About DBreitenbeck

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer currently living in Southeast Michigan.

Thoughts on ‘The Phantom Menace’

I called the original Star Wars a textbook example of storytelling. Well, if Star Wars was a textbook, The Phantom Menace is more of a case study: what happens when you give a vividly imaginative, but uneven writer unchecked control after years of being out of practice?

Let’s try to be fair here.

The film opens with the news that the Republic’s taxation policy has driven the Trade Federation to blockade the planet of Naboo, causing the senate to dispatch two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, to negotiate a settlement.

Okay, maybe you can see the problem there just from that description.

Granted we know this world better than in the first film, where it was simply “the Empire has constructed a weapon that blows up planets, the Rebellion has plans that might show a weakness,” but this is the sort of thing no one cares about in the real world, let alone in our fantasy space epic: an organization we don’t know is angry about tax policy, so they blockade a place we never heard of. Most people wouldn’t watch a news show about that.

Now, I will say that the plot, once you figure it out, is actually not bad, at least in conception. What’s really going on is that Senator Palpatine (more on him later) is manufacturing a crisis that will cause the Senate to elect him Councilor. It’s a multi-layer chess game where everyone is looking at the wrong thing. That’s a good idea for a story, especially as the prequel trilogy is structuring itself around Anakin’s rise and fall as a Jedi, while the whole series is being structured around Palpatine’s rise to and fall from power. Granting all that, though, they needed something that mattered a lot more than a stupid trade dispute.

Okay, okay; I’m getting ahead of myself. But that’s kind of indicative of the problem of this film. It has some decent ideas, or the bones of decent ideas, but the execution is almost universally terrible, and the core ideas are surrounded by an impenetrable boundary of unfathomably poor decisions on the part of the writer, who of course is none other than George Lucas himself.

I’m not going to pick on Lucas much, because God knows he’s been put through the wringer enough for his terrible writing choices. He badly needed a co-writer or a script doctor on this film: the plot is confusing and painfully contrived, the dialogue is often horrendous, and that’s not even getting to the acting or staging.

On the subject of staging, consider this: we meet the Jedi Council in this film, something that’s been hovering over us as an unseen image of peace, justice, and wisdom for three films. It’s a huge moment for the story, whether you want to see this film as the beginning of the series or a continuation for it. But all we get is a single exterior establishing shot of a bland building, the cut to the Jedi Council just sitting around glowering. Why? Why no build up, why no sense of grandeur, no sense of respect, nothing? Even allowing that the film is supposed to show a decayed Republic and Jedi Council that has lost its way, that should be for later: the first shot should be showing something of their grandeur and nobility, even if tarnished.

And there is some of that earlier in the film, with the Trade Federation’s reaction to the two Jedi and their tearing through the ship’s security with ease. We do fee this is the Jedi at the height of their powers as Obi Wan alluded to back in the original, but we should have had something like that for the whole council.

The Harry Potter books did this very well: the first half of the series is all about Harry discovering the wonder of the Wizarding World, and it’s only later that its rot becomes apparent. That’s the sort of approach this series should have had, but instead it just seems lazy.

Okay, so the Jedi go down to the Naboo to ‘warn them’ (by travelling with the invading army and apparently landing on the opposite side of the planet. Why didn’t they just say they needed to go down to rescue the Queen so she could tell the Senate what happened? That’s what they actually do in any case, so why the unnecessary nonsense about ‘warning’ someone of the army you are travelling with?). During their escape the ship is damaged and they have to ditch on Tatooine to try to get parts to repair it, where they meet Anakin Skywalker, who is a slave working for a junk dealer. Qui-Gon senses he’s strong in the Force and decides to take him with them.

You know, there are bigger problems with the film. I don’t even know if I can call it an objective flaw, but personally my biggest beef with this movie has always been why the heck did they cast Anakin as a ten year old?

The way the film progresses, especially with his semi-romance with the Queen (sort of: more on that in a bit. God, there are just so many things wrong with this film!), his flying a warship into battle, his being described as ‘too old’ to be trained, all of it feels like it was originally designed for a character about Luke’s age in the original film. That would make sense, that would have felt natural, that would have created a sense of a recurring pattern. But instead, it’s as if near the end of the writing process Lucas just decided he’d rather have a little kid on the idea that kids would want to see someone like themselves in the movie (by the way, has any kid actually preferred seeing a child hero on screen? I don’t think I ever did), so he went back and altered the description and a few of the lines.

See, the biggest problem with this (apart from making him irritating and raising questions about why the adults are putting him in these dangerous situations) is that it largely removes any sense of agency from what is ostensibly the film’s protagonist. He doesn’t make decisions with consequences, he doesn’t accept moral responsibilities (like Luke does), things just happen to him. Even his presence in the final space battle is sheer accident, as is his victory in it. He doesn’t achieve anything; he is simply given things. And you can’t really expect anything else because he’s a kid. It also prevents him and Obi Wan from having any relationship at all in this film, much less the close friendship they’re supposed to have.

In summary, Anakin ought to be the film’s protagonist; the equivalent to Luke in the original. But because they decided to make him a ten year old surrounded by adults (also because he doesn’t even appear until about forty minutes in), they removed that possibility. That kind of leaves the film without a real protagonist. Qui-Gon is the closest as he directs most of the story, but we don’t really know anything about him apart from the fact that he’s wise and good. He structured like a mentor character, but has to carry the whole plot himself.

Another problem: their conception of Anakin’s origin basically removes Owen entirely. You know, his brother. The implications of the first film of a falling out, of the brother who went to war and the one who stayed at home, the subsequent implications that Owen was trying to keep Luke from becoming his father, all that is out the window now. Yes, it’s a little odd to be hung up on the fact that they didn’t make space to account for what, after all, was a minor character, but it would have been so easy to do and seems so obvious (there’s even a random kid who just hangs around with Anakin during his time on Tatooine: why not make him his brother?) that you just have to wonder why they didn’t. Why construct this over complicated, contrived origin story about a virgin birth (really) that raises a million questions instead of following the backstory you yourself created?

Okay, I’m going to limit myself to addressing three more major problems: the pod-race, the Queen, and a slightly more abstract idea of script contrivances.

The pod-race kind of exemplifies the film as a whole: visually it’s great, but on a writing level it’s awful. There’s probably no better way to explain why it’s so bad than to compare it to the race in Ben Hur, which Lucas is very clearly trying to imitate (yes, it’s unfair to compare The Phantom Menace to Ben Hur, just as it’s unfair to compare, say, Bill Nye to St. Bellarmino, but, hey, if they’re asking for it…).

In Ben Hur, the race was the culmination of the enmity between Judah Ben Hur and Messala. Judah has already sworn to kill Messala, and the circus is one of the few places he can do that legally. Messala, for his part, is equally ready to kill Judah, something he already tried and failed to do. The question, therefore, is whether either or both will succeed before the end of the race. This is further linked to the idea that Judah is racing for the honor of his own people on their own homeland against their occupiers, connecting the hero’s personal goals with those of his community (symbolized by the Sheik’s high-stakes bet with the Roman officers – “Ten to one: what a Roman is to a Jew. Or an Arab” – and further reinforced by Messala’s loud prayer to Jupiter, done deliberately so that Judah can hear it).

In The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, the race is simply a way to solve an already contrived plot thread designed solely to have the Jedi meet Anakin, a problem that could have been solved about a dozen other ways even given the provided scenario. The sole question is who is going to win, and as Anakin is the only actual character in the race, that is never really in question. Sebulba is not a character; he simply exists to be the jerk that Anakin beats. There is no emotional weight to what happens, no larger issues at stake, nothing but the fate of this one character: if he wins, he succeeds, if he loses, he doesn’t. Combine that with the fact that it goes on for about ten minutes straight, plus a lengthy introduction with flags and listing characters we’ve never seen before and never will again, and the whole thing is just an absolute train wreck in terms of storytelling.

(All that said, I do love the gag of Jabba the Hutt falling asleep during the race. Who would have ever thought he would be the audience identification character?)

Now about the Queen. If you’ve seen the film, you know that the Queen we spend most of the movie with (Keira Knightley) is actually a decoy, and the real Queen is her handmaid, Padme, played by Natalie Portman.

This raises so many questions, even beyond “who the heck thought the Queen’s dead-white makeup and ultra-elaborate costumes were in any way a good idea?” First of all, considering the real Queen is right next to her, as is captured along with her, what was the point of any of this? Isn’t someone more likely to kill her like this, when she’s off alone, less protected (even her bodyguards the Jedi aren’t told of the deception. That’s probably something you want to tell the people specifically tasked to protect you)? Isn’t it more likely that, in an emergency, her guards will end up leaving her behind or letting her get shot while they guard the fake Queen?

Also, the fake Queen does things like sending her off to clean a droid while she sits in council with the Jedi. Or the fake Queen is apparently the one doing all these important jobs and making all these crucial decisions while the real Queen just sits around in the background. Or the real Queen is the one who goes off into the dangerous city with the Jedi while the fake one sits safe on the ship.

She’s also apparently elected. Why? And how does that square with her daughter being a princess?

So, the whole Queen deception thing is unnecessary and stupid. Now let’s tackle the final matter: contrivance.

This basically is a catch-all term for the script handing characters things without them have to earn it. The infamous midichlorines are a good example of this (yes, there are also thematic problems with making the Force bacteria). This whole development has one purpose and one purpose only: so that they can take Anakin’s blood test and find out that he’s an ultra powerful force user who even surpasses Yoda. It’s a means of telling so that we don’t have to show. No need to convey this through action, through following him in his training and the Jedi and us slowly realizing they’re dealing with something they haven’t seen before; just declare he’s got lots of these things that give him Force.

