Thursday, May 28, 2009

Star Wars, episodes 4-6

Do you know what happened on May 25?
1. In 1977, “Star Wars” (Episode 4) debuted.

2. In 1983, “Return of the Jedi” debuted

3. I graduated from college! (Can't remember what year. :))

4. And most important of all, in 2009 we celebrated Memorial Day. More on that later.

Today we continue our look at the trilogy with a look at the “original” trilogy from 1977-1983. These are three of my favorites of all time, and we have so little time to talk about them. But here, I hope, are the most important facts:

This one will likely always be just “Star Wars” to me. Unlike so many fans, my first memories of “Star Wars” aren't very happy ones. My aunt scared me for it by talking about the “snake” in the trash compactor. I dropped my Dad's watch during one showing and forced him to look for it under some people's seats, prompting him to threaten to spank me when we got home. What fun. I got a lot more out of it later on, when I slowly began to read the Marvel Comics adaptation of the movie. I began to understand the story better and appreciate the creativity and adventure. Slowly, after two more theater viewings, it began to turn into the classic it is.

Then one day, we happened to be shopping in Toys 'R' Us and saw that some new toys were coming out based on Star Wars. My parents bought. . .yes, the Early Bird Star Wars figure box! It's a classic item for collectors (and long lost to me now, of course), and it was the beginning of a beautiful business relationship between our family and Kenner Toys. I wrote a little bit about the Star Wars figures in an earlier post. You can read it here:

My family also bought the Super-8mm film version of Star Wars. It was silent with subtitles and only featured two scenes from the movie (Obi-Wan talking to Luke at his home and the escape from the Death Star), but wow, there was certainly enough there to entertain at birthday parties. We also bought the soundtrack album (with some of the most majestic film music ever written), and I have fond memories of my friends and I playing “Cantina Band” over and over, sometimes on 45 and 78 rpm.

Now hang on, we're going to make the jump to light speed to 1982, when “Star Wars” debuted on home video for the first time. It quickly became our favorite rental, being rented once a month for what seemed like the next year or so. And more importantly, my family and I began to appreciate it cinematically. It was always a good movie, but by watching it over and over, we began to understand WHY it was a good movie. We could see all the elements coming together to create the whole. That's one of the greatest benefits of home video- the ability to view it again. Movies began to become more like books. We could put them down for a minute and come back to them later. That's something that certainly isn't possible in a play or theatrical film! Star Wars cemented itself as a true classic thanks to home video.

As noted by Mark Hamil years later in the “Star Wars to Jedi” documentary, the central irony of Star Wars is that it uses high technology to present an anti-technological theme. We see these powerful spaceships and weapons. We see these incredible creatures and places. But through it all, we begin to understand that our eyes can deceive us, and that there is another, spiritual level to life. It is this spiritual level that sells the story, as far as I'm concerned.

Again as noted by Mark Hamil, “Empire” was a big gamble. With its more serious tone and themes, it was not the same as “Star Wars.” Many feel it's even better. It certainly is a favorite of the actors, and it's easy to understand why- there's a lot of drama going on in “Empire,” and the actors got to stretch their talents to the limits. There's a lot of pain to go through for our heroes and a lot of growing up for Luke. We also are introduced to one of the most important puppetry moments in movie history. Yoda holds his own against the real-life actors, and with the possible exception of E.T., this may be the pinnacle of how far puppetry in films can go. Read more about my hero Yoda here:

Of course, the big shocker was what Darth Vader told Luke at the end of their epic lightsaber battle. A friend “spilled the beans” to us before we saw the film. But even if you knew about it, it didn't take away from your enjoyment of the movie. It is a very dramatic moment, of course, and it could be the most important one in the series. It certainly emphasizes the spirituality of Luke's battle. “Empire” shows us the spiritual side of Star Wars like we'd never seen it before. The scene in the cave is a great foreshadowing experience and helps us understand the battle that Luke must face. And here we come to an important point. It's probably the most important thing we can learn from Star Wars. Are you ready?

“Star Wars” is not about wars in outer space a long time ago. “Star Wars” is about the wars that you and I face every day of our lives. “Star Wars” is about battles inside the heart. We watch these battles, but as Yoda says, “Wars don't make one great.” That's because we ALL go through wars. On May 25 we celebrated Memorial Day, where we remember those who have given their lives for their country. As honored and revered as these men should be, and although they are greater than the rest of us in many ways, they are not alone when it comes to war. The most important wars in “Star Wars” are the spiritual ones. Those are the same ones you and I face each day.

“Empire’s” biggest flaw is that it ends on such a cliffhanger. We feel cheated at the end by not knowing what will happen to our heroes. Yet it also ends with a glimmer of hope, as the story is obviously not over yet. There’s still a chance for things to be good.

“Jedi” is the graduate thesis. Despite its flaws, it is probably my favorite of all the Star Wars films. It wraps up the story in a way that is satisfying and also demonstrates what makes “Star Wars” so wonderful. Remember, it's 1983, just after “Star Wars” debuted on home video. We've begun to appreciate what a great film it is. Now, with “Jedi”, we not only see many of the same elements, we see them improved upon and presented in their widescreen, stereo glory. (It's interesting to note how many of the scenes and plot elements in episode 4 are revisited in “Jedi.”) And I was finally old enough to appreciate movies as an art form.

We are taken to the palace of Jabba the Hutt, intergalactic crime lord and, as my friend said, “I would describe Jabba the Hutt as a rising pancake.” Our heroes put on disguises in an attempt to rescue their friend Han from Jabba, but Jabba won't be fooled, and ends up taking our heroes hostage, including. . .oh God. . .Princess Leia in a slave girl outfit. . .The boys who were seven when episode 4 came out were 13 when “Jedi” came out. Hmmm. If there were any doubt that this film would become a legend, the gold bikini made it official! This is actually quite significant. For by including a sexy chick, “Jedi” becomes more complete. We gain not only the spiritual side of a story, but the sensual as well. We get “turned on,” but not in only one way!

Anyway, because Jabba isn’t fooled by disguises, Luke must confront him face to face. He walks into the lair of monsters to save his friends. They send a big monster called the Rancor to eat him. It looks like Luke is out of luck, but he not only survives, he kills the monster! Jabba orders Luke and Han to be thrown into the Sarlac pit, keeping Leia for himself, for obvious reasons. I won’t tell you what happens, you have to watch the film and enjoy the technique of one of the great fight sequences in the saga.

Anyway, Luke must confront the truth about Darth Vader, and in the process the truth about himself and how easy it would be to go over to the dark side. Luke knows he must face Vader again, but also that he can’t kill his father. He can’t win. There seems to be no way out. Or is there? Is it possible that the weapons of war and the powers of good go beyond anything the Emperor can understand? Remember this telling dialogue?

VADER: A small rebel force has penetrated the shield and landed on Endor.
EMPEROR: Yes, I know.
VADER: My son is with them.
EMPEROR: Are you sure?
VADER: I have felt him, my master.
EMPEROR: Strange that I have not. . .

Well, I suppose if you didn’t understand love, you might not feel anything either. . .

Ah yes, the “cute and cuddly” Ewoks. These guys may not look very powerful, but they basically helped defeat an Empire. Again, the lesson is not to judge a book by its cover. Don’t believe a disguise. It was so easy to believe that Darth Vader was nothing but a bad guy. . .

Jedi is one of the few action films out there that promotes non-violence. It shows what all the other movies have been hinting at. Just “obeying your heart” is not always the way, because sometimes obeying your heart gets you in trouble. “Jedi” presents the inner battles we face and shows how physically destroying your opponent is not always the best answer. Probably the most important moment in all the films comes when Darth Vader threatens to turn Leia to the dark side. The gorgeous music swells, and the drama takes on a spiritual tone that can be tasted. (I was very glad when they finally released that piece of music on CD! It wasn’t included in the original soundtrack recordings of “Jedi.”) It can almost bring you to tears when you begin to understand all that is going on in that moment.

And then, “Go my son, leave me.” “No, you’re coming with me. I’ve got to save you!” “You already have, Luke.” The spiritual side - the good side- has triumphed in the lives of Anakin Skywalker and his son. And to prove it, as our friends gather together at the ending, and they sing and dance and hug and talk, we see Anakin joining all the other loved ones. You know, Heaven is going to be something like this. . .

