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Movie Review: Star Wars - The Last Jedi (2018)

Do you remember that song from Sesame Street? “One of these kids is doing his own thing, one of these kids is not the same.” That’s essentially how I feel about The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson has made a film with little-to-no regard for what came before or what is to follow.

It’s taken me a long time to write a review of this movie because I really didn’t know what to think after first seeing it. The Force Awakens – despite a few very minor reservations – I immediately loved, and Rogue One was the same. I was beginning to relax about Disney’s ownership of this much-loved saga, and then The Last Jedi came out. I went to the midnight screening as usual, and after it was over my friend asked me what I thought and I said: “I don’t know.” As we talked over what we had just seen he asked me a few more times and my answer was still the same. I really didn’t know what to make of what I’d just seen. I knew there were bits of it I liked, but a lot of it just wasn’t sitting right with me and I couldn’t really pinpoint why.

So it’s over seven months later and I’ve just watched it for the second time. I’m going to see if I can nail down what was bugging me after that first screening.

The first thing is the tone. Say what you like about The Force Awakens being too much of a retread of A New Hope, but JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan got the tone of the movie right. It felt like a Star Wars film, albeit one with some directing flourishes George Lucas would never have dreamt of, and not just because of the familiar story beats, but because we were in a situation where the future of a galaxy far, far away was at stake. There was serious drama because there was a serious threat.

Now look at how The Last Jedi starts; with one of the things that irks me most about this film: the call waiting gag. I hate this sequence because a) call waiting is something that belongs to our universe, not a long time ago in a… etc., etc. so it seems totally out of place and immediately pulls you out of the action and slaps you in the face with a wet fish while screaming, “It’s not really happening! It’s just a movie!” and b) it makes Hux look like an idiot because it takes him so long to twig that it’s a wind up. Hux was an intense, scary Nazi type in TFA, and now they’ve got him doing Three Stooges routines. Are we really supposed to be scared of him after that?

Another pointless attempt at humour I must draw attention to is the iron-that-looks-like-a-spaceship gag. Where do I start with this? Why? Just… why? This belongs in Spaceballs. I don’t object to humour in Star Wars, but it has to be the right kind of humour and it has to be at an appropriate moment. This visual gag, which is basically parodying the whole genre, just pulls us out of the film once again and stops you from getting invested in the characters.

The misjudged tone continues when we get to Luke and Rey. Who could forget that great cliffhanger at the end of TFA. It was almost operatic with resonance, mystery and the enormous significance of what finding Luke meant to the resistance, and the future of the galaxy. And in two seconds, Johnson defuses it with a silly comic gesture as Luke chucks his lightsabre over his shoulder. All it was missing was a Swannee whistle sound effect.

The tone of this film is completely wrong! The second chapter of the best trilogies is always the darkest; The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future II, Temple of Doom, The Dark Knight even Toy Story 2 probably has the darkest subtext, but The Last Jedi has no dark themes – sure, people fight and get killed, etc., but I’m talking about an overall feeling that evil might just triumph and the good guys are powerless to stop it. It’s the crucial 2nd Act ‘major setback’ in screenwriting terms, and TLJ has none of it.

While we’re on Luke’s little sanctuary island, let’s discuss the next problem: this film focuses on the wrong things. When Luke asks where Han is, the film cuts to the next scene. Why! That’s a scene we want to see. I know it’s information we already have being repeated, but we want to see Luke’s reaction. Not only would it be loaded with drama and emotion as Rey explains what happened, but it would also further add to Luke’s guilt about failing Kylo.  

I think Mark Hamill’s acting was superb in this film and this is a scene in which he could have really shown his chops, but no, screen time was limited and instead Rian Johnson decided to use the time to answer a question that all Star Wars fans had undoubtedly been asking since the closing frames of TFA: Where does Luke get his milk? These day-in-the-life scenes of Luke getting some green milk and doing a pole-vaulting fishing thing are completely pointless and add nothing to the story. I wonder how many letters of complaint Lucasfilm got after The Empire Strikes Back saying: “You guys really dropped the ball! You introduced a character called Yoda but never told us where he got his milk!”

Next issue: the sci-fi. Now this may seem like an odd one, but stay with me. Star Wars is not sci-fi, it’s space fantasy. What’s the difference? Well, as the name suggests, sci-fi has some element of science about it. In some way, shape or form, it’s about futuristic technological developments or inventions. Star Wars has never been about this. Things like hyperspace are simply there to serve the story. How they work is completely irrelevant. This tracking through hyperspace (or warp) was done in Star Trek: Nemesis but since that franchise IS sci-fi, it worked there. It doesn’t work here. Neither does the concept of fuel. I don’t believe anyone has ever mentioned fuel before in Star Wars. Again it’s a trope of sci-fi – the crew of Star Trek: Voyager spent most of their time looking for fuel, but Star Wars has never been about these practical things, it’s about good vs. evil, heroes and villains. These sort of mundane storylines don’t belong in fantasy.

