Returning To The Jedi: Star Wars Episode VI 35 Years Later

The Star Wars original trilogy is pretty sacred text to those obsessed with a galaxy far far away. In a modern world where the prequel trilogy is an infamous memory and the current Disney run is hotly contested to say the least, the Star Wars trilogy that enchanted audiences in the late 70s – the early 80s is still largely considered to be the holy scripture of the franchise by fans. Star Wars revolutionized the sci-fi fantasy genre for decades to come. Empire Strikes Back – while receiving a lukewarm reception upon initial release – is often considered one of the best sequels of all time by film dorks and average joes alike. The third entry in the original trilogy Return of the Jedi is a bit of a different story.

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In an age before Star Wars was close to the 21st century, Return of the Jedi was the black sheep. A concluding chapter which represented how a series that appealed to all audiences was mainly targeting the younger set and leaving anyone above the age of 12 in the dust. It’s filled with an extensive amount of puppets, furry teddy bear creatures and dumb sight gags that would make adults scratch their heads and older kids feeling bored. Jedi became the punching bag for a disappointing end to a trilogy for a few decades. As Dante Hicks once said in 1994’s Clerks, “Empire had the better ending. Luke loses his hand and finds out Vader is his father. Han is frozen and captured by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. Just like in real life. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets.”

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Yet, Jedi has has gained some amount of respect in the resulting three and a half decades since it was released. With the harsh backlash against the prequel trilogy and the rather divisive reception of the new Disney era films by the fanbase, Jedi looks less disappointing even with its faults. But that’s only really in comparison. Fans still love to prod and poke at Ewoks, Boba Fett’s disappointing end or the tonal shifts at play. And those criticisms have some merit. However, even with those faults squarely in mind, Jedi is not only an overall rousing finale to most of the threads from the first two films, but arguably has the best subplot of any of them. You read that right. This jumbled mess manages to close out the original series with a bang few other trilogies have managed to achieve. And I’m not just talking about the second Death Star.

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On a superficial level, there’s a major upping of the ante with the creatures and production design on display. Jabba the Hutt’s palace is a dingy yet incredibly detailed nightmare den of scum and villainy, taking all the promise of the Cantina in the original film and fleshing it out to a larger galaxy context. We only get so long with Jabba, but we get a sense that this is a true crime slum of debauchery and reckless abandon that has no rule beyond Jabba’s word. His excess and slimy lackadaisical attitude say so much with so little. This contrast between hedonism and small details breaths life into everyone involved at the palace. Who could forget the simple moment of a trainer mourning the loss of his giant Rancor monster? Some have said this awkwardly contrasts with the Endor scenes, but it feels more like clear direct contrast. Going from a dimly lit land of sin living in their filth to a pure society of green happy creatures working to save their ecosystem feels like a natural transition. All with the over arching apex of the Empire looming overhead with an even larger Death Star and a spectacularly elaborate spin on the original trench run to boot. Showcasing how all of this exists in the same galaxy and can only be controlled by the powers of The Force in the form of Mark Hamill,’s Luke Skywalker.

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The major theme of Return of the Jedi is one that spills over into the other Star Wars films; confrontation with your past. Luke Skywalker’s major arc throughout the entire trilogy – and into the sequel films – is coming to terms with what has happened before and moving on from it. By Return of the Jedi, Luke has to face several aspects of his past before embracing what he never knew to be true until the ending of Empire; his father Darth Vader. He returns to his home of Tatooine to save his newfound friends, says goodbye to Yoda & Obi-Wan after the give him the final truth of his growth & abilities as a Jedi and returns to the rebuilt version of the battle station he blew up to finally confront his enemy and progenitor. We see just how far Luke has come here, from wide eyed innocent farm boy to eager reckless Jedi to calm yet worried master. Even with the time jumps, Luke has formed into a true cloth Jedi. One who handily destroys The Rancor and invades Jabba’s palace of immersive creatures without batting an eye in intimidation. Yet, he still has his hesitations and worries. About the future of his friends or his ability to fight against Vader. There’s deliberation into his actions, even when it’s considering doubt over his abilities or vengeance in his heart that nearly consumes him. It shows that Luke is far more human than previous Jedi later depicted in the prequels, which makes him a far more engaging character than most in prior chronology. It’s still to this day the most nuanced performance of Mark Hamill’s career, balancing the affable hero of Luke we know with the newfound sense of determination and occasional lashing out.

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This sense of progression isn’t exclusive to Luke. Lando fully embraces his journey from smuggler and traitor to leader & hero of the rebellion, leading a more diverse fleet against the second Death Star. Leia comes to terms with her lineage, breaks the chains of slavery from one of the galaxy’s biggest crime lords Jabba The Hutt and leads the full on assault against the Empire. A scene between her and Luke that is mostly mean for exposition about their a connection reads as a moment of realization and attempted convincing to bring her brother away from the temptations of the Force. C-3PO even manages to go from translating as a servant for Jabba to a full fledged story telling God for the Ewoks. He manages to provoke the first battle of the Ewoks against the Stormtroopers by sheer distraction right alongside R2-D2. Hell, the Ewoks themselves evolve from a ravenous primitive culture to one based around camaraderie and defensive action. The last one admittedly sounds a bit unintentionally supportive of colonialism, but the Rebellion trusts and respects the Ewoks enough to fight against the Empire as things go on. Some of it may seem contemplatively silly, but the Ewoks use their limited resources to fight a far more advanced Empire in a way that feels like it has a spark of ingenuity while embracing their resources and trusting in the humans of the Empire to help save both their planet and the entire galaxy. It’s especially more clear when you consider Wicket and the others were so close to consuming our heroes.

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The only major character who lacks a character arc in a considerable fashion is Han Solo. It’s clear that Harrison Ford‘s heart isn’t really in this final chapter as blindly flails through the first half and mugs his way through the second half. It’s also clear that George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan – despite clearly wanting to give Han an important role in this finale to the original trilogy – give him essentially a role any of the other rebels could have taken. He’s not really leading to a considerably fashion He’s just sort of there to be a lesser version of the Han we knew and loved from before. No change or evolution… unless fully embracing that Princess Leia has the hots for him is progression. Hell, the best moments involving him showcase Leia’s growth as a character, one being her amazing reversal on the “I Love You/I Know” moment from Empire and her reveal to Han about Luke being her brother. Neither really require much from Ford and so much more from Carrie Fischer.

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However, the more intriguing progression runs through Luke and spills over into Darth Vader himself. Giving this dark ominous representation of intergalactic fascism a moment of redemption could have easily gone awry in the wrong hands. Yet, the combined efforts of James Earl Jones‘ haunted vocal work, David Prowse‘s determined steps in the suit and Sebastian Shaw‘s gasping dying words craft an Anakin Skywalker who goes from seemingly lost under the Vader armor to protruding out for a final act of honest heart. The soul of Star Wars as a saga shines through in any scene between Vader, Luke and Emperor Palpatine. The delicious scenery chewing of Ian McDiarmid is gloriously glowing underneath the iconic robe. Yet, it’s with true malice and purpose as he taunts Luke with the failure of the rebellion & the clear unstoppable power of the Empire, breaking Luke’s concentration and allowing his darker tendencies to cave in. Palpatine embodies all the worst aspects of the of the Sith, having hate shrivel and consume him like a prune of embittered ego.

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This is where director Richard Marquand‘s knack for character based drama really comes in handy, as he puts together what is easily the best lightsaber duel of the series between Vader and Luke. The tension that builds is palpable. With every strike, Luke and Vader clash in ways that echo with resonance and hurt as we know that this is a true fight of family. Father and son fighting not just for their lives, but the souls that bind each other in the ways of The Force. Marquand’s use of negative space creates this darkly immersive battle that slowly encompasses the dark side. Each painful bolt of Palpatine’s lighting energy clearly chills Luke to the bone. Even Vader’s redemption shows off the true hero underneath fighting to save his son with the last bit of life he had in him. It’s tragic, beautiful and one of the more awe inspiring cinematic moments of Star Wars in general. All coming to a head violent head that slowly dissipates into a moment of quiet whispered sadness as Luke sees his father pass into being one with The Force.

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Ultimately, Return of the Jedi is still the overall weaker entry in the original trilogy. It doesn’t have the self contained sense of discovery of the original Star Wars or the most consistent escalation of the themes & characters of Empire. Yet, it still gives the stories of the Skywalkers true closure in a way that constantly goes unsung and underrated. Luke’s final burning of his father is a wonderful climactic shot that says everything. The reign of the Empire has ended for now, but we must honor those who serve as potential heroes even if it’s in their final moments. Redemption is possible, but doesn’t bestow immortality. Setting the stage for hope to blossom. The title fulfills its promise as Vader goes from being a Sith to being a Jedi once again, even if so briefly. It’s something Luke and Leia will permanently have to carry with them throughout life, but they can handle thanks to their own support system of a family they’ve cultivated together. While the new trilogy has yet to confirm if they’ll fulfill something similar with next year’s episode XI, one can only hope it achieves some of the gravitas of Jedi… but also doesn’t turn Finn into the new Han Solo. John Boyega deserves to give a shit

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Evil Dead And Buried: A Toast to Ash Williams

Spoiler Warning: This article will contain heavy spoilers for the Evil Dead franchise, up to and including the series finale of Ash Vs. Evil DeadRead at your own risk.

After 37 years of fighting Deadites in some form or another, cult icon Bruce Campbell has announced that the recently aired series finale of Starz’s Ash Vs Evil Dead is his swan song for the character of Ashley Joana “Ash” Williams. Since 1981’s The Evil Dead, Campbell has been leading a one man crusade as the one-liner spewing fighter of demon possessed humans – or “Deadites” – in the Evil Dead franchise. Through two sequels, a few video games and the previously mentioned TV series, Ash has gone through many trials and tribulations over the course of the few decades. He’s one of the more unique horror protagonists out there. Unlike slasher final girls like Laurie Strode or John Carpenter’s usual Kurt Russell lead macho man, Ash is a more grounded human character. By which I mean he is a straight up coward. A scardy cat hiding behind his boomstick and chainsaw hand.

