Archive | November, 2015

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

30 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith


“The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.” –Yoda

It can be argued that “Revenge of the Sith” is the most complex story in the “Star Wars” franchise, delivering the tragic end of Jedi student Anakin Skywalker and the becoming of the dark lord Darth Vader. Though, I won’t go as far as to say it’s the best film in the series, as it does have its problems that keep it from the status of either the original “Star Wars’ or “The Empire Strikes Back.” But it is still an important chapter in the series that, in a way, improves the other chapters.

“Revenge of the Sith” is the entry in the saga that fans have waited for since the late-1970s. How did Anakin become Darth Vader? In 2005, with George Lucas’ third prequel, they finally got their answer. Anakin was not merely seduced by the power of the dark side of the Force but influenced into believing the dark side can help him save the one he loved, only to pay a hefty price in the end as he became the ruler of the evil Empire we know from the original trilogy. His passion and fear was exploited by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, who turned him away from the Jedi. The Jedi themselves can’t be ignored either, for they played a part in the creation of Darth Vader by making poor decisions.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film begins with one of the best extended action sequences in the history of the franchise, as Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) are on a mission to rescue Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his droid ally, General Grievous. This takes up the first half-hour of the film. It’s thrilling, it looks great, and even has time for some humor and banter between our two heroes. (I also give it extra points for our favorite droid, R2-D2, managing to take out enemy droids with his resources—I don’t care who you are; that is awesome.) What they don’t know is that it was all staged to give Palpatine a chance to connect with Anakin in order to manipulate him. Palpatine works like the devil, doing a very good job getting to Anakin and feeding his inner demons. This is a crucial time in Anakin’s life—his secret wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), is pregnant, which is going to be an issue seeing as how Jedi are forbidden to fall in love. Anakin also has visions of Padme dying in childbirth and fears for her life. At the same time, the Jedi council have their doubts about Anakin as a Jedi, despite Yoda claiming he is “the Chosen One.” Thus, when Anakin has to make decide what to do for Padme as well as his own life, Palpatine is there to lure him over to the dark side…

Manipulation. Betrayal. Tragedy. Irony. All that and more help make “Revenge of the Sith” become, in my opinion, one of the best “Star Wars” films. Even if we know how it will all end (with Anakin turning evil, the Jedi facing defeat in the war, Obi-Wan confronting Anakin, and Anakin becoming Darth Vader), the joy comes from seeing how everything will play out. It leads to an ending that is all the more tragic in that the very thing he swore to protect has died (in childbirth, having given birth to Luke and Leia, the heroes of Episodes IV-VI) and now he has joined the Empire as a dark lord. To add on to that final nail in the coffin, Palpatine makes Anakin believe it was his fault, and by default, the Jedi’s fault too!

Palpatine is one of the most joyfully despicable villains in film history. Fans are quick to make fun of him for his cackling and screaming (and his infamously silly “NO…NO…NO!!!” scream), but when he’s not doing any of that nonsense, he’s cold and calculating, manipulating Anakin cunningly and effectively. He’s able to use Anakin’s fear, guilt, hopes, etc. to see the Jedi in a different way and lose sense of who he is and what he’s fighting for. He’s responsible for the Empire’s most horrifying ally and you can see he’s able to make anyone join him if given the right amount of time with that person.

George Lucas has always been a masterful storyteller, even if his direction and writing still don’t work as strongly as they should. Some of the dialogue is better than in the previous prequels, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” with the exception of some (thankfully-) brief romantic banter and moments when they simply bellow how they feel (I’ll get to Darth Vader’s big reaction at the end later), but his direction still shows some weaknesses occasionally. He’s much better at directing darker material than comedic moments and when it comes to directing actors, he has a lot of responsibility he sometimes isn’t able to follow through with. (I’ll get to that latter element in the next paragraph.) The bigger moments in the film are very well-handled and give fans probably more then they expected to see, especially after seeing what Lucas did wrong with the previous two films.

Hayden Christensen is often criticized for his performance as Anakin Skywalker. But I think it’s unfair, because personally, I think Lucas has had some trouble directing actors to say dialogue properly in these movies. Christensen does his best when reciting these lines, and honestly, he’s better as the tragic figure than as the whiny teenager Anakin was in “Attack of the Clones.” But there are times when he is unable to successfully pull these lines off (especially when he yells) and he comes off as dull. I can’t blame it on him, because he’s not the director—Lucas should have given more guidance to this performance, as well as the other actors’ performances, for that matter. Even Ewan McGregor, who is usually known as the best actor in the prequels, has his offbeat moments as well (remember the close-up on his eyes, during which he taunted and grunted sporadically?) that can be blamed on mediocre directing. That can also explain McDiarmid’s silliness in certain parts of the film. And so, I’d leave Christensen alone—he’s trying, he’s acted well in other films (like “Shattered Glass”), he’s better here than in “Attack of the Clones,” and when his character turns to evil, it’s very believable.

And yes…let’s get to that infamously laughable reaction from Darth Vader upon learning of Padme’s death. He stands himself up and shouts “NO!!!” Audiences were laughing and/or groaning at this response…but I didn’t mind it that much. Yes, it can seem silly out of context and it is another example of Lucas allowing his characters to shout how they feel rather than physically show it. But when you really think about the situation and what Anakin went through to try and save Padme (really think about it—the very reason he joined the dark side in the first place was to protect the woman he loved), it’s hard to blame him for having that reaction. It is a bit perplexing for one of the most badass villains in cinema history to do something Anakin Skywalker would do (hey wait a minute!), but when you think of the dread he must’ve been feeling, it’s a sensible response.

Overall, I feel that “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” is a good film. It’s leaps and bounds above Episodes I and II and arguably even better than Episode VI (which is a fine chapter in its own right). It’s suitably dark, full of several little moments that make up for the film’s weaknesses (Anakin’s reaction to Padme being pregnant; the scene in which Palpatine uses a story to further influence Anakin; moments that lead into Episode IV, which the film obviously brides into; and more), and adds plenty of depth to all the other chapters of the series. And you can tell this is the “Star Wars” film Lucas has wanted to make for a long time and it’s the story fans wanted to see. The result is not a perfect sci-fi film but a compelling one nonetheless.

NOTE: I forgot to mention the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan on a river of lava… It looks like a video game level. There, I said it. This review’s already pretty long, so I’ll just say I’ll forgive the film for that flaw.

12 Angry Men (1957)

26 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It takes a lot of effort to successfully make a film like this—a talented cast, smart dialogue, solid directing, and effective commentary. With “12 Angry Men,” the 1957 film adapted from Reginald Rose’s teleplay of the same name, this film about a jury confined to one room while determining the verdict of a murder trial would’ve been to make into an uninteresting hour-and-a-half-long experience. But instead, it’s a riveting, insightful, wonderfully-written-and-acted drama that serves as both a murder mystery and as a commentary on the American justice system and is effective as both.

The film is set in a jury discussion room in real time and mostly stays there, with the exceptions of a brief prologue and an equally brief epilogue. In the prologue, the jury has already sat through the trial and are hearing the final words of the judge before going about deciding the verdict of a young man (who is clearly a minority, but his race is never determined) who is accused of murdering his father. Then the jury moves into the room to determine the boy’s guilt or innocence. 11 of the 12 men vote “guilty,” meaning there is one holdout. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) has reasonable doubt about the boy’s liability and challenges the others to prove him wrong. They bring up the facts, he states his case, and soon enough, another person, elderly Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney), holds out and changes his vote as well. This leads to further investigation on the case, with new possible answers and outcomes that help the examination cause change in others’ votes. For example, how are they sure of what the testifying witnesses saw or heard? Why couldn’t the kid clear up his alibi? What about the stab wound coming from the switchblade used as the murder weapon? New elements continue to pile on, adding to the possibility that they misinterpreted the facts. The two strongest jury members voting “guilty” are arrogant Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), whose past overshadows his view of the present, and Juror #10 (Ed Begley), an ignorant bigot whose hatred blinds him.

The film works as a “murder mystery,” going by witnesses’ testimonies and physical evidence. But there are no clear answers or even indications as to whether or not the boy is actually guilty. But that’s not what the film is about. Instead, the film is about how if this jury is not absolutely sure that he is guilty, if there is any reasonable doubt, they must acquit him. They must acknowledge all possibilities or they’ll send a wrongfully accused defendant to death row. The film isn’t about the crime as much as analysis of the crime, and it successfully delivers much insight into what goes on in the jury room.