Then there’s this whole ‘we’ve got them on a string’ thing, which made no sense to me. So the resistance fleet can fly faster than Star Destroyers, so they can keep a safe distance ahead until their fuel runs out? Is that it? Why don’t the Star Destroyers just launch a bunch of TIE fighters to fly over and attack them? And also they’re too far away for the First Order’s guns to be effective? So lasers become less-powerful over distance? Am I the only one who wants to call BS on this? It’s the sort of over-complicated solution to a simple problem that this director comes up with time and again. Here’s an idea, Rian, after the big fight at the start, both lead ships are heavily damaged and it’s a race against time to see who gets their engines back online first. Is that not a much more believable – and more Star Wars – explanation if you want to keep these ships in close proximity? If the landing bay is damaged as well that would explain why you can’t launch TIE fighters, too. Then maybe the First Order’s guns could be knackered as well and we wouldn’t have to try to explain the growing impotency of laser blasts over distance. Damaged ships – simple.

So, to the Mar-a-Lago planet. The whole trip to Canto Bight is completely pointless. If they can call Maz Kanata why can’t they call this codebreaker dude to walk them through how to disable the security? This is another huge problem with this story: let’s find something for everyone to do. Finn’s trip with Rose feels like it’s there for no other reason than to give them something to do. Story is king. Write your story and then decide who does what in that story. Don’t pander to actors who want more screen time. Look at Billy Dee Williams in Empire. He doesn’t have that many lines, but his character serves the story and the lines he has are so well written and succinct, that you know exactly who he is without a load of forced exposition. That’s how it’s done. When the resistance is first tracked through hyperspace there’s some suspicion that there is a traitor on board. It would’ve been a much more interesting storyline for Finn and Rose to follow if there had been. It would’ve given the film a whole whodunit/ suspense element, instead of another load of pointless CGI.

This film suffers from busyness. There’s too much going on, and most of it is just treading water. I can’t help feeling if some of the many story strands were cut or even amalgamated, we would have a much slicker film. There’s probably a saga film AND a spin-off story in The Last Jedi if they were both done right.

A big reason Empire is regarded as the best of the series is the love story. What is going on with Finn and Rey? Is that a love story, or more of a brother/ sister relationship? She seemed a bit narked about him paying so much attention to Rose, but yet again this is an interesting strand that was never addressed. If anything is to be made of their relationship it’s now going to have to be crammed into the last part, which will just make it seem rushed and slapdash. If you wanted to give this chapter added weight, that was the way to go.

My final gripe is the disregard for what JJ and Kasdan seeded. After TFA everyone was asking who Snoke was. Where did he come from? How’d he get that scar? How does he know the ways of The Force if the old ‘there can be only two’ thing still applies to the sith? When Vader killed the Emperor and then died himself, there was neither master nor apprentice, so who taught Snoke? Killing him off in TLJ without answering any of that felt like a missed opportunity.

Star Wars is all about lineage, which is why I thought it was a mistake to make that decision about Rey’s parentage. I understand not all jedis have to be of the Skywalker clan. Indeed, since the jedi are supposed to be monastic and not have relationships/ get married, even back in the prequel times, new jedi must be born from non-jedi families. So that’s what Rey is? I suppose that’s fine, but it seemed like TFA was setting up something bigger and more interesting. The biggest question after TFA was: ‘Who is Rey?’ and when TLJ answered: ‘She’s nobody,’ it just felt like that lightsabre being thrown over the shoulder again.

I can only guess what a daunting task writing a chapter of Star Wars must be, so I don’t want to rag on Rian Johnson too much. He’s a fine writer and director, but with this huge, epic story, he should’ve got some feedback on where this was going. I suspect he did, but just didn’t listen. I find it hard to believe that JJ and Kasdan didn’t give him the broad strokes of where they intended it all to go, while still leaving him enough latitude to put his own stamp on things.

I don’t want to leave without saying what I liked about TLJ, but I’m having trouble. There’s the throne room fight of course. And I loved the shot of Luke’s X-wing underwater. Some people say they love the porgs, calling them the new ewoks, but the ewoks had a purpose in the story; the porgs are just window-dressing, so I don’t really consider them anything but a toy-making opportunity. What else? Everyone’s acting is good, and of course the VFX are amazing. There are some nice shots too, like Luke’s fade-out, and it was good to see Yoda again, but I am really struggling here to find anything else, and I want to! I love these films and I want to like them, but if it isn’t there, it isn’t there.

