Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – Carbonite Unclogs the Pores

Empire posterThe Empire Strikes Back is a movie near and dear to my heart. Growing up, I owned it on VHS (and still do) and watched it constantly, which is to say that I have no idea how many times I’ve actually seen it. It was that good to 8-year-old me, and thankfully, Empire remains a great experience some thirty-five years after its release.

Directly following the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, Empire opens with the rebels on the run from Darth Vader and his Imperial forces. Fighting with the rebels is Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who uses their defeat as an opportunity to search out an old Jedi master, Yoda, on the suggestion of the Force-spirit version of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Having sacrificed himself for Luke’s benefit during A New Hope, Obi-Wan’s new form allows him to communicate with Luke from beyond the grave and give advice perhaps in a way that would be more persuasive than if it were offered while he was still alive. Luke takes that advice, which allows his journey alongside the Force to really begin.

Everything about Yoda, from his demeanor to the way he moves, is magical to watch. I’m reminded of other, equally great fantasy films that utilized puppetry and animatronics, such as Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. Just like the puppets in those films, Yoda doesn’t feel out of place or not capable of interacting with real actors. On top of that, his scenes are shot and edited so well that even if the puppet itself was kind of crappy, I doubt it would show through in the final product. As for the character, I hardly see a resemblance between the Yoda depicted in Empire and the head of the Jedi Council in the prequels. One is a walking dunce cap, while the other exudes wisdom and strength with every thought and action. I’ll let you guess which is which. And let’s not discount the way Yoda initiates contact with Luke by purposefully annoying the piss out of him and eating his dinner. While funny on its own, the main purpose of his deception is to test what he already highly suspects of Luke—he isn’t overly fond of being patient. Teaching basic, important lessons such as this before any training has actually started demonstrates this is a being who clearly takes no shit from anyone, which might have been born out of remembering for nineteen years how badly he screwed up in the Clone Wars. No, I will never let him live that one down. Do, or do not. There is no try.

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Harrison Ford (Han Solo)

While Luke is busy cutting his own head off in a cave, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca, and Princess Leia (Carry Fisher) barely escape the Hoth system with their lives. They make their way to the Cloud City, where Han supposedly has an old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy dee Williams), waiting to help them repair their ship. Long story short, once they get there, they’re almost immediately screwed over, and Vader ends up baiting Luke into coming to the city by torturing Han. Vader knows Luke can feel the disturbance in the Force, and sure enough, Luke heads right on over for what Vader hopes will be a nice carbonite shower.


The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet.


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Yoda (Frank Oz), Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

Instead, of course, we’re treated to one of the best duels in cinematic history. You can quote me or curse me on that; I don’t mind either way. I’ve heard people say they much prefer the newer, flashier, and longer duels in the prequels, but for me, it doesn’t get any better than the slow, methodical, hate-filled display of Luke and Vader’s first meeting. It feels way more like two people actually jousting, though I’m aware of the fact Jedis and Sith have superhuman abilities. In a live-action setting, I guess I just don’t feel the need to see them constantly use their powers on that scale. The volcano fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith is a great example of overkill, as it looks totally ridiculous and takes like an hour to get it over with. In contrast, the Luke/Vader duel only takes a few minutes and doesn’t rely on terrible effects that resemble a late-’90s video game cutscene. Overall, the duel in Empire Strikes Back manages to pack an emotional punch not present in the volcano duel or in the prequel movies in general. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be that I could watch father and son clash lightsabers indefinitely and be absolutely content.

Empire E fightI’m sure more enterprising fans could tell you what’s wrong with this movie, but if I’m being honest, it’s perfect in my eyes. Is it technically perfect? Of course not, but I can’t think of anything that detracts from my experience. That mileage will vary, but I can say at the very least that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the two trilogies. Just like A New Hope, Empire finds a good balance between humor, drama, and action and is elevated further by Luke and Vader’s destinies coming closer together.

As far as I can tell, destiny is a malleable thing in the Star Wars universe, and I usually prefer a little surprise over knowing evil is evil is evil, and good is good is good, end of story. Empire allows doubt to remain as to whether or not Luke will eventually turn to the dark side, even though he politely declines to join Vader. The only thing I can say for certain is that The Empire Strikes Back deserves every bit of praise it’s been given over the years, and if anything, it’s only grown in stature.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

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MovefiedNYC Review: The Erotic Appeal of the Nightcrawler

