Monday, May 29, 2017

TALL TALE TOLD: "Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" Is A Tale Enjoyable Retold



After fourteen years, viewing Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films is kind of like experiencing the ride they're based on, akin to a warm, comfortable blanket. You wait in line, knowing nothing has really changed, but still willing to open yourself to the magic recapturing the feeling and nostalgia of the very first experience. On the flip side, you risk irksome disappointment when a glitch or two ruins the ride. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) felt like the latter condition. Despite being a box office hit (minor in comparison to the previous films' individual box office booty), it's reception was both critically and commercially mixed to the extent that the franchise's future was in question. Further exacerbating the uncertainty was Depp's floundering standing as a box office draw (The Lone Ranger, Mordechai, and Black Mass all flopping resoundingly, though ironically in the latter's case it was one of the best performances of his career), With all these issues factoring in, what's a production to do in order to mitigate the possible damages?

The answer seems to be go back to the beginning. 

Almost a decade in story after the events of POTC: At World's End (2007), young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of the cursed captain of the Flying Dutchman, William Turner (Orlando Bloom), enlists the aid of the recently captured and (further) disgraced Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), who is still without his beloved Black Pearl (after a fashion) and crew, to recover Poseidon's Trident, an artifact with the capability of destroying all sea curses. Also on the hunt for this artifact is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a horologist accused of witchcraft who also seeks the Trident for her own purpose. As the threesome embark on this mission, they are pursued not only by British naval commander Scarfield (David Wenham, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy) and frienemy Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, looking even more resplendent this time out) but also by the spectral Capitan Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men; Skyfall) who seeks vengeance upon Jack for his ghostly condition.

Some moisturizer should clear that right up.

If some of this sounds vaguely familiar (at least, more familiar than usual when dealing with sequels), that'd because it seems screenwriters Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rosario dusted off the script for POTC: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003) (which Rosario co-wrote) and tweaked the details. Normally, such an instance would seem egregious, but it works because its used as a template for bringing the series full circle, and actually manages to seem fresh in its execution. 

One of the most obvious lessons learned between the last film and this was to minimize the focus on Captain Jack (which may have been predicated by necessity of the Depp's purported behind-the-scenes shenanigans and personal upheaval. Google it if you're interested). 

I'll never tell.

As in the first film, before he became the face of the franchise, Jack Sparrow is better realized as part of an ensemble. Which leads to another mistake rectified from the last film, a stronger ensemble cast.  As the Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann analogues, both Scodelario and Thwaites are not only engagingly charismatic on their own, but have a wholly palpable chemistry together. Regarding Barbossa, what can be said about Geoffrey Rush that hasn't been said before, other than this is perhaps the most poignant he has ever played the character. One of the biggest complaints from the last film was the underutilization of an actor of Ian McShane's caliber as "Blackbeard". Disney was certainly paying attention as the same cannot be said of Bardem as Salazar. His characterization is varied in scope, playing sympathies and menace deftly, making for one of the better realized of the series' villains. Returning Pirates alumni Kevin McNally ("Biggs"), Martin Klebba ("Marty"), Stephen Graham ("Scrum") and Angus Barnett ("Mullroy") are given more to do and add to the feeling of welcome nostalgia. Unfortunately, its not without its casting missteps, though not of the fault of the actors in any way (Wenham's Scarfield and Golshifteh Farahani as actual witch "Shansa"), but through the simple fact that the script doesn't know what to do with them. As far as Depp, his performance is somewhat uneven, varying in degrees from lazy (I suspect the major inebriation scenes did not involve acting whatsoever) to almost inspired. Luckily, its slightly more the latter than the former. 

The visuals and special effects are perhaps the best in this series, adding reality to the surreal. Geoff Zanelli elevates Klaus Badelt/Hans Zimmer's familiar themes, breathing new life in them even as he provides a fresh lighter acoustical touch that separates this score from the rehashed lazy strum und drang that plagued On Stranger Tides. Its a more intimate score that enhances the more emotional bent of this outing and adds to the circular heft of this tale, wherein the end meets the beginning. This film uses the past without becoming mired in it, while bringing events and story lines full circle.

Complete with retro fashion.

Despite the odds against it, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a tale worth being experienced. Like the ride that spawned it, you'll leave the film satisfied with a smile on your face. And if this the sunset by which the franchise sails away (as the story strongly hints), it is a fine tale for it to end on. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

REMIXED: "Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2" Succeeds Despite A Looming Shadow.



Sometimes, the best expectation is no expectation.

