Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Continuing to make my way through the Star Wars Saga, I've posted my latest review on my Review Blog. Enjoy!

Facing insurmountable expectations, it's no surprise that The Phantom Menace disappoints even the most casual of fans. Even in hindsight that disappointment is well justified. George Lucas's return to a galaxy far, far away is a visual treat filled with groundbreaking visuals and gripping action. However, it's lack of a strong plot and the deep characterizations and charm that made the original Star Wars trilogy so beloved keeps it from achieving it's promised heights. Click for my full review 60 / 100

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Donald Trump: The Candidate the GOP Asked For But Didn't Want

Let's be honest. There's something rather entertaining about watching the Republican Party establishment squirm at Donald Trump's unlikely success. And the funniest part? They only have themselves to blame.

Ever since John McCain and Sarah Palin painted themselves as "rogues" running to change a broken system in Washington, the Republican Party has tried to take up the mantle of being anti-establishment. According to them, the Democrats and even certain members of their own party (specifically, moderates) were the reason for Washington's dysfunction. As a result, Conservatives openly embraced the Tea Party Movement and pulled the party as a whole to the right, gradually bumping out those who didn't exhibit their ideology all the time. The party blasted the media for their political bias and refused to show any sign of bipartisanship. The only compromise would be if Democrats were to bow completely to their will.

The strategy worked well in 2010 and Republicans had a good chance of unseating Barack Obama in 2012. The problem, however, that Mitt Romney (once a moderate) had moved so far right to win the nomination that he was outside Americans's comfort zone for someone to serve as President. The loss shocked the party who ignored the polls and warning signs because of their belief that the system was against them. Some Conservatives went as far as to hint at voter fraud on the part of Democrats.

The party establishment assessed the situation and recognized that they had to change their approach and subsequently who they nominated. Rumblings began almost immediately for Jeb Bush to run, hoping that he would be moderate enough to win the White House in 2016. This, of course, angered Conservatives who were both unhappy with the last toe Bush presidencies but also weary of a third. But the idea of preprdsining Bush as the candidate of choice only pushed things further and led to Conservatives to up their calls for a pure Conservative to run against both the media and the GOP establishment. The GOP leadership, in their eyes, was now the problem especially as Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began yielding to President Obama even as Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

This brought about the rise of Ted Cruz, an unyielding Senator willing to buck party leadership and crusade against the "liberal" media. Cruz single-handidly shutdown the Federal government over Obamacare. It didn't matter that Cruz hadn't been part of any major legislation since joining the Senate. Cruz was the Conservative Champion trying to stop bipartisanship to uphold their values.

Until Donald Trump entered the race. With rambling, probably improvised speeches filled with rhetoric that insulted Mexicans and John McCain and Lindsey Graham's phone number, Trump became the anti-establishment, anti-media candidate Conservatives had been looking for. He immediately jumped to the tops of polls despite efforts by members of the media and the establishment to downplay his candidacy as a joke. This, however, has only served to energize Trump and his base even further.

Conservative voters have been searching for years for someone to tell it how it is in unrelenting fashion and not be sorry about it. Trump has yet to apologize for any insult he has made, despite calls from his fellow candidates to do so. Conservatives have grown to view the other candidates as being part of the problem as they're already part of the system. Trump, however, is no politician. He's a straight-talking businessman who says what he means and means what he says. He doesn't answer to anyone, whether it be party leadership or the media.

In other words, Conservative voters's dream candidate.

Trump has tapped into the anger and anti-Washington sentiment that many Conservatives have felt for years now and ridden it to the top of state and national polls. He's spoken out in ways that almost every politician can't because he isn't a politician and thus not bound by their "code of conduct", so to speak. He doesn't care who he offends or how he does it as long as he's speaking what he feels to be the truth.

Trump is the kind of candidate the Republican Party has been asking for. Only, they had hoped that through political consultants and polling-generated messaging they would be able to create such a candidate from within, one who they would still have a handle on. This candidate would give the party the outreach they wanted to win elections while still holding true to Conservatism. They'd hope for Jeb Bush and would've settled for someone like Scott Walker.

Instead, they got Trumped.

