Cinema Movie: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

the-first-movie-posters-for-star-wars-the-force-awakens-might-have-leakedWhy return of Star Wars means US cinema is still in the trailer park

Unless you have been living on a distant planet (presumably one in a galaxy far, far away), you couldn’t have failed to notice that a new addition to the Star Wars franchise will soon be upon us. It’s called Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), and the latest trailer was reportedly viewed online 112 million times in the first 24 hours of its release. Furthermore, despite it having a December release, opening day tickets have already sold out across the globe.

All this should come as no surprise, of course. Since the first movie was released in 1977, the Star Wars franchise has become something of a cultural (read: marketing) phenomenon.

Without delving to deeply into the backstory, known to fanboys the world over, let’s jut say that from relatively small beginnings, the Star Wars franchise has developed into a behemoth of Empire proportions, changing cinema as it went. But not for the good. Star Wars destroyed cinema; a scorched-earth policy that sowed salt into fields of creativity.

It all began in the 1970s, which, as any cineast will no doubt tell you, was cinema’s second golden age. The seventies (more accurately, roughly from 1967-1980) was the period when filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Paul Schrader and others flourished, armed with a education in cinema and a desire to make challenging, adult films, often with personal or political themes, and employing actors that would never have swashbuckled in the 1930s or partnered Doris Day 20 years later. The seventies opened-up many a career.

George Lucas was one such filmmaker of this period, along with his Indiana Jones buddy Steven Spielberg.

For Lucas, ejected form his role on developing Apocalypse Now (1979), Star Wars started off as a personal project. His hero is called Luke, after all, while his mentor Francis Ford Coppola habitually referred to him as “kid”, an epithet Han Solo reserves for Luke in the first movie. But more than that, the original trilogy (actually parts 4-6) has its roots in the counterculture, and the ecologically-minded southern California of the 1960s (witness Princess Leia’s renaissance fair get-up or Yoda’s zen-like musings).

Lucas has said that in his original movies the Emperor was modelled on Richard Nixon. If this is true, then the climax of the Return of the Jedi, which sees the might of the technologically-advanced, defoliating Empire brought down by a guerrilla army of jungle-dwelling Ewoks armed with makeshift weapons, is equated with the American defeat in Vietnam. Or, looking at it another way, according to Dale Pollock in his book Skywalking, the Empire stands in to the studio system that sought to thwart Lucas wherever it could, with the likes of the Emperor and Darth Vader standing-in for impassive studio executives.

It is the personal, then, that forms the germ of Star Wars. But, like the chap in the song that got the foreman’s job at last, George Lucas is calling the Hollywood shots these days. He has become the Emperor. But back when the original movie went into production in 1976, the year America tried to lift itself after the psychological blow of Watergate, Lucas (Luke) was on a different path; to pass on those pre-Vietnam values to audiences and to put the awe back into cinema.

In the first instance, he failed, and the unease with which the original trilogy accommodates both its suspicion and admiration for whizz-bang technology sees it hark back to an older era of the cold war (“Where were you in ’62?” asked the tagline of Lucas’s 1973 breakthrough, American Graffiti), and anticipate the its heating-up in the 1980s (it was no surprise that Ronald Regan’s Strategic Defence Initiative was nicknamed ‘Star Wars’, while his small-guy heart-over-head heroes are nothing if not proto-Reganites).

As for the second ambition, American cinema has never recovered from the initial impact of Lucas’ vision of filmmaking. Lucas, and he had an ally in Steven Spielberg, wanted to put the wonder back into movies, jettison complexity. Films were to be immersive, all about feeling. One thing about US cinema in the 1970s was that it exploded genre. Cowboys, gumshoes and gangsters were all killed-off by deconstruction. None of that for Lucas, who wanted no hint of irony in his work. The child-like wonder envisioned for audiences instead made them infantile. Very soon, Ronald Reagan, a child of the movies, would be in the White House. Complexity wasn’t an issue any more, in films or foreign policy.

Robert Altman, a cinematic maverick whose directorial career stalled in the wake of Star Wars and the era of the event movie, rudely called such films “trailer park cinema”. As stories became simpler, and studios no longer investing in potentially risky talent and projects, franchises and sequels became the norm, with producer Lucas and director Spielberg at the vanguard of big-budget spectacles that asked nothing of the audience except to sit back and enjoy the ride. Likewise, by casting WASP-y actors in key roles, Lucas turned-back to a former era. The matinee idol was back in fashion. All this was writ large in the Lucas-Spielberg Indiana Jones collaborations.

