‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ (2013) — A Parable of Class Consciousness

They are the beautiful people: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) with Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Fangs for the Memories

They are highly-educated, obviously literate, poetry-spouting, music-loving British subjects (well, at least we think they’re British), and they have the accents to prove it. They seem to suck the very life out of others, but who are they, really? They are the indolent rich, the upper-class city dwellers who snobbishly look down on everyone else, the essence of entitlement. Oh, and one more thing: They’re vampires.

Independent writer, director, producer, and part-time musician Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive from 2013 is a knowing stab at vampire legends old and new. More likely, the film is a repository of modern-day notions about vampirism and their relationship to the dominant ruling class.

For what they are worth, vampires are elegant creatures: slim and handsome, the so-named “beautiful people.” To behold them is to be in thrall to them. Their manners are cultivated and urbane, their command of language and culture without question. Yet they scrupulously avoid encounters with the locals, the oblivious riff-raff they often disparage as “zombies” or the walking dead, the ones who lack the soul and wit of their fellow brethren (how ironic).

Cruising around the neighborhood in a vintage automobile, our vampire popstars radiate a wealthy person’s curiosity (more like disdain) for how the “other half” lives. In this case, the neighborhood the couple drives through happens to be a hollowed-out Detroit, the very symbol of a once thriving metropolis whose innards have been gutted bare by riots, mayhem, and firebombs.

Author and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, described Jarmusch’s films as “gentle, offbeat, and poignant,” and as having “a rare feeling for urban desolation, for loneliness, and the sweet, whimsical overlap of chance and companionship” (p. 439). This latest offering is no exception and a complete fulfillment of that assessment.

Frustrated with their mortal counterparts and saddened by what humans have done to the environment and to their beloved Motown — a metaphor for the hollowness of human existence and the emptiness of their lives — the vampire lovers travel the world on red-eye specials, first-class all the way. Where they got their financial windfall is anybody’s guess.

As is their nature, vampires have the power to take a life or preserve it indefinitely. When they use the expression “to turn,” they mean to transform someone into one of their own. Yet they do so cautiously, never in haste and never indiscriminately. They are intimately aware of their surroundings, an inborn sixth sense guides their thoughts. Indeed, they are forever mindful of whatever environment they happen to inhabit.

Basically, Only Lovers Left Alive is concerned with four British vampires (Mia Wasikowska, the actress who plays Ava, is Australian by birth and of Polish descent; the others are UK natives). They speak from a multiplicity of opposing viewpoints. By the way, they are older (oh, so much older!) than their looks betray. One of them, the brooding Adam (Tom Hiddleston), is the rock-star recluse, a weary guitar freak who adores his original instrument collection. He’s also a songwriter and trained musician, someone who has invested his time and energy (in the manner of a Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the ne plus ultra of pathological purgatory) in strictly artistic pursuits.

(Author’s Note: Spoilers ahead!) The doctor at the hospital where Adam obtains his regular supply of O negative blood, whose name tag reads “Dr. Watson” (played by a glum and solemn Jeffrey Wright), is overly inquisitive about his motives. Coincidentally, the vampire has a name tag of his own: “Dr. Faust” (later, “Dr. Caligari”), a tribute to Adam’s closeness to poet Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), the (ahem) true author of Hamlet and other Shakespearean delights (we kid you not), or so the movie wants us to believe. Adam also sports an out-of-date stethoscope, which almost gives him away.

Adam (disguised as “Dr. Faust”) meets up with the inquisitive Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at the local hospital

His opposite number, Eve (Tilda Swinton), Adam’s soul-mate and steadfast supporter, never goes anywhere without her precious book collection. Her suitcases are packed with literary classics of international repute (Beckett, Cervantes, Kafka, Mishima, Verne, et al.), no doubt to remind her of a passion deeper than any living creature can provide. Personality-wise, she exudes curiosity and appears receptive to new ideas and experiences.

Her little sister Ava (definitely not your “Gardner” variety sibling) is a nonstop party hound, the epitome of teenage impulsiveness, a grasping, needy twenty-something or other (but who can really tell, right?). She is cold and calculating, feigning admiration for but demanding constant attention from everyone she meets. Ava invents every excuse there is for overindulgence. Unnerving yet unrelenting, she is heedless of the advice given to her: that is, to tone down her act lest she betray their presence among the living.

Although Adam, Eve, and Ava come across as languid, even lethargic, they are far from it. We soon learn that vampires can turn in a flash with lightning-quick velocity: a thrust of a hand in the blink of an eye. Ava, the petulant third wheel, is a constant sore in Adam’s side. She’s high maintenance and quite the cross to bear. On a double date with both Adam and Eve, Ava makes a play for the gullible Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is either too dumb to notice the threat to his person or too eager to hit it off with this brattish woman-child.

Ava (Mia Wasikowska) on a double-date with the clueless Ian (Anton Yelchin)

Taking delight in his receptiveness, she draws attention to herself which, as we have stated, goes against the grain of a vampire’s basic instinct to be inconspicuous. Later, Adam displays a controlled rage when he and Eve discover Ava has trashed his prized LP collection. Worse, she has (oh dear!) sucked the life out of poor Ian, Adam’s human go-between, a scrounger to end all scroungers, a fellow dedicated to serving the would-be rocker. (Note how Adam greases Ian’s palm with a thick wad of bills whenever he needs a “favor.”) Every vampire has his Renfield, that Guy Friday between the daylight hours, to run errands the night creatures are incapable of performing, given their susceptibility to the sun’s rays.

Contrast Ian’s behavior, which can be deceptive and secretive, to that of the submissive yet amiable Moroccan manservant Bilal (Slimane Dazi), who caters to Eve and Marlowe’s every whim. In the end, Bilal is rewarded for his loyalty and friendship, especially where the elderly and infirm Marlowe’s health is concerned. Subservience, it seems, all-but confirms the leisure-class notion of blind loyalty and paying obeisance to one’s betters. Ian, on the other hand, is held in suspicion (and rightly so) for his underhanded bootlegging of Adam’s music without his knowledge or consent.

Another point of contention is Adam’s shunning of the rock-star limelight, as it were, which Ian cannot comprehend. Adam’s music is absolutely fabulous, so Ian claims, openly broadcasting his naiveté regarding his mentor’s vulnerabilities. But Adam does not buy it. Having personally befriended many of the world’s most stimulating minds (his wall is covered with their portraits, among them Johann Sebastian Bach, Henry Purcell, Gustav Mahler, Billie Holiday, Oscar Wilde, and Nicola Tesla), the ageless Adam remains what he is: an enlightened yet elusive recluse. Ian fails to recognize, too, that Adam seeks not fame and fortune but personal satisfaction (a young Bob Dylan or Neil Young would be the ideal role model) — a highly unusual aim for such a talented individual, but understandable under the circumstances.

Adam (left) admires a vintage guitar, while Ian (right) queries him about it

The illogical nature of British intellectualism, then, and the feeling of superiority they engender over lesser mortals — these are but a few of the themes offered up and developed in Jarmusch’s picture. But don’t be fooled by the shiny exterior or highfaluting veneer. Jarmusch’s little in-joke is that we are ALL British subjects, in one way or another, under the skin. And we’re all hungry vampires to some extent — but in our own way, of course; that over-exposure — those fleeting fifteen minutes of fame that pop artist Andy Warhol once warned about — will, in the end, no doubt do us all in. In other words, enjoy your life while it lasts. It may soon be taken from you.

Regardless of the foregoing, we are in the presence of vampire royalty. The décor, the furniture, indeed the basic layout itself tend to (you’ll pardon the expression) “reflect” (snicker, snicker) a self-absorbed lifestyle tailored to exalted pursuits. In reality, Adam’s unkempt abode is that of someone who has spent too many late nights pondering the meaning of it all, which has left his residence in near ruin. The plumbing doesn’t work, the toilet doesn’t flush — but what do vampires need a functioning toilet for, anyway? They don’t eat or defecate, not as we know it. What they drink only goes in and never comes out, unless someone pierces their sides with a wooden stake, or a wooden bullet through the heart.

Speaking of which, early on a despondent Adam contemplates suicide in exactly that manner. Why not end it all, he muses fitfully? This maddening nighttime existence can be soooo trying at times! Fortunately for all concerned, he thinks the better of it, thanks to Eve’s timely intervention. Best to stimulate the senses with a shot of iron-rich blood, or slurping a frozen-blood popsicle. Is that what they call “living”?

The sight of a 45-rpm single spinning round and round propels the story into motion. One reviewer employed the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” to define the vampires’ sickly skin tones. How utterly apropos! Let us consider the fact that sixties progressive-rock band Procol Harum once re-appropriated Bach’s “Air for the G String” (from his Orchestral Suite No. 3), to the same “A Whiter Shade of Pale” title, in an effort to evoke the song’s classical construct. The organ riff at the start and throughout that number completes the sonic picture of classicism in a contemporary pop setting.

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ — This is Vinyl Tap and the 45-rpm record spinning

Which also describes Jarmusch’s film, his first in the digital realm: It’s a bit of classical pop, you see, with a cinematic twist of lemon on the side. Music plays an integral part in numerous sequences, as do the soundtrack’s ambient night noises (howls, barks, screeches, that sort of thing). What sweet sounds they make, yes?

The late David Bowie and former singer-actress Marianne Faithfull have also been cited in several reviews as major influences, associated mostly with Tilda Swinton’s looks, voice, and attitude, albeit with stringy, tousled coiffure. Adam’s equally wiry bird’s nest of a mane reminds one of a wigged-out Tiny Tim (the quavery-pitched ukulele player, not the Charles Dickens character). But the Swinton/Bowie connection is the most promising, androgyny and gender-based polemics to the side.

Those Enlightening Times

The Age of Enlightenment and how individuals of learning — people such as Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Newton, Darwin, and others — dealt with the nature of things, as well as the importance of science, politics, education, and the observation of the world around them, serve as the backdrop to higher thought that is prominent throughout Only Lovers Left Alive.

As an example, vampirism was taken up and discussed by the most illustrious heads, even discoursed and commented upon at length, but in the context of the times. In the book Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection from Count Dracula to Vampirella, author, biographer, and cultural historian Christopher Frayling quotes a passage from the philosopher Voltaire referring to the idea that vampires “exist” in fact:

“What! Vampires in our Eighteenth Century? Yes … in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia … in London, even in Paris. I admit that in these two cities there were speculators, tax officials and businessmen who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight, but they were not dead (although they were corrupted enough). These true bloodsuckers did not live in cemeteries: they preferred beautiful places … Kings are not, properly speaking, vampires. The true vampires are the churchmen who eat at the expense of both the king and the people” (p. 56).

Portrait of French philosopher Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet dit, 1694-1778) by painter Jacques-Augustin-Catherine Pajou (1766-1828), (Photo: Paris, Comedie Francaise)

And there you have it: The real bloodsuckers are those in positions of power who abuse their office by depriving others of their means and livelihood.

When one is afflicted with the disease of vampirism (either a curse or a blessing, depending on your point of view), it is our reaction to the affliction that predetermines our path. Some, such as the ennobled Eve, look at it as an advantage, an opportunity to better oneself, to perfect one’s understanding of language, art, music, and the like; and of what can be consumed over the course of many centuries. Others, such as Adam, fret over the unnatural extension of their lives and such trivial matters as the true purpose of life versus the bleakness of death.

Knowing they can never age, all vampires must deal with the fact that boredom will inevitably set in. This situation tends to deprive them of motivation and ambition. To strive for personal betterment is a good thing, true enough, but to what purpose? If longevity is the vampire’s lot, how are they to be judged by its length? And how does one retain that spark of inspiration over the course of those hundreds of years of living? Sooner or later, an existential crisis will occur.

Still others, such as Ava, use their time carelessly and in pursuit of carnal desires, of lust and indolent behavior, yet again to what end? Towards enlightenment (small “e”) or plain old self-satisfaction? In Kit Marlowe’s situation, weathered and relegated to hobbling about on crutches, what does permanence mean? Is he to accept the hand that fate has dealt him? That Marlowe “accidentally” swallowed a glass of bad blood? Or, like Hamlet, did he reach a point in life when instead of suffering those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he decided to oppose them by ending his sea of troubles in blissful repose? That, indeed, is the question!

You will note that, earlier, Adam had contemplated just such an end to his existence. It was Eve who, upon sensing that her mate was about to terminate his life (and upon her being asked), took it upon herself to rescue him from oblivion. Such is the vampire’s lot in a prolonged lifetime of suffering. This noble act came naturally to Eve, a most sympathetic and loving one, to be clear. It accomplished the intended result: to gain the audience’s sympathy for the vampire’s lot. After an absence of many years, Eve has reasserted herself into Adam’s life by giving him a reason for living; what’s more, her presence has forced him to reinvest himself with renewed vigor toward a life of purpose and meaning.

As David Thomson recounted above, in this, Jim Jarmusch’s so-called “mission accomplished” moment, the self-described “night owl” director-screenwriter has put into cinematic terms the essence of his core beliefs, along with his own peculiar tastes and eclectic personality.

Director, producer, screenwriter, and musician Jim Jarmusch

What a Drag It is Getting Old

Having drained Ian’s essence, Ava gets sick to her stomach (again, the disease of bad blood that infects the vampire’s system, as much as it destroys their helpless victims). Consequently, she is banished from the household. How dare she defile the roost with this manifestly selfish act? But what to do with the body? We have no compulsion to reveal to readers what became of Ian’s corpse. Only, that evidence of Adam and Eve’s disposal of it will inevitably bring about the local authorities to snoop at the pair’s expense. Already, Adam has had to put up with curious onlookers, convinced he’s some famous-name rock-n-roller in disguise.

When, concurrently, the couple’s blood supply has dwindled to a few precious gulps, they flee to Tangier in Morocco with whatever is left of their resources — to a foreign, less developed region (a Middle-Eastern Detroit, if you will) where they can feel at home and their hold on the populace is secure and readily accepted. (This, too, is mildly reminiscent of the former British Raj in India.) Sticking out like sore thumbs, Adam and Eve are the essence of cool in a world too sour to accept them as they are — and too undeserving of their gifts.

Their reunion with the sickly Kit Marlowe (the result, as indicated above, of his accidently imbibing some bad blood) is cut short by the playwright’s unfortunate demise. His death sends the pair into a funk. Let’s end it all now, they consider, one last hurrah before the fall. Lucifer and his bride will take a final leap into the abyss. Oh, it’s not as bad as all that. What the heck, the world is doomed anyway. Go ahead, give it a shot!

An elderly Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt) on crutches

But before they can breathe their last, Adam and Eve are drawn to a fabulous Lebanese singer, Yasmine Hamdan, and her band performing at a local café establishment. Adam hopes like hell that Yasmine does not become famous. She’s “too good” for that, he muses — and he should know. “Fame,” he gives notice, should not be what artists of talent should strive for.

For a fitting conclusion, Eve spends the remainder of their fortune on an ancient oud, a lute-like instrument that becomes a parting gift from her to Adam. It’s at this point that they spot a young couple smooching on a bench. They suddenly decide to turn the lovers into one of their own, a sensible solution to their predicament and similar, in its way, to what the detestable Lestat did to Louis de Pointe du Lac from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (very much to Louis’s regret, unfortunately).

To preserve what is left of their dying universe, Adam and Eve will give birth to a new generation of “upper-class” folks who will lord it over the rest (the “new” Adam and Eve, their Biblical namesakes). Make the world English, ay wot? Since vampires are incapable of reproducing in the, er, usual manner, their decision to turn the native couple is clearly the logical one.

Alluding to the film’s title, if and when Eve and Adam eventually “die” of whatever causes overcome them, only the Moroccan lovers will be left alive.

“The better to eat you with, my dears!” Eve and Adam take a bite out of life

As far as we know, the cinema world’s last romantic couple, Gomez and Morticia Addams, from the tongue-in-cheek pen of American cartoonist Charles Addams, was made manifest and turned, in 1993, into an adorably macabre, dark-humored film feature (with American actors Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston in the leads) by director and ex-cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld.

In Jarmusch’s picture, however, the couple in question happens to be British — hundreds-of-years-old Brits at that, with several lifetimes of baggage to their sum and credit. Sophistication with pointy teeth. And how they love to talk, one of the few film couples in recent years who actually enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company. Their highly elevated conversation encompasses just about everything under the sun (or moon, as the case may be), the hope of a civilization bled dry of life-affirming culture.

As they say in Merry Olde England, may their suns never set on the empire of their making. And may they never experience a cinematic death. We’ll “stake” our life on that. (Ouch!)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

[Trivia Note: Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston were reunited two years later in Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015), a mildly curious ode to those gory Hammer Horror flicks of the late 1950s to 1960s. Alas, Crimson Peak is more moody than shocking, and ergo less impressive than the British studio’s classic output. Interesting, too, in that Del Toro’s film re-purposes Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in surprisingly obvious ways.]

 

Plague on Humanity or Manna for Modern Times? — A Review of the Available Film Versions of the Story of Moses

The giving of the Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses

Today is Good Friday, a day commemorated across the globe as one of tragedy and misfortune that, leading to eventual triumph and hope, culminates Sunday on a glorious Easter morning. Earlier in the week, Jews from around the world observed the solemnity of Passover, a time when Death passed over their households.

Knowledgeable readers, too, may recall the 2003 protests for and against a controversial ruling involving the imposition of a Ten Commandments monument at the state judicial building in Montgomery, Alabama — a veritable clash between the sacred and the secular.

Concurrent with that story, the 2003 commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington brought to mind how much people of faith have taken this unique and inspiring symbol of God’s ancient law for granted.

Flash forward to 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, a scurrilous plague of Biblical proportions if ever there was one. Oh, how humanity needs its “manna from heaven” moment!

To echo a well-worn phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt.” You may be under the assumption that everyone has advance knowledge of what Passover, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments came to symbolize, what ostensibly led to their evolution, and what they entail for us TODAY as far as a spiritual guidepost for these fearful, stress-filled times.

Politics aside, most God-fearing citizens have forgotten the sacrifices that went into the shaping of this gift of His promise for a happier earthly existence. We tend to overlook how God’s chosen people, the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, long sought to put an end to their suffering under the yolk of pharaonic vanity and abuse; how they yearned for freedom, and waited in vain for deliverance to the Promised Land, as prophesied in those same Old Testament passages.

Over the years, we’ve allowed ourselves to overlook the obvious modern parallels to African-American struggles for dignity, respect, and racial equality in other, more socially intolerant times. The same holds true for our growing Latino population, for the millions of poor and homeless people, and for those less fortunate than ourselves.

If only we could make real what was conveyed so wondrously in the pages of Holy Scripture. Similarly, if only we could empathize with the historical, social, and religious contexts that helped shape the thoughts, lives, and social patterns of these same individuals, who so valiantly fought — and died — for their beliefs, so that we, today, might enjoy the blessings of freedom under a merciful, loving, and protective godhead.     

For home-bound viewers, there exists a number of cinematic recreations of the Old Testament story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, preserved as a makeshift “visual record” of these events. In lieu of physical Sunday-school lessons (due to social distancing constraints), these films have been made available to one and all via Blu-ray, DVD, YouTube, and/or various streaming devices.

All serve to inspire and enlighten us. But most importantly of all, they can be viewed, singly or as a whole, as filmed reminders of Moses’ symbolic significance to all faiths as the harbinger of Christ’s mission on Earth; and as a powerful lesson to world leaders to humble themselves before nature and the environment.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923): 146 minutes

 

One of the earliest motion picture representations of the story of Moses and the Exodus that remains widely accessible to movie audiences comes from famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille.

A former stage actor and Hollywood co-founder, DeMille, even in the silent-film era, was known for his lavish historical pageants and superb handling of mass movement in crowd scenes.

His first crack at the Biblical genre came with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, starring veteran stage and film actor Theodore Roberts as Moses, Estelle Taylor as Miriam, Charles De Roche as Pharaoh, Julia Faye as Nefertari (sic), and James Neill as Aaron. Released by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation and distributed by Paramount Studios, the production was partially filmed in the desert country of Guadalupe, Mexico.

The sets and costumes are impressive, as is the flamboyant acting by the principals. The mighty Exodus sequence and the handing down of the Commandments are dealt with in expert fashion, while the plagues are given short shrift (only the last and deadliest plague is depicted). Still, the rudimentary effects, particularly the pillar of fire and the parting of the Red Sea, are indeed remarkable for the time.

The second (and longer) portion of the film is devoted to a more “contemporary” interpretation of what happens to one of two siblings who continuously breaks God’s laws. Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque play the battling brothers (one good, one bad) in traditional clutch-and-stagger style. Silent movie queen Nita Naldi vamps it up as the tragic temptress who comes between them.

In the prologue, the haughty Pharaoh Rameses (De Roche) is brought to his knees upon the demise of his firstborn son (Terrence Moore). Alert viewers will notice some startling similarities between the way DeMille captured this and other sequences when juxtaposed with his 1956 remake (see below).

Having doubled Paramount Studios’ initial outlay from US $600,000 to over $1.2 million (and giving nervous backers a mild coronary in the process), DeMille’s gambit paid off handsomely at the box office.

Despite the soap-opera trappings — there are more than enough melodramatic subplots, including a preposterous episode about a lover infected with leprosy — the movie proved a hit with the Roaring Twenties crowd, raking in an incredible four million dollars in its day.

The first part, running about 50 minutes in length, is the more gripping section, and is recommended for joint family viewing. You will want to fast-forward through the stagy second sequence, however, which tends to drag a bit and may prove too mature for young children to fully grasp.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956): 245 minutes (with overture, intermission and exit music)

DeMille’s next attempt at the story was the widescreen Technicolor extravaganza The Ten Commandments, released by Paramount in 1956. It is quite possibly the most well-known and widely viewed religious film ever made. DeMille made the wise decision to drop the modern parallel and stick to the tried and true, especially after the runaway success of the earlier Samson and Delilah from 1949.

The wily director-producer spared no expense in the crafting of his greatest work, which stars the then-relatively unknown Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner (fresh from his Broadway triumph in The King and I) as Rameses II, Anne Baxter as his voluptuous wife Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as the overseer Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, John Derek as Joshua, Debra Paget as Lilia, John Carradine as Aaron, and a literal cast of thousands.

DeMille went on location to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula for the Exodus and other desert sequences. Returning to the U.S., the production team resumed shooting on eighteen Hollywood sound stages, with another twelve waiting for them in Paris, France.

While this version is considered pure camp — with such ludicrous plot devices as the bogus romance between Moses and the future Queen of Egypt, and an absurd love triangle between Baka the Master Builder (Vincent Price), Lilia the water carrier, and Joshua the stonecutter — the gargantuan sets, fabulous costumes, gorgeous production values, and memorable music score by novice composer Elmer Bernstein, are all worthy of attention.

As Ole Man Mose himself, Heston steadfastly maintained that his casting as the fiery prophet made him a household name in the movie industry. It was his first successful foray in a long line of religious and historical figures to be interpreted by him on the big screen. His looks and voice, and moving portrayal (plus the apparent sincerity Heston gave to the part) lift this film out of the usual dull run of Biblical epics.

Several of the scenes, including the Burning Bush sequence, the plagues of Egypt, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Commandments have gone down in movie history as among the most memorable ever filmed (see the following link for a fuller in-depth analysis of DeMille’s biblical epic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/the-ten-commandments-american-society-in-the-fifties/).  

The last of those nasty plagues, the one that brings the Destroyer into the heart of Pharaoh’s household, will send shivers down your spine (it was quite effective in the movie theater, of that I can personally vouch for). It’s one of the few sequences in the three hour and thirty-nine minute epic that is not over the top.

Highly recommended for all family members, the movie is best appreciated in its letterbox format.

MOSES – THE LAWGIVER (1975): 150 minutes; mini-series 360 minutes

Burt Lancaster as Moses, the Lawgiver

A British-Italian-Israeli co-production based on the book of Exodus, the title, Moses – The Lawgiver, did not bear the hallmarks of a primetime ratings grabber, not by any means. Nevertheless, this 1975 foreign-made version was first broadcast on the small screen as a six-hour television mini-series.

It features American actor Burt Lancaster as Moses, his son William Lancaster as the young Moses, veteran English character player Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Ingrid Thulin as their sister Miriam, Marina Berti as Elisheba, and Greek film star Irene Pappas as Moses’ wife. Curiously, it was partially filmed in Rome, Morocco, and the Holy Land during the height of the Yom Kippur war. The script is by Anthony Burgess, author of the futuristic novel A Clockwork Orange.

The story is presented in fairly reverent, straight-forward fashion, the dialogue highly literate, and a low-key Lancaster surprisingly good in the title role. Just don’t expect the usual Hollywood-style histrionics to spice up the proceedings, though, as this version is more dialogue-heavy than most.

Too, it takes a more intellectual approach to the saga. As for the special effects, they are modest in comparison — I’d say pedestrian, to be frank, and not even close to big budget standards.

The mini-series was subsequently released to theaters as a feature-length film, but the extremely mundane atmosphere, dusty sets, and colorless wardrobe did not provide much in the way of competition for the two earlier DeMille flicks. On a side note, many of the crew members, including producer Sir Lew Grade, worked on the subsequent Jesus of Nazareth mini-series from 1977, directed by the late Franco Zeffirelli, a much more ambitious and noteworthy assignment.

Recommended for older audiences but with the above reservations. Younger viewers might find it too talky and the performances lackluster.

THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998): 97 minutes

For a change of pace, kids of all ages may want to tune in, along with their parents and friends, to this animated musical account of the Exodus story. The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 production by DreamWorks Pictures, was a joint Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg studio venture.

It incorporates state-of-the-art digital animation effects, and utilizes the services of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Pharaoh, Patrick Stewart as his father Sethi, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Danny Glover as Jethro, and Ofra Haza as Yochaved, with Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Broadway’s Brian Stokes Mitchell, in other key roles, to tell the tale of Moses, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of God’s Laws.

Despite the clash of accents among the talented international cast, the story is clearly and succinctly told. The voice acting, especially by Kilmer and Fiennes as equally-matched combatants, is well done. Much care was taken with the script as well, so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. If anything, this treatment is almost too mild by comparison to DeMille’s gaudier excesses.  

Nevertheless, this visually-stunning animated version, which is vastly superior to most Saturday morning children’s fare (if not quite up to the advanced level of the best of the Disney/Pixar Studios’ efforts), is entertaining and worthwhile.

The visual rendering of the characters favors an elongated look reminiscent of the Mannerist school of portraiture (think El Greco, or possibly Modigliani) that gives the finished product a uniquely original stamp of its own.

Interestingly, the rivalry between the young prince Moses and the future pharaoh Rameses is a thinly-veiled reworking of the Judah/Messala conflict found in MGM’s 1959 widescreen remake of Ben-Hur, another superior religious picture. Thankfully, the script for this outing, written by veteran screenwriter Philip LaZebnick (Pocahontas, Mulan, The Road to El Dorado), is on the same high level as that William Wyler-directed opus.

There’s even a hit song, i.e., “When You Believe,” to thrill to (written by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz), beautifully sung in the movie by Ms. Pfeiffer and repeated, in the end credits, as a power duet between then-reigning pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The score itself is by Hans Zimmer.

This is highly recommended for all family members.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014): 150 minutes

Finally, there’s director-producer Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings from 2014, with the likes of Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh, John Turturro as Sethi, and Aaron Paul as Joshua, with Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Ben Mendelsohn.

This version has not yet been viewed by yours truly. But with a cast such as this, it would be unfair of me to pass judgment on its merits. About the best I could say for it, though, is: Buyer beware!

Still, this and the above entries serve to perpetuate the Idea that haughtiness and vanity will only get you so far. The high and mighty will be brought down and laid low before forces too powerful to control.  

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar L. Lopes

March Sadness and Humanity’s Hope

Tom Hanks (L.) meets with Astronaut Jim Lovell

Today is Sunday, March 15. In poetic terms, it’s the ides of March.

According to historians (and to playwright William Shakespeare), Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all,” was assassinated on that date. He was warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” and avoid setting foot in the Roman Senate.

But Caesar ignored the warning. Instead, he was killed at the Theatre of Pompey, where the Roman Senate met.

Look where we are today.

This used to be a time when fans of college basketball could root for their favorite teams. The NCAA championships take place in March, which gave rise to the description “March Madness.” Not this year, I’m afraid. It’s morphed into something else; that is, something approaching “March Sadness.” It’s a sad epitaph indeed, and not just for college basketball.

The NBA, or National Basketball Association, has suspended its season. So have Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the PGA Tour, and the Masters Golf Tournament. The National Hockey League has also postponed its season, as have the XFL, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and the Women’s Tennis Association. The opening run of the Formula 1 racing season has been cancelled, too. And NASCAR has moved back its opening-day events by two weeks or more.

In addition to which, production of many cable television shows has been halted. The nation’s museums are closed, while movie theaters’ doors have been shuttered as well. Lamentably, Broadway’s Great White Way has dimmed its lights. And the Metropolitan Opera House has lowered its golden curtain on upcoming performances. “La commedia é finita!” the house has announced. Translation: “The play is over!”

All this because of the coronavirus outbreak. But that’s not the worst of what’s happened. There are real lives at stake, with so many families and friends being affected. Workers and employers sent home, multiple school closings, businesses and stores shuttered, elderly loved ones and relatives in peril — all at the mercy of this unseen menace. Unable to participate in life’s simple pleasures, we’re about to closet ourselves away, for our own safety and for the safety of others.

Oh, and financial markets around the world have taken a nosedive. While Wall Street is all wound up, we’ve wound our way down. Big time! We ignored the warnings, and now the ides of March are upon us.

Despite the dire news, the final straw occurred the other day when word got out that Tom Hanks and his actress wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the coronavirus while working on separate projects in Australia.

Oh, no, not him! Not Tom Hanks!!! Please, Lord, say it ain’t so! My God, if Tom Hanks and his spouse can be hit by the coronavirus, is there any hope for humanity?

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The nation is reeling. In times of stress, who do we turn to? Who can we rely on to save us from ourselves, and from our worst impulses?

Why, the self-same Tom Hanks. That’s who! Who better than filmdom’s most reliable and most beloved screen actor?

So let this Sunday homily be my open invitation to Mr. Hanks:

Dear Tom,

Please excuse the directness of my approach. We need your help. Let me rephrase that: America needs your help. At this terrible moment in our country’s history, when things are looking grim for all Americans — and indeed, for the world at large — only you can save us.

Now, now. Don’t give me that look. You know the one I’m talking about, Tom. That clueless, wide-eyed Forrest Gump stare. I know you can do this. You’ve helped us out before — and you can do it again.

Try taking a look at your own past, Tom. See what you’ve been able to accomplish with your movies. Come on, Woody. Don’t let your get-up-and-go get the best of you. Let’s go over those exploits together, shall we?

In Saving Mr. Banks, you played Walt Disney (and you don’t even LOOK like Walt). As good ole Mr. Disneyland himself, you managed to convince the curmudgeonly P.L. Travers into granting your studio the movie rights to her book, Mary Poppins. Now, if you can charm P.L. Travers, then you can charm anybody.

As Forrest Gump, you FINALLY won the heart of the woman you loved, Jenny Curran. (Just between us, I thought she was undeserving of your affection, but that’s me.) If you can win young Jenny’s heart, you can win anybody’s heart.

                               Jenny (Robin Wright) sits with Forrest Gump (Hanks)

As terminally ill AIDS victim Andy Beckett in Philadelphia, you won a wrongful termination suit against your former law firm — with Denzel Washington’s help, of course. If you can beat your former law firm, you can beat any law firm.

In Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, as attorney James B. Donovan, you successfully negotiated a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And you did it by staying true to your profession as a defender of your client’s rights (even if that client happened to be a Soviet spy). Heck, if you can negotiate a successful prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union, you can negotiate anything. Am I right so far?

And, in Saving Private Ryan, as Captain John Miller, you practically lost your entire squad in trying to locate and bring Private James Ryan back to his mother’s side. I can’t help recalling, Tom, that earlier in the picture, you informed your skeptical squad members that, “This Ryan better be worth it. He better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something.”

Do you remember that line?

Towards the end, after Captain Miller is mortally wounded by enemy fire, he gathers what strength he has left and grabs hold of Ryan so he can hear what Miller has to say. Miller’s final words to him are, “Earn this… earn it.”

                              Captain Miller (Hanks) whispers into Private Ryan’s ear

His meaning was clear: “Earn the sacrifice that my men have made in helping to save you.”        

Now, I know you can’t cure this disease, Tom, or invent a longer-lasting light bulk, but surely you can do something, even if you’re holed up in the outback. Let me make it plain, then: You can continue to encourage us by your honesty, your devotion to your craft, and the truthfulness you convey in all your movie roles. No, really, I mean it!

We need your kind of courage, Tom, more than we’ve ever had at any point in our recent history. We need your strength, we need your fortitude, and especially your ability to inspire — as you’ve done throughout your career. That calm, resolute manner you showed as Astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. That’s what I’m talking about. I know you have it in you, sir.

Pandora’s box has been pried opened. The ills of this world have spilled out and spread a contagion called COVID-19. Help us to close the lid, Tom. Keep giving us hope that better days are ahead. Take away the sadness, help restore the madness. In a pinch, you can deploy Buzz Lightyear! Consider this a really big pinch…

Come on, Tom! Let’s get the ball rolling. You and Rita can overcome this affliction, of that I am certain. In doing so, you would have fulfilled your mission — just as Captain Miller did, just as Jim Lovell did.

                                     Tom Hanks as Astronaut Jim Lovell in ‘Apollo 13’

You are humanity’s last, best hope. Don’t let us down in our time of need. Get back on your feet, mister. Do it for me, and do it for America. And for the world.

You’ve earned this!

Yours sincerely,

Joe Lopes

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Seven): The Law is On His Side

Male cast members of Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1993)

‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’

Americans love lawyers.

Now, before you throw a fit or have me committed to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward, let me elaborate.

We enjoy watching television shows (and movies, if you want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) about lawyers because we’re fascinated by the concept of the law and its defenders. Whether we like them personally or not, issues related to lawyers and the law are hammered out in trials, thus giving rise to the ubiquitous courtroom drama.

Courtroom dramas are the very essence, if not the bane, of our existence. They’re part of everyday life, based on the incontrovertible view that people tend to commit crimes. Along with their criminal activities come the post-criminal investigations. Witnesses emerge, evidence starts to pile up. Soon, these assorted elements get introduced (or not) in a forum deemed appropriate to the circumstances. That forum happens to be the courtroom.

And where there are courtrooms, there are judges. Judges, as anyone who’s ever been confronted by one will tell you, are the no-nonsense arbiters of the law; they are the experts, the so-called professionals in matters of jurisprudence.

So who are the arbiters of the facts? Why, the jury, of course. And juries are made up of ordinary citizens — with all our biases and prejudices and accumulated knowledge, both pro and con, of the facts. For, indeed, we, the people, are the ultimate judges of what can be deemed factual.

Okay, but who are the individuals who bring these criminal cases to court, to be heard by a jury of one’s peers, to be adjudicated by a judge? Those individuals are the lawyers, the people trained in presenting a case and arguing the merits before a court of law. This is also where the heart of the “drama” takes place. You might call it a ringside seat, where the “ring,” in this instance, takes the form of a large rectangular room.

As obsessed as we are with high-voltage courtroom dramas — and we can cite numerous examples that fit that description — there is one actor I know of who, at one time or another, appeared to have cornered the market in his association with the law, both on the side of what’s “right” and on the side of what’s “wrong.” And that actor is Denzel Washington.

Not only does Denzel make the perfect attorney at law (in looks, manner, and speech), but his recurrent forays into such related subgenres as crime capers, police procedurals, investigative journalism, and criminal behavior — to include his participation in the crimes themselves (via his earlier ghostly “embodiment” in Heart Condition) — have given him a unique perspective quite apart from his fellow actors.

Certainly his stature as a figure of authority has had something to do with it. Writer and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, referred to Denzel’s “extra confidence” and the authentic “command” he brings to his parts, even to the “silly films along the way.”

We’ll be exploring his commanding presence (and, along the way, some of those “silly films”) in this next installment, which we have subtitled “The Law is on His Side.”

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Beatrice (Emma Thompson) hears the proposal by Don Pedro (Denzel Washington)

We begin, of all things, with a star-studded production of Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed on location in Italy — specifically in the province of Tuscany, at a real Italian villa blessed with sunny skies, verdant pastures, authentic locales, and moonlit nights — this is your standard-grade period piece.

As straight a screen adaptation of the English poet’s opus as you can get, much ado is made of the fact that good-ole reliable Denzel plays a supporting role, i.e., that of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, instead of his usual male lead. It’s back to ensemble work for the workaholic Mr. Washington!

Heading up this ribald dramedy, then, is Irish-born actor, director, and producer Kenneth Branagh, the closest Hollywood has come to that unrivaled thespian and multi-talented performer, director, and theater manager Sir Laurence Olivier.

An Olivier wannabe in everything but name only, the self-directed Sir Kenneth stars as Benedick, a member of Don Pedro’s court. Arrogant, boastful, and self-assured to a fault, the handsome nobleman has a “thing” for the equally brash yet beauteous and witty Beatrice (Emma Thompson, Branagh’s wife at the time). It’s that age-old gag where the one, Benedick, insists that the other, Beatrice, is beneath his contempt, and vice versa; where “I hate your guts” means “I love you truly.” You get the drift.

The main conflict (besides the obvious one twixt Beatrice and Benedick) takes place when Benedick’s companion, the young count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), expresses his heartfelt passion for Beatrice’s comely cousin, Hero (the charmingly attractive Kate Beckinsale). Don Pedro is pleased with the match and forthwith blesses the union to everyone’s satisfaction — everyone, that is, except his rebellious half-brother, the jealous Don John (a brooding and bearded Keanu Reeves, who mugs his way through the picture). Don John has designs of his own where the bride is concerned; consequently, he hatches a side-plot to discredit the virtuous Hero before her betrothed. Zounds, the scoundrel (boo, hiss!).

Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) is tricked into accepting Beatrice (Emma Thompson) as wife

Mixed into this exhilarating brew is the cretinous Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton, who acts as if he had accidently stumbled onto the set of Beetlejuice), accompanied by comparably inept associates. In addition to Branagh, Thompson, and Beckinsale (they sound like partners in a British law firm, don’t they?), the other cast members — among them, Richard Briers as Hero’s father Leonato (and the owner of the villa), Gerard Horan as Borachio (his name, in Spanish, translates to “constantly drunk,” which he is), Imelda Staunton as Margaret, and Brian Blessed as Antonio, Leonato’s brother — bring their proficiency in iambic pentameter to Shakespeare’s words with enthusiasm and zeal.

As the only African American member of the group (and one of a handful of American English speakers), Denzel’s Don Pedro comes off well enough physically. He certainly looks the part of a potentate, who here epitomizes the literal law of the land; and he performs it with the utmost taste and command (there goes that word again) born of self-confidence. It’s evident the actor’s earliest stage encounters with the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon (in Othello and Julius Caesar) make all the difference.

Yet, there is something not quite right. To these ears, Denzel’s dialogue sounds mannered and leaden. His speech does not “roll trippingly on the tongue.” There’s a clash of American English with its British variant in the enunciation department, which is to be expected. However, an absence of spontaneity creeps into passages that demand a less measured approach. Taking nothing away from his delivery per se, one notices an overly cautious reading of Don Pedro’s lines than there needs to be — an over-compensation, if that clarifies things, as if the speaker had placed the emphasis on every word of text so as to make his meaning clear.

There are several examples of this occurring, the first in the scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio discussing Beatrice’s true feelings for him; the second, in the quieter moments between Don Pedro and Beatrice, where he gazes intently into her eyes and proposes a marital union between them. Thompson, as Beatrice, rattles off her riposte with a gentle but casual air of indifference, accompanied by a toss of the head. Whereas Washington, on the receiving end, ever-so-cautiously articulates every vowel and syllable, along with the appropriate punctuation.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m being excessively picky in my assessment. This is still a marvelously photographed and gorgeously costumed realization, if I can be blunt about it. For instance, those opening slow-motion shots with a lusty male contingent bobbing up and down on their mounts, along with those of buxom young ladies in various forms of undress, are notable for their sex appeal and air of anticipation — a balm to Shakespeare addicts.

More likely, I’m making … well, much ado about nothing!

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) joins forces with Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts)

On a more serious note, the initial pairing of Denzel Washington with everyone’s favorite screen sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in The Pelican Brief was cause for jubilation among their millions of dedicated fans. The onscreen chemistry this oddly-matched couple generate lifted the film adaptation of another of ex-lawyer John Grisham’s windingly dense legal thrillers to near-Olympian heights at the box office.

If magnetism and “star power” can be manufactured, bottled, and sold over the counter, then these two brightest of movie lights might have cornered the world market. Call them the twin “flavors of the month,” which, where their followers were concerned, had placed them at cross-purposes to one another. Despite that handicap, both Washington and Roberts shined at playing protagonists who win the audience’s favor. One couldn’t help but root for their success, no matter what project they took part in.

Warner Bros. Studios’ belief in their staying power as box-office draws led to this faithful if needlessly drawn-out conspiracy yarn about the murder of two Supreme Court justices. The book, published in 1992, was Grisham’s third novel and second literary effort to top the New York Times bestseller list (after The Firm).

In the movie, Julia plays law school student Darby Shaw who unwittingly stumbles across an elaborate plot by a ruthless oil tycoon to exploit some oil-rich Louisiana marshland inhabited by an endangered species of pelican — to wit the raison d’être for the avian title. Her subsequent legal brief on the incipient nature of this scheme spells out the particulars in detail.

Before you can say, “What the hell does all that have to do with the death of two Supreme Court justices?”, the next layer to be revealed connects Darby to the assassin Khamel (Stanley Tucci), the person responsible for those murders. Although the late justices were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they were both staunch environmentalists. The idea is for the tycoon to profit handsomely from this oil venture by getting the clueless U.S. President (Robert Culp), whose campaign for reelection has been financed by this same tycoon, to appoint two new justices favorable to the scheme. Thus everybody “wins,” except for the defenseless pelicans.

Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), investigative reporter turned action hero

We warned you this was a needlessly complicated story line. Having read several of author Grisham’s books, however, I can report that this 1993 screen edition is true to the original tome, a rarity among films of this nature.

Readers may be wondering, too, where Denzel might fit into the action. Is he a cop or is he a lawyer? Actually, he’s neither. On a seemingly unrelated note, Dee plays Washington Herald investigative reporter Gray Grantham, who receives a tip from an informant named Garcia about those two assassinations. One thing leads to another, and soon Darby Shaw links up with Grantham, as the two curious individuals — the rookie law student and the veteran journalist — join forces to begin the laborious task of unraveling the maze of deceptions.

I would be remiss in my sworn duty to keep the dénouement a secret. I will say this: the very antithesis of the usual slam-bang, shoot-‘em-up police/crime thriller, The Pelican Brief, written and directed by veteran filmmaker Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent), is a more thoughtful case in point. In view of our stated theme (vide the guardians of law and order and their being on the right side of justice), Denzel occupies an integral secondary spot.

Some critics complained that there were no love scenes between him and Ms. Roberts — and why should there be? As a matter of fact, they don’t fall in love at all, which is how the novel played it. “Any romance would have been rather tactless,” wrote Roger Ebert in his December 17, 1993 review, “considering that the story takes place in the week or two immediately after her [law professor] lover has been blown to pieces.”

How about that! A logical, well-thought-out screenplay for once that makes perfect sense. Consequently, audiences ate this feature up, which only goes to show that Hollywood can still shock and awe you when it wants to. On the other hand, in one of the myriad subplots to director Robert Altman’s labyrinthine The Player, released in May 1992 (a year and a half before The Pelican Brief hit the big screen), the little film-within-a-film Habeas Corpus (with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, of all people!) subverts the whole idea of staying faithful to one’s original work.

You’re probably wondering: “What the hell is he talking about?” I’m glad you asked! Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to watch both The Pelican Brief AND The Player, in that order. To test your knowledge of each, there’ll be a pop quiz on Wednesday. The best of luck to you!

Philadelphia (1993)

Lawyer Joe Miller (Washington) refuses to take Andy Beckett’s case

From our current crisis relating to the mounting coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we harken back to a time when HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and the AIDS epidemic (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) were placed front and center in the debate about how to treat those afflicted with the sexually transmitted disease.

With an all-star assemblage of top-shelf acting talent (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward, Charles Napier, Ann Dowd, Roberta Maxwell, Roger Corman, et al.); an Oscar-winning music score by Howard Shore; and a similarly feted Best Original Song (“The Streets of Philadelphia”) by Bruce Springsteen, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was the first mainstream Hollywood production that directly addressed the issue of AIDS in the workplace.

Released in December 1993 — in the same month and year as The Pelican Brief — TriStar Pictures’ Philadelphia also took on the related topic of homosexuality. Unfounded fears of being infected with the HIV/AIDS virus through touching and non-sexual transmission were an indispensable subtext in the script’s depiction of associate attorney Andy Beckett (Hanks), a rising star in one of those typical “white-shoe” Philadelphia law firms. With his worsening condition becoming more and more apparent, the firm’s partners contrive of a scheme to dismiss Andy on the grounds of incompetence.

The bulk of the drama follows Andy’s pursuit of justice in a court of law — not only for himself but for others fighting for their choice of lifestyle and/or sexual orientation. This is where Denzel’s participation as ambulance chaser Joe Miller becomes a lifeline for the terminally ill attorney.

Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) asks lawyer Joe Miller to defend him

Andy wears the marks of his affliction not so much as a badge of honor but as a constant reminder of the life and death struggle that he, and others like him, face on a daily basis.

Combining many of the elements discussed above — that is, the law and its authority in Much Ado About Nothing and the criminal investigation intrinsic to The Pelican BriefPhiladelphia is a film both utterly absorbing and periodically cloying, itself tinged with what used to be termed the “Disease of the Week” syndrome. That it overcomes the worst tendencies of this genre of movies can be traced directly to its screenplay and to its lead actors.

It’s been pointed out that Andy’s parents are depicted as almost too nice to be true. Too, Andy and his gay lover, Miguel Álvarez (Banderas), are loving, caring individuals openly accepted by family and friends (a hell of a stretch at the time), but their emotional relationship to one another is stillborn, as is their steadfast commitment to stay together come what may. (A scene of the two men in bed was cut from the finished product; it’s been restored for the home edition on Blu-ray and DVD).

Joe Miller (Washington) now represents the interests of ex-lawyer and HIV/AIDS victim Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks)

Despite these deferential nods to outward civility, the movie’s best moments look inward at the surrounding characters, most notably at Andy’s legal representative, Joe Miller. Miller, a straight-arrow African American male, is frightened out of his wits with representing a gay man in court. He can’t even bring himself to properly shake Andy’s hand he’s so biased. His hatred of gays spills out in a potent scene with his wife, where his use of the word “faggot” colors his negative view of his client.

Interestingly, the film’s screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, recalled, in a December 2018 BuzzFeed News interview with reporter Adam B. Vary, how “Some people thought that [Denzel],” during a radio talk-show program, “was going to play the gay character. People called in [to the station] and said the most vile things about him. He was stopped on the streets by fans. People were pretty blunt about how they felt about gay people who were carriers of this fatal disease.”

The misunderstanding was eventually cleared up, but it proved the point that Americans at the time had a long way to go in their grasp and understanding of the problems affecting recipients of the HIV/AIDS virus.

How Denzel’s character begins to overcome his prejudices occurs in several of Philadelphia’s key scenes. Reluctant at first to take on Andy’s case for “personal reasons,” Miller reverses his initial thoughts when he observes Beckett at a library doing research for his case. When one of the librarians asks Andy if he’d be more comfortable in a room by himself — where he’d be away from others who are uncomfortable with his presence (including the librarian) — Miller walks over to where Andy is seated and greets him cordially. Miller’s steady gaze at Andy (and at the librarian) forces the librarian to depart, as does another researcher.

We can infer from this confrontation that Miller, an African American, had undoubtedly experienced the same kind of intolerance as a struggling law student, but for racially motivated reasons. After Miller sits down at the table, Andy hands him an extract from a 1973 law equating the carriers of HIV/AIDS with victims of discrimination, which perfectly underscores the dilemma they face: how to overcome the built-in prejudices inherent in their case by citing the applicable law, along with its precedents.

Other moments in the picture either reinforce or obscure the argument, including one where an African American law student, thinking Miller is also gay, tries to pick him up at a pharmacy. The attempt does not end well as Miller erupts with a volley of verbal invectives against the law student.

Andy (Hanks) listens as his attorney Miller (Washington) cross-examines a witness

Once the case is presented in court, the gist of the drama begins to take hold. Thankfully, the trial scenes are handled in non-sensationalist fashion by director Demme. Outside of the occasional objections, they’re almost matter of fact, a respite from the torpor of real-life court trials or the heavy-handedness allotted to TV courtroom dramas (I’m thinking of the worst of Law & Order).

But the most moving episode of all (for opera buffs such as yours truly) is the well-known example of Andy expounding to Miller on the essence of Maria Callas’ art in a recording of the aria, “La mamma morta,” from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Without going into specifics, both Washington and Hanks’ handling of this sequence is a case study in how to convey emotional intensity with only their eyes and bodies as props. Miller is touched by Andy’s love for the art form, which symbolizes his love of life.

In the film’s final sequence, a terminally ill Andy is greeted by family, friends, and well wishers at home. But his most welcome visitor is Joe Miller, who caringly places Andy’s oxygen mask over his mouth so the ailing attorney can take one last breath before expiring. Upon seeing Andy’s pitiful condition, Miller extends his two hands on either side of Andy’s face. He is no longer afraid to touch Andy or of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. His only sentiment is sympathy for the man. Where fear once dominated his relationship to his client, empathy and love have taken over. Miller has finally come to terms with his prejudices: He gives back to Andy that which Andy had given him — his humanity.

While Philadelphia proved to be a feather in Hanks’ cap (he won the first of two back-to-back Best Actor Awards for this and the following year’s Forrest Gump), Denzel reconfirmed his own status as a co-equal contributor  — both for the subtlety of his performance and the camaraderie he shared with fellow actor Hanks. Their dual roles as lawyers, one the defendant and the other the defendant’s counsel, secured Tom and Denzel’s positions as two of this country’s hottest screen properties.

End of Part Seven

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ The Original Series (Part Eight): ‘Episode VI, Return of the Jedi’ — Nothing Is as It Was

“Impressive!” Opening sequence to ‘Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’ (Photo: 20th Century-Fox Productions)

Hope Springs Eternal

Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), the third film in the original three-episode series, completes the cycle first started back in 1977. The story has come full circle; in fact, it even repeats the basic premise of the initial feature, Episode IV: A New Hope — in this case, with the rebuilding of a larger, more destructive, and “fully operational” battle station and the Rebel forces bravely allied to combat it.

The opening scroll makes the case clear from the start: Jedi knight Luke Skywalker has gone back to his home planet of Tatooine to rescue Han Solo from the evil clutches of Jabba the Hutt. In the meantime, the Galactic Empire has been beefing up its defenses against further attack. Their plan? To counter any future offensives with another “secret” weapon: an impenetrable new Death Star. Big, bad and bold, that’s how the Empire plans to hold out.

On the one hand, the Empire must be stopped at all costs. On the other, the epic confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker must be played out. In their prior encounter (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), Luke lost a limb and almost his life, just as Yoda and Obi-Wan had predicted, to Vader’s lightsaber. But the circle must be closed. The two must meet each other again to finish what had been started.

Before all this can take place, however, Han Solo must be freed from his carbonite confines. And to that end, producer George Lucas decided to divide his picture into three distinct parts, mirroring the three decisive issues at stake: 1) the rescue of Han and his budding relationship with Princess Leia; 2) the Rebel Alliance’s clash with the Galactic Empire (to involve the furry Ewoks); and 3) Luke and Vader’s duel to the death.

Jabba the Hutt’s favorite trophy: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite: ‘Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’

If notions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings strike any bells with readers, that’s because the mythological constructs present in the Star Wars trilogy have been etched in higher relief with this, the final installment of Lucas’ space opera.

Originally titled Revenge of the Jedi (until Lucas correctly surmised that Jedi do not seek retribution against their foes), Return of the Jedi starts off with a display of the Empire’s awesome arsenal. The images are large in proportion to their surroundings, and the Battle Cruisers are massive in their scale. Indeed, there are more FX shots throughout this feature than in the other two films combined.

March to the Music

In time to his gravely portentous theme music (i.e., the Imperial March), Lord Vader arrives at the new Death Star’s docking bay to deliver a brief “pep” talk to Commander Tiaan Jerjerrod. The Emperor is displeased with the lack of progress, Vader hints, hence the reason he’s been sent ahead: to (ahem) speed things up. Placing a gloved hand in the commander’s face (gulp!), Vader warns that His Excellency will soon make a personal appearance to inspect the end results. Oh, joy!

Darth Vader “speaks” with Commander Jerjerrod (Michael Pennington) (Photo: 20th Century-Fox Productions)

A quick wipe takes us to Tatooine, where C-3PO and R2-D2 grouse at each other about their latest mission. Grumbling and complaining every step of the way, Threepio knocks timidly at the gate of Jabba the Hutt’s palace. Relieved that no one has answered, he’s about to scurry off in the other direction, when suddenly a mechanical arm pops out to probe the intruders. Threepio states his case: they need to see Jabba. The mechanical arm retracts.

Thinking they won’t be let in, Threepio and Artoo are startled when the huge gate opens to permit their entry. They’re greeted by the red-eyed Bib Fortuna, Jabba’s adviser, and some pig-like Gamorrean guards. Jabbering in makeshift “Huttese” (a composite of Central African and/or Asian Pacific dialects), Threepio claims to have a message for Mr. The Hutt, as well as a gift.

“Gift? What gift?” questions Threepio. Artoo beeps out a response. Threepio does the first of many double takes. No matter, they are escorted directly to Jabba’s notorious throne room.

At the throne room, they (and viewers) are greeted with all manner of intergalactic beings. Among the assorted aliens are smugglers, thieves, scoundrels, and lowlife types, specifically the bounty hunter Boba Fett and a disguised Lando Calrissian (he’s wearing a helmet with four protruding ring tusks emerging from either side). In the revised version of this sequence, new digital creations appear to be milling about, mixed in with old-fashioned puppetry and dozens of rubber-masked extras.

Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter), Jabba the Hutt’s adviser (Photo: Databank)

Lucas was never pleased with this sequence to begin with. And true to his ever-shifting nature, he couldn’t help fiddling around with it a good 20 or so years after the fact. By that, we mean filling in and touching up the empty spaces and dark corners with computer-generated hookers, dancers and what-have-you. Speaking of which, he replaced Max Rebo’s bouncy mood music with a most unmemorable number, along with deleting puppet pop star Sy Snootles — mostly to the scene’s detriment and the fans’ eternal enmity.

So much of the original’s charm has been lost because of these foolish “makeovers.” Personally, I find Lucas’ so-called enhancements to be unappealing and devoid of inspiration. They’ve been tossed into the salad more to please the producer’s whims. In addition, they detract from the main story line, one of which has to do with Han Solo’s reawakening from his forced “slumber” to his rebirth as a freedom fighter. The other involves Master Luke’s growing maturity in the adult world, where taking responsibility for one’s actions has severe and long-lasting consequences.

The sad part is that Lucas did not stop there. Much to everyone’s dismay, he went on to tinker with practically every special effect sequence he could find, all the way to the end. Although his gratuitous meddling did not affect the other two features to the extent that was perpetrated in Return of the Jedi, the “damage” that was inflicted overall has taken their toll on this production. (Oh, sigh…)

A Fun Time is Had By All

Fortunately, curvaceous Oola and the birdlike Salacious Crumb were spared the iniquity. Crumb’s hideous cackle was, and still is, a highpoint of Jabba’s court. Speaking of which, Threepio and Artoo are brought before the disgusting slug. Artoo plays a recorded message of Luke offering the two droids to Jabba as a goodwill gesture. Threepio is appalled at the prospect. Regardless, he and Artoo are taken to the boiler room where they are inducted into the Hutt’s service.

Exotic dancer Oola (Femi Taylor) in the Rancor’s lair (Photo: iMDB)

Meanwhile, Oola does an enticing dance, but Jabba wants more from her. She hesitates (bad move!). Tugging at Oola’s chain, Jabba throws open a trap door which causes the dancer to fall into a pit — a pit that houses the monstrous Rancor beast. Her terrified screams fill the throne room, while Threepio looks squeamishly away.

Just then, a disturbance is heard as a strange little alien appears with the mighty Chewbacca on a leash. The alien asks for a stratospheric amount as bounty, which throws Jabba into a rage — so much so that he knocks poor Threepio to the floor. The Hutt’s counteroffer is finally accepted as Chewie is led off to prison. Boba Fett, who knows a thing or two about bounties, eyes the little alien with suspicion.

Later that night, while most of Jabba’s cronies are asleep, the tiny alien is spotted making its way toward where the frozen figure of Han Solo hangs. The alien lowers the figure onto the floor with a powerful thud. Adjusting the controls on the carbonite’s outer hull, the structure slowly gives way until the unfrozen form of Solo emerges. Han falls to the floor and is cradled in the alien’s arms. As you may have guessed, the alien is none other than Princess Leia in disguise.

Han is blinded by hibernation sickness, but the alien/Leia assures him it will wear off in time. “Who are you”? he asks. “Someone who loves you,” she replies, to the tune of their love motif. At that point, Jabba’s bawdy chuckle is heard, along with those of the other no-good-nicks. A protesting Han is taken away, but Leia is forced to take Oola’s place by Jabba’s side (yuck). The toad flicks his lustful tongue at her in anticipation. Again, Threepio looks the other way in disgust.

Leia (Carrie Fisher) rescues Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from Jabba’s clutches (Photo: hellogiggles.com)

Transitioning to the jail cell where Chewie has been held, the eight-foot-tall walking carpet greets old buddy Han with a warm bear hug of recognition. The disbelieving Han is happy to “see” (more like “feel”) his old companion, but is astonished to learn that Luke is now a Jedi knight and will be arriving soon to free them from their bonds. Yeah, right…

There’s Safety in Numbers

We can assume that some time has elapsed before we’re back at the gate. The heavy steel doors open with a metallic clang (great room-rattling sound effects!) as the Gamorrean guards are mysteriously brushed aside to allow a hooded stranger safe passage. It’s Luke, of course, doing his best Obi-Wan imitation (or is it Lawrence of Arabia?). He easily manipulates the susceptible Bib Fortuna into taking him to Jabba.

Upon entering the throne room, we see that Leia has taken Oola’s place as the trophy dancer alongside Jabba the horny Hutt. How do we know this? Why, she’s dressed (or, rather, UN-dressed) in a skimpy metallic outfit — and she’s wearing Oola’s chain about her neck. Nice touch, that!

Game of Thrones: C-3PO, Leia, Jabba the Hutt, and Bib Fortuna (Photo: pinshape.com)

Threepio is thrilled to see Master Luke, but Jabba is furious with Bib not-so-Fortuna, who gets smacked down in short order. Jabba is unimpressed by Luke’s calm, Jedi-like demeanor. In no time, Luke grabs hold of a weapon, but Jabba beats him to the punch.

Both Luke and a Gamorrean guard drop through the floor (bet you knew THAT was coming!) and into the Rancor’s lair. The court gathers around the opening to watch Luke and the guard struggle to escape the huge Rancor’s grasp — second time’s the charm? Maybe not! The Rancor, an actual Muppet blown up to cinematic proportions, makes short work of the guard. Next, it turns on Luke, who scrambles about the pit looking for any kind of weapon to beat the monster to a pulp.

Their battle has its ups and downs (for the time, it’s actually quite impressive). Using his catlike reflexes, Luke ducks his way into a corner and notices that the Rancor is about to pass under a gate. Thinking quickly, Luke grabs hold of a handy skull and tosses it in the direction of a switch. Crash! The gate comes down on the poor, unsuspecting creature, killing it instantly. The watching throng gasps in disbelief while Jabba throws another shit-fit.

It’s at this point that Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (executed by film director Richard Marquand) add what the late movie critic Roger Ebert termed “a small moment … that extra level of detail that makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas.” To wit, they have the Rancor’s keeper, a burly, overweight bloke, break down and cry at the sight of the mangled beast. “Everybody loves somebody,” wrote Roger. Ain’t it the truth?

Ah, but the fun’s only getting started! Luke and Han are brought before the enraged Hutt, who has Threepio translate his orders: Our adventure seekers are both to walk the plank and suffer a thousand years of agony as (quote) “they are cast into the pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlacc.” Oh, my! The prisoners (what, again???) are dragged away. In the meantime, Chewie and Leia (according to the script) “exchange concerned looks.” Concerned did you say? Heaven forbid!

In the Belly of the Beast

The scene now changes to the Tatooine desert (filmed in Yuma, Arizona) where the gruesome Sarlacc resides. There is another of those extraneous bits, this one involving the buffalo-like Banthas (courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, or ILM). Jabba’s barge hovers close by, along with two nearby skiffs. Luke and Han are aboard one of them. To ease the tension, the duo trades some light-hearted banter. Switching to the barge, Threepio bumps into Artoo who is serving drinks to the invited guests; back at the Sarlacc, everything is made ready for the coming execution.

Threepio delivers a short speech about begging Jabba for mercy. You will notice that Lando has moved into position, while Luke gives him and others a look of recognition. Without warning, Luke does a reasonable imitation of Olympic gold-medalist Greg Louganis as he high dives off the gang plank to turn himself around. Artoo shoots off Master Luke’s lightsaber which signals to everyone to get into fight mode.

Scene of the Grime: The Sarlacc and barges (Photo: iCollector.com)

General mayhem ensues, with guards and other standbys, including possibly Lando and Han, plunging headlong into the Sarlacc’s gaping jaws of death (digitally enhanced, to be precise, to make it look as if Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space” from The Little Shop of Horrors, had rented living space inside). Another needless expansion features an added bit with Boba Fett for no other reason than to capitalize on the subsequent popularity of this minor character. There’s no point to these irrelevant supplements except to drag the action out to interminable lengths.

One “charming” sequence occurs at the barge where Leia, taking advantage of the confusion, wraps her chain around Jabba’s chunky neck and chokes the living daylights out of him. With eyes bulging and slimy tongue protruding, the infamous Hutt meets a fitting end as his thick tail rattles away. His demise should be greeted with thunderous applause, but the danger is not yet over for our heroes.

Han and Lando dangle precariously for dear life (and exchange comedic barbs at one another), while Luke continues to slice and dice his way through, in true  samurai fashion, to eventually reach Leia. A wounded Chewie does his best to keep it together, but is saved from annihilation when Luke overwhelms the gunners. At the same time, Artoo relieves Leia of her bondage; in the next instant, the little droid takes potshots at the mischievous Salacious Crumb, who’s busy picking at one of Threepio’s metallic eyelids. (Ew, don’t you hate it when that happens?)

With Luke and Leia in command of the barge, Artoo and Threepio abandon ship. After they plunge head-first into the hot desert sand, Luke grabs hold of Leia in another of those patented Tarzan swings (one he’s perfected since Episode IV: A New Hope) and kicks the deck gun into high gear. As a result, the barge explodes into a gazillion pieces.

“Swing your partner!” Poster art for ‘Return of the Jedi’

Luke and Leia land safely onto the skiff (whew, what a relief) which, as luck would have it, contains both Chewie and Lando as well as the nearly sightless Solo. Off they go, but not before they pick up Threepio and Artoo. Note: The sight of C-3PO’s spindly metallic legs sticking out from the ground like golden antennae always provokes a gale of laughter.

Did we say “comic relief”?

(End of Part Eight)

To be continued….

Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, and taken from the novel by Lucas

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘We Talk About Cinema to Talk About Everything Else’: A Look at the Future of Brazilian Cinema

The Brazilian documentary film ‘Indianara’

(Today’s guest contributor is Quebec-born freelance writer Justine Smith. Justine has been writing professionally since 2014 as a film and cultural critic. She has contributed to a wide variety of publications in Canada, the USA and the UK in both English and French. Some of her regular outlets include The National Post, The Globe and Mail, the Roger Ebert website, Cult MTL and Hyperallergic. In 2015, she was selected to be a member of the Locarno Film Festival’s Critic’s Academy. Since 2018, she has collaborated on the Fantasia Talk Show, affiliated with the Fantasia International Film Festival, as a host and correspondent. In early 2019, she began working on the Fantasia programming team, and has also appeared on CBC radio and television as an expert on movies and culture.)

By Justine Smith

October 21, 2019

Indianara, a Brazilian documentary about [a] transgender activist, ends in tears. After tireless work trying to initiate social change and help improve the conditions of LGBTQ+ citizens of Brazil, the country elected a far-right government led by populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Indianara is one of the four Brazilian movies that recently played at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma [FNC] in Montreal.

It is also representative of the kind of film that might be under threat under the new government of Brazil. As the country shifts to the right politically, the film industry finds itself in a vulnerable situation. Films that subvert the regime’s ideology are already running into roadblocks. While the film industry has been thriving internationally, garnering awards and acclaim, its future is uncertain.

Bolsonaro was elected in October 2018, but his nationalist rhetoric has been on the rise for years now. With little information available in English language sources, the question of Brazil’s cinematic future is a mystery outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. Yet, the ramifications of Bolsonaro’s actions are of international importance.

A glance at the most critically acclaimed films, playing at the Nouveau Cinéma, reveals a Brazil in upheaval:

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, Brazil’s entry for the Best International Feature Film, is based on a novel that begins in 1950. It’s the lush story of two sisters, separated by their father’s conservative values, who yearn to reconnect but are unable to. With mythic invocations of Euridice and Orpheus, the film is a melancholic examination of the Fourth Brazilian Republic, leading up to the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état. The political situation remains in the background, unveiled through radio programs and insinuated changes, but the values of the society having profound and often disastrous effects on the two sister’s ability to live their lives. Rather than be rich in nostalgia, the film laments the characters’ failed promise as repressive social conditions hamper them.

Scene from ‘The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao’

Divino Amor, set in the not-so-distant future, represents Brazil in a world where Carnival has been replaced by The Festival of Supreme Love. In this dystopian future, the Brazilian government puts on a front of being a secular bureaucratic system, but it just barely conceals its real values and influences, as the country has transformed into a barely-veiled theocracy. It’s hard not to think of Bolsonaro’s political slogan (his version of “Make America Great Again”), “Brazil above everything, God above all.”

Centered on a profoundly religious civil servant, Joana, the film is a desperate and sometimes wickedly funny portrait of divine providence. As the film hits on its surprising climax, [it] takes a shift as Joana becomes increasingly aware that the religiosity of her community is not rooted in strong belief, as much as it has become a way to control and surveil people. While potentially touched by a divine miracle, Joana is ostracized and humiliated, abandoned by the religion she loved so dearly.

The movie ‘Divino Amor’

The critically acclaimed Bacurau is a violent and subversive film about a small village in Northern Brazil that suddenly finds itself wiped off the map. Cut off from the rest of the world; outsiders invade the village; an unpopular campaigning governor, southern tourists and the animal [trophy hunters] after the Greatest Game of all. Of the moment, the film derives tensions between the rural and isolated communities and the outside forces that view them as disposable.

With echoes of Brazil’s violent past, within the film, it becomes clear that the more powerful hierarchical forces have underestimated the revolutionary spirit of their targets. Bacurau is about resistance as much as it is a portrayal of the cyclical intergenerational trauma of Brazil’s violent history. Bacurau feels like a movie on the precipice of gearing up for a new fight, as vulnerable communities find themselves (once again) forced to take up arms to defend their lives and their land.

The critically acclaimed feature ‘Bacurau’

Among the best films of the year, they represent a fraction of the groundbreaking films coming out of the country. Zoé Protat, director of programming at the FNC, said that the programming team was drawn to the strength of the film’s artistry but also their political integrity. They are films that represent [and] that display a love-hate relationship with their country.

These three films are financed by Ancine, the Brazilian agency that funds and promotes the Brazilian film industry. In the lead up to more significant changes, the agency has been publicly attacked by the government. The director and president of the organization, Christian de Castro, was removed by court order in August, part of a more significant trend of changes happening since March. Brazil’s Minister of Citizenship Osmar Terra said that the new Ancine director would have a conservative profile, “just like the current government.” As bureaucrats investigate the inner-workings of the agency, the money is frozen, not just for production but travel as well.

At the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, they say they did try to invite guests from Brazil but struggled in their dealings with Ancine. Protat suggested this isn’t a new problem, but an ongoing frustration. Even under former leadership, the inner-workings of Ancine were opaque and complex, she says. But the situation only seems to be getting worse.

In Lisbon, one of the biggest and political documentary festivals starts this week. Since 2002, DocLisboa has been a boundary-pushing festival. Three weeks ago, it received news that the guests they invited from Brazil will no longer be able to attend because of Ancine. Earlier in the year, festivals like Indie Lisboa and Queer Lisboa made a point of featuring and highlighting Brazilian cinema in solidarity, but the situation has escalated. The team from DocLisboa decided, three weeks before the opening of their Festival, to restructure their programming.

“We will never be a neutral film festival,” explained one of the Festival’s programmers, Miguel Ribeiro, over Skype. They could not bring over the filmmakers on such short notice, but the Festival responded on September 23rd, by releasing an official statement about the situation:

“It’s clear that there is an agenda for the elimination of diversity and freedom, aiming at a form of art that is, at its core, popular and democratic: cinema. In Brazil, a dictatorship is being installed — several principals of the rule of law are being explicitly violated. Given this, it’s impossible to remain neutral.”

In program changes, they included a showcase of the films of Eduardo Coutinho, a political documentary filmmaker well-known in Brazil. They will present Chico: Artista Brasileiro, directed by Miguel Faria Jr., a film suppressed in Uruguay, and Portraits of Identification, by Anita Leandro, a portrait of the political prisoners taken during Brazil’s military dictatorship with the testimony of survivors. There are also public debates on topics like “Can one be neutral?” addressing media neutrality. Several other Brazilian films are also featured in the programming, treating a variety of important social questions and movements.

Ribeiro had been following the developing story of Brazil’s cinematic future since the election of Bolsonaro last fall. He helped outline the variety of changes and conditions in Brazil, most of which rarely make it to the English language media. Under the shroud of mere bureaucratic changes and language, it becomes clear that artists are under threat of restriction and silence, while government-sanctioned art will increasingly be in service of propaganda for the current leadership.

Understanding the situation in Brazil is only further complicated by its complex and contradictory media empire. Ribeiro suggests a documentary film by Pablo López Guelli, Our Flag Will Never Be Red [A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Será Vermelha], that is playing at the festival. A harsh indictment of a media controlled by oligarchs, the film makes a passionate case against the dominant fraudulent bent of the mainstream Brazilian media cycle.

‘A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Sera Vemelha’ (‘Our Flag Will Never Be Red’)

Bolsonaro has come out and said that he wants to impose “cultural filters” on film production; in other words, censorship. The choice is absolute; follow newly imposed filters or the government “will privatize or extinguish [Ancine],” he said. Specific films like the 2011 movie about a sex worker, Bruna Surfistinha, were singled out as the types of films that would no longer receive government support. Many of the other targets, in line with Bolsonaro’s political platform, include drug-use, feminism, LGBTQ+ communities and indigenous people.

In late July, The Brazilian Cinematheque, located in São Paulo, was placed under military and political control. Brazil’s audiovisual history is in the hands of bureaucrats who plan to use the archives as a platform to promote Brazilian values. One of the first projects set by the new leadership is a showcase of Brazil’s military achievements. The new direction, however, denies that the institution has taken a more conservative perspective.

One of the films playing at DocLisboa, Chico: Artista Brasileiro, was meant to open a festival in Uruguay. The film, which depicts the life of singer Chico Buarque, who was a revolutionary voice against the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-1985. The film, initially released in 2015, was pulled from the Festival after pressure from the Brazilian Embassy in Uruguay.

‘Chico: Artista Brasileiro,’ a film about singer, composer, songwriter and author Chico Buarque de Hollanda

Buarque, who is still alive, was also recently awarded the Camões Prize for Literature, the highest award for the written arts in the Portuguese world. Bolsonaro has expressed his displeasure with the choice and refuses to sign the award. While Buarque has received his prize money from Brazil, the symbolic gesture of Bolsonaro’s opposition still resonates. “Bolsonaro refusing to sign is like a second Camões Prize for me,” Buarque responded in O Globo.

Other filmmakers have come forward saying they’ve been facing problems with the new Ancine leadership. Last month, the producers of the film Marighella, directed by Wagner Moura and starring Seu Jorge, announced that the film’s premiere, scheduled for November 20th, had to be cancelled as they were unable to fulfill new demands by Ancine.

The film, which depicts the life of Carlos Marighella, a politician and guerrilla fighter who resisted against the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1960s, also faced violence during its production. Some believe that the film is being censored by “obstructionism.”

Seu Jorge in the biographical film, ‘Marighella’

This is just the tip of the iceberg and as these changes are rarely direct, it’s difficult to assume intent. But, taking those incidents in the context of other actions against the arts, it becomes [worrisome]. Step by step, the industry is being dismantled and rebuilt in service of the propagandistic forces of the government. The message, though often weighed down in bureaucratic language, is clear: Ancine needs to bend to the will of the government or be eliminated.

For their September issue, the Cahiers du Cinéma featured Bacurau as their cover story with the headline, “Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” and three articles devoted to the cinema in Brazil. In an interview from Cannes earlier this year, one of Bacurau‘s co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho spoke on the conditions of working in Brazil under Bolsonaro and the importance of using art as a tool of resistance. He said:

“Today, under the extreme right-wing politics of Bolsonaro, the situation has become so absurd that we need to reaffirm things like ‘Education is important,’ and ‘all people need to be treated equally.’ Conversations have become so extreme, absurd and explicit. Cinema, music, literature need to listen to what’s happening, or else it gives the impression that it’s deaf.”

Later in the same issue, in the article “Le cinéma Brésilien à l’ère de Bolsonaro” (“Brazilian Cinema in the Age of Bolsonaro”), the author Ariel Schweitzer discusses with a Brazilian critic the state of cinema. “Is it possible,” writes Schweitzer, “that when a country is suffering, it’s cinema can thrive?” To which Brazilian critic for Folha de S. Paulo, the country’s largest daily newspaper, Inácio Araújo answers, “That’s perhaps true in some cases, but when a country goes bad, its cinema risks [going] very badly as well.”

The article in Cahiers suggests more censorship and budgetary cuts are to come. It’s not just films and filmmakers under threats, but festivals as well: this will only further close off the industry from outside involvement and discussion. While there are privatized industries that can continue to fund films within Brazil, without government support productions will face increased pressures from the point of financing to distribution.

While right now the Brazilian cinema seems to be thriving, that might not be the case for much longer. The situation is changing from one day to the next, and the prognosis looks worse and worse.

Ribeiro notes that the situation in cinema in Brazil is part of a small part of a worrying trend in the country, one that targets vulnerable members of society. “We talk about cinema to talk about everything else,” he says. By limiting the movement of filmmakers, it prevents their ability to criticize conditions and changes within Brazilian society publicly. Restricting films, in most cases, works to restrict speech as well.

When we talk about cinema, we are talking about everything. We are talking about a government that restricts the arts, movement and freedom of expression. As we see, the Brazilian government violently acting against its people, cinema, as a tool for empathy and resistance, is being restricted.

As citizens of the world, we have a responsibility. Bringing awareness, but also understanding that what is happening in Brazil is happening elsewhere. Far-right parties are gaining power across the globe, and film industries dependent on government funding and support are being threatened by campaigns and movements that seek to silence them. These policies that seek to repress the arts are interconnected [within] systems that seek to restrict dissonant voices that are critical of the government’s dangerous and dehumanizing policies.

What is happening in Brazil is not a unique case; in different forms, it can happen anywhere.

(All translations from the French were done by Justine Smith. Special assistance in translating the Portuguese language by Francisco Peres.)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Six) — British Period Two-Point-O

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003)

Batten Down the Hatches, Boys!

When last we left the eclectic Mr. Depp, he was caught up in cocaine smuggling in the 2001 movie Blow. Sent to Otisville Federal Correctional Institute for a goodly number of years, his character — a potbellied, older-but-wiser George Jung — experiences a vision of his grown up, high-cheek-boned daughter Kristina Sunshine (Jaime King) paying a visit to him in prison.

As the pair hug each other tight, George has a flashback in which police carry his little girl (Emma Roberts) from their home after he’s been busted for possession of illegal drugs. In another, his estranged spouse Mirtha (Penélope Cruz) sits down to speak with George via the prison’s phone system. But she purposely drops the phone’s receiver on him, as does Kristina Sunshine when it’s her turn to talk to daddy.

In the concluding episode, George walks hand-in-hand with Kristina, who fades away to nothingness as the prison guard tells him it’s time to pack it in. Turns out she was nothing but a dream. And the moral of the story? “Ain’t no ‘Sunshine’ when she’s gone” (my apologies to Bill Withers), with or without the darkness.

Close family relationships have been at the center of Depp’s cinematic output from the start. The most prominent of which (Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and The Brave) have emphasized the ties that bind an individual to one’s brood. However difficult it may be to break those ties, the family unit stays intact. It remains the focal point in such crime-based dramas as Donnie Brasco and Nick of Time — even Sleepy Hollow — or the pseudo-sci-fi incongruities of The Astronaut’s Wife.

Family, of an entirely different sort, would take over the main section of Johnny’s next projects. As a matter of fact, the very term “family” and what it meant to be a contributing member of one underwent a drastic re-modification.

Perhaps reflecting the changing attitudes of American society as a whole and the notion of what comprises the so-called “modern family unit,” Depp’s personal relationships with his own children, and to children in general, had a profound influence on how he would approach such box-office bonanzas as Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But before he reached that critically-acclaimed stage, Depp agreed to don dreadlocks and braids, to cap his teeth with fake gold trimming, and to assume the bawdy carriage and boozy aspect of a stoned-out rock ‘n’ roller, in what would become his most lucrative film venture yet.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is shipwrecked on a deserted Caribbean islet with Elizabeth (Keira Knightley)

The first picture in the (gulp) “ongoing” series, the nautically predisposed Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, set the unwavering course, so to speak, for Hollywood’s obsession with franchises. It was followed three years later by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) — the best of the bunch — and the subsequent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).

As far as we can measure, this money-generating mania (what in motion-picture parlance is referred to as a “cash cow”) began, more or less, with the runaway successes of the Wakowski siblings’ cyberpunk series The Matrix (starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishbourne) and Peter Jackson’s blockbuster The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, trailed quickly by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man action epics (with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst), as well as the earlier The Fast and the Furious (the team of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez).

What made the faux saltiness of the Pirates of the Caribbean brand of adventure stories — an essential chapter in Johnny’s British-period outings — so entertaining to both critics and public alike? That’s hard to say.

It had been some time since a pirate picture would translate into profits for penny-pinching movie studios. Their heyday had come and gone in the late 1940s and ‘50s (the best example being Burt Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate), with a fitful smattering of efforts thereafter that dotted the cinematic seascape, to include such titles as Swashbuckler (1976), The Pirate Movie (1982), The Pirates of Penzance (1983), Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986), Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), Brian Henson’s Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Disney’s animated Treasure Planet (2002).

After having taken a bath at the box office with the gimmicky Treasure Planet, a half-hearted science-fiction take at a swashbuckler resurgence, industry mavens expressed alarm that the Disney Studios, in conjunction with megabuck producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Remember the Titans, Pearl Harbor), would revisit the time-worn story line — in this instance, basing a script (by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) on Disney’s eponymously titled theme-park ride. Tackling another such high-sea saga was a risky venture in their view (with or without an eye patch). Ah, but money speaks louder than words.

Action sequences galore (under the purposeful direction of Gore Verbinski), lush location shooting on the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean (where else?), along with a full-blown symphonic film score by Hans Zimmer (with borrowings from his previous hit, Gladiator), and a plethora of mindboggling stunts and special FX, dominated this initial entry.

Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, l.) on deck with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, r.)

And the plot? I knew you’d ask me that question! Let’s say the story is so hopelessly complicated, so overblown, and so lumbering and elephantine that it took two subsequent sequels to untangle and resolve — and not to everyone’s gratification.

The principal “character” (and we use that term loosely) is that of Captain Jack Sparrow, a slightly effete, slightly tipsy, and incessantly scheming buccaneer with a penchant for pretentious dialogue and dark eyeliner. He also has a one-track-minded obsession with women and rum. Despite his unsavory nature, Sparrow is a delightfully daffy personification: quick-witted and beguiling, he can outsmart, out-think and out-maneuver any number of His Majesty’s Royal Guardsmen, not to mention the entire British Fleet. What Sparrow has going for him is his ability not to be taken seriously.

As the roguish Jack, Depp drew upon his earlier enactment of Hunter S. Thompson, the whacky gonzo journalist-turned-writer we first encountered in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To that performance, he added the slurred speech patterns of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who makes a cameo appearance as Sparrow’s papa, the Keeper of the Pirate Codex, in 2007’s At World’s End.

Johnny’s part, as originally conceived, was in the upstanding “action hero” mold. Always looking to bring a sense of novelty to whatever he did, Depp decided to embellish the character with his own tongue-in-cheek twist. Michael Eisner, who headed Disney at the time, took one look at the rushes and was not amused. “He’s ruining the film!” Eisner was quoted as saying. Johnny was unperturbed by the comment. His response was reported to be: “You either trust me or give me the boot” (pun intended). Eisner decided that too much had been invested in the production to make any changes at that point.

As one producer once came to a similar conclusion concerning the late actor-producer-financier Robert Evans’ own modest beginnings in movieland: “The kid stays in the picture.”

Instead of walking the plank, Depp took his character’s license to offend by the horns and allowed himself a bit of leeway: He turned the fey Captain Sparrow into a one-man side-show. The main event, then, took shape in the evolving (and evermore contrived) relationships between Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and James Norrington, with Jack occupying the inner-and-outer fringes of comic relief. He would later take up this same methodology for his original, deadpan take as Tonto in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013).

The large supporting cast highlighted the diversity inherent in practically all of Depp’s features, with the Pirates series being no exception. Among the talents deployed were those of Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as the ghostly Captain Barbosa, Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) as the highborn Elizabeth Swann, Orlando Bloom (Legolas in The Lord of the Rings) as love-smitten swordsmith Will Turner, Jack Davenport (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as the snooty Lt. Norrington, Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) as Governor Swann, Kevin R. McNally as Mr. Gibbs, Lee Arenberg as the bald-pated Pintel, Mackenzie Crook as loose-eyed Ragetti, and Zoë Saldana (Uhura in the Star Trek reboots) as female pirate Anamaria.

Now, about that winding plot … It has something to do with Captain Jack’s attempts to take possession of his ship, The Black Pearl, from some mutinous rival privateers. Oh, and there’s also a mighty curse that needs to be broken. And a spectral crew to overcome. And a mind-of-its-own compass. And 882 pieces of eight, mate.

As I said: It’s complicated. And I’ll be damned if it’s not entertaining to boot (pun VERY intended!).

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Depp up to the bar in ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’

From a side-show attraction, Johnny fixed his ever-watchful gaze on a violent, nausea-inducing contemporary sagebrush saga by Tex-Mex writer, director, producer, cinematographer, musician, and editor Robert Rodriguez.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico, an obvious ode to Italian auteur Sergio Leone’s grandiloquent spaghetti Westerns, in particular The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), was part of a trilogy of films by the enterprising Mr. Rodriguez that began with the low-budget, self-made El Mariachi (1993) and the ensuing slicker but no less ferocious outlaw epic Desperado (1995), the former starring Carlos Gallardo as the titular gun-toting musician and the latter with Antonio Banderas in the name part.

Banderas returned to the role in this outlandish sequel (Desperado was distributed, in fact, by Columbia Pictures, as was Rodriguez’s earlier creation). In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, El Mariachi is charged by CIA Agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands (played with typical self-reliance by Depp) with the killing of one of those corrupt Mexican generals one hears so much about. The general is played by Willem Dafoe. There’s also a revenge-themed angle to this setup that, for all intents and purposes, outdoes anything that came before.

Johnny Depp as CIA Agent Sands

Perhaps that’s the reason why the series faltered after Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Once upon a time in Depp’s movie career, he might just as easily have played the lead protagonist as he had the minor CIA sidekick. He could certainly fake a Mexican accent better than many native speakers could pronounce their own surnames (see his Don Juan DeMarco if you have any doubts). Still, Johnny’s fidgety nature preferred to let others have their moment in the hot desert sun, which is all to the good.

Our favorite sequences in this long, drawn-out shoot-em-up (which also stars Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Rubén Blades, and Enrique Iglesias) happen to be: 1) Depp’s “conversation” in a fancy Mexican bar/restaurant with ex-standup comic Cheech Marin as Belini, which ends rather badly for poor old Cheech and the waitress serving them both; and 2) the CIA agent’s violent shootout with hitmen that is so blatantly outrageous and so ridiculously over-the-top that one is forced to laugh the whole sequence off. It’s almost too cartoony to take seriously.

The Secret Window (2004)

Depp as Mort Rainey, with John Turturro as Shooter, in ‘The Secret Window’

Johnny’s subsequent brush with the “law,” The Secret Window from 2004, was a dreary, offbeat affair. Based on a Stephen King novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, it reminded one of a poor man’s Edgar Allan Poe psychological horror fantasy (“The Telltale Heart” would be what we had in mind), with some semi-biographical elements thrown in.

The basic premise involves an author, Mort Rainey (a stand-in for King, which is where the semi-biographical aspects come into play), trying to overcome his writer’s block by shacking up, all by his lonesome self, inside a log cabin in the woods (the movie was shot in parts of Quebec, Canada). Mort spends most of his time dressed in a bathrobe and lying around the couch while attempting to snap out of the doldrums.

One day, he’s visited by one of those tall and sullen strangers that seem to inhabit such woodland fright fests as these. The stranger’s name is John Shooter (a grim-faced John Turturro). He wears a big black hat (could he be the bad guy?), and he’s pissed off something fierce. Shooter accuses Mort of plagiarizing his murder-mystery novel. “You stole my story,” he declares, in a slow, portentous drawl meant to make Mort and the audiences’ skin crawl. That starts the plot a-rolling.

From there, we learn a little more about Mort as a person: that he really did “steal someone else’s story” a while back and published it as his own; that he wrote and published his own story two years before Shooter’s tale; that after confronting Shooter, the next night Mort’s dog is stabbed to death with a screwdriver. Yikes! Looks like this guy Shooter is (cough, cough) deadly serious about that plagiarism claim.

What’s an author with writer’s block to do? In Mort’s case, he reports the slaughter of his pet pooch to the local sheriff (Len Cariou). To prove that his story really did come first, Mort goes off to see his estranged wife Amy (Maria Bello) to retrieve a copy of the magazine where it was originally published. He also hires a former policeman turned private detective (Charles S. Dutton) to ferret out the situation with the lugubrious Mr. Shooter.

Mort (Johnny Depp) has a bout of cabin fever in ‘The Secret Window’

One thing leads to another and, as in all of King’s stories, the final “reveal” is both thought provoking and preposterous at one and the same time. The best parts of the picture are when Johnny is left alone, talking a blue streak to himself and sorting out in his mind (or what’s left of his sanity) as to what’s been going on. The ending, while not particularly shocking, is somewhat of a letdown but true, overall, to the story arc that’s been laid out beforehand (keep a close eye on the objects around Mr. Depp at the outset — they’ll come in handy towards the finish).

No spoilers here, folks. The best we have to say about this minor effort is the creepy music score by Philip Glass (The Hours) and Geoff Zanelli (which will remind viewers of Depp and Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), the steady directorial hand of veteran screenwriter David Koepp, and the fine location photography by Fred Murphy. All in all, a modest achievement for the always adventurous Johnny D.

(End of Part Six)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Six): Much Ado About Malcolm

Brother Malcolm (Denzel Washington) sings the praises of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (photo in background) in Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

‘X’ Marks the Spot

When you’ve scaled the highest mountain and sailed the deepest sea, where do you go from there? And when actors reach the absolute peak of their profession, what do they do for an encore?

Every performer must ask these age-old questions, but not everyone is prepared to face the challenges. If they do confront them, not all of them can succeed. Some reach the summit only to fall flat on their faces; others manage to stay on top (but barely). Still others crest too soon, while some take years to reach their potential.

Clawing your way to success can become an all-consuming passion. Once there, however, the struggle continues for those whose needs are many — come what way. So who, in their right mind, would risk it all on a project deemed too risky and controversial to win over the hearts and minds of skeptics?

For film star Denzel Washington and producer, director, screenwriter, and part-time actor Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), risk and controversy were an integral part of their game plan. The work they put into their next venture, Malcolm X — a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for some time — was almost too good to be true. In the words of the garrulous Mr. Lee, the film speaks for itself. “It just grows in stature,” he insisted. “That performance … ”

Ah, yes, THAT performance! Spike went into detail about Denzel’s preparation for the difficult part of Malcolm X in an online conversation with singer-performer Pharrell Williams for the Reserve Channel.

“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches,” Lee claimed. “I’m reading the script. Well, the speech is over, I’m going to call ‘cut.’ But [Denzel] keeps going. He kept going another five minutes until finally the film ran out in the magazine. And the stuff that he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So, I finally called ‘cut.’ I go to Denzel. I said, ‘Denzel, that was great. But where did that come from? You went on five minutes after what was scripted!’ He said, ‘Spike, I don’t know.’ So that’s the type of … he was bringin’ it in.”

Malcolm (Denzel Washington) preaching in Harlem in ‘Malcolm X’

“Did that moment go in?” Pharrell inquired.

“Oh, it’s in the movie,” replied Lee. “But here’s the thing that people don’t understand. Denzel worked a year before we started shooting. He told his agent, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ He prepared a year for that role. What did he do? ‘I’m playing a Muslim. OK, I can’t eat pork anymore. I’m playing a Muslim, I can’t drink. I have to learn how to speak Arabic, I have to learn to read the Quran.’ He became a student of Malcolm. It’s more than just the impersonation. It’s more than just dyeing his hair red or putting on the glasses or the voice. Because all that is superficial.

“Denzel knew he had to be in a space spiritually where Malcolm comes into his vessel. So that’s why he was able to do that five-minute thing after the scripted pages ended. That was Malcolm in him, Malcolm came into his soul right there. I said [that] to Denzel, he could not remember what he said.

“You got to put the work in,” Lee concluded. “Otherwise, you’re bullshitting. You’re shuckin’ and jivin’ … If you’re bullshitting, your stuff is not going to stand the test of time.”

And what a time that was! The name part in Malcolm X, released in November 1992, was the longest and most elaborate of Denzel’s decade-long film career to that point and beyond. Next to Inside Man (2006), the Malcolm X project was Lee’s most “mainstream” picture. Denzel had earlier appeared as Malcolm in Laurence Holder’s 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Obviously, the star was familiar with the character’s background and had put forth the effort into becoming the former Malcolm Little, aka “Detroit Red.”

‘Malcolm’ in the Middle, Beginning and End

Denzel was close to the real Malcolm X’s age when he completed Spike’s massive three-hour epic. As a matter of fact, the ex-Nation of Islam minister and one-time follower of the (once) Honorable Elijah Muhammad was 39 years old at his death (on February 21, 1965), compared to Denzel’s 38. In the height department, Denzel stood six-foot one-inch tall, compared to Malcolm’s six-foot-three or -four, a slight if perceptible difference; and they both had slim builds.

Dee’s refined facial features, while elongated and thin, did not exactly resemble that of Mr. X’s. In critic and writer David Thomson’s judgment, Malcolm was “gaunter” and “had a hardened carapace — to life and the camera — that no actor could conceive of.” This was spot-on accurate. And as dynamic and flashy a presence as Denzel could bring to the screen, he had not yet gone through the vagaries of life nor had he experienced the poverty, the misery, the bitter struggles and severe hardships that Malcolm and the Little family had to contend with on a daily basis.

Interestingly, the two men had more in common than originally thought: both their fathers were ministers, both came from large families, and both were raised by their mothers.

Side-by-side comparison: Malcolm X and Denzel Washington

Looking at it from another angle, Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the eccentric Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), faced a similar handicap. Since he neither resembled nor spoke anything like the mysterious billionaire recluse, he was at a disadvantage. However, Leo did maintain a furrowed brow throughout the length of the picture. Perhaps he learned from Denzel that to assume the visage of a known historical figure, one must mentally realign one’s features (either by sheer concentration or force of will). There was also a huge age disparity between Hughes and the actor playing him. Basically, viewers had to take Leo’s assumption of the part more on “faith” than on actual likeness.

In contrast, Denzel’s smoother, unlined countenance captured, “in spirit” (as was claimed in the above discussions), the corporeal and emotional as well as the vital psychological characteristics of Malcolm in the assorted phases of his life: from kitchen worker to Pullman porter; from street hustler, pimp, and drug pusher to convicted felon; from ex-con to eager acolyte; from faithful minister to disillusioned devotee; and, finally, from an African-American seeking clarity and wisdom to that of a reinvigorated human being.

That was quite the trajectory for one man to have undergone. In that, Denzel would need all the help and support he could get from Lee and his large cast and crew. If, as they say, timing is everything, then both Lee and Dee were blessed and guided by it. The time, 1992, more than a year after the Rodney King beating, was indeed right for Malcolm’s story to be told. Much more than your normal biopic — their models would be Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi from ten years prior and the same director’s Cry Freedom (1987) about South African activist Stephen Biko, played by Denzel himself — Malcolm X traces the ups and downs and the ultimately tragic course of the main protagonist’s life-cycle.

The physical aspects of the production would, by necessity, encompass the changing hair and fashion trends of the various time periods in question, along with the settings, locales, events, personalities, and individuals involved. Some biographical matters would be rendered in flashback, whereas others moved the drama along in strict chronological order.

Each of the periods had its own specific look: for example, the zoot-suited weirdness of the thirties and forties (set in brightly-colored hues) and the darkly portentous sixties (told in earth-toned severity). As he did with Do the Right Thing, director Lee’s color palette (courtesy of cinematographer and fellow New York University Film School graduate Ernest Dickerson) varied from the bold and outlandish to the dowdy and stern. Historical accuracy would be stressed, but not slavishly so. More significantly, given Lee’s penchant for over-the-top, in-your-face brashness, Malcolm’s milieu would be recreated, as close as humanly possible, to what was known and documented about it.

Malcolm as “Detroit Red” (Denzel Washington) with his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) in their zoot suits

Beginning with Malcolm’s “Detroit Red” period, Denzel would first personify the handsome dandy who could win over women and befriend the likes of gangster West Indian Archie (a distinctive Delroy Lindo). Malcolm’s escapades with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee, in a riotously comedic tour de “farce” part), his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and his later conversion to Islam by the insistent Brother Baines (a stern Albert Hall) would take some liberties with the facts, but adhere closely (for the most part) to such sources as The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (first published in 1965) and the original screenplay by Arnold Perl (revised by scriptwriter Lee).

At the epicenter of activity would be Denzel’s pivotal interpretation. Similar to that of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — another epic depiction of a flawed historical character surrounded by events spiraling out of his control — Dee would be present and accounted for in virtually every scene. Film critic Julian Roman had hitherto noted that Denzel’s Private Trip in Glory was “a transcendent performance.” If that was the case, then the actor’s active participation in Malcolm X transcended even that milestone effort.

Both he and Lee could have fallen on their faces had they failed to stir the masses. The famously motor-mouthed director was known to talk his head off about racial, economic, political, and socially relevant matters — topics designed to focus primarily on whatever theme or issue his latest project happened to touch upon. Success, in the eyes of some, would be fleeting if at all attainable.

They each proved their critics wrong. With his compelling screen presence, Denzel had successfully portrayed one man’s momentous journey despite the short, turbulent life he left behind; how that man changed his outlook, at key intervals, because of his reawakening: first to religion, then to active militancy; next, to polemics; and, finally, back to religion — more precisely, to the universal brotherhood of man.

Cinematic Moments to Remember

The beauty of Washington’s performance, then, was his complete and utter devotion to Malcolm’s mission. You could sense the passion in every word and movement. For anyone watching the film, Denzel shines a beacon on what is, at first, a rather devious individual — called “the devil” in the scene where a Catholic priest (snidely played by Christopher Plummer) uses that exact term.

That this individual had a soul and a unique ability to move people to action is hinted at in the “indoctrination” process he underwent via the Nation of Islam’s efforts. Malcolm’s teary-eyed meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (humbly if calculatedly portrayed by soft-spoken Al Freeman Jr.) is one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the entire picture. Their solemn encounter had to be emphasized, for later, when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has been less than “honorable” in associating himself with under-aged girls, he experiences a change of heart.

In between, curious bystanders (few at first) both see and hear Malcolm giving street-corner lectures and preaching to anyone who will listen that blacks have been oppressed by whites for centuries (“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”). He begins to draw more and more crowds. Soon, he becomes more popular than the man whose so-called “virtues” he’s been extolling. This does not curry favor with the Muslim brotherhood.

The journey climaxes in the startlingly violent blood-bath near the end where Malcolm is gunned down before a gathering that includes his wife Betty Shabazz (a sympathetic Angela Bassett) and their young children. The scene is shocking in its brutality.

Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) in ‘Malcolm X’

Despite the lurid quality of his death, there are moments where Malcolm makes a point of demonstrating the power of the spoken word (and mesmerizingly so). In others, specifically the scenes at the police station where Malcolm confronts a surly white desk sergeant, which is also the place where a battered and bloodied Brother Johnson (Steve White) is visited by him and his band of “Brothers,” Malcolm is calm and deliberate. Here, moderation and steadfastness prevail.

In a related sequence, silence and hand gestures lead the way. When a mob of protesters is seen standing and shouting “We want Johnson!” outside Harlem Hospital, an enormous police captain (Peter Boyle) comes over to accost Malcolm. He orders him and his followers to disperse. After a doctor assures Malcolm that Brother Johnson will survive his wounds, Malcolm flashes a smile at the captain and, turning his back to the lawman, raises a gloved hand, which immediately quiets the crowd. Pointing his finger and hand in the opposite direction, the crowd calmly files out military style (to a “rum-tiddy-tum-tum” drum roll accompaniment). The startled captain remarks, under his breath, “That’s too much power for one man to have.”

Director Lee, whose knowledge of the movies was honed by his attendance at both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, along with a Master of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, had clearly referenced a similar situation from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) where the gigantic Captain McCloskey (Sterling Hayden) tells Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to clear out from guarding his dad, the wounded Vito Corleone, before bashing him on the jaw.

Police Captain (Peter Boyle) tells Malcolm to disperse the crowd

Prior to Malcolm’s untimely end, he experiences another epiphany. His life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine, and his collective worship with others of the faith — many of whom came from differing backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds — forces Malcolm to accept the fact that Islam, and indeed every religion, is meant for everyone and not just a select few.

In that wide-ranging conversation both he and Spike Lee had for the 2006 DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of Inside Man, Denzel claimed that Malcolm X wasn’t his hardest role; that he had previously done the play and was familiar with the contentious black activist’s life. So he felt comfortable enough to do it. Possessing the “gift of gab,” as he phrased it, Denzel had Malcolm’s speeches pasted to his dressing room wall. When it came time to shooting the actual footage, Lee kept loading the camera with film.

“I was trying to capture the spirit,” Denzel confirmed for the cameras.

“The spirit,” Lee repeated and continued. “Just acting, ‘Well, I’m going to look like him,’ that’s just surface stuff.”

There was nothing “surface” about Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn, one of the finest screen portraits in many a year. He was able to penetrate deep inside, in between, over and above Malcolm’s surface and into the person himself. That the veteran Al Pacino beat him out for Best Actor honors in Scent of a Woman was an injustice and a dereliction of duty by the members of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy.

Nevertheless, when he worked on Malcolm X, Denzel would pray every morning, “before I came to that trailer,” to be filled with the man’s spirit. “I’m like, ‘All right, Malcolm, come on.’ And it’s not for me. It’s for him and for those hopefully that he affected.”

Those prayers were not in vain.

End of Part Six

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lost to America — The Unknown Brazilians: Raul Roulien

Screen actor, singer, composer, director Raul Roulien

Actor, singer, songwriter, composer, screenwriter, and director Raul Roulien was a star in his native Brazil. Born in Rio de Janeiro on October 8, 1905, Raul is best known to American audiences for his appearance in RKO Radio Pictures’ Flying Down to Rio from 1933. He played the role of Julio Ribeiro, Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio’s love interest.

Roulien, whose real name was Raul Pepe Acolti Gil (he was of Italian extraction), went to Hollywood in the early days of sound pictures. He epitomized the “Latin Lover” type then prevalent and made famous by his illustrious predecessor, Rudolph Valentino. Like Mickey Rooney before him, Raul was practically born to the stage, having made his first appearance at age 5. He was also a polyglot, who spoke many languages fluently — including Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French, and English — who toured Brazil and South America, as well as Europe and Asia.

When he eventually arrived in Hollywood (on his own dollar), he was told that no screen actor would be taken seriously with a handle such as “Raul Pepe,” so they changed it. He was also told to get his jutting ears looked at, which plastic surgery fixed. Adopting the professional moniker of Raul Roulien, he was signed by the Fox Studios to star in several features, among them the 1931 flick Delicious (directed by David Butler) in which he sang the George and Ira Gershwin song “Delishious.”

Dolores Del Rio with Raul Roulien in RKO Radio Pictures’ ‘Flying Down to Rio’ (1933)

In 1933, Fox Studios loaned him out to RKO Radio Pictures for the classic Flying Down to Rio (Portuguese title “Voando para o Rio,” an exact translation). Roulien was billed third from the top, below that of Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond and above debutantes Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, who were practically unknown to movie audiences at the time (both came from the Broadway theater). The film was one of the first to feature Brazil prominently — and Rio de Janeiro specifically, which was presented onscreen via back projections and actual recreations of the Copacabana Palace Hotel (where my wife and I spent our honeymoon).

Raul scored a huge hit with Flying Down to Rio, where he happened to have been one of the few resident Brazilians in the entire production. There were several others on the set as well — you can hear them speaking Portuguese in some of the scenes — but the majority of the extras were of Latin and/or Hispanic background.

Herbert Mundin, Gloria Stuart, Raul Roulien & Joan March in Fox Studios’ ‘It’s Great to Be Alive’ (1933)

Unfortunately, soon after Flying Down to Rio premiered Raul Roulien began to fall on hard times professionally. The story goes that Raul’s second wife, “Diva” Tosca Izabel Querze, age 25, was killed in a hit-and-run accident dated September 22, 1933, three months before the debut of Flying Down to Rio. According to newspaper reports at the time, her body was hurled 30 or more feet by the vehicle’s impact, then rolled another 25 feet. The driver of the vehicle was reported to be John Huston, Hollywood screenwriter and future director of such films as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He was allegedly cleared of all blame by the investigating officers.

However, as indicated in Ruy Castro’s book, Carmen Miranda: A biografia (available in Portuguese only), Huston’s actor-father, Walter Huston, took it upon himself to make Raul’s life a living hell after the grieving widower decided to pursue the case in court. He demanded monetary compensation for his wife’s wrongful death. Meantime, Walter sent his son John to Ireland to escape the hounding press corps. Although he won a modest settlement in court, Raul was permanently shut out of Hollywood as a result. He finally packed his bags and returned home to Brazil (to São Paulo, to be exact) after several more unproductive years in Tinsel Town.

Newspaper article about the death of Mrs. Raul Roulien

During his Hollywood days, Raul was fairly well off. He was well known as a celebrity but lost pretty much all of his standing and prestige in the U.S. after the car accident. From my continuing research into the subject, it turns out that Raul had a house in Beverly Hills that afforded him some creature comforts. He continued to visit the U.S., where he stayed in Carmen Miranda’s Beverly Hills mansion. But he was never again contracted to star in any further productions. Hollywood and his numerous fans were deprived of Roulien’s magnetic stage and screen presence and his fine, resonant singing voice.

Raul Roulien continued his professional life in Brazil as a movie, television, and stage director. Practically unknown today, Raul died, at age 94, on the anniversary of his birth: October 8, 2000.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ The Original Series (Part Seven): ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ Episode V — Parents and Their Children

Their Heads in the Clouds

Threepio, Artoo, Luke & Leia contemplate their fate at the conclusion of ‘Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

The Millennium Falcon follows the trash dump to freedom (along with the unseen bounty hunter, Boba Fett, hot on its intergalactic trail). Meanwhile, Luke is doing much better in the control department by staying calm and collected. But in the midst of his Jedi training with Master Yoda, which involves levitating rocks and such (even Artoo), Luke has an eerie vision of a city in the clouds, with Han and Leia in trouble. He can see into their future, and it’s not a pretty one.

To save his friends from further suffering and harm, Luke decides to leave Yoda’s training camp. Yoda counsels against interrupting his lessons, but Luke is determined to help his friends. As he makes this decision, the Millennium Falcon approaches the Cloud City. Han Solo expects a safe port of call and some kind of warm welcome from his old gambling partner, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). There are extra added FX shots inserted here, which are good for what they are: extra added effects.

The slick and debonair Lando (“old Smoothie,” as Han describes him) indeed welcomes Solo and his cohorts to his turf. He extends a courteous hand to Princess Leia and offers to help them and their ship (which used to be HIS ship, by the way). Assured of his cooperation, the band enters the premises under Lando’s protection.

Threepio lands himself in hot water almost immediately by meddling where he should not. His usual habit of poking his metallic nose where it doesn’t need to go gets the better of him, however, as C-3PO has his head and arm blown off in the bargain (he “thought” he had heard an R2 unit in there…).

Back on Dagobah, Luke is preparing to depart on his X-wing fighter with Artoo. A vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to him and Yoda, warning young Luke of the Dark Side’s power. Despite Old Ben and Yoda’s admonitions and predictions of disaster (“This is a dangerous time for you” and “If you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil”), the headstrong youngster takes off after his friends.

Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) exchanges thoughts with Master Yoda (voiced by puppeteer Frank Oz)

“That boy is our last hope,” sighs Obi-Wan forlornly, as his form slowly fades away in the background.

“No, there is another…” is the garbled response. This phrase is cryptically intoned by Master Yoda, a foretaste of what is to come. (In the Loew’s Astor Plaza Theater where I first saw the picture, this casual aside left most of the viewers baffled. Others with more insight speculated among themselves as to what Yoda meant. As for myself, I had trouble just understanding what the hell the little toad had muttered to himself.)

Back at Cloud City (amidst another round of superfluous FX shots), Leia is pacing back and forth in her quarters. She voices concern about the missing C-3PO to Han. Chewie, for his part, has gone in search of the unruly robotic butler. He finds the overly curious droid in a junk room, spread out in pieces as the furry star pilot attempts to put him back together.

