Friday, May 20, 2005

NNNNEEEERRRRRRRRRDDDSSS!!!!!

Well, a movie came out yesterday. A pretty big one. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about it or not, but since it’s such a big friggin’ deal, I figured that maybe Dids and I could both review said ubiquitous summer blockbuster on here.

The thing about it is, I haven’t seen a Star Wars movie since I saw Episode I back toward the end of freshman year, an experience that basically soured me on George Lucas and the Star Wars saga in general. Hence, I have yet to even see Episode II, and I haven’t watched any of the three originals since their theatrical re-release in 1997. So, I figured that I’d give them all another whirl, or, in the case of Attack of the Clones (what an awful title!), I’d bother to watch for the first time. What’s my point? I’m revisiting the three original Star Wars movies, as well as Episodes I and II, and writing my opinions on each one. Then, I’m going to go see Revenge of the Sith, and I’ll do a little review-dee-doo-dad on that, too. First, in this post, I’m gonna get through the first three.

Before I begin, I think a few sidenotes are in order. First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, it warrants mentioning that I used to be something of a Star Wars geek back in junior high and high school. Before you come hurling nerdist epithets at me, allow me to explain. I was NOT a Star Wars geek in the sense that I’d dress up like the characters or go to conventions or speak some made-up language and say I was from "The Ice Planet Hoth" or something. I did used to force my mother to have wifflebat lightsaber battles with me on our front porch (even making her say "I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan"!), but, I mean, come on. I was like 4 - didn’t we all do goofy shit like that? No, the geekiness I’m speaking of stemmed simply from the fact that I was one of the few people in my grade or the surrounding grades who would openly admit to really liking the movies. You see, for some reason, in the mid-to-late 80s, after nearly a decade of immense media saturation, Star Wars just seemed to drop from the national consciousness. No one talked about it. I think that everyone in our generation actually still enjoyed the movies, but no one would acknowledge that fact, save a small subset of loyal nerds. I was certainly one of those nerds, as Aaron Czapski and I used to have relatively in-depth Star Wars discussions, or, at the very least, quoted lines or talked about awesome scenes we liked. Then, all of a sudden, when the whirlwind of promotion started up in late ‘96, as news got around that Lucas was touching up the films and re-releasing them in theaters the following year, people started acknowledging how much they loved the Star Wars movies again. It made it more acceptable for nerds like Break of Dawn/Hollywood_East and myself to speak freely about the "Holy Trilogy," as Kevin Smith has called it. See, that’s what I mean by "geeky." So back off.

Aside the Second: I’m watching the first three movies in their remastered 1997 versions. Now, this is not exactly by my choice. In general, I think it’s fine that Lucas decided to go back and spruce up some technical things (although I am somewhat less taken with his decisions to add some substantive elements, which, by and large, are superfluous at best and distracting at worst. But I’ll touch on all that in my reviews), but what I am NOT fine with is his apparent desire to will the original versions of the three movies out of existence. Ever since he re-released the films in 1997, the only VHS copies available for purchase are those 1997 editions. And when the trilogy was finally released on DVD late last year, purchasers were not given the option of choosing which version of the movies to buy - the special editions were the only ones available. Hence, the originals are all-but extinct, with eBay and other online resources being the only places to look for them. Some people are okay with this, and that’s fine. I, however, feel that these are NOT the movies I grew up with, at least not exactly, and I resent the fact that we are not given the choice of which version to watch. *Off of soapbox* As I said earlier, where I feel it is pertinent, I will talk about particular additions to the films, and how I feel about them. So, on to the show, I guess.

-Star Wars-

Where it all began. The birth of the phenomenon. I, like any other child of the 70s and 80s, was completely taken in by the experience of Star Wars (none of this "A New Hope" bullshit - it's called friggin' Star Wars. We're knee-deep in geekjuice in this post as it is, so there's no need to add any more than is necessary), and I will always fondly remember the original for introducing me not only to Luke, Leia, Han, and Obi-Wan, but to the richly-textured imagination of George Lucas, and his vision of what it was like long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Now, the thing is, when Star Wars was re-released in theaters in 1997, I was thoroughly giddy, I mean ridiculously giddy. And the movie completely and utterly failed to live up to my expectations. I sat there in the fifth row at the Star Taylor, neck craned up toward the screen, fantastically bored. I hated it. It was slow-moving, talky, and kind of clunky in its editing. It was just an all-around disappointing experience. Because of the memory of this, I was somewhat apprehensive about revisiting the original epic.

