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.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Devils and black-sheep and really bad eggs

I admit to being among the folks who were apprehensive about the amendments to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in DisneyWorld, but it wasn’t all that bad.  They didn’t mutilate the sets or remove the “Yo-Ho” song; they just placed an animatronic Jack Sparrow in a few spots and made a throwaway reference to Davy Jones.  Die-hard fans of the Gore Verbinski Pirates films had the same initial reaction when they learned of the fourth installment, which serves as a sort of “reboot” to the series, crowning a new director, eliminating most of the supporting cast (including Bloom and Knightley), and reverting to the classic adventure film structure.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is directed by Rob Marshall and claims to be “suggested by” Tim Powers’ novel, On Stranger Tides, a truly epic historical/mythological fiction in which the protagonist, Jack Shandy, finds himself on board Blackbeard’s ship on a journey to the Fountain of Youth.  Jack Sparrow finds himself in similar circumstances here.  The story begins with Sparrow (Johnny Depp) pulling a daring, antic-laden rescue in London, aiding his best friend, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) in escaping trial and execution.  From there, Sparrow encounters several new characters, including Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a former flame he neglected to mention during the events of the first three films, Scrum (the prolific Stephen Graham), a musical deckhand helping Angelica enlist new shipmates, and his oddball father, the mysteriously-named Captain Teague (Keith Richards), who seemingly has his hair done by the same Voodoo hairdresser as Jack.  Angelica ropes Jack into a journey onboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship belonging to her supposed father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and the reluctant Sparrow agrees, his real motives unknown even to himself.  Other characters include the returning Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, having fun as usual), who has inexplicably joined the King’s Navy to seek the Fountain for England; Philip Swift (Sam Claflin), a missionary and Boring Hero replacing Orlando Bloom; Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), a mermaid; the underused Spaniard (Óscar Jaenada), the head of the Spanish Secret Service aiming to destroy the Fountain; and Richard Griffiths as the historical King George II, portrayed as the pompous blowhard he was.

The new cast is an effective ensemble and most (not all) deserve the sans-Depp scenes they get to carry by themselves.  Rush transitions from his amazing performance in The King’s Speech to reprising Barbossa, and the results are great – it’s different.  He’s not just a pirate this time; he has his own motives, and they thread into the story without delving into endless, bloated side-plots.  That said, the film as a whole is much stronger and leaner than the previous two in terms of focus, length, and characterization.  Marshall remembers the humor, fun and spirit of the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, and also that getting an audience to care about characters doesn’t mean simply putting them on screen for a long time and having them whine about their problems (although, to be fair, Philip and Syrena don’t quite deserve what we’re supposed to feel for them).  Cruz gels into these films and their adapted history and mythology far better than Keira Knightley in terms of ethnic background, sea-going experience and virtually everything about the character’s life, not to mention acting style – don’t get me wrong; Knightley’s chops are undeniable, but in terms of maritime historical fiction, Cruz just fits.  McShane’s Blackbeard is menacing, and many of his scenes with Depp are priceless.  Of particular interest to me (a person greatly into maritime history) was the mention of Blackbeard’s real-life death, though after the journey begins, the Blackbeard of On Stranger Tides isn’t quite as engaging a character as much of the supporting cast, particularly Angelica, Scrum, and Barbossa.

This is the first film in the series to employ actual references to history with actors performing as people who once existed (if you don’t count Mrs. Cheng in At World’s End), and it is mostly a success.  Suddenly, the mythology makes sense.  Yes, there was the butchered (but inspired) mythology of parts 2 and 3 in the series, including the amalgam of Davy Jones, the Flying Dutchman, and the kraken, but all that clears the way for material we can more readily sink our teeth into, including stories about mermaids.  As told in many songs and tales of the age, if a sailor saw a mermaid, it was a sign his ship would soon come to wreck.  The mermaids here don’t presume to shatter any stereotypes; they’re vicious creatures with a nondiscriminatory hunger for the blood of men (except Syrena, apparently, who has a heart of gold).  Gemma Ward briefly appears in the film’s best and most harrowing sequence, singing the traditional “Jolly Sailor Bold” with Stephen Graham before the predicted massacre at the fictional Whitecap Bay.  While wonderful, the sequence could have been improved with some genuine surprise, i.e. not having a grizzled old sailor babble for five minutes prior about how mermaids are sure to appear and eat the crew at any minute.

