26 November 2015


It's not enough to claim, as I was almost content to do, that The Peanuts Movie shows up as a very good example of how to do modernisation right. Upgrading Charles Schulz's achingly melancholic comic strip that ran from 1950 to 2000, and the considerably less melancholic but sometimes nearly as iconic TV specials that aired sporadically from 1965 to 2011 (who knew they were still making Peanuts specials in the 2010s? Or that there were 45 of them in total?) for an audience of 2010s kids trained that animated features are in 3-D and fully-rendered CGI and have pop music breaks seemed to be a transparently unacceptable idea from the get-go, but The Peanuts Movie indulges on all of those contemporary trends while also paying heartfelt respect to the half-century tradition of Peanuts animation (including four prior theatrical features), splitting the difference between them perfectly and in the process managing to emerge as the most visually unique major-studio animated feature in hell, I don't even know how long. It is the film that catapults third-tier Blue Sky Studio (of the Ice Ages and Rios, films so DreamWorks-ey that even DreamWorks couldn't have made them) right up to the top rank of mainstream American animation. Maybe only for this one film - probably, in fact; they're making a fifth Ice Age. But right now, stack up Peanuts against 2015's animated triumph Inside Out, and ask me which one I think is the more important and exciting film at the level of visual aesthetic, and I can only shrug and say that I hope Pixar and I can still be friends now that I've started dating somebody else.

So this is not merely a good example of modernising a classic property for a new audience, as I was saying back up there. This is successful enough to justify the very concept of modernisation, which I am in the main deeply put off by: using new tools and old sensibilities and coming up with something that's completely its own thing. It's not that The Peanuts Movie is "better" than A Charlie Brown Christmas, or anything daft like that. Just that it's so successful at crafting a new identity for itself that constantly checking it against the most classic of the classic Peanuts specials hardly seems worth the effort.

It's still Peanuts, mostly. The plot is a stew made up of elements taken directly from the comic strip, and those which strongly evoke the strip but aren't quite the same. Midwestern suburban preteen Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) is the local punching bag for all of his many schoolmates who regard him as a failure in every way someone can fail, but beneath the extreme self-loathing he carries as a result of all this, he has the heart of a romantic. And this comes into play one winter's afternoon when he gets a new across-the-street neighbor in the form of a red-haired girl that he starts crushing on, hard, from the moment he first sees her. His chance to impress her first comes in the form of a team book report with her as his partner, which manages to end in despair for completely accidental reasons; his second comes when he's announced to be the only person to get a perfect score on a school-wide test, and he's celebrated by the entire school. Only he didn't get a perfect score at all: because of another accident, he put his name on the wrong answer sheet (hard to say if that's a "spoiler" or not: it's right there out front if you have your eyes open, but the film is quite disinterested in emphasising it, for a kids' film). While this goes on, Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy (his squawks culled from 41 years' worth of Bill Melendez recordings of the character) finds a typewriter and begins to write a great novel about his time as a fighter pilot in World War I, dueling in the skies with the Red Baron and flirting with pretty a flying ace poodle named Fifi (Kristen Chenoweth, with literally nothing to do that justifies her presence, but I get that it's an in-joke).

Writers Craig Schulz & Bryan Schulz (Charles Schulz's son and grandson) & Cornelius Uliano capture the general tone of the original material well; I am a little incensed, as an abiding fan of the Peanuts strip, that the movie turns out to be so nice. Without giving anything away, Charlie Brown is too damn competent - the first of the film's two narrative arcs ends with him failing, but only because of terrible bad luck, and the ending... I shan't say. But the ending is way too upbeat for Peanuts. A little loss, a little melancholy, a little suffering - that's Peanuts, but it is not The Peanuts Movie (to be fair, the animated versions of the franchise have long been more optimistic than the strip).

Still, that's part of the whole thing where the movie finds it own footing as a version of the material that is not "by Schulz", regardless of the onscreen text. For everything that's clearly looking back to the old classics - Christophe Beck's score with its feints towards Vince Guaraldi (including an appearance from Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy"), the casting of young non-actors with unpolished line deliveries, and the designs - the new film includes attitudes, song cues, and comic timing that all feel very contemporary, without knocking things lopsided. It's a delicate balance, and the film doesn't consistently stick the landing (the pop interludes are frankly dumb), but it leaves plenty to love at the levels of storytelling, gentle and generous characterisations (though the film does fall down badly in trying to give any character besides Charlie Brown or Snoopy much to do - the relative invisibility of overconfident bully Lucy throughout the film breaks my heart).

And in animation; honestly, if The Peanuts Movie had nothing on hand other than a nice story about pleasantly sympathetic characters told with a gentle touch, it would be easy to like and forget, but the animation sets it on some entirely different level. It's a hybrid that shouldn't work: the flat, jerky animation of the old TV specials translated into three-dimensional computer models that don't become any less flat or jerky: the framerate never goes up, and the action takes place resolutely along two-dimensional planes, except in Snoopy's fantasies, which erupt along the Z-axis in a manner that feels excessively satisfying at the narrative level (what should fantasy do, if not interrupt the patterns of daily life?). The characters' faces are in thick black lines that look like somebody used a marker on a 3-D shape. The hair and cloth, meanwhile, are detailed at an exceedingly fine level, and the backgrounds are lushly colored and full of business, more like cartoons than realism, but elaborate in a way that the characters never are. After a few seconds getting your head around the fact that there are 3-D characters moving "on the fours", or something like that (meaning, it's only every fourth frame, maybe every third, that changes position). something we've never really seen in an American CG animated feature, it feels ineffably right for the story and characters to be presented in such an off-kilter form. It is old Peanuts reborn in new technology, and both the material and the technology feel fresher than they would have without that curious marriage.

Besides, it's damned beautiful: the almost fuzzy quality to the backgrounds and soft colors, and the "rendered 3-D as a hand-painted cartoon" textures of all the images are as different from mainstream children's animation as a studio like Blue Sky could possible dare to go. This is so devoid of confrontation that it would be impossible to call any of this "experimental", or what have you, but it does push the barriers of studio animation in a wildly unexpected direction and manages to be all the more likable, pleasant, and satisfying for doing so. It's only because a tremendous amount of thought and care went into looking that the film can be such a success at feeling free of affect and easygoing.


23 November 2015


This review is based on the "Despecialized Edition" prepared by fan editor Harmy, something akin to the original 1983 release.

It is very nearly almost claimed that Return of the Jedi is the weakest film of the original Star Wars trilogy, and this is absolutely true. The specific reasons for this, and how many of them and how severe they are, depend on who's making the argument, but one thing that can be counted on: it's not going to take too long before somebody mentions the Ewoks as Problem No. 1. I think this is perhaps maybe less true. Don't worry, this isn't the overture to a "defending the Ewoks" review, simply pointing out that the hate directed their way is overblown - they are transparently toyetic and the most extreme symptom of the remarkably sudden downshift Return of the Jedi makes from The Empire Strikes Back, as the franchise's glummest and most adult-friendly entry (though "adult-friendly" is all relative; these are all boys' own adventure matinee epics at heart) explosively gives way to what is pretty unabashedly a kids' film for a very large percentage of its running time.

And that is one of the film's problems. Not that the Star Wars franchise is meant to be some kind of sacrosanct thing that must not be for children: this is the trilogy about people with laser swords, funny robots, and the big scary man with the shiny black mask. Where Return of the Jedi trips up is in trying to balance its most kiddie-friendly instincts with the relative maturity and gravity of Empire, resulting in a film with some astonishing tonal lurches - some of them right in the same frame, like when the big slug-beast Jabba the Hutt (just as obviously a sop to pre-adolescent audiences as the Ewoks, though perhaps a marginally older pre-adolescent audience) is all gross and sluggy right next to the notorious sight of Carrie Fisher wearing a metal space bikini that wouldn't feel out of place in Heavy Metal. To say nothing of the climax - since we will say much about it later on.

Back to the Ewoks. They're a symptom of the film's sometimes clumsy attempt to be a four-quadrant hit (a phrase that I do not think existed in 1983, when it was newly released), but not a cause, and they are not devoid of merit in and of themselves. There's a profound disjunction between what the Ewoks are (animate teddy bears) and what they Ewoks do (wear tribal costumes, wield stone-age weapons, attempt to cook and eat the protagonists, stage traps to destroy a vastly more technologically accomplished aggressor - George Lucas has claimed that they were inspired by the Viet Cong, and that seems entirely reasonable), and for my part, I think that the film benefits from it. One thing Return of the Jedi does persistently and quietly is to get weird: the cantina scene in Star Wars and the fleeting glimpses of bounty hunters and the layout of Cloud City in Empire point in the direction of overheated pulp of the '30s or '50s style, where sci-fi world building could be at its most indulgent. Jedi has by far the largest number of non-human characters in the original trilogy (as well as the largest number of women with speaking roles: a whopping two, double that if you include aliens speaking made-up languages. But Star Wars-as-boys' club is not a new observation and I will not belabor it). The warrior plushies fit into this newly expansive sense of "what the hell, it's a big weird universe" nicely.

Mostly, though, I want to go to bat for the Ewoks because they're a key element of one the best and most easily-overlooked moments in Return of the Jedi: the storytelling scene. Newly-appointed primitive god C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is eagerly recapping for his audience of rapt bearlings the plots of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and we can't understand a word of it, of course, it's in one of this film's multiple invented languages (more of the pulpy universe-expanding - there's even a new alphabet introduced in this one). But between Daniels's enthusiastically stiff pantomime and the tinny reproductions of Ben Burtt's sound effects, we get all of it anyway. More to the point, the Ewoks very clearly get it: their puppety little faces are absolutely transfixed throughout. At one point, after the droid says "[gibberish] Han Solo [more gibberish]", a couple of the Ewoks sidle up to the smuggler-turned-general and hug him, and that's really the moment that crystallises the scene: intentionally or not, this is about the reason we love watching Star Wars. It's about big, bold characters for whom we feel intense (maybe unjustifably so) affection, and exaggerated adventures that are so simple that a droid can communicate them using arm movements. And also the creativity and perfection of the sound design is a key element of how the story is told. The audiences that made Star Wars an incomprehensibly big hit in 1977 and have kept it alive and important for most of the years ever since: we are those rapt Ewoks, and they are us. How can you hate the fuzzy little shits once you've realised that?

All that being said, and as I've implied already, Return of the Jedi is much less rapt-attention-inducing than what went before it. The expansive weirdness in the alien design and the flickers we see of how society works has to stand in contrast to how much smaller the film feels than Empire - smaller than Star Wars too, really, though Jedi has more locations than the first picture. Part of that, perhaps, is the bland mix of locations: the first film had a desert planet full of bizarre '70s space architecture and a giant, freakishly utilitarian space station, the second had an ice planet, a magical swamp, and a phenomenal gas giant mining colony, and what do we have here? Back to the same desert planet, two rooms in an other space station, and the only wholly new location is a redwood forest that looks transparently like northern California right from its very first "postcard from Yosemite"-style establishing shot. We're not very far from the old '50s B-producers going to Bronson Canyon and putting absolutely no effort into disguising it: the budget is bigger and the ecology at least somewhat less familiar, but the aura of "find me a location we can drive to!" manages to come through loud and clear.

What really doesn't help is the team Lucas assembled to execute his vision this time around. There wasn't nearly as much turnover between Empire and Jedi as between Star Wars and Empire, but two of the replacements were critical: welcome to the franchise cinematographer Alan Hume and director Richard Marquand (given the job after David Lynch turned down Lucas's offer to take the film: best for everyone involved, of course, though I'd be hella curious to know what Lynch would have done with Jabba), both of them a pronounced step down.

Let's not pussyfoot: Return of the Jedi is astonishingly poorly-shot. The 2nd unit work is as good as ever; the visual effects are a sizable leap even over the state-of-the-art work in Star Wars; the jagged edges of the half-made Death Star hanging in space is as beautiful as any visual effects in the series. But most of the scenes filmed on sets with actors are frightfully over-lit. Or not even over-lit - just badly lit. The interiors of Jabba's palace are certainly dim enough, and the vast depth of the entry hallway, terminating in a crescent of bright desert light, is a great achievement, responsible for two of the film's best images. But those aliens, boy do they look like props: the little monkey-beast Salacious Crumb (who was, like an astonishing number of characters in this film and the Ewoks as a species, only given a proper name in the merchandising for the movie, not its dialogue) looks exactly like a puppet, and if I were to see him popping up in a crowd scene in Fraggle Rock, I wouldn't bat an eye. Jabba himself is so clearly a rubbery suit - in one shot, you can see what looks suspiciously like a molding seam under his left arm - that it takes a huge amount of commitment from Fisher and Mark Hamill to make it seem like the gangster is a threat at all. More generally, the film has a bad tendency to make sets look like sets and props like props and matte paintings like (beautiful, detailed, rich) matte paintings: for what was assuredly not a cheap production, Return of the Jedi surely doesn't look like it cost much.

Beyond its stylistic limitations, the film's screenplay (Lawrence Kasdan came back from Empire, now to share a script credit with Lucas, who takes sole story credit) is much the weakest in the trilogy as well. Most apparently, the film has a protracted false first act, in which all of the main protagonists and nobody else go to rescue Han, and it has no connection at all to the rest of the movie, which starts only when all of the main protagonists and nobody else with a name or line of dialogue gets to head to the forest to have adventures. This is clumsy, and the rumored original notion that the third Star Wars film would consist of the quest to find Han with an unrealised fourth involving the final assault against the Empire would have been, I suppose, unambiguously better. But it's not just the clunkiness of having to entirely re-start a feature film after it's nearly a third of the way over. There's a smallness to this: a sense that nothing matters outside of this handful of characters, and that the universe literally doesn't exist without them. This is most appallingly evident in the mid-film twist, the discovery that Luke and Leia are brothers: the rumored original notion had a totally different Skywalker sister, which would have maybe been less "cool", but would have made more sense, and freed the series from the horrifying intimations of incest that now retroactively enter the first two movies, especially Star Wars's sketched-in romantic triangle.

But then, fucking with the series' established continuity is something Jedi does disappointingly well. Empire, of course, got to cheat: it let the reveal that Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker hit us in the gut and then it ended without dealing with the ramifications of that. Jedi is the one that has to do the clean-up work, dragging in poor blue-tinged Alec Guinness to deliver a speech that even his extraordinary gifts can't redeem, with Obi-Wan Kenobi's attempt to paper over a pretty glaring plot hole making him sound like even more of an idiot than an asshole - and he sounds like quite an asshole. "Luke, I lied, because you needed to hear that lie" would have been no less unethical and quite a bit less convoluted than the dismal monologue that not only screws with Star Wars but gave an entire trilogy of prequels a task to fulfill that they are not remotely prepared for.

There's plenty of sloppy writing that's much smaller: the eyebrow-raising development that untrustworthy rogue Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, given much less interesting to do in this film than the last) is now a general in the Rebellion, and using a joke to call attention to that fact doesn't help. Worse yet is everything to do with Han Solo: I don't know if it was an attempt to punish Harrison Ford for wanting to be largely written out of the movie and killed off at the end (this was back in the "Search for Solo" draft), but his character has been written into a more fumbling, inconsequential comic relief idiot than the prissy C-3PO ever was. Han does nothing well, overreacts, and gets some of the wobbliest dialogue, and has only one mournful look at at his beloved Millennium Falcon to make up for all of it. No more of the great space pirate of Star Wars here.

All of that is a tremendous amount of complaining about a movie I largely enjoy. The truth is, what doesn't work in Return of the Jedi mostly happens at the margins - and it happens at most of the margins. But the meat of the film is generally good: as the major showpiece film for Lucas's new effects house ILM, there was an impetus to include as many visual effects and as many different kinds of effects as possible, and it is immodestly satisfying as a work of spectacle as a result, whether something as elaborate as the final space battle or as quiet as the Death Star in the Endor night sky. It has the benefit also of getting better and better as it goes along. The film's climax is, to my mind, the best-assembled setpiece in the Star Wars franchise, combining a tremendously inventive and well made as that space battle with its astonishing number of moving parts, a hectic ground battle, and the relatively small and coiled-up battle of wits between Luke, Vader, and the cackling Emperor (Ian McDiarmid). The editing flawlessly matches the mood in each location to give the whole piece of cross-cutting a single fluid narrative line, and John Williams stitches it all together with an exemplary piece of scoring that juggles themes from across the franchise and culminates in an impressively soaring piece of choral music as Luke hammers on his father with a lightsaber.

Williams's score is, once again, the best thing going on here: we're back to the more insistent "music as storytelling" aspect of Star Wars, after Empire mostly used score as especially omnipresent mood setting. His woodwind-driven theme for the Ewoks goes a long way to making those toys-in-waiting seem otherworldly and also gives the impression they have some kind of real culture, which is part of why I'm so content to tolerate them; his new theme for Luke and Leia has a dour tenderness that's subdued in all the ways that the rest of the score is not, and is thus all the stronger for it. The way that the Vader's established theme and the Satanic droning of the new motif Williams writes for the Emperor cut in and out of each other is already enough to make their relationship one of the most driving and well-defined in the movie, and we don't even know who the Emperor is, really. Throw Luke into that mix, and add Hamill's most confident, but also most haggard performance yet, and there's a three-way conflict throughout the second half of the film that is as interesting and complex as anything in the character arcs of anyone in the Star Wars series. It's astonishing, really, how bland Leia is (though Fisher gives her all, and even with less to play, she's personally at the same level she was in Empire), and how outright bad Han is, when Lucas and Kasdan had things like Vader's deep film-long ambivalence waiting inside of them.

Anyway, the film's last sequences are by far its most powerful and exciting, and not even the hokey Ewok song at the end (which I still much prefer to the hokier celebratory suite ending the Special Edition cut of the film) can rob the echoes of the emotional heights reached by Hamill's purposeful downshift from fury to calm after his last lightsaber battle, or McDiarmid's lizardlike croak switching from pleasure to rage (McDiarmid is absolutely magificent in the role: he's hamming it up while also being totally plausible as a realistic figure of literally pure evil, and his faux-kindly way of delivering crushing taunts to Luke is some of the best villainy in all of popcorn cinema), or the solo harp carrying Anakin Skywalker to his grave.

In sum: it's a film that's pretty rough, even by Star Wars standards, at story structure and plot holes; it's largely captivating at gigantic SFX and VFX spectacle; it's good at family movie and it's trivial at adult movie. But it is truly splendid and moving at Luke Skywalker's character arc: taken as the culmination of three films' worth of building him up, and challenging him with his own flaws, it is a rich, operatic finale. Even if we just take it as the sum of this one movie's journey from Luke's quiet expression on the hologram projected in Jabba's throne room to the grin of triumph as he rejoins his friends after saying goodbye to his redeemed father, it is moving and soaring and Hamill, though never anywhere close to a major actor, earns every bit of the emotions the film traffics in for its final twenty minutes. The proportion of good-to-bad in Return of the Jedi is damned dubious, but it leaves us on a huge high after a protracted burst of its best material, and that makes it a hell of a popcorn movie, even after everything.


Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)

19 November 2015


This review is based upon the "Despecialized Edition" prepared by fan editor Harmy, something akin to the original 1980 version. Or, an original version, anyway; this film appeared in multiple cuts even during its initial release.

Has any movie sequel ever had such widespread impossible expectations as The Empire Strikes Back? Has any movie sequel ever so thoroughly surpassed impossible expectations as The Empire Strikes Back? The very first follow-up to the almost unprecedented generational event that was 1977's Star Wars entered theaters in 1980 to some of the most ravenous crowds that had ever anticipated a new blockbuster. And while it was greeted with some small level of bafflement at the time, it has emerged in later years as one of the very small number of sequels to a widely-beloved original that conventional wisdom agrees is probably maybe even better than the first one.

If you want to see that conventional wisdom flouted, you're going to walk away from this review disappointed. Though it's probably the case that in some ineffable way, The Empire Strikes Back is a distinctly less "special" movie than Star Wars. It is not as singular, let us say. If Star Wars is the blueprint for all future Hollywood blockbusters (and in a great many ways, it obviously is), it's still plainly part of the '70s sci-fi boom and the American cinematic landscape of the 1970s generally; the sets and cinematography are the most obvious aspects of that which are true, but they are not alone. In retrospect, we might call it a transitional film, though of course at the time there was nothing to transition to: it was simply a weird attempt at branching the essentials of '70s Hollywood aesthetics into a heretofore unseen direction, and it was fascinating. The Empire Strikes Back, meanwhile, is tangibly a post-Star Wars popcorn film, a genre inaugurated by Superman in 1978 and Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, but not, I think, perfected until right here.

By "perfected" I don't mean that The Empire Strikes Back is the best post-Star Wars film, though it well might be (Raiders of the Lost Ark is the only title I can think of offhand that would challenge it). I mean that, whereas Star Wars, Superman, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture all feel like they were definitely made sometime in the late '70s (or in Star Trek's case, like a hungover version of the 1960s that spent ten straight years locked in the bathroom and then forced to play catch-up), The Empire Strikes Back, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or Back to the Future, and we can take this through dozens of films all the way up to Jurassic World if we want to), feels detached from time; outside of the ever-evolving technology used to make film and certain narrative tropes more prominent at one time or another, most of the E-ticket blockbusters in the decades since 1980 have felt distinctly same-ish in their attitudes, stylistic choices, and narrative structure - that last one's the fault of Star Wars itself and its hard-on for Joseph Campbell, of course. Most, not all, and "same-ish" can mean a lot of things, if it means anything in the first place. I really only mean this: watch Star Wars, especially denuded of the special edition crap from 1997 and onwards, and you see a film that has the year of its creation etched onto every frame, or at least every frame that doesn't have spaceships in it. That's simply not true of The Empire Strikes Back, a film that could have been made exactly the same way at any point between 1978 and 1991.

While it's not such a strange and unique marvel as Star Wars, though, The Empire Strikes Back makes up for it by being better, or at least deprived of its predecessor's most obvious flaws. For one thing, uniquely among the first six theatrically-released films in the Star Wars franchise, The Empire Strikes Back is almost entirely free of actively shitty dialogue. There are only two points I can point to where Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay reaches the depths of Tosche Station or lakes on Naboo, and both pivot on the tentative romantic bickering between Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) - a relationship that, persistently, requires the actors to do a great deal of the heavy lifting that the writing can't ever handle - firstly the strained and painful matter of Han's attempt to force Leia to admit that she loves him when he's leaving the station on the frozen planet Hoth, a scene that feels like a screenwriting exercise that never saw a second draft; secondly, the clunky, too desperately "sci-fi" insult "Why you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking... nerf herder!" and the borscht belt rejoinder "Who's scruffy-lookin'?"

It's probably not an accident that this also the Star Wars film among the first six that has the least tinkering by George Lucas himself. It's the only film for which he didn't materially contribute to the final script. As I understand the way things went, he developed a story with Leigh Brackett, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay; after her untimely death from cancer, Lucas went back to re-write it himself, scrapping most of her specific narrative ideas but maintaining most of her broad concepts. And then Kasdan came down to rewrite the thing top-to-bottom based on this new story.

The real important thing is that this is the only Star Wars film that Lucas had no active hand in directing - he's of course the credited director on four of the six, and it's generally understood that Richard Marquand was his cat's paw in the making of Return of the Jedi. For The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz tapped a much stronger directorial presence in the form of Irvin Kershner, a name you almost certainly don't recognise. And it's a damned pity that these days, Kershner's best-known films after this one are probably the bootleg James Bond picture Never Say Never Again and mediocre sequel RoboCop 2, his next and final theatrical features, which provides ample cover to presume that he's a miserable hack. But if we stand in 1980 looking backwards rather than forewards, we see that his two prior features were 1978's giallo-flecked Eyes of Laura Mars and the charming 1976 Barbra Streisand comedy Up the Sandbox. And these are the work of, not an auteur, but a damned competent filmmaker - Eyes of Laura Mars in particular showcases some really excellent thriller directing (it's a better-directed film than Empire Strikes Back, though it is not better overall).

This means lots of things for The Empire Strikes Back, but easily the most important one is that it's so infinitely better as a character story and showcase for acting than Star Wars that it's kind of hard to square the two as containing the same cast. The leads are vastly better: Ford (by far the best of the three last time, but still rocky in places) plays Han's cocky hotshot arrogance with more brittleness now, leaving it much clearer how much of a romantic and patriot he is at heart; Fisher junks her over-enunciated line deliveries and has much clearer intentions for how Leia evolves across the movie, rather than simply what she's thinking in any given instant. Mark Hamill is on some other plane entirely: the callow California boy mien of his Luke Skywalker in Star Wars has evaporated, replaced with a young man who's only slightly more mature but incomparably more thoughtful and aware of his own wants and needs. And not wishing to diminish the trauma of Hamill's January, 1977 car crash that left him with a badly shattered face; but he's much more interesting to look at as a result of it, giving Luke an automatic sense of troubled inner struggle just because of how his eyes and cheekbones work now.

So the characters have more complex arcs this time, thanks in part to the actors finding their roles and Kershner's assistance in making that happen - it's worth noting, the best character beat in the film and maybe the entire franchise, Han's very steady and focused "I know" in response to Leia's "I love you" was an on-set improvisation Ford cooked up with Kershner's encouragement - and also, let's be fair, the film's willingness to go dark. We all know this is the Star Wars that ends unhappily, but frankly, it's also the Star Wars that's ribboned with suffering throughout. Really, there's nothing that goes right for the heroes: the first plot point involves Luke getting lost, attacked by a snow beast, and nearly freezing to death (the film is somewhat bookended by scenes of a mutilated Luke being pieced together in sickbay), and the opening act is dominated an effects-heavy action sequence whose stakes are "run the clock until we can safely run away". Once the film splits into two plots, both of them hinge on failure: one of the two subplots has as its entire narrative spine, "the Millennium Falcon keeps breaking in one different way after another", the other finds Luke having a terrifyingly expressive puppet throwing him one dismissive and disappointed look after another before ending with the sentiment, "well, if he fucks up, at least we have a back-up plan" (does it need saying that Yoda, voiced by Frank Oz and performed by him and fellow Muppet A-lister Kathryn Mullen - let us note that Yoda was made by ILM, not the Henson creature shop - is one of the great pieces of puppet acting in all of cinema? Because Christ Jesus, is he ever convincing and emotive). Star Wars is structured on a chain of increasingly high-stakes triumphs: escape Mos Eisley, rescue Leia and escape the Death Star, blow up the Death Star against all odds. The Empire Strikes Back is structured on a chain of increasingly small-scale losses: flee from the rebel base, break the space ship, lose a one-on-one lightsaber duel.

