Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The Facts:

Synopsis: Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom

Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be entirely forgiven if you look askance at the arrival of the fifth entry in Disney’s impossibly lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  After making a huge splash in 2003 with their surprise hit based on the ever-popular theme park ride, Disney quickly plotted filming back-to-back installments to capitalize on the public’s Pirates-fever.  Trouble was, these films made the unwise choice to focus less on furthering the story and more time on star Johnny Depp’s increasingly tedious portrayal of boozy Captain Jack Sparrow. Though Depp netted an Oscar nom for the first film, his subsequent appearances gave him a mile when he should have only been allowed an inch (or centimeter if we’re being honest).  One last try at keeping the Pirates franchise alive was attempted in 2011 but it too got lost in a sea of Depp shenanigans and an over-reliance on CGI action sequences.

Here we are in 2017 and while Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers from many of the same barnacles that sunk previous installments, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have mostly reigned in their returning star while crafting a continuing tale on the high seas that’s more swashbuckling than shticky.

If you’re behind on the Pirates films, some of what comes next would be considered spoilers but I’ll keep it as brief as possible.

A long prologue introduces young Henry Turner, son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, Troy) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightly, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) as he makes a moonlight voyage to the bottom of the ocean in search of his father.  Will’s been imprisoned by a curse on the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, and his young son pledges to find Jack Sparrow and get his father back on dry land where he belongs.  Flash forward nine years and Henry (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus) is laboring on a ship that runs afoul of a cursed vessel belonging to Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, Skyfall) and his cleverly CGI-ed crew.  Salazar also has an interest in finding Jack Sparrow seeing that he’s the one who cut his sailing days short in the first place and uses Henry to pass a message on to his old nemesis.

Meanwhile, back in warmer climates Sparrow attempts to pull off a bank heist that provides the film with its first extended action sequence.  Feeling like an old-School western that would have been filmed on a studio backlot, it’s a fun (if pointless) introduction back to Jack and his men with satisfyingly comedic results.  It at least dovetails nicely into introducing Kayla Scodelario (The Maze Runner) as Carina, a plucky lass in trouble with the law on suspicion of being a witch.  Turns out she’s just a bookworm with a penchant for telling anyone trying to man-splain something to her where to shove it and she’s got the same pluck Knightly exhibited in the original film.

Getting into how Henry, Jack, and Carina end up back on the Black Pearl with Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, Minions, letting the costume do most of the work for him) searching for the trident of Poseidon could occupy several pages and I have a deadline to make so just take my word for it that Nathanson doesn’t have to push too hard to intertwine the end goals of these three castaways.  It’s a fantasy film with little to no need for a ton of explanation.

Without question this entry is the second most enjoyable one to date.  It’s the shortest one of the bunch and uses its time and talents wisely without working bits down to the nub.  Depp (Dark Shadows) may not look rejuvenated but it feels like he actually showed up for this outing.  While Thwaites and Scodelario give spunky performances the two lack the kind of romantic chemistry the film desperately wants them to have.  Coming off more like squabbling siblings they both fare far better when they get to make some headway with their own story.  Rush is getting a bit on the campy side by now but the way he seems to relish drilling down into his pirate brogue is at the very least amusing.  I always get a kick out of Bardem’s take on villainous characters because somehow he manages to find the humanity below the hate and isn’t afraid to go to weird places to get there.  Most of his dialogue is purely expositional but he chews on his words as hard as he chews on the scenery as a once honorable man trying to rid the world of Pirates who now haunts the seas as a vengeful fright searching for Jack Sparrow (or, as Salazar would say, ‘Jah Spah-ro’.

Rønning and Espen keep things moving at a good pace and stage their big special effects sequences with some interesting flair.  A mid-movie chase by three zombie sharks could have gone SyFy Movie Channel wrong but wind up providing a few decent thrills matched up with seamless CGI.  My only complaint is that so much of the movie is staged in dark environments that you wind up losing the location details and it becomes just another overly CGI imagined world.  At the screening I attended, the 3D was askew which likely added to the visual fatigue but I’m sure had the effect been working properly more depth would have been added into the mix.

On two recent trips to Disney World, I had more fun waiting in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride than I did at any of the previous three films.  Aside from the original, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a marked improvement in the Pirates series and if a post-credit stinger is any indication, Disney is hoping audiences get their sea legs again and demand more skull and crossbones fun.  As long as Depp is kept at bay and more focus is put on the lore behind any adventure embarked upon, I’d be willing to get my feet wet.

Hollywood to Broadway – Anastasia

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Anastasia (1997)
The Broadway Show: Anastasia, opened on April 24, 2017

Yes, yes, I know that there was a version of Anastasia from 1956 that netted star Ingrid Bergman a Best Actress Oscar but since the Broadway version was inspired/adapted from the 1997 animated movie let’s focus on that one instead.

Of all the non-Disney animated films that started popping up in the mid to late ‘90s, there was something about 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia that hit the right chord. Hard to believe that a pretty grim plotline involving the family of a Russian Czar being murdered and a mystery girl that could be the lone surviving heir became the basis for a fancifcul musical romp, former Disney animator Don Bluth was riding a nice wave of second banana popularity and managed to massage this one into a family affair. Digging into the supernatural for its villain Rasputin, it wasn’t to be taken very seriously but it surely seemed to remain a fond favorite of a lot of little girls over the years.

Honestly, it’s never been a particular favorite of mine, though full disclosure I’m writing this review from memory instead of recent exposure, but I do remember the handful of songs from Broadway composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty being a definite highlight. Nabbing two Oscar nominations for their work, Ahrens and Flaherty would get their chance at a full blown musical version of Anastasia twenty years later but would the adults that were pre-teens in 1997 shell out Broadway prices to bring their children to see Anastasia live again live onstage?

From the screaming crowds and squeals of delight emanating from the Broadhurst Theatre in NYC, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. I have to say, though, that the entire affair was completely lost on me and I’m debating whether it was just fatigue from doing standing room for my 7th show in five days or if I simply didn’t care for the piece in general. Make no mistake, it’s got a lovely cast led by the beautiful and genuine Christy Altomare and two swoon-ready leads in Derek Klena and Ramin Karimloo (the only actor to receive rapturous entrance applause) but there’s something fairly vacant about it all. Director Darko Tresnjak, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and projection designer Aaron Rhyne work wonders with making sense out of swiftly changing scenes by nimbly moving the action around St. Petersburg and Paris and Linda Cho’s costumes are downright stunning.

Yet for all the gloss and glam the material feels kind of ham-fisted and the new music from Ahrens and Flaherty, while orchestrated grandly, never actually soars. The best music is still the two most popular songs from the movie, ‘Once Upon a December’ and ‘A Rumor in St. Petersburg’. Aside from a more than capable set of leads, there’s dynamite supporting work by theater grande dame Mary Beth Peil (Tony nominated here) and a riotous Caroline O’Connor as her mischievous lady in waiting. Whenever those two are onstage the musical snaps to life but with too many ballads and songs that sound the same it’s enough to lull even the most alert tourist into a gentle slumber…I actually dozed off a few times and I was standing up!

Already doing great box office numbers and with productions announced around the world, Anastasia will be coming to your neck of the words eventually and I think the design elements would travel quite well. Here’s hoping the tour gets tweaked a bit to take the air out of some of the scenes and one or two songs get the heave ho to keep the mystery at the heart of Anastasia something we actually want to get to the bottom of.

Hollywood to Broadway – Groundhog Day

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Groundhog Day (1993)
The Broadway Show:
Groundhog Day, opened on April 17, 2017

As usual, I find myself confessing some deep dark movie sins on this blog and here’s another one to add to the list. Ok…here we go. Promise you’ll still like me after? No turning back now… Until recently, I wasn’t a fan of Groundhog Day.

Are you still there?

Good…thank you for sticking around.

Y’see, I think Groundhog Day was originally sold to 13 year old me as the kind of comedy that would have me rolling in the aisles at Bill Murray’s crazy antics as a cranky weatherman that falls into a vortex of having to repeat the same day in an endless loop. The trouble was, the comedy ran deeper than surface gags and one-liners and there was a sadness to it all that I just didn’t understand at that time. Coming back to it as an adult, I found the film to be a real delight with a dynamic craftsmanship most modern conceptual comedies could only dream of.

As Phil Connors, Murray is in top form as the over-it-all newscaster seemingly slumming it reporting from Philadelphia on whether good ‘ole Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow and foretell six more weeks of winter. Waking up the next day with an eerie sense of déjà vu, Phil eventually realizes he’s stuck re-living the same day over and over and over and over and over again with no way to break the cycle. Along the way he becomes an expert piano player and learns French. Eventually he tests the limits of his “power” and experiments with what life would be like as a jerk or as a nice guy, finally overcoming his mythological torture when he gets things right. Murray had good support from Andie MacDowell who feels like a good straight man to Murray’s particular type of comedy…and who can forget Stephen Tobolowsky’s nebbish Ned? Directed by Murray’s frequent collaborator, the late Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day is one of those near perfect comedic treats that works across multiple age-groups, even if the humor was lost on me as a teen.

 

Unbelievable as it sounds, the one and only Stephen Sondheim was the first composer who showed an interest in bringing Groundhog Day to the stage but by the time the musical premiered at The Old Vic in London last year, the composer was Tim Minchin. Minchin is a well-known Australian comedian that found success back in 2010 with his adaptation of Matilda. Having recently seen Matilda, I knew that Minchin favored tricky lyrics and music that wasn’t always hummable…but that Down Under style of comedy seemed like a great fit with Groundhog Day’s structure and it turns out I was right.

While I literally couldn’t relay a bar of music I heard in Groundhog Day if you paid me $10K, the show was constructed so well and performed so effortlessly that I have to give great credit to the creative time that saw this one through to the finish line. It’s fascinating to me that a show so American would have its successful world premiere in London (it won the Olivier Award for Best Musical) but perhaps producers thought if they could be a hit in the UK then a US run would be a slam dunk. Nominated for 7 Tony Awards, Groundhog Day started performances at the tail end of a solid year of new musicals so it faces an uphill battle on Tony night for most of the categories it’s nominated in. One category up for grabs , though, is Best Actor and while I haven’t seen star Andy Karl’s biggest competition (Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hanson), Karl is downright beloved in the Broadway community and would surely deserve the honor. Coming back from a potentially sidelining injury during previews is sure to garner more goodwill (if not an outright sympathy vote) but what Karl’s doing onstage is pretty exemplary work. Phil is one of those classic musical characters we shouldn’t be rooting for but wind up cheering on and that’s thanks almost entirely to Karl’s genuine performance as a man that turns a corner after reaching multiple dead ends.

Minchin’s music and lyrics blend nicely with Danny Rubin’s faithful adaptation of his screenplay, only making minor adjustments that translate better to the stage. Karl’s co-stars are all solid, though a song for a local babe that opens Act 2 feels extraneous. Kudos also to the director and choreographer for making some enjoyable sleight of hand stage magic to get Karl back to the beginning of his day in increasingly creative ways.

Though it’s housed in the beautiful August Wilson Theater with its quaint (read: too small!) seats, this feels like a show that might work better on tour in Middle America. I’m not sure the entire production with its multiple turntables and high tech LED displays would easily transition to a bus and truck road show and it does need a star performance to anchor the evening…but if it comes to your neck of the woods give it a shot.

Check out my look at Sunset Boulevard!
Check out my look at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

 

Hollywood to Broadway – Sunset Boulevard

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Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The Broadway Show:
Sunset Boulevard, opened on February 9, 2017

You don’t get more Hollywood than Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Released in 1950, the movie was a scathing bite at the Tinsel Town hand that fed the majority of the people involved. Nowadays there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than patting itself on the back and showering movies about the film industry with plaudits (hello, La La Land!) but back when Sunset Boulevard arrived not many industry people were immediately lining up to sing its praises as an insider’s look into the studio system. Nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress, the movie was up against some stiff competition (All About Eve, Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride) and wound up winning just three: Art Direction, Screenplay, and Franz Waxman justly took home gold for his haunting score.

Even if over the years Gloria Swanson’s unhinged fading silent film star would be fodder for parody from the likes of Carol Burnett, the picture remains oddly timely and still a strikingly beautiful film. Filled with unforgettable moments such as Swanson’s creepy crawl toward the screen as it fades to black, it’s an unqualified classic that earns its place as one of Hollywood’s crown jewels of filmmaking. It’s also a pleasure to see legends such as Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton play themselves, further blurring the line between reality and fiction.

I was barely a teenager in 1993 when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard premiered in London. I’m not even going to go into its troubled path behind the scenes involving lawsuits from two divas (Patti LuPone & Faye Dunaway) who were both hired and fired before the show even premiered stateside. When the musical arrived in NYC in 1994 it easily won a host of Tony Awards including, among others, Best Musical, Best Actress for Glenn Close, and another for its gargantuan set designed by John Napier. The sheer size of the production was legendary but made it difficult to recoup its investment so it didn’t wind up being the true smash it could have been. Even a touring production folded quickly due to the constraints of such a behemoth making the move from theater to theater on a weekly basis. Subsequent productions scaled back the proceedings (one even had its actors playing their own instruments…shudder!) but it wasn’t until 2016 when a semi-stage run in London with Close reprising her role that there was talk Broadway might get another trip down Sunset Boulevard.

I’ll admit the chief reason I planned my trip to NYC was for the chance to see Close in the role she will forever be identified with (at least onstage). Seeing Close, um, up close was too good of an opportunity to pass up and add to that a 40 piece orchestra in Broadway’s famed Palace Theatre and the writing was on the wall…I had to see it.

There’s no way to accurately describe the experience of seeing Sunset Boulevard the way I think it was meant to be seen, with its original leading lady and a grand orchestra in a scaled back production smartly restaged by director Lonny Price that may have been smaller set-wise but felt grandly operatic all the same. Removing the lavish set dressings allowed the music (some of it borrowed from Waxman’s original score) and the performances to be the justified stars of the show.

Handsome Brit Michael Xavier sports a spot-on American accent and handily takes on doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis while Swede Fred Johanson is imposing but loyal as Max, Norma’s chauffer – both men sing wonderfully. Price has assembled a well-oiled ensemble including one that plays a ghostly visage of a young Norma Desmond that haunts her elder self throughout the evening.

The show is all about Close, though, and she’s unforgettable. She already made for a thrilling Norma in 1994 (at least on CD) but seeing her take on the same role over 20 years later was revelatory. The voice isn’t always rock solid but these moments of grated fragility only add to the overall sadness of the character. From her first entrance to the goosebump-inducing finale, it’s impossible to look at anyone but Close because she’s always completely ‘in’ the scene even during the very few times where she’s not the focus.

Gloria Swanson and Glenn Close will both be remembered for their interpretations of Norma Desmond, and while Close’s original reading was just adjacent to Swanson’s screen performance in this revival she goes deeper and recreates the role from the ground up. It was everything I wanted and more – well worth the trip!

Hollywood to Broadway – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Book:
  ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, by Roald Dahl. Published in 1964
The Movies: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
The Broadway Show:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opened on April 23, 2017

Mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to anyone of a certain age and it’s highly likely the first image that pops into their brain is Gene Wilder’s master of chocolate from the film adaptation in 1971. Titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to highlight Wilder’s star presence, there’s a valid reason why people have a certain fondness for it. With a script from Dahl himself that was wacky with whimsy while maintaining his overly sinister edge, the film chugs along nicely although it always has felt longer to me than its 100 minutes. This is largely in part to several dud songs from Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley (‘Cheer Up Charlie’ is such a morose cocktail it should be followed with an anti-depressant chaser) and a gross belching scene with Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and his grandfather (Jack Albertson) that I’ve found less tolerable as each year passes. And how about that terrifying journey on Wonka’s boat with images of slimy insects and a chicken getting its head chopped off? Don’t remember it? You’ve probably been watching an edited version toned down for the kiddies coming at it fresh.

Still, though it takes a while to get there with a whole heap of exposition that’s admittedly mostly necessary, there’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of Wonka’s fabulously designed factory centerpiece with its edible plants and chocolate river. It becomes less appetizing as it goes on but for a while there is truly is scrumdidilyumptious.

What wasn’t so tasty was Tim Burton’s 2005 re-imagining that put Charlie back in the title but became an even more tripped-out version than it’s ‘70s predecessor. Typically Burton-esque with oversized CGI set-pieces and oversaturated candy-coated colors, I still don’t see any real reason to spend much time digesting this one. Featuring another creepy performance by Burton muse Johnny Depp and a forgettable supporting cast of oddballs, the Bricusse/Newley songs were ousted in favor of new compositions from Danny Elfman and are pale comparisons with even the most throw-away tunes from the original. It’s a dark and threatening film and while it’s been some time since I’ve seen it all the way through, I remember wanting it to be over before Charlie and his fellow Golden Ticket winners even set foot inside the fabled factory.  The less said about this one, the better.

Flash forward to 2013 when London’s West End featured the premiere of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stage musical. Maintaining several of the Bricusse/Newley songs and padded with music from Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman the show was directed by Sam Mendes to be bigger than life. From the clips I’ve seen online, this show was huge from beginning to end and was a popular title during it’s nearly four year run in the UK. Bringing it to Broadway was inevitable but by the time it jumped the pond Mendes was out as director and it seems like he took most of the set with him. What opened in April at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre has been drastically reworked, ditching the overwhelming enormity of its Brit big brother and replacing them with production values seemingly designed to make the show easier to tour (it’ll be coming to a theater near you in 2018) and that just didn’t sit well with me.

While Christian Borle sounded great and played the sarcastic side of Wonka to a T, the actor is just one of many in the show that looks like they are dying a slow death while children in the audience scream and beg their parents for more candy at intermission. In a way, I felt sorry for them because these are talented performers who likely signed up to participate in a spectacle but learned too late they’d be Our Town-ing it for much of the show. Just wait until Act 2 when the big reveal of the edible room appears on a rolling platform the size of a department store window. The ‘children’ (strangely played by adults in NYC, save for Charlie himself) don’t even all fit on it at the same time! The one bright spot of the show were the Oompa-Loompas, brought hilariously to life via some overly simplistic theater magic that nonetheless had me howling with laughter along with the rest of the audience.  Parents be warned, some of the children go out in increasingly perverse fashion…with one unfortunate being ripped apart and another exploding in a cascade of purple glitter.

The last show I saw during my eight days in NYC, I couldn’t help but be a bummed out by this small scale bon-bon that often looked appetizing but wasn’t filling in the least.