May the (box office) gross be with you…

Rogue One (2016, Gareth Edwards)

 If anyone’s available over the remainder of the Festive Season, I’m assembling a ragtag cross-cultural group of heroes for a seemingly impossible mission: to steal the screenplay for the next Star Wars movie from Fortress Disney.

Surely something must be done to stop the spread of this evil empire as it aims to indoctrinate us all in its warped worldview; one where synergy talks and creativity can take a trip to the Sarlacc.

Calm down, I’m not suggesting that George Lucas-era Star Wars was anything other than commercial fodder; Lucas made his billions off the tie-in toys and other merchandise. (It’s hard to imagine the next Haneke having an accompanying set of action figures) But at least Lucas understood entertainment, and his own directing and writing limitations. He duly handed over the reigns for The Empire Strikes Back to different screenwriters and a new director. Lucas then financed the film himself. Yes, The Empire Strikes Back is technically an independent film. As the great film writer Pauline Kael said, Empire could almost certainly “…not have been made with such care for visual richness and imagination if it had been done under studio control.” Rogue One (like The Force Awakens) is a Disney product; very professionally produced by people who no doubt love Star Wars. But it also betrays a fear of not flattering its audience, so there are endless nods to familiar elements from the past.

The Force Awakens was a lot of fun. Rogue One is a bit of a slog. Both have been vastly overpraised. This is probably due to the disappointment surrounding the Lucas produced prequels. The Phantom Menace (and its successors) had such a build up and was such a let down that all these new films needed to do was not be appalling. The collective relief has led to critics and audiences thinking they’re legitimate classics like the originals.

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The big pre-release talk about Rogue One was of a more ‘realistic’ or ‘gritty’ version of the galaxy far, far away. So we get hand-held camerawork and storm troopers decorated with designer dirt. There’s one man to blame for this fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of fantasy. And his name is Christopher Nolan. It is only necessary that we buy into the situations and are interested in the characters. This ‘realistic’ sheen is just window dressing.

In the film’s defence, we have got something different. We’ve got a fairly tedious pastiche of a WWII ‘guys-go-on-a-mission’ movie with added Star Wars galaxy accoutrements. And in this post-Hunger Games world you’re now allowed to be a woman! (Just as long as you’re white, thin and pretty.)

But compare Rogue One with the films it’s a ‘homage’ to, such as Where Eagles Dare. That film begins with Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood etc. already on the plane ready to kick start the mission. Here we have an interminable amount of exposition about the backstory to the Death Star and the various ‘characters’. It takes an age before the mission actually begins. The director Gareth Edwards (who previously made the bore-fest Godzilla) has proven himself adept at special effects and clunky when it comes to storytelling. Rogue One is not short of action and it all looks very impressive. But there’s no subtlety, no humour, nothing that makes you give a toss about the outcome.

Edwards is also developing a major talent for wasting great actors. In Godzilla it was Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston. Here it continues with Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed and many others. Take Ben Mendelsohn – normally such an interesting, surprising performer (Animal Kingdom, The Place Beyond the Pines), here reduced to playing some kind of Imperial middle manager. But without David Brent’s comedy.

Compare Rogue One with a film from 1977 I still call Star Wars (because that’s its title). Rogue One has many better actors giving more professional performances. Star Wars has significantly more interesting and likable characters. And that’s the key.

There’s also a major issue with the music. John Williams’ scores have always been a huge part of the appeal of this film series. Here we have a different composer, Michael Giacchino, occasionally incorporating bits of the originals. It’s an inevitable disappointment, especially when cues hint at Williams then veer of into something new and less memorable. It’s not really the composer’s fault; he’s been given an impossible job. Consequently, having been so starved of the ‘real’ music (like a heroin addict trying to cope on methadone) the highlight of the film comes during the end credits when there’s a full rendition of the original theme.

So far, the film has been well received, but I suspect its reputation will diminish greatly in the coming years, if not months. Rogue One isn’t bad. It’s just not a whole lot of fun. And I’m pretty sure Star Wars should be fun.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

 

NEW RELEASE

Spectre (2015, Sam Mendes)

The good news is that the new Bond, Spectre, has a pretty damn sexy pre-title sequence, staged at the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico. The bad news is pretty much the rest of the film.

The pre-title looks fantastic; Spectre’s cinematographer is Hoyte van Hoytema who worked with Tomas Alfredson on Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It begins with a rather impressive long take of Bond in a skull-mask moving through the enormous crowd and up onto the roof of a building. I’m not suggesting that overnight Sam Mendes has metamorphosed into Brian De Palma, but he has at least finally learnt – after 6 films – that you are allowed to move the camera. Mendes also flaunts his cine-literacy with a sequence that has nods to both Touch of Evil and The Godfather Part II.

Alas, after this standout opening, Spectre goes downhill faster than a Pierce Brosnan. The film is like a greatest hits of disappointing moments –

Bond’s in the snow! Oh…it’s an embarrassing action sequence where 007 suddenly finds himself flying a plane with no explanation.

Christoph Waltz! Oh…he’s facetiming in his performance while thinking about that juicy pay cheque.

The Villain’s Lair! Oh…nothing appears to actually be happening there and it gets blown up after 10 minutes in virtually an aside.

Added to all that, the great Monica Bellucci is given a criminally condensed role that amounts to little more than a glorified cameo. All that pre-release talk of a 50 year-old ‘Bond girl’ has turned out to be bollocks. I mean, why should Daniel be saddled with someone 3 years his senior when there’s a 17 years younger model waiting for him in Act II?

They save the worst for last: the climax gives us the old ticking time bomb/damsel in distress routine. I’m not bullshittin, dawg. Seriously?! Is that the best 4 credited screenwriters can come up with?

There is one notable, and not unwelcome, moment…

Am I mistaken, or did Bond (albeit only for a brief period) actually get dumped in this film?

Sam Bowles

Bond

Moonraker (1979, Lewis Gilbert)

“Where are you? Why do you hide? Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?” (from the song Moonraker, profound lyrics by Hal David, belting vocal by Shirley Bassey)

I first saw Moonraker when I was a delightfully inquisitive five-year-old. And it made about as much sense to me then as it does now, thirty years later. This is some avant-garde shit right here. Godard et al’s experimentation with the cinematic form in the late 50s and 60s doesn’t come close to mid/late period Roger Moore Bond. There is nothing in the nouvelle vague to compare with the tonal switches, stylistic lurches and complete disregard for narrative coherence you get in Moonraker, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. (For Your Eyes Only is slightly more in touch with reality and, as a result, slightly more tedious.)

So what’s the plot of this heady brew? It goes something like this…

Evil beardo Hugo Drax secretly builds a space station just off Pluto, where he assembles a group of perfect human specimens, transported there on his Moonraker space shuttles. His dastardly scheme is to wipe out the Earth’s entire population with nerve gas and then repopulate the planet with his master race. (Clearly the ‘5 GCSEs at grade c or above’ threshold wouldn’t cut it with old Hugo.) Drax’s motivation for doing this remains fascinatingly unclear, but it does sound like a great origin story for a new religion. Bond, naturally, is out to stop him. He does this with the aid of a bracelet that shoots poisoned darts, a deadly ballpoint pen and a woman.

But the thing about Moonraker is a synopsis of the plot doesn’t begin to convey the insanity that was committed to celluloid. For a start there’s the character of Jaws, last seen at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me besting a shark with his metal teeth and then swimming off to bite another day. As his previous employer, Stromberg, has shuffled off this mortal coil, Jaws is out for new challenges and throughout Moonraker moves between different employers like some kind of agency worker henchman-for-hire. By the end of the film, this fair-weather foe has made peace with JB and even got himself a girlfriend. They meet in Rio after Jaws has ploughed into a building with a cable car and somehow managed to survive with just a bit of dust on his shirt.