With The Donald now trumping the competition, the party leadership is no longer seeing their candidates trying to expand their outreach through thoughtful and meaningful debate. Instead, the inflammatory rhetoric and over-the-top antics that the Conservative base loves has been kicked up to new heights. With Trump dominating the news, the other candidates are trying to get a piece of the headlines. Rand Paul took a chainsaw to the tax code. Lindsey Graham smashed his cell phone. Rick Perry has gone head-to-head with Trump and called him a cancer. Mike Hucakbee has invoked the Holocaust in discussing the Iran nuclear deal and, in Trump fashion, has refused to apologize for it even when his own party has called for him to do so. And Ted Cruz, the once-Conservative Champion who has seen his thunder stolen the most by Trump, took to the Senate floor to attack Senator McConnell as "flat-out lying" to every Republicsn Senator and the media in what amounts to a violation of Senate rules.

Did he apologize for his speech? No.

The Republican Party have gotten the anti-media, anti-establishment Conservative Champion they asked for but didn't really want; Donald Trump. Now they don't know what to do with him.

The White House might have to wait until 2020.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Return of the Jedi

Directed by: Richard Marquand
Produced by: Howard Kazanjian
Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan & George Lucas
Story by: George Lucas
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Cinematography by: Alan Hume
Production Designed by: Norman Reynolds
Edited by: Sean Barton & Duwayne Dunham & Marcia Lucas & George Lucas
Costumes by: Aggie Guerard Rodgers & Nilo Rodis-Jamero
Music by: John Williams

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Sebastian Shaw, Ian McDiarmid, David Prowse, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis & James Earl Jones

1983 / 134min / Rated PG (for Sci-Fi Action Violence)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Luke Skywalker returns to Tatooine in order to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, the Rebel Alliance prepares for a surprise offensive against the Empire's latest weapon; a new, more powerful Death Star.

The Empire Strikes Back proved a big enough success that George Lucas moved forward with his plans to finish his trilogy, once again personally financing the next film. Lucas brought back Lawrence Kasdan to help him write the script while tapping Richard Marquand to direct. The third and final film in the trilogy was given the title Revenge of the Jedi, as Kasdan felt that Return of the Jedi was a "weak title". However, despite promotional materials being produced in the lead-up to the movie's release, Lucas retitled it Return of the Jedi feeling that Jedi don't seek revenge.

While leads Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher had already been contracted for a third movie, Harrison Ford was not and doubt arose as to whether or not he would return for the finale since his star power had greatly risen following the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ford returned, however, though he believed that Han Solo should be killed partway into the picture, with both he and Kasdan believing it would instill doubt about the fate of the rest of the characters. Lucas disagreed, wanting to provide a happier, more uplifting ending in order to encourage merchandising. Many elements of the original script were dropped or changed; most famously, the moon of Endor was to be home to the Wookies, but they were changed to the smaller Ewoks.

Return of the Jedi's climactic third act was to also serve as an epic finale to the trilogy as a whole, calling for huge special effects sequences that had never been done before. To help give Industrial Light & Magic as much time as possible to produce the effects, producer Howard Kazanjian scheduled principal photography as soon as possible, leading some members of the crew to doubt their ability to prepare in time.

With the father/son relationship between Luke and Darth Vader at the heart of the story, Lucas has said that Return of the Jedi is the most emotionally charged of the three original Star Wars films.

Over the years Return of the Jedi has often been derided by the fan community as the weakest of the original Star Wars trilogy, with many calling the film either ok or outright bad. While some of the criticsms leveled at Jedi are justified, others are exaggerated, fueled by the disappointment that it didn't live up to it's predecessors's standards. Without a doubt, Return of the Jedi isn't on the same level as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, but it is nevertheless still a strong but flawed outing that still provides a satisfying conclusion.

The biggest flaw in Jedi can be found in it's plot. While Star Wars and Empire were both tightly-written and plotted affairs, Jedi is somewhat thin. The first act is dedicated entirely to resolving Empire's cliffhanger as to the fate of Han Solo. While the sequence of Han's rescue from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt is entertaining, it feels rather detached from the rest of the movie. The first act of both Star Wars and Empire not only served as an entertaining adventure but also helped launch the main plot of each movie. Aside from wrapping up Empire's loose ends and displaying Luke's new Jedi skills, the first act does little to the movie's Big Picture, acting as it's own separate adventure and forcing the rest of the movie to restart and build it's own momentum.

