Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

The first Star Wars trilogy comes to an end with a sputter in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, which aims much lower and takes far fewer risks than its predecessor.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the JediUSA
3.5*

Director:
Richard Marquand

Screenwriters:
Lawrence Kasdan
George Lucas
Director of Photography:
Alan Hume

Running time: 130 minutes

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 Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“Luke Skywalker has returned to his home planet of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.

Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star.

When completed, this ultimate weapon will spell certain doom for the small band of rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy….

The Ewoks are unduly demonised. These furry little koala-like creatures living on the forest planet of Endor and bubbling with curiosity may have very primitive tools at their disposal, but they quickly rally behind the rebels and ultimately help win the war against the Empire. They are harmless and act as a very effective manifestation of one of the metaphors that run through the franchise: They are the Davids to the Empire’s Goliath, especially as the monstrous Death Star II looms right above Endor. Contrary to their detractors’ assertions, they are not at all comparable to the pitiful Gungans of Episode I.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the third and final film of the original trilogy, may have some of the worst special effects in the entire franchise and acting that is not quite up to snuff, but it gently winds down the story by answering important questions and slaying Luke Skywalker’s two primary nemeses: Darth Vader and the Emperor. Most importantly, it also shows the very real struggle inside Luke, who gets to face his sworn enemies and has to decide whether to yield to anger or not: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

On the latter point, a return visit to Yoda, the source of this quotation, proves just as influential and revealing as Luke’s first interaction with the old Jedi master in the previous instalment. Self-deprecating and impish, Yoda is still the same delightful creature we know from earlier episodes. But this is the end of the road for him. His 900 years of existence have caught up with him now that he has set Luke on the path to realise his own potential and draw positive energy from the Force even as he confronts his inner demons:

“No more training do you require. Already know you that which you need … One thing remains: Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will.”

and

“Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

He confirms that Vader is indeed Luke’s father, and before he literally dissolves into the afterlife he mentions that there is another Skywalker, who Obi-Wan confirms is Leia. Of course, this is the film that provides us with Leia’s most celebrated appearance in the franchise: Dressed in a skimpy bikini as crime lord Jabba the Hutt’s body servant, she is manacled next to him but ultimately uses the chains as a means to take sweet revenge.

When Jabba sentences Luke and Han to a grisly death by 1,000-year digestion inside the desert monster called the Sarlacc, we get to see the franchise’s worst special effects in action. In fact, the quality is so bad that even the most recent update to the instalment looks mediocre. Scenes in which the dunes of Tatooine whiz past in the background look like very bad blue screen work, and the visual compositions showing the Sarlacc’s gaping mouth of the Sarlacc (also known as the Pit of Carkoon) are mostly wide shots that make it look small, almost innocuous, and far from frightening.

Luckily, there are the Ewoks who pop up in the final act. They may look cuddly and are not particularly bright, but they do remind us of the goodness in the universe. And their emotions are pure and affecting, as we see them react with unmistakable sadness when any of them dies in battle. Such goodness, of course, is lacking (though not entirely) from Vader, who has to choose whether to side with his son or with the Emperor.

The film’s treatment of Vader is both surprising and deeply satisfying. We know he used to be Anakin Skywalker, but his mask is incredibly effective at dehumanising him. And yet, the mask is also a blank screen onto which we project our own desires. After Luke confronts his father by saying he still feels “the good” in him, the camera stays on Vader. We cannot see his face. We only hear his familiar and unsettling breathing. But we are almost certain that he is anxious and uncertain, that Luke has triggered real, previously suppressed emotions.

Episode VI‘s indisputable action highlight is the exhilarating chase scenes between the rebels and the Stormtroopers that take place at high speed among thick forest foliage. The film struggles to combat some second-rate effects shots, as it did in the Tatooine desert scenes in the first act, but the point-of-view and reverse POV shots of the speeder bikes more than make up for it and get the adrenaline pumping.

