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Lichfield1979

Lichfield1979
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    • Shutter Island (DVD) / DVD / 56 Readings / 48 Ratings
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      01.09.2010 18:46
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      It's as good as Vertigo

      I think Shutter Island is probably Scorsese's most entertaining film as it turns out. Isle of what they did with the book. It's some sort of genre masterpiece that spirals up its pulp roots to the purpose of asking why do people tell escapist stories and what do they mean in the world. I think it's an improvement on most of the stuff it rips off, possibly including Vertigo, which is high praise from me. It seems to have something to say about the era when this sort of fodder was most popular too. I like that it's not really a plot twist film either in that it telegraphs something weird is going on and suggests possibilities from the start so it doesn't matter how soon anybody starts to put that together because it's intentional and deceptively well crafted underneath the stunning visual things it does so well. The tonal shifts are clever and anchored in these transcendental visual reveries you'd expect more from Terence Malick or David Lynch than Scorsese. Combining that sort of thing with a paean to Hitchcock is inspired. There have been a lot of films that explore similar tropes but this is so well executed it almost feels like the logical culmination of a whole genre blossoming into art. Will get slated by some and deeply influence others - who time will prove right I suspect in calling it an instant classic. Sags a bit at one point but this is almost intentional as if to say well what does the plot even mean why does it make sense what is the character trying to accomplish and so letting the genre elements dissolve in anticipation of the real pay off which is startling but not because of the plot and attempting these kinds of shifts let alone pulling them off is just wow. Anyone who says they guess the end is just missing the point because it's all there from the start it's what Scorsese does with it and says this is the difference between a genre film and a drama and a stream of consciousness. It's the consequences of the revelation and the manner in which the plot elements are then reconstructed and the ambiguity of the ending which is powerful, not the artifice of concealment, which is earned because the material and the setting and the structure and the style are so fiercely complimentary. Possibly it's a film to admire the heck out of rather than to love but it certainly looked like a significant achievement to me but maybe I'm just a fan of this sort of thing. Lots of visual flair and well thought rhymes and winks throughout, but it's the scenes of realism that are more gut wrenching than the skilful horror schlock, and the thematic subtext that requires closer examination than the film-noir detective plot, entertaining as that is.

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        20.08.2010 13:37
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        One of the twentieth century's truly great novellas from an important prose stylist.

        Seize The Day

        Enjoyed this recently. Good book. I like the way the main character knows he's in the company of a confidence trickster but chooses to believe in him anyway. Because he needs money to pay his wife. Because he needs a surrogate for his father. He scrutinizes the deception every step of the way but still gets taken in. That's why the conman picks him as a mark and knows what to tell him. And there's a metaphor too for the act of reading a book. I believe this bit. I don't believe that. But overall the author carries you for the ride and even encourages your scepticism to win your faith in the pay off.

        It's a compact book but the ideas are well chosen and extremely complimentary. For example, the guy is part financial investor, part psychiatrist. It's intimated that he's able to excel in these fields because he's free from having any personal investment in the lives of those he assists. Without minding the consequences it's possible to seize the day. There's an irony that if the money handed over to this guy was in exchange for all the psychological insight he divulges, instead of an investment with an expected return, then maybe it would be a fair bargain. Two conflicting notions of growth and interest. At times it's unclear what the conman's role is and indeed he switches between them. Yet there's some struggle within him too, which comes to light in his poem which he reads. There's a self-contradicting awareness that to really seize the day is not to free oneself of consequences of past and future but to let them have unity with the self in the moment at all times and to be in possession of oneself. Another irony that the main character then collapses into grief at a funeral of a man he does not know and as such looks perfectly the part despite not being invested in the consequences at all. Strange too his disdainful commentary on social obsessions with money whilst being utterly obsessed with making money himself. Though of course this in turn is a subterfuge for his relationship with his father and his wife. Freedom, money, these are things he cannot seize until the day he stops grasping so hard. And by then all that's left for him to seize is grief.

        A very well worked set of motifs though I feel I must read the book again sometime to uncover all of it. I first picked it up the morning after a friend's wedding party two years ago but only had time for a few pages. Bought a copy in a charity shop earlier this year and read it on Sunday. Bellow writes exquisite prose and uses some interesting stylistic shifts to good effect. He doesn't overstate his themes and lets them rise naturally to the reader's attention. I only paused a couple of times to note down some story ideas of my own which occurred to me part in thanks to the structure of what the author was doing. Thoroughly enjoyable 120 page book that I read relatively slowly.

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        • Inception (DVD) / DVD / 58 Readings / 52 Ratings
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          18.08.2010 12:40
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          Leo DiCaprio is a thief who likes to dream

          Inception (2010) Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan

          Starring: Christian Bale, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Pete Postlethwaite, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Lukas Haas.

          Inception

          I felt like this was a bit of a punchline on making a "mindless action movie" in that it has a high concept that allows the narrative to continuously drop the audience into one action sequence after another without them having to care about logic or consequences. But it uses these visuals as a kind of suspense to delay plot revelations. The problem I had is I was expecting the execution of the predictable reveals at the end to be better. I didn't feel like it earned a real pay off and my investment in the characters was minimal. Which is fine during the ride, but when you get to the end... I just don't feel this is a film I ever need to see twice, in the way that say Fight Club is witty and rewards a revisiting. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does more with visual reveries on dreams and memory, so I guess this is the action version of that.

          After a while, the look of the film lost it's impact for me. I didn't feel this was a patch on Shutter Island, with which it obviously shares some ground. And the plot is kind of just the latest version of Vanilla Sky or The Game - remember that whole genre of jumping off the roof and living? It's an enjoyable action film, sure, but I don't know it has much on something like Minority Report to use one example of a given year. Nolan often has some nice ideas in his films but I don't know he always quite gets all he could from them. I preferred The Prestige and Batman Begins to this. Insomnia has better character work and performances and makes stronger use of its setting. The Dark Knight again has story ideas that don't seem to add up on screen to what they could be. The Prestige is interesting actually in that it seems to have vestiges of alternative stories they never went with still lurking in there somewhere. Memento is the one time Nolan has executed an idea to full effect.

          To wit, I wonder if a better ending to this, with the bluff about whether the levels of reality go up or go down, would have been to tease out the ambiguity of two competing end games, and then use that music jump cue to cut to black at the end so that it feels like it's the audience waking up, not knowing which one of the two is the real world. I'd like to second the view that I don't like the style of editing Nolan uses in his films. I felt the Dark Knight was a mess on that front, and so was this. But it's obviously a deliberate aspect of his style, so I'm not too dogmatic about saying he should change it. That analogy about each team member being a metaphor for the development of a motion picture seems like it's true.

          I think the firmest ground the film is on intellectually is the extent to which it's saying here's how you construct a suspenseful action thriller normally for the blockbuster crowd, but see how flimsy our notions of how that narrative hangs together are if we get a bit cute with motivations and expectations and how it all hangs together. I honestly do feel like Nolan had quite a bit to say about that. It's just a shame, as some have observed, that he can't do Paul Greengrass level action sequences. And it's just starting to feel a bit like we've seen his bag of tricks a few times already. It's a good film, but it didn't wow me.

          Nolan's stubborn perseverance with his style of "intensified continuity" in the editing room has not thus far detracted from box office receipts, but time will tell if film history regards it as a dead end for visual narrative that destroys the psychological impact of an actor's performance with its rapid choppy cutting and sudden temporal transitions between scenes, where the narrative smash cuts into itself for no clear purpose. I don't feel he's found the right economy with this, and the effect is frequently abrupt and cold. I'm not talking about how he plays around with the chronology of the story structure - that has something to recommend it if done well, as with Pulp Fiction, or indeed his own Memento. More the unnecessary sense of ellipsis from one moment to the next.

          I don't think Nolan has yet made a film as good as Shutter Island. It took somebody with the experience of Scorsese to essentially unify Hitchcock and Malick. That's the film Nolan should be making. Until then, some of his peers, such as David Fincher, Guilermo de Torro and Paul Thomas Anderson, will continue to steal a march on him artistically.

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          • Fargo (Special Edition, DVD) / DVD / 91 Readings / 89 Ratings
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            14.01.2010 11:58
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            One of the Coen's five best films

            Fargo (1996)

            Joel and Ethan Coen's snow-bound noir won them an Oscar for their screenplay, which renders the folksy dialect of Scandinavian communities in the American north with a droll sense of deadpan humour.

            Ostensibly the plot concerns an insanely inept kidnapping caper, but really this is a character piece, populated by eccentrics who are too self-absorbed or too innocent to properly comprehend the events set in motion, and so they continue to behave as they always do - even as a farcical tragedy unfolds.

            This ironic disregard for the plot (or at least Hollywood conventions of taking the storyline seriously) is neatly summed up, without dialogue, in two memorable scenes: the first when an unsuspecting housewife watches a man in a balaclava prowl around outside her house as though this is nothing out of the ordinary, and the second when a psychotic criminal (Peter Stormare) is flummoxed by the storylines on a daytime soap opera, but totally impassive when his co-conspirator (Steve Buscemi) walks through the door with a gunshot wound to the head.

