(Not a) Rise of Skywalker review

sky1.jpgWell, no I haven’t seen it. Probably won’t until the New Year when the fuss has died down, and even then it might not be until March when the disc comes out. I’m a Star Wars fan from 1977 when I read the Marvel comics (we didn’t get the film here in the UK regions until early 1978). I’ve bought the films on every home format going and seen each one at the cinema until Solo. I’ve bought the soundtracks, wear the tee-shirts. If Disney can’t get my big arse on a cinema seat then somethings very, very wrong in a Galaxy far, far away.

The reviews, some positive, some negative, some indifferent, some absolutely apocalyptic, are pretty much everything I expected from the film. I have little tolerance for the methods of JJ Abrams, whose entire career seems to have been an exercise in polishing up and re-selling the creative genius of others, nor Kathleen Kennedy, a ‘safe’ pair of hands at Lucasfilm who mistook bullet-points and agendas for creative narrative.

Richard over at 100 Films in A Year has posted his review and its pretty typical. He raises a very good observation that the film-makers “forcibly insert bits that seem to exist merely to look good in trailers” which is something that Abrams has been guilty of before. The most telling one I recall is the Enterprise rising out of an ocean in Star Trek Into Darkness. It was totally idiotic (the excuse being the Enterprise was hiding from the native civilisation, when it would have been perfectly hidden up in orbit as it has been for several tv series and movies over the decades) and betrays Abram’s cynical method of putting ‘wow’ moments into his films that serve no narrative function or internal logic at all. First time around it distracts through surprise and spectacle but on repeat viewing it just rankles. Its curious that repeat viewings of his movies seldom go well and a lot of his films (the Star Trek reboots and The Force Awakens in particular) are subject to much revisionary criticism years later- they really don’t age well at all

He’s like some kid smashing all his toys up for the hell of it. The guys appropriates the worlds created by others and joyfully breaks them. Like another example in the same film when Khan transports himself across the galaxy from a shuttle down on Earth to someplace on Klingon, instantly, and immediately negating the need for space ships or FTL travel at all. A smarter hand on the script would have simply had him teleport to a ship waiting in orbit that then warps off to Klingon, a move that would have performed the same narrative function but stayed within established mythology and logic. Which is pretty much the same as that jerk Rian Johnson did in The Last Jedi when Holdo jumps into Hyperspace through the First Order flagship and destroys the ship and most of the fleet. Its a big ‘wow’ moment, beautifully executed, certainly the one scene that provoked gasps of surprise and awe, but its also the one in which it broke the world. I wonder how many times in The Rise of Skywalker a situation arises in which had the good guys done the same manoeuvre they could have wiped out Palpatines forces? Or more tellingly, how many times Palpatine could have wiped out the rebel armada by one of his ships doing the same?

Its all very sad. I don’t want any Star Wars film to fail but neither do I want bad storytelling to be rewarded. Lucasfilm clearly had no plan for this sequel trilogy, and while I believe it went wrong from the start with The Force Awakens so cynically remaking A New Hope rather than moving onto new territory, it went doubly wrong letting Rian Johnson then break everything Abrams started with The Force Awakens, I mean, where did they expect the franchise to go after The Last Jedi? I sincerely wish, for all my dislike of The Last Jedi, that Rian Johnson had been left to make the third film and try to conjure up some satisfying conclusion himself. It was too easy and let him off the hook, he took so much pleasure breaking everything with The Last Jedi and he was able to walk away like some triumphant auteur and I almost feel sorry for Abram’s position with this third film. Johnson got away with it and didn’t have to ‘fix’ what he broke.

That all being said, the ultimate failure is surely of Kathleen Kennedy and the heads at Lucasfilm who failed in oversight of the trilogy. Say what you will about the prequels (and they are pretty awful) but Lucas clearly had a narrative arc for them, telling the story of Anakin Skywalker and how he became Darth Vader and the rise of the Empire. I don’t know what the hell this new trilogy was supposed to be about.

In both The Phantom Menace and A New Hope, the audience is informed of the political situation, whether it be of the troubled Republic of the first film or the established positions of the Empire and the resistance in A New Hope. Somehow between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, the defeated Empire has arisen as the nonsensical First Order, and instead of the New Republic post-ROTJ defending against the new evil its left to some kind of new bunch of freedom fighters instead. Its never explained how things have turned out how they have or who’s bankrolling the First Order or who the hell Snoke was, except that I gather its ‘explained’ in Rise of Skywalker that it was Palpatine all along. Yeah, the same dude that was blasted by his own force lightning and hurled down into a blazing reactor core subsequently destroyed with its vaporised Death Star- I gather all this is ‘explained’ by the Great Bard Abrams and I don’t know how Palpatine gets defeated/killed in Rise of Skywalker  but I wonder whats stopping the bugger magically resurrecting himself again.

From the start this new trilogy has been lazily written, ill-reasoned, and hell-bent on just rebooting everything from the earlier films whilst arbitrarily ignoring established mythology and internal logic. Every narrative has a beginning, a middle and end with sensical narrative and character arcs, whether it be a single movie or three films telling a whole larger story. Did Lucasfilm start shooting The Force Awakens with no idea where the story went in films two and three? It seems patently obvious this was the case and insanely irresponsible and reckless. They got what they deserved, alienating the core fanbase while they were at it. I’m sure The Rise of Skywalker has it fans and will pass a billion dollars at the box office but I’m pretty confident its a bad movie.

A surprisingly bland Captain Marvel

cm1There’s something wrong with the structure of Captain Marvel. As origin movies go, its fairly dysfunctional- there’s zero opportunity for growth or what would qualify as  traditional narrative arc for a film such as this. While some might argue thats a good thing, perhaps even a breath of fresh air, in my mind it leaves this film feeling oddly broken- it doesn’t really work.