But my favorite Jedi memory of all time may be right after the first time we saw it, when my mom, brother and I walked out of the theater and towards the car. We each kind of glanced at each other, smiling. We knew we had just seen one of the greatest things we'd ever seen in the theater. That's true for me to this day.

SPECIAL EDITIONS: The Special Edition of the trilogy came out in 1997, and featured improved special effects and a few formerly deleted scenes. It was a lot of fun seeing the films in the theaters again, but I don't think the special editions improved the story much. As Lucas said, “A special effect is just a tool, a means of telling a story. . .a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” While the new effects were certainly great, the original story is what mattered most, and that's what we all need to remember. . .including Mr. Lucas. Read on.

ENOUGH ALREADY: While peeking at the recent showing of Episode 4 on MTV, I noticed something unusual. The scene that was added for the special edition had been re-done! Jabba looked different than he did in the original special edition release. It was a neat effect. . .but hang on here. Exactly how many times are we going to “fix” these movies? Shouldn’t we close the book at some point? Look, I don’t want to wake up in the year 2525 and find that none of the original film is still alive! “Oh, but we can make Princess Leia look so much better now! Isn’t this actress prettier than Carrie Fisher? Well, isn’t she?” I will kill you now. We need to keep the originals alive in some form until the end of time, if for no other reason than to let people see how things were “a long time ago.”

SOLD OUT: Just this afternoon, I saw a poster advertising a “Star-Wars” related event in my local library, featuring guys in costumes and talks about some of the great Star Wars science fiction books. While the tickets were free, they were limited, and I was unable to get one, as they had all already been given out. It’s been over 30 years, and Star Wars still has the power to “sell out” venues. It’s a testament to our love for the stories and our desire for adventure and romance and fun, as well as for the spiritual side of life. The force is going to be with us for a long time to come, and I’m thankful. Thanks for riding along.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Star Wars trilogies, Episodes 1-3

It’s hard to believe that “Phantom Menace” debuted ten years ago this month, and in honor of that occasion, I’d like to present some of my thoughts about the greatest science fiction motion picture saga in the history of the medium. My comments will, of course, be, uh. . .forced to be short. And I’ll try to make that the worst joke you have to put up with during this whole thing.
Bear in mind that “Star Wars” is, of course, as popular as a cultural phenomenon as a movie series. Even those who haven’t seen the movies can’t ignore their impact. (I haven’t seen “High School Musical” yet either, but I can’t ignore its impact!) But the phenomenon is deeper than just “cowboys in outer space.” The excitement and special effects are all spectacular, but it takes more than those things to create a masterpiece, and hopefully I’ll be able to touch on all the parts of the saga that matter most to me.

Every saga has its beginning. And the debut of episode 1 was certainly met with more eager fans than episode 4 had been. (Access Hollywood began counting down the days more than 100 days before the debut!) Many of those eager fans, sadly, weren’t too happy. But it was wrong to expect “Phantom Menace” to be better than any of the other films. Contrary to what the naysayers said, it was “star wars.” It keeps the spirit of the films alive. It’s just different! Many of the elements we enjoy aren’t there. No wisecracking Han Solo. No Darth Vader yet. Not much of a romance factor.

The film begins with two wise masters of “the force” called Jedi. They make an attempt to visit the planet of Naboo, which is being held under blockade by the greedy trade federation. When the evil Darth Sideous hears that the two Jedi have arrived. He gives the immediate order to have them killed. We immediately know who the good guys and bad guys are! But the Jedi aren’t easily gotten rid of. They escape to the planet and begin the process of trying to get the trade federation out of the way. Along their journey, they meet up with several characters who help them out. To make a long (and some would say painful) story short, the Jedi are victorious, and relative peace returns to the galaxy.

Along the way we meet Anakin Skywalker, young farm boy from the planet Tatooine, Padme Amidala, the young queen of Naboo, and the legend himself, Jar-Jar Binks. Binks is an alien with a funny voice and a “cutesy” attitude that drove some fans nuts. Well, at least the fans without kids. (Think Elmo for the Star Wars world and you get the idea) And unfortunately, many Star Wars fans don’t have kids. I loved what a radio DJ said later about “Phantom Menace:” “That movie would have made twice as much money if everybody who went to see it didn’t only buy one ticket!”

The “Phantom Menace” is never specifically named in the Phantom Menace. Logic says that it must be Darth Sideous, who sometimes appears as a “phantom” when he is broadcasting to his “helpers.” But the phantom menace can also be something else. It’s what Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi felt at the beginning of the film. The idea that something was making him uneasy, but he wasn’t exactly sure what. This idea of something going on that we don’t completely understand is borne out in the next two films, as we see that Darth Sideous has some serious ego issues and some serious plans for destroying the Jedi so he can gain power.

I was lucky enough to get to meet an actress from “Phantom Menace”. . . no, not her. It was Michonne Bourrigue, who played Aura Sing. Aura Sing was the tall lady with the Mohawk who can be seen briefly watching Anakin’s pod race. She was in the film for about 5 seconds or so, and I got her autograph! We met her at the San Diego Comic-Con. My brother pointed out that she was there. “Wow!” I said. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice her.” “She wasn’t wearing a costume,” he replied. “Wow,” I said, “no wonder I didn’t notice her.” :) But I should have. She was quite attractive and gracious with her time. I asked about any chance of seeing Aura Sing again. “It’s possible,” she replied. “The script (for “Clones”) hasn’t been written yet.” Sadly no Aura Sing appearance materialized, but I obviously won’t forget Michonne Bourrigue and the pleasure of meeting her.

The film holds its own and is ultimately worth it, especially if you are a fan. But there is one great unanswered question: WHERE IS LINCOLN GASKING? Lincoln Gasking was the gentleman who was the first in line to see the new film, waiting several months (ah to be young and jobless again) to see “Phantom Menace” when it debuted. Then it debuted, and we never heard from him again! Did he go into hiding? Is he still in the restroom? Was the movie so awful that he didn’t want his face to be seen? Is he hanging out with Rodney Allen Rippy? Is he hanging out with Michonne Bourrigue? I’m hoping that someday I’ll be in a bar or something and somebody will say “Oh yeah, I remember him. He got a job and got on with his life. Just like we all did.”

I never knew how romantic a guy I was until I saw “Attack of the Clones.” It reaffirmed what most ladies probably already knew - the romance factor is very important to “Star Wars.” It definitely adds something to “Clones,” which is probably my favorite of episodes 1-3.

It’s years later, and Anakin and Padme are now youths who are old enough to legitimately begin to, well, notice each other. As their romance begins to bloom, the republic is facing new dangers, including assassination attempts on Padme. Anakin is assigned to protect Padme, and they spend some time alone in some beautiful places, and. . .well, fortunately they both have at least a little bit of self-control, something that is sadly lacking from so many of us these days. . .Anyway, their career paths seem to make it impossible for them to enjoy a life together. But as Amy Grant sang, love will find a way. Even if it ultimately leads to a terrible downfall. There‘s a danger to love. That’s one of the hidden messages of the “Star Wars” saga. Sometimes the love you have for someone can be used against you to make you do some terrible, horrifying things. . .
I actually came close to crying in “Clones.” It was the scene where Anakin and Padme are about to be led out to be attacked by a trio of monsters. “I’m not afraid to die,” Padme says. “I’ve been dying a little bit every day since you came back into my life.” Her declaration of love prior to what may be their deaths is beautifully romantic. I love it. Sorry folks- just remember that I’m a big “Phantom of the Opera” fan, too. And this little interlude of a movie shows us that even in the midst of chaos, love is there, and playing a very active role. I’m not just talking about romantic love- watch as Anakin rushes to save his friend Obi-Wan from being killed by the villain. Watch as Yoda saves the lives of both Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Also, very cool “running through the grassy field” clips. This reminds me of the dream sequence with Kermit and Miss Piggy from the Muppet Movie. I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who noticed, but hey. . .