The whole idiotic ‘Prophecy’ and ‘chosen one’ plotline is another example: a way to tell us that Anakin is special without actually having to make him be special. It raises so many questions (who prophesied? What’s he’s supposed to do? Why does it matter?) and, again, is just a lazy way to tell the audience that we should care (again, Harry Potter handled a similar plotline much better, where the prophecy isn’t revealed until late in the series and they discuss how it only matters because the bad guy thought it mattered and fulfilled the terms himself. It isn’t used to make the hero special, but to motivate the villain).

Again, this all comes down to the script giving things to Anakin rather than having him work for them, partly because he’s a kid. He’s not exactly a Gary Stu, because he doesn’t really do anything. He’s kind of like Mowgli in the animated Jungle Book: less of a character than a living prop for the characters to pass around and comment on. Not an auspicious start to the origin of Darth Vader.

(By the way, the same pattern plays out for Jar Jar during the final battle, where his ‘comic’ bumbling reeks havoc on the droid army. Again, not earned, not proceeding from any skill or insight that the film set up: it all works out in his favor because the writer says so).

Okay, so I could go on and on about how bad this film is. Is there anything to like about it?

Well, others have said it before now, but the sets and some of the visuals in this movie are often really, really good. Naboo is fantastically designed; the most paradisiacal, civilized world imaginable. So is the underwater city of the Gungans, so are the cool monsters inhabiting the depths, so, to a lesser degree, is Coruscant, the capital world, where the city covers the entire planet (yeah, some of the shots look ugly as hell, but others are very cool).

To his credit, Lucas actually did think through some of the sci-fi concepts. Like, for instance, we see the underwater city is protected by permeable energy fields. Then when these creatures go into battle, these same shields for a major part of their strategy. That sort of thing shows some thought, applying a piece of tech in multiple, though consistent ways. On a similar note I like how establish that Anakin is freezing in space because the temperature on the ship is so much less than he’s used to. I also like how they burn Qui-Gon’s body in the end, mirroring the burning of Vader’s corpse in Return of the Jedi and making it feel like a real cultural practice.

And though the acting and writing are bad, they take time out now and then to have quiet moments, to try to let the characters breathe a little. There are a few scenes emphasizing how much Anakin misses his mother after he leaves home, for instance. Anakin’s actual good-bye to his mother is also fairly well done, especially with her telling him to not look back as he leaves. And though it precedes the infamous midichlorian reveal, it is a nice moment where Anakin asks Qui-Gon about the stars and expresses his desire to visit them all, echoing Luke from the first film (though much more on the nose).

Similarly, though the dialogue is mostly terrible, there is a good line here and there. Like when Anakin insists “No one can kill a Jedi,” and Qui-Gon softly answers “How I wish that were true.” Or Palpatine’s comment that in the Senate “there is no civility: only politics,” which is kind of perfect.

Speaking of which, if there is one undiluted positive about this film, it’s Ian McDiarmid’s reprisal of his role as Palpatine. In a cast that predominantly reads their lines in a flat monotone, he actually injects some life in the role: I love his incredibly smug smile when he shows up at the end, or the subtle expressions on his face when he first appears. You can absolutely believe this is the same character we met in Return of the Jedi, only younger and obliged to hide his malevolence behind a mask of urbanity and kindness. Yet he still has the same satanic, spider-like machinations that made the character so intimidating in the first place.

As for the new characters, Qui-Gon is mildly memorable, just because Liam Neesan manages to convey a sense of actual wisdom and kindness through him. Watto the junk dealer isn’t bad; you certainly remember him and he’s not extremely irritating like Jar Jar. And though it’s an uncomfortable caricature, I do kind of like how the Trade Federation Viceroy is played as this gutless mandarin type: something different in terms of ‘Star Wars’ villains. And Maul, of course, continues the tradition of vivid ‘Star Wars’ bad guys. He doesn’t say much, but you sure remember him.

Speaking of which, yes, that final lightsaber duel is really good. One thing that struck me about it this time was how brutal it is; Maul and the Jedi are punching and kicking each other left and right, while Maul leaps and dances about like a wild cat. Add in that fantastic music, and it’s an honestly great sequence (if only we didn’t have to keep cutting away to the other three events going on around it).

So, on the whole, the film is pretty bad. Though I will say, it’s bad in a way that still lets you see flashes of talent. George Lucas, whatever his failures as a writer, is a fantastically creative person, and that creativity does come across on screen, with the creatures, the new worlds, and so on. He just needed someone to process his ideas into something workable, and to elicit decent performances out of his actors, and to tell him no when he has a terrible idea. The Phantom Menace is one of those fascinating failures: a movie that is more interesting to take apart and examine why it doesn’t work than it is to actually watch, yet not without some highlights of its own.

Nevertheless, having a film this bad as the opening act is an ominous sign for any trilogy.

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Sarah Rockford in Construction of Crime

VL 1

 

Tonight, the ebony sky above Los Angeles was bronzed with the light of destroying fire. The Loan and Financing building, only completed in June, was reduced to ashes…

Sarah Rockford looked up from her notepad to where the Loan and Financing building was still being transformed into ash. The fire department was pouring water on it, and already the blaze seemed lesser than it had been. Perhaps it wouldn’t quite make it to the ashes stage tonight after all. She put a parenthetical ‘ruins’ after the ‘ashes’ sentence.

Looking over her scribbled notes, the phrase “only completed in June” struck her eye. Hadn’t she written something similar not long ago?

Sarah tapped her pen against her small chin, thinking. She made a note to follow-up this fact then went to try to grab a statement from the nearest fireman.

“No, we don’t know what started it,” he said irritably. Then, taking a closer look at her, added, “And what’s a girl like you doing out this time of night anyway?”

“Working,” she said simply. “Sarah Rockford; Daily Spinner.”

The fireman frowned at her, looking as though he doubted it. Well he might, for Sarah, at twenty, looked even younger than she was, something that was not helped by the fact that she barely cleared five feet. She tried to compensate by wearing her yellow hair in what she thought of as a professional pulled-back style and dressing in the most sophisticated button-up blouses and skirts the thrift store provided, though it didn’t really help much.

Besides which, she had stretched the truth a fair bit. She didn’t technically work for anyone; she simply hunted down stories and sold them to whoever would pay. The Spinner was just her most regular buyer.

It wouldn’t be fair, of course, to say that Sarah was a habitual liar; her parents (both deceased) had taught her to be honest, but then they had also taught her not to starve, and the latter lesson had sunk in a little deeper than the former.

“Well, Miss Rockford,” the fireman said, still suspicious but accepting her story. “We can’t tell you anything more about the fire, except that it doesn’t appear to be arson and right now we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t spread, so if you wouldn’t mind stepping back while we do our job…”

Sarah complied, wondering as she did so whether she could translate ‘doesn’t appear to be arson’ in such a way to make it sound as though it very likely was arson without driving her conscience to open rebellion. She reluctantly decided she couldn’t.

She did, however, make sure to stay within earshot of the firemen while they battled the blaze. She scribbled city block threatened by raging inferno; saved by heroic firefighters. That was good; she’d be able to get a few more words from some of the men and a flattering portrayal of their labors might encourage them to be communicative in the future. A girl had to think of her future.

As Sarah took notes, one of the men who had been up close to the fire came and spoke to her friend in a low voice. She moved forward eagerly to hear.

“Someone was on the second floor. Never got out.”

“You sure?”

The man nodded.

Sarah’s excitement disappeared with a sickening jolt. A burning building was one thing: spectacular, visually splendid, dramatic. A person burned alive inside it was something else entirely. She didn’t like that kind of story.

She didn’t attempt to press the firemen for more information. They likely wouldn’t have any, and besides that could wait. She drifted back toward the watching crowd, thinking.

How did the fire start? She wrote.

By the time the last embers were extinguished from the smoking ruins, Sarah had been able to glean a few more grains of information. First that the fire was likely electrical; something about faulty wiring reacting with substandard materials. Second was that the company that owned the building had no comment about the fire or its victim. And finally that said victim was a janitor who had been working on the upper floor when the fire broke out and had been overwhelmed by smoke before he could escape. His name was Jose Montago, and he had a wife and three children.

Sarah worked all of this into a moving, dramatic article; praising the heroic efforts of the firemen who held the fire at bay to save the rest of the block (she decided she didn’t have space to add that one of the firemen had assured her it was highly unlikely the fire would have spread in any case, given the still night and the distance between buildings), lamenting the tragic death of Mr. Montago with his widowed wife and orphaned children, and engaging in some pointed, but carefully non-libelous speculation as the to negligence of Diamond Financial.

The article sold, and Sarah had the satisfaction of earning her keep for another day. But she was not finished yet. Something about this fire troubled her. Perhaps it was the dead man, or the apparent negligence that had led to the disaster, but she wasn’t ready to let it go.

Her first move was to look into Diamond Financial. This required a trip to the library to look through newspaper archives, then a journey to the County records building, a little covert flirting with the clerk, and a lot of bald-faced lying to his superior.

Sitting in her rented rooms in her pajamas and going over her notes with a bowl of ramen noodles, Sarah pieced together the following facts. First, Diamond Financial was in deep trouble; they had weathered two lawsuits that, while they probably sailed right by the average person had caught the eyes of the financial world. That is, anyone they were likely to do business with. The result was that, in addition to the large settlements they had been obliged to make, they had lost a good deal of their client base. They had even been the subject of a case study in the Wall Street Journal about the side-effects of lawsuits. In short, they were hanging on by a thread, if that.

