Thursday, May 25, 2017

Star Wars (1977)

(also known as STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE)
George Lucas
1977 • 121 Minutes •  2.35 : 1 • United States
20th Century Fox

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, David Prowse
Screenplay: George Lucas
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Producer: Gary Kurtz

Awards & Honors

Academy Awards
Winner: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
Winner: Best Costume Design
Winner: Best Sound
Winner: Best Film Editing
Winner: Best Effects, Visual Effects
Winner: Best Music, Original Score (John Williams)
Winner: Special Achievement - Sound Effects
Nominated: Best Picture
Nominated: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Alec Guinness
Nominated: Best Director
Nominated: Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

American Film Institute
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (1997): #15
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills: #27
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains: #14 (Han Solo – Hero), #37 (Obi-Wan Kenobi – Hero), #3 (Darth Vader - Villain)
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes: "May the Force be with you." #8
AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores:  #1
AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers: #39
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition): #13
AFI's 10 Top 10: #2 Sci-Fi Film

BAFTA Awards
Winner: Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music
Winner: Best Sound
Nominated: Best Costume Design
Nominated: Best Film
Nominated: Best Film Editing
Nominated: Best Production Design/Art Direction

Director's Guild of America
Nominated: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures

The Essential Films
100 Greatest Movie Villains - #2 (Darth Vader)
100 Greatest Movie Heroes - #48 (Obi-Wan Kenobi), #12 (Luke Skywalker), #6 (Han Solo)

Golden Globes
Winner: Best Original Score - Motion Picture
Nominated: Best Motion Picture - Drama
Nominated: Best Director - Motion Picture
Nominated: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Motion Picture (Alec Guinness)

National Film Registry
Preserved by the Library of Congress in 1989

Writers Guild of America
Nominated: Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen

For over a thousand generations, the Jedi knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic... before the dark times... before the empire.


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

In honor of the 40th anniversary, a look back at the film that started, pardon the pun, an empire. George Lucas was the ultimate underdog when making this cinematic classic. While he did have major box office success with American Graffiti, his previous venture into science fiction, already mentioned on this list, THX 1138 was considered a failure. Lucas' story of a young farm boy getting caught up with a Jedi knight, two robot droids, a space pirate and his 7 foot tall furry companion to save a princess from an evil galactic empire is the stuff of fairy tales and Flash Gordon serials. However as "simple" as the story was, the execution of it on film was far from it. Plagued with production problems and having a special effects that basically had to invent a new language of visual effects, it's a miracle the movie was released, let alone becoming one of the biggest movies in history. Not only did it spawn two direct sequels in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, a (much maligned) prequel trilogy, a new trilogy with The Force Awakens, and a spin-off with Rogue One, but also an entire entertainment empire (there's that word again) that includes toys, video games, t-shirts, tv shows, cartoons, lunch boxes... if there's anything you can stamp a Star Wars logo on, then it exists. Not to mention that Industrial Light and Magic was born right alongside Star Wars, which has become the go-to visual effects house for major Hollywood productions. Some science fiction purists would argue that the saga's fantasy elements disqualify from consideration, to that I say: go back to your hive of scum and villainy.

Star Wars is such a rare instance of a perfect storm in filmmaking. From the story, to the cast, to the action, to the visual effects, to the music... everything working in perfect harmony to deliver THE defining film of a generation. Calling it anything less than a triumph is an understatement. George Lucas will forever be the a paradoxical figure to fans: a man who created an entire universe they love yet has gone back and "adjusted" so many things that they hate. But one must give credit where credit is due, his little space opera Flash Gordon rip-off created something so beloved by fans the world over.

As stated above, the story is simple: a young farm boy gets the call to adventure from a wise old magical hermit to fight the evil galactic empire. Along the way he learns the ways of the Force and the Jedi while outmaneuvering imperial troops. On a quest to save Princess Leia, who has detailed plans on how to destroy the empire's ultimate weapon, the young farm boy, accompanied by a space pirate, his giant co-pilot and a couple of bickering androids, the unlikely alliance save the day. With the exception of certain details, the spine of the story is pretty standard, Hero's journey kind of stuff. Even the opening "A long time ago..." invokes fairy tales. Stories like this had been done hundreds of times on film before, usually with shoe-string budgets, hokey special effects and terrible actors. But this is the first time a film of this nature was treated seriously by the studio (even though they spent many weeks panicking) with millions of dollars put into the set construction, costume design, location shoots and special effects. Suddenly this silly little space movie actually looked like an epic motion picture. And audiences lined up around the block to see it in record numbers.

