Guardians of the Galaxy (Redux)

 
Ain’t no thing like mecept me”
 

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) (Redux)

Something’s been eating away at me since I first reviewed Guardians a few months ago. Whilst I stick by a lot of what I said in that review, I’ve seen it twice since then and I felt my original thoughts needed tightening up. Y’see, I’ve been nigh-on obsessed with the film since seeing it. The downtime between the second cinema trip and the DVD/Blu-ray release have been filled with conversations about it of both the I-can’t-believe-you-haven’t-seen-it and the wasn’t-that-bit-so-awesome-when? varieties. The super-popular soundtrack has also been in heavy rotation on my iPod to the point where I swear it tries to sneak in other tracks for variation’s sake. Not many films these days manage to stick in my brain as indelibly as Guardians has managed. A third viewing on shiny disc has confirmed one thing- it’s not only my favourite film of the year, but it’s moved up to being one of my favourite films of all time and as such, certain points need to be addressed. Oh- if you haven’t seen it yet, thar be spoilers, so just go and see the damn thing and come back.

“I know who you are, Peter Quill, and I am not some starry-eyed waif here to succumb to your… your pelvic sorcery!”

I’m going to skip the plot summary and just dive straight in, because the chances are you’ve seen it multiple times like I have. All my casting notes are the same as well as my assessment of the action beats etc. I want to focus on the meaty script and several problems I had with it on the first viewing.  Story-wise, Guardians relies on familiar tropes, including the standard MacGuffin plot of having an object driving the narrative and where characters go. You could also say that the characters are pretty broad. Of the few negative reviews that exist of this film, those seem to be the main points of contention, including criticising the now-commonplace big Marvel ending that is a gigantic aerial battle. All fair points, but I would argue that picking the film up on these things is kinda missing the whole point. To me, Guardians is like the Indiana Jones films or even the mighty Star Wars. Its very aware of these clichés and uses them to give us something new or sell us on something a bit “out there”. This is blockbuster filmmaking as it should be. It has a smart script packed with fully realised characters and quotable lines, a great sense of wonder when it comes to the deep space locations, decent action and a cracking soundtrack. What I love about it all as well is like all the best Marvel films, it still has the specific director’s stamp on it. Guardians is very much a James Gunn film with his love of wildly swinging tonal shifts, regular casting pool and a real passion for the absurd.

The thing about Guardians is that the character focus is very strong, so much so, the story almost takes a backseat. We get to know these people/animals/tree monsters/aliens over the course of the film. The writers James Gunn and Nicola Perlman ensure that each character has a strong motivation and a real driving purpose. Take Rocket Raccoon for example- from the trailers, it looked like he was just another CGI creation with one-liners, destined to pratfall and do “human” things to get a yuk out of brainless twats. However, in the film, he’s a fully formed creation. He resents humanity and constantly struggles to find his place in the world, always dealing with the fact that he shouldn’t exist.  He’s full of bluff and bravado because they’re his coping mechanisms. There’s one scene where Rocket’s been drinking and is drunkenly waving his gun at the crew, choking back rage and sadness at the fact that nobody takes him seriously and he feels people are laughing at him. In a lesser film, this would have been a gag, but as it appears here it’s heartbreaking. This attention to detail expands to not only our main Guardians, but side characters like John C. Reilly’s Dey. It’s so fucking refreshing to feel like proper storytelling isn’t dead and that even with a megabudget, the little things (Rocket included) aren’t forgotten about.

One of the main things people have taken away from Guardians is how funny the film is. The film is witty throughout and some bits are downright hilarious. What I love about Guardians is how it uses the humour. A lot of the running gags have a huge emotional payoff. Take Peter Quill’s need to be known as “Star-Lord”. He gets frustrated multiple times that people don’t know his supposedly badass outlaw name. It’s a neat little touch, but nothing we haven’t seen before and it smacks of handing out a trait arbitrarily. That is until we learn that “Star-Lord” was his dead mother’s pet name for him and I can barely read what I’m writing right now as the screen has gone all blurry. It’s such a nice moment I get choked up even talking about it. We finally understand why the name was important to him. Very few films can actually make me tear up, but Guardians is definitely one of them. Another example of this is Groot’s repeated “I am Groot”s. Who knew that the repetition of that one line was just lifting our chins up to ensure we get the full force of the “We are Groot” sucker punch? It’s this sort of layering and narrative domino setting that makes me love films all the more.

If you read my original review, you’ll know that I had a problem with three characters- Ronan the Accuser, Nebula and Gamora. My opinion has changed on each. I originally thought that Ronan was a bit of a weaksauce bad guy, but the more I’ve watched the film, the more I realise that’s sort of the point. He’s meant to be out of his depth. He’s a petulant teenager playing with big-boy toys. Thanos is the main dude, but as Drax notes, Ronan is a puppet. He does pose a legitimate threat, but he’s no Loki. Plus, the film is more about the Guardians coming together, rather than taking down an ultra-badass. Chances are the Guardians won’t be able to distract the next big bad with dance moves. Let’s talk Karen Gillan’s Nebula. Nebula is fascinating and has a very odd sisterly relationship with Gamora. She’s really compelling and I’m still a little disappointed we don’t see more of her. Her exit from the film is a bit clunky too, with “sequel” written all over it. Not bad by any means though. Which brings us to Gamora. I initially stated that Gamora is the one with the least focus, but I realise that it’s because her character hasn’t really completed her arc by the time the film is over. Whilst Quill, Rocket, Drax and Groot are all fully on board, Gamora still has a bit to go. She’s almost there, as the little head bobs to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” demonstrate, but she’s still got issues to work through. It’s more of a promise of things to come than anything else and the fact that she doesn’t seem as well-sketched as the others is entirely intentional. My guess is that Guardians 2 will be more about her as well as the mystery of Quill’s father.

“What should we do next? Something good? Something bad? Bit of both?”

So,  on to the main reason I wanted to do a redux review. Guardians of the Galaxy has been one of my most read reviews on this site and instead of being happy that so many people stopped e-shopping or watching naked people do naked-er things to read my nonsense, I cringed slightly because of the four star rating I ended up giving it. For a film that has dominated my thoughts since it came out and has been proven to make me laugh and cry every time, that’s a bit of a slap. I mean, if I can’t give Guardians of the Galaxy a full 5 stars, what the hell can I give it to? It’s an injustice, I tells ya! Anyway- Guardians gets the rating it deserves and I get to sleep soundly at night. Fair deal.

The Purge (Redux)

 

The Purge (2013) (Redux)

Since it came out last year, I’ve softened on The Purge quite a bit. Whilst I still stick by a lot of my original review, I read it back and thought I was a little harsh, considering the things I liked about it. I bought the Blu-ray recently and have actually been looking forward to the sequel a fair bit, so I figured I’d give the original another crack of the whip.

“Decriminalised murder- an outlet for American rage.”

It’s 2022. America is enjoying a new golden age. Crime rates are low, unemployment likewise and the rich are getting richer. This is attributed to a group called “The New Founding Fathers” who introduced the concept of “The Purge”, an annual event in which all crime, including murder, is legal for 12 hours. The logic behind this being that all the events of the Purge act as a release valve for society’s pent-up anger, aggression and violence. Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a man who has earned his wealth selling home security to protect people from any harm during the Purge. He returns home to his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and two children Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) to prepare for Purge night, safely hunkered down behind reinforced metal doors and various other barricades. The trouble starts when Charlie disarms the security to let in a wounded stranger (Edwin Hodge), not realising the consequences. Soon enough, a group of enthusiastic purgers, led by a polite and eloquent man (Rhys Wakefield) arrive and give the Sandins an ultimatum: either give them the wounded man so they can exercise their constitutional right to “release the beast” or have their defences torn down and suffer the consequences.

