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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-

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-poster1With all respects to Ice Cube’s would-be family series, the subtitle of the third Hobbit film could have been “Are We Done Yet?” Originally planned as two films, the prequel series based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was expanded to three, and it’s clear what motivated this decision. Each Hobbit film has made at least $900 million dollars, but goodness has it padded an already bloated series beyond repair. The best part of the second film, which looking back is the best in the new trilogy, Smaug the dragon, is gone in the first ten minutes. What follows is a pointless and tedious series of events, mostly CGI armies crashing into other CGI armies. It’s hard to find much to care about after six plus hours especially when it amounts to squabbles over treasure. It’s also bothersome that the antagonist for a solid hour is Thorin who adopts… gold madness suddenly, and then loses it just as suddenly and as contrived. You can feel the weight of all this filler trying to stretch what amounts to a protracted resolution into a full-blown movie. The battles are relentlessly soulless and have lost any weight to reality. There’s one standout action sequence involving a crumbling tower acting as a makeshift bridge. Beyond that, get ready for overlong battles involving lots of fake soldiers and monsters. With no larger goal in motion, you’re just waiting for the bad guys to die so we can go home. While Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest film in the series, it’s still about 120 minutes longer than it needs to be. The business of the Hobbit has affected the artistry of The Hobbit, and only Tolkien apologists would lap up the extra time in Middle Earth.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-cbf4d050Back to another three-hour trip to Middle Earth. While the second Hobbit film is an improvement in just about every way, it’s still a clear example of a franchise stretching to the breaking point. Peter Jackson gets the second installment moving a lot quicker, and there are several standout action sequences that are glorious on the big screen. Unfortunately it still takes almost two full hours to get to the dragon of the title, but when it does, oh does the movie become that much grander. Benedict Cumberbatch gives frightful life to Smaug (pronounced, for whatever reason, as “Smaa-oog”), and the special effects are top-notch. The last forty minutes of the movie are solid gold, as Bilbo and the dwarves work together to battle Smaug in a virtuoso development of imaginative action; it’s wonderful how many moving parts are involved in this action set piece. However, Hobbit 2 still feels needlessly padded to meet out a trilogy. Does Gandalf (Ian McKellen) need to just disappear on his own mission that accomplishes what? Do I care at all about the people of Lake Town let alone their populist revolts? Do I need a parallel storyline about an injured dwarf? And for that matter, do I need a budding lady elf-dwarf romance? J.R.R. Tolkien fans will be in heaven (though maybe just purgatory with all the changes) to gawk at the realm of Middle Earth, but I always feel antsy (“Get on with it already”). Still, The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and at times majestic fantasy epic, I just wish Jackson and company didn’t take so many pit stops. Well at least we won’t have to wait so long for the dragon in Hobbit 3.

Nate’s Grade: B

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

Shiver me timbers Jerry Bruckheimer. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are taking no prisoners when it comes to money and fans. Ten months after 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest comes the concluding chapter to the Pirates saga. At World’s End is longer, bigger, and more expensive, but it is also the first Pirates movie that felt like a ride I wanted to get off.

The British navy, at the command of Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), is eliminating all piracy once and for all. He now controls the heart of Davey Jones (Bill Nighy) and so controls Jones and the crew of the Flying Dutchman, the most fearsome ship run by cursed barnacle-encrusted crewmen. As the very busy hangmen will attest, it’s not a friendly time to be a pirate. The Black Pearl has set out to Singapore to find support from Soa Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), one of the nine pirate lords. The Pearl is now commanded by Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) who was brought back from the dead thanks to the witchy Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris). They travel to the ends of the earth to Davy Jones’ locker to rescue Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who was last seen in the belly of a beast. Elisabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will (Orlando Bloom) are both aboard and still bickering about their stalled romance. Once Sparrow returns to the land of the living, the group meets with the other pirate lords from all across the globe in an effort to pull together and stand against Beckett.

As it turns out, the fear that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was a 150-minute trailer for this movie was unfounded. That’s because the third movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean series completely ignores or messes up the many intriguing setups from the second film. Character motivations from Dead Man’s Chest are mostly unresolved and revert to stock generalizations. Jack Sparrow feels like he’s been grafted onto an unrelated storyline. Most disappointingly is what happens to Davy Jones, the greatest addition to the Pirates landscape. This awesomely-realized villain was scary and fascinating and looked fantastic thanks to Oscar-winning special effects. At World’s End takes such an intriguing villain and turns him into an impotent tool to Beckett. He’s been transformed into a houseboy who might as well fill people’s teacups. Yes Davy Jones thankfully figures into the climax but why in the world’s end must an audience wait that long? Davy Jones reminds me a lot of the ghostly twins from 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded who were completely dropped from the second Matrix film to the third.

