Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Theatrical Review


Release Date: May 20, 2011

Sequels driven by success alone (quality not withstanding) are a mixed blessing at best. While it is always good to visit new places and experience new adventures with characters you have come to love, the legacy always begins to diminish little by little with each new installment. The new Pirates of the Caribbean movie is proof positive that sometimes a fresh start can breath some new life into a stale franchise but it isn't all perfect.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: El Capitan - Hollywood
Time: 8:00 pm May 20, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 3D

Loves: Pirates and swashbuckling adventures, Johnny Depp
Likes: Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush
Neutral: Penelope Cruz, cash-in sequels
Hates: Movies that try to cram too much into 2 hours, characters that do things cause it is in the script
Likely: That we are going to get a 5th entry into the PotC world

I still remember that opening weekend back in 2003, when nobody knew who Captain Jack Sparrow was and a good chunk of the population still either never took notice or were just oblivious to the soon to be legendary Johnny Depp. Depp up to that point had based his career on playing odd ball characters (hence his numerous collaborations with director Tim Burton) and after watching The Curse of the Black Pearl I remember being blown away, not by how awesome the movie was or even his performance, but more about how much it DIDN'T suck. Just about everyone thought going in that there was no way in hell a movie based off a theme park ride could be any good. While the movie itself was a good bit of fun, it was Depp as the now infamous pirate Jack Sparrow that stole the show, which for any fan of his work prior to that films release was regarded as par for the course from the actor. The two sequels that followed predictably focused on the lovable whelp but were underwhelming at best (and a complete bore at worst). Now we have the fourth chapter in the continuing adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, but has this pirate been out at sea for too long or has he finally found his sea legs once again?  

We find the crafty Captain Jack Sparrow in London where he is putting together a crew to go after the mythical Fountain of Youth...or at least that is what everyone tells Jack he is there for. After a series of events (sloppily put together mind you) Jack finds himself aboard the dreaded pirate ship Queen Anne's Revenge which is captained by the pirate all other pirates fear, Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Blackbeard, along with his lively and sultry daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), are on a quest to find the fountain as well and need the expertise of Jack who says to have knowledge on its whereabouts. They aren't the only ones sailing for the prize as the Spanish armada and the now legitimate Captain of the English fleet, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), are also on the hunt for the fabled fountain. It is a race against time and the first one there is the one to claim the gift of eternal youth!

Jack is wondering why he is even in this movie.

This is an adventure movie at its most pure sense and much more than just a pirate movie. All the pretentious subplots and army of secondary characters that plagued the the prior sequels has been mercifully replaced by a fairly straightforward adventure and only a handful of new faces. Other than the poorly handled opening act of the film and a relentless need to push the narrative forward without ever taking a breath I believe this is the sequel that the first film deserved. The thing I loved most about that first film was the world that had been created in which pirates and the supernatural co-existed. And even though I tend to geek out when a movie is populated with mythological creatures regardless of the setting, there was just a bit too much of that type of nonsense going on in the two sequels for my taste. But this fourth entry has found a good footing and mixes the typical grungy trappings of the pirate world with the supernatural beautifully.

While the script writers are in desperate need to find a new angle for their villains (In all four films now the main villain has had a crew that could not be killed) and the territory covered here isn't all that original, I found the film to be much more enjoyable overall compared to the previous two films. I think a lot of that had to do with the execution, where instead of front loading the film with a sequence that never really amounted to anything beyond serving its own needs (The cannibals from the second film and the quest to save Jack in the third) we get a quick sequence of events that, while handled poorly, cut to the chase quite literally. By the half hour mark we already have all our main characters on task and on their way to find their prize. This new sense of direction helped give the film a bit more focus while also cutting away a lot of the fat that weighed down its predecessors but retaining the sense of fun that has always been present in all the films.

Angelica wonders why she wants a father so badly.

With this being more of an adventure as opposed to a quest, the characters involved in the chase are every bit as important as the chase itself and we get some much needed fresh faces to take this journey along with some old friends as well. Blackbeard is probably the biggest addition to the mix and other than some continuity issues concerning the films that came before this one (with him being such a big threat to the pirate community why had no one ever spoken of him before now?) I liked him as the main baddie. Ian McShane played the venerable pirate with an appropriate mix of shrewdness and villainy but on the flip side he also seemed to have very little in the realm of a personality to him. He never seemed to react to anything beyond a cold stare and a shrug of his shoulders. Although I did like that his powers came from a more practical source (if you consider voodoo practical that is) which added a little bit of that reality you need to ground the more outrageous happenings.