Maybe they tried fixing it in post- maybe this state of affairs is a result of that ‘fix’ not working, it’s certainly a curio. Mind, looking at those credits, it has two directors, five writers, eight producers, is it any wonder it turns out such a mess? If ever there were an argument for the single-vision of auteurs like Zack Snyder, Captain Marvel may be it.

Sorry, I’m a little sore. I bought this movie. Anyway, lets begin.

Let’s compare Captain Marvel to pretty much any other Marvel hero in their first movie. Vers (Brie Larson) awakens on the planet Kree, a member of her planets Starforce, a military that defends Kree from the evil shape-shifting Skrulls. She’s a self-confident and accomplished warrior with fighting skills and (some) superpowers, right from the start. She is troubled by strange dreams and a loss of memory of anything prior to being brought to Kree as a young adult of eighteen years, but other than that, she is strong and confident. Complete with a sharp-looking rubber superhero costume right off the bat, she’s unfortunately got zero personality under that costume and little room for any growth; she’s a kick-ass warrior maiden, what’s left?

Most other introductory Marvel hero tales start with their alter-ego. Peter Parker as a shy, introverted student, Steve Rogers as a skinny kid who’s deemed unfit for military duty, Bruce Banner who’s a driven scientist, Tony Stark a self-obsessed playboy billionaire. You give them their superpower and the drama is how much it changes them, how they cope with those powers and inherent responsibility. How they grow.

Now, lets try an alternative structure. Let’s show Vers as her original identity of Carol Danvers on Earth, growing up, a young girl struggling to compete and prove herself in a mans world. She tries, she fails, but she always gets up and tries again until she succeeds. Well, there’s your personality and character. She’s driven and stubborn enough to struggle past adversity. I can see the title sequence right there, a period rock song, vignettes of her growing up. Post credits, we open proceedings with her as a young woman, she has a few close freinds, has managed to work her way into the airforce, when in a characteristic act of stepping up to the plate to prove herself, she is caught in a bizarre air battle and ‘dies’ in a crash.

And then she wakes up on Kree, ignorant of her real past. The mystery is how she got there and why, and why she can’t recall her past on Earth- or is this some twin? The plot then drives her back towards Earth and for her to uncover the truth, her true self, and ultimately the true scope of her superpowers. Presto, entertaining movie. Hardly rocket science.

The trouble is, we never really get to know Carol Danvers, the girl behind the costume and the superpowers. By the time the big effects/action spectacle kicks in, we don’t really care. Compare that to the magnificent Superman: The Movie, in which we always care about the title character, always empathise with him, and love Clark Kent, because we know who he is and why he is. Captain Marvel is one big glowing visual effect, and they don’t even think to write her some kryptonite to instil some danger or drama. Maybe that comes in the inevitable second movie, but as origin adventures go, this is one of the worst I can remember. She flies through space, destroying alien juggernauts and beating up alien bad guys, but it’s uninvolving, almost boring. We’ve seen all this CGI spectacle before, and modern film-makers really must try harder, do more. The eye-candy isn’t enough on its own anymore.

cm2Brie Larson, so good in Kong: Skull Island is merely adequate here: she looks beautiful and steps up to the physical challenge, but she’s really hampered by the strange structure of the film that leaves her character hopelessly bland.

I think some have denounced such criticism as sexual politics and maybe the fanboy backlash post-The Last Jedi deserves some of that, but I honestly think its well-founded to some extent. For one thing, the film really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Its never competently explained what Annette Bening’s Kree-in-hiding character was doing researching technologies on Earth for the US Government, or competently explains why one minute its a galactic Kree/Skrull war with the Skrull as omnipotent invaders and then suddenly the Skrull are just misunderstood ragtag survivors looking for a new home and sanctuary from the suddenly nasty Kree- is all the lie simply set up for Vers’ benefit for some odd reason, in which case, are all the Kree in on it? I mean, what’s she even doing on Kree? What purpose does it serve having her think she is a Starforce operative named Vers? We are offered sideways explanations in passing, usually via dialogue, which we are not meant to consider or examine. The whole thing feels broken, a deck of cards ready to fall on closer inspection, completely undermining any of the actors attempts to make it work. Jude Law is almost hysterically bad as Vers’ mentor Yon-Rogg, initially a good-guy with a shady demeanor and then suddenly in a twist so badly executed I thought it was actually a bluff, he’s actually the main villain. He looks great in the part physically but its woefully underwritten and everytime he opens his mouth to speak the film goes clunk.  If your bad guy is such a non-entity, you’re in trouble: they almost absent-mindedly drag in that Ronan character from Guardians of the Galaxy (so forgettable in that movie I just had to look it up to check) for villian support, and that fails, too, unless it’s just to throw in those spaceships for our hero to smash.

On the plus side, it has a nice Stan Lee tribute at the beginning- although if you’re a fan of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and at all familiar with the real history of Marvel, that is just as likely to set your teeth on edge right from the start. With all due respect to Lee, he’s up there with Gene Roddenberry in the curated myths department. But hey ho, that’s the reality we’re living in, it’s easier to attribute talent/genius to one than in it is to a dozen.

 

Solo (2018)

solo1While watching Solo, I was reminded of something I read a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away- in 1978, infact, and inside the pages of the Star Wars official collectors magazine that Marvel published back then. At least I think it was in that mag, it was a long time ago after all, but anyway, it was some comment referring to a review that cited Star Wars as being the first Western filmed in outer space. Solo is just that- a space western.

So in the spirit of laboring the space western allegory, lets look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this Star Wars movie titled Solo.

