Classic Review: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A thrilling, angsty finale for a classic trilogy, with the best effects and the best music, to boot.

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

Review:  Starting with the gleeful innocence and spectacle of ‘Star Wars’, going to the troubling middle chapter of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and now into the dark, unexpected finale of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy cemented the legacy of George Lucas in modern film.  The blockbuster and the summer tentpole were now the economic foundations of the film industry.

Before ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, there were high expectations as to how Lucas could possibly wrap up the Trilogy.  After it was released, though it was still highly regarded and was a box office smash, there was some disappointment in the content, with some believing that the spirit of the mature middle chapter had been compromised and that Lucas was pandering to kids.  The reason being the Ewoks, a race of teddy-bear-like aliens, who manage to overwhelm Imperial forces on their home moon.  I find it ironic that this is considered a betrayal, after all, ‘Star Wars’ was intended to be escapist adventure.  There isn’t anything inconsistent in having something that seems ridiculous, as long as it follows the film’s internal logic, which it does.

The film does, in fact, take the darker nature of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and continue it, while keeping the spirit balanced.  The film opens with all of the heroes in deep trouble, and keeps that tone all the way to the end.  The Empire, in essence, continues to strike back.

The good guys head to the planet Tatooine, hoping to free Han Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt.  All of them fail, including, most famously, Princess Leia, who finds herself forced to become what is essentially a sex slave for Jabba, clad in only a gold bikini.  As revolting and seemingly unnecessary as this is, it does make the ultimate triumph of the heroes over Jabba seem more glorious.  Ironically, Jabba is strangled to death by Leia, using the very chains he used to control her.  The sexual aspects of this whole sequence are not particularly explicit, and it never leaves PG territory.

The Force, it seemed at the time, was fully elaborated on in this film.  The nature of the Light versus the Dark is now shown before us in the ultimate struggle, as Luke is tempted by the Emperor.  Where the real struggle lies, however, is in Darth Vader.  He is the Anti-Hero.  In my interpretation of the final conflict, Luke allows the Emperor to attack him directly, goading him, which triggers the latent hero in Vader.  This seems to make sense, but don’t take it as the definitive explanation.

Also of note is Luke’s dark wardrobe.  The implication seems to be that, although he is now a Jedi Knight, due to the revelation of his father’s identity he has unleashed a dark part of himself.  Aesthetically, it makes Luke appear more mature than the previous films.  Not only is he a Jedi Knight, he is a full-fledged hero, no longer in Han Solo’s shadow.

Dualism is the primary philosophy behind the Force.  Here, though, the Dark Side seems questioned; it is not as strong as Light, it merely thinks it is.  The Emperor claims the whole final battle, allowing the Rebellion to know the way to knock out the new Darth Star, is part of his plan.  This seems to be a defensive reaction to his own failure.  So what is Lucas saying here?  Is the Dark merely under the impression that it is stronger, or is it undone only by human error?  We are never told.

The artistic merits of the film seem the strongest of the Trilogy.  The music is in top form, with fully developed cues, and a new theme for the Emperor to distinguish him from Darth Vader.  The visual effects take us places we’ve never been before.  The battle around and inside the Death Star is no longer depicted with mere trenches, but with super-massive inner workings.  The lightsabers are crisp, and the resonant sound effects make Luke’s lightsaber a reflection of his own maturity.  Ewoks run at the feet of convincingly composited machines, and the sail barges on Tatooine are natural.

Performance wise, Mark Hamill comes out of the gate with his strongest portrayal of Luke.  Now that young Skywalker is a complete hero, it gives the actor playing him a chance to shine.  Ian McDiarmid, who plays the Emperor, was only in his 30s at the time, but you wouldn’t know it.

A rollicking good time with an angsty soul, this is my personal favorite of the Trilogy and the one that is the most unfairly derided, in my view.

Not-So-Classic Review: Batman Returns

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★1/2☆☆

Ironically, Batman is literally on top here, but in the film itself...

Ironically, Batman is literally on top here, but in the film itself...

Let’s be fair here, Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ wasn’t a great movie, but it was at least an entertaining one.  You felt good when you finished watching it—or at least I did.  Coming off of that movie, I decided to check out Tim Burton’s ‘Batman Returns’, believing that it would be like the first movie: Not great but at least entertaining.  I was wrong on that second part.

The movie again sets us in the gothic metropolis of Gotham City.  However, it looks and feels vastly different from the first movie.  Evidently, all of the previous sets and even the matinee paintings had been scrapped, and we are introduced to a redesigned Gotham that looks nothing like the old one.  This is a rather disappointing aspect, as it takes away all sense of familiarity.  Also, the entire film takes place during the Christmas season, so everything is drizzled in wet, cold snow. Why do I say all of this now?  Because this sense of unfamiliarity and, frankly, depression that we get from the Gotham landscape sets the tone remarkably well for the rest of the movie.

We are again introduced to Batman, played again by Michael Keaton.  Evidently, his relationship with Vicky Vale didn’t last and he is again the lone (and single) guardian of the city.  On the villain’s side, we have three, well two and a half at least: The Penguin, The Catwoman, and a greedy industrialist named Max Schreck.  The Penguin (Danny DeVito), we learn is in fact a deformed and oddly carnivorous child (one of his first actions out of birth is to eat the family cat) who was dumped into the sewer by his seemingly un-loving parents.  Don’t worry though; he was raised by a group of lost penguins that live in the sewer, before joining the circus and returning as the leader of a gang of homicidal clowns.  Wow.  That really sounds as ridiculous as I thought it did.  Yes, Tim Burton took a substantial amount of liberty here on the character of the Penguin.  Originally in the comics, he was just a rather stout yet intelligent businessman, named more for his suit than anything else.  Unfortunately, Burton seems to live in a world inhabited by problem children, so he had to “re-invent” the character (although corrupt might be more fitting).  Max Schreck played by Christopher Walken is a self-centered businessman with many skeletons in his closet.  He eventually comes into contact with the Penguin and works as a sort of partner with him, often influencing the Penguin’s actions for the worst.  Lastly there is Catwoman (Michelle Pfeifer).  Again, Tim Burton was weird here.  Catwoman is created when Schreck pushes his secretary, Selina Kyle, suspicious of his activities, out a multi-story, falling to what we believe is her death.  But is she dead?  It doesn’t matter, because a group of rogue cats come by, repeatedly biting her, and our secretary is resurrected as a Catwoman, but not before she destroys everything in her apartment to purge herself of—something (?).  Out for revenge and thrills, Catwoman trades sides to her liking in the conflict between Batman and the Penguin.

If you don’t like the way the characters are introduced, you’re not going to like the story.  The Penguin manifests himself to the people of Gotham as a rejected misfit and gains enough popular sentiment to run for mayor.  The movie portrays him as incredibly conflicted as he struggles between the desire for power and crime (with support from Shreck), and the idea of being a legitimately good person.  To his credit, though not up to par with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, DeVito’s performance is a good one and shows a lot of enthusiasm for the character, especially under heavy make-up.  Meanwhile, Batman struggles to combat this potential threat along with romancing Selina Kyle, not knowing that she is the Catwoman.  This sounds like a decent enough plot, but it’s all very muddled and confusing.  The acting is good, but its simply not compelling enough.  Michael Keaton’s performance is up to par, but he doesn’t have enough lines.  Michelle Pfiefer is interesting as Catwoman, but she tends to overact.  Even Christopher Walken has too bland a character to really shine.  What further compromises the story is the level of bizarreness in this movie, and it’s not just limited to the nature of the characters themselves.  For example, there is a scene where the Penguin gives a Patton-Style speech to an army of penguins with rocket launchers on their back, and the filmmakers treat it seriously.  I’m sorry, but no—that is unacceptable.  At times, it doesn’t even really feel like this movie is about Batman.  It feels more about the Penguin.  Unfortunately this undermines his role as a villain to an unnecessary degree, and it ultimately doesn’t feel natural.  The ending though is the killing blow for this plot.  A general rule about superhero movies is that somehow, even if the hero loses, they manages to do something or cause something that allows them to win at least in spirit.  ‘Batman Returns’ manages to do just the opposite.  Even though he has managed to beat all of the villains in this movie and save Gotham, our hero finds himself depressed and challenged at then end, and the audience feels that he has truly lost.  Batman, by essence, is a symbol of hope, and this movie denies us the ability to experience that.

The other aspects of the movie go the way of the plot.  The sets and setup are interesting to look at but end up coming across as too melancholy.  I don’t like movies that take place during Christmas that aren’t about Christmas (Okay, just ‘Die Hard’).  But somehow, when Christmas serves as a backdrop, it is often distracting or, worse, depressing.  Danny Elfman’s score, which was so lively and powerful in Batman, has been reduced to depression and sadness in this movie, and despite a few interesting “diddies” here and there, is overall weak and unfulfilling.

In short, ‘Batman Returns’ represents the problem with giving someone like Tim Burton too much creative freedom.  Burton must have been dissatisfied with ‘Batman’, and in the sequel he just tried to do too many things too differently.  To his credit, the story is interesting, but it simply isn’t handled well in the context of this movie.  Perhaps it would have worked better if this movie were not a Batman film.  Had he made a cult-gothic thriller about the plight of a deformed-man in a city of crime, this movie may have turned out better.  But as a Batman movie, it’s just a disappointment.

Know1ng

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  A divisive but effective, philosophical thriller.

Review: So I pretty much geeked out over this movie when I first saw it. I’ve mellowed since then, and gotten control of my mind, so perhaps I can reflect more effectively on the ‘Knowing’ experience.  Director Alex Proyas has constructed a very effective philosophical thriller, but you have to be the kind of person (open to the concept of wonder, which is rare these days) that can take it in.

Like his previous films, Proyas gives ‘Knowing’ a really distinct atmosphere that sticks with you.  The man-on-the-ground perspective gives the intense, apocalyptic imagery a poignancy that big, dumb disaster movies can’t touch.  The disaster sequences are elemental, focusing on fire, dust, darkness and light, respectively.  Since it was shot on digital, it has an eerie, documentary feel.  The story is divisive because it doesn’t try to justify its supernatural elements.  They’re simply present, and confusing, and at once terrifying and comforting.  This is much like real world religions.  Every one of them has fear and love mixed together down to the core, and it indeed takes faith to turn confusion into catharsis.  Due to the rise of scientism, faith is considered childish and unevolved, and its hard to apply it even to fiction.  Its a sad thing, because faith is a crucial component of imagination.

The performances at the heart of the film are very strong.  Nicolas Cage is an underrated, oft-derided actor, and he carries the emotional burden of his character very well.  The supporting cast is good, especially the child actors, whose characters seem to be the only ones at relative ease with the impending doom of the world.

‘Knowing’ is proof that Alex Proyas isn’t out of ideas nor has he lost the ability to realize them.  I look forward to his next dream.

Classic Review: The Truman Show

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A true modern classic, delving deep into philosophy while not compromising its broad appeal.

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Review:  Wait.  ‘The Truman Show’.  Classic?  It’s only 11 years old!  It’s not as famous as films from the same decade, like ‘Jurrasic Park’ and ‘The Matrix’!

Yeah, that’s right.  I just read your mind.

Well, not really.  ‘The Truman Show’, directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey in a role that took him from strictly comedy to dynamic drama, came out in 1998 and was the 11th highest grossing film of the year.  I remember going to see the film in theaters, while my brother went to go see Roland Emmerich’s ‘Godzilla’ (which I still hold to be a fun B-movie).  I didn’t get the philosophical backbone of the story at the time, but looking back on it, I realize it is very rich.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi drama about a man, Truman Burbank, whose entire life is faked.  He lives inside the world’s largest structure, a dome containing an island and a faux ocean.  The first child legally adopted by a corporation, he is being viewed, unawares, by an audience of millions on television.  Christof, the creator of the show, fancies himself Truman’s caretaker and a true artist, but some disagree.  Conscientious people are constantly trying to break in and warn Truman that his life isn’t what it seems.

The story is very close to the philosopher Plato’s allegory of ‘The Cave’, which I’ll let you look up on your own.  The idea being that Truman, once he discovers that his world is a fake, cannot go back.  He has to get free.  Since everybody around him in the dome is an actor, he starts breaking his daily routine to throw them off.  He erratic behavior is especially affecting to his “wife”, who ends up breaking character in front of him in a moment of desperation.  Carrey’s performance, as he goes from happy, to discontented, to dangerous and rebellious, is utterly convincing.  Equally convincing is Christof, played by Ed Harris, who shows us a man so obsessed with his work that he fancies himself a god.

So far I haven’t mentioned why this is a classic.  Obviously, it just hasn’t been long enough- and isn’t popular enough -to be considered universally a classic film.  Some do, however, citing it as “prophetic” of the coming of reality television in the 2000s.  I would agree.  It is an excellent, excellent movie, both funny and heartwrenching, with an excellent score to boot.  The visual effects seem a little subpar, especially in contrast to the following year’s hit ‘The Matrix’, but they are adequate.

‘The Truman Show’ is dystopian, in that it shows us just how far we can take our entertainment.  When we treat people as objects, who knows what lengths we will take to ensure perfect entertainment.  The motivation for trapping a human being in the dome is a desire for genuineness.  Truman, Christof explains, lives in a fake world, but his every feeling is real.  Christof seems convinced that he has the right to give Truman life or take it away, for  the sake of the show.  Truman is an object to him.  From Truman’s point of view, freedom is the ability to take control of his own life and to live from his heart.  The film illustrates why the doctrine of free will is so instinctual; we have to be in control of our own lives, whether in the end we are good or evil.  Determinism threatens this, and makes human desire seem irrelevant.  If desire is irrelevant, then so is creativity, exploration, love.  All that makes us human is stripped away.  Truman made the decision to be free from the shadow world (look at ‘The Cave’, please), and in doing so preserved his freedom.  He had only an illusion of freedom previously, but since he was enlightened, he couldn’t turn back.  It is established that he has a crippling fear of water early on in the film, and as he approaches the film’s climax, he overcomes it and takes a boat out on the faux sea.  His humanity gave him the strength to overcome his fear.

Most definitely a 4 star film.  I heartily suggest you rent it, or buy it.  Take a good, long look at ‘The Truman Show’.

Elements of the Screen: The Art of the Antagonist

Hey dear readers, a new entry in ‘Elements’ is here, where I do my darnedest to make the archetype of the Villain crystal clear.  You can find it here:  https://thesilvermirror.wordpress.com/the-art-of-the-antagonist

Please do remember to comment.  We appreciate your feedback.

