Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out

Darths Maul and Vader face off in Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

28 January

 

 

Lego patents its brick design, 1958

On this day in 1958 the Lego company patented the brick design it had been working on for five years. Originally a company created by a carpenter in 1932 to produce wooden toys (called Lego from the Danish phrase Leg Godt – play well) Lego had been into the production of plastic bricks since 1947. By the early 1950s more than half of the company’s output was plastic. In 1954 Godtfred, son of founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, acting on a conversation he’d had with an overseas buyer, began working on the idea of a toy system, and set about re-engineering bricks that Lego already produced so that they would lock together better and be more durable. Using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a different plastic than the one the company had been using before, and experimenting with locking systems, Lego came up with the brick still in production today. A brick made in 1958 will interlock with a 21st century brick. Because of this, the high quality of the product, the fact that it is as versatile as the mind of the person using it, its indestructibility (a 2×2 brick can withstand a force of 4,240 newtons), Lego has escaped the stigma usually loaded on to plastic toys. More than 38 billion bricks are sold each year.

 

 

 

Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out (2012, dir: Guy Vasilovich)

One of a series of Star Wars homages made by the Lego people, The Empire Strikes Out stands up well when compared to similar spoofs by Robot Chicken and Family Guy. But don’t expect a full-sized brick-built temple to George Lucas. Lego Star Wars is only 22 minutes long but it does pack a lot in. Certainly it’s for the sort of person who knows that Darth Maul didn’t appear in The Empire Strikes Back but it isn’t acutely necessary to be a nerd to get enjoyment from it. The plot is loosely about the emperor calling in both Darths (Vader and Maul) to smash the rebel alliance once and for all. But it’s really just an excuse to get a few of the potentially most comic characters of the Lucas-verse in the same place at the same time. Camp is the overriding tone, somewhere between old-school vaudeville and the fast-churn humour of the Airplane films. And the humour isn’t just directed at Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and the team but at Lego too – when the Dark Star is blown up, everyone just shrugs “we can rebuild it”. Big pluses are John Williams’s score being cleared for use (Lucas has clearly given the nod) and even the voicework of some fairly familiar actors – Anthony Daniels (aka C-3PO), Julian Glover, Brian Blessed, Ahmed Best (yes, Jar Jar Binks turns up). Perhaps the best joke comes in the standoff between Darth Maul and Darth Vader, when they both try the death grip on each other (I won’t ruin it). What’s actually remarkable, if you come to Lego Star Wars cold, is how far a few stuck-together bricky characters with stuck-on Lego hair can get along the road to true Star Wars respectability. Or is that just the final proof of how bad George Lucas’s direction of human beings was in the original films themselves?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • It’s funny
  • A taster for the full length Lego Movie
  • There are some bona fide Star Wars names in there
  • Walks the line between mockery and salute

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Conspiracy

Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

20 January

 

 

The Wannsee Conference, 1942

On this day in 1942 a short meeting was held at 56-58 Am Großen Wannsee, in the suburbs of Berlin. It was called by Reinhard Heydrich, boss of the SS, and gathered together the heads of various government departments to facilitate the removal of Jews from Germany and occupied territories, their deportation to Poland and their extermination. It lasted only about 90 minutes and was arranged to put in place the practical measures to ensure that the process ran smoothly, and to make sure that the various government departments cooperated. A secondary concern was to hammer out, once and for all, who was to be considered Jewish and who among the Jews was to be spared (those who simply could not be replaced, was the answer). It was in effect a power-grab by Heydrich, who arrived at the meeting with a sheet of paper on which were written the numbers of Jews estimated to be living in the various countries of Europe. The estimated number was “over 11 million”. The idea was to ship all of them out to Siberia, where they would all work till they died, and those who didn’t die would be killed, on account of their tough constitutions being too valuable to pass on to future generations. Though the entire meeting was couched in euphemism – Jews were to be “evacuated”, survivors of severe work details were to be treated “accordingly” – everyone present knew what was actually being discussed, as testimony from Adolph Eichmann at his trial in Israel in 1962, attests.

