Monthly Archives: December 2015

Road House

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: When the Jasper night spot the Double Deuce needs sprucing up and sorting out, the owner turns to Dalton, the coolest cooler in town. The mission brings Dalton into conflict with the town’s big cheese Brad Wesley and a world of pain, though there’s helpfully a shapely doctor on hand.

The world mourned, and with good reason, when Patrick Swayze passed away in 2009 at the age of 57. I suspect, however, that the tributes people paid to the man were of two distinct sorts: one from a largely female group remembering his bad-boy, hip-swivelling Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing or achingly romantic Sam Wheat in Ghost; the other, almost exclusively male, who couldn’t give a stuff about any of that but thought he was the dog’s you-know-whats in Road House.

Bar owner Frank Wightman (Kevin Tighe) wants, and needs, the best bouncer in the business to control the unruly patrons of the Double Deuce in Jasper, not far from Kansas. So he calls on Dalton (Swayze), technically not a bouncer but a cooler, the man who decides when to let things go and when to employ some muscle. However, whilst Frank, doe-eyed waitress Carrie (Kathleen Wilhoite) and rockin’ blues guitarist Cody (Jeff Healey, complete with band playing behind the relative safety of chicken wire) are glad to have the legendary Dalton at the Deuce, others are less happy, including the robbing barman who just happens to be the nephew of local big noise Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara).

Brad’s business is the ruthless extortion of money from the businessmen of Jasper, backed up with the threat of big lunk Jimmy (Marshall Teague) and, if push comes to shove, more explosive methods of getting his way. As Dalton earns the respect of those who come to the Deuce, he also gains battle scars, the interest of sensible doctor Kelly Lynch and a sworn enemy in Wesley, who also had his eye on the doctor whilst keeping trophy blonde Denise (Julie Michaels) on a tight leash; and when Dalton’s best friend Wade (Sam Elliott) comes to town – reminding Dalton of his violent past – Wesley’s campaign of terror brings tensions to boiling point. The town must either yield to Brad’s iron fist and get rid of Dalton, or Dalton must – whatever the cost – get rid of Wesley.

There are very few films less sophisticated than Road House, but for once this is a fact absolutely to be celebrated. It’s a genuinely American film, which doesn’t mock the stupid for being stupid or patronise either its location or story with irony. Dalton’s craft is fascinating as he whips the Deuce, Gordon Ramsay-style, from a spit-and-sawdust nightmare to the epitome of late 80s rock chic (the big hair on view is merely an incidental pleasure). Everything that goes along with this transformation – the girls, the blues, the kick-ass fights, the monster trucks – works as a showcase of vulgar, brash and very honest Americana.

And then the movie goes somewhere else. This may well say more about my ignorance of Westerns than my insight into modern movies, but to me Road House is a Western transplanted to the modern day. Swayze is the Man with One Name who rides into town to clean up the corruption he witnesses, and his tussle against the callous and gloriously unmotivated Gazzara escalates from a smirking disregard to a passionate and single-minded vendetta. It’s not Peckinpah, exactly, as the budget is clearly more that of straight-to-video nonsense, but there’s a power about the way Road House builds to its climax that really draws you in.

Most of the reason for this is the performances of Swayze (anguished, despite himself), Elliott (impossibly cool) and especially Gazzara, a villain you almost demand to have a nasty and violent death. Coupled with the neat, efficient and immediate way the fight scenes are shot, Rowdy Herrington’s movie can barely do wrong even when it knows it’s ridiculous, such as when Dalton describes his reasons for studying philosophy: ’Man’s search for faith, that sort of sh*t.’

Road House will never win prizes for artistic merit, though I will fight anyone who scoffs at Jeff Healey’s blues numbers (I wouldn’t stand up for his acting!); it’s precisely because it doesn’t aspire to anything it’s not, and because it is a perfect distillation of a heap of trashy, redneck elements that the film‘s fame has lasted while hundreds of other, cheaper movies that trod a similar path were instantly forgotten. You can keep your secret dancing clubs and your beyond-the-grave pottery, for me Road House is Swayze’s finest hour. Though I did think he’d be bigger…

NOTES: My other favourite quote of Dalton’s: ‘You’re too stupid to have a good time!’


4: Rise of the Silver Surfer

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: The squabblesome superheroes known collectively as the Fantastic Four have their plans for a Big Day ruined by an extraterrestrial force who bizarrely resembles a surfer. Dr Reed Richards is tasked by the Army with capturing the apparent menace to the planet, but Mr Fantastic also has to appease a fiancée who thinks he’s less fantastic with every passing day; and when the military lose faith in the team, they meet an old foe with a keen eye on the alien’s powers.

It’s a chill wind that blows no good for ‘Mr Fantastic’, aka Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), as a series of meteorological phenomena threaten to distract him from his impending marriage to Susan Storm, the lovely Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba). Radiation spikes – and ruddy great holes in the ground – at various co-ordinates around the world indicate something big is going on, and as nuptial preparations falteringly progress, Richards struggles to keep his fiancée onside whilst tracking the speedy source of the radiation at the behest of gruff US Army General Hager (Andre Braugher).

As the wedding day arrives, rock-hard Thing (Michael Chiklis) and Susan’s brother/Human Torch Johnny (Chris Evans) try to concentrate on the happiness of the married couple rather than bickering with each other; but the appearance of the Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) – the cause of all the trouble – disrupts proceedings and a brush with the alien force leaves Johnny with an identity crisis, since he swaps powers with any of the other Three he touches.

As if this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, the Four’s old enemy Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon) has returned from Latveria, back to his former glory and Hager’s new best friend following his own meeting with the Surfer. But what are Doom’s ulterior motives when the Four are forced to work with him? And when the mysterious visitor promises that ‘everything we know is at an end’, could the surfer’s ultimate mission be the destruction of planet Earth? The Four, troubled by rumours that Richards is about to break up the band for the sake of domestic harmony, will need all their powers, plus some bright new gadgets, if they are to save the day.

This second helping of the Four bears the same hallmarks as Tim Story’s 2005 original, with an attractive cast who seem more comfortable in their roles (Gruffudd is rather more at ease with his own voice this time) and a bright, familial, even romantic sensibility where the characters are determined that their special powers won’t get in the way of their everyday lives and loves, the Richards/Storm wedding and the support of Chiklis‘ blind partner Alicia (Kerry Washington) vying for equality with the sci-fi action, a patchwork of a hundred other sci-fi and superhero plots, not least The Day the Earth Stood Still and E.T. (unsurprisingly, the Surfer turns out not to be the real bad guy, unlike Zach Grenier’s off-the-shelf alien torturer). Also, without giving away too much, there’s a big Matrix Revolutions borrow late on too.

But there are still a few original ideas: both Mr Fantastic’s stretchiness and Johnny and Thing’s banter are good fun, and Johnny’s malfunctioning powers make for a decent variation on a theme. However, whereas I called Fantastic Four ‘comic book’ without meaning it as a criticism, I’m not sure I’d be so lenient when applying it to Rise of the Silver Surfer. For whilst there’s nothing wrong in principle with a set of superheroes whose domestic arrangements are as much a focus of the film as their superheroics, when the stakes are literally the end of the world you want the film to carry rather more weight.

There’s a scene early on in the film where The Thing nestles into an aeroplane seat, much to the dismay of those around him: all well and good from a comedy perspective, but this bloke is meant to be heavy; the fact that he can get on a normal plane without causing any problems for take-off mirrors the lack of gravity assigned to the film as a whole. I’m not remotely qualified to speak about the treatment of the cinematic Surfer versus his comic-book persona, but I understand he too is less complex here than he could have been.

More than anything, though, there’s an overwhelming sense that the same ground has been covered – better – in other films. The draining of the Thames near the London Eye is a fairly conservative spot of CGI pseudo-destruction, and Johnny’s wooing of icy Army Sergeant Raye (Beau Garrett) is both perfunctory and predictable. Then there are potentially neat ideas which the demands of modern film-making screw up, like the Four’s modular jet (I read it’s supposed to be called a Fantasticar but I’m not playing that game) which gets plastered in distinctly Dodge-y product placement. Even Stan Lee’s trademark cameo is uncommonly clunky, as a wedding guest who gets to say ‘I’m Stan Lee.’ Still, even if it doesn’t come close to rescuing the rest of the film, the film does build to an involving climax; just as well since – like the first movie – bona fide action sequences are thinly spread.

