Black Swan: Build Your Own Review


[Don’t agree with this review? Try this one…..]

For a film that is hoovering up awards nominations so hungrily, it was more than a little surprising to see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan attracting such terrible reviews and critical derision in some quarters. And then I saw it. It’s one of those films that divides opinion fairly starkly, mixing as it does qualities of trash and art. On the one hand, it’s a drama about ballet, built around fine-tuned, highly-wrought, Oscar-bait performances, magnificent costume design and nervous but precise camerawork. On the other, its a histrionic genre piece with sensationalist sexuality and all the subtlety of a stubbed toe. But can it reconcile those two sides of itself and become a beautiful hybrid creature, or will it stay a mess of ill-suited parts? I like the view from up here on the fence… Continue reading

Black Swan: Build Your Own Review


[Don’t agree with this review? Try this one……]

For a film that is hoovering up awards nominations so hungrily, it was more than a little surprising to see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan attracting such terrible reviews and critical derision. And then I saw it. It’s one of those films that divides opinion fairly starkly, mixing as it does qualities of trash and art. On the one hand, it’s a drama about ballet, built around fine-tuned, highly-wrought, Oscar-bait performances, magnificent costume design and nervous but precise camerawork. On the other, its a histrionic genre piece with sensationalist sexuality and all the subtlety of a stubbed toe. But can it reconcile those two sides of itself and become a beautiful hybrid creature, or will it stay a mess of ill-suited parts? I like the view from up here on the fence… Continue reading

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Randomised


StarWarsEpisode3PosterSee also:

Finally, we come to the end of an extensive Star Wars fest. I feel like I’ve settled into the Randomisation thing now, so perhaps it’s time to turn it towards some more challenging films. It’s not all that difficult to find something to say about narrative feature films, especially ones that spill over into so many intertexts and parallel strands of a franchise – each shot seems designed to resonate across a range of media. With Star Wars, for instance, even bit-part players might wind up with their own spin-off episode of a comic book or video game.

Before that happens, the saga must come to an end, or more, accurately, an end that sets up the beginning of the next/original trilogy of films. George Lucas might want us to watch them in order, 1-6, but there’s no doubt that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith plays on the dramatic irony of characters not knowing the significance that they will have later in the story; if it doesn’t require you to know what’s coming next, it certainly winks in the direction of those who do.

The random number generator will give me four numbers. I take frame grabs from the DVD of the frame that sits at the beginning of the minute-mark corresponding to these figures. They provide the starting point for discussion of the film. The numbers are 30, 77, 83 and 110. Let’s see what happens…
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Natalie PortmanHow often do we see people in bed in the Star Wars films? I’m sure there are some devotees who can give me an exact number, but I bet it doesn’t happen often. That sort of domestic necessity (we see people asleep, but rarely tucked up at home) is a rarity when there are more exciting things to show, and little interest in the private lives and thoughts of the characters. This is an unusually moody shot. The blinds cast noirish shadows on the wall (these people have discovered hyperspace but nobody took the trouble to invent curtains?) as Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) wakes to find her husband gone, tormented by a bad dream (premonition?) of her death. Throughout the prequels, Portman has been dressed up in some astonishing finery, at times ceremoniously decked out in Geisha style make-up and restrictively decorative robes, speaking in a cod-regal British accent through pursed lips. The story of her development as a romantic heroine (sadly, she has little to do in this film, though she does get to utter one of the only decent lines in all of the prequel scripts: “This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause”, which really jumps off the soundtrack with its unaccustomed relevance) is told through the gradual lightening of her wardrobe load, destricting her personality in the process. But she still sleeps in jewellery with her hair up, it seems. Critics mocked the lack of chemistry between Portman and Hayden Christensen, and this is probably fair comment – they’re not given much poetry to spout to make us feel that their love is really making the blood flow, but this may be, accidentally or not, the point; could it be that the Queen has blundered into this relationship and stays with her husband out of pity or fear, discomfited by his developing violent tendencies but trapped by convention or shocked into inaction? The luxurious surroundings of the palace (those embroidered cushions don’t look very cuddly) can’t be very conducive to a mutual understanding between a monarch and a freed slave, after all.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Ewan McGregor To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “Dude, WTF?!” This frame is so crowded with stuff I hardly know where to start. Obi-Wan is addressing one of the clone troopers, riding like a cowboy on a big, spaniel-lively lizard. Under their helmets, all of the clones look like their source material, Temuera Morrison; George Lucas even redubbed Boba Fett’s scenes in the Original Trilogy with Morrison’s voice. But, for reasons which are a mystery to me, Lucas decided that he didn’t want to make any actual, physical outfits for the troops, so they’re all digital animations. Morrison’s head has been superimposed onto a digital body. It looks ropey in places, but at least it matches the sense of manufactured soldiers, their uniformity and their slightly grotesque otherness, even if this flaw in the special effects is only inadvertently smuggling in such thematic reinforcement. The lizard looks pleasingly rubbery, giving me warm remembrances of Ray Harryhausen monsters, but the level of detail is overwhelming, with multiple planes of movement, destruction and colours that jostle for attention.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregorWhat’s under Darth Vader’s mask? As a youngster, these kinds of questions felt important. The amount of human left behind beneath that machinic shell was a matter of urgency, a mystery that needed solving. Eventually, I got to see what was under there, and it was quite satisfying, but Revenge of the Sith promises to show you how Vader came to be that way. So here we come to the near-conclusion of Episode III, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker duelling to the death on a beam that stretches across an infernal chasm filled with raging lava. Anakin’s eyes have gone all Emo on us, conveying a deep angst that we’re supposed to equate with a turn to the darkside. Personally, I was a little disturbed to see this tormented, child-slaughtering fascist, with or without his photogenically precise facial scars, adorning children’s lunchboxes and birthday cards. Red is obviously the dominant colour here, but the lightsabers cut through the frame strinkingly – usually, combatants fight with different coloured blades, but on this occasion the two friends fight with similar coloured weapons. I’ve heard George Lucas espousing the merits of Jordan Belson’s colourful abstract animations, and sometimes the lightsabers duels in darkened spaces transform into semi-abstract bursts of violent colour, but it’s still a couple of dudes having a swordfight. Maybe that’s going to be my final comment on the Star Wars saga – however innovative, adventurous and yes, experimental its technological showcasing might become, it remains resolutely old-fashioned in its cultural references and its commitment to showing its fans what they really want and expect to see in explicit detail, instead of shaking things up with plot twists and formal subversion.

Finally, the last frame grab from this long-running series of Star Wars Randomised posts. The 83rd minute throws out the image below. Fittingly, it’s a departure. I’ll save you some time and point out the obvious E.T. pastiche as Yoda flies off in his little pod, but I’m hoping you can add some comments on this particular frame:
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: Yoda

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Randomised


Star Wars - Attack of the ClonesSee also:

Here we go again, with the penultimate entry in this series of randomised Star Wars posts. After the execrable CGI quackery of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones could only be an improvement, right? Well, yes. It doesn’t solve any of the dramatic problems of the earlier film, and perhaps makes them worse by attempting the tricky feat of constructing a doomed romance around which all kinds of political and military activity will swarm. George Lucas is simply not up to such a task as long as he focuses his attention on his digital playthings. I’ve always argued that CGI need not be a brain-sapping tool of anti-intellectual eye candy. It’s just that, while it remained expensive, there was little incentive to put it to adventurous uses. As such, it was just used for the same tasks as earlier forms of special effects – crowds, environments, monsters etc. There’s a moment on one of the extras of the Attack of the Clones DVD where you see Lucas working with an animator on a brief shot of digital Yoda. He pores over the same piece of footage, trying to get the correct kind of wobble in one of Yoda’s ears; they want him to look a little bit rubbery so that he doesn’t look too distant from the puppet used in the earlier films, but they want him to have a much greater range of expressions. I can’t imagine Lucas lavishing this much attention on the finer points of his human cast’s performances. Instead, he’s turned them into a different kind of puppet, adopting a drag-and-drop approach to editing whereby individual performances within a group shot can be isolated from separate takes and compositied into the same space.

Let’s hope the random number generator will at least give me some interesting and unusual bits of the film to look at and write about. The numbers are: 16, 44, 79, and 112. A nice spread, so let’s get started:
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 16th minuteGeorge Lucas’ boy-racing past keeps on resurfacing. The Star Wars prequels purport to tell us what turned Anakin Skywalker into the evil Darth Vader. The explanations are pretty standard – the death of his mother, fear of losing his wife and child, being called Annie all the time. In short, he’s never really invested in the ideologies of Imperialism. He’s just weak-willed and very upset. But in Episode II we see him not as an incipient fascist overlord, but an angsty teenager. Lucas includes several moments where his reckless driving indicates a misuse of his Jedi powers for self-fulfilment, but he can’t help making it look exciting, and making Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) seem like a curmudgeon for his disapproval; look at the differences in their facial expressions, for instance. The lemon yellow speeder they drive in pursuit of a suspected assassin is designed like a sleek sportscar, the CG background a souped-up rear projection blurring in the background as it takes a rollercoaster dip. I seem to keep repeating this, but the Star Wars films feature a lot of this kind of vehicular velocity, and the use of point-of-view shots puts the viewer in the front seat of a ride. I noticed in an earlier post how one scene from from Return of the Jedi established downward motion as potentially lethal threat, running counter to controlled and steady forward journeys. Here, Anakin transgresses by leaving the flow of traffic to swoop downwards to street level, suggesting obliquely his alignment with the negative forces that populate the films.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 44th minuteA giant production line is bottling up babies to form the massive clone armies that will enable an Imperial take-over of the galaxy. This extreme long shot abstracts the people inside the little bubbles to shut out their individuality. The light blue is quite soothing and beautiful, but it’s as clinically smooth as the CGI that’s been used to visualise it. Dystopian imagery, where human beings are reduced to tiny outputs of giant machines, is a staple of science fiction, but Lucas doesn’t really pause on the philosophical or ethical consequences of posthumanism; if these issues are raised at all, they’re in the design of shots like this. This is certainly not the film for long discussions of human subjectivity in an age of duplication. Mechanising the workforce is the first stage of an Imperial takeover that will be empowered by a massive arsenal of spacecraft and other hardware: the prequels offer clues as to how the Empire came to power, and this is one of the pieces of that build-up, an insight into its clandestine origins, manufacturing its followers like bargain basement merchandise. It’s an impressive image that isn’t coated in the nightmarish darkness of The Matrix‘s people farms, but it’s also a bit of a dodge – rather than confronting the more troubling possibility that the Empire took over by influencing the populace by false promises and perverted ideology, we see that actually they grew their people in jars.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 79th minuteJust remember, if you’re a good guy in a Star Wars film, some jittery alien snitch is spying on you at every turn. Obi-Wan Kenobi takes a sidestep into the detective genre for most of this film, which means that other stock characters, including the snoop, come into play. This insectoid creature peers in from one side of the frame, hiding inside a cave. So many of the films’ alien species are introduced in this way, hiding and watching from a darkened distance. The digital matte painting that makes up the backgrounds in this shot still looks painterly, rather perfectly drawn and immaculately coloured – once again, we see Lucas’ insistence on dividing his planets up into single environments: sand planet, water planet, city planet, forest moon, etc., as if none of them is an ecosystem, but a cohesive, discrete design project.

For you, readers, the bonus frame is a relatively exciting one, a battle scene from the 112th minute of the film. Take a good look, and muster up some wisdom to share with the rest of us concerning this old thing:
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 112th minute