I’ve seen people slate the basic idea of The Purge, calling it “unrealistic” amongst other things. It’s a dumb criticism to make, really. Is Star Wars realistic? Is The Dark Knight? No, but they set up their own rules about how stuff works in their universe and they run with it. Sure, the idea of the Purge being voted into any kind of law, let alone working as a way to boost the economy and improve the lives of average people is ludicrous, but at no point does the film feel like it’s just about one cool concept (and it is a cool concept, fuck you) regarding legalised murder and government approved lawlessness. It has something to say, albeit occasionally muddled. I love the idea that the Purge may have just been a way to deal with the poor and keep the rich in the money. Think about it- the rich can afford super-swanky home security (as well as better weapons should they want to actively participate in purging) whilst the poor are pitted against each other, pretty much becoming a “problem” that fixes itself. Admittedly, the way these undercurrents are conveyed is almost insultingly simplistic, with numerous news reports expositioning the shit out of the situation. It may be dumb, but at least it has something to say and has a few unique concepts of its own, unlike 90% of the crap out there.

So, great central idea with a surprising amount of satire and social commentary. Good. What else? Well, the opening 20 mins are decent, if (if you ignore certain things like clunky dialogue and contrived set-ups, but I’ll get back to those) building dread for the Purging to come. It does a good job of world building, even including neat details like displaying a specific blue flower outside your home to show your support for the Purge. As I mentioned before, the Stepford feel to the neighbourhood is a nice touch, complete with uncanny valley-eque residents with fixed, unconvincing smiles. I still love the opening CCTV montage set to Clair De Lune. The cast are a mixed bag, but Rhys Wakefield is the standout. His “Polite Leader” is a creepy villain, completely immersed in his constitutional right to murder and maim. If there’s one trope I have a weakness for, it’s when a bad guy shoots one of his allies just because, in this case because one of his lackies forgoes his polite protocol. Lena Headey also does well with a severely underwritten role and gets a nice moment of dark humour near the end that is genuinely funny.

The rest of the film doesn’t fare as well. Zoey is a typical, eye-rolling teenager that doesn’t bring anything to the party but her kinky Catholic school uniform. Worst character by far though is the young son, Charlie. He’s an important element to the story as he’s just the right age to start thinking for himself and becoming aware of the horror of the Purge, whereas the rest of his family have seen it happen many times before, become desensitised to the Purge and accepted it as a necessary evil over the years. He’s our way in as an audience, so its a shame that the writing really doesn’t do him any favours. The contrived nature of the opening scene where he has a burnt baby doll RC tank, really clunks like a motherfucker. It’s so obvious that this bit is just excusing stuff that happens later. Same with his weird obsession with wearing a heart-rate monitor and checking his vitals regularly. These things are promptly forgotten about until just the right moment when they become suspiciously useful.  It’s lazy stuff.

The biggest problem I (and a lot of other people) have with The Purge is the fact that after a decent premise and promises of a brutal but interesting world, they stick to one location and have it devolve into just another home invasion movie. Instead of taking full advantage of the concept, the Purge night suspension of emergency services is used merely as a way to avoid the “they cut the phone lines” explanation as to why the cops aren’t showing up, which is disappointing. It fails as a horror, too, quickly changing tact from creeping dread to easy jump scares. Plus, it features a cardinal sin of tension resolution during a frantic grapple- the “baddie” getting shot by someone off-screen. I’ve always felt cheated when that shows up in films and The Purge does it multiple times, robbing us of a proper and hopefully wince-inducing kill, which is surely part of the appeal of this kind of movie. Also the dialogue is pretty damn terrible, ranging from functional to boring. That said, some of the Polite Leader’s monologues are good.

“Tonight allows people a release for all the hatred and violence that they keep up inside them.”

Despite the arguably huge problems I have with The Purge, I still like it. It’s a mess, but an interesting one. I’d much rather watch a film like this that shoots for something and misses than the zero-effort crap like the Paranormal Activity sequels and spin-offs that are out there. The wheels do fall off rather spectacularly, but the core of it is strong and entertaining.

Man of Steel (Redux)

 
Kryposhite
 

Man of Steel (2013) (Redux)

I’ve talked about Man of Steel quite a bit since it came out. It’s certainly one of the more polarising films of last year. Well, the dust has settled and I felt it was worth another look. Would the fact that my expectations have been tempered actually allow me to concentrate on what the film brings to the table rather than what it doesn’t? I’m completely torn on how to do re-tackle this one. I tried watching the film like I’d never heard of Superman before and had mixed results. Super-spoilers by the way. Don’t read if you haven’t checked out the film and intend to.

“How do you find someone who has spent a lifetime covering his tracks? You start with the urban legends that have sprung up in his wake. All of the friends of a friend who claimed to have seen him. For some, he was a guardian angel. For others, a cipher; a ghost who never quite fit in. As you work your way back in time, the stories begin to form a pattern.”

Very short plot summary. Sent from the doomed planet of Krypton, an alien child by the name of Kal-El lands on Earth and is adopted by Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). They name him Clark. The child grows up with superhuman powers and struggles to control them. Flash forward and the now adult Clark (Henry Cavill) is trying to live a quiet life, but has become a bit of an urban legend due to his compulsion to save people with his special abilities. After saving her life, he’s hounded by investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Things get much worse when the warmongering General Zod (Michael Shannon) escapes from imprisonment and threatens to destroy Earth unless Kal-El reveals himself and surrenders to him.

I really tried to get my knowledge of the character out of my head. This was a new superhero as far as I was concerned. The problem is that the film is relying on some familiarity to carry you through. Clark/Kal doesn’t really have a personality and therefore is a blank slate we have to project onto. What are his motivations? What does he want out of life? He certainly doesn’t have a character arc. He wants to save and protect people as a youth and continues to do so until the end of the film. Fine, he’s Superman Powered Flying Man after all- but he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t change during the events of the film. A character can totally work without any big emotional journey. Probably the best example I can think of is Judge Dredd in Dredd, but in Dredd’s case, that was the whole point. When it comes to Man of Steel, Clark is meant to be conflicted, having two incompatible ideologies from his two different Robin Hood dads duking it out in his brain. He’ll say he’s conflicted, but he doesn’t act it. Even using the film’s own logic it doesn’t work. Clark can’t help but save people and has a compulsion to do so – fine. However, the big city punch up at the end shows no effort to save anyone, apart from a few in the train station (you bet your fucking arse I’m going to come back to that scene). A little character care could have gone a long way. The film could have even kept its 9/11 allegorical ending if it wanted, but imagine how tense it would have been if Clark is punching the crap out of Zod just to put him down long enough to go and rescue people in peril/caught in the collapsing buildings/whatever. It’d be like spinning plates. He saves people from a burning building and has just managed to put them safely on the ground before WHAM! Zod slams into him at a terrifying speed, tackling him and sending the pair of them a mile away, fighting in a whole new part of the city.

The first 20 minutes of the film show a complete lack of restraint. The opening is just disjointed action, filled with noise, explosions and stuff. It’s basically the “Bayhem” Michael Bay is often criticised for. We have an action packed opening on Krypton. We then cut to bearded Clark on a boat which spots a burning oil rig. More extended action. There isn’t time to digest any of this. There’s little breathing room – it’s just an assault on the senses. After Clark saves people on the rig, he’s knocked into the ocean. To me, this little bit sums up Zack Snyder at his worst. It’s a nice, big, empty shot but Snyder fills it with two CGI whales for some on-the-nose reason for Clark to have yet another flashback to his schooldays. Somebody needs to slap Snyder’s hands away from the storyboards on occasion, because when he’s unleashed he creates an OTT shitstorm like Sucker Punch. Writer David S. Goyer and his infamous “Goyerlogue” also proves that he needs one or both Nolans to rein him in before he makes the Most Serious Film Ever and becomes a depressing singularity, sucking in joy and natural sounding dialogue with him and blinking them out of existence. There’s too much exposition and too many moments of a character saying “I’m sad/conflicted” without ever showing us.

