Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Notes from underwater

On stupid subplots and long-lost children, the cinematic choices of the Fab Four, and the long, absurd, Cage-tastic future of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Kaya Scodelario, Brenton Thwaites, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, Stephen Graham, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 9 minutes / 2.35:1
May 26, 2017
(out of four)

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is so devoid of anything to really talk about - having so long ago moved beyond any interest in trying something new or challenging itself - that a movie like Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth entry in the series, can practically review itself. It knows exactly what it is, a statement that's usually a compliment but which in this case feels more like resignation. This is all we are, this is all we want to be, take it or leave it. With the rote precision and mechanical formula of a CBS procedural, Dead Men Tell No Tales snaps right into place, spitting out all the things a Pirates of the Caribbean movie is supposed to contain. Pirates. Pirate ships. Skeletons. Barnacles. The British Navy. A small monkey. Treasure. A compass. Pretty young lovers. Double entendres. Unlikely escapes from death. And the collected spins, leans, twirls and pratfalls of a perpetually woozy Jack Sparrow. There you have it.

For the record: Dead Men* contains all of those things, so in a manner of speaking it does its job. If nothing else, it knows how to complete a checklist. The full title might as well have been Pirates of the Caribbean: Another One. Which would then lead into 2019's Pirates of the Caribbean: More of This.

* Sadly, this is NOT an aquatic sequel to Johnny Depp's 1995 Jim Jarmusch collaboration, Dead Man, nor does it exist in the Dead Man Cinematic Universe. However, Disney does reserve the right to team Jack Sparrow up with Depp's Mad Hatter character should the opportunity for a Pirates of the Caribbean in Wonderland crossover event present itself.

So now we know what this movie is (all of the above) and what it isn't (good). In lieu of a more in-depth critique, which this film aggressively defies, I present the following.

Assembled Notes on the Fifth Installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean Movie Franchise
(with no attempt at a linear structure or binding theme)
(unless the binding theme is that the movie is terrible)

1. There's being out of ideas, and then there's introducing the "long-lost child / long-lost parent" subplot into the narrative of a long-running series. And beyond even that, for the truly ambitious hack, there is the added wrinkle of one character in the series secretly being the long-lost parent of another character that's coincidentally - miraculously, inexplicably - already in the story. They even know each other and everything! Let the record show that it took five movies before the writing staff of Pirates of the Caribbean decided to go in this very direction. I hope Jeff Nathanson was waving his white flag proudly when he turned in this draft of the script. The most offensive part is that the film doesn't even have the self-awareness to lean in to the stupidity of this plot twist, instead unfathomably going for the emotional jugular in a way that cannot even theoretically succeed. We're treated to a torrent of false discoveries, false reactions, false coincidences, false notes - all intended to lend the film an emotional weight it frankly doesn't need, let alone deserve. And, specifically, with the two characters in question here, there's not even any real payoff; it's just a cheap emotional thread that has nowhere to land. By the end of it I half-expected an Aerosmith song to start blaring over the soundtrack. (That will make more sense if you see the movie.) (Don't.)

2. Let us have a brief referendum on the The Beatles' non-Beatles cinematic ventures, shall we?

John Lennon made his own experimental art films, funded Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain as if it were his own passion project, and starred in a deliriously subversive Richard Lester war satire.

George Harrison staged a heroic rescue of Monty Python's Life of Brian, then went onto executive produce the likes of Withnail & I, Mona Lisa, Time Bandits and How to Get Ahead in Advertising.

Paul McCartney ... decided to cameo in the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie as Jack Sparrow's singing uncle, which almost seems like a "No fair, me too" response to Keith Richards' previous appearances in the franchise, as if the ongoing battle of those two bands is now being judged by beard and mascara quality of their No. 2s.

What I'm trying to say is that Lennon and Harrison rule, don't they? But cool costume, Paul.

(We're leaving Ringo Starr out of this equation, as we can all agree that the legacy of Thomas the Tank Engine speaks for itself.)

3. Remember when Gore Verbinski was designing/directing the action sequences in these movies? Which is to say, remember when the action sequences in this franchise had life and rhythm and wit and joy to them? I can't help but point out that Dead Men Tell No Tales is the shortest Pirates movie yet - seven minutes shorter than Rob Marshall's execrable On Stranger Tides and substantially shorter than any of Verbinski's outings. The knock on him was - and continues to be, judging from some of the shallower reactions to A Cure for Wellness and even The Lone Ranger - that he lets his ideas get away from him, and everything runs on way, way, way too long. Perhaps. And yet the main culprits of that criticism - action sequences that went on forever - were still fabulously imaginative setpieces that few other tentpole directors are even capable of, let alone willing to attempt. When we see the utterly lifeless, chopped-up action in this movie and the last one - even as they both desperately try to recapture the same manic comic style - the results speak for themselves. All the ambition and style of these movies departed with Verbinski, and even he was out of ideas by (world's) end.

4. Rum! Oh man, pirates sure love it, don't they.

5. The franchise has made a minor habit of springboarding up-and-coming actresses, with early Pirates movies helping to establish the A-list, blockbuster bonafides of Zoe Saldana, Naomie Harris and Keira Knightley. The fact that Dead Men Tell No Tales won't get the attention or pop-culture significance of the earlier films might make any kind of launchpad unlikely, but it's still worth noting that the main cast features two actresses primed for a mainstream breakout, should their inclinations and opportunities allow it. One is Kaya Scodelario - who combines qualities of fellow Brits Kate Beckinsale and Rebecca Hall - as Carina, a budding scientist and the film's love interest for ostensible co-lead Henry Turner (Will's son, played by Brenton Thwaites). She's latched on to a couple of notable franchises since breaking out in the UK series Skins, with this and The Maze Runner.

The other is the great Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly, Paterson, The Patience Stone), who plays a witch named Shansa and takes full command of every scene in which she appears. That she is so underutilized - or more likely, that many of her scenes were excised to trim the runtime - speaks to the film's inability to recognize new sources of inspiration as it opts to simply repeat the old ones. In related news, I guess scowling, bald, gold-toothed, seafaring witches covered in red face and body tattoos is sorta my thing now?

6. Did you ever want to know the genesis and significance of Jack Sparrow's lucky compass? No? Well tough shit, this movie's going to tell you all about it anyway. Have a seat.

7. Age has a way of bestowing gravitas on actors - even those who never had much presence in their younger years. It's not uncommon to see successful but second-rate actors eventually grow into great character actors in their later years, primarily on the strength of that newfound quality. (Noah Cross wasn't exactly kidding about respectability.) This transformation ... has not taken place with Orlando Bloom. I mean, I'm not saying it's too late. He's only 40. Maybe when he's 60, he will have aged into something interesting. But here, reprising his role as Will Turner in a small but crucial part, he's overtly trying on that "middle-aged actor with gravitas" look, and it just doesn't stick. His entire strategy is to strain to do a gravelly voice, which really just makes it seem like he's trying to do a Luke Evans impersonation.

8. Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's 2012 film Kon-Tiki was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and they decided to cash in that attention and goodwill by ... jumping onto the bloated corpse of a franchise going on its fifth installment? We all have to make choices in this life, I suppose. They'll have to live with this one.

9. To Javier Bardem's appearance in this movie, I offer Michael Caine's glorious quote about his appearance in Jaws: The Revenge: "I have never seen it but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific."

10. Somebody get Jeff Nathanson copies of some damn Billy Wilder movies or something. Make him watch them until he learns how sexual repartee actually works.

11. Alright, I've got some really bad ideas for the next bunch of Pirates of the Caribbean movies:

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Cleave Him to the Brisket. (Hey. It's a real phrase.)
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Look at Me. LOOK AT ME. I'm the Captain Now.
  • OK, I don't have a title for this one yet, but ... now just hear me out ... Nicolas Cage plays Jack Sparrow's long-lost pirate brother? Nicky Sparrow? Yeah, Nicky Sparrow. I bet Nicolas Cage as Nicky Sparrow could do a mean impression of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, so it would be almost like they were twins. Long-lost twins! Even better. They could even do one of those Seven Years Bad Luck / Duck Soup-style mirror-image gags. Let's call it Pirates of the Caribbean: The Ballad of Jack and Nicky.
  • Tim Burton's Pirates of the Caribbean: Jack and Nicky Sparrow Meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: When You Think About It, the Real Pirates are the Internal Revenue Service, to Whom I, Johnny Depp, Owe a Great Deal of Money. Anyway, Yo Ho Ho.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Tokyo Drift?
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Yeah, that's right. Time for a remake. In fact, call it a soft reboot - we'll have Depp/Sparrow show up to pass the torch to ... get this, Lily-Rose Depp. Captain Jacqueline Sparrow. Gender-swapped reboot! I just solved this whole franchise.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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