Tuesday, 4 August 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 2: Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

The battle is over, but the Wars have just begun. As amazing, exciting and innovative as A New Hope was, it was an introduction, a mere prologue to the expansion of its own universe which is executed on such an epic scale in its sequel. This is the birth of the space opera; the moment where the fun kids' film matures, bringing all the agony and adventure of adolescence to the movies in wave after wave of thunderously enjoyable exploits. This... is The Empire Strikes Back.

If that comes across as a little pompous, then apologies. But also, fuck you. The Empire Strikes Back deserves every ounce of pomp heaped on it over the last 35 years, and I'm not about to change that. It's not alone in being a truly perfect sequel, but it is one of a mere handful: how so few franchises have failed to grasp its aims, its achievements and the efficiency of its setup is a complete mystery. Every character and their connections to each other are deepened, the significance of every action is weightier and everything is accomplished with cast iron confidence, despite the inherent risks: front-loading a massive sci-fi sequel with what should be its climactic battle so that the final act's focus can fall on the relationship between a father and a son is so ballsy that over three decades later, most blockbusters still daren't try anything similar. You can blame Star Wars for the dumbing down of populist cinema if you like, but The Empire Strikes Back showed the world a smarter alternative which seems to have been largely ignored. Even George Lucas can't be held responsible for that.
What?

Lucas' story reveals the true scope of his little space project, but Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan's script remembers that it's characters and friendships which are the hyperdrive that powers these films. Luke and Han's relationship is enviably solid, as evinced even in their first exchange of the film, and Han and Leia enjoy the most enjoyable unresolved sexual tension in cinema. It's a testament to the writing and acting that even when that sexual tension is resolved, we still can't take our eyes off them. Han is such a dick when he's trying to get in Leia's royal knickers that it's a painful reminder of how irrationally badly many of us behave while trying to impress a member of the opposite sex; as with most things, life would have been so much easier if only we were Harrison Ford.

Even Darth Vader is briefly humanised, that awkward shot of his boiled-egg bonce revealing him to be some kind of person after all, and it's the first step into the wider world of Vader's character that ends with his heroism at Return Of The Jedi's climax. Or maybe he's just trying to having a shit in peace for once without some underling reporting their latest failure, I dunno. Second-tierers Chewie, R2-D2 and C-3PO don't get much chance to evolve - in fact 3PO is so extraneous to the plot that Brackett and Kasdan have to blow him up to get him out of the way - but in their place comes Yoda, a miracle of puppeteering that could have derailed the film entirely had it been any less perfectly accomplished.
Iconic production design is still on-point too: the AT-ATs are unforgettable despite their colossal impracticality (don't the Empire have a TIE fighter equivalent of snowspeeders?), while Cloud City and Dagobah are beautifully realised, diametrically opposed settings. One of the saga's greatest assets is its uniquely distinct locations, never letting you forget where you are - geographically and emotionally - at any given point in the story, while emphasising the sweep of the narrative's universe. In an attempt to up the ante set by A New Hope's Star Destroyer, we get the Super Star Destroyer Executor, which appears to be powered by the very infernos of Hell, and Boba Fett takes over from Vader and the Stormtroopers as the galaxy's sharpest-dressed motherfucker.

As with the self-reflexive nature of A New Hope's David vs Goliath / Rebellion vs Empire / George Lucas vs Hollywood plot, here we see a young man learning the extent of his powers and working out how best to employ them. It's hard not to see Luke's failure at the cave as an ironic signposting of ill-advised decisions Lucas would make himself in the years to come, but for now the bearded genius is still just that. His decision to send his principal characters their separate ways at the climax is as audacious and inspired as all the others he's made up to this point, ensuring that a) the final act of his trilogy is primed and ready to unfold, and b) the green light for another film would be guaranteed by fan pressure, if nothing else. You might say, haha, that the force, right, is strong with thi- (*record scratch*)


"This is no cave"
The Falcon's escape from the jaws of the giant space worm thing - sorry, the Exogorth - is a perfect example of the trilogy's sense of humour and mischief; it's the epitome of the excitement of Han and Leia's adventures as counterpoint to the somewhat less thrilling goings-on on Dagobah. And the great thing about Star Wars is that any questions you might have about how such a beast might evolve or survive have been answered in intricate detail by people with exactly the right amount of time on their hands.

