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2011.45: Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999) ** September 19, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 5 comments

Dir. George Lucas, 130 mins, Blu-ray

Agh, the pain- I should have known better, but this daily Star Wars marathon continues with the scariest of them all- it takes a brave man to watch this more than twice (”who is the most foolish?” Ben might ask the viewer, “The fool who made the film or the fool that watches it more than once?) . It’s unfortunate for the saga that it’s worst entries are at the beginning and the end, because Phantom Menace is the only one that gives Return Of The Jedi a race to the accolade of Worst Star Wars Movie Ever. I’d hazard its a tie.

After my lengthy tirade about Jedi, I haven’t the energy or interest to wax simarly regards TPM; frankly, the movie isn’t worth the effort. I’ve wasted enough hours of my life watching it without compounding the crime by writing about it. But I will say this- the film must have used a first-draft script as the shooting script. Really, it struck me so many times watching this again, that the script is clearly just not finished, not even near. Its a first draft, surely (or Lucas is an even worse writer than I feared- I mean really, was this final script actually a third or fourth attempt?). It’s so uneven, with awful exposition and dialogue, unnecessary interludes and events and characters. You could cut out fifty minutes from the running time and you wouldn’t miss anything other than maybe one or two of the many plot-holes. Plot hole one hits you square in the eyes within ten minutes- if you want to kill the Jedi, blast them while they are still in the ship in the hanger. Or poison them with the drinks you gave them a few seconds before pumping the room with cloudy gas that they can see/hear.

What I can’t figure out is if the actors signed on before even seeing the script, because I cannot believe Lucas suckered Liam Neeson or Natalie Portman into starring in this drivel having let them read the script first. Can you imagine how boring it must have been to read, without all that cgi to distract you? 

Oh that cgi. No, I won’t discuss that endless cgi. How about that kid? That kid Anakin gives the Ewoks a run for their money as most irritating Star Wars character ever. Jake Lloyd’s performance would be embarrassingly untenable even in a cheap tv series, but in a major motion picture its utterly appaling and unforgivable. He comes out with lines so flat its astonishing, frankly, that Lucas reportedly spent years casting this guy, searching the world and deciding on this kid? Maybe he was trying to make Jar Jar look good. Unbelievable.

The cruelest thing is -every Star Wars fan on the planet must have done it- anyone can think up a better film than this in their head. The problem is, every major decision Lucas made regards the prequel trilogy was the wrong one. And no-one in his inner circle had the balls to say, whoa, George, you gotta be kidding. He cast Anakin much too young, didn’t show any of the Clone Wars, didn’t show Darth Vader hunting down the Jedi. I don’t know why it was such a surprise though, considering how Jedi had turned out. 

Ah well, thats TPM out of the way. It can’t get any worse. Although I’m REALLY wondering why I spent all this money on this blu-ray boxset, considering so far there’s only two of the four films I’ve seen that I can even imagine ever watching again…

2011.44: Star Wars Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi (1983) ** September 18, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 2 comments

Dir. Richard Marquand, 130 mins, Blu-ray

God I despise this film. It didn’t appeal to me much back in 1983 and just hasn’t aged well at all. It’s the ultimate betrayal of everything that was done so well in Empire. Where to start?

First of all, the utter lack of imagination or originality. Empire not only took us to exotic places (Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin) and introduced new characters (Yoda, Boba Fett, Lando), it had original set-pieces (the battle in the snow, the chase in the asteroid field), and exciting and bizarre sights like the Tauntauns and AT-ATs.  It even had an unusual structure, with the action set-piece placed early in the film with a more sombre, character-based dramatic conclusion. But with Jedi, all that went out the window. You know you’re in trouble when in the first shot of the film the camera pans down to the planet vista and a Star-Destroyer comes overhead in a reprise of the first shot in A New Hope. Nevermind the fact that we also see another Death Star, reprising that same weapon of A New Hope. It’s like Empire never happened and we are watching a tired, by-the-numbers Star Wars 2. Its everything a sequel usually is that Empire wasn’t.

