Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Blah! is moving on. Come visit Celluloid Zombie!

There comes a time in every blogger’s life when they decide to make that fateful move from to a self-hosted site of their own. For me, that time has come. I’m packing up my things and moving to a bigger house. Blah! will now be quietly placed in the Elderly Blog Retirement Home, with cookies at tea time and a game of Bingo before bed. Don’t worry, it will get the best care.

My new site is Celluloid Zombie! A continuation, and indeed an expansion, of everything I put into this blog. All the content has been moved there and all further posts will only appear there. If you followed and enjoyed my insane dribbling on Blah!, then please join me on Celluloid Zombie for even more.

Thank you, all, for making this blog the fun it was. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Doctor Who Made Me Cry

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with writer Richard Curtis for many years now. I mean this quite literally, by the way. I either love what he writes or I hate it. I grew up with Blackadder and love the show unconditionally. I am aware, however, that the first series, written by Curtis alone, was nowhere near as good as the subsequent three series, during which he collaborated with Ben Elton. On the other hand, I actively hate Curtis’s movies, with Love Actually representing the epitome of all that irritates me about him; boring, predictable, emotion-by-numbers, with an almost cartoon vision of Britain designed to appeal to American preconceptions. Blah!

So, when I discovered that Curtis had written this week’s episode of Doctor Who, I was eye-rollingly under whelmed. I expected a brief and vexing hiccup in what has been, for me, the best season since the show returned in 2005. After David Tennant and producer Russell T. Davis had exhausted my patience to the point where I had all but given up on a show I’ve been watching since I was born, along came Matt Smith and Steven Moffat to bring me back into the fold. I was sure I could endure a dose of Curtis candy just this once. As it turns out, that candy will come in useful. I can sprinkle it on the humble pie I’m about to eat. Vincent and The Doctor was, if memory serves, the first Doctor Who episode that made me weep like a child.

The Doctor and Amy are visiting the Van Gogh paintings in the Musée d'Orsay, when the Doctor notices a strange face in the window of a church, in a painting Van Gogh did during the last year of his life. They travel back to 1890 Provence to meet him and discover the identity of the strange face. They find Van Gogh an outcast in the town; broke, eccentric, unappreciated, tormented by his depression, and the only person in the town who is able to see the monster which is killing the inhabitants. Tony Curran does a great job of portraying the energy and mood swings of the mentally ill painter, and the episode handles the topic itself with a lot of respect. The monster itself is a bit lame, but it doesn’t matter because, for once, it isn’t about the monster at all, but the man. The monster is defeated, there is a great little scene where we see the night sky as Van Gogh does, but it is the final scene that really did me in. The Doctor takes the artist to the Musée d'Orsay in 2010, to show him what his work will mean for generations to come, and as Van Gogh broke down in tears, I couldn’t help but join in. Beautiful.

Now, I don’t know how much of this was down to the writing of Richard Curtis, the performance of Tony Curran, or simply the themes that resonated in me because I am me. But at least, if I make it and someday meet Richard Curtis, I won’t have to tell him that the last thing he wrote that I loved was screened in 1989.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Generation Me

It’s official, the numbers are in and the conclusions have been verified. People are getting meaner. According to new research in the US, we now know that students today are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts of 20 years ago.

The study, conducted at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, was focused on an accumulation of tests on empathy from almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years. “We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said researcher Sara Konrath, who conducted the study. “Many people see the current group of college students, sometimes called 'Generation Me', as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history.”

Konrath and her colleagues have their own theories as to the cause of this gradual decline in, let’s be blunt, giving a shit about anyone else. “The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

U-M graduate student Edward O'Brien also believes that rise of social networking, and our pervasive celebrity culture could be an influence. “The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems, a behaviour that could carry over offline,” he said. “Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity reality shows, and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy. Students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don't have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited.”

I think it’s both fascinating, and sad, to contemplate that social networking, a system that was surely devised to bring people together, has in fact had the opposite effect. But is it really so surprising? It’s a well established fact that saturation leads to detachment, and to see the minutiae of everyone’s day to day life, in the constant stream that sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace present, must eventually leave one blocked and blinded. Information overload, as they say. I’m not convinced this is a phenomenon restricted purely to students. I mean, have you been on Facebook lately? I’ve seen a variety of people, of all ages, sizes and intellectual capacity, whose sole purpose on Facebook is to scream about themselves as loudly, and as often, as possible.

I’m in the supermarket. Stuck at the station! I hate my job. I’m going to work out now. Down the pub with mates. I’m so lonely. Watching Eastenders. Does anyone know where I can buy cheap DVDs? He let me down again. Driving test today! I can’t sleep. Out with the kids. Thank God it’s Friday. Garden looks lovely! I want chocolate. Voted for John on X-Factor. I can’t take much more. The risotto was a disaster. Last day of school, yay! So much for the sunshine. Is there anybody out there?

