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Kenny Baker

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Return of the Force?

“‘We are so excited to finally share the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life, once again. We start shooting in a couple of weeks, and everyone is doing their best to make the fans proud.'”

The Star Wars Episode 7 cast is announced, and, give credit where due, this is pretty auspicious (although heavily male) bunch. Along with all of the original gang — minus Lando — and the previously-rumored Adam Driver, Episode VII also includes John Boyega (the break-out star of Attack the Block), Daisy Ridley (don’t know her), Oscar Isaac(!, a.k.a. King John/Llewyn Davis), Andy Serkis(!, mutant master of CGI), Domhnall Gleeson (increasingly ubiquitous son of Brendan, late of About Time and Anna Karenina), and the venerable Max Von Sydow(!!! Needs no introduction, and it is a rush in itself to see him get his place next to Cushing, Guinness, Jones, and Lee.)

With all the usual caveats — Into Darkness, lens flares, etc. etc. — that’s a damned exciting cast. (Ok, so was MacGregor, Neeson, Portman, Jackson, and Stamp fifteen years ago, but let’s not talk about that.) Now how ’bout getting Frances McDormand, Saiorse Ronan, Viola Davis or somesuch in for additional support?

Update: Could well be damage control, but late word is there’s more to come. “Several sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that director J.J. Abrams has another substantial role to fill — and it’s a female part. No further details are known.”

Render unto Vader.


Aside from cleaner ships, a shuttle sequence, a meaner Wampa, and a makeover of Cloud City, The Empire Strikes Back: The Special Edition remains relatively unchanged from its 1980 cut, when the film unwittingly helped to launch the Reagan era. When Americans who saw the team who ended 1977’s A New Hope beaming in triumph now scattered, desperate, and pursued by a much more menacing Empire, the national mood sagged. With Luke Skywalker crashing twice and Han Solo as conspicuously absent from the final scenes as the hostages in Iran were from U.S. soil, the Dark Side must have seemed so much quicker, easier, and more seductive at the polls that November. It may have been easy to write it off as Morning in America, but people knew deep down that it was a dark time for the Rebellion, indeed.

The Force is with you, young Skywalker…but you are not a Jedi yet.” Today marks the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, pretty easily my most formative film, and one of the main reasons I still love going to the movies every weekend. (Two of my earliest very-vivid memories are seeing the Empire costumes on display at Harrods before the opening — who is this Boba Fett character? — and later going to see Empire near Piccadilly Circus, with a big Vader billboard overhead.)

The quote above is from my 1997 review of the Special Edition re-release, and what I said then stands. For thirty years now as of today, I’ve been aspiring to be a Jedi, Zen-master, and/or scoundrel, in the stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerfherder sense. Eh, one out of three ain’t bad.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

Return of the Jedi.

Well, that was a happy surprise. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is by no means a perfect film. But, the reviews are right — this one’s miles above the other two prequels, and definitely can be considered in the same breath as Jedi. Sure, there’s a bad movie occasionally lingering in the shadows like a Sith, but for the most part this entry manages to capture some of that ole Star Wars feel, particularly in the opening rescue attempt and final hour. (And, unlike Menace and Clones, this one actually improves on a second viewing.)

So, what’s good? Well, while Ian McDiarmid gets in some choice scenery-chewing (particlarly once he goes Jedi) and Ewan McGregor steals the show with his canniest Alec Guinness impression yet, Hayden Christiansen is actually surprisingly decent this time around. The (mercifully brief) love scenes between he and a barely-used Natalie Portman are still stilted and sluggish, sure, but otherwise Christiansen acquits himself much better (It turns out the whiny-teenager schtick of Clones may have indeed been an acting choice.)

Whatsmore, barring a few hiccups here and there (Yoda really shouldn’t be used as Basil Exposition — It makes his syntax sound even more ridiculous), a lot of the “let’s take a meeting” scenes that so marred the first two prequels have a real dynamism to ’em in Sith. In fact, dare I say it, I actually found the court intrigue somewhat interesting this time — With Anakin caught between the machinations of Chancellor Palpatine and the distrust of the increasingly intransigent Jedi Order, there’re no tears shed over the taxation of trade routes or somesuch, and hardly a Jar Jar sighting to be had.

Our old embarrassment Mistah Binks may be sidelined this go around (as are a lot of the other random, useless characters of the first two prequels: I’m looking at you, Captain Typho), but Sith takes pleasure in harking back to old friends from the OT, among them an extended cameo by Chewbacca, a brief shot of Wayne “Scorpius” Pygram as Grand Moff Tarkin, and several scenes set in the Tantive IV. I was worried these types of nods would seem blatant and graceless, but for the most part they were handed quite well, and, indeed, turned out to be definite fanboy crowd-pleasers.

Yep, there’s a lot to like here…the opening shot, General Grievous, the Coruscant opera, all the amazing design flourishes by the ILM guys. In fact, even stuff that has no business working, like Ewan riding that goofy lizard all over Utapau, somehow ended up being kinda Tauntaun-like and un-prequel-ish.

But…that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. I’ve already mentioned the love scenes, and they’re pretty egregious. And at times, frankly, the film still just goes slack. Anakin and Obi-Wan’s final conversation before the Big Duel (the one that’s being quoted for its obvious Dubya references) should be a climactic moment in the saga, but it ends up seeming kinda stilted and poorly written. (“My allegiance is to the republic, and democracy…and, and cheese!”) Similarly the mano-a-mano between Yoda and the Emperor should seem one for the ages. But it’s never quite clear exactly why Yoda chooses to pull a Bishop-from-Aliens at the end, and lines like “Not if anything to say about it I have” just stop the film dead.

And, as a fanboy aside: While there are plenty of amazing and well-realized new worlds in Episode III, they all seem like they’re 30 seconds away from each other, with people popping back and forth between Coruscant and the Outer Rim in mid-sentence. What the heck happened to technology in the intervening two decades between III and IV? For some reason, Artoo loses tons of functionality, the Death Star takes 20 years to build, and the Millennium Falcon spends long stretches of time traveling in hyperspace, when back in the day Jedi apparently just snapped their fingers to get from place to place?

Also, why would Padme get kicked out of the Senate just for having a baby? And, for that matter, why is prenatal care so godawful in the Republic? Even notwithstanding the surprise-twins thing, that birthing robot with the scoop-hands looked like a torture droid.

But, obviously, these are nit-picks, and the fact that I’m picking nits rather than huge tumescent tumors from Sith is a mark of how much better this outing is than Clones. Ok, the end of the film drags just a bit, and the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel isn’t quite as viscerally exciting as the Maul melee of Menace, but for the most part I sat through Sith — both times! — with a big fanboy grin on my face. He definitely whiffed twice, but on his third swing, Lucas at least hit a triple here…it’s just too bad he didn’t recapture his mojo earlier. To paraphrase Palpatine, “Old fool. Only now, at the end, do you understand…

III-dom and Evildoers.

Ok, here’s a little more: Two new Episode III TV spots. As you’ve probably heard by now, surprisingly the early non-fanboy word on Sith has been pretty good.

New from Hasbro!!

Three new Episode III TV spots aimed at kids show up online. If you find yourself with high hopes for this final installment, these should help recalibrate your expectations to accord with the other two prequels.

Deep-Sithed?

Uh oh…I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Some new Episode III footage (that doesn’t involve massive spoilers) shows up on the Offical Site in the form of two new TV spots. I’ve been letting my hopes rise for this final installment, but the dialogue and delivery in the “Tragedy” one in particular brought back some of that Clones fear and loathing.

IIIrd times the charm?

Fool me once, I’m the fool. Fool me twice, I’m the fool who follows him. Still, I have to admit, this muddy, Peruvian Kramervision version of the new Episode III trailer — which officially premieres tonight on Fox during The O.C — looks pretty darn good. After the bunt that was A Phantom Menace and the travesty that was Attack of the Clones, there’s no reason to expect anything at all from Revenge of the Sith. But…I sense something, a presence I’ve not felt since… Update: Multiple mirrors here. Update 2: It’s now officially up here.

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