Lando's betrayal
It's semi-expected thanks to Han's casting doubt on Lando's character when he first mentions him, but the events leading to that particular dinner party on Bespin are no less traumatic. It seems like a missed opportunity for more Vader / Leia banter, but the focus on Solo - who at this point knows he's putting his life on the line for a fight he never intended to get into - makes him all the more the hero. What does Vader plan to eat, though? And more importantly, how?

"I love you" / "I know"
This line never made it into The Telegraph's recent 100 Greatest Movie Quotes Of All Time listicle, yet "I love lamp" did. Work that one out if you can.

The carbon freeze
Speaking of iconic production design, as I was, er, several paragraphs ago, is there any cooler representation of the vulnerability of the rugged action hero than this? I bawled my eyes out at this scene when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back, not because I thought Han was dead but because I suddenly realised he wasn't immortal and was overwhelmed by his sacrifice. Why yes, I did get picked on at school, why do you ask?

The Imperial March
Oh hi I'm John Williams and I've just tossed off the best piece of music in the entire history and future of cinema. Care for a mint?


What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)

Friday, 31 July 2015

Four films I'll be giving a shit about in


THE GIFT

I appreciate this looks like your average home invasion thriller, but that's an interesting cast right there, plus Jason Bateman looks like my friend Luke and watching him being terrorised by a psychopath is my idea of fun. Sorry Luke. (7th)

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Kingsman: The Secret Sevice. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. I'm enjoying all these tongue-in-cheek spy movies trying to out-Bond Bond. Good luck to them I say. You're all doomed. (14th)

45 YEARS

Old people, eh? You never know what they're going to do next, the unpredictable buggers. (28th)

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

As a middle-aged, middle-class white man from the Midlands, I'm glad there's finally a film I can connect with on a personal level. This looks to represent my cushioned upbringing and privileged childhood perfectly. Flip the policeman! (28th)

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Brrrmm, neeeooowww, pew pew!
It's the new Spectre trailer!

NO TIME FOR IRREVERENT INTRO TOO EXCITED

Bond's questionable choice of headgear continues: after the teaser's silly limp woolly affair, here he is sporting a topper complete with Baron Samedi-type mask. Note gentleman in background making no effort whatsoever to join in with the Day Of The Dead parade; I hope he gets blown up soon.

Bond's only gone bloody rogue in bloody Mexico! He hasn't done that since Licence To Kill, which as we all know is the best Bond film ever made, therefore Spectre is the best Bond film ever made as well. #logic

"What were you doing there?" asks a pissed-off M, which is my favourite kind of M. "Taking some overdue holiday", comes Bond's response. Alternative responses nixed by Sony included "Keeping the British end up", "Playing bingo with a gringo" and "I met a girl but I had tequila".

Here's Bond's new motor, the Aston Martin DB10. It can do 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, has three speeds of windscreen wiper and the air freshener smells of Lynx Africa. Please please please please please please please let it have an ejector seat.

Q Branch! It's a scene in Q Branch, everyone! Last time we saw Q Branch John Cleese was making shit jokes and Pierce Brosnan was sniffing an old shoe; now there are Q-monkeys in the background making a motorbike that turns into a cow. Happy days are here again.

Monica Bellucci's character, Lucia Sciarra, has been notably inconspicuous in all the marketing so far. It's almost as if EON wanted us to be focusing our attention elsewhere for some reason. It may interest you to note that "Sciarra"'s various translations into English include "scar" and "war".

Here's Dave Bautista as Mr Hinx, who's meant to be a big scary guy but it's hard to be terrified of him when he sneezes every time he snaps someone's neck.

