The Return of the Jedi (1983)

ReturnOfTheJediPoster1983If you’ve read any of my reviews on the original trilogy, you undoubtedly know that Star Wars had a tremendous impact on my childhood. That’s true for many young boys. It was the film franchise of choice, and it wasn’t just a series of movies. The beauty of Star Wars is that it encompasses an entire galaxy of dreams beyond our own. It’s a world that reflects ours in many ways — the difference is that they have lightsabers. But not just lightsabers. Aliens. Spaceships. Planets. The Force. Characters who for all intent and purposes live like us. Good, that is in constant conflict with the evil in the world. It’s a struggle that is constantly evolving.

As a boy, Return of the Jedi always appealed to me the most, and I can still understand that even to this day. This film is the conclusion to the story. It enacts the happy ending that all of us desire as human beings who have an inherent love for storytelling. This film continues the saga of these characters that most everyone has grown to love.

The set pieces are a great deal of fun from Jabba’s Palace to the sail barge where Luke shows off his newfound skills and Boba Fett earns a trip to the Sarlacc Pitt. Then the forest moon of Endor where the cute little Ewoks dwell in full force ready to combat the Empire. In fact, there are numerous heart-wrenching cinematic experiences, but few things are worse than the moment when that Ewok shakes his friend only to find him dead — never to move again. Is there no justice in the galaxy?

There’s the assault of the ragtag rebel fleet against the overwhelming firepower of the Imperials and their newly constructed Death Star where Lando Calrissian, Wedge Antilles, and Admiral Ackbar become standouts in their own right.  Finally, there’s the showdown between Luke and Vader, father and son, as the Emperor looks on in wrathful glee. On multiple fronts the action takes place and each one is a thoroughly engaging piece of this fuller, grander narrative.

There’s something so satisfying about seeing all the many planets in the galaxy celebrating simultaneously when evil has been quelled and peace is fully restored. Because, again, there is something inside of each of us that seems to desire that type of fellowship and joy. You might say that this is only a Star Wars movie, but then again the reason so many people followed this story was not so much for the action, but for the characters because we cannot help but love them.

The dynamic between Han, Luke, and Leia is wrought with conflict but also great love and affection. C3P0 and R2 beep and bicker like an old married couple, and yet there’s so much concern there. Even as Han is freed from his carbonite prison, a helpless corpse, Chewie is always by his side to watch out for his buddy. Ultimately, most importantly of all is the central narrative of Luke and his father. Return of the Jedi is coming full circle as Luke returns to face his father. But he finally understands that this is not about vanquishing this villain or even confronting his fear. It’s more than that. It’s about teasing out the good that still dwells inside of this shell of a man formerly known as Anakin Skywalker. And when that relationship is renewed all the other relationships are made better.

Thus, Return of the Jedi will forever be spellbinding, because I feel like a young boy once more watching this sci-fi mythology unfolding in front of me in glorious majesty. There is a suspension of disbelief that envelops this story for all the aforementioned reasons. There is no question in my mind about the logic or the way things tick or so on. I accept them for what they are and truly and fully allow myself to be immersed in a world, “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away.” There certainly are better films, but few films have gripped me time and time again like Return of the Jedi. I will hold onto it proudly for as long as I watch movies.

4.5/5 Stars

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

raidersof1I’m not one to rewatch movies too often — it’s simply not in my nature and I am still relatively young in my film affinity. That means there are still so many great titles to see and discover. But Raiders is one of the special films that I would gladly make room for every year at a couple times. Most of it has probably been said before, but to put it simply Spielberg’s collaboration with George Lucas is one of the greatest adventures put to film pure and simple. It takes inspiration from old action serials and there is something inherently classic about Indiana Jones and the world he inhabits. It is 1936, after all, and the perfect evil force in the Nazis is on the rise.

