18 Days of Paranoia #10: The Quiller Memorandum (dir by Michael Anderson)


The 1966 film, The Quiller Memorandum, is a diabolically clever little spy thriller.

The film opens with a British secret agent getting gunned down while trying to make a call from a phone booth in Berlin.  While we never learn the exact name of the agency that the man was working for, we do discover that they don’t take kindly to their agents getting gunned down in phone booths.  They send in another agent, an American named Quiller (George Segal), to take his place.

In Berlin, Quiller’s boss is a man named Pol (Alec Guinness).  Pol explains that the man in the phone booth was actually the second of his agents to be assassinated in Berlin.  All of the agents were looking for information about a Neo-Nazi group called Phoenix.  Pol tells Quiller that it is vitally important they discover just where, in Berlin, Phoenix is headquartered.  Quiller is given a few items that were found on the dead man in the phone booth: a bowling alley ticket, a swimming pool ticket, and a newspaper article about a school where it was discovered that one of the teachers had Nazi sympathies.

Though The Quiller Memorandum was undoubtedly produced with the hopes of capitalizing on the popularity of the Bond films, Quiller is no James Bond.  We know that as soon as we see him.  It’s not just that Quiller’s an American while Bond was British.  It’s also that James Bond was played by the cool and calculating Sean Connery while Quiller is played by George Segal.  Whereas Connery’s Bond never loses his confidence, Segal’s Quiller comes across as being, at first, a bit cocky and, as a result, we worry about him.  Whereas Connery’s Bond rarely gave his actions a second thought, Segal brings a slightly neurotic edge to Quiller.  You take one look at Connery’s Bond and you know that he’s going to survive no matter what.  Quiller, however, you never get that feeling.  When he’s in danger, you worry about him because it’s easy to imagine him turning up like the man in the phone booth.

And, indeed, it doesn’t take long for Quiller to get captured by the members of Phoenix.  A man bumps him with a suitcase, injecting a drug into his system that makes Quiller become drowsy.  When Quiller awakens, he’s being interrogated by an erudite man named Oktober (Max von Sydow).  Oktober’s an aristocrat.  He speaks in a very calm tone, rarely showing any hint of anger.  The only thing that betrays his evil nature are his eyes, which are cold and soulless.

Even though Quiller survives the interrogation, it’s tempting to give up on him.  After all, Quiller got captured so easily and Oktober seems so clever that you kind of find yourself wondering if maybe the agency made a mistake when they gave this mission to Quiller.  That’s where The Quiller Memorandum surprises you, though.  Quiller turns out to be a lot more clever and resourceful than anyone gave him credit for being and, for that matter, the film itself turn out to have a few more twists and turns in store for the viewer.

It’s a clever and enjoyable spy film, featuring wonderful performances from Segal, Guinness, von Sydow, and Senta Berger as the teacher who may be in love with Quiller or who may have an agenda of her own.  The film may be a spy thriller but Michael Anderson directs it as if its a film noir, full of shadowy streets and morally ambiguous characters.  The script, by Harold Pinter, encourages us to trust no one and Anderson’s direction reminds us that we made the right decision.  On the dark streets of Cold War Berlin, no one is who they seem.

The Quiller Memorandum is a must-see for fans of 60 spy films.  Watch it with someone who you think you can trust.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Doctor Zhivago (dir by David Lean)


Klaus Kinski is the main reason to watch the 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago.

The legendarily difficult and erratic Mr. Kinski shows up about halfway through this 3-and-a-half hour film.  He plays a cynical and unstable prisoner on a train.  The train is full of passengers who are escaping from Moscow and heading for what they hope will be a better and more stable life in the Ural Mountains.  (The film takes place during the Communist revolution and the subsequent purges.)  That Kinski taunts everyone on the train is not a surprise.  Both Werner Herzog and David Schmoeller (who directed Kinski in Crawlspace) have made documentaries in which they both talked about how difficult it was to work with Kinski and how several film crews apparently came close to murdering Klaus Kinski several times throughout his career.

Instead, what’s surprising about Kinski’s performance is that he’s even there to begin with.  Doctor Zhivago is an extremely long and extremely stately film.  It’s one of those films where almost every actor gives a somewhat restrained performance.  It’s a film where almost every shot is tastefully composed and where the action often slows down to a crawl so that we can better appreciate the scenery.  It’s a film that stops for an intermission and which opens with a lengthy musical overture.  In short, this is a film of old school craftsmanship and it’s the last place you would expect to find Klaus Kinski luring about.