This being the final film of the trilogy, however, the screenwriters (and presumably, George Lucas) obviously assumed it should end with a great battle. This is wholly unnecessary, and the “big battle” is both overlong and on too small a scale to make much of an emotional impact. While Vader, Emperor Palpatine and Luke duke it out on the Death Star, Leia, Han, Chewie and the Ewoks are taking on the Stormtroopers on Endor. But both battles keep getting interrupted by the other, thus fracturing and destroying the inherent tension in the one and the anticipation in the other.

With the Emperor and Darth Vader dead and the Death Star destroyed (again), the Empire is no more, and the rebels have won. On Endor, Luke sees the Force spirits (or ghosts) of the three major Jedis: his father, Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the restorations since 1997, the final scenes show us celebrations across the galaxy, and in the versions released after the prequels, Anakin’s spirit curiously takes the form of Hayden Christensen rather than Sebastian Shaw.

This is definitely not on the same level as Episode V. The visual effects quality is inconsistent, the Leia–Han relationship has lost its comedic spark, and moments that should be intimate (like Leia recounting her memories of her birth mother, Padmé) are weighed down by dialogue so terrible it could have been written by Lucas himself: “She was very beautiful. Kind. But sad.” On the whole, the film plays it very safe as it moves inexorably towards its happy ending, but it certainly benefits from putting a neat bow on a story that would not continue for nearly 35 years with the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens in 2015.

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.

Begin the Beguine (1982)

A slow-moving but heartwarming tale of a Nobel Prize–winning author’s return to the country of his youth is little more than a music video for Pachelbel’s “Canon”.

Begin the BeguineSpain
3*

Director:
José Luis Garci
Screenwriters:
José Luis Garci

Angel Llorente
Director of Photography:
Manuel Rojas

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Volver a empezar

The first few minutes of José Luis Garci’s Begin the Beguine tell us everything we need to know without using so much as a single word. A train arrives in the Asturian city of Gijón on Spain’s northern coast. An elderly gentleman gets off the train, but before checking into his hotel, he visits a downtown movie house called the Robledo, walks along the harbour where tiny fishing boats bob on the water, and then, at a football stadium, the sight of a chalk line beneath his shoe makes him visibly nostalgic, as do the cranes in the distance, symbols of development and the passage of time. We don’t know anything about this man, but we know this is the home of his youth, where he played football and went to the cinema, and we know this film will be about him catching up with the past.

Unfortunately, the catching up is as shallow as Johann Pachelbel’s recurring “Canon” (as well as Cole Porter’s titular ditty) on the soundtrack is repetitive. But the man at the centre, who wears a smile that tells us he doesn’t take anything too seriously, because wisdom or experience or merely the years he has spent on this Earth have taught him better, keeps our attention and connects with our hearts even when our heads tell us this is too simple a tale.

The man is Antonio Miguel Albajara, a native of Gijón who left because of Franco before moving to the United States and eventually ended up settling in San Francisco and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. We later learn that he has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature and has made this detour on his way back home from the ceremony in Stockholm. Ostensibly, the reason for the detour is not so much to see the city of his youth as it is to see the girl of his youth, Elena. What happens between them, however, is nothing more than scene after scene of reminiscing, and the emotional connection remains superficial at best. Perhaps all the more so because of a secret that is withheld.

This secret is the real reason for Albajara’s return to Gijón, and it has to do with him knowing this will be the last chance for him to see the city and the streets he wrote about in his novels, and above all to relive the romance of his youth with Elena. To protect Elena from devastating news, he keeps the secret of his imminent release from the bonds of existence to himself and chooses instead to make the reunion one of blissful ignorance, as much for Elena’s as for his own sake. This decision, understandable though it may be, is not probed in any detail and ultimately remains firmly in the background. This would have been perfectly acceptable if the foreground had been interesting on its own merits, but that is not the case.

In the foreground, our attention is often directed to Losado, the buffoonish yet well-meaning manager of the hotel where Albajara is staying. It feels like every scene with him belongs in a different film, because the overacting is at times unbearable and does damage to the sincerity and the authenticity we would like to ascribe to Albajara’s interactions.

We learn that Albajara forsook not only his girlfriend but also a promising career as one of the best midfielders the town had ever seen, not to forget his best friend, “Redhead” (Roxu), with whom he shares a beautiful, tender scene in the middle of the film. Unfortunately, none of these events is treated with the seriousness or gets the elaboration they deserve.