In the ensuing scene, Lando invites the trio to dine with him, sans the physically discombobulated Threepio of course. Unfortunately, “old smoothie” leads our hearty crew members straight into the gloved hands of Lord Vader himself, thanks to Boba Fett’s relentless tracking of their whereabouts.

Luke and Artoo are on their way at last! But as Chewbacca wails and carries on in the prison cell, Han is painfully tortured (vide the unearthly electronic sounds that fill the room, sounds that will kindle unkind memories of Leia’s own torture in Episode IV). To occupy himself, Chewie tries to rebuild Threepio. He can’t make heads or tails out of the mess, a veritable Leggo set of spare parts and bolts.

And what about poor Han? Forever suffering the torments of hell, that’s what! Everything hurts, which will be another of those running gags with actor Harrison Ford in the upcoming Indiana Jones series (produced by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg). In just about every subsequent feature after Empire, Harrison will be battered about, poked, punched, pulverized and beaten to the ground. It’s a miracle the actor can survive these ordeals. Perhaps being frozen in carbonite isn’t such a bad idea after all. At least he’ll be protected from the elements (and from physical abuse).

Han (Harrison Ford) feels awful after being tortured; Chewie (Peter Mayhew) gives him a helping hand

Luke’s X-wing fighter ship now approaches. There’s a quick wipe to Lord Vader outside the holding chamber. Vader orders that Leia and the Wookiee are to remain in Cloud City, to which Lando strongly objects. Vader cuts him off with a curt “Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly.” Agreeing to Vader’s terms (!), Lando mutters under his breath that the deal he’s made with the Empire gets worse as time goes by. Oh, yeah!

Han is returned to the holding chamber in worse shape than when he left it. While Leia soothes his poor aching head, Lando returns to his “friends” and informs them that Han is to be turned over to the bounty hunter for delivery to the loathsome bandit, Jabba the Hutt. Jabba wants his prize trophy (Han had squelched on their deal, too, no doubt). Ticked off at his seeming betrayal, Han gathers up what strength he has left to take a poke at Lando’s jaw. Before things get out of hand, Lando halts the brawl. He is powerless to prevent what will occur.

Frozen in Time (And in Carbonite)

The freezing facility is made ready for the inevitable. Certainly, the excellent sound effects in this sequence (the work of sound designer Ben Burtt), and in the ensuing lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader, are to be commended. But before Luke’s entry into the fray, Solo will be the test subject. The rising smoke and gases from the freezing chamber, along with the red glow, evoke shades of a fiery Inferno. In fact, the heat from the blast-furnace sets made Peter Mayhew’s Chewie costume stink to high heaven.

The prevailing darkness and flame-red colors fall on the actors’ faces, which give each of them a hellish glow. Chewie throws a Wookiee fit in order to save his friend Han from his fate, but Han looks up at the eight-foot-tall, walking fuzz-ball and tries to soothe his jangled nerves. He charges Chewie with taking care of the Princess. Realizing that all is lost, Leia leans into Han as they kiss goodbye. Their love theme resounds on the soundtrack. Han is taken to the freezing platform to meet his maker.

When Han is lowered into the pit, Leia cries out, “I love you.” Now, one would half expect a repeat of that hackneyed “I love you, too” phrase, but director Irvin Kershner wasn’t satisfied with that. Repeating take after take after take, and rewrite after rewrite after rewrite, “Kersh,” as he was fondly called, wasn’t convinced that another “I love you” would do the trick.

Finally, in a last-ditch move, Kershner had Harrison do one more take where the ad-libbed line “I know” came out of the actor’s mouth. No one believed the scene was over when Kersh yelled “Cut!” but the line stuck. Not only did it stick, it went on to become a classic. It has rivaled Rhett Butler’s infamous, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” in popularity. And Harrison’s “Clark Gable meets John Wayne” acting impression became legend as well.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) faces the freezing chamber

And, as “frozen in carbonite” Han Solo is taken on his journey back to Jabba the Hutt, so will Luke be taken to the Emperor as a prize gift from Lord Vader — or so Vader believes.

In the meantime, Threepio has been jabbering on about Chewie’s lame efforts at putting him back together à la Humpty-Dumpty (it’s a clumsy attempt at channeling the classic nursery rhyme, one might suppose, but there it is). He doesn’t realize that Chewie is more concerned about sparing the life of his buddy Han, who had earlier asked him to save his rage for other times. Threepio must have witnessed Han’s stealing a parting kiss from Leia who, in the film’s most passionate exchange, FINALLY declares her ardor for the half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

And what does Solo remark in return? “I know.” To echo the words of the late Governor Tarkin: “Charming to the last.” In these so-called final moments, Han has gained a measure of nobility that, up until now, his character has rarely if reluctantly displayed. His stature with the lovely Leia has risen ten-fold by his noble self-sacrifice. Furthermore, it’s a credit to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, and also to Kasdan, Lucas, and Kershner’s keen sense of where the Leia-Han romance needed to go: it had to take center stage. At this juncture, you could say it’s the big setup for what will be the ultimate reveal at the end. But that is yet to come, dear fans!

While audiences are still fawning over this sequence, i.e., where Han’s body is frozen stiff in the coal-gray-black monolithic carbonite — his expression is a mixture of pain and horror, as well as fierce resolve — we are being distracted from the real crisis. That is, how will Luke Skywalker be able to overcome and resist the Dark Side when faced with such unrelenting power, the power of the Dark Side, which he knows very little of?

As indicated above, John Williams’ love theme rises tellingly in the orchestra as the rectangular carbonite container (reminiscent of the black monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only sideways) hits the ground with a resounding thud.

May the Military Force Be With You!

Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) eyes the bounty hunter Boba Fett

Vader hands Solo over to the bounty hunter and demands that Calrissian escort Leia and the Wookiee to his ship, the aptly-named Star Destroyer Avenger. When Lando balks at this change in their plans, Vader cuts him off with a terse, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” Lando shoots a knowing look at the cool bald guy with the radio-transmitting headset (known as Lobot), who silently acknowledges the message: they are planning a little getaway of their own.

With blaster in hand, Luke cautiously wanders the Cloud City’s halls. He catches sight of Han’s frozen-in-carbonite form and the armed escort that accompanies it. Without prior warning, bounty hunter Boba Fett (voiced by Temuera Morrison) shoots his formidable weapon at him while Leia shouts of an impending trap (again, to be echoed memorably by Admiral Ackbar in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi). In true “hero’s journey” fashion, Luke is heedless of her admonition. Artoo has the door close on him (redolent of a monstrous mouth with teeth) as the Jedi apprentice enters the freezing chamber for his final confrontation with Fate and the dreaded Dark Lord.

Luke surveys the layout of the freezing chamber before he is abruptly greeted by a thrice-familiar voice under the heavy breathing apparatus. “The Force is with you, young Skywalker,” Vader growls in sepulchral tones. “But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Now begins another of those Captain BloodRobin HoodSea Hawk sequences whereby Vader and Luke cross lightsabers in what seems like every nook and cranny in the Cloud City complex. Luke’s blue-shaded lightsaber mixes with that of Vader’s red-toned one — Akira Kurawawa’s samurai influence runs deep in this and subsequent scenes.

Luke (Mark Hamill) challenges Lord Vader (body by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) to a lightsaber duel

In the meantime, Lando is able to free Leia and Chewie from their bonds, only to have Chewie almost choke the life out of him for his seeming betrayal of old buddy Han. He’s saved from certain death, however, by croaking out a few breathless phrases that there is still time to save his friend. Oh, that’s good to hear! They make haste for the east platform. Meanwhile, R2-D2 and C-3PO are reunited at last, even if Threepio is a bit worse for wear (and as cranky and complaining as ever).

Vader and Luke continue to battle it out in true Edo-era fashion. Vader exudes over-confidence, as to be expected, but Luke surprises him with some deft maneuvering in and out of the freezing chamber. “Impressive,” observes Vader, “most impressive.” He takes a few swipes at young Skywalker. “Only your hatred can destroy me,” he bellows forth, but is that really part of Vader’s plan?

Vader calls on Luke to release the full brunt of his anger. It is the only way the Dark Lord can be vanquished. But Luke manages to fight his way out of a conflict. Losing his balance, Vader plunges into the outer rim of the pipes surrounding the freezing chamber. There is a brief pause in the action, enough for Luke and the audience to catch their breath.

Luke jumps in after Vader. He snoops around the reactor room — again, the superb sound effects in this next sequence are tops in their field. From nowhere, Vader re-emerges. Undeterred, the Dark Lord throws everything at Skywalker that isn’t nailed down (and then some!). Luke impotently swats at the oncoming objects, one of which breaks open a window. He is sucked forthwith out of the room and thrown onto a platform in another of those omnipresent “nods to Forbidden Planet” moments, with Luke holding on for dear life — literally on the edge! The look is all there, down to the triangular shaped doors, in another of Lucas’ homages to sci-fi’s past.

Back to Lando and company: He cautions everyone to leave Cloud City at once before the Empire takes over operations. Panic ensues (in one more of those tiresome “expanded” scenes — completely uncalled for, in our opinion). Artoo is able to open the hanger door where the Millennium Falcon is housed. While Threepio hurls a series of comical one-liners at his mechanical playmate (having mostly to do with the inoperative hyperdrive), Lando and Leia manage to board the Millennium Falcon in time to make their escape.

Trust Your Feelings!

In the same instant, Luke and Vader are back at it. The Dark Lord duels it out with novice Jedi Luke to the edge of the platform, where Luke nicks Vader’s right arm with his lightsaber, a nice move. It appears that he made a dent in their bout, until that fateful moment when Vader slices Luke Skywalker’s right hand off with his lightsaber.

Vader makes an offer that Luke must refuse

Luke will remember this encounter for the rest of the series (and what remains of his screen life). Indeed, this is the pivotal episode in the hero’s journey where the confrontation with one’s parent has reached mythical proportions. In both Classical and Norse mythology, we have copious parallels to consider: in Siegfried’s chance encounter with the Wanderer (or Wotan) in Wagner’s Ring cycle; in Oedipus’ slaying of his father Laius from the Greek tragedy by Sophocles; and in Orestes’ murder of his mother Clytemnestra to avenge her killing of his father Agamemnon.

Luke’s conflict with himself has also reached a climax, in typical Greek fashion, with the discovery of his true origins. Left with no defenses and suffering an open wound on his hand (emblematic of Amfortas’ unhealed wound via the lance held by the magician Klingsor), Luke holds on for dear life with his left arm. Vader, sensing his quarry is trapped (and knowing of his true origins), plays psychological mind games on him. In point of fact, messing with another’s mind is part of the routine (i.e., that “old Jedi mind trick” gimmick at work).

Conveniently, Lord Vader suggests a way out of Luke’s predicament by offering to complete his training. In getting Luke to trust his intentions by making them sound reasonable and acceptable, Vader uses reverse logic to validate his offer. In other words, the ends justify the means; it all sounds so logical and doable, but it really isn’t.

So what does Vader offer? In essence, Vader reveals his plan to usurp the Evil Emperor by bringing Luke to his side of the equation — to the power of the Dark Side, that is. First, he claims that with their combined forces, both he and Luke can end “this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” A change in the balance of power is all it takes. I’ll bet! But Vader’s plans go much deeper than that.

Lord Vader emphasizes the “power of the dark side” to Luke Skywalker

Fortunately for film fans, Luke imagines himself capable enough to reason this issue out. “I’ll never join you!” he blurts out. Atta boy, Luke!

Now comes the big reveal! Realizing that he must level with the young upstart, Vader tells Luke the thing he longs to hear but wishes he’d never heard. “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”

“He told me enough,” Luke counters roughly. “He told me you killed him!”

“No. I am your father.”

Luke cannot accept this knowledge (or rather, he refuses to swallow the bait). Knowing who the messenger is, he cannot possibly be receptive to the message. Can you blame him?

In response, Luke hurls a mighty and repeated “No!” to Vader’s metallic visage. But Vader presses the matter further by proposing a father-son union. By joining with him, they can depose the Emperor. It is Luke’s destiny to do so. Together, they can “rule the galaxy as Father and Son.” This does not sit well with Luke’s plans. In defiance of his parent, Luke releases his grip on the platform — and on life as he’s come to know it — and floats down the long garbage chute (similar to the one where he, Leia and Han had fallen into in Episode IV: A New Hope).

Consequently, Vader is left empty handed. What must he have felt at that moment? Did he expect this kind of reception from his young recruit? Did he search his own feelings, as the Evil Emperor had earlier advised him, or did he not heed his master’s word? To be exact, Vader poses the same message to Luke: “Search your feelings; you know this to be true!” One wonders, too, if Luke bothered to heed his advice.

There are many avenues to explore in not only Luke and Vader’s troubled and unrealized relationship, but also in Vader and the Emperor’s long association as slave and master, and as pupil and mentor. In reality, if Vader was “happy” with his current situation, why would he want to be rid of it by killing the hand that feeds it, i.e., the Emperor (and with Luke’s help no less)? Was it ruthless ambition, lust for power, or unnatural selection? Or was it simply a case of “destroy or be destroyed”? By firing the first shot, he may have tried to avoid a problem before there was a problem to resolve.

Luke hangs on to what he can, which amounts to a few metal support rods in open airspace. He keeps asking himself why Old Ben (Obi-Wan) never told him about his father. Calling out telepathically to Leia, the Princess forces Lando to turn the Millennium Falcon around so they can rescue Luke. Hesitating at first, Lando is convinced to help Luke out after Chewie bares his teeth in his direction (“All right, all right, all RIGHT!”). Upon arriving at Cloud City’s base, Lando goes through the top hatch and drags poor Luke to the safety of the cargo hold.

As if on cue, TIE fighters appear in hot pursuit as the friends try to dodge their attack. Too, Vader is back on his flagship Star Destroyer to view the chase from his vantage point. In like manner, Vader calls out telepathically to Luke, who is convalescing in sickbay.

“Luke, it is your destiny…”

“Ben, why didn’t you tell me?” Luke wonders aloud.

The Millennium Falcon is being tracked by the Star Destroyer, while Lando and Chewie are STILL trying to jump into hyperspace (deactivated beforehand by the Imperial crew members at Cloud City). Providentially and despite Threepio’s claims of “delusions of grandeur,” Artoo is able to reactivate the hyperdrive which blasts the fast-moving Millennium Falcon beyond Vader’s reach.

R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) tries to put C-3PO back together again

In an instant, the ship has disappeared from view. An ominously passive Darth Vader is left on the deck of the Star Destroyer to brood and pace back to his quarters (John Williams’ music reflects Vader’s disappointment at losing his quarry). This brings relief to the furrowed brow of Admiral Piett, who believed that he would be the next victim of Vader’s unappeasable frustration with how badly things have turned out.

Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Leia takes Luke to his bunk and plants a kiss on his lips for encouragement. The ending is a cliffhanger encased in true cliffhanger fashion. Rebel spaceships abound throughout. Lando vows to regroup on the planet Tatooine to find and bring Han back. In sickbay, Luke is being fitted with his new bionic hand. With feeling restored to his pulse, he approaches and embraces Leia. The two look out into the endless reaches of outer space as the Millennium Falcon takes off on its mission to rescue Solo.

Juxtaposed against the original New Hope ending, where, facing the viewing audience, the entire crew is rewarded for their bravery, the same cast members (minus Chewie and Han) are seen from the rear, their backsides turned to those same viewers in contemplation of their uncertain future. What does that future hold for our companions?

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued…

Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes