Category Archives: Action Films

T2 4k 3D: Crunching The Terminator’s Numbers

Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived in cinemas in the summer of 1991. Its main competitor was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner (remember him?). I went to see T2 twice at the cinema back then. By the time of the second viewing, I was watching the Soviet Union collapse live on TV news. (There was nervous laughter in the cinema when John Connor said the line about the Russians: “Aren’t they our friends now?”) The film dealt with Cold War fears. Looking at it again in 2017, it was difficult not to think of the current North Korean standoff as images of nuclear destruction flashed up on the screen repeatedly. So, the film’s themes are still relevant.

Just as the film is about time travel, so the film itself now functions like a time machine, taking us back to a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest movie star on the planet. That’s not the case now. He’s been replaced by a bunch of anonymous superheroes who dominate the box office (James Cameron was an early champion of CGI effects and T2 was the first film to use them extensively and effectively. You could argue that it created the tools necessary to bring all these comic book universes to life. Other films like Jurassic Park (1993) and The Mask (1994) consolidated the wow factor of CGI and proved it was here to stay. It reached its creative nadir with George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels which were like expensive cartoons.) Since Arnold’s return from politics, he seems to have lost that cocky charisma of old and looks bored and weary in movies now. He has also struggled to find decent vehicles to star in. Only Escape Plan with pal Sylvester Stallone hinted at a possible new direction for Mr. Schwarzenegger when he got a chance to speak German in a movie for the first time.

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Terminator 2 has none of those problems. Arnold is in his 90s prime and the film has been impressively upgraded to 4k and 3D by Jim Cameron.

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Terminator creator James Cameron

Knowing his technical expertise and perfectionist nature, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill restoration and it isn’t. The sound is incredible with thunderous gunfire and explosions (my ears are still ringing the morning after) and Brad Fiedel’s score gains a new lease of life in the mix. Glaring continuity errors have been corrected by Cameron with great subtlety. Some of the in-camera effects have dated, particularly the puppetry effects but Cameron has wisely allowed them to remain so as not to alter the heart of the film. It is a film from 1991 after all and he clearly didn’t want to get into endless nit-picking of his former work like Mr Lucas did with the Star Wars special editions (Greedo shot first, anyone?).

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Robert Patrick as the T-1000

Cameron got the casting spot-on too. Robert Patrick is a fantastic villain as the liquid metal T-1000. (Cameron didn’t have the money or the CGI to introduce this character in the first Terminator in 1984 and his inclusion makes this sequel one of the best.) Patrick’s wiry physicality and short stature give a David-and-Goliath look to his epic confrontations with the hulking Schwarzenegger.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger with a young Edward Furlong

Edward Furlong in his first film role is a revelation as the troubled, thieving tearaway John Connor. (A big difference from the Messianic future leader we’d heard so much about in the first movie.) His genial interplay with Schwarzenegger is the heart of this movie. Sadly, Furlong got into drugs and missed out on the third Terminator movie because of it and his absence from the series, along with Jim Cameron and Linda Hamilton, was a huge loss (some would say the series has never recovered from that.)

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The Dream Team: Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Eddie Furlong

T2 is at its weakest when it strains for significance, some of it coming across as cloying and the ticking of emotional boxes (Titanic struggled with some of the same issues). Some of the sequences are derivative, particularly the Cyberdyne building sequence which is clearly influenced by Die Hard. Still, Cameron is able to rise above his influences to create something memorable.

If your only reference point for the Terminator franchise is the woeful mess that was Terminator Genisys, I suggest you see Terminator 2 4k 3D on the big screen while you can. It still feels remarkably fresh and original (not hard in a time of comic book movie overload and lazy remakes). The humour hasn’t dated either with the audience laughing throughout at the gentle puncturing of Arnold’s tough image (it’s funnier than any of Schwarzenegger’s so-called comedies.)

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Cameron is hoping to re-release Aliens in 4k 3D, his other “best sequel ever made” and that would be most welcome from what I’ve seen here. He’s also returning to the Terminator franchise to produce a new trilogy of films starring Schwarzenegger (hopefully with Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong back in the mix too to reunite the dream team). Shooting begins on the new movie in early 2018 with the director of Deadpool at the helm. He’ll be back, oh yes, he’ll be back.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

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Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Trainspotting 2 & The Return of 90s Culture

The 1990s really didn’t kick into gear until 1996. Stock, Aitken & Waterman had dominated the pop charts in the late 80s; by the early 90s they were gone. So was Freddie Mercury and the great Queen hit machine as we knew it. Into this power vacuum flooded a lot of anonymous house music, “rubbishy old dance” records as Cliff Richard dubbed them. The emergence of Take That and East 17 promised a return to steadier pop hits, but I still remember how bad the pop charts got in 1993 and 1994. Things improved in 1995 and then 1996 hit and, suddenly, everything seemed to be happening again.

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One of the gang. Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting

There was the retro Britpop war between Oasis and Blur with Pulp and Suede thrown in for good measure. The Spice Girls burst out of nowhere and George Michael returned with his excellent Older album and two number one hits. Take That were splitting up but Robbie Williams did get his first solo single out (a cover of George Michael’s Freedom ’90) and, despite this inauspicious start, he would confound his critics, pick up the fallen pop star banner and churn out some incredible hits later in the decade. Even Queen released the last singles recorded with Freddie Mercury in ‘96.

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Into this mix landed Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. Based on Irvine Welsh’s scabrous novel of the same name, it was the movie of the year that everyone was talking about and was voted the best British movie of the last 60 years in a 2012 HMV poll. The title, taken from that old, nerdy British pastime of standing beside train tracks for hours collecting the numbers of trains as they pass, risked putting off potential viewers but it was subversively deceptive. This film crackled with energy from the first second it appeared on screen. It was anything but boring.

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It had that iconic orange poster campaign and that song “Born Slippy” by Underworld that instantly time-stamped it and still does. It captured a mood, a moment and the zeitgeist in a way that films like Fight Club and The Matrix would do later in the 90s. You remember exactly where you were when you saw it. It had the amoral Kubrickian tone of A Clockwork Orange, the freeze-frames and druggy juggernaut pace of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (another classic from 1990) and perhaps the best narration of any film since Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Although it was written and mostly completed before the whole Britpop thing, Trainspotting played right into it as if it were planned. Britain momentarily got its balls back (some would argue they are doing so again with Brexit; an appropriate time for the Trainspotting sequel to appear). It was a case of the Brits saying “anything thing you can do, I can do better” to Hollywood and the US pop charts. Empire magazine looked down on the film in a very British way for this “shameful” aspiration by writing that the film had “its nose pressed up against the glass of Hollywood, desperate for a piece of the action.” (That would come later in the 90s when Ewan McGregor was cast as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace and when Danny Boyle directed Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach, a casting decision that split up the McGregor/Boyle dream team until 2017 with the release of Trainspotting’s sequel T2, a cheeky nod to Terminator 2, another 90s classic).

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Like The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, another Brit youth culture movie that perfectly captured the time it was made, Trainspotting explodes into action with a breathless street chase on foot (to the pounding drums of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. The inclusion of this and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” later, both produced by David Bowie, and the film’s subject matter of drugs, appears to use Bowie’s Berlin period as the film’s spiritual talisman for the themes of death, rebirth and hope Bowie went through both creatively and in his life then. Danny Boyle directed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and featured a clip of Bowie singing “Heroes”, again from his Berlin period. It’s something Boyle revisits again and again in his work.) All the while, Ewan McGregor’s character Renton mouths the film’s nihilistic, punky mission statement in the voice-over as our outlaw protagonists flee from store detectives as they drop most of their stolen items on the ground…

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Thereafter, Renton, despite the use of humour and surrealism, begins the long, depressing slide into heroin addiction. The film pulls no punches. Anyone aspiring to this rebellious lifestyle is left in no doubt about the hellish dangers that await them. There are horrifying cold turkey hallucinations about Sick Boy’s dead baby (whether the model of the baby is meant to look deliberately fake or not is unclear) and the desperately sad way he is dumped in the street alone by his dealer to await the taxi to the hospital when he overdoses. All his so-called “friends” in the gang retreat back into their murky world to save themselves. (There is no honour among thieves here but crime does pay inevitably, two clichés nicely undercut there.) It makes Renton’s determination to save himself at the end understandable and sets up his character arc for the sequel.

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It was reported that Tom Cruise leapt to his feet during a private screening of Trainspotting shouting “this film rocks!” Praise from Caesar which kept the box office fever going, no doubt. Cruise would kick off his Mission: Impossible franchise that summer and the fourth sequel will be with us soon. It seems to be the 1990s all over again suddenly. (It just shows the problem with movies today: they’re all remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations of old TV shows and/or comic book movies. Studios are playing it safe which is boring. Would Trainspotting get the green light to go into production today? Probably not. It’s the reason the 1970s is the best movie decade and always will be. New stories and new talent were given their head and the results were astonishing; The Godfather I & II, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon and on and on. Those mature, morally-complex classics with their anti-heroes and downbeat endings would be too dark and confusing for foreign markets and gamer kids now. It’s all reheated, dumbed-down, hyperactively-edited drivel. Film companies aren’t prepared to take risks on new ideas unless they come pre-packaged with a built-in audience from a TV show or comic book. Ridley Scott bucked the trend by adapting the self-published novel The Martian into the movie with Matt Damon. This is what Hollywood should be doing to recapture the Golden Age again. Find those great writers and stories that are hidden out there and back them up with financing.

I was in the middle of my two-year acting course in 1996 and Trainspotting confirmed how exciting the art form I had chosen as a possible career was becoming. I would act with two of Trainspotting’s stars; Robert Carlyle (aka Begbie) in Angela’s Ashes and Jonny Lee Miller (aks Sick Boy) in The Escapist, both of which were shot in Dublin. I was doing a scene in Angela’s Ashes where Robert Carlyle is going to England looking for work. Unbeknownst to me, they had put Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson behind me in the train queue. I was having an animated discussion with someone and looked around to see those two familiar faces staring at me and I was struck dumb (as I usually am when I meet stars.) Jonny Lee Miller kept to himself all day on the set of The Escapist in Mountjoy Prison as he stayed in character. I played a prison officer, my one and only acting credit to date (more to come on that in 2017 with speaking parts in the ITV courtroom drama Innocent and TV3 show Assassins.) It was my little brush with Trainspotting and now the sequel is with us.

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Will it capture the mood of the time again? Doubtful, but a lot of middle-aged young pups from the 90s will be showing up at the cinema to try and recapture their youth and the cherry high of the first film.

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If it doesn’t have a cape and superpowers, today’s kids ain’t interested. They’re hungrily waiting for the next string of sausages from the Marvel machine, not some edgy junkie movie from Edinburgh. It’s their loss.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Loving The Alien

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Star Wars is the fairy story and I was going to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction,” said director Ridley Scott about Alien (1979).

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Director Ridley Scott on the set of Alien with Sigourney Weaver.

There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style with pages and pages of grey, suffocating, biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

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Hans Ruedi Giger at work

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The creature collapses many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth with two sets of jaws that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in subtle, subconscious ways.

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The alien has a life cycle straight out of a biology book. The creature begins life as one of the many eggs Kane (John Hurt) finds on the alien planet, the face-hugger leaps out of the egg, wraps itself around his head and implants its seed inside his throat (the first of several oral rapes in the film; Ash the android later malfunctions and tries to shove a rolled-up porn magazine into the mouth of Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley). The writers apparently based this on a species of African wasp which lays its eggs underneath the skin of humans. The alien “foetus” grows inside Kane until it explodes out of him as the chest-burster and hides out in the ventilation shafts of the vast Nostromo spacecraft. The alien rapidly sheds its skin like a snake and grows in size to become the eight-foot tall adult.

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Perhaps because Ridley Scott is British, there’s a class element to the hierarchy on board the Nostromo spacecraft. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says Scott uses “stepdown imagery” in the living quarters to make it seem blue-collar; mementoes like the shot glass with the toy bird pecking in it and family photographs show us a crew of interstellar truck drivers light years from home, missing loved ones and complaining about pay and conditions.

It has been said that Alien, like the slasher movies that were popular around the same time, stole the plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians where a group of characters are confined in one place and get bumped off one by one. Where the slasher movies and Alien inverted that structure was a plot device called The Final Girl – the female survivor who outlives her peer group and kills the monster or appears to. Ripley is the final girl in Alien. The key difference is that slasher films are set on earth with friends, family, neighbours or the police to call on for help. Ripley is totally alone in the depths of space and working for a company who think she’s expendable. There are no humans around for millions of miles and no one to hear her scream, which made it infinitely scarier.

