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.

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Jurassic Park (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #47

An adventure
65 million years in the making.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 11th June 1993 (USA)
UK Release: 16th July 1993
First Seen: cinema, 1993

Stars
Sam Neill (Dead Calm, Event Horizon)
Laura Dern (Wild at Heart, Inland Empire)
Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, Independence Day)
Richard Attenborough (10 Rillington Place, Miracle on 34th Street)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

Screenwriters
Michael Crichton (Westworld, Twister)
David Koepp (Death Becomes Her, Panic Room)

Based on
Jurassic Park, a novel by Michael Crichton.

The Story
Invited to a remote island by an eccentric billionaire, a group of scientists, investors, and children discover he’s managed to clone and resurrect dinosaurs, which he intends to exhibit in his theme park: Dinosaur Land!
…not really — it’s called Jurassic Park. As the visitors tour the park looking at the creatures, a nice two-hour nature documentary unfolds.
…not really — the dinosaurs escape and run amok and people die and it’s basically a horror/disaster movie with giant prehistoric lizards as the killer/natural disaster. Good times.

Our Heroes
Dr Alan Grant and Dr Ellie Sattler are palaeontologists invited to Jurassic Park’s test run by enthusiastic grandfatherly billionaire John Hammond. There’s also Dr Ian Malcolm, a sexy mathematician (oxymoron?), and Hammond’s grandkids, siblings Tim and Lex, who Grant is essentially left to babysit. There’s also a handful of other characters who are essentially dinosaur-food… er, I mean, who are totally going to survive to the end of the movie.

Our Villains
It’s a bit mean to call the dinosaurs villains — they’re just behaving as nature intended. Of course, when uber-predators like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors are involved, they’re still the main threat. Their impromptu freedom is all the fault of greedy, traitorous tech geek Dennis Nedry, though.

Best Supporting Character
For what may be the only time in movie history, Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie and isn’t the coolest character. That honour goes to Bob Peck as the park’s badass head ranger, Muldoon.

Memorable Quote
“Don’t move! He can’t see us if we don’t move.” — Dr Alan Grant

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Clever girl.” — Muldoon

Memorable Scene
As the newly-arrived visitors drive across the island, Hammond whispers to the driver to stop. Dr Grant idly looks off to the side, and his mouth falls open in shock. He pulls off his hat. He stands. He fumbles to take off his sunglasses, not believing his eyes. Dr Sattler is distracted by a leaf that shouldn’t exist. Grant reaches over to grab her head, turns it to face what he sees. Now she looks shocked, standing and pulling off her glasses. Whatever they’re looking at, it’s big. And only then, as John Williams’ music swells, does Spielberg cut to it: towering over them, a Brachiosaurus — a real, living dinosaur.

Write the Theme Tune…
Some chap named John Williams totally lucked out writing the film’s iconic main theme, which is one of music’s best evocations of the feelings of awe and wonder.

Technical Wizardry
It’s easily overlooked among all the visual antics, but the film’s sound design is incredible, too. Spielberg insisted on all-new sounds being captured throughout (rather than using any library effects) to help ensure the dinosaur roars sounded unique. The T-Rex’s roar was a combination of sounds from dogs, tigers, alligators, elephants, and… penguins.

Truly Special Effect
Spielberg thought about using a combination of animatronics and groundbreaking CGI to create the dinosaurs, but they just resurrected some real ones instead. More seriously, there’s actually only 15 minutes of dinosaur footage in the film. Nine minutes of that is animatronics — despite its fame and influence, just six minutes were created with CGI.

Making of
Spielberg came up with the idea for the famous rippling glass of water when he saw the mirror in his car vibrate because of sound. When the effects team tried to replicate that with water, nobody could do it… but they told Spielberg they could. The night before the effect was to be shot, effects supervisor Michael Lantieri placed a glass of water on a guitar, plucked the strings, and got the desired effect. For the film — where the glass is on a car dashboard, not a musical instrument — guitar strings were attached to the underside of the dashboard. These days you know they’d just do all that with CGI, and this is why older movies are better.

