My Favourite Films #49: The Running Man

It’s always interesting watching old sci-fi movies and seeing how quickly they imagined we’d balls everything up. George Orwell thought that by 1984 we’d be living under a totalitarian regime, constantly observed. John Carpenter went for 1997 as the year by which New York had become a prison colony. Of course, some of the joy watching them now is knowing they got it wrong.

And unless Donald Trump really cocks things up, The Running Man will join that list of films set in a future time we’ve now lived through. In 1987 they thought we’d really make a hash of things and live in a dystopian hell where the vicious government keeps the populace brainwashed with violence and glamour on telly.

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I know the poster says 2019, but the opening text says 2017

The film is based on a book by Stephen King (writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) and with all due respect to King, is far more entertaining, mainly because it was adapted to be a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger who was at the height of his powers. This takes the bleak and grim novel and revamps it as an ’80s action movie.

Arnie plays, Ben Richards, a police pilot framed for the killing of unarmed civilians, despite the fact he was the one who objected and refused to follow his orders. Locked up on a working prison where they convicts are forced to wear exploding collars that stop them from leaving boundaries. I saw this movie as a kid, and the exploding collars are the thing that stuck with me the most.

 

He engineers an escape with rebellion members Laughlin and Weiss (Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre, respectively). They want to bring down the government and expose the brainwashing, while Richards wants to get the hell out of town and go into hiding. He plans to get his brother to help him but when he gets to his apartment finds that he has been taken for “reeducation” and that a new tenant is living there, musician Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso). Richards uses her to attempt to flee the country, but she blows his cover and he is arrested.

As a result he meets Richard Dawson’s Killian, the smarmy game show host who runs The Running Man, the world’s most popular TV show. Dawson is a fantastic villain, arrogant, scheming and utterly without compassion, all hidden behind a friendly, polished public image. A game show host himself, he captures the faux sincerity and interest, before revealing a stone cold side away from the cameras.

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Also, in a brilliant moment he responds to Arnie’s trademark “I’ll be back” line with a simple “Only in a rerun”.

Killian wants Richards for the show in order to boost stagnant ratings. The show involves criminals having to run through a series of challenges, with the promise of a blissful tropical paradise should they succeed. Stopping them are the colourful, flamboyant and vicious Stalkers, who are a combination of ITV’s Gladiators and the OTT wrestling heels of the ’80s.

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The Stalkers are good value, each with their own gimmick. There’s Jim Brown wielding a flamethrower as Fireball, an electric shooting opera singer named Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth De Jeude), Sub Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka) who wields an ice hockey stick fitted with blades and chainsaw wielding Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch).

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Each operates in a different section and attack Richards, Weiss and Laughlin. Amber is also thrown in with them as she starts to realize that the government has lied about things and is busted snooping.

Of course, every Stalker fails and Arnie dispatches them in short order. Each time with a quip ready to go- “Here’s your Sub Zero, now plain zero” and, having cut Buzzsaw in half, “he had to split”.

Killian becomes increasingly frustrated, and the crowd after initial horror begin rooting for Richards. Killian wants to send in Captain Freedom, the retired all time champ played by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, but he refuses.

The action is fast and well orchestrated, with a simple, ’80s bloodiness reliant on practical effects which sees Arnie hack, smash and incinerate his pursuers. Arnie can do this in his sleep, but his odd, unique charisma carries him through and it’s an interesting look at how audiences can be bloodthirsty and fickle.

Arnie’s physical appearance is necessary here, his strength is why he’s chosen as a contender and against better armed enemies it’s ingenuity and brute force that hand him the wins. As a character, Richards isn’t the most developed and we’re expected to just accept him as a hero because he refuses to kill innocents, is fleetingly sad about his brother and tries to protect others, but at the same time he’s rather cold blooded, and physically violent towards Amber when they initially meet. Of course, we root for him because he’s Arnie, which is a clear example of star power.

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The ending, where the truth is revealed to the audience suggests things may be about to change. But it’s an ambiguous ending, and while Richards is free and cleared, it seems unlikely that the whole system will come crashing down.

In taking a decent premise but injecting the drama and visuals of wrestling and game shows, the filmmakers take King’s decent idea and transform it into something far more engaging and believable. This seems more like a show people would get sucked into than the idea from the book, where they merely evade capture in the real world.

By upping the cheesiness around the spectacle, they actually make it feel more real. That people will swallow and enjoy blood and mayhem if it’s packaged the right way.

One of Arnie’s best films and hugely entertaining.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #14: Peter Pan

I don’t know why but this wasn’t one of the Disney flicks that I liked a lot as a kid, which doesn’t make sense as it has pirates, Native Americans, sword fights and flying, all of which would have won me over.

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I think the problem is that even as a kid the main character kinda annoyed me. Peter’s a self centred braggart and for me the idea of never growing up held no appeal. As a kid you can’t do a bunch of stuff which adults can, I wanted to be a grown up. It was only years later that I find myself wishing I could stay away from adult responsibility. I must have seen it as a kid but it never wowed me.

Watching it as an adult, Peter (Bobby Driscoll) still irritates me, but I think that might be the point? That growing up is kinda important and staying as a child would be daft?

There’s another aspect of this that I don’t think I picked up with, in that I actually feel sorry for Captain Hook (Hans Conried). I mean, sure, he’s a villain and he tries to make them walk the plank, but the poor dude lost his hand and is now a frazzled mess, reduced to a jibbering wreck whenever the crocodile that swallowed his hand is nearby.

Incidentally, this is one of my favourite parts of the film, the way the ticking arrives and the croc’s eyes move with each sound. It’s wonderfully done, and the croc is shown to be quite a malicious beastie, gleefully awaiting Hook to fall into his jaws.

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Back to Hook, he’s actually quite a good villain, with a clear motivation and some smart plans (he plays Tinkerbell like a fiddle), and there’s quite a lot of humour from the inept crew he is surrounded by.

This film actually made me laugh quite a few times, and there are some very funny moments and the action is quite good too. The plot moves along at a decent pace that just about covers up the flaws.

The flaws are numerous, with Peter’s obnoxious nature being just one- almost all the female characters are shown at varying times to be either stupid, jealous or vindictive. Wendy, Tinkerbell and the mermaids all seem besotted with Pete, and react badly when he shows interest in someone else.

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And the representation of the Indians on the island is horrible to watch. All the braves have giant noses and deep red skins, talking like cliches. You may say it was a different time, but watching it in this time it’s not pleasant.

One thing I had forgotten was just how angry and sassy Tinkerbell was. In the more recent films featuring the character she’s shown as a heroic, nice character but here she’s quite nasty. She’s madly jealous of Wendy and Peter’s interest in her, to the extent that she tries to kill the poor girl and rats out the Lost Boys’ hideout to Hook. I have to say she’s one of the more memorable characters thanks in part to the great animation which captures her mannerisms and quickly shifting moods.

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Hell hath no fury like a fairy scorned

When it works, this is great fun, and the times it stumbles are fairly brief, and you can ignore most of them if you go with the movie.

It’s a fun adventure story but the ending baffles me. Was it all a dream? If yes, then how did Wendy’s dad have the same dream? If it wasn’t a dream does that mean he was a Lost Boy who chose to leave? It makes no sense!

Disney Score: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Film Review: Wonder Woman

So far the DC extended universe (DCEU) has been playing catch up with Marvel who have built up their shared universe since 2008’s Iron Man. It’s easy to see why DC want to get in on the same kind of thing but unfortunately it’s all felt rather rushed. The first film worked on it’s own, but Man of Steel still had some flaws and the follow up, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was hit and miss, and saw Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman thrown in the mix in a way which seemed a bit rushed. The less said about  Suicide Squad the better. 

So, having already met Wonder Woman what we have here is a flashback, an origin movie which takes us back to the First World War. Not that the war has had any impact on Themyscria, the idyllic, hidden island of the Amazons. Here, Princess Diana learns of the Amazons’ purpose, to guide mankind to peace and oppose the corrupting force of Ares, the God of War.

Diana wants to learn to fight, but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) opposes this, as Ares is seemingly defeated and she has fears that Diana’s training and increasing strength will draw the attention of the war god if he is still out there. But Diana’s aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright) is more cautious and secretly trains her niece, who becomes a skilled fighter but appears to have odd powers and enhanced strength.

After years of isolation the first man visits the island as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands in the sea off the island attempting to flee with stolen plans of a new deadly German weapon. Diana rescues him but the Germans arrive and there is a short battle which leaves all the Germans and a few of the Amazons dead. Steve is taken prisoner and bound with the lasso of truth reveals his misssion, Diana believing that the villainous General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is Ares in an attempt to continue the war.

In defiance of her mother’s wishes, Diana steals the godkiller sword and she leaves with Steve to the world of man. There they deliver the plans and are forbidden to attack Ludendorff as it may damage the delicate armistice talks. 

Diana is outraged when Steve agrees not to get involved, accusing him of lying to her, but he reveals he plans a secret mission, gathering old allies and receiving assistance from Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), a politician attempting to sort out a peace but determined not to lose more lives or allow Ludendorff to find a weapon to extend the war.

Can Diana stop Ludendorff? Is he actually Ares? What will she think of man’s world and is she ready for the horrors of the front?

This movie’s major strength is Gadot, who not only looks the part as a strong warrior woman but who also captures the character’s journey very well. She excels in the action sequences and shows Diana’s steely determination throughout, while also doing well with the script’s more humourous aspects. She also shows Diana’s confusion and wonder at the things she encounters and the “fish out of water” vibe works well.

As Diana progresses she becomes disillusioned with mankind and the war, and the film is clever in avoiding merely blaming Ares for mankind’s conflict. When Ares faces Diana he talks about how the darkness was inside man and he just guides them to better weapons, hoping to destroy them and have the world return to the paradise it once was. 

The war is hell aspect of the film is decent and a good angle, but the handling is poor. The horrors of war are shown in an oddly bloodless way, and while there are hints that both sides do wrong this does paint the Germans as the bad guys in a way which simplifies the complex reasons for WWI and the fact that neither side really held a moral highground.

Also, it’s hard to say that war is bad when the film delights in the Amazons’ fighting. The battle on the beach between Amazons and Germans is filled with slow motion, which is overused throughout. The Amazons’ skills are presented as cool and admirable, but it’s still basically war. And it feels odd that we get a sombre moment of a dying Amazon as though this is some great tragedy, when they have literally just killed half a dozen soldiers with arrows. It feels fumbled and half done.

That being said, the action sequences are, slow mo aside, quite well done, especially a sequence where Diana charges across no man’s land under heavy fire to save civilians. It’s a solid sequence and visually striking.

But in a way the problem here is that Diana is too strong, too powerful. There are only one and a half characters who can really go toe-to-toe with her and aside from these fights the rest of the battles feel one sided and lacking peril. It’s a similar issue that DC face with Superman, their heroes being too pumped up and often without decent foes.

But for the most part the movie works, landing more hits than misses and entertaining throughout. It’s definitely the funniest of the DCEU movies and a good background for the charcter, even if it doesn’t move anything forward. In fact it adds more questions, like what the hell has Diana been doing between 1918 and throwing down in BvS: DoJ?

Special mention should also go to Chris Pine who does good work here. He shares good chemistry with Gadot, and his Steve Trevor is a likeable character. Heroic without being too clean cut, Steve is a good counterpoint to Diana. Both see the horrors but Diana’s fresh eyes make her willing to deviate from their mission in a way his more jaded view is less inclined to do. And he acknowledges that people can be bad, whereas it takes a while for Diana to dismiss the idea that it is all down to Ares.