But not only does At World’s End fumble the hand-off from the previous sequel, the movie itself establishes many setups with poor or unsatisfying payoffs. So much is made about the pirate lords from all over the world, and we see a colorful collection of international pirating groups that is fitfully amusing, but the whole section has no point at all. Chow Yun-Fat’s character is a non-starter; in fact none of the new characters introduced in At World’s End play any importance on the overall plot. The film is building to a final all-out battle between the united pirate lords and the British navy. We witness the awesome sight of the sea filled with vast armadas of ships, and as an audience we are getting hungry for some epic nautical action. Then At World’s End pretends that none of the other ships matter and sets its entire battle as one ship versus one ship inside a whirlpool. While this is admittedly exciting it isn’t anywhere near as exciting as an entire war amongst hundreds of ships. The filmmakers have all the money in the world and they couldn’t give us a little something bigger in scope? The pirate lords could have just as easily been cut from the movie if they were just going to stand on the sidelines and wave a flag.

The pirate lords make a big deal about their apprehension with releasing the sea goddess Calysto from her earthly prison. The pirates trapped her into the body of a human in order for them to gain control of the seas. They reckon she’ll be one very bitter sea goddess and take out some apocalyptic wrath out on the pirates. So the pirates release her, cowering in fear at her powerful reprisals and,,, nothing. Calysto vanishes, causes some mildly inclement weather, and is never seen again. Talk about a lot of pointless hot air.

I think perhaps the clearest example of how the movie screws up is with the monstrous Kraken. This slimy beast got a ton of attention in Dead Man’s Chest and was a ferocious terror on the high seas. Now, I would expect that such a creature that played an integral role in Dead Man’s Chest would be back for the next sequel. Ignoring its prominence in the plot, the thing just looked amazing onscreen. But with At World’s End the giant monster is killed off screen and in between the movies. I felt insulted when I saw the mighty carcass washed ashore like a pathetic beached whale. What is satisfying about that? Why would Beckett make Davy Jones kill such a powerful weapon he could use for his own unseemly gain? It makes no sense. The Kraken isn’t the only character done a disservice by a plot stuffed to the gills. Some are killed in terribly pointless incidents and it just becomes irritating.

At World’s End is missing the high-flying fun of the first two Pirates movies, and this venture just feels draggy, tiresome, and far too dreary. You know you’re headed for some morose subject matter when a movie hangs an eight-year-old before the opening credits. This latest film is crushed to death by the weight of excess plot and confusion. There’s a damn near 20-minute section of the movie that’s nothing but characters double-crossing, triple-crossing, quadruple-crossing each other; it literally requires a character to spell out what has just taken place and set the record straight. I don’t think At World’s End ever recovers from this absurdly confusing miscue.

The film seems more interested in talking over an audience than delivering something genuinely thrilling and stirring. There’s a curious lack of action and nothing new matches the imaginative action set pieces of the previous films, like the duel atop the roving water wheel. Excluding a large melee between the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman as the climax, the action pops in and out in shortly timed bursts. For a movie within a hair or running three hours, there needed to be more action. Instead of derring-do, At World’s End spends interminable periods of people talking, usually in personal quarters, and explaining the increasingly laborious plot to each other. All of the Pirates movies are filled with false endings and heaping helpings of extra plot, but this is the first time I really felt the real drag of its running time. Director Gore Verbinski still knows how to keep things looking good but he can’t save the film from its anchor of a maddening and convoluted plot.

The movie is not without its due pleasures. Depp is always going to enchant with his now iconic character, but the true star of the film is Rush, who makes welcomed return. The special effects are still tops. The sequence rescuing Jack from the world of the dead provides many trippy moments that possess their own strange beauty, like when we watch the Black Pearl sail against the black, star-spotted sky. It’s fun seeing Keith Richards appear in cameo as Jack’s father and the stated inspiration for Depp’s performance. A small man and a large gun makes for one very funny sight gag. A Mexican standoff that actually involves an armed monkey is a comic high point. It’s just that all the fun or memorable moments seem to be the ones that matter the least. At World’s End still manages to do enough right to work, especially its Singapore opening. As far as a movie that upholds the quality of its franchise name, that’s a whole other matter.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is a somewhat entertaining but heavily flawed final film to a trilogy. It’s the darkest and trippiest of the three movies, but it also makes the least amount of sense and has the least amount of action. That doesn’t seem like a good exchange in my book. There are not enough important events to justify the bloat. At World’s End has a hardcore case of butterfingers when it comes to handling plot and character setups from earlier films, and as a result almost nothing and no one ends in a satisfying fashion. The effects are still eye-popping and Depp will always be a comic treasure, but this lackluster movie feels like tripping at the end of a marathon. I had so much hope for At World’s End after how gratifying I found the other two movies but I cannot quell my disappointment. This is not a fitting conclusion. This feels more Matrix Revolutions than Return of the King. Of course it’ll make tremendous amounts of booty at the box-office, but will demand for a fourth be as rabid after this muddled and murky capper?

Nate’s Grade: B-

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

America loves its pirates, plain and simple. We as a nation are infatuated with the characters and the high-seas adventure of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. We?re starving for more, and when the first in a two-part sequel was released it only became one of the biggest movies of all time. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has shattered box-office records, rolling up $100 million in two days and a record $135 million weekend gross, easily surpassing former champ Spider-Man‘s supposedly invincible $118 weekend tally. America loves its pirates more than Spiderman, Star Wars, and who knows, maybe even Jesus. After all, Dead Man’s Chest did just kick out The Passion of the Christ from the top ten all-time grossers. Mel Gibson sure has a lot of grief at this moment.

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is a wanted man on the high seas. The East India Company, whose emissary now controls the Caribbean town of Port Royal, is after Jack and his special compass. But Captain Jack has bigger fish to fry. Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), ruler of the seas, wants what was promised to him: Jack’s soul. Jack made a bargain with the sea creature and now his time is running out. He must assemble a crew and track down the whereabouts of a buried chest. Inside this chest is the still-beating heart of Davey Jones, and he who controls the heart controls Jones, and thus the seas. That is why the East India Company is so interested in Jack. They’ve made an arrangement with groomis interuptis Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who had his wedding hijacked and his bride (Keira Knightley) locked away. If he can retrieve Jack’s compass, then he and Elizabeth will be pardoned for aiding and abetting a known pirate. Will and Elizabeth each set off to find Jack Sparrow and to gain their freedom.

The filmmakers have taken notes in the school of sequels from The Empire Strikes Back. Like the second Star Wars chapter, we’re left with the heroes separated and licking their wounds, evil appears to have the upper hand, and the lives of some beloved characters are left in doubt. Just as long as there’s no Ewoks, Disney has guaranteed my place in line on opening day 2007 for Pirates 3.

It?s hard to fully judge this Pirates sequel because it’s part one of a two-part story. I’m holding out my final say, especially if this movie just turns out to be an expensive 150-minute teaser trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean 3. I can?t fully judge many story and character arcs because we don?t know where movie #3 will carry them. Maybe it’ll end up being like the middling Matrix sequels, where subplots and characters were dropped as if the Wachowski brothers had screenwriting butterfingers (it’s a film critic’s unwritten duty to deride the Matrix sequels at any chance). At least this movie ends with a jolt that I did not see coming.

Most surprisingly, Dead Man’s Chest suffers little from the creative deadlock of sequels. Dead Man’s Chest is more a sci-fi monster fantasy than a swashbuckler. The supernatural edge has swallowed the series whole. Take for example Jack’s broken compass. What once was an oddity befitting its owner is now seen as another element of magic. Some of the interest seems lost if things are simply explained away as being magical. The story, unlike the Matrix sequels (See: above), expands and enriches its universe. Some leftovers from the first film made me cringe. I thought we were headed for a bad track, where the movie uses the audience’s memory as a cheap storytelling device. Familiar characters might pop up every which way, smiling, and saying, “Hey ho, remember me?” Miraculously, the leftovers are integrated so well with the new tale that they really do matter and don’t come across as cheap shortcuts. Norrington (Jack Davenport) and the two comic relief cursed pirates are all smartly woven back into the troupe, and each impacts the story in a non-obtrusive manner. Even the undead monkey is used well.

I made it a point to keep my expectations in check for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It would be naive to think that you could catch lightning in a bottle again. Yes, now with audience expectation we lose the originality and unpredictability that made the first Pirates adventure so joyously delicious. And yet I found myself getting riled up just the same and being whisked away by spirited entertainment. My expectations may have been tempered for Dead Man’s Chest but I still greatly enjoyed the ride. It seems that my opinion sharply differs from my overly negative critical colleagues; my own sister said Pirates 2 was one of the worst movies she’s ever seen. That seems a bit rash. She hasn’t even seen any Uwe Boll movies.

There are moments that seem to stretch the credibility of the story. It’s been said before that it’s not the impossible that bugs you but the improbable, and this holds true for Dead Man’s Chest. I’m able to believe Davey Jones and his creepy crawly crew, but I’m not able to believe that Elizabeth Swan could single-handedly best them all at once in sword fighting. The movie becomes dangerously close to eye-rolls in parts, but generally steers clear of moments that rip you out of the story. Of course a Pirates film would be nothing without Johnny Depp. He’s the main reason the first film was so memorably embraceable and entertaining. It?s not every day someone gets nominated for a Best Actor Oscar playing an addled, swishy comic pirate. He’s truly the star and has been one of our finest actors long before he had any box-office clout. He’s created a character so beloved that he’s crossed over into the cultural lexicon. How many Jack Sparrow outfits do you see come Halloween? I had a friend directing a high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and every young actor wanted to audition as Captain Jack interpreting Shakespeare. Come to think of it, Jack Sparrow would certainly liven up some of the bard’s dusty works.

Depp is still hilarious and likeable even when he’s being a scoundrel. We simply love this character; I love this character. The unpredictable nature of Jack feels squeezed dry by the demands for familiarity with sequels, but Depp finds new ways to enthrall in Dead Man’s Chest. Some people are going to be uncomfortable with Jack being more dastardly, willing to trade others’ lives to save his own hide. I think desperation is an interesting place to put this character. Besides he has his big hero moments as well.

New dimensions are added to the other characters. Knightley gets to be shrewd and try her hand at pragmatic treachery. It eats her up inside at the end and Knightley, a nice comedic actress, allows us to see the rough seas of guilt within her. Bloom will always be Bloom, meaning he’ll be handsome, British, and seemingly too little for grownup movie stuff. Will is given a whole new set of daddy issues when he actually gets to spend time with dear departed dad (Stellan Skarsgard). Best of the rest (“the rest” being everyone other than Depp) is an unrecognizable Nighy, who saunters his deck with the fiery air of a preacher. Nighy manages to make Davey Jones even more interesting. Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) makes her presence felt as a witchy woman responsible for Jack’s compass.

The action sequences are gigantic and well constructed. They expand with organic complications and a lively, graceful sense of humor. An already fun sword fight atop a watermill wheel gets even more pleasing when the giant wheel breaks free and the fight continues. Three characters climb inside and out, all vying for a key that keeps changing hands thanks to gravity. A human-sized fruit-kabob tied to Jack has a wonderful payoff for something that seemed completely random. The special effects are gorgeous. You can practically taste the slime and sea salt from the creatures. Davey Jones is a fantastic design and I’m dying to know how they did his tentacle beard. Whether it be motion capture, CGI, or puppetry (was someone billed in the credits for “operating” Bill Nighy? Does that sound like a fluffer?), it’s all dazzling to behold. The Kraken is ferocious and so well designed that it’s destined to give an entire nation?s children nightmares for weeks. Coupled with the equally super expensive Superman Returns, it seems that nowadays if you want special effects that will retain their wow-factor, it helps to have a $200 million dollar budget. Director Gore Verbinsky has a terrific eye for shot compositions; I am convinced that if you give this man good material then he will give you popcorn gold. If you give him bad material, well, then you get shiny but pointless stuff like The Weather Man.