Richard Marquand was no Irvin Kershner either. To be fair, I hold Lucas’ heavy-handed control to task for this rather than Marquand, but the direction is fairly perfunctory at best, insipid at its worst. Action sequences are poorly staged, the light-sabre fight dry and uninvolving. Shots aren’t framed very well at all. Lucas went with Marquand rather than Spielberg? Mind-boggling.

And how come Star Wars became such a creature-fest? It’s as if Lucasfilm has been invaded by Muppets, the bloody things are everywhere. The beauty of Empire was it’s human drama, the characters. That’s thrown out the window-there’s so many creatures the humans look like the freaks. The Ewoks. The bloody Ewoks… no, don’t start me. They make Jar Jar look good, and God help us they probably spent a fortune on this edition making the bloody teddy-bears blink. And sorry, no matter how good the prosthetics or the puppetry, muppets cannot emote or act anywhere near as good as a human face. It’s a bizarre indication of how OTT Lucas would later get with the cgi creatures in the prequels. It’s a circus. As if everyone told Lucas the best thing in A New Hope was the Cantina scene, or that the best actor in Empire was Yoda, so he thought he’d do it to the max; infact its that kind of thinking that typifies Jedi. Another (bigger) space battle, another (bigger) Light-Sabre duel, nothing new, just everything bigger.

The limited imagination also seems to betray a limited budget. Jedi seems smaller in scope than Empire. Tatooine is a few matte paintings and Jabbas courtroom. The Death Star 2 is a few matte paintings,while its interior is very small, no corridors for instance, just a few uninspired sets. There’s more than a few shots of the Death Star 2 that are just flopped shots from A New Hope. While Hoth and Bespin were big and exotic, Endor looks, well, like the Redwood forest location that it is. Generally the ILM effects are pretty poor quality, yes there’s lots of them, but the quality level has fallen from Empire’s high-water mark. Quite a few matte paintings look like matte paintings, and the model shots lack imagination. Star Destroyers just sit there, and there’s even a shot of the Falcon that repeats a motion-control move in the Asteroid Field as it flies around the rebel fleet.

Likewise all the characters suffer amnesia, as if their character-arcs from Empire are forgotten or never happened. Mark Hamill is as wooden as a Gerry Anderson puppet, his Luke Skywalker now a sulky Jedi goth dressed in black. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher look fairly embarrassed again, the Solo/Leia romance losing any minor sophistication it gained from those talks/rehearsals with Kershner. Fisher looks mortified in that harem outfit and all the ’stars’ look like rabbits trapped in the headlights whenever they are stuck in a scene with an Ewok, you can imagine them thinking, ‘what the hell just happened’? Speaking of such sentiment, I remember being utterly gobsmacked by the way Boba Fett was finally done away with… a character built up in Empire to be a main villain in Jedi, and he’s accidentally knocked into the Sarlacc pit by the blind, flailing-around Han Solo?  The ultimate betrayal though is Vader. Having created a great movie villain in A New Hope and developed him further in Empire, in Jedi he’s just the stooge of a cackling mad old man, finally having a crisis of faith in the Dark Side and becoming a Good Guy afterall. It just comes out of nowhere. I’d have thought more of it had something been said by Ben or Yoda in the first two films that Anakin might yet be saved, you know, some indication of the complete about-face that happens in the character-arc.

The problem of course is that Jedi is really two films, and it just tries to combine them in a mad headlong rush. In an alternate universe, Lucas did it better- Episode 6 told the story about Boba Fett being tracked down across star systems, to finally reach Jabba’s palace, Han getting rescued and the Emperor raising the stakes chasing down Luke, with Anakin starting to rise in Vaders personna. Then in 1986 Episode 7 came out with Luke finally meeting the Emperor and saving his father, whilst the rebellion finally attacks the Empire fleet in a last great battle. It ends with Solo and Leia getting married, and Luke preparing to train Jedi to protect the New Republic. There you go, two great films, plenty of time to let characters breathe and George even got to sell more merchandise/tie-ins and toys.

I wish I lived in that alternate universe. I bet there weren’t any bloody Ewoks in it either.

Oh, and the blu-ray has the worst picture of the Original Trilogy by far. Scary thing is, it’s (gulp) The Phantom Menace next… I think I’m losing the will to live. Did I really just spend near-£60 on this lot?

2011.43: Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back (1997?) ***** September 17, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 1 comment so far

Dir. Irvin Kershner, 122 mins, Blu-ray

“The Force is strong with this one!”. What else can be said about this movie? Not only a great Star Wars movie but also a great movie, period. I remember seeing it back in 1980 thinking it was the greatest thing ever, and in many respects that still holds true. It remains, after more than 30 years, pretty much perfect.

It’s all about the characters. Kershner, bless him, made a point of making a great movie, not just a great Star Wars movie, treating it like he would any real-world movie. Working with the actors to establish the characters, their motivations, changing the often clunky dialogue. He treated it so seriously, like a real artist. The remaining Star Wars films would be reeled off as if on an assemby line, but with TESB you get a sense of something carefully, lovingly crafted. Of course that cost money and time and Lucas, financing the film himself, could afford neither (even though, ironically, the artistic and financial success of TESB basically laid the foundations of Lucasfilm’s future). Watching TESB you get a sense of greatness, of everything the other Star Wars movies could and should have been. It is, indeed, all about the characters- but only in Empire; it was a lesson that Lucas never heeded when he progressed to the other films. 

As so often with great movies, in hindsight everything just fell into place. ILM had learned it’s craft with A New Hope and the effects in TESB would be a quantum leap forward (to the degree that when the special editions came, little in TESB was changed- indeed, in this film at least, the changes that were done in 1997 actually improved the film, opening up Cloud City wonderfully but preserving the integrity of the film as a whole). Composer John Williams was at the very height of his powers and created one of the finest scores for any movie. And of course, the pressure on the cast and crew in creating a sequel (back in the days when sequels/franchises were still quite rare) to the most successful film of all time resulted in extra effort, extra dedication. This would not be just a silly space movie. The pressure was enormous, but it resulted in greatness.

This blu-ray release has a very fine picture but it has less of a ‘wow’ element compared to A New Hope, mainly because of the photography. It’s deliberately more soft-focus, lit like a painting- it’s the most beautiful-looking of all the Star Warspictures (evidence of how much effort went into the framing and execution of every shot) and the blu-ray is faithful to that. Suffice to say the film has never looked better on home formats.

The pain of watching this film at the end though, knowing what follows, is a bitter thing indeed. Word has it that Lucas was furious at Kershner and producer Gary Kurtz for the budget and shooting over-runs and vowed to be more hands-on with the next film. Well, we know how that ended up. All the work spent on characterisation and detail would be thrown out of the window. Mark Hamill, I thought, was really very good in TESB, compared to his wooden performance in A New Hope, but when Luke returned in Jedi he would be wooden again, a sulky Jedi dressed in black. And wheras TESB gave us one of the greatest villains of the modern age as Darth Vader led the Empire’s forces, Jedi would turn this dark lord into the moody stooge of a mad cackling Emperor, finally doing a complete about-turn as if out of nowhere by really being a bit of a good guy/dad. Give me a break. But I get ahead of myself, all that pain’s ahead of me with the next disc in this set, Return Of The Jedi…

But watching TESB again. Well, its a fantastic movie, but so bittersweet. All the way through the film I keep on marvelling at shots, expressions, performances, it’s such a perfect bloody film. If only the atitude and care that the film-makers brought to TESB could have been continued. But alas, despite it’s huge success, Kershner was gone and so was Kurtz. And Lucas, vowing to be more hands-on, allegedly even refused to let Spielberg direct Jedi when his friend asked him for the gig (Frak me. Imagine Spielberg shooting Jedi…).

