Mesmerised are we! – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), dir: Rian Johnson

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Right where The Force Awakens left off, The Last Jedi picks the story up and introduces yet another episode in the sci-fi extravaganza called Star Wars. Episode VIII lasts two and a half hours and is a rich and highly entertaining addition to the saga.

The Last Jedi encompasses everything a Star Wars fan might desire; immense thrills, nostalgic references, emotionally-charged confrontations, burning questions, haunting doubts, crucial dilemmas, mind-blowing visuals and dynamic characters. It also lacks predictability to the extent where it makes you suspect Rian Johnson purposefully dismissed all the fan theories on the web while putting together the script.

The parallel narratives alternate smoothly and allow enough screen time to both familiar and new characters to develop and fulfil their distinct part in this war. Rey is in constant effort to persuade, Kylo is struggling to make decisions, Luke is learning how to be a better teacher, Leia is fighting for the cause, Snoke is arrogantly manipulating, Poe is leading manoeuvres against the First Order, and Finn is throwing himself in the fire. All the aforementioned span among three main storylines that merge beautifully into one at the end.

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Rey, Kylo and Luke are the main draws of this film, delivering great scenes and triggering the most intense feelings. Scenes of the likes of the red-infested fight where Rey and Kylo join forces is gripping and utterly magnetizing as it combines character study, thrilling dialogue, crucial story developments and impressively choreographed action.

Another would be the visually stunning and aesthetically elegant scene of the aircraft explosion in the speed of light. Similarly, to the opening scenes where Poe is taking initiative in his mission, the CGI effects are tremendous. The scene where Luke gets yet another precious lesson from his wise Master in front of a flaming sacred tree is able to give you goose bumps, for obvious reasons.

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I found particularly intoxicating the narrative device of telepathic connection that Rey and Kylo experience, as we are tantalised with the prospect of a great, unexplained connection between the two and we witness their genuine chemistry, pushing them a little further in discovering their true identity. By using this storytelling trick, Johnson enriches the dramatization of events and laces it with playful humour of wisely calculated dosages. Telepathy however, has never been more erotic and divisive as this one, with exquisite closeups, complete with seductive force and dramatic purpose.

As for the laughs that The Last Jedi provides, they are an invigorating addition to the franchise that has made only dry attempts in the past, and sit brilliantly among the dramatized sequences. Self-deprecating humour reigns here with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) representing a caricature of evil stupidity, Poe (Oscar Isaac) expressing his unquenched passion for blowing up stuff, Rey’s initiation to the Jedi lessons by an impatient Luke, and finally, even with Kylo Ren being overtaken by a vengeful fever that transcends into a ridiculous attack that reveals serious anger management issues.

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Johnson’s script is smart and fresh by delving into his characters’ psyche, adding them layers and taking the story in different directions than the expected. His narrative has an impeccably tight flow, excluding only the ineffectual parts of Finn’s and Rose’s mission to find the Master Codebreaker and that of the Rebels’ internal upheavals around defence strategy. Those scenes lacked the energy and appropriate tension, feeling more like a break from the thrilling action. The reason for this is either that fans are not as invested to the characters involved, or that the anticipation for the film’s narrative backbone, involving the central trio was far too great. However, it’s worth mentioning that Johnson finds the right balance between action and dialogue thus, enabling us to identify with the characters and experience emotions of immense intensity instead of relying to explosions.

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The Last Jedi is a fascinating, galactic ride that is simultaneously broad and personal. It is admittedly a classic fight between good and evil, light and darkness but as Rey quickly perceives, reality sits somewhere in the colourful middle. The film explores the limits of ambition, the tragic consequences of momentary mistakes, guilt’s ability to numb and dominate the spirit, the importance of having a mentor and the traits of a good one, the excruciatingly hard dilemmas and the amount of bravery one needs to face them, the majestic self-sacrificial tendencies of simple people and finally, it explores the idea that vulnerability resides even in the darkest existences.

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Rey’s persistence and strength are effectively communicated in Daisy Ridley’s performance while she is attempting to trace her roots and secure a future for the Resistance. Ridley emits focus, compassion and inspirational strength. However, I find the most moving and emotionally-complex performance belongs to Adam Driver whose expression encapsulates beautifully and painfully the eternal clash between good and evil. Driver’s closeups are haunting and piercing as he powerfully communicates the conflict, the loneliness and the weight his father’s murder had on his soul.

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Admittedly, the last hour of the film is a barrage of action, emotion, betrayal and confrontation with amazing visuals, where even the blood red fighting ground elevates the grandeur of the spectacle, and Joh Williams’s score dresses the dreamlike atmosphere. Apart from the dark, sensual cross-cutting dialogue, what stayed with me afterwards was how compelling and imperative women were to the storyline. It is rare to witness a film that allocates equal dynamism and importance to male and female roles, with the difference that the Last Jedi certainly skewed female.

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Rey is a powerful, smart, loyal and determined person, an admirable survivor and a brave, passionate fighter. General Leia is an established leader and a powerful galactic icon, and Vice Admiral Holdo surprises with her pure, self-sacrificial mission. With Rose, being a fair and brilliant girl who manages to turn a corrupted city upside down and many other Rebel warriors featuring in the film, it’s evident that the Force is with women in Rian Johnson’s vision. Finally, part of this vision is to make clear that you can be a nobody and at the same time the most powerful creature in the galaxy.

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After the film you might book for the next screening, take some time to process the overflow of emotion and spectacle while listening to the atmospheric score, realise how boring white salt is and catch yourself using the word ‘force’ a little too often. Also, you might have dreams about (a shirtless) Kylo Ren sobbing while talking to you about his childhood trauma and inner conflict, or you might dream about Yoda and Poe spending the night in jail after being arrested for arson.

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Thunderous laughter – Thor: Ragnarok (2017), dir: Taika Waititi

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This was such a blast! Laughing out loud throughout and being impressed by the charisma in the air. And… let’s all admit that the film’s poster could not have been any cooler!

Vivid colours, excellent visual effects, classic but effective storyline drawing the battle between good and evil, right and wrong, bravery and cowardice, the old and the new, etc. And all these given under the 70’s rock and electro musical influence that enriches the action scenes with a particular kick-ass dimension. The film’s tone although inspired by almost four decades ago is refreshing and beguiling. The action is tightly connected with transitory scenes that are purposeful in that one can even detect a laconic intention in directing from Waititi.

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There were moments when I felt that Ragnarok is all a comic-book film should be, a feel-good picture that leaves no opportunity for laughter unexploited but importantly so by not crossing the limits to ridicule. Of course, there are also films like Logan that again seem to be the pride and joy of the genre but found on the other side of the emotional scale of course.

There were a few amazing scenes, like the Valkyrie’s memory which is a slow motion, visual effect masterpiece. Valkyries and Hela seem as if they’ve jumped out a painting in an Arts Museum. The opening dialogue between Thor and the Fire Demon Surtur. Anthony Hopkins’ Asgard scene, where he imitates Loki’s lightness of speech and elegance of movement. Scenes shared between Thor and Loki are effortlessly funny and moving thanks to Hemsworth’s and Hiddleston’s chemistry. Thor’s attempts to take Hulk under his influence project childness and playfulness that keeps you interested. Banner’s first scenes after putting Hulk to sleep are pure enjoyment.

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Thor: Ragnarok is one of the funniest comic-book adaptation films, perhaps the second most self-mocking movie of the genre after Deadpool. Breaking the third wall is not necessary here however, with Thor being more than well-known amongst this audience who have countless references to rely on for ample laughter and excitement as it is.

Hemsworth proves himself as a gifted lead man with a surprising flair for comedy that does justice to the brilliantly entertaining dialogues. There’s also a sweetness in the character, his goofiness and comical predisposition are marked by a timid modesty, predominantly seen in the classic Hollywood leads of the likes of Rock Hudson, James Stewart and Cary Grant. The physicality of the part is again, a wonderful achievement: an integral part of how realistic the “strongest of the Avengers” should look like and of course, a great pleasure for us to behold (!)

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Tom Hiddleston puts a great deal of emotional charge in his performance; he plays along with the ridicule and parody of the damaged, competitive and mistrustful relationship of the brothers but at the same time he seems to have decided to delve deep into Loki’s psyche and deliver an exquisitely complex villain (considering the limitations of the nature of the project of course…).

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Cate Blanchett on the other hand, focuses more on Hela’s body language and delivery of lines to establish a powerful and distinct presence in the film. Blanchett’s Hela walks decisively and beautifully, swinging her body softly from side to side like a proud, seductive deer. Make-up and costume contribute massively to her transformation to a slim, elegant, deadly demon with shiny horns and piercing eyes. I caught myself looking forward to seeing her on screen; there was nothing of older roles of hers in Hela, it felt such an original approach.

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And what about Jeff Goldblum? How did he invent a Grandmaster so absurd and at the same time unpretentiously hilarious?! If you ask me, his scenes were amongst the funniest of the entire film; the intonation he delivered his lines with show a precious instinct for comedy while maintaining a certain naturalness. The way he fixes his jacket, the playfulness of his speech and other details composing this persona made me adore his presence on screen and left me wanting more. Incredible he was!

Mark Ruffalo was also a pleasure to watch both as Hulk and Banner; playing two parts with entirely different requirements each, the former being demanding on physicality and the latter accentuating fear and vulnerability.

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After the film you might attempt to imitate Hemsworth’s accent because we all know… Australians are simply the coolest, be tempted to do the “get help” trick with a friend at some point just for fun, stick the phrase “cause that’s what heroes do” after practically everything, you might ponder about what god/goddess you’d be of, would you be a peaceful or a wroth one, what signature costume you’d wear, powers etc., and finally, you might think about Banner’s situation for a second, how it resonates with most of us to some extent and also, trace the triggers that brings out the Hulk in you.

Get wheeled into an intoxicating rhythm; Baby Driver (2017), dir: Edgar Wright

Can you remember the last time you watched a film, got out of the theatre and turned back inside straight away?

That’s what happened to me after Baby Driver; minutes after leaving, I made a 180 degrees turn because I just HAD to experience the whole thing again.  I wanted to imprint every scene in conjunction with its soundtrack in my memory, grasp every detail in the performances, and essentially enjoy myself on repeat. Baby Driver is a fascinating and magically entertaining motion picture that captivates the audience with its caricature characters and stylised micro-settings. Music is employed as a narrative mechanism that is equally a recipe for infectious joy and excitement.

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The first scene is an excellent example of Wright’s incredible directing style: Baby is lip-singing Bellbottoms (performed by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) while waiting for the gang to wrap up the robbery, get into his red Subaru so that an impressive and thrilling car-chase can start. This particular set-piece is masterfully choreographed and quickly gives away that Baby Driver in a few decades time will be surely enlisted in the classics.

Scenes are not merely dressed with the appropriate songs but they are purposefully designed to match their rhythm and intensity. Wright’s brilliant concept makes his film particularly powerful for everyone; just count the times you’ve attached everyday moments to particular songs and swayed to their melody by improvising scenes that resembled music videos, or the times you replayed memories while enriching them with song that could turn them into perfectly synchronised musical settings.

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Baby Driver is an amalgam of crime, violence, romance, action, thriller, drama, dark comedy, and musical and therefore, it constitutes a genre in itself. The music score is in complete harmony with every movement and sound in the scenes, in a way that music and narrative are inextricably linked.  Instead of being disorienting, Baby Driver’s musical flow bizarrely adds to its structure and storytelling goals. And it is precisely thanks to its fluidity and multi-sensory richness that it makes you crave re-watching the scenes in order to catch things you might have missed the first time.

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Baby Driver is a stylish hybrid dipped into American aesthetics; it reflects modern pop-culture through the lens of cult classics hence, notably resembling Tarantino in the ‘90’s (minus the explicit, blood- infested violence) but at the same time, it feels old-fashioned in its details, by presumably drawing inspiration from the classic Hollywood era (as indicated by the B& W day-dreaming scenes with Baby and Debora).

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the assembly of amazing and memorable supporting characters. They’re all conceived in a way that they fall into stereotypes, yet they gloriously leave their distinctive cinematic print thanks to Wright’s witty dialogues and the cast’s remarkable performances.

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Buddy and Darling represent a more evolved and sexy version of Bonny & Clyde, in that they are partners in life and in crime. Eiza González presents Darling, a seductive and vengeful thief who is also, a jewel and bubble-gum enthusiast and thankfully, doesn’t disappear under a clichéd and decorative depiction of the femme-fatale in crime films. Jon Hamm portrays her other half, Buddy who is a relatively warm, easy-going guy with a distinctive deep voice and sarcastic grim. The plot’s turn in act three gives Hamm the opportunity to branch off the attractive, macho man persona and dive into raging insanity.

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Griff’s (Jon Bernthal) frustration towards Baby’s attitude spurs a comical monologue that balances a humorous teasing against a bleak warning. Jamie Foxx as Bats is intense and funny but transmitting a very unsettling and dangerous vibe though his maniacal and dry gaze. Kevin Spacey stays faithful to a cold, distant and almost robotic portrayal of Doc, only for his unintentional paternal instincts to be revealed towards the film’s epilogue, triggered by his emotional vulnerability towards true love.

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Lily James gives us a Debora that can be easily adored thanks to her evident beauty and graceful personality that is conveniently subtle and discreet enough only to support and trigger Ansel Elgort’s lead performance as Baby (with whom she also has great chemistry). Elgort feels natural and spontaneous on-screen and ticks all the right boxes as he convincingly appears tender (especially when caring for his foster dad), romantic and innocent but also, fearless and brave.

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After the film you might want to watch it again (yeah, it’s that good!), wear your sunglasses all day & night, talk less, make your own playlists that match with specific memories or people, you might seriously consider it’s high time you fell in love (again?), exceed speed limit (and potentially get a speeding fine too), contemplate what kind of illegal activity would suit you best and finally, come up with a cool nickname for your criminal alter-ego.

 

Tunes, feelings and colours; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 (2017), dir: James Gunn

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One thing’s for sure; James Gunn knows how to capture our fantasy and engage us with laughs and effortless cuteness right from the opening credits. Baby Groot’s dance number is performed in a CGI celebration of colour, humour and music, and sets you in the right mood for the adventure you’re about to witness.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is great fun thanks to the striking visuals, the chemistry among  the  cast and  also, because the action plays on character development by taking advantage of everyone and splitting screen time almost equally. And so the diverse gang that protects the Galaxy returned with Vol.2 to bring a spectacle of robust CGI scenes, a breadth of feelings and clever, well-written dialogues that respect the characters evolution. Needless to say I loved the film because in its plot’s simplicity and predictability, it’s a fun ride to yet another strange and fun Marvel Universe.

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Michael Rooker delivers a memorable performance as the blue-skinned buccaneer Yondu. He is a man of multiple layers and that makes him incredibly relatable and likeable. Yondu’s biggest mistake was to betray the trust of his fellow Ravagers which leaves him exiled by their community and utterly hurt, regretful and tormented. Nothing compares to the effect on the audience when a crude and shielded character unveils his emotions and unspoken truths, by revealing where his heart truly lies and by seeking redemption by all costs.

Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the empathic sole companion/habitat of Ego is fresh, funny, sweat and surprisingly strong. Her flourishing friendship with Drax is heart-warming and amusing. Bradley Cooper does once more great voice work with Rocket, the piece-of-work modified raccoon whose wild nature and bad temper tries the patience of his friends. The scene where Yondu confronts his trouble-making nature and pushes him to admit his vulnerabilities is impactful and memorable.

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The film has weaknesses like any other; every time Chris Pratt, the Star-Lord himself delivers a line on a dramatic tone, I find it funny, I can almost see him smile while yelling at his Ego-maniac father, or blaming Gamora for not being a supportive friend, or freaking out over Rocket’s theft… I simply can’t take him seriously. Although, I understand the rationale behind casting him as Peter Quill, I believe he is a comedy actor who fails drama, as it was recently proved in Passengers (2016). In addition, Guardians Vol.2 doesn’t achieve the laughs of its predecessor, with sarcastic hints and jokes that are dragged for too long and were not that funny to begin with, e.g. the Taserface teasing that had the whole crew bursting in tears of laughter (?), Drax’s share of funny comments (nope…), etc.

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Speaking of striking scenes, I believe the film gives one of the most colourful and heart-breaking funerals in cinema. Baby Groot’s torture and subsequent mission serves laughter upon tears, Yondu’s revenge is diabolically satisfying, Nebula (Karen Gillan) sharing her plans with Kraglin (Sean Gunn) is oddly devastating and funny and finally, Yondu’s ascend to space with Peter in his arms draw the simplicity of love and silence. Also, Groot (Vin Diesel) is the most adorable, one-sentence speaking, constantly teary-eyed wooden baby ever created and I feel constantly manipulated by how this little cute twig makes me feel…

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Guardian’s USP consists of the stunning spectacle of colourful visuals along with incredible 70’s mixed tapes that mark the action and inner dialogues. The film also emphasises the absolute need for respect to diversity and explores the concept of family, by placing friends as surrogates in the absence or incompetence demonstrated by blood-relations.

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After the film you might listen to Fleetwood Mac’s anthology, put on your most colourful outfits, think how cool it would be to be blue, green or purple (or any other skin tone of crazy colours and shapes you can imagine), try to imitate the way Mantis and Yondu talk and finally, think of the “crazy shit” you would built if you were a half-Celestial.

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales/ Salazar’s Revenge (2017), dir: Rønning and Sandberg

 

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Low expectations had already infested my mind when I entered the theatre to watch the fifth film of one my most beloved franchises. I fell in love with the first film in 2003, watched it countless time and dreamed of white shores, boats, rum and crazy, lowlife companions. I liked the second and third but they didn’t quite live up to the fun and the thrills of the original. As to the fourth film, we can all pretend it never happened. Coming now to the fifth time that Jack Sparrow’s adventures are brought to the big screen, I have to tell you it’s a film worth watching if like me, you follow the characters since the beginning. Being a loyal fan, you will be able to experience all the breadth of emotions, laughs and victories with the characters along the way. 

Salazar’s Revenge is directed by the Norwegians Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, known for their Academy Award-nominated high sea film Kon-Tiki who managed to bring back some of our favourite elements of the first films, mostly their simplicity and humour. There were also many artful shots that reflected their expertise in using water as the perfect setting for creating engaging visuals.

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The plot lacks twists, the alliances formed are easily-followed and the ending although predictable is source of pure joy for fans. There is a new ‘couple’ of course, Elizabeth’s and Will’s son, Henry Turner, played by Brenton Thwaites and the accused-of-being-a-witch astronomer Carina Smyth, portrayed by Kaya Scodelario both of whom do a great job, being fresh, witty, and convincing by setting the right tone of romance, friendship and rivalry. 

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Captain Hector Barbossa, my personal favourite, is in a fantastic state of wealth and sea-domination when Jack’s past sins take a toll on him too, being a pirate and all… Geoffrey Rush is once more an absolute master of the art, and revives a character that has shown multiple layers through the series. In Dead Men, his devotion and protecting nature emerges once more and not only for his beloved Black Pearl. His signature laughter and scornful grimace can rightfully compete with Depp’s zigzaggy and rock n’roll persona. 

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Speaking of which, if there was one thing I didn’t feel as familiar here that was Jack Sparrow! Bizzarely, he felt heavy and tired, as if he was reluctantly awaken in the middle of a good dream and went along with the action only because there was no other choice (just like in his actual opening scene in the film). What I mean is that there wasn’t much passion in the performance that the teasing and cunning look he delivered every sentence with in the past is missing here. Perhaps it was intentional, as part of the character’s development and in order to reflect his downfall given that he hits bottom when in the absence of the Pearl, his crew and his rum, he trades his once most precious possession after his ship, his magic compass. 

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Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem) is a dark, tormented and merciless figure that has been consumed by hate all his life and all his death! Salazar and his crew, who have fallen victims of a curse – just like Barbossa and his own in the Curse of the Black Pearl – that turned them into ghosts and kept them trapped in the Devil’s Triangle and we all guess who was the culprit… Having read reviews that accused the film of being overly surrealistic, I expected outrageous additions to the Pirates’ universe however; I found more similarities to the first film than contradictions. If surrealism and fantasy is not your cup of tea and you expect an accurate depiction of pirate life then I suggest you not to watch it or if you do, to not criticise the film for not being something that it has never pretended to be! The whole franchise is based on mythology, magic, curses and monsters. In my case, it was only the fish-like crew of the Flying Dutchman that seriously challenged my aesthetics and posed a threat to identification with the character of David Jones, as it was simply too hard to see the man beneath the mollusc. However, it didn’t feel far-fetched because I’ve embarked on the adventure with the Pirates on a ship of skeleton-looking fellas under the moonlight, admitting there were supernatural creatures in the unknown sea…

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Salazar’s Revenge is an entertaining vision with memorable bits, including the bank robbery attempt, finding the stunningly sparkly island where Poseidon’s trident lies, hearing the tale from Salazar’s mouth and all the ending scenes basically (yes I cried, so what?!). It is also rich in funny moments, like when Jack encounters the very French guillotine, when Carina is trying to explain to pirates that she is an astronomer and a horologist, when Jack is brought into a horrifying marital engagement etc. 

Love of many kinds is touched upon again in the franchise: the father – son/daughter bond and sacrificial nature of the relationship, friendship, romance, and of course the love for the sea/freedom and for the beauty that captured both Jack’s and Hector’s heart, the Black Pearl. 

The ending brought me tears because I’m soft, a sucker for romance, sacrifices, reunions, and that signature score of the Pirates of the Caribbean that is embedded in my brain and brings about strong emotions every single time it touched my ears without fail. 

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After the film, you might want to watch once more your favourite Pirates of the Caribbean film (chances are it’s The Curse of Black Pearl), start counting the stars, you might develop an interest about astronomy, have a drink with rum, say “hombre” with unprovoked hostility, call your dad to declare your love for him and fantasise that your next holiday will involve a boat.