Baby Driver

baby.jpgGeorge Lucas is naturally best-renowned for the impact that Star Wars had on the film industry back in 1977, but thats ignoring the pioneering use of source music in his earlier film American Graffiti– the end-to-end parade of rock and roll songs played on the radio formed an evocative and groundbreaking soundtrack/soundscape through the film that revolutionised the subsequent use of source music in film-making.

So I found myself thinking of American Graffiti whilst watching Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. The use of source music -updated from radio airplay to ipod/smartphone mp3 streaming, naturally- is as integral a part of what Baby Driver ‘is’ as much as the music was in Graffiti. Indeed, what gives Baby Driver its own identity is that its taken it one step further, with the performances and editing timed specifically to the beats of that infectious soundtrack of songs. In some ways it seems almost a much a musical as, say, La La Land.

So whilst it owes so much to a film from decades past it also comes across as being refreshingly original, and excitingly new. Perhaps it’s just a natural progression of how source music has become such an integral part of film over the years since Graffiti, particularly in how some sequences in films often seem to be pop videos in how they are shot , edited and soundtracked with pop songs. The clever conceit of Baby Driver is in how the central character needs the songs in order to function as the titular driver of the film, his skill for driving and spectacular stunts behind the wheel wholly dependant on the flow and beat of whatever he is listening to. Its almost genius in its execution.

baby2The fact that there is actually an involving and thrilling film independent of those frenetic chases is the biggest and most welcome surprise of the film. Indeed, the actual screen time of those car chases is surprisingly small regards the whole.

Alden Ehrenreich must offer something pretty special as Disney’s new Han Solo in his year’s Star Wars anthology movie, because Baby Driver is surely Ansel Elgort’s 2-hour statement for being the best young Solo that we’ll never see. He offers a vulnerability and charm that so often brings to mind a young Harrison Ford/Han Solo that its almost irresistible- intensified perhaps by his costume design in this film, practically wearing Solo’s Star Wars wardrobe like some cosplay nut. No doubt this was a deliberate ploy by Edgar Wright, Baby so obviously evoking the Han Solo look and the sense that Baby and his cars is like Solo and his Millenium Falcon. I recall back in 1977 the sense that the Falcon was like a hotrod in the stars- a novel thing back then so pedantic now. Wright must have been so aware of that when writing/shooting this film.

Isn’t it weird to be referencing old George Lucas films so much when discussing this film? It’s almost as if this film is a love-letter to Lucas, and makes me sadly reflect on how great a film-maker the 1970s George Lucas was (lets not forget the ingenious sound design of THX 1138 or the fact that the 1970s Lucas also cemented the Star Wars saga making The Empire Strikes Back and the creation of the matinee-throwback heroics of Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Is Baby Driver the last hurrah for Kevin Spacey in a mainstream Hollywood movie? I suppose only time will tell but this film is a welcome reminder of how great he is as an onscreen bastard (his offscreen credentials in that regard seems to have nixed his future career somewhat). His charisma and coldness here forms a fulcrum for the film; so much seems to revolve around him and he is so convincing it makes me a little sad that we will lose some great future performances/films re: his probable absence from film-making in future. That’s purely a selfish consideration as a fan of film though rather than any moral judgement on what the actor himself deserves- we’ll just have to see how all that plays out in future.

So soon after enjoying her performance in Cinderella, Lily James appears here as Baby’s love-interest, the charming if rather under-written Deborah. At least the two actors share some convincing screen chemistry,  the lovestruck youngsters evoking a clean cut version of True Romance‘s Clarence and Alabama (Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette). Who would have thought when watching Downtown Abbey that she, in particular, would be the performer whose star would subsequently rise in film?

Anyway, Baby Driver was a surprising blast- great to look at and listen to and a pleasure beyond its car chases and stunts. The clever conceit and importance of its music was exciting and at least felt original and new, which can’t be underestimated in this era of ‘me-too’ cgi blockbusters and superhero flicks.  And while I’d love to see where Wright could take the characters and that conceit with a Baby Driver 2, it’s so nice that the film feels so self-contained and wrapped-up, a new film that feels wholly of its own that doesn’t depend upon or tease a sequel or franchise.



