Return of the Jedi (1983)

Director: Richard Marquand

I should probably that I actually did watch this just a few weeks ago, as Ch. 7 showed it before re-running the whole series on 7mate. But I only channel-surfed onto it by accident and missed the first half of the film… Still, rewatching it pretty much inspired me to do the whole series when 7mate showed it, which, as I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t exactly been planning to do and hadn’t really been looking forward to either. I enjoyed that second half of Return a few weeks ago, and I enjoyed both halves again tonight.

That said, I still think it’s probably the least of the original trilogy, although, that also said, it struck me on this revisit that I’ve probably underrated it in the past. It’s not actually a particularly weak film on its own terms, it just has the somewhat difficult task of tying everything up, you know, both trilogies if, like me, you watch the whole thing in “episode order”… of course, 32 years ago it only had to finish the work begun in two other films, but that was going to be hard enough. Still, it does the job it has to do in pretty entertaining fashion, and on rewatching all the films in close proximity like this, I think I’ve realised the real strength of this film, i.e. the real sense of how much the characters have changed. I mean, obviously the performers aren’t quite as young here as they were in 1976, but that also kind of translates into the characters too. Han isn’t quite so abrasive as in the first two films, Luke is all grown-up and no longer the boy from the old desert farm, Leia is, well, not quite who we thought she was at first, and as for Vader… yeah, that’s kind of the biggest character development here.

And then there’s the Ewoks. I like the Ewoks. Fuck the haters.

I still can’t imagine David Lynch directing this. Remember he was originally supposed to. Don’t know much about Richard Marquand, other than he seems to have mainly worked on British TV in the previous decades, and his film career was cut short just a few years later by his early death. And apparently he was really enthusiastic even then about the possibility of Lucas producing prequels (more so than Lucas himself was by that time) and would’ve been happy to make one. There’s a “what if” for you… Anyway—my continuing reservations about the prequels notwithstanding, it’s been kind of nice coming back to Star Wars after spending so many years wanting nothing to do with it; maybe I’ve just spent the right amount of time away from the series, I don’t know. And, of course, with the latest film in the saga due to arrive next month, it’ll be interesting to see exactly where the series goes over the next few years, especially now that George Lucas is no longer running the show.

As a final thought, I’m sure I’m not the only person who has trouble watching the end of this film without also thinking of this video

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Director: Irvin Kershner

And while we’re talking about continuity between the original trilogy and the prequels, how did Obi-Wan apparently forget Luke was one of twins? Also, when was he Yoda’s student (or did Yoda palm him off to Qui-Gon before Phantom Menace)? And aren’t there a remarkable number of droids who look like C-3PO? Maybe Anakin assembled him from a kit or something…

Anyway, Empire is usually hailed as the best of the Star Wars films, and I don’t see any real need to challenge the conventional wisdom. If you haven’t read Joel Bocko’s appraisal of the whole series, please go and do so; he made a good point in a comment on my post about Star Wars about how even this film and Return of the Jedi kind of compromise the singular integrity of the first film. Still, if a sequel had to be made, then this was the way to do it. The thing about the original trilogy is, not only is each film a remarkably clear illustration of the three-act structure principle—setup, complication, resolution—but the whole trilogy works in the same fashion. So Star Wars is the setup, Return the resolution, and Empire very much the complication. Indeed, it only took five words to complicate the mythology of the films in a way that would eventually result in that whole additional trilogy, and yet the whole idea of Vader being Luke’s father apparently only entered the story in its second draft (Leigh Brackett’s first draft apparently contained no such thing).

But yeah, complication is the order of the day (not just on-screen; there seems to have been plenty of off-screen issues too like Kershner originally refusing the job). With hindsight, of course, we can see the destruction of the Death Star wasn’t going to end the Empire, which was, you know, likely to strike back. The Alliance is chased from Hoth, and the Millennium Falcon is chased at length through the asteroids and ultimately to Bespin, and by the end of the film Vader almost has what he wants. It’s a markedly darker affair to the previous film, which is probably at least partly what seems to attract people to it; also, Joel’s essay (above) makes a good point about Kershner being less interested in referring back to the old SF serials that inspired the first film, so it really does move on its own terms. Also—and Lucas knew it—Kershner was just a much better director, especially with actors. It’s a difference that does elevate Empire over its immediate predecessor and, as I said, I’m happy to go along with the general appraisal of this as the best of the series.