I’m definitely interested in seeing more of the character and it bodes well for the DCEU going forward as this is definitely the strongest entry since Man of Steel and left me excited for Justice League.

Verdict: Has it’s flaws but generally works quite well. Gadot is good as the lead and the script manages a decent balance in tone. Stumbles in places but manages to stride out with pride. 7.5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #48: Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Years ago a friend of mine recommended I check out Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics. I was told they were fun and essentially about a Canadian version of me. I read the series and loved it, although I realised that being compared to Scott wasn’t a compliment. When Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) was announced to direct a big screen version I was pretty stoked.

Luckily the movie turned out to be a belter, not least because it bravely decided to keep the title character, played by Michael Cera, a bit of a douchebag. He’s dim, self absorbed and sort of obnoxious. It’s a nice change for Cera who while still in his geeky comfort zone at least branches out from the essentially nice guys he normally plays.

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The plot sees Scott fall for mysterious new girl in town Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) despite already dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Ramona turns out to have seven evil exes, and in order to claim her hand he must defeat them. This is because despite being a geeky bass player, Scott has some mad fighting skills which helps him in the OTT, video game inspired fight sequences.

Wright shoots it brilliantly with a fast, fun pacing and visual flair, there are nods to computer games, on screen sound effects in the style of the ’66 Batman series (RIP Adam West) and a plethora of sight gags and quality one liners.

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The supporting cast is brilliant across the board, particularly Chris Evans and Brandon Routh who play two of the exes. Routh plays the douchey guy who stole Scott’s ex and boasts psychic powers due to his veganism, one of many delightfully daft touches in a movie which is seriously fun.

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The Evil Exes

There are also minor roles for Audrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick and Kieran Culkin.

Cera is fantastic, with the self absorbed Scott slowly realising where he’s gone wrong and finally standing up to the final ex, Gideon (Jason Schwartzman). The fight scene sees him lose, but in a nice touch he can cash in the “extra life” he picked up earlier in the movie, and allows him another attempt, where he realises he isn’t fighting for love but his own self respect.

And in the end he realises that he has to make amends for all the stupid, selfish things he did and become a better person.

The movie is a geeky delight, and full of charm. It also cements Wright as a seriously talented director making me regret that we never got his version of Ant Man, and looking forward to Baby Driver.

A fun filled, fast flowing film which captivates me on every rewatch.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #12: Cinderella

Finally, Disney get their groove back returning to familiar territory with a feature length single story fairytale. The film introduces the second of the Disney Princesses and is a delightful movie.

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The story should be familiar but a quick recap- after the death of her father Cinderella (Helene Stanley) has to live with her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Eleanor Audley) and her two ugly stepsisters Drizella and Anastasia. They treat Cinderella as a servant, making her do all the work and living in a tiny attic while they spend all of her dad’s cash.

But one day the King (Luis Van Rooten), eager to marry off his son arranges a ball, to which all the women of the country are invited. Lady Tremaine says that Cinderella can go but only if she completes her chores and finds an appropriate dress. Too busy to mend a gown that belonged to her mother Cinderella is aided by her animal friends and shall go to the ball. But Lady Tremaine and the sisters realise she has used stuff they rejected. They tear the dress to shreds in a scene which is genuinely upsetting. It’s just so bloody mean, those jerks!

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Seriously, this scene gets me so angry!

Luckily, Cinderella’s fairy godmother arrives and magics her a fancy dress. She also makes a carriage for her from a pumpkin and footmen and horses from the animals around. The catch? At midnight it all goes back to normal.

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Cinders hits the ball and dances with the Prince who is smitten with her. Unfortunately it reaches midnight and she has to make a run for it, on the way losing one of her glass slippers.