            The film begins with a caption proclaiming that what follows is a true story. It later emerged that was not the case, although Ethan Coen remarked that it was true that the film was a story. The characters' implausible behaviour has the ring of truth to it, and their disbelief or indifference to the incredible events would in real life appear naturalistic. Although dangerous twists and turns are a mainstay of the movies, few of us are used to them. With this sly genre twisting and some very witty dialogue the filmmakers infuse what looks like a disturbing drama with plenty of intelligent laughs.

            William H. Macy is excellent as a desperate downtrodden car salesman who yearns to step out of the shadow of his wife's wealthy father (Harve Presnell). He hatches an idiotic scheme to have his wife kidnapped so he can use the ransom money for a business investment. The crooks he hires quickly gain the upper hand over him even as their own actions spiral out of control, and the husband and his father-in-law bicker selfishly between themselves as they continue to play out their everyday power struggle, oblivious to the seriousness of their wife and daughter's predicament.

            Investigating the kidnapping and some subsequent murders, Frances McDormand takes centre stage as Marge Gunderson, a cheery down to earth and plain thinking housewife who just happens to be the chief of police with a baby on the way. She follows the trail of the hapless crooks easily enough, whilst seemingly baffled why anybody could visit such horror on her small town idyll. Only Buscemi's character appears to have any respect for the plot, and it makes a fool of him.

            The community depicted in the snow has a warm, homespun charm, despite the bleak weather and criminal misdeeds. Carter Burwell's music adds to the atmosphere and Roger Deakins photographs some great winter scenery. The film really conjures up a world unto itself, despite the screwball neo-noir tones of the story, and Marge's baby, when it arrives, will grow up with honest parents in a good corner of the world.

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              16.12.2009 15:14
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              Ghost in the Machine by The Police

              The Police - Ghost in the Machine (1981)

              Bandleader and primary songwriter Sting drew inspiration from the work of Hungarian author Arthur Koestler for this fourth release, keeping the reggae tinges and interest in world music, whilst adding keyboards and saxophones. The best-known track is the number one record "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" which confirmed the status of The Police as one of the biggest pop groups in the world. Sting has a confident and distinctive vocal presence and keeps the bass lines tight whilst drummer Stewart Copeland is effortlessly adept at poly-rhythms and Andy Summers provides jazz influenced textures on guitar and keyboard. The Police's sound admirably fuses traditional rock and roll with more of an international flavour on tracks such as "Demolition Man" whilst still being infused by the sensibilities of the punk movement that had overtaken the British music scene around the cusp of the decade. The fifth record sold more units and fame and money would see the band implode, launching Sting into orbit as a solo star and tree-hugger extraordinaire, but it's hard to fault this recording which catches the band at the height of their powers.

              "Spirits in the Material World" - 2:59

              The busy bass line establishes itself insistently early and keyboards chime as Sting intones his words. Sting takes himself kind of seriously but he keeps it together with some nice phrasing. This track has a great sound. The Police definitely have a band defining style, but they experiment more later on. Maybe that's to their credit, but this early one is much more successful. It brings unity to their influences making them their own. An assured performance...

              "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" - 4:22

              One of the band's world conquering anthems this song has been well known to radio listeners everywhere since 1981. Deservedly so...

              "Invisible Sun" - 3:44

              The sombre lead in of the vocals is nicely done and the beat is intriguing to start with. The chorus lets the song down a bit and the guitar solo is a bit silly. By the end the keyboards have grown too big and sound like they ought to be sparser. A bit of a lull after the first two tracks but doesn't lose too much momentum.

              "Hungry for You (J'aurais Toujours Faim de Toi)" - 2:52

              Not as cheerful as the hit single and Sting decides to sing it in French. Pretentious, moi? The faint wah wah guitar and the saxophone hook get very repetitive after a while.

              "Demolition Man" - 5:57

              Bass and guitar trend towards the sleazier side of the tracks here and get the record back on course. It's a catchy, funky slow jam that rises in tempo. The brass section and the vocal are nice.

              "Too Much Information" - 3:43

              This has a laid back bass line at the heart as jazz keyboards and sax billow in the space around, although it's easy to imagine the simple lyric as the core of a punk song. The message is to keep things simple.

              "Rehumanize Yourself" - 3:10

              The opening beat and riff is somewhat redolent of Mrs Robinson, but that subsides eventually. What follows could be a Paul Simon country and western song though, with shades of Paul McCartney singing the chorus to Get Back. The musical arrangement is a mash up of styles and there feels to be a conflict between the sounds of the urban and the rural, represented by the swagger of jazz and the roots of rock and roll.

              "One World (Not Three)" - 4:47

              Stylistically this song is anchored somewhere off the coast of a Caribbean island. The easy bass drives Sting's one world message and the drumbeat is stiff and insistent.

              "Omegaman"- 2:48

              The guitars conjure a slightly avant-garde texture at times and there's an air of futurism in the present day to this one. It's got a quick rubber rhythm at times but chugs at others. Sting uses lots of backing loops to echo his trailing vocals.

              "Secret Journey"- 3:34

              Perhaps the journey suggested by the sounds is a railroad sailing through space. Sting's lyrics have a slightly mystic tone to them. Melodically this one doesn't quite tie together so the song feels a bit too much like a sermon on some levels. The futurism of the production is clean but hasn't aged especially fashionably.

              "Darkness"- 3:14

              This one's a bit of a dirge.


              The record actually falls apart quite a lot in the last sequence of songs. But the stronger stretch of tunes from the start is sufficient. It's a good record, but most people will probably want their Greatest Hits.

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              • Rio - Duran Duran / Music Album / 50 Readings / 48 Ratings
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                15.12.2009 20:43
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                Good pop record

                Duran Duran - Rio (1982)


                This 1980s pop behemoth still feels vaguely relevant owing to the success of various electroclash and synth pop bands this decade. The rhythms and melodies remain pleasantly diverting, but the feeling abounds that subsequent acts have pushed this sound forward with a harder leading edge. The production is tight and has aged well though and the tunes are well thought out and catchy.

                "Rio" - 5:33

                Arguably the most famous Duran Duran song - due to heavy rotation on top 40 radio stations, and a much-hyped video on MTV - Rio has aged fairly well although it feels a bit baggy at five and a half minutes longs and at times the structure lags. The intro conveys art-rock city landscapes before the chorus goes for a whiff of the wilderness. The lyrics are pure pop whimsy, but combined with that hook, are effective at evoking the exoticness of a country or a landscape or a girl or a dance floor.

                "My Own Way" - 4:51

                This feels like the lesser of the four singles from the record, with a slighter hook and less interesting sound textures. But the guitars and keyboards are engaging enough and get across the band's style.

                "Lonely In Your Nightmare" - 3:50

                Three songs in we hit the first ballad, and the production feels a bit too easy listening to my ear, even though there's a persistent electronic drum beat and lush keyboard arrangements. The lyrics are rather anodyne to the point of being bland.

                "Hungry Like the Wolf" - 3:41

                Another big hit, this begins with a glimmer of laughter, then we're into a solidly catchy looping riff, with a thin keyboard rhythm pattering prettily across it in the background. The vocal melody is quite straightforward but holds the attention. Cinematic story telling elements enter the production towards the end of the song, almost like cues for the music video. This was effectively the lead single for the album, as My Own Way was originally released in between records, having been recorded much earlier than the other songs.

                "Hold Back the Rain" - 3:57

                This sounds to me like an inferior rehash of Rio, and I'm not sure we need both on the same record. There's pleasant whistle of an organ pumping and chirping through the synth arrangements though, and the chorus is still catchy even if they've stolen it from their own song. The drums echo nicely near the end, and Simon LeBon's vocal is pretty solid.

                "New Religion" - 5:33

                Anchored by a persistent bouncy bass beat this song keeps momentum even if the trappings and flourishes feel a little like amateur dramatics hour. Melodically it lacks the killer hook but it works as mood music, if striking poses on the dance floor and looking flamboyantly serious or straight-faced silly is up your alley.


                "Last Chance on the Stairway" - 4:21

                Fleeting encounters lead to something more but the lyrics dissolve in clichés despite attempts to namedrop Voltaire. It's pretty catchy though and once again the tight bass line keeps it moving. The drums are snappy and the guitars would work in an REM song from this era.

                "Save a Prayer" - 5:33

                The opening keyboard arpeggios remain ear catching and the rhythm grows engrossing. The electro synth sound has aged well and the production shines. The vocal has a Morrissey tint of melancholy which just about sounds sincere. The production is quite clear and dramatic yet squeezes out some interesting noise. It's a famous song and a contender for being the best on this record.

                "The Chauffeur" - 5:13

                Squeaky tiny piano tiptoes forwards across the grumble of swelling noises. The sound of the sparse drum programming particularly seems to anticipate some of the production on those hip-hop / rnb hybrids from this decade, but the cartoon production keeps a classical overtone here, and LeBon delivers a stagey vocal performance that doesn't require auto-tune. The whistle-chime of the organ and some of the distortions are definitely distinctive, as well as a forerunner of some of the studio invention yet to come.



                This still stands up as an excellent pop record and the fingerprints of some of the sound textures can still be heard on contemporary play lists.