This wouldn't be so much of an issue if it wasn't for the thin plot that dominates Jedi's middle portion. Recycling the use of the Death Star only emphasizes that Lucas had not originally intended to destroy it at the end of the first film, having done so in the event that the original did not warrant a sequel. Having a second Death Star is fine and increases the stakes, but it's destruction becomes the whole point of Jedi, the concept feeling rehashed. Not helping matters is that the Endor plotline is thin and does little advance the characters.

Which is probably Jedi's second biggest flaw; character development is at a minimum. Aside from Luke's journey which is still done convincingly and remains at the heart of the picture, the rest of the characters feel like pawns being moved from one place to the next as the plot demands. Han and Leia's relationship takes a backseat with little done to push them beyond where they were at the end of Empire. Also an issue is Han's characterization, which seems to have been softened and lost a lot of the bite that made his character so charming and loveable.

Also disappointing is Darth Vader's diminished role as he takes a backseat to the Emperor, played chillingly by Ian McDiarmid. Vader's turmoil over his feelings for Luke and his loyalty to the Emperor is necessary and part of the story's heart, but it seems to lessen the menace that made him so terrifying in the last two pictures. Perhaps that's the point, but it would've been better if it had been more gradual than how it was done here.

The performances of the cast are once again excellent, though they seem to be lacking the same fun pep of the previous installments. Harrison Ford seems slightly off in his performance, having lost some of his sharpness. Carrie Fisher is once again excellent as Leia, though she too seems to be lacking some pep. The rest of the cast is still on point in their supporting roles, with Billy Dee Williams relishing in a more crucial part than in Empire. As mentioned before McDiarmid as the Emperor is excellent and steals every scene he's in, giving the Emperor enough menace that it's understandable as to why even Darth Vader would now to him.

When all is said and done, Return of the Jedi is Mark Hamill's film, with Luke's growth and maturing in the middle. Hamill does excellent work with the material, though at some points when the drama is at it's peak his range seems a little limited. Still, he convincingly portrays Luke's development, the character who has come the farthest since their first introduction in Star Wars.

It all leads, of course, the third act, a special effects bonanza of a finale that interweaves three simultaneous battles that proves fittingly epic to wrap up the trilogy. The special effects are once a big improvement over what's been done before, with Industrial Light & Magic's work proving second-to-none. The action is breathtaking and gripping, the stakes having never been higher. The third act is the film'a highlight, though is still not perfect.

Many fans take issue with the presence of the Ewoks and the role tht they place in Jedi. While they don't bother me as much as many people, I do take minor issue with their presence in the final battle. It's not so much that they fight side-by-side with Han, Leia and Chewie, but the surprising level of preparedness they display for such a last-minute endeavor. I find it somewhat hard to believe that they could prepare battering rams and cut down so many large trees, moving them into such perfect position to use against the Imperial soldiers with such little notice. Still, it's still fun to watch and John Williams's forest battle music is amongst my favorite of the series.

Each of the three battles is resolved quite satisfactorily, with the battle between Luke, Vader and the Emperor proving the emotional high point. The ultimate resolution and Vader's climactic acts are poignant and believable, accentuated perfectly by Williams's score. The final scene between Luke and his father is quite touching and a very satisfying conclusion to the story. Of course, it's the space battle that provides the requisite explosions and finishes the trilogy with quite a bang for a very fitting conclusion.

Enhancing it all is John Williams's fantastic score, which masterfully weaves together each of the series's themes in such seamless fashion while successfully adding new ones to the mix. Of note is the powerfully emotional theme for Luke and Leia, signifying the new development in their touching relationship, while a theme for the Emperor is quite haunting, especially in it's use at the end of the movie. The Ewok theme borders of cloying but Williams keeps it restrained enough to still be fun. The thirty minutes of nonstop action for Jedi's finale is quite a feat and the performance of the London Symphony Orchestra is top notch.