If I ever get the chance to write a Star Wars film – and I’m open to offers, Lucasfilm – I would ask for opinions from everyone that matters. George Lucas may be the king of unspeakable dialogue, but he knows his mythology and archetypes, and he knows this universe better than anyone. Mark Hamill has also expressed some views about how he thought Luke should’ve been portrayed and his ideas seem well thought-out, too. And Lawrence Kasdan is a legend! I can’t help thinking if this writer/ director had just got some notes from these sources and made some changes based on their forty year experience, we would have ended up with a much more coherent film, and one that fits better with TFA and all that has come before.

As it is, Rian Johnson has ‘done his own thing’ and created the most divisive chapter of Star Wars ever. I don’t hate it, but I don’t really like it either. Is it as good as The Empire Strikes Back? Not by a country mile! Is it as bad as The Phantom Menace? Possibly not. So while I can’t see this getting the rewatches my favourite chapters do, it probably won’t get the once a decade viewing of TPM either, but somewhere in-between.

As a writer myself, what I’m most worried about is how JJ is going to get the story back on track and tie it all up in Ep9 after this huge, ill-conceived diversion. I wish him luck.

Phil's Rating: 4/10



Film-making Rant: My issues with ‘issues’.

I’ve noticed a trend recently with film festivals, screenwriting competitions, and even the films that get funded with public money: they all seem to have ‘issues’ in common.

When reading the description of the script or film that has won/ been shortlisted/ secured funding you only have to read as far as: immigration, bullying, dementia, racism, suicide, spousal abuse, Asperger’s, etc. to get the gist of what’s being pitched and why it’s been selected.

Now let me be clear, I have no problem with these sort of films, but let me ask you a couple of questions; 1) how many of us saw a TV movie at 3pm on a weekday about some issue or other and that was our impetus to become a screenwriter or film director? And 2) how many of these solemn and po-faced films about worthy issues would you watch more than once?

My guess is the answer to both questions would be few to none.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say most of us who wanted, nay needed, to become part of the film-making community saw something fantastical that excited us; something that grabbed us by the heart and squeezed as we watched our protagonists beat the bad guys against all odds. I can also pretty much guarantee that whatever that film was for you, you’ve watched it many times since.

So why are these dull movies that it would bore most people to sit through twice – ‘one-and-done films’ - getting all the funding and awards? Well, my theory is, it makes the organisers feel grown-up to pat film-makers on the head for this sort of stuff. It’s perfectly fine if you want to draw attention to some cause or illness that is misunderstood, but aren’t these competitions and festivals ultimately looking for the next huge talent who’s going to wow the world? How many competitions lead with the pitch line: Ever dreamed of writing a depressing movie with a downbeat ending that might get shown on daytime TV?

I suppose the Oscars do the same thing a lot of the time. The film that has dominated the box-office that year rarely gets a little gold statue, because the Oscars think those action, sci-fi and comic book movies are crass and vulgar. Much better to give it to some art-house film that no-one watched.

I know a lot of young film-makers have aspirations that their short film about pink-eye or whatever is going to change the world, so they try to make the heaviest, most humourless drama possible. Frankly, when I see those films I wince at their heavy-handedness. I never went through that phase. My first film, Different (2009) – as basic and amateur as it was – had a fantasy element to it because that’s the kind of films I always wanted to make.

I just wonder what sort of film-makers we’re hoping to nurture by awarding prizes to these sorts of scripts & films. There should be a place for them, of course, because even some big movies manage to wedge in an issue as a sub-plot, but do you think our friend with the pink-eye short film is going to be a major studio’s first choice when looking for a hot new director to helm their new action movie? No. They won’t have had the boot-camp experience that is gained by making short genre movies, because they’ll only ever have filmed two people sitting at a table talking and crying about some issue or other.

Ah but, someone will say, suppose that big studio is looking for someone to make an issue film? It’s possible I suppose, but I don’t see issue films dominating my multi-plex. Unless of course they’re doing it in a clever, indirect, way. For example, Get Out is a film about an issue, but it isn’t obvious about it. The short films that are boring me currently at festivals are very ordinary ‘look at this issue, isn’t it terrible?’ stories that get their point across in such an uninteresting, straight-forward fashion, I wonder how any programmer could’ve supported this choice. No matter how well-intentioned a film is, or how noble a cause it’s promoting, an awful film is still an awful film.

I think the people behind these festivals and competitions are picking projects based on how they want their organisation to be perceived, instead of what they should be doing, which is giving a leg up to film-makers who might actually have a chance at a career in the movie business. Face it, if they gave genre films the respect they deserve they would have many more: Last Year’s Winner Went On To… stories, but that would make them look low-brow, because genre films are so easy to write.

Aren’t they?



Music Rant: Kid A (2000) - Radiohead shoot themselves in the foot.

"To truly hate something, you must first have truly loved it." I think I've just made up that quote when trying to think of a way to start this rant, though no doubt someone else has said something similar, because truth is universal. I truly hate Radiohead's Kid A album, because I truly loved Radiohead before this half-assed effort, but I think there's more to this stinker than disappoints the ear.Kid A by Radiohead

First, a little background. Like many music fans growing up in the 80s/90s my first exposure to Radiohead was Creep. I thought it was incredible. I remember playing the cassette single (ask your grandparents, kids) over and over when I first got it. It was melodic, but melancholy, downbeat, but it still rocked! It was an anthem for the disaffected youth and shoe-gazers everywhere.

