In the Beginning ...

STAR WARS: EPISODE I -- THE PHANTOM MEANCE
Written and directed by George Lucas

For those who have virtually made a religion of George Lucas' Star Wars and its sequels -- the folks who have been camped out in front of theaters since mid-March, or the fan who moved from England to Japan simply because the new film is opening two days earlier there -- the long-awaited new entry in the series, the first in 16 years, will be either a new addition to the dogma, beyond criticism, or a devastating disappointment, neither response leaving much room for serious discussion. For the rest of us, those who have seen -- and even admired -- the Star Wars series without ever feeling the slightest urge to dress up like a Wookiee, reactions will be less extreme; dumbstruck reverence and angry betrayal are equally disproportionate responses to Lucas' latest fantasy.

The Phantom Menace is -- just as one might expect -- loaded with state-of-the-art action sequences and fanciful creatures, and laced with enough inside references and Jungian archetypes to keep both the cultists and Bill Moyers happy. A "prequel," set approximately 30 years before the events of 1977's Star Wars (which was later subtitled "Episode 4 -- A New Hope" to establish continuity), it begins its own narrative line while also following a preordained path that will turn 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) into the adult villain Darth Vader. Narrative continuity aside, The Phantom Menace is also a sequel to the Star Wars trilogy, the result of the series' tendency toward escalating special effects and consciously repetitive story elements. Like The Empire Strikes Back, the only film of the first three made with a sequel in mind, it's a film that leaves many narrative threads hanging. Indeed, one of the more interesting things about episodes 2 and 3, when they arrive (currently set for 2002 and 2005: plenty of line space still available), will be seeing how Lucas pulls everything together to provide a smooth transition to the already familiar Luke Skywalker saga.

By that same token, Lucas' careful groundwork can also be frustrating. The politics of the pre-Star Wars universe, although presented in considerable detail, remain confusing for the noncultist, as do the positions of the various factions in the story -- the Trade Federation, the Jedi, the Sith. (I'm still not sure exactly who or what the "phantom menace" is.) The villains in the new film -- the most striking of whom is a silent, demon-faced warrior named Darth Maul -- are less clearly defined than the dark-helmeted Darth Vader, and the battle scenes are most effective as a formal exercise in screen carnage (redeemed somewhat by the fact that the "bad guys" who are destroyed are merely robots).

But setting aside the promise that all will be resolved in future films, can The Phantom Menace stand on its own as a fantasy epic? It all depends on what you're looking for. The most significant difference between the thrills of the earlier trilogy and the inflated scale of The Phantom Menace is that the model animation and puppetry that originally created the Death Star, the speeder bikes, Yoda and Jabba the Hutt (both of whom make cameo appearances here) have been replaced by the impressive palette of computer animation. The Phantom Menace unfolds at a larger scale, but one that has more in common with the visual terrain of Antz than with live-action films. As a technological achievement, it's undeniably impressive, with elaborate, spectacular sequences -- aerial and land battles, sword fights and a flying drag race -- that echo sequences in the earlier films and in some ways improve on them. Like the earlier sequels, The Phantom Menace plays on the viewer's familiarity with the other films and then raises the dramatic stakes: The climactic sequence simultaneously invokes the Death Star sequence of Star Wars, the duel between Luke and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and the battle between Ewoks and Imperial troops in Return of the Jedi, creating a kind of narrative overload that is at once comfortably familiar and brand-new.

Between those thrills, however, the action sags. Lucas, who hasn't actually directed a film since Star Wars in 1977, has never been a particularly strong writer (the other Star Wars films relied on accomplished screenwriters such as Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan), nor does he display much skill with actors. The performers in The Phantom Menace, for the relatively few minutes they spend on the screen, range from wooden (Natalie Portman and Lloyd) to disinterested (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor), and the most interesting character in the film is the computer-animated Jar Jar Binks, a frog-faced creature with the sensibility and screen presence of a Muppet.

Lucas is a true visionary in American film -- but his vision is often sadly limited to films like Willow and Howard the Duck. The Phantom Menace is entertaining but sterile, the product of a filmmaker with nearly infinite resources and imagination who never has to answer to anyone else. In interviews, Lucas preaches the gospel of digital, dreaming of a cinematic future where actors and writers are superfluous and computer-generated effects will eventually make human performances unnecessary, where movies are produced under laboratory conditions without worrying about retakes or artistic conflicts.

