Wednesday 30 December 2020

2020: A Year In (lack of) Review

2020: A Year In (lack of) Review.

A Year In (lack of) Review

How long does it take to break a habit? 21 days? 66 days? 254? It's no secret that I've tried, albeit unsuccessfully, on several occasions to cut down on the number of posts here at World Of Blackout. Since beginning film reviews in 2011, they quickly became a hobby that turned into a dedication, and from there into a passion and at times a habit. A time-draining obligation, rather than something to be enjoyed for the hell of it. Because if I don't watch everything (within reason), how can I find unexpected gems hidden among the filler?

As noted at some length previously, the past-time which was intended to make me look at film differently had done just that, but the flipside of the coin is that a movie left not analysed can feel like it hasn't been seen at all. Because I watch(ed) far too many to be able to remember the minute details of why the bad ones were so unenjoyable. That's where the blog comes in handy*1. Very much a written version of 'pics or it didn't happen'.


Anyway. 2020. After my usual flurry of cinema visits in the first quarter and amid rising concern about The Unpleasantness, I sat in screen five of my local on March 17th to watch a screening of The Mandalorian. I didn't return to my second-favourite building in Didcot until August 2nd. 139 days later. The cinema had been closed for most of the intervening time, of course, but even so. And it was Star Wars which pulled me back, rather than the raft of archive programming Warner Bros had supplied to cinemas in lieu of July's 'new' content. I watched a few movies there after that, largely in almost-deserted auditoria*2, but have to admit that under the circumstances didn't feel entirely comfortable there. Don't get me wrong, Cineworld were doing everything they damned well could to keep the doors open while keeping their customers as safe as possible but y'know: a virus is still a virus, no matter how well intentioned the hazard tape and perspex screens are. Because you can't safeguard against people, as we've found out. I visited the cinema 44 times in 2020, the lowest since this reviewing-project began. It turns out, all that was needed to change my cycle was a global pandemic and its associated teetering economic collapse. Not exactly what I'd have wished for, but that's what we got.

Nonetheless, after over fourth months away, the habit was broken.

And properly broken. Because I wasn't really writing about movies I watched at home, either. The cinema itself has always been my focus for the blog; the time-specific event nature of being in that big room at 8pm as the lights go down and no one's allowed to talk to each other or look at their phones or ask where they know that actor from*3 or press pause to go to the toilet*4. The bottom line is that I don't have the concentration or self-discipline to sit down in the house at X o'clock and watch a film and concentrate entirely on it. That's what I use the cinema for. I need the routine, the ritual, of cinema to get the most out of a movie. It seems if I can flop down in the house and watch one at any time then I just won't.

As the first lockdown took hold, the more macabre side of my personality saw me opening the pages of H.P. Lovecraft*5 and managing a mini viewing-season of movies inspired by his works. Alas, what remained of a release schedule during the year felt largely uninspiring, and did not prompt more small-screen forays.


And so, what else of this poster-boy for the dictionary entry of annus horribilis? Well, with the lockdown leading to a sort of background hum of anxiety resulting in no extended periods of concentration on artistic pursuits; being lucky enough to have a job which means I could work from home 90% of the time and spend the other 10% in the office when it's deserted at the weekends; and my brain replacing one 'get me out of the house' addiction for another in the form of a frankly-insane-sounding fitness challenge (because if I'm not at the pictures, the time's got to go somewhere), it's been fairly quiet around Blackout Towers. Other family-based factors came into play in the middle of the year (non Pandemic-related, but made all the more complicated by that situation) to ensure that 2020 will be a year best forgotten, as soon as we're able. Oh, there is also my podcast.

Actually, under the circumstances I don't think that one hyperlink is fanfare enough. The podcast is called THE PEGGY MOUNT CALAMITY HOUR, and while there's a review 'aspect' to it, it's basically me and the magnificent Doctor Velvet taking the piss out of TV programmes from the 1970s and 1980s. I'd struggle to label it as Comedy™, but there is laughter (and booze) throughout. As of New Year's Eve we'll have cranked out 27 episodes in 2020, and we're very proud of it. You can listen/subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, Mixcloud, Stitcher, TuneIn, YouTube, or even just bellow at your smart-speak and it'll play it (apparently). I should also point out that the podcast isn't intended to replace this blog, it just sort of has so far. It's definitely a different thing, though.