I think one of the reasons it’s so hard to nail down Clark as a character is the film is almost embarrassed to be an origin story. I does everything it can to disguise the fact with the multiple flashbacks and the like. Listen, I’m wary of origin stories and I’m sick of reboots, but that’s because they usually fall into the same traps time after time, not because of the very fact that they’re retelling the same story. Batman Begins was refreshing because it was finally a decent take on the Dark Knight’s origins and removed all that crappy “Joker killed the Waynes” shit from the filmic canon. Origin stories aren’t inherently bad. Dressing shit up and pretending you’re not starting afresh is dumb. Own that shit. If you have to reboot a franchise, make sure it’s the best it can possibly be. Telling a linear story from when Kal crash lands in Kansas wouldn’t be the worst thing. We could still have all the well-done school stuff, but there would be more connective tissue, some flow to it all and, most importantly, a stronger sense of character.

Look, I get that this isn’t the Superman I watched in the animated series. I understand that. My issue is that this barely seems like Superman at all. Sure, he’s got the powers an’ shit, but where’s the crucial humanity to him? It has to be said that one of the most important characters in Superman lore, Jonathan Kent, has been royally fucked up. He’s a goddamn sociopath, When a young Clark asks, somewhat rhetorically, whether he should have let a schoolbus of his classmates die just so his identity is kept secret, there’s a short pause and Pa Kent says “…Maybe.” OK, he doesn’t have the answers, but what an odd lesson to teach a child. In common Superman lore, one of the saddest moments is when Pa Kent dies of a heart attack. Why? Because it’s the one thing Superman can’t stop. He can fly at supersonic speeds and punch clean through mountains but he can’t stop his loved ones from dying. It’s the total embodiment of mortality and the cruel chaotic way nature works. In Man of Steel, we have an unnecessary tornado sequence where Pa Kent goes back to his car to save the family dog and gets caught up in the storm. He purposefully stops Clark from saving him as some sort of grim ultimate proof that Clark should take his shoe-shittingly mental lessons about secrecy to heart. It’s really stupid and completely undermines the character, at least from my point of view. It’s a shame because I think Costner does a great job as Jonathan and given the right material could have been the ultimate father figure.

Lois Lane is another wasted opportunity. Amy Adams is usually the best thing in anything she’s in. Lois Lane is a tough character to get right, but one that Adams is more than capable of nailing. Lane starts off all promising an’ shit (she gets a sweet line about military “dick measuring”) but the film loses interest in her and she ends up just being there. When the Kryptonians take Clark on board, they also state they want a human, so Lois accepts. Why do they want a human? For collateral? Wasn’t the deal “give up Superman and we won’t blow you up”? OK, they were going to go back on that anyway, but surely they wanted people to think they were holding up their end of the bargain. It’s not explained and smacks of contrivance. The romance between Lois and Clark is rushed as hell and completely perfunctory. There’s no meat to it at all. It’s there purely because of audience expectation. It’s pandering bullshit.

Shannon’s Zod is a weird one. I like his angry take on the character, but like Clark, his motivations are muddled. It’s only just before their final battle that we learn that Zod was genetically engineered to protect Krypton’s interests. He can’t help the way he’s acting. It’s a decent idea and actually makes you feel empathy for him, but the revelation is so oddly timed. Why all of this now, just as Superman’s about to beat the super-shit out of him? This coming to light at an earlier point in the film would have fleshed out his character considerably.

It’s frustrating because there some really decent elements and cool “bits” in play. The performances are all solid, especially Cavill, Adams, Shannon and Crowe who all bring their “A” games. The action beats are all exciting and give us the kind of superhuman megafights we haven’t seen before, especially in a Superman film. The scene where Clark, suited up in the iconic red and blue, learns to fly for the first time is joyful. The bit where Jor-El tells Clark the history of Krypton through the medium of an animated metallic mural is awesome. Lois being let in at the ground floor when it comes to knowing Superman’s identity is a smart move (although I get the feeling it was only included to sidestep the shit and insight-free “Clark’s disguise is rubbish, it’s clearly Superman in glasses” schtick). Superman’s final reveal being tied into humanity’s first contact with aliens. It’s all good stuff. There’s a really smart take on the whole Superman thing in here somewhere, buried underneath the origin embarrassment and leaden writing.

So, the big controversial ending. Superman breaks Zod’s neck. He just fuckin’ kills the guy. To be honest, I don’t really have a problem with this. It makes sense. He was backed into a corner and Clark had no real other option. Zod wins in the way that Kevin Spacey’s John Doe “won” in Se7en. It’s a dark ending. If you needed proof that the film was relying on previous knowledge of the main character, this should be it. It assumes you know Superman doesn’t kill people. It’s never addressed in the film. Afterwards Clark is torn up about it, screaming in anguish. It’s powerful stuff. If they use this as a way of cementing his moral standpoint in future adventures and having Clark vow to never kill again, then it’s worth it. The film can’t help but ruin this moment by tacking on some bullshit scene about drones (ooh, topical!) and a female military captain finding him “hot”.

“Hi, Lois Lane. Welcome to The Planet.”

“Glad to be here Lois.”

Man of Steel is a frustrating mess. It messes up a chance to properly introduce a great character and confirms peoples’ biases a thousand times over when they say Superman is boring. He is boring in this film. Fucking boring. There’s nothing to him. The film refuses to stick to its guns when it comes to anything. It’s a turgid clunker with delusions of grandeur and a sense of pomposity that’s really unappealing. So, explain to me why I actually don’t hate it with the same passion that I do something like The Amazing Spider-Man. I’m not sure, really. Maybe it’s because I can see the potential here. It can be a great series, it wishes to be. It only lacks the light to show the way.

P.S. Right, I’m done talking about Man of Steel, I promise. However, I found the video below by Chronicle writer Max Landis to be informative and on the money:

The Lone Ranger (Redux)

 
Tonto and the Lone Ranger were riding across the prairie. Suddenly, Tonto dismounts his horse and puts his ear to the ground.
He looks at the Lone Ranger and says, “Buffalo come.”
“Wow, that’s amazing! How did you figure that out?”
“Face sticky.”
 

The Lone Ranger (2013) (Redux)

So, whilst my first Scenes of the Year list was well received (thanks, by the way), it raised a few eyebrows. Biggest brow lifter was my inclusion of the universally loathed Lone Ranger alongside more “legitimate” picks like Gravity and Django Unchained. The Lone Ranger was one of 2013’s highest profile flops with reported losses being around the $190 million mark. Fingers have been pointed and various elements blamed. The production history is fascinating though. It went way over budget (apparently due to goddamn werewolves not making that up), was cancelled thanks to Cowboys & Aliens stinking up the box office, only to be resurrected and bomb regardless. Anyway, like the disgusting narcissist that I am, I was re-reading my original review of it and found it to be lacking. I basically used the film as an example of the bloated corporate side of filmmaking that spawned it rather than focusing on the film itself. So, against better judgement, I went out, got myself a copy and rewatched it for the purposes of a more in-depth redux review. Guess what? My opinion has changed somewhat.

“Horse says you are spirit walker: a man who has been to the other side and returned.”

The Lone Ranger starts with a framing device of an old Tonto (Johnny Depp) telling a small boy about his adventures back in the day. We flashback and see the idealistic lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) arriving at the small town of Colby, Texas to visit his Sheriff brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and his wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson). To celebrate the new railroad connecting towns like Colby to the rest of the United States and beyond, Mayor Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) brings in notorious cannibalistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to publicly hang him in the town square. Old West tits go up when Cavendish escapes, leaving Tonto and Reid to become unlikely allies and uncover a plot that involves much more than a simple heart-eating psychopath. As I’ve said before, the performances are all decent. Depp’s insistence on playing Tonto as another wacky-as-fuck character is a bit out there, but I think he’s pretty amusing. The film has plenty of actual Native Americans in the wings, so the decision for Depp to go redface is baffling. Still, John Carter proved that not having a big name in your film knackers you straight out of the gate, so it’s understandable, if not exactly politically correct. I think Armie Hammer does a great job too. He’s shackled by the Tonto focused script, but he manages to really sell both sides of Reid.

