Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

2017 #71
Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg | 129 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge

Dead men may tell no tales, but lucrative franchises never die, so Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean has taken to the high seas once again. Johnny Depp is back in the role that once netted him an Oscar nomination (remember that?), the drunken pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, this time teaming up with the child of some old friends (Brenton Thwaites) and a bright young astronomer (Kaya Scodelario) for another MacGuffin hunt adventure, while again being pursued by some cursed seafarer (Javier Bardem) and a member of the British Navy (David Wenham).

Yes, despite the unusually-long six-year gap since the previous film, and all the promotional talk of this being a fresh start for the series that tonally harks back to the standalone fun of the first movie, Salazar’s Revenge (or, if you prefer, Dead Men Tell No Tales) seems doomed to repeat bits and bobs from the series’ other instalments. It’s not a complete wash-out, however, because it at least executes some of those bits quite well. Sadly, other bits are beginning to look a little tired. Perhaps the best single adjective to describe the film’s attitude would be “muddled”. Beware, me hearties: spoilers follow.

It seems likely that Disney do want this to be a soft reboot of the franchise — a reboot to combat the increasingly poor critical receptions that greeted the previous sequels, but a soft one so that Depp’s popular turn can continue being a part of things. This revivalist plan presumably included looking back in time, beyond the last movie (the least popular one) to the series’ heyday. However, rather than just try to replicate the tone of the earlier movies, storyliners Jeff Nathanson and franchise veteran Terry Rossio have revived some of the old plots too. So we have a film that attempts to move forward with new young leads and a new villain, all hunting for a new MacGuffin, but with motivations bedded in plots that were ostensibly wrapped up a decade ago. They can’t even bring themselves to ignore the previous movie, despite its lack of popularity, continuing narrative threads from there as well. So much for “reboot”.

Cutthroat, without the island

And yet, despite that, its consistency with previous films is sometimes poor. For example, Salazar is freed because Jack gives away his magic compass — but didn’t he do that in film two and/or three, with no such ill effects? Also, why does the compass now suddenly have the power to make you face things you dread? And how does that even work, considering other characters have had it and given it away and never had such issues? Maybe they were just hoping viewers wouldn’t remember the ins-and-outs of the plots of previous movies… though, if that’s the case, why is the story based on them?

Unfortunately, its internal consistency isn’t much better. Like, why do ghost pirates own zombie sharks? How come Salazar can suddenly possess someone when it becomes necessary for the plot? That ability is never mentioned, it just turns up. When Carina’s navigating them to the map-island, how do they end up at a completely different place (before later just setting off again)? Maybe I missed something…

This abundance of niggles stems from the film being overstuffed with ideas that it doesn’t invest in fully — just like the last film, which it was supposed to have learnt lessons from! One of the things that made the original Pirates movie work was its relative simplicity, which kept the story focused and driving forward. The sequels all throw in too much random stuff — see my previous paragraph, which isn’t even the half of it: I haven’t mentioned the witch, or the ruby-powered star map, or the nonsensical post-credits scene.

Salazar, out for revenge

It probably doesn’t help, then, that Salazar’s Revenge is the shortest Pirates film (though it doesn’t feel like it). The dearth of screen time may be why both Bardem and Wenham are ultimately wasted as the villains — they’re not working together, so the time typically afforded to the antagonist ends up split between them. Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa is back too, as much a series regular as Captain Jack now. He gets an emotional storyline that surfaces out of the blue just before the last act. It’s a nice idea, but appears too late in the game to have time to develop properly.

And how about the flashback showing Jack defeating Salazar, which seems to stop the film dead halfway through. Why not put that sequence at the start? Then cut straight to the existing opening scene of the naval ship accidentally sailing into the Devil’s Triangle. It’d work — the viewer thinking, “oh, the navy ship is going to sink, just like Salazar did all those years ago,” but then it doesn’t and Salazar attacks. (Hey, Hollywood — employ me!) Okay, fair enough, that structure would make it awkward to place Orlando Bloom’s opening cameo, but—

Oh, wait, that’s another thing! So, we know why Orlando Bloom only appears in bookend scenes and why Keira Knightley is reduced to a dialogue-less cameo — because Disney want this to be a fresh start with new stars — but it feels like, to do this particular story properly (trying to break the curse that’s imprisoning Bloom), they both should’ve been in it more. I mean, why isn’t the formerly strong and capable Elizabeth working with her son to free the love of her life? At least explain that, film, don’t just ignore it! Heck, tossing in even one line from Henry (“my mum’s given up hope, but I haven’t”) would’ve solved it.

