Jay Baruchel is Hollywood’s affable geek du jour having plied his unique trade recently in the animated blockbuster How to Train Your Dragon and the considerably less successful rom-com She’s Out of My League. His gangly frame twitchy visage and nasal drone make him perfect for movies in which awkward self-effacing underdogs triumph against enormous odds to achieve great feats like saving a Viking tribe from certain destruction or getting laid by a really really hot blonde chick.
Movies like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice a live-action CGI-fest directed by Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure films) and inspired by a famous sequence from Fantasia Walt Disney’s groundbreaking collection of animated shorts. Fantasia debuted in 1940 long before Disney subleased its animation work to Pixar and "Fantasia" became more commonly known as a popular name among exotic dancers. My how things have changed.
Baruchel plays Dave a hapless NYU physics nerd unwittingly cast into the middle of a centuries-long good-versus-evil battle between powerful sorcerers who wield an infinite array of supernatural powers. Representing the good guys is Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) a wide-eyed eccentric whose all-black goth-pimp ensemble draws nary a suspicious glance on the eclectic streets of Manhattan. Dave it turns out is no ordinary college student but the Prime Merliner which sounds like an underwater number divisible by only one and itself but in actuality is a sort of wizard messiah destined to rid the world from the likes of the sinister Horvath (Alfred Molina) and his imprisoned overlord Morgana (Alice Krige). That is if he can take time off from his bumbling courtship of a pretty co-ed (Teresa Palmer) to actually learn the tricks of the sorcerer’s trade.
“Disposable” and “formulaic” are terms commonly applied to both of Turteltaub’s National Treasure collaborations with Cage but I submit that those films are at least fun if ultimately forgettable. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is far less fun and far more forgettable its formula followed so perfunctorily that it ultimately comes off as an elaborate exercise in corporate cynicism one unlikely to inspire the string of sequels it so transparently hopes to conjure. Which is a shame because the film shows intermittent signs of promise and Cage despite his distracting perm is oddly charming as a sort of desperate weirdo.
Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) is a big-spending but cash-poor shopaholic who has dreams of working for her favorite fashion magazine but ironically is given a job as a columnist for a financial magazine from the same publisher. Of course not being the perfect candidate to dole out advice on managing money she butts heads with her good-looking but work-obsessed editor (Hugh Dancy) until this being a romantic comedy the sparks start flying between them. Her efforts to conquer her addictions hit her fashion career goals and find love and contentment carry this lightweight concoction. Confessions is worth the ride if only to establish Fisher as a comic star in her own right. So good in supporting roles in movies like Wedding Crashers she gets to shine showing humor heart and chutzpah as a girl who never met a credit card she didn’t like. She turns a character who could have been gratingly annoying into someone even the non-shopaholics in the audience can easily identify with and root for. Dancy is a great foil and perfect opposite in the great tradition of romantic comedies going back to the ‘30s and ‘40s. A raft of familiar faces also turn up amusingly including John Lithgow as the magazine magnate John Goodman and Joan Cusack as Rebecca’s loopy parents and the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas as a somewhat clueless French fashion editor. But pay special attention to newcomer Krysten Ritter as Fisher’s moneybags roommate. Australian P.J. Hogan certainly has shown a penchant for this kind of comedy first with the sleeper hit Muriel's Wedding and then the Julia Roberts smash My Best Friend's Wedding. He knows when to tone it down and go for heart which is key to making a broad comedy like this work overall. The film also makes New York terrific Technicolored bright and inviting. It helps that the bestselling books by Sophie Kinsella on which the script is based provide such smart core material. Whether timing in the current economic crisis is right for a movie about an upscale shopaholic is beside the point. Clearly this is more fantasy now than ever and that’s probably all good.
