Tuesday, June 30, 2009

“I understand you’re a man who knows how to get things.”

Every once in a while, I like to expose myself to the Oscar-level drama films. Stuff that is generally accepted as having a message, and is about something important. It helps me justify that impulse monocle purchase of a few years ago, because I’m classy. Don’t know why I started that off as a lead in to saying that I saw 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption for the first time recently. Going in, I knew two things: it was based on a Stephen King story, and it was about prison.

Well, its definitely about prison. Shawshank Reformatory, to be exact. A young New England banker is sentenced to life in Shawshank for the murder of his wife. He spends the next twenty years adjusting to life on the inside, interacting with the other inmates and changing peoples’ lives. Oh yeah, and it’s a period film that takes place over several decades (it is 142 minutes long)

CharactersAndy Dufresne: Our hero, played by Tim Robbins. A whiz with money, he endures his prison term with stoicism, confident in his innocence. He starts up little hobbies, like carving a chess set, or setting up a library for the inmates, or helping the guards with their income tax forms, or trying to avoid prison sodomy. Andy’s whole arc is about how a guy like him can not only survive in prison, but also take advantage of things so as to more or less thrive. He’s a persistent, doggedly patient man, and seems determined to bring a little culture into the big house. Of course, there’s more to his serene patience than he lets on, and by the end of the film, you realize just how much of a magnificent bastard of an intellectual badass he is.

“Red” Redding: Morgan Freeman is the narrator, a long-time resident of Shawshank who’s got quite a successful smuggling racket going on, providing goods at negotiable rates. He’s sly and knows how life is on the inside, and eventually becomes Andy’s best friend. He actually gets a very real character arc as Andy keeps prodding him to feel hope.

Warden Norton: The (generally) soft spoken warden of Shawshank who says “Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me.” He’s a quietly threatening presence, but favorable to those on his good side. He and Andy get an interesting dynamic going when he discovers Dufresne is quite the number cruncher, but near the end of the movie, the warden gets into a weird twist where he suddenly becomes truly eeeeeeviiiiilll for no clear reason. He was a hardass before, but he becomes a real asshole, and I never picked up on “why” exactly.

Captain Hadley: Warden Norton’s dragon (look it up on tvtropes), he’s the muscle of the guards, a balled up fist in a metal gauntlet holding a granite fist broken off of a very large statue. He’s a mean bastard who’s not above beating the shit out of the inmates when they get out of line, but he can be reasoned with, as Andy finds out. This leads to a hilariously badass moment when he confronts an inmate named Boggs in his cell. Interestingly enough, he’s played by Clancy Brown, a veteran voice actor and the man behind the Superman: The Animated Series’ Lex Luthor.

Tommy: A young delinquent with a small role, he has an arc where he gets taken in under Andy’s wing so he can study for the GED exam. He’s a likable guy but not in the movie for long.

Brooks: An “institutionalized” man and the guy who ran the prison library when Andy got there. His major arc was the sad tale of his life after being released from prison and unable to adjust to life on the outside.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Filmed on location at the Mansfield Reformatory and other places in Ohio, director Frank Darabont did an excellent job capturing not only the grim mood of prison, but also the period feel. Hell, watching it, I thought the movie was made back in the 80s and not the early 90s. In terms of fantastic shots, the one iconic shot of Andy in the rain that gets used for every clip about the movie stands out. The context of that is, of course, spoilerific, but it’s a great moment.

The pacing of the film is slow, which is understandable, considering the length of time Andy spends there. The payoff near the end is completely worth the wait, though I have to admit I was getting a little antsy in places wishing the plot would stop shuffling its feet.

Based on a Stephen King short story and adapted by veteran scriptwriter (and director) Frank Darabont. Both of those men can write very, very well. In a drama, characterization is the crux of the story, and it abounds in spades. Just about anybody with an important supporting role gets some kind of arc, and the overall story gently nudges the audience into thinking that hope isn’t really such a bad thing. It could have been shoved down the audience’s throat, but the film doesn’t really get hamfisted about it very often. I appreciate its respect for my intelligence. Oh yes, and the dialog is much sharper and wittier than I expected.

Then there is the payoff, which is so brilliantly set up and perfectly well-earned by Andy that you can’t help but laugh all the way through it. However, and this is entirely my own opinion, the story seems to lose a lot of steam after the payoff scene. I don’t know, maybe I just feel that way because the payoff was so brilliantly and intellectually delicious that I felt like it should’ve been time to drop the curtain and roll the credits.

Its been a few weeks now, but the movie has a score and a number of period songs that work well. Aside from that, nothing else to report.

The Shawshank Redemption is a very good movie that deserves its accolades. Oddly enough, it was nominated for several Oscars, but never won. It’s a great movie with fantastic characterization and dialog. A slow burn of a plot, but it rewards the audience’s patience. Yeah. I can recommend it with confidence.

Monday, June 29, 2009

“What do you mean “Look in the dog?”

On the advice of several friends, I sat down and watch Guy Ritchie’s 2000 film Snatch. I was told it was both insane and hilarious, and, curious to watch a Guy Ritchie movie, I figured this was as good a time as any to set my sights on it.

There’s two plots here, actually. The first involves a jewel thief with a big honkin’ diamond stopping in London and several people’s attempts to get the rock. The second involves an underground boxing ring that stumbles upon an unintelligible Irish traveler (“gypsy” or “pikey” if you want to get offensive) who can knock people out in one shot. The plots eventually intersect and unsavory people proceed to do bad things to each other.

Turkish: Jason Statham in a non-action role. Turkish is an underground boxing promoter who somehow ends up arranging a fixed fight with an unhinged gangster/promoter for…some reason or other. He’s the narrator and kind of likable. Kind of. Has a sidekick named Tommy who’s pretty dumb. Doesn’t undergo an arc.

Franky Four Fingers: Benicio Del Toro. A jewel thief who’s disappearance triggers the confluence of bad things happening to bad people in the film. Apparently has a gambling problem, but we never actually see him gamble since he’s written out of the film fairly early.

Avi: Dennis Farina as a Jewish American…crime lord? Businessman? I honestly don’t know. Anyway, the diamond is intended for him, so when Franky goes missing, he becomes very interested in finding out what happened to his valuable item. Doesn’t have a character arc.

Boris the Blade: Rade Sherbedgia is a Russian gangster who is trying to get the diamond for his own interested parties. A violent man with a Rasputin-like durability. Doesn’t have a character arc.

Tyrone/Vinny/Sol: Sol & Vinny run a pawn shop and get hired by Boris to steal the diamond. They bring in the rather large Tyrone as their driver. Vinny gets a gypsy dog that becomes important to the plot, but also eats a squeaky toy, which is one of the funnier gags. The three are overwhelmingly incompetent at being criminals, which is both kind of funny and kind of… awkward, since all three are black and are the only black characters in the movie. They don’t really learn anything, so they don’t get an arc.

Mickey: Brad Pitt as an unintelligible pikey/Irish traveler who lives in a caravan (British for camper) and can knock people out in one punch. He gets involved in the boxing matches, but, well, causes complications when he doesn’t throw the fights. He has an extreme devotion to his mother, always wanting to finagle a new caravan for her. When his mother’s caravan is burned down (with her in it) he gets involved in the fighting again and throws a bloody wrench in the works. I understand that its supposed to be a turning point, but I didn’t really feel anything for three reasons. 1) It doesn’t count as a character arc because he doesn’t learn anything or grow, he just reacts. 2) Its more or less his fault that she dies. 3) I watch Top Gear with some degree of regularity and have seen more than a few episodes of junk-science show Braniac, both of which have caused me to react to the destruction of caravans with uproarious laughter and no small amount of glee.

Brick Top: A gangster who runs a crooked fighting league. Psychopathic, violent, and has the odd quirk of owning a pig farm, where he feeds the bodies of his victims to the piggies so as to dispose of the bodies, which is awfully Green of him. If he had a moustache, he’d be twirling it constantly. Shockingly, he has no character arc either, because he’s always eeeeeeeeeviiiiiilllllll.

Doug the Head: I almost forgot about him. He’s a jewelry dealer who pretends to be Jewish. He’s not very competent either, but doesn’t do a whole lot either.

Bullet-Tooth Tony: Hey look, it’s The Midnight Meat Train’s Vinnie Jones! Tony is an enforcer famous for being shot six times in one fight and not giving a damn until the job was done. He’s also the only character in the film that I remotely liked, which, combined with his general deadpan deadliness makes him this film’s baddest badass. He’s got a Desert Eagle .50, gets quite a few amusing speeches, and enjoys Madonna’s pop music. Sure he doesn’t get an arc because he’s a supporting character called in to help Avi find the diamond, but he’s got two bullets in place of two missing teeth (hence the nom de guerre). He’s really damn likable, and the closest thing to a professional anything in this film.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Guy Ritchie does have some directing chops, I will give him that. He keeps the two plots moving and jumps back and forth, which reminds you that they will converge. There are a couple moments that made me go “wait, what?” Where someone in the above list gets hit by a car, the same exact scene is done a few seconds earlier from a different perspective (the people hitting him) to the cause of them hitting him (namely some other people on the list inadvertently causing it). For some reason the scene didn’t work for me. There’s one scene, where Tyrone is being chased by some goons edited together with dogs chasing a rabbit that was pretty cool.

However, the coolest bit comes in the beginning, during the credits sequence. A group of Orthodox Jews enter a building, as seen on the security cameras, which proceed to track their progress through the building as they talk about this and that. As they leave one area, the camera pans to another screen with the feed from the new area. I realize its kind of awkward describing it, but its an absolutely brilliant moment.

There’s a metric assload of characters, each one with some kind of quirk and zero development. Guy Ritchie wrote the script and I honestly think that there are quite simply too many juggled characters for the movie to handle. As a result, none of them get any kind of attention to their development, and I end up sitting there going “meh” at all of them. This being a crime movie, none of them are really meant to be admirable, but some of them should at least be likable. I mean, Johnny Dangerously had a bunch of shady lowlifes, but they were all well defined and a few of the supporting characters (like Jocko) got some kind of arc. I realize I just compared Snatch. to Johnny Dangerously negatively. I’m just as surprised as you are.

The sound is fantastic in this film. The soundtrack is stylish, quirky and as unhinged as the film. I do have to applaud the novelty of a dog barking and having the sound of a squeaky toy come out at the same time.

I’m going to get hell for this, but in the end, I didn’t like Snatch. because it's a bad movie. Sure, there were entertaining moments, but poor character development leads to not caring about characters, which leads to ambivalence about what happens to them, which leads to detachment from the action and plot. I honestly didn’t care how it was going to end. Sure there was the turn of events with the gypsies, but even then, I didn’t care enough to be pleasantly surprised by the comeuppance it brought. I was entertained enough to smile, but not enough to laugh with frequency. I find myself in an odd position. I can’t recommend it because it under whelmed me, but I can’t pan it because its not a badly made film. That in turn pisses me off at the film, and for that petty reason alone, I can come down on the “not recommend” side of the fence, bringing closure to this text. Let’s move on, shall we?

Friday, June 26, 2009

“Please, step away from the meat.”

The last horror film for a little while is 2009’s The Midnight Meat Train. Produced by and based on a short story by horror veteran Clive Barker, I did not know that when I viewed the film, taking it as-is. Considering the title, you might be surprised to hear that its not actually a porno.

A young photographer in what I’m certain is L.A. (but IMDB calls the setting New York even though it was filmed in California) is trying to make a name for himself. Told to basically find the moments where the dirty meet the clean, he starts scouring the night looking for interesting scenes when he stumbles upon a large, well-dressed mountain of a man with a medical bag walking around. After a unsettling confrontation with him, the photographer becomes obsessed with the stranger, who he learns is murdering and butchering people on a subway train after 2AM. What follows is more or less a game of cat and mouse.

Leon: Bradley Cooper’s Leon is our protagonist shutterbug. He starts off as a normal artsy type, obsessed with making it as a photographer and possessed of that certain artsy pretentiousness that has him bring tofu to the local greasy spoon for the cook to fry up. As Leon starts to suspect something very wrong is going on with the titular subway train, he starts getting obsessed with learning about the silent killer. Leon goes from reasonably well-adjusted photographer with a good Samaritan streak to a creepy stalker obsessed with figuring out what Mahogany’s deal is. His entire arc is a descent into this darker world that he stumbles upon.

Maya: Leon’s hot, supportive girlfriend that works at the above-mentioned greasy spoon. When he starts going off the deep end about the subway killer, she takes it hard. There’s one scene where, trying to cheer him up, she starts to strip off her top for an impromptu photo shoot (nudge, nudge) but he’s so fixated on the killer that he starts crying as he’s snapping photos, and she runs into her room crying. I guess the centerfold shoot’s always better when the photographer’s crying.

Mahogany: Vinnie Jones is a big, scary man. Mute for the duration except for one line, he delivers a brutal, authoritative, professional killer tempered with a subtle resignation that hints that he is not his own master. Body language and the eyes tell more than words ever could, and I have to admit, Jones steals the show as both the most interesting character and the film’s badass. He butchers people on a subway train, then works in a normal slaughterhouse in the daytime, which makes sense. His two major tools of the trade are a large meat tenderizing mallet and a meat hook (well, and he’s got a big, Crocodile Dundee-sized carving knife too). He also provides us with a Ted Raimi Death Scene. Ted Raimi Death Scenes are ALWAYS good. And for the record, no, I have no idea why he’s called Mahogany.

There’s also a guy named Jockis, but he’s a disposable sidekick and Brooke Shields shows up in a minor role.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Things get interesting on this front. There’s lots of gore (yeah, who knew with a title like that?), a lot of it really nasty on the subway train with bodies hanging upside down like meat. Some of the effects are clearly CGI, but nothing to take you out of the story. There’s lots of the requisite gore for those of you looking for it.

However, there is something there beyond the gore and beyond the effects. Ryuhei Kitamura, the man behind the camera, knows how to make beautiful, atmospheric shots. I’m not talking about the gore scenes on the train, which have a washed out, florescent-lit quality. I was drawn in by his use of color and framing to tell a visual story in between dialog. He makes stuff like Mahogany riding an escalator up from the subway both beautiful, relevant to character building, and ominous at the same time. There are other scenes too, like a simple shot of the stairway leading down to the subway, that I want to make my desktop background. This is one of the most artistically shot horror films I’ve seen in regards to scenes that have nothing to do with blood.

Oh, and I have to mention the pre-title sequence. It’s really good, as it has a random schlub riding a train trying to get away from something before slipping on blood and catching a glimpse of the gore to come. Then the title hits the screen and in the span of those few minutes, you are treated to Midnight, Meat and Trains.

The plot is very interesting and as I was watching it, I caught a vibe of “a Ray Bradbury short story, only with buckets of blood.” Jeff Buhler adapted Clive Barker’s short story, and the plot remains interesting all the way to the ending. I have to note with some smug arrogance that I was able to call the ending about halfway through. This was the good kind of calling the ending, since the clues are laid out before the audience (particularly in some of the lighting as the story starts heading for its conclusion. Keep an eye on how brows are lit) for them to find. I was really pleased to have called the crux of the ending, since that’s what I would’ve done, albeit with a few modifications.

Dialog-wise, there really wasn’t much that caught my attention. Its not very quotable and I can’t really remember anything that anybody said. I even had to look up the title quote on IMDB. It’s a flaw, and I will subtract arbitrary points away from it, but its nothing to ruin the experience.

Sound The sound was good. Mallets striking skulls, the rumble of the subway train. Can’t remember anything from the soundtrack a few days after watching it.

I honestly did not think I would like a movie titled The Midnight Meat Train as much as I did. Its well shot, features a truly fascinating villain (that you never figure out the full story of) and features a turn of events that dips into crazy town by the end. I like that. I really like that. I like it enough that I can overcome my perpetual apathy at gorefest movies and say I really had a lot of fun with this flick. Your mileage will vary, but if you can get past the gore factor, there’s some really interesting stuff in a movie that isn’t a remake or franchise element. Its not so much scary as disturbing, but its interesting and kind of high concept, so I recommend it for that.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

“We ARE an inbred mining community, Ben”

Once upon a time audiences were given little paper glasses to put over their eyes so that they could watch black & white cinema in GLORIOUS blue & red, I mean, GLORIOUS THREE DIMENSIONS (in blue & red). 3-D popped up again in the 80s and didn’t really catch on then either. Its 2009 and once again, the ghost of three dimensions has risen from the grave, only this time the glasses are a lot nicer and not two-toned. My Bloody Valentine 3-D! (exclamation point mine) (2009) has the distinction of being one of the first of this new crop of 3-D movies out of the gate. directed by Patrick Lussier, it’s a remake of an early (and 2-D) 80s slasher flick. I first saw it on the big screen, IN 3-D! and then on the DVD in 2-D.

In a small Pennsylvania mining town an accident happened one night in the mine that caused one of the workers to go apeshit crazy and murder a bunch of people before going into a coma for a year. He comes out of it on Valentine’s Day and murders a lot more people, including a bunch of idiot teenagers throwing a party in the very same mine where the accident happened. Driven off and presumed dead, the town moves on with its life, until ten years later, when one of the survivors of the teen slaughter comes home to sell his family’s mine. Its actually a fairly complicated plot for a movie intended to stab people in the head with pickaxes.

Tom Hanniger: His dad owned the mine and he worked in it as a teen, actually causing the disaster that made the killer flip out in the first place. After the ten year jump, he comes back home to sell the mine, reconnects with his ex-girlfriend (now married and with an incredibly silent kid in his tiny role) and interestingly enough, people start dying again. Pretty suspicious, if the cops do say so themselves. He gets some decent characterization/backstory and plays up a shell-shocked survivor with a few things bubbling under the surface pretty well. His arc is about whether or not he should sell the mine, but its never brought to the forefront of the movie.

Axel Palmer:
A survivor of the teen slaughter, ten years later he’s the sheriff of town, married to Tom’s ex-girlfriend, has a kid, is having an affair and is kind of a douche. As soon as Tom comes back into town, he doesn’t like him. Since Axel’s got a few things to hide, its pretty suspicious that the murders start happening when Tom comes back to town.

Sarah Palmer: The Girl that the two men fight over. She was Tom’s girl in high school, but after he left for ten years, she settled down with Axel. This of course leads to tension in the love triangle, as she realizes that seeing Tom again after all those years is quite a shock. As the movie progresses, her arc is about who to trust, her old flame or her husband.

Harry Warden: Harry presents an odd case. He is very clearly the killer in the initial sequence, and dispatches his victims with ruthless efficiency (and a pickaxe). After the ten year jump, its not as clear if he’s back from the supposed grave or has been replaced by a copycat killer. Rather than spoil it, let’s look at how they pull off the villain. Dresses in a dark miner’s suit, with a gas mask and a lamp equipped hardhat. The mask takes away his humanity, leaving him expressionless and with a rasping re-breather as the only sound he makes. The headlamp actually makes some sense, as he operates at night and needs to see where he’s going, and has the added bonus of more or less blinding people that stare into it. It’s a fairly unsettling image that looks practical (unlike, and I hate to compare unrelated movies, ChromeSkull’s shiny face/sport coat combo from Laid To Rest). The pickaxe is also quite nasty looking, and if you’ve ever used one for manual labor, you know that they are quite heavy things that you would not want to be hit with. The blue-collar tool turned to murderin’ is both practical, and unsettling when you think about it.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Oddly enough, I liked it better in 2-D on the small screen. Odd, I know. In 3-D, there were a lot of very, very, very obvious “Ho-ho, look its in 3-D!!” moments, like a gun barrel being slowly panned over the audience. I was expecting those gags to fail on the small screen, but without 3-D, they were just part of the movie, and weren’t all that cheesy.

Which isn’t to say the 3-D effects were bad. They were quite good on the big screen, and provided the movie with the requisite jump cuts and squirms. Eyes get poked out, pistols get thrown at the audience, that sort of thing. One particularly disturbing kill comes when Harry uses a shovel to bisect a head at the mouth, causing the body and lower jaw to fall down and the top of the head to linger around a little. I didn’t exactly enjoy typing that, but it stands out a few days after watching it, nauseating or not. Gory fun for those that love gore. In 2-D, the jumps aren’t scary (disturbing/gruesome yes, scary no), which helped me look at the rest of the film.

Take away the 3-D gimmick and its really more of a suspense/thriller with a serial killer than a slasher flick. The mood is somber, the setting remote enough to feel isolated and the film feels more interested in asking the audience who it thinks is the killer than “what’ll that rascally Harry Warden do next.” The action scenes were also not the overly edited, badly-lit mess that you see in a lot of lesser movies. You see what’s going on and can follow the action. I liked that. I didn’t have any complaints with the visuals either way, but I think, odd as it sounds, that it was better in 2-D.

