Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)

"Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning"

Directed by George Lucas
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman.

BMM Keywords: So bad it hurts, Wasted potential, Commercial, Laughable stereotypes, Unacceptable pretensions.

     I figure the basic plot is probably known to most people, but to sum up: The evil Trade Federation have blockaded the peaceful planet of Naboo. Two Jedi Knights try to mediate but are forced to flee an assassination attempt and escape to the surface as the Federation's chirpy-voice battle droid army begin an invasion to force the Naboo to sign a treaty giving them control of the planet. They meet comedy sidekick Jar-Jar Binks, meet with the leaders of the primitive Gungans and rescue the sixteen year old elected Queen of the Naboo from the droids.
     Then they all leave on a spaceship.
     The damaged ship is forced to land on the planet Tatooine, where the Jedi meet Anakin Skywalker, a ten year old boy with Jedi reflexes, who tries to chat up the Queen (and that handmaiden disguise is fooling no one) and wins the money the Jedi need to repair the ship in a pod race (like Ben-Hur without the horses and coke cans). Qui-Gon Jin also wins Anakin out of slavery and they all leave, but not before a brief skirmish with crimson-skinned bad-ass Darth Maul, apprentice to the whispery-voiced secret backer of the Trade Federation blockade.
     They head to Coruscant and the Galactic Senate where - after three sentences - negotiations break down and the Queen proposes a no-confidence vote in the well-intentioned but politically vulnerable Chancellor. Meanwhile the Jedi council refuse to train Anakin, because he's dangerous and might turn out to be Darth Vader.
     Then they all go back to Naboo.
     The Naboo and the Gungans team up, and attack the battle droids. The Jedi fight Darth Maul, Qui-Gon is killed and Obi-Wan Kenobi kills Darth Maul.
     Anakin blows up a spaceship and stops the droids, mercifully ending the battle 'twixt Gungan and droid, which consists largely of Jar-Jar's relentless gooning.
     Everyone is happy, except Qui-Gon, who is dead.
     Oh, and there might be another Sith Lord somewhere.

What's wrong with it?

     Lots really, but I'll start by getting a little bugbear out of the way. Jar-Jar Binks is really annoying; oh yes he is. He flaps about and gets into all manner of zoo-zoo scrapes, for all the world like the bastard lovechild of Gerry Lewis and Norman Wisdom. Ah-ha - say his supporters - but C-3PO was like that! True enough, but C-3PO was also fluent in six-million forms of communication: He did something. Jar-Jar was just the clowning.
     The plot was thin, even for space opera, and much of the acting was below par, even the performances of a few usually stalwart players.
     The ensemble dramatis Personae lacked any kind of definition. In the original movie, the pilots attacking the Death Star had personalities, and we cared about them. Who couldn't feel at least a little sympathy for poor, confused Porkins? Who can forget the fatalistic calm of the doomed Red Leader ("Negative. Didn't go in. It just impacted on the surface"), the fear of Gold Leader and the cool efficiency of his wingman. It was all there. In Phantom Menace however, the Naboo pilots are nothing. We don't know them, we don't care. There is also an absence of a good, solid villain. Darth Maul is a goon - albeit a very stylish one - Darth Sidious (silly name) is ephemeral, and the Trade Federation lack the presence and menace of Darth Vader as the stalking adversary. The battle droids are also no improvement on the stormtroopers, especially with their strange, nasal-mechanical voices and chirpy pseudo-soldier dialogue.
     The film is overlong, and not much happens. Aside from the pod race - which is frankly padding - and the lightsabre duels, there is hardly anything to look at for much of the film. The scenes of Anakin and his mother on Tatooine are too long, and in balance the most important event in the film - the transition of power between Chancellor Valorum and the ambitious Senator Palpatine - is glossed over in a handful of scenes.
     There's no character development. At the end of the film, everyone is pretty much where they started. We've seen no sign that the Queen has been forced to come to terms with realities of war which she had not previously understood; Anakin is pretty much as was; Jar-Jar hasn't overcome his awkwardness, he's just a hero in spite of it. Only Qui-Gon has undergone any major change, and he got run-through with a lightsabre. Obi-Wan and Anakin might have been sobered by the loss of a mentor, but we don't really see that at all. Perhaps this problem stems from opening with the Jedi, where the original film followed the ingenuous Luke rather than the veteran Ben.
     The film also didn't live up to the hype, but then what could?
     Midichlorians. I shall say no more.
     Finally, whatever anyone says to the contrary, the film is loaded with outrageous racial stereotypes. The avaricious trade federation have slanted eyes (frog eyes certainly, but slanted), wear oriental robes and speak like the Fiendish Dr Fu Manchu. The primitive Gungans speak a kind of pidgin dialect, cementing their place as ignorant but noble savages in the classic Hollywood mould; in other words, black fellas. The greedy, sleazy, gambler-cum-spiv is so Italian it almost hurts. If it wasn't Star Wars, they'd never get away with it.

What's right with it?

