May 21st, 2005

Cinema Dave  Swashbuckling ournalist and

Jet Li, Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins in "Unleashed"

Ever since his cinematic fight with both Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon 4," Jet Li has made some interesting and thought provoking movies. His mastery of the martial arts is a given, but Jet Li choice of roles and narrative has been varied. Last year, Jet Li joined an ensemble cast for "Hero," a historical epic about Chinese politics told from multiple perspectives. This year Jet Li gives his best performance in "Unleashed," a smaller scale movie contrasting violence with artistry.

Based on the screenplay by Luc Besson, "Unleashed" introduces us to Danny the Dog (Let Li), a henchman for Scottish crime lord Bart (Bob Hoskins). Appearing docile, Danny wears a leash around his neck. When his Glasgow Master unleashes him, Danny becomes a deadly killing machine. Bart raises Danny as a caged animal and feeds his scraps of food.

During a shakedown at an antique store, Danny befriends Sam (Morgan Freeman) a blind piano tuner. Danny's world opens up and he becomes hypnotized by the classical music of Mozart. When he becomes separated from Bart after a violent episode, Danny is given food, clothing and shelter by Sam and his step daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon).

The scenes were Danny establishes his connection to everyday behavior are more memorable than Jet Li's action sequences. Thanks to the sensitivity, but not maudlin, acting of Freeman and Condon, Jet Li's physical performance is heightened. Despite being one moment away from explosive violence, Jet Li's boyish qualities transcend the chop socky stereo types. One humorous moment that stands out is Danny's introduction to ice cream and the inevitable brain freeze that it causes.

Bob Hoskins could steal the show with such a gregarious role. He is both frightening and funny. While the character does become a tad annoying towards the end, this long winded annoyance steps up Morgan Freeman's blind character.

As Sam, Morgan Freeman character could be the relative of the character he portrayed in "Million Dollar Baby." Originally the character was not blind, but Freeman thought it would help the screenplay. Freeman's instincts were correct. Thanks to Freeman's suggestion, "Unleashed" does an entertaining job making Danny's conversion from human pit bull to classical musical patron.

With English as his second language, Jet Li communicates a physical performance with empathy. People looking for plot holes will find them with "Unleashed." The film has performed poorly for an opening weekend, but the audience appreciated this thought provoking action genre flick. If you miss it on the big screen, see it when it is released on DVD
Cinema Dave  Swashbuckling ournalist and

SPACE 1999: "Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menance"

The lights dim and 30 something year old fathers
await the new saga of "Star Wars" after 16 years of
waiting. They are sharing their moment with their own
children. "Star Wars" was an iconic moment from their
childhood and it will be for their heirs.
Or so the father thought...
"Daddy, can I have more popcorn?"
The frustration of this Generation X parent must have
been similar to the Big Band Generation's reaction to Elvis Presley.

"Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" presumes to
tell the tale of little Darth Vader, a ten year old
slave boy on planet Tatoonie. The boy, also known as
Anakin Skywalker, is a child prodigy on the subject of
mechanics and racing. He meets Qui Gin (Liam Neesom) a
Jedi Knight who thinks Anakin is the chosen one. With
the permission of his mother, young Anakin joins the
Jedi Knights for thrills and adventures.

Anakin flies a spaceship, makes goo goo eyes with a
Princess (Natalie Portman) and comes under the
scrutiny of Master Yoda (Frank Oz). Yoda has his
doubts that Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one and he
reflects these doubts to his Jedi student, Obi Wan Ben
Kenobi (Ewan Mac Gregor). While raising this young prodigy, Obi Wan, Qui Gin and the Princess are being
pursued by Darth Maul (Ray Park), the Sith Apprentice
to the Phantom Menace.

If you have seen "Star Wars" Episodes 4, 5 and 6, you
know the fate of these main characters. Darth Vader
and Obi Wan will duel, Yoda will become an exile on a
swamp planet. The Phantom Menace will be revealed to
be a crotchety old man with a genetic link to the
wicked witch of the West. Those 30 something parents
expecting a religious experience from the Professor
Joseph Campbell inspired myth will walk away unfilled.

To creator George Lucas' credit, he did mention that
"Star Wars" is only a movie. Actually the "Star Wars"
series were first inspired by the bargain basement
studio series from the 1930's which featured Tarzan,
Batman and best villainy of Bela Lugosi. Essentially
producers would film action sequences of daredevil and
then would plot a narrative around them. These
sequences would be edited in into 12 to 15 serials and
released for Saturday matinee consumption.

Nostalgia clouds one's memory. The criticism about
"The Phantom Menace" is the same as the original "Star
Wars," poor acting and poorer dialog. Despite her
previous track record in "Heat," "The Professional"
and "mars Attacks," Natalie Portman appears lost in
the CGI blue screen. Jake Lloyd is not bad, but one
wonders what Haley Joel Osment ("Forrest Gump" and the
soon to be released "The Sixth Sense") would have done
with the movie. It is the veterans Liam Neeson, Ian
McDiarmid and Ewan MacGregor that uphold the human
element with any sense of conviction.

George Lucas excels with technology. While Jar Jar
Binks goofiness becomes as weary as Jerry Lewis on
speed, Master Yoda gives a performance of depth. Add
some spectacular visuals and John Williams soaring
score, "Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace" is
pure Saturday Matinee fun, no more, no less. If you
are seeking a religious experience, one could visit
church on Sunday morning.
Cinema Dave  Swashbuckling ournalist and

2002: "Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones"

To appreciate a "Star Wars" movie, one merely has to return to the thrilling days of yesterday when "Flash Gordon conquers the Universe" and Bela Lugosi controlled "The Phantom Creeps." The average Star Wars ticket buyer does not camp out for six months on a park bench or wears costumes to the grand opening.

The criticism of "Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones" is the same criticism leveled to the original "Star Wars" from twenty five years ago. The acting is wooden and the dialog is atrocious. However the special effects are creative and bravado action sequences save the day.

The narrative of "Episode II" concerns itself with the inner corruption of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), the future Darth Vader and the father of the heroes from Star Wars Episodes IV, V & VI. The subplot concerns itself with the political rise of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and his secret plan to develop a clone army for Galaxy security.

Three years ago when Producer Director George Lucas was asked about "Episode II," he claimed it was going to be a love story. There are plenty of scenes with Anakin and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) making goo goo eyes at each other in beautiful locations. Just like the thrilling days of yesteryear, these love scenes best serve as a cue to leave the theatre and buy some popcorn.

This new "Star Wars" lives up to the media hype when Count Dooko (Christopher Lee) enters the scene and provides more villainous challenges for our heroes. The final one third of this movie is worth the Saturday Matinee price and features incredible visuals involving spectator sports, giant monsters and the Jedi prowess of Master Yoda that has to be seen to be believed.

What makes these "Star Wars" movies so special is George Lucas' attention to detail. Casting Christopher Lee provides a seal of approval to cinema monster mavens. Lee had worked with Boris Karloff and Vincent Price and is considered the last King of Cinematic Horror. While Lee has crossed swords with both Burt Lancaster and Errol Flynn, his final duel at the end of this movie may be his most memorable. Not bad for an actor who turns eighty on Memorial Day weekend.

In three years "Star Wars" creator George Lucas plans to release his final "Star Wars" movie. Lucas has said that "Episode III" will be the darkest "Star Wars" yet, where we witness Anakin's conversion into Darth Vader. While Lucas can use a writer for the dialog sequences, "Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones" provides the firm foundation to the grand finale of the "Star Wars" saga.