Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Ghost Pirates and Zombie Sharks

Disney captured lightning in a bottle in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The movie defied all expectations for a movie based on a theme park ride and was a hit with critics and audiences alike. It made a ton of money and even earned Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Now, fourteen years later, we are on the fifth installment of the franchise that started out so well but quickly succumbed to blockbuster bloat.

I don’t think the Pirates sequels are as bad as their reputation suggests. They’re deeply flawed and none of them quite managed to recapture the magic of the first movie, but there are things I like about them. My least favorite is the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, which suffered from lackadaisical pacing, an inconsequential plot, and what I felt was a lack of exciting action. Fortunately, the new movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is livelier than its immediate predecessor, although unsurprisingly it still has its share of flaws. It does have the good sense to be shorter than the previous films, and at just over two hours it is the shortest film in the entire series, so at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Image: Disney

Let’s talk about Johnny Depp for a second. His portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the first movie was instantly iconic, and for all the issues the subsequent films had, Depp’s performance was not one of them. But in this movie, it feels less like Depp playing Jack Sparrow than Depp playing a guy playing Jack Sparrow. He’s become a caricature of himself. Remember Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder saying “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude”? It’s kind of like that. Depp had a way of purring his lines in the earlier films, and made the viewer think that he was always thinking several steps ahead, despite also appearing constantly inebriated. But in the latest film, he squeaks every line and is mostly a cartoonish buffoon. It’s hard to take him seriously as a protagonist anymore.

But on the plus side, I loved the villains in this movie. Javier Bardem, always an excellent choice to play a villain, plays Capitan Salazar, the spectral captain of a ship full of ghost pirates. The ghost pirates are extremely cool, and some of them are even missing body parts. These ghostly villains were the highlight of the movie for me, and Bardem in particular is fantastic. It’s not too surprising that Bardem steals the movie, since he neatly ran away with Skyfall and No Country For Old Men as well. Capitan Salazar is incredibly menacing, and his hair and parts of his costume appear to float around him, as if he were constantly underwater. He has history with Captain Jack and a deep hatred of all pirates, and doesn’t hesitate to kill whoever and whenever he wants. He and his crew can walk on water and unleash ZOMBIE SHARKS, which is a new one for this franchise.

Image: Disney

The rest of the plot revolves around a quest for the Trident of Poseidon, and if you rolled your eyes at that, I don’t blame you. In addition to Captain Jack and the Ghost Pirates (which would be a good name for a rock band), there are a few new characters in the mix. One is a young man named Henry, played by Brenton Thwaites, and saying his character’s last name would give away a major plot point, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to find the Trident, which has the power to end all sea-related curses and gives its wielder power over the sea itself. There’s also a young woman named Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, a woman of science whom everyone thinks is a witch because she’s so smart.

The new characters are a bit bland, the actors’ performances are fine but there’s nothing really special about them. But it’s always fun to see Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa, the once-undead, once-actually-dead, once-evil, now-good former captain of the Black Pearl. Times have been good for Barbossa, he commands a fleet of ships and his flagship is adorned with golden skulls. His long, curly hair makes him look quite a bit like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, but Rush looks like he’s having the most fun out of anyone in the movie.

There is no shortage of creative action in the movie, which made me happy since the previous film, On Stranger Tides, didn’t have as much action as I would have liked, and what action it did have was played mostly for laughs. This movie is more engaging and moves more smoothly than the third and fourth movies, despite Depp’s bizarre performance and the somewhat cliched plot. It also fixes one of the biggest issues I had with the resolution of the third movie, At World’s End, although to say more would spoil it. But I am glad that the filmmakers resolved this plot point, since it always bothered me.

Dead Men Tell No Tales has its share of issues, but there’s fun to be had, and Captain Jack still has some tipsy adventures left in him. There’s a post-credits stinger that teases the possible return of a villain from the previous movies, so if this one makes enough money maybe we’ll be seeing him again, even though that wouldn’t make any sense from a plot standpoint. But it wouldn’t be the first time the series has brought previously-dead villains back to life, so who knows. In the meantime, I like to think the zombie sharks are still out there…

Image: Disney

Advertisements

Alien: Covenant – Slimy Aliens and Multiple Fassbenders

Alien: Covenant is a tricky film to write about. It seems like every review I read spoiled vast swathes of the film’s plot, which ticked me off to no end because the details of the film’s plot were kept mostly under wraps in the time leading up to its release, and to see reviewers casually giving away huge plot points struck me as flippant and disrespectful to people who want to go into the movie knowing as little as possible. In response to this, I am going to give away as little as possible. I will describe basic details of the film’s setup, which could be considered to have some minor spoilers, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.

