The Director and the Jedi (2018)

2018 #59
Anthony Wonke | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

The Director and the Jedi title card

So, The Last Jedi, eh?

No, okay, let’s not get into that again. Instead, how about this: the film’s Blu-ray making-of documentary. But oh, how that undersells it. More indicative, perhaps, is the fact it was screened as part of the South by Southwest festival last month. The Director and the Jedi isn’t some cobbled-together EPK featurette, where talking heads tell you how wonderful everyone is and how great the working environment was, while tech guys show you how to build a puppet or paint out greenscreen or, you know, whatever. No, for this one Last Jedi’s writer-director Rian Johnson and his producer Ram Bergman contacted documentary-maker Anthony Wonke to follow them around throughout the film’s production and provide a more truthful account of the film’s creation.

If that sounds like it would just turn out a video diary (another familiar special feature of the DVD era), the key would seem to be Wonke, who brings considerably more artistry than that. Most making-ofs are, for want of a better word, educational — “this is how they did it”. There’s some of that here, naturally, but it’s not about that. It’s more often about the psychology and emotion of being the people making a new Star Wars movie. But not heavy-handedly (Wonke isn’t constantly making people say how they feel or something), and that’s why it’s so artfully done. It’s even beautifully filmed and edited. It doesn’t look like crummy behind-the-scenes B-roll — there are some legitimately gorgeous shots in here.

The producer, the apprentice, the director, and the Jedi

If that makes it sound faked, no, it’s definitely not been staged. Far from it, in fact: this is a warts-and-all making-of. Exceedingly rarely for a documentary about a new release, Wonke has been allowed to include comments critical of the process or filmmakers. Chief among them: Mark Hamill’s much-discussed reservations about Johnson’s treatment of Luke Skywalker. As the title might imply, this is the doc’s strongest throughline, and would be its most affecting were it not for another part (more on that later). I say that because the feeling you eventually get from Hamill and Johnson is one of immense mutual respect, even as their beliefs about what should happen in the film clash. Except they don’t clash because Hamill, the dutiful actor, informs Johnson of his misgivings before committing to realise Johnson’s vision as best he can. It causes Johnson to doubt whether he’s doing the right thing — and, again, such elements of doubt are not something we normally witness in documentaries like this, even as they are surely always a part of the creative process.

Indeed, the creative process of filmmaking is another major point, especially in how it clashes with reality. The Last Jedi may’ve had a phenomenal budget and a massive production machine to back it up, but it also had just a 100-day shoot to squeeze in the construction of and filming on 120 sets, not to mention travelling around the world for location shooting. What Johnson and co want to achieve constantly clashes with what’s possible with the time and budget available. (The amount of effort that went into making the thala-siren milking scene happen just makes it all the funnier how much some people hated it.) As one producer puts it, eventually you have to fit everything in a box — “this box is big, but it has limits”.

It ain't easy at the top

Consequently, there’s a lot of stuff with department heads butting against Johnson’s vision a little bit, either because of time, or money, or “that? In Star Wars?” feelings. But, like Hamill, they all get on with their jobs to serve his vision, because that’s filmmaking. And this is why we, as film fans/theorists, still discuss the notion of the director as auteur, even though filmmaking is undeniably a massively collaborative exercise. The Director and the Jedi is as a good demonstration as any of why the seemingly-conflicting notions of “filmmaking is entirely collaborative” and “auteur theory is relevant” are both true.

The other most memorable part of the film is how it handles Carrie Fisher’s presence and, well, eventual lack thereof. The bulk of the documentary is dedicated to the actual filming of The Last Jedi (Wonke wasn’t privy to either the writing or post-production, which is a shame because they’re certainly key parts of the creative process), but Fisher’s death is an unavoidable topic, and clearly they conducted at least a short interview with Johnson after it happened. Aside from those few comments, Wonke builds a tribute to her through her work and the regard others hold her in. He chooses to end the documentary, not with the last day of shooting, but with Fisher and Hamill finally reunited on set and on screen, the crew watching in hushed awe as they film that beautiful scene in the Crait hangar. It forms a fitting, respectful tribute.