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On paper, that sounds like an awful character to follow. In most cases, we want a strong determined individual who can face off against monsters with the type of bravery that we don’t normally have on the big screen. Yet, the genius of director Sam Raimi was that Ash’s cowardice was the only thing to ground some of the most surreal horror in cinematic history. Evil Dead as a series consistently tops itself with how bizarre and off the wall horror can be. Friends becoming possessed corpses, old ladies turning into long necked monsters, a clone of yourself spewing from your shoulder. It’s the type of just plain weird horror that would make anyone scream like a namby pamby child with their head cut off. Ash was the audience surrogate that none of the audience wanted to admit was relatable. A guy who got gore all over his face when he tried to do something and is always in a constant struggle with the world around him.

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In that way, I always thought of Ash as the Homer Simpson of horror. Keep in mind I’m going by the more classic version of Homer. A guy of lower level intelligence that always strives to do what’s best, though his lower functioning fight-or-flight response tends to lead him down a more selfish path. At least until he finally achieves self awareness and does the right thing… as best as he can. Ash’s yellow-bellied attitude was often called out by others and lead him to become aware he was being an arrogant boob. Army of Darkness‘ climax thrives on that realization when Sheila (Embeth Davidtz) reminds Ash of the promises he made which he dismisses as “pillow talk.” This moment affords Bruce Campbell his finest acting moment as Ash, not even being able to look at Sheila as he blatantly admits his selfish self preservation instincts. Yet, one can’t blame Ash given what he’s previously gone through, having lost his love and his hand. That can do a lot to crush much interest in returning to fight demons.

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It’s clear that as much as Ash was created by Raimi, Campbell evolved the character into what he was. Initially, he was an obviously meek teen simply trying  sleep with his girlfriend at a cabin. Then – over the course of what would probably only be a few days in the original Evil Dead trilogy – Ash becomes his true self; an idiot savant with a chainsaw. He has simple desires and wants to avoid the inevitable at every turn. His desire for normalcy in a chaotic world mirror any audience member’s desire to have the same kind of stability against the harsh – though less surreal – world around us. Sam Raimi’s impulse to throw whatever the hell he wants at Bruce Campbell to injure or brutalize him for comedic effect is the cartoonish caricature of our own daily struggles. A funhouse mirror for what life throws in our faces. Ash is an everyman, whether we want to relate to how quick he is to run out of a dire situation. Ash’s horrific realization of his duty to fight Deadites in Evil Dead II rings so much truth. It dawns on him that his fate is sealed and must reluctantly stop demons for the rest of his life.

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Yet, the compelling thing about Ash is even if he does run with his tail between his legs, he would inevitably take action when no exit doors did show up. After that Evil Dead II ending, he seeks to find a back door out of this scenario in Army of Darkness. He doesn’t want to face an army of evil in a world he doesn’t know. This didn’t make Ash the most sympathetic hero, but it made him much more than a punching bag. It made him a survivor. The type of hero the world needs whether we or Ash himself wants it to be so. He improves his ability to kick Deadite ass, which ups his skill level and at the same time dooms him to stop evil. Ash is a double edged sword who doesn’t want to accept the reality of what he needs to do as much as he does the glory and stability he keeps searching for.  He’s damned if he helps and damned if he doesn’t, always in an eternal struggle to protect the world.

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It’s something that Ash carries with him right into his middle age on the TV show Ash Vs Evil Dead. Having staved off evil for a decade or so, Ash ironically summons back evil by browsing through his glory days while engaging in a vice or two. This is an Ash who has found his complacency, but is still clearly in fear of making long term commitments. He’s lost too many people to grow attached, so he lives an endless bachelor lifestyle in his trailer. Even those who didn’t die in his hometown of Elk Grove abandon him assuming him a serial killer, including his own father (Lee Majors). Ash knows evil could return at any second, so having a committed life could shatter in moments. Ash vs Evil Dead as a show was always sort of chaotic in terms of its storytelling structure. The nightmarishly wacky sensibility of Ash Vs Evil Dead isn’t one that immediately springs as something that can work for serialized television and some storylines proved this pretty well. Elements like the motivationally wonky Ruby (Lucy Lawless), Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) going from a competent cop to a doomed love interest for Ash during Season 1 or whatever the hell Baal (Joel Tobeck) was trying to do in Season 2 that the series had struggles with completing compelling arcs within the Evil Dead formula.

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The largest exception to this was the new regular characters of Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), two of Ash’s former warehouse employees who joined his fight against evil. Both represent a modern perspective to play off of Ash’s oafish older tendencies while confronting two sides of Ash’s persona. Pablo often had a reluctance that mirrored Ash’s more cowardly side, but with more loyalty and gumption that made the Deadite killer confront his own less than courageous actions. On the flip side, Kelly is a born fighter whose skills in destroying demons often rivaled Ash himself as the series progressed. Both characters often struggled to find individual arcs, but the combination of all three as “The Ghostbeaters” made for a refreshing spin on the dynamic of the franchise. Ash had found a family that may be dysfunctional, but with an honest connection that was stronger than any Deadite hide he had to slice through.

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Season 3 of Ash Vs Evil Dead improved much of this with the presence of Ash’s long lost daughter Brandy (Arielle Carver-O’Neill). Brandy loses her mother to Deadites in the season premiere, which makes her obviously bitter and less enthusiastic to learn how to defeat Deadites. Ash himself is reluctant to teach her to do so because the responsibility of a daughter changes him. Well, he still drinks and smokes weed, but it changes his approach to doing so when around her. Adding a layer of warmth and responsibility that progresses Ash further than he ever has been. Both characters seek to keep the demons away from her, but both Brandy and Ash ultimately come to terms with who they are and their ability to fight evil at every turn. Even if Brandy comes to term with this well before Ash does. Pablo & Kelly have similar arcs here to become what they are and how they must confront evil, with Pablo embracing his family’s spiritual connections and Kelly returning from limbo after a hot headed act that ignored her compatriots.

