On Stranger Tides: With A Stranger Guest Blogger

8 Jun

Avast! You Be in Pirate Waters Now Matey

By Henry Gale

I want to preface this review by saying that I loved the first Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. While some complained that Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were overly complicated, I enjoyed the tightly woven plots steeped in pirate mythos. The stories of destiny, romance and redemption truly helped to enhance the tale of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, with Jack Sparrow as more of a side character that steals the show. In my opinion it was these side characters that made the first Pirate’s trilogy wonderful. Barbosa’s over-the-top treachery and Geoffrey Rush’s brilliant performance, the ever-loyal Gibbs, the bumbling Ragetti and Pintel, the jilted Davy Jones the vile Cutler Beckett and even Jack the monkey all helped to shape a fantastically gritty ensemble cast.

On Stranger Tide was well done and a fun movie. It was refreshing to see the return of Jack Sparrow along with his usual, mumbling antics. Johnny Depp has become this character, I half expect him to walk around his house with the Sparrow swagger and mannerisms. I wouldn’t blame him, Sparrow is both fun and charismatic and in my opinion one of the most well developed characters in modern movies. He is the ultimate opportunist and acts solely on impulse and personal desire, hence making his magic compass the perfect guide in life.

Having said this, I feel as though On Stranger Tide has made Jack a caricature of himself. As with the 4th Indiana Jones film (Crystal Skull), they have reduced the main character into what you expect to see rather than a developed, complex character. I felt as though Jack was very two-dimensional this time around. His escapes were virtually cliché at this point and I never felt any real sense of danger for our lead character. And perhaps that is the problem: Jack was never designed to be the lead. Elizabeth and Will drove the story of the last film while Jack simply steered that plot into entertaining situations. This film had Jack at the helm for the entire duration. They made the man who isn’t meant to be heroic into the hero. Depp’s performance was perfect as usual, so without revealing too much about the movie it was vexing seeing Sparrow care about something more than his own blind personal ambition.

I think one thing many Pirates fans will walk away saying is that Geoffrey Rush stole the show. The character of Hector Barbosa was once again up to his old tricks but in a whole new get-up. Privateer Barbosa, now pirating under the protection of the British crown, was written as a layered character that demonstrated growth and motive.

I have never been a fan of Penelope Cruz but found her to be an impressive addition to the cast. Her character wasn’t too bad as a female foil for Captain Jack and had real chemistry with Depp. I have a feeling when we get our sequel we learn even more about Angelica’s past with Sparrow.

Ian McShane’s ferocious Blackbeard significantly added to the film. Although his ability to use mystical powers like the Rasputin of the sea is slightly confusing. In past Pirates movies the mystical elements were present but never left unexplained (the crew of the Black Pearl was cursed because of Aztec Gold, Davy Jones was deformed due to crossing Calypso etc). Blackbeard had a crew of zombie-like pirates (from where?), his ship, The Queen Ann’s Revenge could be steered by his sword (how?), he could also “use the force” to control his ships rigging (why?). They never told why Blackbeard, a feared pirate and our stories villain, became this way.

While the Turner/Swann love story was believable and some would argue an overly prominent part of the original trilogy’s plot, the love story between the clergyman (Phillip) and the mermaid (Syrena) was forced. It’s almost like the writers said, “oh wow, we really need to add something for the people hoping to see a straight up love story and who only watched the last three for Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley.” But the truth of the matter is the Sparrow/Angelica story was enough for those who like a good “shipper” tale.

There were certain elements of the story I really did like. The mermaid scene was visually appealing and creative! The Fountain of Youth plot and trek through the jungle was also nicely done. I was also very impressed with the horse and buggy chase scene through the streets of London. Who says you can’t have Ye Olde Michael Bay-like explosions in the 18th century!

One element I did miss was the side characters. We really didn’t have a Ragetti and Pintel for comic relief or even a Mr. Cotton and his parrot, Marty the midget or Weatherby Swann to lighten the mood. This film felt a little too clean to me as well. The last three movies were gritty, dirty and real. This time around the clumsiness that made the first three movies fun was missing and it seemed too polished. We need to feel like the characters are in danger to care about them! Watching the pirate crews get picked off really didn’t have any emotional toll for the audience.

I would rate On Stranger Tides a solid B. Seeing Captain Jack back on the big screen was wonderful don’t get me wrong but it didn’t FEEL like a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Readers should note that this film was based on (or as the credits said “suggested by”) a novel by the same title (On Stranger Tide) and perhaps this could explain what was missing. We know there may be two more films on the horizon so I would hope that the plot will become a bit more involved and the characters a little more developed.

PS: ye be warned, those who leave before the last credit rolls will be missin’ somethin’.


Thor: Marvel’s Shakespeare

10 May

How do you bring a Middle English talking Norse God of Thunder to the big screen without upsetting the fan boys, but still making enough money to show that you are a commercially viable company for the long run? You hire Kenneth “call me Hamlet bitch” Branagh.

Those are quotations and really more air-quotes than anything else. But even without the seemingly appropriate nickname Branagh brings a complete range of film making to the table. He’s a classically trained actor/director who not only brought some of Shakespeare’s most notable works to the big screen, but was also in Wild Wild West.

For the basement dwelling nerdfolk Branagh can bring a complex understanding of Thor as a Marvel character and the Norse mythology that inspired him. For everyone else, Branagh understands how to bridge the gap between nerdspeak and the big-guns, big-boobs, big-special effects world of studio made blockbusters.

What we are talking about is Thor, played with a steady confidence by little-known Australian actor Chris Hemsworth. At its core Thor is a story of sibling rivalry and self realization,but on the incredible stage of Asgard and the ethereal plane.

See I’ve already lost you with all rainbow bridge talk. But wait we’ve got Natalie Portman, come on back. That’s right you can still be entertained by the Norse God of Thunder and Mjolnir, his hammer.

I’m loosing you again, wait we’ve got Anthony Hopkins as Odin the King of Asgard. He may not look good with his shirt off, but this guy brings gravitas and credibility to the world Branagh is building.

To stir the plot we’ve got Tom Hiddleston brilliantly as Loki, the mischievous brother of Thor whose mysterious past provides the entirety of the story really. But we’re not going to get into that.

Still not buying it? Ok, we’ve also got plenty of action sequences, sexual tension and guys with their shirts off for the ladies. Not to mention good special effects and a decent amount of comedy.

But the real key to success for Thor is its ability to get you into the world.If you don’t buy the premise, you’ll never get into the characters and spend $11 to see the midnight show of the Avengers.

Sure you can just let it be, and just throw a wink to the camera and say, “buy into this, it’ll be fun.”  But the average person doesn’t like to be told to come along, they like to be led along. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink approach gets you mediocre box office numbers and a life-time of reruns on FX.

But that doesn’t mean you have to explain every last detail,  I call this the “Midi-Chlorian Conundrum” or the “Lucas’ Ruination Effect”.  This is the tendency on the part of filmmakers to make you believe completely, rather than just provide a degree of plausible deny-ability.

I don’t need to know every detail about how Thor’s Hammer is actually the iPad-T1000, just give me something to anchor my understanding. Branagh and the writers at Marvel bridged this gap with a brilliantly simple line of dialogue that has been in every trailer, including the one below.  But I won’t spoil it. Otherwise I’d have to put up stupid flashing lights to tell everyone I was ruining the movie.

It’s a classic Hollywood blockbuster that delivers all the right things. It’s a fun and funny popcorn flick. But to Marvel it is the cornerstone of their world. If you can enjoy this journey down the rabbit hole, then Marvel’s Nerd-A-Motive can steam into the future on the backs of this cash cow and so many others.

Now let me state at this point I’ve used the word “nerd”, and it’s many conjugations,  several times so I think I should say at this point that I ( and I know this is hard for many of my loyal readers to believe) am an Uber-Nerd. Minus the parents basement.

So I use the word not only out of love, but out of ownership…Nerd it’s the other N word.

I wanted to add something at the end there. Just like Marvel always does in their movies to tease you. HINT. HINT. COUGH. STAY AFTER THE CREDITS. COUGH.

