The Exorcist (1973)

2017 #150
William Friedkin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English & Arabic* | 18 / R

The Exorcist

Did you know The Exorcist was based on a true story? I didn’t, until I watched some of the special features on the Blu-ray release. “Based on” is a bit of a stretch, to be honest. “Inspired by” would be more accurate. But you get the sense from author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty that he believes all this stuff so much that he thinks “based on” would be fine.

The Exorcist does start out very plausibly. It’s about Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), a sweet 12-year-old kid living with her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C. But one day Regan begins to act oddly: delivering insults and soiling herself at a party; yelling obscenities; slapping her beloved mother; somehow causing her bed to shake uncontrollably… Doctors run tests, but they reveal nothing. The only suggestion they’ve left to give is that Regan may believe she’s possessed by an evil spirit, and that she might be tricked into believing she’s cured if the church will perform a little-known procedure called an exorcism.

Worried mother

Everyone’s so busy talking about The Scary Stuff when it comes to The Exorcist, no one ever tells you how low-key and grounded a lot of it is. Okay, the talking in voices and spinning heads and vomiting green gunk and bloody crucifix masturbation are pretty memorable, so fair enough. Before that, though, it’s more of a character drama, about a single mother struggling to handle what appears to be her daughter’s out-of-control mental health problems. Meanwhile, a priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), struggles with a crisis of faith brought on in part by his ailing mother. Naturally these two threads align when Chris calls on Karras to investigate Regan’s condition.

Another thing I’ve never heard about The Exorcist is how good Miller is. This is his film debut, before which he was a stage actor, but he delivers a very naturalistic performance as a man of the cloth who also has his head screwed on — his training in psychology keeps him suitably skeptical of what’s going on with Regan. Events conspire to challenge his point of view, of course. Karras has the clearest arc of anyone in the film, giving Miller the most scope to develop his role. I’d venture he’s the film’s most interesting character.

Father Karras

That’s not to dismiss Burstyn, who’s also excellent as the very together mom who begins to crack under the increasing strain of her daughter’s worsening, inexplicable condition. As said daughter, Blair’s performance is certainly memorable, though the potency of Regan is aided by special effects and voice work from another actress. Although second billed, Max von Sydow only pops in at the beginning and end in the titular role of Father Merrin. It’s no wonder someone later thought Merrin’s past was ripe for a prequel, because there’s a backstory there that’s only hinted at.

And no one ever says how little Tubular Bells is in it, either.

The thing people do say about The Exorcist is how scary it is. Tales of audiences fainting and running out during its initial theatrical run are the stuff of movie legend. Today its releases are branded as “the scariest film ever made”, with the justification of several polls that have named it thus. I can well believe that, in the early ’70s, it was indeed the most shocking film most people had ever seen, certainly from a major studio. The extreme bad language, the gruesome special effects, the morally depraved acts, and all of it happening to a child…

Regan... or is it?

It was surely an element of sensibilities being offended (especially in America), as much as it was actual horror, that provoked such radical reactions from audiences back in the day. Nowadays we’re a bit more deadened to those things — the last 40+ years have served up plenty of elaborate gore, and potty-mouthed pre-teen girls are more likely to be found in comedies (Hit-Girl is even younger than Regan when she utters the C word in Kick-Ass, for example). I also thought it frequently undermined its own intensity by cutting away from the scary scenes to more mundane stuff. Maybe the goal was to never give those scenes an ‘out’ — we always seem to leave them when supernatural stuff is still going on — but for me it killed the momentum that was building.

That’s not to say the horrific and shocking stuff is no longer powerful. What really works in its favour is how long the film spends being grounded and plausible — most of the first hour is a ’70s social drama about a child with a mental health problem. That level of realism helps the later horror scenes be all the more effective. They quite quickly transcend the realms of the plausible (unless you’re some kind of religious fanatic, I guess), but the grounded setup lends weight to them nonetheless. The climax in particular — the actual exorcism — might just be silly without the realistic world it’s been placed in. Instead, it’s a suitably tense climax.

The exorcism

Obviously it was the extreme stuff that caught people’s attention and earnt The Exorcist a reputation that it still trades off to this day. However, I’d say it’s best regarded, not as a fright-fest, but as a film about characters: the mother who’ll do anything for her child; the priest battling with a crisis of faith. It’s a drama about real people in extreme circumstances, it’s just that these extreme circumstances happen to be horror movie fodder. In this respect it’s such a film of the ‘70s, which I mean in the best possible way.

5 out of 5

The Exorcist was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

* IMDb lists half a dozen other languages, but Arabic’s the only one I remember being significant enough to earn subtitles. ^

Advertisements

Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which seems Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets sees casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

  • Jaws (1975)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    See it before you go swimming.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 124 minutes
    BBFC: A (1975) | PG (1987) | 12A (2012)
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 20th June 1975 (USA)
    UK Release: 26th December 1975
    Budget: $7-12 million (sources vary)
    Worldwide Gross: $470.6 million

    Stars
    Roy Scheider (The French Connection, All That Jazz)
    Robert Shaw (From Russia with Love, The Sting)
    Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poseidon)
    Lorraine Gary (Jaws 2, 1941)

    Director
    Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)

    Screenwriters
    Peter Benchley (The Deep, The Island)
    Carl Gottlieb (Jaws 2, The Jerk)

    Based on
    Jaws, a novel by Peter Benchley.


    The Story
    As the seaside resort of Amity Island prepares for the lucrative 4th of July weekend, a series of violent shark attacks threaten the lives of residents and holidaymakers alike.

    Our Heroes
    Police chief Martin Brody is the one lumped with having to work out how to stop a man-eating shark, battling both small-town politics as well as the underwater predator. Eventually he’s aided by Matt Hooper, a young shark expert, and Quint, a salty old shark hunter.

    Our Villain
    A 25ft great white shark, with a taste for human flesh.

    Best Supporting Character
    Amity’s Mayor just wants what’s best for his town and its people — which, in this case, is having the beaches open for July 4th, whether people might get eaten or not.

    Memorable Quote
    “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” — Brody

    Memorable Scene
    A group of young people sit on the beach at night drinking. The eyes of a boy and girl meet. They race off towards the sea, stripping as they go. She gets into the water first, while he’s too drunk to get his clothes off. She messes around in the ocean while he passes out on the sand. Then, she notices something underneath the water — something that grabs her — and… well, it doesn’t end well.

    Memorable Music
    John Williams’ famous, simple main theme is the definitive musical interpretation of approaching terror. When Spielberg first heard it, he thought it was a joke. Later, he said it was half of what made the film so successful.

    Making of
    Three mechanical sharks were built for the film, but no one thought to test them in water before taking them on location. They kept malfunctioning, causing a constant headache throughout production — because of them and other issues of shooting at sea, the film’s 55-day schedule ended up taking 159 days, and the $3.5 million budget ballooned to as much as $12 million. On the bright side, Spielberg had to work out how to shoot material around the unavailability of the sharks, which led to him taking a Hitchcockian approach of showing the ‘monster’ as little as possible, which was ultimately a benefit to the film’s effectiveness.

    Next time…
    Jaws was the highest grossing film of all time, so naturally there were a series of cash-grab sequels. As far as I was aware they were universally condemned, so I’d never paid them any heed, but I recently read a review that made me think I should give them a go. It said Jaws 2 wasn’t actually all that bad, Jaws 3-D was trashy fun, and Jaws: The Revenge… well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. Incidentally, the last one is the film of which star Michael Caine famously said, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

    Awards
    3 Oscars (Editing, Sound, Original Dramatic Score)
    1 Oscar nomination (Picture)
    1 BAFTA (Music (also for The Towering Inferno))
    6 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Actor (Richard Dreyfuss), Screenplay, Editing, Sound)
    1 Grammy (Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special)

    Verdict

    It’s easy to start discussing Jaws in terms of it being the first summer blockbuster, or its troubled production, or the effect it had on audiences’ desire to go swimming. But divorced from all that, as a film in its own right, it’s a thrilling adventure movie — a man vs. a shark, when it comes down to it. It’s so packed with memorable shots and moments — be they horrific shark attacks, improvised one-liners, or precisely calibrated jump scares — that it’s no wonder it made Spielberg’s name. Personally, I feel the pace flags a bit once the three men get on a boat and go shark hunting, which slightly holds me back from completely loving it. Quibbles aside, it’s still a classic of suspense.

    Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (2015)
  • 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)


    Snoopy and Charlie Brown:
    The Peanuts Movie

    (2015)

    aka The Peanuts Movie

    2017 #25
    Steve Martino | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

    Charles M. Schulz’s popular comic strip hits the big screen in this likeable but hardly Pixar-level movie. Much of it plays like a series of shorts or sketches with a connected theme rather than a feature-length narrative — kind of like binge-watching a cartoon series — but they’re pleasant enough. There are some good gags (“Leo’s Toy Store by Warren Piece”), though the saccharine ending is a bit much and the pop songs are terrible. One review described Snoopy as “Peanuts’ Tyler Durden”, which is a thought that entertained me even more than the film.

    The most notable aspect is the animation style. Schulz’s strips have a distinct 2D style, but the movie is animated in 3D, presumably because you’re not allowed to make a Western kids’ movie with 2D animation anymore. Nonetheless, most of The Peanuts Movie is composed to emulate Schulz’s original strips, i.e. quite flatly — like, you know, 2D. And yet, somehow… Well, The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin summarised it well in his review: “Written down, [the animation style] just sounds chaotic, like a four-way mash-up of South Park, The Clangers, Wallace & Gromit and a flip book. But in motion, it’s a thing of serious, faux-artisanal beauty”. That might be going a bit far, but I did end up kinda liking the visuals. It’s quite a clever style for 3D, mixing in many 2D-ish touches. It should probably be a mess, but it weirdly works.

    3 out of 5

    13 Hours:
    The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

    (2016)

    2017 #40
    Michael Bay | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

    The not-at-all-controversial events in the Libyan town of Benghazi on 11th September 2012 are here dramatised by that master of subtlety and understated reality, director Michael Bay, so you know you’re going to get a considered and truthful account of events.

    Yeah, most of that opening paragraph is completely facetious. Bay takes a real-life gunfight, in which a secret mercenary security team went against orders (possibly) to defend an American diplomatic compound that was under assault, and turns it into a blazing action movie that may as well be scored with the theme from Team America: World Police. If it was Bay’s goal to convey the sheer confusion on the ground in the midst of the situation, I guess he’s done a bang-up job. The problem is, that confusion extends to bits where the characters seem to have some idea what’s going on, but we’re left half in the dark.

    Having Bay be reined in after the excess of his Transformers movies is no bad thing, but being completely constrained by reality is not his strong suit either — the heightened reality of something like The Rock is where he excels.

    If you’re interested in a longer read on the film’s adherence (or otherwise) to reality, this article at Vox is interesting.

    3 out of 5

    Young Frankenstein
    (1974)

    2017 #46
    Mel Brooks | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Young Frankenstein

    I have mixed feelings about the work of Mel Brooks. I reviewed his Hitchcock spoof, High Anxiety, back in 2009 and found it wanting. I reviewed his Robin Hood spoof, Men in Tights, earlier this year and found it uncomplicated but enjoyable. When I was a kid I liked his Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, but on a slightly-more-adult rewatch I enjoyed it less. And as for Blazing Saddles, regarded by some as one of the pinnacles of screen comedy… no, I didn’t like it. At all. I so didn’t like it that I really must rewatch it to see if I can see what I didn’t see.

    Young Frankenstein was released the same year as Blazing Saddles, and is placed on a similar pedestal by many — slightly higher, on the whole (Frankenstein edges it by a few points on IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic). It’s quite remarkable that Brooks managed to produce two such esteemed movies within the same year. At least I liked one of them.

    Young Frankenstein has many funny lines and moments, including a lot of familiar Brooksisms (“walk this way”) and, in the Puttin’ on the Ritz number, perhaps one of the funniest sequences ever committed to film. The films being spoofed (Universal’s classic monster movies) are evoked well, in particular with the potent black and white cinematography, but Brooks also lets things spiral off in their own direction when warranted. On the downside, I’d say it’s a little too long.