Then came The Bends and unlike their debut album, the band produced an album that was amazing from track one to track twelve. There was innovation and experimentation, but above all, it still rocked! Surely the band had peaked! No, along came OK Computer and raised the bar still higher. The first release from it was the epic Paranoid Android; a Bohemian Rhapsody for the 90s, and it was followed by Karma Police and No Surprises - both excellent singles with memorable videos. It was a great time to be a Radiohead fan. How much better could this band get!

Sadly, the answer was no better.

When Kid A was about to be released I was in a band and we played The Bends and High and Dry (we weren't good enough to attempt anything off OK Computer) in our set regularly. Students lapped that stuff up. I had a band practice that night, but my brother rang me in the afternoon. After getting the album and listening to it twice, he had the sad duty to report: 'It's crap'. When I hung up I didn't believe him. We had contrasting opinions on lots of bands. He probably just didn't 'get it'. That night I went to band practice and was just unloading my Marshall when our singer told me he had got the new Radiohead album. I asked what he thought of it. 'It's shit,' was his short reply. Now I was more worried. Still, I clung onto the hope that I would see something in this new album that apparently no one else was seeing. I mean, this was Radiohead FFS! What, did they forget how to play, how to write? How could they release a crap album? It just didn't seem possible.

I was skint (as usual) and the Internet was still in its infancy, so I had to wait two days to hear Kid A. I went to my mum's for dinner on Sunday and my brother played it to me. I tried, I really did try to find something to like about it, but it was futile. The Kid A CD was twelve centimetres of digital shit. In the days that followed I saw Thom Yorke having a seizure in front of a mic stand during the laughably tuneless Idioteque video, and then on the Jools Holland show he scuttled around on his haunches like some sort of demented IT support guy, twiddling knobs and pushing buttons while the rest band wondered if they could nip off for a pint while this collection of electronic farts and whistles played out.

Then I saw an old interview with Thom Yorke on MTV recorded during the OK Computer tour. The band were huge at the time and getting bigger by the day. The interviewer said something like: 'If you keep going like this, you'll be as big as Guns n' Roses.' Yorke look horrified at this statement and that's when it all clicked for me. I'd finally found an explanation that made sense: Kid A was SUPPOSED to be shit. Radiohead didn't want to be as big as Gn'R. They never wanted that level of fame, so they made the worst album they could possibly get away with, and it worked. Kid A effectively cut the band's fanbase in half. Young guitarists who grew up inspired by Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien now had to make do with their back catalogue as Yorke's interminable dicking around with Bontempi keyboards, loops and samples took centre stage. It was a sad time for guitarists everywhere.

Some people claim to like this album, but I think they're in denial. It's the emperor's new clothes. They pretend to see something because, like me once, they WANT to see it, or they want to look superior to those who don't see it. They can't believe a band of this calibre would drop a turd like Kid A. They look for meaning, they look for a spark of what this band used to be, and sometimes they might even imagine they see a glimmer of it. I've kept a vague eye on Radiohead ever since. I've always made sure to listen to their new work online before I spent any money on them. The result? I haven't spent any money on them. I think Hail To The Thief had some good songs, but it seemed like they were trying to please both their original fans and the ambient/ electronica crowd that now seem to be their bread and butter, to the point that for the first half of the album it's quite obvious that's what they're doing; first song - good, second song - shit, third song - good, fourth song - shit, and so on.

So if my theory is correct, and I'm pretty sure it is, Radiohead got what they wanted. OK Computer and The Bends frequently appear on those Best Rock Albums Of All Time lists, but Kid A and all the albums they've done since are conspicuous by their absence. The last thing I heard of theirs was In Rainbows. It sounded like the sort of thing an assistant bank manager would have on in the background at a dinner party if he was trying to convince his guests he was still 'hip'. I never saw them live. I hope someday they do an oldies tour featuring pre-Kid A songs, because I wouldn't even buy a ticket to see them now. There might be a few of the classics in there, but the amount of bilge you'd have to sit through to get to them, puts me off completely.

Phil's Rating: Take this CD, smash it to pieces with a hammer, burn the pieces, and flush the ashes down the toilet, and then go out and buy The Bends and OK Computer. Your life will be better for it. Trust me.


Ghostbusters 2016

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

OK, the knives were out for this film as soon as the first trailer came online, and to be fair I can see why. It did look more like one of those Scooby-Doo films than proper Ghostbusters, but we live in an era of CGI, so cartoon-like ghosts are inevitable. Sony responded to these haters by saying it was a misogynist issue. I don't think that was the case. Sci-fi nerds, and I know because I count myself among their number, love nothing more than seeing empowered women kicking ass - how many complaints do you remember about Rey being allowed to use a lightsaber in The Force Awakens?

