Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
If you have ever watched a film series based on a multivolume literary tale – like, say, The Lord of the Rings orTwilight – you’ve probably noticed that the first movie is the “expository” installment in which we are introduced to the characters, settings and situations of the story. Usually, these first movies are sometimes a bit long and leisurely paced so that we can get our bearings in their universe, especially if they take place in a fantasy Utopia with magical themes and otherworldly creatures.
Second films in continuing sagas, on the other hand, tend to flow better and with a firmer grasp on the story and characters because the introduction of characters and the setup of the overarching tale have all been dispensed with. The pacing of the story is usually brisker – even if the running time is not particularly short – and the writers, director, and actors can get on to the meat of the tale.
Such is the case with director Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second of eight films* based on the popular series of books by J.K. Rowling. Director Chris Columbus is back at its creative helm, backed by producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves, production designer Stuart Craig, composer John Williams, and, naturally, actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Tom Fenton and Julie Walters reprise their roles from the first movie.
The story begins – as did Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – with Harry (Radcliffe) unhappily spending his summer with his terrible relatives, the Dursleys (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling). Though his uncle Vernon has upgraded Harry’s living quarters by allowing him to stay in an actual bedroom, the selfish, mean and ambitious Muggle (non-magic person) nevertheless treats his wife’s nephew shabbily; he orders Harry to stay in his room when company is expected and to “not make a sound.”
Uncle Vernon: And Dudley, you will be?
Dudley Dursley: I'll be waiting to open the door.
Uncle Vernon: Excellent. And you?
Harry: I'll be in my bedroom, making no noise and pretending that I don't exist.
For his part, Harry doesn’t want any aggravations with his dislikable Muggle relatives, but his efforts to stay out of trouble come to naught when Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones), a house elf, materializes in Harry’s bedroom and warns him not to return to Hogwarts.
To Harry, this warning is unacceptable and he refuses to accept Dobby’s message. The house-elf (which bears an unfortunate resemblance to Russian President/Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) tries to force Harry’s hand by using magic to ruin the Dursleys’ business-related dinner and making it look like Harry did it and promptly vanishing into thin air.
Furious, Vernon Dursley imprisons Harry in the bedroom, placing deadbolts on the door and barring the second-floor windows so the young wizard – who is forbidden to use magic outside of Hogwarts – can’t escape.
But the Dursleys don’t count on the ingenuity of Harry’s friend Ron (Grint) and his brothers Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps); using a flying Ford Anglia car, the Weasleys liberate Harry and his owl Hedwig and head for the Weasley home out in the countryside.
After a somewhat dodgy trip (using Floo powder and ) to London and Diagon Alley, and resorting to the flying car because they missed the Hogwarts Express, Harry and Ron return to Hogwarts as second year pupils...barely avoiding being expelled for having landed in the Forbidden Forest.
Reunited with his friends Ron and Hermione Granger (Watson) and watched over – discreetly – by Professors Dumbledore (Harris) and McGonagall (Smith), Harry is soon at the center of another mystery involving dark magic, the rivalry between Hogwarts’ four “houses” – especially that between Gryffindor and Slytherin – and a dangerous section of the campus known as the Chamber of Secrets.
Hermione: It's a bit strange, isn't it?
Hermione: You hear this voice, a voice only you can hear, and then Mrs. Norris turns up petrified? It's just... strange.
Harry: Do you think I should have told them? Dumbledore and the others, I mean.
Ron: Are you mad?
Hermione: No, Harry. Even in the wizarding world, hearing voices isn't a good sign.
Soon, ominous portents that something dark is afoot begin materializing: Harry hears a sinister voice in his ears that no one else can; Mr. Filch’s cat and several students are found petrified. A message – alluding to the return of the “heir of Slytherin” – appears written in blood in a corridor wall, and Harry discovers that he’s a Parselmouth (a wizard who can speak to snakes).
For more insights about this film, please read my review here
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Friday, December 21, 2012
One of the more interesting aspects of the four-film Alien saga is the way in which the audience was given a seemingly satisfying conclusion at the end of each chapter in the Ellen Ripley-versus-the-xenomorph saga, then, after a decent interval of five or six years, a new installment was released by 20th Century Fox that dispelled whatever feeling of closure Ripley (and the audience) felt after each “fade to black.”
At the end of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), it seemed impossible that there could be another installment of theAlien franchise. After all, Sigourney Weaver’s signature heroine had nuked the Company/Weyland-Yutani’s “Shake-n-Bake” colony on LV-426 and duked it out mano-a-mano with the Alien Queen aboard the Sulaco before going into her cryogenic sleep tube just like her fellow survivors Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn). Ripley’s tale, it seemed, was happily over.
Until, of course, producers David Giler, Walter Hill, Gordon Carroll, Ezra Swerdlow, and Sigourney Weaver came across a story by New Zealand filmmaker/actor Vincent Ward in which Ripley is pitted in a life-and-death struggle with, yes, another Alien.
That story didn’t work out, so various writers and directors came and went until 20th Century Fox and the producers mashed together a story almost at the last minute.
As developed in a final screenplay by Giler, Hill, and Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October), 1992’s Alien 3 is one of the strangest films of the official Alien Quadrilogy, and (as of this writing) the weakest and somewhat most perplexing one.
Alien 3 begins on a promising note as, over a wisely subdued main title sequence, we see how Aliens’ happy ending dissolves, literally speaking, as we see troubling hints that sometime during the Battle of LV-426, an Alien made its way aboard the Sulaco, and, as its acid leaked all over the deck, disabled Hicks’ and Newt’s hypersleep tubes, started an onboard fire, and activated its Emergency Evacuation Vehicle, which ejects Ripley and the mortal remains of Newt and Hicks onto the surface of Fiorina-161, aka Fury-161.
This world, which in Ward’s original treatment had been intended to be a forest world with a monastery, was nixed by the studio and changed into a desolate nearly-abandoned foundry/maximum security prison planet (and a particularly nasty one, too, with really bad weather and the Universe’s worst lice infestation).
Ripley, the corpses of Hicks and Newt and what remains of the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) are recovered by a handful of Fury-161’s remaining human population, which consists of 20 or so former inmates and three Weyland-Yutani employees who serve as warden/chief administrator (Brian Glover), his assistant (Ralph Brown), and the medical officer (Charles Dance).
The film, unfortunately, becomes a slow-as-molasses mess early on in Act One and never quite recovers. First, we learn that the inmates, led by a charismatic murderer named Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), have become religious converts to a futuristic form of Christianity and sworn to a vow of celibacy. This means, of course, that Ripley’s presence on Fury-161 is going to cause all sorts of problems in this heretofore all-male society.
Next, of course, we are treated to a somewhat tedious “relationship dance” in which Dr. Clemens’ back story is painfully extracted by Ripley, but by the same token, Ripley isn’t very open with the guy either, especially when she demands that an autopsy be performed on poor little Newt.
To make matters worse, there aren’t any weapons on Fury-161, and it takes days, sometimes even weeks, for ships (mostly Weyland-Yutani supply vessels) to get there, so even though the warden has sent a message to the Company about Ripley’s crash landing, everyone on this world is vulnerable to a single Alien that’s hell-bent on killing and reproducing.
It’s this last bit – reproducing – that provides the film with its most frightening and tragic aspect, and it’s the most interesting aspect of Alien 3, since it’s the emotional touchstone for Ripley, whose life has been upended ever since the first close encounter of the worst kind took place on LV-426 almost 60 years earlier when she served aboard the ill-fated Nostromo.
Had Alien 3 possessed a coherent and constant creative vision and a director as single-minded as James Cameron, it would have worked well, even if it meant the film would be the franchise’s “Prison Movie.” There’s nothing wrong with that idea, considering that Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien was a sci-fi reworking of the haunted house/relentless murderer theme, while Aliens was Apocalypse Now In Space.
What makes Alien 3 the weakest of the three films I’ve seen isn’t the fact that it was David Fincher’s directorial debut, and it’s not even that it totally “cancelled out” the feel-good ending of Aliens, because if you’re going to make a third Ripley-vs.-Alien flick, that’s what you have to do.
Unfortunately, Alien 3 is undermined by not only a bit of stylistic overkill as Fincher tries to blend his MTV-friendly sensibility to the Scott-Cameron dynamic that fans loved in the first two films, but also by its uneven storyline, slow pacing, and a curious way of diverging from the well-known dynamics of the Alien’s reproduction process.
Also bothersome is Alien 3’s attempt to make the story more intensely frightening by showing obvious clues early on that an Alien has hitchhiked aboard the Sulaco, while at the same time dragging the suspense out in such a haphazard fashion that we viewers, already ahead of Fincher and the writers, start talking to our TV screens (or PC screens) and mutter, “Get on with it, already!”
The script is chock-full of red herrings and digressions that make the running time (114 minutes for the theatrical release, 145 minutes for the 2003 Special 'Assembly Cut' Edition) seem glacially slow, and we find ourselves questioning some of the story-telling decisions made by the writers and Fincher. For instance, why are all the planets colonized by Weyland-Yutani always so similar? Why was it so necessary to have Ripley be less-than-forthcoming about what she thinks killed Hicks and Newt? Was the doctor’s tragic back story really that interesting?
Even worse is the fact that most of the former inmates on Fury 161 are played by British actors whose accents get in the way of the dialogue. When I saw this in theaters and – later – on TV before DVDs were invented, I couldn’t make out much of what’s being said, which is bad because this is a chat fest of a film. Only by watching Alien 3 on the 2004 barebones DVD with the subtitles turned on did I finally understand what was going on.
Although it bravely tries to be a “thinking man’s sci-fi action flick” with a few good sequences (particularly in the final third of the picture), Alien 3 is still a pretty uneven and unsatisfying movie to watch. Weaver does what she can with the material, thus reminding viewers that Lt. Ellen Ripley is still an interesting character, while Dutton provides the movie with its most compelling supporting role, but that’s about it. The scene of an Alien’s “birth” from its unwitting host (a poor dog) is extremely off-putting, and some of the chase sequences which Fincher intended to be intense and scary are anything but.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
In 1984, Paul McCartney starred in what amounts, basically, to an overlong and unremarkable music video titledGive My Regards to Broad Street, which centered upon the theft of the master tapes to Paul's newest album and the musician's resulting efforts to retrieve them. And just like The Magical Mystery Tour film a decade-plus or so earlier, Give My Regards to Broad Street failed to follow in the celluloid footsteps of Help!, A Hard Day's Night, or even Yellow Submarine.
Of course, sometimes even failed films come with a soundtrack album, and Give My Regards to Broad Streetlends itself well to having its spinoff record -- and of course, because it was a Paul McCartney project, the powers that be did release an album that is a mix of songs from Paul's Beatles career to his solo/Wings years.
Although I didn't care much for the film (which I've almost totally forgotten), I do like this album, considering that I'm a Beatles fan and thus appreciate the appearance of such songs as "Good Day Sunshine" (half of track 2), a typically sunny "Paul" ballad that follows the 1984 hit song "No More Lonely Nights."
Of the two versions of that song, I prefer the one on track 1. Yes, it was written in '84 and some of the stylings, such as some of the background vocals, reflect that, but in essence it sounds a heckuva lot like a Beatles' tune, down to the use of a brass ensemble to counterpoint the chorus of "no more lonely nights" -- this effect is very much an homage to George Martin's work on Sgt. Pepper and other albums where orchestras or brass bands were used. The second version, heard before the closing instrumental "Goodnight Princess," is marred (for me, anyway,) by the addition of a disco beat.
My favorite section here is represented by tracks 3, 4, and 5, which form the Beatles-Wings era medley that blends "Yesterday", "Here, There and Everywhere" and "Wanderlust" seamlessly, even though the original songs originated in two different Beatles albums (Help! and Revolver) and McCartney's album Tug of War. If you listen closely to the finale of "Wanderlust" you'll hear echoes of "Here, There and Everywhere," climaxing with guest performer Ringo Starr's amazing drum work returning it to the final chords of "Wanderlust," and the medley ends with a Sgt. Pepper-like bit from a brass ensemble, with Ringo's crashing drums bringing it back to the ending chords of "Wanderlust." The brass ensemble brings back memories of the Sgt. Pepper's album from 1967.
Two other upbeat songs, "Silly Love Songs" and "Ballroom Dancing" (the latter, like "Wanderlust," being from Tug of War) are fun little Eighties-style ditties, with nice up-tempo riffs and cheerful lyrics. Particularly nifty is Paul's questioning of why "silly love songs" seem to be out of style, then he uses the phrase "I love you," as a chorus to point out the effectiveness of a heart-felt sentiment expressed simply.
Contrasting to the ballads from Paul's Beatles and Wings sets are the more rocking songs "Not Such A Bad Boy", "So Bad", and "No Values." They are pretty energetic and if you like edgier rock songs, you're bound to like this trio. I can take them or leave them, depending on my mood, but they are pretty good songs, particularly Pipe of Dreams'"So Bad."
One of my favorite Beatles' songs, "Eleanor Rigby," segues immediately and hauntingly to "Eleanor's Dream," a seven minute string quartet/orchestral piece based on its melody. Foreshadowing Paul's classical music collaboration with Colin Davis (who composed the music for the BBC's 1970s documentary seriesThe World at War), "Eleanor's Dream" is somber, poignant, and heartachingly beautiful.
Another favorite song of mine, "For No One," is featured here; its sad music and moving lyrics about a man's grief over a lost love who apparently doesn't care for him anymore never fails to pluck at my heart-strings.
Also worth mentioning is the new, more restrained version of "The Long and Winding Road," which not only features a beautifully done sax solo, but is not over-produced as it was in Let It Be. Its lyrics (Many times I've been alone/and many times I've cried...) are nicely done by Sir Paul, evoking universal feelings of love and longing in the listener's mind.
Although Give My Regards to Broad Street isn't going to be considered a classic rock album and is far from being McCartney's best post-Beatles effort, the fact that the mix of songs does strike emotional chords proves that not only does McCartney have talent even in his "fair to middling" albums, but that the songs he co-wrote with John Lennon for the Fab Four seem timeless -- including the ones on a soundtrack for a forgettable film.
Give My Regards to Broad Street: The Tracks
1. No More Lonely Nights
2. Good Day Sunshine / Corridor Music
4. Here, There And Everywhere
6. Ballroom Dancing
7. Silly Love Songs / Reprise
8. Not Such A Bad Boy
9. So Bad
10. No Values / No More Lonely Nights
11. For No One
12. Eleanor Rigby / Eleanor's Dream
13. The Long And Winding Road,
14. No More Lonely Nights (Playout)
15. Goodnight Princess
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Before the November 2009 release of Star Wars - The Clone Wars: The Complete Season One Blu-ray and DVD sets, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm released two four-episode "volumes" of episodes of the Cartoon Network's animated anthology series set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
The first volume, A Galaxy Divided, is a no-frills presentation of the series' first four episodes (Ambush, Rising Malevolence, Shadow of Malevolence and Destroy Malevolence); the first of these is a Yoda versus Asajj Ventress battle of wits, while the others make up a complete story arc in which Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin's Padawan Ahsoka Tano are on a seek-and-destroy mission against a Separatist superbattleship commanded by General Grievous.
Because Star Wars: The Clone Wars (like Lucasfilm's The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) doesn't have a well-defined chronology, Volume Two: Clone Commandos takes the series' fifth episode, Rookies, and combines it with a trio of interconnected stories from later in the show's first season, Storm Over Ryloth, Innocents of Rylothand Liberty on Ryloth, all of which are centered on the Republic's campaign to liberate the Twi'leks' home world from Count Dooku and his droid armies.
Rookies, which was written by Steven Melching and Scott Murphy along with senior writer Henry Gilroy, tells the story of a small clone detachment assigned to a Republic communications post on Rishi, a planet which is located far from the front lines...a relatively safe (if rather boring) rear echelon assignment.
But as they await an inspection tour by Commander Cody and Captain Rex, the clone troopers find themselves under Separatist attack; commando battle droids enter the outpost and ovewhelm the defenses. Can the surviving "shinies" (new troopers) survive?
In Storm Over Ryloth, the focus isn't so much on clone ground-pounders but on Anakin and Ahsoka as the two Jedi lead Republic fighter squadrons against yet another enemy battleship, this one commanded by General Mar Tuuk. As written by George Krstic, this one highlights the relationship between Anakin and his Padawan as he teaches her how to deal with the burdens of command.
Clone action is back to the fore in Innocents of Ryloth, in which two troopers (Waxer and Boil) befriend Nala, a Twi'lek youngling in one of those stories that are reminiscent of movies about World War II GIs interacting with children in countries that they're liberating. Written by senior writer Henry Gilroy, Innocents of Ryloth show that the forerunners of the Imperial stormtroopers aren't just mindless drones that kill and destroy the Republic's enemies.
The final episode, Liberty on Ryloth, was also written by Gilroy and focuses on Mace Windu's attempts to liberate the capital city of Ryloth from the Separatists by enlisting the aid of a Twi'lek resistance leader. A more political episode than the others in this arc, it, too, bears a strong resemblance to World War II cloak and dagger films about the underground movements that helped the Allies defeat the Axis.
My Opinion: Though I have no qualms about the quality of the content, I do have reservations about getting this DVD instead of the 22-episode multi-disc Complete Season One set.
Sure, for those of us who like - even love - the Cartoon Network series (now in its third season), the animation and stories are pretty good for a Star Wars series aimed at fans of all ages, and I like the fact that George Lucas doesn't strip the Clone Wars of the ugliness of combat, yet keeps the violence quotient to a tolerable level that is age-appropriate for pre-teen kids.
And maybe these "volumes" are somewhat useful for new viewers who missed the series' first season and want to see if the more expensive Complete Season sets are worth the hard coin they cost.
For me, though, I find that simply getting the bigger (if more expensive) set is more worthwhile. The Complete Season One contains a slightly longer cut of Storm Over Ryloth, and each episode has a behind-the-scenes featurette as an optional viewing experience.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
I'm not a Civil War movie fan. I'm rather a more, shall we say, generalist war movie one. Still, I have watched several feature films about the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history because, like the late Shelby Foote, I believe that we must understand that mid-19th Century tragedy in order to comprehend the modern character of the American people.
As a general history buff, I prefer Ken Burns' 1990 documentary miniseries The Civil War as a source of such a deep comprehension. Sure, the writers (Burns, his brother Ric and Geoffrey C. Ward) allowed a few factual errors to creep in, but overall the most-watched PBS program in history has depth and a powerful narrative that many "for entertainment" films about the Civil War sorely lack.
Of the three Hollywood-made Civil War epics that I've seen over the past 21 years (including Edward Zwick's Glory), writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell's Gods and Generals is the only one which disappointed me after I watched it.
Based on Jeff Shaara's novel of the same name and intended to be the first part of a now-canceled trilogy, Gods and Generals is the 2003 "prequel" to Maxwell's superb 1993 Gettysburg, which had originally been conceived as a miniseries for executive producer Ted Turner's TNT cable network but released as an epic-length theatrical movie.
Given this creative pedigree - many members of Gettysburg's cast and crew are back in this picture - and director Maxwell's insistence on historical accuracy as far as the real-life elements are concerned, you'd think that Gods and Generals would have been as good - if not better than - the earlier film, which was adapted from Jeff Shaara's father Michael's novel The Killer Angels.
Sadly, Maxwell's ambitious attempt to "set up" Gettysburg by chronicling the first two years of the Civil War - specifically, the major battles in which the participation of Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) was decisive - in a three hour-plus movie fails - and in more ways than one.
Leaving aside the irrelevant issues of running time and Maxwell's meticulous attention to period detail, Gods and Generals is the antithesis of Gettysburg in that it plays out exactly like a TV miniseries, albeit one with a theatrical-movie budget and high-end production values.
Though the film begins with the U.S. Army's Col. Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, who replaces Martin Sheen in the prequel) turning down President Lincoln's offer to command the Union Army and accepting, instead, the leadership of secessionist Virginia's volunteer army, Gods and Generals is more or less a biopic of Thomas Jackson, a veteran of the Mexican War who is now a professor at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).
As played by Stephen Lang (who also played Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg), Jackson is a fascinating figure with internal contradictions. Nominally pro-Union, he nevertheless casts his lot with Virginia (like Lee, he considers his native state to be his "country") with the outbreak of the war in April 1861. He is opposed to slavery, yet defends a system which enshrines it. He is - like most Americans in the 19th Century - a deeply pious man who tries to avoid fighting battles on Sundays, yet is almost cold-blooded in battle.
Not having read the book that the film is based on, I have no clue if Shaara had intended Jackson to be thekeystone character in Gods and Generals, but because Lang gets so much screen time, it seems to me that the film should have been titled Stonewall.
Sure, other generals, field-grade officers and a smattering of enlisted men are portrayed in Gods and Generals, including Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Volunteers (played, as in Gettysburg, by Jeff Daniels) and Sgt. "Buster" Kilrain (Kevin Conway, also reprising the role from the 1993 movie). Nevertheless, much of the story delves into Gen. Jackson's professional and personal lives, with often jarring effect on the viewer.
Even if the film had focused on one or two battles, Gods and Generals would still have been a disappointment to those of us who like Gettysburg because of its deft handling of a complex battle.
The film, which is three-and-a-half hours long (and would have been longer if the filmed-but-deleted Antietam sequence had been included) not only covers way too much ground (three major battles) but also manages to trivialize the core issue of the Civil War: the South's atavistic refusal to abolish slavery.
Sure, not every movie set in the Civil War has to be about how bad slavery was in the South; the average soldier in the Confederate Army had zero slaves and many Southern officers detested that "peculiar institution," but the two black characters - a white family's maid and Gen. Jackson's cook - are Gods and Generals' token slaves, and their closeness to their white masters is clearly not representative of the evil of slavery.
To its credit, the movie does render the military aspects of the Civil War accurately - if perhaps a bit bloodlessly. Uniforms on both sides, as well as regimental colors and weapons and gear, are all realistically recreated.
Additionally, Maxwell 's script - and, I assume, Shaara's novel - blends tons of accurate quotes by all the real-life participants with authentic-sounding but fictional dialogue, and this is fine when the movie tries to humanize all the iconic (and not iconic) generals portrayed here.
Some of the best lines, such as Lee's comment that "It's a good thing war is so terrible lest we grow too fond of it," are actual quotes from the histories and memoirs of the Civil War.
Gods and Generals was supposed to be followed by The Last Full Measure, but bad buzz and an even worse box-office performance convinced Ted Turner to cancel it before production could begin.
As a rule, I never give low marks to movies with long running times on that basis alone. Gettysburg is also over three hours long and requires a two-sided DVD for home viewing, but I like the earlier movie.
However, no matter how painstakingly researched and depicted Gods and Generals is, I can't seriously recommend it as a film for the average (non-Civil War buff) viewer. It starts out on an interesting note but then gets bogged down by its soap opera-like subplots involving Stonewall and his wife Anna (Kali Rocha) and its seemingly endless string of battles.
Monday, December 17, 2012
Nos·tal·gia: Pronunciation: nä-'stal-j&, n&- also no -, nO-; n&-'stäl- Function: noun Etymology: New Latin, from Greek nostos return home New Latin -algia; akin to Greek neisthai to return, Old English genesan to survive, Sanskrit nasate he approaches
1 : the state of being homesick : HOMESICKNESS
2 : a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia
- nos·tal·gic /-jik/ adjective or noun
- nos·tal·gi·cal·ly /-ji-k(&-)le/ adverb
For most of us, the past sometimes seems more attractive than our present or somehow less frightening than the undiscovered country of the future. It's an illusion, really, but memory has a way of dulling all but the sharpest pains, the saddest memories, and the rest of all our yesterdays becomes a series of sepia-colored memories in which we take refuge from our 21st Century red state-blue state, conservative vs. liberal, war-on-terror, and bad news on CNN realities.
Most of us, too, indulge ourselves with trips to the past through many gateways. For some of us, certain foods or beverages will trigger off happy memories of days gone by: a slice of homemade pie, perhaps, or a distinctively-shaped bottle of chilled Coca-Cola, or a particular brand of chocolate.
But there are other gateways to the rose-colored days of the past we sometimes crave, as well. Music, of course, springs to mind; who among us doesn't have a song that stops our hearts and makes us think Oh, I remember the first time I heard this...
Of all the albums of various genres and by different artists that I've ever owned, perhaps the one that has most shaped my taste in music is, without a doubt, the original two-disc soundtrack album from George Lucas' Star Wars. Not only was the 1977 recording a musical keepsake of what became my favorite movie, but it was my first real taste of symphonic thematic material composed in the idioms of the 19th Century Romantic era. Before I owned the two LP-record set of John Williams' score for Lucas' groundbreaking space-fantasy film, I'd had no passion or even much interest for classical music in general; after listening to the album so many times that I wore out two sets of vinyl records and countless cassettes and eight-track tapes, I acquired a taste for music by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and other "serious" composers.
Many of us who go to the movies, whether we consciously are aware of it or not, know that one of the key elements of a film's success is its musical score. While visuals -- whether it be the vast vistas of the West in a Clint Eastwood movie or the soft curves of a beautiful woman undressing for a love scene -- are what call attention to the audience's eyes, it's the soundtrack -- dialogue, sound effects, and the musical score -- that captures the mind and enhances the emotional impact of whatever it is we are watching. This is just as true in the early 21st Century as it was in the days of the silent movies 100 years ago, when Charlie Chaplin's comedic antics and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.'s adventures were accompanied by live pianists at the ritzier movie palaces of the day.
Although there have been many acclaimed composers of film music (Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner, just to name a few), perhaps few others compare to John Williams, who has composed scores for some of the biggest blockbuster films of all time, including Jaws, the first two Jurassic Park movies, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Superman: The Movie, the Indiana Jones series, Saving Private Ryan, and eight movies in the Star Wars saga.
Although Williams had been writing film scores and music for TV shows since the early 1960s, it was Steven Spielberg's adaptation of novelist Peter Benchley's Jaws that established the composer as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. And it was Spielberg, in one of the finest contributions the director has ever made to American culture outside of his own pictures, which suggested to George Lucas that John Williams was perfectly suited for the task of composing the score for a new space-fantasy film called Star Wars.
Originally, writer-director Lucas had intended to follow the example of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and use different classical music compositions as underscore, but Williams suggested a more unified and original score would work better. To have used a bit of Gustav Holst's The Planets here and The Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner there might have been good for a "temp" (temporary) track, but a coherent set of related themes would be better. After all, the characters, situations, and locales in Star Wars were going to be fantastical and otherworldly; music that was brand-new yet sounded somehow familiar would allow audiences to better "get" Lucas' intergalactic fairy tale.
Of course, now that the soundtrack album from Star Wars has been issued, reissued, and even completely restored over the past two-and-a-half decades. it's hard to believe that Lucas (who produced the 1977 album) and Williams were taking a tremendous risk in using a symphonic score that borrowed its techniques from Wagner's "Ring Cycle," specifically the use of "leitmotivs." (Risky, too, because not only were orchestral scores almost passe, but disco was the hot musical style.) This concept assigns certain musical themes or motifs to characters, places, even abstractions (in Star Wars, for instance, the mystical energy field known as "the Force" has its own motif; more on this later). Thus, Luke Skywalker has his "hero" theme (known to us simply either as the Star Wars theme or Luke's Theme), Princess Leia has her reflective, nostalgic, yet resilient theme, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi has the "Force theme" with him, and the evil Darth Vader has a menacing motif known as the "Imperial Theme" that is nothing like the more familiar Imperial March Williams would later compose for Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. There are also themes for the jawas (the small hooded desert scavengers of Tatooine), the Death Star, and a stirring Rebel Fanfare.
All of these motifs will recur throughout the film's score, becoming as integral to the story as the characters and situations themselves, so much so that a listener can just listen to the score and imagine the heroics of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, the villainy of Grand Moff Tarkin and Lord Vader, the comical-yet-heartwarming friendship between R2-D2 and C-3PO, and the last redeeming quest of a legendary Jedi Knight. Unlike many soundtracks that use 1967's The Graduate's "collection of pop songs" approach, the "musical leg" of the Star Wars movies stands alone, capable of conveying Lucas' timeless tale of the Galactic Civil War almost on its own.
Star Wars: The Original Soundtrack:
CD 1,Track 1: Main Title/: Williams' signature theme for the Star Wars saga appears, with very slight variations in orchestration, at the beginning of each Episode in the series, even though in the Classic Trilogy this music is often associated with Luke Skywalker. It's played gloriously as the It is a period of civil war crawl sets up the story of A New Hope. A brief passage of calm music follows the crawl, followed by a frantic rendition of the Rebel Fanfare as Princess Leia's small starship, the Tantive IV blockade runner, flees from the Star Destroyer Devastator over the desert planet of Tatooine. Although in the film this cue fades off at the 2:41 mark and segues directly to Imperial Attack, John Williams' arrangement for the 1977 soundtrack combined the Main Title with the End Titles music to give the album a formal overture-like beginning.
CD 1, Track 2: Imperial Attack: This slightly abridged cue underscores the dramatic takeover of the Tantive IV by Darth Vader's boarding party of Imperial stormtroopers. It begins with a tense timpani-and-strings rhytmic buildup that leads to a darker, gloomier variation of the Rebel Fanfare. After a momentary musical lull and the subtle introduction of the Imperial theme, battle music erupts as the stormtroopers (underscored by the dark Imperial theme) blast their way into the Rebel ship. Williams alternates between the sinister theme he creates for Vader in A New Hope and frantic quotes of the Rebel Fanfare as the stormtroopers quickly overrun the Tantive IV's contingent of Rebel Fleet Troopers and starts searching for the stolen plans of the Death Star.
Williams also introduces Princess Leia's Theme and the motif he composed for both Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi and the Force during the scenes where Leia is storing the Death Star plans into R2-D2's memory banks; the use of Ben's Theme hints at R2's secret mission to find and contact the legendary Jedi Knight on the desert planet below. The composer also uses tense thematic material for the capture of Princess Leia, Vader's torture of Captain Antilles, and a brief burst of strings-and-brass based triumphal music as R2-D2 and his reluctant companion C-3PO blast away in an escape pod. The cue ends with dark menace with the Death Star motif as Vader orders that a detachment of stormtroopers be sent to retrieve the plans while his Star Destroyer heads toward the Empire's planet-killing battle station.
CD 1: Track 3: Princess Leia's Theme: One of the three major themes introduced in A New Hope that will recur in at least three other Episodes (including 2005's Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith), Williams' music for Princess Leia reflects not only her beauty but her inner strength and dedication to a noble cause. This track is the concert arrangement recorded for the 1977 2-LP original soundtrack album; its melody is presented in a classic theme-and-minor-variations structure, played (in turn) by horn, flute, and violins, with connecting passages by woodwinds. It ends with a wonderful full-orchestra crescendo that leads to a poignant violin solo.
CD 1: Track 4: 4. The Desert and the Robot Auction: This 2:55 cue is a combination of tracks from two different scenes from the first act of Star Wars. The Desert is a quiet atmospheric piece that conveys the vast expanse of Tatooine's sandy and sun-baked desert wastes and is heard as C-3PO wanders alone in the Dune Sea after arguing with R2-D2 about which direction they should take following their escape pod's crash landing. The second half, The Robot Auction, showcases the theme for the Jawas as they hustle and bustle in and around their giant tracked sandcrawler as they park near Owen Lars' moisture farm and set up a quick and dirty droid sale. The purposeful-yet-playful Jawa theme segues into the Main Theme as Luke Skywalker makes his first appearance in the film, played warmly by the London Symphony's horn and string sections.
CD 1: Track 5: Ben's Death and TIE Fighter Attack: Although in the first drafts of the screenplay Obi-Wan Kenobi was supposed to survive in order to train Luke as a Jedi, George Lucas realized that once the Rebels escaped from the Death Star with the Princess and the stolen plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the powerful Jedi Master would be relegated to the background with nothing to do while Luke and the other Rebel pilots went off on the last battle To solve the thorny issue of how to keep Kenobi relevant yet avoid this dramatic misstep, Lucas decided to have Obi-Wan let himself be cut down by Vader's lightsaber so he can join with "the living Force" and become Luke's spirit guide.
The cue begins, obviously, with a melancholic rendition of Ben's Theme as he looks one last time at Luke and salutes Vader with his lightsaber, then disappears (except for his Jedi cloak) when his former Padawan strikes him down. Williams then uses Princess Leia's theme to underscore Luke and the Princess' stunned reaction and sudden grief, then adds a frantic quote from the Rebel Fanfare as the heroes scramble aboard the Millennium Falcon and make a quick exit from the Death Star's hangar bay.
After a mournful reprise of Ben's Theme, Williams builds up the tension level as he introduces TIE Fighter Attack, a highly energetic cue that uses the Rebel Fanfare as its basis and fits perfectly into the sequence where Han and Luke trade laser barrages with four Imperial TIE fighters sent out by the Death Star's commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, to ensure that the Rebels' escape doesn't look too easy. Reminiscent of music from 1930s Errol Flynn pirate movies, TIE Fighter Attack is fast paced and has a certain tongue-in-cheek essence that makes this one of the most fun and exciting cues in the album.
CD 1, Track 6: The Little People Work: This is the bulk of the music heard whenever the jawas are in the film, and is actually thematic material that appears in Star Wars before the second half of Track 4. Here, Williams underscores the abduction of R2-D2 by the small desert scavengers and his eventual reunion with C-3PO. As inThe Robot Auction, Williams' theme for the jawas is playful yet indicates their restless traders' nature. The 4:04 track ends on an ominous note as Williams brings back the Imperial theme; stormtroopers have found the escape pod and found evidence that droids were aboard.
CD 1, Track 7: Rescue of the Princess: This track contains nearly five minutes of the exciting music composed for the rescue of Princess Leia aboard the Death Star. Starting with the thematic material heard in the shootout after Luke springs the Princess from Cell 2187, it then shifts to the cue that underscores Han and Chewbacca's diversionary chase of a squad of stormtroopers and the "swing to freedom" by Luke and Leia across a chasm deep inside the Imperial space station. The chase music briefly returns, but the track ends on a quiet yet ominous note as Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi encounters Darth Vader near Docking Bay 327.
CD 1, Track 8: Inner City: This is another combination of cues from very different scenes in Star Wars; the first half, titled on John Williams' score as "Is It a Bird?" is heard when Han Solo's starship and our band of heroes are dragged aboard the Death Star by a powerful tractor beam. Here Williams uses a cold, remorseless, almost mechanical theme to highlight the Empire's technological terror as it draws the Millennium Falcon into Docking Bay 327, then highlights the Rebel Fanfare to reflect the good guys' resourcefulness and bravery as they hide in the ship's hidden compartments.
The second half is mostly mood music heard in a previous sequence set on Tatooine as Ben, Luke, and the droids make their way to Mos Eisley's spaceport area, attempting to avoid Imperial patrols and to reach Docking Bay 94, where the Falcon is waiting to take them to Alderaan. Ben's theme is featured prominently, and tension is built up by Williams' use of string-and-woodwind passages that lead first to a stately rendition of the Main Theme, then to a brassy flourish when Kenobi, Luke, and the droids catch their first sight of Han Solo's battered starship.
CD 1, Track 9: Cantina Band: For the Mos Eisley cantina scene's "source" music (material that is actually part of the movie's action, such as a live band playing close to the characters), composer Williams went back to his jazz performer's roots to when he was young Johnny Williams and composed this lively and famous Benny Goodman-like piece. Williams assembled an inpromptu band of nine musicians, most of them coming from the world of jazz.Cantina Band boasts an impressive array of musical instruments, including a trumpet, two saxophones, a sax that doubled on clarinet, a Caribbean steel drum, and an Arp synthesizer. According to Williams' comments on the original liner notes, "I scored it so they would sound a little bit strange, almost familiar but not quite. We filtered them so that it clips the bottom end of the sound. We attenuated the low end a little bit and reverbed them so that it slightly thins them out."
CD 2, Track 1: Land of the Sandpeople: This almost three minute-long track is an abridged presentation of the music heard when Luke Skywalker and C-3PO find a runaway R2-D2 but are attacked by the vicious Tusken Raiders (Sand People) before they can get the little robot on Luke's landspeeder. It starts with a travel-motif with bouncing brasses, with a fast rendition of the Main Theme. This suddenly gives way to a brutal percussion-heavy bit of underscore as the Sand People attack, which in turn segues to a quiet interval which highlights a warm rendition of Ben's Theme as Ben Kenobi makes his first onscreen appearance.
CD 2, Track 2: Mouse Robot and Blasting Off: Here two cues from different scenes of the film are blended out of chronological order. Mouse Robot is heard in the scenes that lead up to the rescue of Princess Leia from her cell aboard the Death Star; it's moody, tense, and contains quotes of the Main Theme as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca make their way to the detention area. At the two-minute mark, just where the music would lead to the first half of The Last Battle (Track 6), it segues backwards to the two-minute-plus cue Blasting Off, the exciting underscore to the Millennium Falcon's liftoff from Mos Eisley Spaceport and the ensuing chase by three Star Destroyers.
CD 2, Track 3: The Return Home: Starting with mournful woodwinds as Ben and Luke discover that stormtroopers have destroyed a Jawa sandcrawler while searching for R2-D2, the cue becomes more tense as Luke realizes his aunt and uncle are in peril; a desperate-sounding "travel motif" underscores Luke's return home, only to segue into a particularly poignant rendition of Ben's/The Force theme as young Skywalker confronts the burning homestead. The Force theme is then replaced by a sinister Imperial theme as Darth Vader enters Princess Leia's cell in the Death Star detention block with a spherical interrogation droid.
CD 2: Track 4: The Walls Converge: This is perhaps the most atonal, non-thematic piece in the score; relentless, driving, and contrasting starkly with the rest of the score, this 4:35 cue is heard when Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are trapped inside a trash compactor in the Death Star's detention area. Where the rest of the music is more in the 19th Century Romantic idiom, The Walls Converge is evocative of music by Bela Bartok, very 20th Century, very post-modern.
CD 2, Track 5: The Princess Appears: Appropriately, this track features tense string-and-woodwind passages of Princess Leia's theme as Luke Skywalker stumbles across her recorded plea of "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" while he cleans R2-D2; the track then segues to a gentle quote of Luke's Theme and a stately rendition of Ben's Theme as the young moisture farmer watches Tatooine's twin suns setting as he quietly ponders his future. The Rebel Fanfare is briefly quoted by woodwinds, foreshadowing, perhaps, Luke's future with the Rebel Alliance, then ends again with Ben's Theme as Luke and C-3PO discuss the issue of searching for a now-runaway R2-D2, who has gone off to look for Obi-Wan Kenobi.
CD 2, Track 6: The Last Battle: This is another combination "cut, copy, paste" track that blends music from three different scenes in Star Wars. The first two minutes contain the cue later called Detention Block Shootout, with brassy quotes of the Main Theme and the Rebel Fanfare underscoring the chaotic shootout in the Death Star's Detention Block AA-23 between the trio of Han, Luke, and Chewie and a small contingent of Imperial stormtroopers as the rescue of Princess Leia gets underway. Then there is a long atmospheric riff as Ben makes his way to the tractor beam controls deep inside the Death Star, then it's back to the rescue of Leia (up to the part where Han and Chewie go chasing after the stormtroopers. At the 4:22 mark, the music finally gets to the dramatic underscore of the space dogfight between the Rebels' X- and Y-wings and the Empire's TIE fighters.
Here, John Williams uses music reminiscent not only of war films peppered with quotes of the Main Theme, the Imperial theme, the motif for the Force, and the Rebel Fanfare, but also hints of old cavalry-to-the rescue motifs -- odd, but very exciting musical material, to be sure. Williams raises the tension level in the two minutes, using the Force theme in a sweeping manner as Luke flies his X-wing fighter down the Death Star trench to fire his torpedoes at the exhaust port that is the battle station's weak spot. Listen closely for a nervous rendition of the Main Theme played against threatening timpani as Luke gets ready to shoot just as the Death Star's main weapon is being primed to fire at the Rebel base.
CD 2, Track 7: Throne Room/End Titles: The final two cues mark the start of a technique used in all the subsequent Episodes in the Star Wars saga -- the mostly musical coda that incorporates, in some fashion, the theme for Ben/the Force and a musical recap of major themes over the end titles. In this case, a wonderful brass fanfare segues to Ben's theme in a triumphal march mode; the fanfare is then repeated, giving way to a "pomp and circumstance" motif as Leia awards medals to Han and Luke, whose theme briefly recurs before the new melody reprises one last time. Then, as the image on screen irises out to the credits, Luke's theme returns, then the Rebel Fanfare kicks in gloriously as a lead-in to complete performances of both Luke and Leia's theme. The track ends with a final reprise of the Rebel Fanfare played by the string section, concluding with a brief quotation of the Throne Room motif.
Reflections: As good as this 2-record set was when I first owned it at the age of 15, and as great as the music still sounds, the Original Soundtrack from 1977 always sounded as though it was a sampler from the Star Wars score rather than being the complete collection of music composed and conducted by John Williams for the first of what ended up being six Episodes. Even when I was 15 and not very well-versed in the arcane art of film scores, I knew (having read the liner notes) that the tracks were not arranged in chronological order and that some of the music had been left out of the album altogether.
Nevertheless, for almost 20 years this version of the Academy Award-winning Star Wars score was the best-selling orchestral soundtrack album, and it was released in every recording format -- LP, eight-track, cassette, and compact disc -- until 1990 or so. And until 1994, when I bought the Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology box set, this was the only version of the John Williams/London Symphony Orchestra recording I owned. And even though I have purchased the more complete 1997 and 2004 re-issues, this 2-CD set is still one of my sentimental favorites, not only because it was my first step into the larger world of film scores and classical music, but because it is a musical time capsule that reminds me of what it was like to be a teenager who was entranced by the heroes and villains who inhabit that "galaxy far, far away...."
Star Wars: The Original Soundtrack (1977): Track List
Compact Disc One:
1. Main Title
2. Imperial Attack
3. Princess Leia's Theme
4. The Desert and the Robot Auction
5. Ben's Death and TIE Fighter Attack
6. The Little People Work
7. Rescue of the Princess
8. Inner City
9. Cantina Band
Compact Disc Two:
1. The Land of the Sandpeople
2. Mouse Robot and Blasting Off
3. The Return Home
4. The Walls Converge
5. The Princess Appears
6. The Last Battle
7. The Throne Room and End Title