Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Monday 24th February 2014 Leave a comment

It’s been about 10 years since I last watched the first Pirates movie, but I remember it fondly as a very entertaining action-adventure film. Then the two sequels came out: Dead Man’s Chest had some decent bits but was a far more flawed film than the original, but like The Matrix Reloaded those flaws could have been forgiven had the concluding third film clicked all the pieces into place; unfortunately, like The Matrix Revolutions, At World’s End failed to do that in a satisfying way.

Now I’ve finally got round to watching On Stranger Tides, and… ‘Salright, I s’pose.

Wisely, the running time and sheer scale are reigned-in compared to At World’s End: last time we had giant sea goddesses, giant kraken, swordfights on giant rolling water-wheels and swordfights on horizontal ships stuck in giant whirlpools; this time we have human-sized mermaids, and swordfights set on solid ground. I mean, the action’s still ridiculous and implausible, but at it’s a relief to see the series retreating a little from the “bigger=better” philosophy.

Unfortunately the smaller scale doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s very good action. I remember that a clip showing Jack’s escape from King George was the first pre-release promotional clip I saw from this film, and it was the thing that put me off watching it entirely. There are better action scenes later on in the film (Jack tackling some Spanish soldiers with a rope wrapped round a coconut, for example), but this is an action film in which the action is probably the least exciting part. It’s not that it’s hard to tell what’s going on, the fights are competently shot in that respect, it’s just all… somehow tedious. If you care about the characters and stakes, you can be enthralled by any action scene, whether it’s short and mundane, or ridiculously OTT in scale – you don’t start nitpicking flaws, because you don’t want to. But if you find the action dull, you actively look for problems, and start asking pesky questions like “Hey, why didn’t that baddie attack our hero just then, he had a clear opening?” and “It may have been off-screen, but surely that guard would have seen him dodge out of sight just now?” and “THIS IS SILLY I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT WOULD EVER HAPPEN”. (Yes, I know that last one’s not a question.) Consequently, the blacksmith’s shop swordfight early in the first Pirates film is still probably the best action sequence the series ever had.

Onto some more positive notes (with qualifiers):

I thought that Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were at their best when they went all surreal and supernatural, with memorable images like the crab army and the intentional capsizing of a ship at sunset. On Stranger Tides has much less of that sort of thing, but what is seen works well: shrunken ships in bottles like Superman’s Kandor, water droplets that flow in reverse, a ship whose rigging comes alive at its captain’s command.

Blackbeard’s a good villain; his attitude is more deadpan and his tone of voice more cultured than that of the other pirates, which makes it somewhat disappointing that they give him the same “arr, that it be” speech patterns as a character like Barbossa. The mermaids are good, though I’m not quite sure what the point was of giving them Splash-style leg transformations, since after we see it happen to one she never walks but just gets gets carried. The absence of Orloondo Bland (thank you, Mark Kermode, for giving the world that name!) is good; his equivalent in this film is much better, a cleric whose relationship with one of those mermaids is probably the film’s best subplot. (The film’s concerns about religious faith and whether Edward Teach’s soul can ever be saved also work well: sketched in just well enough to give the relationships between Blackbeard, the missionary, and Penélope Cruz’s character some weight, without becoming obtrusive.)

Against my better judgement, I still quite like Johnny Depp flouncing around in the role of Jack Sparrow. Sorry.

The film’s depiction of the ritual involved in drinking from the Fountain of Youth is extremely reminiscent of the Holy Grail scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and compared to that, it comes off… poorly.

And there’s also something else that the film reminded me of. There are voodoo dolls in this movie. I’m not sure if they are from the original On Stranger Tides novel, but I know what they put me in mind of, and Pirates of the Caribbean really, definitely is no Monkey Island 2.

2.5/5

Dark Souls progress: part 4

Monday 10th February 2014 Leave a comment

Original forum post: 10 February 2014

Been playing the game pretty sporadically since my last progress update a month ago. (A month in terms of when I originally wrote them, that is; these first four are going up on this blog in one batch!)

Read more…

Dark Souls progress: part 3

Monday 10th February 2014 1 comment

Original forum post: 11 January 2014

Update!

Lvl26, 13h playtime. Main weapon: Longsword (now upgraded to +4).