    Don’t take that criticism too seriously, though. I enjoyed it very much.

    4 out of 5

    * Hilariously, in 1987 the BBFC thought it should be rated 15. It wasn’t downgraded to the much more sensible PG until 2000. ^

  • The Deer Hunter (1978)

    2016 #181
    Michael Cimino | 176 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & USA / English, Russian, Vietnamese & French | 18 / R

    The Deer Hunter

    One of the first movies about the Vietnam war made after it ended, The Deer Hunter was controversial before it was made (no American company wanted to touch it, leaving British group EMI to put up the initial funding), controversial when it was released (Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the war, called the use of Russian roulette “simply a bloody lie”), and remains controversial today (Mark Kermode called it “one of the worst films ever made, a rambling self-indulgent, self-aggrandising barf-fest steeped in manipulatively racist emotion”), but is cited by some as one of the best movies ever made.

    The plot concerns three Pennsylvanian steel workers (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) who have been conscripted. It follows their final days before joining up, then some of their time in the conflict, then how they react once home — this is a Vietnam movie where under a third of its running time actually takes place in ‘Nam. But, as per producer Michael Deeley, the film “wasn’t really ‘about’ Vietnam. It was something very different. […] It was about how individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently.” It takes its time getting there (this is a long movie that feels long), but that’s what the famed Russian roulette stuff is all about, really — a way of coping with some kind of mental collapse; of leaving suicide up to chance.

    Walken a fine line

    It’s certainly a problematic film, with its depiction of the Vietcong particularly tin-eared — they’re an old-fashioned baddie, cruel and evil without any apparent provocation. Coupled with a final scene that sees the cast singing God Bless America, it comes across a bit too right-wing to be wholly palatable. It’s also a slog, particularly the first third and its never-ending wedding sequence.

    These things can’t completely negate the qualities Deeley highlighted in the above quote, or that many viewers clearly see in it. That said, if I’m completely honest, I think Kermode may be closest to the truth.

    4 out of 5

    The Deer Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)

    aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию / Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession

    2016 #112
    Leonid Gaidai | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian

    Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

    I know: having seen the title of this film, you’re probably thinking some variation of, “so what’s that then?” Well, it’s only a better sci-fi film than Aliens, 2001, Metropolis, Blade Runner, or Solaris! It’s only a better comedy than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sherlock Jr., Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, or The Kid! Only a better adventure movie than North by Northwest, Lawrence of Arabia, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Bridge on the River Kwai! Only the best musical ever made that isn’t The Lion King, and the 8th greatest film of one of cinema’s defining decades, the ’70s — that’s what!

    Well, “that’s what” according to IMDb voters, anyway, who’ve placed it in the upper echelons of all those best-of lists. In fact, it’s a Russian sci-fi comedy, adapted from a play by Mikhail Bulgakov (most famous to Western audiences now for the TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe and Jon “Mad Men” Hamm). Apparently it’s a huge popular classic in Russia, hence why it’s scored so well on an international movie website and shot up those lists; and, because of that, it’s a moderately (in)famous film on movie-list-checking website iCheckMovies (at least, it is in the parts of it I frequent), because it’s a film you have to see if you want to complete any of the aforementioned lists.

    And so I have seen it — courtesy of Mosfilm’s YouTube channel, where it’s available for free, in HD, with English subtitles — just in case this review makes you want to watch it too. Which, you never know, it might, because it’s actually kinda fun. In the end.

    Terrible meal

    The plot concerns scientist Shurik (Alexsandr Demyanenko), who is trying to perfect a time machine in his apartment (as you do) but is getting grief from his busybody building supervisor Ivan Vasilievich (Yuri Yakovlev). Meanwhile, George (Leonid Kuavlev) is trying to rob a neighbouring apartment. To cut a lot of faffing short, the three of them end up transported to the past, where it turns out Ivan Vasilievich is the spitting image of Ivan the Terrible (also Yuri Yakovlev) and — to cut some more farce equally short — Ivan Vasilievich and George end up stuck in the past, pretending to be Mr Terrible and his chum, while Shurik and the real Mr Terrible are returned to the present day. More hijinks ensue!

    So, you can see why its original title is the wittily understated statement Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, and how its English title can just about get away with being such a blatant attempt to cash-in on a popular movie.

    As for the film itself, it starts off not so hot, somewhat overacted and a little hard to get a grip on what’s happening — it’s also a sequel or sorts, so perhaps launches with the idea you’ve seen the previous adventures of Shurik and so know what kind of thing to expect. But as it continues… well, maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I ended up rather enjoying it. It’s not genius, but it’s a fairly amusing farce once it gets going. Very of its time as an early-’70s mainstream-style silly comedy, but what’s wrong with being of your time? It also sounds like it’s fairly faithful to Bulgakov’s original play, which is a little surprising, but there you go.

    Terrible face

    Unsurprisingly, Ivan Vasilievich is not a better film than all those ones I listed at the start. If it got wider exposure and more IMDb votes, I’m sure it would drop down lickety-split. At the same time, I’m actually quite glad I watched it: after I eventually warmed to it, it was kinda fun.

    3 out of 5

    The Sting (1973)

    2016 #127
    George Roy Hill | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The StingSet in Chicago during the Great Depression, The Sting follows a young street-level con artist (Robert Redford) as he seeks revenge for his murdered partner by teaming up with a seasoned big-con pro (Paul Newman) to scam the mob boss responsible (Robert Shaw).

    If that sounds like a somewhat violent crime movie… well, it kinda is. Although The Sting is often billed as a caper, sometimes even as a comedy (look at those grinning mugs on the poster!), it actually has more of an edge. I mean, it’s not The Godfather, but it’s not Ocean’s Eleven either. The star power and chemistry of Redford and Newman are what give the movie a buoyancy to overcome the storyline’s inherent darkness, though I wouldn’t say that reaches far enough to regard the film as a romp, which is the impression I’d obtained over the years.

    Indeed, I wonder if it suffers from its age more broadly. Not because the filmmaking quality has dated (they may not make ’em like this anymore, but great filmmaking is timeless), but because it was so influential that it’s been copied to death. It still has a lot of points to commend it, but the heist — the driving force of the plot — lacks freshness to modern eyes. Newness is not the be-all-and-end-all, of course, but the con only really comes to life in a flurry of last-minute twists… most of which have also been copied ad nauseam, of course.

    The Sting is certainly not a bad movie — and, for all my talk of it being mercilessly copied, it did manage to con me in a couple of places — but it wasn’t exactly what I’d anticipated. Perhaps I’ll like it more on some future re-watch.

    4 out of 5

    The Sting was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    Star Wars (1977)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #88

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

    Also Known As: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 121 minutes | 125 minutes (special edition)
    BBFC: U
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 25th May 1977 (USA)
    UK Release: 27th December 1977
    First Seen: VHS, c.1990

    Stars
    Mark Hamill (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Star Wars: Episode VIII)
    Harrison Ford (American Graffiti, The Fugitive)
    Carrie Fisher (When Harry Met Sally…, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
    Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Bridge on the River Kwai)
    James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams, The Lion King)

    Director
    George Lucas (THX 1138, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)

    Screenwriter
    George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones)

    The Story
    When he discovers a distress call from a beautiful princess, a young farmhand joins forces with an old warrior, a roguish pilot, his bear-like first mate, and a pair of bickering robots to rescue her — which involves taking on the evil galactic Empire, and in particular their chief enforcer: Darth Vader.

    Our Heroes
    Farm boy Luke Skywalker just wants to go off and join the rebellion, but little does he realise how much that path leads to his destiny. Helping him get there is smuggler Han Solo, who may come from a wretched hive of scum and villainy and is happy to shoot first at the same time as his opponent, but has a heart of gold really. The object of their mission, and both their affections, is the strong-willed Princess Leia.

    Our Villains
    A man in a black suit with breathing problems might not sound like one of the most effective screen villains of all time, but that’s what you get when you come up with pithy descriptions like that. In fact, Darth Vader is so badass, he’s not above choking members of his own side, the evil Empire — and they’re evil.