We need to sit down and have a serious chat about Mr. Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. Whatever director Dan Gilroy did to him, he needs to do it again—whatever stroke of genius made him cast a typically macho, gorgeous and rippled man as a chronic, psychotic and monstrous sadist hell-bent on success, money and power at any cost needs to be done again and again. This film is perhaps the most remarkable character study I have ever seen. For those out of the loop, Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a thief looking to develop a set of legitimate skills in the hopes of wrangling some type of lucrative career. After witnessing a rather gruesome accident Bloom then watches as a man (played by Bill Paxton) shows up to the scene, films it, and makes quite the pretty penny by then selling that footage, of someone else’s awful tragedy, to the major news networks. Lacking empathy or any willingness to acknowledge the sheer immorality of what he has just witnessed, Bloom sees an opportunity to cash in—and cash in big. His newfound knowledge merges with his dubious morals and thirst for recognition, setting him on a path of absolute manipulation.
 Nightcrawleris a remarkable study of the terrors of capitalism on a fragmented self, and the lines between Bloom and the frame of his camera blur as he aims for more intense and graphic circumstances. Bloom appears to be without conscience, coldly standing over dying or dead bodies, often before the police arrive on scene and rather than help them, he voyeuristically and almost erotically watches them through his video camera—unmoved by their cries for help. It is a remarkable ode to Rear Window, whether the director knows it or not, and shows how we are becoming desensitized to human suffering and more focused on the pursuit of power. And it’s brilliantly and subtly done because Bloom is so far away from any human or social normality that you don’t immediately identify with him – you just walk away from the theatre feeling a little unsettled.
Much of this success lies in how Gilroy doesn’t place too much sentimentality on the awful things Lou Bloom does; we don’t get to pause and be touched by his sadism. He cuts away just before a murder takes place, or alludes to recent or on going sexual crimes, but we never see them. In doing so Gilroy desensitizes us to that violence, and it slowly becomes a nothing of the film—not even a point of interest. He doesn’t cop out on gory scenes to scare you, or scar you, but rather lets subtle one-liners do that for him—and it is so effective. When Bloom is sitting in a Mexican restaurant with his beautiful News Director (Rene Russo), having forced her out on a date, he begins to sexually blackmail her for his footage. While it is understood that a number of abusive encounters take place after this moment, we are never shown them. Gilroy is suggesting that terrors like this happen behind closed doors, and in the real world we often don’t see the act, only the consequence. Bloom’s character is such a consequence. This woman slowly becomes aroused by his proximity to the gore of moonlit accidents and murders, and ultimately finds his abuse of her attractive because he is just that powerful in his taped pursuits.
What is so brilliant in Nightcrawler is that Gilroy has constructed a completely evil and terrifying character based on absolutely no explanation nor motivation; he is never shown as abused, hurt, mocked, damaged, or scarred—he simply is. Much like the original Halloween, the film is saying that this kind of evil just exists in the world, and now it carries a spine-tingling smile permanently plastered on it’s face. The best thing about this character is that Bloom never breaks—he never has an easy “Oscar moment” where he cries, or says his Daddy used to hurt him and that he only wants to be loved—not once. He is never humanized nor justified. He bears the focus of a high-functioning coke addict and appears to have complete control over his temperament. But just below the surface, something seems waiting to explode—it never does. This morally corrupt and repulsive human, hidden behind Gyllenhaal’s bright blue eyes, is everyone’s worst nightmare. It also doesn’t hurt that despite his dramatic weight loss, Gyllenhaal is still ridiculously handsome.
I thought this film might perhaps be an easy Oscar cop-out for Gyllenhaal, but my God he deserves one after this performance. There is no romantic way to spin this: see this f****** film.

—Lottie Abrahams


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MoviefiedNYC Review: The Curious Case of Birdman

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman
Let me make something perfectly clear: Birdman is totally worth seeing. It is bizarre, beautiful, and mind-blowing. It is without a doubt a fantastic film, striking a strange balance between the supernatural and the mundane. Michael Keaton is in the role he was born to play as a washed up actor famous for playing a superhero, and Ed Norton plays an art-house terrorist hell bent on destroying his sense of self-worth–both are absolutely stellar. However, and it’s a big however, something is wrong in watching the film. It hits all the right spots, yet doesn’t leave you breathless like you know it should. Right from the pretentious credit sequence, you notice that something’s up.

I saw Ed Norton speak about Birdman the day before I was due to see it at New York Film Festival with its cast, and he said “film schools will be talking about and dissecting this film for years to come”, and he is absolutely right. The entire film is one take, or rather, it is the illusion of one take. Without a single cut the film covers the rehearsal period and opening night of the production, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that Keaton’s character is attempting to put on. If you look very closely, you can perhaps see where the camera lines up between each scene, but even so the film is largely seamless. You have to give him props for trying something so original and never-before-seen in one hundred years of cinematic history. The score is equally unrelenting: a non-stop, eccentric, jazzy drum beat, which maximizes the film’s almost clausterphobic backstage setting, creating an immersive and slightly stressful tone—which definitely works

Despite the psychological depth in the unconventional cinematic techniques of the film, the plot itself is chronological and completely comprehendible. You might let out a “huh?!”or a “what!” every now and then but never a “why am I here?”. The protagonist’s descent into madness runs through the DNA of the film–in every transition, angle, and close-up. And in here lies the essence of the movie: that with fame and success comes a series of breakdowns and crippling insecurities that shatter the Hollywood image we have come to love. It shows us a world beyond the movies and the cameras and the lights—or rather behind the curtain—where the actors are ripped from their pedestals and held to public ridicule. Inevitably it all falls apart, and they are stuck with the same problems we all have. Not to sound like a frat-boy, but the word ‘meta’ springs to mind.

Yet there is something that still doesn’t quite add up for Birdman. While it has everything a moviegoer like myself could wish for–spellbinding performances, intense, psychological filmmaking, innovative story–it still doesn’t quite leave you speechless. Perhaps it’s the elements of realism in the film, where the problems of marital breakdown, drug addiction, terror of being considered obsolete are all lain out with absolute honesty that it is sometimes hard to watch. [SPOILER ALERT] Or maybe it is the ending. With so much building to the final performance, it seems a shame when the director breaks his pattern and has his first cut in the film. This is where the problem lies: we are shown a world so close to ours, and therefore so capable of touching us in our very souls that once it is suddenly all mended and Keaton can literally fly away in the end we are left deflated and unsatisfied. This is not what we signed up for–not what we connected to for an hour and a half. It’s too easy, and too Hollywood. So while Iñárritu might have changed the game, he certainly leaves the player unchanged.

–Lottie Abrahams


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Reaction-Shot Review: The Last Stand

I’m a little confused as to why The Last Stand came in tenth at the box office last weekend, making only a little over $7 million. When I first saw the January 18th release date, my brain instantly said, “New Arnold. I will be there.” No ifs, ands or buts. After all, it’s the first Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in a decade. For me, that is the definition of a must-see movie.

So, why did barely anyone (keeping in mind that ‘barely anyone’ equals $7 million dollars in revenue) see it opening weekend? Is it because Arnold is too old to draw a crowd? That doesn’t seem likely, given that Liam Neeson is only five years younger than he is and Taken 2 grossed almost $400 million worldwide. That’s a ridiculous number for such a bad movie; when you consider that The Expendables 2 made $300 million, it seems to say the problem isn’t Arnold’s age. Most people don’t pay much attention to directors, so it can’t be due to the fact that The Last Stand is helmed by Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon. Are people just finding it hard to take him seriously after watching him play politics these past several years? Maybe so.

Whatever the reason, it’s a damn shame. While it’s nowhere near Arnold’s best, it’s a solid action flick that is worth the price of admission. Here’s why:

For starters, Kim Jee-woon has a great sense of style, and a lot of that makes the transition to his first American effort intact. It’s not as brutal or crazy as his last movie, I Saw the Devil, but The Last Stand has its moments: blood sprays in beautiful mists whenever anyone is shot, and at one point, Arnold literally rips a guy in half with a minigun while hanging out of the back of a school bus. It takes a while for the movie to build up to scenes like those, but once it does, they are glorious to behold.

The plot–as ridiculous as it is–is perfect for Arnold’s comeback: an escaped drug lord (Eduardo Noriega) hauls ass in a supercar at 300mph to the Mexican border, with only Sheriff Arnold between him and his freedom. The FBI agents chasing the supercar (Forest Whitaker among them) feel like they’re in a different movie: the action cuts back and forth between Arnold’s Podunk town and the coordinated effort by Whitaker and his men to apprehend the drug kingpin, with almost no interaction between the two until the movie’s almost over. The two elements don’t mesh as well as I’d like, but it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching Arnold tackle a man off of a roof. And nor should it.

Peter Stormare, a man whom I can never find fault with, plays the drug lord’s right hand man–he’s the one who has to deal directly with Arnold and his deputies as they screw up his plan to build a bridge for the supercar to cross into Mexico. It’s nigh-impossible for Stormare to play a normal person, but that always works to his advantage somehow: I can never get enough of his bizarre quirks and accent. It’s almost as if he’s from a different planet; one far more awesome than the one we’re on right now.

Unfortunately,  there are moments when it feels like everyone isn’t quite on the same page as far as how a scene is supposed to play out, which may have something to do with the fact that Kim Jee-woon doesn’t speak a lick of English. Though Kim tried to overcome the language barrier on-set by simply acting out what he wanted people to do, there are still problems with the final product. Most of the oddities occur in the dialogue between Arnold and his deputies (Luis Guzman, Zach Gilford, and Jaimie Alexander), but let’s be honest: nobody expects a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger to be a stirring character study. (If that’s what you’re looking for, then I’d recommend Last Action Hero: he quotes Hamlet and throws a guy through a stained-glass window.)

Arnold himself is as you’d expect him: spouting a few one liners, telling people to get ready to kick ass, then kicking a lot of ass himself. He may have a few more wrinkle lines now, but he’s still a beast of a man, and he hasn’t lost that special charisma which has allowed his career to span three-plus decades. If you’re not a fan of his already, The Last Stand will probably not change that. If, however, you’ve been waiting for him to throw in the gubernatorial towel in favor of mopping the floor with some bad guys, you’ll leave wholly satisfied.

On the Arnold Meter of “Crushing-your-Enemies-and-Seeing-them-Driven-Before-You,” I’d place The Last Stand somewhere between Red Heat and Eraser. It may not be his best movie, but it’s well worth your time. Go support this one before it’s gone.
– George Bell


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