The Princess Diarist

carrie1Anyone looking to learn any real details/minutiae of the filming of the original Star Wars trilogy are likely to be somewhat disappointed by this book. “I don’t remember much about things like the order we shot scenes in or who I got to know first. Nor did anyone mention that one day I would be called upon to remember any of this long-ago experience,” Carrie writes, warning Star Wars fans to manage their expectations before dropping the Carrison bombshell. The bitter truth is that she was writing this book some forty years after the event, and in 1976 she was just nineteen years old and Star Wars was just another movie, really. Important to her career and a lucky break, but hardly the phenomenon it would later become upon release.

So anyone looking for anything as in-depth or fascinating as Bob Balaban’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary should look elsewhere or regauge their expectations. The actual section reprinting her diary from the time is pretty dim, juvenile nineteen-year old girl stuff, random thoughts and poetry full of doubts and emotions about her affair with Harrison Ford and nothing at all concerned with her actual on-set experiences. The remainder (and majority) of the book is a sort of contemporary rambling rumination looking back, at the few things she really can remember, which is pleasant and informative at times, but its all written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ manner.  Like a rambling conversation, shifting around and running off into all sorts of odd corners of whatever was occurring to her as she wrote it. Its annoying and fun and endearing and and enlightening and empty-headed too at times.

A poignant fact that I didn’t realise before, was that she was good freinds with Miguel Ferrer and that it was Miguel who she called up to read the Star Wars script with her so she could rehearse lines for her audition. Imagine my surprise reading this, knowing that only recently both had passed away, within weeks of each other, Carrie in December and Miguel in January. I tried to imagine both of them forty years before, sitting in Carrie’s bedroom rehearsing lines from Star Wars, whole lives and many films ahead of each of them, and the awful odds of both of them dying within weeks of each other all those decades later. Hollywood is a small world, I guess.

Everyone, of course, must know by now of this book’s major revelation, and what likely got sales of the book going (at least until she passed away so suddenly), which was her affair with Harrison Ford during the shooting of Star Wars. A secret both had kept for the all the years since, Carrie decided it was time to let it into the open at last- if only perhaps to justify the book itself, considering how scant other details are of the shooting of the movie. It probably doesn’t cast Harrison in too good a light; an actor in his mid-thirties leaving a wife and two sons back home to shoot a weird sci-fi film abroad, having an affair with his nineteen-year-old co-star. Maybe this sort of thing happens frequently on-set, I don’t know, but it doesn’t really seem to gel with the Harrison Ford portrayed to the public over the decades. Carrie seems to know, even in 1976, that its just an on-set affair to Harrison and nothing serious, him being emotionally detached even if, as her diaries attest, she was quite smitten. At one point Harrison seems quite horrified when it dawns on him that she isn’t really the confident and experienced young woman she pretends to be in her public persona, although at that point it’s too late. In anycase, once filming was over Harrison returned home to his family and the affair was over.

To be honest, that stuff doesn’t interest me, other than the insight into how the two of them would meet in a pub to continue their affair and be totally unknown to anyone else there. Its weird, looking back on a time when Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were just ordinary people unknown to anyone.

The most interesting parts of the book are when she discusses living with Star Wars and its fans for all the decades after 1976. Its an enlightening glimpse of what she and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford (and yes, George Lucas, too) would go through for the rest of their lives, and is quite cautionary. The strangeness of being subject to so much adoration and fascination, of being caught up in the cultural phenomenon that was Star Wars and it’s almost religious stature amongst fans; “…this little movie leaked out of the theatre, poured off the screen, affected some people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected with it”, she writes. They played with dolls of her, watched and rewatched that same movie over and over. Cued up for hours, decades later, to have photos autographed by her, names kids after her. She would be famous for playing Princes Leia for the rest of her life, becoming a cultural icon, bad hair-do and all. That summer of 1976 shooting Star Wars in London would forever alter everything afterwards- how ironic that that nineteen-year old girl would be so totally fixated in her diaries on her conflicted emotions regards her affair with her co-star, as if that film was secondary. It was secondary, it was ‘just’ a movie, after all.  It just sneaked up on her afterwards when it became ‘Star Wars’ and changed everything.

So its a slight, mildly diverting read. Yes, its disappointing that it lacks any real details but it does serve, in an odd way, in giving a sense of perspective to things. To those of us who grew up with it, Star Wars was an important and sensational part of our lives. But for those who made it, well, it clearly wasn’t such a big deal and they had no idea what was coming, and it’s interesting to read how Carrie Fisher, at least, tried to deal with it afterwards. It’s a curious insight regards her relationship with that level of fame and the fans and indication for what it must have been like for those others caught up in it.



1941 (1979)

1941a2016.52: 1941 -Extended Cut (Blu-ray)

1941 isn’t bad. Its terrible. This extended cut is no improvement either- there’s  146 mins of badness compared to the theatrical version’s 119, so there’s just even more bad movie, which of course cannot possibly be a Good Thing unless you are, inexplicably, a fan of this film. There are fans of this film, right? There must be (every film has its fans, after all), but I’m certainly not one of them. 1941 is supposed to be a comedy, and it isn’t even funny. Thats some kind of crime, surely.

Every great director has a bad movie inside of them and I guess this was Spielbergs- maybe there’s a few other films of his that might contend for this dubious accolade but I can’t really think of one, unless maybe the excesses of Hook or the romantic schmaltz of Always gets your blood boiling.  For me I think 1941, the whole misguided, badly-executed mess of it, is Spielberg’s Folly, just like George Lucas’ Howard The Duck a few years later. Films that… well, the idea of them is interesting but the execution is sadly pretty woeful and dire.

You wonder why some great ideas for films never get made and turkeys like these do instead, but at the time its all about the clout of the director- and after Jaws and CE3K, Spielberg was on a roll and he could have gotten a documentary on Kleenex greenlit. So 1941 was made.

I’d love to have been on-set during filming. What on earth made the cast and crew think that shooting guns and yelling loudly amid big explosions constituted the very heights of cinematic humour? I mean, thats about all that 1941 is- blazing guns and huge explosions, and Japanese soldiers disguised as Christmas trees. The prologue’s nod to Jaws is nice of course but its all downhill from there. John Belushi’s Capt. Wild Bill Kelso is just plain nauseating, strutting around onscreen as if he is somehow funny rather than just plain irritating, and the film wastes huge impressive sets and a fine 1970s cast, and -worse- a vintage John Williams score completely.

Sure, the dance hall set-piece is technically impressive but Spielberg would do all that so much better -and funnier- in the prologue of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. That latter observation is telling, because the one good thing about 1941 is that it apparently educated Spielberg, made him a better (and more frugal) director. Its likely we owe 1941 that at least. But thats about all, frankly.

I bought this damn thing on disc (cheap, mind). But yeah, I bought it. Makes ET look like Shakespeare or something…


Cinefantastique, July-August 1982

I’ve waxed lyrical before about the old film magazines I used to buy as a teen – Fantastic Films, Starburst, Starlog etc- and how things have changed so much in the internet age. We have so much information now, and of course docs and commentaries on discs, that some of the mystery of movies has been lost somewhat. Film mags were like little glimpses into a hidden world. I’d pore over photographs and read interviews and look at pre-production art (the paintings of the late Ralph McQuarrie for Star Wars was likely my first experience of that). I loved reading all that stuff every month, read them, then re-read them. I’ve kept most of my old mags and many of them are stored up in the loft out of casual reach but some are handy and I sometimes get them out for a read. The news articles are glimpses of the publishing date and what was going on, the reviews sometimes funny in hindsight, sometimes perceptive, but always the behind the scenes stuff is priceless, even now.

20160528_164507-1So anyway, I picked up an issue of Cinefantastique to read, the double-issue of Blade Runner and Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. Reading the article about Blade Runner really took me back. That film was so big, so mysterious and magical to me back then. It is so odd to read interviews likely taken in 1981 talking about creating this incredible world of 2019 that must have seemed so long away at the time, and here we are now, with it just around the corner.

It was quite intense though, re-reading this article from 1982; I was experiencing the same old-forgotten feelings of awe and wonder I used to feel about Blade Runner back then.  Feelings triggered by the spread above or the one below that featured a Syd Mead painting that was printed everywhere at the time but always fascinated me.