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                  15.12.2009 15:09
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                  Important post-punk record from the early eighties

                  Minor Threat - Out of Step (1983)

                  A hardcore punk band based out of Washington DC, Minor Threat released three EPs and this album before splitting in 1983. Their politics can be seen as a response to Reaganomics and the spread of cocaine through American cities. The music has aged well for its time, owing to high production standards, and the record commands respect from critics and musicians alike. It exerted significant influence on the post-punk landscape, and there's a good chapter on the band and their social context in "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991" by Michael Azerrad.

                  Stand out tracks include "Betray", "Look Back & Laugh", and "Out of Step." The band advocated a clean living style, renounced drinking and drug taking, and coined the phrase "straight edge" as a youth movement. Early concerns about social messages take a backseat here to lyrics about friendship. The music is played at very high speed and the band is extremely tight. Singer Ian MacKaye has a raucous voice that gets the message across to those that want to hear it but scares the be-Jesus out of those that don't. He later founded the band Fugazi.



                  Track 1 - Betray

                  The lyrics to Betray are about how age can change priorities and friends when you're young aren't necessarily for life. It also works as a break-up song. There's an element of contemplation, an open mindedness that people move on and change, and that it's possible not to see someone any more but to leave things on relatively good terms, but also resentment at the possibility of being taken for a fool or used. The rationale for thinking that no one is necessarily to blame is only an unwillingness to admit being in the wrong, and figuring the other person probably feels this way too. So in that respect maybe it's an admission of stubbornness rather than a genuine exploration of feelings. Options are considered, from cutting the person off entirely, to compromising personal values and seeing things their way. In the end, neither extreme wins out. The resolution is to live life normally, to see the other person around, but not to get involved with them much any more. The friendship they had is over, and it's upsetting, but sometimes that happens.

                  There is a suspicion that the words describe how the singer felt about some of his band mates. Minor Threat split up not long after this record was released, and there are reports of crowds feeling the lyrics were directed on stage at the drummer. Which suggests it's harder to be as collected and accepting as the song implies it's better to be. The music captures this tension, between rational thought, and vitriolic emotion, and it's fitting that this should have been played out in the actual performance.

                  Track 2 - It Follows

                  The words observe any scene that sets out to distinguish itself from the herd can become mired by nonsense once it gets too popular, if the fans end up being the people whose behaviour the scene was critical of in the first place. But also there's the metaphor that you can't run away from your past, it stays with you. Punks with the best intentions are people like the rest of them, and human behaviour transcends image, or cultural moments. There's no escape from your self. If you related to the world around you one way in the past, there's a good chance you might again. Trying to set your self apart is like chasing your own shadow.

                  Track 3 - Think Again

                  The verses move through several states of mind. First exclaiming that you've got it wrong and everybody else must be right after all, though surely there's an element of sarcasm to this. There's an understanding that disagreement is destructive, but no real insight into what's caused the difference in view. Then lashing out that you can't reason with adults who act like children, that ignorance can be a kind of default position and no amount of intelligence is enough to win an argument because some people never listen. Next the view that some people make out that they're above everything, have seen it all, know better, and you can't reason with them either. Finally, a statement of defiance - against people who throw tantrums, or act smug, or speak from experience they don't have, or believe too much in gossip - telling them to think again before coming at him with an argument.

                  Track 4 - Look Back and Laugh

                  This song is about hoping one day he'll feel better about a friend who he doesn't see any more because an opportunity came along and their lives went in different directions. There's a sense of knowing his feelings are unreasonable and more trouble than they're worth. He wants everything to work out for his friend but still feels hurt. Perhaps one day they will be able to look back and laugh. What can we do except try to hold on, or move on?

                  Track 5 - Sob Story

                  This song is a reprimand to people who suffer a setback then act like they've had the worst luck in the world and won't snap out of it. It's a challenge to stop moaning how unfair life is and instead do something about it. The irony is there's a fair amount of naval gazing going on throughout this whole album. The spiky rubber baseline has plenty of punch though, the vocal is a crisp raw grumble, and the guitars shimmer.

                  Track 6 - No Reason

                  A song about the silence that can fall on a friendship or a relationship when pride gets in the way and people act like strangers, and the frustration of not knowing what caused the rift or what to do about it. The bass is prominent from the intro and the guitars crescendo over a pulsing drum beat. "Haven't we met before?" the voice exclaims, plangently.

                  Track 7 - Little Friend

                  The words sound like they're describing the onset of anxiety or depression or hostility, a little friend eating away your innards. The music is intense and restless with short tight riffs falling fast and smart use of dramatic pauses. The second half of the song resembles a primer for writing a Nirvana track.

                  Track 8 - Out of Step

                  Expounds the message not to smoke, drink, or sleep around. These things may appear to help you think more clearly when you're stressed, but such release can leave you feeling out of step with the world. The music is spiralling into confusion as the vocal imposes order and then the bass line gets it together and by the end the drums are pounding quick and clear headed and the track abruptly finishes.

                  Track 9- Cashing In

                  This was a "hidden" song on the original vinyl release. I don't seem to have it, so I can't say what it sounds like! The lyrics are a nice little poem in which the singer introduces himself and spells out his ethos for being in a band, basically by satirising what they'd do if they were cynically in it for the money.



                  As a collection of tunes there's much more to admire than any of the grunge or nu-metal imitators (Offspring, Limp Biscuit) from the 1990s. Throughout, the bass is particularly lively and playful, and there's also an astute awareness of metal song structures in places. Green Day probably owe a big debt to the punchy tunefulness of records such as this, and are the biggest of the bands to take a watered down version of this sound into mainstream pop, although Minor Threat submerge any sense of vocal melody much more deeply in the mix than Billie Joe Armstrong's outfit.

                  It's unfair though to judge influence based on lesser offerings from inferior bands that followed. Musically, Minor Threat belong in the pre-history lineage of acts such as The Pixies and Nirvana, with Ian MacKaye offering potent ideas to the likes of Francis Black and Kurt Cobain to embellish, rather than a mere template for others to copy. "Look Back and Laugh" in particular would work great as a Pixies song.

                  The songs are typically short, averaging somewhere around the two minute mark, so the whole record comes in at a shade under 22 minutes. The density of allusions to other bands' styles - future, past and present - ensures the record stays original and interesting even as the tone remains consistent from song to song. For a punk record there's a rare musicality and so although the playing is fast and layered and noisy the sound is always clean and controlled.

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                    03.12.2009 11:30
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                    The Force is strong with this one.

                    The Empire Strikes Back (1980) directed by Irvin Kershner, written by Lawrence Kasdan

                    The lived-in earth tones of the desert are replaced in this sequel with an enchanting field of ice and snow, which is just as perilous. The stark white weather is the canvass for a rescue mission that re-establishes the characters, and then a suitably dangerous escape sequence as our heroes flee the invading imperial forces, led by the evil Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), who has discovered the rebels' secret base. Then we are back in space, and the stars this time are a backdrop for a colourful chase movie, which in turn is the setting for a coy romance between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, as Captain Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa.

                    Their love navigates collapsing ice-tunnels and asteroid belts; space monsters and bounty hunters; broken hyper-drives and betrayals; but all the time they trade insults like romantic leads in a 1940s era Hollywood noir, refusing to even trust each other, let alone admit their love; the scoundrel and the princess. On board the Millennium Falcon, C3P0 and Chewbacca watch with frustration and bemusement. Lawrence Kasdan's script is of a higher order on a character level than the original Star Wars, and the action sequences and chase scenes are shrewdly constructed to service the story.

                    On the following Star Destroyers, Vader's pursuit of the Millennium Falcon is punctuated with a darkly comic running joke that sees him murdering his bumbling admirals and generals each time they disappoint him. No wonder the Empire lacks adequate military command if these battlefield promotions are de rigueur. After a few days, the janitor would be in charge of the fleet. During these scenes, the Emperor makes his debut appearance, in hologram form. Originally he was voiced over an image of an old lady with monkey eyes superimposed, but in order to restore continuity with other films in the series, Ian McDiarmid takes a bow in re-mastered editions of the film issued this century.

                    Although Vader spends most of the movie chasing Han and Leia, it's their friend Luke Skywalker he's really interested in. Instead of providing a romantic foil, the boy hero of the first movie takes his first step on a new journey here. Dying in the snow as Han races to the rescue, Luke has a vision of his dead mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, (reprised by Alec Guinness, in a cameo) who instructs him to seek out Yoda, the Jedi master who trained old Ben. Accompanied by R2D2, this takes Luke from the ice planet Hoth to the swamplands of Dagobah, where he encounters an eccentric goblin, who plays mischievous tricks on him, but promises to help him with his quest to find Yoda and begin his training. As established in the first film, Luke still wants to become a Jedi knight and learn the ways of the force, like his father. But he is conflicted by his urge to help his friends, whom he senses are in grave trouble.

                    Frank Oz plays Yoda, and it's a great character - especially here, before he forgot how to do the voice. Han and Leia are also forced to seek the help of a new character - Han's old gambling buddy, Lando Calrissian, (Billy Dee Williams) who is now the respectable leader of a gas-mining colony. In both situations, nothing is as it seems, and the film ends on a downbeat cliffhanger. In the first film, Han was a smuggler, on the run from a gangster called Jabba the Hutt. Now he must contend with a dangerous bounty hunter named Boba Fett, and face up to his past.

