Sunday, 25 December 2016

TOP 20 K-POP SONGS OF 2016

OK so my blog on Asia seemed to have run its course a bit (no update in over a year) but being that DAZED magazine once again posted their Top 20 K-Pop Tracks of 2016 I thought I may as well offer my own again. Especially since I felt their list was actually pretty disappointing and missed out most of the year's standouts. Sorry chaps. This list may well change in time, especially since last year I totally failed to have Oh My Girl and Closer as my number two. Despite the fact it is uniquely beautiful.

I also missed out History and Right to Die. Which fucking rocks (Warning: features six-packed Korean men dry-humping the floor). 

Anyway, 2016 was a strange year for K-pop - 4Minute, Miss A, KARA and (most shockingly) 2NE1 called it quits, whilst CL once again failed to make legway in the USA. Having a seriously dodgy and politically incorrect (re: racist) video, such as that to Lifted (in which a bunch of 'gangsta' black men swap pot with our leggy heroine) probably didn't help matters any. Come on YG - we all know that K-pop often falls arse over fist when its come to race sensitivity but this is fairly shocking...

Yet, 2016 also delivered some of my favourite K-pop songs to date. I already struggled with who would and would not make this list. Songs as good as Luna's house anthem Free Somebody, 2PM's thunderous Promise (I'll Be), Red Velvet's quirky Russian Roulette, Oh My Girl's ridiculously poppy Liar Liar, T-ara's unexpectedly whispy Tiamo, Fiestar's bouncy Apple Pie, Dia's insanely catchy Mr Potter, Hyuna's club-conquering How's This?, Sistar's Bollywood-inspired beauty I Like That and Shinee's pop-tastic 1 x 1 (odds on for video of the year) even miss my Top 20. And Shinee's Tell Me What to Do is pretty much spot-on as well. See entry number six for my explanation.

That this level of creativity is not present below only indicates that, taken in pure quality, this might have been the best year yet for Seoul-sounds.

And 2016 also demonstrated that the genre - if we can even call it such - is still producing the most exciting music on the planet. Having seen many of the acts listed here live over the past year too (including a trio of Girls' Generation concerts) it is really thrilling to also be able to confirm that fan business is as hysterical as it has ever been. Being in the midst of the K-pop boom has been, for me at least, more exciting than my youth as a drunken lad in skinny jeans trying to pull down the 'indie disco' - and if you are new to the wonders of these bands my sole urge is that you attempt to open your mind to something very new. You may well be surprised.

But be warned: this is the addiction that changed my life...

WINNER - SENTIMENTAL



It was a tough year for YG's other hit boy band - with leading man Nam Taehyun quitting the band due to 'mental health issues'. Exactly where Winner go now is anyone's guess but this hit single is one of the band's standout tunes to date with an indie-pop chorus that is absolutely infectious. Ignore the clueless pundits who described Shinee's 1 of 1 as a 'Britpop' throwback. Sonically it was nothing of the sort. But this is the real deal and it wouldn't sound totally out of place sandwiched somewhere between Menswe@r and Stereotypes-era Blur. Really. And no prizes if you can spot the Stone Roses nod in the video.

AOA - GOOD LUCK



AOA continue to push the primetime Korean censors whilst drumming up excellent pop music. Ignoring the swimsuits, bum-wiggling and long legs (yes, yes I know that is hard), this is a great slice of vamped-up vaudeville which seagues from stop-start repetition to a violently pronounced chorus that is sheer genius. The accompanying EP, which also highlights the utterly gorgeous eighties throwback 10 Seconds, is one of the year's finest short plays and proof that AOA are not just one of the K-pop's biggest bands because of their skin-flauting... (I even paid double to get an autographed copy of this puppy for fuckssake). Indeed, if 10 Seconds had been the A-side in 2016 I think I'd have pushed AOA into my top ten...

HYOYEON - MYSTERY



The SM Station, which promised a new weekly tune from one of their artists (most of them as download only) seemed like an ambitious offering but it certainly gave us some absolute gems. Surely the most unexpected of all was the first single from Girls' Generation member - and 'Dancing Queen' - Hyoyeon, a charismatic, charming and often unfairly sidelined (at least vocally) part of the eight-piece supergroup. Even more leftfield was this Middle-Eastern tinged masterwork which compliments her vocal range just perfectly. A solo debut to treasure, Mystery is indication that Hyeyeon's delightfully distinctive husky voice will have a life after the eight-piece band reaches its conclusion.

BLOCK B - TOY



This is Block B's best single so far. A more gentle and (whisper it) romantic offering than the band usually opts for (I still recall this weirdie making my brain contort when I first came across it during a trip to Seoul in December 2013. Forgive me. I was new to K-pop at the time and it was stuff like that which felt like a neon-tinged injection of awesomeness that my mind could not quite compute... I came home, went to a Cribs concert and felt... dismayed... as if I was on a drug-downer and the drunken colourful world of Gangham clubs and pubs was now as far away as the Moon itself). Toy gave us a far more human side to the group and they played it well. The epic chorus, which changes tempo at the last moment, is danceable but also skillfully emotive. Whilst the accompanying album failed to live up to Toy's excellence, this standout slice of melancholia was one of the most rotated options on my own iPad during 2016.

BIG BANG - LAST DANCE



As T.O.P prepares for military service, Big Bang completed their 'Made' album with three new tracks - of which Last Dance is the easy standout (and god knows what they were thinking with the other two). The Made endeavour is, obviously, now a very clear concept LP - and one of the most striking achievements in K-pop history (even the faults, such as that aforementioned twosome, can be seen as honourable failures in the context of the bigger whole). It was Big Bang, in effect, saying their goodbyes and weighing up the pros and cons of life as thirty-something military grads with lots of cash but a likely inability to reclaim their past success. Made was, quite tenderly, the fivesome proclaiming - 'yeah, this was as good as it gets'. The smart thing might have been for label YG to send them all into the military together, thus allowing for a two year hiatus, but with each artist having such a dominating solo career it is at least understandable why they have opted not to. Last Dance has one of T.O.P's most heartbreaking vocal performances as he admits 'one last smile' and 'It’s not like the world, that I’ve seen and felt'. Buckle up, big guy - you'll break a lot of hearts in that squaddie uniform.

(As a side note, Last Dance and Taemin's more mature Soldier indicates that South Korea's celebrity youth are now, finally, actually allowing themselves to not-entirely-subtly-but-still-carefully vocalise what that impending military service feels like. For anyone unfamiliar with the nation's culutre, this is inifintely more taboo breaking than you might think - far more so than The Sex Pistols mindlessly bellowing 'God Save the Queen' - and if Taemin's tune doesn't touch your heart you might well be made of stone. It was one of the year's edgiest and most thematically groundbreaking songs).
 
B.A.P - SKYDIVE



And this is the best Bond track since Tina Turner. Or maybe Gladys Knight. Shame that no one at Eon is ever likely to hear it. Sadly, after their 2015 return from that notorious lawsuit, B.A.P. had another rough year (with member Bang Yong Guk taking a hiatus for the same 'mental health problems' that Winner's press release also maintained). But holy shit if this doesn't rock. This is B.A.P. at their heaviest and, complete with its ridiculously ambitious ten minute music video, this was one of 2016's most bombastic and brilliant comebacks. 

HISTORY - QUEEN



The sound of decadence. Sexy. Provocative. Even a little... sinister? Boom, boom, boom... History are one of Korea's least known and most underrated boy bands. Although as with anything Korean the description of 'boy band' doesn't do them justice because One Direction this is not. This is exactly what you want from a new K-pop song. Join the fandom before History really break out - and on the sonics of something as superb as this, that time can only be soon...