The princess and the director

“Beautiful” is a word I keep coming back to with this documentary — how it’s shot and constructed; how it handles its subjects; how the relationships between people come across. I guess those who hated Last Jedi and Johnson’s contribution will still rile against it to some degree, but even for them I think it’s worth a watch, if only to try to appreciate that no one was deliberately trying to “ruin their childhoods” or whatever. Quite the opposite. And even for non-fans, there’s insight here into humanity when its applied to a joint creative endeavour. If that sounds a bit grand for a blockbuster’s making-of, well, The Director and the Jedi is much more than your bog-standard making-of.

5 out of 5

The Director and the Jedi is included on the Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is released in the UK today.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

aka Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

2017 #169
Rian Johnson | 152 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’ve felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if a small but vocal group of fanboys suddenly cried out in terror and were unfortunately not silenced because on the internet such complaining goes on forever.

Yes, something terrible has happened: a new Star Wars movie has come out and, rather than go the Force Awakens route of appealing to nostalgia and familiarity, it’s attempted to boldly go where no Star Wars movie has gone before. Well, it’s maybe not quite that innovative, but writer and director Rian Johnson has given us an Episode VIII that eschews rehashing former glories for an attempt to push the franchise forward in interesting new ways. It’s not an unmitigated success, but it is considerably more than just “a good effort”.

Picking up exactly where Episode VII left off, The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance fleeing as the First Order strike back. With those villains in pursuit, intent on wiping out the Resistance once and for all, hot-headed pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plot to cripple the First Order’s flagship. Meanwhile, on the other side of the galaxy, Force-adept orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to persuade hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the only remaining Jedi Master, to rejoin the fight.

The last Jedi?

Two years ago, The Force Awakens set a new trilogy in motion by not only introducing us to a selection of new characters and their conflicts, but also by posing a bunch of questions and establishing a pile of mysteries. The Last Jedi has the task of either perpetuating these — essentially, putting them on hold to be answered in 2019’s finale, Episode IX — or actually (gasp!) resolving some of them. No spoilers (I imagine if you care then you’ve seen the film by now, but just in case…), but Johnson has indeed decided to furnish us with some answers, and it’s generally this that has riled up certain parts of the internet.

Frankly, it’s not a debate I want to wade into, in part because I generally think the complaints are misplaced — many of them stem from fans having expected certain things, then not got those things. They say that’s not it; that Johnson’s writing of characters and ability to tell a story is fundamentally flawed… but they’re wrong. Johnson’s answers are fine — in fact, in many cases they’re exactly the kind of thing I’d hoped for (yep, some of us did get what we wanted!) — they’re just not the kind of answers some people expected. And I think that’s a good thing. This way is more surprising. But also, it’s not surprising for surprise’s sake — it fits the story being told. Minor spoilers here for the film’s themes, which are failure and what it takes to be a hero. (That’s two of them, anyway. I’m sure there are more.) The former, as we are told, is important — you learn more from failure than from success, as they say. The latter is, at least in part, explored in terms of who gets to be a hero, and why. Both of these lead to answers that have made some people deeply unhappy, usually for the wrong reasons — as I say, an awful lot of people are blaming Johnson’s abilities as a filmmaker, when really they just don’t like the perfectly-well-built story they’ve been given.

The end of Kylo Ren?

Anyway, that’s enough harping on about other people’s issues. I do think the film had some flaws, primarily in the pacing department. I think where it goes wrong is how it emphasises the events on Ahch-To (Luke’s island) and Canto Bight (the casino planet). I get the impression the latter has been built up to give us somewhere to cut away to during the former, but it means what is a subplot aside gets too much screen time. We expect a three-act structure, and it makes that whole section feel like Act Two of Three, but it isn’t. I can imagine this plays better on a rewatch, so I’m reserving judgement slightly.