I used to stare at it; the colours, the design-work… all that ambition and work that went into that film. The detail and layering that Ridley Scott employed- its rather usual now, as films are now more sophisticated generally than they were back then, certainly regards art-direction. People seem to forget how ground-breaking and important Ridley Scott’s work on Alien and Blade Runner was, how much that has impacted everything we see today- it wasn’t just how ‘pretty’ the photography and imagery was, it was all that layering and detail. It looked so real.

20160528_164528The Cinefantastique article, like the Cinefex one about the films effects, was a goldmine of imagery and information about this incredibly powerful film (it remains my most intense experience at the cinema) that somehow, at the time, was so quickly forgotten when it had failed at the box office.

All the books that would be written when the film was eventually reappraised were years away back then (though I have always wondered why no-one ever produced, in the long years since, a definitive ‘Art-Of’ book for Blade Runner). I used to re-read these same articles over and over in the years before any of that happened. Naturally as the years have passed,  some of the interviewed people are no longer with us, but it’s interesting too to see on-set photos Ridley Scott at work (he looks so young!) and read his comments and know how his career later progressed. He was intending to keep on making these incredible genre films back then, but the failure of Blade Runner and Legend put paid to that. I remember though, back at the time, reading this stuff- imagine, Ridley Scott following up Alien and Blade Runner with other ‘adult’ genre films, and George Lucas still busy with the Star Wars films (it wasn’t a Trilogy back then, we thought there would be several of them), Spielberg making genre films like CE3K, Raiders, ET… what an amazing time that was, some kind of Golden Age or something, I was just too young to really ‘get’ it.


As an aside, regards these magazines being time-capsules of when they were printed, this issue of Cinefantastique also featured articles on Fire & Ice (Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature he did with Frank Frazetta), Something Wicked This Way Comes (prior to all its release/re-edit problems), Videodrome, the original Hawk’s The Thing, and a spread of McQuarrie paintings from a film still titled Revenge of the Jedi. Short features on upcoming films like Xtro, Brainstorm. Poltergeist, Firefox, Greystoke are a reminder of what else was going on and what would be future VHS rentals. They were good times indeed.

I mentioned this issue also featured Wrath of Khan– here’s a photograph from that issue that really got me excited when first reading it. The effects boys at ILM uncrating the Enterprise miniature from Star Trek: TMP prior to shooting Khan’s effects. God, that kind of stuff really blew me away back then- I mean, this isn’t just a model- this is the bloody Enterprise. Its funny considering the access to so much behind the scenes stuff we have with special features on discs and the internet now, but things like this photograph were mind-blowing back then.



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.

Revisiting ‘Star Wars’ (1977/1997)

sw-1With Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens coming up, I’ve decided to try and watch the Original Trilogy over the next few weeks. Partly to properly ‘prepare’ for the new film like every Star Wars geek must be doing over the next few weeks, partly because…

Well, its Alien and Prometheus all over again isn’t it? For good or ill, after SW7 hits, watching the original characters in the first trilogy just won’t be the same again. Its hard to watch Alien now without dwelling on the knowledge that the Space Jockey is just a bald giant in a space suit and the Nostromo crew weren’t (apparently) the first humans to explore the derelict. Likewise whenever we next watch the original films in 2016 and later, it’ll be in the knowledge of what comes after, what became of our heroes and the Empire etc. In a sense its exciting, but it’s also rather scary. I doubt that SW7 will be a disaster, but for so many decades now, we’ve all had our dreams of what follows Jedi.. will the ‘reality’ of a whole new series of movies measure up? Likewise, prequels featuring the theft of the Death Star plans and adventures of a young Han Solo… how much will these impact on our enjoyment of the Original Trilogy (as if Jake Lloyd being the origin of Darth Vader wasn’t bad enough)?

