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.

The Imitation Game

The Big Bang Theory, ca. 1941

People love underdog stories, especially when the underdogs are eccentric loners, so I don’t begrudge screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum for embellishing details of Alan Turing’s personal life – you have to do some invention when it comes to his relationship with Joan Clarke, because we need Keira Knightley to be in it a lot, and the film needs to “say something” about her situation.  You need to trim the Bletchley Park cryptographers down to a ragtag band of misunderstood do-gooders, because it makes people think of Star Wars and El Dorado and everything else they like.  You need to create conflict amongst this group, because a bunch of coworkers getting along for two full hours is 1) boring; 2) not analogous to the real-life experiences of the current working class.  But portraying Turing as being somewhere on the autism spectrum (when by all accounts he was not) does something interesting: because of series like The Big Bang Theory and other popular media that employ the cutesy, popcorny method of depicting people with Asperger’s as asexual geeks who happen to be geniuses, and whose personal struggles (common TV/movie ones include inabilities to understand jokes and sarcasm, lack of interest in socializing, and complete immunity to romance) make them adorable and endearing, plenty of laypeople think they know everything about an extremely varied mental condition that affects people differently depending upon myriad factors, including personality.  On the way out of the theatre, one of the chatty people in the row behind me made this comment: “I think he was just confused about what he was.”  Mind you, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) utters the line “I am a homosexual” several times to several different people, says “I prefer men, not women” and “I have had affairs with men,” is shown in an almost-romance with a boy during adolescence, and does not deny his sexuality when he is criminally prosecuted for “gross indecency” (i.e. happening to love the company of the same gender).  So it’s partly a basic comprehension problem, but it’s also media damage: how many Emmys has Jim Parsons won for playing the lovable nerd upon whom so many now base their “knowledge” of Asperger’s?  True, the people in the row behind me are not a very large sample size, but these micro-cases illustrate the larger problem: passive, casual media being taken as fact, and dangerous ignorance about serious subjects as a product of a popular TV show.

The Imitation Game follows Turing and his team’s attempt to break Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, thereby shortening World War II and saving millions of lives.  The story movement involves slightly-higher-than-garden-variety mystery stuff, and is buffered by a very personable cast: Matthew Goode plays Hugh Alexander, Turing’s main foil in the group, which includes Peter (Matthew Beard), Jack Good (James Northcote), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and most importantly, Joan Clarke (Knightley), who shows up to Turing’s all-but-impossible mass interview for a new cryptographer, resists sexist comments, and aces the test more efficiently than even its creator can.  All the while, the group combats antagonism from their commanding officer, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance doing what he does), whose motivation is to have the last word, no matter what, even if it allows the Nazis to destroy the world, apparently.  Soon, Turing and Joan become engaged so that she can stay and continue her invaluable work on the Enigma project – her overbearing parents are concerned about her being a single career-woman – and despite reservations on both sides, they care for each other and have each other’s backs in every way.  From there, as Turing puts together a machine named after his childhood almost-boyfriend Christopher, who died of tuberculosis, the team grows closer.

Despite the minor female presence in the film, interestingly enough, Turing’s biggest epiphanies occur as a result of female influence.  Joan’s ideas fuel much of the anti-Enigma project’s success, and it’s a passing comment from Helen (Tuppence Middleton), a friend of Joan’s who flirts with Hugh, that causes a major turning point in Turing’s thinking (which allows Cumberbatch to do the always-fun “Epiphany causes main character to rush out of room, crashing into as many people and breakable things as possible in the process”).  Knightley controls all of her scenes, and one of the toughest things about watching the film is that her Joan Clarke could be the protagonist of her own film (and she’s layered enough that we get the sense that she’s leading an offscreen film we never get to see).  The scene wherein she obliterates all thought that a woman can’t do this job is triumphant, but these scenes can be problematic in period pieces, and I’m not talking about her victory as much as the language used (and this was also a big issue in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire): filmmakers create these spectacles with the intention of looking smugly upon the awful ways the patriarchal/Christian power structures treated certain people in the past, without thinking about the ways in which these are still issues for us in the present.  Add to that the fact that the target audience for many of these narratives (adolescent boys) are still feeling things out (i.e. largely clueless to the struggles of women and people of other cultural backgrounds), and when they’re being constantly fed this stuff, this type of language becomes normalized now.  It isn’t enough to just show things “how they were” when you’re attempting to illustrate how far we’ve come, or how certain revolutionaries and hero(ine)s were crushing the status quo: in art, in order to say something, you have to actually say it.

The crown jewel of The Imitation Game, unsurprisingly, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, which all at once honestly portrays the struggles of a gay government employee in the ’40s (and respects the real-life Turing by not showing sex scenes or taking sharp turns into conjecture/invention) and the difficulties of being that fish out of water, taken to the extreme with the personality prescribed to him by the filmmakers.  His last scene with Knightley, highlighting the development of their friendship and trust over the years of (and following) the war, is amongst the most emotional of the year.  It’s incredible that a story like this can be buried for fifty years, while borderline propaganda like American Sniper gets greenlit to glorify violence and accessorize women within a few years of its supposed real-life events.  With The Imitation Game, we have a rarity: a war drama that does not suggest that a sainted soldier – rugged, white, heterosexual, male, American – was responsible for the greatest heroics.  It’s responsibly told, well-characterized, and has the only end-title “where are they now” sequence at which I’ve ever teared up.

