Monday, May 30, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides

It is time for another summer movie and who would be more appropriate than out favourite pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. Set to reinvigorate Disney’s theme park ride-turned movie franchise, it goes without saying that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies so far have been an enjoyable ride but will it have you singing ‘it’s a pirate’s life for me’ or will the film leave you begging for parley (for those who haven't seen the movie yet). Frankly i'm having mixed thoughts which will be explained later.

While it would be reasonable to expect that the sequel may not be as good as the original trilogy (a certain Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan come to mind), the extent to which the film misunderstands story, pacing, action scenes, its own history, and its main characters, is mind-boggling. The film does almost nothing right and it’s a tedious chore that sails through gigantic plot-holes, lazy screenwriting, poor characterization, and reduces the scale and creativity of the previous films. To combat franchise fatigue, producer Jerry Bruckheimer enlisted the help of his Curse of the Black Pearl screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio who tossed out most of their prior character creations to inject the film with a lot of fresh and fantastical blood. But the team didn’t just bring back fan-favorite scallywags in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, they also introduced a new formula of fantasy genre staples – including zombies and mermaids(glad they kept the mermaid stuff in context with the myths that they entice the sailors and pull them into the water to kill them).

The film makes a serious misstep by spending the majority of its first act not on the high seas, but stuck in London. It’s an interesting idea on the page, but it makes the story and scope feel constrained. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), having come to London to kind-of rescue his friend Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally) and well as find out the person who had be impersonating him and claiming his accomplishments as his(imposter), instead falls in with former flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and is forced onto the ship of Blackbeard (Ian McShane). It’s been prophesized that Blackbeard will be killed by a one-legged man and he’s hoping to get to the Fountain of Youth so he can avoid that fate.
The story is especially tepid and makes no mention of the events that transpired in the original trilogy – none, whatsoever. Despite dumping most of the cast and significantly changing-up the formula, On Stranger Tides isn’t a spin-off or reboot -- it’s a true sequel.

The story picks up when Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) attempts to rescue his former first mate Mr. Gibbs from the British and is subsequently arrested. King George II (remember Uncle Vernon!) forces Jack to help guide the British soldiers to the fountain of youth – and reunites the loony pirate with his other former first mate-turned-enemy-turned-friend, Captain (now Privateer) Barbossa (played once again by Geoffrey Rush). The once treacherous pirate gets Jack up to speed, revealing that his beloved Black Pearl was destroyed in a clash with the notorious Blackbeard (Ian McShane) – who also seeks the fountain of youth. News of the Pearl’s demise sends Jack on a fearsome and over-the-top journey of revenge, treachery (of course), and adventure – not to mention new shipmates in the form of missionary Philip Swift (essentially the new Will Turner) and pirate Angelica (played by Penélope Cruz).
While not perhaps original, and not among his best, I did very much like Hans Zimmer's score, which was rousing and brought some much-needed energy. The characters are not the best developed, but they are fun and there aren't too many of them to interrupt the flow of the story, a big problem I found with At World's End, while the action sequences are both exciting and nail-biting on the whole.

I’m baffled at how screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott could so deeply misunderstand how Jack Sparrow fits into a movie. Yes, he’s always been the star, but he can’t work inside a vacuum. Sparrow needs the proper dynamic to be effective and the first three movies provided him with that dynamic by playing him off Will and Elizabeth. On his own, Jack is a static character. He can’t grow because he’s so carefully defined by his many idiosyncrasies that changing him risks ruining the character. Instead, it’s better to set him against characters who do develop and his presence becomes crucial in their development as he seeks to obtain his own goals.

Nearly every performance in On Stranger Tides is a muted version of that from prior installments – both in terms of new and returning characters. Depp is still charming as Sparrow but, as a result of the streamlined plot, he isn’t given a lot of room to do much but react to the supporting cast. Jack was always two steps ahead of everyone in the prior films but this round, he’s mostly just a gofer (as i have already mentioned in the above paragraph). Similarly, like in prior installments, the writers once again attempt to set up Barbossa with conflicting motivations – to keep audiences guessing about where his allegiances may lie. Despite the rich history between the two characters, the film fails to remind audiences of certain preceding events -- such as how Barbossa once again ended up captaining Sparrow’s beloved Black Pearl. While the details themselves aren’t especially important (since they were covered in the prior film), the lack of connective tissue is noticeable and serves as an example of how one-dimensional the characters and plot are this time.
It’s tough to blame Cruz or any of the cast when the characters are so poorly written. In previousPirates films, the villain at least engendered our sympathies. Barbossa and his crew of undead pirates were bad guys, but they were also damned souls whose punishment of spending cursed treasure was in excess of their crime. When Barbossa laments that he no longer feels the spray of the sea or the wind in his face, you pity him even if you can’t condone his actions. In the sequels, Davy Jones is also a cursed man whose broken heart turned him into a horrible monster. But there’s no sympathy for Blackbeard. Even when the film tries to build up the father-daughter relationship between him and Angelica, it undermines it with one of the worst scenes I’ve ever seen.

