…and the best film of 2015 is….

I’m rather torn on this one. On the one hand, the biggest film of the year (The Force Awakens) turned out to be a flawed, ‘safe’ reboot/continuation of the beloved Star Wars saga that didn’t deliver everything it promised, and the years perhaps most audacious film, Mad Max: Fury Road, was a veritable tour de force and more daring than I could have possibly hoped. And yet my best film of 2015 is neither of them. Instead, it’s…

mi5

 yes Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, something I would never have believed twelve months ago. Somehow I find it hard to believe even now. Indeed, many of you are probably thinking I’ve had too much to drink over the holidays. Somehow though it is indeed my favourite film of the year. Its just one of those films that simply delivers- it is what it is; a daft spy caper with lots of high-octane thrills, quite a few laughs and a great cast. It can be argued that it is the film Spectre should have been, and it does share many themes and plot devices with that Bond entry (so much so that it rather stole Bond’s thunder, what with its central hero going rogue in order to uncover the existence of a shadowy super-criminal organisation). While Spectre was generally grim and moody with at least a passing nod to realism, Rogue Nation is wildly over the top fun and great entertainment because of it. I recently watched Rogue Nation again following its Blu-ray release and yes, it was huge fun all over again. High art it isn’t, and neither is it sophisticated or thoughtful, but it is a much better film than it possibly has a right to be. The script is tight with plenty of twists and turns, the cast is terrific (particularly Rebecca Ferguson), the stunts are fantastic and the direction by Christopher McQuarrie (who is, thank goodness, returning for the next film) is a genuine marvel. Even Tom Cruise outdoes himself. Frankly, it blew me away and it really surprised me how much I enjoyed it. It delivers from start to finish everything you’d expect from a Mission Impossible film, leaving me eagerly anticipating the next in the series.

 

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Logans Run’s George Clayton Johnson has died

lr1I’ve read today of the death of George Clayton Johnson, who passed away on Christmas Day aged 86. Johnson was the co-author of the 1967 novel Logans Run, which will be remembered by any geek who grew up in the 1970s due to the MGM film, the Marvel comic and short-lived tv series that were all inspired by it. It was the last major sci-fi property prior to Star Wars the following summer, and the film is a fascinating insight into how much sci fi changed when Star Wars arrived (these days the film is most famous for its fine Jerry Goldsmith score- Goldsmith had a talent for writing superb scores to lesser films).

lt2I didn’t see the Logans Run film itself until years later (although as I recall, plenty of footage from it was used in the pilot episode of the tv show) but I read the original novel (re-released with the films gorgeous poster art) and enjoyed the comic adaptation (its brilliant how they turned the film into an action title- typical 70s Marvel).

The film was a big budget, high profile production but looks so old and inferior to Lucas’ film, its like something from some other decade rather than the year before. The film bore little resemblance to the original book- I recall reading the book and being curious at how much the Marvel comic deviated from it, but of course the comic was based on the film which had itself changed so much of the story. In the novel ‘lastday’ was reached at the age of 21, while in the film it was age 30: this was likely amended to enable casting older, more seasoned/tested leads but in this day and age of ever-younger leads targeting ever-younger demographics I could see the ‘proper’ age of 21 being adopted in any future film version.

Johnson earlier wrote several episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone series; these would include some of the shows most successful tales, perhaps most notably the episode ‘Kick the Can’ which was later adopted as a segment directed by Steven Spielberg for the big-screen Twilight Zone Movie in 1983. The Twilight Zone led to further work in television, including an episode of the original Star Trek series (‘The Man Trap’– not one the show’s finest hours but it does have the distinction of being the first episode broadcast).

 

Spoiler-Free Force Awakens Review

fa1I’ll give it a little while before I launch into a ‘proper’ review of A Force Awakens, but here’s my thoughts about the film, spoiler-free…

While I enjoyed the film, my fears were realised, sadly. Positives were the new, young cast (particularly Daisy Ridley who was amazing and stole the film), and a generally successful Star Wars ‘feel’. Indeed this rather surprised me, as I expected the returning cast from the Original Trilogy would steal the show but they don’t. Regards negatives, the main one for me was the script, which really was just fan fiction, a sort of Star Wars Greatest Hits, with all sorts of implausible coincidences that piled up and increasingly irritated me. I sense the hand of JJ Abrams in this, as his Star Trek reboot had similar failings. Its like these new film-makers think that if they keep up a relentless pace and feel-good factor, audiences will just mindlessly accept all sorts of implausible tosh.

I do suspect all the hype and praise this film is getting in reviews is based on the overwhelming sense of relief from people that its not as bad as the prequels, and that there may be a reappraisal when they see it again on Blu-ray and the plot-holes start to surface. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll warm to it a bit more over time. I do think its a good Star Wars film, but its not quite up there with the Original Trilogy (it does certainly give Jedi a run for its money).

So yeah, pretty good. If I was giving it stars out of five, it’d be a solid 3.5. There’s just something irresistible about seeing all that iconic imagery again and at times it is quite clever and sophisticated in how it depicts that imagery (one shot of a felled AT-AT in the dunes is lovely). I do hope better films lie ahead though. My one fear is that the success of this film will make Disney and Lucasfilm think they can just carry on with the Star Wars Greatest Hits thing rather than give us something genuinely new. Time will see.

 

Revisiting ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

empire1The Empire Strikes Back is, for me,  the best and bravest of all the Star Wars films (so far, anyway- and isn’t it strange yet so nice to add that little caveat?). It seems to me to encapsulate what the Star Wars films/saga should have been. Its the one that still melts my heart and makes me feel like a teenager. Its Star Wars but its somehow not a kids movie, it’s a grown-up film, it is bigger and darker and feels more real. It’s witty, it’s emotional, its audacious, it’s accomplished. It isn’t a remake; Lucas doesn’t come up with a Death Star 2 and rehash the ending of Star Wars, its something new, a continuation. It moves the overall arc of the saga forward and teases a bigger world, introducing new characters and dynamics, suggesting things that, frankly, Return of the Jedi later ignored or simply slammed the door shut on.