When Lucas returned to directing after a 22-year gap to direct the charmless Phantom Menace (1999), the first of a bloodless trilogy of prequels, his return was compared with those of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, two lauded filmmakers with similar absences from the big screen. But, an awful lot of pixilated water had flown under many a CGI bridge by then, and Lucas was best equipped for the new age. Maybe he prepared the ground too well; the special effects were now in control, with actors, little more than props. At least, with The Force Awakens, director JJ Abrams seems to have taken his actors away from the green screen.

Star Wars looms large over the blockbuster, in every special effect and subordinate leading actor. Every corporate shill who moves form the arthouse to the multiplex still claims they have smuggled a personal vision into the slam-bang action, just as Lucas did.

The original Star Wars trilogy contained enough quality (and merchandising potential) to entice studios to follow their lead. But those qualities died long ago, just as Lucas-the-idealist has been replaced by Lucas-the-mogul. The wheels of marketing tell us that these films are still a big deal (never underestimate the power of marketing to create a kind of collective amnesia – Back to the Future 2 (1989), anyone?), and in the internet age we continue to feel that they are still a vital part of our lives.

When the original Star Wars emerged in 1977, it seemed to come from nowhere, and it touched millions. The latter-day additions to the franchise are just one of the countless millions. Just another action flick. They are their own imitator.

Obituary: Ray Harryhausen

harryhausenMonster maker

Picturenose is delighted to welcome the return of Cillian Donnelly, who takes a look at the life and work of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen, who passed away on 7 May 2013 aged 93.

Everyone has a favourite movie moment; one that, for them, defines all that is magical about the most magical of art forms. If I had to venture forth with my own suggestion it would be the skeletal army climax to Jason and The Argonauts (1963).

Having sprung forth from the teeth of the Hydra, a phalanx of heavily armed warrior skeletons besiege the titular Argonauts, engaging in a life-or-death scrap of – quite literally – monstrous proportions. It’s as thrilling and visceral a scene as you’re likely to encounter in the post-war canon of American action movies.

The sequence was the brainchild of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered extravagant stop-motion fantasias in films such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956) and It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955), and who passed away, aged 93, on 7 May 2013.

Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on 29 June, 1920. After seeing King Kong in 1933, the young Harryhausen was inspired to follow the movie’s effects designer, Willis O’Brien, into the world of stop-motion animation. After watching King Kong again and again, Harryhausen put together some efforts of his own, and eventually secured a job at Paramount.

After the war, he became special effects assistant to his mentor O’Brien on the film Mighty Joe Young (1949), again about a giant ape. The film won an Oscar for its special effects, and the rumour persists to this day that it was actually Harryhausen who did the majority of the work.

Harryhausen’s first solo effort was the classic Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, (very) loosely adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story. The movie featured a rampaging, reanimated dinosaur running amok in modern day San Francisco before being brought down by Lee Van Cleef. It was a major influence on the output of Japanese studio, ToHo.

It Came From Beneath The Sea, starring cult favourite Kenneth Toby (The Thing From Another World (1951)), came next. Like its predecessor, it featured a giant sea creature terrorising the US, this time an overlarge squid. The budget on the film was so tight that the monster could not be completed as planned, and thus has only five tentacles!

More impressive work, such as Earth Vs the Flying Saucers, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958) and Mysterious Island (1961) followed, but it was in 1963 that Harryhausen completed work on what he considered to be his masterpiece: Jason And The Argonauts.

Based on classical Greek mythology, the movie was an infectious mix of knockabout sword and sorcery, nautical adventure and ever-so-slight camp frolicking, all topped off with a rousing musical score by Bernard Hermann. It contains not only Harryhausen’s most celebrated scene – the aforementioned skeletal swordfight – but also a number of other spectacular set pieces, such as the evasion of the giant bronze statue, Talos.

Following Jason…, Harryhausen animated more dinosaurs for One Million Years B.C. (1966), starring a pneumatic Raquel Welch, and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), about a marauding Allosaurus in 1912 Mexico, which features, undoubtedly, the greatest Pterodactyl-lassoing scene in all movie history.

Two more Sinbad films followed in the 1970s and, in 1981, Ray Harryhausen completed his last movie as special effects creator: Clash Of The Titans, another tale culled from Greek mythology (albeit one that features a sea monster cribbed from Norse legend).