Thankfully, this time I was pleasantly surprised (I guess this is a helluvan example about how expectations color your view of entertainment). Yes, the first hour is pretty slow, mainly because it's a bunch of scenes where we're given brief introductions to the characters, all while following C-3PO and R2-D2 around the whole time. But things take a rollicking fun turn as soon as Luke and Obi-Wan hit Mos Eisley and meet Han and Chewie, and the rest of the film pretty much flies by. No, it isn't as compelling as Empire or as relentlessly fun and action-packed as Jedi, but you're certainly swept away by Lucas's vision.

Also, the presence of Genuine Class (think about it) throughout a significant portion of the film helps immensely. His scenes, especially when 1.) he's reminiscing about his days as a Jedi, and 2.) he battles Vader, take on an added resonance when we have the benefit of the information provided by the prequels. Plus, I mean, he's Alec Fucking Guiness. The guy could probably take a dump on a soundstage for an hour and a half and completely enthrall viewers.

Also, Part II: You can NOT overestimate the importance of John Williams's score to the overall feel of the picture. It has quite simply become an iconic piece of music, as easily-recognized as any film score out there. Astoundingly, I actually think the score for Empire is better (I'll get to that later), but then again, Empire is one of my 5 or 10 favorite movies of all time, and I think it's superior to every other film in the series in basically all respects. So, yeah.

On to the additions in the re-tooled version: I think this one had the most dressing-up done to it, as Lucas was unsatisfied with numerous special effects and a few entire sequences. The revamping of the picture quality and sound are fantastic, but the substantive additions are mostly pointless, as they are in the rest of the trilogy. They largely consist of animals thrown into the background of shots - which, I mean, let's face it: who gives a shit? I don't watch Star Wars for the fucking dewbacks on Tatooine. And then you are given two thoroughly annoying Han Solo scenes: the meeting with Jabba the Hutt, where Jabba is so obviously computer generated that it's almost embarrassing (not to mention the fact that he seems real buddy-buddy with Han, which doesn't make a lick of sense when you've seen Jedi), and the idiotic altering of the scene where Han shoots the bounty hunter under the table. Lucas apparently didn't like that Han shoots the guy without being shot at first, so he has changed the shot so that the bounty hunter, from point-blank range about three feet away, shoots and completely misses Han, so that Han is forced to "retaliate" and shoot the guy in "self-defense." It looks stupid and it's annoying. You can tell that the guy is either going to shoot Han or take him back to Jabba (who is apparently totally okay with Han anyway, judging by the added scene, so I guess that makes it even more obvious that the guy is going to shoot him), so why the fuck do we need him to actually, physically shoot first? It's not like people were appalled by Han shooting the guy under the table... Ugh, okay, let's finish up.

Favorite line: Delivered in stately, inimitable Genuine Class baritone: "The Force will be with you. Always."

Favorite moment: Most people go for when Han comes back at the end and clears the way for Luke to blow the Death Star the fuck up, but I prefer the scene where Luke looks out at the Binary Sunset on Tatooine, in no small part due to the fact that I find the score for that scene to be the single best piece of music in the entire series.

Final rating: 4 out of 5 (Docked 1/2 for being a little clunkier than the others, and another 1/2 because it basically single-handedly killed the greatest era of American filmmaking, ushering in a cinematic climate of summer blockbusters that we're still mired in to this day. Still, great flick.)

- The Empire Strikes Back -

When considering this movie, I am often reminded of a line from another classic of American cinema: Wayne's World. Haha. Well, the line I think of, uttered by Wayne for absolutely no reason at all, is "Ah, yes. It's a lot like 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.' In many ways, it's superior, but will never be as recognized as the original." Yes, that's Empire. Although it will likely never be as popular as Star Wars -- mostly because people kind of knew what to expect from it, visually speaking, and weren't quite as blown away by it as they were by the original -- it pretty easily outstrips its predecessor in virtually all areas: writing, special effects, and, most importantly, emotional immediacy.

This is the heart of the Star Wars series, as the events and information revealed in it deepen and complicate the overall story, and are largely responsible for the epic stature that the saga has taken on. Despite the undoubtedly-extensive creative input that Lucas had on the film, one can't help but feel that his delegation of the writing duties to a tandem of Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan was the key to the film's snappiness and tone. I mean, Brackett wrote the screenplays for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye, for Christ's sake! And Kasdan has been an extremely prolific writer/director for the past 25 years. While admittedly not Shakespeare, looking objectively, comparing the dialogue of Empire to that of the other 4 films leading up to Sith is a bit like seeing A-Rod on the Devil Rays. Or the 2002 Rangers, since that actually happened.