Despite it's flaws, Jedi receives too much of a bad rap. After the high standards set by both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, it would be near-impossible for the conclusion to not disappoint on some level. Still, Return of the Jedi is quite entertaining and provides a very satisfying conclusion to one of the best movie trilogys of all-time.

Story: 4 / 5
Plot: 6 / 10
Dialogue: 4 / 5

Characterization: 7 / 10
Development: 6 / 10
Acting: 17 / 20

Pacing: 4 / 5
Tone: 4 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 8 / 10

Music: 10 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 80 / 100

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: The Empire Strikes Back

Directed by: Irvin Kershner
Produced by: Gary Kurtz
Screenplay by: Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan
Story by: George Lucas
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Cinematography by: Peter Suschitzky
Production Designed by: Norman Reynolds
Edited by: Paul Hirsch, George Lucas & Marcia Lucas
Costumes by: John Mollo
Music by: John Williams

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness & James Earl Jones

1980 / 124min / Rated PG (for Sci-Fi Action Violence)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire has the Rebel Alliance on the run as Darth Vader hunts down young Luke Skywalker. Continuing the path set for him by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke finds Jedi Master Yoda who begins instructing him in the ways of Force so that he can become a Jedi. Meanwhile, Han Solo and Princess Leia try to outwit the Empire as Darth Vader hopes to capture them in an attempt to lure Luke to him so that he can lure him to the Dark Side of the Force.

Following the incredible and unexpected success of Star Wars, George Lucas set out to continue his space saga. Having negotiated ownership of any sequels in his deal with 20th Century Fox, Lucas had full control of the series. As a result, Lucas did what most producers don't do; he personally funded the entire budget of The Empire Strikes Back.

Due to his role of having to juggle multiple production aspects, Lucas chose not to direct the Star Wars seque, approaching his former-college professor Irwin Kershner to direct instead. Kershner initially refused, feeling that no sequel could come close to being as good as the original. It was Kershner's agent who convinced him to accept.

Lucas met the screenwriter Leigh Brackett to turn his handwritten treatment into a screenplay. Lucas was unhappy with Brackett's first draft but she died from cancer before they could make revisions. Lucas reworked the script himself, adding the surprising revelation of Darth Vader's identity and deciding that it was "Episode V", not "Episode II" as he fleshed out the saga's backstory. Working with Kershner, writer Lawrence Kasdan wrote subsequent drafts and approached the sequel as a darker, more adult-theme story, stepping away from the light adventure of the original film.

The best decision that Lucas and company made while making The Empire Strikes Back was to not fall into the trap of many sequels which is to try to copy the original film. Instead, Empire charts it's own storytelling path with a darker, more engrossing story that steps out of its predecessor's shadow. On it's own Star Wars is a fun, light-hearted Science-Fiction adventure. But it's The Empire Strikes Back that transforms the series into a sprawling space opera packed with power and emotion.

Instead of attempting to duplicate Star WarsEmpire instead builds upon the story established by it's predecessor and goes deeper into both the mythology and the characters themselves. Each of the characters is pushed to grow and developer beyond where they are at the start of the movie, something that is essential when telling an ongoing saga. Here, it's done in a way that's both natural and quite engrossing.

The story splits into three parts, with none being given greater dominance over the others. It's difficult to say which plot is the A-story and which is the B-story, as Kershner's direction of Brackett and Kasdan's script finds excellent balance in the three stories, seamlessly interweaving them together until they all come together in The Empire Strikes Back's powerful finale. Such an approach risks each storyline starting and stopping and never gaining momentum, but that's not the case here thanks largely to Kershner's sure-handed direction.

Luke's storyline finds him delving not only into the powers of the Force and his own training to become a Jedi, but forces him to examine who he is and the way that he has lived his life. The introduction of Yoda is superbly handled. The detail of the character's appearance is so masterful and his characteristics so engaging (thanks largely to a vocal performance by Frank Oz) that it's easy to forget that the character is merely a puppet. Mark Hamill's performance is spot on as he not only conveys Luke's growth and inner-conflict but does so against a puppet. The exploration of the Force and it's powers is well-handled and adds to the mysticism that was only touched upon in Star Wars. Indeed, Luke's storyline forms the heart and soul of the picture.

