Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

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The 100 Films Guide to…

Captain Jack is back

Here’s the first in a sporadic new series of posts, inspired by my 100 Favourites entries, which I’ll be using to plug some of the gaps in my review archive. As a good starting example, this is the only Pirates of the Caribbean film I haven’t covered.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 151 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th July 2006 (UK & others)
US Release: 7th July 2006
Budget: $225 million
Worldwide Gross: $1.066 billion

Stars
Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland)
Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings, Kingdom of Heaven)
Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice, The Imitation Game)
Bill Nighy (Love Actually, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Director
Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Rango)

Screenwriters
Ted Elliott (The Mask of Zorro, The Lone Ranger)
Terry Rossio (Shrek, Godzilla vs. Kong)

Based on
Pirates of the Caribbean, a theme park ride at Disneyland.


The Story
On their wedding day, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are arrested for piracy. To secure a pardon, all they have to do is bring in Captain Jack Sparrow. Meanwhile, the aforementioned pirate captain is hunting for a key that he can use to unlock a chest that contains leverage he may be able to use to escape a debt to the horrifying Davy Jones…

Our Heroes
Jack Sparrow (or, as half the characters pronounce it, Jack Sparrah), the pirate captain who looks like a drunken fool but is actually in possession of a sharp mind. Also Will Turner, the swashbuckling ex-blacksmith determined to prevent the execution of himself and his beloved. That would be Elizabeth Swann, the governor’s daughter who is altogether more capable than would be expected of a woman from this era.

Our Villains
The pirate-hating East India Company is represented by the scheming Cutler Beckett, who seeks to rid the seas of pirates. To do so, he intends to control Davy Jones, captain of the Flying Dutchman. A tentacled terror, Jones seeks primarily to add more damned souls to his crew — including one Jack Sparrow…

Best Supporting Character
Will Turner’s father, Bootstrap Bill, was condemned to the ocean’s depths, where he ended up committing himself to servitude on Davy Jones’ ship. Well, unless Will can find a way to set him free…

Memorable Quote
Elizabeth Swann: “There will come a time when you have a chance to do the right thing.”
Jack Sparrow: “I love those moments. I like to wave at them as they pass by.”

Memorable Scene
A large chunk of the climax is a set of interconnected sword fights that most famously include three men duelling each other inside a runaway waterwheel. And while that’s good, my favourite bit has always been Elizabeth, Pintel and Ragetti fighting off Davy Jones’ crew while sharing two swords (and a chest) between the three of them.

Truly Special Effect
Davy Jones is an incredible creation, the writing mass of CGI tentacles that make up his face conveying a slimy physicality that remains impressive even as some of the film’s other computer-generated effects begin to show their age.

Previously on…
Inspired by a Disney theme park ride, nobody expected much of Pirates of the Caribbean — or, as it was hastily subtitled once someone at Disney realised this could be the start of a franchise, The Curse of the Black Pearl. As that someone knew, it turned out to be something very special. Dead Man’s Chest retrofits it into being the first part of a trilogy.

Next time…
The aforementioned trilogy concludes with At World’s End, which was shot back-to-back with Dead Man’s Chest and so wraps up its many dangling plot threads. The series continued with standalone instalment On Stranger Tides, while this year’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, aka Salazar’s Revenge, looks as if it seeks to tie the whole shebang together.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
3 Oscar nominations (Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
1 BAFTA (Special Visual Effects)
4 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Make Up & Hair)
1 Saturn award (Special Effects)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Bill Nighy), Costume, Make-Up)
1 World Stunt Award (Best Fight — see “Memorable Scene”)

Verdict

The Pirates sequels have all come in for a lot of criticism ever since their first release. It was inevitable, really: the first is basically a perfect blockbuster action-adventure movie, something any follow-up would struggle to live up to. However, I think Dead Man’s Chest has improved with age. It lacks the freshness and elegant simplicity of its forebear, true, but it still has inventive sequences, memorable characters, impressive effects, and a generally fun tone, even as it’s setting up masses of mythology that will only be fully paid off in the next instalment. That also means it doesn’t quite function as a standalone adventure. But if you readjust your focus slightly, so that the film isn’t about beating Davy Jones, but instead about finding the chest and settling Jack’s debt to Jones, it’s more self-contained than it appears.

The fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, under whichever subtitle they’ve chosen for your country, is in cinemas from today.

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (2014)

2017 #68
David Lynch | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & France / English | 15

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces

When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was released in 1992, one of the things that disappointed fans was the absence of many of Twin Peaks’ beloved characters. A few of those absentees were due to scheduling conflicts or behind-the-scenes disagreements, but others were shot and left on the cutting room floor. Rumours circulated for years (still do at times) that David Lynch actually shot five hours of material, only two-and-a-quarter of which made it into the final cut. However, as early as ’92 itself, co-writer Robert Engels stated that the first cut ran 3 hours 40 minutes, adding that they hoped to put that extended version out on LaserDisc. Such a release never happened, and fans were left wanting. Campaigns were launched to get the deleted material on DVD, but there were issues with who held the rights, and then Lynch was only prepared to release them if they had been properly mastered and finished to theatrical standard.

Finally, after over two decades of waiting and hoping, the stars aligned and the series’ Blu-ray release was accompanied by those long-awaited scenes. Dubbed “The Missing Pieces”, there were 90 minutes of them — which, you’ll note, when added to the 135-minute film more-or-less equals the 3 hours 40 minutes Engels promised back in ’92. It’s also basically another movie’s worth of material; and, indeed, there were limited theatrical screenings as part of the promotion for the Blu-ray — hence why this counts as a film (look, it’s on IMDb and everything).

Diane, it's 9:27am and I am stood in your doorway blowing you a kiss...

Still, The Missing Pieces may just sound like an uncommonly long selection of discarded bits, same as most DVD deleted scene sections, but there’s more to it than that. There’s quality material here — even, some people say, some of the best scenes in the entire Twin Peaks canon. In fact, some people even reckon it stands confidently as a second Twin Peaks movie, albeit one that depicts events that occur concurrently to the existing film. Well, I don’t think I’d go quite that far, but there’s definitely more to this than a couple of missing lines or amusing asides.

The fact it isn’t a standalone work is evident from the off, which begins like a traditional deleted scenes package: a collection of context-free bits-and-pieces of FBI Agents Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley in the town of Deer Meadow. These go on for about ten minutes, including a bout of fisticuffs between Desmond and the uncooperative local sheriff that was a very wise removal from the final cut. These early scenes make it instantly clear that The Missing Pieces is a companion to Fire Walk with Me and needs to be watched alongside it, not a unique entity that’s capable of holding its own. These are “Missing Pieces” indeed, not “Meanwhile Pieces”.

That said, the interest level of the material increases quite quickly. There’s a scene between Stanley and Agent Cooper that doesn’t add a great deal to the story but does again reference the mysterious blue rose — was Lynch intending to go somewhere with that, or not, hence why the scene was deleted? It has a prominent place on the Blu-ray packaging, too… There’s also more David Bowie, though it doesn’t make his part a whole lot clearer. On the bright side, it includes a Buenos Aires hotel bellhop delivering the immortal line: “Oh, Mr. Jeffries! Oh, the shit, it come out of my ass.”

Oh, the shit, it come out of my ass.

As things move on to the Twin Peaks-set portion of the tale, we get what the fans really wanted: not mere odds and ends that were removed to expedite the plot, but bits featuring fan favourite characters. Whether the scenes are important or not is another matter, but it must’ve been great to see new material featuring some beloved characters. (I’m glad I’m only watching this now, when this is all available and there’s a new series with new answers on the horizon, rather than having had to endure the wait.)

That said, in the scope of the story Fire Walk with Me was telling, all of the townsfolk deletions make sense. There are a couple of scenes of Big Ed and Norma’s romance that help set up where they were at the start of the series, but it has little or no relation to Laura. Even less relevant is a scene at the sawmill showing Josie and Pete arguing with a customer over the size of a 2×4. It’s utterly pointless, the only possible reason for its existence to be to shoehorn those characters into the movie, and therefore it was an eminently sensible deletion. The same goes for scenes at the sheriff’s station, which felt like they had greater relation to the actual story of Fire Walk with Me but I still couldn’t quite make head nor tail of.

It’s not all townsfolk asides, however: there are more scenes with Laura, too. One at Donna’s house shows Dr Hayward being kind towards Laura, seemingly the only man in the entire town who treated her appropriately. That might’ve made a nice counterpoint if left in the movie. Similarly, there’s a scene of domestic bliss in the Palmer household, where Leland, Sarah and Laura practise speaking Norwegian round the dinner table and end up in hysterics. That would’ve made a nice mirror to the later dinner table scene where Leland goes all creepy.

How's Annie?

As you’d expect from a deleted scenes section, but in opposition to what some people claim about it, The Missing Pieces is a collection of just that — pieces; fragments divorced from their whole. It’s definitely an experience aimed squarely at fans, then, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one worth taking for the initiated.

