Thursday, December 31, 2009
Here is my review of "AVATAR", James Cameron's long awaited new film:
Has it really been twelve (12) years since director/producer James Cameron had released his last movie? Twelve years? And yet, it is true. Twelve years have passed since the releases of the Academy Award winning movie, ”TITANIC” and Cameron’s latest epic, ”AVATAR”. And I must say that it was worth the wait.
Set in the year 2154, ”AVATAR” told the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former U.S. Marine, who arrived on the planet of Pandora to replace his murdered twin brother in a program that have created human-Na’vi hybrids called avatars, which are controlled by genetically matched human operators, due to humans’ inability to breathe the moon’s atmosphere. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the Avatar Program, considered him an inadequate replacement for his brother, relegating him to a bodyguard role. Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon of the planet Polyphemus, in the Alpha Centauri system, has been targeted by an Earth corporation administered by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) called RDA. It wants to mine Pandora for a valuable mineral called unobtanium. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a former Marine and leader of the Humans’ security forces, promised Jake his "real legs" back in exchange for intelligence about the natives and what it will take to make them abandon Hometree, which rests above a large deposit of unobtanium.
When Jake escorted Augustine and biologist Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) on an exploratory mission in their avatar forms, the group is attacked by a large predator, and Jake became separated and lost. Attempting to survive the night in Pandora’s dangerous jungles, he is rescued by Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a female Na'vi. Neytiri brings Jake back to Hometree, which is inhabited by Neytiri’s clan, the Omaticaya. Mo'at, (C. C. H. Pounder), the Na'vi shaman and Neytiri's mother, instructed her to teach him their ways. Within three months or so, Jake fell in love with Neytiri. Unfortunately, he found himself conflicted between his feelings for the female Na’vi and her clan, and his deal with Colonel Quaritch.
Judging by the reactions of many critics and filmgoers, James Cameron seemed to have created a very unique film. I would certainly agree with this opinion – especially in regard to the physical and visual world of Pandora. Quite frankly, I found it lush and strangely beautiful. I also have to commend Cameron for not only creating Pandora’s strange world, but also for guiding crew members like production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; the art direction team led by Todd Cherniawsky, Kevin Ishioka, and Kim Sinclair; cinematographer Mauro Fiore; the special effects team led by Dave Booth; and the visual effects team. Cameron took his work even further by hiring Dr. Paul Frommer of USC to create a Na'vi language and culture. Actors like Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña and C.C.H. Pounder had to learn the new language.
I did not have any real problems with the movie’s plot. Cameron did a solid job in writing a story that dealt with environmental issues, along with imperialism and biodiversity by consolidating them into a conflict between the nature-based (or primitive in certain circles) Na’vi and the Humans’ military-industrial complex represented by the RDA Corporation and its military force. Sounds familiar? It should. Cameron claimed that he was inspired from such movies as ”AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD” and ”THE EMERALD FOREST”, which feature clashes between cultures and civilizations. He also acknowledged his film’s connection to the 1990 Academy Award winning film, ”DANCES WITH WOLVES” in the storyline featuring Jake’s connection to the Na’vi. Personally, I found myself wondering if ”AVATAR” was simply ”DANCES WITH WOLVES” on another planet. Honestly. The two movies struck me as being that similar.
Some fans might accuse me of hinting that Cameron’s story lacked any originality. Well, they would be right. I am hinting exactly that. After all, this would not be the first time for the Canadian-born director. At least three of his most famous films, ”AVATAR” included, bore strong similarities to other fictional works. In an ARTICLE I had posted on my blog, I had pointed out the strong similarities between ”TITANIC” to the 1937 Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy film, ”MAYTIME”. And after his 1984 film, ”THE TERMINATOR” hit the theaters, a well-known science-fiction writer named Harlan Ellison pointed out that the movie bore a strong resemblance to two television episodes he had written. The writer ended up receiving ”acknowledgement to the works of” credit on video and cable releases of the movie, as well as a cash settlement of an undisclosed amount. And if the love story between Jake and Neytiri bore a strong resemblance with the one featured in the 1990 film (in that story, the female lead was a white woman raised by the Lakota), the movie’s score written by James Horner seemed to seal the deal for me. It bore a very strong resemblance to Native American music.
Another aspect of Cameron’s script that struck a similar note with me was its dialogue. Let me be frank. I found it just as cheesy and unoriginal as the dialogue found in ”TITANIC”. A good example could be found in Colonel Quaritch’s speech to the human newcomers to Pandora. When he uttered the phrase, ”You’re not in Kansas anymore”, I practically winced. The Wachowski Brothers used that phrase with a more memorable and original twist in their 1999 movie, ”THE MATRIX”. However, I must admit that ”AVATAR” did have one quote that I found particularly memorable. During one of his narratives about the Na’vi, Jake Scully said the following:
” Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”
Okay, it does not really seem like much in written form. But Sam Worthington’s interpretation of the line made it memorable for me.