The storyline following Han and Leia as they're pursued by the Empire is equally great, packed with action in addition to character depth. The interaction between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is natural, continuing on from the wonderful chemistry they displayed in Star Wars. The romance that gradually develops between them is quite believable, given a strong dose of tragedy and heartache in the film's ultimate climax. The bickering and exchanges between Han and Leia (and also Threepio) is witty and fun, especially as the Millennium Falcon rattles around them in action sequences that don't miss a beat, providing plenty of thrills and visual treats while always keeping the focus on the characters.

The introduction of Billy Dee Williams's Lando Calrissian comes late in the film but works very well, especially considering it's importance in the overall plot. Williams does a formidable job of conveying Lando's conflict as he tries to protect his friends while also having to work with Vader. Despite the character's decisions, Williams makes Lando a likable and welcome addition to the series.

The third storyline is that of Darth Vader as he pursues Han and Leia with the ultimate goal of capturing Luke. Vader is given a much larger and more menacing role than in the original film. James Earl Jones's voice work is superb while David Prowse always conveys the appropriate amount of intimidation in every scene. The Empire Strikes Back belongs to Darth Vader and it's due to this movie that he has become such an iconic villain.

The convergence of the three storylines is well done for a finale that is pulse-pounding and leaves you on the edge of your seat. The action is steps above that of Star Wars, likely because the emotional investment in this movie also takes a step up. The lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader is gripping and a pleasure to watch, culminating in one of the most iconic moments in movie history. Even after growing up with these movies, having seen them countless times, Vader's shocking revelation is just as powerful as it was the first time I saw this movie.

I've heard some say that they have issue with the lack of resolution at the end of Empire. I can understand that problem as it's one often faced by movies that fall in the middle of a trilogy. Yet, I find The Empire Strikes Back so fun and engrossing that I find the lack of resolution only adds to it. You're left wanting more and that's always a good feeling.

John Williams returns with the London Symphony Orchestra to deliver another powerhouse of a score that features larger-than-life themes that expand upon his work for Star Wars. His theme for Darth Vader is unforgettable, while his Yoda theme is touching and delicate. Meanwhile, the often-overlooked love theme for Han and Leia is sweeping and powerful and one of my favorite themes from the franchise. The score for Star Wars is a classic and sets a high standard for all movie scores to strive for, but I believe that Williams's score for The Empire Strikes Back is a superior work because he builds upon what he has done before.

It's a tribute to George Lucas and his team for The Empire Strikes Back that they put together such a timeless movie that managed the seemingly impossible; made a sequel that is superior to the original. Every aspect is greatly improved. The visual effects are excellent, with the chase through the asteroid field especially incredible to watch. The acting and the writing are also improved, something that's hard to do considering the quality of Star Wars. The dialogue is greatly improved upon, thanks largely to Lucas taking a step back on the later-script work and letting others hand that aspect of the writing. The performances grow yet are always packed with drive and energy, maintaining the same sense of adventure from the first film. Everyone here is at the top of their game.

It's been a long time since I first watched The Empire Strikes Back and to this day I can't get enough of it. It exceeds it's predecessor in every regard, no difficult feat considering how strong a movie the original Star Wars is. It's not only my favorite of the entire sage, but one of my all-time favorite movies.

Story: 5 / 5
Plot: 10 / 10
Dialogue: 5 / 5

Characterization: 10 / 10
Development: 10 / 10
Acting: 20 / 20

Pacing: 5 / 5
Tone: 5 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 10 / 10

Music: 10 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 100 / 100

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: Star Wars (1977)

Directed by: George Lucas
Produced by: Gary Kurtz
Written by: George Lucas
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Cinematography by: Gilbert Taylor
Production Designed by: John Barry
Edited by: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch & Marcia Lucas
Costumes by: John Mollo
Music by: John Williams

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, James Earl Jones

1977 / 121min / Rated PG

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

The galaxy is under the rule of the Galactic Empire who possess a terrible weapon, the Death Star, which has enough power to destroy an entire planet. Led by Princess Leia, a small band of rebels steal the plans to the Death Star. When she's captured by Darth Vader, Leia hides the plans with a pair of Droids who fall into the possession of farm boy Luke Skywalker. Young Luke is thrust into adventure as he joins Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in a quest to save the princess, the rebels and the galaxy itself.