The next thing she found was that, right in the midst of this crisis, indeed while they were still battling one of the lawsuits, they had purchased the lot on which the Loan and Financing building had stood and filed an order with a company called Huner Contractors to construct the building for the purposes, so they said in their press release, of opening a new revenue stream in the interests of re-establishing their reputation. The building had only been completed less than a month prior to its bursting into flames.

Most significantly, she found, was that it had been heavily insured. It had cost twenty-three thousand dollars to build, but had been insured for fifty. In other words, they had pulled a clear twenty-seven thousand dollar profit just when they desperately needed money. All because their expensive new building burned to the ground.

Sarah stuck the end of her pen into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Everything was shaping up to a grand little conspiracy, one that – she added angrily to herself – had cost an innocent man his life. Everything, that is, except the fact that the fire department had been very clear that there was no sign of arson.

If only she could get around that. Suspicious as the circumstances were, unless she could find some evidence that the fire had been anything but an accident – non-circumstantial evidence, that is – she couldn’t do anything but point out how suspiciously fortunate the company was. And there was no law against being suspiciously fortunate.

Sarah thought a moment, then grabbed her phone and dialed. She waited a moment, then a familiar voice answered.

“Detective Crane.”

“Hello, Detective,” she said. “This is Sarah Rockford.”

“Oh, no; not you again!”

Detective Marvin Crane had been with the LAPD for almost thirty years. He was tough, non-nonsense, and scrupulously honest, which was why Sarah usually went to him if she thought she had a crime on hand. She knew he found her annoying, but at least he treated her seriously, and for a twenty-year-old girl with her living to make, that counted a lot more than manners.

“Yes, me again,” Sarah said. “Listen, you know that fire that we had last night?”

“The one you were hanging around?”

“That’s it. I’ve found evidence that it might have been staged; can you check and see if there’s anything to suggest that?”

“We did,” he answered. “What do you think? We found a dead body and a brand new building burning to the ground. We went over it with a fine-tooth comb, but there wasn’t any sign of arson. There was, however, a lot of evidence showing that it was an electrical fire, because some moron used corroded wires.”

Sarah felt disappointed.

“What made you think it was staged?”

She gave him a summary of her findings. To her relief, he didn’t brush it off. She could almost hear him sitting up on the other end of the line.

“Hm,” he said. “That does look bad. I’ll tell you what, kid; I’ll put out some feelers and see if I can find anything odd about them. Meanwhile, don’t publish anything.”

“You know, I do have to eat.”

“So cover a dog show,” he said. “If there is something fishy going on we don’t want to tip them off that we’re onto it.”

That was too much sense to argue with.

“Fine,” she sighed. “I’ll sit on it for a few days. Let me know what you find, won’t you?”

“I suppose that’s only fair,” he muttered.

“You’re adorable! If I ever decide to adopt a grandfather, you’re first on my list.”

He hung up. Sarah laughed and put down the phone. Progress! At least, some progress, though at the cost of sitting on an especially spicy bit of speculation.

Oh, well. If she had to keep the Diamond Financial angle under wraps, there was another element to the story. It had popped into her head when Crane had mentioned the bad wiring, though she hadn’t been able to do anything with it while they were talking. Now, though, she began to wonder whether it wasn’t odd, possibly criminal even, that the building had been constructed so shoddily. Who were Huner Contractors, after all? Had it been their doing, or perhaps…

Sarah checked the clock; three PM. Still time to make it back to the county records building if she hurried. She stood up, staggered a little and yawned. It occurred to her she’d been doing that a lot recently, and this made her realize she hadn’t slept in almost thirty hours. Perhaps, on second thought, this could wait until tomorrow.

Sarah relaxed her mind for a few hours working on the novel she was writing, and which, hopefully, would one day spare her the necessity of such late hours. She then went to bed on the couch that was one of the three or four pieces of furniture she owned and slept the sleep of the just until the alarm woke her at five in the morning.

Her first move, she decided, would be to track down and interview someone from Huner Contractors. It was a slim hope, but if she could get convincing evidence that the wiring and materials had been sound when they were installed, that might be enough to make a case. At least it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Huner Contractors, as it transpired, were remodeling a suite of offices out in the suburbs of LA. According to a sign it was for a company called ‘Westlake Realty.’ Sarah parked her ancient Corvair (which had been a gift from a family friend who owned a car lot and who had been unable to find anyone else willing to buy the thing) and went in search of the man in charge.

This turned out to be a cinderblock in human form by the name of Lepton. His stubble-lined face when Sarah accosted him went from angry to interested faster than the changing of a traffic light, while his small eyes did a quick and appreciative sweep of her face and form. Several of the workers, Sarah noticed, had paused to look at her. She suspected that she was probably the most alluring thing not on a magazine cover that had appeared in that spot for quite some time. She mentally put the information down in case she needed it. Modesty, like honesty, was a virtue she could be flexible on.

Pretending to have not noticed the attention she was getting, Sarah smiled her best innocently friendly smile on Lepton. She had to tilt her head back to do so, as she barely came up to his chest.

“Good morning,” she said. “My name is Sarah Rockford; I’m with United World News. I know you must be a busy man, but I was wondering if you had a moment to answer a few questions?”

Lepton’s cinderblock face cracked into a cement-teeth smile.

“Well, if it won’t take long,” he said in a tone that suggested he hoped it would. “Why don’t you come into my office?”

“That’s very courteous of you, but this will only take a minute,” said Sarah. Rule one of being a five-foot beauty was not being in enclosed spaces with a human brick if you could help it. “I’m sure you read that the Loan and Financing Building on Miller was destroyed in a fire the other day?”

Lepton’s expression underwent another sudden transformation. His appreciative interest vanished and his annoyance returned.

“No,” he said. “Why would I?”

“It was in the newspapers,” she said. “But perhaps you’re too busy to read them. I only mention it because I know your company built it.”

“What about it?”

Sarah picked her words carefully.

“I’m writing a piece on the fire,” she said. “And, of course I have to say something about what caused it. According to the fire department, it was faulty wiring and shoddy materials. I thought it only common justice to see what you had to say about that.”

His face grew even uglier.

“You saying I did rotten work?”

“No,” she answered smoothly. “That’s what the fire department says. I want to know what you say.”

As she spoke, she became uncomfortably aware that the other workers had begun to gather around them.

“I say that I’ve been in this business for almost fifteen years. My people’ve worked on a hundred different buildings, every one of them as good as anyone else’s And I think that if anyone wants to say I did a bad job they ought to say it to my face.”

Sarah glanced around at the seven or eight burly men who now surrounded her. This wasn’t at all the reaction she had expected. It was much too severe. It was frightening. But she maintained a brave face.

“Mind if I quote you on that?” she asked.

“I think you’d better leave,” he answered.

She was only too happy to comply. Sarah thanked the man politely and, trying not to turn her back more than necessary, made her way out of the site. The men moved aside to let her go.

Driving away from the site, Sarah drew a deep breath to steady her nerves.

“Now what,” she said aloud. “Are they so touchy about?”

She had gone in with a vague idea that Huner Contractors might have had a hand in the fire. Now she was certain about it.

Today’s research trip required less finesse than yesterday’s: she only wanted to know a bit about which buildings a certain contracting company had built or worked on. Once she had this information, she was able to return to the library to compare it to the record of accidents, fires, and other such problems.

What she found was interesting, but inconclusive. The company had to one degree or another worked on over sixty buildings in the greater Los Angeles area, either building or renovating. Of these, thirteen, including the Loan and Financing building, had either burned down, collapsed, or somehow became unusable. It wasn’t much, but it was notable.

Her next step was to cross-check the thirteen failed buildings with the clients who had ordered the work. The first was a company called “Faylestate Insurance.” They had ordered a new office building, which had collapsed like a house of cards in a minor earthquake two months after being built. The company took in an insurance check for three times what they paid for the building, which, as it turned out, was just in time to pay a settlement in a harassment case.

Then there was the three-story research facility owned by Hyperdyne Systems, where Huner Contractors had done a basement renovation three weeks before it was destroyed in a fire. Two people were killed in that one, and again the company pocketed a large insurance check, covering their third year of net-loss revenue.

So it was again and again. Every single time one of the buildings that Huner Contractors’ had worked on had something go wrong, the company that had contracted it received an insurance check far greater than what they’d paid for the work, and usually just when they most needed an influx of cash. And, what struck her as especially strange, never once did any of them even talk about bringing Huner Contractors to court for negligence or shoddy workmanship.

“Gotcha!” she exclaimed aloud, so that several nearby people glared at her.

Sarah checked her enthusiasm: still it was only circumstantial. Very suspicious circumstance, to be sure, and probably enough for the police to move against Huner Contractors, but nothing definite. A clever lawyer, she was sure, could probably make mincemeat out of the theory, and the fact that Huner Contractors had never been sued could cut both ways: evidence of conspiracy or evidence that the company didn’t consider them negligent. And if once they got through court without a conviction, they’d be home free, meaning no justice for Jose Montago or any of the other people who had died in this scheme.

She nibbled her pen for a moment, trying to gauge how best to proceed. Then, in a sudden flash as though of divine (or demonic) inspiration, she had idea. The site she’d visited that morning was for Westlake Realty. She looked for their name in the business journals and had to stuff her fist into her mouth to keep from shouting in triumph, for they were being sued for malfeasance and their stock was a fraction of what it had been a year ago. If her theory was correct…

Sarah rushed to a payphone and dialed Detective Crane’s number. The phone range several times, then went to voicemail.

