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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

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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.

Licence to Kill (1989)

Monday 8th April 2013 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time since I last watched Licence to Kill, that most ’80s-ish of the ’80s Bond movies. In my memory it’s always been one of my least favourite entries in the entire series. I’m pleased to say that upon today’s rewatch, I enjoyed it a lot more, and can now honestly say I like it – even if I still don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as Dalton’s preceding film The Living Daylights.

The plane-hooking opening sequence is fun (just look at that shot of Felix Leiter and his DEA allies’ slow-mo charge forward – see, told you it was oh-so-’80s!), but the movie doesn’t really start to get good until Bond discovers the very brutal thing that happened to Felix Leiter and his new wife. The idea of Bond going rogue on a personal mission outside of MI6 is a good one, but not enough is really made of it. Unlike something like the later Mission: Impossible, it doesn’t feel like Bond’s former allies could be just as much of an obstacle as the bad guys: a while after Bond’s “with one bound he was free” escape in the scene with M, one agent turns up angry at him, then immediately dies, and that’s pretty much it. Bond’s licence to kill is revoked, but this has absolutely no effect on his ability to proceed to kill just as many people as ever. He even still gets to have Q helping him – in one of that character’s biggest roles, in fact!

Having said that, it’s not quite true to say that this might as well be an officially sanctioned mission: I really like the neat plotting of the way Bond’s solo quest for vengeance screws up two other groups’ attacks on Sanchez. The way 007 effectively fuels Sanchez’s concerns about betrayal within his organisation is also good, and the length of time Sanchez remains oblivious to the fact that Bond is his enemy makes for an extremely unusual Bond movie. Overall, perhaps because so much of the movie is kept relatively grounded and low-key, the plotting generally (with a few exceptions) progresses more logically than it does in most Bond films. (Everyone: for some excellent commentary on story structure points like this, go and read Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes on the movie. It is indeed the “knifiest Bond ever”!)

The sequence with Bond sneaking around Krest’s operation is a good one; the “maggot coffin” is a fun baddie takedown, and the scene has a satisfying conclusion thanks to how Bond kills Felix’s betrayer. (The way Sanchez dies at the end of the movie – hey, it’s a Bond film, it’s not a spoiler to say that! – is also one of the most satisfying in the entire series.)

The film contains two very good action sequences, the harpoon-plane-waterskiing (featuring gunfire to that da-dada-da-da Bond theme rhythm!) and the concluding tanker chase. They easily make up for the crap bar brawl (noteworthy only for the swordfish bit) and ninja attack. (Ninjas… who are Hong Kong narcotics agents? Mixing up your nations of the Orient a little bit there, aren’t you, writers?) The section inside Sanchez’ smuggling base ranks somewhere in between: the conveyer belt fight against Benicio del Toro is nice and tense, but the setting seems even more Made Of Explodium than the hotel in Quantum of Solace.

As it’s a revenge story, it’s understandable that Timothy Dalton’s performance would be more downbeat than it was in The Living Daylights. But, combined with a general lack of memorable dialogue for him, it does mean that I find him much less fun to watch in this movie than in his first one, which may be a big part of the reason why I like it a lot less. The two Bond girls are also far from the greatest of characters or performances.

(A ridiculously minor nit-picky point, which doesn’t really belong in a review but I want to moan about it anyway: one of the baddies kills Bond’s DEA ally and says, “Guess what? His name was Sharkey!” The emphasis in that sentence has always felt like it’s on the wrong word, as if he’s simply confirming that his name was what he already thought it would be, rather than drawing attention to the irony of his cause of death. For similar reasons, I get disproportionately annoyed with a likewise mis-delivered line in The Matrix: “The image translators work for the Construct program…”)

[003 out of 005]

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Monday 11th March 2013 Leave a comment

The Fountain.
Magnolia.
Adaptation.
Synecdoche, New York.
A Cock and Bull Story.
The Hours.
Memento.

Look, I admit it – I’m a sucker for cinematic experiments in metafiction and form. Such movies tend to attract critics’ comments like, “All this self-referentiality, not-too-subtle thematic interlinking, and chronological jumbling are mere gimmicks; once you’ve solved the superficial puzzle-box, there’s little of substance to them. They’re not really as profound or interesting as they think they are – they exist only as exercises for writers and directors to smugly say, ‘Look how clever I am!'”

But for me, that clever-clever self-referentiality, not-too-subtle thematic interlinking, chronological jumbling, and puzzle-solving is exactly what wins me over. (Usually.) And it certainly worked in the case of Cloud Atlas!

I have not read David “Not The One From Peep Show” Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, but before going to see the film, The Fountain was the reference point I had in mind. And sure enough, of the above examples, The Fountain is the film that it most resembles, in its cross-cutting between vastly different time periods in order to emphasise symbolic links between events and characters.

I enjoyed the film very much. The 2144 segment was always going to have the most immediate appeal for someone primarily interested in this film because of the Wachowskis’ involvement, and it’s a relief to see that they have lost none of their flair for action direction. (If, indeed, it was the siblings and not Tykwer who directed that segment’s action scenes: the end credits suggest that they did, but interview comments1 suggest that the credits give a misleading impression of how distinctly the film’s directorial responsibilities were divided.) However, all the stories had something to recommend them (the humour of the 2012 segment; the conspiracy of the ’70s thriller; the interaction between Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent’s characters in the 1930s), so that I was rarely disappointed when the film interrupted a story I was enjoying to switch to another one. The abruptness of the transitions between the different stories’ tones and genres was also something that appealed to me rather than a disorientating irritation. Overall I found it a very well-paced movie, flowing along about as well as any non-linear three hour movie ever could. (Although I could have done with a few less solemn, pseudo-profound statements about interconnectedness in the voiceovers.)

Many people have complained of being distracted by the make-up, and Tom Hanks’ attempts at certain accents – it’s true that I was distracted by those things too, but with only a couple of exceptions, keeping an eye out for the different roles each actor took on was an enjoyable distraction.

Hugo Weaving has said in interviews that roles in mainstream blockbusters no longer really appeal to him as an actor. If that means he won’t be doing any more of them, then at least we have Cloud Atlas to represent the ultimate culmination of all his villain-portraying! (Although: yeah, he does resemble the Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh at one point…)

[4 out of 5]

1 See Lana Wachowski’s comment in this AV Club interview:

We keep trying to explain to people that, first of all, the credit you see in the movie was this kooky thing invented by the Director’s Guild, because they couldn’t understand how three people could direct a movie together. And they have this convention that the only way directors can be multiply credited on a film is if it’s an anthology, so they invented this bizarre credit to allow their rules to make sense for our film.

Iron Man (2008)

Monday 24th December 2012 Leave a comment

This film happened to start on TV shortly after I’d finished rewatching The Iron Giant, and it amused me to make a double-bill of two such similarly-titled films. 🙂

The key to the movie’s success is, of course, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. He delivers offhand jokes, almost to himself, in ways that make it feel like he’s improvising while everyone else is sticking to a screenplay,* and it’s simply a lot of fun watching him on-screen – especially in scenes alongside Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Terrence Howard makes a much better Col. Rhodes than Don Cheadle did in the sequel; it’s much more believable that he’d be Tony Stark’s friend.

As Tony Stark’s buddy Film Crit Hulk once pointed out, it’s nice that here’s a summer blockbuster in which the action is the least interesting part. In that blog post, the all-caps critic also says, “EVERYONE SEEMED LOVE THAT IT SPENT SO LONG BEFORE TONY ACTUALLY BECOME ‘IRON MAN’ SO THEY GET EXPERIENCE ALL THE GREAT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TO GET THERE. EVERYONE LAUDED THE FUN SENSE OF ADVENTURE THAT CAME FROM HIM ACTUALLY BUILDING THE SUIT”, and I completely agree: the section where Tony gets back to the US and carries out his first experiments with building the suit is perhaps my favourite sequence in the movie. (Yeah, OK, I admit that a lot of it has to do with the way it appeals to the gadget-nerd techno-fetishist in me.) All good superhero origin movies should contain a scene where our hero first experiences the joy of what their superpowers allow them to do (see for example Superman running alongside that Smallville train, or even Neo grinning as he spars with Morpheus), and the test flight of the Iron Man Mk. II suit is one of the very best.

Something I find interesting is the way that the film both has its cake and eats it: it’s based around the idea of a warmonger coming over to the side of the peaceniks, and yet also contains gleeful scenes of t’rr’rist-slaughter which are pure right-wing hawk revenge-fantasy. (I admit I do find some of the film’s depictions of the Bad Brown People fairly uncomfortable at times.)

I do wonder if the little bit of non-linearity that opens the film was only included because of a belief that the audience would grow restless unless the movie opened with a bang. Whatever the reason: I’ve always found that little piece of “how we got here” flashbacking very effective. The high-altitude icing problem setup and payoff also works similarly well (it’s to the film’s benefit that it’s not the final thing that defeats the villain), even if it’s not exactly subtle.

