Irvin Kershner, R.I.P.

irvin_kershner_YodaIrvin Kershner, director of perhaps the best of the STAR WARS films, passed away last Friday, November 27th, 2010. He was 87.

Kershner began as a documentary filmmaker, first for the U.S. government, then for the TV series CONFIDENTIAL FILE.  In 1958, he made his feature film debut with STAKEOUT ON DOPE STREET, a crime thriller he co-wrote with Andrew J. Fenady, backed by Roger Corman. Produced on a low budget,  it was sold for a nice profit to Warner Brothers for distribution.
With Fenaday as producer, Irvin Kershner would shoot multiple episodes of the Nick Adams starring Western THE REBEL.
Equally adept at drama and comedy, Kershner would direct films such as 1966’s A FINE MADNESS (starring Sean Connery), THE FLIM-FLAM MAN, and the Barbara Striesand starring UP THE SANDBOX (1972), which featured surreal fantasy sequences.
In 1978, Irvin Kershner directed the ESP/Horror thriller  THE EYES OF LAURA MARS, based on a screenplay by John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN).
George Lucas, who was a student of Kershner’s when he taught at the University of Southern California, chose him to direct the second STAR WARS film, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Irvin Kershner was able to give the film both a sense of continuity with the previous installment and a darker, more sophisticated visual touch. 
NeverSayNeverAgainKershner was reunited with star Sean Connery again on the non-series James Bond film NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983, an updated remake of THUNDERBALL.
In 1990 he directed ROBOCOP 2, an action-packed sequel to the original, quite competent but not as satisfying as the first in the series.
After directing an episode of SEAQUEST DSV (aka SEAQUEST 2032) in 1993, he retired from the film business.
Picking up the nickname “Kersh” during EMPIRE, Irvin Kershner was apparently a well-liked man among his fellow filmmakers, and certainly a memorable director for genre fans.

'Star Wars' Saga to go 3-D

StarWars_HildebrantWe all knew it was coming. George Lucas has mentioned the idea a number of time over the years.
Now, StarWars.com is carrying the story that the STAR WARS films are being digitally converted to 3-D, begining with THE PHANTOM MENACE. 
John Knoll will supervise the project with Industrial Light & Magic.
Knoll said “Getting good results on a stereo conversion is a matter of taking the time and getting it right. It takes a critical and artistic eye along with an incredible attention to detail to be successful. It is not something that you can rush if you want to expect good results. For STAR WARS, we will take our time, applying everything we know both aesthetically and technically to bring audiences a fantastic new Star Wars experience.”
STAR WARS: Episode I – THE PHANTOM MENACE  is expected to be released theatrically in 2012.
As mentioned above, George Lucas has been interested in the conversion process for some time, and it would appear that he thinks the technology is mataure enough to suit his standards.
I’m actually glad they’re starting with the “prequel” trilogy, as that gives them plenty of time for trial and error before getting to the original trilogy.
An interview with John Knoll can be found HERE

Gary Kurtz on Star Wars

Gary_KurtzDid STAR WARS take a very different path than it might have, primarily because of  merchandising concerns? Producer Gary Kurtz says that is indeed the case, confirming (or re-confirming) many fan’s suspicions.
This year  is the 30th anniversary of  THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and Kurtz will be a guest at the LucasFilm sponsored  STAR WARS Celebration V in Orlando, Florida this weekend. It’s also the 30th anniversary of the effective end of his personal involvement with the fantastically successful film series. 
In an interview with the L.A. Times, Gary Kurtz — who was the producer of the original STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. said he eventually left the franchise because: “I could see where things were headed.”

“The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.
The first film and EMPIRE were about story and character, but I could see that George’s priorities were changing… The emphasis on the toys, it’s like the cart driving the horse.  If it wasn’t for that, the films would be done for their own merits. The creative team wouldn’t be looking over their shoulder all the time.”

Check out the link above forthe rest of the interview, including details of how RETURN OF THE JEDI might have been a very different film in tone, and what had been initially planned as the ultimate fates of the main characters.

'Star Wars' TV Series On Hold

StarWarsTVMaking it’s way just now across the internet are remarks from George Lucas from May, indicating that his proposed STAR WARS TV series is on indefinite stand-by.

“The live action TV show is kind of on hold because we have scripts, but we don’t know how to do ’em. Because, they literally are STAR WARS, only we’re going to have to try to do them…a tenth the cost. And, it’s a huge challenge…lot bigger than what we thought it was gonna be.”

The statement was made to a select group of viewers at a 30th Anniversary screening of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK held at Chicago’s Field Museum.
As I recall, back when the series was first announced, George Lucas and Co. said they planned to shoot the series using mostly off-the-shelf high end “prosumer” 24P video cameras, equipment, and software. One must imagine that Lucas has backed away from that idea, appealing as it might be to his indie-filmmaker sensiblities.
Lucas also said at the function that he wasn’t going to make a a seventh STAR WARS live action film, suggesting that the questioner watch the GGI CLONE WARS.
See Rebelscum.com for the original item.

'Indy 5' Back to Basics?

Indy-1stP_W

File It Under Rumors—For Now

According to Stuff.co.nz there’s definitely a fifth INDIANA JONES movie coming, and this one will be heading “back to its roots”, following the critical drubbing of THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.
However, this information comes from an un-named source, so reader beware.
Both Harrison Ford and Shia LeBouf are said to be onboard for a new adventure to begin shooting next year, and that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have agreed on a storyline “centred around the Bermuda Triangle”.
The New Zealand-based site also quotes this source as saying ” …This will be a blockbuster made in the old fashioned way, rather than the CGI efforts of the last movie.”
Sounds good,  if true. 
Personally, I enjoyed the flawed CRYSTAL SKULL well enough, as much as an exercise in nostalgia as anything else. Like many fans, I found the “nuking the `fridge” scene more than a little over the top, and might have frowned briefly at some of the less well executed CGI—but was otherwise fairly content with my popcorn.
UPDATE 6/10/2010: Not too surprisingly, it seems that the un-named source was unreliable.
According to OhNoTheyDidn’t producer Frank Marshall debunked the story via Twitter:
“The rumor about INDY 5 is completely false. Nothing has changed, we are not shooting next year and [are] still in the research phase…”

Star Wars Films on Their Way to Blu-Ray


Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy
Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy

It may not be the most suprising news ever but according to IGN George Lucas’ team are officially working on giving the two STAR WARS trilogies the Blu-Ray treatment. At the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm ‘Director of Fan Relations’, updated the masses on the progress of the inevitable Blu-Ray releases:

“We have been at work for a couple of years working on—I won’t call it the Ultimate Set because we keep finding stuff—but, a very full set of all six movies on Blu-ray with lots of extra material. We’re finding all kinds of scenes from dailies that have never been seen before. Beyond all of those things that you know about… there are some real treasures”.

Although the ‘sudden discovery’ of these new special features smacks of cash grabbing (I don’t believe for a second that these will be the last they uncover) it’s good to know the films are definitely on their way to HD glory.
There’s no official release date yet but The Digital Bits say they’ve got insider information that the disks will hit shelves in October 2011.

Lucas Working on a Star Wars Comedy Cartoon


A still from the Robot Chicken Star Wars parody
A still from the Robot Chicken Star Wars parody

That’s right, not quite content to leave his favourite galaxy just yet, director George Lucas (INDIANA JONES, STAR WARS) is planning yet another entry for the STAR WARS franchise; an animated comedy series. According to The Hollywood Reporter Lucasfilm Animation have announced their plans to a air a new series based on an irrelevant and comedic look at the STAR WARS universe.

Rather ironically both Seth Green and Matthew Senreich (who both worked on ROBOT CHICKEN parodies of the original STAR WARS films), as well as Brendan Hay of THE DAILY SHOW, are to lend a helping hand in proceedings. Green says,

The ‘Star Wars’ universe is so dense and rich; it’s crazy to think that there aren’t normal, mundane everyday problems in a world so well-defined. What do these characters do when they’re not overthrowing empires?

With Senreich adding,

We’re going to pull back the curtain of some of those behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

Almost everything about this new series seems a bit off. Why bother working for Lucasfilm Animation in making a comedy STAR WARS when they’ve both already done a fine job at it already? Besides, do we really need more STAR WARS, comedy or not? After the prequel trilogy and the CLONE WARS series I can’t say the prospect interests me in the slightest.
There’s no word yet on when the series will begin but I’d be surprised if it didn’t end up being broadcast on Cartoon Network or Adult Swim.