Star Wars (1977)

Director: George Lucas

And FUCK YOU, it’s called Star Wars. We’ll have none of this “A New Hope” nonsense here! Anyway, I haven’t seen this in… years, I don’t even want to think about how many, and this is the first time I’ve also seen it after rewatching the prequel trilogy. And a few things were immediately apparent:

One: Carrie Fisher. Wibble. I mean, seriously.

Leia-carrie-fisher-34075948-500-333 princess-leia-570x428star-wars-set-photos-11

Two: No matter how much Lucas may have tarted it up with new CGI effects in the 90s, the new technology still couldn’t entirely disguise that this film was shot in the mid-70s. Some hairstyles and sideburns just can’t be covered up.

Three: There’s just so much more character to the whole thing. Even allowing for the CGI touch-ups, you’re still looking at practical effects and sets. Something about that opening shot of the Star Destroyer swooping in from the top of the screen is still a lot more “fucking hell” than the much flashier digital extravaganzas of the prequels. I’m sure that’s partly down to nostalgia on my part, but not entirely; Lucas wanted what he called a “used future” aesthetic for this film that he’d evidently forgotten or stopped caring about 20 years later. You can’t accuse Coruscant of looking “lived-in”.

Four: Star Wars is, by itself, a lot more fun than the whole prequel trilogy combined. It’s pretty unabashed about essentially being a vintage pulp space opera throwback (Lucas’ original plan had apparently been a remake of the Flash Gordon serials but he couldn’t get the rights), which is what the prequels also were but they… I don’t know. It’s like they were pretending they weren’t kind of comic book stuff or something. The original film accepted that it was, basically, that sort of thing. Similarly, Lucas’ fascination with effects and comparative lack of attention to actors was just as strong here as in the prequels, but the cast here is far more charismatic and interesting (Alec Guinness gives a dignity to proceedings, and gives no hint of how much he disliked the film), and so are the characters (Leia is far more spiky than I remembered).

And five: …continuity? I’m not sure how to explain what I mean. Look, basically, I really got the feeling that Lucas still didn’t know entirely what he was doing at this point in the creation of the whole saga. Which, as we know, he didn’t, but I think for the first time I actually felt this fact while watching; I don’t think I’ve read a completely coherent account of what he had planned early on, but at any rate the film wasn’t expected to do much at the box office, so an umpteen-volume saga wasn’t really on the cards. Accordingly, Star Wars necessarily stands somewhat alone in the saga that did result; all the sequels and prequels depend upon it, but it doesn’t need them. It’s self-contained. And that’s why, when you do watch it after the prequel trilogy’s laborious set-up, certain details of this film seemed a bit… odd. I suppose you can kind of retcon things like, you know, Darth Vader and Luke’s father apparently being two different people, but then there’s Obi-Wan addressing Vader as if “Darth” were the latter’s actual first name. And then the Death Star, retroactively implied as having taken nearly 20 years to build. Makes the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi look like it was being built with comparatively indecent haste…

Anyway, be all that as it may. I’ll be honest and admit I had no particular desire to rewatch the Star Wars series—it’s just that they’ve been on TV so why not—and though I would at least have rewatched the original trilogy cos they’re all on the 1001 Movies list, I didn’t view the prospect with much enthusiasm. So I was actually kind of surprised by just how much I enjoyed revisiting Star Wars tonight. Maybe I’m not as over it as I thought I was, maybe it’s just been long enough between drinks. Either way, I look forward to the two remaining films through the week…

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Director: George Lucas

And at last the backstory comes to an end, in what is frankly superior fashion to the first two parts; even the Golden Raspberry people acknowledged this fact by only nominating it for one Razzie rather than the several the previous films were put up for. Indeed, I think I’d almost go so far as to say the opening sequence alone, i.e. the whole battle to rescue Palpatine, is better than the first two films together. It’s fun in a way those films weren’t, and, to be sure, the rest of this film isn’t. But then again, Revenge was probably doomed to otherwise be the least fun film in the whole sage; this, after all, had to culminate in a very particular way and everything had to build thereto accordingly. And so Lucas hits the “dark and serious” switch, and finally seems to take more interest in the actual story; it’s like he realised “shit, I’d better actually give Anakin a reason for becoming Darth Vader”… the end result is as full of Stuff Happening as the previous two films, but it seems a lot more controlled and less messy. And I do like how it ultimately subverts the usual “chosen one” narrative, the boy meant to reconcile the Force ends up doing bugger all of the sort. And it also gives fuller vent than the previous films to Lucas’ apparent fascination with people getting their hands cut off, which was kind of disturbing before but now attains unpleasant new heights (I spotted a couple more on this viewing that I don’t think I’d previously noticed). Still, that aside, I was a lot happier to see this again than I was Phantom Menace or Clones; indeed, I think this is the only one of the three I’d actually previously seen more than once, and it’s the only one I’d particularly wish to see again. 7mate are rerunning the original trilogy after this, so I’ll be reporting on those in due course too…

Attack of the Clones (2002)

Director: George Lucas

Well, it didn’t seem as bad tonight as I remembered it being. Which is, of course, not to say that it’s particularly good as such, cos it’s not really. I recall star Ewan McGregor, indeed, being particularly scathing of it around that time, which is kind of amusing given that he’s one of the weakest links in the whole damn thing. How much of it is his fault, though? This is what I now find myself wondering… cos at the time, Hayden Christensen also copped a lot of flak for his performance as Anakin, and I knew he actually had more ability than he displays here cos I’d seen him in Shattered Glass, in which I recall him being really good, before I first saw this. So is it just down to the writing being, you know, shit? I think Christensen actually does nail the scene where he describes the Tusken slaughter, which makes me think that the crapness of so many of his other scenes being down to him not being given much to work with. Maybe that was Ewan’s problem too.

Otherwise, most of what I had to say about Phantom Menace basically applies to this too—fantastically flashy and shiny to look at (this was one of the first Hollywood films shot all-digitally) but… yeah. On the plus side, almost no Jar Jar (though as the trivia section in the film’s IMDB entry amusingly observes, he effectively brings about the end of the old Republic, making him one of the most important figures in the entire saga) and the comic relief gets passed onto C3PO, who’s better suited to it (though some of his lines are godawful). Again, though, really too much stuff going on, and Lucas seemed comparatively uninterested in keeping the lines of who’s-doing-what-when-and-why as clear as he could’ve done… possibly, admittedly, I may not have paid as much attention as I could’ve done myself, but when it came to the big climactic battle I was confused by the appearance of the clones, cos I don’t think I’d realised they were actually on the Republic’s side. Took me a while to work that out. Anyway, so much for that. Episode III will be up in due course…

The Phantom Menace (1999)

Director: George Lucas

It’s… really not very good, is it? On TV tonight, so I decided to give it a second go, mostly cos I frankly didn’t remember it very well; I never saw it at the cinema, only on VHS, so tonight was the first I actually viewed it in widescreen (and HD, cos it was on 7mate). I don’t know, my interest in the Star Wars series cooled around 20 years ago, i.e. the last time the original trilogy was actually reissued before Lucas decided to tamper with them and shit on our childhoods, etc, so I had no great desire to see the new trilogy of prequels. And, yeah, I’m not sure that lack of interest was ultimately misplaced, considering how those films turned out…

Anyway, I wasn’t bowled over by Phantom Menace when I did finally see it, though I don’t recall loathing it or anything either. On rewatching I find myself rather less forgiving of its faults, the most notable of which, obviously, is that Binks fellow. I don’t know how convinced I ever was by the argument that the Gungans were meant to be some sort of racist stereotype—which may just be me; I do think the “Chinese” accents of the Trade Federation members are far more overt and dubious on that front—but dear god/dess Jar Jar is irritating. The weakness of the comic elements in this film (I mean, Jar Jar is surely not meant to be treated as anything else) really is impossible to overlook, as is the sheer badness of much of the acting. I mean, the original trilogy was hardly a masterclass in the Method, but there was a charisma from those performers remarkably absent from these ones.

And the story, well, who even really cares? It looks like Lucas certainly didn’t. If you’re one of those people who likes arguing that the modern blockbuster is all about the effects at the expense of the narrative, you really could use this as key evidence. In fairness to it, it does look amazing, if sometimes rather on the video game level (the CGI in which PM is drenched is never as engaging as the original trilogy’s practical effects); as a piece of technical and production design, it’s quite something. As a piece of storytelling… less so. Quite apart from the specifically clumsy and weakly managed not-quite-subplot of Queen Amidala’s “decoy”, the rest of the thing’s just generally as clunky as hell. The sheer amount of stuff Lucas tries to fit in is, frankly, too much for the film’s good. And, as Mr Machete notes, in the long run not much of it was important anyway.

In fairness, again, the film had a frankly impossible task, having to start laying the groundwork not only for episodes two and three but also for the original trilogy—everything had to lead back to that (I recall the film poster featuring young Jake Lloyd as Anakin casting a long shadow in the shape of Darth Vader, which I always thought was a brilliant illustration of the new trilogy’s purpose)—and to do so without disgracing that trilogy. You can judge for yourself how well it managed that, personally I kind of come down on the negative side, obviously… it’s an undeniably flashy bit of product that is, ultimately, somewhat cold and remote; when it comes to the crunch, Phantom Menace just isn’t anywhere near as fun as the 1977-83 films were.

Frankenstein (1910)

Director: J. Searle Dawley

I’ve been mostly reading lately rather than watching anything, and once of my recent books was Mrs Shelley’s Frankenstein, a reread for the first time in probably over two decades. As such, I know exactly how “liberal” an adaptation of the book this film is… The film indeed describes itself as being liberally adapted, which is at least a pleasing admission of honesty you don’t get from certain other equally “liberal” film versions, almost as if the producers thought that by admitting its differences from the book upfront, admirers of the latter might be less appalled at just how extensive said differences are. And, to be sure, condensing a biggish book like that into a single reel—remember, this Frankenstein predates the feature film—would have inevitably required some substantial changes, so you can’t really blame the Edison team for not making the most faithful film of the book. Still, there’s something disconcertingly blunt about the storytelling, even allowing for that—Victor Frankenstein goes to college, discovers how to create life, creates Charles Ogle instead, the latter menaces him and his bride on the day of their wedding then kind of… well, vanishes for some reason. Even considering that such a short film hardly allows for the complexity of the book, the reduction of the latter to such basic melodrama is kind of brutal. I suspect Frankenstein has taken its place in film history largely by virtue of being what it is—i.e. the first film version of that book, a silent horror film, and one that was lost for decades after its initial release—rather than because of its innate quality; at the time it seems to have been actually kind of unpopular, partly because of the theme and partly because, well, it’s not really that good; it’s a hard film to really appraise, of course, cos the surviving print is in mediocre shape and the available Youtube copies mostly seem to be shit, but even so, you can see the style is stiffly theatrical and even the monster’s creation—famously never actually described in the novel, of course, so give Dawley points for pioneering—looks a bit lame once you realise how it’s done. Historical interest, yeah, but not a lot more.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Director: George Miller

HOLY SHIT it’s another film that I’ve watched in the same year it was released, although I waited for the home video release… kind of wish I’d stirred myself to the cinema when it was on. I remember being sceptical about this when I first heard it was happening, and then the first trailer came out and I thought “oh”… perhaps my scepticism was unjustified after all. And then the film came out, everyone was blown away, and thousands of whining pissbaby MRAs all over the Internet managed to turn it into a sort of cultural phenomenon by screaming about it being full of women capable of standing up for themselves and actually outshining the title character… you know, a politically correct feminist conspiracy pretending to be an action movie. How could MEN be expected to tolerate this sort of thing? I did have that in mind when I handed over $25 for the Blu-ray at my local JB this afternoon, and was pleased by the thought that somewhere, some meninist shitbag was in agony because of me.

