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.

Movie Review ~ Oculus

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.

Stars: Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brenton Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you were to dismiss Oculus as another haunted house horror flick made on the cheap and released in theaters right about the time that audiences are clamoring for some springtime terror. Further, the trailer for Oculus sells the film as a scream fest surrounding an old mirror that has dark secrets. What Oculus isn’t, however, is your run-of-the-mill fright flick that saves its best scares for the final moments. This mirror is polished.

I’ll take a good scare any way I can get it…be it slow burn (Sinister), all out gore-fest (Cabin in the Woods), or failed attempt to cash in on a better concept (Silent House, The Apparition, etc) so I went into Oculus willing to receive it however it chose to present itself. I’ll admit at first I didn’t quite know what to make of the film as it bounced back and forth between a brother and sister exorcising some old demons and a flashback to 11 years earlier when the siblings dealt with some deadly family issues.

At the center of it all is a majestic mirror, said to be responsible for the death of close to 50 people since the 18th century and highly valuable. How a software designer (Rory Cochrane) had the cashola to purchase such a coveted antique is a plot point best filed away under “Don’t Think Too Hard” but it isn’t long before the past and present collide with some seriously spooky sequences where the line between reality and imagination gets hazy.

With an adequate amount of gore that plays second fiddle to bump in the night style scares, the film has the feeling of a sequel to The Amityville Horror (actually, an Amityville TV movie did deal with a haunted mirror now that I think about it) mixed in with dashes of fractured reality of the bloody Mirrors from 2008. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan has thought out his film well, introducing not merely themes of post traumatic healing but of mental illness brought on by a tragedy. The film isn’t quite sophisticated enough to tie everything together but the effort is clear and purposeful.

Dealing with a small cast, the film could have been a pain to sit through had Flanagan not assembled such a strong group of actors. Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Maleficent) ably handle the adult siblings while Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan (Insidious: Chapter 2) are impressive handling with their heavy lifting in flashbacks. The first shot of Gillan is her fire red ponytail swinging back and forth almost as if it’s possessed and both she and Thwaites work cohesively to build a believable bond. Cochrane and Katee Sackoff (Riddick) make good use of their slightly underwritten roles.

If there are cracks in Oculus, they are of the minor variety and truth being told I’m not sure if the film will hold up on future viewings. Though the ending rises to the occasion for making the goose bumps rise on your skin, a too short wrap-up left me feeling a little cold to the whole affair. Feeling just a tad long at 105 minutes, Flanagan working as his own edtior could have benefited from having someone else edit the film that was more objective to pacing.

More spooky than terrifying, Oculus earns points for restraint and solid performances. The scares are mostly satisfying and I appreciated that Flanagan developed material that felt fresh and not your average shriek-out.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Giver

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Synopsis: In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world.

Release Date: August 15, 2014

Thoughts: A bit surprising that it’s taken 20 years for Lois Lowry’s popular young adult novel to make it to the big screen…but not a total shock now that big budget films about seemingly utopian societies that reveal dystopian undercurrents are all the rage (see The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Host, and Divergent if you think I’m wrong).  Attracting an impressive cast including Oscar winners Jeff Bridges (Jagged Edge) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County, Hope Springs), this has potential…unless audiences find themselves maxed out on this genre which may be reaching its saturation level.

The Silver Bullet ~ Oculus

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Synopsis: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.

Release Date: April 11, 2014

Thoughts: First things first…I appreciate that this is truly a teaser trailer.  We all know how much I’m in favor of the less is more approach and while a longer version of this may be released before the film comes out in April, I have to say that this first look at another low-budget horror film from wunderkind producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity 4, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, The Purge, Lawless, Sinister, Lords of Salem) gets the job done.  That being said, these movies tend to open big (usually without advance screenings) and then sink like a stone once word of mouth makes its way around.  One can only hope that Oculus will wind up being more ambitious than the rest and strike gold not only in the box office but with critics desperate for a good scare.