So, to the film that many already hated before seeing it. It opens well, with a tour guide (Yes, it's Jared from Silicon Valley!) showing a bunch of people around a supposedly haunted house. This is a well-judged and measured scene that takes its time to get to... what it gets to. It's a very loose reworking of the opening scene of the original, with the old librarian woman now a young man - these gender reversals pop up a lot during the film and if you want to call that feminism, then good luck to you.

While we're on the subject, much has been made of Chris Hemsworth's comic turn as the Ghostbusters's 'himbo' secretary. Is the fact that they hire a complete idiot because they all, especially Kirsten Wiig, fancy him, also striking a blow for feminism? It didn't come across that way to me. So a man hiring a woman who's a moron but looks pretty is wrong, but when women do it, it's girl power? For all the crying Sony did about misogynists, I'm not sure they're setting a great example to 'all the little girls who need strong female role models'. I was more reminded of Arabella Weir's character from The Fast Show.

I think the main problem I have with this film is the casting. Don't get me wrong, I have loved Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy for a long time in various roles. Leslie Jones may not be playing the most original character, but she does it well and certainly delivers the laughs, and as for Kate McKinnon, well, it may be a case of love at first sight for me. I'm not disputing the acting abilities of these women, but they are all comedic actors.

This may be blasphemy to some, but I'm going to say it anyway: I don't think Ghost Busters (1984) is a comedy. I think it's a drama with some great jokes and one brilliantly wise-cracking character. The mix of Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, who have both proved themselves in dramatic roles, mixed with the stellar SNL comics is what makes the first film work. It's a question of threat. When the third act starts in the original there are moments of genuine threat as the stakes are raised. This reboot is a straight-forward comedy, so you know no-one's going to die in the finale, and that equals no threat and no tension. Maybe if they had thrown some actresses into the mix who have strong track records in both comedy and drama - Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon - we might have actually been worrying about the characters instead of watching an elaborate dance routine with ghosts and gags.

The cameos from the original cast are brief, not funny, and forgettable. The post credits bit is only about 30 seconds long, and you do have to sit through a fair bit of bad music to get to it, including that terrible cover version of Ray Parker Jr.'s classic song.

So I left feeling very ambiguous about this film. I did laugh on many occasions, much more than most of the cine-illiterate teens I was sharing the experience with, but I don't think I would care if I never saw this film again, and that's what really separates this from the '84 movie. It's not going to go down as a classic, but then I don't think many studios think in those terms nowadays. They're in it for the fast buck; so if it opens well and makes a lot of dosh using spectacle over substance, then that's what they're going to keep doing, and if this film ends up in the DVD bargain bin in Poundland in 12 months time, they won't care because they'll already have made their profit and (if the post credits gag is anything to go by) be well on the way to churning out another.

An average comedy, but a below-average remake.

Phil's Rating: 4/10


Independence Day: Resurgence 2016

Movie Review: Independence Day - Resurgence (2016)

It’s sad that I only ever seem to write these reviews when a movie has really disappointed me. I’d like to be able to write a positive one, so come on, Hollywood, make some decent movies!

OK, so the original isn’t a 5 star movie, but I’d say it’s a solid 4/5. It’s big, silly popcorn fun, but the real reason it endures is because it has characters we care about (remember characters, Hollywood? They’re the bits that aren’t CGI). ID4 (as we called it back in the day, young hipsters that we were) spent a lot of time setting up real people in real lives, with real problems. The people we’re supposed to identify with in Regurgence are children of heroes and presidents, and people who live on the moon! Do you see where I’m going here? The ‘What if this really happened?’ angle is completely tossed out the window because we’re in a world we don’t recognise, expected to care about people I would walk a mile to avoid.

What really annoys me about sequels like this is how they show complete disdain for the good movie that came before. In ID4 we see Jeff Goldblum, cable guy extraordinaire, not only save the Earth, but get his wife back after three years of separation. He never gave up hope. He still wore the wedding band. God, he must have REALLY loved her. So where is she? She doesn’t even rank a mention in this film. You could have said she was dead, like Will ‘bust the budget’ Smith. You could have just said she was at home baking scones, but no, we need to insinuate that Jeff’s a big virile male and that French bird will eventually fall into bed with him, thereby showing Jeff as not a forever-loyal husband, but some shallow guy who bangs hero-groupies.

There is an attempt to replicate the ‘kids in danger’ aspect of ID4 when a bunch of kids arrive from nowhere driving a car and cry a bit, but it’s so clumsily handled we feel nothing for them, so then they up the ante and make it a busload of kids and kindly old Judd Hirsch decides to drive them to the epicentre of the battle so they’ll be safe. Let’s all roll our eyes together.