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By the series finale, Ash makes another wimpish turn to leaving as a giant monster from another realm is destroying his hometown. Brandy berates him and demands he confront who he is… which Ash takes to heart. Thus, he safely sends his daughter and surrogate kids away to face evil on his own. It’s an impressive and goofy battle that fits the Evil Dead franchise while earning an honest emotional reaction. He willingly sends his stability away in favor of facing what could be a fatal fight. Ash fully accepts his role in the universe and fights off evil with blunt force and earnest sincerity amongst the silliness. While it doesn’t prove to be a fatal bout, Ash’s survival and welcome to the post-apocalyptic world created by the Deadite destruction by a cyborg woman (Jessica Green) works on several levels. The initial intent was obviously to lead into a very different Season 4 for Ash Vs Evil Dead that won’t happen. Another intent is it works as a call back to the original ending of Army of Darkness involving Ash sleeping his way to the apocalypse. Ultimately, it’s Ash knowing that he now has to fight off evil in a world where they have the advantage… and he accepts it with a willing spirit. Especially with the promise of doing so with his little patchwork family. He rides off into the sunset on his beloved 1973 Delta Oldsmobile Delta 88 like a cowboy on his loyal steed. A fantastic way of sending off the character of Ash.

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In the wake of Ash Vs Evil Dead ending, I’ve seen many people take issue with the franchise ending and Campbell hanging up the chainsaw. And I can sympathize. The character proved to still be viable in his middle age in a way that took me off guard in a positive fashion. However, the series had a pretty good run and more importantly the send off proved to be a great one for the character. I’d rather have Campbell leave the character on such a positive progressive note rather than run out of steam. He’s played the character on and off for nearly 40 years. Culminating here feels like the closest possible thing to Ash getting an Unforgiven level send off. His fight will just keep going, even if we don’t see it. Would I want to see Ash fight deadites alongside cyborgs? Sure. But not getting that still leaves us wanting rather than disappointed or tired. Ash’s fight continues off screen, in the hearts, minds and other organs of horror fans everywhere. All of whom can relate to worrying about the demons of life, but find the courage to face them head on. There’s a beauty in that. A gore covered horrific beauty, but beauty nonetheless. So, adios, El Jefe. We’ll pour out a Shemp’s Beer in your memory.

Men On the Moon: Milos Forman and His Transgressive Talent Trilogy

Earlier this month, the world lost Czech director Miloš Forman. Forman was one of many voices who came up during Hollywood’s New Age, when many artists were given free artistic reign to do whatever they wanted. This was a spirit that Forman obviously shared and brought to life in many of his art. After several films in the Czech Republic, Forman’s breakout mainstream hit American film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest treated this as a central motivation for Jack Nicholson’s character to plead insanity and get thrown in the mental institution in the first place. Hair‘s wild untamed structure is all about trying to keep such a free spirit alive in a vacuum before the Vietnam War sets to ruin it. However, neither of those films are ones that will be discussed here.

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The focus for this writing will be on the three films Forman directed that serve as portraits of artists who acted as transgressive people in their time; 1984’s Amadeus, 1996’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt and 1999’s Man on the Moon. Each could technically be called “biopics” of sorts that cover their respective artists with a fair amount of embellishment. And some would argue the validity of someone like Larry Flynt being called an artist of any kind. In the same way that Salieri could constantly argue that Mozart was a talentless claude. Or that Andy Kaufman’s form of comedy was a merely the early Ur text for online trolling with no merit to it. That question in of itself is woven into each of these films as people dismiss the actions of these wild brazen artists as merely trying to rock the boat for the mere idea of it rather than having any purpose. Admittedly, sometimes these people did shake the status quo for the hell of it. But there was always an effect that made each of them one of a kind subjects worthy of artistic reconfiguration in the hands of someone like Forman.

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There’s plenty of doubt in Amadeus, The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon about the line between prowess and arrogance. Whether these men who chose to set the status quo ablaze were madcap geniuses or crazy men that happened to have a bit of talent. Each one has a provocative knowledge of perspective and how this affects the views of these transgressive folks in the public eye. Even then, the public eye is skewed by rumor and hearsay in a fashion that mirrors the biopic’s inherent reimagining of historical events. Milos Forman’s true interests were never really in getting exact details right as much as the overall spirit of his subjects from a distant outlook through a narrative that cherry picked facts. So what if Salieri was a respected composer in his time? The point of an Amadeus is that Mozart is the composer whose work lasted centuries in the eyes of culture and that seems to more be the view of F. Murray Abraham’s character rather than the actual thoughts of the composer in historical record.

