Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

A woman has never handled my Herschel

pirates-5-carinaPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is sort of like dessert at a busy restaurant on Valentine’s Day: it feels like it took way too long to get here, and no matter how excited you were about it, it just couldn’t be that good.  As a person obsessed with maritime history, folk music from the sea, and pirate stories (having even made my own pirate movie since the last PotC was released), I got myself pretty worked up about this film.  Sure, I thought, it’s going to be silly, full of anachronisms and unnecessary supernatural stuff, and diluted beyond recognition by the legioned Disney mooks working on it, but hell if that Johnny Cash trailer didn’t get me pumped.

The film takes place more than a decade after the much better end of the series, At World’s End (at which point the series already felt exhausted), with new protagonist Henry Turner (Brendon Thwaites), son of Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), attempting to break his father’s curse (the thing that requires him to sail the depths of the ocean and do…something). The deuteragonist is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer who is accused of being a “witch” (because she’s a woman who knows things and doesn’t conform to the standards of – wait, where are we? 1700s still?  Early 18?).  Carina is a more interesting character than Henry, in part because her personal story is honest about the institutionalized sexism of the period, which only the original film really touched on, and even then, only in terms of corset jokes, rather than showing a woman about to be executed for being a scientist.

As they must, the two meet with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who is back to his regular pirating ways after saving the world (something I always liked about the end of the third one: after everything’s back to normal, no one really cares much about Jack).  The duo are both looking for a McGuffin called the Trident of Poseidon, which Henry thinks can break Will’s curse, and which Carina realizes she’s being led to by a constellation map on an old diary that was left to her by her father (who dumped her at an orphanage after she was born).  Jack realizes that the Trident could also be useful to him after realizing he’s being pursued by his archnemesis, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spanish privateer tricked by a young Jack into sailing into the Devil’s Triangle (the Bermuda Triangle), where he and his crew were cursed and trapped.  Meanwhile, Carina and Henry are hunted by Lieutenant Scarfield (David Wenham), a British Navy officer who’s actually a little scarier than Salazar.

The whole setup is pretty good.  It’s great to see the return of Jack’s crew , including Gibbs (Kevin McNally), Scrum (Stephen Graham), and Marty (Martin Klebba), although still missing AnaMaria (Zoe Saldana), which I guess I need to just get over at this point.  On top of that, much of the Jack Sparrow humor (read: lines of dialogue, not crazy antics) is actually funny in this one, including a conversation between he, Carina, and Scrum in which they each think “Horologist” means something different. (Carina: “Was your mother also academically inclined?”  Jack: “More like…horizontally reclined.”)  It’s just fun to spend time with these weirdos, no matter what they’re doing.  We even get a badass sea-witch played by Golshifteh Farahani, and more Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is now the most feared pirate on the seas (no word on what happened to the Brethren Court), and is even more Long-John-Silvery than usual.

The film’s issues are rooted in a staggering lack of character development, which is expected in a Disney blockbuster, but becomes more egregious (see what I did there?) when you notice how many great opportunities this one misses.  Wenham’s character could be an awesome secondary villain, but he’s utterly wasted.  Carina could be a powerful addition to pirate stories, but she spends most of the film tied up and/or being accessory to the film’s men (and for all the emphasis on her intelligence, the filmmakers ensure that her hair, makeup, and lip gloss are always perfectly in place).  The romance between her and Henry is inevitable and phoned-in.  Why do they need to end up together?  Just because they’re both young and good-looking?  But wasn’t Carina supposed to be subverting old assumptions about women?  Why do they even like each other?  The only time any attraction is mentioned is when Carina partially strips in order to be able to swim to shore, and Henry excitedly mentions to Jack, “I saw her ankles!” Sure, she’s got great ankles, I guess, but that’s enough for a marriage proposal?  (A note here: Jack’s response is actually pretty funny: “We’d have seen a lot more if you’d kept your cake-hole shut.”)

There are important revelations about Jack Sparrow’s past, including how he got the name and why anyone would ever follow him, and the scenes from the past involving Salazar are more than worthy of something that is meant to be the “final adventure” in the series (though I’m not really trusting in that at this point).  The problem is that we never really know how Jack feels about anything.  He’s always just waltzing through the plot and making jokey comments about stuff.  At least in the first movie, he was somewhat surprised that his old crew was now an undead retinue of bloodthirsty ghosts.  Now, not only has it become routine, but he doesn’t even remember Salazar (“Yes,” he says, “I remember an old Spanish sailor named…something in Spanish.”), which makes their day of reckoning ring a bit hollow.  So when it seems like the film is digging at the essence of Jack’s character and what made him, all they come up with is that Jack was apparently always just an asshole.

