Archive for Star Wars

Stupidity of the First Order

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona dragged me to see… no, I’ve got to stop saying that. I was curious to see the new Rian Johnson film too — big fan of BRICK, LOOPER, and THE BROTHERS BLOOM may be a misfire but it’s the kind of misfire I’d welcome more of. I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted to see the film RIGHT AWAY, but what the heck, it is a big screen spectacular…

There are spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to be discreet.

And some of the reviews were very good — though Peter Bradshaw bemoaned a major section of the plot being essentially a pointless side-trip. But that side-trip may be the most Johnsonian section of the narrative, a decadent art deco gambling world milieu. It inspires him to replay a shot from Wellman’s WINGS, soaring over the tables and between the customers. And it looks very much like it’s setting stuff up for the next film: the entrancing child actors from this sequence are coming back, it seems. But yeah, there’s too much of this film, and whole planets exist just to get the heroes captured so they can escape so they can get captured again. This is what happens when you don’t have enough real story.

Actors! Daisy Ridley seemed fine in the J.J. Abrams opener, but she has some very poor moments here, notably her first big speech. She’s cursed with a flat voice and an inexpressive face. That tiny cute scar on her cheek is her claim to interest. Though she’s not as bad as early Keira Knightley so maybe she’ll get there. John Boyega is fine in the non-eggy moments, Oscar Isaac is good but we know he can be better. Laura Dern continues her bold hair colouring from Twin Peaks. Hamill is good and Carrie Fisher’s valedictory turn is touching. Benicio Del Toro is the one bringing the real entertainment though I think giving him a stammer was over-egging it. He’s a natural eccentric already. Kelly Marie Tran is an unusual and charming presence and I was really interested in Veronica Ngo who has all too brief a role but gets to do the most affecting heroic stuff in the movie.

Andy Serkis is a CGI creation AGAIN, and I really don’t know why. The icky subtractive scar effect modelled by Frank Langella in the otherwise stultifying THE BOX is much more disturbing on a real actor than it is on a thing of pure pixels. Look at Voldemort in the HARRY POTTERs (there’s some quite Potterish stuff in this one) — a real actor rendered digitally noseless. As a voice performance, Serkis’ is a very generic baddie, and as a physical performance, he sits in a chair. And Adam Driver still feels too peevish and adolescent to be our boss villain, especially in a plot that basically has him outsmarted a lot.

Yoda and Maz Katana’s fleeting bits are just fan service. Chewbacca and the droids are barely more.

But there are some nifty set pieces — maybe the best light-saber battle ever, staged on a red set like something out of an MGM musical by way of Kurosawa. The opening dogfight has one very good thing going for it: it’s coherent. I wasn’t bored as I was with ROGUE ONE but I was ready for the movie to be over long before the makers apparently were. Then it would manage to muster my interest again. There’s a bit where the heroes escape on space buses. I was waiting for Princess Leia to say, “What am I, Carrie Fisher, doing playing piano on a bus to the moon?” I’ll be surprised if more than a couple of you get that reference.

If THE FORCE AWAKENS was a slavish remake of STAR WARS (you know, the first one, the film called STAR WARS), which it sure as shit was, Johnson’s opus is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in its broad strokes: the Rebels/Resistance have to flee their base, a young Jedi gets training from a Master while other characters go to a gambling planet but are betrayed; the heroes regroup at the end but face an uncertain future. Concurrent with these familiar beats are callbacks to memorable bits from the first film (Obi-Wan faces his pupil; garbage hatch escape; parental revelations; a hero disconnects his comms link while gunning for the weak spot of a huge weapon…), some deliberate, some maybe more desperate or resulting from the filmmakers running out of new situations.

But there’s stuff we haven’t seen before: super-fast dissolves as characters in different scenes exchange telepathic glances. A visual rebuttal of Lucas’s midichlorians bullshit, showing the force connecting all things with a nature montage suggesting the welcome influence of King Hu and A TOUCH OF ZEN. And I have to be cheered by so much of the film being set in Ireland, even if it’s meant to be Space Ireland.

