Category Archives: Film Reviews

Review: The Hitman’s Bodyguard combines action, ethics, and parody to entertain

Source: impawards.com

My movie review of The Hitman’s Bodyguard starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, and French actress Elodie Yung is now live over at the Independent Institute. This was a fun movie, an entertaining mix of parody, stylized action, and wise-cracking dialogue. Reynolds and Jackson have great on-screen chemistry.

What I also liked, however, was how the story hinged on a great ethical question that was intimately integrated into the plot: Is the person who protects evil people so they can manipulate the legal system or the one who eradicates evil people more ethical? The movie doesn’t answer the question, but the worldviews of Michael Bryce (Reynolds) and Darius Kincaid (Jackson) wrestle with this question for two hours as the body count heads into the stratosphere. The story also has strong themes of forgiveness and learning to appreciate the moment instead of regrets of the past. (The film has car and motorboat chases as well.)

Not everyone gets the movie, but audiences have been kinder than critics so far. The movie has generated $125 million worldwide since its release. As I write at the Independent Institute:

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an action/drama that would normally be considered standard fare for the summer season. Yet this movie does more than careen through dead bodies and extended vehicle chases. The story is driven by the relationship between the core characters and turns on a serious question of ethics and forgiveness. At the same time, the film verges on a parody of its genre. This combination seems to have befuddled many movie critics but not audiences.

Based on my movie scoring, I gave The Hitman’s Bodyguard an A. This is substantially higher than conventional critics who seemed to pan it for the cliched plot. I actually saw much of the action as parody and felt the humor offset the seriousness of the heavy ethical and relationship issues that were the center of the relationships between Bryce and Kincaid. The full review goes into these aspects of the film in much greater detail.

 

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Review: The Dark Tower follows convention in effort to entertain

The Dark TowerThe Dark Tower, ultimately, is a convention adaptation to film of the book series by iconic horror writer Stephen King. Unfortunately, the movie probably does not deliver the kind of suspense that King’s fans would expect. Despite a fine performance by Idris Elba (Mandela, Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Beyond), the screenplay’s stylized characters do not engage the audience significantly even though the two protagonists have well-defined character arcs, and the lack of depth creates a flat performance for the primary antagonist.

The story starts out with Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of his firefighter father and remarriage of his mother. His dark dreams conjure images of a dystopian world where evil reigns, compelling him to use his artistic talents to bring the dreams to life. Not surprisingly, his sketches of dark, desolate landscapes, the aftermath of bloody battles, and a tower under attack are unsettling to his mother and stepfather, who have him in counseling but believe he needs even more aggressive psychiatric intervention.

Jake, however, is convinced a truth lies behind the images. As his parents arrange for him to go to a juvenile psychiatric facility in upstate New York, he escapes and finds a portal to another world. Once in the other dimension, he stumbles into a “gunslinger,” Roland Deschain (Elba), who he recognizes as a protector of a tower that mysteriously controls several parallel universes. The tower is under attack by a Man in Black, Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey,  Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf of Wall StreetMudMagic Mike) who is on a quest to destroy the tower and allow pure evil to take over the human world. Deschain is the last of the gunslingers, and the emotional toll of his war against evil has worn him into a deeply ingrained cynicism. It’s up to Jake’s naive commitment to the noble aim of saving humanity to re-engage Deschain as a proactive force for good.

Critics have panned The Dark Tower, largely because of its conventional storytelling and execution. This criticism is well earned. The Dark Tower provides little innovative or imaginative in the science fiction/fantasy genre, and the story is grounded in a fairly conventional western theme. Deschain is the broken, fallen Wild West gunmen whose soul must be revived by rediscovering the dignity that comes with fighting the good fight. McConaughey’s character, however, has virtually no depth. His sole purpose in life is to destroy what is good, and his motivations are never clear. Not surprisingly, with little to work with, McConaughey characterization of Walter is flat.

Their conflict is inevitable, but the screenplay provides little depth to the characters. Thus, the plot is conventional. The ending is never really in doubt. The special effects are well done, but conventionally presented. The effects further the action, but are not embedded in the plot.

Nevertheless, conventional movies can entertain even when they don’t rise to artistic excellence. Audiences will likely be left with the impression The Dark Tower is a conventional sci-fi, fantasy action movie and little more, but still entertains within the conventions. This is probably why audiences on Rotten Tomatoes enjoyed the movie by a 3 to 1 margin over critics (although audiences still gave the film just 54% “fresh”).  The fundamental entertainment value also helps explain why The Dark Tower is still showing in 1,800 theaters nationwide five weeks after its release.

Overall, I scored the film at 8.5 but this is generous—and four stars is definitely generous—in part because of the rubric used to evaluate the movies. The film has well executed effects and top drawer production values. In addition, a strong message of courage and facing up to evil even when the odds are stacked against the protagonists gives the film a boost over other films with weaker messages in the rubric.

The Dark Tower is unlikely to make its production budget of $60 million, earning just shy of $50 million after five weeks at the box office. Nevertheless, the film is likely to find a solid audience in the DVD and online streaming market because it still manages to entertain the core audience.

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Review: War for the Planet of the Apes brings closure to a grand arc

I finally got around to seeing War for the Planet of the Apes. This is the third installment of the franchise re-boot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). The film brings closure to a grand arc in the rebooted franchise and most fans of the series should be satisfied. The movie has also received positive reviews, generated tremendous staying power at the box office, and earned $314 million after four weeks at the box office (on a $150 million production budget).

War follows the attempts by the leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), to avoid a final show down with the humans. The human population has already been wiped out by a virus blamed on the apes—the Simian Flu—and a remnant of the human population is trying to preserve their owns species by destroying the intelligent apes holed up in the forests of the Northwest United States. Caesar’s ability to communicate and his intelligence are the product of human medical experimentation (and the subject of the previous two films). In War, the humans are led by the maniacal Colonel (Woody Harrelson, White Men Can’t JumpNatural Born KillersHunger Games) who is intent on destroying the apes in what he terms as a “holy war” for the survival of mankind.

War for the Planet of the Apes—the ninth in the pantheon of the franchise—stays true to the original series which grappled with important social issues of the day. The innovation in the first movie, Planet of the Apes, was to reverse the roles of the apes and humans, giving the apes the benefit of intelligence, rationality and social superiority. Similarly, in the War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s character embodies the common virtues of humans—desire for peace, cooperation, rational and balanced thought, grace, and forgiveness.

Caesar is morally and emotionally challenged by the deliberate if unintentional murder of his wife and young son by the Colonel and his soldiers. Their deaths spur him to hunt down the Colonel and kill him as revenge and retribution. Maurice, a wise and philosophical Orangutan (Karin Konoval, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), provides the balance and metaphysical foil to Caesar’s charismatic leadership. The humans embody the dark side of humanity—unquestioned loyalty, willingness to uncritically follow leaders, the darkness that comes with succumbing to fear.

Screenwriters Matt Reeves (who also directs the movie) and Mark Bomback (Deception, The Wolverine, The Divergent Series: Insurgent) add important dimension to the story by introducing a young human girl into the story. After Caesar and his party kill her father, a deserter from the Colonel’s rogue army, Maurice refuses to leave her to starve or be killed in the wilderness. The girl’s innocence, courage, and willingness to look beyond her species to bond with the apes plays an important role in Caesar’s own personal transformation in his quest. Her role and acceptance also allow War to become more multidimensional than a simple ape vs. human tale, staying true to the franchise’s emphasis on finding common ground and overcoming prejudice.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting sequel to the previous two movies. The special effects immerse the audience in the movie, making the world of the apes as natural and accepting as human life in the real world. The action sequences keep the audience engaged throughout the movie even though the end is never really in doubt. Serkis’s acting gives life to his character in striking ways despite the fact the audience never sees human form. Harrelson finds a way to add dimension in the egocentric, brutal Colonel blinded by his own prejudice and self-righteousness. The screenwriters also do a nice job of infusing references to characters from the older films, giving those familiar with the original series a satisfying sense of closure. While the story is not fresh, the movie is done well.

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Review: Valerian‘s entertaining space romp

Source: www.impawards.com

My rather lengthy review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now live at the Independent Institute. I almost skipped this movie, but I’m glad I didn’t. I really enjoyed it: Valerian is an entertaining space romp with a dash of cool action. I also realize this puts me at odds with most reviewers and a sizable number of movie goes. But I try to call’m like I see’m, and I found Valerian is an entertaining and satisfying sci-fi, fantasy movie.

Writer-Director Luc Besson does a nice job of consciously blending a Star Wars-esque space opera with Avatar-inspired fantasy and adding a European flare. Visually, the movie has a lot going on, and it’s fun to just sit back and watch. Unfortunately, sometimes the flare gets in the way of the plot. Still, the story holds together as a rather straightforward sci-fi, fantasy action yarn.

Besson also adds depth, building real arcs into the characters. This allows him to also build a strong message into the substance of the film, specifically one of the overarching importance of individual dignity, emotional transparency, and peace as building block for relationships and community.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets also has an intriguing backstory as I write over at the Independent Institute,

Americans might be tempted to think this film and comic series was inspired by Star Wars. In fact, if a relationship exists, the influence may be the other way around. The film’s story is taken from the long-running French comic series Valerian and Laureline (1967-2010), which featured epic, diverse universes with inter-species cooperation and conflict. Indeed, the design director behind Star Wars: The Phantom Menace kept bound copies of the comic on his shelf during that film’s production.

The movie has its weak moments—the pace slows in key places, and the dialogue tends to be a bit juvenile—but overall the film entertains. Sometimes, we just need to give credit to a film that is just entertaining.

I scored Valerian 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being perfect) based on 8 elements. This translates into a grade of a B and really 4 starts on a 5-star scale (3 1/2 on Rotten Tomatoes).

The full review can be found here:

Review: Valerian Entertains with Focus on Visual Effects and Personal Dignity

My Facebook site—Movie Reviews By Sam Staley—where I am now posting links to all my reviews can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/themovieswithsam/

 

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Review: Dunkirk‘s foreboding, somber tone masterfully executed

My full review of Christopher Nolan‘s new movie, Dunkirk, is now live at the Independent Institute. Nolan’s storytelling is masterful and innovative, something we’ve come to expect from an “auteur” filmmaker who brings his own aesthetic and storytelling style to his movies. Dunkirk is not exception.

The film uses several devices to convey the deep, foreboding mood of the evacuation and its implications for the attempts to stop the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Dialogue is minimal, the plot almost completely driven the actions of individuals non-verbally. Nolan uses sweeping vistas of the beaches of Dunkirk to convey the enormity of the task to evacuate 400,000 troops and the hopelessness. Lines of soldiers snake into the shallow waters of the beaches and breakers with virtually no sign of help stretching out to the horizon (and Britain).

The story of the evacuation—which was a logistical success that mitigated the enormity of the disaster—is told from the perspectives two soldiers trying to use their cunning and opportunity to get off the beaches as quickly as possible, a flight of three Spitfire fighter pilots that get whittled down to one, and a private boat operator and his son sailing into the heat of the battle to rescue soldiers. The stories ultimately converge, but the way Nolan assembles the stories is innovative and sometimes difficult to follow.

Nevertheless, the film is likely to be among the list of Best Picture and Best Director nominees at next year’s Academy Awards. I scored the film 9.13  (out of 10) on my rubric and gave it 4 1/2 stars on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Review: The Exception harkens to classic war-time romances

The Exception made a brief appearance in the movie theaters before heading to the DVD and on-line streaming market. This is where the film is likely to find its commercial success. It lacks the fast-paced action, grand themes, and scenic worlds that lend themselves big screen storytelling. In many ways, The Exception seems like a throwback to the period romantic dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

This World War II story centers on a forbidden love that develops between a German army officer, Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney, Suicide Squad, UnbrokenDivergent) and a female servant working in the household of the exiled German Emperor, Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, BeginnersThe Last Station). The Kaiser and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer, Maleficent, Albert NobbsInsurgent) are living in Belgium awaiting an opportunity for the former monarch will be reinstated in Germany. Brandt has been transferred by German headquarters to lead Wilhelm’s security detail.

