Friday, 26 May 2017

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

(M) ★★½

Director: Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush.

The Cure had been on the road for far too long.

So long as Johnny Depp keeps signing on to play Jack Sparrow, and so long as they keep making treasure chests worth of money, Disney will keep making Pirates Of The Caribbean movies.

How else can you explain the fact we're up to Pirates 5 when only the first film was any good? It's certainly not a matter of quality.

The bad news is Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (AKA POTC: DMTNT or Pirates 5) does not improve matters. It will make close to a billion dollars despite the fact its no better (or worse) than the second and fourth films (which were worse than the marginally okay third film).

The garbled plot is another "hunt the MacGuffin" adventure, with this season's must have accessory being Poseidon's Trident - a magical all-purpose, all-powerful oceanic curse-breaker.

New character Henry Turner (Thwaites) wants it to free his dad (briefly returning former star of the series Orlando Bloom), Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) wants it to get some dead Spaniards off his tail, dead Spanish pirate hunter Salazar (a CGI-enhanced Bardem) wants it return to the living and because it will lead him to Sparrow, Captain Barbossa (Rush) wants it so he can continue ruling the sea free of the pesky dead Spaniards, and newcomer Carina Smyth (Scodelario) wants it because it reminds her of her dad for some reason (or something - I'm still a bit hazy on that one).

If you think that's messy, then you're right. The script creaks like an ageing ship under the strain of having to get all these characters (and a few token British navy types led by David Wenham) heading in the same direction. It's filled with deus ex machinas, coincidences, contrivances, and just-plain-don't-make-senses as writer Jeff Nathanson does everything he can to keep things moving in between the eye candy.

And if there's one thing the POTC series does well, it's eye candy, and Pirates 5 works best when it's doing its OTT high seas stuff. Salazar's ship and crew are a modern CG marvel, particularly Salazar's perpetually-underwater look, and a pitched battle between them and Sparrow's cohorts is great to look at, even if it makes no sense that it should happen whatsoever, given Salazar's ship has the power to destroy any other ship with one blow.

Such idiotic plotting is par for the course here. So it's a shame that the script has some great characters floating in it that are wasted in a mediocre film. Bardem's Salazar is another great villain in a series that has been weirdly well-endowed with baddies. The returning Rush continues to be wonderful, but series star Depp plays Sparrow more drunken than usual and the lustre is starting to wear off his character. He still gets the best lines, most of which are immaculately delivered, but it might be nearly time to hang up the captain's hat before it starts to get truly tiresome.

However the most interesting character is Scodelario's Smyth - she's well-rounded, well-acted and adds flair to any scene she's in. It's just a shame she's saddled with an uncharismatic love interest in the form of Thwaites' Henry, who makes his dear old dad Orlando Bloom look like a master thespian. If this is the next generation taking this franchise into the future, then they've got it half-right, and half-very wrong.

It's in the smaller character moments that the film is at its best, so it's a shame the script is such a bucket of burley. There is some utter nonsense here - a wedding scene comes to mind as a key WTF moment - and POTC 5 continually wavers between amusing and annoying. A key example is Paul McCartney's cameo, which is surprisingly funny, but adds absolutely nothing to the plot. 

There is a very obvious attempt here to get the next generation of the franchise happening. Does that ever work? It seems unlikely people will turn up to see Scodelario and Thwaites' pirate adventures, especially if Depp's not there. The POTC franchise will only last as long as Depp keep turning up for a paycheck. 

But if they're going to keep making them, can they at least make some good ones? 


PS. Recent allegations by his former managers suggested Depp was fed lines through an earpiece because he couldn't be bothered learning them anymore. In the credits, I noticed "Sound technician to Mr Depp". Why a single actor would require their own sound technician, I don't know. Just sayin'.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

RIP Chris Cornell

Like most people of a certain age, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Chris Cornell's passing. Of all the alternative sounds that shaped the '90s (and thus a whole generation of malleable minds), the sound of Cornell's voice is one of the most prominent. It was phenomenal, soaring across four octaves like a stunt pilot. Cobain and Vedder were more influential as singers, but only because no one could do what Cornell did - Cornell was inimitable and untouchable. Vocally, he was one of a kind.

Seeing as how this is a movie blog and not a music one, I'm going to attempt to stay on track here and resist the urge to turn this into a blubbering eulogy where I just post my favourite Soundgarden/Temple Of The Dog/Audioslave/solo Cornell songs. 

So how does all this relate to movies? Bear with me as I pay tribute to Chris Cornell via his filmic connections.

Singles (1992)

IF you ever need to explain to someone what the early '90s, the Seattle sound and the whole Gen-X thing was all about, show them this film. It won't explain it definitively, but its rambling arty inclinations and alt-rock soundtrack captures the zeitgeist pretty well. Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who spent a lot of time in Seattle in the late '80s/early '90s, had the film in the can for nearly nine months while Warner Bros dithered about wondering what to do with it. Then boom - Nirvana's Nevermind blew-up and all of a sudden all these Seattle musos Crowe had roped in to star in the film and provide the soundtrack were megastars by association. Cornell and the recently formed Pearl Jam were heavily involved in the film (Cornell has a dorky wordless cameo and performs with Soundgarden in a live sequence), and they feature on the soundtrack alongside other Washington state heroes Mother Love Bone (which featured a couple of future Pearl Jam members), Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, Jimi Hendrix, the Wilson sisters, and Screaming Trees.

Cornell's acoustic contribution Seasons is beautiful (it would also later appear in the film Man Of Steel) and hints at the quieter stuff that would appear on Soundgarden's last pre-hiatus album Down On The Upside. The soundtrack (which was released a full three months before the film to cash in on the Seattle boom) also featured previously unreleased Soundgarden track Birth Ritual. But perhaps the greatest Cornell-related thing to emerge from the film was the song Spoonman. Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament was tasked with creating a fake tracklist for the film's faux band Citizen Dick, and Cornell saw the list and started writing songs to go with the made-up titles. One of them was Spoonman, and a demo of the song can be heard in Singles, almost fully formed in all its wonderful 7/4 rock glory. The tune would grow up to be a Soundgarden monster single. 

Hype! (1996)

But if you really want to understand the whole Seattle alt-rock explosion thing, check out Doug Pray's wonderfully insightful and hilariously cynical doco Hype!. Released a couple of years after the grunge bubble burst, it's a great ground-level insight into how and why Seattle became a global music epicentre. Nirvana isn't even mentioned until about the 35 minute mark, when they appear on screen in jittery fan-shot footage playing a little ditty called Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time, but prior to that you get bits and grabs from a host of other Seattle bands, including Soundgarden. The film is populated with every band that did and didn't make it, and the soundtrack is filled with about 20 of them. Soundgarden features prominently throughout the doco - Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil are interviewed and there's live footage of them playing Searching With My Good Eye Closed - and their contribution to the soundtrack is Nothing To Say, the band's first great song. In Hype!, producer Jack Endino calls it insanely heavy and he's right. It's a downtuned Sabbath-esque dirge with Cornell's phenomenal voice flying over the top of it. Damn that's high.

Feeling Minnesota (1996)

The influence of the alternative movement was so big in the '90s that you could name a crime-comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz after an obscure lyric from a Soundgarden song and no one batted an eyelid. It's a great line - "I'm looking California, and feeling Minnesota". I'm not from America, but I get it (or at least I think I do). It's a great example of Cornell's way with words. But I always wondered how the line went down whenever Soundgarden played in Minnesota. Did the crowd take it badly or as some kind of compliment? Either way, Outshined is a great song, and aside from giving us the name of the long-forgotten film Feeling Minnesota, it also appeared on the soundtrack for True Romance.

Great Expectations (1998)

After Soundgarden's initial demise in 1997, Cornell set to work on his first (and best) solo album Euphoria Morning (apparently originally to be called Euphoria Mourning until a typo happened). The album emerged in 1999, but the first inkling of what it might sound like emerged the year before when a track called Sunshower turned up on the soundtrack for the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring Great Expectations (Sunshower ended up as a bonus track on some versions of Euphoria Morning). This under-rated track (which gets really great around the 3m30s mark) again demonstrates Cornell's knack for a Beatlesy chord change and a hint of melancholy psychedelia.

And while we're talking about Euphoria Morning, can we all please take a moment to appreciate how incredible this next song is? For most of us, it was the first post-Soundgarden thing we heard from Cornell. Suffice to say, we all knew he wasn't done yet. Can't Change Me is one of the best things he ever wrote.

Collateral (2004)

I had to find a way to get Audioslave in here, and it comes via Michael Mann, who must be a fan of Cornell's supergroup with three-quarters of Rage Against The Machine because Mann included Audioslave tracks in the excellent Collateral and the already-forgotten Miami Vice. Audioslave get a bit of a bad rap, typically from people who loved Soundgarden and RATM, but I'll be damned if that first Audioslave album isn't rad. What's not to love about Cornell's voice, Tom Morello's guitar craziness, and the RATM rhythm section working together to rock the house?

Casino Royale (2006)

Cornell was the first American man to sing a Bond theme, which is kind of a big deal. He co-wrote this with composer David Arnold and the result is one of the better 007 songs - easily top 10 - and certainly the best of the Daniel Craig era. Cornell said he was trying to sound vocally like Tom Jones' Thunderball, but musically like Paul McCartney's Live & Let Die. Not a bad aspiration.

The Avengers (2012)

After a decade and a half, Soundgarden reappeared, of all places, in the end credits of a Marvel movie. Despite being a Marvel fan and a Soundgarden fan, I didn't know this was coming and, at first, I was presently surprised. And then slightly underwhelmed. It's part-Soundgarden riffage of a classic vintage, and really kicks in with Thayil's idiosyncratic wah solo, but it's also part-average acoustic latter-career Cornell. The song has grown on me over the years though, but it's not one of Soundgarden's best tracks, let's be honest.

A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014)

Soundtracks to trailers go through phases, and there's been a trend over the past decade or more to "Mad World" a song for a film preview. You know, like Gary Jules did to the Tears For Fears track in Donnie Darko. Recent examples have included the school choir singing Radiohead's Creep for The Social Network, and Nouela's take on Black Hole Sun for A Walk Among The Tombstones. The latter is a beautiful cover, highlighting the complexity and beauty of the chords and melody.

And now that Cornell is sadly gone, this song will serve as his epitaph, and it's an incredible one. Dave Grohl called this song "the perfect meeting of The Beatles and Black Sabbath" and he's not wrong. It's darkly psychedelic thanks to those eerie watery guitars, and its hefty chorus is somehow sludgy and beautiful at the same time, partly because it's also unashamedly pop - the hook of the chorus is one for the ages. If there was such as thing as the quintessential grunge epic, it's probably this song.

If you get a chance, check out this amazing Aussie cover version by Katie Noonan and Little River Band's Glenn Shorrock, and this isolated vocal track to remember just how amazing Cornell's voice really was.

Bonus track

This song has never been used in a film, and has no cinematic connection I'm aware of, but screw it, I'm chucking it here because it's my favourite Soundgarden song. It's everything I love about them, crammed into one song - the kink in the timing, memorable rhythms, and a stomp-on-the-fuzz-pedal chorus, with Cornell soaring over the top of it with those incredible melodies and astonishing range. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword

(MA15+) ★½

Director: Guy Ritchie

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Jude Law, Eric Bana.

Much like Tarzan, filmmakers just can't leave King Arthur alone.

It's one of those old public domain stories that Hollywood types love to dig up, dust off and "re-imagine" every few years when bereft of anything new to contribute or when all the good franchises have been snapped up by other production companies.

And so it falls to Guy Ritchie to do the directorial legwork on this re-imagining, having re-imagined himself in recent years as a re-imaginer, doing wonders for Sherlock Holmes and The Man From UNCLE. 

Unfortunately Ritchie's return to form is over. This attempt to reboot the Round Table as some kind of all-conquering, thoroughly modern film saga is dead in the water.

Some parts of this version will be familiar - there's a sword in a stone, and a young Arthur extracts it on his way to reclaiming his rightful place as king of the Britons. But there is also the unfamiliar, such as giant battle elephants, kung-fu masters, and demon knights.

What appears on the screen looks part-computer game, part-Lord Of The Rings wannabe, part-scruffy Shakespeare for lads, part-Robin Hood-meets-The Matrix, and it's all blended together with a liberal dash of Ritchie's cockney crime background and way too much money. As such, it's a bloody mess.

It's obvious he's trying to do what he did to Sherlock Holmes, but where his hyperactive directorial tendencies were well suited to the mind of the world's greatest detective, here they get in the way of some potentially classic story telling and prove to be more annoying than interesting.

Ritchie is also lacking a super-talented frontman like Robert Downey Jr to make all this work. Hunnam's Arthur is unlikeable for so much of the film, and the actor can't save or spin the role into something roguish or entertaining. I'm still unconvinced about Hunnam's capabilities as a leading
man, having seen him be unremarkable in this, The Ledge, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak

The film starts strong - in fact so strong that its opening sequences involving giant war elephants that seem to have wondered over from the Battle of Gondor can't be topped by anything else in the film. It then uses some very economical editing to set up Arthur and his back story, and everything is going really well for the first five or 10 minutes, but then you realise they're skipping bits just so the film can get bogged down in them later via countless tedious flashbacks, mystical visions and general chronology shenanigans, and it turns out it wasn't efficient storytelling but in fact the exact opposite. There's a lot of timeline jumping and flashbacking and flashforwarding and hypothetical imaginings, and the whole thing becomes utterly annoying.

There are so many issues with this film. It skips over the bit where Arthur supposedly truly earns Excalibur. It does a whole bunch of unnecessary bollocks during the final boss battle. It's humour falls flat, and it's lacking in heart. The score, while excellent, is distracting and doesn't fit in. And the aforementioned editing leaves a lot to be desired, so much so you can't help but wonder if there wasn't a better film left on the cutting room floor. 

One saving grace is Jude Law. As Arthur's evil uncle Vertigan, he is deliciously bad, yet somehow ends up being the most sympathetic character of the piece. He does horrible things, but makes incredible sacrifices for them and as result becomes the most intriguing player in this sad misfire.

At the end of this, Arthur builds his round table and knights his buddies, with an eye toward future movies. The fact Merlin, Guinevere, and Lancelot aren't in this also points to hopes of franchise. But that all looks incredibly unlikely. This King Arthur swings, misses its target, and cuts itself off at the knees.

Besides, Ritchie was doomed from the start. Everyone knows the definitive King Arthur story was made in 1975 by Monty Python.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Ridley Scott.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez.

"I'm going to kill everyone, starting with the writers of Prometheus."

In most decade-spanning franchises, the goodwill of the early films can be enough to make fans endure the usually inevitable diminishing returns as they live in hope of a return to the glory days.

For example, Star Wars fans put up with George Lucas' comparatively shitty prequels and still turned up in droves for The Force Awakens, where they were justly rewarded for their years of suffering. Less fortunate were the increasingly frustrated punters who saw the most recent Terminator dross in the hopes it would recapture the glory of the first two films. And as much as most people hated Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, those same people will line up again for Indy 5.

So regardless of the terrible Prometheus, and the so-so third and fourth films, lovers of the Xenomorph will be back for more Alien action, despite the fact there hasn't been a great film in the series for over 30 years. The good news is Covenant is Ridley Scott remembering what made the original Alien great. Gone are the thematic excesses and screenplay idiocies of Prometheus - Covenant is less concerned with myth-building and more focused on being entertaining and scary.

Set 10 years after Prometheus, it follows the crew of the spaceship Covenant, who have awoken early from their cryosleep after a random star burst damages their ship. They are on their way to a distant planet, which they aim to colonise, but during their unplanned awakening they intercept a weird transmission and decide to stop over at a nearby planet and check it out. Aliens ensue.

As mentioned, Covenant is Scott nailing some of those original notes he hit back in 1979. The original Alien was a wonderfully taut, contained horror film - a haunted house saga in space, with one of the most vicious killers up against cinema's greatest heroine. Covenant is also, first and foremost, a horror film. It's less haunted house and more, well, spoilers forbid me from saying what it is exactly, but just know that this is skincrawlingly scary in places.

Scott hasn't totally thrown out the nonsensical mythologising of Prometheus, but it's largely irrelevant. In fact you could watch, understand and enjoy Covenant without having seen or rewatched Prometheus (which I wouldn't wish on anyone). What's important is that Scott ditches most of the absurd philosophising while still maintaining a cohesive and coherent theme, which is about creation and the desire/need to create.

The result is a far more interesting (and intelligible) film that doesn't skimp on the action or the gore. Aliens burst out of all manner of places and they stalk and kill a fair whack of the largely forgettable crew over the course of two entertaining hours.

As for that crew, the key names are great. Everyone beneath Bechir is cannon fodder, but everyone above that does a great job, particularly Fassbender, who is back on board after Prometheus  as a more updated android named Walter. Equally excellent is Waterston, who has the tough task of enduring Ripley comparisons. She can handle them - her performance as Daniels is cut from the same cloth and she wears it well. Also of note is McBride, who tempers his typical loudmouthed attitude with some actual dramatic acting. Who knew he had it in him?

It's equally satisfying to see Scott get a bit of blood on his hands again. When combined with previous films The Martian and Exodus, you'd almost say he's got his mojo back after the trash trifecta of The Counselor, Prometheus and Robin Hood. Not that Covenant is perfect or up with his best work. There is a lack of punch and there's a predictability in places, and the pacing of the first act and a half is off, but by-and-large it's interesting and entertaining.

Scott walks a fine line between trying to find new tricks and reminding us of the magic of the first film (and even James Cameron's sequel), but it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Thankfully Covenant is part-fresh, part-nostalgic, and largely enjoyable, and certainly the best Alien movie since Aliens, although that's not saying much.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Get Out (includes audio review)

(MA15+) ★★★★★

Director: Jordan Peele.

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Lil Rel Howery, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson.

"Has anyone seen Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?"
"Oh yeah, I love Ashton Kutcher!"

THE best horror and sci-fi stories reflect the fears and concerns of the time. 

Godzilla is the manifestation of Japan's post-Hiroshima nuclear nightmares. Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers hinted at the threat of Commies and the equally heinous McCarthyism. Dawn Of The Dead tackled consumerism. Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde first emerged as cautionary tales about unchecked science. The best of the early slasher films mirrored concerns about teen sex, stranger danger and the media-driven fascination with serial killers. The emergence of body horror films coincided with the rise of cosmetic surgery.

And so on and so forth. People write PhDs on this stuff. 

Its when genre pieces like these explore such social issues that they typically take on an extra level that can catapult them above the morass of more mindless examples. In other words, it's this deeper thematic layer that helps make them classics.

Get Out fits in that category. It is reflective of the racial tensions that have bubbled and burst in the US in recent years and is effortlessly demonstrative of white privilege and the accompanying ingrained impact that it has on black Americans. And simmering along underneath, beside and inside all these concerns is a wonderfully silly little horror plot, delivered with a straight face that amplifies the film's moral worries. 

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Kaluuya), a photographer who is on his way to meet the family of his girlfriend Rose (Williams) for the first time. Chris is nervous about spending the weekend with them because Rose is white and she hasn't told her family that Chris is black. As the weekend progresses, Chris begins to feel odd about Rose's family and friends, but he can't quite tell if he's just being paranoid or if something truly weird is going on.

The performances across the board are superb. Kaluuya carries the film comfortably and does an amazing job, ably supported by Williams, while the side players of Keener, Whitford and Root are excellent. Gabriel, Henderson and LaKeith Stanfield excel in small but pivotal roles that go along toward giving Get Out its creepy air.

Given that writer/director Peele is better known as one half of comedy duo Key & Peele, it's no surprise there is some humour here, but it's cleverly sectioned off into the moments involving Lil Rel Howery's TSA agent Rod - a friend of Chris who keeps tabs on Chris' weekend over the phone. 

The greatest strength of Get Out is its script, and not just because of its thematic depth. There's not a wasted line or moment - everything is there for a reason, and as you mentally unpick the film after watching it, it becomes increasingly impressive. The subtle set-ups, the slightly off tones, and the seemingly throwaway lines all pay off and serve a purpose, often in wonderful ways.

Peele nails the subtlety, awkwardness, blatantness, and ridiculousness of racism. The film's exploration of it is never awkward or blatant though. It simply has a black lead character and looks at how white people would honestly deal with him ... and then things get weird and everything is dialed up a notch as the horror plotting takes hold. But it's still in the small things, particularly the final pivotal moment, where you get a powerful display of racism at work.

Peele also handles the horror well. There's nothing overtly gory, and while it is violent, it's not gratuitous. The film's appeal is in the slow unwind of its creepy tone and its psychological edge. Peele lets the script's evils creep up on you. He's not adverse to a jump scare, but its the overall tone and ideas of Get Out that really get at you.

Predicting what films will be future classics is one of the more impossible tasks of the movie critic. It's what five-star reviews should be saved for - the films that are not only great now, but likely to be considered great for decades to come. Get Out is definitely great now, and I'm taking a punt that it will be considered great for decades to come.