In 1977, a phenomenon was born. Now it can be debated if this phenomenon had a positive or negative affect on the filmmaking of the last 40 years. But as it stands, George Lucas's Star Wars is one of the single most successful endeavors in movie history.

And yet, the path to it's release was not without it's struggles. Lucas's original screenplay, originally titled The Star Wars, was far too long to be made into one movie. Multiple studios passed, believing the costs of production would be too high (ironically, one of these studios was Walt Disney). Finally, Alan Ladd of 20th Century Fox agreed to finance Lucas's script. Lucas's script went through numerous rewrites, eventually achieving the form with which we are all familiar today.

Production was not so easy for Lucas eithee, as he faced numerous technical difficulties on set and sometimes clashed with members of his production crew in his atempt to micromanage every aspect of the film to achieve his vision. Members of the crew often didn't take their work seriously, feeling they were working on a "kid'a movie" and often laughed during filming at parts they felt were unintentionally funny. Even Kenny Baker (R2-D2) thought it would be a failure, with Harrison Ford even commenting his confusion as to why the princess had "buns on her head." Alan Ladd proved to be Lucas's only ally at Fox as studio executives fretted over rising budget costs.

Yet, despite these difficulties and the preconceived notions about the film'a success by those involved, Star Wars proved to not only be a critical and commercial hit beyond anyons'a imagination, but changed the way movies have been made for the last forty years.

Whether or not that impact has been positive, Star Wars on its own is a resounding success on every front. From story and plotting, characterizations and music to (most notably) visual effects, it's no wonder Star Wars reshaped the way the general public views Science Fiction as well as the moviworld going experience.

There'a very little to criticize about this first installment into the Star Wars franchise. Though Lucas had envisioned a larger space saga, he focused entirely on making Star Wars a standalone movie. It's sad that this approach is being largely abandoned today as filmmakers focus so much on franchisd-building and leaving plot threads open instead of making one good movie. By not worrying about any subsequent sequels and this film alone, Lucas achieves near-perfection.

Though his story is heavily influenced by old Saturday morning Sci-Fi serials and plenty of familiar fantasy elements, George Lucas's story feels fresh and new, presenting a very original concept and universe. His plotting is tight, his psce always moving forward with very little unnecessary fluff present to drag things down.

The movie really takes off in its second half once everyone is brought aboard the Death Star, always maintaining a high level of fun and excitement. The film's climactic space battle is pulse-pounding and visually spectacular, which helps to make up for what's perhaps the biggest plot hole; the long trench that conveniently leads to the Death Star's fatal weakness. Still, it's so much fun and engrossing you can't help but overlook it.

Though his dialogue is sometimes stiff and awkward, it's hardly noticeable because the performances of the cast are infused with so much confidence and energy that you hardly give the dislogue'a stiffness a second thought.

And that's perhaps Star Wars's most successful aspect; the characters and the actors inhabiting them. There isn't a weak leak amongst the cast and the chemistry between leads Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is so natural and infectious that it's a shame the three of them don't come together soon. The actors bring so much energy and excitement to their performances that they elevate the film's excitement and sense of adventure.

Sir Alec Guinness is a stand out in a mostly supporting role. He brings a level of maturity and wisdom to the proceedings. He's the most restrained of the cast which keeps things fairly grounded. The most unfortunate aspect of his character is his ultimate fate before the film launches into its final act, but it's still well handled and given the appropriate amount of weight and impact.

Darth Vader doesn't have much to do as he mostly stomps around and follows Governor Tarkin's (a commanding Peter Cushing) orders, but he's instantly menacing and memorable. His presence is always felt throughout and James Earl Jones's voice work is spotless.