So anyway, before all that nonsense inflicts further damage on my childhood love affair with Star Wars, I shoved the Blu ray disc into my player and settled down for one more trip down the Death Star trench…

The thing that bugs me about watching Star Wars these days -and I do so rarely, this occasion being the first time in quite a few years- is that when I’m watching it, it doesn’t feel like Star Wars. At least, not the film I remember from when I was a kid in 1978 (to paraphrase the film itself, I hear Obi-Wan intoning “this is NOT the film you have been looking for…”). Of course what we watch now is the 1997 Special Edition… well, that plus whatever changes were made when the film got released on Blu-ray a few years back. The Star Wars I fell in love with, warts and matte lines and all, well, thats up in the loft somewhere on VHS tape; the Star Wars I have on DVD and Blu-ray is something else entirely.

sw1But that’s a gripe we’re all bored of by now so I won’t dwell on it. If the Force is with us (sorry) Disney will eventually release those original editions of Star Wars, Empire and Jedi – there’s been plenty of rumours circulating over the past few years, indeed, it now just seems a matter of when rather than if. I wonder if, when it eventually comes, it’ll be a case of be careful what you wish for? I’m sure those of us of a certain age who grew up with the originals will greet them with wild applause, but I do wonder if younger generations will moan at the dodgy effects and miss the fancy cgi shots.

Funny thing is, three things crossed my mind watching Star Wars again. First, Lucas really didn’t have a lot of coverage when he finished filming. You can see that only careful editing saved some sequences. I spotted a Stormtrooper dead on the floor one moment and up shooting back at Luke and Leia the next, and several shots extended by fast cuts to and fro (a Stormtrooper taking forever to fall over during the Falcon’s escape from Tatooine), and careful editing of the same life-size X-Wing taking off several times to give the impression of a fleet of them. I can imagine Lucas and his editors trying to make sequences work with the barest minimum of shots. Trying to make some of the space battles make sense must have been a huge headache. It’s a potent reminder of the difficulties making the film, that the cast and crew were making it up as they went along, that it really was the first of its kind, almost a prototype Star Wars. The leap in sophistication between Star Wars and Empire is huge.

sw3Second, well, frankly, what brass balls Lucas had to even attempt it. Watching Star Wars this time, I was so aware of how ahead of its time it was, how much of a leap of faith it must have been. Its so silly really, all that Force mumbo-jumbo, robots and aliens, a captive princess in white and a big bad guy in black armour. Of course as a kid I lapped it up, it made perfect sense for someone growing up on Marvel comics, but to world-weary adults, particularly in the fairly grim 1970s it must have seemed absolutely nuts making it. How many times did Lucas doubt what he was doing would ever work? Even the simplest thing, giving character to R2 D2 and C-3PO, one a robot that beeps and the other an English guy in a gold suit. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Lucas has come under so much criticism over the years, what with the prequels and special editions and everything (if SW7 is bad, imagine the ire Lucas will get for ‘selling out’ to Disney’s Evil Empire) but it has to be said, the guy was something of a genius with Star Wars.

Third, and this is a strange one after all these years. The score by John Williams. Its just too good. Imagine watching the film with just dialogue and on-set sound effects prior to dubbing etc. How cheap and tacky and daft the whole mad thing must have seemed. Yet John Williams created this huge gorgeous symphonic score with all his sheer sincerity that the story was real and epic and operatic. Frankly, Star Wars didn’t deserve such a fantastic score, but thank goodness it got one. The music elevates it, to, well mythic opera. Imagine it with a cheesy Disco score… the mind boggles.

It’s not even a movie (not in the old sense): Mockingjay Part 1.

mock1I remember back when The Empire Strikes Back was released, back in the summer of 1980; it was criticised by some for having a poor structure. Films generally have a beginning, middle and end (at least they used to- these days some films are more like serials that might make perfect sense when viewed in a Blu-ray boxset but prove rather more problematic viewed as individual entries). My reference to TESB however isn’t chiefly because it was the middle part of a trilogy, moreover it was how the film was structured itself. I recall John Brosnan pointing out in his TESB review in Starburst that in an ordinary movie, the battle of Hoth would have been the grand climax. Instead it was placed in the first third leaving everything beyond it rather anti-climatic, even the duel between Luke and Vader (which itself, when you think of it, ends without any real resolution). Back at the time I was your typical teenage Star Wars-nut and thought Brosnan was talking nonsense; TESB was even better then the first Star Wars in my eyes, and Brosnan’s talk about film-structure flew over my head. But over the past few years I’ve thought back to Brosnan’s comments.

In a strange way, that odd structure of TESB would prove rather prophetic though. Films really don’t have that beginning, middle and end anymore; not always anyway. Of course TESB had not just put its traditional grand climax in the first third, it also ended on something of a cliffhanger,.Again, this was very unusual at the time, but Star Wars was famously based on old movie serials, so people could get their heads around what Lucas was doing. But I don’t think anyone back then could have predicted how films would eventually make TESB look rather normal, its then-odd structure rather mundane. Imagine Lucas saying back then “someday, all films will be made this way”- people would have thought he was crazy, his huge successes at the Box-Office notwithstanding. But now, people have become used to films lacking any real resolution, indeed, some entire films are just a tease for the next one. Were people coming out of screenings of Interstellar thinking that all their questions will be answered in the next one, only to be frustrated when informed that’s it, its just Interstellar, that was The End, there is no sequel?

I was thinking about all this watching the most recent film in The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay Part 1. I don’t know much about the books, but I understand that there are three in the series and the third book Mockingjay is being split into two movies. Its all very The Hobbit (not forgetting the last Harry being split into two or indeed the next entry in the Divergent series).

I won’t go into how cynical it all seems regards maximising ticket sales in cinemas or further along with the DVD/Blu-ray sales. What concerns me is how it effects the individual films themselves. Mockingjay Part One is not a bad film, indeed, in some ways its the most interesting of the Hunger Games series I’ve seen. But it is inevitably hamstrung by the decision, right or wrong, artistic or purely business-based, to split its original book’s story into two. Essentially Mockingjay is, by its very nature, the beginning and part-middle of a bigger story. There is no resolution here. Characters are being introduced, arcs being set up, that will not come to fruition until the second part. It makes for  very frustrating experience, especially in light of having to wait another year for the conclusion (I much preferred how Warners managed the two Matrix sequels, released, as I recall, only six months apart?).

hob3Moreover, I do think the second part itself will also suffer, as these films usually do. It won’t have much time (or feel any need) to set events up, it will likely leap into the storyline in a rush to the grand finale. That might be fine, or indeed welcomed, by fans, but it won’t really be functioning like a ‘proper’ movie. It’ll be the second part; the middle and end to a larger story. Maybe I’m alone in thinking in how annoyed I was by the beginning of the third Hobbit movie, leaping into the Smaug attack on Laketown, shoving a noisy climactic sequence into the beginning of a film where I should have been settling into it, not having my senses assaulted from the very start. For myself, that entire sequence was ruined by not having any build-up. CGI suffers without dramatic storytelling around it as it is; here there was no build-up of tension, no raising of dramatic effect, no context. It was just “Bang-here we go, have a visual effects reel before we start the movie proper!” That sequence should have been the end of the second film, giving that film a much-needed climax, and the third film allowed to set up its own arcs/storyline for its own climax. Good business for Warner/MGM maybe but lousy artistic sense; it spoiled two movies and crippled what should have been a highlight.

Mockingjay Part One rather meanders through two hours (!) leading to an inevitable tease promising a ‘proper’ conclusion that leaves it inevitably wanting. It doesn’t function as an exercise in traditional storytelling. Being split itself in two surely risks alienating its audience- I wonder how many people stayed away, preferring to wait until Mockingjay Part Two is released? I was tempted to delay watching the Blu-ray until the second film gets released on disc next year but my curiosity got the better of me. But even then, to (eventually) watch the entire Mockingjay story will require something like four hours over the two parts. What is the sense in that? Does the storyline deserve that much screentime, can it carry all those hours? How many people will ever watch both in one sitting? Is it always doomed to be two parts over (at best) two consecutive nights? Would it just work better as a two and a half-hour movie, or even one approaching three hours in one whole, with its own beginning, middle and end? Don’t we as an audience deserve that? Shouldn’t we be demanding that?

Somehow none of these trilogies/serials feel like ‘proper’ movies any more, but splitting the individual parts of these trilogies/sagas into two just makes it even worse. Where will it end?  A three-part Hobbit movie? Ahem.