Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Empire Strikes Back, With a Vengeance!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Empire Strikes Back is my least favourite of the original trilogy, I guess I just prefer the more light-hearted nature of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi (plus when has darkness become a measure of quality?), as well as the sense of closure given by those films but calling it my least favourite is like saying this pizza with 19 slices of pepperoni is it not as good as this pizza with 20 slices of pepperoni. It’s appropriate that the second part of the three-act story is the dark entry so the more light-hearted third act can act as a release from the darkness and despair.

Imagine if Star Wars went in the direction of The Planet of the Apes franchise? It’s a miracle the studio had no input into the film, creating the movie sequel all movie sequels aspire to be. What if it was a rushed out sequel titled Star Wars II? If Jaws started the trend of blockbusters and Star Wars cemented it, then The Empire Strikes Back was the final step in the birth of the blockbusters, by cementing the rules behind the art of the movie sequel (and creating the subtitle any movie sequel wishes they had). However, could the film’s quality also due to Lucas not having any input into the writing or directing of the film?

The Empire Strikes Back is a film of more advanced directorial prowess than A New Hope in this ridiculously fast-paced movie. Right from the start, you can tell the characters within The Empire Strikes Back are much deeper than the first film. Han and Leia are simply one of the greatest romances in all of cinema; the classic tale of two who pretend to hate each other but are secretly in love, a trope as old as cinema. Watch as the two engage in the hottest moments of a generally a-sexual franchise. It’s no surprise the two are posed in the manner of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara on the film’s poster. Yet The Empire Strikes Back introduces the closest thing to rivaling the coolness of Han Solo in the form of Lando Calrissian played by Billy Dee Williams, to inject some smooth blaxploitation vibes into the Star Wars universe (not to mention the beauty of the Cloud City theme).

The planets in Star Wars are like characters themselves from the tundra of Hoth providing a counter to the deserts of Tatooine, to the intimacy and poignancy to the scenes on the swamp planet Dagobah and its one (as far as we know) lowly inhabitant. Yoda really is a perfect creation, like Obi-Wan, you do wonder if everything he says is full of nonsense when you break it down but it doesn’t matter. It’s just a shame the perception of the character has become bastardized because of the prequels. Plus what is it about stop-motion that is just endlessly appealing to look at from the long shots of the Tauntauns to those majestic herds of impending was elephants known of AT-ATs during the Battle of Hoth. The manner in which the stop motion doesn’t have the full fluid motion of live action movement but not to the point that it looks choppy is a visual I never tire off.

Although the darkest, The Empire Strikes Back is the funniest film of the series. C-3PO constantly telling people about the improbability of escaping the situation they’re getting themselves into, to Han’s many sarcastic whips never fails to get a laugh. Plus the movie keeps teasing you that you’re going to get to see that iconic jump to light speed shot from the first film, making it all the more satisfying when you finally do get to see it.

Even Darth Vader is significantly deepened as a character in The Empire Strikes back, thanks in part to him getting his own theme music to strike the fear of impending authoritarianism into your heart, but also thanks to certain plot twist.“I am your Father”, the most well-known piece of pop culture knowledge. Is there anyone in the civilised world who doesn’t know Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father? Should we try and preserve the secrecy of these plot twists so future generations can enjoy the surprise?

Star Wars (1977)

The Greatest Story Ever Told

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Reviewing the might that is Star Wars; part of me wonders if there is even any point. You know that cliché review term “what can I say about this movie that hasn’t been said before?” Should I pretend its 1977 and I’m just back from the movie theatre – if only I could have experienced it firsthand. With the hype underway for the upcoming The Force Awakens, I’ve been rekindling my love for Star Wars (the good trilogy, not the crummy one) so allow me to be the zillionth person to give their own perspective on Star Wars. Before I had ever even seen Star Wars I felt like I had watched it before. You could probably recreate the film from the parodies it has received. It’s hard not to get caught up in a five-hour conversation about these movies and talking in depth about every single frame. From the archetypes, the plot structure, the glorified B movie tropes and the inspirations coming from the Bible to ancient mythology to westerns to Japanese Samurai films; Star Wars is the story of stories.