Did any of the above cause an emotional response? Do the important messages simply get lost in the noise? Or do we hear it so often, a million voices screaming for attention, that we no longer care?

Does this celebrity culture of ours make us colder somehow? Do reality TV shows bring out the worst in us and reinforce it? The shelves are packed with gossip magazines, few of which seem to celebrate anything other than this week’s fall from grace. There is a disturbing trend toward rejoicing in the misfortunes of others. We create a new star every week and then tear them down at the first opportunity, jeering and then gawping at the wreckage like bystanders at a road accident. And reality TV shows can sometimes seem like the 21st century equivalent of Victorian freak shows, parading an endless line of the deluded, the desperate and the exceptional for our enjoyment; be that laughter, ridicule, horror or joy. Do we revel too much in the failures of others? Is empathy being eroded by entertainment?

Empathy is a wonderful thing, born of the human capacity for imagination. The ability to imagine oneself experiencing the trials and torments of another person is one of the prominent foundations for compassion. And through compassion, one hopes, action. Without compassion, or imagination, what are we but dumb animals?

I’ve always resisted the common urge to decry the times we live in, the oft heard assertion that things are getting worse. That’s not to say that I disagree. I simply wonder if it’s really true, or just an easy perception to fall into. Are people really greedier, more violent, ruder, more selfish, more indulgent or more intolerant than they used to be? Is Britain today really a more unpleasant place than Victorian Britain, with its workhouses, poverty, freak shows and class chasms? Or has an ever more vigilant media state, and 24 hour access to both information and misinformation, made us that much more aware of things that have always been there?

Or is it really the case, as the findings of Sara Konrath suggest, that it is Generation Me, and not Generation Meek, who will, one day soon, inherit the earth?

Thursday, 20 May 2010

A Long Time Ago, In a Cinema Not Too Far Away…

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

And so it began, a generation lost in space. Our eyes were wide in wonder, our mouths were fixed in grins of joy, and our parents’ wallets did open up and spew forth dollars and pounds unto the profit margin of Saint George of Lucas. The age of Star Wars was upon us. Love it or loathe it, in 1977 Star Wars changed cinema forever, heralding the return of wonder and spectacle after a decade of dark, introverted American movies.

Here are some of the things that I love about Star Wars. And one thing that I really don’t.



The weapon of choice for all Jedi knights, and without the doubt the single coolest weapon ever devised. Ever. Forget swords, forget pulse rifles, forget Uzi 9mm’s and forget Adamantium claws. This is cinema’s greatest contribution to iconic arsenal. They’re powerful, graceful, mobile, and they come in a range of colours. Who cares if they’re impossible? Who cares that you’d be more likely to cut your own legs off with it, than uphold galactic justice? They are just so damn cool. Who hasn’t, at one point or another, swung their clasped hands around and made ‘shwum mmmm shwum’ noises? Huh? Come on, admit it. Every little boy from 1977 onwards wanted one (myself included), and most men too (myself included). Christmas ‘77 probably holds the record for the highest number of household breakages, as millions of kids swung their plastic lightsabers around with gleeful abandon.

The lightsaber battles were pretty much the highlight of the three prequels. Having had to settle for the rather clunking battles of the original trilogy, which in contrast sort of resembled the fights you had with your mates when you stumbled upon a couple of long twigs, the prequels offered us fast, frenetic duels which fully utilised the fact that lightsabers were not made of wrought iron and could be swung around quickly. And Darth Maul had a double-ended lightsaber! Double the geekgasm!

Let’s face it, from a Freudian standpoint the lightsaber could be considered the ultimate in phallic symbolism, with the added bonus that this particular throbbing length between your hands lights up, comes in different colours, and makes ‘shwum’ noises. And they’re all the same length, which saves a lot of discomfort. All except Yoda’s, of course, which is smaller. But give the guy a break, he’s three feet tall.

Come on, admit it. They turn you on.


Star Wars Figures

There was movie merchandising before Star Wars came along, but it was this franchise that really turned it into the multi-million dollar industry it has become. George Lucas was canny enough to have the merchandising rights and profits written into his contract for the first movie, thus generating the huge piles of cash that he probably sleeps on every night, smiling the smile of the smug.

Still, in helping Lucas accumulate his bedding, we were able to spend our childhoods recreating all our favourite scenes, with 3” replicas of the characters, major and minor, from the movies. Well, at least some of the scenes. Obviously this excluded scenes that involved sitting down, since they had no knee joints. I mean, they could sit with their legs straight out, lying down wasn’t a problem, and they could goose-step, but it has to be said that the original figures weren’t exactly ‘fully poseable’. But did we care? Nah. I remember how excited I was to get my very first figure, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi. Old Ben came with a lightsaber which slid out of his arm, and a stiff plastic robe which made sitting him down, with legs straight out, even more difficult to accomplish. I spent hours making a cardboard version of the Cantina on Tatooine, only for most of the characters to repeatedly fall off their chairs. Trust me to recreate the one scene in the movie that involved sitting down and little else. Didn’t really think that one through.

Oh, but the thrill of separating that little plastic container from the card backing, and handling the 3” Han Solo (who looked even less like Harrison Ford than I did) for the first time. Oh, but the agony of realising that, a mere week after getting him, you’d already lost his little gun. Oh, but the sniggering amusement of putting Han Solo and Princess Leia into all manner of amorous positions. Damn those unbending knees!

Pure magic!

My legs are killing me.



In Episode IV, having discovered a group of slaughtered Jawas, Ben Kenobi sagely advises Luke that ‘only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise’. Luke then rushes home to find his elderly, adoptive parents have also been slaughtered. Truly, we imagine, these soldiers of the Empire are fearsome warriors. Truly, the universe must tremble before them. Except that, for the next six hours of the saga, they can’t seem to hit a damn thing, including a seven foot wookie standing about 10 yards away. Apparently, Imperial Stormtroopers are great if you want kids in hoods or a couple of geriatrics murdered, but once they have to kill moving targets and major characters, the soldiers of the Empire may as well have their helmets on backwards. Witness an entire platoon of these bozos getting their asses kicked by a bunch of teddy bears with rocks. Fail!

But we love them. We love them because, despite being utterly rubbish, they look so cool. From a design point of view, the Stormtroopers are classic. Like much of the design elements in Star Wars, they’ve endured so well without looking dated. They have kind of angry eyes, with a bit of a frown, and a sad little mouth that makes them look a bit lost. You just want to give them a hug, and tell them that it will all be okay, one day they’ll be able to hit a barn door with their eyes open. And there are variations on the theme, too. You have the black Tie Fighter pilots who can’t hit other ships, or the Biker Scouts who like to crash into trees, or the Snow Troopers who let the good guys get away. Again. Bless.

You lookin' at me? I can't tell.



Somewhere there is a parallel universe where logic prevails, and a three-foot, olive-green, big-eared creature with a speech impediment, and who is older than your Nan, isn’t the coolest character ever. In this universe, however, Yoda is King. Having seen this cool little Muppet for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, fans waited twenty-two years for the chance to actually see Yoda opening a can of whup-ass on someone. When he did, we weren’t sure whether to gasp in awe or laugh, as he leapt around like the Tasmanian Devil on acid. Still, he was the only Jedi who could unclip his lightsaber just by holding his hand out. Awesome!

Simply put, Yoda is the best of both worlds; he’s as wise as the ages and he could kick your ass without breaking a sweat. The interesting thing about him, though, is that, unlike Han Solo or Mace Windu, no-one really wants to be Yoda, they just want to know Yoda. People want Yoda to be there when things go wrong. Bad day at work? Talk to Yoda. He’ll say something extremely wise, backwards, and you’ll feel better. That gang of kids on the block giving you trouble? No problem. Introduce them to Yoda. He’ll say something wise, backwards, and then kick all their asses. Twice. The perfect friend, he is.

Okay, so he failed spectacularly to see the Emperor’s machinations until it was too late, then royally screwed up when charged with kicking the one ass that would have made all the difference, before sodding off to a big swamp and hiding for twenty years. Details, mere details. If that was your Nan, you’d forgive her.

Lookin' at me, are you? The only one here, I am.


Used Future and Design Classics

One thing that stood out about Star Wars was the ‘used future’ aesthetic which Lucas wanted to bring to the movies. Up until then, science fiction movies and visions of the future were pretty shiny and spanking. Spaceships were usually pristine, well kept and whiter than white. People wore clean, pressed jumpsuits or walked around half naked, with clean, pressed bodies. Then Star Wars came along and dragged the future (or technically the past) through the dirt. Hi-tech suddenly looked beat up. Here we had a vision of technologically advanced societies that were ‘lived in’. The clothes were crumpled, the droids were a little rusted, and the Millennium Falcon looked like a flying student’s bed-sit. It suddenly made the far-fetched seem everyday.

There were even little references in the script of Star Wars which hinted at technological advances as matters of everyday conversation. Disappointed at the amount of cash he gets for his Landspeeder, Luke turns to Ben and says, ‘Since the XP-38 came out, they’re just not in demand’. Ben clearly couldn’t care less. Probably still uses Windows ’95. Your powers are weak, old man.

The Star Wars movies, or at least the original three, are littered with enduring, influential designs. The Millennium Falcon was singular in that it was the first spaceship (that I’d ever seen) which was not completely symmetrical. It had its cockpit, not in the centre, but sticking out of one side. Unique! You may not find this particularly interesting, but I have distinct memories of studying the design and being totally blown away by that element alone. Yes, I was a strange child.

The taps leak, the TV doesn't work too well, and there's a bit of damp,

but we're allowed to have parties!


But then there was…

The Star Wars Holiday Special

Oh dear Lord, where to even begin with this one. How about a little background? In 1978, the year following the release of Star Wars, CBS aired the two hour long Star Wars Holiday Special. George Lucas had no involvement in its production, but it did feature all the lead characters from the movie. It revolved around Chewbacca’s attempts to return to his home world, Kashyyyk, to celebrate Life Day with his family. Along the way, various guest stars made appearances, there was an animated adventure, and kids were glued to their TVs. Mostly, as it turned out, in abject horror.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is bad. No, it really is bad. It is not even bad in a way that is enjoyable. It’s the worst kind of bad. It is awful. It has never been aired again, never been officially released, and George Lucas won’t even talk about it. It’s that bad. Not funny bad, not bad in any way that could be considered endearing, just really fucking bad.

We open on a clip, from the original movie, of the Millennium Falcon being pursued by two Imperial Cruisers. Cut inside the Falcon to find Han Solo (Harrison Ford, who spends his time in this looking like he’d rather be anywhere but here) and Chewbacca sitting in the cockpit. Or rather, a rubbish TV studio mock-up of the cockpit. In fact, I think Han Solo is sitting on an office chair!

Then we get to meet Chewbacca’s family. Yep, Chewie likes to work abroad, and within five minutes it’s pretty clear why. There’s his wife Mallatobuck (Malla), happily pottering around in the kitchen, his father Attichitcuk (Itchy), sitting in an armchair grouching, and his son Lumpawarrump (Lumpy), running around annoying everyone. After about 10 minutes of watching these characters grunt and growl at each other, with no subtitles and no clue what they are saying, you start to wonder if there isn’t something better you could be doing with your time. Like, say, picking bits of fluff from the carpet and eating them.

Don't worry, Harrison. There really are better things to come.

And it gets worse. So much worse. Wait until you see the rest of the returning cast. Having just recovered from a car accident, and reconstructive surgery to his face, Mark Hamill was forced to wear extensive make-up, and what looks suspiciously like a wig. So, when the shaggy family contact Luke Skywalker on a screen, they find Hamill doing a passable impersonation of Mia Farrow. It’s shocking, to say the least. And Carrie Fisher’s appearances as Princess Leia are even more jaw dropping. Clearly high as a kite at the time, she can barely walk and wears a fixed, hazy smile that must have frightened most of the viewing kids.

Mark auditions for Rosemary's Baby 2 and Carrie is still singing

five hours after everyone has gone home.

Slotted into all this fun and games are a series of ‘entertaining’ variety acts. We have Art Carney as a trader, helping out the Chewie clan. Bea Arthur sings a shit song in the cantina which seemingly last for hours. Harvey Korman presents a cookery show, in drag. And, in one of the most unintentionally disturbing scenes, Diahann Carroll turns up as some holographic singer, and apparently gets Grandpa Itchy off.

Then, when you think it can’t get any worse, Carrie Fisher, still floating on the ceiling, sings the Star Wars theme. Yep, someone wrote lyrics; terrible, awful lyrics, and Carrie Fisher sings them. It’s at this point that you have to remind yourself that you’re nearly at the end, and there’s no need to open up your veins and end your suffering.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is like nothing else you’ll ever see. And you have to see it to believe it. That the franchise survived this train wreck is surely a testament to its enduring magic.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

That Difficult Second Movie. Or Third. And Fourth.

As a confirmed movie fanatic, I naturally like to keep up with cinema’s upcoming features. Man, there’s nothing like having a movie to look forward to. So, last night, I went to some of my favourite movie sites to see what will be hitting the screens in 2010. A few treasures and a lot of shit, as it happened. Same old, same old, to be sure. But what really struck me was the sheer quantity of movies heading this way with numbers in the title. More specifically, movies with numbers after the title.

Here’s what I found. I’ve included the sequel number in brackets for those films that think they can dupe us by using a subtitle instead. Fools!

Piranha 3D, Hatchet 2, Cabin Fever 2, The Descent Part 2, Rec 2 & 3, Mirrors 2, Puppet Master: Axis Of Evil (10), Zombieland 2, Saw 7, 30 Days Of Night: Dark Days (2), Blair Witch 3, Cloverfield 2, Silent Hill 2, Friday The 13th Part 2 (technically Part 13), Jeepers Creepers 3, The Strangers 2, Hostel 3, Iron Man 2, Toy Story 3, Sex and the City 2, Shrek Forever After (4), Predators (5), Hairspray 2, Step Up 3D, Nanny McPhee 2, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2), The Howling: Reborn (8), Paranormal Activity 2, Tron Legacy (2), Hoodwinked 2, Free Willy: Escape From Pirates Cove (4), Little Fockers (3).

