Monday 30 November 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 6:
Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

WAR! HEURGH! What is it good for? Opening a Star Wars title crawl, that's what. As further atonement for Episode I's sins, George Lucas launches Episode III with a rocket-fuelled declaration of intent that promises the polar opposite of trade route taxation and guardians of peace, and it's the beginning of a bravura 24-minute sequence that finally signals the return of the franchise after over four hours of false starts. That long, unbroken opening shot, accompanied by John Williams' drums of war; the ships that look a little bit like X-Wings and TIE fighters; Anakin and Obi Wan as pals finally having made peace with their hair; Count Dooku's death (spoiled only by Hayden Christensen frowning like he's stuck on a complex equation) and a skipful of other fun moments in that first half-hour are almost enough to forgive everything that's happened since 1999.
It's really quite straightforward, my young padawan. If a quadratic equation with real-number coefficients has a negative discriminant, then the two solutions to the equation are complex conjugates of each other.

Of course it doesn't last: the reunion of Anakin and Padme sadly requires them to talk to each other, and the sound of their romance is still the thud and clunk of cinema's worst dialogue ever. But almost as if he's become self-aware, Lucas limits the yakking as much as he can here to focus instead on a visually delicious adventure, cramming script and screen with mad set-pieces and kaleidoscopic eye candy (all those establishing wide shots are sexier than ever). When he does slow things down it's to detail Anakin's fall to the dark side, and as with the previous prequels this is by far Revenge Of The Sith's most interesting and successful aspect.

It's hard to tell if George Lucas intended Anakin's radicalisation as a comment on modern-day international politics - "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!" is as ham-fisted a way of putting it as you'd expect - but the grooming of a young, impressionable man by a charismatic leader to an extreme, misguided cause certainly strikes a chord watching the film now. Whatever, it's chillingly good fun to watch, not least during the 'Tragedy Of Darth Plagueis' scene. Palpatine sells Anakin a promise so tempting that he chooses to ignore the story's loose ends and disclaimers (was Palpatine Plagueis' apprentice? Did Plagueis - or Palpatine - create Anakin? WE NEED MORE PREQUELS!), and Ian McDiarmid sells it just as well. This is what Star Wars does best: half-told myths and legends, the fight for the soul, the temptation of power; it's no exaggeration to claim this as the highlight of the entire prequel trilogy.
There's so much other good stuff in Episode III that it's actually annoying Lucas couldn't have found space for any of it in I or II, but perhaps those films needed to be as bad as they were to give him the kick up his hairy bum that he needed. Order 66 is a terrific, shocking sequence (though it's hard not to sympathise with Anakin when he slaughters those fucking younglings), General Grievous is a largely extraneous but undeniably fun second-tier villain realised with wit and incredible CG wizardry, and the final duel on Mustafar between Anakin and Obi Wan satisfies years of fanboy curiosity. And the dismemberment! I'm sure more arms and legs are lost in this film than the rest of the series put together; I dread to think what that says about George Lucas, but I'd be surprised if his analyst doesn't remove all sharp objects from the toilet each time he makes an appointment.

And then it's all over, but not before one final, atrociously ill-judged "NNOOOOOO!!" to remind us just how bad this series can be when it tries. It's hard to love the prequel trilogy for exactly this kind of thing: every time it reaches for greatness, Lucas makes a forehead-slappingly bad decision that nobody dared to challenge him on, and we're back to square one. But Revenge Of The Sith is far and away the best of the three, and it might even be better than Return Of The Jedi. If everything from Episodes I and II could have been described in the opening crawl of this film rather than played out over two disappointing episodes, the world would probably be a better place. Still, if The Force Awakens is the new hope we've been waiting for, it'll be in no small part because the prequels were the lesson from history we all had to endure.

The Clone Wars
As a prequel to this prequel that follows the previous prequel, I highly recommend Genndy Tartakovsky's animated Clone Wars series over Dave Filoni's CG series and film. It's slick, gorgeously animated, dovetails neatly into the opening of Revenge Of The Sith and doesn't feature anyone saying "Artooie" or "Skyguy" every half a second.

Yawn yawn John Williams is amazing again
So bored of repeating myself, but Jesus Christ how does he do it? 'Battle Of The Heroes' is the music I play in my head whenever I'm in a meeting with my boss and I cut his arms and legs off and set him on fire.

The ending (one of them)
Remembering how good all that crosscutting was in Return Of The Jedi, Lucas throws in some lovely juxtaposition between Anakin's death / Vader's birth and Padme's death / Luke and Leia's birth. Robot doctors were shit a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away though, right? They seemed to spend more time touching up Padme's makeup than trying to keep her alive.