We definitely get the feeling in “Clones” that the Jedi aren’t exactly being completely honest with everybody. Watch the look on Yoda’s face when Obi-Wan mentions Jedi master Siphodeus (I hope that’s how you spell it). There’s definitely some “we’d better keep it quiet” stuff going on with the Jedi, and it serves to demonstrate their imperfections, which will become incredibly important in the next film.

But just as a preview: Have you noticed how terribly the Jedi treat Anakin? When he gets the right answer, they don’t say, “good job, kid.” Being loving in that way is just not the Jedi way, and it certainly works against them. (Hey, these guys apparently aren’t even allowed to love romantically.) On the other hand, have you noticed that the only person who is really kind to Anakin is. . .Senator Palpatine?

War! No kidding! Some consider this the best film in the series. It is certainly one of the most dramatic, with Anakin facing one of the toughest tests any of us can face. As tragic as this is, it is ultimately Anakin’s love for Padme that brings him down. The fear of losing her traumatizes him, and he vows to do everything to keep her alive. Everything. Kill little kids? Sure. Help kill the JedI? No problem. He can’t see what we can. He doesn’t see what Padme sees, either. “You’re going down a path I can’t follow,” she cries. His love has turned to evil. He is perhaps the best demonstration I’ve ever seen of why love isn’t always the answer. I suppose we all understand that love causes pain sometimes. But love shouldn’t cause THIS much pain! When you have to start killing people just so you won’t be lonely. . .

Don’t think for a minute “it won’t happen to me.” Even JedI master Yoda, who urges Anakin not to miss those people we lose through death, finds himself incredibly pained at those who he loses through death. He cares. We see it at the end of “Clones,” too, when Yoda saves the lives of Obi-Wan and Anakin, two people he obviously cares about. But as he does that, the villain makes his escape, thereby creating much more pain and agony later on. Should Yoda have let Obi-Wan and Anakin die so that he could stop the villain? What would YOU have done?

Then, after we watch Padme die, we watch Anakin die.

A tragic ending to a tragic romance, and a warning to all the world. And the groundwork for the next three films, which are among my most enjoyable movie memories of all time.

Some final thoughts on the Episodes 1-3 saga: I enjoyed all three. All three were fun. But I feel that many fans were let down. They wanted the films to be even grander than they were (which is pretty amazing when you think about how grand they already are!). We have to remember that we were seven to thirteen or so when the first movies came out. We’ve changed a lot since then. We’ve seen a lot of other good movies since then. I did not expect perfection when I watched episodes 1-3. I simply hoped for a good series that would equal or better the episodes 4-6 that I grew up with. Episodes 1-3 aren’t perfect. Neither are episodes 4-6. But they’re all good. And they’re all worth watching at least once. It’s kind of disheartening to hear people badmouth the first three and say that the newer saga ruined the first. Relax. It’s only a movie. The glory of the “original” saga still shines, which is what I’m going to talk about next time, Lord willing. Thanks for riding with me.

The cool Padme and Anakin image at the top of this posting is from “The Padawan’s guide to Star Wars costumes,” which is definitely worth a visit and could become a favorite of my Mom’s after I tell her about it. Check it out!

Speaking of those great costumes, I was also lucky enough to visit Trish Biggar's “Dressing a Galaxy” costume exhibit in Los Angeles in 2005, which featured not only many costumes from the Star Wars films she worked in, but costumes from the other films as well. It was a lot of fun, and I wish that every Star Wars fan could have seen it. Even without the “props,” the costumes bring a lot to the Star Wars movies, and are entertaining in and of themselves. It was also Heaven on earth for Padme fans. Virtually every one of Padme’s dresses was here! There were at least a good forty mannequins set up in the middle of the hall facing each other, each wearing one of the dresses Natalie Portman wore in the films. You can check out some pictures from the exhibit here:

Friday, May 08, 2009

The return of Oscar

A cousin of mine is a fan of Oscar the Grouch. But who isn’t? The guy is a perfect example of a crusty TV character that everyone enjoys, even as he insults them. While “The Return of Bruno” will have to wait (sorry about that, Mr. Willis), everyone’s favorite grouch seems to be gaining more time in the public eye. The most recent was his recent cameo at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert. He appeared with Tom Chapin to sing “Garbage.” (Pete is no stranger to Oscar. He appeared on Sesame Street back in the 1970s and he even put out an album with them). Thanks to the keen-eyed folks at Muppet Central for letting us know about this! Here’s a link to a bigger, better picture courtesy of Getty Images:

