May the Force Be With You, Etc.
Darth Vader is still Luke Skywalker’s father; Yoda’s still a puppet (and green); the rebels still win and the Empire still loses. None of this was guaranteed. After all, George Lucas is constantly messing around with his original Star Wars trilogy, and with each special edition or re-release, there is always something added or missing—for his fans, always something ruined or fucked-up. But this time around, it’s hard to complain: For their long-awaited DVD release, these classics have been as beautifully restored as Rembrandt’s Night Watch.
Most reviews of Star Wars are just Mad Libs that slot in the same old words, names or phrases—i.e., Joseph Campbell, Saturday serials, space opera, Buck Rogers, Kurosawa, Carl Jung, J.R.R. Tolkien, Triumph of the Will, Wookies, westerns, Wagner, Jedi mind tricks, mythology and “May the force be with you.” Anyway, it’s the story of what happens when the farm boy leaves the farm, and he zips all around the galaxy with a princess, as tough as the pirate, a not-so-cowardly lion, a couple of Abbott and Costello robots and a legendary British character actor doing his very best Prospero. Lessons are learned. A lot of stuff gets blown up. And, as with Frodo, a Great Evil is defeated; as with Oedipus, his dad ends up dead.
There is something here for every kid: The original Star Wars is earnest, silly and loose; it’s often stunning but also feels charmingly handmade. The Empire Strikes Back —exhilarating, sad, so beloved—sees every character we adore fail, fall apart or frozen into a block of stone. And then Return of the Jedi, with its embarrassment of aliens fuzzy or gross, is basically The Muppet Show for space nerds. But watching the trilogy again for the umpteenth time, I found that I just didn’t care anymore about any of it. There were no human beings up on screen, just the full complement of my old Halloween costumes. Have I become everything Peter Pan warned Wendy about? Like Vader, am I now a little less human?
These Star Wars DVD’s, taken together with his recently re-released debut THX 1138, are a cleverly staged countercampaign directed at anyone who’s ever accused Mr. Lucas of incompetence or soullessness or of destroying movies for anyone but 14-year-old boys. The impressively packaged but not particularly comprehensive extras back up Mr. Lucas’ side of the story, wherein he narrowly escapes from a studio system as evil as any Galactic Empire, moves to Northern California and basically invents independent film. The man talks about merchandising rights the way the Pilgrims must have talked about the Mayflower.
Geeks will head straight for the Episode III: Revenge of the Sith preview, but it’s just Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker) screwing around with their light sabers, followed by about 27 seconds of Mr. Christensen getting his Vader on. The centerpiece of the bonus disc is actually the two-and-half-hour Empire of Dreams documentary, in which Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyers and Steven Spielberg hold forth on Mr. Lucas’ visionary genius, and some former studio exec actually claims that he went right home after seeing the rough cut of Star Wars to tell his wife and kids that “the most extraordinary day of my life has just taken place.”
Thank goodness, then, for the actors, who portray Mr. Lucas as a brilliant but humorless dweeb and a poor director of people; and for all the puppeteers, visual-effects artists, model makers, set builders, producers and sound designers who remind us how much of this world they imagined and made themselves. By the end of the documentary, Mr. Lucas’ talents begin to seem vague and diffuse; he is less an auteur or a magician than he is a kind of contagion—patient zero in the Star Wars epidemic. The Force was strong in him, and he passed it on to the rest of us, like chicken pox.
[ The Star Wars Trilogy (1977-83), PG, $69.98.]
Choose Your Poison
With Coffee and Cigarettes, one suspects that Jim Jarmusch is cheating. Not quite a feature, the film is a series of conversations between members of Mr. Jarmusch’s immensely talented cadre of friends, somehow tied together by those titular addictions. On display is Mr. Jarmusch’s dry wit—and since he allowed for a lot of ad-libbing, that of his actors as well—but little else. His unique humor permeates even the pairings, for example, between Bill Murray and Wu-Tang members RZA and GZA, while his direction, consisting of black-and-white static camera shots, merely tries not to distract from the performances. Steve Buscemi, Meg and Jack White, Cate Blanchett and Taylor Mead, to name a few, all take turns making the most of the unwavering eye of Mr. Jarmusch’s camera.
Don’t, however, look to the title to find a generous, unifying lens through which to view the deeper themes of the film. The link between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan’s conversation, in which it is revealed that the two are actually long-lost cousins, and the opening scene between the manic Roberto Benigni and the dour Steven Wright, in which Mr. Wright lets Mr. Benigni go to a dentist appointment for him, is tenuous at best.
If anything, the central vices only affect the subtext of each conversation. The generation gap between members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, and Taylor Mead is highlighted by their respective responses to caffeine and nicotine. RZA and GZA won’t touch the stuff; Iggy and Mr. Waits claim to have quit smoking; and Mr. Mead wants to imagine his coffee as champagne and toast to Paris in the 20’s. All of this contributes to a very subtle yet very real feeling of nostalgia. Mr. Waits laments, albeit somewhat in jest, that his was the “coffee-and-cigarettes generation.” Having quit smoking, he appears to have left behind the carefree days of youth.
Since the film lacks any obvious dramatic arc, ups and downs are at the mercy of the pairings. To that end, this film is especially tailored for DVD release: You can skip over the slow conversations without worrying about missing anything—or pause it, when you’re jonesing for a cup of coffee or a smoke.
[ Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), R, 95 min., $29.90.]
Down With the Queen Bees!
Peter Sellers once sang “Thank Heavens for Little Girls,” and really one ought to thank heaven, not Tina Fey, for the delightfully horrid little “mean girls” stalking through high-school candy-land leaving carnage in their wake. In Mean Girls, the film, Ms. Fey gives them to us as they are: lip-gloss-dripping, rah-rah-skirted, Balance-bar-consuming, Polly Pocket–sized monsters who have honed their craft magnificently. They are wiser than their Heathers cousins—whose tools were mostly sex and homicide—and take care never to spill blood, alcohol or genital fluids before our eyes. Their purely psychological methods suit the instantly categorized landscape of American high schools, where each member has her designated place and takes care not to drip-drop out of it.
The screenwriters, however, seem to be of two minds about this bitchy-girl business: Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, an account of teen-girl warfare that informed Mean Girls, finds this phenomenon troublesome and worrying. Screenwriter Tina Fey, on the other hand, who may or may not suffer from a genius complex, finds it all rather fun. Which it is. The film is no masterpiece, but Ms. Fey displays an occasional knack for pee-in-your-pants humor which finds its way into the film more often than the show ( Saturday Night Live) that she writes for. She enjoys her characters honestly, succumbing neither to sentiment nor sanctimony. The actresses themselves are of course a delight—even the walloping Lindsey Lohan, who is forced to relinquish her starlet ways, to wonderful effect.
The joys of the DVD are in the endless reels of deleted scenes, bloopers and quietly amusing commentary by Ms. Fey, director Mark Singer and Saturday Night Live godfather/Dr. Evil Lorne Michaels, who becomes tangibly excited every time the girls really throw down. His favorite lines invariably involve one person telling another to fuck off. What emerges, curiously, is that the queen mean bee, actress Regina George, may not so much resemble your average mean girl, but Mr. Michaels himself.
[ Mean Girls (2004), PG-13, 97 min., $29.95.]