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.
Casino Royale starts at the beginning as James Bond (Craig) takes his first baby steps as a Double O agent. His first assignment is to track down a terrorist cell in Madagascar but he’s a bit of a loose cannon and things quickly go awry. Bond’s superior M (Judi Dench) is soon regretting giving the arrogant Bond the promotion. Nonetheless Agent 007 takes it upon himself to follow a lead to the Bahamas and discovers that all nefarious dealings point to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) a nasty fellow who has money ties to terrorist organizations. Le Chiffre is planning to raise money in a high-stakes poker game at the Le Casino Royale in Montenegro—and Bond gets in to beat him at his own game. Along with a hefty bankroll M also sends the beguiling accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to keep Bond in check. They are skeptical of each other at first but as the danger escalates it becomes apparent there is a growing attraction—and affection—between them. Natch. Can these two crazy kids make it work immersed in the cutthroat world of international intrigue? Well this is Bond after all—and we know how he ends up. Craig absolutely gets it. Whatever doubts people may have had when Craig was first announced as the new Bond are washed away in the first few minutes of the film. Sure if Casino Royale was anything like the last few Bond movies then maybe the understated Craig wouldn’t have fit in as well. But this is a different Bond. The British actor plays him not as the icon we’ve come to know but as a flawed man warts and all who flies by the seat of his pants isn’t necessarily refined and yes can even fall in love. Craig also raises the acting bar. His brief scenes with the impeccable Dench for example simmer and pop unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Bond film. Danish film star Mikkelsen (Pusher) is quite effective as the main baddie with a particularly gruesome physical malady while the always good Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) shows up as CIA Agent Felix Leiter. The one weak link unfortunately is Green (The Dreamers). She certainly looks the part of a “Bond girl ” but her Vesper is supposed to be whip-smart able to engage in witty banter with 007 and the French actress can’t quite pull it off. Craig needs more of a challenge. Too bad Judi Dench isn’t 30 years younger; she would have been perfect. Casino Royale the first book in the Ian Fleming series is basic Bond 101. Director Martin Campbell--who helmed Goldeneye Pierce Brosnan’s first and probably best foray into the franchise--strips it of all the far-fetched gadgets (save for a few new-fangled PDAs) and over-the-top action sequences leaving just good clean action devoid of any invisible cars armored Russian tanks and the such. Oh wait Bond does use a bulldozer at one point but that comes briefly in the middle of a rather extensive and hair-raising foot chase. It just proves action can be just as riveting without having to completely suspend your disbelief. Casino Royale is also rare in that it shows how Bond became THE James Bond the one we’ve seen in countless movies over the years in the stylish tuxes drinking the martinis driving the Aston-Martins and bedding all the beautiful women. Casino Royale breathes new life into the franchise and one can only hope they can keep up the good work without once again lapsing into the ridiculous.
The catastrophic battles of the Clone Wars are in their final stages as the crumbling Republic--supported by the ever-vigilant Jedi Knights--fight against the Separatist Alliance lead by a particularly nasty half-droid half-alien named General Grievous. Jedi überheroes Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to kill General Grievous and end the war but it isn't easy. Meanwhile Yoda Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and the other Jedi Council members fear for the state of the Republic under the guidance of the nebulously sinister Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). I know what you're thinking "Yeah yeah just tell us how Anakin goes bad." Poor Annie. He still has some serious anger issues which now revolve around his adoring young wife Padme (Natalie Portman) and their unborn child (or children in this case). He thinks he foresees Padme's death and will do anything to keep her safe including listening to Palpatine malevolently whisper promises of immortality and the power of the Dark Side into his ear. Not the best thing for this volatile fellow. Yes Darth Vader will soon emerge and the inevitable duel between the good and the Dark Side is at hand. Get your lightsabers ready.
Happily all the main actors--save for perhaps Natalie Portman as the ineffectual Padme--get a lot more to chew on in this final installment. Christensen is thankfully done being the whining teenager from Attack of the Clones and turns into a brooding conflicted pre-Vader who can't control his anger. Of course he overdoes it a bit with the scowling and evil cold stares but that's OK. It's what the part requires. The love story between Christensen and Portman however is still kind of painful to watch. The two actors look more than a little embarrassed professing their love for one another ("I'm so much in love with you" "No I'm so much in love with YOU!"). And besides bringing back the infamous Leia "cinnamon bun" look Portman isn't given a darn thing to do but fret and pace and rub her pregnant belly praying Anakin will be all right. You'd think after wielding a gun in The Phantom Menace she'd get to do more fighting. Oh well. On the flip side McGregor Jackson and even McDiarmid all get to kick some serious butt in Revenge of the Sith each with their own action-packed fight sequences. Jackson just seems happy to be swinging a lightsaber around. McGregor with the full beard and biting commentary does a nice job setting the stage for the elderly Ben Kenobi to come. And McDiarmid a veteran British stage thesp finally gets his chance to shine as the malicious Palpatine as we see his own transformation into the ultimate evil being he becomes.
Oh George what are you going to do now that it's all over? Of course Lucas has said he is going to redo all the six Star Wars episodes in 3-D as well as produce a TV series which follows the events after Return of the Jedi. Then there's the fourth Indiana Jones movie to look forward to. But Lucas will probably hole back up at his Skywalker Ranch in northern California and dream up even better ways to generate special effects for the big screen. That's what he does best. He truly is an amazing genius at creating visuals and Revenge of the Sith is no exception. From the battle between General Grievous and Obi-Wan to Yoda's clash with Darth Sidious to Obi-Wan's climactic duel with Anakin Sith is simply riveting. The only difficulty Lucas has ever had is with the human element. I'll admit I'm one of those die-hard fans of the original trilogy who had a problem with the lack of an emotional core in the prequels. After writing and directing the first Star Wars (or Episode IV for those counting) Lucas understood then that maybe he wasn't the best choice to write the next two handing the chores off to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. It worked. Big time. Yet with all three prequels (that's Episodes I-III) Lucas did it all himself and his obvious shortcomings are evident. But hey does it really matter how connected you feel to the characters when you've got the Force Jedi Knights evil Darths an ass-kicking little green guy clone armies droid armies Wookiee armies (yeah that's a lot of fur) and an ultimate turn towards the Dark Side? No. But it helps.