Sunday, May 29, 2005

Star Wars: Episode VII—Revelations

For any “Star Wars” fans out there—both those who remain doggedly devoted to the franchise no matter what the prequels are like, and those who wonder what in the galaxy from far, far away happened to George Lucas in the years between 1983 and 1999—I strongly urge you to dig up a copy of the May 20 edition of Entertainment Weekly. Hayden Christensen (the worst casting decision since Sofia Ford Coppola in “The Godfather Part III”) is wielding a lightsaber on the cover, but don’t be deterred. Jeff Jensen’s article on Lucas and the conclusion of his fantasy film sextet is unquestionably the best, most revealing “Star Wars”-related coverage I’ve read in the past decade—and Sith lord knows there’s been a lot of that.
Jensen’s story is a revelation for a semi-“Star Wars” geek like me who, after two atrocious prequels (1999’s “The Phantom Menace” and 2002’s “Attack of the Clones”), nearly despises Lucas now. This piece actually helped me come to grips with the entire saga and realize it’s OK to hate the prequels—because George didn’t much care to make them in the first place.
My biggest complaint with all three of these recent “Star Wars” films (yes, “Revenge of the Sith” is better than its two predecessors, but that’s not saying much, is it?) is that Lucas seemingly fell victim to hubris in saddling back up into the director/screenwriter chair, which is not his strong suit. But as it turns out, according to Jensen, Lucas can’t even come up with a good reason why he came back to “Star Wars” in the first place, other than he’d been thinking about these movies for years and didn’t know what else to do. And in a tragic twist, it seems Lucas was pushed into that role by his “friends,” Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard.
You see, Lucas is a visionary, a creator of worlds. He’s a J.R.R. Tolkien of his generation, just without the ability to make his creations come to life on his own. It takes a singular mind to dream up an entire new universe, with hundreds of different races and species and languages, as Lucas has done with his galaxy from a long time ago.
But as an actual filmmaker, Lucas is lacking. He’s better served sticking to breadth and scope while handing the nitty-gritty details of scriptwriting and directing over to other professionals (i.e. 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”). As he admits to Jensen, Lucas was ready to do the same thing for the prequels, but was convinced to make the pictures himself. What a shame.
Consider what the prequels may have looked like under the gifted hands of two consummate professionals like Spielberg or Howard—they’re no indie faves, to be sure, but they both know how to create a film that mixes artistic integrity with popular appeal. They know how to get the best out of their actors (there’s no way Christensen is in these movies if Lucas isn’t in the chair).
The parallels between Lucas and Tolkien are intriguing. Tolkien, you may know, was on the verge of giving up on “The Lord of the Rings” when his literary buddies The Inklings, including C.S. Lewis, encouraged the mythmaker to stay at it. Best. Decision. Ever.
Lucas, it seems, has his own group of Inklings in Spielberg and Howard, two filmmakers he would trust with his baby, his greatest creation. And like good Inklings, Spielberg and Howard encouraged Lucas to man up and do the job himself. It’s too bad they were so dreadfully wrong.
Still, in light of all this, it’s sort of perversely comforting to know Lucas went into these prequels kicking and screaming and fighting each step of the way. It’s no wonder they turned out like a steaming pile of crap. He was freshest back in the mid-’70s for the original “Star Wars,” but no one can keep that kind of energy going for 30 years and six movies. Even Christensen admits Lucas was nearly dead in the water during the first two films. He was more enthusiastic for “Sith,” but even that project stretched Lucas’ rather feeble writing ability beyond its limit. (Consider the unbelievable anecdote in the EW piece that Lucas had to be told by a bunch of special effects geeks during post-production that Anakin’s turn to the dark side wasn’t, uh, clear. That’s the whole point of the movie! And Lucas didn’t have it nailed down until principle filming was over?!?!)
Now that “Star Wars” is basically all said and done, I’m not going to bother with these dreadful prequels anymore. I cannot envision a scenario where I will willingly watch any of the three of them ever again. Lucas acknowledges the first two especially were basically pulled out of his rear end, as the majority of the story he already had in his head occurred in “Sith.” No wonder they had a “where’d that come from?” feel to them.
So, as Lucas backpedals from his latest billion-dollar creations, so, too, will I. The Force is not strong with these three films. And somehow, I’ll try (there is no try!) to forget the fact that the man cutting off Luke’s hand in “Empire” was once a whiny little brat like Hayden Christensen.
Screwing with Darth Vader. Ugh. That may be George Lucas’ unforgivable sin.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Bruce Springsteen, 'Devils & Dust'

It’s a misnomer to call “Devils & Dust,” the new album from Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad Part II.” Yes, nearly all of the 12 songs on the new album were written in the mid-1990s during the “Joad” period; yes, Springsteen once again assumes his Oakie voice for several tracks; and, yes, most of “Devils & Dust” is acoustic.
But this new work is much more accessible than the minimalist “Tom Joad.” The diehards will call me a non-believer, but “Joad” is my least-favorite Springsteen album by a wide margin—and I’ve tried to like it, I really have. Unlike his first all-acoustic effort, 1982’s classic “Nebraska,” “Tom Joad” just doesn’t do it for me. It’s too quiet, too lacking in memorable melodies, filled with too many songs that sound the same and too few tracks that make me want to listen to them again.
No, “Devils & Dust” may return to some similar territory, but it is certainly more than simply “an acoustic album.” Instead, it offers a nice mix of what solo Springsteen has sounded like for nearly two decades. Though not as full of bravado or muscle as his work with the E Street Band, “Devils & Dust” is compelling, catchy, and, in parts, downright phenomenal.
Maybe it’s my personal curse, but I always seem to connect first with uptempo numbers on a new record, no matter the artist. Thankfully, Springsteen delivers a healthy amount on “Devils & Dust.”
The best is “Long Time Comin’,” which could be seen as a distant cousin to 1992’s “Better Days.” Backed by a driving drumbeat, wistful violin and toned-down electric guitar, this may already be one of my favorite Springsteen songs of all time. Not because it necessarily covers new ground musically, but because it is truly uplifting, telling the story of a man who for too long allowed his life to be eclipsed by the shadow of a deadbeat father. Now, awaiting the birth of his third child, the protagonist is making a commitment to change his life and stop taking out the sins of his father on those he loves. In an apology to his wife and children, the man is “going to get birth naked and bury my old soul/And dance on its grave,” promising “I ain’t gonna fuck it up this time” (Springsteen’s first use of the f-word on an album).
Like “Long Time Comin’,” this album is made up entirely of stories, as Springsteen embodies characters as varied as a young black man (“Black Cowboys”) to an illegal immigrant (“Matamorous Banks”) to a desperate boxer (“The Hitter”), to name a few. Perhaps the character that engenders the most controversy, however, is from the title track, where Springsteen sings from the perspective of an American soldier in Iraq struggling to come to grips with the horrors of war. Now, Springsteen and I are on complete opposite sides of the political fence, but “Devils & Dust” as a whole is not as overtly partisan as I thought it would be, and the title cut explores themes I’ve struggled to reconcile myself, as I wonder how our soldiers fighting in the Middle East can possibly return to a normal life when they come home. (Too bad the music itself is a rather tepid retread of “Blood Brothers” from 1994’s “Greatest Hits” set, making this opening track absolutely skippable.)
And let’s remember, especially you Red-staters out there still on Boss Blackout after the somewhat ridiculous Vote for Change Tour: This isn’t new territory for Springsteen, (hello, “Born in the U.S.A.”). But there is plenty to love about his music, even if I don’t agree with his choice for president in 2004. Is George W. Bush worth missing out on “Devils & Dust”? Am I suddenly going to stop loving “Badlands,” “Atlantic City” or “One Step Up”? Absolutely not. You’re never going to agree with everything another person believes. If you do, that’s a relationship not worth having.
So politics aside, where does that leave us regarding “Devils & Dust”? It’s a mixed bag, in the end, a hair’s breadth away from being a truly great album, but one I like much more than I thought I would. There’s a good deal of variety here, including two great toe-tappers, “Maria’s Bed” and “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” in which Springsteen dons a charming, odd-but-it-works falsetto. There are also some near misses, such as “Reno,” which is musically and thematically engaging but suffers in execution. In this story of another desperate man seeking (and failing to find) satisfaction in the embrace of a prostitute, the lyrics are so graphic they are almost unlistenable; Springsteen himself seems embarrassed to be singing some of the lines, skating past the most … vivid descriptions of one night in a rent-by-the-hour hotel room.
There are some who will never be satisfied unless The Boss is backed by the E Streeters, belting out clones of “Rosalita” or “Born to Run.” Credit Springsteen for having the artistic integrity to realize treading on past successes means a complete lack of relevance in the here and now. There are songs he wants to write that just don’t fit on an album such as “The Rising,” but that doesn’t mean they can’t be great. “Devils & Dust” takes a few listens to fully sink in, if nothing else than to get used to Springsteen without his beloved mates. But it is also good enough to hold its own among one of the greatest catalogs in rock and roll.
Grade: B+