Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I don't know your feelings about the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but I enjoyed the first film and found the second and third ones to be nigh-unwatchable.  The prospects of this, the fourth film in the series, being good are obviously slim, but I have a soft spot for Johnny Depp and I don't usually hold summer blockbusters to terribly high standards; all I ask for is that this be a fun watch.

For those familiar with the other movies, your knowledge will do you no good in this movie --- it requires absolutely no previous knowledge of these characters.  And that's a good thing.  There are only three returning characters (Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, and Gibbs), as the writers wisely decided to leave Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy and the rest bobbing somewhere else for a change.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that Jack Sparrow --- who worked extremely well as a supporting character, but lost his appeal as he got more and more screen time --- is the main character in this movie.
Two characters, one wardrobe.

Here's the nuts and bolts of the plot.  A man, who by all rights should be dead, is caught in the fishing net of some Spaniards.  He apparently has information as to the whereabouts of the Fountain of Youth.  And the race is on!  I hope you didn't grow attached to that informative sailor, because he never shows up again.  The Spanish immediately set sail and, somehow, the British happen to be preparing an expedition as well.  And, as coincidence would have it, so is Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter, Angela (Penelope Cruz).  AND Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been searching for the Fountain in his free time, too.  Since he has a map to the Fountain (which has apparently done him no good so far), Jack is targeted by the British and the other pirates.  The Spanish apparently either don't know about Jack, or saw At World's End and want nothing to do with him.  Since this is a pirate movie, Jack ends up with the pirate team, although his allegiances are nothing if not fluid.  There are a few things that have to be collected to reach the Fountain (it's over two hours long, you know), like a mermaid's tear and some cups, but that's the gist of the plot.

While the plot is somewhat less convoluted this time out, the acting hasn't noticeably improved since Part Three.  Johnny Depp still has all his fey mannerisms, but the character of Jack Sparrow loses his novelty in the spotlight.  The dialogue isn't great, so Depp doesn't have a whole lot to make his character seem fresh, likable or particularly funny.  Penelope Cruz is about as good as you might expect her to be in an English-speaking role; she's very pretty, but her acting is wooden.  There is a romantic subplot between her character and Depp's, but it never actually implies much passion and, therefore, is not very convincing. 
Sparrow and Blackbeard trading beard-braiding tips.
I thought Ian McShane did a pretty decent job as the evil Blackbeard, but his dialogue was also lacking punch.  Sure, McShane seemed evil, but that's not a stretch for him --- he could do that while riding a unicorn that craps rainbows and candy.  And, yes, I get that this series has always had a bit of the supernatural in it, but I didn't really need Blackbeard to be scary because he has super-pirate-ship powers.  That's just kind of lame and completely (although thankfully and hilariously) unexplained.  Geoffrey Rush returns as Captain Barbossa, for reasons I am not entirely clear on. 
"I feel pretty and witty and wise...!"
He does have a peg leg (filled with booze!) in this movie, which is a first (I think) for this series.  As good as Rush was in the first film, he is nowhere near as sinister this time around.  I like the idea of a pirate being accepted by the British Navy (it makes historical sense, too), but that wasn't enough to justify his inclusion in a fourth movie in the series.  Stephen Graham (Snatch, Gangs of New York) takes up the semi-moronic pirate role that was vacated by...well, many cast members from the last movie.  I liked him just fine, but he bounced between being idiotic and surprisingly swashbuckling at the drop of a (pirate) hat.  Kevin McNally returns as Sparrow's buddy, Gibbs, and was as likable in his small part as he usually is.  This film also introduces a boring (but thankfully shirtless, am I right, ladies?) Bible-thumper (Sam Claflin, in his feature film debut), a possibly not man-eating mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a definitely man-eating mermaid (Gemma Ward), and a dashing but underused Oscar Jaenada (from The Losers).  Keith Richards makes a cameo appearance, as does Harry Potter's mean uncle, Richard Griffiths.  The acting's not bad, but the new additions aren't enough to balance out the predictable hijinks of the returning characters.

Director Rob Marshall is more famous for musicals than he is action/adventure movies, but I thought that his music video-esque editing made sense for a good portion of this film.  Of course, since I wasn't a fan of the acting, I can't be a huge fan of Marshall's direction.  Directors need to direct their talent, you know.  The film looked pretty good, though, with a lot of sweeping vistas and gorgeous scenes.  Marshall opted for more subtle use of CGI in this film (no octopus-faced villains here), which I appreciated.  While there is an awful lot of swashbuckling going on in this film, I wasn't too impressed by it.  Marshall didn't do a great job putting those fight scenes on camera in an exciting way.  He did do a good job with Jack Sparrow's predictably elaborate and goofy escape attempts, though.  These scenes were sometimes eye-roll-worthy, but I think they still looked pretty good.

I definitely appreciated some of the choices made in this movie, even if they didn't lead to cinematic greatness.  I like that the plot was taken from the book On Stranger Tides, instead of completely manufactured; I hated the plot of the last two films and thought that there were some good ideas in this story, even if they weren't executed very well.  I thought the mermaids were an interesting concept that was almost done well; they were all sexy and deadly, but I hated that every pirate and sailor knew about them and none dismissed mermaids as fiction.  I liked that the relationship between the captured mermaid and the Bible guy was kept as a very supporting plot; I didn't care about them at all, so having their story progress quickly was a blessing.  And how about the use of voodoo zombies?  That was a pretty cool idea.

Sadly, those quasi-compliments can't save this movie.  Jack Sparrow is getting tiresome, despite the best efforts of Disney's writers --- what makes him work in the first film is how dangerous and evil the audience thinks he can be, and the humor comes from him undercutting that malice.  By now, Sparrow is seen as a pretty nice guy and is just a clever/silly Keith Richards impersonator here.  The movie felt long, largely because the fist half was pretty boring.  The second half picked up quite a bit by shifting its focus frequently between the many subplots, but the first half just dragged as everything was set up.  I hated hated hated the use of the Spanish in this movie; they play a very important part (theoretically) and are barely used.  I don't understand how Penelope Cruz's character could be a passionate pirate-lover, a wannabe nun, and a swashbuckling sailor, and yet have none of that manifest itself onscreen.  And why on the hell is Juan Ponce de Leon's ship stuck in the side of a mountain?  And wasn't he looking for the Fountain of Youth in Florida?  Where exactly are the mountains of Florida?  Those last two issues could have been nipped in the bud with any explanation whatsoever, but this movie doesn't like to bother with details like that.

I don't mind that this movie is trying to be a brain-dead romp, but I do mind that I wasn't entertained by it.  It came close on many occasions, but ultimately fell short.  Still, shockingly, it is clearly the second-best Pirates of the Caribbean.

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