Saturday, May 21, 2005

Doves Live and Turning 20

In addition to seeing Star Wars on May 19, I also went to a Doves concert. Doves are one of my favorite bands, their second album, The Last Broadcast is in my top ten albums all time, and their recent album, Some Cities, is excellent as well. They fall in roughly the same genre as Coldplay, but are much better, a bit dancier and a bit more rock.

Anyway, their concert Thursday was excellent. They opened with Pounding, my favorite song of theirs, and it rocked pretty hard. Other highlights were 'Here It Comes,' 'Words,' 'Black and White Town,' and the concert closer, 'There Goes the Fear.' The crowd wasn't that into it at first, but as time passed, they got more into it. It's always cool to see a band you really know in concert, because you can appreciate the songs a lot more. I really liked the variations they did, extending some solo instrumental parts and such.

I always like when bands mess around with the songs live, we already know the songs, and there should be some variation. I saw Aimee Mann last year, and it was a fun concert, but she was so close to the recording, there was no sense of discovery. When the crowd is really into it, it's fine to stick close to the recording, but generally speaking, it's good to mix things up. So, I would have liked a bit more variation, but as it was, Doves put on an excellent show.

So, it was quite a birthday. I think such a great Star Wars movie was really the best gift I could have received. That was the film I'd wanted to see since I was very young, and a huge part of my life now has resolution. I'm really happy to see that the film has been so well regarded by the general public because if you didn't like this movie, you're pretty much not going to like any Star Wars film.

And with that I'm now twenty. I guess that's a big change, the decade change over is always huge, but I think thirty is a bigger change, especially the way society is going now. Twenty is still young, especially because I'm in college, two years from now is going to be a much bigger change. This change is all mental, peoples' perception of me. When I was younger, I thought change was just happen, you'd get older and all the things that older people have would just come to you, but it's not that way, any change that you want, you have to work for. Another year passing doesn't mean anything unless you make it mean something.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Well, at midnight on May 19, I finally saw the last Star Wars movie. I saw it again earlier today, so I feel like I've finally been able to process the film enough to write about it. There's going to be spoilers below, so beware.

This wasn't a perfect film, but watching the final scene, I knew that it was right, that things ended the way they should, and the ground was properly paved for the original trilogy. I'd spent a lot of time speculating about how the prequel trilogy would end, and I imagined that it would be with Obi-Wan dropping Luke off with the Lars, and going off into the desert, and that's pretty much how it happened, but the scene itself was gorgeous, and I loved the recall of Luke standing outside watching the two suns setting. It's all cycles, and that moment was the perfect bridge between what had come before and what would come after. The other two films had moments that felt very Star Wars, but this was a Star Wars film through and through.

I had a strange feeling watching the movie, because I had a vague idea of everything that would happen, but to actually see it enacted was strange, I've speculated so much about how certain things would transpire, to finally see them happen was overwhelming. The big moments in the film lived up to the mental image I had created over so many years of anticipation. Obi-Wan defeating Anakin, the emperor taking power, Padme giving birth, it all lived up to my mental image.

The major drive behind this film is Anakin's conflict about his place within the jedi. He always seems an outsider among the Jedi because of his strong emotions. Unlike the other Jedi, he has not been training since birth, he has personal attachments, and these attachments are what cause him problems. The other Jedi would have no need for the powers that Palpatine could give him, because they would have no one that they need to protect. However, Anakin came to the Jedi late, and has attachments, specifically to his mother and Padme. Because of what happened to his mother in AotC, he is extremely protective of Padme, and it is his fear of losing her that drives him to Palpatine.

The thing I liked most about the film was the sheer scope of the events. This is an entire galaxy in trouble, and both the individual lives and the life of the republic are at stake. The best films gnerally revolve around the biggest moments in the character's lives, and these are definitely the most important moments for pretty much every character. And this importance is reflected in the dazzling visuals. The film is gorgeous, and the effects are better integrated into the narrative than in any of the previous prequels.

There's so many great moments, it's difficult to single out stuff. Pretty much everything after "Order 66" is phenomenal, and stuff that I've been waiting to see for a long time. There's an incredible feeling of hopelessness hanging over everything that happens, notably in the Yoda/Emperor fight. Yoda has been built up as such a legend and to see him struggling and ultimately get defeated is harrowing. Respect has to be given to the effects team behind Yoda, because he's utterly convincing, and you really feel for him, particularly as he falls from the senate and climbs out through some tunnels.

Some of the best stuff in the film is the parallels with the original trilogy. The opening sequence gives us the best portrait of the Obi-Wan/Anakin relationship, but also a great revisit of the Emperor/Vader/Luke confrontation in Jedi. The set is designed to resemble it and seeing Anakin give into his anger and kill Dooku lets us know that things are not destined to go well. That fight is also revisited when Mace Windu battles the emperor and we see Anakin save the Emperor, instead of Luke as he does in Jedi.

I think one of the major problems with the film is that there's no clear moment where Anakin goes dark, it just sort of happens. I'm not sure if that was intentional, it does make a point about evil, he doesn't all of a sudden say, "I'm evil," it's just that he keeps having to do more and more morally questionable things in pursuit of his goal.

The whole story is motivated by the fact that everyone around him treats Anakin like a child, except for Palpatine. No one will listen to his fears, Yoda basically says, death is a part of life, so don't worry about it. Palpatine sees his concerns and reaches out to help him, and that's why he ultimately sides with Palpatine over the Jedi. I think through the whole trilogy, he feels constrained by authority, that's his major problem with Jedi, they restrict him from expressing his emotions. Padme stops him from going public with her impending pregnancy. And he sees the senate as something constricting the republic from moving forward. I think a major part of the reason he goes with Palpatine is because he sees it as the best way forward to power. He hopes to lead, with Padme, and give her the chance to do what she wants as a leader. So, when she rejects his outreach, he sees it as Obi-Wan's influence and frustrated, lashes out at her.

One of the best things about the film is the way Lucas makes it so tragic. I think people have been waiting the whole time to see the Jedi fall, but when we finally get there, it's really sad. The montage of Jedi death is really affecting and you get such a sense of betrayal. Similarly, when the Darth Vader suit finally appears, it isn't so much a birth as it is a death. I'd been waiting for the suit for three films, and when it finally appeared, I didn't want him to go in it. It was a sad moment, not cool, and that's an accomplishment.

I love the cutting between the rebirth of Vader and the death of Padme. One of the most interesting things was the scene in which the Emperor tells Vader that he killed Padme. This is why Vader doesn't look for his kids in A New Hope, and it makes things even more tragic. Seeing this, Anakin cannot go back, he has nothing left, and has to embrace the empire, and that's a sad moment. The Emperor has manipulated him all along, told him what he wanted to hear, and at the end, Anakin has no one left, except for him. Ian McDiarmid was great in this movie, particularly in the scene where he tells the story of Darth Plagus.

The other acting was hit or miss. I thought Hayden Christensen was great in pretty much every scene except those with Natalie Portman. Ewan McGregor was excellent and Yoda was phenomenal as well. It was mainly just Natalie who didn't work. I don't know if it's just that she didn't engage with the material, but she was not very good. There's also some issues with the dialogue.

However, I'd rather have a film with these flaws that aims so high than something that doesn't even try. The sheer visual and thematic scope of the film exceeds nearly every other film ever made. So much happens, and it's so emotionally deep, that what the film does overwhelms what it doesn't. Watching the final scene, I felt like the story really was complete, and that's what this film had to do.

George Lucas said that he made the prequel trilogy to show the Star Wars saga is actually the tragedy of Darth Vader, and with this film, he has succeeded in doing that. Anakin never seems evil, he's just misguided and manipulated by everyone around him, and the one person who actually treats him as a person is actually the biggest manipulator of all.

And, it makes the conclusion of the saga even stronger. What Luke does is merge the emotion driven fighting of the Sith with the inherent good of the Jedi. The Jedi in this era are so remove from emotion, they are unable to deal with real world problems. Having been told to ignore his emotions for so long, Anakin can't deal with his problems in this film. At the end of Jedi, Luke draws on his emotions, and Anakin does too. It's his love for Luke that compels him to throw the Emperor into the reactor. The new Jedi will not ignore their emotions, but draw their strength from them, and in that way, Anakin has brought balance to the force.

The Star Wars saga is the greatest story ever told in film. Nothing else ever attempted can match the scale or thematic depth of this series, or the entertainment value. These films show what cinema can do, they inspired a generation of filmmakers, they inspired me and they will inspire many more people in the future.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones

Yesterday, I rewatched the first two Star Wars films, in preparation for seeing the final Star Wars movie tonight. As I said yesterday, I've been waiting for this film for a long time. While I was very excited about the other prequels, this is the one that really matters, this is the story they were designed to tell. Those two are basically groundwork for Revenge of the Sith, and that probably explains why they were cracked on so much. There's also the fact that they're flawed films. But, it's a six film story, so to really understand the first two films, you need to see everything, which means that I can't completely appreciate them yet.

Just in assesing the prequel trilogy generally, I would call both films flawed masterpieces. While the films are far from perfect, they aim so high and have such massive scope, in terms of themes and character arcs, these films are doing more than any other popular entertainment made in recent years. That's why I have a problem with people completely dismissing the films, I'd rather see a film that aims so high and doesn't quite make it than a film that plays it safe and doesn't even have anything more going on that what is on the surface. These films are completley unique, and for that alone, they deserve respect. So, while they can be viewed simply as action blockbusters, there's also a lot of intersting stuff going on beneath the surface, much like in Batman Returns, a film that people do not consider the depths of, because they are not used to heavy thematic development in their popular entertaiment.

My favorite thing about the prequels is Palpatine's arc. It's something that's generally below the surface, and very easy to miss if you focus on the action and other things that are going on. Basically everything that's happened so far is the result of what Palpatine has done. The reason that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan end up on Naboo in TPM is because Palpatine has manipulated the Trade Federation into setting up the blockade. The genius of Palpatine's plan is that he can't lose. He creates the problems in the Republic, in the guise of Darth Sidious, and as a result of these problems, he gains power in the senate. The most important event in Episode I is when Amidala agrees to make a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum, which allows Palpatine to take power.

At the end of Episode I, there's a big celebration and we hear joyous music, but this music cue is actually a speeded up version of the Emperor's theme from Return of the Jedi. This is appropriate because the only person who's really won as a result of what happened in the film is Palpatine. He gets more power, and the credit for breaking up the blockade on his home planet.

In Episode II, his plan has evolved, and he has now created not a temporary distraction, like that on Naboo, but a galactic wide problem, the separatist movement. He has Dooku start this movement, as an excuse to get the Senate to vote for the creation of a 'Grand Army of the Republic.' This army will become the stormtroopers that serve the Empire in the original trilogy. There's something really foreboding about seeing Yoda fly in with an army that looks so close to the stormtroopers in the original film. So, at the end of the film, Palpatine 'reluctantly' oversees the creation of this army, an army that was created to fight a menace that he in fact was responsible for. It's a genius plan, because he can't lose. The more the seperatists win, the more power he can take, 'in defense of freedom,' and when they defeat the seperatists, he gets the prestige of having won a major war, which will lead to more public approval for his role in government. So, the 'phantom menace' of the title is in fact Palpatine, who has been manipulating everything from the beginning, and probably will continue to do so in III.

Watching it this time, I think I got a lot more of what Lucas was trying to do with the relationship between Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. The film was widely criticized for the awkwardness of the romantic moments, but I think that was appropriate. This is a guy who's been living with the jedi for ten years, and has never been put in a romantic context, he's just been carrying the memory of Padme around with him for all those years. So, when he finally does meet her again, he doesn't know what do, and brings out a whole bunch of cheesy lines, because he doesn't know how else to behave around her, he can't find a way to express his feelings, so he brings out classic lines like the sand one that don't sound good to us, but are the only way he would know how to behave.

Which brings up the question, why does Padme go with this guy who clearly has a slightly unhealthy obsession with her? This is something I hope III will address, since it's sort of unclear. If I had to guess, it would be that he is the only person who's approached her as a person, not as a queen/senator. Like Anakin, she lives a life that doesn't allow for romance, which means that it would have a sort of forbidden air, and I guess she's attracted to that. I don't think their relationship is ever meant to be healthy or even romantic really, Anakin is someone who is used to being able to do what he wants, and if he wants to be with her, he will.

Anakin gets this attitude from the first father figure in his life, Qui-Gon Jin. In TPM, you see him going along, using his force powers to get whatever he wants from people. He doesn't care about the council, he just does what he wants, and always seems to end up getting his way. When he winds up wtih Obi-Wan, I get the sense that it's almost a stepfather relationship, like Qui-Gon is his real father, and Obi-Wan is just filling it, and that's part of why Anakin resents him so much. Parent issues are at the core of the whole series, and for Anakin, a lot of it has to do with idealizing his mother. What happens to him as a result of his mother's death is not really addressed in II, and I'd imagine it'll figure heavily in III.
That said, while there's so much great stuff in these films, it's not like there aren't flaws. The first 40 minutes or so of Phantom Menace are pretty weak, and Jar Jar just doesn't work there. He's fine once you get to Tatooine, but when it's just him and the two Jedi, it's not good. Similarly, the people do behave in a strange way. It's not realistic, and certain people seem to have trouble with performing in these films. I think Christopher Lee and Ewan McGregor are great, but Natalie Portman just doesn't work in the film. I love her in other stuff, but this is not her finest hour. Watching it this time, I really got Hayden Christensen's performance, and I can understand what he was doing. Samuel L. Jackson is another person who really seems to get what's going on here, and is great.

