Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Top 11 Faux-Friendly Bond Villain Encounters

Joseph Wiseman, the actor best known as the first James Bond villain, Dr. No, passed away yesterday at the age of 91. The film Dr. No is in many respects of a rough draft of the twenty-one (and counting) films that would follow, particularly its action scenes, which are very simple and understated compared to the massive, spectacular set pieces the series would rapidly become known for, but certain elements emerge startlingly fully-formed right out of the gate: James Bond 007 as embodied by Sean Connery has his gambling, womanizing, "Bond, James Bond" catchphrase, and supernatural cool established within thirty seconds of appearing onscreen. M and Moneypenny appear exactly as they would for decades to come. The opening gunbarrel and classic James Bond theme song are fully intact. And perhaps almost as important as Agent 007 himself we have the Bond villain, Wiseman's Dr. No — an insidious mastermind, flamboyant yet well-spoken and impeccably dressed, with a bizarre deformity (Dr. No lost his hands to radiation and had them replaced with new steel hands) and a dastardly plot.

All that may sound eye-rollingly cliché circa 2009, but that's only because the James Bond movies created a new villainous archetype powerful enough to become iconic. Bond's first meeting with Dr. No is the ultimate, prototypical "Welcome, Mr. Bond! I've been expecting you. Join me for dinner as I give a villainous monologue about my plans" scene, a scene which no filmmaker would ever, ever attempt to pull off today except in a straight-to-DVD B movie or a spoof. But in 1962? It was brilliant. Like many great films, Dr. No was lightning in a bottle, and one of a hundred things could have gone wrong and halted the best franchise ever right there with movie number one, and a lesser villain is definitely high on that list. But Dr. No was awesome, the movie was awesome, and the series is still alive and kicking a half-century later, so Joseph Wiseman, I salute you.

But the relationship of James Bond and Dr. No is missing one thing that wouldn't become a regular part of the series until the third film, Goldfinger, and that thing is what I like to call the "faux-friendly Bond villain encounter." You see, with a few exceptions (Dr. No being one of them), Bond villains generally aren't full-time evil masterminds or criminal overlords, or at least not openly. No, a Bond villain hides behind his public persona as a captain of industry and humanitarian — he may head a gold empire, a media empire, a microchip empire, a space program empire, or an oil empire, but you know he's the head of an empire that's made him rich beyond measure. And in many films, in order to get close to and learn more about the bad guy, James Bond poses as someone friendly to the antagonist's public face and has a tensely cordial meeting with them at some kind of party or function or casino. Ergo, the faux-friendly Bond villain encounter.

This is one my favorite scenes and one rarely seen outside of Bond movies (it has no real analogue in any Star Wars or Die Hard or Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter or Star Trek or Matrix or Terminator or Indiana Jones or horror or superhero or Disney movie I can think of, anyway), and I always look forward to it and am disappointed if it doesn't happen in a new Bond flick. One of the things that makes it entertaining is that, despite being a perfect shot and impossibly good driver and able to seduce any women within two sentences, James Bond appears to be absolutely terrible at this part of his job. The villain almost always sees through Bond's charade instantaneously and almost without exception orders Bond to be killed immediately after (or even during!) the friendly encounter. It's nice to know that even Agent 007 has a few flaws.

So in honor of Bond villainy, I thought that I would go through the series and list my top eleven faux-friendly Bond villain encounters. Why eleven? Well, because that's how many times it happens in the series, and I would feel like a fucking idiot doing a top ten and leaving off just one. Note that this list only includes instances where Bond is the one impersonating a friendly, not films where the bad guy pretends to be good to get close to Bond (From Russia With Love, For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights, The World Is Not Enough), although it is humorous to note that unlike the villains, Bond is without exception fooled when this trick gets pulled on him. Maybe M needs to reconsider who his / her best agent is.

11. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, On Her Majesty's Secret Service

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond's nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of SPECTRE, has taken over a clinical research facility atop a snowy mountain the Swiss alps, from which he plans to distribute bacteriological warfare agents across the Western world. That last part is secret, of course. Bond disguises himself as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, Blofeld's contact at the London College of Arms, to visit Blofeld's clinic and try to uncover his plot.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Surprisingly (for reasons we'll get to in just a second), yes, at first. But Blofeld figures out Bond is a fake and orders him killed after Bond makes a slip-up, and I'm just gonna quote this straight from Wikipedia: "Bond had explained to Blofeld that the de Bleuchamp tombs are in the Augsburg Cathedral, which are actually located in the St. Anna Kirsche." Okay, I'm actually gonna let Bond slide on that one, because fuck if I would have picked up on that.

Why 11th? Despite my love for the faux-friendly encounter, I admit that this is the one I don't like, and which always gives me pause when Bond fans declare On Her Majesty's Secret Service to be one of their favorites. For one, the depiction of Bond impersonating Sir Hilary Bray is truly idiotic. He wears a kilt and a frilly shirt (because that's a disguise, apparently), and they dub over George Lazenby with another actor when he's talking as Bray. That's just awful. But worse, while On Her Majesty's Secret Service is indeed the first time Bond and Blofeld meet face-to-face in the novels, in the film series they had met one movie earlier in You Only Live Twice, and now, for some magical fucking reason, Blofeld doesn't recognize his archnemesis standing two feet from him! I guess they were trying to do a soft reboot for the new actor, but it doesn't work.

10. Emilio Largo, Thunderball

The faux-friendly encounter: Emilio Largo has stolen two NATO warheads and is holding the world ransom under threat of nuclear annihilation. Bond, meanwhile, has followed the clues and corpses to the Bahamas, where he flirts with Largo's mistress Domino Derval who in turn introduces him to Largo. The two have a tense conversation by a pool trying to feel each other out and Largo introduces Bond to his crew and his shark pit (which he will soon throw Bond into).

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Not a chance! While Largo lets Bond walk away from the encounter, he attempts to have him killed via sharks, grenades, and general assassination soon afterwards.

Why 10th? No particular reason, there just isn't a huge amount of color to the scene and Thunderball is in general one of my least favorite Bond movies.

9. Elliot Carver, Tomorrow Never Dies

The faux-friendly encounter: Media baron Elliot Carver has sunk a British frigate and framed the Chinese for it and shot down a Chinese plane and framed the British for it and plans to start World War III for ratings. He's not doing the best job of it though, because he puts out a news release about the attacks hours before any other media network even becomes aware of them with details he shouldn't know, so M sends Bond to a party Carver is holding in Hamburg celebrating the expansion of his television empire. Bond antagonizes Carver by basically saying "we know you did it!" with thinly veiled quips and then fucks his wife.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Not so much, thanks to Bond's ludicrously blatant hints. Carver doesn't even wait until the party is over, luring Bond to a side room with a supposed telephone call with instructions for his goons to detain him and rub him out. Bond escapes so Carver sends an assassin to his hotel room. Let that be a lesson to you, kids: if you've figured out an evil mastermind's plot, don't be an asshole about it.

