Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides


RATING: D

If you didn't like the first two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and thought that the franchise was finished at that point... well, quite simply, you had *no idea* what lameness was coming next. I am of the somewhat rarer opinion that the first sequel was good and the second... well, not so much. But even I didn't think that it'd quite get to this point.

I was well prepared for this movie to stink, at least. For one thing, we got a new director--Rob Marshall--who had no prior experience in action/adventure movies whatsoever, which at least explains why his direction is leagues behind Gore Verbinski's. That, and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley had opted out of the movie--which pretty much already meant the film probably never should've been made, since it left us without two of our four beloved main characters and it meant that the mess at the end of At World's End couldn't be fixed in this film. This movie never really had a chance to be any good. That said, I still expected a *little* more from it than this. 

Picking up more or less where Jack's story in At World's End left off, he is on a search for the Fountain of Youth. Ironically, at the same time, *everyone* is after it. The Spanish Navy is about to discover it... and Britain is not having that. To the point where they're willing to allow Jack himself to guide the expedition if necessary. Also, the pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) is after it for his own reasons. Jack ends up getting mixed up with Blackbeard on his personal quest... due to the fact that Blackbeard's daughter is his former flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz). 

So everyone's after the Fountain of Youth. And it turns out to be... more complicated than thought possible. You see, using the Fountain's waters requires a ritual... which includes a mermaid tear that has to be placed in one of two chalices. Oh yeah, and unlike normal depictions of the Fountain, it doesn't make you immortal or youthful at all, really. It just gives you the extra years of another person's total lifespan... after consuming that person entirely.

As you can see, the whole "Fountain of Youth" thing is made more complicated than it needs to be. Though I suppose when you don't have any real conflicts anywhere else in the movie, you don't have much of a choice but to think up stuff like that. 

There is sadly not much plot to this. There's the over-complicated Fountain of Youth quest, a couple of the usual double-crosses, and that's pretty much it. A couple of the actual bigger issues of the film and how they happened are actually never explained. Even At World's End didn't really have any massive plot holes, at least. 

The action sequences range from decent to cookie-cutter. Maybe it's just Rob Marshall's direction or something, but they feel a bit more subdued than usual. But that's even more true of the humor. There's a few funny moments here and there, but Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush don't make you smile as much as they have in previous installments. Clearly they were not given a strong script to work with. 

I've seen films I've actively disliked much worse than this; there's not a whole lot that's truly horrible about it (even if the plot is rather dumb at times). But there's hardly anything outstanding about it either. Even At World's End, which was bloated to the extreme and slow-paced, still had its fair share of awesome moments. But it's pretty clear to me that Rob Marshall had no idea how to make a good Pirates of the Caribbean movie. But I guess that shouldn't be too shocking when most of your other movies are musicals.  

It's honestly depressing that this franchise has even gotten to this point. There aren't really any other ones like it out there; it's a very original set of stories in a Hollywood filled with unoriginal stories and remakes. So the fact that since Dead Man's Chest things have gone downhill is just sad. And though At World's End was disappointing, it still felt like the franchise could be great again with some work. This one? Not even close to being great. Huge fans of Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow *might* find a bit of enjoyment here, but it's easy to see why people are trying to forget this particular installment ever happened. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End


RATING: C

Well, up to this point in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise we'd had it pretty good. We'd gotten a classic first movie. We'd gotten a good sequel that was very entertaining and upped the stakes considerably. And with Dead Man's Chest and At World's End being back-to-back sequels, At World's End would surely do the series and mythology justice and give us a good ending, right? Right? 

Early on, this movie centers around our main characters going to bring back Jack Sparrow from Davy Jones' Locker. Yes, that's a place that can be physically reached by choice; don't bother asking how. Although Dead Man's Chest suggested the characters were bringing Jack back mostly for the sake of doing it, it turns out there's actually an important reason why the world needs him back: he's one of the nine pirate lords of the pirate Brethren Court. And this entire Brethren Court has to united to go up against the forces of Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman... and Lord Cutler Beckett and his armada, who's put his land under martial law as part of a campaign to exterminate piracy forever. 

