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 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.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

What have we done?

la_ca_1016_the_hobbitI don’t know who’s paying reviewers to say that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is leaps and bounds better than the mediocre first film, but as they say, the money-hose runs long (actually, I just made that up).  I wrote a bit about narrative payoff in the newest Disney film, which seemed all well and validated until last night.  The Desolation of Smaug makes Frozen look like Pulp Fiction.

We joked all throughout the aughts about Peter Jackson’s love for All Things Orc, and when he shoehorned Orcs into the first Hobbit film (for the laymen: Orcs do not appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit novel), even that seemed somewhat okay, since yes, the novel did have an army of Goblins (later referred to as a type of Orc in The Lord of the Rings) led by Bolg, the sworn enemy of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage in the films), son of Azog, the sworn enemy of Thorin’s ancestors, and as we all know, the Boring Hero of a fantasy film must have an appropriate foil.  But in the first film, it wasn’t Bolg; it was Azog, who in Tolkien’s mythology is dead a century before the novel begins.  Alright, I thought.  Maybe PJ liked Azog’s name better.  Bolg didn’t do much other than get squished by Beorn off-page, so no harm done.  But then I remembered how many Orcs and Uruk-Hai received their own scenes in the first trilogy of films.  I recalled lines like “We ain’t had nothin’ but maggoty bread for three stinkin’ days!” Okay, okay, I thought.  This is all because they’re making a trilogy, and need to have a bad guy to knock off in a duel at the end, so let’s stick it out until Azog bites it and Bolg takes over the army in the next one.  And then Azog did not die, and what’s worse, I hadn’t brought anything to throw at the screen.

The new film is All Orcs All the Time (actually a better title than the one it has).  The wonder and magic are gone, as are all attempts to adapt the novel.  Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), one of the most interesting and important characters in the novel, and also the subject of one of the novel’s funniest and most involving scenes, receives two or three minutes onscreen, wherein he says and does nothing that makes any difference or sense, before being shoved aside for scenes of computer-generated Orcs saying corny bad guy crap to one another.  Remember Barrels Out of Bond?  That’s included, but it’s extended to about twenty minutes so that a thousand Orcs can be killed trying to stop the barrels from floating down the river while simultaneously battling other characters who are not in the novel, such as Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whose makeup so heavily tries to hide how much older and differently built than he was in the LotR films that his face might as well be animatronic – in fact, most of his fighting is done by a CG version of him, and it’s some of the most embarrassingly bad CG that I’ve ever seen onscreen.  Even the dwarves in the barrels appear as blobs of CG color.  Did they dump the entire animation budget into Smaug, spitball this stuff together, and just say “Fuck it; the Ringers won’t notice or care”?  If there’s a chase scene, there are Orcs involved.  If there’s a narrow or dark passage, an Orc is lurking somewhere.  If a new set is introduced, you can bet the Orcs will want to visit it.  If someone is eating a cake, an Orc will pop out.

The overt “prophecy” stuff about the dwarves takes a front seat.  Thorin is supposed to retake Erebor and become King Under the Mountain.  He believes and pursues this without question, even referring to people who might be sacrificed in the wake of this pursuit by their races instead of their names, absolving himself of all blame for their deaths.  He has a scene wherein he becomes not unlike Sean Bean’s Boromir in a fumbling attempt to snatch the Arkenstone.  Here’s the problem: no one in the theatre – and more importantly, not even the lens of the film itself – seems to realize that Thorin is the villain.  He’s the one making all of these bad things happen.  His adventure is putting everyone in danger and bringing back to life a dragon so steadfastly evil that he actually utters the phrase “I am death” – and not even to intimidate anyone; he says it to himself!  Thorin will not succeed in the end, of course, but none of Tolkien’s (nor Jackson’s) narrative remotely suggests that he gets what’s coming to him.

There’s an unbelievable amount of focus on material meant to raise the stakes, but the film falls victim to an ancient blunder: you cannot raise the stakes in a prequel by introducing stuff that has already been resolved in the originals.  Gandalf (Ian McKellan) goes head to head with the Necromancer (Sauron) before getting captured at the end.  Is anyone truly afraid for him?  Similarly, when the One Ring rolls away, is anyone afraid that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) will not retrieve it?  In further distractions, even the barely-relevant Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry, basically playing himself) has his own scenes with yet another Jackson-invented character, Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who essentially fills the “Wormtongue Lite” role.  Furthermore, an excruciating amount of screentime is devoted to Kili (Aidan Turner), who falls for the flawless Tauriel in much the same way that Gimli becomes infatuated with Galadriel.  But it’s different this time because none of this, including Tauriel, is in the book, and readers know that any nuance or depth concerning Kili’s character doesn’t matter much at the end of the next film anyway.

You’ll notice that I have barely mentioned Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit.  That’s because his role, the essential narrative voice of the novel (albeit told in vintage Tolkien third-person) is relegated to cameo status here.  There were times that the film lingered so long on Orcs and dwarves that I actually forgot about Martin Freeman’s involvement.  He saves the dwarves’ lives more than once, but the profoundness of these feats is never mentioned by anyone (Gandalf at one point chalks everything up to Bilbo not being “the same Hobbit who left the Shire,” and we’re left to accept him as a generic warrior character to go with the other thirteen).

If you’ve made it this far, I’ll say this: Bilbo’s scene with the Mirkwood spiders is very good, and even includes the twisted speech of the spiders, and the horrifying revelation (to those who pay attention) that Bilbo’s desire to keep the ring is more than fairly similar to the spiders’ blind desire to feast on living flesh.  But it’s soon punctuated by yet another unwelcome and noncanon arrival of the Elves, whom Jackson shoved into Helm’s Deep (where they did not belong), and now has them rescue our gang from spiders and Orcs using painfully choreographed bull-shitsu, most of which is animated and not performed by the actors or stuntmen.  The involvement of Gandalf is well done, despite the fact that his trek to Dol Guldur is not shown in the novel, because it’s simple: he wants to check out a suspicious magician whom he (correctly) presumes to be Sauron.  So he joins Radagast (Sylvester McCoy, still covered in bird shit) and heads to the center of the problem.  It’s straightforward and mostly relevant.  Take a guess at whether he fights Orcs, though.

And then there’s Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a creature so painstakingly created that he took the entire title of the film for himself.  The scene with Smaug is great in the novel not because we see a cool dragon or a battle, but because we see a genuine bit of characterization on the part of Bilbo: due to the Ring’s influence, he begins arrogantly taunting Smaug without even thinking about it.  In the film, he still refers to himself as Riddle Maker and Barrel Rider, but he does it all jittery-like, and both characters react to the other exactly as you’d expect characters in a fantasy movie, and not from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, to react.  The wordplay soon moves aside in favor of a film-invented battle with the dwarves, whom, again, readers know will not succeed in melting Smaug’s indestructible hide with molten gold (although it takes us a half hour to get there before the film abruptly drops us).  Wherever there arises the opportunity for a cliffhanger, there will be one.  Even Legolas’s lakeside duel with Bolg ends in a stalemate.  Smaug, though, is expertly animated and acted, albeit at the expense of the filmmakers’ one true love: the Orcs.  Evangeline Lilly’s involvement is also a welcome breath, adding a feminine energy and voice that the story desperately needs.

The biggest chip I carry is that ever since the original Rings films, I have continuously suspected that Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, reread as they might, have no idea what Tolkien’s books were actually about, and this was Tolkien’s biggest fear and pet peeve when it came to adaptations of his work.  It’s so easy for someone with the money and fanbase of New Line to say that a certain addition is “in the spirit of Tolkien,” when in fact, there was a reason he did not write penis jokes, ten-page battles with Orcs, and a wrestling match atop Mount Doom.  Tolkien’s cultural insensitivity aside, he knew the workings of his own universe.

All things considered, I can say with genuine honesty that I think the final chapter (which should have been this one, considering the amount of taffy-style narrative stretching seen here) will be better in all ways, if we can find our way back to even a single facet of what makes the story resonate – the smallness of it all, the deliberate and unique narrative, the characterization of Bilbo.  Is it an “enjoyable” film?  Yeah, sure.  But as I’ve said, spectacle and entertainment do not make quality art.  Leave the enjoyment to the Wargs.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013); based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Evangeline Lilly, and Richard Armitage.