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The aspect of perspective is what makes each of these films distinctive from each other. Amadeus is quite clearly from the view of a contemporary who shows contempt throue his lense. The People Vs Larry Flynt comes from more of a third person narrative that details most of Flynt’s life from his initial upbringing to fighting against Jerry Falwell. Arguably, Man on the Moon does something similar to this, but the very odd opening moments present very clearly that this is all coming from the same POV that Kaufman would want, which is to say one that takes the traditional biopic structure and mixes in sweet sincerity with bizarre left turns. All three have very diverging takes on the concept of detailing a person’s life, which help emphasize the transgressive nature of their subjects. Amadeus shows the titular composer coming in and turning composition into popular conscious over merely commissions for royalty. The People Vs Larry Flynt gives the Hustler story of smut a down-to-earth bluntness vs the snootier expectations of Playboy and holier-than-thou attitudes of the moral right in power during the 1970s and 1980s. Man on the Moon deconstructs the rigid nature of comedy merely because the subjects found it funnier and more stimulating than the status quo. Each took their canvas and threw paint on to see what colors stuck. And that kaleidoscope of color is a gorgeous thing to see in narrative form.

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Amadeus is the most critically lauded of these three. Perhaps because it’s the most operatic, in a fitting fashion given the subject. Amadeus is a historical epic with massive grandeur and scale. We get a sense of the decadence and unbridaled excess of this world that Mozart revels in and Salieri shys away from in pursuit of being pure. The disgust Salieri has is in the idea that such a decadent animal like Mozart could continue to be as brilliant at writing music as he is. He can’t accept the mere idea that Mozart is a prodigy and has to think it’s God mocking him specifically rather than any kind of true talent or skill. This sets up the recurring seed of doubt about those who are the transgressors while also displaying an arrogance they can’t even fathom throughout all three films. That there’s no way they can have some kind of individual talent, but instead a cruel joke that those who questions such artists can’t contemplate exists. It’s a credit to Tom Hulce’s boyishly charming performance that imbues Mozart with the type of spirit that challenges F. Murray Abraham’s more bitter and contemplative Salieri who is always looking for an out he can never really find. Mozart is just that immensely talented, though he also isn’t just treated as a wholly perfect character. He has lustful feelings for women who aren’t his betrothed and issues with not living up to his father’s expectations, both of which mirror the other two films’ protagonists.

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The People Vs Larry Flynt is the most traditionally structured of this trilogy and the most often forgotten.. It’s has all the hallmarks of Oscar bait and suffers the most from trying to cram in as many moments from the titular person’s life as possible. Yet, the real surprise of The People Vs Larry Flynt is that it shows off the most intriguing transformation of its subject. Both Amadeus and Man on the Moon have progression for their subjects, but Woody Harrelson’s turn from snide smut peddler to born again Christian to embittered cynical victim to free speech crusader is transfixing to watch. Harrelson gives off so much in body language, even when the story requires such physical acting to be limited. Larry Flynt at his most defeated state has a tragic truth to it. His loss of motor function is honestly secondary compared to his loss of will to even bother trying to get up in the morning, which is mirrored in a beautifully tragic way by Courtney Love as Flynt’s wife Althea. With this and Man on the Moon, Forman managed to get genuinely powerful performances from Love that she never really has gotten close to in her acting attempts since or prior. Edward Norton as the on again/off again lawyer to Flynt also deserves so much credit. 1996 was a breakout year for Norton and his straight man back and forth with Harrelson displays genuine growth for both.

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Man on the Moon has the most interesting perspective on the artist, in as much as Miloš Forman truly dealt with an artist with an eccentric personality that ruffled many feathers… who was played by an artist with an eccentric personality that ruffled many feathers on set, including Milos himself. The recently released Netflix documentary Jim and Andy revealed that Jim Carrey was so sucked into playing the role of Andy Kaufman that he believed Kaufman himself took over his body and embodied him during production. Reactions vary from Kaufman’s family having catharsis over feeling Andy is truly in front of them when visiting Carrey to Jerry Lawler insisting that Carrey’s meaner antics toward him especially felt out of character for Andy’s real life relationship with him. Even without this perspective, there’s a constant reality warping nature to Man on the Moon that makes Kaufman an impish Puck-like fairy creature and a bastion for sincerity. Despite following a very traditional biopic structure, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script (who also wrote Larry Flynt) constantly twists the audience’s perception of reality right from the start. Both had a similar approach with their Tim Burton collaboration Ed Wood, about one of the more critically reviled filmmakers who ever lived. Sometimes the break in perspective reality is subtle like simply showing Jerry Lawler is actually in on the joke. Other times it’s overt, like seeing Kaufman’s creation Tony Clifton on stage with Kaufman himself. The central celebration of blurring the reality of Kaufman’s humor vs societal norms makes him a key example of a true transgressive talent, in the same way Mozart and Larry Flynt were.

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Despite how clearly opposing these three figures can be, Milos Forman clearly had a fascination with all three as outsiders. Given Forman himself became an American citizen in 1977, it shows a particular interest in the American Dream aspects of Kaufman and Flynt. Two outsiders who came up from little with injunity and a crazed vision. This doesn’t count out the story of Mozart of course, who shows off a wild rebellious spirit of his own that still makes him so popular. From his other films, Forman has an appreciation for the bizarre underdog. The type of person who others find confusing and off the beat and path are people Forman considers underrated heroes. The ones who surprise you the most in times where they are most needed to subvert normality. It’s this type of celebration of weirdos in history that has clearly influenced some of the more interesting true story based films in recent memory. Films like American SplendorI Tonya and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind owe much to Forman’s talent for embracing the weird and strange with equal parts distance and personal perspective that made his curious little unofficial trilogy some of the more unique examples within the genre. Especially one that can quite often grow stale like the biographical drama. It’s important to celebrate those that turn such drivel on their head. Even when it’s too late for them to directly hear it… in The Great Beyond.

