Category Archives: Movie Reviews
Michael Bay. The mere mention of the name is instantly polarizing. His unapologetic odes to spectacle and excess have split theatergoers into two camps: those that indulge in his brainless adrenaline rides with unabashed glee, and those that feel his work behind the camera is single-handedly destroying the art of cinema. In films like The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys, and most recently the Transformers franchise, Bay has developed a reputation as a master of loud and ludicrous action set pieces, but his frequent inability to deliver compelling characters or an engaging storyline has earned him a name of ill repute amongst the cinema cognoscenti. Yet time and time again, the masses queue up to gorge themselves on his trademarks: fast cars, dazzling explosions, overly-dramatic slow motion camera pans, gratuitous T&A, military fetishism, and crash-edited action wizardry.
Why then, is a director so adept at spectacle and kinetic camerawork, so inept at basic storytelling? Is it the fault of hack screenwriters? Poor casting choices? Or is it something else? Does a film – regardless if it’s a “check your brain at the door popcorn flick” or not – have a responsibility to the audience to provide a coherent plot and likeable developed characters? In Michael Bay’s case, that answer seems to be an emphatic “NO”, as evidenced by his latest Magnum robot Opus/giant middle finger to “film snobs” around the world – Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This third installment is not so much a movie as it is a two and a half hour assault on the senses; an un-checked display of empty bombast and juvenile humor that bludgeons the audience into dazed, slack-jawed submission by the end of its exhausting run time. It’s a pointless mess, a film that goes nowhere and has nothing to say.
The “plot” of this (or any other) Transformers movie is a lesson in irrelevance, but suffice it to say that recent college grad Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) – fresh off of twice saving the world from enslavement by giant robots – is having a tough time balancing dating an impossibly gorgeous supermodel and landing a job that allows him to “matter”. Eventually, certain encounters at his entry-level job at an Aeronautics company once again embroil him in the conflict between the noble Autobots led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron (Hugo Weaving). This time the giant robots are racing to unlock the secrets of some MacGuffins on board an ancient Autobot starship that crash-landed on the Moon, which was discovered and subsequently covered up by NASA after the 1969 Moon landing.
It’s not just hyperbole when I say that there is absolutely nothing enjoyable about the first hour and a half of this movie. The shifts in tone from scene to scene are staggering. Bay builds up very dramatic, dire stakes in the opening sequence featuring the 1969 Moon-landing and the discovery / cover-up of the crashed Autobot ship, then completely sabotages any weight or momentum with painfully unfunny and out-of-place lowest common denominator comedy. It’s unfathomable to me why a screenwriter would choose to juxtapose the Autobots looking to prevent the Decepticons from another potentially world-ending plot with sequences of Sam bumbling his way through job interviews, visiting his girlfriend’s workplace and getting jealous of her boss, dealing with his insane co-workers at his new job, or interacting with his cringe-inducing parents. LaBeouf spends most of the first hour of the film acting like a complete jerk and screaming at other characters for no apparent reason. His bizarre performance here can only be attributed to the fact that he loathes the franchise that put him on the map and has publicly gone on record as saying he doesn’t plan on returning for any future sequels.
But at least LaBeouf had a reason for his terrible, manic performance. There is no excuse for venerable, respected actors like Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and John Turturro flailing around Bay’s set, chewing scenery and acting like complete buffoons. All three actors are completely wasted in this film, and seem to be present only for Bay to show off the fact that he can get Oscar-winners to deliver embarrassing dialogue to a tennis ball on a stick that will be replaced by a CGI Optimus Prime later.
As for the other “performances” in the film, vacuous Victoria’s Secret lingerie model Rosie-Huntington Whiteley replaces the vacuous Megan Fox as Shia LaBeouf’s love interest, which is an improvement only because Whiteley delivers her stilted dialogue with a British accent rather than a bored Valley-girl accent, giving her some false credibility. With her glossy eyes, bee-stung lips, and impossible curves, she exists solely for Bay to indulge his adolescent predilection for extended shots of bronzed, glistening supermodel flesh.
The lone bright spots of the film are Ken Jeong doing his usual psychotic creeper shtick as a former NASA engineer involved in the Moon Landing conspiracy. His confrontation scene with Sam in a men’s bathroom – while completely superfluous – was some inspired comedy. Alan Tudyk, a genre fan favorite from his work as Wash on Firefly, also used his talents to somehow make an effeminate German computer hacker/butler into a memorable and enjoyable character. Excellent voice work by Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, and Leonard Nimoy (as Sentinel Prime, leader of the Autobots before Optimus) is also wasted because the Transformers themselves simply don’t get enough screen time to shine. However, that is a good thing in the case of the Wreckers, a group of NASCAR Autobots that speak in gruff Australian accents. While not as racially offensive as the “twins” from the previous installment, they were still rote, one-note stereotypes, as were most of the secondary Transformers.
Something very strange happens after that first 80 or so minutes of Dark of the Moon as it slogs to its conclusion. Another, entirely different film kicks in – an hour-long cacophony of spectacular destruction and chaos the likes of which have never been seen before, as the Decepticons and Autobots attempt to obliterate each other in the streets and on the buildings of Chicago. This marathon of metal carnage is destined to go down in history as one of the most ambitious and technologically astounding action set pieces of all-time. Marauding Decepticons brutally disintegrate terrified humans running through the streets; seemingly endless numbers of missiles, rockets, grenades, and machinegun rounds are discharged; dazzling, thunderous explosions rip through the streets, enormous spaceships light up the sky like Fourth of July fireworks with their weapons; buildings buckle and collapse as the human characters slide through them and cling to support beams, NAVY S.E.A.L teams emerge from the rivers guns blazing; and of course, the giant transforming robots clash with one another in a symphony of metallic annihilation. All of this is rendered in gorgeous CGI by Industrial Light & Magic, and very effective 3D.
In fact, the 3D in Dark of the Moon is some of the best I have ever seen. Bay takes the ball kicked off by James Cameron’s Avatar crew and runs down the audience’s throats with it, the highlight coming in the form of a jaw-dropping, vertigo-inducing sequence of military base jumpers in “flying squirrel”-type flight suits plummeting through the steel canyons of Chicago that thrilled me like nothing I had ever experienced on a movie screen before. However, when that exhilarating flight was over, common sense rushed back into my body and I realized that, exciting as it was, it was ultimately meaningless since I didn’t care about any of the flying soldiers, the transformers themselves, or anyone else involved in the noisy carnage. It truly was a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing.
If the first Transformers film was a sleek, supersonic aircraft soaring off into the sky on its maiden flight, and Revenge of the Fallen was the engine exploding in mid-air, sending the craft into a dizzying nose dive; then Dark of the Moon is the spectacular ball of flame erupting from the jet’s devastating crash to Earth. One can only the hope the next pilot to board this vehicle has a steadier hand on the yoke.
When I was around 4 or 5 years old, I liked to root around in my parents’ dresser a lot. One day during one of my raids, I came across my Father’s high school class ring, and my heart leapt. At that age, there was only one person that I knew who wore a ring – The Green Lantern, champion of justice and venerable member of the Super Friends. I immediately slipped the ring over my middle finger and started “flying” all over the house, pointing my “power ring” at my dog, pretending to catch her in a glowing green baseball mitt after a fall, or smashing a bad guy in the face with a giant, green, glowing fist. Decades later, Hollywood has turned one of my beloved childhood heroes into a slick, $200 million production, but it pains me to say that my adventures around the living room with my Dad’s class ring were far more entertaining and exhilarating than this colossal disaster of a superhero film.
In a nutshell, Green Lantern is about a squadron of space cops (called the Green Lantern Corps) who patrol sectors of the universe, using the power of a ring imbued with the green energy of will. Each ring-user can create any object they imagine out of the green energy (usually giant fists and weapons). The rings have a weakness though – they are near powerless against the yellow energy of fear, embodied by an evil cloud of yellow tentacles with a giant head called Parallax. Parallax is wreaking havoc around the universe, and mortally wounds the strongest Green Lantern, Abin Sur (Temura Morrison). His ship crashes on Earth, where his ring must choose a new wearer to take up his mantle.
The ring chooses Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a cocky, irresponsible test pilot who tries to escape from the fearful memories of his Father dying in a plane crash by being as daring as possible in a fighter jet. He tests jets for Ferris Aircraft, which is managed by his (presumably) ex-girlfriend Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). The ring transports Hal to the Green Lantern Corps home world of Oa, where he meets Sinestro, the leader of the Corps, and a bizarre menagerie of CG-created aliens who all bear the ring. Meanwhile on Earth, Hector Hammond, a nerdy scientist, is infected with Parallax’s fear energy while examining Abin Sur’s remains and gains telekinetic powers. Hal must then decide if he has what it takes to stop both Hector and Parallax from wiping out the Earth.
Joyless, disjointed, and dull – Green Lantern suffers from a terribly written screenplay, and a narrative that beats the audience senseless with another tedious origin story, gobs of exposition, and a painfully boring romance. The editing is dreadful, resulting in one of the worst-paced films I have ever seen, (And I sat through Jonah Hex!). A sloppy, un-satisfying climactic battle then materializes out of nowhere without any rising action or buildup to speak of.
All of this ineptitude is rather shocking, considering the film was directed under the normally capable helm of Martin Campbell, who gave us two of the best James Bond films of all time – Goldeneye and Casino Royale; not to mention the Saturday matinee fun of The Mask of Zorro. But despite the colorful and mostly well-crafted CGI effects, and the creative constructs that Hal creates with this power ring, there is no fun to be had here.
Ryan Reynolds does the best he can with the material that he is given in this absolute mess of a screenplay, so Green Lantern’s failure should not rest squarely on his shoulders, but he is still woefully mis-cast in the role (it should have gone to the runner-up Bradley Cooper). I was dreading the snark; the endless wise-cracks and mugs for the camera that are the trademarks of a Ryan Reynolds performance, but aside from a few minor quips, Reynolds usual shtick is completely replaced with a generic affability. Blake Lively, as Hal Jordan’s love interest Carol Ferris, while not reaching January Jones-levels of awfulness, is still very wooden. Her character suffers the same fate of many females in comic-book adaptations: she drowns in1940’s damsel-in-distress and 1980’s empowered- business woman tropes, and in the end is nothing more than a cheerleader for Hal to believe in himself enough to save the world. However, kudos should be given to her character for recognizing Hal Jordan behind the goofy, CGI domino mask, thus making her the single smartest female character in the history of comic-book movies.
The romantic storyline, and anything on Earth that pulls us away from the far more interesting events taking place in outer space, completely drag the film down because the relationships amongst the characters are so poorly defined. One of the most atrocious examples of this occurs at the obligatory “party/fundraiser/press conference” (a trite scene that every superhero origin film has so that all the central characters can be in the same place when something catastrophic happens), when Hal and Hector Hammond bump into one another. The characters share a “Hey, how’s it goin” moment, and act as if they have known each other for years, yet this is the first time the audience has seen them together, and has had no visual clues or any expository dialog whatsoever to enlighten them to any prior relationship. This inexplicably and inexcusably happens several more times over the course of the film, as it’s implied that Hector had/has an obsession for Carol, and a rivalry with Hal for the affections of Hammond’s father, a slimy Senator played by Tim Robbins, whose talents are completely wasted on this arbitrary role.
James Newton Howard, best known for his subtle musical cues in film like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, is a complete mis-match for Green Lantern. The result is one of the weakest superhero scores of all-time. As a long-time comic book reader, I should have felt a sense of awe and wonder as the camera panned over the Lantern’s visually spectacular home planet of Oa, but with the subdued music, it all fell flat. A colorful superhero like this deserves triumphant, bombastic music, but here the score is hardly noticeable at all, and when it is noticeable, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Themes derivative of classic scores like John Williams’ immortal Superman seep through constantly (there are several moments where actual segments from the main Superman theme begin to play!)
The bright spots in Green Lantern (ironic – due to the title and nature of this film) are difficult to find, but some shine through the garish CGI sludge. Mark Strong, coming off excellent villainous roles in Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass is a spot-on Sinestro, the stern, driven leader of the Green Lantern Corps who (SPOILER ALERT) eventually leaves the Corps behind to become Green Lantern’s arch-nemesis. Strong is terrific, imbuing the character with honor, gravitas, and a burning passion to see the Corps use any means necessary to preserve the peace. Sadly, he is given nothing to do with all that fire and rhetoric, aside from make a couple of speeches, and appear in a post-credit reveal that needed far more build-up in order to make sense.
He and the rest of the key Corps members – Geoffrey Rush as Tomar Re, and Michael Clarke Duncan (lazily and too obviously cast) as the Corps drill sergeant Kilowog – are truly wasted in this film as characters who are simply there to dump a ton of exposition on Hal, explain the powers of the ring to the audience, and serve as flying deus ex machinas to save the day in the very end. The training sequence on Oa between Kilowog, Tomar Re, Sinestro, and Hal was one of the truly fun moments in the film, but it was cut far too short to have any real impact. I would have liked to have spent more time on Oa, learning more about the different Corps members as well as the blue-skinned Guardians (the enigmatic beings who created the rings). Alas, it was not meant to be.
So, after the surprising quality of Thor and X-men: First Class, the Summer of 2011 has its first superhero dud. Hopefully the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, The Dark Knight Rises, and the promise of an epic superhero team-up in The Avengers, can stave off the inevitable comic book movie backlash that is sure to follow in the wake of this blunder.
When I was a young boy, Summer was filled with trips to the soft serve stand, colorful spinning mag wheels on Raleigh BMX bikes, imaginary lightsaber duels in the backyard with green plastic wiffle bats, and – since my family had no swimming pool to seek refuge in – hazy afternoons spent in air-conditioned movie theaters. Sitting there in the frosty darkness, I was entranced by flickering images from a golden age of kid cinema crafted by masters with names like Lucas, Spielberg, Dante, Henson, and Zemeckis.
No director defined this period of my youth more so than Steven Spielberg. In the wake of the fantasy-based, otherworldly Star Wars phenomenon, he told Earth-bound stories that, on the surface were about alien creatures and spaceships, but at their cores were heart wrenching stories of complex father/son issues; children dealing with living in broken homes; the bonds of true friendship; the loss of Mom & Pop Americana to corporate sprawl; and the struggle to keep creativity and cultural identity alive within the confines of suburbia.
Spielberg also mastered a beautiful visual trademark for his early films. Movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had an ethereal “fuzziness” to them, a misty dream-like quality that permeated every frame. Now that I’m an adult, I realize all of that was achieved through film stock, camera lenses, and diffused lighting, but my 8-year-old mind perceived only enchanting Summer magic. In Super 8, writer and director J.J. Abrams (LOST, Cloverfield, the Star Trek reboot), sets out to unabashedly pay homage to this long-lost aesthetic. I’m delighted to say that he succeeds brilliantly; effectively capturing a sense of time and place that is important both in a filmic sense, and in personal manner for people like me who were coming of age smack in the middle of that era.
It’s best to walk in to Super 8 knowing as little as possible, but the basic story centers on 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) a budding effects makeup artist and model builder who is looking to spend his Summer helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish an 8mm monster movie. Joining in on the project are Joe and Charles’ group of friends, including the female lead Alice (Elle Fanning). During a scene at a small train station, a passing military train de-rails and crashes in one of the loudest, most dazzling displays of destruction and chaos you will see in the theaters this Summer. It was almost as if J.J. was trying to top the infamous crash of Oceanic Flight 815 that he directed for the LOST pilot. Amidst the fiery carnage, something punches its way out of one of the cargo containers and escapes into the warm Summer night. What happens afterwards is simply too good to spoil in any review…
Super 8 is not your standard 21st century Summer Blockbuster popcorn schlock. It’s not a hyperactive, crash-edited spectacle of excess. There are no gratuitous pans over the sweaty chests of bronzed starlets; no low-brow, slapstick pratfalls or talking animals; no national monuments obliterated by meteors; no garish, rubber-suited superheroes. It’s a film driven by friendships, innocence, and memories of a simpler time. Scenes are paced slowly, but never feel tedious. The camera is allowed to linger on faces longer; dialogue is delivered as if every line were of desperate importance, because Abrams understands that is exactly how it feels when you’re 12 years old.