OSCAR MEETS VADER: It is somewhat amazing to me that two of the classic bad guys from childhood are going to team up for a brief appearance in “Night at the Museum 2,” but apparently Oscar the Grouch and Darth Vader will be sharing the screen in the new film. Classic. It almost makes me want to buy a ticket. And Robin Williams and Dick Van Dyke are there as well. This is getting better all the time. All we need now is a Courteney Cox cameo and to have Mr. Rogers’ puppets come to life & I’m there. (Film cameo check: Oscar also appeared in “Great Muppet Caper” and Darth was in “Indian in the Cupboard.”) Here’s the post about Oscar:

THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE: Many of the clips from my own video collection have been used by other posters in the past. (You can check some of them out in my favorites folder on my YouTube page.) But these have all been clips from other sources, and not a literal home movie that I made by myself. That's where the recent YouTube posting of the “Ernie and Bert appliance war” skit comes into play.

I received a copy of the skit in Spanish from a video trader a few years ago. It was great to see this lost clip again, but not having it in English made it like a victory that was only half won. The obvious solution- do a re-dubbing of the skit with the English audio, with the dialouge reproduced to the best of my memory from the original clip. So I did that for the introduction to one of my home movies. It wasn't perfect, but neither are any of my movies, or any of your movies, but that's a long story. Anyway, YouTube poster applejax recently posted my re-dub of the scene, this time with a slightly better picture from his collection. So the question is this: does this count as my first official YouTube video or not? My vote: Close, but no banana. The dubbing is mine, but the cleaned-up video and re-re-dubbing makes this an applejax/Sesameguy production.

Trivia buffs: Can you identify the two songs played by Bert & Ernie in the re-dubbed clip? Think about it, now. Take your time. Decide if you need to call a friend. . .Okay, give up? They are “Vacation” by the Go-Gos and “Baby I need your lovin'”. These are obviously not the same songs that were in the original clip (It was just some nameless Sesame St. background rock music, kind of like the stuff we hear in the E&B volume control skit). “Vacation” was part of my collection, but “Baby I need your lovin'” just happened to be the song on the radio when Ernie turned it on.

THE MAKING OF ANOTHER MASTERPIECE: As opposed to the re-dubbing, two friends of mine have created a true YouTube video: Completely new footage, new song, the works. The song is “California furlough blues” and features friends Peter and Edgar singing about the plight of workers everywhere these days who are being forced to take time off just because the company is too cheap to. . .I mean, just because the economy is so bad. Yeah, that's it. It's the economy, stupid. Yeah. Sure. Okay. Yes, master - I mean, boss. It's a good little tune that might remind you of another good little tune. You can find it in my favorites folder.

SUPPOSE A STORE GAVE A 50% OFF SALE, AND NO ONE CAME? I guess the time has come to let you music fans in on a secret. Well, it was a secret a few months ago, anyway. Some of the Borders' bookstores in my area began selling their CDs and DVDs at 50% off! Wow, cool sale, huh? Well, sort of. I went shopping there a few days before the remaining CDs were taken away to CD heaven, and there were still plenty of items for sale. The selection wasn't perfect – mostly classical titles and unique things, not necessarily big names in the music biz – but the bins were still reasonably full. If a music store can have a 50% off sale for a month and still have a fairly good amount of CDs left over, that tells you something about the state of the industry. Even at an incredible discount, not everyone is lured into buying CDs. But to be fair, not everybody thinks about shopping for music at a bookstore. Borders probably understands that, so it has shed some of its extra benefits to focus on what people really want from a bookstore - books. That's good for them and not so great for us- we're losing another option when it comes to buying music.

For more on the slow demise (argh!) of music stores, see my postings here:

A NEW NEIGHBORHOOD: There's a new blog that pays tribute to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (amazing how these things have been growing the past few years after MRN has all but left the airwaves). You can check it out in the links section to the right, and be sure to visit his YouTube page for clips from some classic episodes (In black and white! Even I don't remember that far back!)