Sprunk-Schmidt Original Trilogy Rewatch: Empire Strikes Back

A couple weeks back my buddy and fellow author Jon Sprunk and I decided the time had come to revisit our childhoods and rewatch the original Star Wars movies that changed our lives. Knowing other fans might enjoy sharing the experience and learning how it’s influenced our writing, etc., we decided to discuss it on our blogs. You can find previous posts here, followed by the latest–a discussion of “The Empire Strikes Back.

Intro & Invitation: http://bryanthomasschmidt.net/2012/11/11/announcing-the-sprunk-schmidt-star-wars-original-trilogy-rewatch-youre-invited/

A New Hope: http://jonsprunk.blogspot.com/2012/11/hello-friends-today-i-have-special-treat.html

Bryan Thomas Schmidt: So Jon, you said watching Empire you found it to be better than you remembered. Give us some thoughts on that, please.

Jon Sprunk: Well, Empire is my favorite movie of the trilogy, and watching it again after a few years just reinforced that opinion. For one, most movie sequels are disappointing, but in Empire Lucas and Kershner flip the script on us. The imperials, via Vader, are the driving force in most of the scenes. For a kid (and an adult) who idolized Vader, that is a powerful device. I really loved the Dagobah scenes. Luke’s training is handled so deftly in scenes that are varied and well-timed that it feels like he’s actually learning something rather than an 80’s-style “training” montage to crappy music. We get more information about the Force, versed in eastern philosophical tennants, which just rings true. In fact, the entire concept of the Force always struck me as elegant–simple enough for a child to grasp, yet full of deeper meanings and symbolism. Also, watching Empire on DVD on a good television reminded how well these movies hold up, visually. Bespin city is just gorgeous.

BTS: And here’s where we diverge. I have waivered back and forth over the years about whether Empire or A New Hope was my favorite. This viewing leaves me feeling that A New Hope is a better film. For one, it’s far more imminently quotable. It’s also more hopeful and encouraging. I found Empire staler on this rewatch, maybe because I’ve rewatched it so often. I have never been a Yoda fan. Whereas you enjoy the training scenes, I found them the most frustrating part of the film. For me, the heart of Empire is the Leia-Han story and the furtherance of Vader’s journey. Luke’s takes second fiddle and is far less interesting. I found Yoda barely more tolerable than Jar Jar. Although, to be fair, in films where Yoda has appeared after this one, I found him easier to stomach. The visuals do hold up impressively. The battle scenes, etc. are amazing. The scenes with the ice monster and tauntauns a bit less so, given what technology since Jurassic Park can do but still, they pulled off amazing stuff considering when they were made. Favorite moments?

JS: The Battle of Hoth is one of my favorite battle scenes of all time. The Falcon’s plunge into the asteroid field–pure gold. I’m so glad they were able to make the ship more agile and evasive, because watching it fly through the asteroids is poetry in motion. I still wonder, though, why Leia couldn’t have been on one of the laser cannons, firing back at the TIE fighters. The scene where Luke enters the evil cave on Dagobah is haunting (and a good foreshadowing of his later duel with Vader). And, of course, the Luke-Vader duel. I still remember seeing it in the theater for the first time and freaking out when Vader reveals he is Luke’s father.

BTS: I love the battle of Hoth. I enjoy the chase scenes through the asteroid. The Bespin escape is a lot of fun as is the freezing Han scene. I also love the Vader scenes with his men, who are so ever expendable. And I too like that Vader-Luke duel in the cave and later the Vader reveal. There are some really great scenes. But I definitely enjoy the action scenes more than the drill training Yoda sequence generally. I also enjoyed the reveal of the Emperor this time around. Did anything disappoint or turn out different than you’d remembered it?

JS: Not too much. Yoda’s animations looked low-tech, of course, but that’s because I’m jaded with the current CGI capabilities. I found the Han-Leia “angry romance” angle a little juvenile in the beginning, but they got to where they needed to be at the end.

BTS: I actually enjoy their banter. It provided some of the best lines and the right amount of tension breaking/escalating humor for me. I really enjoyed the whole ice planet angle, much as I did with the BSG Ice Planet episodes in 1979, some of my favorites. The ice speeders, the Imperial Walkers, the melting in Leia’s chambers, lots of cool new stuff. Also a fun cameo from Cliff Clavin actor John Ratzenberger as the chief Rebel officer during the part where Han discovers Luke is missing.

JS: “Then I’ll see you in Hell!” Aye, I agree. Hoth was a wonderful start to the movie in many aspects. Kershner managed to squeeze in a budding love affair, Luke’s growing powers and new training goal (Dagobah), an escalation of the war (Imperial Walkers ftw!), brought back Obi-Wan for some sage advice… And I think Bespin was a good ending point for the middle film.

BTS: That’s a good point, actually.  Middle film. One thing Empire does very well structurally which very definitely influenced me is be a middle chapter. At the end of A New Hope, it feels like closure. Despite the fact Darth Vader spins off into space alive, the Death Star is destroyed, the Rebels have won, our heroes are rewarded. Sure, there are enough seeds and loose ends for us to believe that there’s more we can look forward to, but also it’s enough of an ending that if the film had not been as successful, it could have stood alone fairly well. I really modeled my Davi Rhii series structurally after that. The first book, The Worker Prince, stands alone, despite having villains still alive and loose ends. But the second chapters tend to be harder. With a second movie, you expect more. You expect it to top the first in many ways–emotional arcs, character development, intensity, stakes, etc. But you also expect it to set up future possibilities, most of the time. Like any trilogy, it becomes a challenge then to make such a film and have it truly feel like it has an ending. Empire has all of these aspects–character development in spades, intensity in its darker feel, stakes as Vader goes unchained off to hunt like a madman with no Tarkin to reign him in, etc. But it ends on a cliffhanger and yet feels complete. Because by the end of the journey, it’s almost like so much has happened that we need to come up for air. OMG, Vader is Luke’s father? OMG, Han is frozen in carbonite? OMG, Leia and Han? What about Leia and Luke? etc. Despite the fact we are dying to know what happens next, we feel a sense of the chapter ending and a natural conclusion, even though the story very much goes on. Storytellers can learn a great deal from that.

JS: I couldn’t agree more. Empire is everything I hope my second books could be, take the best parts of the first chapter and build on them in a meaningful way, increasing the stakes while making us care more. And Walkers. And the Super Imperial Star Destroyer. One thing I noticed was that everything was a little bit slicker in the second movie. The sets were more polished, and even the actors were better groomed.

BTS: It’s true. Everyone was more comfortable and prepared. The first movie was a fly by the seat of your paints independent movie with low expectations, the second movie was the sequel to one of the greatest hits in box office history with the highest expectations and the pressure to go with it, so they were extra prepared and also benefitted from everything done and learned for the first film, just as I hope each subsequent book shows author growth learned from prior books.

I also think that from storytelling craft there was growth. They had a lot of back history worked out but Lucas brought on too top notch writers in Leigh Brackett, already a scifi and screenwriting legend at that point, and Lawrence Kasdan, a very smart up and comer. They surely demanded he figure things out that he’d winged before as did the director and the actors. Having read the behind the scenes making of paperback, I know some things were worked out on set as actors like Harrison Ford forced clarifications and changes. Other things had to be worked out with a third movie in mind, since Lucas now knew there’d be one coming. So he was able to complicate and add depth and complications to backstory and character arcs he didn’t bother with or need for A New Hope but which laid ground work and took the characters in directions to allow for a much stronger follow up.

JS: Yes, there is definitely much less making stuff up on the fly in the second and third movies. It’s interesting because I understand the need to throw everything into a first movie (book) because you never know if there’s actually going to be a second or third. But then there is, and you have to figure out some things that you winged or left mysterious in the first installment.

BTS: Exactly. Let’s talk about characters a bit. Empire introduced some important and less so new characters, whom we will see again. Admiral Piett, Boba Fett, Yoda, and Lando Calrissian, most significantly.  I personally favor Lando and Boba Fett amongst these, because although he’s a small character, Boba Fett is one of those unpredictable menacing, mysterious badass characters that just keeps you guessing, and Lando fills in backstory for Han in many ways and also, it’s about time they had a major black character. Shouldn’t have taken this long. I love the way Han and Lando are parallel scoundrels yet, whereas Han is all rough edges and seat of the pants, Lando is smooth and refined. Who’s your favorite of these and why?

JS: I wish I liked Yoda more, but I’m not a big fan of puppets in live-action movies (nor most CGI ones, either. Gollum being the notable exception). I guess I’d say Boba Feet for the same reason, even though he goes out like a punk in Return. Lando is a good character, but I think he’d make a better spinoff hero on his own. I never really bought into him becoming a beacon of the Alliance. I think he would have been better served in his own element, fighting the good fight among the scum and villainy of the galaxy’s underworld. Piett… meh. Give me Grand Admiral Thrawn any day.

BTS: LOL Well, if Thrawn had faced off Vader that would have been REALLY interesting. I’d like to see that cage match. Yeah, most of the Imperial officers don’t show any backbone in dealing with Vader after the few Council members with Tarkin in A New Hope, Vader just runs rampant. But then, given his power and influence and ability to choke people, and, well, “the Emperor is not as forgiving as I am,” I’d say life expectancy put a damper on bravery and confidence. Favorite new set pieces/vehicles? The Imperial Walkers are pretty damn cool, although I like the mini-walkers in Return better, myself. I also like the Bespin fighters and the Hoth snow speeders. But my favorite new set pieces are probably Bespin and the Hoth base.

JS: Well, the Millennium Falcon isn’t a new set piece, but it acts differently in this movie. I already mentioned how it’s lightyears more maneuverable, but also it has a stronger subplot arc of its own (the malfunctioning hyperdrive). After that, I liked Bespin (Cloud City) a lot, especially the contrasts between the gorgeous white-and-silver upper city and the dark/gloomy undercity where Luke fights Vader (a second Cave!).

BTS: Yes and the Falcon is always one of my favorites and the one Star Wars toy I never had and still lust after a bit. Sigh. I could make it manuever… heh… From a storytelling perspective, another thing that’s interesting is the way Lucas has woven the subplots and majors together. At the beginning, Vader is hunting the Rebels for Luke. That’s the overarching storyline. Vader is hunting Luke throughout. Then they set up Han-Leia sexual tension that wasn’t as direct in A New Hope but was hinted at by the Falcon cockpit scene where Luke gets jealous when Han asks “Do you think a guy like me and…” That storyline begins with Han daring her to admit her feelings and her denial but then they are thrust together twice, first by fear for Luke out in the cold and then when Han takes her aboard the Falcon to flee. Now they have to deal with each other and their storyline is embossed with a chase through asteroids by the Empire, and then the Bespin visit. The third major plotline is Luke’s quest to be a Jedi and get training from Obiwan’s Jedi trainer, Yoda, which leads him to flee to Dagobah instead of rendezvous with the fleet. With the exception of Luke’s training, all three plots are intertwined throughout, but even at training, there is a sense of inevitability that Luke must face Vader, as evidenced in the cave scene and later when he goes to rescue his friends, bringing them all together again, in a sense. It’s very smart writing and crafting. They manage to pull it off while keeping up an intense pace, not easy to do.

JS: Quite right. And Empire is the first time we see the Emperor (well, a holo-image of him). This sets up the third movie, of course, and gives us a deeper insight into the machinations of the empire. It’s important to know that the Emperor places such high stock on a single person (Luke), and firmly entrenches the idea that the battle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force is just as important, if not more so, than the war between the Alliance and Empire. Then there is Yoda’s line when Luke leaves Dagobah. Obi-Wan says there goes our last hope, and Yoda replies, “No, there is another.” That one line haunted me until the third movie came out, a powerful bit of foreshadowing.

BTS:  Yes, and they paid it off nicely which we’ll discuss in Return. I think overall, if I had to sum up Empire, it’s a maturer Star Wars chapter in many ways than either of the others. In Return, Lucas used Ewoks to return to a level of childlikeness that many fans dislike but also that took bite out of the darker aspects, but we don’t see that here. Here the dark overhanging the entire story is a constant. Jeopardy is the watch word throughout: from the jeapordy of the Rebels as the Empire finds them again, to Han and Leia fleeing Vader, to the dark inevitability of Luke’s face off with Vader, and then, “I am your father” with Luke escaping, sans hand, but Han off with Boba Fett. Never in the entire film are we not on the edge of our seats wondering how one or more of our heroes will survive. That lends to pacing and tension but also to a less hopeful spirit than the first film in many ways. And speaking of, “I am your father,” we haven’t talked about big reveals yet. What were your big “Wow” moments?

JS: When Luke lost his hand to Vader, that was a pretty big surprise back when I saw the movie the first time because I had grown accustomed to the idea that the heroes would emerge unscathed from their adventures, and that moment introduced a hint of true mortality which had previously been reserved for nameless stormtroopers and rebel soldiers. Seeing the Emperor for the first time was also big. I still get chills when Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp. That is why you fail, indeed. Then the entire sequence from when Luke lands in Bespin, shoots at Fett, and then fights Vader is spectacular.

BTS: I agree about the hand and the significance of it, but the symbolism of his replacement hand looking like Vader’s after the “father” revelation also was shocking. If you’d harbored doubts before, then that moment, you just knew it had to be true.  I think the mortality of Han was brought into question as well. And we were left hanging. I think the mortality of Han was brought into question as well. And we were left hanging. The X-Wing thing was huge. I also think the revelation of Darth as being humbled by anyone was big. It humanized him as well as reminding us that maybe he wasn’t the darkest evil possible because the Emperor was worse or might be. Also, that Ben could still appear and was still alive in another realm was a really important revelation which became far more important in the next film and prequel trilogy. So that was a big moment. I also think the Han-Leia thing was a bit startling at the time because we were kinda rooting for Luke to get the girl in A New Hope and now he had other goals and needs. But it sure made it easier to transition to the revelations of the next film.

Well, it’s almost time for the third film. I actually tracked down copies of the theatrical releases on DVD and am going to rewatch those for the first time in decades. That’ll be interesting. Meanwhile, any final thoughts  on Empire?

JS: My final thought is that I loved it. Empire is possibly my favorite movie of all time. Part of that is surely nostalgia, but part is also due to its importance in the trilogy– the farmboy enters a larger world and faces his enemy on near-equal footing, the scoundrel and the princess find strength in each other, and Vader comes to the forefront as the primary antagonist.

BTS: I still can’t get over the part where you said Vader was your hero growing up, but perhaps if you cry at the end of the next film we can unpack that. Okay, all, we’ll be back next week to discuss Return Of The Jedi. Our first discussions can be found here: 

Intro & Invitation: http://bryanthomasschmidt.net/2012/11/11/announcing-the-sprunk-schmidt-star-wars-original-trilogy-rewatch-youre-invited/

A New Hope: http://jonsprunk.blogspot.com/2012/11/hello-friends-today-i-have-special-treat.html

About Us:

Jon Sprunk grew up in central Pennsylvania, the eldest of four and attended Lock Haven University. He graduated with a B.A. in English in 1992. After his disastrous first novel failed to find a publisher, he sought gainful employment. Finally, after many more rejections and twists and turns of life, he joined Pennwriters and attended their annual conference in 2004. His short fiction has appeared in Cloaked in Shadow: Dark Tales of ElvesDreams & Visions #34 andCemetery Moon #4. In June 2009, he signed a multi-book contract with Pyr Books by whom his Shadow Trilogy dark fantasy series have been published. He can be found on twitter as @jsprunk70, on Facebook and via his website athttp://jonsprunk.com/.

 

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, a Ray Gun Revival Best Of Collection for Every Day Publishing and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Review: THOR

Packed with action and humor with strong characterization, good special fx and a healthy dose of heart, Kenneth Branagh’s THOR is the best comic book movie I’ve seen in ages and destined to continue steadily earning boxoffice $s throughout the summer.

Chris Hemsworth is terrific in the title role, a god banished to mortal on a strange planet, trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs. Starting out arrogant and self-sure, Thor’s transformation to a new form of confidence is a journey many will relate to. At first, a fish out of water determined that his power and status still entitle him to whatever he demands, Thor quickly comes to realize his power and status mean little to the scientists who’ve discovered him in the New Mexico desert. As he uncovers their world and begins coming to terms with his mortality, he’s further discouraged by his failure to reclaim his hammer from Federal custody and restore the confiscated scientific equipment and data of his rescuers. Then his brother, Loki, played will by Tom Hiddleston, arrives to inform him the banishment is permanent, and Thor comes face to face with the reality his life will never be the same.

The characters are well drawn and used to full effect for both humor and humanness. Thor’s friends and their banter are both amusing and character building, and, along with the Earth characters, particularly the scientists played by Stellan Skarsgard and Natalie Portman, take what could have easily devolved into silliness and elevate it into a worth drama about coming of age, self-discovery, and family conflict. Throw in good special effects, plausible science mixed with magic (Magic is science we just don’t understand yet), and you have a very entertaining, crowd pleasing film.

The first 30 minutes was one of the best film openings to an action movie I’ve seen in the past decade–packed with action and good character development, it sets up the story and our players with a strong foundation which carries the rest of the film.

It was fun to see Rene Russo back in action film mode, however brief and small her part, and Anthony Hopkins made the most of his role as well. Idris Elba as Heimdall, the bridge guard also stood out to me and Jaime Alexander as warrior Sif added a touch of Xena to the proceedings, countering the damsel in distress heroine played by Portman. There’s room for strong women in more than one level in this franchise and that news bodes well for female filmgoers.

Unfamiliar with the THOR story, as I am not a huge comics fan, the movie sold me enough to make me want to go back and read the comics and the legends behind them. It will be fun to see what they do with further films in the franchise, including THE AVENGERS, which is due to arrive before another THOR.

Recommended to fans of all genres. A truly worthwhile afternoon at the cinema.

Review: Unstoppable

An adrenaline pumping action buddy film with good characterization and family friendly language (more than most), “Unstoppable” grabs you from the get go and never stops.  The story of two railroad workers, an engineer and conductor, who find themselves moving head on against an out of control train loaded with cars containing toxic and highly combustible chemicals, the movie unfolds rapidly with the bungling railroad management worried about themselves at every turn while the heroes try and stop a major disaster.  The train is barreling toward major population centers where their families live and it’s too heavy for conventional means to stop.  Their ingenuity and determination, along with that of a few collaborators, are the heart of this film.

Stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine (the new Kirk from last year’s “Star Trek”) share the heroism nicely.  Both have nice backstories and strong action moments, and both, in the end, play key roles in saving the day.

My only criticism is that, even though this was based on a true story, the portrayal of the railroad management is played too much to stereotypes of the greedy idiots in suits.  Surely things were more complicated than that in real life.  At a short length of under 90 minutes, the writers and filmmakers could have rounded out of those parts a bit more to add depth to the film.

But it’s a minor quibble to a story which keeps your heart racing despite 80% of the screen time taking place aboard a single train between two men.  There are some nice action pieces here, and the writers have done a good job of explaining all the various science and realities of railroad technology which allow the situation to happen and impede attempts to stop the train.

The language is mild for an action flick as well.  A few four letter words scattered but not enough that I even remember them.  And none of the most memorable lines had them.  Given Hollywood’s tendency to equate four letter words with coolness, the filmmakers get high marks from me on this.

Highly recommended.

For what it’s worth…

Movie Reviews: Social Network & Eat, Pray, Love

Saw two movies this week which impacted me in unique and unexpected ways and I just had to review them.  An odd combination, both “Social Network” and “Eat,Pray,Love” were not high atop my must see movies lists, and yet for various reasons, I saw them and I enjoyed both far more than I could have ever dreamed I would.

The story of the founding of “The Facebook” by Mark Zuckerberg, an anti-social computer geek at Harvard, “Social Network” had one thing going for it when I went in:  Aaron Sorkin.  I hate Sorkin’s politics, but his dialogue is the best in the business.  The guy knows how to bring characters to life, and he did it very well here, even writing college kids, an age group from which he, like me, has been long removed.  As Zuckerberg works with his friends and fights with classmates in creating his network and changing the cyberworld forever, I found myself relating to him in unexpected ways.  I don’t want to relate to him because 1) I don’t recall ever being so isolated and wouldn’t want to be; and 2) as his attorney tells him at one point, “You’re not an asshole.   You’re just trying really hard to be.”  Okay, so I can have my moments of assholedom, but I hope I am not trying when they occur.

Yet, as a tortured creative type who wants to use his creative energy and passion to do something substantial, I do relate to him.  Even his desire to be well known for it, a notion I pretty much moved to the bottom of my priority list over a decade ago.  Here’s a guy who ends up backstabbing his friends and classmates, the latter because they don’t know what they’re doing and it’s easier to just do it alone, and the former because he’s ultimately selfish and self-consumed and doesn’t give much thought to how anything he does effects other people.  He’s not really a nice guy.  Not a guy I want to be like, and yet, I totally get the isolation he lives with and overcomes only through his creative gifts, and I relate to the idea that sometimes ideas seem to have no value when the person having them doesn’t have the knowledge to make them reality.  Sometimes it’s easier to just do it yourself than work with such people, no matter how great the idea, and once upon a time, I also lost a friend for running with an idea which wasn’t wholly mine.

Here’s a movie about geeks founding a computer network.  Doesn’t sound like a very dynamic exciting movie.  But the movie is powerful and moves at a fast pace.  Sorkin and director David Fincher did a great job of adding tension by intercutting between the college days as “The Facebook” became an idea and was created to more recent times when Zuckerberg defends himself in lawsuits by those he screwed over.  It adds a sense of urgency as the reasons for the current falling out get gradually revealed through scenes of the history behind it and development of the characters.  And characters are fascinating here.  They drive the story, as is usual with Sorkin.  I found the film an inspiring and challenging look at chasing dreams with a relentless passion to let nothing stand in the way.  I love Zuckerberg’s passion, echo it, and hope to emulate it.  I just hope to leave less debris in my wake.

“Eat, Pray, Love” finally made it to the local $2 theatre and my wife just had to go so we went.  Based on a memoir by writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who, after a divorce and a sense of losing her way, embarks on a year long journey which takes her to Italy (eat), Indian (pray), and Bali (love).  Along the way, she develops friendships with unique and interesting people, finds herself, and teaches us some lessons about life, love, and even food.

I expected this to be a very girly chick flick.  I like Julia Roberts.  “Notting Hill,” “Pretty Woman,” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” are three of my favorite romantic comedies, but this just sounded like a “Under The Tuscan Sun” clone.  I saw that and enjoyed it, but just was not at all in a place where I found the idea of seeing another appealing.  What I found instead was a story I related to, again, more than I ever could have imagined.  Elizabeth Gilbert finds herself making a fresh start much as I am being forced to do by the circumstances of my life.  After finally deciding her marriage just didn’t work and falling out of another unsatisfactory, hastily launched affair, she feels like she doesn’t know who she is any more.  (Boy, am I feeling that).  What does she want from life?  What will make her happy?  Who is she?    Winding up living as a third wheel in her book editor’s home, she finally decides she needs to just get out there and find herself, and the three countries she chooses have various appeals to her which lead her to believe answers can be found there.

Filled with memorable characters, good humor, and profound emotions, the movie reminds as all what a roller coaster ride life can be, especially when you have no idea where it is taking you, and as Gilbert discovers her need to let go and live, let go and let life go on, I was reminded that I too hold on too tightly to the reins.  It’s a big part of why I feel so miserable in the current chaos of my life.  Everything is so out of control and so I feel like I am spinning uncontrollably with no foundation.  In the end, it is when her Balian guru tells her that “sometimes part of finding balance is losing your balance in love” that Gilbert finally figures out what she wants and where to find it, and I am hoping I can soon find balance somehow myself.

I thought the movie had plenty to offer both men and women and certainly couples as it has a lot to say about the ups and downs of love.  One warning:  don’t skip dinner to attend as we do. “Eat” is in the title for a reason and watching the first 40 minutes of lucious Italian food will have you salivating by the time you leave.  If you love other cultures and travel, you’ll find fascinating stuff here.  If you like people learning to live more adventurously (even if you can’t manage to do it yourself) and like people learning how to value people more than other things, then this movie will bring you joy.

For what it’s worth…

Harry Potter

Okay, I am well aware I am behind the game, and I’ve never read the books, but I have seen all six Harry Potter movies. As a guy who’s started writing speculative fiction and has a Young Adult book planned, I felt a responsibility to be familiar with the most popular fantasy series released in the past decade. One disclaimer though: because I have yet to read any of the books, I cannot speak to the author’s work but I will talk about the filmmakers.

It should be noted that Chris Columbus is one of my favorite directors and writers. His films like “Home Alone” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” have entertained me over and over again. And although I have no idea what was cut from the book, the first two films really worked for me. They were tightly written and engaging, getting you into the story quickly and moving things along.

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Prisoner of Azkaban” was weaker but still engaging and entertaining. It was at the next film, “Goblet Of Fire,” where things started to go downhill. I don’t know if Mike Newell has issues with editing or if he just tried to do it himself, but “Goblet” was too long and took way too long to get going. It was at least 45 minutes into the movie before I got interested in what was going on, and that is way too long. The only reason I didn’t just skip it was a feeling I needed to watch each film to get the others after that. But I shut off the DVD this time with none of the satisfaction the earlier films had provided.

“Order Of The Phoenix” and “Half Blood Prince” also left me wishing they’d been done by Columbus instead of someone else. They just needed a steadier touch by a filmmaker like Columbus or even Cuarón who knows how to make mainstream blockbusters. The lack of such direction was obvious and, ultimately, unsatisfying. Which is too bad, because people are so passionate about the books and even the movies. They deserved better.

I will also say that length was an issue, particularly for later films. My friends who read the books tell me they cut a lot, but I don’t think they cut enough. Some of the beginning stuff was so long and dragged out that the real hook of the story takes forever to occur, and while that may work in novels, it is not good filmmaking. Surely even JK Rawlings must understand that they are different mediums, and, as a result, many things must be handled differently. Unfortunately, these films suffered from the same syndrome as many Hollywood releases these days, filmmakers unable to separate from their own babies and vision and make a film for audiences and not themselves. It is a wonder so many kids could sit through these. I truly wonder at what point their attention spans gave out. I know mine gave out a number of times, and I broke up most of the later films into sectional viewings as a result.

Those who love the films and books will likely disagree with me, and perhaps some filmmakers will as well, but as a person who went to film school and made television and films for a while, I can tell you my perspective is much more subjective than it was during that period. Audiences want hooky, entertaining films that move along, make them laugh, make them feel, and then end with a good satisfaction. For me, the Harry Potter films could have done this better.

I hope the books do when I read them. For what it’s worth…