Archive for The Phantom Menace

Reboot of the Jedi

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I was going to be all noble and abstain from seeing STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS because I am an adult. I have managed to avoid giving George Lucas any of my money since the first mangling of the original STAR WARS with CGI characters dropped into it at random, though this was partially by luck rather than design — a friend acquired a bootleg of THE PHANTOM MENACE before it came out and I abandoned all ethical principles and said what the hell and watched it and was damned glad I hadn’t thrown my money away on that load of tripe.

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But Fiona wanted to see this one, because it has the original actors in it a bit and so it connects more convincingly to any residual fondness one has for the original trilogy… and she had an unexpectedly emotional response to it. Funnily enough, I had just come from a costume fitting with the magnificent thespian Gavin Mitchell, who reported that he saw the movie while rather tired but his girlfriend got really emotional. Same thing. Is this a STAR WARS film that works better for girls? No bad thing, since the first film was so boysie (and so white) as one female fan wrote, ruefully, “One wonders if Princess Leia had anyone to play with when she was small.”

Princess Leia is STILL small, but she’s now a general. Han Solo is back to smuggling, the marriage thing having not quite worked out. Best of all, there are new characters, who actually have characters, unlike the entire cast of the prequels. John Boyega plays Finn, a disaffected stormtrooper — someone with actual demonstrable integrity, who rejects the politics he’s been raised with — nobody else in the films has such nobility. Daisy Ridley plays Rey (I think that’s short for Reysie Diddly, although it may also be a nod to the maker of another celebrated trilogy). Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, the only one of these kids with a surname, and does a lot well with very little writing to support him. It had been uncertain, looking at his previous performances, whether the brooding O.I. could pull off lightly likeable, but he does it here. Oh, and bad guy Adam Driver, he of the massive face, a co-star of O.I.’s from INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, is excellent too. J.J. Abrams has by now made a lot more films than Lucas had when he made the first film in the saga franchise, and has certainly shown a lot more care than Lucas lavished on the prequels. And he has a surer sense of what STAR WARS films need to be like. I swear, when that two-headed sports commentator turned up in PHANTOM MENACE…

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Abrams’ great vice is his tendency to pass off remakes as reboots, so here we get secret plans hidden in a droid, yet another, an even bigger death star, Luke as the lost Jedi master in place of Obi-Wan, and a climax which intercuts a dogfight with a light-sabre duel. Plus a desert planet which might as well be Tatooine but isn’t, and a snowy planet that isn’t Hoth. The sense of deja vu is entirely intentional, but I would certainly have liked to see the filmmakers invent more — there are some striking background characters, but they stay in the background. And the filmmakers’ imaginations seem constrained, as if they can’t really imagine all this stuff they’ve imagined. The new death star is the size of a planet, but when the heroes land there next to one particular building they have to destroy, they quickly bump into the one person they’re looking for. It’s a small world after all.

The relentless compaction extends to time also — take a stop-watch with you and see how long elapses between the terrible news that the death star will be able to destroy everybody in two minutes, and the eventual solution to that narrative problem. We’re very used to this kind of trick in movies — the bomb timer that keeps doubling back on itself — but I swear it’s about fifteen minutes this time.

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Things Abrams definitely does better than Lucas:

The dialogue. With the aid of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK co-writer Larry Kasdan and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE guy Michael Arndt, Abrams has written (sparse) dialogue which doesn’t make you want to chew your own jaw off.

No midi-chlorians. Interestingly, midi-chlorians are the reason that, whenever you meet a Jedi knight, they smell like swimming pools.

Action. Lucas has recently tended to equate “excitement” with “shitloads of things buzzing about” whereas Abrams favours coherence, and has a pleasing tendency to make each shot do more than one thing, tying the scene together with images that develop and move, enhancing the sense of context at every turn.

Domnhall Gleeson with his permanent expression of “Ooh, matron!” camp outrage. So nice to find an actor making a bold choice and sticking to it.

Emotion. Even in the first/fourth film (the film that was called STAR WARS), Lucas rather shrank from emotion. John Williams provides a soaring Wagnerian leitmotif when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed, but since there hasn’t been a single hint of human warmth between Luke and his kin, this can only do so much. A comparison with THE SEARCHERS, from which Lucas has borrowed this moment, shows how much is lacking — or avoided. This kind of thing has caused me to equate the word “operatic” with the phenomenon of “gesturing grandly at a supposed emotion without actually making you feel anything” — which I don’t think is the original meaning of the term. In amidst the frenetic running about, Abrams’ characters build up some actual affection — Reysie Diddly and John Bodeya are particularly useful here.