This isn't some "the film is better because it's grim" thing; this structure gives more room for the characters to have more complicated responses and enjoy their occasional hard-fought small triumphs more, while also making The Empire Strikes Back incredibly interesting. How many giant-scale blockbusters are predicated on the heroes losing at every turn? And yet the magical thing - the magic of Star Wars, or whatever - is that this never turns into any sort of bleak slog. Nothing here is remotely as exciting as the Death Star attack that ends the first film, and the closest equivalent, the battle against the elephantine AT-AT walkers on Hoth, is distinctly lumpy and feels like it was stuck in more to give the film a big setpiece early on. Still, this is a space opera and a fantasy movie before it is anything else, and it acquits itself beautifully. It is not such a swashbuckler, but the film still crackles by at an unflagging pace, slowing only twice: when cross-cutting between Luke's philosophical training and the Cloud City tour where the film happily stops to be charmed right off its feet by Billy Dee Williams's Lando Calrissian, and then at the very, very end, where everybody has failed and is taking time to prepare themselves to move on and keep fighting. Incidentally, I've thought for years that The Empire Strikes Back got to cheat into some of its success, by not having to resolve its plot threads; this is entirely wrong. While it leaves two very obvious sequel hooks open for Return of the Jedi - Luke must deal with the knowledge of his father's identity; the team has to rescue Han - it doesn't feel emotionally incomplete in and of itself. In fact, the unresolved ending is exactly part of why it feels complete: after all of the battering they've taken, the characters regroup, and prepare to fight on. It is an optimistic ending: "we can still fight". The internal emotional arc of the film is strengthened by giving it an unresolved future to look forward to. Heck, that's undoubtedly part of the reason why it's still so much fun despite being nothing but a laundry list of setbacks: it promises that our heroes are unbowed and strong.

Of course, it's also fun because it's a big ol' spectacle. Lucas and Kurtz, having assembled a dream team for Star Wars, surprisingly turned out to be unable or disinterested in retaining it: the only crew heads to return were sound designer Ben Burtt and costume designer John Mollo, while miniature effects director Dennis Muren was promoted (though Star Wars production designer John Barry did come back as second unit director; and if "concept artist" can plausibly be called a crew head position, the invaluable Ralph McQuarrie came back too). But their new artistic team more than met the needs of the film; production designer Norman Reynolds conceived of a more varied, wide-ranging world, to take advantage of the vastly wider scope of the script, and cinematographer Peter Suschtzky brought a terrific command of color that offsets the fact that this film's compositions are generally a bit more two-dimensional and straightforward than the last film. Just think of the exquisite scene in which Luke and Darth Vader (still David Prowse's body with James Earl Jones's voice - and it seems that Jones is way the hell nastier with his line readings this time, don't you think?) square off in a room of plunging blues, almost down to navy, and harsh neon orange, with their lightsabers setting off their dark silhouettes! It is the prettiest scene in a Star Wars film, and splendidly dramatic, and its ascetic, limited palette draws attention wonderfully to the action of the fight.

There really is something to be said for that fight scene all in all: it's a much lower-key lightsaber duel than anything the franchise would see again, but it's absolutely incredible nonetheless. It's the best example in all the franchise of swordfighting-as-storytelling: the way Vader idly thwacks at Luke without being very flashy reveals itself to be a test. We're watching a cat playing with a mouse, almost, except in this case the cat is very curious about the mouse's capabilities and not looking for a meal. That undercurrent sets up this whole climactic sequence to take place on psychological grounds, which pays off wonderfully at the famous "No, I am your father" reveal - I suppose it's shocking in and of itself (though less so if you were born later than 1975), but it also makes sense: all of Vader's behavior in the movie and especially the last sequence is perfectly tuned to push this reveal.

Anyway, there's one other thing that makes the film exciting and fun and tense and all of that, and for the second time in a row (a record that would just keep on going, too), John Williams is pretty much the reason that the film is as great as it is. The score for The Empire Strikes Back doesn't exactly drive the narrative, emotions, and rhythm of the film so bluntly as in Star Wars, and this is another way - maybe the key way - that The Empire Strikes Back feels conventional in a way that Star Wars does not. It is, however, better music - if I were to pop on a Star Wars soundtrack to listen to purely for listening pleasure, it would be the second film rather than the first. In addition to the one-off "The Asteriod Field", a bright, even playful piece of music that ratchets up the tension and speed of its accompanying scene far more than the impressively busy visuals do, Williams adds three incredibly useful motifs to his collection from the last time around. One of these is "Han Solo and the Princess", an evolution of "Princess Leia's Theme" from Star Wars that's slightly lower and dark, heavier in the string section, and doesn't resolve itself as cleanly - it's a breathtakingly beautiful, yearning romantic theme. Another is "Yoda's Theme", a subdued, warm theme that adds a softer but still aching counterpart to the intense, mournful "Force Theme" from Star Wars.

And there's the big guy, the best-known piece of Star Wars music after the brassy, adventurous "Luke's Theme" that accompanies all of the opening crawls: "The Imperial March", a dominant minor-key rumble of evil. It might be the best march Williams ever composed, and they're possibly the thing he does best: the "Raiders March" the Superman "Main Theme", and the easily-overlooked "March from 1941" are all masterworks of film composition, and "The Imperial March" tops all of them (maybe not Superman. That's a hell of a theme. But still). Coupled with the shiny blackness of Vader himself, the image and sound form some of the most iconic moments in all of popcorn cinema.

There are, to be sure, enough flaws in The Empire Strikes Back that it's hard even with this best of all Star Wars pictures to give credence to the fannish insistence that it is one of the great achievements in cinema - not even little flaws, some of them are gaping. This film being rather more serious and adult-facing than Star Wars, the pieces stuck in there kids are glaring: I have no particular problem with the neurotic robot C-3PO and Anthony Daniels's fluttery performance of him in Star Wars nor in Return of the Jedi, but his comic relief is galling here, particularly when he interrupts one of the most insinuating statements of the romantic them in the film. And the film feels a bit stiff the entire time it's on Hoth, unsure of how to reintroduce characters (Leia gets a splendid wordless reaction shot, but then a clumsy dialogue dump), choppy in the way it advances plot, and for all its creativity and top-notch effects work, the battle sequence squelches the narrative momentum in a way that I refused to notice when I was 10.

What The Empire Strikes Back has the great fortune to do is to get increasingly better as it moves along, even as it narrows its focus; the smaller the scale, the more profound the feelings attached, and the more heaving and dramatic the visuals, and the more aching Williams's score. It ends with one of its very best sequences, sad and hopeful, soaring on the score, grandiose in the visuals - and there's no popcorn movie better than a popcorn movie that saves the best for last.


Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)

16 November 2015


A reminder of how this blog's James Bond reviews work can be found right here.

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth
Premiered 26 October, 2015

Here there be spoilers. Visit my review at the Film Experience for the safe version.

The time has come to acknowledge that, notwithstanding the hellish editing in the car chase that opens Quantum of Solace, the Daniel Craig era of the James Bond franchise has been almost unfairly great at opening scenes. This one is set in Mexico City, during the Día de Muertos (because you can't go someplace in a Bond movie and have it not be a major local festival, duh), and Bond is hunting down a mysterious Italian man named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). He does this, by the way, in the form of a long take that is, all by itself, one of the best things that has ever shown up on a Bond movie. And then there's the fistfight on a helicopter that erupts after Bond shoots all of Sciarra's associates, but not Sciarra himself, and blows up a half of a city block in the process. This helicopter, mind you, is currently performing corkscrews and frequently almost plunging into a crowd of people stuffed into the Zócalo. It's mouth-wateringly good action, and Thomas Newman's score that keeps hinting at Monty Norman's Bond theme is on hand to make it even better, just in case we somehow we were less than 100% excited.

Though if "fist fight on a helicopter doing corkscrews" doesn't make you 100% excited, you are dead, and shouldn't be watching movies.

Rating: 5 Union Jack Parachutes

Looks like somebody learned all the wrong lessons from Skyfall, and Adele's Oscar-winning smash hit theme song thereof. Once again we have a slow ballad based somewhat on the structure of the Bond theme, slowed to a crawl, that erupts into big orchestral fireworks at the verses. What we do not have is a woman with a smoldering mezzo-soprano or alto voice who sounds like we caught her mere seconds into a cigarette break. Instead, "Writing's on the Wall" (the third time in the four Craig films that the theme song does not share the title of the film nor does the title appear in the lyrics) finds Sam Smith - who not merely claims to have written it in less than a half-hour, he's practically bragging about it - squeaking along with a dreadful falsetto that's an incongruous fit at best with the moody slowness of the music. And when I saw "moody slowness", I am being somewhat over-polite, when I actually mean "fuck-all boring". Tepid, watery, and a near-low for the whole franchise.

Rating: 1.5 Shirley Basseys

So bad, or so bad it's good? And those are the only options, please note. I will concede that Daniel Kleinman, who has been responsible for some of the best title sequences in the franchise's history over the years, shows absolutely no fear and bless him for it; and one thing that nobody could claim is to be bored by the nutcase feverishness of the CGI octopodes dominating the sequence in a discomfitingly porny way (we have to ask, where the hell was Kleinman when they made Octopussy?). It is magnetically weird, even if it's kind of awful.

