PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Adventure Violence, and some Suggestive Content

Directed by: Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg

Written by: Jeff Nathanson

Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham & Orlando Bloom

In theory, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series never should have worked. It’s based on a theme park ride and had a goofy premise from the start, with Johnny Depp putting in a shamelessly over-the-top performance that baffled studio heads. However, 2003’s CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL was a huge hit amongst both critics and audiences. I consider that film to be a glowing example of big budget summer entertainment done right. DEAD MAN’S CHEST was an okay sequel, while AT WORLD’S END was a tired slog to sit through. ON STRANGER TIDES was a marginally better fourth entry that attempted to steer this swashbuckling series back into Captain Jack’s fantastical ocean adventures. How does the fifth(!) installment in this long-running theme-park-based franchise fare? Well, let’s just say that I enjoyed almost every other PIRATES film more than DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of the Flying Dutchman’s captain Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), is desperate to break the curse that holds his father to the sea. To do this, he needs to find Poseidon’s legendary trident…and for that, he’ll need the help of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Henry and Jack get off to a rocky start, as they’re accompanied by intellectual Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) and her ability to read a map in the stars. Their journey only gets rockier as the Jack’s crew encounters Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), evil British Lieutenant Scarfield (David Wenham), and ghostly Spaniard Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). The only hope for breaking Will’s curse and saving Jack’s life is to find/steal the fabled trident!

DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, much like the series’ previous installment ON STRANGER TIES, clearly has Disney trying to steer this pirate franchise in new directions. This time, they’re aiming to bring in a new generation of moviegoers by having two fresh-faced, younger characters as leads. Henry Turner and Carina Smyth are clearly supposed to be hipper, younger stand-ins for Orlando Bloom’s hero and Keira Knightley’s heroine from the original trilogy. Unfortunately, Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are poor substitutes in acting ability, on-screen charisma, and character development.

In his fifth outing as Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp gets a fair amount of laughs and also grates on the viewer’s nerves in equal measure. I thought Depp was easily the best part of the first two PIRATE movies, but he’s slowly become more and more of a cartoon character as the films have gone on. The same can be said of DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, which sees Captain Jack jumping from cannon to cannon in a ship battle and making plenty of goofy faces. His best scene easily involves a guillotine though and this got plenty of laughs out of myself (and everyone else in the theater). Geoffrey Rush fares much better as the returning Barbossa, while Orlando Bloom has a glorified cameo.

As two new antagonists in the series, David Wenham and Javier Bardem are on opposite ends of the villain totem-pole. Wenham (though a more than capable actor) isn’t given much to do as the evil British Lieutenant and his entire subplot wraps up in the most anti-climactic way possible (even worse than the giant witch from the third movie). Javier Bardem serves as a solid baddie though. I loved the look of his villain and the murderous grudge he holds against Sparrow. More screen time should have been dedicated to the conflict between Depp’s Sparrow and Bardem’s Salazar as opposed to far too many subplots that invasively take away from the film’s more interesting plot points.

As far as spectacle goes, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES has its fair share of entertaining bits and cool moments. There’s an opening bank robbery that recaptures the humor that made the first two installments so enjoyable and, of course, there’s effects-driven chaos that one would expect to see in a PIRATES movie. Most of the film’s awesomeness involves Bardem’s ghostly villain and his strange powers, including using decaying sharks as creative weapons. The special effects look great, though you’d expect them to be that…with a price tag of over 200 million dollars. However, the finale is where things become a little too eye-rollingly silly in the plot’s over-the-top, anything-goes nature. I was not having nearly as much fun as I should have been, especially considering that the film goes for a “kitchen sink” approach in its final third.

DEAD MEN’s script is where most of this film’s many problems lie. The beyond convoluted plot feels like it’s trying to cram entirely too much into one movie. We have loads of new characters, meaning that our main ones of importance wind up underdeveloped and forgettable. Certain story arcs come right the hell out of nowhere with little rhyme, reason, or emotional resonance. One twist feels like a last-minute thought and becomes useless in the overall scheme of things. Meanwhile, a few subplots are completely pointless…like the British villain who goes nowhere and (again) has an infuriatingly stupid final scene.

