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Star Wars: A New Hope – a movie list challenge #9

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

Star Wars IV: A New Hope

Rank: 9
List Appearances: 8/10
Average Rank: 30
Highest Rank: 4, on Ranker‘s The Best Movies of All Time
Total Final Score: 11088

In 1977, film history was made. Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon unlike anything before, and its importance on film is still felt today. The original trilogy are among my favorite movies of all time. Before I was five, I had seen them at least half a dozen times. I still lament that I never knew that feeling of “Oh my god! Darth Vader is Luke’s father!” because I just knew it before I knew what street I lived on. My first crush was Luke, and by extension Mark Hamill, and I knew his name and Carrie Fisher’s and Harrison Ford’s before I knew my neighbor’s first name (she was Mrs Armstrong). I liked A New Hope, but mostly, I liked Ewoks and Jedis and R2D2 and Yoda, in that order. I was five, after all, and one movie was all the movies. Even now, I love hearing that 20th Century Fox fanfare playing at the start of the movie and getting excited. Dad didn’t even have to tell me. I just knew he was starting it again. I’d exclaim, “Return of the Jedi!” and sit on the couch eagerly waiting for the text scroll to start.

Speaking of text scroll, did you know that George Lucas had to pay $100,000 to put it on at the start of the movie and have the credits at the end? Before Star Wars, the main credits for a movie were at the start for all movies. That’s significant now, because it has become the standard, and credits at the start are definitely not the norm (though the start of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is a brilliant example of the now outdated style).

I have seen A New Hope probably a hundred times. I stopped counting long ago. I haven’t watched it as often in my adulthood, though, due to the tragedy that are the Lucas cuts. The VHS copies I had growing up still sit at home with my mom on the other side of the world, if I ever want to watch the unadulterated versions. I can only hope that one day Disney will re-release them in their original version, for film preservation purposes, but I’m sure that requires some kind of negotiation with Lucas himself.

I still get goosebumps every time the John Williams’s theme starts, and when new ones come, I might even tear up just a tiny bit during that text scroll. I spent so much of my childhood thinking the three were going to be it, that now this idea of one a year is still messing with my sense of nostalgia. I’m sad that soon that joy I felt at the mention of Star Wars might diminish with time. There are now more movies out that aren’t necessarily needed (a la Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story), though they still have some merits (Rogue‘s battle sequence on the beach is amazing, as is Solo‘s Kessel run). I recognize that my nostalgia gets in the way of me enjoying some of the newer films. I also recognize that a large number of the world’s population have never watched a single film, and to those people, I say, “Don’t.” There’s a reason they haven’t watched it, and being forced to watch this zietgeist of a movie can only end in disappointment.

I sat down to watch A New Hope this week in preparation for this review, and while I have recounted a lot of my personal experiences, I do want to talk about the merits of the movie and why I absolutely agree it should be in the Top 100 of all time.

A New Hope is a great introduction into the Star Wars universe and is brimming with colorful characters, aliens, and worlds, though it is not the best of the series. The superior film is Empire Strikes Back, for many reasons, but I will get into that next week. For now, I want to talk about what I think makes Star Wars so great and the reason for its rabid fan-base.

It was the first accessible space opera and science fiction movie ever made, and more importantly, the best production to that day. There’s something to be said about practical effects. The older Star Wars hold up more than the Anakin trilogy, because there was very little reliance on visual effects as we know them now. That’s what makes the changes harder to swallow because the addition of CG pulls you out of the magic of the original movie. There was clear meticulous detail in bringing to life the space ships and droids and sets. From the vastness of space in the opening scene, to the claustrophic corridors of the ships. When Darth Vader walks through that foggy door juxtaposed against the stark white interior of Leia’s ship, when the music shifts into the low dun-dun-dun, you know he is the baddest of the bad.

The cast of characters are fleshed out in some way. Leia is a fierce warrior, and despite her capture, she has zero qualms about berating or belittling her captors. When she grabs a blaster and commands Han and Luke into the garbage chute, her authority is felt and believed. She is a force to be reckoned with, and she is certainly no princess. As a young girl, I looked up to Leia as an example, and I know many other girls and young women did as well. Han and Luke were one-dimensional in A New Hope, but while Han was the snarky comedic relief (“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky), Luke bore the weight of destiny on his shoulders. He had barely had time to learn to feel the Force before he lost his only teacher.

