Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" (1980) Review



"STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" (1980) Review

From a certain point of view, I find it hard to believe that the 1980 film, "STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" has become the most critically acclaimed STAR WARS movie by the franchise's fans. And I find it hard to believe, due to the film's original box office performance. 

I was also surprised that "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" was released in the first place. Despite the ambiguous nature of villain Darth Vader's fate in the 1977 film, "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE", I had assumed that film's happy ending meant the story of Luke Skywalker and his friends was over. But my assumption proved to be wrong three years later. Many other filmgoers and critics also expressed surprise at the release of a second STAR WARS movie. More importantly, a surprising revelation and an ending with a cliffhanger resulted in a smaller box office for "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" than either "A NEW HOPE" or the 1983 film, "STAR WARS: EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI". Yet, thirty-three years later, the movie is now viewed as the most critically acclaimed - not just among the first three movies, but also among those released between 1999 and 2005.

"THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" begins three years following the events of " A NEW HOPE". Despite the Rebel Alliance's major victory above the planet of Yavin and the destruction of the Galactic Empire's Death Star, the rebellion continues to rage on. Luke Skywalker, now a wing commander at the Rebels' base on Hoth, patrols beyond the base's perimenter with close friend and former smuggler Han Solo. After the latter returns to base, Luke is attacked by a wampa and dragged into the latter's cave. Meanwhile, Han receives word from Princess Leia, one of the Rebel leaders and a friend of both men, that Luke has not returned. He leaves the base to find Luke, while the latter manages to escape from the wampa's lair. Luke stumbles into a snowstorm and before losing consciousness, receives a message from the Force spirit of his late mentor, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, to seek out another Jedi named Yoda on Dagobah for further training. Han eventually finds Luke before a Rebel patrol finds them both. 

While Luke recovers from his ordeal, Leia and General Rieekan learn from Han and his Wookie companion Chewbacca have discovered an Imperial probe. They surmise that Imperial forces know the location of their base and might be on their way. The Rebel Alliance forces prepare to evacuate Hoth. But an Imperial presence on the planet served as a bigger problem for the heroes. Unbeknownst to them, Darth Vader seeks out Luke, following his discovery of the young man's connection to the Force three years ago. Although the three friends will separate for a period of time and experience adventures of their own, Lord Vader's hunt for Luke will result in great danger and a surprising revelation in the end.

I once came across a post on the TheForce.net - Jedi Council Forums message board that complained of the lack of a main narrative for "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK". A part of me could understand why this person reached such an opinion. Despite the circumstances on Hoth and the finale on the Bespin mining colony, our heroes barely spent any time together. Following the Rebel Alliance's defeat on Hoth, Luke and R2-D2 traveled to Dagobah, where the former continued his Jedi training under Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Han and Chewbacca helped Leia and C3-P0 evade Darth Vader and Imperial forces on Hoth and in space before seeking refuge on Bespin. I believe this person failed to realize that other than Luke's Jedi training with Yoda, most of the movie's narrative centered on Vader's attempts to capture Luke - the Imperial invasion of Hoth, his pursuit of Han and Leia aboard the Millennium Falcon, and their subsequent capture on Bespin. Even Luke's Jedi training was interrupted by visions of his friends in danger and journeyed into the trap set by Vader. And this is why I found it hard to accept this complaint about "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK".

Most fans tend to regard the movie as perfect or near perfect. Despite my feelings for "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK", I cannot agree with this view. I believe that the movie has its flaws. One could find cheesy dialogue in the movie, especially from Darth Vader. He possessed an annoying penchant for constantly using the phrase "It is your destiny" in the movie's last half hour. Some of Leia and Han's "romantic dialogue" in the movie's first half struck me as somewhat childish and pedantic. Speaking of those two - how did they end up attracted to each other in the first place? "A NEW HOPE" ended with Han making a brief pass at Leia during the medal ceremony. But she seemed to regard him as a mere annoyance and nothing else. Three years later, both are exchanging longing glances and engaging in verbal foreplay at least ten to fifteen minutes into the story. I would have allowed this to slide if a novel or comic story had explained this sudden shift toward romance between them. But no such publication exists, as far as I know. This little romance seemed to have developed out of the blue.