In my original review, I stated that the film’s cynicism was one of the main things that turned me off about it. That’s still true to a certain extent, but I think it runs deeper than that. The film has little to no love for the source material. I’m nothing approaching a Lone Ranger fan. The radio plays, the TV show and subsequent films were all way before my time and I never saw the Filmation cartoon growing up. I knew just about as much as the standard pop culture osmosis grants, including the little joke at the top of all this. All the famous Lone Ranger hallmarks that I, a Ranger pleb, would expect are in the film but they feel token and concessionary. It’s almost like it’s too cool for school and wants to distance itself from its origins. In fact, this rewatch reminded me of the similarly afflicted Star Trek Into Darkness, which had a script made up of famous “bits” and not much else. The story they went with is not a good Lone Ranger tale, it’s a dark western inexpertly made to fit the property. It certainly doesn’t feel organic. Another film it reminded me of was the apparently ubiquitous Batman Begins. You may scoff at this, but when you take into account the fact that the basic story is a young man returning to his home town to find it full of criminals and corruption and adopting a masked, vigilante persona to take the fight to them, it may not seem that ridiculous. Add in the overall dark tone, the casting of Bat-actors Tom Wilkinson and William Fichtner, along with canned Batman Armie Hammer in the lead role. It even has a train finale that could have very easily contained the line “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”. One could argue that these are basic story points and coincidences, but I don’t know. Begins has been the cheat sheet that a metric fuckton of films have worked from for about ten years now, to the point where I refuse to believe that any kind of hero origin story hasn’t had Nolan’s name chucked about at least once during scripting. Cynicism does hang over the whole production, so it probably a case of “what’s popular right now and how can we fit it to this?” rather than “how do we make people care about the Lone Ranger again?” My guess is they just had “Pirates of the Caribbean (x Depp) + Batman Begins + HORSE (LOL) + ???? = $$$$$$$” written on the first draft of the script.

Without all the Ranger dressing, the basic story is actually pretty decent. It’s not the whitewashed classic Western “cowboys r awesome” yarn we’re used to seeing. It definitely takes a revisionist view of things. Nobody’s a hero and violence reigns supreme. It’s a more realistic take on how the Old West actually was, rather than how it’s been portrayed for decades. In an odd direction for a PG-13 crowd pleaser, the film plumbs the darker depths often. Examples? Well, in one scene, Reid fires a lucky shot. After bouncing off things in a comedic manner, including Tonto’s “I am Crow” headgear, it hits a suspended plank and takes out two villains. Standard stuff, but respectable enough. However, we then see that instead of just knocking them out or non-specifically killing them, the wood CRUSHED THEIR FUCKING HEADS. I ain’t squeamish, but fucking ow! If a similar scene appeared in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (great flick, by the way), I’d have laughed my little socks off. Here it just jars. There’s a grisly sequence where a Comanche army get mowed down by superior American firepower. There’s also a Tonto flashback later on that’s pretty grim viewing too. Thing is, these scenes would be effective if the film wasn’t trying to have its cake and eat it too. You can’t have Tonto and Ranger larks coupled with a grisly, post-modern take on how the West was actually won. It just doesn’t gel. There are some decent, challenging ideas here, especially considering the blockbuster forum. They just appear in the wrong film.

With all this we come back to the film’s other major problem of tone. The Pirates films had some dark stuff along with the swashbuckling adventure, but it was handled with a lot more care. Pirate stories usually have more than a few elements of the macabre about them anyway. Having scenes of realistic-feeling mass murder appearing in the same film as japes with Silver and a completely left-field decision to have CGI carnivorous rabbits creates a very odd final product. The script is a mess, but it’s a fascinating one. It’s a multi-car pile up, but the vehicles involved are brightly painted and make cartoon sound effects when compressed. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio show no signs of returning to their golden age when their scripting was sharp and witty. From the looks of it,  the third writer Justin Haythe may be the one responsible for grounding the film, steering the script away from some bonkers direction a pair of writers high off their own farts were intent on going. It still feels like a continuation of the duo’s work on the Pirates films, however,  albeit with characters that you’re not utterly fucking sick of. Outside of the fun Tonto/Ranger interplay, there are some real clunky lines of dialogue and a distinct lack of subtlety when it comes to exposition. Had I not observed their decline, I wouldn’t have even dreamt that the writers responsible for Curse of the Black Pearl could have written something as hacktastic as some of this.

This may shock readers and past lovers of mine, but I’m not a machine. I’m a squishy human being who doesn’t work in binary. I very rarely purely hate or love something. My opinions change and evolve as I do. Despite all the nitpicking and grievances above, I’ve come to the realisation that I actually like The Lone Ranger, quite a bit. There is a lot of good in there striving to escape. The Tonto/Ranger bits are fun, the action sequences well executed and memorable (especially the finale) and some of the ideas are great. Yeah, it’s bloated and overlong but unlike something like Desolation of Smaug it still has a strong focus on the main story. Yeah, Helena Bonham Carter’s character is completely pointless and adds fuck all to the story, but she adds some colour to proceedings and has a fun ivory gun leg (that may be my favourite sentence that I’ve ever written). Gore Verbinski is a fantastic director and gets to fill the lens with iconic Western scenes and vistas that are just as impressive as they always have been. He knows how to shoot action properly (still a rarity) and keeps things feeling pacy, even if the film is taking its sweet time to tell a relatively simple story. It’s all too weird and surreal to be completely dismissed. It’s a strange potluck type of film.

“It was a ranger, Butch! A lone ranger!”

I get the feeling that The Lone Ranger may be looked on as “misunderstood” rather than simply terrible in a few years. Let’s not go mental, it’s never going to be a hailed as a classic or anything, but I think people were a little too harsh to judge it (myself included) and it may just find an audience yet. It’s not the mass-made production line sludge that I initially took it for. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than that. Hollywood doesn’t usually make this sort of film and that could have been one of the reasons it failed. The Lone Ranger is the sort of film that I’ll admit to liking just to see monocles drop at fancy parties. Whereas there’s nothing of any real substance to discuss with hated Hollywood dreck like the Transformers sequels, The Lone Ranger provokes discussion. Even when it’s bad, it’s interestingly bad. That’s why it’s not only getting a decent three star rating but the caveat that it’s a good three stars as well, even edging on four. Haters to the east because I’m all about the west.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Redux)

 
Jack’s back, but does anyone care?
 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) (Redux)

Not content with squeezing a bloated trilogy out of the already chafed udder of the Pirates cashcow, the producers moved on with a Jack Sparrow centric adventure a few years after. However, Bloom and Knightley wouldn’t return and Gore Verbinski wouldn’t be parking his arse in one of those comfy looking directors’ chairs. Mahogany and Beech not signing back up was a plus, but Verbinski leaving is a tough one. Dude’s a talented director and would need a fitting replacement. Enter Rob Marshall, director of some music videos and easily forgotten films doomed to gather dust in your Mum’s DVD collection (I mean, when was the last time you heard someone talk about Memoirs of a Geisha?). Having only seen On Stranger Tides once before, I was struck at how flat everything was shot (odd, considering this was the only Pirates flick fiilmed and released in 3D) and how fuckin’ bored I was during it. Anyway, obligatory plot rundown:

“Don’t be a fool, Jackie. The fountain will test you.”

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) travels to London, but upon arriving he hears tell that another Jack Sparrow is looking for a crew to commandeer a ship. Intrigued, Sparrow sets to confront the imposter. He then becomes part of a bigger plan to find the Fountain of Youth and finds himself under the command of legendary feared pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his first mate, daughter and old flame of Jack’s Angelica (Penélope Cruz). The race is on between Blackbeard, the British and Spanish navies to find the mythical fountain. Despite being clumsily set up in the last film, I was looking forward to a quest for the Fountain of Youth. However, it turns out to be a plodding exercise in mediocrity. Depp’s Sparrow can still be entertaining, but the schtick is tired and played out. He needs better lines and characterisation. Penélope Cruz does admirably in the role of Angelica, although the only thing she’s asked to do is play a stereotypical hot-blooded Latina woman. Ian McShane doesn’t really do much as Blackbeard. He’s not at fault though- the script doesn’t have any real interest in the character and he’s just there. Not exactly a baddie for the ages. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) also returns, but he may as well be a different character. Once again, the writing lets him down as he’s a far cry from the character I liked in the previous films.

You may have noticed a few complaints about the script so far and I honestly can’t rag on it hard enough. It was doomed from the start as having Sparrow as the main character doesn’t work. It creates a divide between to the plot-serving emotional journey and the wacky goofball sides of him. As a result, we get a watered down character that has both sides pushed up to maximum in the hopes that you won’t notice and be reminded of the times when the act was charming. Remember when Jack was all bravado and escaped situations with a healthy dose of luck and opportunism? The writers don’t. Now he’s just a cocky knob who is consistently brilliant at everything he tries and must have powers of precognition. Which is much less interesting.  Quite why Elliot and Rossio weren’t shaken loose when they upended the franchise toy chest is beyond me. The one thing I will commend the film on is its stripped down approach. It’s much less convoluted than both of the previous sequels and has a better story focus. The story isn’t particularly great, but it’s there. None of this “getting bogged down in its own mysticism” bullshit to be found here.

The one element I liked was actually something a lot of reviewers singled out as one of the worst things about the film. I liked the little romance between the missionary Philip (Sam Clafin) and the captured mermaid Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Whilst their little courtship was tacked on purely because these films have to have one,  I found it more convincing than the Turner & Swann saga. He gets renewed faith in his dearest Lord plus he fancies her a bit and she learns that all humans aren’t bastards and she fancies him a bit. They both learn something and get something from the relationship. Makes sense to me. It may be indicative of the film’s problems that I latched on to what must be the C or D story rather than the main supposedly epic quest for the MacGuffin or the Angelica/Sparrow angle.

Even the action’s not particularly good. There’s a bright spot when the crew are attacked by mermaids, but that’s about it. There’s plenty of swordfighting, but we’ve seen all this shit before. The apparent lack of energy or creativity with the camera (Marshall, you scallywag) exacerbates things too. Never will you be more away that you’re watching actors playfight on a set. I just didn’t care about anything and wanted to shut it off in favour of something that tries harder.

“Gentlemen, the fountain is the prize. Mermaid waters, that be our path.”

On Stranger Tides is just as bad as At World’s End, but in different ways. Stranger Tides has a clearer plot and isn’t as indulgent as At World’s End, but the story it went with was dull. At World’s End at least had some creativity here and there whereas On Stranger Tides has an air of a run-of-the-mill Hollywood production line product about it. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s not good either. I’m a great believer in franchises redeeming themselves (the Fast and Furious films) so here’s hoping that 2015’s Pirates 5 has a better crack at the whip. Having said that. a cursory glance at the film’s IMDB page reveals that it’s directed by two fellas I’ve never heard of and that Elliot and Rossio are back on writing duties.  I can already feel the dread starting to build.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Redux)

 
At my wit’s end,  more like! (pause for laughter) (laughter never comes) (sad now)
 

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) (Redux)

My attention span ain’t what it used to be. Since I’ve owned a smartphone, I’ve caught myself on numerous occasions not paying attention to the film I’ve just put on in lieu of checking Twitter, my texts or even IMDB trivia about the film I’m meant to be watching. Thankfully, I’ve mostly put a stop to this, but I’m not sure I would have survived another viewing of At World’s End without my precious phone. Although it’s hard to get official figures on it, thanks to Hollywood accounting and the like, At World’s End is considered the most expensive film ever made (unadjusted for inflation) at a whopping $300 million. My question is this: why the leaping Christ did they not drive any of that cheddar into improving the writing? Dear Lord, the term “clusterfuck” hardly seems to do it justice. Anyway- getting ahead of myself here.

“I have no sympathy for any of you feculent maggots and no more patience to pretend otherwise. Gentlemen, I wash my hands of this weirdness.”

Leading on from Dead Man’s Chest, Will (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), the newly resurrected Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) et al. have to travel to Davy Jones’ Locker to rescue Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) because of reasons. Along the way, they encounter Pirate lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) and have to avoid Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) who is now under the command of Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). There’s some other stuff too, but in all honesty, you’ve probably seen the sodding thing multiple times over like I have. I really don’t know where to begin with this. For starters, it’s way too fucking long, clocking in at close to three hours. Secondly, both Bloom and Knightley reach new levels of ligneous guffery. Not sure about Bloom, but Knightley has done actual acting elsewhere, so I don’t know why she’s taking leave of all believable emotions here. Hell, even Depp’s charm is wearing thin by this point. He seems to have been encouraged to amp the wackiness up to Looney Tune levels. There are several Multiplicity-like scenes where multiple Sparrows all try to out-gurn each other and I found it painful to sit through. There’s even a little angel/devil on the shoulders scene. I mean, come on! There are a few saving graces, however. Rush’s Barbossa is still a delight to watch, Bill Nighy continues being fantastic as Davy Jones and Hollander’s quintessentially English tea-drinking baddie is fun and a better villain than the film deserves.  Jack Davenport also merits a mention, but he isn’t really given enough to do to leave any significant mark on the film.

Motivation is one of the essential things when talking about characters. Whether their purposes are for good/evil/whatever, it’s important to make them clear (unless obscuring them is the whole point) in order for an audience to connect with them. I’ve seen At World’s End a bunch of times and I still couldn’t tell you what the shit is going on. Everyone seems to be selling everyone out but not really, except when they are anddearLordmakeitstop. Add in a bunch of mysticism and talk of destiny and you’ve got a fine mess on your hands. It’s hard to get a handle on who’s doing what and why and, more importantly, why you should give a damn. Why they wanted to make everything so damn convoluted in a film that’s meant to appeal to families I don’t know. In any case, it gave me a headache.

Actually, the the family target audience brings me to another point. The tone is all over the place. We open on a mass hanging and it gets worse from there. The opening is especially brutal as a young boy gets the ol’ short drop and a sudden stop. Y’see kids have a habit of instantly relating to other kids on screen. It’s why so many kiddie films are packed with the little buggers. I imagine there were a few worried glances between parents when that scene played out. The whole film has forgotten its fun, swashbuckling origins and replaced it with CGI-tastic epic battles and mugging at the camera. Making weak gags amidst huge battle sequences is not the same as having a consistent light-hearted tone. Then again, consistency in regards to anything is one of this film’s massive failings.

Elizabeth really bugged me in this one. Answer me this: when did she become a warrior woman? There were hints of it in Dead Man’s Chest, but now she’s perfectly capable of standing her ground with experienced swordsmen. I’m a big fan of women kicking arse, but it just doesn’t make any sense, even with the loopy logic of the films. Plus, the whole “pirate king” thing is ludicrous. I almost cringed myself inside out when it came time for Swann to deliver a “rousing” speech to the assembled crews. She sounded more like a bitchy head girl bollocking her dowdy doormat friend for daring to show up to the school dance in the same colour outfit as her.