Now if I can only get Patrick to post an article for ‘Elements’…

Classic Review: Batman (1989)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★1/2☆


Review:  Let’s take a brief look at the Batman saga leading up to the 1989 Batman movie.  The character had first introduced in the 1930’s in Detective Comics, and was revolutionary for its time.  Drawing influence from horror movies and classic myths like Zorro, creator Bob Kane created the prototypical “dark” superhero (characters like Spawn and The Darkness owe much to Batman) and a pop culture phenomenon that still is thriving today.  Kids of the 1930’s must have been thrilled to read of the exploits of famed billionaire Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, then known as the Bat-Man, in all of its action, grit, and surprising depth-of-story.  Unfortunately, starting in the 1940’s, the character of Batman was softened up to become more kid-friendly, especially with the inclusion of Robin.  This softening reached its apex in the 1960’s with the infamous Adam West Batman television show (de ne nu nu nu nu nu nu Batman!).  This series was drenched in camp and comic value, and little of the darkness and complexity that had originally permeated the character remained.  However, beginning in the 1970’s, a movement grew amongst comic book writers to return Batman back to his darker origins.  Most notable of these efforts was the fabled 1986 miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, considered to be a masterpiece among graphic novels. Following up on this renewed interest in a darker Batman, Warner Brothers commissioned the making of a feature length Batman movie, and dark visionary Tim Burton was put at the helm.  What we get is one of the most interesting and yet oddly flawed interpretations of Batman.

The plot in Batman is interesting in the sense that, unlike many superhero movies, this one really is not an origin story.  We are introduced to Batman (Michael Keaton) on a dark, drizzly night in Gotham City, terrorizing two crooks.  It is almost surprising about how liberal this approach is. In fact, an important and unique message of the movie is revealed in one of Batman’s first lines.  Holding a terrified criminal over the edge of a building, he simply says, “I’m Batman,” before disappearing into the night.  Take note of this, because what Burton will show us is a Batman who has virtually no conflict.  He has already decided before the movie what he will be, leaving the audience to miss out on the fun it must have been to see the character make this choice.  In this movie, Batman is dark, violent, and resolute; we the audience must simply take it from there.

What else of the plot?  The rest of the movie is spent showing Batman battling the nefarious Joker (Jack Nicholson).  In fact, this movie almost feels more about the rise and fall of the Joker than Batman.  He is actually given a back-story—we see him change from common criminal to clown prince of crime.  That said, there is nothing particularly special for most of the movie, as it boils down to our hero foiling various plans—sometimes-silly ones– by the Joker to “…run this city into the ground.”  Apart from a small plot twist at the end though, it is pretty average, albeit entertaining.  There is also a sub-plot, some semblance of one anyway.  Bruce Wayne begins dating a reporter named Vicky Vale, who is very interested in discovering the identity of the Batman.  Soon however, Bruce Wayne finds he can’t balance love and crime fighting.  However he really isn’t given the choice of giving up the Batman role—sure there are a few scenes of him debating whether or not to tell Vicky about his alter ego, but one of the beauties of Batman is why he chooses to do these things and if he really should.  Burton’s movie simply doesn’t deliver on that.

It is a shame that the story was simply sub-par.  Not that the audience needs a complex story, but Batman does.  A character as intricate and dark as him deserves to have a story of the same caliber.  What Burton gives us is the darkness, but never really the intricacy.  It’s also a shame because the acting in this movie is exceptionally good.  Michael Keaton gives a great performance as Batman despite him being an odd choice for the part.  The former comic captures a more powerful and mysterious portrait of Batman, an obvious contrast to Adam West’s silly version.  Jack Nicholson as the Joker is equally impressive, delivering a mixture of psychotic violence and corny gags.  Even Kim Basinger gives a surprisingly good performance as Vicky Vale.  All of these actors are great at showing that their characters are suppressing motion, that all of them are hiding thoughts and feelings that would normally be released at a great emotional climax.  Unfortunately, Tim Burton gives us no such emotional climax here either, and all that acting, especially from Keaton and Basinger goes to waste for the most part.

Despite the plot, this movie more than excels in other areas.  Burton’s dark visionary style led to what were then the most elaborate and gothic sets ever created.  He succeeds very much in making Gotham City a sinister and dirty place, very well representing the crime that takes place there.  Combined with detailed miniature models and well-done matinee paintings, Burton succeeds in making the city a real and living, if also creepy, place.  Also of note are the Batmobile and Batwing vehicles, both of which are highly stylized and fun to watch in action during the film.

