Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is a PIRATE's Life Still For Me? On Stranger Tides - Reviewed!


- I am of two minds when it comes to the latest Pirates of the Carribean. On one hand, I just inherently love these Pirates movies. As long as Johnny Depp is back as Cap'n Jack, as long as Geoffrey Rush is there bellowing awesome, pirate-y things as Barbossa, as long as there's ships and swords and adventure - and that rousing soundtrack - I'm there, in the theater, opening weekend. I'll happilly embrace more sequels, more adventures, because I love the characters, love the universe of these movies, and dammit all, I love pirates (and really, who doesn't?). On the other hand, I think that this fourth Pirates film was a letdown on many levels, squandering many opportunities for great storytelling in favor of a paint-by-numbers approach to blockbuster movie-making. Knock Gore Verbinski and his increasingly ostentatious sequels all you want, but man, those movies were *insane* - going completely balls-to-the-wall in an all-out effort to thrill and entertain. To me, that's why I love the second and third Pirates films, haters be damned. They're just awesomely imaginative, completely out-there, and visually mind-blowing. To that end, I felt like On Stranger Tides had the flaws of those sequels - an overstuffed script, too many extraneous subplots, a convoluted and hard-to-make-sense-of storyline - but lacked their sheer sense of fun and theatricality. Director Rob Marshall tries to keep things smaller-scale, similar to the first film, but the plot still manages to blow up very quickly, rapidly ballooning to include magic ships, ancient curses, and multiple rival factions of characters. At the same time, Marshall's action scenes only occasionally have the sense of wonder or Buster Keaton-esque merriment of those in Verbinski's films. The end result is a movie that is consistently entertaining, thanks to Depp, Rush, and all of the pirate-y trappings that make the series so fun - but that is also, ultimately a wasted opportunity to reinvigorate the now-aging franchise. My sense is that the next Pirates flick - assuming there is one - will once again have to go back to the drawing board.

There are a couple of big new characters in this one, but they all seem to get the short shrift in the script. I think a lot of fans were justifiably jazzed about the prospect of the great Ian McShane as Blackbeard, "the pirate who all other pirates fear." And McShane makes for a visually striking, imposing presence as the legendary Edward Teach, scourge of the seven seas. But the character never really gets to be the Big Bad that you hope he will be. Introduced at first as a recluse, then as a sort-of-goofy blowhard, then as a mean ol' hombre who'd kill his own daughter to get what he wants ... the fact is, you never get a great feel for why, exactly, Blackbeard is so feared. The character just never gets a great chance to shine or be evil or make us really love to hate him. In fact, one of his most dastardly deeds - his takeover of the Black Pearl and his slaughter of most of its crew - is never shown, only described by the surviving (but now peg-legged) Barbossa. My point being: Blackbeard had the potential to be a great, new villain for this franchise, but he never does anything all that cool or memorable - and his character remains somewhat bland - for the duration of the film.

And you know, that is kind of a recurring theme throughout the movie. Penelope Cruz is the other big new character, and they try to introduce her as this mysterious femme fatale who has a past with Captain Jack. The problem is that this past is never glimpsed, only hinted at, and her character remains frustratingly ambiguous throught the movie. It felt like the film was content just to have Cruz as a sexy she-pirate and foil for dept, without ever taking much time to give her an actual character. Cruz handles the role well, but again, you never care all that much about her. Let's just say that - if she were to triumphantly return midway through a fifth movie - I don't think the audience would burst out in applause as they did when Rush's Barbossa resurfaced at the end of Part 2.

And it's not just the new characters that feel slighted in this one. As I said, I could watch Rush as Barbossa all freakin' day, but man, I couldn't help but feel like he could have had bigger and better moments in this movie - a movie that, overall, seems oddly lacking in those big, crowd-pleasing, stand-up-and-cheer sorts of moments. Barbossa is actually given the best story arc in the movie. His beloved Pearl has been pillaged and taken by Blackbeard, his men offed, and he's been left defeated and peg-legged. He's now working for the British government as a privateer, but let's face it, Barbossa is a pirate through and through. At the moment though, he's using the resources of the King to track down Blackbeard and get his sweet revenge. Okay, not a bad plotline. But man, where was the payoff? The movie tantalizingly hinted at a big moment where Rush would discard his privateer facade and gloriously reclaim his status as a pirate - "a pirate's life for me!". But when the moment comes, it feels sort of half-assed and unsatisfying.

To that end, a lot of stuff in the movie just feels cobbled together much in the manner of Barbossa's wooden leg (which, amusingly, doubles as a flask). For some reason, Blackbeard wields a magical sword that lets him control his ship - causing its ropes and tethers to spring to life and attack his enemies, and its cannons to shoot blazing streams of hellfire. How can Blackbeard do all this? Who knows. How and why does he have a colleciton of plundered ships (including The Pearl) magically shrunken inside glass bottles? Who knows? And what was the point of Keith Richards poppoing up again as Jack's father, then mysteirously disappearing, then having no further relevance to the plot? Again - a big WTF type of moment. The movie also introduces a whole subplot about a mermaid who is captrued by Blackbeard's crew - they need a mermaid's tear to unlock the powers of the Fountain of Youth, the magical pool of water that they seek (yeah, it's complicated). In a pretty badass action scene, the movie reveals that here, mermaids are vicious, vampire-like creatures with fangs, who attack sailors and drag them to their deaths in the hidden depths of the ocean. But for some reason, this one mermaid is good and innocent, and we're supposed to care about her and the square-jawed missionary who looks after her and protects her from Blackbeard and his men. The whole Missionary / Mermaid subplot seriously drags the movie down, and feels very much shoehorned into an already overstuffed script. It's hard to make a would-be epic, star-crossed romance between man and she-fish into a small subplot in ap irate epic, but On Stranger Tides attempts it, and the result is that we just want the lame Missionary to walk the plank. The plot reason for him sticking around is that it's at the behest of Penelope Cruz's character, who wants him around to try to save the soul of her might-be father Blackbeard. The meta-reason for him sticking around? Presumably that the movie, filled with scoundrels, thieves, and rougues, needed some sort of straight-laced hero-type character to provide a moral compass. But the chemistry just feels all wrong, and because so much time is devoted to Mr. Missionary, it means that Cruz, McShane, and Rush all. sadly, get less time to develop their characters. And by the way - with the entire movie being about the search for the Fountain of Youth, doesn't it seem odd that none of the characters is even particularly motivated to reap the benefits of the actual Fountain? Jack doesn't care about staying young, Rush never really mentions the idea, and Blackbeard is never given much motivation either. The Fountain in this film is a total McGuffin, and its inclusion feels a bit off given that, hey, this is the freaking Fountain of Youth - you'd think there'd be at least one character whose major motivation was to drink up and turn back the clock. But with the nonchalant Jack front and center, his relative indifference to the Fountain and its powers transfers to some extent to us, the audience. If the main characters don't particularly care about this quest, why should we?

And therein lies a fundamental issue with On Stranger Tides. The earlier films had Jack in the Han Solo role - the roguish antihero who stirs things up and reluctantly saves the day. In this movie, sans series stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, Jack is in the lead, but it feels like the movie only half-heartedly embraces that concept. If this were to truly be Jack's movie, then why have him compete with dozens of other characters for screentime, and why not flesh out some of the backstory between he and Cruz? The writers may have painted themselves into a corner by putting Jack front and center. Was it a great idea in the first place to have the quasi-villain of the franchise become its hero? Probably not. But does the movie 100% run with the idea of Jack-as-hero-and-star? Not exactly. If it did, we wouldn't need the Missionary/Mermaid romance taking up so much time.

By the same token, Depp is in fine form here, as always. His comic timing is impeccable, and his knack for physical comedy is unmatched. Just seeing him interact with Rush's imposing Barbossa is great, and same goes for beloved first mate Mr. Gibbs. Anytime the movie focuses on these three and just gives them license to be over-the-top, funny, and generally awesome, I was a happy camper.

And there are enough scenes that are funny, exciting, or action packed that the movie remains entertaining throughout. An early sequence, for example, in which Depp's Sparrow is taken prisoner by the King and questioned - even as Jack remains more concerned with procuring a delicious-looking pastry from the king's dessert table - is a lot of fun. The aforementioned mermaid attack scene is suitably visceral and riveting. And despite the larger weaknesses in the script, there are no shortage of funny one-liners, quips, and sly double entendres for Cap'n Jack. In many ways, Depp (with help from Rush and Kevin McNally as Gibbs) puts the entire franchise on his back and keeps it afloat. He's a one-man entertainment machine, and it just reinforces how great he really is as Jack Sparrow, and it's amazing how much he's able to make make the movie work through sheer force of will and charisma.

And so I did, ultimately, have a lot of fun with this latest Pirates adventure, and despite my issues with it, my enthusiasm for the franchise still remains. I'd like to see a more visually inventive director (Guillermo Del Toro? Robert Rodriguez?) take the reigns, as it seemed like Rob Marshall was a bit bland with his directorial choices and not a great fit for the franchise. I'd also like to see a script that brings back the series' best characters, but keeps the core players to a minumum and gives us a great new plot, new villain, and new storyline that makes sense, that gets us invested. This movie has a ton of moving parts, but it's just barely held together by Depp and co. But it's a testament to the inherent spirit of fun and adventure in this franchise somehow, the movie still manages to entertain and keep the franchise alive. It's why, on paper, I see a lot of flaws with the film ,but just can't bring myself to totally hate on it. On Stranger Tides isn't my ideal Pirates film, but - "a Pirate's life for me?" - hells yeah, bring on Part 5.

My Grade: B-

- And by the way, this is yet another film that needlessly used 3D as part of a post-conversion process that did the movie no favors. Again, the 3D added little to nothing to the visuals, while only serving to make the film darker and less sharp than it should have been. Enough! Either shoot the movie in 3D and optimize it for 3D, or release it in 2D only!

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