Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

May 26, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem
Directed by: Joachim Ronning (“Kon-Tiki”) and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”)
Written by: Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”)

Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is unlikely to turn any newcomers into enthusiastic fans of the franchise, but if you’re planning on making the fifth entry in this 14-year-old franchise your starting point, then please do yourself a favor and watch “The Curse of the Black Pearl” before heading to the theater this Memorial Day weekend. Gore Verbinski’s 2003 film remains one of the all-time great adventure films, deftly mixing sharp-witted humor, unsettling creepiness, and exhilarating action. The series has been chasing that magic to varied results ever since, but directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have created an installment that continues to steer the franchise away from the overlong, convoluted mess that was “At World’s End.”

Since its inception, one of the recurring motifs of the Pirates franchise (not to mention countless other series) has been fathers and sons. That notion rears its head again in “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” where a fresh-faced Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is searching for the trident of Poseidon, which can help free his father from his eternal servitude as captain aboard the Flying Dutchman. The way that search unfolds is, in trademark “Pirates” fashion, complicated and devoid of logical motivations, but somehow Ronning and Sandberg fashion a slick and entertaining summer movie.

With a running time of 129 minutes, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is the shortest entry in the franchise, and the absence of Verbinski’s bombastic approach occasionally makes the film feel small in its scope. To its credit, the film never stalls or drags its feet. In fact, the script from Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio spends a lot of time setting up story and fleshing out characters. It’s not Tennessee Williams levels of character depth, but it creates a level of investment.

That level of investment is heightened by the familiar faces of Captain Jack, Barbossa, and Gibbs. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ll be pleased with great character moments and interactions. Johnny’s Depp’s Jack Sparrow seems a bit dialed down and sometimes even more Mad Hatter than Jack. This is probably due to the fact that the script requires him to be a bit of a bumbling idiot and not the “greatest pirate ever” we know from previous installments. That being said, the moment between him and Paul McCartney’s Uncle Jack is even better than you could have imagined.

The addition of Thwaites Kaya Scodelario, theoretically the future of the franchise, isn’t as devoid of chemistry as the tepid romance we were given in “On Stranger Tides.” The two make a fun bickering couple. Scodelario plays an astrologer who sports both brains and brawn. I’d be interested to see how they flesh her character out in future installments. Golshifteh Farahani steals the movie as a creepy witch, but her character exits the film far too soon, as does David Wenham’s Scarfield. Finally, Javier Bardem’s Salazar makes for a truly memorable and terrifying villain, injecting the dark and violent edge that had been missing from the franchise.

Characters in a “Pirates” movie are nothing without the action scenes they are thrown into, and “Dead Men Tell No Tales” has some really great set pieces. There’s a “heist gone wrong” scene early in the film that reintroduces Captain Jack in a humorous way, an exciting “guillotine execution gone wrong” scene featuring multiple levels of competently filmed and slickly edited chaos, and a chase scene in the film featuring undead sharks is unarguably a franchise highlight.

This is the second time that the “Pirates” franchise has advertised its latest movie as the final adventure. Given the way the story unfolds in “Dead Men Tell no Tales,” particularly an enticing post-credits tease, it’s clear that Disney fully intends to keep their swashbuckling franchise going as long as it keeps selling tickets. It’s a mixed bag, but an entertaining one nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, you’ll find lots to love here. In a market saturated with superhero franchises (entertaining as they may be), why should we complain about more adventures with Captain Jack Sparrow?

Tower Heist

November 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck
Directed by: Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour 3”)
Written by: Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s 11”) and Jeff Nathanson  (“Rush Hour 3”)

Can anyone remember the last time comedian Eddie Murphy was actually funny? No, voicing an animated donkey with a love for waffles doesn’t count. I’m talking about Murphy debating boxing greats in “Coming toAmerica” or hustling his way into a swanky suite in “Beverly Hills Cop.” Hell, I’d even take him parodying Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood during his “Saturday Night Live” days if it would help me forget “Norbit.” Wherever you were in the 80s, chances are you were laughing at something Murphy was doing on screen or on stage. Nowadays, you’d probably have better luck being entertained by his older brother Charlie.

If you believe the hype, however, Murphy’s return to glory comes at full force with “Tower Heist,” a comedy crime caper that originally started as an idea in 2005 for Murphy to team up with a host of other black comedians including Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle and Martin Lawrence. When that overly-ambitious idea fell through, “Tower Heist” became a poor man’s version of “Ocean’s 11” and even enlists “Ocean’s” screenwriter Ted Griffin and supporting actor Casey Affleck. But “Ocean’s” this is not. And while it’s true that Murphy provides his best comedy outing since 1996’s remake of “The Nutty Professor” (I still don’t understand the love for “Bowfinger”), he’s not given as much screen time as you’d think for someone who’s billed so high. Honestly, this is a Ben Stiller movie and Murphy is just coming along for the ride.

Still, the ride has its moments with a solid cast who could easy make an impact off the bench in lieu of George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon. In fact, the diverse makeup of characters and personalities is what makes the movie casually fun, at least for the first half of the heist. In the film, a group of hotel employees plot to take back the money they lost in a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street billionaire and tenant in the high-rise. With little experience in thievery, the team, which includes Stiller, Affleck, Michael Peña (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”), recruit “Slide” Dalphael (Murphy), a common criminal with the know-how to exact revenge. Also joining in is actor Matthew Broderick (“Election”) as a former Wall Street investor who goes bankrupt because of Shaw’s shady business ethics.

With every cog in place, you’d think this comedy machine, even directed by industry tool Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour 3”), would run a little smoother. While the setup works well enough, the heist itself isn’t very creative or executed on the page very well. What’s left is an amusing team of misfits bumbling around aimlessly in search of a disappointing payoff more ridiculous than a humanitarian award named after Bernie Madoff.

To a lesser extent, this might be a comeback for Murphy, but until he can stand front and center as the leading man he once was, it’s still difficult to forgive him for the last 15 years (“Meet Dave,” “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “I Spy”). Hosting the Academy Awards this coming February just might be what he needs to prove “Tower Heist” wasn’t a fluke.