Cybersurfing: Star Wars, 2001, and Modernism

In “Star Wars and the Modernism of 2001,” sculptor John Powers takes a look at the famous outer-space films made by Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, examining their historical context (the moon landing, Civil rights movement, Femimism, the Vietnam war).
It’s an interesting piece, but it goes slightly astray in one way: Powers objects that Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is too much a piece of optimistic boosterism that fails to reflect the cultural upheavals happening at the time. I would say that one of the film’s greatest strengths is that it does not seem embedded in the era when it was made (mid-to-late ’60s), achieving a sort of timelessness that has outlasted the intervening decades and allowed us to continue to enjoy it as a vision of the future, even though its very title now tells us that the story is set nine years in the past.

Star Wars, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Picking up from the disappointing ATTACK OF THE CLONES, this film finally showed audiences the only plot development that made the prequel trilogy (including THE PHANTOM MENACE) interesting: how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader. Despite some quibbling, the critical consensus emerged that this is the best of the three prequels, even if it fails to live up to the glory of the original STAR WARS trilogy (particularly the original and its first sequel THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK).
Interestingly, on top of the expected wave of media attention focused on box office receipts and fan adulation, the film even generated some fairly high-profile political controversy, due to the perception that George Lucas had inserted some not-so-subtle Bush-bashing, with the film interpreted as a thinly-veiled commentary on the war in Iraq. Lucas himself partially disavowed this connection, insisting that the real parallel is with the Vietnam War, which was much on his mind when he first conceived the saga back in the 1970s. Nevertheless, Lucas admitted that the “parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we’re doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.”
Of course, being the best STAR WARS film since EMPIRE STRIKES BACK isn’t saying much, when you consider what came between: RETURN OF THE JEDI, THE PHANTOM MENACE, and ATTACK OF THE CLONES. EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH is better because it lacks, for the most part, the egregiously annoying elements that marred the intervening episodes: there are no Ewoks, no Jar-Jar dialogue, no tiny tot version of Anakin blasting the bad guys like something out of a bad Disney kiddie flick. Unfortunately, there is still romance — and it’s still terribly bad; fortunately, there’s not as much of it.


In short, the film is watchable, though often ponderous and dull. The outstanding feature of the original STAR WARS was that it was fresh and energetic. At the time, Lucas’ ambition fell well within his grasp: a child of the movie-going era that yielded cynical ’70s paranoid thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Lucas turned back the clock to a simpler time when movies were exuberant fun. His inspirations were clearly old-time serials like FLASH GORDON, which he dressed up in modern technology, using skilled craftsmanship to make the material seem new and invigorating, even though it was all very familiar.
After Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, in their famous PBS interview, cited the original STAR WARS as an example of archetypal mythic story-telling, Lucas gradually fell prey to a grandiose ambition that did exceed his grasp, and to a large extent that reaches its climax in REVENGE, which plays out like a Wagnerian operatic tragedy — with a humorless, heavy hand guiding the proceedings.
As if this weren’t bad enough, Lucas cannot abandon his silly kiddie pandering. The early scenes in the film are filled with ridiculous comic relief, including Keystone Cops-style droids that speak in silly voices and say things like “Uh oh” before falling beneath the Jedi sword. R2-D2 doesn’t fly this time, but he does pop up into the air like a spring-loaded practical joke.
What partially redeems the film is that its position in the saga allows for some actual suspense, with a sense of inevitable doom as all the things we have been expecting finally come to pass: the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin Skywalker finally turns into Darth Vader. In effect, this is the only film of the prequel trilogy that tells a story worth telling.
The special effects are terribly overdone, all flash and noise instead of clean and clear. Some of the battle scenes are nicely staged, and the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin/Darth Vader actually carries some measure of dramatic weight — something sadly lacking in the series since EMPIRE.
As for the alleged political subtext, it is clearly there, and just as clearly it is not specific to Iraq and George W. Bush. In the film, the Republic gives up freedom for security — didn’t Benjamin Franklin have something to say about that centuries ago? Chancellor Palpatine uses the continuing war as a pretext to manipulate popular opinion so that he can maintain and strengthen his hold on power — not too dissimilar from what happens in Orwell’s 1984. Anakin says, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” — echoing a statement that harkens all the way back to the New Testament.
The only moment that feels thrown in as a contemporary dig is when Obi-Wan responds to Anakin’s statement by saying, “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” This is clearly inconsistent with the whole STAR WARS saga, which has always been a fairy tale world of Good and Evil painted in the most absolute terms. We can either chalk this up to bad writing on the part of Lucas, or we can see it as being intentionally thrown in as a comment on the current political situation, in which the absolutist views of the current administration have led to an unprovoked war that has cost thousands of lives.
Surprisingly, amidst all the talk of politics, it seems that most (if not all) commentators have missed the homo-erotic subtext permeating the film. The love story between Anakin and Padme never generates any sparks, but the seduction of Anakin to the Dark Side by Palpatine does. During a relatively early confrontation, the chancellor croons seductively, “I can feel the Force in you!” Later, when Anakin finally turns evil, a prostrate Palpatine lets out an almost orgasmic sigh of ecstasy. (One waits in vain for him to ask Anakin, “Is that a light saber in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me.”)
Bottom line: REVENGE OF THE SITH is no masterpiece, and it comes nowhere near recapturing the glory of STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. But it is a decent, if unduly serious, summer popcorn movie, filled with enough good moments to make it worth viewing, in spite of the clunky dialogue (like the use of the word “younglings” for “children,” which occurs three times and sounds more absurd each time). It’s not a total embarrassment, and discerning audiences should be grateful for that.

