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The Grinch (2018)

The second go at a twenty-first century feature-length Grinch movie is a thoroughly, spectacularly bland movie. This mediocre enterprise barely stretches to feature length at 86 minutes and it lacks the charm of the original Dr. Seuss cartoon. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green recluse with his three-sizes-too-small heart set on stealing the Christmas celebration of others. That’s great casting, but why is he settling for his Doctor Strange-style American voice? The man has such a natural, rich, velvety voice. Another miscue is the fact that this Grinch isn’t really feared by the people of Whoville. He lives just outside of ton and isn’t really that mean. He’s less a villain and more just a grumpy sad guy who has to over explain everything for the audience to understand (“I thought stealing Christmas would make me feel better, but really I was running from myself…”). This movie is brightly colored and nicely animated but it’s strictly just for little kids. The lessons are pretty simplistic. The characters are mostly annoying, precocious, or mute. The humor is mostly slapstick. There is nothing to engage bigger thinkers. This Grinch movie actually made me start re-evaluating the 2000 Ron Howard version, which at least tried something and had an enjoyably hammy Jim Carrey performance with some creepy good makeup prosthetics, and I didn’t even like that movie. The new animated Grinch film is inoffensively lackluster. At best it’s a disposable 90 minutes to distract easily distractible children and give mom and dad time for a nap.

Nate’s Grade: C

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A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

A Wrinkle in Time is based on a beloved children’s classic published in 1961. It’s directed by Ava DuVernay, who was responsible for Selma, one of the best films of 2014. There’s a reason that Marvel offered her the directing gig for Black Panther. This film has big names, a big budget, and big talent behind the camera with a focus on upping the inclusion at the Mouse House… so why is the movie so unfortunately awful? A Wrinkle in Time is one of the worst experiences I’ve had in a theater. I was so thoroughly unattached that I started questioning how something this bad was so beloved for decades by different generations of, what I must now assume, children with terrible taste.

Meg (Storm Reid) is a teenager still dealing with the pain and anger from the four-year disappearance of her father, Mr. Murry (Chris Pine). He was a scientist trying to discover a new form of space-time travel powered by… love, I think. Mrs. Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is stuck trying to rear he troublesome daughter and Meg’s adopted little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Then one day they and Meg’s crush, Calvin (Levi Miller), are visited by a trio of strange, powerful (aliens? witches? fairies? spirits?) women: Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). They inform Meg and company that they know where her father is. They must travel the universe to save him, battle the source of negativity, The It (no relation to Stephen King), and maybe learn a thing or two about accepting one’s true self, faults and all.

Oprah as Dragonball Z?

A Wrinkle in Time is simultaneously over complicated and meaninglessly shallow. I was baffled throughout the entirely of its near two-hour running time trying to make sense of anything. The story felt like it was written by computer that had been programmed with the scraps of genre storytelling as an exercise. There is no real internal logic that holds everything together, which makes every moment feel arbitrary. The story also lacks another vital aspect every fantasy movie needs — clarity. The goal is for the kids to find and rescue Mr. Murry, but every step leading to this goal feels unclear. Scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment, you don’t have any clue how what they are doing will lead them any closer to achieving this goal. Every scene just asserts itself, and then something happens, and then something else happens, and then it’s done. Hey one minute the kids are going to talk with flowers because, for whatever reason, they’re the little gossips of the plant world. Then Mrs. Whatsit turns into a plant mantis goddess giant. Then the kids hop on her back and fly, and then fly on her while she’s also flying, and then one kid falls off, so whoops, but the gossipy plants catch him. And then none of that matters. Even the villain is a nebulous concept of negativity designed to link up with a character’s personal journey. There’s a plot insofar as stuff happens and then it doesn’t. The rules of this universe are never properly established. Anything is just anything in this movie. The final planet, where they do indeed find Mr. Murry, could just have easily been their first stop. If a fantasy movie doesn’t properly orient the audience to its world and rules, it’s only a matter of time before that same audience checks out, frustrated and uninterested.

Afterwards, I did something I hardly ever do and ventured to read the Wikipedia summary to discover what was in the original story by author Madeline L’Engle. Surely the screenwriters must have butchered this oft-touted children’s classic. To my surprise, the summary of the book is pretty close to what ends up in DuVernay’s film, with some slight modernizing and name changing (I wonder why DuVernay might not have wanted the Big Evil Source of All Negativity to be called “The Black Thing.” Hmmm.). I think maybe the book was never good but was liked by kids, and then they remembered it being better and passed it along to their kids, and so on and so on, until somebody finally runs screaming through the streets, trying to get everyone to realize the harsh reality.

Another factor that doesn’t seem developed or helpful or fulfilling are the three magical beings played by Oprah, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon. It feels like they’re more award show hosts constantly changing their wardrobes than characters. They offer very Oprah-like self-help platitudes about acceptance, courage, and self-actualization. I felt sympathy for each actress being wasted, in particular Kaling, who speaks only in quotes and a plethora of reaction shots where she practices a wise expression. Witherspoon is definitely overdoing it and Oprah has settled into being talk show Oprah. They felt like rejects from a discarded Alice in Wonderland movie but with less personality. I think you could cut all three out of the film completely. The only meaningful way these three characters impact the plot is as expositional devices, but even that is whimsical nonsense.

Speaking of exposition, oh boy is this script really bad when it comes to dialogue. There’s an early scene that exists purely to inform the audience about the Murry children and to be eavesdropped upon by Charles Wallace (that name deserves to belong to a tax attorney or a serial killer). “She’s smart but hasn’t been the same since her dad left,” says one teacher. “Yeah, but that little brother of hers, he’s got potential but he sure is weird.” The conversation feels painfully inauthentic and transparent. Don’t these teachers have other students of equal interest at the school to discuss? The Murry children’s father disappeared four years ago and they’re still talking about them this sloppily? The final film is stuffed with these moments, with characters transparently telling the each other who they are or how they should feel at all times. The pointless romantic sidekick, Calvin, is literally introduced as coming over and saying, “Hey I sorta know you from school, and I felt like I should be here,” as if he could feel the screenplay calling him. Also, Meg just happens to live next door to her chief bully in school, who is still bullying her every day for whatever reason. It’s been four freaking years since her father left, and apparently this still offends this girl on a daily basis? Most of the dialogue made me wince.

It will sound mean but we need to talk about the bad child acting in A Wrinkle in Time. In the modern age, after Room, It, and The Florida Project in particular, there really is no excuse for bad child acting. If you cannot feature quality child actors, you aren’t looking hard enough or that may be a fault of the director’s own abilities. McCabe (Stephanie) is, in particular, a bad choice to carry much of the movie’s emotional climax at the end. He even gets possessed by the Bad Negative Force and must channel menace. It comes across more like a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum in a store. Much of the conclusion hinges on tight close-ups of McCabe bellowing. It’s unfortunate for everyone. Reid (12 Years a Slave) fares a little better but is relatively inexpressive, going even beyond the general withdrawn nature of her character. Miller’s (Pan) character serves no purpose. He offers no skill or breakthrough for the plot. He is just there, blank-faced, and providing PG-rated prepubescent romantic tension. Or perhaps Meg really needs to hear the strong encouragement from the voice of an attractive white male in order to finally personally succeed?

DuVernay’s direction has some nice, sweeping visuals but the movie as a whole feels far more awkward and misapplied with its budget. Some of the special effects are shockingly shoddy for this kind of major release from Disney. The fantasy worlds feel like holdovers from other fantasy movies with little memorable distinction. There is one effective moment visually that stands supreme, and that’s when the trio encounter a suburban neighborhood populated with Children of the Damned-style kids all bouncing balls in sync. Their individual mothers come out and march in the same eerie synchronicity, and it’s the best-conceived and executed piece in the film. It’s also one of the few sequences where the editing is a benefit. The editing is conspicuously poor. Early on, when Mrs. Whatsit had first introduced herself, every cut failed to match, every camera movement created a disconnect of space, and it generally felt off. It didn’t get better from there. When you notice the editing, unless you’re in a Scorsese or Aranofsky movie, it’s a bad sign.

In many ways, this film reminds me of the misguided, flabbergasting, and fascinating failed passion project that was 2014’s A Winter’s Tale. I could dissect that movie and its multitudinous of wrong-ness for hours. With A Wrinkle in Time, I just wanted to leave. I wanted to enjoy the movie and root for DuVernay being given the reins of a major studio film. I loved Selma and diversity behind the camera is hard to come by in Hollywood, let alone a woman of color given this sort of platform. Sadly, it feels like DuVernay wasn’t quite ready. A Wrinkle in Time gave me nothing to engage with early on. I didn’t care about the characters, the plot felt like it was being made up as it went, the rules were unclear, the dialogue was inauthentic, there was no sense of momentum, and when it does accidentally stumble into something slightly interesting, it quickly moves along again. It’s about the power of love overcoming the power of negativity. I don’t know whom this movie is for. Children will be bored. Adults will shrug. This movie doesn’t work on a fundamental level and it left me bored. I closed my eyes and dreamed of a better movie but it never came to be. My dear father, who had the misfortune of enduring this experience with me, turned to me during the end credits and said, “I am now going to treat you… by taking you far away from this movie.” It’s that bad, folks.