“Listen,” she said. “I think I’ve figured the whole thing out; I just need to confirm it. I’m going to do that now: the Westlake Realty building on Pico Boulevard that’s being redone. If it’s what I think it is, we’ll have them dead to rights. I’ll call you back when I get a chance. Oh, this is Sarah Rockford, by the way.”

For the second time that day, Sarah drove out to the construction site. It was about eight o’clock by this point, and the block was deserted; everyone had gone home. The windows looked in on a bare, empty building, and the door was firmly locked.

Sarah slung her bag over her shoulder, took up her camera, glanced about to make sure no one was watching, and approached the door. A few moments with a hairpin was enough to undo the bolt. She slipped inside, closed the door behind her, and ducked out of view of the street.

The main work on the interior seemed to consist of redoing the floors. There were several large holes in the foundation waiting to be filled with concrete. She hopped down into one of them. It was about three foot cubed. Shining her flashlight against the cement that had already been poured, she looked carefully for any sign of wear or weakness, but found none. Disappointed, she hoisted herself back out and went to look at the exposed walls. The beams seemed sturdy enough when she tapped them; no structural issues.

But then she took a look at the insulation they had begun to install. To her untrained eye it looked unpleasantly frayed and dirty. She sliced off a sample with a pocketknife and carefully stowed it in a plastic bag to show to an expert. Then she took her camera and snapped a photo of the whole set up.

It was as she was looking through the camera that she noticed the wiring. This had been completed already, it seemed, but the coverings didn’t look quite right. She felt them, and the black rubber coating fell away in her hands; it was better than half rotted. Underneath, the wires were badly corroded. She wasn’t an expert, but it looked to her as though if you used this system, it was likely to short out and catch the insulation on fire within a few short weeks.

Sarah eagerly snapped another photo, getting in close to the wirework. Once an expert took a look at this, she thought, it would mean ‘probable cause’ and a search warrant.

“Gotcha,” she muttered.

At that moment, a hand – a huge, callused hand – closed over mouth.

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Lepton snarled into her ear.

Blazing, blind nightmare terror erupted in Sarah’s chest. Shock and danger both combined to elicit a scream that would have been heard across the city if it hadn’t been smothered by Lepton’s powerful grip about her mouth.

“Don’t struggle!” he snapped. “Or I’ll break your little neck.”

The energy that fear had given to her limbs died away, and Sarah froze, stiff and rigid, except for the rapid rise and fall of her chest and the darting motion of her eyes.

“You scream and you die,” he said. “You don’t give me any trouble, maybe you walk away. Understand?”

She nodded, and he took his hand away.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” he demanded. As he spoke, he pulled her arms behind her back and began tying her wrists together with rope.

Sarah swallowed. The first blaze of shock and terror had subsided, and she had gotten some of her courage back.

“Building inspection,” she said. “I wanted to have a closer look at your materials.”

“That your job, is it?”

“Sometimes,” she said. “You do know that people have died because of your work, right?”

“Despite what I said this morning, I do read the papers,” he said, pulling the ropes tight and making her wince. “Sit down.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” she said, obeying. He began to tie her ankles together. “Jose Montego; that’s the name of the man who died the other night. He had a wife and three kids.”

He finished her ankles and began on her knees.

“Do you ever shut up?”

“Really?” she said. “You don’t care at all?”

He pulled the knot tight, then spun her roughly around and started tying her elbows.

“I’m making about twice as much a year as the average guy in my profession, thanks to jobs like this,” he said. “You expect me to go all teary eyed because some chump has the bad luck to be there when it went down?”

Sarah was still terrified, but her fear was briefly eclipsed by anger.

“I suppose that’s expecting too much of something like you,” she said. She winced as he finished tying her up. The ropes were so tight that it hurt to even try to move.

Lepton sat back and looked at her. His granite face was a blend of satisfaction and hatred that was enough to make Sarah’s blood run cold. He was obviously enjoying her helplessness.

“So now what are you going to do with me?” she asked, trying to keep her voice as light as possible.

He picked up her camera, examining it idly.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” he said. He opened the rear, pulled out the film, and crumpled it up in his hand. Sarah sighed irritably, but it was no more than she had expected.

“There are a lot of things I’d like to do with you,” he said with a leer. Sarah dropped her eyes, shuddering inwardly at the very thought.

“But,” he added, picking up a roll of duct tape. “I’d rather not waste time.”

Sarah eyed the tape uneasily, guessing what it meant.

“You don’t need that,” she said. “I’m not gonna scream.”

“Oh, I think you are,” he answered.

She looked at him, her breathing coming fast as she understood what was in store.

“You said,” she stammered. “That you would let me go.”

“I said maybe,” he answered, pulling off a strip of tape. “And I was lying about that.”

Before she could make another sound, he pressed the tape over her mouth, sealing it shut. She tried to yell, but only a muffled grunt came out.

“So,” he said, gripping her face and forcing her to look at him. “You think I use shoddy material in my work, huh? Well, what would you call a nosy brat who doesn’t know how to mind her own business? You think that’ll make good building material?”

Sarah’s eyes widened with terror. She tried to speak, to plead, but no words beyond muffled grunts came out.

Lepton picked her up, carried her to hole she had briefly explored, and dropped her unceremoniously in. The impact knocked the wind out of her. He tossed her bag down after her.

As Sarah struggled to regain her breath, she heard Lepton walking across the floor, then rolling something over. She looked up and saw the conical maw of a cement mixer looming over her.

Sarah screamed into the tape as the cement mixer began to turn.

“So long, sweetheart,” Lepton called, and tilted the opening forward.

A stream of wet, gray cement began to pour into the hole about her, splattering Sarah with the cold, gritty substance. The cement mixer wasn’t especially large, but Lepton kept filling more and more into it, so that the stream pouring in around her waxed and waned, but never ceased.

Sarah struggled around into a sitting position, but could do no more. Already the stuff had covered the entire bottom of the pit and was rising about her. Her wide, terrified eyes darted about, seeking some means of escape, but there was none to be found. Even if there were, she could barely move, tied up as she was. She thought of her pocketknife: tucked safely away in the front pocket of her blouse and completely useless to her.

Steadily, and with greater swiftness than she would have believed possible, the cement filled in around her. It covered her hips and ankles, buried her bound hands even as they clawed uselessly at the ropes that held them, and began rising up her body. Her knees were a rapidly disappearing island in gray slime. It seemed strange to think she’d never see them again.

For the idea that she had held out against as long as possible was breaking through the ramparts of her mind and filling her pounding heart with unbearable terror: there was really no way out. She was actually going to die like this, right here and right now.

Her knees vanished under the cement. Her chest was covered, making breathing so difficult that she wondered if she might suffocate before it even covered her head. The cold muck reached her neck; it was tugging at her long blond hair.

Sarah tilted her head back, trying to stay alive for as long as possible. Lepton was waving sarcastically at her. The cement filled her ears and crawled up her cheeks. It covered the tape that muffled her screams. She shut her eyes tight and began to inhale it through her nostrils. This would be her last breath…

But it wasn’t. Her nose and part of her face was all that was left above the cement, but it didn’t seem to be getting any higher. She waited, unbearably tense for the final moment, but it didn’t come. Instead, a rough hand brushed the cement away from her face and sets of strong hands pulled her out from under the heavy muck.

Sarah opened her eyes and saw, to her astonishment, Detective Crane and a small posse of policemen. Lepton was subdued, and Crane and another man were hauling her out of the pit.

“Damnit girl,” Crane snapped. “What were you thinking?”

Sarah groaned in relief, though the detective didn’t immediately take the gag off of her, so apparently his question was rhetorical.

Within a few minutes, Sarah’s bonds had been cut and she sat furiously rubbing her limbs to try to get the feeling back while she explained what she had learned.

“See, Lepton and his men had a bit of a side business,” she said. “Most of the time they just did their job, but if a client were in financial trouble, like Diamond Financial, then they offered a special service: they would make or renovate a building for the usual price, but use junk material that cost a fraction of what the real stuff would cost. Meanwhile the client heavily insures the building, justifying it by saying they can’t afford to take another loss right now. Then it inevitably fails or burns down, meaning they collect on it. Since they didn’t torch the building themselves, there’s nothing to link them to the fraud, except the fact that this is what they paid for.”

Detective Crane nodded.

“That about right, Lepton?” he asked.

The contractor snarled.

“I want a lawyer.”

“Oh, you’ll get one,” said Crane. “Not that it’ll do you any good. Attempted murder’s a pretty serious offense.”

Sarah beamed at him as he was led away.

“Okay,” she said. “So, thanks for saving my life, but how did you know…?”

“I got your message,” he said. “Saying you were coming out here to snoop around. As soon as I heard that I got some men together and rushed over. Figured you’d get yourself into a spot like this.”

She smiled and hugged him.

“You’re sweet,” she said.

“You’re taking this whole near death experience pretty well,” he said, with an air of reluctant admiration.

Sarah shrugged. “I’m still here. And besides, just think what a good story this will make: ‘Trapped in pit of death, she watched her tomb forming about her.’ People will eat it up.”

Then she looked down at her cement-covered body and ruined clothes and grimaced.

“I suppose, though,” she added. “I’d better go clean up before I try to write it.”

 

 

Thoughts on ‘Return of the Jedi’

What started out as a simple fantasy adventure in space with Star Wars was turned into an epic by The Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi faced the daunting task of bringing the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. For my money, they succeeded spectacularly, though not without a small, but noticeable dip in quality from the previous film.