DEAD MEN is only marginally better than AT WORLD’S END and falls far lower than the second and fourth installments. If the stinger after the end credits is any indication, we’ll likely be getting an unnecessary sixth film in the franchise…because why not render an ending that seemed to wrap up the entire series as pointless in the space of five minutes? There are a handful of great moments in DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES and I really enjoyed Bardem’s undead villain, but the film suffers from too many unfocused subplots, lazy writing, and two bland leads. As a result, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is the second-worst PIRATES movie and lackluster attempt at summer blockbuster entertainment.

Grade: C-

EVEREST (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Peril and Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur

Written by: William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy

Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Thomas Wright

Having not read the book INTO THIN AIR (which many of my friends have endlessly recommended to me), I walked into EVEREST knowing next to nothing about the true events that inspired this film. I was sold strictly on the premise, cast, and marketing. This looked like an intense, beautifully shot, and emotional disaster flick. For the most part, it is. Though the sizeable cast and lengthy running time become detrimental to the storytelling, EVEREST serves as a thrilling “based on a true story” film in which a group of adventurers hike up the world’s tallest mountain and find themselves woefully unprepared for the danger that awaits them.

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The time is 1996 and various hiking organizations have set up camps at the base of Mount Everest. These groups (springing from New Zealand, America, South Africa, etc.) have taken it upon themselves to line the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain with various ropes and ladders. The purpose of this being that even mere novices could reach the summit of Mount Everest with a professional guide’s help. This year, New Zealander Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants has a rather large group of hikers and so does American Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Due to the sheer size of their teams and a potentially hazardous waiting time, the two men decide to combine their groups for an expedition to the summit of Everest. Unfortunately, nobody expects two vicious storms that arrive just as the group is turning around from the summit. This force of nature will cost some hikers their lives and inspire others to rise above overwhelming odds of certain death…

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Though pieces of the film were shot on location at the actual Everest base camp, most of the Mount Everest imagery is actually made up of the Otztal Alps in Italy. I’ll be damned if they’re not a convincing substitute. To be completely honest, the main reason you should see EVEREST is for the visuals alone. This film feels and looks huge. You get the sense that these characters are venturing into a place where Mother Nature has the ultimate upper hand. The cinematography, locations and sets all had me convinced that what I was seeing was real, if only for the two hours I sat in the theater. Speaking of which, the main way to experience this movie is on the big screen. For the sheer scope of the film, you will want to see it in a huge theater. I imagine that it won’t play nearly as well on home video or cable.

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As impressive as the visuals are and as harrowing as the film feels, EVEREST does encounter problems in both pacing and characters. We don’t simply start the film with the hikers venturing up Mount Everest, but get a long introduction of them trying to climatize to the environment because one does not simply climb Everest. This build-up portion of the film runs arguably a bit too long. That can be said for various other parts of the movie as well, even once the disaster is in full force. Rest assured, there are intense moments and I’m sure that the movie might hit the emotions harder of someone who has read INTO THIN AIR, but I felt the film noticeably dragged in spots.

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As far as characters go, there are a lot of them and EVEREST tries to juggle all of them equally. More time is definitely spent on Rob Hall (a well-cast Jason Clarke), Scott Fischer (the always solid Jake Gyllenhaal), Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin delivering the best performance of the film) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes in a memorable part). Little pieces are shined on other characters such as two guides who don’t get along, Hall’s pregnant wife, the frantic crew at base camp watching helplessly as the storm gets worse and a Japanese woman who has scaled seven summits. The film simply tries to cram too many people into one movie. As a result, aside from the four main guys we follow, it feels like other characters exist simply to die or to help the main characters survive as best they can.

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EVEREST is based on a real life expedition and that story is fascinating for those who take the time to read it (whether it be in a book or simply on a Wikipedia page). As a film, there are problems in both the pacing and characters. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram too much within the space of two hours, but also didn’t know how to keep the pace from dragging at points (this feels like two-and-a-half hours as opposed to two). There are emotional moments and I don’t regret watching this movie in the slightest, but the film can’t fully overcome its pacing and so-so characters. EVEREST is a good movie, but I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen or not seeing it at all.

