Tag Archives: Star Wars

The 10 films that changed my life

21 Apr

the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1975I was asked to do this Facebook thing of “In no particular order, list 10 all time favourite films, which really made an impact on you. Post the poster and nominate a new person each day.” But a) I’ll only forget each day and b) I imagine it all started as a way to harvest data on sharing and friends. So here it is as a blog instead.

NOTE: this about impact, not objective quality. The dates are when I saw these films, not always when they were released. Inevitably, they are concentrated in my formative years. I have seen many brilliant films since, but nothing can rock your world and change your life like films you see in your youth.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). When I won a scholarship to Winchester, my dad said he would take me to London, where I could do or have anything I wanted. I chose to see this. I had never laughed as much. But mostly, it’s here for the father-son bonding thing. And the Black Knight. And the questions three. And the shrubbery. And the farting in your general direction.

Star Wars (1977). Blew my head clean off and made me swear to be involved with film in some way for the rest of my life (leading me to Time Out, and later to write shorts of my own).

Aguirre: Wrath of God (1979). My first art-house film in a rep cinema. Realised belatedly there was a whole world of film out there, which I spent my uni years devouring.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1979). Any film you’ve seen 40+ times has got to be on this list. This was in the early days of call-and-response and dressing up at midnight screenings. I’ve shown it to people since, and they’re like, “Nice songs, quite fun, but what’s the big deal?” People forget, now, how liberating and transgressive and attitude-changing the film was at the time. I’ve since been sung to by both Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn (now Lady Stephens) 😊

Apocalypse now posterApocalypse Now (1980). I saw this loads of times at the Towne Cinema midnight screenings in Ottawa, with bongs being passed up and down the aisles. Epic sweep that never loses touch with the human drama; very much of the drug culture but with a coherent plot; horrifying and hilarious and equal measure.

Napoleon (1983). I saw the restored version at the Barbican with, if memory serves, triptych screens and a live orchestra. I’ve seen it in cinemas twice since, as well as on TV. I studied the French Revolution for my degree, but more than that, it is astonishingly modern for a film made in 1929 – and started me off on a whole silent movie kick.

Blue Velvet (1986): Because obviously. I mean, imagine seeing it on first release, with no expectations or preconceptions about what David Lynch was capable of. It was, to quote Colonel Kurtz above, “like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”

Akira (1988). My gateway to the astonishing world of anime.

The Lion King (1994). It amuses me that the plot is filched from Hamlet, but really this is here because it makes me think of my boys. I took Theo to the premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square when he was seven months old! Start ‘em out young. He slept through much of it, but we watched it a gazillion times subsequently on DVD. My mum would take me to films when I was young, and I’ve extended this to the next generation. Sam’s even made two excellent shorts of his own, one a nominee for student film of the year.

animalcharm-posterAnimal Charm (2012). The idea for this 20-minute featurette came to me in a flash in the gym: a fading fur fashion designer kidnapped by animal rights activists, with a grand guignol horror twist ending. Sadie Frost and Sally Phillips starred, with Michael “Ugly Betty” Urie and Boy George in small roles. It was really good. Kate Moss came to the premiere the W Hotel and sat in the aisle as there were no seats left. Director Ben Charles Edwards (who also co-wrote) has since gone on to make two feature films, while I have gone back into paid journalism, but it was still the culmination of a life-long dream to see something of mine up on the big screen. Thanks, Ben. You’re an extraordinary film-maker.

 

 

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First full review of The Last Jedi (spoiler-free)

12 Dec
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Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As someone who made a pact with God in my teens to spare my life until all nine films in the proposed Star Wars canon were completed, I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi with mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s brilliantly acted, often funny, occasionally affecting, and with a climactic scene of startling beauty and grandeur. On the other hand, if I am to be struck down by a bolt of lightning after the next one, I’m not sure it’s entirely worth it.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and I promise to keep this spoiler-free. Daisy Ridley, already good in The Force Awakens, has grown into the role of Rey: she’s not just tough, she’s really funny. It seems like she’s been given all the best lines, until you write them down and realise they’re not that witty; it’s just the way she tells ‘em.

