Friday, December 28, 2007

Return of the Jedi (1983)

By Solar Sentinel Editor Alan Trehern

It truly ails my heart that we have come to the end of our glorious trip through the Star Wars saga. For all those who have kept up, it has been good, hasn’t it? For those of you just picking it up, make sure to check out the other entries.

Now, here at Ben’s Movie Reviews, to conclude the series reviews of Star Wars, in its 30th year, I present Return of the Jedi

Luke Skywalker has returned to his home planet of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.

Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star.

When completed, this ultimate weapon will spell certain doom for the small band of rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy…
Originally titled the Revenge of the Jedi, it was soon changed because revenge was not a quality of a true Jedi. The movie picks up a few months after TESB, and Han Solo is still frozen in carbonite and in the palace of Jabba the Hutt. While Lando, Han, Leia and Luke reunite, the dreaded Empire has begun construction on a new Death Star (even though the first one took 20 years to build, apparently they got the job done in 2 years for Death Star II.) After their quick escape and the death of Jabba the Hutt, Luke returns to Dagobah to resume his training with the Jedi Master Yoda. Unfortunately, with his life complete, Yoda is tired and dying. The Force merely kept him alive to train the last of the old Jedi, Luke Skywalker. In what people say is the best of the three death scenes in this movie, Yoda reveals in his last breath there is another Skywalker.

Perplexed, Luke already knows the answer (We all know it’s Leia…Wait, he kissed his sister?!?!). This is when he meets the spirit of Obi-Wan for the last time in the saga. In the book Return of the Jedi, a lot of facts are switched around. Obi-Wan alludes to his battle with Vader (Luke’s father) on some volcanic planet, with Vader falling into the lava and becoming the machine he is today. Ben also reveals that Luke’s mother raised Leia for the first few years, out of sight from the Empire. Luke’s Uncle Owen is also revealed to be the brother of Obi-Wan. (Hmmm…)

Continuity mistakes aside, this movie is one of the last great movies made. It still has that old Hollywood feel to it, and it achieves in telling its story and not hiding it with special effects. (I would say the LAST great movie of old Hollywood would have to be Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but that’s a different saga altogether). Luke plays the pure son and manages to return his father to the side of the light, and Anakin destroys the evil that has plagued the galaxy for years. The Ewoks were a little much, but the Rebel battle on the moon of Endor AND the battle against the Death Star (led by Lando "Billy Dee" Calrissian) were a sight to be seen.

As far as acting is concerned, Hamill, Ford and Fischer were a little off their games, considering the great performances they had in TESB. Perhaps they were tiring of the roles, but who knows? Great acts were put on by Ian McDiarmid (who played Emperor Palpatine), Billy Dee as the suave Lando and Admiral Ackbar, notable leader of the Alliance Fleet, and front man for Admiral Ackbar cereal.

I have little else to say about this movie, just that it is the glorious period to the sentence that is the Star Wars saga. I would tell you all the books that further tell the tales of the Star Wars universe, but I won’t. Oh hell, let’s just do it for old times’ sake:

The Truce at Bakura: picks up days after the destruction of the Death Star II

The Mandolorian Armor: picks up days after Boba Fett fell into the Sarlacc pit

Heir to the Empire: taking place years after the Battle of Endor and establishing new adventures

The Courtship of Princess Leia: the fight of Han Solo and the Prince of Hapes over the heart of the princess

Hope you have enjoyed this installment. I don’t know when I’ll be back, that’s all up to Ben and his gang of movie reviewers. Until then, keep reading his site and mine,
The Solar Sentinel.
Luke: “But, Ben, I’m all that’s left of the Jedi…”
Obi-Wan: “You’re not the last of the old Jedi, you’re the first of the new…”

--the last appearance of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Heir to the Empire

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd, National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter

I'm not really a big musical guy, so I wasn't all "Lance Hunter Burbank" about this movie heading into it, but Becky (the sister) was fReAkInG oUt about it, so we went to the first midnight showing. I'm sure it's passable as a musical (I obviously haven't seen it in any other incarnation but the film), but I honestly didn't think it needed to be made into a movie. There wasn't any sort of message involved - it was your standard revenge story: The Count of Monte Cristo, emo-style. The trailer was incredibly deceptive in its portrayal of how much singing would truly occur, and I'm sure that's not going to sit well with people "tricked" into seeing this in theaters.

Once you get past the fact that there's TONS of singing, that makes things a little easier. Johnny Depp's voice is not half bad, and even the extremely British Helena Bonham Carter isn't awful because her character isn't supposed to have a beautiful voice. I'm fairly certain that all of the singing is overdubbed (I know for a fact that some of it is; I can only assume the whole thing was filmed this way), and sometimes it's pretty obvious that the leads are lip-synching, as well as they try to hide it from us. There were some good songs in it. My favorite was the one that Mrs. Lovett and Todd sang together; he was singing about seeing his old friends (his barber blades) again, and she was singing about how they could be friends, or something like that. But there were also some really bad ones, like the Mrs. Lovett tangent about the beach and what they would do if they lived together. (Forehead slap). And the supporting characters were kind of cool in a weird way. Alan Rickman was good as the evil judge, and perpetual-minion Timothy Spall played his disgusting character perfectly. Even Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Borat) wasn't as twitch-inducing as I thought he'd be; in fact, he provided some good comic relief.

Plot-wise, there there were some fairly questionable occurances, but they weren't glaring enough to make a big deal about. I don't want to ruin the experience for the people who actually like(d) the movie. The one thing that really bothered me about the whole production is that there was this huge outcry before the movie began filming about how it was fighting hard to get this "R" rating and it shouldn't be cut down to a PG-13, because there's so much violence and the violence really needs to be there, blah blah blah. So they finally scored the "R" rating, and people (myself included) were kind of excited about that because we thought maybe that would be the ray of light in an otherwise questionable film. We were wrong. The violence, albeit plentiful, was probably the most fake I've seen in a movie that wasn't made specifically for the Sci-Fi Channel. There were throat-slittings galore (the story does follow a barber bent on revenge, after all), but the blood was so fake it became more distracting and comedic than shocking and effective to me.

In my opinion, the only people this movie is for are die-hard Depp fans, Burton fans, or musical fans. If you are one of those people, then you've probably seen the movie by now. If you haven't seen Sweeney Todd yet, I'd personally suggest you keep it that way. You're not missing much.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Director: Jon Turtletaub
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Diane Kruger

If you're a fan of the first movie, then (for the love of all that is good) don't see this one. It's nowhere NEAR as good. I loved the first film - partly because of my love for treasure hunting movies, and partly because of Nic Cage, but Book of Secrets took everything that I liked about the first movie and took the fun out of it.

(Spoilers ahead. Not that the movie isn't so predictable you couldn't figure them out anyway, but still, I'll give the warning.)

THE TREASURE - Some sort of City of Gold, but it's not El Dorado. It's Native American in origin, supposedly discovered in Florida. But (as my Dad pointed out to me afterwards) the city was eventually found in South Dakota! No mention of how the massive city of gold was picked up and moved across the entire country. Not even an attempt at an explanation. It was like they suddenly needed the treasure to be closer to a major national landmark and since they couldn't think of one in Florida (or didn't want to use Kennedy Space Center or Disney World), they moved it and hoped we wouldn't notice. Nice try, filmmakers.

THE STYLE - One of the reasons I loved the first movie so much was because it was a treasure hunting movie, but presented in a cool way. The history of each clue and how it got there was a great way to keep the audience guessing as we followed our heroes across the country in a search for the Templar Treasure. In Book of Secrets, however, the writers didn't try to make the style fresh and new again, but pretty much kept the exact same thing they used in the first one. There were definitely problems with the first movie (how the heck did Nicholas Cage make all of those connections in such a short time?), but because of the style we accepted them and were distracted by the overall cool-factor of what we were watching. This time around, there is none of that to distract us from the glaring logic problems presented to us in the film. The clues are stupid and there isn't really any cool history behind them. And once they find the treasure, it looks almost identical to the one they found at the end of the first one. Whatever.

THE VILLAIN - Sean Bean gets replaced by Ed Harris? Are you serious? Ed Harris should have just keeled over and died at the very beginning, because there is no way that there could be a cooler villain in a movie than one played by Sean Bean (with one exception - Neville Sinclair in The Rocketeer). Ed Harris was a really questionable villain. Supposedly he had ties to the black market and selling of illegal artifacts, and he held Cage and Co. at gunpoint, but saves them in the end because he wants his family name to be a part of something good. What a pansy. I've eaten Chipotle burritos that were better villains than that.

THE FAMILY DYNAMIC - Diane Kruger reprises her role as Abigail Chase, but she has left Ben Gates because he's too good at what he does. So they don't get together until the very end of the movie. An unnecessary plot device, says I. And they committed the cardinal sin of bringing the whole family along for the ride. Whenever this happens in sequels, it's hardly ever a good sign: this is no exception. Helen Mirren (didn't she just win an Oscar? Then why is she in THIS movie?) plays Cage's mom, next to Jon Voight as the father who returns from the first movie. They get entangled in the search because his mom HAPPENS to be a world-renowned cryptologist and somehow Ed Harris and his baddies make a clone of the dad's phone. I don't know if this is possible, but they did it somehow. Don't ask me how. Anyway, the mom is not needed and definitely doesn't warrant the talents of an Oscar winner in the role.

If you couldn't tell, I'm a more than a little disappointed with this movie. The good parts (basically the parts involving the President) were few and far between, with stuff like bad comic relief from the sidekick (Riley, again played by Justin Bartha) and totally irrelevant phone calls to Harvey Keitel's character (why is he back??) stuffed in the middle. Go out and buy the first one, watch it multiple times, and forget this sequel ever came out. Good call, Mikey. Until next time...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Call To Action

I posted "The Aristotle Factor" on this page a while back, and since it is technically a "movie blog," I feel justified in posting my own movie on this page for those of you who haven't seen it yet. I had to make a movie last semester for a production class I was taking, so here's the finished product. Until next time...

Monday, December 17, 2007

I Am Legend

I Am Legend
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith

I liked it. That's what some of you are wanting to know, in short, so I'll just tell you right at the beginning. That's not to say that I thought it was the perfect film, because it definitely was not without its problems. But overall, I appreciated it a great deal.

The history of this movie could qualify as legendary, with Warner Brothers attempting to get it into production since 1994. With talks of directors as diverse as Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, and Guillermo Del Toro attached to the project, and actors like Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in negotiations to play the role of Robert Neville, the possibility was certainly present that the whole thing could have been canceled altogether. Budgetary concerns for the studios nearly did just that, with rewrites continuing all the way through filming to get the budget down enough to make the project a reality. Most of the problems came with the logistics of shutting down sections of New York in order to give that eerily empty feel to the city that has supposedly been ravaged by disease. Turns out it was worth it, because I thought that was one of the coolest parts about the movie.

Eventually, Francis Lawrence was signed to direct, a surprising choice as a director since most of his work has been on music videos. He's directed videos for Color Me Badd, Third Eye Blind, Aerosmith, Nelly Furtado, P.O.D, and way more. I never saw Constantine, his only other real movie, but I thought he proved him abilities with I Am Legend. For a huge blockbuster-type movie, there was a real intimacy about this film that came as a result of a few factors. One was Lawrence's direction - his shot selection was spot on and there wasn't ever a time where I thought the movie was hindered by unnecessary scenes. Another was the editing, which was fantastic - the suspense in this film was intense as anything I've seen in recent memory (1408 being a good comparison), and the film wasn't overly long. An hour and forty minutes was a very respectable run time that could have easily been stretched into a two and a half hour epic by other directors. The final thing that really held this movie together was (not surprisingly) Will Smith.

In his first Castaway-type role (he actually cited Tom Hanks' performance as inspiration for the movie), Will Smith proves again that he is one of the most solid actors working right now. For someone who had the normally-inauspicious start of converting from rap to acting, the Fresh Prince has truly come a long way. The story follows Robert Neville, the military virologist who is immune to a worldwide disease, as he borders on insane after being alone for over 1,000 days searching for a cure for the rest of the remaining population, who have turned into flesh-eating "dark seekers" that are really glorified vampires. Whether you're a fan of the zombie/vampire genres or not, you can't deny (well, I guess you can if you want) that Will Smith was excellent in this movie.

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

Sam the dog was another reason why such a big movie like this had such an intimate feel. I'm not even a dog person, but that thing was awesome. Watching the relationship between Neville and his daughter's dog through the first half of the movie, we realize that Sam is one of the few things that keeps Neville from killing himself. The intensity level skyrockets when Sam chases an animal into the darkness, and the first real danger of the movie is presented as Neville goes in after her. This part of the movie was my favorite. They hadn't shown us the "vampires" yet, and everyone knows that the suspense of not knowing what something looks like is a lot scarier than having already seen it. But getting back to what I was saying, the dog (and her eventual death) was a key factor in making the movie so personal because she was Neville's lone companion; everyone relates to the feeling of loneliness and that translates to the audience not wanting Neville to be alone, so to kill off the dog was a huge emotional hit for both Neville's character and the audience.

So now on to my problems with the movie. I Am Legend fell into the same category as countless other films because the monsters weren't nearly as scary after you've seen them for the first time. They were too reminiscent of The Mummy for my tastes (with the extending jaws and the constant growling). There was one part in particular that I remember being really tense: I jumped when a creature came out of nowhere and sideswiped Neville, but then it got right on top of him and started gnashing its teeth, and I was immediately bored with it because it wasn't scary. Neville didn't seem to be in any real danger since he couldn't be infected. Granted, they could have eaten him or something, but we all knew that wasn't going to happen, so it took away from the urgency. Another major problem I had was first pointed out by either Jeremy, Josh, or Zach, I can't recall which: where was the radio broadcast of the Vermont survivor colony? Was Neville the only one with the technology it takes to transmit a signal? I find that kind of hard to believe. The appearance of Anna and Ethan toward the end was kind of a strange jump in the storyline, too. How did Anna fight off the infected when she rescued Neville from his suicide attempt? I thought Neville's reaction to them was relatively calm for someone who hasn't seen another uninfected human for three years. Also, it wasn't abundantly clear whether he knew about the Vermont colony or not. Either way, he obviously refused to leave his "ground zero," but when he tried to convince Anna that everyone was dead, I still didn't know if he knew they were there and was trying to convince himself that he should stay or if he truly thought everyone else was dead and gone. Finally, the colony in Vermont had a huge wall (some might even call it a "Great Wall") that sequestered the survivors inside their habitat. I don't know about you, but I saw the Infected jump and climb like nobody's business when they were trying to get into Neville's house, so I don't think that wall was doing anyone any good. If they could travel by night until they reached that wall, there is no way they wouldn't ravage that entire compound until there was nothing left. These are little problems, I know, but they still kind of bugged me.

With all that said, I liked the religious questions posed toward the end, when Neville has his awakening and sacrifices himself for Anna and Ethan to escape. While pretty formulaic, this still gives Neville an excuse for a purposeful death, which he lacked before his visitors arrived. This also ties in with other main questions the film presents: the more palpable "what would I do in that situation?" and "how do you survive like that?" questions, along with the more philosophical and social "what does this say about our society?" and "are we capable of unwittingly doing something like this?" The only other huge problem I have with the logistics of the storyline comes right after Neville's sacrifice: he tells Anna and Ethan to wait until dawn to come out of hiding in his basement laboratory, but he neglects to take into account the fact that there is no light that comes into that area. The Infected clearly saw the pair go into hiding (they were watching through a glass plate) and could have easily waited until they opened the door (or even forced themselves in) to kill them in the morning. If we are to believe that the Infected are smart enough to mimic the traps set by Neville, which are pretty elaborate I might add, are we really supposed to believe that they'll just magically forget that there is a supply of food (aka. Anna and Ethan) hidden behind a wooden door five feet away from them? Hmm...

I Am Legend was exactly what I thought it'd be - good. It would have been right at home with a July 4th release, bringing back the "Big Willie Weekend" with style. In a summer that broke ticket sale records with three-quels galore, it would have been a fresh take (albeit another remake) on some subject matter that actually poses a few valid questions to the moviegoing audience instead of simply entertaining them. Until next time...

Trivia: The bridge scene that serves as a flashback in the movie was the most expensive New York City shoot to date. It involved a crew of 250 people, a cast of 1,000 extras (including National Guard members in full combat gear), required the permission of 14 government agencies, took six days to shoot, and ended up costing $5 million.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy.

Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker have established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth.

The evil lord Darth Vader,obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space…

Here we are again, space travelers, for the fifth installment of a seven part series commemorating the 30th anniversary of the STAR WARS saga by me, author Alan Trehern.

Readers, you are in for a real treat tonight because on the page is one of the greatest movies to date, and the best movie in the entire STAR WARS saga:
My fellow blogger, Ben Pearson, can atone to the following statement: “TESB is the best acted, best edited, best story and best special effects of any of the Star Wars movies.” I stand by that statement and would take a bullet in the thigh to defend it. Directed by Irvin Kershner, this 1980 sci-fi epic continues the tale started in A New Hope, following Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia Organa and their battle to stop the Galactic Empire.

We find our heroes stationed on the remote planet of Hoth. Luke gets lost within a frigid snow storm, where he meets the ghost of the late Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan tells him to travel to the Dagobah system, where Yoda can train him in the ways of the Force. The Empire soon finds them, and Darth Vader, “obsessed with finding young Skywalker”, makes the trip personally.

Our heroes escape. Luke and Artoo travel to Dagobah and find Yoda,
the great Jedi master and one of the most innovative characters at the time. I have delved slightly into the legend of Yoda in previous posts, so now I will discuss the actual development. Yoda is a Muppet, basically, voiced and maneuvered by Frank Oz and his mannerisms are so life like and his facial contortions so real, that his puppet heritage is lost, and you really see this strange creature from another planet. I don’t know if it’s because of Oz or the direction of Kershner, but this aspect of the movie is clearly one of its strong suits.

Further, the acting is phenomenally better than its predecessor, without all the awkward pauses or crappy one-liners. (Alright, there’s a couple one-liners.) It really feels that the actors (Hamill, Ford and surprisingly Fischer) took their roles seriously and actually jumped into character for once. TESB still has that spirit or adventure, science fiction and drama all wrapped up, which it unfortunately loses in Return of the Jedi. Hamill provides the gut wrenching scene when he finds out the man he hates most is indeed his father, yelling in the wind tunnels of Cloud City. Ford composes his role dashingly, giving the “ole’
Errol Flynn, debonair Solo pirate” effect he always manages to do. Even Fischer (Princess Leia) gives her best performance (and I must say doesn’t look half bad) as her character grows closer and closer (involuntarily, of course, because she was forced to travel in the Falcon because the snow pile blocked off her Rebel cruiser. Then they’re attacked by Imperial Star Destroyers and forced to base on the planet Bespin, where the Empire catches them anyway. ) to Han Solo.

Now that I mention Bespin and Cloud City, let’s consider the great new additions to the Star Wars universe. First, probably the blackest character in the Star Wars movies, Billy Dee Williams takes the role of Lando Calrissian, a Solo-esque archetype that had previously owned the Millennium Falcon, but had lost it to Solo in a game of Sabacc. His potential is fully realized in ROTJ, but in this installment, he is the leading cause of Solo’s capture and Skywalker’s defeat at the hands of Darth Vader. Only thinking to protect his colony, Lando faced the decision of betraying his friend or being killed by Vader, along with thousands of other people. I don’t envy you for a second, Lando.

Another great addition is Boba Fett (first
appearing in the Star Wars Christmas Special [1978]), who captures Solo, freezing him in solid carbonite for secure transfer to Jabba the Hutt (the crime lord Solo had smuggled goods for). Silent but deadly, Boba Fett and a group of bounty hunters (including Bossk, IG-88 and Dengar) are employed by the Empire to hunt down the Rebels. Fett succeeds. (To see further adventures of Boba Fett and his ultimate spanking of other bounty hunters, check out The Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy. I’m currently reading Book I, and it is tasty.)

These events (Solo’s capture, Skywalker’s defeat, the Rebels’ loss on Hoth and the revealing of Vader’s identity) all set the stage for the penultimate conclusion to the greatest trilogy of all time. Good direction, special effects, editing and acting all add to the enjoyment of this movie, and I really regret Kershner not having his hand in the Star Wars pot more often. But what happens between TESB and ROTJ? How does Luke and Leia track down Boba Fett? How does Vader’s hunt for his son further torment him? And who the hell is Dash Rengar? Find out in the sixth installment of Ben’s Movie Reviews: The Star Wars Saga: Shadows of the Empire…coming soon.

Until then, watch these movie before the year is up. You’ll feel better that you did.

