On well-trodden ground ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On well-trodden ground

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
My rating:

You know what annoys me? Reviews that condemn a film as "unnecessary". What kind of a criteria is "necessity" anyway? In 1977, was there a "need" for a quirky little low-budget sci-fi film from an upstart young indie director? No, but the world got Star Wars anyway. I know the word gets tossed around only in regards to sequels, and sure, a great many sequels are announced to which the only sane response is bewilderment that there exists a demand for them. But that's only if you haven't watched them. Once you have watched them - which is kinda necessary if you're writing a review - you are obliged to judge them on their merits. So yeah, I am plenty annoyed at the reviews for the fourth and latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie that disparage it for being "unnecessary". What you're supposed to tell your readers is, is it good? Do you even know what makes these movies good?

I reckon I do. And I gotta say, it's on par with Dead Man's Chest - the weakest of the first three.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) turns up in London to rescue his ex-first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from the gallows, but then finds himself embroiled in the search for the fabled Fountain of Youth, which everyone seems to think he knows how to find. Three parties are in a race to reach it first: a Spanish expedition; a British one led by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in His Majesty's Navy; and Edward "Blackbeard" Teach (Ian McShane), the pirate whom all other pirates fear, who captains a crew of zombies aboard the feared ship Queen Anne's Revenge. Jack is shanghaied onto the Revenge by Angelica (Penélope Cruz), an old flame who turns out to be Blackbeard's daughter, and who knows the Fountain's ritual. They must recover two silver chalices from the shipwreck of Ponce de León, as well as a single tear of a mermaid. In the course of their voyage - on which a naive young missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin) is another less-than-willing participant - they manage to capture a mermaid whom Philip names Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and whom he also falls in love with.

It's pretty clear that this latest installment in the series is going for a back-to-basics approach. No more massive threats to the entire pirating world, no more convoluted betrayals and shifting allegiances, just a simple quest storyline - but with the trademark POTC complex plotting. Which, as I said in my Retro Review, is one of its strengths, although overdoing it is also its main weakness. So if On Stranger Tides is aiming more to emulate Curse of the Black Pearl rather than the other two, that can only be a good thing. And it is a good thing. Sadly, it just doesn't pull it off as well. The elements are there, but the whole package just doesn't come alive as well as Black Pearl did.

First of all, Penélope Cruz is miscast. She really is. She acted alongside Johnny Depp in a 2001 film called Blow, where presumably she had good chemistry with Depp, but it ain't showing here. She simply lacks the light touch needed to be in a POTC movie, that combination of comic, dramatic, and plain badasseric acting that, say, Keira Knightley pulled off so well. And her character Angelica may have been a major misstep as well, supposedly being the lost love of Jack Sparrow's life. I'm not sure Jack is the kind of character that should have a One True Love. (If he does, it's clearly himself.) Even if she's not meant to be that, whatever their love-hate relationship is supposed to be didn't work for me. There were parts where her life was threatened to force Jack into doing something dangerous (or that he just doesn't want to do), and I just didn't buy it.

Second of all, Ian McShane is miscast. And this is a sore disappointment, because Ian McShane as Blackbeard should've been dream casting. I don't know what went wrong. He was far too subdued when he should've been chewing up all the scenery in sight. And though the script laboured mightily to make him the most irredeemable villain in the series to date (and halfway succeeded), he remains the third Evil Pirate Captain that we've seen after Barbossa and Davy Jones. Worst of all is whatever was supposed to be going on between him and Angelica. She says she truly loved him and wanted the waters of the Fountain of Youth for him, but that never really came across - nor did his supposedly conflicted fatherly affection for her. This is another key character relationship that simply didn't work.

There's also the romance between Philip and Syrena, which is so underwritten it was practically irrelevant. (He falls in love with a murderous inhuman creature of the depths just because she's pretty.) And speaking of irrelevant, the Barbossa subplot was exactly that in the first half; it did not escape my notice that the film only cuts back to him to remind us he's there. (I have more things to say about him that are spoilerrific, so I'll discuss them in the comments.) Elements such as the zombie crew, or Blackbeard's supernatural control over his ship's rigging, also never amount to anything consequential - and in the case of the zombie crew, feels like a retread of Black Pearl's undead pirates and Davy Jones' mutant crew. One retread was enough, thanks. And there's a voodoo doll of Jack that is even more inconsequential, to the point where someone tosses it into a river and no one seems to care.

No, the plot wasn't complicated, but it was busy, in that getting from Point A to Point B always has to slog through Points A.1 to A.9 first. It occasionally feels like a slog, in a way Black Pearl never did. I don't know if Rob Marshall, taking over the franchise's reins from Gore Verbinski, is to blame for that. It certainly doesn't feel as breezy and light on its feet as the first film did, and is noticeably lacking in cool action setpieces to boot. And although Dariusz Wolski returns as cinematographer, the film looks distinctly different from its predecessors - duller colours, and occasionally lit too dark, especially during the swordfight near the beginning (that also feels like a retread of the Jack-Will duel in Black Pearl). No, I did not watch it in 3D, even if it was filmed using 3D cameras, and if it looks this dull and dark because of those cameras, then I say feh. And feh to Marshall too. I don't know why making a couple musicals and friggin' Memoirs of a Geisha qualifies him to direct an action movie.

But honestly, I still enjoyed it. No really, I did. (I also have a habit of writing 3-½-star reviews that focus more on the movie's faults than its strengths.) Jack Sparrow - sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow is as much fun as ever, and I'm not seeing any sign that Depp is getting tired of playing him. And the comedy still works well; Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott penned some great dialogue, witty enough to recall much of Black Pearl. Like Dead Man's Chest, it's still a fun swashbuckling adventure that boasts an intelligence to challenge the notion that summer blockbusters need to be dumb. It very much demands that you not leave your brain at the door, and that's rare enough to give credit for. It only suffers in comparison to the first and best installment in the series, which is starting to look like a fluke - or at least, a serendipitous confluence of all the right elements that On Stranger Tides lacks some of. But not all. Only some of.

NEXT REVIEW: Let the Bullets Fly
Expectations: ooh, I've been looking forward to this one


TMBF said...

So the thing about Barbossa is that he's not irrelevant; his pursuit of the Fountain on behalf of King George is only a ruse to find Blackbeard and take revenge on him. And one of the most fun parts of the movie is when these two badass pirate captains finally face each other, in all their bluster and bombast. But we only find out Barbossa's true intentions late in the movie... why? Why couldn't this have been revealed earlier, so that Barbossa's subplot wouldn't feel so removed from the rest of the story? Or so that we could anticipate the climactic confrontation between these two puissant paragons of piratry? I really think that would've worked better. (I also think we should've seen more of Barbossa and Blackbeard together; McShane certainly seemed to come more alive during that scene.)

k0k s3n w4i said...

TMBF: i was under the impression that from a story-crafting point of view, barbossa's plot was practically spelled out. an off-screen chekhov's amputation, an undisguised prophecy of a one-legged man killing blackbeard... to me, barbossa's thread never felt irrelevant. in fact, i liked seeing his parts more than jack sparrow/angelica/blackbeard's side and wished the film had been just between barbossa and blackbeard. unlike the rest, geoffrey rush still remembers what film he's in. and unlike you, i am tired of johnny depp - in the pirates film and in all the other film in which he showcased his trademark wackiness. they may not be the same type of wackiness, but they somehow feel like repeats. a lot of his lines in on stranger tides felt like obligatory callbacks to his previous films.

the characters' schemes seemed to be fairly straightforward - with the exception of barbossa's perhaps. angelica's plan was intended to be convoluted but she... let's just say by the end, her in-universe reputation for deception felt unearned. and even after the credits came on, i'm still not sure what jack sparrow's after.

i just rewatched black pearl. that will-jack sword-fight was so much better than angelica-jack's. i can see who's fighting who in that because (1) it's well-lit, and (2) it did not involve two look-alikes going at each other. i saw it in 3D, but on the opening day of a new theatre which projects their films rather brightly.

TMBF said...

@k0k s3n w4i: My problem with the Barbossa thread is that it's completely unmotivated for the first half. For him to join the Royal Navy is already highly uncharacteristic, and it makes us wait till late in the movie before his motivation makes sense.

But I still liked the dialogue. I noticed a lot less callbacks than in Dead Man's Chest or At World's End.