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.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

2016 #147
Don Siegel | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | PG

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A sci-fi thriller about a stealth alien invasion using human duplicates (clue’s in the title), this original film version of the oft-remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best not at genre-movie chills, but at evoking and commenting on paranoia and what causes it.

Thematically, the narrative of insidious outsiders slowly replacing good honest people with braindead versions who are on their side has been read as either anti-communist or anti-McCarthyite, with some critics claiming the framing story (more on that in a bit) changes it from the latter to the former. Allegedly none of these themes were intended — not by the author of the original story, the screenwriter, the producer, or the director. Which doesn’t mean you can’t see them there. Indeed, director Don Siegel felt the anti-McCarthy subtext was inescapable, but he tried not to emphasise it. Whichever reading you prefer, or none, the sense of unease, distrust, and lurking danger that the film creates are a peerless reflection of paranoid feelings.

Although I deemphasised the genre aspect above, that doesn’t mean it lacks for sophistication there either. It’s as much a thriller as it is science fiction, and more mature in that regard than what’s commonly brought to mind by the phrase “50s sci-fi movie” (whether that’s fair or not). The way the mystery slowly unravels — the calmness of it; how even our heroes unwittingly allow some of it to happen — sucks you slowly deeper into its anxious grip. (“Slowly” being a relative term, because this is a short, quick movie.) Nonetheless, the most outright SF elements — the plant-like pods that the clones emerge from — are suitably creepy. Not in themselves, but when they first burst open and the bodies inside begin to ooze out… Though not strictly a horror movie (at least not as we’d define it today), those moments are chilling.

Extreme gardening

The impact of this sequence is supported by the black-and-white photography, which helps obscure any cheapness or amateurism to be found from the era- and budget-restrained special effects work. But such photography benefits the film as a whole, too, with some great film noir visuals during nighttime scenes. Siegel had previously helmed several such crime pictures (and would go on to a couple more) and it’s clear those skills crossed over. It also works very nicely with the film’s paranoia — what’s lurking in the shadows?

In some respects it’s amazing Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as successful as it is, because the studio chose to dick around with it in a couple of ways. Originally the film had some humour, which (as I think we all know by now) definitely can have a place in a horror movie, generally to help manage tension levels. Despite successful test screenings in which the audience screamed or laughed as appropriate, the studio ordered the humour be cut. I guess they then felt they’d made the film too glum, because they next ordered the addition of bookend sequences, against the wishes of both the producer and the director. It’s clear these couple of scenes were shot much later, with much less care given to their quality. They do somewhat detract from the pervading pessimistic, bleak, increasingly hopeless tone — which was why they were added, of course, so at least in that respect they’re a success.

Those late additions aren’t bad enough to ruin the film, however, which still comes away as a well-made exercise in tension.

4 out of 5

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 (1990)

aka Twin Peaks: Pilot (International Version)

2017 #70
David Lynch | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 4:3 | USA / English | 15

Twin Peaks: Pilot (International Version)

While they were seeking funding for their feature-length TV pilot, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost agreed to demands that they film an alternative ending that wrapped up the episode’s primary mystery. The thinking was that, if the pilot didn’t get picked up to series, it could be released in Europe as a complete movie (why it couldn’t also be released in the US as a movie I don’t know), thereby recouping some of the cash spent on it. Apparently Lynch and Frost forgot they’d signed up for this until towards the end of the shoot, when they were reminded of their contactual obligation and so dashed something off.

But the series did get picked up, and that half-arsed ending should’ve been consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, Twin Peaks became a massive worldwide phenomenon, and whoever owned the rights to release the movie version exercised said right, naturally including the tacked-on conclusion. Although the rights situation was settled long ago, the ‘extended’ version is still routinely included alongside the proper one on disc releases. I thought it was about time I checked it out — and judged it as a standalone movie, of course.