When he does show up, you’re happy to see him.  Even though he’s only onscreen for about five minute, Kinski gives the film a jolt of much-needed energy.  After hours of watching indecisive characters talk and talk and talk, Kinski pops up and basically, “Screw this, I hate everything.”  And it’s exciting because it’s one of the few time that Doctor Zhivago feels unpredictable.  It’s one of the few times that it feels like a living work of art instead of just a very pretty but slightly stuffy composition.

Just from reading all that, you may think that I don’t like Doctor Zhivago but that’s actually not the case. It’s a heavily flawed film and you have to be willing to make a joke or two if you’re going to try to watch the whole thing in just one sitting but it’s still an interesting throwback to a very specific time in film history.  Doctor Zhivago was designed to not only be a spectacle but to also convince audiences that 1) TV was worthless and that 2) Hollywood craftsmanship was still preferable to the art films that were coming out of Europe.  At a time when television and independent European cinema was viewed as being a real threat to the future of the film industry, Doctor Zhivago was a film that was meant to say, “You can’t get this on your black-and-white TV!  You can only get this from Hollywood where, dammit, people still appreciate a good establishing shot and treat the production code with respect!”  Even today, some of the spectacle is still impressive.  The beautiful shots of the countryside are still often breath-taking.  The scenes of two lovers living in an ice filled house are still incredibly lovely to look at.  The musical score is still sweepingly romantic and impressive.

It’s the story where the film gets in trouble.  Omar Sharif plays Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and a poet who falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie) while Russia descends into chaos.  The Czar is overthown.  The communists come to power and prove themselves to be just as hypocritical as the Romanovs.  The revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay, bearing a distracting resemblance to Roddy McDowall) is in love with Lara and helps to bring about the revolution but is then declared an enemy of the people during the subsequent purges.  The craven Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) also wants to possess Lara and he’s so corrupt that he manages to thrive under both the Czar and the communists.  Alec Guinness plays Yuri’s half-brother and is the most British Russian imaginable.  Doctor Zhivago is based on a Russian novel so there’s a lot of characters running around and they’re all played by a distinguished cast of international thespians.  However, none of them are as interesting as the scenery.

As for the two main actors, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie convince you that they’re in love but not much else.  Sharif is never convincing as a poet and he feels miscast as a man who spends most of his time thinking.  Reportedly, Lean’s first choice for the role was Peter O’Toole and it’s easy to imagine O’Toole in the part.  But O’Toole had already done Lawrence of Arabia with Lean and didn’t feel like subjecting himself to another year of Lean’s notoriously prickly direction.  So, the role went to O’Toole co-star, Sharif.   Julie Christie turned down Thunderball to do both this film and Darling, for which she would subsequently win an Oscar.

(Speaking of the Oscars, Doctor Zhivago was nominated for Best Picture and, though it won five other Oscars, it lost the big prize to The Sound of Music, of all things.  1965 really wasn’t a great year for the Oscars.  The only 1965 Best Picture nominee that still feels like it really deserved to be nominated is Darling.  Of the other nominees, Ship of Fools is ponderous and A Thousand Clowns is almost unbearably annoying.  And The Sound of Music …. well, I prefer the Carrie Underwood version.)

Doctor Zhivago is a big, long, epic film.  It’s lovely to look at and it has a few nice scenes mixed in with a bunch of scenes that seem to go on forever.  In the conflict between the state and the individual, it comes down firmly on the side of the individual and that’s a good thing.  (The communist government attempts to suppress Yuri’s love poems because they celebrate the individual instead of society.  And though the government might be able to destroy Yuri’s life, they can’t destroy his spirit.  Again, it’s a message that would have worked better with a more thoughtful lead actor but still, it’s a good message.)  It’s a flawed film but watch it for the spectacle.  Watch it for Klaus Kinski.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Great Expectations (dir by David Lean)


“My Christian name was Philip Pirrip, which I pronounced Pip….”

SHUT UP, PIP!

Seriously, there’s a lot of good things that can be said about Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations but most readers simply can’t get past the fact that the narrator insists on being called Pip.  I don’t necessarily blame them, as Pip might be a good nickname for a child but, by the time you’re 16, you should be demanding that everyone call you Phil.  That said, I’ve always liked Great Expectations.  Despite the fact that Charles Dickens could be a terribly pedantic writer, the plot of Great Expectations is genuinely interesting and the book is full of interesting characters, the majority of whom don’t demand to be known by their childhood nicknames.  Plus, I’ve always related to Estella.

The 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations was at least the third movie to be made from the novel and it would be followed by many more.  (In 1998, there was a modernized version where Pip was wisely renamed Finn.)  Still, the 1946 adaptation is the best.  As directed by David Lean (and based on a stage version that was put together by none other than Alec Guinness), Great Expectations remains true to the source material while, at the same time, cutting away a lot of extraneous material.  As a result, Lean’s film version of the story maintains a clear narrative momentum, which is something that eluded Dickens in his sprawling original.

John Mills plays Pip, an orphan who is being raised by his wicked aunt and her husband, the simple but kind-hearted blacksmith, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles).  One night, Pip helps out an escaped convict named Magwitch (Finlay Currie) and, though Magwitch is eventually recaptured, that one act of kindness will determine the rest of Pip’s life.

Pip is invited to visit the mansion of a recluse named Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) and it’s there that he first meets and falls in love with the beautiful but rather cold-hearted Estella (Jean Simmons and then, after Estella grows up, Valerie Hobson).  Of course, what Pip doesn’t realize is that Miss Havisham has specifically raised Estella to destroy the hopes and dreams of every man that she meets.

Eventually, Pip grows up and discovers that he has a mysterious benefactor who feels that Pip should be transformed into a gentlemen so that he might be able to meet the “great expectations” that the benefactor has for him.  Pip, of course, assumes that it’s Miss Havisham but even those who haven’t read the book will probably suspect that there’s more to it than just that.  Pip moves to London, where he stays with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), a pale young man (for that’s how Dickens described him) who teaches Pip that a gentleman does not use his knife as a fork.  Herbert was always my favorite character in the book and he’s my favorite character in the film, largely because he’s played by the totally charming Alec Guinness.

Anyway, Pip becomes a bit of a snob but eventually, he discovers the truth about his benefactor and the last few years of his life.  It causes him to not only rip down a lot of curtains but also to reconsider what it truly means to be a a gentleman.

It’s all very well-done, largely because David Lean doesn’t allow the fact that he’s making a film out of a great novel get in the way of telling a good story.  The film is well-acted by a wonderful cast of British thespians, all of whom manage to make even the most artificial of scenes and lines seem naturalistic and believable.  Even though Pip is a bit of a jerk, John Mills manage to turn him into a sympathetic character.  (Mills plays Pip as if he himself cannot stand the fact that he’s turned into such a snob.)  Both Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson do a wonderful job of bringing the potentially problematic character of Estella to life and Bernard Miles is wonderfully empathetic in the role of the Joe Gargery.  The scene where a nervous Gargery first meets Pip after Pip has become a gentleman is a true example of great acting.

Not surprisingly, Lean also does a great job of bringing 19th century England to life.  Watching this film is a bit like stepping into a time machine and going back to the Dickensian era.  As filmed by Lean, London is as bright and vibrant as Pip’s childhood home is dark and constraining.  When Pip finds Magwitch on the beach, Lean directs the scene as if it were from a film noir.  When Pip enters the darkened home of Miss Havisham and meets the beautiful but destructive Estella, the film flirts with becoming a Rebecca-style gothic romance.  And when it’s just Pip and Herbert Pocket talking, it becomes a comedy of manners.  Not surprisingly, Great Expectations won Oscars for both its art design and its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.

Great Expectations was also nominated for Best Picture.  However, it lost to Gentleman’s Agreement.

Film Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire (dir by Anthony Mann)


Why did the Roman Empire fall?

Well, historically, there were several reasons but they can all basically be boiled down to the fact that the Empire got too big to manage and that having two separate capitols certainly didn’t help matters.  The Empire got so large and overextended that the once fabled Roman army was no match for the barbarians.

Of course, if you’ve ever watched a movie about the Roman period, you know exactly why the Empire fell.  It all had to do with decadence, gladiators, human sacrifices, and crazed emperors with unfortunate names like Caligula and Commodus.  The Roman Empire fell because the imperial government descended into soap opera, complete with love triangles, betrayals, and whispered plotting inside the Senate.

Another thing that we’ve learned from the movies is that the fall of the Roman Empire was damn entertaining.  Between the orgies and the men wearing those weird helmets with the brushes on top of them, there’s nothing more fun that watching the Roman Empire fall.

Case in point: the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

This three and a half hour epic begins with the last of the good Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guiness), battling to keep the Germanic barbarians from invading the empire.  Marcus is a wise man and a great leader but he knows that his time is coming to an end and he needs to name a successor.  His daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), is an intelligent and compassionate philosopher but, on the basis of her sex, is not eligible to succeed him.  His son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), may be a great and charismatic warrior but he’s also immature and given to instability.  Marcus’s most trusted adviser, Timonides (James Mason), would never be accepted as a successor because of his Greek birth and background as a former slave.  (Add to that, Timonides is secretly a Christian.)

That leaves Livius (Stephen Boyd).  Livius is one of Marcus’s generals, a man who is not only renowned for his honesty and integrity but one who is also close to the royal family.  Not only is he a former lover of Lucilla’s but he’s also been a longtime friend to Commodus.  Unfortunately, before Marcus can officially name Livius as his heir, the emperor is poisoned.  Commodus is named emperor and things quickly go downhill.  Whereas Marcus ruled with wisdom and compassion, Commodus is a tyrant who crushes anyone who he views as being a potential threat.  Lucilla is married off to a distant king (Omar Sharif).  Timonides is declared an enemy after he suggests that the conquered Germans should be allowed to peacefully farm on Italian land.  Rebellion starts to ferment in every corner of the Empire and Livius finds himself trapped in the middle.  Which side will he join?

Despite all the drama, Commodus is not necessarily an unpopular emperor.  One of the more interesting things about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that Commodus’s popularity grows with his insanity.  The crueler that he is, the more the people seem to love him.  Soon, Commodus is fighting as a gladiator and having people burned at the stake.  While some Romans are horrified, many more love their emperor no matter what.  People love power, regardless of what it’s used for.  Perhaps that’s the main lesson and the main warning that the final centuries of the Roman Empire have to give us.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is surprisingly intimate historical epic.  While there’s all the grandeur that one would normally expect to see in a film about the Roman Empire, the film works best when it concentrates on the characters.  While Boyd and Loren do their best with their thinly drawn roles, the film is stolen by great character actors like Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Christopher Plummer.  Plummer, in particular, seems to be having a blast playing the flamboyantly evil yet undeniably charismatic Commodus.  Even with the Empire collapsing around then, both Plummer as an actor and Commodus as a character seems to be having a blast.  Add to that, there’s all of the usual battles and ancient decadence that you would expect to find in a film about the Roman Empire and the end result is a truly enjoyable epic.

As I watched The Fall of the Roman Empire, it was hard for me not to compare the film to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  That’s because they’re both basically the same damn movie.  The main difference is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is far more entertaining.  The Fall of the Roman Empire, made in the days before CGI and featuring real people in the streets of Rome as opposed to animated cells, feels real in a way that Gladiator never does.  If Gladiator felt like a big-budget video game, The Fall of the Roman Empire feels like a trip in a time machine.  If I ever do go back to 180 A.D., I fully expect to discover James Mason giving a speech to the Roman Senate while Christopher Plummer struts his way through the gladiatorial arena.

Finally, to answer the question that started this review, why did the Roman Empire fall?

It was all Christopher Plummer’s fault, but at least he had a good time.

A Christmas Film Review: Scrooge (dir by Ronald Neame)


There have been many good film versions of the Charles Dickens novella, A Christmas Carol.  Several of them could even be called classics.  Everyone from Bill Murray to James Earl Jones to Tori Spelling to Fredric March has taken a turn at playing a version of the famous miser who, after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, changes his ways and becomes the most generous man in London.  This holiday season, I watched quite a few old TV shows and I was somewhat surprised to discover just how many sitcoms have featured an episode where one of the characters has A Christmas Carol-like experience.

Though actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  A Christmas Carol is a universal tale and it’s one that continues to be appealing 174 years after it was originally written.  You don’t have to be rich, British, greedy, or even a man to relate to what Ebenezer Scrooge goes through.  We’ve all be haunted by the past.  We’ve all wondered what we’re missing out on in the present.  And we all fear how we’ll be remembered in the future.  In fact, I would say that A Christmas Carol is probably as close to perfect you can get.  The only problem is that Bob Cratchit’s son is named Tiny Tim and any work of fiction that features a character named Tiny has to be docked a few points.

With all that said, my favorite film version of A Christmas Carol is the 1970 musical, Scrooge.

Scrooge sticks to the original details of the story.  Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Albert Finney.  (Finney was only 34 when he made Scrooge but was made up so that he looked closer to 120.)  The men, women, and spirits in Scrooge’s life are all played by a collection of distinguished British thespians.  Edith Evans is the stately Ghost of Christmas Past.  Kenneth More is the Ghost of Christmas Present, a decadent figure who drinks wine and travels around with two frightening-looking children.  Alec Guinness is a heavily chained Jacob Marley and he plays the role with just the right combination of sarcasm and concern.  (“No one else wanted to come,” Marley says when he greets Scrooge at the entrance of Hell.)  An actor named Paddy Stone is credited as playing the silent and shrouded Ghost of Christmas Future.  Let me just say that the Ghost of Christmas Future always scares me to death whenever I watch Scrooge.  I imagine little children in the 70s were traumatized by his skeletal visage.

What sets Scrooge apart is that it has singing and dancing!  That’s right, this is a musical version of A Christmas Carol, featuring songs composed by Leslie Bricusse.  Now, the overall quality of the songs is open to debate.  There’s 11 of them and really, only three of the songs are particularly memorable.  (Those songs are: I Like Life, I Hate People, and the Oscar-nominated Thank You Very Much.)  But, honestly, who cares?  The cast performs them with so much energy and enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to get swept up in it all.

(Admittedly, Albert Finney doesn’t really sing.  He just kinda growls the lyrics.  But that’s appropriate for the character of Scrooge.)

Scrooge is an outstanding production of a timeless tale.  It came on TV at least four different times this holiday season and I watched each time.  And I’ll do the same next year!

And as Tiny Tim, who did not die, said, “A Merry Christmas to all!  God Bless us, everyone!”

Cleaning Out The DVR #2: The Bridge on the River Kwai (dir by David Lean)


The_Bridge_on_the_River_Kwai_poster

Last night, after I watched Captains Courageous, I continued to clean out the DVR by watching the 1957 film, The Bridge On The River Kwai.

The Bridge On The River Kwai is a great film but it’s not necessarily an easy one to review.  It’s always easier to review a film when you can be snarky and dismissive but The Bridge On The River Kwai is one of the few films that can truly be called great.  Everything about it — from the directing to the cinematography to the script to the acting (especially the acting!) — works.  It’s a 3 hour film that never drags.  It’s a rousing and exciting adventure story that also works as an anti-war film.  As directed by David Lean, it’s probably about as perfect as a film can get.

The Bridge On The River Kwai takes place during World War II and really, it’s two films in one.  One film tells the story of Shears (William Holden), a POW at a Japanese prison of war camp in what was then Burma and what is now Myanmar.  Knowing that, under the rules of the Geneva Convention, officers are exempt from manual labor, Shears pretends to be a commander.  However, when the camp’s commandant, the harsh Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), announces the all prisoners — regardless of rank — will have to build a railway bridge over the River Kwai, Shears manages to escape.  With the help of local villagers, Shears makes it to an Allied hospital.

It’s at the hospital that Shears has a two-scene romance with a nurse because the film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, was worried that the film was too male dominated.  It’s also at the hospital that Shears is informed that he will be returning to the POW camp, with a group of British commandos, on a mission to destroy the bridge.  When Shears explains that he’s not even an officer, British Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins) explains that’s why the Americans have agreed to let the British use Shears for their mission.

The film’s 2nd storyline deals with Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), the senior British officer at the POW camp.  When we first meet Nicholson, he’s in a battle of wills with Saito.  When Nicholson insists that no officer will work on the bridge, Saito first forces all of the British officers to spend an entire day standing in the heat.  When that doesn’t work, Saito has Nicholson locked in an iron box.  However, Nicholson refuses to back down and becomes a hero to the other prisoners.  Realizing that the bridge will never be finished on time and that he will be required to commit suicide because of his failure, Saito decides to take a different approach to dealing with Nicholson.

After releasing Nicholson from the iron box, Saito shows him the poor job that the British prisoners have been doing on the bridge.  Saito appeals to Nicholson’s vanity.

And it turns out that Col. Nicholson is a very vain man indeed.

Soon, Nicholson is ordering his men to do a good job on the bridge, announcing that they are going to show the Japanese what the British can accomplish.  Nicholson claims that the project will be a morale booster and that the bridge will be a permanent monument to British ingenuity.

This part of the film is an unexpectedly nuanced character study and Guinness gives a brilliant performance.  For the film’s first hour, Nicholson is our hero but then, just as suddenly, he reveals himself to be a far more complicated character and our feelings towards him become much more mixed.  We’re forced to reconsider everything that we previously felt towards him.  Was Nicholson standing up for his men because it was the right thing to do or was he doing it because he desired the camp’s adulation?  His motives are complicated and difficult to figure out and the implications are, at times, rather frightening.  About the only thing that can definitely be said about Nicholson is that he becomes so obsessed with showing what the British can do that he loses sight of what the Japanese are going to do with that bridge once it is complted. Nicholson’s short-sightedness become a metaphor for blind nationalism and war in general.

When these two storylines finally intersect, it leads to one of the most justifiably climaxes in cinema history, one that leads one of the film’s few surviving characters to exclaim, “The madness, the madness!”

As I mentioned earlier, The Bridge On The River Kwai won the Oscar for best picture and for once, not even I can disagree with the Academy.

Sci-Fi Film Review: Return of the Jedi (dir by Richard Marquand)


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As you’ve probably noticed, we’ve devoted this month to science fiction here at the Shattered Lens.  Gary Loggins reviewed THX-1138.  Valerie took a look at everything from The Star Wars Holiday Special to Turkish Star Wars to Return of the Ewok.  Ryan the Trashfilm Guru reviewed such Italian classics as Cosmos: War of Planets and War of the Robots.  Patrick Smith reviewed a terrifying Christmas movie about Santa. Myself, I’ve taken a look at such films as Contamination and 2019: After the Fall of New York.  

We’ve reviewed a lot of science fiction and we’ve got a lot more left to go.  (Keep an eye out for my reviews of Starcrash and The Humanoid over the upcoming few days.)  However, from the beginning, this month has always been centered around Star Wars.  You may have heard that there’s a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens and it’s opening this week.  Apparently, a few people are excited about it.  Since we love reviewing little known art films here at the Shattered Lens, we decided why not review all of the previous Star Wars films during the week leading up to the release of The Force Awakens?  Jeff (a.k.a. the blogger known as Jedadiah Leland) started us off by reviewing The Phantom Menace.  Then Alexandre Rothier took a look at Attack of the Clones, followed by Jeff’s look at Revenge of the Sith.  Leonard Wilson was the next to step up to the plate, reviewing both A New Hope and The Empire Strike Back.

And now, it’s my turn to add my thoughts to this project.  It’s time to review the 1983 film, Return of the Jedi.  And I have to admit that, when I first thought about what I wanted to say in this review, I was totally intimidated.  Unlike my fellow writers here at the Shattered Lens, I’m hardly an expert when it comes to Star Wars.  Don’t get me wrong — I know the basics.  I know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.  I know that Han Solo flies the Millennium Falcon and that Princess Leia is in love with him.  I know there’s an evil Empire and I know that there are rebels.  I’m not a virgin when it comes to Star Wars but, at the same time, I’m definitely not as experienced (with Star Wars) as most of my friends and fellow movie bloggers.

"Dang, Lisa, get over it!"

“Dang, Lisa, get over it!”

So, late this afternoon, when I sat down to watch Return of the Jedi, it was with more than a little trepidation.  My obvious panic and welling tears convinced Jeff to watch the movie with me and I was happy for that.  He loves Star Wars so I knew he could explain to me what was going on.

Finally, we watched Return of the Jedi and I discovered that I was panicking over nothing.  Return of the Jedi may be the third part of trilogy and I may not be an expert on the films that came before it.  But, even with all that in mind, Return of the Jedi is not a difficult film to figure out.  As opposed to the finales of Harry Potter, The Hobbit, and The Hunger Games, Return of the Jedi keeps things simple.  A good guy has been kidnapped by a bad guy.  The other good guys come to the rescue and then go to another planet so that they can fight an even bigger bad guy.  It’s not complicated.

As I watched Return of the Jedi and realized that I was having absolutely no problem following the film’s plot, I also realized that the Star Wars films are such a huge part of our culture that, regardless of how many of them we’ve actually sat through, everyone has absorbed them by osmosis.  Bits and pieces of it are everywhere, showing up in everything from TV sitcoms to political commentary.  (Remember how everyone used to compare Dick Cheney to Darth Vader?)  The Star Wars franchise is almost biblical in that respect.  At the same time, the fact that everyone knows about these movies makes them a little difficult to review.  You don’t so much watch a Star Wars film as you join in a universal experience.  As a reviewer, you definitely find yourself wondering what you can add to a conversation that everyone else has already had.

As a stand alone movie, Return of the Jedi is actually three separate films mixed together.  The first film deals with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) showing up at Jabba the Hutt’s palace and rescuing Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and two robots from being tossed into a creature called the Sarlacc, which is basically a giant vagina out in the middle of the desert.  The second film deals with the rebels teaming up with a bunch of teddy bears and fighting the Empire on a jungle planet.  And the third film features Luke and Darth Vader (body of David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones, face of either Sebastian Shaw and Hayden Christensen, depending on which version of the film you’re watching) dealing with their family issues while the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) cackles in the background.  Some parts of the film work better than others.  The end result is entertaining but definitely uneven.

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Jedi‘s heart belongs to that third film, the one dealing with Luke and Darth Vader.  I’ve read some pretty negative online comments about Mark Hamill’s performance in New Hope and Empire Strikes Back but, in Return of the Jedi, he brings an almost haunted intensity to the role of Luke.  In theory, it’s easy to be snarky about all the talk about the “Dark Side of the Force,” but, when you look in Hamill’s eyes, you totally understand what everyone’s going on about.  You see the fire and the anger but, even more importantly, you see the struggle between good and evil.  There’s a very poignant sadness to the scenes where he and his father prepare to meet the Emperor.

And speaking of the Emperor, he is pure nightmare fuel!  AGCK!

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As for the other two films to found within Return of the Jedi, the jungles of Endor didn’t do much for me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I thought the action scenes were handled well and, unlike apparently everyone else in the world, I was not annoyed by the inclusion of the Ewoks, the killer teddy bears who helped to the Rebels to take down the Empire.  I thought the Ewoks were cute and I actually got pretty upset when one of them was killed in battle.  If I had been alive when Return of the Jedi had been released, I probably would have wanted a stuffed Ewok and, I imagine, that was the main reason they were included in the film.  (I also imagine that’s the main reason why a lot of people can’t stand them.)

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So, no, the Ewoks did not bother me.  What did bother me was that under-construction Death Star floating out in the middle of space.  It bothered me because I really couldn’t imagine any reason why — after the first Death Star was apparently such a colossal failure — the Empire would insist on trying to do the exact same thing all over again.  This, along with the fact that they were rather easily defeated by a bunch of teddy bears, leads me to wonder whether the effectiveness of the Empire was just a little overrated.  I mean, the Emperor was scary but otherwise, everyone involved with the Empire was pretty incompetent.

Far more impressive, as far as villains go, was Jabba the Hut.  In fact, Jabba and his decadent entourage were so memorable and colorful and evil and icky that they pretty much overshadowed almost everything else in the film.  I mean, Jabba even had a blue elephant playing music for him!  And I know that I’m supposed to be critical of the film for putting Leia in that gold bikini but you know what?  Leia may have been forced to wear a gold bikini but she never gave up her dignity or her defiance.  And when it came time to take out Jabba, Leia used the tools of her oppression to do so, strangling him with his own chains.  In that one scene, Leia proved herself to be a true rebel.

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There’s a lot that’s good about Return of the Jedi but, as I said earlier, it’s definitely an uneven film.  Richard Marquand’s direction is perhaps the epitome of workmanlike.  It’s efficient and it’s dependable and there’s absolutely nothing surprising or particularly challenging about it.

It’s interesting to note that, before Richard Marquand was selected as director, the job was offered to both David Lynch and David Cronenberg, two directors who are all about surprising and challenging the audience.  What would David Lynch’s Return of the Jedi been like?  Well, here’s one possibility:

As for David Cronenberg’s Return of the Jedi, it might have looked something like this:

For better or worse, the world got Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi, which I imagine was pretty close to what George Lucas wanted the film to be.

As I sit here finishing up this review and wondering just why exactly I was so intimidated earlier (seriously, this turned out to be one the easiest reviews that I’ve ever written), I estimate that 75% of the people that I know are currently sitting in a theater and watching The Force Awakens.  Keep an eye out for Arleigh’s review in the next few days!

And in closing, here’s that blue elephant that I mentioned earlier.  Dance!

Maxrebo

Sci-Fi Review – Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (dir. by George Lucas)


 

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Before I start, a quick apology. This isn’t a great review by any means. One, I rushed it. Two, In writing about a film that everyone knows, I found I had problem figuring out exactly what to say. What you’re getting here is a stream of consciousness. The Empire Strikes Back review will be better.

In anticipation of The Force Awakens, the Shattered Lens are taking on the other films in the Star Wars Saga. It’s next to impossible for anyone to avoid seeing anything related to the new film as the fever grows and we reach the December 18th release date.

There are a few movies where I wish I could’ve been there during their theatrical release. How great would it be to see audiences squirm during Ridley Scott’s Alien, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws or William Friedkin’s The Exorcist? I was a little too young to see the original Star Wars when it premiered in May of 1977, but I can’t imagine it wasn’t amazing. I wouldn’t be familiar with the films until 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. That was the film I saw first. Then Star Wars on VHS and finally Return of the Jedi in the cinema when I was 9.

Still, I grew up knowing what Star Wars was before I could really read. Thanks to an older brother who was enthralled with the film at 7, there were Star Wars curtains in our room and Star Wars bedsheets/blankets. We had action figures and models to play with. Since LED’s in toys weren’t the norm, our lightsabers consisted of whiffle-bat plastic rods with cuts in them. Swing the sword a bit and you’d hear the “hum” of the blade. It was an awesome time.

Years later, when my little brother was born in the mid-1980’s, we kept him occupied with movies. Once he learned what Star Wars was, it was almost always the film he’d pick out to watch. I took him with me to catch all three of the Prequels during late night runs. We’d spend the wait with our own lightsabers, re-enacting Episode I fights or just talking about what we hoped we’d see. Earlier this year, during my last visit to my friends in Oregon, I was able to introduce a new generation to the magic of it all.

All of that is me, gushing over one of my favorite set of films. You have my sympathies.

So, how did a little sci-fi film in the late 70s manage to become such a pop culture beacon today? Was it the special effects, so ground breaking that we still use its techniques (such as the Green Screen)? Was it the sound design? The cast, perhaps, made up of a mix of relative unknowns and seasoned film veterans?

I’d argue that the film’s biggest success is the overall impact in the Motion Picture industry. Lucas and the production team were forced to make some innovations to get the vision they wanted. To that end, Industrial Light & Magic was created, and the effects studio pioneered special effects for years to come. Pixar wouldn’t have happened without Star Wars and ILM, since they were just a branch of the company that Lucas couldn’t quite find a use for, supposedly. The best comparison I can make for anyone unfamiliar with ILM is Weta Digital and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. You know when you watched those three films, you were seeing effects that everyone would want to use down the road. That’s just my view. The ties to classic myths were also strong, as Lucas was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s Hero Journey is basically the template used for A New Hope (and for The Matrix by the Wachowski’s, if you watch them side by side). Ben Burtt would go on to win a special award for Sound Effects in the film. His work would eventually end up being the backbone of Skywalker Sound.

From a casting standpoint, most of the principals were relative unknowns at the time. Lucas worked with Harrison Ford on American Graffiti some years before. Mark Hamill was brought on board after auditioning at the behest of his friend, Robert Englund (which I found out during writing this). Carrie Fisher loved the script and was also cast as Princess Leia. For some added weight, Lucas managed to cast both Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. I’m still not entirely certain of how he pulled that off.

Star Wars (or A New Hope as I’ll refer to it) takes place 30 years after the events of Revenge of the Sith. The Galactic Empire is in control over everything, the Jedi are no more. It’s a near complete victory, save for the fact that the plans for the Empire’s greatest weapon were stolen. When a Star Destroyer intercepts a Rebel Cruiser with Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) on board, she’s captured for interrogation. This is, of course, after she sneaks the plans for the Death Star in her trust R2 Unit, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). R2, along with his companion C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) manage to escape the Star Destroyer and land on the desert planet of Tatooine.

The Droids are discovered by Jawas and are then sold to Owen Lars, his wife Beru and their nephew, Luke Skywalker. Luke wants to join up with the Alliance and become a starfighter, but the family needs him on the farm. After stumbling on to the message the Princess hid in R2-D2, he looks for his old friend, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who turns out to be more than what he seems.

In order to get to the Princess, they need someone to get them there. This is where the coolest character in the entire series appears. For a price, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his buddy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) take Ben and Luke in their spaceship, the Millenium Falcon to search for her. They get captured by the Empire, practically stumble upon the princess and she rescues them by way of a garbage chute. They get the plans, escape the Death Star and collaborate on a rebel assault to destroy it before it can do more harm. That’s the bulk of it, though admittedly, I’m leaving a lot out. It’s a simple tale, but an effective one as well.

Overall, A New Hope is still the template for a lot of Sci-Fi films. Battles in space, a little bit of swashbuckling, and some humor here and there are all elements borrowed by many films and games since it was released. Some handle Sci-Fi better (Mass Effect, Dune) and others fail in comparison (Jupiter Ascending, anyone?), but most modern works pay some homage to Star Wars in a way.

Tomorrow, we take a look at The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best story in the Star Wars saga.