In retrospect, Wilhelm’s hope to return to Germany seems hopelessly naive and detached (and toward the last years he appeared increasingly delusional). But the Kaiser’s character is rooted in the real life dynamics of post-World War I German culture, society, and politics. Germany’s disastrous early experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), kept hopes for re-establishing the German monarchy alive for many in the aristocracy and military. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated rather than renounce his claim to the throne, and he hoped to be invited back to Germany in a prominent government role.

German loyalty to the former monarch was, in fact, problematic for Adolph Hitler. While Hitler never considered reinstating Wilhelm, the former Kaiser’s stature was sufficiently high his death (in 1941) was used for propaganda purposes reinforce German values of honor and commitment to German aspirations for European hegemony. This historically grounded reality sets up important plot points in the movie.

When Brandt is transferred to the Kaiser’s security detail, he meets Meike de Jong (Lily James, Downton AbbeyBaby Driver), a servant in the Kaiser’s castle. They begin a romance despite rules against fraternization between staff and the soldiers. Complicating matters is the fact Meike is Jewish. Following his heart, Brandt refuses to break off the romance. Intrigue deepens as the SS (a German paramilitary police force) discover a British agent is working in the town. Meike is also an informant for the Dutch resistance, reporting on the activities with the Kaiser’s house.

The Exception is generally well executed and acted. Plummer successfully projects the naive optimism of the banished Kaiser while also adding humanity to his borderline delusional character. McTeer’s portrayal of the Kaiser’s ambitious and devoted wife, Princess Hermine, creates the necessary tension to keep the outcome of the clandestine romance in question throughout most of the movie.

Unfortunately, the plot is predictable, providing little that is fresh or innovative with the exception of a small plot twist at the end. Virtually nothing in this film pushes or even comes close to a creative boundary. The result is an entertaining but largely un-engaging film.

The relationship between Brandt and de Jong as characters is also problematic. The first day at the castle, Brandt and de Jong notice each other, making eye contact several times. This presumably is an attempt to demonstrate mutual attraction. Later that evening, however, de Jong delivers an invitation to dinner with the Kaiser to Brandt in his private quarters. Brandt orders de Jong to strip, and he rapes her (although physical violence is not used or attempted). This scene clearly establishes the master-slave hierarchy. Soldiers by virtue of their status and rank, could take advantage of the subservient role of women.

Yet, just a few nights later, de Jong enters his room again and voluntarily has sex with Brandt after discovering he was wounded on the Eastern Front. If this were a ploy to extract information from Brandt, this turn of events and de Jong’s actions would be plausible. But just days later they are in what appears to be a mutually satisfying romantic relationship. While Brandt’s shift from lustful physical satisfaction to romantic interest is plausible—in the first case it was “just sex”—de Jong’s attitude as the rape victim would be much more difficult. Yet the film does very little to address how the character overcomes the indignity and humiliation of her rape other than a flimsy apology by Brandt after he has developed personal feelings for her.

The Exception is a film that harkens back to the naive innocence of the romance-dramas of the post-World War II era. Despite this inconsistency, the romance mixed with international intrigue creates enough tension and conflict to keep audiences entertained throughout the movie despite the unimaginative plot.

The Exception scored a 7.9 (out of 10) on my rubric, earning a C+.

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Review: Wonder Woman is a smart, well executed action film

My movie review of Wonder Woman is live at the Independent Institute. I really liked the film, and, as I mention in another blog post, I think this might be a break through film for women directors. The film is smart, well executed, and superbly directed by Patty Jenkins.

Perhaps one of the elements I appreciate the most is the multidimensional development of the main character, Diana Prince (Wonder Woman). She doesn’t lose her gender identity as she embraces the superhero role and heroic commitment to saving the human race. Diana Prince is not a character that essentially acts and looks like a man. Kudos to screenwriter Allan Heinberg for scripting a great character and giving her a worthy arc. Jenkins has also done an excellent job blending an international cast and using the story to play off their differences. Their differences become humorous interactions that deepen relationships and understanding.