Thankfully, the dialog never sounds forced or ponderous, and that’s mostly due to the terrific performances of Courtney and Fanning, who have absolutely magnetic screen presence. I was utterly transfixed by their sincerity, their innocence, and the purity of their blossoming relationship. These two characters are connected in a way that I won’t reveal here, but it’s heavy stuff which leads to some big emotional payoffs towards the end of the film. The pair handle everything thrown at them beautifully, especially Courtney, who at the beginning of the film is dealing with a very difficult family dynamic involving his policeman Father, played by Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler.
That conflict takes a back seat early on to serve as an undercurrent for Joe’s arc during the meat of the film’s running time, allowing the narrative to focus on his relationships with Alice, Charles and the gang, which was fine by me, because I loved these kids and wanted to spend as much time as possible with them. The young actors that make up the film crew are kids that anyone can relate to and remember hanging out with in the halcyon days- the shy one, the group leader, the hellraiser, the nervous geek, the blockhead, etc. yet none of them come across as rote or underdeveloped. In fact, this batch of kids instantly conjure up fond memories of other fun child gangs like The Goonies or – since this does take place during the 70’s – the squabbling Bad News Bears. (Cary, the group’s firecracker-obsessed loose cannon played with devilish glee by Ryan Lee, reminded me a lot of the Tanner character).Their chemistry together is just that good. It’s a joy to watch them making their movie, and simply being kids in a time before technology lashed them to gaming consoles and laptops.
Super 8 is unquestionably an unapologetic love letter by J.J. Abrams to Steven Spielberg and 1970’s suburban nostalgia. Many people aren’t going to truly understand or appreciate what that means, but luckily for them, it’s not necessary to enjoy this magnificent piece of Summertime entertainment. For two hours I was transported back in time…back to my room filled with Star Wars action figures, Mad magazines, an Atari 2600 attached to a dying 13″ color TV, and E.T. looking down on me from a poster on the wall. When a film can do that, you know you’ve just witnessed something very special.
In March of 2005, director Matthew Vaughn was hard at work preparing to direct the conclusion to the X-Men trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand, taking over for a departing Bryan Singer. It quickly became clear to him that the pressure from the FOX studio executives to rush the film into production and get it into theaters for the Summer of 2006 to compete against Singer’s Superman Returns was completely unreasonable. There was no way Vaughn could make the film he wanted, so he walked away and FOX slapped together X-3 under the inept helm of uber-hack Brett Ratner. Now, seven years later, Matthew Vaughn has finally made the worthy successor to X-2: X-Men United that he always wanted to. And now that I’ve seen the finished product, it truly makes me sad to think about what X-Men 3 could have been like under the very capable hands of Vaughn, because First Class is a surprising triumph, and might be the best X-Men film of them all.
X-Men: First Class is a wildly ambitious movie that crams a lot of narrative threads into its running time, but it never feels bloated or poorly-paced. It zips along well thanks to a combination of a clearly defined (if a tad goofy) plot by the villains to kickstart the Cuban Missle Crisis and manipulate America and the U.S.S.R. into starting WWIII; and the battle of fundamental beliefs that threaten to tear two friends apart. With its miniskirts, go-go boots, lingerie-clad undercover spies, and secret, swinging nightclubs, the film threatens to careen down a slope of Austin Powers-esque kitsch at times, but quickly rights itself whenever McAvoy and Fassbender are clashing, or learning more about their unique mutant gifts from each other. The action scenes range from quieter Inglourious Basterds-meets-superhero moments, to exhilarating, epic set pieces full of spectacular explosions, and dazzling mutant powers on full display. The flight effects for the characters of Banshee and Angel, in particular, are shot in a visceral style that makes them more convincing than just about any film you’ve ever seen a human being “fly” in.