Well here is what happpens: Jack, Angelica, and Blackbeard have reached the island where the Fountain of Youth is located. They reach a chasm and the bridge has been destroyed so Blackbeard tells Jack to jump in below and reach the other side so he can obtain a pair of silver chalices needed to complete the extended-life ritual. Keep in mind that Jack is being carted along because they need him to find the fountain. Earlier in the story, Blackbeard compels Jack by using a Jack Sparrow voodoo doll. And yet when they reach the chasm, Jack refuses. The logical recourse for Blackbeard would be to use the doll and torture Jack until he jumps. Instead, there’s a stupid roundabout scene where Blackbeard does long-form Russian roulette with Angelica, Jack tries to stop Blackbeard by asking the party’s clairvoyant zombie pirate if he’ll survive the jump, the zombie pirate chucks the voodoo doll over the cliff, it survives, and so Jack jumps. Keep in mind: the entire time, Blackbeard needs Jack alive. Sparrow is neither expendable nor is he trustworthy but he’s the one who has to get the chalices. The stupidity of this entire scene would have given me a serious cardiac arrest.

With the Will & Elizabeth storyline pretty much wrapped up at the end of the last film, in place of Orlando Bloom & Keira Knightley are newbies Sam Claflin & Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as Philip and Syrena (he's a missionary man and she's a mermaid). Philip's main purpose seems to be getting slashed or stabbed. Whereas at least Syrena has an 'other-worldliness' about her and is interesting to watch, thanks to Bergès-Frisbey's portrayal of her. She's really quite something. Whilst spending most of her time in a water-filled box, her character *does* serve a purpose in the long run and helps Jack out (we also get to see her have an Ariel moment and gain legs on land). The 'love story' - if one can call it that - between the two characters is left open-ended. Sadly, the first and most fearsome of the mermaids who we meet - Tamara (played by Aussie Gemma Ward) - is only on screen for the briefest of times. I wish we could have seen more of her, as she really was entrancing. But, hey, at least we got to hear her pretty singing. Yes, like all the films before it, this one has singing (though nowhere near as lame/annoying as the gallows singing in the last film).
While not everything in thePirates sequels work, they at least have the audacity to go big. There’s a kraken, a long sword fight on a giant wheel, and an intense ship battle inside a massive whirlpool. Nothing in On Stranger Tides comes anywhere close to that scope. Rob Marshall is a competent director, but the film illustrates the tremendous contributions that previous director Gore Verbinski brought to the series. Verbinski knew when to make the scenes operatic, lighthearted, and knew how to pace a set piece. The chase through the streets of London is lifeless, the fight against the mermaids is too brutal to be enjoyable, and the swordfight between Jack and Angelica is pointless.

That swordfight also makes the grave error of calling back the first sword fight between Jack and Will in Curse of the Black Pearl. In Black Pearl, we already had an idea of who Will was and his personality. In On Stranger Tides, Angelica is impersonating Jack and kept entirely in shadow so it looks like Jack is just fighting himself, but that decision keeps the personality of the swordfight one-sided.

In Black Pearl, the reason Jack and Will fight is because Jack wants to escape and Will wants to make sure that doesn’t happen. There’s barely any provocation for the swordfight in On Stranger Tides. In Black Pearl, there’s fantastic choreography and pacing to the fight where it begins slowly, builds to incorporate more elements from the workshop, adds fun banter between Jack and Will, and then ends in a way where there’s a clear victor and we also get a hint about Jack’s pistol with one shot. The fight between Jack and Angelica is just two swords clanging against each other and then she throws barrels at him like Donkey Kong. And then they fight with the British army who show up for no particular reason. And then Jack and Angelica escape through a convenient trap door. And then they happen to wash up right where zombie pirate is waiting to put a blow dart in Jack’s neck.

Truly, the one stand-out scene from this film is the mermaid attack. It's very nicely shot, and quite creepy/tense/exciting. One thing the filmmakers have reined in a bit is the over-use of CGI. It's used to better effect here - the mermaid's tails, for example - rather than just tossing in as much of it as they can like they did last time. Where things end, yes, there's definitely room for a sequel...but really, is there much point at this stage? While this film is an improvement over the last one (and nowhere near as convoluted), it's still not what I'd class as 'great'. I much prefer the first two, but still, On Stranger Tides is an above average summer blockbuster that is still watchable. Depp, as always, pulls us into the picture with a consistently hypnotic performance, though it must be said that the chemistry between him and Cruz is less sizzling than we would like it to be. The decision to offload key but tiresome characters from the prequels as played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley gives the franchise a much needed facelift. In a nutshell, On Stranger Tides is one of those Hollywood movies that is not exactly bad, neither is it something that warrants a second look.


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