I know this movie, at its center, is empty. It’s grand throwaway entertainment, a true popcorn romp, but yes, when you get down to it the film has little to it. It’s an explosion for the eyes and has some great characters and action choreography, but Dead Man’s Chest is nothing more than very pricey, very tasty cotton candy.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest feels less like a rehash and more like the start of an exciting new voyage. It’s darker, bigger in scale, scarier, louder, brasher, but still barrels of fun. Time will tell whether the back-to-back sequels will support enough intrigue to cover two very long, very expensive action movies. But Dead Man’s Chest has the key Pirates ingredients returning: clever screenwriting duo Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, and, naturally, the irreplaceable Johnny Depp. An early eye gouging might set the icky tone, but this is one sequel that compares favorably to its source. We’re left in a very Empire Strikes Back position, but not after running out of breath keeping up with the many treasures of Dead Man’s Chest. Nothing will recapture the magic of the 2003 original but this is one summer sequel that delivers without letdown. Then again, after Pirates 3, it could all be for naught. See you in 2007!

Nate?s Grade: B+*

*Final grade pending the outcome of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.

UPDATE: Having just seen the third film, I’m somewhat conflicted. Many items from Dead Man’s Chest have little payoff in the third film, At World’s End. So while I wouldn’t grade Dead Man’s Chest any higher after seeing where it concludes, I still find it to be too fun to rate any lower. Its final grade stands.

Elizabethtown (2005)

Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker I generally admire. He makes highly enjoyable fables about love conquering all, grand romantic gestures, and finding your voice. His track record speaks for itself: Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous (I forgive him the slipshod remake of Vanilla Sky, though it did have great artistry and a bitchin’ soundtrack). Crowe is a writer that can zero in on character with the precision of a surgeon. He’s a man that can turn simple formula (boy meets girl) and spin mountains of gold. With these possibly unfair expectations, I saw Elizabethtown while visiting my fiancé in New Haven, Connecticut. We made a mad dash to the theater to be there on time, which involved me ordering tickets over my cell phone. I was eager to see what Crowe had in store but was vastly disappointed with what Elizabethtown had to teach me.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) opens the film by narrating the difference between a failure and a fiasco. Unfortunately for him, he’s in the corporate cross-hairs for the latter. Drew is responsible for designing a shoe whose recall will cost his company an astounding “billion with a B” dollars (some research of an earlier cut of the film says the shoe whistled while you ran). His boss (Alec Baldwin) takes Drew aside to allow him to comprehend the force of such a loss. Drew returns to his apartment fully prepared to engineer his own suicide machine, which naturally falls apart in a great comedic beat. Interrupting his plans to follow career suicide with personal suicide is a phone call from his sister (Judy Greer). Turns out Drew’s father has died on a trip visiting family in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Drew is sent on a mission from his mother (Susan Sarandon) to retrieve his father and impart the family’s wishes. On the flight to Kentucky, Drew gets his brain picked by Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a cheery flight attendant. While Drew is surrounded by his extended family and their down homsey charm and eccentricities, he seeks out some form of release and calls Claire. They talk for hours upon hours and form a fast friendship and stand on the cusp of maybe something special.

I think the most disappointing aspect of Elizabethtown for me is how it doesn’t have enough depth to it. Crowe definitely wears his heart on his sleeve but has never been clumsy about it. Elizabethtown wants to be folksy and cute and impart great lessons about love, life, and death. You can’t reach that plateau when you have characters walking around stating their inner feelings all the time, like Drew and Claire do. They might as well be wearing T-shirts that explain any intended subtext. Crowe squanders his film’s potential by stuffing too many storylines into one pot, thus leaving very little attachment to any character. Elizabethtown has some entertaining details, chiefly Chuck and Cindy’s drunk-on-love wedding, but the film as a whole feels too loose and disconnected to hit any emotional highs. If you want a better movie about self-reawakening, rent Garden State. If you want a better movie about dealing with loss, rent Moonlight Mile.

This is Bloom’s first test of acting that doesn’t involve a faux British accent and some kind of heavy weaponry. The results are not promising. Bloom is a pin-up come to life like a female version of Weird Science, a living mannequin, possibly an alien with great skin, but he isn’t a real compelling actor. He has about two emotions in his repertoire. His whiny American-ized accent seems to be playing a game of tag. He’s not a bad actor per se; he just gets the job done without leaving any sort of impression. To paraphrase Claire, he’s a “substitute leading man.”

Dunst is chirpy, kooky and cute-as-a-button but is better in small doses. Her accent is much more convincing than Bloom’s. Sarandon deserves pity for being involved in Elizabethtown‘s most improbable, cringe-worthy moment. At her husband’s wake, she turns her time of reflection into a talent show with a stand-up routine and then a horrifying tap dance. Apparently this gesture wins over the extended family who has hated her for decades. Greer (The Village) is utterly wasted in a role that approximates a cameo. Without a doubt, the funniest and most memorable performance is delivered by Baldwin, who perfectly mixes menace and amusement. He takes Drew on a tour of some of the consequences of the loss of a billion dollars, including the inevitable closing of his Wildlife Watchdog group. “We could have saved the planet,” Baldwin says in the most comically dry fashion. Baldwin nails the balance between discomfort and bewilderment.

