The Pitch: The Nolan system.
The Review: For all that you can say about cinema, it’s not a career path that lends itself naturally to progression. While the likes of Steven Soderbergh have mastered more than one skill in film production, you don’t hear many stories of key grips that went onto thriving careers as make-up artists. If there is a natural pairing of professions in the film industry, you’d think it’s director and cinematographer, the two people most concerned with getting the image right on screen, but when pretty much every list of famous cinematographers turned directors has Jan “Speed 2” De Bont on it, it’s clearly not an easy transition to make. Full marks for effort to Wally Pfister, then, for deciding to break away from a twenty year career in cinematography and a lengthy collaboration with Christopher Nolan to making his own films.
It’s also decent marks for attainment when it comes to the visuals. Pfister’s films have always had a compelling visual quality and he’s stuck to his principles, shooting Transcendence on traditional 35mm film. In collaboration with another Brit, this time his own cinematographer Jess Hall (veteran of Brit films including Hot Fuzz and Son Of Rambow), Transcendence balances beautiful moments of intimate slo-mo with grander, sweeping vistas. Unlike other blockbusters that live just to excite your inner fanboy with a robot riding a giant dinosaur, Transcendence aims for something subtler. The stock middle-America townscape is a bit of a cliché, but that’s one weak link in Pfister’s composition.
For those getting their hopes up that Pfister’s film could be of equal quality in all the other departments, it’s time to unceremoniously dash those hopes. That even extends as far as general shot composition; while certain brief moments might look good, as a whole the film is a dull canvass of browns and whites and nothing sticks in the mind for more than a few minutes. That pales in comparison to some of the acting, which is led by a dialled-in (probably on a 56k modem) performance from Johnny Depp. Once Depp’s settled on an accent, he sleepwalks through the film, sapping interest out of scenes while barely even trying. Rebecca Hall makes a bit of an effort, but everyone else, from Paul Bettany to Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, wanders around in a general state of confusion, wondering where their character development has disappeared to and failing to invest the tired script with any sense of conviction.
There are numerous problems with that script, and not only does the dialogue fail to convince in individual scenes, the script as a whole is a damb squib. Transcendence thinks it has a couple of good ideas, but anyone who’s ever seen more than a couple of episodes of any sci-fi series on TV won’t be surprised at any part of the “human consciousness in a computer” plot, and Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey – which wasn’t that great itself – was a far better exploration of the dramatic possibilities of nanotechnology, a thread which plays out laughably here. To top it all off, the script begins at the end and then flashes back, killing any dramatic tension stone dead. Most of the film’s ideas about technology are laughably poor, but not laughable enough to tip the film into the “so bad it’s good” category. When Christopher Nolan comes up with films about dream worlds, wormholes and men who dress as bats and fight crime, you have to wonder what drove Pfister to trot out such a succession of barely warmed-over clichés that make you yearn for some paint to watch drying. Sad to say, but Wally Pfister’s first film makes Jan De Bont’s directorial career look like a constant procession of genius by comparison; even Morgan Freeman reading out binary code for two hours would have been more appealing.
Why see it at the cinema: As I’ve said, there are some lovely looking individual frames, it’s just a shame they never form into anything resembling a coherent whole. But they do look great on a giant cinema screen.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and bloody images. The BBFC rating advice also indicates that, “there is also a scene in which a couple embrace and kiss.” As that’s in the rating advice, does it mean that embracing is only to be witnessed by 11 year olds with the consent of their parents?
My cinema experience: A Sunday evening at my local Cineworld would not normally be heavily populated, but for some reason this was a big draw so I was sat third row from the front. Someone sat in the middle of the bank of seats in front of me, and then refused to move when another couple came in looking for the two seats either side. That confrontation, as brief as it was, proved to be more interesting that anything projected onto the screen in front of them.
The Score: 3/10
The Pitch: Cowboys and ex-Pirates.
The Review: Giaochino Rossini may just have been the most famous composer of his time in Italy. He’d composed over three dozen operas, including such enduring works as The Barber Of Seville, by the time he was 37. It was at this point he produced what may be his most recognised work of all, the opera William Tell, from which this overture (the March Of The Swiss Soldiers) is taken:
But your level of knowledge of classical music will dictate as to whether you recognise it more from the story of a man who shot an arrow from his son’s head, or from the story of a Texas ranger who teams up with an American Indian, riding the plains in the search for truth and justice. Having pirated the Caribbean to its every corner, the team of Johnny Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and composer Hans Zimmer (to name the most prominent collaborators) have turned their attentions to the almost mythical story first transmitted on radio in the Thirties and then the subject of an equally successful TV series in the Fifties. This adaptation has met with critical derision and audience apathy, but that may give a somewhat distorted view of what could be described as somewhere between an fascinating failure and a heavily qualified triumph.
It’s reported that Rossini met Beethoven in 1822. “Ah, Rossini,” said Ludwig, “So you’re the composer of The Barber of Seville. I congratulate you. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any other style would do violence to your nature.” It would be fair to say that Team Bruckheimer haven’t wandered too far from their standard template either, with anyone who’s seen any of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies recognising the mix of spectacular, CGI based action, slightly overwrought drama and a variety of eccentric performances. This version is also surprisingly faithful to the origin story as laid out by the original creators of the Lone Ranger: John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a lawyer who is deputised by his Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale) in an effort to recapture outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and return him to face justice at the request of railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). When the Ranger gang is ambushed and John left for dead, he’s encouraged by oddball Indian Tonto (Depp) to put on a mask and to join him in his own hunt for Cavendish.
You might be familiar with its signature overture, but you may not have heard the entirety of Rossini’s WIlliam Tell given that it runs to over four hours if performed in full. The Lone Ranger runs to two and a half and feels overextended at that length, but actually not by much. Its two more obvious faults are never quite knowing how to make the framing device work (recalling The Princess Bride, but with an aging Tonto talking to a young masked Lone Ranger fan at a San Francisco funfair), and never quite getting the balance between the slightly more otherworldly, almost cartoonish Tonto (and when I say cartoonish, think Droopy with his succinct sentences and his unusual world view) and the genuine American Indians who form one of the many sub-plots. The performances are generally satisfactory, but if we’re drawing the Pirates comparisons then the closest anyone gets to the scenery chewing fun of a Geoffrey Rush is Fichtner, who lends The Lone Ranger a darker, more grounded edge, while Wilkinson does his usual thing about as well as ever. There’s an initial sense of unbalance with the nominal sidekick actually playing the lead, but if you can retune your expectations then Depp imbues Tonto with depth and shade and Hammer also finds a journey to take Reid through. A lively cameo from Helena Bonham Carter also helps to keep things light.
After writing William Tell, Rossini to all intents and purposes retired, and while he composed other works later in life, including his Stabat Mater in two chunks over a twelve year period, William Tell was his final opera. Johnny Depp has also been rumoured to be thinking of retiring, although at a much greater age than Rossini, and there’s a certain sense of finality to The Lone Ranger, the combination of the framing device and the critical mauling very much giving the impression that The Lone Ranger is that particular rarity in summer blockbusters, the stand-alone film that will defy the sequel trend. Maybe in future years the baggage of Bruckheimer will be cast off and The Lone Ranger will be seen in a different light; there are two or three different shifts of tone – as evidenced by any film whose references run the spectrum from Once Upon A Time In The West to Back To The Future, Part III and whose hugely entertaining, action packed finale draws on both Buster Keaton’s The General and Wallace And Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers – and those variations in tone from quite dark to light and fluffy may have alienated some, but there’s quite a bit to enjoy. It may not be as focused as the previous Verbinski / Depp Western Rango, but it’s nowhere near as bad as you’ve heard and it settles nicely in the middle of the spectrum of this summer’s blockbusters.