EXID - L.I.E




Bubblegum at its best, Exid had a huge 2015 and have never looked back since. Another dance floor anthem that builds into two choruses - one wrapped up in lavishly produced and richly indulged high notes and another that slows down into an extended EDM chant. The two sides, however, work perfectly and after the second or third listen some of the other parts also come together brilliantly - including a token rap from LE and a nice collapse into balladry. Exid also slammed out the more sexually forthright (and outright clubby) Cream in 2016, shot in the shadow of Shanghai's iconic Oriental Pearl, but I'm going with L.I.E as their annual best. And the video is proof positive of why Hani has fast become one of Asia's foremost sex symbols. Just saying (for the curious, she's the one with the short hair who starts the song).

NCT 127 - FIRE TRUCK


I don't really get SM's NCT project. I suspect it is their attempt to establish somewthing that is a little like Japan's continent-conquering AKB48 (warning: that previous link is not work friendly) as a similarly Asia-wide thing and with interchangeable males (but actual good music). But K-pop is not J-pop and fans become far more attached to a group than the more 'meat in a skirt' thing of AKB48 which rotates members - and nationalised spin-offs - at an alarming rate. Either way, NCT 127's Fire Truck is indier than anything you will hear in any supposed 'indie' bar this year. NME writers, having had to hype years of soundalike Arctic Monkeys albums, would doubtlessly have a mind-melt trying to describe exactly what this sounds like and what it is even doing. At least one thing is for sure: turned up loud this positively burns... And the amazing thing is that this is not even the best song from the NCT experiment. For that... wait until number two...

YURI & SEOHYUN - SECRET



This is how I want my dance music. Ear-rattling, seductive and nasty... I don't know if this is the sort of thing I would even have dared tackle back in my days of Morrissey-love but this, this, is the sound of too much alcohol. The sound of 'time to go home'. The sound of attempting to recover from a night on a dancefloor. It makes me feel ten years younger. Oddly. Because ten years ago there is no way I would have listened to this. Maybe I am running low on descriptions at this point - but I loved this so song so much a little bit of my heart was chipped away when I learned it played with a Pantene advert in South Korea. Fuckssake. The impossibly perfect Yuri and Seohyun, of course, are two members of Girls' Generation - but hopefully you did not need me to tell you that.

BTS - FIRE


BTS are the heirs to Big Bang and EXO as Korea's biggest thing right now and after storming K-Con in America this year there were even some rumblings about a world tour. Would this also equate with Stateside airplay? To be honest, I'm not sure if the band is ever, much like Big Bang and EXO, going to grab a genuinelly international audience but Fire is that rare thing - an indie-rock anthem that you can honestly imagine playing on Western radio stations (moreso even than Gangham Style). It is certainly far more accessible than a lot of K-pop whilst still rocking way harder than the last stadium trudge-anthem you heard blaring out from a stuffed suit's BMW. Purely hypothetically, if I was going to spend eight (nine?) figures launching any Asian band in the English-speaking world I would, on the strength of this puppy, probably go for BTS... Give this one a twirl and see if you agree.

4MINUTE - HATE



How the hell did this flop? But flop it did and soon 4Minute were no more - with only Hyuna remaining on record label, Cube Entertainment, as a signed performer. The break-up was ugly but as far as swansongs go this is one of the very best from any band in any genre, ever. Kicking off as a tragic ballad this evolves into a really in-your-face dance thumper welcomed by Hyuna's should-have-been-iconic squeal of 'I hate you'... A brilliant work of pop-art there is no excusing bad taste - and in an alternate world 4Minute are heading into 2017 as arena-headlining heroines and one of the most commercial acts in Asia. Alas, as 2016 taught us, terrible judgement was everywhere...

TIFFANY - HEARTBREAK HOTEL


Girls' Generation member Tiffany had a troubled 2016 - although posting the symbol of the Japanese Imperial Army on your Instagram during South Korea's liberation day will, generally, get you into the sort of hot water that - say - Nazi regalia encourages in the West (unless you are Lemmy). A few fawning, begging apologies later and Tiffany made a sort-of comeback with the Far East Movement, and the excellent Don't Speak, but otherwise the Californian-born Valley Girl stayed wisely quiet. Earlier in 2016, though, she came out with this dreamy widescreen wistful amalgamation of early 90s house and Tori Amos/ Boys from Pele-era road music. It was outstanding and showed the full range of Tiffany's vocal talents too - so much so that future solo projects from the American expat (who, by now, must have had some rush-history lessons on her adopted country and its past) should be anticipated by just about everyone...

WONDER GIRLS - WHY SO LONELY



Raggae has never had the easiest transition in K-pop - the sound of dance halls and anti-imperialist ethos in the Carribean has been, largely, reappropriated via lots of beautiful Korean men and women as a sexy soundbite which encourages much boobs and bum shaking. At its very worst, we have seen Korean men in dreads pictured pretending to smoke the sort of narcotic that, in Seoul, would get them a spell in chokey, a finality to their career and largescale media and public disgust (yes, weed is taken that seriously). The Wonder Girls, however, take the form and respectfully and expertly intergrate it into a flawless 3.34 minute pop song that chops, changes and surprises at all turns. Still one of Korea's A-list bands, JYP's most enduring act looks unlikely to falter if they continue to serve-up comebacks as mind-blowing as this. And the music video is excellent.

TAEMIN - SAYONARA HITORI


Taemin, the franchise of Shinee, had a phenomenol 2016 with a superb solo album and such breathtaking indigenous singles as Press My Number and Drip Drop. Nevertheless, it is his Japanese shortplay - Sayonara Hitori - that gets the nod here. One of the most spine-tingling numbers to come from SM Entertainment - this is Taemin at his heartfelt best and redefines his image as a mature and sensitive songwriter and performer, something that his output throughout the year consistently cemented. At this stage, in fact, the Taemin image now feels as if it has even outgrown the mammoth of Shinee. And that is no mean feat. But listen to Sayonara Hitori (as well as the above-linked Soldier) and it is nearly impossible not to hear the emerging of a possible 'voice of a generation'. Hopefully SM can give the sexually ambigious - and androgynous - artist enough freedom to continue to explore increasingly more adventurous soundscapes (and themes). With this said, Shinee's really fantastic Tell me What to Do really did deserve a place on this list. So pardon my cheating...


I've opted for a Taemin solo instead - and besides, I don't want my Top 20 to seem like too much of an SM love-fest.

Speaking of which...

TAEYEON - 11:11


At this point Taeyeon is so iconic it feels pointless even writing anything here. Her gorgeous performance of Rain at the MAMA Awards in December only instigated how her very presence sends an audience into a respectful and perfect hush of admiration. When I began this list I opted for one artist and one song because someone like Taeyeon makes it otherwise difficult not to list their other achievements (for anyone curious, summer single Why is an easy 10/10 too). I have gone for 11:11 for the simple reason that it is Taeyeon stripped down, vulnerable, at her most expressive but without the stadium-filling lungs that she is all-too-frequently expected to show (for anyone who remembers last year's solo debut). The only question left for the Girls' Generation leader is exactly where she goes from here. As with Yoona, she has already slayed an entire continent (to the point it feels odd coming back to the UK and not seeing her image, or hearing her music, anywhere) but whether or not her delicate, even virginal, and certainly insanely shy, personality can break further is anyone's guess...


YOUNHA (FEATURING HA: FELT FROM WONDER GIRLS AND CHEETAH) - GET IT?



Punky foul-mouthed feminist anthem that subverts the image of the 'crazy' girlfriend (including with a hilarious video). This is forthright and angry, atmospheric and antagonistic with one of the best choruses of the year. Probably should have been one of the year's biggest hits but it wasn't - even in spite of three superior vocal performances (with Yenny from The Wonder Girls already making me ache for her next solo album) and, by K-pop standards, a more 'alternative' approach to the production (just listen to that low-fi but absolutely sublime opening).

BLACK PINK - STAY 


With four singles to date the most challenging thing was concluding on which Black Pink number to put in here. Stay gets the placement for its understated acoustic beauty - although the tubthumping instant-classic Boombayah, the midnight-hour rouser Playing With Fire and the more experimental Whistle are all tremendous. Then again, they had to be: with YG's 2NE1 calling it quits, Black Pink had to be something special. Whilst the four beauties (with dyed-blonde Lisa offering a slight exoticisim by hailing from Thailand) fit the physical perfection that detractors of K-pop often focus upon - as opposed to the more ragtag glamour of 2NE1 - the songs speak for themselves. As Black Pink go forward, it will be up to the foursome to cultivate the same dedicated fan worship that each charismatic 2NE1 personality managed to grab - but, at the very least, with debut hits as brilliant as this, they have a far stronger start than their YG compatriots were initially afforded.

NCT U - WITHOUT YOU


NCT U (not to be confused with NCT 127 or, uh, NCT Dream) introduced SM's latest brainfart with the sort of epic guitar anthem that makes pretty much any other guitar anthem from 2016 seem fairly... shite. Ultimately, this sounds so freaking massive that NCT U's follow-up number, The 7th Sense, which in itself is really quite great, was given a pitiful task in even attempting to come on the heels of this outstanding rush of sexual infatuation (cheesy or sleazy? Make your call). It still sounds unbeatable, confident, crooning and totally uplifting - making the decision for further NCT sub-groups seem pointless. After all, SM has pulled off the impossible - a band of pretty boys that sound nothing like flagships EXO, Shinee or Super Junior. Do they really need to make it any more complicated than that?

EXO - MONSTER



EXO had so many good songs this year it beggars belief that a band this brilliant remains so unknown outside of Asia (where they are bigger than boiled rice). Even after losing another member, reducing the once-twelve piece to a fit-as-fuck ninesome, their comeback with Monster was lean, mean and - right from the song's siren-fuelled start - sounded like pure unadulterated danger. And with eye-opening lyrics of sexual frustration, that one might not have expected to drool from the mouths of the EXO lads ('I’ll steal you and indulge in you/ I’m gonna mess you up/ I’m engraved in your heart/ So even if I die, I’ll live forever'), this is a testosterone-fuelled dance-rock mash that - at the year's end - plays as a deliberate 'fuck you' to any band even thinking of touching their K-pop crown. Having seen EXO live twice in 2016 I am personally tempted to go so far as to crown them as the best living band on the planet. From their remarkable and varied output over the past year, it is mouth watering to think where this group might be headed to in the next couple of years - providing SM can keep them healthy and manages to retain what's left of the band.


SPECIAL MENTION

If we are including album tracks... Well, Luna's 'Breathe' from her 'Free Somebody' album might be second only to EXO in 2016 achievements. It is so effortlessly stunning you can escape right into every perfect second.

Close your eyes and turn off the lights...





Thursday, 15 September 2016

Harare in Zimbabwe: The Dark Rhodesian Past Rots into a Depressing Post-Colonial Present

"No, no, no you see I am British"

This was the insane clarion call of an old friend of mine during Scotland's independence referendum in our conversations. The person in question, who writes books set in American states he has never and will never visit (inspired, in turn, by American blockbuster films), insisted - despite having never lived anywhere outside of Glasgow - that he was utterly, utterly British. My old acquaintance, however, seemed to know very little about what 'British' meant - at least insofar as it referenced an old Empire of colonial slavery, exploitation, brutality, concentration camps, hurried independence for the colonies (and ensuing chaos and/ or genocidal mayhem - or trained-up military vets taking power) and propping up dictators throughout the 20th century (I'll get to Mugabe). Describing this was pointless: "Liam Neeson, David Bowie and Tom Jones are part of my country" he would insist - as if name-checking wealthy pensioner-aged white men somehow indicated a national identity.

                                         You must visit Victoria Falls. You must.

The thing about white people desperately hanging on to being 'British' is that very few of them, as I discovered, know much about the sheer insanity of what the term relates to. The fella in question, for example, was in favour of the war in Iraq but couldn't tell you a single thing about the post-World War 1 meddling in the country by the good old (go on, guess) British Empire, who paved the way for the clusterfuck that eventually led to the Ba'athist regime. And for those who voted against Scottish independence... well, congratulations - your desire to put your fingers in your ears and cry 'nananananana' instead of weighing up exactly what "British" even means in this post-colonial era now makes your country a laughing stock across the world.

Believe me, I know, I travel, I get it firsthand...

In a country without a single museum dedicated to its Empire, Frankie Boyle has at least pointed out the absurdity of how Comic Relief presents African poverty. We all like a good cause but can someone offer some context to the often harrowing images? Too much to ask? Until someone does, clueless cretins - such as the fella I am referring to - will unashamedly think a democratic will to self-government is 'ugly nationalism' (damn those Kenyans! Fuck that lot in East Timor!) and associate that fictional 'British' identity with nothing more radical than Tom Jones shaking his arse to pensioners.

So it is, then, that the former Rhodesia, and in particular its capital of Harare (Salisbury until 1982), was high on my list of places to visit. Britain's last outpost in Africa. You owe it to yourself to go and visit. It should be a Mecca-like trip for everyone with a UK passport, actually, because oh how quickly we forget our presence in this continent. And the likes of Comic Relief are not exactly eager to remind anyone. Yet the paw-print of Empire is everywhere in the city of Harare. Even today.

                                          Harare, est. 1982


The current Zimbabwe was granted its independence from the UK in 1980 after the fabled Lancaster House Agreement and 15 years of government under an unrecognised UDI. The latter allowed a wily Robert Mugabe, who had fought a guerilla war with - in particular - the support of former Portuguese colony Mozambique, to bully his way into power. The 1980 elections were... bothersome to say the least. In fact, few at the time felt they were without violent intimidation. The result, celebrated even by a visiting Bob Marley, left behind a re-named capital city that, seen today, is an interesting mess. There might still be some who will defend Uncle Bob (or 'Comrade Bob' as the great Nelson Mandela referred to him). He was, after all, a freedom fighter, imprisoned and tortured by the illegitimate Ian Smith regime of Rhodesia - and he had also long rallied against the mass land ownership by the so-called white colonialists (an understandable anger which, sadly, resulted in economic collapse for the agriculturally rich country when the haphazard and hurried farm evictions took place in the late 1990s/ 2000s). But Mugabe's apologists are few and far between these days. Most telling about the last link is that the author resides in Britain. In the old colonialist city of London.

Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, which owns national paper The Herald (among others), is long out of ideas... still blaming stuff on the leftover whites (of which there are few), homosexuals, Western sanctions, Tony Blair - who reneged on The Lancaster House Agreement well aware that Mugabe was not redistributing farmland to anyone but his own corrupt army goons - and most recently Pastor Evan Mawarire... Evan was the man who, after causing a social media explosion, fled to America out of fear for this own life - and who can blame him? Add to this a cash shortage (after inflation went wild, Zimbabwe adopted the US dollar in 2009), a 90% unemployment rate, war veterans who are now teaming-up against the regime and numerous fixed elections and you have a huge mess that 92 year old Mugabe cannot possibly hope to crawl out of. To get into the country you now have a 'guilt tax' of $55 - and it is more for a double entry VISA (which almost everyone wants so they can cross to Botswana or Zambia). No guessing whose pockets your cash is going into.

But give Mugabe credit for avoiding the chop for this long. He is a smart man. Even at age 92 he is feted by other African states - largely for waging a war against Smith that many did not think he could win. He was, at his prime, a gifted orator. Well-read about history, he could have been - at the very least - a Kenneth Kuanda figure: right place, wrong approach, right exit. Zambia today has little (at least at governmental level) of the language of racism that Mugabe has attempted to provoke against the ex-Rhodesians and their kin. Just ask Guy Scott.

                                              Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Harare, Built 1927

Peter Godwin, who has written three books on Rhodesia/ Zimabwe (including the notorious 2008 elections, in which South African President Thabo Mbeki shamefully propped up corrupt ballot results to avoid a furthering refugee crisis in Pretoria) argues that Mugabe won't step down because he faces The Hague. But what is often not mentioned is that the now-notorious - but then-ignored - Matabeleland Massacre of 1983 - was carried out, in part, to protect the interests of the same white farmers Mugabe would eventually allow his Bush War vets to violently evict from their land (and in some cases kill). Discovering that lone, random dwellers - associated with Joshua Nkomo's rival ZAPU party - were trespassing, and instigating violence, on white farms was enough for Mugabe to use the 'armed resistance' excuse and go into Matabeleland with all guns blazing. At that point, with white ownership still totaling 48% of Zimbabwe proper, and the country boasting the second biggest economy in Africa, everyone - all across the world - wanted to believe in the man in charge. He got away with genocide - sending his North Korean-trained military to wipe out the Shona majority's historic enemies in Matabeleland. In 1984 he spoke at the Whitehouse with Ronald Reagan looking on. Britain continued to honour him too. He was Knighted in 1994 - just over a decade after 20,000 people were slaughtered and post-1987 elections had been rigged in his favour. Edinburgh University gave him an honourary degree that year as well. He even socialised with Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher. Fuck, they even filmed Cry Freedom in Zimbabwe. A film opposed to oppression. Our own Dicky Attenborough. Was he also smitten by one of the worst living dictators?

                                          Harare countryside from atop the National Heroes Acre

All of this was in my head as our plane - an Air Zimbabwe flight (which despite popular reputation was on time, clean and offered a lovely in-air snack) - touched down into Harare. I had come from Victoria Falls where people were evidently desperate. A short taxi journey cost $10 - even with haggling - and people on the street would tail you for blocks, begging to sell you tat or asking for shampoo, spare notes or coins, clothes... anything that you could give. An entertainer at the hotel I was staying begged me to buy him lunch the next day (and I had already tipped him $20). I spoke to an old Rhodesian - a white lady who was out with her grandchild. "Don't you plan to leave?" I asked. "Where would I go? It's beautiful here" she replied. And she is correct. Victoria Falls - wrapped in a perpetual clingfilm as if being preserved from moving on from 1920 - and cleaner than you would ever have any right to expect - is gorgeous. Zimbabwe is gorgeous. In his books Godwin explains the colours and terrain that exist in his home nation and you have to see them for yourself to understand that words do not do this jaw-dropping country justice. The sky at night, the foliage, the wild animals, the smell and the sights, Victoria fucking Falls itself... outside of Vietnam I do not think I have ever seen such natural beauty.

                                         Zimbabwe at nightfall, over the mighty Zambezi River

And for all of Mugabe's anti-colonial gusto, the man who David Coltart claims still loves Cliff Richard records has kept Victoria Falls, and to some extent Harare, as colonial as it comes... from the old buildings to the pictures of Royal visits that adorn the top hotels. There is even an oversized painting of the Queen Mother in The Victoria Falls Hotel. It is all there... the scars of Rhodesia's past, highlighted but stripped of context.I overhear a lady ask if the pictures of old Rhodesia have 'something to do with the Boers'. Tourists coming and going - bungee jumping from the exact sight of the 1976 negotiations, unaware of the importance of where they are standing... that's the new Zimbabwe. Tourist cash is needed but museums are in short supply. For your cultural fix a trip to neighbouring Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) offers better education about the bad old days of white rule. Ian Smith, today, is someone the white water rafters who come to Victoria Falls in their tens of thousands will never hear about and never know existed.

Harare itself is, well, a dump.

The pomp of Salisbury past still lingers - you can see it in the old buildings and the decaying old railway station, which barely even functions anymore. "How many trains come here?" I ask someone at the station. "Maybe one or two... every few hours. In four hours maybe you will see a train." Nothing is happening in Harare now except the protests - but the Zimbabwe court, under Zanu-PF pressure, has declared them illegal. I go out for a walk on the Friday morning that a protest was scheduled to take place - starting in the African Unity Square - and riot police charge up to the area. It is about 10am sharp. People begin to flee. Just another indication of the power of the regime. Zimbabwe might well be becoming a police state. There is no action today. Just a (literal) car crash in the city centre. It attracts a lot of onlookers until the cops arrive and wave everyone on.

                                         The ghosts of Cecil Rhodes and his demented dreams

The train station in particular is a depressing sight. It looks like a rundown outlet that you might see in a small town in the UK. A Rhodesian Railways carriage sits stranded a few lines up. Rhodesia is a name you don't see anywhere but on the trains. Another, more modern locomotive doesn't move either. I am told it is broken and won't be repaired. It was only built in 1999. On the streets people look defeated. We are the only two white faces I see but no one even makes eye contact. Harare has a reputation for being one of the safest Southern African cities. I am told by the famous Meikles Hotel, itself a shadow of its former self (the nobs in the bathtub screw off at the slightest of touch), not to leave at sundown. "It is probably not safe for you out there". Certainly, there does not seem to be much street lighting. I know that if I was in the situation everyone outside is in I sure as fuck would want to mug me too.


                                          Railway station, Harare

I take a taxi to the top of the city - looking out over the view that I have become familiar with from book after book on Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe. Harare has not changed so much, I think, at least from a distance, since its Salisbury days. You can tell there is a beautiful old town in there somewhere. The dirty, cracked, broken pavements and roads need fixed. The litter needs lifted. Some buildings look ready to collapse. Civil servants need paid and employed - the refuge is in piles in some street corners. Maybe when Mugabe goes, when sanctions are gone, inward investment returns... maybe then Harare can return to fruition. I see two young female students at the top of the hill, reading their course books, talking about theory. "What are you studying?" I ask. "We are majoring in communications". Mugabe educated his people well. Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in all of Africa. He could have been one of the greats but yet here we are... a city that houses derelict buildings, pawn shops, rubble and garbage and people trying to flog old Zimbabwe dollars for US currency. "Look, you can be worth a trillion dollars" laugh the peddlers. I already have some. They will look good on my office wall.

Coke looks out everywhere in Harare. They are all over the billboards. Emirates as well. The dream of escape. I think about how cruel it is to tease a nation of jobless youngsters with a shitty life expectancy rate with the dream of foreign getaways. Zimbabweans are fleeing into South Africa. Many are taking up space in the already decrepit townships that are leftover from apartheid. You ask a waiter in Cape Town where they are from and there is a good chance they will say Zimbabwe. And everyone is so fucking nice. Maybe the years of the Bush War, or the memories that came with it and were passed down, have stopped a civil war. Maybe no one wants another Angola: a seemingly never-ending body count built around political leaders fighting for control and shooting a tonne of shit up in the process. Angola still hasn't recovered. Who knows if it will. The world doesn't remember. I would wager my 'British' pal couldn't find that county on the map.

