Tuesday 29 September 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 4:
Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

We reach the guaranteed nadir of BlogalongaStarWars with this upsetting exercise in fanboy childhood molestation: a film which, because I am a Star Wars fan and an idiot, I have seen maybe fifteen times now, and each viewing has been less enjoyable than the last. After watching it for this ill-judged exercise in blogwaffling, I promised myself this would be the final time. Life is too short to fill rewatching a small boy repeatedly shouting "yippee" at high volume and cinema's most teeth-grindingly irritating character being a cackhanded cunt. No more, George. No more.
Hard to believe this wouldn't quite work

It's taken me a long time to learn to actively dislike The Phantom Menace. In 1999 I was just happy to have a new Star Wars film, and I embraced it, bought merchandise and happily paid for it on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray in the following decade-and-a-bit. I actually called myself an apologist for a while, although if pressed I would have struggled to articulate exactly why every print shouldn't be sealed in a vat of acid and fired into the sun. Now, though, I find it impossible to defend. It has one great scene (for which you must first sit through over a hundred minutes of bad ones), a fantastic score and a handful of fun touches, but otherwise stands as a rusting monument to one man's misplaced self-belief and calamitously poor judgement as a writer and director.

The Phantom Menace's flaws are legion, so where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose. The opening crawl, with its coma-inducing talk of trade routes and the unwelcome news that, in the old days, Jedi knights were in the business of solving tax disputes like some kind of intergalactic ombudsman, sets the sludgy tone perfectly. Before long Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are delivering George Lucas' undeliverable dialogue as if they're playing a joke on him, never dreaming for a moment that these would be the actual takes he'd end up using.

Within minutes we literally run into Jar Jar Binks, and immediately wonder if he will do anything useful or, indeed, watchable in the next couple of hours. The answer is no. His sole impact on the plot is to take the Jedi to the Gungans, who will later do a spectacularly shit job at helping fight off the invading droid army. They don't even beat the bad guys: on the point of defeat and the verge of sweet, blessed execution, an 8-year-old who can barely see through his fringe does that for them from hundreds of miles away. So Binks' contribution is purely to bumble around as the least successful comic relief character in history, tagging along like the kid nobody likes and getting bits of himself stuck in things with disappointingly non-fatal results.
Please just fuck absolutely and utterly off

Enough about that bastard though. Lucas' script is arguably more offensive, its core padded with emptiness like a memory card packaged by Amazon in a sofa-sized cardboard box full of bubble wrap. The Jedi are attacked by an underwater monster which is eaten by a bigger monster, thereby saving them; minutes later they are attacked by an underwater monster again, which is eaten by a bigger monster again, thereby saving them again, as if Lucas forgot he literally just did that. Those two huge CGI sequences do precisely nothing to advance the plot or affect the characters, and The Phantom Menace is full of scenes like them. Later on, fifteen minutes - 12% of the film's running time - will be spent on the podrace, which may be a cracking workout for your home cinema system but otherwise exists only to tell us that Anakin is a good pilot. You may recall learning the same about Luke Skywalker in A New Hope when it mattered, i.e. during the climactic battle.

Then there's the shoehorning in of C-3P0 and R2-D2, who were such well-conceived and executed guides through the adventure of A New Hope but who don't seem entirely sure why they've been invited to appear in The Phantom Menace. R2, for one, keeps looking around nervously like that poor bugger who turned up at the BBC for a job interview and inadvertently found himself on air talking about Apple Corps vs Apple Computer. And those midichlorians, ugh, what even? It's almost as if Qui-Gon knew he was talking into a lady's razor so just said something appropriately absurd. Also, while we're talking about that scene, how did Anakin get that massive and convenient gash on his arm that allows Qui-Gon an excuse to steal his blood? IT DOESN'T MATTER LOOK AT THE PRETTY CG BACKGROUND

As if all this wasn't enough, and on top of howling honkers like "Are you an angel?" and "Always remember... your focus determines your reality" (LITERALLY WHAT THE FUCK), what we're dealing with here is a film populated entirely by supporting characters. NOBODY wants to step forward and have this film be about them, and who can blame them? Where's this film's Han Solo? Its Princess Leia? Hell, even its Luke Skywalker? Top billing goes to Neeson and McGregor, who play two of the lowest-key heroes in science fiction, taking the Jedi code of never showing emotion to its entertainment-unfriendly extreme; the villain is vague and intangible, like some kind of phantom menace, and the one character we're actually meant to be interested in is manifested as a mop-headed brat too annoying to care about and too cute to hate. Well, almost.
Wait, don't go! We're just getting to the good bit! Oh there it was.

Eventually the finale arrives, like the cool guest at a dreadful dinner party who rocks up during dessert, shags the hostess on the table and fucks off. Again displaying selective amnesia, Lucas repeats Return Of The Jedi's three-way climax with an awesome lightsabre fight (the main reason why people still admit to this film's existence), a space battle (this one a dull retread of Episodes IV and VI) and an unlikely face-off between the bad guys and the indigenous twats on the surface below, which here is just embarrassing. And then, thank Yoda, it's over. Five minutes of story spread expensively over two hours, like those soul-destroying meetings that should only ever have been an email.