First, the good. Well, its okay. If that’s damning it with faint praise, then so be it: its no disaster (In the words of fellow blogger Gregory Moss, it could have been worse) and certainly nowhere near as divisive as The Last Jedi proved to be. Solo doesn’t usurp franchise tropes or chronology as TLJ did-  Lucasfilm has (eventually, considering this films troubled production) crafted a stable, steady adventure with typically workmanlike direction from Ron Howard’s exceedingly safe directorial hands.

While some of the action stuff such as the opening speeder chase was fairly mediocre at best, I thought the train heist in particular was great -the strangely reduced colour-palette of the film actually helps the CGI enhancements look all the more real. Some of the imagery of the windswept characters on the roof of the train reminded me of the Frazetta covers for the Battlestar Galactica paperback novelizations of the late ‘seventies. I’m also glad that the finale was rather low-key, it was a refreshing thing for a Star Wars movie, I thought, especially as the CGI-fest Kessel Run was so boring.  If we’d cared more for the characters it might have been all the better, but that post-Kessel Run stuff was fine and suggested a second movie (which we’ll now never see) might have been worthwhile. Maybe Solo should always have been a mini-series rather than a movie?

Alden Ehrenreich is okay as a young Han, albeit never really convinces. I would have preferred to have seen Anthony Ingruber (already cast as young Harrison Ford in The Age of Adaline) or Ansel Elgort, who looked like a young Solo in much of Baby Driver, at least they might have physically matched Ford better. Although he performs well considering all the pressures and baggage placed upon him (its pretty thankless signing on for a role like this), Ehrenreich is clearly no Harrison Ford- if anything, he’s more a young Dennis Quaid, particularly whenever he smiles or turns on the charm (which reminded me, ironically, of watching Inner Space back in the cinema and thinking how Quaid could have played Han Solo back then). Although he never really convinces as Han Solo, thankfully this young Solo is not an obnoxious and irritating infant re: Jake Lloyd’s Anakin of The Phantom Menace. The art direction is okay (I always get a kick out of seeing original Star Wars-era Storm Troopers), the music feels like that of a Star Wars movie (indeed even is Star Wars movie music as it re-uses themes from the original scores).

solo2Now, the bad. Its all a bit ‘meh’ if I’m honest. Not once does it genuinely shock or surprise or shake expectations of what a Han Solo movie could be. Indeed, it largely spends its time ticking boxes: Han meets Chewie, Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, we get a game of Holo-Chess in the Falcon lounge, we get to witness the Kessel Run. Han is a scoundrel yes but at heart he’s a good guy and does the ‘Right Thing’. Nothing new that happens in Solo can really be important as it cannot retro-actively effect the cannon- nothing new in Solo can ever be referenced or name-checked in The Empire Strikes Back or The Force Awakens. Han doesn’t make some mysterious comment about someone named Beckett in The Force Awakens, for example (and if these new films were being masterminded properly, maybe he would/should). So we never really get any dramatic suspense. Which leads us to-

The ugly? Misguided. Cynical. A production nightmare that was always doomed to fail, whatever its success at the box-office (is it really fair to saddle this finished film with the purported $300 million cost of combining its production with the abandoned original shooting of the previously fired directors?). A salient lesson to Lucasfilm of how to make/not make a Star Wars movie.

Well, that is the whole thing with prequels, isn’t it? Dramatically they are always flawed because we go in with knowing how things end up. Han can’t die, Chewie can’t die, the Falcon may get some dents but it can’t be destroyed, etc . Prequels inherently are hamstrung by the Magic Reset button- whatever happens during them they have to leave the status quo in place for subsequent editions in order to maintain continuity. And likewise, they are weighed down by unfair expectations, comparisons to better films back when Star Wars was new and fresh and exciting, better directors, better actors, all looked at through rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia.

Disney’s Star Wars films have a problem, and it isn’t competing against fellow franchise juggernaut Marvel- its the ravages of time. Star Wars is now in its fifth decade and the world has moved on. The Matrix films, good or bad, were a Star Wars for a new generation, and maybe the Jurassic Park films were too, and while the jury is out on James Cameron’s Avatar films, I suppose it could well be argued that the Marvel Studios films are indeed a Star Wars for today’s generation of film-goers. Lightsabres and Jedi and droids and everything else wrapped up in Star Wars dates back to the days of Disco and can leave some of us original fans labelled as dinosaurs.

I have no issues with Disney shaking things up with its Star Wars films- its just that The Last Jedi, in my mind, was the wrong place to do it. If you’re going to have Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars movie then he has to act for good or ill as his established character would. For instance, if Han Solo were alive in The Last Jedi, would Rian Johnson have gotten away with making him a craven coward? Whatever Rian Johnson eventually does in his proposed future Star Wars trilogy is fine by me as long as its genuinely new and seperate from the established canon. I do feel that Disney might have been better off leaving the Skywalker saga and the Jedi etc well alone and not making Episodes  7-9 at all.

In anycase, returning to Solo, these standalone prequels of course cannot do that- by their nature they have to play safe with continuity and what constitutes a Star Wars movie. I’m a big fan of Rogue One and think its a neat film from a neat idea. Solo– well, we never really needed a Han Solo movie, did we? Maybe the whole prequel thing lacks sufficient ambition- maybe they should have looked further back to the days of the Old Republic and then been freer to play looser with chronology if only because the distant past is vaguer.

Solo is what it is. I would have preferred a different lead. I would have preferred a different arc- why not have made young Han a genuinely bad guy and used the prequel story to redeem him, perhaps explain why the smuggler in the 1977-1983 trilogy has a decent streak deep down? Otherwise, whats the real point of a prequel, other than showing us what we know and have come to expect?

