Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****

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‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.

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Doomwatch 1972 ****

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Director Peter Sasdy deserves his cult reputation; from the Whispering Gallery finale of Hands of the Ripper to the enigmatic hysteria of The Stone Tapes, his best work has an iconic feel. Viewers of the BBC science-fiction drama Doomwatch generally felt that this 1972 feature film was a somewhat cruder affair, but as it resurfaces on streaming, Sadsy’s film is likely to entice the curious. Moving amongst characters created by Dr Who scribes Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Doomwatch sees Dr Shaw (Ian Bannen) tackling chemical dumping on the fictional Scottish island of Balfe, although being a Tigon production, Cornwall doubles for the beauty-spot. There’s not much picturesque about what Shaw finds; growth hormones used on fish are getting into the food chain, and mutations are resulting. Does the Admiral (George Sanders) know more than he’s saying? Of course, he does, and Doomwatch is way ahead of its time in suggesting government conspiracies, and expressing anxiety about what we eat. Small roles for James Cosmo, Bond star Geoffrey Keen and Shelagh Fraser (who played Luke’s aunt five years later in Star Wars) keep things interesting. The original series is now impossible to locate in it’s enturity, so this capsule version of Doomwatch is well worth seeking out as a period piece with some unpleasant ideas which still resonate. Judy Geeseon co-stars.

Solo: A Star Wars Story **** 2018

When this Star Wars spin-off debuted, Ron Howard hailed the opening weekend $100 million US debut as the best of his illustrious career.  Yet Solo is regarded as a flop and a misfire, with well-publicised negativity stemming from the firing of the original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Away from the hoopla, Howard’s finished film doesn’t bear much evidence of different cooks at work; it’s a Star Wars film, but it’s more of a small-scale character study that a multiple-story epic, and presumably that’s what put the public off; the whole film builds to an off-screen shooting rather than a interplanetary battle. Aiden Ehrenreich is fine as Han Solo, and it’s fun to see how her meets up with Chewbacca and falls under the mentor ship of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).  Equally, it’s nice to see a young Lando (Donald Glover) and catch the moment that Han wins the Millennium Falcon from him. In fact, pretty much all of Solo works, it’s just not cut from the same cookie-cutter template as every other film in the franchise. Wouldn’t it be great to make a film like The Friends of Eddie Coyle but set in the Stars Wars Universe? Sure, but don’t expect anyone to turn out to see it. Perhaps Star Wars fatigue was inevitable with this film released while The Last Jedi was still in cinemas; either way, Howard’s amusing film deserves better than it’s franchise-killer reputation.

The Adventures of Gerard 1970 ***

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Jerry Skolimowski’s 1970 film has been quite elusive; rarely shown on tv anywhere, an unknown quantity on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. That’s a pity, because this action-adventure provides the missing link between two huge cultural touchstones. The technical consultants here are Adrian Conan Doyle, here helping four of his father’s stories onto the screen in one sitting. The other technical consultant is the late John Mollo, who would go on to create the iconic costume designs for Star Wars. Peter McHenry stars as Gerard, a brigadier in the Napoleonic army used as a useful idiot by Napoleon (Eli Wallach). Jack Hawkins and John Neville make the most of their brief bits, along the way, and Claudia Cardinale gives it both barrels in her big dancing scene. With lots of fourth-wall breaking chats to the camera, plus speeded-up film and a very 1970 jaunty score, The Adventures of Gerard is a sincere attempt to revive the comic-historical epic, and one that’s well worth seeking out for collectors of such whimsy.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story *****

star-wars-rogue-one-disney-panicSince Star Wars came out in 1977, all of the successive sequels and prequels that follows have skewed more or less towards a younger market; even The Empire Strikes Back has cheesy puppets and romantic elements which drop the ball, and from return of the Jedi onwards, it’s strictly for kids. Rogue One reverses the trend; it’s a dark, gritty, downbeat epic that tells the story of how the rebels captured the plans for the Death Star, a kind of Guns of Navarone in space. As well as addressing a number of plot holes in the original film, Rogue One feels more like a war film than a family-friendly blockbuster; parents with kids under ten should be warned that the good guys get their asses kicked here. But the formula of the original films is well-adhered to in Gareth Edwards’s one-off adventure; robot sidekick K2-S0 generates some good comedy touches, which are much needed because the storyline and characters are deliberately bleak. The introduction of a CGI Peter Cushing is regrettable, looking more like a video-game character and never resembling the original actor for a moment. But as the narrative builds to a massive multi-layed battle and a brilliant bit of business with a stuck door, Rogue One is the best entry in the series since, well, the original Star Wars itself.

Caravan of Courage/ The Ewok Adventure 1984 ***

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From the fertile imagination of George Lucas comes this made for television special, set in the crummier end of the Star Wars universe. Long before the expanded universe was deemed a financial goldmine, oddities like this as the notorious Star Wars holiday special cheapened the much-loved ideas to hilarious effect. A touch-stone in so-bad-its –good cinema, John Korty’s film is populated by the inexpressive teddy-bears of Endor, and fails to wring many different emotions from characters that barely worked as comic relief. As they battle to help children who need to be reunited with their parents, the Ewok costumes prove somewhat cumbersome for expressions of domestic angst, grief, romance and just about anything. Add in in some fairly cheap-looking effects and a dull narrative, and Korty’s film is a muddy footbath compared to the massive swimming pool of the Star Wars saga.