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Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Glad I didn't read the book, because the movie is lovely
After reading so many reviews by people whose experiences with this beautiful movie were ruined because of the dreaded book-to-film curse, I can only thank my better senses for not having read it, although that is now in the works. I am beginning to think that it would be wise to go to cinematic book adaptations armed with complete ignorance of the source these days. Such a strategy may have allowed me to enjoy the filmed version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, but as is, it was just another unbelievably corny and overwrought, over-scored special effects-laden massacre of an otherwise damned good set of books.
In my ignorance of the source, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' turns out to be lovely if a bit contrived, and I am glad I allowed myself to enjoy it without niggling over the fact that there were Chinese actors playing Japanese roles or that it was filmed in California or that this or that part of the book was left out or abridged. The most important thing with 'Memoirs' is that it restored in me some hope that Hollywood is still capable of immense beauty and taste. It seems to me that this movie achieved an aesthetic at times that was unprecedented and astounding in its bare beauty, something even the film's detractors are willing to admit just before they throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Ziyi Zhang accomplished for this reviewer exactly what her character was supposed to accomplish with the men in the story - she forced me to "fall in love with her" about 12 times over throughout the movie, with her solo dance scene sending a warm current up my spine in particular. She is indeed a moving work of art in this: Sensual, beautiful, graceful, and young. That her acting is not particularly kaleidoscopic here makes many feel that she is a 'cold fish', but I saw nothing to corroborate this opinion, nor did I see any scenes where her character needed anything more or anything less than what she provided. I found her performance to be very honest in scope - even award-worthy compared to Oscar-nominee hacks like Reese Witherspoon. Zhang is exquisite in every moment, and her sad, demure beauty and understated performance work perfectly with the tremendous restraint that the subject is showing throughout. I found her work here very touching.
My largest reservation about this film is post-viewing, upon coming here and looking at the IMDb voter history, only to discover that the demographic that rated 'Memoirs' as highly as I do seems to have been composed of girls under 18 years of age! This is probably the very last group of people whose collective movie opinion I would want to associate myself with, but there it is.
I suppose the second thing I didn't like is that the movie had a bit too much Cinderella element to it, though dirtied up to accommodate the 20th and 21st-century decayed moral flavor. The chairman character was practically anemic in terms of being fleshed out as anything more than a bit player, just like Prince Charming always was, and made the protagonist's doings and goings-on a little bit too much like a protracted teenage crush to truly take seriously, but I can forgive this in light of the film's other charms.
Otherwise, I felt that this one worked on all levels - particularly visually - but with a special nod to both Li Gong for her outstanding portrayal of the antagonist, and to John Williams's excellent musical score. He is the only symphonic composer in the industry today who really has the spark, I think. The rest of them might as well be composing adventure music for those awful Marine recruitment ads with the buff dunderheads combating fire-breathing monsters.
Gregory's Girl (1980)
Simple and beautiful - brings me back every time.
One of my favorite things about this movie is that it captures a sort of 'parentless' world that further enhances its subtle and sweet adolescent tone. While there are adult characters in the film (most notably the coach, who is himself awkward and hardly authoritative), and while we meet Gregory's dad briefly, they come off as backdrop, and the overall impression is that this is like a live-action, Scottish, adolescent version of Charles Schulz's 'Peanuts' movies, where kids run about on their own seemingly at whim after school, but aren't necessarily concerned with being full of destructive mischief given that freedom. Indeed, the most mature character in the entire film may be the 10-year-old sister of the main character, and this flip-flop of roles is further illustrated by his sister's little suitor friend, Richard, acting ever the gentleman even through Gregory's very funny verbal onslaught.
The contrast between teenage lust/horniness against the innocent and awkward nature of teenage infatuation and the eventual sweetness of the first kiss are spread decidedly toward the latter here. This is not Porky's or American Pie, despite an opening scene that maybe belongs in that territory. This is a very sensitive movie that treats kids as if they're real people, and allows for that kernel of dirty-minded lust to exist side-by-side with the fresh and innocent electrical sweetness of young love, and nevertheless avoids seriousness through that sensitivity, and serves each comedic moment up in the most understated and warm way it can. It's very natural, and it captures best the way adolescence really is: A no-man's land between being an utter child and becoming an adult.