Hey, you! You're on the internet - I bet you've got a good reason why this would NEVER HAPPEN in a real hacking situation. Please deliver your pithy takedown now so that I can jam it right up your arsehole.

Q has packed his crappiest laptop but his most fabulous sweater to go and assist Bond in the field. It's Licence To Kill again, again!

Shittest graffiti ever. I mean come on James, every schoolboy knows you don't put your full name. You need a tag, like "Fisto" or "Shootr" or "Psychopathicsextourist". Must try harder.

Here's our first full-ish look at "Franz Oberhauser", played by Griff Rhys Jones Christoph Waltz. Meanwhile, somewhat confusingly, Andrew Scott ominously mumbles "you came across me so many times, yet you never saw me". Well I never saw him either, and I've watched all these films at least twice. If the new Blu-rays do a Star Wars and digitally insert Scott into the background of scenes from Craig's Bonds I will literally shit.

Proof that the government's austerity measures are biting hard into MI6's budget: they spent so much on the DB10 that the only way they could label the "BACKFIRE" button was with a Dymo Junior Labelwriter. Bloody Tories! *shakes fist*

Daniel Craig slaps on the ivory tux for the first time while a refrain from John Barry's score for On Her Majesty's Secret Service screams out in the background. I don't think I can take much more of this.

SSSSHHHHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIITTTTT!!!!!!!

OH LOOK COME ON ENOUGH WITH THE "CHRISTOPH WALTZ ISN'T BLOFELD" BULLSHIT, HE'S WEARING A FUCKING NEHRU COLLAR! In other news, "Franz Oberhauser" reveals himself to be the author of All Your Pain, available in hardback at all good bookshops priced £15.99. Audiobook also available, read by Richard Madeley.

This shot lasts about eight femtoseconds but appears to show Andrew Scott and Ralph Fiennes scrapping inside MI6. I mean seriously if you're not excited yet you can jolly well go away you dullard.

GRRRR!! Bond is very cross, which is never a bad thing. I am now ready for Spectre. Bring it on like a megaton bomb.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Inside Out

It's only fitting that Inside Out should nudge Force Majeure off the top of my ongoing Best Films Of 2015 list: the latter is a film about how shitty it is being a grown up with the world on your shoulders, while Pixar's latest nimbly captures the shittiness of actually doing the growing up and feeling the world forcing itself onto your shoulders in the first place. Of course the two films aren't remotely comparable, making my list a tedious exercise in futility, but Inside Out features a character called Bing Bong who is part elephant, part cat, part dolphin and part candy floss so it deserves to take pole position for that reason alone.
"Film of the year? You cannot be cirrus"

It seems redundant to congratulate Pixar on their perfectly-pitched characterisations, immaculate world-building and effortless storytelling, all backed up by exquisite animation; it's like applauding a chicken for being tasty. That's just what they do. Or at least it was, until the triple non-whammy of Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University suggested that particular chicken might be past its best. Those films still pulled in the greenbacks, but the years 2011-13 represent a low point in the studio's creative history. A two-year absence from cinema screens followed: a period which everyone at Pixar appears to have spent huddled in a corner reimagining, rewriting and refining their entire philosophy. I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest that the result represents the most triumphant return since Christ popped his head round the door of his tomb one Easter and yelled "Heeeeeere's Jeezy!"

Inside Out is absolutely peak Pixar: its premise - that we're all controlled by our emotions, represented by cuddly characters knocking about in our noggins making us sad, happy, angry or scared - is beautifully streamlined but exceptionally executed. You've seen it before in comic strip The Numskulls (I may be showing my age here) or Red Dwarf episode Confidence & Paranoia, but this is next-level emotional anthropomorphism for Generation Pix. Writers Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley set up an ingenious but logical world inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley, where memory banks, personality islands and trains of thought are literal, visual representations of cognitive processes, the full workings of which few without a PhD in advanced psychology could hope to understand.