That aside, though, The Last Jedi has much to please. Every major player is granted a noteworthy arc, developing as people throughout the movie. The pay-offs to all that are particularly satisfying. Obviously I can’t talk about that without spoiling it, but everything that occurs in the throne room after it becomes clear this isn’t your typical Star Wars throne room scene is among my favourite stuff in the whole saga. And you’d have to go some way to beat the long-awaited reunion between a couple of characters, in a perfectly-written and emotionally loaded scene. This definitely contains some of the best acting in any Star Wars movie — Carrie Fisher gives one of the best performances of her career; Mark Hamill makes you wonder why his never took off like, say, Harrison Ford’s did; and the young guns get their moments too, particularly Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, with a shoutout for the always wonderful Domhnall Gleeson.

Also John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran

Away from the dramatic conflicts, it also satisfies as an action movie, with some of the saga’s most incredible sequences. At times it feels like we’re watching an actual war, rather than the odd skirmish that pops up in previous films. The smaller level combat is impressive too. This is certainly not a film just about its action set pieces, but they don’t disappoint. All around this may well be the best-directed Star Wars movie, with its shot choices, editing, and some bold and original ways of staging things that give us examples of pure filmmaking never before seen in this series. Part of that is the beautiful cinematography by Johnson’s regular DP, Steve Yedlin. There’s been striking photography in previous Star Wars movies, but none so consistently as this. One bit in the second half provoked actual gasps and “wow”s from my audience — and we’re British, we don’t make noise during films.

Except laughter. People laughed, too. This is a funny film. Too funny, in some people’s estimations. Maybe they forget that Star Wars has always been amusing (on IMDb the highest-rated quote from A New Hope is Han’s chat over the intercom when they’re breaking Leia out, which is basically a comedy skit). I had mixed feelings about one extended bit at the beginning (it’s funny, but does it fit in Star Wars?), but mostly I thought the level of humour was about right. That reminds me of the most ridiculous single criticism I’ve read of the film, though: some people have claimed the film has a “vegan agenda” due to one comedy bit. I kid you not. Elsewhere, the humour is used to succinctly undercut some of the series’ pomposity, which ties back round to Johnson’s pleasantly irreverent aims that I was alluding to earlier.

Or is Luke the last Jedi?

One of the key lines from The Last Jedi’s trailer (and it’s also very important in the film, of course) comes from Luke: “This is not going to go the way you think.” That’s quite clearly the case between the film and its audience, too. Some of us have revelled in that; others despised it. Others still find themselves in between, stuck being drawn back and forth to two complex and opposing emotional states. Being uncertain of your feelings between the Light and the Dark — seems only appropriate for this franchise, doesn’t it?

The Last Jedi doesn’t play to the populist cheap seats in the way The Force Awakens did, which makes it a less congenial movie, but perhaps a better one. It doesn’t effortlessly entertain with nostalgic Star Wars-ness as Episode VII does, but instead takes all that familiar iconography and prods at it to push it in new directions. Like another big sci-fi sequel this year, Blade Runner 2049, it’s a film whose true appreciation may only occur over time. I didn’t like everything about it, but the stuff I liked, I loved.

4 out of 5

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in cinemas everywhere now. I imagine you’ve already seen it.

P.S. I loved the Porgs.

The last Porg?

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

2016 #129
Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Batman: The Killing JokeAlan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the seminal works of superhero comic books’ move into seriousness in the ’80s, sitting just behind the likes of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One in terms of significance. It’s also seen by many as the definitive story about Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, and has influenced the live-action interpretations of both Jack Nicholson & Tim Burton and Heath Ledger & Christopher Nolan. It is not without controversy, however, thanks in large part to its treatment of Barbara Gordon / Batgirl; and Moore has since semi-disowned it, saying it has no intrinsic value because it has nothing to say about real human beings, only commenting on the comic-book-y relationship between Batman and the Joker.

Now, it finally makes its way to our screens in animated form. What took so long? Well, it’s dark, and to do it justice the makers needed the potential to make it R-rated. Given permission to do so by Warner, they’ve done just that. So here we have a very faithful adaptation of the graphic novel… but it’s a bit short, so there’s a 28-minute prologue stuck on the front. Designed to ameliorate some of the issues people have with the original book, it’s actually only made things worse, containing brand-new controversial elements all of its own. Oh dear.

In this new segment, Batgirl (Tara Strong) and Batman (Kevin Conroy) find themselves on the trail of Paris Franz (say it aloud… or don’t), a young upstart who wants to take control of his uncle’s organised crime operation. Once that business is dealt with, we get to the familiar meat of the story, where the Joker (Mark Hamill) decides to prove a point — in a violent and twisted fashion, naturally.

To really discuss where this adaptation of The Killing Joke goes awry, I’m going to have to stop being coy about spoiling a 28-year-old comic book that had lasting ramifications for Barbara Gordon’s place in the DC universe. Also, spoilers for this new film, too. You have been warned.

So, for those not in the know or who would like a recap, the Joker’s plan is to prove we’re all just one bad day away from going insane like him. The target of his experiment is Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), and he begins by shooting his daughter Barbara in the spine, paralysing her, then taking photos of her naked to torment the Commissioner with later. (The actual photo-taking isn’t depicted in the comic or this film, but the images are hinted at later on.) This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least Barbara’s lack of presence in the story as anything more than a pawn to torture her father.

The film’s solution is to begin with a standalone Batgirl adventure. Not an inherently bad idea — it could make her a more rounded character; someone we care about for herself, not just a minor victim in some other game. However, screenwriter Brian Azzarello (and, presumably, director Sam Liu and executive producer Bruce Timm) have tried to do this by making her horny for Batman, and have that infatuation actually consummated in an al fresco rooftop sex scene (not graphically shown, but the film is unequivocal about what happened). To say the least, this doesn’t seem like the best way to go about making her an independent, rounded human being — it comes off like fan service. No, worse: fan fiction. A scene earlier on where she explains her Bat-infatuation to her gay best friend is presumably meant to suggest a genuine motivation for the eventual sexy times, but it all comes across as a great big excuse.

To top it off, it in no way informs the adaptation of The Killing Joke that follows. It makes nods towards some of the thematic concerns of the main story, but, structurally, it’s not part of the same film at all — there’s a fade to black & fade back in that really signals the end of one production and the start of a new one; the end of an opening short film and the start of the feature presentation. Only the ‘feature’ is far too short (44 minutes before credits), so that ‘short’ is clearly there to bulk up the running time.

The titular adaptation that follows is arguably faithful to a fault. If you’re seeking to make it feature-length, would it not have been better to expand the story out and examine some of its points more fully, even if the points you illuminated were about plot logic rather than themes — the original comic is very short and arguably a little rushed in places, so I think there’s definite room for expansion. In fact, while it might make sense to expand the role of Barbara Gordon for reasons of taste and social mores that have (not wrongly) since been projected onto the comic, from a purely narrative point of view the character who needs expanding is Commissioner Gordon. In the comics he’s a regular cast member, so it can afford to take as read his status as an “ordinary man” — or perhaps even a paragon of virtue, which brings its own problems to the story. But while he is a familiar figure in the Batman mythology, and so by extension to anyone who’s likely to watch this film, it’s also a standalone movie, not part of a series, and so it would be beneficial to establish his character somewhat before the Joker’s plan for him gets underway.

Heck, the film’s own special features even feature a psychologist talking about how it’s Jim Gordon’s story! While the Joker and Batman are the same characters at the beginning and the end, it’s Gordon who goes through a terrible ordeal and then has a choice to make. Yet in spite of that he’s treated as the fourth lead, at best, with the Joker and Batman taking precedence in the main adaptation and Barbara gaining masses of focus thanks to her half-hour preamble. It’s probably the twin desires to put the graphic novel on screen as-is and to in some way justify Barbara Gordon’s role in it that have led to this point. A less literal adaptation — one prepared to expand and elucidate the story, rather than just tack on an extra part at the start — could have found room to deepen both the Gordons.

Still, I suppose the literal faithfulness of the story adaptation will please purists. And reuniting the key voice acting cast from Batman: The Animated Series, arguably the all-time definitive screen interpretations of Batman and the Joker, is always fan-pleasing. Hamill, in particular, is fantastic, even when having to deliver Alan Moore’s typically verbose dialogue. However, one of the reasons the graphic novel is so beloved is Brian Bolland’s detailed, realistic, dynamic artwork. His draftsmanship transcends the actual narrative of Moore’s writing so that, however distasteful the tale being told, it looks incredible. Naturally, this animated adaptation loses that entirely, employing the standard “Saturday morning cartoon +” aesthetic of these DC direct-to-video movies. There are sound budgetary reasons for that, but it means the focus falls even more squarely on the narrative rather than the images. (It’s somewhat ironic, then, that (as ever) Alan Moore doesn’t receive an onscreen credit while Bolland does.) There are a handful of effective visuals here (the Joker’s gleeful face as he turns on the amusement park, its lights twinkling in his eyes), but they’re the exception to work which is adequate — good for what it is, even — but unremarkable.

For such a long-awaited adaptation, it’s difficult to conclude The Killing Joke is anything other than a disappointment. It didn’t have to be that way: I thought Warner made a good hash of adapting Year One, and an even better one of The Dark Knight Returns. While this adaptation does allow some of the book’s inherent quality to carry through, The Killing Joke was always going to be more problematic due to its content, and the filmmakers’ clumsy attempts to fix that have only made it worse. Shame.

3 out of 5

Batman: The Killing Joke is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

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.

Returning to Jedi (2007)

2015 #91
Jamie Benning | 148 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

Returning to Jedi completes fan/editor Jamie Benning’s trilogy of documentaries about the original Star Wars trilogy with a look at the making of… well, obviously. In case you’ve forgotten, Benning’s “filmumentaries” are most succinctly summarised by the documentary’s own introduction:

Returning to Jedi is an unofficial commentary. It contains video, audio and information from over one hundred sources taking you deep into the making of Return of the Jedi.

I’m not entirely sure why, but it felt to me that this might be the best of all Benning’s Star Wars filmumentaries (he’s also completed ones for Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark). It’s not that anything’s drastically different (the format works), it’s just a certain something that made it the most engrossing. Perhaps there was more material to work with — the result is something like 20 minutes longer than Jedi itself, and a good ten minutes longer than the other Star Wars filmumentaries. Doesn’t sound so much when put like that, so maybe I’m making a spurious correlation.

There’s certainly tonnes of behind-the-scenes footage in this one, more so than the other two. Much of it concentrates on the creation of the special effects, as usual, with particular attention paid to Jabba, the Rancor, and the speederbike chase. As all are noteworthy achievements in effects work, they merit the focus. Audio snippets from various interviews down the years provide some more varied detail. There’s a fair bit of information on variations to the story that were considered and rejected, though it does make it sound like Lawrence Kasdan was desperate to kill someone off: he kept suggesting the likes of Han, Lando, and even Luke should make the ultimate sacrifice, while Lucas maintained no one should die. Kasdan wasn’t alone — Harrison Ford also thought Solo should die, and Mark Hamill expected more darkness for Luke — but I guess they weren’t to be heard by an increasingly autocratic Lucas (reports of him essentially directing Jedi for Richard Marquand, or of his clash with the Directors’ Guild that prevented Steven Spielberg from directing the film, go unmentioned here).

Highlights include: a look at the set for Jabba’s sail barge and the Sarlacc pit, an enormous raised construction in the Arizona desert that looks incredible; the fact that they consulted a child psychologist, who told them under 12s would think Vader being Luke’s father was a lie unless it was unequivocally stated, hence the scene where Yoda does just that; and a selection of interesting deleted scenes. The wisest deletion was an early scene of Luke building his new saber and hiding it in R2-D2 — how much would that undermine the reveal that Luke had a plan all along? — though also of note are a sandstorm before they leave Tatooine (deleted for pace) and a full-on shoot-out as Han and co enter the bunker on Endor.

Whether Returning to Jedi is the best of Benning’s work or not is neither here nor there, really. Although their length and the fact they sometimes focus on minutiae probably rules them out for the casual observer, who might prefer a shorter making-of overview if they’re even interested, his trilogy of Star Wars filmumentaries are consistently fascinating for fans.

4 out of 5

Returning to Jedi can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK at midnight tonight, and in the US on Friday. It will be reviewed at a future date. (Possibly Christmas Day. We’ll see.)

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

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

2015 #76
Matthew Vaughn | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15* / R

Kingsman: The Secret ServiceThe team behind Kick-Ass bring that same reverent irreverence to the spy genre in this comedy-action-thriller that aims to bring the fun of ’60s/’70s spy-fi back to a genre that’s become oh so serious.

Developed alongside the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic book The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s film casts Colin Firth as Harry Hart, an agent for an independent intelligence operation, Kingsman, who recruits council estate kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a fallen comrade, into the group’s elite training programme. As Eggsy battles tough training challenges and the snobbery of his Oxbridge-sourced competitors, Harry investigates suspicious tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is secretly kidnapping people of importance and publicly giving away free SIM cards to everyone on the planet, but for what nefarious purpose?

There are several things going on in Kingsman that make it a uniquely entertaining proposition, especially in the current blockbuster climate. Part of the setup is “My Fair Lady with gentlemen spies”, as chavvy Eggsy is reshaped to be an old-fashioned besuited gent, inspired by the story of how Dr. No director Terence Young took a rough young Scottish chap called Sean Connery under his wing and taught him how to dress and behave as a gentlemen in preparation for his star-making role as the original superspy. It’s one of those ideas that you wonder why no one thought of developing into a fiction sooner. It could have come across as datedly classist, but Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman nail it as a 21st Century character arc: being a gentlemen is not about speaking correctly or lording it over the lower classes, but about a universal level of good behaviour, politeness, and doing the right thing. It successfully and acutely dodges any potential accusations of classism.

Classy mealAn even bigger part of the film’s triumph, and what likely led it to over $400 million worldwide in spite of its higher-than-PG-13 classifications (it’s Vaughn’s highest-grossing film to date, incidentally; even more so than his X-Men instalment), is that it takes the ever-popular James Bond formula and brings it up to date. However much you might love Casino Royale and Skyfall (and I do), the Bourne influence is undeniable. They’re not Bond movies in the same mould as the Connery and Moore movies that established the franchise’s enduring popularity around the globe; they’re modern thrillers, faithful in their way to Ian Fleming’s creation, but also zeitgeisty. Vaughn and co have looked at the DNA of those ’60s and ’70s Bond classics and given them a fresh lick of paint. So we have just-beyond-possible gadgets, a megalomaniacal supervillain, complete with epic mountain base, his own personal army, a physical tic, a uniquely-gifted almost-superhuman henchwoman, and a tongue-in-cheek tone that isn’t all-out spoof but lets you know no one believes any of this could actually happen and that’s OK.

Despite the overall tone of modern blockbusters, I don’t think the appetite for movies like this ever went away; or if it did, it quite quickly made a resurgence: a similar itch has been scratched in recent years by superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones. Audiences — or, perhaps, studio execs — seem currently more ready to accept outlandish action sequences, melodramatic stakes, and an occasionally-humorous tone if they were dressed up in colourful suits and pitched in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, A little swimrather than the supposed real-world universe of spy movies. What the worldwide success of Kingsman proves is that audiences don’t need the set-dressing of superpowers to accept an action movie that’s less than deadly serious. It’s a place I don’t think the Bond movies could go anymore — not without accusations of returning to the disliked Moore or late-Brosnan films — but it’s one many people clearly like, and Kingsman fulfils it.