Why see it at the cinema: For anything set on a train, where the cinema screen opens up the spectacle perfectly. As well as the spectacular train-based ending there’s also some fun train shenanigans at the beginning. It’s not huge on laughs but there is the odd chuckle to share with as big an audience as you can find.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and injury detail. Unusually for a 12A blockbuster these days, though, there’s no strong language; the strongest words on offer here are “damn”, “hell” and “harlot”. (Yes, harlot, apparently. Go figure.)
My cinema experience: Not much to report here; the Cineworld in Cambridge slung it on one of their larger screens, and a decent (maybe just over half-full) Sunday afternoon crowd were treated to a Bruckheimering of average standard for a couple of hours. No projection or audience misbehaviour issues to report.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: There used to be a few well held and rarely disputed rules about certain genres, including that there’s never really been any good pirate movies (as in movies with pirates, not dodgy market copies of Jurassic Park III filmed on a shakycam and transferred to VHS), and that to make a film based on a theme park attraction was tantamount to insanity. Then in 2003 Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl arrived, got Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination and scared up a huge amount of money. Unsurprisingly, two sequels followed, which raked in even more pirate booty, but there was an inescapable feeling of quality, well, escaping. The third film especially, which starts with child hangings and then proceeds to kill of most of its peripheral characters as an afterthought, really should have killed the franchise stone dead, but it seems that people can’t get enough of Captain Jack Sparrow, so other characters have been cast aside and Captain Jack gets to take centre stage.
He’s not quite on his own; returning alongside Cap’n Jack are Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a little legless and in the Royal Navy; Kevin McNally as loyal sidekick Gibbs, chugging along in much the same manner as the first three films; and Captain Teague (Keith Richards), repeating his cameo as Sparrow Sr. from the last, ill-advised entry. But never fear, there’s a whole host of new characters to make up for the loss of Orlando, Keira et al, including Penélope Cruz as blast from Jack’s past Angelica and Ian McShane as pirate legend Blackbeard. Those paying attention at the end of the last movie will remember some nonsense being spouted about the Fountain of Youth, and that’s where we’re setting sail for this time, picking up more waifs and strays along the way, including a young priest and a feisty mermaid that will make you wonder quite why, salary considerations aside, they got rid of Orlando and Keira in the first place.
Director Rob Marshall replaces Gore Verbinski this time out, and it’s another change that leaves you pining for the original. While the third Pirates might have been offensively bad in places, it was at least never offensively dull, which is more than can be said for this entry. Sparrow, Barbossa, Blackbeard and even some random Spaniards all trek around the high seas looking for a couple of MacGuffins in addition to finding the Fountain of Youth, but since Jack’s been there before there never feels like a significant obstacle to overcome. On top of that, everyone else’s motivations are murky and no one really seems that interested in finding what they’re supposed to be looking for anyway; if the characters can’t invest in the quest at hand, it doesn’t leave much hope for the audience. If this film has achieved anything, it’s that despite lopping over half an hour off the bloated length of At World’s End, this still feels about forty minutes too long.
There’s also a problem with Captain Jack himself. Being odd on the periphery while others drove the plot worked well, but now Jack’s the driving force somehow everything else feels just a little off kilter. It’s not helped by the writers forgetting what made Jack so appealing in the first place, but the joy of lines from the first film such as “I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, gramatically…” have been replaced by general oddness which might raise the odd chuckle at the time but fails to linger any longer than a few seconds. Suggestions of romantic tension with Cruz fall flat through a lack of both romance and tension and very few others seem to have their heart in it, certainly not McShane or Rush on this occasion. There’s some interest early on before the plot wheels start to grind to a halt, and a couple of the set pieces entertain briefly, but On Stranger Tides is just a little too strange to have lasting appeal. Remember that rule that there’s no good pirate movies? It seems that Curse Of The Black Pearl was just the exception to that rule.
Why see it at the cinema: The mermaid sequence is pretty reasonable and there’s as much impressive scenery as ever, but this feels oddly small in scale compared to previous entries.
Why see it in 3D: My wife watched large parts of the film without the 3D glasses, and other than appearing brighter it made very little difference. Apart from the occasional thrust of a cutlass there’s very little here to justify the higher ticket price.
The Score: 4/10