Another arbitrarily selected batch of films line up for inspection as we discuss Wonder Woman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, My Life as a Courgette, A Dog’s Purpose, Life, and Passengers. Which will win this month’s Palme d’Fud? Tune in and find out!
Salad Bar’s Revenge, or Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid as it’s known in many other territories.
It is presumably still fashionable, as it has been since the before the first of these films, to bash Pirates of the Caribbean simply for existing. I however, will not. Since we are not exactly deluged with these films, this coming 6 years after whatever the last one was, and cinema not otherwise delivering a great deal of 18th century swashbuckling fare, I’m more than happy to take these films as a welcome change of pace from the relentless hi-tech gadgetry and such that the other Disney live action studios have brought us.
What I cannot claim, however, is that whatever the last film was called, or, to be honest, any of the rest them, are particularly memorable films. So quite why the Black Pearl is in a tiny bottle, or why Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner was cursed to an eternity on the erroneously named Flying Dutchman, which sails, was something I’d have had to go and Google. Or, alternatively, not bother and accept it at face value because, well, it’s a Pirates of the Caribbean film, and not really worth expending the effort of thought on.
While the current fate of the Pearl is causing Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to hit the bottle – well, more so than usual – it’s Will’s fate that’s driving this plot as his son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) searches desperately to find a way to uncurse his father. Sparrow’s given some motivation to act when a bank heist goes awry, leading to the remnants of his crew deserting him. Broke, he trades in his magic compass doodad for a bottle of rum, which has the side effect of breaking yet another of the many curses that afflicted this time period.
This reckless act has allowed Jack’s very first nemesis, so crucial to Sparrow’s character development that he’s not been mentioned until the fifth film, Spanish Navy pirate hunter Captain Salad Bar (Javibar Bar Dem) to be released from the Devil’s Triangle, now as a spooky g-g-g-ghost. He’s resuming his mission to rid the seas of all pirates, not just Jack, but the current VP of Oceanic Piracy Endeavours, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), whose pirate fleet is now being rent asunder by Salad Bar.
Mixed up in all this is Kaya Scodelario’s Carina Smyth, a scientist following a map left by her father that’s put her on the same path as Turner Jnr, which through various machinations not worth getting into has all of the aforementioned teaming up to seek an artefact, Poseidon’s Trident, which supposedly has the power to banish all curses, which would mean the end of Salad Bar’s reign of terror and a return to the world for Will Turner.
So, like all the other films, a plot that’s largely cobbled together around the set-pieces rather than anything particularly cogent of itself. Unfortunately that’s rather the standard all of today’s blockbusters are at, with very little of these monstrous budgets being funnelled into the screenwriting, it seems. But, like pretty much everything you’d care to say about Salad Bar’s Revenge, it is now as it has always been, so throwing too much shade at it for doing exactly as you’d expect it to do seems like a waste of effort.
More transparently than most, perhaps, but like nigh-on every tentpole release these days this film is a spectacle delivery vector first, foremost and nigh-on only. Viewed in these terms, it does quite well, with some quite lovely effects work from the large scale battles to the smaller scale effects used on the likes of Bardem’s hair, which floats around as though he’s still underwater. The action itself is relatively well handled, if not spectacularly so, and I’m sure for most that’s enough to call it a minor success and file it away with the rest of the series in whatever part of your brain movies go to be swiftly forgotten.
It would, however, be remiss of us not to point out that it suffers from a number of flaws, even if, again, it’s mostly the same flaws as the rest of the series. Depp’s Keith Richards act returns, although it’s perhaps a little more subdued here, with Sparrow more than ever seeming more like a passenger than protagonist. Which means that rather like the first, more of the actual driving of events must come from Scodelario, who is perfectly fine, and Brenton Thwaites, who is not.
Last we heard of young Thwaites was him stinking up the joint in Gods of Egypt, and he’s just as much of a Quaidian non-entity here. Which, given that he’s supposed to be Orlando Bloom’s son, might be a solid piece of casting, but its still harmful to the film as it stands. The best I can say about his charisma-free performance is that, well, given the sort of film he’s in, his performance either good or bad is not particularly important to the overall film.
To balance that out, along with Depp’s decent turn, although he’s probably getting too old for this schtick, is much more engaging support from Javier Bardem and Geoffrey Rush, and the always dependable Kevin McNally.
And, well, so it goes. There’s a bunch of minor things that annoy me I could dribble on about for some time, particularly Paul McCartney’s eye-rolling cameo as Sparrow’s uncle, but it’s not really worth anyone’s attention. By this point in time, you know if you’re in the market for another Pirates of the Caribbean film or not, and as someone who was, it was a perhaps marginally disappointing but largely as expected way to pass a few hours.
There is something about films such as this where I’m not all that bothered one way or the other about them that lends itself to writing rather more negatively than I necessarily feel just to spice up the podcast, and I’ve probably fallen foul of that here. Pirates 5 was okay, but in a world where films better than okay exist, it’s hard to get too excited about it.
If you were to imagine a Laika animation written and directed by Ken Loach, then I think you might come quite close to the melancholy but rewarding Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette), a Swiss-French stop-motion animation based on Gilles Paris’ 2002 book Autobiographie d’une Courgette.
From the first moments we know this isn’t going to be knockabout, throwaway, children’s fare. Nine year-old Icare (who prefers Courgette, the name by which his mother usually calls him), moves through his house, collecting the empty beer cans strewn about, while his alcoholic mother shouts at the “liars” on TV. Retreating to his attic bedroom, he builds a tower from the beer cans, until the noise of their accidental collapse attracts his mother’s ire. As she angrily ascends the stairs, a frightened Courgette closes the trapdoor, causing his mother to fall to her death.
A kindly police officer takes Courgette’s details and then delivers him to a children’s home, where he meets other unfortunate children who, like him, feel that they no longer have anyone left to love them. Amongst these children are the bully Simon (whose conspicuous scar immediately suggests that there is more to him than simply being a bully), timid Ahmed, damaged Alice and Jujube with the strange eating habits. We find out why each of these children are in this home – parental murder, deportation, drugs, crime, and the type of thing that causes one of the children to have nightmares each night.
Courgette eventually settles into the home, but his world is turned upside down by the arrival of Camille, a girl with whom he is immediately smitten. Through their classes, trips and other adventures, Courgette, Camille and the others learn more about themselves, and the availability and multi-faceted nature of love that they have previously been denied.
Debut director Claude Barras’ style is simple and stylistic, his characters recalling Miyazaki heroines, with their hugely expressive yet plainly rendered faces, and enormous eyes that pull off the nifty trick of giving souls to lumps of plasticine. The scenes are sparsely decorated, and this does double-duty in both mirroring the relative emptiness and isolation of these children’s live, and forcing us to notice the subtle expressions on their faces. At times the style may be a little too simplistic, but any deficiencies are more than made up for by Céline Sciamma’s script.
So many stories set in children’s homes are horror stories of one kind or another, and in these cynical times it is wholly refreshing to see that this is a wholesome and caring place. The social workers are kindly and caring, and Officer Raymond a generous and decent man, rather than the villainous archetypes so often seen in this setting. (On a side note, I watched the French version, but in the English dub Raymond is voiced by Nick Offerman, the great Ron Swanson, which seems a particularly inspired but of casting).
For all of the horrible things that have happened in the children’s lives, this is a joyful and uplifting film. It allows the children – both as characters and as audience – considerably more emotional maturity and resilience than they are normally considered to have. It is dark (necessarily), but honest and real, mixing the tragedies, fears and difficulties of these young people with deeply funny moments, such as how they imagine sex to work.
It’s not for the very youngest of children, but otherwise something that can, and should, be seen by all ages. It acknowledges the dark things in this world, but does so in a way that refuses to simply portray the children as victims. It is smart, humane, touching, and celebrates the joy that children can find, even in difficult circumstances, and their ability to survive and to thrive, all without needing to ladle on the sympathy.
What I’ve been thinking that cinema needs right now is more comic book superhero films. We’re almost down to fifteen a year right now, so it’s nice to see DC step up to the plate and offer up this origin story for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who you may remember from last year’s Batman vs Superman.
This takes us back to the ever-increasingly misnamed War to End All Wars, towards the tail end if American spy Steve Trevor Bob Dave is to be believed, played by one of the interchangeable Hollywood Chrises. Probably Evans? Maybe? Who can keep them straight? We find this out after he’s pulled out of the wreckage of his plane by the then simply named Diana off the coast of the hidden island of Themyscira, with a shower of Krauts in hot pursuit.
Unfortunately for ze Germans, said island is home to a race of Amazonian warrior women, Zeus’s army in the battle against the troublesome God of War Ares, and Fritz and co are swiftly dealt with. With the lasso of truth, Diana compels Steve Trevor Bill Colin to tell all about his mission, thus dropping a big ol’ bucket of exposition on things.
With the war seemingly lost, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is rolling the dice on a desperate push from his only remaining weapons facility, and the deadly new form of mustard gas Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) has created. Well, deadlier.
Sensing that this must be the work of Ares, and them being supposed to stop them and that, Diana defies her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) to head off to our world to stop this nonsense by finding Ares and killing him, reasoning that he’s most likely found at the heart of all this strife.
Meanwhile the Allies, largely represented by kindly ol’ Sir Patrick (David Thewlis) are too busy talking about a armistice to countenance doing anything about this threat, at least openly. So a small slush fund is discreetly opened to provide Steve Trevor Frank Colin and Diana the means to hire a small team of specialists, spy Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and smuggler Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), with the aim of breaking through the front lines, tracking down Ludendorff and stopping his weapons of mass destruction.
And so it goes, and I’m sure by this point we’ve all seen enough comic book movies to imagine how this goes. Patty Jenkins directs Allan Heinberg’s script, Heinberg being one of the comic writers, and I can only assume that this helped flesh out Diana’s character, having so far in the post-Nolan DC universe perhaps the most readily understandable motivations and drives.
The whole film, indeed, takes more of a cue from earlier Marvel origin stories than anything from the Snyderverse, and while that does make it a much less interesting story, it certainly makes it a far more coherent and accessible one. From the script to the effects to the performances, Wonder Woman is a consistently polished product that clearly has more mass market appeal than any of Snyder’s efforts.
Millions will no doubt rejoice at that new, although as one of the brave few pseudo-defenders of Snyder’s reign of terror, I kind of missed the rough edges that’s afflicted the DC Universe so far. While Wonder Woman provides proof, were any really needed, that skipping the whole Phase One origin stories and attempting to drop a complete comic book universe in from almost the outset was daft, Wonder Woman‘s refusal to even hint at the broader questions about heroism that Batman vs Superman skirted around without properly addressing feels a little disappointing.
But then, Suicide Squad didn’t do any of that either, and Suicide Squad was also a pile of dung, and this very much is not, so let’s be thankful for the victories we have. Wonder Woman‘s not perfect, to be sure, but there’s no flaw in this that’s not endemic to most origin stories, most notably the marginalisation of the villain, condensing that mostly into the final act and coming across as a bit of a rushed CG lightshow rather than a satisfying climax.
The motley crew assembled by Steve Trevor Bobby Nigel might as well not be there, for what little purpose they serve, and if you’ve not guessed who’s revealed as Ares from the first time that character opens his mouth I’d be very surprised, but none of that really gets in the way of enjoying the film.
It’s a very solid turn from Chris Pine, and a better one from Gal Gadot, who provides the strong female lead performance we’ve been waiting in vain for from Marvel Studios, and it’s apparent success will hopefully cause the bands of Gamergate oxygen-thieves who somehow have the time and energy to be angry about films with women in them to eat enough crow to choke on it.
Yes out of ten.
A Dog’s Purpose, or possibly better “Look Who’s Barking”, is the tale of a reincarnating dog (voiced by Josh Gad), who we first meet in the 1960s as Bailey, who becomes the best friend of a troubled kid called Ethan, with an alcoholic father. The dog helps him find… whatever. And realise… something. Probably. Then it dies.
And immediately comes back as another dog, with the same internal voice. Which then dies.
People love dogs, and the idea of having a film centred on a dog isn’t necessarily bad – Marley and Me may be Hallmark-level sentimental, gooey schlock, but it’s at least entertaining, fuzzy and warm feeling Hallmark-level sentimental, gooey schlock. But there is something so calculated and manipulative-feeling about A Dog’s Purpose. One dog good, so more dogs better. Sadly, to get all of those extra dogs necessarily requires lots of doggy death, and while it’s not quite a tonal mess, it is a tonal failure. After first dug, the rest of the animals aren’t given sufficient time to have a story and for the audience to attach any significance to each subsequent canine death. Director Lasse Hallström and the FIVE screenwriters are clearly relying on an audience reflex of “aw, dead dog. Sad. Sad dead dog. Dead dog sad” to make up for the deficiencies in the film.
And there are deficiencies ahoy. In their haste to make Ethan’s dad an alcoholic so we can feel sympathy for the son and poor, unfairly treated Bailey, they seem to have glossed over the fact that the reason the father became a full-blown alcoholic was because he lost his job more or less directly as a result of something that the dog did. Then there’s the fact that in one of its next lives, Bailey is some kind of super dog, tracking a suspect from the back seat of a car travelling at 40mph, which is totally how police dogs work, right?
It’s also tremendously banal, and that’s before Dennis Quaid turns up in the final act. Much of this is due to the fact that it doesn’t have many ideas, and those it does have are repeated over and over. Oh-ho, the dog acts like it knows what the human is thinking. “I think you know what I am thinking”, says human to dog. Rinse and repeat. And Josh Gad’s voiceover (his performance is fine, just wasted) gives the dog a sense of intelligence and purpose that never meshes with the action being narrated, because, well, mate, it’s a dug. It just wants tae chew the arse oot ay that fitba.
Its other oft-repeated idea is the dog repeatedly confusing human and dog behaviour – my sides! aidez-moi! – accompanied by absolutely honking dialogue (“Humans are complicated. They do things dogs can’t understand. Like leave.”). It’s all so twee and try-hard. And then, having run out of ideas, the final act is just a solo Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.
And at the end I still don’t know what a dog’s purpose is, unless somehow it’s to wait 50 years and then play matchmaker.
Nice dogs, 11/10 for fluffy ears and tail-chasing. And the hidden cat joke is genuinely funny. Everything else is absolute tosh, though.
If you want to watch a film about a reincarnated dog being reunited with his former master, then I urge you, nay! demand of you, that you watch the deeply entertaining Dean Spanley, with the excellent and sorely missed Peter O’Toole, and a career-best performance from Sam Neill as a vicar imagining that he is a dog. If you just want to see some lovely dogs, then there’s this little thing called YouTube – just avoid the footage that surfaced from the production of A Dog’s Purpose showing a terrified German Shepherd being forced to enter water for the purposes of our entertainment.
And if you want to watch a Dennis Quaid film, then I’m sorry, there’s very little that I can do for you, but I’m sure that there are counselling services available in your area.
A probe containing Martian soil samples returns to the International Space Station to the welcoming arms of the crew, who set about poking and prodding it. Of particular significance, the discovery of a frozen single celled organism, proving the life exists outside of Earth.
Using his powers of scientific necromancy, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) commands the space beastie to rise from its grave, and it does, and starts growing at a surprising rate. Like all summoned demons, the life form yearns to be free of its masters and sets about achieving this, first by breaking Hugh’s arm and then by killing Ryan Reynolds, so it’s not all bad.
It’s been a relatively interesting half hour or so to this point, if not outright discussing at least pointing at the implications of extraterrestrial life for us as a species, and for once have scientists act like they’re not complete morons (hello, Alien: Covenant!). However, once the indiscriminately murderous space beastie is on the loose, it becomes much like every other Alien knock-off made since the late seventies, albeit with much more money thrown at it.
This has afforded it some decent effects work, and a cast much better than the script deserves, but it can’t escape it’s B-movie roots for the last whole hour, leading up to a wildly unsatisfactory ending.
This, much like Passengers, is the sort of film that not too long ago would have been given a relatively restrained budget, come out to some mild interest and passable reviews, made it’s money back and quietly disappeared. However, with studios current obsession with all or nothing gambles, Life has had too much cash pumped into the production and the promotion for the rickety script to contain, and any original qualities this film had leaked out at the seams.
It’s not a horrible film, to be clear, but it’s also not one that’s of any real interest, recycling the genre tropes we’ve seen a few dozen times before, although usually not this polished. Still, it’s a film based on a concept whose time came and went along with Tamagotchis and Pogs, while we’ve all moved on to Fidget Spinners.
As a colony ship makes the hundred odd year journey between Earth and their new home, it batters through a large asteroid field that’s a little more than its shields can handle. Most of the damage appears to be repaired by automated systems, but one hibernation pod is beyond saving. At least the occupant Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) isn’t killed by this malfunction, just woken up too early.
Unfortunately, about eighty years too early, or something like that, which is a different kind of death sentence. After exhausting all possible avenues to either put himself back to sleep or gain any kind of external help, the time delay involved putting paid to that, he settles in to a period of mounting insanity, his only companion Michael Sheen’s robobartender Arthur.
As part of his growing mania he fixates on one fellow passenger, journalist / writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and having eventually being driven to the brink of suicide he makes the fateful decision to wake her up, claiming it to be another accident. After a period of adjustment, the two actually grow close and things are going swimmingly for ol’ Death Sentence Jim, until the truth comes out, with Aurora having the appropriately furious reaction.
So it would seem to be going for eternity, or near as damnit, until another pod malfunction spits crew member Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne) out, although doesn’t do too great a job of it, laving him terminally ill. He survives just long enough to grant access to areas of the ship previously off-limits, like a sentient key-card from a video game, and discovers that the ship’s actually on the verge of falling apart, and that Jim and Aurora must work together to fix the Space Cam Shaft or something to stop the ship from melting.
Another B-movie concept someone’s stuck a hundred million poker chips on, Passengers is, if not a busted flush, at best one pair. While it looks the part, the special effects teams having done very well, and Pratt and Lawrence are capable actors performing capably, the film entirely under-examines the only reason this film is interesting.
Jim’s decision to rouse Aurora ought to be the only thing this film discusses, in great and forensic detail. Instead you’re luck if it’s mentioned for five minutes totalled between the waking up and being angry about it, and then it’s back to the special effects buffet.
Not good enough, and while I can see a way in which you could properly present Jim’s decision as understandable enough to provoke some sympathy for him, this script doesn’t bother. Net effect: Jim’s just a murderer. With that as your lead character, it’s very hard to buy into his struggle.
That, and pretty much entirely that, rather does it for the film. There’s an awful lot of people that’s worked awfully hard to make this film, but overall, it’s just awful. It’s very shiny indeed, but that’s not distracting enough to hide the moral vacuum at the heart of it. Hard pass.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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