Read more…

Dark Souls progress: part 2

Monday 10th February 2014 Leave a comment

Original forum post: 8 January 2014

Read more…

Dark Souls progress: part 1

Monday 10th February 2014 Leave a comment

Not being a PS3 owner, it’s no surprise that Demon’s Souls passed me by. But somehow, I managed to completely miss the fuss about Dark Souls until very recently. The 400-page-plus thread on the main videogame forum I visit was one my eyes always glanced past in the topic index. So it wasn’t until last year’s anniversary issue of Edge proclaimed it one of the games that Should Have Got A Ten (alongside my beloved GoldenEye) that I took any notice of it:

People fixate on the difficulty because it’s the easy talking point, but FromSoftware’s masterpiece is arguably less preoccupied with difficulty than your garden-variety firstperson shooter. We’ve grown accustomed to being asked to choose between words like casual, normal, legendary, survivor, insane, nightmare and the rest before we ever taste a second of gameplay. Dark Souls boasts the courage of its design convictions. The world of Lordran has an established temperament and everyone who travels there will face the same travails. The uniformity of experience is part of what makes flinty-eyed Dark Souls veterans feel such intense solidarity when they discuss the game. Nobody gets a free pass. Nobody is born with a silver dagger clenched in their teeth.

The game holds you in exceedingly high regard. It believes you are capable of accomplishing remarkable feats, ones that might well seem impossible when first encountered. If you bailed out before completing the game, it was only because you disagreed with its opinion of your capabilities.

That had me intrigued. Then in December it was offered for about £4 as a download on Xbox Live, so I snapped it up.

This post – and subsequent ones in this series – are basically the progress updates I posted in the Rllmukforum Dark Souls thread. I bought the game and began playing early in December, but didn’t really get stuck into it until after Xmas. This first progress update was originally posted there on 1 January 2014 (getting stuck on Dark Souls: a fun way to spend New Year’s Eve!)

As for the difficulty: I’ve played lots of challenging games, but the hardest ones I’ve completed before now are probably Perfect Dark (you might not remember it being such a hard game, especially compared to Jet Force Gemini, but levels like Attack Ship and Maian SOS are ridiculous on Perfect Agent, especially with the low framerates of the original N64 version!), Ninja Gaiden Black (default difficulty) and Ninja Gaiden 2 (but only on its default Path of the Acolyte “Normal” difficulty; I’ve reached the werewolf boss in my Path Of The Warrior “Hard” run, which I return to approximately annually…).

Right, let’s praise the Sun and get going!

Read more…

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Tuesday 24th September 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve been a fan of Björk’s music for a fairly long time now, but I’d always avoided hearing Selmasongs, the soundtrack album for Dancer in the Dark. That’s mainly because I don’t like listening to musicals’ OSTs until I’ve seen and heard the tracks in their original cinematic context. However, I was kind of dreading watching Dancer in the Dark: I’d heard it was a good movie, but a book about Björk I read several years ago gave a summary of the film’s plot, and it sounded like pretty much the most unrelentingly depressing story ever.

Well, it’s not relentlessly depressing, mainly because the musical numbers (both the songs and the choreography) are really, really good. I know that any cheerfulness in those scenes is tempered by the irony that the conventions of Hollywood musicals are being applied to such a downbeat story, but it was something that worked for me, if only because I’m a fan of her music outside of this film.

The film was made in between Björk’s albums Homogenic and Vespertine (by general consensus among her best), and I could hear aspects of both those albums in the film’s arrangements: the incorporation of cacophanous machinery into “Cvalda” kind of recalls the noisy beats of songs like “5 Years” and “Pluto” in the latter half of Homogenic, whereas other songs have more delicate arrangements reminiscent of the “microbeats” of Vespertine. (The echoing, bassy male backing voices in “I’ve Seen It All” kind of came across to me as an inversion of the female backing vocals that repeat the phrase “she loves him” in “Pagan Poetry”.) And of course, as this is a musical, occasionally you’ll hear something that could have come from Björk’s most famous song/video: “It’s Oh So Quiet”.

The standout song is probably “I’ve Seen It All”, which contains the memorable couplet:

What about China? Have you seen the Great Wall?
All walls are great, if the roof doesn’t fall!

I can’t decide whether those lines are deceptively simple and genuinely clever, or merely endearingly cute and childlike. Whatever it is, the rhyme works in context, and I really like it.