Alien: Covenant is Ridley Scott’s follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus, his previous foray into the Alien franchise he started in 1979 with the original Alien film. Prometheus was a controversial movie among fans of the franchise. Some people loved it, others passionately hated it. I liked it overall, even though it was profoundly flawed in some areas. Fortunately, Scott and his screenwriters seem to have listened to people’s criticisms about Prometheus, and Covenant delivers a tighter, more contained story that answers some of the lingering questions from Prometheus while still leaving room for interpretation and further entries in the franchise.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Let me just say that this movie has a whopper of an ending, which I loved. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it, but man, it’s a doozy. It provides closure to the film while paving the way for future sequels, which Scott says are coming. God bless the man, he’s nearly 80 years old and is still making smart, intense, gorgeous-looking sci-fi movies. Scott has said he wants to start filming the next one in 2018, so expect more slimy alien horrors in the future. Oh joy!

Covenant follows the doomed crew of the spaceship Covenant, on a colonization mission to a distant, habitable planet. En route, they pick up a transmission from a closer planet, which also appears habitable. It’s risky, but they decide to investigate. Very Bad Things happen to them. That’s all I will say about the plot.

One thing that frustrated audiences about Prometheus was that it never fully committed to being an Alien movie. Was it an Alien movie or wasn’t it? Scott and his screenwriters couldn’t seem to decide. Alien: Covenant, as befitting its title, is definitely an Alien movie. The titular aliens, the terrifying xenomorphs (although they aren’t called that in this film), are very much present, and they are terrifying.

Everything about xenomorphs scares me. Not only how they look, which is scary enough, but what they do to you is just upsetting, and sets them apart from other famous horror-movie antagonists. Sure, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers will kill you, but a quick knifing or decapitation-via-machete is vastly preferable to the protracted, painful, humiliating ordeal a xenomorph will put you through.

It’s a testament to how good H.R. Giger’s original design of these aliens was when you realize how little their appearance has changed over the years. The xenomorphs in this film were created with motion-capture and CGI rather than the practical effects of the earlier films, which may annoy some hardcore fans of the franchise, but when the aliens look as good as they do in this film, the CGI doesn’t bother me. The slithery, hissing monstrosities are as frightening as ever.

Image: 20th Century Fox

And they are taking no prisoners. Covenant is a far more graphic film than Prometheus, which is saying something when you consider that Prometheus is a film in which the main character had an alien slug monster surgically removed from her abdomen. This movie is so bloody that at one point people actually slip and fall in the pools of viscera on the floor. Sir Ridley’s not messing around with this one, folks.

But what of the humans who have these graphic horrors inflicted upon them? I found them to be more likable than the buffoons from Prometheus. I didn’t hate every character in that movie, but they did do some really stupid things, and Covenant has less groan-inducing characters. There are a couple of moments where you think “DON’T DO THAT YOU IDIOT” but the same could be said of any scary movie. The scene-stealer is Michael Fassbender, who, without revealing too much, plays two roles, and in some scenes acts with himself. Fassbender gives both of his characters distinctive voices and body language, so the viewer can distinguish between the two of them…most of the time.

The rest of the cast is also good. Katherine Waterston plays Daniels, the main character, and she’s very likable even if her character isn’t as fierce as Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley. I admire Waterston for having the courage to take the role and make it her own while knowing that she would inevitably be compared to Ripley, one of the greatest sci-fi protagonists of all time, male or female.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Alien: Covenant is a great-looking film. I’ve already talked about how good the creatures look, but the environments are also stunning, both on the Covenant in space and on the ground on the mysterious hostile planet. Ridley Scott has been directing movies for about five decades, and he knows how to make every shot in his films feel unique and give the viewer something new to look at. The movie does have one of the same issues the Star Wars sequels had, in that the technology in the film appears much more advanced than the technology in the original films, even though the new films are prequels that take place chronologically before the originals. It’s not a huge issue, but it is noticeable in comparison to the original movies.

Alien: Covenant is not a perfect film, but I think it’s an improvement over Prometheus. Covenant suffers from a few similar issues that plagued its predecessor, but to a lesser extent. It delivers the gore and the heart-pounding intensity that fans have come to expect from the series, and it’s a worthy entry to the Alien franchise.

Le Cinema de WTF: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie is his own worst enemy. He’s not a terrible director, he knows how to film an adrenaline-pumping action scene. But his movies are so overwhelmingly stylized that any artistic merits his films have are mostly drowned out by all the weird stuff he piles on top, and his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is no exception.

Image: Warner Bros.

On the one hand, you almost have to admire the guy (so to speak). Ritchie clearly has a way of making movies that he likes, and he sticks to his guns. But the fatal flaw with this approach is its hubris: Ritchie doesn’t seem to realize that just because he thinks something is cool, doesn’t mean everyone who watches his movies will think so too. Never is this more apparent than with his take on the King Arthur myth, which is hands-down the most aggressively bizarre cinematic experience I’ve had all year. Heck, maybe ever.

Here are just a few of the weird and/or crazy things in this movie. Giant animals (bats, rats, snakes, elephants, wolves, eagles). Demonic hell knights. Tentacle…witches, I guess? People with cockney gangster names like Goose Fat Bill and Flat Nose Mike. Slow-mo swordfights. Hyperactive, spastic editing. A completely bonkers plot. Nary a shred of plot cohesion or character development. In short, it’s a mess, a $175 million wannabe blockbuster that is the first major flop of the year, earning a paltry $15 million domestically in its opening weekend.

So what’s the plot, such as it is? Well, the movie opens with a battle scene featuring the aforementioned giant elephants, which are more akin to the huge elephant creatures in The Lord of the Rings than actual elephants. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon defeats the elephants and the army accompanying them by killing their leader, a mage named Mordred, with the mystical powers of the sword Excalibur. And if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, Mordred wasn’t a mage, he was the product of Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister,” then you would be right. This is the first sign that Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have little to no resemblance to previous versions of the story.

Following this, Uther’s devious brother Vortigern stages a coup, and Uther and his wife are killed by a demonic-looking knight with a skull face, flaming cape, and double-bladed scythe. This guy looks like something from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a Dark Souls boss. During his father’s battle with the Dark Souls boss, young Arthur gets in a boat which floats away, Moses-like, down the river where he eventually is found and taken in by prostitutes. There follows a rapid-fire montage of Arthur growing up rough in the streets of “Londinium” (was there ever such a place?), being raised by prostitutes, learning to fight and getting punched in the face a lot. As one might imagine, being raised in a brothel and getting face-punched a lot turns Arthur into a tough, scrappy adult. He is eventually forced to flee Londinium, ends up drawing Excalibur from the stone, and joins the resistance against the evil king Vortigern.

Image: Warner Bros.

This is definitely a fantasy movie, and is not intended to be historically accurate. That much is apparent from the very first scene, and I’m fine with that. The movie doesn’t pretend to be “Based on a True Story” or anything like that, which is good because if it did claim to be based on a true story that would obviously be nonsense. I’m still annoyed that the 2003 King Arthur movie had the audacity to claim it was “The Untold True Story Behind the Legend” when it was nothing of the kind.

And I’m fine with this being a fantasy movie, because King Arthur stories have many elements of magic and mysticism. The problem with the fantasy elements in Ritchie’s film is that they make no sense. For example, Vortigern has this weird cavern under his tower. When we first see the cavern, a mass of tentacles emerges from the water, which unravel to reveal three women. Two of them are kinda hot, the third is massively fat. What the hell are these things? I guess they’re witches of some kind? The movie never explains what these things are, and they end up feeling arbitrary.

This is a movie where things just kind of…happen. There’s no real sense of conflict, and the supporting characters, despite being played by capable actors, are underdeveloped. Jude Law makes for a fun bad guy as Vortigern, and Charlie Hunnam is a charismatic Arthur. But despite having two good lead actors, the movie never really sells the rivalry between them. It also doesn’t help that Vortigern has to be at least 20 years older than Arthur, but Law doesn’t look much older than Hunnam at all. This could be because Hunnam is 37 and Law is 44. But aside from this discrepancy, the movie never gives a reason to care about the story. I like Hunnam as an actor and I liked his portrayal of Arthur, but I wasn’t invested in the story.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie also has editing issues. You’ve probably seen movies where people talk about doing something, then the movie cuts to the people doing the thing they’re talking about, then it cuts to them talking, then doing, and so on. This can be an effective technique when used properly. Think of a heist film, where we see the heist being planned out and executed step-by-step. This is good because it helps the viewer understand what’s going on, but Ritchie uses this editing technique when there’s really no need to, and as a result parts of the film are unnecessarily choppy.

I don’t hate this movie. It’s a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one, and it’s so full of crazy that it’s never boring. The acting is solid, the photography and special effects are good, and there are some fun action sequences. But ultimately it’s baffling. I would put this movie right up there with The Lone Ranger and Suicide Squad as one of the most bizarre blockbusters I’ve ever seen. But at least it’s more playful than other dour swords-and-sandals epics, such as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood or Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is a work of vision, even if it just so happens to be a completely demented vision.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Never Break the Chain

Thank God for James Gunn. In an era of grim and gritty superhero movies, here is a guy who looks at that and says, “let’s have some fun.” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn’s sequel to his original Guardians of the Galaxy which was a hit in the summer of 2014, is finally here, and I am pleased to report that it is every bit as joyously fun as its predecessor.

Image: Marvel/Disney

I won’t say too much about the plot, since I generally try to avoid spoilers for brand-new films. But I will say that the story involves the mysterious parentage of Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. I loved the film’s plot, it provided closure to lingering questions and did a great job of incorporating all the characters and making them feel necessary and vital. There are quite a few characters in the movie, and movies with such an abundance of characters sometimes struggle to make all of them feel important. Not the case with this movie, which manages to take Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, Baby Groot, Nebula, and Yondu and make them all vital parts of the story, while also adding a few new characters. This is not an easy feat, but Gunn’s clever screenplay makes it look easy.

All of the things audiences loved about the original are here: the memorable characters, the eye-popping visuals, the humor, and the rockin’ soundtrack. The music is a vital part of the Guardians movies. Where else will you find epic spaceship battles accompanied by 70’s pop hits? Gunn’s movies are unlike other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in the best possible way. They’re playful and irreverent, while still delivering the thrilling action and emotional beats that make the best Marvel movies so enjoyable.

But let’s return to the soundtrack for a moment. I love the way Gunn incorporates the music into these films, and I think I liked the soundtrack in this movie even more than the first one. Every song fits perfectly, and many of them carry thematic significance, such as the Fleetwood Mac song that gives this post its subtitle. Gunn clearly put a lot of thought into which songs to use, and where in the film to use them, and he even manages to make a few of them part of the plot. By contrast, Suicide Squad is a recent example of a movie that tried to emulate Gunn’s excellent use of music, but didn’t do it nearly as well.

I would say that the movie is not quite as good overall as its predecessor, but just barely. The new film is a bit more cluttered and is slightly overstuffed. But this is a minor complaint, as it is still a heck of a lot of fun. It’s also a gorgeous movie to look at, and there is a wide variety of planets and environments that our misfit heroes’ adventures take them to, as well as many kinds of alien races and creative vehicles and weaponry, so there is no shortage of eye candy.

Image: Marvel/Disney

The cast has great chemistry, and Dave Bautista as Drax deserves a special shout-out. Who knew that a former pro wrestler could be so damn funny? Drax gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie, and this is a movie with a lot of laughs. Gunn’s Guardians films are easily the funniest Marvel movies, and the humor never feels forced. It doesn’t feel like there are jokes just for the sake of comic relief, the humor is a natural part of the story and the characters. This is also one of the more trippy Marvel movies, only Doctor Strange can come close to it in terms of psychedelic visuals, particularly during the lengthy final battle.

And oh, how I love Baby Groot. I need to go on Amazon and see if there is like, a plush Baby Groot or something that I can get, because that would make me so happy. Not only is Baby Groot adorable, but he also gets to help save the galaxy, so he’s not there just for the sake of being cute and/or funny, although he is definitely both of those things. When he gets caged by space pirates and they’re being mean to him, I spent the whole scene thinking “LEAVE BABY GROOT ALONE!!” One of my favorite lines comes when one space pirate asks the space pirate leader “Can I squish it with a rock?” and the leader replies, “No, Jeff, it is too adorable to kill!” (Some of my other favorite lines include “Die, spaceship!” and “You suck, Zylar.”) And of course there is Groot’s immortal catchphrase, “I am Groot,” which can mean anything at all. The film’s characters are all great but Baby Groot is my favorite.

Image: Marvel/Disney

And let us not forget that this is a movie with a lot of heart. We learn more about the characters and their relationships and backgrounds, and everything we learn feels meaningful, and is often quite touching. Gunn is able to deftly balance the emotional beats with the humor and the big action scenes, and somehow the tone of the film still feels consistent. There’s so much going on in any given scene that in a lesser director’s hand it could all fall apart, but once again Gunn makes it look easy. Gunn is such a surehanded director that it’s hard to believe this is only his fourth directorial feature. I hope the success of Guardians will lead to him getting more directorial gigs in the future, in case you couldn’t tell, I love this guy.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 delivers everything you want from a summer blockbuster. It’s smart, funny, well-directed, action-packed, and full of memorable characters. I could spend a lot more time going into details of specific scenes that I loved, but that would mean describing more or less the entire movie, and we don’t have all day. But suffice to say that I loved it, and I’m confident that you will, too. Also, be sure to stay all the way through the credits, because not only are there a whopping total of FIVE post-credits scenes, but the end credits also have several other little Easter eggs that are fun to look for. So go see it, have fun, and remember, I AM GROOT!