Wookiee bollocks
Chewbacca getting shoehorned in for no good reason is one thing, but to have a Wookiee actually give a Tarzan cry as he swings through Kashyyyk is unforgiveable. I'm willing to bet most Wookiees haven't even heard of Johnny Weissmüller. Also, why the fuck are there three Ys in Kashyyyk? Why, why, why?

The subtitles on this Chinese bootleg

Do not want.

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 25 November 2015

Bridge Of Spies

"A battle is being fought by two competing views of the world," intones a character in Steven Spielberg's Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies, and the subtext hangs in the air like a dense cloud of obviousness. It'd be easy to accuse the line of being trite - yes, that battle is always being fought, we get it - if it wasn't hammered home by two recent real-world events: the terrorist attacks in Paris, and Turkey's violent removal of a Russian jet from what may or may not have been its airspace (an incident chillingly mirrored half way through Spielberg's film). The timing is, of course, tragically coincidental, but it's not hard to see that Bridge Of Spies' gloomy geopolitical outlook would indeed be depressingly relevant whenever it was released. To dismiss that dialogue as hackneyed cliché would be a heartless shrug at everything Spielberg - and, by extension, his protagonist - believes in and wants you to have a good old think about on the way home and, preferably, for some time afterwards.

While that might sound like you're in for 141 minutes of being guilt-tripped for not giving sufficient shits about international conflict, Bridge Of Spies isn't really interested in patronising you. Quite the opposite, in fact: its densely-worded script and stubborn refusal to throw in frequent action-packed, or even tension-laced, set-pieces (barring the aforementioned plane-downing) demands your full attention and intelligence from start to finish. Nip out for a wazz in the middle of this and you'll return to find borders and allegiances have shifted, at least three secrets will have been revealed (or hidden) and Tom Hanks' Tomhanksness will have multiplied tenfold.
Tom, cardy

As the insurance lawyer bafflingly assigned to the defence case of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), Hanks' James Donovan opts not to take the easy way out by losing the case and sending Abel to his death, instead saving his life AS INSURANCE (do you see?) in case any US military personnel should find themselves behind enemy lines and a bargaining chip is required. The storytelling rug-pulling that follows is incessant and exponentially ambitious: just when you think the story's about Abel, the focus shifts to Donovan and his literally fist-clenching stoicism against a tide of hate from his own countrymen (fuelled by a biliously jingoistic press; again with the modern-day parallels). Before you know it it's about tensions in a newly-divided Berlin, and by its climax it's reaching for nothing less than world peace and understanding, albeit with the soft edges of Spielberg's trademark optimism sharpened slightly to offer an inevitable edge of cynicism.

Hanks, frequently and comfortably typecast as the all-round Good American, seems on a mission to up the stakes here to Apex Of Humanity. Donovan couldn't really give a toss whether or not Abel is guilty; he sees him as a human being first, an honourable soldier second and a treacherous spy third, if at all. His fight to save Abel's life is motivated in part by clinical forward thinking but mostly by a streak of compassion wider than the Iron Curtain, and when the time comes to employ Abel as leverage for the life of a captured American soldier, Donovan takes his crusade a step further than anyone expects - or, for political reasons, really wants - him to.
This is what happens when you go for an evening stroll with Janusz Kaminski

It's a complex tale, deftly delivered by fully qualified masters of the craft (the revisions done to Matt Charman's script by the Coen brothers eschew their trademark oddballery in favour of clean storytelling lines), and although it very obviously belongs to Spielberg's late, grown-up period, he's not afraid to have fun with his omnipresent god lights, lens flare or hammering rainstorms. There's a pleasing smattering of dark humour too, not least in Rylance's amusingly laconic, Scottish-accented Russkie. What you take away from it is up to you, but a sequence involving the erecting of the Berlin Wall echoes the appearance of the World Trade Centre in Munich, and this shit isn't just thrown together. History, as told by Steven Spielberg, rarely stays in the past, and right now it sure as hell isn't confined to the screen.

Thursday 5 November 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 5:
Star Wars: Episode II: Attack Of The Clones

My first viewing of Attack Of The Clones was in Orlando, and the reaction of the American audience - especially to the moment when Yoda pulls his lightsabre out of his trousers and waves it around - was so absurdly excitable that it's left me with a falsely fond memory of the film. Whenever I pop it on nowadays I remember how much fun all that Stateside whooping and hollering was, and lull myself into thinking I'm going to get that for the next 142 minutes. But I don't. I don't get that for about 129 minutes, and when I do it's only for one measly minute, and also I'm invariably alone and in my pants rather than surrounded by hundreds of hyped-up yanks. Such is the cold, cruel truth of the Star Wars prequel experience: never as good as the first time, and saddled with the realisation that you're over 40 and watching a cartoon about robots and aliens in your least flattering underwear.

