Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge | Review

★★

Four sequels and fourteen long years on from Gore Verbinski’s brilliant swashbuckler, The Curse of the Black Pearl, the Johnny Depp fronted Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has definitively shipwrecked. The signs of shallow waters have been lingering for a while now but Salazar’s Revenge (known as Dead Men Tell No Tales in some regions for some reasons) is a mess through and through. No buckles are successfully swashed and my timbers remained wholly unshivered.

It is a backhanded credit to the film, directed by Scandinavian indie export duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (called in to curb escalating production costs), is that its most impressive feature is its ability to have the thinnest of plots and yet still make no sense whatsoever whilst being horribly convoluted. The film opens four years ahead of the last Pirates film and some eight or nine after the third – 2007’s equally blighted At World’s End – with Henry Turner (Lewis McGowan), son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s Will and Elizabeth, attempting to break the curse that has entrapped his father as the Captain aboard The Flying Dutchman, formerly of Davy Jones. Setting aside the blatant implausibility of Henry’s existence (when?!), it’s a head scratcher of an opening dependant on your remembering the intricacies of the events of the third film. Details that were obscure at the time, never mind ten years later.

Fast forward nine years, so ‘five winters’ after On Stranger Tides, and Henry, now played by Brenton Thwaites, embarks on a quest to find ‘the Trident of Poseidon’ – a ridiculously named McGuffin with the power the give users ultimate power over the seas and/or break old curses within the seas, dependent on which character is on screen for the exposition dump at the time. Of course, nobody knows where the Trident is however and it can only be found by the following of a map which ‘no man can read’. Enter Carina Smyth (Skins graduate, Kaya Scodelario) an academic astronomer way ahead of her time, who possesses a uniquely jewelled notebook and the intellectual ability to read celestial maps.

Also after the Trident of Poseidon is Javier Bardem’s Captain Armando Salazar and his cursed crew of Spanish Naval sailors, formally renowned Pirate-busters intent on purifying the seven sees for good. Their triumphant regime was halted years (and some) earlier by a young and cocky pirate by the name of Jack Sparrow (a CG de-aged Depp) who tricked the Spaniards into sailing into the supernaturally buzzing Devil’s Triangle, where they spontaneously blew up and were forced to exist as the undead. Yep. That is until an older, drunker, Captain Jack proceeds to give away his magical compass (the one that points at what it is you most want, remember?), freeing the zombie crew with conquest and vengeance on their minds.

Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa is looking for the Trident too because….because, because, because, because of the wonderful things it does. Not a clue. Also on the trail are the British Royal Navy, steered by a deeply forgettable ensemble, for the reason that you can never have too many characters, right Jerry (Bruckheimer – producer of all five)?

Salazar’s Revenge has been billed in part as something of a reboot for the series but in reality the final product bears stronger resemblance to a fan fiction remake of the original. Without dropping plot spoilers of later facsimile developments, the conceit of starting with a young boy who grows up to develop a crush on a plucky young woman, who just happens to be in possession of an item key to the plot, and be chased by a cursed crew of zombies seeking revenge on Jack, with whom the boy forms an unlikely alliance…feels unquestionably familiar. Similarly so, the complete dearth of originality here can be seen in set pieces stolen from previous Pirates films and pirated from other franchises alike. An early bank robbery – they literally rob the bank – is entertaining but identikit to the same heist in Fast and Furious 5. Likewise, the moment in which a ship emerges arse-first from beneath the waves is a direct copy of the same shot in At World’s End.

Brought in to fill the gaps left by Bloom and Knightley in films one to three and Sam Claflin and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey in the last outing, newbies Thwaites and Scodelario feel fresh as leads. Good value too is Bardem, giving undue weight to a thankless roll in the tradition of Bill Nighy and Ian McShane. Of the returners, Geoffrey Rush looks knackered as an ageing buccaneer (only in part contextually), Bloom delivers a dire cameo which creaks more than the ship (his ‘I love you son’ has less emotional resonance than Vader’s ‘I am your father’) and Kevin McNally seems only a reluctant participant for the ride. As for Depp, it’s hard to be kind about a performance which is merely a poor impression of the character and utterly fails to nail the accent of before. There are times when Depp splutters lines more audibly matching his Mad Hatter from the Alice films than the once iconic Captain. He’s even outshone by Sir Paul McCartney who gives his all to turgid material in only the most brief of appearances.

When not too CGI dominated, some visuals it must be said to retain an aura of pleasure. The real problems are entirely within the script and its innumerable holes more depleted than Salazar’s decimated shipmates. Quite how Jack’s supposed to spend the entire film drunk despite running out of rum in the first half an hour is the least of the film’s woes. Those would be flat attempts at humour which are at best simply not funny (‘I’m an astronaut’/’Ah, she tends donkeys!’) and at worst are immaturely dated (‘No woman’s ever handled my Herschel’).

Salazar’s Revenge has its moments but momentary is literally all they are. No scene manages to entertain from start to finish without at some point losing the plot. For a grim two hours the editing is poor and the soundtrack half-hearted; worst of all, the whole endeavour is unforgivably dull.

T.S.

The Levelling | Review

★★★★

As premiere features go, erstwhile short film-maker Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling marks a startlingly good debut for the first time full-length film director. Perfectly framed, and shot with masterful panache, this is a work charged with emotion, understatement and an awareness for its cinematic predecessors.

From the off, a choppy nighttime bonfire sequence, replete with naked figures evoking exuberance and violence alike, recalls The Wicker Man and establishes an unsettling tone reminiscent of rural horror. No conventional scares follow in the remaining 83 minutes however. Here, real life is quite horrifying enough. After the film’s cryptic openings, Leach then moves us to a later date in which Clover (Ellie Kendrick) is being driven to her father (David Troughton) on the family farm in the aftermath of her brother’s recent suicide. She brings with her both a history – Can you make it my Dad instead of my brother? –  and sense of emotional denial – ‘I’m fine. I’m fine’ – that is only matched by the repressive keep calm and carry on attitude of her father: ‘It was a bloody stupid accident’. Though their respective deliveries differ, Clover clipped and Aubrey, her father, gruffly aggressive, their pain is intwined. It is not long before the pair are engaged in Aubrey’s mantra that they must ‘get up, get out of bed and milk the cows’.

Kendrick is an outstanding presence in the film and well paired with Troughton. So fine a line divides her motivation and ambition from her isolation and grief that the balance at all points threatens to tip. Grief, that is, both for the brother that she has lost and parental guidance that she never had. As time moves on, Leach drip feeds repressed histories of unhappy family dynamics through the plot, uncovering Clover’s precocious brilliance and Aubrey’s deep rooted resentments. On telling his daughter of her brother’s suicide, Aubrey not only neglects to approach and comfort his own child but instead offers warmth and an embrace to a local – male – farmhand and family friend. Perfectly capturing the experience for her protagonist, Leach abandons Clover and, isolated in her framing, she never feels or appears more alone than in this scene. Her portrait is even captured in the scene within the microwave door’s reflection to her left. Beautiful.

As is often the case in rural, particularly independent, cinema – think Arnold’s Wurthering Heights or last year’s The Witch even – much of the heavy lifting in atmospherics is born of the environment in which the work is filmed. Leach captures the South West of England terrifically with shots of natural disturbia that can’t help but make surreal inserts, designed to invoke recent devastating floods upon the farm, stick out unfavourably. Not necessarily as awkward additions, but somewhat unnecessarily oblique. Another thought on its Somerset locale – and I write this with the best will and meaning in the world – is that the backing audio and dialogue often would feel perfectly placed within an episode of Radio 4’s long-running soap: The Archers. Which I love. Obviously.

To some regard, The Levelling might be described as being Britain’s answer to Julia Ducournau’s Raw. Both certainly revolve around a vegetarian vet-in-training who is forced to approach grim physical and metaphysical environments. Also as with Raw, those who expect a wealth of plot development might be left wanting. However, again like Raw, The Levelling is tour de force of directorial prowess and emotional heft, powerful enough in quieter moments to unfailingly maintain engagement and linger in your thoughts for some time after.

What Leach does next is something to be anticipated with a grand eagerness, there’s magic in the making.

Snatched | Review

★★

The film that lures Goldie Hawn, last seen with Susan Sarandon in 2002’s maligned The Bangor Sisters, back to the limelight ought to be a special one. Likewise, the new feature starring Amy Schumer, a comic surprisingly divisive based on her most recent turn in Judd Apatow’s terrific Trainwreck, should easily be a hoot. Jonathan Levine’s Snatched, penned by The Heat and Ghostbusters writer Katie Dippold, is however neither special nor, more’s the pity, anywhere near to being a hoot. That the talent’s on board is without a doubt; it’s just hard not to expect so much better and want for so much more.

One instant asset to Snatched, the story of a woman who takes her mother on a couples getaway to Ecuador after being dumped by her intended-companion of a boyfriend, is that Schumer (playing  Emily) and Hawn (Linda) have a chemistry that nails the familial relationship right from the off. In appearance alone the pair’s physiognomic similarities are clear but who could have predicted that these generationally separated stars of very different epochs would present so natural a bond? Emily, rather like Schumer’s Trainwreck turn as Amy, is emotionally hopeless, her early scenes are funny by virtue of their exposing the fallibilities of life as a child who never really grew up. Linda might have her emotions in check but has aged to become an overcautious mother hen and lonely cat-lady. There’s a brother too, Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz), but he’s an agoraphobic man child who still refers to his mother as ‘Ma-ma’ – the stress being irritatingly on the second ‘ma’.

Snatched first misstep comes when it falls in to that so common of comedy film traps, particularly action/adventure ones, the issue of a script which increasingly neglects laughs the more the plot develops. Thus, early promise: ’Help me put the fun back into…non-refundable’, like the film’s protagonists, gets lost in the jungle and what could have been a fine film (with jokes based on accent miscomprehension – ‘welcome’ misheard as ‘whale cum’ – it was never going to be a great one) descends rapidly into a dispiritingly poor one. Hidden within the film’s thicket of unbelievable twists, there are still jokes to be found, a handful of which hit, but these are too few and too often accompanied by dialogue pauses that have clearly been inserted in anticipation of audiences laughs that just don’t come.

It doesn’t help that an increasing absence of wit finds no solace in the increasingly tasteless plot. When in Ecuador, Emily befriends a charming Brit (Tom Bateman – klaxon) who shows her that there is more to life than one lived through an iPhone and allows her to experience new plethoras of cultural diversity. It is whilst Emily and Linda are under said Brit’s ‘protection’ that the duo are kidnapped by a local gang and held for ransom. They escape, murdering one of their captives in the process, and a chase across South America ensues as the Americans attempt to get back home, aided there by Jeffrey’s attempts to recruit the closest thing that the US State Department can offer to the A-Team. None of this is especially engaging to start with but when Emily’s personal development is enabled by her ability to turn good samaritan for a simple Columbian community things turn both saccharine and pretty rancid. Whilst Snatched manages to avoid stereotyping hispanic gangs in favour of mocking thick American tourists, the endeavour is wholly undermined by images of white saviours who gain moral salvation by their own do-gooding amid othered civilisations. The sort home to no individuals but instead a collective of saints in pre-cultural existences, just waiting for the aid of more advanced nations. This might feel unduly damning criticism for a light comic affair, but it is one that is unavoidable by the nature of its weak handling.

It is the film’s leads that offer redemption from outright failure here. Schumer is a talented performer and, whilst she’s been better, Snatched finds her on generally good form, give or take the odd over-hamming. Hawn, meanwhile, is faultless as her mother and the only one to emerge entirely without taint. A warm and welcome screen presence, the actress brings not just humour to the part but even an unwarranted depth to the paycheck, conveying the pains of motherhood with heartbreaking believability. An hour and a half with Hawn is time well spent, if precious little else deserves it here.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword | Review

★★

Few opening credits feel quite so redundantly unnecessary as the appearance of ‘a Guy Ritchie film’ does at the end of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword‘s preluding five minutes. Already, by this early stage in what can only be described as a bonkers romp into the thickets of Arthurian legend, Ritchie has slam dunked a checklist of his signature motifs. Whilst giant elephants and villainous Magi stampeding on a pseudo-medieval castle, led by bad-egg wizard (Volde)Mordred, may not be typical of the Snatch and Sherlock Holmes director’s oeuvre, a flippant attitude to real time motion and laddish vibe are both very much present and correct.

Ritchie’s retelling of the King Arthur story opens with an eye-roll-inspiring scrawl to establish the set up (all wizards and wars and whatever), before launching into a grimly choreographed Lord of the Rings-y battle sequence – including the aforementioned monster mammals – of chaos and random nose-bleeds. Eric Bana is Uther Pendragon, King of Camelot, in these early scenes: a decent bloke intent on doing right by his people and protecting ‘is trouble an’ strife (wife) and little nipper, Arthur (the regionalism of the accents in King Arthur are a hoot). One table-based exposition dump later and Uther has set out to vanquish Mordred (Rob Knighton), whilst his backstabbing brother, Vortigan (Jude Law), precedes to sacrifice his wife (a thanklessly cast Kate McGrath) for reasons that will become clear later. Ish.

With the situation going rather up s**t creek for Uther, he hurries his Queen (a similarly disposable debut for Poppy Delevigne) and heir (Oliver Barker) to a readied escape boat but is unable to prevent the former being bumped off, leaving the latter to float away downriver, Moses-like, to be found and raised by the lowlives of Londinium. Cue: ramped up montage of topless brawling, prostitutes and dodgy deals to represent Arthur growing up to become cocky beefcake Charlie Hunnam – in a better performance than this deserves. Looking for all the world like a Sik Silk model, garbed in a plentiful variety of grandad tops and cardigans, complete with hair styled presumably with VOlde5 wax, Hunnam’s Arthur struts around as a guardian to the brothel, with fingers in lots of pies.

Meanwhile, Vortigan has taken the throne and leads his kingdom with a strong and stable leadership – one intent on destroying it for no apparent reason. When a magical sword of prophecy appears trapped within a stone, however, he is forewarned by a cross between Jabba the Hut, Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Johnny Vegas that the person who is able to pull that sword from that stone will be his vanquisher. Arthur is a man who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty – a good job given that he apparently keeps his fingers semi-permanently in pastry – but has up to now avoided having a go at pulling the sword in the stone. It is fortuitous for the sake of the plot, then, that he is forced to do just that and – spoiler – is successful in doing so. Etc. etc. blah, blah, blah.

Holding back from total cynicism, it is safe to say that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is both dreadful and absolutely not the first in a Marvel imitating extended universe franchise, as was touted in Ritchie’s extensive promotion. That said, homoerotic hogwash that the film undeniably is, it is one that does prove, at times, to be infectious guff of the sort that somehow transcends its blatant awfulness to achieve an ascended magnificence in its own sheer bonkersness. For all its many faults, Ritchie’s script, co-penned by Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold, deserves recognition for attainting hilarity both intensionally and, more often, unintentionally. Take the pretty dire cameo by David Beckham, for instance, in which the former footballing giant is given the line: ‘Ten digits, round the blunt bit, give it a tug’. In case such analogy was not already crystal clear, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword revolves almost entirely around the concept that the sword is itself a glaringly unsubtle metaphor for male sexual organs and the alpha status carried therein. ‘What we are interested in,’ says another resistance fighter later, ‘is what you can do with that sword’.

Fundamentally a blokes-own adventure, Ritchie’s adaptation of the story reimagines the mythical King of legend as undergoing a metaphysical puberty in which he attempts to control and wield his unpredictable WMD. Do try not to cry with laughter at the orgasmic climax in which Arthur realises its potential. Quote: ‘Come on lads. Chop chop!’. It sags something awful in the middle but in its delirious peaks, King Arthur is a veritable riot of stupidity.

A-Z

Frantz | Review

★★★★

When the grieving fiancé (Paula Beer) of a German First World War casualty visits her beloved’s grave in 1919, the sight of a veteran French survivor (Pierre Niney) laying flowers upon it is the last thing she might expect but the first which she meets. Inspired by Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby, itself based on Maurice Rostand’s ‘L’homme due j’ai tué’ play of two years earlier, such is the set up to François Ozon’s César award-winning Frantz, a heartbreaking tale of love, loss and lies, intertwined with intrigue.

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Alien: Covenant | Review

★★★

There are a great number of cruelly self-destructive lines in Alien: Covenant. ‘This is a monumental risk not worth taking’ says one character; ‘How did she end up here’ says another. Whereas Prometheus felt like an unnecessary, but successfully atmospheric, origins story to Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, the problem with its first sequel is that it adds to the pointlessness only derivation and oddities. The visuals are still impressive, as is Michael Fassbender (the only returner from before) but here is a plot so messy that such a degree of scrutiny is required – to simply fathom what’s going on – that exposed is the plain fact that none of it actually makes any sense.

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Sleepless | Review

★★

Sleepless is the 2017 remake of Frédéric Jardin’s Nuit Blanche, released six years ago, that you never knew you wanted. This is, of course, predominantly because you didn’t, but that hasn’t not stopped Baran bo Odar from directing it anyway. Isn’t that nice of him. Whilst the first half is fair enough, if not actively good, it is in Sleepless’ second act that the plot swings from banal to bonkers, before finally bombing in boring.

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Lady Macbeth | Review

★★★★

Striking use of colour occupies endless layers of significance within William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, a film based on Nicolai Leskov’s socially conscious, nineteenth century novel ‘Lady Macbeth and the Mtsensk District’. From the soul-draining dull brown tones of the house’s interior to the brilliant blue worn throughout by Florence Pugh’s Katherine Leicester, much can be teased, in terms of character and emotional dynamics, through the chromatics of their scenes. Note too, an ensemble cast that is diverse in ethnicity, achieving the balance in a way that feels intelligent, relevant and perfectly appropriate. If anything heralds the success of Lady Macbeth, it is absolutely the uncompromising confidence of its conviction and artfulness of its cleverly cineliterate styling. It is a harmony that, in creating intense disharmony, makes for one highly satisfying experience.

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Miss Sloane | Review

★★★

From the very first to the final frame, Jessica Chastain sells Miss Sloane – John Madden’s thriller about a lobbyist who takes on the masterminds of Capitol Hill to manipulate the pushing through of strengthened gun restrictions in America. Hers is, with delicious irony, an all guns blazing performance of addictive watchability, which proves essential in holding together the film’s increasingly contrived plot. So good is Chastain here that she very nearly manages to lobby you into an assumption that the film is a political masterpiece. It’s not that, but it is good fun.

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A Dog’s Purpose | Review

★★

If you’re among the masses who remain totally convinced that 20th Century Fox missed a trick by not recruiting Werner Herzog to direct Marley and Me back in 2008, Lasse Hallström’s latest, A Dog’s Purpose (aka Nietzsche and Me), is probably the closest thing you’re ever likely to get to consolation. This may look like cute, canine fun for all the family, but don’t be fooled – that’s what it wants you to think – the reality is a bleak, so-called adventure in which the film’s ‘Marley’ is euthanised within the first five minutes, before being promptly reborn as a Golden Retriever called Bailey, whose later death leads to a further two incarnations. Also tackled here are: the Cuban Missile Crises, domestic abuse, depression and animal neglect; not forgetting, of course, the philosophical question of ‘being’ that drives the plot.

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