Mark Hamill plays Luke Skywalker, our farm boy hero. Hamill was found through an extensive
audition process of relatively unknown actors. The actor's inexperience as a young artist thrust into a major Hollywood production only helped the portrayal of the wide-eyed farm boy thrust into the middle of an intergalactic struggle. His inexperience does not mean he was a bad actor, even though some of his line delivery did come off a little wooden. (That said, the dialogue is a little difficult to make believable.) But Hamill's performance works in this film, especially in contrast with his co-stars.

The late great Carrie Fisher as the damsel in distress, Princess Leia, also joined the cast. Although this princess, as we come to find out, can do her own rescuing thank you very much. Fischer, daughter of Hollywood royalty in Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, beat out impressive names like Karen Allen and Jodie Foster for the role. Her brash, tough as nails kick-ass warrior princess worked well in contrast to Luke's naivety and Han Solo's charming arrogance.

Speaking of, Harrison Ford as his second most iconic character, behind Indiana Jones (though not by much) broke out as the star of the film. Although an experienced actor, even appearing in Lucas' American Graffiti, Ford was a late addition to the cast as Lucas initially refused to cast him. However, Lucas did ask Ford to help audition potential Luke Skywalkers and his performance eventually won him over, getting him the role over the likes of Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone. Ford would forever be linked with this character, a fact that he resented for many years, though he has since softened in his old age. Ford's portrayal of the rogue smuggler is so endearing that he would often times outshine the actual hero of the story, Luke Skywalker. 
These three leads in particular had tremendous on-screen chemistry that would carry throughout the entire trilogy. It's a shame we will not get an on-screen reunion of all three in the new trilogy, due to story developments in Force Awakens and the real-life death of the beloved Carrie Fisher.

Sir Alec Guinness earned himself an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi, the mysterious hermit that lives in the desert and teaches Luke the ways of the Force. Guinness reportedly hated working on the film and, more so than Ford, resented his connection to the Saga for the rest of his life. It did not show on film, however, as his veteran performance gives the film much-needed credibility. 

And let's not forget the iconic Darth Vader. One of the greatest (the greatest according to many) movie villain of all time. A menacing figure from his Ralph McQuarrie designed black suit of armor, his labored breathing, his imposing physical presence and the intimidating bass tones of James Earl Jones... Darth Vader is a villain fans both love to hate and hate to love. There is perhaps no movie villain more recognizable in history than Vader, and he still strikes fears into the hearts of filmgoers as recently as last winter's Rogue One anthology adventure. 

Rounding out the supporting cast is Hammer Horror veteran, Peter Cushing, known for his roles in Dracula and Frankenstein films as the sinister Grand Moff Tarkin, the imperial commander of the Death Star. Cushing is at his most diabolical in the film, and much like Guinness, grounds the film with his veteran experience. His frequent Hammer co-star, Christopher Lee, would go on to appear in the prequel trilogy as Count Dooku. 
Anthony Daniels has made an entire career of playing the constantly flustered C-3PO in movies, television, video games, radio plays... pretty much anything Star Wars. Good work if you can get it.

And of course let's not forget about the other notable cast members that perhaps don't get as much love since they were buried under make-up and costuming: Kenny Baker as R2D2, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and the hulking bodybuilder David Prowse performing the physical parts of Darth Vader.

As mentioned before, Lucas' imagination outpaced what was technically possible in movie making effects at the time. The film was revolutionary in terms of visual and sound effects. Lucas founded Industrial Light and Magic in 1975, in anticipation of this film. The legendary John Dykstra developed motion control photography to be able shoot the epic space battles that Lucas envisioned. ILM is still to this day the premiere visual effects company, rising above all others. In addition to creating magic with the Star Wars saga, ILM also paved the way in CGI effects in movies like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Young Sherlock Holmes (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Death Becomes Her (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Dragonheart (1996), The Mummy (1999) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006). Gary Kurtz also revolutionized sound effects editing by creating the sounds for light sabers, blasters, starships and more, earning him a Special Achievement Academy Award.

And before we go, we cannot end the column without discussing John Williams' EPIC musical score. When it comes to all-time film composers, no one can touch John Williams. On his resumé are films like Jaws (1975), Superman (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981),  E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Home Alone (1990) Jurassic Park and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), but the all-time champion is his score for Star Wars and its subsequent films. It's iconic, it's inspiring and it is absolutely unrivaled. It instantly invokes cheers, nostalgia and a sense of adventure. There is no score like it nor will there ever be.

So today, on the 40th anniversary of this film, I salute you Star Wars: the silly little space opera that blew up and became a billion-dollar industry (now owned and operated by the Walt Disney Company.) Thank you for the memories you've given us and the memories you continue to make with future installments in the saga. 

May the Force be with you.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Essential Roger Moore


May 23, 2017 is a sad day for James Bond fans everywhere, as Sir Roger Moore passed away after what his representatives call a "short but brave" battle with cancer. Moore started his career in the public eye as a fashion model in England, before being signed to a contract with MGM. Despite roles in Interrupted Melody (1955) and The King's Thief (1955), Moore did not cherish his time at the studio. He further went on to work under contract for Warner Bros., where his most notable work was a guest star in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the starring role in The Miracle (1959). He truly became noteworthy in television, starring in several television series including Ivanhoe and Maverick, but rose to prominence as the titular character in the weekly spy thriller The Saint in 1962. The show ran for 6 seasons and 118 episodes. After returning to film and television work after The Saint ran its course, he was eventually cast as the next James Bond after Sean Connery finally relinquished the role following the 1970 film Diamonds Are Forever. Moore would debut his version of James Bond, very similar to his portrayal of Simon Templar in The Saint, and would define the role for a generation. Moore went on to play Bond in 7 films, tied with Sean Connery for the most number of appearances in the role. Moore still found time between Bond films for other projects including playing two famous on-screen detectives: Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes in New York (1977) and Inspector Clouseau in Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). His final Bond film was A View To a Kill in 1985 before Timothy Dalton took over the role in 1987 with The Living Daylights. Moore's career slowed down in the 90s and beyond, appearing in films few and far between. He appeared in the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle The Quest in 1996, the Spice Girls parody film Spice World in 1997 and the comedy Boat Trip in 2002 with Cuba Gooding Jr. His last on-screen appearance was a smaller role in a television movie reboot of The Saint. According to his IMDB he also had several voiceover work projects that are still in various stages of production. In honor of Sir Roger Moore, the following are his most essential films.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert

In Moore's best outing as James Bond, he teams with Barbara Bach who plays the mysterious and provocatively named KGB Agent XXX. Together they investigate the disapperance of hijacked nuclear submarines from the UK and the USSR in a joint mission to prevent World War 3. Bond and his newfound ally must escape helicopter attacks, skiing assassins and the evil Jaws, a metal-toothed hitman. This is the film that Roger Moore really defined the role for the next 20 years. From his smug one-liners to his submarine car, to quote the Oscar-nominated song, "nobody does it better." Nominated for 3 Academy Awards including Best Song, Score and Art Direction.

- But James, I need you!
- So does England!

Directed by Guy Hamilton

Live and Let Die marks the beginning of the Moore era.  A lighter, campier, goofier Bond. Each and every Bond, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, has given their own spin and interpretation on the character.  Roger Moore is no different.  Moore’s take on the character is someone with kind of a dark sense of humor.  This being the first of the 7 times he played the character, the camp isn’t quite as over-the-top, but it’s still there. The '70s was full of Blaxploitation films like Shaft and Superfly, and for some reason, someone at MGM thought it’d be a good idea to make a Bond Blaxploitation film.  The results are kind of hilarious, with the word “Honky” being tossed around like it was going out of business, a voodoo witch doctor, and James Bond running around Harlem.

Oh, a snake. I forgot, I should have told you. You should never go in there without a mongoose.

Directed by John Glen

In this adventure, Bond is in a race against the Russians to recover ATAC, a British-encrypted device that could turn the tide in the Cold War. Along the way, Bond teams up with a Greek knockout named Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), a mysterious woman out for revenge against the people who killed her parents. A bit of a "whose side are they really on" plot unravels, combined with some excellent action sequences, including a mountain climb escape. It also includes Locque, a decent henchman that meets a very satisfying end from Agent 007. One of the better Bond films of the 1980s, boasting a great title song by Sheena Easton, this film would mark the last great Roger Moore Bond film.

- Him? He thinks I'm still a virgin.
- Yes. Well, you get your clothes on... and I'll buy you an ice cream.

Directed by Guy Hamilton

In this installment of the famous 007 franchise, Christopher Lee is Francisco Scaramanga, one of the most memorable Bond villains of all time. Scaramanga, of course, has plans on world domination, but he is also one of the deadliest assassins on the planet, doing his dirty work with the titular Golden Gun.  Scaramanga uses said golden gun to kill his targets, and he NEVER misses. One shot is all it takes. So, this makes him already one of the best Bond villains ever right? The plot is silly, the action sometimes campy, but the final showdown between Roger Moore and Christopher Lee still ranks highly as one of the best.

- I mean sir, who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?
- Jealous husbands! Outraged chefs! Humiliated tailors! The list is endless!

Other Notable Films:


Friday, May 19, 2017

The Essential Films Podcast Episode #012: Rear Window (1954)

On today’s podcast adventure, Adolfo and Mark discuss the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock classic: REAR WINDOW!


On this week’s show:

  • An in-depth discussion of Disney World Parks
  • Jedis are gender neutral
  • Adolfo’s favorite Hitchcock film
  • Thelma Ritter: The MVP
  • The inevitable “Simpsons” discussion
  • How sound plays such an important role in the film
  • Hitchcock’s growing pains in cinema
  • The movie is completely set up in the first two minutes
  • The believable cast of characters in the courtyard
  • How the film turns the audience into voyeurs
  • Grace Kelly at the peak of her Grace Kelly
  • How Hitchcock places doubt in the viewer’s head
  • Lars Thorwald is more sinister being kind to a dog than being cruel to it
  • How long does it take to walk up a flight of stairs?
  • How Hitchcock makes you feel bad for the killer
  • Sacrificing realism for suspense
  • An exercise in reaction editing
  • Differences to the original short story
  • Hitchcock likes to get around the censors
  • Thorwald and Jeff mirror each other
  • “It’s almost as if it’s being written for us”
  • The camera as a phallic symbol
  • The made for TV Movie remake starring Christopher Reeve

  • WINGS (1927)
  • THE 39 STEPS (1935)
  • SABOTAGE (1936)
  • HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)
  • IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)
  • DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954)
  • A MAN ESCAPED (1956)
  • VERTIGO (1958)
  • PSYCHO (1960)
  • REAR WINDOW (1998)
  • DISTURBIA (2007)
  • AVATAR (2009)

  • TWITTER: @EssentialFilms, @FPMoviePodcast, @Adolfo_Acosta, @Sportsguy515

The Iron Mask (1929)

Watch the original 1929 production of THE IRON MASK starring Douglas Fairbanks and directed by Allan Dwan.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Black Cat (1934)

Edgar G. Ulmer
1934 • 65 Minutes • 1.33 : 1 • United States

Screenplay: Peter Ruric; Story by Edgar G. Ulmer, Peter Ruric
Cast: Boris Karloff, Béla Lugosi
Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Producer: E. M. Asher


Dracula VS Frankenstein's Monster! Sort of. This underrated and underseen pre-code horror film stars the two titans of 1930s monster movies: Lugosi and Karloff. Peter and Joan are two honeymooners get caught up in a twisted revenge plot between Lugosi's Dr. Werdegast and Karloff's Hjalmar Poelzig.  Werdegast is a cat-phobic psychiatrist who spent the last 15 years as a prisoner of war, never seeing his wife again. The honeymooners meet Werdegast on their way to Hungary, but get sidetracked in a bus accident. Werdegast treats Joan's injuries and they end up seeking refuge at none other than Poelzig's home (to which Werdegast was already traveling).  Once there, the history between the two men unfolds. Werdegast blames Poelzig for his imprisonment and for stealing his wife away. It is revealed the Poelzig is a satanist and plans on sacrificing the injured Joan in a brutal ritual. What follows is a game of psychological cat and mouse between the old rivals, with the lives of the honeymooners hanging in the balance. The end of the film takes full advantage of its pre-code freedom as Werdegast enacts a psychotic revenge. In a little over an hour the film packs in drugs, necrophilia, torture and satanic rituals. The film credits Edgar Allan Poe as inspiration, but this film has little to do with his work. While Count Dracula is his most famous role, this is, in my opinion, Bela Lugosi's best role as the twisted anti-hero with a thirst for vengeance. The best scene in the film is when Lugosi and Karloff play a game of chess, literally gambling with the lives of Peter and Joan. The film was a major box office success for Universal, and Lugosi and Karloff went on to star in several films together including THE RAVEN (1935), SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) and THE BODY SNATCHER (1945).

"Do you know what I am going to do to you now? No? Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That's what I'm going to do to you now - fare the skin from your body... slowly... bit by bit!"