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1999 by Ernest Lilley

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Movies: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace / The Thirteenth Floor   Video: Sawicki's Picks

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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Cast: Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan Mcgregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Ian Mcdiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Ahmed Best (voice of Jar Jar Binks), Frank Oz (voice of Yoda), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Ray Park (Darth Maul)
Director/Screenwriter:  George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Doug Chiang, Ben Burtt
Producer: George Lucas

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace takes us to a galaxy further away and a time longer ago to a time when Darth Vader was a lovable slave boy on a desolate planet called Tatooine. A time when a lot of stuffed shirts ran the Jedi council, aliens spoke with accents like Mafiosi and Jamaicans, and the followers of the dark side of the force, the Sith, had been wiped out for a thousand years. Or not.

I went to an early morning showing in Paramus, NJ. I didn't go to the 12:01 showing in NYC with true fans, though a number of them showed up in the mild rain the next morning to see it again. The crowd was a curious mix of twenty and forty somethings, and a few parents were there to share the experience with their kids. The older fans were quiet, and yes, a bit scary. The reaction to the movie was subdued, maybe dampened by the rain. R2D2 got the biggest applause as he made his entry, and everyone said they enjoyed it...but it was nothing like the energy released at the end of the first Star Wars. I was there.

Still, I was buzzed going off to work, and I'm sure I'll see it again, though perhaps not again and again. What am I saying? Targeted at kids, Phantom Menace is sure to become one of those unavoidable movies that children watch relentlessly. We're all going to see it over and over.

The Special Effects are too darn special for words. They are brilliant. Flawless. Pointless. We might as well be watching a cartoon. We might as well get used to it. For some reason, really special effects detract from my willingness to believe in the fantasy movies spin. The look is very art deco. The previous movies played off WWII for style, but Menace harkens to prewar elegance and the early SF serials like Flash Gordon.

For some reason, Lucas decided to get tech about the force. Midichlorians in your cells make it. I thought it was a component of space itself? Nope, just mitochondria with attitude. They even have a Jedi blood test. "I'm sorry Mrs. Skywalker...your son has...Jedi Syndrome."

I'm dying to see what the reaction to the implied virgin birth of the Saga's most evil character is. Mark my words; by the time this prequilogy is over, destroying the Jedi won't be Anakin's fault...the Force made him do it.

The title of the movie, Phantom Menace, is actually one of the more clever bits. Though it evokes a Flash Gordon feel and sounds more than a bit hokey, its subtle meaning is intentionally overshadowed by the flashy swordplay of the Sith Darth Maul. Allow me to beat you over the head with it. At the urging of a certain senator of the Old Republic, a Trade Federation decides to hold a planet ransom until the Republic backs down on space road taxes. Since the head of the Republic is a namby-pamby politician, our old buddy Senator Palpatain (you remember him as Emperor) "reluctantly" agrees to head the Senate and strike back at the upstarts. His plans are unsettled to some degree by the Jedi and Anakin, but mostly he gets what he wants - power and the excuse for the Republic to arm itself. Remember that he engineered the whole embargo in the first place. So the Trade Federation's attack is really just a bogeyman used to scare the Republic into giving him more power.. Star Wars Episode I: The Bogeyman just doesn't have the same ring. Get it?

The real phantom menace is Episode I's threat to be the only movie we see this summer. Suddenly Austin Powers's absurd plea that we make it the second movie we see seems a whole lot more attractive.

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Cast: Craig Bierko (Douglas Hall), Gretchen Mol (Jane Fuller), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Hammond Fuller), Vincent D'Onofrio (Whitney), Dennis Haysbert (Detective Larry McBain), Steve Schub (Detective Zev Bernstein)
Director/Screenwriter:  Josef Rusnak
Writers: Josef Rusnak, Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, Daniel F. Galouye (author of the novel the movie is based on: Simulacron 3)
The Thirteenth Floor (Columbia Pictures)
All that we see or seem Is but a dream within a dream.  - Edgar Allan Poe
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Pick one: 1) In Virtual Reality, no one can hear you shave. 2) The Two faces of Craig Bierko 3) How can you be in two places at once, when you're not anywhere at all?
On the left, Craig Bierko as Johnny (immigrant bank clerk) in glorious sepiavision, on the right as Douglas Hall (90's computer jock and possible psycho-killer, qu' est-ce que ce'st?)

"Hey! What did you do to the world?"

"I turned it off."

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"I always heard that deja v was a sign of love at first sight."
(Really?)

Where do we go from here? Dennis Danvers wrote a pretty good book called Circuit of Heaven about a future where everyone (almost) in America has uploaded into a VR version of the way it's supposed to be. The sequel, End of Days, is up for review next month.

The people who brought you SimCity and all its variants have done an eerie job of creating the paradigm behind The Thirteenth Floor in a game called The Sims. Set in suburbia, you create virtual characters and wind them up with the usual motivations...then sit back and watch your own soap opera in a soap bubble.

The creators said making artificial intelligences that act like people wasn't that hard, though they had to avoid making them too smart or it takes all the fun out of watching them mess up their lives.

I wonder what they think of this movie? 

On the thirteenth floor of a Los Angeles skyscraper, computer wiz Hammond Fuller is making a virtual re-creation of the 1937 LA of his youth, peopled by comely characters made of software rather than genetic code. Shortly after tasting the virtual garden of delights he's created, Fuller turns up dead in the "real" world.

Fuller's #1 guy, Douglas Hall, wakes to find bloodstains on his shirt and a Five o'clock shadow that won't quit. Oh, yeah... and a phone call from the police asking him to identify Fuller's body. Suddenly Fuller's daughter shows up to take over the company (and shut it down) -- only he never had a daughter.

Somewhere in the sepia-toned hi-life of the VR 30's Fuller left a message for Hall, who has to find it to clear his name and learn what made his friend and mentor too dangerous to live.

Comparisons to Matrix are unavoidable, but mostly unfair. The Thirteenth Floor targets a different audience with its worlds-within-worlds conundrum and '30s film noir VR landscape. Though the characters are (intentionally?) wooden, the VR constructs have the ability to think and develop. The film gamely tries to engage the audience in a debate about the nature of reality and free will. Nice try.

Craig Bierko looks like George Clooney and talks like Jeff Goldblum. Throughout the movie he never shaves, affecting a rugged charm as he zooms along in his black Porsche or hops a yellow cab. Gretchen Moll is supposed to re-create the coolness and sophistication of a film noir screen queen, but she doesn't quite carry it off. Of the  characters she plays, I found her bubble-gum-popping grocery clerk far more appealing than the mysterious femme fatale. But maybe that's just me.

Unlike Matrix, where users "jack" into a computer generated reality while keeping their conciousnesses housed in their human brain, in this film the user's total memory and personality is transferred to the computer.

They almost got it right by assuming that the physical body would be a nearly empty shell. Unfortunately the writer opted for the plot utility of travellers switching places with whatever character one jumps into. It's a pointless gimmick that winds up with some pretty heavily telegraphed body switching, and as any gamer will tell you, the fatal flaw is that everybody looks the same in different VR worlds. Pity that the producers didn't have the courage to have each successive layer of VR inhabited by increasingly perfect people.

A lot of stylistic thought went into this Californian/German production, complete with dramatic camera angles and Hitchcockian homage. The lighting is colored for each different reality to hallmark them with specific characters, though it is a bit heavy handed. Ironically, the 30s LA sets were made out of wood and paper, not from computer generated special effects.

I enjoyed the movie, though once is enough. It relies too heavily on the unveiling of the Fuller's discovery. Once you know what's going to happen, the action isn't nearly enough to carry you through. Of course for the seasoned SF reader, that revelation comes pretty early, say, during the opening credits. The Thirteenth Floor came along at an unfortunate time, along with Existence and The Matrix, and is the least manic of the three. Rent it when it comes to video and you can have the fun of turning it off and on to add to the philosophical dilemma.

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Go to Steve's Web Page

Video: Sawicki's Picks Practical Magic / PI / Star Trek: Insurrection

I have a pretty broad definition of Science Fiction. In fact, I dislike the phrase Science Fiction itself because I think it is too narrow. I prefer Speculative Fiction or the phrase "Genres of the Fantastic" instead. This lets me include fantasy and horror without having to go through all kinds of gymnastics, mentally and verbally. Nowhere is there a greater need for a broad definition than in film. Film can have lots of fantastic elements and still not be considered mundane. I believe a broad definition suits us best. Enough definition, let's watch some video. - Steven Sawicki

(This mini-rant comes after Steve and I argued about whether or not he could review Siege for the column. I objected on the grounds that it wasn't SF. According to SFRevu's broad-minded video reviewer, I am a very narrow-minded person. I also get the last word. - The Editor)

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My darling girl, when are you going to understand that "normal" is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.

Practical Magic, Warner, Rated PG-13, 104 minutes
Starring Sandra (sister number one) Bullock as Sally Owens, Nicole (sister number two) Kidman as Gillian Owens, Stockard (bet you thought I was dead) Channing as Aunt Frances Owens, Diane (steal the show) Wiest as Aunt Jett Owens, Goran (How many times must I die?) Visnjic as Jimmy Angelov
Directed by Griffin Dunne, Music by Alan Silvestri, Written by Alice Hoffman (from her novel), Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks.

A family of witches (the Owens) must deal with living in a small town as well as with an apparent family curse which kills any man the women fall in love with. This might explain why the cast is all female.

I understand that this movie is not as good as the book, but not having read the book, I make no comment other than to say, "So?" I liked the cast of this film and I liked the basic idea. I thought Bullock and Kidman acted well and built believable characters. Sure, there were the one or two major plot holes, but the writing was genuine enough that you wanted to reach the end, so you overlooked them. A good film will do that: either engage you with the characters or with the story, so that when the incredibly stupid rears its head you wave it off for the sake of continuity. Besides being a pretty good flick, this was a pretty film as well: good looking cast, nice scenery, and an excellent score which complimented the pictures. The camera direction was also excellent. The story seemed a bit disjointed and I wish they had spent a bit more time with the aunts, but for a piece of fluff it's hard to complain too much. Watch this with a sweetheart or with the kids. This is one video that can be watched by the whole family. The film contains no nudity, a little harsh language and no violence.

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It's survival of the fittest, Max, and we've got the fucking gun!

 

PI, Artisan Entertainment, Rated R, 85 Minutes
Starring Sean (Number One) Gullette as Maximillian Cohen, Mark (smokin' man) Margolis as Sol Robeson, Ben (go dude) Shenkeman as Lenny Meyer, Pamela (hard ass) Hart as Marcy Dawson
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Music by Cliff Mansell, Written by Darren Aronofsky & Sean Gullette

This is a movie about a mathematician who is searching for pi. Which, for those of you who skipped high school, is that number which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is a number that, so far as anyone has ever been able to determine, does not repeat itself, no matter how many decimal places you take it to. This has led to any number of mystical beliefs about the number itself and what happens if we could we actually pin it down. Computers have spent mega-hours and gigabytes on this problem to no avail.

But to the movie. This film, shot in black and white because it was an indie production with no studio backing and because black and white allows you to do cheap lighting. It is about the mathematician who discovers a number while searching for patterns in chaos. He finds a pattern. Apparently he finds the pattern to the universe because it not only allows him to predict the stock market but when applied to ancient Jewish writings, becomes the name of God. The mathematician is pursued not only by Wall Street but also by Hasidic Jews who both want the number, if for very different reasons. On top of all this, the number itself does not want to be found and anyone who gets close is afflicted with a paranoid form of schizophrenia. This is a fascinating movie that won some awards and is very worth watching for the pureness of the vision.

Science Fiction? I'd say yes and I'd argue that it's SF in the true. Besides, it's got a pretty incredible ending and that makes it even more worth seeing. May be hard to find, but well worth it when you do.

insurrection.jpg (35984 bytes) Star Trek: Insurrection, Paramount, Rated PG, 103 Minutes
Starring (Please, you all know these people, let's just skip to the ones you don’t know.) F. (Furry) Murray Abraham as Adhar Ru'afo, Donna (kiss me Picard) Murphy as Anij, and Anthony (Scowl) Zerbe as Admiral Matthew Dougherty
Directed by Jonathan (Number One) Frakes, Music by Jerry (Who Else?) Goldsmith, Written by Rick Berman & Michael Pillar.

It was pretty, it was predictable, and it contained pretty much everything I expected. Just once, however, I'd like to see the Enterprise crew not be involved in something, which will destroy the universe unless they intervene. I mean, c'mon, I've only had to save the universe maybe once or twice and they seem to have to do it on a monthly basis. Not only that, the tools they need to win are always very conveniently found or invented. Picard commands, falls in love, saves the day, and has to leave while Riker just sort of roams around. Everyone else occupies space. The plot is standard Trek voodoo with twisted villains doing bad things to very good people for selfish reasons. No real subplots or hidden messages, just lots of Trek.

This might have made an interesting television episode but besides the expanded special effects budget the film shows us nothing new. All the odd Star Treks seem to be terribly flawed and since this is IX it fits the pattern. Rent something else in case you're driven to turn it off or just to wash the bad warp signatures from your eyes.

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