There were other problems. The movie never explained the reason behind Leia's presence at the Rebels' Hoth base. She was, after all, a political leader; not a military one. The base already possessed a more than competent military leader in the form of General Rieekan. Watching Leia give orders to the pilots during the base's evacuation made me realize that she really had no business interfering in the Rebels' military protocol. "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" also failed to explain why Han was being hunted by Jabba the Hutt after three years. I thought the payment he had received for delivering Leia and the Death Star plans to Yavin was enough to settle his debt to the Tattooine gangster. Apparently not. And the movie failed to explain why. Perhaps there is a STAR WARS that offered an explanation. I hope so. For years, I never understood the symbolism behind Luke's experiences inside the Dagobah cave during his Jedi training. And I am not sure if I still do. Finally, how long did Luke's training on Dagobah last? And how long did it take the Millennium Falcon to reach Bespin with a broken hyperdrive? LucasFilm eventually revealed that both incidents took at least three months. If so, why did the movie failed to convey this particular time span?

Thankfully, "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" more than rose above its flaws. For me, it is still one of the best science-fiction adventure films I have ever seen. I am amazed that such a complex tale arose from two simple premises - Darth Vader's hunt for Luke Skywalker and the continuation of the latter's Jedi training. From these simple premises, audiences were exposed to a richly detailed and action-filled narrative, thanks to George Lucas' story, Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay (which was also credited to Leigh Brackett) and Irvin Kershner's direction. The movie featured many exciting sequences and dramatic moments that simply enthralled me. Among my favorite action sequences were the Millennium Falcon's escape from Hoth, Yoda's introduction, Han's seduction of Leia inside the giant asteroid worm, the Falcon's escape from the worm. For me, the movie's best sequence proved to be the last - namely those scenes on the mining colony of Bespin. I would compare this last act in "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" to the Death Star sequence in "A NEW HOPE" or the Mos Espa podrace sequence in "STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE". The Bespin sequence featured a few truly iconic moments. Well . . . if I must be honest, I would say that it featured two iconic moments - Han's response to Leia's declaration of love and Darth Vader's revelation of his true identity.

Naturally, one cannot discuss a STAR WARS movie without mentioning its technical aspects. In my review of "A NEW HOPE", I had failed to mention Ben Burtt's outstanding sound effects. I will add that his work in "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" proved to be equally outstanding. I could also say the same for the movie's sound mixing, which earned Academy Awards for Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Greg Landaker, and Peter Sutton. Composer John Williams' additions to his famous STAR WARS score were not only outstanding, but earned him an Academy Award nomination. Those additions included a love theme for the Leia/Han romance and the memorable "Imperial March", which is also known as "Darth Vader's Theme" As far as I am concerned, the tune might as well be known as the Sith Order's theme song. The team of Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, and Bruce Nicholson did an outstanding job with the movie's visual effects - especially for the Battle of Hoth sequence. I can also say the same for Peter Suschitzky's photography. However, my favorite cinematic moment turned out to be Luke's initial encounter with Darth Vader on Bespin. Even to this day, I experience a chill whenever I see that moment when they meet face-to-face for the first time. Although John Mollo's costumes caught Hollywood's attention after "A NEW HOPE" was first released (he won an Oscar for his effort), his costumes for "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" seemed like a continuation of the same. In fact, I found the costumes somewhat on the conservative side, even if they blended well with the story.

It is interesting that the performances of both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher garnered most of the attention when "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" first came out. The Leia/Han romance was very popular with fans. Mind you, both gave very good performances. But I believe that Mark Hamill acted circles around them. And not surprising, he won a Saturn Award for his performance as Luke Skywalker in this film. Billy Dee Williams also gave a first-rate performance as the roguish smuggler-turned-administrator, whose charming persona hid a desperation to do anything to save the inhabitants of Bespin from Imperial annihilation. James Earl Jones and David Prowse continued their outstanding portrayal of Darth Vader aka Anakin Skywalker, with one serving as the voice and the other, the physical embodiment of the Sith Lord. Julian Glover, who later appeared in "INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE" made a brief appearance as the commander of the Imperial walkers, General Veers. Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew continued their excellent work as C3-P0, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. But I was particularly impressed by Frank Oz's voice work as the veteran Jedi Master Yoda, and Kenneth Colley as the Imperial Admiral Piett, whose cautious and competency led him to rise in the ranks and avoid Vader's wrath for any incompetence.

Is "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" my favorite STAR WARS movie of all time? Almost. Not quite. For me, it is tied in first place with one other movie from the franchise. But after thirty-three years and in spite of its flaws, I still love it, despite its flaws. And I have give credit to not only the talented cast and crew, but also director Irwin Kershner, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and especially the man behind all of this talent, George Lucas.

Friday, May 19, 2017

"3 DAYS TO KILL" (2014) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from the 2014 political thriller called "3 DAYS TO KILL". Directed by McG, the movie stars Kevin Costner: 


"3 DAYS TO KILL" (2014) Photo Gallery

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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Five Favorite Episodes of "STAR TREK VOYAGER" Season One (1995)



Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season One of "STAR TREK VOYAGER". Created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor; the series starred Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway: 


FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF "STAR TREK VOYAGER" SEASON ONE (1995)



1. (1.11) "State of Flux" - Captain Kathryn Janeway and other senior members of Voyager's crew Janeway attempt to flush out a spy who is sending information to a group of aggressive Delta Quadrant species called the Kazon-Nistrim. Martha Hackett and Josh Clark guest-starred.





2. (1.14) "Faces" - When Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres, Lieutenant Tom Paris and Ensign Pete Durst are captured by Vidiians during an Away mission, Torres is split into her human and Klingon halves in order for her captors to use her DNA to find a cure for their species. Brian Markinson guest-starred.





3. (1.01-1.02) "Caretaker" - While searching for a Maquis ship with a Starfleet spy aboard in the series premiere, the U.S.S. Voyager is swept into the Delta Quadrant, more than 70,000 light-years from home, by an incredibly powerful being known as the "Caretaker". Gavan O'Herlihy and Basil Langston guest-starred.





4. (1.04) "Time and Again" - While investigating a planet just devastated by a polaric explosion, Janeway and Paris are engulfed by a subspace fracture and transported in time to before the accident. Nicolas Surovy guest-starred.





5. (1.07) "Eye of the Needle" - Voyager's crew discover a micro-wormhole leads to the Alpha Quadrant and makes contact with a Romulan ship on the other side with ironic consequences. Vaughn Armstrong guest-starred.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"CINDERELLA MAN" (2005) Review




"CINDERELLA MAN" (2005) Review

When I had first learned about Ron Howard’s biopic about boxing champion James J. Braddock, I was very reluctant to see the film. In fact, I did not even bother to go see it. Instead, I merely dismissed "CINDERELLA MAN" as a ‘"SEABISCUIT" in the boxing ring’. After I finally saw the movie, I must admit that my original assessment stood. 

”CINDERELLA MAN” and the 2003 Oscar nominated film, ”SEABISCUIT” seemed to have a lot in common. Both were released by Universal Pictures. Both films possessed a running time that lasted over two hours, both were sentimental stories that centered around a famous sports figure and both were set during the Great Depression. Unlike ”SEABISCUIT””CINDERELLA MAN” told the story about a man – namely one James J. Braddock, an Irish-American boxer from New York and Bergen, New Jersey. The movie started out with Braddock (portrayed by Russell Crowe) as a boxing heavyweight contender in 1928, who had just won an important bout against another boxer named Tuffy Griffiths. But within five years, Braddock found himself as a has-been struggling to keep his family alive during the depths of the Depression, while working as longshoreman. Thanks to a last minute cancellation by another boxer, Braddock gets a second chance to fight but is put up against the number two contender in the world, Corn Griffin, by the promoters who see Braddock as nothing more than a punching bag. Braddock stuns the boxing experts and fans with a third round knockout of the formidable Griffin. After winning a few more bouts, Braddock ends facing boxing champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), for the heavyweight title in 1935.

Despite the similarities between ”CINDERELLA MAN” and ”SEABISCUIT”, I must admit that I regret not seeing this film in the theaters. It turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Director Ron Howard, along with screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, did an excellent job of chronicling Braddock’s boxing career at a time when he had been labeled a has-been by the sports media. The movie also featured some excellent fight sequences that came alive due to Howard’s direction, Crowe, Bierko, and the other actors who portrayed Braddock’s opponents. Although the movie’s main event was the championship fight between Braddock and Baer during the last thirty minutes, I was especially impressed by the sequence that featured Braddock’s fight against Art Lansky (Mark Simmons). In my opinion, most of the praise for these fight sequences belonged to cinematographer Salvatore Totino, and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill (who both received Academy Award nominations for their work) for injecting the boxing sequences with rich atmosphere and effective editing. 

Ironically, the movie’s centerpiece – at least in my opinion – was its deception of the Depression. I understand that Howard had used the city of Toronto to serve as 1930s Manhattan and New Jersey. And judging from the results on the screen, he did an excellent job of utilizing not only the cast led by Crowe, but also the talents of production designer Wynn Thomas, Gordon Sim’s set decorations, Peter Grundy and Dan Yarhi’s art direction and Totino’s photography to send moviegoers back in time. There are certain scenes that really seemed to recapture the desperation and poverty of the Depression’s early years:

*Braddock begs for money from the sports promoters and boxing managers at Madison Square Garden
*Mae Braddock’s discovery of the gas man turning off the family’s heat
*The Braddocks witness the desertion of a man from his wife and family
*Braddock’s search for his friend, Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), at a Hooverville in Central Park


Howard and casting agents, Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, managed to gather an impressive group of cast members for the movie. The ironic thing is that despite the impressive display of talent on screen, hardly anyone gave what I would consider to be a memorable performance – save for one actor. Russell Crowe naturally gave an impressive, yet surprisingly likeable performance as James Braddock. Although I found his performance more than competent, I must say that I would not consider it to be one of his best roles. There was nothing really fascinating or complex about his Braddock. I suspect that screenwriters Hollingsworth and Goldsman could have made Braddock a more interesting character . . . and simply failed to rise to the occasion. I have to say the same about their portrayal of the boxer’s wife, Mae Braddock. Portrayed by Renee Zellweger, her Mae was a loving and supporting spouse, whose only kink in her personality revolved around her dislike of Braddock’s boxing. In fact, Zellweger’s Mae threatened to become a cliché of the countless number of women who end up as wives of men in dangerous professions. Thankfully, Zellweger managed to give an excellent performance and with Crowe, create a strong screen chemistry. 

Paul Giamatti received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould. Many had assumed that Giamatti had received his nomination as a consolation prize for being passed over for his superb performance in ”SIDEWAYS”. After seeing his performance as Gould, I suspect they might be right. I am not saying that Giamatti gave a bad performance. He was excellent as Braddock’s enthusiastic and supportive manager. But there was nothing remarkable about it . . . or worthy of an Oscar nomination. If there is one performance that I found impressive, it was Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mike Wilson, Braddock’s friend and co-worker at the New York docks. Considine’s Wilson was a former stockbroker ruined by the 1929 Crash, who was forced to become a menial laborer in order to survive. Although his plight seemed bad enough to generate sympathy, Considine did an excellent job of portraying the character’s bitterness and cynicism toward his situation, President Roosevelt’s ability to lead the country out of the Depression and the world itself. I hate to say this, but I feel that the wrong actor had received the Oscar nomination. God knows I am a big fan of Giamatti. But if it had been left up to me, Considine would have received that nomination.

We finally come to Craig Bierko’s performance as Max Baer, champion boxer and Braddock’s final opponent in the movie. Baer’s character first makes his appearance in a championship fight against Primo Carnera, following Braddock’s surprising upset over Corn Griffin. From the start, he is portrayed as a brash and aggressive fighter who does not know when to quit. And it gets worse. Before I continue, I want to say that I have nothing against the actor who portrayed Baer. Like Crowe, Zellweger and Giamatti, Bierko had to do the best he could with the material given to him. And he did the best he could. Bierko, being an above-average actor, infused a great deal of energy and charisma into his portrayal of Baer. It seemed a shame that Howard’s direction, along with Hollingsworth and Goldman’s script forced Bierko to portray Baer as some kind of callous thug who felt no remorse for killing two other fighters in the ring and was not above needling Braddock at a Manhattan nightclub by making suggestive remarks about Mae. 

Baer’s son, Max Baer Jr. (”THE BEVERLY HILLIBILLIES”) had been naturally outraged by what he deemed was the movie’s false portrayal of the boxer. What the movie failed to convey was that Baer had only killed one man in the ring – Frankie Campbell – and had been so shaken up by the other man’s death that it affected his boxing career for several years. Nor did Baer ever make any suggestive remarks toward Mae Braddock. He also hugged and congratulated Braddock following the latter’s June 1935 victory. I really do not know why Howard thought it was necessary to turn Baer into a one-note villain. Someone claimed that the movie needed a nemesis for Braddock that seemed more solid than the vague notion of the Depression. If that is true, I believe that Howard and the movie’s screenwriters turned Baer into a villain for nothing. As far as I am concerned, the Great Depression made an effective and frightening nemesis for Braddock. This was brilliantly conveyed in Braddock’s bout with Art Lasky. At one point in this sequence, the New Jersey boxer seemed to be on the verge of defeat . . . until his memories of his family and how the Depression had affected them . . . urged him to a hard-won victory. Sequences like the Braddock-Lasky fight and Braddock’s search for Mike Wilson in the Central Park Hooverville made the Great Depression a more effective nemesis than the one-dimensional and crude behavior of a falsely portrayed Max Baer ever could.

Despite the movie’s badly written portrayal of Baer, and slightly uninteresting major characters like James and Mae Braddock, and Joe Gould; ”CINDERELLA MAN” is still an excellent biopic that featured exciting boxing sequences. More importantly, it is one of the few Hollywood films that revealed an in-depth look into one of the country’s most traumatic periods – namely the Great Depression. Flawed or not, I believe that it is still worth watching.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003) Photo Gallery



Here is a gallery of photos from the 2003 movie, "PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL". Directed by Gore Verbinski, the movie starred Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley: 



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