It all ends with an epilogue — a couple of scenes that, for the first time, move beyond the end of the series’ finale. Again, how utterly thrilling it must’ve been to finally get such a continuation over twenty years later. In the first, we catch up with Annie in the hospital, where she repeats the statement her bloody possibly-corpse (though, as we can see, not a corpse) made in Laura’s bed. It also turns out she has the ring… until a nurse pilfers it. Then we cut to the Great Northern, where Coop’s just smashed his head into the mirror. He stages it as an accident when Harry and Doc Hayward rush in to help him, and they insist he returns to bed to rest.

And that’s it.

3 out of 5

Or that was it, because tonight it’s 25 years later and that gum you like is going to come back in style.

It is happening again.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

2017 #67
David Lynch | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

This review contains major spoilers for both Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me.

When Twin Peaks was cancelled, co-creator David Lynch quickly realised he wasn’t done telling stories in that world — probably because he’d just ended the TV series on a massive cliffhanger, having only recently refocused his attention on the show after a period of absence. Within a month of the series’ end, he’d secured a deal to produce a big-screen continuation. Along with one of the series’ lead writers, Robert Engels, Lynch cooked up a plan for a trilogy of movies that would explore some of the series’ leftover mythology — primarily, the mysterious and otherworldly Black Lodge. The first of these movies would begin by revisiting the aspect of Twin Peaks that had brought it so much attention in the first place: the murder of Laura Palmer.

Unfortunately, Lynch had misjudged the public’s appetite — or, more likely, didn’t particularly care about that, but nonetheless what people wanted didn’t line up with what Lynch made. The resulting movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, was not a success. For fans of the TV programme, the tone didn’t match, most of the regular cast didn’t appear, and, on the surface at least, it was a story about events they already knew, rather than a resolution to the series’ cliffhanger. For non-fans, it didn’t seem to stand alone in the way a ‘proper’ movie should. Lynch had won the top prize at Cannes just two years earlier, but now the screening of Fire Walk with Me was booed; so was the press conference. Reviewers were similarly unimpressed. The film flopped at the box office. The intended trilogy stalled with its first instalment, and Fire Walk with Me went down as a poorly-regarded failure, unquestionably one of Lynch’s worst films.

Lady in red (room)

Well, opinions change. Nowadays you’re just as likely to see someone contend that Fire Walk with Me is the pinnacle of Lynch’s career as you are to see someone express the view it’s his nadir; perhaps even more likely. From what I can gather, a quarter-of-a-century’s distance has allowed people to become more understanding about what it was Lynch was actually trying to achieve with the film; that it is, despite what the title might lead you to believe, as much “A David Lynch Film” as it is “A Continuation of The Popular Mainstream TV Series Twin Peaks”.

In both of these respects, there’s an awful lot to unpack. It’s a continuation and expansion of the ongoing Peaks story (and certainly not a conclusion to it), with pieces that lead up to Laura’s murder, pieces that expand on or continue stuff from the series finale, as well as brand new mysteries and puzzles. Simultaneously, it stands on its own two feet as a depiction of — and, in its use of horror, allegory for — the terrors of domestic psychological abuse and incest. And before all that it starts with a half-hour prologue in which a cast of character we mostly don’t know investigate a murder that die-hard fans might just about recall from its fleeting relevance to the series’ earliest episodes. And David Bowie turns up for a bizarre cameo that goes nowhere. In many respects, Fire Walk with Me is not an easy movie.

It is a rewarding one for those prepared to dig into it, however. Again, that applies to both levels the film is functioning on. It may not directly continue after the events of the series, but there are a couple of hints and nods towards the events of the finale and what happens next, as well as a lot of general additions to the mythology. And as a films about abuse, it’s not just a depiction of events, but is attempting to in tap into how that actually feels, psychologically — as Lynch has said, it’s about “the loneliness, shame, guilt, confusion and devastation of the victim of incest.” It must do this successfully because Sheryl Lee has said that, “I have had many people, victims of incest, approach me since the film was released, so glad that it had been made because it helped them to release a lot.” Bravely, it’s also a bit about the abuser, presenting him with, if not sympathy, then some degree of understanding — to quote Lynch again, it deals with “the torment of the father – the war within him.”

Happy families

One thing that straddles both sides of the film, I think, is that It goes a long way to ‘redeeming’ Laura Palmer. In the series she’s the all-American good girl homecoming queen who we quickly learn wasn’t so good under the surface, spending her time partying hard with drugs and promiscuous sex. At one point it seems like she was just a wild child who got in too deep. Now, I forget if the series eventually made clear that she let herself be murdered in order to stop a malicious demon from possessing her, but, even if it did, it’s a few lines of dialogue. Here, we see the real, severe struggles she was battling while trying to maintain some kind of normal life, and how hard she fought against them. She was, actually, just an ordinary girl, forced to face extraordinary circumstances.

