Film

“Dead Men Tell No Tales” is Worst “Pirates of the Caribbean” Film Yet

New faces and old favorites can’t buoy a lackluster script that makes even Jack Sparrow dull

Film Score: 5/10

I saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean on an analog television not meant for widescreen DVD playback. The aspect ratio was so terrible that I had to watch the action between two six-inch panels of black, but I didn’t want to miss a thing so I kept scooting closer. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the first of the series that I’ve seen on the big screen, yet it’s the only one that made me feel like it’d be okay if I looked away.

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This time around everyone’s searching for the Trident of Poseidon, a magical artifact that holds the power of the sea, but their reasons never engaged me like any of the preceding films. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwiates) wants it to free his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman, newcomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) wants to connect with a father she never knew by finding the Trident detailed in the journal he left her, and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) needs it to avoid the revenge of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghost crew. The familial bonds drawing Henry and Karina to the Trident are sufficient for introducing it as a potential treasure, but Jack’s need of the Trident—which is supposed to be urgent as it’s the only way to save his life—comes across, to quote Dead Man’s Chest, as less of a “resolute and unyielding need” and more a “trifling need […] a passing fancy.”

Jack Sparrow never once says, “I need the Trident of Poseidon.” In Dead Man’s Chest, he was very clearly terrified of the debt he owed Davy Jones and his pet beastie. He did everything in his power to prevent collection of that debt. In Dead Men Tell No Tales he meanders around on screen drinking rum for the first hour, barely aware of the danger Captain Salazar poses. Not until he and Captain Salazar finally meet does the plot pick up again as Jack realizes the threat of vengeful Spanish ghosts (and ghost sharks) is real. Though the threat apparently still isn’t real enough for Jack to start suggesting the group goes after the Trident with all haste.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Perhaps that’s a result of Captain Salazar as a villain. His thirst for revenge helps to drive the plot and certainly makes him dangerous, but it seriously stunts him as a memorable Pirates villain. Beyond the somewhat ho-hum ghostly CGI mapped around his face, all he has is his rage and a single-minded determination to find Sparrow by whatever means necessary. Bardem delivers a few excellent scenes, but it’s mainly him making due with a one-dimensional character.

Almost all the actors have to “make do” this time around as they portray characters from across the franchise. There are some classic Pirates moments that prove no one is just going through the motions—a failed bank robbery, an escape from the gallows, and the initial meeting between Sparrow and Salazar all provide the physical comedy, action, and clever banter we’ve come to love and expect—but the rest of the film relies on a script at times contrived (e.g. Paul McCartney’s cameo and an absolutely pointless witch) and at others completely ignorant of Pirates canon (i.e. the origin of Jack’s compass). The actors are left with the task of making us believe it all. Something not even Johnny Depp can do.

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It doesn’t matter how big the spectacle or how many off-the-wall antics the filmmakers convince Depp to act out, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise won’t survive without an engaging story. The original film wasn’t a hit because of its CGI-heavy action sequences. It wasn’t a hit because of drawn out misinterpretations of what a horologist does for a living. And it certainly wasn’t because the audience enjoyed watching Jack Sparrow get drunk and stay drunk on screen. The original film was a story about freedom, adventure, and a man who valued those things above all else. Depp’s Academy Award-nominated performance was inspired by that story. For the sake of that performance and the legacy of the franchise, perhaps it’s good Dead Men Tell No Tales is being touted as the final adventure.

Film

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” Delivers Spectacle at Expense of Substance

Enjoyable performances from Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law are lost amidst a plot designed to showcase action

Film score: 6/10

I’m sure the executives at Warner Bros. were confident their Guy Ritchie-directed King Arthur adaptation would be a huge hit. Not to mention the five planned sequels. With some tweaks to the typical Arthurian legend, the right actors, and that unique Ritchie treatment of the film, it should have been the beginning of a profitable franchise devoid of superheroes with years of runway ahead.

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Charlie Hunnam is King Arthur in KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

It could have been.

It isn’t a bad film—certainly not as bad as the box office or many other critics might suggest—but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword focuses too much on pyrotechnics and not enough on substance. Even though the film has many bright spots, the filmmakers drown everything with more action, more plot, more noise. However fun it all might be, the movie keeps shouting until it becomes too difficult to pick apart the good from the bad.

Thankfully the casting of Charlie Hunnam as the newest iteration of Arthur was a check in the pros column. In this version of the story his character was orphaned at a young age and grew up without knowing he was son to King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who had been murdered by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law).  Despite being raised in a brothel in the city of Londinium (a pleasant nod to Roman occupation and historical accuracy), Arthur knew he could aspire to more. Hunnam is regal from the moment he steps on screen, in a gentleman rogue sort of way. He’s charismatic through confidence, both as an actor and a character. I’ve never witnessed Hunnam on screen before this, but he treats the role the same way Arthur treats the other characters: knowing that not everyone knows or likes him and that’s okay, because at the end of the day they’ll still probably end up the best of friends. As Arthur says, “Why have enemies when you can have friends?”

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Vortigern (Jude Law) contemplates the weight of his stolen crown.

Jude Law as Vortigern is the only true enemy Arthur has, and he plays the role of villain admirably. Law cleverly avoids melodramatic posturing in favor of quiet menace and suggested power. He is certain he will be able to continue growing his power, but just to be safe he rounds up all men of a proper age to try their luck at pulling sword from stone. Enter Arthur, the born king, and the beginning of a struggle for the throne. Unfortunately, as Arthur learns to wield the sword (which is straight O.P.) the audience never gets to see Vortigern’s “growing” power. The only instance of Vortigern actually wielding magic is when he holds flickering flames in his hand. He uses magic other times in the film, but at the risk of spoilers, suffice to say the audience never actually sees him using it.

It’s a disappointing trend throughout the film. Every instance of magic is either minimal or extraordinary. There’s no in between. The opening sequence features a retinue of mages riding the backs of elephants 100 feet tall and wielding what basically amounts to a disintegration ray against the battlements of Camelot. The climatic displays of magic quickly lose their novelty and result in sequences oddly reminiscent of video game cut scenes, ultimately adding to more of that noise. Their saving grace is that they really only happen at the beginning and end of the film, leaving the entire middle with room for more enticing fare.

Legend of the Sword is at its best when the characters are the focus. Whether it’s Arthur’s back alley mates or the ragtag team of rebels led by Uther’s former advisors, they provide an everyman face to the epic battle raging around them. They also provide plenty of proverbial storytelling meat for Guy Ritchie to chop up in his traditional quick-cut style. There are truly elegant moments of Ritchie’s style, including a montage of Arthur’s early life, a story Arthur relates to a Londinium guard, and a hypothetical situation between Arthur and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) which is played out for the audience’s pleasure.

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KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) (Center-R) CHARLIE HUNNAM as Arthur, AIDAN GILLEN as Bill and DJIMON HOUNSOU as Bedivere

Besides Hounsou (The Legend of Tarzan, Guardians of the Galaxy), the acting roster holds other notable names, including Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) as a rather self-serving Goosefat Bill and Annabelle Wallis (The Tudors, upcoming The Mummy) as Maggie. David Beckham has a few lines in his acting debut, and Katie McGrath makes an appearance (and unintentional Arthurian adaptation continuity, as she’d previously starred in the BBC series Merlin). If only Ritchie and his team had spent more time on them instead of relegating their names to obscurity in favor of an incredibly drawn out process to make Arthur come to terms with his past—assisted by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as the Mage—so that he can use Excalibur and ramp up the epic action and noise again.

What Ritchie and his team fail to recognize is that just like Arthur is not defined by the circumstances of his childhood, neither does Excalibur define him as a king. The legend of the sword paves the way for the true king, but Arthur—and the men and women who fight by his side—are the true heroes. Ignore them and their story and it doesn’t matter how seamless the editing, pounding the music, or dazzling the displays. The people won’t follow.

Film

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is Wholesome Fun Despite Flaws

Rapid fire jokes and an energetic cast make up for periods of meandering plot and flat dialogue

Film Score: 7.5/10

The first Guardians of the Galaxy ended with Peter Quill, aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), asking his cohorts, “What should we do next? Something good? Something bad? A bit of both?” They settle on the latter, and that’s exactly what Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 delivers: a bit of both good and bad. James Gunn returns to write and direct the second installment of the franchise and though he doesn’t hit every mark, he and his team hit enough of them to make the film a success.

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When we rejoin Quill and Co., they’ve channeled their galaxy-saving experience into becoming guns for hire. Their skills on put to the test against a tentacled, sharp-toothed monster while the opening credits roll and “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra plays in the background. They receive the fugitive Nebula (Karen Gillan) as payment from their employer, a race of conceited, golden humanoids called the Sovereign. The Guardians leave with the crazy daughter of Thanos in tow, but not before Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals from the golden gits. They only escape the Sovereign’s wrath with help from a mysterious man who reveals himself to be Ego (Kurt Russell), Quill’s long-lost father. Of course, no one truly trusts this man, but as Gamora (Zoe Saldana) so aptly puts it, “If he turns out to be evil we’ll just kill him.” So Quill, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) go with Ego and his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to learn more about Quill’s past. Rocket, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), stay behind, only to get captured by Quill’s old Ravager crew and wrapped up in a mutiny against Yondu that’s been brewing ever since he agreed to first transport cargo for Ego.

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The story all boils down to family and how our relationships shape who we are, so much more than genetics ever could. The plot wants Quill and Ego to be the central relationship, but it’s actually the weakest of GOTG Vol. 2. At one point the two men play catch, and though I realize there’s meant to be a level of cheesiness, the scene steps into the realm of plain awkward. Pratt tries to infuse the father-son moments with his usual charisma, but because the camera is forced to bounce between the split groups of characters, he never has time to really inhabit the scene. The same could be said of Russell, whose lackluster Ego seems to be more a fault of the writing than of the actor. He’s saddled with all the exposition, his lines accompanied by porcelain shapeshifting statues whose sole purpose is to give the audience something to look at while he talks.

Yes, the plot is driven by the bond between Quill and Ego, but it’s the secondary characters who shine in this sequel, and the energy they put into their roles helps elevate the other performances when they falter. GDP3200_CMP_v009.1246.JPGBautista and Klementieff, especially, embrace their characters’ social miscues in order to deliver standout performances and some of the best interactions of the entire film. Michael Rooker gets plenty of material to expand his turn as Yondu Undonta, the Ravager that raised Quill, and he doesn’t waste it, running the gamut of emotion from smug to remorseful with ease. He also finds a kindred soul in Rocket, revealing more about the both of them and the poor decisions they’ve made. Nebula, who was my least favorite character in the original GOTG, is finally given space to properly channel her emotional intensity and psychotic rage and it works to much better effect. But if any character deserves a commendation, it’s Baby Groot. I don’t care if it was a marketing ploy or not, but he stole the show. Every. Single. Time. I’m sure some adults will think his presence overdone, but he’s “too adorable to kill.” I found Groot to be just pure, innocent fun.groot

Which is ultimately what makes GOTG Vol 2. a success. Nothing is taken too seriously and it’s all done in good fun. The result is a creative space ideal for instances of brilliance. Nothing quite on the level of Quill’s dance-off from the first film, but close. Rocket’s contraptions are a joy to watch in action, as is a moment of hand-to-hand combat where he proves he’s more than his toys. Everything about Yondu and Rocket’s escape from the mutinous Ravagers is fantastic, as is the song choice of “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & the Americans. But above all, what continues to stick with me is the moment Quill is handed a Zune.

I remember the first mp3 player I ever bought was a Zune. The product turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt by Microsoft to compete against the Apple iPod, but I loved it all the same. So seeing Quill’s eyes light up at the publically ridiculed product, I about lost my mind. It was perfect. Sure, it may have been a tongue-in-cheek decision by writer/director James Gunn; he’s always been a bit unorthodox with his decisions for the GOTG. But it represents everything I love about the franchise: wholesome, unadulterated fun, despite its flaws.