The more I think about this film, the worse it gets, so I better stop soon, but I will just have a little rant about tossing fanboys a bone. Who spotted the Jurassic Park mirror shot when Jeff’s driving the bus? Or the Citizen Kane shot at the end? Did the alien maybe say: ‘Rosebud’ as it died? :-) Look, Roland Emmerich and your army of writers, those little nods have to be earned. To put references to great films in one so below average doesn’t impress us, it just reminds us that we could be home watching one of those classics instead of here watching the cinematic equivalent of root-canal surgery.

As I said at the start, Hollywood just isn’t making very good movies at the moment. Sure, there are little indie gems out there if you look, but the big studio stuff just isn’t cutting it, and what’s worse is… they don’t care. They don’t care if a movie is good or bad, all they care about is if it makes money, which is why they target these movies at six year-olds with Attention Deficit Disorder.

Sort yourselves out, Hollywood.

Phil's rating: 2/10


Jupiter Ascending 2015

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

OK, what the hell is going on in Hollywood? Is it something in the water? Why do talented film-makers go there and completely forget how to make movies? Yes, I said forget. I’m well aware there are many directors working in Hollywood who NEVER knew how to make movies and are still inexplicably allowed to continue working (I’m looking at you, McG), but I’m talking about people like M. Night Shyamalan and John Carpenter off the top of my head, who unquestionably DID know how to make movies at one time, and now don’t. Is there something happening in Hollywood; a subversive, sci-fi conspiracy which somehow sucks the creativity out of anyone within the boundary of LA county? It’s a story so fantastic and implausible it just might be true. Whether it’s true or not, it should be made into a movie, but who would direct it – ah, there’s the Catch 22.

Another name to add to this list is The Wachowskis. I don’t keep up with tabloid gossip so I have only recently realised that they are no longer The Wachowski Brothers (Andy & Larry) because Larry is now Lana. Yes, he’s had a sex change and though I doubt this alters their ability to direct films, I thought I’d mention it because maybe there are others out there even more out of touch with celeb gossip than me.

So how is it that the visionaries who brought us The Matrix (and the under-rated Bound) are now incapable of telling a story on film? Of course The Matrix itself was a complicated story with a couple of big exposition dumps, while Reloaded had one of the longest and most tongue-tying, brain-frying explanations I’ve ever seen at the end of a major film, but they still sort of got away with it because we were willing to forgive a lot just as long as we got a Matrix sequel or two.

Since then their output has been spotty to say the least. Personally, I hated the Technicolor barf that was Speed Racer and although it seems interesting, I have yet to make it through Cloud Atlas without falling asleep. At three hours it’s the sort of movie you have to be in the right frame of mind before you sit down to watch it, and here I think is the problem with The Wachowskis in one word: indulgence. They’ve let the story get away from them. I think because The Matrix films earned a bajillion dollars it seems they get a blank cheque, both financially and creatively, to do what they want now. And like George Lucas, they don’t seem to have anyone around them to slap them across their chops and say, "Get this down to 100 mins and have it make sense!"

So (finally) to the specifics of what’s wrong with Jupiter Ascending. Well, the short answer is LOTS. An incoherent plot is a good place to start. Seriously, I was totally baffled by what was going on most of the time and just ended up watching the CGI action scenes like a child might, enjoying the spectacle but not knowing what on Earth it has to do with anything.

The production design reminds me of those old sci-fi movies where everyone on the planet dresses the same, except the rulers, who wear extremely impractical clothes and are as camp as Christmas. Eddie Redmayne, what were you thinking? Maybe his terrible accent wasn’t his choice, like the ridiculous po-faced dialogue it may have been The Wachowskis doing.

The thing I hate most about this film though is its complete mis-use of the lovely Mila Kunis. She does little more than fall and scream and wait to be saved by Channing Tatum and his flying roller-blades, and always just in the nick of time before she does something catastrophic to the galaxy. If you look at Mila’s character-arc it seems the lesson she learns from this intergalactic adventure is to take joy in cleaning toilets. Far from ascending to display traits of her genetic noble birth, she seems more interested in getting a boyfriend with great pecs (if slightly dodgy ears) than she does with saving the Earth and stuff like that. I thought we were past female characters who just got tied to the train tracks and screamed until they were saved by some hunky beefcake, but even in this futuristic landscape it appears all women need to be rescued by a man. Given the fact that Larry is now Lana, it’s even harder to see how they ever created a character like this and thought it was OK.

Some interesting action set-pieces and good CGI doesn’t make up for the overall mess this film is. Maybe if you watched it half a dozen times or more, you might get an inkling of what the hell the story’s about, but when it’s this bad, who’s going to bother?

Phil's rating: 2/10


Carrie 2013

Movie Review: Carrie (2013)

I really should know by now not to get my hopes up about remakes, especially remakes of films that are pretty much damn near perfect to start with. So why does Hollywood keep churning out inferior retreads that (even they must know) are never going to surpass the original?