Safe journeys, space fans, wherever you are…
WARNING: Watching the Star Wars movies may cause increased feelings of patriotism, sexiness and all around coolness. Please consume carefully.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Awake; Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Writer/Director: Joby Harold
Starring: Jessica Alba, Hayden Christensen, Terrence Howard

Go into this movie with no expectations at all. I almost guarantee you'll be pleasantly surprised. This is a hell of a debut for writer/director Joby Harold, who puts together this film with the feeling that he's directed many times before. Man, I really respect people who write and direct their own stuff. Anyway, in case you don't know, the movie is about Hayden Christensen's character who is supposed to be asleep during an operation he's having - but the anesthetic doesn't work. He's temporarily paralyzed, but can feel and think as if everything was completely normal. That's the basic premise. This is not for the faint of heart, but if you can stand a few hours of those surgical shows on TLC then you'll be fine. I liked this film a lot; it was intense when it should have been and the character development was great. In those aspects alone it reminded me of 1408 (which not everyone liked, but Awake isn't getting particularly good reviews either. Once again - go in with no expectations). I appreciated the fact that the filmmakers didn't try to throw us any supernatural curveballs or add anything mystical or maniacal in order to explain plot points or character's motivations for their actions. It was very logical, and that was a breath of fresh air in a genre filled with cliches and over-the-top cheap thrills and scare tactics. The movie was also unusually short - only an hour and eighteen minutes. That alone would be the only reason I'd maybe recommend this for home viewing. A lot of films are almost not worth seeing in the theater these days unless A) it's a movie that NEEDS to be seen on a big screen (ala Transformers) or B) you're one of those people that loves to watch movies regardless. I happen to fall into that latter category (and I'm sure a lot of you do as well), so as always I'll leave it to your discretion whether you should check it out now or wait a couple of months until the DVD drops. A small side note - I really like the poster for this movie. It reminds me a lot of the poster for The Prestige.

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney

This one surprised me, too. I figured an 83-year-old director might not be exactly on top of his game, but I have to give Lumet some credit: he knows what he's doing. The guy has directed some classic movies in his time, including 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. Before The Devil Knows You're Dead definitely has that "independent" feel to it, eliciting fantastically intimate performances from every cast member. The leads in the movie were phenomenal; Hoffman and Hawke (sounds like a sweet law firm) should team up more often in these types of situations. They play brothers who are in some serious debt and decide to rob their own parent's "mom and pop" jewelry store. Naturally, they know the place inside and out since they've been around it all their lives, so they figure it's a win-win and nothing bad could happen. It'd be an incredibly boring movie if it was that easy, so after the robbery goes awry we realize that Marisa Tomei's character (naked for a good portion of the movie), who is married to P.S.H., is having an affair with the other brother, Ethan Hawke. Oh, how the plot thickens. From there it turns into a well crafted modern noir with a seventies flair, if that makes any sense to you. There's no smoky back alleys or black and white silhouettes, but a lot of the conventions of noir (desperation, recklessness, getting in deeper than you anticipated, etc.) come into play and make this really exciting to watch. As an audience, we also get the vibe that Lumet shot this movie the same way he would have shot it (stylistically) if he were shooting one of his famous masterpieces of the 60's or 70's. Everything technical about the movie was solid, but it was the acting that took this thing to that proverbial "next level." Interesting bit of trivia, though - while it may have the feel of a movie made thirty years ago, Lumet actually shot the whole thing on high definition video and thinks that celluloid (aka film) will be dead in five years, calling the process a "pain in the ass" when working with film over digital.

Albert Finney (the dad in Big Fish) was riveting as the broken father of the two brothers, and Rosemary Harris (Aunt May from the Spider-Man series) stepped in to play the mother. Even Marisa Tomei, who won a controversial Oscar for her performance in My Cousin Vinny, was great as the wife caught in the middle of the family. And as Joe so eloquently stated, she "sure has aged well." Well said, sir - I couldn't agree more. I haven't seen such intense performances since The Departed. Good luck trying to find this movie if you're interested in seeing it - we had to resort to a local independent theater in Gainesville to check it out. And aside from the opening sex scene, excessive language, cold blooded murder, and rampant drinking, this is the perfect movie for the kids as the holiday season approaches. Until next time...

Saturday, November 17, 2007


This Pandora’s box of ideas and interpretation has been brought to you by Alan Trehern 
[Updated by Alan Trehern! © 2013]

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

How many times have I seen this phrase? Whether it is on the big screen, in a video game or in literature, this simple phrase pumps up millions of people. As you well know, this precedes some of the greatest films of our generation. Not only that, but this particular film (the one I’m writing about right now) was the first in the saga and started the figurative avalanche of stories, sequels and merchandise you love and cherish today. So let’s not falter a minute more, for your reading enjoyment and mine: STAR WARS: A New Hope.

It is a period of civil war. Rebel space ships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored spacestation with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy....

The proceeding events of this film are crucial. Plans for a planet destroying space station has been stolen from the Empire by Princess Leia Organa, Imperial Senator and Rebel Alliance sympathizer. As the dreaded Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer boards her space cruiser, she soon becomes prisoner, passing off the plans onto C-3PO and R2-D2. The story unravels as a young boy named Luke Skywalker is met by an elderly wizard named Obi-Wan Kenobi, and they set off to rescue the damsel in distress with the helps of pirates named Han Solo and Chewbacca. They manage to save her and save the galaxy from certain doom by destroying the Death Star and giving the Rebel Alliance the push it needs to become a formidable opponent in the Great Galactic War. And so ends the greatest story ever made.

Well, not really. It’s a really basic story, just placed thousands of years into the future (or somewhere in the universe, a long time ago). This simple space odyssey, linked with some of the greatest cinematic scenes of that time, made it an instant classic.

The Star Wars Saga And Arthurian Legend
Now, examine the story from a medieval point of view. Many of the same themes of the Arthur legend/ bedtime story can be seen in A New Hope. For instance, Luke is Arthur, a young boy unaware of his potential, and essential for the survival of his world. Obi-Wan Kenobi is the Merlin-archetype, and the lightsaber is Luke’s Excalibur. Darth Vader is the menacing dragon, lurking in his cave (Death Star), and holding Leia, the damsel in distress. Han and Chewie are the unlikely heroes, who you think are out for selfish reasons, until they redeem themselves by saving the young hero at the last minute. The droids, who many think of as comic relief, are the jesters that tell this tale from the stands (like the Muses or Chorus of an ancient Greek play). Whether you see the story from an Arthurian view, an ancient Greek epic view or a science fiction view, this story plays to everyone’s fantasy, making it a timeless film in any way you perceive it.

Characters and Interpretation
For a movie of this magnitude, the creators pushed the current effects to their potential. Ships in space, for example, were simply hanging from strings on a green screen, and tipped to signify movement. The explosions on the Death Star attack were dioramas and firecrackers set off by passing trucks. The camera work, although not the best, manages to take the vastness of space and the infinite beyond and translate it into modern cinema, bringing a space obsessed society to its knees.

Some of the greatest characters were born in this simple and vast film. For example, Han Solo, the coolest guy you know, helps Luke and Kenobi with the speed and agility of the Millennium Falcon. For those of you unaware, Solo had previously been employed by Jabba the Hutt, a crime lord on Tatooine and general scuzz. Anyway, Solo was carrying some illegal spices aboard his ship (The Falcon had been previously owned by Lando Calrissian, but he lost it to Solo in a card game called sabaac) when Imperial vessels attempted to search it. He dumped the spices before being pulled in, and that’s the reason Jabba puts a price on his head and sends Boba Fett. (Believe it or not, Boba Fett’s first appearance was on the Star Wars Christmas Special in 1978; the bounty hunter was introduced in a cartoon where Luke and Chewie needed help.)

Luke Skywalker, the arrogant and inexperienced farm boy, learns a few things about courage and becomes a hero. Why is he so important to the saga? Luke is the same base that Vader (Kenobi’s former apprentice) was. But Vader failed when met with the challenges of being a Jedi Knight and fell to the dark side of the Force. It is Skywalker’s triumph over temptation that corrects his predecessor’s faults. (In Arthurian legend, Sir Lancelot fell from grace when he slept with Guinevere, Arthur’s bride. Lancelot’s son, Sir Galahad, corrected his father’s mistakes by being pure of sin. He was rewarded by getting a glance at the Sangrail (Holy Grail), while his father, who searched for it as well, did not.)
Darth Vader is perhaps one of the most fiendish villains ever to hit the screen. He is unforgiving, unfaltered and stubborn. When A New Hope came out, no one even thought of Vader being Skywalker’s father. He was just the previous apprentice of Obi-Wan who had fallen to the dark side. This spin on Vader, as an unrelated-to-Luke entity, is very interesting. For example, Vader, in his jealousy, hates Obi-Wan for not understanding him. This is why he strikes him down in the Death Star. Then Vader finds out that Obi-Wan had a new apprentice; that a younger, more ready learner had replaced him. This outrages him even more, pushing him to the brink of insanity, and setting the stage for The Empire Strikes Back, where his hatred for Skywalker is fueled by his loneliness as the last remaining Jedi.

Come by Ben’s Movie Reviews (Congrats on 50 posts, buddy) to find the remaining parts of this series: The Empire Strikes BackShadows of the Empire by Steve Perry, and Return of the Jedi.

Safe journeys, space fans….

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

(Not Quite) 50 Movies I'm Looking Forward To

I know I've already hit my 50th post, but sticking with that theme, this entry will list 50 movies that I'm looking forward to seeing in the next year or so. It'll give you guys a glimpse of what is to come in case you aren't already privy, and when you see the trailers for these movies in three or four months, you'll be like, "Oh yeah, Ben was talking about that one." These are in no particular order, by the way. (Editor's note: 50 is too many. So here's what I've got for you. I think it's 28.)

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Sidney Lumet is 83 years old and still making movies. He has directed over 50 movies in his career, the most prominent being 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Network. His most recent movie will star Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers who rob their parent's "mom and pop" store. The trailer is to your right. Marisa Tomei also stars.

Written by Diablo Cody, a stripper and famous blogger, this cheery-looking dramedy about a pregnant girl stars Ellen Page, Michael Cena, and Rainn Wilson (aka Dwight from "The Office"). It looks pretty lighthearted and it's directed by Jason Reitman, the same guy who did Thank You For Smoking, which was great. The movie has such good buzz that Cody has been churning out scripts left and right, the most ridiculous being one set to star Megan Fox (from Transformers) as a cheerleader who gets possessed and starts eating boys in Jennifer's Body.

I Am Legend
Granted, this Will Smith thriller looks kind of out there. I think the idea of vampires being around and actually seeing them are two different things, and the filmmakers probably should have taken the route of not showing the vampires, or at the very least made us wait until we were sitting in the theater to see them. Hopefully they won't suffer the same fate as M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, where the movie was great until they showed us the monster. That said, it's a Will Smith movie, so there's a 97% chance I'll see it.

The Happening
Speaking of M. Night, his next flick revolves around Mark Wahlberg and his family as they must survive a global environmental crisis or some sort of natural disaster (details are foggy at this point). The studios are purposely releasing this on June 13th, which just so happens to be Friday the 13th. I love Night's movies, so I'm definitely seeing this. By all accounts I've heard, this is his best script since The Sixth Sense.

Be Kind, Rewind
Jack Black and Mos Def star in this comedy about videotapes getting erased and those two doing remakes all of the movies using little to no budget. Looks like a lot of fun. From Michel Gondry, the guy who directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets
I don't care what you say, I loved the first one. I'm totally in for this. Coming December 21st.

There Will Be Blood
This movie will not be for everybody, as it looks really long and probably won't have a lot of action in it. Think The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, but the plot revolves around an oil baron taking land in early 1900's America. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, who only comes out of semi-retirement for great scripts nowadays, so I'm interested to see his performance. The movie is based on Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!" and is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights).

Cassandra's Dream
I haven't ever seen a Woody Allen movie, but this one looks like it could break that streak. Starring Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor as brothers who get in over their heads, this one can't really be explained because I'm not 100% sure what it's about. Check out the trailer if you're interested, but in any case it comes out on January 4th.

Apparently the real title for this movie is going to be revealed sometime in the very near future, and after a wave of online marketing, it's about time. The movie is framed around people who somehow stumble across a personal video camera in Central Park and watch the tape, which takes up most of the movie, and documents a monster attack on New York City. Details are really hard to come by, as the project is being kept top secret. But they've done a good job of making the trailer look interesting, and J.J. Abrams (creator of Alias and Lost) is producing, so maybe it'll be good. Who knows. If you can't figure out when this hits theaters, you should probably smack yourself really hard in the face and look again.

This Diane Lane technological thriller looks pretty good from what I can see. The plot centers on her and Colin Hanks (I loved him in Orange County) as FBI agents searching for a serial killer who kills people based on the number of hits he gets on his website, which shows the victim being tortured with every click. Cool premise, but I'm going to go ahead and guess that Diane Lane's ex-husband is the killer. Don't you get that impression from the trailer?

And speaking of Diane Lane, she and Tom Jane star opposite Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon Levitt in this suspense thriller based on an Elmore Leonard novel. Lane and Jane (ha!) play a husband and wife who witnessed a murder, and Rourke and JGL play the assassins out to get them. It also stars the not-terrible Johnny Knoxville and Rosario Dawson, if I'm not mistaken. I have no idea when it's going to be released, since it was supposed to come out mid-way through 2007. The trailer for it is here, though.

This movie has been in development for a while, and it's good to see that Stallone is still pumping stuff out these days. After that R-rated trailer hit the internet with excessive violence showcased at every corner, I was really excited for this movie. But Lion's Gate has revamped the trailer into a more kid-friendly version that looks like the movie could go straight to DVD and be right at home next to Pterodactyl on the shelves of Blockbuster. Hopefully when the movie actually comes out it'll be more like the first trailer, but the prospect of seeing Stallone decked out as Rambo in the theaters has already guaranteed 6 dollars from me.

Vantage Point
I'm normally not into all those Crash-esque types of movies with different storylines going on at the same time, but this one looks really action packed. Granted, it'll probably be really political (that's the nature of the beast when you're dealing with a movie about a presidential assassination), but I think it should be worth it. Dennis Quaid makes his triumphant return to film (just a joke - he hasn't been gone that long) alongside veteran actors Forest Whittaker and Sigourney Weaver.

Drillbit Taylor
From super-creator Judd Apatow comes something completely different - a comedy. That was sarcasm, by the way. Owen Wilson stars as a homeless man who gets hired to be some high school kids' bodyguard because they think he's in the military. It could be really terrible, but it looks like it's good for a few laughs.