These days, stop-motion animation has all but died out. While the art form is still practiced occasionally, such as with Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005), these tend to be fully animated features, rather than live action films that incorporate stop motion for their effects. Before they became heartless exercises in computerised imagery, the Star Wars films made great use of Harryhausen’s techniques, but such outings are, sadly, rare. Harryhausen’s legacy is simply spectacular, and he will be sadly missed.

Ray Harryhausen: 29 June, 1920 – 7 May, 2013

The Hangover Part II (2011)

Time at the bar

It’s hard to review The Hangover Part Two‘ (2011) (and yes, that is a deliberate reference to the second Godfather) without sounding like a joyless curmudgeon. It is, after all, nothing more than a a free-spirited, knockabout comedy, a farcical adventure, a wild ride that asks nothing more than you sit back and go with the flow. Well, that’s the theory.

In practice, however, the film, by Todd Phillips (The Hangover (2009), Starsky & Hutch (2004)) seemingly exists only for the purpose of foisting a series of frenetic, barely coherent set-pieces and tediously unfunny jokes on an unsuspecting public. Actually, that last bit’s not entirely true; as less a sequel than a remake of the first film, the public must have at least a tiny suspicion of what’s in store.

For what it’s worth, the plot finds Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper) and, with reluctance on the part of Stu, Alan (Zack Galifianakis) in Thailand for the wedding of the former. Unfortunately a quick nightcap turns into (naturally) something of a serious, mind bending session, and the boys wake up the next morning in a crumpled heap, with no recollection of the night before, and in various states of disrepair. Worse still, the groom’s would-be brother in law, and family favourite, Teddy, has gone missing, and a severed finger found, which sends the gang into a wild, panicky search across an unfamiliar city. Added to this mission of recovery is a sub plot about international criminals and a smoking monkey, before it all revolves itself around a healthy dose of manly sentimentality.

Essentially, the plot serves as a rather weak platform for noisy, frenetic set pieces and dubious, xenophobic gags (Stu’s encounter with a male prostitute is a particular low point in a movie that rarely lifts itself above sea level). Sadly, there really is nothing good to say about this film. The acting is broad and charmless, the jokes lurch from tedious to offensive, while the frenetic pace serves only to annoy, reducing what could have been a fun, freewheeling farce into a noisy, shambolic mess of shouting and wild gesticulation. Oh, and smoking monkeys are never funny.

Apparently, there may be a Hangover 3 on the way, which, on the evidence displayed here, could put it into an ignominious competition with that other sequel routinely considered to be among the worst films ever made. That is, of course, The Godfather Part III (1990). Let the contest begin…

102 mins.

10 Best Westerns

Once Upon a Time in the Western…

To complete the trilogy begun by James with horror and sci-fi, and ahead of the holiday season, when they will all doubtless be shown *somewhere* on the glass teat, our man Cillian offers his very own rootin’, tootin’ top ten.

The Western is something of a maligned genre these days, figured as a kind of cinematic relic from a bygone era, just Cowboys and Indians malarkey. There is some truth in this, as anyone who has had to sit through one of the endless parade of Red-menace-and-cavalry-charge oaters that Hollywood churned out since the early days of the silents.

But the genre – maybe the one, true, American genre – can be and has been about much more than simple Boys Own adventure yarns providing, through simple, recurring plots, not just shootouts and cattle stampedes, but occasional moralizing and a glimpse into contemporary America through its attitudes to such thing as the Native Americans (or ‘Injuns’, as they were habitually called in John Ford films) because, as with other genres, the western has changed dramatically over the years. From the early ‘Cowboys and Indians’ antics of the 1930s and 40s, to the tougher, more psychological films of the 1950s and early 60s, to the late 60s and into the 70s, where the Europeans added their own spin on the genre, and US directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn took it apart so that it never really recovered, the Western has had a long, evolving role as cinema’s prime storytelling form.

Here, then, is my own top ten, from the traditional to the deconstructionist – in no particular order, apart from chronological.

