Thursday, July 23, 2009
I also remember a few moments when I first saw Star Wars. The audience laughed at the “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” scene. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t get it. Also, I was three at the time. I also remember asking one of my parents what the characters were talking about when they talked about the Force. I will never forget the answer (although I’ve forgotten which parent had the answer). He/She told me, “God”. Although I’ve never believed in God, that answer made sense to me.
I also remember a bit about seeing The Empire Strikes Back. To be exact, I remember actually getting a joke. As Han Solo is about to incased in carbonite, Leia confesses to Solo, “I love you.” He stoically replies, “I know.” I laughed. The audience laughed. I was thrilled that we both laughed together. We laughed and laughed.
I don’t know how, but Star Wars was a major part of my life as a kid. I only saw each of the movies once in a theater (my parents have never understood why I would want to see a movie more than once), and the movies didn’t get played on television much. Still, my friends and I referenced Star Wars constantly. I had two dozen action figures, but they were always random bizarre characters that my parents bought. (Thanks for the Hammerhead action figure, Mom!)
I always had different taste than the other kids. So when I would declare my love for The Empire Strikes Back as my favorite Star Wars movie, I was always shouted down. Empire sucks. Star Wars or Return of the Jedi got all the love. In the years since, Empire has come to be the critic favorite of the Star Wars franchise. The reasoning usually revolves around how much more mature the characters are in this installment – which is true. It’s also mentioned that Empire does not depict war as a parade of soaring victories, but instead it is presented as something dire and dark and with consequences and casualties. Even won battles had consequences. Also true, and also very welcome by me. It also drops the hedonistic comic book gloss the other two movies have. And of course, there’s the mother of all plot twist. I’m being sincere (if not a bit hyperbolic) when I say that in a single sentence, movies were changed forever.
When Vader makes his infamous revelation to Luke, he catapults Star Wars from the realm of high priced genre filck, to soapy serial with a deep, mysterious backstory. In this moment, a character who was the walking epitome of one-note darkness, becomes a multi-faceted figure of high tragedy. This was big stuff folks, and god damnit, I don’t remember my reaction to this bit of information. Did I already know this going in? Maybe. I don’t remember. As a bit of shock plot revelation, I don’t know how this weighed on me. And it is nearly impossible to find someone who doesn’t already know about this. It just seems as if it has always been this way.
But as a story-telling device, Darth Vader’s confession splits apart the story of Star Wars like a dam bursting open. These were no longer stock characters we were dealing with. There was a story that existed beyond the opening and closing titles.
But this is all stuff I appreciate as an adult. What drew me to Empire as a kid? The nightmarish imagery. The grandeur foreboding. And the cliffhanger ending. There is so much visual horror that remains seared in my mind. The movie is full of rampant dismemberments. Luke loses his hand. A tauntaun gets sliced open and its stomach and intestines spill out. The snow beast gets its arm sliced off. In a vision Luke decapitates Vader. And in one of my favorite scenes C3PO gets blasted to pieces and lugged around in a backpack. The C3PO scene starts as 3PO spots a similar droid who who spits out some indescernable profanity. “How rude!” exclaims C3PO before investigating a corridor and getting blasted to pieces. Later, when Chewbacca reconnects 3PO’s head to his body (backwards, I might add) 3PO comes to life and gives his belated warning – as if from the dead. “Stormtroopers? Here? Oh, no! I’ve been shot!”
And there’s plenty more dark imagery to haunt the mind. The funeral procession of Solo’s corpse being paraded through the stark sets of Cloud City. The creepy puppet (why don’t more movies use puppets as characters!) Yoda’s whispery response to Luke’s assertion that he’s not scared. “You will be. You. Will. Be.” And the dark running joke in which Vader magically strangles a chain of officers who fail him. Even the camera behaves differently. Shot with low angles and darker cinematography.
What often fails to be mentioned is the nature of the creature that is Empire Strikes Back. It is the middle child of a trilogy. Most of the criticism the movie received in its initial release focused on how the movie has no beginning and no end. Of course, it DOES have a beginning and end, but neither is definitive and absolute. The movie does not reintroduce its characters. It does not assure the audience of their fate at the end, Empire does not coddle the audience in the slightest. And THAT is what I love about it. It doesn’t waste any time setting things up. It doesn’t feel the need to tie up loose ends. It just exists as much as it needs to.
It’s a bold way to tell a story. The writers and director assumed the audience knew as much as they needed to, and they assumed the audience would understand that the story would extend beyond the credits. As a result, the story seems bigger, uncontainable, and not easily brushed away. The story lingers, leaving you to wonder what will happen next. For ten whole minutes after my first screening of Empire, and I was sick to death about what would happen to Han Solo. Maybe even longer. I wasn’t too worried, but let me tell you, it weighed on me. Movies rarely do this. They don’t end ambiguously. They don’t assume the audience can remember small details from one installment to the next. They don’t grow darker, but Empire did.
It is from Empire, that my love for the mid-point of trilogies exists. From The Two Towers, to Back to the Future II, to X2, to Spider-Man 2. The movies that open and close with unresolved conflicts and tensions remain my favorite. And it is precisely for this reason that I came to love The Pirates of Caribbean movies. That second movie that left everything in chaos and dragged the happy ending of the first movie through the mud. As the Harry Potter movies continue, they grow more and more like Empire: dark, unresolved, and rife with casualties.
The first movie is just like any other movie. The last movie is often a let down. But that second movie, that one can raise the bar and turn an ordinary story into a juggernaut. This also extends to TV series. I love serialized shows that build and build, add layer upon layer, and grow darker and darker. I would like to thank Empire right now for inspiring a new generation of filmmakers to take their stories to the next level.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Monday, July 13, 2009
This weekend, I finally got around to seeing Galaxy Quest.
I had avoided the movie when it first came out because it looks like the kind of comedy I generally don’t like. One that mocks easy targets and contains performances that are all attitude over characterization. Usually, these movies are too broad and silly and scattershot. I need my comedies with an element of sadness – and I don’t mean some manufactured moment where the lead mopes to a tinkling piano. I mean real pathos. I need my comedies to have a focused sense of satire with targets worthy of ridicule (like oppressive ideals, not people). I need some misanthropy in my humor. I am not a fan of fart jokes and pratfalls and pop culture shout outs. I can't sit through comedies about dim-witted man-children who flail desperately and shout the audience into comic submission. So the idea of a movie that makes fun of sci-fi fans irked me. Especially with Tim Allen in the lead. He just seems drawn to broad, condescending comedies with tacked on, sugary lessons to be learned. Oh, how I hate half-assed comedies that teach me lessons. But then again, this movie also has Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Justin Long and Sam Rockwell – as well as bit parts by Enrico Calantoni and Rainn Wilson.
It often comes up – how much I like Sam Rockwell. I consider him a surrogate into many a film. He's far more extroverted than I am, but there's something about his self-deprecating, excitable dry wit. His ability to deflate on cue. His misleading smirk. From Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to Lawn Dogs to Joshua to Snow Angels, he never lets me down - even when the movie itself does. Inevitably, a friend of mine always brings up Galaxy Quest as a movie of his I should see. And now that I have, I finally understand what the hell she’s talking about every time she mentions “the chomper scene” in a movie.
I enjoyed Galaxy Quest. I didn’t love it, but I liked it. It's harmless and good spirited and pleasant enough. There's nothing to get upset about or offended at. Even the the most cynical, angry characters are likable and huggable. I’ve never been to a sci-fi convention. I’ve never been a huge fan of Star Trek (though I watched plenty of TNG in High School). I don’t feel as if any of the jokes were lost on me, but I couldn’t appreciate them the way someone who is immersed in that world might. I laughed out loud maybe a dozen times, which counts it as a success in my book. The first laugh came about fifteen minutes in when the alien girl makes that unearthly sound without her translator. But I was not in a constant state of giggliness as I am with some movies that win me over in the first few minutes.