The camera also has some peculiar, often downright amateurish moments to indicate loss: At two points in the film, the camera dollies either up or down to reveal Albajara sitting among a vast array of empty chairs – presumably to indicate that he is alone, or that the people around him have died or that the life he once had is no more.

And yet, despite its many faults, including a failure to ask how Albajara’s memory of Elena stacks up against his experience in the present, Begin the Beguine is full of warmth and thoroughly likeable. The primary reason for this is the quiet, subdued performance of Antonio Ferrandis in the lead, playing the character as a wise old man who has made peace with the world and is now also making peace with the past before he faces an uncertain future. Another reason is a wonderful scene in which the writer speaks to King Juan Carlos I on the phone.

But Pachelbel permeates the soundtrack as much as “Lara’s Theme” overpowered Dr. Zhivago, and ultimately we cannot help but think of the film as visual accompaniment to the music, instead of the other way around. During a final encounter at the airport, “Greensleeves” pops up in the background, and even though the connection is self-evident to the point of being simplistic, it is a joy to hear something else on the audio track for a change.

Begin the Beguine is a very shallow depiction of a key moment in the last year of a man’s life, but the central premise and performance are strong enough to carry it through its relatively short running time, and the film has to be commended for refusing to use flashbacks.

Sexmission (1984)

SexmissionPoland

4*
Director:
Juliusz Machulski
Screenwriters:
Juliusz Machulski
Jolanta Hartwig
Pavel Hajný
Director of Photography:
Jerzy Łukaszewicz

Original title: Seksmisja

Running time: 116 minutes

This Polish film from the early 1980s is at times hilarious and very often terribly kitsch but can also be rather uncomfortable given the basic plot of a chauvinist protagonist facing off against feminism run wild in 2044.

Opening in 1991 with the arrival of a doctor whose one hand is limp and covered by a glove (the Dr. Strangelove reference cannot be by accident), named Dr. Kuppelweiser, it is said that cryogenesis has developed to a point where an experiment is feasible. Two men, the overweight and bombastic Maksymilian and the slim, more bookish Albert, leave their loved ones behind in the name of science and are scheduled to return three years later.

But plans don’t always work out the way we expect them to, and they wake up in 2044 in a world without any men — a “lesbian utopia” where reproduction is accomplished through asexual parthenogenesis, and any deviations (i.e. men) from the ideal are scheduled for naturalization, through which they will become female.

Maksymilian and Albert are certainly not in the mood to have their sex changed, and Maksymilian start hatching a plan to seduce the female population en masse. His thinking, rarely questioned by the filmmaker, is that women need men and men need women. And yet, there is a revolutionary underground force of women who like to experiment with each other (a scene that exhilarates the two men) and many of the powerful women give off lesbian vibes.

But leaving director Machulski’s confused contemplation of gender equality aside for a moment, it is important to note the film as a slightly subversive record of its time. While never as overtly satirical as Stanisław Bareja’s Miś, another Polish classic from 1981, there are moments when we can see Machulski making light of the political situation in Poland in the 1980s while at the same time underlining its seriousness.

An obvious example is Maksymilian’s realisation that, by sleeping for 53 years, he missed out completely on getting his long-awaited flat from the government in 1998. While it may not seem like such a big deal, since he was frozen in 1991, the film itself was released in 1984, and many Polish viewers would have viewed the year 1998 in that context, in other words a wait of 14 years.

But another example is more opaque, as it is tied to the film’s very foundation. It provides a moment reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village when, towards the end, we discover that things on Earth are not really quite as bad as the all-female population have led themselves to believe, and in fact the major players are only pretending to safeguard lower-ranking members in order to maintain control. This power they exert in order not to lose control is actually very easily comparable to the regime of the Communist Party of the time, and the lies that are told about life outside the confines of their bubble can be equated to lies (or exaggerations) told about the West.