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Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is credited with creating the genre of science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein. The feminist theme of that book is that when men create life, they create monsters and Alien essentially has the same theme as the creature is born of man. So Alien is a very clever reworking and reinvention of basic horror and sci-fi themes for a modern audience.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Star Wars – Empire Under Construction

Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.

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With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)

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Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)

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Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.

Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:

Hero – Luke Skywalker

Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.

Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids

Princess – Leia

Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.

Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.

For me, the structure is this;

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Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers

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Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968)
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Han Solo and Luke Skywalker similarly dressed as the enemy in the Death Star

Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)

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Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.

       

Remembering Father Ted

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Irish actor Frank Kelly, who played Father Jack in the classic sitcom Father Ted, died today on the 18th anniversary of the death of Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan. The show ran from 1995 until 1998, Dermot Morgan had only finished shooting the last episode of Ted days before his death. I didn’t watch the show during its initial run as I thought it was some British comedy making fun of Ireland. When I found out that it was written by two Irish writers, I tuned in to the repeats and was amazed at how good it was.

Father Ted really nailed the insanity and hypocrisy of Irish life well. I have this theory that Ted is the only sane person in the show with this maelstrom of insanity swirling around him. He really represents the ordinary man. The two-faced, foul-mouthed married couple who fight like cat and dog on the show but become angels when any priest is around was very familiar to anyone growing up in Catholic Ireland. As was Mrs Doyle, Father Ted’s housekeeper, a pastiche of the overbearing Irish Mammy, forcing cups of tea down people’s throats as if her life depended on it (which in Famine times it did, where this particular Irish female trait originates).

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Father Ted is kind of like Ireland’s Sergeant Bilko; beautifully written and played, laugh-out-loud funny with each episode a little gem that stands up to repeat viewing. David McSavage’s The Savage Eye is kind of like Ireland’s Monty Python; mercilessly surreal satire (you could argue that Ted inspired Savage Eye as they both skewer Irish life, McSavage’s bigoted Bull character is a similar Gaelic grotesque to Father Jack even down to the bad teeth. Ted is by fat the gentler and more subtle of the two, but The Savage Eye went further and straight for the jugular).

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David McSavage as “The Bull”

With the passing of Frank Kelly, Father Ted seems to take on an even more mythic status. It was on TV in the 1990s, the decade when Ireland finally came of age. We had an Irish James Bond in Pierce Brosnan. We couldn’t stop winning the Eurovision Song Contest (we haven’t won it again since 1996). The Irish soccer team qualified for two World Cups for the first time. We had classic Irish movies like The Commitments, The Field and The Snapper. Irish music acts like U2, Sinead O’Connor, The Corrs, Westlife and Boyzone ruled the charts. It was a bit of a golden age all round.

Right now is an uncertain time for Ireland; we’re emerging from the biggest economic crash the country has ever seen. On Friday, we had a general election where all our sacred cows got slaughtered, a “political earthquake” as one politician put it. As no one knows where we’re headed, we can only look back into the past. Father Ted sits proudly there. It’s a sad day to lose Frank Kelly and another member of that great Ted cast. Father Ted is also a bit like Ireland’s version of Friends, in that it’s always on repeat on loop on various channels. It never seems to go away or lose its freshness or appeal. It could have been made yesterday. That’s the definition of great comedy. RIP Mr Kelly.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Dark Valentine: My Relationship with “Silence of the Lambs” On Its 25th Anniversary

On Valentine’s Day 1991, The Silence of the Lambs had its premiere in New York. It took several months to reach the other side of the Atlantic and didn’t open in Dublin until May 1991 – a particularly dull, chilly month. It was one of those event movies that everyone says you have to see. As with The Exorcist and Fatal Attraction, it dominated the media for weeks. There were TV panel discussions on the hysteria for this new phenomenon – the serial killer (they were common or garden psychopaths before that.) It was the last film that I missed out on seeing because the cinema was full. With so many multiplexes everywhere, you get in to see whatever film you want now. Having to make a second attempt to join the lengthy queue and get in made it more enjoyable, I found.

manhunterThe other Hannibal movie from five years earlier, Manhunter, got a boost from the huge success of Silence. It had slipped under the radar pretty much as there were no big names starring in it. People caught up with it in 1991 and a new fanbase for that film emerged. It’s also superb.

LecterI found my seat in the auditorium and the lights went down. I had no idea what I’d let myself in for. I saw Silence in the Savoy, at the time the biggest screen in Dublin. Silence features extreme close-ups of the faces of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as they stare directly into camera at each other but also at the audience. Audiences are used to being voyeurs and watching the actors, not having them stare back. As Lecter unpicks Starling’s psyche, he does the same to the audience. I felt like a baby in a pram with these massive faces looming down at me. I was pressing back into my chair to get away from them. That’s never happened to me with any other movie before or since. On television, with the faces shrunk, it has none of that power (if you ever get the chance to see Silence of the Lambs on the big screen, take it.)

That wintry May in Dublin was significant, as I can’t think of another movie that depicts the ravages of winter so well. The first sound you hear is the clarinet of Howard Shore’s brilliant score. It sounds like birdsong and then you hear it again. It perfectly sets the scene as we see FBI trainee Clarice Starling jogging alone on a deserted assault course with brown Autumn leaves still in evidence. The film later shows what winter does to the soft flesh of a dumped female victim in the mortuary scene.

Clarice-surrounded

Unusually, for a film written, produced and directed by men, it has a pro-feminist bent. The males, like Doctor Chilton and Miggs, are all sleazy pervs to a man who only want get into Clarice’s pants (even Hannibal has a go at innuendo until he’s put in his place by Clarice). This is not just a serial killer thriller (although you get your fix of that too). It touched on many important themes that movies in the early 90s just didn’t; gender, sexuality, the relationship between fathers and daughters, even how we judge people based on their height. You got your criminal profiling layer too. Despite Clarice saying that “transsexuals are very passive,” the movie (along with Basic Instinct in 1992) was picketed by LGBT groups. It was a tradition dating back to Psycho to have a “deviant” villain.  It’s one reason Silence of the Lambs could never be made today in the form its in right now, which makes it such an honest film. Director Jonathan Demme agreed with the protestors and made the apologetic Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer dying of AIDS. Demme won the Academy Award for Silence as best director but his career since has been patchy to say the least.

Clarice Pointing Gun

You could see the film as a battle for the soul of Clarice Starling between the “good” father figure, her boss Jack Crawford, and the “bad” father figure, Hannibal Lecter. Clarice has to break free of them and her childhood trauma (her policeman father was murdered and the killer never found) and grow up and become a woman in her own right.

Clarice with Lamb

The sound design is brilliant; just listen to how the sound grows more menacing as Clarice Starling essentially enters into the bowels of Hell to confront Hannibal Lecter in his plexiglass cell. There are atonal, womb-like noises. It’s got probably the most effective sound design since Alien in 1979 which does a similar job of setting the scene and unnerving the audience.

Hannibal Dungeon

The rich photography by Demme regular Tak Fujimoto is exemplary, particularly the ending in the basement with no light during Clarice’s fight-to-the-death with the serial killer Buffalo Bill. (Every woman in the audience screamed when Bill reached out to touch Clarice’s hair when she couldn’t see him in the pitch darkness.)

Ted Levine

Ted Levine played Buffalo Bill in the movie and he is probably the unsung hero of the whole thing, not even being Oscar-nominated for his terrifying performance while everyone else won Academy Awards.

The-Elephant-Man

There are so many great lines of dialogue. Anthony Hopkins had given up on a Hollywood career and moved back to the UK to appear in theatre. Hopkins got a call in his dressing room from his agent saying there was a script called Silence of the Lambs and would he take a look at it. Hopkins thought it was a children’s film based on the title alone. Director Jonathan Demme came to see him and offered him the part because he’d seen him play an intelligent doctor with a heart in The Elephant Man. Even though Anthony Hopkins is only in Silence of the Lambs for around 14 minutes, he dominates the whole thing, even when he’s offscreen. It won him the Oscar and changed his life and career.

Silence Oscars

Indeed, the film became only the third film after It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to win all five big Oscars – Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Adapted). To date, it is the only horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. That was an incredible achievement at the time and it only grows even more impressive as the years go on.

Hannibal 2001

There have been other Hannibal books and movies (the sequel Hannibal opened on Valentine’s Day 2001, exactly 10 years later. 2001 was appropriate as Hopkins had based the voice of Hannibal on Hal, the computer from Kubrick’s 2001). None of the new material ever really recaptured the greatness of Silence of the Lambs. It is one of the best thrillers ever made with career-bests from all those involved on every level. There are great twists that you don’t see coming. Even that ending, which refuses to tie things up in a neat bow is daring (it so freaked out one couple in America, that they apparently refused to leave the cinema afterwards). It’s got everything you could ask for really. So, this Valentine’s Day, when you get sick of all the predictable rom-coms, put on that magnificent dark Valentine, The Silence of the Lambs, and luxuriate in a masterclass of acting, filmmaking, screenwriting, photography and production, sound and costume design. You will never see its like again.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens

“It is a time of sacrifice…good and bad.”