Why 9th? Unlike some Bond fans, I actually love Elliot Carver and Tomorrow Never Dies. He's wildly over-the-top, almost a caricature, but like the movie itself he's pure goofy fun (and this is off topic, but Tomorrow Never Dies also has the best post-80s Bond soundtrack). But despite this, this encounter gets ranked low for two reasons: one, it stretches my liberal suspension of disbelief that a media baron would spend years and billions of dollars planning every minute detail of starting World War III only to rapidly incriminate himself by releasing news of his terrorist attacks hours ahead of schedule. That's just sloppy. And two, Bond's "tee hee! I know it was you, Elliot!" hints during their conversation stretch my belief in the other direction. What the hell kind of spy does that??

8. Karl Stromberg, The Spy Who Loved Me

The faux-friendly encounter: Shipping tycoon and marine biology aficionado Karl Stromberg has secretly captured two nuclear submarines and plans to obliterate New York City and Moscow, triggering a global nuclear apocalypse that will leave him ruling over the undersea empire of what remains of humanity. Bond smells something fishy (pun?) so he and sexy Soviet agent XXX pose as a marine biologist and his wife and visit Stromberg's undersea base of Atlantis to chat about, well, fish, I guess.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Stromberg's henchman Jaws has already encountered Bond and XXX in Egypt, so not even a little bit. Upon Bond and XXX leaving his quarters Stromberg instantaneously says into his ambiguous henchman-contacting microphone, "let them get ashore, and then kill them."

Why 8th? The Spy Who Loved Me is one of my very favorite movies of all time and rocks in basically every way a movie can rock. That said, in more viewings than I care to admit I've never quite fully put together what Bond's public excuse for visiting Stromberg is, in his marine biologist guise, I mean. As Agent 007 he's there to get a look at Stromberg's lair and submarines, but when they meet all they do is talk about fish for like three minutes. Not much of a show, Bond, no wonder you got figured out like a little bitch.

7. Gustav Graves, Die Another Day

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond finds some African conflict diamonds bearing the laser signature of British billionaire Gustav Graves, so he goes to visit Graves at his fencing club, where they have a fencing match that explodes into a full-blown sword fight and Graves actually utters the line "since we're upping the wager, let's up the weapons, shall we?!" Graves then invites Bond to the unveiling of his scientific project (a giant mirror satellite that's secretly a superweapon) at his Final Fantasy-style ice palace in Iceland, where they sneer at each other at Graves's party.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Gustav Graves is secretly (and unbeknownst to Bond) a North Korean arms dealer named Colonel Moon who James Bond has encountered and tried to kill before and has since undergone gene therapy to turn himself white. So, basically, no! (And we're one for five in even semi-successful deception, for those of you keeping track.)

Why 7th? The existence of Die Another Day is why I can't with any conviction call Tomorrow Never Dies a "guilty pleasure" — Tomorrow Never Dies may not be an objectively great film, but it sure as shit is next to Die Another Day! But I still like Die Another Day in spite of all logic; it's so goddamn hilarious and over-the-top that I can't help but have a good time with it. Bond and Graves's sword fight is as awesome as it is goofy and I enjoy it as a sort of bizarro version of Bond and Goldfinger's golf match in Goldfinger, after all, "it's just a bit of sport!" But don't get me wrong, I freely acknowledge the stupidity of it.

6. Hugo Drax, Moonraker

The faux-friendly encounter: A Drax Industries Moonraker shuttle (shuttles that can take off into space and land again on earth like airplanes, which was science fiction back when this movie came out) has been stolen, so James Bond goes to Drax Industries in California to investigate, where Hugo Drax generously shows him around and provides him fine food and lodging. Unbeknownst to Bond, Drax stole his own company's shuttle since one of his malfunctioned and he needs a complete fleet to take his master race safely into the outer atmosphere while he gasses and eliminates the rest of the humanity.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? He attempts to have Bond killed within hours of his arrival with a centrifuge chamber "malfunction," and then again the next morning with a good old-fashioned sniper assassin, so I'm gonna go with no. Ironically, if I'm reading the movie correctly, these botched assassination attempts are a big part of why Bond's suspicions shift squarely towards Drax.

Why 6th? Moonraker is, in virtually every way, The Spy Who Loved Me remade two years later with the ocean switched out for space and not even close to as good. Both movies are about one of the richest men in the world with a fixation on the sea / outer space and Jaws as a henchman deciding that they want to eliminate 99% of humanity and rule over a new master race from their throne in their undersea lair / space station. Both films even share a director, Lewis Gilbert. But despite the clear superiority of The Spy Who Loved Me it is Moonraker that has the greater villain in the awesomely smug, snooty, superior Hugo Drax. He's just such a glorious asshole, and fittingly, the time Bond spends with him is actually a lot more entertaining (and a lot lengthier) than the few minutes Bond spends chatting with Stromberg in Spy. They have delightfully barbed yet outwardly cordial conversations and the attempts on Bond's life are both pretty awesome. Big fan of this one.

5. Max Zorin, A View to a Kill

The faux-friendly encounter: James Bond finds a microchip on the corpse of Agent 003 which analysis shows was produced by Zorin Industries ("[Villain's Last Name] Industries" seems to be a hit with Bond villains). Max Zorin is fortuitously holding some sort of horse racing / breeding event at his villa in Chantilly, France, so off Bond goes to join the party under the alias of James St. John Smythe. Of course Zorin plans to create an earthquake that will destroy Silicon Valley, giving him a monopoly on microchips, but 007 doesn't know that and Zorin and Bond have plenty of pleasant chats. Zorin is even kind enough to send his ultra-masculine henchwoman May Day to Bond's room at night, leading to the one scene in any Bond film that most straightforwardly resembles gay sex.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? This one is just humiliating. Max Zorin takes "Smythe" into his office and, while outwardly chatting about horses, secretly takes Bond's photo, uploads it to his computer, does some sort of 1985 version of an Internet search, and turns up Bond's name and 00 status within about a minute... while Bond is sitting right there in front of him gabbing about horses. I mean... jeez, Bond. Sloppy much? Wow. Zorin then locks Bond in his car and throws the car into a lake.

Why 5th? A View to a Kill is almost universally reviled among both the mainstream and Bond community. Siskel & Ebert put it on their list of the top ten worst films of 1985. It also happens to be my all-time number two guilty pleasure (behind only Dungeons & Dragons). Sure, I'll talk a big game about my critically astute tastes, but if you got me drunk enough I'd probably identify A View to a Kill as one of my ten favorite movies ever made. I love every godforsaken minute of it and I especially love Christopher Walken's Max Zorin. Ergo, I basically love all the scenes where Roger Moore and Chris Walken interact by default. Shit, this movie rules!

4. Franz Sanchez, Licence to Kill

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond is trying to bring down the empire of Latin American drug lord Franz Sanchez, who fed Bond's best friend Felix Leiter to a shark (Felix survived but lost a leg) and had Felix's wife killed. Bond's assassination attempt on Sanchez is halted by Hong Kong narcotics agents who need Sanchez alive and prepare to kill Bond, but just then, Sanchez and his men raid the building, kill the agents, ironically misidentify the narcs as assassins and Bond as being on their side, and Bond becomes part of Sanchez's inner circle, sleeping in his exotic Latin villa, banging his girlfriend, led on tours of his cocaine factory. Bond then tricks Sanchez into killing off his own lieutenants by framing them for theft or for hiring assassins to kill Sanchez.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Are you ready for this shocker? YES. James Bond tricks Franz Sanchez into believing he is on his side! I can't goddamn believe it! Too bad Timothy Dalton couldn't have attempted the faux-friendly encounter again, because he seems to be the only James Bond who has the skills to pull it off. Bond is eventually uncovered near the end of the film when Sanchez's knife-wielding henchman Dario recognizes him from an earlier encounter, but for James Bond's standards the deception lasts a long time, well over half an hour of screen time if I remember right. Nice going, 007!

Why 4th? Because it worked!

3. Kamal Khan, Octopussy

The faux-friendly encounter: Exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan is plotting with a mad Soviet general to smuggle an atomic bomb into an American air force base which will then be detonated. Just another day's villainy, right? Anyway, Bond sits down for a game of backgammon with Khan at a casino in Delhi, India, where they exchange poisoned barbs before the gathered crowd while gambling at high stakes. Khan, however, is cheating with loaded dice that roll a double six upon being squeezed. At the pivotal moment, Khan tells Bond, "You can only win with a double six. The stake is two-hundred thousand rupees. Do you have cash?" Bond tells Khan before the crowd that if Khan doesn't mind he'll use Khan's "lucky" dice, and of course rolls a double six. "Double sixes. Fancy that. Two-hundred thousand rupees... l prefer cash."

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Ha! Of course not. The encounter is just barely "friendly" anyway. Khan sends a henchman to kill Bond almost immediately afterwards.

Why 3rd? Because it's goddamn hilarious, that's why! Octopussy is probably the most underrated film in the entire Bond canon, and this, along with Dr. No's first scene with Bond, GoldenEye, and another obvious movie that will come up again in just a moment, is one of the best casino scenes in the series. Bond's snooty "I prefer cash" followed by Kamal Khan's glaring daggers of death make me laugh quite hard.

2. Auric Goldfinger, Goldfinger

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond is investigating Auric Goldfinger, both under assignment from MI6 to find out how Goldfinger transports gold internationally and because Goldfinger smelted Bond's girlfriend to death (Goldfinger's actual plan is to nuke Fort Knox, increasing the value of his own gold ten times). So Bond and Goldfinger arrange a friendly game of golf together.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? It seems like he is, but upon completion of the final hole (Bond wins) and settling of the stakes, Goldfinger calmly tells Bond he knows exactly who he is and he'll have him killed if he continues his investigation. This one is a curious, unique case, because Goldfinger seems to mean it and doesn't send anyone to assassinate Bond or even have him followed; he genuinely leaves and intends never to see or think about Bond again. 007 however can't leave well enough alone and continues the pursuit, so when he's caught this time Goldfinger keeps him captive before chaining him to the ticking atomic bomb in the belly of Fort Knox.

Why 2nd? Despite a lack of any gadgets or assassination attempts, this one is the gold standard (PUN MASTERSTROKE) for faux-friendly Bond villain encounters; it strikes the absolutely perfect balance of outward friendliness with an icy cold, threatening cord running just underneath the surface. It's funny, entertaining, and tense all at once and my favorite golf match in cinema by a hundred million fucking miles; there isn't another in the same remote ballpark. It helps that Goldfinger is arguably the best villain and Goldfinger arguably the best film in the history of the franchise.

1. Le Chiffre, Casino Royale

The faux-friendly encounter: Terrorist banker Le Chiffre blew his client's money trying to play the stock market with it, and if there's any bad idea on earth, it's throwing away a hundred million dollars worth of pissed-off Ugandan terrorist money (in the 1953 novel, it was Soviet Union money and he blew it investing in a brothel). He attempts to recoup it in a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro, so M sends Bond, the best player in the service, to win the poker tournament so Le Chiffre has no choice but to seek refuge with the British government and tell them everything he knows about the terrorist operation in exchange for immunity. Bond and Le Chiffre proceed to play them lots of poker together.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? No. I mean, really, who is? Le Chiffre can't well pull out a glock and put one in Bond's head right there at the table, so he poisons Bond's drink instead. In all fairness, Bond isn't really trying to befriend Le Chiffre here, but still, it hurts when your poker buddies try to execute you, you know? So Bond's final tally out of eleven attempted faux-friendly performances is one successful (Licence to Kill), one semi-successful (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), and nine failures. Ouch.

Why 1st? It was a pretty close call between this and Goldfinger, but while Goldfinger probably fits the "faux-friendly" description a lot better (Bond and Le Chiffre, while as outwardly civil as you need to be at a table with ten other players as well as bystanders, are pretty goddamn prickly), the showdown at Casino Royale is lengthier, more tense, and more fun, with plenty of cutting one-liners and Le Chiffre's bad eye bleeding like it's on its period and assassination attempts and the Ugandan terrorists showing up and threatening to hack Le Chiffre with a machete unless he wins. Bond then gets into a fight with and kills two of them on a trip away from the table. Tight! Casino Royale is one of my favorite movies of the decade and in addition to the great action, great performances, great cinematography, and great music, I think the fact that Bond and the Bond villain get an usually large amount of face time together is a big, big part of that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Retrospective Review

The late John Hughes meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some folks older than me might primarily associate him with the National Lampoon's Vacation franchise, while some younger than me might primarily associate him with Home Alone. But for me mention of John Hughes is virtually synonymous with the string of six iconic 1980s teen films that he either wrote and directed (Sixteen Candles & Weird Science), wrote and produced (Pretty In Pink & Some Kind of Wonderful), or, in the case of his two masterpieces, wrote, produced, and directed:

First, The Breakfast Club, which roughly ties with The Karate Kid and Superbad as my all-time second favorite film of the teen subgenre; pure teen angst somehow magically grafted onto celluloid unlike any movie before, since, and in all likelihood, ever. If you're anywhere between the ages of thirteen and eighteen this movie is guaranteed to speak to all your fears and anxieties and neuroses like it was made for you and you alone. Sure, it ages laughably and appears hopelessly silly and melodramatic pretty much the second your high school diploma is in hand, but at that point it's no longer made for you you senior citizen motherfucker, and the skill with which Hughes tapped into the psyche of a generation so far removed from his own is without peer.

And second, Hughes' masterpiece, not only my favorite teen film but easily now and forever one of my very favorite movies of all time: Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The brilliance of Ferris Bueller is difficult to quantify. Much like Groundhog Day, another film now universally hailed an all-time classic, it was met upon release with pleasant but mild critical response, and on its face seems a fun, whimsical, yet ultimately fairly disposable teen comedy. It certainly doesn't have the technical and aesthetic innovation or brilliantly elaborate story and characters of other masterpieces like Citizen Kane or Chinatown or Star Wars — but it is brilliant, and it is a masterpiece, make no mistake, and there are more interesting concepts percolating under the surface than may be initially evident, starting with the unusual divide between protagonist and who the story is really about.

Our protagonist is of course Ferris Bueller; impossibly suave, ultra-charming, devil-may-care Ferris Bueller. As someone who strongly prefers my teen protagonists to be geeks and oddballs and underdogs, such as in the previously mentioned Karate Kid or Superbad and of course Freaks & Geeks, Ferris outwardly seems like the last person I would ever root for. He's the most popular and most cool and least unhappy high schooler on earth; the world is his oyster. But while Ferris is our protagonist, the story isn't truly about him. He's less a man than a superhuman avatar for coolness, a god who walks among us, and the gods rarely underwent character development in Greek mythology either.

No, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is in fact the story of one Cameron Frye, and he is (initially) everything Ferris is not: unhappy, uptight, nervous, perpetually ill, mistrusted by his parents, full of bottled rage at his lot in life. And while Ferris is the engine that propels the plot along, it is Cameron who takes the Hero's Journey during their day-long jaunt through Chicago; far from being Ferris's straight man as a lesser filmmaker might have doomed him to, Cameron (along with one other character we'll discuss later) is the one who undergoes a rich and thorough character development and slays his own personal antagonist in the end.

We meet Cameron in his grey, clinical tomb of a home, convincing himself that he's deathly ill so that he can feel something. He's a wretch, the most pathetic character of John Hughes' career. But then, initially against Cameron's will, his superhuman best friend whisks him away to see the view from atop the Sears Tower, a game at Wrigley Field, the priceless works of the Art Institute of Chicago, a downtown parade, and Sloane Peterson naked, and in doing so Cameron emerges from his shell, confronts his inner demons, and acknowledges the beauty that life holds, quietly but honestly admitting at the end that he's just had the best day of his life. "Save Ferris" is a visual logo repeated many times throughout the film, ironically reflecting the entire reason Ferris organized his day off: to Save Cameron.

"All I wanted to do was give him a good day," Ferris confides to the camera, and it's true. The first-time viewer could be forgiven for interpreting the titular character to be the story's center, but upon further analysis it becomes clear that the grand ulterior motive of Ferris Bueller's miniature vacation is not leisure, but the exorcism of Cameron Frye's demons, an epic task that only a living god like Ferris would dare undertake. Fame, fortune, love, and lauding all come easy to a deity, so perhaps saving a person's very soul is the only true challenge that remains.

Coming back to aesthetics, one fascinating aspect of the film which I briefly mentioned above is its lack of a fourth wall — for Ferris, anyway. Like many other films where the protagonist addresses the camera, only the protagonist addresses the camera; no other character speaks to or acknowledges it, but at the same time, they never seem to find it unusual when Ferris turns to and addresses what they see as an empty spot in the air. It's best not to dwell too long on the logistics of it, you'll get a headache.

But while Ferris Bueller's Day Off isn't the first and sure as hell isn't the only movie to have the protagonist address the camera — Woody Allen occasionally did so in Annie Hall about a decade beforehand — no other film has ever put this device to such consistently brilliant use. Ferris's monologues are witty and glib but never superfluous; he speaks to the camera to enhance our knowledge of the characters (usually Cameron), or spin our perspective on events ("I asked for a car, I got a computer. How's that for being born under a bad sign?"), or, in the classic opening minutes, explain his foolproof plan for faking out your parents, complete with onscreen graphics.

The film is also unique in the way it plays with the conventions of pacing. Teen comedies aren't usually known for their languid pace, and like the rest of the pack, Ferris Bueller keeps things snappy and never stays in one place too long (hell, the dialogue starts over the opening company logos and the film continues with new scenes straight through the entire end credits and beyond!). But in a film loaded with classic scene after classic scene (who could ever forget Ferris's impersonation of Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago, in order to gain access to a glitzy restaurant, or the economics teacher's oblivious role call of "Bueller? ... Bueller? ... Bueller?"), two of the most iconic and immortal moments seem outwardly superfluous and fly defiantly in the face of generic "three jokes per page!" comedy screenwriting conventions.

In the first, Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane stop by the Art Institute of Chicago, and the movie pauses for a few minutes, dispensing with dialogue and sound effects and leaving only the dreamy, symphonic score to accompany Ferris as he and his friends absorb the most beautiful paintings and sculpture in the world. Eventually, Cameron splits off from the group and stands transfixed before Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte for nearly a full minute, looking deep into the pointillism until, like the fragments of his life, it no longer makes sense. It's a scene of overwhelming power and beauty that I don't think would have made it off the pages of the screenplay in a teen comedy of this day and age.

In the film's next major set piece, Ferris, flabbergasted by Cameron's claims that he remains unmoved by all he's seen, hijacks a downtown parade float to dedicate a cheesy lip synch of Danke Schoen to "a young man who doesn't think he's seen anything good today — Cameron Frye, this one's for you." In the real world, a high school student faking a deathly illness to skip school might want to avoid getting up on a stage surrounded by millions of Chicagoans, TV cameras, photographers, and the mayor, but of course Ferris Bueller has ascended beyond such earthly logic. It's not that he has a work-around, it just simply can't touch him.

Ferris then drives Chicago into an orgasmic frenzy by leading them in a rousing rendition of Twist and Shout. It serves no narrative purpose and contains no comedy per se, yet at the same time it's one of the most staggeringly perfect scenes in the long annals of the medium; if you were to ask me what scene in all of film best encapsulates "pure joy," you would have to look no further, and it's a flawless counterpoint for the more subdued, ethereal beauty of the museum sequence.

As far as antagonists, the movie has three, two highly visible and one more subtle and insidious. The most colorful, widely recognized, and conventional bad guy is Ferris Bueller's nemesis, Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students. He's every inch the flamboyant movie villain, complete with a henchman (Grace the secretary), nefarious plots (spying on the Bueller house), and evil monologues ("Fifteen years from now when [Ferris] looks back on the ruin his life's become, he is going to remember Edward Rooney."), but in contrast to John Hughes' other gratuitously evil high school principal, Richard Vernon of The Breakfast Club, he's an absolute buffoon. He's humiliated, outsmarted, and browbeaten, sprayed with soda, chewed on by a Rottweiler, loses his shoe, loses his keys, loses his car, loses his wallet, and is made to look the doofus at every turn.

