A Mind @ Play

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Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi

I’m clearly getting too old for blockbusters. Seriously, I walk out the cinema wondering what it was the scriptwriters wanted to show me in their cobbled together action flick, and search in vain among the sea of beaming faces for someone who shares my lack of enthusiasm. ‘It was entertaining,’ is what most of them defensively tell me, usually suffixed with ‘but I’m not a Star Wars fan,’ presumably when I don’t respond the same way, as if fearing I’ll proceed to bombard them under a geeky tirade of lore and canon.

Granted, I was a fan of the original trilogy which I devoured in my youth, but I wouldn’t rank myself among the Empire’s legions of loyal nerds. And while some of my annoyance with The Last Jedi certainly based around how it interacted with what we know of the existing universe, mostly I was disappointed with the film in and of itself. Just because you’re not a fan of the series, does that mean you don’t care about watching a flimsy script? Can you enjoy this flick more if you don’t watch any of the previous outings? Or do I just need to learn to disengage my brain before entering the cinema?

Warning: spoilers ahead!

I wasn’t a fan of the previous episode. Far too many parallels with A New Hope, far too many far-fetched plot points and chance encounters, far too many overt crowd-pleasers. In my eyes, The Force Awakens was like the original trilogy on steroids, everything was bigger, better and ultimately faster than everything which went before it, all wrapped up in a storyline that didn’t only seem unnecessary, but entirely inexplicable. Despite the obligatory rolling credit introduction, I was left as clueless after walking out of that film as when I walked in. To all intents and purposes, The Force Awakens was like a series reboot with everything set to hard mode. Aside from the few interesting new characters introduced, the whole the film fell flat with me.

Fast forward a few years and the next episode is out of the stable doors. The overarching story remains as illogical as ever, but the problems with The Last Jedi are even greater in that the film doesn’t seem to have anything to tell us. That’s largely embodied in the opening volley of scenes which sets up the backdrop for the film. The rebels or resistance or whatever it is they’re calling themselves now – I gave up trying to follow any semblance of logical politics in the previous film – escape from yet another base just in the nick of time, with almost certain annihilation waiting in the skies above them. Apparently the ability to bombard the planet falls on a special Dreadnought ship, which is conveniently destroyed in the ensuing conflict (we’ll need this later!). Its destruction comes down to a bit of insubordination from rising star Poe (we’ll need this later!) who orders an attack using, err, bombers.1Seemingly defenceless lumbering hulks which issue explosives from a bombing bay which wouldn’t look all too out of place in a WWII drama and seem to have no problems ‘dropping’ things in space. Fortunately, to keep us on the edge of our seats, the mission almost goes belly up were it not for some last-minute self-sacrificial heroics from the final survivor of the bomber wing (we’ll need this later!).

So much of what follows seems like an exercise in pointlessness except when viewed through the prism of the scriptwriters’ checklist. The rebel fleet is pursued through hyperspace only to find itself running out of fuel and unwilling to jump again (previously on Battlestar Galactica…). Fortunately, Finn bumps into the dead bomber pilot’s sister who works out in a flash what secret technology is in play and how to stop it (deus ex machine room). Meanwhile Vice Admiral Holdo gives Poe good reason to continue his insubordinate streak by deliberately pretending to be doing nothing about the dire situation, allowing him to send the other two off on a wild goose chase. And the destruction of that Dreadnought in the opener forces the First Order to repeat the Hoth landing in the finale, launching a land assault against a knock-off Helm’s Deep in a salt crystal desert. Poe’s earlier insubordination gives him room for some character development when he later calls off the suicidal attack against said landing party.

The scriptwriters have littered enough of Chekov’s pistols throughout this script to fill a small arsenal. Knowledge about technology which shouldn’t exist gives Finn and Rose a random mission to accomplish and occupy a bit of screen time. Their docile mission is only pepped up by them getting a parking ticket, which apparently is sufficient offence to lock them up and bother initiating some hare-brained helicopter chase when they break out of prison. Although it comes to naught, the situation is sufficiently contrived to allow Rose to show her dedication to the cause and give up her medallion, and Finn has an opportunity to take on Captain Phasma for a little grudge match. Those scenes could’ve wound up on the cutting room floor just as easily, and the film wouldn’t have been any the poorer for it.