The way new possibilities continue to pile on one after another is handled effectively, with fascinating detail causing audiences to think about what verdict they would choose if they were in that room, listening to all of this. What also makes it work is the excellent dialogue spoken by the characters—how they all react to certain circumstances, what they have to say, etc. That’s really what gives the film its strength: the dialogue and the acting. Each of the 12 actors do great jobs portraying the “12 angry men” in the title and they each do their best to give their characters different personalities (twelve key characters is hard to keep track of, since only about half of them are allowed to leave impacts). Henry Fonda was the only big star at the time to highlight the film, and he does a brilliant job playing the conflicted voice of reason, Juror #8 (whose name isn’t revealed until the very end, along with Juror #9’s). Equally brilliant (at least, those who stand out to me) are Ed Begley as Juror #10, whose bigotry is enough to have everyone in the room turn against him at a crucial point; Joseph Sweeney as wise Juror #9; Jack Warden as the wisecracking salesman who serves as Juror #7 and is willing to stay with the winning side in order to make it to an evening baseball game; Lee J. Cobb as the aggressive Juror #3 (whose final verdict is the most heartbreaking moment in the film, in which he ultimately breaks down and cries); and John Fiedler as meek Juror #2, who is dominated by the others at first but more confident by the end. Those were the ones that stood out to me, but the other actors (Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber) do fine work as well. It’s a wonder why neither of these 12 performances were given Oscar consideration.

Of course, the direction can’t be ignored. Sidney Lumet, who used social commentary in each of his films no matter what the subject to get multiple points across, knew how to keep the tension going while allowing the actors to actually live the situation they’re in and let everything come naturally. The tension is raised not just with heat (as the film takes place on the hottest day of the summer, as indicated) with assistance from use of shots (mostly close-ups) to deliver a sense of claustrophobia.

“12 Angry Men” may have been released in the mid-1950s, but the issues being addressed in this film are still important today in 2015. What’s to separate facts from possibility? What is truly “fact?” Could a “guilty” verdict be allowed with reasonable doubt? Is there ever reasonable doubt? What are the true priorities of a juror? And most importantly, is a jury just willing to get on with their lives if it means ruining the life of another just because of what they heard and not because of what they know? Those are the questions addressed in “12 Angry Men,” an outstanding film that stands the test of time.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

25 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s often that the final chapters of trilogies are usually the weakest (with a few exceptions, of course), with examples usually being “The Godfather Part III” and “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” The possible answer as to why that’s usually the case is the filmmakers/storytellers played their cards too early and what brilliance they crafted before pale in comparison due to less innovation and so few new things to offer. In the case of “Return of the Jedi,” the last chapter of the original “Star Wars” trilogy (and the end of the series, for that matter, until “The Force Awakens” is released next month), its success rides on seeing familiar characters gain resolution and its failure comes from what it takes to get to said-resolution. It’s sad to say this is kind of a “hokey” film with quite a few silly and/or disappointing moments but just enough good moments in it that keep it from being “bad.”

Let me put it this way—would I care about “Return of the Jedi” if Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Lando Calrissian were replaced by characters we were newly introduced to? My answer is “no,” and that is my biggest problem with “Return of the Jedi”—it only feels like a “Star Wars” film because these characters are still involved. I’ll get to my biggest issues with the film soon, but for now, I’ll list some positive things about it.

For one thing, the actors have truly grown into their roles. In particular, Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker has grown up and is not the whiny farmer boy he was in the first “Star Wars” film—Hamill does a good job showing Luke’s maturity and delivers a strong performance. Luke’s conflict (knowing Darth Vader is his father and wanting to save him without turning to the dark side) is a fascinating one and it’s portrayed very well. His resolution is also very satisfying, without giving anything away.

For another positive aspect, the first 40 minutes are exciting, as Luke, Leia, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Lando rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, a big, disgusting blob who is a crime lord for the planet of Tattooine. It’s a tense opening half with a truly nasty antagonist and a mysterious intenstine-like monster in the sand of the desert.

There’s also the Emperor, played by Ian McDiarmid. McDiarmid plays the Emperor as evil incarnate—a cunning, devil-like ruler who knows just what to say in order to manipulate people and get what he wants (it’s no wonder Luke’s father was able to turn to the dark side; this is also made clearer in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” released many years later, but I’ll get to that later). And he’s clearly enjoying every minute of it. He may even be more intimidating than Darth Vader ever was. The scenes in which he tries to win Luke over to the dark side are very tense.

