Eyes Wide Shut - Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman

July 16, 1999.

That was the last day of my eighteenth year and the first day Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was released into the world. As an eighteen-year-old kid obsessed with film still devastated by the loss of Kubrick just a few months prior, I was dying to see this film. I’d hardly seen anything in the theatre but The Phantom Menace since its release in May, so this was going to be a refreshing change of pace. 

Naturally, Eyes Wide Shut deals with themes that an eighteen-year-old kid ought to have very little frame of reference for. Jealousy was an abstract that I understood, but the intimate moments in a relationship recreated in the film were as much film fantasy as Star Wars was to me. I’d never been in a serious relationship to that point and the art of Eyes Wide Shut would help inform my understanding more than I would be able to decode anything from it.

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(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: The classic adventure film The Adventures of Robin Hood.)

In The Making of Star Wars, Martin Scorsese talked about George Lucas and his work on Star Wars. “I remember George was writing Star Wars at the time. He had all these books with him, like Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, and he was envisioning this fantasy epic. He did explain that he wanted to tap into the collective unconscious of fairy tales. And he screened certain movies, like…Michael Curtiz’s Robin Hood [1938].”

Revisiting the classic film and thinking about it in the context of Star Wars, it’s no wonder George Lucas would have been screening it during the lead-up to the making of his original groundbreaking film. The film is, perhaps, the first, best distillation of the Robin Hood myths and the set the tone for all future iterations of the character. This codified the myth into the popular culture and was one of the highest grossing films of 1938. Interestingly enough, James Cagney was originally cast to play the titular character before walking off the set. He was replaced by relative newcomer Errol Flynn. It was Flynn’s casting that really defined the movie for generations and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role, let alone Cagney.

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Dracula and Frankenstein

In 1992, when Francis Ford Coppola released Bram Stoker’s Dracula, his tragically romantic take on the gothic horror story was well-liked enough. Audiences responded to what Roger Ebert called the “feverish excess” of the film. It’s a film that takes the classic vampire tropes that we expect and examines them through two lenses: one of gothic romance and another that hews closer to the original source material than we’d ever really seen before.

After Dracula, Coppola was interested in directing what became Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but settled on producing it, bringing in Kenneth Branagh to direct the material in a way that only he could. Audiences and critics at the time rebelled against this vision of the classic tale of the modern Prometheus, but taken together as a double feature, I think these movies elevate each other into something that was impossible to see upon their release almost 30 years ago. 

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Walt Disney

Naturally, there are spoilers ahead.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the ninth (or tenth?) film from Quentin Tarantino. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a has-been Western actor named Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as his stunt-double and driver, Cliff Booth. Together, they traverse the world of Hollywood in 1969 and its changing landscape. Many look to 1969 as a turning point in the old Hollywood system for a lot of reasons. It straddled the line between the old way and the new way, often drastically. 1969 saw the release of both Hello, Dolly! made by the establishment and Easy Rider, a film made by the next generation trying to find their way in a world gone mad. Then, of course, was the murder of Sharon Tate and co., a gruesome punctuation mark at the end of the era.

But Tarantino doesn’t follow this text to the letter. In fact, he makes some big changes to the narrative. He pulls a Walt Disney.

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Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’ iconic universe. In this edition: The classic Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress.)

When people talk about the cinematic influences of Star Wars, the first movie that will come out of most mouths will be Flash Gordon. The second, though, is almost always Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 classic The Hidden Fortress. This film tells the tale of Japanese peasants trying to escape a war between provinces and find themselves aiding a general and a princess on the run. Although there are lines and shots lifted straight out of The Hidden Fortress that made their way into A New Hope, legend grew about how influential it really was to the first Star Wars films. I find the more interesting parallels come out in the prequels. The film is undoubtedly one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, a breathless adventure film fused with heart and humor. It was also his first to be shot in an anamorphic format, ushering in an all new look for his films moving forward. And, although George Lucas undersells the influence on Star Wars, there’s no denying that its impact was indelible.