Welcome to Twin Peaks

Obviously, for most of its running time the so-called “international version” is identical to the broadcast version of the episode. I would contend that is one of the greatest episodes of television ever made. Everything about it is sublime. For starters, it establishes Twin Peaks’ world quite methodically. We’re gradually introduced to the police station, the mill, the Great Northern hotel, the Double R diner, the school, character’s homes — not just literally the locations, but the people who inhabit them, including their relationships to one another, but public and secret. There’s a ton of information to absorb here, but it’s all laid out so neatly that it doesn’t feel like a chore. There’s also a lot of potential plot lines started or hinted at, which makes a good deal of sense for kicking off a series but (as we’ll see in a bit) is not such a good idea for a two-hour movie…

The episode is also incredibly strong in a filmmaking sense. Thematically, there’s the typical Lynchian obsession with the darkness hiding behind seemingly normal, perfect American lives. It’s not just the weird murder, either: pretty much everyone is sleeping with someone they shouldn’t be, or having some other domestic issue. That’s also very soapy, but that’s deliberate. It’s neither parody nor homage per se, but it’s definitely influenced by how soaps perceive and portray the world. Interestingly, at this point Twin Peaks could be considered just a crime drama with a few quirky characters — all the supernatural weirdness the show’s so known for begins in the next episode (and doesn’t fully kick into gear until the second season).

Visually, Lynch’s shot composition is fantastic, with a strikingly great use of the frame and blocking — very precise, very neat, ordered, but not in a self-conscious, Wes Anderson kind of way. It seems mindful of being shown on the relatively small television screens of the era, but also maintains a quality that carries over to this day. Beyond the purely visual, the content it creates is remarkable too. The sequence in the high school, where the news about Laura gradually comes out before it’s officially announced, is incredible — the way people slowly begin to suspect, the way characters react, the way Lynch is unhurried in letting this unfold. Having watched the episode a couple of times this year now, I think this part is one of my favourite scenes in the whole of cinema. The way it builds to that somehow-perfect shot of Donna set at her school desk crying is majestic.

It's not just because everyone hates Lara Flynn Boyle

However, when judged as a standalone movie, Twin Peaks is a disaster.

After an hour-and-a-half of sheer quality, we reach the 19-minute tacked-on ending. This climax is rushed, simplistic, and refuses to touch on the vast majority of the episode’s subplots. I mean, of course it doesn’t — it was a rush job at the end of production to fill a contractual requirement. It wraps up the Laura Palmer case as quickly and perfunctorily as it can, then Lynch basically says a humungous “eff you” to the notion of having to do a movie version by bunging in a nonsensical dream sequence.

For those who are curious but not minded to sit through the whole thing, I’ll outline what actually happens. The deviation comes in the final scene of the episode as broadcast: instead of having a vision, Sarah Palmer has a flashback to when she was hunting for Laura that morning, realising she saw the killer hiding in Laura’s bedroom. (This, at least, is an effectively creepy notion. Was he actually visible in the quick panning shot of the room we saw earlier on? I daren’t go back to check. Seriously.) Sarah has Leland call Lucy, who’s hanging out at home with Andy (their amusing home life, otherwise unseen in the series, is probably the only reason to watch this). Lucy phones Sheriff Truman so he and Hawk can go to the Palmers and get a police sketch of the killer. Meanwhile, Agent Cooper is awoken by a mysterious phone call (there are lots of phone calls in this) from a man who knows unreleased details about the Teresa Banks murder. The man insists they meet at the hospital, so Coop calls Lucy and tells her to tell the sheriff to meet him there with the sketch.

At home with Punky

At the hospital, they discover the mysterious caller is the one-armed man, Mike, who identifies the sketch as Bob. He also babbles some other stuff which I’m not sure has much meaning in this version, but was recycled for one of his later appearances in the series proper. Mike reveals that Bob is currently down in the hospital basement. Harry and Coop pop down there, confront Bob, have a little natter with the creepy killer (who’s creepiness is considerably diluted by his chattiness, if only for the duration of this scene). Then Mike barges in and shoots Bob dead. Coop delivers a kind of one-liner, before a title card informs us it’s “twenty-five years later”. Then the famous Red Room scene plays out, just like it does in Episode 2 — and if you thought it made almost no sense in the context of the series, it makes even less here. Where is Coop now? Who’s the little guy? Why does he talk funny? Why does his cousin look like Laura Palmer? What’s she on about? What does she whisper to Cooper? Why are we being shown any of this?! It came to Lynch in a vision, and he liked it so much he repurposed it for the series, where it eventually came to have meaning (some meaning, anyway)… but here it’s utterly aimless.