That’s an awful lot of digits, folks. The winning lottery numbers for this week are probably in there somewhere.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and rage about sequels. Not really. Well, maybe a little bit. I have nothing against sequels as a concept, okay? In fact, a few of those sequels are on my list of movies to see. Of course, the rest of them simply pull a weary sigh from me. I mean, do we really need a thirteenth Friday 13th movie, for fuck’s sake? The truth is, I can’t help but feel a pang when I remember that every single one of those movies represents an original idea that didn’t get made. And that’s sad, isn’t it?

The sequel is hardly a new phenomenon. The first movie sequel goes back to 1916 and Fall of a Nation, the film made to cash in on the success of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. And cashing in has usually been the single reason for the existence of the sequel. Although there are those which are presented more as instalments than sequels, such as the James Bond, or Indiana Jones movies, these franchises would never have made it past the first episode if they hadn’t made piles of money.

It’s simple maths for the people holding the purse strings. This made money, so it will make money again, and again, and again. Ba da bing, ba da boom. The problem is that, more often than not, it leads to an increasingly dreadful string of repetitive drivel, which gradually sheds whatever magic made the original such a success in the first place. Steven Spielberg, only too aware how awful the Jaws sequels were, made damn sure that no E.T. sequel was ever, or will ever be made.

There doesn’t even seem to be a time limit on the cash-in philosophy. 46 years elapsed between The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Return to Oz (1985), 25 years between The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986), and 23 years between Psycho and Psycho II. And then there’s the Disney factor. Not content with making sequels to their own ideas, Disney takes it upon itself to create sequels to movies which were based on classic literature; The Jungle Book II, The Little Mermaid II, 101 Dalmatians II, even The Hunchback of Notre Dame II! One can only imagine that Disney would make The Bible II, if they thought it could get away with it. Perhaps it’s no accident that Spielberg’s worst movie was Hook, an attempt to make a sequel to Peter Pan.

Sequels have a place in our viewing pleasure. Some of my favourite movies are sequels. But while you’re enjoying Iron Man 2, or (if you have no discernment at all) Saw VII, spare a thought for what could have been a great, original, movie made in its place, if only some producer out there had decided to take a risk.


Five First Sequels That Worked


Seven years after Ridley Scott’s original Alien, and fresh from the success of The Terminator, James Cameron decided, for the second time in his career, to make a sequel to someone else’s movie. Fortunately, this time he did a far better job than he had done on Piranha 2: Flying Killers. But let’s be honest, he had slightly better material to work with this time around. Fucking flying piranhas, I ask you.

Cameron’s masterstroke was to take the basis of Alien, which was to all intents and purposes a horror movie, and switch genres to an action movie. Rather than retread the monster-stalks-humans set-up that made Alien so scary, Cameron introduced soldiers, multiplied the monsters, and gave us humans-stalk-monsters-stalk-humans instead. In addition, he took the character of Ripley and, with Sigourney Weaver, evolved her into one of cinema’s most iconic female characters. I defy anyone not to hoot with joy when Ripley marches up to the alien queen in the power loader and barks, ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’ Yay Ripley!

Debate rages over which movie is the better, Alien or Aliens, but since they are such different movies it’s really a moot point. But Aliens is that rare beast, a sequel that can stand on its own as a great movie in its own right.


The Bourne Supremacy

In 2002, Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity came out of nowhere and single-handedly managed to revolutionise the espionage movie, leaving the James Bond franchise to play catch-up. Taking the title of Robert Ludlum’s book, a few characters, but little else, The Bourne Identity introduced an amnesiac government agent as far removed from 007 as possible. Where Bond was all swagger, playboy looks and total lack of remorse, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne (same initials) was a dressed down blank page who could blend into a crowd, and felt shame and guilt as he came to realise who he was. The movie was a hit and we wanted more.

Liman, disinterested in making a sequel, stayed on as producer and handed the reins to British director, and one-time documentary maker, Paul Greengrass. The Bourne Supremacy surpassed its progenitor in every way, emerging as far more than simply a rerun of the same story. Ruthlessly killing off a major character in the first 10 minutes, introducing the excellent Joan Allen as CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy into the mix, and culminating in one of the best car chase sequences put on film, The Bourne Supremacy is a thrilling piece of cinema which never forgets it has a heart. Greengrass uses handheld cinematography expertly, putting us right in the middle of events, and Matt Damon anchors the movie with very human hero. It’s a credit to all concerned that the franchise ended on such a high note, with the equally accomplished The Bourne Ultimatum. Talk of a fourth instalment persists but it’s hard to see where it could go, The Bourne Ultimatum ending as perfectly as it did.


The Empire Strikes Back

1980, and Star Wars 2 (or 5, whatever) is due for release. We were excited, but apprehensive. There was no way Star Wars could be bettered, right? The movie had been a phenomenon, had launched a thousand space ships. How could you top that?