Perhaps most worthy of note though is Danny Elfman’s score.  Building on dark themes and classic orchestration, Elfman creates a powerful and evil sort of music, one that can invigorate just as easily as it can scare, perfectly fitting the character it describes.  However, it is somewhat compromised by the inclusion of not one but two Prince songs, I suppose as some sort of marketing tie-in.  They both suck, and I would do your best to ignore them.
So what are my final thoughts on Batman?  It represents the triumph of style over substance, image over quality.  It’s a fun movie to look at, and its entertaining as a popcorn movie, but Batman is a character who is capable of so much more, and it wouldn’t be for about another fifteen years before the Batman character was featured in a movie deserving of his complexity.  That said, this film does deserve credit for many things.  It at least ends the right way, with Batman as a symbol of hope for Gotham, something I can’t say about all subsequent Batman movies.  It is also responsible for re-igniting mainstream interest in Batman, and subsequent triumphs like Batman: the Animated Series would not have existed if not for this movie.  Also, I think that it serves well as a stepping-stone between the campy Batman of the 1960’s and the truly gritty Batman of today.  Indeed, even the Christopher Nolan films owe something to the original Burton film.

In short, Batman is what can be called a flawed masterpiece, full of its own errors, and yet having an overall positive effect on the hero it portrayed.  It’s worth a watch, but it won’t fully get you your Batman fix.

Classic Review: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)

Stars:  ***1/2 out Four

Summary:  A darker mythic adventure that raised ‘Star Wars’ from pulp to legend, excellent writing and talent abounds as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

If you werent thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

If you weren't thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

Review:  After the unexpected success of ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas immediately put into development his first sequel, which he had planned out before ‘Star Wars’ was released.  Lucas again took a gamble with the audience, hoping they would stomach a darker sequel.

It worked.

Rather than trying to create a story that replicated the successful elements of the first film, the filmmakers pushed the story forward into a dark middle chapter.  The heroes weren’t going to triumph as absolutely as they had in ‘Star Wars’.  Unlike most sequels, where the same premise returns with thinner characters, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, by necessity, focused on the inner struggles and philosophies of each principal character.  Luke found out it wasn’t easy to defeat the Galactic Empire, and that the Dark Side of the Force was much closer to him than he realized.  Han and Leia’s relationship began to thaw, and they realized they were improbably in love.  Darth Vader would turn things personal, obsessed with finding Luke and turning him to evil.  There wasn’t a single, clear obstacle to surmount, no Death Star to destroy.

While it is undeniable that the fun, Flash Gordon-esque elements of the previous film are still there, the ‘Star Wars’ franchise had suddenly taken a turn into serious myth.  ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is not just a second act in a three-act narrative, it is a tragedy.  It has a downbeat ending, though not devoid of triumph.  Luke emerges from his battle with Darth Vader victorious in spite of seeming defeat, due to his refusal of Vader’s offer to rule the Empire.  Though Han is frozen in carbonite and taken by a bounty hunter with the Empire’s blessing, Leia still has the assurance she can find him again, alive.  Even for Darth Vader there is hope; famously, he reveals in his combat with Luke that he is the boy’s father, Anakin Skywalker.  This is what established him as the most famous film villain of all time.  He was now a tragic figure, and not just a dark sorcerer with no past and no future.  The audience is left wondering, if Anakin was turned to evil, can he be turned back?

The nature of the Force is truly explored for the first time, on the planet Degobah with the help of an old Jedi named Yoda (Played by Frank Oz).  Basically a glorified Muppet, with the limitations thereof.  This little guy doesn’t just inherit the role of Ben Kenobi from the first film; he has a very different approach.  Yoda helps Luke confront his own dark side, and even before we know that Darth Vader is Anakin, we know that Luke is in danger of becoming like him.  The Force is a murky spirituality indeed, so it is hard to say much about it other than, well, negative emotions lead to negative results and positive emotions lead to positive results.  In real life, though, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp that emotions are neither positive nor negative.  Hate, said to be a negative emotion by Yoda, can be a good thing.  Let’s say I hate slavery, or murder.  Then my hate is supporting my love of humanity, and is obviously not negative.  So even though it “works” in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the Force is far too simplistic.  To me, this just reinforces the fantasy aspect; it’s like applying rules to King Arthur’s sword and scabbard.  It works in the story as a spiritual thing, but it doesn’t have any bearing on real life.  Also, considering Lucas’ other works, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, it would seem he doesn’t believe every word of the Force dogma anyway.

Once again, the film was a technical triumph.  The effects were slightly improved, as ILM figured out what the limitations were of their methods, and if their methods needed to be retooled all together.  The lightsabers are a good example; in ‘Star Wars’, they tried blending luminescent sticks with animated beams, which made the effect inconsistent.  Here, they ditched the luminescent rods and went the solely animated route.  It worked much better, and let the choreography loosen up quite a bit during the fight scenes.

John Williams’ music took on a new flavor, becoming much more the ‘Star Wars’ sound we are familiar with, especially due to the Imperial March, which stole the show.  There’s not a whole lot to say about it, really, only that it was excellent as always.

Overall, I like this film less than ‘Star Wars’.  I do appreciate the direction Lucas took the series with ‘Empire’, but on its own merits ‘Star Wars’ is slightly better.  But only slightly!  This is widely considered the best of the series, though, and if you’ve only seen the others in the series, you have to give this one its time of day.

Classic Review: Star Wars (Episode IV)

Stars:  ***1/2 out of Four

Summary:  With a simple but mythic story to tell, ‘Star Wars’ continues to captivate audiences and deliver an authentically adventurous cinematic experience.

Only half this poster is true.  Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Only half this poster is true. Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Review:  In the 1930s and 40s, people often flocked to theaters to experience the thrilling exploits of heroes such as Zorro and Flash Gordon, in an action-driven form of film known as the serial.  Serials are what they imply; episodic sections of a story, in this case usually about 20-30 minutes long, ending in a “cliffhanger” that sets up audience expectation for the next chapter.  These were shown before the main picture.  They focused on plot, action, and suspense, and were often done with stock footage and dismally small budgets.

People like George Lucas grew up watching Flash Gordon’s matinee adventures, though he was not around for their initial theatrical run, and they left an indelible impression on him.  When he started rising as a filmmaker, he tried to purchase the rights to film a ‘Flash Gordon’ feature length adaption, but he couldn’t.  Instead, he invented his own, and after taking many forms it became the modern classic ‘Star Wars’.

Unlike the more serious and grounded bent of science fiction in the late 1960s, ‘Star Wars’ was to be a throwback to the serials, with a mythic heart.  It is, more appropriately, fantasy than science.  As his later character Indiana Jones was prone to do, George made it up as he went along, inventing and reinventing methods of filmmaking, making flashy special effects henceforth connected to what became known as the blockbuster.  Along with his friend Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’, this film defined the summer movie and the idea that wide release was the best possible way to rake in the cash.  George wisely mixed high adventure with deep mythic tradition, using Jungian archetypes and ideas drawn from Greek theater.  That’s not to say that ‘Star Wars’ is strictly a game for the intellectual, it has a much broader appeal than that, catering especially to the youth market, causing impressions much like Flash Gordon had on young Lucas.

The film opens with a device that nearly all of the serials used; concise, dramatic text, framing the action that was to come.  Unlike its inevitable imitators, ‘Star Wars’ uses a very simple structure for its famous opening crawl, and doesn’t dump information on the audience.  After the yellow text vanishes into the starry background, we already know there are an EMPIRE, DARTH VADER, a DEATH STAR, a PRINCESS and a REBELLION.  Each word, though not completely telling, reveals enough to get us interested.

After this, we take in the battle between two spaceships, an Imperial Star Destroyer and a Rebel Blockade Runner.  The superior firepower of the Star Destroyer quickly overtakes its prey, and we quickly sympathize with the Rebels on board the captured vessel as they are stormed by, well, Stormtroopers.  The Evil Galactic Empire draws heavily from serial villains, which incidentally drew heavy inspiration from Nazi Germany.  The Nazis were a threat everybody could hate, and so everybody modeled their bad guys after the fascists.  The main villain, Darth Vader, with his black helmet and mask, evokes both the vampiric horror films of the serials’ era and the Nazi soldiers’ helmet designs.  With a baritone voice provided by the legendary James Earl Jones, Darth Vader is just about the most classic villain ever created.  It’s proof that execution, not concept, is key, as the serials had their own Darth Vaders, but none were anywhere near this guy’s level.

Despite all my glowing praise and desire to pick apart this beloved film scene-by-scene, I should look at this concisely and objectively.  Let’s be honest: ‘Star Wars’ isn’t Shakespeare.  It doesn’t try to be terribly clever, and really, the reason it goes over so well with kids is that it is gleefully archetypal and black-and-white.  The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and even though we would find out things are more complex than that in the sequels, this same tone of simplicity was carried on throughout.  It’s important to know there’s nothing wrong with this. Intellectualist film critics tend to dismiss films such as ‘Star Wars’ (at first glance) for somehow being less-than, since they don’t strive to be any more than fun.  The film received a mixed reaction upon release, but the audiences loved it.  It connected.  There is beauty and poetry in simplicity, and in straightforward, mythic storytelling, not just in the complexities and angst of hurt lovers like Romeo and Juliet.

In a technical sense, the film was extraordinary for its time.  I mentioned its effect on the summer blockbuster, how it created the pattern of “Wow!” films, which continues to be followed each year.  The battles in space, forgoing the scientific realism that Stanley Kubrick invested in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, allowed for sound and drama, again evoking World War II.  Lucas watched old dogfight footage for inspiration, and having viewed a few hours of similar footage myself, I can definitely see its influence.  After so many blockbusters pushing the envelope and blurring the lines between reality and special effects, you can see how dated ‘Star Wars’ has become, in one view.  On the other hand, the drama is so effective that despite the technical shortcomings, it has added to the charm.