Let's rock!

This international version of Twin Peaks was never really meant to be seen, and it’s obvious Lynch and Frost felt that way when concocting its final act. That ending is rushed in what it does bother to conclude — and, compared to all the plots we’ve just spent nearly two hours watching, what it concludes is not very much. The killer isn’t even one of the people we were considering as suspects. Thank goodness this isn’t all Twin Peaks ever was.

The pilot as broadcast is a five-star masterpiece; not just the start of something truly special, but something remarkable in and of itself. The extended standalone version is so ruined by its final 19 minutes that I can only rate it:

3 out of 5

Tomorrow: fire, walk with me.

Prometheus 3D (2012)

Rewatchathon 2017 #10
Ridley Scott | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

Prometheus 3D

80 years in the future, a starmap found in some caveman paintings provokes a trillion-dollar mission to the other side of the universe so that the world’s stupidest scientists can (spoilers!) get themselves killed.

It is, by complete coincidence, 4½ years to the day since I first and last watched Prometheus, and this revisit has of course been inspired by its just-released follow-up, Prometheus 2: Extraterrestrial Boogaloo Alien: Covenant, which I’m seeing tomorrow. Frankly, most of my original thoughts on the film still stand. To summarise: it has some really good bits, but then it stops making sense and turns into a braindead blockbuster that doesn’t bother to properly explain its own plot, never mind the potentially-interesting sci-fi ideas it initiated early on. Apparently the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes do clarify some of the plot holes and gaps in character motivation, but other stuff is just plain stupidity on the part of the characters. Or, rather, the writers. Well, one of the writers, at least.

But despite my basic opinion not changing, I’m posting about Prometheus again because this was the first time I watched it in 3D. Hailing from those brief couple of years where the term “post-conversion” was blasphemous, Prometheus was genuinely shot in 3D — and, however good post-conversion has become since then, I think parts of this film make a case for why doing things properly is still best. But I’ll come to that.

Building busy bridges

In general, Ridley Scott’s 3D mise en scène is exemplary, almost always placing objects and characters at various distances from the camera to emphasise and clarify the sense of depth. The busy layout of the Prometheus’ bridge helps this no end, making scenes set there some of the clearest examples. Even on less populous sets, Scott finds angles and compositions that offer nice dimensionality without slipping into being a vacuous 3D showcase. He frequently uses glass to good effect, creating an obvious separation between the clear material — be it a window, a spacesuit helmet, or a sleeping pod — and what’s on the other side, almost casually adding extra layers to any shot they appear in.

In terms of show-off effects, Scott never breaks the ‘window’ of the screen by having things poke out at the viewer, but there are still scenes where the extra dimension is really felt. The storm sequences are a perfect example, with bits of debris flying around all over the place. In-film computer elements like holograms or displays have their own shapely presence in front of, around, and distinct from the physical world they’re part of, making them seem all the more real. Perhaps most of all, the room-filling Engineer star chart David discovers looks great in 3D. My memory of it from the 2D version is an indecipherable array of lights filling the screen, which is probably because it was all perfectly in focus for the sake of the 3D. With that extra dimension, it looks like something worth marvelling at.

Maps to the stars

Having been shot ‘for real’, the 3D just gives everything, even dialogue scenes, a sense of space and distance. You can appreciate the gap between someone’s head and the neck-back of their spacesuit; or, in close-ups, the distinct (but not in-your-face) distance between someone’s nose and eyes and hair. Perhaps the most impressive element are textures, like the hieroglyphs David finds cut into rock, or even characters’ skin — at times you can ‘feel’ its surface, its pockmarks and pores. However good post conversions are, I’m not sure they’re ever that thorough!

Watching in 3D is never going to gloss over Prometheus’ more fundamental flaws — it’s never going to make up for issues with the screenplay or the edit (that said, I’ve heard it makes Transformers 4 considerably more entertaining, so maybe “never” is too strong a word). What you do get is a sense that effort was made to make the 3D experience worthwhile. It may be an inessential component of the movie (a virtual necessity when there will always be people watching in 2D, of course), but it’s one that nonetheless adds an appreciable extra dimension.

3 out of 5

Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from Thursday.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

2017 #59
James Gunn | 136 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The franchise that some thought might kill the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but which actually turned out to be one of its most popular successes, is back for the difficult second album. And difficult it is, because Guardians 2 takes a lot of what made that first movie work and ramps it up to 11, consequently slipping over into bouts of self-indulgence.

The story picks up on a thread left conspicuously hanging at the end of the first movie: who is Peter’s father, and why did he have the Ravagers kidnap Peter from Earth? Vol. 2 digs into those answers pretty quickly, because it has somewhere else to go with them… but that would be spoiler territory. So while Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the ever-hilarious Drax (Dave Bautista) toddle off to learn about daddy-o, the rest of the gang — Rocket (motion capture of Sean Gunn, voice of Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel, allegedly) — get caught up in a mutiny involving Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). All while the lot of them are being chased by a race of gold-skinned perfectionists led by the priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) who the Guardians conned.

Returning writer-director James Gunn gets things off to a strong start, diving straight into answers, humour, an entertaining title sequence, a couple of action scenes, more humour, and more answers. But after this strong and pacy opening salvo, the film seems to flounder a little. Not fatally so, but it gradually becomes apparent that the middle is going on far too long. Your mileage will vary on how draggy this is — some people seem to have absolutely hated it; I thought much of it was amiable enough, but it goes nowhere fast and that eventually becomes wearing.

You've got the power to know you're indestructible...

Part of the problem lies in splitting our heroes up into two groups with two stories. It may have been inspired by The Empire Strikes Back (or that may just have been a parallel some critics have spotted, I’m not sure), and it’s not a fundamentally flawed structural choice, but here it doesn’t really work. Part of the problem is that the gang works best when sparking off each other. Heck, the film even goes to pains to set up a joshing rivalry between Peter and Rocket, then splits them up! Story-wise, the issue is twofold: the A plot is a slow one that spins its wheels because it has too little story-fuel to drive the whole movie; but the B plot feels grafted on to give half the cast something to do, as well as provide a little action and humour while the other plot is tackling the emotional heft.

That said, uncommonly for a modern blockbuster, it’s the emotional side the film gets most right. While the plot dawdles, the action is adequate, and the comedy is hit and miss (more the former than the latter, to be fair, but there’s a definite case of “throw everything and see what sticks”), there are several characters who get strong, believable, rounded emotional arcs. The obvious one is Peter finding out about his parentage, but my favourite was where the film goes with Nebula and the relationship with her adopted sister, Gamora. There’s also a comparatively meaty subplot for Yondu, meaning it’s mostly the supporting characters who fare best with the material rather than the heroes — aside from Peter and (to a lesser extent) Gamora, the primary function of Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot is to be humour generators. They are funny, though.

Funny.

In the director’s chair, Gunn continues to dole out even more of what people praised about the first movie. You liked the retro-cool soundtrack? OK, how about a new track every time there’s a lull in the action! The use of the music feels sloppy, often just plonked there to cover a gap, with no discernible thematic relevance. It’s doubling down on something people latched onto the first time, but it feels slapdash. The one instance that almost works is Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, which has a setup and a pay-off, but they’re not quite properly connected.

