Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

The Curse of the Black Pearl was an incredible experience for me when I was a little girl – it was awe-inspiring, frightening at times and unlike anything I’d seen in film before (I was 9 and still am terrified by the sea). Never before had pirates been attempted so ambitiously and brilliantly, with a strong story combining myth and legend, and some fantastic protagonists. Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (or Dead Men Tell No Tales as it’s known to the rest of the world) slots exactly in the middle of the five films for me. It’s not the worst, but not nearly the best.

A crew of deadly ghost sailors, led by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), escape from the Devil’s Triangle and hunt their old nemesis Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Jack is down-on-his-luck, and his only hope of survival lies in seeking out the legendary Trident of Poseidon, known to break all curses of the sea. To find it, he must forge an uneasy alliance with brilliant astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) and headstrong young man Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), who needs the Trident to free his father from his curse.

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Casting aside how good or bad they may be, what I love about all of these movies is that they all intertwine actual maritime myth and legend; Cortez’s gold, Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman, Blackbeard etc. I am yet to know whether Salazar himself is actually based on a Spanish myth, but either way, Javier Bardem really holds some scenes together here. But he is known for playing brilliant bad guys (No Country for Old Men and Skyfall).

The problem with Salazar’s Revenge is that it’s formula is getting repetitive: a villain is trapped in a cursed form because of the actions of Jack Sparrow, the villain seeks his revenge, two young adventurers aid Jack to find a mystical object of the sea and all are followed by the constantly angry East India Trading Company who chase them around the oceans (lead by the snarling David Wenham, who’s character really isn’t necessary at all). Another problem is that Jack is sometimes completely redundant in a scene, as it becomes more about Carina and Henry and their personal reasons why they need the Trident. Henry’s reason resonates with us more, especially if you’ve followed all of the Pirates movies.

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It has some great stand-out moments though, namely Jack’s hilarious narrow escapes from the  guillotine, when his crew attempt to rob a bank, meeting Jack’s Uncle (a genuinely funny Paul McCartney) and Salazar’s flashback to encountering a young Jack Sparrow. At times, bits of the action sequences are impressive. But, it’s a bit of a CGI fest as the plot lunges back and forth between stock characters and action sequences, with not one bloody sword fight! Mythology and exposition, too, is rarely explained and inconsistent (the Trident? Jack’s compass being able to free an entire cursed army from their cave? How Barbosa obtained that ruby? I could go on…)

The appearance of older and original characters though do make some impact, but that enough doesn’t make Salazar’s Revenge great. Also, what bothers me is that apparently there are MORE Pirates’ films to come – how?! The ending reaches a state of equilibrium, and there is nothing else that can be exhausted: no curses, myths, legends or characters we’ve followed for five films. I don’t see how it can evolve but, like the Disney ride these films are based on, we’ll just have to wait to ride it again.

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Marvel are now deep into phase 3 of their cinematic universe, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the first of three being released this year. The other two are Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, both of which look epic! A few years back, I declared the first Guardians of the Galaxy as my favourite Marvel film, and it still is (tied with Civil War). Vol. 2 wasn’t as slick as the first, but it sure was still a fun-filled ride packed with the same level of action, charm and comedy we’re used to from Star Lord and the gang.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his fellow Guardians are hired by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), high priestess of the Sovereign, to protect their precious batteries from invaders. When it is discovered that Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has stolen some of the items they were meant to guard, the Sovereign search for vengeance. As the Guardians try to escape, the mystery of Peter’s parentage is revealed.

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Guardians Vol. 2, for the most part, focused on Peter, his “unorthodox” heritage and his father, Ego (played by Kurt Russell). During these bonding times on Ego’s planet, although beautiful and colourful, the pacing was a little slow and the “plot” got a bit lost on me. It never gave me a chance to really engage or care about Ego and Peter’s relationship, but at least Ego’s planet was an incredible sight to behold. And, at least, the audience and Guardians with him were introduced to Mantis (the brilliant Pom Klementieff).

Left behind are Rocket and Groot (Vin Diesel), who team up with Yandu (Michael Rooker) and this is where the fun begins. As always, Rocket shines and was given some of the best lines from interpreting Baby Groot (who was the most adorable yet hilarious thing). Casual and everyday dialogue between characters is Guardians’ strongest feature and I’m glad they’ve kept this formula for the sequel.

Marvel take care of their characters well, taking the appropriate time to develop important ones. This time, the misunderstood daughter-of-Thanos got a turn and we saw Nebula (Karen Gillan) come into her own. Something that excited me, also, was gaining an insight into Yandu and the Ravagers. Yandu is a fascinating character, with the oddest ability, and his scenes were truly quite touching. My only gripe with Guardians 2 was that Sylvester Stallone as Starhawk could’ve been in it more, but, an after credit scene hints this isn’t the last we’ll see of him.

Speaking of after credit scenes, you need to wait out for five. Yep, five! A couple may seem redundant, but all hint to near and distant future plans in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of which confirms Marvel fans suspicions surrounding hero Adam Warlock…

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As always, the music was spot on (‘The Chain’ is one my favourite songs and I’m currently listening to ‘Wham Bam’ as I’m writing this). Introducing older 20th Century music into a modern film that brings in a young audience is something I always champion.

Wacky, weird and wonderful, the Guardians of the Galaxy still remain my favourite heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, they are made up of talking trees and enhanced raccoons etc, but as the “odd ones out” in the whole galaxy, they are the closest I’ll come to being able to relate to a superhero.

Jawbone (2017)

The sports drama is one that is consistently impressive as a sub-genre, particularly more recently with films like Foxcatcher (2015), Rush (2013), Moneyball (2011) and The Blind Side (2009). New British boxing film Jawbone certainly conforms to the sports drama sub-genre and, thankfully, continues this rule: sport dramas make impressive cinema.

Jawbone follows former youth boxing champion Jimmy McCabe, who hits rock bottom, so returns to his childhood boxing club. Set in grimy, urban South London, Jawbone is not short of violence and alcoholism. But it somehow doesn’t fall into the stereotypical urban “gritty and grey” drama; it’s a lot more subtle than that. It’s hard-hitting, powerful and explores themes of the working class, the struggle for survival and it’s focus on an older boxer (not rather dissimilar to Rocky).

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The action is never boring, as director Thomas Napper delves into Jimmy’s life (played by Johnny Harris, who also wrote the screenplay). Napper and Harris have set out to tell a matter-of-fact story of a man who loses everything and tries to get his life back on track by looking in the wrong places. They do this simply and effectively. And, although the cast is all men, it was hard not to connect with Jimmy and engage in his story.

All of Jawbone‘s performances are incredibly strong. Johnny Harris is impressive as protagonist Jimmy McCabe. Harris strikes the right balance of determined and vulnerable, as if he is still that young teenage boxer who’s lost his way, and was utterly compelling. Ray Winstone as gym-owner Bill was a pleasure to watch also, as the angel on Jimmy’s shoulder. He had a graceful, lovable air about him, yet is harsh but fair: “if I find booze in here, you’re out.” The only real smiles we see from Jimmy is when he’s with Bill, and their scenes are genuinely heart-felt.

Michael Smiley as corner-man Eddie brings candor to the boxing gym and also delivers some my favourite lines: “he’s just a bully, surrounded by other bullies. I want you to break his heart.” And if Winstone’s Bill is the angel, the devil on Jimmy’s shoulder is the temptation to fight unlicensed for large amounts of money, and that temptation comes from Ian McShane as Joe. He’s brief but memorable, and still has one of the best voices in film today.

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The boxing fighting and training sections are gripping drama. Forget “Gonna Fly Now”, Jawbone has it’s own unique soundtrack driving it forward, composed by legend Paul Weller. The fight footage is skilled and brilliant watching. There is movement as the camera sways with Jimmy; he’s not as in shape as his undefeated beast of an opponent, but will fight all the same. It’s here when you suddenly root for him, and slowly Eddie does too. Eddie’s growth from passive corner-man to supportive friend during the fight is truly moving. Jimmy finally has someone believe in him, which is, perhaps, all he ever needed.

Jimmy, Bill and Eddie’s stories are sometimes admirable ones, but we must also admire the men in real-life who put the time and energy into sports clubs like these. South East London is a place renowned for gang culture, and there are so many communities who use sport and, more specifically, boxing to pull boys off the streets, to nurture them so not be tempted to walk the wrong path.

Jawbone reminds us that even the hardest of men can be broken by life. It’s painfully frank and, at times, heart-breaking: Jawbone is definitely one I’d watch again.

Jawbone‘s premiere is screening at selected UK cinemas on 8th May. It’s official release is 12th May. Check out the trailer here:

Mad To Be Normal (2017)

In a time where electroconvulsive therapy for mental illness was acceptable and old men were still stuck in their ways, Mad To Be Normal tells the story of controversial world-renowned Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing (David Tennant) and his unique community at Kingsley Hall, East London, during the 1960’s. But, with growing liberalism and equality, “The Sixties” fought against close mindedness, which was exactly what Laing set out to do also.

From the opening scene, it’s very clear what time period we are in: patient Maria (Olivia Poulet) dances, hands in the air, in a gloomy room. It’s close on her, blurry and psychedelic. Director Robert Mullan sets this tone early on, that Mad To Be Normal is on the verge of experimental, so I thought I was in for an interesting watch.

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Told in a series of moments, Mullan shows us life in Kingsley Hall, where Laing and his patients simply “live together as people.” The action is often limited to Kingsley Hall, which is decorated with period appropriate props and music. With these series of moments, there are some wonderful ones, but the narrative felt a little lost at times, and the patients psychological studies are under-developed and under-explained. I felt Mad To Be Normal couldn’t decide on what it was; an experimental film about Laing’s controversial treatments, or a straight forward biopic about Laing’s life? Falling somewhere in the middle of these two meant it lost all intimacy and was a little disjointed.

I’m a big fan of David Tennant, especially his TV work (Doctor Who, Jessica Jones etc), and here he turns in an engaging and charismatic performance as Dr. Laing. We can appreciate Dr. Laing for what he was – a broken man who wanted to fix others around him. But this film doesn’t set out to paint Laing as a saint. His genuine life pressures and responsibilities outside Kingsley Hall, including a very ill daughter, are forgotten about. Instead, he focuses solely on his experiments and the film hints that maybe Laing was out to fix himself, not just his patients.

But it’s the older supporting cast who are truly the memorable ones here, namely Gabriel Byrne (Usual Suspects) and Michael Gambon (Harry Potter). Playing patient Sydney, Gambon is a breath of fresh air and often stole every scene he featured in. Unfortunately, though, there weren’t many scenes and I felt he was often side-lined. Byrne is brilliant as patient Jim, and manages to be sweet yet unpredictable all at once. Jim is a character overlooked on purpose by Laing, but his growing estrangement doesn’t go unnoticed by Angie and us. Elizabeth Moss, as Laing’s partner Angie, gives a strong performance also, but I felt her development to be a bit stunted, instead, only used as an emotional tool the audience could touch base with.

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Although slow and breezy,  not dissimilar to the hippie-ish time period, it’s also not for the faint-hearted. It does not shy away from the use of electric shock treatment (ECT), self harm scenes and bouts of violence, and that’s something to be celebrated. Mullan doesn’t sugar coat mental illness or people’s perceptions of it during “The Sixties.”

Although Mad To Be Normal had it’s problems, it did convey a convincing message, that it’s a story about love, respect and acceptance for one another. These messages translate to our modern society today, in a time where we seem to be divided by the acts of politicians and their views. Mad To Be Normal is one I’m not sure I would revisit, but a fascinating watch all the same.

 

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Being one of few who enjoyed Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake, I was a bit skeptical of another Kong movie. But this time it’s different. This movie is brought to you by the same people who made the 2014 Godzilla remake (which I also thoroughly enjoyed) and not many people know that King Kong and Godzilla exist in the same universe and there are more of these monster movies to come (e.g. Mothra and King Ghidorah to name a couple). It seems then, that Marvel’s Cinematic Universe algorithm is so successful that other production companies are following suit.

Recruited to explore a new uncharted island, officials from the organisation Monarch, a group of soldiers fresh from Vietnam, a ex-military hunter-tracker and a photojournalist travel to Skull Island and disturb the unique and deadly creatures that live there, including a giant gorilla named Kong.

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Kong: Skull Island reminded me of a Vietnam war film – even the poster was resonant of Apocalypse Now! This blended perfectly with the fantastical, i.e a giant gorilla, and the action sequences that followed. The 70’s soundtrack worked brilliantly too, and really paced the film well. I was never bored.

The only quibble I had was that I didn’t care enough about the characters. Whether they got to the other side of the island in time to leave safely or not, I didn’t care. There were so many characters to get to know in such a short space of time, all with little or no backstory, and none of them were particularly likeable either.

Overall, Kong: Skull Island was an all round decent and enjoyable movie. It’s in cinemas now, and, if you’re interested in what’s to come, wait for an awesome after credit scene!

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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

There are a few film genres I’m biased towards and War films are definitely no exception. And I’m just going to go ahead and say that Hacksaw Ridge is the best war film I’ve seen in a long long time.

World War II American Army Medic, Desmond Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people and is considered a “conscientious objector.” But, his acts of courage and the choices he makes in war means that he might be braver than them all.

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Hacksaw Ridge is true to it’s genre: bloody and brutal. It’s not shied away from, and at times, really shocks and scares. But, Director Mel Gibson has created a film that shows us war doesn’t have to be pain, sorrow and dehumanising. It’s not just the brutality of war that stays with us, it’s the perseverance and love that Doss has that inspires and hits deeper on an emotional level.

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Andrew Garfield is riveting and humble as Desmond Doss; he really shines in a role that’s extremely well suited to him. The supporting cast, also, are brilliant. Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s father, is compelling and emotional. Vince Vaughan brings a smile and typical military banter as Sergeant Howell, yet isn’t too comical, and Sam Worthington too is commanding as Captain Glover.

Overall, Hacksaw Ridge is a truly gripping and great war film and will stay with me for a long time. Perhaps, though, what is even greater, is the real man Desmond Doss himself and his acts of humanity in a time of horror.

Mum’s List (2016) review and interview with Niall Johnson, Emilia Fox and Singe Greene

Although its subject matter is familiar territory in film, Mum’s List is unique in the sense that the story itself is unique and true. Adapted from St John (Singe) Greene’s autobiographical book of the same name, the story focuses on Singe (Rafe Spall) and wife Kate (Emilia Fox), who was diagnosed with cancer only a few years after their young son’s battle with the disease. But Kate prepares by compiling a collection of notes and life lessons for her family after she’s gone. Just hearing the synopsis can have audiences dabbing their eyes, but Mum’s List is a whole lot more than just a tear-jerker.

Director Niall Johnson’s true story drama is so understated and realist that it felt like, at times, I was watching a home filmed video. The story is personal to him: “I knew Kate in the last eighteen months of her life, so I knew the story way before the book. Movies were moving in on the story and Singe said “why don’t you do it?” I thought I was a bit too close and movies can mess things up. But as Singe and Rachel Murphy were writing the book I realised they were helping me find my way through what it was about the story that would make a hundred minute film. It was in Kate’s list. The book follows Singe of course, but the movie had to follow Kate.”

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Johnson glides us through the story, using the narrative to naturally flow back and forth from present day to past moments and memories. This enables an audience to grasp what kind of person Kate was and show that she’s not just defined by her illness. Brilliantly played by Emilia Fox, Kate is a loving mother, wife and friend, and has an incredible zest for life. “It was a huge responsibility being asked to play Kate, but a huge honour as well. I relied very heavily on Singe himself to talk me through every scene in the film. We sat in the pub and talked for a couple of hours and cried for a couple of hours.”

Emilia breathes life to Kate, and brings an element of subtlety, leaving out the melodrama. Similarly, Rafe Spall plays Singe with the same subtlety and he very much pulls us through the movie. Both actors give genuine, heartfelt performances and carry the film through it’s absolutely devastating and upsetting scenes.

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Being from Bristol and having a lot of family in the West, seeing Mum’s List filmed on location in Clevedon was incredibly exciting for me and is something that the film really takes pride in and Singe Greene definitely does too. “I really wanted it to be a British movie. I’m very proud of where I live and I hope we put it right on the map.” The scenery shots slotted into the movie are truly stunning and picturesque like from a postcard, all thanks to Director of Photography Eden Bolter, who’s recently been nominated for BAFTA’s 2016 Breakthrough Brit award.

Mum’s List, as a whole, is very understated, pulling away from Hollywood melodrama. Despite it’s subject matter, the film oozes positivity; everything down to the production design is bright and shining to reflect Kate’s personality even when she was ill. Mum’s List is a cruel and frank reminder that life is too short, so love too much and care too much. Its a heartbreaking watch at times, but altogether an uplifting, positive journey.

Mum’s List is in cinemas now!

mumslist-njef Full interview will be posted soon!