Remember when Marvel Studios first announced their intention to produce a film based on an obscure Marvel comic called "Guardians of the Galaxy"? A collective head scratch ensued. To the uninitiated, the question was "who are the Guardians of the Galaxy". To those familiar with comics, the question was "why the Guardians of the Galaxy".  There were concerns that Marvel was about to make its first tactical error in the planning of what had become a box-office juggernaut of successful films. Expectations ranged from low to 'nil...until the film was finally released.  No one expected how much fun, and ultimately how successful, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) ultimately became (including this reviewer). It was so crowd-pleasingly good, that it set the bar high for its inevitable sequel. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2., as good as it is, falls short of it.

(At this point, I should caveat in interests of fairness that this author went into this film with those same aforementioned expectations, so some of these points may not be as salient as they would be in a completely unbiased review. Regardless, they are as they are).

Some time after the events of the first film, the Guardians, consisting of Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are hired by an alien race to protect a powerful set of intergalactic batteries. When Rocket ironically steals the the batteries, it sets off a chain of events that attracts the attention of the celestial being known as "Ego" (Kurt Russell) which leads young Quill not only to discover the secrets of his heritage but his possible destiny as well.

"Of course I'm celestial.  I was the last person Walt Disney thought of."

That's not to say that the movie isn't entertaining; it’s extremely so. However, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, by comparison, is a victim of its progenitor’s success.  Divested of the surprise factor, James Gunn, acting as both director and screenwriter, has to rely on characterization and plot to carry the film. While Vol 2 excels in the former, it’s stilted in the latter.

The majority of the plotting issues stem from the fact that the Guardians films are ensemble pieces, with "Big Names" attached to each character. As such, each character is given a spotlight, which means more scenes and extra run time. There’s definitely a sense that Marvel was paying attention concerning what worked in the previous film because the principal of remixed "escalation" is all over Vol. 2. In some cases, they work. In others, they lead to situations that go on longer than they should; which makes for a film, who’s run time is two-and-a-quarter hours, seem longer than it is (mostly in scenes involving Baby Groot, who is surprisingly NOT the breakout character in this film. More below). For instance, Drax should change his sobriquet from “the Destroyer” to “the Comedian”. Whereas his humor previously evolved naturally from a character trait, here it comes across as forced, with mixed results. Some of these issues could be resolved with tighter editing, but it leaves one to wonder what was left on the cutting room floor, given that what remained is still creative.

Another issue is that, in trying to balance the showcasing of characters as fairly as possible, the “B” plots are far more interesting than the “A”. That’s not to say that the main plot isn’t interesting; it’s to say that the peripheral story lines are more so. This development has more to do with the engaging performances by Michael Rooker as “Yondu” and Karen Gillan as “Nebula”, whose personal journeys are the most compellingly developed. While Pratt, Saldana, Batista, Cooper, and Diesel are all top notch in their own efforts, it’s Rooker’s that’s the breakout performance here, and the film is all the better for it. Returning to the Disney fold as the planetary Celestial “Ego”, Kurt Russell is an energetically engaging enigma. Pom Kelmentieff’s “Mantis” serves as a good foil Drax, in some ways reflective of the character as we first encountered him. Elizabeth Debicki’s courting typecasting with yet another cold-as-ice character, but her “Ayesha” is an arresting sight; an Oscar statuette come to fetching, angular life.

However, the faults are relatively minor considering the whole package. The film is an enjoyable romp with thematic heft. All of the actors, from the principals to the cameos (and there are a bunch of them, with many nods to Marvel Comics lore for the initiated), are clearly enjoying themselves to such a point that it's difficult not to be infected by their enthusiasm. Detractors might dismiss this film as another live action cartoon film, but it's one with resonance, earning its emotional beats in a way that one would have to have a heart of an (infinity) stone not to feel...feelings that are enhanced by the musical choices which, as with the first film, are as much a character in the film as the players. This time, however, each pop/rock entry is more thematically connected to the scenes they play in than before to great, and in one case hilarious, effect. Tyler Bates continues to convince Marvel Studios that he's their go-to scoring pro, delivering a score that is in turns rousing, comedic, and poignant. This film should definitely be viewed in IMAX and 3D, but one risks visual overload in doing so as it takes its 70's rock fantasy album cover aesthetic to an almost distracting extreme (a conceit that, going by the preview, the forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok will likely heavily borrow),

In essence, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2, may fall somewhat short of its predecessor, but it's still a high mark for the Marvel Studios film library. It's thrilling, engaging, and surprisingly heartfelt. Take a magic carpet ride to another galaxy far, far away.  You'll be glad you did.