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Guess what happens to Anakin at the end (there's a spoiler blacklist?!?)
I'd rather not give this movie any rating until I see it again, but I want to record my first impressions. There were moments when "Revenge of the Sith" bordered on greatness. I'm not a fan of computer animation (used excessively) yet the opening sequence has a thrilling kinetic energy, due as much to the editing as the effects, which can set the audience off-kilter, and let them briefly experience the adrenaline-fueled confusion that Anakin experiences, which will eventually lead him to the Dark Side. The other powerful moment is a scene in which Anakin stares out the window at the bustling world of Coruscant, contemplating his choice and his fate. The score hums ominously on the track, there is no dialogue (a huge plus in this movie), and we are immersed in the draw of the mystical Dark Side, calling Anakin home. Unfortunately, these scenes are somewhat rare. We all know the ending of the film and at times, because the action is robbed of suspense, it is easy to become distanced from the material. Quite a number of things were just as they should be: Obi-Wan & Anakin's climactic duel, Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader (which actually happens before his disfigurement), and then finally the entombment in Vader's suit (I didn't much care for the "Nooooooooo!" though--if you see the film you'll know what I'm talking about). But these events feel almost perfunctory because they're so inevitable. Maybe it was just me. But Revenge of the Sith offered tantalizing glimpses into Anakin's twisted soul, and to me that's more interesting and gripping that all the special effects in the world. I wish there was more of it. Palpatine is a fascinating character but McDiarmond has a tendency to ham it up, and this is especially true once the Chancellor becomes the Emperor. The romantic scenes, as we all know, are clumsily written, which is a shame because anything involving Natalie Portman should have the potential for tremendous chemistry. And I remain unconvinced that digital cinemascapes are the way of the future. When the film worked, it worked because of the "neither here-nor-there" quality of the special effects, NOT because they actually convinced you of a specific time and place. None of the worlds (save Coruscant which is supposed to be man-made anyway) are memorable, because the camera never lingers there; it sweeps over obviously artificial landscapes and swoops through big fights using digital characters--so we're never allowed to get a feel for a place, the way we could with Tatooine, Hoth, or Endor in the classic trilogy.
And one more thing: I'd like to be able to sit down and watch all six episodes in a row (and maybe I will someday) but the fact remains that the two trilogies don't make a good fit. It's not so much the CGI (though Lucas' Special Edition tweaking can't conceal the fact that the original three were made in a very different era of special effects) as it is the basic movie-making behind them. At the time, the original trilogy must have seemed breathless and groundbreaking, but next to the prequels it appears stately and old-fashioned in its storytelling. Characters inhabit physical worlds which appear limited and detailed compared to the dizzying, overpopulated, bustling universe that the prequels inhabit. Sequences unfold gently in comparison to the all-out attack of the prequel action sequences. Most of all, characters are given time to develop and interact. Think of the goofy and relaxed banter between Luke, Leia, and Han after they escape the Death Star. Such a scene is unimaginable in the prequels. What I'm trying to say is that watching the trilogies back-to-back to get a complete sense of the story may only show you the limitations of such an approach. I'm not sure yet. Either way, it's impossible to judge Revenge of the Sith in a vacuum, something which both works for it and against it. Our knowledge of Vader's past and future lend the film more power than it perhaps earns, but viewing Episodes IV-VI also remind us of the new film's limitation's.
Imagine: John Lennon (1988)
Really fascinating footage
As a big Beatles fan, I've seen lots of documentaries and shows about them; but this one has a lot of stuff I've never seen before, mostly because it focuses on John. The music of course is fantastic as always but what's most valuable is the candid looks we get at Lennon. A vagrant, probably stoned, confronts Lennon at his home in England, asking what the different lyrics mean and the ex-Beatle tries to talk some sense, comforting the confused man, and inviting him inside for a meal. It's even eerier considering what a later confused fan was to do. And some of the strongest parts of the film are long sequences of John confronting someone over his antiwar politics and tactics. Particularly Al Capp, famous cartoonist of "L'il Abner" who proves to be a royal a**hole here, insulting Yoko and John stays surprisingly level-headed throughout. It's a really dynamic scene. He actually loses his temper more when confronted by a NY Times reporter who tells him how immature it was for him to send back the MBE; he shouts back that maybe she liked the old him, the mop-tops and A Hard Day's Night but she needs to grow up. And finally, there's some footage taken not long before Lennon's death when a young man is thrilled to meet him, asking inevitably "When are you guys gonna get back together?" Little did he know that in a few days (or weeks, I'm not sure when this was taken) that dream would be shattered once in for all.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
This IS a home movie
Watching this is like sitting at a friend's house and watching a movie they made with their friends as stoned teenagers. They'll get a huge kick out of it, but you'll be alternately baffled, amused, and embarrassed. Some of the humor has Monty Python potential, but the timing is off--and no wonder, the Beatles were stoned out of their mind. Nonetheless, it's worthwhile as a historical and cultural artifact and besides, the songs are fantastic. Fool on the Hill meanders; as many have noted, it's just Paul wandering around on a hillside. Though the view is great, not much is done with it. Your Mother Should Know is a lot of fun; the dance the Beatles are doing is silly but somehow fits in with the catchy tune. The true standout of the picture is I am the Walrus, which is actually an excellent music video, well-edited, and really hilarious. It seems that the whimsy the Beatles were trying to achieve here was better done in Yellow Submarine--though ironically, the Beatles had almost nothing to do with that movie (it was a cartoon and their dialogue was dubbed by actors). Go figure.
