Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge)


Jack Sparrow in his usual befuddled state.

(2017) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Stephen Graham, Paul McCartney, Angus Barnett, Martin Klebba, Delroy Atkinson, Bruce Spence, Adam Brown, Giles New, Danny Kirrane, Juan Carlos Vellido, Rodney Afif, Hannah Walters. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

 

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me! As a young lad venturing to Disneyland, the Pirates of the Caribbean was always one of my favorite rides. Gore Verbinski adapted the ride’s backstory into a rollicking supernatural adventure that became yet another lucrative license to print money for Disney. In many ways, the film franchise that developed from the theme park attraction has outstripped the ride of its place in pop culture.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) has fallen on hard times. With his beloved Black Pearl reduced to a ship in a bottle, he only commands a land-bound disaster of a boat, the Dying Gull. An attempt to rob a bank – by dragging it through the streets of Saint Martin by a team of horses, certainly a novel approach – ends up disastrously with most of his crew quitting in disgust.

In the meantime young Henry Turner (Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) has encountered the undead Captain Salazar (Bardem) who was lured into the Devil’s Triangle by a young Sparrow and cursed to remain there. Salazar spares Henry to pass on a message to Jack – “death is coming straight for you.”

Jack’s spectacular bank robbery failure has put him in touch with astronomer/horologist Carina Smyth (Scodelario) who has been studying the legendary Neptune’s Trident which supposedly gives the wielder control over all the seas. She believes she has discovered the location of the fabled relic; Jack needs it to protect himself from Salazar, Salazar needs it to restore his life and Henry needs it to restore his father to life so that he and his mother might be reunited permanently.

In the meantime Captain Barbossa (Rush), the former antagonist turned ally, also seeks the Trident for reasons of his own. All of these competing factions will collide on a desolate island; at stake is control of the oceans and of course their very lives.

With Verbinski out of the picture (although he remains in the capacity of a producer), Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg who previously teamed up on the epic Kon-Tiki take over the franchise and deliver a movie while not the best in the franchise history is not the worst either. The special effects are right up there with the first film in the series and while the plots are as convoluted as they tend to be in this series there is a little more personal background being revealed here. One of the main characters also has a major revelation that will affect the franchise should it continue on to a sixth film, which Disney seems to have every intention of doing.

I kinda hope that they don’t however. A lot of loose ends are tied up here and this would certainly make a fitting end for the franchise. It might also be a jumping off point for a new series although Thwaites and Scodelario don’t hold a candle to Bloom and Knightley in the parts that they play; the late-film cameo of the two veterans of the first three films only serve to highlight how much better the two were. It’s not that Thwaites and Scodelario are inferior actors, mind you – it’s just that the roles of Henry and Carina are way too similar to Will and Elizabeth that the differences are pretty much too minute to mention. The writer, Jeff Nathanson, definitely could have made the characters a little bit more distinct.

Depp has for better or worse made the role a signature and all the elements are there, but the charm is wearing off. I don’t get the sense that Depp is overly enthusiastic about continuing to play the role of Captain Jack; there’s only so much you can do with the role. He’s colorful, yes, but the part has become a parody of itself. In the first film, Jack was not just befuddled and lurching about like Dean Martin on a Saturday night, but also clever and occasionally vicious as well. You got the sense that his demeanor is something of a means to get others to underestimate him.

Sadly, there’s none of that in Depp’s performance now. Depp has resorted to mugging over acting; it could be that he literally has nothing more to add to the role. I’m certain that the paycheck is enough to entice him to do it and given the box office cold streak Depp has been done I’m sure the salary for these movies is welcome. Jack Sparrow has become a WYSIWYG role, a lovable drunk with all the charm that lovable drunks possess. Sad to say, that charm overstays its welcome when it comes to lovable drunks and I feel like the franchise has reached that point too where the antics become less endearing and more exasperating.

Bardem however was inspired casting. He is without a doubt one of the best in Hollywood at playing villainous characters, maybe one of the best of all time. Salazar would be a worthy adversary in any film but in some ways, his evil is wasted because none of the heroes hold a candle to him. Every franchise needs great villains but they also require the heroes to be the equal of those villains and Captain Jack has become more parody than pirate.

There are some nice action set pieces, particularly one involving a guillotine and another involving zombie sharks (which is teased in the trailer). Often a film franchise feels the need to one-up themselves when it comes to action sequences; wisely, Ronning and Sandberg resist the urge and instead use action sequences that fit the story more than dazzle the eye.