One of my favourite scenes in Moonraker is when Bond runs into Jaws while driving a speedboat down the Amazon (Bond’s looking for the origin of a rare orchid, since you ask). Jaws and some underlings ambush 007 in several speedboats of their own, which they’ve parked behind some river foliage. But how did they know Bond would be there? And how long are they supposed to have been staking out this particular stretch of river, hoping 007 might come by? Maybe sportsmanlike James placed a phone call to Jaws in advance, letting him know of his planned route and a rough estimate of the time. Anyway, after an exchange of hardware, Bond escapes on a hang glider built into the roof of his speedboat.

I have a theory about how to read Moonraker. Like the work of those new wave Frenchies, Quentin T, and many others, its subject matter is cinema itself. The basic plot turns a spy thriller into sci-fi, but there’s more to it than that. This movie jumps genres and styles with a thrilling disregard for logic or sense. There are scenes that jar so much with one another at times it’s like you’re flicking between channels as you watch.

Example: a scene of Bond dispatching a would-be assassin (who looks like an aging French poacher) which concludes with a moment of classic Roger comedy+eyebrow raise is followed directly by a – no bullshit – “release the hounds” moment. This turns the film briefly into some kind of Hammer horror pastiche but played totally straight.

Much later in the film, a scene of Bond escaping a dangerous paramedic aboard an ambulance is directly followed by a sequence of our hero dressed in cowboy hat and poncho, riding a horse, accompanied by the theme from The Magnificent Seven.

Oh, and there’s a bit when a Venetian gondola turns into a hovercraft.

I’m not making this stuff up.

ITV4 is having a Roger Moore Bond season for a couple of weeks. I have no idea why. Possibly because it’s summertime and the schedulers are lazy. But, whatever their motives, this decision should be applauded, and I’d like to make passionate love to all involved in making it.

Moonraker is showing Wednesday 12th August, 9pm ITV4

Sam Bowles

New Release

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)

One need only be a cursory viewer of televised professional sport to be aware that words such as “astonishing”, “amazing” and “incredible” are bandied around these days with farcical abandon. Apparently, just about every Premiership football match justifies these descriptions. It’s rarely the case. But the new Mad Max movie unquestionably astonishes, amazes and…er…incredibles. It explodes off the fucking screen.

The director, George Miller, recently turned 70. Bloody hell, I hope I’m still alive and vaguely lucid at that age, let alone able to marshal the troops and resources required in bringing this maelstrom to the big screen. The last Max installment, Beyond Thunderdome was released thirty years ago, so it had long been assumed that Miller had taken this idea as far as he could. Also, Beyond Thunderdome was a bit shit. The peak of the series until now was the final truck chase from Mad Max 2, also known as The Road Warrior (if you’re American or a wanker). In Fury Road Miller manages to top this sequence. Twice.

Many viewers and critics are snobbish about action films; they’d prefer an earnest drama in which “complex characters” discuss “serious” stuff. But what they’re missing is that action moviemaking at its best can be a form of pure cinema. Miller has said that he wants the film to work even if you don’t understand English, like a silent movie. After watching Mad Max: Fury Road, imagine for a second someone trying to tell the same story using a different medium. Would it work as a novel? A play? Even a TV programme? It’s big, it’s loud, it barely requires any dialogue; it belongs on an enormous cinema screen.

A quick caveat…

Is this film really feminist? Many people seem to think so. Like Terminator 2 and the Alien movies, Fury Road has been praised for having a “strong” female character; in this case Charlize Theron as Imperiosa Furiosa (great name). Furiosa is virtually the protagonist of the film – she has the clearest arc and goals – and Theron gives a great performance. But is depicting a female character driving fast, shooting guns and hitting people really enough to praise a film for being feminist? Or, is it just having a female character behave in ways we normally expect of male characters in action movies? It’s not just action films that are over-populated with male characters and their concerns; it’s ALL mainstream cinema.

Still, it is nice to imagine there might be a follow-up in which Charlize Theron is officially the lead, and the film takes her character’s name: Furious Furiosa maybe?