Stagecoach (1939)
Although Cimarron had won the Best Picture Oscar in 1931, the Western never really gained respectability until John Ford, aided by members of his stock company John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Andy Devine and a little-known B-movie actor called John Wayne. They took on this taught, simple tale of a group of passengers, including a hooker, inebriate doctor and wanted outlaw, taking a trip through inhospitable Monument Valley and facing the ever-present threat of Indian hordes, which is somewhat off-putting for modern sensibilities. The performances, pace and direction make it one of the early standouts of the genre, and it made a star out of Wayne, who is sensationally introduced in one of the Western’s most iconic moments.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
Of all the versions of the famed gunfight at the OK Corral, this is probably the least accurate, but easily the most enjoyable. When the director, John Ford, was working in silents, Wyatt Earp was prone to turning up on movie sets, getting drunk with the extras and spinning a few yarns, all of which were gobbled up by Mr ‘Print The Legend’, who used them as the basis for this classic, which stars Henry Fonda as Earp, the lawman forced out of retirement to rid Tombstone of the grip of the malicious Clanton clan. The acting is superb, from Fonda to Walter Brennan as the Clanton patriarch, a role he would later parody in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), but both have their thunder stolen by Victor Mature, hitherto not known as a great actor, as the consumptive Doc Holliday.

The Gunfighter (1950)
A miscast Gregory Peck stars as Jimmy Ringo, a man famed as the best gunfighter around but who, when he rides into town, just wants to win back the love of his life and settle down. The only problem is, everyone wants to be the one to can lay claim to being the “man who shot Jimmy Ringo”, and the legendary status that comes with it. Simple, yet gripping.

High Noon (1952)
High Noon is really a film about Hollywood or, more specifically, the Blacklist. Gary Cooper stars as newly married Sheriff Will Kane, who decides to stand tall against notorious outlaw Ben Miller, riding into town on the noon train. Abandoned by the townspeople, Kane must face the threat alone. A bitter film, which portrays society as rotten from top to bottom – screenwriter Carl Foreman, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw himself persecuted by the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee soon after. Interestingly, Cooper later attributed his stoic, heroically solid performance to a bout of piles.

Shane (1953)
Like Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter, the eponymous hero just wants to settle down. As retired gunfighter Shane, Alan Ladd gives his most iconic performance, as the man who stirs sexual tension between the couple who charitably take the itinerant stranger into their home. But when trouble breaks out between the settlers (or ‘sodbusters’) and local big cattle ranchers, Shane must pick up the guns once more. The finale, in which Shane rides out of town to the bewilderment of the couple’s young son, is one of the Western’s most heartbreaking moments.

The Searchers (1956)
When Comanches kidnap young Debbie Edwards her uncle Ethan, burdened with a pathological hatred of Indians and his nephew martin, himself part-Indian, spend years scouring the land to find her. But tensions between the two emerge when Ethan’s true motive is revealed; to him, after being deflowered by a Comanche, she is better off dead. If in Stagecoach John Ford gave John Wayne his most iconic entrance, here he gives him his (and the genre’s) most memorable exits – simply one of the greatest shots in all cinema.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Although having a long association with the genre, Henry Fonda played only one Western baddie, in this, Sergio Leone’s epic, operatic masterpiece. As cold, blue-eyed killer Frank, Fonda excels as the rail magnate who comes into conflict with widow Claudia Cardinale, gunfighter Jason Robards and mysterious harmonica-playing Charles Bronson, who go up against the robber-barons in this examination of the capitalistic underbelly of the ‘civilization’ of the American west.

The Wild Bunch (1969)
Set in 1913 and, like the same year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this is all about ‘them days is over’, as William Holden’s gang of outlaws try and stay one ride ahead of the posse, now featuring one of their old crew. Holden is magnificent, playing the archetypal Sam Peckinpah hero, Pike Bishop, the man who slowly comes to realize that his life has been a betrayal of his firmly held principals, and who leads the Bunch to a symbolic death in a hail of Mexican gunfire.

Bad Company (1972)
Screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman followed up Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with the Western curio There Was a Crooked Man (1970), starring Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda, which sought to undermine a few narrative conventions. Perhaps owing to the ham-fisted direction of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Benton himself took the reigns for the pair’s second stab at the Western. Like Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid, made the same year, Bad Company is infused with contemporary attitudes and politics, most notably towards the draft, but can be seen as a riff on Oliver Twist, as innocent Barry Brown falls in with a young gang of thieves and vagabonds led by Jeff Bridges. The standout scene, the shootout in the woods, captures all the fear and confusion of the occasion, and stands as an antidote to all those ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ confrontations that usually occur in the genre.

The Shootist (1976)
John Wayne was dying when he made this film, the tale of a terminally ill, retired gunfighter who, rather than face a drawn-out and painful death, goads an old enemy into a final, fatal shootout. Don Siegel’s film, the credit sequence of which features a montage of old Wayne gunplay, is filled with an overwhelming sense of vanishing time, heightened by the appearances of stars (James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, John Carradine), whose own time seemed to be gone also as Hollywood changed, and the Western with it.