Since watching the film, I’ve heard the Selmasongs album, and for the performance of “I’ve Seen It All” on the CD, the film’s actor Peter Stormare is replaced by everyone’s favourite vehicle-phobic, asymmetrical-eylidded, multi-instrumentalist rock frontman, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. But he doesn’t just sing the few lines that Peter Stormare sang in the film; instead, all the song’s lines alternate between Björk and Yorke. That means that although in the film the song made sense as a question-and-answer conversation, that doesn’t carry across to the album version, and for that reason I have to say that I prefer the movie version. (Sorry, Thom!)

So, it’s safe to say that the music was my main focus when watching the film. What about its other aspects?

A couple of reviews of the film I’ve read since watching it have noted that its filming style was offputting, the camera rarely showing what you want to see. Hentai Cop’s review, for example:

… Lars makes the film really tough to watch on a technical level. He shoots the film digitally and handheld, mostly in close-ups that frequently zoom in and out. The style is disorienting and reclusive, which makes Bjork the main focus of every shot (and complements her character’s blindness, as the the frame becomes very limiting).

Comments like that surprise me, since I didn’t find the camera’s motion any more distracting or offputting than in anything else handheld – say, an episode of The Thick of It.

So, unlike some people, I had no problem with the film’s abrupt musical transitions, with the concept of mixing upbeat Hollywood musical with downbeat misery, or with its filming style. In fact, it was only really the story’s melodramatic nature that put me off the film at all: accepting the inherent implausibility of the plot was, for me, by far the biggest hurdle. I felt like I would probably get most out of the film if it made me feel that the doom that would befall Selma was inevitable, that the film could never end any other way; instead, there were several points in the film when I felt myself thinking, “No, I can’t believe that in real life, this character would really be that stubborn! Surely this time this character will, for once, make the sensible decision to get out of this situation!” (But – spoiler! – she does not.)

Despite that, I liked the film a lot, even if that was more for the musical sequences than anything that happened in between them.

Other reviewers more cinematically literate than me can say where this stands in the von Trier oeuvre. As it’s the first of his films I’ve watched, I can’t do anything like that. In fact, I don’t know whether I’ll ever watch enough of his films to be able to do that – right now, all I know is that I never, ever want to watch Antichrist…

[4 out of 5]

Categories: Films, Music, Reviews Tags: , , , ,

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Friday 21st June 2013 Leave a comment

(Rewatched 3 June 2013.)

This was, I think, the first Star Trek movie I ever saw. I don’t remember much of that viewing, except that the fact I hadn’t seen Wrath of Khan meant that I didn’t get much out of it.

Watching it now: it’s okay, I suppose. The problem is that it’s very much an in-between film. On the one hand we have the film’s main goal, to resurrect Spock. As dramatic as the idea of resurrecting one of the world’s most recognisable fictional characters sounds on paper, if you look at it another way, the ultimate aim of the movie is merely to return to the status quo: our familiar crew, reunited again. Put that way, it’s really quite a mundane goal around which to base a movie.

That wouldn’t matter too much if there was another interesting storyline going on. But the Genesis Planet aspect of the plot is really just an epilogue to Wrath of Khan; the concept is not developed significantly enough to justify stretching it out and dedicating a whole second movie to it.

So, one storyline is a continuation of something that didn’t really need to be continued from the previous film; the other might seem extraordinary, but is a goal that, rather than moving the series forward, just returns it to the same comfortable setup in preparation for future adventures. Like I said, a bridging, “in-between” film, rather than a satisfying movie in its own right.

Even the death of Kirk’s son David happens in a rather un-dramatic fashion. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if there was a more direct link between Kirk’s efforts to resurrect Spock and the death of his son – the price he pays for the return of his friend?

David is a bland character, and he and the Vulcan Saavik get lots of screen time that would have been better dedicated to other things. For example, McCoy’s conflicts with Spock were one of the fun things about the original TV series, but the idea of them occupying the same body is wasted in this film: we get a couple of minor jokes involving the doctor suddenly coming out with Spock-y logic, but that’s about it.

It’s far from being an annoyingly bad film. It passes the time pleasantly enough. There are things to enjoy: for one thing there’s the novelty of seeing Christopher Lloyd in Klingon make-up (though he’s not the most threatening baddie).

Kirk’s trick with the self-destruction of the Enterprise is probably the best sequence in the film. (Having said that, it does rely on us accepting the idea that a spacecraft that size could be capably run by only a few crewmembers – which, incidentally, also happens to be one of the many suspensions of disbelief involved in watching this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness…)

Fun Fact! Apparently, Frank Welker, animal voiceover god extraordinaire, contributed some screaming noises to this movie! Bit of trivia for you, there.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.