Monday, May 23, 2011

REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (B-)

(dir. Rob Marshall, 2011)

Full disclosure: this franchise is something which, despite poor quality and confusing narratives, I cannot hate.  No matter whether or not a Pirates film is good, I manage it thoroughly enjoy it.  It's the hold the franchise has over me.  Color me a biased film critic, matey.  (Also, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in all it's by-the-book and Disneyfied glory, is my favorite film of all time.  Right around The Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction, White Christmas, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

But this film, the fourth in an admittedly bloated series, was attempting to recapture the start-up magic of the original.  It was without the second and third films' penchant for elaborate, complicated plots and subplots.  But it never fully recaptured the feeling of the original.  What was so grand about the first three was their undeniable epic scope; you felt like you were watching something that was a true adventure flick.  But On Stranger Tides doesn't have that feeling.  It's deflated.

This time around, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp prancing around in the role that made him a star) is left yet again without a ship trying to locate the infamous Fountain of Youth.  Along his way he meets villain turned ally turned privateer Hector Barbossa (a perfectly hammy Geoffrey Rush), an erstwhile paramour (Penelope Cruz), and the mysterious Blackbeard (Ian McShane doing what he can to save the role from disaster).  Oh, and there's a replacement for Orlando Bloom's Will Turner in their somewhere and a mermaid.  But best not to bother ourselves with talking about them in depth, the filmmakers certainly didn't.

McShane, as I said, is doing what he can to save the part.  Blackbeard is easily the worst villain of the franchise, and simply because he's written so poorly.  A bad guy going out to seek the Fountain of Youth so he doesn't die?  Is that it?  Is that suppose to make him a bad guy?  He doesn't try to kill Jack, Barbossa, or anyone we like.  His majestically powers of battleship embottlement, zombification, and rope manipulation are never explained nor do we ever get a good glimpse of what make Blackbeard so vile.  At least with Davy Jones and Barbossa we understood their means to an end, even if their means were vicious.  The Pirates series never had a villain you could really hate; Barbossa just wanted to taste an apple and Jones was just a sad, heartbroken man.  But with Blackbeard, you're just told he's a bad man and you're left at that.

Reporting to duty, I was told I have to save this film?
I know the legion of stalwart Pirates fans voiced their criticism over the third installment (and even the second one), and how Disney didn't either hear or chose not to address those concerns is perplexing.  Perhaps their notion of going back to the original was eliminating overly excessive battle sequences and frothy plots, but I'd be hard to find anyone who doesn't cite the maelstrom scene from At World's End as that film's highlight.  Or the Kraken attacks from Dead Man's Chest, or that delicious final sword fight between Jack and Barbossa in The Curse of the Black Pearl.  In this film, there is not defining scene, no moment of pure excitement.  The climax seems merely little less than an afterthought and in many ways a foregone conclusion.

The true highlight of the film wasn't a battle, or a scene full of visual effects wonderment, but rather the brief scenes between Jack and Barbossa.  Johnny Depp and Rush have always such a marvelous chemistry, and I always felt their lack of togetherness in the second film stopped it from being great (granted, Barbossa was dead in that film...mostly).  It doesn't hurt that the writers gave Barbossa the only intriguing motive to do anything in the whole film, what with trying to enact revenge on the man who cost him his leg (and when Rush tells his tale vengeance, it's a scene of splendid acting).  When they're together, how they play off one another is just a type of magic you can't create with CGI.  If the fifth film wants to do better with everyone (audiences and critics), I think re-pairing that dynamic duo would be a wise decision.

A poor man's Will and Elizabeth
But this fourth installment just doesn't have the charm of the first three.  There no fun banter between straight man Will Turner and crazy man Sparrow.  No Pintel and Ragetti.  No Governor Swan or Norrington.  No fun villain that you secretly root for.  It feels too small, and there's not one standout performance.  Bother Depp and Rush are great, but a far cry from their work on the earlier films and not for lack of trying or prowess, but rather because the parts and the direction gave them little to work with.  It seems director Rob Marshall's career has been in a bit of a nosedive since he nearly won an Oscar in 2002,  as he's followed the best Picture-winning Chicago with Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine, and now this.  From the man that gave us "Cell Block Tango," I was expecting more grandeur, and instead I got a stifled, under-realized film.  The series needs Gore Verbinksi back and pronto.

But still, just being able to see Rush and Depp on screen again in these parts was a large portion of my enjoyment.  And I cannot argue with the genuine joy I get from seeing Capt. Jack.  That enough is enough to see the film.  I just wish there were more reasons.  GRADE: B-


1 comment:

  1. as a huge fan of the first 3, I suppose I am in the minority, but I think #4 stands with the others very well

    for me #4 is even a bit more satisfying for the development of Barbossa's character, the addition of Penelope Cruz as a love interest for Jack Sparrow and Ian McShane's brilliant portrayal as the dreaded Blackbeard

    and for me #4 seems to have a bit more of the POTC atmosphere from the Disney ride itself - with more night scenes out of doors and more scenes indoors in rooms full of shadow and candlelight

    or perhaps not, but it is the effect the movie had on me and I enjoyed it very, very much

    and two big thumbs up for the writing for the final scenes between Jack and Penelope (of course I can't remember her character's name!)and Jack and Mr. Gibbs - I thought they were both priceless