Plus, obviously, you have The Big Reveal. Vader begat Luke. And the Lord of movies looked upon it, and saw that it was good.

Plus, this revelation came at the tail end of what is almost undoubtedly the most compelling, rewatchable 45 minutes of the entire series. From the moment Lando says "I've just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever," and then opens the door to the banquet room to reveal Vader sitting there, we're treated to equal parts action and drama straight up until the movie ends.

It's also notable that this is pretty easily the most relentlessly depressing 45 minutes of the entire series. It's pretty amazing that a sci-fi blockbuster like this -- an entry in a chain of films that are largely viewed as kids movies -- could get away with being so dark in tone. When you think about it, Star Wars ended in pretty standard fashion, with the forces of good decidedly defeating the forces of evil. Empire's resolution is almost the exact opposite, as the Rebels basically get cornholed for 2 hours and 15 minutes. I mean, over that final 45 minutes, we get treated to: the realization that Lando sold out his "buddy" Han; the sight of Han getting frozen and kidnapped by Boba Fett; and Luke suffering the 1-2 punch of A.) getting his friggin' hand chopped off by Vader, only to B.) find out moments later that the evil badass who just hacked off his paw is, in actuality, his father. That's pretty damn dark for a sci-fi fantasy ... but it also makes for fantastically good watching.

Sweet merciful Jeebus, I almost forgot about Yoda. Just kidding, no I didn't. We're introduced to the pint-size Jedi master in this film, and the sight of a 50-foot Yoda on the big screen in 1997 was as close to a religious experience as I think I've ever had. I can't say anything about Yoda that hasn't already been said, except maybe to point out that puppet Yoda is ten times better than CGI Yoda every day of the week and twice on Sunday. There's just something more substantial about him, probably because he's ... substantial, and actually taking up physical space, instead of being a fancy illustration drawn by a computer. Let the record show that puppet Yoda is also a fantastic actor - some of his facial expressions look so damn lifelike that you honestly, truly forget that he's just a puppet and not a ... little ... green dude. I think that's the best compliment I can give Frank Oz and anyone else who worked on creating Yoda: I don't see a puppet there in The Empire Strikes Back. I see Yoda.

And then there's the score. Frankly, it's basically a bunch of variations on the themes from the first movie, with a more romantic number here or there, plus the key addition of the ultra-cool-sounding, Miami marching band favorite "Imperial March." Most people don't realize that the "Imperial March" wasn't in the first film at all, and that it debuted in this movie. So, basic Star Wars theme music + "Imperial March" = one of the greatest scores of all-time. It's right up there with Vertigo, Chinatown, and Double Indemnity for me.

As for the "special edition," very little was added to the re-release of Empire, which makes you think that it turned out pretty goddamn good the first time. Yeah, there's a little more of the snow monster at the beginning, and some of the Cloud City's exteriors have been tweaked. But by and large, very little was adjusted for this film, aside from it getting a clearer picture and more amped-up sound. Oh wait. There's also the single change in the trilogy that actually angers me. Even when I saw it in the theater in '97 I was quad-furious when I noticed this: when Luke jumps to escape Vader after finding out that Big Black is actually his daddy, Lucas somehow decided that it was a good idea to add screaming to the shot of Luke falling. Now, this makes me angry for two reasons: first, the voice that is screaming sounds nothing, nothing like Mark Hamill. Second, and more importantly, that addition has emasculated the power of Luke's gesture there. Let me explain. Luke, in jumping off the little perch at the end of that catwalk, is giving a big "Fuck you" to Vader. It's a total act of defiance: he's saying "I would rather fall to my death than join you and live as Darth Vader Jr." You can even see it in the look he gives Vader just before he lets go of the pole. He's strong and defiant, and he's decided to die rather than turn to the Dark Side. Adding in the scream as he's falling just takes away from the power of that decision. There, I said my piece.

Favorite line: There are countless Yoda-isms I could go with here, but it's hard to beat Han's pimptacular response to Leia's "I love you": "I know."

Favorite moment: Obviously, Luke's plunge, although it's tough to single that moment out above the rest of their epic lightsaber duel. But BAM, watch how I did it.

Final rating: 5 out of 5

-Return of the Jedi-

Alas, the trilogy does not end with a bang. Granted, it doesn’t really end with a whimper either - it’s more of a "Hey, look at this!" It’s the most action-packed of the three original films, the special effects are more polished than in the previous two, and the trilogy’s key conflicts are resolved in a satisfactory manner. But there’s just something missing, some kind of spark or something. I don’t know, exactly. All I know is that, upon rewatching the three films 20-to-25 years after their theatrical runs, Jedi just struck me as the least compelling.

That’s not to say that it isn’t a good time. It’s fun to watch Luke as a thoroughly bad-ass Jedi, I like to see Billy Dee Williams contribute to the cause (I ask you, where would the Rebel Alliance be without the aid of former smugglers and space pirates?), and Carrie Fisher’s metallic slave outfit undoubtedly played a role in the, uh ... "coming of age" ... of countless little budding nerds in the 80s. The film certainly keeps your attention, but there’s nothing particularly compelling about the goings on, except for the desire in every fan of the movies to see the story play out to its conclusion.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t say there’s nothing compelling – the Luke/Vader/Emperor scenes have a tone that is nicely tense and exciting, and the final attack on the Death Star 2.0 is suitably awe-inspiring, even 20 years later. But the film lacks the influence and "shock of the new" of Star Wars and the sharp-edged drama of Empire. Plus, it has Ewoks.

Ah, those cuddly little bastards that inhabit the forest moon of Endor. These things are so unbearably cute and cuddly that I just want to ram a Paddington Bear spoon into my eyeballs. And they’re such an obvious merchandising opportunity, I’m mildly shocked that they don’t have those little tags on their asses like you see on teddy bears. Yes, that’s exactly who I want to see save the galaxy: Han Solo and Teddy Ruxpin. A match made in Toys ‘R’ Us heaven. Fuck.

The other thing that kind of nags at me, though not nearly as much as the Ewoks, is that the Emperor’s presence kind of diffuses some of the imposing aura of Vader. When people think "Star Wars villain," they don’t think of the Emperor, they think of Vader, and seeing him as a glorified lapdog to the Emperor in Jedi just takes away some of his power as an all-time movie villain. I want to see him crushing people's tracheas with his fucking mind, not calling someone else "Master." Maybe that’s just me (but I doubt it). Another minor thing is that the scene where Luke and Leia talk about how they're siblings and Luke decides to hand himself over to Vader ... I mean, that scene is awkward. Like, painfully awkward. Like, "foreshadowing episodes I and II" awkward. But I guess that's a relatively minor quibble. This is still Star Wars, we’re still spending time with characters we’ve come to know and love, and I’m still having fun while watching it.

The '97 additions, as with the other films, are largely a mixed bag. Of course, the cleaned-up picture and remastered sound are incredible. But, again, any actual, physical changes to the film are largely annoying and/or superfluous. First of all, there's another annoying music number thrown into the Jabba's Lair scenes. I say "whatever." And then, inexplicably, Lucas decided to add a bizarrely out-of-place-looking CGI head to the sand-pit-monster that will "slowly digest you over a thousand years." It doesn’t add anything in the way of our being scared of the creature, and, let’s face it, it looks really bad. What was wrong with the pit with teeth around its edges? Like the other changes, it doesn’t really detract from the picture, it’s just annoying. The other big modification is the newer, more serene ending, as Lucas very smartly jettisoned that Ewok abortion "Yub Yub" or "Nub Nub" or whatever the fuck that song was called. The new ending isn’t exactly a rousing way to end the series, but, I mean, it’s a shitload better than "Jub Jub." It’s not quite like going from Jacque Vaughn to Jason Kidd, but I’d say it’s an improvement along the lines of going from Vaughn to Damon Jones. Now the end is at least adequate. But it was a helluva ride, there’s no question about that.

Favorite line: Ugh, this is slim pickins. I guess I’ll go with a Yoda classic: "When nine hundred years old YOU reach, look as good YOU will not, hmm?"

Favorite moment: Probably Lando and Wedge’s final attack on the Death Star. Or maybe the part where one of the Ewoks dies. It’s a toss-up.

Final rating: 3 1/2 out of 5

2 Comments:

At 11:02 AM, May 22, 2005, Anonymous AlJam4 said...

Too much time YOU have in YOUR life, hmm?

 
At 4:53 PM, May 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw Episode 3 on Friday. I definitely recommend it. It's much better than Episodes 1 & 2, which is of course not saying much. I'd recommend seeing Episode 2 first though, Fu. Not because it's that good, but it is better than Episode 1, and there's a couple storyline bits you might want to get. Anyway, I won't go into detail for the half of the country who hasn't seen it yet, but I was pleasantly surprised with Episode 3.

- Nipsey-Wan Kenobi

 

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