By extension, I think the now overused concept of finding out you’re special is a theme that connected with a lot of the audience. I don’t know a kid that isn’t certain he/she were adopted at some point in their lives. Or at least a long lost relative of Merlin or King Arthur, destined to some day discover some innate power or gift that they didn’t know they had. Luke, with his transformation from reluctant farmer to destroyer of a Deathstar, was the embodiment of that desire. And really, with that and space battles and lazer swordfights (yes, I know, they’re lightsabers) and Millenium Falcons, what more could you want?

 

 

 

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The Treasure of Sierra Madre – a movie list challenge #74

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Rank: 74
List Appearances: 4/10
Average Rank: 31
Highest Rank: 8, on Newsweek’s The 100 Best Films of All Time: The Ultimate List
Total Final Score: 1452

As a child, I frequently watched movies on Turner Classic Movies, when I could. I watched so many Doris Day and Sandra Dee movies that I think the plot of every one of them now have molded into one big mess and I couldn’t really tell you now what happened in any of them. The same was the case for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I know I watched it during those formative years, but be it the fact that it doesn’t have a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart at its centre or themes that I would not have really understood at 7, I have long since forgotten it. When I think about treasure seeking westerns, my mind always goes to Mackenna’s Gold, a movie I haven’t seen since I was in my teens (we had a recorded VHS tape in our home that we frequently watched), but I now realize is a poor man’s Sierra Madre by comparison.

The movie follows an American wanderer, Dobbs (played by the iconic Humphrey Bogart), and Curtin (Tim Holt), as they go in search of gold in the Sierra Madre mountains. It garnered critical praise upon its release in 1948 and won 3 Academy Awards, including two for John Huston as director and for adapted screenplay, and his father, Walter Huston, for best supporting actor. Further to that, it ranked 30 on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies List, it is one of a few movies with a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is listed as favorite film to directors Stanley Kubrick and Sam Raimi. The character of Dobbs may have been one of the first in film history to “break bad” and was one of the inspirations to Walter White in Breaking Bad.

The film was shot on location in Mexico, and the cinematography is just gorgeous even in black and white. I can almost see the rich colors while I watched it. John Huston reportedly had to fight to film on location, something that was not done during that age. From an initial viewing, as well, I was surprised to see how many Latin American actors were hired to play the parts, and there was a care taken in portraying the Mexican villagers in one light versus the bandits, showing without anyone having to say that the criminal minority does not necessarily mean all Mexicans are as evil as the bandits. But more on that later.

At its core, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a morality tale. The opening scenes shows a down on his luck Dobbs (Bogart), begging for money from Americans using the same line each time. When he happens to come across the same man three times, he gets told to get a job. He accepts one and works for two weeks for a man. He later learns that the man is known to be a con artist and never pays his workers. Most men are too hard on luck to be able to do anything about it, though. When he and another American, Curtin, find him walking along the streets of Tampico, they beat him senseless for the money owed to them.

This all happens in the first quarter of the movie and hints at the nature of Dobbs well before he has even a sniff at gold. During a night spent in a flophouse, Dobbs and Curtin hear Howard (Walter Huston) talking about gold prospecting. He talks about the dangers of striking it rich and that no amount is enough and what gold will do to an otherwise decent man. Dobbs admits that there was no way it would happen to him, because once he had enough gold, he would simply stop.

After a bit of luck and an agreement among the three, they head off to the Sierra Madre mountains in search of gold. What follows is a tale of greed, treachery, and violence. The perils aren’t just from bandits, though there are shootouts even before the gold search begins. The worst are from within. Dobbs is the first to show his suspicions towards the other two, certain they are looking to steal his gold, kill him, and leave him for dead. He becomes consumed with this notion, no matter how much both show otherwise. When a man, played by Bruce Bennett (Tarzan himself!), follows Curtin back from the village midway through the movie, Dobbs convinces them that he must be killed to stop him from laying claim on their gold. But the bandits have also followed, and the four must work together to protect the mountain and themselves. After he is killed in the shootout, they find a letter his wife wrote him and Curtin suggests giving the widow a share of the gold. It is an unpopular suggestion with Dobbs who refuses and increases the strain on their fracturing friendship.

Bogart is great in the role. His descent into paranoia is gradual and only towards the end is on the edge of over-the-top. Tim Holt puts in a restrained performance as Curtin, and I found myself believing his every word. When he talks about how he wants to own a peach farm, I truly want him to get what he wants. Walter Huston is the stand-out, though. He brings a certain charm to his performance. There is an incredible scene when he saves the life of a little boy. The villagers are standing around him, watching as he goes through a routine he seems to just know, and I found myself holding my breath waiting for the boy to breath again.