Raiders begins with an opening gambit that could standalone by itself with its introduction of Indy (Harrison Ford) as he tries to recover an ancient artifact. He dodges traps and outruns a boulder only to be thwarted by his old nemesis Belloq (Paul Freeman). That’s followed by one of the great cinematic panoramas as he makes a mad dance to his getaway plane where Jacques and his friendly pet snake Reggie are waiting. We don’t need much explanation because it just works.

raiderof2From then on we get a little more about Dr. Jones’s background as a professor in archaeology who is enlisted by two government men to impede the Nazis. Their goal is to recover the Ark of the Covenant because its supposed power would make their military might unstoppable. But most of us undoubtedly know that. Indy ends up tracking down the daughter of an old mentor who also happens to be his former flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). They’ve got something still burning because although it is extremely volatile, you can see they still secretly care for each other. After they are paid a visit by the Nazis, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) acts as their host and loyal guide in Cairo. That doesn’t stop Marion from getting kidnapped or Indy almost getting killed more than once. One of these times involved an iconic duel between a sword and a revolver (certainly not a fair fight).

raidersof3In fact, Raiders is made up of many of these memorable sequences that add up to something greater than their parts. It’s a full story surely, but it is built up from these varying vignettes. Indy gets thrown into a pit of snakes with Marion by his side. He nearly gets his head taken off by a chopper blade (you should have seen the other guy), and finally, he begins a high-speed chase for the ark on the back of a noble white steed. It gives him time to pull a few stunts on a truck as he whittles down the opposition single-handedly. The audience even gets an obligatory Wilhelm Scream once or twice.

What it all comes down to is tracking the Nazis to their island lair where they hope to test the great powers of the Ark. I’m not sure how biblical it all is, but it seems more like a Pandora’s box because far more trouble than good comes out of it when opened. But in his infinite wisdom Indy and Marion don’t do anything except keep their eyes shut. They’re tied up after all. And that’s how the raiders were stopped and Indy completed his treasure hunt. The Ark is in the hands of the government and they file it away with numerous other very important and highly secret artifacts. The perfect ending to a film that has humor, melodrama, supernatural power, and a good old-fashioned tale of good vs. evil.

It’s crazy to think that Tom Sellick was almost Indy if it were not for his commitment to  Magnum P.I. Because Harrison Ford, despite his many iconic roles, will forever be Indiana Jones, thanks to that hat, that whip, and that revolver. He’s an awesome adventurer-professor type. You don’t see that every day.

5/5 Stars

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

SW_-_Empire_Strikes_BackGrowing up, Star Wars was my life. I lived, ate, slept, and dreamt Star Wars. But notably, Empire Strikes Back was always my least favorite film in the original trilogy. In truth, it scared me because it showed a different side to this galaxy. It seemed to be ignoring the unwritten rule that good should and will always prevail over evil.

Now I know better than that. Every great film trilogy needs that moment where it delves into the darkness and scours the depths of despair. it’s in these moments that characters become solidified, pun intended, and we truly begin to care for them on a deeper level.

Because Empire Strikes Back is certainly a film about darkness; that’s part of the reason why I shied away from it growing up. But such evil always seems to reveal the polarities of nature.  To balance out the dark side there must be light. Heroics, sacrifice, and friendship come to the forefront because baseness calls for such a response from our protagonists.

Another reason I was not always a fan of Episode IV was rather shallow, I admit. Planets like Hoth, Dagobah, and even Bespin were just not as thrilling as Tatooine and Endor for some reason. That still holds true to some extent, but now the first issue I touched on takes greater precedent.

It’s in this story where the Rebels are struggling to survive, fleeing Hoth desperately from an Imperial garrison that seems largely regrouped and unfettered by the destruction of the Death Star. All seems bleak and hopeless once more. Things begin with Luke being kidnapped and dragged off to a Wampa lair. He almost gets crushed by an incoming AT-AT as his buddies get fried, and finally, he crashes his X-Wing into a swamp searching for a Jedi Master who is little more than a green muppet. It’s not much of a hero’s journey, or more precisely it’s a journey full of pitfalls and failures.

Meanwhile, sparks are flying between Han and Leia, not because of their chemistry, but their complete lack of any chemistry. He’s a scoundrel and she’s an aloof princess hardly enamored with his show of bravado. After all, he pilots a heap of junk and walks around with a furry walking carpet prone to fits of rage. C3P0 is at best comical every now and again when he’s not overly annoying. R2D2 is a spunky dynamo like always.  These hardly seem like complimentary words, and it’s hardly thoughtful commentary, but it sets the stage for brilliance.

