Star Wars | Univeral Music | Otis Blackwell, Kevyn Aucoin  

Star Wars Returns for Better or Worse

Star Wars Episode II — Attack of the Clones finally got its press screening yesterday afternoon. The anticipation level was high, what with Spider-Man breaking box-office records this past weekend.

Star Wars is the franchise of franchises. People are fanatic about it. There's almost no way to live up to the expectations.  

So let me tell this right away: Fans love Clones; critics are not so hot for it.

Why do fans like it so much? I think part of it is just seeing George Lucas' latest chapter in the saga up there on the screen. The die-hard cultists are just so pleased that they can live with the enormous faults: hideous dialogue, bad plotting and infomercial-grade acting.  

I liked a lot of Clones, especially the second half, and I predict that the big-money climax will bring audiences back for second viewings.

WARNING: There are spoilers from here on out. AND HERE IT COMES: Yoda is the star of this Star Wars.

Ironically, Yoda is no longer even a puppet. He's digitally enhanced. But when the Gandhi of the Star Wars epic engages in a light-saber duel he literally saves Episode II from quicksand. It's remarkable, and I recommend he be nominated for best supporting actor.  

One of the reasons Yoda's performance comes off as so strong and human is because the humans in Episode II often seem artificial. The worst offender is Hayden Christensen, playing the teen-aged Anakin Skywalker.

I know Christensen had his fans from Life as a House, but in Clones he is more wooden than a tree. He has no screen presence and his delivery of the dialogue — granted, it's made up of forgettable, banal lines — is deadly. Looking scared to death, Christensen makes his way through Clones as if he's on a building ledge and trying to get back inside.  

Natalie Portman doesn't do much better. Acceptable in Phantom Menace as Padmé Amidala, Portman kind of sleepwalks through Clones. Like Christensen, she seems to be on some kind of automatic pilot. The part is invested with no wit and little emotion.

Is this a couple capable of such great love that a classic story will spring from their loins? Unlikely. We know as little about these people as we knew in Phantom Menace; even Anakin's visit to see his mother is a waste, and Portman's disinterest in the whole business doesn't help.  

There are some actors up to the job of making Clones worthwhile, though. Samuel L. Jackson gives it his best shot as Mace Windu and Christopher Lee is the perfect balance of evil and snarky as Count Dooku. Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker make our old friends C-3PO and R2-D2 as ingratiating as ever, but again the character development is dependent entirely on knowing the rest of Star Wars.

Nothing new is offered or introduced, no new plot twists or revelations. Clones just pushes along to make way for Episode III, which will eventually lead back to Episode IV and the story we already know.  

What's completely missing between this droid and this robot, as well as among the humans, is any jauntiness or sense of fun, camaraderie or purpose. The first installment — now known as Episode IV — lived because it echoed the loose, almost improvisational feel of the Saturday morning sci-fi reels of the '40s and '50s.

Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia were descendants of Flash Gordon and friends — you could feel it. Humanity oozed from them, even in the most preposterous situations.

Flash, Dale Arden and Prince Barin were the models for the original Star Wars characters. Dr. Zarkov, Flash's advisor, and Ming, Flash's nemesis, rounded out the cast and became indelible figures. (Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is available, by the way, on DVD from Image Entertainment. I highly recommend checking it out.)

George Lucas was smart to pattern his main characters after these people. But this second generation of Star Wars characters all sound like Keanu Reeves delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet. Alas, poor Star Wars, I knew it well.

Universal Music Takes the Charts 

A few years ago, Universal Music — then known as MCA Records — had to absorb Polygram Music and all its labels and artists. It was a wrenching time, and it led to a lot of layoffs. But the idea was to have a mega-record company that rivaled the Warner Music Group and Sony/Columbia.  

Next week, Universal Music Group has six albums in the top 10 and six more from Nos. 11-20. These records include the Big Tymers (No. 1), Sheryl Crow, Ashanti, Vanessa Carlton, the Spider-Man soundtrack, Ludacris, Puddle of Mudd, and of course the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Universal, as run by industry vet Doug Morris, is now the seat of power in the record industry.  

Universal is so hot right now they're actually selling copies of Elvis Costello's excellent When I Was Cruel. For Costello, his nearly 75,000 copies sold in three weeks is monumental. Now Island/Def Jam just has to start pushing tracks like "Spooky Girlfriend" and "Alibi" as singles, and Costello might get a gold record this time out.  

Where that leaves Sony and Warner Bros. is nowhere really. A quick look at the charts shows they are foundering, with no real direction or any kind of courage to develop new material. Sony Classical isn't even having much luck with the new Star Wars soundtrack, and Epic is struggling to make the very mediocre Celine Dion album sell to anyone with a brain, or a soul.  

Still hanging on in the top 50, and getting ready for a first-year anniversary on the charts: Alicia Keys' Songs in A Minor. Amazing. She sold over 30,000 copies to someone last week. Is there anyone left in the world who doesn't have this album?

Otis Blackwell, Kevyn Aucoin, R.I.P. 

Sad to pass along the news that the great R&B writer Otis Blackwell has passed away at age 70. Blackwell wrote "Handyman," "Fever," "Great Balls of Fire," and many classic Elvis Presley hits such as "Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up" and "Return to Sender." Lovers of pop music owe him more than we'll ever know. I'm sure Blackwell will be acknowledged at this year's Songwriters Hall of Fame.  

Also yesterday, a real shock to hear about the untimely death of famed makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. He was 40, and apparently had suffered from a brain tumor as well as some kind of metabolic disorder.

If you think Kevyn was maybe some frail powder puff, you're wrong. He was a big, tall, robust guy with a great laugh and a sense of humor. All the actresses loved him and demanded that he do their makeup for photo shoots. What a terrible shame. He will be missed.

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