Penelope Cruz as Angelica was a welcome sight as well, although her character introduction was handled poorly and was given what amounted to one of the most pointless sword fights in the entire series. The actress didn't really have to do much other than be herself which some may see as a bad thing but I thought her personality lent itself well to the pirate world. While she never really seemed like much of a threat I did like that we finally got to have somewhat of a romantic interest for Captain Jack and her on screen chemistry with Johnny Depp was palpable (perhaps because this wasn't their first film together). The whole subplot of her being Blackbeard's daughter was a little underdeveloped though and didn't really add much of anything to the proceedings other than her being used as leverage from time to time for someone to get what they wanted. The other two new characters we get are more of the secondary nature with the priest Philip (Sam Claflin) and the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges_Frisbey). While clearly supposed to be stand-ins for the William Turner/Elizabeth Swan relationship present in the first three films they were unfortunately not given much screen time to make anything concerning them matter enough for us to care what happened to them one way or the other.

Barbossa wonders why he was brought back to life.

Of the returning characters we only get three or four if you count the horribly implemented cameo by Keith Richards as Jack's dad whose sudden appearance and disappearance felt completely forced. You also got the welcome presence of Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally) whom is not given a whole lot to do unfortunately. And what would a Pirates' sequel be without the crusty personality of Captain Barbossa. I still to this day do not agree with how they brought this character back from the dead (it wreaked of a studio trying to capitalize on a character's popularity) but at the very least we still get to see Geoffrey Rush chew the scenery as only he can. Even given my disdain for how the character of Barbossa has been handled I still found him to be a very welcome addition and probably one of the very few holdovers from the previous trilogy I would want.

Then there is the star of the show, the one guy everyone is showing up on opening weekend to see and probably the only thing anybody has ever clung on to through the entire series. But I have something to say about this person that will probably baffle and confound many of the POTC faithful, Captain Jack Sparrow is the least interesting character in On Stranger Tides. I know, it's very strange to hear that but it's true. He is still up to his same old tricks and Depp is most certainly on point but there is a very apparent problem with how this series is handling the character, he simply has nothing to him any more. In the first film it was funny and somewhat fresh to have him trying to reclaim his ship from those that stole it. In Dead Mans Chest  he was manipulating anyone and everyone to save his life from a deal struck with Davy Jones. In At World's End he was just being used by everyone for their own needs as he struggled with the choice of becoming immortal or not. But in On Stranger Tides he once again wants his ship back (after losing it for the third time) and is looking for the fountain of youth which is never explained WHY he wants it. The filmmakers have taken the lazy route and just stuck him with the same old problems he had in the previous films (get his ship back, save his neck by being clever and act as looney as possible when the situation calls for it).

Blackbeard wonders why he can do magic.

Sure, you can surmise that he wants to be young forever but if so it is never mentioned, he just wants to find it for the sake of integrating him into the plot. And as for his "knowledge" on where it is located...well let's just say he isn't quite honest about that bit of information so his use to anybody in the film is fleeting at best. So let's take stock of what Captain Jack Sparrow's role in this new film is exactly. #1 He wants to find a place for no reason other than to find it. #2 He is taken captive to help find this place which he has absolutely no knowledge of. #3 During the journey all he does is spew out his witty comebacks as he stumbles about while doing nothing of any real consequence. The character Jack Sparrow has no real impact on anything other than being a glorified court jester that performs a task here and there that anybody could do. Without a doubt I think the way his character was handled here is a crime but it is something so subtle that most will be dazzled by Depp's performance regardless without ever truly realizing just how much of a throwaway character he is here. He is there for the fans plain and simple, it seemed as though there was a script that was finished before it had the Pirates of the Caribbean moniker attached to it and then they had to find places to add the captain in afterwards.