The King sends out a Grand Duke (voiced by the same actor as the King) to see who fits the shoe. Lady Tremaine wants one of her daughters to win the prince, and realising that it was Cinderella at the ball locks her in the attic. Fortunately, her animal friends manage to slip her a key and she proves she was the mysterious girl. She marries the Prince and they live happily ever after.

I’m not getting into a discussion of the story’s attitude towards gender roles or how it altered the traditional story, arguments which have been flogged to death. Instead let’s just have a look how this holds up as a film.

And it works. The music is solid, especially “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” which is insanely catchy, seriously, it’ll rattle around in your head for a good while after the credits roll. The art style is a little dated, but in places genuinely gorgeous and the character work is superb.

Cinderella has a simple, elegant beauty and the stepsisters are ugly without it being overdone. The King is a Disney staple- short, rotund, bearded and bald, and the Prince is rather dull. The success comes in Lady Tremaine, voiced by the same actress who would go on to voice Maleficent, is superb. A detestable villain who is petty and cruel to her stepdaughter.

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Pure evil

The most charming characters are the animals, particularly the chubby, dimwitted mouse Gus and the more courageous Jaq. They provide comic relief and help Cinderella out along the way, and are rather entertaining.

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Also stealing the show is Lady Tremaine’s cat Lucifer. Proving that nominative determinism exists, he is properly evil, tormenting the mice and going out of his way to make life difficult for the heroine. The scenes with him and the mice, pad out the rather simple story and provide some action along the way.

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The whole thing is very simply done and sweet, with the familiar story retold in a charming manner. It might have dated in the style or the way a female heroine is portrayed (Cinderella is never really mistress of her own destiny), but it’s a gem of a movie and easy to see why it still captivates young audiences to this day.

Following the underwhelming run they had delivered before this is a major return to form for Disney and a film which still stands up. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad to be out of the wilderness and into Disney’s Silver Age.

Disney Score: 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #47: A View to a Kill

Last month saw the passing of Sir Roger Moore. I was really saddened by this news because he always seemed like a decent bloke and due to his time as James Bond was a familiar face and part of the pop culture landscape I grew up with. I’m not getting into which actor has been the best Bond, but for Moore was my first Bond, and probably my favourite. And this, his final outing as 007 is possibly my favourite in the series.

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I love Moore’s Bond because of his easy, debonair charm and the tongue in cheek nature of the films. Moore had warmth that contrasted with Connery’s cool. He might not be in line with Fleming’s character from the books, but the movies are still extremely entertaining.

For me, the key ingredients for a good Bond movie, which all the best share are simple- good song, decent villain, good straightforward plot and ideally a menacing henchman. A View to a Kill ticks all these boxes starting with the decidedly ’80s and catchy Duran Duran themesong.

The plot sees Bond investigating Max Zorin played by Christopher Walken with his usual weird charisma. Zorin is an ex-KGB agent who may have been part of a Nazi breeding programme. Walken is brilliant here as right from the get go with his blonde hair he looks dodgy and it turns out the billionaire is up to no good, planning to flood Silicon Valley in order to monopolise the microchip industry. It’s a pretty smart plan.

Walken is immensely watchable and this is an early example of him quite clearly enjoying himself and hamming it up a bit. He’s menacing and cold, but handles the bantering exchanges well and makes a good enemy for Bond.

He’s also backed up by his henchwoman May Day played by the statuesque and intimidating Grace Jones. I remember being amazed by May Day as a kid, this tall, powerhouse of a woman who is physically more than a match for Bond. What makes her work as a character is that at the end she realises that Zorin is a wrong ‘un and doesn’t care about her and so helps Bond, getting a heroic death in the process.

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This all sets up a fantastically OTT finale where Bond finds himself atop the Golden Gate Bridge as Zorin attacks from a blimp. It’s daft and ridiculous, but isn’t that the way of Bond movies?

I love this movie because the villains are interesting and the tone is just right, there’s enough peril to keep you hooked but it’s carried off with a sense of humour. The supporting cast are quite good especially Patrick Macnee who plays Bond’s aristocratic ally and who shares an easy chemistry with Moore.

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This is the perfect film for a Sunday afternoon or Bank Holiday, the sort of thing that feels familiar and safe. An old tradition, to put up your feet and watch Bond quip his way through an adventure, seducing women and using gadgets and wits to win the day.

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Tanya Roberts as the main Bond girl in the movie.

Moore was perfect for this, bringing his posh charms and humour to the role. Always cool in a crisis, ready with a quip or arched eyebrow.

Roger Moore is tied up with all those lazy afternoons I watched the Bond films, captivated by the stunts and adventure, amused by the one-liners. The seven films he made as 007 meaning that he looms large in the public consciousness, and will live on in audience’s hearts for years to come. And he’ll always have a special place for mine, having starred in a movie I’ve watched countless times and continue to love to this day.

RIP Roger Moore.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #11: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad

The final film of the wilderness period is another I hadn’t seen before, this includes stories based on The Wind in the Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. These are narrated by Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby respectively.

For my money the Ichabod Crane story works best, as it’s got a stronger story and is done with genuine humour. The story is handled well and the animation is cartoony but well done, and Crosby’s voice is a good choice for the narrator.

The eponymous character is slightly pompous which makes the mishaps that befall him more entertaining.

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The Mr Toad portion was unlikely to score big with me as I’ve never liked The Wind in the Willows and the character of Toad is such a douche. The court sequence however is well done and the characters are well realised, but the plot is simple and like I said, Toad is just annoying.

This feels like a lesser film from the get go and despite sterling work from Rathbone and Crosby, neither half really catches fire. It’s entertaining enough, but compared to many other Disney movies it’s weak and rather forgettable.

A shame because as a short the Ichabod half would work quite well, but bolted together it doesn’t quite work. It’s better than the compilation of shorts that preceded it, but it still doesn’t feel like a proper film.

Disney Score: 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #46: The Return of the Jedi

In Clerks, Dante Hicks dismisses the third film in the Star Wars trilogy saying “All Jedi had was a bunch of muppets”. It’s a harsh assessment of the movie, but highlights a problem that some viewers have with the movie. The Ewoks.

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This alien race, who look like teddy bears, are the kind of thing that little kids love, but for older audiences appear rather cutesy and twee. Personally, I quite like the Ewoks, because their guerrilla tactics against a superior foe are surprisingly brutal and they are kinda cute. Also, they don’t look so bad after some later additions to the universe.

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While it’s not as good as Empire, I still love this movie, which continues the trilogy’s crowd pleasing, entertaining action. It brings the Darth Vader (the body of David Prowse voiced by James Earl Jones) story to an end, with him earning redemption thanks to the faith and goodness of his son Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Their final showdown where the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) attempts to get Luke to give in to the Dark Side is well done, with Luke finally realising what’s going on and stopping himself.

Vader, witnessing this mercy and then the Emperor’s attack on Luke finally rediscovers his good nature, lost years earlier. He sacrifices himself to kill the Emperor and Luke escapes before the Rebels manage to destroy the second Death Star, which they had been tricked into believing was yet to be operational.

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The Death Star, half built and hanging in space is visually striking and the revelation that the Emperor has set a trap for the good guys raises the stakes greatly and sets up the largest space battle of the series.

Meanwhile, on the planet there’s a different battle going on as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) lead a small rebel force, and the Ewoks against the Empire’s forces to try and disable the force field that protects the Death Star. The fight, which sees the primitive Ewoks triumph through ingenuity and surprising viciousness (their cuteness distracts from the fact they are straight up murdering Stormtroopers).

Han Solo’s rescue from Jabba’s clutches is a cracker, providing some old school heroics from Luke Skywalker, and shows Leia is a badass herself, having posed as a bounty hunter she thaws out the frozen smuggler only to be kidnapped, but she gets free and kills Jabba. It’s a shame all these heroic moments have been overshadowed in the public consciousness by her golden bikini.