Conversely, this is almost exactly why some people disliked the film: because it took how Laura Palmer appeared in the series, as kind of a notion or concept that the town projected their values and issues onto, and made her into a real person, who was consequently as messed up as most teenagers are. Essentially: Laura Palmer was more interesting dead than alive. I have two thoughts on this. One: Laura wasn’t exactly leading a normal life, so there’s definitely something in seeing how she ended up how she did; what her psychological state was like. Two: perhaps it’s entirely the point that the reality and the legend (particularly the legend built around someone tragically cut down too young) are not the same thing; that the reality is not as great as the notion. That sounds like a particularly Lynchian theme to me.

All of this added depth to Laura is driven by a remarkable performance from Sheryl Lee. Originally cast to play a corpse and a photograph, Lynch liked her so much they created a role for in the series (as Laura’s lookalike cousin Maddie), and she gets an even meatier role here. Even though viewers of the series already know the answers that Laura only discovers during the film, Lee’s performance is so powerful, particularly when enacting fear or terror (no one instils fear in the viewer quite so well as Sheryl Lee looking terrified by something off camera that we never see), that we are horrified along with her. There’s also a power in seeing something play out that we’ve previously only been told about — the reality of it happening is more horrendous than the facts we’ve heard.

LAWNa Palmer (get it?)

This is partly why Fire Walk with Me has a distinctly different tone to the series (which, as noted, probably didn’t help win people over). It’s still full of quirky surrealism, of course, because it’s a David Lynch film; but the lighter, funnier, chirpier elements have all been excised. This is a dark, dark movie. One suggestion I’ve read from a fan is that the TV series was from Agent Cooper’s point of view, hence it emphasised the small-town charm and optimistic worldview, while the film is from Laura’s perspective, so it’s altogether grimmer and more fatalistic. This may not have been deliberate on the part of Lynch and co, but it certainly makes some kind of sense.

Which road the imminent Twin Peaks revival will walk, obviously no one outside of the production yet knows. But the other week it was widely reported that Lynch had said Fire Walk with Me would be essential to understanding the new series. I think some people who surprised by this — the vestiges of the film’s original negative reception, perhaps — but, having just watched the film, it feels like a bit of a “well, duh” statement. Fire Walk with Me is often summarised as being just “the last seven days of Laura Palmer”, which makes it sound like it’s wholly related to a mystery that was wrapped up in the original series. It’s more than that, making huge contributions to the series’ ongoing mythos, as well as a couple of hints about events in and after the original finale — unless those were going to be completely ignored by the new series (which doesn’t sound like Lynch to me, not to mention that it would surely irritate fans), then of course Fire Walk with Me is important!

One thing that’s probably never getting explained is that Bowie cameo. His character was one of the things inserted by Lynch and Engels to build on in the proposed sequels — yes, rather like all those films that adapt the first novel of a series and fill it with foreshadowing, assuming they’ll get to make the rest, but never do. Reportedly Bowie was lined up to appear in the revival, but died before he could film any scenes. Whether that particular mystery will be explained some other way, or be left forever as a dangling thread in Twin Peaks’ complex web, obviously remains to be seen. So too the disappearance of Agent Chester Desmond, as actor Chris Isaak isn’t part of the extensive cast list they’ve announced. But then, maybe they’re keeping some secrets there too…

He's here to blow our minds

There’s so much more that could be said about Fire Walk with Me. About ‘fake Donna’, for instance — actress Moira Kelly standing in as Laura’s best friend, Donna Hayward, because original actress Lara Flynn Boyle was unavailable — and how there’s a camp of people who think she might actually be better than the original (me included). About the significance of time (there’s a definite clock motif; several clear references in dialogue; it’s technically a prequel but with sequel pieces; there’s definitely a few bits of time travel going on; and so on). About the Lil scene, which may or may not be a dig at over-analytical fans; indeed, that whole prologue is like some kind of inversion of Twin Peaks. About the Pink Room sequence and its seedy artistry. About the interpretation that Bob is a shared fiction, concocted by both Leland and Laura to help that pair of troubled souls deal with the horrors they’re living through (you may think Leland deserves no sympathy, but the series made it fairly clear that he had been a victim of abuse himself…)

Fire Walk with Me is so many different things all at once that it’s almost a mess of a film. But Lynch knows what he’s doing, if not entirely then at least to a significant degree. Plus it only becomes more interesting and complex as you continue to think and read about it after viewing. Perhaps, after the new series, it will slot into place even better, and its significance in the overall scheme of Twin Peaks will become even clearer. Maybe its critical rehabilitation has a few steps left to take yet…

4 out of 5

Tomorrow: the missing pieces.

A Christmas Carol (2009)

aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

2016 #188
Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Disney's A Christmas Carol

You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

2 out of 5

Swiss Army Man (2016)

2016 #177
Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan
(aka Daniels) | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Swiss Army Man

If you’ve heard of Swiss Army Man, it’s likely for one thing and one thing only: this is the movie where Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe plays a farting corpse with an erection. But rather than the childish super-gross-out comedy that short pitch would seem to suggest, Swiss Army Man is actually quite a sweet indie comedy-drama. With some super-gross-out comedy thrown in, natch.

The plot that leads us to the farting boner corpse begins with Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on an island and, in his lonely despair, attempting suicide. Then he spots a body washed up on the nearby beach. It turns out this isn’t a new friend, because he’s dead. Hank dubs him ‘Manny’. One thing leads to another and Hank uses Manny’s gastric expulsions to create a kind of jet ski that propels them off the island. Hank soon discovers the corpse has myriad potential uses (hence the title), especially when he starts to talk…

Swiss Army Man is kind of like Cast Away if Wilson the volleyball was a farting corpse. Hank despairs at his situation, chats to the technically-inanimate Manny about it, and together they begin to work through the human condition. In between using Manny’s rigor mortis-powered limbs to chop wood, or his boner as a magic compass to guide them home, that is. I was going to say “it’s that kind of movie”, but I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie quite like Swiss Army Man.

He ain't heavy, he's my farting boner corpse

As well as the indie ruminations on the purpose and meaning of life, there are some mystery plots in play, just to keep things engaging. Who is the woman Hank keeps seeing in flashbacks? How many of Manny’s abilities are real and how much is just in Hank’s head? I mean, Manny can’t really talk… can he? What if Manny’s not the only one who’s dead? Maybe these shouldn’t be given so much focus — I don’t think the film wants to be about such plot mysteries — but they were the kind of things running through my head while watching, because you know there’s bound to be some kind of twist or reveal for what’s actually happening. Naturally, I won’t spoil that here; but perhaps the film plays even better on repeat viewings, when you can set aside such wonderings and focus even more fully on the friendship between man and corpse.

That’s naturally powered by the two lead performances. Dano is very good as a man who’s feeling suicidal for, as it turns out, more reasons than “I’m alone on an island”; though enacting such patheticness (as a human trait rather than a criticism of his mental condition) seems very much within Dano’s wheelhouse. Radcliffe, however, is simply brilliant. Manny comes back to ‘life’ as a kind of innocent, unsure of how the world works and driven by his basest feelings; a reflection of all our inner psyches, in a way. Physically constrained by being, y’know, dead, Radcliffe manages to convey so much despite — or perhaps even partly because of — the limitations imposed upon him.

Corpsehood

Made for a relative pittance, technical merits are also strong, with neat special effects to convey Manny’s abilities, and a very indie-ish but fitting vocal-driven score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Interestingly, the Blu-ray contains an option to watch the film without the score, which (based on the few bits I sampled) creates a remarkably different experience. That’s true of most films, of course, but here it dramatically changes the mood of some scenes. It’s less magical, in a way, and sadder, and maybe creepier, which is not the point or message of the film.

“The farting boner corpse movie” is the kind of pithy description that will put many viewers off, but hiding behind the gross-out facade is a sweet comedy-drama about human interaction that, in its own way, is an incredibly moving, perhaps even heartwarming experience.

4 out of 5

Swiss Army Man is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Thumbs up

The BFG (2016)

2017 #51
Steven Spielberg | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & India / English | PG / PG

The BFG

The writer/director team behind E.T. reunite for another tale of a young kid befriending a strangely-proportioned otherworldly creature who can’t quite speak English properly and has an acronym for a name. This one, of course, is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, here rendered into live-action — or, for a large part, realistic computer animation — by director Steven Spielberg.

If you don’t know the story, it concerns insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who one night spots a 24ft giant outside her window. Wary of her informing the rest of the world of his existence, he snatches her up and carries her off to giant land. Despite Sophie’s fears, he doesn’t eat her, because he’s actually the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, motion captured) — but his fellow giants are a different story. Led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, also motion captured), they bully the comparatively tiny BFG and are a constant threat to Sophie’s life, so she concocts a plan, which involves a trip to see the Queen (Penelope Wilton).

For all its CGI — and, in creating a fantastical other-world adjacent to our own, there is a lot — much about The BFG feels pleasantly traditional, almost like a throwback to kids’ movies of a couple of decades past. This is partly the re-teaming of Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, I suppose, but perhaps also the decision to retain the novel’s original 1982 setting. Not that you’d know it for most of the running time, until the Queen makes some telephone calls to “Nancy and Ronnie” (Reagan) and “Boris” (presumably Yeltsin, though that means someone’s got their eras mixed up); references that, coming quite near the end of the film, made me pause in the realisation that it wasn’t just set today (the reference to Boris made my assume the Queen was phoning our foreign secretary).

Window dressing

More than dated references, though, the throwback feel is thanks to the pace. I’d hesitate to call The BFG slow, but it’s certainly gentle for a good long while. I don’t think it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, but a little extra speed early on, bringing the luxuriant two-hour running time down closer to the 90-minute mark, might’ve been beneficial. There’s certainly magic and wonder to be found throughout, which are very important aspects of a story like this, but I do wonder if kids might get a bit fidgety nonetheless, which would destroy the effect.

There is a lot to admire, however. The production design is superb, the giants’ environment full of stuff pilfered from the human world and re-appropriated into useful things — a ship for a (water)bed, for example, or a road sign for a tray; in one sequence, cars and trucks become roller skates. It’s all realised with startling detailed CGI. Okay, you’re not going to mistake the giants for upsized real humans (which kinda makes me long for a Hook-era version of the film, when they would’ve done it all for real with optical effects), but look at the small details — the texture of the giants’ skin, for example — and it looks phenomenal.

More importantly, the acting is pitched perfectly. Clement and his cohorts manage to be both menacing and comical by turns, Wilton brings easy class to the Queen, and Rafe Spall has an amusing little supporting role as a palace footman. However, Rebecca Hall is utterly wasted in a strangely nothing-y part as the Queen’s assistant — I can only presume this was either one of those “I love the book so will take any role” situations or one of those “my part was mostly cut” situations.

Big star, little star

But the real stars are the two leads. Ruby Barnhill was the result of a months-long search for the perfect Sophie and it was worth the effort. Called upon to be confident, scared, awed, and ingenious, Barnhill’s performance is precisely calibrated — “subtle” would perhaps be overselling it, but she lacks the histrionics you get from weak child actors. She’s overall charming, which is important in engaging us in the relationship between her and the BFG. In the giant role, Mark Rylance is, of course, sublime. He may have been recreated in the computer, but all of his personality shines through, his expressions and mannerisms both believable and familiar if you’ve seen him in his corporeal form. It’s one of the best-yet advocacies of so-called “performance capture” (where the actor’s whole performance is captured by those grey jumpsuits with little dots on, as opposed to just “motion capture” where it’s only their physical moves being digitised and supplemented by animators — both are the same process really, it’s just someone coined a different term to indicate when more of the actor’s own work is retained).

Considering the level of challenge The BFG clearly presented to Spielberg (in the special features he talks about how at times he was unsure how to make the movie, with all the tough requirements of different scales, etc; he and his team actually spent a whole summer making the movie in previsualisation before they did it for real the year after), it’s something of a shame that it’s destined to be regarded as a minor work in his canon. I’m not going to argue it deserves a greater status among his venerable output, but it would be a shame for it to go ignored because of that.

4 out of 5

The BFG is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of this week.

Tokyo Tribe (2014)

2016 #149
Sion Sono | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 18

Tokyo Tribe

Adapted from the manga Tokyo Tribe 2, the film version is a hip-hop musical, sung (or rapped) through by an expansive cast who make up the titular tribes — gangs who rule the streets of a divided near-future (or possibly alternate reality; or possibly it doesn’t matter that much) Tokyo. The world of the story is pretty barmy, and much of the plot follows suit — I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but suffice to say it involves kidnapped girls, rescue attempts, and brewing gang warfare.

Much of the film does feel like a cartoon brought to life, with the ultra-heightened scenario and larger-than-life scenery-chewing villains — as the big bad, Riki Takeuchi hams it up so ludicrously his performance circles back round into genius. It’d definitely be an adult cartoon, though, because director Sion Sono brings a kind of trash-art, exploitation vibe, with gratuitous helpings of nudity and violence. Indeed, that direction is indicated early on when a young female police officer ventures into gang territory and is grabbed by one of the villains who, in front of a baying crowd, rips open her shirt and begins to trace a knife around her naked breasts to explain the various gang factions. It’s kind of kinky, kind of nasty, kind of distasteful, kind of not (I mean, he is a bad guy) — if you wanted to summarise the feel of the whole film in one sequence, it’s actually not a bad start.

When too many tribes to keep track of go to war

I watched Tokyo Tribe out of pure curiosity (a rap musical isn’t exactly my usual kind of thing) but I ended up rather loving it, which is why it made my 2016 top 20. There I summarised that its mix of “battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, [made it] possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen.” So those extremes don’t bother me per se (other than to the extent they should bother me), but there’s an undoubted not-for-everyone-ness to a lot of it. That, plus some rough edges, are all that hold me back from giving it 5 stars.

4 out of 5

Tokyo Tribe placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Ghostbusters (2016)

aka Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

2017 #41
Paul Feig | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghostbusters

I doubt you need me to recap the controversy that dogged co-writer/director Paul Feig’s remake of the beloved ’80s classic Ghostbusters from its inception right through to its release (and, I guess, beyond). For one thing I think it would do us all good to be able to forget that ever happened, though I guess we won’t anytime soon. That said, one of the headline aspects of the campaign of negativity directed at the remake purely because it had an all-female lead cast (it’s unfathomably sad that that’s what it was all about, isn’t it?) was the reaction that greeted the film’s trailer — it’s officially the most disliked movie trailer in the history of YouTube. Obviously a lot of that was thanks to empty-headed hate, but it didn’t help that the trailer was legitimately weak: for a comedy it seemed short on humour, and what supposed gags were present either weren’t funny or were unimaginative and overused.

Fortunately this complete dearth of laughter doesn’t extend to the film itself, though it’s not all good news: while parts are pretty funny, others are just as lazy as the trailer implied. Considering the volume of alternate lines included in the film’s special features, you have to wonder how some glaring duds, overfamiliar ‘jokes’, and flat-out clichés were left in. Of the lead cast, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones are all equally affected by this sometimes good / sometimes bad oscillation, though Chris Hemsworth as their pretty-but-dim receptionist manages to escape unscathed in a bubble of, if not hilarity, then definite amusement. However, while even people who dislike the film on the whole seem to reserve praise for Kate McKinnon, I thought she was by far the worst of the main cast. I don’t think her kerazy antics made me laugh once.

The Ghostbusters

Although Feig opted to fully reboot the Ghostbusters universe rather than continue where the previous films left off, there are variety of fan-pleasing fun nods to the original film, which I won’t spoil be detailing here. The same goes for the scattering of cameos from most of the original cast, which some have read as pace-breakingly fan-service-y but I thought mostly worked (though I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumours that Bill Murray only appears due to a contractual obligation he couldn’t get out of). Similarly, there are at least four different recordings of Ray Parker Jr’s famous theme song, not to mention that it’s often mixed into Theodore Shapiro’s score too. Maybe that’s overkill, but it is a helluva catchy tune (though there’s nothing in-film quite as good as this remix of the trailer music). Thankfully, the risible version by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott (which was at one point promoted as the main song) is relegated to a brief snippet in the middle of the film.

For a comedy director, Feig has a decent handle on the genre side of the movie. The climax is like an attempt at a big action scene by someone unfamiliar with filming action, but although it lacks a degree of polish it’s not bad — indeed, while McKinnon may not have made me laugh, she does get a fairly badass fight sequence. On the other hand, the special effects are excellent — some people seem to really hate them, but I think the colourful, fluorescent ghosts (and associated supernatural thingamajigs) look great. Even better is the way the apparitions regularly break out of the 2.35:1 frame. I mean, it’s pretty pointless (unless you’re watching in 3D, where such larks will enhance the 3D effect’s effectiveness), but it’s a kind of cinematic playfulness I like.

I ain't afraid of no fluorescent ghosts

However, one place the director’s hand really shows is in the story structure, because it’s really obvious that some stuff has been cut. Primarily, Wiig’s character rejoins the team in time for the climax, but we never actually saw her leave it. Later, villain Rowan makes the crowd pose in a dance move for no apparent reason, though the end credits reveal there was a whole dance routine that’s been relegated to under-the-crawl status. I guess these things were a victim of necessity: Feig has said the first cut was 4¼ hours long. The Blu-ray includes an extended cut that’s 17 minutes longer, though apparently it’s effectively more than that because it features many alternate takes as well as plain extensions. For that reason I decided to watch the theatrical cut now and I’ll check out the extended version at a later date.

That’s not all, though: there’s also 138 minutes (aka just over 2¼ hours) of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes on the UK & European Blu-ray (over an hour more than on the US release). If you’re a serious fan of the film then I guess that’s a treasure trove, but it also says something about how comedy movies are produced nowadays, doesn’t it? (Or possibly how they always have been, I dunno.) I suppose you can spin that as both a positive and a negative. In the latter camp, it’s a “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” approach, rather than a “write something good in the first place” one. In the former, why not try everything you can think of on set and then hone it to the stuff that works best in the edit? Though, as discussed earlier, it doesn’t feel like we got all grade-A material in the final cut.

Bustin' makes me feel badass

For all the dumbass criticisms online about it starring women (which there’s at least a couple of jokes about in the film, as it goes), it can only be a positive to see a genre movie starring women in the central roles. It’s not wholly positive in this field (the male characters are all degraded in one way or another, which is a full-180 role reversal that might feel just but isn’t helpful in the grand scheme), but every little helps, right? Leaving such political aspects aside, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (as the closing title card would have it) is mostly entertaining while it lasts, though it’s kind of lightweight with it, and therefore not something that’s likely to endure as the original has. Well, there have been worse remakes.

3 out of 5

Ghostbusters is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Tale of Tales (2015)

aka Il racconto dei racconti

2016 #148
Matteo Garrone | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Italy, France & UK / English | 15 / R

Tale of Tales

Based on 17th Century Italian fairytales by Giambattista Basile, Tale of Tales relates three interlocking stories of dark fantasy. If there’s one thing that really connects them, it’s thematic: essentially, “be careful what you wish for”; or maybe “be grateful for what you’ve got”. There are primary characters in each tale who go to disgustingly extraordinary lengths to achieve what they desire — eating a sea-monster’s heart raw, breeding a giant flea, self-flaying — and it rarely turns out for the best.

If you can stomach the contents, there’s a quality cast, and the locations, production design, and cinematography are simply gorgeous.

4 out of 5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

2017 #16
Tim Burton | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK, Belgium & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

After his beloved grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) dies in mysterious circumstances, Floridian teen Jake (Asa Butterfield) seeks closure by visiting the children’s home in Wales where his grandpa was raised. As a child, Abe regaled his grandson with tales of the home’s other residents and their fantastical abilities — tales which were completely true, as Jake discovers when he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar wards.

The quickest route to defining the experience of watching Miss Peregrine is by referencing other films, if only in a broad sense. For starters, it’s adapted from a young adult fantasy-adventure novel, and there’s a definite shape to things which reflects other entries in that genre — the whole “ordinary kid discovers a fantasy world of incredible powers and approaching danger” type thing.

It’s also directed by Tim Burton, and does feel like a Tim Burton movie. However, what’s incredibly pleasant about that is it doesn’t feel aggressively Burtoneseque. As if in reaction to the blandness of his Planet of the Apes remake, much of Burton’s output since then has slipped towards self-parody, and suffered for it. Miss Peregrine has recognisable flourishes, undoubtedly, but is a little more restrained with how it deploys them. Some have criticised it for this, citing it as another example of Burton removing his unique stamp from the picture, much as he did with Apes, but I disagree.

Her special ability is being a badass

The final other work I would reference is the X-Men; in any incarnation, but the most relevant filmic one is probably First Class. Or not, because that was all about the establishing of Xavier’s school and the equivalent establishment here is already established. Nonetheless, it’s about a country house owned by a British matriarch-figure who cares for a gaggle of misfit kids with special powers. Rather than the X-Men’s potentially-violent array of action-ready skills, however, the ones on display here are a little more whimsical — like Emma (Ella Purnell), who’s lighter than air, or Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), who can project his dreams through his eyes.

Also like X-Men, the threat comes from within this secretive world. The starter X-baddie is, of course, Magneto, a mutant seeking to use scientific methods to turn the whole world into mutants. Here, the baddie is Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), a peculiar seeking to use scientific methods to grant immortality to himself and his cronies. Part of their thing is eating people’s eyeballs, which has benefits for them — again, that’s quite Burtonesque… though a mite less whimsical.

The eyes have it

Being on board with this whole milieu is important to enjoying Miss Peregrine, because the film does spend a lot of time establishing it. For those not interested in world-building, the action-packed third act must be a long time coming. There is a lot to marvel at along the way though, and Burton keeps things pleasingly real in his filmmaking techniques: there’s a fight between two creatures that was created with stop-motion, while another sequence involved constructing underwater rigs, and the vast majority of Emma’s floating was achieved by dangling Purnell on wires. That’s not to say there’s no CGI — ironically, the foremost example is a sequence that could otherwise be considered a tribute to Ray Harryhausen — but Burton’s filmmaking encapsulates varied techniques to lend a satisfying physicality to much of the film.

On the whole Miss Peregrine seems to have received a rather muted response, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might be best to qualify that by reiterating that it’s playing with a lot of things I enjoy — “X-Men by way of Tim Burton” sounds fantastic to me, and that’s not a bad definition of this movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s his best work this millennium (though, in fairness, I still haven’t seen Big Fish. Well, it’s only 14 years old.) The shape of the story is no great shakes, but it’s built from magical elements and fantastical imagery, and a game cast of quality thesps hamming it up magnificently and eager youngsters with a slightly earnest likeability.

Let's go fly a kite

Actually, in many ways it reminds me of another heightened, stylised young-adult adaptation that suffered from a mixed reception. See you in 2029 for the Netflix re-adaptation, then?

4 out of 5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.