After Empire, it would be all downhill…

2011.42: Star Wars Ep.4: A New Hope (1997?) *** September 16, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 2 comments

Dir. George Lucas, 119 mins, Blu-ray

Well, first things first, this blu-ray looks great. I don’t know what it looks like on a projector system or a large display, but on my 40″ Bravia it just looks amazing, particularly after watching this film on VHS and DVD. The detail on C3PO and R2D2 is really something to behold, as is all the fabric detail on costumes etc. Perhaps a new HD master would have revealed even more detail, but I doubt I would notice the difference on my display. So yes, home cinema enthusiasts may well moan about deficiencies but from where I’m sitting it looks great, better than I had expected- the best the film has ever looked in the home. Full marks for Blu-ray then.

So Star Wars then. It’s a film bigger than it’s parts. Certainly, of more importance culturally than as a film itself. As a kid watching the news in 1977 I can well attest how much of an impact it had. Star Warswas everywhere, on tee-shiirts, in books, comics, magazines, newspapers. If there’s one opportunity missed on the blu-rays, for all the docs etc, it’s a feature about the marketing/merchandising and cultural hoopla around the first film. People today have no idea.

Well, everyone knows the story of the film, the rebellion, the Empire, the Force etc, and everyone knows this film has a history of being tinkered with. For my part I have to admit to a certain, odd detachment while watching the film this time. I just wasn’t ‘into’ it somehow. Now, how much of that was due to the fact that I kept being distracted by the HD visuals I don’t know (I kept thinkng things like “wow look at R2’s paintwork!” etc which kind of takes you out of it), but certainly something strange was going on. I don’t think it was seeing the changes from 1977/1997/2004/2011… I knew they were there, and was expecting them. But it’s been several years now since I last saw the film (back in 2004 with the awful  unwatchable soundmix), and I thought I would have enjoyed it more.  For the first time I kept noticing how poor Mark Hamill’s acting was and how embarrassed Harrison Ford looked through much of it. How hokey the dialogue was. For the first time I started thinking maybe the Original Trilogy suffers from the same faults I see in the prequels- my memories/love of the OT dates from my childhood seeing them at the cinema, and I’m much older now. The dialogue, the acting… it’s always been there, I guess, but its a bit alarming to notice it so much now. Maybe those actors in the prequels aren’t really all that bad, maybe it’s just Lucas and his scripts. Is anybody else annoyed when Lucas harps on about them really only being kid’s movies? Isn’t that just a lame excuse for lame writing?

It’s not that I think the magic has gone. It’s still, for all its faults and cgi alterations, a work of genius. The double-act of C3PO and R2D2 is just sublime, its breathtaking really- the small droid and an irritating android, utterly charming and believable, taking centre stage for so much of the film. I never think that’s Kenny Baker in R2 or Anthony Daniels sweating in the golden suit. It’s simply R2D2 and C3PO. They are real somehow. Now that’s magic. To think Lucas did that in 1976 and no-one has ever done anything like it since.   

I guess that’s what you have to take away from watching Star Wars now. It was a groundbreaking piece of cinema and creativity made in, gosh, 1976. Yes Lucas ‘borrowed’ so much from other films/serials/comics/books… but as a piece of space-fantasy cinema, made before personal computers, digital watches, mobile phones, VHS recorders entered our lives…  Well its an astonishing work for all its faults.

