Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

By the end of the origin trilogy, Star Wars had nowhere else to go but up, and George Lucas manages to complete Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to Darth Vader both believable and frightening.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SithUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 140 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII) 

“War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.
In a stunning move, the fiendish droid leader, General Grievous, has swept into the Republic capital and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Senate.
As the Separatist Droid Army attempts to flee the besieged capital with their valuable hostage, two Jedi Knights lead a desperate mission to rescue the captive Chancellor….”

Lightyears ahead of the two episodes that preceded it, Episode III reinjects colour, real drama and genuine filmmaking flair into the franchise that wilted with Episode I and was beaten to a pulp and left out to dry with the release of Episode II. Besides rounding out a number of character transitions and neatly completing the trilogy, it also answers many of the big origin questions that have hung around for more than 20 years, since the release of the original trilogy in 1977–1983.

From the very first moment, this third instalment in the so-called “prequel trilogy” marks a forceful departure from its dreadful predecessor. It is as simple as an unbroken take, one that is not only visually impressive (it definitely is) but also dramatic in terms of the presentation of its content. Even the opening crawl, provided above, boldly proclaims the nature of the situation in no uncertain terms: “War!”

The elegant unbroken take starts with utter calm, however, as the usual beach of starlight stretches out across the dark skies in front of us. The camera pans downward, as it does nearly every time (the exception was Episode II, when it panned up, but then the film lost its nerve and cut away almost instantly), to the giant dagger-shaped form of a Republic attack cruiser floating in near silence in outer space. The scene is peaceful and calm, and in the background we see the mighty planet of Coruscant with the blinding sun (dis)appearing behind its rim. Two tiny Jedi star fighters whizz towards is, and the camera follows them across the wing as they swoop around the front and down to reveal utter chaos below, where dozens of battleships are shooting at each other.

But this is only the beginning of the fun: The shot, which incorporates very mobile movements as the camera whooshes back and forth past obstacles and even through a cloud of fire, carries on until we spot R2D2 on the wing of a starfighter and immediately deduce this is Anakin’s. Without a moment of hesitation, the film cuts to Anakin’s face inside the cockpit. He is clearly enjoying himself, and for a change (given actor Hayden Christensen’s atrocious performance in Episode II) it is a pleasure to see him because he is fully engaged in the scene.

Anakin and his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, are on their way to rescue Chancellor Palaptine, who has been kidnapped by Count Dooku, the leader of the separatists. And when they do, a mere 15 minutes into the film, the moment presents Anakin with a major quandary. Having been taunted throughout their fight, with Dooku nudging Anakin to come to the Dark Side, and having seen Obi-Wan injured in the fight with Dooku, Anakin eventually subdues him. He holds the two lightsabers – his own one, which is blue, and Dooku’s red one – in his hands and points them in the form of an X around his throat, trying to control his anger. He is filled with doubt and even says that killing an unarmed man would not be the Jedi way. Palpatine, shackled next to him, disagrees and urges Anakin to decapitate the shocked Dooku. Anakin follows through.

This is but the first of many powerful depictions of the internal turmoil that Anakin has to deal with throughout the development of this part of the story. The soft-spoken but serpentine Palpatine knows exactly how to play the game by gently dangling power in front of Anakin. He feels he deserves it by virtue of the chancellor of the Republic declaring it the right thing. And whenever he feels second-guessed or slighted by the Jedis, who can sense evil in Palpatine’s plans, he sides with the chancellor. But he is always genuinely conflicted as to where his loyalties should lie.

These scenes are riveting, even though we know that Anakin is fast on his way to becoming Darth Vader. This prequel trilogy was never about the destination, however: It was always about the journey, and thus the focus had to be on Anakin’s evolution, which in this episode is sharp and does not have the meandering qualities that made the first two instalments so exhausting.

In visual terms, this instalment leaves the previous two in the dust. Not only do we get the first glimpse of Padmé wearing her hair in the form of two bagel buns on either side of her head (as her daughter, Leia, did in the original trilogy), but the special effects are far superior to the mediocrity of the seemingly ever-present rear projection of Episode II, and the colour palette is colder but stronger: blacks, blues and purples seem to permeate the world this time around.

When Palpatine decides to appoint Anakin, who is not a Jedi master but merely an apprentice, to the Jedi Council (a decision that has major repercussions), they walk side by side inside the chancellor’s office, and shortly before the scene wipes to another location, the lighting makes them appear as two silhouettes – partners in darkness. It is a brief moment but speaks to a visual ingenuity that is unusual for Lucas.

With regard to the editing, Lucas also fashions two remarkable alternating sequences of lightsaber duels. The first contrasts the giant fight between Yoda and Palpatine after he has become the irrevocably evil Darth Sidious, first set inside the chancellor’s office and then in the middle of the Senate, and between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin, after he has gone to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. The second, only a few scenes later, is an interesting juxtaposition of Padmé giving birth and Darth Vader being fitted with his black armor.

The humour in the film is also much better integrated and does not draw attention to itself, as such attempts failed miserably in the first two episodes. The duel between General Grievous, the commander of the separatists’ Droid Army, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is light-hearted and reminds us that not all fight scenes need to be equally sombre. As Kenobi, McGregor is excellent in bringing this sprightliness to the fight, even in the face of Grievous’s four lightsabers.

Unfortunately, a few awkward attempts at romantic dialogue remain, as in this exchange:

Anakin: You are so beautiful.
Padmé: It’s only because I’m so in love.
Anakin: No! It’s because I’m so in love with you…!

Poor Padmé also spends almost the entirety of the film locked up in her room on Coruscant, where she either waits in anguish for the return of her lover and father of her offspring or confronts him about putting up a wall between them out of fear.

The film regularly returns to the Prophecy, in which Qui-Gon Jinn had believed and which Obi-Wan also trusts, that Anakin will bring balance to the Force. However, while the Force will be brought back into balance thanks to Anakin, Yoda also points out that it is a “prophecy that misread could have been”, meaning the easiest explanation is not always the right one. Three more instalments await, and while Anakin is instrumental in returning balance, he will not do so alone, nor directly.