First the good news. The characters are much more fleshed out than your average slasher flick victim list. Victims get introduced but are played with some subtlety. Nothing like “this is Bob, the douche bag lawyer that you want to see disemboweled.” Nobody’s really “too dumb to live” which adds a little more weight to the deaths. Its nothing particularly gripping or elaborate, but they at least tried to keep the characters from being cardboard cutouts. I can respect that.

The bad news is that I felt they fumbled the reveal at the end. I didn’t have any problems with the actual reveal and acting therein, but there is a scene in the movie that features a character who’s one of the main suspects being clearly shown as not the killer. Since the movie did that, you take him off the list of candidates, but then the movie reveals him as “it was him all along!” That’s cheating. I don’t have any problems with who the killer turns out to be, but they could’ve handled that previous scene better to leave it ambiguous instead. I didn’t like how they did that, and it really pulled me out of the movie.

The sound was fine. The killer’s Darth Vader breathing worked out pretty well. The sound effects were rather good, and I think it actually had a score, as opposed to something you’d expect in a common slasher flick. The reason I say “I think” is that I can’t really remember any of the music, since there were no attention-grabbing themes.

My Bloody Valentine 3-D is an all right slasher flick that had the potential to be actually rather good as a hybrid slasher/mystery. Sadly, that one fumble on the way to the reveal completely took me out of the movie. I’m serious. It’s a competent film completely soured for me by that bungled setup for the twist. I won’t blame you if your mileage may vary, but for me it ended up as a movie that was kind of fun, had some potential, but was ultimately forgettable.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

“I should’ve stayed in the dead box!”

I’m not big on the horror genre in general. It, along with the sports movie genre, is not an area I feel compelled to frequent with any, er, frequency. However, I am always willing to give things a shot, and genre movie nights are always fun evenings. Laid to Rest (2009) is a new movie, a straight-to-video 90 minute indie slasher flick.

An attractive young woman wakes up in a coffin in a funeral home. After getting herself free, she escapes from a mute murderer who wears a silver skull mask before being helped out by a guy and his wife. Blood and guts ensue.

The Girl/Princess: Our heroine, she’s had a nasty bump on the head and can’t remember her identity or the names of things/places too well. Sadly, this makes her sound like a student of the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good. Like many heroines in slasher flicks, she goes from being a terrified victim to the last one standing and having to face the killer alone. Really though, she swings from terrified victim to determined to face him, back to helplessly terrified to grim determination. Its jarring, and her survival through most of the film feels really, really, really, really forced because she, like the rest of the characters, is too dumb to live.

Tucker: The kindly redneck who picks up The Girl in his truck, which is without any fuel whatsoever. Walks with a serious limp, is devoted to his wife (300’s Lena Heady who only sticks around for a little bit) and didn’t really annoy me that much. Has a pickup truck in the deep south, but shockingly doesn’t have a gun rack.
Steven: A nerd who’s mother died very recently. Dragged into things against his will, has a couple bright ideas but mostly whines a lot.
ChromeSkull: The mysterious, masked killer. Has a number of odd quirks. Let’s explore! 1) Bald. 2) A serial killer of attractive young women with a weird OCD complex about filming them with an 8mm camera. 3) Has an 8mm camera that needs frequent tape changes, but also has a sophisticated cell phone and GPS system. Why doesn’t he have a digital camera?? 4) His name is also his license plate. Yes really. He has a nasty/odd looking bowie knife that has a serrated side and a normal side. He saws peoples’ heads off using the normal side. Let that sink in. 5) Has a weird obsession with gluing his mask back on at various points in the film, which comes in handy by the end. 6) That mask looks like a vac-metallized piece of plastic, but it happens to be able to deflect bullets. 7) He wears a sport coat. The lighting was mostly dim, but that’s what it looked like. 8) Likes putting his camera on his shoulder so he can look like the Predator aliens, but it also leads to choppy/bouncy picture quality. Of course, Chromey is the silent type, so we get no explanation of who he is or why he does it. He just kills women and anybody who gets in his way just because. I suppose you could infer that he’s “an artist” type, obsessed with setting up the shots, but that damn shoulder cam is not an effective way of handling things. He’s just there, kills people with a silly gimmick and is a pretty boring villain.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
The director of this film is Robert Hall, a man who has previously cut his teeth on special effects. The good news is that he’s very, very good at special effects. Blood, gore, making fatal injuries look realistic, that sort of thing. For the slasher genre, that’s pretty much the primary draw of this film. People are killed in graphic, graphic ways. What this says about the target audience’s sanity is neither here nor there, but the movie certainly kills lots of characters. If you do happen to read this and get your cinematic jollies on gory death scenes that bend/outright break the laws of physics/anatomy/bone density, I won’t spoil your fun. This movie has them, and for what it is, it does them well.
The bad news is that the lighting, editing and so on are frequently confusing. There were points where I missed something or didn’t know what was going on exactly. The pacing was also rather…off. After The Girl escapes from the funeral home she’s running through the woods/side of the road/wherever at night, understandably panicked, but clearly having bought herself some safety and then the title pops up out of nowhere. While I may not be well versed in the horror genre, I thought the title popped up at a generally tense/suspenseful/payoff moment. This one just felt…random. I didn’t feel much suspense and/or tension for most of the film.
Robert Hall wears many hats for this film, serving as writer as well. As I said above, he’s very good at special effects. Characterization and pacing, not so much. ChromeSkull is a non-entity with no personality whatsoever, and the three “heroes” that most of the movie focuses on don’t really have anything to really make you like them. They might get a little bit more meat than your average Jason victim, but they’re too bland to make you want to follow them the whole movie. Its not so much that you're sitting there wanting to see them butchered for your entertainment, but that you'd rather leave them alone and find more interesting characters to follow for 90 minutes. Sadly, this does not happen.
The sound was all right. Some industrial/techno music would blare during the intense scenes to hammer home the “this is action-packed!!” idea. There was a point where Chromey used his cell phone to “speak” by having it speak text in the sounds of his various previous female victims. It had potential, but wasn’t followed up on.

It was a very long 90 minutes. A bad movie will do that. I had no expectations going in and they were not met. My horror-movie loving friends were sorely disappointed with it as well, so it wasn’t just me in the room unable to recommend it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

“Did you know your last name’s an adverb?”

1984’s Johnny Dangerously has been something I’ve been meaning to watch for some time now. When I found out it was on Hulu.com, I figured what better way to celebrate that serendipitous discovery than going to FYE and buying the DVD… Wait a minute….

A young boy growing up in early 20th century New York wants to be an honest kid, but needing cash to pay for his mother’s surgery leads him to helping out a local crime boss. Taking on a double life as Johnny Dangerously, he eventually becomes one of the most wanted gangsters in the city, but considers going legit when a new District Attorney arrives determined to bring him in. Also, Johnny falls in love with a beautiful nightclub singer.

It’s a straightforward plot that pretty much runs on its rails all the way to the end of its 90 minutes, but this is a farcical take on gangster movies, so really, why bother nitpicking it to death? Johnny’s courtship doesn’t hit many bumps after the initial ice and you never really feel like he’s in danger or not in control of the situation. But it’s a farce, like Airplane! and The Naked Gun movies.

Johnny Kelly/Dangerously: Michael Keaton plays a character that everybody in town except his family knows is a notorious nightclub owner/gangster/etc. Hell, he even hands the “friggin’ Pope” (Dom DeLouise) a wad of cash in one scene. Johnny’s kind of a marty-stu in that just about everybody loves him, he’s almost always right, and everything is about him. But Keaton plays it with charm and a knowing grin. He’s not taking things seriously as he hams it up across the film. You like Johnny, and you end up rooting for him, despite knowing he’s a crook, and despite/because of one of the funniest gang assassinations involving Danny DeVito and a bull I’ve ever seen. Keaton has to carry the movie for it to even hope to work, and he does. I have to admit, he is quite the badass in this film.

Lil: Johnny’s love interest (Marilu Henner). She’s a sultry singer with not a lot of character development, but she “gives good banter” when she meets Johnny, which is enough to get their relationship on the road.

Danny Vermin: Joe Piscopo is this film’s villain. A thoroughly unrepentant, self-aware psychopath with a really big gun (“it shoots through schools”) who likes crime for its own sake. Its fun watching him and Dangerously trying to out-ham each other on screen. He’s two dimensional, sure, but he’s funny as hell too.

Ma Kelly: Johnny’s mom, mostly played for laughs as the dirty old woman with an endless stream of medical ailments. Frighteningly competent when push comes to shove near the end of the movie.

Tommy Kelly: Johnny’s younger brother who goes to law school (not knowing he’s being funded by his brother’s criminal career) and becomes a D.A. determined to bring in Dangerously. He’s so full of “aw gee shucks” law-abiding honesty and idealism that it makes you want to puke. Fortunately, it makes almost all of the other characters want to puke too, and Tommy gets the crap beaten out of him (physically and verbally) throughout the movie. He also gets a character arc where he has to come to grips with the revelation of his brother’s criminal career.

Jocko Dundee: Peter Boyle plays Johnny’s crime lord mentor. A very fatherly father figure who eventually retires, leaving his empire to Johnny. Has a rivalry with…

Roman Moronie: Ok, he’s a fairly minor character who’s good for about one joke, but it’s a great joke. He mangles the English language so badly when he curses people out it comes out to something like “Its fargin’ war to cork-soaking icehole bastiches!” He gets written out of the movie by the second act, but damn was he fun to watch.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
It’s a “period film” so that means old-timey cars, guns, clothing, etc. Like I said, it’s a farce also, so a lot of anachronisms creep as well, some intentional, some not.

The directing by Amy Heckerling gives it a very “movie” feel. You know the kind, when you know that a lot of it is filmed on sound stages and the lighting is fairly uniform. It has that visual look and feel of a movie from the golden age of cinema when realistic sets were needed only so far as they looked enough like what they were supposed to look like without going into obsessive-compulsive detail. I believe that was an intentional choice for this movie.

Four writers for the film: Harry Colomby, Jeff Harris, Bernie Kukoff, Norman Steinberg. That’s quite a few writers for a 90 minute flick. Then again, there’s a rapid fire endless stream of jokes, visual gags and one-liners. Since the plot is pretty linear, the sheer number of jokes muscle the story onward. The thing is, when you rapid fire the humor, not every punch line is going to hit. Some of the jokes fall flat, or are so dated to 1984 that I didn’t get them, but overall there are more hits than misses. Being a PG-13 movie (one of the first, apparently) I was rather surprised by just how much innuendo and other stuff they managed to sneak in under the radar. I like getting those kinds of surprises in a movie.

There’s one scene where Johnny breaks the fourth wall to tell the kids watching that smoking isn’t cool, even though all the gangsters in the movie are doing it. I think on repeat viewings that might bother me, but the first time through it was just kind of a surreal moment that made me laugh in a puzzled way. The characters are a little bit two dimensional, but nothing that stopped me from laughing.

One thing that really did nothing for me was the framing narrative of Johnny working in a pet store. I get what they were trying to do, and some of the jokes, like using a price gun on puppies, were great, but the pet shop scenes just kind of dragged.

You know, I can’t remember any of the music aside from Lil’s song in the night club and the “Weird Al” Yankovic song “This Is The Life” at the beginning. Those songs were amusing.

I will concede that there are flaws with this film. Most characters are more like caricatures who don’t really develop, and the plot is extraordinarily vanilla. But you know what, I laughed. For the duration of the film. For a comedy, that’s mission accomplished, right there. Great one-liners, good gags and a lot of talented actors hamming it up in a genre that doesn’t have a lot of straight-up comedies. I can see why people might not like it, but I can’t see why it isn’t more popular than it actually is.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

“I’m gonna make Gretzky’s head bleed for superfan 99 over here.”

RMWC trundles onward into the DVD shelf, grabbing Doug Liman’s Swingers (1996) for two reasons. I really love that movie and its only 96 minutes long. Funnily enough, checking IMDB, Liman also directed The Bourne Identity, as well as Jumper. That has no bearing on my intended viewing whatsoever.

PlotA group of young actors with shitty jobs in Hollywood hang out after hours and try to score chicks. Hilarity ensues.

All right, there’s a little more too it than that. You’ve got Mike, a stand up comedian who’s been reeling for six months after breaking up with his ex and moving to L.A. from New York. The movie follows him as he tries to get over his ex. It’s a simple plot, but often in comedy, simple is perfectly suitable.

Mike: Our Hero, and also Iron Man director Jon Favreau. Mike’s a nice guy, but therein lies his problem. He just can’t get over his ex girlfriend and that stunts his ability to function around his buddies. Of course, that’s the main crux of the movie. Can he get over his ex girlfriend and his own awkwardness to woo the beautiful babies? Here, Mike really is likeable, and a lot of the humor comes from the downright painfully awkward situations he gets himself into.

Trent: Mike’s best friend and a would-be actor, played by Vince Vaughan. Trent is the fast talking, action-taking flipside to Mike. Trent is the cool buddy who’s constantly trying to push Mike into self confidence (and also through leading by example). Trent is this movie’s baddass, calling anyone out on bullshit, always backing up his buddy. The only real downside to his character is that he doesn’t get a real character arc, and that difference shows by the end of the movie.

Rob: Mike’s friend from back east, recently moved to L.A. and struggling to find work as an actor. Certainly a side character, he struggles to swallow his pride after auditioning to be Goofy at Disneyland after playing Hamlet Off-Broadway. Also happens to be played by Ron Livingston, who was in Office Space.

Sue: A local who’s dad loved that Johnny Cash song, Sue is more Trent’s friend than Mike’s since they both chase the ladies with gusto. Sue’s also got an image thing going on where he projects himself as a hard-boiled badass who grew up on the streets and carries a gun around, which invariably causes trouble. Sue’s the easily pissed off one, which leads to the somewhat surprising end of the second act.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
No special effects to speak of, considering the subject and budget. All that leaves is cinematography to deliver on the mood. Liman delivers. Sure, some of the shots are deliberate shout outs to other movies, but the composition of the movie is overall very solid. Los Angeles and Las Vegas are captured in a fairly realistic way. When they roll into Vegas in the first act, Trent & Mike, Vegas looks like the swanky, fancy, neon playground that everyone expects. Then they get inside one of the lesser casinos and it looks like how the midnight-6 AM crowd on a Wednesday night would look: slow and a little bit sad.

A similar thing gets done with L.A. Its not the over-glamorized movie factory town, but its also not the crime riddled war zone of the underbelly. It’s a lower middle-class L.A. where people who drive beat up old cars go to hole in the wall jazz/swing bars and their apartments have cracks in the walls from all the earthquakes. It’s a refreshing snapshot of a nightlife scene that doesn’t really exist anymore (after all, its been more than ten years and the swing revival didn’t last very long).

Also, I have to mention that I absolutely love some of the shots in the movie. Trent pissing by the side of the road on a bright sunny morning is awesome. Mike standing in silhouette in his doorway after coming home from a bar is one of my favorite shots of all time for some reason.


An indie film like this lives or dies on the strength of its writing. Jon Favreau’s script is a solid three act story where the main character learns something about himself and the movie doesn’t waste time getting there.

More importantly, the dialogue is outstanding. I’m struggling to sound glib and urbane here in describing it and nothing good is coming to mind, and I don’t want to just start quoting it because I’ll feel like a douche. It is funny. It is damn funny. It is infinitely quotable in a variety of situations.

The soundtrack is suited to a movie about the not-wife-swapping kind of swinging. A laid back jazz soundtrack punctuated with a country song here, a rock song there just hammers home the underground feel of the movie: playing Dean Martin over the opening credits in a movie about 20-something actors in L.A. in the early-mid 90s was not a mainstream decision. Also, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy made a live appearance in the film, one of their earliest exposures to a wider audience.

I love this movie. It blends thoughtfulness, style, music and banter into a compact little package that is best viewed in the company of others. Thoroughly recommend it, and if you don’t like it, then there’s no accounting for some people’s bad taste.

This... is an awful trailer. Do not let it discourage you.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"I don't know. Fly casual."

1983’s Return of the Jedi brought the Star Wars Trilogy to a close, and appropriately that’s the next movie on the slate to watch. Once more, I’m working with the 2006 Limited Edition 2 disc set which contains the theatrical cut on one disc and the 1997 Special Editions on the erroneously named “disc 1”

Once again the director’s chair changed hands, with Richard Marquand taking over.

Han Solo is rescued from his carbonite prison and the Rebellion mounts a final offensive against the Empire and its new Death Star. In the meantime, Luke Skywalker moves toward his fated confrontation with his father, Darth Vader.

R2-D2: The little droid continues to be a Swiss Army Knife of useful MacGuffins, smuggling weapons and serving drinks at the same time.

C-3PO: So he spends almost the entire movie teamed up with Artoo, providing more comic relief. This time around though, Threepio also ends up being useful to the heroes, being revered as a god by the Ewoks of Endor. That’s definitely a first for the golden droid.

General Lando Calrissian: By this movie, Lando’s made up for his betrayal in the first movie, getting a promotion and being in on Han’s rescue. Then he separates from the other heroes to lead the assault on the Death Star and ends up being the only other person in the movies to fly the Falcon. Not bad at all.

General Han Solo: Han’s back, but doesn’t seem to really have much of an arc. He’s already become a full time hero in Empire. Here he’s more of the same and gets his romance arc with Leia completed. Still, Han Solo screen time is good screen time.

Princess Leia: Leia fully becomes an action girl, infiltrating Jabba’s Palace with style and later kicking ass on Endor. She’s also the lynchpin of this movies twist. Oh yeah, and along the way she gets captured again and turned into a pop culture sex symbol that helped usher in a generation of nerdy boys into puberty. Metal bikinis

Chewbacca: Still in the sidekick/muscle role, but Chewie finally gets a little solo time to basically turn the tide for the ground battle.

Yoda: Yoda’s not on screen much, but damn he’s still impressive. Its quite surprising how moving a puppet’s death scene can be.

Darth Vader: Vader comes across as having second thoughts. Luke’s his son, determined to confront him and the Emperor. Vader seems a little…I don’t know, mellow in this film. He doesn’t choke anyone.

The Emperor: The “guy behind the guy” and this movie’s Villain. A menacing, scheming, withered old bastard in a black bathrobe. His presence naturally lowers Vader’s menace. After all, a guy who can boss around a guy like Vader has to be bad news. Still, he doesn’t really seem to upstage Vader because the Emperor has no arc. He simply smiles sinisterly and twirls his moustache (well, if he had one)

Admiral Ackbar: It’s a trap!

Luke Skywalker: You know, considering where he was in the first movie, you wouldn’t think that Luke was this film’s badass, but he is. Okay, first he’s matured since being by his suddenly revealed father in the last film. He’s capable, powerful and one of the most powerful assets in the Rebellion. He orchestrates Han’s rescue with a LOT of contingency plans (like being captured), and kills a giant monster with only a skull. Luke’s a Machiavellian genius in this film. The real arc for him is his struggle with his bloodline. Just how much of his father’s weaknesses are in him. How much does he want to kill the Emperor? How close does he dare get to becoming amorally powerful? Its rather compelling stuff without lessening Luke’s “just as planned” gambit to redeem his father.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Three years after Empire, the special effects are the tightest of the three movies, as well as being central to the action scenes. Jabba’s a fantastic visual, the stop motion for the walkers is outstanding, and the rancor is a fantastic monster in the Ray Harryhausen tradition. In terms of fighting, the Battle of Endor probably has the best dogfight of the three. The ground battle on the other hand feels a little long to me.

In terms of directing, I’d equate it below Empire but a little bit above Star Wars. The playing around with lighting and framing to create mood is great, but the pacing is slower and has a little less tension than Empire.

I have to admit, I think the writing on Jedi is maybe the weakest of the three. Its much more serious than most of Empire’s dialogue and probably the least enjoyably quotable of the trilogy. Han and Lando are still pretty snarky, but Threepio & Artoo’s lines aren’t quite as good as in the other films. The serious dialogue seems a little too hamfisted as well.

If saying the Star Wars trilogy has epic sound effects and music sounds like a broken record, then I don’t want to be fixed. John Williams’ score + Ben Burtt sound direction = Epic Win. Some of the music in Jabba’s Palace delves into synthesizers, but I can forgive that for the “Yub Yub” song at the end. Its impossible to listen to it without a grin.

Return of the Jedi was my favorite of the Trilogy growing up, but after the passage of time and a BA in English later, I have to give in to the prevailing wind and admit that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the three. Doesn’t mean that I like Jedi less than I used to, but Empire is better crafted. I think that part of the problem with Jedi is that it mirrors the first Star Wars A LOT, and not just because of the Death Star. The movie starts with Vader making a strong entrance, then shifts to the two droids on a desert planet getting captured by strange and dangerous aliens before Luke shows up.