ABSURDITIES

In spite of the entertaining action, REVENGE OF THE SITH is flawed in a variety of fairly fundamental ways. Most obviously, on a narrative level, it falls prey to a series of plot absurdities, many of them caused by contradictions in the previous films that were left untied until this final episode. For instance, we’re clearly told that C-3PO has his memory erased (to explain why he recognizes no familiar faces in the original trilogy), but it’s not clear that the same is done to R2-D2, leaving viewers to wonder whether he does indeed recognize Yoda, et al, when they show up in Episodes IV-V.
A couple other curious omissions and/or credibility gaps:

  • Anakin and Padme supposedly keep their marriage a secret. Two problems with this: 1) She is obviously pregnant, a fact everyone simply seems to ignore until near the end. 2) She shares an apartment with Anakin with a panoramic upper-floor window, easily viewed by hundreds of flying vehicles. (Apparently, there are no snooping paparazzi in a “galaxy far, far away.” Can’t you just imagine the tabloid headlines: “Princess Pregnant – Jedi Mind Tricks, or the Dark Side of the Force?”
  • Late in the film, Padme tells Anakin that Obi-Wan has come by to ask about Anakin’s well-being. Two obvious questions: 1) If Padme’s marriage to Anakin is secret, why did Obi-wan come to ask her about Anakin? 2) Why didn’t the increasingly suspicious Anakin ask Question #1?
  • At the conclusion, Yoda and Obi-Wan want to ensure the safety of Padme’s two newborn children. They wisely give the daughter up to adoptive parents who will raise her under their name (Organa), thus concealing her identity. But poor Luke retains his familiar “Skywalker” surname. Even worse, pondering where the boy will be safe, Yoda opts to leave him with his “family” (i.e., the step-family that Anakin met in CLONES, whom we will see in A NEW HOPE) . In effect, Yoda puts Luke on the one planet in the galaxy — Anakin’s original home! — where Darth might conceivably think of looking.

STAR WARS, EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH(2005). Written & Directed by George Lucas. Cast: Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiramid, Jimmy Smitts, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Christopher Lee.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski
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Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Film Review

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is the first film in the so-called “Prequel Trilogy,” which provides the back story of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader, the cybotic villain seen in the original STAR WARS trilogy. Unfortunately, the film is marred by the fact that its very existence is unnecessary: nothing in it tells us anything we need to know in order to appreciate STAR WARS (1977) or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) or even the lamentable RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). The story seems padded out from a few scraps of ideas, with little significant exposition, and the little information given seems contradictory to what was established in the earlier films. Overall, more effort seems to have gone into juicing up the film with a handful of special effects highlights (the pod race, the three-way light saber duel) and with reintroducing familiar characters (the droids, Obi-Wan, Jabba the Hutt, Yoda) whether or not the film needed them.
Clearly, there is something wrong with a film, when the loudest applause occurs as the curtain goes up, in anticipation of, rather than response to, what is being seen. That is the case with STAR WARS, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, the highly hyped prequel that gives 1998’s GODZILLA a run for its money as an over-anticipated disappointment. The audience (after a masterfully orchestrated promotional campaign, after months of trailers and weeks of commercials and cover stories, after waiting in line for days to buy tickets and for hours to get a seat) has been led to expect that this is the major event of the year. With that kind of build-up, the excitement in the theatre is almost palpable as the lights go down. There is only one problem: the film has to deliver.
THE PHANTOM MENACE falls short in this regard. It is not a completely terrible film, at least compared to the disaster that was RETURN OF THE JEDI. But in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, more creativity has been lavished on getting you into the theatre than on pleasing you once you get there. The story starts well, with the Trade Federation’s blockade of planet Naboo; for a time, it seems as if Lucas is taking a page from Frank Herbert’s Dune, with his handling of political machinations in a science-fiction context. Soon, however, trouble arises from the fact that the audience is well ahead of the characters. We already know that Senator Palpatine is the “phantom menace” of the title, manipulating the Federation to his own ends — despite the fact that Lucas keeps his face hidden when he appears as a Sith Lord to his Federation stooges.


