Archives for category: 90s

Since best beloved and I started watching The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, I’ve been tempted to re-watch Star Wars Episodes I-III. I’ve seen episodes IV-VI so many times I’ve lost count (having been 10 when A New Hope was released, I’m of *that* generation). On the other hand, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith I’ve seen only once each. Until today.

Yeah, I know I’m not going to complain about anything here that the fandom hasn’t been complaining about for 23 years. Adding my voice to the noise, I suppose.

Well, I watched The Phantom Menace (dir: George Lucas, 1999) over the last 24 hours. Is it better than I remember it? A little. Does that mean that in any objective analysis it gets more than two stars? No. It’s still lousy from many perspectives. Don’t get me wrong, so are most of episodes IV-IX, but differently.

The effects are great. The make-up is great. The fight and battle scenes: Also great. Ray Park’s Darth Maul: Fantastic. Sort of.

And this brings us to the main problem: The story. From the three-paragraph crawl at the beginning with its nonsense about the Trade Federation, to Queen Amidala and her double, to Anakin’s immaculate conception, to miti-chlorians to Jar Jar Binks. Lucas had about 13 years of notes he’d taken since Return of the Jedi and he threw every single one of them against the wall. I suppose some of it stuck.

Read the text crawls for the first three episodes. Boom, you’re right in the action, you know who’s important, and you know enough of what’s going on to be present as the rebel ship is boarded and we meet our important characters. As soon as The Phantom Menace starts, we get trade negotiations, blockade, a planet we’ve never heard of, and no idea who to root for. The problems, of course, only begin there.

It’s hard to feel for any of the characters. The actors, oh yes, we feel for them because they have to deal with Lucas’ awful dialog. Poor Liam Neeson. He so took the brunt of it that one had to wonder what Lucas had against him. Then we remember some of the dialog the inestimable Alec Guinness was saddled with.

I understand the reasoning behind having Queen Amidala require a double who plays as a member of her bodyguard (or something), but the story doesn’t give us any reason to believe it was necessary. Nor is there any surprise in it when the one character’s identity is revealed.

Then there’s the casual, and not so casual racism associated with several important characters. The two representatives of the Trade Federation have faux Japanese accents. Watto, the character with the huge hook notes who owns Anakin and his mother, is so obviously supposed to be a Jewish caricature that it’s painful to watch and listen to. And then there’s the awful Rastafarian parody embodied in Jar Jar Binks. Several years ago, I read an argument that was supposed to become an agent of the Empire in episodes II and III. There was such a backlash against Binks, that Lucas had to drop any idea of him having much of a role at all after Episode I.

When this movie came out, I queued up on opening day to see it at the Coronet in San Francisco, a single-screen theatre with a proper sound system. It’s also where I’d seen A New Hope 21 years before. I wasn’t ready to analyze most of this at the time, but one thing any fan of the franchise knew was that The Force was The Force. The joke about it being like duct tape, having dark and light sides and holding the universe together rang true because that’s all you needed to know about it. The Phantom Menace fell apart when Obi-Wan explains The Force with a blood sample and the nonsense term miti-chlorian. It sounded enough like mitochondria, a term we all learned in high school biology, to be possibly interesting. Explaining The Force away as something found in the blood makes all of our belief in what motivated the characters meaningless.

In addition, did Lucas really not realize how many fans had memorized the original movies? He honestly might not have done, but we know that Obi-Wan Kenobi says he doesn’t recall owning a droid in Episode IV. Fans arguing over on Substack suggest that Obi-Wan was lying when he told Luke this. In the same way he lies when he says Darth Vader killed his father? Possibly. But it’s another thing that shreds the continuity and credibility of the work. People shrug this kind of issue off when they say ‘they’re just kids’ movies,’ but kids also demand credibility and continuity, and it demeans them to deny it.

The main problem is that there’s a certain inevitability to the whole thing. That everything that happens, has to happen. There’s no tension, no Saturday morning serial thrill to it. Anakin has to be found and has to win, the fight with Darth Maul has to end the way it does, even though Maul has only one spoken line and we have no reason to consider him anything but a bad guy – there’s no motivation behind that on our part or on the character’s. The pod race, in which we see Anakin’s skills made manifest takes longer in this movie than the Death Star run in Episode IV and yet there’s only one possible outcome. The satellite battle at the end, in which Anakin participates by accident only has one possible outcome as well.

So, yes, I’m going to watch the other two, but I know I’m only in it for the effects and the fight scenes, not for the storytelling. Which is, in fact, the sad state of action/adventure films in general.

1994 Virgin

Just over ten years after the conclusion of the Three of a Perfect Pair tour, a new King Crimson release, featuring a six-man lineup, hit the streets, to much rejoicing. But back up. In 1993, Robert Fripp recorded and toured an excellent album with David Sylvian. Sylvian fronted new wave act Japan, after the demise of which he created some very cool, hard-to-classify downtempo solo albums. A Japan reunion in 1990, under the moniker Rain Tree Crow, did not fly. Robert Fripp had played on an earlier Sylvian solo album (Gone to Earth from 1986) and the new collaboration was successful. The band for the album featured bassist Trey Gunn and drummer Jerry Marotta. (Marotta and Fripp previously worked together on Peter Gabriel’s second solo album and Fripp’s Exposure.) Marotta, however, wasn’t able to tour the album. Enter session percussionist (an ex-Mr. Mister drummer) Pat Mastelotto. Check out this article in which Pat recounts flying to England from California on his own dime to audition for the gig.

At the conclusion of the Sylvian/Fripp tour, Fripp regrouped the King Crimson, augmenting the early 80s quartet of himself, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, and Tony Levin with Gunn and Mastelotto. The expanded lineup creates a more interesting sound for certain, though still most definitely Crimson. The first release of this line-up, the Vrooom EP introduces the new four-man rhythm section, an intriguing platform for the interplay of Belew’s and Fripp’s guitars.

Four of the six tracks would be reworked for the full LP release, Thrak. Cage and When I Say Stop, Continue only appear on Vrooom.

Despite the 10-year gap, there’s no grand departure from the earlier sound, save for a greater emphasis, I think, on the intense instrumentals. The 1981-84 quartet didn’t record anything new that had the sheer intensity of the songs Red, Fracture, or Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt II. Fripp made a return to this style in the songs Vrooom and Thrak, the latter forming the basis for many of the Thrak tour’s live improvisations. These sonic onslaughts are balanced with the ballad One Time and the funky Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream which can be seen as descendants of songs like Two Hands and Sleepless respectively.

The Thrak album expands on this balance of the noisy and the quiet. It also features two of KC’s most beautiful tracks, Walking On Air and the aforementioned One Time.

Vrooom opens the album, the arrangement from the EP now divided into two parts, the second bearing the unwieldy title Coda Marine 475. I’ve always been confused that the second song of an hour-long cycle has the word Coda in the title, but there you are. Dinosaur is something of a pop-metal hybrid, like Sleepless or Thela Hun Gingeet, I suppose. Straightforward(ish) lyrics from Belew, ‘I’m a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones’ might be an attempt to head off judgement of what the band are doing 10 years after their last album, and 25 after their first. (Noting that this is the 50th year of KC, this might be premature.) The song has the sort of soft-loud dynamic that Kurt Cobain (just a few years before) said Nirvana nicked from the Pixies, but it’s also a microcosm of the album as a whole.

Next is the ballad Walking On Air. Belew’s plaintive alto weaves what might be a love song. It’s Crimson, so you can never tell, but it’s one of the two or three most beautiful songs in their catalogue.

The instrumental B’Boom follows. After a short introduction, percussionists Bruford and Mastelotto go head to head. This is the first time KC had had two percussionists since that brief period around the recording of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic and this kind of interplay in Crimson got lost again after this album until Fripp regrouped with three drummers in the front line. The song, at least in its title, brings us back to a long improv performed on the LTIA Tour at the Zoom Club called Z’Zoom. (Note that the Zoom Club gig also included two more improvisations: Zoom and Zoom Zoom which together run for over an hour. The band might be referring back to them in the tracks Vrooom and Vrooom Vrooom. I might have to delve back into that recording.)

The title track, an intense and difficult metal epic follows, oddly reflecting the progression on LTIA from The Talking Drum into Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II. On the tour for this album, Thrak formed the basis for many extended improvisations. I’m not sure if I’ll delve into the Thrakattak album, which is comprised of several of these live improvs. I’ve tried before, but it’s an endurance test, sort of like listening to all four sides of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music without a break.

Thrak concluded side 1 on the cassette release which makes sense. The second half of the album is balanced as a suite between the two parts of Inner Garden, Radio I and Radio II, three pop songs, and the concluding iterations of Vrooom (Vrooom Vrooom and Vrooom Vrooom: Coda).

Inner Garden I and II, are short, nearly a cappella, vocals from Belew. The first leads into the very funky People, in which Trey and Tony battle out the bass line under a lyric that’s not too far removed from Foreigner’s Women. (‘People bowl, people rock, people pay to see two people box’ vs. ‘Women behind bars, women in fast cars, women in distress, see that woman with no dress.’ You be the judge)

Unlike Walking On Air, One Time is a little harder to grasp lyrically, but Adrian’s vocal is lovely and he doesn’t reach for anything beyond what the song calls for. It’s bookended by Radio I and Radio II which a reminiscent of the dissonant Ligeti pieces used in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The vocal portion of the album concludes with Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, another slice of funk. Listen, what I’m calling funk is probably unfair to both the funk genre and to KC’s progressive metal leanings. This song and People may simply be funky because the bottom end of the songs is emphasised whereas in other pieces on the album, the guitars take precedence. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a word salad, but it’s prog, so that too is okay.

The album concludes with Vrooom Vrooom, a restatement of the Vrooom theme, and Vrooom Vrooom Coda which takes the high end of Coda Marine 475 and turns it inside out. It’s a really odd piece to conclude the album on, but it’s as musically intriguing as just about anything else here.

As I often do when writing these reviews, I’ve listened to the album pretty constantly for the last several days and have become more and more impressed with both the compositions and with the composition of the album as balanced halves. As a CD listener, the balance of things was lost on me when the album came out. I can appreciate what the band were after, even though in the decade since Three of a Perfect Pair, the LP format had slipped away.

I give it four stars.

Next up: The ConstruKction of Light.