The plot is contrived just as Vader contrives to lead Luke right into his trap. On both accounts, it works to perfection. Bespin becomes the perfect place for some major truth-bombs. The most obvious one pertaining to a certain person’s father. But we also see the evolution of Han and Leia’s relationship. We see the true camaraderie between Han and Chewie, and the real nature of Lando, another scoundrel with a heart of gold, much like his buddy Han. Finally, we find out that Leia has extraordinary powers of her own.

On a purely cinematic level, The Empire Strikes Back introduces us to our first real lightsaber battle we ever got and it never disappoints. True, Vader and Obi-Wan faced off, but that was more symbolic in nature. The bout between Luke and Vader was the next step, necessary for this story to progress. Luke has fallen and failed this time as the power of the dark side is too strong for him, but this is only the beginning. Any great trilogy must enter into the darkness certainly, but there’s also an ending to the story. Completely different than what came before. In this case, the Jedi will return prepared to bring order to the galaxy as it is meant to be.

Thus, I wasn’t completely against The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, because I knew it wasn’t the end of the story. We leave our characters on a hopeful note as they survey the vast galaxy in front of them. It’s far from being redeemed, but it’s also not too far gone. This is a space western for the ages with dramatic storytelling, twists, and turns worthy of one of the great series of our generation. Let’s just take another moment to salute John Williams too. Without him, Star Wars is far less. He makes this world of George Lucas come alive.

5/5 Stars

The Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Star_Wars_Episode_III_Revenge_of_the_Sith_posterRevenge of the Sith was the film that all Star Wars fans were looking forward to. For the younger generations, it meant the closure of the trilogy we had grown up with. For older fans, it meant that the Star Wars saga might finally be complete in some sense of the word. All movies linked together in this crucial last piece that smoothed out any last ambiguities about how Anakin Skywalker evolved into the feared Darth Vader.

It was a pretty big deal because it would either close the series on a controversially sour note or with the type of visceral storytelling George Lucas inundated us with in the 1970s. This certainly is no Empire Strikes Back (the darkest film of the original saga as many know), but it was probably the most enjoyable installment of the new trilogy and that is the most genuine of statements. As pure fans we liked it, and it was a worthy installment full of action as well as personal conflict.

Is it even necessary to go over the plot of Star Wars? Before anyone answers, I will give a recap more for my own sake than anything else. The Clone Wars are still being waged against the Separatists and the tides are slowly turning. Anakin is now even more renowned as he continues to team up with his Jedi Master and mentor Obi-Wan. But Revenge of the Sith quickly turns into a story of inner turmoil and political unrest with young Skywalker caught in the middle.

He is secretly married to Padme, taken under the wing of Chancellor Palpatine and then called on by the Jedi Council to spy on the Chancellor. It’s a web of confusion, anger, and fear going way back to his mother’s death, visions of his wife dying and perhaps his unfortunate nickname “Ani” leading to masculinity issues. Anyways, that is the situation that he finds himself and ultimately Palpatine (as we always guessed was Darth Sidious) poisons Anakin, who slowly turns against his friends and the Jedi Council.

Although we always knew this moment was coming, it is still so satisfying and painful to see it play out. It leads to some sad deaths (ie. Mace Windu) and some of the most epic lightsaber battles, going so far as to pit friend vs. friend against the backdrop of lava and John Williams’ score.

It is very hard not to appreciate this moment in the narrative where we finally see how the Empire came into being. How Anakin became Vader. How Luke and Leia were split up and how Obi-Wan became a hermit in order to protect the boy. As far as the films go, the original trilogy will undoubtedly remain the favorites, but that does not take away from the entertainment and emotional energy of this film.

Sith take Revenge and Jedi simply Return to put things right. Now I have to go back and watch the original films because I would not mind a happy ending about now. The beauty is that the bleak conclusion of this film is not the end of the story. Thank goodness we still have Yoda.

4/5 Stars

Review: Star Wars (1977)

ccbff-starwars1Star Wars has such a giant mythology and full-blown culture surrounding it that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the entire galaxy from the film franchise. It is so much more than just a movie with a plot and some characters going on an adventure. Sure, George Lucas let his boyhood imagination run wild taking pages out of numerous playbooks from John Ford’s westerns, Kurosawa’s samurai, and the serialized sci-fi adventures of Buck Rogers.

However, when I look at this classic that I grew up with for so many years now, it is nearly impossible to shed the role of a pure fan and take on the role of a film critic. One prime example would be Sir Alec Guinness. All my knowledge of film history tells me he is one of the greatest English actors of all time and for good reason. However, there is also this innate conflict that says he’s Obi Wan Kenobi since that’s what I knew him for originally. That’s what I identify him with, and I probably always will. Because, as I said before, Star Wars: A New Hope (As it was later titled) means so much to so many people like me on a personal level.

But let me hold off on that for a moment and focus on Star Wars the film. First and foremost, you would be hard-pressed to find a more colorful array of characters. C3PO and R2D2 are the films jesters and the story is told from point of view, to begin with. You have the hapless farmboy, the wise old man, a spunky princess, a dashing tough guy, and his ever faithful fuzzy sidekick. Not to mention the greatest, most imposing villain every developed for the silver screen. It took some developing with three different actors, a mask, a cape, and SCUBA sounds all joined to create his persona.

That aside, the world Lucas created is so astounding and inventive that it has become second nature to true Star War fans. Jawas on Tatooine, the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and Storm Troopers on the Death Star are simply a no brainer. They are part of our lexicon just as many of these quotes easily roll off our tongue. “May the force be with you,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” You get the idea.

Then, it goes without saying that John Williams propelled this film from being good to great. Because without his iconic scoring, Star Wars is just not the same. It lacks the same energy and epic vibrancy that pulses through every scene. One prime example is the final scene in the Throne Room on Yavin IV. That could have been the longest most awkward award ceremony in history.  When you think about it, no one is talking, they just stare at each other as the medals get bestowed. But with Williams score, it develops a grand crescendo that caps the film on the highest notes as the credits role.

I am also convinced that Ben Burtt is a genius because he breathed still more life into the Star Wars world through his sound design. He gave us blaster noises, RD-D2’s “voice,” Chewie’s distinctive growls, and of course the hum of lightsabers and Darth Vader’s iconic breathing. A personal favorite of mine is the ever present Wilhelm Scream, but I digress.

Thus, what we witnessed the first time we saw Star Wars (followed by countless more times) was not just a film, but a revolution, and I’m not just talking about the rebel alliance blowing up the Death Star.

As I suggested before, Star Wars is so affecting because it is not simply a movie we watch. In many respects, it brings up flashbulb memories in our lives. I remember birthday parties, childhood afternoons playing Legos, or being a Jedi with my very own lightsaber. Star Wars infected my entire adolescence and so when I watch this film it causes all the many great memories to flood back.

It is a joy to watch it again because I almost feel like a kid once more, experiencing the same excitement all over again as if it’s the first time around. My taste in films may continue to mature and evolve, but I dearly hope I never lose my affinity for Star Wars. In many, it would be like losing some of my memories and even a little bit of my humanity.

Not to worry, though, because based on this most recent viewing I will not be dismissing Star Wars any time soon. As some wise man once  said, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I forgot how much I missed “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” It was great seeing an old friend.

5/5 Stars

Review: American Graffiti (1973)

e38f5-americang3 The year was 1962. Cars were cool, the music was hopping, and teens were young and in love. It’s a simpler world, but it is not a world without your typical worries, especially since high school is over and college is just around the corner for some.

Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is destined for college with a big scholarship under his belt, but he is still not convinced it’s the right fit for him.

Steve (Ron Howard) is also college bound, but he finds himself spending his last night patching things up with his girlfriend, Curt’s sister Laurie (Cindy Williams).

Their friend Toad (Charles Martin Smith) has the night of his life with Debbie (Candy Clark), leaving his puny Vespa behind after Steve’s loans his ride to the lovable geek.

Cool king of the strip John Milner (Paul Le Mat) gains an annoying co-passenger and winds up having an unorthodox but memorable night all the same.

It would be a pleasure to dive further and further into each arc, but it seems wholly unnecessary. The joy of American Graffiti is the ride it takes you on. The differing perspectives, varying experiences, and ultimately, a full realization of a certain time and place. True, I was never around in 1962, but it feels like I was. Some of Buddy Holly’s thunder has been stolen by the Beach Boys. JD (James Dean) is boss and Ozzie and Harriet can be seen on the picture tube. It goes without saying that the hottest pastimes are cruising and necking.

Understandably, George Lucas pulled from his own past love of cars and music to transport us back in time. That would have been impossible without the music that acts as the ultimate jukebox and it is pervasive wherever the night takes us. With that nostalgia comes Wolfman Jack who highlights the lightness of the age while also making a more somber cameo which contrasts with the image that he created on the radio waves.

