Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Star Wars III (2005)


Twenty eight years ago, not even a year old, my parents took me to see Star Wars. I quite obviously don’t specifically remember this, but I am pretty sure that it was one of the very first films I ever saw. At such a young age, I had no way of appreciating the spectacular advances in the science of making films that were present in A New Hope. Way too young to realize that the next two films (Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back) would become a voice of a generation who had desperately needed to come out of a time of war with some hope that we could survive as a nation.

Those who saw Star Wars as children were born in an age after man had walked on the moon, and at the time of the fertile birth of space exploration. Building large space craft and encountering strange and exotic species were beyond the dreams of the fifties and before, they were a real possibility. Technology was really beginning to take off and change the very world we live in.

Star Wars also gave us hope that we too could all become special. That deep down inside of us was a long lost Jedi master who only needed to find the right master to bring us to our potential. I think this is the appeal of Star Wars to those who may be called geeks or nerds; if the geeky android mechanic farm hand can save the universe, maybe we can too.

It is no secret that I have not been a big fan of the last two Star Wars films released. I won’t go into great detail on why I was disappointed but let’s just say that the disappointment was strong enough that I was not willing to stand in line, fight the crowds and pay to see Revenge of the Sith. However, when I made the journey back to my home town and saw that it was playing in the very same theatre where the journey began for me, I could not resist the urge to complete the circle. So there we sat, perhaps even in the very seats my newlywed parents sat in, and I watched the end of a saga.

The Story

In the final presentation of the series of prequels, director George Lucas attempts to bridge the original Star Wars series with the new Star Wars series. In this film, we see Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christiansen) transformation to the dark side and the birth of the character of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones). We also see how Senator Palpatine ( ) comes to rule The Republic and it’s eventual turn into The Empire, as well as, the death of nearly all of the Jedi Nights and the assassination of the Jedi council. Essentially, we see everything we need to see to get us to the point of the story where A New Hope comes in.

The Film

I hate to admit it but, Lucas did manage to bridge the films fairly well. There were significantly more influences from A New Hope in this film in everything from costume to ship design. In a way it is kind of evolution. For instance, you don’t actually get to see an X wing fighter, but you see the ship that clearly inspired it. At the end of the film we see Darth Vader standing on what I believe is the very ship he is standing on the first time we see him in A New Hope. The last installment of the series, actually made me want to go and watch A New Hope again. In fact, the similarities were so striking at times, it really elicited for the first time the same feelings I feel when watching the first three films.

However, Revenge of the Sith, is not a great film overall. In spite of its near greatness, it still falls flat. Revenge is plagued with all the same acting problems, over use of CGI and just plain bad directing that dominated the last two films. There are times where it seems that Lucas was out of town or something and the film gets so close to greatness then something happens and it just ruins the moment. I found myself trying hard to just let these moments (which I have waited so long to see) happen, but I just couldn’t.

A lot has been said about the political subtext of the film and how it mirrors today’s political climate in our nation. The line that is credited with being the most obvious is in which Anakin says to Obi-wan “either you are with me, or against me” which is pretty close to things President Bush has said over the war on terror, but I think there is a clearer subtext than that. The line that gets it for me is actually Padme’s (Nathalie Portman) response to Palpatine’s charge to hunt out and destroy the traitorous Jedi Nights, “so this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause”.

The film goes on to clearly show that those who supposedly stand for liberty, democracy and freedom can do so in the very same breath with which they destroy it. Perhaps today’s youth will grow up, look back on Episodes I through III and realize that while it was set “A long time ago, in a far away place” the story might have been a little closer to home than they imagined.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Gong Fu (2004)


The Story

Set in 1940’s China, the “Axe Gang” has overrun most of Shanghai except for some of the smaller poorer neighborhoods. When the wanna be gangster Sing (Stephen Chow) enters the small village of mix matched residents who are ruled by a overbearing Landlady (Qiu Yuen) and her husband the Landlord (Wah Yuen), he discovers the true nature and identity of the residents. Hiding in the village are some of the worlds best Kung Fu Masters disguised as a tailor (Chiu Chi Ling), a donut maker (Dong Zhi Hua) and a regular guy Coolie (Xing Yu).

After the initial fight between Sing and the villagers the leader of the Axe Gang (Hsiao Liang) sets his sights on defeating the village and taking over its operations. The rest of the film is really a series of incredibly well choreographed fight scenes and some incredible humor. Eventually the good guys win with a few surprises and the realization of Sing’s true power and path in life.

The Film

I have not had this much fun at a film in a really long time. When I left the theatre, I really wanted more. The film is wonderfully directed by film veteran Stephen Chow and is a perfect example of what CGI can accomplish in a film. There are a lot of special effects but they are used with incredible care and attention. The fight sequences were amazing with one of my favorites being the night fight involving the Gu Zhen (an amazing musical instrument).

Chow’s vision in creating an alternative world where heroes are made from ordinary people is wonderfully entertaining. This film is funny and beautiful, plus it reminded me once again of my desire to learn how to speak Chinese.

Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galxy (2005)


The Story

Based on Doglas Adam’s book of the same title, Hitchhiker’s Guide is a loosely assembled tale of Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and his journeys through space. His best friend, Ford Perfect (Mos Def) rescues him right before the destruction of the Earth to make way for an intergalactic bypass. From there, they encounter several strange and wonderfully colorful inhabitants of the galaxy. The journey gains some purpose when Arthur Ford end up with the president of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) decides to try and find the ultimate question of the universe. It all ends with a happy ending that only makes sense because of how little sense the rest of the film makes.

I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how accurate the story is to the book but in spite of it’s wandering nature, the story in the film holds together nice enough for me.

The Film

I was very impressed to see that Jim Henson’s Muppet Workshop is still working in film. It was quite refreshing to see totally non-humanoid creatures that were not simply crated in a computer program. Seeing actual objects being photographed was incredibly refreshing. That is not to say that there were little to no CGI in this film, in fact it was full of CGI. However, it seems that director Garth Jennings really chose to use his special effects tools wisely. This perfect combination of models, muppets, CGI and live action makes this film the perfect answer to Star Wars Episode III.

Some viewers have been critical of the films apparent lack of focus and wandering nature. I imagine that the books are quite similar and I think that it really worked for this particular story. The whole film is full of small items that make little to no sense (the importance of a bath towel) but because of the specific story being told, they don’t have to make sense. They just are.

I appreciated the narration and use of the actual guide as a, well guide to the film. Some of the most comic moments of the film came directly from the guide itself. Adapting a book to film is always a challenge and nearly impossible to please fans of both. The written word is so different from motion picture that some things just can’t make the transition to screen. There will always be those who don’t feel that any film will do justice to a book, particularly one as large scoped and insane as I am sure Hitchhiker’s is.