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But the reason Fiona had such a strong emotional response to the movie is that it reminded her of the original, which made her want to make movies at age 11. And maybe it was more the publicity booklet we both owned, which drew shrewd connections to everything from METROPOLIS to SILENT RUNNING, highlighted behind-the-scenes activities, and unpicked the creative process.

Meeting these characters again could be glibly compared to meeting people you grew up with, but really they haven’t grown up. It’s like meeting someone from your childhood and finding they haven’t matured at all. It’s cheering, in a nostalgic way, for a little while (135 minutes may be pushing it), to meet people incapable of growth or development, whose world doesn’t change. I don’t know why it should be so, but whenever friends meet Fiona & I after a while apart, they assure us that it is.

Tongue Wars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on February 22, 2011 by dcairns

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Jar jar Binks candy tongue. I kind of missed out on this edible treat since I saw THE PHANTOM MENACE on a friend’s pirated copy and pronounced it shit. So I had no interest in paying to see it projected big, and skipped the follow-ups also.

BUT — the idea of a Jar Jar Binks severed head which you squeeze in order to make his tongue extrude, a tongue which you then suck, in order to dissolve it into flavoursome candy… that is pretty twisted. A friend calls it “the worst thing that ever happened,” and I don’t think you need any profound emotional investment in the STAR WARS saga to agree. It tends to confirm my theory that the prequels in general were a Milgram-like psychological experiment by George Lucas to discover just how much raw effluent he could get his fans to ingest, while paying for the privilege. The answer being, apparently, “An unlimited quantity.” (At least until the animated movie lost him sixty million. REVENGE OF THE SCHADENFREUDE.)

It’s not just that Jar Jar was a racist caricature, an absurd tonal error, and an irritating comedy sidekick. Because, let’s face it, if he’d been as popular as Chewbacca, we still wouldn’t necessarily have been happy watching our children suck his tongue. Now, if Lucas had made a squeezable Princess Amidala with an extendable candy tongue, that might have been different. I did not, you’ll note, say better. I just said different.

So, while Shadowplay is happy to endorse Alain Delon’s fragrance and the posable Tippi Hedren, we have to draw the line somewhere, and we’re drawing it well before we get within a yard of Jar Jar’s candy frickin’ tongue.

Quote of the Day: “That”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 22, 2008 by dcairns

It’s at 1:15 in the above: the line, “This is a battle I do not think that we can win.”

It’s the word “that”. Take it out and see what happens. Better, isn’t it? It stops being illiterate, unspeakable gibberish and starts to sound like a sentence. Although, why stop there? “This is a battle we can’t win,” is quite a bit snappier.

This is PHANTOM MENACE trailer 2. Remember how excited all the fans were? Maybe, being a horrific pedant, I was the only person thinking, “Hang on, if THAT’S the best line they could find to stick in the trailer… we could be in trouble here.”

My history: I was just young enough to enjoy the first two STAR WARS films, a bit old for the third, and crucially, I had been lucky enough to experience the original KING KONG at a matinee so there was no way the STAR WARS films were going to mean everything to me, at least not for long. And I’d seen Lester’s MUSKETEERS films, which lodged at some deeper, more resonant level. And I’d been part of matinee audiences cheering along with Godzilla in some of those terrible later kaiju movies, which proves something else: that the thrills kids get from action-adventure-fantasy stuff really don’t need to come from movies that are in any conventional way good, which explains George Lucas’ success to some degree.

Nevertheless, I have thought of a potentially enjoyable Shadowplay approach to THE PHANTOM MENACE and its sequels. Since Lucas, in his quest for secrecy and contempt for the audience, kept his rambling, brainless scripts away from the eyes of anyone who could have improved them (“We had Huyck and Katz go over the dialogue on the first STAR WARS, but we didn’t do that this time because… it didn’t need it.” What he means is he knew he could make his millions this time no matter how bad the writing was), what we have is something arguably purer than the traditional focus-grouped-to-death summer blockbuster trash. It’s pure DRIVEL, but it IS PURE.

And there may be something touching, if one can embrace it, about such childish jottings given C.G.I. form at vast expense, a staggering waste of resources which can be completely justified in market terms, thus providing the only argument one should need to demolish capitalism. The contrast between the massive size of the operation and the miniscule talent behind it is the most genuinely epic thing about the series. It kind of makes me want to cry, but at the same time there’s an awesome scope to the awfulness that is at least INTERESTING.