I will say this though- the effects are genuinely amazing. Whilst they skimped on coherent writers and actors who could act, they certainly didn’t pinch pennies when it came to the visuals. I love Shipwreck Cove- a pirate meeting place made up of dozens of broken and dilapidated ships. The “up is down” twisty-turny bit is jaw-dropping. The climactic Maelstrom sequence is also very well done and the sheer fun spectacle of watching two ships frag the living fuck out of each other in a gigantic swirling whirlpool wins the film some big points. Having said that, it’s really difficult to give a crap about what’s going on. Still a top-notch tech demo though.

Before I end this review I will mention a few little odds and ends I liked, lest you mistake me for the usual kind of internet critic that either loves something unconditionally or hates it with the very core of their being. I’ve got a new favourite fish-person, for one. The moray eel fella who can retract his head inside his body and bites people in the face is bloody awesome. Shame he only gets a few seconds of screen time. I quite like the Keith Richards cameo as Jack’s dad, but I think I like the idea more than the reality. It’s like when they officially made May 4th “Star Wars Day”- it sort of ruins the joke. Barbossa’s constantly interrupted marrying of Will and Elizabeth is also amusing and one of the few genuine laughs I got from the film. I also dig Cutler Beckett’s slow motion walk-whilst-everything-fucking-explodes death, although it’s not quite as good as I remember it. It’s a decent send off to a great baddie though and the final shot of his lifeless body landing and being enveloped by a floating East India Trading Co. flag is pretty damn memorable.

“Nobody move! I’ve dropped me brain.”

So, At World’s End. It’s goddamn boring is what it is. It’s a hypermegaclusterfuck of half-baked ideas, clunky writing and awkward tonal shifts in a shiny wrapper. It’s a shame the sequel apple fell so far from the Curse of the Black Pearl tree. It’s a testament to excess and highlights the very worst of blockbuster filmmaking. I think Sparrow himself said it best: “It is neither proper nor suitable, sir. It is not acceptable, nor adequate. It is, in obvious fact, an abomination.”

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

Back on track with the LADathon with the second Pirates flick. More on the way.

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

With Curse of the Black Pearl becoming a big hit worldwide, sequels were inevitable. Disney opted to film Pirates 2 and 3 back-to-back with Dead Man’s Chest being released in 2006. I’ve seen Dead Man’s Chest many times, but in rewatching it to do this redux, I realised that 1) I couldn’t remember large stretches of it and 2) it wasn’t as bad as I previously thought.

“Jones’ terrible leviathan will find you, and drag the Pearl back to the depths and you along with it!”

Following on from Curse of the Black Pearl, our two lead planks Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) are due to be married, but all is cut short when newly appointed Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) claps them in irons for aiding and abetting Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Sparrow has problems of his own, however, as his debt to the fearsome legendary Captain Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is due to be paid and if he doesn’t comply, he’ll face the wrath of the massive,  multi-tentacled Kraken, capable of sinking entire fleets of ships. Having my preconceptions when I sat down to review it good an’ proper, I had loaded my shitcannons and was ready to work the film over from the barebones up. Why are these characters doing these things? What’s her motivation? Is his story arc satisfactorily concluded? etc. However, it’s actually a well-constructed film. On a base level, there are very few criticisms that I could find to level at it.  Motivations make sense, the story’s structured strongly and everything that’s set up pays off for the most part. So, why the three stars at the bottom of the page? Well, just because it’s functional doesn’t mean it’s brilliant. It’s way too fucking long at 151 mins and it’s as self-indulgent as mashing caviar on your nipples and ordering several exquisite eunuchs to lick it off. More of that in a minute.

Bloom and Knightley haven’t improved between films. Whilst their wooden “acting” got a free pass last time, it becomes more of a problem this time as both are given more to do. Of the newcomers, I love Tom Hollander’s Beckett who has free reign to be the bastard that Davenport’s Norrington wasn’t allowed to be. Bill Nighy’s octopus-faced Davy Jones is a cracking villain too. The production design on Jones and the crew of the Flying Dutchman, including the ship itself is remarkable. There are all sorts of odd sea creature/man hybrids to goggle at and they’re all fantastically realised. Whilst I like the hammerhead shark fella and the guy who just seems to have an oyster for a head and no discernible mouth, my favourite is the pufferfish lad. We don’t get to see him puff up when he’s stressed or angry though. Missed opportunity. I have to give credit where credit’s due, it’s refreshing that they didn’t try to just rehash Black Pearl and actually went for something a bit different. The merits of where they went with it is debatable, but in the age of a widespread “fuck it, that’ll do” attitude towards sequels, it’s a good thing. The scale and scope is considerably bigger this time round. The effects have been stepped up and at times border on the photo-realistic. The Kraken scenes are my favourites. Just the image of a ship being ensnared by huge tentacles is straight off an old nautical map. It’s great to see it on screen and it’s surprisingly unsettling.

I was racking my brain trying to figure out why this film isn’t as successful as its predecessor. There were things I noticed that didn’t work, such as the dialogue not being nearly as sharp this time round and some real weaksauce gags slipping through the net, but none of them were film killers. It all came to me watching the three-way swordfight between Norrington, Sparrow and Will. Firstly, the film is too convoluted and indulgent for its own good- so much so, that they have Mackenzie Crook’s Ragetti explain each man’s motivation whilst the fight’s going on as a refresher course to Pintel and therefore the audience. If you have to have a character dump exposition all in one go like that, you’re not doing a very good job telling a story. Secondly, and most importantly, I realised I was having fun as I watched the three men fight in and on a rolling waterwheel. Not only that, it seems like a scene that’d be completely at home in the first film. Dead Man’s Chest lacks the consistent sense of fun and swashbuckling adventure that Black Pearl had in abundance.  Much like Jack Sparrow, the film doesn’t know what it wants and flits between all sorts of conflicting things. The tone is erratic throughout and as such you end up not quite knowing how to react to it.

“Life is cruel. Why should the afterlife be any different?”

Dead Man’s Chest isn’t a bad sequel by any means. It moves its characters on, brings in some great villains and takes us to new and exciting places. It just isn’t as enjoyable as it should be. A sense of fun can make up for a hell of a lot, but Dead Man’s Chest has it in fits and starts, coupled with some surprisingly dark shit for a family friendly film (the poor bastard who has his face sucked clean off by the Kraken comes to mind.) It’s entertaining enough, but it gets too bogged down in its own mysticism and taking itself seriously to really cut loose and live a little.

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

I’ve been looking for a personal project for a while. By chance, I happened to replace my knackered Pirates of the Caribbean set and started thinking about Disney’s live action output in the past decade.  Most of it follows the Pirates formula, but it has some interesting anomalies and talking points. Whilst I have reviewed some of them before, I read them back and cringed myself to death, resurrected and decided to do something about it. From today, my focus is going to be 100% Disney as I’m going to be reviewing the Pirates films, the National Treasures, Tron Legacy, John Carter, The Muppets and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. There will be unrelated reviews inbetween however. I couldn’t think of anything clever as an umbrella topic to group them all under, so it’s my Live Action Disney-a-thon (or LADathon for shortsies). It’s also been ten years to the day since this film was released. Think of that. You’re old.

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

pirates_of_the_caribbean_ver3_zpsf6501afb

I suppose in this climate of making a movie of practically anything with a famous name (Battleship, The Lego Movie, Toilet Duck: The Motion Picture etc) it’s not too much of a stretch, but it still strikes me as odd that somebody (or rather many somebodies) invested heavily in a film based off a clunky theme park ride featuring barely mobile animatronic pirates. Having said that, when it comes to film, I’m a firm believer in the notion that there is no such thing as a bad idea, just bad execution. I believe that Curse of the Black Pearl is proof of that. It’s an unapologetically fun film with plenty of swashbuckling action. But you already know that.

“You didn’t beat me. You ignored the rules of engagement. In a fair fight, I’d kill you.”

“That’s not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it?”

The plot follows lowly blacksmith and swordmaker Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and his secret love for the Governor’s daughter, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). After a while, the crew of the legendary and feared Black Pearl, led by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) pillage Port Royal and kidnap Elizabeth. It’s up to Will and imprisoned, eccentric pirate and former Black Pearl Captain, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to save her. Rewatching the film, I was struck by just how tight the screenplay is. There are no pointless scenes, everything that is set up pays off at some point and the dialogue hits the balance between functional exposition and playful banter throughout. Yeah, I know. All films of this ilk should have a script like that. The sad fact is the majority of them don’t- the sequels to this very film being prime examples. The script is clever, witty and is just plain satisfying. The duo of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, previously known best for writing Shrek, the criminally underrated The Road to El Dorado and Disney’s own Aladdin, manage to inject the then stale pirate genre with some much needed fun and adventure.

It’s strange that I still rate this film despite it having two of the most wooden leads in recent memory. Both Knightley and Bloom act like recent lobotomy cases, dialogue dripping from their mouths with barely any inflection or feeling. Whilst most of the jokes are given to Depp, any humour that the script affords Will and Elizabeth is killed stone dead by the delivery. Check out the bit where Sparrow has assembled a ragtag bunch of pirates to chase The Black Pearl. Will says “Well, you’ve proved they’re mad!”. It’s not the best one-liner, granted- but the way Bloom hits the line is like he’s never heard a joke before. Another actor could have sold it better. Same with my most hated line in the whole film: Elizabeth’s “You like pain?… (she strikes a pirate with an oar) try wearing a corset!”. Not only is it a god-awful line, the delivery stinks. Ugh. On the better acting side of things. Depp is obviously the scene-stealer and his performance in Black Pearl has stood the test of time and shitty sequels. The man knows his way around a gag. Often overlooked is Geoffrey Rush who is clearly having a whale of a time as Barbossa. He’s not cartoonishly evil, but he has his moments. He also handles the all-important wit with skill. Similarly, Jack Davenport is a fantastic straight man and is often ignored in favour of Depp’s peacocking by most people.

Above all else, Curse of the Black Pearl is FUN. Remember when blockbusters were fun? It has proper swashbuckling action, great swordfights and special effects that still hold up for the most part. I will always love the moonlight reveal of Barbossa’s literal skeleton crew. The final swordfight between Barbossa and Sparrow as they move through piles of gold and shafts of moonlight is fantastic. I will never tire of Jack and Elizabeth being stranded on an island, leading to the famous “why is the rum gone?” line. There are some fantastic character beats in this bit and it elevates the film significantly.

There are so many things about Black Pearl that I find refreshing. The fact that none of the characters are fucking idiots and capable of independent thought is a major one. For instance, Jack only agrees to help Will after learning his surname and asking some not-so-subtle questions about his father. In most films this’d be presented as a big reveal later on, but not here. Will confronts Sparrow on the way there and we’re done and dusted. I also really like the motivation of Barbossa and his crew. They’re not out-and-out evil. They’re bad people alright, but no worse than Sparrow himself. All they want is their terrible curse to be lifted so they can finally enjoy food, drink and “pleasurable company” again. That sounds downright reasonable to me.

Most refreshing of all is the risk that Disney took with this. It was their first PG-13 film, starring an actor known for cult hits not big blockbusters, based off an intellectual property they had knocking around in the shed and given the full support of Disney’s marketing arm. A mere decade later and the landscape has completely changed. Last year’s John Carter (review coming soon) was a risk, but Disney had no real faith in it, didn’t market it properly and it bombed. This year’s Lone Ranger looks to suffer the same fate, despite them cranking up the obnoxious advertising dial a few notches. As you know, the Pirates gamble paid off and launched an entire franchise that’s not done yet (work is underway on a fifth film). I just like it when studios think outside of the box and are rewarded for it.

“Where’s Elizabeth?”

“She’s safe, just like I promised. She’s all set to marry Norrington, just like she promised. And you get to die for her, just like you promised. So we’re all men of our word really… except for, of course, Elizabeth, who is in fact, a woman.”

It may get unfairly tarred with the same brush as the rest of the series, but Curse of the Black Pearl is a hugely enjoyable film and one of the best examples of being fun for the whole family. It’s bloody brilliant, savvy?

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The Dark Knight (Redux)

“Interesting” sidenote on this one. The Dark Knight was the first film I attempted to review. I emerged from the cinema completely shellshocked and felt compelled to write about what I’d just witnessed.  So I did. On MySpace. Took me a while to realise this was akin to yelling “Fire!” as the Titanic went down, but I realised I liked writing about stuff I loved ( a revelation to me, a no-brainer for everyone else) so here we are, in this grotty little corner. All because of Batman.

The Dark Knight (2008) (Redux)

How does one say anything about The Dark Knight without their voice immediately becoming lost amongst the hyperbolic masses? It’s a tough thing to do. If you’re anything like me (and I hope for your sake you’re not) the more something is trumpeted about, the less likely you are to bother with it. That’s largely irrelevant here however, as statistically, you’ve seen the film multiple times, own it on a shiny disc and have been working on your terrible Batman/Joker impressions ever since 2008. To the five people who haven’t been living in a Batcave these past four years, let me try and explain what makes The Dark Knight so extraordinary.

“Do you wanna know how I got these scars?”

The thing to understand is that The Dark Knight was always going to be big, but just how big it turned out to be surprised everyone. Elements started coming together before release (thanks in part to a revolutionary viral marketing campaign), before things started snowballing right up until release date. For starters, Batman Begins had introduced and won a lot of people over to the Nolanverse and its new, gritty take on The Caped Crusader, so naturally these people wanted more. Secondly, instead of facing secondary, lower-level villains like Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow, ol’ Bats would be squaring off against his most famous adversary, The Joker. Thirdly came an element that nobody could have foreseen- the tragic death of Heath Ledger mere months before the film was due to come out. This undeniably pushed knowledge of the film beyond the reach of even the most ambitious marketing drive. Amongst the grief and sad head-shakings about a life cut short, a morbid curiosity about Ledger’s last completed role started to rise- a phenomenon that also helped Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. People were champing at the bit to see this film and luckily, it turned out to be an astounding piece of work. If Batman Begins was all about laying solid foundations, The Dark Knight was about escalation, or, as The Joker himself so aptly puts it: “aggressive expansion”.

With the criminal stranglehold on Gotham City loosened by the tireless work of Batman (Christian Bale) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), regular street thugs are running scared from the Batsignal. However, when an unpredictable goon in clown make-up shows up calling himself “The Joker” (Heath Ledger), the gangs turn to him to get rid of their bat problem. Meanwhile, a new hope for Gotham emerges in the shape of the new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who Bruce Wayne hopes will turn into the reason to hang up the cape and cowl. Things are slightly more complicated as Dent is dating Wayne’s old flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). This is about as good as it gets for not only comic book adaptations, but films in general. The plot is slick, tight, compelling and immersive, treating the audience like they’ve got a brain in their head (still a rarity in blockbuster filmmaking). Take away the costumed sillies and you’ve got yourself a damn fine thriller in its own right. The cast, once again, are fantastic, with the possible exception of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who seems to be holding back her acting talent seen in things like Secretary for another artsy-type film. This is pure speculation of course and she’s certainly not bad, I just can’t shake the feeling she’s not as into it as everyone else. As I said in my Batman Begins review, I would have liked Katie Holmes to have reprised her role, especially as the emotional pay-offs for the Rachel Dawes character are in this one.