Sailing to the end of the world escaping Davy Jones’ Locker betraying your fellow shipmates forming alliances and/or crossing swords with either dead crustaceans or British government baddies is just another day in the life of these pirates whose convoluted interactions with one another rival any soap opera. The players have all returned: Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) now a expert pirate herself; steadfast Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) estranged from his love Elizabeth and on a mission to save his father Bootstrap (Stellan Skarsgard); Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) risen from the dead to lead the Black Pearl; Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) the evil head of the East India Trading Company who has control of the Flying Dutchman as well as the inky Davy Jones (Bill Nighy); Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) the mystic who may be a little more powerful than we think. And a few new faces too namely Capt. Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) a cunning Chinese pirate. And then there’s Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) who since being rescued by his mates from the depths of hell has some great dead man’s tales to tell—as well as a few debts to pay. As the Pirates of the Caribbean get ready for their final titanic battle all their lives and fortunes--and the entire future of the freedom-loving pirate way—hang in the balance. Everyone does a nice job further developing their characters in this third installment. As the young lovers Knightley’s Elizabeth has gone from being a pampered—albeit feisty—lass to a full-fledged ass-kicking pirate (even if she has clean teeth) while Bloom’s Will once green at the whole hero thing turns into a true leader. Rush as the new and improved Barbossa isn’t nearly as menacing in human form as he was undead but his sparring with Captain Jack over who’s the rightful captain of the Black Pearl makes for some hilarious scenes. Nighy even gets to display a somewhat softer side to Davy Jones as we learn more about the octopus head’s backstory. Hollander (Pride & Prejudice) appropriately oozes villainy while Chow makes a nice addition as the grizzled Chinese pirate lord. Last but not least is Mr. Depp. Thankfully his Jack Sparrow isn’t as cartoonish as he was in Dead Man's Chest. In fact watching him interact with a whole pirate ship full of Jack Sparrow clones is quite something. But with a mixture of pirate swagger sexuality and effeminate mannerisms Jack never really changes—and that’s fine by us. And yes Keith Richards makes a well-placed cameo. That guy was born to play a pirate. Two hours and 45 minutes folks—that’s what you’re in for with At World's End. Even if you are a pirate fan that’s a lot of time yo-ho-ho-ing out at sea. Maybe director Gore Verbinski wanted to make four POTC movies but instead he’s forced to tie up all the loose ends—of which there seems to be an endless supply—in the third installment. At one point just to further things along Verbinski stages a long scene of exposition backstabbing and deal making by cutting between characters pacing around on their respective ships. We get it. Everyone has an agenda and no one can be trusted. To its credit however At World's End still manages to keep your attention with its amazing visuals. The production value and special effects on this trilogy rivals another famous trilogy involving a place called Middle Earth. In At World's End we have: the crowded waterways of Singapore and opulent den of Sao Feng; Shipwreck Cove where an important pirate summit is held; watching how the Black Pearl makes its way from a dry flat sea bed to the ocean AND the way to get from Davy Jones’ Locker back to the world of the living; and of course the final climactic battle at sea. The movie’s long but definitely worth its weight in gold doubloons giving just a whiff of possibility to a fourth one.
In the Dark Ages Arthur (Clive Owen) is the Roman commander of a band of Sarmatian warriors who after losing a key battle to the Romans were forced to join the Empire's Special Forces unit and sent to Britain to defend Roman holdings from the encroaching Saxons and the uprising Britons. Some 15 years later the Romans are pulling out but Arthur and his knights are sent on one final mission for the Empire before returning to Rome--rescue a Roman nobleman and his family from the other side of Hadrian's Wall before they get massacred by the Saxons. As with any final mission things don't necessarily go as planned. With the Saxons on their heels Arthur decides to not just rescue the family but hundreds of slaves at the same time--including Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and her mysterious shaman Merlin (Stephen Dillane) who convince Arthur to join the Britons in their fight against the Saxons instead of going home. Arthur balks until he realizes the Roman Empire has crumbled and he has nothing left to go home to. He leads his knights into the Battle of Badon Hill a clash that proved pivotal to the country's future and started Arthur on his path to become king of Britain.