And of course, the characters are the friends and enemies we have come to know. Han and Leia still have good chemistry, C-3P0 and R2-D2 are still funny, Chewbacca is still loyal, Lando gives us another human hero to root for, and Darth Vader is still imposing (though not as much as in the previous films).

And now for the negative things I have to say about “Return of the Jedi”…

Is it any surprise that among them are the Ewoks? Many people seem to hate these indigenous teddy-bear-like creatures, and I can see why. They’re unbearably cute and were probably only brought in to bring more kids in after the dark turn the series took with “The Empire Strikes Back.” That’s another problem with this film—after the complex darkness introduced in the previous film, it’s disappointing that this film decided to play the “cute” route.

Another big issue I have with the film is the resolution involving the love triangle between Luke, Han, and Leia. Luke’s relationship with Leia is unbelievably forced, as if George Lucas didn’t want to think too much about how this small conflict could be resolved with Han getting the girl, so he took the easiest way out, worthy of soap-opera status. (Though, I do love Han’s reaction upon hearing from Leia who Luke is in relation to her.)

Then there’s the final battle between the rebels and the Empire. It’s underwhelming; you don’t feel nearly as much weight as you should, given what was being built up all this time.

On top of all that, the special effects don’t hold up as well today. There’s too much obvious green-screen action and not enough practical effects to satisfy. The central chase sequence in which enemies chase heroes through a forest with hovercraft is not entirely convincing and it’s distracting enough to notice the white outlines on actors’ bodies.

But with that said, “Return of the Jedi” is undoubtedly the weakest entry in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but it’s still a fun watch. It doesn’t have the same sense of enjoyment as the original “Star Wars,” but it’s still, in a way, a worthy chapter in the trilogy, if not the best one to go out on. It still has the familiar characters, some good sci-fi action, and enough entertainment to make the running time of two hours and 11 minutes go by quickly. It’s enjoyable even if it might not be what most “Star Wars” fans were expecting.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

24 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When you make a sequel to a largely successful film, you have to take it in new directions. Bring back the characters if you must, but take them somewhere new and raise the stakes in their shared situations. After the surprise success of “Star Wars,” George Lucas was determined to create two following chapters to complete a trilogy as a whole, knowing that millions of people will see the sequel and will most likely see a third one. With Lucas’ story brought to life by new writers (Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett) and a new director (Irvin Kershner), “The Empire Strikes Back” (which Lucas called “Episode V” when he saw potential in telling three additional episodes as back-story, which would come years later) removes the joyfulness of the original “Star Wars” and takes the series in a dark, thought-provoking direction.

And boy, what a direction it took! Who doesn’t know the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father by now? It was the most shocking twist in not just the history of science-fiction but also film in general (arguably), and many people had to tell their friends and family either about the twist or to see the movie for themselves. (And they also quote it…or misquote it: “Luke, I am your father,” instead of “No. I am your father.”) To add on to the darkness, when you think there may be hope for good to triumph in this one, evil gets the upper hand and things have gotten even worse for our heroes. That was not the case in “Star Wars”—will it be the case in “Return of the Jedi,” the trilogy’s end?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film is set a while after the Death Star has been destroyed and Luke (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) have been with the Rebellion, whose base is on the ice planet of Hoth. But when an Imperial Probe Droid arrives, the Rebels must evacuate before it’s too late. But before long, the planet is invaded, as Darth Vader (David Prowse; voiced by James Earl Jones) is certain his adversary, Luke, is present. Luke gets a vision from the spirit of his late advisor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), and so he escapes with his faithful droid, R2-D2, to the planet of Degobah to learn the ways of the Jedi from wise Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, Han, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han’s first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and worried droid C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) are having problems of their own, going through an asteroid field, barely escaping a strange gigantic creature, and dealing with a bounty hunter named Boba Fett, who is hunting Han for Jabba the Hutt (who Han owes money) and is in cahoots with Darth Vader.