But - there is also the matter of the sequence's narrative. Which is a forthright attempt to summarise the three-film history of the Craig era using clips and snippets from the previous films, and a whole lot of images of Craig himself. It's ungainly, and it prefigures the very worst that Spectre has to offer: its sweaty attempt to wrap up the whole Craig era into one overstuffed package.

Rating: 1 Silhouetted Woman

Aye, what is the plot? It's all over the place and nowhere at all: somehow, Spectre contrives to be the longest Bond film ever made despite having no apparent narrative. Bond's shenanigans in Mexico City have come at a terrible time for MI6: it has just been merged with MI5 under the stewardship of mad bureaucrat C (Andrew Scott), who is making noises about shutting down the 00 program altogether, while making life agony for Bond's (still, for now) boss M (Ralph Fiennes). Confident that he's on the trail of a super-secret world-spanning evil syndicate, Bond skips London with the reluctant help of M's secretary Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and MI6 tech wizard Q (Ben Whishaw), and ends up in Rome to attend Sciarra's funeral and learn what he might from the dead man's sexy widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci).

From here... stuff happens? The plot is perfectly easy to follow, it's not convoluted or anything, but it's also terribly aimless. Bond storms through Europe gathering trivial clues and not having to work very hard at all to do so, all in the interest of not stopping any villainous plot - this is purely an exercise in uncovering the existence and structure of SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, an entity that From Russia with Love was able to establish and sketch out within its first ten minutes. The real plot, meanwhile, is all happening back in London, while M learns with horror of the full scope of C's intentions to oversee the alignment of all the intelligence agencies of the West under one banner which he will be able to place in the hands of SPECTRE itself. It takes a very, very long time for this to reveal itself, despite the laws of economic screenwriting demanding from the get-go that this is where we're going to end up.

At about two-thirds of the way through, Bond finally catches up with the shadowy head of SPECTRE, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), with whom he has a long personal history. It is exactly at this point that the film, which has been amiable in its shagginess, suddenly goes flying off the rails. But we'll get to that later on.

Rating: 2 Stolen Nukes

Look, the cat-owning head of SPECTRE is the cat-owning head of SPECTRE by any name. When Oberhauser smugly announces to Bond that he's taken his mother's name and is now going by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, it's the most misjudged "yeah, duh" villain-related twist since Benedict Cumberbatch sneered the word "Khan" in Star Trek Into Darkness.

That's not really even a problem, though. The problem is that Oberhauser or Blofeld or a boy named Sue is a pretty bland incarnation of the form, with the film's new backstory - Bond and Blofeld were childhood friends, nearly even brothers - domesticating the character in a bafflingly pedestrian way. Why not let the evil mastermind be an evil mastermind? Instead, we get a plot point snagged from a goddamned parody of Bond, Austin Powers in Goldmember, where it was obviously meant to be hokey nonsense. Compounding this, our new Blofeld feels like no kind of threat - when he has Bond in a torture rig, it seems quite impossible that Bond will experience any legitimate danger - and while I am pleased that Waltz has stepped back from the fast-talking German eccentric shtick for this role, he's still too plummy and genial to be imposing in the way that the leader of a worldwide criminal organisation had ought to be.

Rating: 2 Evil Cats

Ah, now this is more like it. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) isn't quite one for the ages, but she's a largely satisfying foil to Bond, and she gets to drive the plot - such as it is - more than the vast majority of her forebears. Grappling with the unresolved rage she feels at her late criminal father White (Jesper Christensen, playing the character for the third time), she has a sharper tragic dimension than many a Bond woman before her, and the script's fumbling attempts to modernise the film for contemporary sensibilities allow her to be fully sexy without objectifying her or leaving the suggestion that she's only there to be sexed up by the superspy. She's capable in a fight and even more capable at pushing back against Bond, suggesting a whole movie of tensions in her own character that only happen to intersect with Spectre for a time. It helps that Seydoux is a genuinely great actress, a relative rarity for the Bond films.

And then it all goes to hell, with the filmmakers forcibly trying to convince us that Swann and Bond are some kind of soulmates, in a galling manner that's clumsy and tone-deaf even by the standards of a tone-deaf final third. Still, it's nice while it lasts. And you've got to love a character whose name is a random-as-hell Proust reference.

Rating: 3.5 White Bikinis

Ain't nothing like a giant unspeaking man-mountain, and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) can loom with the best of them. He has only the smallest kind of gimmick (steel-plated thumbnails, the better for poking out the eyes of hapless victims), but in the pared-down Craig films, that's colorful enough. He's a memorable physical threat and presence at a level that the current generation of Bond films has mostly spent all of its energy avoiding, and Bautista is just charismatic enough that the character's big meaty sneers play as a nice sort of campy humor in the midst of a generally unsmiling movie. His last scene is a particular highlight on that front. He's exactly what Spectre (and the franchise as a whole, at this point in its development) needs from its bad guys, and the film takes a significant step down once he leaves it.

Rating: 4.5 Metal-Plated Teeth

For the first time in 24 films over 53 years, James Bond sleeps with a woman older than he is. With a middle-aged woman as profoundly sexy as Monica Bellucci, I can't imagine it cost him too much. The character is typical and formulaic as all hell (wife of a bad guy sleeps with James, gives him info, leaves the movie), but Bellucci invests the character with years of accumulated resentment and fear, giving a stereotypical role genuinely tragic dimensions, while also showing off flawlessly smoldering chemistry with Craig.

On the negative side of the ledger: she's barely in the film at all: two whole scenes, neither of them terribly long. And when the movie is done with her, she more or less evaporates: there's no sense of what's going to happen to her next, really, and even less of a sense that we, or Bond, or Lucia herself cares very much. A disappointingly trivial, flat treatment for a character who certainly had enough gas in the tank to be one of the highlights of the whole franchise.

Rating: 4 Golden Corpses

The downside of starting with that astonishing Mexico City opening is that there's nowhere left to go. Not a single one of Spectre's remaining action setpieces is disappointing or deficient or any such thing, nothing like that; but all of them can't help but feel a little bit anticlimactic, particularly since the big car chase is one of those "European cities have narrow windy roads that are difficult to navigate at high speeds" jobs that we've seen plenty of. It's a good version of that; just not a revelatory version of that. Same thing with the train-bound fistfight that's exciting, brutal, and clearly in no way an improvement on the one this very same franchise introduced over a half-century ago in From Russia with Love.

All that being said, Mexico City is a masterpiece, and the film includes the official record-setting biggest practical explosions ever filmed, so let's not be too hard on it.

Rating: 4 Walther PPKs

An exploding watch that also tells time; a variety of poorly-marked buttons in a spy car. That's all. I understand the current wave of films is deliberately trying to scale back on all the giddy nonsense of the franchise as a whole, but they can't make me like it.

Rating: 2 Easily-Riled Welshmen

THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
There is a mountaintop health spa and ski lodge here, and it is all that I ever want my movie sets to be: imperious glass walls everywhere, multiple levels to be kept in frame simultaneously, perilously austere furniture. Production designer Dennis Gassner and set decorator Anna Pinnock really went to town on the spa, and no two ways about it. And the headquarters of C's new spy headquarters is, while definitely gaudy, a festive and sprawling and Guggenheim-esque kind of gaudy.

And as for the rest of the film? Eh. Fine. Boring. SPECTRE headquarters is a peculiar-looking heap out in the middle of the desert - having already played the "desert hideout" card so perfectly in Quantum of Solace, I'm surprised the producers thought they could get away with threading that needle twice during Craig's time in the role - that feels like a kludge of ideas for the backstory of the physical location that never got resolved before the time came to build it, and the super-secret observation room is archaic spy-movie boilerplate. The very good sets certainly stick out more in memory, but they are fewer in number.

Rating: 3 Volcano Fortresses

The persistent reality of the Daniel Craig films - a shortcoming, I'd even say, but I'm biased - is that they're simply not very glamorous. Electing to focus on Bond as a thuggish brute representing a decaying world order in a largely realistic setting will do that. But here, at last, we start back in the direction of elegance, and it's all very grand: the suave costumes of the Mexico City sequence, the wall-to-wall Tom Ford that Craig wears better than he's ever worn clothes in a Bond picture, the withering superiority of finding himself in a health spa with no vodka martinis. It's the first time ever that Craig-Bond has come across as somebody whose life seems largely worth emulating, and I appreciated the flickers of it here and there. His apartment is a pointedly empty shell, for which many points come off.

And then there's the car.

For this movie, Aston Martin designed a brand-new concept car, the DB10, of which only ten were made, all of them for the movie shoot. Reader, it is the most beautiful car I have ever seen, with lines flowing like a rampaging river and a coiled tension in its frame like a predator on the hunt. I don't even like cars. But oh my God, this car is the car that angels would drive. And James Bond gets to drive it, and I am very jealous of him.

Rating: 4.5 Vodka Martinis

Whispered to Lucia, slowly, right as their scene shifts from hate-seduction to lust-seduction.
Forced or Badass? Oh, very, very badass.