The meat of the film explores the dichotomy between young mutants Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), and Erik Leshner (Michael Fassbender). If you’re familiar with the themes of the X-Men comics, or have seen the previous X-Men films, then you know the drill: Charles takes on the Martin Luther King ideology of tolerance and peaceful coexistence with humanity, while Erik embodies the more radical Malcolm X approach of casting off the shackles of human oppression and wearing the mutant badge with pride. The early part of the film cuts back and forth between Erik and Charles in their formative years; Charles lives in a posh Westchester mansion as a boy and there he befriends a young shape-shifting girl named Raven, who broke in to steal food. Meanwhile, Vaughn faithfully re-creates the opening shots of the original X-Men film, which finds young Erik violently separated from his parents in a Nazi concentration camp, then introduces us to the “big bad” of the film, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, in a welcome change of pace from his usual affable characters), who is posing as a Nazi doctor to discover mutant recruits for his world-domination-seeking Hellfire Club. In a horrific sequence, Shaw murders Erik’s mother after he fails to demonstrate his metal-controlling powers by making a coin move, then gleefully celebrates as the grief triggers a screaming, metal-rending episode.
Vaughn deftly shows us the stark contrast between the two future enemies as we see Charles (with Raven in tow, now posing as Charles’ sister) living a cushy existence, studying genetics in the Oxford halls by day and using his charm to pick up women in pubs by night. Leshner, in the interim, has become a revenge-obsessed Nazi Hunter travelling the world to kill the Concentration camp monsters that scarred him for life, and to find his ultimate target – Sebastian Shaw. Fassbender’s screen presence in these Nazi-killing sequences is nothing short of astonishing, filled with quiet menace and simmering rage. These moments are so effective, that I could easily sit through an entire two-hour movie of Erik Leshner dispatching Nazis in various brutal and creative ways. (I swear my fillings were aching after watching one of the encounters). It’s obvious to anyone with eyes at this point why Fassbender is quickly becoming a superstar. McAvoy, while not having as meaty a role as Fassbender, is still excellent in his own right as a young, idealistic Xavier who is genuinely fascinated my genetic mutation. He turns in a very nuanced performance as the future Professor X, coming across as charming, enthusiastic, and at many points, arrogant. His initial encounters with Leshner as their friendship grows and they bond over their abilities are a joy to watch, which makes the inevitable tragedy of what is to come even more powerful.
McAvoy and Fassbender are so mesmerizing on-screen, and their story is so compelling, that it’s easy to overlook some of the film’s flaws, like the casting of the mutant recruits and the secondary baddies of Shaw’s Hellfire Club. These youngsters (with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence) are bland, nondescript newcomers in their 20’s who offer little in the acting department, and basically serve as pawns in the battle sequences. In addition, January Jones continues to be one of the worst working actresses in Hollywood. The Emma Frost of the comics is a haughty British vamp that relishes in ice-queen wickedness, but with Jones’ vacant, bored delivery, she comes across as Shaw’s doped-up, high-class prostitute.
The supporting cast, led by a lively (and sexy) Rose Byrne as CIA liaison Moira McTaggert, also boasts veteran presence Oliver Platt as the head of the CIA’s mutant division, About a Boy‘s grown-up child star Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy (a genius teen scientist with ape-like feet and enhanced reflexes), and the smoldering Jennifer Lawrence as the teen Raven/Mystique. They all lend life to the proceedings with their more than capable performances. One of the film’s more interesting facets is a psuedo-love triangle between Raven, McCoy, and Leshner. Raven is immediately smitten with McCoy, and he promises to help “cure” her blue-skinned, yellow-eyed appearance with a serum that he is developing to rid himself of his over-sized peds. Leshner enters the picture by telling Raven that she should never be ashamed of who she is; that she should embrace the power and beauty she holds in her true form. It’s an intriguing little element of the screenplay that helps flesh out all three characters. Terrific cameos by longtime character actor favorites like Ray Wise, Michael Ironsides,Glenn Morshower, Rade Serbedzija, and James Remar, round out the very solid cast.
In a more forgiving world, X-Men: First Class would be the franchise rejuvenator the X-Men saga desperately needs, but the acrid stench and bitter taste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: The Last Stand are likely too fresh in the movie-going public’s senses to truly make this a Summer blockbuster on the level of the upcoming Harry Potter finale. Still, it’s a fantastic mash-up of Superheroes, James Bond, and a story of two men whose friendship is torn apart by ideology.
