They’re low-brow popular entertainment, but in many ways the original Star Wars movies are about as good as motion pictures get. We can talk all we want to about cinema as fine art, but in a very primal way, we go to the movies to thrill at the beautiful and the exciting, cheer the hero, and escape into an alternate universe far more interesting than our own. Few movies have offered this escape with as much skill and imagination as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.
Now for the shocking part: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is right up there with those ancient classics. Much to so many people’s surprise, George Lucas has finally made a film worthy of the works that made him rich and famous.
You’ve probably already heard that this is the darkest Star Wars movie since Empire. It’s grim, scary, and suspenseful–no mean feat when everyone going into the theater already knows the story. (What? Anakin doesn’t turn into Darth Vader?) It’s also, as the story of a good man turning bad, reasonably character-driven. It shows the conditions, the character flaws, and the confusion that drives a human being over the line. And it does it all in a slam-bang, battle-filled, special effects-heavy action movie. As I said–no mean feat.
This is a prequel in the truest sense of that publicist-created word. It works because you know these characters’ destinies, and you understand the New Hope to come in the next generation.
If you’ve never seen a Star Wars movie, start with the original trilogy, then watch this one. But skip its immediate predecessors, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. They’re not worth watching–even their special effects are humdrum–and you can pretty much figure out everything you need to know without them. If you’re really concerned, just read the various plot summaries on imbd.com.
Sith‘s effects, on the other hand, are wonderful, and the best effect of all is a character we all know: Yoda. In the originals, he was a hand puppet, a fact that Lucas has bemoaned because of the limits puppetry placed on the character’s movements. But he was a terrific hand puppet, manipulated by one of the great puppeteers of our time, Frank Oz, and everyone except Lucas loved him. Now Yoda is computer-animated, and Oz just does the voice. The digital Yoda of episodes I and II lacked the personality of Frank Oz’s hand, but this time around, the animators nailed him. He’s the strongest, wisest, most powerful of the Jedi. The best moment in the movie has him wave his hand in annoyance and off-handedly drop two imperial guards.
There’s something odd about an action film where Samuel L. Jackson lacks personality, and the real bad-ass is a little green creature with the voice of Miss Piggy. But then, George Lucas was always better creating effects than handling actors, or writing dialog for them. If he had passed those jobs on to others, as he did in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, this would have been an even better movie.
Speaking of animation, this week the Pacific Film Archive launches its Studio Ghibli series. If you loved Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, now is your chance to see them on the big screen in the original Japanese (subtitled, of course), as well as catch other works by Japan’s most acclaimed anime studio.
And here are a few other movies that are, or may be, worth seeing:
Noteworthy: Tell Them Who You Are, Opera Plaza, one-week engagement opens Friday. I haven’t seen this documentary on the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, but it’s high on my list. Directed by his son, Mark Wexler.
Noteworthy: Complete Vigo: A Centennial Celebration, Rafael, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Jean Vigo was a promising young filmmaker when he died in 1934 at the age of 29. His four films, which include Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante, can be seen in one sitting. And here’s your chance.
Recommendation: A Night At the Opera, Film Night in the Park at the San Geronimo Cultural Center, Saturday night. The Marx Brothers’ MGM films aren’t as good as their Paramount comedies–more commercial in the 1930’s, they haven’t dated that well. But if you can sit through the dumb romantic plot and the insipid love songs, you’ll be rewarded with some of their greatest routines. This presentation is on DVD, so don’t expect a film-quality image.
Noteworthy: Green Screen Environmental Film Festival, Castro, Wednesday through next Sunday. No, this has nothing to do with special effects. The Castro is hosting a five-day environmental, mostly documentary festival which will include Never Cry Wolf, Werner Herzog’s latest, two works by Adam (Century of the Self) Curtis, and, believe it or not, a taped speech by Prince Charles.
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