I can’t help by getting tearful over the beauty of the original trilogy; whether it’s the introduction of Luke Skywalker to the achingly beautiful John William’s score, or Luke and Leia’s scene in which they try to get away from oncoming Star Troopers by swinging on a rope over a drop – but not before she kisses him – such a classic image taken from any swashbuckler. The sights and sounds of lasers blasting or dogfights in space have an aesthetic and a charm which I could never tire from. What makes the Star Wars universe feel so human? There is advanced technology but it feels used and it doesn’t always function properly. Also, I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: CGI isn’t anything on practical effects. Part of me doesn’t want to know how they did these effects just to be kept alive the thought of “how did they do that?!” I can still enjoy the special editions despite the changes (it would take a lot more CGI to entirely ruin a film like this), yet the original theatrical versions do have a charming, 70’s hokeyness (particularly during the Mos Eisley scenes and the final assault on the Death Star), which the special editions take away.

What imagination or imaginations can come up with something so wonderful, which raises the question of just how much of genius within Star Wars can be actually credited to George Lucas? Is the guy an untalented hack who got lucky by being surrounded by talented people? It’s disheartening to think the man may never have been the genius we all thought he once was making the man as much of an enigma as the fictional universe he came up with.

Is Mark Hamill’s performance in the original Star Wars the greatest? No, but I feel it works in the trilogy’s favour as his performances in Empire and Jedi are much improved just like how the character of Luke matured and even within the original Star Wars by itself, I do get a sense of enjoyment from how charmingly amateurish Hamill’s performance is. Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, however, is by far the most tender performance ever given by an actor in a Star Wars film; the comforting mentor and father figure who is wise without any pretension. Also what gives C-3P0 and R2-D2 such a great dynamic? They’re both robots and one is essentially a talking fax machine, either way, best robot chemistry ever.

But If I’m going to really talk about one Star Wars characters it’s Han Solo as played by the greatest of all time, Harrison Ford. Simply put Han Solo is my favourite movie character of all time; the cinematic embodiment of masculinity and individuality. He’s badass, cocky, funny, has a legendary vest, is the most handsome man ever and every word of dialogue he utters I would frame and hang on my wall. Yes, he is God himself.

The other thing I love about Star Wars which like many things was sorely missed in the prequels is the entourage of British actors. To me Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without an imperial star destroyer on which every commander on board has a sinister English accent. Even the presence of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin I feel elevates Episode IV over other films in the saga.

The confrontation between Obi-wan and Darth Vader still remains my lightsaber duel in the series. Two old men, minimal movement, no music, choreography as basic as it gets, yet it is infinitely more emotional and substantial than Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen doing somersaults inside a volcano for five hours.

Star Wars changed cinema, pop culture and the world as we know it for a reason. Something which has brought joy and happiness to myself and millions around the world (as well as much anger and despair). Many film snobs will dismiss Star Wars as the film which ruined cinema helping bring about the end of the New Hollywood era which it total tosh. I could go on and on and on with this review, adding more to it like Lucas likes to add changes to his already existing films but I feel the best way to review what Is one of the most talked-about films of all time I too try and convey the sense of emotion and euphoria I get from watching such a film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The Return of the Great Adventure!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Indiana Jones is my second favourite movie character of all time. My number one favourite is Han Solo. Yes, the same actor played my first and second favourite movie characters. I don’t care how many mediocre movies Harrison Ford may appear in during his later career, that’s like eternal levels of respect and a miracle that this is even the case.

The character of Indiana Jones is the ultimate escapist fantasy. A tough hero who goes on adventures around the world when he feels like it to obtain relics, escapes life and death situations, thwarts the bad guys and gets the girl in the end. Even his action moves are so identified with his character (e.g., climbing underneath the back of a moving vehicle then holding onto it with his whip).

Yet Indy is still human like the rest of us because of his overzealous confidence, thinking he’s several steps ahead of the bad guys when he is not, his ability to make mistakes and his irrational fear of snakes. If there’s a scene which I feel sums up the character of Indiana Jones, it’s when he pulls out a gun on the sword-wielding Arab, a moment which wasn’t even supposed to be the film (likewise that clothes hanger gag is also truly the product of genius minds). Making the character an unassuming nerdy professor is the other stroke of genius and making him a Clark Kent like figure; It’s the biggest contrast of personalities, yet entirely believable. Just look at any Han vs. Indy debate for people pulling every facet of this character’s personality apart but you can’t blame them. Would Harrison Ford have had the career he had if it wasn’t for Raiders? Or would he have faded away like his co-stars in a galaxy far far away?