In the standard 40s movie fashion, the morality of the movie relies on the clause that bad men must die and good men must live. It’s certainly an outdated concept now, but it is helped with an unexpected but satisfying finale, albeit different from what you would expect. The road to treasure leads to personal discovery for the men, and that is worth more than gold.

The Lives of Others – a movie list challenge #98

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

The Lives of Others

Rank: 98
List Appearances: 3/10
Average Rank: 49
Highest Rank: 42, on TimeOut’s 100 best movies of all time as chosen by actors
Total Final Score: 708

I went into The Lives of Others knowing only what was on the blurb from a quick Google search of it. I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on this Top 100 list, and I have to say that is a travesty. This beautiful, perfect film is easily one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and it will stay with me for years.

The Lives of Others is a German film by director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and set in 1984 East Germany, years before the wall collapsed. It tells the story of a Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler, a master of interrogation and surveillance. He receives approval to conduct surveillance on a playwright couple, whom he suspects may not be loyal to the Communist Party. The film was released in 2006 and won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars the following year. I wish it could have won more. That was the same year Crash won Best Picture, and while it pretended to talk about racism, The Lives of Others didn’t have to pretend, it showed the unflinching life of East Germans pre the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It showed a culture and world that was not too far from the one that was happening in America at the same time. The right to privacy and the lines between what was too much surveillance and not enough were very blurred at the time.

In East Germany in the early 80s, the Stasi, a secret police, were feared above all else in the country. It would not be unheard of that a man or woman would be taken in for a grueling 48-hour interrogation. Wiesler is one such expert. At the start of the film, he is conducting his interrogation of a man who may know whom assisted his neighbor in his fleeing the country. The interrogation occurred a year before, and he is playing the recording back to a classroom of willing students. He explains that a guilty man will tell the same story over and again as if it were rehearsed, but an innocent man’s story will change. His memory will fill in blanks or add subtle differences upon each retelling. When a student asks Wiesler if the tactic of keeping a man awake for 48 hours was inhumane, Wiesler subsequently marks an X on the student’s name on his seating chart. Moments later he explains to the class that interrogation subjects must put their hands on a cloth covering the seat, for potential future use for tracking dogs should he/she try to flee.

Wiesler is staunch in his faith of the Party, as it’s called. He watches through a permanent cautionary lens and suspects all malice in conversations about the Party. Early in the film, he goes to the theatre with his friend, and simultaneously watches the lead actress and the writer (both lovers) through binoculars. He is infatuated with her, but he suspects that the writer might be scheming, because of the company he keeps. When the minister asks that an investigation be made on the writer, Wiesler is the man that must find a way to bug the house and then conduct the surveillance. He sits in a sterile room with nothing but giant green headphones and a panel which allows him to listen to the apartment happenings and listen to calls received by the writer. The only emotion he shows are the word choices he makes when writing his reports on a typewriter.

The writer is, by all appearances, pro-Party. He does not wholly agree with the blacklisting of artists, such as his best friend and favorite director who had not had work for 10 years, but during an after-party, when he mentions the blacklisting, the minister admonishes him for using such a negative word. “The Party do not blacklist.” This contradiction is one of many that mirror a society that we live in today, and it’s astonishing that men like this are frequently given power.

As Wiesler listens to every private moment of the writer’s and actress’s life, it slowly becomes apparent that though they do not always support the actions of their government, they are not willing participants in any sort of revolution. It also is apparent that the minister desires the actress and derides the investigation for the lack of evidence. The Minister rapes her in the back of his car, in an uncomfortable scene. She succumbs simply because if she does not her career will be over.

It becomes more evident as the film progresses, that Wiesler is slowly becoming sympathetic with the lovers. Through the movie, there are lengthy scenes of the life he leads. He comes home to an empty apartment, in a room that looks like nothing more than a hotel room. His life is a lonely one, and at first glance, he seems content with his place in the world. But there is a conflict behind his emotionless gaze.

The characters are all full fleshed out in this movie, and the writing shows both the sadness and the beauty of the human spirit. There is no melodrama here, either, as you may see in a Hollywood vehicle of the same kind. But mostly, what this film does the best is show the history of a country that time has tried to forget and the hope of its people.

The Lives of Others is a truly amazing movie that deserves to be lauded as among the best of all-time and a great example that not all great films have to come from the United States. I cannot recommend it enough!

