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Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Depp’

Ah, the nights are drawing in, there is a crispness to the air, and somewhere in the distance I can hear the sound of a safe pair of hands printing money. It must be time for another pre-Christmas brand extension for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, aka The Conjuring Cash-Cow of J.K. Rowling. This time around it’s Fabulous Pests: The Grimy Gimblebonk, directed, almost inevitably, by David Yates [note to self: don’t forget to check movie name is right before posting review]. Oddly enough, when I asked for a ticket for Fabulous Pests 2 at the sweetshop which masquerades as the larger local branch of the Odeon, the minion looked at me blankly and gave me a ticket for Bohemian Rhapsody, and I had a tricky time with some irritated Queen fans for a bit. Cinema staff these days, eh? Tch.

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Here is what I was able to make out with regard to the plot, which is (of course) the work of J.K. Rowling, a woman whose vocabulary seems to include many Latin words but apparently not ‘restraint’ or ‘editor’: having been forced to abandon his Colin Farrell disguise at the end of the previous film, evil wizard Gimblebonk (Johnny Depp, who is both unexpectedly restrained and not especially grimy) busts out of magical prison and sets about his dastardly plan. Exactly what this is would constitute a spoiler if I had any idea what it was, but it appears to involve doing something absolutely ghastly in one of the three (yup, three) further films we can expect in this part of the franchise.

It all revolves around a lad named Credence (Ezra Miller), who has an obscure but significant pedigree. He was actually believed dead at the end of the previous outing, but there has been a Credence revival in the mean time [note to self – think of a way to cram the words ‘clear water’ into that last sentence or the joke falls a bit flat]. Now he is searching for his origins and nearly everyone else is searching for him.

As well as the minions of the malevolent Gimblebonk, the lad is being looked for by Newt Scamperer (Eddie Redmayne), who as before is basically a cross between Tristan Farnon, Ged the Archmage, and Rain Man [some of the cultural references perhaps a bit obscure there? Hmmm]. He is doing this not because he is working as the agent of celebrated wizard and teacher Waldo Dimbledink (Jude Law), but because a girl he has a bit of a pash for (Katherine Waterston) is also on the case.

So off they all go to Paris, eventually, and soon the air is zinging with magic spells and extravagant sorcery in the way that only a $200 million budget can enable. Numerous subplots intertwine, supposedly adorable CGI beasties crawl, flutter, and bound about the place, and various secrets are revealed – although what was really going on in the shared past of Gimblebonk and Dimbledink is not much more than alluded to, presumably so real-world bigots won’t complain about the depiction of made-up ones.

It is quite easy to be glib and cynical about this particular franchise, as you can perhaps tell. No doubt the producers would respond to this sort of killjoyism by pointing to the $814 million made by the previous film, which certainly suggests that there is still a demand for stories set in this particular fictional universe, but I wonder – certainly, I know some people have given Grimy Gimblebonk as rapturous a reception as anyone  could hope for (‘absolutely brilliant’ was the considered opinion of one maths professor of my acquaintance), but the two Potterheads I share an office with were much less impressed.

This is probably rather ironic, as you really do need to be one of the faithful to follow all the ins and outs of this film. I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, as well as seeing the movies, and I saw the previous Pests film too (although that was a couple of years ago). But while I was still able to follow the general movement of this particular story without too much difficulty, I think it does demand too much from casual viewers – it makes a certain sort of sense that one character is apparently known as an Obscurial or an Obscurus, because exactly what all of it means is far from completely clear. Someone may or may not be related to someone else, this character may have a secret past with that one, and in the end it turns out that someone is the long-lost relative of somebody else. The irony comes from the fact that some of these revelations, specifically the ones tying the film in to the (chronologically later) Harry Potter stories, have been met with bared fangs by the staunchest Potterheads, as J.K. appears to be rewriting the continuity of her own universe, something they feel she is not allowed to do (and let’s not even get into the fuss arising from her attempt to fill-in the back-story of Lord Voldemort’s pet snake).

The problem is that, if you’re not a Rowling superfan, not much of the story here really feels like it matters – there’s a lot of imagination on display here, both in the tale and its telling, and the film is always visually polished and frequently quite well-played (Jude Law is particularly good). But it does often feel like you’re peering into a private world, without ever being told why you should actually care about it.

There’s also the problem that, for a film concerning itself with (all right, all right) the crimes of Johnny Depp’s character, he doesn’t really do very much in this film beyond lurk about menacingly and occasionally make a speech: this film is clearly largely an exercise in setting up future episodes. It is actually slightly annoying, then, to have to report that those films show potential to be distinctly interesting. J.K. Rowling’s liberal credentials are well known (though she’s clearly not progressive enough for some of her more rabid fans), and there are obvious parallels to be drawn between her villain here – he’s not so much a magical realist as a magical populist, intent on whipping up his followers with an ideology based on fear and division – and certain present-day real-world figures. But more interesting still is a moment in which some of the darkness and horror of the real world breaks through into what often still feels like a quaint and whimsical setting, the children’s-book origins of which remain obvious – the characters get a vision of what awaits the world in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the implication is that future films will deal with this in more detail.

Nevertheless, part of me remains fairly certain that the perceived need to make these films as bland as possible for box-office purposes (rumour has it that J.K. is down to her last £600 million) will triumph, and the future instalments will end up as aesthetically pleasing but dramatically inert as this one. This is not a bad film, in many ways: it has a lot of imagination and is never actually dull to watch. However, it seems calculated to either bemuse or annoy the vast majority of audiences, in part because it spends too much time complicating its story, but not nearly enough explaining why anyone should care about it.

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‘Allo everybodee! Do not paneek. Your regulair correspondent is busy writeeng ze tradeetional awfool novel as part of somezing called ze Nanowrimo, and so I, ze great Hercule Poirot, ‘ave been asked to feel in for ‘im. Ze timeeng is, ‘ow you say, fortuitous, for zees allows me to investigate ze strange case of ze new movie of one of ma most celebrated casees, Kenneth Brannair’s Murder on the Orient Express, based on ze novel by ma old choom Agathair Christie (or ‘Aggie’, as I always used to call ‘er).

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-New-Film-Poster

Why ‘ave zey decided to do anuzzair version of zis, ‘ow you say, old chestnut? What is ze appeal? Well, I suppose zere is always ze fact that Aggie’s books steel sell by ze truckload, so zere is kind of ze built-in audience, to say nothing of ze marquee value in ze Murder on the Orient Express name. So it is ze safe bet for ze big box office, maybe.

Playing me, ze great Poirot, is M. Brannair ‘imself (we shall come back to zees). At ze start of ze movie he is sorteeng out some nonsense in Jerusalem, which I do not recall telleeng Aggie about, leadeeng me to deduce that ze scriptwriter ‘as made it all oop for some reason. I suppose it is to do wiz subtext or whatevair.

Anyhow, soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is summoned back to Britain, which requires ‘im to travel on ze famous Orient Express. On ze train with ‘im are a right boonch of dodgy characters, ‘oo are played by what you call ze all-star cast. Zere are the much-loved acteeng veterans (Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi), ze big-name ‘Ollywood stars (Johnny Dipp and Michelle P-fiffer), and a few oop and comeeng new stars. ‘Ere, for instance, is Daisy Ridley, possibly because ze studio would like to see if she can ‘ave any kind of career beyond what I am apparently obliged to refer to as ze ‘stellair conflict franchise’ (your regular correspondent is a very odd and rathair silly fellow, n’est-ce pas?).

Well, I ‘ave to say we are quite a long way into Murder on the Orient Express before zere is actually a murder on ze Orient Express, but soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is on the case, findeeng ‘e as to contend with a baffling multiplicity of evidence. Can ze Brannair-Poirot breeng ze killair to joostice? Or ‘as ‘e bloondered into somewhat deepair philosophical watairs?

Hmmm. Ze first thing I ‘ave to say about M. Brannair’s movie is zat I was not at first terribly impressed by his performance as me. ‘E ‘as given ‘imself a moostash which makes it look like some minkeys are ‘ideeng oop ‘is nuzz, and ‘e plays me as if I ‘ave ze OCD. It almost makes me zink M. Brannair is takeeng ze mickey out of ze great Poirot. It is ze very big and broad performance.

Zen again, zis is ze fairly big and broad movie, made on ze laveesh scale wiz plenty of ze CGI, which if nuzzink else means it does not look like ze Sunday night telly, a trap into which many of zese period movies fall. On ze othair ‘and, it does ze tradeetional period movie zing where all ze production value and set designs are carefully stook oop on ze screen. Zere are many shots of people foldeeng ze napkins and so on; it often looks more like a big commaircial for ze train ‘oliday zan ze actual murdair-mystery.

Ze sense that M. Brannair is once again playeeng it all rathair safe as a director is confirmed as ze movie goes on, for zis seems very much like ze Christie movie done by ze numbairs. Zere is, as I ‘ave mentioned, ze all-star cast; later on zere is ze bit where I, ze great Poirot, assemble all ze suspects and reveal ‘oo it was that actually dunnit. Of course zees is modern ‘Ollywood and so there is some fisticuffs and shooteng which I do not recall actually ‘appening at ze time, but c’est la vie, especially if you are a fictional detective.

Zis is of course ze very famoos story, and I am willeeng to bet that many people who ‘ave nevair read Aggie’s book already know this story and ze somewhat unusual tweest in ze tale. ‘Owever, ze actual mechanics of ze mystery seem to get a leetle bit lost beneath all ze gloss and ze big performances (I ‘ave to say I did warm oop to ze Brannair-Poirot once I ‘ad got used to ze ridiculous moostash). Certainly I get ze sense that the actual ‘oodunnit is fighteeng for prominence alongside everything else in ze movie.

I did ask your regular correspondent what ‘e thought of ze story, which ‘e apparently read in one sitting on a dull day in Bishkek some years ago. ‘E said ‘e thought it was okay, but was left a little morally queasy by ze conclusion of ze tale (I cannot say more wizzout it being a spoiler alert). Well, if zere is one thing to be said for M. Brannair’s take on ze movie it is that it does not shy away from the moral ambiguity at ze ‘eart of ze story, and indeed elevates it to a rathair central position in proceedeengs. Maybe zees makes me, ze great Poirot, look a bit lackeeng in moral authority, but frankly this is less worrying for me than zat stupid moostash which M. Brannair ‘as insisted on wearing.

Well, in ze end, I suppose zees movie will do okay: it looks nice, it ‘as ze good cast giving ze crowd-pleaseeng performances, and ze ‘ole zing works very ‘ard to give off ze touch of class in every department. All I will say is zat ze studio seem to think zey are making a jolly, cosy, tradeetional murdair-mystery film, while M. Brannair sometimes appears to be under ze impression he is making ze very serious film about ze absence of ze moral absolutes and ze wounding of ze soul which can be caused by guilt and grief. Wiz a very big moostash. If zese two things do not go together perfectly, zen that explain why ze new version of Murder on the Orient Express sometimes feels like a train with an engine at each end, pulleeng it in more than one direction at a time. Maybe as a result it doesn’t really end up goeeng anywhere much, but at least ze scenery is nice dureeng ze trip.

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Let us set the dials on the Films of Yesteryear Time Machine to a point in history slightly closer to home than is usually our wont and head back to the strange days of 1999. So long ago! And yet still somehow so recent! It is slightly discombobulating to watch what looks like a contemporary film, but one in which nobody has a mobile phone and they still watch movies on VHS tape. Perhaps the strangest disconnect between Then and Now is the fact that Johnny Depp was not yet the box office darling he has since become, but a jobbing movie star whose ability to open a movie was still a bit questionable. Especially when the movie in question is one like Rand Ravich’s The Astronaut’s Wife.

Depp is playing the astronaut, natch. Playing Mrs Astronaut is Charlize Theron, and I suppose at this point it is incumbent upon us to reflect on what a movie business veteran – or perhaps hardy perennial – she has also turned out to be, although not without a few missteps along the way. Here she is at the age of 24, arguably carrying what was a fairly major movie (the budget of The Astronaut’s Wife was $75m, though I’m blowed if I can work out where all the money went). It is, admittedly, not a very good major movie, but nobody knew that when they were casting it.

Things get underway with Depp and Theron bunked up together and enjoying a last moment of whoa-ho-ho before his latest space mission. For the role Depp has adopted a somewhat questionable blond dye-job and a verywhat questionable Deep South accent. (His character is name Spencer Armacost, which apparently is theoretically possible, it just doesn’t sound like it.)

Well, Depp goes up into space with another astronaut, but there is trouble in orbit and contact is lost with the mission for a little while. When the astronauts return to Earth, Depp’s colleague (Nick Cassavetes) seems to make a full recovery, but starts behaving oddly at a party and then collapses and dies. The generally cheery tone of the movie continues when Cassavetes’ pregnant wife (Donna Murphy) commits suicide during the funeral. (I should have mentioned – this is ostensibly a horror movie.)

Not long after this, Depp announces he is quitting his job as an astronaut and joining a New York-based aviation company, despite his previous love of flying and oft-stated hatred of big cities (for a film about an astronaut there’s a definite lack of actual space hardware in it). Theron is a bit baffled by this strange behaviour but goes along with it, mainly because this is that sort of film. When she asks him about what happened during the mysterious interlude when he was cut off from Earth, he seems to take this as an invitation to start interfering with her intimate person, resulting in some public rumpy-pumpy which is not really as pulsatingly erotic as the film would like to think it is.

Soon enough, Theron finds out she is pregnant with her husband’s child – well, it’s twins, apparently. But is she? Coming out of the woodwork is Joe Morton from NASA’s Department of Paranoid Bafflegab, who reveals that Murphy’s character was likewise carrying twins when she died, and that Cassavetes died as a result of the strain placed on his body by some alien influence. He suggests that some malign force from deep space has taken possession of Depp and is using him to carry out a nefarious scheme here on Earth – which incorporates, somehow, the unborn children Theron is carrying…

Yeah, well, as I said, this is basically another entry into the obstetric horror subgenre (never a particular favourite of mine, it must be said), with strong elements of paranoia and cobblers SF to it as well. In fact it is, if you’ll indulge me, something of a cross between The Quatermass Experiment and Rosemary’s Baby, only not nearly as good as either. I expect this was one of those ideas which looked good on paper, but the problem is that the story runs out of places to go quite rapidly, settling on a final destination which seems not especially well thought-through – there is vaguely sinister talk of Depp helping to build a robot plane which will eventually be piloted by the twins, but this is only really a cigarette paper’s thickness away from being total gibberish. You would have expected a malevolent alien mind parasite to have come all this way with a better scheme than that.

So in the end the film just opts for an atmosphere of stately menace, with the occasional moment hoping for erotic tension – none of which really hides the fact that this is a movie in which not very much happens for long stretches, unless you include a baffling number of close-ups of people’s mouths, ears, feet, and so on (you can see why Charlize Theron was such a successful model – her toes are gorgeous). There’s a subplot about Theron’s past history of psychological trouble, but for me this just added to the vaguely dubious tone of much of the movie – you can tell this is one of those movies about the female experience which has been written and directed by a man.

The fact that the studio figured out they had a troubled production on their hands is fairly obvious, given that the DVD of The Astronaut’s Wife comes with not one but two endings. Now, the theatrical ending has lashings of CGI in it and concludes on a note of menacing incoherence. I have to say I am somewhat more impressed by the original ending which they ended up not using: it may be more ambiguous, but this seems to have been the intention.

Hey ho. We could speculate about a parallel world in which all those bloody pirate films never got made, and wonder about what kind of career Johnny Depp would have enjoyed there – I can well imagine the actor sitting down with a pile of his late 90s and early 2000s movies and thanking his lucky stars at great length, because it’s easy to envision him still trapped in the cult fave ghetto as Tim Burton’s slightly ageing muse. Theron does a decent enough job in a not especially rewarding part, I suppose – though I suspect no-one at the time would have pegged her as a future Oscar winner and latterday ass-kicker.

It’s fairly easy to see why Rand Ravich has not been allowed near the helm of another movie since this The Astronaut’s Wife. The look of the thing is competent, but its tone is more dismal than actually frightening. It’s one of those movies that freely helps itself to elements of a number of other films, but in the process somehow manages to make them rather less interesting and effective. Probably one for obstetric horror completists only.

 

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Long-term and well-acquainted visitors to these parts may be familiar with my general attitude to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: which is that these are obviously lavish and skilfully-made movies that I have generally found to be reasonably entertaining, diverting fare, but by no means especially memorable or exceptional (Hans Zimmer’s ebullient score is often the best thing about them). I’m probably in the minority there, as usual – I do find the massive success of these movies rather mystifying, to be honest, and can only assume it’s down to the continuing popularity of Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the addled buccaneer Jack Sparrow.

Depp is basically the only real constant in these films – he’s not quite the only person to appear in all of them, but it’s always his face on the poster and his character at the very centre of the plot. Everyone else gamely turns up and does their thing in the other stock roles, but they are clearly ultimately dispensable in a way that Depp definitely isn’t. I was mulling things over along these lines when I had a bit of an epiphany about these films, which is that they are basically the closest thing Hollywood has to pantomime.

I mean, you’ve got the Principal Boy and Girl, who gamely attempt to suggest romance using limited resources, you’ve got various supporting clowns and comedians, you’ve got some Serious Actor drafted in to play whichever spectral baddie is in this particular film, but above all you’ve got Depp, basically giving a Pantomime Dame performance, most of the pleasure of which comes from its sheer familiarity.

Even the structure of the films kind of recalls that of a panto, except that the songs have been cut and replaced by lavish and frequently OTT special-effects sequences. (They really should put songs in these films.) The rest of the movie consists of convoluted plotting, just-about-bearable romance between the Principal Boy and Girl, and – the stuff everyone turns up for – the many scenes of Johnny Depp doing his comedy schtick at great length.

There is of course a new Pirates movie doing the rounds, subtitled either Dead Men Tell No Tales or Salazar’s Revenge depending on where you live. In it the essential virtues of the Principal Girl – wholesome, determined, well-upholstered – are embodied by Kaya Scodelario, those of the Principal Boy – fresh-faced, heroic, wooden as a bannister – by Brenton Thwaites, and the Serious Actor is Javier Bardem, CGI’d to within an inch of his life. Providing a heavily-trailed surprise cameo is Paul McCartney, although Macca’s appearance here is not in the same league of baffling pointlessness as David Beckham’s in Legend of the Sword. Fans of an earlier generation of hardboard histrionics will be gratified by an appearance by Landy Bloom himself as the coral-encrusted captain of the Flying Dutchman – when it comes to an actor of Landy’s calibre, it takes more than being half-covered in barnacles to have any effect on his performance.

The new movie is directed by Joachim Ronning (O with a line through it) and Espen Sandberg (no, me neither, in either case). In keeping with the tradition of this series, there is a mightily unwieldy plot concerning an old enemy of Jack Sparrow’s (Bardem), a mysterious map, Landy Bloom’s son (Thwaites) trying to lift the curse from his father, ghost pirates, magical treasure, and so on. I’m not even going to try to attempt to explain what happens in detail: all it boils down to, in the end, is Sparrow and the new kids trying to track down a legendary plot device while being chased by the ghosts, who have teamed up with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

Of course, you have to keep the audience happy while laying in all the vast amount of plot and backstory required by the tale, so of course they open with a couple of humungously extravagant sequences for this very purpose. I suppose that this is, for me, one of the pleasures of the Pirates of the Caribbean series – the vast resources and expertise of a major film-making corporation put to the service of set-pieces which are uninhibitedly silly.

The problem is that there aren’t that many of these, and the film doesn’t have a great deal else to offer. It does feel like there’s a huge amount of exposition involved, and the character scenes are mostly just drab. One thing you can say about Thwaites is that he could plausibly be the progeny of Landy and Keira Knightley, but Scodelario’s character just feels parachuted in, and she’s so obviously designed to hit feistiness and intelligence quotas that it’s almost a surprise that she’s not played by Emma Watson. In any case, put the two of them together and we’re back to the land of furniture being stacked.

There are many ridiculously over-elaborate set-pieces – an absurdly over-blown gag about a revolving guillotine is a bit of a stand-out – and there’s one involving zombie sharks that I did think worked rather well. Better this stuff, anyway, than the laboured comedy routines which are inserted into the plot whether they’re strictly required or not. The jokes work better when they feel more natural, I think, and there are some decent gags in this film, always assuming you have a soft spot for Carry On-level double entendres (there’s a running gag about the word horologist which I don’t think you’d find in any other movie series).

The knowing silliness of much of the Pirates franchise has reminded me of Monty Python in some ways, but, of course, this is the kind of enterprise which will quite happily plunder the tone and visual style of a Terry Gilliam movie without for a fraction of a second ever consider actually employing Gilliam himself as a director. Certainly the series has always had that slightly Gilliamesque sensibility of a world where the forces of mysticism and chaos are staging a ferocious rearguard action against the encroaching age of  enlightenment, and that continues here as well. The new movie is being marketed as the final installment in the series, and you could argue that this one concludes with the culmination of that conflict. On the other hand, the door is left not very subtly open for a further episode, courtesy of the now-obligatory post-credits sequence.

Personally, I think Captain Jack Sparrow and the crew have delighted us all for long enough. Apparently one of the declared intentions of the new movie was to take the series back to its roots and have the same kind of dynamic and atmosphere as was the case in the original film. I haven’t seen that one in ages, but I do recall it being much less laborious and infinitely lighter on its feet than the new offering. This particular formula is wearing extremely thin, and to me it looks very much like it’s time for this franchise to walk the plank. There will probably be worse films this year, but few quite as dispensable.

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There is a sense in which Wally Pfister’s Transcendence is one of those movies that was inevitably going to be made sooner or later: it deals with a hot-button issue somewhere on the borderline between science and society, the sort of thing which is still essentially speculative, but sufficiently close enough to reality for people to be thinking seriously about it. As a piece of socio-cultural history it may well be recalled as a flag-moment in the development of our awareness of an idea: if something is well-enough established as a concept for Hollywood to start making a big-budget all-star cast movie about it, it can’t be that obscure. Whether or not the movie is any good is another matter, of course.

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The movie tips its hand by opening with a prologue set in a post-technological world where lifestyles seem to have stepped back in time a century or two: mobile phones lie discarded, laptops are used to prop open doors, and so on. We are promised the story of how this came about.

It turns out to be the story of brilliant computer scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). They are both working on creating a strong Artificial Intelligence in the belief that such an entity, capable of improving its own capabilities at extraordinary speed, would revolutionise the world. Unfortunately a radical terrorist organisation has appeared and is devoted to stopping work on this kind of system, and an attack from one of these people leaves Caster with only a very short time to live.

Using radical new technology, Evelyn and her friend Max (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany) attempt to save Caster. That’s save as in ‘save to a hard-drive’ – they wire his brain up to electrodes and copy his cerebral functions to a computer, effectively creating a download of his mind. But once Will Caster’s body has expired, in what sense is the entity in the computer truly him? Have they in fact just spawned something totally new and alien, a potential threat to civilisation?

Well, this is just the first act of the movie, and probably its strongest segment: as I believe I’ve mentioned in the past, I am somewhat familiar with some of the philosophical issues associated with AI research, and the movie articulates these clearly and intelligently. From here, however, the film’s identity as a successor to fondly-remembered early 70s SF movies like The Andromeda Strain, The Forbin Project, and Phase IV becomes much clearer. Much of the action takes place in gleaming underground installations, the nature of human existence is pondered upon at length, and there is a slightly awkward mixture of action set-pieces and visual and narrative extravagance. As usual, some rather good actors (in this case Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy) are retained solely to stand around on the periphery of the plot and look vaguely concerned.

And, as you may have guessed, the whole thing doesn’t quite come together as a satisfying whole. Partly this is because, while the dialogue is telling us this story is about a potentially world-changing event, the actual images are all about a small town in the middle of nowhere with a lot of solar panel. There’s no sense of scale to the crisis (there’s not much sense of crisis at all, if we’re honest), while the film’s transition from just-about-plausible near-future drama to something more fantastical is a bit of a wrench as well. The fact that the plot appears to be well-endowed with a number of big holes is also a problem.

This is ultimately a film about ideas, but – presumably in an attempt to make it more commercial – thriller and action elements have been grafted on, without much conviction. There’s a subplot about nanotechnology being used to enhance people so they become superhuman cyborgs, but the film shies away from using this as a device to create the extravagant action sequences you might expect. In a way this is commendable, as they clearly don’t want to make a blandly obvious and simplistic film dealing with a black-and-white ideology.

On the other hand, it may just be that Pfister and his team have just made a vague and oblique and slightly confused film dealing with a black-and-white ideology instead. It’s probably a great problem for Transcendence that it’s come out only a few months after Her, another movie about the nature of AI and how human beings will come to terms with it, both as a society and in our personal relationships. However, Transcendence is a much more conservative movie than Her: it largely functions in a cautionary-tale mode, the usual old story of scientists interfering with things of which man was not meant to know, playing God, and so on (there’s a fair bit of religious imagery in this film). It gives the human condition a privileged status and seems to default to the assumption that anything radically different from and more powerful than us is necessarily a threat. To be fair, the film does hedge its bets to a considerable degree come the climax – the human characters may just be acting out of an unjustified fear of the AI – but this seemed to me to just be trying to give the conclusion a little spurious depth.

Wally Pfister is a brilliant cinematographer and long-time collaborator with Christopher Nolan, whom I was not surprised to find credited as an executive producer on Transcendence. However, this doesn’t have the clarity of ideas, the narrative drive, or indeed the sheer innovation of any of Nolan’s own movies. The near-total humourlessness of the film is a problem, and none of the actors really seem capable of bringing their characters completely to life (it increasingly seems to me that when Johnny Depp isn’t in camp overdrive mode, he just comes across as slightly stoned all the time), but the main problems with the film come from the storytelling issues I mentioned above. It has a whole bunch of ideas and themes it wants to deal with, but it can’t quite build a story just from them alone, and the inclusion of more traditional action-SF elements doesn’t work. This is an interesting film, and a curious attempt at a 70s-style intelligent-SF movie four decades on – but it simply isn’t close to being completely satisfying as a story.

 

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It is, I think we can all agree, increasingly difficult to Keep Up With Stuff these days. I suppose this is partly because we have such high expectations in the Stuff department – modern technology gives us such massively elevated access to information, so naturally we assume we’re going to hear all the important news straight away. Instead I suspect what we end up with is most of the key stuff along with a vast amount of spam emails and some videos of cats doing some supposedly cute stuff.

Along the way Stuff sneaks past, especially if it’s unexpected Stuff we’re not actually looking for. I have been vaguely intending to write something about Kolchak: The Night Stalker for many months now, but only today when I sat down to prep this, Googled the name of the series and was treated to many photos of a particular, very bankable actor did I have any inkling that a Kolchak movie starring Johnny Depp was in any way in the works.

I suspect many younger people today heard of Johnny Depp long before Kolchak; no doubt huge numbers, especially outside the US, have no idea who or what Kolchak: The Night Stalker is. For me it was the other way around – I’ve been a Kolchak fan since the very early 90s, and the prospect of Johnny Depp trying to be Kolchak strikes me as a rather dubious one. Well, at least he’s bound to be better than Stuart Townsend, I suppose, but even so for me there is only one real Carl Kolchak and that’s Darren McGavin.

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All right, all right: some background. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a TV series from the mid 70s in which McGavin starred in the title role. He plays Carl Kolchak, an old-school investigative reporter with a particular interest in crime and mayhem-related stories, who finds himself stumbling across supernatural happenings on an almost weekly basis. Actually, scratch that – on an exactly weekly basis.

Yes, every week some new horrific menace manifests itself somewhere in the greater Chicago area, and Carl ends up as the only one capable of sorting it all out. The series ran for only twenty episodes, but even so by the end you can sense the writers really scrabbling around for new ideas for monsters – the series kicks off with an immortal Jack the Ripper, a zombie, a hostile extraterrestrial and a vampire, which are all fair enough, but by the final episodes Kolchak finds himself grappling with headless motorcyclists, Aztec mummies, animated suits of armour, and subterranean lizard-men.

It all gets a bit goofy and even I, who really like it, would have say this is a series with a very modest hit-rate. American TV series have evolved massively in the last twenty years or so (largely, I would say, thanks to the influence of Babylon 5, but that’s just my opinion) and to watch Night Stalker now is to be transported back to a world where the storytelling is very, very different. It’d be a bold and radical step, for instance, to mount a series today in which you would be able to throw all the episodes in the air and then show them in whatever order they landed, but this is the case with Kolchak – there are no ongoing plot threads, no references to previous stories, no character development of any kind.

In fact, it’s almost like an anthology series, but one featuring the same characters and (give or take) situations on a weekly basis. It is, in short, an incredibly formulaic series, and the formula goes like this:

  1. We see Kolchak in some location beginning to dictate an account of his latest exploit into his trusty tape recorder. (It will later become clear that Carl has recently despatched this week’s monster and is often still on the scene of his victory, but this does vary slightly.)
  2. A character is economically introduced via Kolchak’s terse voiceover, which usually goes along the lines of ‘April 20th. Joe Gundersson had spent the last twenty years working for the Acme Plot Device company. He always told co-workers he’d have to be carried out of the company in a wooden box. Joe didn’t know how right he was!’ We then see the character being offed by that week’s monster.
  3. Kolchak turns up at the scene of the crime and starts winding up the chief investigating detective. All the police hate Kolchak. He notices some odd features of the death which the police are either ignoring or refuse to comment on (massive blood loss, strange injuries, spontaneous combustion, or whatever).
  4. Several more people are usually murdered in various cutaway sequences.
  5. Carl investigates as best he can while avoiding the police and eventually figures out that the killer is an Iranian devil/Native American spirit/Helen of Troy. He often has a brief encounter with the monster, which he manages to escape from.
  6. Carl’s editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) drags him over the coals for annoying the police and not working on his assigned story.
  7. Kolchak has an off-beat encounter with an expert on this week’s arcane phenomenon and learns how to counter it. (These last two points are often genuinely funny and usually the best parts of the show.)
  8. With the police refusing to listen, Carl is obliged to track down the monster and deal with it himself. For a reporter he proves unusually effective with mystic crossbows, high-voltage death traps and elephant guns.
  9. Kolchak wraps up the episode, revealing that all the evidence that would prove his story is true was destroyed in the final battle, and signs off with a few pithy observations of his own (he is frequently addressing the camera directly by this point.)

The series sticks to the formula with remarkable fidelity, with only a handful of exceptions – and some of these simply take the form of the monster turning up somewhere other than Chicago, such as on a cruise for singletons (The Werewolf) or Los Angeles (The Vampire). It’s very rare for there to be much more innovation, though it does happen – The Sentry rejigs the opening, with the monster actively pursuing Kolchak, who hurriedly records his story while waiting for the final confrontation with it, while in The Energy Eater (one of the best episodes, which even vaguely recalls some parts of Quatermass) the authorities prove to be quite aware of the problem and it’s only Carl’s pursuit of a story that puts him in harm’s way.

The thing about the Kolchak formula is that it’s not a bad formula per se. Most of it is derived from the original TV movies the series is based on, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, in which our hero takes on a vampire in Las Vegas and an immortal mad scientist in Seattle respectively. It’s straining credibility a bit for the same reporter to have such similar experiences purely by chance, but it’s ripping credibility into tiny pieces for the same reporter to have the same adventure in the same city on a weekly basis, and this is the main problem with Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The format is sort of supernatural-investigative-procedural but it never comes close to explaining why a new monster is coming to town every week, why the authorities are such a bunch of dumb clucks when it comes to dealing with them, and why it’s always, always Kolchak who ends up saving the day and why he never, ever gets any proof of his adventures. The sheer repetitiveness of the stories is only part of the problem; the really big question, the elephant in the room that is never addressed, is why none of the regular characters ever comment on or even appear to notice they are playing out the same series of events week in, week out?

For a while Kolchak: The Night Stalker achieved a sort of second wind of fame when Chris Carter acknowledged it as the direct inspiration for The X Files. He wasn’t kidding, either: the third episode of that show, Squeeze, is essentially a loose and uncredited adaptation of The Night Strangler. The X Files, crucially, manages to fix most of the problems with the Kolchak format, firstly by making the characters professional supernatural-investigators operating on a national basis, and secondly by including the idea of a high-level conspiracy intent on keeping the public in the dark. It also seems to me that Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes a lot to Kolchak’s comedy-horror premise, and it takes a different approach by positing the Hellmouth as the explanation as to why just so many demons and monsters congregate in the same region and the idea of the Slayer as to why it’s the responsibility of one seemingly unlikely person to take them on. But all of these solutions would require Kolchak: The Night Stalker to operate as something other than a series of standalone, Monster of the Week episodes, and that was never going to happen in 1974 and 1975. I’m not saying this show was ahead of its time, but it was arguably a victim of it.

But, as I say, I’m still very fond of it. The hopeful monster suits often have a certain charm to them, the plots are occasionally genuinely inventive (I suppose they have to be, given the overall tyranny of the formula), and Darren McGavin consistently gives a terrific performance as Kolchak, nailing the light comedy scenes and the more ominous moments with equal aplomb. It’s funny more consistently than it is scary, and there are the crippling narrative problems across the series I’ve outlined above, but it’s still a series I find it very hard to seriously criticise. If the glamour of Depp gives it another moment in the spotlight, then that’s only for the best.

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Hello, and welcome to what promises to be a new and possibly very regular feature entitled Oh God, Not Another One. Our first subject for appraisal is Rob Marshall’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the latest iteration of Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer’s sea-going cash-cow. This installment has what I expect you’d call added interest in that it’s possibly the first film to be based on both a theme-park ride and an award-nominated fantasy novel (Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides, obviously enough).

Actually, I don’t want to diss the Pirates franchise too much, as while none of the films in this series have particularly (oh dear) floated my boat, they do represent a significant achievement. Not too long ago the pirate movie had a terrible reputation, mainly due to massively expensive flops like Polanski’s Pirates and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island – the received wisdom was that you were more likely to make a profit by putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff than by doing this kind of film. I suppose the Pirates series must have redeemed the genre a little, but it’s interesting that there don’t seem to have been any attempts to cash in on their popularity. They do operate in a very specific niche indeed, after all.

As you could probably have guessed, this movie is not really set in the Caribbean and features no actual piracy, although if we’re talking crimes it is quite murderously long. This time it all kicks off with Jack Sparrow (Sir Ian McKellen – no, only joking, it’s still Johnny Depp) arriving in London, drawn by rumours of an impostor recruiting a crew in his name. Apprehended by the authorities he’s dragged before the king (Richard Griffiths, briefly) and informed that the dastardly Spanish have learned of the existence of the Fountain of Youth, and they’d quite like him to help the British get there first. The King has already persuaded Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to help – who knows, maybe he’s doing a little light speech-therapy on the side.

Sparrow is not that interested until he tracks down his lookalike. It all turns out to be part of a plan by his old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who’s also after the Fountain as she believes supernatural longevity is necessary if her father is to find redemption. As he is Blackbeard, infamous sorcerer-pirate and the most feared man alive (funny how his name name never came up in the previous three movies – hey ho), she may have a point. So off everyone sets in various vessels in search of a list of plot coupons they will need to use the power of the Fountain, the first item in question being a tear shed by a mermaid…

By the time a film series hits part four things are usually looking pretty grim, as I mentioned when discussing Fast Five. That said, my expectations for this movie were a little higher than they might have been. I’ve always found the Pirates movies fairly mechanical and uninvolving, but redeemed by Johnny Depp’s heroically off-the-wall performances and Hans Zimmer’s ebullient score. This time around, with the departure of Keira Knightley to be a serious actress, and Orlando Bloom to… er… I’ll get back to you on that one, the omens seemed to suggest we’d be getting a lot more of the good stuff.

Depp’s performance is this movie’s sole reason for existence, and – to be fair to him – the great man definitely seems to break a sweat in his attempts to justify his enormous paycheck. You would have thought that all the eye-rolling and twitching and slightly fey running about would seem a bit mechanical and overfamiliar by now, but it’s still remarkably fresh and funny, even when Depp’s given some rather corny old jokes to deliver.

That said, the film does seem to meander along very much like Sparrow himself: every other character’s involvement seems to be better motivated than his. The script also doesn’t seem certain exactly who he is – the first film suggested that Depp’s performance is just that, a facade put on by Sparrow himself to make others underestimate him. There are hints of that here – in one scene he surreptitiously organises the elements of a ridiculously complex escape plan without anyone around him noticing, while other moments see the mask dropping and him showing genuine emotion – but at others he seems to be just who he appears to be, a sort of zen-master of drunken serendipity.

The film-makers themselves seem to have been a little concerned that you could have too much of a good thing, and that people who went to the others in order to see Keira K and Landy Bloom would want something along those lines in this one too. To this end, they have smuggled an equally vapid and uninvolving romance into this one, between characters played by Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey. I say smuggled because neither of these guys is really a major character or shows up until well into the film. And they’re not really introduced as people of significance, but gradually they start having more and more lines, until there are whole scenes just about them. This is actually quite confusing, not to mention annoying. Very much like their predecessors in the roles of ‘crossed young lovers’, the moments of their physical entanglement put one ineluctably in mind of furniture being stacked, though younger people who are still unsure of the correct use of their brain cells may find this whole subplot less irksome.

Someone actually says in this film, ‘it’s about the journey rather than the destination’ and this is a wise thought to bear in mind should you go to see it. Certainly the climax is slightly misjudged – I was left with a definite sense of ‘oh, is it finished now?’ – and the events leading up to it are not quite as memorable or as cleverly-plotted as in some of the earlier films. One gets a sense of inspiration running dry and the scriptwriters desperately groping about for new nautically-flavoured fantasy elements to include – this time around there are mermaids, and some zombies, and a voodoo pirate ship, but none of it’s as visually striking as before. Ian McShane is okay as the bad guy, as is Cruz as the love interest, but still, but still…

I should say that I did enjoy this film and laugh a lot throughout it – it’s certainly better than At World’s End, and not far off Dead Man’s Chest in quality, either – but perhaps that’s my problem with this whole series. I enjoy the dark fantasy elements of these movies very much, and the production values are excellent – but every time the film starts to generate any kind of atmosphere, along comes a performance that’s either crushingly bland or incredibly knowing and arch, and suddenly it feels like I’m watching a different kind of film entirely.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides passed the time pleasantly enough, but its strongest elements – Depp’s comedy performance and the fantastical atmosphere – constantly seemed to be pulling it in opposite directions, so it never really seemed to gel as a cohesive film. I should say this was basically exactly how I felt after watching all the others, so this movie is really very much business as usual. ‘This isn’t over!’ somebody shouts at Johnny Depp at one point, and on the strength of this film I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were right.

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