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.
Early on in No Country for Old Men there is a wide-angle shot of an open field in border-town Texas. Gorgeous but menacing it is the very snapshot of “calm before the storm.” One of the men who will momentarily be in the storm’s epicenter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is actually providing us with this view through the scope of his rifle as he stalks the unsuspecting antelope. Even further in the distance a cluster of bullet-ridden trucks catches his eye and so he walks that distance for a closer look. What he finds is a drug deal gone awry and $2 million with his name on it. He scurries away with the cash and without the knowledge he has just turned the devil onto him. Enter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who some know as the devil or as a ghost or as the bogeyman or not at all and whose blood money Llewelyn just intercepted. There are crazy-serial-killer types and then there is Anton a murderer whose blood is so cold that he derives only apathy from taking a life—which has afforded him a very successful career as a hitman. Once word gets out that Anton is after Llewelyn a third man enters the fray—an aging policeman (Tommy Lee Jones) loath to draw his gun in the small town he has manned for years let alone hunt down a lunatic. So the tango begins with Llewelyn unwittingly carrying a transponder through which Anton can track him and Anton wittingly leaving a path of bodies through which the lawman can track him. It takes a cast like the one in No Country to pull off what the Coen brothers demand of their actors—which is to say acting that transcends dialogue delivery. Take Bardem’s villain for example a man(iac) of few words. The Oscar nominee whose Anton is fear-inspiring on first look says as much with his impassive demeanor and lack of swagger as he does with his terse literal dialogue. But when he does speak it makes the words stick that much more; a scene in which he introduces the word “Friend-o” into the cinephile lexicon will have you sweating and chuckling—nervously. His is the type of psycho that’s as entrancing and potentially iconic as Hannibal Lecter. As the guy on the run so to speak Brolin is this movie’s version of the good guy though that doesn’t exactly compel you to root for him. Brolin instead like Bardem conveys what isn’t spoken--in his case logical fear that is stupefied by virility and money hunger. It marks another great performance for Brolin whose 2007 has been full of them. Jones meanwhile could not have been a more perfect casting choice to provide No Country’s voice of reality its Mr. Righteous. His aging overmatched cop doesn’t even get harmed but still might be the movie’s lone true victim thanks to the eloquent but stoic performance of Jones who also serves as narrator. And Woody Harrelson in a small speedy role shows zest we haven’t seen in a long time. Joel and Ethan Coen have always worked best in the dark be it comedy or drama. With No Country they’ve reached their peak darkness in both genres. The movie is often something of an exercise in subtle pitch-black comedy—perhaps the only way in which it strays from its source material a wildly beloved novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy—detectable only by those who pay close attention to and/or are familiar with the Coens. But it’s the suspense here that differs from their entire oeuvre and all of their contemporaries. With virtually no music long periods of silence and positively nothing extraneous the directors create tension via minimalism: Chase sequences are done mostly on foot and conclude intimately and gruesomely with one scene featuring Brolin and Bardem separated by a hotel-room door proving especially suspenseful damn near Hitchcockian. But No Country isn’t all about the chase; in fact it's about the Coens' originality and how they inject it to keep this from being a “chase” movie. It's an instant classic—a horrifying funny suspenseful masterpiece that could only have come from these two filmmakers.