Iron Man
This one looks like it could be Superman Returns with explosions and Robert Downey, Jr. From the trailer alone we can already tell there will be a lot more action than the previously mentioned DC movie (this one is Marvel-based), and even though I'm generally a fan of DC content, I'm hoping this one will be better than Bryan Singer's most recent attempt at the genre. After all, Robert Downey, Jr. playing a drunk is a no-brainer. They couldn't get Billy Bob Thorton for the role, so he was the next logical choice. (Sigh. That's a joke, too. I just wanted to clarify so no one was actually picturing Billy Bob as a superhero.) I have heard, though, that this will be similar to Superman Returns in that all of the action is supposed to be in the sequel, so this is another origin story. But the cast is good (Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges round it out), so I'm looking forward to it. Hits theaters May 8th.

The Dark Knight
Holy crap, I can't wait for this movie. I thought that Batman Begins was the best comic book movie ever made, and this sequel should be amazing. I've been a supporter of Heath Ledger as the Joker since they first announced he was cast, and I've been hearing a lot of great things about his performance ("he has zero empathy," "he's absolutely maniacal," "it's the scariest performance [Michael Caine] has ever seen"). The only downside I can see is if they get a case of Spider-Man 3 syndrome and try to fit too many things into one movie. The cast has already grown to Aaron Eckhardt as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, Anthony Michael Hall as Edward Nygma/The Riddler, and a possible cameo by The Scarecrow from the last film. I'm sure Christopher Nolan learned from Sam Raimi's mistakes, and I have high hopes for this one. In theaters July 18th.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
With the exception of The Dark Knight, this is the one I'm looking forward to the most. The title's a little excessive, Cate Blanchett is in it, Sean Connery won't come out of retirement to reprise his role as Dr. Jones, and Marcus Brody and Sallah won't be in it (Denholm Elliot died of cancer in 1992 and John Rhys-Davies wasn't asked to return), so those are some huge downers. Hopefully the presence of Shia LaBeouf will add to the magic of seeing Harrison Ford with that fedora and bullwhip on the big screen for the fourth time. Once again, the plot is being kept really secret, but I'd prefer it that way. Spielberg is refusing to use a lot of computer generated technology in order to keep that action pulp feel to the movies and keep them in continuity with the three previously released films, which I think is a great decision. Set to whip into theaters on May 22nd.

Crank 2: High Voltage
Jason Statham returns as Chev Chelios, and I couldn't be happier about it. Logic be damned, this is going to be a hell of a fun movie. Apparently the plot is loosely based around the Chinese replacing Chev's heart with a synthetic heart that requires jolts of electricity for him to stay alive this time. The writers/directors of the first one are back for the sequel, and they said something like "if you are going to do a sequel to a movie like Crank, it's gotta be 20 times more outlandish." Statham read the script and said it was so outrageous that he HAD to be in it. The only sad part is that we won't see this crank into theaters until late next year.

Game/Unknown Title
From the same writer/directors as Crank and Crank 2 comes a high concept futuristic thriller in the vein of The Running Man. In the future, people play video games - but the way they play is by controlling other people in a dangerous environment like a gladiator. The number one ranked player in the world, Kable (played by Gerard Butler), has to overthrow the game and discover his own true identity. Michael C. Hall (who plays the title character in my favorite show right now, "Dexter") has signed on to play Ken Castle, the main antagonist and creator of the gaming world. They are currently filming this, and I've heard they are filming Crank 2 back to back with it, so I'm guessing this will be out sometime in the summer. It SOUNDS like a summer movie. It was called Game, but I guess they've recently changed the title to something else. We'll see what it turns into.

This looks really funny. It's about a group of guys who travel across the country to "Skywalker Ranch" to steal a copy of Star Wars: Episode I before it comes out as their dying friend's last wish. It looks like Harold and Kumar for sci-fi fans, as the guys have run-ins with Trekkies, conventions, and celebrities (including Shatner!). The trailer is here, and the movie hits theaters on January 18th.

Speed Racer
The Wachowski's are back, this time directing a family friendly version of the 60's anime Speed Racer. Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, and Susan Sarandon star. Always searching for new ways to break boundaries, the Wachowski's have invented a completely new camera apparatus which supposedly focuses on multiple planes at the same time. You know how when you stare at your finger directly in front of your face, everything in the background goes blurry? This camera has two cameras built into it that focuses on both planes simultaneously, which will make the movie seem more like the original 2-D cartoon. This sounds revolutionary, and I'm really anxious to see a clip of what it actually looks like on film. Races into theaters May 9th. (OK - I'll stop with the puns now.)

John Hancock/Hancock
Another Will Smith movie, this time costarring Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman. Smith is a drunken superhero who has fallen out of favor with the public and enters a questionable relationship with his publicist's wife as the publicist tries to repair his image. Sounds like it could be a new take on some old subject matter. I like all the actors involved, and once again it falls under the 97% rule previously mentioned about I Am Legend. Coming to theaters July 2nd.

Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller, this one sounds awesome: a group of actors shooting a war movie are forced to become the soldiers they are playing through a series of freak occurrences. Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, and Matthew McConaughey. Owen Wilson was originally intended to play McConaughey's part, but due to that pesky little attempted suicide thing, he had to drop out. Seriously though - all the best for a speedy recovery, Owen. In theaters July 11th.

Eagle Eye
Another DJ Caruso/Shia LaBeouf team-up (the first being Disturbia), this one has a great cast lined up as well. Shia plays a young slacker (nobody does it better right now) whose twin brother mysteriously dies. He and his single mom find out they have been framed as terrorists, so they must work together to extricate themselves from a cell plotting a political assassination. Billy Bob Thorton, Rosario Dawson, and Michelle Monaghan also star. Comes out August 8th.

Y: The Last Man
This one is more rumor than anything at this point, but I'm still really looking forward to it. DJ Caruso has been tapped to direct this one too, but this is based on a comic about Yorick Brown, the last man on earth after a plague kills every male man and animal except him and his pet monkey Ampersand. Attempting to keep his identity a secret from the women who are left on the planet, Yorick travels the globe in search of his girlfriend Beth and searches for the truth behind his survival of the plague. Due to the good working relationship between Caruso and Shia LaBeouf, I'm REALLY hoping that Shia gets the role of Yorick in this film. He's publicly stated his interest in the project, so if things go well, it just might happen. He would be absolutely perfect for this character. Check out this link to read the first issue of the comic for free here. The series is one of the best things (books included) I've ever read. There's no release date yet, but I'm guessing sometime in 2009.

Another team-up between Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott, this movie tells the story of Robin Hood from the Sherrif of Nottingham's (Crowe) perspective. Written by the guy who wrote Mystic River and L.A. Confidential, this should be a really interesting flick. No release date yet.

Max Payne
Anyone who has ever played this game will be thrilled with the news that Mark Wahlberg has been cast as renegade cop Max Payne. Man, talk about perfect casting. This movie should be a combination of Sin City and the Matrix in the way it's shot, so if they stick to the storyline that went down in the game (which was really good), this movie should rock pretty hard.