Even by today's high standards, the visual effects hold up pretty well. In many respects, I even prefer the practical effects as well as the use of miniatures over today's abundant CGI. Something about the models seems more real while the CGI spaceships of today lack that same realism. The same goes for the sets which are unpolished and seem used, helping to ground them in reality and make it seem as though they're used day-to-day.

Of course, perhaps just as key to Star Wars's success as any other element is John Williams's iconic and unforgettable score which reshaped film music for the rest of the century. It's pretty much flawless and helps add to the film's sense of adventure. I think it could be argued that without Williams's touch, Star Wars would perhaps have not been as successful and vice versa as it also helped make Williams.

Star Wars deserves it's place as one of history's most revolutionary and iconic movies. Despite the problematic production, everything came together to make a movie that's just about as perfect as you can get and one of my all-time favorites.

Story: 5 / 5
Plot: 9 / 10
Dialogue: 4 / 5

Characterization: 10 / 10
Development: 10 / 10
Acting: 20 / 20

Pacing: 5 / 5
Tone: 5 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 10 / 10

Music: 10 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 98 / 100

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Star Wars Prequel Soundtracks

When the original Star Wars trilogy was re-released in its 20th Anniversary special edition in 1997, new 2-disc editions of John Williams's classic scores were released as well, featuring nearly every minute of music written for the trilogy. The three albums are amongst my favorite soundtracks, with the first pretty much accomplishing perfection. Ever since, these three albums have been released in different forms with different covers and booklets, but musically it's the same album.

The same cannot be said for the prequel trilogy. While the scores for the prequels aren't as magical as the original trilogy, they're still better than most scores out there. It's too bad theither available albums are disappointing.

The only one of the three prequels to receive more than one album is The Phantom Menace, but that's been pretty much a travesty. George Lucas did so much last minute editing of Episode I that there wasn't time for Williams to redo his score. As a result, it was chopped up and heavily edited to match Lucas's changes, particularly the third act which is a mess. There was such an outcry from fans for a more complete release that Sony (who owned the release rights at the time) released an "Ultimate Edition" of the score in 2000. The result; the score was presented as heard in the movie, complete with butchered edits. It was pretty much a mess.

The same editing technique was used for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but nowhere near as exstensively.

Still, there has yet to be a really satisfying release of the scores for the prequel trilogy.

With the new trilogy about to debut, I think it's time for this to be rectified. I believe all three scores should be released as complete editions as recorded for the movies, especially The Phantom Menace, before George Lucas cut it up. I think it would be interesting to hear how John Williams originally intended his scores and a be get an idea of what the first movie was almost like.

I'm not sure who currently owns the rights to the prequel scores. I know 20th Century Fox still owns distribution rights for the original six movies but I thought I read somewhere that Disney now owns all the soundtracks. If so, hopefully someone at Disney sees an opportunity (especially for a nice profit) and pushes to release complete editions of John Williams's fantastic scores. That's something I'd happily pay to get!

I mean, come on! It's Disney! How could they not pass up an opportunity like that?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Is the Confederate Flag Racist?

One hundred and fifty years later, we're still fighting battles from the Civil War. The tragic shootings at a South Carolina church of nine African Americans at the hands of a white man touting white supremacy has reopened a debate that has plagued our country since it's darkest days more than a century ago. Though the first black President currently resides in the White House, racism is still a part of our society. As President Obama rightly pointed out, just because it's not as visible doesn't mean it's no longer there. After pictures of this young man were found where he poses with the Confederate flag, the debate has begun about whether or not it stands for racism.

This is a debate that I believe deserves mature and honest discussion. It's not as simple as black and white (pardon the pun) as there is plenty of grey on this issue. I've spent a lot of time pondering this question in recent weeks. As the Confederate flag is taken down from flying over the capital of South Carolina, I find myself agreeing with the decision though I don't believe the flag stands for racism.

At least, not originally. But over the years, the Confederate flag has been warped into a symbol of racism and white supremacy. When the stars and bars were first flown, they represented a country that wasn't fighting for slavery but for the power of individual states. While Lincoln and Republicans (in a case of historical irony) believed in the power of the federal government, southern states (ironically led by Democratss) believed that the states should be allowed to govern themselves. While this did entail being allowed to own slaves, the Civil War was about states rights more than anything else. The Confederate flag was a symbol of freedom. Indeed many brave men died fighting for their beliefs under that flag. Fighting for the Confederacy does not mean that they were racists.