Still, the movie has worth. It is fun and a pretty good conclusion to the Star Wars ADVENTURE! Ultimately I recommend it.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"I thought they smelled bad on the outside."

Well, after watching the original version of 1977’s Star Wars (later subtitled A New Hope), the next logical step would be to look over the sequel. 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back brought the cast of the first film back for more ADVENTURE!, and was very clearly on its way to being a series, adding “Episode V” to the opening Wall of Text and ending on one hell of a cliffhanger. The pieces were set, the budget was bigger and a new director, Irvin Kershner was at the helm of Lucas’ baby. Blowing up the DEATH STAR (again, going with how the title crawl spelled it) set a big precedent for this movie to live up to.

The Empire is pissed about its defeat in the first movie, and proceeds to kick down the rebels’ snow fort and chase them into space, while Luke goes walkabout and everybody on the Millennium Falcon has a really bad day. And THEN shit gets real. It may not sound like much when put that way, but this movie definitely plays on the ramifications of the first film. Darth Vader survived the explosion of the Death Star, and he is pissed. While it may not “go big” in the same way that the first one did, it ratchets up the tension by throwing the main characters into serious life threatening situations from the start and also throws some interesting twists into the works.

Luke Skywalker: The Hero continues his journey. He’s a little more experienced now, but a near death experience at the beginning of the movie causes him to seek out training for his jedi abilities. Luke learns a lot in this film, and not all of the revelations are welcome.

Han Solo: By this film, he & Luke are bro’s, and he’s becoming a lot more respectable in the eyes of the rebellion. Unfortunately, he’s still got that bounty hanging over his head and means to pay it off somehow. Han’s arc continues his discover that there’s something worth fighting for beyond self preservation, except in this case its someone worth fighting for.

Princess Leia: Our plucky heroine continues to be a fiery presence within the rebellion. This time around she’s with Han for most of the movie, and the sparks fly between them. Then she gets captured again (though to be fair, so does Han, Chewie & Threepio)

R2-D2: Artoo ends up with Luke on his spirit journey, side kicking for the Jedi-to-be, but unable to sample the peyote himself.

C-3PO: Threepio ends up separated from Artoo, becoming someone for Han to yell at when things go wrong. He’s very much comic relief for the crew of the Falcon, but then again he also gets shot, so he gets a little pathos too.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Still dead, but still on-screen. Ben goes into full-on mentor mode when Luke gets to Dagobah, since he’s incorporeal now.

Lando Calrissian: Lando’s awesome. A smooth talking administrator with ties to Han’s past, Lando gets his own character arc where he finds out he’s gotten more than he’s bargained for (or rather, less).

Yoda: The new mentor figure for Luke, and one of the best realized puppets on film. Yoda’s first impression is of an insane little swamp dwelling alien that doesn’t take no to Luke telling him to go away, then he reveals himself as a Jedi master (like it’s a spoiler anymore). Voiced and operated by Frank Oz, Yoda’s an old hermit who’s taught centuries of Jedi trainees and gives the impression of a wise old samurai, imparting his wisdom, is about as far away from Kermit & Co. as you can get.

Darth Vader: This film’s badass, without question. Vader continues his favorite hobby of chocking people out, welshing on deals and generally doing whatever the hell he wants. Tarkin’s dead and we only see the Emperor in a holographic teleconference, so this film is Vader’s playground. Aside from that, we also get hints at his true nature, only hinted at in the first movie. A quick glance into his evil little snow globe shows that he has been seriously messed up at some point in the past. Of course, not like it’s a big surprise anymore, but he also drops the biggest bombshell in the movie on Luke.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
The success of the first movie combined with three years of technological improvements resulted in just as many if not more effects. There’s a lot more stop motion for creatures like Tauntauns, and the Battle of Hoth has a lot more visceral visual energy than the Battle of Yavin (the ships move faster). Yoda is a masterwork, and the planets (Hoth, Dagobah and Bespin) are all plausible looking and distinctive. In terms of directing, I will be very honest and say that I think that this movie is better than Star Wars. I think its better framed, there’s a much more dynamic use of color and lighting by the final act on Cloud City, and in general is a lot tighter in jumping from scene to scene. Irvin Kershner really deserves a lot more credit than he seems to get.

Decidedly improved over the last film. As the “darker, second act” the movie ends up in a really dark place that leaves you wanting for a resolution. However, despite that whole darker image, its also a much funnier movie, probably because for the audience, this movie has heaps of Schadenfreude. The dialogue is snappier, the characters feel more comfortable, and putting C-3PO with Han Solo is pretty much guaranteed comedy. It wasn’t just Lucas working on the script this time, and it paid off. Also, Empire features some nifty new twists on things. For one, the usually accepted policy of Hero gets the Princess gets turned aside because Leia and Han turn into an item (the other reason why it wouldn’t work gets revealed later). Then there’s the paternal reveal which really threw audiences for a loop back then. Darth Vader is what!? Whether everything was plotted out beforehand for the trilogy or not doesn’t matter. This movie is better written than the first because the story starts to bob and weave around the audience in a good way.

Still top notch. Sound effects are still top shelf and the score by John Williams takes things up a bit by introducing the Imperial March. Again, without either of those elements, the immersion would be incomplete.

As a kid, Empire was my least favorite of the trilogy, maybe because of the downer ending. As a pretentious adult, I have to admit that The Empire Strikes Back is a much finer crafted film than Star Wars. Everything from the acting to the pacing to the framing feels tighter. Obviously, if you’ve watched the first film, you should see this one, and once again, it’s a slice of cinema history to enjoy the theatrical original cut.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

"That's funny, the damage doesn't look as bad from up here"

Because I have a large stack of movies available for my viewing, and being a bit of an opinionated ass when it comes to storytelling, there is still a place in my schedule to update RMWC. The Royal We will now begin the new direction for this...whatever by trying to systematically view, subjectively judge and cast aspersions on these poor, defenseless DVDs. That said, what better starting point than...

Star Wars. I know, I know. What hasn’t already been said about Star Wars? Well, you could always peel away the baggage; the happy memories, the broken dreams, the subsequent fan hatedom. Wouldn’t it be great just to go back to 1977 and forget about all the crap that’s piled on top of the franchise and watch it as “Star Wars” and not as “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope?”

Well, I can’t go back to 1977, since I didn’t exist yet (and neither did a lot of you), so the next best thing would be to just watch the movie. Just watch the movie as it was, and take it on its own merits as the flick that launched a million imaginations (and just as many trilogies). It sure as hell launched mine.

Unfortunately, George Lucas had in the past announced that there was no way the original theatrical version would be released on DVD. This was around the time that the big boxed set of the trilogy was released, which didn’t even feature the Special Editions from 1997, but was instead an even “Special-er Edition.” Yeah, I didn’t get that set. FORTUNATELY, in 2006, a Limited Edition of the original movies was released individually, featuring not only the 1997 Special Editions but also the Original, Original Trilogy. You bet your ass that’s the version I’ve got.

Young farmboy Luke Skywalker dreams of leaving his small town home (okay, planet) and having adventures. A chance purchase of two fugitive droids carrying crucial information about a deadly super weapon gives him that chance to learn about his hidden heritage as well as teaming up with a scoundrel and rescuing a princess. It’s a straightforward plot, no big twists or surprises. Very primal. No wait, that’s not it. Its mythic (which is no surprise since Lucas has said as much). The frame is the “hero’s journey” with touches of the “Quest” and a little bit of the “road movie” thrown in for good measure to yield not just an adventure, but an ADVENTURE! (all caps with exclamation point). I think that ultimately, the best take on propelling the narrative is that it throws a wall of text that, for someone completely new to the film, makes no sense whatsoever but also establishes an internal backstory that exists for the film, but doesn’t need to be shown. Then it throws you into a ship to ship gunfight and boarding action, leaving you to wonder just what the hell is going on. It's a fantastic in medias res beginning. Sadly, after playing dozens of Star Wars video games, the iconic Wall of Text has lost most of its meaning and impact for me.

The other thing the story does is draw in the audience by going big. What’s at stake? The bad guys have a space station the size of a moon that can blow up planets. And they use it.

Quite a few, and almost all of them undergo some kind of arc. Let’s examine them.

R2-D2: Yep, the little trashcan that could. As the vessel for the plot’s Macguffin, he’s crucial and oddly enough, brimming with personality for an armless little robot that speaks in beeps and whistles. This little droid has moxie in spades, and is both a sidekick for Luke and the “funnyman” of his duo with…

C-3PO: Threepio’s interesting. He’s anthropomorphic, looks like the Oscar statue and the robot from Metropolis had a baby, is incredibly prissy and his dialogue consists mostly of whining and complaining. In this film, he’s mostly useless to the plot, tagging along with Artoo to provide comic relief (and quite a few quotable lines)

Luke Skywalker: Cool name, in a cheesy, old school b-movie kind of way, right? Yes it is. Luke’s the Hero, the young farm boy who goes off on an ADVENTURE! and starts learning new skills (like lightsaber combat). He’s in way over his head, but its his idealism that drives not only him forward, but a few other characters too. Let’s face it, Luke’s likable.

Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi: The great Sir Alec Guinness as the infinitely patient old soldier/mentor figure. He’s the one who helps light a fire under Luke’s ass to get his ADVENTURE! started (the murdered family also helped). Guinness plays Ben with charm and a twinkle in his eye, which makes the hit from his heroic sacrifice that much more effective.

Princess Leia: The famous cinnamon roll hair. There, I said it. Okay, so she’s a princess, and princesses need rescuing in mythic stories. Still, despite spending most of the movie captured, she’s fiery, not really taking the Empire’s shit and mouthing off to the villains at every opportunity. She’s not above tearing her rescuers a new one either, and is pretty handy with a gun too. Its hard not to like her.

Han Solo: The film’s biggest badass is the smart mouthed, swaggering, audacious space cowboy with the badass name. Say it out loud: Han Solo. It freakin’ works. I never really realized it before, but Han has the second major character arc of the movie. He’s introduced as a shady smuggler in a shady bar with some hefty debts to pay off. He’s kind of desperate, and not above plugging the poor mook (poor, stupid Greedo) sent to collect the bounty on his head. He’s dangerous, and I love the fact that Luke can’t exactly trust him. Even on the DEATH STAR (hey, its all caps in the title scroll), Luke has to twist his arm into helping rescue Leia. Luke’s in over his head, but Han’s in WAY over his head and he knows it, wants to survive it and get paid. But then something happens and he has a change of heart that’s subtly played by Harrison Ford. Han Solo goes from being just another stain on the armpit of the galaxy with a hot rod ship to an actual heroic character (with a hot rod ship).

Chewbacca: Han’s copilot and sidekick. He’s big muscle and ends up providing a lot of comic relief in tense scenes. Oh yeah, and he’s pretty much Han’s conscience. He’s a supporting character, is great at it, but there’s not a whole lot else to say.

Darth Vader: The Villain. Sure, he’s not “THE Villain” (that’s Peter Cushing’s Tarkin) but he’s the badass villain who’s mysterious, dangerous, dresses in all black, has quasi-religious magical Force powers, a red lightsaber and James Earl Jones’ voice. Sure, Tarkin’s all oily and smug and has a big battle station, but Vader is just so commanding and badass cool. He really is one of the great screen villains.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
How does it look for a 30+ year old movie? You know, the original cut still looks great, and since I’ve never actually seen this cut in widescreen before, there were some nice new bits for me to look at and go, “oh, cool.” In terms of directorial technique, I don’t think I can point to any single frames and go “this one shot is particularly amazing” but I think the visual strength of the film is Lucas’ ability to make the Star Wars universe look lived in and plausible enough to suspend disbelief for (remember, I’m talking about THIS one particular movie here, omitting discussion of all others). I do have to admit, however, that I loved some of the transitions/wipes, like when Threepio is being lifted up transitioning to Ben’s homestead. That could just be me, though.
Turning imagination into visually engaging storytelling is always an accomplishment. Of course, he couldn’t have done that without a kickass special effects team. It still looks great (overall) Lightsabers, lasers, spaceships, costumes, midgets in costumes, puppets, etc. They pulled off so much awesome with not a lot of budget. Look at Chewie and tell me he doesn’t look plausible.

While its not the best written movie ever, it gets the job done. Characters speak as though you think they should. Obi-Wan’s wise, Luke’s idealistic, Han’s jaded and Vader is threatening. Dialogue gets from point A to point B mostly painlessly, tossing off in-universe references to help flesh out the plausibility of the story. Whole conversations may not be mind blowingly awesome, but the movie’s infinitely quotable (as pop culture already knows)

Shucks howdy, this movie sounds amazing. First, the sound effects complete the immersion into the film. There’s a reason why Ben Burtt wins an Oscar every time he shows up on a credits reel, and yeah, Star Wars is really where he got his start. Second, the film (alright, trilogy) features possibly the greatest original score for a film EVER. John Williams is a prolific composer, and has worked on some huge movies, but for Star Wars, the music is epic. Without it, it wouldn’t be half the movie that it is today. The visual effects in this film are still great but the sound, my God, the sound is flawless.

Like I was seriously going to say “don’t see this” for Star Wars. I mean, its Star Wars, not Episode IV, or A New Hope, just Star Wars. Of course I like it. Hell, I still like it after all this time. You know what, no matter what Lucasfilm Ltd. Has done or not done since 1997, I can’t justify retroactively putting any of that blame on the original Star Wars, because somewhere on the space/time continuum, there’s George Lucas toiling away on a labor of love in 1977, trying to prove, with a small budget and mostly small name actors, that you can make a kickass ADVENTURE! movie full of crazy visuals and wild-eyed wonder. If you’ve never seen the original cut of Star Wars, you really should track down the “limited edition” 2 disc set and enjoy yourself some cinematic history.