With the possible exception of Episode IV, this is likely the best Star Wars film that Lucas directed. Although still not far from laughable at many points, Christensen’s performance has improved, and we can hear his character’s frustration in his tired “Yes, master” whenever he is told to wait, to be patient, not to do what it is he feels entitled to do. He is racked with fear, confused and lost, looking for his place, but while the final scenes on the volcanic planet of Mustafar are too long and look rather uninteresting, the climax is exactly what we had been waiting for all along.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the longest of all the instalments in the franchise, is also by far the worst, as it flounders under the weight of a terrible actor, awful visuals and an all-round lack of chemistry.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the ClonesUSA
2*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriters:
George Lucas

Jonathan Hales
Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 140 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“There is unrest in the Galactic Senate. Several thousand solar systems have declared their intentions to leave the Republic.
This separatist movement, under the leadership of the mysterious Count Dooku, has made it difficult for the limited number of Jedi Knights to maintain peace and order in the galaxy.
Senator Amidala, the former Queen of Naboo, is returning to the Galactic Senate to vote on the critical issue of creating an ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC to assist the overwhelmed Jedi….”

Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the longest out of all the instalments in the first two Star Wars trilogies, is all about power. Unfortunately, it is also wholly pre-occupied with its main protagonist’s slide into arrogant delusions fuelled by his love for and loss of his mother. The protagonist, of course, is Anakin Skywalker, who even as this episode opens is a petulant little twerp seeking to undermine authority at every turn for the simple reason that he is a prodigy.

In this film, and its sequel, Anakin is played by Hayden Christensen, whose performance in the lead is so ham-handed it easily qualifies as the worst acting in any of the Star Wars films, handily beating out the amphibious, high-pitched, super-annoying Jar Jar Binks for this misfortune. He is on the ascent (he first appears in this film in a lift going up), seeking counsel from the Phantom Menace himself, Senator Palpatine, who has become chancellor of the Galactic Senate and is adroitly playing off many parties against each other, staying in control of both realms until the Dark Side triumphs.

A large chunk of the emotional core of this film is wrapped up in Anakin’s desire to see and save his mother, who had been left behind on Tatooine in Episode I. Anakin has nightmares, once conveyed by showing him alone in bed at night, sweating and writhing in anguish as the camera tracks closer on his face before he wakes with a start. No, George Lucas is not the most visually creative filmmaker out there, and this shot goes to show that.

The visual mediocrity continues as the colour palettes in scenes on many different planets comprise yellows, reds and browns. But while the visuals are uninspiring, the plot is packed with details that can sometimes be very dense for the uninitiated and include shifting alliances and the various characters’ opaque motives that make us question whether they can be trusted or not, and whether Anakin’s descent into darkness will sweep anyone else away with him.

The tipping point is Anakin’s mother, whom he tracks down after a long quest only to find her on the verge of death. Her long absence from his life, filled only by longing (both for her and, somewhat creepily, for Senator Amidala), and ultimately her passing fill him with enormous rage at his inability to control his own destiny and those close to him. It is plain to see that this anger, as Master Yoda predicted in Episode I, will lead to hate (which he targets at his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is wisely reluctant to let him do whatever he wants), and hate will lead to suffering. Shortly after his mother’s death, Anakin throws one of his frequent temper tantrums and yells, “I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!”

As he did in Episode I, Lucas again places the viewer inside the film at unexpected and inexplicable points by very quickly showing us the points of view of both Anakin (inside the club in Coruscant’s Galactic City) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (upon his arrival at Dex’s Diner, in an industrial area of Galactic City), which means characters look straight into the camera. These moments last a very short amount of time and seem disconnected and at odds with the rest of the visual style. 

The titular Clone Wars, of which this film only shows the first clash, involves a clone army cultivated on a distant planet named Kamino. While the Republic was facing challenges and a potential schism, a former Jedi Council member had started breeding a vast army of clones (made from a prominent bounty hunter, Jango Fett), and now that the separatists were gaining in strength, this army appears to come in handy. However, its existence has remained a mystery to even the Jedi Council, which realises the Dark Side’s strength has managed to blind them to developments in the galaxy.

These developments also include the rise of Chancellor Palpatine, who in this film manages to secure emergency powers that puts him in complete control of the Republic, and his first action upon taking power is to “create” an army (albeit one that already exists in the form of clones and already numbers in the hundreds of thousands) to beat back the separatists, led by Count Dooku. Dooku is perhaps the film’s most complex character but is woefully underdeveloped. He used to be a Jedi and trained as a Padawan under Yoda, but he left the Republic and became a Sith. In other words, Dooku gets his power from the Dark Side. And yet, he tells the truth when he informs a sceptical Obi-Wan that the Republic is falling into the hands of a Sith, although his motivations are unclear, because this Sith (Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious) is also Dooku’s own master.

The film’s highlight, without a doubt, is the lightsaber scene in which Yoda takes on Dooku. It is the first time we see Yoda, the grand Jedi Master, wield the sword of the Jedis, and his quick manoeuvrability is as impressive as it is unexpected for this tiny, slow-speaking creature that usually moves about with a walking stick.

But this is by far the worst Star Wars episode, and the myriad reasons are all tied up in Anakin Skywalker. Christensen does not have a single elegant moment, save when he is lying lifeless after his arm has been severed in a lightsaber duel. His whiny character’s public displays of arrange and hysteria are unbecoming of an adult that the viewer can take seriously. He is devoid of self-reflection and stubbornly assumes he will get his way, like a spoilt brat. Also, his relationship with Padmé is based on obsession rather than dialogue, and her pledge of love to him when they are captured rings hollow and reinforces the feeling that we are watching a soap opera powered by lightsabers.

Although rich in detail, the story is poorly told, the images are terribly boring, and the central relationship plays itself out on very implausible terms while one-half of the couple simply cannot connect with the viewer because of his revoltingly ineffective portrayal of a being with human emotions. This is not only an attack by the clones but an attack on the pleasure the Star Wars in its other instalments represents for a world of fans.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Despite its long gestation and its release more than a decade after the original trilogy, the Star Wars origin story (Episode I) is one of the worst instalments in the entire series.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom MenaceUSA
2.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 135 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….”

