Tuesday 31 May 2011

Baby steps: "Dancing Dreams"

Dancing Dreams, a crafty spot of audience-chasing, has one thing Wim Wenders' acclaimed Pina doesn't: Pina Bausch herself, who died before Wenders could interview her on camera, yet who appears in Rainer Hoffmann and Anne Linsel's diverting documentary - albeit fleetingly, and never quite front and centre - overseeing a troupe of untrained teenagers as they rehearse for a 2009 performance of Bausch's Kontakthof. Wenders' film was about the look, the legacy: it bought wholesale into Pina's perfectionism, which is why it struck me as somewhat monomaniacal, even with the stereoscopic trappings. Dancing Dreams is geared more towards the construction of these routines, staging a very human (and firmly 2D) examination of the flaws and missteps being worked out: these gauche, giggly, self-conscious teenagers, who have issues with touching one another and moving without their hands in their pockets, initially drive Bausch's regular rehearsal directors up the walls of the Tanztheater, but come eventually to a greater understanding of their own bodies, and of their co-stars' bodies, than an hour's fumbling in a Wuppertal bus shelter might otherwise have allowed them.

Hoffman and Linsel shoot these dancers as individuals rather than groups, contrasting the general psychedness of some (the lads, post-Billy Elliot, are well up for it) with the awkwardness and intimidation others feel at being under the eye of a great choreographer and having to pull off manoeuvres even trained professionals find hard to nail down with the requisite precision.
It suffers a little from repetition of the same piece - where Wenders could pick and choose - and clearly isn't aiming for the High Art that had Pina packing them in at the Curzon Mayfair, but it's good on the process, and benefits from finding voices and personalities that prove at least as forceful as Pina's own. At a post-rehearsal meeting, one of the teenagers voices the complaint "We don't know what the meanings of the meanings are" - a valid criticism of the fawning, analysis-light Wenders doc. Others have their own issues: "Lisa is upset with her boyfriend... Melissa is in tears," is the briefing one of Pina's minions receives upon entering the studio one morning. Dancing Dreams shrugs off any cash-in accusations by illuminating an entirely different, no less valid aspect of its real subject's personality: this is Pina Bausch not so much as cult founder as youth club manager - a choreographer of hormones.

Dancing Dreams is on release in selected cinemas.

Monday 30 May 2011

From the archive: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

Is there a duller phrase in contemporary moviespeak than "origin story"? These are two words that speak of a deep-rooted pedantry within the comic-book fraternity: the exhilaration of these latter-day folk tales surely lies in what their constituent superheroes could do - their extraordinary potential - rather than in what they've already done; these cynical-minded cash-ins, literally backward-looking entertainments, serve merely to plug a gap in some very specialist knowledge, to patch a hole in the universal anorak. For those who really need to know such things, the first in a planned series of X-Men Origins, Wolverine at least explains why Hugh Jackman's hirsute action man John Logan appears so bloody grumpy all the time. You'd be stroppy, too, if you found yourself obliged to serve a tour of duty on every battleground from Gettysberg to Omaha Beach, alongside an unruly brother (Liev Schreiber) who shows every sign of going over to the darkside.

I feel increasingly sorry for Jackman. No matter his heroics elsewhere - trouping his way through the Oscar ceremony, reanimating Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's Australia - he's destined to go down in movie history for growing Alvin Stardust sideburns and strapping on a pair of (here, ropily virtual) adamantium talons. In what's supposed to be his own vehicle, Wolverine is outshone, particularly in the early stages, by more vivid turns from Lost's Dominic Monaghan as a psychokineticist who comes to a sad end in a trailer full of old toys, and Ryan Reynolds as a swordsman so gifted he can slice bullets in two even as they're heading towards him. There's also the rare sight of Schreiber enjoying himself for Jackman to contend with, while I suspect a few fanboy Y-fronts will be moistened at the arrival of card-sharp Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) around the midpoint.

Any sense of drama isn't helped by the fact that, as in previous instalments, there are so many diverse and varied superpowers on display - an X-Man for all seasons, if you will. Every conceivable foreign and domestic eventuality is covered: having survived Vietnam without a scratch, Logan's most pressing concern becomes the quantity of bedlinen he nightly shreds. Since we know chief villain Danny Huston will grow up to become chief villain Brian Cox in X2, the pay-off has to be deferred (or referred) elsewhere. Arriving a week ahead of the no less back-to-basics Star Trek, Wolverine is clearly intended as the opening blast of the summer blockbuster season, and yet it's never more than functionally spectacular, moving us from point A to point B in the universe of X. Early on, Schreiber is asked to describe the sensation of having a firing squad's bullets bounce off his genetically modified frame. For all Wolverine's heavy artillery, his response rather sums up the whole: "It tickled."

(April 2009)

From the archive: "X-Men: The Last Stand"

Three blockbusters into 2006 - four if you count The Da Vinci Code, but I won't - and it's clear just how spoiled we've been by our recent holiday entertainments. There will not be a new film by Sam Raimi this year; nor one from Peter Jackson. The most we can hope, by way of an authored event movie, will be for Bryan Singer to do something with the least promising of all comic-book franchises in the forthcoming Superman Returns. Having delivered the solid X-Men and X2, Singer declined to occupy the director's seat for a third time on X-Men: The Last Stand. In his place, we get Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), whose films have never been about more than what might be described as a profitable functionality: if we're lucky, he gets the job done for both the popcorn-munchers and the studio suits, and that's about it.

This third instalment gives Ratner the novelty of two whole plotlines with which to juggle: one about a cure for the mutant gene dividing the superhero community, the other concerning the resurrection and defection of Famke Janssen's Jean Grey/Phoenix. (If that doesn't mean anything to you, you're in the wrong screen.) Most of the series regulars return: Hugh Jackman's Wolverine (special powers: bad hair, ability to set girls' hearts aflutter, vague resemblance to Alvin Stardust); Halle Berry's Storm (special powers: bad hair, ability to survive Catwoman unscathed); and Anna Paquin's Rogue (special powers: bad hair framing girl-next-door cuteness). Bad hair, it should be noted, is so rife in this world - almost everyone has some ill-advised tint or dye job - that one almost arrives at the conclusion the mutant gene is just an excuse to frequent untrustworthy barbers. Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier has got it right: he's had it all shaved off, although even then you may wonder whether it's a mischievous hairdresser's idea of a joke.

That we're left marvelling only at hairstyles may give some indication of where we're at in this third film. Singer may have jumped ship because he felt he'd taken this mythology far enough, and all any director could achieve with another instalment would be to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s. Replacing him with the firmly heterosexual Ratner - former beau (if that's the right word) of Serena Williams and Lindsay Lohan, and a man whose After the Sunset may have some claim on being the most leering PG-13 film ever made - has resulted in the straightest X-Men movie yet: when the characters finally end up in San Francisco, they go there not for the nightlife, but so Ratner can wrench the Golden Gate from its foundations and smash the shit out of Alcatraz. (One might accuse him of over-compensating.)

But the film is also straight in the sense of all surface, no subtext. Unlike Singer, Ratner clearly doesn't do hidden meaning (or doesn't know what to do with hidden meaning); as a result, and most peculiarly, we've ended up with a big summer movie composed almost entirely of footnotes and punchlines, concerned only with tying up story strands established elsewhere. (A cynic might add The Last Stand suggests that if you want to finish off a franchise, Ratner really is your man.) Typical is the fondness this final part has for minor, throwaway, background jokes, usually involving cars, a language all residents of smoggy L.A. - mutant or not - must understand.

The young Jean Grey, in the flashback that opens the film, makes the cars of her neighborhood levitate through a living-room window; towards the end, a female driver, seeing Ian McKellen's charmingly malevolent Magneto pass by her windscreen, takes care to apply the child locks. It still works, just about, even if X3 has the feel of a franchise entry doing nothing more than going through the motions: killing off several key characters, introducing others (Kelsey Grammer's mutant senator Hank McCoy, Vinnie Jones's Juggernaut) too late for them to have any real impact, and (presumably) making a lot more money for a director who insisted in Cannes this week that The Last Stand is the final X-Men film, "although there might be spin-offs". Ker-ching!

(May 2006)

X-Men: The Last Stand screens on C4 this Saturday (June 4th) at 10.15pm.

From the archive: "X-Men 2"

Some things change, some things stay the same. In X-Men 2, Bryan Singer's sequel to 2000's middling superhero saga, Professor Charles Xavier's surname is still defiantly pronounced with an x and not a z; his sometime nemesis/now ally Magneto's name continues to be (mis)pronounced "mag-neato", rather than the perhaps more European (more correct?) "mag-netto". Xavier (Patrick Stewart) now seems more than ever like a wheelchair-bound Simon Fuller, especially as he's training up a bunch of young mutant superheroes (Anna Paquin's Rogue, Aaron Stanford's Pyro) to act as the S Club Juniors to the old hands who staffed the first film: to continue the S Club metaphor, Famke Janssen's Jean Grey plays Tina, the connoisseur's choice, to Halle Berry's Storm as Rachel, the one we're all supposed to fancy. This time, they've all teamed up to try and stop hawkish, Tommy Franks/Simon Cowell-like U.S. General William Stryker (Brian Cox) from waging a full-scale military assault against the mutants.

Because it draws on years of comic-book mythology, the sequel's plotting sometimes gets as labyrinthine as anything in Singer's The Usual Suspects, and it's very easy to get lost. (I hadn't a clue what a ghost-child and Stryker's disabled son had to do with the finale.) There's a lot to take in here - most characters, like the film itself [which was also marketed as X2 and X-Men United], go under more than one name. Singer and his writers have cut back on the dialogue to compensate: here are lines so gnomic they'd fit very easily into a speech bubble. There's also a nagging sense that characterisation, too, has slowly been pared away: a love triangle set up to take in Jean Grey, Cyclops (James Marsden) and Hugh Jackman's bellbottom-sporting Wolverine turns out to be a piffling little thing. The most enjoyable relationship in the film, in fact, turns out to be the deeply perverse alliance between Magneto and the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and that's because the latter effectively stands as this franchise's own Keyser Soze - effects mean she could be any of the characters at any time - while McKellen is on particularly mischievous form, his performance a panoply of nods, winks and naughty smiles, all the stuff not laid down in a script.

The problem with this particular bunch of mutant superheroes is that there are now so many of them, they pretty much have every eventuality covered; what this sequel gains in diversity and spectacle, it loses in threat. Unlike with Spider-Man or the Lord of the Rings movies, one never gets the sense anybody is likely to die; indeed, when one key character does finally perish, business as usual is established so quickly it's almost as though they were never there in the first place. (You half-suspect some kind of resurrection in X3.) While we should be grateful our summer and Christmas event movies are presently in the hands of people who understand and finally love film - rather than, say, ad directors, or the folk who run effects houses - relief that X-Men 2 is at least entertaining for the most part is tempered by slight regret at the fact Singer hasn't been working on anything more personal or interesting these past few years: his latest ends with an American president backing down from war, which places us as firmly in the realm of fantasy as we have perhaps ever been.

(May 2003)

From the archive: "X-Men"

X-Men may be a putative summer blockbuster, but - as directed by indie-tyro-turned-studio-whizzkid Bryan Singer - it bears the stamp of an auteur-outsider, developing the themes brought up by the preacher in Singer's Public Access, the crippled criminal Verbal in The Usual Suspects, and by Denker, the Nazi war criminal hiding out in American suburbia in Apt Pupil. After a brief prologue in a concentration camp, X-Men focuses upon another teen surprised, like Denker's young nemesis, by her sudden adolescent power. Rogue (Anna Paquin) absorbs the life force of all those she touches, hardly the most helpful quality when setting about making out with one's contemporaries.

Banished to the snowy Canadian wilderness, this little green riding hood takes up with the big, bad Wolverine, played by the impressively feral Hugh Jackman, sniffing and twitching and looking like a young Clint Eastwood, with the tiniest genetic splice of late Alvin Stardust. Wolverine is a cage fighter the first time we see him, and all the mutants we are henceforth introduced to are, in some way, trapped by their powers: Rogue and Wolverine are assimilated into a New York finishing school run by the wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

Xavier is here pronounced "ex-avier", and not "zavvier", as one might expect, but just one of the wonders of X-Men is the very American pronunciation of its central characters' names: Xavier has a rival in Magneto (Ian McKellen), and the latter syllables of his surname are not spoken as "netto" but "neato", which is about as Californian as it gets. Mag-neato has his own stable of mutants who are mostly crap in comparison: the magnificently useless Mane, for example, manages to achieve not one of his alloted tasks in the entire movie.

There's some thematic depth in the discussion of difference in contemporary America, and a little too much emphasis on story and characterisation - how often does one get to complain about that? - for X-Men to be truly exciting; it's also still a little too lightweight to qualify for serious analysis as an outsider film, concluding with one of the most pleadingly obvious set-ups for a sequel ever filmed. Still, it's fun and watchable, and among an unusual blockbuster cast, you get some very good actors having fun: Stewart, McKellen, and Bruce Davison as a shape-shifting senator.

(August 2000)

X-Men screens on Film4 this Friday at 9pm.

Saturday 28 May 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of May 20-22, 2011:

1 (new) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12A) *
2 (2) Fast Five (12A) ***
3 (1) Thor (12A) **
4 (4) Insidious (15) ***
5 (3) Attack the Block (15) **
6 (5) Hanna (12A) *
7 (7) Rio (U)
8 (6) Water for Elephants (12A)
9 (new) Blitz (18) **
10 (new) Win Win (15) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Apocalypse Now [above]
2. Life, Above All
3. X-Men: First Class
4. Le Quattro Volte
5. Dancing Dreams

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) The King's Speech (12) ****
2 (2) The Tourist (12) **
3 (3) Meet the Parents: Little Fockers (12)
4 (6) Due Date (15)
5 (new) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (12) *
6 (new) The Next Three Days (12) **
7 (new) Blue Valentine (15) ***
8 (9) Unstoppable (12) ***
9 (4) The Social Network (12) *****
10 (8) Tron Legacy (PG) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. NEDs
2. Chico and Rita
3. The King's Speech
4. Benda Bilili!
5. Nenette

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. A Few Good Men (Bank Holiday Monday, five, 10pm)
2. WALL-E (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC1, 5pm)
3. The Italian Job (Bank Holiday Monday, C4, 7.10pm)
4. The Thirty-Nine Steps (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC2, 11.35am)
5. Gunga Din (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.35am)

Resurrection shuffle: "Le Quattro Volte"

Some films are like very little else you've seen. Cannes 2010 had two of them: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee..., and Michelangelo Frammartino's sui generis charmer Le Quattro Volte, which opens more or less as a parody of the Highfalutin Art Movie - a realist study of a goatherd with a bad cough - only to transform (and that is the right word) into its own thing, or things, entirely. As the title (English translation: The Four Times) hints, what we have here is a narrative relay team running a sort of 4x2000ft of celluloid around a rustic Italian village.

When the shepherd perishes, we follow the progress of one of his more inquisitive goats into the world - and yes, let me repeat that, it's a non-animated film where a goat occupies centre-frame for twenty or so minutes, much as, say, Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf did in The Hours. Eventually, we pass from the goat to the story of the tree the goat once sought shelter in, which - displaced from its home - comes to assume a whole new identity (I'm not making this up); then the tree, too, goes to its grave in fiery circumstances, only to be born again. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Suffice to say, it's an odd hybrid, this: part circle of life treatise, part Jacques Tati comedy. Frammartino's achievement lies in how he holds these diverse elements in equilibrium. Le Quattro Volte manages to be funny and quietly profound at the same time, getting us to both laugh at and ponder the nature and character of the things around us. It's unmistakably a Catholic film, placing its dramatic emphasis on death and transfiguration, and climaxing with the plume of white smoke traditionally employed by the Vatican to show somebody's home; yet it's also a supremely catholic film, summoning up other, more secular belief systems, connections, ways of looking at the world.

Its field of inquiry may be the vast cosmic mysteries of existence, but Frammartino is drawn to smaller items of interest: dust motes suspended in the air of the chapel the goatherder visits, ants scrabbling around in the dirt. Part of the film looks to be concerned with what happens when lids come off and gates are left open: this much is clear from the remarkable (and much-discussed) central set-piece, apparently filmed without virtual enhancement, involving the goatherd's dog, a truck with a dodgy handbrake, and a processing Passion play. (The Easter backdrop further underlines the theme of resurrection.) In a later sequence, we watch a local ritual that sees one of the villagers shimmying a hundred or so feet up the tree, now relocated to the town square. No stuntmen here - like much else in Frammartino's film, it's real life and death stuff.

I don't think Le Quattro Volte quite reaches the extraordinary heights of Uncle Boonmee..., which really did seem to me like the universe in a strip of celluloid, but it's a film full of minor miracles, not least the precision turns the director gets from his notionally uncontrollable, non-human performers. Clearly the dogs and goats are destined for the lion's share of the plaudits, but those ants also prove a well-drilled unit, and look out for the small but telling contribution from a potful of mountain snails, enjoying what's easily the species' most prominent billing since the days of Peter Greenaway: as previously untapped screen talent goes, you might just call them all naturals.

Le Quattro Volte is on release in selected cinemas.

Friday 27 May 2011

"Heartbeats" (Metro 27/05/11)

Heartbeats (15) 95 mins **

22-year-old French-Canadian Xavier Dolan has been gaining quite the reputation on the festival circuit, and on the evidence of this, his glossy second feature, he has a promising future ahead of him as a director of polysexual M&S commercials, should ever the film work dry up.

Heartbeats charts the impact of an outsider on a clique of twentysomething nitwits with over-thought haircuts. Curly-locked, full-lipped Nicolas (Niels Schneider) is something all right: Dolan shoots him in slow motion at every opportunity, lest we were to miss his sculpted cheekbones or sly smile at regular speed.

As Nicolas worms his way between gay Francis (Dolan himself) and the latter’s bolshy confidante Marie (Monia Chokri), the players are posed as prettily as possible in bars and bookshops and bedrooms; even the white rabbit this threesome encounter while larking through the woods one afternoon is as pristine as any one might pull from a magician’s hat.

Yet the love triangle proves a tease, and Dolan fills the remaining time paying self-conscious homage to old movie stars and hipster vinyl recordings. A few superficial pleasures here, granted, but otherwise there’s nothing very much going on between the film’s well-groomed quotation marks: like attending a party at which you just know everybody else’s Facebook photos will turn out better than your own, it’s an irksome experience, to say the least.

Heartbeats opens in selected cinemas from today.

Bad heads: "The Hangover Part II"

I didn't really get 2009's The Hangover, which seemed to me an especially crass, patchy, sub-Apatovian lads-behaving-badly tale, but plenty of other people did, such as to make a sequel an inevitability. On reflection, it had the kind of mildly ingenious pitch (Memento with boobs) that might have best remained an untoppable one-off, but then the film's essential conceit - and a large part of my problem - was that these guys weren't ever going to learn from their mistakes, and were thus likely to make the same mistakes all over again. And besides, money talks. The Hangover Part II, again directed by Todd Phillips, follows in the footsteps of countless 70s British sitcoms before it by relocating a familiar set-up to a balmier climate - in this instance, Thailand. Before you ask, yes, there are ladyboys. That's the level of comic imagination the sequel operates at.

A twenty minute drink on a Bangkok beach turns into another wild night on the tiles, and the heroes emerge from their stupors once again. Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has sacrificed his hair in the night, but gained a monkey; Stu (Ed Helms), the uptight dentist who lost a tooth first time round, has gained a prominent facial tattoo, but lost his bride-to-be's 16-year-old brother; nothing short of a full-scale nuclear assault seems likely to wipe the smirk from the face of Bradley Cooper's Phil, but that's just how this franchise rolls. Crucially - as the alarmingly mirthless opening half-hour makes apparent - the franchise has lost even those crotch-level gags audiences went for first time around, replaced by what now seems like an awful lot of plot for these characters to have to plod through.

If there's anything like an aesthetic at play in the Hangover movies, Phillips has pushed to make Part II more squalid than Part I. Every scene is riddled with lice and rat droppings; they should hand you an STD kit with your popcorn. The first film offered the fragrant Heather Graham in mitigation, but in Part II, everyone on screen is seen sweating like a rapist, perhaps at the thought of having to put comic lightning back in the bottle a second time. Bangkok looks ugly as sin throughout; Ken Jeong's callback cameo as Mr. Chow begins with the leads fingering his nubbin of a penis, and is abruptly halted by an apparently fatal drug overdose. You long for Paul Giamatti to do something funny with his cameo appearance - to show the Johnny-come-lately leads how it's done - but instead the actor just looks ill, as though he spent much of the shoot on the toilet, and exercises a tedious potty mouth.

As does the film in general. Squalid and funny might have played, but there's a grim desperation about the language here, reminiscent of the recent Paul: Cooper drops the C-bomb in a crowded pancake house, somebody else uses the N-word, which is terribly progressive. Here's an example of how flat this sequel falls: when Nick Cassavetes shows up in the tattooist role that was once earmarked for a certain Mel Gibson, your thoughts drift to how much funnier it would have been to have Mad Mel turn up at this point - and how rich it is that the cast of The Hangover should have taken the moral high ground (in blackballing Gibson), given the general thrust of these films. (Hell, Phillips and co. were perfectly happy to employ convicted rapist Mike Tyson - not once, it turns out, but twice.)

As for the characters the public identified with so the first time around, they've become only more American with time and success: Alan spends a small part of the trip listing obscure fast food chains, while Stu takes the opportunity of a river cruise to trill old Billy Joel songs. Phil and Stu are rude to a Buddhist monk because they can't understand what he's saying; Phillips and his writers only seem truly comfortable inside a titty bar, in part because that's the film's milieu, mostly because it frees their characters to be as loud and as leering as they like. This is self-evidently a boys' town, but it's more of the reductive culture-sacking that marked the second Sex & the City movie, and there's a strong sense that in ditching the Carrie franchise to push this one forward, Warner Bros. have simply come to replace one form of crass cinematic tourism with another. What happened in Vegas should, most definitely, have stayed in Vegas.

The Hangover Part II is on nationwide release.

Thursday 26 May 2011

1,001 Films: "The Birth of a Nation" (1916)

The Birth of a Nation remains a landmark movie, whatever one thinks of its politics. D.W. Griffith's silent epic is a film about (in 1916, then-recent) history - those rifts and tears in American society that led to the Civil War - that has become a historical artefact in its own right, and which needs to be viewed as such. Note that a film with no explicit violence or sexuality can still land itself a 15 rating from the censors - chiefly for the virulence of its racism. It opens with some paternal, Great War-era pleas for everything that follows to be understood as an anti-war tract, then immediately puts its foot in its mouth with a title card that insists if the blacks hadn't come to America, there'd have been no need for the Civil War.

Typical of the film's muddled thinking is that Griffith is almost right - if we understand the War to have been fought over slavery - but he lays the blame in entirely the wrong place: this opening essentially grumps "if only those Africans hadn't allowed themselves to be imported into America by rich white traders". The first half, detailing the relationship between two families, the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South, still holds up today as a gallop through an especially turbulent period in U.S. history, and Griffith has a real feel for the way the bonds of American (high) society were ripped asunder by war. He also stages extraordinarily detailed battle sequences, and a reconstruction of the burning of Atlanta that must have provided the producers of Gone with the Wind something to work with two decades later, before winding up with the assassination of Lincoln.

The second half, set during the capital-R Reconstruction, is dramatically much less satisfying (it kicks off with too much Lilian Gish in forests and title cards about capital-L "Love"), morally problematic (white actors sport varying thicknesses of blackface) and historically ridiculous, making a villain out of the character Silas Lynch - to modern eyes, an early civil rights figurehead looking to use the power vacuum left by Lincoln's death to raise blacks to the same standing as whites - while treating the Ku Klux Klan at all points as masked, heroic dispensers of justice. In doing so, Griffith replaces the "what did"s of the first half with a succession of "what if"s: chiefly, what if African-Americans came to power, and were the ones doing all the tarring and feathering?

Here we see stirrings of the racially-motivated paranoia that would spring up again in American society with the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and the McCarthy witchhunts of the 50s (and, today, with the phony controversy over the Obama birth certificate); it reaches its nadir in the House of Representatives sequence, with its shoeless, liquor-swilling blackface bozos eating fried chicken while "the helpless white minority" look on, and in a later incident wherein the hero's sister jumps to her death rather than allow herself to be raped by a black soldier. As cinema, it's fascinatingly flawed spectacle; as an illustration of how racism most often stems from fear, and how every history has its bias, it's more or less perfect.

The Birth of a Nation is available on DVD.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

1,001 Films to See Before You Die: "Le Voyage Dans La Lune" (1902)

The Steven Jay Schneider-edited tome 1,001 Films To See Before You Die (Cassell Illustrated), featuring contributions from several of my favourite UK critics, has become a mainstay of the nation's bookshops and reference libraries in recent years; in this reader's opinion, it's among the most useful guides presently out there to the history and diversity of the cinema, as both a popular and an artistic form. I'm up to seeing just over 900 of the films selected for its study, giving me but a hundred more to go before I can finally rest in peace. In this new strand, I aim to discuss several of the films chosen, beginning with the very first selection - Georges Méliès' Le Voyage Dans La Lune/A Trip to the Moon. The following project is undertaken from the belief that to know where the cinema presently is, and to know where it's heading, we surely have to know where it came from.

If we consider France to be the womb of cinema - which may explain why that country has proven more protective of the movies over the years than most - then, at some formative point, some kind of cell(uloid) division must have taken place. The Lumières, in filming those workers leaving the factory, gave us embryonic realism, documentary and observation. But then there was Georges Méliès, the cine-conjuror who, with the Verne- and Wells-inspired 1902 short A Trip to the Moon, encouraged the cinema to reach for the stars, into the realms of fantasy, escape and action: if you feel inclined to thank anybody for Avatar, you should thank Méliès, its spiritual godfather (or fairy godmother) - not least because James Cameron's ego appears quite big enough already, thank you.

Professor Dullmuddle and his team of Incoherent Astronomers shoot their tin-can rocket onto (actually into) the face of the Moon, where gravity is no longer an issue, and everybody beds down with sheets, as though they were spending the night under Waterloo Bridge. The next day, the visitors get into scrapes with giant mushrooms and the local tribespeople (very Avatar); a punchline reveals one of these moondwellers even smuggled themselves back to Earth, setting up a strand of - usually ultra-bloody - horror sci-fi. What's still striking is the short's energy: even the the background players appear to express a glee merely at being on camera. (Compare their broad smiles and strutting to today's over-photographed performers, who sometimes seem to resent that the whole world has been granted the right to look at them.) Now we're almost as far away in time from the actual lunar landings as Méliès was at the time of this Trip's conception, it can be reclaimed as a dreamer's work, a fragment of then-unparalleled imagination - and one in the eye for anyone who ever said it was inconceivable.

Le Voyage Dans la Lune/A Trip to the Moon can be viewed online here.

Monday 23 May 2011

Stolen childhoods: "Life, Above All"

Life, Above All is a tough, honest record of an African tragedy that displays very nearly as great a feel for the people of a place battered by the elements as Steinbeck and Ford did for the Dustbowl of The Grapes of Wrath. In his adaptation of Allan Stratton's novel Chanda's Secrets, the South African director Oliver Schmitz takes us into a shantytown north of Johannesburg, and into the lives of a one-parent family whose youngest daughter has just perished in uncertain circumstances: the official word is influenza, but village gossip suggests something more besides. Teenage heroine Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) is first observed heading to a nearby funeral home blessed with an extensive range of kid-scaled coffins: clearly, this one child's demise isn't an isolated event, but the real kicker follows when Chanda returns to the home she shares with her ailing mother and her two younger siblings, and discovers somebody's made off with the cash she's set aside to bury her sister.

"It's nothing," insists the heroine's mama, referring to the lesion growing on her leg, and Life, Above All speaks more eloquently and powerfully than most about a particular culture of denial: the impact of The Disease Whose Name Dare Not Be Spoken upon an entire generation denied the childhood, the education and the lives that are their right, in having to care for parents rapidly growing weaker and more vulnerable than they themselves are. (Only Chanda speaks of AIDS directly; others in the community prefer the euphemistic, responsibility-shucking "God's wrath".)

That Life, Above All never feels preachy or issue-led is down to the way Schmitz roots it in character. There's robust neighbour Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), who - with an eye fixed firmly on social respectability and keeping up the appearance of the neighborhood - drags Chanda's mother along with her to witch doctors, quack doctors and the church, in an insistent search for a quick fix. There's the mother's lover, abdicating all responsibility for the child's death, who turns up on the family's doorstep whenever he needs an easy lay, and robs them blind for the privilege. There is Chanda's impoverished best friend Esther (a performance of staggering maturity from young Keaobaka Makanyane), who - heartbreakingly - rides her bike down to the truckstop to prostitute herself, on the grounds that's what everybody assumes a girl like her would be doing anyway: "At least this way I'm earning money."

And there is Chanda herself, beautifully incarnated by Manyaka, who is tough and brave and smart, by some considerable distance the most indelible movie heroine of 2011 thus far, and yet someone for whom you retain only terrible fears she, too, will come to be dragged down by these circumstances. (Would it be crass and reductive to propose her as a Precious of the townships? Possibly.) If his protagonist's progress is never easy, Schmitz at least strikes the right balance for the film between despair and optimism: a pop song on a car stereo, a first dance in a neighbour's backyard giving tiny signs of encouragement, and preventing it all from becoming a bit too much. The film's heart is as big as the Serengeti, and its empathy and compassion are equally boundless.

Life, Above All opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 22 May 2011

From the archive: "The Hangover"

The screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have mined a profitable seam with scripts that feature easily pitched concepts, two or three standout jokes good for the trailer, and a lot of filler in between. They're also prolific: in the last six months alone, their names have featured on Four Christmas and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and now they bring us a fitful ladcom, which confirms my suspicion Lucas and Moore are pushing their luck, not to mention taking the studios for a ride. The Hangover is a road trip at heart: a quartet of guys in their thirties and forties set off to Vegas for a bachelor night to remember; the wrinkle is that, the next morning, none of them can. Three of the four - Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) - wake up the next day with the hangover from hell and a series of questions to answer. How did dentist Stu lose one of his teeth? Why is there a tiger in the hotel suite bathroom? And where's the groom gone?

Directed by Todd Phillips (Road Trip), the film doesn't do much to overturn the charge that the New American Comedy is an essentially and exclusively male phenomenon. There isn't a film in existence that couldn't be brightened by the appearance of Heather Graham - she'd have worked wonders on Tarkovsky - but casting her as a breastfeeding stripper (in effect, a set of multitasking boobs) hardly seems the giant step forward in the depiction of women these films have been crying out for, and the same goes for the nagging, clueless or frigid other halves these boys leave behind, too. Of the leads, Cooper coasts through The Hangover's 100 minutes on an impermeable layer of sub-McConaughey insincerity; Helms, a former Daily Show correspondent more frequently seen in small, often amusing cameos, is only really allowed to impose himself during a belated Elton John impersonation; which allows weirdy-beardy stand-up Galifianakis to run off with most of his scenes as the borderline autistic Alan, an individual with his own unique take on post-9/11 airport security, the preferred spices of wild cats and the advantages of the humble satchel ("Indiana Jones has one"), and who ends up wearing a baby in a papoose - a joke repeated, without inflection, from Phillips' Old School.

Phillips made his name with 1998's Frat House, an acclaimed documentary about college hazing rituals, and there's a sense he hasn't quite got fratboy humour out of his system, which here leads to a lot of naked male behinds, vomit, errant condoms, date rape drugs and raucous, sometimes violent behaviour: Galifianakis is tasered in the face and later thumped during an unironic cameo from Mike Tyson, absolving the leads' behaviour with the line "we all do dumb shit when we're fucked up" - some comfort there, no doubt, for the woman he was jailed for raping. I can't say I didn't laugh during The Hangover, but it struck me as coming from somewhere down towards the thinner end of the comedy wedge, perhaps because Lucas and Moore draw thumbnail sketches rather than fully-formed characters, and write skits rather than scenes. Any narrative development in their films is arbitrary and erratic; there's nothing to hold this, or Four Christmases, or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past together save their initial pitch and whatever snickering the audience is content to provide. The best films in the current comedy renaissance - The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Stuck on You, John Hamburg's I Love You, Man from earlier this year - allow us to catch their characters growing up and evolving underneath all their obligatory gross-out; but here - as in something like Wedding Crashers - we're asked to spend more time than is especially funny or edifying with bleary, puking, incorrigible little boys whose antics would very quickly become tiresome in real life, and who'll most likely end up making the same lairy mistakes all over again the minute the end credits have rolled.

(June 2009)

The Hangover Part II opens nationwide on Thursday.

Saturday 21 May 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of May 13-15, 2011:

1 (1) Thor (12A) **
2 (2) Fast Five (12A) ***
3 (new) Attack the Block (15) **
4 (3) Insidious (15) ***
5 (5) Hanna (12A) *
6 (4) Water for Elephants (12A)
7 (7) Rio (U)
8 (6) Something Borrowed (12A)
9 (8) Priest (12A)
10 (9) Arthur (12A) *

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. After the Apocalypse
2. Red Hill
3. Win Win
4. Love Like Poison
5. A Screaming Man

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) The King's Speech (12) ****
2 (2) The Tourist (12) **
3 (3) Meet the Parents: Little Fockers (12)
4 (6) Due Date (15)
5 (new) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (12) *
6 (new) The Next Three Days (12) **
7 (new) Blue Valentine (15) ***
8 (9) Unstoppable (12) ***
9 (4) The Social Network (12) *****
10 (8) Tron Legacy (PG) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. NEDs
2. The King's Speech
3. Chico and Rita
4. Nenette
5. Tangled

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Zodiac (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm) [above]
2. It Happened One Night (Saturday, BBC2, 12noon)
3. The Set-Up (Saturday, BBC2, 1.50am)
4. Far From Heaven (Saturday, C4, 10.20pm)
5. Back to the Future Part III (Sunday, ITV1, 4.20pm)

On DVD: "Tangled"

Four years ago, Disney had one of their biggest (and most unexpected) live-action hits of recent years with Enchanted, a contemporary fairytale that - like rivals DreamWorks' animated Shrek features - threatened to do something subversive within a very familiar storybook framework. Enchanted arrived at a point when Disney's animated output had withered to practically naught; following the recruitment of Pixar chief John Lasseter, the company then churned out the OK-ish 3D effort Bolt and the very middling The Princess and the Frog, which suggested the Mouse House was now more interested in looking backwards than forward.

Tangled, their Rapunzel rewrite (and the company's fiftieth animated feature, a landmark announced with great fanfare in the opening credits), is itself a throwback to those Disney movies we all went to see in the days before silly 3D glasses, yet it's the first of the films produced under the Lasseter regime to have taken on some of the lessons gained from Enchanted about reconnecting with your core audience. The medium is the now-standard computer animation, complete with the textural novelty (in this instance, the heroine's lustrous, flowing hair) Pixar movies used to boast, but Tangled's essence is broadly traditional. It has a dashing, romantic anti-hero in the thief Flynn Rider, who gets lots of adventure business evading the authorities on horseback, and a self-improving heroine (voiced by Mandy Moore) who both talks with the animals and converses with her wicked-stepmother keeper (Donna Murphy) in the kind of showtunes that have re-entered our cultural discourse thanks to TV's Glee. (I'm guessing someone at the production meetings, presumably with a PhD in synergy, had an eye to turning this into a stage musical at some point in the very near future.)

In this, Tangled gets off to a good start with "When Will My Life Begin?", set to become an anthem for frustrated tweenies everywhere, and the very funny "Mother Knows Best" ("Skip the drama/Come to mama"), before tailing off into sub-Celine syrup. Still, the songs remain the film's best expression of character - in part because these aren't characters you'll likely remember after the next fifty Disney animations, or even after the next ten Disney animations, in the way we still do Dumbo or Baloo or the Seven Dwarfs. This Rapunzel is a fairer, softer, milder redraw of Shrek's ass-kicking Fiona - all hair, she actually looks like Mandy Moore, whether blonde or brunette, which doesn't help her claims for permanency. Flynn Rider has the name of a past screen rake - or a contemporary adult film star - but not very much of the potency. (It's entirely fitting he should eventually reveal his true name as being Eugene Fitzherbert: he very much has the potency of a Eugene Fitzherbert.)

Even Murphy's stepmother comes at the end of a long Disney tradition of vain, bony-fingered crones, with only a little more Broadway razzle-dazzle to distinguish herself from her predecessors. As Flynn's line "Sorry lady, I don't do backstory" suggests, Tangled is brisk enough to keep you watching, but also cursory and throwaway-seeming, designed merely to catch the eye before the next 3D product breaks on our screens: even the Chinese lanterns Rapunzel so badly wants to see, though beautiful, flicker and disperse as the film hares onto its next distraction. You could see it as illustrative of the way the industry has changed over the course of these fifty animations. When Uncle Walt first sketched Steamboat Willie, he was doing so for keeps and for fun; Tangled, by contrast, has necessarily to keep one eye on opening-weekend grosses and DVD residuals. To say a certain innocence has been lost scarcely covers it.

Tangled is available on DVD from Monday.

"Blitz" (Metro 20/05/11)

Blitz (18) 97 mins **

The title refers to the nickname assumed by the serial cop killer in Elliott Lester’s grimly OTT Brit thriller, but it could also describe the bombardment of diverse acting styles Blitz unleashes: one early sequence brings Jason Statham face-to-face with Greatest Stage Actor of His Generation™ Mark Rylance. At last! On one side, there’s Statham’s DS Brant, an angry baked bean bouncing violently around his South London manor, and Paddy Considine, as the openly gay Inspector struggling to restrain this maverick. Over in the shadows, Aidan Gillen lurks in unflattering leisurewear as the fame-hungry psychopath, while David Morrissey – have you learned nothing from Basic Instinct 2, sir? – is the tabloid hack who comes to do the killer’s bidding.

Between a lot of clichés, elements of Blitz click. Statham and Considine’s cautious bonding suggests a fun, metrosexual Sweeney update, but it’s soon jostled out of the frame by underdeveloped subplots and supporting characters, and hardcore Stath fans will likely emerge disappointed by the ratio of growly tough talk to actual action. What’s left hurtles – like almost everything our Jase churns out – towards self-parody: it’s hard to take seriously the tut-tutting about the gutter press when the film diverts its one footchase through a knocking shop, and winds up wholeheartedly asserting the strong arm of the law. Leave it to DVD, if you must.

is on nationwide release.

Thursday 19 May 2011

On the mat: "Win Win"

With the triangular manoeuvrings at the centre of his triumphant 2004 debut The Station Agent, the writer, director and sometime actor Tom McCarthy revealed himself to be a filmmaker uniquely interested in the circumstances and consequences of individuals being thrown together, often against their will. McCarthy's 2008 follow-up The Visitor - pitching uptight academic Richard Jenkins against illegal aliens on the streets of post-9/11 Manhattan - confirmed the suspicion here was a humanist of the old school, dressed in hip new indie trousers; for his next trick, Win Win, he attempts an egalitarian sports movie, one that seeks to put the contributions of those struggling on the sidelines on a dramatic par with the accomplishments of life's winners, while venturing a statement of sorts on American attitudes to success. In this, it's only partially successful, but it's watchable as far as it goes.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, an ailing private practice lawyer who spends his days shuttling oldtimers into care homes in a bid to balance the books, and his evenings coaching the no-hope local wrestling squad. Circumstances lead to Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) taking in their polar opposite in life: Kyle (Alex Shaffer), an apparently disaffected teenager fleeing a broken home, who finds incomparably easy everything his guardians regard as hard work, and turns out to be the most gifted wrestler Mike has ever seen. A Zen-like motivator, Kyle transforms the fortunes of the team almost overnight, but his new-found standing attracts a variety of hangers-on - and brings a whole new raft of problems to the Flahertys' door.

Less schematic than The Visitor - a welcome yet worthy response to the insularity of American foreign and domestic policy - Win Win again highlights the skill and generosity of the McCarthy approach. These are among the small handful of characters destined for a multiplex near you who convince as real people, intersecting in messy, fractious, credible ways that provide ample opportunity for the main players to make an impression. Nobody's doing anything radically new here - save, perhaps, Ryan, who gets to play warmer and more maternal than she did in the character parts with which she made her name, and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle's estranged mother, a role less mellifluous than this generally sympathetic actress has been used to. Yet everyone's doing what they are doing rather well: Giamatti, Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor make cherishable wise monkeys as the wrestling team management, and there's a sharp and funny turn from newcomer Shaffer, who sometimes appears to be channeling Sean Penn's talismanic Fast Times at Ridgemont High drifter Jeff Spicoli in a more realistic key.

You just wish the film housing these performances was a little more dynamic and daring; as it is, a mid-film montage set to a Bon Jovi track is as lively as it gets. After the recent Cedar Rapids, Win Win is another example of the (studio-backed) "little indie": a broadly unobjectionable proposition that scratches round in its own backyard, amusing rather than achieving anything more distinctive, lasting or challenging, and butting up against interesting themes and ideas without ever threatening to break through and develop them. The film's second half, in particular, pootles along, only a few clicks north of a made-for-television custody battle, before downsizing only further in sympathy with its central character. Maybe in the present financial climate, this is how things have to be, but it results in a movie more concerned with getting by than anything, micro where the themes and pleasures of The Station Agent were unapologetically macro. Film of the week in a disappointing week, it's a score-draw: not without its entertaining moments, but ultimately rather less conclusive than one might like.

Win Win opens nationwide tomorrow.

Indigestible: "PlanEAT"

The would-be crusading documentary PlanEAT feels very much a victim of the foodie revolution - that phenomenon which has ensured every show on Western television that isn't hung up on property prices is instead set in somebody's kitchen. It has an eminently credible frontman in Cornell professor T. Colin Campbell, whose studies suggest a link between eating meat and an increased risk of cancer, and that diets dependent upon meat are those that contribute most to atmospheric emissions - a thesis those fond of their Sunday roasts will already be vividly aware of, if research conducted in the average bathroom is anything to go by.

Yet directors Shelley Lee Davies and Or Shlomi trivialise and eventually torpedo their own argument by indulging in the cinematic equivalent of grazing - cutting away from Campbell's scholarly analysis to perky inserts shot in fancy-pants Manhattan restaurants, where chefs attempt to convince the viewer that eating leaves is fun, and that there's no need for sugar in your cupcakes. The approach is confoundingly piecemeal: there's a sense the filmmakers are simply throwing diverse ingredients into the mix, assuming some of them have to stick. Campbell is hurried through an interpretation of what sounds like a comprehensive and fascinating study of the health of Chinese labourers in the 1970s; heart patients are wheeled on to speak of recoveries aided by handfuls of grass; one chef goes into raptures over the texture of cactus nectar, while another prepares kale sandwiches. (They don't look good.)

Throughout, the thrust would seem not so much consuming less (which is surely what's required now) as towards consuming differently - imploring us to make a switch from one drain on the Earth's resources to another. (If we were all to suddenly bury our faces in the cabbage patch, would farmers - hell, would the very soil - be able to cope with the demand?) Plenty to make vegans and vegetarians everywhere smugger than they already are, and the data's sure compelling, but it's a project hopelessly blind to the fact there are times in life where one could simply murder a steak, with or without a side salad.

PlanEAT opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Float on: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

And the shit sailed on. For the revival of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, we have to thank the Disney bean counters - who presumably had nothing else to put out this summer - and the increasingly hacky and indiscriminate Johnny Depp, who was reportedly only persuaded to resume his role as Captain Jack Sparrow once reassurances were provided that the Mouse House would fund projects more personal to him than, say, Alice in Wonderland or The Tourist. (Everything's a negotiation nowadays.) In theory, On Stranger Tides ought to be an improvement on third part At World's End, not least as some of the ballast has been tossed overboard: Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, for two, have been allowed to drift off over the horizon, a decision which, at this stage, even the actors themselves probably wouldn't bemoan.

Yet if what I hesitate to describe as the organising principle of Part Four is regeneration, fresh starts - not for nothing are the remaining characters on a quest for the Fountain of Youth - the franchise's default position of grotesque indulgence hasn't been entirely abandoned. One early sequence puts Richard Griffiths and Roger Allam in full Regency pomp and finery at a banqueting table stocked high with Marie Antoinette-like sweetmeats: inevitably, these latter go untouched as the performers elect to dine out, all too heartily, on the scenery. At a mere 136 minutes (!), Pirates 4 is at least a more manageable proposition than its predecessors, complacent as they were in the belief everyone on screen and in the audience was having the best of all possible times; its choice is to pile its flab atop one of those thin quest narratives lesser summer entertainments are so enamoured of.

The set-up expands, redoubles once more. Where once there was one crusty sea dog on Sparrow's tail, now there are two: Geoffrey Rush's series veteran Barbossa (somewhat less zombie-ish here than I remember him being elsewhere) and Ian McShane as Blackbeard, arriving very late to the p-arr-ty. Keira and Orblando are replaced by two new young lovers, marginally less simpering if no less ineffectual: a trainee missionary (Sam Claflin) and the mermaid he plucks from the sea (French starlet Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). And there are, momentarily, two Jack Sparrows on screen: the idea Depp's pirate is entirely in love with himself is lent further credence by the sequence that finds him locking first swords, then lips, with a Jack Sparrow impersonator - this turns out to be Angelica, or Penelope Cruz, wearing almost as much eye shadow as Depp himself.

Even with Cruz on board, Pirates' reputation as the ugliest of all modern franchises remains firmly intact. The screen is overrun with grizzled beardies shot against stormy skies or in a below-decks murk, here only accentuated by the innate dinginess of the new digital 3D format. (Is this how the new 3D works, one wonders - by not only refusing to allow us to see its more dynamic effects coming, as in traditional 3D, but allowing us to see nothing very much in the first place?) One or more of the executives affiliated with the franchise must have twigged this, hence the sudden introduction of mermaids to an already cluttered mix, although it's typical of the more-is-more approach that these should be vampire mermaids, played by tastefully topless supermodels: the best mermaids, in other words, that Jerry Bruckheimer money can buy.

At any rate, this surface prettification doesn't come close to addressing the series' underlying racial politics. Parts two and three brought us, in Naomie Harris's voodoo priestess, one of the most retrograde characterisations in recent American cinema. Part four's only part for a black performer is a zombified ship's master, whipping the conscripts aboard the dark vessel McShane - and while there's a degree of irony in the sight of an African-American with slaves of his own, we might perhaps question the characterisation of a black man (even a black zombie) as someone who's just really angry. I'm not saying these films should be rewriting maritime history, but would it be too much for the company that gave the world Song of the South to exercise a little sensitivity in what's likely to become their most watched release of the year?

Perhaps it doesn't matter; perhaps, at this stage, seeking qualitative fixes from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie is as howling from the rigging into a force-10 wind. Any adjustment would be mere tinkering with a formula that's proven fundamentally mediocre, when not aiming squarely for the lowest common denominator. With Gore Verbinski at the helm, these movies got bigger and bigger, and he may have jumped ship upon realising nothing he could do with Part Four would top the preposterous swordfight he staged on a giant waterwheel in Part Two.

His replacement Rob Marshall, the choreographer of Chicago and Nine, gives us false hope early on in making one action setpiece entirely about the recovery of a choux bun, suggesting this instalment may be predisposed to smaller things, or at the very least a demonstration of state-of-the-art Hollywood catering. Thereafter, alas, Marshall resigns himself to going through the motions, as everybody gets bogged down in a jungle that makes a nonsense of the subtitle: he sets up a swordfight every fifteen minutes between a dozen or more characters, none of whom you feel compelled to give a single hoot about, and generally moulds something utterly lacking in shape, variety or even a climax, save a teaser for the inevitable Pirates V.

Around the halfway mark, I began to develop a sneaking (and wholly unexpected) respect for the way At World's End really went for it, pushing the franchise, and trying the audience's patience, about as far as it could conceivably go. Compared to that near-avant-garde experiment in tedium, On Stranger Tides is merely prosaic: it leaves you wondering only how something so vast and relatively expensive could end up quite so dull and affectless. We get precisely one surprise, which in the name of saving you time and money, I shall reveal here: a maybe fifteen-second cameo from a corseted Judi Dench, sitting in the back of a carriage Depp is propelled into at one point. "Is that it?," Dame Judi asks, shortly before being shuttled away off-screen and handed her (no doubt sizeable) paycheque. Lady, I couldn't have put it better myself.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is on nationwide release.