In these final scenes, a revelation is also made about the existence of a cross-dresser that narrowly escapes labelling as transgenderphobic. Jerzy Stuhr, who plays the slightly heavy-set Maksymilian, at one point goes on a kissing rampage in the all-female world, which causes many women to pass out. This reaction is for comical effect, but also creates the impression that women and men necessarily need each other for sexual satisfaction. And when the one woman is revealed to be a man, the psychological effect of pretending to be something you are not is not addressed at all; instead, there is a substantial assumption that things will immediately go back to normal and he will simply “be a man”.

Sexmission is more about comedy that about filmmaking. The images are often a mess, following no particular point of view or sequence, and in on particular shot the focus is racked completely out of sync with the actions it seeks to highlight. The story is lighthearted and easy to enjoy, and the young blond girl who is the principal guardian of Maksymilian and Albert in the future, Lamia Reno, is particularly effective as a strong woman whose sexuality makes her more amenable to sexual persuasion. Students of feminism will have a field day tearing the film apart, and for most 21st-century viewers the film will also provide its share of uncomfortable moments, though Machulski is not entirely indifferent to man’s negative influence on the world, as is made clear when we learn wars and venereal diseases are a thing of the past thanks to the extinction of man.

Possession (1981)

France

3.5*
Director:
Andrzej Żuławski
Screenwriters:
Frederic Tuten
Andrzej Żuławski
Director of Photography:
Bruno Nuytten

Running time: 124 minutes

Not even Linda Blair, starring as little Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, screamed as much as Isabelle Adjani in Polish director Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 horror film, Possession. Adjani must have set some kind of record. In almost every scene, she is behaving hysterically, yelling, crying, spinning, vomiting blood or hurting herself so that blood gushes from wounds or even her orifices. It is a truly disgusting sight, and often I couldn’t help myself but simply had to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the staging. But while Possession has its tentacles in many other pies and while the product is a bit of an incoherent mess, the actual experience of watching the film is by no means unpleasant.

Set in West Berlin, very close to the Wall, the film opens on the return of Mark, played by a dashing young Sam Neill, most likely a spy, who hasn’t seen his wife Anna and their young son Bob in quite while. But all is not as Mark remembers it. Anna seems caught unprepared for Mark’s return and very soon he realizes she has been unfaithful to him.

However, this is not a simple story of cuckolding. No, instead of making the beast with two backs, she has been humping one with two backs and many tentacles. Yes, this tale about infidelity turns into a gruesome horror when we finally lay eyes on the beast, but not before the film’s first half has solidly pushed the production in that direction by having Adjani run around her apartment, storm into the street screaming while she slobbers streams of blood, and finally give birth to a mixture of blood and milk in the subway tunnel next to the Platz der Luftbrücke U-Bahn station in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, where she writhes orgasmically in liquid puddles on the ground.

Adjani completely surrenders to the role, giving it her all by screaming in bouts that last many minutes at a time, her eyes big as saucers, and seemingly breaks out in cold sweat every time we see her. The performance is as chilling as Neill’s is laughable. He seems to deliver line readings robotically, his actions detached from his words and his movements wholly awkward. He knows this is a joke and he doesn’t much take the role seriously. That is a pity, because a more serious approach might have given weight to the psychological trauma one would expect his character to suffer, given his wife’s insane behaviour (at one point, she comes home and starts putting her son’s clothes in the fridge).

Before the arrival of the Thing, when Anna makes the decision to separate from Mark, there is a remarkable scene in Café Einstein when they are seated next to each other on different sides of a pillar covered by mirrors, yet we cannot see their reflections. Żuławski doesn’t emphasise the effect, but once we realise it, the effect is striking as it anticipates the supernatural direction this film is about to take.

The film mixes many different genres, from the most intimate to the most bombastic, and in all cases the camera is used effectively, often hand-held, surging down a narrow corridor or framing the character by a door frame, to make us uncomfortable. 

“Maybe all couples go through this,” says Adjani, referring to their domestic troubles and her feelings of unhappiness. That may be right, but they quickly take a turn for the rather unusual, as her desire for something different means the creation of something truly abominable.

There are many other bits and pieces to the story, including the teacher of the couple’s son, who looks exactly like Anna, and a secret agent with pink socks, who is discussed during a strange business meeting in which the camera very ominously circles all parties involved, and whose identity is revealed towards the end of the film without any consequence.

