobbs go through all the motions to give Haywire a conspiracy thriller foundation. They don’t have time to engage with it–or, presumably, money–but it’s part of the film’s texture. Some creative decisions in Haywire just plump up the film. Soderbergh’s not trying to make a low budget spy thriller, he’s making a spy thriller with a low budget. He’s not… chintzing.

So after the first Carano action sequence, the film gets into flashback and explains Barcelona and Dublin, which keep coming up in dialogue. They seem less destinations for major spy intrigue and more stops on a tour group’s European vacation. Nicely, both sequences really pay off. They live up to the hype, even if the hype was really nonspecific so Dobbs and Soderbergh could up the mysteriousness.

Then it’s the flashback catching up to present and the film resolving. Ninety-three minutes of not entirely lean–though subplot-free–narrative. Carano works her way through various other spies and government officials. They’re sort of in glorified cameos, but it never feels like it. The magic of the pacing. Bill Paxton, for example, is in a cameo role. He’s in two scenes. One on the phone. But Dobbs and Soderbergh pace it where Paxton feels like an active supporting player. It’s impressive to see executed. Paxton’s fine–it’s a cameo, he’s got nothing to do–but the feat is how the filmmakers pull it off.

Paxton’s Carano’s dad. Ewan McGregor is her spies for hire boss, Tatum is a fellow spy for hire, Michael Fassbender is a fellow (but British) spy for hire. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas as government guys who hire spies for hire. Anthony Brandon Wong and Mathieu Kassovitz are the guys the spies for hire go after. No one trusts anyone else. Something Dobbs and Soderbergh take their time addressing, which shifts the film from spy action to spy thriller, both for the film itself and Carano’s understanding of her situation.

So Carano.

As dubbed by Laura San Giacomo.

Yes, really.

Physically she’s great. The stunts, the fighting. It’s all nearly silent–trained killers don’t exchange banter in the seedy international spy ring underbelly of Dublin–so it’s just the fight, just the choreographer, just Carano and the actors and the stunt fighters. The fights are excellent. Soderbergh’s editing and photography, the fighters, Carano–great.

Carano dramatically? She’s really likable. Sympathetic. But the performance is hinky; the dubbing explains it. Carano’s dialogue is already terse so San Giacomo doesn’t really build a character. And the comedy moments are a little off. But it’s fine. Carano does well. The physicality of her performance is spot on. Soderbergh builds the movie–tone-wise–around her action sequences. The chase in middle flashback informs how something in the first act present was done. Exquisite. Always exquisite.

The cameos are all good. Bandares and Douglas have the most fun, though different kinds of fun. Tatum’s good. McGregor’s good. Fassbender’s more just effective. He’s a glorified cameo too. The movie’s Carano, Tatum, and McGregor.

Under pseudonym, Soderbergh also shot and edited Haywire. Technically it’s great. There’s great editing, there’s great photography, seperate sometimes, together sometimes. He does some excellent work in Haywire. With Holmes’s music an essential support. Holmes gets to foreshadow the slight change in tone for Haywire; how the filmmaking, narrative, and music shift gears–the music goes first.

There’s a lot of awesome to Haywire. It’s just an action movie on a budget with a problematic lead performance. The film does well not drawing attention–or even acknowledging–its constraints. But they’re there nonetheless.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, and directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; music by David Holmes; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Relativity Media.

Starring Gina Carano (Mallory Kane), Ewan McGregor (Kenneth), Channing Tatum (Aaron), Michael Fassbender (Paul), Michael Douglas (Alex Coblenz), Antonio Banderas (Rodrigo), Anthony Brandon Wong (Jiang), Mathieu Kassovitz (Studer), and Bill Paxton (John Kane).


T2 Trainspotting (2017, Danny Boyle)

T2 Trainspotting is a victory lap. John Hodge’s screenplay is thorough, thoughtful, cheap, and effective. It goes so far as to integrate unused portions of the original Trainspotting novel to try to get build up some character relationships. Because T2 is an expansive sequel. It’s got a contrived inciting action, which Hodge and director Boyle don’t even try to cover. The contrived nature of it is charming, after all. A slightly twisted kind of charming, but still charming.

Boyle’s a little too comfortable and a little too mature of a director to try much with the film’s visual aesthetic. There’s newly created Super 8 flashback footage–revealing the gang’s childhood friendships–and there’s even cleaned up footage from the original film. Only all the actors are creating new characters and have little connection to either set of flashbacks. Hodge and Boyle try to cover the inconsistency with the charming.

The film starts with Ewan McGregor returning to Edinburgh after twenty years in exile. He used to be a junkie and awesome narrator, now he’s got the Dutch equivalent of associate’s degree in accounting, he loves to jog, and he’s dissatisfied. Ewen Bremner is still a junkie. He’s trying to improve because he really loves his girlfriend and kid, even though they’ve written him off. Jonny Lee Miller is a failing bar-owner and an aspiring blackmailer who’s crushing hard on his sex worker partner (Anjela Nedyalkova). Robert Carlyle is an escaped convict and his son doesn’t want to go into the home invasion trade with him. Son wants to go to college for hotel management.

There are jokes about iPhones, gentrification, modern music, lots more. They’re solid enough jokes, but it’s a Trainspotting cast reuniting the original cast, original director, original screenwriter, original producer and there are no James Bond jokes. It’s like Hodge and Boyle forgot what people enjoyed about the first film’s energy. It’s not an apology, but it’s indifferent. McGregor has one good rant and it could change the movie and it doesn’t. Because McGregor’s not narrating. Because T2 meanders too much for a narrator.

Everyone–except poor Miller–is a protagonist. It starts with McGregor, but then transfers to Bremner through Nedyalkova. Nedyalkova is T2’s secret weapon, even though the film does absolutely nothing for her. She holds the second act together because Hodge and Boyle never figure out the right balance for McGregor, Miller, and Bremner. Carlyle’s on his own for most of the picture, in this dark, dangerous family drama. Carlyle’s story might be where Boyle shows the most interest, actually.

Except he seems to acknowledge Bremner’s giving the film’s far and away best performance, even when he’s actively ditching Bremner for McGregor and Miller’s silly bromance. Hodge’s script is all about personal growth, only he’s also got these goony character twists.

While Bremner and Carlyle have strong characterizations, Miller and McGregor don’t. Miller gets to be black comedy comic relief and McGregor is doing this coming home thing. Only no one wants to commit to a character, not McGregor, not Boyle, not Hodge. They probably should’ve brought him in later.

But they didn’t. Because McGregor’s no one’s favorite protagonist. Except maybe McGregor. Hodge favors Nedyalkova, Boyle likes Carlyle. Everything McGregor gets outside his one rant is thin.

It’s technically superior–great editing from Jon Harris, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography is spot-on. Boyle’s really in love with the locations. Adds to the charm or something. Sadly the characters have no connection to the locations and neither does Hodge’s script.

Bremner’s great, Nedyalkova’s great, Carlyle’s quite good with a thin character and a lot to do. McGregor’s fine. Miller’s got some good moments, but Hodge doesn’t do him any favors.

T2 is good. It’s expertly made, solidly written, confident; it’s occasionally accomplished; it’s also a really safe drama about male bonding. The movie doesn’t take a single chance. Any time it even flirts with the idea, Boyle unfortunately reins it in. Usually via another charming, manipulative, and narratively pliable sequence.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge, based on novels by Irvine Welsh; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Jon Harris; production designers, Patrick Rolfe and Mark Tildesley; produced by Andrew Macdonald, Boyle, Bernard Bellew, and Christian Colson; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Mark), Ewen Bremner (Daniel), Jonny Lee Miller (Simon), Anjela Nedyalkova (Veronika), and Robert Carlyle (Frank).


Trainspotting (1996, Danny Boyle)

Trainspotting moves. More than anything, director Boyle concerns himself with the film’s pace, whether through Masahiro Hirakubo’s glorious editing or lead Ewan McGregor’s narration, the film immediately sets a fast pace and keeps it throughout the film. Nothing can slow the film down, not even big events, because there’s no real plot. It’s sort of a character study, though McGregor’s narration should make him far too subjective to be the character studied. Only John Hodge’s screenplay doesn’t use the narration to move the plot–it does occasionally help keep track of the summary storytelling–mostly that narration is Trainspotting‘s version of exposition. The film drops the viewer into McGregor’s world of heroin addicts and their acquaintances (and their families and their acquaintances’ families); the narration gives the viewer some context. Not a lot, but some.

The first act of Trainspotting, which it turns out is a flashback–Boyle and Hodge only have ninety minutes and change and they maximize it through a lot of nice narrative tricks–introduces the lovable cast of heroin addicts. McGregor’s the most normal, most relatable, Ewen Bremner’s an adorable screw-up, Jonny Lee Miller’s the sort of loathsome but amusingly obsessed with Sean Connery James Bond movies one, Robert Carlyle’s the non-using, loathsome, awkwardly funny, psychotically violent one. Kevin McKidd’s another square. The heroin addiction gives Boyle and company opportunities to visually impress, but it’s not really the center of the film. The relationship between the characters is the center, only it’s not a particularly healthy relationship. Trainspotting has a sort of pithiness to its self-awareness. It’s a whirlwind. It doesn’t calm down until after the end credits have started.

All of the acting is excellent. McGregor’s great, but he has nowhere near as much time to shine in his regular performance as he does in the narration. Carlyle’s just too distracting. Even when Carlyle doesn’t have lines, he’s distracting. He’s this incredibly strange, incredibly dangerous presence in the film. Even though Boyle can visualize the heroin high, realizing McGregor’s internal experience on film, it’s almost impossible to understand how Carlyle can exist in the film. There’s fantastical and then there’s otherworldly. To Boyle, Hodge and Carlyle’s credit, they realize the character. They make it work. They make you believe the bull belongs in the china shop.

Nice smaller supporting turns from Peter Mullan, James Cosmo and Eileen Nicholas. Kelly Macdonald has a good part as McGregor’s love interest.

Great photography from Brian Tufano. Great soundtrack.

Trainspotting is an easy film about difficult subjects. It’s painstakingly objective but almost disinterested in the idea it should be judgmental. There’s no time for it. Boyle’s got to keep things moving.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh; director of photography, Brian Tufano; edited by Masahiro Hirakubo; production designer, Kave Quinn; produced by Andrew MacDonald; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Kevin McKidd (Tommy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), Kelly Macdonald (Diane), Pauline Lynch (Lizzy), Shirley Henderson (Gail), James Cosmo (Mr. Renton), Eileen Nicholas (Mrs. Renton) and Peter Mullan (Swanney).


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

Attack of the Clones is bad. The beginning almost seems all right, with Ewan McGregor and new addition (and astoundingly terrible actor) Hayden Christensen on a mission. It plays like a thirty minute TV pilot slapped on the front of an otherwise tedious Star Wars entry. This time around, director Lucas is so lazy, he doesn’t even bother clearing out the discarded red herrings. They all just hang around, daring the viewer to stare into one and plunge into the abyss.

Lucas’s vision for the film is cheap and manipulative. Not just playing on viewer expectation, but on feigned sympathy. Lucas manipulates the viewer into accepting the cheapest, most exploitative narrative twists. Even though the film’s awful–the acting’s awful, the writing’s awful, David Tattersall’s photography’s awful, John Williams’s music is awful–Lucas’s vision for Clones is a success. He’s pandering. Lucas is acknowledging he’s no longer a defining vision in blockbuster movie-making (regardless of ILM’s involvement) and he’s showing he can do the same thing as all the other guys are doing.

Right down to Natalie Portman having her midriff exposed after a vicious attack from a giant bug. Strangely, Portman’s medical condition is never questioned. There’s no plot points about the giant bug talons injuring Portman or an infection. It’s just a ploy to get her suggestively clad.

It’s desperate. But it’s acceptable. It’s the new norm, the one Lucas didn’t do anything to create. But he can mimic it, he can mimic other styles–Lucas’s ability to adapt established film narrative approaches to new, entirely different material has always been one of his more uncanny skills. But there’s not a thing he cares about in the film. If it isn’t some new effects shot, it’s a direct response to some critical dig at the previous film in the series.

It’s petty. Lucas isn’t insane. He can tell Christensen is bad and has absolutely no chemistry with Portman, partially because he’s a stalker and a jerk. Lucas doesn’t like Christensen’s character and gives him nothing likable in return. Still, even though the script fails Christensen, he’s still an awful actor. Portman gets a lot of sympathy, just for what Lucas puts her through with Clones.

McGregor does better than his costars, but he still isn’t any good. Lucas is so particularly bad at directing his actors against the digital cast. Especially Sam Jackson, whose scenes with Yoda make one wonder if Lucas even told him where to look.

Temuera Morrison is bad too. Ditto Christopher Lee.

No one’s good in Clones. Lucas and co-screenwriter Jonathan Hales don’t even give Anthony Daniels anything to do it. Lucas has no enthusiasm for anything in the film. It’d be funny if the film weren’t so long.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by George Lucas; screenplay by Lucas and Jonathan Hales, based on a story by Lucas; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Ben Burtt; music by John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Rick McCallum; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Frank Oz (Yoda), Ian McDiarmid (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Silas Carson (Viceroy Nute Gunray), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) with Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) and Christopher Lee (Count Dooku).


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

Hi. My name is Andrew. And, from 1999 to sometime in 2000, I was a Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace apologist. When writing out the title, I forced myself to type it Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Because having two colons in a title is too lame.

It was a dark time. But, every day, as the ramifications of Phantom Menace (and its critical and cultural reaction) played out and destined mainstream American cinema into a bottomless pit of cynical opportunism masked as fan service, things got brighter. For my film appreciation, anyway. All the rest of the world got was a couple more Star Wars prequels, which I avoided like the plague at the time.

I refused to return to Phantom Menace, after it had become clear there was no way to justify any of it. Jar Jar Binks, the moron who saves a planet, becomes the scapegoat for a film with a gentle, kindly, oftentimes humorous look at slavery. In his screenplay, director Lucas talks about adorable little Jake Lloyd, who’s so Aryan and sweet, we can’t imagine him growing up into Sebastian Shaw, much less James Earl Jones, being a slave almost as much as he talks about those stupid midi-chlorian. He thinks they’re really cool. Just like slavery. And Jar Jar Binks.

Lucas loves Jar Jar Binks. He doesn’t love a lot in Phantom Menace. He could care less about almost all of it, until he gets to the end and thinks he’s directing a sixties MGM war movie. Because there’s nothing original in Phantom Menace. Lucas is just cribbing from other movies–so much Spielberg, so much Cameron–and trying to put something together. It’s like a demo reel, which–if I was being nice–could be used as a rationalization for Lucas, Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s godawful editing, which goes out of its way to distance the viewer from the characters. Because if the viewer has to get close to the character, to the actor, it’d all be over. Lucas can’t be taken seriously, because he’s so disinterested. He’s copping out.

It’s easy to tell the effects sequences Lucas cares about–with the exception of the visuals of the city planet (yeah, I know what it’s called, but can we just pretend for a second I don’t–I’d have to look up the spelling and I don’t want to)–has flying birds in the shots. Just like Spielberg would have. Because Lucas is jealous. He’s seen ILM do amazing work, both practically and then digitally, and none of it really had anything to do with him. But Lucas hadn’t been making movies, he hadn’t been doing anything, with the Star Wars brand for a decade until the twentieth anniversary edition. And what did all those new special effects, which gave Lucas a chance to have ILM aggrandize him instead of someone else, do? They got a reaction. That reaction emboldened Lucas. It probably emboldened him from the first tests they would have had to do. I’d love to know how that project happened.

All of the effects shots in Phantom Menace attempt to top one another. None of them inform the story. Not even the good ones. Those shots just happen not to be some of the awful ones, which usually involve compositions or first person point of view. But for the effects shots to build in expectation, well, you need a plot to back that approach up. Because Ray Park’s idiotically terse villain doesn’t pay off with that build-up. Neither does Lloyd’s space adventure, which is just a bad Top Gun knock-off for kids. Lucas either doesn’t know what to rip off from somewhere else or he does know what to rip off, but can’t rip it off successfully. The direction is awful.

So what’s good about Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace?

Not Liam Neeson. He’s terrible. Not Ewan McGregor. He’s even more terrible. Not Natalie Portman. She’s better than those two guys. Pernilla August is comically bad. Jake Lloyd’s crappy but it’s hard to blame the kid, Lucas didn’t know how to do this movie. He paces the thing like a bad Saturday morning cartoon.

It’s hard to dislike Ian McDiarmid. He’s almost fun. If Lucas had any ambition for the film, he would have made so much questionable at the end of it. He was bluffing. Phantom Menace is a conceptual bluff, which most entertainment ends up being. Only Lucas got called on it because he’s so bad. It’s so bad.

Though it’s hard to dislike Anthony Daniels. His idiotic cameo at least has sincere acting, which isn’t present anywhere else. Not even from McDiarmid. He’s just too bemused.

Then there’s Terence Stamp looking like he’s working for quaaludes. Or Hugh Quarshie, who’s desperate to make an impression even though Lucas refuses to let anyone make an impression except maybe Sam Jackson just because Lucas is a political animal.

Low mediocre score from John Williams. Awful photography from David Tattersall. He’s overconfident, trying to cover for his inability with the effects work.

Is there anything good about it?

No, don’t be silly. It’s awful. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace or even if you were crazy and really thought The Phantom Menace was more important than the Episode I part… it’s awful.

And, just like the original, it’s changed Hollywood. Lucas disrupted the system once again. Only this time, he did it too well. He figured out a way to make movies for everyone, whether they knew it or not. I mean, there’s not a single real conversation in this film. There’s not a single time the viewer has to ask a question or have a thought. Lucas pats your hand and takes your money, one stupid scene after another.

I used to defend this movie. I used to say it was okay. I got people to see it.

You know what, I like Andy Secombe’s Watto. I’m just going to say it. I always have. Even now, when it’s obvious Lucas is painting him as a benevolent slave owner. He’s an endearing rip-off of Quark. I wonder who came up with that characterization for the film. It wasn’t Lucas.

I’ve rationalized this film to people. I shouldn’t have. It was wrong. It’s so lame it’s awful, but it’s so lame it can’t actually be awful, because it can’t be taken seriously. Not as a film. Not as a toy commercial. Not even as an expression of Lucas’s ego. Phantom Menace can’t even be that.

Because The Phantom Menace is in vain.

And to those people out there who tried to tell me I was wrong back in 1999 and 2000 during those dark, apologist days and I didn’t listen to you… well, I was a dirty bird. You weren’t grungy, you were bitchin’.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George Lucas; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith; music by John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Rick McCallum; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Hugh Quarshie (Captain Panaka), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) with Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum) and Frank Oz (Yoda).


Shallow Grave (1994, Danny Boyle)

Shallow Grave has bold colors. The production design–by Kave Quinn–isn’t particularly good. Over ninety percent of the film takes place in a rather boring apartment. But that boring apartment has a lot of bold colors. Sure, photographer Brian Tufano doesn’t know how to shoot those bold colors to make them effective, but he doesn’t know how to light any of the other scenes either. Grave is slick and economical, but no one–not the actors, not director Boyle, certainly not writer John Hodge–ever makes it feel particularly creative. It’s got a low budget so they shoot it like a play. With occasionally interesting, but inert, visuals.

As far as the actors, of the three principals–Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston–only McGregor shows any life. None of them have much character depth to work with, which obviously doesn’t help. Eccleston eventually gets the biggest part of the film, but he’s so poorly handled through the first act, he doesn’t do anything interesting. It’s not his fault, there’s just nothing interesting in that script of Hodges’s.

The film, ostensibly a thriller, is often tedious. The script has some funny dialogue exchanges–the trio live in that boldly color apartment and mock prospective tenants they do not like–but not enough to even temporarily disguise the logic holes.

Boyle’s composition is often excellent and Masahiro Hirakubo’s editing is outstanding. But there’s just not enough to the film. It’s trite, cynical, forcibly amusing. Grave’s one controlled misstep after another.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; written by John Hodge; director of photography, Brian Tufano; edited by Masahiro Hirakubo; music by Simon Boswell; production designer, Kave Quinn; produced by Andrew Macdonald; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Kerry Fox (Juliet Miller), Christopher Eccleston (David Stephens), Ewan McGregor (Alex Law), Ken Stott (Detective Inspector McCall), Keith Allen (Hugo), Peter Mullan (Andy), Leonard O’Malley (Tim) and Colin McCredie (Cameron).


Perfect Sense (2011, David Mackenzie)

Perfect Sense goes out of its way to be an atypical disaster movie. Director Mackenzie and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson’s only significant acknowledgement of genre standards is having one of the protagonists pursue a solution. Except it’s never clear what epidemiologist Eva Green actually does–her job is clear, but what she does in pursuit of a solution is never clear.

Because, instead, Perfect Sense focuses on her relationship with the guy who works at the restaurant near her apartment, Ewan McGregor. Aaekson’s script uses the restaurant as the metaphor for what’s going on in the world as everyone slow but surely loses their senses. Literally.

Mackenzie and editor Jake Roberts do these montages, narrated by Green’s character (but not her), to show world events. They’re beautifully cut, precisely presented. Everything in Perfect Sense is precise. Its ninety minute run time is also essential–so much information is presented, but every small moment needs to carry weight. The viewer can’t be left to wander. Mackenzie controls the experience.

The film simultaneously has to be a Green and Macgregor’s romantic drama while still taking into account these apocalyptic plot points. Only those plot points can’t be overdone because Perfect Sense can’t appear constrained. The meticulousness of the film starts long before Mackenzie’s avoiding action set pieces.

The photography from Giles Nuttgens is fantastic–and Roberts’s editing on the other scenes is great as well. Max Richter’s music is spot on.

And Green and Macgregor are wonderful.

It’s deliberate, considered and successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mackenzie; written by Kim Fupz Aakeson; director of photography, Giles Nuttgens; edited by Jake Roberts; music by Max Richter; production designer, Tom Sayer; produced by Gillian Berrie, Tomas Eskilsson and Malte Grunert; released by IFC Films.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Michael), Eva Green (Susan), Ewen Bremner (James), Stephen Dillane (Stephen), Denis Lawson (Boss), Anamaria Marinca (Street Performer), Alastair Mackenzie (Virologist), Katy Engels (Narrator) and Connie Nielsen (Jenny).


The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009, Grant Heslov)

The Men Who Stare at Goats, as a film about men–their relationships with each other, in an Iron John sort of way–comes up lacking. There really isn’t any personality in the friendship between Ewan McGregor and George Clooney and there would have to be for it to work. In a lot of ways, Goats is McGregor’s worst performance. He’s totally and completely passive. There might also be something about a Scot playing an American in a movie about Americans torturing people. And goats. Can’t forget the goats.

But as a smart comedy, the film’s fantastic. Clooney turns in a great comedic performance, this time retaining some of his charm (in a non-ironic way). Jeff Bridges does some great work in one of the smaller roles, as does Kevin Spacey. Spacey’s something of a surprise, because he apparently found the sense of humor he so desperately needed as Lex Luthor. It’s his best performance in many years.

There’s a sort of running meta-joke of McGregor having played a Jedi in a film where they call the good guys Jedi. It’s never really funny because it’s impossible to think of McGregor in those terms. He’s not iconic from the Star Wars prequels. In fact, I kept wishing Clooney had played Batman like he plays these roles.

Heslov’s a good intelligent comedy director. It’s a little unfortunate there’s nothing else to it, but who cares? It’s a thinking person’s popcorn movie, which is fine. It’s a genre in need.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Grant Heslov; screenplay by Peter Straughan, based on the book by Jon Ronson; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; music by Rolfe Kent; production designer, Sharon Seymour; produced by George Clooney, Heslov and Paul Lister; released by Overture Films.

Starring George Clooney (Lyn Cassady), Ewan McGregor (Bob Wilton), Jeff Bridges (Bill Django), Kevin Spacey (Larry Hooper), Stephen Lang (Brigadier General Hopgood), Nick Offerman (Scotty Mercer), Tim Griffin (Tim Kootz), Waleed F. Zuaiter (Mahmud Daash), Robert Patrick (Todd Nixon) and Rebecca Mader (Deborah Wilton).


The Island (2005, Michael Bay)

I know The Island bombed but I can’t believe anyone thought it wouldn’t. It’s incredible such a large budget was given essentially to a future movie–it takes place in 2015 or something, it’s never clear, but there’s a lot of future stuff–and I had no idea it was a future movie. Bay’s got future cars and future trains and future motorcycles and he’s the worst person to do a future movie, because he’s incapable of wonderment. The Island plays out like Freejack on overdrive.

The plot is ripe for all sorts of metaphors–this island paradise, whatever–and the film ignores all of them. Instead it’s a wholly competent, completely unexciting summer action movie. Scarlett Johansson plays a twit well and Ewan McGregor’s a solid lead in a vapid role–it’d have been really funny if the pair had been cloned from their actors, who they then had to duke it out with.

Djimon Hounsou is wasted, as he always is, cast as the tough black guy with the accent. Sean Bean’s good as the villain, even if his dialogue is crappy. Steve Buscemi’s awesome in a small role; he really has fun, maybe more than anyone else, just because he’s not pretending about what kind of movie he’s making.

It’s really cool looking–the future designs and all–and Bay does a decent job. But when the music (a good score from Steve Jablonsky) comes up, it doesn’t matter what the movie is–Bay’s directing another commercial.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; screenplay by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, based on a story by Tredwell-Owen; director of photography, Mauro Fiore; edited by Paul Rubell and Christian Wagner; music by Steve Jablonsky; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Walter F. Parkes, Bay and Ian Bryce; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Lincoln Six Echo), Scarlett Johansson (Jordan Two Delta), Djimon Hounsou (Albert Laurent), Sean Bean (Merrick), Steve Buscemi (McCord), Michael Clarke Duncan (Starkweather) and Ethan Phillips (Jones Echo Three).


Scroll to Top