Another clever move by Vaughn and co was to aim it at adults. Every blockbuster is PG-13 these days to keep the box office high, but Kingsman shows you can cut loose and still make good money. By specifically setting out to make an R-rated version of the classic Bond formula, everything gets ramped up to 11. On the one hand, that earns the controversy of That Joke in the final act (as Vaughn has said, not wrongly, it’s a variation on the classic Bond film finale; Mark Strong’s Merlin even closes his videoscreen, Q-style), but on the other it allows for crazed action sequences. The (faked-)single-take church massacre has to be seen to be believed; a highly-choreographed orgy of violence that is a marvellous assault on the senses, demonstrating the benefits of clear camerawork and highly-trained professional stunt- and effects-people over fast-cut close-up ShakyCam handwavery. Later on, a certain sequence set to Land of Hope and Glory would be inconceivable in any other movie. Things like this perfectly demonstrate why the world needs these less-than-serious kinds of film: they let creativity loose, crafting moments and sequences that are exciting, funny, unique, and memorable.

The first rule of Fight Church...Criticisms of the film tend to pan out to nought, in my opinion. Is there too much violence? There’s a lot, certainly, but part of the point of that church sequence (for instance) is just how long it goes on. Other excellent action sequences (the pub fight you might’ve seen in clips; the car chase in reverse gear; the skydiving) aren’t predicated on killing. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson’s baseball-capped lisping billionaire is a perfect modern riff on the traditional Bond villain, not some kind of attack on Americans or people with speech impediments. Some have even attempted a political reading of the film, arguing it’s fundamentally conservative and right-wing because the villain is an environmentalist. Again, I don’t think the film really supports such an interpretation. In fact, I think it’s completely apolitical — just like its titular organisation, in fact — and such perspectives are being entirely read into it by the kind of people who read too much of this kind of thing into everything.

If there’s any fault, it’s perhaps in an overabundance of ideas. One fewer training sequence might’ve been better — but then, which would you lose? Based on the trailer, some scenes were cut as it is (sadly there’s no deleted scenes section on the Blu-ray), and the film doesn’t really outstay its welcome. For me, it wasn’t as balls-to-the-wall revolutionary as Kick-Ass and, when we have actually had lighter-toned action films in the past few years, it doesn’t reconstruct its genre quite as much as Vaughn and Goldman’s adaptation of Stardust did for fantasy.

Secret SocietyNot everything hinges on being wall-to-wall groundbreaking, though, and Kingsman has so much to recommend it. It ticks all the requisite boxes of being exciting and funny, and some of its sequences are executed breathtakingly. The plot may move along familiar tracks — deliberately so — but it pulls out a few mysteries and surprises along the way. There’s an array of likeable performances, particularly from Firth, Egerton (sure to get a lot of work off the back of this), Jackson and Strong, and Sofia Boutella’s blade-legged henchwoman is yet another why-has-no-one-done-that great idea.

I’m more than happy for the Bond series to carry on down its current, serious-minded path, but I’m ever so glad Kingsman has come along to provide the level of pure entertainment and unabashed fun that series used to do so well. If they can keep this quality up, may there be many sequels.

5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, and the US tomorrow.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

* During editing, the BBFC advised the film would receive an 18 certificate unless changes were made. The submitted version was classified 15. Normally such edits are applied globally (despite what some websites like to claim), but this has been a less clear case: vastly different running times were posted by the BBFC and their German equivalent, but Vaughn stated in an interview that nothing was cut for the UK. Now, the UK and US Blu-rays have identical running times, so it seems likely he was (unsurprisingly) telling the truth. Another “the UK version is cut!” storm in a teacup? Yessir. ^