Originally filmed in 2014, The King’s Daughter is a curiosity as it’s been on the shelf for almost eight years. As another critic quipped, in the ensuring years, star Kaya Scodelario has been in an entire trilogy of Maze Runner movies. I don’t know what this Chinese-by-way-of-French production was going for as we follow the court of King Louis XIV, played by Pierce Brosnan in an astounding array of outlandishly bad costumes and terrible wigs. He resembles a Vegas magician set back in time. Anyway, he calls to court the young Marie-Josephine (Scodelario) who has been raised by nuns since she was dropped off as a baby. If you can’t already see where this is going, then I can’t help you. But wait because there’s also a mermaid (Bingbing Fan, who in the years since this movie possibly served time in China’s prison for tax evasion) in the basement being held captive because Louis thinks eating her heart will be the key to him becoming immortal. So, yeah, what is this? It’s striving for a fairy tale/storybook sort of feeling but it’s a plot that will only work with the youngest of children. The characters are simplistic and boring, and once the mermaid is introduced it becomes like a costume drama version of Free Willy. Even with being on the shelf for eight years, the finished film still feels rushed, and the special effects for the mute mermaid are a colorful mess. Fun fact #1: the director is responsible for 4 Baby Genius sequels. Fun fact #2: this will be the late William Hurt’s last movie to his career. The King’s Daughter is a movie that makes you ask, “What were they thinking?” quite a lot, and the best decision was to withhold it from mass viewing for eight years.
Nate’s Grade: D+
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-
It’s called The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, though the trials appear more as “general struggles,” The Scorch appears as but a brief expanse of desert before the mountains, and then there’s the lack of any and all maze running (there is plenty of running, however). This sequel to the YA-inspired hit lives up to my biggest worry: the only thing interesting about this franchise was the maze, and now that’s gone. The mystery of the maze, and its cool factor, gave this story something memorable. Now it’s just generic YA pap. Beyond its boring protagonist, it would be a scorch trial for me to even assign description to these characters. They don’t even get one note to play; they have no notes. That’s because so much of this tedious and bloated sequel is our group of maze survivors running from one outpost to another, seemingly safe and then predictably not. It’s a plot routine that gets redundant quickly, and yet little else seems to occur. They go from stop to stop gaining characters but little else. The momentum feels stalled and there’s no sense of direction to guide the characters. It feels so aimless and dull and far too flimsy to justify even half of the movie’s 132 minutes. I just don’t care about these characters so I rooted for the bad guys. Weirdly enough, the bad guys use tasers and the good guys use bullets. There are some scant highpoints, namely the direction of Wes Ball, who finds ways to make the chase sequences visually stylish and fleetingly exciting, and a self-destruct sequence set to a Patsy Cline tune. There’s enough to get your hopes up before the grim reality of the overwhelming onslaught of YA tropes comes crashing down again. Can we stick these dumb kids back inside a maze already?
Nate’s Grade: C
If anyone can reasonably explain to me the end of The Maze Runner in a way that makes some tangible amount of sense, I will give you money. The latest YA-franchise-in-the-making starts off with a storyline that reminded me of Rod Serling. We follow a group of teen boys, memories wiped, as they wake up in the center of a giant mechanical maze. Who put them there? Why? What’s on the other side? As long as the maze and the mystery of it are front and center, the film works, twisting in intrigue. However, when the story veers away to the characters, mostly flat archetypes, and their new society, that’s when I started getting sleepy. You got this awesome huge maze to explore, kids. The film ends up being an exercise in less-is-more restraint when it comes to sustaining a mystery and knowing what points to emphasize and which to skip over. There’s a girl brought into their camp, the first, which they say should be a big idea and change the social dynamics of a group of boys, but it doesn’t. There are silly mechanical spider monsters that scamper through the maze, as if the filmmakers felt a giant maze wasn’t a sufficient enough obstacle and selling point. Scattered flashbacks early on spoil who is responsible for the maze, but when we get to the actual ending, the rationale for who built this large contraption and for what purpose doesn’t add up, like, at all. An explanation wasn’t necessary, but if they needed a quick one I would have accepted, “Aliens did it because.” There’s already a planned sequel in the works. My idea: the kids escape the maze only to discover… they’ve just entered a larger maze. Then they escape that maze only to discover… you get the idea. The Maze Runner is moderately enjoyable. Just don’t expect to enjoy, understand, or even accept the ending and its implications.
Nate’s Grade: B-