Does Raiders of the Lost Ark have the best character introduction of all time? The opening of the film tells you everything you need to know about the character of Indiana Jones, as well as having the hairs stand up on your back – Just that boulder alone permeates our culture. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those movies which everyone has seen, even those who haven’t seen it. So many frames in the film are ingrained into the subconscious of film buffs and the general public alike. I feel what makes a film moment iconic is when you’re pondering to yourself as you watch it of ways it could be parodied of spoofed; there’s no shortage of that in Raiders.

Nazis are the ultimate cinematic bad guys and this was even more poignant in 1981 than today when survivors of the Second World War were still alive. Even Ronald Lacy as Thot is no less scary with his baby face. The movie captures and emphasises the fear of Nazis and their quest for world domination; “The army which carries the Ark before it…is invincible”. Yet the film’s climax seems to state that within the Indiana Jones universe, the Judeo Christian God exists or at the very least some higher power.

There are shots in Cairo in Raiders which feel very Lawrence of Arabia and I’m not talking about the grand landscape shots. Likewise, in Lawrence of Arabia, there are moments which I could swear could have been a shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark. As for the music, I can remember listening to John Williams’ The Raider’s March when I was younger simply to lift my mood and inspire me. From the beauty of Marion’s theme, the excitement of the desert chase music to the otherworldly Ark theme, how can one argue John Williams isn’t the greatest film composer of all time? With all the Indiana Jones movies, I will watch the entire end credits just to listen to the score.

The genius behind Raiders of the Lost Ark is the same stroke of genius which made Star Wars so great; I believe it’s all to do with simplicity. They took such a simple B-movie level concept and glorified and made it larger than life. Spielberg and Lucas did it first and better than anyone has since and that’s why these movies have such a widespread appeal and endure the way they do.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Fortune & Glory

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Ah, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. One of those films which I thought was beloved for many years until the advent of the internet in which I discovered it actually gets a lot of stick. Well never fear Temple of Doom, as I am here to defend you against waves of undeserved criticism. So hold onto yo potatoes, it’s time for a controversial review of unpopular opinion.

I’ll begin my defense of Temple of Doom by discussing the movie’s two not so beloved supporting characters. First up its Short Round as delightfully played by child actor Jonathan Ke Quan. I love Short round for several reasons with the first being the endearing relationship he shares with Indiana Jones. Unlike Indy’s other companions, Short Round idolizes Indy. The moment in which Indy places Short Round’s cap on his head after freeing him from the Thuggee cult’s spell perfectly sums up their relationship and it gets me every time. Short Round saves Indy’s life on multiple occasions; In fact, sometimes I wonder how he’s even still alive without him. In comparison to a more beloved character in the series, Henry Jones senior, who almost gets Indy killed on a number of occasions thus rendering the criticism of Short Round being a hindrance to Indy invalid. But I hear you say, Short Round has an annoying voice? – Not at all. Short projects a voice of juvenile innocence and adventure. Short Round is like a kid’s fantasy, what’s cooler than getting to be Indiana Jones’ sidekick? Who wouldn’t want to be Short Round? Well, I’d rather be Indy himself, but being Short Round is the next best thing.

But how do I defend Willie Scott?! This bastion of female serotypes! Oh please, quit the feminist double standard. Outrage is none existent when a character exhibits male stereotypes (not that there should be). Shouldn’t true equality between the sexes allow for a female character to be portrayed as incompetent rather than imposing creative limitations on how women can be portrayed in fiction.

For those who call Willie annoying; well let’s agree to disagree. I’ve never found the character of Willie to be annoying and I believe one of the reasons for this is that she is punished for her selfish actions throughout the film. Her character is supposed to be unlikeable and the movie is fully aware of this by making her receive comeuppance. Willie holds some similarities with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with her preoccupation with diamonds and her intention to get rich by marrying a particular wealthy gentleman, only to find out they’re a child. Just like Monroe, Capshaw displays a wide range of facial expressions and excels in her comedic timing. During the movie Willie matures, she shows concern for Indy and Short Round during the later portion of the film and even punches bad guys during the mine cart chase, a far cry from her earlier self. I love this trio of characters, so yeah, what are you going to do about it?!

Temple of Doom begins not with the build-up to an action scene but rather a musical number (with the opening shot of the gong is surely a little tribute to the Rank Organisation). I’ve never heard every rendition of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes but surely this has to be the best version of the tune with Kate Capshaw singing it in Mandarin. The superb rendition of the song along with the dance choreography, the costumes and shear sparkling on-screen, this may be the greatest musical number from a non-musical film. It might seem odd to start an Indiana Jones movie with a musical number but as it captures the 1930’s setting and exotic tone of the series so against the odds it works and works magnificently. Temple of Doom even serves as a travelogue for India with its gorgeous landscapes, accompanied by John Williams at his most exotic.

Temple of Doom is a film that doesn’t beat about the bush and gets over the top very quickly. This is another aspect that sets it apart from Raiders and Last Crusade as the action in Temple of Doom is the least plausible from the original three movies; hence why moments such as the trio escaping from the plane via jumping out of it on a rubber raft come under criticism. However, I believe there’s a fine line between action being implausible but not the point in which you can’t suspend your disbelief (yes I’m looking at you Nuke the Fridge) and I feel Temple of Doom achieves this fine line. The second half of Temple of Doom is one huge roller coaster ride with many classic B-movie and adventure serial pitfalls; a room with a descending spiked roof, a conveyor belt with a crushing roller at the end, a scene atop a rope bridge and the best of all, the mine cart chase sequence – an absolute master class of action movie filmmaking. After the trio escape from metaphorical hell, the final kiss between Indy and Willie is one of the most satisfying in all of cinema.

Temple of Doom is too juvenile you say? You’re saying juvenile like it’s a bad thing. I like all the weird creepy stuff; the bugs, the monkey brains, hearts being ripped out of people’s chests. It’s repulsive in the best sense of the word. But Temple of Doom isn’t a stupid film. No one ever seems to mention Indy’s character arc of overcoming his selfish streak. During the first half of the film, he is only concerned with obtaining his “fortune and glory”. Even after visiting the baron village and obtaining the Sankara Stones, his personal gain remains his only objective. It’s not until he sees with his own eyes the children in slave labour that he changes his ways. Likewise, people praise The Empire Strikes Back for being “dark”, why doesn’t this logic of darkness being synonymous with quality not work for Temple of Doom?

But let’s get into the real serious stuff – the film’s portrayal of Hinduism. I don’t claim to be an expert on Hinduism but I’ll attempt to the best of my ability to defend this most controversial aspect of the film. The villains of Temple of Doom, The Thuggee, were a cult who resided in India over several hundred years who would strangle travelers and steal their belongings (hence the origin of the term ‘thug’). The Thuggee were followers of the Hindu Goddess Kali, however, in Hinduism, Kali is not an evil entity, but rather the goddess of time, change and energy. As what The Thuggee believes is not what Kahali stands for, it makes the villains more interesting as they religious extremists, desecrating a faith for their own selfish gain, such as The Westro Baptist Church to Christianity or Isis to Islam. I believe the filmmakers are aware of this, as evident in the scene towards the end of the film on the dangling rope bridge. Just before Indy sends Mola Ram to his death, he utters “You betrayed Kali!”. Raiders and Last Crusade both show that the God of Christianity exists in the Indiana Jones universe. Does the spiritual power to the Shankara Stones lend legitimacy to Hinduism then?

Then you’ve got the usual crowd with their screams of “racism!”. Does the movie have a stereotypical portrayal of Indians? I don’t see Raiders or Last Crusade having such a loving portrayal of the German people but of course, they’re white so it doesn’t count. I’m sick of engaging in this game. When a film is labeled for apparent racism I think to myself, was there malicious intent behind it? Temple of Doom doesn’t give into any pretense of political correctness with its white saviour protagonist, touchy religious subject matter and stereotypical female lead; deal with it.

I consider Temple of Doom to be no less worthy of a film than Raiders or Last Crusade. Like how Temple of Doom dared to be different and the black sheep of the series, I dare not to bow to the will of popular opinion. What are you going to do about it!? For you see my opinion is always correct, except for the times when I am wrong, which is never.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Now That’s What I Call Archaeology!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade takes everything that made Raiders of the Lost Ark great to begin with and builds on top of that. Last Crusade is unquestionably my favourite of the series and the main reason for this being the role of Sean Connery as Indy’s father Henry Jones Sr, which I consider to be one of the greatest casting choices ever made. This casting was largely due to James Bond being one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones although oddly enough despite my love of Indiana Jones I’ve never been keen on the James Bond films. There’s something about father-son stories that I’ve always had a particular affection for and the relationship between Indy and his father is challenging to put into words how thematically in-depth it is. The search for the bond between father and son ends up becoming more important than the search for the grail

Their personalities differ from Henry being more of an academic and Indy being more of an adventurer (at the film’s beginning Indy is struggling to even find the time to grade his student’s papers), yet at heart, they are both giddy schoolboys. Their emotionally distant relationship is beautifully conveyed during their exchange on the airship in which Indy complains to his father about never being there for him. His father replies by asking him what does he want to talk about and Indy struggles to find a conversation point to dwell on. The tone of Henry’s response, “well what are you complaining about?!” sums it up beautifully. At the film’s climax when Henry finally calls his son Indiana rather than Junior, it gives me chills alongside his words of “Let it go” as legitimate advice I apply to many real-life situations (when has a James Bond movie had anything as remotely substantive as this?).

Their scenes together are so melancholic and full of complex emotions that further humanises the character of Indiana Jones. I really do think this may be the greatest pairing of two actors ever and when I contemplate on it. I also feel this is the best performance Harrison Ford ever gave in his career, never has he been able to convey such emotion on-screen (and impersonate and art-loving Scotsman). Ford is one of few actors who can make any normal line of dialogue into something memorable.

The Last Crusade is also a comedy classic in its own right from the North by Northwest type moments (“No ticket!”) to more slapstick-oriented gags. The Hitchcock influence even extends to borrowing a moment from The Lady Vanishes in which young Indy escapes from a train via a magician’s box. Likewise, the Forest Gump type moment in which Indy inadvertently confronts Hitler face to face is brilliant on so many levels. – It works the same way the clothes hanger scene from Raiders did.

The supporting cast of players in the Last Crusade are second to none. Indy, Henry, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) are simply so much fun to watch together on screen, with the clumsy Marcus going on the adventure (whereas in Raiders he is only seen at the beginning and end of the film) also really gives Last Crusade a big boost. Even his line “The pen is mightier than the sword” always cracks me up with the manner in which he delivers it in an English gentlemanly way, or Indy Sr’s uttering of “Junior!”; music to my ears. Likewise, I’m more than happy to listen to the eloquent and well-spoken Julian Glover as Walter Donavon as himself and Harrison Ford deliver exposition and tell each other “bedtime stories” (and subsequently transform into Doc Brown just before his untimely demise). Ernest Vogel (Michael Byrne) on the other hand is a completely two-dimensional villain in the best way possible with his intimidating presence as one really evil, tall, uniformed Nazi with a powerful music cue to introduce him in any scene. He has also has one of the most comical deaths in any film ever in a bizarrely campy two-second shot on him falling towards the camera. – Even the actor playing the Grail Knight (Robert Eddison) is mesmerizing in his brief part.

If I was the make a list of my favourite action scenes in film, I swear my list would be dominated by scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy and its sister franchise. Sequences such as that on the circus train or in the belly the steel beast make such clever use of props and their surroundings. Last Crusade was one of the last blockbusters to have such extensive use of practical effects, you know, before CGI had to go and ruin everything. Two years later Terminator 2 was released and things would never be the same again. As for the film’s music, the score by John Williams is not only one of his best but one of his most moving, perfectly capturing the melancholic and deep thematic nature of the film. I regularly listen to the movie’s soundtrack in moments of personal reflection, it’s that powerful.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of those rare films which gives me everything I could ask for in a motion picture. Like the filmmakers specifically made it just for me, encapsulating everything I love about cinema. The final shot of the four characters riding off into the sunset brings to an end to a decade of filmmaking like no other.