The Wind in the Willows (1987)
Classic TV production with surprisingly high quality
"Wind in the Willows" is one of the all-time classic children's books, no doubt about it. And this is quite a good production, made (I believe) for Saturday morning television. I was about 4 or 5 when this was first aired, we've taped it and had it for the ensuing 15 or 16 years. Even aside from the hilarious 80's commercials (remember how popular claymation was back then?), it's still a treat to pull out the old tape and run it through the VCR again. One of the keys to the cartoon's success was the excellent musical score, with some truly memorable songs (particularly the wistful title tune which perfectly captures the yearning spirit of Rattie). And there's a great sequence with the Seafaring Rat seducing Rattie with tales of the far-off wonders of the world...it gets right to the soul of every adventurous Englishman, divided between the serene comforts of home and the wide world beyond (it's almost a David Lean moment here). The animation is admittedly not up to Disney's caliber, but then neither was Disney at the time this was made (it would be a few years before "Little Mermaid" signified their renewal). Sometimes the drawings are a bit flat, but other times they're wonderfully evocative. All in all, I recommend this if you can find it--I really don't know if it's on video or not although it probably says so on this site. Oh, and one last thing: the voices are dead-on perfect, especially Roddy McDowell as the Rat (just found out it was him recently, but it makes perfect sense in retrospect. There have been many versions of "Wind in the Willows"--a stop-motion production done for PBS in the 90's, a lushly drawn cartoon introduced by Vanessa Redgrave, even a live action version starring the Monty Python crew, which is worth watching...and of course the Disney cartoon which is a big departure from the spirit and story of the book in many ways, but contains that irrestible Disney charm and enthusiasm. Still, in some ways, this remains my favorite production, both for personal reasons (it evokes as much nostalgia for me as Teddy Ruxpin and Mr. Potato Head) and because it is the movie which most lives up to the spiritual undertones in Graham's story.
Brief Encounter (1945)
Another accomplishment for David Lean
When I think about this film in retrospect, I wonder why I was so smitten with it. As a general rule, I only love romances if I have a crush on the actress; Celia Johnson is very pretty but she's not Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." And this sort of peaon to bourgeoisie love made impossible by society is exactly what I find myself unable to finish in novel form. Yet it works so well, and I'm totally swept away by this movie. Its pinnacle for me is a brief sequence, where Johnson's character narrates her hopes of traveling to far-off lands with her new lover and we see dreamlike images of the two in Paris, Venice, the tropics...just hazy enough that our imagination carries us away. And ultimately the story is about dreams and yearning, not any specific middle-class love affair/society tale. I can only credit this universal dreamer's appeal to David Lean; I'm unfamiliar with Noel Coward's other work and while the story and dialogue are excellent it's really the direction that carries the viewer off, in my opinion. David Lean is at the top of my list of favorite directors, primarily on the basis of "Lawrence of Arabia" (which also hovers at the top of my list of favorite movies). He is able to use imagery and mood to tap into our deepest dreams and desires so that his stories take on a mythical quality all beyond preportion to their subject. Clearly the protagonist wants to escape her life in dreary England but a key to the film is that this England is romantically dreary, not dull but melancholy. That's all I can say, it's very hard to convey this film's appeal. Just see it and you will understand.