MADELEINE: Why, given every other possible option, does a man choose the life of a paid assassin?
BOND: Well, it was that or the priesthood.

Best I could do - this is maybe the most un-quippy Bond film ever made

If Spectre ends up not being the final Daniel Craig film, everybody is going to look a bit silly. The whole thing turns out to be such a self-conscious summing up that it's difficult to imagine it wasn't designed that way; right down to the meaningful way Bond and the girl ride off into the sunset. Certainly, the sense of all history coalescing into this one showdown between Bond and his brother-antagonist Blofeld suggests the last movement of some epic symphony of globe-trotting and superspying. I find it all a bit tedious and frankly stupid, and pretty much from the moment Bond arrives at Blofeld's desert base, the film's whirligig frenzy of crescendoes not just for its own plot but the plots of the three Bond pictures preceding it becomes a pure annoyance. The degree to which the franchise went serial-mad has never been clearer than here: everything that Spectre takes 148 minutes to establish was tossed off in dialogue as the mere background to From Russia with Love, Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice. Perhaps it's nostalgic peevishness on my part that I prefer Bond when he's handed a dossier and told "this crazy person with a colorful, thematically appropriate personality has a doomsday machine. Please go shut it down". I just find the laborious way that the four Craig films have doubled-down on being origin stories - four films now, and we're still with the origin story - to be contrary to the things Bond is great at. Casino Royale was precisely the Bond film we needed in 2006; but we did not need four Casino Royales, and that's basically what we got.

I'm grouching. The fact of the matter is, I quite enjoyed Spectre when it wasn't up its own ass with continuity, so basically the first two-thirds. On a moment-by-moment basis, there's plenty in it that's delightful on its own, not least of that being the way that Q, Moneypenny, and M get up to mischief on the homefront; it's the most action that those three characters, collectively, have ever enjoyed together, and the smooshed-together family that they form when working as a trio is easily Spectre's finest contribution to the James Bond mythos.

Meanwhile, the film's stock elements work more often than not: for large portions of the middle, this is the most that a Bond film has felt like a Bond film since Pierce Brosnan retired, and there's hardly a trace of Jason Bourne's DNA to be detected. It's a for-real globetrotting adventure of the first order, I am happy to say, with lots of beautiful location photography provided by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and a breezy pace imparted by director Sam Mendes and the crisp cross-cutting he and editor Lee Smith built into the spine of the movie. That opening tracking shot sets the tone: this is a gliding, weightless James Bond film, which probably sounds meaner than I want it to. I love that it's gliding; even though Casino Royale and Skyfall are plainly better than this, their heaviness is better appreciated occasionally than as the inescapable new normal of the franchise.

And then, like a light switching off, it just collapses. The film's final movement is really no damn good at all, with the exception of a tightly-edited and claustrophobically-shot chase through a building about to explode. Oberhauser-Blofeld is a tedious villain, ominous without earning it, and the avatar of all the film's "let's give James Bond a retroactive Hero's Journey!" impulses that make it a remarkable slog towards the end; the presence of unconvincing dramatic stakes is somehow worse than the absence of stakes altogether; the entire matter of Bond and Swann after the torture chamber sequence where she realises her love for him is utterly ghastly in every way. I do have positive feelings about Spectre, all in all, for its highs are giddy indeed, including some legitimate franchise pinnacles. But dear God, it's not pleasant to watch a film crap over itself with the enthusiasm that this one does.


15 November 2015


A review requested by Anna D, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Even without the benefit of years' worth of hindsight, I think it's fair to assume that history will judge What We Do in the Shadows to be a quintessential, time-stamped example of moviemaking in the mid-2010s. It's a heavily improvised comedy in the form of a vampire mockumentary; a perfect slurry of faddish trends that could only possibly have been made sometime in the last five years. I will leave it to my presumed future historians to decide whether this means that What We Do in the Shadows suffers for this: meanwhile, stuck in the cultural moment that produced the film, I should argue with all my might that it's one of the most creatively absurd and generally hilarious comedies of the year, whether we call that year 2014 (the year of its Sundance premiere and native New Zealand release) or 2015 (the year of its unfairly tenuous U.S. release).

It's so high concept as to be almost repulsive: four vampires are living together in a flat in the Wellington suburbs, and they've invited a documentary crew to film their daily life. The quartet maps vaguely onto the different ways that vampires have been conceived across folklore and literature: 862-year-old Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is a brutal medieval tyrant and torturer, 379-year-old Viago (Taika Waititi) is an 18th Century dandy, 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is harmless crush-object for his human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek), and millennia-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) is a rotted, corpse-like Schreckian demon. Later on, the crew accidentally turns hoped-for dinner Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a fifth vampire, and he fills the role of confused soul trapped between his human and monstrous aspects, trying to retain his friendship with the incredibly game and forgiving Stu (Stuart Rutherford).

There's a healthy amount of plot arc attached to all of this, more than I was honestly expecting, but it would be spoiling things to go into all of that, and mostly unnecessary. The main draw of What We Do in the Shadows is still hanging out with the characters, even more explicitly than is typically implied by the term "hang-out movie". The main thrust of the film, in its story and its themes, is the vampires' keen awareness of being stuck with nowhere to go and very little to do; immortal and thus unaware of the passage of time, unable to travel by day and thus stalled out in a little New Zealand town where very little happens of any interest. The tensions that power the film are those that come from having roommates that one gets to know too well and ends up finding both comfortingly familiar and irritatingly omnipresent as a result. It's because of this as much as anything that the film's almost entirely improvised nature works out so well: the focus thus falls on how the characters play off of each other, as the actors throw out riffs to bat around between them (writer-directors Clement and Waititi, adapting their 2005 short of the same title, had a list of the scenes they wanted to occur, but allowed themselves and their co-stars to figure out the micro-level content of those scenes in real time).

The film that results from this is thoroughly wonderful in its self-amused weirdness. The shaggy aimlessness inherent to improvised buddy comedy is jarringly stitched to the gloomy Gothic weight of the cinematography and production design, to excellent effect; with only 86 minutes to fill and a whole bunch of ideas for how to pit the characters against the mundane modern world, the film never lets it incongruities start to settle into something familiar, and whenever it risks doing so, some major wrinkle is silently introduced: Nick becoming vampirised; the revelation that the town is also home to a population of very prim and proper werewolves led by the micro-managing Anton (Clement's Flight of the Conchords co-star Rhys Darby, stealing the movie every time he shows up); the impending undead masquerade where Vladislav's immortal enemy the Beast is rumored to show up. It's immaculately paced and structured so that the momentum is always a little bit in flux, and even when it's at its most relaxed and observational, there's still an edge to it, a live electrical component that keeps it a little nervy. Nobody in their right mind could say that this film comes anywhere close to balancing the horror and comedy halves of the horror-comedy hybrid - it's, like, 90% comedy - but there's just enough horror inside of it to make the whole thing feel coiled up with tension and energy no matter how lackadaisical the beats of any given scene.

Let's not go too far in this line of thinking. The fact remains, What We Do in the Shadows is still pretty damn lackadaisical, and primarily interested in spewing out warped one-liners, while quietly emphasising the awfulness, or at least uselessness, of its characters (or, in showcasing Deacon's totally indifferent treatment to the weary, middle-aged Jackie, emphasising their awfulness right up front). It's every bit a feature film à la mode of Flight of the Conchords in those respects, as well as its pointedly out-of-date pop cultural lexicon. And it also bears a familial resemblance to the "bent line deliveries turn the comedy on its head" manner of Eagle vs. Shark from 2007, the last Waititi/Clement feature collaboration; thankfully, the new film is infinitely less mean-spirited than the film, even as it still has plenty of space for warped cruelty.

Were I looking to scale back on my enthusiasm for the film - which is extremely high, but a lot of that has to do with the vagaries of personal taste and falling right into the sweet spot of "knows and enjoys corny horror tropes" and "prefers deadpan humor" - it would be by noting that the ending starts to run out of a clear direction. Hanging out with strange, slightly off-putting characters is great and all; expanding the bumbling sensibility that works so well in a confined space to a whole world of vampires and other undead creatures gives the film some trouble. And it never can quite decide how much it wants to do with Nick after turning into a vampire. Regardless, a funny enough comedy can get away with narrative and cinematic shortcomings that would strangle any other movie, and What We Do in the Shadows is extraordinarily funny. The funniest vampire movie ever made, even, though with competition like The Fearless Vampire Killers and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, that's a backhanded compliment at best, a subtle insult at worst. So let's just run with "I laughed more at this than anything else in 2015", and content ourselves with that.


12 November 2015


In 1948, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello met Frankenstein (as well as the wolf man and Dracula, and point in fact, they don't meet Frankenstein, just his monster), and two flagging brands were revived. One of those was Universal horror, which had completely flatlined after 1945, as part of a more general fading of big studio horror in the post-WWII landscape. The other was Abbott & Costello themselves, coming off of a very rocky 1947, the worst year of their cinematic career to that point. Big hits breed imitation, and Universal's stable of horror characters was turned into parody fodder, dutifully hauled out every couple of years for Abbott & Costello to work through their shtick yet again; there was not a single halfway serious horror film made at the studio in the years 1946-1950, and it would be decades more before they decided to trot out any of their big monsters in any remotely serious capacity.

As for the revived comedy duo spent the next few years drifting in and out of horror pastiches (their whole career was really some kind of pastiche or another - war films, African adventure films, and so on), till their career took another, ultimately fatal dip in 1953. The first of these pastiches to follow Meet Frankenstein was 1949's bluntly-titled Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, about which we needn't concern ourselves now; I just really wanted to type all of that out. Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Ahhhh. Their third horror-comedy (and it is a gigantic stretch to suggest that's how we should describe it) came along in 1951: Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, an enormous hit that implicitly followed right on the tail of Meet Frankenstein, which ended with the boys in a life boat with no less an invisible man sailing alongside them than Vincent Price himself, who'd played the role in 1940's The Invisible Man Returns. In fact, there turns out to be no continuity between Meet Frankenstein and Meet the Invisible Man at all, though astonishingly, there's very specific continuity between Meet the Invisible Man and 1933's series-originating The Invisible Man, whose star Claude Rains puts in a cameo as an oil painting of mad doctor John Griffin.

The plot of this one is an exorbitantly wide-ranging mishmash of like, everything: Bud and Lou (their actual onscreen names this time around, which makes things easier) have just graduated from detective school, and they get their first case in the form of a shadowy figure stalking through their offices in an Expressionistic sequence that comes amazingly close to actual horror. This turns out to be suspected murderer Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a middleweight boxer accused of killing his manager; he's escape prison to find a pair of whip-smart private eyes to help clear his name. But Bud and Lou will have to suffice. Tommy, with his fiancée Helen Gray (Nancy Guild), throws himself on the mercy of her scientist uncle Dr. Philip Gray (Gavin Muir), who has been working on refining the invisibility serum he inherited from the late Dr. Griffin. Seems like in the exact tradition of The Invisible Man Returns, Tommy wants to be made invisible to more safely investigate the frame-up, which of course tracks back to a gangster who had tried to pay Tommy to throw a fight. For at this time, there was only one plot that all the boxing movies had to share. Which this is now. A boxing movie. You perhaps thought it was still a horror parody.

Unsurprisingly, this is more of an Abbott and Costello movie than it is anything else: that's pretty much how these work. Though even there, perhaps I misspeak: it's better, maybe, to call this a Lou Costello movie more than anything else, since some of the best parts of the movie find him interacting with other straight men than his longtime partner (there's a scene with a police psychiatrist that's close to the best case scenario for what could be expected from an aging vaudevillian at the dawn of the 1950s). What turns out to be shocking is how thoughtfully this treats the equal and opposite needs of being a movie about an invisible man: it's never mocking the genre material, the way Meet Frankenstein (and the duo's execrable Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy three years after this) had done by poking fun at the hoary tropes of old-fashioned monster movies. It instead mines the comic possibilities that take advantage of having an invisible man in a broad comedy, first with the ancient "Lou is a scaredy cat, Bud thinks he's full of shit" material, and then turning considerably more interesting once the detectives officially team up with Tommy. This inevitably results in a scene where Lou has to pretend to be a boxer while Tommy actually fights, a scenario which I'd have greeted with stone-faced hostility if you described it to me in advance; and yet it's actually quite charming physical comedy, given sardonic heft by the presence of a character shocked that such a dopey ruse is actually working. It's at no point the equal of Universal's other full-comedy picture in the broadly-defined franchise, The Invisible Woman, but its best moments are only a little below Meet Frankenstein, which is more than a fair-minded person who have ever expected.

There are cost-cutting measures in place, including props and I believe even full effects shots re-used from The Invisible Man Returns (to go along with the recycled plot, presumably), and the days of really involved effects work are gone. That's for the best, probably. The driving notion of the film is that the invisible man is funny, or at least funny things can be done with him, not that he is impressive or scary, or in any way otherworldly (the film introduces the idea that that the invisibility serum can drive a person to madness, only to never pick it up a second time). It's hard to imagine the patter-based comedy of Abbott and Costello surviving all that well if the film had to make room for more complicated invisibility tricks than just some objects on wires or Franz's voice being overdubbed.

Compared to the best of the stars' vehicles, this lacks a bit for energy; the inevitable result of what was at that time a full decade glutted with Abbott and Costello movies, with the comics growing increasingly ossified into their rhythms. Nor did director Charles Lamont try very hard to push them; they tend to coast, Abbott especially - and I would hear repeat myself, that the best parts of the movie tend to involve Costello solo, or at least Costello against actors with whom he didn't have and extremely well-rehearsed repartee. Still, the film is good far more than it's bad: the weirdness of the scenario carries it over the rough spots, and the leads' comfort with the material is relaxing rather than irritating and unpleasant, as would happen in Meet the Mummy, for starters. It's not generally regarded as a classic in the way that Meet Frankenstein is, nor should it be, but it's enjoyable silly, and it manages to do right by both Abbott and Costello and the Invisible Man, something none of their other horror pastiches did with such ease or good-natured fun.


Reviews in this series
The Invisible Man (Whale, 1933)
The Invisible Man Returns (May, 1940)
The Invisible Woman (Sutherland, 1940)
Invisible Agent (Marin, 1942)
The Invisible Man's Revenge (Beebe, 1944)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (Lamont, 1951)

10 November 2015


Behind the scenes, I'm busily assembling a big blow-out of James Bond goodness, but in the meantime, if you just can't wait to hear my thoughts on Spectre, my preliminary review of it has been published at the Film Experience.

09 November 2015


The focus of this review being its subject's position in the context of filmmaking in 1977, it is not based upon the series of "Special Edition" re-releases in theaters and on home video that have routinely happened since 1997. Instead, I take as my source material the "Despecialized Edition" reconstruction by fan editor Harmy of something akin to the original 1977 release. Legality notwithstanding, it is at present the closest we have to the original theatrical cut of a movie whose original theatrical cut was one of the defining cultural events of the 20th Century. My conscience is clear.

Let us attempt a mental exercise of incredible difficulty: dearest readers, I have faith that you can follow me, though it will be a struggle for us all. Let us disregarded the accumulated knowledge of nearly four decades - of three wholly distinct generations of filmgoers - and of the subsequent history of the film industries of every nation - let us attempt to intellectually locate ourselves in the summer of 1977, and try to imagine what we might think of Star Wars as if it was nothing but a movie. As if it was no more obviously important than the "killer nature" flick Day of the Animals or the Mummad Ali self-starring biopic The Greatest, either one of which we might just as easily have decided to check out on this hotter-than-average weekend of 25 May.

What do we find, if we strip away the accretions of iconic sounds and images, and the foreknoweldge of its many sequels and the almost uncountable number of films copying it in some way, and the awareness that this one film fundamentally changed the way commercial movies would be marketed thereafter? What is this film, in and of itself, and how does it work? These are terrifying questions to consider, but let us please do our best.

Now the reason I think it's most important to force ourselves into this 1977 mindset, beyond the fact that considering the film-as-film really is just so much more pleasurable and revelatory than considering the film-as-icon, is that it allows us to step back from the tediousness of received wisdom about Star Wars and its place in history. As everybody knows, this film and 1975's Jaws are the mean ol' popcorn films that made too much money and ruined the New Hollywood Cinema all by themselves without any other cultural contexts that need to be looked at. But for my part, I think it's much more interesting to consider how those films fit into the filmmaking culture of their time, rather than how they murdered it, or whatever. I of course admit that one can't make the claim that Star Wars is meaningfully part of the New Hollywood without having a sense of consciously swimming against orthodoxy (it's not obviously New Hollywood in the same way that Jaws is, once you decide to stop hating Jaws for existing), but that doesn't mean that it can't also be kind of true.

For one thing, try as we might want to, it doesn't make sense to forbid George Lucas from his generation of directors, since one of the primary things he brings to Star Wars is the sense of heightened film literacy and especially the awareness of film history that are one of the key aspects of '70s American filmmaking. As I'm sure we're all aware by now, Star Wars is really just a remake of Kurosawa Akira's 1958 jidaigeki adventure The Hidden Fortress, seasoned with elements of the old Flash Gordon serial, but that's in and of itself the dream project of an unapologetic film buff. Besides, it's a perfectly satisfying remake of The Hidden Fortress at that, filtering Kurosawa's Western-leaning but essentially Japanese aesthetic back through the quintessentially American giddiness that Kurosawa was replying to in the first place.

But it goes deeper than just "I went to film school!" influences. It's a fundamentally daft thing to say about a space fantasy with laser swords and wizards, but there's a basis of working class realism that sets Star Wars apart from most of the popcorn films it birthed, including its own sequels. For a huge portion of its first half - and by the way, I assume everyone is okay if I don't even nod to a plot summary, right? It's Star Wars, for chrissakes. So hopefully I can just say "everything before they take off from Mos Eisley, which happens 53 minutes into the 121-minute film", and you don't need more to go on than that. Because that's the point I have in mind when I talk about the first half, which is surprisingly grounded and thoroughly non-mythic.