And this contrast makes sense — after all, what is the key operating principle of The Breakfast Club? Angst, of course, extending to the angsty horizon as far the eye can angst. Ergo, Principal Vernon is meant to embody all the worst aspects of every teacher we hated in middle and high school into one nightmarish human being, a condescending, smugly superior, threatening, quasi-violent authoritarian asshole, someone we (and by "we," I mean sixteen-year-olds) can look at and feel the waves of angst wash over us. Principal Vernon is "UGH! I HATE MY TEACHER!" ensconced in flesh. Ed Rooney, on the other hand, is part of a more joyous film and his sole purpose is to be laughed at. His hellish day is our revenge on every teacher we resented in childhood. And curiously, it's not Ferris Bueller who finally defeats Rooney in the end (Ferris only thinks about Rooney in the terms of how best to avoid him), but our second antagonist, Jeannie Bueller.

Like Cameron, Jeannie is full of barely-concealed rage at her parents and her station in life, rage which begins bubbling to the surface as early as the first scene of the movie. Even though she got a car while Ferris got a computer, she perceives Mr. & Mrs. Bueller as loving her brother more, and she alone has noticed that her brother is a living god who doesn't have to operate on the same playing field as everyone else. Fuming at the end of a school hallway, she mentally rants: "Why should he get to do whatever he wants? Why should everything work out for him? What makes him so goddamn special?!", before capping it off by growling aloud, "Screw him." So she ditches school to prove that her shithead brother is ditching school (with the sheer irony of the scenario never crossing her mind).

What makes Jeannie Bueller interesting is that her story is basically a fifteen-minute short film divided up throughout Ferris Bueller's runtime, only intermittently and occasionally crossing paths with the other main characters. She has her own antagonist, her own conflict, her own journey, her own love interest, her own character growth, and her own conclusion, all delivered in short, satisfying bursts. This being a John Hughes teen film, the kids are savvy while the adults languish in utter uselessness, so of course Jeannie proves that Ferris is ditching school by the movie's midpoint (something that Rooney is never able to do), but before she can inform the world, she perceives Rooney spying on the Bueller household to be a burglar, gets trapped in her own home, and winds up in a police station.

It's here that Jeannie meets the accurately-named Boy in Police Station, played by Charlie Sheen. Over the course of about two scenes, he attempts to psychoanalyze her. She rejects his dimestore analysis at first, but her defenses soon break down, and the gentle person inside is revealed as she realizes what's really important in life. Like Darth Vader, Jeannie is redeemed, and reverts to the side of good (even giving herself the alternate name of "Shauna" to Charlie Sheen, reminiscent of how Vader again became Anakin upon his redemption). In the end Jeannie comes to Ferris's rescue and vanquishes their mutual enemy of Edward R. Rooney for good.

But, much like how many viewers don't recognize that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is truly about Cameron Frye, not Ferris, many don't recognize that the true villain of the picture is not the bumbling, inept Ed Rooney, but in fact a different character, one with no actor, no face, no screentime, and no dialogue, but whose fell touch is always unmistakably present. I speak of Morris Frye, Cameron's unseen father.

Mr. Frye's cold, angry, detached means of fatherhood are what have driven Cameron to become the sickly, self-loathing creature we meet at the beginning of the film. Morris hates his wife, he neglects his son, and in their place his one true love has become his red Ferrari GT California, which Ferris and Cameron steal in the film's first act to rescue Sloane from the high school.

We only have little bits and pieces of Morris Frye related to us — his house is like a museum; very cold and very beautiful, and you aren't allowed to touch anything, he went ballistic when Cameron broke his retainer, he can't stand his wife, he loves his car more than life itself — but it is Morris who has broken Cameron. Every time Cameron expresses his cynicism, his fear, and his desire to get home and end the day off as quickly as possible, Morris can be felt. His influence looms like a dark shadow across the entire film; the Bueller Crew's own private Sauron.

And so, while Ferris's mad dash to beat his parents home and final victory over Edward R. Rooney is humorous, it's all extended dénouement to the film's true climax, which occurs when Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron sit by the garage with the Ferrari, waiting for the miles to roll off the odometer as they spin the wheels backwards. When it doesn't work, Cameron finally snaps, and, mentally substituting the GT California for his father and seventeen years of neglect, attacks with impunity, kicking the shit out of the car, bending in the hood, smashing the headlights, caving in the bumper, while screaming "Who do you love?! Who do you love?! You love a car!!"

Of course, Cameron famously knocks the car (in high-speed reverse) off its jack, and it plummets through the garage window into the ravine below, reduced to scrap metal. Now, I doubt the absolute destruction of the car was ever in Ferris Bueller's game plan for the day, but it has the desired effect. The beast is slain. And, contrary to everything we've learned about him, Cameron smiles, having seen the beauty in life and realized what's truly important. Freed from his sorrow and fear, he simply states that he's looking forward to having a little chat when Morris gets home, tacking on a sentence Cameron has probably never said before in his life: "It's going to be good."

Sure, Cameron was probably grounded all summer, but he's a new and improved person for the next six to eight decades after that. The redemption is complete, and both Ferris and Cameron win.

Now, I've barely even scraped the surface of why Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of the greatest movies ever made. I hardly mentioned the film's perfectly integrated soundtrack (especially Yellow's Oh Yeah, which will forever be known as "the Ferris Bueller song" in my mind). Or how, despite a career filled almost entirely with nebbishy losers regardless of the genre and quality of the movie or show in question (WarGames, Election, Godzilla, The Producers, 30 Rock, and many, many more), Matthew Broderick brilliantly embodies cool in a way few other actors in history have ever even approached. Or the fact that every other line would be the singular highlight of virtually any other screenplay.

But everything can be summed up by saying that it's one of cinema's finest achievements; funny, charming, endlessly quotable, and much deeper than it appears at first glance. John Hughes had an illustrious career, but high on the shoulders of National Lampoon's Vacation, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Pretty In Pink, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Home Alone, and even The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off stands alone.

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Star Wars Character Coolness: Before & After

Ten years ago on May 19th, 1999, Star Wars again became part of our lives with the theatrical release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. That's right, the prequel trilogy is now officially retro.

In the decade since, Star Wars fans both casual and hardcore alike have been disgruntled by the treatment that these three films gave to beloved, timeless characters and storylines. I would say there's been strife and debate, but that wouldn't exactly be true - it's wide and essentially universal consensus that the prequel trilogy was a disappointment (although many including myself will argue that Revenge of the Sith was a substantial step up from the first two), flawed and easily overshadowed by contemporary genre fiction like The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, even the new Star Trek.

But as much as we may wish they did in light of midi-chlorians, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith don't exist in a vacuum, and by the nature of their existence color our perceptions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Both the mythology - when Obi-Wan discusses "the Clone Wars" in A New Hope, we now know he's talking about a Saturday morning cartoon - and perhaps even more so the characters.