There is some uncertainty of tone: is the movie duty-bound to feel like the old STAR WARS? Giving women and people of colour stuff to do is a welcome departure from Lucas’ films, but otherwise? One of the (innumerable) things that seemed wrong about Lucas’ own prequels was the stuff that just didn’t belong in the universe he’d created: fart jokes, the comedy sports announcer, that kind of stuff. There’s more of that here — a gag with what’s set up as a spacecraft but turns out to be a robotic iron pressing First Order uniforms seems more like a Richard Lester joke, and isn’t really connected to anything else the film attempts. There’s a relentless barrage of quips and many of them are not good. Though at least they don’t tend to paint the heroes as sadistic Man With No Name/James Bond thugs, as the quips in ROGUE ONE do: Poe Dameron doesn’t make mocking remarks to random stormtroopers as he’s killing them.

So it’s a mixed bag of Jedi mind tricks. Entertaining enough — if I had kids I would feel I was poisoning them if I let them watch the prequels, but this would get a pass. Not an exact clone,  for all its harking back, so that counts for something. But then, not as emotional as FORCE AWAKENS was. Watch this space, but I think I’m done with seeing this series on the big screen. But I’d like to see Johnson build a universe of his own.

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Episode 3.5: An Old Hope

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2017 by dcairns

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Spoilers in this one — don’t read it if you’re ever planning to see ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.

THE FORCE AWAKENS had some kind of vestigial appeal for me because I was ten when STAR WARS came out. But it was also frustrating because, like most JJ Abrams joints, it was just a remake and remix of its original. Another, even bigger Death Star? Again? Are ideas so scarce?

This new one didn’t awaken the same sentimental warmth in me because there were fewer of the original actors and less of the original John Williams leitmotifs. I enjoyed all the design and the environments (though two rocky planets in the first act was a mistake: should’ve differentiated them more). They picked up the best designs elements of the Lucas-Kirschner-Marquand trilogy, ditched the dodgy bits, added a bunch more that were stylistically in keeping and of a high standard. But the characters and plot and dialogue — ugh. OK, dialogue was never the series’ strong suit, but one does remember a few lines. There’s basically one good line in this, from the blind guy.

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Just one of the many exciting action sequences in ROGUE ONE.

I think it’s maybe a good thing that this one was less good vs. evil, black-and-white. There’s more conflict within the Rebel Alliance. But the story is very fragmented. After the first sequence we flash forward fifteen years or so. Then we start following several plotlines at once — quite different from the neat, WIZARD OF OZ like linearity of Lucas’ first effort. We meet the hero quite late in that one, because Lucas realized he had to use the robots to guide us through the story — as memory serves: when the droids meet Princess Fisher, we can then follow her and meet Grand Moff Cushing, and from then on we can intercut between droids, Fisher and Cushing. Then the droids meet Luke Hammillwalker, and we can intercut between his POV and the others (but sparingly). Luke meets Alec Kenobi, and then they meet Harrison Solo and Mayhewbacca. We don’t meet anyone before the droids meet them, except the baddies, who we meet via a kind of relay with the Princess.

Here, we just meet people all the time, whenever the committee in charge of the film feel like it, so it’s a jumble. And though the threads do intertwine more tightly to bring us to a climax on one planet, it still results in one of those horrible intercutty all-at-once climaxes that became a problem around RETURN OF THE JEDI. (STAR WARS has one climax, EMPIRE has two, JEDI has three). And it features the most ludicrous data retrieval system ever conceived, basically based on that arcade game with the claw where you try to pick up gifts.

(I think the awful inefficiency of the filing system must be why the cloned Cushing blows up the Empire’s entire records office at the end, along with the planet it’s on. There is no other possible explanation. I mean, it can’t have been in order to get the two surviving rebels, can it?)

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WARS and TREK both tend to deal in a mixture of one-dimensional and two-dimensional characters. Monsters and robots are mostly one-dimensional. C-3PO has one characteristic, he’s prissy. Chewbacca is large. Yoda is wise. The flesh-and-blood actors who show their own face-skin have slightly more facets, partly because Lucas realized they needed more, but also just because human beings tend to bring additional messiness to anything they play. Harrison Ford tends to sound bored, so his character becomes cynical and also crooked but also bored. Luke is noble and naive but also shrill and whiny.