The Phantom Menace is a great entertainment, but does it represent the future of movies, as Lucas might have us believe? In the late 1960s, after the success of his student film "THX 1138:4EB" (which he later made into a feature) Lucas was one of four filmmakers who received grants to visit the set of a Western, Mackenna's Gold, and make a short film. While the other three worked on the usual behind-the-scenes documentaries, Lucas, disgusted by the excess on a typical movie set, spent his time shooting sunsets in the desert, following his dream of a "pure" cinema (apparently one where the filmmaker doesn't have to deal with other people). Thirty years later, he's become the kind of producer he once hated, putting hundreds of employees to work and spending millions of dollars to bring his juvenile fantasies to life. The Phantom Menace is a film that combines the flaws of both high-priced and "pure" filmmaking, embracing the scale of the most overblown studio production with the insularity of an independent producer who no longer has to question his own vision. The Star Wars films borrow and re-create a cultural trove of familiar myths and legends by way of Joseph Campbell, but when he gets carried away on his promises of a digital future, Lucas himself seems to evoke another familiar cinematic myth, The Wizard of Oz, the story of a simple entertainer/entrepreneur who inadvertently creates an empire. Enjoy the spectacle of The Phantom Menace, but pay no attention to that man behind the keyboard.

Opens May 19.
-- Robert Hunt

THREE SEASONS
Written and directed by Tony Bui

Three Seasons is an exquisite film -- elegantly beautiful, profoundly insightful, deeply moving and perfectly paced. This impressive feature debut by 26-year-old writer/director Tony Bui broke new ground as the first American film shot entirely in Vietnam; it uses many native actors and was shot in Vietnamese. Bui, whose parents left Vietnam when he was 2, maximizes his location, making it a palpable presence. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler captures a unique, unforgettable quality of light, juxtaposing shadowy, dilapidated shabbiness with startling, bright splendor, mostly glowing hotels frequented by the newly wealthy. Visually, the contrast between past and present, a major theme, comes alive. Cyclo (bicycle cab) drivers lounge with a huge Coca-Cola sign as a backdrop. Dark, rainy streets give way to warm yellows and golds of hotel lobbies. But nature's beauty, especially the delicate flowers circulating through the characters' lives, radiantly outshines capitalist endeavors.

Three Seasons interweaves four stories, each of them distinct, lyrical and understated, though emotional. Two characters attempt to reclaim their past; two struggle to survive in the present, ambitiously looking toward the future. We meet Kien An first, a young woman hired to harvest white lotuses and to sell them in Saigon (characters call what is now Ho Chi Minh City by its former name). Unwittingly offending the women with whom she picks blossoms in the lotus lake, Kien sings a song from her childhood. Her reclusive employer, Teacher Dao, a once-famous poet, responds to Kien and agrees for her to serve as the hands he's lost to leprosy. Though physically ravaged, Dao's spirit and imagination soar as he composes poetry again.

Chronologically, we next meet cyclo driver Hai. Hai becomes enamored of Lan, a prostitute he helps escape from two men. Despite this familiar plotline, Hai and Lan realize a unique specificity and potent three-dimensionality. Hai, who follows and waits for Lan, even considers entering a cyclo race to win $200, enough to buy a very different kind of night for Lan.

In the third thread, young Woody sells gum, cigarettes and lighters in Saigon alleys and bars. One night, his case disappears. After slapping him, his angry father tells Woody not to return without it, and Woody goes hunting. Intersecting with Woody is the fourth major character, James Hager, an American ex-GI searching for the daughter he left 30 years ago. Hager is played by the film's executive producer, Harvey Keitel, in a quiet, sad, heartbreaking role. Appropriately, Hager is the most out of place, the most awkward in this environment.

Shot for a minuscule $2 million, with Vietnamese censors always in attendance, Three Seasons uses deliberate symbolism and an ineffable, evocative spirituality to depict resilient postwar Vietnam. Cyclo drivers compete with taxis, continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageplastic lotus flowers with real ones, and dilapidated buildings with new construction. Three Seasons earned the best-picture, audience-favorite and best-cinematography awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Described accurately as breathtakingly beautiful, Three Seasons offers a memorable visual experience, contemplative concern over modernity, and optimism triumphing over painful experience. It's one of the best films of the year.