The director also achieved a great contrast in moods and environments, with the 1970s prog-jazz score and understated sterility of a boxy 1960-70s planned community with its plain institutional nature shown by the modern school and town planning. Somehow, it manages to bring everything about the characters and dialog into relief.
Great acting from a cast of mostly unknowns, a more-or-less aimless story that you don't want to end, and a lovely look back to a time period that I actually miss make this movie a favorite.
The World of Henry Orient (1964)
George Roy Hill is a perhaps neglected name in any 'top ten' list of great directors we are likely to see, but his filmography speaks for itself, with a number of quiet classics among a few heavyweight top 100 films--all within a somewhat small oeuvre. Each of these classics shows to good effect Hill's marvelous aesthetic moods and attention to detail, combined with absolutely expert casting, obtaining winning performances from all of the principles, with superior character acting from the secondaries.
Peter Sellers is actually something of a secondary in this one as the title role, but his portrayal of Henry Orient is so ludicrous and wonderful that he steals the show every time he's on screen. He was really something. Sellers plays it very large here, as a pretentious, NYC-based, avant-garde pianist of meagre talent--a charlatan, egoist, and ersatz Lothario who cultivates a faux-Euro accent but slides back into his 'native' Brooklyn (Sellers is probably the greatest accent-mimic ever) jargon every time he gets rattled, who has Paderewski hair that he continuously primps, and who entices women who've actually fallen for his schtick by hurling continuous salvos of romance-novel drivel at them until they (hopefully) relent.
Oddly, although it is made plain and obvious in the dialogue that Henry Orient is more or less a hack, and although Sellers plays his usual skillful physical shenanigans, I found that the pianist on the soundtrack played the piano quite well, despite the ridiculous material. There's a hilarious, gushing theme that is edited into almost every scene that Henry is in. His mannerisms during the piano concerto and the ostentatious buffoonery from scene to scene show Sellers in his element, and he never misses the chance to exploit the full range of available comedic ingredients in any moment to the utmost. Every time I watch him cross his arms to play two notes four octaves apart at the end of the concerto, and he does the little wiggle of the finger as if he's depressing the string on a violin to get vibrato out of it, I let out a belly laugh. I never get tired of that.
The two protagonists (or rather, Sellers's perceived antagonists) are played with mesmerising enthusiasm by the two adolescent leads. Tippy Walker is particularly radiant in this movie as the talented, attention-starved, sensitive, hyperkinetic Val, who develops a crush on Henry. Her pixie features, infectious retainer-filled smile, and wide-eyed, bubblegummy girlishness shine on, and share honors with Sellers for scene-steal appeal. She plays off the hurt, pouty ingenue angle beautifully too. Her counterpart, Merrie Spaeth, is no slouch either, although she had the disadvantage here of having the 'straight man' role. No matter! They don't compete for space at all (the scene-stealing qualities of Ms Walker notwithstanding),and they get equal attention and equally precocious dialogue, with the simpatico theme being so stressed as to tell us purposely that they are equal partners through and through.
Ultimately the film leaves me feeling bittersweet, partially through nostalgia--Hill's 1963 NYC is beautiful--but also because the movie has that theme of fleeting innocence in the face of oncoming adolescent desire. George Roy Hill's great movies have a sparkle to them, and this qualifies as one of the quieter greats. In any case, as time buries this one, those halcyon days of youth go with it, but the legacies of Sellers and Hill should mark it for at least cult-status immortality, which by proxy should give the girls their deserved legacy too.