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(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: The classic war film 12 O’Clock High.)

1949’s 12 O’Clock High is a seminal war film. Made in the late ’40s while the wounds of World War II were still fresh, it tells the story of a beleaguered American bomber wing suffering from morale and leadership issues. Gregory Peck plays General Frank Savage, a man sent in to reform the bomber wing and make them a force feared by the Germans who they seek to bomb into oblivion. The film was notable for the empathy at which it approached the subject matter of pilots dealing with trauma. For a film made in the ‘40s, that alone made it a radical concept.

It’s a remarkable film that gets into the head of the bombers and the leadership skills needed to motivate a group of people to fly, day after day, out to their deaths.

In the lead-up to The Last Jedi, this was a chief influence commonly cited by Rian Johnson. This was one of the films he screened for his cast and crew during pre-production and production, and it’s easy to see how it would have influenced the eighth episode of the Skywalker saga. It would be easy to point to it as an influence for A New Hope as well.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker speculation, and therefore possible spoilers, lie ahead.

In the newly released trailer for The Rise of Skywalker, we hear a familiar laugh. Sheev Palpatine. And was that the second Death Star? How could something like this happen? How is this even possible?

Well, we’ve compiled all the scenarios, from least likely to most likely, just so you have the analysis you need.

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In the ‘60s, the author Kurt Vonnegut spoke about what he called the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. In a speech to American Physical Society, he said, “This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”

It’s a useful prism to think about art that tries to tell us something and something I thought of often as I watched Jordan Peele’s Us. Us is a movie with a lot to say. I wouldn’t dare to presume that I knew what it was trying to say, or what underlying lesson Peele wanted me to learn for certain, but I can tell you what it told me. If you’re reading this, I can presume you’ve seen Us. You know that it’s about a world of shadowy “tethers” who are linked to us down below. You know that these reflections of us have nothing and are down below for reasons we can’t begin to fathom. You know that the only thing these reflections want, at least one of them in particular, is a better life for themselves. When you throw in a healthy dose of horror and film’s final twist, you have something that’s equal parts Twilight Zone and Mark Twain.

Spoilers for Us lie ahead.

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(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: Buster Keaton’s The Navigator.)

Buster Keaton’s 1924 film The Navigator isn’t spoken of as often or as lovingly as the much more known The General from 1926, but it was the biggest hit of his career. It tells the story of a foppish young aristocrat accustomed to having servants tend to his every whim suddenly find himself (and the equally well-to-do love of his life) on a cruise ship adrift at sea. The two elites have to learn to fend for themselves through a series of hilarious antics. On the surface, one could watch this film and Star Wars may well never cross your mind, but it feels apparent that this Buster Keaton classic had a significant influence on The Phantom Menace.

Star Wars creator George Lucas went back to the well of silent film for inspiration when working on the prequels, which makes sense. If the classic trilogy was patterned after the cheap serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, why wouldn’t one go back to the silent films of the ‘10s and ‘20s? It’s the same reason The Phantom Menace is dripping in art deco design that precedes the industrial war look of World War II that was common to the classic trilogy. He set the clock back a generation to create films that fit in the timeline of Star Wars while still being cohesive in design.

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alita battle angel clips

Alita: Battle Angel is the latest action extravaganza from two of our most auteur-like blockbuster directors working: Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron. Cameron served as a producer, but has spent over a decade trying to get the film off the ground on his own. It was originally announced in 2003 but production of Avatar kept Cameron from committing to the project, in addition to other development issues. In 2016, Robert Rodriguez was brought on as a director and the film finally got made.

Based on a ‘90s manga series by Yukito Kishiro called Gunnm in Japan and Battle Angel Alita here in the US, the theatrical Alita: Battle Angel is a marvel of technology, offering rich visuals and kinetic action that is beyond fun to watch.

I think the merit in this film isn’t necessarily with the story and script, which is serviceable, if not bloated. And it only feels bloated in order to tee up a sequel I wonder if we’ll ever get. No, the merit in this film is spectacle.

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