To top it all off, you’ve got a movie that features Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swann (finally played again by Keira Knightley), and…you don’t put them in a scene together?  Elizabeth is only seen at the very end, rushing out like a faithful wife awaiting her sailor man, and she has no lines.  It’s a nice little reunion for the family and a good way to close the series, but a short decade ago, Elizabeth was the Pirate King, for crying out loud.  She plays no part in breaking the curse?  And she was fine with Henry being gone for so long?  And furthermore, Jack doesn’t care about seeing them?  Also, what happened to Penelope Cruz and that voodoo doll?  I mean, I prefer to forget about On Stranger Tides as well, but you had a long time to figure out continuity.

No matter how “big” the series gets, the proper ending was still Jack on that tiny little dinghy after the adventure was over, rowing out to sea to find out what came next.  As far as what comes next for the series, hopefully it’s nothing.  This is enough.

A good way to get people to remember this movie as being better than it is: show the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer before it.  I was in tears by the time the movie began (and on another note, this film really makes you appreciate how good the new Star Wars series is, and how awful it could be if Disney stuck their hands in it the way they are with Pirates).

pirates_of_the_caribbean2c_dead_men_tell_no_talesPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017); written by Jeff Nathanson; directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg; starring Johnny Depp, Kaya Scodelario, Brendon Thwaites, and Javier Bardem.

Bastille Day

Your alligators are sewn on backwards

bastilleIn a college screenwriting class, I once wrote a script I thought was pretty good.  My professor even told me that every few semesters, one student script really stands out, and that this was the one.  I’ve since lost it, but if it had actually been produced, I assume I’d be cringing at it now.  I still think the characters were better than what you get in your standard Hollywood action fare, but instead of existing for the same reasons real people with complicated histories exist (i.e. no reason), their collected backstories served the larger narrative, one that needed them to come together to connect plot dots, a plot full of conspiracies, corrupt government officials, gunfire, and a sainted young white dude who can puzzle it all out.  I get bummed out thinking about it.  Even if I was on the right track (not with that script in particular, but moving toward something good), even if the dialogue was alright and the plot resolution reasonable and the characters okay to spend time with, the produced result probably would have turned out looking a lot like Bastille Day.  And it would deserve a crappy review.

Bastille Day pits a bunch of ex-HBO main-supporting actors against a terrorism conspiracy in Paris (sadly evoking thoughts of the recent tragedies there and in Nice): Special Agent Briar (Idris Elba), a generic cowboy cop, gets mixed into the investigation of a bombing accidentally triggered by Michael Mason (Richard Madden).  Briar is guided along by his classically beleaguered CIA superior, Tom (Anatol Yusef), and slightly more sympathetic agent Karen (Kelly Reilly) who mainly exist to emphasize how badass Briar is, and how evil the generic European bad guys are, respectively.  As straightforward as it sounds, the Island Syndrome never becomes exhausting because the actors never seem bored playing tropes straight and saying things like “I know an asshole when I see one.”

The tritagonist of the film, Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon) mostly exists as a target/ingenue/plot device, but it’s worth noting that every significant story movement is catalyzed by her: deciding at a certain moment not to trigger a bomb, bashing a corrupt cop over the head with a flashlight like someone out of a Lucia Berlin story (Google it), saving the dudes’ asses, and heroically rushing through a line of riot police in order to incite action.  The latter scene evokes great historical moments captured in photographs, including recent ones of women standing up to body-armored men with machine guns and shields, and even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended to do so, it’s one of the few moments worth taking away from the film (taking farther, at least, than your after-film chat with your filmgoing partners about what you just witnessed).

Speaking of the story, it’s pretty clear who the real bad guy is from the beginning, but the “why” continues to change, and the action doesn’t hit a low enough gear to reveal much depth.  The villains seem like stereotypical fear-mongering bombers who don’t mind creating collateral damage in order to keep citizens angry at the police (they use hashtags to guide protesters to the next significant location), which at first feels like an uncomfortable criticism of gullible internet-surfing social justice warriors who spend their days looking for stuff to protest, but it turns out that the bad guys are actually the police themselves.  Why are they doing this?  Because they’re pissed that no one appreciates them.  Wait, but they’re killing and manipulating citizens.  Why wouldn’t the people walk around chanting NWA lyrics?  Just when the layers seem to be peeled back as far as they’ll go, the filmmakers decide to settle on plain ol’ greed to justify the bad police’s actions: their endgame is to use the gigantic protesters vs. police rumble as a cover to lift mass amounts of cash from the Bank of France during the Bastille Day Parade.  It’s not that it’s lame in and of itself; it’s that it never seems like we need Stringer Bell, Robb Stark, and Meyer Lansky to take care of a bunch of cream puffs like these guys.

That said, the protest side-story does sit uncomfortably, if only because the filmmakers’ intentions with it are never made clear. It’s not half as bad as Christopher Nolan’s opportunistic and disrespectful treatment of the Occupy movement in The Dark Knight Rises, though.

BD is ultimately harmless, I think.  But it really does rely on the actors, not the writing/story/characterization – for instance, it wouldn’t have been watchable with, say, Keanu Reeves and Mark Ruffalo as the two non-buddy heroes, and it almost reaches that point in scenes that feature the tedious villains talking to each other.  Why didn’t they cast Anatol Yusef, an actor who can play deep menace with very little effort, as the evil police boss instead of Lee Van Cleef’s character from Escape from New York?  This isn’t intended to be the aforementioned “crappy review” I would have given my own movie.  But in a world where American action films come with a write-by-numbers kit, it seems to be very, very difficult to avoid making the same movie again and again.  My script didn’t come with the kit, but it also did: by the time I was twenty, I’d seen this movie a thousand times.

I get it, though.  It’s an Idris Elba vehicle, and an argument for his candidacy for the position of James Bond.  Fine.  If you have to keep making 007 movies, cast him as James Bond.  Just don’t have him sing the theme song.

220px-bastille_day_28film29Bastille Day (2016); written by Andrew Baldwin and James Watkins; directed by James Watkins; starring Idris Elba, Richard Madden, and Charlotte Le Bon.

 

Star Trek Beyond

I like the beats and shouting

jaylahI gave Into Darkness some flack for lifting imagery and design material from the Mass Effect series, and joked to myself about what they might steal this time.  Lo and behold: Star Trek Beyond‘s entire premise is taken from the opening of Mass Effect 2, wherein Commander Shepard’s ship is attacked by never-before-seen aliens who decimate her beloved Normandy (replaced with the Enterprise here), “take” members of her crew, and possess technology that converts people into gray fluid.  Is this kind of pseudo-plagiarism commonplace because video games aren’t considered an art form, so any good ideas found in the gaming realm are fair game for use in something bigger and more important?  This question is half-rhetorical.  I’ve been playing video games since I was a child, and have had some of the most meaningful emotional experiences I’ve gotten from visual media by playing certain games, but I’ve only ever played one game that I would consider a pure work of art.  Still, even though this is conventional sci-fi fare, you’re taking someone’s work.

Gear shift here.  Despite all the ways in which Beyond‘s trailer looks like the filmmakers are phoning in an obligatory threequel, this is my favorite of the three.  Beyond feels the most like an actual episode of Star Trek, makes better use of its cast of women (and let’s face it: all it had to do was stop painting Uhura and others as yelping ingenues and scolding wives, but it goes beyond that – it’s aptly titled), normalizes same-gender (and different-species) relationships, and valiantly tries to make a group of relatively bland people who have no real stake in whether they discover anything during their five-year exploration mission endearing enough to an audience that they remember why so many of these damned series (and films) were made in the first place.

Kirk (Chris Pine, still less interesting than he was in Smokin’ Aces) is three years into his five-year stint as captain of a Starfleet exploration gig, and is oddly tolerable this time. His hair is more Shatner-y, and he seems to have grown up a bit (though he’s conveniently forgotten the time his remorseless recklessness got dozens of his own crew jettisoned into space).  Still, the womanizing fratboy is gone, and he seems to genuinely want to be a good leader, even going so far as recommending Spock (Zachary Quinto) for the captain’s chair if he should be unable to fulfill the duty.

Spock himself is more fun to spend time with now as well, partly because his tumultuous relationship with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) happens between movies.  Interesting implications arise when he learns that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died, which in turn lets Spock know when exactly he’s going to die (or does it?  It’s not made clear whether that’s a rule, but Spock’s moroseness at the news certainly points in this direction).  His trajectory involves his coming to terms with this, as well as being paired with Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) in an adventure where he must rely on the beleaguered doctor for medical help and moral support.  Banter, friendly insults, etc. (never quite hilarity) ensue.  For better and worse, the focus on Spock’s survivor’s guilt is lessened, so while he’s less of a downer, he’s not as sharply drawn, nor is he much different from anyone else wearing a blue shirt (he just acts more like Abed than the rest do).