In my longer review, I write:

Wonder Women contains an excellent story in a well-executed film that grapples with the conflicts between idealism and practicality, innocence and experience, gullibility and wisdom. Jenkins has crafted a film that infuses substance into a smart story. She uses well-crafted storytelling elements, such as defined and complex character arcs, to allow the anti-war social conscience that underlies the film to shine and provide a compelling context for the film.

This is great summer film—a lot of fun with great action sequences and excellent character development.

The complete review can be found herehttp://bit.ly/IIwonderwoman

An article about five not-so-obvious things to love about Wonder Woman can be found herehttp://bit.ly/5notsoWW

Stay tuned to this blog because the film is prompting me to think about several other articles on plot development and character development using Wonder Woman as a starting point for the riff.

 

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Five ways the Pirates of the Caribbean films misrepresent real pirates

I recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and had to once again take a deep breath. The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, I reminded myself, is intended for entertainment, not historical accuracy (my review of the film is here). As a social scientist and writer of historical fiction (The Pirate of Panther BayTortuga Bay), I have to step back and remind myself that I take liberties when writing my books, too. Nevertheless, the films play loose with pirate history, and those misrepresentations should be acknowledged.

Nevertheless, these deviations from historical fact should be intentional and deliberate, not a result of carelessness or lack of interest. So, I have put together a list of five historical inaccuracies promoted or used in Dead Men Tell No Tales that may serve the plot but probably make historians cringe. This is not to say that the director, screenwriters, or producers were reckless, negligent, or didn’t care. Rather, this short list just provides a little real world correction to impressions that may have been left by the movies themselves based on what we “know” historically about Caribbean piracy.

  1. The ships are too big. Most pirate vessels were small, often one-masted schooners, because they needed to be nimble, fast, and navigate shallow waters. Larger vessels with multiple gun decks were slower and harder to maneuver. They were also easier to run aground. They were best used for blockades or large fleet battles. Hence, these larger ships were called “ships of the line” because they would be arrayed in lines, bow to stern, to engage the enemy. That’s the way fleets did battle up until the 20th century. Pirates were usually solo actors, like Jack Sparrow. A few, such as Blackbeard, were able to command multiple ships. But even Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was a frigate without the multilevel gun decks depicted in the films. Frigates were among the larger warships designed for speed, agility, and firepower.
  2. The ships are too fast. Numerous scenes show larger ships of the line overtaking similar sized ships. While some of this can be chalked up to the fantasy elements of the film, in reality ships would pursue each other for days because the differences in speed were only 1 or 2 knots among similar sized vessels. The ships in the films are large, multi-deck warships that would be lucky if they could muster 10 or 12 knots under full sail. Schooners, brigs, and frigates were smaller vessels with relatively more sail area, and were designed for speed. A frigate, for example, could achieve speeds as high as 17 knots. (This is one reason why Isabella commands a brig in The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay.)
  3. Jack Sparrow is a sad excuse for a pirate captain. Pirate historians would be scratching their heads wondering why his crew continues to sail with him. He is an ineffective, bumbling criminal. He can’t even rob a bank effectively. Historically, pirates raided and plundered towns routinely. In fact, the fort in St. Augustine, Florida was constructed as a direct response to pirate raids on the town. Captains had to be effective leaders to earn the respect of their crews. In the films, Jack Sparrows crew follows him through friendship, loyalty, and pity.  
  4. Pirate captains were respectful of their crews. While pirate captains routinely used fear, intimidation, and violence against their targets, they had little scope to use the same tactics against their crew. The tyranny Barbossa uses against his crew would not have been tolerated, although the riches may have given him more latitude than usual. Pirates were ruthlessly rational and tactical, using violence to achieve specific ends. A democratically agreed upon set of Articles served as a binding constitution that provided transparent ways to distribute the booty in shares. Economist Peter Leeson has an excellent, accessible book on this called The Invisible Hook. (Or listen to the podcast with Peter at Under the Crossbones here.) Pirate crews were volunteers, and they elected their captains. A pirate captain in the Caribbean would not exact tribute from his crew without risking immediate defection. The crew could always elect another captain.
  5. The British Navy’s anti-piracy campaign was professional.  In the movies, the British colonial administrators are driven by deeply held beliefs in legend and superstition. In reality, the British successfully purged pirates from the Caribbean was eminently practical—they wanted to protect the shipping lanes for commerce. The British were remarkably successful, bringing the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” to an end by 1730s. They achieved this through concentrated force, the ruthless pursuit of pirates, and a liberal willingness to hang anyone caught in the act of piracy. Pirates (as well as sailors generally) were very superstitious. So, this focus on legend and mysticism fits well within pirate lore and even beliefs among common sailors. However, in terms of colonial policy and strategy, the British Navy took a highly professional approach to ending piracy in the Caribbean.

Tortuga Bay, 2016 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist

Writing historical fiction puts authors in a dilemma—often history, or what we “know” to be historical, is at odds with a good story.  This appears to be the case in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies where battles between big ships seems to carry more dramatic effect. Authors of historical fiction have to make these trade-offs as well. For example, we have no historical records that a woman commanded a pirate ship in the  Caribbean, but Isabella does in the Pirate of Panther Bay series. Nevertheless, a woman in a leadership position, an escaped slave nonetheless, creates dramatic tension that moves the story. I have tried to nest the story in the real historical context of the times (and appear to have done this based on reviews).

I wonder if a more nuanced approach to storytelling in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies might have allowed a bit more historical accuracy without sacrificing dramatic effect. I have found smaller vessels provide more opportunities for dramatic tension and conflict that larger ships. This is why I found the original escape and pursuit of Jack Sparrow somewhat more satisfying n the Curse of the Black Pearl—at least the ships in the movie were closer to the right scale. But it’s also why Isabella continues to captain a smaller ship in the book series.

For more great history and all things pirate, check out Under the Crossbones, a podcast hosted by Phil Johnson. Phil interviews me in Episode 20 here, and he’s up to 92 episodes.

More details on the Pirate of Panther Bay series, including classroom guides and information on the literary awards the books have earned, can be found here.

The Pirate of Panther Bay is available at amazon.com here.

Tortuga Bay is available from amazon.com here.

 

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Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Reminding myself that the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise was inspired by a theme-park ride is useful. As a writer of historical fiction, I find myself enjoying the movie much more. Such is the case for the fifth installment of the series Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales where fine acting and first class special effects shoulder most of the burden for creating an entertaining film. The caliber of the actors and producers, however, suggest this movie had much more potential than what was delivered on the big screen.

Multiple story lines bog down the plot in Dead Men Tell No Tales, and many viewers will find the story hard to track. New characters are introduced on top of a cast that had already expanded under the first three films. Dead Men Tell No Tales sequentially follows the third film (At World’s End), complicating matters, because the fourth film (On Stranger Tides) was a “one-off.” The story tried to capitalize on the popularity of Jack Sparrow and his crew independently of the established story line in the first three films, creating a nonlinear break in the story.

Dead Men Tell No Tales picks up with a young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites, The GiverGods of Egypt), the child of Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightley, Bend it Like Beckham, Pride and Prejudice) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, Curse of the Black PearlTroyLord of the Rings) on a quest to find the Trident of Poseidon, which legend holds will break all the curses of the sea including his father’s. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, Curse of the Black PearlPlatoonEdward Scissorhands) holds the key to finding the trident through his bewitched compass, which will reveal the location of its owner’s most prized object. Through a series of comedic mishaps, Henry discovers and joins forces with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, Maze RunnerWuthering Heights), who also happens to be searching for the trident to vindicate her father’s scientific calculations left to her in a diary. Corina, however, is about to be hanged as a witch because no one believes her scientific ruminations as a brilliant astronomer.

When Jack Sparrow gives up his compass for a drink in a local tavern, a crew of undead Spanish Navy sailors led by Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old MenSkyfall, Before Night Falls) are released to continue their quest to rid the seas of pirates. This puts Captain Barbossa‘s (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s SpeechThe Book Thief, Life and Death of Peter Sellers) pirate fleet in jeopardy. Barbossa is captured by Salazar, and his life is saved only when he relents to find Jack Sparrow. Everyone is now on the quest to find the Trident of Poseidon—Henry Turner to release his cursed father from the Flying Dutchman, Corina Smyth to prove her scientific brilliance, Barbossa to retain his power over the seas, and Salazar install himself as lord over the seas.

Keeping all this straight in difficult, and Dead Men Tell No Tales is prone to dialogue that fills in details and background for the audience (a classic case of Show Don’t Tell) with predictable results—slowing down the action. This is a problem because the Pirates of the Caribbean films are built on action sequences that include protracted sword fights, running duels among pirate ships and their pursuers, and chases through towns and jungles. Dead Men Tell No Tales has those scenes—one in particularly has Jack Sparrow dodging a ghost’s attempt to skewer him with a pike as he jumps from cannon to cannon between Bardem’s ship and the resurrected Black Pearl.

Juggling so many characters and story lines creates challenges for directors in a format as structured as film, where the the entire story must take place in a 2-3 hour window. Few characters really have a chance evolve. Henry Turner stays the same brash, precocious young man throughout the movie, although he falls in love with Corina. Salazar stays the same revenge and hate-filled pirate hunter. Corina becomes slightly less headstrong. While Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan make an appearance, but their time on the screen is not long enough to have a meaningful impact on the plot except to set up a sixth film.  (Hint: stay seated through the final credits.)  The lone exception is Barbossa whose hardcore piratical worldview sets up a personal dilemma that forces him to make a tragic but noble choice—and let’s Geoffrey Rush show his experienced acting chops.

Thus, the plot fails to bring much fresh to the story. The characters come off as flat despite excellent acting by the entire cast. (Even the brief part played by and credited to Paul McCartney—perhaps the only time a beetle is welcome on a wooden ship—was well done and, for me, worth the movie theater ticket price.) Dead Men Tell No Tales’ special effects, particularly those applied to the renderings of Salazar and his crew and the final battle for the trident, are also state of the art, so don’t be surprised to see a few technical Oscar nods to this movie next year.

Nevertheless, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an entertaining film that stays well within the framework and spirit of the first three films in the franchise.

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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a rousing romp through the universe

My movie review and commentary on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is live at the Independent Institute blog. Guardians 2 is a fun, entertaining romp through the universe with the galaxy’s most dysfunctional family. The acting is more than adequate—Chris Pratt‘s (Peter Quill) comedic talents are evident as are those of Dave Bautista (Drax)—but James Gunn‘s script and directing is outstanding. He makes the most of a capable ensemble cast, including Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Michael Rooker (Yandu), and the voices of Bradley Cooper (Rocket) and Vin Diesel (Baby Groot). The special effects don’t overwhelm the story or the action, providing a nice balance between character development and plot. I’ve got more details of my thoughts in the blog.

I think this movie is underrated by some credits. This is a very smart, well crafted film. In particular, the main tension between Peter and his father Ego (Kurt Russell) is driven by a deep philosophical idea about personal identity—a heavy theme no doubt. But Gunn doesn’t let the weight of the idea slow the film down.  In fact, I believe this film is a great example of storytelling where substance drives plot. More often, filmmakers attempting to make a point slow the action down because it’s not integrated well into the plot. I will be writing on this point in a future post on this website.

I write in part in the Independence Institute review,

Despite the heavy theme, Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 remains a engaging film, a rare combination of state of the art filmmaking and substance. Gunn is able to combine a keystone cops comedic lightness with first-rate special effects, making the film suitable for a wide range of audiences. Gunn leverages the comic talents of his cast and quirky characters to craft an entertaining, action packed, and amusing addition to the Marvel Comics film universe. The movie has already grossed more than $430 million dollars worldwide, double its production budget, and seems likely to legitimately earn a spot as one the highest grossing films of the year.

I highly recommend Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and I’m looking forward to the third installment which is already under contract.

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