Thus reads the opening crawl of the first instalment of the Star Wars series. It is lengthy (that final paragraph is a single, 35-word sentence), mentions taxation in the opening paragraph and is generally uninspiring. All in all, this is a terrible way to start a franchise, but luckily Episode I had history on its side: A trilogy of films, Episodes IV–VI, released between 1977 and 1983, had already gained a mass following and laid a firm fictional foundation by the time this origin story was released in 1999.

Episode I contains its share of dramatic irony, because thanks to the other films we have the benefit of foresight regarding many of its characters’ destinies. Nonetheless, it is surprising that director George Lucas presents key moments with a complete lack of energy or flair. Consider the first meeting between Anakin Skywalker, here an 8-year-old boy, and his future bride, Padmé, or the first time the astro droid R2D2 lays its eye on C3PO, its eventual partner through thick and thin. These moments are not visually highlighted, and there is nothing to suggest their future importance, even though Anakin asking whether Padmé is an angel is kind of cute.

But then, it is generally accepted that the instalments directed by Star Wars creator Lucas were mostly dull in comparison with those that were not. Episode I, in the works for a decade and a half after the original trilogy, disappointed many people who had grown up on this series loosely based on Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人 / Kakushi toride no san akunin). Lucas fumbles with comic timing again and again and again, mostly because of the ludicrous character named Jar Jar Binks, a creature that is both physically and tonally awkward and reaches for laughs at many an occasion by saying “How wude!” with a pout that does not elicit a single laugh but rather a queasy shrug from the viewer.

The plot in this first film revolves around Queen Padmé Amidala, who is strung up so tightly in a variety of elaborate costumes that she can barely speak a word when she opens her mouth. This gimmick gets old very quickly and minimises the charm and sparkle she has when she is out of her costume, as in the first half of the film when she pretends to be a hand maiden and spends a great deal of time in the company of the young Anakin Skywalker.

Queen Amidala’s planet of Naboo has been taken over by a Japanese-accented Neimoidians. They are receiving guidance from a shadowy figure who only appears to them as a hologram (thus, he is the “Phantom Menace” in the title, although this term never appears in the film), whom we know from later films as the Emperor. Lucas finally reveals the identity of this individual during the final moments thanks to a quick pan that ends on the face of someone who has gained more and more power throughout the film. 

In the meantime, the origin story of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to becoming a Jedi starts with a chance stop on the planet of Tatooine, where two Jedis, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, are seeking help while the queen’s planet is under occupation. They meet Anakin, whose midi-chlorian levels are off the charts, meaning not only that the Force is strong with him but also that he might very well be “The One” who will “bring balance to the Force”. Although just 8 years old, he is remarkably gifted at podracing (the film’s podrace is shown in full and lasts an exhausting 10 minutes) and has even built his own droid, C3PO.

Qui-Gon is so sure of himself that he decides to buy Anakin’s freedom and take him to the Jedi Council on the city-planet of Coruscant, where the boy undergoes a test not unlike the one the Tibetan lamas administer to find the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Master Yoda, who cannot see into the future but can sense negativity radiating back from it (possibly by means of past films), says Anakin may very well be The One, but his anger and fear, tied to his mother who was left behind on Tatooine, could lead him to the Dark Side. “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

This may be one of the worst chronologically first films ever in a series. While the technology in 1999 had certainly improved over that of the 1970s and 1980s, and Lucas was able to bring to life a civilisation like Coruscant and stage a fast-paced (albeit overlong) podrace inside canyons, there are major flaws. For one, the humanoid characters like Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padmé all look above the faces of the CGI characters, like Jar Jar, when they are speaking to each other. That is very distracting and should not be happening.

Another problem is the chemistry between Anakin and his mother, Shmi. Although the latter was played by the legendary Pernille August, she speaks her dialogue as if she is performing a line reading. Meanwhile, Anakin, played by Jake Lloyd, is at times perfectly restrained, but when he is called on to show any kind of emotion ranging from sadness to elation, he rushes headlong towards the histrionic side of the spectrum. And when these two characters interact with each other in the same scene, the result is absolutely frigid and unaffecting.

Lucas also made the peculiar choice to break the fourth wall and put the viewer in the position of a droid, C3PO, on three occasions during a scene when Anakin is speaking to him (and looking directly at it/him). This feels completely out of sync with the rest of the filmmaking style and is not grounded in any apparent perspective.

The highlight of this first installment is the climactic lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the one side and the evil Sith, Darth Maul (basically, a nemesis of the Jedis), who wields a red double-sided lightsaber, on the other. While the location is limited, the stakes cannot be higher, and for those who have already seen Episode IV, the death of Qui-Gon will have at least a narrative, if not a visual, parallel with the death of Obi-Wan, who survives the attack here.

Episode I lays some of the groundwork for the rest of the story, but despite having a wealth of elements at its disposal and knowing full well that most people who saw it at the time were already familiar with the characters’ eventual development, the film is disappointingly reticent about presenting its material in a way that would enthuse its base. Lucas’s almost laser-like focus on mining for a laugh at the end of scenes, usually by deploying Jar Jar Binks, is as misguided a strategy as he could have embarked on, and ultimately the film feels exceptionally inept.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

The first (i.e. the fourth) Star Wars changed the space film forever, and while it makes a few missteps, the strides it took have enriched mass entertainment to an incalculable degree. 

Star Wars Episode IV: A New HopeUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
Gilbert Taylor

Running time: 125 minutes

Alternate title: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
– The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

This is where it all started: in the middle. In 1977, George Lucas, who had turned 33 just a few days earlier, released his third feature film, the first part of what would become a trilogy, and ultimately the first trilogy of three. It featured three main characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo – and would become not just a cult science-fiction but also an incredibly popular film overnight, racking up more than $300 million at the time. For a film made for just $11 million (around $46 million in 2017), that is quite an achievement.