 

 

 

Conspiracy (2001, dir: Frank Pierson)

Conspiracy tells the story of the Wannsee Conference, and it tells it largely from a record of the meeting found in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry after the war had ended, which also provided the raw material for the German-Austrian film Die Wannseekonferenz. Kenneth Branagh heads the largely British ensemble cast, playing Reinhard Heydrich, while Stanley Tucci plays Adolf Eichmann, the high-level penpusher who facilitated the transportation of Jews across Europe, made sure t’s were crossed, i’s were dotted and trains ran on time – the “desk murderer” as the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal later called him. Heydrich is pivotal, the cool sinister presence nudging, cajoling, urging the other factotums present into endorsing what they have been summoned to that room to endorse. Disagreements are few, and tend to be of a pedantic or legalistic nature – on the exact definition of what a Jew is, according to 1935s Nuremberg Laws, for instance, which Colin Firth’s Dr Wilhelm Stuckart gets hung up on – rather than the moral awfulness of what they were planning. Heydrich was in effect asking the room to drop the legal pretext for killing Jews and just get on with it. In Branagh’s Heydrich we have not a portrait of evil but of cold efficiency, “the man with the iron heart” as Hitler called him – Branagh later talked about wondering whether Heydrich, if asked to eliminate 11 million tennis players, might not have done it with similar ruthlessness. Beware the civil servants, the managers, in other words. Director Frank Pierson (who had written another largely single-room drama, Dog Day Afternoon, years before) keeps the camera at head level. We’re at the table with Heydrich as he moves the agenda from one item to the next, moving from the less controversial (“immigration”) to the more (“evacuation”) and focusing his frightening intensity on any backsliders he finds as each item is dealt with. We are at the table. It is mass extermination as high-level board meeting, murder as business.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An informative if chilling history lesson
  • The great cast includes David Threlfall and Ian McNeice
  • Fifteen men in a meeting has rarely been less boring
  • The Second World War from an entirely revelatory angle

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

A Slight Case of Murder

William H Macy in A Slight Case of Murder

 

One of those feelgood made-for-TV films that’s somehow managed to net a great cast as they were commuting between better paying jobs.

I suspect that that’s because William H Macy is involved, David Mamet’s favourite actor being the star and the adapter of Donald Westlake’s novel about a film critic who kills his girlfriend by accident and then uses his film buffery to cover up the crime. It’s a neat conceit obviously designed to appeal to film lovers, who get double helpings when the cop on the accidental killer’s tail (Adam Arkin) also turns out to be a film buff himself.

Comic noir is the prevailing tone, once the film’s initial skittishness has dissipated, with black humour as back-up for people who aren’t quite catching the film references. Best of all are the “oh god don’t do that, you’ll only make it worse” moments.

Macy has just the face to pull this sort of innocent abroad shtick. Always great as a dupe, he’s especially good here because this is one of those very knowing films (there’s lots of breaking of the fourth wall with Macy’s addresses to camera) where the critic is convinced he’s one step ahead of the law, yet we’re generally one step ahead of the both of them.

If it never quite hits the Billy Wilder heights it has probably set its sights on, Felicity Huffman (Macy’s wife in real life), James Cromwell and Paul Mazursky are among those making A Slight Case of Murder an enjoyably slight case of entertainment.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2000

 

A Slight Case of Murder – at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate

The Last of the Blonde Bombshells

Judi Dench and Ian Holm

 

 

Fans of Eighties cult 1980s UK TV series The Beiderbecke Affair will know immediately what’s going on here. This ostensible “let’s put the band back together” drama is really just another opportunity for Alan Plater to resurrect the male/female comedy double act he brought to perfection back then with James Bolam and Barbara Flynn. Judi Dench and Ian Holm play the duelling duo this time out, she being the youngest member of a wartime “all-women” swing outfit, he being the drummer who had to cross-dress to keep the fiction alive. Sly old Plater also gets to indulge two other big passions. First, music of a jazzy, swingy sort – Basie and Ellington figure prominently. Second, slaughtering a sacred cow. Here he’s engaging with the boomer notion that sex began in 1963. Look, he says, forget The Beatles, Chuck Berry etc, the sexual big bang that rock’n’roll supposedly delivered actually happened in Britain during the second world war – when the national crisis trumped petty morality, the “hell, we could all be dead tomorrow” attitude wrote the licence and the blackout supplied the opportunity. It was, according to Plater’s screenplay, a sex and booze frenzy. Further joys of this bijou TV movie include getting to see actors doing things they aren’t associated with – Olympia Dukakis playing a trumpet. And Leslie Caron (yes, An American in Paris Leslie Caron) playing the bass. Grandma will love it, but broad church entertainment is what Plater’s all about, so there’s a good chance that the grandkids might too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Last of the Blonde Bombshells – at Amazon