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The Force is finally with us 

SKYWALKER: Hayden Christenson.
  • SKYWALKER: Hayden Christenson.
? It took him nearly 28 years, but George Lucas has finally gotten around to telling the story he wanted to tell, the one we wanted to hear all along, and when all is said and done, he managed not to mess it up. In fact, “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” is the second-best of the Star Wars franchise, the new trilogy’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” the only one of its three that actually qualifies as a good film. Lifelong fans approached this film with their faith understandably shaken. Even those of us who could avoid idealizing the original trio and admit that they’re half-full of bad acting and brimming over with bad dialogue stood aghast at the flat, lifeless, garish digital spectacle that was Episodes I and II. They were the CGI fantasy version of a greased pig-catching contest, really: a lot of cheap laughs and cheap thrills, but nothing significantly accomplished. With those two turkeys, Lucas proved it wasn’t his groundbreaking technical work we all loved; that was just the gravy. The real flavor of “Star Wars,” the meat underneath, was an inspiring fairy tale full of adventure and romance and demons and magic and pirates and legend. It aspired to become the Saturday matinee’s answer to the Greek epic, and it managed a fair approximation of that. For all its warts, the original story soared high and carried its audience along with it. Now, finally, Lucas has managed to create new life with some much darker magic. This time we’re here to see what makes a good man embrace what he claims to despise and abandon his selfless ideals in favor of his own lusts. We come to see how thin and blurry is the line between right and wrong. We come to watch the mighty fall. The good news is, Lucas doesn’t disappoint. Much. Yes, there are still the cringe-inducing mistakes we’ve all come to know and try to ignore, from the stupidly named villain General Grievous to the apparent “love” that Anakin Skywalker and his new wife, Padme, keep talking about without ever actually showing us. For all that, though, we have a return to an actual story, something more deeply rooted in the mythos of the “Star Wars” saga. The characters are more complex, the actors seem to have finally decided to loosen up and have fun with their roles, and the Force is once again a central component of the story. Its moral ambiguities, its darker tones, its deceptions and manipulations all come together to create a compelling story of power perverted and democracy crushed under the heel of order. In the rise of the Emperor and the conversion of his new apprentice, we can see the narrow gap between freedom and tyranny. We see the death of one legend and the rise of a new, darker one. We see a good man collapse under the weight of his own weakness and fear, and when he falls, he falls hard. Be ready for the darkest, most disturbing moments of any Lucas film you’ve ever seen. I for one wasn’t certain that Lucas would have the courage to really take us along for Anakin’s rebirth as Vader, but he did, and he spares us not a single gruesome frame. It was one ball he couldn’t afford to drop, and he didn’t. — By Matthew Reed ‘Smart’ guys I’m trying to raise my kid right. With that in mind, I’m keeping my screener copy of “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” to show him when he’s about 15. Full of suicide, ruin and rich sumbitches doing the perp walk, it is to the Greed Is Good Culture what those “Blood on the Highway” films they show in driving school are to reckless driving. Based on the book of the same name by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (who also appear in the film), “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is the story of the rise and fall of Enron, the energy-trading company that was once the seventh-largest corporation in America. Started as a buyer and seller of natural gas in the days after utility deregulation, Enron electrified dot-com-era Wall Street with its ideas on selling everything from kilowatt hours to computer bandwidth. Corporate bigwigs Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were heralded as outright geniuses, featured on the cover of every magazine short of “Tiger Beat.” What no one knew, however, was that the entire corporation, almost from the start, was a sham, relying on a system called “mark to market” accounting that basically allowed them to estimate the profits that might be made from any new idea, and then write down those numbers in the books as if the profit had already been made. What was really a loser thereby became a winner, with Skilling, Lay and the traders on the floor — amoral, Ferrari-driving bastards straight out of 1980s yuppie hell — spiraling down into the kind of crazy hubris heretofore reserved only for Roman emperors. Even as a person who didn’t lose a dime to Enron (well, except as far as my taxes are concerned) hearing the recordings of twenty-something dirtbag traders yukking it up over Enron-created rolling blackouts in California — and the little old ladies dying of heat stroke because they couldn’t afford to pay their electric bill — made me physically ill. Though this could have been the kind of number-heavy morality play that only an Ivy-League economist or a fire and brimstone preacher could love, director Alex Gibney does the harder work of trying to figure out the men behind the scandal. While he doesn’t quite achieve sympathy for folks like Lay and Skilling, he is able to convince us that they are flesh and bone — good ol’ human beings like you and me, gone terribly wrong. In the end, that makes this a more powerful film: the idea that enough money can woo any of us off the path; that it doesn’t take a devil to do the devil’s business. — By David Koon
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