Star Wars has gained a major following over the years, even though its status as a foundational piece of blockbuster entertainment was slightly tarnished by the “origin trilogy” (the so-called prequels: Episodes I, II and III) released 1999–2005. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (originally released as “Star Wars“), the cornerstone of the series, the story starts in medias res, and there are frequent reminders of events the viewers of 1977 had no knowledge of. Mentions of the Clone Wars or dramatic irony would only be revealed with the release of the prequels many decades later. Thus, while the film slots well into the overarching story, it can also be rather frustrating for the uninitiated.

But that is quite beside the point. Those unfamiliar with the back story might be slightly misled, but the result is slight mystery instead of confusion, and the effect is a desire to know more. By contrast, Star Wars fans who have seen the earlier episodes will be up to date on the details of the Empire, but the mystery will turn into an appreciation of why certain kinds of information are being misrepresented or withheld. And the experience is at times incredibly moving.

Such is the case with Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom we get to know here as “Uncle Ben”, a solitary individual who has lived for decades deep inside the rocky region on Tatooine called the Jundland Wastes. At the beginning of Episode IV, the small but chirpy R2D2 unit is given a hologram message by Princess Leia of Alderaan to deliver to Obi-Wan. Thus, this droid, along with its gold-plated humanoid robot companion C3PO, arrives on Tatooine, where it is promptly abducted by the tiny cloak-wearing Jawas and sold to the Lars family, to whom Obi-Wan had delivered Luke as a baby.

Luke’s family is his uncle and aunt, and whenever his father comes up in a conversation, usually very obliquely, Luke is all ears, but there is no mention of him beyond his death. Thanks to earlier episodes, we know something the character does not, which is very effective in setting up expectations and creating tension. Viewers of the film back in 1977 did not share this knowledge, and thus the revelation of Luke’s heritage in Episode V would come as a complete surprise. At last, watching this film in the correct chronology (after the earlier episodes), we immediately understand why Obi-Wan responds with such a chilling silence when Luke tells him: “I wanna learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”

Episode IV reveals what an important role the droids, R2D2 and C3PO, play in Luke’s evolution. An orphan raised on an isolated farm somewhere on the dusty planet of Tatooine, he appears to be stuck in a rut until the family needs a new droid. When he and his uncle go shopping, they buy C3PO, but instead of his trusted companion, they opt for R5D4, a red-coloured droid. Fortunately, this R5 unit malfunctions (the film doesn’t show this, but there is widespread suspicion, based on subsequent novelisations and radio performances, that R2 sabotaged the droid on purpose), and R2 ends up in the hands of the Larses.

Arguably, without R2D2, Luke would not have seen the hologram destined for Obi-Wan, in which Leia begs the old Jedi master for help and requests that he go to Alderaan to deliver the plans hidden inside the droid. Taking a fancy to Leia, hearing about the Force from Obi-Wan, receiving his father’s lightsaber and losing his adopted family, he decides to set off for Alderaan. In no small measure, all of this is thanks to R2D2.

But to get there, they need a spaceship and someone desperate enough for money to steer it. They manage to persuade Han Solo, a full-time smuggler (emphasis on the “smug”), who brings along his giant hairy companion, Chewbacca. While Han Solo’s gift of the gab ensures a constant volley of good-natured insults that he lobs with both charm and admirable dexterity, he should not be underestimated. Inside the Mos Eisley cantina, shortly after Han strikes a deal with Obi-Wan, he is confronted by Greedo, a bounty hunter who has come to collect him dead or alive. Han shoots Greedo point-blank without blinking.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that, in the version released in 1977, Han Solo shot first. It is clear as day. Greedo was fighting with nothing but his rhetoric. But George Lucas, who loves to tinker with his own work, creating a new director’s cut as technology allegedly catches up with his vision, had Greedo shoot first (with a gun that appears out of nowhere) in the 20th-anniversary re-release in 1997. In yet another release, the two seem to shoot simultaneously, but Greedo misses. Whether this is of any consequence is a good question, although Lucas seems to think it does. Then again, Lucas has changed or added so many (often extraneous) details that we should honestly ask whether his vision will ever be complete, and whether his vision even matters. Probably not. But this was obviously not a question of technology catching up; this is just blatant re-directing.

What everyone remembers about Han Solo is not his indifference to killing people but his pointed quips, which, whether delivered to an enemy, a friend or a potential love interest (he keeps referring to Leia with variations of “Your Worship”), never cease to entertain us.

Lucas’s streak of comedy here is much stronger than his subsequent, fatally cringeworthy attempts in the origin trilogy, and the only reason is Harrison Ford’s comedic timing. Leia’s unflappable demeanour goes a long way towards establishing her stability amid the adrenaline, the hormones and, frankly, the emotions of the men around her.  

But the director, here as in most of the other episodes he helmed, with the possible exception of Episode III, is hopelessly inept at staging action scenes. Blaster bolts usually shoot into all directions, no matter how much training the one behind the trigger has, and the shootouts aboard the mammoth Death Star space station are particularly slipshod when the images recede behind a blur of seemingly random streaks of red plasma.

In other respects, however, the film’s undeniable visual effects accomplishments had arguably as much of an impact on the genre as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Obi-Wan, in perhaps the most understated but most important line in the franchise, tells Luke, “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.” In a way, all viewers of Star Wars were uninformed and weak-minded before they laid their eyes on this raucous space opera. But Lucas fixed that, and this single episode would continue to make ripples decades down the line.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The best instalment of the entire franchise reaches beyond the stars to bring us giant revelations, confrontations and set pieces that firmly establish Star Wars as an unrivalled space epic. 

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes BackUSA
4.5*

Director:
Irvin Kershner

Screenwriters:
Leigh Brackett
Lawrence Kasdan
Director of Photography:
Peter Suschitzky

Running time: 125 minutes

Alternate title: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

OTHER LINKS

“It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy.
Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth.
The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space….”

Wholly unexpectedly for a franchise’s second film, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is better than its predecessor. But there is more to its greatness: This instalment is also a very strong contender for the best film overall in all three Star Wars trilogies. Not only does it contain one of the biggest plot twists, but it introduces us to Yoda, shows the meaty part of Luke’s development as a Jedi, interweaves three major storylines, builds on and improves Harrison Ford’s already superlative comedic performance in the role of Han Solo and shows us an unforgettable city in the clouds.

And yet, the start is far from promising. On the ice planet of Hoth, where the rebel Alliance is hiding from the Empire, the décor looks wildly underfunded and makes us wonder for a moment whether we are watching a ground-breaking space epic or a cheap studio-bound production with people walking around inside stuffed animals. For a moment, the latter is true: The stalagmites and the stalactites look ludicrously plasticky, and when Luke is attacked by a snow monster called a wampa, it might as well be a child’s version of a white woolly mammoth/yeti/polar bear monster – not as imagined by a child, but as built by one.

Fortunately, things quickly pick up from there, and in the first act in particular, we have Han Solo and Princess Leia to thank for the entertainment. The sexual tension between them, lightly veiled in a cloak of insults, is just about thick enough to cut with a lightsaber, and it becomes ever clearer their verbal altercations are in fact merely attempts to persuade themselves they don’t really like each other.

The film is tightly wound around the stories of three characters or groups of characters: Darth Vader, Luke and the crew on-board the Millennium Falcon. This is the first time we get a proper look at the full reach of Vader’s power, and the scenes in which he kills incompetent underlings simply by raising his arm inspire real fear. At the same time, however, Vader gradually reveals his obsession with tracking down Luke, and it is only late in the film that we realise (at least, without the foreknowledge provided by the origin trilogy) why this is. Meanwhile, Luke is on the swamp planet of Dagobah training as a Jedi, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, who fled Hoth along with the Rebels after a violent attack, make their way through an asteroid field, where the fireworks between the smuggler and princess finally go off.

Out of these three story lines, the one with Luke and Yoda is absolutely mesmerising. Not only are we seeing a young fighter come into his own by trial and error, but we learn a great deal from the tiny and wise green man with the funny ears who speaks with the very unusual speech object-subject-verb pattern. Perhaps the most important sentences in all of the Star Wars films come from Yoda, strapped to Luke’s back while he is running through the Dagobah jungle:

“A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger… fear… aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.” 

This tension between light and dark is, of course, the major theme throughout the prequels, and while Yoda may at first appear to be a playful jester, his words are saturated with the wisdom of his 900 years. He is a delightful creature, especially for anyone who hasn’t seen him before, and much of this instalment’s greatness is a direct result of the interaction between him and the young Skywalker.

But these scenes on Dagobah are also profound for another reason: They contain the only instance of slow motion used in any of the Star Wars films, when Vader appears to Luke in a dream. This moment comes shortly before Luke sees his own face inside Vader’s mask. In a way, this scene is not far removed from Jesus Christ being tempted in the desert, and the second half of the film is a remarkable depiction of Luke’s resistance to the power that the dark side promises to offer those who yield to it.

The reason Episode V is one of the major narrative accomplishments of the franchise, however, is the big revelation that Darth Vader is, in fact, Luke Skywalker’s father. As Luke hangs on for dear life after losing his right hand to Vader’s lightsaber, dangling above a seemingly bottomless reactor shaft, and receives the shattering news of his heritage, the moment marks the culmination of the first meeting between father and son. Although this is not the full story (the second penny drops at the start of Episode VI), the impact is enormous.

Added to this development, there is also the first kiss that Han and Leia share, even as they continue to taunt each other and thus create, by a long way, the funniest instalment of the franchise. My personal favourite swipe comes from Han, who has no time for Leia’s cautious rationality in the midst of a crisis and shuts her down with: “No time to discuss this in committee”. Simultaneously, Luke and Leia are (for the moment) inexplicably growing closer as well, and the princess’s ability to sense that Luke is in danger proves to be one of the film’s instances of emotional magic.

And lastly, this episode is notable for its inclusion of the all-terrain armored transports, or AT-ATs, which look like giant metallic chameleons with four legs and no tail. Used by the Empire, they appear on the planet of Hoth and inspire another biblical comparison – to Goliath. And of course, David (the rebels) wins because Goliath cannot see properly and moves about too awkwardly to gain much of an advantage in a battle.

Episode IV may have laid the groundwork, but Episode V builds a mighty palace full of details, drama, comedy and the deeply credible development of its characters. It is not a mere bridge between the beginning and the end of the overarching narratives: It gives us plenty of connections between people and shows us things we never thought possible, including the first glimpse of Darth Vader without his helmet. Yoda’s famous command to Luke – “You must unlearn what you have learned” – applies to us, too. This is a brand-new world, and it is so gratifying to have Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca and the droids be our guides on this journey.

The Bride (2015)

Hyperstylised adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding drowns in chichi and exhausts with meandering dialogue and too many slow-motion scenes.

the-bride-la-noviaSpain
2.5*

Director:
Paula Ortiz

Screenwriters:
Javier García

Paula Ortiz
Director of Photography:
Miguel Ángel Amoedo

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: La novia

If all the slow-motion scenes in Paula Ortiz’s The Bride, an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s popular Blood Wedding, were shown at normal speed, the film would likely be at least 30 minutes shorter. Besides these inexplicable visuals that produce a work that is so exasperating it is almost comical, the film is also doomed from the start because the hyperstylised, overly sentimental depiction of the play presents us with an incessant stream of dialogue that continuously remind us of the story’s theatrical origins.

The opening scene already spells trouble. A bride flounces about in the mud, before taking her horse to a home, dilapidated and half-ruined, in the middle of the arid Spanish countryside, where three people, including her father and newly acquired mother-in-law, are waiting for her. She (her name is never given) tells the woman she has come back because she is ready to die, and she explains why she left her equally anonymous husband during the reception and scuttled away with the mysterious, brooding one named Leonardo: While her fiancé/husband offered her safety and stability, she was attracted by the risk and uncertainty that Leonardo represented, never mind that he is married to her cousin.

But the scorchingly bright light all around these characters make it appear, at first, that this is a scene straight from heaven, or hell, but much more likely from purgatory. The landscape is arid and desolate, and the atmosphere among the group is woeful. Unfortunately, this first sequence lets the cat out of the bag by spelling out the major thrust of the story before it has even happened: This is the bride who left her husband on their wedding night to steal away with the man who makes her so lascivious.

Now, it has to be said, it would be a challenge not to sympathise with the Bride, as the hunky Leonardo is presented time and again as a silent type whose shoulder-length black hair elegantly frames the stubble on his face and his come-hither eyes.

But the fact that we know how all of this turns out makes the entire build-up to the wedding rather tedious. Granted, there are a few scenes in which we see Leonardo on horseback stalking the Bride, his presence (albeit in the background) a chronic reminder of opportunities as yet unseized. Throughout, the landscape takes the rather ludicrous form of sexual appetite, as on many occasions we see rock outcroppings looking like giant phalli that have sprung up from the barren wasteland.

Things finally start to get tense by the time the wedding rolls around, where Leonardo shows up (after all, he is married to the Bride’s cousin) and visibly sets the Bride’s heart aflutter. But every now and again, the film stalls out with extended slow-motion shots, or in the case of the anticipated sex scene, nearly an entire slow-motion scene that inspires laughter instead of either passion because of the act, or the dread because of the consequences.

At other points, including one moment during the sex scene, the film grinds to a halt to make it possible for a character to deliver a long speech that obviously originates in Lorca’s text. Such occasions are painful, as there is no movement in the frame, and the vast range of possibilities that the medium of film has to offer are not utilised to support the words.

One visual highlight, however, is a procession of roughly a dozen characters over a ridge that stretches from left to right across the screen. We see them moving along at sunset, and they appear only as silhouettes, thus calling to mind the macabre Dance of Death at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), except that here the characters are not strung together but are moving forward of their own accord.

Whenever the film focuses on the sexual tension between the Bride and Leonardo, it is absolutely enthralling, but these moments are very few and far between. The far-flung exoticism of the landscape (the film was shot in Turkey’s otherworldly Cappadocia region) is a very good choice of location, but the unnecessarily lengthy presentation of some of the scenes and the refusal to sketch some major characters, like the Groom, as anything more than mere tools for the narrative’s mechanics is disappointing. This is not just a tragic story but a tragedy of a film.

 

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Rams (2015)

Two elderly, taciturn sheep farmers who are also brothers have to work together in the face of a plague that hits their remote valley in northern Iceland.

hrutar-ramsIceland
4*

Director:
Grímur Hákonarson
Screenwriter:
Grímur Hákonarson
Director of Photography:
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Hrútar

The first scene of Rams, a film from Iceland that falls squarely within the country’s canon of beautiful and always-eccentric films of late, tells it all: In a valley called Bárðardalur, in the north Icelandic countryside, Gudmundur (“Gummi”), an old, bearded farmer, finds a ram among his sheep that is not his. It has clearly strayed across the fence that separates his flock from that of his neighbour. He calls one of them by name, strokes its face and then proceeds to take a ram into his neighbour’s house in silent protest at the transgression that occurred.

The neighbour turns out to be his brother, the similarly bearded, equally aged Kristinn (“Kiddi”). The two have not spoken for 40 years, and although the reason for this is never explicitly stated, the resentment from both sides is clear as day. Their tense silence could very well have to do with the fact that Gummi’s father did not want Kiddi to inherit the farm, but he has stayed on because their mother insisted on it.

They are also big rivals, as their respective flocks share an esteemed bloodline, and at this year’s edition of the annual competition, Kiddi’s ram prevails by half a point over Gummi’s prized tup. Gummi is naturally crestfallen, but after closer inspection, he comes to believe that Kiddi’s ram, and therefore his flock and all other flocks in the area, might be suffering from scrapie, which would be fatal to both the sheep and the entire valley’s livelihood.

It is to be expected that the two brothers, facing the worst crisis in their extensive time on this Earth, will be pushed together to tackle this problem, but their distrust and general dislike of each other certainly makes this a protacted call to collaboration, whence the film’s running but subtle comedy. Despite their differences – Gummi is the serious one, while Kiddi is prone to hit the bottle on frequent occasions and more likely to behave like a fool – they are also dedicated to their sheep, which for these two lifelong bachelors are just like their own flesh and blood. When tragedy strikes their animals, it is like they see their own bloodline vanish in front of their eyes.

Their attachment to the animals also extends into a very warm relationship with Kiddi’s sheepdog, Sómi, which steals every scene in which he appears. Gummi uses him as a carrier pigeon to deliver handwritten messages to his brother whenever the rare occasion arises for them to communicate, and Sómi is almost giddy with anticipation to oblige.

This anthropomorphism is the logical extension of the affection afforded to the ovine creatures, and screenwriter-director Grímur Hákonarson’s decision to imbue his animals with just as much humanity as his two-legged characters adds enormous warmth to the film. And warmth is certainly welcome in this desolate valley that has been hit by disease and remains exposed to the rigours of the island’s thick white winters. The final scenes, set during a blizzard unleashed on the surroundings of Gummi and Kiddi’s farm, is particularly harsh, and at a screening I attended the wailing gusts of wind ont he soundtrack literally caused the ground in the theatre to vibrate. 

As a final point, even though it does not shed much light on our interpretation of the film, it is worth pointing out that the title can equally refer to the two brothers. The men’s interaction and communication at the very end are intimate and more related to instinct than purely rational thought.

Rams is about silence and a secret shared with a combination of naughty subversion of the rules and a determined desire to uphold to the status quo, even when the course of life cannot be turned back, and life itself can barely be resurrected. The two main characters, offbeat as they are, have affection for their animals and even for each other, and their presence in the story brings out both the comedy and the drama of the unexpected situation they are confronted with.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Brooklyn (2015)

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, story of Irish immigrant to the United States in the early 1950s is filled with compassion and tenderness.

