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 ~ The Book Thief

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While subjected to the horrors of World War II Germany, young Liesel finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others. Under the stairs in her home, a Jewish refugee is being sheltered by her adoptive parents.

Stars: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch

Director: Brian Percival

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  You know you’re in trouble when you discover in the first minutes of The Book Thief that Death will be your unseen narrator.  Having not read Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel of the same name, I can’t rightly tell you if Death’s narrative had a less cavalier attitude toward the horror of Nazi Germany during World War II.  It’s presented on screen though with an uncomfortably lighthearted approach that winds up sanitizing these dark times to fit into a more family-friendly-lets-have-a-discussion-afterward book club-y vibe.

Let’s backtrack a bit.  In bringing the bestseller to the screen, director Brian Percival (right at home in a period drama having coming from directing Downton Abbey) and screenwriter Michael Petroni kept the framework of Zusak’s novel intact but didn’t go any further with it.  What’s left is a perfectly fine drama that seems a natural fit to take in on a snowy day but one that tries at all costs to avoid addressing the inevitable outcome of most of the characters we’re introduced to.

Orphan Liesel (wide-eyed and remarkable newcomer Sophie Nélisse) comes to live with adoptive parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush, The Best Offer) and Rosa (Emily Watson, Anna Karenina) in a small German town.  Quiet, solemn, and unable to read the girl is warmly received by Hans but kept at a distance by Rosa who had expected to receive a boy that could help with the chores.  As family dramas go, the eventual bonding between the three happens like we know it will; Hans teaches Liesel to read and Rosa eventually comes around.  If it weren’t for those pesky Nazis burning books and killing an entire population of people the story may have been over.

Liesel and her next-door pal Rudy (another strong child performer, Nico Liersch) grow up side by side, dealing with bullies, personal squabbles, and the eventual realization that their lives will be forever changed when war breaks out.  There’s a lot of material to mine for dramatic purposes here and most of it is taken in stride by our able bodied leads and several strong supporting performances.

So why didn’t The Book Thief move me more?  John Williams’ Golden Globe nominated score is rich with emotion that sets the appropriate tone and the vibrant cinematography from Florian Ballhaus (Hope Springs) puts you right where you need to be to have your hankies ready for a tear-stained-face sorta finale.  Still, the eventual ending didn’t have much of an impact on me because the central danger, the omnipresent fear these people lived in was always kept on the periphery and not addressed.

I’d say to those interested in The Book Thief to focus on the performances rather than whatever the film fails to let materialize.  Nélisse and Liersch are charmers and give fuel to a cautious recommendation from this critic.

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The Silver Bullet ~ The Best Offer (La migliore offerta)

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Synopsis: A master auctioneer becomes obsessed with an extremely reclusive heiress who collects fine art.

Release Date:  January 1, 2014

Thoughts: So close…we were so close to having a trailer for a nice little mystery from the director of Cinema Paradiso but then some marketing genius had to go and reveal a plot development I would have much rather waited until I saw the film to find out.  I can’t imagine withholding this bit of info would have seriously changed the mind of the audience this import would have attracted.  Oh well…The Best Offer still has my interest thanks to The Book Thief‘s Geoffrey Rush’s mysterious art dealer that meets up with an even more mysterious heiress and attempts to unravel her secrets.  I just wish, yet again, that previews weren’t always so long and spoiler heavy – but who knows, perhaps the biggest secrets are yet to come?  Here’s hoping.