Arthur: Everyone is funnier with a British Accent

4 Apr

British people are hilarious when they use complex sentence structure and big words while being silly. That is how they conquered half the world. Who would feel threatened by a group of people who can’t operate without drinking hot flavored water (tea) and use proper diction. The Indians (dots and feathers) probably thought they were getting quality education and a snack when the mayflower showed up.

Not that this has anything to do with the film, though basically you can see this movie being sold to a studio. Filmmakers: We would like Russell Brand to be himself with hot chicks, Richy Rich toys and Helen Mirren.  Studio: Add a formulaic happy ending and you’ve got yourself a picture.

Not that I really know how that conversation went, though I’m sure the words Russell Brand, Helen Mirren and Richy Rich were probably involved. Regardless of how Arthur got made it is hilarious from start to climax. Then there is the wildly predicable and annoyingly comprehensive conclusion. But I’ll let you form your own conclusions about the conclusion.

Because this is a film worth seeing, even if you previously haven’t enjoyed the comedy of Russell Brand. While the character of Arthur is almost tailor made for Brand’s farce-like brand of comedy, no pun intended, and his British-ness makes it a lay up, he still knocked it out of the park. Or the cricket circle, pitch…whatever it is they have in Harry Potter land.

Helen Mirren, as the doting nanny Hobson, has an unexpected chemistry with Brand that either indicates her skills as a thespian (it means actor according to Wikipedia and my thesaurus..I mean, crap) or the Oscar winner actually formed a bond with the former BBC and XFM castaway.  Either way, Arthur is a laugh a minute comedy that is probably worth $8 of the $11 you’ll pay to see it.

Super: This Ain’t Your Older Brother’s Comic Book Hero

29 Mar

Sometimes I feel like films don’t surprise me anymore. It’s like writers/producers/directors have to play demographic connect four to get financing, and that leads to the happy endings, Oscar winning formulas (cough The King’s Speech cough) and the “career” of Megan Fox.

It’s a business, I get it…how can a studio exec be expected to take on the risk of making a creatively driven movie when hes got to gas up his G4. I know what you are thinking, “woah, woah no political jokes demonizing corporate America.” But don’t worry, I’m a Republican.

Honestly though, nobody makes money off a 2 million dollar indie film. Except Juno, but that is besides the point. It’s tough to make an honest movie without playing the game a little bit and as an avid fan of Stratego, and all the Milton Bradley products, I don’t hate the players or the game.

“Kudos if you make it all the way through.” That was what director James Gunn had to say during a post screening Q&A in Cambridge (not Boston), MA of his new film – Super.

It’s a dark comedy that keeps you laughing up to the point where you are too shocked to laugh. Maybe it is the first time Frank/Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson) beats a guy senseless with a wrench for cutting in line. Note the phrase, “first time.”

Maybe it’s the sexualization of violence by Libby/Boltie, the kid side-kick played with a strangely identifiable mania by Ellen Page.  Or maybe it’s the gore filled climax that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. But at some point you’re going to stop laughing.

Don’t fight the feeling to stop laughing, if you have a sense of humor and/or are moderately well adjusted, you’ll still enjoy the rest of the movie and you may even start laughing again. But that unusual feeling  that you are experiencing is just the feeling of being surprised by a movie again.

Warning: You may think this film looks a lot like the movie Kick-Ass. That is because Mark Millar, author of the comic book Kick-Ass, and Super writer/director James Gunn are friends. Gunn began work on the Super script 9 years ago, while Millar was just beginning to write the Kick-Ass comic that inspired the film adaptation.

Basically, Super is it’s own film and should be treated that way.

Battle LA: Black Hawk Down with Aliens

11 Mar

What we have here is movie cross-pollination: the director/writer/studio bee landed on the Independence Day flower and took the plot, then moved on to Black Hawk Down and took the gritty, urban combat point of view and finally landed on District 9 to take the aliens. From all movie-making pollen we get a lot of good little bits that just don’t add up to make a stronger movie.

Battle: Los Angeles is the alien invasion story told through the window of war cliche’s and combat unit melodramas. But without anything to really hang its hat on to make it unique or really good, except the quality reputation of Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight & Thank You for Smoking).

Eckhart portrays Staff Sgt. Mike Nantz, a veteran Marine who embodies the war movie cliche and lays emotional weight to the many twists and turns of a largely unfocused story.

In no way can Eckhart been blamed for any of this film’s mediocrities; I would be willing to bet the farm that Columbia Pictures and Relativity Media backed up the gravy train caboose and made it fiscally irresponsible to not do the movie. You can’t blame a guy for wanting a pay day.

And Eckhart delivers some quality to the film, but there was no amount of acting craft that could put a shine on this combination of overused war cliche’s and bad one-liners.  But from the perspective of the popcorn buying, bathtub of soda drinking, movie goer it delivers the summer blockbuster experience a little early.

Just without any of the quality banter of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, or the stirring speeches of President/Fighter Jet Pilot Bill Pulman. Or the grit and harsh combat realism of Eric Bana’s Delta Operative in the Somali wild west; although the end of Battle: Los Angeles is a straight rip off  of Black Hawk Down.

And now you don’t have to see the movie! Oh wait, I should have written spoiler alert up there…my bad.

If you are in Battle: Los Angeles for the plot though  you were going to lose regardless. Movies like this aren’t really about the plot, because it’s hollywood and therefore incredibly predictable. This is a movie that should be about what is cool and entertaining.

And its got the cool alien thing of District 9, I’ll give Battle: Los Angeles the cool factor, although I would say it is more a variation of already seen cool. It’s not a new cool, more like a previously seen cool. It’s stolen cool.

And that really is the problem. You can’t just take different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and make a whole new puzzle. It just doesn’t work that way. But through all that semi-stolen plot, feel and style the one thing that really takes away from the entertainment  of this movie is its length. (That is what she said)

No seriously folks, this movie feels like Gettysburg (261 minutes of goodness) and it is less than 2 hours long. It’s like studios can’t make big budget action movies without tying in every plot variation for fear of alienating (no pun intended) a section of the movie going population.

Just stick to something and actually explore it. I mean it would be interesting to have a gritty, realistic telling of the Independence Day story. You’ve got a whole genre of war films to steal from on that level, why do you have to jump around steal from others?

Movie Review – True Grit

17 Dec

I enjoy how the True Grit poster identifies in bold three famous actors, none of whom are the main character of the movie. Three men, one woman. Three well known, high caliber, award winning actors and one complete unknown girl who happens to be the main character. Hailee Steinfeld plays the annoyingly promiscuous and determined 14-year old Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers remake of True Grit, a Western story of one girls revenge and an old man’s revival.

In 1969 the original film adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit,  won John Wayne an Oscar in 1969. Jeff Bridges plays the John Wayne character of Rooster Cogburn, a hard drinking, gruff but comical,  US Marshal that Mattie hires to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man that killed her father. Matt Damon joins Bridges and Steinfeld as the dandy Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who is after Chaney for killing a Texas State Senator.

To watch this movie you’d think that Western’s weren’t kind of passe in modern movie making. But how can you not like a movie that makes Matt Damon dress up like Davy Crockett minus the coon skin cap.  LaBoeuf takes himself to seriously as a cowboy and Texas ranger, and that is the only way Matt Damon could ever play a cowboy in a serious movie.

Although, this really isn’t a serious movie as much as it is a violent dramedy. The violence and the comedy kind of dot the otherwise serious story, taking you through peaks of extreme violence whose tension is relieved by some quality dry and dark humor.

To see what I mean watch the following clip…

wait wait…I mean this.

Transformers 3: The Dark Side of the Moon

13 Dec

I don’t know about you, but I was underwhelmed by Michael Bay’s second installment of Transformers. I mean don’t get me wrong I love me some explosions on top of explosions on top of Megan Fox.  But all three of those things have something in common, they aren’t you know traditionally…good.

I’m not saying I want a gay robot persevering through the challenges of the judgmental boys-club of autobots or a “special” robot that teaches Megatron how to love. I just need a little bit of quality to hang my hat on.

Take Iron Man 2, it was a little more awesome with a boatload of quality acting. And it was enjoyable and brought the awesome. That is all I’d like to see from Transformers 3 and friends I think there is hope.