Before I get into discussing On Stranger Tides, let me just state for the record that I have never cared about any of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I’ve never been caught up in the worldwide hype; never been enamored of Johnny Depp’s drunken Keith Richards-as-a-pirate shtick; never been emotionally invested in the romance between Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom; and hell, after the first movie, I’ve never been very clear on what exactly any of the characters are doing or what they’re after. The third film, At World’s End, had so many curses, compasses, dream sequences, and double and triple-crosses amongst the characters, that it became laughable.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with making epic pirate films; a good tale of skullduggery and adventure on the high seas should be epic. What they shouldn’t be, is pretentious, plodding, and overly convoluted to the point of incoherence. The Disney execs, realizing this, set out to scrape the barnacles off the hull of their quickly sinking ship by slashing the budget, scaling down the CGI, and stripping the story down to focus more on character. The result is a PoC movie that, despite being instantly forgettable, is more coherent and entertaining than its predecessors.
Clocking it at 137 minutes; On Stranger Tides is the leanest and meanest of the Pirates films, which says a lot about how overstuffed and ostentatious the other installments truly were. The main thrust of the film finds Johnny Depp’s now-iconic Captain Jack Sparrow and a number of other characters including Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and a detachment of the Spanish Navy, searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth. In order to unlock the secrets of the Fountain, they need a map, two silver chalices (last seen with the Fountain’s discoverer, Ponce De Leon), and the magical tear of a captured Mermaid. Yes, really.
It becomes obvious right away that new franchise helmer Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine)doesn’t shoot action as well as Verbinski, but there are some fun scenes, like Jack’s clever and frenetic escape from the heart of King George’s palace to a rousing carriage chase on the streets of London, and a terrific set piece where Blackbeard’s crew are first enraptured, then assaulted by beautiful but vicious mermaids. Marshall does do quite well reproducing the scope and cinematography of the previous films, despite the reduced budget and lack of CGI monsters.
The sets and costumes are particularly excellent, especially Blackbeard’s monstrous and ornate ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge. And speaking of Blackbeard, Deadwood’s Ian McShane cuts a menacing figure as “The pirate all pirates fear”, employing zombified buccaneers as crew, and using his enchanted cutlass to command the ship’s rigging to come to life and ensnare mutinous sailors in its ropes. Sadly, the menace of Blackbeard is never truly realized, and ultimately the character is wasted in a climactic sequence that is essentially a rip off of the last ten minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The absolute low point in Stranger Tides is an utterly superfluous love story between Philip (Sam Claflin),a Bible-toting man of faith, and the captured Mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The flow of the movie comes to a grinding halt whenever we are forced to watch these two vapid, low-rent replacements for Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley befoul the screen with their overwhelming dullness. It’s a pandering, clumsy attempt at a star-crossed romance shoehorned into the script to appeal to the female quotient in the audience looking for their fix of cheap, bodice-ripping Harlequin storytelling. The time wasted on these bores would’ve been better spent on the relationship between Jack and Angelica – a romantic story that actually showed some spark in the early goings, but was brushed away in favor of the aforementioned 18th century Splash nonsense and silly sequences of Jack hopping on palm trees, dropping coconuts on Spanish sailors’ heads.
And what about Mr. Depp? Does his fourth turn as Jack Sparrow crackle, or is he just collecting another seven-figure Disney paycheck? How does Jack Sparrow function as a protagonist without Bloom and Knightley around to bounce off of? Well, Depp isn’t visibly phoning it in here, but it’s clear to anyone who has seen the Curse of the Black Pearl, that the shine is wearing off for him. The film also doesn’t suffer from the absence of Knightley and Bloom at all, thanks in most part to Geoffrey Rush nearly stealing the show with his performance as the always enjoyable salty scaliwag, Captain Barbossa. Rush chews the scenery here masterfully, both as a foil and as an ally to Jack Sparrow. His character’s arc is the most interesting one in the film, and has the most satisfying resolution.
I read recently that the character of Jack Sparrow is the closest thing the current movie-going generation has to an icon like Indiana Jones. If that’s true, I smell a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the winds. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise isn’t a bloated, barnacle-covered corpse washed up on the shores of Tortuga Bay just yet, but that time is rapidly approaching.