As it turned out, few people really wanted a Han Solo movie and it largely turned out as mediocre as everyone feared it would- albeit better perhaps than the production woes would have suggested. Its box-office failure means it will likely lead to a rethink at both Lucasfilm and Disney, and that might be a good thing in the long run. That does return me to a question I raised earlier- maybe it should never have been a movie, but rather a mini-series instead? After all, Disney will have its streaming service/channel next year. Maybe that is where the future of these standalone Star Wars movies lies, in mini-series form.

 

 

Return of the (last) Jedi

jedilastBad films can be infuriating, particularly when they are from a beloved franchise or series… but so fascinating too- so how could I resist buying The Last Jedi on disc? 

In all honesty, I felt like writing a long list of issues that I still have with this film, really, but the more I thought and the more I wrote, the worst I felt it was largely pointless. I doubt I’ll ever make peace with this fim. So I scrapped most everything. But I still felt the need to write something. So instead of an opus of pain, here’s this:

Imagine if you will, a (motion) picture:

1979, or the early ‘eighties, it doesn’t really matter, it’s an alternate universe, think of it as a Black Mirror episode for geeks: Paramount are launching a trilogy of Star Trek films, based on the old 1960s tv series and rebooting it for a new saga/crew. Old creator Gene Roddenberry is gone, replaced by a new creative team eager to reboot Star Trek with new values. Bringing the old crew back to placate fans whilst introducing a new crew for later adventures, the first film brings back Mr Spock and Dr McCoy but leaves the appearance of Kirk until the very last scene, used to tease film number two. To the fans consternation, Mr Spock dies during this first film, so fans never see a proper reunion of the three main stars of the old show.

The second film features a rather older and rebooted Kirk. This Kirk has retired from Star Fleet and gone off to some corner of the galaxy. He thinks the original Trek’s five-year mission was a waste and that the Federation of Planets and its human-centric organisation was a mistake and wants nothing more of it, wants it to die.

Imagine how the Trekkies would have reacted. Imagine how the film-makers would have exalted in their ‘out with the old, in with the new’ policy. Imagine William Shatner fundamentally disagreeing with the new direction and this new interpretation of Kirk. Imagine fans pining for the good old days of creator Gene Roddenberry’s oversight.

Imagine if you will, another trilogy:

Its one hundred after Return of the Jedi. The New Republic still stands, but is under threat from a new outside force- a resurgent Empire that has lingered in the remote Outer Rim for the past decades, remnants of the Old Empire gathering and scheming and now further rejuvenated by a new Sith.

The old heroes are gone now. The descendants of our old heroes are separated by fortune and distance. Some are bureaucrats in the Republic, others driven with wanderlust, trying that luck in the trade-routes as entrepreneurs or rogues, and perhaps there is still a Skywalker in the fledgling Jedi Academy. The disaster that befell the Old Republic when the Emperor seized power has left the Jedi Order marginalised  by this New Republic wary of old mistakes. Jedi remain few and far-flung through the galaxy.

A restless grandchild of Solo and Leia, curious about past glories and lessons that could be heeded, searches out the places and events of those old adventures. He finds Vader’s old helmet, and Luke’s old lightsaber. His curiosity leaves him open to manipulation and he is found and seduced by the Sith, clearly a prime asset to their schemes to overthrow this infidel Republic and return to the days of Empire.

But Disney chose a different path….

A VERY different path.

I mean, this thing no longer even functions as a trilogy- if IS still a trilogy, it’s a dysfunctional one, most of the set-up from The Force Awakens being ditched and arcs abandoned. It feels a bit like Justice League following BvS, something is of, something has changed as if there’s a whole new creative team without any oversight.  Look at how well that’s turning out for DC.

Ignoring all that, it still feels ‘off’. For one thing, the tone is all over the place. The opening portion with General Huxx is like a Spaceballs farce.  The film from the start undermines General Huxx and shows him up to be an incompetent moron and makes Huxx throughout the butt of too many jokes (casting Eddie Hitler as his assistant just exacerbated the issue and makes me wonder if that casting was actually deliberate). Imagine 1977’s Star Wars making Tarkin the comedy relief. Exactly.

lastjed2

Characters do contrary actions all the time and there are holes all over the place. In just the same way as teleporting from Earth to Klingon moon, or from Vulcan moon to in-warp Enterprise in the Star Trek reboots contradicts everything established in Star Trek of old and makes Starships obsolete, so too does Star Destroyers tracking Rebels through Hyperspace. I mean, think about it, it’s now out of the bag- they’ll be able to do it all the time in every future Star Wars film because its been done (and if they don’t do it, then why not?). Good luck escaping the bad guys in future, Rebels, they will be tracking you across the galaxy. Straight back to your rebel base, too, I should imagine.

If Rian Johnson had thought it through, he just had to have a plot device about a bug or tracker hidden by a spy on the lead Revel ship. That’s all he had to do (and has been done before in Star Wars with the Death Star tracking the Falcon, and Rey and Leia are doing it all the way through the bloody movie). Instead he has to weave this preposterous plot device of having to travel to a casino planet to get a code-breaker to get onboard the bad guys ship and then disable the tracking machine without anybody noticing a rebel droid hiding in a waste paper basket? As if only the one ship was bothering to track the rebels- wouldn’t all the ships be doing it as a matter of course if they all have the technology now (so if one tracker failed or was disabled, the others would offer redundancy)?

Hell, at least hunting down a spy and tracking device in a race against time would have given Poe something to do.

I get that Rian Johnson was trying to shake up Star Wars and spin it off in some new direction. I admire the intention, but I abhor the execution.

 

Collateral (2018)

CollateralCollateral is a BBC four-part crime thriller which has a fine cast and solid production values, but for me it was ruined by the preposterous plot and a political agenda, intended or otherwise, that left me with the same bad taste it did in The Last Jedi. You might well be wondering what Star Wars and a BBC drama set in modern-day London have in common.

I’m all for inclusiveness and giving female actors major roles etc, but sometimes dear old Auntie Beeb tries too hard (it was an element in its recent series Requiem, too, but to a much lesser extent). Collateral throws the following at us: a female priest, who is a lesbian, and in love with an illegal immigrant- that ticks several boxes just by itself. The lead detective is a woman, six-months pregnant, which is immaterial to the plot but just hangs there (career girl, high-flyer, and an imminently brilliant mother too, obviously), she does very little wrong, is famous for having been in a past Olympics, and outwits all her male junior officers, who are generally portrayed as subservient and dumb. Two of the bad guys are men who are foreigners who are very stupid and mess up a murder, leaving traces and get caught by our lead detective. They are in league with an MI5 intelligence operative who is, yes, a man, and yes, a complete utter arsehole.  The ‘clever’ assassin who very nearly gets away with carrying a flawless murder is a woman from the military who is suffering sexual harassment from a superior officer and is actually raped by him. She later reveals this to the superiors wife who throws the bastard out of her home. A male politician running amok in interviews is frustrated and pulled into line by the leader of the Labour party who is (you guessed it) female. I think this message was carried in The Last Jedi– women are smart and intelligent and right, and men are dumb and wrong most of the time.

Throw in some fairly heavy-handed anti-Brexit sentiments/comments/political posturing and I think this drama has covered every liberal agenda we could possibly want and more besides. Funny, I thought it was so supposed to be crime drama. Guess I was wrong.

Ghosts in the corners, and well done, Ridley!

roomThe building where I have worked for the past 25, going on 26, years is being demolished, to be replaced by something newer/cheaper/more impermanent, which has necessitated in being temporarily relocated to a building towards the city centre and trips up and down busy motorway at an ungodly hour. Unfortunately this has impacted on the frequency of my posting here, and I suspect will continue to do so, which is why I’m writing this post. Hopefully things will return to normal in a few months.

I feel a bit like Noodles in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America; I’m spending my days going to bed early. Five am is a lousy time to be getting up, and cold dark February mornings trying to beat the peak motorway traffic (and usually failing, as like the eponymous city, the motorway never sleeps, and that traffic just keeps on rolling) is a depressing way to start any day. Back end of the week, thirteen to fourteen-hour days have a way of wearing you out. Oh well, as the song goes, a change is gonna come, but I’m sure these long days were rather easier years ago. None of us are getting any younger, and neither are our movies- did someone mention that Blade Runner is 36 years old this year?

Changes. They have a way of sneaking up on you. Where do 25 years go? That last Friday evening, when I walked the empty corridors and rooms of that old building, alone in the shell of what was once a bustling, vibrant building full of people (in truth, it’s been a long slow decline towards this inevitable end, but when I started there back in 1992, it was something else entirely. It was like every corner, every room, was full of ghosts. I could almost hear them in the suddenly echoey, empty rooms; old voices and laugher, lurking like ghosts in the corners.

The majority of the building had been emptied in preparation of the demolition teams and asbestos removal experts (the building dates from the 1950s/1960s and the building practices of unwiser times), so most of it was already a dim shadow of its former self of decades ago. In the early nineties, the canteen/mess room on a Friday evening such as this would be bustling, like a working men’s social club minus the booze- smoke hanging the air, men playing cards, shooting their mouths off, watching the television bolted high in a corner… voices long gone, now. And soon the building with them.

riddersI mentioned that Blade Runner is 36 years old this year. Last night at this years BAFTA, Ridley Scott -sorry, Sir Ridley Scott- was given a BAFTA Fellowship award, marking his 40 years in the film business. Well surely it’s longer than that, when did The Duellists come out, 1977 wasn’t it?  Well, whats a year or two? Nice to see Ridley up there taking an BAFTA award for once -the first time, in fact, according to him, and he was certainly visibly moved by the occasion.  A video segment with clips from many of his films demonstrated two things – one: that they may not all have been brilliant, but it’s one hell of a body of work for any director to have behind him, and two: bloody hell I’m getting old, I’ve seen most of them at cinemas over the years, many of them at cinemas that no longer even exist. Here we go again, demolished buildings.

At least in LA 2019 they had the good sense to retrofit them rather than demolish them.

It was nice, too, to see Blade Runner 2049 pick up two awards at least. Roger Deakins award for cinematography was no great surprise (although the huge injustice if he had failed to win might have broken the internet for a few hours “suddenly a great wail was heard, as if a million film geeks had cried out and were suddenly silenced…”) but the visual effects award was a pleasant surprise. Its fully deserved, but I rather feared the more ‘showy’ spectacles of  films like The Last Jedi might have trumped it. I do feel rather aggrieved that it didn’t win for Best Sound though. I think the sound design in BR2049 is just sublime, its gorgeous, like an aural painting, a sound canvas if you will that’s equal to the rightly-lauded Deakins cinematography.

Well, two awards isn’t bad. Blade Runner won three, mind, back in 1983…(it didn’t win for sound back then, either, which is a similar grand injustice- they gave that one to the team behind the Pink Floyd movie The Wall, go figure…).

Moreover, it didn’t win for Best Visual Effects either- they gave that one to Poltergeist.

I know. Poltergeist. I mean, sure, its a good film and the effects were nice for the time… still are, I guess, but come on, Blade Runner‘s effects are in a whole different league.

Awards never get it right, every film geek knows that, just wait for Oscars to upset everyone. The Oscars REALLY know how to not get it right. They gave the Best Visual Effects that year to E.T. for goodness sake. Bloody E.T. I’ll never make my peace with that film.

 

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

mr banks

This film has been languishing at the bottom of the digital pile in my Tivo since Christmas 2016 when it originally aired on the BBC. Why exactly it has taken so long for me to finally get around to watching it is quite beyond me, and there’s still a few more films sitting in that digital pile. Well, there you go- something else to concern myself about; not just a pile of physical-format films on disc that I have yet to see, I now have films waiting in my Tivo to be seen. As well as those films on my Amazon Prime watchlist. My world, it seems, is full of content waiting to be watched.  It almost makes me yearn for the old days of three tv channels, no video recorders and lots of time free for reading and everything else that ‘normal’ lives were concerned with.

Televisions used to be mono, 4:3 and black and white. Now they are large widescreen stereo monsters that sit there demanding your time. Our eyes endlessly drawn to them, bewitched by them as if by some arcane spell. So many channels. So many films/discs//apps… on my Amazon fire-stick the other night I discovered some kind of ‘fireplace tv’ thing, a seasonal offering that was a single hour-long shot of a log-fire burning. I actually watched it for something like twenty minutes before I realised I was going mad.

None of which has anything to do with Saving Mr Banks, which I finally go around to watching having allowed it to sit in my Tivo over a year. And what do you know, I feel a bit of a fool having waited so long, because this was an utterly charming, warm and witty movie that I really enjoyed.

I do have a confession to make- the only Mary Poppins I have ever seen was General Leia doing her magical spaceflight in The Last Jedi. Other than a few clips many years ago on the old Disneytime holiday specials that the BBC used to air at Easter etc, I have never seen anything of Mary Poppins, certainly not the whole film, and I have no idea what the original story is. So maybe I was at some disadvantage watching Saving Mr Banks, which is ostensibly the story of how Walt Disney convinced author P L Travers to allow him to make the movie Mary Poppins.

Like, I suspect, the Netflix drama The Crown, this film is a work of fiction masquerading as fact, or at the very least, a dramatic work in which the line between fiction and fact is dimly blurred.  Tom Hanks is a very genial, very charming Walt Disney and Emma Thompson a suitably cantankerous P L Travers albeit rather beautiful and charming.There it is again- the word ‘charming’: it’s as if the poster for the film should have read ‘Walt Disney presents Saving Mr Banks: Charming! Charming! Charming!’

But it is. And maybe there is more truth to the film than my old cynical soul would have me believe. Is it possible that all this actually happened and that there is far more to the original Mary Poppins story and movie than anyone would have believed? Maybe the simple truth is that it doesn’t matter. Saving Mr Banks, true story or Disney myth, is a great heartwarming (bypass that bloody word ‘charming’ for once)  movie that is elegantly written and directed and really has a pretty great cast in top form.  I could have looked it all up on the internet and discovered the truth of it, but really, I don’t care. Saving Mr Banks was really quite good. And ultimately, that’s all that really matters.

Besides, adult fairy tales, which is, I suspect, what this film really is, can be fact or fiction, it doesn’t have to mean anything or be validated by truth. It’s a damn fine story, regardless, and films could do with more of those, I think.

Now then, what else is lurking within my Tivo…?

Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets

val1Valerian is an astonishing mess. It isn’t awful, but it is, well, really messy.

Here’s the thing: as some kind of motion-comic ode to the glory days of European sci-fi/fantasy mag Heavy Metal, it’s fantastic. Unfortunately, this isn’t a motion-comic, its supposed to be a movie. As the latter, its awful.

Which is the curious thing about last year. Denis Villeneuve gave us a slow, long movie full of ideas and philosophical concepts, and it struggled at the box-office. Luc Besson gave us a fast, stupid, action cgi-fest full of explosions and stunts and eye-candy, without hardly any trace of a plot, and that, too, struggled. I guess how you judge if either film ‘bombed’ rather than ‘struggled’ is down to expectations/point of view.  The same year Rian Johnson gave us The Last Jedi, and that sailed past a billion dollars in weeks. Well, you don’t have to bother yourself with words like ‘bombed’ or ‘struggled’ there, I think. As for the quality of the three movies, well…

Less is more, I think. Movie directors today really do seem to have a problem with cgi effects, with simply being able to do everything and anything. Like a kid in a candy store, they cannot resist having ‘just one more’. With Valerian, director Luc Besson seems to have emptied the entire store, and perhaps the storeroom in the back

It’s so noisy, so stupid. Most of the time, I didn’t know where to look. The multi-dimensional market in the desert had vast canyons teeming with life and neon and stores and details but it was a bewildering, confusing mess. The titular city of a thousand planets was gigantic and sprawling but, oh, where to look? What am I supposed to be focussing on? Half the time, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

Focus is a good word regards Valerian: there isn’t any. Perhaps Besson thought the visuals and the noise would carry it through.

As it is, we have two main protagonists without any charm at all, played by actors with no chemistry. Perhaps Besson thought, again, that the visuals and noise would carry them through. Alas, he was wrong. Who the hell cared about either of them? We didn’t know them at all. Some horny young bloke hot for his gorgeous chick partner babbling on about a marriage proposal whilst they have a crazy mission that is unclear and makes no sense?

But it sure is pretty. The prologue piece, showing the foundation and expansion of the titular city, to the sounds of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, feels like something approaching genius. Its snappy and gorgeous and a little 1970’s psychedelic, complete with Roy Batty gravelly intoning something about the future. It’s all rather downhill from there.

val2Problems arise early on with a visually impressive sequence on a strange alien planet that promises much, but is deliberately vague robbing the sequence of any drama or context- it seems to mean nothing but looks very pretty doing it, and thus sets up the tone for the remainder of the film. We cut to our two pretty stars and their vacuous, meaningless zero-chemistry relationship and they are off on a mission on a desert planet that yes, looks amazingly pretty but, well, means nothing. Oh yeah, they steal/rescue (even that isn’t clear) a little alien critter we saw in the earlier alien planet segment but we don’t know why, even when they than take that critter to the city of a thousand planets.

Oh, and there’s a really odd sequence involving Ethan Hawke and Rihanna that seems like a pointless diversion and… well, it looks pretty.

People like me reading Heavy Metal and 2000AD in the 1970s dreamed of films that looked like this. Little did we know that they wouldn’t mean anything, other than looking so spectacular.

 

Why I hated The Last Jedi

tlj1

Following The Force Awakens, Disney gave Rian Johnson the biggest toy set a film-maker could have. He had a new villain, Snoke, with a blank-slate backstory he could fill, a new hero, Rey, with a blank-slate backstory he could fill, including her tantalising parentage and affinity for the Force, he had the mysterious New Order ready to fill the political void left by Republic planets being destroyed, a new rebellion. He had the return of Luke Skywalker for one last epic adventure, he had new heroes like Finn  and Poe Dameron, new bad guys like General Hux and Captain Phasma (a female Star Wars villain!)  to expand upon. But The Last Jedi is like the kid up the street taking your toys and wrecking them. Its vandalism, pure and simple.

tlj21: The Luke Skywalker Saga 

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was a farm boy who joined the rebellion to rescue a princess, whose bravery in facing and destroying the Death Star against incredible odds made him a hero. In The Empire Strikes Back, set some three years later, he faces down Imperial ground forces in the battle of Hoth, and while later in training to be a Jedi abandons that training when he learns his friends are in mortal danger. Indeed, even knowing it’s a trap he sets out on his rescue. In Return of the Jedi, he continues to save his friends (rescuing Han Solo) and even risks his life again in a mortal battle with his father Darth Vader and the evil Emperor, finally vindicating his faith in his father’s innate goodness by Vader turning from the Dark Side and destroying the Emperor and the Empire. Luke is an active participant in the story, he propels the story forwards and pretty much saves everyone, even Vader.

None of this in any way works with the ‘new’ backstory of Luke running a Jedi academy and when ‘seeing’ evil in Ben Solo deciding to immediately strike him dead with his lightsaber. I mean, this is the same Luke who couldn’t hurt Darth Vader, the guy who’d chopped off his hand, killed Ben Kenobi, tortured Leia and Han Solo, and murdered countless hundreds of innocents (billions if you include the destruction of Alderaan). Luke actually cast his lightsaber aside rather than strike Vader down. But he’s supposed to be so quick to strike Ben Solo down in his sleep? Remember, Ben Solo is even one of his family, named after his mentor. We’re really supposed to believe Luke would try kill him in his sleep? It doesn’t make any sense, is not in-character at all. Or, indeed, after Ben Solo has turned on him and destroyed the academy and killed most of the other students, Luke deciding that instead of facing down Ben Solo, after all the heroics he did in the Original Trilogy, he instead runs off to sulk on a distant Jedi Island hideaway.

It doesn’t add up. Even at the end of TLJ, he doesn’t raise his X-Wing from the ocean and fly off to save his friends from mortal danger. Instead he pulls some Jedi Force-Hologram bullshit, does a virtual meet-and-greet with his sister, faces off the bad guys whilst not really facing off the bad guys, and then dies anyway. How is that good writing? How does that reflect the heroism Luke displayed in the Original Trilogy? How does it add anything to the saga? Surely when Snoke and the New Order showed up to hold the galaxy under evil dominion during The Force Awakens or prior to its events, he’d have returned to do some good, to help his friends? What kind of Jedi is he?

tlj3Aha, thats the crux I guess. These new films are intent on subverting the Star Wars saga by calling time on the Jedi. Wiping the slate clean for the sake of being new, radical. Nevermind that it undermines a trilogy of films and prequels and books etc. and, indeed, what the Star Wars saga even is. Or even undermines the previous reboot.

2. Out with the old, in with the old.

The Last Jedi is bold, exciting, it moves Star Wars into a whole new level of storytelling by subverting/destroying the old and replacing it with the new- but no, Disney doesn’t destroy the Millenium Falcon, because it still wants to sell the toys. Indeed, every trope of the old saga so royally cast aside is replaced by a new one, the ‘newness’ simply being a lie. BB8 is a new R2D2, Rey is a new Luke, Kylo Ren is a new Darth Vader, maintaining the old tropes whilst it purports to be bold and subversive.  We have the outstretched gloved hand of one character offering “join me, together we can rule the Galaxy!”, we have rebel troops in trenches facing giant mechanical walkers, we have the Millenium Falcon racing through canyons and tunnels with TIE fighters exploding behind.  For all it claims to be new, it ends with an Evil Empire and a bunch of freedom fighters and two protagonists on opposite ends of The Force. It’s a big cheat claiming change when it’s just a reboot of a reboot.

My issue is this: if Disney wants to go ahead and make a ‘new, bold’ Star Wars, go ahead and makes something set 100 years in the future.  But don’t try to have your cake and eat it, by bringing back the old characters from the Original Trilogy and then destroy and subvert them and everything they stood for. That’s not clever writing or bold storytelling. Its stupid, its disrespectful, it’s wiping out everything achieved in the OT or anything the characters did or believed in. Its an attempt to rewrite history, destroy the past, exalt in the new simply because it’s new. Why even re-watch the destruction of two Death Stars if we’re only going to end up watching Luke fade away on a distant planet while a New Empire dawns?

TLJ even gets stuck into undermining and wiping out any progression from The Force Awakens- Captain Phasma is disposed with like she’s an embarrassment (she didn’t sell enough toy figures?),  Snoke is destroyed avoiding answering the mysteries of his background (who was he? What was he? Where did he come from?  Didn’t he sell enough toy figures either?), and ignoring Rey’s parentage and why she was drawn to Luke’s lightsaber (complete with visions/warning voices during TFA). We are expected to believe it all meant nothing?  If that’s the case, why invest in anything Disney does now with Star Wars?

Which is where I am now. Disney’s Star Wars is pretty much dead to me now. I could forgive them the soft reboot of TFA because that’s what the new Disney project is, a reboot of the whole franchise and series. In hindsight they should have refrained from bringing any of the old cast onboard. Afterall, they haven’t done anything at all with C-3PO or R2D2 either so why bother with any of the old characters? They should have jumped forward a century and done something new entirely. I suppose a ‘soft’ gradual reboot via TFA made business sense, edged Disney’s bets. But that does not excuse TLJ.

Adding insult to the injury is the reaction to the fanbase backlash, arguing that the fans are ‘self-entitled’ or stuck in the old ways and resistant to change. This is nonsense. I was all onboard for new Star Wars films and going in new directions with a fresh creative team. But I am not onboard the good ship revisionism, or undermining the successes and values of what went on before. Or having Leia pull a Mary Poppins impression in a dead vacuum.

Imagine a new Star Trek film, in which Kirk and Spock are openly gay and in love and have a relationship. I’m not homophobic or against gay characters or relationships, but that would not be true or representative of the original Star Trek or it’s characters (whatever the fan fiction would say). So if I or a group of fans called Paramount out on such a film, would that simply mean we are stuck in the old ways and resistant to change? If you want to make a film about gay men in space, go ahead, but don’t hijack Star Trek to do it.

Imagine a Superman film in which our hero allergic to cheese as well as Kryptonite, and fans raised their voices to the nonsense and lack or respect to the character and its history by depicting our hero injured by Lex Luthor shooting him with a cheese gun. Would the fans be berated for being stuck in their ways?

tlj4The Last Jedi is a pretty poor film. It is overlong, poorly constructed, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, there are loads of plotholes and coincidences glossed over with explosions and special effects. We see the rebel cruiser bridge explode and Admiral Ackbar killed and Leia do that Mary Poppins moment. A little later Holdo tells Poe to get off her bridge. I mean, what bridge? Didn’t we see it get wiped out? How is the cruiser even operational when the bridge got took out by the TIE fighters? On the casino planet, our heroes free the animals but leave behind the slave children?

Incredibly, TFA was probably a better film, as it at least had a modicum of a coherent plot and less awkward humor, and General Hux less of a moron. But at least TLJ  has an apt title, as its likely to be the last Star Wars I’ll go to the cinema to see- even the prequels didn’t do that to me. Time for another reboot then. Over to you, Disney.

 

 

 

A disturbance in the Force

lj.jpgWell, I just got back from watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Review later maybe (if I can keep my blood-pressure down). What the hell did I just watch?

Please help me. I think I saw a different film to most people, I mean, I have a few honest questions-

Oh my head hurts. Don’t get me started on Hologram Luke who Jedi mind-trick’s every fucker from his island on the other side of the galaxy. Thats rule-breaking like teleporting in Star Trek from a shuttle on Earth to planet Klingon, I mean, why use starships, teleporting is quicker. If Jedi can mind-trick people from anywhere in the galaxy, WTF.

Talking about rule-breaking, Leia’s ship is blown up, she’s thrown into space… absolute zero, absolute vacuum, and she just Force-walks back to safety? These Skywalkers grew up on Planet Krypton maybe, she got a big ‘S’ logo under her dress?

Snoke- who was he? TFA set him up as some kind of big mysterious villain, and rather than work at revealing something important or interesting, they duck the issue by killing him with a dumb sabre gag? Who, what, the hell was he? Where did he come from? You’re telling me that hack JJ Abrams never had a back story lined up after TFA, that he wrote that shit without a plan to take it anywhere?

What the fuck is the New Order, and how did they conquer the galaxy between the two movies with useless dicks like General Hux in charge?

Who is Rey really? Is she a Skywalker? Is she just a pretty Hutt? Just who are her parents? And how the hell is she so proficient in the Force without any lessons (other than a tirade from Luke)? Another mystery raised in TFA, here its dodged (again).

Ghost Yoda can now summon lightning down and blast magic trees? Why doesn’t he go try that on Snoke or Kylo Ren where it might do some good?

The mission to the casino planet, what was all that about? Did Finn’s mission there actually achieve anything, did it even aid the rebel escape? They come back with a dodgy bloke who betrays them?

Laura Dern’s General Whoever, how come she didn’t decide to Hyperspace into the New Order fleet earlier if its such a devastating ploy? And how come after she zaps the entire armada in a supernova the bad guys are still able to send an army down to the Rebel planet for a rehash of the Hoth battle?

That whole New Order fleet/Rebel fleet chase thing. It didn’t make any sense at all. The bad guys don’t send TIE fighters/bombers over because they have to protect the New Order ships from what, exactly? It was the most perplexing slow-motion nonsensical situation I have ever seen in  Star Wars movie. I kept asking myself, WTF? WTF?!!

I mean, the New Order fleet can track the rebel fleet, how? I figured maybe a traitor in the rebel fleet had a beacon operating, or a tracking device like the Falcon in Star Wars, but instead it’s just a clever gadget on the lead ship which if it gets disabled allows the rebels to escape? Like the other New Order ships can’t track it themselves? If not, why not?

How the bloody hell does BB8 climb up into and pilot a Scout Walker?

How did Rey suddenly turn up on the Falcon? She went off in Snoke’s personal shuttle or something and next thing you know she’s taking potshots at bad guys from inside the Falcon.

I just realised. Disney thinks Star Wars fans are all idiots. And they’ve got over a billion dollars in three weeks that might prove them right.

Oh my head hurts. I don’t think I can stand writing a review right now. WTF did I just watch? I was in the wrong screen, I was watching some National Lampoon/ SNL send-up instead, right?