Well, if you’re George Lucas, you simply step back and let someone else do the hard work. Having written and directed Star Wars, Lucas came up with the story, handed over scriptwriting duties to Leigh Brackett and (in the wake of Brackett’s death) Lawrence Kasdan, and gave the helm to veteran Director Irvin Kershner. As a result, The Empire Strikes Back is the most mature and accomplished movie of the series. For all his ideas and creativity, George Lucas simply cannot write dialogue. So why he didn’t repeat this method for his recent prequels is a mystery, especially since the dialogue is one of the latter trilogy’s greatest weaknesses. In the words of Harrison Ford, ‘You can write this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it’.

However, there is no such weakness in The Empire Strikes Back. And this is the film that gave us Yoda, Boba Fett, our first glance of the Emperor, and the immortal line, ‘I am your father’. And the AT-AT walkers are super cool.


The Godfather Part II

The success of The Godfather in 1972 practically guaranteed a sequel. Ka-ching! However, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo clearly took the task seriously, and rather than churn out a rerun of the original, they built upon it. What they delivered was a rich, layered epic, which contrasted Michael Corleone’s rise as Don of the family with his father’s rise, a generation earlier. Taking unused parts of the original novel, together with new material weaved around historical events in Cuba, The Godfather Part II is a masterpiece. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are mesmerising, and carry their respective stories completely. Every bit the celebration of the Italian American family, and ruthless deconstruction of the American dream, as the original, The Godfather Part II is required viewing for any student of the cinematic arts.

The much maligned Godfather Part III followed 16 years later and, while not as good as the previous two films, is certainly a lot better than its reputation suggests.


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

In the wake of the success of Star Wars, and with a huge following built up from re-runs of the TV show, Star Trek finally returned in 1979 with The Motion Picture. It received a critically lukewarm response because, while it carried the series’ themes of exploration and discovery, it had none of the humour and fun of the original show. As a result, series creator Gene Roddenberry was ousted from production of the follow-up, and Nicholas Meyer was brought on board to finish the script and direct.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was not only a sequel to the first movie, but a sequel to one of the original episodes, Space Seed. Ricardo Montalban returned as the deliciously hammy superhuman, Khan, seeking revenge on Admiral Kirk. Exploration was abandoned in preference to military engagement, which made for a far more exciting picture, and the chemistry between the lead characters was restored. To top it all off, a major character death at the end, although he was revived in the subsequent sequel, still stands as one of the most moving scenes in any of the Trek movies to date. With J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek movie counting as number 11 in the series, it still never got better than this.


And Five That Really Didn’t

Blues Brothers 2000

Why, oh why, oh why? The Blues Brothers was one of the greatest comedies of all time, successfully mixing music, action and laughs in a way that few others have ever managed. Its success hinged on many things, but one of the most important aspects was the presence of John Belushi. His death in 1982, two years after the release of The Blues Brothers, should have ruled out any thoughts of a sequel. It would be like making a sequel to Lethal Weapon without Mel Gibson. Worse, in fact. It just couldn’t work, right?

Right. It couldn’t and it didn’t. Writer Dan Aykroyd and director John Landis, unable to replace John Belushi with his brother, James, due to scheduling conflicts, decided to introduce a new character, played by John Goodman. It doesn’t work. There’s a convoluted plot involving a third ‘brother’, the Russian mafia and a new ‘mission from God’. Which doesn’t work. Most of the actors from the first film return. But it is all very desperate stuff, with none of the charm, wit, pace or fun of the original. Simply put, it doesn’t work. And the introduction of a precocious child into the mix doesn’t do it any favours either. Get him out of here! He’s annoying me!


Jaws 2

According to Richard Dreyfuss in the untouchable Jaws, the great white shark ‘swims and eats and makes little sharks, and that’s all it does’. Well, according to Jaws 2, and the increasingly ludicrous series of sequels that followed, they also come looking for their mates, they hold grudges, and they manage to identify and hunt down family and friends of the people who kill their kids. Rubbish! Boo! Director Jeannot Szwarc, who is no Spielberg, does the best he can with a lame script, which includes a laughable scene where the shark manages to drag a helicopter under the water, but Jaws 2 is severely lacking the chemistry between characters that so drove the original.

With a very similar storyline, only with added annoying teenagers and no Dreyfuss or Robert Shaw, Jaws 2 is basically Jaws without any of the magic of Jaws. It leaves you with a montage of fat people in 70s bathing costumes and a crap looking shark. Funny how you can forgive those things when you watch the original.