The smack-in-the-face obvious stand-out is Heath Ledger’s Joker, who gives the film a manic energy and a genuine menace. For the first time on-screen, The Joker is scary. This is a far cry from Nicholson’s portrayal, who came across as a wacky uncle, rather than the demented psychopath we’re presented with here. You can never quite get a handle on Ledger’s Joker. He’s unsettling, sinister and devious but amusing and incredibly entertaining at the same time. He also gets most of the best lines, with some of my favourite moments of the film being his insane diatribes, such as his conflicting stories about how he got his trademark scars to goading a policeman about how many of his friends he’s killed. Ledger deservedly won the Oscar for this portrayal. Oh- and to all the people who said he won it “just because he died”, fuck you- it’s all there on screen. It’s truly a powerhouse performance and one I never get sick of seeing.

As for the rest of the film, it’s astounding. The writing is great and the score is especially awesome (with the usually happy-to-rest-on-his-laurels Hans Zimmer re-teaming with James Newton Howard to build on the amazing work they did on the Batman Begins soundtrack.) With such an emphasis on story and dialogue, you’d think the ball would be dropped by adding in some generic action beats. However, the action manages to be jaw-dropping whilst keeping it realistic. There’s the famous chase through the streets of Gotham which introduces the cool-as-hell Batpod and culminates in a huge 18-wheeler being flipped. You will believe a truck can fly. The opening bank heist is incredibly well done too. It sets up the film beautifully.

My favourite scene that doesn’t feature gravity-defying vehicles is the interrogation scene where Batman and The Joker have a nice little sit-down before it all goes to hell. To me, this defines The Dark Knight as a whole. In the wrong hands, this scene could have been infamous, up there with the “nuking the fridge” bit in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as it’s basically a man in unconvincing clown make-up taunting a gravelly-voiced knob in fetish gear armour with silly little bat ears. However, in practice it’s an uneasy, shocking scene that reminds me of a similar bit in L.A. Confidential where Russell Crowe’s Bud White loses his rag with a detainee. The scene is so good, I’m trying my utmost to not quit this review, jam the Blu-ray in the player and lose myself in it all over again. It honestly gets better every time I see it.

I was trying to think about any problems I had with the film and the only one I have is the dialogue given to the cop driving the armoured truck. He seems to think he’s in a standard jokey action adventure, rather than one of the bleakest populist films in recent memory. Lines like “I didn’t sign up for this!” seem really out of place. This reaches a nadir when the Joker orders his men to “rack ’em up”- shoot metal cables into the path of a police helicopter to take it down. The cables do the job and we cut back to out piggly friend who says “That’s not good!”, followed by more heli-destruction and another cut back to Sgt. Snout: “OK, that is not good!”. I can’t help thinking: “Your colleagues/friends are almost certainly dead, or at the very least seriously injured AND you’ve lost your air support in one fell swoop. You’re being hounded by a psychopath and his cronies with shitloads of weaponry and all you can do is spout shit action phrases?!”. It’s a nitpick, sure, but it really does bug me and it’s especially noticeable when surrounded by so much awesome.

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

In my not-at-all humble opinion, The Dark Knight is not only the best comic book adaptation but one of the best films in the last ten years. It’s one of those films that will be an eternal favourite, something I pop on when I want to be reminded of how good films can be. It’s not just the film you deserve, it’s the film you need.

Batman Begins (Redux)

When looking at the daily stats on this blog, I’m always fascinated by the old reviews of mine that pop up. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor always manages a few hits, for instance. Thing is, I went back and re-read some of my earlier reviews and was shocked at how short and poorly written they were. They were superficial and made no attempt at getting down to the filmic nitty-gritty. So, I decided to do a redux review of some of them, so I can have a better representation of my current thoughts available. Plus, it’s an opportunity to revisit some great films. Rather than do a George Lucas i.e. replacing the original and burning the negatives, I thought I’d do a separate one. Also, I originally did this for The People’s Movies, where the archive of my stuff can be found here.

Batman Begins (2005) (Redux)

 

As great as the genre-defining hallmark The Dark Knight is, I think it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have been half as good without having the solid foundation of Batman Begins to build on. Until 2005, the (live-action) Batman adaptations were some of the best examples of wasted potential. Previous directors never really “got” Batman. He wasn’t a Gothic, limsy-wristed tragic poem of a man, stalking an Art Deco hellhole, nor was he a family-friendly, camp, action figure peddler who inhabited a headache-inducing neon nightmare. Christopher Nolan had a healthy respect for what made the comics great and, more importantly, knew that the most interesting way to get the audience to connect with the character was to get under the cowl and into the mind of the Bat.

“You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent.”

In case 1) you haven’t seen it or 2) can’t decipher that cryptic-as-fuck title, Batman Begins is, unsurprisingly, about Batman beginning, exploring the origins of the Dark Knight and giving the series the reboot it so sorely needed. After his rich and powerful parents are shot and killed by a opportunistic mugger, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is recruited to the League of Shadows by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), a group of ninja assassins who believe it is their duty to purge the decadent and corrupt elements of society. Rejecting their judge, jury and executioner mentality, Wayne returns to Gotham City and uses his company’s money and technology to dole out vigilante justice as Batman. Gotham is a shadow of its former self with widespread corruption, mostly leading back to powerful mob boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). There’s also a new threat in the form of Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) a creepy psychopharmacologist (that’s a real thing, I didn’t just lean on the keyboard) who experiments on his patients and has shady dealings with Falcone. Batman vows to end the Gotham’s decay with the help of rare good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), tech genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), tenacious assistant D.A. and childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine).

Batman Begins is a refreshingly realistic and smart take on the Batman mythos. It chops and changes some of the most memorable comic stories like The Man Who Falls and The Long Halloween and manages to bring these various elements together into a solid, cohesive narrative. Yes, it is kind of silly to have a real, psychological take on what basically boils down to a nutter in a rubber bat costume, but you won’t question it for a second when you watch it. The cast are uniformly great. I feel Katie Holmes has been unfairly maligned as Rachel Dawes and it’s a shame she didn’t get to reprise the role in The Dark Knight as I think she would have silenced her critics. Stand-out of the film for me is Cillian Murphy who gives an unsettling, uncanny performance as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, a man who possesses a stare that could melt Kevlar. Dude’s scary before he pulls the burlap hood over his head.

I’m hugely thankful for Nolan and David S. Goyer not messing up the Wayne’s deaths. In Burton’s Batman, they were shot by the man who would later turn into the Joker, a lazy attempt to add a personal stake in defeating the villain (see also: Spider-Man 3). What Burton (and Raimi) failed to realise is by doing that, you completely invalidate the reason why these heroes continue doing what they do. Once Keaton’s Batman defeated the Joker, why did he continue fighting crime? To have the culprit be just a random mugger means that Batman isn’t just seeking vengeance. He’s fighting something a lot more conceptual than that. Nolan understood this and to implicate that it may have even partly been Bruce’s father’s fault for not acting is a masterstroke. Batman is all about the guilt.

There’s something very scientific and methodical in Nolan’s approach. Everything that is iconic to Batman is explained in a satisfactory and believable way. For example, Batman’s gadgets are Waynetech’s abandoned military contracts, deemed too expensive for use. The new Batmobile, the Tumbler, exemplifies the new Nolanverse. It’s functional, realistic, anti-camp (unlike previous flimsier models) and undeniably kick-ass. My only real problem is with the origin of the Bat signal, where Batman leaves the unconscious Falcone lashed to a huge spotlight, creating a rudimentary bat shadow in the sky. I just can’t stop thinking about the heat those things pump out and the fact that Falcone would be sizzling like a cheap steak by the time the police cut him down.

“Bats frighten me. It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”

Until rewatching it for this review, my opinion had always been that Batman Begins was very good, but The Dark Knight was the one that knocked it out of the park. Whilst I still believe that The Dark Knight is the superior film, it’s by a lot smaller margin than I originally thought. Batman Begins is a truly fantastic film. It’s the New Hope to TDK’s Empire Strikes Back and I don’t say that lightly.