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Of course, the movie also includes the big reveal that Luke and Leia are twin siblings, which Luke discovers from the dying Yoda (Frank Oz). It changes the dynamic between the two, and works rather well. It also clears the way for Han and Leia’s relationship to blossom fully, and this is the heart for much of the movie, with the two’s bickering softening and Han confessing his feelings this time around.

What makes this movie work is the ending, where good triumphs and Luke makes peace with his father, and the galaxy celebrates. It’s an entirely satisfying ending to the series and while it’s since been added to, it still serves as a solid ending.

There’s heroism, resolution and some cracking intergalactic action, and just like the other two movies it continues to entertain years and many rewatches later.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #45: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars was a game changer in many ways, in terms of blockbusters and memorabilia but it’s the second movie in the original trilogy that’s impact is still felt. Countless film series made since has attempted to follow the Empire model with the second movie having a darker, more downbeat ending that leaves the heroes in poor shape before they rally in the third part.

But although often imitated, The Empire Strikes Back has never been matched and is still the stand out movie in the four part Star Wars saga. I fell in love with the first movie, but it paled when I saw this one, and this is where I became a lifelong fan of the series.

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Unlike a lot of movies which include a massive twist, this movie is more than just that big reveal. The moment where the villainous Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) reveals that Obi Wan was telling porkies and that he is actually Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father is one that has slightly lost it’s impact thanks to countless rip offs and gags, but for audiences in 1980 it must have been an absolute stunner.

If I have kids I’m going to show them the Star Wars trilogy at a young age and hopefully ensure that this twist is fresh for them, as it’ll probably make more of an impact.

The reveal sets up the finale brilliantly, but it also contributes to the downbeat ending which made Empire so special. The end of the movie finds our heroes in a bad way, Luke is reeling from the news his enemy is his papa and has lost a hand, Leia (Carrie Fisher) has finally admitted that she loves Han Solo (Harrison Ford), only to see him frozen and taken prisoner.

But the ending doesn’t depress you. Luke has a robot hand and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) sets off to find Han. It leaves the audience hooked- will they be able to rescue their old friend? How will Luke and Vader’s next meeting go? And will the war with the Empire ever be over?

The defeat they suffer works because it delivers on it’s title. If a villain is always vanquished they begin to lose their edge for audiences (see the Daleks), what they got right in this series was that while the Empire had lost the first movie they win this one, and the good guys barely escape. It makes the villains all the more evil, and more of a threat, it’s a smart move.

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Of course, a solid ending isn’t enough and what makes this such a cracker is everything that builds up to it. We find the Rebels on a snowy planet and Han debating leaving as he needs to sort out the bounty hunters on his trail. His decision to leave causes an argument between him and Leia, and suggests that there is a growing attraction there.

Ford and Fisher, who we recently found out were getting it on behind the scenes, have phenomenal chemistry on screen and their bickering, flirty scenes together are among the best in film. The story splits up our group, leaving Leia, Han, Chewie and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) on the run and trying to find a safe place to hole up, while Luke travels to continue his Jedi training.

This is another aspect that would work for first time viewers, the reveal of Yoda (Frank Oz). When Luke seeks out the Jedi Master who taught Obi Wan the audience expects a great warrior and intergalactic badass, the revelation that the little green man is actually the master is a nice subversion of expectations.

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Yoda’s wisdom and training sees Luke develop his skills, and this is an interesting storyline as we see Luke get stronger and discover more about the Force.

This movie improves on the first by adding to the characters and by having a superior script, shown not only in Han and Leia’s flirtations, but throughout. And there are memorable moments throughout- the AT-ATs advancing through the snow, the trippy sequence where Luke faces his fears, the climactic fight.

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I love this movie because it’s great fun, and shows us more of the universe. It also introduces Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, who is pretty damn suave.