The direction was bland and half-assed and serviceable at best. There was the usual over-reliance on computer effects (although a welcome number of aliens were created with costumes and make-up), and a lackadaisical plotting that doesn't focus nearly enough on character. What saves the movie is the universally excellent performances. Sam Rockwell’s descent from gee-whiz amazement to inconsolable panic. Alan Rickman’s stock-in-trade contempt oozing from every line (“By Grabthar's hammer . . . what a savings.”). Sigourney Weaver’s sexy and cool cynicism (I especially loved the moment when she gives a low key “Hold please,” as the creature beamed up twists inside-out and explodes.). Even Enrico Colantoni's cartoonish, trotting alien was enjoyable. Only Tim Allen seems to be doing his same ole schtick - less an impression of Shatner than a less intolerable version of himself - humbled only briefly by an overheard conversation between two holier-than-thou teens. Thankfully, though, he didn't have any sentimental moment of preachy self-awareness to drag the movie into the pits of the usual moral-affirming crowd-pleaser.
But what I really appreciated was the sense of danger. Real stakes with real consequences. The characters must rise up to save an entire civilization. There isn't a great deal of tension, but what little there is is brilliantly undercut in one moment with Justin Long's being forced to take out the trash by his mother at the worst possible time. The movie even shows death and torture (in the kindest, gentlest ways possible). And the moment that truly surprised me was near the end when many of the characters are killed in a Peckinpah-lite slow-mo montage. Comedies generally don't go there, and the director of this movie did his best to keep the darkness at arms length and make sure the audience never feels threatened - but it's there. If only this darkness had been introduced earlier in the movie, I would have been sucked in from the beginning.
With a director more willing to explore the danger in the story and having a better knack for composition, this movie could have been great. Here the director (who directed some other movies I haven't seen) just stays out of the way of the observant script and unusually smart performances.
And for the record, the "chomper scene" refers to a moment (usually in sci-fi movies) when the characters encounter a moment of manufactured danger that makes little to no logical sense and serves only to add some fake suspense. A recent example would be in the reboot of Star Trek when the characters are beamed into the alien ship and one ends up trapped in a bizarre plumbing system and must be rescued. Galaxy Quest does an admirable job of commenting on the absurdities in the genre without seeming above them. All in all, a fun movie that didn't bowl me over.
My favorite throw-away comic moment:
- “But you live with your mother.” [Walks away.]
Monday, July 6, 2009
My parents took me to the movies fairly regularly as a kid. I remember seeing Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Bon Voyage Charlie Brown, The Last Unicorn, The Secret of NIMH, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Jungle Book, Song of the South, The Muppets Take Manhattan and more. I’m certain that if they knew how much the movies would come to dominate my life, they would never have even let on that such a thing even existed.
Watching The Muppet Movie as an adult shines a glaring spotlight on how much children’s movies have changed in the last thirty years. Compared to the kind of movies aimed at children today (including current Muppet films), The Muppet Movie looks downright gritty. It lacks the darkness that would come to overshadow most of the movies I loved as a child, but it still has a rough, seat-of-its-pants charm to it. It's not glossy or slick. And the scene at El Sleazo's is just this side of adult in its embracing of Vaudevillian one-liners and, well, sleaze. To the movie's credit, it does not condescend to kids. Still, I can’t help but wonder what exactly about this movie I loved as a kid. I generally assume it was the wonder of movies in general. Despite its children-friendly plot and action, the move’s humor depends on an adult’s sense of recognition. It doesn’t involve double entendres or political commentary. Instead, the movie shamelessly embraces outdated, corny humor, groan-inducing puns, and surreal sight gags. ("I seem to have lost my sense of direction." "Have you tried Hare Krishna?") It trots out guest stars as if in a desperate attempt to gain some kind of credibility – of course, as a three-year-old the presence of these stars was lost on me. I probably didn’t recognize a one (save for Big Bird). And it furiously sidesteps conflicts with jokes and gags.