Next time…
Spielberg returned to helm first sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, which has its fans, but not that many. Joe Johnston took over for Jurassic Park III, which is less epic than either of is predecessors, and more of a brisk (just 90 minutes long), straightforward action-adventure movie. After many years of aborted plans, the series was revived last year in Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, which met with incredible financial success and a mixed (though generally favourable) reception. A fifth film, directed by The Impossible’s J.A. Bayona, will be a direct sequel to Jurassic World and is slated for release in 2018.

Awards
3 Oscars (Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
1 BAFTA (Special Effects)
1 BAFTA nomination (Sound)
4 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director, Writing, Special Effects)
7 Saturn nominations (Actress (Laura Dern), Supporting Actor (both Jeff Goldblum and Wayne Knight), Performance by a Younger Actor (both Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards), Music, Costumes)
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Villain — for the dinosaurs? I don’t know.)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“As he did in Jaws, Spielberg has crafted a man-vs.-nature masterpiece with admirable logic, darkly funny violence and enthralling state-of-the-art special effects. Watching Jurassic Park, one gets the same feeling of wonderment, glee and old-fashioned fright that moviegoers must have felt 60 years ago when King Kong roared out of the jungle and scaled the Empire State Building. […] We ask for two things from big-budget thrillers like this: Make us believe and make us jump. Jurassic Park delivers on both counts; it’s the best gasp-between-the-giggles movie made since a cocky young director and a clunky Bruce the Shark scared the beach out of us 18 summers ago.” — Steve Persall, Tampa Bay Times
(I want to quote so much of this review, because it’s full of good bits, like how it’s “the most intelligent, pro-feminist adventure movie yet made”; or how “a faithful version of Crichton’s tale would have cost at least twice the film’s $60 million price tag” — a film costing $120 million? Unthinkable!)

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“We’re kept waiting for the first full shot of a dinosaur, and it’s worth the wait, the little jeep carrying Sam Neill and Laura Dern stopping long enough for them to gawp in helpless wonder at the sight of Brachiosaurs eating. It works for two reasons. One is the reactions of the actors, which only adds to the moment’s sense of authenticity and gravitas. The second is the use of CGI. Jurassic Park was like a great leap forward in special effects technology. Before this, the only way to see dinosaurs on film was the stop-motion animated models shot painstakingly by Ray Harryhausen and his peers. Suddenly, all that was consigned to cinema history thanks to digital effects, work that holds up today because Spielberg knew how to use CGI judiciously rather than too often […] The combination of CGI and puppetry to create the dinosaur looks seamless, and whilst it must have been painstaking to develop and film there’s no doubt it’s great to watch” — Mike, Films on the Box

Verdict

For a certain generation, Star Wars is undeniably the defining cinematic experience. For a more recent one, I guess it’s Harry Potter or something. In between, you have my lot — and as became quite clear with the unexpectedly phenomenal response to Jurassic World this time last year, we have Jurassic Park. It was the first film I ever saw at the cinema, and much of it has been lodged in my memory every since.

That it’s beloved shouldn’t be such a surprise, really: it was huge back in 1993, and is one of only ten films that can lay claim to ever having been The Highest Grossing Movie Of All Time. It wasn’t the first film to employ computer-generated special effects, but by featuring them so prominently it paved the way for further effects breakthroughs. The groundbreaking imagery still holds up today — and when you consider that the effects in some movies out last week are already dated, that’s even more impressive.

It’s certainly not just about the effects, though: it’s a fantastic adventure movie, putting its likeable characters through the ringer in a story that is by turns exciting, funny, scary, and genuinely awe-inspiring.

#48 will be… a roaring rampage of revenge.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Jurassic World (2015)

2015 #154
Colin Trevorrow | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

22 years ago, Jurassic Park was the first film I saw at the cinema. I was still of an age when all boys seem to find dinosaurs awesome, and of course everyone was talking about this spectacular film and its groundbreaking effects. Plus it was from Steven Spielberg — it feels daft I’d’ve known that at the time, but I was already a certified fan of the Indiana Joneses, so maybe. Either way, I was suitably awestruck, and have always been a little pleased my first big screen experience was such a good movie.