Brooklyn_1Sheet_Mech_7R1.inddIreland/UK/Canada
4*

Director:
John Crowley

Screenwriter:
Nick Hornby

Director of Photography:
Yves Bélanger

Running time: 110 minutes

For anyone who has ever moved far away from their parents and their childhood home to pursue new opportunities that did not immediately manifest themselves, Brooklyn will be an evocative, deeply felt (though for some perhaps too optimistic) depiction of the struggles of adapting in a new country, even one as accepting as the United States of the early 1950s.

The New York City neighbourhood that shares its name with the title of John Crowley’s heartwarming film about one of the hundreds of thousands of post-war immigrants represents a world and ultimately a home for Eilis (pronounced “eye-lish”) Lacey, a 20-something girl from rural Ireland. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is bright and dedicated, but she cannot achieve her full potential working at the general store in Enniscorthy, whose generally laid-back atmosphere may have escaped because of the terrible economic climate in the country following World War II.

Eilis’s father passed away a few years earlier, and she is living with her older sister, Rose, who has a job as a bookkeeper, and her mother, who has little financial independence. But Eilis is determined to make something of herself, and thus she undertakes the nauseating journey across the Atlantic, along with so many other Irish immigrants, some first-timers, others returning from a visit to their former home, to New York City.

She settles in the Irish immigrant–heavy Brooklyn, in a boarding house overseen by the strict but witty Mrs Kehoe, played with more than a smidgen of naughty relish by Julie Walters. Father Flood, a longtime immigrant who facilitated her move to the 48 states, secures a job for her at a department store, but when she starts receiving letters from back home, she quickly becomes a homesick duck out of water, turning reticent, introverted and generally down in the dumps.

The film, based on Colm Tóibín’s eponymous novel, is deliberately paced to take her higher when she meets the Italian Tony – a shy young man who looks like a young Gene Kelly (incidentally, the two watch Singin’ in the Rain together at the cinema) and worships the ground she walks on – and achieves enormous success in her accounting studies before taking her lower with an emotional trip to Ireland that makes her question her decision to move to the New World.

Throughout the entire film, the focus is almost exclusively on Eilis, and it would be difficult not to empathise with her plight as she makes her way in a world that, despite it being Anglophone, is almost completely foreign to her. Crowley also subtly hints at the communication difficulties that existed at the time, as a telephone call between Ireland and the United States was a privilege afforded to very few and had to be organised and booked via special channels.

The cinematography, like the story itself, is infused with a sense of romanticism. The images are luminous while retaining a slighty hazy quality, hinting at an almost dreamlike state of mind as Eilis tries to work through her fantasy of living in America to forging her own path. Luckily for her, New York City is almost filled to the brim with good-hearted people who welcome her into their midst – quite a contrast to the refugee-phobic rhetoric of many U.S. politicians and their supporters that is making headlines as of this writing in November 2015.

Unlike other films about Irish immigrants to the United States, such as Jim Sheridan’s brilliant but underseen In America or Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes, Brooklyn is not mired in misery or peppered with unsavoury characters and situations that show the rougher side of adapting to a new country and its people. Crowley’s view of the United States is uplifting and shimmers with compassion for the local population. In a way, the representation perfectly fits the time period perfectly and seeks to present us with a character pursuing the American Dream without losing the connection to her family and community an ocean away. The only truly odious moments take place within the confines of the grocery store in Enniscorthy, but while they have a very important function, they last mere moments before goodness overthrows their fleeting dominance.

With humor, tenderness and a beautiful love story, Brooklyn is a tale that is as optimistic as an incoming immigrant who has not yet experienced the clash of cultures or any hints of xenophobia. Its central character’s determination to start a new life, one that she chooses for herself, is very appealing, and the wisdom she picks up along the way marks her engagement with her surroundings in a way that promises a bright future, despite life moving on and bonds inevitably breaking.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

In Your Arms (2015)

A man in his mid-30s, ravaged by disease, decides to end his life while encouraging his nurse to start living her own.

in-your-armsDenmark
3*

Director:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm

Screenwriter:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm
Director of Photography:
Brian Curt Petersen

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: I dine hænder

Euthanasia is not an easy topic to wrap one’s head around, particularly because it is so often conflated with murder. When so many people are not even ready to accept suicide as a legitimate action, it is to be expected that euthanasia (the patient sanctions someone to kill him/her), or assisted suicide (the patient kills himself/herself with medication or counselling provided by a second party for this purpose) will be equally challenging notions for an audience. 

The Danish film In Your Arms, co-produced by Lars von Trier, is more of an intimate character study of a man who has decided to end his life than a critical examination of the moral or ethical issues surrounding or arising from this decision. In this respect, the film is a mostly sober representation of one man’s determination to eliminate the suffering that plagues him, instead of a dramatic contrivance that would involve our emotions. But it doesn’t make the audience’s job of empathising with the character easy at all.

One way in which the slight distance between the viewer and the film is achieved is through the use of snow. Symbolising a great number  of things (from ephemeral beauty to peace to a state of being untainted by the heartache and the natural shocks that flesh is heir to), snow accompanies a number of scenes, some of them potentially mere mental images, but at least one, which involves a brutal killing by a blubbering killer, is very real.

The film is centred on Niels, a man in his mid-30s whose body has been degenerating of late and is mostly paralysed. At the nursing home where he is experiencing a great deal of self-pity and has asked his family to stop visiting him, he tries to kill himself. “I can no longer walk. I can no longer masturbate. And soon I will no longer be able to breathe”, he says, and it is easy to understand his desire to put an end to this rapid, inexorable regression.

However, to his horror, he is saved by a young nurse, Maria. Anxious and terrible at any social interaction, she cleans herself by washing her armpits at the wash basin, and most of the time her pale face is taut as a drum. Even when she makes spontaneous decisions, there is no visible joy or passion in her expressions. Niels is not impressed, but although he always has sharp words at the ready for those around him, he needs help to get to Switzerland and end his life through an assisted dying organisation titled ASSIST. Having nothing better to do, now or ever, Maria sets off on the trip to accompany him.

