From the Vault #13: STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 25th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

In 1987, after a costly divorce settlement that undoubtedly dampened his enthusiasm for playing in a fictional universe, George Lucas unofficially cancelled his long-held plans to produce a prequel trilogy to Star Wars, his magnum opus & arguably the most iconic Hollywood movie franchise in cinematic history. It didn’t last long.

The technology Lucas felt wasn’t around to realise his grand vision for the series was becoming a reality thanks to leaps forward visible in such movies as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Jurassic Park and by 1994, imagination forever burning to tell the story of how Anakin Skywalker became cinema’s most infamous villain, Darth Vader, he was writing what would ultimately become The Phantom Menace. To say ‘Episode I’ was anticipated would be an understatement – millions spent on marketing, thousands queuing for weeks outside cinemas for tickets, the press in a frenzy. Star Wars had struck such a chord from 1977 onwards that by 1999, as the internet was exploding into the household, fandom was at its expectant peak.

Think back… how old were you? What were you doing? And when you finally saw The Phantom Menace, did you wonder why you’d spent so long excited?

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Film Review: MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND (2019)

When considering a movie, how often do you consider how it sounds? Not just the score, which many increasingly recognise as a crucial and celebrated component of a cinematic experience, but the aural aspect of how a film is put together. If your answer is “not much”, then Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is an eye-opener.

Directed by Midge Costin, a former sound editor who worked on films throughout the 80’s and 90’s (heavily on Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as Days of Thunder and Armageddon), Making Waves shines a light on sound design, a process which has been key to the history and evolution of cinema since the pioneering work of Eadward Muybridge all the way back in the 1870’s captured the possibility of an image on screen. Costin’s documentary roughly chronologically tells the story of sound in film, as Muybridge gave way to Melies and the silent film era of the early 20th century, all of which struggled to sync manufactured sound to film. Theatres would use orchestras or even employees banging equipment to mimic sound alongside image. None of it came from the actual picture at first, movies often shot in locations filled with sound because only image was required.

Then along came Don Juan, with John Barrymore, adding sound to image and finally the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, more infamous now for a blacked up Al Jolson, but which for the first time had audiences hearing someone not just sing but talk on a motion picture screen. Making Waves takes that history and runs with it across the subsequent century.

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Book Trek #8: Star Trek: The Original Series – ‘First Frontier’

In an attempt to try and tackle the onerous job of looking into the Star Trek book universe, thanks to the help of Memory Beta’s chronology section, I am intending to look at the saga in book form from stories which take place earliest in the franchise’s timeline onwards. This hopefully should provide an illuminating and unusual way of examining the extended Star Trek universe.

Part of this story takes place 64 million years ago.

Sometimes you just click with a novel and sometimes, as in the case of First Frontier, you just don’t. For an indefinable reason, Diane Carey’s novel co-written with scientist Dr. James Kirkland was easily my most arduous reading experience of the Star Trek tie-in universe yet. This could well be a level of personal preference and, as always with my pieces on Cultural Conversation, I’ll be looking conceptually at First Frontier and what it does as a novel. I would, however, be lying if I said it was an enjoyable read.

First Frontier is an interesting tie-in novel, the seventy-fifth in the line of The Original Series books, for several reasons. For a start, there is the inclusion of Kirkland in the writing process. Carey is someone who will be well known to many who read Star Trek tie-in fiction, given how she was one of the most prolific novelists in the franchise, particularly throughout the 1990’s. Kirkland, however, is a scientist first and writer second, at least in terms of fiction, and came to co-write First Frontier, as a self-confessed major Star Trek fan since the 1960’s, after Carey read an article in Discover magazine about Kirkland’s discovery of the ‘Utahraptor’, one of the biggest dinosaurs ever found.

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The Last Jedi: from Space Fantasy to Space Equality

Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.

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Waterworld (1995)

Excess is probably the word to best associate with Waterworld. The excess of Hollywood in the 1990’s. After the blockbuster formed at the tail end of the 1970’s thanks to the efforts primarily of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the 1980’s saw the phenomenon largely dominated by Olympian action heroes or stars whose names towered on the poster above the title – Schwarzenegger, Ford, Willis, Stallone, Snipes. Alternatively, sequels and franchises began to form and dominate – Bond continued making money, joined by Indiana Jones, Star Wars of course, Star Trek back from the dead, and a whole surfeit of sequels which evolved into trilogies, and continued the trend into the 1990’s. That decade, nonetheless, added an extra dimension.

Waterworld is indicative of the mega-budget ‘high concept’ which had crept in over the last decade and really bore fruit during the 90’s. A high concept movie, essentially, was a picture you could boil down in one, easy for a movie studio executive to understand soundbite. Waterworld’s, without question, would be ‘Mad Max on water’. Simple, clear, readable. Everyone had heard of Mad Max, a successful trilogy itself early in the 80’s. The idea of trying to replicate the success of George Miller’s desert-based post-apocalyptic action series would have seen the bean counter’s eyes kerching with dollar signs. Waterworld smacks of a high-concept, money-making exercise, taking this one-line idea and bulking it out into an event blockbuster.

The irony, of course, was how expensive Waterworld ended up being. A year later, Independence Day revitalised the alien invasion B-movie with a high-concept, simple idea which, schlocky as it may have been, reaped the rewards in dividends. Though chock-full of CGI, some of which at the time was stunning to audiences, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as Kevin Reynolds’ fourth collaboration with star Kevin Costner, given the amount of water-based sets which needed to be constructed in order to adequately sell the idea of a futuristic world where the polar ice caps have melted, consigning the ‘ancient’ world we live in now to the sea bed. Though a picture designed to make big bucks, Waterworld ultimately became one of the biggest critical and financial disasters of its decade, or indeed any decade.

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