This is the first sequel in the Star Wars franchise in 32 years. A long time ago in an era far, far away.

The First Order, the new Empire, is set up awfully fast in The Force Awakens. The last time we saw the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, it was defeated and destroyed. Here, somehow, it is at full strength again and even has Star Destroyers and a battle station that dwarfs the Death Star. I think the writers have missed an opportunity to show The First Order as underdog fanatics plotting to overthrow the New Republic in a patient build-up. But nope, we get one line that they have risen from the ashes of the Empire and, that’s it, they’re back, just like that.

The writing is shorn of George Lucas’s interest in diplomacy. For all his flaws, Lucas always grounded the Star Wars movies in a political context. He was very interested in how the states he had created operated. Granted, in the prequels there was far too much talky politics that bogged the movies down in clunky exposition (taxation anyone?). The new script sacrifices depth for pace, humour and a lightness of touch that is reminiscent of A New Hope. The pulling back from full-on CGI aids the realism too.

Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back returns as co- writer here, but The Force Awakens is nowhere near as good as that masterpiece. There were so many great lines in the original trilogy “The force will be with you…always,” “I am your Father” and “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Some of them are repeated in The Force Awakens but there is nothing new to challenge the old lines. That is a pity. (In the age of the instantaneous internet, could the “I am your father” moment be kept secret now? I doubt it. I accidentally saw a major spoiler for The Force Awakens while typing in a hashtag on Twitter.)

Michael Arndt gives lectures on the original trilogy and wrote the first draft of The Force Awakens script. Perhaps he’s great at analysing why Star Wars works but not so great at creating something new. The script is okay, nothing more (there is a nice riff on the father/son theme that runs through every Star Wars movie and Han Solo finally accepting The Force as being true is a nice payoff to his “hokey religion” dismissal in 1977).

Harrison Ford brings weary charisma and some much-needed gravitas to the film in reprising his old scoundrel Han Solo. He’s given some better lines and more to do than in Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but, just as in that film, the older stars are shoved aside in favour of the newcomers who aren’t that interesting.

Carrie Fisher looks like she’s been at the Botox. The only parts of her face she can move are her lips and even that’s a struggle. It doesn’t look like her and it is a shock seeing her as a shrunken old woman.

We know Daisy Ridley is miscast in the lead role. We know because J.J. Abrams told her on set that her acting was “wooden.” If you’ve cast someone that can’t act in the lead role of the biggest franchise in film history, you’ve hired the wrong person. Ms Ridley compensates by overacting horribly, shouting every line with her eyes as wide as possible. She runs (a lot) and cries (a lot). Apart from that, the jury is still out on her. Then again, Star Wars has a history of not-great acting, so she’s probably keeping up a great tradition.

Muhammad Ali-lookalike, John Boyega, took some criticism in early reviews, but I actually thought he had good comic timing, the audience liked him and he even struck up a buddy rapport with old grumpy pants himself, Harrison Ford. Let’s hope we see more of him in the sequels and spin-offs, he’s the best of the new breed.

John Williams returns to score the picture and it’s okay, nothing as unforgettable as Vader’s Theme from Empire. Darth Vader himself is, for me, the greatest villain in movie history and he is sorely missed. Vader choked people to death by breaking their necks if they defied him. Whereas new baddie Kylo Ren takes his frustration out by incinerating inanimate objects with his lightsaber to keep the rating kiddie-friendly. There’s also some predictable PC casting. Everything that was white and male before now has to be rebooted as female, ethnic and/or LGBT (we’re getting an all-female Ghostbusters reboot and possibly a black James Bond in the future.)

The Force Awakens isn’t as good as I thought it was going to be and I doubt it will stand up to repeat reviewing as the original trilogy did but it is perhaps the best that can be expected now George Lucas has bailed out on his film company. It will no doubt break box office records. No film could probably live up to the hype anyway. It is good to have Star Wars back in whatever form it’s in (I think I know the big plot twist in the next movie too but I won’t spoil it for you, dear reader.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved. (Star Wars ©Lucasfilm Ltd)

 

Terminator Genisys – A Terminator Too Far

Terminator Genisys Poster

[N.B. This review contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to watch it first before reading this. You have been warned.]

It’s sad to witness great ideas being run into the ground but that’s exactly what you get in Terminator Genisys. James Cameron’s cool, iconic, anti-hero android assassin is reduced to a grandfatherly irrelevance spouting boring exposition in the background (“You’re a relic from a deleted timeline!” says the villain to Arnold at one point and it just about sums up how he and his character are treated in this). It reminded me of the last Indiana Jones film where Harrison Ford was literally a backseat passenger most of the time while the younger Shia LaBeouf did all the action. Here Jai Courtney is the younger man given much more to do. It just doesn’t work. The movie is called Terminator for a reason.

It starts well, we finally get to see the moment Skynet gets defeated in a future war prologue and their Terminators, tanks and aerial machines come to a screeching halt. Except, if you’ve read the novelisation of Terminator 2, all of that was in there. James Cameron even planned to film the segment himself in Terminator 2 but ran out of time and money. So that’s a lift from T2. So is Arnold’s fake cyborg smile. Oh and the whole plot about the destruction of Cyberdyne. The first movie gets pilfered too even down to trite lines like “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live.” It’s time to park those lines and try to come up with new ones or better yet leave us with our memories.

James Cameron got the casting of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese so right in Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, they brought so many different things to the role. The same can’t be said of the tiny Emilia Clarke and Aussie Jai Courtney in the same roles here. There’s no charisma or spark between them. It’s like the makers wanted a slice of the Marvel audience. They reckoned there’s a generation of kids who’ve never seen a Terminator movie. So they took the best bits of the other movies, recast it with young actors and made sure it got a kiddie-friendly 12-rating (there’s no random murders of women called Sarah Connor or bloody massacres in police stations here, just look at the way they rewrite the scene where The Terminator kills three punks who won’t give him their clothes. They wimp out and go for the soft option. The Terminator has lost his edge completely.) It’s also a great shame that neither Christian Bale nor Edward Furlong returned as John Connor, he’s played by another Aussie and the second Clarke in the movie (not related), Jason Clarke. He’s okay even though he bears an uncanny resemblance to the wrong Sarah Connor shot by Arnold back in the 1984 original.

Connor Clarke

On the positive side, we do get to find out that the mother of Kyle Reese, the father of the saviour of humanity, is Irish (knew it! He he.) Plus, there’s a nice reference to The Addams Family when one of the cops sees Arnold and asks: “Who’s Lurch?” (Sarah Connor’s pet iguana in the first Terminator film was called Pugsley, also a nod to The Addams Family.) These flashes of inspiration are few and far between. The jokey dialogue doesn’t really work either.

James Cameron has given Terminator Genisys his blessing but I think he’s being kind to his old pal Arnold Schwarzenegger to help him have a big opening weekend (even so, it’s made $10 million less than predicted at the US box office in its first three days). Paramount had hoped to do two sequels in 2017 and 2018 before the rights automatically revert to James Cameron in 2019. Arnold Schwarzenegger is nearly 70 years old now. It might be best to finally throw The Terminator onto the scrapheap. The thrill has most definitely gone.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Back To Black: From Exterminator to Ex-Terminator?

The-Terminator-Poster

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the movie “The Terminator.” Even though it had been made in 1984, I didn’t catch up with it until October 1986. My parents had gone out for the night to my cousin’s 21st birthday party and I was left alone to watch whatever I wanted (a new and thrilling experience for a teenage boy!). They had also gone out the previous Friday and I’d rented a double bill of Bruce Lee movies (inspired by the early Jean Claude Van Damme movie “No Retreat, No Surrender” where Bruce Lee returns from the dead to teach a young guy how to overcome the evil Muscles from Brussels.)

This time I decided to choose a movie I’d had my eye on for a while. I had seen the phonebook-sized VHS cover with the word Schwarzenegger on it. I didn’t know who Schwarzenegger was, but the name sounded foreign, unpronounceable and vaguely threatening. He also looked cool in his shades, leather jacket and with his gun raised up by his face. I had no idea who James Cameron was either (I didn’t particularly notice or care about movie credits then). I think I’d gotten it mixed up in my head with a film called “The Exterminator” that my friends had told me about in school. They said something about The Exterminator putting a gangster in a mincing machine and teenage boys love a bit of cartoon gore like that. So, after school, I cycled over on my Raleigh racing bike and booked “The Terminator” before anyone else could.

As soon as my parents went out, I popped the cassette into our suitcase-sized Blaupunkt video recorder. I had no idea of the unique quality of the movie I was about to watch. From the moment the future war sequence appeared on the screen, I knew I was watching something really different. Then this legend appeared:

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.
Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.
It would be fought here, in our present.

Tonight…

I was spellbound. After the eerie opening images of Skynet’s probes and flying Hunter Killers (the precursors of today’s drones?) prowling the rubble of a skull-covered WMD-flattened city (the nuclear nightmare of every kid who grew up from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, including myself), there was now the promise of something even more exciting. How good was this movie going to get?

After the ominous Terminator theme tune by Brad Fiedel, we get to the time-travellers who in arrive in Los Angeles circa 1984. James Cameron, like John Carpenter before him, proves himself to be a master of atmosphere (indeed, the music for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and “The Terminator” are very similar in parts and both movies deal with killer robots masquerading as humans). Both directors know how to use silence and shadows and even humour before hitting the audience with big shocks. The Terminator does ape the noirish photography, electronic soundtrack and editing techniques (Mark Goldblatt also edited Halloween II three years previously) of the Halloween series which was probably a clever move by Cameron as they were hugely popular at the box office then.

I was thrilled by Michael Biehn’s theft of a pair of Nike running boots as, believe it or not; I was wearing an identical pair of them as I watched this movie. I had bought them when I was on holiday with my family during the summer of 1986 and they served me well. The similarity in our footwear convinced me that this was a movie for me!

To cut a long story short, I was completely hooked from start to finish on the movie. I didn’t want it to end. But end it did and I turned over to watch one of those naughty “Red Triangle” movies they were screening on Channel 4 at the time. This one turned out to be Japanese.

Two months later, I went to see “Aliens” with my brother after he came home from America. (30,000 people emigrated from Ireland in 1986; my brother was one of them). So I suddenly got a double dose of James Cameron’s first movies all at once.

James Cameron, wanted “The Terminator” to be a film “that a twelve-year-old would think was the most rad picture he’d ever seen,” but also one “that a forty-five-year-old Stanford English professor would think had some sort of socio-political significance between the lines.” I can understand both perspectives looking at the film now and remembering my teenage experience of it that Friday night.

Terminator_2_poster

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as happened with the edgy protagonists in the Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon franchises, the Terminator character is softened greatly. He becomes a family-friendly, wisecracking father figure and is no longer the ruthless, casually homicidal character he was in the first film. The character and the sequel lost the intense, nihilistic feel of the original by letting the audience off the hook through comic relief. The end of the world doesn’t seem so terrifying if you’re laughing at it. It coincided with Schwarzenegger’s initial forays into politics and his association with the Kennedy family through his marriage to Maria Shriver and campaigning for President George Bush Sr. So it could have been an overt attempt by Arnold to exercise his star power and reboot his image. There is also the possibility that the studio and/or James Cameron wanted to tone down the violence to get a lower age rating for the movie to make more money and that it did (The Terminator got an 18 certificate age rating in the UK, Terminator 2 got a 15).

I’m looking forward to seeing Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, whenever he brings out a movie you’re going to sit up and take notice. He’s hired the writers of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to help him with the “Avatar” sequel scripts and they’re talented scribes. It should be interesting to see what they come up with. The fourth sequel to Cameron’s The Terminator, “Terminator Genisys” is coming out in summer 2015. (Schwarzenegger’s movies since his comeback after politics haven’t been great. Escape Plan with his pal Stallone is easily his best post-Governor movie and performance. The rest have been forgettable and Arnold looks tired and bored in them with no sign of his old charisma or one-liners.) The Terminator has undergone another image change for “Terminator Genisys” to reflect where Arnold is now and his android assassin will have grey hair in the new film. Yes, will people take to a granddaddy cybernetic organism? We shall see.

Grey Arnold

So Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, like The Terminator, will be back, if separately. Let’s hope they can reach the levels that they did with their unforgettable first collaboration. If not, we can always time travel to the original again any time we want by putting it on our TVs. Arnold’s not an ex-Terminator yet.

Terminator-Genisys-4

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.