One complaint lobbied against the movie was that it pandered to the cliché of the ”white man savior of the noble savage”. Frankly, I believe that the only grounds for this accusation centered around Jake rallying the Na’vi to fight against the Human assault against the Hometree. I figured that since he was responsible for giving Quaritch the means to launch the assault, I could let the scene slide. However, I failed to spot any further evidence to support this argument. After all, it was Neytiri’s father Eytucan, who allowed Jake to remain with the Na’vi. Neytiri's mother Mo'at ordered Neytiri to introduce him to Na’vi culture. Mo'at was also responsible for giving Jake a chance to redeem himself for his earlier betrayal. Another female - namely Trudy - was responsible for rescuing Jake, Grace and Norm from the RDA cell. And it certainly was NOT Jake who defeated the movie’s main villain, Colonel Quaritch, in the end. No one could ever mistake this film for the 1953 movie, ”HIS MAJESTY’S O’KEEFE”.
Speaking of Sam Worthington, he led the cast as the a paraplegic former U.S. Marine Jake Scully, who found himself drawn to Pandora and the Na’vi culture. Although I would not consider Jake to be one of his more complicated or complex characters, I thought that Worthington did an excellent job in conveying Jake’s conflict between the Humans’ agenda and his love for Neytiri and the Na’vi. He also managed to effectively project Jake’s array of emotions following the character’s arrival on Pandora, whether in Human form or connected to his Na’vi-Human form. And he also did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. Believe or not, not every actor or actress has a talent for verbal narration.
Zoë Saldaña was cast as Neytiri, the Na’vi huntress with whom Jake fell in love. Saldaña did not simply provide Neytiri’s voice. She also provided the character’s body language and facial expression via a process called motion/performance capture. This process has already been used in movies such as two of the latest ”STAR WARS” movies, the ”MUMMY” films, ”KING KONG” and the last two ”LORD OF THE RINGS” movies. I must admit that Saldaña did an excellent job in guiding Neytiri’s character from being slightly resentful and contemptuous toward Jake, to being a female in love and finally to the fierce and determined Na’vi warrior determined to protect her home. Frankly, she was my favorite character in the movie.
Sigourney Weaver found herself being directed by Cameron for the second time as Dr. Grace Augustine, a scientist and creator of the Avatar Program. Her Grace is a no-nonsense woman with a dislike toward Selfridge, Quaritch and the RDA Corporation. Her bluntness was tempered by a genuine desire to study the Na’vi and Pandora. Weaver did a solid job in portraying these aspects of Grace’s character. Stephen Lang could have easily portray Colonel Quaritch as a one-dimensional villain. In fact, he nearly drifted into such a portrayal on one or two occasions. But in the end, Lang managed to control himself and give a first-rate performance. He even infused a touch of homme fatale into his performance in scenes that featured Colonel Quaritch’s attempts to “seduce” Jake into providing information about the Na’vi and their Hometree. I found that aspect an interesting twist.
Many critics have dismissed Michelle Rodriguez’s performance as Marine pilot Trudy Chacon as another one of her many tough chick roles. From a superficial viewpoint, they might be right. But if I must be honest, I found that Neytiri seemed to fit that role a lot better than Trudy. There was something about Rodriguez’s role that struck me as different from her previous ones. Her Trudy seemed like a laid back type with a warm and cheeky sense of humor – completely different from the roles that the actress had portrayed on ”LOST” and ”THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS”. I consider this a good thing, for it told me that Rodriguez was quite capable of portraying more than one type of role. If I must be frank, I would not consider Parker Selfridge to be one of Giovanni Ribisi’s best roles. Mind you, the actor managed to keep himself from drifting into a purely hammy performance. But I found his portrayal of the RDA Corporation’s administrator as a walking cliché of corporate greed and rather unoriginal. The only other movies I have ever seen Laz Alonso in were ”JARHEAD” and last year’s ”THE MIRACLE OF ST. ANNA”. I found his role as Neyriti’s fiancé, Tsu'Tey, to be a different kettle of fish. His Tsu’Tey was an aggressive and slightly arrogant warrior with a deep distrust of Jake and the other Humans. Like Lang, Alonso could have easily allowed his character to drift into a one-dimensional performance. I have to give kudos to the actor for making Tsu’Tey somewhat sympathetic in the end. I suspect that deep down, the character truly loved and respected Neytiri, despite the political and cultural nature of their betrothal. I also enjoyed the way Alonso used the motion capture suit and body language to convey his character’s aggressive nature.
I have already commented upon the special and visual effects in ”AVATAR” that managed to blow everyone’s minds, including mine. However, I could have done without viewing the movie with 3-D glasses. I simply did not see how filming the movie with a 3-D camera was worth the effort. I found the 3-D effects found in the TERMINATOR 2: 3-D show at Universal Studios Hollywood more impressive. And since I already wear glasses, wearing an extra pair of 3-D glasses proved to be very annoying for me. And while we are on the subject of quibbles, I found Horner’s score and the theme song performed by Leona Lewis called ”I See You” not that impressive, either. In fact, I am surprised that the song managed to earn a Golden Globe Award nomination.
After reading most of this article, one might end up with the belief that I have mixed feelings about ”AVATAR”. Let me assure you that my views are not mixed. Yes, I have some quibbles with the story’s lack of originality and sometimes pedestrian dialogue. And I found the 3-D photography not worth the effort. But I still enjoyed the movie’s plot very much. It was a solid tale that centered on a theme I wholeheartedly support. The cast, led by Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldaña did an excellent job. As Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet did twelve years ago, Worthington and Saldaña managed to create a great screen team that proved to be the heart and soul of the film through their performances. And from a visual point-of-view, Cameron outdid himself in his creation of the world of Pandora.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Below is my ranking of the three "PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN" movies from my favorite to my least favorite. All three were directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. They starred Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Here they are:
FRANCHISE RANKING: The "PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN" Movies
1. "Dead Man's Chest" (2006) - That is correct. The second entry in this particular franchise that continued the story of Jack Sparrow,Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann is my favorite. Not only did it introduced the characters of Captain Davy Jones, Tia Dalma and Lord Cutler Beckett; it might be the darkest in the entire series and has one of the best movie endings I have ever clapped eyes upon.
2. "The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003) - This is the movie that spawned the franchise and considered the most popular with the fans. Although not my top favorite, I still love it. The movie introduced Captain Jack Sparrow and company as they deal with a cursed Aztec treasure and the ghostly crew of Jack's former ship.
3. "At World's End" (2007) - In this final entry in the franchise (so far), Will, Elizabeth and Hector Barbossa must lead a crew to Davy Jones' Locker and rescue Jack in order to deal with the threat of Lord Cutler Beckett and the East India Trading Company, along with a vengeful Captain Davy Jones.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Below is a gallery featuring photos from Guy Ritchie's movie about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous literary detective called "SHERLOCK HOLMES". The movie stars Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong:
"SHERLOCK HOLMES" (2009) Photo Gallery
Monday, December 28, 2009
"DEFENSE OF THE REALM"
RATING: PG-13 Mild violence and adult language.
SUMMARY: The Elder Council is threatened by enemies from within and beyond. Set after "Reflections II" - AU between S5 and S6.
FEEDBACK: - Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: The Charmed Ones, Leo Wyatt, Darryl Morris and Cole Turner belong to Constance Burge, Brad Kern and Spelling Productions. The McNeills, Marbus and Natalia Stepanova are thankfully, my creations.
"DEFENSE OF THE REALM"
The man glanced at his watch. It read eleven forty-eight. Which meant that a certain dealer should be in his hotel bedroom about now. Fast asleep. He took a deep breath, opened the side door to the Powell House Hotel and crept inside.
Using the employees' express elevator, the man made his way to the hotel's eighth floor. Before the door slid open, he pulled a stocking over his head, to disguise his feature. The man crept along the hotel's corridor, fearful of encountering another hotel guest or employee. He sighed in relief, upon reaching his destination without any confrontation.
He retrieved a card key he had made by a forger and slid it into the lock. A green lock signaled that the door to Room 805 was unlocked and he surreptiously opened the door.
The room was pitch dark. The man removed a small flashlight from his bag and turned it on. The light revealed doors that led to two bedrooms. According to his employer, Mr. Gregory Liederhoff of New York City should be in the bedroom on the right. The man headed toward the said bedroom and opened the door. As expected, Mr. Liederhoff laid his bed, fast asleep.
The man silently made his way to the corner of the east wall, and the room's safe. He removed an instrument and clamped it over the safe's door. After he punched a few buttons, the machine whirled slightly. The man glanced at Liederhoff, who remained fast asleep. A slight click signaled that the safe had been unlocked.
Slowly, the man opened the safe's door. He winced slightly at the sound of a small creak. As he reached inside for a wide black velvet case, a bright light flooded the room. The man blinked.
"Who are you?" Liederhoff demanded. He stared at the man with anxious eyes. "Oh my God! You're trying to take the . . ."
The man whipped out a gun with a muffler at the end of the barrel, and shot Liederhoff in the chest. Twice. The dealer's body fell back upon the bed with a thump.
Quickly, the man snatched the velvet case and opened it. The object in question was inside. He let out a small sigh and quickly closed the safe's door. As he raced back into the suite's living room, he saw a yellow light illuminate under the other door. Liederhoff's assistant. The man dumped the velvet case in his bag and quickly left the room.
Darryl parked his sedan next to a curb on Kearny Street and switched off the engine. He and his red-haired partner glanced at the shop to their right. The sign read 'Kostopulos's ANTIQUITIES'.
"Tell me why we're here again?" Olivia asked, as they climbed out of the car. "I thought we were supposed to investigate the Liederhoff murder."
Darryl sighed. "Because I'm bored. Or because the bullets found in Liederhoff's body matched with the bullets found in Stefan Kostopulos' body."
"Aren't Scott and Carlotta supposed to be pouring over the shop's inventory?"
Darryl did not bother to answer. Instead, a grunt left his mouth, as he and Olivia started toward the shop. The pair ducked under the yellow police tape that barred the front door and entered.
Olivia had to admit that she found the shop's interior intriguing. The atmosphere reminded her of Vivian Dubois' shop in New Orleans - a colorful place filled with interesting artifacts and antiquities situated in a slightly slap dash manner. It lacked that cold, museum-like aura that many antique and furniture shops seemed to possess these days.
"Man!" Darryl exclaimed. "What kind of stuff did this dude sell?" He picked up what looked like a jewelry box. But this particular box had strange markings curved on its sides.
Olivia immediately recognized the markings as Celtic Druid language. Furthermore, she knew what they meant. "Uh, if I were you, Darryl, I'd put down that box."
With a sigh, Olivia explained. "Because if you open it, you might find yourself transported into another dimension." Her partner immediately returned the box to the shelf.
"What is this place?" Darryl demanded. "Have you ever seen it before?"
Olivia shook her head. "Nope. I know of this shop in the Haight-Ashbury District. And Cecile's mom owns one similar to this in the French Quarter. But no, I've never been here, before."
"Hmmm." Darryl peered through a glass case that held a variety of knives and daggers. "I wonder if Cole knows about this place."
The moment Darryl mentioned her ex-boyfriend's name, Olivia stiffened. She had spent the past few days trying to put Cole behind her. "I don't know," she said, barely able to keep the chilliness out of her tone. "If he does, I'm sure that Phoebe also knows about it."
Silence filled the shop. The only noise came from Union Square, outside. Olivia could sense Darryl's eyes upon her. She tried to ignore him and concentrated her attention on a case filled with pendants and other jewelry. "What?" she finally said, unable to deal with her partner's silence.
"I wondered if you were ever going to mention Cole's name, again," Darryl replied.
Olivia retorted, "I didn't mention his name. You did."
Darryl sighed and tapped her shoulder. "Olivia, what happened?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . . what happened between you and Cole? How did he end up with Phoebe . . . again?"
Olivia regarded her partner with feign contempt. "Gee Darryl! Where have you been for the past week-and-a-half? It's simple. We broke up. I tried to kill him and he went back to Phoebe. End of story."
"C'mon McNeill! I know it wasn't that simple," Darryl shot back. "What really happened? Didn't Cole realize you had been under a spell?"
Sighing, Olivia replied, "Look, it's like this. Paul cast a 'I hate Cole and let's kill him' spell on me. I broke up with him. Phoebe had visions of what really happened between him and the Source. They reconciled. While under the spell, I dumped Cole and he turned to Phoebe for comfort. They decided to have a grand reconciliation. Hearts and all. But before Harry and Mom had broken the spell. I went to see Cole at his place. I found Phoebe there, and I found out about their reconciliation. I stood there like a dummy for a minute or two and wished them well. And then . . . I got the hell out!"
"Oh." Darryl paused. "I see. In other words, you simply gave up. Surrendered to Phoebe."
Olivia stared at Darryl, as if he had lost his mind. "What? What the hell was I supposed to do? Grab Cole's arm and claim him for . . .?" The sound of rattling trashcans interrupted Olivia. She and Darryl exchanged a brief glance, before they dashed toward the alley, out back.
There, they found a derelict, a shabbily-dressed woman whose face and clothes were stained with dirt. Matted brown hair had been twisted into a chignon. The woman was busy rummaging through a trashcan. She took one look at the two police officers, turned on her heels and tried to make a run for it. Unfortunately, both Olivia and Darryl proved to be faster.
"Hey! Police officers! Hold it!" Darryl grabbed the woman's arm. "We just want to talk to you."
Looking terrified, the woman struggled to escape Darryl's grip. "I didn't see nothing," she cried. "Honest!"
"See what?" Olivia gently asked.
The woman's large brown eyes blinked. "Uh . . . you two robbing the store?"
"Do we look dressed for committing a robbery?"
"Well . . . not like that last . . ." The woman broke off and clapped one grimy hand over her mouth.
Olivia's eyes narrowed. "Not like the last . . . what? Have you witnessed another robbery . . . what's your name?"
The woman gave a suspicious sniff. "Huh, what's yours?"
Pulling out her badge, Olivia declared, "Inspector McNeill of the San Francisco PD."
"And I'm Lieutenant Morris." Darryl released the woman's arm. "Now, who are you?"
The woman nervously tugged at her clothes. "Look, I didn't see. . ."
"What's your name?" Darryl insisted. "Of course, we can simply take you in."
"On what charge?"
Olivia took a step closer to the woman. "Loitering. And since you obviously don't have a dime to pay for a fine, I'm sure that you'll end up spending 'time' behind bars."
Another sniff from the woman followed. "So what? I could use a bed and a hot meal for the night."
"What makes you think you'll receive either?" Darryl said in a threatening tone.
The woman glared at the two police officers. "Hey! You just can't . . ." Her outrage quickly dissipated, under the partners' intimidating gazes. "Okay! All right," she said, with a defeated air. "My name is Grace Newhan."
Olivia suppressed a triumphant smile. "Do you hang around here a lot, Grace?"
"Well . . . yeah. Mr. Kostopulos always had a meal waiting for me around this time of the day. But ever since he was killed," Grace heaved a regretful sigh, "it's been hard finding something to eat."
Both Olivia and Darryl regarded the homeless woman with sympathetic eyes. "Well, Inspector McNeill and I wouldn't mind providing you with a free meal," Darryl said. "That is . . . if you can answer a few questions for us."
Olivia added, "Like did you see anything, when the shop was robbed nearly two weeks ago?"
Grace hesitated. Fear flickered in her brown eyes, followed by hunger. Her shoulders sagged. "Yeah. I saw the guy. The robber."
Darryl's eyes glimmered with excitement. "So, you saw him. Well that's good! That's . . . why don't you join us at the precinct and you can tell us the everything that you saw?" He indicated the shop's back door with a sweep of his arm.
Grace warily headed toward the door. Before Olivia and Darryl could follow her, the latter added in a sotto voice, "Remind me to ask Morales at the station's garage, to fumigate the car." Olivia merely smiled, as she followed her partner into the shop.
"Mathilda Everard, the Whitelighter Council has found you guilty of withholding valuable information from the Council. We have also found you guilty of taking action against Belthazor without our consent. Therefore, we decree that you will no longer serve as an Elder on said Council."
The Council's verdict echoed in the former Elder's mind like a bad song. After 321 years of serving as an Elder, Mathilda had been demoted to a whitelighter. A mere foot soldier for the Army of Good. A minion. She sighed. The humiliation seemed too much to bear.
After the Council had stripped Mathilda of her Elder robe and position, they assigned her to the Realm's extensive library - the scene of her past triumphs as a researcher and librarian. Only this time, she did not feel any satisfaction at being there. On the desk before her laid a parchment that traced the bloodline of a family of 14th and 15th century witches and warlocks named DeGrasse. Mathilda sighed. Until this day, she never realized how tedious research could be.
The newly demoted whitelighter glanced up. Before her stood one of her former followers - an Austrian-born whitelighter named Johann Bauer. "Johann," she commented politely. "What can I do for you?"
"I have learned that the other Elders had dismissed you from the Council," the brown-haired whitelighter said in a thick, Germanic accent. "How . . . why?"
A faint smirk formed on Mathilda's lips. "According to the Council, I had made a decision without their consent. And I had also withheld from them, my plans to vanquish Belthazor." The smirk became a grimace. "Of course, the real reason I have been punished is that my plan had failed. The hypocrites!" She sighed. "If the witch had succeeded in vanquishing Belthazor, the Council would have overlooked . . . my discretion. And I would have become the Head Elder." The reality of her failure deflated her anger. "But that is no longer possible."
"Is it?" the other whitelighter commented. Mathilda stared into his violet eyes. "What about your contingency plans?" he added.
Mathilda frowned. "My contingency plans? You mean . . . to replace the Council members? By force?" She shook her head. "I don't know."
"Fraulein Everard, the Whitelighters Realm is descending into chaos. The Council lacks the strength and intelligence to deal with it. Only a strong person with the mind and will . . ."
Still staring at Johann, Mathilda exclaimed, "Are you referring to me?"
Hope and faith shone in Johann's eyes. "Jawol, Fraulein. I am. I realize that this second plan may seem . . . aggressive. And that it could spell the end of your former colleagues' . . ."
Mathilda ignored the Austrian's platitudes. Instead, she continued to focus upon his arguments that the Realm needs a new leader to meet the threat of the growing chaos. And Belthazor. "You're right," she murmured, interrupting Johann.
The younger whitelighter's eyes widened. "Pardon?"
"You're right. About the Council needing a strong hand to guide the Realm. I cannot ignore that - despite my setback." Mathilda sprang out of her chair. "We'll do it. We'll use the contingency plan." She sighed with regret. "Granted, it might seem violent and excessive. But desperate measures are needed for desperate times." Her mouth formed a grim line.
A gust of breath escaped from Johann's lips. "Which members do we target?" he asked.
Mathilda glanced at him. "Draw up a list of the present Council members. All nine of them."
"Eight," Johann added. "You have not been replaced."
"All right. Eight." Mathilda nodded. "We'll see which member gets to witness the Whitelighters Realm's new age. And which one doesn't." Then without a moment's hesitation, she returned to her seat and continued with her assignment.
END OF Chapter 1
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Here is the second article on moral ambiguity found in the STAR WARS saga:
”The Moral Landscape of the STAR WARS Saga”
The Jedi Order – Part One
In the introduction, I had spoken of the majority of STAR WARS fans’ dislike of the saga’s Prequel Trilogy. Granted, this might be arrogant of me to make this suggestion, but I suspect that some of that dislike may have been centered on George Lucas’ ambiguous view of the major characters and their actions.
This dislike of the Prequel Trilogy’s ambiguity seemed very apparent in the fans’ view of the Jedi characters. Many of them complained that George Lucas had ruined the Jedi, making them more fallible and ambiguous than they had been portrayed in the Original Trilogy. Judging from their reaction, I found myself wondering if many of them simply referred the Jedi’s portrayal, as was shown in the first two Original Trilogy films. A good example of this came in the form of the aged Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi’s description of his old Order in ”A NEW HOPE”:
”For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice
in the Old Republic. Before the dark times, before the Empire.”
On one level, Obi-Wan’s description of the Jedi during the Old Republic had been correct. The Jedi Order followed a mandate in which its members acted as diplomats, investigators, bodyguards and eventually, military leaders for the citizens of the Republic. In reality, they followed the mandate established by the Republic’s governing body, the Galactic Senate. Obi-Wan went on to describe the Order’s destruction in a few words:
”A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.”
Judging from the words mentioned above and from what I have read from many blogs, articles and message boards, many fans ended up making the assumption that the Jedi Knights and Masters were ideal and selfless individuals who were barely capable of making any mistakes. When Lucas painted them as individuals with flaws that allowed Chancellor Palpatine to exploit in order to lead the Order to its destruction, many became angry and appalled. It seemed as if Lucas had destroyed their ideals. However, the last movie of the Original Trilogy - ”RETURN OF THE JEDI” - marked the first time that the Jedi were portrayed in a less than personable light. In this particular movie, soon-to-be Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker discovered that both Obi-Wan and Yoda had lied to him about his father being dead. So, it was not that surprising to me that Lucas had continued this path with his unflattering portrayal of the Jedi in the Prequel Trilogy. Personally, I found the Jedi a lot more interesting in the second trilogy. And I find it hard to believe that such ideal personalities actually exist – at least in real life. And in fiction, these ideal characters tend to strike me as boring and one-dimensional. Thanks to Lucas, the Jedi were presented as anything but one-dimensional.
Many fans have expressed the belief that if Anakin Skywalker had rigidly followed the Jedi Code, he could have avoided becoming a Sith Lord and instead, become the ideal Jedi Knight he was allegedly destined to become. I cannot say that I agree with this belief. I have my own ideas of the mistakes Anakin made that led him to become Darth Vader. But I will discuss that matter later in the article. Right now I want to focus on the views of the Jedi.
One of those views centered on how one should regard the Force – which is described as a binding, metaphysical and ubiquitous power in the Universe or perhaps beyond. In one of the first conversations between Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his padawan (or apprentice) Obi-Wan Kenobi in ”THE PHANTOM MENACE”, moviegoers learn that there seemed to be more than one viewpoint on how the Force should be regarded:
OBI-WAN : I have a bad feeling about this.
QUI-GON : I don't sense anything.
OBI-WAN : It's not about the mission, Master, it's
QUI-GON : Don't center on your anxiety, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration
here and now where it belongs.
OBI-WAN : Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future...
QUI-GON : .....but not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the
living Force, my young Padawan.
Obi-Wan, along with other Jedi like Master Yoda, seemed to believe in what is known as the Unifying Force - in other words, they focused on the flow of time as a whole, in which visions of the future were of particular significance. Qui-Gon, on the hand, was a firm supporting of what was known as the Living Force - which is viewed as “living in the moment” or relying heavily on instincts and concentrated more on sensitivity to living things, rather than fulfilling destiny, which was one of the main traits of the Unifying Force. There are STAR WARS who believe that by ignoring the Unifying Force philosophy, Qui-Gon failed to sense the danger that Anakin represented. Others believe that Yoda, Mace Windu and other Jedi Masters failed to prevent the Clone Wars that gave rise to the Galactic Empire, because they had ignored the Living Force philosophy and instead, lost themselves in looking toward the future rather than observing the occurrences unraveling in front of them before it was too late.
First of all, I do not believe that Qui-Gon had never ignored the Unifying Force. It was he who had sensed Anakin might be the Chosen One that would bring balance to the Force in the future. He was also the one who sensed there was something else behind the situation regarding Naboo’s troubles with the Trade Federation. And when Obi-Wan reminded him that Yoda believe that the Jedi should be mindful of the future, Qui-Gon reminded his padawan that one should not be mindful of the future ”at the expense of the moment”. And I agree. I see nothing wrong in anticipating what the future will bring, but not to the point where it would blind me from being aware of the present. I also believe that the Jedi Order’s blinding attachment to the Unifying Force philosophy and inability to be aware of the present may have contributed to not only their downfall, but also Anakin’s downfall. Many STAR WARS fans would disagree with me. Not all, mind you; but many.
I am not saying that the Jedi Order was responsible for Anakin’s downfall. I believe that Anakin bears most of the responsibilities, due to the choices he had made in his life. But I believe that the Jedi did not help matters, considering how they trained their acolytes. One of the problems I had with the Jedi was their method in dealing with attachments. Their order had a rule against any of their members forming emotional attachments. They believed that such attachments can be destructive. Anakin’s murder of the Tusken Raiders in retaliation of his mother’s death in ”ATTACK OF THE CLONES”; and his decision to help Palpatine massacre the inhabitants of the Jedi Temple in ”REVENGE OF THE SITH” seemed to ably support the Jedi’s belief. However, I believe that the Jedi were not completely right.
Yes, I believe that emotional attachments can be destructive, as shown in ”ATTACK OF THE CLONES” and ”REVENGE OF THE SITH”. But they can also have positive effects, as shown in ”RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Many fans have criticized Lucas for failing to make a clear statement on the effects of love and emotional attachments. They claimed that Anakin’s downfall in the Prequel Trilogy contradicted Lucas’ message in the Original Trilogy about the positive effects of love and attachments. I believe that they had failed to take into account that there are no clear answers on how emotional attachments can affect someone. It all depends upon the situation or the moment. The problem with the Jedi was that they were either too stupid or too blind to consider that when it comes to forming or letting go of attachments, it all depended upon the moment. Instead, they adhered to a more narrow view on the subject. They believed that all attachments had a negative effect upon an individual and to become a Jedi disciple, one must let go of all attachments. Unfortunately, the Jedi never knew how to let go of attachments – correctly - or even know when was the right time to let go of attachments. In other words, they never taught their disciples and initiates on how to let go. Instead, they enforced this belief through a rule.
Some fans have claimed that Anakin’s late entry into the Jedi Order at the age of nine, instead of as a toddler, made it difficult for him to let go of his attachments. I disagree. I do not believe that age had anything to do with Anakin's inability to let go of attachments. I believe that no one in the Jedi Order had ever really taught him how to deal with emotional attachments. Why? Because I believe that many Jedi Knights and Masters had never really learned how to deal with their own emotional attachments. I also believe that Jedi failed to consider that everyone is bound to form some kind of attachment in life. Including Jedi Masters, Knights and padawans. After all, most of them had been with the Order since they were toddlers. It was only natural that they would consider the Temple as their own and end up forming attachments to the Order and their fellow disciples. In order for them to learn to let go of attachments, I believe they needed to acknowledge that they had attachments in the first place. Even within the Jedi Order. And considering the circumstances between Luke, Vader/Anakin and Palpatine in ”RETURN OF THE JEDI”, I believe that the Jedi failed to acknowledge one other lesson. No one can simply let go of an attachment at the drop of a hat. There is a time when one must learn to let go . . . . and not to let go of an attachment. This is one lesson that the entire Jedi Order – Anakin Skywalker included – had failed to learn.
At this moment, I decided to stop the article before it becomes in danger of rambling on. I realize that I had more to say about the Jedi Order than I had originally intended. In the next article; I hope to go into more detail about the Jedi Order, and especially the actions - questionable or otherwise of some of its members.
The three versions of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel seemed to have become a legend in Hollywood circles during the past decade. Many filmgoers are familiar with John Huston’s 1941 adaptation that starred Humphrey Bogart. However in recent years, these same movie fans have become familiar with previous adaptations of the novel. In 1936, William Dieterle directed a comic version starring Warren Williams and Bette Davis called ”SATAN MET A LADY”. And Roy Del Ruth directed the original adaptation in 1931, which starred Ricardo Cortez. It is this particular film I will be discussing.
”THE MALTESE FALCON” (1931) Review
I have a confession to make. I have never read the novel, ”The Maltese Falcon”. The only Hammett novel I have ever read was ”The Thin Man”, published in 1934. Because of this, I would not be able to compare the novel to Del Ruth’s film adaptation. But I can discuss the movie. In a nutshell, ”THE MALTESE FALCON” told the story about a San Francisco private detective named Sam Spade, who finds himself drawn into a search for a valuable falcon statuette first created during the Crusades, while investigating three murders.
The story began with a Miss Ruth Wonderly hired Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, to find her missing sister and a man named Floyd Thursby. When Thursby and Archer end up murdered, Spade discovered that Miss Wonderly is one of three people searching for a statuette called the Maltese Falcon. A mortally wounded ship’s captain delivered the statuette to Spade’s office before dropping dead, making him the case’s third murder victim. The entire case spiraled into a game of cat-and-mouse between Spade, Miss Wonderly, a wealthy fat Englishman named Caspar Gutman and an effeminate continental European named Dr. Joel Cairo. Spade also had to deal with the police, who are determined to pin the three deaths on him.
So, what did I think of this version of ”THE MALTESE FALCON”? In the end, it turned out better than I had expected. However, the movie is not without its faults. There were times when I felt I was watching a filmed play (very common with early talking movies). But the film’s main problem seemed to be its pacing. It seemed too slow for what was supposed to be a witty murder mystery. Especially during the film’s first half hour. By the time Joel Cairo was introduced into the story, the pacing finally began to pick up. The dialogue provided by screenwriters Maude Fulton, Brown Holmes and an unaccredited Lucien Hubbard failed to improve over the course of the movie. Not only did the screenplay allow the dialogue to drag throughout the entire film, the latter was not that memorable. I did recognize a few lines from the 1941 film (which probably came from the novel), but nothing more. Also, I found the scene that featured Spade’s visit to an imprisoned Ruth Wonderly rather irrelevant. Spade’s reluctance to turn her over to the police should have conveyed his feelings for her toward the audience. The prison visit featured in the movie’s final scene simply struck me as unnecessary.
But ”THE MALTESE FALCON” still struck me as a pretty damn good film. Considering that it had been released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code Period (1929-34), it is not surprising that this version is considered the sexiest of the three movies. Del Ruth, along with Fulton, Holmes and Hubbard, did an excellent job of conveying the womanizing aspect of Spade’s character by revealing his affairs with Archer’s wife Iva, his casual flirtation with his secretary Effie, and visual hints of his relationship with Ruth Wonderly – like a small indent in the pillow next to the client’s head, which hinted that Spade had spent the night with her. Other signs of Pre-Code sexuality included Spade bidding a female client good-bye at the beginning of the movie, a nude Miss Wonderly in a bathtub, an off-screen striptease eventually revealed with a bare-shouldered Miss Wonderly, and a hint of a homosexual relationship between Caspar Gutman and his young enforcer Wilmer Cook.