Grade: B

THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Sexual References, Mature Thematic Material and Historical Smoking

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Directed by: Morten Tyldum

Written by: Graham Moore

(based on the book ALAN TURING: THE ENIGMA by Andrew Hodges)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech & Matthew Beard

When one usually thinks of World War II movies, they picture battlefields full of dead bodies and soldiers engaged in bloody combat. THE IMITATION GAME offers neither of these and that’s part of the reason it stands out so much from hundreds of other historical dramas made about this time period. Instead, this non-linear drama focuses on Alan Turing, a mathematician who secretly helped end the war by cracking an seemingly impossible Nazi code. Seeing as this film combines a biopic and a WWII drama, it seems like the ideal candidate for Academy Award attention (whether it wound up being good or not). The film is more than just good because IMITATION GAME is an emotionally engaging and compelling story through and through.

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The UK has declared war on Germany and it’s the outcome doesn’t look good. This is partially because the Nazis use an unbreakable code known as Enigma. Alan Turing is a brilliant mathematician hired to help decode Enigma. While his fellow staff members scramble through various unreadable messages on a daily basis, Alan is working on a machine that could very well help win the war. His complicated invention (the basis for computers) is constantly bombarded by an inability to connect to those around him in a normal way and his commanding officers hassling him as a waste of time. The film follows Turing from childhood to his amazing contribution to the war and his eventual fate at the hands of government regulations. It’s a true, tragic, and wholly emotional life brilliantly brought to film.

THE IMITATION GAME, seated: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing; standing from left: Keira

THE IMITATION GAME is told in a non-linear fashion. We flash through Turing’s later years (as he’s being investigated by a police officer), his long process in breaking Enigma, and his childhood years at a boarding school. This style of story-telling works extremely well given this context. If it were told in a purely linear way from his childhood to his death, IMITATION GAME might come off as boring as opposed to the interesting and fresh film that it really is. Benedict Cumberbatch fully disappears into his role as Alan Turing. He was undoubtedly a genius, but was also a secret homosexual (which was illegal in England at the time) and clearly autistic. The former contributes more tension being built up around his hidden identity and the latter is not focused in too much detail but is obvious. Cumberbatch makes this unique hero into someone who the viewer can fully relate to, regardless of their own sexuality or mental state.

THE IMITATION GAME, Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing (second from left), 2014. ph: Jack

Supporting cast members deliver in their roles too. Keira Knightley might have delivered her best performance yet as Joan Clarke. Matthew Goode and Allen Leech are equally fantastic as Turing’s co-workers. Mark Strong and Charles Dance aren’t given much screen time as higher-ups with polar opposite personalities, but make the most of the scenes they have. The biggest compliment that can be given to IMITATION GAME is making a story about a group of people stuck in a hut trying to crack a code feel like they are on a battlefield with gunfire and explosions. While the movie cuts to shots of war-torn landscapes to illustrate battles are being fought as this group struggles to crack secret messages, there’s a solid amount of tension built between these characters. The suspense becomes even more intense as suspicions of a Soviet spy hiding among them heighten.

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If there any complaints are to be leveled at this film, they come in a couple of scenes becoming the tiniest bit cheesy. Maybe, this is especially demonstrated in an epilogue that throws one or two title cards too many at the viewer. This is a minor flaw that I had with an otherwise fantastic film. The movie is remarkably well shot and written. It seems to have done justice to the life of a dedicated hero whose work lay in secrecy for 50 years and hammers home just how upsetting the tragedy was in Turing’s fate.

THE IMITATION GAME, Benedict Cumberbatch, 2014. ph: Jack English/

THE IMITATION GAME is a war story unlike any that I’ve seen before. Most WWII films center around battles, the Holocaust or POW camps, but this movie reminds the viewer that those working in an office to fight against the Nazis had just as much of an important role in winning the Big War. Benefitting from a brilliantly constructed script, a fascinating true story, and stunning performances, THE IMITATION GAME is absolutely worth your time!

