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Non-Review Review: Pirates of the Caribbean – Salazar’s Revenge

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salavar’s Revenge is a strange beast, a conscious effort to refactor the Pirates of the Caribbean series into a more modern movie franchise.

On the surface, the appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean seems very simple. People like pirates, pirates have adventures. The period trappings, supernatural elements and exotic maritime setting add a sense of novelty to adventure. It is not rocket science. Indeed, the relative simplicity of the premise is part of the appeal, with the series tending to construct very straightforward narratives that provide a framework for set pieces and comedy action.

They should bottle Jack’s water.

It is very hard to imagine Pirates of the Caribbean having a “mythology” in the same way that many modern blockbuster franchises have a mythology. Audiences are not necessarily watching for character arcs or larger plot developments. Audiences are drawn in by the and the set pieces, with a healthy dose of Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. There is a reason that Pirates of the Caribbean will always be a notch below The Lord of the Rings on Orlando Bloom’s filmography, because the series has never really aspired to “epic” heft.

There is a sense that Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner only appeared in the first three films so that they could be tied together to form a “trilogy”, with the two sequels hastily bolted on to an original film that was a runaway success story. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was not diminished by the absence of Keira Knightley or Orlando Bloom, even if it ran into other structural problems related to making Jack Sparrow its primary character.

New Jack City.

As such, Salazar’s Revenge feels like a very strained attempt to rework the series to resemble modern blockbuster cinema. As with sequels like xXx III: The Return of Xander Cage and The Fate of the Furious, there is a conscious effort to appeal to nostalgia by roping in cast members from earlier installments to make token appears in order to cultivate a sense of continuity. Salazar’s Revenge attempts to create a broad “mythology” within the context of Pirates of the Caribbean, treating characters from the original film as fetish objects due to their continuity ties.

It is a very strange and unsettling creative direction for a series that would lend itself to a more episodic and playful approach, an attempt to add nostalgic weight to a franchise that cannot necessarily support it. Salazar’s Revenge buckles and suffocates under the demands of callbacks that nobody wanted and references to earlier events that are unlikely to have lodged in any viewer’s long-term memory. The result is disorienting and unsatisfying, despite some of the movie’s more endearing set pieces.

Pirates II, plus Pirates III, equals Pirates IIIII: Salazar’s Revenge.

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Non-Review Review: Alien – Covenant

Alien: Covenant feels as though somebody facehuggered Prometheus and ended up with Alien.

It is a very messy, very awkward, very clever piece of film. It is a genre movie that understands both what it wants to be, and also the reasons why it cannot be what it wants to be. It is a film aware of its own grotesque attributes, of the way that it has been warped and deformed in its journey from original idea to concept to screen. It is a movie very much aware of what it wants to be, but it is also cognisant of the fact that it cannot be that film. Alien: Covenant is the result of any number of compromises, but it is very pointed on the subject of those compromises.

Alien DNA.

Most likely driven by the critical and audience reaction to Prometheus, the sequel is a decidedly more conservative affair. For all intents and purposes, Covenant is wed more tightly to the Alien franchise than to its direct predecessor. Although one main character (and performer) carries over from Prometheus to Covenant, most of the major characters from Prometheus are relegated to small supporting roles and cameos. Even the Engineers, the alien race at the centre of Prometheus, are primarily relegated to an extended flashback sequence.

In contrast, Covenant embraces the trappings of the familiar Alien franchise. The soundtrack repeatedly samples Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score from the original Alien. The climax devolves into a hybrid of the most iconic action beats from the first two Alien films. The film lingers on the dramatic reveals of familiar Alien iconography, only barely teasing audience expectations before fulfilling them. It seems fair to argue that Covenant is a movie more consciously designed to appeal to fans of the Alien franchise than Prometheus was. The clue is in the title.

Bursting at the seams.

However, Covenant is most interesting when it plays up the tension between what it clearly wants to be and what it actually is, when the script throws the concept of sequel to Prometheus into conflict with the demands of a prequel to Alien. There is a strong sense of disillusionment and frustration in Covenant, particularly as explored through the story of David. Michael Fassbender’s enigmatic android is the only major returning character from Prometheus, and in many ways the central character. He reappears after being lost in the wilderness, angry and resentful.

Covenant is a big ball of Oedipal rage. It’s clever, awkward, messy and disjointed, but also entirely in keeping with the themes of the larger series.

The wilderness years.

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Non-Review Review: Snatched

Snatched is a collection of comedy sketch pieces arranged around some of Amy Schumer’s favourite themes.

Some of these gags land very well. Indeed, Snatched works best as a genre spoof, riffing on the tropes and expectations of the standard “Americans have an adventure abroad” film as a mother and daughter team become embroiled in a heated pursuit across South America. There are individual characters, actors, and jokes that work very effectively within that framework. More to the point, Snatched offers a veritable smorgasbord of gags.

They haven’t a leg to stand on.

The problem is that many more of these jokes miss. They miss for a variety of reasons, but there are two big recurring problems. The most obvious issue is that many of the jokes are entirely predictable and follow the path of least resistance. In quite a few scenes, it is very easy to tell where the set-up is leading before the pay-off arrives. Snatched is a very conventional and very safe comedy adventure.

There is also the slight problem that Snatched is trying to have its cake and eat it with some of its central ideas. Schumer’s comedic targets tend to be white middle- and upper-class Americans, the joke being their reaction to the outside world; although Schumer is not credited on the script, Snatched is very clearly trying to play into that. However, Snatched repeatedly goes for the low-hanging fruit and often seems to be playing its more reactionary gags entirely straight.

Things went South fast.

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Non-Review Review: King Arthur – Legend of the Sword

The most striking aspect of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is how little interest it has in being a “King Arthur” film.

King Arthur is the latest blockbuster from Guy Ritchie, and contains much of the director’s signature style. Indeed, King Arthur works best when it indulges these stylistic quirks, as cockney characters construct winding non-linear narratives that double back upon (and trip over) one another in a decidedly playful manner. The best and most enjoyable segments in King Arthur feel almost throwaway, as if they might easily have been lifted from (or perhaps even dropped into) a completely different feature film without causing any significant problems.

Set in stone.

King Arthur runs into trouble when it comes to the meat-and-potatoes business of constructing a blockbuster franchise-starter. To be fair, the formula has been relatively well established to this point, with audiences very familiar with the expected plot beats. Even still, King Arthur has little enthusiasm for hitting or expanding these beats. Many of the bigger moments in King Arthur feel like an exercise in box-ticking, elements that exist largely because they are expected in a film like this and with a minimum amount of set-up or panache.

The result is a deeply uneven film that feels very much at odds with itself and no real engagement with the movie’s central driving narrative. King Arthur works best as a series of engaging diversions, but underwhelms as a functional narrative in its own right.

Going out in a blade of glory.

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The 250, This Just In, Episode #10 – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (#211)

Obviously…

Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney are joined by special guest Tony Black for This Just In, a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

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Non-Review Review: The Promise

The Promise is made in earnest, even if it cannot honour all of its commitments.

The Armenian Genocide remains one of the most horrifying atrocities of the twentieth century, which is saying something. The horror of that systematic extermination is compounded by a refusal to acknowledge the violence committed by the Ottoman Empire. Modern Turkey refuses to acknowledge, or take responsibility, for those crimes. Political realities prevent other major powers from holding the government to account. It is a shameful situation, all around.

The Promise is made with the intent of shedding some light on that atrocity and bringing it to international attention. It is clearly a passion project, made with the best intentions. The film undoubtedly captures the horror of the violence inflicted upon the Armenian Christians and the systemic nature of the attempt to wipe out an entire civilisation. There are points at which The Promise plays as a travelogue into terror, a sequence of harrowing images set against a journey across Turkey during the First World War.

However, The Promise is also very much modeled on an old-school Hollywood adventure movie, complete with daring stunt work and tangled romantic subplots. The Promise evokes the feel of “classic” Hollywood, with its broad themes and its impressive scale. This sleek approach to the material jars with the horror being inflicted, the movie’s character arcs pasted over a nightmarish true story just a little too smoothly. The Promise is well-intentioned, if clumsy in execution.

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Non-Review Review: The Fast & The Furious 8 (aka The Fate of the Furious)

Seven cars crowd out an otherwise empty New York street.

In the midst of the carnage, all law-abiding citizens have taken cover. Only the outlaws remain, the powerhouses that rule the street. One black muscle car sits at the centre of this chaos. It stars menacingly at the five cars blocking its path. Behind that black car lurks the vanguard. Inside, a scruffy stubbled Englishman cracks his neck impatiently, waiting for action. The target car revs its engine. The drivers all kick into gear, and it becomes a game of reflexes.

Present and corrected.

There is an endearing charm to The Fast and the Furious as a blockbuster movie franchise. In many ways, it has become Universal’s own home-grown superhero franchise, albeit one that swaps out the capes for cars. A wry observer might suggest that the series is Diesel-powered, but that is not entirely true. The franchise runs on sheer main-lined ridiculousness, on the blurry line that falls somewhere between awesome and absurd. “High noon, but with cars…” is far from the most audacious scene in The Fast and the Furious 8, but it might be the most indicative.

Like a driver wrestling with a powerhouse engine, the series works best when it actively turns into the spin. Fast Five revived the franchise by removing the throttle and setting in motion a sense of escalation that threatens to send the characters into space before the conclusion of the series. In the meantime, The Fast and the Furious 8 settles for a neon orange Lamborghini being chased over ice by a nuclear submarine. There are points at which the whole thing threatens to fall apart like that surface ice, but the film moves just quick enough to stay above water.

Dominating Dom.

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