Documentary Review: Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy (2004)

Also known as: Empire of Dreams (shortened title)
Release Date: September 12th, 2004
Directed by: Kevin Burns, Edith Becker
Written by: Ed Singer
Music by: John Williams
Cast: George Lucas, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, Warwick Davis, Frank Oz, Lawrence Kasdan, John Williams, Joe Johnston, Ralph McQuarrie, Alan Ladd Jr., Irvin Kershner, Steven Spielberg, Walter Cronkite

Prometheus Entertainment, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, A&E, 151 Minutes, 120 Minutes (TV Edit)

Review:

“I think George likes people, I think George is a warm-hearted person, but… he’s a little impatient with the process of acting, of finding something. He thinks that something’s there. “It’s right there, I wrote it down. Do that”. You know, sometimes you can’t just “do that” and make it work.” – Harrison Ford

I can’t believe that it’s been fifteen years since this documentary came out. It was the selling point of getting me to buy the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD though, as I had already owned the movies several times over, in all their incarnations, but wanted to have this documentary to keep and rewatch over the years.

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve seen it but it’s available on Prime Video, as well as Disney+ now.

Seeing this again sparked something in me that I hadn’t felt since Revenge of the Sith came out in 2005. It was that feeling of wonder, excitement and childlike awe. Disney is incapable of generating that sensation in me since they took over the Star Wars franchise and honestly, it’s mostly dead to me.

Empire of Dreams brought me back to where I was though from my childhood and into my twenties when I had a deep love for everything Star Wars. But most importantly, this showed me how much better the original movies were compared to Disney’s schlock and the shoddy prequels.

If Disney tried to make an Empire of Dreams followup about their new trilogy, would anyone care? Well, anyone with actual taste that was alive when the original Star Wars phenomenon was still alive and strong? I mean, how interesting would that documentary even be? And do you really even care about seeing any of the modern Star Wars actors and filmmakers talking about these new movies?

Empire of Dreams does a stupendous job of delving deep into the creation of one of the greatest film franchises of all-time. But seeing it with 2019 eyes, it more importantly shows you just how magical the Star Wars brand once was before Disney retrofitted it for an audience of wine moms and broke social justice warriors who can’t afford to buy the merch in the first place.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: the original Star Wars trilogy and other Star Wars documentaries.

Film Review: City Limits (1984)

Release Date: October, 1984 (Chicago International Film Festival)
Directed by: Aaron Lipstadt
Written by: Don Opper
Music by: Mitchell Froom
Cast: Darrell Larson, John Stockwell, Kim Cattrall, Rae Dawn Chong, John Diehl, Don Opper, Pamela Ludwig, Tony Plana, Dean Devlin, James Earl Jones, Kane Hodder

Film Ventures International (FVI), Island Alive, Sho Films, Atlantic Releasing, 86 Minutes

Review:

“If you kill me, someone just like me – or worse – will become my replacement. I am inevitable!” – Carver

How the hell did James Earl Jones fall so low that they got him to agree to be in this movie just a year after Return of the Jedi? Sure, he bounced back but I can’t imagine many actors bouncing back after this film. Maybe he just had the benefit of no one seeing this.

This also had Kim Cattrall and Rae Dawn Chong but this was before either of them got more famous going into the late ’80s. It also features John Diehl, a guy I loved on Miami Vice until they ruined the show by killing him off, and a small role for Kane Hodder, who would become the longest running Jason Voorhees actor just a few years later.

City Limits was written by Don Keith Opper, who also has a small role in the film. He didn’t write a very good script here but he would follow this up with the Critters film series, which has had some longevity over the years since the first one came out and it even spawned a new television series just this year.

This is a post-apocalyptic film, one of probably hundreds in an era where these things were being made faster than McDonald’s can print Monopoly game pieces. It’s a genre and formula I like but this is like most of those films, unfortunately, a boring, bland dud that borrows so heavily from other places that it doesn’t have an identity of its own.

City Limits was featured on Mystery Science Theater and for good reason. It’s also probably one of the MST3K films that featured a pretty well known cast. It’s a film rife with material for riffing though.

As bad and vanilla as this is, it’s certainly not the worse that the post-apocalyptic genre has to offer. It’s pure ’80s, low budget, sci-fi schlock but it’s a bit endearing because of that. However, City Limits will probably only be enjoyed by people that are into that sort of thing.

Rating: 3.5/10
Pairs well with: other early to mid ’80s post-apocalyptic schlock.

Film Review: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Release Date: April 2nd, 1982 (Sweden)
Directed by: John Milius
Written by: John Milius, Oliver Stone
Based on: Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard
Music by: Basil Poledouris
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, Gerry Lopez, Mako, William Smith, Max von Sydow

Dino De Laurentiis Corporation, Edward R. Pressman Productions, Universal Pictures, 129 Minutes

Review:

“Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important! Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to Hell with you!” – Conan

Conan the Barbarian is a hard movie to top in the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy. It really set the standard in 1982 and it also spawned innumerable ripoff films, mostly from Europe and mostly schlock. A few wannabe Conan pictures were good but there’s too many to address when I’m here to specifically review this film.

This is also the superior Conan film, as its sequel didn’t live up to this one and its remake, decades later, was lacking the lightning in a bottle that made this film special.

When I was a young boy, I looked up to this film. I looked up to Conan and his struggle and his fight to seek out justice for himself and eventually, the world he lived in. In 2018, this would be considered a film that exudes “toxic masculinity” while being dismissed as shit by third wave feminists and male apologists. Sorry, but Conan, even fueled by revenge, was a flawed hero that went on to be a king, against all odds, and continually vanquished the evil in his world. In fact, this film got me into reading Conan comics, as well as the original stories by Robert E. Howard.

Conan the Barbarian is a balls out, unapologetic action film about one badass dude that’s not just going to take the bullshit of tyrants.

Now the film, like its title character, has its flaws. But compared to other big action movies of the time, those flaws aren’t as bad and not as apparent.

The acting is what you would expect from a Schwarzenegger film, the direction is much better than average and the special effects are actually great for a 1982 film that didn’t have a massive budget.

The thing that really makes this film more superb than it would have otherwise been is the score by Basil Poledouris. Conan the Barbarian has one of the coolest and most powerful themes in film history. It isn’t just the title theme that’s great though, it’s the music throughout the entire picture. It just sets the mood and pacing right. It accentuates the action and subtly gives life to the slower bits.

My only real complaint about the film is it does feel drawn out too long. They could have fine tuned it, whittled it down by 15 minutes and it probably would have moved at a brisker, more energetic pace. There are a lot of action sequences and there are a few moments where you feel like you’ve reached the big finale, only for the film to stretch on more. But don’t get me wrong, all the action bits are damn solid.

The opening sequence of this film is powerful, beautiful and breathtaking. It is the best shot and best paced sequence in the entire movie but it really draws you in and makes you want to go on this long journey with the hero. James Earl Jones, no matter how many times I have seen this scene, is still absolutely chilling.

Conan the Barbarian is a film that couldn’t be made in quite the same way that it was in 1982 with Hollywood politics being what they are.

Although, I could be wrong about that, as the new Conan the Barbarian comic by Marvel surprised me in how badass and brutal its recent first issue was. But maybe that’s only because it speaks to a particular audience that Marvel knows they’d lose if they messed with the formula.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Conan the Destroyer, the Conan the Barbarian remake, Red Sonja and the first Beastmaster.

Film Review: Judge Dredd (1995)

Also known as: Dredd (Slovania)
Release Date: June 30th, 1995
Directed by: Danny Cannon
Written by: William Wisher Jr., Steven E. de Souza, Michael De Luca
Based on: Judge Dredd by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante, Diane Lane, Rob Schneider, Joan Chen, Jürgen Prochnow, Max von Sydow, Balthazar Getty, Scott Wilson, Ewen Bremmer, James Remar (uncredited), James Earl Jones (narrator)

Hollywood Pictures, Cinergi Pictures, Edward R. Pressman Film Corporation, Buena Vista Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“I am the law!” – Judge Dredd

I was itching to watch the 2012 Dredd movie, once again. However, I figured that I’d revisit this adaptation first, as I hadn’t seen it since 1995.

Back then I thought it was pretty terrible. 24 years later, it still isn’t great but I appreciate it a bit more.

This movie is stupid, mindless and a total mess. However, it’s a hell of a lot of fun and just wacky enough to have some value.

Stallone is certainly enjoyable in this, as he hams it up big time and really embraces the insanity of what this picture is. But he had to know that it wasn’t going to be good once he got on set.

It had a post-apocalyptic feel that is typical of ’90s action sci-fi but man, this thing looks cheap. There are some good sets and big areas but there’s also a lot of shoddy green screen work that looks terrible when compared to the modern standard or really, the standard just a few years after this movie came out. I get that the production was limited by its resources but they were employing some techniques that were already outdated by the time 1995 rolled around.

One problem with the film is that the story is kind of incoherent and it felt like they didn’t have much of a script and just a sort of outline of the scenes. It feels like they’re just winging it and trying to make it work. Yes, I know there was an actual script but it doesn’t seem like it was fine tuned, it’s more like an early draft with some ideas for scenes stapled together.

This surprisingly had a pretty interesting cast between Stallone, Diane Lane, Rob Schneider, Armand Assante, Joan Chen, Max von Sydow, Balthazar Getty, Ewen Bremmer, James Remar, Scott Wilson and narration by James Earl Jones. But seriously, did Lane read this script before singing on? She just feels out of place, not because she isn’t a capable actress, she’s damn good, but because she’s just an odd choice to play a female Judge and she felt like she was above the rest of the film. Granted, I still liked her in it, she just stuck out like a sore thumb because she’s Diane f’n Lane. It’d be like having ’90s Julia Roberts in Double Dragon.

The only thing going for this is that it is a ham festival and pretty fun. It’s really dated and a big ’90s cliche but that kind of makes it lovable all these years later.

Also, I really like the chemistry between Stallone and Schneider, which we also got to experience in Demolition Man.

Overall, not a good movie but it is still a rather entertaining one for fans of ’90s cheese and action sci-fi.

Rating: 5.75/10
Pairs well with: Demolition ManRobocopHardware and it’s much better reboot, Dredd.

Film Review: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Also known as: Dr. Strangelove (informal title), Edge of Doom, A Delicate Balance of Terror (both US working titles)
Release Date: January 29th, 1964 (UK & US)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George
Based on: Red Alert by Peter George
Music by: Laurie Johnson
Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, Shane Rimmer

Hawk Films, Columbia Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” – President Merkin Muffley

This is my 1000th film review since starting Cinespiria back in November of 2016. That’s a lot of movies watched in 18 months. Granted, I did filter in reviews from other sites I worked on before this one. Anyway, I wanted review number 1000 to be something special. I chose Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb not because it was my favorite film but because it was partially responsible for putting me on my path of not just loving to watch movies but loving to intimately understand them.

When I was in film studies in high school, back in the mid-’90s, Dr. Strangelove was the first Stanley Kubrick film that we watched out of three; the other two were 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. While I had seen some of Kubrick’s films before this, it was this experience that really made me learn who the director was and why he was so important and one of the greatest auteurs that ever lived.

Dr. Strangelove isn’t my favorite Kubrick picture but it is still one of my favorite movies of all-time. But I’d say that Kurbick would probably own four spots in my personal top ten.

I love this movie. It is exceptional in a way that films aren’t anymore. I’m not saying that filmmakers today aren’t capable of greatness, they certainly are, but Kubrick could touch any genre and leave a very distinct and very powerful mark.

Dr. Strangelove is a terrifying film, at its core, but it mixes a war story with comedy. Yet, despite its absurdity in several scenes, none of what happens seems all that implausible. Kubrick had that power, the ability to make something seemingly ridiculous and also very real, at the same time. I can only imagine that this film was even more effective when it was current during the height of the Cold War and just over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kubrick did an amazing job shooting and capturing this film. He collaborated with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who over his career, worked with Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, Roman Polanski and Mike Hodges. The two men really capture lightning in a bottle in nearly every scene. All of the material shot in the War Room is superb. In fact, the War Room scene has gone on to inspire countless films over the last half of a century.

The centerpiece of the film is Peter Sellers, who performed three different key roles within the film. All three roles were very different characters. The reason why this happened, is that Columbia Pictures originally wanted Sellers to play four roles, as they believed that the success of Kubrick’s previous film Lolita was due to Sellers’ character in that film assuming different identities. Kubrick reluctantly accepted Columbia’s demand in order to get the picture made. But frankly, it worked and it worked wonderfully. All three of Sellers’ roles in this film have become pretty iconic and all of them would steal the show if not competing for screen time against one another. Sellers should have won the Academy Award but he was beaten out by Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady.

Everyone in this really takes command of the screen, however. There are great performances by George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens and James Earl Jones, who plays a small but important role.

Additionally, the music selections for this film are fantastic and help drive the emotional narrative and growing tension.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a masterpiece that still plays well over fifty years later. It is stupendous and truly is a perfect motion picture.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Other Kubrick films that deal with war: Paths of GloryFear and DesireFull Metal Jacket.

Film Review: Best of the Best (1989)

Release Date: November 10th, 1989
Directed by: Bob Radler
Written by: Paul Levine, Phillip Rhee
Music by: Paul Gilman
Cast: Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Phillip Rhee, John P. Ryan, John Dye, David Agresta, Tom Everett, Louise Fletcher, Simon Rhee, Christopher Penn, James Lew

The Movie Group, SVS Company Inc., Kuys Entertainment, Taurus Entertainment, 97 Minutes

Review:

“Yeah! Drop him like a toilet seat, Tommy!” – Travis Brickley

The late 80s were rife with modestly budgeted martial arts movies. While Stallone and Schwarzenegger owned the action genre at the box office, it was the Van Dammes, Seagals, Dudikoffs and Kosugis that killed it on video store shelves. Best of the Best tried to capitalize off of the martial arts genre and it actually did a pretty fine job.

Phillip Rhee, one of the writers, plays the role of Tommy Lee. While he is not the main character, he does have the most important story, fights in the grand finale and would go on to star in all four pictures in this film series.

The top two stars were Eric Roberts, who has an electric mane in this picture, and James Earl Jones, who played the coach of Team USA. Chris Penn is also in this as one of the American fighters, as is John Dye, who would become most famous for his role on the TV series Touched by an Angel.

Eric Roberts was a pretty solid lead and really believable as his character. He had an intensity and charisma unmatched by many actors in the martial arts genre. He did return for the second film but wasn’t in the third or fourth.

James Earl Jones was great as the coach. This is actually one of my favorite Jones roles, as he nails it every time he is on the screen. His passion as coach came out in every scene and he had an energy and earnestness that couldn’t be ignored. His mission to prepare the American fighters for the fight of their lives was a well-balanced game of tough love and respect. He was like the Vince Lombardi of karate.

The fight choreography was much better than average for this sort of picture. The action felt authentic and real. It was fluid and dynamic unlike the later films in the American Ninja series that seemed to stop caring.

In this film, a team of Americans is selected to go to South Korea to fight their best martial artists. It is mostly a competition for bragging rights but in the end, the film displays an amazing exchange of sportsmanship between the fighters of both proud countries. In fact, if you don’t cry like a little bitch at the end, then you aren’t a real man. Shit still gets me every time when you see these fighters earn each other’s respect.

Best of the Best wasn’t as big of a hit as it should have been in video stores. It was overshadowed by the growing popularity of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. However, it still did good enough to warrant three sequels.

Rating: 7.25/10

Film Review: The ‘Star Wars’ Original Trilogy (1977-1983)

*Written in 2015.

I decided to watch through all the previous Star Wars films before going to see The Force Awakens next week. I reviewed the prequel trilogy already and now it is time for my two cents on the original trilogy.

These were the first three films. Two of them came out when I was too young to know anything about film but I do remember my experience seeing Return of the Jedi in the theater when I was four. It is actually the first movie I remember seeing on the big screen and I absolutely loved it. Of course, I had already seen A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and thus, developed a lifelong obsession with everything Star Wars.

But now I am older, I’m a bit jaded and I experienced everything wrong with the evolution of this beloved franchise. So how would I feel about each of these films, after having not seen them as one unified body of work for several years?

Well, let me address each one individually.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977):

Release Date: May 25th, 1977
Directed by: George Lucas
Written by: George Lucas
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, James Earl Jones

Lucasfilm Ltd., 20th Century Fox, 121 Minutes

Review:

“I have a very bad feeling about this.” – Luke Skywalker

The first Star Wars film ever released was A New Hope, which was simply known as Star Wars at the time. It was also the only film in the original trilogy to be directed by George Lucas. That is probably why the quality of this trilogy was much better.

This is the smallest feeling film of the Star Wars franchise. It really only takes place on two worlds and one of those worlds is shown only briefly. The rest of the film takes place in space. However, they don’t even leave the first planet for like an hour, which is pretty crazy for a Star Wars film.

This movie also moves the slowest. Not that it is dull or boring but there is more time given to storytelling and character building than any other Star Wars film after this. The interactions between Luke Skywalker and the old Obi-Wan Kenobi are the most intimate in the entire franchise.

The addition of Han Solo and Chewbacca, and later Princess Leia, to the team feels organic and natural and everyone works well with each other. The cast and their camaraderie between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy is night and day. The strength of their bond only gets better with each installment in this trilogy.

Now this is my least favorite of the original three films. There is just one mediocre lightsaber battle with strange effects, that even after the special editions were released, doesn’t match up with the effects of all the other lightsaber battles.

This film is more about understanding the Force and the mythos of Star Wars, where all the other films just go full action.

But despite a few flaws, that aren’t really worth mentioning, it still plays wonderfully today.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: This specific Star Wars trilogy of films.

Star Wars: Episode V – Empire Strikes Back (1980):

Release Date: May 17th, 1980 (Washington D.C.)
Directed by: Irvin Kershner
Written by: George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz, James Earl Jones, Clive Revill (original version), Ian McDiarmid (Special Edition)

Lucasfilm Ltd., 20th Century Fox, 124 Minutes

Review:

“I have a bad feeling about this.” – Princess Leia

This movie seems to be the favorite amongst most Star Wars fans. It isn’t my favorite but it is damned good.

I will say that this is the best chapter, as a film, out of all six movies. It is almost a masterpiece. The acting is superb, the tone is magnificent and the big twist in the plot is Earth-shattering if you are not prepared for it. My young mind back in the day nearly exploded.

In this film, you understand the motivations of the characters better. The universe gets much larger, the story gets much darker and our heroes are pitted against odds that seem insurmountable. The stakes are much higher and there is a great sense of loss, doom and gloom before it is all over.

You are introduced to the awesome ice planet Hoth, the characters of Yoda, Lando, the Emperor and Boba Fett (if you don’t count his brief cameo in the special edition version of A New Hope). You also get a glimpse at all the other cool bounty hunters, Vader’s Super Star Destroyer, Snow Troopers and the AT-ATs.

This film acts as a perfect second act, setting up the big climax and solidifying your love of the story and the characters within.

Empire Strikes Back is to space operas what The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was to westerns.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: This specific Star Wars trilogy of films.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983):

Release Date: May 25th, 1983
Directed by: Richard Marquand
Written by: George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid, Alec Guinness, Warwick Davis, James Earl Jones, Phil Fondacaro

Lucasfilm Ltd., 20th Century Fox, 131 Minutes

Review:

“Artoo, I have a bad feeling about this.” – C-3PO

While I don’t consider this as good and as perfect of a film as Empire Strikes Back, it is still my favorite in the series. The reason being, is it is the most fun and is the largest of the three films. Sure, people hate the Ewoks but I don’t. Wookiees would’ve certainly been cooler than Ewoks in the big final battle but they are like a bunch of James Deans when compared to the Gungans of the prequel trilogy.

This film has my favorite sequence out of any Star Wars chapter and that is the mental chess game played between the Emperor, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. It also has the greatest space battle in the history of cinema. Not to mention that the unfinished skeletal Death Star looks a lot cooler than the complete one from A New Hope.

The first part of this film, dealing with the heroes banding together to rescue the once selfish Han Solo, goes to show how far they have all come and what true friendship means. It was a great lesson to learn as a kid and this is probably the best example of it from my childhood. Plus, Jabba the Hutt and his minions were one of the coolest things in the entire trilogy.

Return of the Jedi is one of the funnest pictures in film history. It is the happy ending you want but still comes at a great price.

It is the near-perfect ending of a near-perfect trilogy.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: This specific Star Wars trilogy of films.