A s Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith brings George Lucas' critic-proof prequel trilogy to his beloved original Star Wars series to a (can I say merciful?) close, one fact has become clear: Lucas doesn't seem to understand what's best about his own work. His constant refrain in the press interviews that have accompanied this current trilogy has been that he had to wait 20 years to make these films because he needed technology to catch up to the movies in his head. He says that film is morphing from a photographic medium to a painterly one and offers up these movies, essentially digital animation with a few human actors, as an introduction to a brave new world.
But if the movies really are becoming a painterly medium, then Lucas himself is more Thomas Kinkade than Van Gogh, and the newfound freedom to convert the ersatz pulp-sci-fi visuals that cloud his brain onto the screen relatively unencumbered has been a detriment to his art. He doesn't seem to realize that the digitized video-game images in this recent trilogy pale in interest to the more low-tech but also more tactile and more creative images of the earlier trilogy. The giant lizard creature that Obi-Wan Kenobi rides in Revenge of the Sith just looks like another CGI monster, less compelling than similar visual achievements not only in the Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings films but even in dragon-slayer "B" movie Reign of Fire.
By contrast, the lumbering, elephantine tanks from The Empire Strikes Back are far more memorable. And though the clacking, coughing proto-Vader General Grievous from Sith is a relative witty CGI creation, he's still less interesting than the guys-in-costumes that populated the earlier trilogy: dopey dog-man Chewbacca or the alien menagerie that peopled the first film's great cantina scene.
On the other hand, one consequence of Lucas' near-total immersion in digital effects is that the most personable characters in Sith tend to be nonhuman, with beloved robot R2-D2 and diminutive Jedi master Yoda flashing more personality than actors such as Samuel Jackson and Jimmy Smits. Among the leads, Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker broods and grimaces and Ian McDiarmid's evil Chancellor Palpatine slithers around, both like performers in the Saturday matinee serials Lucas has paid homage to throughout the series. (Though perhaps Christensen's woodenness works if you take into account that he's playing the father of Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker.) Only Natalie Portman, striving to make something out of nothing as love interest Padme, and Ewan McGregor, bringing game gravitas to Obi-Wan Kenobi, evoke any of the humanity of the original series.
On the plus side, Revenge of the Sith is by far the most satisfying of the prequel trilogy, both for devotees and those who approach this overburdened space opera with more casual interest. There's real narrative pleasure in witnessing Anakin Skywalker's final descent into "the Dark Side" and his rebirth as Darth Vader, the climactic scene a lovably cheesy homage to the "It's alive!" moment from Frankenstein. It may well be that the lasting impact of this trilogy isn't what the films do on their own terms but how the back-story alters repeat viewings of the original trilogy.
Another notable -- and unavoidable -- aspect of Revenge of the Sith is its clear connection to present-day politics, which seems to be a first for Lucas. Palpatine wresting power from the Galactic Senate and turning the Republic into an Empire is compared, in not so subtle ways, to the present power grab by the Bush administration. Palpatine's martial speech to the Senate rhymes with Bush's first address to Congress after 9/11. Padme's reaction: "So this is how liberty dies. To thunderous applause." This aspect of Revenge of the Sith has been ridiculed in some quarters, and with good reason, perhaps. Control-freak Lucas is not the most natural defender of messy democracy, and it's odd for a series of films predicated on a clear-cut, old-fashioned clash of Good and Evil to be chastising the president for thinking in absolute terms. On the other hand, considering that Lucas' audience probably includes an awful lot of pro-Bush Republicans (and, of course, the apolitical), it's an interesting gamble for the toy-movie mogul to take.
As Lucas closes the book on Star Wars, another thing has become clear: At this late stage, the most creative and spirited people involved with the Star Wars phenomenon are probably the films' fans, who bring more verve to the art-fan nexus the series' popularity has fostered than Lucas and his techie minions.
Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a meticulous reconstruction and evaluation of what was then the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history, is something of an unintentional companion piece to one of last year's best films, the documentary The Corporation.
The Corporation made the case that the modern corporation, which has been given the same legal rights as individuals, has the traits of a sociopath. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, adapted from a book by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, acts as something of a case study to test this hypothesis.
During its late-'90s boom, the Texas-based energy trading company was dubbed "America's most innovative company" by Forbes magazine. But Enron -- led by its trio of corporate villains, Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, and founder Ken "Kenny Boy" Lay -- was most innovative in its ability to mask losses, drive up its stock price, and line the pockets of its top-tier executives. Aided by energy deregulation and lax accounting rules, Fastow, Skilling, and Lay were essentially corporate con men.
The film cites the use of "mark-to-market accounting" as the device that fueled Enron's fraud. The practice gave the company the ability to project future profits off of new ideas or ventures and to put those profits on the books immediately, even though, in many cases, those profits never materialized. The result was an appearance of huge profits that didn't actually exist.
In the film, Gibney unearths an in-house video where Skilling spoofs this practice, cackling to a couple of other executives that the next step would be to replace mark-to-market accounting with something Skilling dubs HFV -- hypothetical future value -- in order to bank even more outrageous sums of nonexistent profit. This accounting practice enabled "pump and dump," where the executives pushed the company's stock price up only to dump their own shares for huge sums.
The foot soldiers in this enterprise were Skilling's energy traders, mostly young men who accumulated profit with amoral zeal. In the film, Gibney introduces audio tapes of Enron traders gleefully manipulating the California energy markets as blackouts roll across the state. "There's plenty of power available for the right fuckin' price," one trader hisses.
Essentially, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a corporate disaster film, packed with Titanic references, and the victims are obvious: While Enron's top executives were escaping with multi-million-dollar golden parachutes, the company's bankruptcy led to 20,000 jobs lost and $2 billion in pensions and retirement accounts vanished.
Gibney interviews a Portland electrical lineman whose company was bought out by Enron. At one point, the lineman had $348,000 in his retirement account. When Enron was finished with him, his savings were only $1,200. Gibney also shows company video of Enron executives suggesting that employees invest all of their 401(k) money in Enron stock at the exact moment that the executives themselves were unloading their shares.
But Enron's top executives weren't the only culprits in this story. Gibney spreads the blame, citing the government, banks, consultants, analysts, and journalists as enablers. Author and former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips calls the cozy connection between Enron and the Bush family (the company was the single biggest financial supporter of Bush's 2000 campaign) "the most important major relationship between a presidential family and single corporation in American history."