One of my all-time favorites
I think of this is a great rainy afternoon movie. You're flipping through the channels on one of those great lazy Saturdays...it's summer but it's raining outdoors and you're stuck inside. You come across a classic movie channel (AMC, TCM--take your pick) and pause. What's this? Ernest Borgnine? You always like him, why not stop for a moment and watch. It looks like it's just beginning. "Marty"? Yeah, you've heard of it, vaguely. Won the Oscar or something, but it's been kind of forgotten. So you start watching and before long you're totally enchanted, completely charmed, by the simple story and realistic characters. Who can't sympathize with Borgnine's sensitive butcher, hanging out with his Italian friends and their goofy conversations about Mickey Spillane, all the while pining away with his heart of gold for a girl that his buddies call a "dog"? The conversations have the kind of natural humor and warmth that remind you of the old days hanging out with your pals. As you watch the movie, you find yourself enthralled and you never change the channel, watching it till the end, realizing that you've seen this plot riffed on and spoofed on various TV shows, films, and cartoons over the years. When the movie's done, you're really excited--this is one of those films you discovered on your own and nothing can beat that thrill. Now, this isn't the way I saw "Marty"--I rented it and now own it on DVD--but it's the spirit I get from it. I love the conversation between Marty and his best friend, its street poetry that's entertaining without being false, in the diner as their Friday night lays out ahead of them. I love Marty and Clara's walk, their honesty and his enthusiasm; you worry is he going to far, being too gregarious for the shy Clara? Will it work? I love the preparations for Sunday Mass, the fight between the married couple, and Marty agonizing over standing up his girl while his friends have an amusingly banal and silly conversation in which they keep repeating themselves. It's really just a charming and wonderful film, joyful even in its sad moments. If you don't enjoy it, what can I say, but my recommendation comes completely honest and from the heart. This is one of those personal favorites that also happens to be an underrated classic--but just underrated enough so that the joy of discovering it on a rainy Saturday afternoon remains undiluted.
The Pianist (2002)
A spectacular film, fully deserving to win Best Picture
Roman Polanski has tackled the subject which stole his innocence and haunted the rest of his life. The nearly 70-year-old filmmaker (responsible for indelible classics "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby") has filmed the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman. And what a story it is. Szpilman was a middle-class Jewish pianist whose comfortable life in Warsaw was interrupted, and then changed forever, by the German occupation of the Polish city and the subsequent persecution and murder of the Jews. It is easy to forget how absurd the Final Solution must have seemed to people in 1939, and one can understand how the Szpilmans, well-educated and financially secure Jews could not realize just how much trouble they were in until it was too late. Polanski captures the brutal and spontaneous violence of the Germans with unblinking, horrifying honesty that chills in a different (and some would say, more genuine) manner than Spielberg's in-your-face hand-held camera approach in "Schindler's List." It is inevitable that any Holocaust film will draw comparisons to Steven Spielberg's 1993 masterpiece which defined the genre (as crass as it might seem to refer to Holocaust films as a "genre"). It must be said that "The Pianist" is a different type of film, one which is concerned with one man's struggle to survive. Like "Schindler's List," this film deals with gentiles helping Jews (although that is not the primary focus of the movie) but unlike "Schindler's List," "The Pianist" shows it from the Jewish perspective. Also unlike that earlier film, Polanski does not go for the black-and-white cinema verite realism of "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist" is all the more affective for it; that style might not have suited this movie as well. With color cinematography, he is able to highlight the contrast between the ghetto and the outside world which, however miserable cannot compare to the suffering of the Jews. And because the camerawork is so subtle, we are slowly immersed in the film to the point where it takes on a spooky sense of surrealism and we are as shocked as the protagonist to see the grim, jagged skyline of Warsaw after bombing, the indescribable brutality visited on random Jews, and the unfolding of events outside the main character's window. The film diverges from most Holocaust films when (do not read if you don't want to know what happens in the second half of the film) Szpilman is pulled from the line of Jews entering the boxcars; instead of taking us to the death camps, the film pulls in the opposite direction, out of the ghetto and into hidden apartments where we see occupied Poland and the uprisings that challenge the occupiers. There is a fascinating bit at the end with a (seemingly) conscience-stricken German officer who listens to Szpilman's piano-playing and protects him in the last days before the Soviets capture the city. All in all, an absolutely stunning film, and one well worth your time. See it as soon as possible.
Breathtaking film takes you to directly into the events of September 11, 2001
It is very hard indeed to imagine a documentary more powerful and moving than this one. Certainly, no other cameremen got as close and involved as the two Frenchmen, the Naudets, who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time to record these tragic events for posterity. What gives the film its punch (aside from the inherently overpowering first-hand footage of not only the towers in flames and falling, but both planes crashing into the World Trade Center) is that it introduces us to the firemen, particularly a new trainee named Tony Benatatos, before 9/11. The Naudet brothers were planning on making a documentary about the induction of a new firefighter from the summer of 2001. They just happened to be present when the catastrophic events unfolded that September. The Naudets wisely choose to stick with what they captured, using spare narration and subdued interviews to complement the story that the raw footage (and our memories) tell all too well. "9/11" wisely avoids getting ensnared in the sentimentality and political arguments that quickly followed the terrorist attacks, and focuses just on the prelude, the events of that day, and the tragic aftermath as rescue workers sift through the rubble hoping to find survivors. Quite possibly the best film of 2002. And very highly recommended.