The relatively low budget afforded to the film by 20th Century Fox (convinced that it was going to flop) necessitated some of that, I am sure. Still, it's striking to have a sense of the Star Wars universe and then go back to see how much of it takes place in some sandy crap corner of nowhere, one that's frankly not very attractive. Star Wars is one of the key films in popularising the "used future" aesthetic that would dominate much of science fiction cinema in the years that followed: everything we see, from the bleached white corridors of the first spaceship to the gunmetal interiors of the Death Star, has a distinctly banged-about utilitarian look, but that's never truer than in the scenes set in the Tatooine backwater where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) suffers sullenly in the manner of bored teen boys since time immemorial. Nothing in the film looks new: the habitations look like they were just barely carved out of the desert, and the desert immediately set itself to swallowing them back up; the giant sandcrawler that the scavenging Jawas sell their after-market droids from has the definite appearance of being more rust than metal. John Barry's production design is fucking tired, with none of the gleam of pulp sci-fi, only a sense of everything being so shitty that everybody stopped paying attention to how shitty it is, and Gilbert Taylor's grainy cinematography, fully embracing the nature of '70s film stock to make everything look brown, adds a disarming sense of raw realism.

It's the film that famously made everybody finally stop thinking about Watergate and Vietnam; and yet it absolutely subscribes to the worn-out sensibility that blanketed American filmmaking in the wake of those societal schisms. It just does so more at the level of visuals and setting than in its narrative.

All of that being said, let's please not bury the fact that Star Wars is still a huge crowdpleaser, and it's quite easy to understand why audiences in '77 took it that way. It is a triumph of spectacular cinema, quite literally from the first shot after the expository crawl ends: the shot of an Imperial Star Destroyer purring angrily over our heads as it moves forward in all its dumbfounding hugeness is one of the great opening scenes in all of popcorn movies. I might even go farther, and say that all of the subsequent history of American blockbuster filmmaking is a response to that Star Destroyer, and the way it is framed to completely dominate our perception, and the way that it uses bleeding-edge visual effects to suck us into the film's reality. That the shot retains its primordial impact even now is almost beyond belief; it must have been a genuinely transformative experience when it was new and unprecedented.

It's worth lingering a bit on how the film works to make its overwhelming sensory impact, because Star Wars represents one of the great achievements in history of assembling a population of terrific craftspeople to build a movie, and Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz proved to be masters at picking the right names, more than at being storytellers, maybe. The film makes its impact through the accumulation of details, like Ben Burtt's sound effects (go ahead, make the lightsaber noise; now remind yourself that once upon a time, somebody had to consciously decide that's what it should sound like), or John Dykstra's astonishing special effects, the most weighty, plausible spaceships that had ever been seen in the movies and the first time since 2001: A Space Odyssey nine years earlier that filmmakers seem to have genuinely cared about sinking so much time into a physically authentic (ignoring the improbable physics) depiction of space. Hell, even the second unit photographers included among their number Carroll Ballard and Tak Fujimoto.

Of course, the most famous of the offscreen collaborators on Star Wars is composer John Williams, and it's no exaggeration to declare him as the individual human most responsible for the film's effect. Star Wars is preposterously laden with music, wonderfully invigorating and endlessly iconic music - I do not know what percentage of the film has some manner of instrumentation underneath the action, but it is surely a very high number. Famously, Williams borrowed the idea of leitmotif, specific cues attached to specific characters or concepts, from the operas of Richard Wagner; it's only a small jump to accuse Star Wars of behaving like an opera itself, where the constant fluctuation of music or even just tuneless sub-musical atmosphere (as in the tractor beam deactivation) guides our response to the film at a level totally divorced from the plot and imagery. Perhaps you saw the Auralnauts video from 2014 that removed the score from the final scene: aye, it's played as a gag, but it's also a terrifically useful study in what Williams actually did - he didn't just tell us how to feel (though that is absolutely part of what he did: the binary sunset is another extremely clear example of that principle at work), he was to a large degree telling us what was happening, such that I'd far rather watch the movie with no dialogue than with no music, and not just because a lot more of the dialogue than we generally want to admit is quite terrible.

Might as well run with it, now that it's come up: Lucas's screenplay for Star Wars is absolutely not great. The story is perfectly fine, though clichéd enough that defending its clichés as an archetypal "hero's journey" has been going on since late in 1977. The best elements about the scenario come from the way that Lucas reintroduces the same themes of teenage wistfulness animating his previous film, American Graffiti: Luke Skywalker basically is an amalgamation of that film's Curt Henderson and John Milner, a gearhead (the way he talks about landspeeders is a direct sci-fi analogue for the kind of young man who knows everything about cars) with a yearning sense that he's not living the life he wants, and a constant pressure to take on responsibility without actually being accorded the dignity of adulthood that's the chief source of that yearning. All of that is great stuff. At the level of dialogue, though, the film has more than its share of howlers - the famous one is "But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters", a line that Hamill delivers in the most petulant whine he could scrape up, and I have almost as little affection for the momentum-shattering swamp of "It's not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home, they're not much bigger than two meters". And even when it's not meeting Harrison Ford's famous denunciation - "You can write this shit, George, but you can't say it" - the film is burdened by flaccid expository dialogue, in which characters fussily remind each other of things they already know; often things they already know that we already know too. It's easy to look to the dreaded prequel trilogy as the point where Lucas began to let his procedural politics infect his storytelling, but there's quite a bit of that present already in Star Wars, too - the scene where the board of the Death Star talks through the recent dissolution of the Imperial Senate is preposterously niggling in this regard.

There is, in fact, quite a lot missing from the human level of Star Wars, not just because the essentialised characters have stupid things to say. Apostasy of apostasies, I don't have terribly favorable feelings towards the three co-leads: Hamill plays Luke as so guileless that he's almost more of an idiot than a rural innocent, and Ford's smug cockiness is intensely one-note; the point where he comes back to save Luke in the Death Star attack feels nothing like the emergence of a secret nobility we knew was there all along, since Ford as done nothing to foreshadow it. And I don't know what the hell Carrie Fisher is up to, with her eerily crisp pronunciations and the turn-on-a-switch way she dials up her emotions: seriously, look at the way she plays her character's shock at learning Alderaan is to be destroyed, and tell me that it's a natural reaction.

On the other hand, the film's supporting cast is much stronger: this will of course happen when Alec Guinness and a horrifyingly sallow Peter Cushing deign to be part of your space opera. Cushing especially: with his hollow cheeks and staring eyes, he's faultlessly threatening as the banal kind of pure evil. Guiness, meanwhile, provided a level of warmth and authority that help paper over how Obi-Wan Kenobi is almost nothing but a backstory dispensing machine (and it's worth always keeping an eye on him: some of his very best work happens in the background of wide shots). And of course, as we move to the less well-established members of the cast, we arrive at the excellent one-two punch of David Prowse's dominating physicality and James Earl Jones's sharp cruelty to create Darth Vader; I am also invariably charmed by the amount of personality Peter Mayhew is able to force through his body language under all that fur as Chewbacca.

Good writing or not, the film has a certain something that makes it entirely easy to understand why people went so absolutely nuts for it: big, bold claims about good and evil with characters who immediately slot into one side or the other based just on how they look (other than Han, the only remotely complex figure in the movie - no accident that he's wearing black and white). It is an easy film, made easier by the simple writing and the pulverising Williams score telling us exactly what to think.

But that does not mean it's artless. The film is great at - not at "world building", which I was about to say. Great at world exploring: in letting a parade of details that receive no comment passing by, whether it's the array of creatures in the cantina, or the droids in the far distance on the Death Star, or the layout of Luke's home, or the fact that a whole movie's worth of colorful flyboys are tossed at us with no introduction. And Lucas, for all of his stilted work as a writer and with actors, had a hell of an eye: the use of depth, of fitting business in the corners of frames where we can observe it or not, and the tensions between characters as a function of how our eye moves between them: all of these things are splendidly on point. Here's a representative shot: the division between Luke and the rest of the frame emphasises his feeling of loneliness (he's just seen his aunt and uncle, burned to death); the unstressed action of C-3PO carrying corpses to the fire morbidly echoes the death we've just scene, the prominence of the landspeeder silently implies the decision to move on to whatever landscapes are to follow.

I will not use the word "sophisticated", but even so, Star Wars is a terrific piece of visual storytelling, and of emotions being produced through image. It is elegant, fluid, graceful, maybe even intuitively cinematic: even the most boring frames (there are a lot of isolated close-ups with too much empty space) are fit by the team of editors into a rhythm that lends them individual weight and impact. The fact that it's in service to such an aggressively pedestrian screenplay is disappointing, of course, and that part of the film's legacy should be loudly bemoaned. Still, even if its status as "like nothing that went before" is grossly overstated, Star Wars is a hell of a drug, the kind of movie that seems almost purposely designed to convince all but the most jaded members of its audience of the expressive power of the medium.

9/10 (but I know I'm being too generous)
8/10 (but I know I'm being too hard)

Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)