The Watchers

The Watchers

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Review: Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (UK Cert 12A)

SPOILER WARNING! This review discusses and/or mentions a few important plot points. If you would prefer not to have these spoiled, please stop reading now and come back once you've seen the film.

It's been six years since On Stranger Tides but the next instalment in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise is finally here. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki), Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush return with newcomers Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario and Javier Bardem as part of the main cast.

Henry Turner, seeking to break his father's curse and free him from The Flying Dutchman, is looking for the Trident of Poseidon. He enlists the help of the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow who is up to no good in St Martin. Along the way, they meet astronomer Carina who is in possession of a diary that might just help him. However, there's a dark force chasing them- the ghost ship of the fearsome Captain Armando Salazar who has a bone to pick with Jack...

It's a minor point perhaps but I can't see any good reason at all for changing the subtitle from Dead Men Tell No Tales. If anything, that's a better title and actually fits in to the Pirates mythology (it's a line that can be heard on the ride). But, for whatever reason, it's Salazar's Revenge in the UK.

Usually by the fifth instalment of a franchise, things get a bit stale and a bit staid, it's all just variations on a theme. Salazar's Revenge has got the same sense of fun as The Curse Of The Black Pearl; a supremely silly but thoroughly enjoyable romp.

Johnny Depp camps it up something fierce as Jack Sparrow. He's been playing this role for the best part of 15 years now so knows it like the back of his hand. He's full of swagger and charisma as usual and the writers have cannily decided to almost have him as a supporting character (this is by no means the Captain Jack show). He's responsible for a lot of the humour in the film- although not all- and it's a real moment of cheer when he finally takes charge of the Black Pearl again.

Geoffrey Rush is as good as always as Captain Hector Barbossa, who starts off as King of the Seas but finds his position diminished by Salazar's vendetta against pirates. Forced into a series of uneasy alliances and accords, Barbossa also has to deal with a few ghosts of his own past. Orlando Bloom hasn't got a lot of screen time but has a decent cameo role which book-ends the film nicely and there's a nice surprise appearance from another old face which is another punch-the-air moment.

Of the new cast, Kaya Scodelario really impresses as Carina. She's strong, forthright, a little stubborn, fiercely intelligent and certainly no passive maiden. She holds the key to finding the island where the Trident is hidden and her intellect marks her out. Indeed, when she's first seen, she's about to be executed for witchcraft, despite being a woman of science (which amounted to the same thing in the 18th century). Her outlook is changed when she comes face to face with the worlds of ghosts and monsters but is still an enquiring mind. In a summer of films with kickass female leads, Carina Smyth is a great addition to that roster.

Surrounded by the charisma of Depp and the strength of Scodelario, sadly Brenton Thwaites can't help but come across as a little bland and a little wooden in comparison (then again, the same argument can be made for Orlando Bloom in the original trilogy). It's not that his performance is bad per se, but it's just not strong and suffers in comparison with those around it. He also doesn't have as much in way of character as the others: Henry is an earnest young man, who knows the legends of the sea and wants his father back. That's all well and good but that's it. A shame he couldn't have been more developed.

Javier Bardem starts off with the right amount of menace as the undead Salazar but becomes more and more unhinged (and therefore less menacing) as the film goes on. By the end, he's a goggle-eyed panto villain rather than the threat he started as. There's solid support as always by Kevin McNally as Jack's right-hand man Gibbs and there's an absolutely wonderful cameo appearance by Paul McCartney as Jack's uncle- he gets a good few jokes and adds a real moment of humour.

Visually, it's pretty good, although I did find the visual effects on Salazar a little disorienting at the beginning- my brain was having problems processing what was going on with his face. The zombie shark attack is probably the highlight, whilst the chase through St Martin after the bank robbery kicks things off in top gear. Although, some bits are very dark- as in, not clear what's really happening due to lack of light (specifically the scenes in the Devil's Triangle).

I'll be honest, Salazar's Revenge wasn't high on my list of must-see summer blockbusters. In fact, my attitude to it was much the same as that for The Curse Of The Black Pearl- 'I'll give it a punt if there's nothing else on that I fancy'. But I'm glad I went to see it. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I was going to. It's breezy, light and fun.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

Last week, the first trailer for the new version of Murder On The Orient Express was released. Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, the cast also includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Johnny Depp. 

However, it is not the first film adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel. There was a version released in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet, which was the first of the all-star Christie adaptations of the 1970s and 1980s.

December 1935. The famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is travelling from Istanbul to England aboard the Orient Express. He is berthed in the Calais coach and is approached by an American businessman, Samuel Ratchett, to provide protection for him; Ratchett has been receiving death threats. Poirot turns the offer down. Later that night, the train is stuck in a snowdrift whilst travelling through Yugoslavia. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead, stabbed to death multiple times during the night.

But who did it? Was it the American widow? The Swedish missionary? Could it have been the Russian princess, or her faithful ladies' maid? How about Ratchett's secretary, or the English teacher? The Scottish soldier or the French conductor? The American businessman or the Italian car salesman? Maybe it was the Hungarian count or his wife? Or- in the best traditions of crime novels- did the butler do it? 

With so many suspects and only a short amount of time before the Yugoslav authorities arrive, Poirot must follow the clues, interview the suspects, exercise his little grey cells and find out who the killer is...

The suspects - but whodunnit?
Christie's novel was originally published in 1934 and is one of her most famous, as much for the solution to the murder as the story itself. It makes the most of its enclosed setting, has some interesting red herrings and is a masterpiece of plotting. Paul Dehn's screenplay (with uncredited work by Anthony Shaffer) maintains this intricacy.

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot
Albert Finney plays Poirot here, the first and (so far) only time he's played the role. His performance is very different from that of Peter Ustinov or David Suchet; Finney seems to play up the bon vivant side to Poirot's nature and there seems very little of the moral dilemma which Poirot finds himself in at the end of the story (although that could be a scripting issue). Considering Finney wasn't the first choice to play Poirot- the role was originally offered first to Alec Guinness and then to Paul Scofield, both of whom were unavailable- he gives a strong performance throughout, especially during the summation where he reveals the identity of the murderer. Finney was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role, although lost to Art Carney for Harry And Tonto.

Lauren Bacall as Mrs Hubbard
The rest of the cast are superb, with particular stand-out performances by Lauren Bacall as the garrulous widow Mrs Hubbard, John Gielgud who puts in a stiff upper lip as Ratchett's valet Beddoes, and Anthony Perkins as the nervous secretary Hector McQueen. There's a lovely turn by Vanessa Redgrave as teacher Mary Debenham, who coolly responds to Poirot's questioning, and Sean Connery is strong as the taciturn Colonel Arbuthnot. Ingrid Bergman gives a nice performance as the slightly scatty missionary Greta Ohlsson, while Wendy Hiller and Rachel Roberts make a formidable duo as the Princess Dragomiroff and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt. Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset round off the main cast nicely as the fiery Count Andrenyi and the quiet Countess, whilst Richard Widmark gives an air of oily charm as the doomed Ratchett.

Murder On The Orient Express was nominated for six Oscars (including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Original Score), winning one: Best Supporting Actress for Ingrid Bergman. Bergman also won the Best Supporting Actress BAFTA for her role, whilst John Gielgud won the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA.

Ingrid Bergman with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar
Agatha Christie had been reportedly unimpressed by previous attempts to adapt her novels- there had been a few adaptations of And Then There Were None, the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films, and The Alphabet Murders with Tony Randall as Poirot- and she had initially refused to sell the film rights to any more of her novels. She was persuaded by Nat Coleman (chairman of EMI) and Lord Louis Mountbatten (father-in-law of producer John Brabourne) to allow them to film Murder On The Orient Express.

Christie attended the premiere in November 1974 (on what would be her final public appearance before her death in January 1976) and it was the only film adaptation released in her lifetime that she was completely satisfied with. She particularly liked Finney's performance as Poirot, saying it came closest to her idea of the Belgian detective- although she did say that she was a little disappointed with the moustache! (I wonder what she'd make of Branagh's comedy walrus moustache in this new version!)

Dame Agatha Christie meets Queen Elizabeth II at the Murder On The Orient Express premiere
So if you need a recommendation to see this film, you can do worse than the author's own seal of approval. It's a classy, elegant adaptation of a superb novel and expertly acted by a stellar cast. Branagh's got some way to go to match the excellence of this film.


Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Review: Wonder Woman (UK Cert 12A)

After the disappointment of Suicide Squad (and the critical drubbing that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice got, despite phenomenal box-office receipts), there was a lot of pressure on Wonder Woman to be the film that turns the corner for the DC Extended Universe. Early reviews were fulsome in their praise and the hype-wagon started to roll. But is it as good as everyone is saying it is?

Yes. Yes, it damn well is.

For me, it's easily the best DCEU film so far- head and shoulders above the rest.

It's kind of an origin story, showing the Amazonian princess growing up on the idyllic female-only island of Themyscira. When an American pilot, Steve Trevor, crash-lands off the coast, Diana saves him... which brings the horrors of the First World War to the island. Distressed but determined to end war as we know it, Diana accompanies Steve to London and then to the Front in search of the errant God of War, Ares.

Patty Jenkins' last feature film was the harrowing Monster (2003), in which she directed Charlize Theron in an Oscar-winning performance. Since then, she has directed episodes of TV shows and was originally attached to direct Thor: The Dark World although left the project due to creative differences (she had one vision for the film, Marvel had a different one and never the twain shall meet). Marvel missed a trick, frankly. Jenkins' direction is superb. She elicits brilliant performances from her whole cast and clearly has a good eye for an action sequence (although she's not from an action background).

The script, by Allan Heinberg (from a story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs), is coherent and well-structured. It isn't just a superhero movie. It plays on elements of war films, innocents-abroad comedy, romance, and blends them together well. There are a few missteps along the way but it really shows the importance of having a solid foundation for your film.

For me, Gal Gadot was one of the highlights of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. She was graceful, charming and added some much-needed levity to proceedings. Here, she's superb. Diana's naivete and optimistic world view could have felt twee or Pollyanna-ish, but Gadot never plays the wide-eyed innocent too broadly. She's strong enough to walk into a council meeting full of men and say her piece. She's smart enough to decode Doctor Poison's encrypted notebook. She also gets a very defined character arc as the scales fall from her eyes and she realises the evil that men do. One scene, in a gassed village, is done entirely without dialogue but you can see the emotions clearly passing over her face. The other refreshing thing- and it may be because there's a female director at the helm, I don't know- but, whilst Gadot is a stunningly beautiful woman, she is never objectified or sexualised; the camera never lingers longingly on her. It's an assured and strong leading performance.

Chris Pine has the acting chops to be a leading man (his work in the Star Trek films shows that) but, here, he never steals the limelight from Gadot. They're equals throughout. He's boyish, charming, and handsome- and there's a lovely subversion of the usual tropes when he is made the object of desire and the object of the gaze when Diana interrupts him in the bath. There's a real chemistry between Pine and Gadot which adds an authenticity to their scenes; you truly believe that they are falling in love.

Of the supporting cast, Robin Wright is impressive as Amazonian general Antiope, kicking ass and taking names, whilst Connie Nielsen is suitably regal as Diana's mother Queen Hippolyta. Lucy Davis is used sparingly but to good effect as Steve's secretary Etta Candy, not just a comic relief character. David Thewlis is strong in his role as Sir Patrick Morgan whilst Danny Huston is menacing as German general Ludendorff. Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock are great as the band of soldiers who help Diana and Steve stop the plan.

Visually the film is very different to other DCEU films. There's a lot more light, to begin with. The opening scenes on Themyscira look beautiful- it's a literal paradise- which contrasts nicely with the mud and the squalour of the trenches later in the film. Matthew Jensen's cinematography is superb throughout. There are so many brilliantly shot sequences, but the standout must be Diana's walk across No Man's Land (the first time you see her in full costume). It is superb. Rupert Gregson-Williams' music is also great and Wonder Woman's absolutely electrifying theme (with the kickass electric violin) isn't overused but gave me a chill every time it was on.

That's not to say this film is perfect. The final boss fight between Diana and Ares lapses in the CGI-tastic destruction that blighted the end of the other DCEU films which is a shame as, up until this point, the action sequences were beautifully choreographed and were almost balletic, especially the Amazons facing off against the German soldiers on the beach at Themyscira. It's also a shame that, in a film full of strong female characters, the female villain- Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya)- felt undercooked.

Despite impressions to the contrary, I've taken no pleasure in criticising the previous DCEU films. I've wanted them to be good, better than good. I've wanted them to be an equal to the Marvel films. Wonder Woman is. Now the important thing for DCEU is to capitalise on this momentum and knock our socks off with the upcoming Justice League movie.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Saturday, 3 June 2017

Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 (UK Cert 12A)

Guardians Of The Galaxy was a massive pleasant surprise for me when it came out in the summer of 2014. I knew very little about the background to the characters, so went in with very few expectations. It was my film of the year for 2014, and it did big business at the box-office. So it makes sense that they'd be back for another movie
On the run from the Sovereigns after stealing some batteries they pledged to protect, the Guardians find themself under attack. However, help arrives in the shape of Ego, a benevolent protector... and Star-Lord's father. As Star-Lord gets to know his long-lost old man, the other Guardians have their own issues to deal with- ranging from sibling rivalry to regaining honour- whilst keeping an eye out for the Sovereign threat.

The returning cast all slip back into their characters effortlessly, so it's time to focus on the new characters coming in. Elizabeth Debicki lays on the icy hauteur beautifully as Sovereign priestess Ayesha, whilst Kurt Russell steals almost every scene he's in as Ego. Pom Klementieff is a lovely addition as Ego's companion Mantis, an empath who has the same very literal outlook on life as Drax (and who forms a lovely duo with Dave Bautista). Sylvester Stallone's role as Stakar Ogord, a Ravager who has a run-in with Yondu (Michael Rooker, rarely better), hints at something bigger to come- and, knowing there will be a Volume 3 coming at some point, lays the groundwork nicely.

Visually it's a real feast for the eyes and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find (I saw it on a SuperScreen which was well worth it). From icy plains to lush verdant planets, the golden glow of the Sovereigns to Nebula's chrome and blue make-up, everything looks fantastic. The action set pieces are all done really well too, even if the opening one is a bit of a cheat. You'll know why when you see it.

Just like the first film, the soundtrack is an integral part of the movie. Starting out with 'Mr Blue Sky' by ELO and taking in tracks by Fleetwood Mac, Glen Campbell, George Harrison, and Sam Cooke (among others), it's eclectic and absolutely rocking.

The film is full of great little moments too. I don't want to get too spoilery, but look out for these three things which made me smile immensely: 'trash panda', a very surprising cameo, and the adorable Baby Groot's struggle with which button to press (part of which is teased in the trailer). Also, there are five- yes, five- mid- and post-credits scenes, so stick around for them. All bar one are just standalone little jokes, which will raise a smile- but one does also hint at a future enemy for the Guardians to face.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 isn't a lazy cash-in sequel; it isn't just 'more of the same as the first one'. Writer-director James Gunn has created a cheeky, raucous romp with an unexpected heart. It gets a little bloated, especially during the second act (with all storylines competing for time) but it can be forgiven for that as the surrounding material is so good. Another triumph for MCU. Bring on Spider-Man: Homecoming!

Rating: 5 out of 5