The series feels worn out and without ideas. If the franchise is to continue, I really think that it needs an infusion of fresh blood, no pun intended. Some shaking up needs to be done and the post-credits scene which strongly hints that there will be another film in the franchise, it also teases the return of one of the iconic villains of the series which seems almost a step back. I hope they go in a different direction if they do intend to make another film in the series.

REASONS TO GO: Bardem is one of the finest villains in Hollywood today. The loose ends of the franchise are tied up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Thwaites and Scodelario are inadequate replacements for Bloom and Knightley. At times the plot seems to be spinning its wheels in a single place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence as well as some mild sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The six year gap between films is the longest of the series; the running time of two hours and nine minutes is also the shortest run time of the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Treasure Planet
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 68 Kills

Texas Killing Fields


Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

(2011) True Crime (Anchor Bay) Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Stephen Graham, Annabeth Gish, Sheryl Lee, Corie Berkemeyer, Becky Fly, James Hebert, Joe Chrest, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Ami Canaan Mann

Some places are just bad. You can feel the malevolence when you walk into them. They seem to attract tragedy and trouble. The fields outside Texas City are like that. Half-swamp, they have periodically been a dumping place for bodies, particularly those of young females, over the years. The place has attracted a myriad of serial killers – and yes, this isn’t the movie. This is real.

In the movie however, we’re focusing on one killer but more to the point, to the cops chasing him. Det. Brian Heigh (Morgan) is a transplant from New York City. He’s a tough guy sure, but he has a tender side and the sight of a murdered girl on the pavement near the killing fields is enough to make him pray for her soul over her body.

His partner Mike Souder (Worthington) is a bit more cynical. A native of the Texas City area, he’s a fine detective but his personal life is all messed up. His ex-wife Pam (Chastain) works for a different law enforcement agency; it is in her purview that the fields fall whereas Mike and Brian are Texas City policemen. Mike is somewhat bitter about the break-up and wants nothing to do with Pam, even when it becomes clear that their investigation would benefit from working together.

Into this mix comes Little Ann Sliger (Moretz) – and yes, that’s her name, Little Ann. She’s a teen whose mother Lucie (Lee) is a drug addict whose parenting skills could use some work. Little Ann is the poster child for “at-risk.” Lucie is more interested in getting laid and getting high than getting Little Ann seen to, and consequently she’s getting into some increasingly serious trouble. Naturally Brian becomes protective of the young girl who is tough on the outside but tender on the inside – just like him. Brian’s wife Gwen (Gish) is less enchanted with the idea but keeps her peace.

As bodies begin to mount up, the suspicion begins to point to a local pimp, a malevolent thug and a kind of simple moron who can’t get away from trouble. All three are moving towards different conclusions but the one at the center of the murders is not one to let a cop get too close – and the collision course between pursued and pursuer is drawing near.

While this is said to be based on fact, there really is little more true here than that the killing fields near Texas City have become a notorious dumping ground for bodies of people from all over the I-45 corridor between Houston and Galveston. The script was written by a former DEA agent and has the kind of authenticity that can only come from someone who has lived the life and not just written about it.

If the directorial style looks familiar, it should. Mann is the daughter of Michael Mann who has made a career of some really good police procedurals including the Miami Vice series and movie as well as Collateral and Thief among others. She emulates her father’s style quite nicely, carrying a nice visual sense with a penchant for darkness and neon. Danny Boyle was once attached to this project but turned it down, saying that the script was so dark it would never get made. He went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire instead so I guess he made the right call seeing as he won the Oscar for it and all.

Morgan pulls out all the stops and delivers an impressive performance. His character is contradictory but not outside the realm of reason. He actually makes a pretty satisfactory partner for Worthington who does his best work here since The Debt. Mike’s got some issues of his own and certainly his scenes with his ex are some of the most incendiary of the movie.

What doesn’t work here is that the movie is so damn predictable. It starts out with the police procedural thing going on and any veteran watchers of Law and Order: SVU and CSI are going to have no trouble predicting what’s going to happen next. The last third is more or less a TV mystery movie with slightly rougher language and just as predictable.

There is a good movie here, although disappointingly enough, it’s not this one. In fact, this one’s just decent, memorable for Morgan and Worthington but little else. Chastain, who went on to greater heights, is also worth admiring here and Moretz acquits herself honorably as well (and ten points to anyone who can recognize Lee by face as the most famous corpse on TV nearly 20 years ago). However, you’ve seen this movie before unless of course you don’t watch a lot of these sorts of movies. Then and only then will it all seem new to you.

WHY RENT THIS: Morgan and Worthington make a good team, with Morgan particularly effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little anti-climactic. Relies too much on police procedural cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: As you would imagine there’s some violence, some sexual innuendo and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Worthington and Chastain previously teamed up in The Debt.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $957,240 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this was not a money maker.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Onion Field

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Holy Motors

Gangs of New York


Gangs of New York

A more dapper group of gents you will never meet.

(2002) Historical Drama (Miramax) Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Cara Seymour. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

It’s a myth that immigrants have always been welcomed to America with open arms. Immigrants have all too often been sneered at, spat upon and been the victims of violence. Still, nobody can argue that immigrants were the bricks that built America. Every European-descended American citizen has an immigrant somewhere in their family tree. Gangs of New York is a story of some of those who built modern America, and it isn’t pretty.

In the mid-1800s, Priest Vallon (Neeson) wants his Irish comrades in the Five Points section of New York to be left alone. He wants freedom from the harassment of the Nativists, led by “Butcher” Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis). The two warring factions decide to settle their differences the old-fashioned way — on the field of battle.

Vallon is backed by his lieutenant, Happy Jack (Reilly) and the mercenary Monk McGinn (Gleeson) who fight passionately but to no avail – the Nativists carry the day after Cutting cuts down the Priest. Vallon’s son is taken away to Hellgate to be raised as an orphan.

Forward to 1862. The Civil War is in full fury, and the word of the day is conscription. Irish immigrants continue to pour into New York, at a rate of 15,000 a week; ongoing for the 15 years since the potato famine of Black ’47. The son of Vallon, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) has grown to manhood and intends to infiltrate Butcher Bill’s gang, and then strike at his father’s killer when the time is right. Amsterdam meets a thief and cutpurse, Jenny Everdeane (Diaz) from whom he initially recoils, but the two fall deeply in love true to Hollywood form.

Cutting has made an alliance with Boss Tweed (Broadbent) of Tammany Hall to deliver crucial votes in the upcoming election in exchange for political protection. However, the coming conscription is making everyone uneasy. Many don’t want to fight for the rights of blacks, who are despised nearly as much as the Irish.

Still, Amsterdam quickly becomes one of Butcher Bill’s best men, and the gang leader takes a liking to the young man, in almost a father-son relationship. Eventually, he discovers the true identity of Amsterdam and all hell breaks loose, leading to a confrontation. Unfortunately, the two leaders pick a bad day for a fight – a riot has broken over the conscription act, and federal troops move in. A fight for survival becomes even more harrowing.

Director Martin Scorsese does an incredible job of evoking 1862 New York City. He establishes a realistic depiction, down to the language and idioms of the dialogue. The costumes, the sets, all reek of authenticity. Of course, there is a great deal of violence, which is to be expected. There is also a surprising amount of nudity, particularly in the bordellos where some of the movie is takes place.

The cast is marvelous. Daniel Day-Lewis gives his most electrifying performance since The Last of the Mohicans and one of his finest ever, pointing out what a shame it is he doesn’t do more movies. DiCaprio doesn’t have to carry this movie due to Day-Lewis’ presence and as a result delivers a more relaxed performance, paving the way for a long association between him and Scorsese. Reilly, Broadbent, Gleeson and Henry Thomas (as a friend of Amsterdam’s) all do solid work.

The problem here is the love story. It’s extraneous, and detracts from the movie overall. The Jenny Everdeane character exists only to be DiCaprio’s love interest, and doesn’t contribute much to the story. It’s billed as a love triangle, but the movie would have worked just as well, if not better, without it. Some of the 2-hour, 46-minute run time could easily have been excised.

Martin Scorsese is considered by some to be the greatest American film director of all time, and Gangs of New York does nothing to diminish that claim; in fact, over the years it’s become a movie that many consider to be one of his finest – certainly it stands up well with some of his better-known movies like Taxi Driver and The Departed. It’s an amazing epic that never averts its eyes from the seamier sides of the story, but refuses to wallow in them either.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Day-Lewis. Perfect capture of an era long gone. One of Scorsese’s finest and that’s saying quite a lot.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A superfluous love triangle. Runs a little bit too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a whole lot of violence, some of it quite graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a surfeit of nudity, along with a few curse words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The sets of old New York were actually built on the lot at Cinecitta studios in Rome. George Lucas visited the set during filming and reportedly said to Scorsese “You know, sets like that can be done with computers now.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a 30-minute Discovery Channel documentary on the real gangs of New York, a U2 music video, a featurette on the Five Points area where the filmwas set, and a featurette on the immense sets at Cinecitta with Scorsese conducting a personal tour of the sets and relating stories from the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.8M on a $100M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even during it’s theatrical run, although it almost certainly turned a profit on it’s home video release.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Arbitrage

Season of the Witch


Season of the Witch

Oh, those kinky Catholics!