Ring of the Nibelungs (2004)
There is a horrible, running soundtrack score through every single second of this film, and it serves to weaken the dramatic effect rather than enhance it. What is otherwise a not-too-bad movie in terms of direction, writing, and acting is turned into pure cheese by this. I can't overemphasize how damaging it is to a film to puff it up with constant musical emotive injections of low compositional character. 'Gods and Generals' suffered from this malady as well (frankly, so did 'Gladiator' and 'LotR,' but at least they let up once in awhile). It's cheap. Music should be used sparingly, so that when a scene *needs* the emphasis, it is there as a catalyst. If you have it going at all times, the audience will get tired of it, and the effect is lost.
Now, it's OK for Wagner to have had a running score through his operatic versions of this story; first, because he was a master composer, and second, because that's the nature of opera. But this movie was so bad about it that it's all I can think of in this little review. It's really awful.
Keep to the other reviewers about the actual film content. They've done well enough, and said the pertinent things.
Gods and Generals (2003)
A long review of a long movie
'Gods and Generals' dramatizes the early years of the Civil War, ending with the death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville. Jackson is the central character of the movie, though others are given plenty of dramatic treatment - most notably the hero of Little Roundtop, Joshua Chamberlain - but this is Jackson's story throughout, and actor Steven Lang dominates the considerable screen-time, which amounts to nearly four hours of film.
A breakdown of everything:
I. The Good - The battle scenes were the best yet at showing the sheer size of some of these battles - they show huge lines of forces opposing each other, and the scope can be gargantuan at times. The scenes of the battle outside Fredericksburg show line after line of Union troops advancing against a wall of well-entrenched rebel troops, and it is awesome to behold the grandeur of it all. I kept thinking of what Shelby Foote said in Ken Burns' documentary series on the Civil War: (paraphrased) "the military hardware was well in advance of the tactics of the time", and seeing wave after wave of soldiery advancing into intense rifle and cannon fire while still maintaining ranks and advancing at a marching drill pace was shocking and extremely well done. Good overall choreography, considering how difficult it must be to direct that many people.
The acting was decent, for the most part, and in some cases superior. Steven Lang's portrayal of Jackson was very fine despite the frequent occurrence of heavy-handed dialogue in almost every scene. Likewise, I thought Robert Duvall a more convincing Rob't E Lee than Martin Sheen, but this was in many ways due to his more apt physical representation of the man. Jeff Daniels was again excellent as Chamberlain, though his enunciation was at times stilted.
The props, locations, sets and uniforms were really something else, and conveyed immense variety. I found it quite impressive to see so much eye-candy in one film. There was something about this film's predecessor, 'Gettysburg', that still seemed like a History Channel re-enactment - partly the fault of direction - where this film was more meticulous in nailing down the details, and on a bigger scale.
II. The Bad - Well, no need to sugar-coat it, but there was plenty about this film that needed reconsideration...
The most noticeable thing on my end of things was the over-scoring. There was 'moving' orchestral music in literally every scene, and that is unforgivable to this reviewer. It should be a movie-making sin to populate a film with constant, very average, weeping, heart-tugging music, with the overtly obvious intent of increasing the dramatic scope and causing the more romantic of viewers to shed a few tears, and keep shedding them. Please stop this Hollywood. It is actually trashy and obnoxious, not evocative, and ultimately defeats the intent by trivializing the scenes through sonic domination - very few people can maintain that much emotion for four hours. I wish that more filmmakers would take a note from Kubrick in this regard. His use of score was nearly always appropriate, sparse when he needed it to be, and he never hesitated to use period music instead of modern Hollywood composing, which is, frankly, beginning to sound the same in every such movie as this. None of these composers are on the level of a Beethoven, and very few of them are even John Williams quality. (and yes, I know this movie had the middle movement of Beethoven's 'Pathetique' in one scene, only cut-down to save space, where they might have done some cutting elsewhere)
That said, I also think that movie makers should try to be a little more objective about the characters, even in a dramatization such as this. I know that the aims of these historical dramas are to enliven the historical figures beyond what we might see from a documentary or a book. That's fine, I even welcome it. But over-use of the specific devices required to achieve more human historical characterizations will often create far too much syrup, and this film had syrup running off the plate at times.
Mel Gibson's 'Patriot' is another example of this, and was a truly awful movie. We are so overburdened with corny dramatization of his family that we actually cease to care about them, and that's just a sign of bad writing - reminiscent of the musical taboo outlined above. Likewise, 'Saving Private Ryan', as great a movie as it is, ruined most emotional response for me through similar devices - some musical heaviness (though certainly less than here), dramatic abundance, use of symbolism, and poor understanding of how to objectively get done what the filmmakers artificially attempt to. 'Band of Brothers' accomplished for me what 'SPR' couldn't, and this was done entirely by letting the story run true - without steroidal emotive injections from the directors or producers. Let your audience do the thinking please.
I can now understand why the DVD release is so much more popular than this movie was in theatres - you can fast-forward through all the nonsense and get to the good stuff with a DVD, where in a theatre you are forced to sit painfully through it or go to the bathroom and risk missing something. Jackson's relationship with the picture-perfect five-year-old southern girl is just a small section of what I'm talking about. I mean, who really wants to watch that? And so many minutes of it, just to develop a side-plot that means absolutely NOTHING to the scope of the movie at large? One might argue that they're trying to show the loving side of ol' Stonewall, but please! It's boring and tedious, and it's poor, common, predictable soap opera drama - emphasis on predictable. I actually laughed when they reported that the girl had died because it was so telegraphed - I knew she would once I saw how much time they were devoting to their little relationship - and I'm quite sure that laughter wasn't the intended response. By the way, yes, I have a heart - but I also have a low tolerance for these little predesigned emotional story-line implants.
Again, I'm not saying that this movie shouldn't have utilized character-to-character drama at times, but I *am* saying that it should have done so tastefully and with some restraint. The dying soldier opening his fingers to reveal a shiny $20 coin was just another small visual example of this that made me roll my eyes when I saw it, because it was so telegraphed by the previous scene that I expected it...I was literally waiting for it, and voila, they gave it to me.
I've noticed quite a few reviewers rightfully commenting on the way the actors seem to give speeches full of grandiose meaning in nearly every line - even in common dialogue - and I happen to agree with them. We are accustomed to thinking that 19th century means of spoken expression was far more ornate than our own today. While this is certainly true to an extent, it is more true of the literature than the vernacular. Mark Twain's books should be thumbed over for a better understanding of how common people spoke - in short, not that differently from how we speak today. There were in fact a tremendous amount of quotations of great profundity that came out of the Civil War, and anecdotally, it is fine to use them, but we should not make the mistake that every line uttered by the great generals was such.
III. Extra thoughts -
A final note about the so-called 'revisionist' examples of showing slaves' loving devotion to their owners/masters, and peaceful, non-derisive treatment by the same...in short, I'm fine with this. Yes, it shows only a slice of things, perhaps unfairly in light of the many examples of the horrors of southern slavery, but I think it's something that needed to be said. There were gallant men and women on both sides, and although slavery is immoral by nature, some slave-owners were decent, kindly people who had deep affection for their servants - there were even some who had no compunctions about letting those servants help to raise their children. I think this movie was trying to emphasize that point to an otherwise ignorant or presuming population that has been societally conditioned to view every person who lived freely under the rebel banner as evil. In fact, the common soldier generally had nothing to do with slavery, and many were angered at the immunity shown to slave-owners according to confederate law - the age-old "poor man fighting a rich man's war" idea. Further, the film made no bones in showing that these slaves wished to be free in spite of their devotions and friendships, and Jeff Daniels' character sealed the point that abolition was ultimately the right thing to do. In no way do I think that this movie was trying to say otherwise, and I believe that anyone who looks at the film's handling of that issue in a derogatory way does so with a closed mind and a lack of understanding towards the individual as opposed to the masses.
In closing, I'm actually going to give this movie a 4/5, despite the many flaws. It was well-made, and illustrated the rather incredible elan and dash displayed by the rebs in the early years in the face of an overwhelming opponent, while still keeping up an understanding of the heroism displayed by both sides in the most brutal period of American history.
(Spoilers - semi-detailed descriptions of characters and central themes ahead)
I just watched this little Japanese gem a few minutes ago, and it was pure joy. The movie was both funny and touching, and the two primary actors did such a terrific job that it hooked me right away. I'm usually not one for 'sports flicks', but this one stands out among a small group in that category that I actually like, where the sport is simply the backdrop to a larger ideal. In this case, there are a few strands that are developed as lessons in life, and very gracefully so - even the 'villains' of this movie are ultimately likeable.
The main characters are in terrific contrast to one another - almost exact opposites - and yet their friendship is as true as any ever created on film.
On the one hand there is Peko, who is brash, cocky and tremendously talented at ping pong. His only desire, seemingly, is to crush his opponents in the most belittling way possible, and to him, being a champion is everything. He's not a bad guy at all, but his competitive drive tends to take over and sometimes overshadow his charisma and inner goodness.
Peko's life-long friend is Tsukimoto, a melancholy guy whose nickname is "Smile" because it's something he never seems to do. He is likely more naturally talented than Peko, but he feigns apathy about the game in almost all that he says, yet never quits playing it. He has no real desire to win, and he denies his abilities, and maintains this ideology to the point that he intentionally plays to lose against Peko (whose ego doesn't allow him to realize what his friend can do, even if everybody else can see it plainly). Tsukimoto derives greater pleasure from watching his friend soar than from trying to match his competitive fire or crush him.
Their childhood bond is so strong that Tsukimoto has suppressed feelings of hero worship for Peko, who was there to defend him and teach him the basics of the game when they were very young. Tsukimoto is a gentle and kindly sportsman and person, but difficult to talk to and very complex. He wins when he wants to - rather, he hates the idea of ego-crushing that is so strong in any competitive event, and will intentionally lose a game if he sees that he's making a detrimental impact on the psyche of an opponent; he sees the way other people around him take Ping Pong so seriously, and he shakes his head about it. Tsukimoto ultimately takes the middle ground though, and perhaps 'rediscovers' the pleasures of the game, but we are still left wondering what's really going on in his mind.
The film pulls no punches when it comes to declaring that natural talent goes farther than a strong work ethic, but talent cannot always do so alone. It strongly emphasizes the idea that talent without discipline is a tremendous waste, and will often lose the battle against a driven and tireless opponent who has talent in smaller degrees. This ideal is shown in the 'Rocky/Karate Kid' mould, with the typical "training to the beat of the soundtrack" thing that we've come to know from dozens of sports films.
But! The payoff is another thing - the training doesn't describe anything about what is ultimately accomplished, and this is entirely atypical of the Hollywood Sport experience: when we see Peko finally commit to excellence during the semi-final match - where he learns to be the hero, to "fly". It's a remarkable thing, the way the director handled this. Very poetic, very crafty, and it completely serves to make one put away any misgivings about his ego and cheer him on.
The lesser characters here represent a bunch of more-or-less typical types that we might encounter in any sport, but they are far from being stock. There are a few primary antagonists, both players and coaches, but in the end their characters are not shown to be the usual, two-dimensional "bad guys" that we see in American film - we come to understand these people and we see what makes them tick - their foibles, their inner ideas, and their struggles are shown pretty vividly. The movie is squarely set up, however, to showcase the two aforementioned characters, and to show how they rise up and tackle their own problems. The true antagonists here are the dubious inner ideas that people can embrace in life, particularly after some dose of failure.
One of the great things about this whole set-up is that it puts on center stage two protagonists, and pits them against one other in the end in a final game of Ping Pong. Who should the audience want to win? As the team's coach rightly says, "Root for both of them. Cheer every point", and we do.
Das Boot (1981)
Yep, seems like almost universal praise here, and there's little else to say, but Das Boot (director's cut) really is that good. Just some of the reasons:
1. Jürgen Prochnow put forth an acting performance that qualifies as one of the best ever in any movie, and more than half of it could be found in his facial expressions and quietude alone. Of course, when he lets his emotions loose at certain pivotal moments in the film, the audience is spellbound, and Prochnow commands the scenes of the movie as surely as his character commands the ship and its crew. This character is intricate in the extreme, but almost never overtly so.
2. The movie snowballs into one of the most intense and addicting film experiences I've ever come across. At three and 1/2+ hours, it manages to become more and more engaging. There are moments (especially towards the end) where the tempo of the movie is so fine-tuned that one is impelled to stare at the screen and become emotionally fused, as it were, with the plight of the characters.
3. Related to #1, the casting for the film was such that personalities came forth in faces alone at times. Secondary characters with few lines are given the benefit of personality and even character development through their actions and faces, combined with the little scrapings of dialogue each of them gets. We almost empirically know what these people are like. Dialogue is very important in this movie, but the physical characteristics of the actors match ALL of the characters' personalities so well here that one suspects that these people aren't acting. And really, that's what it's all about, right? That we should not realize that this is just make-believe? We see funny people, serious people, tired people, uptight people...it all works perfectly well. Great, natural acting by all.
4. The steady-cam claustrophobia betrays genuine craft in the direction of this movie. One gets the feeling of a cramped space throughout the film. Likewise, within this small space, there is still room for direction, and the composition of the shots are all superb. Another thing: the film quality is very clean for a movie that was made in 1983, and stands up to today's work well - this movie doesn't really date itself visually, which is a rare thing.
5. The story line and dialogue were original and completely realistic. There are few words uttered and few moments in the movie that I wouldn't have believed. It steers clear of some of the gross exaggerations of certain Hollywood-style war films, both in heroic dialogue and also during person-to-person banter while characters are just hanging around off-duty.
6. The representation of boredom is an interesting concept in this film, and one that Hollywood is usually uncomfortable with. Here, we see moments where the crew simply sits around doing nothing, and the film, for some of these moments, goes nowhere with them - stalling out in the middle of the ocean. Is this a bad thing? No. It's an objective construction of the boredom of NOT seeing constant action, and the director takes the time to do it right, without blatantly telling the audience, "ok, the character is bored here. See that? Right. Next scene. Now we're going to make something interesting happen right away". And you know what? The boredom of the crew is fascinating to behold.
7. The set was a masterpiece. A near perfect recreation, and weathered and propped perfectly down to the last detail.
8. The music was low-key enough that it didn't intrude on the organic drama going on in the picture. I'm not crazy about the score, but at least it wasn't hitting me over the head every twenty seconds. It is sparse, and incidental sound in general in the re-master was really impressive, and is the real sonic contributor much more so than the music.
9. The subject matter is great - a very subjective thing, but aren't U-Boats and the Atlantic War just interesting? I think so. And I'm glad that U-571 isn't the only movie out there about them - because it did absolutely nothing as far as showing what LIVING was like inside of one. 'Das Boot' made this factor absolutely integral to the nature of the movie, and for that, it's unequaled by any war film save perhaps the Finnish movie 'Talvisota'.
If you haven't seen it, please do. It's an important and excellent film.
Breaking Away (1979)
an important and neglected film
I was nine years old when I first saw 'Breaking Away', and I think the book adaptation may have been the first more-or-less novel-length thing I ever read. My wild enthusiasm after leaving the theatre was similar at the time to my previous reaction to 'Star Wars', a fact that I attribute to the natural electrical charge of the endings of both films.
Of course, a nine-year-old lacks the world experience to empirically understand the central messages of this film, and at the time my primary devotion to it was centered around Dave Stoller's orange Masi racing bike, a thing that I coveted with the passions of a kid on Christmas Eve.
The movie made me mad with bicycle lust, and I frowned on every Huffy I saw at school. I used to draw pictures of Masi, Bianchi and Olmo bikes all the time after seeing this, and I shamelessly begged my parents for an Italian-made, Campagnolo-equipped racer - a futile thing to do, as my parents knew not to purchase something that expensive for a boy who would physically out-grow a pair of Levis within a school year. Ultimately, I was propelled into the worship of Eddy Merckx while all my classmates were digging into their Terry Bradshaw Topps cards, unaware - as I'm positive they still are - of who the hell Eddy Merckx even is.
BUT...'Breaking Away' is not just a bicycle film - not by a long-shot, and I knew it then too, but that just wasn't very important to me at a time when bicycles were all-important.
Despite my youthful energies, I never did pursue bicycle racing,(although I am definitely a touring enthusiast whose passion for Italian-made bicycles has finally seen fruition) but 'Breaking Away' never left me. It was the REST of the film that eventually got to me - and somewhat later in life - when my emotions and experiences with the world ran deeper.
In short, this film explores many strands: the aimlessness of youth colliding with the responsibilities of adulthood; the often heartbreaking romantic fantasies of people who wish they could be something else; lying and cheating and the false nature of gains made through them; the importance of strong family relations and friendships; and life in small-town America - and it does all this with extraordinary craft, honesty and sensitivity. It's beautiful, and more importantly, it is soulful and original. Although certainly dated in appearance, I'll even toss in the cliche that it is *timeless*, because the themes and characters are so.
The characters themselves are all wonderfully brought out by the perfect casting - it's been said here, but the fact that Dennis Christopher never achieved star-status is truly a shame and a waste of a potentially amazing talent. He played the lead role with a believable intensity and a really quite perfect understanding of his character. Dave Stoller's painful self-realization after the Cinzano race was as memorable a job of acting as I can think of. Paul Dooley and Barbara Barry were also wonderful, as were Quaid, Stern and Haley - every one of them created a personality for their characters, both in dialogue and physical reaction. The rest of the cast was likewise fine, each actor doing the best they could with what were sometimes stock roles (the college kids, for example, including Robyn Douglas, the female romantic role)
The direction, story and, most especially, the dialogue were great as well.
I also picked up a love of Mendelssohn and Rossini when I was just a kid after seeing this - the film score was superb, all the while taking the Stanley Kubrick/Woody Allen approach by choosing some choice compositions of a time long past, rather than belabor the audience with the refried horrors so typical of modern film-score composition.
I hope this movie doesn't become a relic - it seems its own sleeper status has kept it shelved over the years. Mention it to just about any American born before 1975, and they'll know what it is, but only in the way I did when I was nine: they'll usually say something like, "oh yeah, the bicycle film! I remember that one", and then they'll likely have little else to say about it, which is a shame. I still whole-heartedly place this movie among my very favorites every time, and I trumpet it whenever I get into discussions with other people about the movies I love.
Sad Sign of the Times
I always forgave George Lucas for the relative horror that was 'Return of the Jedi', because it did have some elements of greatness alongside some of the worst decisions about the franchise ever. I won't go into detail here. The new films I cannot forgive however, because they show so clearly what is wrong with the action-film industry today: artifice, shallowness, and the unfortunate demographic and marketing discovery that the dumber you make something nowadays, the more money there is to be made from it. (PT Barnum realized this a long time ago, of course, but even he didn't dumb things down *this* much)
George Lucas, if you read these reviews, please pay attention (semi-spoilers):
1. (also a fault of Episode 1) - did they go to Mitsubishi or something for the designs of the spacecraft and various machinery for these new films? One thing about episodes 4-6: *almost* everything follows combinations of the fundamental shapes - the triangle, the rectangle and the circle. This general emphasis on angularity looked great, and really signified the basic look of things in the Star Wars universe, while still managing to look sleek. Now, however, we see things that are more often based on the teardrop or beetle shape, and other flowing, unusually curved designs that are so significant to today's automotive design. And all of this technological finesse is supposed to presage the designs of the original trilogy. In our own history, we see varying degrees of aerodynamic shaping in cars and airplanes, chronologically going from box-like to curved. Lucas should have made note of this and followed suit. As is, the curvy fighter ship designs look more aerodynamic than the "later" design of the x-wing, as an example. And yes, I *did* notice the Boeing-like transport plane in the beginning of the film. It still doesn't qualify, not even with the artificial propeller sounds, and it doesn't look like a "star wars" design at all. None of it does.
2. On that note, the über-busy CGI that densely dominates every scene of the film is distracting and unnecessary. It is impressive that the ILM computers can render so much at once, but it doesn't mean that they should. Craft dictates that the denseness of a Mahler symphony gives way to the appropriateness of a Beethoven one. I don't want to bring out the modern proverb that "less is more" really, because I don't really believe it is true of all things. But! Some discretion, some restraint please.
3. Why pander so obviously to earth-inspired architecture? We see typical Roman columns and vaulted ceilings in one scene, a horrible 1950's diner in the next (Edward Hopper would be rolling in his grave), and finally, a nod to the Gladiatorial arena in the finale. Even with his limited budget in the original "Star Wars", Lucas managed to create environments that looked unlike anything on earth. One might recall the cantina and say, "Ha! That's unquestionably a bar!" The point is, it's a 'star wars' bar, and it fit the look of Mos-Eisely very well. Whereas that new diner looked just like any diner anywhere on earth, right down to the salt and pepper shakers. One thing: it's ok to borrow from earth sources to make the architecture look unusual, just make sure that the sources themselves have nothing to do with architecture! The oval patterns all over the interior walls of the Death Star were plainly based on the cooling holes of a WWI-era Spandau machine gun, for example. When shifted over to architecture, this earth-based design became one of the most recognizable "Star Wars" patterns, and nobody batted an eyelash over it.
4. CGI characters vs. muppets/CGI spacecraft vs. models: I'm not going to elaborate here, but, some of the CGI characters look horrible, and should be shelved until they know how to make these sorts of things look even remotely organic - and it affects entirely the interaction of real characters and non-real... As for the spacecraft, I still prefer the look of the models over CGI designs. Again, even with non-organic forms, it just looks more realistic.
5. Yes, Natalie Portman is beautiful. "Hot" even...but, in the future, if you're going to give her Britney Spears fashions with no midriff to show off her lovely abdomen, please just do so - make it part of her costume to begin with. Don't have a 1000-toothed monster tear the cloth away - it looked ridiculous, and betrayed entirely what you were trying to do, but in an artificial and ridiculous way.
6. It's too late now, but...the casting for the human look of Darth Vader has been bad since Return of the Jedi. First, we see the Humpty Dumpty, living soft-boiled egg man when Luke takes Vader's mask off in RotJ; next, we're treated to a typical American soccer kid in Ep. I, who looked like Nicholas from "Eight is Enough" and betrayed no super-intellect that we're told makes him special; and finally, we get the raver-era, n-synch-style whining weinie of "Clones". Two out of these three couldn't act at all - I'll leave you to guess who. How can any of these people live up to the physical stature of David Prowse (the man underneath the Vader suit) or the authority of James Earl Jones' voice? Who was in charge of casting here? What were they thinking?
7. It's not the fault of the actors really, but...the dialogue between Anakin and the princess/senator was *really* bad. It essentially boils down to Anakin hitting on Amidala every chance he gets until she relents - and he didn't even need to give her any alcohol! Then we're treated to interspersed lines of trite pseudo-poetry and cliche. WE're in the age of the anti-romantic, to be sure, but you can still do better than this. It was worse than bad. It made me wonder if the writer ever got any himself.
8. It's all been stated before, but...please never throw in the side-scroller video game cliche of characters having to dodge mashing machinery on an assembly line again.
9. Surrogate Senator Jar Jar. I don't even need to say anything else about this.
10. The concept of cute. In the original, untarnished Star Wars, the cuteness factor was relegated to jawas and the two lovable droid protagonists. This was fine, because you never knew what the jawas really looked like - they could have been hideous beasties underneath the cloaks - and the droids were relegated to an anthropomorphic, pompous, effeminate robot who happened to look very cool, and a little save-the-day useful robot who talked in chirps and moog synth sounds who also looked really cool. The mechanical nature of the droids made up for their cuteness factor, as did the efficacy in which C-3PO spoke and the non-speech of R2. Nowadays, well...stop it please. Kids aren't that stupid, and you don't need to Disney the franchise to death like you have since RotJ.