Movie Commentary: Star Wars

Now that I’m contributing to this site, I thought this would be a good time to talk about something that’s on my mind quite often. Actually it’s literally something that I’ve been “into” since I was 7-years old. The only problem is, that if I start talking about it, I’m liable to start rambling like an idiot and not make a lick of sense. But I still feel inclined to share my thoughts and feelings, so I’ll try to use restraint and limit myself in my ramblings.

The subject I’d like to discuss today is Star Wars. I know, I know. What could I possibly contribute to the discussion of Star Wars that could possibly be a valuable contribution to the discussion? Well, maybe a little history is in order—

I first saw Star Wars in the theaters as a child in 1977. It was truly a childhood altering (and probably geek generating) experience. From then on, the movies, toys and magazines defined most of my childhood. I stopped counting at 30 viewings of the original Star Wars movie when it came out on videodisk back in the early 80’s. I owned all of the Marvel Star Wars comic books. Suffice it to say, I loved Star Wars.

The original Star Wars (now commonly refered to as Episode IV: A New Hope) was and still is my favorite of them all. I agree with many out there, that The Empire Strikes Back is probably the best of all the movies, but it’s the original Star Wars that truly impacted me, and as I’ve heard, the world of moviemaking in general.

Then in 1997 came the Special Editions. I thought that was exciting! All of the movies back in the theaters with enhanced special effects! The idea was a fun one that seemed like a good idea—a chance for poor George Lucas to fix some of the mistakes or omissions that had been nagging him for so long. Great! But the only problem is (turning on restraint) with all of the added special effects, there were also alterations which to the general public might have seemed like no big deal, but to someone like me who has watched these movies so much that they’re engrained in my consciousness, they’re like looking at a beloved painting, like the Mona Lisa, and discovering that someone decided that she would look better with her teeth showing when she smiled, and went ahead and changed it. And it’s not even the fact that they went ahead and made the change that’s the problem, but they’ve gone and destroyed all versions of her with lips closed because it’s thought of as “incorrect.”

One example I have of this is the change where he made Greedo shoot at Han Solo (Harrison Ford) first in the Cantina. Come on! That’s part of what was great about Han! He was a scoundrel—a pirate! You don’t think that if he thought that Greedo was getting ready to shoot him that he wouldn’t shoot first? Of course he would.

One more example of a change that annoys me is when R2-D2 is spat out of the swamp by whatever the thing was that was trying to eat him. In the original version, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) cleans the slime off of R2 and says, “You’re lucky you don’t taste very good!” —a witty, light hearted remark that I rather liked. In the Special Edition that line of dialogue was changed to, “You were lucky to get out of there.” Taking out a chuckle generating line and making it quite forgettable.

I could go on and on, but this really isn’t the place for it. The sad thing is that there is no plan as of now (that I’ve heard of) to release the original versions of the Original Trilogy on DVD, so it appears that those versions that are so firmly etched onto my memory, are going to have to just stay there for a little while.

When the buildup to the Prequels started, I loved the new interest that resulted. Again there were new toys being made and there were a lot of promotional items being given away in restaurants and stuff like that everywhere. I must admit, the collector in me went a little crazy with this.

When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit the theaters, I was psyched! I went to the midnight show and watched it two more times the following day. To this day I don’t hate it as much as most people seem to, probably because of all of the hype that made that a generally exciting time. I didn’t even mind Jar Jar Binks so much, because I think that the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi were more annoying than him.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones didn’t stay on my good side for long, though. The first time watching it was enjoyable, but the parts where Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is supposed to be wooing Padme (Natalie Portman) made me cringe when I first saw it, and really annoy me now. I also thought the special effects weren’t as good as should be expected.

Regarding Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, many people thought that this movie “saved” the prequels and provided a much needed link to the Original Trilogy. In my opinion, though, it has virtually ruined the saga for me.