The movie picks up where the last one left off; with Luke and his friends trying to rescue Han from the monstrous Jabba the Hutt. This opening almost feels like a full film in itself, especially as it both goes on for far too long and is rather severely disconnected from the rest of the film. In essence, it’s a self-contained story that takes up full the first half-hour of screen time.

That said, it’s not at all a bad sequence; there’s the fast-paced high adventure we knew from the earlier films, done with the same creativity and anchored by the same great characters. I’m not really sure what Luke’s original plan was, but the adventure serves to showcase how far he’s come. Despite his failure against Darth Vader, he’s grown from a naïve farm boy to a formidable warrior in his own right.

Characterization wise, the dynamic here reverses that of the previous films: in both the end of the original and beginning of Empire, Han had to save Luke. Then at the end of Empire Luke tried to save Han and failed. Here Luke succeeds, showing that he’s taken his place as the real leader and hero of their little band.

This jump in power and confidence from the previous film is a little jarring, it must be said, especially as we don’t know how much time has past. And that points to probably the biggest problem with the film as a whole: that despite the leisurely opening act, the film feels rushed. Plot threads set up in the first and second films are knocked down one after another in quick succession: Luke returns to continue his training with Yoda, only for Yoda to die after saying he needs no more training. Yoda’s cryptic words about “another Skywalker” are answered almost instantly with the reveal that Leia is Luke’s sister (which is probably the weakest story development in the trilogy: nothing about their interactions indicated this and it raises big questions about the dynamics of their birth and early life). The Empire has built another Death Star and the Rebels have a chance-in-a-million to end the war once and for all.

Now, none of these plot threads are really bad or poorly done (well, the reveal about Leia is debatable), but having them all occur so quickly does feel contrived. This is another reason why it’s frustrating the Jabba the Hutt sequence is allowed to go on as long as it does: with so much story to tell, it’s strange to spend such a huge chunk of the film on what amounts to wholly different plot. But we’re clearly moving into the endgame here, and this does create a sense that things are marching to a conclusion one way or another.

There; I’ve basically covered the main points where the film falls short (well, save a debatable case which we’ll come to), and they do drag it down a bit, but they can’t really overcome the full weight of great storytelling that has been built up over the past two films, nor counteract the very real positives of this one.

In the first place, we finally have our reveal of the Emperor himself, always present as an almost-unseen force lurking in the background of the past two films. This (along with the reveal of Jabba the Hutt) is an almost perfect example of how to bring a shadowy character onstage without diminishing his mystique. Indeed, the Emperor manages the difficult task of being very nearly as vivid and intimidating as Vader himself, just from the first time he appears. We first have the opening scene of Vader arriving on the new Death Star to rebuke the commander for slow progress, then as the man tries to weasel his way out of it with one excuse after another Vader drops the information that the Emperor himself is coming, which causes the commander to look as though he’s about ready to wet himself. The message (reinforced with Vader’s darkly hilarious line “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am”) is clear: scary as Darth Vader is, the Emperor is even worse. Then when the Emperor finally appears, he’s this withered, deathlike figure covered in a black robe, directing events with a satanic chuckle. We can well believe that this is the man who controls and directs the vast, evil armada of the Empire.

The character development of the previous film continues and reaches its conclusion in this one. Han and Lando, the two former scoundrels, have fully committed to the rebellion, as well as recommitting to their damaged friendship (exemplified when Han let’s Lando take the Falcon for the final battle). The reveal of just how far Han has gone respectable is done fantastically, with him first teasing Lando about being made a general just in time for a dangerous mission before it’s revealed that he’s one too, with an even more dangerous assignment. On that note, the film takes care to give everyone a major role in the climax; every character has a moment to shine and there’s a real sense that it could not have succeeded without all their contributions, which is exactly what we want from this group of characters we’ve grown and struggled with for so long.

Most importantly, the film spends a lot of time dealing with the consequences of Darth Vader’s reveal that he is Luke’s father. This is the main theme and driving force of the story: the huge, raging space battle ultimately doesn’t matter as much as what it means that these characters are father and son.

The dynamic here is frankly nothing short of fantastic. Luke and Vader aren’t just the ones that everything depends on, but they’re the only ones who fully realize what the relationship means.

Yoda and Obi Wan both want Luke to understand that it’s now more important than ever for him to confront and defeat Vader. Now that Luke knows Vader is his father, the question of whether he will follow in his father’s footsteps, present from the beginning of the series (recall Uncle Owen’s “That’s what I’m afraid of” comment, which, like so much else, takes on new meaning in retrospect), has become an active and urgent question. He has to face him to settle that issue once and for all.

On the other side, the Emperor is confused by the fact that Vader can sense Luke’s presence while he can’t, which raises his suspicions (for perhaps the first time in who knows how long) of just where Vader’s loyalties lie. Like the Jedi, he too needs this confrontation to take place to determine just what the relationship will ultimately mean to his plans. The difference is that the Emperor fully expects to win no matter what happens: either Vader will kill Luke, or Luke will kill Vader and take his place. Yoda and Obi Wan fear the exact same outcome, though they clearly think there’s a chance for Luke to kill Vader without succumbing to the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, both Luke and Vader have their own ideas. Vader, as he expressed to his son in the previous film, wants to overthrow the Emperor and rule in his stead, with his son at his side. Luke, on the other hand, believes that Vader isn’t wholly lost; he’s felt the sincere longing in his father’s attempt to convince him to turn and believes that this tiny spark of love can restore the good man he once was.

The interesting point is that both Vader and Luke, despite the fact that each carries the weight of their respective war efforts on their shoulders, each has the other as their first priority. Each wants his side to triumph, but not at the expense of the other. It’s a brilliant bit of writing: this galactic war that we’ve been following for three films ultimately comes down to the connection of a father and son, something universal, instantly understandable, and packed with emotion.

That’s not to say the war is underwhelming. This film takes the ship battles to a new level, with some of the best effects in the series, culminating in an epic battle about the new Death Star. The Millennium Falcon, with Lando at the helm, leads the united rebel force in space (commanded by the instantly-memorable Admiral Ackbar). At the same time, Han, Leia, and Chewie conduct a commando raid against the Death Star’s shield generator in order to render the unfinished battle station vulnerable to attack.

And that raid brings us to one of the main things people tend to hate about this film: the Ewoks. On the one hand, yes, they are the most cartoony, childish element in the film, and perhaps the entire trilogy, and they don’t really fit into this otherwise-grounded world. They’re just too cutesy to completely work, and I especially don’t buy that they’re a legitimate threat to our heroes in the silly scene where they prepare to roast and eat them.

That said, I will raise a defense for the Ewoks. For one thing, their role in the story as the one concrete thing the Emperor didn’t take into account requires them to be somewhat silly creatures. There really wouldn’t be any excuse for him to ignore the Wookies, for instance, as they’re too obviously dangerous. But a bunch of little teddy bears with stone-age tech? That I can buy the Emperor shrugging off. Also, their very child-friendly nature fits with the idea that these are exactly the kind of humble, unpretentious people the Empire regularly stomp on, but who prove its downfall precisely because they were ignored.

Also, despite some slapstick, the film stages their battle with the stormtroopers in a fairly believable way. It’s made clear the Ewoks are only able to hold their own for two reasons: one they know the terrain and are able to perform hit-and-run tactics and set traps, and the other is their sheer numbers. These two factors, along with hi-tech support from Han, Leia, and the rebel forces, allow them just barely to squeak a win (watching the battle this time, I realized that a lot of the time they serve to distract and confuse the Imperial troops while the rebels hit them with blaster fire).

That, and the film goes out of its way to show that they are taking casualties; they are paying a steep price for their help. The bit where the one Ewok tries to get his friend to wake up and then just sits back and hangs his head in grief is genuinely affecting. Besides which, thanks to C3-P0’s abridged recap of the past two films, the Ewoks are shown to have an idea of what they’re fighting for; they’re not just serving as cannon fodder, they’re legitimately part of the Rebellion at this point.

Basically, my position on the Ewoks is that they’re very poorly conceived, but very well executed, especially once the shooting starts.

But all that serves as a side story to Luke and Vader, leading up to that fantastic final moment where Vader has to choose between power and his family, followed by that heartfelt last exchange between father and son.

In short, though it comes weighed down with heavier flaws than either of its predecessors, the high points of Return of the Jedi are among the highest in the trilogy, just as the climax ought to be. For me, that sense of finality and accomplishment is best shown (visual storytelling again) when we watch that miles-long Super Star Destroyer going down in flames, symbolizing that the seemingly-invincible Empire has fallen at last. The whole final act is like that; a thrilling and cathartic sense of having come a long way through all kinds of adventures, but having ultimately won the day in the end. After three densely packed films, it leaves us just where we want to be: Luke is a Jedi, Han and Leia are together, and the Rebellion has defeated the Empire against all odds, largely due to the fact that Darth Vader’s love for his son unexpectedly proved stronger than his loyalty to the Emperor.

That penultimate image of Luke seeing his father’s ghost joining those of his two teachers says it all; he’s redeemed his father’s legacy and can now feel as proud of him as he ever felt of his mentors.

Return of the Jedi isn’t quite a textbook example of how to conclude a trilogy, but it is very close, and, like the heroes, we are able to celebrate and come away feeling all is right with the universe.

 

Thoughts on ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the best of the ‘Star Wars’ films, and for good reason. This is where the fun space adventure of the original film becomes something grander: something epic, yet without losing the adventure and excitement of the original.