A clever woman? What is the world coming to

As for the rest of the cast, Johnny Depp feels like he’s forgotten how to play Sparrow — it’s a pretty good imitation rather than the real thing. Kaya Scodelario plays Carina with an earnest intelligence, a trait which is exhibited dependably throughout the screenplay. That shouldn’t need to be worthy of note, but, for a female character, it is. Thwaites, on the other hand, is perfectly bland as Henry Turner, rarely even managing the enthusiasm or charming naivety suggested by that good line from the trailers (“I think I saw her ankles!”)

On the action-adventure front, there are some good set pieces, mainly early on — the bank robbery and the halted executions, particularly the spinning guillotine, are inventively handled. Sadly, later efforts are obscured by gloomy lighting and too much whizzing around of CGI — and, once again, the overabundance of out-of-nowhere ideas (why does the ship’s figurehead suddenly come to life?!) Geoff Zanelli’s score primarily recycles Hans Zimmer’s familiar themes, which I don’t mind too much because I like them. At least it does so in a less slapdash fashion than On Stranger Tides, where the music felt plonked on at random.

That's the second biggest pirate ship I've ever seen

So, I’ve moaned throughout this review, and here’s the main reason for that: there’s a decent action-adventure movie hidden in Salazar’s Revenge — probably not something that would equal the first Pirates, but a good effort — but all the times when plot necessities seem to have been filled with “invent something new!” rather than “make what we’ve got work”, plus all the little inconsistencies (both internally and with previous films), really get in the way. Maybe, now that all of the leftover business from previous films is well and truly resolved, and if this makes a lot of money, we’ll get a sixth film that finally does return to the joys of the first.

Hey, Disney: you own Lucasfilm now — how about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Secret of Monkey Island?

3 out of 5

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is in some cinemas now. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is in the others.

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

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 before.

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.

Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016)

2017 #6
Jeremy Konner | 50 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie

Almost a year ago, Donald Trump was still just a Republican candidate that half of the US and most of the rest of the world laughed at, waiting for something to come along and make him go away. And at that time, this was released: a feature-length(-ish) spoof from sketch comedy website Funny or Die, with a (sort-of-)starry cast, that no one knew was coming. That surprise factor — “a website that does short sketches has made a whole movie and it stars famous people and we didn’t know about it but it’s out now!” — is, frankly, the most memorable thing about it.

Introduced by Ron Howard, who supposedly discovered a VHS copy at a yard sale or something, the film poses as a lost ’80s TV movie produced by Trump himself as an adaptation of his best-selling book of the same name. Trump is played by Johnny Depp, under a pile of prosthetics and doing a passable version of that distinctive voice, who comes across a kid and relates some exploits from his life. There are cameo appearances by quite famous people like Alfred Molina, Henry Winkler, Stephen Merchant, Patton Oswalt, Robert Morse, Room’s Jacob Tremblay (looking vacantly amused), and Christopher Lloyd doing what most of his career has consisted of these past few years: playing Doc Brown in a Back to the Future joke/reference. There are some other people who get billed above some of those people, so maybe they’re also famous in America, I don’t know.

Make kung fu great again

Considering its pedigree, it should come as no surprise that The Art of the Deal: The Movie plays like a very long, out of control sketch. Just like all sketch comedy, some jokes land better than others, and just like most sketch comedy, it begins to outstay its welcome by the end. It gets a lot of passes because Trump is so ridiculous that anyone taking the piss out of him is always welcome, and as such it ticks over with a level of slight amusement rather than outright hilarity.

Bits that do land include the ever-so-’80s title song by Kenny Loggins; the ethnicity of the kid suddenly changing every time Trump notices it; a bit about him paying tramps to piss in a building that (accidentally) has added resonance now; some of the comedy end credits; and a post-credit bookend with Howard, who declares that “we should probably just pretend that this film, and in fact Donald Trump, never even existed.”

Indeed.

3 out of 5

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #70

Prepare to be blown out of the water.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 143 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 9th July 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 8th August 2003
First Seen: cinema, August 2003

Stars
Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Finding Neverland)
Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings, Troy)
Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham, Pride & Prejudice)
Geoffrey Rush (Quills, The King’s Speech)

Director
Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Lone Ranger)

Screenwriters
Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides)
Terry Rossio (Small Soldiers, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)

Story by
Ted Elliott (Treasure Planet, National Treasure: Book of Secrets)
Terry Rossio (The Mask of Zorro, The Lone Ranger)
Stuart Beattie (Collateral, 30 Days of Night)
Jay Wolpert (The Count of Monte Cristo)

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

The Story
When feared pirate ship the Black Pearl lays siege to the British outpost Port Royal and kidnaps the governor’s daughter, Elizabeth Swann, her childhood friend (and secret admirer) Will Turner teams up with notorious pirate Captain Jack Sparrow to rescue her. Jack has his own axe to grind with the crew of the Pearl, who are afflicted by a supernatural curse that they believe Elizabeth may be the key to breaking.

Our Heroes
Will Turner, a humble blacksmith and self-taught expert swordsman. Doesn’t like pirates, but is forced to team up with one. That would be self-proclaimed captain Jack Sparrow, who is apparently a bumbling buffoon prone to wild exaggeration about his exploits, but is actually strangely competent and honourable. Not to forget Elizabeth Swann, the governor’s daughter who is more strong-minded and capable than women of her time are supposed to be. Hates corsets, too.

Our Villains
Captain Barbossa (a villain of Rickman-esque likeability) and his undead pirate crew just want to lift their terrible curse, but, being pirates, tend to go about that mission with excessive violence.

Best Supporting Character
Two of Barbossa’s crew, Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) and Pintel (Lee Arenberg), who make a comedy double act. Or maybe triple act, with Ragetti’s wooden eye.

Memorable Quote
“You best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner… you’re in one!” — Barbossa

Memorable Scene
Barbossa orders his crew to attack a British Navy ship from underwater. As the moon emerges from behind a cloud to reveal the true skeletal form of the undead crew, they march along the seabed to their target…

Memorable Music
Originally set to be scored by Alan Silvestri, who’d worked with director Gore Verbinski on a couple of previous movies, the composer fell out with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and it was decided to go with Hans Zimmer instead. Unfortunately Zimmer was busy, but he pointed them in the direction of newer composer Klaus Badelt, one of Zimmer’s mentees at his company Media Ventures. Presumably Badelt struggled, because Zimmer ended up drafting several of the score’s main themes in one night, and a team of additional composers (anywhere from seven to fifteen, depending which source you listen to) was brought in to help finish it off. (One of them, incidentally, was Ramin Djawadi, who has since gone on to be noticed for Game of Thrones.) The final score is credited to Badelt, but the soundtrack’s most famous cue — He’s a Pirate — is actually a development of a piece Zimmer wrote for forgotten Wesley Snipes action-thriller Drop Zone. You can’t really argue a score created like that has any artistic integrity, but it’s fun and exciting, and He’s a Pirate is a really, really good piratical action theme.

Truly Special Effect
All of the CGI was strikingly photo-real at the time, the main showcase being the skeletal pirates, especially as they switched from being normal humans to skeletons (and back again) as they moved in and out of the moonlight. I guess it’s aged a little now, but, to be fair, it is 13 years old. Couple this with the even-better work featured in the sequels and it shows ILM are still at the forefront of the industry.

Making of
There’s always been something of a tonal similarity between the Pirates films and the Monkey Island series of computer games, which turned out to be more than coincidence when it eventually emerged that, just a couple of years before Pirates, screenwriter Ted Elliott had been working on a Monkey Island film for Steven Spielberg which never came to fruition. As if to compound the point, Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert revealed in 2004 that the original game was inspired by the novel On Stranger Tides, and in 2007 Disney bought the rights to the novel and used its title and bits of its plot for the fourth Pirates film.

Next time…
Initially followed by a pair of shot-back-to-back trilogy-forming sequels, their cumulative success turned it into a franchise: a fourth movie followed in 2011, with a fifth shot last year for release next summer. Also inspired a host of piratical TV series, and Disney to attempt various other ride adaptations and genre mash-ups (see: The Lone Ranger).

Awards
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Johnny Depp), Makeup, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects)
1 BAFTA (Make Up/Hair)
4 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Johnny Depp), Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
1 Saturn Award (Costumes)
10 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Johnny Depp), Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), Director, Music, Make Up, Special Effects, DVD Special Edition, Genre Face of the Future (Keira Knightley))
2 MTV Movie Awards Mexico (Sexiest Hero (Orlando Bloom), Best Look (Johnny Depp))
1 World Stunt Award (Best Fight for the blacksmith shop sword fight)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“it’s Johnny Depp’s inspired turn as Captain Jack Sparrow that really marks the spot. Depp, arguing that pirates were the rock stars of their day, models his entire performance on Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones: it’s there in every slurred vowel and every drug-fried wiggle of the head. There’s an endearing dignity to Sparrow’s hunger for fame. “You are, without doubt, the worst pirate I’ve heard of,” says one British officer. “Yes,” replies Jack, “but you have heard of me.” Gloriously over-the-top, this performance is pitched only as high as the film’s fun factor itself. In terms of physical precision and verbal delivery, it’s a masterclass in comedy acting.” — Alan Morrison, Empire

Score: 79%

What the Public Say
“manages the weird assignment of capturing the sensibility of a theme park boat ride inside a Spielbergian adventure romp. This is all the things popcorn movies should be: fun, energetic, simple enough to quickly grasp but full enough to not seem stupid, anchored by strong personalities among all the side characters (Geoffrey Rush’s florid villain is a great bit of acting in its own right, unfairly overshadowed by Depp), and a cohesive world with a sense of history and depth.” — Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy

Verdict

It seemed like such a terrible idea when it was first announced: films based on Disney theme park rides? What the hell were they thinking?! The other movies produced by this initiative turned out to be as terrible as everyone expected, but somehow Pirates of the Caribbean — which also had to contend with the fact that cinematic pirates were deeply unpopular after the studio-killing disaster of CutThroat Island eight years before — wasn’t. Not just “not bad”, either, but an exciting, humorous, creepy, fun movie. That the sequels haven’t lived up to it is disappointing, but the first still stands as a near-perfect example of big-budget swashbuckling entertainment — it’s basically the dictionary definition of a summer blockbuster.

#71 goes to show… you never can tell.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

2015 #177
Gore Verbinski | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hated by Americans and loved (well, ok, “liked”) by everyone else (well, ok, “by lots, but by no means all, of people who reside outside America”), Disney’s attempt to pull a Pirates of the Caribbean on Western adventure IP The Lone Ranger is by no means as successful as the first instalment in their piratical franchise, but is at least the equal of its sequels — and, in some cases, their better.

The convoluted plot sees us arrive with John Reid (Armie Hammer) in the frontier town where he grew up, where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is now sheriff. Construction of the railroad is running by the town, spearheaded by Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who letches after Dan’s wife (Ruth Wilson); but work is plagued by a band of outlaws led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Receiving information on his whereabouts, Dan rounds up a posse and heads out to tackle him, with John insisting on tagging along. Unfortunately it’s an ambush and they’re all slaughtered (oh dear)… except John just about survives, and is found and nursed back to life by a Native American, Tonto (Johnny Depp). He has his own grievances, and together they set out on a mission of revenge.

And if you’re wondering where Helena Bonham Carter is in all that: despite her prominence on many of the posters, her role is really just a cameo. That’s marketing, folks.

I know some people complain about simplistic stories that are used to just string action sequences together, and that’s a perfectly valid thing to get annoyed about, but The Lone Ranger swings to the other extreme and uses an over-complicated story to string together its action sequences. All it actually needs is a little streamlining, because the film is allowed to swing off into too many sideplots. This makes the middle of the film a slog, and you feel every minute of its excessive two-and-a-half-hour running time.

That slog is made worthwhile by what comes before and after said middle: a pair of train-based action sequences that are each truly fantastic. The second, in particular, is arguably amongst the grandest climaxes ever put on screen (providing you don’t feel it’s tipped too far into being overblown, of course). It’s inventively choreographed, fluidly shot, and perfectly scored with just an extended barnstorming version of the Lone Ranger’s theme music (aka the William Tell Overture). It’s an adrenaline-pumping action sequence that single-handedly justifies the entire film’s existence, if you’re into that kind of thing.

With multiple trains, horses, actors, guns, stunts, and copious CGI to tie it together, that sequence must’ve cost a bomb. Notoriously, the whole film was deemed too expensive and Disney insisted the budget be slashed, resulting in delays… and it still cost a fortune. That, quite apart from the negative critical response in the US, is a big part of why it flopped at the box office — a recurring problem for Disney at the minute. To be frank, I’m not convinced anyone made a truly concerted effort to stem the overspend. When a gaggle of CG rabbits hopped on screen, all I could think was, “who allowed this?!” You’ve got a massively over-budgeted film that the studio want cut back, and one reason for that is CG bunnies that have almost no bearing on anything whatsoever! The amount of time and effort that must’ve gone into creating those fairly-realistic rabbits for such a short amount of screen time… it cost millions, surely. Millions that could’ve been saved with a simple snip during the writing stage if only someone had said, “well, those bunnies don’t add anything and they’ll be bloody expensive, so let’s lose them.”

So criticism is not unfounded, but the film doesn’t deserve the level of vitriolic scorn poured on it by the US press and, consequently, public. Discussing this, the “critical response” section on the film’s Wikipedia page is interesting, and this part pretty much nails it:

Mark Hughes of Forbes, analyzing what he felt was a “flop-hungry” press desiring to “control the narrative and render the outcome they insisted was unavoidable” for a highly expensive movie with much-publicized production troubles, found the film “about a hundred times better than you think it is … [a] well-written, well-acted, superbly directed adventure story.”

I’m not quite as effusive as Hughes, but The Lone Ranger is worth the time of anyone who enjoys an action-adventure blockbuster. It’s a three-star adventure-comedy bookended by a pair of five-star railroad action sequences, which make the trudge through the film’s middle hour-or-so feel worthwhile. There was a better movie to be made here — one that was half-an-hour shorter, more focused, and probably several tens of millions of dollars cheaper to make — but that doesn’t mean the one we got is meritless.

4 out of 5

Ed Wood (1994)

2015 #134
Tim Burton | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Before he descended into self-parody, Tim Burton made movies like this: a biopic of the eponymous ’50s filmmaker, renowned for his so-bad-they’re-good productions. Burton still contributes his trademark dark quirkiness, but it conjures a subject-appropriate tone rather than aimless Burtonesqueness.

It’s the same with Johnny Depp’s lead performance: affected and childlike, as usual, but here to depict a naïve, deluded, optimistic oddball human-being, rather than a self-consciously outrageous fantasy figure.

The result is a true story whose themes and moods are enhanced by stylised moviemaking — much more interesting than either the genre’s regular staid realism or Burton’s later empty theatrics.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

21 Jump Street (2012)

2015 #62
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

21 Jump StreetHaving turned the unlikely-to-be-any-good story of a machine that makes it rain food into an entertaining and amusing movie, and the unlikely-to-be-any-good concept of a LEGO-centred film into an entertaining and amusing movie, is it any wonder that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller also turned the unlikely-to-be-any-good premise of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill starring in a remake of a forgotten ’80s teen TV series about police officers who go undercover in a high school to find drug dealers into an entertaining and amusing movie?

The prime difference from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The LEGO Movie lies in the rating: those are kids’ films (with adult-friendly angles), while 21 Jump Street is an out-and-out R. That’s unusual in itself, given the US studios’ obsession with PG-13 and this being set in a high school, but it allows Lord and Miller to push at boundaries; not just being able to be ruder and grosser, but even the whole “teens doing drugs” storyline. They manage to make the extremes funny without descending too far into toilet humour — compare it to A Million Ways to Die in the West, for example, which had its share of clever edginess but undermined it with some terribly crass bits.

Perhaps the film’s best material revolves around the changing face of high school. Tatum and Hill’s characters grew up in an era of the traditional mould, where jocks ruled and nerds were bullied. When they return undercover, the tables have turned: getting good grades and caring about the environment is cool. In a classic bit of role reversal, Shot outthis leaves Hill hanging out with the cool kids — and being lured down the path of parties and their shallower friendship — while Tatum falls in with a gang of ultra-nerdy nerds and starts actually learning stuff. Distilled like that makes it sound pat, but in the film it works; in part because they don’t overplay the clichéd “friends fall out irretrievably… until it’s retrieved for the final act” story arc.

I only watched 21 Jump Street to see what all the fuss was about, expecting to find it unlikeable and unfunny. Happily, I was completely wrong — Lord and Miller win again. Next, they’re working on an animated Spider-Man movie. At the risk of jinxing it, that sounds likely to be quite good…

4 out of 5

Transcendence (2014)

2015 #16
Wally Pfister | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 12 / PG-13

TranscendenceChristopher Nolan’s regular director of photography (he’s lensed seven Nolan films, from Memento to The Dark Knight Rises inclusive) makes his directorial debut with this near-future sci-fi thriller.

Johnny Depp plays scientist Will Caster, one of many artificial intelligence developers who are targeted in a coordinated series of assassination attempts by an anti-technology terrorist group. When he dies, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and best friend (Paul Bettany) use his brain patterns to recreate him as an AI. With access to the entirety of human knowledge as found on the internet, plus a mass of computing power and a lot of money, artificial-Will sets about research and development that will change the world. But his new advances may have a more sinister edge…

Transcendence is best known for the massive negative reaction it received on release, from critics and viewers alike. To be frank, I don’t really know why. Some say it’s too slow — well, I thought it moved like the clappers. What I thought was going to be the story was done in under an hour, from which point it spiralled off in new and interesting directions. How good is its science? I don’t know. I also don’t care — it’s about the characters and the spirit of what they do, more than whether it’s all literally possible. As a layperson, I didn’t think it was so ridiculously implausible that it took me out of the movie.

Dell? Maybe if they'd used a Mac...Another element that’s probably too challenging for some is where our allegiances are meant to lie. (Some spoilers follow in this paragraph.) At the start, it’s clear Depp & friends are the heroes and the murderous anti-tech terrorists are the villains. As events unfurl, however, artificial-Will perhaps goes too far, Bettany teams up with the terrorists, and eventually so do the government and Will’s other friends. There is no comeuppance for some characters who are initially begging for it; a good one self-sacrifices somewhat heroically. This doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mould at all (well, the last bit does, sometimes), no doubt to some’s annoyance. The number of people who clamour for any sliver of originality or texture to their blockbusters, but then are unhappy when they actually get it…

Also up for debate is the film’s relationship with technology. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to call it sceptical, maybe even Ludditish. That reading is only emphasised by Pfister’s Nolan-esque insistence of shooting on 35mm film, rather than now-standard digital, and going so far as to grade the movie photochemically rather than use a DI. This is an effects-filled film, too, so in all kinds of ways a computer-based post-production would’ve been the sensible way to go. Whether this insistence on old-school methods is artistically merited or not, it serves to underscore the film’s suspicion of where rampant technological advances may take us in the future.

A flaw I will absolutely acknowledge, however, is the film’s opening: set five years on from Will’s death, we see Bettany in a power-less world, where laptops are used as doorstops and discarded mobile phones are strewn across the street. Regular readers will know how much I hate pointless flashforwards at the start of films, but this is one of the worst ever — it gives away almost everything that will happen, Another photo with Rebecca Hall inrobbing the entire film of tension and nullifying any sense of surprise, and the movie doesn’t compensate with, say, a feeling of crushing inevitability. The climax in particular becomes a drawn-out exercise in connect the dots: we’ve been shown how this all ends up, now we’re just seeing the minutiae of how it got there. There’s no twist or reveal to speak of, just a wait for it to marry up with what we already know.

Some say Depp is wasted in a role where he cops it in the first act and is basically a computer voice from then on. There are pros and cons to this. From an acting standpoint, Hall and Bettany are really the co-leads; from a storytelling perspective, it’s them plus Depp. It pays off repeatedly to have a proper actor, rather than a glorified extra, as the third pillar of that relationship. Plus, having the film’s sole above-the-title star absent himself so early is an effective move — “he can’t die, he’s the star! …oh, he did.” Etc. As an acting showcase, it doesn’t give Depp much to do, other than reign in the flamboyance that is his go-to these days. Points for appropriate understatedness, then.

It’s left to Hall to carry the weight of their relationship. While he’s alive the pair don’t make for the most convincing “most in love couple ever” you’ll ever see, that’s true, but her emotions and dilemmas after his death and in the years that follow are more affecting. That said, this isn’t a low-budget drama. There’s definitely potential with this concept to make a film like that — one that focuses more firmly on the ethical and emotional effects of recreating someone after death (I think there’s an episode of Black Mirror that does something similar, in fact, but I’ve not seen it). Those considerations are in the mix here, but it’s a $100 million blockbuster too, so it has to allow plenty of time for military machinations and an explosive climax.

TranscendentI guess that’s probably the explanation for Transcendence’s poor reception, in the end: it’s too blockbuster-y for viewers who’d like a dramatic exploration of its central moral and scientific issues, but too lacking in action sequences for those who misguidedly expected an SF-action-thriller. I maintain it’s not slow-paced, especially if you think it’s going to be, but nor does it generate doses of adrenaline on a committee-approved schedule. It’s not all it could have been, but if all you’ve heard is the mainstream drubbing, it’s probably better than you expect.

4 out of 5

Transcendence debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 2:30pm and 8pm.

The Tourist (2010)

2014 #101
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, France & Italy / English | 12 / PG-13

The TouristMuch maligned on its release, I thought The Tourist was actually a decently entertaining light thriller.

Some of the criticisms are valid: stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie do lack chemistry, there are some plot holes and logic leaps, and the tone is muddled (is it a thriller? A romance? A comedy? All of the above but with the wrong balance?)

However, other parts are good fun, and there are solid, entertaining twists to be found in the plot. It may not be a great movie, but taken as a light amusement, it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Dark Shadows (2012)

2014 #86
Tim Burton | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Dark ShadowsDirector Tim Burton’s most recent live-action movie is an adaptation of a 1960s soap opera… albeit one featuring vampires, witches, ghosts and sundry other supernatural goings-on. You wouldn’t get that on EastEnders (more’s the pity).

In the mid 18th Century, the Collins family leaves Liverpool for the New World, setting up a successful fishing empire and their own town, Collinsport. The son Barnabas (Johnny Depp) has a fling with the maid, Angelique (Eva Green), before laying his affections on Josette (Bella Heathcote). Little does he know, Angelique is a witch, who kills Josette, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and goads the townsfolk into burying him alive. As you do.

Fastforward 200 years to 1972, where young Victoria Winters (also Heathcote) arrives in Collinsport to become governess for the still-surviving Collins family’s youngest. The fishing business is failing, the mansion crumbling, and the family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gully McGrath, plus live-in psychologist Helena Bonham Carter and handyman Jackie Earle Haley) are a collection of odd-sorts. Then Barnabas’ coffin is dug up, resurrecting him, and… Oh, look, I’m basically telling you the whole movie now. It’s quite hard to provide a summary of the introduction to the plot, because there’s actually rather a lot going on.

white-facepainted-weirdo Burton stapleEarly on, it works. The first 20 to 30 minutes offer a serviceable prologue and an engaging introduction to most of the characters. It’s funny, it’s occasionally spooky, there’s a good deal of promise for a marginally-more-serious Addams Family-cum-Edward Scissorhands fantasy (I did say “marginally”). All in all, it’s a skilful and cohesive opening, if nonetheless a little Burton-by-numbers. Sadly, the film doesn’t seem to know where to go with it after that.

The story is hard to summarise because it feels like someone tried to cut a year’s worth of a soap into a movie. There are more characters than the film knows what to do with, meaning we get major developments that come literally out of nowhere, plots that are explained rather than seen, others that are introduced only to be wrapped up, and the nagging sense that a lot of material has been deleted.

Standing out from that crowd are Eva Green, who chews the scenery with aplomb, and Bella Heathcote, who grabs her chance to shine among an otherwise starry but phoning-it-in cast. Depp trots out the latest variation on his white-facepainted-weirdo Burton staple; Pfeiffer seems to wish she was back in Stardust or Hairspray; Moretz almost undermines her rising-star status (and is a little too jailbait-y to boot); Jonny Lee Miller battles his American accent almost as much as his character’s lack of purpose; and Helena Bonham Carter is in it as well, obviously.

Eva Green steals the filmIt’s a tonal grab bag: at times it seems to be a knowing spoof of daytime soaps, at others pushing for drama almost with a straight face; it’s sometimes deliberately and successfully comedic, at others straining too hard for a desperate laugh; it has a strain of bizarre sexuality that may be aiming at comic but is frequently just uncomfortable. This scrappiness leads to the most cardinal sin of any entertainment: it ends up a bit boring; and, in its out-of-the-blue big-battle climax, crushingly derivative.

Burton has spent almost a decade picking projects that are glaringly obvious choices for him. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Planet of the Apes’ failure; perhaps he’s just as predictable as the “Burton-esque” labelling these projects would likely have received under a different director. Whatever, it seems to have led to an artistically-criminal level of laziness — and I say laziness rather than ineptitude because, for all the project’s predictability, some almost-inspired moments do shine through. Just not often enough.

3 out of 5