Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movie Review: 'Dunkirk'

Dunkirk (2017)

Written and directed by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Dunkirk is one of the great untold stories in modern cinema. Having made a trip on a small boat across the Channel about 25 years ago, the roughness of the water, the sheer physical challenge of making that crossing - but without anybody dropping bombs, without traveling into a war zone - cemented in my mind an extraordinarily high level of admiration for the people who in 1940 just got into those little boats and came over to help the soldiers. - Christopher Nolan, in a Time interview, explaining why he chose to make a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation.  

Christopher Nolan's latest film, Dunkirk, is a World War II-set drama that looks a lot like an epic but feels like a thriller. It has many of the elements of a post-Saving Private Ryan war movie - shot on or near the French port city of Dunkerque (better known in English as Dunkirk) and featuring some of the actual "little ships" used during Operation Dynamo - but tosses away many of the usual conventions of the genre.

Dunkirk is a fictional account of the evacuation of  over 300,000 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force from northern France as vast German armies attempt to snare them in front of the English Channel. From May 21 to June 4, 1940, nearly 400,000 Allied troops, including French and Belgian divisions which were badly battered by the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe attack on the West that began on May 9, fought desperately to maintain a shrinking perimeter around Dunkirk while the Royal Navy and hundreds of small civilian vessels wrested the BEF from the jaws of certain defeat by the Nazi armies.

Nolan departs from the conventions of big war epics in his retelling of Operation Dynamo by using a non-linear storytelling technique. Instead of trying to mimic The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far and their episodic docudrama approach to World War II battles, Dunkirk  challenges viewers and asks them to follow three major threads (Land, Air, and Sea), each one covering different periods of time.

British troops wait for deliverance at the Mole in Dunkirk. (C) 2017 Warner Bros. Pictures

The Mole is the land-based plot thread and takes place during one week. It follows the travails of several British and French soldiers who make their way to the beaches at Dunkirk to await either their deliverance or their capitulation to the Germans. Here, young BEF privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) face danger from Luftwaffe air attacks as well as torpedo attacks from German navy E-boats against the Allied ships off shore.

Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson in Dunkirk (C) 2017 Warner Bros. Pictures

The Sea is, of course, the saga of the "little boats" as seen mainly through the eyes of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian mariner who sets sail aboard the Moonstone, a privately-owned motor yacht requisitioned by the Royal Navy to assist in the massive evacuation now underway. He is accompanied by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their dock hand George (Barry Keoghan), a teenager who impulsively joins them on their journey to the French coast. Their timeline covers one day's worth of events.

Spitfires prepare to dogfight with enemy planes in Dunkirk. (C) 2017 Warner Bros. Pictures

The Air follows a three-plane "vic" of Royal Air Force Spitfires, including one flown by Pilot Officer Farrier (Tom Hardy). Nolan limits the airborne guardian angels' timeline to one hour, echoing the real-time endurance of a Spitfire over the battle area before its fuel runs out.

Nolan doesn't approach Dunkirk as a war drama. There are very few wide, panoramic vistas of the battlefield (or, as many filmmakers call them, "God shots") in Dunkirk. Instead, the complex structure of Nolan's screenplay is designed to ratchet up the suspense as the audience - some of whose members are not familiar with the Miracle at Dunkirk - wonders what will happen to Tommy, Alex, Mr. Dawson, and Farrier. And, by and large, it succeeds, even though Nolan admits that he deliberately depicts the weather during the operation as rougher than it was for dramatic effect.

Dunkirk is a movie that could only have been made by someone with a proven track record in Hollywood. It is unlikely that we'd be talking about it if anyone other than the man behind the successful Dark Knight trilogy of Batman movies, Inception, and Interstellar had pitched Dunkirk to a U.S. studio. Its cast is entirely European, and because it's set in an era when Britain was less racially diverse than it is now, it depicts a BEF made up by white Englishmen. Only one black French soldier, more than likely from Senegal, is seen on screen. And this being 1940, when the U.S. was officially neutral in what was then called the European War, there are no American actors anywhere to be seen.

For all that, Dunkirk is - and deservedly so - a critical and popular success in North America. Not only does it feature great performances from its cast, but it is a throwback to the "we are all in this together" spirit that was so prevalent 77 years ago but now is only a dim memory in an age that celebrates individualism at the expense of the community. Its highly experimental structure - a triptych - demands much from a viewer at first, but once the audience gets its bearings, it's not hard to follow the three separate story lines and understand the true meaning of Dunkirk. 

This film is one of the best World War II movies I've ever seen. It tells a story of courage and selfless sacrifice, love of country, and. reflected by the actions of Kenneth Branagh's character at the film's conclusion, loyalty to one's allies and comrades in arms. And, remarkably, it is an epic film without the baggage of an obligatory love story or an overlong running time. (At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is slightly longer than your average movie comedy, which is unusual for a historical drama.) 

When Eliza Berman of Time magazine asked Nolan why he had chosen to make Dunkirk for a 2017 audience, the 46-year-old director replied:

We live in an era when the idea of too many people piling into one boat to try and cross difficult waters safely isn't something that people can dismiss as a story from 1940 anymore. We live in an era where the virtue of individuality is very much overstated. The idea of communal responsibility and and communal heroism and what can be achieved through community is unfashionable. Dunkirk is a very emotional story for me because it represents what is being lost. 

Source: "The Miracle of Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan Turns One of World War II's Most Dramatic Events Into a Cinematic Masterpiece," Stephanie Zacharek, Time magazine, July 31, 2017 issue

"Christopher Nolan's Great War," Eliza Berman, Time magazine, July 31, 2017 issue.   

Monday, July 24, 2017

A reply to 'Do Democrats realize that nobody hyperventilated over Obama like they are doing over Trump?'

Recently, I was lurking around in Quora (a site where people ask questions about any topic under the sun - from Abstinence to Zulus - and other people answer them). I was looking at my feed for something interesting to reply to when I saw this:

I, of course, was aghast. The original poster  - who upon seeing the avalanche of replies to his literal whitewashing of the past , deleted the question - was claiming that conservatives and Republicans had never "hyperventilated" (i.e. attacked, lied about, insulted, or even criticized) President Barack Obama during his two four-year terms in the White House, while poor President Trump was being unfairly attacked by liberals, the mainstream media, and illegal aliens. 

This is what I wrote in response:

Really, Original Poster? Are you kidding me?
A slick bit of right-wing propaganda which falsely claimed that (a) Obama was a Communist and that (b) he was going to take everyone’s guns away.
Even before he won the 2008 Presidential election, many Republicans, alt-right activists, white nationalists, and straight-out racists were outraged that an African-American candidate had won the nomination as a Presidential candidate from a major political party. Starting with the Democratic primary season, individuals who didn’t want a black man to sit in the Oval Office began a campaign to smear Barack Obama and make him seem to be ineligible to be our 44th President.
I believe that even though it wasn’t a GOP operative who first floated the notion that Obama was not born in the U.S. and wasn’t qualified to assume the office of President per the U.S. Constitution, Republicans and racists eagerly accepted this as if it was Scripture. Donald Trump is one of those opportunistic individuals who publicly signed on to the “birther” story, which denied the reality that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961. The Obama-haters claimed then, and some continue to do so, that the 44th President of the U.S. was born in Kenya, his father’s country of origin.
So, yeah, Republicans, Tea Party members, and their like-minded confederates hyperventilated over this bit of fake news for eight years. (Trump, by the way, only reluctantly acknowledged the fact that President Obama is an American citizen after he became President-elect.)
If this is not Republican hyperventilation, I don’t know what is.
And, of course, stuff like this was NEVER disseminated online, right, Original Poster?
If anyone seriously believes that Obama was never insulted, attacked, or even criticized by his political opponents - or ordinary citizens, for that matter - during his two terms in office, I have a deed for a bridge in Brooklyn I can let you have for a song.

Friday, July 21, 2017

'Star Wars: The Radio Drama' Episode Review: 'The Luke Skywalker Initiative'

"We've got to figure out a way to get into that detention block."  (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation
The Luke Skywalker Initiative


  • Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)
  • See-Threepio (Anthony Daniels)
  • Han Solo (Perry King)
  • Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi (Bernard "Bunny" Behrens)
  • Princess Leia Organa (Ann Sachs)
  • Artoo-Detoo
  • Chewbacca
  • 1st Crewman
  • 2nd Crewman
  • 1st Trooper
  • 2nd Trooper
  • Officer
  • 2nd Officer
  • 3rd Officer
  • Soldier
  • Console Voice
  • Narrator (Ken Hiller)
Announcer: Opening credits.

Music: Opening theme.

Narrator: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there came a time of revolution, when Rebels united to challenge a tyrannical Empire. In the Rebellion's most desperate crisis, plans vital to the defeat of the Empire were hidden in the memory banks of the astrodroid Artoo-Detoo. Artoo and his companion droid, See-Threepio, have come into the hands of young farmer Luke Skywalker and the veteran Jedi Knight Ben Kenobi. Having resolved to deliver Artoo and Threepio to the planet Alderaan, Luke and Ben have hired a pair of daring smugglers, Han Solo and his copilot, Chewbacca. along with their starship, the Millennium Falcon.

Sound: The Falcon's forward compartment in the background, along with the rumble of the ship, without engines, as she's drawn along with her warning sirens, alarms, etc.

Narrator: But forces of the Empire have reached Alderaan's solar system first with their ultimate weapon, a huge spacegoing fortress called the Death Star with which they have destroyed the entire planet. The Millennium Falcon, arriving on the scene only to find Alderaan obliterated, is now being drawn into the Death Star by a tractor beam. 

Sound: Distant noise of the escape pods being jettisoned. 

Threepio:  Listen, Artoo! It seems like Captain Solo is jettisoning the escape pods!


Threepio: But what if they leave us behind?


Threepio: Oh, I simply hate space travel! Why is it that every time we're onboard a vessel, somebody seems determined to demolish us?

Luke: (OFF) Threepio! Artoo!

Threepio: We're over here, Master Luke!

Threepio: Have we reached the planet Alderaan yet?

Luke: (FADING ON) There is no Alderaan, Threepio!

Threepio: I beg your pardon, sir, but I feel it is my duty to point out that you're in error. Why, I was there myself - 

The Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star. (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

The Luke Skywalker Initiative is the tenth episode of Brian Daley's Star Wars: The Radio Drama,  a 13-part audio adaptation of George Lucas's Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope. Produced in 1981 by KUSC-FM Los Angeles with the cooperation of Lucasfilm Limited, this episode is an expanded version of various sequences in the second act of Lucas's 1977 space-fantasy epic set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

In the tradition of the classic radio serials of the 1930s and '40s, The Luke Skywalker Initiative begins where Rogues, Rebels, and Robots left off; the Millennium Falcon, carrying Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi (Bernard Behrens), Artoo-Detoo, See-Threepio (Anthony Daniels), Han Solo (Perry King), and Chewbacca the Wookiee, has arrived at the Alderaan system. But instead of a peaceful world with a population of billions, Solo and his passengers discover the smoldering asteroid-like remains of an obliterated planet - and a moon-sized space station called the Death Star. 

In the episode's opening scenes, Han and Chewbacca jettison the Falcon's escape pod to make it look like the crew abandoned ship and set the ship on autopilot to its intended destination. Han's plan: everyone will hide in smuggling compartments under the starship's deck plates. 

Sound: The deck plates being dragged into place, locking into place with a metallic bang. Ship's engines, etc., are muted, and the characters' voices reflect their confinement. Chewbacca's keening to himself softly. All are shifting and moving to try and find comfort.

Han: Quit your griping, Chewie! And get your toe outta my ear!

Chewie: BELCHES.

Ben: What's your estimate of our progress, Captain Solo?

Han: They're probably clearing us through their outer defensive zones right about now. It looked like they had landing bays around the equator of that station. I'd guess they'll dock us there. 

Luke: What was all that about the escape pods and the ship logs?

Han: I doctored the log to make it look like we abandoned ship right after liftoff and sent the Falcon along on automatics as a decoy.

Luke: D' you think they'll believe it?

Han: At first, maybe; these compartments are shielded and hidden really well.

The group of "rogues, Rebels, and robots" stays still and quiet in the smuggling compartments as a boarding party of Imperial stormtroopers searches the ship. Han tries to count how many troopers through sound alone, but Ben Kenobi's Jedi senses best the Corellian smuggler's hearing. ("Six stormtroopers came onboard," Ben tells Han matter-of-factly, "and six have left.")

But as Han and Luke express their amazement at the old man's abilities, Ben Kenobi tenses up.

Luke: Ben! What's the matter? Are you all right?

Ben: Yes, Luke, I...recognized a presence just outside the ship. He's gone now, but his being here explains a good deal.

Luke: Who was it?

Han: Never mind that now! We've still got plenty of problems! Let's get outta here.

(C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

Sound: The deck plates being pushed aside and closed under as group starts to get up, their voices reflecting the difference. 

Luke:  Boy. you're lucky you had these compartments!

Han: What'd I tell you about luck, kid? Never thought I'd be smuggling myself in them, though. This is ridiculous! Even if I could take off again, I'd never get past that tractor beam.

Ben: Leave that to me.

Han: Old fool... I knew you were going to say that.

Ben: Who's the more foolish, Captain Solo? The fool, or the fool that follows him?

The rest of The Luke Skywalker Initiative depicts, as one can deduce from the episode's title, how Luke begins his transition from a wide-eyed - and somewhat passive - observer of events around him to the proactive hero of the Rebellion. This change starts when he and his companions overpower the Imperial troops and a scanning crew aboard the Falcon and take over a Death Star command office. (Han and Luke don stormtrooper gear to get close to the office door.)

"TX-421, why aren't you at your post?"  (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation 
In addition to the takeover of the docking bay command office by Han, Luke, Chewie, and Ben Kenobi, the episode recreates such moments from Star Wars as:

  • The droids' discovery of how to deactivate the tractor beam and Obi-Wan's decision to handle the task himself
  • Artoo finds out Princess Leia is aboard the Death Star, prompting Luke to plan an improvised rescue
"She's rich, Han." (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation
  • Luke convinces a reluctant Han and Chewie to help him rescue the Princess
  • "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" 
  • The shootout between the Rebels and Imperials near cellblock 2187 and "Get into that garbage chute, flyboy!"

My Take

Where Rogues, Rebels and Robots was mostly a character-driven episode in which Brian Daley explored the psyches of Han, Luke, and Ben (with a bit of humor added in the dejarik match between Chewie and Artoo), The Luke Skywalker Initiative is action-packed. It begins, of course, with our heroes' clever maneuvers to avoid being captured in Docking Bay 327, followed by a series of cliffhangers in the vein of those seen in Saturday matinee serials from which Star Wars draws many of its tropes. 

And although Daley's script is based on writer-director George Lucas's fourth revised draft of the Star Wars screenplay, he tweaks the story slightly to fit the needs - and limitations - of the radio drama format.

As he has done in previous episodes derived from the 1977 film, Daley shows little bits of narrative business hinted at but not seen in the original movie. The Luke Skywalker Initiative starts with a scene in which we hear the droids reacting to Han's jettisoning of the escape pods, an action mentioned in the movie by an Imperial officer after the Imperials' first inspection of the captured Millennium Falcon but not actually seen on screen. 

We also get to hear what happens aboard the Falcon as Darth Vader orders a scanning crew to search the starship more thoroughly - especially for the fugitive droids, Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio. In fact, this particular scene shows us the Rebels' perspective of the Send a scanning crew aboard. I want every part of this ship checked vignette. Instead of cutting to Vader sensing his former master's presence, Daley flips it around and shows us how Ben Kenobi reacts when he senses Vader through the Force. It is, I think, a cool way of getting around the restrictions of the medium and still letting the audience know that the Dark Lord of the Sith is out there, even if we can't "see" him as we do in the film version.

Director John Madden, who years later helmed the Oscar-winning romantic comedy film Shakespeare in Love, gets outstanding performances from a cast which includes Star Wars veterans Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels (Luke and Threepio, respectively), as well as Bernard Behrens (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Ann Sachs (Princess Leia), and Perry King (Han Solo). Every line, including the new material added for the series by the late Brian Daley, sounds true to the nature of the iconic characters from Lucas's now-classic space-fantasy adventure.

Of course, due to the nature of the medium, Artoo and Chewbacca are the only characters whose performances were added in postproduction by Tom Voegeli, the sound mixer who blended Ben Burtt's original movie sound effects and John Williams' brilliant score to the voice performances recorded at Hollywood's Westlake Audio studio.

The Luke Skywalker Initiative is a fun and exciting Star Wars adventure that still captures the listener's imagination nearly 35 years after its original broadcast on National Public Radio. It is action-packed and full of suspense, with some humorous bits - mostly featuring the droids, but also including some of the tart exchanges between Han and Leia (A garbage dump? Wonderful idea, Your Highness!) that gave Star Wars that Gable-and-Lombard vibe that made their relationship so entertaining to watch. (Or, in this case, listen to.)

As John Madden says in the promotional brochure in the Star Wars: The Radio Drama CD box set:

"Anybody who's ever listened to a radio drama will testify to the fact that a play you hear will [remain] in your mind - twelve years later you'll remember it vividly. And the reason you'll remember it vividly is because you've done the work, is because it lives in your imagination.

"A phrase has come to mind in working on this project: You may think you've seen the movie; wait till you hear it."

Truer words were never spoken. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

'Star Wars: The Radio Drama' Episode Review: 'Rogues, Rebels, and Robots'

"That's no moon. It's a space station." (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation
Rogues, Rebels, and Robots


  • Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)
  • See-Threepio (Anthony Daniels)
  • Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi (Bernard Behrens)
  • Han Solo (Perry King)
  • Chewbacca 
  • Artoo-Detoo 

Music: Opening theme.

Narrator: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there came a time of revolution, when Rebels united to challenge a tyrannical Empire. In the Rebellion's most desperate crisis, plans for the Empire's mightiest weapon, the Death Star, were stolen by Rebel agents and placed in the memory banks of the astrodroid Artoo-Detoo. Artoo and his fellow droid, See-Threepio, are now under the protection of the young farmer Luke Skywalker and the veteran Jedi Knight Ben Kenobi. Their plan is to deliver the droids to Rebels on the planet Alderaan. 

Sound: The Millennium Falcon's booming passage through hyperspace. Then engine hum and noise of various instruments of forward compartment up in background.

Narrator: In order to achieve their objective, Luke and Ben have hired two reckless smugglers, Han Solo and his copilot, Chewbacca, along with their starship, the Millennium Falcon. Having fought her way past an Imperial blockade, the Falcon is now en route, her passengers and crew unaware that the Empire is already moving against the Rebel Alliance with all the power at its command.

Ben: (SIGHING) That brief shock was the jump to lightspeed. I think we can unfasten our safety belts now, Luke.

Luke: Fine with me. That was the wildest ride I've ever been on! Between those Imperial cruisers blazing away at us and Han's crazy piloting, I never thought we'd make it. 

In Episode Nine of Star Wars: The Radio Drama, science fiction novelist Brian Daley picks up the story of Luke, Ben, Han, Chewbacca, and the droids' flight from Mos Eisley Spaceport where "The Han Solo Solution" left off. Evading the dreaded Imperial Star Destroyers over Tatooine, the unlikely group of "rogues, rebels, and robots" is flying through hyperspace to the Alderaan system. There, Luke (Mark Hamill) and Ben (Bernard Behrens) hope to deliver Artoo-Detoo to Bail (Prestor) Organa so the Rebels can retrieve the information hidden in Artoo's memory banks, while Han (Perry King) is hoping that he and Chewbacca will receive the 15,000 credits they were promised so they can pay Jabba the Hutt for a shipment of lost spice. 

"That holographic game board. I wouldn't've expected Han to be the kind to play."  (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

In essence, "Rogues, Rebels, and Robots" is an extended version of the sequence where the Falcon flies through hyperspace en route to the doomed planet of Alderaan (which was destroyed at the end of "Death Star's Transit"). In this episode, Ben begins teaching Luke in the ways of the Force, first by getting his new apprentice to look beyond outward appearances to see truths buried beneath them:

Luke: Just look at this compartment, will you? Shipping containers, spare parts, empty crates, and plain old junk all over the place. Some starship!

Ben: This is a working freighter, Luke, even if her activities are rather on the shady side. Independent captains like Solo run their ships to suit themselves and live as they see fit. But I'll tell you this: For all the clutter, the Millennium Falcon is in excellent shape and far faster than when she was built. Solo wasn't exaggerating about those "modifications" he's made on her.

Luke: You know what I was surprised to find back at the tech station? That holographic game board. I wouldn't've expected Han to be the kind to play.

Ben: Spacers fill the hours they spend in transit in a surprising variety of ways, Luke. But the fact that a rough-and-ready fellow like Solo chooses such a pastime does indicate another side to him.

Luke: But who does he play against? The machine?

Ben: Against his first mate, Chewbacca, in all likelihood. 

Luke: You mean that big, shaggy Wookiee can play the board game?

Ben: Games of skill and thought aren't restricted to human beings and machines, Luke. Don't let Chewbacca's great size and fierce appearance fool you. Wookiees are a species with great adaptability, and they're quick to learn.  

After a brief discussion regarding their mission to Alderaan and Ben's appraisal of Han's personality, Kenobi begins teaching Luke how to become one with the Force and to use his lightsaber. The young farm boy from Tatooine is surprised that Ben wants to start his training now, but the old Jedi believes there's no better time than the present. 

Ben: Well, the way of the Jedi is a lifelong education, Luke. I began learning it when I was younger than you. I have achieved a certain mastery, and yet I am no less a pupil for all of that, even now. 

Luke: You've taught  a lot of students, haven't you, Ben? Even this Darth Vader, the Jedi who turned traitor and killed my father.

Ben: Darth Vader....started out as my pupil, yes.

Luke: I want to know about Vader, Ben. Who he is and why he went over to the dark side of the Force. I want to face him when I'm a Jedi Knight and tell him whose son I am. 

Ben: If you wish to be a Jedi, you'll have to put aside your desire for revenge. 

Luke: But...

Ben: Anger and hatred...and fear, too...those can help you draw power from the Force, but only from its dark side. And in the end the dark side of the Force exacts a terrible price from those whom it seduces. 

Luke: But...but tell me about Vader, Ben. I want to know who he is and why he gave in to the dark side. 

Ben: Luke, Luke, you're reaching far ahead of yourself. The workings of the Force aren't always so direct. Above all else, mastery of the Force demands patience.

"First defensive posture...." (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

 After a long conversation in which Ben hints that there may be other Jedi out there in the wider galaxy, Luke begins his training. First, Ben teaches young Skywalker how to ignite his lightsaber and puts him through a series of drills. Then, when Luke shows some aptitude in the use of the Jedi weapon, Kenobi uses a remote target globe for a more advanced lesson on how to use the laser sword properly, and how to call on the power of the Force. 

Of course, since Brian Daley was working from the fourth revised draft of George Lucas's screenplay for Star Wars, several familiar scenes are included in "Rogues, Rebels, and Robots." These include:

  • Artoo's game of holographic chess against Chewbacca, during which we learn that the Wookiee is a sore loser
  • Han's declaration that "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side." 
  • Ben Kenobi's "bad feeling" that something terrible has happened 
  • The Millennium Falcon's arrival at the Alderaan system - or what remains of it
  • "That's not a moon out there! That's a space station!" 
My Take

The ninth episode of the 13-part Star Wars: The Radio Drama series is more character-driven than it is a showcase for action-adventure. It is, in essence, the calm before the storm; it begins as our heroes escape from one Imperial trap and lays the groundwork for not just the rest of A New Hope, but also for the rest of the original Star Wars saga. Luke takes his first tentative steps into the larger universe of the Jedi here, and we can see that Daley is beginning to show Han's transition from independent rogue to reluctant Rebel, albeit in subtle shadings of the Corellian's character, just as in the original 1977 film. 

Because Brian Daley had written a trilogy of Han Solo adventures set before Star Wars, every episode which features the cocky Corellian space pirate reflects the author's affinity for the character. As a result, Perry King gets a lot of great lines to deliver. My favorite one is this: 

Han: Anyway, we're coming up on Alderaan. You measure your freedom in this life in cash, old man. If you have enough, you can go as far and as fast as you want. Come on, Chewie!

Daley also fleshes out Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi's part a bit beyond what we saw in Lucas's film version of Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope. Not so radically that we can't imagine Sir Alec Guinness delivering the dialogue written here for Bernard "Bunny" Behrens, but listeners will get more of the old Jedi's abilities to read a person's true inner self even if it's concealed behind a facade of bravado and venality. Ben knows that there's more courage and loyalty in Solo's heart than he lets on....and he doesn't shy away from telling Han so!

Once again, Star Wars' lead actor Mark Hamill lends his voice talents to portray the young farm boy from Tatooine. Although Hamill was then trying to take other roles in films such as The Big Red One and plays like Amadeus,  he didn't want anyone else to play Luke Skywalker in the radio adaptation. He gives director John Madden one of his best performances yet, using his voice (and unseen body movements) to evoke his best-known screen part. 

Anthony Daniels, who has played See-Threepio (C-3PO) in all of Lucasfilm's Star Wars live action and animated projects (including a cameo in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), plays the easily-rattled and prissy protocol droid in this episode, too. Daniels often had to deliver lines to characters (Chewie and Artoo-Detoo) who weren't even in the recording studio. Their "voices" - sound effects created by Ben Burtt for the movie - would be added later in post-production by the series' sound mixer, Tom Voegeli, Nevertheless, Daniels gave director John Madden a top-notch performance that allows the audience to "see" Threepio bickering with his astromech counterpart or arguing - briefly, anyway - with Chewbacca over the finer points of dejarik. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

'Star Wars The Radio Drama' Episode Review: 'Death Star's Transit'

"This station is now the ultimate power in the Universe..." (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation
Death Star's Transit

  • Lord Darth Vader (Brock Peters)
  • Princess Leia Organa (Ann Sachs)
  • Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (Keene Curtis)
  • Imperial Star Destroyer Captain
  • Star Destroyer Navigator
  • Imperial Commander
  • 2nd Officer
  • Commander Tagge
  • Admiral Conan Antonio Motti (David Clennon)
  • Imperial Guard

Music: Opening theme.

Narrator: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there came a time of revolution, when Rebels united to challenge a tyrannical Empire. The Princess Leia Organa, an Imperial Senator from the planet Alderaan, is also a leader in the secret councils of the Rebel Alliance. But her most daring mission, to deliver the plans for the Empire's most awesome weapon, the Death Star, has failed. In a last desperate bid to get the information into Rebel hands before being captured, she has placed it into the memory banks of the astrodroid Artoo Detoo. And though Princess Leia is unaware of it, Artoo has come into the possession of Luke Skywalker and the veteran Jedi Knight Ben Kenobi.

Sound: The control deck of an Imperial cruiser up in background.

Narrator: Taken prisoner by Darth Vader. the Dark Lord of the Sith, Leia Organa is aboard a cruiser of the Imperial Starfleet. being taken to the Death Star, a stupendous spacegoing battle station.

(C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

In the eighth episode of Star Wars: The Radio Drama, writer Brian Daley turns his attention away from the Rebel sextet of Luke Skywalker, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Chewbacca the Wookiee, Han Solo, Artoo Detoo and See Threepio and onto Princess Leia Organa (Ann Sachs) and her Imperial captors, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (Keene Curtis) and Darth Vader (Brock Peters). As the title "Death Star's Transit" implies, most of the action is set aboard the moon-sized planet killer with which the Empire hopes to crush the Rebellion. 

"Death Star's Transit" begins aboard the Star Destroyer Devastator, the same Imperial warship which chased Princess Leia's Tantive IV from Toprawa all the way to Tatooine in a bid to capture the Rebel leader and recover the Death Star plans before they reach the Alliance High Command. Leia was captured and the Tantive IV is now destroyed per Vader's orders, but the Death Star plans are safely ensconced in the memory banks of a seemingly insignificant droid named Artoo Detoo.

With the Devastator only 15 minutes away from the battle station, Vader summons a still defiant Leia to the bridge, hoping to confirm what he has already guessed: that the young Senator knows more about the Empire's new super-weapon than she lets on.

Commander: The prisoner will step forward!

Vader: Commander, you needn't be so curt with my...guest.

Leia: (APPROACHING) Guest! I'm warning you -

Vader: (INTERRUPTING) Commander, you and your men may post yourselves by the hatch.

Commander: Yes, sir.

Vader: And that will be all for now, Captain.

Captain: As you wish. Lord Vader.

Leia: (APPROACHING) Vader, by firing on my ship and taking me captive, you've overstepped yourself. The Imperial Senate -

Vader: - No longer presents any obstacle to me! They are being dealt with even now. You'd do better to worry about your own well-being, Princess Leia.

Leia: You won't succeed with this. You and those other -

Vader: I didn't have you brought here just to listen to more of your pointless ranting, Your Highness. You're so upset that you haven't taken time to glance out the main viewport at our destination.

Leia: What...the - the Death Star!

Vader: Quite right. And nearly ready, closer to completion than even your Rebel agents estimated. I thought the sight of it might shock you into revealing that you know of its existence.

Leia: I...I'd heard vague rumors in the Imperial Senate, nothing more. You've proved nothing, and you know it, Vader!

Vader:  You knew of the Death Star! You also intercepted the Rebel message transmitting the technical design data for it. I'm offering you one last chance to tell me what you did with those plans. Once we've docked in that battle station, more harsher and more direct means will be used to question you.

Leia, of course, doesn't break under pressure, and a frustrated Vader gives orders to his officers that she is to be taken to the Death Star's detention levels as soon as the Devastator docks.

Some time later, several senior Imperials, including Admiral Motti (David Clemmon) and General Tagge, are having a lively discussion in the Death Star conference room as they await the entrance of Wilhuff Tarkin (Keene Curtis) and Vader for their general staff meeting.

Tagge - who dislikes Vader and thinks the Dark Lord has gone too far with the abduction of Leia - is worried that the almost-operational Death Star is vulnerable and believes that the Rebels are a serious threat. Motti, the Death Star's chief military commander and Tarkin's executive officer, is confident in the Death Star's destructive power and urges its immediate use against the Rebellion. He has no patience for Tagge's frets about the Rebel Alliance or its growing support in the Imperial Senate. 

Neither does Tarkin, who arrives, with Vader in tow, with momentous news from the Emperor himself. 

Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin and Lord Darth Vader. (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation
Tarkin: (APPROACHING) The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I've just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently.