But hey, you came here because this is a review-site and I promised what little there was of a year to review. As in movies, not the year itself. And I did see some, although it feels like a lifetime ago. So let's have a look at what happened in the first two-and-a-bit months of 2020...


The Good...

The year kicked off with a much-anticipated outing which I appeared to give a relatively lukewarm reception, yet it's one I'd revisit another two times at the cinema (as well as going on a location-hunting pub-crawl!), then watch countless times after its release on DVD*6. The Gentlemen is far from perfect, but it's bloody good fun in an outlandish, self-contained way.

On a more unearthly bent, The Lighthouse is a stark, surreal and symbolistic masterpiece of art at the top of its game. Just under two hours of monochrome madness in an almost square aspect ratio, it's a film which is probably best appreciated than outright enjoyed, but every single frame is precisely what director Robert Eggers intended, and there's a purity to that which can't be beaten. Similarly, Saint Maud is a razor-tight slice of absolute paranoid perfection for fans of full-blown psychological horror.

And coming back to reality with a muted claustrophobic bump, Nick Rowland's Calm With Horses is an indie-drama set in rural Ireland which features performances worthy of the best intense city-centric crime thrillers. Barry Keogh and Niamh Algar play intricate, understated to support to the masterful Cosmo Jarvis, with the rest of the cast turning in roles which feel like Twin Town has been relocated to Craggy Island. It's beautifully bleak and not to be approached lightly.

But to put a real smile on your face, Armando Iannucci's The Personal History Of David Copperfield is, frankly, an absolute fucking joy. It's the film 2020 needed before it realised it was going to be 2020.

Other flicks which were Better-Than-Expected include the almost-inexplicably fun Sonic The Hedgehog, canine frontier-adventure The Call Of The Wild, Blumhouse's very (and very welcome) 21st century take on The Invisible Man, and the same studio's balls-to-the-wall revision of that old trope, The Hunt.


The Bad...

In the wise words of our friend Tanya, let's not fuck around. There was enough crap in the first quarter of 2020 to do us for the rest of the year; God alone knows what it would have been like if plague hadn't intervened. Michael Winterbottom's continuing collaboration with Steve Coogan went the full gleeful-self-indulgence in Greed, picking the broadest target that even early 2020 had to offer, and still managing to miss on account of Sony not actually wanting to slag off the retail industry, presumably on account of them having such a heavy stake in that as well. A lack of direction, narrative coherence and character-building make this one of the very worst films of even a limited bunch.

I say 'one of' because if anyone's going to fling glitter-strewn shit at a blanket and hope that enough sticks to be recognisable as a picture, it's going to be our friends at DC. Yes, Harley Quinn And The Fundamentally Unmarketable Title careered into our cinemas in February looking like a run down Ford Fiesta that had been smeared in glue and then used to ram-raid Claire's Accessories. With a story as aimless as the 'writer's room ADHD mood-board' which spawned it, this hastily assembled bolt-on to Suicide Squad set out on a mission to just have Fun™ but didn't even possess the basic organisation to achieve that. I went lightly on it at the time, but the taste it's left in my mouth over the intervening months demonstrates the full power of The Battleship Curve to chilling effect.

And speaking of effects, the year wouldn't be complete without a CGI migraine, punted out by Sony once more, and fronted by what convention dictates must be termed An Actor if only because he moves so he can't be proper wooden scenery. I refer, of course, to Dame Vin Diesel in Bloodshot, the crap movie's crap movie, a two-hour seizure-inducing screensaver, a constipated-faced girlfriend-fridging microcosm of everything that's wrong with the sausage-machine production of action cinema hoping to coast on the ticket-buying audience's goodwill. "Oh, this might be good!". It fucking isn't. Bloodshot is actively and unapologetically A Bad Film, and I feel no remorse in singling it out for abuse. No one forced me to watch it true, but no one forced Sony to make the fucking thing either. We play the hands we're dealt and we live with those choices. Vin Diesel chose to do this.

Oh and Dolittle. Christ.
Humanity deserves an asteroid, never mind a virus.


...and The Indifferent.

Okay, these are the tricky ones. The movies which make reviewing movies more difficult. There are usually some passable things to find within them, but the overall product is so insubstantial or mediocre than you know that you couldn't truthfully recommend anyone go out of their way to pay to watch them at a cinema. In fact, these are the movies which would also make for an absolute non-event of an evening indoors as well. There's not much to gush about but they're not atrocious enough for a good old-fashioned hate-watch. It's films like these which wear down my enthusiasm for cinema. 2020 was no different.

The year kicks off with awards-baiting season of course, and Bombshell, Just Mercy, Richard Jewell and Dark Waters all brought the most lacklustre methodology to highly emotive and morally righteous real-life stories. Basically, they're cinema for people who are interested in current affairs but not enough to watch the news.

Over in the land of make-believe, Spies In Disguise was a straight-to-video animated sequel which managed to land in theatres without the benefit of a much-stronger forebear, relying instead on Will Smith's name adorning the poster in what must have been an intense "one day in a recording studio" on his part. The Rhythm Section featured Blake Lively doing far better than Jude Law in an espionage procedural that's the equivalent of a roll of beige wallpaper, while everyone's favourite cardboard cutout Kristen Stewart leads a no-star cast through the grindingly adequate Aliens Underwater For People Who Haven't Already Seen Aliens Or The Abyss Or The Two Dozen Movies Exactly Like Them. At least Dave Bautista was precisely as one-note as he was always going to be in My Spy. I suppose I can't complain about that.

As for the rest of the year, with its mix of limited theatrical and straight-to-streaming releases as studios struggled to find a way, well lets just say that 2020 was great for burying things as Bang Average as Unhinged and Bill & Ted Face The Music*7 and The New Mutants - Fox's X-Menverse swansong that is every bit as woefully muddled as that troubled franchise deserves.

I've had enough of 2020 cinema and I was only there for about a quarter of it.


I have no fucking clue, in all honesty. How would I? This year has burned me out and obviously the worst of it isn't over just because the calendar changes. With the UK currently in Tier 3/4 restrictions and on the verge of another full lockdown, it will be some time before my local cinema re-opens its doors*8. And when that happens, I want to be there. Or more accurately, I want to want to be there. But that's not ready for happening just yet, which is just as well because neither am I. DC's Wonder Woman 1984 and Pixar's Soul are currently doing the release-rounds, and I have little interest in even watching either, let alone writing about them.

World Of Blackout still stands of course, and I have at least two themed movie seasons of home-viewing literally sitting on the shelf waiting to go. I just don't currently have the mental bandwidth to give those the scrutiny they deserve. Despite me sporadically looking for 'an out' from movie reviewing, and despite this shit-show of a year then providing me with one, I'm not done yet. Like Cthulhu, I'm just resting. Waiting. It's all cyclical, and soon enough it will begin again in all its monstrous glory, no doubt*9.

Until then (and to use the phrase that's become the vacuously retooled Keep Calm And Carry On poster for 2020), stay fucking safe, yeah?

Oxford, 2020.

So, instead of any cinematic content I can be arsed to actually write about, here's my seven question round-up of the year itself, instead...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Absolutely not.

Even the 2020 end-of-year clip show from Channel 5 will be unwatchable in its entirety. And not just because it's from Channel 5

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
No, it is an exercise best left alone, as and when we can do so safely.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
2020 is like a collaboration between Steven Soderbergh, Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay and Elizabeth Banks, brought to terrible life.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
The one saving grace of 2020 is that I think we can all agree on how fucking dreadful it was.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There's been a faint screaming pretty much every day in the back of my head since around mid-February if that counts?

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: I saw The Rise Of Skywalker, The Empire Strikes Back and even The Mandalorian in the cinema in 2020.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
And that's being fucking generous, frankly.

*1 People who've met me in what we'll laughingly refer to as 'real life' will attest to the fact that while I can (indeed will) talk for hours on end about movies, conversations on cinematic stinkers are frequently punctuated with me going "right, let me just get my notes up" then going through a laundry-list of complaints I posted masquerading as a review at some point. No apologies for this. Pointing out that a film is crap is a tweet; pointing out why it's crap is a review. [ BACK ]

*2 The comparatively solitary nature of this was absolutely fucking fine by me of course, as that's how I prefer my screenings at the best of times. But it's no good when that attendance level applies to most performances and you're trying to keep a business afloat with re-runs of movies that people have either on the shelf at home, or one press of a Netflix/Amazon-shaped button away. I can hardly blame people for staying at home during a global pandemic, I was one of them. [ BACK ]

*3 Doesn't stop them of course. In the same way that signs stating "Customers must wear face coverings at all times, unless eating or drinking" are apparently translated as "Yeah, just buy a bag of popcorn and sit with it on your lap in the belief that this means you don't have to wear a mask even though you stopped eating it ten minutes into the film, you germy fuck.". Did I mention that I didn't feel entirely comfortable being back in the cinema? Because people? Tenet was busy to the point where I basically didn't dare breathe for two and half hours. [ BACK ]

*4 Although I'm sure that's in development somewhere. Built-in voting buttons on the seats where enough punters can get the film paused at any point so they can chat about the bits they don't understand while they sit with their shoes off. Did I mention that I'm not really missing the cinema at the moment? Because people? [ BACK ]

*5 An author of whom it's fair to say I like the idea of, rather than the actuality. Even leaving aside the more problematic elements of the man and how those infused his works, I've always found Lovecraft's prose somewhat inaccessible. While dripping dread antiquarian atmosphere, his inefficient paragraphs are far too long and feature way too many adjectives; the very epitome of style over content. Although it's become even more apparent over the years that this is now almost exactly how I myself am prone to writing. If only old Howard Phillips had employed sarcastic footnotes rather than xenophobia, we'd basically be on the same shelf, I'm sure. Yes, I'm saying I'm as good as H.P. Lovecraft. I told you this year had broken my brain. [ BACK ]

*6 Y'see, this is my brain. I've got Guy Ritchie's other gangster-flicks on DVD, so The Gentlemen has to be on DVD as well. I'm not going to re-buy them all on BluRay because I think they're perfectly enjoyable at standard-def on my laptop or the smaller telly in the spare room. My entire DVD/BluRay collection is split along these lines, until you get to Star Wars where I've got them on all formats. [ BACK ]

*7 I have to say I'm particularly impressed with the critical omertà surrounding Bill & Ted 3, joining the likes of Anchorman 2 and Zombieland: Double-Tap in being sequels to much-loved forebears which aren't particularly egregious, but that really have no fucking right existing. The world is precisely no better nor worse off for these movies existing, and it's easier to just politely not talk about them. [ BACK ]

*8 If, indeed, it's even able to do so. I mean I really don't want to be overly negative, but fans of cinema - even lapsed ones like me - are keeping an eye on this shit. [ BACK ]

*9 I mean here's me giving it all "Oh I'm not writing, I've got nothing to say!" - this blog post was only going to be three paragraphs, maybe four. And now look at it. And yeah you're right, I haven't mentioned 'those important films', 1917, Parasite or Tenet. Well, 1917 is very good but just doesn't seem to warrant mentioning above somehow, the relentless horror of war overshadowed by the rest of 2020. Parasite is basically fine. I can see it's great on a technical and intellectual level, it just didn't connect with me on an emotional one. And as for Tenet, let's just say it's not what a burned-out brain needs in a year like this. Mind you, Flash Gordon probably is and I still maintain that film is wilfully dreadful. I am however delighted that other people have fun with it after all these years.

Anyway, thank you for reading these footnotes. You've missed them this year, haven't you? The footnotes? I know I have.
[ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Monday 31 August 2020

Review: Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon
Cert: 12A / 111 mins / Dir. Mike Hodges / Trailer

In the run-up to 2015's The Force Awakens, I inserted a feature into the seven-question-roundup section of my film reviews. It simply asked 'what's the Star Wars connection?'. It's based on the Six Degrees Of Separation (aka Nick Cage) game of course, where the aim is to link the subject of the review to Star Wars in as few moves as possible.

It breaks down like this: Level 0 is Star Wars itself, there's no further link to be made because we're discussing the Galaxy Far, Far Away to begin with. Level 1 is where the film in question stars someone who's been in Star Wars, usually in front of the camera or microphone, but I also extend this to notable production crew members. Level 2 is where the film stars someone who's worked with someone from Star Wars on a different project.

Flash Gordon: What's the Star Wars connection?

Now for the most part this is very straightforward, and the sheer breadth of casting since 'the Disney era' opened has made it easier still. Even if the cast of a movie doesn't feature someone who's rocked up in the GFFA, there's a good chance they've worked with 'busy actors' Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson or Samuel L. Jackson at some point in the past. It's a rare thing to have to go past Level 2 when looking for a link.

But some movies occasionally have such a strong connection to Star Wars that it's worth highlighting in and of itself, and 1980's Flash Gordon is one such contender. Screening partly as a 40th anniversary celebration and partly as part of the programme of legacy content to get bums back onto cinema seats, it wasn't until the movie began in my local that I realised I'd never actually watched it from start to finish before, having only seen disparate sections on the TV over the years...

But before we get to my reactions to the film itself, let's answer the important question you're all here for: Flash Gordon: what's the Star Wars connection..?

Flash Gordon: Level 2 connections

While they haven't been in Star Wars, the following performers have starred in productions with actors who have (I mean other than this Flash Gordon, of course):

• Sam J. Jones was in Ted with Seth 'voice of Palpatine in Star Wars Detours' McFarlane.

• Melody Anderson was in Firewalker with Ian 'voice of Palpatine in Clone Wars' Abercrombie.

• Richard O'Brien was in The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Tim 'the other voice of Palpatine in Clone Wars' Curry.

• John Hallam was in Dragonslayer with Ian 'the actual Palpatine' McDiarmid.

• Topol was in For Your Eyes Only with Julian 'Veers' Glover.

• Ornella Muti was in Somewhere In The City with Bai 'Breemu' Ling.

• Timothy Dalton was in Hot Fuzz with Simon 'Unkar Plutt' Pegg.

• Peter Wyngarde was in a 1985 episode of Bulman with Don 'Tagge' Henderson.

• Phllip Stone was in Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom with Harrison 'Solo' Ford.

• Suzanne Danielle was in Carry On Emannuelle with Bruce 'Rieekan' Boa.

• Robbie Coltrane was in From Hell with Ralph 'Garmuth' Ineson.

• Peter Duncan was in 1974's Stardust with Richard 'Motti' LeParmentier.

• George Harris was in Layer Cake with Daniel 'duped First Order Stormtrooper' Craig and Tom 'chatty First Order Stormtrooper in elevator' Hardy and Sally 'Naboo citizen' Hawkins.

Flash Gordon: Level 1 connections

Many of these performers are from the same cinematic era as the Original Trilogy so were generally busy around that time, but it's also worth noting that this movie is also a rarity in featuring actors from the Classic, Prequel and Disney-eras of star Wars.

Flash Gordon stars...

• Kenny 'R2-D2' Baker

• William 'Jek Porkins' Hootkins

• Rusty 'Kabe' Goffe

• Derek 'Yavin Temple Guard' Lyons

• Burnell 'Del Goren' Tucker

• Alan 'Bossk' Harris

• John 'Lobot' Hollis

• Mike 'Ugnaught' Edmonds

• Terry 'Wampa' Richards

• John 'Dak Ralter' Morton

• Richard 'Nien Nunb' Bonehill

• Alan 'Stormtrooper' Austen

• Deep 'Droopy McCool' Roy

• Malcolm 'Ewok Warrior' Dixon

• Peter 'Ewok' Burroughs

• Brian 'Boss Nass' Blessed

...and last, but by no means least:
• Max 'Lor San Tekka' Von Sydow


Flash Gordon: The Level 0 connection...
Why yes, Level 0. In a very real sense, Luke Skywalker is Flash Gordon. It's been written about many times over the years - George Lucas originally wanted to make an updated version of the matinee serial he loved as a kid, but couldn't afford the film rights from De Laurentiis. Rather than abandon the idea, George thought 'well okay, I'll make my own version then', and the space opera swashbuckling slowly morphed its way to our screens in 1977 as Star Wars. That determination would turn out to be one of the most inspired decisions Lucas ever made of course, and even though he went above and beyond a love-letter to pulp sci-fi, George has always worn his love for Flash Gordon on his sleeve.

There are stylistic references from the old serials which echo particularly across the Prequel Trilogy, and locations even in the 1980 Flash Gordon movie which are oddly reminiscent of Cloud City and Dagobah*1. But at the heart of it all, Luke Skywalker is Flash Gordon...

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Oh, the film itself is awful, by the way.
Not kitsch, not camp, not ironic, just bad.

Don't @ me.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
I never thought I'd type the words "a shit Buck Rogers", but here we are.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
**looks over spectacles**.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
I'm seriously considering it, just to watch it again and write a more detailed review of what a grade-A travesty the whole thing is..

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
**keeps looking over spectacles**.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That's likely.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Which is probably the most amazing thing about the whole film

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
I think we've covered that...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
No really, this film is fucking dreadful.

*1 Even though The Empire Strikes Back came out in the same year (albeit seven months later), so director Mike Hodges can hardly be said to be ripping things off his competitor and (ironically) inspiration. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Friday 21 August 2020

Review: Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars - Episode V
The Empire Strikes Back

Cert: PG*1 / 122 mins / Dir. Irvin Kershner / Trailer

And so it goes. Weeks turn into months, the lockdown steadily lifts (for now, at any rate) and cinemas begin to staggeringly open their doors once more. As anyone dropping in will be aware, it's been pretty quiet around these parts of late. And not just in writing about movies, but also even watching them to begin with. There are plenty of people who can review what they watch in their living rooms better than I can, so I've used this enforced downtime as just that - downtime*2.

In a bid to lure the punters back and actually have some content, Cineworld has scheduled screenings of the Back To The Future movies, the original Harry Potter saga and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. And under any other circumstances, I'd be there for all of those in a heartbeat. Then again, under any other circumstances they wouldn't be on. So. I'm as twitchy as anyone about societal 're-entry' at this point*3, and it was going to take something pretty damned special to get me back down there while the UK's virus-related casualty list continues alarmingly on a daily basis.

Fortunately, Star Wars is pretty damned special.


This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back's debut, and since its actual birthday in May was an understandably muted affair, the film is riding the current crest of opportunistic cinematic re-releases. And so it goes. Star Wars was my last theatrical visit before lockdown kicked in, so it seems only fitting that it's what gets me back in the building after five months. But how the hell am I supposed to review a film which has corded its way into my DNA over the last four decades?

It's a masterpiece. Of course it is, that's hardly a new observation. While I don't find The Empire Strikes Back as self-containedly satisfying as A New Hope*4, it's long been established as the most emotionally nuanced movie of the Original Trilogy, with moments of genuine smirk-inducing humour sitting flawlessly beside the tonal (and at some points visual) darkness. Not only is there firm character development throughout for the film's protagonists, but the cast's performances also intuitively indicate the changes which have taken place between, since the Battle of Yavin.


But along with George Lucas' story and Leigh Brackett's and Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay, the lion's share of credit for Empire's successes has to go to director Irvin Kershner. We already know the cast are fantastic by this point, but it's Kersh who really gets the performances out of them. The story moves along at a cracking pace, and rather than have the players increase their own volume to match, we concentrate on their emotional rather than physical reactions. Luke's commitment to becoming an actual Jedi after what could easily have been a near-death hallucination on the plains of Hoth; Han's dedication to keeping his newfound friends/family safe, only planning to leave to confront Jabba when he knows it's best for both him and the Rebellion; Leia's dawning realisation that the things which drive her crazy about Han are an integral part of why she's fallen in love with him; Vader's growing inner-conflict with the knowledge that the son of Anakin Skywalker has become a power in the galaxy, and whether he can (or even should) remain loyal to his dark side pledge now he has something to protect once again.

And all of this manages to clear the hurdle of sequel-itis; The Empire Strikes Back doesn't rehash or reheat ideas from its predecessor, it successfully expands out a story which already had a triumphant ending. It's not a standalone movie of course, and having the big ground battle in the first act combined with the cliffhanger finale creates an unrest which didn't sit well with me when I was younger. But looking back now (at myself as much as at the film), I can see those structural choices are intentional and precisely implemented, and they make this movie the utter joy it is.
The Empire Strikes Back is an unconventional triumph which dares filmmakers to step up to the plate with their own follow-up projects; a challenge that sees them more-than-often coming nowhere near close to matching. And so it goes.


As a nostalgic aside, this has been the first time I've seen Empire in an actual cinema since its 1997 Special Edition run, and Cineworld Didcot joins the Episode V sub-list alongside the Odeon Newcastle, Robins Durham, Dreamland Margate, Carlton Westgate and Horsebridge Whitstable.

What, you mean you don't keep a spreadsheet of these things? Okay, weirdo...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Er... Star Wars?

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you can, do.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Yes, yes and yes.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Yes and yes.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That seems unlikely since it's one of the two Star Wars movies that everybody likes.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Of course there ruddy well is.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: This is Star Wars.

...but ...if (IF) you wanted to go around the houses with it... The Empire Strikes Back stars Mr Harrison Ford, who was in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade with Michael Sheard, who also rocked up in The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission alongside Bruce Boa, who was in Bond-film Octopussy as was Jeremy Bulloch, who also played the same character earlier in For Your Eyes Only next to Julian Glover, who was in Hitler: The Last Ten Days with Alan Harris, who can be seen in Hanover Street which starred... Harrison Ford.

No really, you're welcome.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Yes, apparently Empire is a "PG" these days. Er, fair enough..? [ BACK ]

*2 Okay, I've got a podcast now. But it's not 'a lockdown podcast'. Just a podcast which happened to come out during the lockdown. And although listeners could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, my co-host and I were planning, tweaking, tuning this and recording pilots months beforehand. It's not a lockdown podcast. Even though it's getting lost alongside all the ones which are. C'est la vie. Or whatever passes for la vie in the trashfire that is 2020. [ BACK ]

*3 Probably moreso than many, to be fair. Seriously, I was doing hand-gel and avoiding people way before it was mainstream. And yes, I'm going to pull hipster-points on that one. No people = less disease, that's just maths. [ BACK ]

*4 On that subject, Empire's birthday means it's also 40 years since "Star Wars" became subtitled A New Hope, and I do wish the class bores would stop banging on about that as if it's some brand new Disney marketing ploy dreamt up to sell cereal (which, incidentally, Star Wars has been doing for 36 years). See also: the Han/Greedo debacle (23 years) and Jar Jar Binks (21 years). You don't have to like it lads, but you will have to accept that for many people, it's always been like that. The only domestic release of 'Star Wars' without the A New Hope subtitle is on the non-anamorphic bonus discs of the 2006 DVD release. Even your old VHS tapes are proving your ideological purity to be unfounded. There. I said it. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Monday 6 July 2020

Review: Inmate #1 - The Rise Of Danny Trejo

This post originally appeared at

Inmate #1:
The Rise Of Danny Trejo

Cert: 15 / 108 mins / Dir. Brett Harvey / Trailer

Danny Trejo is, somehow, something of an enigma. Instantly recognisable and with a catalogue spanning over three hundred films, he’s become a near-ubiquitous screen presence over the last three decades. Fans of genre cinema will recognise him from Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, yet he’s also appeared in the family action Spy Kids series, the 2009 buddy-com Fanboys and Laurie Collyer’s addiction-drama Sherrybaby. Some viewers may just know him as That Guy From The Old El Paso Adverts.

Yet for the diversity of his portfolio, the characters played by Danny rarely stray too far from his stock-in-trade: grizzled Mexican hard-men for whom intimidation and violence are a way of life. This is a role which is perfect for him as a performer, and usually works perfectly wherever it’s deployed. It’s common knowledge the actor has a chequered past, but Trejo can’t be too ‘challenging to work with’, or he surely wouldn’t be as busy as he is.


Doing his very best to unravel this mystery is writer/director Brett Harvey with his fourth feature, Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo. The 108-minute film charts the life of its subject through carefully paced interviews with the man himself, his children Danny Jr, Danielle and Gilbert, sister Dyhan and a swathe of friends and colleagues including Robert Rodriguez, Michelle Rodriguez and Cheech Marin.

With interwoven clips from five separate, intimate conversations, Brett Harvey has unparalleled access to Trejo and the range of archival family photographs on display demonstrates the seriousness of commitment from both parties. Inmate #1 is beautifully shot and meticulously assembled in both its interviews and interstitial framing (Harvey is also the director of photography here), with a warmth and calm which ultimately reflects where Trejo has found himself.


Danny’s misdemeanours and ensuing prison-time started early and formed a long period of his life; this is reflected in them occupying the first half of the film. The second skims over the highlights of Trejo’s screen career (understandable, given its breadth). Both are handled with equal care and reverence.

In fact, the highly polished presentation of the opening minutes sends the subliminal yet unmistakable message that there will be no unpleasant surprises here. No matter how grim the charted history becomes, there’s the feeling that this is the approved version of events if not quite a sanitised one.

Danny isn’t proud of his past but he’s very upfront about his mistakes, and this works to his credit. Inmate #1 doesn't glorify or excuse his transgressions, but neither does it challenge the viewer’s preconceptions over someone it’s already assured them is A Great Guy. Even in his more candid confessions, Danny seems to be playing the part of Danny Trejo™. He no longer has the need to prove himself, and the anecdotes and reminiscences feel very well-honed.


Brett Harvey is to be commended for the project he’s assembled, although it’s more a cinematic biography than a documentary proper. The storytelling (broad and intricate) comes from its star rather than its director and feels slightly unsatisfying given the actual drama contained within. A detached, objective approach would have made for a more interesting film, but much of its texture would be missing without Danny’s insight.

At the core of his rehabilitation is Trejo’s desire to help people. From his post-prison role as a drug counsellor after completing the 12-Step program, to the community work he still undertakes in his hometown of Pacoima, Los Angeles, to the talks he regularly gives in schools, colleges and prisons, the actor focuses on making the world a better place. Not in an effort to atone for old sins, more because it’s just the right thing to do. This is the aspect of Inmate #1 which shines most brightly, where Trejo’s commentary is the most valuable asset. Whether this should take almost two hours to convey is another matter.

At the end of Inmate #1, the viewer knows more facts about the actor although his enigma remains intact, which feels entirely intentional. Because ultimately, Danny Trejo is an executive producer of this film about Danny Trejo*1, and it shows...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Difficult to say. I always flounder when reviewing and comparing documentaries, and as noted this isn't really a documentary anyway.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Let's not go there, right now.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is, but probably just as a rental rather than a keeper.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
I'd be surprised if that were the case.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Entirely possible.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Danny Trejo's in this (no, really), and he was in the underrated Fanboys with Billy Dee 'Lando' Williams, Jaime 'Aurra Sing' King, Carrie 'Leia' Fisher, Kevin 'voice of First Order Stormtrooper' Smith, Ray 'Maul' Park and Peter 'Chewbacca' Mayhew.
It's a good flick, you should watch it. Thank me later.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Yeah, you're right, the film's IMDB page doesn't say that Danny Trejo is an exec-producer. But the film itself does:

And yeah, since his son Gilbert Trejo is listed there, I'll accept that the Danny mentioned could well be Danny Trejo Jr. But then, since the film later introduces that son as "Danny Trejo Jr", you'd think an exec-producer credit would do likewise to dispel any ambiguity. Besides, Gilbert isn't listed as exec-producer at IMDB either, so what the fuck is even going on at that page?
[ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.