     The Phantom Menace is certainly beautifully made. The spaceships and background mattes are incredible to look at, and the pod race and the lightsabre duels are a feast of the senses. The visual and sound effects are superb, as you would expect from Lucasfilms.
     Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor do well as the master and apprentice, Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Neeson may be phoning in his performance as Qui-Gon, but he maintains a wry dignity, and McGregor does well in a role once filled by the great Sir Alec Guinness.
     Finally the score, by Lucasfilms old hand John Williams, is magnificent. Well, except for the Gungan band piece, which makes the ewok chub-nub song seem mild by comparison. Still, the Duel of the Fates, which plays under the climactic lightsabre battle, more than makes up for it.

How bad is it really?

     Pretty damn bad, although a lot of that is hidden beneath the glossy production values. It's a lazy film, content to rest on the laurels of the franchise and possessing no apparent desire to become anything more than a by-the-numbers sequel, which is a shame because it could have been pretty good. It also blew any suspense there might have been with its hype, most notably the scene in which Darth Maul faces off against the two Jedi and activates the second blade on his double lightsabre would have been a real 'WOW' moment if we hadn't seen it a dozen times on the trailers.

Best bit?

     The final lightsabre battle is pretty sweet, but my favourite moment is in the Gungan battle. It's almost ruined by Jar-Jar Binks clowning around in the foreground,. but in the background one of the (CGI) Gungans has one of the (CGI) battle droids by the collar and is punching him repeatedly in the face like he's in some sort of bar-room brawl.

What's up with...?


Production values - Top notch in most respects. Shiny, glossy and stunningly beautiful. A few of the costumes verge on the silly though, and the 'room full of weird aliens' trick, well-used in Star Wars' cantina scene, falls a little flat in the Jedi Council chamber. 4

Dialogue and performances - Alec Guinness asked that his character be killed in the first Star Wars movie so that he wouldn't have to do any more of the trite, banal dialogue. Most people wouldn't call it that bad, but it isn't exactly Shakespeare. More of the same in Phantom Menace, but there have been far worse scripts than this. The acting is strangely stilted, and even usually strong actors like Natalie Portman seem stiff and unconvincing. Of course, in Portman's case the enormous frocks probably don't help. 10

Plot and execution - Dire. Too sparse for the length, and lacking in character development. Also, far too much time is given over to trivial factors, while important events slip by us. 16

Randomness - Too much happens in this film because Anakin does the right thing by accident, perhaps through the guidance of the Force on his subconscious, but what the hell. Jar-Jar's every inconsequential move grates on my nerves, and has next to nothing to do with the plot. Too much also is assumed and not explained: Queen Amidala is elected? Is this a formal recognition of a hereditary monarch, or a full democracy? If the latter, who voted in a sixteen year old? What is her role, really? Does she have any real power? Why does a peaceful planet have such a bad-ass militia and guns hidden in the throne room? Why do the battle droids have those irritating voices? 14

Waste of Potential - The ultimate disappointment. 20.

Overall - 64% (and would be worse without 20% of the marks in production values)


Hellbound (1993)

"Mess with this Chicago cop and there's hell to pay."

Directed by Aaron Norris
Starring Chuck Norris as Frank Shatter, Calvin Levels as Calvin Jackson, and no one else of the slightest consequence.

BMM Keywords: So bad it hurts, Dull, Gratuitous sex, Egregious violence/gore.

     Not Hellraiser II, but a film widely considered to be one of Chuck Norris' worst. I'll just let that sink in for a moment.
     We open with a prophecy regarding the emissary of Satan, a demon named Prosatanus, which makes sense - he's pro-Satan - but still sounds a whole lot too much like 'prostate' to be really frightening coming from anyone but your doctor. Apparently a shining knight under the banner of a lion will vanquish him and entomb him for the requisite thousand years. Sure enough, Richard the Lionheart shows up, does the entombing and rescues some random princeling, then breaks Prosatanus' sceptre of plot into nine pieces.
     Flash forward to the fifties, and two greedy tomb robbers remove the jewelled daggers holding the lid of Prosatanus' sarcophagus.
     Flash forward again, and streetwise, wisecracking, pimp-hating cops Shatter and Jackson are exercising their own brand of rough justice on the mean streets of Chicago when Prosatanus kills a Rabbi and throws a prostitute out of a window onto their car. Prosatanus escapes despite being shot, and what with one thing and another the two cops are told to escort the Rabbi's body back to Israel. The usual warnings from authority figures not to get involved are given and ignored.
     Shatter and Jackson hook up with the requisite love interest - a pretty archaeologist whose boss turns out to be a demon - and the requisite cute street urchin.
     Prosatanus gets his sceptre back and tries to sacrifice the love interest. He is introduced to a world of hurting and a mysterious bearded man gathers up the bits of sceptre to hide again.

What's wrong with it?

     The dialogue is poor. The acting is for the most part wooden, or at least bad. The plot is fairly minimal, without even a decent quota of fight scenes to pad it out. The demon is called Prostate, and just isn't that scary. Chuck Norris' character is almost a parody of himself in the extent of his world-weary, unflappable pragmatism.

What's right with it?

     Well, not much really. It has a few unintentional laughs, but not enough to make it a 'so bad it's good' film. I suppose at least there isn't any bad movie sex.

How bad is it really?

     Not that terrible actually. Hellbound manages to scrape in as mediocre.

Best bit (if such there is)?

[Jackson examines the body of the murdered Rabbi]
Calvin Jackson (horrified): Oh shit! His heart's gone!
[Shatter points to the floor beside Jackson]
Frank Shatter: No it isn't. It's right there...

What's up with...?


Production values - pretty good really. not much in the way of special effects, but the film is decently lit and framed, even if the direction is a little static. 7

Dialogue and Performance - the dialogue is pretty naff, but nothing exceptional. The performances are middling to appalling. The prostitute is the worst (I'm guessing the producer's girlfriend or something), with all the acting skills of a plank, and not that really talented plank from the short film of the same name either. 17

Plot - sparse, and only barely explained. Of particular note, streetwise Chicago cops apparently have no trouble processing the fact that they're going up against nameless and ancient evil. 14

Randomness - moderate. for the most part the film follows a constant - if contrived - flow of cause and effect. Who speaks English and how well seems to follow plot more than logic though, and the small street urchin with the perfect English moreover has an oddly comprehensive knowledge of local geography and holy sites. 10

Waste of Potential - Well, this was pretty much going to be bollocks, wasn't it. The ancient evil could have been a little better thought out, but that's about it. 7

Overall - 55%


Beowulf (1999)

"Unleash your dark side."

Directed by Graham Baker.
Starring - if you can really call it that - Christopher Lambert and Rhona Mitra.

BMM Keywords: So bad it's good, So bad it hurts, Incomprehensible, Gratuitous sex, Egregious violence/gore, Pumping techno soundtrack.

     The epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf tells the story of the eponymous hero; a mighty Scandinavian warrior-king of the sixth century.
     The 1999 film Beowulf tells the story of the eponymous hero; a black-clad half-man, half-demon kinda guy in a weird, techno-primitive world.
     In the epic, Beowulf wrestles and kills the monster Grendel, who has been menacing Heorot, the hall of the Danish King Hrothgar. He is then forced to fight and kill Grendel's mother, an acid-fleshed water-witch. He later becomes king of his homeland, and in his old age has to fight and kill a dragon, who deals him a poisoned wound which finally sends him to his grave.
     In the film, Beowulf engages in fast-cut, acrobatic combat with the monster Grendel, who has seen the Predator one too many times and is menacing the industrial-gothic fortress of Heorot, the hall of King Hrothgar. He is then forced to fight and kill Grendel's mother, a trampy blonde in a string dress who morphs into a big, muscle-skinned CGI monster. No dragons are involved, but Beowulf does get a pumping techno soundtrack.
     The poem has no real love interest, and the only major female character is the Queen of the Danes, who toasts Beowulf's initial victory over Grendel. The vast majority of Hrothgar's people survive the poem.
     The film has the woman who modelled for Lara Croft, dressed in revealing brown leathers, as a feisty princess. Everybody except she and Beowulf get brutally killed, even the comedy sidekick.
     That's about it really.

What's wrong with it?

     The plot is minimal. The acting is poor, and not at all helped by the laughable dialogue. The techno-primitive setting looks - frankly - like it was cobbled together out of whatever came to hand. The pop-video editing is almost vertiginous at times. The fight scenes are pretty so-so. The gratuitous sex scenes are, well, entirely gratuitous. The female character is nothing but eye candy. Christopher Lambert.

What's right with it?

     The dialogue and plot are laughable enough to be fun, and you can't entirely go wrong with a pumping techno soundtrack. Christopher Lambert.

How bad is it really?

     Beowulf is eye-poppingly bad, but with the almost non-stop motion and that techno score, you almost don't notice. It's the cinematic equivalent of rat vindaloo; you wouldn't eat it if you knew, but it's hard to really taste how foul it is under the sauce.

Best bit (if such there is)?

     Having previously executed a series of dazzling backflips, only to end up getting clocked in the face by Grendel at the end of it, Beowulf executes a series of dazzling backflips, only to get clocked in the face by Grendel's mummy at the end of it.

What's up with...?


Production values - pop-video level; more precisely, 80s rock video. The lighting is all over the place and the sets, props and much of the costume seems to be cobbled together from whatever the studios next door weren't using. 13

Dialogue and performances - laughably bad. Christopher Lambert just acts the way he always does. Rhona Mitra is not bad as eye candy goes, but the supporting cast is frankly just bad. I'd like to think - because I'm charitable that way - that they weren't really trying. 16

Plot - Well, in many ways there really isn't one, just a series of fight scenes and the occasional gratuitous shag. 18

Randomness - an eclectic series of weapons. A monster that bears a striking resemblance to the Predator. String-dress bint. Big, muscle-flesh monster. A guillotine in the form of a giant straight razor. Beowulf's father was a demon of some sort. Grendel's mum trying to get it on with Beowulf (among others). Hrothgar is Grendel's daddy. The crazy never stops. 16

Waste of Potential - Beowulf could make a stunning film, but to be honest, this was never really going to be it. 9.

Overall - 72%