Nate’s Grade: D

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a twenty-year plus sequel that is way more fun than you would have expected for a twenty-year plus sequel. It’s updated to modern-day by ditching a living board game and instead transporting four Breakfast Club high school stereotypes into the world of an old school adventure video game. The biggest boost is the camaraderie and comic interplay of the four leads (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black), each blessed with memorable moments to shine and a satisfying arc. The adults are great at playing as children-in-adult-bodies. The film does a good job of introducing the rules of its world while also explaining the mechanics of video games (cut scenes, life meters, re-entering the game), at the same time holding your hand through it all. The satire of video games is often amusing like the strengths/weaknesses discussion, and there’s a very good reason why Gillan is dressed in a skimpy outfit, which even the movie calls out. It’s a simple story told without subtlety but this movie is packed with payoffs and spreads them evenly throughout. The actors are truly delightful and this should be a breakout role for Gillan. She is very adept at being silly with physical comedy and has a wonderful bit where she tries to seduce some guards after some flirting coaching from Jack Black. Thankfully, Black being a self-obsessed teen girl on the inside doesn’t veer into transphobic/homophobic mockery. The awkwardness of the body swap scenario is never forgotten, which lends itself to consistent comedy and heart. There are a lot of great little moments and enjoyable set pieces. Jumanji is a tremendously fun movie that won’t insult fans of the original. If you’re looking for an unexpected amount of entertainment this holiday season, check out the Jumanji sequel and one of the year’s best comic teams.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bright (2017)

Netflix has been fighting to get into the world of theatrical features. While its original series have met remarkable acclaim, Netflix still wants to draw filmmakers. There have been a few high-profile film buys like Brad Pitt’s War Machine, the live-action American Death Note, and it’s become Adam Sandler’s new home. Bright is a $90 million dollar fantasy film directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Dirk Gently). The big buzzy movie has been met with big derision from critics, some even referring to it as the worst film of 2017. After watching Bright, I think my friend Drew Brigner sums it up pretty well: “It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.” Slap that onto the poster, Netlfix.

In an alternate Los Angeles, humans exist side-by-side with fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, and orcs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is assigned a “diversity hire,” Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc on the force. Nobody wants to work with him. The humans are looking for whatever means they can of getting rid of the orc, and Ward’s superiors are looking for his assistance. Then one night on patrol, Ward and Jakoby come across a nightmarish crime scene. Bodies are burned in place. A woman is stuck in a wall. There’s one survivor, Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who has gotten hold of a magic wand. It so happens that magic wands are powerful weapons and only Brights can hold them. Word gets out about their discovery and every group in L.A. is after this powerful item. Ward and Jakoby have to escape gangs, orcs, corrupt cops, and an elf cult leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who needs the wand to summon her Dark Lord back to dominate Earth.

For the first 48 minutes or so of Bright I was willing to give it a welcomed chance. The world building from Landis presented enough interesting wrinkles to keep me intrigued. The banter felt believable enough to fit into its desired genre. Edgerton (It Comes at Night) is engaging and charming as a good-hearted orc whose life’s dream is to be a police officer. He is viewed as a traitor by his own kind, so that makes us like him even more for what he’s willing to sacrifice for this precarious position. There’s a personal source of conflict between Ward and Jakoby that is introduced early for them to work through. There are magic police, which is kind of cool. The world feels lived-in with clever details even though it could have used more of that sense of living. Too often it feels like the only difference in this new L.A. are scattered creatures in different locales. Elves are the rich elite. Orcs are the poor and disadvantaged. I could have used more magical creatures in the mix. What about dwarves, wizards, dragons, anything? Still, Landis’ script was providing enough breadcrumbs to carry me along, building up to the wallop of finding the magic wand. It forces Ward to make a startling personal choice that will define the rest of the film. It took a while to get going, but I was still willing to give Bright the benefit of the doubt.

However, it’s after the 48-minute mark that Bright begins its disjointed descent and never truly recovers, disassembling at an alarming rate. What follows is a series of poorly developed, poorly shot action sequences as the characters bump into one violent group after another. The interesting plot development gets put on hold and the weaker elements begin taking greater significance. It wouldn’t be a fantasy film without a great prophecy, which comes into bearing in the most contrived of ways. Speaking of contrived, there is a coincidental rescue late in the second act that made me loudly groan. Then there’s redoubling back to previous locations presumably to save money on set design. Once the movie sets things in motion for the mad scramble for the wand, it just feels like one unrelated sequence after another to keep our characters on the run. Even with the fantastical world building, you’ll be hard-pressed to muster genuine surprise. That’s because all of the later plot turns are readily telegraphed, like the coincidental save. We’re told that only a Bright can handle a magic wand and anybody else that touches it will explode. First off, why doesn’t this make the magic wand a defensive weapon if you know how rare Brights are? If you know idiots are going to have grabby hands, why not slide it toward your enemies? Regardless, knowing that dichotomy, you know one of the two main character will be revealed to be a Bright during a climactic moment, because why else have it? Anticipating payoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can anticipate all of them, then you’re in trouble. The most surprising aspect of Bright is how ultimately it’s still a formulaic buddy copy movie dressed up with some extra fantasy spectacle.

Another weakness that becomes more apparent as the film continues is the characters. Ward and Jokoby are pretty thinly sketched out with a few clarifying details. Ward is the lightly racist archetype who learns to accept his partner’s differences over the course of one long night. He’s pretty indistinguishable from the character Smith plays in the Bad Boys films. I suppose his prejudice and desire to better support his family is enough setup to question whether he’ll follow in the corrupt patterns of his colleagues. But after he makes his choice at that 48-minute mark, it’s like his character growth just stops. He still barks orders, he still quips one-liners, and he makes the big sacrificial gesture, but his character development is iced for a solid hour. Jakoby has more ground to cover and fairs somewhat better as the Jackie Robinson of the orc community. Except this guy seems way too inexperienced, clumsy, naïve, and simply not good at his job. In order to be the first diversity hire, I’m expecting this guy to have to go above-and-beyond to even be considered for a position. It reminds me of Shonda Rhimes quote where she says, as a black woman, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I didn’t believe Jakoby was the best candidate for shattering that orc-sized glass ceiling. The harassment from the other cops can be painfully juvenile as well, like tacking on a stupid middle school-esque “kick me” sign to his back. He wants to make more of himself and because of that dream he’s shunned by his fellow orcs and distrusted by humans. That perspective should be far more interesting than what we get with Bright.

The supporting characters fare even worse as bodies given momentary activity. Tikka is merely a plot device and not a character. She doesn’t even speak until close to 85 minutes into the movie, and it wasn’t really worth the wait. A toaster could have replaced her and the plot would remain relatively the same. She is the definition of a prop. She has no personality, no agency, and no goal beyond keep the powerful thing away from the villain. Because she’s a Bright she’s one of the few who can wield the magic wand, but even those rare occurrences are underwhelming. If this thing is as advertised, a “nuclear bomb that grants wishes,” then why doesn’t Tikka just utilize it to destroy the villains once and for all or at least help Ward and Jakoby? Poor Fry (The Darkness) just gets yanked around from scene to scene, shivering and generally looking frail. She’s got some killer eyebrows though.

Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) doesn’t have much to work with as the chief villain, Leilah. She’s an acrobatic murder machine who wants to summon the Big Evil Thing of Old, and that’s about it. Rapace does have a naturally elfin-looking face, so it’s solid casting. The other characters, especially the various antagonists, are just slight variations on heavies. No real personalities. No dimension. They’re just a video game stage of slightly different looking goons to be cleared before the next stage. Maybe there’s a larger point about the similar darker impulses all races are tempted by, but I think that’s giving the movie more credit than it deserves.

On that front, the racial commentary of this alternate L.A. is muddled, to say the least. The orcs are obviously meant to take the place of lower-class African-Americans in this newfangled City of Angels. However, what does the movie do with this? The orcs are judged to be troublemakers, prone to violence, and generally subhuman, with several people holding a thousand-year-old grudge over the mistakes of previous orcs. Under Ayer’s murky direction, the orcs easily resemble the black and Latino gangs we’ve seen in many of his police dramas. They’re meant to be an underclass. What does that make black people? There’s a tone-deaf joke in the opening where Ward yells, “fairy lives don’t matter” before swatting the winged nuisance to its death. I guess racism against orcs has replaced all other forms of intra-human racism. Landis’ script takes a hot button issue and drops the ball on making the commentary meaningful. Just think about what Zootopia did with its racial allegory on predators and prey. They took a serious topic and had something to say about it. Landis takes a serious topic and ignores the greater potential. By the end of the film, it feels oddly like Landis just took an old buddy cop story concept and grafted some incidental fantasy elements onto it and called it a full day.

Ayer doesn’t help matters by filming in his Suicide Squad-vision of drizzly grays, cool blues, lens flares, and lots of dim shadows. The very look of the movie is so downcast and the action sequences are too poorly developed and choreographed. The combat is very often close-quartered and the jumpy edits and slippery sense of geography make the brawls practically incomprehensible. The sequences don’t develop organic complications. It’s just the same concept over and over, get to that place, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, repeat. The action also misses opportunities to connect with the character motivations and to derive mini-goals that can help spice things up. Bright has none of that. Even with the inclusion of magic and magical creatures! The best scene is an attack in a convenience store that gets closest to involving parallel lines of action with some organic consequences related to its specific setting. Otherwise it’s a lot of shootouts in locations you’ve seen in other grimy cop movies (alleys, warehouses, strip bars, etc).

Bright is the most expensive movie in Netflix’s history and they’re already reportedly developing a potential sequel. The world Landis has created has enormous potential. It’s unfortunate that it’s not realized in this first edition. It’s not as bad as some film critics have been harping about but Bright should have been much better. The characters are lacking, the world building feels unfulfilled, the narrative is predictable, the social commentary is simplistic, and the action sequences are dreary and unexciting. I think something like Bright might in the end be intended as a loss leader for Netflix, something they initially lose money on but ultimately draws in new subscribers. It’s almost the same cost for that canceled Baz Luhrmann series, The Get Down (at least got eleven episodes from that). Bright is an underdeveloped genre mash-up that might make you reach for a magic wand of your own, your remote.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Shape of Water (2017)

You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.

From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.

The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.

The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.

The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.

While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.

Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.

When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Coco (2017)

Taking a cue from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Pixar’s newest animated wonder is a leap into a fantasy world with a young protagonist trying to get back to his family through trials of courage. A young boy wants to be a musician but his older grandmother forbids it, blaming music for luring away her grandfather and almost ruining the family. He steals a famous celebrity’s guitar from his crypt and is transported to the world of the dead on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The boy is able to meet his departed family members but if he can’t make it home by the end of the night he’ll stay there forever. This is a pretty dense film with a lot of rules to remember and yet the movie’s wonderfully structured story doesn’t give you more than you can handle. One rule leads to another organically, and you’re fully invested in the world and the characters. The Mexican culture and heritage is portrayed with extreme reverence while still being playful. This is a movie about death that treats it seriously but can still have fun when it counts. It’s lively, joyful, and sneaks up on you emotionally, as all great Pixar movies seem to do. I was wiping away tears by the end, and I’m sure fathers will be wiping away even more. The screenplay takes staid concepts (power of dreams, importance of family, respect for elders) and finds meaningful ways to personalize them. It’s ultimately a story about sacrifices and relationships between generations, how we honor and remember those we cherish. The visuals are colorful and gorgeous, though I didn’t feel the world of the dead was as memorable in its various locations and developments as the characters. Coco is a funny, charming, heartfelt, poignant, and vastly entertaining movie that soars with great imagination, story development, and an enrichment of characters to fall in love with.

Nate’s Grade: A

Brigsby Bear (2017)/ Dave Made a Maze (2017)

One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.

James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.

I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.

It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.

As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.

The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.

With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.

The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.

Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.

Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.

Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.

Nate’s Grades:

Brigsby Bear: A-

Dave Made a Maze: C+

mother! (2017)

Now I know why there weren’t any promotional screenings for mother! in the lead-up to its national release. Director Darren Aronofsky’s highly secretive movie starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem was marketed as a horror thriller, a claim that is generous at best and dishonest at worst. This is not Rosemary’s Baby by a long shot. It’s a highly personal, livid, and visually audacious think piece on mankind, so it’s no surprise that general audiences have hated it and graded it with the rare F rating on Cinemascore (a shaky artistic metric, granted, but still a dubious honor). Aronofsky is a polarizing filmmaker who routinely makes polarizing works of art, so the stupefied outrage is not surprising. mother! is a challenging film that demands your attention and deconstruction afterwards. It’s not a passive movie going experience. I’m still turning things over in my brain, finding new links and symbols. mother! isn’t for everyone or even many. It requires you to give into it and accept it on its own terms. If you can achieve that, I think there is enough to be gained through the overall experience.

Lawrence and Bardem are husband and wife living out in the country. He’s a poet going through serious writer’s block and she’s remodeling the house in anticipation of a future family. One day a stranger (Ed Harris) comes by looking for a place to stay, and Bardem invites him into his home. The stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, looking for her husband. These uninvited guests awkwardly make themselves at home, testing Lawrence’s politeness and the bonds of her marriage. More and more strangers follow, flocking to Bardem and the home, and their unpleasantness only grows, pushing Lawrence into further states of agitation, desperation, and shock.

The first thing you need to know before sitting down to watch mother! is that it is one hundred percent metaphorical. Nothing on screen has a sole literal intention. The movie is clearly Aronofsky’s statement about mankind’s harmful tendencies, as well as a larger potential indictment, but this is a movie that exclusively traffics in metaphor. Accepting that early will make for a much better viewing experience. It took a solid thirty minutes for me to key into the central allegory, and once I understood that lens the movie became much more interesting (this was also the time that more unexpected visitors began complicating matters). I was taking every new piece of information from the mundane to the bizarre and looking to see how it fit into the larger picture. I would genuinely recommend understanding what the central allegory may be before watching the film. Looking back, I can appreciate the slower buildup that, at the time, felt a bit like an aimless slog awaiting some sense of momentum. Even the significant age difference between Bardem and Lawrence is addressed and has a purpose. mother! is the kind of movie that gets tarred with the title of “pretentious,” and yeah, it is, because if you’re devoting an entire two-hour movie to metaphor, then you’re going to have to be a little pretentious. Terrence Malick movies feel like obtuse, pedantic navel-gazing, whereas mother! felt like a startling artistic statement that had a legitimate point and was barreling toward it with ferocity. It invited me to decode it while in action, keeping me actively alert.

When dealing in the realm of metaphor, much is dependent upon the execution of the filmmaker, and Aronofsky is one of the best at executing a very specific vision. Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream are both excellent examples of Aronofsky putting the viewer in the distressed mental space of the characters, utilizing every component of filmmaking to better communicate the interior downward spiral. With mother!, Aronofsky attaches his camera to Jennifer Lawrence for the entire movie; we are always circling her or facing her in close-ups, always in her orbit. She is our tether. When she walks out of a room, we follow, trying to listen to the conversations going on without us. When the revelers and mourners show up, we experience the same confusion and irritation as her. The film builds in intensity as it careens toward its hallucinatory final act. It’s here where Aronofsky unleashes his targeted condemnation with extreme vigor. It’s one confusing moment cascading upon another, strange images that ripple like a nightmare. There are some pretty upsetting and offensive acts meant to provoke outrage, and Lawrence is always the recipient of much of that cruelty. Like a Lars von Trier film, Lawrence plays a heroine whose suffering serves as the film’s thematic underpinning. Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is complete. He doesn’t leave anything behind.

Existing as a highly metaphorical work of art, there are numerous personal interpretations that can be had from mother! although, even with that said, one interpretation seems very obvious (spoilers to follow). This is first and foremost a Biblical allegory with Bardem portraying God and with Lawrence as Mother Earth. They live by themselves in tranquility but God is bored and unable to find solace. That’s when Ed Harris (Adam) and then Michelle Pfeiffer (Eve) show up, and all of God’s attention is soaked up with these new people, who bring their warring sons (Cain and Abel) and then more and more strangers. The people won’t listen to Mother Earth’s requests and warnings, and after trashing her home and breaking a sink that causes an explosion of water (Aronofsky Noah meta reference?), she and God kick them all out. She says afterwards, “I’ll get started on the apocalypse.” It’s Aronofsky’s retelling of humanity’s existence from a Biblical perspective up until the fiery, vengeful end. From here there are all sorts of other symbols, from Jesus and the Last Supper, to the spread of the Gospels, and the corruption of God’s Word and the subsequent cruelty of humanity. These newcomers are selfish, self-destructive, ignorant, and pervert the poet’s message in different ways, caging women into sex slavery, brutally executing divided factions, all while God cannot help but soak up their fawning adulation. God finally admits that Mother Earth just wasn’t enough for him, like a spouse coming to terms with her husband’s philandering. He’s an artist that needs an audience of needy worshipers to feel personally fulfilled. Ultimately it all ends in fire and ash and a circular return to the dawn of creation. For viewers not casually versed in Biblical stories, the film will seem like an unchecked, unholy mess.

This is going to be a very divisive movie that will enrage likely far more viewers than entice, and this result is baked into Aronofsky’s approach from the start. Working in the realm of allegory doesn’t mean the surface-level story has to be bereft of depth (Animal Farm, The Crucible, and Life of Pi are proof of that). However, Aronofsky’s story just feels pretty uninviting on the surface, lacking stronger characterization because they are chiefly symbols rather than people. There are recognizable human behaviors and emotions but these are not intended to be recognizable people. This limits the creative heights of the film because the surface isn’t given the same consideration as the metaphor. If you don’t connect with the larger metaphor and its commentary, then you’re going to be bored silly or overpowered by artistic indulgences. Everything is, ironically, a bit too literal-minded with its use of metaphor. The movie’s cosmic perspective is, to put it mildly, very bleak. It can be very grueling to watch abuse after abuse hurled upon Lawrence, so it doesn’t make for the most traditionally fun watch.

mother! is a movie that is impossible to have a lukewarm reaction to. This is a shock to the system. Aronofsky’s wild cry into the dark is a scorching cultural critique, a condemnation on the perils of celebrity and mob mentality, and a clear religious allegory that posits mankind as a swarm of self-destructive looters that are as ruinous as any swarm of Old Testament locusts. It’s an ecological wake up call and a feminist horror story. It’s an artistic cleave to the system that’s meant to disrupt and inspire debate and discussion. This is going to be a movie that affects a multitude of people in different ways, but I feel confident in saying that fewer will connect with it and its dire message. Motherhood is viewed as martyrdom, and Pfeiffer’s character sums it up best: “You give and you give and you give, and it’s just never enough.” It’s about dealing with one-sided, usury relationships, surrendering to the insatiable hunger of others who are without appreciation or introspection. It’s not a horror movie like It about scary clowns. It’s a horror movie about how we treat one another and the planet. Aronofsky can confound just as easily as he can exhilarate. mother! is a provocative, invigorating, enraging, stimulating, and layered film that demands to be experienced and thoroughly digested.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Dark Tower (2017)

I have never read any of Stephen King’s popular fantasy series, The Dark Tower, so I walked into the long-awaited film adaptation with no investment. I walked out with very little investment. The film peaked at its casting, with Idris Elba as the mythic Gunslinger hunting down a notorious evil sorcerer, The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a.k.a. Randall Flagg. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the world building is pretty straightforward and accessible. The Man in Black is looking across universes for special psychic children whose abilities he can focus to destroy the titular Dark Tower, a monument protecting the stability of all universes. A young kid is having prophetic dreams but appears emotionally disturbed to his family. Before a group of rat people hiding behind human masks can kidnap him, he runs away, finding a portal to Midworld, and into the path of the Gunslinger, who seeks personal vengeance against the Man in Black. From there the movie gets pretty hazy with its rules and lore. The production design of this alien world is a bit bare. The characters stay in an archetypal range and don’t give you much reason to care. The action is serviceable but unmemorable, the Gunslinger credo is rather cheesy especially when repeated with such self-seriousness, and sometimes it feels like McConaughey is in a different movie altogether. If you’re a fan of the series, I have to imagine you’ll be processing some level of disappointment by the end of the film. If you’re a franchise novice, like me, you may find some stray things to enjoy in the moment, but the film evaporates from your mind immediately after leaving the theater, banished to the dustbin of bland sci-fi action.

Nate’s Grade: C

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Rest assured fans, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a definite improvement over its waterlogged 2011 predecessor, but I can’t help feeling like the magic of this franchise, and even the high spirits of the immediate sequels, has been squelched. It’s a multi billion-dollar franchise born from a theme park ride and now I think I’m ready for that ride to come to an end.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is once again in the middle of some high seas hijinks. Everyone is on a collision course with the world’s most infamous, swishy, and soused pirate. The ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew are looking for a release from their curse and of course vengeance against Sparrow, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is their key to reaching their target. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner, is looking to retrieve the mystical Trident to erase all nautical curses, thus freeing his father’s indentured servitude aboard the Flying Dutchman. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is looking to discover the whereabouts of her father via clues tied into astronomy. All the parties are fighting to be the first to discover the location of the Trident and get what they feel is deserved.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has some advantages that are worth discussing before attention turns to what’s wrong with the franchise as a whole. Unlike Rob Marshall, directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) understand how to expressly direct action sequences. They have a strong sense of visuals and know how to hit some majestic big screen imagery, whether it’s a see-through silhouette of a zombie shark, or Salazar’s ship splaying like a retracting ribcage, or a runaway bank heist with a literal runaway building. There’s a terrific scene of visual comedy and action when Sparrow is trapped in a spinning guillotine, with the blade coming perilously close only to fall away from gravity and then repeat the process. That was a moment that made me think of the original 2003 film’s comic inventiveness. Instead of just having cool ideas and concepts (carnivorous mermaids, a psychically controlled ship), Pirates 5 at least puts them to better effect. It feels like greater care has been put into meaningfully incorporating the elements of the story, though there are still noticeable shortcomings. I loved the look of Bardem’s villain and the CGI texture that made him seem like he was underwater. It added an unsettling dreamlike quality. Jack Sparrow is thankfully once again a supporting character. There are also several other characters that are worthy of our attention, plus the welcomed return of Barbossa. The movie comes together quite well for an extravagant final set-piece that reasonably serves as an emotional climax.

For the last couple days since my screening, I’ve been turning over in my head reasons why the Pirates sequels, especially of late, have felt so removed from the original film and even the lesser sequels from 2006 and 2007. I think I have deduced the three essential missing ingredients: clarity, urgency, and characters.

The first three Pirates films were gloriously complicated and convoluted, a series of spinning plotlines that weaved in and out, intertwined with conspiracy, collusion, and reversals. They’re overly plotted affairs, and eventually the third films succumbs to the pitfalls of convolution. However, something readily apparent in those movies was a sense of clarity in the individual scenes. Perhaps the overall picture was murky but in the moment you knew what needed to happen, which characters had opposing goals, and what those conflicts were. It’s those opposing goals that provide much of the enjoyable confrontations and complications in the film. Take for instance the first meeting with Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in the blacksmith’s shop. Jack is looking to free himself of his shackles and escape. Will is looking to capture Jack, for his believed assault on Elizabeth, and he’s also looking to prove himself as a swordsman. One of them wants to leave and one of them wants to delay that leave. It’s clear. The scene plays out as the characters clash but we, the audience, know the needs of the scene, and it allows each to reveal their character through action. The majority of the first three films follow this edict. The allegiances are all in conflict: Barbossa wants to alleviate his curse, Jack wants vengeance and to regain his ship, Will wants to rescue Elizabeth, and none of them trust the other. While the dynamics are complicated they are built upon classic storytelling devices of conflict/opposing goals and there’s a genuine clarity in the micro. You know what the characters need scene-to-scene and why they are in conflict and what those goals are. In Pirates 5, the goals are too vague or overly generalized, and from scene-to-scene there’s little internal logic established for the actions to have significance.