The simple fact is a lot of teens are way too cool to watch a movie that was made in 1976 and doesn’t even have basic CGI in it!!!! It’s true these soulless, Reader’s Digest remakes are made for the masses, most of whom will never know or care whether it’s a good or bad movie; to them cinema is just a flickering light that will hypnotise them for an hour or two, like a rabbit in the headlights, and the experience will not extend beyond the sticky carpet and smell of stale popcorn.

For some of us, though, a movie is much more, and a good one stays with you for months, years, or even a lifetime.

OK, rant over. To specifics about what’s wrong with this particular remake.

For a start, Chloe Grace Moretz is much too pretty to be Carrie White. You could try to make the argument that her insane mother would still make her an outcast, but take it from someone who was once a teenage boy: if a girl is beautiful, guys will ignore a hell of a lot to be with her. Sissy Spacek was perfect casting in DePalma’s film; she’s not exactly ugly, which makes her prom transformation believable, but she’s a long way from being the school sexbomb. She’s just… plain.

Julianne Moore is more uglied-up for her role as Carrie’s religiously fanatical mother, but even she doesn’t come across as half the nut-job that Piper Laurie was.

Since large sections of this remake are taken verbatim from DePalma’s movie, where does it all go wrong? Well, it drops certain key scenes that tell us exactly who everyone is. Chris and Billy in the car with her calling him stupid and him slapping her; that scene tells you a lot about both of them, but the remake assumes if they just stick someone in a leather jacket and a fast car it does the same job. It doesn’t! Chris getting an almost sexual thrill from watching Billy kill the pig. Again the fudged attempt in the remake to have them be equally vicious ruins the dynamic of the relationship.

I think, however, the biggest mistake is how the prom massacre is handled. Who can forget that vacant look in Sissy Spacek’s eyes as she lets rip upon her classmates; it’s like she goes into a trance and her primal urge for revenge takes over. You could almost argue she’s isn’t there when everyone gets their comeuppance. But in this version, Carrie is in control of her powers as we have seen her develop them throughout the film. In short, she knows what she’s doing when she slaughters everyone, and this makes us lose all sympathy for her. Instead of a wounded kitten lashing out with its claws, she now becomes a ravenous tigress in a playground.

In the original movie the one thing I felt was worse than what happens to Carrie at the prom is what happens after. She has to go back to her psychotic mother and admit she was right. That broke my heart in the original, but in this retelling I had no such feelings.

Sissy Spacek’s Carrie was a victim, and despite what she did at the prom, you got the feeling she would always be a victim. Her one act of rebellion against her mother ended in disaster (understatement!) and as she reluctantly trudges home with her prom dress ruined, you know she would probably never have the courage to stand up to her mother again. Chloe Grace Moretz’s Carrie takes revenge on everyone with such relish (she takes her time with some of them) that it’s impossible to believe she’ll ever let her mother lock her in her cupboard again. It’s impossible to believe she’ll take shit from anyone ever again, which may be all very PC and 21st-century-empowered-female-friendly, but it destroys the character and any empathy we have for her.

Oh, and just one more point. Brian DePalma practically invented the ‘last scare when you think everything’s over’ and anyone who’s seen the original Carrie knows that last scare is a doozy. The remake tries to do something similar. It fails. Miserably. The last – what do I call it? It isn’t a scare – the last CGI pile of crap, is just confusing and stupid.

A fitting end to this film.

Phil's Rating: 2/10


Star Trek Into Darkness 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

OK, I liked this movie, not as much as the original, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but it’s a solid movie. The only things that niggle me are the same as in JJ’s first Star Trek movie; too much lens flare and the bridge of the Enterprise looking like an Apple store.

Oh, and the score. I don’t remember anything about the score to STID, which means it definitely isn’t on a par with James Horner’s incredible soundtrack to The Wrath of Khan. This was Horner’s finest hour and, for me at least, is up there with Star Wars, ET, Superman, Indiana Jones and Close Encounters as one of the best movie scores ever.

There are enough nods to the original (and some nice line-swapping) to keep the die-hards happy, but it is also its own film. Benedict Cumberbatch is a more quietly menacing Khan than Ricardo Montalban’s unhinged villain and the sub-plot about war-mongering and divided loyalties is all down to JJ Abrams and his team, and it’s all good. JJ should be given a firm pat on the back for coming up with some original shots and sequences in such a well-worn franchise.

But…. The big talking point about this film is a two second shot of Alice Eve in her underwear, so I’d like to weigh in with my thoughts on this. 

Firstly, why is this such a big deal? We had a shot of Uhura and that green alien chick in their underwear in JJ’s first movie and no one said anything about it, so why all of a sudden is this sexist?