The film belongs to the blood, the tentacles and to Adjani, whose tenacity in depicting fits of hysteria is something to behold. Her presence in every scene is magnetic, as her silence in the presence of the Thing is as uncomfortable as her outbursts in any other scene. Żuławski’s film is a big mystery, as there are many aspects to the story that are never really examined, yet his staging of many of the scenes is beautifully done. In one particularly tense scene, Neill is on the phone, his wife has disappeared and we do not know how mobile the Thing is. He switches the light of the room he is in on and off, while he is framed by an open door. We expect the worst — for something to appear behind him at any moment — and Żuławski lets the scene play out as long as possible before letting it reach its end: It’s not what we expect, and serves to emphasise that we have been taken hostage by the fear he’s created already.

Possession is bizarre and most of the characters lose their mind at one point or another… if they have ever been normal at all. But Adjani is fearless and ties the film together with her big eyes, her constant screaming and her lust for something bestial. The film is a potent work of horror.

Quartet for the End of Time (1983)

Mexico

2*
Director:
Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter:
Alfonso Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Ariel Velázquez
Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Cuarteto para el Fin del Tiempo

Alfonso Cuarón handles comedy much better than drama and as he would show with many of his greatest achievements, he is in total control when he has free reign to do both. But his student film, Quartet for the End of Time, about a guy who lives alone in an apartment and never speaks to anyone, provides no entertainment and left me as bored as the tortoise that serves as the only thing the main character speaks to.

“Quartet for the End of Time” is the title of a famous composition by the twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, and indeed the main character plays a few chords from the piece’s third movement, “Abyss of the Birds”, on his clarinet. According to Messiaen: “The Abyss is Time, with all its sadness, its weariness. Birds are the opposite of time; it’s our desire for light, stars, rainbows and jubilant vocals.” Such sadness and weariness are certainly well conveyed by this particular short film, but beyond an expression of such dismal tedium, there is little else of note.

The cinematography is also a let-down. Besides the very few tracking shots, all of which reveal some bit of information, the staging is quite simple and the visuals simply lack imagination.

The very first scene shows some promise: lying in the bathtub, while a very small pet tortoise, hidden in its shell, balances on the edge, the main character reads out loud about tortoises. The protection that the shell offers to the little animal is not an uninteresting point, and its potential for meaning is hinted at by the subsequent dedication in the opening credits: Mariana and her belly. At the time, director Alfonso Cuarón (here billed as Alfonso Cuarón Orozco) was married to Mariana Elizondo, whose belly, we can surmise, was the protective shell to their child, Jonás, born in 1981. But the film does nothing to develop this idea in any shape or form.

Instead, we get a loose assortment of scenes, mostly taking place inside the apartment. Fortunately, with one or two exceptions, we are spared the prospect of listening to explanatory interior monologues, but watching the main character sit at his window (with a sticker for the “Paiste 2002” brand of cymbals) is far from exciting, nor does it substantially contribute to our impression of him as someone completely isolated – what the reasons for this isolations are, however, remain a mystery.

The apartment is clearly his shell, the space in which he feels comfortable and protected, and when he does leave the apartment – even though some of these excursions seem to be illusory – we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. When a film takes place in one setting, our attention needs to be focused, as the Cuarón-produced Duck Season so admirably managed to accomplish.

At the time he made the film, Cuarón had little filmmaking experience and this lack of understanding the form shows very well in his failure to properly direct his main actor (we get a comically amateurish scene in which this character fries a sausage in ten seconds) and the sound effects are completely atrocious. I could easily have ignored these points, were it not for the film’s unwillingness to provide some kind of plot. Granted, we see some transformation from beginning to end, but the reasons for this transformation are never even suggested. A mass of balloons that the character releases from his window might have something to do with it, but such symbolism obscures the plot even more.

It would take Cuarón eight years, and some experience in the field of television, before he undertook another film project, the delightful Love in the Time of Hysteria, and he needed that time to mature, for this student film is an uninteresting, tiresome disgrace that doesn’t even look good.

Metropolitan (1989)

USA

3.5*
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenwriter: Whit Stillman
Director of Photography:
John Thomas

Running time: 98 minutes

Tom Townsend is not very likeable. He pretends to have very firm ideas about literature and social structures, but prefers literary criticism to actual novels, citing his displeasure at the inherent inventedness of fiction. He reminds me a lot of Jesse Eisenberg’s character in The Squid and the Whale, with fewer father issues.

Tom lives on New York’s West Side and attends Princeton, but when we meet him during the cold winter holidays, wearing a rain coat over his dinner jacket, instead of a proper overcoat, we recognise that he does not share the wealthy lifestyle of the group of friends who, on the spur of the moment, invite him to attend a deb (débutante) party with them. Usually, he would avoid these kinds of events, but since he has little else to do, and he is virtually coerced by the most vocal and self-assured of the pack, Nick, into joining them, he goes along and intrigues the others – all of them in their early twenties.

We know next to nothing about Nick, and over the course of the film we get to learn very little, except that he has convinced himself that he has a good relationship with his absent father, though we can see he is deluding himself. His lack of expressiveness and straightforward attitude about the things he believes in and those he opposes are refreshing for one timid girl, Audrey, who quickly gravitates towards him. But Nick is blind to her attention and is still hooked on Serena Slocum, a girl who apparently, according to the gossip in the group, was dating as many as twenty boys at the same time.

At first, the group (designated as the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack”, or S.F.R.P.) seems completely isolated from the rest of society, an upper-class enclave that functions on its own, removed from the vast mass of people around them that populate Manhattan, and it is comical, reminiscent of Maggie Smith’s character in Gosford Park, when one girl declares that she “can’t stand snobbery or snobbish acts of any kind”, while someone outside the group is easily labelled as “riff raff”. But gradually, largely thanks to the character of Audrey, who is the most vulnerable, the group shows signs of humanity, the kind of social interaction that we can relate to, and thaws the very cold façade with which we are initially presented.

The film is mostly a kind of chamber film, consisting of dialogue-heavy scenes that involve only a handful of characters, discussing social interaction and gossiping about others. Very few laughs are to be had, and the most uproarious moment occurs when they decide to dance the cha-cha-cha. But the writing is very good and writer-director Stillman delivers many insightful gems that distill and persuasively relate social wisdom.

Metropolitan provides a nice snapshot of this segment of New York society and the decline and ultimate disintegration of the group is fascinating to watch, made all the more captivating by our realisation that it all takes place over the course of the winter holidays. “You go to a party, you meet a group of people, you think ‘These people are gonna be my friends for the rest of my life.’ Then you never see them again. Where do they go?” Asks an adult, a former Princeton man, towards the end of the film.

The film takes great care not to alienate the audience from the characters, but doesn’t do so to the detriment of the characters themselves, who remain complicated despite their failure to recognise their own faults. The actors, most of them amateur players, are very competent and deliver the lines with admirable self-assurance, though Charlie (Taylor Nichols) has some of the most cerebral lines and does not always come across as entirely convincing. Metropolitan strikes a more sombre tone than The Squid and the Whale, but its approach is perhaps more deliberately realistic and certainly worth a look.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Japan / United Kingdom

4*
Director: 
Nagisa Ôshima
Screenwriters: 
Nagisa Ôshima, Paul Mayersberg
Director of Photography:
Toichiro Narushima

Running time: 118 minutes

Original title:
戦場のメリークリスマス
Transliterated title:
Senjō no merīkurisumasu

War makes friendship among men stronger,” says Lt. Colonel Lawrence to Sergeant Hara of the Imperial Japanese Army. Of course it does. But Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence examines the consequences of such intimacy between soldiers a bit more closely than most other films, with the exception of Robert Altman’s masterful Streamers, which was released the same year. This “intimacy between soldiers” obviously implies some level of attraction, and the film’s very first scene makes it clear what the two camps, namely the British and the Japanese, make of such behaviour.

This film, by the Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima, is set during the Second World War on the island of Java, while it was under Japanese control. Allied troops, mostly British soldiers, are held captive by the Japanese forces, and while the scenes under the hot sun, among the palm trees, showing British soldiers listening to a Japanese captain who follows orders rather than reason, might look familiar, any comparison with Bridge on the River Kwai would be very superficial indeed. Ôshima’s film starts with a scene that immediately puts the Japanese and British views on homosexual attraction front and centre. When it is discovered that Kanemoto, a Korean soldier. has been committing “improper” acts with a Dutch soldier, the Japanese Sergeant Hara at first decides to execute Kanemoto, lest his shameful acts be made public. But moments before the sword falls, the commanding officer, Captain Yonoi, arrives on the scene to stop the overzealous Sergeant.

Yonoi seems to be a rather complicated individual. The filmmaker introduces him as a slightly effeminate character, approaching the would-be execution in a white robe and sandals; he also seems to be wearing eyeliner, but his fellow soldiers seem not to take any notice. He delays the execution and is called up to Batavia where he participates in a military trial for a captured British soldier called Celliers, played by David Bowie. At this point, during Celliers’s appearance in court, we get the most visible indication that Yonoi is fascinated – perhaps even enchanted – by the blond Brit: he can’t take his eyes off him.

While the charges against Celliers are read out loud, the viewer’s attention is rapt by the very slow zoom in, across the courtroom, on Yonoi’s face, staring at Celliers. When he is finally given the opportunity to speak, he comes to Celliers’s defence and proposes that the Brit be taken as a prisoner of war, rather than executed.

After Celliers arrives at the camp and Yonoi discovers that he used to serve with Lawrence, he questions the latter about him in a very innocent way that nonetheless reveals his interest to us and to Lawrence, who is very bemused by the captain’s almost childlike fascination and the fact that he doesn’t know how to interpret his own feelings. While Celliers notices Yonoi’s eyes on him and takes advantage of the special treatment he consequently receives from the Japanese commander, he is not interested in Yonoi, except as a means of redeeming himself. The viewer is made aware of the need for redemption during two significant incidents that occur as flashbacks – the first takes place years earlier when Celliers protects his younger brother by being beaten up in his place, and the second occurs years later when Celliers does not protect his brother when he is bullied at school.

Celliers’s eventual attempt at redemption demonstrates great cunning on the parts of both Celliers and the director, for it clearly links a number of different events into a solid final moment of courage. Celliers realises that, if violence is not an effective tactic of resistance, the opposite might just be worth trying out, and in the process he not only stands up against his oppressors, but he frees himself from the shackles of the past. The scene is short, simple, and stripped to its bare essentials, yet surprisingly complex, given the resolution of two issues effected in a single leap.

Yonoi shows great promise for dramatic intrigue in the first half, which moves along rapidly once the captain lays his eyes on Celliers in court, and it is very interesting to read the looks of the other Japanese soldiers, who fear that their captain has been bewitched by an evil spirit – the only explanation for the sudden change in his behaviour. However, the second half does not deliver on the promise of the first half, but rather shifts the focus to the title character, John Lawrence, who serves as mediator between the Japanese and British language and culture, and Sergeant Hara, whose initial eagerness to kill changes over time and reveals a more human character than we might have expected.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence takes on an interesting subject, but while David Bowie’s character, Jack Celliers, is carefully drawn, I did not find the same kind of depth in either John Lawrence or Hara, though this does not mute their likeability in any way. Nagisa Ôshima focuses on the human dramas of four men, and while the two groupings do not provoke the same level of emotion, the characters are all very firmly established and carry the film squarely (and firmly) on their shoulders.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

USA
4*

Director:
Rob Epstein
Screenwriters:
Rob Epstein
Carter Wilson
Judith Coburn
Director of Photography: 
Frances Reid

Running time: 91 minutes

This film, which won the Best Documentary Oscar, has always been considered the No. 1 document that condenses the life of Harvey Milk and reminds viewers around the world of his importance in the gay rights struggle. In 2008, Milk, Gus van Sant’s fictional account of Milk’s life, with Sean Penn as the gay rights icon, heavily relied on information gleaned from this documentary by Rob Epstein, who would go on to direct an outstanding documentary on gay representation in the cinema, The Celluloid Closet.