Unfortunately the absence of meaning to the film leaves the characters treading water for lack of purpose. General Hux is relegated to comic relief as the very angry henchman™, who wouldn’t look out of place in an Austin Powers film. Supreme Leader Snoke fulfils his mission of bringing Rey and emolord Kylo together before snuffing it in a scene which suggests the authors don’t even care about the characters they’re creating. Meanwhile the scriptwriters missed a trick for killing off Princess Leia after jettisoning her into space, only to have her finally use the Force and rescue herself. Presumably she’ll have to succumb to her ordeal before the next episode, unless the CGI lobby is particularly vocal.

Or how about Holdo? What purpose does she serve apart from being a foil for Poe’s character development? Her saying nothing provides the excuse for half of the action in the film. Even her demise is one of the most heavily regurgitated tropes, straight from the recipe book. When all others evacuate the ship, she stays behind on the bridge to ‘pilot’ the cruiser. Which makes bugger all sense, but, you know, drama. Unsurprisingly, when the time comes for her big sacrificial moment, we see her stood on the bridge twiddling her thumbs before she turns the cruiser around and hyperspaces it through the pursuing enemy fleet. How convenient! It’s a dramatic scene, a great idea, but surely if that were possible it would’ve been weaponised decades ago?

Which brings me to a personal peev, but just what’s going on with the physics? Dropping bombs in space? Laser beams which dip like artillery? Massive steel doors protecting a base built into a brittle salt mine? Even the entire fleet chase around which this film is built doesn’t stand up to any kind of logical scrutiny. Why is the fleet running out of fuel when it isn’t doing anything? Why can’t the Imperial First Order’s fleet catch up to inert objects in space? But who needs Newtonian physics when you can have ships dramatically tilt after running out of fuel? And what’s surprising about tracking a ship through hyperspace? Isn’t that what happens in A New Hope? Aren’t they holding a tracking beacon for Rey? That would surely be their first suspicion when followed, rather than assuming some newfangled technology has been developed.

Sure, there’s nostalgia and pink goggles clouding my judgement of the original trilogy. There’s plenty to detract from the fantastic reputation those films earned, including clunky dialogue, nonsense science, cheesy plot devices and Ewoks. But the story Lucas told in those films was tightly constructed and worthy of telling. The latest incarnations don’t seem to know where they’re heading or what to do with the passengers on board. Kill ’em off, send ’em round in circles, does anyone really care? The whole situation portrayed begs far more questions than it can ever answer. By now I’ve given up trying to find any answers. But no doubt I’ll be here again in twelve months complaining about the next encounter, because of the few things we can be certain about, The Last Jedi won’t be The Last Star Wars Film.

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1. Seemingly defenceless lumbering hulks which issue explosives from a bombing bay which wouldn’t look all too out of place in a WWII drama and seem to have no problems ‘dropping’ things in space.

The Repeatables

This isn’t meant to be a list of classic films. In fact, many classics would find it difficult to creep on to this list. These films don’t have to have bemusing screenplays, flawless acting, blood-pumping soundtracks, or brilliant cinematography. But they are all linked by that special je ne sais quoi which makes me able to watch them time and time again. That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of great movies that share this rather dubious accolade. I could and would watch many of them again, but the experience is always be somewhat diminished from that initial viewing.

The films on this list, however, have something special that gives them enduring longevity. It’s not the film itself but the film experience that counts. With the intricacies of the plot laid bare, the twists, turns, shocks and surprises all blunted by experience, what’s left is whatever ethos the film can conjure up. Which is precisely what some cult classics manage so successfully. Umberto Eco once wrote that “Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is “movies”.” 1Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, (London, 1986), p. 208. His point was that the film itself wasn’t any particular gem, but it encapsulated what movie-goers expected to see. The lines were famous before they were spoken, perhaps the most famous line of all being the one that wasn’t even in it (“Play it again, Sam”). But films that are able to do that go on to be remembered long after they’re made, irrespective of their individual merits and the quality of their cinematography, acting or screenplay.