In ROGUE ONE, the blind guy believes in the force and his pal is defined entirely by his faithfulness to the blind guy. The actors bring a little more to the table with individual line readings, but really that’s all they get to work with. It’s hard to say what makes the nice English girl in this different from the nice English girl in FORCE AWAKENS, other than backstory. The robot sounds like C-3PO only an octave lower, to which is added Chewie’s signature character trait of largeness. I can’t put any names to any characteristics of Diego Luna except he’s brave and a little ruthless. Riz Ahmed gives the best performance but it’s a miracle, since he has almost nothing to work with. Fairly early on, his brain gets tentacle-raped by Forrest Whitaker’s fat squid, and he’s a bit traumatized for the duration of a scene. Letting his combat shock last throughout the movie would have actually given him a part to play. What we get in the end is a pretty magnificent example of an actor bringing an empty outline to life by sheer force of commitment to inhabiting it with his humanity.

And then there’s Forrest Whitaker’s cyborg guy — a one-dimensional character with a two-dimensional head.

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Elsewhere we have the CGI Carrie Fisher about which all one can say is it doesn’t work, and the CGI Peter Cushing which doesn’t work and is an insult to a fine actor’s memory. I don’t care that his secretary gave permission. The idea that a bunch of nerds at computers are going to turn another thin actor into Cushing is preposterous and offensive and the results bear that out. Martin Scorsese said that as a kid seeing Hammer movies, he admired Cushing and “the precision of his movements within the frame.” The clone version certainly moves precisely — but the result is just “cut scenes” from vidgames only with a more detailed complexion.

So, my question is — given the movie’s commendably bold decision to basically kill all its characters, did someone say, “Better not make them too appealing, or people will be upset?” That doesn’t seem likely, but it’s what it felt like when I watched the film.

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Toallow a positive note — when Brian DePalma saw a rough cut of STAR WARS, the ever-obnoxious auteur sneered, “THAT’S your bad guy’s entrance?” as Dave Prowse in a plastic hat stepped into view at the end of a long corridor. This movie does give Darth Vader a much better entrance. First there’s a teaser of some guy living in a glass of milk in a big lava tower — Who lives in a house like this? The lava tower is actually an early Lucas idea for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and the partially-glimpsed, helmetless figure is actually a swipe from EMPIRE. A couple more bits. And then he gets a great action sequence at the end which sadly involves to actual characters but is very well staged, although not as good as the comparable fight in OLDBOY. But if you graft this one onto STAR WARS, Darth finally has a really strong, hissable entrance.

Did that make it worth twenty quid of our money? Hell no.

 

The Journal of the Whills

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 21, 2016 by dcairns

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Thanks to Danny Carr for lending me his massive STAR WARS making-of books. I find them fascinating, not because I’m a big fan anymore so much, but because of the insane amount of detail devoted to every part of the creative process. The sound editing stuff alone is fantastic. There are bits where, whatever your opinion of the films, you may find yourself impressed by Lucas’s determination/moxy/inventiveness/strategy, and bits where you might think him an idiot or a jerk.

Alhtough I sometimes enjoy mocking Lucas, nobody should be judged by their first drafts — unless first drafts is what they publish, as I usually do here — but the early versions of THE STAR WARS or THE JOURNAL OF THE WHILLS, to give it two of its early titles — are curiously unreadable things. Some of this is perhaps not Lucas’s fault — in summarising his plots, author J.W. Rinzler sometimes seems to be giving equal emphasis to everything, whether it’s a major plot point or merely a scenic effect, and he doesn’t go much into character motivation. This makes the long synopses feel like word soup — a bunch or people with funny names going from place to place, performing various actions, for no discernible reason. Still, we’re told that nobody at 20th Century Fox really understood what Lucas was up to, so this may in fact be a perfectly accurate condensation of his rough drafts.

Plus, there are lots of bits of business and character names (Mace Windy eventually turned into the slightly-more-dignified Mace Windu) that eventually got recycled in the prequels, and those really DO have that extraordinary narrative clumsiness — GO HERE — DO THING — MAKE SPEECH TO OTHER GUY — GO OVER THERE — CUT TO DIFFERENT PLANET — RUN! — FIGHT! — which seems to be Lucas’s default mode when he hasn’t put himself through the necessary hell to arrive at a coherent shape.

The first STAR WARS is really tight — even the apparent dead end of the Greedo-Jabba subplot provides essential motivation for Han in Act III. It’s important not so that he can have a lot of trouble in films 2 and 3 which is unrelated to the main action, but so that he can disappear and then reappear, delightfully, at the climax of Film 1. Contrast this with THE FORCE AWAKENS where Oscar Isaac pulls off an identical vanish-and-return strategy but WITH NO EXPLANATION WHATSOEVER.

For fun, I have reproduced some passages from Lucas’s disordered warblings, as rephrased by Rinzler, alongside some pastiche versions knocked off by me. Valueless and abstract prizes will be awarded to anyone who can tell which is which.

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In the war room, Skywalker tells his aide Montross to put everyone on alert, when Kane Starkiller and his son Annikin arrive. Kane asks Skywalker to take his son as the “Padawan Learner.” When Skywalker asks why, Kane reveals that his arm and chest are mechanical. “There is nothing left but my head and right arm. I’ve lost too much, Luke. I’m dying.” Suddenly Montross reports a giant asteroid or moon detaching itself from the Anchorhead system and heading their way. “It’s as big as our third moon.”

***

Artwo and Biggs locate the Kiber crystal and hide it Artwo’s exhaust unit. General Dodana and Deak Starkiller send them to Utapau to find Dai Nogas and apprise him of the battle plans. But Ogana is concerned that Seig Darklighter may be using the Force of Others to “channel death beams.” A Council of Seven is called to debate the next course of action, but Ogana secretly contacts Son Hhat and arranges a delivery of drones.

***

In the Palace of Lite the King and Queen watch two giant twin suns set in the green sky. Skywalker and Annikin arrive and report that Kane has gone to the spaceport of Gordon to meet an old friend, Han Solo, the Ureallian. Skywalker again pushes for war, but the king wants to get the approval of his allies first, and departs on a mission to Amsel to meet with the “full assembly.”

***

Rax Moda returns Akira’s lost lazersword to Binks, with the words “It served your Padawan well.” The Princess meets Luke’s twin brothers, Valorum and Ginch. All three set off by jetstick to Candowamp. There they find a tribe of Wookees, small, hooded creatures with glowing eyes. Valorum fights the Wookee leader Hoedack, using power staffs, but they later form an alliance. The Jedi leader, Aquilae, arrives by escape pod with important word from the Mouff System.

***

General Skywalker receives word that Whitsun, who had disappeared, has just been admitted to MedVac. They rush to the emergency room, where Whitsun says that the bad guys are just behind him–“A giant space fortress” is on its way, he explains. The general sends Annikin to pick up Princess Leia. At the Academy, Annikin retrieves Leia but not the handmaidens, one of whom remains as a decoy.

***

The robots eventually find their way to a  moisture ranch owned by Luke’s uncle and aunt, Owen and Beru Lars. They meet there Luke’s young twin brothers, Biggs and Windy, and his sixteen-year-old cousin, Leia, the daughter of Owen and Beru. The robots explain that they are looking for “Angel Blue,” the code name for Luke. When they meet Luke Starkiller, he interrupts his laser sword training to introduce himself as “the Skywalker.”

***

While the old man looks for the Kiber Crystal, the others rescue the princess, which doesn’t go smoothly. “She’s a tough babe: doesn’t appreciate their help–a trap? Han punches her in the face and Chewbacca carries her out?” They then have to face the Dia Noga and have various adventures, while the old man gets the crystal, at which point the Sith Knights “become ill.”

Art by Ralph McQuarrie.