The film cuts back-and-forth between these two stories, and it was a smart move to show both sides go through so much and bring more to this universe that we’re still learning about. They’re both intriguing in their own way. For Luke’s side, it’s learning to stretch all emotions in order to conquer his nemesis and not let his anger get the best of him. Yoda tries his best to teach him, but Luke is too aggressive and impatient to concentrate on the tasks at hand. For Han and Leia, it’s getting from one dangerous situation to another. So we have one story that’s psychological and another that’s action-packed. They intersect at the end, when both sides of the story come into place with a race to save companions and a lightsaber battle with Darth Vader. By the end, evil has almost triumphed, but there’s a ray of hope as Luke reunites with at least most of his friends, as they set off to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt and find some answers to new questions.

The aforementioned twist is the defining moment in the film. It occurs near the end of the film, after Luke nearly gets himself killed fighting Darth Vader, having fallen into a trap which used his friends in danger to lure him in. it’s no secret now, with the prequel trilogy showing how it came to be, but back in 1980, audiences gasped and were shocked. Even today, it’s a tragic moment when Luke realizes who Darth Vader is and would rather die than join him. It’s the most complex, compelling scene of any “Star Wars” film.

All the actors do fine work, having grown into their roles (and Billy Dee Williams, as a conflicted friend of Han’s named Lando Calrissian, is a welcome addition). But I can’t get through this review without talking about Yoda. This character is a masterpiece of state-of-the-art puppetry. I can tell this thing is Muppet-like, but at heart, I see Yoda as a real character—it even appears like his facial expressions change when they need to. Frank Oz’s Grover-like voice he lends to the role really helps a lot as well.

I also can’t let the review end without even a mention of John Williams’ fantastic score (which I, like an idiot, neglected to mention in my original “Star Wars” review). Williams’ score provides one of the best movie soundtracks of all time—rousing, dark, exciting, etc. This is also the first appearance of his infamous “Imperial March,” Darth Vader’s theme that brings the film to a darker, more operatic level.

And of course, the visual effects still hold up, with the exception of one—when Luke is falling through a tube, it doesn’t look convincing by today’s standards. But that’s one little nitpick I found in an excellent film. “The Empire Strikes Back” is easily the best film in the “Star Wars” franchise and one of the best, most rousing, brilliant science-fiction films ever to grace the screen. And so, Lucas has opened a door to another sequel that would provide the answers we’ve been waiting for, which would be released three years later (a long time to wait but better late than never). How would “Return of the Jedi” turn out? Join me in the next review.

Star Wars (1977)

22 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What can I say about “Star Wars” (or as it has since been called, “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”) that no one else has said about it before? It was a cinematic game-changer when it originally released in 1977. It changed the way we look at film. Many have tried to imitate its brilliance with little to no success. It made the science-fiction genre respectable again. It began a revolution in special effects, thanks to Industrial Lights and Magic. And it’s still influential now, even after almost 40 years since its original release.

I agree with everything said by those who have hailed it as a masterpiece. In fact, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies. So what can I say about it that no one else has? Probably nothing. But I’ll review the film anyway.

There is one thing I will say about it. I have never seen the Special Edition, and frankly, I don’t care to either. Seeing what was done with “updated effects” in “E.T.” was painful enough, and so I felt I didn’t need to see Jabba the Hutt’s appearance in an extended version or the possibility that Greedo shot first instead of Han. With that said, I am reviewing the original theatrical cut (which was titled “Star Wars” without the subtitle “A New Hope”) because that’s the only version I’ve seen and held in high regard.

With that said, the effects back then still hold up pretty well. I believe I am seeing starships soaring into space; I believe I’m within the vastness of space; I believe I’m seeing a real battle in space; and the practical effects are outstanding as well, adding more to the universe. The technical aspects from back in the day still look impressive even now. (Some of the computer graphics are noticeably dated, but even then, I don’t mind too much.)

For those who don’t know the story, even if it’s a rare few, the film is about a civil war in the galaxy. The Rebel Alliance is in hiding and the evil Darth Vader (performed by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) seeks them out after they’ve stolen plans for the Galactic Empire’s Death Star, a space station with enough power to destroy planets. Rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) hides data containing the information in a droid called R2-D2, which escapes with fellow protocol droid C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), before she is taken prisoner. R2-D2 and C-3P0 manage to make their way onto a desert planet, Tatooine, where they are captured by traders and sold to moisture farmers, where they meet Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the farmers’ young nephew. Luke receives the message Leia left in R2-D2 and thinks he knows who the message is intended for—an “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, who may be an old family friend named Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness).

Believe it or not, that’s only the first half-hour of “Star Wars.” While we’re introduced to these new worlds, we’re getting a good sense of back-story. It was a masterstroke on writer-director George Lucas’ part to begin the film from the perspective of these two droids—two strange beings we’re learning about and learning from. And the opening shot is just brilliant—a Rebel fighter ship being overpowered by a much larger Empire ship; it lets you know right away that the Empire has the upper hand. I also like that Luke, despite being the main character, isn’t introduced for about 20 minutes. It keeps us guessing in that sense.

Anyway, Luke meets the aging Ben Kenobi and learns that he was once known as “Obi-Wan” when he was a Jedi Knight. He’s a teacher of the mysterious Force, a mystic energy that can help bring balance to the universe. Luke also learns that his late father, who he never knew, was once a Jedi Knight before he was destroyed by the dark side. Kenobi convinces Luke to join him and the droids on a quest to rescue Leia, join the Rebels, and destroy the Death Star. They hire a smuggler/pilot, named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his first mate, hairy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and they set off into space to carry out the mission.

At the heart of “Star Wars” is a science-fiction coming-of-age tale with Luke in the center of the action, accepting his destiny as a soldier in the fight for freedom in the galaxy. He gets his chance to join the battle against evil and is not the same person he was by the time the movie ends. It’s a strong arc that gets better by the film’s second sequel.

The performances are adequate but suitable for the material. (Sometimes I have to wonder what Lucas’ intent was when he was directing Fisher, who delivers an on-again/off-again British accent.) They play familiar types with enough personality to make them individuals and their portrayals are improved upon in the sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” (both of which, I’ll get to later). Mark Hamill is the would-be hero with some learning to do, Harrison Ford is the cocky, wisecracking ally, Carrie Fisher is the kind-hearted but stubborn warrior princess, Alec Guinness is the wise old leader, Anthony Daniels is the worried comic-relief, Peter Cushing (as villainous Governor Tarkin) is a leader that’ll remind you of a Fuhrer Nazi, and David Prowse/James Earl Jones is an intimidating dark lord who will use the Force to get what he wants and doesn’t care who stands in his way. They’re interesting enough so that you want to know where they go from point-one. And I give the actors credit for not sleepwalking through their roles in order to cash nice paychecks—they feel like they belong in this universe.

“Star Wars” has been copied many times to capture the same magic and style and tone, but many filmmakers forget that “Star Wars” was famous for being its own thing while paying homage to various sources—Greek mythology, religion, adventure serials, Akira Kurosawa, even World War II, among others. Lucas took these ideas and crafted a story within certain traits that made “Star Wars” his own. Compare that to most filmmakers who practically rip off other movies. “Star Wars” is its own thing. It has a unique blend of adventure, masterful storytelling, appealing characters, inventive concepts, and new worlds. It was the beginning of something special that would make its mark in motion picture history, and for good reason.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

13 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s very rare for an American-made war film to portray a battle from the failures’ perspective—it’s something else to practically make the US armed forces the “enemy,” from their point of view. But director Clint Eastwood has made something unique and special with “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the companion piece to his “Flags of Our Fathers.” That film showed the same battle from the Americans’ perspective, how iconic symbols can be formed, and asked the question of what it means to be a “hero.” “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the film that completes the portrayal of the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima. (Both films were released a few months apart in 2006.)

Ken Watanabe delivers a brilliant performance (one I think was overlooked by the Oscars) as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who arrives on Iwo Jima in late 1944, months before the big battle. Knowing the Americans will target the island, the Japanese set up surprise attacking maneuvers, diversion tactics, and dig tunnels in preparation. But Kuribayashi’s tactics are unusual to his fellow soldiers, beginning with taking artillery from the beaches to the higher ground, and so while some of his men see him as smart, others see him as weak.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Japanese end up losing the ultimate battle, and most of the platoon will be dead by the time the end credits roll. But it’s nice to see things most of us Americans already knew about seen from the other side, such as when the Japanese spot the raising of the flag on top of the mountain. It’s interesting to understand both mindsets of these opposing forces, which is probably the reason why Eastwood made both this film and “Flags of Our Fathers” back to back: to take notice of similarities as well as differences. What is surprising is how vulnerable the Japanese were, especially after seeing “Flags of Our Fathers” and assuming they were a faultless (faceless) force to be reckoned with. Here, we see the dangers they faced on that island, having to deal with sickness, shortage of food and water, loss of ammunition, no air cover, and no reinforcements when needed. They had much more to deal with than most people acknowledge. There are also some soldiers with mutiny on their minds, some with surrender on their minds, and some who claim that Kuribayashi isn’t on their level.

