Doctor Who: World Enough and Time – TV Review

After months of anticipation, fevered fan-speculation and increasingly bombastic promos, the first part of the series 10 finale has finally arrived. And not a moment too soon. Although the current run of episodes started promisingly, it feels like the series has been coasting towards the finish line of late, with a few too many fun-but-fruitless episodes that have done little to advance the larger series’ arc.

That’s not an accusation that can be levelled against World Enough and Time, which boasts a Doctor-Missy team-up, the return of a classic Doctor Who foe and the ’surprise’ resurrection of one of the Time Lord’s greatest enemies in an action-packed plot. And yet, while there’s no denying this is one of the most marvellously audacious episodes of recent memory, it still manages to underwhelm, largely because it blew all of its major plot-twists before the episode even aired.

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The opening moments fly by, though. A dramatic foreshadowing of the Capaldi’s upcoming regeneration swiftly swerving into a brisk and breezy sequence where an apparently repentant Missy, with her “disposables” Bill and Nardole in toll, tries to save a ginormous space ship from being sucked into the event horizon of a black hole.

It’s an unexpectedly fun, lighthearted sequence for a series finale, with Michelle Gomez back to her whimsically scathing best as a Doctor-in-training. The scene also boasts some gorgeous CGI work in the realisation of the space ship, which really wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen.

And then, Moffat punches the air out of us by literally blowing a hole through Bill’s chest. In a heart-stopping scene, the Doctor desperately pleas with a trigger-happy crew member who wants to kill Bill before an unseen, human-hunting monster comes to take them all, but he can do nothing to stop the inevitable. Her near-fatal wounding is devastating, exposing the Doctor’s steadily growing recklessness and altering Bill’s relationship with the Time Lord in potentially irrevocable ways.

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It’s here that World Enough starts to falter. We all know Moffat is fond of time-wimey plots with multiple, interlocking timelines and his obsession with the device seriously hampers the story this time. Firstly, we’re ripped away from Bill’s horrific attack for a needless flashback to the Doctor and his companion breezily planning Missy’s training exercise. We then spend the rest of the episode cutting between Bill’s time in the ship’s creepy medical wing and Doctor’s rapid attempts to find her.

Moffat at least gives this structure an intriguing twist where, due to the effect of gravity on time, Bill and the Twelve experience time at different speeds, meaning a minute for the Doctor equates to weeks of waiting for Bill. It’s a neat concept, yet it adds almost nothing to the plot other than taking us away from Bill’s harrowing experiences in the grim doldrums of the ship in order to watch Capaldi repeatedly attempt to explain the science behind the time difference to Missy and Nardole.

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It’s a shame because when it focuses on Bill’s traumatic period waiting for the Doctor to save her, World Enough really soars. The eerie hospital setting, complete with creepy patients robotically shouting out in pain, is fantastically evocative of The Empty Child and director Rachel Talay takes full advantage, utilising creaking door hinges, shadowy hallways, and jump scares to ramp up the fear factor.

Most chilling of all are the Mondasian Cybermen. Faithfully recreated in every detail, these classic man-bun sporting foes are scary as hell, their ghostly masks and human-looking hands making for an unsettling sight. Moffat has also delved deeper into their macabre conversion method to create something that is both disturbing and tragic – you almost feel sorry for these pitiful-yet-petrifying creatures.

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Of course, the Cybermen aren’t the only bad guys in town this week. It’s no secret that John Simm’s maniacal incarnation of the Master is the one who’s really pulling the strings behind the scenes and his big reveal towards the end of the episode is worth the wait. Newly goateed and having ditched the hooded-hobo look from The End of Time, Simm is back to his teasingly machiavellian best, introduced toying with an unsuspecting Missy before gleefully revealing his diabolical plan. It’s a short appearance but it’s one that holds plenty of promise ahead of a fuller outing next week.

The only problem is we see all of this coming.

You don’t need to have obsessively trawled through message boards in search of spoilers to know that the Mondasian Cyberman and the Master feature heavily in this episode – it was right there in last week’s preview trailer. Yet Moffat insists on acting like we have no idea what’s coming, slowly building up to what are intended to be shocking reveals, when in fact we already knew what to expect before the episode even aired.

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It leads to a bizarre scenario where we spend the majority of the episode watching Simm parade around disguised as Bill’s kind hearted friend Mr Razor. Simm is mightily impressive in the role, imbuing Razor with warmth, kindness, and slightly off-kilter charm, but it’s all for nothing. Even most absent-minded viewer wouldn’t need long to work out its Simm hiding behind the mountain of prosthetics. Likewise, Bill’s early demise and subsequent transformation into a Cyberman are so clearly signposted that they lose all impact. World Enough feels like a surprise party where you can see feet poking out under the curtain and your nan’s head peaking from behind the sofa.

On the plus side, with Master back in full flow and Bill trapped in the casing of a Cyberman, the stage is set for a spectacular series finale next week. World Enough got so many things right – the pace, the tone, emotional resonance were all marvellously handled. If only it hadn’t all been spoiled by an over-abundance of pre-publicity, it could’ve been one of finest episode of modern Who. Instead, if feels like one massive missed opportunity.

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light – TV Review

One of the most enjoyable features of Doctor Who’s tenth series has been the old-school vibe brought to many of its episodes – see last week’s 60s-tinged Empress of Mars. It feels fitting, then, that the final standalone adventure of the Capaldi – not to mention Moffat – era should welcome the return of ‘classic’ Who writer Rona Munro, who penned the final episode of the original series. It turns out to be a mixed blessing, however. Though it possesses some intriguing mysteries, breathtaking visuals and a promising monster, The Eaters of Light lacks much of the high stakes energy we’ve come to expect of modern Who and it feels lacklustre as a result.

This week’s reason for the Doctor abandoning his guard of Missy’s vault is the need to settle a history-based spat with Bill. Both have their own theories as to what really happened to the Roman Ninth Legion, who historically disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and so they naturally hop in the TARDIS for a quick trip to second century Scotland to find out who is right. Of course, it’s not long before the time-travelling team find themselves getting involved in the usual interdimensional scrapes. As the Doctor and Nardole find themselves captured by a tribe of hostile Pictish warriors, Bill falls down yet another hole and uncovers a band of surviving Roman soldiers who are hiding from a strange creature that only comes out at night.

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On the surface, at least, the Eaters of Light has all the makings of an entertaining Who episode. It’s a fun, light-hearted and slightly-strange adventure, featuring an enticing conundrum that blends folkloric mysticism with a timey-wimey plot device (the story revolves around a set of Cairn stones that encase a temporal rift). There’s also plenty of sweeping landscapes, with director Charles Palmer (Oxygen) making excellent use of real locations as opposed to the creaky set work we suffered through last week. The themes, too, will be strongly strongly evocative for fans: the futility of battle, the power of fear, and the benefits of working together for a greater good.

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The only trouble is, the story doesn’t pull you to the edge of your seat and get under your skin in the way it should. As with many episodes this series, the Eaters of Light is more than happy to take its time, allowing the mystery to unfold gradually while it digs deeper into the lives of its main characters. The difference this time is that the characters are not particularly interesting. Bill, the Doctor and Nardole aren’t asked to do much beyond their usual roles – although Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas do get to exchange some superb banter, mostly at the expense of the Highland setting (“It’s Scotland, it’s supposed to be damp!”).

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Meanwhile, newcomers Rebecca Benson and Brian Vernel don’t fair much better, with the latter’s Roman solider Lucius only required to pointlessly lust after Bill in another needless reminder of her sexual preference. Benson, in particular, feels like a missed opportunity. Her character Kar, the spirited leader of a Pictish tribe, is put at the centre of an interesting moral quandary, having allowed the monster out of the rift in the hope it would kill the advancing Roman army and save her people. Yet this plot point feels completely underfed because Munro never explores the pressures Kar feels in trying to protect her people or the guilt that is caused by instigating the monster’s mass slaughter.

Apart from a few instances of people poking pointy objects at each other, the episode is also lacking in action to help move the plot along, and it drags as a result. Part of the problem is that the monster is barely a part of the action. A glow in the dark dragon with sentient tentacles, the monster has an impressive, and no doubt expensive, CGI realisation, which perhaps explains its long absences from proceedings. That leaves it feeling somewhat peripheral to the plot, however, and severely diminishes its impact as an enemy to the human race, especially given its motivation seems sketchy at best (apparently it needs to kill all humans so that it can eat stars, or something). Without this basic threat level, there’s a noticeable lack of tension in the plot which is desperately needed to propel proceedings forward.

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Overall, the Eaters of Light offers some intriguing concepts, beautiful exteriors and a few fun character exchanges to enjoy, but it suffers due to an undercooked script that would’ve been greatly aided by fleshing out it’s core characters. Instead, it remains a solid but unspectacular episode that will be swiftly forgotten come the first instalment of series 10’s two-part finale next week.

The Mummy – Film Review

Curse the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ever since a smug Tony Stark and his team of leather-clad meatbags took over the world with an outrageously entertaining series of interlocking movie franchises, studio execs across the multiverse have been racing to kick-start their own interconnected cash cow.

Universal’s The Mummy is just the latest to leap onto the super-powered bandwagon. Aiming to lump together classic movie monsters – Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, Dracula – into what’s been unimaginatively dubbed the Dark Universe, this reboot of a reboot has the unenviable task of delivering a high octane summer blockbuster that can compete with the established heavy hitters while also setting up a whole new world where well-known literary monsters actually exist. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this speedy hatchet job most closely resembles something cooked up in the lab of Dr Jekyll (here played by apparent Ray Winstone impersonator Russell Crowe): a mind-boggling miss-mash of competing personalities that can never work together as a satisfying whole.

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Things start off in promising fashion. Opening with a lively sequence in which Tom Cruise’s Indian Jones-type rogue Nick Morton is found fleeing ISIS gunfire after liberating a precious antiquity from the terror group’s Iraqi stronghold. The grace of a US military airstrike saves Morton from certain death and also uncovers the hidden tomb of Amhanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess buried alive after selling her soul to the evil god Set in return for power.

Despite the obvious warning signs (Amhanet’s tomb is submerged in mercury and guarded by giant spiders), Morton and ambitious archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) extract the sarcophagus and prepare to transport it back to Blighty (lord knows we love a stolen artefact). Naturally, events quickly take a turn for the worst when the plane is bombarded by a swarm of angry crows, causing a crash that seemingly kills Cruise’s character mere minutes into the movie he supposedly leads. And that’s where things start to get really weird…

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The Mummy’s biggest problem is that it can never quite decide what it wants to be. In part, it’s a zombie horror movie, with Boutella’s resurrected queen feeding on unsuspecting humans to regenerate her decomposed body and using her nebulous powers to recruit an army of the undead to aid her ascension to power. But it’s also a brisk and breezy action adventure, complete with plenty of daring set pieces, as Cruise sets about locating a set of mystical McGuffins that will save the world. And most strangely, the plot occasionally veers into vengeful-ex-girlfriend/phsycho-thriller territory as Ahmanet, for reasons unexplained, seeks to use Morton as a replacement vessel to bring Set into the world of the living. Because none of these elements gel together, the movie swings wildly between tones and style, which results in bizarre scenes, such as Tom Cruise debating with an imaginary zombie while stood in the ladies room of a traditional English pub.

It’s Cruise who looks most uncomfortable with this arrangement. We all know he’s well-equipped to play the charming-but-reckless action hero, but his status as the a-typical all-American hero makes it near impossible to accept him as a morally conflicted scoundrel who may well sell out the human race to ensure his own survival. Boutella is a much better fit as Ahmanet. A subtle mix of seductive and deadly, Boutella fully embodies the role of a manipulative, power-hungry empress who’ll stop at nothing to regain power. The only disappointment is that the narrative so often reduces Boutella to a clingy ex-girlfriend as she spend much of her screen time chasing after Cruise in the hope he will help Ahmanet achieve her destiny. Wallis, meanwhile, is lumbered with a rote damsel in distress role, required only to give Morton a reason to reveal his good side.

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It’s not entirely joyless, of course. Director Alex Kurtzman delivers several well-mounted set-pieces – including an underwater escape through the catacombs beneath London that’s breathlessly tense – and there’s a cheeky vein of deadpan humour which prevents proceedings from feeling too po-faced. Yet any momentum that’s been built up comes grinding to a halt when Crowe’s Jekyll, here cast as the untrustworthy head of a secret organisation designed to link the film series together, rocks up to spout endless exposition about Egyptians, the Crusades and some guff about magical McGuffins buried beneath the Jubilee Line. This is the fatal flaw in trying to rush through building a cinematic universe, rather than allowing it to evolve naturally. The entire plot has to stop to allow Crowe to put the action into context. It’s attention-sapping stuff and no amount of Crowe’s cockney-geezer interpretation of Hyde tossing Cruise around like a soggy chew toy can get it back on track.

None of this is necessarily ruinous for the Dark Universe – after all, the DCEU recently overcame a faltering start to deliver one of the most popular blockbusters of the year. And with The Bride of Frankenstein, a Van Helsing reboot and a Johnny Depp-starring Invisible Man movie all looming on the horizon, Universal will have plenty of opportunities to tweak their formula. If they can just figure out what they want this universe to be, there’s plenty of fun to be had in this frightening new world of gods and monsters.

Runtime: 107 mins

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Screenwriters: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kusshen

Stars: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis

Doctor Who: Empress of Mars – TV Review

With the Earth now safe from a zombified dictator-led alternate reality following last week’s conclusion to the Monks trilogy, series 10 of Doctor Who gets back to basics with a largely standalone adventure, Empress of Mars. Featuring rickety sets, a bizarre story involving Victorian soldiers camped on an alien planet, and the return of a classic foe, there’s a charmingly old-school feeling to Mark Gatiss’ latest (and possibly final) Who tale. Fleeting waves of nostalgia aside, though, Empress of Mars is a fairly uneventful episode that tells us very little that we didn’t already know.

A lively opening sequence sees the Doctor and Bill sneak into a NASA control room at the very moment a team of flummoxed scientists are expecting to receive the first communication from a new space probe orbiting Mars. When the images finally download – evidently BT is yet to roll out 4G to neighbouring planets – they discover the message God Save the Queen spelt out in rocks on the planet’s surface. Naturally, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole (who’s presumably given up on trying to keep Twelve within the vicinity of Missy’s vault) hightail it straight the Mars in 1881, the year the rocky SOS first appeared. Upon their arrival, they find things are not quite as they expected: oxygen is freely available, there’s a roaring camp fire and a squad of Victorian soldiers are using a giant space cannon to blast the Red Planet’s innards in search of precious minerals.

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Earlier this week Gatiss described the episode as the kind of thing he’d like to watch on a bank holiday Monday, and there’s certainly something about the Victorians on Mars set-up that feels quintessentially Whovian, almost like it could’ve fallen straight out of the Hartnell or Troughton eras. The retro feel is most definitely felt in the special effects work, which often feels like it was made in the 1960s. Some fancy CGI shots of the Red Planet aside, much of the episode supposedly takes place in a cramped cave below Mars’ north pole, but there’s no escaping the knowing feeling that it’s really just a sound stage in Cardiff. That’s not intended as a criticism of director Wayne Yip, who does an able job with the budget available. A sequence where the Ice Warriors rise up out of the dirt is particularly effective.

Where the dodgy effects work does cause problems, though, is in the design of the Ice Warriors. Cold War wisely took the Jaws approach to making a monster scary in spite of a lacklustre budget, keeping a lone Warrior off screen for as long as possible as he slaughtered the crew of a nuclear submarine from the shadows. Empress of Mars makes the mistake of bringing back the enemy in its full, lumbering glory, and the results are hardly intimidating. Rather than an advanced race of highly skilled invaders, the Warriors look more like someone has slapped a waste paper basket on an extra’s head and told him to walk like he’s got a pole shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. And their new method of offing their enemies, which involves turning their target into a bundle of dirty laundry, looks a lot sillier on screen than Gatiss and Yip probably envisioned.

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Even the introduction of the queen of the species, Adele Lynch’s titular Empress Iraxxa, does little to offset the naffness of the story. Lynch brings an entertaining mix of grace and venom to the role, but the opportunity to bring a female perspective to the species is sadly squandered – she’s really just another war-hungry commander who’s more concerned with swinging her military might around than working towards a peaceful resolution.

The crux of the plot sees the Doctor trying to broker peace between the Victorian army, who are seeking to claim Mars in the name of Queen Victoria, and the Ice Warriors, who had been hibernating on the planet for millennia until the meddling Red Coats rudely woke them from their slumber. There’s potential here to explore the Doctor’s split loyalties between the human invaders and the indigenous species. Yet, much like last week’s episode, which rushed a chance to examine Twelve’s darker side, Gatiss only gives this tension surface-level attention in what feels like a largely weightless adventure.

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It does, however, give Gatiss a chance to take pot shots at Britain’s empirical past. This largely achieved through Ferdinand Kingsley’s delightfully unctuous Catchlove, a smug Victorian solider who appears completely oblivious to the fact that he’s in the wrong and who bellows things like “Don’t belong here? We’re British!” with enough righteous indignation to make Nigel Farage leap to his feet to salute.

After the grand scale and high-stakes drama of the last three episode, Empress of Mars feels like a huge dip in quality, disappointing with its unimpressive special effects, harmless villains and an undercooked script that lets down its main players. This is yet another Gatiss-penned episode that fails to deliver the goods.

Wonder Woman – Film Review

We’re all agreed Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman was the best thing about DC’s dour and dispiriting man-spat Dawn of Justice. Amid all the grim soul searching, moody visuals and bludgeoning SFX work, Gadot’s Amazonian goddess strode into view like an ass-kicking, lasso-whipping electric cello riff in human form to brighten up the darkest of hours for DC’s faltering superhero universe. It’s little wonder there’s been so much excitement and goodwill surrounding Diana Prince’s first solo outing. And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that it’s the first female-led (and, with Monster’s Patty Jenkins behind the camera, female-directed) superhero movie.

Feminist triumphs aside, though, Wonder Woman feels like a missed opportunity. While it’s undoubtedly the best movie of the DCEU thus far, brightening the tone and demonstrating a stronger handle on its core characters, it’s still plagued by many of the issues that have held previous DC movies back: over earnestness, mind-numbing action, and a slogging origin story that’s framed around a messy, wildly preposterous plot.

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Having already been introduced as an experienced, battle hardened warrior in the present day, Wonder winds the clock back to Diana’s picturesque childhood on Themyscira, the hidden island of the Amazons. This tribe of athletic, gold-plated female warriors live in a bubble, protected from the corruption of man, as they prepare for the prophesised return of Ares, the Greek god who plans to wage an endless war to destroy humanity. And then Chris Pine’s charismatic American spy washes up on shore, bringing with him a flotilla of German soldiers, and tells of a horrifying war raging in the outside world. After one of the most bizarre action sequences of modern times – a slow-mo beachfront battle between pirouetting women and gun-totting men – Diana decides to defy her mother’s wishes, stealing her trademark sword, shield and lasso before setting sail for the world of men to stop the war once and for all.

As Diana, Gadot is extraordinary. Dawn of Justice proved she has the youthful athleticism to stand toe-to-toe with Henry Cavill’s Superman and Ben Affleck’s pumped-up Caped Crusader, but Wonder gives her a chance to explore the nuances of an impulsive, idealistic young warrior who has a disarming belief in doing the right thing. Gadot infuses Diana’s sweet innocence with a ferocious defiance that helps to keep the more hokey moments in the script from sounding too goofy. She’s funny, too, especially during the fish-out-of-water scenes in a civilised London where she attempts to tackle a revolving door armed with a shield and sword.

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Using World War I as the backdrop for a highly-stylised action movie might make some people uncomfortable. Yet it allows Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg to explore themes of feminism, oppression and the evil that men inflict upon each other. It also neatly sidesteps the issue of needing to find a villain capable of facing-off against a near-indestructible warrior created by Zeus, by making Diana’s unshakable belief in the power of good the thing that’s tested rather than her physical prowess. Jenkins sensitively captures the devastation of the conflict, bringing a grim tangibility to scenes of wounded soldiers and bloodied refugees trudging though the mud and charred remains of their former lives.

With so many positives here, it’s a shame the movie is hobbled by a clunking, sloppy script. Like Thor, this is supposed to be a story about a naive demigod coming to terms with the harsh realities of the world. Instead, much of the focus is on a clumsy love story between Diana and Pine’s Steve Trevor. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of romance, but its use here only serves to sideline Diana for much of her own movie. With no experience of the modern world, she’s largely useless once we’ve left Themyscira, which means Steve steps into the valiant hero role, leading the mission to stop the war and making the noble sacrifice that saves the world. Diana is essentially his MPDG, using her optimistic innocence to undercut his early cynicism so that he can find his inner hero. It’s hardly a fair dynamic, especially when you consider she has the power to break him like a twig.

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It’s also poorly structured, spending far too much time milling around Themyscira and period-era London despite events there having very little to do with the actual plot – which involves stopping Elena Anaya’s intriguing but underused German scientist and Danny Houston’s military chief using a deadly gas to prevent the armistice agreement. That leaves no time to explore Diana’s world view, which goes unchallenged for much of the movie, as we rush towards yet another weightless, overblown finale where two CGI beings levitate at each other. Wonder Woman might be a Diana Prince-sized leap in the right direction for the DCEU, but it still has a lot to ground to make up if it wants to match the sparkling triumphs of its Marvel peers.

Runtime: 141 mins

Director: Patty Jenkins

Scriptwriter: Allan Heinberg

Stars: Gail Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya, Danny Houston

Baywatch – Film Review

There was hope Baywatch would be another meta-infused, smart-yet-silly TV show remake in the mould of the Jump Street movies. Sadly, this hackneyed reboot doesn’t even come close to matching the admittedly high bar set by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Instead, it takes everything beloved about one of the 90s’ cheesiest guilty pleasures – the stunning beach vistas, mild peril and, yes, bouncing boobs – and drowns them in a tidal wave of confused plotting, clunky one-liners and clanging stupidity.

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One-man charisma machine Dwayne Johnson is our David Hasselhoff surrogate, playing overzealous guardian of the sands Mitch Buchannon, who leads a crack team of impossibly attractive lifeguards tasked with saving lives on what has to be the most dangerous stretch of beach in the world. Needing to repair the division’s public image in order to secure extra funding, Mitch is forced to recruit obnoxious Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced pro-swimmer whose party boy antics earned him the nickname The Vomit Comet (and, yes, he does throw up in this movie. Twice.). Together with the rest of Mitch’s team, who appear so infrequently they’re barely worth a mention, they attempt to take down a nefarious drug dealer who’s responsible for a number of dead bodies that keep washing up on shore.

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The movie is at it’s best when it’s sending up the inherently ridiculous concept of lycra-clad lifeguards fighting crime. A slick opening rescue mission, which ends with Johnson’s Mitch striding out of the ocean, a prone wind-surfer in his arms, as the title splashes down behind him in giant, gaudy letters is the standout sequence; but there’s also some decent gags aimed at the TV show’s signature use of slow-mo and a clever repurposing of actual plotlines for some of the team’s previous investigations. Disappointingly, such zingers are few and far between as the filmmakers seem to be torn between making a whip-smart spoof of the TV show or a more straightforward comedy about the importance of teamwork. It ends up doing neither particularly well.

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Without a clear focus, screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift resort to relying on weak put-downs (“Bath time, shit head.”), boner gags, and occasional attempts at edginess which actually come across as tasteless missteps (“You’re like the Stephen Hawking of swimming, without the paralysis part.”). Don’t expect the story to offer much respite, though. The half-baked plot, which sees Priyanka Chopra’s sultry villainess scheming to privatise the beach so that she can sell drugs in the place she’s already selling drugs, is the kind of sub-CSI gubbins that would barely fill an episode of the TV series, and so inevitably feels overstretched for a two-hour movie. Add to that a bunch of peril-free set-pieces, not-so-surprise cameos from Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson (they’re right there in the opening titles) and obvious plot twists with all-too-easy resolutions, and you’ve got a movie flapping helplessly in the water, without even a lifesaver to cling on to.

Runtime: 116 mins (approx.)

Director: Seth Gordon

Screenwriters: Damian Shannon, Mark Swift

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge – Film Review

It’s easy to forget the unexpected success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Based on a simple theme park ride and starring an uninspiring collection of over-the-hill actors and fresh-faced unknowns, The Curse of the Black Pearl took everyone by surprise, birthing a ginormous franchise with its wildly exhilarating, raucously bonkers tale of double-crossing, yet cheekily heroic, pirates, all powered by a mesmerising lead performance by a resurgent Johnny Depp.

After three sequels of rapidly sinking quality, Salazar’s Revenge is an ambitious bid to recapture some of that anarchic spark and spirit. And while it doesn’t quite reach the swashbuckling heights of the original movie, it’s an exuberant return to form for the long-running series that represents one of the few pleasant surprises during an otherwise dispiriting summer blockbuster season.

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The introduction of some new blood to the cast certainly helps to liven things up a bit. In a snappy and moving pre-credits sequence, we’re introduced to a 12-year-old Henry Turner who’s searching the world for a way to free his father from the curse that has trapped him aboard the Flying Dutchman. We then skip ahead nine years to find a manly Henry locked away in the brig of a burning ship that’s under attack by an army of undead pirates, led by Javier Bardem’s seethingly evil Captain Salazar.

The one-time ruthless pirate hunter forces Henry to help him escape eternal purgatory inside the Devil’s Triangle so that he can seek revenge against the man who put him there: the infamous Captain of the Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow. Desperate to rescue his father from his own curse, Henry instead teams up with spirited astronomer Catrina to save Sparrow and track down the mythical Trident of Poseidon, which has the power to free his father.

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Though the plot recycles many plot points familiar to previous outings – the vengeful villain trapped in a death-like state; the two young lovers from opposite sides of the tracks; a quest to find a magical McGuffin with nebulous powers – it goes about retelling them with an unfettered enthusiasm, adventurous spirit and an imaginative love of nautical-based smut, the kind of which has been sorely missing from the series of late.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who landed the job off the back of their wondrously crafted sea-faring adventure Kon-Tiki, also bring some fresh invention to the action set pieces. Standout sequences include a calamitous bank heist (featuring a bank being dragged through a town by horseback), Depp coming perilously close to being beheaded by a gyrating guillotine, and an unsettling encounter with a school of zombie sharks that’s not nearly as naff as it sounds.

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What a shame, then, that nearly all the main characters also happen to be a bunch a lifeless bodies, fruitlessly thrashing around the water with little hope of making a memorable impact on proceedings. Brenton Thwaites’ Henry is the worst served. Having been framed from the start as the hero of the story, as soon as a rum-addled Sparrow staggers onto the scene he’s swiftly forgotten, along with a potentially moving arc about his lifelong mission to reconnect with his absent father. It’s almost like Thwaites was chosen solely because he’s handsome enough to convince as the fruit of Orlando Bloom’s loins.

In fact, Jeff Nathanson’s script is littered with intriguing plot points that infuriatingly fall by the wayside. Sparrow’s dimming hopes of recapturing his past glories, a newly bling Captain Barbossa’s (Geoffrey Rush) reunion with a lost child, the fumbled love affair between Henry and Catrina all seem to get thrown overboard and are never seen again. There’s even an entire Naval fleet that spends the movie chasing after the various motley crews of duelling pirates for absolutely no reason at all.

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Only Kaya Scodelario’s precocious orphan Carina escapes with any credit. Intelligent, courageous and wilfully belligerent to all those around her, Carina is the real driving force of the movie, dragging to rest of this ragtag band of sorry scoundrels along with her as she cracks the long-held secret of the trident’s hiding place. There are many parallels to be drawn between Carina and Keira Knightly’s Elizabeth Swann – both strong women who break out of a patriarchal society – but the latter was often frustratingly sidelined by Depp and Bloom’s frequent sword swinging contests. Here’s hoping Scodelario doesn’t suffer the same fate in future instalments, her talents are not worthy of such treatment.

Because of this fumbled characterisation, we’re simply not persuaded to invest in what’s at stake for our would-be heroes and the finale feels listless and weightless as a result, with moments of heroic triumphs and emotionally devastating losses failing to have the intended impact.

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And that’s disappointing as it dampens what’s otherwise a triumphant return to form for Pirates of the Caribbean. It might not be the most original effort, but Salazar’s Revenge recaptures much of the simplicity and charm of the first movie, without skimping on the invention and silliness. Although further sequels are by no means guaranteed, even in this era of cookie-cutter follow-ups, there’s plenty on show here to suggest this swashbuckling franchise is far from sunk.

Runtime: 129 mins

Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson

Stars: Johnny Depp, Brendan Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Javier Bardem

Country: USA

Star rating: 3/5