You see, my problem is that I have young children that I would love to share what I so deeply loved as a child with them, but I’m very cautious about what they watch. Lucas has made it clear that these movies are supposed to be made for children, so why did he make this movie so intense that it garnered a PG-13 rating? I really think that if there had been a little more subtlety shown, much of the carnage could have just been hinted at and it could have been much better.

But more than that, there’s a matter of principle that I have a problem with. The redemption of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi worked, in part, because we didn’t really witness the wicked things that he had done. The only real witness of his actions came from a comment from old Ben Kenobi, saying that he “helped the Emperor hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights.” But in this movie we actually see him carrying out the act of hunting down and killing innocent Jedi. And by innocent, I’m including the killing of children (which thankfully is not shown). After watching this, I find myself not wanting Darth Vader to be redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi! I don’t believe that the single act of killing the Emperor could have possibly paid for what he did to all of those undeserving people.

Sometimes I find myself wishing that the Prequels had never been made. Other times I just ignore my the problems I have an watch them for the nostalgia for the things that I loved as a kid. I’m sure if enough time goes by and I revisit the prequels, I won’t be bothered as much by things as I am and maybe I’m just being too sensitive—I don’t know. What do you think?

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Movie News: Meet the Robinsons

With all of the negative comments about the floundering creative soul of Disney over recent years, there’s one bright glimmer of hope for me that would have been encouraging even if it hadn’t been recently announced that Disney was acquiring Pixar. And that glimmer of hope is the forthcoming animated film Meet the Robinsons, which is due out Spring 2007.

I think that most of the best Disney films come when they have choice, time-tested source material to draw from, and in this case their source material is the book A Day with Wilbur Robinson, by William Joyce—a fun adventure where a young boy goes to see his best friend Wilbur and gets a grand tour of Wilbur’s zany family.

Joyce seems to have a good relationship with Disney and was the creative mind behind Rolie Polie Olie, the computer animated show for preschoolers on The Disney Channel. One of his other books, George Shrinks, was turned into a traditionally animated series on PBS Kids. Both shows are favorites in my household.

Because of the simple plot of the Robinsons book, Disney has added quite a lot of detail to flesh out a complete movie storyline. There are also reports that the creative folks at Pixar have been doing some last minute touch-ups on plot points to clean up some things that have been lacking—yet another reason to be relieved at the proposed merger.

So according to the Disney press release, the story in the movie is about an ambitious young inventor named Lewis who creates a Memory Scanner that he hopes he can use to retrieve early memories of his mother and reveal why she put him up for adoption. Before he can use it, though, the dastardly Bowler Hat Guy steals it. Lewis then meets Wilbur Robinson who whisks Lewis away in a time machine where Lewis meets the Robinson clan and tries to hunt down the Bowler Hat Guy. In the process, Lewis discovers the amazing secret of his future family.

I do have one concern about the story though, and that’s the story thread about adoption. As adoptive parents, my wife and I try to be as open with our daughters as we can so there’s no big surprise some day when they find something out. But I get concerned when there are stories or movies that introduce a negative stigma about being adopted—making it seem like adopted children are loved less because someone decided to give them away. I know from personal experience that this is not true. Both of my daughters’ birth mothers were very loving and it was no easy decision to do what they did. I can only thank them every day for the rest of my life. I’ll be checking this movie out before showing it to my daughters because I don’t want them to think that being adopted is bad.

Other than that, I think this sounds like a fun tale and a good family adventure. You can view the trailer online and see that the animation really looks top notch. I look forward to seeing this movie and hopefully having my concerns assuaged.

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Movie News: Ratatouille

Collective fans of Disney, Pixar and Brad Bird will no doubt rejoice to hear the news of the upcoming Ratatouille, the story of a rat who lives in a Parisian restaurant—though I don’t know if the French will be keen on the idea that we think there are rats in their fine eating establishments.