What’s also surprising is how they reacted to the inevitable. The main theme in the film seems to be “honor” and it’s precisely clear in each scene in which Kuribayashi’s orders to fall back are ignored and many soldiers force themselves and others to take such extreme alternatives to surrender, including suicide attacks and blowing themselves up with grenades. This is where audiences can ask themselves what honor really is, especially in the face of war. What is dying with honor and what is a wasteful charge?

Two characters in the film stick out and are helped with flashbacks to help build character. First is Kuribayashi, who has strong points even if some of his tactics do end up backfiring (you get the feeling that if he had more outside assistance, he would’ve had more advantage). And the other is Private First Class Saigo (Kazanari Ninomiya, very good here). He wakes up to everything surrounding him and starts to wonder why he’s even there. At one point, he considers surrendering; but his platoon, crossed with his own honor, won’t let him, seeing it as a crime to be what they label a “coward.” You see a lot of the action through his eyes—he’s just an ordinary young man who doesn’t know why these battles are even needed and just wants go home to be with his wife and daughter.

The look of the film is striking. Most of it is monochromatic with only instances of color in things such as explosions; you could almost see the movie as being in black-and-white. When the explosions do come, they look and feel all the more real and horrifying.

“Letters from Iwo Jima” is not propaganda, nor is it even pro-war. It’s not even that hard-hitting a war drama but rather a thoughtful representation of people who knew even before going to the island that their next stand could be their last. Instead, it’s a straightforward, powerful interpretation of an important part of history from a side we don’t often hear about, and it’s more pro-humanity. There are no forced debates about war; everything we need to know is shown to us effectively, and we see both sides of human nature layered within the film and its characters. The film also demonstrates Clint Eastwood’s continuing restrained maturity as a director; with this and “Flags of Our Fathers,” he clearly respects (or at least acknowledges) what went on in the heads of each soldier (particularly the “vulnerable” ones) on each side of the Battle of Iwo Jima. “Letters from Iwo Jima” is one of Eastwood’s best directorial efforts and it’s undoubtedly one of the most gripping, beautifully done war films I’ve ever seen.

The End of the Tour (2015)

10 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Okay, confession time, guys—before seeing “The End of the Tour,” I had absolutely no knowledge of either David Foster Wallace or his significant novel, Infinite Jest. After watching the fictional film about a few days in his company (which, as far as I can tell, is mostly accurate), I feel like I should read the novel and get into Wallace’s mindset even further.

Directed by James Ponsoldt (whose previous film was “The Spectacular Now,” one of my new personal favorite films), “The End of the Tour” is not a biopic about the life of a troubled artist but a slice-of-life film about a reporter’s interpretation of said-troubled artist while spending five days with him. The result is a comedy-drama that is honest, insightful, a great balance of drollness and pathos, and brilliantly acted. It’s one of the best films of 2015.

The story is told in flashback in 1996, when writer David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is assigned by Rolling Stone to join David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) on the last few days of his multi-city book tour. He gets to know the offbeat Wallace, keeps his tape recorder handy and running most of the time, and the more he gets to know what kind of person he is, the more hesitant he is to ask him what his editor is demanding to know: was Wallace addicted to heroin?

I’ve always liked Jason Segel in his comedic roles, but with his performance as Wallace, he shows a side I haven’t seen before. He’s brilliant, portraying an artist who is trying to hide from the world while observing modern (or, pre-9/11-modern) society’s pros and cons (at one point, it’s revealed that he himself is addicted to trash TV), and he’s terrified of fame for numerous reasons (some obvious, others understated). There are many levels to Segel’s performance that are fascinating to interpret; to see this film is to admire this performance.

Jesse Eisenberg’s role, who is technically the film’s main character, doesn’t require a stretch in range for the actor who has given similar performances before—as the twitchy, brainy, self-absorbed, quick-witted person who has a heart of gold—but Eisenberg still does an effective job here.

Also to be admired is the screenplay by Donald Margulies, adapted from the real David Lipsky’s reflective novel, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The conversations Lipsky has with Wallace are great and fascinating to listen to, with a great amount of pitch-perfect dialogue. It’s a long shot for the film to get a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination come Oscar-time, but I would cheer if it did.

With a fantastic script, a remarkable performance from Segel, and numerous effective moments that are dramatic, humorous, or both, “The End of the Tour” is a film I won’t forget anytime soon. I see a spot open in my year-end list for the best films of the year. I love this movie.

Ex Machina (2015)

6 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

From “2001” to “Blade Runner” to “Her,” artificial intelligence has been a common theme in science-fiction films. I think back to a line in a scene from “Prometheus,” in which an android asks a human he serves why he was made: “We made you because we could.” To say the least, there’s something so enthralling about the ability to play God and create life that the notion of said-life developing a soul is usually glanced over. That notion can pave the way for creative writers to explore its full potential, and with “Ex Machina” writer-director Alex Garland, best known for penning the screenplays for such films as “28 Days Later” and “Never Let Me Go,” explores this idea to create a spellbinding, thought-provoking fable about what it means to be “human.”

The film begins as Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen to participate in a test conducted by reclusive computer-scientist Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), who is CEO of the search-engine company Caleb works for. Caleb is brought to Nathan’s remote estate to stay for a week. Why is he there? Because Nathan has created an A.I. prototype named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he wants Caleb to interact with Ava for seven daily sessions and see if she can pass for a human.

To get this out there right away, the special effects involving Ava are quite outstanding. She’s covered partially in metallic skin with a human-like face, and we can also see through her to see her skeletal structure. It’s really impressive.

Ava is self-aware, speaks in a pleasant, robotic tone not unlike Siri, and seems very real, in Caleb’s eyes. He is astonished by how well she can pass as human and even becomes strangely attracted to her. This gets the attention of Nathan, who sees this as a development in the test, while Caleb starts to get suspicious of Nathan’s intentions toward Ava. Who is in control of this experiment? Who is being controlled? Who is manipulating who? Who is being manipulated?

The less I say about the story of “Ex Machina,” the better. I walked into this film cold and was constantly intrigued by each direction the complicated story took. Yes, the story is a bit complicated but only in terms of the characters and their incentives. It avoids the usual scientific talk about how Nathan created Ava and instead pushes it into symbolic-dialogue territory, with Nathan telling Caleb his reasoning for creating A.I. and what he plans to do with Ava to make way for more improvements. This has Caleb worried, since he sees her to be as human as he, while Nathan sees her as just a machine that can be replaced. Nathan loves to create life, even if he doesn’t see them as “being” or “unique,” so Caleb sees his meanings as problematic.

What I like most about “Ex Machina” is that it’s a little film about grand concepts. It’s kept in this one huge compound with four characters (Caleb, Nathan, Ava, and Nathan’s housekeeper whose identity would be a spoiler to describe) and we stay there for a majority of the film. The set itself is a suitably-unsettling place to spend an hour and 40 minutes of running time, especially at night, when it feels like a prison, with surveillance, key cards, and emergency shutdowns that happen ever so often, strangely. And the film isn’t an action film with a ton of special effects (the effects, which mostly bring Ava to life, have a purpose and are understated); instead, it’s a film about construction, philosophy, value, and character, and it’s the characters and the script’s brilliant dialogue that help bring these themes across in a very effective way. It also helps that Garland builds an edgy, disquieting tone that keeps the audience unnerved and guessing throughout the film.

“Ex Machina” also benefits from strong performances as well. Alicia Vikander provides the strongest performance as Ava, keeping the audience guessing as to whether she’s mimicking human emotions or genuinely feeling them. Oscar Isaac is brilliant as Nathan. He doesn’t play him as a typical mad-scientist type by constantly shouting and spewing exposition; he just plays him as an eccentric, deadpan, alcoholic narcissist who has a brilliant mind but is also kind of insane, especially when it comes to his fascination with playing God. Domhnall Gleeson is fine as the outsider/straight-man who isn’t sure exactly what to believe.

With intriguing concepts, smart dialogue, a low-key approach, a contained feeling, and numerous surprises, “Ex Machina” is not a film I will forget anytime soon. Some of the concepts have been explored before but not quite like this. It is one of the best films of the year.