In Vietnamese (and some English) with English subtitles.
Opens May 21 at the Tivoli.
-- Diane Carson

YOUNG & RESTLESS

The last two decades have witnessed unimaginable leaps and bounds in the fields of video technology, digital imaging and audio editing. Recent Hollywood movies have, of course, exploited these advances, in the process permanently changing how movies are both made and viewed. It would seem natural that video artists would also have kept rigid pace with recent developments in technology.

Some video artists -- Bill Viola and Gary Hill are prominent examples -- have. But scores of video artists today are still using equipment and techniques that are decidedly low-tech, performance-based and barely advanced above the technical level of the medium during its early heyday in the 1970s. For some, it may be a matter of budget limitations. But for others, it appears that low technology has a distinct value, allowing for certain kinds of expression that might be precluded by glossy, high-tech effects and illusions.

Take "Shore," for example, a six-minute color video made by Linda Post in 1996. Post placed a video camera on the beach, lens pointed at the water, and left it to record whatever might transpire. As the waves rush in, they crash over the camera, tossing it about violently. The camera for its part can do nothing but record one watery assault and wait for another. "Shore" is an extreme example of low-tech videomaking. Its images are simple and visceral, passing easily between literal and metaphorical levels of meaning.

"Shore" is one of the works included in Young & Restless, an excellent collection of 21 videos by 17 women artists that will be shown over two nights, May 21 and 22, as part of the Webster University Film Series. Young & Restless was curated in 1997 by Stephen Vitiello, Barbara London and Sally Berger of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the videos they have collected were all produced by young New York-based artists between 1993 and 1997. They represent a nice overview of recent developments in the field of performance-based video art.

Some of the best works in Young & Restless use the video equipment itself to comment on how technology shapes our selves and our perceptions of the world. Two works by Kristin Lucas describe technology's dehumanizing quality: In "Host," the artist pleads for guidance from an ATM-like machine, discussing her feelings in increasingly technologized terms ("Ever since that last power outage I've been feeling kind of outside of myself -- I thought our relationship needed an upgrade"); in "Watch Out for Invisible Ghosts," she lives a parallel life as a Power Ranger within a cheap video game.

Using technology to comment on the role of technology in our lives is not exactly a new or groundbreaking thing to do. Artists like Lucas know that. Her videos don't pretend to make an original observation; instead, their cheeky, knowing humor indicates her awareness of video's ubiquity, technology's power and the fact that other artists before her have covered the same territory.

Unfortunately, the same thing can't be said of every artist represented in Young & Restless. Some of the videos are depressingly unironic reprises of warmed-over '70s experimentalism. Tatiana Parcero's "Life Lines" has the artist tracing red lines over her nude body. It's excrutiatingly boring at six minutes; we'd be better off seeing a repeat of something by Hannah Wilke or Carolee Schneemann from decades ago. And a few works in the collection, like "I Wish I Knew How to Play Soccer (and Other Sports)" by Cara O'Connor, work far too hard to make "statements" about female identity that we've all heard before.

The works in Young & Restless are advertised as "explorations of female social and sexual identity," but that description doesn't quite do them justice. Thankfully, they do more than that. Some of the strongest among them admit a keen awareness of art history and video and performance art, and build on that history. Two great examples are "Head" and "Line" by Cheryl Donegan, which take a perversely humorous look at Abstract Expressionist painting (and one of its heroes, Barnett Newman) using filmic frameworks borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard and porno movies.

There is a certain restless energy running through these works that makes the show's title quite appropriate. Some of the videos maintain a nervous pulse that threatens to explode through their controlled veneer. The beige-clad, mute models in Vanessa Beecroft's silent "Piano Americano" are devoid of personality, but their nervous ticks and fidgeting speak volumes. "Sally," by Kristin Oppenheim, features three abstract photographs that fade in and out of view, accompanied by a mesmerizing soundtrack -- you'll find yourself breathing to its rhythm before long.

And just when things threaten to get a little too serious, up pops a work like "In the Present" by Phyllis Baldino, one of the funniest videos in the show. Baldino builds on the quasi-scientific observation that the "present" lasts only a few seconds before it is transformed into "memory." She strings together a collection of short, meaningless vignettes, or "presents," involving things like shower caddies, StairMasters and flagpole brackets. Isolated in this way, these most banal actions and objects take on a hilarious absurdity.

But the prize for the funniest work goes to Alex Bag for "Untitled Fall '95," the final and longest (57 minutes) work in the show. Bag assumes a series of personae, the most hilarious being the art student at New York's School of the Visual Arts (SVA). In eight testimonials, she sums up her personal transformation through eight semesters of school. Bag's chain-smoking, nose-pierced, ultra-cynical art student of the '90s is dead-on accurate. The character is a sendup, but she also has some pretty astute things to say about the current art scene. This piece is guaranteed to strike a chord with any art student, or anyone who teaches art students, or anyone who has ever met an art student anywhere.

It must be nice to live in New York City, where you don't have to wait two years to see a collection like Young & Restless. Well, better late than never. This show shouldn't be missed.

Young & Restless screens in two separate programs at 8 p.m. May 21-22 at Webster University.

-- Ivy Schroeder

THE CASTLE
Co-written and directed by Rob Sitch

The Castle is a modest little comedy from Australia that falls into the subgenre of Capraesque idealism, in the little-guy-triumphs-over-evil-powers-that-be division.

The story revolves around the unpretentious Kerrigan clan. Darryl (Michael Caton), the father, has his own little towing business. Sal (Anne Tenney), the mother, is the family cook and a not-very-inspired one -- a fact that completely escapes her husband, who praises every meatloaf and hamburger as though it were a unique concoction. Tracey (Sophie Lee), their only daughter, has just married an accountant with a devotion to kickboxing, clearly a step up the class ladder. Darryl brags that Tracey is the first one in the family to ever go to college -- her cosmetology diploma hangs in a place of honor. Son Steve (Anthony Simcoe) spends his days hunting for bargains in the classifieds; son Wayne (Wayne Hope) is serving time for bank robbery; and son Dale (Stephen Curry), well, it's not clear what Dale does, beyond narrating the movie and proudly digging random holes in the yard.

The Kerrigans live in the small town of Cooloroo on the outskirts of Melbourne, right next to the airport. Their pleasantly rundown house is in a never-completed neighborhood where the property values are always sinking. This is no surprise, because it's girded by high-tension towers on all sides, a toxic landfill below and the constant roar of low airplanes above. So you might think the Kerrigans would be ecstatic when, one day, they are informed that their home is being forcibly purchased by a government redevelopment agency to make room for airport expansion. The price is way more than the property is worth, but Darryl is incensed. This isn't just his house; it's his home, where he and Sal have happily raised a family. Even more to the point, it's his castle; he owns it, and it doesn't seem right that the government can force him to sell.

Together with his sad-sack neighbors and the world's most incompetent lawyer (Tiriel Mora), the energetic Darryl begins an assault on the legal system, by both licit and harmlessly illicit means. You know how it's going to turn out.

Because plot surprise isn't the issue here, the film's reason for being is its mild, easygoing humor. And that's where the problems begin. From the start, the Kerrigans are shown as slow-witted, deluded, tacky and frankly pathetic. Closeups of the brothers all seem designed to suggest the physical results of generations of inbreeding. It's hard to draw the line between gentle ribbing and simple insult, but regardless of their intentions, the makers of The Castle cross it. We're supposed to root for the Kerrigans, to see their abundance of goodwill and unconditional love. They are portrayed as good people. But at the same time, they are portrayed as morons. And although idiocy is no sin, the bulk of the laughs in The Castle come at the family's expense.

The film takes many of its cues from Bill Forsyth's masterful Local Hero and such inferior, less bighearted imitators as Waking Ned Devine. Like The Castle, Forsyth's film was full of amusing, working-class eccentrics, but it found ways to laugh at their quirks without even a whiff of condescension. Even more than Forsyth, Mike Leigh is a master at this in his lighter films: No matter how wacky the characters seem at first in Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies, they are revealed -- without false idealizing or a blind eye to their faults -- as complex human beings with virtues and vices.

The difference may well lie in The Castle's essentially cartoonish outlook. The film may support and admire its characters in some ways, but they never resemble real people: They are presented as caricatures who are fair game for ridicule. After all, they would be too stupid to be offended by our japes at their expense. We are invited to chuckle at the family's trashy taste, their simple-minded enthusiasm in the face of wretchedness, their joyous ignorance. This sort of comedy is dependent on a genuinely generous attitude toward its characters. If the makers of The Castle have such an attitude, it doesn't come through very clearly.

Opens May 21 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

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