Return of the Jedi, it feels like the elephant in the room when one talks about Empire. I know some prefer it; some love it. But to me it always seemed to ignore so many of the lessons of Empire, ignore what Empire did so right.  I can’t bear to think about what Jedi could have been, indeed should been had it followed the model of Empire. Lucas evidently got tired of his fantasy opus (or more likely intimidated/scared by it as it mushroomed into the huge global cultural icon it increasingly became) and decided to call it a day and close out the plot threads and be done with it. As I got older I later began to sympathise with how Lucas must have felt at the time (the Star Wars saga simply taking over his life and him wanting that life back) but I well remember the genuine feeling of betrayal I felt back when I saw Jedi and read that Lucas wasn’t intending to make any more Star Wars films.

The irony of course is that after Empire, perhaps he should have just done that- stepped away and let others carry the films forward, in a similar fashion to how Disney have now moved on with it without him. I guess he didn’t feeling willing or able to do that, or maybe the businessman in him knew it was to much to lose or risk ruining in other hands. But anyway, back to Empire

empire3Just imagine the pressure. It is 1978, and Star Wars is the biggest film ever. Not just the biggest box-office hit but this huge cultural event, worldwide. Beyond all the merchandising, Star Wars and its dialogue and characters has somehow become part of everyday discourse, quoted in media and in newspaper cartoons and television programmes… Avatar may be top of the box-office now, but it never became part of everyday culture like Star Wars did. Few people wore Avatar t-shirts or quoted its dialogue even during that films release, and it could well be argued that that films biggest legacy is nothing in the film itself, more its use of 3D. Few people could name any Avatar character, but it seemed everyone in 1977-1978, even those few who hadn’t even seen the film,  could name Darth Vader or Han Solo or R2 D2.

So imagine making a sequel. Imagine having to meet the expectation, on an artistic and popular level, to match Star Wars. I think with Empire Lucas and his colleagues met that expectation and more. You can sense the effort in everything you see, everything you hear, everything is taken to some other level. For all its obvious achievements, the 1977 Star Wars often seems self-conscious at times, the tone a little off, some of the cast and crew clearly a little uncomfortable about what they are doing-  some of the dialogue delivered as cheesily as it perhaps merits and it is obviously pushing the technical envelope as far as it can, the effects teams learning their craft as they go along. Empire is simply more confident, technically more audacious, visually more breathtaking, while at the same time usurping the usual dynamics of a film, placing its major climax (the Battle of Hoth) early in the film and then closing the film with something of a cliffhanger after hitting the audience with a major revelation that turned around everything we’d seen before.

empire2Just think where films were with effects and everything back in the late seventies, and imagine the sheer ambition of the Battle of Hoth. Giant walkers striding across the snowy plains, the snow-speeders, the Tauntauns… its not like nowadays when everything is pretty much possible, just a matter of CGI trickery. Think something up now and some young guy with a mouse and keyboard can create it if given enough time. The guys back then had to craft it with their hands; had to somehow get decent mattes with bluescreen photography to generate composites over a white background (a big no-no), with miniatures shot in stop-motion projected up onto the big cinema screen. And then they had to composite complex passes using the optical printers of the day for the chase through the asteroid field, create the swamps of Dagobah on a soundstage and bring a small puppet to life for a central character named Yoda. It’s so brave. It’s such genius stuff, a level of creativity beyond Star Wars that Jedi three years later didn’t match. Sometimes I think films just get made at the right time, with the right people in front and behind the camera. I think thats the case with Empire just as it was with Blade Runner a few years later, only with Empire you clearly had them rising to the challenge of making a sequel to the biggest film on the planet. Jack Lemmon used to have a saying about acting, about magic time. Empire was, well, magic time.

If only that ambition had continued through to Jedi. In a perfect world, the follow-up to Empire would have been an adventure just about rescuing Han Solo, chasing Bobba Fett and thwarting Jabba the Hut, while continuing Luke Skywalker’s arc, training him to be a Jedi and developing the ramifications of Empires climactic revelation about the Skywalker family. I don’t think it should have ever been considered a trilogy- the whole Emperor/Death Star 2 thing should have been a whole fourth (Episode 7) movie for me. Somehow Jedi feels tired, forced. The magic is gone somehow. It sort of reminds me of how Gene Roddenberry seemed to lose interest in the original Star Trek by its third season, walking away from it and ensuring it was the weakest and last.

But with Empire you’ve got Lucas with something to prove. Star Wars wasn’t a one-off. Infact it wasn’t as good as everyone was saying, Lucas could do better. His team could do bigger, better.  And Empire was. It was pretty much perfect. The performances were better, the photography more beautiful, the scale and complexity just a whole other level, the John Williams score just sublime. Everything just seemed to come together. Alas it wouldn’t ever again. Well, not up to now, anyway.

I don’t expect The Force Awakens to be as good as Empire. I think the day a Star Wars film could be as good as Empire are long gone. Films have changed so much now. Films are too big, too fast-paced, to ever match what Empire was.  I only hope the new film and those after, follow the model of Empire, suggesting a bigger and more complex saga, with more exotic characters, more exotic places. We’ll see pretty soon. Well, I guess some of you reading this already have. I see the new film tomorrow. A new Star Wars film! Weird. But however it turns out (and I have my doubts about the film), we’ll always have Empire.