The Empire Strikes Back – a movie list challenge #24

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 Empire Strikes Back

Rank: 24
List Appearances: 6/10
Average Rank: 21
Highest Rank: 2, on Empire’s The 100 Greatest Movies
Total Final Score: 6285

Last week I mentioned that The Empire Strikes Back is a superior film to Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and I meant it. Legendary writer, Lawrence Kasdan, took George Lucas’s first film and built on it, with bigger character development, better conflicts, greater stakes, and more expansive worlds. It is easily my favorite Star Wars movie of all time.

I love that Empire gives the audience a lot of firsts, but it doesn’t necessarily throw its originality in your face. From the icy world of Hoth to the swampy, reptile-infested Dagobah System to Lando’s Cloud City, there is a lot of scenery to look at and enjoy.

From the moment you get a glimpse at Luke on the surface of Hoth, you can almost feel the chill. The unpleasant and cold terrain sets a tone that permeates through the this section. There are a lot of moving pieces, with Luke’s being dragged to a cave and eventual rescue, Han’s plans to leave the base, and Leia coming to grips with that decision, but every single thread holds the same amount of weight and shares the same amount of screen-time. We are finally getting to know these people just that little bit better, and it’s clear they have spent quite some time together as well. It all culminates in the incredible Battle of Hoth, showing Luke commanding with confidence and Han whisking Leia away from her command post.

By contrast, the Dagobah system looks humid and unrelenting, an odd choice to remain when the rest of your people have been obliterated. Yoda trains Luke, and there are some amazing sequences showing him climbing, doing flips, and general awesome feats that are meant to symbolize his strength with the Force. I still love the sequence where Luke moves the ship only to be certain he can’t, which causes him to fail. It is a perfect metaphor for everyone’s lives, the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. Unfortunately, we don’t all have Yodas in our life to prove us wrong either.

Han, Leia, Chewie, and C3PO (thankfully with reduced screen-time this time around – did I mention 3PO reminds me of my grandmother, fretting about every little thing? No. Well, he does, the less I hear him the happier I am.) escape the Empire twice once leaving Hoth. The asteroid chase sequence proves how great Han and Chewie are at flying, and Han’s ability to think on his feet. The Exogorth (the giant asteroid worm) sequence is horrifying, complete with suitably terrifying jump scares as well. They entered the cave out of necessity, but left out of even greater need. Apparently there’s a whole history about these space slugs, but I’m pretty happy to know as little as possible. I can’t imagine being stuck in another creature’s body. *shudders*

The highlight of the film is Lando’s Cloud City. It is a gorgeous locale with rich, vibrant colors to contrast the extreme climates of the other two locales. The introduction of Lando Calrissian is perfect, and he fills the screen with as much charm, and perhaps more, as Han. His betrayal and subsequent reverse betrayal seem characteristic of the qualities Han may well have possessed in the first film. He protects his people, first and foremost, and in a way that seems heroic. Cloud City also features the best dual of the trilogy and the upsetting freezing of Han.

I could gush about the movie for hours, but I think it’s pretty obvious I love this movie.

 

Next up on my review list is Die Hard. Geez, that’s going to be a tough one to watch. (hahaha)

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?

 

 

 

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.

Movie list challenge – A Clockwork Orange

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.

A Clockwork Orange

Rank: 37
List Appearances: 7/10
Average Rank: 57
Highest Rank: 35, on Hollywood Reporter
Total Final Score: 4242

I have never watched A Clockwork Orange before. As a child, I was not allowed to watch it, and as an adult, I just never quite got around to it. I knew it was an important film, because it was iconic, was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and was 46th on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies list. I thought I had seen so much of the movie before ever viewing it that I was certain I knew exactly what would happen.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971 by the amazing director Stanley Kubrick and based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess. At the time, it was rated X, and it’s not hard to see why, knowing 70s sensibilities towards sex (and to a lesser extent violence). The movie follows and is narrated by Alex DeLarge, a teen criminal. He leads his group of “Droogs”, three other teen hooligans, as they savagely commit violence against innocents. When an older woman is accidentally murdered, Alex is sentenced to prison for fourteen years, two of which he serves and then undergoes a procedure to “correct” him.

The first hour of the film focuses on their “ultraviolence.” The opening title sequence cuts straight to the zoomed in face of Alex and his one fake eyelash, his face turned downwards, eyes only just visible from under his bowler hat, and a glowering look that shows his calculating nature. The Korova Milkbar (a bar which serves milk laced with narcotics) is his location, and as the focus zooms out, you can see his gang and the milkbar filled with patrons and creepy tables and statues of aroused female forms. The image made me uncomfortable from the beginning (I’ll admit I’m a massive prude), but it certainly helped prime me for the movie I was about to watch.

Alex and his “droogs” are pure villains. They revel in beating a poor defenseless homeless man as much as they do men of their ilk. They drive down in the middle of a country road, forcing unsuspecting motorists off the road. When they come upon a house with a glowing “home” at the front gate, they stop their car to commit more atrocities, this time on a writer and his wife. They beat him within an inch of his life and gang rape his wife, all while Alex dances and bashes and kicks while singing “Singin’ in the Rain,” clearly bastardizing the heart-warming song.

Now I have to admit. I’m still struggling to decide if I loved this movie or not. I know I never have to watch it again, putting myself through the uncomfortable first hour to get to the morality tale is a hard ask. I felt physically ill in parts. Images (and suggestions) of gang rape and cutting clothes off women made me writhe in my seat. But for all of his ultraviolence and overt sexuality, there was an inherent message that was not lost on me. I am supposed to be opposed to the first half because if I wasn’t, I would be a sociopath like Alex.

Midway through the movie Alex talks to the prison chaplain about a new procedure, called the Ludovico technique. He’s interested in the rehabilitation therapy as it means a reduced sentence. The chaplain rightly tells him that being good is a choice, and that the procedure itself removes that choice altogether. Alex catches the eye of the Minister of the Interior’s and is signed up for the procedure. It is an experimental aversion therapy that rehabilitates criminals by making them incapable of committing violence. Alex is forced to watch images of sex and violence, eyes grotesquely kept open while eye drops are dropped into his eyes every second he’s watching. Soon, Alex becomes physically ill at the suggestion of violence, sex, and the most tragic, the 9th Symphony by Beethoven.

These are painful scenes to watch, knowing that Malcolm McDowell did actually end up with a sliced cornea from these scenes, causing Kubrick (notorious for being an obsessive perfectionist) to cut the section short.

When Alex is finally finished with his procedure, he is released back to the world, defenseless to protect himself from harm, unable to perform sex, and incapable of listening to Beethoven. The film pulls no punches to show this either. The question of right and wrong is blurred, as you start to sympathize with Alex after seeing him beaten by his previous victims, and the ongoing subject of social acceptance is explored in a great scene towards the end when he returns home.

As I write this, I can absolutely accept its placement on this list. It is a hard watch, and one I will likely never forget.

 

******

This week, as I wanted to really wrap my head around A Clockwork Orange, I decided that I would only watch and write one review. But next week, I plan to write three reviews, two for movies I have also never seen (The Lives of Others and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and one for a movie I have seen so much I can quote it in my sleep (Star Wars: A New Hope).