Who will come to Zimbabwe's aid if armed fighting kicks off?

There is a saying in Zimbabwe that everyone has to have a back-up plan. Hardly anyone alive has known a leader other than Mugabe or Ian Smith. And the irony is that The Herald, on the day I arrive, is still banging on about Smith. Fuck man, he died in 2007. He stepped away from politics in 1987. Let the old racist rest. Who still blames Scotland's problems on Ted Heath? Blaming everything on Smith is surely Zanu-PF's continuous back-up plan. 'Don't look at us - the old dead guy is still at fault'.

                                  The entrance to Ian Smith's old farm. Now not a farm at all.

Then it is onto National Heroes Acre. As far as dictators go, Mugabe has been remarkably uninterested in building marquees or statues to himself. His face is on a total of one billboard in Harare. And aside from a solitary road sign, you would be forgiven for not even noticing him. True, one of the highest buildings in the city is the Zanu-PF headquarters, but with that aside, the old man does not linger at every twist and turn. Unlike Mao there are no grand paintings of him meeting foreign dignitaries or smiling as his people take to the farms, apparently in awe of his ability (re: stash of guns) that 'encourage' such diligence. Instead there is just his framed picture, peering out from hotels and tourist hubs ("it has to be there" someone tells me, with a frustrated groan), and also this ridiculous monument, constructed by Zimbabweans with the assistance of North Koreans, which looks straight out of Pyongyang. One of the 'oppressing' white people on the monument even has an Asian appearance. It is a mess. A ridiculous sign which indicates that, even upon taking office, Mugabe was fast losing his marbles. Standing in its gloriously daft shadow, all you can do is laugh. What can be said, after all, about someone who bemoans colonial influence but holds tight to that not-at-all-European Marxist ideology? Or who builds an expensive nod to the many Africans who perished to gain independence from Ian Smith but turns it into a symbol of Jouche ideology which, in itself, would never ever ever let a single black person reproduce with a local? Shit, North Korea is even more racially homogeneous than its neighbour to the South, which is no mean feat.

                         'White Rhodesians' beating up the locals. As imagined by North Korea.

Inside the small museum, there is some Zanu-PF propaganda about Smith. This time it is his government's use of chemical agents. No one doubts that the Rhodesian Bush War was horrible. An ugly, ugly, ugly conflict fought by a white supremacist government hell-bent at resisting black majority rule. Still, there is no chance Mugabe, who appears chiselled into the wall at Heroes Acre, is going to fess-up to any of the atrocities his Zanu-PF party was, and continues to be, responsible for - including the targeted deaths of civilians. The fact that Smith was so bad is what made Mugabe, at least initially, seem so good. The sad irony now is spelled out when I grab a taxi and my driver wants to know where I am from...

"Scotland" I say - albeit quickly clearing up I no longer live there. "Ah, Scotland... Livingstone... first white man in these parts..." It is not uncommon. In (former protectorate) Botawana and Zambia the drivers are quick to tell you that Britain was once here. One gentleman rattles off all the British Prime Ministers to me. He wants to know my opinions. "Horrible" I reply to everyone that comes after Harold Wilson. Everyone is shocked if you know about British colonialism. I am told that few of the tourists are even aware.

                             Atop Heroes Acre is the flagpole where the Union Jack was taken down in 1980

I ask the driver about Ian Smith. Why is he still such a live topic here? In the newspapers? Among the Zanu-PF rulers? "Ah... Ian Smith. Well here is the thing... Ian Smith was not so bad," he says. "Really?" I ask. "Well, he was a racist and everything, but... you know... things are worse now. At least the British built our roads and our infrastructure."

Shit man.

That's the state of affairs right now. And as you leave the beauty of Zimbabwe it is all you can think about. Could history have been different and can the future recover from the past 36 years? A white racist dictator in Ian Smith leading to a promising, but ultimately just as bad - and now worse - dictator in Mugabe.

One thing is for sure, the chap - my old friend - who believed British was all about ageing celebrities, would probably still be in shock to find out that the UK once had this place, all within living memory. It really is not long ago. And as long as that ignorance is true of most Brits, Mugabe and his successors can continue to draw upon the fact that their one-time oppressors - who just voted for Brexit no less to 'take our country back' - are just as ignorant about themselves, and their identity ("you keep your Great Britain and I will keep my Zimbabwe" he once intoned) as he is about running an economy or respecting basic human rights.

In the meantime, Zimbabwe continues to be a place that will inspire and enlighten. Beautiful people, a beautiful country, but a tragic situation.

                                          Uncle Bob: the only monument you'll find




Monday, 21 December 2015

THE FORCE AWAKENS IS A TERRIBLE FILM

                                         

(Warning: this review contains spoilers so please do not read any further if you have not yet seen The Force Awakens. Whatever my criticisms of the film, I do appreciate the fact that - wherever you are in the world - nothing 'unites' across cultural and national boundaries quite the way Star Wars does)

I was there.

Well, sort of.

I saw Return of the Jedi first. I was a little boy and absolutely loved every second of it - even (especially!) the Ewoks. I was too young to question the inherent silliness of a vast expansive evil Empire failing to stomp all over a few pint-sized furry woodland critters. In fact, I was so taken by Return of the Jedi that I began buying into the merch - and my poor mum eventually even searched high and low for a Yoda figure, to no avail, in an attempt to complete my collection of figures (my older sister, then a nanny in West Germany, finally found him in Berlin! It is a gift I cherished beyond words).

I managed to rent the original movie on VHS - not long out of diapers. The Empire Strikes Back as well. Even back then I knew Empire was the shining light of the three. I adored Luke's training, the snow-Yeti and Cloud City and Han's blossoming chemistry with Leia. Hell, Mark Hamill, who I eventually met and interviewed in 2010 (and who told me 'just call me Mark' at the end of our chat), was the first and only fan letter I ever wrote. He sent me back an autograph and I was over the moon. I lost count of how often I watched that trilogy of films - Carrie Fisher was even my first love. I adored her. And Star Wars was everything to me: I dreamed about new movies and new stories, featuring - naturally - Luke, Han and Leia. I recreated sequel after sequel with the toys I had.

 Yes, once I met and interviewed Mark Hamill. Life-affirming!

In time, though, the figures were collected and put away in carrier bags, handed into charity shops or just chucked out (doh!). I grew into my teens where girls, university, history, Hong Kong cinema and other new discoveries held my attention. The time when I discovered Santa Claus didn't exist because I found a boxed AT-AT fighter under my mum's bed in primary three passed into distant memory. The euphoria of the Christmas that I awoke to find myself unwrapping a present that turned out to be a much saught after Jabba the Hutt set also faded - as did the Halloween where I dressed up as C3PO, clad in an uncomfortable costume that was far from friendly to a bout of heavy Scottish rain.