The film, as the title indicates, shows the Empire hunting the Rebels (something I noticed this time around is that the title scroll’s account of the Empire “driving the Rebels from their base” in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction makes perfect sense, since even though the Death Star was destroyed, the Empire still knows where the Rebels are now. Just the first example of the care that went into the film’s script). We open with the Empire dispatching ‘probe droids’ throughout the galaxy, followed soon by Luke, on the barren ice world of Hoth, being ambushed and dragged off by a huge yeti-like monster. This opening, though not as immediately striking as the original’s, sets the stage at once: we’re now in uncertain territory, with powerful forces lying in wait to prey upon our heroes, who have to rely on each other and, in Luke’s case, his emerging knowledge of the Force.

The cast we met in the first film are back, and their relationships have grown. The characterization here is really fantastic, especially with Han Solo. When we met him in the first film, he was essentially selfish and kind of a prick. Here, he clearly cares about the rebels, but is now seeking to return to his old life to try to square the debts he left behind (he briefly alludes to their having run into a bounty hunter in between films, showing that the as-yet-unseen Jabba is closing in on him). Basically, Han still wants to be able to save his own skin. But he’s grown to the point where he’s willing to risk his life for his friends (as when he rushes out into the blizzard to save Luke, foreshadowing how Luke will later rush to Bespin to save Han). Then from the point where they leave Hoth, his entire motivation is essentially trying to protect Leia and find a way to get her back to the main Rebel force (who have fled to a safe location). This further strips away his remaining selfishness until, even when it looks like he’s about to die, his first thought is still her.

Han really shines as a hero during the long middle section of the film, where, with his ship’s hypderdrive on the fritz, he has to rely on his wits and skill to escape the Empire at sublight speed. This part of the movie creates a real sense of being constantly on the ropes as one by one his gambits manage to only buy a little time for frantic repair attempts before the Empire closes in (by the way, this time around I realized the asteroid field is foreshadowed when the rebellion general comments on how much meteor activity there is in the area).

Meanwhile, Luke is going on his own journey, delving deeper into the Force with his new master Yoda (rightly celebrated not only for his unforgettable personality, but also for the wonderful puppetry that makes him seem little less alive than anyone else). In so doing, Luke learns not only more about the Force, but just how far he might be vulnerable to the influence of the Dark Side.

All the while, we spend much more time with Darth Vader, seeing him pursue the heroes across the galaxy, but always first and foremost after Luke. His almost fanatical pursuit of the Millennium Falcon is, at the end of the day, as a means to lure Luke into a trap.

Like in the first film, all this works fine on a surface level, but when you start to think about it, and especially after you learn the infamous ‘reveal’ at the end, it all takes on a new and stronger significance.

The main thrust of the film is the overwhelming power of the Empire, assuring us right away that, despite the destruction of the Death Star, the villains are still oppressively dangerous. Like in the first film, we have some excellent visual storytelling: early on we see a fleet of Star Destroyers, those same huge, terrifying ships we met in the opening of the first film. Then we see that one of them is being eclipsed by the shadow of something even larger, whereon we cut to a Super Star Destroyer some ten-times the size of the others. Even without the Death Star, the Empire is incredibly powerful.

On the subject of visual storytelling, consider the famous Battle of Hoth that ends the first act: we have the Empire coming out to fight in these huge, lumbering walkers like mechanical elephants. They’re monstrous and seemingly unstoppable, like something out of a kaiju film. Meanwhile, the rebels are just men in trenches, or in aircraft; not that far removed from wars we’re familiar with. Once again, the visuals alone tell us all we need to know about the situation (a side note; this is one reason the stormtroopers wear masks: to convey the faceless conformity of the Empire).

This fight also continues the surprisingly grounded nature of the world; there was care taken in thinking how these ships work, and making them look battered and used. The Rebel base, like the ones in the first film, is crowded and busy, and throughout the film we have plenty of scenes of Han, Leia, and Chewie fiddling with the guts of the Falcon, trying to jury-rig the battered ship into working. We have no idea what they’re doing, but it looks like the sort of thing someone would have to do to fix a real spaceship. There’s one bit where Leia tries to force a stiff part of the ship back into place, then winces as she sucks a pinched finger. It happens incidentally, while she’s talking to Han, but it feels so real because we’ve all had moments like that. It’s just another little detail that makes this world feel so much more alive than most fantasy films (or most non-fantasy films for that matter).

Then, of course, there’s that twist. I don’t think I need to caution you on it; rare is the adult who doesn’t know it. This reveal may rather raise some questions about the earlier film (though I don’t think any that can’t be smoothed over), but that really doesn’t matter compared to just how much it benefits not only this movie but the series as a whole. Luke’s vision in the cave, Yoda’s sad likening him to his father, Vader’s fanatical pursuit of Luke, his arguing to turn him rather than kill him, and the way he holds back during their fight, all of these work fine the first time; you don’t question them, but they then rise to new levels of significance when we learn the truth.

Not only that, but they hint at something else; even as Darth Vader is being one of the most intimidating villains in all of cinema, murdering his subordinates with nothing but wry comments and pursuing and torturing our heroes with cold implacability, this reveal hints that his motives were not wholly malevolent. That, perhaps, there is something else still in there.

All that will be built on in the next film, but for now perhaps an even bigger twist is that the film doesn’t have a happy ending. Most of the heroes escape to fight another day, but they do so wounded in body and spirit, and the future is very much in question. You could have stopped at the end of the first film and people would have been satisfied with the story (though Vader’s escaping would have been a dangling thread people would wonder about). Not so here; here there is clearly an ending still to come.

So, in summary, yes, this is a fantastic movie and one of the best sequels of all time. It takes the original film and builds on it in ways the audience probably didn’t expect, deepening the relationships and themes while giving us more of the same action, adventure, and humor we loved in the first film, but in different ways and different doses. There’s less ship combat and more Force powers, for instance; more monsters and less alien communities. If the first film was a textbook in general storytelling, this one is a textbook in how to do a sequel.

Thoughts on ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’

I wasn’t sure whether I’d including the Holiday Special in my Star Wars rewatch, for the obvious reason that it’s not really part of the series proper. But, in the end, I decided that, since I had it (in the Rifftrax version), I might as well take another look in context of the rest of the series.

I’ve written about this one before, so there will be some repetition, but basically…yeah, it’s incredibly bad. Not just bad in terms of writing and execution, but bad in some really strange ways. Like, one of the first things that happens is that Chewie’s son, Lumpy, and father, Itchy stand around watching a hologram of a circus act for three minutes straight. Who would think that was good idea for any show, let alone a ‘Star Wars’ entry? Kind of a step down from the attack on Princess Leia’s ship.

Of course, that stems from the fact the special is structured as a standard variety show, only set within the ‘Star Wars’ universe. That itself is just such a strange idea; it’s as if, between Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, they did a special where Frodo and Sam ended up on a game show en-route to Mordor: why would anyone even think to do this, let alone take the time and spend the money to bring it to life?

Apparently, George Lucas meant this as a way to keep the brand in the public mind and continue to sell merchandise in between films, though it seems he wasn’t directly involved in either the writing or directing of this one, beyond the initial concept. The actual writers, I can only imagine (and at least one has confirmed), were all higher than satellites, to judge by the results. Among other things, we have about a quarter of an hour of Chewbacca’s family, done entirely in Wookie language. So, those growling noises Chewie makes? About half the special is done in that, without subtitles (this, apparently, was entirely Lucas’s idea). Then there’s the softcore porn film starring Diahann Carrol that Itchy gets from Art Carney. Believe me, I wish I could make up something as crazy as that.

Again, why is Chewbacca’s father watching a porno film? Who would even consider filming something like that? Not only in a ‘Star Wars’ entry, but in a ‘holiday special’? Also, that’s not an interpretation: the producers are on record saying that’s exactly what the scene is supposed to represent.

The plot (involving Chewbacca trying to get home to spend ‘Life Day’ with his family) is paper thin, and serves only to provide an extremely flimsy pretext for the skits. Though, even then the skits just sort of come out of nowhere, only occasionally with any justification whatsoever. Like, the Jefferson Starship musical number (no, not making that up) is Art Carney trying to distract an Imperial patrol…only, nothing comes of it; there’s no purpose to the distraction. It just eats up time.

Then there’s the cartoon short, showing a side-adventure of Luke, Han, and the droids, wherein they meet Boba Fett for the first time. This comes about simply from Lumpy watching a video player. Why is he doing that while there are Imperial troops sweeping his house? And why does he even have a cartoon of his father and his friends on an adventure in the first place? Why would such a thing even exist in this universe? You see, even as a framing device, the story is terrible.

As for the cartoon itself, it’s…pretty lame. The animation is terrible (Han in particular looks downright grotesque). The plot, involving a magical talisman that contains an Imperial bioweapon causing a form of sleeping sickness in humans, is at once too complicated and too silly to work even in a cartoon. Boba Fett doesn’t really do anything cool and his plan is foiled in a painfully lazy way, though admittedly it is kind of interesting to see him here before his official introduction in Empire Strikes Back.

Speaking of the main cast, they’re barely in the special at all. They just show up now and again for a couple minutes to remind us that ‘oh yeah, this is related to something we liked.’ Not only that, but they’re all kind of…strange. Mark Hamill is buried in very visible makeup meant to hide the effects of a recent car crash. Carrie Fisher, clearly at the height of her drug addiction, is visibly unsteady on her feet and stumbles over her lines. Harrison Ford, meanwhile, is clearly growing more and more bored as the show goes on, until he seems barely able to muster the energy to get his dialogue out. As for James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (who gets a special “and” credit in the opening), he has two scenes, one of which is in the cartoon and the other a dubbed scene from the first film.

Of course, saying the Holiday Special is bad is like saying the original Star Wars is good: it’s pretty much established fact at this point. So, is there anything positive to say about the special?

Actually, there is.

First of all, I really like the fact that the special actually shows the Empire from the point of view of the ordinary people of the galaxy. In the films, we see them doing terrible things, but mostly in the form of broad, specific outrages, mostly directed against the rebels themselves. Here, we get to see Imperial tyranny in the form of small, day-to-day injustices. For instance, there’s an early scene where Art Carney’s character (a trader) shows his wares to an Imperial officer, who, deciding he likes one of the items, simply declares, “I’ll take it” and walks off without paying. That’s a perfectly well-conceived (if not especially well-written) scenario, demonstrating just what the Empire means to ordinary people.

Likewise, a large part of the special is taken up by the Imperial Troops searching Chewie’s house for signs of rebel activity, threatening and abusing his family the whole time. The way Chewie’s family, with Art Carney’s help, have to tread carefully even as they’re tying to get the troops out before Chewbacca comes home is fairly well conceived and again captures that sense of powerlessness that comes from being under a tyrannical government in a way that’s not really seen in the films proper. There was some coherent thought put into this scenario.

Then there’s a late scene where the Empire imposes a curfew that forces the cantina on Tatooine to shut down. This creates a real headache for the owner (Bea Arthur), who finds herself forced to find a way to throw all her low-life customers out without offending them. But, again, there’s nothing she can do about it except to grumble resentfully and try her best.

On that subject, Arthur’s segment in the cantina is easily the best part of the special. Unlike just about everyone else (which includes some fantastically talented people, like Art Carney and Diahann Carrol), she actually puts in a legitimate performance, has some decent material to work with, and is honestly entertaining. There’s a particularly good line where, after being obliged to bribe her customers out with another round of drinks, she complains “I’m running a tab for the Empire.” She even elicits some honest emotions in the scene where she bids her staff goodnight before turning back into the now-empty bar. The whole segment feels refreshingly honest and human, not to mention it’s possibly the only piece of the whole special that actually seems like it fits in the ‘Star Wars’ universe. I can absolutely see Bea Arthur being the owner of the Cantina from original film, and that this is the sort of thing she deals with on a regular basis.

And I will say that the final shots, of Chewie and his family sitting quietly and enjoying ‘Life Day,’ are rather sweet. The preceding scene of Wookies marching through space in robes and Carrie Fisher singing, not so much.

So, yeah, in summary, this is an incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid piece of work, the kind of thing where you really wish you could see the making of, just because you want to know what kind of thought process could have led to some of these scenes. I really hope someone, somewhere does a full-blown research project on this so that one day we can get a full documentary on just what they heck happened to bring this thing to life.

Thoughts on ‘Star Wars’

I have decided to do a total re-watch of the Star Wars films: all ten films (plus the Holiday Special) in order of release. Partly this is out of curiosity, partly because I’ve determined to finally see The Last Jedi now that it’s on Netflix and I want to be fully prepared. Also, I only just realized upon beginning this project how long it’s been since I’ve seen these films: the original trilogy, of course, I saw many times as a kid, and more than once in subsequent years, but I haven’t been back to it for quite a while. As for the prequels, besides The Phantom Menace, I’ve only seen them once, when they first came out. Ditto for The Force Awakens. Rogue One I’ve seen once in its entirety and then when I rewatched it I skipped around to the highlights.

I actually have copies of the original trilogy in their original cuts: they’re not ideally formatted, but they are pretty much what the original theater audiences saw in 1977, 1980, and 1983, respectively, so that’s what I’ll be watching, aiming to see them as much as possible as they were originally viewed.

With that out of the way, here is my impression of the original Star War, now retitled A New Hope.

This may be a controversial opinion, but it’s a really, really good film: just a very enjoyable, action-packed adventure, bursting with creativity. You could, and I’m sure many do, give a whole course on storytelling just from this one film. The opening scene alone is a brilliant piece of visual exposition, letting us know at once who are the good guys, who the bad guys, and how badly the good guys are out-gunned, all without a single line of dialogue.

The plot (which you all know, so I won’t rehash it), is simple and easy to follow; there is a clear goal (destroy the Death Star), a clear condition (get the plans in R2 to the rebels), and a clear consequence for failure (whole planets will be blown up, and a tyrannical Empire will use the threat of more destruction to maintain power). This latter point helps show the thoughtfulness that goes into even such a simple plot as this: the evil plan of the Empire is actually pretty well thought out. A few quick lines of dialogue establish that there is an Imperial Senate that thus far has kept at least a theoretical lid on the Emperor’s power. Later we hear the Emperor has dissolved the senate, gambling that the awful threat of the Death Star will be enough to keep the galaxy in order. That’s a perfectly reasonable set of actions: it’s not just being evil for evil’s sake, but doing evil things as part of a larger goal. It also puts the heroes’ struggle in the larger context that this won’t just remove a single terrible threat, but will also loosen the Emperor’s grip on the galaxy.

Again, all of that is established in about two or three scenes and a few brief lines of dialogue. Moreover, none of it is really necessary to understand in order to follow the film: it’s enough to know that the Death Star is evil and must be destroyed, but paying closer attention reveals deeper levels to the plot. I don’t mean that it’s brilliant or intricate, but it is sturdy and well-put together, and holds up well under scrutiny.

One thing that struck me this time around was how good some of the acting is, especially from veterans like Peter Cushing and Sir Alec Guinness. Look at the subtle change of expression on Guinness’s face when Luke first mentions the name “Obi Wan Kenobi.” Or watch as he silently formulates a plan of action after hearing Leia’s message. It really is kind of amazing that this film, which was, after all, little more than a mid-budget B-picture has two such established powerhouse actors in key roles. Though, in hindsight, it’s no more amazing than anything else about the history of this film.

On the other hand, the three leads are generally no more than serviceable, with Harrison Ford probably being the best and Carrie Fisher being the most awkward (as others have noted, she seems to switch accents at several points in the film). Mark Hamill, I find, starts out the film a little stiff and whiney, but his performance improves as his character grows in confidence and begins to take a more active role in the story. But no one gives a bad performance; they are all serviceable at the very least, and it helps that, one, their characters are all very vivid and well-written, and two, that the three actors have fantastic chemistry with each other. Basically, they all have a lot of personality, and that compensates for some of the weaknesses in the acting. For instance, I love how, when Luke bursts into Leia’s cell disguised in armor, her reaction – while expecting her imminent execution – is to cock a hand on her hip and sneer at his height. Desperate though her position is, she retains her every inch of her poise. This is not just entertaining, but good character writing: she’s a princess, and so has considerable natural authority. We’ll…come back to that issue in a later entry.

I also really like the bit where Han shoots Greeto the alien gangster, preceding it with a sarcastic, though vitriolic quip (yes, upon revisiting the scene, I have to say having Han shoot first is necessary for the scene). Again, it establishes that he is a rather dark character at this point: he lives among people who stab each other in the back at the first opportunity, and he’s perfectly willing to stab them before they can stab him. This stands in stark contrast to the Rebellion characters, who willingly risk their lives for each other and their cause. Again, the scene works on a surface level of establishing that Han is deep in debt and all-but desperate, as well as being a somewhat shady, dangerous character in his own right, though not to the point that we can’t sympathize with him (no one’s going to cry for Greeto), but when you think about it it also provides insights into the motivations and progression of the characters. Again, the film works fine on a surface level, but gains strength from closer scrutiny.

Another thing that stood out to me was just how grounded the world felt, despite the fantastic technology. Surfaces are grimy, dented, and covered in dust. The environments are often dimly lit and full of miscellaneous, but purposeful dressing. There’s realistic-sounding military chatter coming over the soundtrack in the Death Star, and later on the rebel base. The world of the film feels real, even when it doesn’t necessarily look real. Little details like the Stormtroopers chattering with each other, or a pair of low-life aliens having an unintelligible, yet obviously heated discussion in the corner of the cantina, contribute to making this feel like an actual world, where things are going on outside of the view of the camera.

Then, of course, there’s the whole matter of the Force, which is the final element that ties it all together. I won’t go into the question of what is the Force: part of the strength of the film is that it leaves the matter vague. What matters, to my mind, is that there is an element of magic and mysticism in this technologically-driven space adventure, and with it almost an element of religion. This gives the whole story and the actions of the characters greater weight than they would in a straight sci-fi space opera. Their choices don’t just matter with regards to the events of the world, but matter in a larger, more fundamental sense, and doing things one way or another can have unexpected consequences based on their essential moral nature.

On this viewing, I also noticed a few more flaws: the editing is sometimes kinda choppy, with overly-quick scenes and transitions that don’t quite match up. The effects, even absent the special edition upgrade, have aged extremely well; I especially love the model work on the ships, and of course the crazy creativity in all the aliens and robots that fill out the screen in the first act. As others have commented, the final assault on the Death Star goes on a little long, though I don’t really mind that because it both serves to ramp up the tension and because the organization and plan of the assault actually plays out like a legitimate military operation. For me, the biggest problem with the sequence is that it’s about here that the film’s effects budget starts to run out. It still looks pretty good, all things considered, but they’re obviously struggling to work with what they have, and there are some very awkward edits, while Darth Vader’s fighter in particular doesn’t sit well in the scene. Though I don’t suppose anyone really cares because the storytelling in the climax, with Luke hearing Ben’s voice, turning off his computer, and Han joining the battle at the last minute, is just so strong.