Knights weren't exactly cuddly lovable guys; in fact the Sarmatian warriors were fearless killing machines--a concept the cast of King Arthur clearly grasps. Owen as Arthur is a brave charismatic leader who never lets his knights down. Owen also adds a smidgen of sensuality to the character a quality that draws others to him including his six knights and Guinevere wonderfully portrayed by Knightley. But with the exception of a brief love scene between the two co-stars the film steers clear of romance and Guinevere's attraction to Arthur seems more about the myth than the man. The young Knightley however stands her ground with the testosterone-laden cast and proves she can act fight and look absolutely spectacular in nothing but harnesses and armbands. Judging by the studio promotion you would think Guinevere is the film's main character but she is only introduced some 40 minutes into the film. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud) is slightly less impenetrable than Arthur and Gruffudd crafts this quality in him by showing a little bit of fear every now and then. The actor gives Lancelot a vulnerability that helps to make the character a bit more human.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and co-writer David Franzoni (Gladiator) call this film the "real" story behind the King Arthur mythology and trim away every ounce of the fantasy you associate with the legend in favor of gritty realism. The story as Franzoni tells it is based on an actual half-British Roman commander named Artorius who fought the Saxons in the 5th century. But setting up the people events and the entire history behind King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table takes time--about 40 precious minutes and that doesn't even include the opening scrawl. Not only is it boring it's confusing. King Arthur however picks up steam when it gets to The Final Mission. At this point Knightley's character Guinevere is finally introduced and Fuqua gets to indulge the audience with an epic battle complete with captivating military strategies and intense fight sequences. Fuqua's sets are also impressive especially the replica of Hadrian's Wall complete with massive gates. But the film's noble set designs cannot make up for the lack of character development that plagues this Arthurian tale. As with Gladiator Franzoni is so preoccupied making the characters in King Arthur ferocious that he forgets we need to care about them too.
The time is the 18th century and with authentic settings steeped in a dense mass of fog Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl succeeds as a predatory period piece. In the Caribbean Sea Pirate Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has just led a mutiny against the Black Pearl's captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) assailed the colonial town of Port Royal and kidnapped the Governor's daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Barbossa's motives are simple: a cursed treasure has doomed him and his crew to live eternally as the "undead " human by day living skeletons by night and the only way to lift this curse is to return the last missing piece of the plundered treasure and spill the blood of its possessor. It so happens that Elizabeth is wearing that very piece around her neck--a gold skull-embossed doubloon she took from her childhood friend Will (Orlando Bloom) whom her father rescued from a sinking pirate ship as a boy. Will promptly sets out to save her from Barbossa and finds an unlikely ally in Jack the bumbling and untrustworthy sea captain who just wants his ship back. But since these ghastly Pirates of the Caribbean can't be killed again sending them to Davy Jones's locker proves to be the challenge of a lifetime for Will and Jack.
It is a delight to see Depp in a new film (his last big feature was the 2001 historical horror thriller From Hell) and Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Jack Sparrow is tailor-made for the former 21 Jump Street teen idol. The most intriguing thing about Depp's Jack Sparrow is the duality the actor gives the character: On the one hand Jack is this lusty fearless man with a deeply defiant streak. On the other his delicate features long dreadlocked hair kohl-rimmed eyes and almost girly mannerisms give Jack a subtly effeminate air that belies his macho antics. Depp who has said he equates 18th century pirates with modern-day rock stars used Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as inspiration for the role and it comes across clearly in his slurred speech swaying swagger and slack waving arms. He obviously had fun and in the process created a rich multifaceted character; in fact Depp's performance here is so riveting that when Jack does not appear in a scene the film almost drags. The movie's co-stars also do a wonderful job with the material but their performances pale in comparison to Depp's. As the old wily Barbossa Rush brings an air of authenticity to the role of a weathered sea captain. The young Knightley who made her big-screen debut in the sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham is enchanting as Elizabeth--a sharp-witted damsel in distress who knows how to hold her own--and the 18-year-old actress also holds her own alongside such an experienced cast. Bloom however is a bit bland as Elizabeth's devoted friend Will.
After his successful horror thriller The Ring director Gore Verbinski gives this supernatural adventure pic less terror and more humor. Inspired by the Disney theme park attraction of the same name and produced by explosion maestro Jerry Bruckheimer Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean unfolds a terrific tale which when combined with superb performances from Depp and the cast and genuine-looking sets makes for a great moviegoing experience. Verbinski pays close attention to detail here especially when it comes down to the costumes hair and makeup and does so by avoiding the usual buccaneer clichés such as eye patches hook hands and peg legs; with their deplorable hygiene and silver-capped teeth the pirates look undeniably real. Take for instance a scene in which Jack is speaking up close to a commodore: The navy officer slightly shrinks back after getting a whiff of his breath and we can understand why. The most challenging scenes for the director however had to be the fight sequences involving the pirates who turn into skeletons when exposed to moonlight. The characters switch back and forth from human forms to carcasses depending on their exposure to night light and Verbinski achieves this visual effect convincingly. But although beautifully executed the elaborate ship-to-ship battle waged between the Black Pearl and the Interceptor is too time-consuming and with the movie coming in at 133 minutes that could have been whittled down.