(2011) Supernatural Action (Relativity) Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee, Stephen Graham, Rory McCann. Directed by Dominic Sena

In a land ruled by fear, decimated by plague and depleted by war, innocence and guilt can be more of a matter of political expedience. Fingers, looking for blame to point at, may choose the most convenient target.

Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) are medieval knights, pledged to the service of the Church in the Crusades of the 13th century. For a dozen years, they labor in the Lord’s army, smiting down the infidels and butchering the soldiers of God’s enemies. When they are ordered to put an entire city to the sword, butchering innocent women and children, Behmen balks.  He rejects his oath and deserts from the army, his faithful pal Felson walking off with him.

They return to Europe to find it in the grip of the Black Plague, victims rotting in their beds. They ride into a town to purchase horses and supplies but they are recognized – apparently word travels fast in Medieval Europe – and arrested. In order to avoid execution, they agree to transport an accused witch (Foy) to a remote abbey where the last copy of the Key of Solomon, a document containing all the spells meant to exorcise demons and destroy witches, resides.

They will be accompanied by Debalzaq (Moore), a zealous priest and Eckhart (Thomsen), a grieving knight whose entire family (including his beloved daughter Mila) had been taken by the plague. They also recruit Hagamar (Graham), a swindler who is the only one who knows the way to the abbey. Behmen, weary of killing the innocent, agrees to go on the condition the girl gets a fair trial at the abbey and is not just summarily executed.

Along the way they’ll deal with escape attempts, a precarious bridge, a wolf-infested forest and things that go bump in the night. The journey is so perilous and things go wrong so coincidentally that it’s not a coincidence even Behmen wonders if the girl may not actually be a witch. 

This movie was a victim of MGM’s financial difficulties passing from studio to studio, release date to release date. It’s actually been in the can for two years but only just saw the light of day as the first wide release of 2011, which may sound like an honor but is generally bad news for a movie; usually the first weekend of the year is absolute death for a new release, competing against the big releases over the Christmas week.

I think that some of the critics who saw this were predisposed to disliking the film given its checkered past. It’s gotten really horrible reviews and I found some of the criticism unfair. Quite frankly, this is an action movie with horror overtones that’s not meant to be a serious study of life during the Black Plague; it’s supposed to be fun and mindless, and boy does it succeed in that regard.

Nicolas Cage has taken his lumps as an actor of late, and he has taken his lumps for this performance. He underplays the role big time, leaving his over-the-top twitchiness which he often employs at home. Behmen is terse and all business; it’s perfect for what the role requires.

I’ve always liked Ron Perlman. He’s great not only in the Hellboy movies but in virtually every role he assays, going back to his “Beauty and the Beast” days. He has enormous presence and he can take over a movie without thinking about it. Here, he acts as a great foil to Cage and they play nicely off of one another. It’s a bit of a buddy movie in that regard. 

Graham, who was recently seen as Capone in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” is fine in a small role. Foy mostly gets to cower although she has a few moments where she displays her considerable sexuality. However, of all the backing players Moore is the most memorable, walking a fine line of the character’s dogmatic devotion to the Church and his desire to be a caring prelate. Christopher Lee is unrecognizable in a brief cameo as a cardinal stricken by the plague – that’s him on the bed in the photo above.

The action sequences are fairly well-done, although the battle sequences from the Crusades at the movie’s beginning are almost all filmed with hand-held cameras which is annoying as all get-out. There are a number of battles placed back-to-back with minimal differences, which drag on far too long. The point could easily have been made with a single sequence and a few lines of dialogue.

Most of the special effects are practical make-up effects until near the end. The climactic battle is well done, and the shots of plague victims are stomach-churning but in a good way. While the vistas are meant to portray a dying land, the Austrian Alps are far too beautiful to have their majesty hidden by mud for too long. It isn’t what I’d call grand sweeping cinematography but it suffices.

This really isn’t a bad movie at all. There are far worse movies out there wrestling for your entertainment dollar but the horror aspects might be putting off a certain segment of the audience while the medieval fantasy elements put off another. It’s a tough sell, but at the end of the day, it succeeds in entertaining and you can’t really ask for more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Decent special effects and solid performances by Cage, Perlman and Moore made this a better movie than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many battle sequences in shaky-cam style and a few action film clichés submarine what could have been a really strong movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and some disturbing horror imagery. In addition, there’s some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Key of Solomon is an actual work, a grimoire attributed to the biblical king but more likely first produced during the Italian Renaissance. Several editions exist today.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a few of the scenes are definitely better on a big screen, the movie works just as effectively on the small.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Quarantine

This Is England


Stephen Graham needs a big, fat hug.

Stephen Graham needs a big, fat hug.

(IFC) Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim, Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun, Rosamund Hanson, Andrew Ellis, Perry Benson. Directed by Shane Meadow

In July 1983, England stands at a crossroads. Embroiled in a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, suffering massive unemployment, the young people of the UK are looking for answers that are not forthcoming from their government or traditional institutions.

Shaun (Turgoose) is an unhappy 12-year-old boy whose father recently died in the war. When a classmate cracks a cruel joke, Shaun gets into a fight with him, forcing his mum (Hartley) to the school to bail him out. On his way home, he meets a group of skinheads led by Woody (Gilgun), who sympathizes with his plight. In turn, Shaun finds a group of misfits much like himself, angry and frustrated at the way things are.

Shaun finds acceptance within this group and at first things go well. He cuts his hair short and dresses like his new friends – a sort of rite of passage for him. He even develops a romantic relationship with Smell (Hanson), a New Wave girl who hangs with the group. Things change, however, when Combo (Graham) returns to the group after a stint in jail. He is far more politically oriented, blaming many of his country’s troubles on the immigrants from Pakistan, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, particularly those with darker skins. His beliefs split the group in two. Although Woody wants Shaun in his group, Shaun feels more kinship with Combo.

Through Combo’s now-racist skinhead faction, Shaun gets to express the anger and frustration he feels, and finds scapegoats for his fury. While things never get violent, there’s always violence lurking just below the surface. When Combo severely beats up Milky (Shim), the only black member of Woody’s skinhead group, Shaun’s eyes get opened to the consequences of hatred.

Some of this material is semi-autobiographical. Writer/director Meadow (Shane/Shaun, get it?) grew up in a similar environment and many of the incidents were anecdotal to his own childhood. Given the economic climate here in America, it is a little easier for us to relate to what was going on in England 25 years ago then it probably was three years ago when this movie was first released in the UK.

Graham is incendiary as Combo. He is not really a bad guy, but he has allowed hate to take him over, and that hatred drives him. When it is finally unleashed on Milky, he feels genuine remorse afterwards, horrified and sickened that he was so brutal on a friend. Turgoose does a capable job as Shaun. The movie really turns on having a decent actor in the role, and Turgoose manages to make Shaun a believable character without being overly annoying.

The soundtrack is authentic classic ska, rocksteady and reggae, the kinds of things skinheads actually listened to back in the day. As the group moves into more aggressive behaviors, so the music gets more aggressive. It’s hard to be hateful and violent with a Bob Marley soundtrack, after all.

This is a movie about the evolution of a gang from a benign, harmless group of misfits who hang out because they don’t want to fit in into a violent, racist group looking to enforce their dominance through violence and intimidation. In some ways, it reminded me of the soccer hooligan movie Green Street Hooligans although that movie was less concerned with the evolution of violence more so than the effect of violence on its members. In many ways, This Is England is more horrifying though less visceral; even though there are fewer acts of violence depicted in the movie than in Green Street Hooligans, the effect of watching a fairly normal 12-year-old boy metamorphose into a hateful, prejudiced kid is all the more chilling because it’s the kind of thing that happens every day.

WHY RENT THIS: Graham and Turgoose are both special in their roles. The evolution of the skinheads from benign social outlet into hate-mongering racists is chilling to watch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very UK-centric and those who are not interested in the world outside their own may have little fondness for this.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is blue throughout, and there are some racially motivated hate crimes depicted. There is also some brief sexuality between a young kid and a somewhat older girl.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turgoose had never acted professionally before and demand five pounds to audition; he had been banned from his school play for disruptive behavior. The film is dedicated to his mother, who died shortly before filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sleepwalking