The Whit of The Muppets’ Steve Whitmire

Kermit the Frog – much like Mickey Mouse – is an everlasting icon. The type of wonderfully simplistic creation that transcends eras. Jim Henson has received so much obviously deserved praise for creating something as long lasting as Kermit on every level. The design, the voice, the personality. Yet, there’s someone who often gets tossed to the side for keeping that character alive. Said someone is Steve Whitmire, a puppeteer who worked with the Henson Company for decades and continued the legacy of many personalities puppeteered by Henson himself after his untimely death in 1990.

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It’s weird thinking about that. Despite how crucial Jim Henson was to creating The Muppets, many of the productions that have been made in the lifetimes of more recent generations of fans – including myself – have been brought to life by Henson’s successor. Now, after nearly 40 years with The Muppets, it was recently revealed that Whitmire would be leaving The Muppets. One can speculate as to why this change happened, but what really matters here is celebrating Whitmire’s talents as a performer. Something that goes unsung given how often the Muppet characters are treated as identities on their own. We see so many interviews where The Muppets are treated as their characters rather than give credit to their performers. Which shows just how dedicated Whitmire and his contemporaries were and still are to these roles.

When Whitmire first took over for Kermit, like with any change, his voice was mercilessly judged for not being Henson’s. Admittedly, it is quite different. Whitmire has a more nasal approach, missing some of the natural gruffness that oozed out of Henson’s beard. The missing base was especially noticeable early on when Whitmire performed as Kermit. It didn’t help that his first performance in the role was The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, a massive tribute special to the beloved Muppets creator. Where everyone from Steven Spielberg to Harry Belafonte pay tribute to the fallen creator. Even his own felt creatures acknowledge his death and dealt with it through mutual song. So, it was just set up for Whitmire to fail by comparison even at this very early point.

Still, Whitmire proved his performing potential in The Muppet Christmas Carol, his first major production as Kermit. Despite a lack of that clear Henson voice, the earnest charm manages to shine through even in these early stages. The musical number “One More Sleep Til Christmas” doesn’t sound like someone doing a half hearted Kermit impression as much as a person with boundless love expressing it through a slightly more nasal voice than we’re used to. Part of the genius of The Muppet Christmas Carol really is in how it utilizes The Muppet characters for casting in Charles Dickens’ story. By having these lovable characters as important human characters while new pitch perfect puppets are used for the ghosts, we allow the audience to empathize far more. Kermit as Bob Cratchit is the prime example. Kermit as the public knew him was always a hard working fellow constrained by the situation he was in. Perfect casting for one of the archetypes of the underappreciated worker. Even if it is weird to see his and Mrs. “Piggy” Cratchit’s pig & frog children.

Muppet Kermit the Frog and his operator Steve Whitmire take questions from the audience at Barnes & Noble

From here, the uses of Kermit do vary, mostly due to an inability to fully grasp what The Muppets could be after Henson’s death. Between them adapting Robert Louis Stevenson and Gonzo revealing himself as an alien, the Henson company clearly were taking things in odd directions. Still, Whitmire’s turns as Kermit never felt underwhelming. The sword fighting scenes in Muppet Treasure Island are some of the best examples of Kermit’s physical comedy abilities. He even has a few funny moments of straight man style comedy in Muppets From Space. He even kept up the hosting duties that Henson had as Kermit for the original Muppet Show during Muppets Tonight for a brief point in the mid-90s.

As time continued, he grew even more accustomed to Kermit as a character. After years of obscurity, when The Muppets film from 2011 gave the characters a return to form, Whitmire gave the role of Kermit even more life than had ever been truly brewed into the character. His Kermit in that film is one that has seen much better days and acknowledges that the puppet characters we know and love have been undervalued by time, allowing Whitmire give Kermit a sense of regret and loss that weren’t available previously. Thus, when we get Whitmire’s rendition of “Rainbow Connection” to serve as part of the telethon climax, it means more for Kermit as a performer wanting to touch as many people as Jim did before. It helps that Whitmire served as an assistant operator for Henson during Kermit’s initial rendition of that song for 1979’s The Muppet Movie, giving life to the arms that plucked Kermit’s banjo strings.

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Of course, Kermit wasn’t the only character Whitmire ever played. Probably his most famous original role was Rizzo the Rat, a streetwise New Yorker rodent who often served as a wonderful comedic foil to Gonzo The Great. The chemistry between Whitmire and Gonzo performer Dave Goelz was quite palpable. In Muppet Christmas Carol, the two show a comedic duo styling that helped breathe life into the post-Jim years. Rizzo brought a genuine grounding to Gonzo’s usual insane antics. He had the perfect type of urban charm that may have been needed when he was introduced during Muppets Take Manhattan. Whitmire took what initially seemed like a parody of Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and turned him into a hilarious full fledged comedic character of his own.

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Steve Whitmire has also brought to life many other lasting Muppet characters. Whitmire continued the roles of other Muppets characters like Statler, Beaker and Link Hogthrob. He created the role of Bean Bunny, who was introduced to audiences in 1986 and continues to delight them in Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. He also gave smaller yet notable characters life in Henson Company projects like The Dark CrystalLabyrinth and the TV series Dinosaurs. Whitmire also took over important roles on Sesame Street, mainly that of Ernie. He even had a technical plunge that put his mark on the creatures on a mechanical level, as he created the mechanism that allowed Rizzo the Rat the ability to move his mouth.

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It shows just how many technological and artistic achievements Steve Whitmire ultimately provided to The Muppets characters. While he wasn’t the most celebrated person within the company, Steve Whitmire deserves so much credit. And not just for being the man who took up the mantle of Kermit for nearly 30 years after someone who created the character passed on. No, Whitmire helped give so much new life to the character in the intervening years following Henson’s death. He allowed The Muppets to endure for children in the dawn of the new millennium, who sought comfort in the age of burgeoning technology. The Muppets can often seem like a relic of the past, trying to get through modern times with new gimmicks. Given there’s been moments like the recent 2015 sitcom or lesser webshows to prove weakened attempts to adapt to the times.

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Yet, Steve Whitmire always seemed to be willing to keep the characters alive. Even through obscurity and reality TV show appearances, Whitmire was instrumental in helping keep these characters from fading into the dust and deserves proper thanks for his actions. Though he wasn’t Jim Henson, Steve Whitmire was a puppeteer who knew that these characters transcended the hands that operated them. Without people like Whitmire or recent puppeteers like Eric Jacobson, Bill Barretta and Matt Vogel (who will be taking up the role of Kermit following Whitmire), The Muppets wouldn’t be around to inspire children to laugh, love and sing for nearly 30 years.

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Jim Henson got this ball to start rolling. And that’s incredibly vital. Yet, it takes a determined and devoted person to keep things alive. That’s something Steve Whitmire helped provide to these evergreen characters at a time when they were most needed. He wasn’t necessarily Jim Henson, but he was a dedicated performer who helped keep the role alive. Now that he’s gone, it’s important to note the legacy he helped keep alive still stands to this day. Without Mr. Whitmire’s work, it’s safe to say I myself wouldn’t appreciate the lasting legacy of these characters as much as I do. They may be felt and lacking in human flesh, but The Muppets are eternal pop culture creations. Ones that may outlast Steve Whitmire, but shouldn’t keep his accomplishments in mind when looking back on their history. No matter why he decided to leave, Whitmire’s accomplishments deserve to be noted in history for all time. And they will, along the great Rainbow Connection of life.

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Samurai Jack: Cultural Collage At Its Finest

This article contains spoilers for the entire series of Samurai Jack.

Samurai Jack is a true melting pot of a show. Created by Genndy Tartakovsky, an animator/immigrant born from the Soviet Union, was clearly inspired by a multitude of influences. The world that Jack – our titular samurai warrior flung out of his  time into a future ruled by the evil Aku – inhabits is a mishmash of many cultural touchstones. This premise was born from limitations. Building a show around a sword wielding samurai had the obvious trouble of getting past killing humans on a program aimed at children. So, Tartakovsky decided upon the conceit of killing robots instead, eventually leading to the premise that sparked Samurai Jack into the show it is. This conceit not only got this concept past the Cartoon Network board of directors, but also allowed for the cultural mesh that enabled so much creativity to spring forth for the production staff behind Samurai Jack.

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Right from the first episode “The Beginning,” Jack is seen training under the guidance of an African tribe, Chinese Monks and even Robin Hood himself. This elaborate montage showing Jack crafting his fighting skills is not only meant to showcase the massive amount of skill Jack has obtained in order to vanquish his foe Aku. It also shows the major theme of the knowledge Jack learns across his travels. Presenting Jack as a man willing to learn and take the guidance of those around him manages to give him an endearing desire to learn, but also a varied set of skills to boost the legitimacy of his prowess as a fighter able to nearly defeat a demonic entity like Aku. The variety of influences that give a balance of the tone and much in this same way, Tartakovsky took a variety of influences from his youth through his career in animation up to that point.

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The easiest influences to spot are Japanese, given the titular character. Moments of quiet contemplation followed by extreme action having the pacing akin to the works of Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, Jack has the typical weakness of the more authentic heroes of those stories, in that he has a soft spot to help those in need. After all, his entire quest in spearheaded by a desire to help his father after he’s been captured by Aku in the opening moments of the show. The father who had a fight sequence that visually mirrors the iconic arrow death scene from Throne of Blood. There’s also some definite recall of grand scale anime like Akira, particularly during the future scenes of city leveling destruction. This type of influence helped Samurai Jack find a place on the Toonami block during its initial run. The subset of Cartoon Network known for playing anime programming like Dragonball Z or Big O. Yet, it also helped the show find an artistic identity with the use of red on black that mirrored Katushiro Otomo’s harsh dystopian layout. The combination of red, black and green serves as a motif for Aku’s presence, especially when considering episodes like Jack and the Warrior Woman where Aku’s manipulation haunts Jack into doubting many potential allies.