The general consensus seems to be that Rise of the Silver Surfer is marginally better than Fantastic Four, but I don’t see it. The first film was saddled with the always-tiresome job of explaining the origins of the heroes and setting up their relationships; having done that, you might expect this sequel to get straight into its stride. It’s never an actively poor film, to this comic-book layman at least; but with an ambience that’s often far too light and fluffy for the story it has to tell, this is a soufflé of a film that largely fails to rise to the occasion.

Fantastic Four

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: A mission to Victor von Doom’s private space station to study the genetic effects of solar storms goes awry, causing – how to put it? – complications for scientist Reed Richards and his companions. As the four ‘victims’ get used to their new powers and the instant celebrity their abilities bring, they discover that the fifth member of their party, von Doom himself, has also acquired some new abilities and intends to use them to further his own ends.

At the risk of repeating myself whenever I watch a movie based on comic books, my knowledge of these things rarely rises above absolute ignorance. So, whereas I was aware that the Fantastic Four were, like the X-Men, a Stan Lee creation, I was not aware of his collaborator Jack Kirby or indeed which of the superhero teams came first. Interestingly, the Four appeared before the X-Men in comic book form, while (excluding a cheap film basically made to retain the rights) the X-Men were the first to make it into theatres. A matter of luck, or a case of superior evolution winning out?

Fantastic Four gets into its stride pretty quickly. Exceptional but penniless scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), accompanied by thick-set friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), approaches his old college buddy turned mega-rich entrepreneur Victor Von Doom (Julian MacMahon) to see if he can borrow his space station to test his theories on genetic evolution in the teeth of an imminent solar storm. Von Doom negotiates a generous cut of any profits and gets in on the project, meaning that his Director of Genetics Research Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) and her cocky pilot brother Johnny (Chris Evans) also come along for the ride.

Susan is both Reed’s ex-girlfriend and the current apple of Victor’s eye, causing some tension within the group; but not half so much as when Reed’s solar winds turn up several hours early, von Doom’s decision not to deploy the station’s shields covering the whole group in solar energy. Although everyone wakes up back on Earth apparently none the worse for the experience, Ben suddenly finds himself transformed into a rock-hard giant, much to his and fiancée Debbie’s disgust. Meanwhile, Johnny is delighted to find that he has the power to both produce and become a flaming ball of fire; Susan discovers that she can become invisible and produce a force field, whilst Reed finds that he is almost infinitely stretchy.

The group, dubbed The Fantastic Four by the media and named The Thing, The Human Torch, Invisible Girl and Mr Fantastic, are shut away whilst Fantastic (ie. Reed) works on a way of reversing the process. Von Doom – or just plain Doom, looking increasingly metallic – starts to exhibit powers such as control over electricity, which he uses to eliminate the suits who have taken over his company. Since Reed is responsible for his condition, he is next on Doom’s hit list, regardless of who tries to get in the way.

It might not be a fair comparison, and almost certainly wasn’t director Tim Story’s intention, but for anyone who has watched the X-Men series The Fantastic Four can’t help but feel like a Junior gang, a practice league of superheroes, a warm-up act. In part, this is down to the straightforward way in which the tale is told, the way the heroes come about (no concentration camps here) and the relatively bright world they live in (The Thing is orange, the others’ suits a shiny blue). The abilities of the Four are more often used for comic effect than for heroism and the film only boasts two big set-pieces, the first a rescue on the Brooklyn Bridge from a pile-up initially caused by Ben, the second the battle against Doom (now sporting an immobile mask).

The effects for both of these sequences are very good, though since The Thing is a latex rather than CG creation, he never looks quite as solid as he should; but our superheroes spend altogether too much time shut away rather than being heroic. Also, although there are a few murders in the film, the sense of peril is never particularly acute (Invisible Girl gets a nose bleed when she’s stressed, but that’s about as threatened as our heroes’ lives get).

Casting only adds to the sense that these are not Major League heroes. Chris Evans is the most entertaining of the gang, though Torch’s obsession with extreme sports feels like the product of marketing men seeking target demographics and product placement opportunities; Jessica Alba also seems chosen specifically to attract young boys, a thought an entirely gratuitous scene in which she strips to her undies does nothing to contradict. She’s not particularly convincing as a scientist, and doesn’t share much chemistry with Gruffudd’s Reed, a real shame since the film spends altogether too much time developing Reed’s bashful love for her.

Gruffudd looks the part as Mr Fantastic, though he’s obviously too old for Susan, but I assume that he spent all his effort erasing his Welsh accent and didn’t have much energy to expend on charisma. Chiklis becomes the de facto leading man and thankfully he exudes real pathos as he slowly comes round to his new role in the world. In commentary, Chiklis states that he was the sole fan of the comics amongst the cast: it shows.

Fantastic Four is a competent and undemanding superhero movie, and perfectly good fun as long as you don’t expect to find significance or thought-through mechanics beneath the surface (if you look closely, a world of plot holes emerges: exactly how does Ben reverse the reversing machine, without Doom’s extra energy input? Despite Reed’s explanation, since suits don’t have DNA, how can they possibly match the powers of the wearer? Where the hell is Latveria?). Its ethics, language and violence are comic-book in an old-fashioned sense, which is in no sense a criticism. Unfortunately, for a generation aware of X-Men, The Dark Knight, Watchmen and so on, the one-dimensional dispositions of the Four are likely to come across as unsophisticated and insufficiently complex.

As the year draws to a close…

…I’d just like to thank everyone who has

  • read and/or
  • commented on and/or
  • chosen to follow

my blog posts over the last six months.

As you’ll probably have realised, the frequency of posts tends to be a bit sporadic, but I hope you enjoy them as and when they arrive – there’s plenty more to come!

With best wishes for 2016,


L.A. Story

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Wacky weatherman Harris K. Telemacher finds his job and his moribund love life as empty and vacuous as his Los Angeles environs. When English journalist Sara McDowell flies into the City of Angels, he’s thunderstruck; but how will a sign on the freeway help him on the path to true love?

Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin) lives and works in Los Angeles but finds it – or more accurately, its bewildering customs – a nightmare. The traffic is terrible, his boss is an idiot, and the people he surrounds himself with, including girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner), are awful fakes. At one ghastly lunch, Harris is captivated by the unabashed honesty of English reporter Sara (Victoria Tennant); and the discovery that Trudi has been knocking boots with his agent (for three years!) appears to release him to start wooing the disarming foreigner.

However, things in L.A. are never that simple; Sara is embroiled in a complicated relationship with her dandyish and still devoted ex-husband Roland (Richard E. Grant), while Harris somehow begins a dalliance with bouncy clothes store assistant Sandy – sorry, SanDeE** (Sarah Jessica Parker). It’s a web that Harris will never untangle – at least, not without the unexpected intervention of a talkative digital sign on the freeway.

Having spent his early film career specialising in wildly comic, physically flailing characters, Steve Martin calmed down towards the end of the 80s with films such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Parenthood. With these roles, he proved he could do more than make people laugh; in L.A. Story, he shows us he can wryly observe absurdity as well as create it.

Although it’s essentially a love story, Martin doesn’t allow the narrative to overshadow the jokes, which come thick and fast – the gunfight on the freeway, the slo-mo in the shower. A few sketches are more funny peculiar than ha-ha, for example Rick Moranis’ gravedigger from the Dick van Dyke school of Cockney, or Harris, filmed by friend Ariel, roller-skating through the art gallery; but others hit a sweet satirical spot. Patrick Stewart is quite brilliant as the insanely demanding Maître D’ of posh restaurant L’Idiot (“The New Cruelty?” asks Chevy Chase in a fleeting cameo).

The trouble is, by moving away from zany comedy towards smarter material, Martin walks straight into the path of one Mr Allen Konigsberg, aka Woody Allen. Few would argue that Allen is Martin’s equal as a comic actor, but you’d have to really admire Steve, or really dislike Woody, to think that Martin matches Allen as a writer, at least when it comes to the more sincere parts of the script. Where Allen’s intellectualism is inherent and ingrained, Martin’s is self- conscious: he wants us to know that he knows Shakespeare well enough to deliberately misquote him. The jazzy score, too, is often very reminiscent of Allen’s movies.

What’s more, though Woody makes for an unlikely romantic lead, his analysis of relationships is piercing and often painful. L.A. Story’s alternative is a form of whimsy that you have to buy into to enjoy the film. When Harris and Sara become children in a magical garden, the scene could be described as a beautiful depiction of the wondrous innocence of love, or an unforgivably nauseating sentimentality, depending on your tolerance of such things. The strains of Enya – and the knowledge that Martin was married to Victoria Tennant at the time – tipped the balance towards the latter for me, but I’m sure the movie’s fantastical sensibility has its fans.

Let’s come back to Ms Tennant. If L.A. Story is Martin’s stab at aping Woody Allen – as it clearly is – Victoria Tennant is his Diane Keaton; unfortunately, she’s a very poor man’s Diane Keaton. If you’re not British and wonder whether it’s her accent that makes her sound stiff, take it from a Brit: it’s not. She’s just not very good, though the fact that her material largely consists of swearing (is English-accented swearing that funny?) doesn’t help her cause. It’s a shame, because around her, Martin is doing some great work; so are the likes of Richard E. Grant and especially Sarah Jessica Parker, a constantly-spinning ball of flirtatious energy.

My guess is that L.A. Story went largely unappreciated not because of Tennant’s indifferent performance, but because people didn’t like seeing Steve Martin going all clever on them. That’s a problem for the viewer rather than the film, and Martin provides plenty to enjoy whilst he’s simultaneously asserting his maturity and declaring his love for both his wife and his crazy workplace. On the other hand, who in their right mind would plump for this movie if The Jerk was on at the same time?

NOTES: That asterisk isn’t a note: it’s part of her name. Vice versa for the second one, obviously.

Ella Enchanted

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Leaving behind her wicked stepmother and snotty stepsisters, unhappy Ella sets off in search of Lucinda, the fairy who gave her the ‘gift’ of obedience, to lift the spell. Though she acquires friends on her journey, including the dishy Prince Charmont, she also becomes the enemy of Char’s uncle, Sir Edgar, who’s ruling the kingdom with a talking snake and an iron fist.

Being blessed with a fairy godmother might sound brilliant, but it can have unfortunate consequences. For example, Ella of Frell (Anne Hathaway) is given the gift of obedience by reckless fairy Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox), which means that she has to do everything people command her to do. When Ella’s stepmother (Joanna Lumley) and stepsisters Hattie and Olive (Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham) use this to ruin her friendship with Areida (Parminda Nagra), Ella decides enough is enough and heads off to find Lucinda, armed only with her wits and a gift from fairy Mandy, a magic book which can reveal Lucinda’s whereabouts – and also has Mandy’s boyfriend Benny (Jimi Mistry) trapped inside.

On the way, Ella meets up with aspirational elf Slannen (Aidan McArdle) who aims to be a lawyer. However, all is not well in the kingdom: interim ruler Edgar (Cary Elwes) and his serpentine accomplice Heston (voiced by Steve Coogan) have banned elves from any job bar entertaining, while the land’s giants have been enslaved. Escaping from his adoring fan club, rightful heir Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy) is captivated by Ella and tries to help her in her quest; he also discovers what’s rotten in the kingdom, and sets about righting the wrongs. It won’t be easy, though, because Edgar’s keen on power and will exploit anything – including Ella’s ‘gift’ – to keep hold of the crown.

By and large, it’s vitally important to consider movies on their own merits rather than merely comparing them to similar films. That becomes difficult to stick to when looking at Ella Enchanted, which is so reminiscent of so many other films that to assess what’s unique about it would only take a couple of sentences. For a start, it’s yet another telling of the extremely well-worn Cinderella story, which had been told in a fresh and innovative way a few years previously in Ever After. The twist here is Ella’s curse of obedience, though this is simply a highly literal take on doing what she’s told, and doesn’t add much to the tale beyond making the heroine her own worst enemy and providing a few gags (“freeze”, “grin and bear it”, “hop to it”).

There is, of course, no rule that you can’t tell a story again within a certain time period – indeed, the generally pleasant A Cinderella Story came out the same year; however, by sticking resolutely in the realm of the traditional fairy tale, this film can’t help but invite comparisons to other movies. For example, there’s Shrek, from which there are a number of pretty obvious lifts (Benny’s face in the book, Ella’s fighting skills). Or there’s The Princess Bride; while the thought is undoubtedly suggested by the appearance of Cary Elwes, some of the similarities are unmistakeable, not least the fact that Edgar is very closely modelled on Count Rugen, right down to the beard.

The problem is, none of Ella Enchanted’s five screenwriters are a William Goldman, Ted Elliott or Terry Rossio. Where they produced smart, inventive, irreverent takes on traditional stories, Ella Enchanted feels as though it’s been written by committee, with disappointingly bland results. There’s nothing very interesting about Slannen and his dream to be a lawyer, or his relationship with Heidi Klum’s giantess; nor is Heston very hissable, ironically, despite being one of the better visual effects on display (there’s a lot of green screen used, and little of it used well).

Crucially, the film is never quite sure whether it’s deconstructing fairy tales or trying to construct a new one; whatever, the mediocre writing doesn’t allow either approach to take a decent hold (tellingly, Gail Carson Levine, author of the source novel, all but disowned the movie). “Flying While Intoxicated”? Ho bleeding ho. Eric Idle pops up from time to time as narrator, but can’t liven up such uninspired material.

Nonetheless, the film works in one very important aspect, namely Anne Hathaway’s performance in the title role. As she did in The Princess Diaries, Hathaway manages to bring a warm down-to-earth ordinariness to the part, combining strength of character with physical comedy, providing a role model for children whilst – let’s not deny it – giving adults something to look at.

Hathaway makes the film more than bearable, her performance of Queen’s Somebody to Love a particular highlight. And it’s just as well, given colourless performances from Dancy, McArdle, Mistry and others (Parminder Nagra is given practically nothing to do, so we’ll let her off); the normally excellent Jim Carter is also thoroughly miscast as an ogre, though Lumley, Punch and Elwes at least understand that they’re playing in a panto and ham it up accordingly.

It would be harsh to criticise Ella Enchanted too much for lacking originality. After all, it does have a USP of sorts, and what else can you do with the Cinderella legend – or fairy tales in general – apart from chuck in a few more fairies, ogres, giants and so on? However, there are many more accomplished and better written film treatments of fairy tales available, not least the ones from which this movie takes so much inspiration. This is watchable, particularly for younger viewers, but mostly due to the enchanting charms of its leading lady.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: With Davy Jones and his Flying Dutchman at his beck and call, Lord Beckett of the East India Company is poised to crush piracy on the high seas for once and for all. And with Captain Jack Sparrow stuck in limbo, the battle appears lost before it’s even begun. On the other hand, he has enemies in low places who are willing to drag him out – even if it’s just to kill him again.

These are dark times for the uneasy brotherhood of pirates. Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) has the might of the East India Company cracking down on anyone associated with piracy; he also has custody of Davy Jones’ (Bill Nighy) heart, enabling him to send the Flying Dutchman and its fearsome crew to crush any insurrection. Worse, the pirates are a squabbling, scattered bunch: though sorceress Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) has brought Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) back from the dead, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is trapped in Davy Jones’ locker and Pirate Lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), one of Jack’s fiercest enemies and the man with the chart leading to the locker, is in no mood to get him back out again.

However, the situation is so dire that the pirates’ only salvation lies in persuading goddess Calypso to help by setting her free from human bonds; for that, they must convene a Brethren Court, and to do that they need Jack – going ever so slightly mad in confinement – back in the land of the living. Meanwhile, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) rescues Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) but their relationship is strained; Elizabeth worries about her father, the former Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce), with good cause; whilst Will remains determined to set his father (Stellan Skarsgard) free from his obligations aboard the Dutchman.

I don’t mean this as a criticism (necessarily), but POTC: AWD is a real case of ‘join the dots’ writing. The mechanics are plain to see, starting at point A – that is, where the personnel were left at the end of Dead Man’s Chest – and ending up at point Z, a ruddy great massed battle between The East India Company and Davy Jones on one side, the pirates plus Elizabeth and Jack on the other, though in fact the E.I.C’s armada and the Pirate Lords hang back while Jack, Barbossa and our other ‘friends’ battle the Dutchman and Beckett’s Endeavour. A good thing too, possibly, as three ships provide more than enough opportunity for spinning around in maelstroms, swinging around on ropes and other monkey business (of which more later).

In the sense that the film finally arrives at its climax, the story is sound enough; but the course the plot…er, plots to get there is a strange one indeed. The pirates’ call to arms comes via the singing of a song, the music emanating from the gallows, with extraordinary scenes of men, women and a child being hanged and imagery that can only recall the holocaust. This sombre atmosphere is barely leavened as events slowly take a semblance of shape, and barely a scene goes by without one issue or another rearing its head: early on, it falls to Chow-Yun Fat to explain much of what’s going on, a problem because his accident is almost as difficult to follow as what he’s trying to explain.

It takes half an hour for Depp to make an appearance, and when he does it’s in a strange, slow, CGI-heavy scene where Sparrow talks to, commands and kills himself in an approximation of madness which works technically, but doesn’t make a whole load of sense and isn’t funny either. The film alternates long talky segments, characters (like Jack Davenport’s Admiral Norrington) popping up without so much as a by your leave, with frenetic action sequences that are low on coherence but surprisingly high on body count for a ‘family’ film. Indeed, counting up all the strands of the plot, including Elizabeth’s father’s death, the historical romance between Davy Jones and Tia Dalma and the intrigues at the Brethren Court which result in Elizabeth’s anointment as Pirate King, it’s hard to imagine younger children sitting patiently or unquestioningly throughout the near-three-hour running time. The plot becomes clearer on a repeated viewing, but it’s clearly not just me who found parts of it obscure – uniquely (in my collection, anyway), the DVD comes with an FAQ section clarifying bits of the film that the film itself fails to explain.

If this all sounds like a massive downer on At World’s End, I need to qualify the criticism. The script is fine, with a decent smattering of jokes to give some levity to proceedings: even if gags like the telescope envy are strictly there for the benefit of fidgety adults, there are others which come as a very pleasant surprise – I’m specifically thinking of the Pythonesque delivery of ‘And so we shall go to war!’

And even if Depp’s swaggering shtick is running low on inspiration by this third instalment (the multiplicity of Sparrows is really not needed), he benefits massively from the return of Rush’s effortlessly charismatic Barbossa. The problem is, while Barbossa, Sparrow, Davy Jones, Beckett and reliable comic relief Pintel and Ragetti (Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook) are consistently interesting, the film gravitates towards Will and Elizabeth, who improbably become commander of the Dutchman and Pirate King respectively.

Bloom continues to suffer from the problem that his determined voice is little more than a whisper, while Knightley looks ridiculous and her inspirational speech-making voice sounds like a hockey captain corralling a hen party. It’s curious that the film marries them off during the middle of a pitched battle, since their relationship is absolutely the least interesting thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The proof comes in the fact that the emotional responses to events are conveyed for the most part not through Bloom or Knightley, but through Barbossa’s capuchin monkey (R2-D2 performs much the same function in Star Wars).

It’s easy to dismiss Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End as an example of what’s worst about Hollywood film-making; and it’s true that the enormous budget has all gone on sets and effects, much to the detriment of clear, crisp storytelling. However, while it’s too long, too messy and too grim to be thought of as either a good kid’s film or a good film full stop, I can’t join in with the opinion that it’s offensively or evilly bad. It’s just a film apparently made with the knowledge that it was going to rake in the money whether it was any good or not: so why try any harder?