Sound: A buzz of quiet exclamation goes up.

Tarkin: The decree was carefully worded, of course, invoking the current emergency and the Rebel violence. But the last remains of the Old Republic have been swept away.

Tagge: But how will the Emperor maintain control?

Tarkin: Fear will keep the worlds of the Empire in line, fear of this battle station.

Tagge: And what of the Rebellion? If the Rebels have a complete technical readout of the Death Star, it's possible, however unlikely, that they might find a weakness and exploit it. If it's destroyed or even severely damaged, our main deterrent power will be gone. 

Vader: The plans to which you refer will soon be back in our hands.

Motti: That is beside the point. Any attack made by the Rebels will be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they've obtained. The Death Star is now the ultimate power in the universe. 

Vader: Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

Motti: Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebels' hidden fort-...

Sound: Motti abruptly begins to choke.

Vader:  Are you having difficulty breathing, Motti? Is your throat constricting...as though some force were at work?

Sound: The other officers murmur, amazed, among themselves. Motti's practically rattling his last.

Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing, Motti.

Tarkin: Enough of this! Vader, release him!

Vader: As you wish, Governor.

"And now, Your Highness, we will discuss the location of your hidden Rebel base."  (C) 1977 20th Century Fox Film Corporation 
Tarkin closes the conference with two promises; Lord Vader will provide the Empire the location of the Rebel base, and the Death Star will show its full power and "crush the Rebellion with one swift stroke."

The balance of "Death Star's Transit" includes the following sequences:
  • A complete - and frightening - account of Vader's interrogation of Princess Leia
  • A conversation between Motti and Tarkin which hints that the Grand Moff may have ambitions to overthrow the Emperor once the Rebellion is crushed
  • A discussion between Vader and Tarkin about Leia's surprising resistance to the mind probes and torture robot, and Tarkin's "alternative means of persuasion."
  • Tarkin's confrontation with Leia and the destruction of Alderaan

My Take: 

"Death Star's Transit" is one of the best-written - and most controversial - episodes in National Public Radio's 13-part adaptation of George Lucas's 1977 space-fantasy film Star Wars, a.k.a. Episode IV: A New Hope. It has some of the best scenes that feature both Princess Leia Organa (Ann Sachs) and her nemesis Darth Vader, played in the radio series by the late, great Brock Peters. These include two new sequences that were only hinted at in Lucas's original film: the arrival of Vader's Star Destroyer at the Death Star (seen in a quick transition shot before the confrontation between Motti and Vader in the conference room) and Vader's interrogation of Leia in Cell 2187. 

Actor Brock Peters (seen here in a 1961 photo) plays the evil Darth Vader in Star Wars: The Radio Drama

According to author Brian Daley, "Brock did a magnificent job, especially in the extended interrogation scene....While the motion picture doesn't depict the encounter, I took it as a chance to show Vader and Leia clashing will-to-will. It was a nightmarish confrontation, and it got us our one and only letter of complaint - but since the Star Wars radio drama drew a lot of mail, I don't think that response is too damning."

Keene Curtis steps into the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, which was created by Peter Cushing in 1977's Star Wars

The episode also showcases fine performances by Keene Curtis (Wilhuff Tarkin) and David Clemmons as the smarmy and ambitious Motti. Their voice acting makes you forget that they are not Peter Cushing and Richard LeParmentier from the movie; the listener only "sees" the two powerful (and power-hungry) Imperials who are in charge of the Emperor's new battle station. 

Needless to say, Daley (who got the job due to the success of his trilogy of Han Solo adventures set before the events depicted in Star Wars) did a great job as a metaphrast with his Star Wars: The Radio Drama scripts. He treats Lucas's original material with respect and fidelity; most of the lines based on scenes from the actual film appear in the radio version almost word for word, with occasional tweaks or additional material here and there to fit the audio-only environment of radio.

Of course, radio dramas don't direct themselves, and production coordinator Mel Sahr found a superb director in John Madden. Madden was already well known in his native England as a stage and radio drama director (for the BBC), and he would later helm such films as Ethan Fromme, Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love, and the more recent Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Here, Madden gets top-notch performances from his cast that, when wedded to Ben Burtt's Academy Award-winning sound effects and John Williams' amazing musical score (which also won an Academy Award) by sound mixer Tom Voegeli, sends listeners to George Lucas's galaxy far, far away in style.   

Source: Daley, Brian, Star Wars: The National Public Radio Dramatization; New York: Del Rey, 1994