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Ratatouille features the combined directorial efforts of Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) and Bob Peterson (one of the writers and Mr. Ray on Finding Nemo, voice of Roz on Monsters Inc.). The only confirmed cast member is Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) as the eccentric chef who works in the restaurant, and an assumed cast member will be John Ratzenberger who has appeared in every Pixar production from the very first Toy Story where he was the voice of the piggy bank, Ham, to The Incredibles where he voiced The Underminer.

Also worthy of note is that the music is set to be scored by Michael Giaccino who created the memorable soundtrack for the Incredibles and also does the impressive music for the hit shows Lost and Alias on ABC.

Not much else is known of the production yet. I’m sure they’re waiting until the upcoming Disney/Pixar release Cars has had its run before flooding the newswires with news of this latest production.

This is likely to be billed as a Disney production, since the acquisition of Pixar should be complete by the speculated June 29, 2007 release date, but just in case the acquisition fails for some reason, Disney and Pixar signed a one-picture extension to the distribution deal that was set to end with Cars. In this deal, Pixar would pay for all of the production costs and pay a fee to Disney for distribution of the film. One of the apparent differences, though, is that Pixar would own the film—as opposed to previous deals where Disney retained a certain degree of rights that would/will allow them to make sequels without the involvement of Pixar.

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Movie Review: Nicholas Nickleby

“They came to see that family need not be defined merely as those with whom they share blood, but as those for whom they would give their blood.”

Since watching Pride and Prejudice a few days ago, I’ve been in the mood to watch more movies made from classic British novels. One of my favorites of these movies—and one of the most painfully overlooked—is 2002’s Nicholas Nickleby, written for the screen and directed by Douglas McGrath who also wrote for the screen and directed 1996’s Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

The novel of Nicholas Nickleby was originally written by Charles Dickens around 1839 and is about young Nicholas, played by Charlie Hunnam (Cold Mountain, Green Street Hooligans) who, along with his mother and sister, is left destitute upon his father’s untimely death. They travel to London to visit their wealthy uncle, played by Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), hoping to appeal to his feelings of familial obligation and throw themselves upon his mercy. Their uncle proceeds to let them think that he is generously giving them support and favors, but in the end, he is only serving his own selfish desires with no though for their well being at all.

An early, but major, storyline is what takes place at Dotheboy’s Hall, a boarding school in the country for young boys run by Mr. Wackford Squeers, played by Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!, The Borrowers). It is to here that Nicholas is sent by his uncle as an opportunity to earn a living. The abuse portrayed at the boarding school actually occurred in Dicken’s days and was one of his main catalysts for writing this novel, but however, by the time it was published, these “cheap” Yorkshire boarding schools were no longer much of a problem.

If there is a recurring theme in Charles Dickens Writings, it’s that of how society looks upon and treats the poor and destitute. An interesting thing about this story, however, is that the Nicklebys don’t start out poor, but it’s through the unfortunate occurrences which happen at the beginning that they end up in a position of need, and it’s through those circumstances that they see how cruel the world can be. It’s also through these trials, that when Nicholas begins to stand up for himself and his family is when he begins to see all of the wonderful things the world has to offer and how much control over his own destiny he can truly have.

One of the most touching storylines in this movie is between Nicholas and a young crippled boy he befriends at Dotheboy’s Hall named Smike, played by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, King Kong). Smike was sent to Dotheboy’s for schooling years before, but when payment for his education stopped coming, he was put into hard service at the school. It is in witnessing the abuse and neglect of Smike that transforms Nicholas into a character who acts rather than one who waits to be acted upon.

The performance of Jamie Bell as Smike is well worth making note of. The way he contorts his body and changes his countenance makes you really believe he is as crippled as Smike. By the end, Smike is one of the most pitiful and endearing characters I’ve ever seen on screen—his history and fate, deeply moving. It’s really a shame he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for it.

There is a richness and wit to the language of Charles Dickens that is so prevalent in this movie adaptation. I’ve not read the novel, but can judge from the other books by Dickens that I have read that much of the dialogue is either taken directly from the novel, or Douglas McGrath is a master at capturing the tone that Dickens had.

Nicholas Nickleby is rated PG for “thematic material involving some violent action and a childbirth scene.” The “childbirth scene” is actually just a shot of a very newborn baby against a black background and then a shot of the umbilical cord being cut. There’s no labor or real birthing involved and it all goes by in less than 5 seconds at the very start of the movie.

This is a great story of love, loyalty, and standing up against injustice in defense of the helpless. It wasn’t until my 8-year-old daughter wandered downstairs while I was watching it that I realized that this would actually be suitable for older children. They might struggle with the language and there are a couple of scenes showing brutality towards children, but overall, there are some great lessons to be learned. If your children are up to it, this movie may serve them well. Indeed, if this movie has gone overlooked by you, as it has by a great many people, you owe it to yourself to see it.

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Movie Review: Pride and Prejudice

“He’s been most inconvenient since I swore to loathe him for eternity.”

I love period movies—movies that take us out of the present day and transport us through the years into a world that acts, talks and dresses differently from the way we do today. And period movies usually tell stories that just couldn’t work in our time, whether it’s because of governments, or ideologies, or mores, I feel that characters seem to be a bit more limited in what they can do, just because I am living in the same world they are and as such I feel a bit more informed in the directions the story can go.

You might think that in bringing this up, that I’m talking about movies set in Victorian England, or the Old West America, but this also very much relates to science fiction movies. Star Wars is one of the greatest period films ever, as are all of the Star Trek TV Shows and movies. It’s the removal of the story from modern sensibilities that allow the storytellers to introduce concepts and ideas that are foreign to us.

In the case of a futuristic period film, the filmmakers have limitless possibilities. They are able to make up separate histories and cultures. As is seen in Joss Whedon’s masterful series Firefly and the feature film Serenity where he jumped 500 years into the future and created a universe where civilization lived and spoke much as they did in the wild west, with a fusion of the Chinese culture and sayings.

So where is this rant coming from? Well, I just recently watched Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. I don’t know why I didn’t make more of an effort to watch it in the theater, but I thought it was a real treat.

Pride and Prejudice is based on a novel by Jane Austen and is about a girl named Elizabeth Bennet who meets a grumpy Mr. Darcy and vows to hate him for all eternity because of his rudeness. As the story progresses, Elizabeth learns details about Mr. Darcy that… well, that would be telling, now, wouldn’t it?

Of all the stories I’ve read and all of the movie versions of these kinds of films, for some reason I’ve missed this one, so as my first exposure to this story, it was a good experience. Though I will admit that there were parts of it that seemed rushed, or that made me feel like we just missed something that would have explained the situation better, but was cut because of time. Maybe people who are more familiar with the story can fill in the blanks and don’t miss it, but it really made me want to either read the book or watch a more complete version of it, like the BBC Miniseries.

As a period film, this movie didn’t fail to please me, the costumes were beautiful, the cinematography stunning, and the language was elegant—though as always, I needed a warm up time to tune my ear to it before I felt like I was catching all that they were saying.

It was during Pride and Prejudice that I realized what it is about movies that I like the most—their ability totally remove me from the modern world into a time and place completely foreign and fanciful. Whether it’s 150 years ago or 200 years into the future.

One more thought about Keira Knightley: I don’t know if everyone is aware of this, but she played the queen’s decoy in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (pictured above in the foreground, Keira Knightley is on the left and Natalie Portman is on the right). Anytime you can see Natalie Portman as Padme, the handmaiden, that’s Keira in the royal dress and makeup. So I just have one question—which of the two now is the bigger star? It sure seems that you see Keira Knightley a whole lot more nowadays than Natalie. Is there a stigma associated with the Star Wars Prequels? Maybe she’s so unrecognizable in the makeup that people just haven’t made the connection to Star Wars.

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