With those building blocks in place, Docter - also directing - takes us on an adventure of such ludicrous inventiveness that you spend as much time rejoicing in the unpredictability of what's to come as you do in the idiotically-grinning glee of what's happening at any given moment. It's reminiscent of this summer's other, somewhat less successful Disney joint Tomorrowland in its ability to conjure up one air-punchingly amazing set-piece after another, but with the invaluable bonus of not having had Damon Lindelof get his grubby mitts anywhere near it. I could happily have spent twice as long in Riley's chamber of abstract thought as I did, and would gladly pay through the nose for a three-day ticket to Imagination Land.
IT HAS A FOREST OF FRENCH FRIES FFS

This party bag of visual delights would be nothing without Pixar's trademark emotional wallop to back it up though, and Inside Out packs enough of a punch to put you in intensive care at Feels General. Appropriately, given that Joy and Sadness are the two main protagonists, this firmly places you as the ball in a game of Pong between the two; I thought I'd escaped any embarrassing teargasms when I made it through the prologue dry-eyed, but for most of the last act I found myself reduced to an unsightly puddle, simultaneously cry-laughing at some of the most ridiculously touching stuff I've witnessed on film. Because Docter makes no bones about it: growing up is a terrifying, confusing process, during which you leave behind as much as you gain. Forgotten, precious memories are one thing, but the reshaping of a personality caused by the incessant change of youth is a mentally violent process, and Inside Out doesn't shy away from that - it just cushions the blow by explaining it using characters who are part elephant, part cat, part dolphin and part candy floss.

Bogglingly imaginative, obscenely funny in places and consistently heartfelt, Inside Out puts every other tentpole flick this year to shame with its unpredictability, its creativeness and its apparently effortless ability to yank at the heartstrings. Not just the best film of 2015 so far but arguably the best of Pixar's entire output, it's the kind of movie that almost makes you want to have children just so you can show it to them. Although why you would want to do that when it spends its whole running time reminding you that being a child is just about the most traumatic thing you can do is quite beyond me. I think I'd rather just watch Force Majeure again and have an early night.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Ant-Man

It seems impossible for any discussion of Peyton Reed's Ant-Man to take place without referring to Edgar Wright's Ant-Man, so let's get that out of the way sharpish. When Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish left the project just over a year ago after working on it for over a decade, it was tricky not to feel a little deflated. It's not that their involvement necessarily guaranteed a flawless smash hit, but to stick a director with such a distinct style into the Marvel Cinematic Universe felt like exactly the shot in the arm the series needed before it disappeared up its own interdimensional wormhole. Replacing Wright with the director of Jim Carrey LOL-vacuum Yes Man seemed, uh... insane, let's say; Peyton Reed appeared to have been hired simply because he sounded like a Marvel character himself.

Fast forward to July 2015 though, and watch as a smug, cynical blogger, bored silly by the summer's blockbuster output and expecting little from Ant-Man, leaves the cinema with a big stupid grin on his big stupid face, reflects on the preceding two hours and realises that at no point did he stop and think 'what would this have been like if Edgar Wright had directed it?'. Wright isn't missed for two reasons: one, there are still plenty of his and Cornish's ideas left in the finished product; and two, Peyton Reed does a perfectly bang-up job of delivering a fun, silly, inventive, standalone superhero flick that sticks two tiny fingers up to both the rest of the MCU and the naysayers. Ant-Man's provenance may be troubled and complex, but the result is as slick as a melted Cornetto.
Kicking off with a 1989-set prologue starring a CG-de-aged Michael Douglas that clears the uncanny valley so comfortably it plants a flag in the opposite peak, Ant-Man wastes little time in introducing its leads. Douglas is Hank Pym, inventor of "The Pym Particle" (carefully enunciated on each occasion so as not to sound like "The Pimp Article"), which can shrink people and things; the science behind his discovery is left blissfully unexplained. Evangeline Lilly has a terrible hair day as Hank's estranged daughter and assist-ant (ugh) to ant-agonist (sorry) Darren Cross (a disappointingly bland Corey Stoll), Hank's former student who now wants to sell his old mentor's invention for war and shit. Paul Rudd, meanwhile, is Scott Lang, a smart-mouthed ex-cat burglar trying to go straight so he can see more of his unbearably cute moppet daughter.

