Friday 28 August 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 3:
Star Wars: Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi

Phase One of the Star Wars Cinematic Universe comes to a close with Return Of The Jedi, a film which, by necessity, must be all payoff for the two-hour setup of The Empire Strikes Back. And pay off it does, in ruddy great space-spades: Jedi delivers on an increasingly huge scale, even as its supporting characters become increasingly smaller.

The first point of order is obviously to rescue Han Solo from his cryogenic slumber (during which he seems to have miraculously put on a few pounds), and it's to George Lucas' and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan's credit that they devote the entire first act to the heist. It's a fun, extended opener that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the story, but it needs to take up that first half hour because we were so invested in Han's sacrifice in Empire. If you've spent three years waiting to find out how he's going to get defrosted, you don't want the explanation tossed off in the first five minutes.

A quick Dagobah diversion acts as a weird aside where we're reminded of all the important stuff that needs resolving before the credits roll, and in all honesty much of it is a little baffling. We're told that Luke needs to face Vader to truly become a Jedi, but didn't he just do that at the end of Empire? I mean, fair play for raising the emotional stakes of their final father / son chit-chat, but there's a suspicion that Lucas may have put that dialogue in as a placeholder and forgotten to finish it. Then Yoda struggles to squeeze out the words "There........ is...... a................. nother ........................................... Sky............................................... walk........................................................................................ er" before wheezing his last, apparently unaware that "Leia is your sister" has fewer syllables. He's only being vague so we can get the full story from see-through Obi-wan, who gets the short straw of having to explain why everything he said in Star Wars was bullshit. The sense that Lucas is retroactively rewriting his story as he goes along is palpable, but it's a canny move to give Alec Guinness the role of Basil Exposition here; the character's wisdom and eccentricity just about allow him to carry off the bollocks he's spouting.

The team outing to Endor is where the Star Wars machine finally starts to come unstuck, thanks in no small part to a bunch of short furry twats. The Ewoks represent Lucas' wish to have the gargantuan, technologically advanced Empire defeated by a smaller, underestimated foe, forgetting that he'd already done that at the end of Star Wars, and so the pointy sticks and small rocks lobbed by dwarf children in fluffy onesies pierce the armour of Stormtroopers more used to laser bolts, and it all gets a bit silly. Frankly I began to doubt the integrity of the Ewoks as a viable narrative device the moment they provided a complete fitted outfit for the decidedly non-Ewok-shaped Princess Leia with no notice whatsoever.
Maybe it's from the plus-size range

Fortunately there's the mother of all space battles going on concurrently, as well as the apocalyptically epic climax of Luke and Vader's story, the intimacy of which feels weightier than anything going on in Teletubbyland. John Williams' accompaniment to the duel is monstrously doom-laden, and Luke's final, furious attack on Vader - prompted by the old man's threat to recruit Luke's "sissssstaaa" - is gloriously ferocious. The masterful crosscutting between the three simultaneous finales stops you getting bored of any one scene without becoming jarring, and Vader's final sacrifice is the perfect conclusion. Well done, Star Wars Trilogy, you done good.

However. Something's not quite right. Something's changed. The edge has gone. All the interesting character work that continues to set the first two films apart from almost every other sci-fi epic seems to have gone missing; the moment Han and Leia's unresolved sexual tension resolved itself, they stopped being the cool older kids and became your parents. Even Han's belief that everything he says is cool or funny reminds you of your dad. The Ewoks are cute and cuddly with the specific intention of selling toys to small children, and Vader's revealed face is more "favourite uncle" than "evil, twisted warlord". They're all small things, but they add up to a lesser film than their predecessors, which is an undeniable shame.

Still, it's the final Star Wars film, so at least they can't get any worse, right?

Darth Vader is really pointy
Notable by their absence from the prequel trilogy are any scenes in which Shmi Skywalker teaches little Ani that it's rude to point. Decades later, Darth Vader can barely get a word out without his forefinger jabbing around like a sleeping teenager's cock. Put it away, man!

The Death Star II
Once again, production design is totally on point in the Star Wars universe. Like some kind of hideously deformed Pac-Man floating in space, the semi-constructed new Death Star is another terrifically iconic work of art, regardless of the practicalities involved in its actual construction. I mean how come nobody there seems to be doing any actual building work, and why didn't they cover it up with a lifesize painting of the original Death Star, like they do when they're renovating old buildings?

C-3PO is a shit translator
For someone who bangs on incessantly about being fluent in over six million forms of communication, you'd think 3PO might put on an accent every now and again. He always just sounds like a posh Englishman abroad reading loudly from a phrasebook.

Jabba The Hutt
I love this guy. Look at his flabby, fleshy folds and just imagine what he keeps inside them. He's so spectacularly disgusting, with his roly-poly tuba theme tune and his shot-from-below, Sydney Greenstreet stylings and his amazing collection of gloopy mucus, I just want to give him a big fat hug.

Leia is a bit mean
Determined not to be all soppy and girly about being in love with Han Solo because she's an independent woman of the '80s, Leia rescues her fella from the carbonite but stands there while he falls out of it and faceplants himself firmly in the concrete floor of Jabba's palace. That woman's gonna be hard work.

What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Advertorial: Selling my soul to
Backyard Cinema for a burger and a beer

Londoners would be hard pressed to make it home from work this summer without inadvertently wandering into an open-air cinema screening, so prolific are they at this stage. They're happening literally everywhere: in fields, on rooftops, in markets, in ladies' changing rooms, underwater, in bowls of soup, in space and in the space between spaces.

But only one of the brands currently peddling their wall-and-ceiling-free movie shows has had the foresight to bung The Incredible Suit a free ticket, burger and two drinks, so they're currently the only ones enjoying the unfathomable reach of a promotional post on this narrowly-read film blog. I suspect they were hoping I wouldn't be writing this quite so far into their season, but I have been quite busy so owt's better than nowt at this stage.

Anyway, Backyard Cinema is at Camden Lock until September 4th, boasting two screens, a load of deckchairs, some bean bags and the very real chance of eating an amazing burger. And despite the fact that I was more or less paid to write this, I can happily confirm that Backyard Cinema is actually one of the better outdoor screening events out there. Their partnership with Honest Burger makes them very special in my eyes, because Honest Burgers are my current burgers du jour, so any opportunity to sink my teeth into one of their juicy cholesterol sandwiches is welcome.
Further information can be found here, including the story of how Backyard Cinema's founder started with screenings in - yes! - his back yard, which is interesting because I showed Top Gun to a bunch of friends in my garden a few years ago yet somehow I do not now have an Honest Burger franchise on my patio. I have a greenhouse, a table and some stupid chickens. Anyway that's not important right now. What is is that you go and investigate Backyard Cinema so they get their money's worth out of the goodies they gave me.

If you have an outdoor screening you'd like to see treated with similar reverence - or indeed any product that I might enjoy and be unashamed to pimp with my pixels - then do get in touch, particularly if you work for Tom Ford menswear.

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.

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 have 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)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss