Monday, May 23, 2005

THE WEDDING DATE - bland, but harmless, rom-com

THE WEDDING DATE is a movie that's desperately trying to be a Richard Curtis-like Anglo-Yanqui romantic comedy. Debra Messing plays a woman with low self-esteem who hires a male escort (Dermot Mulroney) to her date at her sister's wedding: a wedding at which the man who dumped her is the best man. Of course, this being a rom-com, the woman and the male escort fall in love.

Messing is charming and Mulroney is surprisingly subtle as the escort. Amy Adams is good as the conflicted younger sister about to walk down the aisle, but Jack Davenport is on autopilot as the dim-witted, good-hearted English schmuck.

But the real problem with the film aren't the performances but the writing. It simply isn't funny enough and nor does it have the intelligence to deal with the fact that the lead actor plays a male escort. I mean, I'm not expecting PRETTY WOMAN but neither do I expect someone to set up a high concept and then leave it dangling.

THE WEDDING DATE is on global release.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The decline and fall of the STAR WARS franchise

I am the kid in class who knew the script of the original Star Wars trilogy backwards and I still have the Millennium Falcon sitting on top of my wardrobe. So it’s hard for me to review any Star Wars flick with reasoned objectivity. However, in the light of the release of the final Star Wars flick, I want to take a moment to consider what was so good about the original trilogy and what has gone wrong with the recent films. I am assuming, here, that you all know the basic plot and characters. But for any of you who don’t, there is a full plot summary at the end of this post. Needless to say, it is spoiler-tastic.

To my mind, what makes the first trilogy so resonant is the three-in-one mix of mythic/pagan archetypes; a Christian story of redemption; and a fully realised, limitless fantasy world. The gospel may be The Greatest Story Ever Told, but Star Wars amps it up by setting it in a galaxy far, far away, with weird-ass creatures, cool weaponry and cultural references from Samurais to Nazis. The acting may have been wooden and the dialogue ropey, but when you have a story arc this engaging and larger-than-life characters, who’s complaining? My theory is that in the new trilogy, Lucas undermines each of these three supporting features in a manner that leaves the shoddy dialogue and acting exposed. In addition, there is a fourth problem with the new trilogy, which I suspect is simply unavoidable.

Let’s start with the first point. I think the new trilogy is less engaging than the old because we have less archetypal characters and more fillers. In New Hope, Empire and Jedi, you could count the key characters on one hand (Luke, Han, Leia, R2D2, C3PO and Vader) and the secondary characters on the other (Chewie, Yoda, Obe-Wan, Jabba & The Emperor). All these people had well-defined personalities and relationships and were instantly memorable. In the second trilogy a couple of these guys reappear but as shadows of themselves, both in terms of characterisation on the page and the actors’ performances. Hayden Christiansen gives an inept performance as Anakin/Vader. Instead of portraying a man whose soul is corrupted, he just comes across as a petulant teen. Ewan MacGregor pastiches Sir Alec Guinness’ performance as Obe-Wan, which was itself a lazy performance. He is egged on by a script that transforms Obe-Wan into a Han-like Bond-with-a-beard. As for the the new characters, these vary from the insufficiently drawn (Mace Windu) to the racially offensive (Jar-Jar Binks). Indeed, one of the tragedies of the new trilogy is seeing an actress like Natalie Portman perform terribly, not least in the laugh-out-loud birth scene at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Only Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine manages to rise above the mere dialogue and give a performance of diabolical subtlety.

The second problem concerns the use of Christian motifs. The beauty of the original trilogy is that the plot has taken us to a point where the Republic has fallen into decay and its religion has gone the way of the Jedi. Overt religious references are largely limited to, “may the Force be with you,” which mirrors the Christian “Peace be with you”. However, the subtext of the original trilogy is full of subtle references to Christian themes, aside from the more obvious plot strand which has Luke redeeming his father. For insatnce, just before firing a shot on the Death Star, Luke switches off his targeting device and “trusts in the Force.” The key point here is that the religious imagery is pushed on the audience so far but no further: there is no simple allegory. Better still, the precise nature of the Force is left vague. The Jedi are enigmatic and attractive. By contrast, in the second trilogy, a lot of this material is pushed further. Instead of resonating with Christian themes, the new trilogy adopts them in a clumsy, vulgar manner. A case in point is the assertion that Anakin was the result of a virgin birth. This is made all the more absurd because in the same breath, it is revealed that one can have a sort of blood-test for “midi-chlorians” or whatever, that indicate one’s ability to use the Force. So, on the one hand, the Jedi are genetic freaks? On the other, this is meant to be some sort of mystical conception? Make up your mind!