Elizabethtown wants to be another of Crowe’s smart, feel-good sentimental field trips, but it falls well short. I was dumbfounded to see how little the story progressed. It lays the groundwork for a menagerie of subplots and then, in a rush to finish, caps everyone off with some emotionally unearned payoff. To put it simply, Elizabethtown wants credit and refuses to show its work. The film is packed with characters and ideas before succumbing into an interminable travelogue of America in its closing act, but what cripples Crowe’s film about opening up to emotional growth is that the movie itself doesn’t showcase growth. We see the rough and tumble beginnings of everyone, we see the hugs-all-around end, but we don’t witness that most critical movement that takes the audience from Point A to Point B. The results are beguiling and quite frustrating. Take the subplot about Drew’s cousin, who can?t connect to his father either and wants to be friends to his own son, a shrill little terror, instead of a father. Like most of Elizabethtown‘s storylines, these subplots die of neglect until a half-hearted nod to wrap everything up. Father sees son perform and all is well. Son does little to discipline child but all is well. Elizabethtown is sadly awash in undeveloped storylines and characters and unjustified emotions, and when they’re unjustified we go from sentiment (warm and fuzzy) to schmaltz (eye-rolling and false). I truly thought Crowe would know better than this.

Crowe has always been the defacto master of marrying music to film. Does anyone ever remember people singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” before its virtuoso appearance in 2000’s Almost Famous? Crowe has a nimble ear but his penchant for emotional catharsis set to song gets the better of him with Elizabethtown. There’s just way too many musical montages (10? 15?) covering the emotional ground caused by the script’s massive shortcomings. By the time a montage is followed by another montage, you may start growing an unhealthy ire for acoustic guitar. Because there are so many unproductive musical numbers and montages, especially when we hit the last formless act, Elizabethtown feels like Crowe is shooting the soundtrack instead of a story.

Elizabethtown is an under-cooked, unfocused travelogue set to music. Crowe intends his personal venture to belt one from the heart, but like most personal ventures the significance can rarely translate to a third party. It’s too personal a film to leave any lasting power, like a friend narrating his vacation slide show. Elizabethtown is gestating with plot lines that it can’t devote time to, even time to merely show the progression of relationships. The overload of musical montages makes the movie feels like the longest most somber music video ever. Bloom’s limited acting isn’t doing anyone any favors either. In the end, it all rings too phony and becomes too meandering to be entertaining. Elizabethtown is a journey the film won’t even let you ride along for. This movie isn’t an outright fiasco but given Crowe’s remarkable track record it can’t help but be anything but a failure.

Nate’s Grade: C

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

To all those hairy-footed Tolkien geeks that chewed me out for having the audacity to call 2002’’s Two Towers, of all things, “boring,” let me say this: while I still find the second entry of The Lord of the Rings to be disappointing and pretty flawed, the final chapter, Return of the King, is a glorious and satisfying conclusion. Instead of doing a usual review (plot synopsis, strengths/weaknesses, etc.), I’’m going to bring back the charges I had against Two Towers and explain why Return of the King does not suffer from these ills. Will the defendant please rise as I read aloud the charges.

Charge Number One: Two Towers has nothing going on for its majority except hyping an oncoming battle.

And I still feel this way. Short of the great Helm’s Deep battle, there was oh so little going on in Two Towers that they could have easily trimmed an hour away from it. And don’’t give me this crap about the whole kingdom of man subplot or Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) realizing his eventual responsibilities. Whatever. Now, in Return of the King, there is so much going on and the pacing is so tight, that despite being the longest film by far (3 hours and 20 minutes), this is the FIRST Lord of the Rings films that has not put me to sleep in the theaters. The nearly hour-long battle involving the 200,000 Orc army with its huge elephant creatures is mesmerizing and visually stunning. But even after the battle and before, unlike Two Towers, there is plenty going on that actually matters, not just three characters running around endlessly.

Charge Number Two: Despite nothing going on except waiting for a battle, Two Towers has little characterization of any of its characters.

