Friday, May 26, 2017

PIRATES 5: DEAD MEN TELL NO NEW TALES

Now playing at a multiplex near us all:

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

(Dirs. Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg, 2017)


After a string of major misfires, including ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, THE LONE RANGER, MORTDECAI (forgot about that one!), TRANSCENDENCE, and DARK SHADOWS, Johnny Depp once again brushes off his Keith Richards impression, dons an X-marked pirate hat, do-rag, black eye makeup, earrings, and the rest of his familiar ratty attire (not dissimilar to what Depp wears in real life) to resurrect the character of Jack Sparrow for the fifth film of Disneys highly lucrative PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise.

As his last big hit was the last PIRATES movie, ON STRANGER TIDES, this makes financial sense for the actor, but for folks (like me) who are tired of the increasingly redundant series, it’s not a very appealing prospect.

But, hey, I try to give every movie the benefit of the doubt - even when it comes to the slew of seemingly unnecessary sequels that clog up the multiplexes every summer. So I’ll say this - DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is better than the previous PIRATES entry, 2011, ON STRANGER TIDE, but, and I know you can see this coming, that’s really not saying much.

This time around, the premise concerns Brenton Thwaites as the son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly’s characters from the first several movies, who seeks out Depp’s Sparrow to help him find the film’s McGuffin – a magical compass thingie called the Trident of Poseidon - so that he can free his father from a curse keeping him forever undersea aboard his sunken ship.

Also wanting to find Sparrow and break their curse, is a group of undead sailors led by the sinister Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, who's a little scary at first but that dies off rapidly), who were trapped in the Devil’s Triangle by Sparrow (in a flashback where we see a young Depp courtesy of digital trickery). Oh yeah, there’s also actually a female lead along for the ride played by Kaya Scodelario, whose character Carina Smyth is an astronomer, which makes people think she’s a witch.

Add Geoffrey Rush reprising his role as Captain Hector Barbossa for the fifth time to the mix, and we’re off into another amped up series of over-the-top sequences in which our heroes seamlessly dodge digital dangers in battles at sea and on land with all of them blending together into a tedious run through done-to-death plot mechanics.

Even bits that I enjoyed such as an action set piece involving a botched bank robbery in which the actual bank building is pulled around a village by a team of horses, felt like a variation on any number of comical chases in the previous entries, and Depp’s swishy Sparrow schtick, which was past its sell-by date a few films ago is just another predictable, uninspired element on display here.

On the plus side, the visual imagery, aided by tons of CGI, is stunning with oceans that glitter to the horizon dominated by intricately detailed battle ships and cool looking ghost sharks (that’s right). It proves that these days even mediocre movies can look immaculate.

Despite this appraisal, I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in IMAX 3D like I did - the effect wears off pretty quickly.

I predict that PIRATES fans will be pleased by this entry - I say that because my wife likes them and she liked this one - but while I thought there was a reasonable amount of fun onscreen for at least a matinee price, I grow tired at seeing this series endlessly repeat itself. 

This film seems to have two major purposes as a piece of pop culture - keep the franchise afloat for more follow-ups, and end Depp’s career slump. As its biggest competition this Memorial Day weekend is BAYWATCH, I’m betting it will have no trouble reaching those goals.

For those who are curious - yes, there is an after credits stinger to set up a yet another sequel. Like every single thing else here, that’s a given.

More later...

Friday, May 19, 2017

Richard Gere Fakes His Way Through Being A Fixer in NORMAN

Now playing at an indie arthouse near me (the Rialto in Raleigh being the closest):

NORMAN (Dir. Joseph Cedar, 2016)


In Israeli writer/director’s first English language film NORMAN (aka NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER), Richard Gere schleps around Manhattan stalking powerful people who he promises to introduce to other powerful people.

Gere’s Norman Oppenheimer constantly networks, trying to make political connections, handing out his business card for “Oppenheimer Strategies,” faking his way through being a fixer with most of his prey knowing, or sensing that he’s just a small time operator with no real clout.

That is until one day when he meets Micha Eshel (a smooth, charming Lior Ashkenazi), the deputy Israeli minister of trade and labor, outside a high end clothing store (Norman was staking him, of course), and the two establish a friendship - mostly because Norman buys Micha an outrageously expensive pair of shoes.

Three years later, Eshel is made Prime Minister of Israel, and Norman aims to rekindle their relationship as it appears that he finally has an “in.” Norman is subsequently sought after, while his past is scrutinized, and he finds he’s being followed. Then Eshel gets caught in a scandal involving bribes and corruption, and Norman may be in hot water as the unnamed businessman that Eshel will have to use as a scapegoat in order to escape prosectution.

Gere, while neither Jewish or a schlub (albeit a well dressed one with a cashmere coat and nice suits), is terrific as Norman, who at times appears to stare into the abyss as we see looking through his eyes at unforgiving surroundings.

Utterly believable as this pathetic, delusional loser who believes he’s a winner and fancies himself a macher (Yiddish for an important or influential person), Gere’s interacts with the rest of the cast in sometimes amusing, sometimes cringe-worthy ways.

The rest of the cast includes Michael Sheen as Norman’s skeptical nephew, Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi who stupidly trusts Norman to find an investor so he can save his synagogue, Hank Azaria as the guy following Norman who turns out to be a “Norman” himself with a similar business card for a non-existent company, and pitches that he can connect powerful people with one another; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman who Norman blabs to on a train, who turns out to be an Israeli prosecutor.

It’s billed as a thriller, but Director Cedar, working from his own screenplay, plays a lot of this material in a comedic fashion by populating the film with doublespeak dialogue and a sometimes silly score by Japanese composer Jun Miyake which is dominated by a bouncy brass section.

NORMAN may take a bit to get going, but once it does it’s a wicked delight. It could be seen as a companion piece to Oren Moverman’s TIME OUT OF MIND, which starred Gere as a delusional homeless man wandering the streets of New York, hoping to re-connect with his daughter.

Gere’s Norman may be homeless himself as while a rent-controlled apartment that he inherited is mentioned, we never see it. He also says he has a daughter, but we’re not sure we believe him. The man who once starred in a movie called POWER, and has made a career out of playing affluent men, is now excelling at playing people who have no power.

Gere used to be an actor that didn’t appeal to me back in the day, but now having seen how good he is at slumming it, he’s earned my respect.

More later...

Friday, May 05, 2017

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: Overstuffed But Still A Fun Ride

Now playing everywhere:

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

(Dir. James Gunn, 2017)



With the summer movie season upon us, it’s easy to be cynical about big ass, CGI-saturated superhero movies clogging up the multiplexes, but the Marvel machine has a pretty good track record. A couple of times a year, sometimes three, that ginormous franchise factory consistently cranks out comic book adaptations that are mostly quality entertainment.

So that brings us to the second installment to one of the funniest, most offbeat entries in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

VOL. 2 re-unites Chris Pratt as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as the green-skinned Gamora, Dave Bautista as the multicolored Drax the Destroyer, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as the CGI-ed characters Rocket the raccoon, and the tiny tree-like Baby Groot.

The film starts by introducing us to Quill’s dad, played by a young Kurt Russell. That’s right, in a scene set in 1980, Russell via camera effects and make-up appears as his 30-year old self, and it’s pretty damn convincing. Russell, whose name is mentioned yet, takes his girlfriend (Laura Haddock), obviously later to be Star-Lord’s mother, to see some sort of alien seedling deal he planted in the woods behind a Dairy Queen somewhere in Missouri.

Flash forward 34 years and we meet up with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they battle a huge inter-dimensional creature with tons of tentacles, and teeth on a platform somewhere in space (they probably had a caption saying where but I don’t remember it). The action takes place largely in the background as the film focuses on Baby Groot cutely dancing up a storm to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in the foreground.

The gang’s job is to protect some powerful batteries, the movie’s McGuffin, for some gold-skinned people called the Sovereign led by Elizabeth Debicki as the High Priestess. This is in exchange for Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) so that the Guardians can take her to Xandar to collect her bounty. But then Rocket steals some of the batteries and a chase ensues with a bunch of remotely controlled drones following our heroes into an asteroid field (it’s not the only time this film apes THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, believe me).

Their ship crash lands on some planet (again, I don’t remember the name if there was one), and soon after another vessel that they had seen during the chase sequence lands. Russell, now identified as Ego, appears to reveal himself as Quill’s father, and asks him to come with him to his planet. Rocket and Groot get captured by Michael Rooker, reprising his role as the blue-skinned Yondu Udonta and his team of Ravagers, but a mutiny gets Yondu imprisoned with Rocket. This leads to another scene, one of the film’s funniest, in which Baby Groot keeps bringing the wrong thing instead of Yondu’s red fin head thingie, which can shoot a laser-like arrow through hundreds of attacking Ravagers.

Meanwhile, Quill is bonding with his dad, Ego (they even play catch together with some kind of light orb), but Gamora isn’t so sure that Ego is to be trusted. He’s not, of course, and his sinister plan, that he calls “The Expansion” involves taking over the galaxy with the seedlings planted on every planet. Ego, a character that dates back to 1966, himself is a living planet, you see.

The freshness of the first has evaporated, but VOL. 2 is a fine follow-up overall, but it
’s a bit overlong and overstuffed with way too much going on - I had trouble following some of the chaotic goings on. Also my wife said she thought the father-son emotional content was heavy handed, and I have to agree. I would’ve liked more misdirection surrounding whether Ego is the film’s villain or not as well, but I guess fans of the comic would know that going in.

A new addition to the Guardians is Mantis played by an attenna-sporting Pom Klementieff, who has some funny moments with Bautista’s Drax, who keeps reminding her how hideous he thinks she is.

It was surprising to see Sylvester Stallone in such a small role - that’s right, this movie has both TANGO & CASH – as a high ranking Ravager named Starhawk (Stakar of the House of Ogord), another character that’s been around for decades but I’m just learning about now.

Russell over-acts a bit, but Ego's persona does call for it. The rest of the Pratt-led cast carries out their duties with humorous aplomb, and, like I said on the first one, Rocket may be Coopers best work.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL.2 is action and comedy packed enough to be the crowd pleaser its director/screenwriter Gunn wants it to be, and the soundtrack - the Awesome Mix Vol. 2 that Pratt’s Quill got at the end of the first one - lives up to its name with a bunch of toe-tapping tunes by the likes of George Harrison, Cheap Trick, Sweet, Jay and the Americans, and Cat Stevens (“Father and Son,” of course). I also enjoyed the David Hasselhoff jokes and cameo – he’s Quill’s father figure idol, you see).

The film’s bloat extends to five, count ‘em, five post credits scenes, so don’t get up when the movie looks like it’s over. I hate seeing those movie-goers that start to walk out and then have to race back or stop in their tracks to watch the stingers. Jeez, everyone should know by now that at a Marvel movie they should stay in their seats until the real finish and the actual studio logo hits the screen. It
’s as expected as the obligatory Stan Lee cameo! We’re 15 movies into the MCU, people - get it together!

More later...