But Star Wars was what existed in 1977 (1978 when it hit the UK nationwide)… it became Episode 4: A New Hopewhen Lucas started talking about nine films. That was the first change he ever made to the film… who would have dared dream of where that first change would lead to, all these years/formats/versions after? The thing that stuck in my mind though, watching it again now… and its something that might get me yelled at for Jedi heresy or something… I just wish Lucas had gone all the way with the cgi. I mean, keep the original 1977 version intact, restored, and release it on HD to keep purists happy and for nostalgic fools like me trying to relive my childhood. But then go hardcore on redoing all the visual fx to match the prequels and keeping thatversion as a seperate entity. Just go all the way. Because the oddest thing about this version of A New Hopethat we are stuck with, is that its neither one thing or the other. Some of the old fx look fine, some of it just awful, likewise some of the new cgi opens things up nicely while some of it is just too OTT.  There are great cgi aliens but dodgy unfixed light-sabres. What I mean to say is, surely now, after all the tinkering, it should be all-or-nothing? Anybody who has seen some of the fan-edits on youtube etc will know what I mean and understand how half-baked the so-called special editions really are. If Lucas really wants to change so much then he should just go and do it. Even by changing some of the 1997 cgi that has become as dated as the 1977 effects it replaced. There’s an irony there, that the then-new cgi effects are now dating the film too.

I’m sure the original films will be coming fully restored to Blu-ray one day anyway. It’s just too good an opportunity to make money, and if anything is true of Lucas, it’s his keen eye on making money. He’s a better businessman than film-maker, thats for sure. The way I see it, we just have to put up with the changes/tweaks etc and wait for the old versions to come out. The versions we have on blu-ray now are the six-film saga version that became a reality with the prequels, and I just see them as that, a diversion, an alternate edition. The films I really loved, the original cinema editions, are from a time when the six-film saga didn’t exist (I still can’t see Vader as being that annoying Anakin of the prequels), and one day they will, I am sure, be released that way.

Lucas missed an opportunity- I mean, why not just keep it seperate? Can’t he keep the six-film saga as a seperate thing from the original editions? He could have completely redone the fx etc for A New Hope and whatever else ‘needed’ changing in Empire and Jedi (cgi Yoda throughout the six films?) and released his ‘new’ edits as a six-film box, but then also the originals as a seperate trilogy box. Bingo, everybody happy. ‘New’ fans could have enjoyed the up-to-date charmless cgi and flashy visuals and us oldies could have had the old films we cherish. Well, one day….

But what the hell, it’s The Empire Strikes Back next…

2011.41: Predators (2010) *** September 10, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , add a comment

Dir. Nimrod Antal,  107 min, DVD rental

I guess this film does what it says on the tin, so to speak. It’s a Predator movie. While it’s certainly superior to the insipid AVP films of a few years back, that’s fairly faint praise really, as that last one was truly diabolical. But yeah, Predators is okay, certainly a pleasing night-in rental. I can’t say I can really criticize it for not opening out the franchise or doing anything new -even though it’s actually far less imaginative that the Predator 2 movie to be honest- as the Predator series, storywise, doesn’t really have the legs of, say, the Alien series. The Predators are voiceless, one-dimensional, they are just what their name evokes- a hunter, an alien safari dude. You aren’t going to find haunting eulogies or deep motivation with these critters. So we’re left with rooting for their prey in every film, but how many films can that really stretch to? The other problem is just that; the prey- the first film had Arnie in his 80’s prime, so whats next? Adrien Brody? Give me a break. An action hero that guy ain’t. Every man should know his limitations, as Clint said back in the day. I suspect Predators tries to get away with the limitations of Brody as an action-hero by surrounding him with several others, making it a kind of ensemble piece, but really none of them are exactly much above b-movie/straight to tv cable/tv movie quality. Brody isn’t awful by any means, but I just think… well, nice try but no, just… no.

Now, I’m not Jason Statham’s greatest fan, but someone like him in this film, and with the high-energy action that Paul Verhoeven made so popular, you know, really go for the jugular… yeah then you’d have a really good Predators. But this isn’t that kind of movie, infact, it’s almost a family-friendly flick. There’s not much here to really distinguish any of the action sequences. As it is, it isn’t particularly suspenseful either. It isn’t a bad film, but neither is it really a very good one- mostly harmless, as Douglas Adams would say.

“Noooo!” (or, Star Wars fans feel blu) September 4, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 3 comments

For the past month or so I’ve been occasionally looking at the various forums out there for Star Wars fans impatiently waiting for the release of the films on bluray. Last week it was like looking at a carcrash, as blu-ray rips surfaced on the ‘net and news came out of more tinkering by George Lucas, examples soon appearing on youtube for all to see. Stuff like Ewoks now blinking with cgi eyes, Jabbas Palace door getting an extension and Darth screaming “Noooo!” as he saves Luke from the Emperor in ROTJ. So we’ve got the ‘Lucas raped my childhood’ arguments all over again.

I’m a little ambivalent over it all, to be honest. I used to be a huge Star Wars fan in my childhood- I was 12 when the film hit the UK in late ‘77/early ‘78 and it blew my little socks off, and TESB was one of the Greatest Things Ever when that came out in 1980. ROTJ disappointed me and, in hindsight, indicated where the series would be headed with the eventual prequels quality-wise. But over the years, and particularly post-1997 when the tinkering first really started with the infamous ‘Special Editions’, I really began to get tired of it all.

I don’t mind all the changes. I think TESB was actually enhanced by some of the ‘fixes’ like the windows in Cloud City. But as time goes on and the changes have progressed, and the original theatirical editions seem to have been consigned to the bin forever, well, it all leaves a bitter taste. I can’t really defend what Lucas is doing, but who can? Anybody who loves movies and sees them as an artform worthy of historical record and archiving must surely feel the same. This whole ‘work in progress’ atitude to films that were perfectly fine when originally released is just mystifying. So the HD versions coming out on blu-ray next week will constitute yet another version, with perhaps another version to be released if the 3D editions ever surface, or later on some yet-unknown Super HD format.

I sometimes wish Lucas would just re-do all the fx shots in Star Wars and be done with it, to be honest… his piecemeal approach is just confusing. He changes some things and leaves others well alone (I think the close fly-bys over the Death Star model have always looked fake with poor miniature explosions, why not change those shots?). But it’s his baby, he can do what he likes… and with the OT being in the Digital Realm post-1997 its easy for him to mess with them.

But as someone who loves movies, and owns wonderful archival blu-ray editions of classics like Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, CE3K and the 5-disc Blade Runner set… well, its mystifying that I can never hope to own definitive HD remasters of how the Star Wars films were originally released. Purely as an historical thing. I’ve no problem with Lucas completely re-doing the fx shots of Star Wars, TESB and ROTJ to match in cgi the quality of the prequels, if thats what he wants, as long as somehow we could also own the original release versions. But for some reason he chooses not to. The Lucasfilm line is that those versions of the films simply don’t exist anymore, which is just bollocks, frankly. If Metropolis can be restored 80 years later then there’s no problem with one of the most successful/popular films of all time, surely. There are private collectors with 70mm prints of the original Star Wars, for instance.

So the Star Wars circus continues, and Lucasfilm will be making another fortune (I read that the 2004 DVD release earned over $100 million). I admit I’ve pre-ordered the box set, hell, the opportunity to see the films in HD is just too much to resist. I only wish they were different versions of the films, or that, if the tinkering is something we have to live with, that the original theatrical editions were included. One thing I do feel is a little alarming is the lack of respect for the films this release seems to indicate- certainly they seem inferior to releases of blu-rays of Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner etc content-wise. Old tv docs and 90 mins of frankly embarrasing spoofs are hardly definitive, are they?  You’d think they could have organised some fresh cast-and-crew commentaries at least.

Anyway, in a few weeks if I actually sit and watch the damn things I’ll post some fresh reviews of them here. There’s no guarantee- alarmingly, I’ve recently realised that while I bought the 2004 DVD set when it came out, other than Star Wars (with a sound mix so ruined I only managed that once) I never actually sat down and watched them. Now that’s scary! 

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