Adam Driver, of course, is a “proper” actor with an impressive indie CV that includes the sublime Paterson, and in this second film of the third trilogy he’s given much more scope to display his range. When he and Ridley share the screen, locked in a Jedi mind battle with a frisson of sexual tension, the effect is electric.

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Kawaii! One of the loveable Porgs in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Benicio del Toro also briefly joins the cast, and enjoyably out-hams the lot with a stutter like Hannibal Lecter sniffing a liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. He plays an incorrigible rogue of no fixed allegiance, which goes some way to filling a Han Solo-shaped hole. Non-human additions include the Porgs, fat birds that have evolved the very sensible defence mechanism of being so kawaii that predators feel too guilty to eat them; the Fathiers, which are like extra fast and strong horses with goat-like faces; and the friendly Vulptices or crystal foxes.

There are some knowing winks to the original trilogy: Kylo Ren spinning briefly out of control in his TIE fighter, as Darth Vader once did; a rather gratuitous sequence in a casino where the score echoes the music during the alien bar scene of the very first film; and Princess Leia’s brilliantly bathetic opener to Luke Skywalker when they finally meet again after many years apart: “I know what you’re going to say,” she tells Luke: “I changed my hair.”

And though some action scenes are underwhelming – once you’ve seen one spaceship chase, you’ve seen ‘em all, and by now we’ve seen dozens; plus there’s a key lightsaber battle that is flat-out badly choreographed – there is one extended scene so breathtaking that it would not be out of place in Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It’s on a planet of salt flats that cover hidden scarlet sands, such that the boundless white plains, when trod by boot or furrowed by laser cannon, become streaked with red. These few gashes, as vivid as a Rothko, by the end merge into a vast charnel field of red, in which a single figure stands alone…

This is a pay-off that has taken 40 years to build, and it’s worth the weight.

And now the negatives. The Last Jedi is busy. Very busy. Aside from some obligatory Force mumbo jumbo between Rey and Luke on “the most unfindable place in the galaxy” (in reality Ireland’s Skellig Michael), it’s all running around without really any place to go. The Resistance forces have no clear or noble goal, beyond trying not to get blown up. They engage in numerous red herring missions of questionable logic. And there are glaring and, frankly, unforgivable inconsistencies in plot and character motivation that I would love to enumerate but won’t (because spoilers). To pick just the biggest, the hot-headed Poe (Oscar Isaac) would in any other army be court-martialled and vilified for gross insubordination with disastrous consequences – not once, but twice! – yet here he’s somehow still treated as a hero. No wonder the First Order are winning.

All the same, massive kudos to writer/director Rian Johnson for taking the best-loved movie franchise of all time and making not just a film that the fans can get behind, but a movie that feels like it’s his own.

 

Why Rogue One is more historical drama than sci-fi – and all the better for it

18 Dec
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Felicity Jones leads the way in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story

Director Gareth Edwards has said he wants Rogue One: a Star Wars Story to be considered a heist movie as much as science-fiction. Actually, it occurred to me it was more like a historical drama.

Of course all the events in Star Wars do play out in the past, relative to our Earth (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). But Rogue One, unlike The Force Awakens, is also set in 1977 – or rather, whatever vision of an alternative world George Lucas was able to come up with in 1977, which is always dictated by the times. Look at any sci-fi film, and despite the attempts of futurity, you can always tell exactly when it was made. Lucas’s genius was to make his world pre-distressed, so that it seemed relatively ageless  but you’re still aware of the hydraulic whirrs on the machinery, the primitive (by now) recording systems that lie at the heart of Rogue One’s plot, the minimalist colour schemes that (like in Logan’s Run and Lucas’s own THX 1138) passed for futuristic in the ‘70s.

Edwards has recreated this world meticulously, so that it slots in seamlessly with the original trilogy. But just as BBC historical dramas sometimes get straitened and stifled by their corsets, there was always a danger he would follow the template too slavishly, to give us the Star Wars formula with none of the fun.

Instead, it’s a minor triumph. Rogue One is funny, exciting, moving, brilliantly acted, with plenty of surprises, and very much Gareth Edwards’ own.

Secret Cinema review and interview on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

13 Jun

Last night I took a trip to a galaxy far, far away – just 30 minutes from my door. Secret Cinema have pulled out all the stops this time for their immersive screening of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The world they created (see pics above) was as detailed as when I saw their Blade Runner, though the set was vastly bigger. And they sorted out the projection problems that had ruined Lawrence of Arabia in Alexandra Palace and caused me to leave in the interval: both image and sound were super-crisp and clear.

I can’t give away any of the surprises of the night – this is Secret Cinema, after all. But I will say that standing next to Imperial Stormtroopers can give you a surprising frisson of primal fear, however much you are aware these are actors in white suits (and that Stormtroopers never shoot straight anyway!); that Secret Cinema have recreated not just a Tatooine desert village, but some of the vehicles, too, moving and lifesized; and that whereas previous Secret Cinemas have disgorged you into the night, blinking, straight after the screening, this time you can party in a vast industrial nightclub space.

Is it worth £75? That depends on how big a Star Wars fan you are, and whether you are more used to spending £60-plus on a theatre ticket or £12 in the cinema. I can say that you do see where the money has gone. I recently interviewed Fabien Riggall, the founder of Secret Cinema, and he insisted he wasn’t in this to get rich – “Do I drive a Bentley? I don’t even have a car, just an old camper van that’s always breaking down” – but that doing justice to a cultural icon like Star Wars means putting on the show of a lifetime.

“I could list everything that goes into a production of this size,” Fabien said, “but that would spoil the mystery. I’d rather keep it in narrative, and say something like the final stage of the Clone Wars left massive destruction across the galaxy and the price of titanium has gone up.”

Secret Cinema receives no public arts funding (unlike, for instance, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk), even though Fabien Riggall says he has applied many times; and he refuses to do an overall sponsorship deal with a credit card company or similar. In fact, he has strong feelings about how big brands and corporations are ruining the arts.

Fabien Riggall

Secret Cinema’s rebel founder, Fabien Riggall: “Why is it not rock ‘n’ roll anymore, with girls throwing their knickers?”

“Every studio and label is owned by these huge corporations – it should be rock ‘n’ roll, there should be mystery, but instead we’re being taking over by giant shopping centres, the whole world is becoming like Dubai. There’s a distinct thread to those deciding how we live and what our experience of the theatre or the multiplex will be. If I ran Live Nation I would create a game, where if you get through it you can go to the front of the stage.

“Like, recently I was in Detroit and found out that Prince was playing. I tried to get tickets but they were $500, so I just went to the theatre and pretended I was distant family of his from England – I was just acting, pretending to myself I was in a show – and that created this confusion, so I managed to get in right to the front without a ticket!

“But when I got there it was filled with VIPs paying thousands of dollars. Why is it not rock ‘n’ roll anymore, with girls throwing their knickers? Culturally we are in a place where the wrong people are in charge. Every studio and label is owned by these huge corporations. We deserve to lose ourselves in another world, get some of that magic back.”

Fabien is planning to launch Secret Cinema in America soon, but, more intriguingly, he is also talking to top film-makers and musicians directly about how to make immersive art that connects more strongly with their audience. In short, he wants nothing less than to revolutionise the way art and entertainment is created and consumed.

Going back to Star Wars, Fabien says that this is not just a film “cherished by millions”, that has “ignited thousands of creative careers”, but also feels very personal to him. “The Rebel Alliance represents fighting for a world of mystery, excitement and adventure, a world of quests and dreams: that represents the ethos of Secret Cinema.”

In other words, Fabien is a maverick pilot, with Secret Cinema as his Millennium Falcon; the big corporations are the Death Star. The Force is indeed strong with this one.

Secret Cinema presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back runs now until 27 September. http://www.secretcinema.org/tickets

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: this is Andy’s Serkis, and these are his monkeys

18 Jul

Caesar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There’s a useful Polish expression currently doing the rounds on Facebook: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means, “Nothing to do with me, mate.”

Having seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, this is very much the Andy Serkis Circus, and boy, are these his monkeys. His portrayal of the ape leader, Caesar, is one of the wonders of the modern age. There are a very few films which hit you as a step-change in cinematic special effects: the first rumble of engines and long slow pan across a great spaceship in Star Wars; the liquid-metal morphing technology of Terminator 2;  the 3D animation of Toy Story.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, so much more than Avatar or even Andy Serkis’s star turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is digital film-making’s breakthrough moment: the first moment a computer-generated character has truly emerged from the “uncanny valley” to appear fully real. It’s the eyes, famously the windows to the soul, that usually give the game away. Caesar’s are brooding, expressive, filled with wisdom and pain. The final shot, which zooms in on them, is one of the great climactic close-ups in film history: up there with Robert De Niro’s smile in Once Upon A Time In America.

It helps, perhaps, that the human cast are (deliberately?) so godawfully dull, aside from Gary Oldman’s obligatory blockbuster turn. The apes can’t help seeming more alive in comparison. But huge plaudits go not just to the special effects boffins, but to Andy Serkis’s mo-cap (motion-capture) performance. His Caesar, head permanently cocked to one side to indicate thought, is noble in restraint, terrifying in anger. When he speaks, it sends shivers up the spine.

Serkis’s reward is to direct a mo-cap movie of The Jungle Book, and to spark a debate about whether mo-cap actors should be eligible for an Oscar. How long before they get their own special category, as the Academy has now done with animated films?

Star Wars: Harrison Ford rides again as Han Solo

16 Feb
Harrison Ford in Star Wars

Harrison Ford as Han Solo: “I’ve got a good feeling about this…”

So, Harrison Ford has apparently signed on for a role in the new Star Wars movie. The deal has not yet officially been announced by Disney, which last year bought Lucasfilm to add to Pixar and Marvel in a $15.5bn land-grab, but the Latino Review insists it has triple-checked with reliable sources. Entertainment Weekly, which last year reported Ford was “open” to the idea, Tweeted today: “Harrison Ford deal? My source says not yet. It will not be for weeks and perhaps months.” That sounds like “when” rather than “if”, and implies it’s just a question of noughts on the cheque.

It makes sense. Ford as Han Solo was key to the original series’ success, and not just in adding some much-needed testosterone swagger to the “use the Force” mumbo-jumbo. He also managed to squeeze some humour into George Lucas’s earnest lines. “George,” he famously told the director, “you can type this s**t, but you sure can’t say it.” He ad-libbed several sequences, including one of the best lines: when Han Solo is about to be deep-frozen in The Empire Strikes Back, and Leia tells her she loves him, he replies, “I know.”

If only there had been a few more actors like him in the trilogy of prequels.

I interviewed George Lucas a few years back, for Time Out. I remember being fascinated by his hair, which was like the whippy top of a vanilla ice-cream cone, but I don’t remember much of what he said. He only really became animated when talking about his teenage years. He had a near-fatal car accident which led him to take stock of his life, and get serious. Too serious, perhaps. But it was that love of cars which produced American Graffiti, Lucas’s warmest film and the start of his collaboration with Ford, whom he had met when he was building him some cabinets. Beats auditions.

Some Star Wars fans have expressed reservations about Disney taking over the franchise, mollified somewhat by the recent appointment as director of JJ Abrams, who rebooted Star Trek. But how can it be bad? No one could screw up Star Wars worse than Lucas himself already has in the recent trilogy.

Star Wars is the reason I’m writing about films, and latterly writing films myself. I was 13 when it lifted the top of my head clean off, and I swore during the closing credits that I would devote my life to movies. Later, when I heard that Star Wars was just the first in a projected nine films, I literally prayed to God that I would live long enough to see them completed.

Looks like I may just get the answer to my prayers. And with Han Solo riding again? It’s enough to shake your faith in Richard Dawkins.