The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
From the moment Hailee Steinfeld enters the frame in Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent western True Grit an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (or re-adaptation — John Wayne's 1969 version got to it first) the film belongs to her. This is no easy feat especially for a 13-year-old actress making her feature-film debut but Steinfeld not only holds her own alongside such heavyweights as Jeff Bridges Matt Damon and Josh Brolin she often upstages them.
The film which is set in the 1870s stars Steinfeld as Mattie Ross a pigtailed 14-year-old sent to the frontier town of Fort Smith Arkansas to settle the affairs of her deceased father an honorable man murdered for two gold pieces by a monstrous simpleton named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Mattie also comes seeking justice: Chaney is still at large having escaped to the dangerous foreboding expanse of the Indian Territory and she intends to see to it that he is captured and brought to trial.
Frustrated by the local authorities’ ambivalence toward tracking down her father's killer Mattie turns to Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) a slovenly alcoholic U.S. Marshal renowned for his cruelty and itchy trigger finger. Were there a Miranda warning in 1870s Cogburn would have little use for it; chances are few of his perps would understand it through his grouchy guttural slur anyway.
Pleading to join their makeshift posse is LaBoeuf (Damon) a pompous upright and overly chatty Texas Ranger — the Good Cop to Cogburn’s Bad Cop — who covets Chaney’s Texas bounty which holds more value than his Arkansas bounty. Cogburn agrees reluctantly to take him on recognizing that Chaney now likely holed up with his criminal gang a vicious bunch headed by a spittle-spewing snaggletooth named Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper) is too formidable to approach alone. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are natural rivals and long rides on the trail of Chaney afford them ample time for dick-measuring contests which invariably necessitate the intervention of their teenage mother hen Mattie.
Mattie may be the most mature member of the posse but she is nonetheless still a child — eventually the job of exacting final vengeance must fall upon the men with guns. Here Mattie’s stout heart has an ennobling effect on Cogburn who after briefly giving up during a booze-fueled bout with self-doubt stiffens his resolve to see things through.
Compared to its predecessor the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit is both funnier and less sentimental. There is little room for tenderness or romance on the Coens’ frontier but opportunities abound for the kind of black humor for which the writer-directors have become so famous. As in Fargo they have a great deal of fun with language; characters speak in a laughably rigid formalized manner almost Shakespearian in its tongue-twisting complexity. The film's ironic conceit that such codes thrive in a land ruled by violence and chaos is best illustrated in Mattie’s constant almost charmingly naive threats of legal action against her adversaries. They react to her threats with a kind of befuddled amusement; the phrase "I'll see you in court" is still several decades away from joining the popular lexicon.
Critics often bemoan the abundance of remakes in modern risk-averse Hollywood. A more productive strategy at least for the cause of quality filmmaking might be to properly exalt the better ones. This True Grit may be the best of them combining the look and feel of a classic western with a distinctly Coens brothers tone. And Ms. Steinfeld is nothing short of a revelation.
Australia is like no other movie this year -- or even this century for that matter. It’s heart and soul live in conjuring up memories of the kind of epic movie they just don’t make anymore. The incomparable Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) proves nobody does this kind of thing better. The story begins just at the brink of World War II as a prim and uptight Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels to the distant and uncharted Northern Territory of Australia in order to deal with her husband’s supposed infidelity. When she finds him murdered however the only way she can save their ranch Faraway Downs is to join a strapping “drover” (Hugh Jackman) in driving 1500 head of cattle to the Australian port Darwin where the military can buy them. Trying to interfere with their mission are the evil land baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who are determined to add her ranch to their collection. As inevitable romance rears its head Lady Ashley must also protect a precocious aboriginal kid Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters) a half breed she is determined to adopt before he is turned over to the state for re-education. Meanwhile the Japanese loom closer. Luhrmann provides a grand showcase for a wonderful array of actors from Down Under including Kidman and Jackman. Kidman who has had a recent dry spell in films is back in form as the rigid Brit who is transformed by her visit. It’s the kind of role Katharine Hepburn did so well in movies like The African Queen. Newly crowned People Magazine “Sexiest Man Alive ” Jackman lives up to the title all brawn and bravado the epitome of the rugged cowboy who becomes the dashing hero. Together the two actors steam it up and redefine what it means to be matinee idols. As the half-caste kid Nullah 13 year-old Walters is a marvel and steals the show. Veteran Aussie actors Brown and Wenham (Lord of the Rings) are properly menacing and hateful while the group accompanying Jackman and Kidman are splendid including: legendary Jack Thompson (Leatherheads) as the gregarious over-the-top Kipling Flynn; Drover’s aboriginal partner Magarri (David Ngoombujarra); and the mystical King George (David Gulpilil) Nullah’s grandfather who seems to show up at the oddest times. There can be no question Baz Luhrmann is the most flamboyant old school director working today. After completing his “Red Curtain Trilogy” of musicals including his Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge he goes above and beyond with Australia throwing in everything -- including the kitchen sink. Baz loves old movies and you can tell. Maybe more like Lawrence of Australia this film is a mind-boggling wonder with epic scope and splendor. The spectacular CGI-driven cattle drive and the bombing of Darwin are all done in large strokes. He even throws in an homage to The Wizard of Oz that takes the film to the kind of sentimental heights fans will probably eat up. How contemporary audiences will react to this throwback to Hollywood’s heyday of big brawny cinema is anyone’s guess but the singular vision of Luhrmann is to experience Australia and fall in love with the possibility of grand movies all over again.
In 1966 one story of sports bravery begat another and together they would forever change the face(s) of basketball if not the nation. When Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) accepts a job to coach at Texas Western University he’s forced to recruit several black players instead of highly touted white players due to budgetary constraints and a program that doesn’t exactly match that of that of say Kentucky University. Black players were taboo back then thus turning the team into fodder for hate crimes and ridicule. But Haskins doesn’t allow his players to get caught up in the national furor and they show their allegiance to him by taking any and all aggression out on opposing players on the court the beleaguered players reaching a Zen in which they only hear their coach. They make it to the championship game where they play an all-white Kentucky team in a sort of past-versus-future landmark showdown. Someone out in Hollywood is determined to make Josh Lucas a star—or at least the next Matthew McConaughey. After Stealth failed to do that and everything else he landed another huge role in Glory and it just might be the right fit. Lucas’s No. 1 asset might always be his looks—looks that will at least sustain female viewers’ interest during Glory—but if there is to be a proverbial breakout performance this will be it. Lucas doesn’t quite exude “basketball coach ” even with unrelenting screaming at players but he wears the Southern-isms well and the more dramatic moments reveal his potential. Jon Voight also stars as Adolph Ruff storied coach of Kentucky. Voight’s makeup job places him somewhere between his Howard Cosell in Ali and Nicole Kidman’s make-under in The Hours but he again does justice to a controversial sports legend. Noted TV-commercial director James Gartner makes his directorial debut on Glory but it’s uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer who makes a more lasting imprint on the film—he Bruckheimer-izes it if you will making a sports drama look like Bad Boys at times. Gone are the victorious and uplifting personal stories of oppression overcome in the 1960’s South; superimposed instead are comedic embellishments off-court hijinks and mere snippets of courageous depictions. This admittedly keeps the film flowing but it also in a way trivializes the story’s impact. Gartner ultimately re-creates the basketball scenes amazingly well though which is where the movie truly shines. For that reason it’s a shame Bruckheimer had to impart his glossy stylings at all because it seems like Gartner was doing just fine on his own.
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.