Grade: A

THE JACKET (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and brief Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: John Maybury

Written by: Massy Tadjedin

Starring: Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Kris Kristofferson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kelly Lynch, Brad Renfro, Daniel Craig & Laura Marano

THE JACKET is a strange beast. That’s probably part of the reason that it didn’t necessarily excel in wide theatrical release. This is the kind of oddball film that lends itself better to a festival environment followed by a quiet home video release, rather than a multiplex. In lesser hands, the cool premise behind THE JACKET’s story (involving questionable methods of treating mental illness and time-travel) could have become a by-the-numbers thriller. Writer Massy Tadjedin opts to take a different route by transforming this high-concept into an emotional piece of adult science fiction. Make no qualms about it, THE JACKET is a weird movie and also a good one.

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The time is 1992. Jack Starks is a recently returned Gulf War veteran suffering from slight amnesia. After helping a little girl, Jackie, and her mother stuck on the side of a snowy road, Jack winds up wrongfully accused of killing a cop. Seen as mentally unfit to stand trial, he is admitted to the malicious Dr. Becker’s asylum. Jack is subjected to extreme treatment by being placed in a restricting full-body strait-jacket, pumped full of drugs, and thrown into a morgue locker for complete sensory deprivation. It is in this state that Jack somehow transports to 2007, where he meets the now-adult Jackie and discovers that he died on January 1, 1993 under unusual circumstances. Faced with time ticking away in ’92, Jack tries to solve the mystery of his own death in order to prevent it from passing and forms a strong connection with Jackie.

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THE JACKET is a creepy story that doesn’t necessarily go in the directions that I expected it to. The slick and muted visuals maintain a foreboding tone through the entire film. It also helps that the performers really sell their characters to the viewer. Adrien Brody is compelling Jack, who begins as a victim and ultimately tries to own his disturbing situation. Keira Knightley is solid as the older version of Jackie. However, there doesn’t seem to be much chemistry between herself and Brody. The film tries to convince us that they’re the perfect couple, in spite of Brody having to time travel to a point where Jackie is of legal age. Daniel Craig is awesome in a side role as one of the asylum’s more colorful patients. Kris Kristofferson is excellent as the vicious, cold Dr. Becker and turns his character into a complex villain.

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A behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD revealed that THE JACKET was in the works long before it was filmed. Screenwriter Massy Tadjedin remarked that the original script she received was 160 pages (each page usually equals a minute of screen time) and was super complex. It’s fairly obvious that this entire premise is fruitful with plenty of ideas that could have been milked further. Apparently, only the general concept was kept from the original screenplay and a shorter film was constructed around the main idea. This is actually given away by the film not completely living up to its full potential, which could have wound up as a modern masterpiece. A couple of plot holes make their way into the film as the concept of time travel is a tricky one to get right, but a few of these (especially two key moments) could have easily been fixed with small deleted scenes being reinserted into the final cut. These drawbacks take away from the potentially awesome flick that THE JACKET might have become otherwise, but this is still a good movie.

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Though it never makes the most of its crazy premise and the Brody-Knightley chemistry isn’t convincing, THE JACKET remains a neat little film. If one were to judge from reading the premise or even just watching the trailer, they would go in expecting an intense thriller and wouldn’t expect so much heartfelt emotion thrown into this. The latter of which especially comes out in an ending that seems to split audiences right down the middle on how they feel about it. THE JACKET is a flawed, but cool piece of darker science fiction and deserves far more attention than it receives. Recommended!

Grade: B

STAR WARS Episode I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sci-Fi Action/Violence

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Directed by: George Lucas

Written by: George Lucas

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August, Ray Park, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Silas Carson, Andy Secombe, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Sofia Coppola & Keira Knightley

2015 brings tons of new sequels for many nostalgic film series, the biggest being STAR WARS Episode VII. Like many kids of the 90’s, I grew up watching Episodes IV-VI on a regular basis. Darth Vader was one of the greatest villains of all time and I loved how this space opera series treated me like an adult with its serious storytelling. The original STAR WARS trilogy was an intergalactic battle between good and evil that deserved the fan base built around it. Enter 1999 and the much maligned Episode I. This blockbuster was garnering huge buzz. It was the second highest grossing film of the 90’s (behind TITANIC), but it now carries a much maligned reputation. While I don’t think PHANTOM MENACE is quite as bad as everyone says it is (I’ll get into why), it’s a major disappointment.

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Turns out this epic saga began with a taxation on trade routes. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are two Jedi knights (powerful warriors with a telekinetic ability known as the Force and deadly lightsabers) sent to negotiate a peaceful solution with the villainous Trade Federation. This kicks off a quest to save the peaceful planet of Naboo, thus throwing all sorts of alien beings, planetary battles, and the possibility of a prophecy being fulfilled in a young slave named Anakin Skywalker. That’s the basic outline of the plot, but there’s also an undercurrent of two evil Sith lords (powerful warriors using Jedi powers for darker purposes) at play.

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That summary might clue you in to the first big problem with PHANTOM MENACE. You’re telling me that this epic saga of Light Side and Dark Side, planet-sized weapons, and the ultimate conflict between good and evil sprang from a taxation? This isn’t colonial times of early America. This is freaking outer space! Surely, there could have been far more inventive ways of kicking this whole prequel trilogy off. The political talk has no real place in a Star Wars movie either, as the other films focused on interesting characters and simple (but powerful) plots. I remember being bored out of my mind when I saw PHANTOM MENACE on the big screen back in 1999 (I was in second grade). Maybe, George Lucas’s reasoning behind the annoying cartoon character sidekick that is Jar-Jar Binks was to entertain the kids. In this sense, it feels like the younger audience is being spoken down to and that’s something the original trilogy never did. To make matters even worse, there’s pointless clutter surrounding every scene. This is especially evident in the side antics of a lengthy Pod-Race scene. These silly quick bits amount to little more than George Lucas trying to show off.

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It might also help if there were characters worth caring about, but these folks are bland as can be. Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are fantastic actors, but they’re completely uninteresting as Jedi knights. They’re almost as wooden as the young Jake Lloyd playing Anakin. This child actor can’t get a single line out of his mouth in a remotely believable delivery. It’s ridiculous and makes the viewer wonder how many other worse kids were passed up for this shining example of who won the audition. Natalie Portman gives the only decent performance to be found, but she’s not given a whole lot to do. Finally, there’s Ray Park (who went on to play Toad in 2000’s X-MEN) as the double-sided lightsaber wielding Darth Maul. He looks cool enough and contributes to the best scene of the film, but is completely ignored as a character. The main problem comes from George Lucas throwing the viewer straight into action scenes without taking the time to flesh any of these people out. It’s the equivalent of Lucas directing a TRANSFORMERS movie.

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So with all my ranting and raving about what’s bad, you might be asking “What do you like about it more than most other people?” I actually think there are lots of cool visuals here. The planets look good, despite some of the sketchy inhabitants. Speaking of which, there are also cool looking aliens in this flick. I already mentioned Darth Maul, but I actually dig Watto (though he’s essentially a Jewish stereotype) and the Podracer Sebulba. The practical puppets look really cheesy though, especially the Trade Federation (Asian stereotypes) and a cheap looking Yoda hand toy. That being said, I really enjoy the Pod-Racing scene (in spite of stupid additions by Lucas) and the final lightsaber duel is fun (in spite of an underdeveloped villain).

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Don’t get me wrong. PHANTOM MENACE is definitely a disappointment and a bad movie, but I don’t find it to be as awful as many fans do. There are a couple of cool sequences (the race and the final fight) and there’s an entertaining spectacle level in the other worlds being brought to life. It’s bad, but if you turn off your brain, you might have a little more fun watching MENACE. Another tactic would be employing a drinking game where you take a shot every time Anakin yells “Yippee!,” Jar-Jar says “How rude!” or the droids say “Roger, roger.” You’re likely to be plastered within the first hour. PHANTOM MENACE is bad, but there are a few redeeming things in it. Also, I could write a whole essay about why Jar-Jar Binks sucks, so let me just award this film a….

Grade: C-

On a side note, I used to own one of these as a child.

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Just saying…

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