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

 

 

 

 

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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 Overrated Film on TV this Week

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Why? Why did people get so excited about this flick? WHY?! Because most films are so bad? Because people take Christopher Nolan as seriously as he clearly takes himself? Or, have people just forgotten?

Forgotten what? About the Tim Burton Batman films, of course. Yes, there was already a darker, more brooding, graphic novel-inspired take on the Batman myth, with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). These films also managed to retain a sense of humour and remembered they were supposed to be based on a comic strip. (And they didn’t involve Christian Bale.)

Batman Begins (2005) started a trilogy of superhero movies within which Christopher Nolan appeared progressively more in denial that he was making superhero movies. Thus, Batman is almost never called “Batman”; he is either “The Batman” (apparently a definite article confers depth and maturity) or, even better, “The Dark Knight”. These films are entertaining and extremely well shot, but also riddled with flaws, the fatal one being an attempt to make the Batman myth realistic. I’m sorry, this is a story about a dude in a rubber suit with pointy ears on his head. The more Nolan and his cohorts get caught up trying to make a Batman movie which is “grounded in reality” or some such cobblers, the more they paradoxically highlight how ridiculous the whole enterprise is. It would appear Nolan was watching a little too much Michael Mann at the time and tried to remake Heat as a superhero movie.

Everyone knows the highlight of not just The Dark Knight but the entire trilogy is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. What’s notable is there is no equivalent performance (that combination of danger, comedy and charisma) in any of Nolan’s other films. One can’t help wondering if Ledger pulled off this performance despite Nolan’s direction rather than because of it.

The Dark Knight is showing tonight, 9.00pm ITV 2

Sam Bowles