Of course, it took until 1999, when I was in university, for a new Star Wars movie to emerge. As with most fans, I saw The Phantom Menace on opening weekend and naively hoped for something that would stimulate my then-adult desire for nostalgia and the comfort of childhood. It had also not yet sunk in for me that Star Wars, as I knew it, was already dead. I had been amused by some of the changes to the first three films in 1997 and I snapped up the widescreen VHS releases but I did not suspect that George Lucas was never going to give us his initial theatrical versions ever again. And when The Phantom Menace did roll around I was already suspect about how Star Wars could really be 'Star Wars' without Luke, Han and Leia. The trailer, to me, looked very CGI-heavy and nonsensical but I wanted this prequel to be amazing. I hoped I would fall in love with it. Instead, I just exited the cinema thinking it looked like a video game. I was largely nonplussed by The Phantom Menace but I didn't feel it 'raped my childhood' as so many others did. I just thought it was a boring sci-fi blockbuster with bad acting, Jar Jar Binks, a lousy child thespian and too much happening on the screen. Anyway, what did I care? I was going through a break-up with my first girlfriend and trying to score tickets to a comeback gig from Pulp and also an Edinburgh Film Festival preview of a new horror flick called The Blair Witch Project (I succeeded with both). I was also doing some stand-up comedy and hosting a little bit of the Edinburgh Fringe on Princes Street (yes, really). I had other things on my mind - my studies, my private life, my future... The Phantom Menace was just a rubbish Hollywood movie and there were plenty of those around.


Inevitably, I went to see Attack of the Clones - with low expectations - about a week after it hit cinemas, with a group of Star Wars-savvy friends, and this time I just felt exhausted. If The Phantom Menace was a giant bore, Attack of the Clones was headache-inducing. Big CGI blobs blasting or interacting with other big CGI blobs in cluttered landscapes of nonsense characters and awful acting. My brain couldn't digest what was going on most of the time and nothing interested me - even Christopher Lee. I was now resigned to the fact the prequels were awful and mildly amused when blockbuster-championing magazine Empire gave it a rave review. I still cannot believe anyone would mistake Attack of the Clones for anything approaching a halfway decent film.

Then came Revenge of the Sith in 2005. I actually almost knocked George Lucas over at the Cannes Film Festival that year - I was exiting from the wrong door of the Carlton Hotel just as he was on the way in. He gave me a bemused look which I will always remember. To be fair,  Revenge of the Sith attempts to 'right' the 'wrongs' of the previous two pictures. It has a dramatic core and a relatively (careful now, I said relatively) smooth narrative casuality that actually allows each plot point to lead into the next. I still didn't buy Vader's transformation. Was he just naive? Bi-polar? Easily led? Who knows. At least we finally got an end to the whole debacle and the final fight between Obi-Wan and Vader. It is not that Revenge of the Sith is a good film - it really, really isn't - but it feels a bit more Star Wars-ish than the two that came before it.


Still, it is easy to conclude that we didn't need these three prequels. We really didn't need to know about the Clone Wars or how Darth Vader was once a little kid or that Boba Fett is basically a robo-sperm-bank-Kiwi baby. We didn't need to visit the Chewbacca planet or see CGI Yoda or learn about Obi-Wan and his (generally boring) early years. It all added nothing to the Star Wars mythology except to put Hayden Christensen into the end of Return of the Jedi, give us Samuel L. Jackson as a jedi (still the best thing about these movies) and to forever make us aware that Darth Vader is a whiny blonde haired American underneath the dark armour. When you damage your own villain you are in deep shit, and Lucas achieved that - which is a testament, in a way, to his utter hopelessness at expanding his own universe. The prequels put serious dents in the proverbial Star Wars armour because they altered everything - midichlorians, 'Annie', Obi-Wan the bore, Yoda the CGI kung-fu sprite, trade federations, clones, Natalie Portman as Luke and Leia's mum. Of course, you can pretend these films don't exist but 1) as long as you only have those wretched special editions they most certainly do and 2) let's not be naive: you are never going to erase the fact Darth Vader is Hayden Christensen is Darth Vader.

Slow hand clap to George Lucas right there.

The Force Awakens, of course, brought back Han Solo. Which was the first indication this might be something to get excited about. I was psyched. No one wanted to be Obi-Wan when we first saw Star Wars. We wanted to be the nerfherder - the handsome, arrogant, charismatic badass with the blaster who counts a seven foot arm-ripping monster as his best friend and gets the girl. It didn't matter that the prequels were terrible - this was going to be a new Han Solo flick for fuckssake. Moreover, the trailers looked tremendous and J.J. Abrams knows his way around a blockbuster: I actually enjoyed his 2009 reboot of Star Trek and Super 8, from 2011, was just delicate enough to hit the right notes.


Of course, I also suspected Han Solo was probably going to croak in The Force Awakens. It is no secret that Harrison Ford wanted the character to die in Return of the Jedi and he was front and centre of the advertising for the new Star Wars at the clear expense of Fisher and Hamill. So that bit was no great shock. It was rubbish (I'll get to that) but not shocking. Even so, I went into The Force Awakens after managing to avoid everything about it and, naturally, eager to find out if this really would be the Star Wars movie we had all been hoping for since 1983.

Come the crawl and the first signs are promising - the idea that Luke Skywalker has gone missing ala Obi-Wan is, whilst hackneyed, at least a way to keep the narrative moving forward and a simple one at that. Go back and read the opening crawl to The Phantom Menace - no wonder people were so confused. On the other hand, The Force Awakens gets straight to the point: from the ashes of Darth Vader and company has come The First Order and Luke is missing but needed. Okay, fine - let's get this monster rolling.

We meet Max Von Sydow as Lor San Tekka - a wise old resistance fighter on the planet of Jakku. His brief appearance in The Force Awakens is excellent. Christopher Lee, whilst never Laurence Olivier (or Alec Guiness), at least added an old classic screen presence to the prequels and Von Sydow does the same here. We really believe in his nonsense dialogue and the fact new droid character BB-8 houses a map to Skywalker which his keeper, Poe Dameron (the dull as dishwater Oscar Isaac) must rush to get to the Resistance. We are also introduced to Kylo Ren, the new Darth Vader-ish villain who slaughters a village full of Jakku people just so we know he is really, really mean. His methods of torture include tying up characters such as the stinky Dameron and giving them a slightly bloody smack around the face before using mind control to obtain their secrets. Okay, look, I know this is Star Wars but after the Jakku slaughter I was becoming concerned: why was this even happening? For what purpose does The First Order exist? Remember how interesting Darth Vader's Gallactic Empire was in Star Wars? We began with all out crisis on a massive space-liner where Vader was seeking to crush a rebellion that was up against his cruel dictatorship. Vader was brilliant because he was fighting a civil war and his leadership, power and credibility depended on his ability to infiltrate and annihilate Leia's apparently democratic front. Han Solo was great because, during a time of civil conflict, he did not give a flying fuck - he was going about his life and making money as a smuggler and swindler. Why should he care who was fighting who? And, anyway, Vader was not just randomly slaughtering people - what was the point in that? He wanted to rule the planets, not wreck them (I will get to Alderaan). He didn't blow up Tatooine because it would have been pointless. Luke was even about to go to pilot school. People lived normal lives under Vader. His beef was with Leia and her rebellion.


So I was expecting that The First Order would become more grounded - we would know who they were and what they wanted. Alas, all we find out is that Kylo Ren is the son of Han Solo and Leia. He trained under Skywalker but rebelled and embraced his dark side (obviously passed down in his genes). He and his English-accented men do really shitty things because they want to rule. But rule what? And why? They blow up four planets because they have a big new Death Star that allows them to blow up four planets. They talk about ruling everyone - but for what means? And how can they rule anyone if they keep exploding planets and killing all the inhabitants?

Why does Kylo speak to a big CGI Gollum?

Why is it the new Death Star channels all the energy from the Sun but everyone in other planets is still alive anyway? Wouldn't everybody be dead?

Why does Kylo take off his mask and reveal himself to be a shaggy-haired emo? The sort that once followed My Chemical Romance on tour and seemed awfully dour and introverted on the back of the number 10 bus from the city centre?

Seriously: what the fuck is even going on in this film?

Okay, so The First Order have no purpose. I have seen some people online argue they represent ISIS which makes no sense because 1) As one of my best friends so eloquently stated, they are not riding around beheading anyone who doesn't believe in the Force 2) They have and accept women to their high command and 3) Kylo and company embrace modernity and all of its flashy accomplishments - there is no attempt to unite everyone under an impoverished collectivist mindset based around ancient teachings. If anything, they seem to represent the Cold War era - all raising up their fist and walking in unison with no indication of individualism. This factor would, in a way, make sense (hear me out here) as we are in a post-conflict environment in this Star Wars and the idea of two new orders taking shape - democratic and hardline authoritarian - would mirror the Cold War itself. Unfortunately, even this reading makes no flipping sense because after the fall of the Gallactic Empire wouldn't Leia, Han and Skywalker have had the bulk of the universe's riches and support ala the United States after 1945? If The First Order is Stalin's USSR - which benefited from being allied with the Western powers anyway - then how have they risen from the ashes of an impoverished movement? More to the point, why has Luke Skywalker passed into myth after thirty years? This is like someone asking you if Live Aid actually happened - 'Status Quo. Did they really open the event? I heard it was a myth. No one would have been that stupid surely?'


I think The First Order idea could have been salvaged too - all it would have taken is for some characters to establish that life was better for many people under the rule of Vader and his men. This is how all draconian parties maintain power. Look at North Korea. If you are an elder and you remember the Korean War you remember the utter obliteration of your capital city. Now you have a big new Pyongyang that has risen from the ashes thanks to the apparent will of 'The Great Leader' Kim Il-sung and his children. The North Korean propaganda machine tells its people that life in Seoul is a lot worse than life in Pyongyang - they have unemployment and you have work, they have 30,000 American troops stationed there and you have a closed-off, self-sufficient society. That is how you crush any revolution - you inform your people they have it good and the alternative is much, much worse. Moreover, even now, you have plenty of people who miss the old Eastern bloc in Europe. Why wouldn't life have been better for a lot of the population under Vader and why wouldn't others have embraced that way of ruling the galaxy? It could even have raised questions about the benefits of democracy - say Leia being the popular option but her rule, however well intentioned, not really supplying to all of the people so authoritarianism is becoming more popular. Okay, look, so that's a shitty idea but then I am not paid to write this stuff. Besides, instead of any explanation for the rise of The First Order (does anyone even know Vader became redeemed at the end of his life?) we just get the drippy son of Han Solo and another whiny Skywalker brat but this time he is doing lots of nasty, nasty deeds for no reason at all. It is all rubbish.

Lucas mentioned the evil Empire in A New Hope was symbolic of Johnson, and later Nixon, foreign policy in Indochina. It is a factor that still seems to disturb some American critics (obviously oblivious to the fact that American policy in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was among the most reprehensible acts of the 20th century). Naturally, others see the Nazi imagery in A New Hope - the indoctrination, the Stormtroopers, the ending which evokes Triumph of the Will (quite clumsily given it is supposed to be a celebration of Leia's Republic) and the wealth and military-first policy of Vader's regime. Yet neither analogy really works. Whilst the Vietnam symbolism can be argued as obvious - the film even begins with the crawl 'it is a time of civil war' and Ho Chi Minh's Việt Minh were resistance fighters - the conflict in Southeast Asia was about a postcolonial battle for self-government and national freedom. It never began as a battle of Cold War ideology. To equate Luke's farmhand and Leia's order-restoring Princess as the Việt Minh - assisting in building a never-say-die resistance to a well-armed (yet totalitarian?) superpower - is cute but ridiculous. Aside from that opening crawl (which mentions Leia's will to 'save her people') there is no quest for national identity in A New Hope and there is little evidence that Vader's stormtroopers are comitting acts of genocide against a specific race. The destruction of Alderaan may evoke the American bombing of Hanoi, Laos and Cambodia, but in the context of A New Hope it is less genocidal, or even political, as it is about getting Leia to speak and to understand the power of the Empire. Likewise, the Nazi thing is too obvious - right down to the Stormtroopers and, again, genocide (and I use that word in the case of the Indochina War in the context of events such as My Lai) does not become a part of these films until, curiously, Attack of the Clones.


Instead, the Star Wars films seem to me to be about American exceptionalism and the dangers of military expansionism. They were Cold War movies. Leia as democratic against the totalitarian one-party Gallactic Empire. Lucas did not need to be a genius political mind - although he tries: after all The Phantom Menace begins with some discussion about a blocade of trade routes and taxation. It could actually have worked well, despite the naysayers - the idea that harmony in a galaxy could be thrown into turmoil because of a dominant superpower with more export than import bullying its neighbours to the point where peaceful trade emerges into all out war. However, Star Wars never needed to be about anything except democracy vs. dictatorship. When the Berlin Wall went down and we all became more international maybe these films just fell into irrelevancy too. The First Order is that problem - it symbolises nothing, it has no purpose, it just does really shitty things for no other purpose than to be really shitty. I don't need J.J. Abrams and writer Laurence Kasdan to be channeling live political events - like a lot of obscenely rich people it is quite possible they don't give international conflicts and disputes much thought - but, Jesus, can we get something? A mere soundbite for why the bad guys are doing their bad things?

Without a reason to be villainous, though, Kylo finally gets his stripes when he kills his dad. In a scene telegraphed about three minutes ahead of its conclusion and which no one in their right mind could have been shocked by. It succeeds only in giving Han Solo a dreadful farewell - undignified and indicating that the coolest character in all of the Star Wars universe is nonetheless apparently unable to comprehend that getting too close to a certified psychopath, even if it is his own brat, is an unspeakably stupid idea. What was Han thinking? 'Oh I know he just blew up four planets but maybe he will make an exception for his dad?' Maybe Greedo did shoot first after all.


Kicking Carrie Fisher's appearance in this film feels like a lowblow. Botox has made sure her mouth can barely move, the poor thing, and she will always be Princess Leia, who wore a gold bikini, so we will let that one slide. Except her part is confusing too - why does she operate out of a tiny base? Again, why has Kylo the Emo got all the money to build a huge whopping Death Star and not the Rebels? Who would be called upon, post-war, to rebuild the universe? Oh, hang on, is that a Scottish guy speaking to Han Solo? Why would he call in The First Order? Doesn't The First Order blow up everyone? How come people want to snitch to them? Two different personalities in the film say 'tell The First Order we have found the droid' - one of whom then faces the indignity of her planet being engulfed in brutal fighting and destruction. How does this make any sense whatsoever?

Right, the other characters.

Daisy Ridley's Rey is fine. She goes from idiot to Jedi in five seconds. I don't know - look, I am just a guy with a blog and Disney made a shitload of cash from this garbage so who am I to say this sudden character arc makes no sense? I hated it - I still don't get it - but, hey, whatever, the critics are loving this. Even Mark Kermode, whose agent once sent me a most angry email because I dared to ask him his five favourite sci-fi films in an interview and list them in an issue of The Star Wars Insider. 'Don't you know Mr. Kermode has no love for Star Wars?' went the email, obviously ignoring the fact I mentioned this in the very piece and just quoted Mark's top five sci-fi films. And as if believing The Exorcist is some kind of life-affirming spiritual experience and serious story about magical sky genies is less embarassing than being featured in a Star Wars journal.

Regardless, Kermode - who I rate highly, as a critic and writer - loved this. Honestly, I don't get it. I don't.


Ah, that's the other thing I forgot to mention. I also write for The Star Wars Insider, the official Lucasfilm magazine on the series. I even have a Wookieepedia page which is tragically under-documented when it comes to the huge amount of stuff I have done for the publication including exclusive interviews with the late, great Irvin Kershner, actor Kenneth Colley and effects genius Phil Tippett (among loads more not documented on the web site). You see, I really do love that original trilogy. So if you hate this review, at least accept it is being written out of a genuine fondness for three of the seven movies.

Right, back to the The Force Awakens...

Rey is a gimp character. Ridley is decent enough, she probably has a great career ahead of her but, oh man, idiot to Jedi in seconds? Yuck. On the other hand John Boyega as Finn I liked more. I thought the idea of Stormtroopers being raised from birth for the purpose of military strength was interesting but, again, confusing - wouldn't the Rebel Alliance know about this? And why would they, presumably just a few years after Return of the Jedi, not shut those camps down? I am confused. Again. Also, why would he not know they were going to kill lots of people? Regardless, I know, this is a terrible movie so we just have to accept characters suddenly chop and change and Boyega is good enough to keep us mildly invested in him even if his whole premise is just 'huh?' Indeed, if he had been so fiercely loyal to Kylo and the Gollum then why would he ever have taken any interest in where the new Death Star's weak spot was? Does Kylo include this in Stormtrooper training: 'Listen up guys, if ever you intend to bring this big piece of equipment down, and we all trust you are very, very loyal, then you need to deactivate this section of the ship and fire into this area... but obviously forget we just told you that because we don't want anyone to know.'

Come to think of it, why did no one learn from the events of Return of the Jedi? Building a Death Star with a huge vulnerable area is a bit silly really isn't it?

 This poster got my inner child insanely excited.

By now you can probably tell that The Force Awakens is more or less a rehash of A New Hope - same parent/ son dynamic, same death of a beloved elder, same young scavenger and droid expert - this time with a gender swap - and same reluctant hero. Han Solo even says 'I have a bad feeling about this' in case you had any doubts.

Okay, another question - if Luke knows that all of his friends are coming a cropper at the hands of this new evil Empire why has he gone into seclusion in Ireland? It just makes him seem like a bit of an asshole. 'Okay guys, I tried, and I know you are all looking for me, but I like the fish and chips down my local and the cheap Guiness so fight this battle yourself, alright?'

What else, what else?

How come Rey also kicks Kylo's ass in a lightsaber battle? And then she sees the image of the crucifix in his eyes and says something spiritual (which I cannot remember off-hand)? Have we gone from midichlorians to not-so-subtle Jesus evocations? Also, why has Luke's lightsaber been kept in a box for three decades in a dusty old cantina? Wouldn't Han have known at the very least? Did everyone just go their seperate ways at the end of Return of the Jedi? Why has Kylo got Darth's helmet? Who gave him it? Why is it in this massive universe people keep bumping into each other and into important things? Finn just happens to bump into Rey five seconds after landing on Jakku by complete coincidence. The Millennium Falcon just happens to be deserted on Jakku by complete coincidence. Rey just happens to be able to fly it by complete coincidence. She just happens to land it on Han Solo's ship by complete coincidence. Han just happens to stumble across Kylo on the huge Death Star by complete coincidence. Finn just happens to be a dab hand with a blaster and lightsaber by complete coincidence. Rey just happens to suddenly learn the Force when she most needs it by complete coincidence.


And why is it every character says they will not do something only to do it five minutes later? Finn - 'I am getting out of this battle and going to escape' 'Aw please stay' 'No I am leaving' [five minutes pass] 'Guys I am back to help, you were right.'

Okay, look, we deserved this. I deserved this. We wanted the three original characters united on the screen. This never happens (unbelievably) but we do get them 'back in action' and it really, really sucks. Han Solo is iconic and now he is no more thanks to a really pitiful death sequence. We will all watch Return of the Jedi and think, 'Ah man, they can't celebrate for too long because soon Luke is going to retire to Ireland and grow a beard and Han is going to die at the hands of his own emo-brat.' Looking back, I didn't need to know what happened after Return of the Jedi. None of us did, really. Just as we didn't need to know that Darth Vader is Hayden Christensen is Darth Vader. It doesn't help those three original classics one iota.

Things have changed, though.

I am not a kid (and the child in front of me was bored enough to be playing with his light saber whilst I was bored enough to notice). I don't need to spend my money on more Star Wars movies. I don't want to see Episode VIII or a Han Solo spin-off. These new expanded universes just muck up the 'good movies' that came out in the 70s and early 80s. I, for one, have had enough. It is impossible to deny, of course, the power of Star Wars on so many of us. Read this rant for one - you can see the effect that George Lucas had on so many of us. He taught us young 'uns that cinema could be a great source of escapism - but he also birthed the modern Hollywood blockbuster which is, most of the time, a crass, ugly, vulgar thing that exists as part of a crass, ugly, vulgar capitalist studio system. In his book From Vietnam to Reagan, the late, great Robin Wood writes:


'Spectacle – the sense of reckless, prodigal extravagance, no expense spared – is essential: the unemployment lines in the world outside may get longer and longer, we may even have to go out and join them, but if capitalism can still throw out entertainments like Star Wars (the films’ very uselessness an aspect of the prodigality), the system must be basically OK, right? Hence as capitalism approaches its ultimate breakdown, through that series of escalating economic crises prophesied by Marx well over a century ago, its entertainments must become more dazzling, more luxuriously unnecessary' (p166)



I like Wood's writing a lot and I agree with his assumption - as Baudrillard's writing on hyper-reality also aptly suggests, we are all stimulation junkies today: living for big interactive 3D event films that can be channeled on our phones, fast food, merchandise, gadgets, video games, whatever. I sat through half an hour of tie-in advertisements and lookalike Hollywood blockbusters prior to The Force Awakens and felt more and more uncomfortable as each one showed itself. I kept thinking, 'Man, this just isn't me' - and it isn't. I always made an exception for Star Wars and I allowed myself to get caught up, reminded myself, 'Aw come on, if Lucas did kill cinema and corporate capitalism is the way of the day, at least embrace a little part of it - otherwise we need to accept it has all been for nothing'.

I wanted to love The Force Awakens, to think of it as something more than just a business deal where lots of rich white men get even richer at the expense of those of us stupid enough to be suckered into a nostalgia-fest of wookies and Han Solo and botox-Leia. And the reviews, the 95% favourable at Rotten Tomatoes, none of whom even mention the fact The First Order - you know, merely the villains of the film - have no motivation for anything they do, are lapping this shit up. You expect it from the likes of Empire, don't get me wrong, but from everyone, everywhere? Honestly, 95% for a movie which has an entire plot based around recurring coincidences? Where in the opening five minutes BB-8's name is repeated exhaustedly so the kids know what to ask their parents for when it comes to Christmas? Really guys? Really?

                               Every Star Wars article owes it to themselves to show Leia in a gold bikini

I know the first film was not exactly original but it was new. It made space look grimy and dusty. The set design and special effects were incredible. The characters were invigorating. It didn't matter if the acting and dialogue was occasionally ropey, these personalities captured the imagination of children and adults across the world. With The Force Awakens we get a terrible send-off for a great character, some slick filmmaking, beautiful scenery, excellent art design and a couple of curious new characters. However, it isn't enough to make me come back for Episode VIII.

I am of the age now where Star Wars can remain as these horrible A/V quality three films that I own on the old DVDs. Watching these wretched-looking things is the sole way I ever experience the oldies and putting myself through them, badly upscaled onto a new flatscreen TV, is tough. But maybe it is for the best. I am less inclined to revisit the originals thanks to that - and it means, finally, my childhood memories of Star Wars have - over time - remained in my childhood.