The Imitation Game (2014); based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; screenplay by Graham Moore; directed by Morten Tyldum starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong.

Anna Karenina

Divorce is one thing – dinner is quite another

KeiraKnightleyAnnaKarenina2

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is what I would call different.  It’s different enough to provide a fresh, exhilarating film experience, but it only works one-hundred percent if you’re not much of a reader.

The story, set in 19th century tsarist Russia, follows Anna (Keira Knightley in yet another period piece) as she explores the question of her own happiness, a question whose answer seems to ever evade her grasp.  Her husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), is practical, steadfastly religious, soft-spoken, and highly respected in society.  They have a son together and seem to get on just fine, until Anna lays eyes on Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins an affair with him during a trip to Moscow.  Karenin is relatively unmoved, as such concepts as “love” and “happiness” don’t hold much stock in his world, but he soon discovers that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child, which is not only (according to Karenin) a “crime against God,” but also a threat to the family’s social and political standing.  The irony here is that the story begins with her coming to terms with her brother’s (Matthew Macfayden) womanizing, which threatens to break up the family.  Her own adultery is met with far less tolerance, and even when Vronsky brings her to St. Petersburg, the couple are unable to make friends, and as Vronsky develops his own social life, Anna becomes paranoid and possessive.

The parallel story involves Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a country landowner who loves Kitty (Alicia Vikander), sister to Anna’s sister-in-law, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).  In the original story, his part is much larger, and his marriage to Kitty is anything but easy, whereas the film focuses more on Levin’s difficulty in courting Kitty – sure, this is important, but a novel of this size can’t be compressed, with all of its ins, outs, what-have-yous, character developments, emotions, and structures, into two hours. Additionally, some of the most important parts of the book involve epiphanies on the part of several characters, most of all Levin, who eventually decides, after doubting Kitty’s love for him and fearing a difficult relationship with his son, that he must live righteously in order to justify living at all.  Vronsky, amazed and embarrassed at Karenin’s strength of mind and heart when the latter forgives him for stealing his wife, unsuccessfully attempts suicide.  These pivotal scenes are omitted from the film.

In fact, the film does a bang-up job of sweeping any and all deep characterization under the proverbial rug.  Anna is depressive and indecisive, Karenin is righteous, Levin tries hard, Vronksy is foppish and irritable, Oblonksy is a funnyman, Dolly is understanding.  We never get much deeper than these traits, and the narrative focuses more on Anna’s manic dithering than any real growth on the part of the cast.

Where the film succeeds is its visual style: much of the story, particularly in the beginning, takes place on an enormous stage.  Single shots encompass multiple scenes, with the actors walking behind curtains and changing costumes in seconds.  Sometimes, they’re dressed by stage-hands right in front of us.  Many of the film’s discoveries take place in the theatre’s rafters, where the characters creep, ponder, and of course, in the end, leap.  This style is at the expense of never being unaware that you’re watching a scripted production, but for this piece, it inexplicably works.  The performances are mostly golden, with Jude Law radiating a reserved intelligence, Gleeson possibly finding a breakthrough as a hero, Macfayden managing to provide comedy within a tragedy, and Kelly Macdonald looking as though she’s about to cry in nearly every scene.  The only one I’m on the fence about is Keira Knightley.  Can she act?  Of course.  Was she cast in this film because she’s the best possible candidate to play Anna, or because her popularity following the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was the only ticket to getting a nationwide release?  I don’t know.  I would have been way more “with” Anna in the film version if Kelly Macdonald had taken up that role instead of Dolly, who is relegated mostly to the background.

I’m more concerned with the decision to leave out character details and depth, rendering many of the characters straw figures in fabulous clothing.  I cannot help but think this was a studio thing, or a knowing flourish on the part of the director – as classic and canonized as Tolstoy’s work may be (hell, I just had a student present on the author and this novel last week), as much as everyone should be looking at this material as an example of good art, there’s a dwindling interest (and we’re talking about the general public here, not writers and readers and thinkers) in anything that doesn’t involve fast cars, laconic dialogue, mushroom clouds, and traded gunfire.  Why does the work of Tolkien, work that’s been adapted to death, get a three-movie deal for a 317-page novel?  Anna Karenina, 864 pages, gets crammed into 2 hours of reel, and someone’s going to complain that it feels incomplete?  I’m sure Stoppard, who wrote and adapted his own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to film, had every intention of doing a faithful adaptation here.  But when it came down to it, there had to be a sacrifice.  Throwing character development in front of the train is an insane decision, but as we all know, there ain’t no sanity clause.

Anna Karenina (2012); written by Tom Stoppard; adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Joe Wright; starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  

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