Fulton, Holmes and Hubbard did a solid job of adapting Hammett’s novel for the screen by maintaining most of the original story. As I had pointed out earlier, the film’s dialogue did not strike me as memorable. It lacked the sharp wit of the 1941 adaptation. And it included an unnecessary scene from the novel – Spade’s visit to an imprisoned Ruth Wonderly – that could have easily been deleted. But the screenplay managed to hold its own. And considering that I have never read the novel, the screenplay did allow me to completely understand the story in full detail for the first time, without leaving me in a slight haze of fog. I found nothing memorable about William Rees’ photography or Robert M. Haas’ art direction . . . except in one scene. The scene in question featured an exterior setting, namely a street in San Francisco’s Chinatown where Miles Archer’s body was discovered. I suspect that this particular scene gave both Rees and Haas an opportunity to display their artistry beyond the movie’s usual interior settings.
”THE MALTESE FALCON” also featured a surprisingly solid cast. In fact, I would say that it turned out to be better than I had expected. Ricardo Cortez, a New York-born Jewish actor with a Latin name, led the cast as detective Sam Spade. Cortez got his start in silent films and had grown to leading man status by the time he shot this film. By the late 1930s, he ended up in supporting roles as a character actor and later ended his acting career to become a successful stockbroker on Wall Street. I thought that Cortez gave a very sexy interpretation of Spade in his performance. Mind you, his constant smirks and grins in the film’s first ten to fifteen minutes seemed annoying. But in the end, Cortez grew on me. I can honestly say that not only did I find him very effective in portraying a sexy Sam Spade, he also managed to superbly capture the character’s cynical humor, toughness and deep contempt toward the police.
Bebe Daniels, another survivor from the silent era, portrayed the movie’s femme fatale, Ruth Wonderly. She first became a star (following a stint as a child actor before World War I) during the 1920s. Her role in ”THE MALTESE FALCON” has been considered as one of her best. And it is easy to see why. She managed to give an excellent performance as the ladylike, yet manipulative Ruth Wonderly, who drew Spade into the labyrinth search for the Maltese Falcon. Mind you, she lacked Mary Astor’s throbbing voice and nervous manner. But that is merely a minor hitch. Daniels still managed to portray a very convincing elegant temptress.
Irish-born Dudley Digges portrayed the wealthy and obsessive Caspar Gutman, who is not above murder, bribery and a score of other crimes to acquire the falcon statuette. Although not as rotund as Sydney Greenstreet, Digges seemed plump enough to be regarded as Gutman’s nickname, ’the Fatman”. However, Digges’ Gutman seemed a bit too obsequious in his performance. He lacked the style to believably portray a man wealthy enough to conduct a twenty-year search for a valuable artifact. Instead, Digges reminded me of a corrupt minor official at a British post in the tropics. He seemed to lack talent and subtlety for infusing menace into his character. Whenever he tried to menacing, he only ended up giving a hammy performance. On the other hand, Otto Matieson gave a more believable performance as Dr. Joel Cairo, Gutman’s Continental accomplice. Despite Effie’s description of him as an effeminate, Matieson portrayed Cairo as a no-nonsense and practical man who is careful with his money and with whom to trust. Whatever effeminate qualities his character possessed, Matieson kept it to a minimum.
Una Merkel gave a humorous performance as Spade’s Girl Friday, Effie. Her Effie is not hesitant about expressing her attraction to Spade, yet at the same time, she seemed to find the detective’s other amorous activities rather amusing. Perhaps Merkel was amused at Thelma Todd’s performance as Archer’s widow and Spade’s mistress Ivy Archer. I found the future comedy star’s portrayal as the amorous and spiteful Ivy rather theatrical and false. It could have been her slightly hammy acting . . . or the fake clipped tone she used when pronouncing her words. All I do know that is that Todd seemed to be trying too hard as a scorned lover without any subtlety. At least Dwight Frye fared better as Gutman’s young enforcer, Wilmer Cook. Frye barely had any lines in the film, thank goodness. I have seen him in other films and his performance seemed to come off as hammy. But in ”THE MALTESE FALCON”, I thought he did a solid job in conveying the portrait of a baby-faced killer.
It is a shame that John Huston’s 1941 movie has overshadowed this version of Hammett’s novel. Mind you, Roy Del Ruth’s version is not perfect. The movie’s pacing in the first 15 to 20 minutes struck me as rather slow. But if I must be honest, I can say the same about the 1941 film. I was not impressed by Dudley Digges and Thelma Todd’s performances. And this Pre-Code movie seemed to lack any memorable dialogue or mysterious atmosphere. But it had a sly sexuality that seemed to be missing in both the 1936 and 1941 versions. Also, the rest of the cast gave excellent performances – especially Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. And ironically, this version of ”THE MALTESE FALCON” made me clearly understand the story’s plot in clear detail for the very first time. I believe that it deserves to be considered more than just a footnote in movie history.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Below are galleries featuring photos and screenshots from the 1953 Western drama called "ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO". Directed by John Sturges, the movie starred William Holden, Eleanor Parker and John Forsythe:
"ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO" (1953) Photo and Screenshot Gallery