While taking inspiration from the Powers novel, the film also follows suit with the other three and borrows from Ron Gilbert’s Monkey Island series of video games, which in turn was inspired by the DisneyWorld ride.  References in this film include the Voodoo fetch quest/ritual, the deserted island on which a certain someone is marooned, and Blackbeard’s Voodoo doll of Jack Sparrow – light in comparison to the heavy references in the first two movies, particularly Jack Davenport’s costume in Dead Man’s Chest, but it’s there, and it’s satisfying if you know the references.  History, the original ride, a good adventure novel, and Ron Gilbert: sounds like a good package, right?

The film doesn’t hit every mark, but it “does the rounds” as far as blockbuster adventure films go.  Kids understand what’s going on even if they’d rather have the CG fish people and giant squid, and there’s enough clever humor, maritime historical play and responsible treatment of characters to keep adult displeasure limited to the fact that you’re sitting in a very uncomfortable seat for over two hours.

P.S. See it in 2D, or you won’t see much of anything.

P.P.S. A script for a fifth film has been completed.  My main concern?  They’ve used up all the good lines from the ride.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott; directed by Rob Marshall; starring Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane.

The King’s Speech

Use all your well-learned politesse

I figured it out.  When trudging through the History half of my double-minor, what I really needed from my alma-mater’s History department was Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in place of the aging Vietnam-o-philes paid to drawl over the podium until my ears went numb.

The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper’s heart-wrenching film concerning the life of King George VI at the cusp of World War II, flips the term “historical drama” on its proverbial head.  Not only is the drama between three or four core characters more engaging than any silly, battle-crammed historical epic, but the narrative also manages better accuracy with historical events.

The story centers around The Prince Albert, Duke of York (who later, of course, becomes King George VI), played by Colin Firth.  After his unfortunate stammer causes disaster at Wembley Stadium’s Empire Exhibition, Albert (“Bertie”) seeks help, at the behest of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the beloved Queen mother, from speech therapist and failed Australian actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The narrative focuses on the relationship between these two men as the Duke struggles with confidence, knowing deep down that he will soon have to take over the responsibilities of the throne from his older brother David (Guy Pearce), who cares more about marrying American socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) than leading the British Empire.  The inspired supporting cast also includes Michael Gambon as King George V and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, who skirts caricature at times, but it’s a bit hard not to with Britain’s hammiest Prime Minister.

Despite the tension in the world at the time, Hooper wisely chose not to cast an actor as Adolf Hitler, while still employing some focus on him.  In the rare instances Hitler is shown, he appears as himself in actual footage from the thirties and forties.  The performances of the actors themselves are unrestrained, well-researched and certainly Oscar-grade: our sympathies shift between Firth and Rush, though never far away from either of them.  The Duke desperately needs his stammer to disappear, but he’s still resistant to befriend a member of the common folk.  Carter, who plays the elder Elizabeth, proves she can do more than act weird, and her character is racked with sympathy.  Logue aspires to be an actor, and despite his age still attends small auditions for major roles in productions of Shakespeare.  Pay close attention during the final shots of the film and try to imagine what Logue is really thinking.

The cinematography also delivers the occasional surprise.  Instead of epic (there’s that word again), majestic shots, Hooper constricts us into narrow hallways and oblong rooms.  Heroic closeups of Albert and Elizabeth pop up here and there, but Albert’s face always reflects familiarity with these narrow hallways, as if he embodies the very words attempting to escape his throat.  His long walks through the halls of the castle and along the sprawling streets of Britain mirror the nation’s march toward war – a war Albert himself will have to declare personally in the titular speech.  The big scene itself is handled adeptly by Hooper, wisely staying with Firth and Rush, briefly allowing us to leave the room to see the reactions of others, but even when we leave the room, the tension does not cease.

Historically, the film takes minor liberties with Winston Churchill and actually waters down Edward (omitting the fact that he was probably a Nazi sympathizer and, along with Wallis, was acquainted with Adolf Hitler).  As Roger Ebert states, however, “This film finds a more interesting story about better people.”  Albert and Elizabeth were the parents of Queen Elizabeth II, and have for some reason not been given as much attention as the universally antagonistic pair of Edward and Wallis.  I suppose it’s the same controversial flair that got that Sid and Nancy film made.

The King’s Speech (2010); written by David Seidler; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon