PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

in 3D, at Odeon East Kilbride, 18.05.11

Back in 2003, when the first Pirates of The Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski) was due for release, there was debate about whether a film based on an adventure theme ride could sustain a story over a two hour-plus running time.  As it turned out, the film delivered a decent sea-faring yarn, and, in establishing likeable rogues such as Captain Jack Sparrow, in an Oscar nominated role for Johnny Depp, set its course to become a block-busting franchise for Disney.  The following sequels retread much of the same ground as the original, but lacked the same freshness, mixed with convoluted plotting and an increasing over reliance on the supernatural and CGI effects.  After the last outing in 2009 limped to its conclusion, most would have seen it as the end of the voyage.  But this is Disney, and where there’s a dollar, there’s a way.  The most sequel happy of studios (witness Pixar’s sudden fondness for a string of animated features and spin-offs since Disney’s takeover, which has resurrected Toy Story and now Monsters Inc. after a decade gap, and given the disappointing but kid-friendly Cars an irrelevant sequel).

So we come to the fourth installment – On Stranger Tides.  A new director and fresh cast, but essentially an identikit film to the previous three.  Not surprisingly, it suffers in the same way as the previous two sequels did.  There is nothing new here.  It’s a tale of adventure on the high seas between unscrupulous pirates, with some supernatural hokum thrown in.  At the centre of the film Johnny Depp again enjoys himself as Jack Sparrow, and there is still some enjoyment to be found in his performance, without any sign of character development.  Indeed, at times it comes so naturally to see Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow that it almost seems too easy for him to play the role.  Geoffrey Rush returns as Captain Barbossa, but as he has somehow become a member of the British Navy and lost a leg, the role feels like an effort to shoehorn in a contract filling role for Rush, as there is no rhyme or reason for his involvement.  Elsewhere Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley have wisely set sail for pastures new, so in come new faces, none of whom are given enough time or characterisation to properly establish themselves.  Penelope Cruz, feisty but wasted as Angelique, appears as an ex-flame of Jack’s, but here we get into murky sequel waters, as characters from Jack’s past are introduced from out the blue.  Should we not have heard of his true love in the previous three outings?Ian McShane as Blackbeard, who as the principal villain is lost amongst the various plot strands so never comes across as overly threatening.  Even the likes of MacKenzie Crook have disappeared so a new set of various pirate crew are employed, including, for an unspecified reason, some zombie pirates, although it is never explained how or why they are so.  The new Orlando and Keira substitutes, Sam Clafin as Philip and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as Syrena, are kept so on the edge of the main plot that they make almost no impact.  I’m not even sure of their fate by the end of film, nor do I particularly care.

Director Rob Marshall does nothing to stamp his own style on the film, keeping to the same formula as before.  Again, good physical stunts are drowned out by too much CGI being thrown liberally onto the screen.  Hans Zimmer retreads his previous themes with the score, so it comes as a disappointment to learn in the end credits that Rodrigo y Gabriela had contributed, as their distinctive spanish guitar genius is lost amongst all the bombast.  Indeed. so similar and familiar is the whole thing that the last three films could almost blend into one, and you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled on a screening of At World’s End (2007, Gore Verbinski) from four years ago.  There’s even another cameo from Rolling Stone Keith Richards, Depp’s inspiration for the role of Sparrow.  It adds nothing to the joke of his first cameo, it isn’t even that funny, but it ticks a franchise box.

Once more 3D is used to put up the ticket price but add nothing else to the film.  Grudgingly I would admit that the effect fares better here than in most, for example the recent Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh), but the same complaints still exist – dullness to the image (not helped by a lot of the action talking place at night or in dim caves), blurry action scenes, some shots still in 2D, and the discomfort of wearing glasses and a headache by the end of the 2 and a half hour running time.  There is nothing gained by watching in 3D.

Still, On Stranger Tides despite being overlong, repetitive and at times downright dull, will no doubt make money at the box office, and so Disney will no doubt try to spin-off another film.  A lot will depend on whether Depp is willing to carry on, because without Jack Sparrow at its heart, there really would be nothing to recommend On Stranger Tides at all.

Film Rating – 2 out of 5.

Advertisements

HANNA

Odeon East Kilbride, 06.05.11

There’s so many things that don’t or shouldn’t work in Joe Wright’s latest film that it shouldn’t be any good, yet somehow, it still works as an enjoyable, fast-paced piece of entertainment.

There’s not much plot, and what there is seems to be utter nonsense.  Hanna (an excellent Saoirse Ronan) is a teenage girl being brought up in the northern snowy wilds of Europe, by her father Erik (Eric Bana), who teaches her how to fight, hunt and survive.  They are hiding from Marissa, a shady CIA operative played with energy by Cate Blanchett, who, unbeknown to Hanna, killed her mother when Hanna was born as they tried to escape from a CIA medical experiment, which has left Hanna having abnormal DNA that increases her physical characteristics.  There’s something about trying to develop a super soldier and the project being scrapped when most of the infants died, but all this backstory is really just an excuse to kick off a massive pan-Africa and pan-European chase movie.  There’s nothing particularly original here, it’s well-worn ground from numerous chase films, cold war films, spy films and action films.

An excellent cast is led by Saoirse Ronan, and her central performance holds the film together and maintains the interest through all the running about, as she convincingly learns the truth about her past, as well as having her eyes opened to the real world that she has been sheltered from in childhood.  Cate Blanchett overacts and becomes almost pantomime villainess, but somehow this suits the over the top part.  Eric Bana is bland as Hanna’s adoptive father, while Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying are wasted as unknowing parents whom Hanna stows away with. Their daughter, Sophie, played by Jessica Barden who befriends Hanna, nails some moments of humour, and equally grates as a precocious girl.  Most disappointing is Tom Hollander, stuck in the offensive stereotype of a violent sadistic homosexual, surrounded by his equally offensive stereotyped skinhead henchmen.

The chase maintains its pace throughout and never seems dull or repetitive, achieved through some fast paced, but never confusing, editing, and fantastic use of lightning and setting.  It’s also helped by the music of The Chemical Brothers.  Like Tron: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinski), with Daft Punk, the music is outstanding, but with Tron, it was in support of an inferior film, and as such swamped the film and became the best and most memorable thing about the entire experience.  Here, The Chemical Brothers have a better film to score, and while it occasionally does feel like it’s tipping into MTV music video land, it manages to stay the right side of supporting the action and not encroaching upon it.

Hanna marks another shift in the career of Joe Wright, after literary period Pride and Prejudice (2005), his outstanding war-time drama, Atonement (2007) and his unfairly ignored moral fable The Soloist (2009).  Here, he proves he can handle fast paced action, although it seems partially at the expense of the full characterisation of his previous two films.  Only Hanna herself comes across as a sympathetic, fully developed character, and one wonders if there was any recutting to cut out some character stuff in favour of the chase scenes.

But, despite all these drawbacks, Hanna is still reasonably intelligent, adult entertainment that treats its audience with respect, and as such stands above most of the Hollywood action fare being trundled out this summer.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

THOR

in 3D, Cineworld Glasgow, 03.05.11 

                                                       

It was always going to be a difficult ask.  As noted in many places, the story of Thor, and his hammer, was always going to be the most difficult of the Marvel Avenger superheroes to translate from comic to screen.  In fact, it may well be that the only reason it was even attempted was so that Thor could be established and take his place alongside his fellow Avengers in next year’s collective film, because watching this film, it’s a wonder the concept ever made it to the big screen.  Indeed, the whole origin story, after a decade and more of comic superhero films is so stale and tired now, it will come as a relief once Captain America is over with later this year and the scriptwriters will have to come up with something new.  What’s that X-Men: First Class andThe Amazing Spider-man are coming soon?  Perhaps we will become entrapped in an endless loop of cinematic origin stories, doomed to seem the same characters in the same plots repeated every decade until the Gods of Asgard put us out of our misery.

To aid its chances of success, Marvel Studios brought in Kenneth Branagh to direct, and although Thor himself is played by relative unknown Chris Hemsworth (unless you’re a big fan of Australian soap Home & Away), there is some strong casting in the supporting roles with Stellan Skarsgard, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Rene Russo and Natalie Portman all featuring.  Unfortunately, any credibility this impressive roster of talent lends the film quickly dissipates once the plot starts to unravel.

Branagh’s Shakespearean background should have lent itself to the scenes of high drama in Asgard, amongst the Gods, as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tries to rule over his two troublesome sons, Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  But the cast all seem to be channeling the spirit of Brian Blessed, constantly booming stale dialogue at each other and suffering from bouts of short tempered-ness.  Once Thor is banished to Earth for disobeying his father, the tone shifts quickly to some poorly executed slapstick comedy, before Thor quickly overcomes this to learn a valuable lesson and change as a person – all in the space of about 24 hours it seems.  Although Hemsworth looks the part, he acts like someone who has just landed a massive role in a Hollywood blockbuster having learned his trade on teenage soaps.  Natalie Portman continues her post-Oscar bizarre career choices – having deservedly won the Oscar and Bafta for her brilliant performance in Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky), a vital, dynamic and worthy film, she follows a failed rom-com with Ashton Kutcher, No Strings Attached (2011, Ivan Reitman) and the risible Your Highness (2011, David Gordon Green) with this unconvincing portrayal as physicist, Jane Foster.  Skarsgard looks confused throughout, Hopkins bellows a lot, Rene Russo makes a welcome return to our screens, only to be completely under used.  Idris Elba is once again wasted – it seems Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with him, but having given us one of the most iconic characters in TV drama in recent years as Stringer Bell in The Wire, surely they can find him something better than the bit part he is lumbered with here.  As Thor’s friends in battle Jaimie Alexander, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano and Ray Stevenson are saddled with the worst of the dialogue, while at the same time proving themselves to be amazingly inept warriors, whom Thor has to keep continually rescuing.

The plot appears to be distilled down to the very basics, condensing (and in most cases discarding) years of comic material in to under two hours, so that all the action takes place over a couple of days, apart from an opening prologue, giving the characters no time to develop.  The romance between Thor and Jane is deeply unconvincing, as his ridiculously quick grasp of everything human, having never visited Earth before.  There’s fun to be had equating Thor and his hammer to Oedipus complex myths, as separated from his massive tool Thor becomes weak and effeminate (he even cooks scrambled eggs for his new friends), falling in love and learning polite manners, even failing, literally, to ‘get it up’ as he can’t remove the hammer from the stone in which it is embedded (in a recreation of the Arthurian sword legend) until he’s got his mojo back.  Once he has become a new man though, he overcomes this bout of impotence and, fully working hammer restored, gets back to being a macho man.  Hollywood logic applies too in the usual ways – Gods of a different planet, who left Earth hundreds of years ago, have chosen to speak English as their first language apparently, as has every other spieces in the expanded Universe, which makes it handy for the American and British audience, but defies any kind of cohesive explanation.

Seeing the film in its 3D version, the visuals were a massive let down.  Much of the early action scenes take place in darkness, and with the barrier of glasses it’s difficult to make out much detail in the overly quick cutting and murky lack of colour.  The fight scene on the planet of the frost giants is nothing more than a confused mess.  Each of Thor’s friends get to display their fighting prowess, but it is all lost in murky grey haze.  The usual complaints of 3D are all present – why are some shots still in 2D, leaving the viewer playing a guessing game as to what is and isn’t 3D?  Most of the film is spent with the background annoyingly out of focus, and as usual the computer effects are glaringly show off.  3D headache and sore eyes ensue as one tries to make out what is actually going on in the battle scenes.  The film is also hampered by a barrage of annoying sounds, determined to split the ear drums of the entire theatre with the loud thuds of Thor’s hammer, combined with all sorts of badly designed whizz, bangs and hums.  So Thor takes its place alongside every other 3D film that has woeful underwhelmed with the gimmicky technology, that adds absolutely nothing positive to the film experience and only serves to distance and distract the viewer.  I suspect I would not be so critical of the visuals if I had done the sensible thing and seen the 2D version.

As with all the Avenger films recently – Iron Man, Hulk, the main plot and character are subservient to a film that doesn’t yet exist, so there are tiresome references to S.H.I.E.L.D., Clark Gregg reprises his role as Agent Coulson, and Samuel Jackson crops up for another oblique Nick Fury cameo post-credits to hint at the film to come.  It’s the longest build up in cinema history and became boring about three years ago.  Here, Thor is stuck with a random introduction of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who crops up for one scene, does nothing and then disappears, only around long enough to mark his involvement in next year’s film.

Still, if all Marvel required from this film was to introduce another Avenger while making a few bucks, they will no doubt be quite satisfied.  As a stand alone film it is average, as a 3D film it is poor.  As an experiment to utilise the talents of Branagh it is a failure.

Film Rating: 2 out of 5.

CEDAR RAPIDS

Cineworld Glasgow, 30.4.11

An introverted, socially awkward insurance salesman, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), is sent to an annual insurance sales conference when his colleague dies, tasked with winning the award of best small insurance business for the third year in a row, thereby saving the business, and the jobs of the 6 people who work there.  But at the hotel, Tim is sidetracked by various misadventures, led astray by his fellow insurance salesmen, before eventually overcoming the odds and saving the day.  That’s basically it.  It’s a common comedy plot, the fish out of water simpleton who triumphs and learns to be a better person along the way. To be fair to Cedar Rapids, it doesn’t claim to be anything original, and it uses its premise to play out some familiar scenes – Tim forced into singing in front of a large crowd at the karaoke night, Tim caving to peer pressure and getting drunk followed by a night of debauchery, Tim getting along with the attractive female despite his social ineptitude, and eventually sleeping with her.  These all contain some funny moments, mainly from the formidable John C. Reilly as the drunken, outspoken, Dean Ziegler, and the underused Isiah Whitlock Jnr. as Ronald Wilkes.  Whitlock Jnr. gets to riff on his most famous role as Senator Clay Davis in TV’s magnificent The Wire, as Ronald announces its his favourite show, and later uses an impressive impersonation of that shows memorable character Omar in order to diffuse a fight that Tim has stumbled into.

Cedar Rapids is a comedy, but it would still be nice if it could at least follow some sort of logic.  Why would not winning the award mean the business would automatically close?  And if this is the case, why on earth would the business owner, Bill (Stephen Root) send someone so obviously out of his depth as Tim in order to save the business, and, as it turns out, the deal that Bill has agreed to sell the business?  Equally, there are some forced narrative points – the hotel is overbooked, so Ziegler has to share with Tim and Ronald, moments after Bill has warned Tim to steer clear of him – to go along with unbelievable characterisation – would Anne Heche’s confident, attractive Joan really show any interest whatsoever in Tim? Only to supply the audience with laughs in a comedy such as this, one suspects.

Reilly has fun with the best lines, liberally spraying foul-mouthed insults at all and sundry, and the best slapstick moments, drunkenly stripping and jumping into the hotel swimming pool with a bin lid on his head. But for all the good moments he has, there are other moments that make you wonder why an actor of his stature feels the need to take on these roles.  For every film that Reilly stands out in, as one of the best character actors America has to offer, there is increasingly a coarse, dumb comedy on which his talents are wasted.  For every Boogie Nights (1997, P.T. Anderson) there is now a Step Brothers (2008, Adam McKay), for every A Prairie Home Companion (2006, Robert Altman), a Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007, Jake Kasdan), and for every Magnolia (1999, P.T. Anderson), a Talladega Nights (2006, Adam McKay).  Indeed, it is these moments, some shared by other cast members, that undermine what could have been a simple, charming comedy.

The writers, director and/or studio, obviously scared that they may bore their target teenage audience feel the need to throw in the usual smattering of toilet humour, albeit tamer than a lot of recent US comedies.  So, we have a scene where Tim is sitting on the toilet preparing for his presentation, when a drunken Ziegler barges in, before stopping to comment on the foul smell that Tim has created.  “A dodgy yogurt” claims Tim, but we haven’t seen him eat a yogurt or show any symptoms of an upset stomach, this isn’t a punchline to a well set up joke, just a random scene that comes from nowhere and adds nothing to the overall plot or characterisation.  It’s just an opportunity to have some gross out humour, and it stands out as poorly conceived.  By the time we get to the obligatory end credit skits, John C. Reilly is reduced to, yes, lighting his own ‘fart’, complete with poor CGI flame, for utterly no reason.  It is the culmination of a string of dumb jokes that fall flat.

Similar to the ill-judged moments of comedy are some, frankly, dubious morals.  Joan cheats on her husband and kids back home by seducing and sleeping with Tim.  While Tim is distraught as he believes he has betrayed his occasional lover, Macy (Sigourney Weaver), Joan simply explains that what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids, which suggests this adultery is an annual event, and perfectly acceptable.  The character of Bree (Alia Shawkat), the hotel prostitute, is equally compromised.  Again, present mainly as a standard comic tick, as Tim initially mistakes her for a friendly local, she soon whisks him off to a party, on the way introducing him to cannabis and later at the party supplying him with cocaine.  Hard drugs for comic laughs? The film seems to suggest that Tim needs to take cocaine as part of his growing in to a fully rounded human.  There is no other apparent reason for its casual inclusion.

Ultimately, Cedar Rapids falls flat as the cast struggle to keep the stale premise fresh even given its’  brief running time.  Occasional laugh-out moments are swamped by more misses than hits, lapses in logic and more importantly lapses in judgement from film-makers and actors.  It offers nothing new from the hundreds of similar comedies from the past twenty years, and by comparison, falls short of the best of those.

Film Rating: 2 out of 5.