There's even more to this plot, but either it's not worth mentioning here or there'd be some big spoilers if I did. Bottom line? This is an unbelievably convoluted third flick. There are so many plots and subplots going on, that you have to be paying close attention to keep track of them all. And even then, it's difficult to keep up with certain characters' motivations, some of which make little sense at times. This is especially a shock considering the first two movies were relatively simple plot-wise.

Oh yeah, and this 168-minute movie is very slow-paced. The first two movies were also pretty fast-paced, but this one much less so. Probably because there are much less action sequences in here. There's the Singapore squabble at the beginning, a couple of brief action-y moments, and the climactic battle. That's it. Seriously. Normally this might not bother me as much, but again, this film is such a shift in pacing from its previous installments it's an extreme letdown. Especially when we're getting stuck during that long runtime with stuff like the ridiculous Brethren Court subplot--which probably could've been removed and only one major thing would have to be changed--or a near-ten minute scene of Jack Sparrow in the Locker hallucinating that I guess is supposed to be funny but is just dumb. 

What they do end up doing with the more important plot points is also problematic at times. Remember the Kraken? One of the best things about the last movie? Yeah, its only appearance is its corpse after getting killed offscreen. And Davy Jones? The literal devil of the seas? Well, due to his disembodied heart being in the hands of Cutler Beckett, he's mostly reduced to a "mongrel pup." (Jones: "I cannot be summoned like some mongrel pup!" Beckett: "Apparently you can.") And although I guess that was ultimately to be expected after seeing the heart end up in Beckett's hands at the end of the last movie, it's still kind of a letdown to see him at basically the complete behest of a mere mortal. He doesn't really truly regain himself much until the end. 

What could've helped this movie is cutting down on all the subplots. The only thing you really need is the continued struggle against Davy Jones and Cutler Beckett, and whatever all that entails. More mythology regarding Jones is revealed, which is certainly important. But beyond that, there's not much more that you need. There's certainly not much use for all of the subplots and the mind-numbing number of double-crosses. Maybe leave a couple in, but... seriously, this movie is just way too bloated. 

And then there's the ending. Which I can't describe very well without spoilers, but it tries its hardest to murder the franchise. It's not just the usual "tragic hero death" that we get every now and then. What happens ultimately is straight up *cruel,* and makes you wonder just what in the world the director and writers were thinking. 

Now, I've been ranting long enough about everything I dislike about this movie. Obviously, there is some good in it. The climactic battle itself (*before* the cruel ending mentioned earlier) is incredible. The humor is upped a little bit again after being slightly more absent in the previous movie; some of the efforts are misguided, but there's still some hilarious moments. The acting is still great, and Geoffrey Rush's return as Barbossa is welcome. Chow Yun-fat is a nice newcomer as well. And there's very impressive cinematography, particularly on the journey to the Locker. And Hans Zimmer's soundtrack--as in previous installments--is nearly flawless.

It's not like this film is unwatchable or anything. It is watchable, but it is also much more tedious to sit through. The film has one fairly conflicted at times; at one moment they might be going "So awesome/funny!" and the next they might be snoring. I probably still could've excused some of the film's other missteps if they hadn't created such a bad ending.

At World's End is technically not one of the worst threequels of all time. But it does have one of the worst endings I've ever seen for such a movie, and it is also one of the bigger letdowns considering how well they'd done the last two go-rounds. Could it have been worse? Actually, yes. And while some may be less bothered by the ending than others and may actually feel sightly more fulfilled than others by the time the credits rolled, the feeling will probably be the same for most regardless: out of the first three movies, this one's the worst by a long shot. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest


RATING: A-

Perhaps the greatest risk the first Pirates of the Caribbean film took was adding the subtitle "The Curse of the Black Pearl" onto the film title. Generally, that's begging for trouble. It's as if you've set your heart on making a film series, but if that first film flops, you might look pretty stupid for adding that subtitle. 

Fortunately, The Curse of the Black Pearl was a massive success and universally loved. Gore Verbenski and company got to make their sequel(s). After making an almost flawless first film with a perfect blend of action and comedy with a still-strong plot, where do you go from there? Why, you bring in the devil of the seas, of course. "Davy Jones' locker" is a long-used term referring to being sunk to the bottoms of the depths, hinting at such a supernatural being waiting for you down there. Or something. 

Dead Man's Chest centers around Jack Sparrow owing a debt of long servitude aboard Davy Jones's ship, the Flying Dutchman--which we later find out is basically being as good as dead--and so he's not having that. He races to find the actual disembodied heart of Davy Jones (it's not nearly as stupid as it sounds) and use it against the sea devil to avoid being enslaved. Will and Elizabeth end up along for the ride as well, but for different reasons and different purposes--trying to recover their freedom from Lord Cutler Beckett, a separate villain with his own motivations (which I won't reveal in this particular review). 

In an interesting move, the comedy is taken down a slight notch in this film (there's still some though, don't worry) and the action is taken up a bit. This time around, we get action scenes involving the Flying Dutchman and Davy Jones--and to be highlighted the most, the ones including Jones's pet sea monster... the Kraken. The attacks and battles involving the Kraken are absolutely incredible to watch, in part because nothing else like them had ever been done before (or since). Sure, there have been sea battles in film involving real animals like whales or sharks or even normal squids, but nothing like this. 

Davy Jones himself is a fearsome antagonist; due in part to the utterly incredible CGI that portrays him (and the brilliant acting of Bill Nighy behind the CGI) and his squid-tentacles-covered-face. As good as Barbossa was in the first movie, Jones is an excellent move for the next movie's antagonist, as he and his Kraken up the stakes considerably. The various other minions--which, like Jones are weird amalgamations of various aquatic creatures also have some impressive CGI on them and there's actually some creative work there (there's one guy who actually somehow has the head of a hammerhead shark). 

Despite mixed reception, I fail to see a whole lot wrong with this film. Sure, it's not as good as the first at the end of the day, but it's very exciting to watch as well. Beyond the action scenes mentioned earlier, there's also a cool swordfight between multiple characters which somehow ends up including fighting on top of a well wheel. And there's also a bar fight. Yeah, this film includes a lot. Some complain of the ending--and one character's choices in said ending--but I think it works. Plus, you need a cliffhanger ending somehow since you're doing back-to-back sequels, right? 

If there's one big issue with this film, it's the sequence relatively early on in the film on the cannibal island. This part of the film does not match the tone of the rest of the film at all, especially considering that at times it almost goes to Looney Tunes-esque zaniness, whereas the rest of the film takes a lot darker approach. It feels like the whole thing was just tacked on to make the film longer. 

Aside from that and a couple of other isolated minor issues, Dead Man's Chest is a strong sequel that expands well on the mythology of its universe, offers some great new antagonists and much higher stakes and just is quite entertaining for most of its 150 minutes. While it may not be quite as fulfilling as the first one, it's still a good example of a sequel done right. 

Too bad it goes downhill from here. 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean


RATING: A+

It's difficult to not look upon at least this first installment as a classic now, but it's easy to forget that when it first came out, the fact that it was successful--that it was actually that good--was a shock to everyone. Movies about pirates weren't really a thing at that point. Not to mention a bit of troubled production and nervousness over whether it'd work or not. But boy, did it ever work. 

Despite rolling at 143 minutes, not a minute of it feels slow, and the plot isn't convoluted at all--in fact, it's actually fairly simple. Cursed undead pirates are trying to break their curse. Lone pirate wants control of their ship--the ship that he was once captain of. Young blacksmith makes uneasy alliance with said pirate when the undead pirates capture his longtime crush. That's the gist of it. It's not completely simpleton--there are some twists and turns--but they don't use hardly any subplots at all. 

This movie shows us that pirate movies can indeed be awesome; but it helps that so much else about it works so well. This movie would not have been what it is if not for Johnny Depp's performance in the role of his life as "Captain" Jack Sparrow, which almost alone lifts the movie (especially considering that so much of Depp's acting was improvised). But there's some great acting to be found elsewhere as well; Geoffrey Rush manages to find a perfect balance of being over-the-top without just being stupid as the main antagonist Barbossa, and our non-pirate leads Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are pretty great as well in their roles, even if they are kind of overshadowed by both Depp and Rush. Kevin McNally, Jack Davenport and Zoe Saldana (yes, she's actually in this) are good in supporting roles as well. 

Yes, the action sequences are great. The swordplay is fantastic, and the set pieces are strong as well. Some scenes are better than others, such as the initial duel between Will and Jack, in which the music actually is almost perfectly synced with the clashing swords or the "underwater march" near the end (credit must be given to the CGI on the undead pirate army). 

But besides the acting, what also truly carries this movie is the rapid-fire humor, thanks to a wonderful script with constant hilarious dialogue that is perfectly delivered by the actors. In this sense it's not just an exciting action movie, but it's also a bit of a comedy, sure to keep many in stitches. 

While there is debate over to whether the franchise was really ever good again in its sequels, it's difficult to deny that this first installment is fun and entertaining. That could be taken further, and said that it's one of the best popcorn action blockbuster films of all time. You certainly won't find as many criticisms of it as other films of its caliber. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


RATING: A-

Why did most people (myself included) love the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie? Because it was something totally different for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and rather out there at times, while still containing the necessary elements to make a good and enjoyable movie: a good enough plot, surprisingly strong characters (with an even better cast) and often-hilarious dialogue. The old-timey soundtrack loaded with hits from the 70's helped for many as well. 

And thus, with the same director and little else changing the next time around, hopefully you were expecting more of the same because that's what you get for the most part. 

This installment, which starts out immediately with another action sequence loaded with humor and more 70's music, also starts out with a surprisingly thin premise in which this genetically engineered race called the Sovereign suddenly devotes literally all of their resources to destroying the Guardians... simply because Rocket stole a few batteries. It's quite fortunate that the Sovereign and their story line don't end up actually being the main one, because this movie would probably have been a little more underwhelming if it was. 

The real story here is when Peter Quill/Star-Lord's real father suddenly shows up out of nowhere--named Ego. Comic book fans *might* recognize that name, considering that despite having a human projection of himself that just so happens to be Kurt Russell... he's actually a planet. Yes, really. (It works a lot better than it sounds.) And also if you have read the comics (add maybe a vague spoiler alert here), you might be able to guess fairly easily what happens from there. Heck, I haven't read the comics and yet I saw the big twist concerning Ego coming a mile away.

That's probably this film's biggest issue, really, is its predictability. Depending on how informed you were, you probably guessed how this film was going to go before you even stepped in the theater. Fortunately, the film makes up for that aplenty. Beyond that, there's a bit of overdone CGI and coloring (particularly of Ego's planet) that can be annoying at times. And "Baby Groot" feels oddly a little sidelined at times (though I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised by that, seeing as a tiny Groot can't do quite as much as a big one).

But as previously said, it makes up for it with its characters, wit, and its action sequences--many of which are actually set to the various 70's hits, often to awesome effect. Among the cast members, it feels like Dave Bautista (Drax) and Bradley Cooper (Rocket) really embraced their roles even more, to great effect. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker all do well again too. Kurt Russell is also a great addition to the cast.

(Another spoiler alert of sorts here, though no names are named; skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid it anyway.) One criticism of recent Marvel films (particularly of Civil War) is the lack of stakes due to no characters ever dying. This film actually changes that, killing off a character in its final act; which in a sense was a breath of fresh air because it makes one feel like there actually *are* stakes to this whole thing, this whole cinematic universe Marvel has done. Perhaps they just haven't chosen to utilize said story tactic much yet.

In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn't quite as good as its predecessor, in part because it isn't quite as fresh (yeah, I know that's been said a lot, but how else can one put it?). But even much of the same formula we've seen already still works, and what new stuff they actually do add to the mix works for the most part. Vol. 2 may not be regarded among the top tier of Marvel movies the way the first one is, but it won't be near the bottom either. It is still a fun sequel and anyone who loved Vol. 1 shouldn't hesitate to see it.