Category: Film

Motion pictures from high art to schlock…

Snow Boots: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

A tale of Sire and Ice

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

There was a planet of Ice…And then Star Wars became a franchise. A glimpse back at the original Episode V, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise.

It was a film that needed no beginning, required no end…

HERE IT IS, EMERGING IN THE DEPTHS OF A DISTANT GALAXY WITH THE DEPLOYMENT OF A SPACE PROBE THAT THEN CRASHES INTO THE ICE SHEETS OF THE PLANET HOTH. Everything we might have assumed from the oddly triumphant and indulgent close of Episode IV wasn’t true. Everything Hollywood imagined about summer films was about to be blown out of the galaxy.

The Empire Strikes Back is legendary, there’s no doubt about it. Still quoted, among a select few, as a if not the premier example of a sequel that outdoes its original, the last three decades of try-hard comparators have failed to dislodge it. Its quality is far too enshrined to be knocked.

Here is where things began. It’s almost solely responsible for the early 21st century preoccupation with blockbuster trilogies, a neat model when it comes to actors, contracts and budgets. But just as A New Hope had slotted genres and intention together in ways never thought possible, Empire was just as ground-breaking in the way it seized and built on that position. It was a film that needed no beginning, required no end. But it served up two dramatic sledge-hammer blows at either end. And immediately, cockily, the threat level was deftly and massively raised as the audience discovers that the destruction of the Death Star had only served to annoy the Empire. Who could guess the twists, turns and ending that were to follow…

And it wasn’t just the threat that had increased.

Star Wars:  Episode IV – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The saga’s themes of family and lineage were about to be set in carbonite

Come the end it’s easy to see that The Empire Strikes Back had no choice but to ramp up the drama. That it did it so well, following the simplistic, fairy tale plot of the previous film, is Empire’s considerable achievement. We join the Rebel Alliance in a far different state to the one we left it. On the run and in a make-shift soon to be discovered base; dug into ice foundations that are a metaphor for isolation. It’s cold in space, it’s colder on Hoth. We didn’t know it at the time, but the saga’s overriding themes of family and lineage were about to be set in carbonite. So it’s little surprise that one route to that dramatic elevation falls to classical tragedy.

From Bar to Bard

In Empire our Hamlet, position and role thrust upon him, is destined to encounter his father’s ghost

Indeed, Empire pushes Shakespeare to the fore. We join the Rebel troops on the battlements of Elsinore, unknowingly waiting for a ghost of Hamlet’s father that is a far more powerful and compelling than it appears in massed stop-motion and snowtrooper-clad force. That establishes a heightened universe where Vader, seen for the first time in communication with the Emperor, the father figure he rushed to with indecent haste, can get away with the use of “thy”. But the Bard’s influence is greater than choice words. We have expanded the atavistic palette of Biblical quests and Campbellian monomyth to include the nearer world of Greek tragedy and the great playwrights in general.

In Empire our Hamlet, his position and role thrust upon him, is destined to encounter his father’s ghost at the climax of the film; and in so doing he creates one of the most famous sequences in film history. That sets the tone for the concluding part of the trilogy to examine the consequences of those revelations as the tightening familial loops meets the return to a leaner structure. By Return of the Jedi, Luke would be fully formed as his black robed Hamlet, wavering not between action and indecision but the universal spiritual concepts of light and dark. The story of how he got there just feels so much more compelling…

Holiday destinations

This is a huge galaxy… Episode V is intent on using the Battle of Hoth to force our apart.

The change to ice from the cold space and hot desert of the first film sits prettier in the hindsight of Vader’s fiery creation on the planet Mustafar, committed to film over two decades later in Episode III. The switch stands up to scrutiny in much the same way that themed ice and fire levels do in videogame platformers; it was something that no space operas had the vision or finance to attempt before, even if such intentions existed on screen, and rammed one thing home: This was a huge galaxy. And every entry in the saga would widen it further up until The Force Awakens chose familiarity. That’s a central tenet to George Lucas’ Star Wars films that he always stayed true to, and no doubt one of the reasons behind his inability to withhold criticism of the most recent instalment. The subtlety of that film’s Jakku being a cold desert planet compared to Tatooine’s hot and arid desert eco-system is lost against the broad palette of the original and prequel trilogies. But as iconic as the Battle of Hoth that opens Empire is (albeit 25 minutes in), the film doesn’t feel the need to stay there for long. While Episode IV brought our heroes together, Episode V is intent on using that battle to force them apart.

Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope

Behind the scenes consistency

Nature may abhor a vacuum, Star Wars makes a meal of it.

The original Star Wars trilogy benefits from a remarkable strength of consistency.  That overcame the uncertainty that run through the first film’s production all the way up to release, the three-year gap between each sequel and the changing personnel behind the scenes. Lucas was a constant of course, although as he stepped back from directing and writing chores. And it’s clear that The Empire Strikes Back’s benefitted from the addition of some high quality creators. Nature may abhor a vacuum; Star Wars makes a meal of it. And some of those new creators came from unexpected quarters.

Far from the beach retreat that marked the end of Lucas’ short film career in a parallel universe, the few years that followed the release of the first Star Wars film found the producer-director in wildly different circumstances. His science-fiction project had vastly exceeded expectations, unleashing a phenomenon and changing Hollywood in the process. And against the norm, Lucas proceeded to finance the sequel himself, all $30-odd million of it. Not having had the easiest ride directing the first instalment, and having taken on increasing responsibilities producing the work of his freshly minted special effects company ILM as well as the brewing Indiana Jones franchise, he sought a new director. And who better than someone who tutored him at film school? Against early protestations, Lucas insisted Irvin Kershner, previously known for smaller, character-based fare, helm the hottest sequel in Hollywood.  Kershner would make a name on action franchises through the next two decades, including the rogue James Bond film Never Say Never Again three years later, but Empire remained his finest hour. Continue reading “Snow Boots: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”

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Desert Clothing: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope

A tale of droids and sand…

First, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… There was a planet of Sand…

A glimpse at the original Episode IV, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens’ glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise. Spoilers guaranteed.

THAT PLANET OF SAND WASN’T ARRAKIS, ALTHOUGH FRANK HERBERT’S EPIC EXPLORATION OF THE PLANET DUNE HUNG HEAVILY OVER GEORGE LUCAS’ GAME CHANGING SPACE OPERA. The sand preoccupying the director in May 1977 was on the beach in Hawaii where Lucas finally heard confirmation that his great gamble wasn’t just a first weekend wonder; his suspicion that he’d broken his back to helm a career stalling disaster was apparently way off the mark. Just as Spielberg, in the minority, had told him. On limited release on 25 May 1977, what was to become Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, but was forever seared into cinema-goers’ minds at the time as Star Wars, captured an astonishing $1.5 million on its opening.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

It’s incredible how much of Star War’s original Episode hangs on the innate ability for people to forget…

Six major films later, five of those under Lucas’s stewardship, the brand renewed and strong in the lock-tight grip of the House of Mouse, the impact of that first film is increasingly difficult to gauge. While the prequel trilogy that appeared at the tail end of the 20th century is the root of most criticism that will forever hang somewhere around Lucas’ neck, tendrils of four decades of fan-base mistrust also hangs in the legendary tinkering that’s seen the original trilogy morph and shift and re-sheen an incalculable number of times. Incalculable as many alterations snuck into prints between big releases, many un-signposted and insidious… It’s a joke, but it’s also a matter as deadly serious as it can get in the realm of the world’s most successful space western.

Yes, let’s start with the recent years and work back to that original hope…

Through multiple variations that have remastered, rejigged, recut and re-pixelated, Episode IV has raked in more than $775 million worldwide. While the stories of Lucas meeting a muted reception among almost all his film contemporaries in the mid-1970s, and that legendary, yielding beach retreat, his irrepressible desire to change the result of a gruelling process that for all its innovation, had a budget that couldn’t match his vision, is understandable. His simple and rapid disconnect form a fan-base so attached to the quirks and overreaching scope of the franchise over a few pixels and forced consistency however, is not. But by the time of Special Edition releases Lucas had set out a certain stall that Star Wars was a work in progress.  That attitude to Hollywood output would no doubt be far more prevalent if any other filmmaker had the finance and control that Lucas enjoyed.

Still, there’s no doubt that when those Special Editions emerged for the film’s 20th anniversary in 1997 they risked diluting the films’ vision. After that ever unnerving vision of Luke’s aunt and uncle’s smoking corpses at their devastated moisture farm, Obi Wan’s wonderfully over the top description of Mos Eisley as an unbeatable “hive of scum and villainy” can only ever be undermined by a cut to ‘hilarious’ droid and ‘pratfalling’ Jawa slapstick. For all Lucas’ protestations that this is a children’s film, that disconnect seems belligerent and wilfully perverse.

Continue reading “Desert Clothing: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope”

#Batman: Which Villain Are You?

Which Batman villain are you TITLE

C’mon, you know you’ve always wanted a long weekend in Arkham…

BATMAN’S BEGUN, DARKENED AND RISEN. Timely then, that this Easter finds a new Dark Knight heading to the Big Screen, facing off against that red and blue DC Comic character far more usually caught up in a Messiah analogy. In 2016, audiences will confront a Bat in his most gnarled and world-weary live action guise yet, having no doubt worn down many if not all of the best rogues gallery in the superhero business over a long and painful career.

So the real question is which of those arch nemeses are you?

Wonder no more Bat-fans – at long last Jokerside presents a guide to discovering which resident of Blackgate Penitentiary or Arkham Asylum you are! Which super scoundrel fits your bill.

Cat, bird or clown? Step right this way… Continue reading “#Batman: Which Villain Are You?”

Marvel: “Go to Hell Castle” – The Punisher on Film

Punisher on Film

Punisher on Film

The Punisher’s back, skull, firearms and singular purpose complete and with its longest ride yet. Could the small screen at last give one of Marvel’s most adapted, and still most difficult character’s a break?

DAREDEVIL SERIES 2 HAS JUST UNLEASHED AN ALL NEW PUNISHER ON THE MASSES, THIS TIME FINDING A WAY FOR FRANK CASTLE TO BREAK INTO THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE AS HE DEBUTS IN SMALL SCREEN LIVE ACTION. That Netflix contained Hell’s Kitchen, so far shaped by the first closed seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, looks perfect for him. And in taking on the patch patrolled by the often more brutal Man without Fear, it looks like his anti-hero/villain status will have just the bridge he needs.

A square peg. With a skull on it

The Punisher is and has always been a difficult fit for the Marvel Universe, but typically, that’s exactly where the huge appeal the character springs from, continuing to attract creators no matter the Marvel imprint or scale of crossover event.

The Punisher doesn’t just have the potential to bring death and extreme violence into the comic book universe, darker and blunter than the various homicidal villains and amoral antiheroes in that huge universe, but also a complete lack of redemption. As countless films remind us, this is not vengeance or revenge as much as various storylines have found ways to drag up the tragic past that broke policeman Frank Castle. This is punishment. And as soon as the Punisher was born from that broken shell, as soon as the skull shirt was put on and the wicked punished, all hope of redemption was off the table. There sits on his shoulders the weight of many deaths, no matter how avenging or moral they seem. Rumour has it that’s a key part of him entering Daredevil’s universe…

Still, that’s a remit that makes the Punisher all the more difficult to slot into a film. You have all manner of three act and tragic precursors to drag this difficult slant into the mundane. One of the nearest comparators in comic books, with a career shaped by tragedy is of course Batman. But the Dark Knight quickly became a metaphor within his fictional city, and creators have had great fun playing with the idea of escalation that chucks increasing layers of the grotesque at him. The Punisher’s encountered his fair share of grotesques, but in the hard reality of his America, the two shadowy figures are entirely separated by the use of fatal force.

Issues. With a skull on them

Still, as with the Dark Knight, Punisher stories and particularly adaptations find it difficult to stop reminding us about Castle’s stark tragedy, albeit only one of the three film adaptations so far have wandered onto that difficult canvas of trying to solve it.

Batman represents the loss of childhood innocence. He was steered into a life where he sought to protect following a savage murder that he could not have stopped as a child. In comic book lore, Frank Castle was an adult, a highly experienced soldier who failed to protect his wife and two children. He was forged in the heart of Manhattan, in Central Park. While both may lurk in dark hideouts, unlike Batman Castle doesn’t have an incredible array of technology that can mimic and counter his grotesques. His brand of justice requires huge firepower, ultra-violence death and action. He employs every tool of the villain to make that happen. And many, many of his victims are minor mafia attached criminals.

Spider-Man may have jumped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe just in time to take up a valuable role in Marvel’s tent-pole film of 2017, Civil War, but there’s no chance the Punisher will. Frank Castle first appeared in the pages of a 1974 Spider-Man comic and wold go on to play a considerable role in Mark Millar’s original Civil War comic event. However, once again, the irreconcilable, utterly irredeemable qualities of what’s left of Frank Castle mean that even in moments of extreme Marvel crisis he’s no easy fit with the rest of the Marvel elite.

Peak Punisher. With a skull on it

There are three films starring Marvel’s awkward antihero to look at, but it would be impossible to ignore the work of the Punisher’s definitive contributor on the page. Above everybody else is Garth Ennis. As ever a writer who prefers to steer clear of superheroes, but unfortunately writes them brilliantly.

His ongoing series cancelled in the mid-90s, Castle spent some time clinging onto in mini-series before Garth Ennis’ 12-part run at the beginning of the 21st century returned his popularity. The Punisher’s look was pared down (farewell those Mickey Mouse gloves) and soon Ennis had moved across to the adult MAX imprint, legendarily given an unlimited run on the character; one that produced heavy, realistic and wonderfully dark tales for 66 issues. That series would continue tackling modern world events, having established a universe where Vietnam-veteran Punisher had been active for 30 years and taken over 2,000 lives, until the character’s own death. Other comic series would drag Castle into superhuman scraps, mutant meltdowns and even transform him into the undead like of FrankenCastle during the publisher’s Dark Reign event.

There’s nothing like a good antihero, and he’s one of the psychologically damaged originals. So it’s no surprise that aside from his devastating runs on animated series and his huge homecoming on Netflix, he’s fronted three feature length films. But none of these have sustained a franchise, each picking up a different actor for a different portrayal of Castle. Perhaps the prolonged serial story of the new Daredevil adaptation will finally be able to piece together a compelling persona for one of the most damaged Marvel has to offer. Continue reading “Marvel: “Go to Hell Castle” – The Punisher on Film”

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