I don’t think it is. In fact, you could make the argument that Carol Marcus is initiating the sexual relationship that is to come, (in the original timeline they have a son, David, together so there must be some attraction) and why shouldn’t she? She’s an assertive, enlightened twenty-third century gal. By this stage in the movie she has got a pretty good handle on Kirk and she probably knows he’s the sort of bloke who’s led around by his… gut instinct, shall we say.

If that doesn’t sway you, then spare a thought for the hardcore Trekkies, watching this in their basement while wearing their Starfleet uniform and surrounded by limited edition memorabilia; this may be the only chance they ever get to see a pretty girl in her underwear.

I think JJ and his writers were too eager to apologize for this and didn’t really think it through. Remember we’re two centuries in the future, and maybe, just maybe, things have changed. Maybe in the twenty-third century women aren’t ashamed to show a bit of skin to get a man to follow them and do whatever they say.

Phil's Rating: 8/10


Man of Steel 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel was possibly the most anticipated movie of the year, but Zack Snyder’s vision of our Kryptonian hero lacks the heart of Richard Donner’s classic and substitutes story for spectacle.

Right from the beginning I feared that this film was going to lack originality; the ships flying around Krypton bore a striking resemblance to those at the end of Attack of the Clones, but getting spacecraft from a George Lucas yard sale is least of its problems. Instead of playing this sequence for emotion, it’s reduced to an unnecessary action set piece that sets the tone for the entire film.

We are robbed of what happens once little Kal-El gets to Earth and this is a huge mistake. The Kents finding the crashed spacecraft, and then discovering he has superhuman strength are key moments for both the characters and the audience, but Snyder decides to skip them completely and starts the story when all the wonder of those discoveries has passed. Instead, we first meet Clark as a young man working on a fishing boat and we see him rescue some oil rig workers without a care for concealing his identity.

Half the fun of Superman was seeing how he balanced his secret identity with a normal life, but he has revealed his powers so often it seems everyone in Smallville knows about him, which makes his failure to save Jonathan Kent really stupid. In Donner’s version, his dad dies of a heart-attack and Clark says: “All these things I can do, all these powers I have and I couldn’t even save him.” This not only makes you emotionally connect with the character, but it also gives Superman his reason to try to save others from the hurt that he has experienced. In Man of Steel he could have saved his dad from the ridiculously contrived twister, but doesn’t because a couple of dozen people, who probably already know about him anyway, might see him.

All these people who have seen him do amazing things leads nicely on to how easily Lois finds him. The Lois and Clark love story is never given time to grow, instead they have two conversations – neither of them is even vaguely flirtatious or show any signs of mutual attraction – and then at the end they smooch like teenagers. Let’s forget for a second that Superman is way too moral to lead on some woman he’s just met, but where are the seeds of this romance? Nowhere!

Mark Kermode, before seeing Man of Steel, said he hoped the makers had the courage to make Superman vulnerable, because a hero who is unable to be hurt isn’t interesting. I agree with this to a point, but I‘ve always considered Superman’s greatest vulnerability to be that he cares for people, his emotional vulnerability has always been more interesting to me. In Donner’s first movie he is only able to be hurt because of Kryptonite, but the real pain comes from not being able to save Lois. In Superman II where he gives up his powers and gets beat up by the truck driver in the diner we see him physically hurt, but even then the emotional choice of choosing between the love of his life and rest of humanity is where we really feel him hurting.

I felt Man of Steel went too far the other way, with Superman getting knocked on his ass by machine gun fire and bombs, stuff that wouldn’t have caused previous incarnations to blink.

Apart from the ending going on too long, the other main failing was that Superman needed help dispatching the baddies. Again, this just made the character look weak. The ‘Let’s give everyone something to do in the finale’ approach reminded me of the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies, but it works in them because they’re supposed to operate as a team. We want to see Superman defeat the baddies, not Amy Adams and some army guys. Otherwise, it kind of defeats the purpose of him being there, doesn’t it?

Henry Cavill is a brilliant Superman, but he deserved a better debut than this. Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner all do fine with the limited lines they have. Fishburne’s Perry White is particularly pointless and underwritten. The scenes with Costner are some of the most interesting, but the flashback nature of the film means you don’t get to spend enough consecutive time with him to care when he dies. Michael Shannon stays on the right side of crazed baddie and is a totally credible General Zod, though I did feel having more lackeys around him does dilute his power rather than increase it.

The incessant drums of Zimmer’s score certainly amp up the adrenaline in the fight scenes, but it’s forgettable. I challenge you to hum the melody to Man of Steel after seeing it. They should have stuck with John Williams’s score, which is now as much a part of Superman mythology as the red cape.

Snyder has tried to put The Dark Knight’s brooding tone on a franchise it doesn’t suit and failed miserably. It’s a film which avoids emotion at all costs and has banished any humour to the phantom zone.

Phil's Rating: 3/10



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