(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) It’s been a frustrating ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean express: While the first film remains slick blockbuster entertainment, the second and third entries in the series quickly became self-indulgent to the point of nearly drowning their considerable assets in too much chaff. Given that the fourth film was surprisingly unremarkable (with surprisingly cheap production values considering its record-breaking budget), who knew what to expect from a fifth film? As it turn out, Dead Men Tell No Tales becomes a bit of a return to form. Never mind that Johnny Depp now plays Jack Sparrow as a buffoon with few of his previous redeeming qualities, or that the action sequences don’t make a whole lot of sense: the fun of the series is back, and the vertiginous set-pieces have a visually imaginative kick to them. Javier Bardem plays a great villain, Geoffrey Rush is back in a reluctantly heroic role, and Kaya Scodelario is not bad as a heroine. Perhaps the worst thing about Dead Men Tell No Tales is the way it suffers from the contemporary tendency of blockbuster movies to over-complicate everything from the visuals to the plotting details, to the point of risking incoherency whenever the slightest detail is out of place. A slightly shorter, substantially cheaper movie would achieve as much, of not even perhaps more. But go tell that to Disney, which is holding on to the series as one of its reliable cash cows. At least the series is now headed up again … although who can really tell how it’s going to be before the end credits of the next film?
(On Cable TV, September 2017) I suppose it was only a matter of time before the Marquis de Sade became a romantic figure for our so-called enlightened age, portrayed as fighting the true monsters of social righteousness. Yeah … have they even tried reading de Sade’s stuff? Of course, having Geoffrey Rush in the lead role helps a lot in making de Sade’s sympathetic … and measuring him to even-worse antagonists is just stacking the deck unfairly. At its best, Quills is a meditation on freedom of speech, and how obscenity (from a writer) isn’t quite as bad as outright demonstrated sadism (from his jailers). It’s generally OK at portraying this point, although I really was not pleased with the death of a character during the film’s third act—it seemed cruel even in a film built around cruelty. Executed with some competence, it does celebrate the written word no matter its medium or intent and as such gets some mild built-in interest. Still, it’s Rush’s performance that’s most interesting here, and director Philip Kaufman’s handling of difficult material that becomes efficient to the point of invisibility. Quills is really not supposed to be historically accurate, so any criticism in this direction becomes relatively moot. Fans of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novels will be happy to see his name in the end credits—before becoming a best-selling author, Fforde was a film crewmember and he worked on movies such as Quills.
(In French, on Cable TV, April 2017) The most famous big-screen version of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables has to be the 2012 film which adapted the musical on the big screen. I thought it was annoying, boring and exasperating, but I’m far more upbeat about the straightforward 1998 version. Featuring no less than Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush in the lead roles (with some assistance by Uma Thurman and Claire Danes, plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it minor role by a then-unknown Toby Jones), Les Misérables cleverly focuses on the essential aspects of the original, convincingly re-creates the historical period and manages to wring a lot of emotional impact out of its dignified treatment of the subject. It’s not exactly a thrill ride, but it unfolds at a steady pace for a historical drama, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome through repetitive musical numbers. While the 2012 version does have a few more spectacular moments (helped along by the state of special effects circa 2012 versus 1998), the non-musical version feels more focused on the story and more satisfying as a result.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) At its most basic level, The Book Thief is about a girl living in a small German town during the Nazi regime: you can predict how well that’s going to go. But beyond that, it seems as if most of the neat things about the film don’t add much to its foundation. It’s fascinating, for instance, to discover that the story is narrated by Death itself… except that for all of the added depth that the narration brings (especially during the tacked-on epilogue), it doesn’t have much of an influence over the story itself. I will gleefully defend any story that takes up reading as its cause… except that it, again, doesn’t seems to do much when set against a backdrop of World-War 2 Nazi Germany. And yes, it’s great to see WW2 movies… except when it seems to be used to make point made quite eloquently elsewhere already. (Surely I can’t be the only one to have thought about The Reader.) The movie has its strong points: Sophie Nélisse is captivating as the titular heroine, (though there isn’t much book-stealing going on) Geoffrey Rush is warm and likable as the father-figure, while even Emily Watson gets a better role as the film develops her character. Director Brian Percival ends up packaging a convincing portrait of life under the Nazis. It’s skilfully made, touches upon many of my own personal leitmotivs… but it seems as if the ending comes too soon, prematurely cutting short a bunch of subplots, making them feel perfunctory or ordinary. It ends without taking full advantage of its own strengths. How strange.
(In theatres, January 2011) Combining physical-handicap drama with palace intrigue may not be the most obvious kind of mash-up, but there’s a first time for anything, and it’s the kind of stuff that upscale audiences and Academy voters just enjoy without reservations. The King’s Speech really starts with the abdication of Edward VIII and wraps up the royal succession drama in a standard story of a man overcoming his handicap… the man in question being the next king, George VI, who suffers from a stutter that’s practically debilitating at a time where radio technology allows leaders to speak directly to the masses. Wrapped up in a heavy dose of British interwar period values, The King’s Speech feels like a slightly-updated Merchant Ivory feature stuck in a physical-handicap narrative template: Slight, with a certain dose of ponderous self-importance. Predictable, sure, but fascinating to watch in large part due to the talent of the actors: Geoffrey Rush is fine as the therapist with all the answers, but it’s Colin Firth who really makes an impression with his portrait of a capable man stuck within a stammering shell that limits what he can do. The deviations from the historical record are a matter of dramatic structure: the film wraps up so neatly that it defies common sense. The direction underscores a number of themes (for instance, in framing characters against empty walls), but it feels odd and sometimes incoherent in the way it goes from locked camera to a flying one. But no matter: for fans of period drama, this is about as good as it gets. One man overcoming his personal issues, plus a bit of royal drama? Seems like a perfect match. Expect Oscar nominations.