Also overdone is the slow motion walking. Remember that shot in the first film of the Guardians walking into battle in slow-mo looking badass, that was then humorously undercut when they started, like, yawning and stuff? James Gunn does, and he liked it so much that he uses it again several times here. Apart from he seems to have forgotten the second part of the scene that made it funny rather than cheesy. Cool people walking in slow motion seems to be one of those cinematic devices that doesn’t really date, especially when used sparingly, so I could let it go once, but here it reaches the point of “oh my God, another slow-mo walking shot?!”

This indulgence in everything people liked before extends right to the very end of the movie — literally. The end credits are a lively affair in and of themselves, but they’re further interrupted by a total of five additional scenes. Five. They’re mostly inconsequential (don’t go expecting any hints towards Infinity War), but they’re worth sticking around for because a couple are quite amusing.

More guardians, more... galaxy? I dunno.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an uneven film, which manages to be entertaining as a whole thanks to its likeable and funny characters — even if the best gags have all been played in the trailers (and some of them played better in trailers, too), it’s trying so hard (so, so hard) to be a good time that much of it works. It’s strongest at the beginning and the end, which almost makes you overlook that it gets a bit thumb-twiddly in the middle, with one plot more of a short story than a movie and the other feeling a little like a waste of time. However, the surprising focus on and awareness of the characters’ psychological lives makes up for that somewhat — oddly, Marvel’s most comedy-driven and alien-starring movie may also feature their most effective understanding and representation of characters’ emotions.

But don’t worry, there are still jokes about poo and penises.

4 out of 5

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now. Except Japan. Sorry, Japan.

I am Baby Groot.

Elstree 1976 (2015)

2017 #18
Jon Spira | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 12

Elstree 1976

In a studio near London in the summer of 1976, filming took place for a movie that the crew regarded as a children’s flick and several cast members assumed would be a flop. They couldn’t’ve been more wrong, because that film was Star Wars, probably the most influential movie of the last 40 years. You know the names of many of the people who were there: George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness… But there was also an army of supporting actors and extras. This is their story.

Here’s where the point of Elstree 1976 runs aground for some viewers. It is not The Making of Star Wars; nor is it The Secret Making of Star Wars, where the “little people” dish the dirt on what really happened. There is a bit of that in here — a section where the interviewees tell their tales from the set — but it’s not what the film is about. Rather, it’s a study of what it’s like to be tangentially attached to something great; to be a bit player in a cultural phenomenon. Most of the contributors here just took any old job to earn some cash, but by happening to be in the right place at the right time they found themselves attached to something huge for the entire rest of their lives. How does that change the course of someone’s life? How does it change the very fabric of who they are as a person?

What it's actually like being on a film set

There are reviews of Elstree 1976 that espouse a “why should we care” perspective. “These people aren’t the leads, they were just little people, why should we give a hoot about their lives?” Well, isn’t that the point? They’re people, like you and I — people who have lives. They were involved with one of the largest, most enduring pop culture events of our time, and yet they were so on the periphery that it’s a tiny part of their lives… or it should have been. Star Wars may be this huge, defining thing for its lead actors and high-profile crew members, but there were also dozens (probably hundreds) of people who “just happened to work on it”, and who otherwise have led ordinary lives. Or haven’t, because of the effect the film has had.

You see, here’s the thing: some of these people were only on screen for a frame or two, or they were hidden under a prosthetic that means you never even saw their face… and yet they still attend conventions where people want to meet them, get their autograph, all that jazz. For all the people who don’t understand the appeal of a movie telling these performers’ life stories, there are fans who are so much more interested in them for so much less. I don’t know how much the documentary actually explores the psychology of that, but it does touch on some aspects — the behind-the-scenes hierarchy of conventions, for instance, and how some actors don’t think others are worthy of putting in an appearance.

Extras, extras, read all about it!

Providing you approach it with the right expectations, Elstree 1976 is interesting in its way. As a portrait of ordinary lives that were touched by something extraordinary it’s got an interesting thematic point to make, but the lives covered are still ordinary, and we therefore hear a lot about that ordinariness. Well, maybe that’s harsh — some of these people certainly have stories to tell. Still, it’s probably a bit too long, and a greater focus on the behind-the-scenes stories and conventions, plus a trim to the general life stuff, might’ve been beneficial. Nonetheless, it offers a unique perspective on a much-discussed movie and the culture that surrounds it.

3 out of 5

Elstree 1976 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Review Round-up

Over the last ten-and-a-bit years I’ve prided myself on reviewing every new film I see. Well, at the start it was less pride and more just how I did things (and most of those early ‘reviews’ were only a couple of sentences long), but as I’ve maintained it for so long I’ve come to pride myself on it. However, of late my backlog has reached ridiculous proportions, and is only expanding.

But I’m not giving up just yet, dear reader — hence this round-up. There are some films I just don’t have a great deal to say about, where all I’ve really got are a few notes rather than a fully worked-up review. So as in days of old (i.e. 2007), I’ll quickly dash off my brief thoughts and a score. Hopefully this will become an irregular series that churns through some of my backlog.

In today’s round-up:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
  • Under the Shadow (2016)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
  • Dazed and Confused (1993)


    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
    (1965)

    2016 #167
    Martin Ritt | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    John le Carré’s famed story of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses… probably quadruple crosses… heck, maybe even quintuple crosses — why not?

    The storytelling is very slow and measured, which I would guess is not to all tastes — obviously not for those who only like their spies with the action and flair of Bond, but even by Le Carré standards it’s somewhat slight. That’s not to say it’s not captivating, but it lacks the sheer volume of plot that can, say, fuel a seven-episode adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Quite how the forthcoming miniseries from the makers of The Night Manager intends to be more than a TV movie… well, we’ll see.

    There’s also some gorgeous black and white photography, with the opening sequence at Check Point Charlie looking particularly glorious.

    5 out of 5

    Under the Shadow
    (2016)

    2017 #12
    Babak Anvari | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / Persian | 15 / PG-13

    Under the Shadow

    Be afraid if your doll is took — it could be the Iranian Babadook.

    Honestly, for all the creepy quality on display in this UK-funded Iran-set psychological horror, I don’t think labelling it as something of a mirror to The Babadook is unfair. It’s about a lone mother (Narges Rashidi) struggling with an awkward child (Avin Manshadi) while a malevolent supernatural entity that may be real or may just be in her head attempts to invade their home. Where the Australian horror movie invented the mythology for its creature afresh, Under the Shadow draws from Persian folklore — so, same difference to us Western viewers. The devil is in the details, then, which are fine enough to keep the film ticking over and regularly scaring you, be it with jumps or general unease.

    The Babadook may have done it better, and certainly did it first, but Under the Shadow remains an effective chiller.

    4 out of 5

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
    Out of the Shadows

    (2016)

    2017 #29
    Dave Green | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

    This first (and last? We’ll see) sequel to 2014’s Teenage Mutant Michael Bay Turtles ends with a cover of the theme from the original animated series, just in case you weren’t clear by then that it’s aspiring to be a live-action version of that particular cartoon.

    For one thing, there are appearances by a lot of popular characters who are primarily associated with that iteration of the franchise. For another, parts of the film have a very “rules of Saturday morning cartoons” feel — people thrown from a plane are immediately shown to be opening parachutes; all of the villains survive to fight another day; that kind of thing. They’ve clearly made an effort to make it lighter and funnier than its big-screen predecessor. The downside: they’ve gone a bit too far. The tone of the screenplay is “kids’ movie”, which isn’t a problem in itself, but Out of the Shadows retains the dark and realistic visual aesthetic of the first movie, plus enough violence and swears to get the PG-13 all blockbusters require, which means the overall effect is a little muddled.

    While it’s not a wholly consistent film, it does work to entertain, with funny-ish lines and kinetic CGI-fuelled action scenes. I must confess to ultimately enjoying it a fair bit… but bear in mind I was a big fan of the cartoon when I was five or six, so it did gently tickle my nostalgia soft spot.

    3 out of 5

    Dazed and Confused
    (1993)

    2017 #53
    Richard Linklater | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Dazed and Confused

    Writer-director Richard Linklater has said that with Dazed and Confused he wanted to make an anti John Hughes movie; one that showed teenage life was mundane and uneventful. So here’s a movie about what it’s like to hang out, driving around aimlessly doing nothing. Turns out it’s pretty mundane and uneventful. And most of the characters behave like dicks half the time, which isn’t exactly conducive to a good time.

    Despite that, some people love this movie; it’s often cited as being nostalgic. Well, I can’t say it worked that way for me. Indeed, I’m kinda glad I didn’t know those people in school…

    3 out of 5

  • The Magnificent Seven (2016)

    2017 #57
    Antoine Fuqua | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Magnificent Seven

    Despite sharing a title and setting, this second Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is almost as different from The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) as that was from the original. Maybe that’s over-egging the point, but The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is certainly not just a straight-up do-over of the popular Western classic.

    The broad sweep of the plot is the same: a small town is being terrorised by a local big-man and his gang, so they hire a septet of down-on-their-luck warriors to defend them. Here, said town has been relocated to America (from Mexico in the ‘original’), and the characterisations of the seven gunslingers have been struck afresh rather than recreated, albeit with some near-unavoidable similarities to the previous seven.

    What you want to see in the film affects whether these changes are sizeable or not. As I said, the basic shape of the plot remains untouched, with the defenders recruited one by one, training up the townsfolk, and then engaging in a lengthy climactic battle when the bad guys return to town. So at a story level it works as well as this tale ever has, with the same pros and cons for its characters: with so many principals some get shortchanged on screen time, but they’re a mostly likeable bunch. In the lead roles, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke are decent modern stand-ins for Yul Brynner, Steve Martin, and Robert Vaughn (respectively, more or less), though of course that varies depending on your personal like or otherwise for the actors in question.

    The magnificent action

    Looking to the combat, the film is again similar but modernised. The action scenes are slick, well choreographed and littered with dead bodies and big explosions, rather than the slightly off-the-cuff style of older action films. Framing it as a few-against-many last-stand skirmish, the film constructs the finale as a battle with strategies and tactics, ebb and flow, rather than an everybody-run-at-everybody-else free-for-all. That seems to be the way movies are going with their depiction of large-scale conflict, and I think that’s a good thing.

    Where the remake’s changes have most impact is if you want to consider the film politically. The town in need of defending has been switched from a Mexican village to an American outpost, a symbol of good honest hard-working folk trying to establish a life for themselves. The villains terrorising them have been switched from a Mexican criminal gang to a power-hungry businessman, with a group of heavies and the local sheriff in his pocket. The seven encompass a greater deal of racial diversity: a black leader, a Mexican fugitive, an Asian knife-thrower, a Native American archer… The other three are white guys, but that doesn’t negate the point. In our modern political climate — particularly in the US — there’s a lot of different stuff to unpack there.

    The diverse seven

    I’m not sure the issues in question really need spelling out, so I’m slightly more curious how much of it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, and how much an incidental side effect of changes they made just to differentiate the film from the 1960 version. Frankly, I don’t think the movie is interested in making any big political points — you can’t reasonably deny those readings are there, but it’s all subtext (whether intentional or, I think more probably, accidental) to be analysed by those who are interested. I think director Antoine Fuqua and co were more concerned with creating an entertaining action movie than a political tract, and I think they’ve achieved that.

    Judged as such, The Magnificent Seven probably isn’t at the forefront of its form, but it’s mostly a rollicking good time. And, as if to cement what I was writing recently about my preferences generally erring towards modern cinema, I actually enjoyed it more than the 1960 one.

    4 out of 5

    The Magnificent Seven is available on Netflix UK from today.

    The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

    2017 #56
    David Yates | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English* | 12 / PG-13

    The Legend of Tarzan

    Reviving or continuing well-known IPs as action-packed summer extravaganzas is the order of the day in modern blockbuster cinema — witness the likes of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes and 2013 Lone Ranger — so I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually attempt the same with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Apes. As with the other films of its ilk, The Legend of Tarzan® (as its multiple title cards insist on calling it) is a mixed success.

    Eschewing the “tell the origins (again)” form of most reboots, the film finds Tarzan long retired to England as Lord John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) when he is invited back to Africa by the King of Belgium to observe the wonderful work being done there. Initially reluctant, John is persuaded to go by his now-wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s keen to revisit their old friends, and American agent George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects the Belgians of enslaving the Congolese people. Indeed, the whole invitation is actually a ruse, as Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) intends to deliver John to tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has an axe to grind against Tarzan, in return for the diamonds that a near-bankrupt Belgium requires. Naturally, fighting and vine-swinging and sundry acts of derring-do ensue.

    When it works, The Legend of Tarzan® is a straight-up old-fashioned adventure movie, albeit with slicker action sequences and created with lashings of CGI. When it doesn’t, it comes across as oddly muddled. As with so many blockbusters last year (Suicide Squad and Rogue One spring immediately to mind), it feels like it was chopped and changed a lot in the edit. It’s hard to pin down how exactly, but it’s something in the way it flows (or doesn’t) between scenes, or sometimes even within sequences. Considering that (just as with the other two examples I mentioned) there were reshoots, you think they’d’ve smoothed some of that out.

    Me Tarzan, you jealous

    Similarly, the effects are a distractingly mixed bag. A lot of the CGI is incredible — the animals look magnificent, for example; especially the gorillas, who are required to offer some kind of character as well as feature in action scenes. But the filmmakers have been overambitious in other areas. The film was mostly shot on soundstages, and the added-in backgrounds for outside stuff are painfully obvious much of the time. However, the worst bit is a sequence where Tarzan and friends swing on to a CG train that looks like it’s been borrowed from a 15-year-old computer game.

    Fortunately the performances show a greater consistency. A tough training regime has left Skarsgård with the muscles required to look the part of a muscly jungle-man, but he also displays an adeptness for comedy — or, at least, a lightness of touch — that makes him an appealing hero. There’s a clear attempt to make Jane more than just a damsel in distress, albeit while still conforming to good ol’ Boys’ Own entertainment to some extent, and leading lady du jour Robbie helps give her character. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson brings easy confidence to his American agent, who serves as a kind of sidekick to Tarzan for most of the movie, acting as comic relief and action scene back-up. If anyone’s underserved it’s the villains, with Waltz solid but giving the performance he always gives (surely he’s capable of more?) and Hounsou being somewhat underused — his character has a highly emotional reason for wanting Tarzan dead, but there’s little time to feel that when there are bigger villainous plans afoot.

    He does look cool, though

    Tonally the film reminded me a little of something like Superman Returns — a movie made a long time after a forebear and with a whole new cast, but intended as a sequel nonetheless. Only, where Superman Returns was a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, The Legend of Tarzan® is a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. Its fictitious forerunner is some kind of Tarzan ur-film, a non-specific version of the Tarzan and Jane story that ends with them moving to England and adopting his familial title. This film assumes we’re all familiar with that broad narrative, or familiar with enough to subsist on a few choice flashbacks anyway. And, actually, that’s fine if you do know the story — it certainly feels like we don’t need it going over again… even if, personally, the only version I’ve actually seen is the Disney one. But I do wonder what younger people made of it all, because it seems to me that Tarzan may have slipped somewhat from the general consciousness, so perhaps they’re less familiar with said backstory. Or maybe they’ve all seen the Disney film too.

    Also like Superman Returns, The Legend of Tarzan® ends up as something of a well-intentioned muddle. Some viewers will lose patience with it for that, but I at least enjoyed the movie it wanted to be.

    3 out of 5

    The Legend of Tarzan is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    * English isn’t the only language spoken but, from what I can ascertain (by which I mean “I read this”), during the subtitled bits they’re speaking Generic Semi-Fictional African Language. ^