The Matrix Reloaded

When The Matrix arrived, in 1999, it was one of the most fresh and original science fiction movies for years. Like all good sci-fi it had brilliant ideas, which were well executed, and it stirred the brain cells as well as the adrenaline. Then The Matrix Reloaded arrived and the franchise promptly disappeared up its own asshole. And then some. If there was one thing the original suffered from, and apart from Keanu Reeves this was the only complaint, it was an overblown pomposity and a complete lack of humour. Reloaded took that malaise to the nth degree and crafted a triumph of plodding self-importance.

For all its grandeur, The Matrix Reloaded is ultimately a tedious exercise in style over content. Show without the tell. Everyone looks very swish in their long coats and cool sunglasses, but someone forgot to include a coherent plot. By the time the old guy in the white hat turns up to ‘explain’ what’s going on, you just want to put Star Wars on. Matrix Revolutions followed, and was a better stab at continuation, but when you look back at the ending of the original, what else was really needed?


Ocean’s Twelve

Ocean’s Eleven, a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack movie of the same name, was a star-studded piece of entertaining fluff. It didn’t take itself too seriously, had a great chemistry between the big names onscreen, and remembered to allow the audience to have as much fun watching it as the cast clearly had making it. It was better than the Frank Sinatra original because it avoided the smug, self-indulgence which made that movie simply an exercise in Ol’ Blue Eyes and his mates having a lark.

However, the follow-up, Ocean’s Twelve, somehow manages to repeat the mistake of Sinatra’s movie, leaving us feeling as if we’ve been invited to someone else’s party, and no-one wants to talk to us. It’s like watching Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Roberts and their pals go to Europe for a holiday and send us their snaps. They all have as much fun working together as they did in the first film, but somehow they forget to include us. The story ambles, pretty much going nowhere, with none of the tension that the heist scenes of the original delivered, and the movie ends coming across as cynical, self-satisfied and inaccessible. Ocean’s Thirteen was an improvement, but the spark from the first outing never really returned.


Speed 2: Cruise Control

Who would have thought that the absence of Keanu Reeves from a movie would be a bad thing? That’s how dreadful Speed 2: Cruise Control is.

There have been some sequels that were never intended as sequels at all, they were merely original scripts reworked as sequels. The ultimate cash-in. Speed 2 comes across as one of those movies. Without the lead character from the excellent Speed, played with wooden abandon by Keanu Reeves, Speed 2 simply has Sandra Bullock’s returning character Annie hitched up with someone else, Jason Patric’s cop. She looks hot, he looks hot, they go on holiday together on a big ship which is taken over by Willem Dafoe (who may or may not look hot) and the big ship goes really fast. That’s about it.

Bullock runs around doing very little, but makes a few referential jokes, to remind you this is a sequel. Poor Jason Patric, who is better than this tripe, is saddled with a dullard of an action role, which could have been filled by just about anyone, even Keanu Reeves. And everyone gets wet in thin clothes, making them all look a bit hotter. Speed 3 never arrived. Can’t imagine why.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Prime Minister Unelect

As the UK stands weeks away from a general election, there is something interesting happening in British politics. It is something that I don’t remember seeing in all the years I’ve followed politics (in the, admittedly, half-assed way I do follow it).

As you may or may not know, there have been exciting developments to the tired old two-party dynamic we’ve endured in this country for decades, as the Liberal Democrats (that ever lagging third option) enjoy a surge in the polls unlike any they have seen in a generation. And it is as a result of this that the really interesting developments have come about. You see, Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful unelected force in British politics, is facing the prospect of losing his stranglehold for the first time. Apparently, News Corp didn’t see this one coming.

Ever since the days of Margaret Thatcher, Murdoch has managed to snake his oily tendrils around the seats of power in this country, affecting policy to his own ends with the promise of using his media empire to facilitate the continuation, or installation, of whichever party seemed the safest bet. Aligning himself with the Conservatives in the 1980s, Murdoch saluted and cheered the Thatcherite model of privatisation, free-market deregulation, and union crippling, and saw his empire expand accordingly. As this empire expanded, so too did his malign influence, to the point where he believed (justifiably) that he could make or break a political candidate by utilising the full force of his newspaper, television and publishing armies. Indeed, Murdoch claimed that he was responsible for the Conservatives surprise win under John Major in 1992, simply by virtue of his media support. The view is backed up by Major’s defeated opponent at the time, Neil Kinnock.

In the lead up to the 1997 election, seeing how the tide was turning, Murdoch shifted his support to Tony Blair, allegedly greasing the wheels for Blair to both use his influence with Italian Prime Minister Romani Prodi over a Murdoch backed television acquisition in Italy, and offer some small support for Murdoch’s constant attacks on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Murdoch’s hatred for the BBC is well documented, seeing its licence-fee funded network of television stations and websites as a direct threat to his insatiable profit margin. Among other things, the BBC’s free-to-view news websites would severely hamper Murdoch’s intention to usher in a new era of pay-to-view web news. This, of course, is packaged rather differently, and the BBC is denounced by the Murdoch machine as a threat to ‘independent journalism’.