The film itself… MOTHERFUCKER. MM:FR pretty much lived up to the hype for me. I am not even remotely surprised somehow to discover George Miller had storyboarded the whole thing before he’d actually written the script, it is that sort of film; he envisaged it as more or less a continuous chase, and the film undeniably delivers on that intent. Plot… actually, you can barely really speak of this film as having one because the story is so thin, and serves primarily as a loose framework for Shit Blowing Up (which shit does, with remarkably few pauses for breath over two hours—AND mostly using actual practical effects rather than just CGI). And that’s fine. Fury Road is one of those style-over-substance films where the style actually becomes the substance, and what style it is, too; Miller drew cinematographer John Seale out of retirement to shoot this and it looks jaw-dropping, and the grotesquery of the wasteland’s various people just adds to that, giving the whole thing a fairly batshit semi-surreal vibe. If you can overlook the barely-thereness of the story (and the fact that, to be honest, Tom Hardy’s Max actually does kind of pale next to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa; Max remains a somewhat distant character throughout), then Fury Road is a pretty stellar example of the sort of thing it is. Might’ve taken nearly 17 years from its first conception to its eventual release, but the end result was worth it; I’m sure sequels will ensue, but Dr George is going to have a hard time beating this one.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Director: James Whale

Apparently H.G. Wells was not exactly thrilled by Island of Lost Souls, and demanded Universal treat his book more respectfully than Paramount had done. I haven’t read the book since the late 80s, and I remember very little of it, so I don’t know how faithful an adaptation it is, but Wells had to approve the script so it can’t have been too far off, I suppose… Anyway, it was interesting to watch this after The Mummy; if the voice of Karloff (originally supposed to star) was a big part of that film, Claude Rains’ voice was, basically, the star of this one. Nothing if not an extraordinary Hollywood debut (Rains had only made one film previously, and that was in 1920), his face doesn’t become visible until the very last shot of the film and he is, technically, naked for much of the film. Of course, this was a James Whale film, his third Universal horror; The Old Dark House (his second one) had displayed an element of weird humour that Frankenstein (his first) hadn’t exactly done, and that is ramped up here. Rains’ scientist, Griffin, is quite mad as a result of his experiments with invisibility, but along with the megalomania and murderousness it also inspires him to a sort of silly prankishness, most notably the golden moment when he steals a policeman’s pair of trousers and is next “seen” chasing a screaming woman terrified of these unnaturally animated pants… Needless to say, all of this required technical marvels that are still kind of stunning, particularly when you consider how difficult some of them would’ve been to achieve in 1933 (the shot of Griffin unbandaging himself in the mirror required four separate pieces of film to be combined); they’re not as flashy as modern CGI would be but they’re still amazing. Invisible Man doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered as Whale’s other horrors, but it was very pleasing to watch again tonight; the mix of horror and humour is certainly peculiar and occasionally disconcerting, but good fun overall.

The Mummy (1932)

Director: Karl Freund

At least there’s no doubt as there is with Dracula as to Karl Freund’s directorship of The Mummy, even if Wiki is correct about him only being hired to direct it two days before shooting started. It does rather borrow in many ways from Dracula, too, although whether that’s a case of Freund applying his alleged directorial experience from that film or just screenwriter John L. Balderston recycling his earlier work is another matter (probably the latter). Also, The Mummy borrows some of Dracula‘s cast, notably Edward Van Sloan as the Van Helsing substitute and David Manners as the somewhat crap male romantic lead. However, there’s one big difference: Karloff instead of Lugosi, and there’s no doubt he is much the best thing in the film… Part of that is down to the quite extraordinary makeup job designed by Jack Pierce; you don’t get to see a lot of it in detail (especially not when Karloff is still wrapped up in his burial bandages), but when you do get close-ups of that impossibly lined face, you see just how remarkable it is. But there’s also this remarkable, underplayed gravitas to his performance as the titular mummy, inadvertently revived in the modern day and now in search of his long-lost love… who has, of course, been dead for 3700 years just like him; fortunately for him, her spirit has reincarnated through various points of history (business which was sadly cut from the film before released) and is currently inhabiting a somewhat troubled young woman (Zita Johann, evidently one of Hollywood’s more extraordinary figures from that era) in Cairo. Karloff plays the key scene in which he shows her their past lives in Egypt with striking conviction and seriousness, much of it conveyed by his voice, which is really quite incredible here. He kind of easily overshadows everything else here, and gives the film its main attraction; I don’t think it’s as memorable on the whole as some of Universal’s earlier horrors, possibly because it is largely refried Dracula, but it does give Karloff one of his finest hours.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 346 other followers