None of the main characters break much new ground and their arcs are slight (Cross' is a straight line), and while their introductions are efficient the first act takes a while to play out. Scott's journey to his destiny as wearer of Hank's magic shrinky costume is delayed by the tropes of the superhero origin story, which dictate that it must be the best part of an hour before we see our hero super-suited and booted. Once Scott finds and test-drives the suit, though, it's full steam ahead, and our introduction to the world in miniature is a delicious tease: a tremendous shot of Scott clinging for dear life to the grooves of a record, trying to avoid the needle, is tantalisingly brief.

Almost as if the film suddenly realises it has a lot of catching up to do, we're launched headlong into a dizzyingly intense, exposition-heavy training montage before the meat of the story can commence - a heist, in which Scott must retrieve Hank's secret formula from Cross before he can sell it to some warmongering bastard or other. Proceedings are interrupted by a somewhat forced and unnecessary diversion inserted to remind us we're in the Avengers universe, but otherwise it's a streamlined mid-section that astounds and delights, not least as tiny Scott and his horde of helpful hymenoptera launch an assault on the caverns and skyscrapers of a server room.
If Ant-Man ended post-heist you'd be happy enough, but instead it keeps changing up through the gears, powering through several inspired set-pieces that wring the situation's ludicrousness dry with sparkling wit before dipping into unexpectedly psychedelic territory towards the end. I won't say too much, but any finale that references Thomas The Tank Engine and 2001: A Space Odyssey within minutes of each other is fine by me.

What makes Ant-Man such a refreshing addition to the MCU is its very nature as a small-scale story: no cities are levitated here, no worlds are threatened; while Avengers: Age Of Ultron went as bloated as it could before bursting, this keeps things personal and relatable without losing the ability to impress. Reed handles the action masterfully, but the relationships between the leads are equally important and just as well-executed. Plus it's ruddy funny, and not just because of funny Rudd: some of the visual gags are ingeniously thought-out.

Probably the most fun I've had with a Marvel film since Iron Man Three over two years ago, Ant-Man suggests a more interesting future for the MCU than I'd been led to expect. Captain America still bores me and the Guardians of the Galaxy are yet to win me over, but if the odd curveball can be thrown every now and then I'll happily keep visiting the universe. Scott Lang's return in Captain America: Civil War next May makes the dull Avenger's next outing a more tempting prospect, but it's the unknown quantity of Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange I'm now looking forward to more. Scott Derrickson is down to direct that, but I'm sure Edgar Wright could find a window in his schedule somehow.

Monday, 6 July 2015

There's a James Bond comic
book series on the way

I don't know much about comics (apparently you can get some that aren't Batman) but I'm on board for this, based on the fact that two people on Twitter told me it would probably be good, and also the artist followed me straight back, making us bestbudz4eva.

More helpful details here.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Seven films I'll be giving a shit about in


TERMINATOR GENISYS
lol j/k (2nd)

AMY
I never really cared much for Amy Winehouse or her music, but I am sheep enough to be intrigued by the buzz this has been getting. Also she had a house not far from me so if she hadn't died she might well have popped round for a cup of sugar one day. (3rd)

ANT-MAN
Apparently this marks the end of Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I for one am glad to see the back of it. Phase Three, with its films about Captain America, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Thor and The Avengers looks loads better. (17th)

SELF/LESS
Hahahaha, hahahooHOOHOOHOOHAHAHA ah, dear HAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh deary me, this looks HOOHOOOHOOOOOO amazing. (17th)

THE WONDERS
I haven't done any research but if this is the one with the bees that everyone liked at Cannes then sure, why not. Bees are great. (17th)

INSIDE OUT
I have been waiting DECADES for a movie of The Numskulls from Beezer. Beezer was better than the Beano, you know that, right? And Whizzer & Chips was the king. Sorry, what were we talking about? (24th)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION
I don't want to be mean or anything but I hope Benji dies in this one. (30th)