Monthly Archives: March 2013

“Shadow of Malevolence” S1/E3

Shadow of Malevolence

Easy is the path to wisdom for those not blinded by themselves.

Both “Ambush” and “Rising Malevolence” began with less than a simple ease into their individual stories, and whereas those episodes practically hurled background information and context at the audience, a single proverb here was plenty enough.

If its title were any indication, “Shadow of Malevolence” picks up where “Rising” left off, though to what extent in that sketchy timeline is anyone’s guess. The important thing to remember is General Grievous still has that damn ion cannon, and he continues wreaking havoc on the Republic through hit-and-run surprise attacks — FYI that’s three in a row, Clone Wars writing staff. Grievous’ latest target is the Kaliida Shoals Medical Center, the Republic’s floating galactic respite for thousands of recovering clone troopers. With Republic forces, Jedi, and generals alike off fighting other battles yet again, — Seriously, where are these more important battles when taking out Grievous seems like the obvious strategic coup? — Anakin suggests a surprise assault on the Malevolence itself, hoping to take out Robo-Wheeze in the process.

“Rising Malevolence” is contained enough, and while its subject matter clearly isn’t probing any character depths, it affords us a nice doubling between Anakin and Grievous. The episode’s primary concern lies with exploring the motivations and consequences behind wrongheadedness, a subject all too fitting for a story centered around the “Chosen One,” even if the aforementioned proverb makes this none too subtle. Anakin’s improvisation to intercept Grievous via smuggler’s shortcut, the Balmorra Run, jeopardizes the safety of himself, Ahsoka Tano, the rest of Shadow Squadron and tagalong Plo Koon, in addition to hurting the Republic’s chances of saving the Medical Center from Grievous’ attack. The danger, of course, is a bit of a letdown in that it’s less greedy pirates and more migratory patterns of Neebrays — picture airliner-sized whale sharks with billowy side fins. They fly.

Anakin’s brashness to not think past where he was leading Shadow Squadron’s Y-Wing fighters — much less, bother to ask Master Plo about a shortcut he’s familiar with — is amplified and embellished when Grievous arrives out of hyperspace to spring a would-be surprise hit on Koliida Shoals. If only to distract Grievous’ attention and the ion cannon’s overpowered devastation, Anakin leads a full-on assault on Malevolence’s bridge, but Shadow Squadron is forced into a sloppy evasion in avoiding the superweapon’s blast. And troopers die. The Clone Wars growing a pair here is illustrative of a willingness to demonstrate costs and risks of decision-making, and while Anakin’s quick thinking certainly goes on to spare Koliida Shoals’ infirmary patients from certain death, the Republic pays the price in another way. To his credit, Anakin leads the charge himself, a fitting blend of self-sacrifice and headstrong confidence.

Grievous shares much of the latter with General Skywalker; where the two differ is the former. Grievous, like nearly every Star Wars villain really, is driven by vengeance and self-sacrifice. He has no qualms about smacking around hapless droid pilots and has proven time and again he’s not afraid to ditch a battle. When Shadow Squadron fires a volley at the ion cannon just as its charging reaches its apex, the weapon overheats (or something) and explodes, crippling Grievous’ warship. Obi-Wan and a fleet of cruisers arrive to finish the job, but Grievous stays true to form and high tails it on outta there. Erm, spoilers?

As mentioned earlier, “Shadow of Malevolence” is the second of a three-part story arc, though I struggle to find any real connective tissue beyond the eponymous ship and a certain android general’s incompetence. All was not lost however, and “Shadow” definitely deserves credit for having the cajones to kill off characters and, you know, show some actual stakes in this Clone Wars business.

Stray Observations:

  • Shadow Squadron? Malevolence? Oh I see what they did there…
  • Today in Confederate gaffes: “Grievous, those battle droids are expensive.” Um, no Dooku. They aren’t. They’re cheap and easy to mass produce. That was the whole point. Sith Lords these days.
  • Yesterday in Confederate gaffes: Only an episode ago, Dooku left us with a palpable disgust of Grievous’ obvious strategic failures. Now? Dooku has supreme confidence in his mechanical underling. Someone must’ve done some serious Sun Tzu cramming last night.
  • First-person Y-Wing cockpit action? Great band name and a nice addition in this episode.
  • Why is he Master Plo and not “Master Koon?” General Kenobi; General Skywalker; Master Windu. Unless Koon is his equivalent “first name,” in which case the Kel Dor are the closest to a Chinese proxy in the Star Wars Universe

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“Rising Malevolence” S1E/2

Clone Wars Rising Malevolence Plo Koon

With Disney’s announcement Monday that it would be canceling The Clone Wars after this season — its fifth — and not a day after I reviewed its very first episode, it’s safe to say Dad was right. I really do kill everything.

It’s only the second episode, but “Rising Malevolence” [named after yet another warship the Confederacy decides to waste on General Grievous] already has some changes. Instead of “Ambush’s” opening crawl, two paragraphs of Flash Gordon-styled voiceover are thrown at the viewer to process in no more than ten seconds. Confederate surprise attacks! Plo Koon! Secret weapon! It’s a lot to take in; not because the material is deep or complex, but because they’re chucking it at you so damn fast.

When Master General and Jedi Power Battles Superstar Plo Koon and three Republic attack cruisers stumble upon the location of a secret Separatist weapon, he contacts Anakin, stationed at the nearby Bith system, for assistance. Unfortunately, Anakin must tend to his apprentice Ahsoka at the behest of the Jedi Council and several inconsequential strictures and regulations. Which really sucks, because Count Dooku and General Grievous on board the Malevolence jam Koon’s transmissions and disable the Republic fleet’s weapons, decimating the ships and forcing the crew to jettison to safety in their escape pods with minimal life support and weak communications.

But Grievous isn’t done yet. He sends out a tactical team — in the loosest sense of “tactical” — and a Droch-class boarding craft to eliminate the remaining survivors, lest Plo Koon warn the Republic of the Separatists’ dreaded new ion cannon. Ahsoka, revealing that Plo Koon was once her master before Anakin, petitions the Jedi to help them the fuck out. Anakin shoots Ahsoka down, reminding her to recognize her place in the Jedi Order and to do as she’s told. That is, until Anakin reveals he’s down with her plan all along, zipping off to the Abregado System in their junky Falcon rip-off du jour, the Twilight. Agreeing to the Council’s request is one thing, Anakin says; how you get that done is something else entirely.

Ahsoka’s presence in The Clone Wars film, and now the series, is troubling because she’s really just doubling the role Anakin should be playing. Making her Anakin’s apprentice deflates his characterization, too because as “Rising Malevolence” already shows, being a “Master” to anyone forces Anakin to be too responsible. It’s not enough to underdevelop Anakin and Obi-Wan’s relationship; Anakin needs a half-baked relationship with his own apprentice now, too. That said, Anakin’s logic here also makes for an interesting dynamic, one that introduces (too little, too late for the Prequels) an alternative characterization of Anakin that ventures beyond pouting and immature explosions of severe violence. He can get shit done while still being rebellious. If nothing else, it’s a nice homage to the late Qui-Gon Jinn’s personal philosophy.

Anywho, the droids converge and take out an escape pod, sending the clones inside flying out into space to suffocate. Brutal. Then follows a pretty measly action sequence where Plo Koon sluggishly bats away the droid team’s laser blasts before using the Force to… throw a clone trooper at the boarding craft for cover fire. Cool? Anakin and Ahsoka arrive shortly thereafter, and R2 fixes the Twilight’s hyperdrive just before the Separatists can fire their ion cannon on them. Steven Melching must’ve had The Empire Strikes Back playing in the background when he wrote this one.

Okay, so what happened here? Count Dooku is once again frustrated with Grievous fucking things up. The Jedi Council is solely comprised of holographic desk-jockeys. The Republic now knows about the Separatist’s weapon and… that’s it, really. Anakin and Ahsoka come to some lame agreement about sharing the blame for breaking the Council’s rules, but the moment feels more like redundant characterization than actual development. At least “Ambush” had some half-interesting ideas about individuality. Here we just hear more from the uninteresting shoe-horned biography of the galaxy’s #1 Mary Sue.

Stray Observations:

  • Sixth-grade me did not imagine Plo Koon sounding like a Halo Elite with that elaborately deep voice.
  • I love how much this episode tries to hype up a “secret” weapon that wasn’t that impressive in Empire. In Episode V, the ion cannon looks and does exactly what it sounds like. In The Clone Wars? It’s a superpowered weapon that shoots out electric sparkling jellyfish.
  • Maybe I’m picking nits here, but those Droch-class “juicers” the battle droids used seemed pretty conveniently-sized to pincer the Republic escape pods. They’re used for more than boarding escape pods though, yes?
  • Since when did Anakin become a bureaucrat? Sure, part of his scolding Ahsoka for breaking from the Council’s orders was for show, but he felt a little too snippy. A little too Obi-Wan.
  • The latest in PG-rated death threats: Count Dooku’s “I want all those life pods destroyed…”
  • Grievous is ridiculous in “Rising Malevolence.” Moreso than Revenge of the Sith. He’s hacking up his lungs and bitching out battle droid crew members even as Dooku tells him how much he fucked up. He’s Dooku’s pathetic, half-robot, goofy lapdog.
  • On that note, there are way too many apprentices. Anakin is Obi-Wan’s former apprentice; Ahsoka used to be Plo Koon’s; now she’s Anakin’s; Grievous and Dooku. The Clone Wars is running a FREE APPRENTICE OFFER  at its yard sale. I miss Darth Maul.

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“Ambush” S1/E1

Clone Wars Ambush Yoda

Well this is already weird.

I won’t pretend television criticism is something I’ve had a lot of experience with, but I also won’t act like I’ve been keeping up my usual pace of content. Maybe it’s from boredom. Maybe it’s out of curiosity. Maybe The Clone Wars has now reached an unforeseeable five seasons, becoming too great of a cultural blind spot for me to continue ignoring it any longer. In order to stay true to my inconsistent productivity, I will make absolutely no promises about keeping this up, especially if the series sours quickly. Honestly, the best you can hope for is mildly clever space dick jokes amidst paragraphs of my best Zack Handlen impersonation.

The Clone Wars kicks off right in the thick of things. Maybe too much so, because Steve Melching’s teleplay spares no expense at any context or place setting, apart from a lousy two paragraph open crawl. Is Yoda’s secret diplomatic mission to Toydarian-inhabited Rugosa immediately after the animated movie? Before Genndy Tartakovsky’s miniseries? Does anyone else care?

I can’t be the only one who doesn’t understand why the allegiance of King Katuunko would give either the Republic or the Confederacy a strategic advantage in the war. Well, apart from securing the galaxy’s finest scimitars and hand-crafted silk tunics. One should assume that Yoda will have to work especially hard to impress the Toydarians though, considering the Force’s unique influence doesn’t work on them. To their credit, director Dave Bullock and the show’s production team have smartly shied away from Watto’s vaguely Semitic overtones in favor of a generalized Persian quality. It’s still cheap, but less offensive is still an improvement.

Before Yoda can convince Katuunko that the Republic critically needs a Rugosan base of operations, Count Dooku’s apprentice Asajj Ventress arrives, intent on convincing the Toydarians their swath of ineffective battle droids is a reason to side with Confederate Forces. Katuunko decides to let the winner of a gambit between Ventress and Yoda determine his kingdom’s entire allegiance, the logic of which is completely stupid. In statistics, there’s the idea of a small sample size — I use it against myself all the time in my baseball shower arguments — and the constrictive nature of putting too much stock in a short time frame. The Asajj/Yoda gambit, where Katuunko will join the Confederacy if Ventress can defeat Yoda’s sparse forces, is like dropping 1,000 Republic credits on a single coin flip. Just dumber.

What follows is essentially one drawn-out action sequence, where Yoda and his three clone troopers — Thire, Jek, and Rys — fend off the staggered onslaught of super battle droids, destroyer droids, and AATs. In what is hopefully an fleeting misstep for the series, the battle droid characterization here is all kinds of problematic. On the three item short list of “Stuff The Phantom Menace Gets Right,” depicting the battle droids as useless saber fodder separated them from the doofy consciousness of Stormtroopers. Trade Federation brass wanted lots of chances to shoot blaster bolts in as many directions as possible and at a minimal cost, and they delivered just that. “Ambush” gives the droids personality, moving them from Episode I’s stupid but brief “Roger Roger… uh oh” throwaway line to a throng of mechanized pratfalls. I’ve got to believe Nute Gunray can’t be too happy with the rapid depreciation of his investment.

Wounded and weary from the fighting, Yoda leads the troopers to a small cave to recover and raise their spirits. Despite protestations that they’re all the same, Yoda instructs the three to remove their helmets, before packaging a pocket sermon about the Force inside compliments of each of their unique strengths. Yes, even as clone troopers. The science over whether or not clones can diverge from their genetic source material is intellectual fodder for the Roddenberry types, but The Clone Wars deserves credit for shying away from George Lucas’ ill-advised thinking behind the Republic Army’s origins. It’s an extension of what Revenge of the Sith tried with Commander Cody and Obi-Wan; it’s also a reminder of why Attack of the Clones is the worst thing ever.

Yoda’s ooey-gooey pep talk also gives the remaining Confederacy forces time to spring a final attack. Yoda, still every bit the overpowered superhero, has little problem dispatching their ranks. He carves holes in AATs and pits the droid’s blasters against themselves. When Ventress sics droidekas on the Jedi Master, the shielded destroyers become too much for him. Thankfully, he’s bailed out by Thire’s rocket launcher, not that we had any real concern that Yoda wasn’t getting out of this one unscathed. King Kotuunko is angered by Ventress’ meddling and sides with the Republic, but not before the Sith apprentice tries to kill him over the decision. Yoda once again shows up and saves the day, but Ventress escapes, concluding a lackluster first episode from The Clone Wars.

“Ambush” and its extended action sequence might have been fine had it stuck to the smarter side Star Wars mythology. The risk with any prequel-based story is in adhering too closely to its sources’ precedents. When Yoda first fought Dooku on Geonosis, teenage boys everywhere flipped a shit at the sight of the little green guy’s leaps and tumbles and signature mini-saber; twelve year old me certainly did. But that finale also spat in the face of everything Yoda taught Luke on Dagobah, about how the quick and easy path is not always the best option. About shirking violence for patience and meditation. Rambo Yoda recalls exactly none of that as he’s hacking down packs of droids. “Wars not make one great… but an exception am I.”

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My Buddy is a Cage – Wild At Heart (1990)

Nicolas Cage Laura Dern Wild at Heart sunset

Note: March is “Lynch Month” over at Sound on Sight, so if you don’t care about my ho-hum thoughts on The Straight Storyat least read the other great writing they’ve been putting out

David Lynch is a frustrating dude.

Take it from someone who took approximately 37 viewings before he could appreciate Mullholland Dr. Like Lynch’s masterpiece, Wild at Heart is filled with that trademark “WTF” factor. Lynch’s direction is hyper-stylized, demanding actors go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds; emotions are stilted or melodramatic, and often in moments you wouldn’t expect.; the sound of a phone hitting the receiver booms like a dynamite explosion; a house band stops playing at the drop of a pin. Wild at Heart plays a lot like a fever dream, especially given those flourishes to what is a very simple story.

After brutally killing a man who attacked him, local ruffian and Elvis enthusiast Sailor (Nicolas Cage) gets locked up in the clink, much to the despair of his gangly, spirited lover Lula (Laura Dern). Lula’s mother, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd, and Dern’s actual mother) wants Sailor to stay in jail or even better, stay dead — probably because of all that violent pointing Sailor does. So Marietta does what any supporting mother would and sends a motley crew of hired guns to take Sailor out. Not taking any chances, Sailor and Lula skip town for New Orleans, hoping to avoid the likes of private eye Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), gangster Marcellus Santos (J.E. Freeman) and most feared of all, Willem Dafoe’s pencil mustache.

Much of Lynch’s Wild at Heart is really about how it’s telling itself rather than what it’s saying, and it often suffers from his insistence on personal touches. There’s no bigger giveaway than Lynch’s insistance on changing the original ending in Barry Gifford’s 1989 novel.  Sure, the Elvis homages add some “fuck you” bravado to road film escapism, and yes, the Wizard of Oz references allow for an clever inversion of Dorothy’s slipper-tapping in a story about leaving home. But so very little of it is needed, leaving the inessential bits — the hypersexualized one-off characters or a severe overuse of lipstick — to feel Lynch’s eccentric window dressing, not illuminating subtext.

Wild at Heart Glinda bubble ending

Then again, Wild at Heart offers some faceted dimensions of the interplay between violence and romance, a much more successful effort than the sophomoric likes of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Dern and Cage share a raucous duality in their love-making, and really, their entire relationship les dangereux. Dern taps into that tension between sensual frailty and sexual empowerment. She’s precise with a simple brush of her curly mane or in the clenching of fingernails against a bed sheet. It’s no wonder that Dern and Lynch collaborated again following Blue Velvet. 

More so, Cage might be the perfect acting specimen for a Lynch film. His propensity for shifting from loud to soft, from tender to violent is on full displayThere’s an explosiveness to Cage’s Sailor, one that might feel campy in Vampire’s Kiss or overblown in Matchstick Men, but sits right at home with Lynch’s own bipolarity. Cage’s talents in Wild at Heart are never more perfectly on display than at a club, where Lula and Sailor celebrate the end of his sentence with the traditional speed metal concert. As the pair tear it up to the soulful screams of Powermad, a poor soul tries rubbing up against Lula. Sailor takes control. Then he takes the mic.

Like anything Cage commits to, he gives his 150% dedication to the moshing and fist pumping and a seething half-in, half-out Elvis drawl. It’s weird and garbled and oddly fantastic. Sailor is a ball of machismo and PCP, a Jailhouse Rock enthusiast who’s pretty damn strong on the mic when he needs to be. As I’ve written countless times before, under the proper directorial control, Cage can be cool and commanding, and that’s everything Lynch needs him to be here. The entire room stops in awe of Sailor, but part of that might be in awe of Cage’s talent.

It’s great setup for its actors, but Wild at Heart never excuses itself for why it wants to mash up speed metal with smalltown Americana, cerebral primalism with Glinda ex Machina. Lynch’s fatal flaw might be simply knowing when to get out of his own way. If only by comparison, as his lead actor has shown time and again, less is more.

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Want more Cage? You got it.

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