Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review

            The Pirates of the Caribbean has to be one of the weirdest franchises in the history of cinema.  In 2003, a movie about a Disney Theme Park ride was somehow turned into one of the better blockbusters of that decade.  Two more sequels were a nice showcase for Gore Verbinski’s fun and energetic directing style (even though Dead Man’s Chest is a much better showcase than At World’s End).  All in all, Pirates of the Caribbean was at one point a good adaptation of the hero’s journey.  Since the first three films, however, the series has been a case of increasingly diminishing returns.  The fourth film is very unmemorable (I honestly can’t remember anything about it other than how badly a genius bit of casting in Ian McShane as Blackbeard was wasted), and now the fifth film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is quite possibly the franchise’s worst installment.  While the film is initially able to capture some of the magic of the first films, Dead Men Tell No Talestries to go to the well again and again to the point that it is really hard not to see this as a sad and feeble attempt at capturing what made The Force Awakens so great within the Star Wars canon. 

            Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales picks up the franchise with Henry Turner (played through most of the film by a rather bland Brenton Thawaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley both return briefly), as he comes to the belief that he must find Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in order to break the curse that forces his father to sail on the Flying Dutchmen for eternity.  This all eventually leads to a chase where Turner, Sparrow, Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush returning as Sparrow’s nemesis), a vengeful pirate hunter that has magically risen from the dead (Javier Bardem), and a smart scientist who finds herself constantly ridiculed in a world that believes in fairy tales more than actual science (Kaya Scodelario as one of the very few bright spots of the film) for Poseidon’s Trident, which will apparently solve all of the characters’ problems.

            As you can see there are a lot of characters and a lot of plot mambo jumbo that ultimately sink this film.  This film really makes you admire how Star Wars: The Force Awakens was able to introduce so many new characters while bringing back the old ones in style.  It’s ultimately hard not to compare this film and this series to Star Wars as they essentially both go right back to the hero’s journey, and one is certainly superior than the other at this point.  Even worse is that the main components of this series have really aged poorly through this film.  The once eccentric and interesting Jack Sparrow is now an annoying idiot that is now trying to hang on by his typical corny one-liners and a completely phoned in performance from Johnny Depp.  Former characters and plot lines are brought back into the fray with no real justification other than having the audience remember when this worked much better in other films.

            Even the few bright spots come with asterisks.  The opening action set piece is really well done, but it too often feels like that directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg are trying to rip off Gore Verbinski’s style.  Kaya Scodelario’s Carina is easily the best character in the film, but even she is bogged down by a mystery that comes across as way too obvious and poorly written as well as the fact that the writers clearly tried find a way to insert Rey from The Force Awakens into this film and came up with her.

            The summer season has only just begun but it will hard to find a more poorly constructed blockbuster than Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.


The Zookeeper's Wife Review

            Hollywood has never been afraid of making a film about the Holocaust.  It’s really gotten to the point that the “innovative” Holocaust films (I’m looking at you Son of Saul) really aren’t that innovative.  So it was nice to see a film like The Zookeeper’s Wife take such a standard approach to the material.  The film isn’t great, but it ends up bring a nice showcase for Jessica Chastain and the rest of the formidable actors in the cast. 

            The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the real life tale of the Zabinskis, zookeepers for the Warsaw zoo who saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, through the eyes of the determined and kind Antonina Zabinska (portrayed by Jessica Chastain in the film).  The film goes just about how you would expect it to.  It has all the usual suspects of this type of film, but director Niki Caro puts just enough cinematic magic on display to distract you from an otherwise boring story.  The best example of this is the film’s use of animals.  In a lesser film, the animals would have been used as just a spice to add into the film.  Here, though, Caro makes the animals feel integral to the plot.  It’s also surprising to see how the animals are portrayed in the film.  They are put into such dangerous situations and, yet, they always feel so life like on the screen (I’m assuming no animals were actually harmed during the course of this film).

            The true strength of this film, however, is the incredible cast that it has assembled.  Jessica Chastain is playing the graceful female lead that she has been cast for so often, but it is because she is so great at it.  She just has a way of combining sweet quietness with a realistic sense of determination into a powerful concoction.  The other major standout of this film is Shira Haas as a young Jewish girl caught in the mess going on in this film.  She conveys so much emotion without the use of words that it’s hard not to see this girl having a future in acting if she chooses to continue this career.  Meanwhile, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl and Michael McElhatton (who is especially interesting in an against type role) are all quite good too.

            The Zookeeper’s Wife is a conventional but well acted cinematic depiction of the Holocaust.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review

            The Marvel Cinematic Universe has found a winning formula by creating films filled with interesting but relatable characters and just enough humor to keep the audience laughing but not go over the edge into farce.  Guardians of the Galaxy might be the series best example of this, which made a sequel to the 2014 box office hit inevitable.  Unfortunately, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 suffers from sequel-itis just like so many other MCU films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World) have.  While Vol. 2 is able to find some of the magic that made the original so great, the film suffers from dull new characters, repetitive humor and a disappointing use of the much-hyped appearance of Baby Groot.

            Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens up with one of the most entertaining and visually exciting opening credits sequences in cinematic history (which is saying a lot considering the opening credits sequence for the first film was already a classic).  From there it appears the film is going to attempt to create an entire film’s plot based off the actions of the main characters in this opening sequence as the Guardians are chased down by a group of Golden aliens after Rocket (the boisterous raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals a set of super batteries that they were originally hired to protect. 

            Unfortunately, the film decides not to attempt such a gimmicky premise in favor of a storyline about Star Lord (Chris Pratt) meeting his long lost father (Kurt Russell).  This storyline ends up becoming so generic and predictable (and it’s filmed in such a CGI-heavy format) that it’s hard to get any sort of joy out of it.  While Dave Bautista gets a bunch of great material as Drax the Destroyer, other scene-stealers of the series such as Rocket and Baby Groot are forced into secondary storylines.  That’s a real shame because while he delights often while on screen, Baby Groot doesn’t get the amount of screen time or dedication in the script that should have easily made the appearance of this cute but vicious talking tree a slam dunk.

            While the film does struggle with honoring the characters that it built up in the first film, that is not the case with Yondu.  The rogue space scavenger was a nice touch in the first film, but that’s really all he was, a little energetic spice to add to the main product.  Here Yondu is given much more importance, and the always-underrated Michael Rooker makes the most of his character’s new found significance.  While most of this film is filled with disappointments, Rooker’s performance is one of the true highlights of the cinematic year.

            Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 recycles a lot of what made the first film so great to middling effect.


The Lost City of Z Review

            The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann opens in one of the most exhilarating fashions I have ever seen a non-fiction book open.  It continues on its tale of deadly adventures, thrilling escapes and obsessive personalities until it reaches an ultimately anticlimactic close (which to be fair was the only way it could have ended thanks to its real life constraints).  Recently, director James Gray adapted the novel into a film of his own.  While the film is ultimately a very different approach on only some of the material of the book, it ultimately suffers from the same problem as the source material.  A sour third act is the one thing that ends up preventing this film from being something special.

            The Lost City of Z follows the life of South American adventurer Percy Fawcett (portrayed by Charlie Hunnam) as he discovers evidence of an advanced civilization deep in the Amazonian jungle.  The search for this advanced civilization, which he proclaims as “Zed”, becomes his obsession as his adventures entangle a loyal service friend (Robert Pattinson), a famed Antarctic explorer (Angus Macfayden) and his family (Sienna Miller and Tom Holland).  The plot ultimately ends up being a typical biopic plot, which is odd considering that the plot of the book is anything but as it sprawls between different eras and different characters.  However, under the direction of James Gray this never feels like a biopic and much more of a cinematic portrayal of obsession.

            James Gray’s direction is the real hero of this film as this film further establishes the interesting directorial niche he has created in which he gets away with visually stunning imagery surrounding a quiet portrayal of subtle but lifelike characters.  It is clear that Gray goes out of his way to film on location in many scenes, and he has no problem handling the fact that a lot of the plot depends on the imagery that he is able to conjure up (including a final shot that might be his best yet).

            However, if James Gray, the director, is the hero of this film, than James Gray, the writer, sometimes acts as its antagonist.  The reason why the first couple of acts of this film work so well is because Gray presents a sprawling narrative that keeps on linking back to this core idea of obsession.  In the final act, however, Percy’s son Jack becomes a much more prominent character.  Thanks to a poor performance from the miscast Tom Holland and some un-honed writing on the part of Gray, his inclusion feels like he is from a completely different movie.  There is no doubt that the film tries to show the obsession that is growing within Jack as well, but the film slowly becomes a film about the relationships between father and sons rather than the fascinating tale of obsession that had been and showed have continued to be.

            The Lost City of Z is a visually stunning film that presents a style of filmmaking that we don’t see too often anymore.  While the film presents many entertaining ideas and themes, the film ultimately meanders a little too much in its final act.


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