So even though little is going on, Two Towers still doesn’’t use all this free space to deepen characters. But in Return of the King, the characters come through and shine. The hobbits are back to the front burner and the film is better for it. Sam (Sean Astin, in the finest performance of the film) and Frodo’s journey becomes increasingly important and the strain and deception of Gollum puts a wedge between their friendship. When Frodo (Elijah Wood) looks scornfully at Sam and dismisses him from their journey, it’’s heartbreaking. Why? Because after two years we as an audience have come attached to these characters and do feel for their struggle. When Sam, toward the climax, says, ““I may not be able to carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!”” I dare anyone to try not choking up. We also get deeper moments of character with peripheral characters, like Faramir realizing he can only satisfy his father by a suicidal mission. Even the smaller characters from the second film, like Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and her kingly father Theoden (Bernard Hill), have wonderful moments where the emphasis is on characterization. Return of the King is filled with rich character moments that remind us how much we enjoy and feel for these people … uh, and hobbits.

Charge Number Three: Most of the characters from Fellowship of the Ring have scant appearances in Two Towers.

This still holds true. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, brilliant) returned from the dead but had about three minutes of screen time. The elves (Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett) were given the amount of screen time most people would consider cameos. And then the hobbits were left alone for the overlong subplot involving Theoden and his clan. What Two Towers really was was the dwarf, elf, and Aragorn movie. And I like each of those characters but this story is not theirs – it’s the hobbits. So the disproportionate amount of time spent with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn felt like what would happen if, in Star Wars, C-3PO and R2D2 had their own film. It wasn’’t as interesting and it wasn’’t right. But with Return of the King, the attention is back to the hobbits, and all of the characters in the entire film have at least one stirring moment of quality time. Gandalf is back in a big way and it’s welcomed. What else is welcomed is the increasing attention Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have. They started as merrymakers, but by this trilogy’s end they are desperate to join the ranks and fight. The shared moments between Merry and Eowyn in battle are great. The moments between Pippin and Gandalf are even better. And even though the elves still get the short end of the stick, they make lengthier appearances that are more satisfying. It appears, though, that Cate Blanchett’’s longest amount of time in this whole trilogy was narrating the opening prologue.

Charge Number Four: Excessive dwarf jokes.

Even if you disagree with me on the previous three charges, you must agree with me that Two Towers had about a million dwarf jokes too many. Return of the King, to my knowledge, doesn’’t even have ONE dwarf joke. Fabulous. This is not to say I want less Gimli. The subplot involving the Two Towers trio seeking an army of the dead (a tad deus ex machine) is intriguing, and his competitive banter with Legolas is still ripe (“Bah! That still counts as one!”).

Return of the King is an amazing experience and one that is a fully satisfying conclusion, unlike say, I don’’t know, maybe the last two Matrix films. The danger feels more abundant now that the end is near and the tension mounts. The payoffs are rewarding and the climax is fittingly climactic. However, the 20-minute resolution is a bit drawn out. It seems director Peter Jackson can give us three hours of fast-paced action but can’t speed through a medley of hugs. You think it’s over…. and then there’s more, then you think it’s over…. then there’’s more. This is a small quibble for such an epic trilogy, and Return of the King proves that it’’s really one large triumphant film, with a bit of a sag in the middle. What? Did you think I’’d get through all this Lord of the Rings love-fest and not take one last jab at Two Towers? Though I still prefer Fellowship of the Ring out of the three, Return of the King cements the trilogy’s cinematic greatness in our time. Oh yeah, and the cinematography, special effects, production design, makeup, and score are magnificent too.

The defendant is cleared of all charges.

Nate’s Grade: A

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Johnny Depp is THE MAN. But then, we already knew this. Can’t wait to see more.

Nate’s Grade: A

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

My countrymen and fellow Americans, I come here not to praise ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ but to bury it. I don’’t know if it’’s a result of being the bridge between the beginning and end of this saga (taking the role of neglected middle child), or a result of unmet sky-high expectations, but I may be alone here in saying that ‘Two Towers’ was a letdown. I’’ll try and frame my reasoning as to not be attacked by hairy hobbits and men with pointy hats and long flowing beards.

1) Story structure. Unlike Fellowship of the Ring, where we’re introduced to a rich world and have suitable character set-up, the second LOTR film puts almost all our characters on the backburner and gives us an insufferably long subplot involving a king and his brood. The movie peters out an ending and seems to throw its hands in the air saying, ““See ya’ a year from now.””