In its defence, Attack Of The Clones is at least better than The Phantom Menace. I mean, syphillis is better than The Phantom Menace (I imagine), but with such a low starting point any sequel would have to be full of terrible actors spouting atrocious dialogue, overly dependent on CGI and saddled with the most excruciating love story in all of cinema to be any worse, ha ha oh dear.
Theirs was a desire that burned across the galaxy

As with its predecessor, the most interesting stuff here is all the Machiavellian machinations Palpatine is up to, only now he's targeting this arrogant young punk who's juiced up to the eyeballs with midichlorians and pissed off with his father figure for having better hair. The slow turning of Anakin to the dark side is one of the few things the prequels (well, Episodes II and III) do well; it's just a shame you have to wade through hours of GCSE drama to get to it. The tension between Anakin and Obi-Wan is palpable, if in danger of being overplayed by subtlety vacuum Hayden Christensen, and Anakin's throbbing chubby for Padme is a reasonable bit of pipe-laying for his later rage. It's just unfortunate that the romance is about as sexy and heartfelt as watching two books on a shelf.

Attack Of The Clones' weird structure is interesting, if not entirely successful, and its ping-ponging back and forth between Obi-Wan's detective work and Anakin's attempts to throw one up Padme make it the least Star Wars-y Star Wars film. For well over an hour we're batted between the two storylines, and it gets a little tiresome after a while, especially as one of them is about two books on a shelf. (The connection here to the other middle episode, The Empire Strikes Back, and its hopping between Han and Leia's adventures and Luke's Dagobah training, is painfully obvious thanks to the earlier plot's vast superiority.) But Obi-Wan's investigation is fun, if rote, and the characters are eventually reunited believably, even if it is in a silly arena designed for watching executions carried out by unpredictable monstraliens.
The anal gas expulsions of the Reek could disassemble a battle droid at five paces

Along the way we get the Obi-Wan / Jango Fett rumble and dogfight, featuring the prequel trilogy's best sound effects, and the surprisingly dark massacre of the Tusken Raiders (although frankly I'd like to have seen more of that; I guess it's not appropriate for the same audience who lapped up Jar Jar Binks three years previously), both of which are distracting enough to forget about the books on the shelf for a few minutes. And the final act - with the arrival of the Jedi (especially Mace Windu, who George Lucas finally realises is his MVP), the lightsabre duels between Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Count Dooku and the beginning of the Clone Wars - is a high point on which to end a mostly unexceptional film.

Things are improving then, but only just: shit needs to get real dark if we're going to see the creation of the galaxy's biggest bastard, Hayden Christensen really needs to get up to speed with this acting lark and someone seriously has to restrain George Lucas if he starts typing anything like "I'm haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me" again.

Fucking Binks
Tragically, Jar Jar Binks doesn't die a horrific, brutal death in Attack Of The Clones, but he is at least not in it very much. I refuse to believe this is because Lucas listened to fans, given that he's done so much else to annoy us, but I welcome it nevertheless. I still haven't decided whether the fact that Binks effectively ensures decades of war across the galaxy, indirectly causing the loss of billions of lives, is infuriating or just downright hilarious.

Fucking C-3P0
Fast becoming this film's Jar Jar Binks, C-3P0 is once again shoehorned into a story in which he has literally fuck all to do just for the sake of a handful of unbelievably shit gags. Inexplicably dragged along from Tattooine, he nonsensically wanders out of a perfectly safe starship and into an excruciating series of atrociously unfunny moments designed to destroy any goodwill left towards one of the two characters who brought us into this universe in the first place. If anyone can adequately explain how a robot from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away would ever use a phrase like "this is such a drag", I'm all ears.

John Williams' score

At least somebody manages to not be annoying, and obviously it's John Williams, who cranks out a fairly avant-garde score this time round: electric guitars in Star Wars? Madness, but cool, sexy madness. And his love theme 'Across The Stars' is absolutely beautiful, so much so that you almost believe two books on a shelf could fall in love.

Jango Unbrained
You can't beat a good decapitation in a PG-rated kids' film, and it's great to see Samuel L Jackson exact furious vengeance on Jango Fett by lopping his bonce off in front of his young son. I like to imagine the rest of Mace Windu's life was spent in blissful ignorance of Boba Fett's consistently unsuccessful assassination attempts, like an intergalactic version of Michael Palin's Ken and the old dear from A Fish Called Wanda.

Yoda's punking
When Yoda is revealed to be some kind of samurai ninja at the end, it's an undeniably fun and exciting moment. But for me, the bit where - having flung himself around like a little green pinball trying to kill Dooku - he stops, picks up his walking stick and hobbles about like a 900-year-old whatever-he-is again is exactly the kind of comedy we needed more of in these films I'M LOOKING AT YOU BINKS

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