                    Harrison Ford has never been better. The jaded, scruffy, anti-hero of the first film now has somebody to care about, even if he won't admit it, so there's a dramatic tension to motivate his character that goes beyond money, or even self-survival. Carrie Fisher is feisty too, and this is essential to their rapid banter. In the third film, her substance abuse problems (documented in Fisher's semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards From The Edge, which was later filmed by Mike Nichols) would create a sense of disengagement, and Ford too seemed to be on autopilot, as Han and Leia were given less to do and fell into the background. Here they sparkle together and carry the film.

                    Mark Hamill suffered a serious car accident in 1977, and underwent some facial surgery, so he looks a little different to how we remember him - buying droids on the desert world of Tatooine, or being chased by storm troopers through the corridors of the Death Star - but this actually helps sell the illusion that he is no-longer the farm boy we once knew.

                    The already brilliant production design is improved upon; the galaxy far far away looks more vibrant and vital than ever, the colours cooler, the shadows more mysterious. By the time the characters reach a city in the clouds, where a careful trap is sprung, each scene has the composition of a graphic novel.

                    John Williams' score is again magnificent, and he introduces new pieces here that match and even surpass the old favourites - notably The Imperial March, which is kind of a brooding meditation on Run Rabbit Run. It's hard to imagine these films capturing the imagination so well without his fantastic music.

                    In a similar vein, the sound department, led by Ben Burtt, is practically an extra lead performer all in itself, providing so many of the noises which help define Star Wars in popular culture - the hissing snap and dull electric burr of light sabres; the mechanic-animal breathing apparatus of cinema's most notorious villain; the beeping creaky echo of droids; and so on.

                    George Lucas' sources for his original hero's quest story are well known - Kurosawa films, the mythology of Joseph Campbell. Between Star Wars and Empire, he had fleshed out a lot of his ideas, and this is the film in which much more of what we associate with "Star Wars," - that which made it so iconic for decades afterwards - truly comes alive.

                    This was to prove a mixed blessing. The third film, Return of the Jedi, was to open with an action sequence which resolved a plot strand left dangling from the first two films, before rehashing the original concept of a rebel raid to attack the Death Star. The Ewoks on their forest moon proved to be divisive, and so it was only the culminating drama between Luke and Vader that brought redemption to the final episode of the trilogy. That saga is memorably set in motion during Empire.

                    It might be said that the second film was the last to introduce truly original and compelling elements to the franchise. Jedi merely tied up the loose ends, and so much of the long anticipated prequel trilogy devolved into crowd-pleasing fan fiction, telling stories already alluded to here, against a backdrop which held all the charm of a computer generated cartoon, on which the actors appeared wooden, their dialogue all too leaden.

                    Although Lucas created Star Wars, it's evident director Irvin Kershner and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan were the ones who knew how to make us care about the people, and to help their universe feel three dimensional and dramatic. Leigh Brackett, the scribe who penned screenplays for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye, receives co-credit for the screenplay, but this was for an early treatment before her death from cancer, and her work was not used. This alternate take on the Star Wars sequel, still based on George Lucas' outline, has never been published, but is supposedly available to read in the archives of a small university in New Mexico.

                    Kasdan later wrote the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and directed the neo-noir crime thriller Body Heat. After making Silverado and The Big Chill, (which influence the TV series thirtysomething) the quality of his work dropped off, leading to movies such as Mumford, Wyatt Earp, The Bodyguard, French Kiss, and Grand Canyon in the 1990s. Kershner was a journeyman director whose other work included movies such as Never Say Never Again, RoboCop 2, The Return of a Man Called Horse, and The Eyes of Laura Mars. It's apparent these men benefited from being in the orbit of visionaries such as Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and a leading man like Harrison Ford, at just the right time.

                    Undoubtedly Lucas hit the ball out of the park with Star Wars, but it required new blood to sustain his vision of a Saturday morning serial set in space. The Empire Strikes Back accomplishes this with aplomb, beginning and ending in media res. The story decisions are smart and understated, building to a dramatic revelation, which has entered the canon of popular culture, and given Lucas' space opera the mythic status of an archetype, or paradigm, that he cherished. It's sad in a sense. The ongoing blueprint should clearly have been a series of picaresque adventures such as these, with the mythology lurking suggestively in the background. Indeed at one time there was a vague plan to shoot episodes seven, eight and nine.

                    Lucas abandoned all this, and Star Wars became a trilogy about Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the story neatly wrapped up with a concluding chapter, which revealed this not to be an ongoing serial at all. The galaxy far far away receded into time and distance. The prequels, when they arrived, were an incestuous cannibalisation of existing tropes and memes. Instead of new tales of daring do - from the time of the old republic, before the galactic empire - we were served up limp and soapy melodrama. The plots and characters were too schematic, too derivative of past glories. By the final instalment things had picked up a bit, but the series had fallen in love with its own reflection, becoming obsessed with its own mythology and marketing hype. Nothing was presented on screen that fans could not already have imagined. And the character motivations - if stripped of the pompous swagger of what the saga had become by simultaneously taking itself too seriously whilst attempting to play to a new generation of small children - were rather trite. Actors as good as Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman suddenly felt all at sea, under Lucas' direction in front of a green screen.

                    The world of Empire was before all that, and truly it feels pregnant with possibility. Sadly, it's creativity proved stillborn. But although The Empire Strikes Back was not to be the first in a long line of epic suspense stories, told in a romantic ideation of the past as the future, it can rightly be treasured as a land mark in twentieth century film making. That the Oscar for Best Picture of 1980 went to Ordinary People is eccentric, because The Empire Strikes Back stands next to Raging Bull as one of the enduring documents of that decade in any artistic medium.

                    Despite its greatness, Star Wars (1977) has been much maligned in some quarters for its influence on inferior summer blockbusters that followed in its wake, essentially ending the golden renaissance of Hollywood filmmaking in the late sixties and early seventies, when major studios produced a large quantity of challenging art. The Empire Strikes Back shows, definitively, that it need not have been that way. The opportunity lost was catastrophic to the visual arts of the late twentieth century.

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                      02.12.2009 10:06
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                      The most warm-hearted film in the series

                      Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

                      Picking up shortly after the events of The Wrath of Khan and The Search For Spock, the premise has Kirk leading his crew back to Earth to face the music for stealing and destroying the Starship Enterprise. Spock and McCoy have to get to grips with the Vulcan's resurrection from the dead after their mind meld, and Kirk is troubled by the death of his son. After some establishing scenes on the planet Vulcan - which take care of this housekeeping from the previous films in the series - the intrepid gang boldly go home in a rusty old Klingon warship, which handily has a cloaking device, if not the home comforts of their familiar mode of transportation.

                      Of course it's far from plain sailing. Kirk arrives back in the solar system to find Earth under threat from a mysterious probe that is attempting to communicate with the oceans. When no answer is forthcoming, the water begins to evaporate and the planet endures blackouts and hurricanes. Our heroes swiftly identify the signal as being a type of whale song. But humpback whales have been extinct for centuries, so Spock hypothesizes that it will only be possible to find the right whales if they boomerang around the sun and travel back in time to Earth's past. This sounds risky, but it works, and soon their rusty green ship is hidden in the middle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the year is 1986.

                      All of which is prologue to the real fun. The Voyage Home is effectively a mild comedy, in which the cast are allowed to play with the culture clash between their much beloved characters, and the customs of a twentieth century American city in which they are basically the aliens. This works brilliantly as the script sparkles and the cast show great timing. The amiable story and the familiar setting lets us see how well drawn these explorers have become over the years, transcending their early roots in a short lived weekly TV series. Yet there's something about the spirit of their adventure this time that harks back to the original nicely. The Voyage Home is the Star Trek movie that most feels like it could have been an episode of the old show, even if twenty years have passed and the budget and the girths are bigger.

                      The main action concerns itself with Kirk and Spock trying to ingratiate themselves with a marine biologist, who attends to two humpback whales at a science institute in the bay area. Dr Gillian Taylor thinks the pair of them are crazy - an impression not aided by Spock's incongruous appearance in a bath robe and a headband that hides his pointy ears and arched eyebrows, or the fact he dives into the tank to try and talk to the whales. He looks like an eccentric Buddhist monk, and keeps referring to his friend as The Admiral. Naturally, Kirk tries to patch things up over dinner.

                      While Kirk and Spock try and secure the services of George and Gracie, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, Uhura and Sulu keep busy with a series of mishaps around the city. Ostensibly this is because their ship was badly damaged travelling around the sun, and so there are tasks to be performed before they can repair it and take the whales back to the future. Really it's an excuse for a bunch of tongue-in-cheek gags and some light-hearted action sequences. A Russian man turns up at a naval base enquiring about "nuclear wessels" before the end of the Cold War. A physics genius bribes an engineer with technology that hasn't been invented yet, but tries to talk to his PC through the mouse. A doctor rages against hospital medicine, which to him looks as barbaric as the middle ages. And the captain sells an antique to get some money, knowing it will be given to him once again as a present in the future.

                      The Voyage Home is regarded along with The Wrath of Khan as the best of the Star Trek spin off movies and was a box office success. Oddly, Khan quoted Moby Dick by Herman Melville quite liberally, and here the plot of this film actually concerns whales. Shortly after it's release, the franchise received a new lease of life in the form of The Next Generation TV series, which was fortunate. As a condition for agreeing to reprise his role as Kirk here, William Shatner demanded two million dollars and the option of directing a fifth movie himself. The Final Frontier was the nadir of the Star Trek franchise when it was release in 1989, and few executives believed it would recover. Happily it bounced back with The Undiscovered Country in 1991, before the old cast handed over to the stars of the new television spin-off, who took up the mantle with their own sequence of films.

                      Things came full circle in 2009 when the original series was rebooted with new actors cast as Kirk and Spock and McCoy. In the hands of Lost co-creator JJ Abrams, this marked the first time Star Trek would have the budget of a summer blockbuster. Time will tell whether the new action-focused production will match the wit and spirit of The Voyage Home or The Wrath of Khan, or the engagement with serious science-fiction concepts that underpinned the camp appearance of the original series. Abrams has a good background making cult TV series, but has had little involvement with Lost since its pilot episode. If Star Trek is to recapture the zeitgeist, the best hope may be if Lost's show-runner, Damon Lindelof, can be persuaded to take the reins after his own cult franchise concludes in 2010.

                      The best science fiction concerns itself with the contemporary so San Francisco makes a great setting for this story and the themes of ecology and conservation work well. An early draft envisaged Eddie Murphy in the role of the marine biologist but that fell through. In it's final form the script was the work of two men. Harve Bennett - the franchise's executive producer for films two through five, who wrote The Search For Spock - handles the early scenes, picking up from where his previous screenplay left us, as well as the coda to this story, after Kirk and co finish their business in 1986 and have to face the consequences of their actions. It's little surprise though that the humorous core of the adventure is the work of Nicholas Meyer, the director and un-credited writer of The Wrath of Khan, who as such can be seen as the man ultimately responsible for the franchise's finest hours. The director this time out is Leonard Nimoy, Spock himself, who proves himself to be more than capable. James Horner provides a dramatically pretty film score that helps keep the straight face required to get the most out of the humour.

                      Although they bookend a sort of loose trilogy, which is resolved by the end of this film with exactly the right choices, the beauty of The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home is that they stand up as great movies in their own right, even when shorn of all foreknowledge of these wonderful characters and the mythology of their universe. Depending on your mood on a given day, either one of these two could be argued to be the best that Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek has to offer.

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                      • Nancy Drew (DVD) / DVD / 91 Readings / 89 Ratings
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                        01.12.2009 12:26
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                        A mixture of nostalgia and modern spooky fun

                        Nancy Drew (2007)

                        This is a likeable adaptation of the character from the children's mystery stories, created by Edward Stratemeyer, and mostly written in her original incarnation by Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Adams, between 1930 and 1979 under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Stratemeyer wanted a series aimed at girls to accompany The Hardy Boys, who debuted in 1927.

                        Writer and director Andrew Fleming has a pedigree for creating smart films that appeal to teenage or young adult audiences, dating back to Threesome, Dick, and The Craft. He was also asked to direct an episode of the short-lived cult sitcom Arrested Development.

                        In this modern retelling, Nancy is played by Emma Roberts; whose father Eric is the brother of Julia. Nancy is a bit of a prim and proper goody two shoes, despite her propensity to ignore what the adults tell her to do and get into dangerous situations. She doesn't rebel so much as point out corrections and outsmart people, showing authority figures and crooks alike how to behave properly or do a better job. This would be irritating except Roberts is amiable enough and the script is light hearted, rather than plummeting a schoolgirl into genuine peril. Eventually her peers, who mock her, have to concede that she's strong willed and cooler than all of them, even if she likes idiosyncratic retro-fashion and gets good grades, whilst finding plenty of time for ghostly goings on.

                        Nancy's old-fashioned dress-sense and sensibilities are explained by her having come from a small backwater town to the big city, which then recedes as the mystery takes the spotlight on its own terms. To begin with, the culture clash is played for jokes, but these don't undermine Nancy as a character, because she's clearly in control, and it becomes apparent that her nature has always been conceived as forward looking, letting a girl think for herself and get her way over the adults around her in challenging situations. But the film doesn't shy away from suggesting Nancy is taking unnecessary risks and occasionally makes mistakes, either.

                        The film score is fantastic, featuring in places some tumbling jazz music that sounds exciting and full of mystery and danger. The old house is suitably spooky and intriguing. It's a smart move to centre the story on a haunted Hollywood mansion that belonged to an actress from the silent movie era, because this setting bridges the gap between the character's origins and the contemporary world of today. It allows the film an air of being a period piece, without actually transporting us to the 1930s.

                        Two other bridging devices are employed effectively. The opening credits are presented like a series of children's illustrations from the forties or fifties, as might have appeared in the original books. We see characters in quaint looking situations, yet embroiled in action designed to take the imagination back to yesteryear and the spirit of the old stories. For a moment we are then transported into this world, in River Heights, where Nancy is busy outwitting the local cops and solving a mystery. The production is careful not to give away what year it is.

                        Only after Nancy promises to stop causing trouble and solving mysteries, and her father tells her they're moving to Los Angeles, do we recognise what the game is, as Nancy steps off a train which has taken her into the modern world. Then, at the end of the film, when the credits roll again, we're transported back to that land of nostalgia. Except this time we see that the hand-drawn pictures of the past are cleverly illustrated freeze frames of the film we have just watched, and each snapshot seamlessly morphs into a photograph of the characters we have met, caught up in some action. This rather reveals the attention that has gone into the visual design of the movie, and they've affectionately pulled it off convincingly.

                        Uprooting Nancy and taking her out of River Heights does not feel like a violation either, when so many of the old books would routinely have her following cases which might necessitate travelling all over the world, however implausible this ought to be for a teenage girl. Each adventure would safely see her back home ready for the next one. Nancy will always be in River Heights, and should there be a sequel, she will be able to stay there, or go anywhere she likes.

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                        • Almost Famous (DVD) / DVD / 96 Readings / 94 Ratings
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                          28.11.2009 16:19
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                          Top ten of the decade material.

                          Almost Famous (2000) written & directed by Cameron Crowe

                          Cameron Crowe weaves cinematic cuddles from gold sounds in his heartfelt paean to life as a teenage rock and roll journalist, set in the 1970s American west and based loosely on his own experience.

                          The first time I saw this film the attendants forgot to turn the lights out at the cinema and yet nobody stood up to complain - they were too enraptured by the spell cast by the screen and the music coming from the speakers. It was quite fitting in a way. This room full of strangers came together to enjoy the story instead of sitting alone in the dark. More in the spirit of a rock concert I guess; or the sense of community evoked here on a tour bus, crossing the country from California to New York and singing along to Tiny Dancer; feeling easy going if events go off track, occasionally, here and there.

                          Although, that might itself be a criticism of the film - that it is less interested in capturing the fear and loathing which overtook the music industry during this era than it should be. Even when the story reaches New York and takes several dark turns, there's a certain romanticism flying back to California. But this is a small quibble because really this is a coming of age movie, set in the director's favourite milieu, and he marshals his own material with a passionate voice.

                          The fictional stand in for Crowe is William Miller, a fifteen-year-old boy from San Diego, who sneaks into a Black Sabbath concert hoping to interview the band. He gets nowhere with this, but the guitarist of the support band, Stillwater, takes a shine to him, perhaps because he notices the budding chemistry between William and Penny Lane, a girl who befriends him at the stage door. Between them, Russell the guitarist and Penny the groupie draw William into their world, leaving him somewhat caught in the middle of the two of them, as he tries to find his own perspective as a man and as a journalist. Soon, William is on tour with the band, heading further and further east than he ever intended, finding it impossible to put his article together as the bus rolls from town to town.

                          As well as the music and the parties, William sees up close the friction between Russell and his singer Jeff Bebe, played by the excellent Jason Lee. In one scene, in which the precarious position of their manager is made clear, they have a hilarious argument over who appears more prominently on the band's t-shirt merchandise. Issues such as these come to a head in a brilliant set piece that satirises the proclivity of famous musicians to die in air crashes. Experiencing turbulence they believe will prove fatal, everybody on the plane confesses their darkest secrets - and then the turbulence stops and they all survive. Somehow, they will have to carry on living with themselves and each other. This is played for laughs, but possibly a film with an older protagonist would document the tragic underbelly of popular culture more savagely. But the film doesn't flinch away from at least acknowledging the seedier aspects of life on the road, especially after the band get a new manager and switch their tour bus for the private jet.

                          Although Billy Crudup and Frances McDormand receive top-billing, the film belongs to Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson, playing the boy journalist and the party-girl he falls in love with, who only has eyes for the band, but treats him with genuine kindness and affection. The film begins with jokes about William's age - his mother the professor (McDormand) - who later pronounces to her class "rock stars have kidnapped my son" and appears torn between taking pride in her son's precocity, and wanting to protect him from sleazy scumbags - has lied to him to get him to start school two years early - and when William and Penny Lane meet they both lie about their age.

                          In these early scenes Penny is definitely taller than William. By the end, Fugit appears to have grown a couple of inches, and is now taller than his co-star. This production quirk is touchingly apt - it captures the spiritual growth William enjoys during his journey with a compelling physical image. To begin with Penny seems worldly and enchanting, a great character to embody the free-spirited creativity of a magical culture. She is instrumental in opening doors for William to begin his travels. Yet by the time they reach the coast and William tells Penny some difficult home truths, their positions have reversed. He is now the person who belongs in this world and he must get her out of trouble before the ride is over. He helps her see she is better than the life of a groupie on tour, which was so fleetingly wonderful and in which she sparkled brighter than the others. Although people respond to her lively nature and make her most welcome, at the end of the tour everybody goes home, and she deserves more considerate treatment than that, she deserves something for her self. In a sense, she wants to regard the musicians with a wiser respect than they are worthy of. Reality can't match the power of her conception of it.

                          The view of the band that comes across in William's article is one of selfish infighting and insecurity. Rock stars aren't golden gods, they're flawed people, and some of their fans have greater qualities than their idols do. William sets Penny free to take off to Morocco for a new adventure she dreamed about, one which feels more shrewdly self-perceptive and fitting for her nature; in turn, she tricks Russell Hammond (Crudup) into coming to William's house, thinking he's gone to meet her, and so William finally gets the one-to-one interview Russell's been avoiding throughout the whole tour. Russell at last treats William like a professional journalist, instead of a kid brother to include in his mischief, and allows himself to be introspective about his faults. The band immediately denies the story, and for a moment, William is persona non grata with his editors at Rolling Stone, but then Russell insists they publish, and Stillwater need to face up to their troubles instead of running down a good kid, or their biggest fan.

                          There's also a suggestion during scenes with the younger fans that the culture encourages them to copy each other - some of the other girls seem to be taking their cues how to act from Penny, but it doesn't feel authentic, because it's not them, they don't have her panache. For a moment you wonder if Penny started out like them too, whether the whole character she puts forward to the world has been created on tour. Then, there's a great scene when she finally tells William her real name, and you realise everything Lady Goodman has told him is true, and she's every bit as interesting as Penny was. Her name somehow captures the truth of her situation and character, yet also the ambiguity of how the rock and roll lifestyle treats people.

                          In Almost Famous, the dark side of rock and roll excess is sanitised because these characters are able to confront their demons eventually and come through it, without sacrificing the pair of teenagers the band has pulled into their orbit. In all fairness, this seems like a sensible message, because plenty of people manage to lead successful careers without hitting the self destruct button, and plenty of kids are capable of navigating their coming of age dramas in adolescence and making smart choices in life. And yet William's mother is correct to feel paranoid, as any parent might, because bad things can and do happen. They nearly do here, in a New York hotel room, but this is not that movie, and these characters are not those people. Elaine Miller should have every faith in her boy, and her daughter is correct to warn her that she runs the risk of crushing his spirit and potential. It is every bit as legitimate to satirise uptight but loving mothers as it is wayward rock stars. Both can have a corrupting influence on youth if they are allowed to be ridiculous.

                          The supporting cast includes Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, and Zooey Deschanel as William's sister Anita. Most of the characters are presumably composites of people Crowe met on the road, but Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb in his cameo as the late and mythically great rock journalist Lester Bangs, who acts as a mentor to the young William Miller. Also memorable are the scenes when William impersonates an older persona to string along Ben Fong-Torres at Rolling Stone, whose editors are blissfully unaware they've sent a kid along to write what is shaping up to be their cover story.

                          An important theme in the film is that of authenticity, and Hoffman is given a number of memorable lines that speak to this directly. The film believes, as Lester Bangs did, that the bands need to be true to themselves, but so do the fans, and the job of a good journalist is to find their own voice and mediate between these two worlds with honesty, instead of following temptation. That's what William Miller does after he meets Penny Lane and Russell Hammond. Bangs seems to understand that the culture he loves is crazy and un-cool, and so is he, and that's the way he likes it, and he's not going to pander to pretension or ever get fooled by a rock star or a record label or a bad journalist who sold out and wrote what rock and roll wanted to be written instead of what the facts were.

                          This warts and all suspicion of what you love - and then loving it truly, if it's truly worth loving at all - is admirable to say the least. However, the more discerning viewer might be forgiven for asking, from this rose-tinted vantage, how much Crowe believes in or has followed his own advice. But the point stands that it's Lester Bangs, not Elaine Miller or Russell Hammond, who stands as the voice of moral authority in Almost Famous. And it's Bangs who William takes after, learning to be self critical and fair, hard working and sensible. Few films are brave enough to avoid the pit fall of dramatising the worst rock and roll stereotypes. Setting an example runs in both directions. Maybe rock stars have, metaphorically, kidnapped our children, but a culture or community is as good as the people who make it, and William and Penny are going to be okay.

                          It would be remiss not to draw attention to the film's excellent soundtrack. The story is set in 1973 and it draws on roughly fifty pieces of music to capture the spirit of the times. Some feel 1970-1973 was the last high-water mark for the golden era of rock music, but in any case, the sixties still loomed large and the vibe remains triumphant throughout. Artists featured include Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel (America), Black Sabbath (Paranoid), The Who (Sparks), Iggy Pop & The Stooges (Search and Destroy), Todd Rundgren (It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference), The Beach Boys (Feel Flows), Joni Mitchell (River), Neil Young (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and Cortez the Killer), Elton John (Tiny Dancer, and Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters) Jimi Hendrix (Voodoo Child), David Bowie (I'm Waiting For The Man), Stevie Wonder (My Cherie Amour). Also included are several tracks by the bands who Crowe based Stillwater on - Led Zeppelin, The Allmond Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd - and of course, "Stillwater" themselves perform live.

                          There was actually a band called Stillwater from 1973-1982, although they are not the band featured in the film. Crowe obtained clearance to use the name, despite having taken it from a lyric in a Soundgarden song. Crowe wrote the songs for the fictional band with his wife Nancy Wilson, from the band Heart, and guitarist Peter Frampton. Although the bass player is played by Mark Kozelek, of 1990s slow-core band Red House Painters and later Sun Kil Moon, other musicians perform the tracks, including Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, on the song Fever Dog.

                          Finally, it's worth pointing out there are two cuts of Almost Famous. The original theatrical cut was 122 minutes long, but Crowe has restored much footage, which is available in the 162 minute "Bootleg" Cut, also variously known as "Stillwater" and "Untitled", which were working titles for the movie during production. Watching the shorter version you won't feel like much is missing, because the excisions manage to keep the running time down without impeding the story, but there's a lot to enjoy in the longer edition, and I found myself noticing exactly what was new even though some time had passed since I had seen Almost Famous previously. The film's engrossing atmosphere easily sustains the longer length, but if you're of the mind two hours is plenty long as any film has business being, fret not.

                          After his career as a journalist, Crowe directed and/or wrote a number of feature films, including two seminal 1980s high school movies - Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Say Anything (1989) - and the 1996 smash hit Jerry Maguire. Later on this decade he helmed Vanilla Sky (2001) and Elizabethtown (2005).

                          For my money, Almost Famous stands as his most satisfying work to date, likely to endure as one of the very best feel good films of the early twenty-first century, nostalgically looking back at the end of the rock music scene of the late sixties and early seventies.

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                            27.11.2009 17:06
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                            Until research starts to be published from CERN this will remain useful

                            The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, written by Brian Greene (Jonathan Cape, 1999)

                            The first thing to state is this book is ten years old so may not be up to date with the current state of research into string theory.

                            Having said that, the author does write of his hope that, a decade later, the Large Hadron Collider will be completed at the CERN institute, near Lake Geneva, and that this remarkable particle accelerator will at last be able to produce the first tentative glimmer of empirical evidence for a few of the string theorists' so far abstract postulations. So that sort of brings us to now.

                            Greene, an Oxford and Harvard educated physics professor at Columbia University, does not have the stature of an Edward Witten, or a Roger Penrose, or a Steven Weinberg, but he is a suitable tour-guide for this perceptive survey of themes in twentieth century physics, largely because of his considerable aptitude for clever metaphors, which aid the layman to visualise difficult concepts. Greene combines his scientific credentials with an impressive grasp of the English language, and it is easy to see why he has been successful at popularising ideas. As well as this book he has written a follow up, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, (2005) which expands in scope to consider nearly metaphysical concerns about the nature of reality, from a scientific standpoint. He has also produced television documentaries.

                            It should be stressed that although Greene is a professional scientist, these works fall into the genre of popular science writing. Though stimulating and educational, they contain analogies and historical interpretation rather than actual science. For a more challenging presentation of some of these issues the reader may wish to consult all eleven-hundred pages of The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (2004) by Roger Penrose.

                            It's also worth noting that string theory itself has weathered an attack in recent years in the arena of public intellectual journals, owing to the publication of The Trouble With Physics (2006) by Lee Smolin, in which a disillusioned string theorist takes aim at the perceived failure of current concerns to present evidence in support of their theoretical claims at a rate commensurate with historical standards. Smolin seems to argue that at some level string theory has ceased to be proper physics and instead exists as some arcane branch of philosophy or mathematics despite its domination of funding programs within the academy. Smolin seems happy that a philosophical element should be reunified with science, but bemoans that however useful, thought-experiments should not divert attention from other legitimate avenues of research, or seek to indoctrinate post-graduates by dictating their career path. The Trouble With Physics is really two books: one a criticism that string theory has stalled in its search for answers and cannot prove what it preaches; the other a sociological enquiry into the bureaucracy of academic management and the consequences for practising science. Some awareness of these issues is preferable before accepting everything Greene describes too uncritically.

                            That said, although Greene is concerned here primarily with string theory, he covers an awful lot of ground to get to where he needs to go, to prepare the lay reader for discussion of his main field of interest. As such, The Elegant Universe provides a fascinating account of many of the main currents in twentieth century research, because this background is necessarily part of the story of the forces that led to the creation of string theory, and is needed to understand its foundations and development. The presentation is highly accessible and the focus is on the concepts rather than biography or historiography. Greene has a gift for explanatory prose and the text is peppered with helpful diagrams rather than equations. This means the writing is very informative to the non-specialist, even if she is sceptical about some of the more speculative material.

                            And some of the early century discoveries, which are beyond reproach, are in truth just as wacky as much of what is to come later, even to the initiated. There are many instances of scientists disagreeing with each other or even with their own results because they aren't ready to confront the implications. Einstein changes his mind several times, and ends up an outcast in his aging years, stubbornly pursuing ideas the community doesn't see the value of, failing to find the answers he's looking for and refuting much of his own findings, yet proving oddly prophetic and ahead of the curve one last time.

                            At the heart of the story told in this book is how Einstein overthrew the physics of Newton only to find the standard model of particle physics in conflict with him. The incompatibility of theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, and the search for an integration of the two, one which can explain gravity and time and the properties of light and the fabric of space and the probability waves of particles which can appear to be everywhere at once, and which can both describe the incredibly large and the infinitesimally small, which intersect in a singularity at the heart of a black hole or at the big bang before the river of time began, is a fascinating subject matter. Whether or not the science of string theory holds up for generations to come, this treatment usefully illuminates our state of knowledge of what our world is made of and the laws which govern the physical conduct of matter and experience.

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                            • More +
                              27.11.2009 14:29
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                              One of the best seasons of the classic sitcom

                              Frasier - Season One

                              If you were to count the best sitcoms of the 1990s on one hand, this would be one of them. It might be seen as the culmination of the traditional format, and the scripts and performances sparkle. Elsewhere, shows such as Seinfeld and Larry Sanders were beginning to deconstruct the situation comedy and may have exerted greater cultural influence on the future of the genre. But Frasier is more than the sum of its own influences; its legacy rests in its quality.

                              Kelsey Grammar plays uptight psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane, a character familiar to audiences when the program debuted in 1993, as he had appeared in the final nine seasons of the 1980s hit Cheers. In this spin-off, Frasier leaves Boston behind and moves back home, taking a job as a radio talk-show host in Seattle.

                              Most of the episodes feature three locations. The first is the radio station, where Frasier spars with his feisty producer, Roz Doyle, whilst dispensing wisdom to an array of guest callers, famous names who provide the voices for his listeners. The second is Café Nervosa, where Frasier often meets for coffee with his brother, Dr Niles Crane. Their encounters frequently spill over into petty sibling rivalry; one-upmanship making a mockery of their upper-crust pretensions; and finally, much of the action occurs at Frasier's expensive apartment suite.

                              Despite the workplace setting, the heart of this comedy is in the home. It's quickly established that the brothers' dad, Marty Crane, is a retired police officer who got shot in the hip and now walks with a cane. As Frasier begins, Marty has been struggling to live on his own. The first episode centres itself on Frasier's invitation to his father to come and live with him. This is a tense affair, as Frasier is reluctant to give up the newfound space he's come to cherish, as he recovers from his own divorce, and having moved the width of a continent, away from his ex-wife and their young son.

                              Marty is a proud man and a little cranky. He hasn't got time for Frasier's airs and graces and their relationship is frosty after much time spent apart. It's clear that Frasier had more in common with his deceased mother. They clash over Marty's favourite chair and his pet dog Eddie, a headstrong Jack Russell Terrier, who stares at Frasier and gives him the creeps. Most of all, they clash because neither man knows how to tell the other man "thank you".

                              For all the fine jokes, there's a strong dramatic streak to the core character dynamics, one that feels lifelike and authentic, despite the sitcom trappings. Without it, Frasier could not have endured so well, and the episodes still feel crisp and fresh sixteen years later. The cultural references serve to punctuate the snooty silliness of Niles and Frasier, and as such cannot really date. As such the series has aged better than other 1990s behemoths such as Friends, which stripped of their feel-good contemporary sheen are exposed as being less sophisticatedly constructed and performed. Frasier is the most literate of sitcoms, the one that draws inspiration from the most disparate range of sources, and the cast have considerable range.

                              Completing the domestic arrangement, Frasier hires Daphne Moon, an eccentric young English woman, who claims she's psychic, to work as Marty's live-in physiotherapist. In a great establishing scene, Daphne's kookiness is offset by her shrewd ability to size the father and son up and communicate to Marty directly on his own terms. This gets her the job. Frasier might be a psychiatrist, but perhaps Daphne is better at reading people and situations.

                              Niles immediately takes a shine to Daphne, and problematically so, as he is unhappily married to Maris, one of that ilk of sitcom characters alluded to only in dialogue, as she remains elusively off-screen. In a memorable line, echoing Shakespeare, Frasier remarks: "I like her from a distance. You know, the way you like the sun. Maris is like the sun. Except without the warmth."

                              Over the years a lot of the comedy would be derived from Niles' chaste lusting after Daphne. The unlikely impossibility of a relationship between the two of them grounds his character, making him more than an elitist snob. Eventually, the writers tinkered with this formula, and most fans felt it was a mistake. Even in a sitcom as finely acted as this one, there is the suspicion that any growth which occurs must be confined to each individual story, to protect the sanctity of the characters and their situation from week to week.

                              The first episode really is a gem. What's striking about Frasier is how it arrived fully formed from day one. Whereas Seinfeld took a couple of years to find its rhythm, season one of Frasier contains a clutch of its greatest episodes, and the consistency is remarkably high. To the extent that there's much filler, it's only because the best episodes hit such peaks that few other programs could hope to scale.

                              Kelsey Grammer is great as the lead character, admirably treading a difficult line between Frasier's pompous pretension and the feeling he's only one more high-wire farce away from tumbling into neurotic abandon. Grammer also sings the theme song at the end of each episode - a fun old time piano number - and in later seasons he would direct a large number of episodes.

                              The presence of the prissy brother Niles keeps Frasier sympathetic in the face of Marty's homespun pragmatism. John Mahoney is an accomplished film actor, and he relishes the role of Crane senior with glee. Yet David Hyde Pierce, who is impeccably cast as the younger psychiatrist, outshines even him. Pierce has remarkable comic timing, and brings a slapstick panache to the humour when it's required.

                              Amongst the supporting cast, Peri Gilpin stepped into the role of Roz after producers first cast Lisa Kudrow. Early rehearsals suggested Kudrow's gifts weren't quite right for the character, and she quickly moved on to star in Friends. With Kudrow's performance as Phoebe so well known to us now, it's hard to picture her now as Roz rather than Daphne - a role that was originally given to Lisa Maxwell, but was also recast before the pilot too. Some fans have expressed scepticism concerning Jane Leeves' portrayal of the physiotherapist's Mancunian accent, but this must be seen as a minor quibble, as Leeves is a British actress making a deliberate choice.

                              Season one comprises twenty-four episodes and the writing is consistently strong, even though the show's most prolific writer, Joe Keenan, was yet to join the production. Although there was no involvement from the Charles brothers, returning Cheers veterans included director James Burrows, writer David Lloyd, and Frasier creators Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell - who sadly died when the plane he was travelling on crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York City on September 11th 2001.

                              Though it was hard to predict at the time, Frasier eventually out did Cheers. Early standouts include "The Good Son", "Miracle on Third or Fourth Street", "A Midwinter Night's Dream", "Travels With Martin", "Frasier Crane's Day Off", and "My Coffee With Niles".

                              "The Good Son" is just about the best debut episode of a sitcom you'll see; perfectly crafted with plenty to enjoy on each viewing, it really succeeds in establishing the characters and setting the tone for the series with aplomb.

                              "A Midwinter Night's Dream" throws Niles and Daphne together alone on a stormy night, and is the first truly great marker in the on-going cycle of episodes which explores their unrequited and hidden feelings.

                              Best of all, "Travels With Martin" takes the Cranes on the road in a Winnebago, and the claustrophobia forces them to confront their uneasiness talking with one another, when they have to overcome a visa problem for Daphne, after accidentally crossing the border into Canada while she was sleeping.

                              These episodes in particular set the archetype for some of the best to come, and feel the most complete in terms of storytelling, getting the best out of the actors and the jokes and the situations whilst injecting something original and hanging together just right. They have the best character moments and feel the most lively and spirited in overall imagination. There's a snappy rhythm to the dialogue and if you close your eyes you could imagine the scripts working just fine as a radio play. Plenty more would follow which matched these in terms of quality, but they were tough to surpass.

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                              • Atonement (DVD) / DVD / 68 Readings / 64 Ratings
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                                26.11.2009 20:55
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                                One of the very best British films of the decade

                                Atonement

                                This Oscar nominated film from English director Joe Wright is an adaptation of the prize-winning novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. Released in 2007, it lost out in the Best Picture category to No Country For Old Men. Although boasting a cast with established names such as Keira Knightley and James McAvoy and Vanessa Redgrave, critics singled out the performance of thirteen-year-old Saoirse Ronan, making her breakthrough here in the pivotal supporting role of a young girl whose actions rip apart her family.

                                The setting and the style of the film as it follows the fall out from a fateful evening at a privileged country manor on the eve of the Second World War feel very evocative of the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited, although the narrative fractures to reveal metaphysical aspects of the nature of storytelling and war and memory and growing old. It is left to the audience to determine whether the young girl's behaviour was malicious or merely naïve, or whether forgiveness even matters, in the context of the war, and the social upheavals soon to follow. In a sense, the folly of a rich family is served up as a metaphor for the breakdown of interwar society, and the damage done to human lives.

                                I was ready to hate this film and wasn't prepared for it being so good. It has the character you simply want to strangle the most this side of Tess of the d'Urbevilles until she, well, tries to atone, over the course of her life, as portrayed by three different actresses. And this is the device for some interesting narrative jumps which are irritating at first but come to make sense - the rival points of view, the dream like war sequences, the decision to let the key resolution happen off screen in favour of the shift in focus back to the younger sister, the jolting framing device. I did actually cry. Stupid film! Not sure this is one that would stand up to a second viewing, because of the surprising turns in the narrative which can only be presented effectively the first time you watch, but it presents plenty of intriguing ideas and I found myself curious to take a look at the book. A criticism might be that it feels a bit self-absorbed in its own meta-narrative, at times maybe, but the story is strong enough to pull this off.

                                Here is my personal reaction to the film, which contains spoilers, so that's your lot if you've not yet seen this, because you'll want to go into this without too much foreknowledge to preserve the impact of the story structure. I don't feel I can do justice to discussing this film without wrestling with its themes in full, as I found it to be very effective and thought provoking, albeit at times frustrating as well:

                                I think what's interesting about Atonement is this idea of where the focus of the story lies. Is it seen from the point of view of the two would be romantic leads, or from the point of view of this seemingly secondary character who, either through ignorance or spite, misunderstands something crucial and tears the world of the would be lovers apart, before their romance can properly begin.

                                But then the whole idyllic world of these young rich people in the inter war years is interrupted itself, by something much bigger, more ignorant, more spiteful, than what is later revealed to be the spurned heart of a young girl. The love story is actually ended by the Second World War, abruptly, a mere fifty minutes into the two hour film, even though at first it seems like a mere interruption, and there are hints the story will be allowed to continue.

                                But what follows is actually a reverie on loss from the point of view of a dying soldier who will never see his love again. His imagined reunion happens off screen, because it never really happens at all. That last night is forever frozen and fixed and fragmented in memory, overtaken by events. He wanders around in this no-man land, searching, yearning, but there's no way back to the world he knew.

                                The focus shifts back to the young girl who interrupted her sister's love affair and seemingly ruined their lives. She has abandoned a place at Cambridge almost as a penance to atone for her sin by working as a nurse. In a uniform her identity is stripped from her by the war and by her superior and there is this sense that she is just one nurse and the man she sent to prison is just one soldier and their stories are nearly trivial against this horrid backdrop of the war and yet still she blames herself and torments herself by trying to type out at night a novel which will explain the truth of what happened to them. She fights to reassert her identity on these terrible events and to seem to us as a sympathetic character who has grown from her mistakes.

                                And we see that just as she did not see everything that happened that day, we did not see everything about her. It's interesting when the narrative suddenly breaks again to the present day and the girl is now a dying author who is losing her memory, having finally been able to write the book she started with all those years ago, she confesses it was all true until she decided to try and give something back to the soldier who died on the beaches of northern France and the nurse who drowned in the bombed out London air raid shelter, by allowing them to continue their story beyond death. Because she seems to realise by now that her honesty is not nearly enough.

                                But it's interesting that the one thing she cannot reconstruct through historic research is the moment the two leads are reunited. And that even though she imagines these people surviving the war, she can't bring herself to imagine that they would forgive her for what she did to them.

                                So again there is this friction between the self-absorbed lives of the privileged and the broader canvas of the war. But also now there is this idea of an author determining the fate of her characters. Did the writer kill off the characters by her own hand, or is she just swept up in events like the rest of us? Are we the authors of our own lives? What she did tore her sister and her friend's lives apart, but she didn't kill them. The war did that.

                                Or was the war a bigger symptom of the perverted entitlement of the upper classes? The ultimate consequence of drawing ordinary people into the machinations of those who think they understand the world, but don't. And there's the hint through the use of a window that in the same way what she thought she saw that day smashed apart the idyllic world she knew and exposed it for a lie, the glimpse of an old woman on the street smashes apart the idyll of the lovers reunited, and transports us into our own future, looking back on imagined worlds.

                                Also, the shared memory is so brief, and the characters are shown to be so ambivalent before hand, do they romanticise what they have precisely because it is interrupted and overtaken by events? The war could here just be a metaphor for real life. The memory becomes important because it is frozen, and because people feel they need something to hold on to to keep them from being swept away by the torrent of history. Had the story not been interrupted, it could have gone either way, and might not have been a story at all. It would be in flux like everything else and there wouldn't be anything to hold onto.

                                In the imagined scene where the girl goes to see her sister, for a moment her partner seems almost like a blur, which perhaps he was, and we're not sure whether perhaps she found somebody else. But then he seems to be conjured back up out of the imagination, after the glimpse of some tumbled bed sheets, and this is what happens.

                                The girl did something wrong, but not only did she not kill these characters, she can't know how they would have lived either. She cannot know what she is atoning for. Her point of view looking from the window out on that fountain remains obscured until the end. And the more important thing which she witnessed that day, which she did see first hand, and which she does belatedly manage to piece together, and on which she could act, she does nothing about. Maybe out of fear for being wrong again, or maybe because that story was never interrupted, or even really known or imagined, and doesn't seem up for grabs. It was just something which happened.

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                                  18.11.2008 21:54
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                                  May the force be with you, always.

                                  Star Wars (1977)

                                  "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." says the first title card. A Saturday matinee scroll says it's a time of civil war and rebels have stolen the plans to a weapon called the Death Star from an evil galactic empire.

                                  Above a large planet, a huge spacecraft is chasing a small spacecraft, and this visual impressively demonstrates the scale of what is at stake and what the odds might be. On a human scale, a black clad masked villain is chasing a princess dressed in white robes and a revolutionary hairdo across the galaxy. Resourcefully, she passes the stolen plans to her two mechanical servants before she is captured. They flee in an escape pod to the planet below, but waste much of their head start bickering with one another during a series of misadventures.

                                  Eventually, the family of a teenage farm boy takes them both into service. The farm boy feels frustrated by his upbringing in the desert on this backwater planet, in the orbit of twin stars. In one memorable scene, the wonderfully swelling orchestral score underlines his yearning to be called to adventure as he watches the sunset over the sand. He might get his wish. One of the servants, a prissy gold plated robot, is content to work as a translator on the farm. His resourceful companion, a short blue and white robot, who talks in a series of beeps and whistles that occasionally resemble the sound of a creaky door hinge, has other ideas.

                                  He leads them to an old hermit, who lives out amongst the cliffs and dunes, and who rescues them from marauding bandits. In a holographic message, the princess appeals to the hermit to safeguard the stolen plans and to help her save her people from the empire. The hermit used to be a general, and a lot else besides. He tells the farm boy the villain in black murdered his father years ago, and he must learn the rites of an ancient warrior religion if he is to help the rebels.

                                  The farm boy sceptically rejects the call to adventure, but returns home to find the farm scorched and his family slain by the soldiers hunting the stolen plans. Urgently, the servants, the farm boy and the hermit seek passage off the desert planet. In a bar full of lowlifes, they barter with a cocky smuggler who boasts to be the pilot of the fastest ship in the galaxy, but who also needs money to pay off his debts to the local crime syndicate, having previously ditched his cargo at the first sign of trouble.

                                  Together with his tall and furry co-pilot, Chewbacca, the smuggler, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the farm boy, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the hermit, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and the servants, C3P0 and R2D2, all set off aboard the Millennium Falcon to rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the villainous Darth Vader on the Death Star...

                                  Written and Directed by George Lucas.

                                  Also starring Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin.

                                  Star Wars ushered in a new era of special effects blockbusters and was a cultural phenomenon in 1977. The iconic production design of the galaxy far, far away looks and sounds suitably dishevelled and lived in, as befits a space western set in the past and not the future. The enduring appeal of this family friendly film and its two action packed sequels remains unquestioned, although a second trilogy of movies failed to recapture such universal love at the turn of the century. And even though Star Wars undoubtedly stands as one of the most successful works of popular fiction in history, it's the majestic film score by the composer John Williams that stole the day, and set a whole generation of young imaginations soaring towards the stars.

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