I think a bigger problem is that the action scenes here don't have the strong emotional drive of the original trilogy. While they are huge and cool, nothing can match the emotional intensity of either of the Luke/Vader fights, I'm hoping this'll change in the next episode. I think part of it is that there aren't pauses. In those fights, the stops are as important as the action itself, and by holding things off, it makes the action that there is so much more intense. While thousands of people fighting may look cool, I'd much rather see two people I care about fighting, the stakes are so much higher, as exemplified by the end of House of Flying Daggers. Also, particularly at the end of Clones, there's two many scenes that seem to be about showing off effects, with no character stakes.

So, I'm really psyched for Revenge of the Sith. The best way to see a Star Wars movie is at a screening full of fans who have been waiting for this for as long as I have. The Episode II midnight showing might be the best moviegoing experience I've ever had, but it could very well be topped tonight. In twelve hours, I will have seen Episode III.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Counting down to Revenge of the Sith

Well, I'm not 34 hours away from the start of Revenge of the Sith. I've been very pleased by the advance reviews. The New York Times called it better than the original Star Wars, and general consesus seems to be that it's the third best film of the saga.

Now, it annoys me that people crack on Return of the Jedi so much. If you can get past the ewoks, which aren't great, but also aren't that bad, you've got the best space battle ever put on film. The assault on the death star is absoultely awe inspiring. To think that all those things in the frame are models, it's a huge leap from the already excellent battle in Episode IV. And Jedi also has the best lightsaber duel of the series. The emotional tension in the Luke/Vader/Emperor scenes is huge, culminating in the great scene when Luke chops off Vader's hand. The score in those scenes is the best in the trilogy, and visually it's gorgeous.

So, don't hate on Jedi. That said, I'm glad to see that people like the new film more than it. While I like the prequels more than most people, I recognize their flaws, and I feel like this film is going to be the one that feels the most Star Wars. It's been such a long wait, it's almost hard to believe that I'll actually be seeing the movie in two days.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

House of Flying Daggers

I watched House of Flying Daggers a few days ago and was extremely impressed by it. House is by Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, as well as other non-martial arts films like The Road Home and To Live, both of which I watched back in March. I'd heard a lot of mixed opinions on House, some people said it was much better than Hero, while others said it wasn't very good. I think it's a much better film than Hero, and that's saying something because I loved Hero.

Visually, Hero probably is stronger than House, but that's not to say that House isn't a gorgeous film. The scenes in the woods are so densely atmospheric, as are the scenes in the wheat field. I love the scene towards the end where Jin and Mei are lying in a field and the blue and green of their costumes stands out so much. The final scenes, in the snow, are also great looking.

However, what makes this film so great is the emotional content. Jin and Mei's journey through the countryside is really sweet, and does a great job of getting you emotionally attached to the characters. Then, everything falls apart once Leo turns up. I love the fact that there's no villain here. She loves Jin, even though logically she should be with Leo. But, the whole point of the film is, love isn't logical, and that's why she can't go with Leo. The end of the film is tough, but it's how it should end. In the society they live in, it's just not plausible for Jin and Mei to live a free life.

The acting in the film is top notch all around. Zhang Ziyi is great here, fully pulling off the blind act, and later in the film too. She makes you believe that she really is deeply in love with this guy, even though they've only known each other for three hours. The scene where Jin places a flower in her hair is some of the best visual acting I've seen. In this film, she acts mainly with her face, it doesn't matter what she's saying, her face tells you everything you really need to know.

Takeshi Kaneshiro is great here too. He was so brilliant in Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels, and here, he does a great job playing the 'Han Solo' role of the lovable scoundrel. In the moment when he turns back to go after her, you can see the way the events of the film have changed him. Andy Lau is solid too, making you sympathize with the character even as you're hating everything he's doing.

This is an impeccably made film. The visuals and sound, particularly the music, are all fabulous, but it's all in service of the story's emotional beats. The final images are haunting, and really evidence of Zhang Yimou's power as a filmmaker. Next from him, I want to seek out Raise the Red Lantern.