This brings me to the third point, which concerns the brilliantly imagined, fantasy world that Lucas creates. In the original trilogy, Lucas succeeds in imagining a number of different backdrops for the foreground action – from seedy cantinas on outer-worlds, to gleaming anti-septic battle ships, to asteroid belts. Each world has its specific hardware, life-forms, languages and costumes. The master-stroke is that the worlds look inhabited. Emperors may have shiny new star-ships, but rebels have visibly battle-scarred pieces of junk. You also have to applaud Lucas for having the balls to make a number of his characters speak languages we cannot understand – notably, R2D2 and Chewbacca. This builds up the credibility of the world we are watching. I love the fact that we infer what these characters are saying from the other characters’ reactions. One of my biggest criticisms is that, starting in Return of the Jedi but continuing in the new triology, we see the rising use of subtitles, which never fails to take me out of the movie.

However, my biggest criticism regarding the production design is that the visual purity of the original trilogy is diluted in the new trilogy. In A New Hope we had the clearly defined and contrasting yellow desert wastes of Tatooine and then the clinical white and black of the Death Star. In Empire Strikes Back we had the remorseless white ice planet of Hoth contrasted with the misty, brown-green swamp of Dagobah and the pastel Cloud City. In Return of the Jedi, once again we have desert waste followed by lush green of Endor and clinical Death Star. In each case these worlds are clearly defined with broad visual tokens – the backdrop is not cluttered or over-designed – I suspect largely because of budget and technical limitations. By contrast, in the new trilogy, each world is over-designed to the point of bewilderment. The mis-use of computer graphics leaves the eye nowhere to rest and distracts us from the beauty and originality of this star-ship or that costume. Nowhere do we have an iconic style moment similar to Princess Leia’s in New Hope or an iconic new weapon or ship. Yes, it’s neat to see a double-ended light-sabre, but before we can get excited about it, it gets trumped by a droid with four arms and four weapons!

Each battle is more complicated in its choreography and effects than the next, and the whole thing reminded me of that line from the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy about believing eight impossible facts before breakfast. (I paraphrase.) I struggle to think of any confrontation that can match the fatal duel between Darth Vadar and Obe-Wan Kenobi in New Hope, or the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar and Return of the Jedi. These were impressive because of the beauty of the sword-fighting but also because there was so much at stake emotionally. In the first, we have martyrdom; in the second, redemption. No amount of multiplication of light-sabres can compensate for the dramatic vacuity of the battles in the new trilogy. (My riposte to people who say I should just relax and enjoy the spectacle.) Of course, there is one duel in the new trilogy that could have matched both the style of the original duels and the dramatic weight – that is the duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obe-Wan Kenobi at the end of Revenge of the Sith. After all, the stakes are Anakin’s soul, not to mention whether the Republic remains free or becomes an Empire. However, George Lucas makes a pigs ear out of this scene, with dialogue more than usually absurd and the duel resolved not by the flick of a sword but by a reverse somersault. Insane!

So, in terms of characters, thematic material and the production design, to my eye the new trilogy desecrates the original trilogy. This is the result of a lot of conscious decisions on the part of the screenwriters, production designers and ultimately, the director. And that is before we get to the glaring plot inconsistencies that bespeak of an indifference to the die-hard fans on the part of the film-makers. Still, moving beyond sins of commission and omission, there is another major problem with the new trilogy that I feel is not the fault of the production team.

A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were engaging because ordinary film-goers were seeing the story through the eyes of a bunch of under-dogs. From low-level robots to farm-hands and con-artists – the vast majority of the main characters in the first trilogy are ordinary people called upon to be heroes. This is not only romantic, but helps to keep the action down to manageable size. You can empathise more with a bunch of guys trying to Take That Hill than with seeing an mult-planet war played out on a map. The problem with Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith is that, of necessity, the story is de-personalised. After all, the new trilogy takes place at the height of the Republic. So, you can’t have Leia and Han running round the galaxy in a beat-up motor sticking up two fingers to the guys in charge. The good guys ARE the guys in charge. Leia’s mum, Padme, is an elected monarch and then Senator, and the Jedi are not eccentric wise old men living in caves but an inter-galactic Interpol. Indeed, much of the plot involves good and bad guys brokering deals in the Senate and arguing about subsidiarity and trade tariffs. The whole thing is reduced to a cross between Yes, Minister and C-Span – hardly enough to get the pulses racing. As a result, with the exception of the final duel between Anakin and Obe-Wan, most of the fights and chases in the “new trilogy” are padding. They help pass the time, sell toys and provide the basis for video games, but they do not propel the plot. The real nuts and bolts are provided by old men trying to manipulate each other in council chambers.

All in all, I would have rather left Anakin Skywalker’s back story to my own imagination rather than to George Lucas. The entire new trilogy is populated by irritating or vacuous characters uttering ridiculous dialogue, performed badly. The plot is inconsistent with the first trilogy on a number of key points and, as the action is motivated by political deals rather than battles, those battles are simply CGI-porn that carry no emotional weight. While the plot and script are under-cooked, the production design is over-cooked thanks to an egregious use of CGI and a lack of visual purity. However, this does not detract from George Lucas’ achievement in creating the original trilogy. The masterly use of archetypes, religious imagery and spare visuals created a richly imagined world populated by characters that we cared about desperately. Thus, while A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are in my Movie Pantheon, the new trilogy should be tossed into the Cinematic Trashcan of Shame. (And, if you’re wondering, Return of the Jedi makes for a perfectly good summer blockbuster!)

STAR WARS EPISODE III: THE REVENGE OF THE SITH is on global release. Star Wars Episodes I, II, IV, V and VI are available on DVD. Be careful when buying the original trilogy as the “special edition” contains extra and altered footage which, to my mind, imports the failings of the new trilogy and corrupts the integrity of the original.

Here follows a plot summary for all six movies: The movie is both a micro- and macro-level story about the fall of a good man and his redemption. The quirk is that the redemption story was told in the old trilogy, released between 1977 and 1983. The story of the fall is told in the new trilogy, released between 1999 and 2005. Looked at chronologically, the story opens in The Phantom Menace, the first of the new trilogy. As the story opens, a group of planets are co-existing peacefully, governed by a democratic Senate and policed by warrior-priests known as the Jedi. The Jedi are able to harness “The Force” – an energy field common to all life-forms – that allows them certain physical and mental powers. However, these powers can be used for both good and bad. In the first movie, Senator Palpatine manipulates the Senate into invading one the planet Naboo and electing him Chancellor. Naboo is ruled by a democratically elected Queen, Padme Amidala. In the meantime, a good Jedi named Obe Wan Kenobi helps free a young boy, Anakin Skywalker, from slavery, and takes him on as an apprentice in the way of the force. In the second movie of the new trilogy, Attack of the Clones, Chancellor Palpatine further manipulates the Senate into granting him sweeping emergency powers and initiates the Clone Wars against the rebel Jedi Darth Sidious. Anakin Skywalker and Padme marry in secret. In the third movie, Revenge of the Sith, Padme become pregnant and Anakin prophecies that she will die in childbirth. He is lured to the dark side of the Force by the promise that he will learn how to keep her alive. Thus ensnared, Anakin massacres the good Jedi, and in a duel with Obe Wan suffers massive burns which result in him wearing the iconic body suit and helmet. It is revealed that Darth Sidious and Chancellor, now Emperor, Palpatine are one and the same. He has orchestrated the dissolution of the Republic from the inside. Padme dies in childbirth and her twins, Luke and Leia, are split up and sent into hiding.

Now we jump forward in movie time to A New Hope, the first movie of the original trilogy. Leia is a Princess, Senator & covert leader of a rebel alliance against the Empire. She is captured by Vader and held prisoner upon a new weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star. Luke is a teenage farm-hand who, in a quirk of co-incidence only possible in the movies, intercepts Leia’s distress call in the shape of two droids called R2D2 & C3PO. Luke finds Obe Wan Kenobi who teaches him about the force, but omits to tell him that his father became Vader, or that he has a sister. Luke, Obe Wan and the droids rescue Leia, aided by a smuggler called Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewbacca. Obe Wan is killed by Vader, and the rebels then launch a successful attack on the Death Star. In the second movie of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is trained by another old Jedi, Yoda, but abandons his training to rescure Leia, Han, Chewbacca and the droids, who have been captured by Vader and used as bait in a client state run by reformed smuggler, Lando Calrissian. In the escape, Luke learns that Vader is his father and loses his hand. Han is frozen in carbonite and shipped off to gang-leader Jabba the Hutt. In the third movie, Return of the Jedi, Luke, Leia, Lando and the droids rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt. Luke visits a dieing Yoda and discovers he is Leia’s sister. He rejoins Han and Leia to lead an assault a base station for a new Death Star on Endor. They are aided by Ewoks. Luke tells Leia she is her sister and that he is going to the Death Star to redeem Vader. The rebels successfully blow up the base, and Lando leads a strike force in a successful attack on the Death Star proper. Meanwhile, Vader and the Emperor try to turn Luke to the dark side of the Force. Luke refuses so the Emperor starts to kill him. This prompts the necessary redemption: Vader saves Luke, kills the Emperor and then dies. Luke escapes from the Death Star just before it blows up and rejoins his friends on Endor. The Republic can now be restored.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Overlooked DVD of the month - MONDOVINO

MONDOVINO is a fascinating documentary about the wine industry. I know, I know. This might seem like rarefied territory, but I feel that the documentary has a far wider reach. Firstly, because the characters it focuses on are fantastic. Second, because the issues it touches on are broad-brush - the impact of globalisation on local industry. The issue here is the French wine industry, and the "terroiristes". These are families that have run vineyards over generations, producing wines of differing taste and quality using traditional methods. However, over the past few decades there has been a revolution in the wine industry, and American iconoclast, Robert Parker is happy to take full credit for it. The documentary shows him telling us how maddening he found the lack of transparency and snobbery of the old French wine industry. And surely anyone who has tried to navigate confusing French wine labelling, or drunk appalling wine from a supposedly top marque house, will agree with him. So, Parker, the ultimate wine democrat, decided to publish reviews of wine with a simple points system. Marked out of 100, anything over 90 was considered top hole. I've always been suspicious of points systems - it is too easy to see the mark and skip over the nuanced analysis. (There is reason why I do not publish marks out of five on my reviews.) However, in a country of relatively new wine drinkers with little confidence in their own palettes  Parker points took off beyond all imagination. Restaurents started putting them on menus and wine stores would boast of them on shelf markings. It became the case that a Parker 90 would guarantee good sales. Now here's the sad part. Old French vineyards began to "doctor" their wine to appeal to Parker and secure that all-important Parker-90. By hiring a wine consultant called Michel Rolland, and adopting his techniques, they were more likely to produce the type of heavy, rich red that Parker approves of. This has led to a homogenisation of wines produced.

Director, Jonathan Nossiter, is very good at gently mocking the grandees of this new wine industry. Robert Parker comes across as in love with his own image as an iconoclast, and is shown praising the powerful farts of his dog! Michel Rolland is portrayed as a schmoozy, charming guy, but definitely one who enjoys the power and money that go with his job. But most of all, Nossiter exposes the crass vulgarity of the Mondavi family of California - one of the most powerful families in wine. They proudly show off their vineyards and the family house they have built, and boast about a garden table that is *exactly* like the one in The Godfather. You can almost hear Nossiter whisper, "just think what a crime for such nouveau riche to buy up our beautiful old French family vineyards."

I feel that the documentary is uniquely successful because, despite this gentle mockery, it manages to give some balance. While showing the genuine grievances of the French terroiristes, it points to the great improvements that have been made in the quality of wine produced in the more obscure new world vineyards thanks to the techniques of Michel Rolland. While micro-ox. etc may be blunting some of the best wines, it seems to have raised the standard of the worst. Similarly, the documentary often makes the point that it is up to consumers not to be slaves to the Parker-points system. If rich people who are insecure about their own palette want to pay for ballsy but unsophisticated wine just because it has a 90-plus Parker rating, then why should we worry? We are still free to consume more demanding wines recommended by a host of other writers. But the real strength of the documentary, and the reason why it is a pleasure to watch all two and a quarter hours of it, is that it features so many charming and eccentric characters from the world of wine. From the French Communist mayor, elected to keep the Mondavi family out, to the old wizened wine-makers resigned to the fact that their way is the way of the past...

What more can I say? This documentary is genuinely entertaining, whether or not you are an oenophile, but also teaches us something about a specific industry that has wider ramifications. Fascinating stuff.

MONDOVINO played Cannes and London 2004. It is available on Region 2 DVD from today but opens in Austria on June 3rd 2005.