2) Length. This wasn’’t a problem with the previous film but man did ‘Two Towers’ become unbearable as it went. Some described the first film as three hours of walking; well the second could be described as two plus hours of folks hyping a battle and then — a battle. Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about a significant battle …and that’’s it. An hour could have easily been cut from this. It got to the point where my girlfriend was sprawled across my lap pleading for me to somehow make the movie end.

3) Characterization. So much time is spent doing nothing you think the film would further round the characters? Oh how stupid you would be. Nothing new seems to be drawn from any character, with the exception of the treacherous yet likable Gollum. Several people from ‘Fellowship’ (Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellen) have screen time that amounts to no more than a cameo, so why in the world aren’’t we getting anything more from our already established heroes? Everyone just looks friggin’ bored. As was I.

4) Excessive dwarf jokes.

I re-watched ‘Fellowship’ and all of the reasons ‘Two Towers’ suffered were not evident. So what does this tell me? Nothing particularly, except not to see the movie in the theater again. ‘Two Towers’ is by no means a bad film. The cinematography, production and special effects are all breath-taking and sweeping. I’’ll still look forward to seeing the next, and last, installment in Peter Jackson’’s ‘Rings’ epic, but ‘Two Towers’ has left a bitter taste of disappointment to linger upon.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Black Hawk Down (2001)

In the fall of 1993 Somalia was a nation being torn by civil war with feuding warlords and slowly being crippled by rampant hunger. The UN intervened to try feeding the starving nation but warlords like Mohamed Farrah Aidid cut off many of its shipments of food. The United States had plans to capture two top lieutenants of Aidid’s in the capital of Mogadishu. Over 100 Delta units and Army Rangers were sent into the heart of the Mogadishu market to execute the operation.

Things didn’t go well from the start as casualties began to pile up and first one, then two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down from ground fire. Medical vans and Humvees were continually blocked access to help the stranded soldiers by civilian roadblocks consisting of smoldering debris. It wasn’t supposed to take longer than 45 minutes. It ended up lasting over 15 hours. In the end 18 American lives were lost, over 70 were wounded, and over a 1000 Somalian lives were lost. What’s truly amazing is the courage the men displayed, and the fact that being surrounded by a sea of armed Somalians that more lives weren’t lost.

Black Hawk Down is essentially a two-hour action sequence. The emphasis of the film is on the stark recreation of the Somalia skirmish and it is indeed an achievement in grueling realism. You truly feel like you have been thrown into the middle of this firefight. With all the gunfire and chaos it leaves little time for getting to know characters. This is probably why they have names written on their helmets so the audience can attempt some semblance of who’s who.

The film is by no means for the faint of heart. Saving Private Ryan had some intense violence, but it was mainly condensed for the opening and closing 20 minutes. Black Hawk Down, on the other hand, is two straight hours of non-stop blood and gore. The violence and the intense realism are not gratuitous but indicative of the horror these men faced. If you can’t stomach a soldier plunging his entire forearm into the chest cavity of another to cut off a bullet wound – stay at home and read a good book.

Ridley Scott is on an ultra-violent hot streak after directing big name Hollywood tokens like Hannibal and Gladiator. His handling of Black Hawk Down is masterful, just for the simple fact of keeping the audience free from confusion. Throughout the duration we know who is where, where they want to go, and the general geography of the hot spot. The staging of the entire battle is beautifully filmed and the recreation of the Mogadishu market place is amazing in its fine detail. Some criticism has been projected at the film for portraying the Somalians as basically black people with guns. This is entirely true, but one must remember that the film is told from the American point of view.

The acting, as expected in a war film, takes a back seat to the heroic histrionics and the fireworks. Josh Hartnett is sullen in his duty as Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann but always a comfortable figure to see on screen amidst the chaos. Ewan McGregor plays a soldier promoted to action instead of desk work and adds some touches of humor to the fray. Tom Sizemore is the most recognizable person as the often-frustrated Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight who fearlessly strolls across the battlefield while bullets whiz by.

Black Hawk Down for some will be the right movie at the right time, though it was never intended to be. The riveting action is more than entertaining and worth admission price, but you might leave pondering on the sacrifice few know the full details. Just make sure to go to the bathroom before the film starts.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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