The supporting cast gets supporting-cast stuff to do, while their collective conflict surrounds escaping a planet that has become something of a ship graveyard after the Collecto – erm, I mean, a group of hostile bipeds have wrecked ship after ship there. These villains are led by Krall (Idris Elba), a hulking goblin who sounds like he’s perpetually out of breath and whose only motivation (until the final ten minutes of the movie) seems to be For the Evulz.  Funnily enough, he’s one of the two best things about the film, particularly once he’s actually played by Idris Elba (i.e. with reduced/no makeup).  At this point, he becomes something like a space-age Stringer Bell, albeit with much more black-and-white goals (he’s a former Starfleet captain who became disillusioned after the Federation made peace with the Romulans and other enemies, making the sacrifices of his people a waste, not to mention abandoning his ship, the Franklin, on an uncharted world – it’s a pretty good twist, not something you usually hear me say).  He’s the perfect foil to a reformed Kirk, who (while also having laughably black-and-white motivations and alignments) honestly tries to understand his opponent rather than just shouting “Let’s kick ass” and having at it.

Regrettably, Krall’s ultimate goal of pushing back against Federation expansion (an allegory for indigenous people vs. colonizing) isn’t given enough time or depth, so by the time the film ends, we’re not really sure whether Kirk was “supposed” to win or not.  He claims that he would “rather die saving lives than live with taking them,” but he never apologizes for doing it before, nor do the filmmakers give Krall much opportunity to explain whether Federation expansion would obliterate the Frontier races.  Thus, Krall appears to us as the Founding Fathers portrayed our Natives to the public (and how the current media portrays every other person with a different idea): a ruthless terrorist whose extremism overwrites the validity of his grievances.

The other best part of the film is newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a loner also confined to the uncharted world, living in the shell of the Franklin.  She’s one of a million Star Trek species who just look like humans with funny makeup, but some weight and respect is given to her character: she’s been severely wronged by Krall’s people, her family was killed by Krall’s right-hand dude (whom she conveniently gets to duel to the death in the scene immediately after she reveals this), and she’s lived a difficult life in the planet’s wastes.  The film’s crowded cast makes Jaylah seem like the protagonist of a really cool survival movie we’re not allowed to see, although her scenes with Scotty (Simon Pegg) are genuinely endearing at times (plus she gets to lead her own scenes, including tthe aforementioned fight, albeit with a lightweight Elite Mook who only exists to make the movie seem like it cares about Jaylah – points for effort).  Ultimately, Jaylah joining Starfleet serves as a way to say, “Hey, the Frontier races and the Federation can coexist without murdering each other,” but it’s a conversation that should be had onscreen.  Leaving it out makes Krall something of a tragic would-be hero.

Ripoffs of other things aside (seriously though, didn’t they have enough material they could use from, say, I don’t know, STAR TREK?), the worst I can say about Beyond is that it wastes its supporting villains, phones in some CGI, and delivers so many obligatory plot points that one begins to lose faith in how interesting the rest of the universe actually is: what’s the point of leaving Earth if every planet’s genre fiction follows the same formula?

220px-star_trek_beyond_posterStar Trek Beyond (2016); written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella.

Mad Max: Fury Road

We are not things

Mad Max Fury Road - Charlize Theron As Imperator Furiosa WallpaperI am thankful that a forty year-old disabled woman can be the main character of an action movie.  I am thankful that George Miller can not only combat the macho, faux-masculine baloney that constitutes so many action movies these days, but that he can also still create superior action scenes whilst making this point.  I am thankful that a group of warrior women of all ages can make up the ragtag band of revolutionaries that sit at the core of any proper dystopia.  I am thankful that the women who play the prisoners can be three-dimensional people with dreams, personalities, badass names, and agency, not just helpless pregnant damsels.  I am thankful that more than one woman can make it out of an action film alive, and that “Vasquez” doesn’t always die.  I am thankful that a woman and a man can share top billing in a brutal, action-packed setpiece without ever once kissing each other or musing about running away as a couple.  I am thankful that the creator of one of the most lucrative and culty “man movie” franchises of all time would consult the writer of The Vagina Monologues to look over his new script.  I am thankful for that scene wherein Max (Tom Hardy) screws up two difficult shots and needs Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to snipe a difficult target.  I am thankful for the name “Max Rockatansky” and the opening credits that feature only two names.  I am thankful that Miller and Nicholas Hoult can turn a sociopathic mook into a sympathetic character in under an hour.  I am thankful that Hugh Keays-Byrne still acts, and that the same actor can play different characters in films by the same director, a la Leone’s spaghetti westerns and grindhouse fare of every stripe.  I am thankful that the MPAA no longer takes issue with the fact that a female character “fights back.”  I am thankful that a movie like this did not deafen me; in fact, I wanted to listen.

Furiosa.  Forever.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris; directed by George Miller; starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult.   

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

You have no power here

hobbit3By the mercy of the Valar, Peter Jackson’s (hopefully) final Tolkien adaptation is leaner and more concise than the previous two, yet highlights the exact problems with creating three films out of a shorter-than-most-novellas-and-many-poetry-collections novel for children.  Remember PJEs from last time?  As sad as I am to see them go, I am not sad to see them go.

The Battle of the Five Armies, previously entitled There and Back Again, begins with what should have been the final ten minutes of The Desolation of Smaug in place of the mindless “kill the dragon with the stuff he literally sleeps under” fandango: Bard (Luke Evans), temporarily incarcerated by the Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry), breaks out of his flimsy cage and kills Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch collecting his easiest paycheck yet) by firing the arrow we’ve heard all about into the hole in Smaug’s hide that we’ve heard all about, in the process using his young son as a stabilizer for his bolt – since this is mostly invention anyway, a way to create actual stakes would have been to have Bard’s son perish as the lifeless dragon plummets into the burning Dale, but then our Boring Hero would not have been quite so boring, and we can’t have that.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is now stuck inside the reclaimed Erebor with Scrooge – er, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and company, previously tricked by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) into becoming the company’s “burglar.”  Thorin has become obsessed with protecting his own gold, and refuses to aid the people of Lake Town in rebuilding, taking back his promise to fulfill their claim of Erebor’s treasure in the process.  The Mirkwood Elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) and including Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) also have a claim – some of their ancestors’ MacGuffins lie inside Erebor – and wait things out with Bard, but to no avail.  Bilbo, having had enough of Thorin’s crap, hands over the Arkenstone (one of the three main MacGuffins in Tolkien’s legendarium, after the One Ring and the Silmarils) to the allied Men and Elves, hoping that a ransom will do the trick.  But Thorin has to deal with his issues on his own, and while everyone argues, a massive army of CGI Orcs marches upon Erebor (their mischief quota for the decade has not yet been met, and now they can wipe out all of the do-gooders at once).

Unlike the second installment, this film actually feels finished.  It’s certainly not the “defining chapter,” but similar to An Unexpected Journey, the adapted parts turn out pretty well, specifically the expunging of Sauron (in animated GIF form) from Dol Guldur by the White Council, composed of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and the not-yet-corrupted Saruman (Christopher Lee).  Galadriel is given the task of banishing Sauron with her incredible power, while the others hold off the Nazgul (!), and what could have been a disastrous repeat of the Dol Guldur battle in the second film accomplishes quite a bit: Galadriel, one of the only two women among the film’s roughly thirty speaking roles, is given an important task to do while keeping in step with the mythology.  Her standoff, in “blue” form, with Sauron (which would be truly tense if not for the fact that we know she defeats him because we’ve already seen the “sequels”) illustrates exactly why she is so terrified of being offered the One Ring later.  Cate Blanchett slips back into the role as easily as if they’d filmed this in conjunction with The Fellowship of the Ring, and I almost high-fived the stranger next to me in the theatre when Galadriel casually strutted barefoot into the Orc-infested pits of Dol Guldur and began destroying enemies with the wave of a hand.

The film also highlights Thorin’s greed (albeit spinning its tires to the point of near-baldness to do so).  His decision to break his oath is worse than anything done by the film’s Orc villains, Azog and Bolg (calling them one-note would be an insult to stock characters).  This section, though, is one of the most egregious examples of how this film, 144 minutes, should have been even leaner.  Nearly every shot in the film is too long.  Every integral character has multiple closeups with serious looks on their faces whilst their hair blows in slow motion.  Conversations that already went on for too long are repeated in other characters’ heads later.  One of the film’s opening shots is a closeup of Tauriel that lasts for so long that one can almost hear the filmmakers saying, “Look! We got a woman to agree to be in this!”  Countless scenes are comprised of cliche’ non-Tolkien dialogue, including a dozen versions of this: That army was bred for one purpose. / What purpose? / (pause) War.  There are more villain-slowly-raises-weapon-to-kill-hero-leaving-just-enough-time-for-another-hero-to-stop-him scenarios than in every LotR film combined.  The eponymous battle looks like it’s about to end countless times, only for something to go wrong or another horde to show up.  The central fights in the battle (Thorin vs. Azog; Legolas/Tauriel vs. Bolg) start out well enough, tense enough, engaging enough, but employ misleads and “you only thought he was dead” moments ad nauseum.  The protracting of these scenes only highlights the series’s ongoing CG issues (cartoonish elf stunts, characters blipping across the screen, video-gamey movements, mounts appearing as blobs of color, etc.) and storytelling problems: after so much focus on the Erebor quest, why don’t we find out what happens to it and the Arkenstone after the battle’s end (in the novel, Dain, Thorin’s cousin, played here by Billy Connolly as a belligerent Irishman, takes over)?  Why is so much tension given to whether a battle will break out, when the title of the movie already gives that away?  Why isn’t Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), one of the funniest and most important supporting characters in the book, not to mention completely unique compared to the dwarf/elf/human/orc archetypes that constitute the main cast, featured more?  Why does Tauriel care about Kili (Aidan Turner)?  What does she decide to do after deciding that love is nothing but pain?  In what ways is this almost-relationship meant to be a revelation (i.e. Thranduil knows about Beren/lLuthien and Aragorn/Arwen, yo!)?  Why isn’t Tauriel allowed to kill Bolg, when they’re both essentially inventions for this film, and when she’s the only one who has any real motivation to do so (besides just winning the battle)? Why do we see Legolas mourning a comrade’s death when The Fellowship of the Ring makes clear that he’s never had to deal with death before?  Why does he have to go hang out with Aragorn now?  Why does Bard’s son get involved in the fighting, but his daughters just make scared faces?  Why don’t we see the women (i.e. wives and daughters of the Lake Men) fight in the battle after they decide to fight? Why drag out the existence of made-up character Alfrid (Ryan Gage) and not have him do anything?  Maybe his scenes are misplaced attempts at humor, but his final sendoff, in which Bard essentially calls him a coward by calling him a girl, is in pretty poor taste.

The most important issue is one that bears repeating: you cannot create tension or stakes in a prequel by introducing material that has already been resolved in the originals.  If you drink a single milligram of arsenic every time this film focuses on a contrived lead-in to something that happens in the LotR trilogy, you will be dead before the credits.

The titular hobbit does a bit more this time around, and the film ends (as it should/must/etc.) with him.  The final scene takes a moment to reflect upon all we’ve been through with the movie versions of the hobbits, and then reminds us exactly where we began.  This is one of maybe two scenes that evoke any real emotion in the film, mostly because none of the characters have actually been characterized or deepened.  The other scene is Bilbo’s tearful farewell to dying Thorin, who apologizes profusely for his selfish actions earlier.  The scene works because Freeman and Armitage are adept actors who have spent a lot of time playing opposite one another; however, it falls slightly short because it mirrors the scene between Aragorn and Boromir in Fellowship, and the core issue is that it’s the same moment.

Many of the issues are with Tolkien, including the continuous exclusion of women (none appear in The Hobbit; none are a part of the Fellowship of nine, few do anything of importance in The Silmarillion besides die), but most of it is with the filmmakers.  The story could have been more succinct with one movie or even two, but three installments that all breach 2.5 hours actually lampshades the absence of character growth.  The most complete piece of the Hobbit film trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies puts forth an (mostly) honest effort, and is, for the foreseeable future, the last one I’ll get a chance to look at.  Y’know, unless New Line greenlights an Azog n’ Friends spinoff.

Read my writeup of The Desolation of Smaug here, and An Unexpected Journey here.

Check out a Tolkien-based film I worked on here and here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014); based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; screenplay by Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, and Evangeline Lilly.

Pompeii

A new way of looking at Carbonite

pompeii-movie-still-13There’s not much reason to write about Pompeii.  It’s a formula action movie, and its plot is a facsimile of Gladiator (which is itself derivative enough).  Its dialogue is laconic, unoriginal, and plot-driven, and the cast is an ensemble of stock characters.  But I’m interested in Mount Vesuvius, particularly the eruption that wiped out an entire population of people who had no idea what was happening, and whom we know almost nothing about.  I’m interested in the imagining of who those people could have been, an impetus for filmmaking that seems extremely genuine on director Paul W.S. Anderson’s part.

Milo (Kit Harington), also known as “the Celt,” is the sole survivor of a tribe of horsemen needlessly slaughtered by those damned Romans, led by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland).  Milo is now everyone’s favorite gladiator, which means that the politicians hate him.  He shares the main narrative with Cassia (Emily Browning), Pompeii’s equivalent of a princess, who is a bit more vocal about her contempt for Rome than her reticent parents (played by Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris) are.  Corvus comes to Pompeii under the pretense of helping improve the conditions of the city, when he really wants to marry Cassia, even threatening to have her parents killed for treason when she refuses.  What must happen from here?  Cassia and Milo must become drawn to one another.  Corvus must antagonize Milo, but not recognize him until a pivotal moment.  Milo must cause a scene in the Amphitheater that gets everyone talking, and then lead the remaining gladiators (which includes champion Atticus, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to freedom.  The slave must defeat the corrupt politician, and the forbidden love must be allowed to bloom.  You know the formula.  Hopefully you’re tired of it, and not as hopelessly addicted to it as are so many seekers of casual entertainment, who can barely stomach the thought of real characterization (read: they don’t know what it is).

But the most interesting character is Mount Vesuvius itself, a plot device that not all other action period pieces have.  It’s fascinating to see the reactions of Pompeii’s citizens, most of whom think their Gods are punishing them for violating one silly tenet or another.  This is where the film’s characters are really defined: how they behave when an active volcano is about to devour their entire world.  Cassia, Atticus, and Milo want to evacuate as many people as possible; Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), Cassia’s servant and friend, wants to stay by Cassia’s side instead of saving herself (which yields results you can guess at); Graecus the slaveowner (Joe Pingue) wants to get out of town without a second thought for anyone else; and best of all, Corvus, along with his right-hand man Proculus (Sasha Roiz), is just petty enough to stay in a doomed, collapsing city to settle a score with Milo, even though no one’s ever going to know about it.

I can’t help but like Kit Harington, with all of his pouty brooding.  What unfortunate situations his characters find themselves in.  What loss they experience.  Emily Browning is another find.  There’s a lead actress there, and one who’s able to play tender drama and badass heroism together.  I want these two to win, even when the film’s poster essentially shows them about to die.  On the other hand, Carrie-Anne Moss, once a leading action hero herself, hard-bodied and kicking butt and doing it with Matrix-era Keanu Reeves in an elevator, is relegated to the role of the ill-fated mother (her voice role as Aria T’Loak in the Mass Effect games is a revelation; why are filmmakers forgetting that she was Trinity?).  Akinnuoye-Agbaje still plays the aloof tough guy with a code, and does considerable justice to whom his character may have been.  Sutherland phones it in, and as monstrous as his character is supposed to be, he’s nothing compared to Eva Green’s deliciously evil warrior-woman in the otherwise mediocre 300 sequel earlier this year (a film whose anachronisms and embellishments make Pompeii look like a documentary).

The film is worthwhile if you know a little bit of the history.  Anderson’s stimulus is an image of two real-life people, discovered in the excavation of Pompeii, who were entombed in the mountain’s pyroclastic flows, creating casts of their exact body shapes when they died.  The casts were later filled with plaster to create the now-famous molds of people in their final poses.  It’s romantic to think that these two may have been heroic lovers and not simply citizens holding each other in shared terror, but these people (along with another cast of a man believed to be from North Africa) inform the film’s characters, and how fantastic it is to think that these people can be immortalized this way.  Even if we’re just making up stuff about them and using their made-up story to satisfy adolescent boys on a weekend, maybe more people will become interested in the historical narrative.

Pompeii (2014); written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson; directed by Paul W.S. Anderson; starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Jessica Lucas, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

 

 

 

The Expendables 2

Male pattern badness
The Expendables 2, the sequel to what I once called the “manliest movie ever made,” is pretty much what you’d expect: laughable writing, sub-par acting by semi-retired action actors, big things blowing up, countless logical and scientific inaccuracies, ridiculous laconic dialogue, “in-joke” references to other movies featuring the film’s actors, and in spite of all this, at least some measure of fun.

The story, if we can call it that, once again follows Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his band of mercenaries as they do the dirty work of Mr. Church (Bruce Willis).  This time, the mission involves retrieving information from a computer in a safe on a downed airplane in Albania (yup).  Refreshingly, the team is buffed by two new Expendables, one of which is a woman, Maggie, played by Chinese actress Yu Nan.  Ross immediately has a problem with her joining, maybe because he’s distracted by the urge to protect women, or maybe because he’s just sexist; we can’t be sure.  The other is Billy, played by Liam Hemsworth, the only actor in the movie who delivers a single line of convincing dialogue.  Ross’s best buddy, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) once again appears, lest the team be bereft of anyone who can still perform anything requiring agility.  Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and Dolph Lundgren reprise their roles of taking up space, while Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as Trench, Ross’s arch-rival/frenemy, who makes far too many references to the Terminator films – this doesn’t work because Schwarzenegger already parodied his self-references in 1993’s Last Action Hero (and successfully, I might add).  Jet Li briefly resumes his role of martial artist Yin Yang (really?  That’s his name?), but he departs from the group early, as Li was working on several projects in China at the time of filming.

The mission, as it must, goes awry, and the information from the plane’s computer falls into the hands of a megalomaniac aptly named Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who also murders one of the Expendables in order to make some nebulous point.  After burying their brother, the remaining Expendables flatly state their goals for the remainder of the film: “Track ’em, find ’em, kill ’em.”  Stallone should have added, “So that I can finally have my showdown with Van Damme.”  This proves to be the only reason for Van Damme’s presence in the movie, as his character is barely onscreen and is given no opportunity for development.  I’m not made of stone; I know a fast-paced actioner starring Sly Stallone is not meant to be character centric, but having a reason to want the villain (especially one who is basically named “villain”) to receive his comeuppance would serve to streamline what is otherwise a bump-laden adventure.  Vilain, while sparsely seen until the final duel with Stallone, is apparently so badass that he wears sunglasses even at the bottom of a mine shaft.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers rely too much on Ross’s motivation – revenge for the death of someone we as an audience barely know – and not development of the villains as characters, which renders Vilain and his right hand man (played by longtime Van Damme collaborator Scott Adkins) ineffective compared with the villains played by Eric Roberts and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the first film.

A movie like this relies upon its action, and if you enjoy ludicrous gunplay and fight scenes constructed with the goal of destroying everything in sight, this movie does not disappoint.  Inexplicably, the Expendables appear to be some sort of superpeople.  Ross, while speeding down a zipline, is shot twice, and doesn’t seem so much injured as he does simply disappointed about being hit.  When shot by Expendables, however, enemies transform into airborne chunks of meat.  While not as intentionally gory as the first movie, this has its share of grisly demises for Vilain’s army of redshirts, including one that follows the tried-and-true Theorem of the Magnetic Helicopter Blade, which states that if a fight scene takes place within thirty yards of an active parked helicopter, someone will be diced up in the propellers.

Much of the dialogue in the opening action scene reminded me of things I might shout when getting particularly excited about a video game.  “Here we go!”  “Take this, you bastards!”  etc.  Stallone at one point shouts the line “Rest in pieces!” after a henchman is shot about a thousand times, and even with his action-star enthusiasm, it’s still a groaner.  Even in an Expendables film, lines like these should be left on the cutting room floor.  It’s frustrating to think that big-budget films (i.e. the ones being greenlit and funded by major film studios) are the ones populated with writing so poor, while incredibly ambitious and dramatically sound films like Safety Not Guaranteed are being made with a budget barely hefty enough to pay the cast’s salaries.  To add to the badness, there’s a slightly-more-than-cameo by Chuck Norris, whose acting rust is supremely evident and who serves little purpose but to kill legions of un-Americans and deliver his famous “Chuck Norris facts,” which he still doesn’t seem to realize are parodying him rather than glorifying his martial arts exploits.  Unforgivably, Sergio Leone’s music is used to percuss Norris’s appearances.

The real highlight of the film is Yu Nan’s Maggie, Stallone’s first attempt to write a female character in a world inhabited by overgrown boys hauling gigantic phallic symbols around.  She gets more lines than one might expect (or that a viewer with Ross’s sensibilities might want), but she quickly proves herself as trustworthy and more intelligent than anyone in the group and fully capable of taking down five or six of Vilain’s henchman at a time.  While forming a friendly bond with Ross, she doesn’t end up as anyone’s love interest, though there’s a funny reference to the fact that she and Dolph Lundgren once starred in a film (Diamond Dogs) together.

The cast is studded with action stars, but is diluted by the inclusion of Lundgren, Couture, and Crews.  There are a few good performances, but the characters who deliver them vanish within the first half hour.  Van Damme looks to be in great shape, but doesn’t get to fight much.  The Expendables are made vulnerable by the death of a member, but the wrong Expendable dies.  I’ve heard talk of Nic Cage, Steven Seagal, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Wesley Snipes gearing up for possible appearances in The Expendables 3.  The impetus of the series has always been to elevate has-beens to currently-ares, but the problem with keeping things current is that you have to keep doing it, and The Expendables is about to reach a point of unsalvageable irrelevance.

The Expendables 2 (2012); written by Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk; directed by Simon West; starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Yu Nan, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

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