Despite this built-in predictability, the film maintains initial interest thanks to Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who make as dashing a pair of Jedi Knights as one could wish. But after they sneak the Queen off of her besieged planet, the momentum drags. The problem is that Lucas now has to tie these events into the storyline of the original trilogy, so he spends time introducing characters (R2D2, Jabba the Hut, C-3PO, and of course Anakin Skywalker) who contribute little to this new story. (In a rare surprise, C-3PO turns out to have been created on Tattoine by Anakin. So why doesn’t he recognize his home planet when he lands in STAR WARS? Presumably Lucas will offer an explanation later, about as convincing as Obi Wan’s “I was telling you the truth” speech in JEDI.) In effect, the plot becomes a mere prologue, relying for its impact not on anything exciting in itself but on the connections to STAR WARS. Thus Obi Wan promises to train Anakin as a Jedi, and Palpatine promises to keep an eye on his progress — trivial scenes that are supposed to resonate deeply because of the story we already know.
But lets face it: no one expected great drama; we wanted all the exuberance of flying through space and battling evil that $100-million could buy. In this regard, the film delivers — at intervals. Space ships and interstellar travel are portrayed to excellent effect, but the momentum never builds, thanks to a screen time padded past two hours and ten minutes — a lethargic pace that lags behind the original’s quick tempo.
Elsewhere, the ubiquitous computer effects are meant to be impressive for their own sake: as each new creature appears, we are supposed to react in awe: “Look, another digitally created character!” However, these animated actors look too much like what they are: computer-generated cartoons. It’s as if ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE were trying to pass off their outtakes as part of a live-action film. Aggravating matters, these technical marvels strike a decidedly juvenile tone that falls far short of Lucas’ alleged mythic aspirations. The villains are mostly robots, so no one will be offended at seeing them blown up by a little boy. And Jar Jar Binks, the film’s equivalent of Chewbacca, is merely exasperating, his comedy relief gibberish supposedly funny just because it is gibberish. As with Chewbacca, this saves Lucas from having to write coherent dialogue. We always knew what the Wookie was saying, however, thanks to Han Solo’s responses. With Jar Jar, we are left shaking our heads, even when we do catch the occasional recognizable phrase.
Having not directed since STAR WARS, Lucas has lost whatever touch he had with actors. With solid professionals (including Terence Stamp, wasted in a bit), this causes no problem, but the younger cast suffers. Jake Lloyd is a stiff. Natalie Portman is regal in her Queen regalia but lifeless when posing in her alter ego role as the Queen’s handmaid. (And what’s up with those ridiculous outfits that suggest not a galaxy far, far away but a Halloween drag parade in West Hollywood?)
Not surprisingly, the film comes to life mostly when characterization takes a back seat to action. Highlights include Anakin’s triumph in the pod race (a science-fiction update on BEN HUR’s famous chariot race); and the final light saber against Darth Maul is outstanding. But even the visuals are often derivative: for the second time, the devilish villain falls to his death down a bottomless tunnel; and for the third time the climax involves an aerial attack that explodes a massive enemy target in outer space. Even the exciting moments (and there are a few) fail to lift the film above mid-level quality. The applause as the curtain goes down has an obligatory air, as people try to convince themselves that they have not been too disappointed. But they deserved much more than they got. They deserved a great movie designed for the ten-year-old in us all, not a film designed for ten-year-olds.
STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999). Written and Directed by George Lucas. Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels.
Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski