Thursday, 21 January 2016

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

MAJOR SPOILERS THERE ARE

So it's here. Finally. After all the hype and hyperbole, after all the leaks and rumours, teasers, trailers, tweets, Facebook statuses, fan hysteria, clickbait, listicles, online outrage (over everything from the 12A certificates to the race and gender of the main characters) and general senseless bellowing on a daily, even hourly, basis, at long last the seventh film in arguably the most culturally significant and influential movie franchise in history rolls into what looks like every single cinema on the planet. It's equally a film we prayed would be as good as the original trilogy as one we prayed would be better than the sequels.

Well, phew. Certainly Star Wars: The Force Awakens is several parsecs better than the prequels, but then eighty per cent of the entire universe is better than the prequels, including unexplained skin rashes and finding your mum going through your internet history, though admittedly most of us would be hard pressed to decide whether Jar Jar Binks or, say, Richard Littlejohn was more deserving of a massive smack in the mouth. Whether Episode 7 is better than the Luke/Vader trilogy is a much trickier question, if only because we watch those older films through such a haze of nostalgia. I'm no longer the young teenager thrilling to A New Hope (as it wasn't called) in the 1970s; I'm now a grumpy 50+ git who turns into Victor Meldrew every time the printer toner runs out.

In the event, it's a testament to how good the new film is that you don't mind the numerous callbacks to the first three films: at the centre of everyone's quest is a bleeping droid carrying secret Rebel information. There's a cantina full of strange alien lifeforms and a house band. There's a Death Star - except it's now called Starkiller Base, is an actual planet and can zap five worlds out of the sky with a single solar-powered blast. There are space dogfights and Jedi mind tricks, Tie fighters and a spectral uber-supervillain from the Dark Side, masked supervillains and incompetent stormtroopers, "surprise" parent-child relationships and someone who's much more familiar with The Force than they should be.

It's also testament to how good the two leads are that it really doesn't bother you that the characters from Star Wars 4-6 take a while to appear (and one of them doesn't show up until the movie's nearly done). Most of the Old Cast heavy lifting is done by Han Solo and Chewbacca this time out, but you actually forget that Leia, Luke and C-3PO are even in it until they arrive, because disenchanted stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and deserted desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) are compelling enough company and they make the film their own. She's salvaging the wrecks of AT-AT walkers and Star Destroyers on sand planet Jakku in exchange for survival rations, he's on the run from the First Order after freeing top Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) from the fiendish clutches of masked Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)...

Which is all fine. And it's immeasurably better written than the Anakin Trilogy, basically because they've given George Lucas a large bag of banknotes and hired JJ Abrams, the rejuvenator of Star Trek, to make more Star Wars movies, only good. The end result is no Jar Jar and no midichlorians, better dialogue and a well-handled shock twist that actually works dramatically (no mean feat: I managed to stay spoiler-free for the five weeks until I was able to see it.) Against that, of course, is the fact that modern franchise movies have to set up and tease future instalments and The Force Awakens is no exception. Character traits of Rey in particular are clearly being manoeuvred into position for Episodes 8, 9 and 10 through 38, so this one isn't a standalone film (like the original Star Wars was) and so it doesn't have an entirely satisfying ending. And yes, you could say that about The Empire Strikes Back as well, and we all know how great that movie is.

A repeat viewing is almost certainly in order, partly to enjoy the John Williams score in context, partly to savour the nods to the earlier chapters, but mostly because it's thunderously good fun, and far better than we ever had any right to expect. They've got so much right that the occasional slip - you don't hire an actor of the calibre of Max Von Sydow and then give him nothing to do - really doesn't matter. It's probably going to be The Biggest Film Of All Time, and justifiably so (and not just because it's knocking Avatar off the perch). Great stuff.

****

Sunday, 17 January 2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

<< - - - ----- CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS ----- - - - >>

There are a number of lessons to be learned from Quentin Tarantino's new film, for audiences, for filmmakers in general and for Mr Q specifically. The first film to be shot in the Ultra Panavision 70 format since Khartoum, a film which is only slightly younger than I am, and released with an overture and an intermission as an exclusive Roadshow Presentation complete with a souvenir brochure, it's as much an attempt to revive a style of movie exhibition as The Grindhouse Project was to bring a nostalgic flush to those of us who at least like the idea of grubby fleapits running triple bills of trash and sleaze. And probably equally doomed, sadly. Still, we can all learn from the experience....

For us audiences, the main lesson to take home is that cinema rules, and the bigger the better. If you're watching The Hateful Eight on your tablet or your phone, then you're really not watching it: a home viewing is as pitiful a substitute for the Full Quentin as a battered VHS pan-and-scan tape of Suspiria is of the Full Dario. (That's even if you've paid for it, which at this point you haven't - so if you're watching a pirated stream, then you should gouge your eyes out in shame, you pathetic scum, because you don't deserve them.) In the full, insanely wide 2.76 aspect ratio that only a proper cinema can offer, even a substantial TV system isn't going to match up. You're cheating yourself, so get your backside to the biggest screen you can find. It's worth it. Secondly, we should accept the value of films aimed at adults: The Hateful Eight is a mainstream film going out to national cinemas with an 18 certificate and there's no question that the film thoroughly deserves it for gore, violence, swearing and racial slurs. Films for grownups, rather than dim teenagers, should be encouraged and the red 18 should be a badge of pride.

As for filmmakers: film trumps digital, both for shooting and for projection. I watched The Hateful Eight on 70mm on the massive screen at the Odeon Leicester Square (even if I was nine rows back in the balcony) and it looked fantastic, partly because it's shot on proper film rather than digital. Digital can look great, and sometimes it's so good you can't tell it's not celluloid, but there's something real about film that just doesn't translate into pixels and strings of binary code on a hard drive. I know digital is cheaper, and admittedly most films don't need it, but it just looks and feels so damn good on screen. Hire a good DP who knows what he's doing with lenses and filters and lights because he (or she) will turn even a sequence of half a dozen people arguing in a shack into something visually rich and exciting. While you're at it, hire a composer (such as Ennio Morricone, making a long-overdue return to American movies) who knows how to write for an orchestra rather than a bank of drones and drum machines, and who can convey moods with melodies and harmonies rather than ambient hums and thuds. These people might cost, but they're worth their corn because they will elevate your film.

The other thing I took away from The Hateful Eight is the sense that Quentin Tarantino really needs to learn the value of brevity. The Hateful Eight runs 167 or 187 minutes, allowing for the intermission and overture, and some slight editing between release versions, and certainly in the first chunk there's anything up to half an hour that could be lopped out to no ill effect. Tarantino is one of those directors who doesn't have the guiding hand of a producer or a test audience to suggest he trim it down a bit, and perhaps he should because the good stuff tends to get a bit diluted by the verbiage (see also Death Proof's action-to-prattle ratio). It may be good verbiage, but it gets in the way and there were stretches in Act One when I was actually getting a little bit bored and that's something I never thought I'd say about a Tarantino film. I'd also like to suggest he cut back on the N-word which is tossed liberally back and forth throughout by pretty much everyone, which I found wearing and tiresome, regardless of whether it's historically accurate for the post-Civil War setting.

As for the movie itself.... the first half, in which Storming Sam Jackson and Storming Kurt Russell arrive at a rest stop on the way to Red Rock (there to deliver prisoner Jennifer Jason Leigh to the new sheriff, who may or may not be Walton Goggins, and the hangman who may or may not be Tim Roth) and find themselves trapped for a couple of days by a blizzard with a handful of strangers who may or may not be who they say they are, gets a touch repetitive; a situation which isn't helped by everyone living up to their billing as thoroughly Hateful. However, post-intermission, events pick up dramatically as the film turns into a whodunnit (with Jackson solving the murder of someone we haven't seen and we weren't even sure was killed) and most of the cast getting messily and bloodily dead. There are obvious comparisons to Q's own Reservoir Dogs (Michael Madsen and others shout and kill one another in a confined space) and John Carpenter's The Thing (Kurt Russell and others argue in a snowbound shack as to who isn't who they say they are, and three tracks of Morricone's score to that film are dropped, surprisingly appropriately, into proceedings), but the film is its own beast, with everyone giving it some serious thespian welly and projecting to the rear stalls like the live theatre production it could so easily be.

Taken as a whole, The Hateful Eight is pretty damn good: I think I liked it more than Django Unchained but still probably prefer Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill Vol 1. Quibbles about the overlength and racist abuse aside, and ignoring the fact that everyone's pretty much a scumbag (I'm not convinced that the mistreatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh's character is misogynist given that she's more thunderingly hateful than at least two of the others), it's a mesmerising watch, particularly in the second half when everything starts to come together. It's a pity it takes so long to get there, but when it does it's absolutely worth it. Particularly when projected on a massive screen from a 70mm print in Ultra Paravision.

****

Thursday, 7 January 2016

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE

WOOF!

Every so often you decide to revisit something you never particularly liked, to see if your tastes have changed, to see if this time it just clicks or to see if he/she/it has improved. The example I usually go back to is something like the Paranormal Activity films, which I got steadily more fed up with as the series went on, to the extent that I passed on a couple of them and then poked my head round the door a few years later to see if they'd developed in any meaningful way. (They hadn't.) Every so often I have another stab at the Thunderball soundtrack, because I can't believe how much I hate it given how much I love John Barry's other Bond scores - but I can't ever play the CD to the end.

Or Jean-Luc Godard. Maybe I've just chosen the duffers in the JLG filmography, but after the triple whammy of Alphaville (took me three goes), A Bout De Souffle (probably loses something when not viewed in an early sixties Paris cinema surrounded by riots and Communists and a fug of Gauloises) and Weekend (tedious political hectoring-a-gogo) I was really minded to give up. But hey, it's only 68 minutes long, and some of the reviews seem positive, so what can possibly go wrong?

Watching Goodbye To Language is basically like watching an old man mumbling to himself (in French) while flipping randomly between the three lowest-rent channels on his Skybox: the Dog Walking Channel, the Show Us Your Bum Channel and the What's On These Old VHS Cassettes We Found In A Skip? Channel. It's a non-narrative random assemblage of assorted bits and pieces which could be threaded together in any order to precisely the same lack of effect. Detailing the plot is no more revealing than reading one of JL's old shopping lists, but amongst the highlights there's a dog, wandering about in the woods, or swimming in the river. Sometimes it's snowing, sometimes it's raining. There's a couple who stand around naked from time to time, occasionally they argue some abstruse philosophical point while he takes a dump and she stands in front of him. (Who the hell are these people?) For some reason her armchair is facing away from their widescreen TV. Are animals naked? Someone talks about Solzhenitsyn and Hitler, and Mary Shelley shows up towards the end. The screen goes blank occasionally but the waffle continues, occasionally overlaid with the same four sombre bars of Tchaikovsky's Fifth.

All of which I could more or less understand, if not enjoy, were it not slung together with the technical skill of a first-year Media student well on his way to scraping a D minus for his coursework and not the co-winner of the 2014 Cannes Jury Prize by the much-acclaimed homme vieux terrible of the Nouvelle Vague. Half of it looks to have been shot with Fisher-Price's My First Camcorder, with the background ambient sound cutting in and out and the music dropped in so cack-handedly you half expect that vinyl scratch sound effect every time it stops. Apparently bits of it are in brain-scrambling 3D in which your eyes will each be looking at different things. (I saw it flat.) It would be tempting (and very easy) to just back away slowly and inform the nursing staff that he's out of bed again, but surely, surely there has to be something more to it? What am I missing? I'm not the world's biggest dunce (shut up) but I simply don't get the joke - or does that make ME the joke?

Not that it makes a scrap of difference: Godard's experiment, if it is an experiment rather than an elaborate long-form prank in which he's been punking the highbrows for more than half a century with deliberately incomprehensible hogwash to see how long before they stop taking any notice of him, is an unwatchable bore, in however many dimensions it's viewed, and it's easily the least enjoyable or interesting film I've seen in a long time. My experiment, however, was a complete success as I can now safely write JLG off for at least another three years. I really have better things to do. And if I don't, I'll find some.

*