This is simply a list of films that qualify merely on account of springing to mind first when considering what makes a film rewatchable. They’re mostly quite mainstream, with a heavy slant on the action side, no doubt in part because drama is a singularly poor trait for repeat value. But they are foremost a very personal example, and I doubt whether others will share even a portion of their number.

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1. Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, (London, 1986), p. 208.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The Indiana Jones saga was complete. He had trumped the Nazis, saved his father’s life, solved one of the greatest archaeological mysteries, and ridden off into the sunset with his companions. At least, until now. The recent spate of late-coming sequels and series restarts no doubt to a large extent prompted Indy’s return to the silver screen, and whilst this is no bad thing by itself, it does however spoil the rather nice ending to the previous series finale Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. Although Sean Connery declined to come out of retirement for the film, the late Denholm Elliott sadly missed, and there being no part for John Rhys-Davies, the film’s still alluring combination of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, John Williams and Harrison Ford will no doubt kick this film to the top of the box office. The problem is that the potential for disappointment runs almost as high as it did for Lucas’ own Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and one imagines that The Crystal Skull will only suffer as a result.

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Katyń

Caught Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń this week as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and have to say I was fairly impressed. It will probably be the only film I’ll see since the prices go up at this time of year, and indeed I was quite lucky to catch this one since the first showing sold out with over a week to go, no doubt in large part due to the significant number of Polish people living in Dublin. Sadly, being sat right at the front didn’t give a particularly good vantage point for flicking between the pictures and the subtitles, and this is one film I’ll have to watch again on DVD before I can fully make up my mind, but the screenplay was well written and easy to follow despite the amalgam of different plotlines. Unfortunately, some of the character portrayals were rather wooden and to some extent detracted from the film’s message, if there is one beyond the plain Rankean historical analysis.

Nevertheless, Krzysztof Penderecki provides a beautiful score to underline the images, with a smattering of Tchaikovsky and Chopin thrown in during some of the propaganda scenes. As a piece of cinematography the film probably deserves its Oscar nomination, though it is difficult to tell whether it will be remembered more for that or its political implications. That the film does not get caught in a loop of nationalist propagandism is important in light of the tendencies in Moscow and elsewhere. Power is not what comes from the end of a gun but the ability to make people believe ones lies. Certainly disturbing news from Putin’s Russia.

The film’s climax is a rather visceral, and to some extents shocking visual of what the film is after all about. However it does offer an interesting juxtaposition for those taken by the irrationality of mankind—as officer after officer is dispatched in the name of political idealism, these same go to their deaths with a prayer on their lips. Absurd or simply tragic? One thing however is for certain, and that is that my quest for the non-melancholy Polish film continues…

For a brave new future.

Nichts als die Wahrheit

The Boys from Brazil

I recently caught a TV screening of The Boys from Brazil, a film adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel, concerning the nefarious actions of Dr. Josef Mengele in South America, and his pursuit by a Nazi-hunter presumably modelled on Simon Wiesenthal. Certainly a rather motley cast, with Laurence Olivier showing why he is so often cited as amongst the highest echelons of English-speaking acting, whilst James Mason poorly attempts to cover up his stiff accent. Still not entirely sure what to make of Peck’s performance.

Regardless, the film is entertaining, even if you’ve heard the twist previously as I had. Produced slightly before Mengele’s actual death in Brazil in 1979, it reminded me of a German film I’d read about entitled Nichts als die Wahrheit, which portrays the fictitious events of Dr. Mengele’s trial as he returns to German, a sick, old man. Sadly, I was unable to track the film down on the Internet, and at least according to this website the film is currently only available on VHS. Hopefully that situation will be rectified before too long, but if anyone knows where or when it might be published on DVD, please leave a comment.

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