Maybe I’m subject to a Jedi mind spell, but for me, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is the most satisfying Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The story of 1999’s Episode I was inevitably exposition; this one has all the pay-offs.

Here’s a rundown of the major plot points and fans’ criticisms of the movie.

Jar Jar Binks. Episode I‘s much-reviled comic relief has basically been relegated to a desk job and is on-screen for only a short time. So Star Wars fans, quit’cher bellyaching already!

The romance between Anakin Skywalker (a/k/a Darth Vader-to-be) and Princess (now Senator) Amidala. Much has already been made of this couple’s pedestrian dialogue, but it’s at least as convincing as Empire‘s budding romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia. In any case, Natalie Portman (Amidala) is as shimmeringly beautiful as ever, and Hayden Christensen evokes the Vader-to-be far more convincingly than did Jake “Yippee!” Lloyd in Episode I.

Conflict. There’s a lot of it here, most of it quite convincing and intriguing. Anakin chafing under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), some evil politicians who want to take over Amidala’s territory, Anakin’s search for his long-separated mother–it all adds a welcome layer of depth to what is often perceived as a comic-book fairy tale.

Visuals. As always with the Star Wars series, this movie’s visual palette delivers the goods, with otherworldly settings and rich, vivid atmosphere.

In-jokes. There are some extremely sly references here, not just to the other SW movies but to A.I. and Gladiator. And the action sequence with Anakin and Amidala trapped in the clone factory plays like a nightmare version of Charlie Chaplin’s trip through the conveyor belt in Modern Times.

Yoda. The old Jedi master — computer-generated this time, but still voiced by Frank Oz — is the most thrilling surprise here. For an old, short guy, he wields a mean light saber.

Bad acting? Tell that to such pros as McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christopher Lee.

As with any of the Star Wars flicks, it helps if you’ve seen the others. But on its own, Episode II is as lavish a movie treat as you’re likely to find in this movie series.

KING KONG (2005) – Not the gorilla my dreams


I’ll give Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong one thing: As Ann Darrow (portrayed in the original by scream queen Fay Wray), Naomi Watts gives a downright heroic performance. She puts a terrific, thoughtful spin on Ann, showing her truly falling for this huge ape who can’t possibly have her. Scene after scene, she does courting rituals with Kong that, by rights, should get her laughed off the screen, and she really makes them work.

Other than a few scenes here and there, though, that’s about the only thing that Jackson’s pre-fab version gets right. The 1933 Kong did in five bad lines of dialogue what it takes Jackson five bad scenes to do. The storyline is pretty much the same: Megalomanical filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black in full blowhard mode) drags Ann to Skull Island to do the jungle movie of all time. The yin to Carl’s wacko yang is love interest Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), here a socialist playwright rather than the original’s sailor. But Jackson doesn’t do a blessed thing to update the dialogue; it sounds like the kind of cornpone that was already pushing up daisies in 1933.

By the time that the old Kong would have been half-over, we still haven’t arrived at that blankety-blank island yet. And when we do, it’s eye-popping in more ways than one, and none of them positive. African-Americans who had hoped the day had passed when they were portrayed on screen as superstitious savages will have a field day here. And when Jackson isn’t resurrecting old stereotypes, he drags his cast through an hour of fighting with CGI-based creatures who have nothing to do with Kong and everything to do with Jackson saying, “Watch what my computer can do!”

And is Kong “realistic”? It depends on your definition of realism, I guess. The movie doesn’t cheat, it shows him in full-shot most of the time, and yet, to me he didn’t seem any more plausible than the ape in the 1997 family film Buddy. The movie bucks him up with THX sound to intimidate us, but the old stop-motion Kong was a lot more fun.

The movie’s $200 million is definitely up on the screen. But mostly I just wanted to turn my head away from it, as Ann does when she gets a dose of Kong’s hot breath in her face. Ironically, it’s the movie’s quieter moments that work: the opening montage of Al Jolson serenading Depression-era New York; a couple of thoughtful sequences where Ann and Kong are essentially having play-time together. But as the movie’s disappointing box office evidenced, I think kids were more interested in getting the movie’s video-game version so that they could knock Kong off the Empire State Building themselves.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) – An empire of movie riches


IMHO, in the Star Wars universe, The Empire Strikes Back is the one that sticks. Twenty-five years after its first release, I re-viewed it with my then-8-year-old son as part of our “prep” course for the final Star Wars entry Revenge of the Sith. And everything that originally was emotionally satisfying to me remains intact.

Until I saw Empire, I hadn’t fallen for Star Wars the way millions of moviegoers had. It seemed passable as a “Flash Gordon”-type time-killer, but not worth falling all over. But Empire is the real deal. Right from the opening scenes, it has a different tone that its chipper predecessor. The “Rebels,” far from cheering over their initial victory in the first movie, are now hunkered in an endless snowland, trying to continue their battle and stay alive at the same time. Then our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), gets womped by the love child of the Abominable Snowman, and suddenly we realize that the good guys are going to have to deal with some real issues.