Skip forward to the years leading up to this general election. Blair is gone, New Labour is in trouble, and until recently, a Conservative win seems the surest bet. News Corp announces it will be backing Conservative leader, David Cameron, despite Murdoch’s lukewarm comments on the man. Conservative policy becomes suspiciously Murdoch friendly; as evidenced by Cameron’s recent assertions that it will seek to curb the powers of Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries. It is, perhaps, a startling irony that Ofcom recently made a ruling against Murdoch’s Sky television network, forcing it to lower the prices it charges for its sports channels when selling them on to rival networks. Also, Cameron’s Conservative party have since taken a very aggressive stance toward the BBC. What are the odds?

So it would seem that the pendulum is simply swinging back again, the outcome assured, and once again, a man who holds no office and was elected by no-one has a tight and self-serving grip on the government of the day. Except this time something has changed. This time, the third party, never credited with a chance of winning and therefore never schmoozed by the wealthy and powerful, suddenly seems a likely candidate. The hurried and desperate smear campaigns by Murdoch’s media, intended to discredit Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg appear to have had little effect, and the possibility that Murdoch will finally be shut out of 10 Downing Street seems a real, if remote, possibility.

It’s probably too much to hope for. A hung parliament, in which the Lib Dems have some degree of power, rather than total power, is far more likely an outcome, but even that is a step in a most welcome direction. Polls are notoriously unreliable, and old voter habits die very hard. However, in light of the Murdoch owned FOX News’ inability to stifle the rise of President Obama, the slight hope that this unctuous, amoral man’s grip on British politics could also be loosened is a bright hope indeed.

Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits

It’s done. Somehow, I expected the aftermath to consist of more than just an inability to sit comfortably for a few days. Perhaps the sound of a heavy door slamming closed, or a howl as the wind gathered up around me, wrathful nature venting its rage toward me for cheating it. Instead, I just feel a little contemplative. A sense that, whatever the register on my emotional and intellectual gauges, the moment is a profound one. That, and my balls hurt.

I’d been considering this for a long time, and having put my sperm on death row about three months ago, the long awaited appointment finally rolled around. In all that time there were no second thoughts, just the curious feeling that there should be second thoughts. As if second thoughts were the done thing in this situation. A very English response, I shouldn’t wonder. And, up until the night before, I wasn’t even anxious about it. Then it hit me in one go, must have been saving it up. I wouldn’t call it panic, but the realisation that I was less than a day from having my scrotum sliced open certainly rang an alarm bell in my head. A very human response, I shouldn’t wonder.

However, my resolve was as steel, and I made my way to the clinic with a sense that mine was a righteous path. And If not a righteous path, then certainly a pragmatic one. I have a son; a wonderful, bright, shining star of a son. This is all I will ever need. I have played my part in the lineage of my insane family. I have given of my bountiful seed for the posterity of all mankind. Time to turn the faucet off, I think.

The doctor was an amiable, chatty, and welcoming sort of lunatic. After fulfilling his obligation to make it absolutely clear to me that the procedure was permanent, as if reading me my Miranda rights, he went on to explain that his method involved no scalpel. I felt a nanosecond of relief, shattered abruptly when he added that he would, instead, be using scissors. I couldn’t quite tell if he was joking or not. And since, during the procedure itself, I did not look down once, I still don’t know. I guess some things are best left in ignorance.

What followed was an exercise in the systematic dismantling of all male dignity. This was not a premeditated effort to that end, by any means. In fact, the doctor, nurse, and attending student (yes, an audience for the performance) were faultless, and went out of their way to make me feel as comfortable as possible. However, when you are laying on an operating table, bare from the waist down, a strange man tugging on parts of you that weren’t designed for tugging, while two strange women look on, I’m afraid dignity slinks quietly from the room and tells you it’ll meet you at home.

We made idle conversation during the procedure. I swapped dreadful puns with the doctor, commented on the ceiling tiles, refused the offer to look down, and did my best to ignore the pain as the anaesthetic needles went in, or the detached tugging sensations that followed, or the smell of my own burning flesh when the cauterising tool was used. Half way through I told him I’d changed my mind, and asked him to put things back. He took it in good humour. Not that I would have complained if he hadn’t. I was absolutely at this man’s mercy, after all.

And then it was over. I returned home to find my dignity waiting for me, as promised. The last few days have been uncomfortable, sometimes painful, but not unbearable. I am now a broken link in the chain of mankind’s continuation. If apocalypse strikes and I become the last man left alive, we’re basically fucked. However, I don’t feel the burden. One door closes and another one opens. At one point during the surgery, the doctor waved his cauterising tool at me and grinned like a mad scientist. ‘No point in having toys if you can’t play with them,’ he cackled. I smiled through the discomfort. ‘That’s why I’m having this operation.’

I thought it was witty at the time, considering the circumstances.