It seems now that I’m of a generation which has secretly held Jurassic Park in a level of esteem that earlier generations had for, I don’t know, Star Wars, maybe. Secret, that is, until Jurassic World came out this summer and, quite to everyone’s surprise, blew all predictions out of the water with the largest opening weekend gross of all time, both in the US ($208.8m) and internationally ($315.6m), totalling the first time a film grossed more than $500 million in one weekend. It ultimately passed The Avengers to be the third highest-grossing film of all time, taking in 40 days what the Marvel team-up needed 133 to achieve.* It was largely well-reviewed too, albeit with some dissenters, so it had a lot to live up to.

For me, it met that watermark. Okay, the plot is fundamentally a rehash of the first movie, but the devil is in the details, and in my book Jurassic World does enough new to shrug off any kind of “stealth remake” allegations. What it does definitely retain is a faithfulness to the Spielbergian tone of the first movie — a stated goal of director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow, and one I feel he’s absolutely pulled off. There’s adventure, humour, a sense of scale and wonder. Even the music’s right: in the same way his theme to Star Wars is the herald of a classical epic, and his theme to Indiana Jones is a call to adventure, John Williams’ equally-peerless theme to Jurassic Park is an ode to wonder, and composer Michael Giacchino deploys it wisely here, saving it for key moments when that sense of awe is front and centre once again. Even some of the film’s ‘problems’ aren’t, in my eyes. Does it spend too long wandering around the park before the big action starts? Not for me… which I guess is a viewpoint that comes with all the caveats of my opening paragraph. I rather suspect this is a movie that was very literally made by fans, for fans.

In that respect, I saw Jurassic World as a movie that was eager to please its audience. It may not always fully conform to logic, and some of its plot developments may be a little far-fetched for some, but it’s been crafted in a way that’s designed to tickle the fancy or scratch an itch among a spectacle-and-fun-seeking blockbuster audience. Sure, the film was greenlit to make loadsa money — what sequel (heck, what film) isn’t — but that doesn’t mean the people who were actually writing, directing, filming, designing, CGI’ing, and everything-else-ing the movie didn’t have pure intentions. Goodness knows how Trevorrow — whose sum total previous directorial experience is an overrated indie rom-com with a vague, underdeveloped sci-fi element — landed this gig, but he does a bang-up job with it. No wonder they’ve given him the keys to a Star Wars saga movie. (That’s a helluvan escalation across just three films, though! Has any other director ever shot so high so fast?)

I realise this review is a bit of a vague gush of praise, so one element that particularly intrigued me was the decision to shoot the film in a 2:1 aspect ratio. There’s some detail on the reasoning here (as well as general information on shooting choices, like the types of film and digital photography used), but essentially it was a compromise between Trevorrow and DP John Schwartzman favouring the blockbuster-standard 2.4:1 (so as to not look like a TV programme) and producer Spielberg wanting 1.85:1 (to favour the dinos’ height). I can’t speak to how it worked in cinemas, but 2:1 is actually a really pleasurable ratio for home viewing. Some 1.85:1 movies do just feel like big-budget TV episodes nowadays (which says as much about how far TV has come, in terms of its visual style, as it does anything else), but 2.35:1 can feel a little too wasteful of screen real estate (as a believer in presenting films in their original ratio (as we all should be) you tend not to question it, but looked at objectively, 2.35:1 on a 16:9 telly is kinda silly. (Not that I’m advocating those daft-looking 21:9 TVs they made a couple of years ago, mind.)) I’ve no idea if 2:1 is likely to catch on more widely (I bet Vittorio Storaro hopes so), but I would quite like if it did.

I kind of felt like Jurassic World plugged directly into whichever part of the brain is responsible for pleasure and just downloaded itself there. I know it’s flawed; even as I was watching it, there were bits that made me go, “really?” Consequently, this review was originally pegged with a four-star rating — no doubt in part influenced by all the other not-completely-praise-filled opinions out there. But, thinking back on it, I just enjoyed it. I think I’ve outlined the main reasons why that was the case, and why I’m able to put aside the niggles. Maybe I’m going soft? (See also: my reviews of poorly-received 2015 blockbusters Tomorrowland and Terminator Genisys.) On the bright side, I watched Jurassic World and had a really good time — that’s what blockbusters are fundamentally for, isn’t it?

5 out of 5

Jurassic World placed 12th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

* Obviously The Force Awakens has already obliterated most of these records (but not all of them). Nonetheless, Jurassic World’s still-phenomenal success remains part of an extraordinary year for Universal, who have also had two other films (Furious 7 and Minions) surpass $1 billion in 2015. They even broke the previous record for full-year studio gross (Fox’s $5.53 billion) in August. They’re not normally so successful (their best result in the ‘studio league table’ for the past decade was third, but they’re usually fifth or sixth), and I rather like Universal — possibly just because of their awesome logo and fanfare, possibly because of their cool theme parks, or possibly even because of their rich history of great movies — so this story has made me unduly happy as it’s developed since the summer. ^

Building Empire (2006)

2015 #71
Jamie Benning | 137 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

The first of Jamie Benning’s “filmumentaries” looks at the making of sometime Best Film Ever, and widely-accepted Best Star Wars Ever, The Empire Strikes Back (as it used to just be known). To quote the documentary’s own intro:

Building Empire is an unofficial commentary to The Empire Strikes Back. It contains video clips, audio from cast and crew, alternate angles, reconstructed scenes, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

It begins with director Irvin Kershner explaining how he came to be involved, though my main observation was how much he sounds like Yoda. Maybe that’s just me…

From there, there’s a focus on the special effects and how they were achieved. There’s a lot of detail about the myriad effects on Hoth, the creation of the asteroid field, and the puppetry of Yoda, as well as boundless trivia, like detailing the set-extension matte paintings. Other major themes include changes from early drafts and in deleted material; audio differences between the many different versions (not only the various release prints and Special Editions, but audiobooks and the like); commentary from actors on the evolution of their characters; plus detail on the actual filming, including the terrible weather on location in Norway (they were able to shoot some of Hoth’s desolate ice fields within feet of their hotel) and the rigours of the Luke/Vader lightsaber duel.

My personal highlight of the documentary comes in Cloud City, at the point Lando’s betrayal is revealed. Benning inserts a “deconstruction of an action scene” (Han shooting at Vader; Vader Force-stealing Han’s gun), using uncut footage and B-roll to quickly glimpse how such things are achieved — or were, before “with CGI” was the answer for everything. Here, Benning’s work transcends merely placing rare interviews or behind-the-scenes footage at the appropriate juncture, instead using that material to create something genuinely new and insightful.

Assuming you’re interested in snippets of minutiae and amusing trivia (if not, these filmumentaries definitely aren’t for you), the downsides are few. It’s a shame that, just occasionally, there are stretches with no additional material (though never for long) when at other times the additions race by in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash. There are also quite a few instances labelled “restored music”, but there’s no comment from John Williams, Kershner, or anyone else on why so much was removed and/or changed.

Niggles aside, I felt like I enjoyed Building Empire even more than its later predecessor (how very Lucas). I’m not saying it’s fundamentally better — just as with Star Wars Begins, for those who love making-of details and trivia, Building Empire is a delightful grab bag of such bits and pieces.

4 out of 5

Building Empire can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The New-Look Monthly Update for June 2015

Say hello to the new-look, bigger-than-ever 100 Films monthly update! Well, partially new look — much is the same, but there are some exciting new regular categories, and image-header-things. I had some ideas; I’ve introduced them all at once. (They excited me, anyway.)

First new regular: a contents list!


What Do You Mean You Haven't Seen…?

Just one WDYMYHS film watched this month (so I’m still two behind) — it’s Martin Scorsese’s beloved boxing biopic (that I should’ve watched in 2013 but failed to), Raging Bull. I would make a brief comment on what I thought of it, but we’ll come to that in the Arbies…


June's viewing

Kingsman#75 Changing Lanes (2002)
#76 Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
#77 The Expendables 3 (Extended Version) (2014)
#78 Ladyhawke (1985)
#79 Now You See Me (2013)
#80 The Interview (2014)
#81 Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
#82 Superman vs. The Elite (2012)
John Wick#83 Rush (2013)
#84 Whiplash (2014)
#85 Meet the Robinsons (2007)
#86 Before Dawn (2012)
#87 The Guest (2014)
#88 Raging Bull (1980)
#89 John Wick (2014)
#90 Fury (2014)


Viewing Notes

  • Meet the Robinsons is the 47th official Walt Disney Animated Classic, and the 39th I’ve seen. 15 to go…
  • I have a whole new format and I make this entire section look pointless with one “oh, by the way” bit of trivia, which is less than I normally have to say here, I feel. Ah well, what can you do?


Analysis

2015 continues apace with 16 new films watched this month. That smashes the June average of 7.14 — indeed, reaching #90 singlehandedly drags it up over a whole film, to 8.25. It’s the highest June ever, which also means it’s the 8th month in a row to beat last year’s equivalent (June 2014 had 11). It’s the 13th month in a row in which I watched more than 10 new films, and is tied with January as both the highest month of 2015 and the third-highest month ever (also tied with May & August 2010). That means that, at 2015’s halfway point, its monthly average is exactly 15.

Most excitingly of all, however, is that I’m now all but guaranteed to reach #100 in July. I’d have to fail my ten-films-per-month goal not to, and I’ve been doing really well with that so have plenty of incentive not to let it slip. More on what reaching #100 in July ‘means’ next month (hopefully!)

Over in Prediction Corner: assuming I uphold my ten-per-month minimum, this year will reach at least #150, which would be my best year by some 14 films. In other words, we should know if 2015 is a new Best Year Ever by November at the latest. (Unless I mess up ten-per-month but then still pass 136 in December, of course.) Meanwhile, in the world of averages… well, we’re halfway through the year, so such a prediction would see my tally exactly double, clocking in at a quite extraordinary 180. (Extraordinary for me, anyhow — stow it, you “365 films in a year” people!)

I’ve been posting these regular monthly updates for over five years now, and in all that time they’ve been very much focused on numbers and stats — how many films have I watched, how does that compare to the past, what does it suggest for the future, etc. And that’s fair enough — as progress reports, it’s kinda their point to report my progress. But I’ve decided it’s about time to introduce some opinion into the mix, to liven things up a bit. So I proudly present…


The Arbies
The 1st Monthly Arbitrary Awards

So named because what I watch in any given month is pretty arbitrary, so the pool of contenders is a total whim rather than a genuine competition. Plus, each month two of the five categories are going to be arbitrarily chosen, just to compound the point. You’ll get the idea as we go along.

That’s Arbie on the right, by-the-way. In case that wasn’t obvious. (Turns out Arbie is also the name of the mascot of the Royal Bank of Canada. I don’t think anyone’s going to get us confused though, so on I go.)

For June 2015, the awards go to…

Favourite Film of the Month
I watched a number of very good films this month, several of them strong contenders for my year-end top ten, but when it came to the crunch there was a clear winner here: as anyone who read my review yesterday likely suspects, it’s The Guest.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Although there were a couple of weak and/or disappointing movies amongst my viewing this month, and some I certainly liked less than this winner (or, rather, loser), for the greatest discrepancy between “expectation” and “what I actually thought of it”, this goes to Raging Bull.

The Most ’80s Soundtrack You’ve Ever Heard
Most months The Guest would have this sewn up, but oh no, not when Ladyhawke’s around. Can you imagine anyone doing a fantasy movie without a Howard Shore-esque orchestral epic soundtrack nowadays? Me either. In the ’80s, on the other hand… well, they sure did love their synthesisers.

Most “Oh, I Didn’t Know They Were In It” Cameo Appearance
If all you’ve seen of John Wick is the Keanu Reeves-centric posters, it’s probably riddled with moments such as these. Me, I somehow knew most of them, so this award goes to Jason “should’ve played James Bond at some point” Isaacs popping up in Fury as some kind of commander for a little bit. The Blu-ray has nearly an hour of deleted scenes; to my surprise, “the rest of Jason Isaacs’ role” doesn’t seem to be among them.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Because if I didn’t limit it to new posts, this would be Harry Potter every month (across 2014 and 2013 (the year they were first published), my reviews of Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets accounted for 33.5% of all my page views).
This month: thanks primarily to being retweeted by a Keanu Reeves fan twitter, the victor is Man of Tai Chi.


from around the blogosphere…

I am shockingly bad at getting round to reading other people’s blogs, and when I do it’s often in fits and starts (as anyone who’s ever received half-a-dozen ‘likes’ from me on things they posted a month ago can attest). In the interest of being a better human being, then, I thought I’d start collating particularly interesting pieces from elsewhere and share them here, for whatever that’s worth.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason to my choices, just a handful of pieces that struck a particular chord for me this month. For one thing, there’s a pair of coincidently-thematically-similar pairings from the same two blogs. One of those is up first:

1976, the year it all started… @ the ghost of 82
ghostof82 tackles the emotions of what makes us love movies in the first place, through his own experience with Jaws in ’76.

Jurassic Park (1993) @ Films on the Box
Mike touches on a similar topic from a different angle: how films that are cinema-defining for a generation can appear to those outside said generation.

Evangelion June 22, 2015 @ Heather Anne Campbell
Monday 22nd June 2015 was “Evangelion Day”, the day on which the first episode of anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place. In this write-up, Heather Anne Campbell explains what the series means to her and, in the process, outlines some of the reasons it’s so good and has endured for so long.

Ten of the Best – Noir Directors @ Ride the High Country
Whenever I read Colin’s blog I come away with a raft of new films I want to see. You can only imagine how many got added to my list after this well-considered overview.

Miracle Mile (1988) Review @ Cinema Parrot Disco
Who doesn’t love stumbling across something they’ve never heard of that turns out to be right up their street? No idea if I’d like Miracle Mile, or even if/when I’ll have a chance to see it, but table9mutant’s review has me suitably intrigued. And is it just me or are the ’80s everywhere at the minute?

Movies Silently’s Top Ten Talkies @ Movies Silently
Talking of, a) recommendations, and b) the ’80s, silent cinema doyenne Fritzi took a detour from her regular stomping ground with this list (technically from last month, but rules were made to be bent). Any list of favourites that includes Mystery Men is a good’un in my book, but the aforementioned ’80s recommendation is her #2 choice, medieval fantasy Ladyhawke. As you may’ve noticed above, it even managed to find its way to the top of my “must watch” pile (a rare feat). Full review in due course, but for now suffice to say I very much enjoyed it. I even thought the score had its moments.

RIP Christopher Lee @ Films on the Box
Finally, the second pairing I mentioned, on a sadder note. First, Mike pays fitting tribute to one of the great screen icons.

Remembering the Music of James Horner @ the ghost of 82
Last but not least, a personal tribute to composer James Horner.


Reviews


Archive Reviews


5 Iconic Music Themes

Film music has changed a lot down the years, but it’s been a pretty constant important element. Plenty of it is forgettable background noise, but some stands out so much it becomes famed in its own right. I recently re-watched the original Star Wars trilogy, inspiring this month’s top five: three film themes — plus two from other mediums — that, to me, are some of the most iconic of all.

  1. Doctor Who by Ron Grainer
    Doctor WhoDiddly-dum diddly-dum diddly-dum ooo-weee-ooo… For generations of British children, that’s the sound of Saturday night adventure. I guess to some people it’s just a children’s TV theme, but they’re wrong: it was a genuinely pioneering, important example of burgeoning electronic music (honestly). As a composition it’s surprisingly versatile: Delia Derbyshire’s original arrangement is still chillingly unsettling 52 years on; Murray Gold’s 2005 version (arguably perfected in the Series Four version) is an equally-perfect orchestral blockbuster.
  2. Star Wars (Main Theme) by John Williams
    Star WarsDooo-dooo dododo-dooodo dododo-dooodo dododo-doo… You could probably fill this list twice over with John Williams compositions — Indiana Jones, Jaws, Superman, Jurassic Park, more recently Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter, and so on — but undoubtedly the most iconic of them all is his main theme to George Lucas’ space-fantasy saga. Running it a close second is the same series’ Imperial March, perhaps the greatest villain’s theme ever. All together now: dum dum dum dum-dudum dum-dudum…
  3. James Bond Theme by Monty Norman
    Casino Royale teaserDang da-dang-dang da-da-da dang da-dangdang da-da-da daa-daa da-da-daa… A 53-year-old surf rock tune should by all rights be horribly dated, but I guess true cool endures. While the version used in the films has barely changed, there are an abundance of variations for trailers, etc. My personal favourite is the one created by Pfeifer Broz. Music for the Casino Royale trailer in 2006. The climactic use of a choir is one of those “how did it take someone 43 years to think of this?!” moments.
  4. The Fellowship Theme by Howard Shore
    FellowshipDooo-dooo dododooo, do-do-doo do-do-doo do-do-doo do do doo… The only one here that isn’t a title theme, but it’s indelibly part of the Lord of the Rings franchise — it has no reason to appear in The Hobbit trilogy, but I spent most of those eight hours missing it. It reoccurs throughout the trilogy (of course it does), but perhaps the purest version can be found in The Ring Goes South from the Fellowship soundtrack. “Only Peter Jackson and Howard Shore can make 9 people walking past a rock look epic.”
  5. The Secret of Monkey Island by Michael Land
    The Secret of Monkey IslandDoo-doo dodododo-doo do-do-do-doo… I’m certain this will be less familiar than any of the above to most people but, honestly, to me (and, I think, many other people who played the LucasArts games) it’s as iconic as anything else I’ve mentioned, including all of those other John Williams ones. The original was rendered in the style of its era — a digital MIDI thing — but it endured throughout the series and was transformed into some lusher orchestral versions. Try the version from the 2009 special edition, for instance.

I’m already full of incredulousness at myself for leaving out Indiana Jones. Or Back to the Future. Or Mission: Impossible. And it may’ve been composed by committee, but I love the main theme from Pirates of the Caribbean (find it cleanly in the first film’s He’s a Pirate). And if we’re allowing TV themes, what about Games of Thrones? I mean, this is pretty much what I hear every time I watch the show. And also… oh, we’ll be here forever. What are you favourites?


Next month…

#100! Probably. Hopefully.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

2010 #16
Dave Filoni | 98 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

Star Wars: The Clone WarsThe Clone Wars can boast an awful lot of firsts within the Star Wars franchise: the first animated Star Wars in cinemas, the first not to feature Frank Oz as Yoda, the first not to open in May, the first not to have a text-crawl intro… It’s also the first not to open at number one at the box office. None of these facts are likely to endear itself to die-hard Star Wars fans. I’m not one, but it did little to endear itself to me either.

Things go wrong immediately. For fans, the Warner Bros. logo is horrendously incongruous (so I’m told — the original six films were all released by Fox), but for even the casual viewer there’s something seriously odd within minutes: no opening text crawl! This is meant to be Star Wars? Instead, a chunk of exposition — which sounds exactly like the opening crawl would, and so has clearly been designed to replace it — is read over a montage of the events it describes. Do they think children can’t read? In fairness, I’ve been to Star Wars screenings where there were children young enough that parents were having to read the crawl to their kids… but considering the live action films are “kids’ movies” too (as Lucas was so keen to remind us when everyone hated the prequels), surely what’s good enough for them is good enough for this?

Omissions such as this could be forgiven if more important aspects went well. But they don’t. The script is so good it could’ve been written by George Lucas himself. There are too many weak dialogue exchanges to even consider listing them, but Ahsoka’s habit of calling R2-D2 “Artooey” is memorably grating. Much of the voice acting is just as bad, with James Arnold Taylor’s Obi Wan accent particularly off-centre. Catherine Taber’s Padmé impression is probably the most convincing of the lot and, coincidentally sharing the same scenes, Corey Burton’s Truman Capote impression as Ziro the Hutt is entertainingly obvious. Count Dooku doesn’t particularly benefit from the involvement of Christopher Lee, but at least Samuel L. Jackson is vaguely recognisable lending his actual voice to Mace Windu. Most of the cast deliver the kind of performance you typically find in kids’ cartoons — i.e. not all that good, no doubt due to the pressures of producing as many episodes as possible as cheaply as possible. Dubious line readings abound, though in fairness this may be down to the awkward lines they’re forced to deliver.

In between the poor dialogue there are plenty of action sequences. The first battle is a bit dull: masses of troops just firing at each other, until the bad guys suddenly decide that actually they ought to retreat because of the cannons — cannons that have been firing on them throughout. At least the repeat performance ten minutes later features some tactics and diversions. Later fights are better, though not by a huge amount. There are certainly a fair few, though there’s little real variation between them. The big battles and space dogfights are adequate, if lacking in focus, but the lightsaber duels miss the heft of their live-action equivalents, animation robbing them of the physical skill involved in a real sword fight (even if those in the prequels involve a fair degree of CGI themselves). The much-trumpeted vertical battle is a great idea that’s competently executed, but the change in perspective is too little used — apart from the odd moment or shot, they may as well be progressing slowly on a horizontal plane.

All of these sequences are scored by stock-sounding ‘epic action music’. Kevin Kiner’s music is nothing like as original or distinctive as John Williams’ work on the main series. Other than re-using some of Williams’ themes, it’s a rather generic action score — perfectly pleasant for what it is, but not particularly memorable. A slight remix of the main Star Wars theme gives the opening a distinctive air… as if the Warner Bros. logo, war talk over the Lucasfilm logo, and lack of text crawl didn’t do the job by themselves.

The animation itself is certainly stylised, which annoys some, but then it’s not billed as an Avatar-esque “it’s real, honest” style, or even the lower level achieved (if one can call it an achievement) by Beowulf. It’s surely a sensible decision — look how far from real Beowulf turned out to be on a feature budget and timescale, and when you’re churning out a weekly series (as this was always intended to be) such aspirations as photo-real CGI are far too lofty, not to mention expensive. Personally, I quite like the style. The painterly textures are slightly odd, but probably preferable to flat slabs of colour, while the cartoonisation of the cast (allegedly inspired by Thunderbirds) fits the lightweight tone and keeps things visually interesting. Besides, as noted, the visual style is the least of the film’s problems.

It may sound like a piece of trivia that this was originally conceived as three episodes of the TV series that now follows it, but where the breaks would fall is disappointingly clear — note, for example, that at around 25 minutes the first battle is won, Anakin resolves himself to teach the Padawan he previously objected to, and Yoda arrives to kick off the next part of the story. It could only be more like the end of an episode if credits rolled. It’s also the apparent need to fit two or three action sequences per episode that keeps them coming at regular intervals in a film which sticks three back-to-back.

There’s an overarching plot, thank goodness, which is immediately established… before being put on hold for half-an-hour while the events of what-would-have-been-episode-one play out: a battle that isn’t particularly significant in itself and has absolutely no relevance to the rest of the story, immediately betraying the three-episode origins. After that’s done the main plot resumes in two clearly-divisible chunks — the precise moment of the second transition isn’t as obvious as the first, but which subplots belong to which half is. Maybe the story joins are invisible to those who don’t know the production’s history or something of narrative structure (i.e. normal people), but they were blatant to me. It particularly shows in the final act/third episode, as the story switches from epic battle sequences to some out-of-nowhere political wrangling and lower-key lightsaber-based confrontations.

Although it has high-quality animation, a largely cinematic scale, particularly in the battles, and direction that isn’t as obviously TV-only as some TV-bound productions, The Clone Wars still feels like watching a compilation of TV episodes rather than a film in its own right. It’s partly the episode structures that remain unconcealed, partly the shortage of real voice talent indicating a lower budget, partly the relative insignificance of the story — it just doesn’t have the epic quality that imbued all the other Star Wars films. Not every film has to be an epic, even ones set within the same universe/storyline, but by wheeling out all the main characters and then showing them complete just one moderately low-key mission, The Clone Wars does feel like a single instalment of a TV series and not an appropriately-scaled cinematic experience.

This might’ve made a pretty strong set of opening episodes to a half-hour TV show, and I hear the series has gotten quite good as its first season progressed. If that’s true, it’s a shame such a weak beginning will have put so many off giving it a go, because as a standalone film The Clone Wars falls far short.

3 out of 5