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It’s a perfect middle movie for a trilogy, which doesn’t just act as a bridge but serves to up the stakes, grow the story and ensure the audience is even more invested in the characters.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #44: Star Wars

Disclaimer: Before any fans get narked, I know that’s not the full title, but putting it all in would be awfully long and you all know which movie I mean.

I must have seen the Star Wars films as a little kid, but I can’t really remember much from those childhood viewings apart from the chase sequence in Jedi. What I do remember is the 20th anniversary special editions. I was almost twelve and they came out just as I was on the brink of geekdom, it was the perfect time for me to see them again.

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I can remember the music starting, and the opening scrawl and then that amazing opening shot with Leia’s ship emerging on the screen followed by the imposing Star Destroyer, chasing it across the stars. Even years later the sheer scale of that shot works well and on a big screen it was phenomenal.

The whole opening is done supremely well, especially the entrance of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones).


A million lunchboxes and three dodgy prequels later, Vader has lost his edge somewhat, but on that first watch he’s a menacing presence. Striding imperiously over the bodies of the enemy, his raspy breath and dark, cloaked figure is memorable and has become understandably iconic.
The plot is known to many and quite simple, but a simple story executed well is far better than a complicated one that is bungled. Farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) dreams of adventure and the wider galaxy when he gets a hold of Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) message for help.

He meets old warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) who explains that he was a friend of Luke’s father before Darth Vader killed him. He begins to train Luke in the use of the Force, a cosmic energy force that flows through all things.

They recruit roguish smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They head for Alderaan, Leia’s home planet but arrive after it is destroyed by the Empire’s latest weapon the Death Star.

What follows is a story of adventure and heroism as our heroes rescue Leia and deliver the plans for the base. It has a single weak spot and Luke joins the pilots in the attack as the lethal space station closes in on the Rebel base.
It’s hard to look at Star Wars without the cultural baggage that it carries now, without nostalgia and as a movie on its own merits. But this isn’t a review, its a love letter.

I love the world of the movie, I love the bustling energy of the cantina, the scruffiness of Han Solo and his ship the Millennium Falcon. It has a lived in feel that the sterile ships of other sci-fi often lack. They want everything to look cool and shiny, forgetting that people are meant to live there.

I love the characters, from Hamill’s likeable goofiness as the space bumpkin Luke to the bickering droids. I love that Princess Leia takes charge of the guys who are trying, ineptly, to rescue her.

The late, great Carrie Fisher is superb. She makes Leia a strong, confident character who rolls with the bunches and who stands defiant against the forces of the Empire. She runs rings around the swaggering Solo and is an utter delight.

But let’s face it, Han Solo is still the coolest guy in the movie. Harrison Ford brings his easy charm to the role, with a laid back swagger and sarcastic, cynical outlook. But he’s winging it the whole time, surviving on a mix of luck, skill and his comrades.


He’s the old gunslinger who tries to play like he doesn’t care about anything other than money and his own life, but when the chips are down he roars back to make the save.

The action is well done, and while the Vader vs Kenobi fight is hardly a masterpiece of fight choreography it is well performed. Guinness delivers his lines brilliantly, giving depth and power beyond the cliches. He goes into the fight seeming to know that this is the end, but goes to it with dignity, knowing that this isn’t really the end.

The effects have aged in places, but the special edition make over makes up for it, and some of the sequences still hold up. In fact the models and costumes hold up better than most CG will in years to come.

I love the rousing ending, the glorious John Williams score and the ingredients mix to make a film that still fills me with the geeky excitement and love that washed over my twelve year old self.

I love the fun vibe, the dialogue which at times is a little clunky, I love it all.

A pure, simple treat of a movie. It holds up because of the great characters, the simple story of good vs evil and the bags of charm it has. It’s a movie I return to when I want that blast of childish joy, to lose myself in a simpler world with familiar faces.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.