The next missing element is urgency, which is a natural byproduct of clarity. If you don’t know what your characters are doing or what their goals are then it’s hard to maintain a sense of urgency. The stakes of this franchise have felt a bit wishy washy after the culmination of 2007’s At World’s End. Before, the characters felt like they had something to lose, something that might not be accomplished. Look at the first Pirates film and you see that those goals are being accomplished poorly. There are complications and unexpected detours, but the stakes felt real because there were ongoing challenges. I think the absolving of stakes in the franchise has gone directly hand-in-hand with the series becoming more jokey. Once characters become cartoons the sense of danger dissipates and then anything can become lazily excusable. There is no recognition of an over-the-top anymore, which then makes the characters feel limitless. That’s not good when they’re supposed to be going against supernatural villains who present their own special powers. In Pirates 5, the characters bumble through every sort of scenario, and while they may not be in control at the moment, you never really fear for them. It’s a safe series of chases and escapes like a Saturday morning cartoon you know will merely reset its characters back to their starting positions by the next adventure. It feels weightless, which is shocking considering the Macguffin everyone is after eliminates all known curses.

Finally, with the series becoming jokier, it’s become more of the Jack Sparrow Show to its overall detriment. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing, or maybe it’s a latent realization that Sparrow was never the main character of the original trilogy, but Depp’s iconic figure has simply lost some of his luster. It feels like Depp is on sashay autopilot. He’s still a charming rogue but it’s become drastically obvious that he needs supporting characters that can stand on their own to serve as foils. He’s a character that leaps off the screen; however, if he’s our only focus, then his act starts to curdle into schtick. There are sequences that only serve to deliver misapplied comedy, like a beachside wedding where Jack is strong-armed into marrying an ugly woman. Jack should not be the lead character but he also still needs to be a character with a sufficient storyline and arc, which has not happened since At World’s End. He’s become the Halloween costume of Captain Jack Sparrow, content to coast on audience good will repeating the same act and delivering the same punchlines. Likewise, the characters supporting Jack Sparrow need their own individually compelling stories and motivations to alleviate some of the pressure.

Fortunately, one of the more noticeable improvements with Pirates 5 is that there are some interesting supporting characters, chiefly Scodelario (The Maze Runner). She could have been a discount version of Keria Knightley, much in the same way that Thwaits (The Giver) is so bland he comes across as a discount Orlando Bloom. While she follows the same feisty, independent-woman-ahead-of-her-time model, she manages to separate with her own identity, a woman who loves science, pushes against authority, and is desperate to discover the whereabouts of her father. Her discovery of her lineage provides the film with an unanticipated degree of emotion. She’s a fun character who can provide a rich, exasperated sense of irony as a learned woman constantly being mistaken for a witch, and then when called upon, she provides the heart of the story with her family drama. Likewise, Barbossa has always been one of the series highlights and in particular the MVP of On Stranger Tides. As he’s waffled between friend and foe, Rush has always found a way to make him worthy of our attention. He gets what I’ll call the Yondo treatment in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (supporting character elevated into force that can legitimately elicit audience emotion). He comes into the film late but he dominates the second half. Pirates 5 also has a superior villain to On Stranger Tides. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) eats up every second as his ghostly captain and his enjoyment is infectious. He’s weird and creepy and just the right kind of crazy to make him even more dangerous.

Also worth noting is a flashback scene that explores the personal connections between Sparrow and Salazar, though Salazar’s back-story is still rather weak even with the mysterious Caribbean volcanic lava pits. The sequence is noticeable for the fact that it employs the de-aging CGI technology on Depp, making him look like a plasticized version of himself circa… Edward Scissorhands? It’s a neat trick and it seems like nobody does the de-aging effect better than Disney at this point (Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Robert Downey Jr. in Civil War). But then the movie keeps featuring the effect, showcasing it in ill-advised close-ups, and the magic starts to fade and we’re reminded of its fakeness. It’s a moment that inadvertently sums up the later Pirates sequels: a neat trick undone by sloppy repetition and a lack of self-control.

If you’re a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means you’ll find enough to satisfy your appetite with the fifth installment. At this point audience expectations have become entrenched, which is one of the reasons why Jack Sparrow has morphed into a Looney Tunes cartoon rather than a fleshed-out comic character with depths of danger. I don’t regret seeing the latest Pirates film but I would also shed few tears if this were the last time we visit this universe. The recent sequels leave the inescapable impression of listless fan fiction. They’re trying to recapture the magic formula of the original but missing the crucial elements that made a movie about drunken pirates and zombies a zeitgeist-harnessing, culture-defining classic. The sequels have lacked consistently effective clarity, urgency, and characterization to register as anything but generally incomprehensible, vacant, disposable mass entertainment. It’s become product, and maybe that was inevitable for what once felt like something so different and subversive, especially coming from the Mouse House. Age softens all franchises and a safe sense of routine creeps in. They start becoming imitations of themselves and then imitations of the imitations. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a fitfully entertaining venture that saves its best stuff for last, has some solid supporting turns, and decent fantasy-horror visuals. It’s also a reminder of what has been lost and, unless the franchise changes course, will continue to be lost.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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