This middle stretch of the film, which is a kind of road movie, is the most interesting part of the story, although it is at times very difficult to watch. The reason is right there in the producer’s credit, as the awkwardness Von Trier has long relished and made most palpable in The Idiots is also on display here. Niels gets a thrill by digging into Maria’s personal life and asking her about it, even when he knows that she finds these conversations excruciating. He also is not beneath embarrassing her in public for no good reason other than oblique self-pity.

We gradually realise that, as he approaches the hour of death, Niels is also grabbing on to his last moments of control in the midst of despair and apparent disarray. He tries to pull Maria out of her shell while he kicks up a fuss when she doesn’t do everything exactly as he orders her to, even if such orders are sometimes contradictory. He has good intentions, and Maria, who is afraid to look in the mirror, both literally and figuratively, would certainly be better off if she were socially better connected. Unfortunately, any assumption that these two characters who don’t fit into society would easily communicate all but blows up in our face, even though they rather pathetically hurtle into each other’s arms in the final act.

The big problem with the depiction of Maria is that the character is sobbing in nearly every single scene. She cries when she feels uncomfortable, she cries when she doesn’t have an answer, and she cries when life happens. She shows no sign of maturing or of dealing with her social and personal hang-ups, has very little development to speak of and is wholly incapable of being around people.

In a film that deals with euthanasia, the scene dealing with this topic in particular will illuminate the director’s talent as a storyteller, and here Samanou A. Sahlstrøm chooses to end his end his story not with lyricism but with extended discomfort. The process of dying by one’s own hand is almost never pretty, and while Sahlstrøm presents the character’s good-byes to his friends and family with great empathy, the act of suicide is filled with unpleasant hesitation, gasping, sniffling and anxious anticipation for the end to arrive sooner rather than later. While tough to watch, this final scene admirably undercuts any notion of this being a straightforward sanctioning of ending one’s own life.

Death very well spells the end to life, but even amidst the beautiful scenery of Switzerland, the transition from animate to inanimate is far from cheerful, and despite the many scenes with the snow that also signals a heavenly bright light, perhaps this example of the end of life pulls us back into the gritty realism that real death commands.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Loev (2015)

In India, where same-sex love is still a taboo (and sex is illegal), uttering the word “love” is a challenge, but “loev” signals there is light at the end of the tunnel.

loevIndia
4*

Director:
Sudhanshu Saria
Screenwriter:
Sudhanshu Saria

Director of Photography:
Sherri Kauk

Running time: 90 minutes

If there is one abiding image that is familiar to and may even represent most gay men – especially those who grew up or were ever in an environment that was less than accepting of their sexuality – it is two people awkwardly squeezed onto a single bed. Whether it is at home, where the parents assume their son is sharing a room with a friend, or at a hotel, where out of embarrassment or fear no booking was made for a double bed, the desire to hold each other easily but uncomfortably overrides the physical restrictions of the single bed.

Homosexuality is not only taboo but also illegal in India, where an infamous 2013 decision by the country’s supreme court found the Penal Code’s section on “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” did in fact include sex between two individuals of the same sex (technically, men). This fact makes the production of Loev, an Indian film about men who have sex with men, utterly remarkable. Not only does the film’s creation constitute a courageous act on the part of writer-director-producer Sudhanshu Saria, but it is also a very accomplished film in its own right that sidesteps many of the traps into which many so-called pink films from the other side of the world often fall. It also includes that beautiful, recognisable image mentioned above.

In the film’s opening scene, we find Sahil, a 20-something musician from Mumbai, all alone in his apartment. It is pitch black, and as his face is illuminated by the candle he lights, we see he is not impressed. It is nearly 40 degrees, there is no air conditioning because the power is out, and he is in a rush to pack for a weekend trip. His boyfriend Alex arrives and admits that he forgot to pay the electricity bill, but Sahil tells him he had also left the gas running. The mood would be tense if it wasn’t for Alex’s carefree attitude, which is nonetheless rooted in an understanding of his boyfriend’s emotional state. He takes Sahil to the airport, but not before we see him trying unsuccessfully to put his arm around his shoulder.

This moment in the car when Sahil pushes his boyfriend away is key to the film, as it not only underlines his anger but also hints at his feeling of shame when it comes to being intimate with his boyfriend in public. His old friend, Jai, who has become a workaholic businessman in New York City, returns to Mumbai for a short visit, and the two head off to the idyllic countryside of the misty Mahabaleshwar, a night’s drive south of the teeming metropolis.

What makes the interaction between Jai and Sahil so compelling and contributes to the film’s serious treatment of its characters is Jai’s attitude towards his friend. There is no tension or judgement. Jai talks to Sahil about Alexander the same way he would have if his friend had been in a relationship with a woman. The underlying assumption of normalcy distinguishes the film’s approach from the traditional anxiety that tends to accompany gay films, even in more accepting countries. At the same time, however, director Sudhanshu Saria does not ignore the lingering disapproval of homosexuality, especially in the countryside, although such moments are fortunately used for context, not to create some contrived moment of drama. 

Loev‘s many long takes (the camera is very mobile but lets the scenes breathe thanks to extended silences) emphasise the real-world setting of the story and are further proof of the director’s talent as a filmmaker. It bears mentioning that this is his début feature film.

The film’s title is equivalent to the U.S. expression “lurve” and allows the speaker to suggest “love” without saying the word. “Love” is a difficult word to say for those who fear the consequences of such a declaration. Men in particular tend to avoid the word, even when their feelings are clearly within the orbit of the definition, and that is certainly the case for Sahil, whose relationship with Alexander is unmistakably filled with compassion and patience even though he refuses to call it by its rightful name.

The final scenes are riveting and reveal a great deal about all three of the main characters. The film comes to a very satisfying conclusion without sugar-coating or glossing over the problems that remain or throwing open the closet door to expose all the secrets hidden inside.

Loev is a timely film that, far from seeking to understand the status of gay men in India, treats them as any other group of individuals with the same problems and desires as anyone else. This approach of normalising their identity is crucial in a country that still struggles to accept people who do not fit the perceived status quo, and in so doing, the film, focused primarily on the tension between a friendship and a relationship, marks an important milestone in the depiction of characters who also happen to be gay.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015