Thursday, 1 June 2017

Movie Review: Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)


Pirates Of The Caribbean is the classic tale of a studio wanting to make a film based one of their most successful theme park attractions that, through one of the single greatest casting decisions in the history of the medium, became one of Hollywood’s hottest properties… at first. It seems that, between the increasing goofiness of the stories being told combined with the increased budgetary requirements (The third and fourth installments in the franchise currently hold the top two spots for the most expensive films ever made), interest in the series is starting to wane. Hell, while I found quite a bit to like about Stranger Tides, it did give the impression that this is a franchise that is starting to beach itself. So, with another spin of the director’s chair and a few returning faces in the cast, maybe this will rejuvenate the series back to its former glory. While I fiddle around with my Blogger settings to make a large enough font to put enough emphasis on the word “maybe”, let’s get started with today’s offering. This is Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

The plot: Undead captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), after accidentally being set free from his confinement in the Devil’s Triangle, is set to lead a bloody streak across the sea to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), the man who freed him and who also condemned him to the Triangle in the first place. Meanwhile, Henry (Brenton Thwaites), son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, seeks out Jack to help him find Poseidon’s Trident, an artefact that could hold the key to ending his father’s curse. With the help of Henry and budding astronomer Carina (Kaya Scodelario), Jack takes to the high seas once more to get to the bottom of yet another weird situation he’s gotten himself into.

The cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Depp is noticeably more sloshed this time around as Captain Jack, possibly taking the character’s love for rum to new levels of method, but given the increased aggrandizing of his character from last time, it fits a lot better with what made the character so engaging in the first place. Bardem is decent as the villain, even if it seems lie the effects work on his hair is putting in more of an effort than he is in some scenes. Thwaites is tolerable, nothing too noteworthy, and Scodelario embodies the series’ rather weird approach to gender politics, with her bickering next to Thwaites and Depp showing that she can sass like the best of them. Kevin McNally makes a welcome return as Depp’s verbal sparring partner Gibbs, Geoffrey Rush is presented as a rather interesting take on piracy by essentially becoming Commodore Barbossa, as was joked about in the first film, but not only does the film not really let him take it anywhere special but the way his character arc resolves itself is at once underwhelming and more than a little suspect. Stephen Graham’s return as Scrum adds some nice texture to the pirate shenanigans, and David Wenham might be the single blandest British Navy officer the series has seen so far. Oh, and Bloom and Knightley show up too, I guess, and their impact lasts about as long as this sentence.

If there’s one thing I don’t think anyone can fault the series for so far, it’s the visual ambition and scale on display; thankfully, that stays true for this latest iteration. While some of the set pieces definitely feel lifted from elsewhere like the Fast & Furious reminiscence of the bank robbery scene, it still engages on a purely visual level. Not only that, it also gets rather creative in the most bonkers way possible with a scene involving a guillotine that has to be seen to be believed; I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder in a public cinema. The effects work sticks to a tried-and-true creed of SFX wizards: Use your tools wisely. I say this because it feels like that, whenever CGI is used, it’s done because it wouldn’t be possible to show certain things otherwise, like the constantly-underwater effect of Salazar and his crew. Because of this, the big and largely destructive action beats have definable weight to them and look all the better for it… mostly. It’s not perfect, but what makes that statement feel worse is that when it’s bad, it’s rather perturbing. The green screening can get rather obvious, even if the spectacle of half-decomposed zombie sharks does its best to distract from such things, and some of the CGI shots stick out more than they should. However, easily the biggest offender in this regard is a scene involving a young Jack Sparrow. Using the ‘Leia at the end of Rogue One’ trick, this film managed to reach the Uncanny Valley in a way that is kind of impressive in its own way. Not exactly watchable, but impressive nonetheless.

Like the rest of the series, the story has some very solid foundations to it: Sea-faring ghost stories, legends, swashbuckling jargon brought into physical terms (much like they did with Davy Jones’ Locker in At World’s End), tales of revenge and deceit, and the added musings about mysticism vs. science makes for some decent opportunities for banter. However, it is also built on the foundations of the series itself such as the offspring of pirates and their quests to redeem their parents, and those particular bedrocks are starting to crack. As wonky as On Stranger Tides was, it at least knew well enough to keep its pace quick enough to stop most audiences from dwelling on the plot details too much. Here, the film not only wants you to have kept with the story thus far but also conveniently forget bits and pieces of it for the sake of the current plot. It’s bad enough that you have not one but two characters basically rehashing Will Turner’s original story arc, but it’s made worse by how just presents as if it’s something new. Hell, On Stranger Tides even recycled this same idea with diminishing returns. Jack’s place as the aloof linchpin for everything around him is still intact, which admittedly does help with easing the film’s stiffness, but that too starts to falter once you take into account the situations he is in. Like, for instance, the aforementioned bank robbery, or the wedding scene that comes so far out of left field as to have originated from another planet entirely, or the still-lingering womanizing that is turning rather sharply from “being slapped by all his past conquests” to “damn, he fine” in a way that just highlights the film’s new issue concerning gender politics. Of course, I could completely ignore such discussions and still be left with a film that feels like it is rapidly running its course and making the audience think that maybe it’s time to lay this beast to rest.

Or perhaps not since, even with all my aforementioned gripes with the film, I still walked away feeling like it earned its ticket price. Now, a large part of that has to do with the guillotine sequence that almost serves as the other side of the coin Pan sits on in terms of initial reaction (re: What the hell am I even looking at?), but it also has to do with the sheer ambition of the whole affair. Going back to the more scattered chessboard storytelling of the first three films, combined with the scale of the events both textually and viscerally, this is basically a big rollercoaster ride of a film. And honestly, I see it as a ride worth taking. I mean, given how Cutthroat Island (another hideously expensive pirate caper) put a curse on the swashbuckling genre that still lingers to this day, it’s rare that we’ll see the likes of this brand of piratical action on the big screen from anywhere else. As much as this probably comes across as a beggar happy for the few crumbs he finds on the ground, bear in mind that I rarely advocate for blind spectacle as opposed to deep narrative and characters. Sure, the characters here are still good, if a bit tired by this point, but film is still a visual medium so it has the potential to appeal solely by those means. Far as I’m concerned, this manages to do just that.

All in all, it may be feeling wizened and more than a little bizarre (with both good and bad results), this is still a decent popcorn flick. The acting holds up very well, the writing at least keeps things interesting if not always coherent, the action is engaging and reaches levels of sheer lunacy at times that make for great mindless viewing and the visuals are grandiose in a way you would surely expect from a film with this kind of budget. While I’m a bit hesitant to recommend the film right now, while it’s still in cinemas, I’ll at least say that it’s worth a rental once it hits home release. It’s better than Gold, once again down to the gut reaction of that bloody guillotine set piece (seriously, it’s the most Looney Tunes thing I’m expecting to see for a long-ass time) and how that honestly engaged me more than even McConaughey’s best of Southern charms. However, given this film’s honest failings in the screenplay, and how it appeals only to visceral glee, it falls short of the genuinely heartfelt and harrowing experience that is Jackie.

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