Watching The Times of Harvey Milk, it is very clear that Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the screenplay for Van Sant’s film, was inspired not only by the content of the documentary but also by its structure; the two films have exactly the same book-ends – a tape recording of Milk’s will in case of assassination, the announcement by Dianne Feinstein that Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone had been assassinated, and Milk’s famous “Hope” speech. I was a little disappointed by Black’s stencilled duplication of these parts in his screenplay for Milk instead of integrating them into the fictional quilt in some other way.

In touching interviews with many of the people in Harvey Milk’s life – though, unfortunately, many of the important ones, such as Cleve Jones, Dianne Feinstein and Scott Smith, are not included – we get a sense of Milk’s achievements and his perseverance against great resistance, especially during the debacle of Proposition 6, in his first year in office, which would have allowed the Department of Education to fire teachers who self-identified as homosexual. Here, I learned about Sally Gearhart, a gay rights activist with an intimidating intelligence, who debated Jon Briggs in a very factual manner during their televised debates, and I believe her collaboration with Milk helped to defeat the proposed anti-gay initiative. Her words on the role of fear in the campaign explains the central issue very succinctly and are still relevant to anti-gay movements today.

The film provides a lot of detail about the political co-operation between Milk and Moscone, and we can easily understand how it came to be that Harvey Milk was given the opportunity to be elected city supervisor (redistricting provided the city with a much more representative combination of politicians than had ever previously been the case).

However, the film focuses too much on the role of Dan White, who had served on the board with Milk and, after certain disagreements between him, Milk and Moscone, killed the two men. The film spends its final 20 minutes going over perceived discrimination in the trial, the jury selection and the verdict. Of course, one has to keep in mind that the film was made five years after the death of Milk and shortly before White’s release from prison (he would commit suicide a year later, in 1985). But all the talk of White, his conservative values and the lenient sentence that he was given after killing two men in a very obviously premeditated act of violence should not have taken up so much time in this documentary.

Pixote (1981)

Brazil
4*

Director:
Hector Babenco
Screenwriters:
Hector Babenco
Jorge Durán
Director of Photography:
Rodolfo Sanches

Running time: 128 minutes

Original title: Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco

Pixote is gritty and tough and wholly credible as a faithful representation of the lives of street children in São Paulo. Whereas the title unfortunately focuses on one specific character, the film itself is interested in the larger group of individuals of which the young João Henrique, nicknamed “Pixote” (pronounced “pee-shaw-che”), forms an important part. It is a well-known fact that the boy who played the title character and whose living standards were comparable to those of his character in the film was shot and killed by police in August 1987.

The film’s extradiegetic opening is remarkably simple but entirely appropriate and manages to highlight the urgency of the plight of São Paulo’s street children: Director Hector Babenco, with one of the city’s favelas very visible in the background, speaks directly to the viewers and informs us that stories such as that of the film we are about to watch still happen every day. He even points to a small house where Fernando Ramos Da Silva, the actor who plays Pixote, lives with his family.

Pixote follows the lives of a group of young boys who, having committed crimes, can’t be sent to prison but are locked up in a reform school instead. At 10 years of age, Pixote is the youngest, and during his first night in the dormitory, a few bunks from him, a boy is raped by an oversexed teenager.

The image of Pixote sniffing glue is powerful, and we recognise this character’s desperation in a single shot. When circumstances around him become even worse (at times, the school may be confused for a prison, and a very corrupt prison at that), he decides to free himself from this restrictive environment.

But, as a relative of Pixote had warned him, life outside the school can be even worse than life on the inside. Even though there are a few wonderfully dynamic scenes in which we see the young boys snatch purses and mug unsuspecting seniors of their wallets, their eventual involvement in the world of drug dealing, which they know nothing about, is tense and leads to very bad things.

Pixote is not really the main character, and a title that made it clear that the focus is on the group rather than the individual would have been truer to the spirit of the film. The cinematography is excellent, and the acting is flawless. However, the story does not have the tight focus it could have had if the centres of interest has been more clearly defined. At one point, the film digresses into a musical number that only relates to a single character, who never really features again. However, the themes that the film does raise, including issues of poverty, sexuality and power, are all handled admirably, and it is clear to see why this socially conscious film caused such a sensation when it was first released.