Why Lucas felt his prequel trilogy needed to be entirely Anakin-based is a mystery. The whole father-son / Anakin-Luke thing is fine, but the parallels are too thin on the ground to justify six hours. The storyline concerning Palpatine's machinations and the long-game overthrowing of the Republic are far more interesting, and I'd happily have had Baby Vader's journey to the dark side told as a subplot rather than the other way round. But then where would the hilarious Jar Jar Binks fit in?

John Williams' score

John Williams' score is great.

Darth Maul
Darth Maul is great.

This shot
This shot with the battle droids being unpacked is good. I like the way they rock back and forth.

That's it

That's literally it

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

Monday 7 September 2015


It's worth bearing in mind, as you settle in to watch Brian Helgeland's take on the story of the Kray twins, that it's called Legend. It's also worth bearing in mind one of Google's convenient definitions of the word 'legend':
"a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated"
Because a warts-and-all documentary about London's best-known villains this is not, and nor does it claim to be. Glossy as a magazine cover and as sharply-suited as a Bond film, Legend is entertaining enough but is so concerned with evoking a picture-postcard East End populated by gangsters, geezers and good-time girls that the cold, ruthless evil at its heart is buried under a thick veneer of slick camerawork and gorgeous lighting.
Tom Hardy, as you will be aware unless you live at the bottom of the Thames in a pair of concrete boots, plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, with enormously watchable results. Hardy's Ron is a tremendous screen monster: his permanently frustrated, furious face, with its nose, lips and teeth all apparently fighting to get as far away from each other as possible, is frequently shot in leering close up. Hardy does a remarkable job of pulling Ron back from the brink of pantomime, despite some of Helgeland's best efforts to push him over.

Reg, on the other hand, is less successful. Written and played as a lovable rogue with the flawless good looks of a 21st century movie star, the character's resemblance to the Reggie Kray you've read about or seen in documentaries is barely there. Here, he's a cheeky chappie with an occasional violent streak you'd forgive him for every time he flashes you a smile. It's a morally questionable direction for the film to take, but there's a reason for it: Legend is told mostly from the point of view of Frances Shea, Reg's short-term wife, as he woos her by shinning up her drainpipe (not a euphemism) and looking like Tom Hardy. If we're to believe that she'd fall in love with Reg, we have to fall in love with him too, and there are few better ways to ensure that than to have him played by someone whose place near the top of various 'Sexiest Men Alive' lists is virtually assured for the rest of his life.
Spot the difference

Emily Browning is excellent as Frances, but the decision to tell the Krays' story through her eyes sidelines arguably more interesting narrative threads, like Christopher Eccleston's copper "Nipper" Read's dogged pursuit of the twins, and softens the story's least pleasant elements to a troubling degree. Working from this brief, cinematographer Dick Pope paints an undeniably stunning picture of 1960s London, but all that lustre means that when the horror comes, it's too unreal to feel.

The Krays were, let's not forget, bad guys. I don't doubt they loved each other and their dear old mum, but to romanticise their story to such extremes is a disservice to anyone who suffered at their hands. In a crucial scene, Reg snaps and viciously murders an associate; the camera lingers on the act as if forcing us to face the horror, but by this point we're immune to it. The scene is as stylised as everything else we've seen so far and is rendered toothless by its own technical proficiency. Tellingly, the most unpleasant scene in the film - which involves Reg and Frances in a particularly rough patch of their marriage - occurs offscreen, and is all the more necessarily repulsive for it.

Still, if you don't mind your legends painted in broad but undeniably entertaining strokes, there's a lot to enjoy here. The costumes, production design and score - which all contribute to the romanticism - are as shimmeringly glamorous as the cinematography. Helgeland and Pope pull off indisputable magic with Hardy's double role, and toss off shots like the lengthy, Goodfellas-esque swagger through a pub that pointedly takes in casual violence and tender courting with apparently effortless style. But much of the nuts and bolts of the Krays' story is hurried along to make way for more improbable dialogue: the twins' escape from conviction in the Lord Boothby case is a crucial ingredient in their rise to power, but it's treated brusquely by Helgeland's script - a script which, nevertheless, finds enough time for Frances to spout fantasy guff like "Love is a witness... Reggie sees me, and I see him", as if anyone in the history of the universe ever spoke like that.
So Legend ensures the legend remains a legend, and the Krays' reputation as celebrities to be impressed by remains intact, if not stronger, as a result of Helgeland's film. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence out there to restore the balance, but none of it has Tom Hardy in a beautiful tailored wool suit with a knicker-dampening glint in his eye, so which version of events you'd prefer to swallow is up to you. I guess there's room for both; I'm just not sure how happy I am about it.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Six films I'll be giving a shit about in


I'm hoping so hard that this is the first in a series of five films whose titles consist almost entirely of repeated vowels. (4th)


Looks lovely, like Boursin risotto. (4th)


So Tom Hardy reckons he's as good as BOTH Kemp brothers, does he? Well we'll see about that. (9th)


The story of how a group of brave men experienced such debilitating extremes of cold that they set up a double glazing company to keep it out for good. (18th)

"Michael Shannon magnetises all eyes" says Time Magazine, somewhat improbably. Great news for everyone yearning for the alignment of their positive and negative ocular particles, but I can't help thinking it'll be hard to enjoy the film with bits of metal stuck to your peepers. (25th)


Having repeatedly read that this trailer contains spoilers, I refuse to watch it. Although if the spoiler is just that it's yet another disappointing Ridley Scott film, that doesn't count, I guessed that already. (30th)