Sam Bowles

The Most Disappointing Film on TV this Week

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Steven Spielberg)

It was a letdown from the first shot. I had waited nearly 20 years to see what Spielberg’s next transition from the Paramount mountain logo would involve. And as the screen dissolved to the opening image, I was hit straight in the retina with the unmistakable sight of…a fucking rodent. (Apparently a prairie dog for anyone interested.) Initially this might seem like a reasonable visual gag, playing on an unexpected switch in scale – big mountain, small animal. But it just didn’t seem in keeping with the other three films. The original trilogy was always comic, but here we were being offered a total cartoon.

Things did not improve from there… Harrison Ford’s croaky voice. Shia LaBeouf’s existence. And most of the action isn’t up to much. There is one good sequence – the motorbike/car chase in and around the university campus – but, otherwise, the film is a succession of disappointments. Cate Blanchett is a great actor but not one per cent scary as a villain. Ray Winstone and John Hurt are embarrassing.

And couldn’t Lucas and Spielberg have just committed to making the creature things aliens, instead of ‘inter-dimensional beings’? Most viewers thought they were aliens anyway. Some people didn’t like the introduction of a sci-fi element at all, but I don’t see this as a problem per se. It fits with the film being set in the 1950s, a time when alien invasion films were all the rage.

As the film neared its conclusion – and I had to avert my eyes from the sight of old Shia fencing with some Russians on a moving tank – I thought things couldn’t get any worse. Then the final scene completed the tragedy. SPOILER ALERT (for people who give a toss about that kind of thing): Indiana Jones gets married. Married?! MARRIED?! He’s Indiana Jones for fuck’s sake. That’s like James Bond getting married.

Sometime later I awoke in the night convinced my memory of the film was just the remains of a bad dream. I was wrong.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Bollock is showing tonight, 8.05pm BBC 3 (Is that a real channel?)

Sam Bowles

The Worst Film on TV this Week

Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos)

Hollywood action movies don’t come much more compellingly offensive than the clunkily-titled Rambo: First Blood, Part II. This hymn to Sylvester Stallone’s glistening upper body is repugnant; yet I can’t help rather liking it. Or, at least, I find it grimly fascinating: a bombastic opera of violence porn.

John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran with some massive demons and even bigger biceps. He’s sent back into ’Nam to rescue some POWs and generally finish the genocide. The Hawkish message goes thus: we didn’t lose Vietnam; the pussy bureaucrats in charge wouldn’t let us win. Rambo even says at the start, “Sir, do we get to win this time?”

The first Rambo movie, First Blood, is ridiculous but vaguely interesting. It begins with Rambo going to visit an old army friend, only to discover that he’s died from the effects of Agent Orange. There are also shades of Taxi Driver in its story of a lonely Viet vet unable to engage with society. The sequel, however, is a macho cartoon from the word go.

This is a WEIRD film, particularly considering who’s behind the camera. The cinematographer is Jack Cardiff! He worked with Michael Powell and Hitchcock, and here he is training his astonishing eye on Stallone’s muscles and Rambo’s weaponry.

There are bizarre scenes of Rambo being tortured. Stallone, like Mel Gibson, seems to have a narcissistic/masochistic desire to see himself suffer on the screen. If Stallone had played Indiana Jones, he really would have had his heart ripped out by Mola Ram. And then he would have mumbled something self-pitying before replacing the organ and pulling out a bazooka.

But the weirdest thing about an action film that made $300m at the worldwide box office is this: the action isn’t even any good. The first time I saw Rambo I remember being amazed that no individual action scene stood out. Only a few days later my memory of the film was a vague blur of random gunshots and explosions. Potentially good ideas, such as a bow with explosive-tipped arrows, are wasted on unimaginative sequences. The great action films – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard – contain setpieces so well-conceived that they remain thrilling even when you know every shot before it comes.

The director, George P. Cosmatos, went on to fashion further masterworks such as Cobra (Stallone as Dirty Harry) and Leviathan (Alien underwater, starring RoboCop, but not half as much fun as that sounds).

Rambo: First Blood, Part II is showing tonight, 10.40pm ITV 1

Hopefully you’ve got something better to do on a Friday night. (I haven’t.)

Sam Bowles