But in recent decades, it's been used for other purpose. The flag that has flown over the capital of South Carolina was originally put up in 1962 as a way of protesting federal-enforced desegregation. Today the flag is used by KKK groups across the country and by people who view themselves as white supremists. Many African Americans are understandably justified in their feelings that the Confederate flag has become a symbol of racism, just as many Conservatives and southerners are also correct when argue that it's not. I think it's important to recognize that both sides are justified in their feelings even though they each allege that the other is wrong.

I personally believe that the Confederate flag should no longer be flown because it's been transformed into something that it's not. As long as it's embraced by those who wish to use it for their fight to dominate other races, it's no more appropriate for any state to use the Confederate flag than it is for them to use the German swastikah, itself viewed as a symbol of hate and genocide.

It's important to acknowledge it's place in our history as it originally represented the honorable notion that people have the right to question their government, a belief and freedom that the Southern States exercised during the Civil War. I'm saddened to say that the Confederate flag, which once represented freedom and liberty just as much as the American flag, has been reduced to a symbol of hate and racism.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I'm Being Sued By the IRS For $20,000

So I was spending time with Nicholas the other afternoon when I got a voice message from a phone number I didn't recognize; I'm being sued by the IRS, please call back right away. Now, I could easily have panicked and freaked out about this but I've been expecting this phone call for a few months now so was prepared on how I would handle it.

I called the number left for me in the message, which according to the caller ID on my phone was located in Texas. I get ahold of a man with a heavy Indian accent who gives me his name, Aaron Hall, and proceeds to give me his batch number as I hear numerous voices in the background in what sounds like a call center. After confirming my name, he looked up my record and then tells me that they are an auditing company. My tax records from 2008-2013 were audited and they discovered that there was a miscalculation on my income taxes; I owe $20,000 to the IRS who is now filing a law suit. "Aaron" give me an arrest warrant number, letting me know that if I don't comply immediately the warrant will be issued and a sheriff will be at my house to arrest me in 25-30 minutes.

I had two options; try to fight the law suit. This would result in my arrest, facing up to five years in prison and having my driver's lisence revoked. Option two; agree to make a payment through this agency who would then help me schedule a court date to try to work things out with the IRS.

What would you do?

I don't have $20,000. In fact, I don't think I've even come close to having half that amount! So I remained calm, even maintaining a bit of levity in my tone. I'd go as far to say I was somewhat jovial with Mr. Hall, with a southern accent so thick he sounds like he's from India. Keeping calm, I said to Mr. Hall from the Texas call center:

"I don't have $20,000, so my options are limited. But I'll tell you what I'll can go ahead and issue your arrest warrant. I watched ABC News a couple months ago and I know that this is a scam."

The call was ended from the other end. I'm still waiting for the police three days later but I have a feeling they won't be knocking on my door any time soon.

You see, ABC News (amongst others) recently reported on this very scam a few months ago. The IRS does not have the authority to issue arrest warrants nor can they revoke your lisence. They also wouldn't delegate something like this to a third party agency. A spokesman for the IRS issued a statement saying those very things, warning people that if someone calls saying you're being sued it's likely a scam. The IRS might not have the best reputation, but they deserve a little more credit than that.

The problem is that because so many people don't trust the IRS and have been led to fear them that a scam like this preys upon that mistrust and that fear. As a result, this scam has cost uninformed tax payers millions of dollars because they've fallen for this scam. I have to admit, it would be pretty easy to panic upon hearing all those threats. But even if I wasn't already informed of this scam, it seemed pretty shady from the call center background to the India-accent with a very American name. Even the extent of the threats seemed pretty far-fetched, not to mention the dollar amount that was being claimed. I don't think I even got that much back from the IRS during that 6 year period!

Still, once fear and panic set in it's easy to fall prey to something like this. So be warned that if Mr. Hall calls saying you're being sued by the IRS and could be arrested in 30 minutes, it's a scam.

Just a little side note...this is my 100th posting on this blog! Wow!