    Best Supporting Character
    R2-D2 is the best supporting character in every Star Wars film, but in this one we are also introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi. A mysterious old man who inducts Luke into the ways of the Force, Obi-Wan is played by veteran character actor Alec Guinness, meaning he is bestowed with instant awesomeness. Not as handy with a lightsaber as he used to be, mind.

    Memorable Quote
    Darth Vader: “Your powers are weak, old man.”
    Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    “I have a very bad feeling about this.” — Luke Skywalker

    Memorable Scene
    It’s fair to say Star Wars is loaded with memorable scenes, but for pure effectiveness you’d have to go a long way to beat the opening sequence: giant spaceships flying overhead, blasting laser beams at each other; walking, talking robots bickering; a gunfight between men and armoured soldiers; and then Darth Vader, stalking into the movie like a sci-fi vision of Death himself.

    Memorable Music
    George Lucas wanted a score reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies to help inform audiences about what they were watching — that although it was set on alien worlds with giant spaceships and laser swords, it was a familiar kind of heroic adventure tale. Composer John Williams delivered exactly that, drawing on influences including classical composers, like Stravinsky and Holst, and film composers, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold (King’s Row) and Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won). He produced not only a great soundtrack all round, but arguably the most famous movie theme of all time.

    Truly Special Effect
    Star Wars did so much to break new ground in special effects, it’s difficult to know where to start. Some of it’s a little skwiffy (the lightsaber effects are notoriously problematic, their colours varying even in recent remastered versions), but the model work — the spaceships and their battles — is fantastic.

    Letting the Side Down
    Han shot first! *ahem* Yes, A New Hope is definitely the movie where Lucas’ unpopular Special Edition fiddling is it at its least liked, primarily for that bit where Han no longer shoots Greedo in cold blood. What do you have to do to get a merciless good guy these days, eh? Other changes have varying degrees of effectiveness: having extra X-Wings in the Death Star battle looks pretty neat, but the CGI Jabba the Hutt — complete with Han stepping jerkily over his tail — is terrible.

    Making of
    George Lucas screened an early cut of the film for a group of his director friends, most of whom agreed with him: it was going to be a flop. Brian De Palma even called it “the worst movie ever”. There was one dissenting voice: Steven Spielberg, who predicted it would be a huge hit. As if that man’s entire career wasn’t proof enough that he knows what he’s talking about…

    Previously on…
    Star Wars’ influences can be clearly traced back to the sci-fi cinema serials of the ’30s and ’40s, like Flash Gordon. In-universe, the saga begins with the Prequel Trilogy, and there’s shedloads of other spin-off media. Most pertinently, this December’s first live-action non-saga Star Wars film, Rogue One, should lead more-or-less directly into the start of A New Hope.

    Next time…
    Star Wars essentially inspired the next 39 years (and counting) of effects-driven summer blockbusters. It also started a mini-industry all of its own — well, quite a large industry, actually: films, TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, board games, role playing games, toys, clothes, lunch boxes… anything you can imagine, I’d wager. Primarily, the story is directly continued in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and resumed in The Force Awakens, with more to come in 2017 and 2019.

    Awards
    7 Oscars (Editing, Score, Sound, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects)
    4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor, Director, Original Screenplay)
    2 BAFTAs (Music, Sound)
    4 BAFTA nominations (Film, Editing, Costume Design, Production Design/Art Direction)
    13 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (tied with Spielberg for Close Encounters), Writing, Music (John Williams tied with himself for Close Encounters), Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Set Decoration, Special Award for Outstanding Cinematographer)
    4 Saturn nominations (Actor (both Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill), Actress (Carrie Fisher), Supporting Actor (Peter Cushing))
    Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

    What the Critics Said
    “The battles, the duels, the special effects — and what special effects! Swords made of light, blasters shooting laser beams, exploding planets — it goes on and on. All the aging acid-heads who tripped out to Stanley Kubrick’s overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, will go bananas over Star Wars. Not to mention comic-book freaks, science fiction and fantasy fans, lovers of old westerns, romances, mysteries and movies about the Crusades. In addition to being a slickly produced and highly entertaining adventure suitable for the whole family, Star Wars is richly evocative of a whole range of old film forms and I predict that entire books will be written on the sources, the religious symbolism, the mythological and historical allusions, and so on and so forth that Lucas has incorporated” — Robert Martin, The Globe and Mail (This review from the original release, before it was called Episode IV, also notes that it “opens like Episode 6 of a serial”. Good call, sir.)

    Score: 93%

    What the Public Say
    “To this day, A New Hope is used as a primary example of storytelling. It perfectly establishes a world and introduces audiences to a protagonist that goes on his hero’s journey. There’s a reason that so much pop culture parodies and pays tribute to this film and it’s because of how near perfect it is. You have the Princess in peril still holding her own against what will always be one of the greatest movie villains of all time in Darth Vader. That is also one thing the prequels do that take away from this movie and the two that come after: They soften Vader. Vader is cold, ruthless, robotic, and menacing. Not someone who cries about his girlfriend. […] A New Hope just does everything the right way. When it wants you to be excited, you are. When it wants you to be sad, you are. John Williams contributed to this a great deal with his score; and Lucas’ use of practical effects to tell his story make it a masterpiece.” — Reed, We’re Not Sorry

    Elsewhere on 100 Films
    I’ve written about the original Star Wars trilogy twice before, both times back in 2007. Of A New Hope’s modified DVD version, I said that “there are a few extremely minor changes from the ’97 version… sadly, though, not to the CGI: Jabba still looks dire, not even as good as the Episode I version — CGI that was five years old by the time of this release.” Then, treating the film as the fourth part of the saga, I wrote that “the biggest change [from the prequel trilogy] is in tone: I to III present an epic fantasy story, full of wizard-like Jedi, intricate galactic politics, and ancient prophecies; by contrast, A New Hope is straight-up action/adventure, far more concerned with gunfights, tricky situations, exciting dogfights, and amusing banter than with whether the President has been granted too much executive power.”

    Verdict

    In my post on The Empire Strikes Back, I said it wasn’t actually my favourite Star Wars film. For all the popularity the series has as a whole, there’s only really one other possible contender for that crown: the first one. By which I mean this one, not Phantom Menace. Here, Lucas almost instantly conjures up a universe that feels wholly-imagined and genuinely lived-in (which is part of the reason people ended up so disappointed by the made-up-as-they-went-along, fill-in-the-blanks prequel trilogy). Throw in an array of likeable and entertaining characters, plus groundbreaking special effects, and you’re on to a winner. The plot may just be a classical hero narrative, but it’s in space and has laser swords — that counts for a lot.

    Next: #89 ! Fuck yeah!

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

    2016 #100
    Miloš Forman | 134 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestBy many accounts this is the greatest film I’d never seen (hence it being this year’s pick for #100). How are you meant to go about approaching something like that? Probably by not thinking about it too much. I mean, something will always be “the greatest you’ve never seen”, even if you dedicate yourself to watching great movies and the “greatest you’ve never seen” is something pretty low on the list… at which point I guess it stops mattering.

    Anyway, this acclaimed drama — one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars — follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a prisoner who’s claiming to be mentally ill in order to avoid hard labour, as he’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His ward is run by the firm hand of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who subtly controls and oppresses the other inmates (who include early appearances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif). With his antiauthoritarian nature, McMurphy sets out to usurp her control… with ultimately disastrous consequences.

    Cuckoo’s Nest is very ’70s in its bleakness; also in being about someone sticking it to The Man, and The Man winning. We often conflate such qualities with realism — “it’s not all happy, it must be more like real life” — but I wonder if Cuckoo’s Nest is actually too on the nose as an indictment of the system. McMurphy is a highly disruptive influence, which in reality would surely be a problem, but he’s seen to bring the other inmates a joy they previously hadn’t known. His actions give one, Billy Bibbit, confidence and cure him of his stutter — until Ratched reasserts control, his stutter returns, and… worse happens.

    Wretched RatchedHollywood is notorious for adapting novels by grafting on happier endings, but here they did the opposite, removing even the glimmers of justice that the novel offers. In the book (according to Wikipedia), when McMurphy strangles Ratched he also exposes her breasts, humiliating her in front of the inmates; when she returns to work, her voice — her main instrument of control — is gone, and many of the inmates have either chosen to leave or have been transferred away. Conversely, in the film there is no humiliation, and we explicitly see that she still has her voice and that all the men are still there. Of course, McMurphy’s ultimate end isn’t cheery in either version. It’s almost like the anti-Shawshank in its hope-less ending. While the cynical part of me thinks this is more realistic, I do like a bit of optimism, a bit of victory, a bit of justice for the real perpetrators.