Now, for music.  I keep reviewing films where John Williams was involved!  He’s definitely my favorite composer, which is probably why my mind keeps coming back to these movies in particular.  His work on ‘Star Wars’ shows much less of a Bernard Herrmann influence than ‘Jaws’ did, instead it takes influence from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite.  This isn’t my favorite of his scores, and fans of the ‘Star Wars’ series that haven’t revisited this film in a long time will notice the absence of the Imperial March, which he wrote for the sequel, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

One big stumbling block for the religiously concerned- particularly Christians -is the quasi-spiritual “Force” that ultimately helps Luke Skywalker, the hero, destroy the Death Star.  Now, it is true that George Lucas was interested in “reintroducing” spirituality to youth, but he has also stated his complete disapproval of the ‘Star Wars’ inspired Jedi Church, a really weird but real religion.  It’s only a movie.  Of course, we can say that about all kinds of things, from sex to violence to satanic rites, but the Tao-inspired, while ultimately fake, Force is just an invention to drive the plot, not to corrupt the audience.  It is part of the mythic flavor of the story.  If ‘Star Wars’ is taken as what it is- myth with a moral -then it makes balking at the Force seem silly.

After everything I said about complexity versus simplicity, it is ultimately a lack of complexity that keeps the film off the Four Star mark for me.  That’s just my personal feelings.  I don’t like it as much as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, which is pretty much in the same vein, but I gave that film the maximum number of stars.  Why?  Well, it just seems more solid, better woven, and the complexity is a part of that.  Nevertheless, ‘Star Wars’ accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, bring back the spirit of adventure to film, and we should be tremendously thankful that George Lucas did not fail.

Classic Review: Superman

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A combination of heavy-hitters, unknowns, and very wise producers brought us the first truly excellent comic book movie.

Thats right.  You have no choice.  You WILL believe a man can fly.

That's right. You have no choice. You WILL believe a man can fly.

Review:  In 1938, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the very first superhero in DC’s Action Comics #1.  With a wide range of powers and a flashy costume, Superman was a hit with kids everywhere, forever changing the face of comic books.  Countless imitators would follow Superman, though few would equal him.

It took a long time to bring a definitive film to the screen.  Sure, there were the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons in the 40s (which were excellent), and there were the live-action serials and the George Reeves TV show (which were somewhat less up to par), but a live-action film that was convincingly serious didn’t come until 1978.  ‘Superman’, after going through a shaky development that was dramatic enough, was a box office smash and, like the comics that inspired it, changed the face of the genre.  Along with ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, it breathed new life into science fiction and transformed it into a cinematic juggernaut.

There are some of the production problems that deserve mentioning in relevance to the film’s design.  Such as the fact that the effects of Superman’s flight had never been done before in a truly live-action sense, usually relying on animation or models instead of a stunt man.  Eventually, they turned to the technology of chroma-key, which uses a blue screen or green screen as a background, then removes it in post-production.  The result was realistic enough that they made the claim in the film’s tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”  Whether this was claimed before the effect was achieved or not, I don’t know, but it is a bold claim regardless.  So critical was this sense of wonder to the film’s success that the tagline was necessitated.  You won’t see anything said in quite that way on a modern movie poster.  We think we’ve seen everything possible with special effects.

The composer John Williams continued to rise to glory with his third iconic score in five years, going from ‘Jaws’ to ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Superman’.  Using the same orchestra he worked with on ‘Star Wars’, he delivered.  Period.  The music perfectly compliments the picture, indeed working with it to ingrain the images in the viewer’s mind.  This, to me, is the mark of a good composer: the ability to marry picture and music so perfectly that they become synonymous.

A big struggle of early development was avoiding the campy tone that pervaded earlier comic book adaptations.  Director Richard Donner ordered a rewrite before filming began, for which I am sure audiences are thankful.  The narrative covers a wide range of human emotions and manages to find a convincing balance.   Conceptually, it is an epic fantasy.  I describe it as an epic due to the multiple storylines and digressions.  It is much slower burning than recent superhero films, for which I am thankful.

I chose to review this film due to the recent release of the ‘Watchmen’ adaption.  ‘Superman’ is, essentially, the tonal and philosophical antithesis of ‘Watchmen’. ‘Watchmen’ is primarily concerned with the question, “Who watches the watchmen?”  The superheroes of the story, analogous to “watchmen” or guards, are shown to be morally incapable of handling the problem of power.  What makes their vigilante authority necessary, or legitimate?  ‘Watchmen’ suggests nothing directly in answer.  It is far too complex a work to pin down a conclusion.  ‘Superman’, on the flipside, is quite clear.  The hero is justified in his quest to help the people of Earth due to his nobility and integrity.  Superman is the good guy, the Big Blue Boy Scout, always trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, etc. etc.  Going back to ‘Watchmen’, it is suggested that no vigilante, regardless of his intentions, is ultimately trustworthy.  Humans are simply not good enough as a whole, it is suggested.  Again, this is never put forth as a clear conclusion, but the implications are there.  Returning again to ‘Superman’, we see this is never a concern with this ideal individual.  But, since we don’t live in this world, and there is no (as far as we know) alien human from Krypton fighting crime with completely noble intentions, is it wrong to indulge in such fantasies?  I personally think that the pessimistic view of ‘Watchmen’- while arguably more realistic –is not any more correct than the view ‘Superman’ takes.  Humans tend towards corruption, yes, but I would argue that paradoxically they also tend towards integrity.  As a flipside to ‘Watchmen’, ‘Superman’ shows us what could be, not just in an ideal but also in a grounded world.  There is wisdom in the view of ‘Watchmen’ and there is equal wisdom in ‘Superman’.  So how do we solve the problem of this paradox?  One of the ways is not to entrust too much power to one person.  There should be, in a sense, watchmen watching the watchmen.  Hence the separation of powers in modern democracies, which themselves are watched by the people, who in turn are watched and judged by God.

Well, now that my necessary digression is over, I’d like to say something in conclusion.  I don’t think this is the best superhero film of all time.  Considering just how varied the genre has become, even the granddaddy of all superheroes doesn’t by proxy take the cake.  It is definitely one of the best ever made.

Classic Review: Die Hard

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie.

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Review:  By the mid-1980’s the quality of the modern action movie had reached its all time low.  Whatever sense of the pacing and suspense that had had coated the genre in such classics as ‘North by Northwest’, ‘The Great Escape’, or even ‘Apocalypse Now’ had given into a conglomeration of senseless explosions, bare-chested macho-men, and boring plots subservient to the action.  In short, they sucked.  Thus it was truly a surprise, I imagine, in 1988, that people felt when they went to see the modern classic of ‘Die Hard’.

‘Die Hard’ tells the story of John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York police officer who flies out to L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his estranged wife, Holly, at a party in the 30-plus-story main building of Nakatomi Plaza.  Sadly, however, a group of dissident Eastern European terrorists, led by the cunning Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) have the same idea, as they take the whole building hostage in an epic attempt to steal the half billion or so dollars locked away in its vault.  Luckily though, John McClane manages to escape to an unoccupied floor and, armed with only small weapons and his intuition, wages a one-man war.

So what makes this movie such a revival for the action genre?  Well, the script for one thing.  It takes time to actually build a plot before the action begins.  In many ways, it almost doesn’t try to be an action movie at all in the beginning.  The first fifteen minutes of the film consist of John and his wife having a serious talk on their separation and their mutual frustrations with each other.  This could just as easily be the beginning of a romantic comedy.  This makes it all the more exciting and surprising when the terrorists show up and we, the audience, are reminded that this is an action movie.

This sense of pacing is seen in other parts of the film as well.  Take the famed explosion on the roof.  In other action movies, there have been bigger explosions, but the brilliance of this movie as that there is a great build up to it, starting early on in the movie.  We aren’t quite sure when there is going to be an explosion, but we are given clues that it’s coming, and our anticipation only grows.  Thus, when the explosion finally does occur, it does not seem random or stupid, but satisfying.  These are just a couple examples of how excellently this film paces itself.  The location helps as well.  By setting it in a building in Los Angeles and not, say, the jungle, it adds to the believability and helps bring the action closer to home for the viewer.

The casting in this film is perfect.  Bruce Willis gives his most memorable performance as John McClane.  Unlike “Arnie” or “Sly” in their movies, Willis is the common man here.  He is not some highly trained special-forces commander, bulging with muscles and a kick-ass attitude.  He is un-muscular, foul mouthed, and in many ways very scared in this movie.  This makes him all the more genuine and identifiable.  The audience roots for him unquestionably.  Equally great as McClane’s foil is Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber.  As a villain, he isn’t some perfect mastermind.  He isn’t always calm and cool.  He becomes angry and frustrated when his plans don’t work, and at times he makes noticeable blunders.  In short, the characters are allowed to be human, as opposed to stereotypes in other action movies.  The only true criticisms for any of the characters in this movie are when they are given bits of corny dialogue.  This movie does have its fair share of one-liners, but they are spaced far enough apart that they don’t really detract from it.

Lastly, though this film benefits most from its plot and acting, its technical aspects helped to bolster the film well.  The cinematography is truly impressive.  A lot of quick cuts and hand held camera work add to the action, as does the relatively dark lighting and frequent low angle shots.  An often over looked part of the cinematography is that almost every shot shows intersecting walls, a key to creating a claustrophobic feeling for the viewer, which is the desired affect when all the action takes place in a building.  The music for this movie is done well.  As opposed to lame pop songs and corny techno-beats, this movie goes old school with classic orchestration.  Michael Kamen, the composer, mixes classic Beethoven with his own brand of brass driven melodies and fast beats to create music fitting for the action.

In short, this movie helped bring the action movie out of its rut and reinvented it for a newer generation.  Its influence is still felt today.  Almost every action movie made after ‘Die Hard’ takes something from it, and they are all the better for it.  If you haven’t seen this one, give it a watch, it’s worth at least that.