It's not an opinion but simple fact that the original trilogy has many of the most iconic characters in the history of the cinematic medium, sixteen of whom by my count also make appearances in the prequel trilogy. So I'm going to examine these characters one at a time and analyze how the coolness of each character stands up in the original trilogy while taking their actions and characterization in the prequels into full account. They will be graded on an eleven-point scale of +5 to -5, with -5 being a character that seems profoundly stupider and less respectable in light of their origins, and +5 being a character who is substantially enriched and deepened. We will start with the de facto central character of the entire saga:

Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader

In the original trilogy, before: Baddest motherfucker in the galaxy, more machine now than man, twisted and evil. He compensates for his no-doubt burnt dick by wielding a badass red lightsaber, Force chokes his underlings like he just don't care, and busts out awesome lines like "The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet," and "Apology accepted, Captain Needa." Although he turns to good just before his death, few non-lamers would debate that he's one of the most imposing and iconic villains in all of film.

In the prequel trilogy: An adorably floppy-haired little boy who hits on a girl twice his age by asking if she's an angel (they live on the moons of Iego, I think). After the cringe-inducing revelation that he's the product of a virgin fucking birth, he accidently flies a starship and ends a war in a madcap comic routine that plays like a Charlie Chaplin-Star Wars crossover while shouting "WHOA! THIS IS TENSE!"

In the next two movies his brash, cocky, and entitled personality has nothing to do with the little boy from Episode I, which makes you wonder why he couldn't have just been the age Luke was in Episode IV from the beginning so they could have had one actor and a non-creepy love story with Padmé, but whatever. He stalks and seduces Padmé, whines and cries about Obi-Wan not respecting him, and finally goes evil and becomes marginally cool half an hour before falling into the lava. There's also an asinine, out-of-nowhere, totally unnecessary, and completely unresolved three-movie subplot about how he's the "Chosen One." Yikes.

In the original trilogy, after: There's a lot to interrogate George Lucas about here: why did Vader have to be from Tatooine, making the theoretically vast Star Wars universe seem about as small as your high school? Why in god's name is he a virgin birth? Why did Obi-Wan describe him as the greatest starpilot in the galaxy? Why are angels from the moons of Iego, I think? Why is he the "Chosen One?" In retrospect, Jake Lloyd's Anakin is probably worse than Jar Jar, because at least Jar Jar's awfulness was self-contained and didn't bleed over into one of the greatest characters of all time.

He at least becomes marginally interesting in the last half of the third movie. Some might have trouble with the fact that Anakin turned into Vader for a woman, but it's a common motivation, so I can accept it. I have a lot more of a problem with the fact that he goes from troubled if roughly goodhearted Jedi Knight to murdering a room full of babies in about an hour. I mean, I've had some bad days, but jeez. Anyway, his slight improvement in Episode III barely saves him from the worst grade, but knowing what's behind Darth Vader's mask is ultimately rather unfortunate. -4

Obi-Wan Kenobi

In the original trilogy, before: Badass warrior monk and first Jedi Master of Luke Skywalker. He dies fairly quickly, as all mentors and father figures must, but lines like "That's no moon," and "Who's the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?", not to mention his casual de-limbing of a rowdy bar patron, solidified him in the pop culture lexicon. Alec Guinness was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

In the prequel trilogy: Surprisingly, although he has to wrestle with plenty of shitty dialogue ("Good call, my young padawan!") and act across from bad CGI, the younger version of Obi-Wan the badass warrior monk is more or less a badass warrior monk. His nadir is probably his conversation with a shit-colored CGI monstrosity called Dex in a 1950s American diner, a scene that makes you feel as shocked, embarrassed, and vulnerable as getting walked in on whacking off, but Ewan McGregor muscles his way through with a surprising amount of dignity intact. Not to mention he defeats Darth Maul, General Grievous, and Darth Vader.

In the original trilogy, after: Nothing about Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi really makes me like hermit Old Ben Kenobi any less, although I admit slight confusion as to why he lies about not knowing R2-D2. When he cuts off Ponda Baba's arm in the cantina, I can't help but wonder if he has a brief-yet-fond flashback to removing all the limbs of his old apprentice with the very same lightsaber. Ah, sweet nostalgia. +0

Luke & Leia Skywalker

In the original trilogy, before: Central characters, children of destiny. Everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats when they kiss in The Empire Strikes Back.

In the prequel trilogy: A pair of twins born to Padmé Amidala on the asteroid Polis Massa, before being split apart and sent into hiding on Alderaan and Tatooine.

In the original trilogy, after: You may be wondering how a pair of infants who show up at the very end of the movie and have a couple minutes of mostly not-bad screentime could drag down their adult counterparts. Well, I'll tell you. I have no children myself, but I understand that for normal mothers seeing your newborn infant for the first time produces a monumental rush of love and protectiveness. But not for prissy Princess Padmé! Nope, she saw her two babies, born without a father into a universe torn apart by war, bloodshed, and totalitarianism, but her boyfriend had choked her before, and she was so brokenhearted that she had lost the will to live, so she decided to die. That's right, baby Luke and Leia, you were so unimportant that you weren't worth staying alive to care for. Shitty mother, shitty babies, or shitty writing? You decide! -1

Uncle Owen & Aunt Beru

In the original trilogy, before: Luke Skywalker's caretakers. They're pretty weak and demure and get killed fairly quickly, but to give all credit where it's due they are among the four or five people in the universe to know that Darth Vader is Luke's father from the beginning of A New Hope - even Vader doesn't know yet - so there's a little more than meets the eye.

In the prequel trilogy: "Owen Lars. This is my girlfriend, Beru."

In the original trilogy, after: Did you miss what I just typed? "Owen Lars. This is my girlfriend, Beru." UGH. -2


In the original trilogy, before: Han Solo's wookiee co-pilot and sidekick, and proof that at some point in his life George Lucas could do comic relief with some degree of competence. He has no character arc but he's widely beloved all the same.

In the prequel trilogy: For some godforsaken and incomprehensible reason, Chewie is a friend to the Jedi Order, Yoda's buddy and bodyguard (?) on Kashyyyk in the waning days of the Clone War. Yoda tells Chewie that "miss you I will" before he goes into exile, seemingly implying that they're old drinking buddies and they play poker together and everything.

In the original trilogy, after: Having Chewbacca be Yoda's best friend is possibly the single stupidest decision in the prequel trilogy, even worse than midi-chlorians. Chewbacca is best known as Han Solo's sidekick. You know, noted and vocal Force agnostic Han Solo, a skeptic who does not believe the Force exists and mockingly commiserates with Chewie about how Obi-Wan Kenobi is "an old fossil." So at no point in all the years they know each other could Chewie have turned to Han and roared, "Actually, Han, the Jedi and the Force do exist. I fought alongside the Jedi Order in the Clone Wars."

So now I'm sitting here questioning whether Han and Chewie are even that close, if Chewie couldn't inform Han about this simple and basic aspect of his background. Impressive that the character of Han Solo is damaged in a movie in which he doesn't even appear. Even worse is the fact that this bullshit is sitting in the middle of and infecting otherwise the best movie in the trilogy by a mile. Chewbacca shouldn't have been in the prequel trilogy. -3


In the original trilogy, before: A homosexual protocol droid who accompanies R2-D2 to Tatooine in A New Hope, joins Han and Leia's party in The Empire Strikes Back, and convinces the Ewoks that he is a god in Return of the Jedi. Some people found him annoying even in the original trilogy, but Jar Jar Binks showed those people just how good we had it. He has the first line in the saga: "Did you hear that? They've shut down the main reactor!"

In the prequel trilogy: To the aghast horror and near-universal denial of the world, it is revealed that Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was just a wee a little boy. I mean, why make the dozen or so central characters of your sci-fi/fantasy saga come from diverse backgrounds across the galaxy, reflecting the vastness of your universe of quadrillions of beings, when you can have everything as compact and insular as your junior high social circle? He then proceeds to do nothing for the rest of the trilogy, making you wonder why he couldn't have just had a cameo in the final minutes of Revenge of the Sith, which would have actually been cool. He has the final line in the saga: "Oh no!"

In the original trilogy, after: I say again, Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was just a wee little boy. Why. Why would you do this George. -5


In the original trilogy, before: Beginning as C-3PO's counterpart and transitioning into Luke Skywalker's droid sidekick, R2-D2 was universally beloved for his adorable squeaks and whistles as well as being the MacGuffin that drives the plot of A New Hope. It was kind of funny when, with the entire Galactic Empire pursuing him, he just spent an hour chillin' on the side of the Death Star's hangar, not givin' a fuck.

In the prequel trilogy: Artoo works on Padmé's ship in The Phantom Menace, then becomes Anakin's droid for the rest of the trilogy, including after Anakin becomes Darth Vader until he falls into the lava, which I guess means R2-D2 was technically on the side of evil if only for a little while. He also, in another head-slappingly retarded moment, busts rocket jets out of his legs and starts flying around like fucking Superman in Attack of the Clones. Jesus Christ.

In the original trilogy, after: Unlike Chewbacca and C-3PO, R2-D2 being in the prequel trilogy doesn't bother me that much. No, there's no real REASON for him to be there, other than helping pilot starships around, but George Lucas claims that the saga is to some extent all seen through the eyes of Artoo, and I can accept that. Plus, unlike the prissy and annoying Threepio, Artoo is actually cool and cannot deliver shitty dialogue. However, giving him the power of flight out of nowhere is profoundly stupid, calling immediately into question why he rolls around Tatooine at 2 MPH in A New Hope and topples off Jabba's sail barge into the sand in Return of the Jedi. A continuity nightmare. -2

Mon Mothma

In the original trilogy, before: Mon Mothma is the leader of the Rebel Alliance, briefly seen before the final assault on Emperor Palpatine's fleet and the second Death Star. Many Bothans died to bring her this information.

In the prequel trilogy: Most people are probably unaware of Mon Mothma's role in the prequel trilogy, because Lucas decided to delete her scenes from the final cut (although YouTube can help), but Mon Mothma was a Senator who along with Padmé Amidala and Bail Organa quietly began the rebellion when Palpatine refused to give up his sweeping emergency powers after the end of the Clone Wars.

In the original trilogy, after: Unlike Darth Vader being a virgin birth and building C-3PO, Chewie being pals with Yoda, and R2-D2 flying, Mon Mothma starting the rebellion against the Galactic Empire actually makes total sense and logically informs her being the leader of the Alliance in the original trilogy era. Yeah! You go, Lucas! That's how you do it! Except, wait, you deleted her scenes. So close. +1


In the original trilogy, before: Yoda is a 900-year-old Jedi Master and badass little wizard who fills the role of Luke Skywalker's mentor in The Empire Strikes Back and briefly before dying from old age in Return of the Jedi. Despite only having about thirty minutes of total screentime, his diminutive stature, lifting of an X-Wing with only the Force, bizarre grammar, and the line "Do, or do not. There is no try" made him one of the most iconic characters of the trilogy, possibly behind only Vader himself.

In the prequel trilogy: In Episode I, Yoda is basically like we remember him, although the puppet that looked fitting in the dank, foggy swamps of Dagobah looks extremely bizarre and off-putting in the brightly-lit, pristine chamber of the Jedi Council. But you don't know what you have until it's gone, and in Episode II and III the wizened little Jedi Master we knew and loved as a puppet turns into a CGI frog leaping around with a lightsaber like Sonic the Hedgehog. Okay then. Palpatine defeats him in a lightsaber duel and so Yoda announces that he must go into exile for no particular reason, leaving behind a newborn Rebel Alliance that probably could have used his guidance and skills so he can go live in a swamp.

He's also a little asshole: when Anakin comes to him for guidance and shares his private fears that someone close to him (Padmé, although he doesn't name specifics) will die in childbirth, Yoda tells him that the dead are not to be mourned because they are merely becoming one with the Force. "Mourn them do not. Miss them do not." Well gee, thanks, shithead. I just can't figure out why Anakin turned to the dark side.

In the original trilogy, after: Nothing about Yoda's prequel trilogy appearance contradicts anything about him in the original trilogy, everything checks out logically, but basically every moment he's onscreen makes you like and respect him a little bit less. In the end I wonder why he cares about the Rebel Alliance at all. After all, if all the rebels and all Alliance planets die, they're just becoming one with the Force, right? Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. -3

Boba Fett

In the original trilogy, before: Boba Fett is the badass and semi-mute bounty hunter who tracks down and captures Han Solo for Jabba the Hutt, helping Lord Vader set a trap for Luke Skywalker in the process. He dies a stupid death at the hands of a blind Han and a Sarlacc pit (yeah, I know, in the Expanded Universe he goes on to escape the Sarlacc and become an anti-hero, whatever), but he's still one of two villains to give Vader lip without getting Force choked. Even Emperor Palpatine was promptly killed when he cheesed off Vader, so that puts Boba in elite company.

In the prequel trilogy: Boba Fett is a little boy who giggles with pleasure whenever his father Jango does anything evil.

In the original trilogy, after: There was absolutely no reason for kid Boba Fett to appear in the prequel trilogy. It's stupid, it doesn't make any sense, I hate it, and it makes me hate Boba Fett. -5

Emperor Palpatine

In the original trilogy, before: The ultimate evil looming over the entire trilogy; a mad, cackling Sith Lord who rules over the galaxy with the iron fists of Death Stars, Star Destroyers, and the dark side of the Force - until Darth Vader chucks him into a chasm for trying to kill his son Luke Skywalker, that is. The scenes between Palpatine, Vader, and Luke are probably Return of the Jedi's finest, although the character has absolutely no arc or backstory whatsoever.

In the prequel trilogy: Palpatine lives a double life as a humble Senator from Naboo and Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord who commands the assassin Darth Maul and orchestrates the Separatist movement and the Clone Wars. In the guise of Senator Palpatine he engineers his election to Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, and by attacking his own Republic with terrorism and war as Darth Sidious, he allows the position of Chancellor to be granted more and more emergency powers, eventually suspending democracy and taking direct command over the army of clone troopers, i.e. Stormtroopers. He eventually seduces Anakin Skywalker to the dark side of the Force, frames Mace Windu for an assassination attempt on his life, puts out an execution order on all Jedi Knights, and declares himself ruler of the first Galactic Empire.

In the original trilogy, after: Along with John Williams' score, the most successful element of the Star Wars prequel trilogy is the arc of Senator-turned-Chancellor-turned-Emperor Palpatine. It does exactly what George Lucas failed to do with almost every other character: presents a cohesive, logically sound, narratively strong, and fascinating story that substantially enriches and deepens the cackling and entertaining but ultimately shallow cipher of evil that appeared in Return of the Jedi (without robbing the character of his fundamental mystery either). It actually makes Return of the Jedi a better movie.

Oh, sure, he has plenty of bad moments (the CGI flips during his duel with Mace Windu are pretty embarrassing), but the big picture is a good one. It's a grand stroke of fortune that they cast the thirtysomething Ian McDiarmid to play the Emperor in Return of the Jedi rather than a geezer closer to the character's age, because it allowed the same actor to return and give one of the most entertaining performances in all three prequels, particularly Revenge of the Sith. All in all I give prequel Palpy a big thumbs up. +3

Grand Moff Tarkin

In the original trilogy, before: Grand Moff Tarkin is commander of the Death Star and the highest-ranked non-Sith Imperial in the trilogy, with enough authority to make the call to destroy major civilized planets and boss Darth Vader around with no fear of being Force-choked in retaliation. Luke Skywalker kills him when he blows up the Death Star. Due to his ordinary human appearance Tarkin never became quite as iconic a pop culture villain as Vader, Palpatine, Jabba, or Boba Fett, but he's ruthless and badass all the same.

In the prequel trilogy: A younger Tarkin makes a wordless five-second cameo in the final montage of Revenge of the Sith, speaking to Emperor Palpatine on the bridge of the Star Destroyer overlooking the first Death Star's construction. Darth Vader approaches and Tarkin takes his leave.

In the original trilogy, after: There's something relatively subtle going on here - in Episode III, Tarkin immediately walks away when Vader moves to the front of the bridge to stand by Palpatine's side, which says to me that Lord Vader is clearly ranked well above Tarkin and Tarkin has to show respect and submissiveness. However, by the era of Episode IV, Tarkin has enough authority to command Vader: "Enough of this! Vader, release him!", and "Terminate her! Immediately!" This shows that Tarkin must have done exemplary work in the eyes of the Emperor in the two intervening decades, and increases my respect for him. +1

Jabba the Hutt

In the original trilogy, before: The galactic crime lord and gangster who puts out a bounty on Han Solo's head for dumping a shipment of Jabba's spice (Star Wars code for "drugs") he was smuggling. This hit dogs Solo for the entire trilogy and eventually coincides with the motives of Vader and the Empire when they need Solo to set a trap for Luke.

Jabba also sticks Princess Leia in a gold bikini, which is objectively awesome. Sure, Leia kills him later, but she does it while wearing the bikini. So in a way they both win.

In the prequel trilogy: Hanging out on a balcony overlooking the Boonta Eve Classic podrace in all his Playstation 2-era CGI glory.

In the original trilogy, after: Like Chewbacca and C-3PO and Boba Fett, there's no real reason for him to be in the prequel trilogy and I kind of wish he wasn't, but it at least makes sense that a Tatooine-based crime lord would be present at one of the galaxy's major gambling events taking place on Tatooine. Now, if we were grading how his godawful appearance in A New Hope's special edition effects my view of him, he'd probably get a -5, but his Phantom Menace cameo is, like your first girlfriend, disposable and harmless enough. +0


In the original trilogy, before: An amateurish bounty hunter who tries to collect the score on Han Solo in the Mos Eisley cantina. Han promptly shoots him dead.

In the prequel trilogy: Baby Greedo hangs out with baby Anakin while the latter builds his podracer.

In the original trilogy, after: Out of respect for you the reader's intelligence I decline to elaborate on why that's stupid. -2

In conclusion, the character who emerged from the other side of the trilogy the most improved is without a doubt Emperor Palpatine, although Grand Moff Tarkin and Mon Mothma also came out okay and I have no problem with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Darth Vader, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Boba Fett all took a real beating though. Who would have thought when watching Episode I that the political subplot would ultimately be the trilogy's strongest element (beyond perhaps the expectedly outstanding musical score and ninja lightsaber battles)?

The real lesson we (and hopefully George Lucas) can take from all this is that we don't need to know every fucking detail of every fictional character's life. We don't need to see them as little kids. We don't need to know every detail of how they were built or conceived. It's a narrative structure that can sometimes work - we know every detail of Bruce Wayne's life in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, which was executed well enough to be effective, but is anyone really chomping at the bit to see James Bond or Jack Sparrow or Frodo Baggins in preschool?

I'm sure there'll be another live action Star Wars movie one day, maybe not this year, maybe not this decade, but one day. All we can hope for is that, one, John Williams is still around to score it, and two, George Lucas or whoever is at the helm on it takes the lessons of the prequel trilogy to heart. I for one will be willing to give that movie the benefit of the doubt when it is inevitably announced, so long as no little kids or Gungans come within fifty light years of the main cast. May the Force be with you.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A James Bond Retrospective - Henchmen

The term "Bond villain" carries behind it the weight of a half-century of cinematic evildoing; it conjures forth images of rogue billionaires, genocidal madmen, captains of industry, tyrants, masterminds, born leaders. If not for efforts of 007, the question isn't whether Bond villains would rule the world, but merely which one.

But probing further, it must be pointed out that with two or three exceptions most lead Bond villains have little martial talent and put in a room with James Bond there's no doubt that Bond would easily bend them over his knee. They may be old, they may be out of shape or even straightforwardly fat, they may be deformed. But their musculature isn't what makes these madmen intimidating, it's their limitless money, their callous and epic vision, their incalculable genius, and of course, their henchmen.

Behind each and every Bond villain stands teeming hordes of henchmen, the relatively unsung heroes of Bond villainy - loyal servants, hired gunmen, brawny thugs, heartless killers, colossal supermen, vile seductresses, computer geniuses, paid-off military and government leaders, and more faceless, nameless, machine gun-wielding mooks than can be counted. This crew has forsaken an honest living for their tiny slice of money and power, and many of them can go toe-to-toe or beyond in one-on-one combat with 007. They can kill Bond's lovers and allies, infiltrate governments, assassinate leaders, steal nuclear weapons, storm compounds, hack computers, and are the most deadly weapons in any villain's arsenal.