That's not to say he isn't any fun, Captain Jack Sparrow is just as crazy as he always has been and provides some great laughs over the course of the adventure, he just doesn't seem to be very necessary to move the plot along. Luckily the movie didn't have to rely on him this time around because despite Depp doing his best to steal the show it is the adventure itself that kept my interest from beginning to end. Jack Sparrow had little impact on my enjoyment of the film which is both a good and bad thing depending on your point of view. Most people are going into this just for that character alone where as I went into this hoping for a fun adventure flick. I got what I wanted out of it but I don't think the same can be said for the captain's fan base.

Jack contemplates ending it all.

So, about that adventuring I keep bringing up. The film is structured in a very familiar way that any fan of the genre will recognize and spares no time in getting right to the point. As Captain Jack says so himself, "It's not the destination, but the journey there that matters". That is the cornerstone to any good adventure and On Stranger Tides delivered a rollicking good time as we witness such sites as Blackbeard and his dark magic string his entire crew up by the wave of his sword, man-eating mermaids that lull their victims into a daze by singing to them just before ripping them apart and probably the most literal example of a ship in a bottle ever. The way events unfolded reminded me a lot of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade as did it's finale (maybe it reminded of it a little too much in some cases) which was much more uneventful than any of the previous films in the series.

Everything leading up to the end was done well enough with only a few stumbling blocks on the way (the raid on the Spanish encampment and a scene with Jack being forced to jump off a cliff for instance) but the grand finale at the fountain of youth was all fairly predictable stuff. While the journey certainly does account for the majority of an adventure film the payoff itself has to be worthwhile as well to have made the journey worth it and I didn't find any of the climatic moments at their destination to be anything special unfortunately. I was unimpressed with the fountain itself and how it was used as a story device which in a way kind of made everything that came before it seem more shallow than it actually was.

Phillip and Syrena develop a relationship telepathically.

I must point out also that there were a large number of issues with how the film dealt with many of its characters motivations that didn't help much. Jack of course is up to his same lunacy as I mentioned earlier but other characters just didn't seem to have a point to anything they did or said. Blackbeard's reasoning for finding the fountain is because he fears a confrontation with a one legged man whom it is foretold will kill him...but that is never really explored or given any form of competent conclusion. Angelica seems to be going through a number of different issues but she also had the most perplexing character moments. Spoiler warning here...Why was she posing as Jack Sparrow at the beginning? Was she really working with Blackbeard or was she conning him? What are her true feelings for Jack? Why did Jack maroon her on that island at the end?

Barbossa's intentions were not made clear until half way through the movie but it still didn't make a whole lot of sense that he would sell himself to captain a ship flying British flags on the off chance he would come across the person responsible for destroying the Black Pearl. The biggest character motivation issue I had though was dealing with Phillip and Syrena. They become attracted to one another pretty fast (I guess that is what good looking people do) but given the blood thirsty nature of how all the other mermaids react towards humans it is never explained why she is different. While the subplot of them falling in love was handled in an adequate manner (although they really could have used some more time together) the real questionable moment happens when Syrena helps out a certain character that for all she knows could have been one of her captures and saves the day at the end. Oh and let's not forget the Spanish fleet and how little they had to do with anything, honestly their use here was confounding and even though they did do something at the end it started to feel as though the filmmakers were over stuffing their movie again with pointless characters and subplots. If the Spanish fleet had not been in the film it wouldn't have impacting anything at all.

Jack wonders how long until he ends up just like this guy.

If you haven't been able to tell yet I am kind of mixed on my reaction to the film at this moment. It definitely has its share of problems, probably the most out of the four films, but just on a basic pure entertainment scale I found it all to be a whole lot of fun. There are some great moments to be found here, the mermaid scene I would consider to be a highlight and the movie moves along at a good quick pace. Seeing Jack do his thing is always fun even if he doesn't have a whole lot to do. For every moment I found myself being impressed by one thing there was always something else that made me question my enjoyment. But I can't bring myself to completely endorse it nor condemn it. If ever there were a movie that gave me equal sides of conflicting emotions this would be it.

It is a good natured piece of entertainment though that will likely please most of everyone that watches it and most certainly fans of the franchise. But I would bet my left peg-leg that those same people will start to pick it apart well after viewing it and start to question if it was really as good as they thought while watching it. I would have to say that the franchise has found its sea legs but it just hasn't learned how to walk again just yet. When the inevitable sequel comes out I hope they get some better writers and trim that fat just a tad bit more. So there you have it, put on your best pirate formal wear and...




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