This is a story about young adolescents, and it certainly is a comedy as life is often a comedy. There are memorable moments, fights, and times where we just need to puke. Through it all we learn a little about ourselves and those around us. Dreams can be made and re-imagined as they were for Steve and Curt. However, when it all comes down to it, each one of us has our own path we must carve an existence out of. For each individual it looked a little different. However, one of the reasons I always come back to American Graffiti is the timelessness or rather the way it so wonderfully freezes time. I feel like I’m there in the moment with these characters. I laugh, cheer, and empathize with them. Perhaps the time and place of their world differs from mine, but their worries and aspirations are universal.

No one wants to fade into the past and we all are looking for our girl in the white T-Bird. Only time will tell what actually happens. We just have to live life and see what kind of ride we get taken for.

5/5 Stars

The Last Crusade (1989)

3299e-indiana_jones_and_the_last_crusade_aStarring Harrison Ford with Sean Connery, this is the exciting final chapter of the original Indiana Jones trilogy. The film opens with the young Indy and we discover more  about him. Then, in 1938 we rejoin him as he begins his quest for the Holy Grail. He is introduced to an avid artifact collector named Donovan who then tells him his father Henry Jones Sr. has vanished. Indy winds up with his father’s diary and then heads to Venice where he meets a beautiful Austrian colleague of his father. Indy uses the clues and his knowledge to advance the search. However, all too soon he realizes his father is in trouble and the Nazis are behind it. After a twist the Joneses get away and continue to Berlin. however, their foes are already headed for the Grail. Indy is once again put in a difficult place as he is forced to evade the traps on his way to the very dangerous artifact. This film has a lot of great moments full of action and great dialogue. Ford and Connery play well off each other and we are also given a bit of an origin story for Indy.

4/5 Stars

Raider’s of the Lost Ark (1981)

This film is a nod to all the old time serials and it put us face to face with one of the greatest cinematic heroes of all time . Raiders is wonderful because it is a pure and simple adventure with wonderful characters, a great score, and intriguing scenes. This truly is one of the best action films of all time.

*May Contain Spoilers

Introducing a great hero in Indiana Jones this movie is a blast every minute. With his whip, pistol, and iconic fedora, Indy travels the world in order to track down the Ark of the Covenant. However his arch rival Belloq is also searching for it backed by the Nazis. Indy’s search kindles an old flame in Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and reunites him with his friend Sallah. Jones has a knack for adventure and despite constant obstacles he is never truly beaten. However Belloq does seem to have the last laugh by testing the uncovered Ark. Its power is so great though it destroys all who look at it. So Indy and Marion escape narrowly with their lives. With its great combination of George Lucas and Steven Speilberg along with a great score, this film is a lot of fun. It is difficult not to like the adventures of this classic hero.

5/5 Stars

 

American Graffiti (1973)

Starring Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss with a host of others, this George Lucas directed film follows the lives of young people in California during the early 60s. It is the night before Curt and Steve are going off to college. They both want to make the most of the time left. However, Steve spends all his time trying to strengthen his relationship with his girlfriend (Cindy Williams). Curt, on the other hand, finds himself out in the town talking with girls and proving himself to a group of thugs. The rest of the film consists of the hot rodding antics of two other characters. A tough speedster (Paul Le Mat) finds himself driving around a 12-year-old girl. “Toad” the nerdy one (Charles Martin Smith), finds himself spending a wild night with a nice but peculiar girl.

With its classic music accompanied by Wolfman Jack and the vintage cars, American Graffiti is a blast of nostalgia that allows us to remember simpler times. It takes this important day in the life of these young individuals and it allows us to be a part of it. Each character has his own experiences that cause them to grow. Toad matures, Curt realizes he must experience college, Steve learns the importance of his girlfriend, and Milner realizes he really does not want to be “The King” anymore.

This film may have slower parts but that just makes it more enjoyable because then the night kicks into high gear when Toad loses the car, Milner beats up the thugs, or Curt has visions of a blonde in a T-Bird. Fittingly as he flies away to his unknown future he sees her white car cruising down the road. It was something that I had wanted to see the first time around but I had seemingly missed it. It made the ending even better.

5/5 Stars