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Yet, those would be too obvious a turn for cultural tributes for Samurai Jack. The genius of Samurai Jack‘s premise is that it allows for so many different styles to take place in a world as uncertain and maddening as one ruled by Aku. Thematically, this fits the perception of Jack within the culture of Aku. Adults like the western themed bounty hunters of the episode The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful know that Jack is a force of much curiosity for the formidable ruler of this land. In The Princess and the Bounty Hunters, a wide variety of bounty hunters from different backgrounds – from a Russian brute to a southern gentleman to an intergalactic warrior princess – detail their alternate ways to defeat Jack. All of them present their individual concepts of Jack, giving the character further mystique in universe that helps mirror another clear influence on Tartakovsky’s: Sergio Leone. The Italian filmmaker’s love of quiet staredowns before sudden action and Man With No Name-style protagonist is clearly reflected upon with Jack’s various violent encounters. One can even hear a remix of the famous Ennio Morricone score track “Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good The Bad and the Ugly during the big fight that takes up so much of season 5’s second episode.

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There’s also a perception of doubt within this world, arousing the spirit of rebellion in those raised under Aku. The most notable example would probably John Dimaggio’s Scotsman character. A recurring tough brute who initially sees himself as the only great warrior of the land, his encounters with Samurai Jack transform from head butting confrontation into a mutual respect. This continues the trend of seemingly clashing cultures can come to a consideration of each other’s strengths. This continues into episodes where Jack helps to bring back the cultural reigns of a cursed people. Like saving a group of Frank Miller’s 300 type Spartans from an unending war against machines or rescuing a Bavarian, Germany-esque town’s children from the hypnotic influence of rave music. All these conflicts involve a conflict between older and newer styles of cultural influence, the latter usually the more sinister object based ideas of technology. They conflict with Jack’s anti-materialism stance in a way that constantly builds upon Jack’s desire to destroy the material wrongs of Aku’s robotic minions.

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Samurai Jack‘s consistent stance against these robots even seeps into the youths of this world. In the episode Aku’s Fairy Tales, Aku attempts to curry the favor of Jack-obsessed youths with stories based on the folk tales like Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Bears. Despite his rather phony and half hearted tales of propaganda against Jack, the children question his stories and Aku disappears in a puff of anger. This leaves the children to think up their own more grounded tale of the heroic Jack vanquishing Aku. This shows Jack’s multi-cultural influence spreading amongst children of all races and species in a beautifully mythological fashion, giving him even more importance than just a warrior. He’s a symbol of what could be beyond the world that has existed for hundreds of years. A foreign force for good against the evil establishment that rules over all. Jack even demonstrated this with the initial series finale Jack and the Baby as the samurai tends to an abandoned child while telling the tale of Momotarō, a boy born from a peach.

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With the recent revival, Samurai Jack has continued to mix pop cultural ideas with relish. One of the more blatant examples is the robotic assassin Scaramouche the Merciless. His name comes from a stock commedia dell’arte, Tom Kenny’s speech patterns denote a Sammy Davis Jr. style speech pattern and his musical style of combat has shades of a Pied Piper style character. He even has a blade that has the properties of a tuning fork. The other fights Jack has – mainly with the daughters of Aku – have shades of the recent epic fights from wuxia films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero. There’s a ballet style precision to the choreography that gives every step that makes the animation still feel seamless.

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Season 5 has some of Samurai Jack‘s best examples of cultural recontextualization. Jack and Ashi – the Aku daughter who survives and accompanies Jack – journey through the belly of a whale-like being, much in the vein of The Book of Jonah… with more monsters, obviously. Jack is haunted by a warrior on a horse, an illusion to the German spectre Nuckelavee and the Japanese God of Death Shinigami. We even see the return of Odin, Ra and Rama, the three gods who we saw forge the mythological sword from the earlier episode The Birth of Evil. All of the historical context of Jack in this world becomes abundant as we see all the various people he has touched since the start of the series. That Jack has helped to bind all these people in a world that Aku has manipulated to separate them. The fruits of those labors pay off in a big fashion during the series finale, where all these people unite to help Jack in his time of need.

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Then again, Samurai Jack has occasionally had uses of cultural homage that feel cloying. The main example would actually be during this recent season. Jack and Ashi had an interesting relationship that built over the course of the initial seven episodes. One that went from adversarial to respectful. A chemistry built, but one that seemed more based on mutual admiration of skills and independent gumption. Which means a lot in a world ruled by Aku. Unfortunately, the eighth episode of the season turns this into a much more romantic connection. Which in a better built up scenario wouldn’t be much of a problem. However, the entire episode that leads to their romance suddenly blossoming feels so sudden and more for the sake of Tartakovsky making his own little action romantic comedy plot rather than paying off something he failed to build up properly. It’s not a deal breaker for an otherwise brilliant season, but it’s an instance of Tartakovsky’s desire to splice genres getting in the way of making his story seem more effective.

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Since it’s return, Samurai Jack has been accused of cultural misappropriation. That is, the idea of taking from varying cultures in a way that can be seen as disrespectful. Given this is a show about a Japanese samurai created by a Russian man, one can see the initial hesitance. Yet, what makes Samurai Jack as engaging an artistic achievement as it is is a true respect for all the sources it homages. So many different cultures ingrained into its DNA that it stretches beyond what some may argue to be cultural misappropriation. Samurai Jack is an immigrant story from an immigrant’s perspective. A “stranger in a strange land” trying to find his place in the world. Jack as a character has such respect for the people who helped train him. He learns more from them than just how to fight. He learns how to respect others who are different and respect their traditions as much as his own. A concept he carries over into the future. As we all should.

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