This movie has it all: eye-popping scenery, fully developed characters who feel both joy and pain (who can forget Chewbacca’s wail every time his friends have a major setback?), and most memorably, believable romantic dialogue between prissy Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford). SW creator George Lucas has been roundly criticized for the stilted romantic talk in “Episodes II and III”; he would have done well to go back and study the simple yet effective repartee in this movie.

This is also the movie that introduced sage Yoda, who at this point was not the animatronic whiz of the “prequel” trilogy but was initially a senior-citizen Muppet with Frank Oz’s hand up his behind. But even with that drawback, Yoda was as believable and powerful as his later, more youthful CGI version. (That scene where he pulls the spaceship out of the pond is still goose-bump-inspiring.)

Of course, this “galaxy far, far away” is nothing without uber-villain Darth Vader (voice by James Earl Jones, body by David Prowse), and Empire makes the most of the good- and badwill built up by the Man in Black in his first outing. He finally gets his own theme song (“The Imperial Theme”), and it only does him justice. And if, by some miracle of ignorance, you don’t know the major plot twist in this movie, it will blow you away as quickly as Luke loses a major appendage.

The best element of this movie is that it takes time for the “little” moments, such as when Han Solo can’t get the Millenium Falcon running until he hits the “dashboard,” or that great moment where Han’s carbonited body slams into the frame with hands up, as though he’s trying to break out of his enforced prison. (Funny thing is, before he got frozen, his hands were bound behind his back. But when that body slams onto the screen with such urgency, logic takes wing.)

Any box-office smash that can leave so many major plot points hanging at movie’s end has to be some kind of triumph. Until Anakin Skywalker devolved into Darth Vader at the end of SithThe Empire Strikes Back was truly the gold standard for this series.



#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., Oct. 3: KING KONG (1976)


The most unfortunate line of dialogue in the 1976 version of King Kong is when Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), as proof of Kong’s existence, points to jungle debris and says, “Who do you think made that mess – some guy in an ape suit?”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I think.

In between the original 1933 version of King Kong (a classic and the best version –- no arguments allowed) and Peter Jackson’s 2005 version (which put me off but obviously has its fans), there came producer Dino De Laurentiis’ version –- which, to cop a much-used phrase from Roger Ebert, knew the words but not the music.

The movie attempts to “modernize” the story with a plotline about Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), a greedy executive of an oil company named Petrox (“Pet Rocks,” isn’t that cute?). Wilson is sailing his crew to an uncharted island that promises hoards of oil that will help Petrox lead the way during the ’70s energy crisis. Stowing away on the Petrox ship is Prescott, an “environmentalist professor” who tries to show Wilson the political incorrectness of his greedy ways.

Bridges and Grodin seem pretty game for the plot conceit. On the other hand, there’s Jessica Lange, making her unfortunate film debut as Dwan, another of the ship’s passengers. Dwan is a would-be actress who talks like a flaky flower child. From this performance, you’d never have guessed that Lange would go on to be an Academy Award winner.

Other than hippie girl Dwan, the most head-shaking aspect of the movie is King Kong himself — who is shown, alternately, as a man in a gorilla suit (special effects artist Rick Baker) and a robot (designed by Carlo Rimbaldi, who went on to better things when he designed E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial years later for Steven Spielberg).

(SPOILER ALERT!) I feel compelled to mention that the only element that might spoil the movie’s fun for you is the setting of its climax. Whereas the ending of the 1933 movie famously took place atop the Empire State Building, here Kong climbs to the top of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. That was obviously intended as a novel climax at the time of the movie’s release, and just as obviously, it might have negative emotional resonance for some viewers now.

Other than that, the movie is quite the valentine to 1970’s America in all of its tacky glory. So join us for some laughs this Sat., Oct. 3, at 4:30 p.m. EST at Use the hashtag #SatMat to get the link to the movie online and to comment on the movie throughout our viewing of it!

THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998) – A swashbuckler that shows they *can* make them like they used to


This post is dedicated to Fritzi at the blog Movies Silently, who recently announced her Swashathon!, a blogathon taking place on Nov. 7-9, 2015 that is devoted to swashbuckling movies past and present. Click on the above banner to find out more about the ‘thon and how to enter it!

As Fritzi’s blogathon is devoted to movies released up to only 1970, I thought I’d share my review of a delightful swashbuckler from the 1990’s.


These days, when filmmakers do ironic takes on old movies, you get the feeling they’re serving up spoofs because they don’t have the energy or nerve to do the real thing. But The Mask of Zorro is sincere about updating the old Saturday-matinee hero and, happily, does a darned good job of it.


At first, the storyline makes you fear the worst. The original Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), having been stripped of his wife and daughter by his evil adversary (Stuart Wilson, looking and acting like Mel Brooks on a tear), pulls a “Lethal Weapon” and decides he’s too old for this stuff. Twenty years later, Zorro Sr. recruits a down-on-his-luck bandito (Antonio Banderas) to revive the black-mask-superhero franchise.

But as this is a Steven Spielberg production, what The Mask of Zorro is really about is the art of filmmaking, and it shows what some imaginative people (director Martin Campbell among them) can do with a movie camera. There are some old-fashioned stunts and physical comedy that are carried off just about perfectly herre. And usually, these shoot-the-works movies peter out just before the end credits, but this one has the most satisfying adventure-movie wrap-up I’ve seen in a long time.

I wouldn’t have guessed that Hopkins (as Zorro?!) or Banderas had this in them, but they play the most outrageous situations with perfectly straight faces, and it seems to invigorate them. (My only complaint with this gloriously fun movie is the unconvincing youthful look given to Hopkins at the movie’s start. I guess the filmmakers’ love of old-movie conventions extends to bad hair-dye jobs.)


And Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the love interest, might just have you swooning with delight (especially with a beaut of a sight gag in which Zeta-Jones is undressed by Banderas in a most unique way).

It’s hard to say how modern-day movie viewers jaded by toy soldiers and destructo-epics will respond to swashbucklers who are presented without a trace of irony. But The Mask of Zorro proves that heroes can still be served up straight, if it’s done with some wit and panache.

KING KONG (1933) – Who couldn’t love the big ape?


Like most baby-boomers, I fell in love with the original King Kong after viewing it on local TV. I put off buying the deluxe 2005 DVD version so that my family would have a gift to get for me at Christmastime that year. I was dying to pass the legend of this movie on to my then-9-year-old son, but such are latter-day attention spans that I actually had to make him promise me an afternoon where he’d sit and watch it with me. He watched it again three times after that.

Sure, the movie has flaws. I’ll tick some off for you. Some of the dialogue is stilted in a way that only 1930s scripting can be. (“Why…I guess I love you!” declares sailor Jack Driscoll [Bruce Cabot] to “bothersome” female passenger Ann Darrow [Fay Wray], with all the passion of a shipman who’s discovered an extra bottle of hootch on board.) As befits the movie’s then-revolutionary stop-motion animation technique, monster ape King Kong’s fur often wavers from frame to frame, in much the same way as Gromit’s doggie features hardly stand still from one frame to the next in the clay-animated Wallace and Gromit feature movie.

But you just gotta love the movie’s fearlessness. Without an ounce of irony, the non-real Kong gets his own movie credit as “the eighth wonder of the world.” There’s no question that, as movie impresario Carl Denham, Robert Armstrong is whole ham –- yet that’s what makes the character so wonderful. Most “fearless” movie heroes these days (paging Bruce Willis!) have only a steel chin and a sneer to offer the movie camera. Denham is not only fearless, he’s enthusiastic about it, as if he just can’t help putting his entire crew in peril just to get a good close-up.

Fay Wray, of course, immortalized herself as a scream queen in her role as Kong’s temptress Ann Darrow. But even her screams are fun, because they’re so genuine. It’s a role that she could have conceivably turned into a camp classic (much as poor Jessica Lange did in the 1976 version); after all, in the end we know she’s caterwauling to a clay model just a few feet tall. But Wray really is sincere enough to convince us she’s getting manhandled by a perilous monster. My only regret is that she didn’t end up showing just a little emotion for this overgrown kid who eventually lays down his life for her (which, thanks to Naomi Watts, was one of the few elements that Peter Jackson’s 2005 version did get right, IMHO).

Even the deaths in the movie aren’t terribly painful. When Kong shakes a huge log where some of his would-be captors are clinging for dear life, and many of them fall to the gorge below, it’s more like the roller-coaster ride the movie was intended to be; the poor fellas are merely the 30s predecessors to all those nameless extras who got evaporated on the original “Star Trek.” Contrast that with the endless emphasis on graphic violence and death in Peter Jackson’s version (which traumatized my son so much that we had to exit the movie after it was only one-third finished).

Finally, there’s Max Steiner’s ground-breaking musical score. At the advent of talkies, it was unheard of for an entire orchestral score to accompany a movie’s story, and if you doubt the staying power of Steiner’s music (he went on to score classics as diverse as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca), listen to one of the latter-day music-only CDs of Kong‘s soundtrack. It holds up as well as any movie score of the 1930’s and beyond; it’s like an old-time radio show in itself.

King Kong inspired generations of filmmakers as the ultimate example of how a movie could breathe life (and terror) into an inanimate object. Ironically, until Star Wars came along, most Hollywood movies had forgotten how to combine thrills and fun without gore –- a lesson that King Kong should have taught them long ago.