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Entries in Summer Movies (3)

Wednesday
May242017

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Stars: Johnny Depp, Brenton Thwaites, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Martin Klebba, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Writers: Jeff Nathanson.
Directors: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Rating: 2.5/5

When done right - when the narrative is pumped full of emotional engagement and the effects work is exhilarating - the modern Hollywood popcorn picture can still deliver the giddy entertainment value of, say, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of The Black Pearl. When a summer season movie crashes and burns on all fronts, much like Pirates #4 On Stranger Tides, there is a morbid fascination in watching that carnage unfold, too.

But there is no saving grace for the mediocre blockbuster-wannabe, and that’s what is being pitched with the fifth Pirate film, the unironically titled Dead Men Tell No Tales. There is skill and effort on display in every frame, but the result is an ugly skyscraper of a film; to build it must have been a monumental undertaking (that cost Disney a reported $230million), but what, if anything of merit is the outcome?

The Mouse House deemed Norwegian pair Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg the dynamic duo to guide this sort-of-reboot, for no other apparent reason than they had made 2012’s Kon-Tiki, another movie set on water. It was a fine film, a small, human drama shot with a lean dedication to character and nuance set against a non-CGI watery expanse. Dead Men Tell No Tales is…well, it’s not that. Most likely they are there to guide the performances of Brenton Thwaites, as idealistic hero Henry Turner, and Kaya Scodelario (the pic's biggest asset), as smart and sassy Carina Smyth, the only real people in the relentlessly fantastical Pirates’ universe.

Written by Jeff Nathanson, a scribe with a few franchise-fracturing credits to his name (Speed 2 Cruise Control; Rush Hour 3; Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull), the plot is toothpick scaffolding for the effects work, which is grand at times but also patchy in the service of a sombre, murky palette. Young Turner is determined to undo the deep-sea curse that still entombs his father Will (a returning Orlando Bloom as Will, reprising the role that set him on the road to tabloid fame). To do so, he needs to find the mythological sceptre, Poseidon’s Trident, a journey he undertakes utilising the drive and intelligence of Carina and, for some reason, the loutish charm of a certain drunken buccaneer named Jack Sparrow. Getting the gazillion dollar payday just for showing up, Johnny Depp (pictured, top) brings the look but only occasionally the vibe of his career-defining role, a role that was defined by the joie de vivre of a much younger actor.

In the way of our band of heroes are series’ stalwart Geoffrey Rush as Capt. Barbosa, heading up a support cast of strong Australian talent (David Wenham, Bruce Spence, Zoe Ventoura, Michael Dorman) taking advantage of the extended Queensland shoot, and Javier Bardem as Salazar (pictured, above), a seething Spaniard spirit leading a crew of ghastly, ghostly seamen on a vengeful quest to kill Sparrow.

It would be a particularly hardened cynic not to concede there is some fun to be had. The franchise reintroduces its star player with a wild heist sequence that all but lays waste a colonial outpost; Sparrow’s and Carina’s rescue and subsequent escape from the executioner’s grasp is a highlight, including a cleverly staged gag involving a guillotine. The storming of a beach by Salazar’s undead crew is the the film’s highpoint, mixing effects mastery and legitimate narrative thrills. The re-emergence of one of the original stars of the franchise makes for a nicely sentimental reunion moment, though not allowing one of the finest actresses of her generation a single word is a disappointment.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will meet shareholders expectations and open huge, serving its function as a profit centre KPI. Creatively, however, it is adrift at sea, becalmed by a lack of inspiration.

Friday
Aug192016

THE SHALLOWS

Stars: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Jose, Lozano Corso, Jose Manual, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey and Stevan ‘Sully’ Seagull.
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra.

Rating: 4/5

One must swallow as much salty dramatic logic as Blake Lively does water to make The Shallows work, but work it does. Jaume Collet-Serra’s woman-vs-wild thriller is beautiful, bigscreen Hollywood nonsense that manoeuvres/manipulates the viewer into the kind of submissive state only the finest summer crowd-pleasers can achieve. Unlike Lively’s stranded surfer, who takes on a monster shark with guile and cunning, it’s best to jam any overthinking deep into your psychic beach bag and just enjoy the bounty of gut-level visceral thrills.

So grounded yet mesmerising as if to have risen out of the golden sand itself, Lively plays grieving med student Nancy, who has deferred her studies to travel to the idyllic beach that was dear to her late mom. The reconciliation with her mother’s spiritual home provides a mere shading of real world emotion yet, as sketchy a set-up as that may be, it is all Lively needs to spark the heroine into life. The actress’ innate sweetness and towering physicality proves a potent and photogenic combination. Not unlike her husband Ryan Reynold’s solo turn in Buried (2010; also for a Spanish director, Rodrigo Cortes), Lively maximises her time alone on-screen, her only companion a Wilson-like seagull, whom she names ‘Steven’ (the film’s biggest laugh).

Having taken to the azure waters, she spends the day riding the breaks that her mother once enjoyed. Collet-Serra takes his good time establishing ever-changing, sometimes disorienting nature of the seascape, from the pounding surf to the razor-sharp coral, but this is deliberate. Understanding the geography plays a crucial role in buying into Nancy’s developing predicament. The breathing space that the Lord Howe Island location gives his camera only amplifies his skill at forging tension. And the vastness of the sun-drenched tropical setting is matched only by the multitude of adoring angles the director and his DOP Flavio Martínez Labiano afford their leading lady.

Nancy’s decision to ride one last set is her undoing. A whale carcass has drifted near shore and she veers too near; from the depths, a great white shark checks her out. Soon, she is stranded on a rock that will be submerged come high tide; the shark is a constant presence, as is the threat of unconsciousness and infection associated with the gaping thigh wound she has suffered (if the production takes certain liberties with reality in most other regards, it gets the results of shark teeth on flesh right enough). Set in motion is a slasher pic structure, in which the ‘final girl’ must draw on reserve strength, both mental and physical, to outwit the ‘killing machine’ bad guy who has a myopic focus on carnage.

The Spanish director rarely lets reality usurp genre fun (House of Wax, 2005; Orphan, 2009; Unknown, 2011; Non-Stop, 2014). The Shallows is no different; both narratively (why are no other locals surfing this beach?) and scientifically (why is only one shark attracted to the whale carcass?), Collet-Serra brazenly, occasionally brilliantly, laughs in the face of common sense. He is concerned with cracking B-movie suspense, ratcheting up the thrills via (mostly) superb CGI employment and providing Lively with all the contrivances she needs to survive against her nemesis.

SCREEN-SPACE is adamantly against the demonization of sharks as movie monsters (read our interview with documentarian and shark protection advocate Madison Stewart). But The Shallow’s hulking villain is no more a realistic portrayal of the ocean’s great alpha predator than The Wizard of Oz is of tornadoes. His form and function is pure cinematic villainy; the dark chemistry he creates with his human co-star is perhaps the most realistic element in the film.

Wednesday
Jun222016

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, William Fichtner, Sela Ward, Judd Hirsch, Brett Spiner, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Deobia Oparei, Nicholas Wright, Travis Tope and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Writers: Nicholas Wright, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, James A. Woods and James Vanderbilt.
Director: Roland Emmerich.

Rating: 3/5

Once again, Earth is the battlefield in Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich’s gleeful, cheese-whiz sequel to his 1996 blockbuster. Reuniting many of the original players for a '50's comic-book plot’ that manages to be both preposterously convoluted and gossamer thin, critics the world over are likely to use those words, ‘Earth’ and ‘battlefield,’ with wild abandon when shredding this latest alien invasion spectacle.

But if the clunky dialogue, square-jawed heroics and plethora of ‘puh-leeze!’ moments occasionally recall that Travolta travesty, Emmerich and his army of five(!) writers and tech wizards nevertheless deliver grand-scale sci-fi spectacle and old-school human heroics the likes of which Hollywood has neglected in this era of the Marvel/DC tentpole. As reflected in the re-casting of ageing stars Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Bill Pullman and a tagline that sends shivers down the spine of the original film’s then-young key demo, Emmerich’s own resurgence as a director is a 20-year throwback to those glory days of 1996 when large-scale destruction did not recall 9/11 imagery and the scourge of cyber-cynicism was still a ways off.

An attention-grabbing set-up posits the sequel in a vividly imagined alternate 2016, in which the alien technology captured when the Earth armies defeated the space invaders in 1996 has reshaped everyday life. In this world, the President is already a woman (Sela Ward, burdened with some of the script’s most on-the-nose dialogue) and the global community is one, still basking in the US-led glory of borderless comradeship. How a female commander-in-chief and a unified planet will play in the real-2016 climate of fervent fundamental ideologies and rife Trump/Brexit-style nationalism, is perhaps the sequel’s most daring gamble. But, hey, it’s only a movie…

To delve too deeply into the machinations of the plot would be to do Resurgence a disservice and entirely overstate its importance. In B-movie terms, the re-emergence of the aliens and the means by which the human race combat them is conveyed in a handful of scenes where good actors use words like “fusion” and “override” and “window of opportunity,” then repeat those sentences to a room full of gathered extras who nod and look worried.

Similarly, personal subplots that are easily defined and resolved with instantly accessible sentiment are all these cast-heavy disaster spectacles require. Jeff Goldblum, a bespectacled silver-fox cut from the ‘Indiana Jones’ school of heroic academic, returns as tech whiz David Levinson, whose role in the 1996 victory has seen him elevated to valued government advisor. The years have not been so good to President Whitmore (a terrific Bill Pullman), who is cursed with nightmares and mental fatigue that begin to take on prescient qualities (and which also afflict the not-dead-after-all Brent Spiner as Dr Okun and Deobai Operai’s African warlord, Umbutu).

A trio of new faces provide the bulk of the derring-do, including Liam Hemsworth as the roguish fighter pilot-turned-moon tug captain Jake Morrison; It Follows' Maika Monroe as Whitmore’s daughter Patricia, a Presidential aide and Morrison’s gal pal; and, Jessie T. Usher as Dylan Hiller, an academy ace and son of the late Steven Hiller, thereby providing the only connection (aside from a fleetingly glimpsed portrait in the rebuilt White House) to the original’s action lead, Will Smith. Sidekick duties are performed by Travis Tope as Jake’s co-pilot Charlie, bringing the ‘Anthony Edwards/Goose’ vibe; Chinese starlet Angelababy as the best of the East’s pilots (and a none-too-subtle nod to the current importance of global distribution); and Judd Hirsch, still nailing ‘grizzly Jewish father’ with bravado as Julius Levinson. And, providing that unexpected first degree of separation to Euro-badboy Lars von Trier, an occasionally bewildered Charlotte Gainsbourg (yes, that Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a French/UK psychiatrist.

Upping their profile this time around are the invading hordes, whose physicality resembles a mash-up of great space visitors from the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, primarily James Cameron’s Aliens and John McTiernan’s Predator (as well Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield and the little-seen 2012 Italian sci-fier, The Arrival of Wang). Their CGI rendering is detailed and impressive, yet remains just this side of over-polished; there is an overall retro-vibe to the effects work and a faded palette to the visuals that thankfully denies the epic the shimmering, fake textures of most modern blockbusters.

Roland Emmerich’s career has been peppered with fine ‘half-movies’, films that build to a second-act climax then have nowhere interesting to go for an hour. Think of the wave hitting New York in The Day After Tomorrow; the big lizard hitting New York in Godzilla; the destruction of America’s west coat in Independence Day. All awe-inspiring sequences, some even achieving a high emotional element, yet robing their respective narratives of momentum, leaving a third act that hobbles to the finish film.

He overcomes this narrative failing in Resurgence. The mid-section arrival of the alien spacecraft delivers immense scope and scale, but the film kicks on to a denouement that, like the enormous intergalactic vessel of war, can be seen coming from miles away but provides bang for buck. He also manages to temper the jingoism of the 1996 film, a time when America’s role as the world’s do-gooders did not cast its own immense shadow like it does today.

Independence Day: Resurgence entertains like few Hollywood blockbusters have of late, largely by foregoing pretension on every level and drilling down on the basic tenets of popcorn moviemaking. Haters going to hate, but those looking for old Hollywood (i.e., 1996) thrills will be over the moon.