Archive for May, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

When it comes to sequels we have been spoiled in recent years by Marvel and the latest Star Wars episodes.  But with last week’s entry into the Alien universe we were reminded that most of the time it doesn’t work out.  The usual model for a sequel is to try and repeat earlier success which involves repetition of the more popular elements.  Once that decision is made creative compromises are engaged and the resulting project is likely to be unoriginal and more conservative in scope, probably losing the edge that made the first film so successful.

Obviously there are exceptions.  But never has this principle been more clearly evident than in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The Curse of the Black Pearl is a great summer popcorn movie with a truly eye-opening performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.  Depp has stumbled and slurred his way through four sequels now and has yet to recreate that initial magic.  Probably because the good Captain is too eccentric to be anything other than a supporting player as I pointed out in my review of On Stranger Tides.  Movie star Johnny Depp, however, has to be the lead.

In this one he does step back a little to share the stage with a couple of younger leads.  Henry Turner, played by Brenden Thwaites, is the son of Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom and Elizabeth Swann, played in a cameo by Kiera Knightley.  Henry’s driving ambition is to free his father from the curse that puts him on the crew of the Flying Dutchman, destined to sail the ghostly seas forever.  He meets Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, an astronomer who keeps being mistaken for a witch.  She is looking to unlock the secret of a diary that her unknown father gave to her when he left her as a baby on the steps of an orphanage.  The two mysteries are related of course and both hinge on finding the Trident of Poseidon, which can break all sea curses.

Jack Sparrow stumbles in the story because Henry believes that the captain can find the Trident.  But Jack’s a little down on his luck and once again his past is catching up to him in the form of Captain Salazar, played by Javier Bardem.  Salazar was captain of a Spanish pirate hunting ship who Jack stranded in the Bermuda Triangle back many years ago.  Now Salazar has escaped and he and his crew have supernatural powers and are looking to rid the seas of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Well it may have something to do with my exceedingly low expectations, but God help me, I kind of liked it.  To be sure it is a pale imitation of The Curse of the Black Pearl but it has many of the elements that made that film work.  The look of the film, sort of macabre without being gross or scary, has been consistent throughout the series.  The images here don’t seem quite as inventive.  But is that because they are no longer new as they were in back in 2003?  Who knows?

It has much the same kind of off-hand humor.  At one point an exasperated Carina asks, “Are all pirates this stupid?”  They think about it for a little bit and then nod their heads and say, “Pretty much.”   There are many more examples of that.

I do have to say that I really didn’t get much involved emotionally with either Henry or Carina.  It wasn’t that the two actors did a bad job but I just didn’t find their stories that compelling.  This isn’t a film that’s going to appeal to deep emotions.

In the end it is an enjoyable summer movie.  You probably won’t remember much of the plot by the time you get home but you’ll have been entertained for a couple of hours.  What more can you ask of a sequel?

Alien: Covenant

Okay Alien: Covenant is a sequel to Prometheus which was a prequel to the Alien films.  Except at the time they denied that it was a direct prequel.  Or something.  If their intention was to create confusion: mission accomplished.  The thing is that Prometheus really stunk.  So much so that they waited five years to give us another entry into that universe.  If you read my review of it, you’ll see I declared the Alien universe dead. At least creatively.

Well the misses in the franchise are certainly piling up.  Ridley Scott is a great filmmaker but he can’t make a good movie out of a bad script.  Is he given better material to work with this time?  This script is written by first time screenwriter Dante Harper and John Logan who is the creator and chief writer for one of my current obsessions, the series Penny Dreadful.  So I went in hopeful.

People are pushing out into the universe, looking to colonize new worlds.  The Covenant is a colony ship manned with a crew of fifteen people, many of them couples who are heading to a known habitable world.  They are in hibernation for most of the trip but can be awoken in emergencies.  Two thousand colonists are in suspended animation for the entire trip and there are 1600 frozen embryos.  An android, Walter, played by Michael Fassbender, remains active for the entire multi-year journey just to make sure everything runs smoothly.

After the ship is damaged in a freak solar storm, Walter takes the crew out of hibernation to make repairs.  Unfortunately, their captain, played (briefly) by James Franco in an uncredited role, is killed when his hibernation unit malfunctions.  This leaves his wife, Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, bereft and Oram, played by Billy Crudup, in command.

While repairing the ship they get a transmission from a nearby world that upon investigation looks even more promising than the one they are headed toward.  Oram decides to go for the two birds in the bush and they divert course.

I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say this turns out to be a bad choice.

The planet turns out to be the destination of the Prometheus.  That ship’s android, David, also played by Michael Fassbender is still around, although Elizabeth Shaw, played in Prometheus by Noomi Rapace (You only get to see still pictures of her here) is long dead.  David saves the Covenant’s survey team from the initial attack of the Aliens.  But it turns out that he may not be entirely trustworthy.

Well this film is better than Prometheus but that’s hardly surprising.  It doesn’t depend on people making stupid choices to advance the plot.  Unless you count diverting the mission in the first place and they explain why that mistake was made pretty well.

Michael Fassbender gives excellent performances as the two androids, portraying the subtle differences between them expertly.  Katherine Waterston has a way of doing all these heroic things while looking like she’s on the verge of panic.  She has the talent to portray strength and vulnerability in the same action.

It is a visually stunning film which is what you would expect from Ridley Scott.  The dark claustrophobic interiors and the overcast exteriors give the film an exotic and menacing air.  It is a technically accomplished movie.

There are a few things that bother me, however.  For one thing, the first film and its direct sequels made the company the almost omnipotent villain.  Their greed in wanting to get an Alien to Earth in order to weaponize it is what motivates them.  Here the filmmakers have changed that.  I won’t detail how because that would spoil the ending but it’s an attempt to lay some pretentious philosophy on a plot that can’t sustain it.

Another problem is Scott’s approach to the franchise.  Alien is a great horror film and Scott seeks to repeat that accomplishment.  But when James Cameron made Aliens, he sought to turn it into an action franchise.  Cameron knew that as a horror vehicle Alien is something of a one trick pony.  Once you see those pods, you know what’s going to happen.  And the sight of Aliens bursting out of bodies loses its impact over time.

When I reviewed Prometheus, I said that any further films in the Alien franchise would be pointless.  I’m going to have to stand by that assessment.  This does nothing to advance the mythology of series and as a prequel it doesn’t convincingly fill in any gaps either.

That doesn’t mean Alien: Covenant is bad.  It’s just that I can’t see any reason for it to have been made.

The Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

At last we have crossed the vast desert of the post Oscar/pre Blockbuster season to come to Marvel’s first offering of the summer.  We can thank DVD’s, Netflix and other streaming services for our survival of this terrible trial.  It was a harrowing journey.

When the first Guardians came out three years ago, I wondered how people would respond to the strangeness of this premise.  The property was one of Marvel’s more far out ideas.  I needn’t have worried.  It was exciting and funny and it all worked brilliantly, becoming one of Marvel’s most popular and most acclaimed films.

Now the same crew is back again but the questions are different: Will they feel the need to top the spectacle of the first one?  Will they begin to take themselves too seriously?  Will they ever take another chance?

The answer to that last one is sadly “no.”  And that’s a shame because the first film was all about taking chances, introducing a new tone and setting to the Marvel universe.  Now their main concern is not messing things up.  Normally I would chalk that up to the natural course of things but when you consider the whole catalog of Marvel films, it’s a troubling development.  They’ve never been adverse to risk-taking before.

All that being said, go see this movie.  It’s a used formula sure, but it works.

The Guardians have grown into a tight knit team under the leadership of Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt.  Acting as mercenaries they travel the galaxy, taking jobs and getting by.  Like any tight-knit group they have their conflicts.  Quill has growing affection for Zamora, played by Zoe Saldana, which sometimes she seems to return and sometimes not.  Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, is uncomfortable with how close everyone is getting and is intent on stirring up trouble.   Drax, played by Dave Bautista, remains a loose cannon who when he takes initiative can make things either better or worse.  And Baby Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, is just adorable, stealing every scene he’s in.

Having double-crossed their latest clients, a race called the Sovereigns, the group goes on the run and encounters Peter’s long lost father, a being named Ego, played by Kurt Russell.  The Sovereigns leader, Ayesha, played by Elizabeth Debicki, hires Yondu, played by Michael Rooker to capture the Guardians and bring them to the Sovereigns.

This is a tremendous cast.  When it comes to casting Chris Pratt father, Kurt Russell is really the only way to go and their scenes together are great.  Pratt, himself, has Quill down cold and the rest of the regular crew picks up where they left off.

So while it isn’t quite the bold stroke that the first one was, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is well worth your time.

And a great start to the summer.


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