I left the biggest one for last. This isn't coming out until May 22nd, 2009, but start getting ready for it. It's going to change the way we watch movies. The premise is pretty out of this world (literally), as it follows a young man injured in a war in the future is forced to take over an exotic planet rich in bio-diversity, but eventually crosses over and protects the indigenous people from the very people who sent him there in the first place. It may not sound that great, but the technology involved is going to blow some minds. James Cameron is directing, and he has taken it way beyond any normal production. He and a linguist from the University of Southern California developed an entire language and culture for the indigenous alien race, the Na'vi. Like the Wachowski's, Cameron is also innovating new ways to shoot his movie. He is putting two high definition cameras into the body of one camera to create high-def depth perception. And most incredibly, he has created a virtual reality camera. Get this - he wants his actors to use motion capture technology, but instead of old motion capture where the environment is added after the actors have done their parts, Cameron's virtual reality camera allows him to directly see how the actors' virtual personas interact with the movie's digital world in real time and direct the scenes as if he were shooting the entire thing live action. He's also created a performance-capture technology that allows for improved capture of actors' facial expressions and eye movements. This should put Beowulf to shame. This is really unbelievable stuff that he's working on, here. Leave it to this guy to be the innovator - the T-1000 metal melting in Terminator 2, the crossfades from the sunken ship to the CGI ship in Titanic: James Cameron knows what he's doing. I can't wait to see what this looks like.

In similar news, Variety reports that half of all movie screens are set to be digital by 2013, with 3-D capabilities, and Jeffrey Katzenburg (the head of Dreamworks) predicts as many as twelve to eighteen 3-D movies per year by 2010. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of effect all this has on the industry. Until next time...

P.S. - If you hated this article, then suck it up and come back again. I won't be doing it again for a long time. If you loved it, sorry. I covered about as much as I could cover for 2008, so it'll be a while before you see another one of these types of posts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

T.A.O.J.J.B.T.C.R.F., Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

UPDATE: I've since rewatched TAOJJBTCRF and you can find my (much kinder) thoughts on the film right here.

My 50th post! Thanks to all the readers out there. Hopefully I can keep this going for at least another 50.

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt

Well, as far as this one goes, there isn't much to say. The title says it all - and I mean "it all." Nothing else happens. I knew it wouldn't be as good as 3:10 to Yuma, but this was one of the slowest movies I've seen in a long time. The industry is going to have to do a lot better than this to revive the long-dead western. Hopefully the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men (which is a modern western) can make up for this film.

Visually, the movie is great - the cinematography lived up to expectations, with some beautiful-looking scenes of Jesse and his gang robbing a train (they even managed to make THAT boring!) and some cool shots where just the outsides of the frame were out of focus to imply a sort of dream-like trance. But plot-wise, it was like a bunch of junior high girls talking behind each other's backs. Someone would say something, and it would get tense and anxious for a minute, but then the situation would diffuse and everyone would breath a sigh of relief that no one was shot. Repeat that for two hours and forty minutes, and that pretty much sums up this movie. I've got a decent analogy for the movie, but it's too inappropriate to print here, so ask me if you want to know what it is.

Brad Pitt was excellent as the melancholy Jesse James, while Casey Affleck (who was good in Gone Baby Gone) was more annoying than anything else as Robert Ford, the young man who idolized Jesse, joined his gang, and eventually killed the notorious cowboy. He spoke with a broken voice for most of the movie, having an effect reminiscent of Mos Def in 16 Blocks or Adam Sandler in The Waterboy - distracting. Overall, I thought it was really detrimental to the film. But good performances generally can't save a movie with no plot. I think the movie is intended to be a dramatic character study comparing two men at different points in their lives - one at the peak of his fame, one looking to become famous. But they really could have made this a lot more interesting to those of us who weren't watching for the technical execution of how the movie was made. We just want some cool train robberies or gunfights in the street, or a cattle drive - SOMETHING. After all, this is supposed to be a western, right?

Little trivia for you: Shia LaBeouf originally competed with Casey Affleck for the role of Robert Ford, but the filmmakers decided Shia was too young for the part.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore

This was a really cool movie. George Clooney's directorial debut was fantastic, especially for someone who's never stepped behind the camera before. The movie is based on an autobiography of Chuck Barris, a really interesting guy who created and produced some hit game shows in the 1960's and 70's. In his biography, Barris claims to have worked for the CIA during that time as an assassin, so this movie follows that possibility and shows what Chuck's life would have been like running game shows and killing people at the same time. The movie intercuts the story with real interviews of friends of Barris, such as Dick Clark and other game show personalities.

I hate Drew Barrymore almost as much as I hate Kirsten Dunst, but she was actually passable in this movie. She played Chuck's love interest, the flower-power free spirit Penny, and the role suited her. Sam Rockwell (Nic Cage's partner in Matchstick Men) was great as Barris, playing both ends of the cool and paranoid spectrum like Leo DiCaprio did in The Aviator. Clooney cast himself as the CIA handler who hires Barris, and he does a fine job with the character. Obvious Clooney-friend Julia Roberts makes an appearance as well, breezing through her role as another CIA operative who throws a wrench into Chuck's life right when he's finally making it big.

I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say that this is probably worth your time if you're a fan of any of the actors/actresses involved, and if you're a Clooney fan, this is almost a must-see. To this day, no one really knows if Barris' claims are true. The CIA has released a statement saying "it is ridiculous, and it's not true. We could find no record of him ever working here," but we all know that if they really told us the truth, they'd have to kill us. Until next time...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Revenge of the Sith

By Guest Reviewer Alan Trehern [And Updated by Alan Trehern! © 2013]

I know it has been a long time since my review of Attack of the Clones, but as I said in previous articles, the 30 year anniversary of the STAR WARS trilogy is throughout 2007, so I'm still in boundaries. (And if you ever question me again, there's no telling what may happen. I'll kill you and your brother.) (Yikes! I like this guy! - Trehern, 2013)

Speaking of revenge, in Episode III, directed by Lucas and released in 2005, we see the apex of the new trilogy, or those taking place before the old trilogy (Yeah, the "prequel trilogy," nutsack. - Trehern, 2013). It has been two years since the marriage of Anakin and Padmé, and Clone War is raging across the galaxy. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine has grown even more powerful within the Republic, and it seems that he will not relinquish that power anytime soon. A strange character by the name of General Grievous makes his appearance, bringing up the topic of underdeveloped characters (again!). Another character, Count Dooku, who had some potential (not alot), is killed off within the first 15 minutes, but alas the inane acting of Obi-Wan and Anakin stays constant. I'm sure many of you have seen this film, as it was the highest grossing movie of 2005 (maybe?), so I'll skip the plotline and focus more on possible problems and refinement of the bridge between the two trilogies.

Lucas has a knack for creating outrageous and innovative characters, I'll give him that much, but he goes through them like sticky notes. While there are many memorable characters in the old trilogy, the new trilogy (Episodes I, II and III) lack this most necessary of attributes. Minor and secondary characters hold the entire picture together, taking you into subplots and such, giving you a feel of how expansive the universe really is. The most important subplot that SHOULD have appeared in the film was the formation of the Rebel Alliance under the tyrannical Republic (soon to be Empire). According to the story, Padmé Amidala helped lead the group, with such rebels as Mon Mothma, Bale Organa (Princess Leia's adoptive father from Alderaan) and Admiral Ackbar (famed front man for Admiral Ackbar Cereal). However, due to time constraints and editing, Lucas approved the deletion of every scene concerning the formation of the Rebellion. Doing such a thing almost eliminated a crucial element from the old trilogy. 

Other characters that were featured in the film, for seconds it seemed, were General Grievous, who we know nothing about from the film. According to sources, he was an alien who grew ill and used technology to keep him alive, a precursor experiment to the work done on Vader.

I even felt that Mace Windu's legacy in the trilogy was short-lived. He was barely featured, but somehow his presence was crucial in the turning of Skywalker. I can't feel bad for the death of a character if he was hardly featured (i.e. the death of Qui-Gon).

"Writing Backwards (TM)"
This idea of undeveloped characters brings me to my film-scripting theory called writing backwards. If I was in charge of authoring the new trilogy, I would have watched the old ones (again) and then start to write the new story backwards, starting from the first minutes of A New Hope and ending at the beginning of Episode I. With this in mind, as you establish characters toward the end of their trilogy career, you develop them starting out important, and then writing how they arrived to be so. For instance, Darth Maul could have served as the Emperor's apprentice through the entire three films, taking him from Episode III as the powerful and regal warrior, such as Darth Vader was, enforcing the law and killing off the Jedi. In Episode II, he continues to prove himself in battle to earn Sidious' approval (Palpatine in disguise) and in Episode I he is the silent and obedient apprentice he was portrayed as. Done and done.
Courtesy of Somebody...

"Writing Backwards" would also solve the problem of the story of the Rebel Alliance. Maybe Darth Maul was killed in Episode II, and Anakin turned to the dark side then, creating Darth Vader a movie early, and filling in the almost 20 year gap between A New Hope and Revenge of the Sith. Episode III could also have answered such questions as "How did Han Solo drop that smuggling order?", "How did Han win the Millenium Falcon from Lando?", "How did Grand Moff Tarkin rise to power?", and "Was every single Jedi really killed?" In my opinion, Episode III presented more questions than answers, and as to the still enigmatic saga, it still has holes and missing pieces.

The Clone Wars and Pre-Episode IV Legends

In all my years of Star Wars research, I've come across some strange legends and myths created about the Star Wars universe, many written by authors of the expanded universe. For instance, I was not expecting the Clone Wars to be robots versus the clones of one guy (who just happened to be Boba Fett's father). No, originally, in my mind and many others', the Clone Wars were the Jedi fighting out-of-control clones of everybody: soldiers, Jedi and rulers alike. It was believed that Palpatine had multiple clones of himself at his disposal to protect him. The Mandolorians also played a crucial role, and their armor was somehow pivotal in the war (hence Boba Fett's, who was the product of the war).

Another legend speaks of Yoda as a Jedi Master from centuries ago, and that he had been on Dagobah for centuries, not just decades. However, he did train Jedi on the planet, perhaps even a young Obi-Wan, who should have been trained by Yoda only, giving a more emotional tie to the characters of Kenobi, Yoda, Anakin and Luke.
So I guess that's it for the trilogy of Episode I, II and III. I hope you enjoyed it, because I disregard these events when reviewing the old trilogy, for the reasons listed above. So tune in soon for A New Hope installment, where it all started. 

Safe journey, space fans...

Sunday, November 4, 2007

American Gangster, Wristcutters: A Love Story

American Gangster
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor

I had really high expectations for this one, and it kind of let me down. Don't get me wrong: it was good, but it just didn't have that extra element to take it to the next level. I'm sure Denzel will get the requisite Oscar nomination for his performance (deservedly so, in my opinion), but Russell Crowe's character kind of sucked. I was more disappointed with this aspect of the movie than anything else. The legendary Ridley Scott chose to shoot the movie in a parallel fashion so Frank Lucas (Denzel) and Ritchie Roberts (Crowe) didn't meet up until the very end of the movie, and I think this was a mistake. The best parts were when the two were acting together in the same room, and I think the whole thing would have greatly benefited from them playing up the fact that two of the best actors on screen today are starring in the same film. Denzel's family scenes were pretty good, but Crowe's were not nearly as interesting. Yes, they did this for a reason, but I just don't really think it was necessary to harp on the paradox that Crowe is a womanizing cop while Denzel is running a fair (but illegal) operation. We get it. They're different.

American Gangster was good, but not great. It was really long (2 hours and 40 minutes), but that part didn't bother me as much as it might have bothered other people. I think when you take on a character-driven movie like this that is so epic in scale, you have to show the rise of the character so his eventual fall actually means something to the audience. You can't just jump in halfway through his career as a drug lord with an already-established power base. American Gangster did a great job of avoiding this and giving us just enough of Frank Lucas' life on both ends of the movie. There were some great appearances by Cuba Gooding, Jr. (What has HE been up to lately? A Boat Trip sequel?) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (One of my new favorite actors. He was fantastic in Serenity), so that was a nice surprise that I didn't expect going in. I think my best analysis I could give of this movie is that it has a nasty case of Wild Wild West syndrome. The trailer (or music video, in WWW's case) was better than the actual movie.

I almost guarantee this is going to be a "TNT New Classic" in a year, so wait until then and catch it for free on TV, or rent it when it comes out. It was good, but there's really no need to see this in the theater. Fun fact: Ridley Scott said in an interview that thirty-five locations was reasonable for a film, but he broke a record with this movie with a staggering one hundred and eighty locations, most of them in Harlem.

Wristcutters: A Love Story
Director: Goran Dukic
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon

Don't judge it by its title. Aside from Shoot 'Em Up (which was a polar opposite to Wristcutters), this was my favorite movie of the past four or five months. I'm sure most of you haven't heard of it, so here's the trailer to get you a little more acclimated.

If you liked the trailer, you'll like the movie. I loved it because it's an interesting concept that I've never seen hashed and rehashed on film before. Anything original these days will at least grab my attention. I used to purposely avoid indie films, but in recent years I've broadened my horizons and given them a chance. It just so happens that indie films give me just as much (if not more) enjoyment as huge blockbusters. Almost all of the independent films that I've seen have been really good: Amelie, Brick, Memento, Fargo, Little Miss Sunshine, The Big Lebowski, Garden State, Shaun of the Dead - the list goes on. I know there are some terrible indie films out there, but I've been lucky with the ones that I've seen. It's just refreshing to see a high-concept movie executed on such a great level without relying on huge budgets or crazy special effects to connect with their audience.

I was a little distracted by Patrick Fugit while I was watching the movie because I knew I'd seen him in something else but couldn't for the life of me remember what it was. I later discovered he was the main character in Almost Famous. He carried the movie well, and I wouldn't mind seeing him in more of these type of films. And I must admit, I'm not really a Shannyn Sossamon fan since she has a penchant for playing really morose, drugged out characters. But she was surprisingly charming, affable, and gorgeous in this movie. I thought she did a great job. There is also something mesmerizing about a movie like this where there is such a clearly defined mission (find the girl, find the people in charge), but great things happen along the way.

It's a shame that most of you will never see this. Phil McCarty (former bassist of The Chris McCarty Band) reminded me that the concept is slightly based on a play of Jean-Paul Sarte, an existential French writer from the mid-1900's. No Exit follows three people trapped in a room together (supposedly hell), but it is only hell because they make it hell for each other. Wristcutters is similar, but a lot more upbeat than No Exit - after all, Wristcutters is a comedy. Anyway, I can't tout it highly enough. I promise you won't suddenly turn emo if you see it. Support independent film. Until next time...