Of course, I’m not saying anything a thousand other people haven’t said over the past forty years. Star Wars is one of those movies that just flat-out works on almost every level, for almost every audience. A full description of its virtues would fill a whole book (and I’m sure has on many occasions). Even viewed independently of what came after, it’s just a really, really good film.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Clown

Frank Catelli sat in his car, watching the children play. He had a newspaper on his lap, but wasn’t reading it. It was only for show, in case someone came up and asked what he was doing. Always best to provide yourself with an innocent excuse for anything you’re doing. In the same way, his final meeting with Nora Eckhart had taken place at the circus, in a crowd of people, almost right under the noses of her employers. In a crowd, no one looked at you twice. And there was no harm in going to the circus.

Frank watched little George Reiner as he played on the slide and smiled a cruel smile.

Enjoy it while you can, kid, he thought. Next few days aren’t gonna be as much fun.

That was the worst part of his job; having to hear the kids cry over the two or three days until their parents decided to pay up. He couldn’t stand the whining. That’s why he always tried to use a place that had a good, strong closet or something, where he could lock the kid up and leave him without worrying that he’d figure a way out and from where he couldn’t hear the screams. He’d gotten a good one this time; an old cottage off in the woods where no one would ever think to go and that had a root cellar with a heavy wooden door. Three or four days of peace and quiet, and a fat pay off at the end of it. He really did have the perfect job.

All that was remaining now was for him to signal Eckhart the nanny, who would then lead little Georgie over to the car, and before the kid knew what was happening, they’d be on their way. He just needed to wait for the right moment, when the other people in the park weren’t paying attention. Wouldn’t be long now; the only other kid was being gathered up by his mother and led away. As soon as they were out of sight…

Frank cursed aloud. A clown in full regalia, big floppy shoes, oversized pants, and an electric blue wig had come waddling into the park dragging a brightly-colored cart full of balloons, popcorn, and other treats. And he was heading right for little George.

Nora Eckhart glanced around. Frank shook his head slightly to indicate she should wait.

The clown, meanwhile, was waving at George, his colorful face seemingly one enormous grin.

“Hi, there!” he said.

George stopped his play, hovering by the monkey bars indecisively. The bright colors and friendly demeanor of the clown interested him, but he was cautious as well.

“Hello,” the boy answered.

“Would you like a nice balloon? Or some popcorn?”

George nodded, but didn’t move.

“My dad says I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”

“And very right of your father!” said the clown in a serious tone. “You certainly should not! So, my name is Cosmo, and this…” he suddenly produced a large hand puppet of a chicken with a top hat and monocle. “Is Lord Cluckington.”

George Reiner laughed in delight at the sight of the puppet. Already, Frank could tell, the clown was getting past his defenses.

“And your name is Georgie Reiner,” the clown went on. “There! Now we’re not strangers anymore!”

“I guess not!” said the boy.

“That’s good, because Lord Cluckington doesn’t talk to strangers either. But maybe he’ll talk to you, if you’re polite to him. Go ahead! Say ‘hello.’”

“Hello, Lord Cluckington,” said Georgie.

“Good-day, to you, young man,” the clown answered in a faux-dignified voice. His ventriloquy, Frank had to admit, was very good. The puppet bowed, and the boy laughed with delight. “It is rare,” the clown went on in the puppet’s voice. “That I should meet such a distinguished and obviously noble child such as yourself. I must apologize for the uncouth manners of my associate.”

“Oh, now!” Cosmo said. “I think that’s going a bit far!”

“I will not lower myself to discuss the matter with you, beyond saying ‘bawk, bawk,’ sir.”

Georgie giggled. Cosmo cast him an apologetic look.

“It isn’t easy living with the rich and famous,” he sighed.

“My daddy’s rich too!” Georgie said.

“Oh?” said the puppet with interest. “Does he possess many grain silos?”

“No,” said Georgie. “He’s in business.”

“Oh, I see,” said the puppet in a politely disappointed ton. “Well, I suppose that is a very worthy calling as well. You don’t happen to have any grain on you, do you?”

Georgie shook his head.

“I have some popcorn, my lord,” said Cosmo. “Would you like to share some with Georgie?”

“Share? I am far above sharing, my good fellow. Bagawk. However, I may make an exception in this case.”

Cosmo produced a bag of popcorn and Georgie eagerly took some of the salty treat, then handed a few to the puppet.

“Much obliged, sir,” said the puppet as it feigned pecking at the corn. He made sounds as though satisfied. “Hm, that is quite enough for me. I am dining with the ambassador of Estonia later. Perhaps you would care to finish the rest?”

Georgie was, of course, only too happy to accept, and Cosmo the clown, with his absurd puppet, said their goodbyes and left the boy happily munching his popcorn on the park bench while he took his cart elsewhere. Nora looked back again, and Frank motioned for her to wait a moment.

“Give him a minute to leave,” Frank muttered. “Then we take him…”

“Hi, there!”

Frank swore as the clown’s painted face suddenly popped up at his window, chicken puppet and all.

“I know you!” said Cosmo the clown, pointing at him with an exaggerated look of excitement. “You were at the circus the other day!”

Frank did a double take. At the circus he had been preoccupied with his job and hadn’t paid much attention to the acts, but now he realized that this particular clown had been there and had performed. Or at least, someone wearing similar makeup.

“Yeah,” he said, feigning a smile. “Great show.”

“The greatest show on Earth!” said Cosmo much too loudly.

“Right. Look, pal, do you mind? I’m kind of busy right now.” He indicated the newspaper.

“Oh, I know!” said the clown with exaggerated concern. “You have been so very, very busy these past few days. Not only fixing up that cottage that no one knows about, but renting this car, paying off Miss Eckhart, and carefully mapping out little Georgie Reiner’s routine. You must be exhausted.”

Frank stared at him. His hand moved to his holster, but he didn’t draw. The smiling face of the clown – the clown that had just accurately described everything he’d been doing to prepare for this job – seemed to hypnotize him.

“But, of course, this is just what you do, isn’t it?” Cosmo went on cheerily. “You kidnap children and hold them for ransom! You don’t care that it scares them; you don’t care if they get hurt. You don’t care about them at all, except that they can get you money.”

“Look,” said Frank. “Just how the hell do you know all this?”

“I am Cosmo!” said the clown with a parody of a stage magician. “I know all!”

“Yeah? You know what this means?” Frank drew his pistol and pointed it at him. “It means beat it and keep your painted mouth shut, clown, or you’ll end up in a body bag.”

Cosmo clapped a hand to his mouth, laughing as though he’d never seen anything so hilarious in his life.

“You think that’s funny?” Frank asked. This clown was clearly off his rocker.

“Well, no, not too funny,” said Cosmo, chuckling. “But Lord Cluckington here, he just thinks it’s a riot!”

The chicken puppet said nothing. Frank stared. Nothing in all his years of experience had prepared him for this.

“Now, Mr. Frank Catelli,” Cosmo the clown said. “That is your name, right?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Well, the reason I stopped by is that Lord Cluckington really, really wanted to meet you. So, without further adieu….Lord Cluckington, may I present Frank Catelli, sometimes known as Frank Carlyle, sometimes by a host of other names. He is a professional kidnapper of children and he’s planning to kidnap little Georgie Reiner.”

Lord Cluckington considered Frank, then leaned in to whisper in Cosmo’s ear. Frank wasn’t sure whether he should shoot or not; a murder might spoil the whole job, but this clown…

“Oh, you already knew that?” said Cosmo, speaking to his puppet. “Because you saw him? Because we both saw him making these preparations?”

“What are you talking about?” Frank snapped.

“Cosmo the magnificent excels in all the arts of the clown,” he said with a solemn air. “Tumbling, fumbling, bumbling, juggling, but my favorite is impersonations. Specialties include passing drunks, window washers, janitors at car rental establishments, and realtors who happen to have perfect kidnapping cabins!”

Frank stared, then squinted at his face. It was almost impossible to tell under the makeup, but now that he mentioned it, he could just see the slightest resemblance between this clown and the man who had rented him that cottage.

“So, Lord Cluckington,” Cosmo went on. “Since we’ve seen Mr. Cateli at all these tasks, and heard him make all those very incriminating statements, what do you suppose we should do about it?”

Again, the puppet was made to whisper in his ear, and the clown adopted a look of mock solemnity.

“Lord Cluckington says we should eat your soul,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “But I think we ought to just inform the police. What do you think?”

Frank looked from the clown to the puppet, then lowered his gun and laughed. The job was ruined now, of course, but damn if the clown didn’t know his business. The image of ‘Cosmo’ marching into the police station to swear out a statement against him, corroborated by Lord Cluckington, was hilarious.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll listen to the likes of you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t tell them,” said Cosmo. “Lord Cluckington would! He is a very respected person, as you must know. The police will believe everything he says.”

“I just bet they will,” laughed Frank.

Lord Cluckington opened his beak, and a perfect recording of Frank repeated, “I just bet they will.”

For a moment, Frank Catelli froze. He slowly realized just what his position had become. He raised the gun, but Cosmo was too quick. Lord Cluckington shot forward and hit him full in the face. The puppet, as it turned out, didn’t only have a recording device, but also a metal frame.

When Frank Catelli came to, it was to the sight of flashing red and blue lights, his own hands tied to the wheel. Little Georgie was in the arms of his mother, who was talking to the police. Nora Eckhart was already in the back of a squad car, looking dazed. And right in front of him, two detectives were looking over a pile of documents and tapes that appeared to have been left on the hood of his car in a brightly wrapped package.