I’ve never read it, but the most famous Iron Man comics storyline is Demon In A Bottle, which tackles Stark’s alcoholism. The Marvel Studios movies haven’t adapted this on-screen yet, and it doesn’t sound like they will do any time soon. This makes a nice change from the way Fox approached X-Men 3 and Sony approached Spider-Man 3: rushing to hit the most famous comics storylines and characters as soon as possible, then getting greedy and cramming too many of them into one movie. Having said that, we do get several sequel-setups: Rhodey’s “Next time, baby” line is a little too cheesy for me, the Ten Rings hints are OK, and as for that post-credits epilogue… I can’t remember if it had been spoiled for me in advance of seeing the movie back in 2008, but I remember thinking that although it was a fun tease, it was something that would almost certainly never come to pass. It’s really quite wonderful to think that the thing set up in that cameo not only happened at all, but actually matched my very high expectations!

[4 out of 5]

* OK, admittedly Downey mumbles a lot of the best lines so you could easily miss them. But its nowhere near as bad as his mumbling in the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes – inaudible dialogue from the lead character is pretty much all I remember of that movie…

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Monday 12th November 2012 Leave a comment

This film contains “I am the Walrus”, my favourite Beatles song, and therefore, by extension, my favourite piece of music by anyone ever. “The Fool on the Hill” ain’t half bad, either, and if “Your Mother Should Know”, “Flying” and the title song are more minor tracks by the band, they’re not unpleasant. (Never been keen on “Blue Jay Way”, though, although it does effectively convey a disconcerting atmosphere.)

So the music video aspects of the film work well enough – the problem is pretty much everything else.

The plot: Ringo and his aunt get on a coach for an outing to an unknown location. (I wonder if the presence of Ringo’s aunt was intended to be reminiscent of Wilfred Brambell’s role as Paul’s Grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night?) The passengers observe some bizarre events, and some wizards up in the clouds observe the coach’s progress. (Those wizards were the main thing I remembered about the film from when I watched it as a kid, but it turns out that they’re only in it for about two minutes.)

Hilarity ensues!

… Except it, er, doesn’t.

Some of the sketches would be called Pythonesque if not for the fact that a) the film was made almost two years before the first episode of Flying Circus was broadcast, and b) they’re not funny. (There is something of The Meaning of Life’s Mr Creosote in the spaghetti scene, and Victor Spinetti’s incomprehensible drill sergeant is very much like a stock Python character.)

A couple of John Lennon’s brief snippets of narration hint at the sometimes hilarious wordplay in his books “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works”. For example, one line of dialogue in the film is followed by the narrator’s storytelling addition “… he said”, and I like his deadpan uncertainty over whether there are “four or five magicians” (perhaps prefiguring Yellow Submarine’s “Once upon a time, or maybe twice”). But these snippets appear rarely and don’t last more than a sentence or two – I wanted more of them!

One bit that is mildy amusing is the cut from Ringo’s Aunt daydreaming of a romance with Buster Bloodvessel, to the reality of the man drearily droning on and on. (Only mildy amusing, though.)

Late in the movie, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band turn up to provide the soundtrack to a stripper’s performance (“CENSORED”), and to some extent they outshine the Beatles in their own movie.

In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney’s main defence of the film is to say “Where else are you going to see a performance of ‘I Am the Walrus’?” but he also makes the claim that he’d heard that “people like Steven Spielberg” saw it in film school and were impressed/influenced by it. I’ve always been skeptical of that claim… but then, in the Arena documentary that accompanied the BBC’s October 2012 broadcast of the film, who should turn up but Martin Scorsese, confirming that he for one genuinely thinks it’s a remarkable film.

Some of the talking heads in that documentary remark on how the film’s approach of drawing upon avant-garde* experimental influences (lack of plot or script, Ringo Starr messing about with lenses in his role as Director of Photography(!), random shots of cheering crowds) and filtering them through working-class Liverpudlian childhood nostalgia (a charabanc coach trip) is representative of exactly what the Beatles did so successfully in much of their music. These are good points – at least until the moment the doc gets Macca attempting to tie MMT’s experimentality to Un Chien Andalou, which is just a little bit of a stretch. (And of course the documentary illustrated the comparison with THAT shot – ARRGGHHH!)

So it’s not a good film. But the story behind it is interesting for what it says about where the Beatles were at that point – after Brian Epstein’s death and dominating the world with Sgt Pepper, they were casting about wildly for new ideas, which eventually led to them going off to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and founding Apple and trying to make a fly on the wall documentary about themselves, and we all know what happened with that. So the film’s scriptless nature is nicely representative of all that – but it doesn’t really make for a very fun film to watch.

[2.5 out of 5]

* “French for bullshit”, I think someone once said. I wonder who?

Categories: Films, Music, Reviews Tags: ,