    Even aside from the ending, I don’t think the film is as focused as it could or should be. I’m not asking to be handheld through it all, but at times it meanders. The best qualities lie in the acting. Nicholson and Fletcher won the Oscars, and both are very good — Nicholson with his familiar crooked charm, Fletcher despicable as the everyday megalomaniac — but for me the best performance is Brad Dourif, making his screen debut as the stuttering, sweet, ultimately tragic Billy Bibbit. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to George Burns in Only sane one hereThe Sunshine Boys (anyone remember that? No, didn’t think so); though he did win the BAFTA, once again proving that we have all the taste.

    I’m not quite on board with all the praise Cuckoo’s Nest has received — I think it might be improved by a streamlining of purpose. Either way, it is not an enjoyable movie, though it is perhaps a significant one.

    4 out of 5

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    Westworld (1973)

    2016 #155
    Michael Crichton | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG

    WestworldWhen writer-director Michael Crichton hit upon the notion of a theme park where the future-science star attractions broke free of their shackles and endangered the lives of the guests, it was so good it served him twice: he replaced the initial murderous AI-powered robot cowboys with rampaging genetically-engineered dinosaurs and sparked a multimedia franchise of enduring popularity. His first attempt hardly faded into obscurity, mind, bedding in as a minor sci-fi classic that HBO has now seen fit to reboot as a TV series, which premiered on Sunday in the US and debuts in the UK tonight. I think this new version may be most welcome, because Westworld has a great concept but, when it comes to the original film, that’s almost all it has.

    Set in the near future, the film follows two friends (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) as they visit an amusement park where you can live for a time in thorough recreations of either ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or the old West. It’s an immersive experience where you’re kitted out with era-appropriate clothing, stay in authentic lodgings, and the staff really believe it all — because they’re robots who’ve been programmed to do so, distinguishable from humans only by their imperfect hands. The film follow the chums through this process and the fun they have pretending to be gunslingers, though one of the robots (Yul Brynner, done up as the spit of his character from The Magnificent Seven) seems repeatedly antagonistic towards them, and, behind-the-scenes, the repair staff are baffled by some robots’ out-of-character actions.

    Westworld doesn’t even reach the 90-minute mark, but even then there isn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. There’s a big dose of wish fulfilment in seeing Benjamin and Brolin getting to just enjoy the park — wouldn’t it be cool if this was real? Wouldn’t you want to go there? Though the price tag would put most people off: it’s $1,000 a day, which, factoring in inflation from 1973, means a two-week stay would now cost a little Face off, mk.1under $76,000, or about £58,200. The potential threat of the robots malfunctioning is built up gradually here and there, in asides from what our ostensible heroes are up to, and isn’t explained. There are nods to the fact the human staff don’t actually know how the robots work, but why should that be? Some of them were apparently designed by other robots, but how did the designing robots come about? Rather than explore any of its science fiction themes, the film just uses the basic idea to have the robots go on a killing spree right at the climax. This is something Crichton definitely turned around for Jurassic Park, where how it was done is explained and debated… and then the creations go on a rampage. Best of both worlds, that.

    So this is where there’s space for HBO’s new version. I haven’t read too much about it (avoiding spoilers ‘n’ that), but given the long-form needs of TV I’m presuming it’s going to dig into the science a bit more. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan has already demonstrated an interest in the whys and wherefores of artificial intelligence through his last TV series, Person of Interest (which I’ve discussed in several of my monthly TV overviews), so I’m presuming it’s going to take Crichton’s broad idea but then be a little bit Ex Machina: The Series as well. Sounds good to me. Maybe this will be a reboot that pays off, because while the original film does offer Crichton’s superb concept, plus a few straightforward action/suspense thrills, it’s too slight to really deliver on the inherent promise.

    3 out of 5

    The new Westworld starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.