 

Check out my next piece, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, #74 on the Top 100 list.

Winter’s First Touch

We set up in the bleachers with our music stands, and prepped our instruments for three hours of playing the same 6 songs over and again. It was an average Friday night game. The late Summer heat kept the field a balmy 90F, and I was thankful that I wore a spaghetti strap top and shorts today. It didn’t quite matter, since the marching uniform was like an oven over me, but every bit made a difference.

It had been a short hour and a half ride from Paris (TX) to Mount Pleasant, and my tiny group of friends had spent the whole time talking about Pulp Fiction and “U-ma, u-ma!” while listening to Blues Traveler and Goo Goo Dolls. Now out of the bus, it seemed the temperature had risen ten degrees, and my uniform was sticking to me in all the wrong places. The sun couldn’t set fast enough.

We stood, readied our instruments, and started the fight song as the football players took the field. In the distance, a gray cloud system was forming. It was far enough away it seemed hardly a threat. In an age before cell phones or portable internet devices, we weren’t able to get instant data to tell us what it was. Still, the directors agreed that if it came closer, we’d probably leave. Wet instruments were worthless instruments.

It blew in within seconds; it seemed. We finished the fight song, and it had covered the entire field. There was a light mist, but the worst of it was the ferocious wind.

It was so cold and biting and intense that it froze the sweat on our skins and knocked over all the music stands with a monstrous, almost simultaneous “clang.” Sheet music flew out into the field and stands, and we clambered to grab anything and everything. I watched and mimicked the other flutists as they tucked their instruments under their uniform jackets. I put my marching band hat on my head and pushed it down just above my eyes to avoid it falling off me. Then grabbed a music stand in both arms and grimaced as the tripod legs took turns hitting the back of my running legs.

We loaded the buses and vans with the drums and stands, all while our teeth chattered and fingers froze. Once in the bus and on our way back home, the only sound anyone could make was the common “brrrr” as we huddled in our corners of the seats and wished the heat was back.

Winter had come, and he was a cold bastard.

Even Demons Need Love

CW: Mildly explicit, some gore and violence

Zyra knelt in the shadow of the timber stairs. At this hour, no one would have seen her hiding just within reach of the front door. The wind blew, and a message traveled with it, “Nowwww.”

Creaking wood, a grunt, and footsteps told Zyra someone was awake. With one clawed hand, she pushed back from the edge of the stairs and crept towards the front door. “Do it,” she hissed.

“What are you doing?!” she heard an old woman cry on the second floor.

Muffled screams reached Zyra’s ears. The faint musicality of them reminded her of their first meet.

**

It had been the ultimate meet-cute. Zyra was coming to complain about a parking ticket; he was repairing the computers. Despite the sign that said to go to the next window, she walked straight up to him and unleashed a string of expletives. His face had been so adorable as he turned red with rage. She couldn’t even remember what calmed him down in the end, but it was an hour later when he was rising from her bed.

**

Zyra craned her neck to listen for the whimpers, the last dregs of a life eking out. She wondered how he looked as he strangled his mother, the insipid, overbearing slag. Her controlling ways had kept him imprisoned here with her for years. She imagined he reveled in the murder. He loved Zyra now, and she loved him. In her way.

Zyra stood at the door. She sensed the soul releasing it’s hold on the old woman above. Her mind connected to his, and she was filled with his thoughts of love and pleasure and unbridled hatred. She stripped down and used her power to open the door, transforming with each step into her true visage, complete with horns, tiny black wings, hooves, and a long whip-like tail. With each step on the stairs, she saw tiny dancing figures appear, chanting in their demonic language.

She entered the room, a black gown and veil covering her. Moonlight filled the room and announced her arrival. Consumed in his rage, he was tearing out chunks of skin with his teeth from the limp body of his mother. The blood painted darkness on his face and splattered across the bed and walls. She watched in delight as the room became covered and dripped from every corner. His body grew and soaked in the blood, turning him a rich vermilion.

“My love,” Zyra whispered.

He turned to look at her. His metamorphosis complete, he was even more perfect than she imagined he would be. “You’re so beautiful,” he gasped.

After a full year of dating, she had finally helped release him from his prison, and he was free to be the man – no, demon – he should have always been.

Their eyes linked. She felt the warmth of his unending love envelop her as the demon host pronounced them bonded for life.

Then Zyra let her imps watch them consummate their marriage.