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.
Perhaps Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should have been a trilogy. Splitting the sprawling finale to author J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga into three parts — as opposed to its chosen two-part incarnation — might have come across as shameless profiteering (admittedly a not-uncommon practice in this town) but it wouldn’t have been without merit. At 759 pages Rowling’s source novel is said to be a rather dense work plot-wise; surely it could have easily warranted another installment?
I only say this because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 though certainly a decent film clearly strains from the effort required to fit the book’s proceedings into a two-act structure. While Part 2 slated to open approximately six months from now is alotted the story's meaty parts — namely the spectacular Battle of Hogwarts and its emotional denouement — Part 1 must bear the burden of setting the stage for the grand confrontation between the forces of Light and Dark magic and framing the predicament of its three protagonists teen wizards Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in suitably dire terms. And it's quite a heavy burden indeed.
As the film opens the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) having assumed control over Hogwarts since the events of the preceding film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has wasted no time in initiating his reign of terror. As far as historical evil-dictator analogues are concerned Voldemort appears partial to the blueprint laid by Stalin as opposed to that of his genocidal pact-pal Hitler. Enemies of the Dark Lord's regime are prosecuted in dramatic show trials presided over by the Grand Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) while muggles (non-magic folk) and half-bloods are denounced as "undesirables" and “mudbloods” in Soviet-style propaganda posters and forced to register with the authorities.
As the only viable threat to Voldemort’s dominion Harry and his allies are hunted vigorously by Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and her goon squad of Death Eaters. The Boy Who Lived now fully grown and in more or less complete command of his powers is still no match England's nasally scourge. Labeled "Undesirable No. 1" by the Gestapo-like Ministry of Magic he's is forced to go on the lam where he labors along with Ron and Hermione to solve the riddle of Voldemort’s immortality.
For those not well-versed in Rowling’s source material the film’s opening act is a frustrating blur: After an all-too-brisk update on the bleak state of affairs in Hogwarts we are hastily introduced (or re-introduced) to a dozen or so characters the majority of whom are never seen again. A few even perish off-screen. Had we gotten a chance to get to know them we might be able to mourn them as our heroes do; instead we’re left racking our brains trying to recall who they were and how they figured in the plot.
Rowling's flaws as a storyteller — the over-reliance on deus ex machina devices (in this case we get both a doe ex machina and a Dobby ex machina) the ponderous downloads of information (not unlike those of that other uber-anticipated and somewhat overrated 2010 tentpole Inception) the annoying ability of characters to simply teleport (or "disapparate") away from danger etc. — are more evident in this film than in previous chapters. And rather than obscure these flaws director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves both franchise veterans arguably amplify them.
What saves the film are Rowling's three greatest achievements: Harry Ron and Hermione who along with the actors who play them have evolved beyond the material. The film's narrative gains its emotional footing during the heroic threesome's exile ostensibly a series of camping trips — with tents and everything — during which they reflect on their journey together the challenge that awaits them and the sacrifices it will require. Though they occasionally verge on tedious these excursions into Gethsemane allow us precious quality time with these characters that we've grown to adore over the course of seven films even if the plaintive air is spoiled a bit by some rather puzzling attempts at product placement. In their rush to flee the Dementors and Death Eaters it seems that they at least took care to pack the latest in fall fashion:
As devout readers of Rowling's novels know all too well the only foolproof shield against Voldemort's minions is the Bananicus Republicum charm.
Our fair maiden Sydney (Amanda Bynes) doesn’t have coal-black hair or sing with a sweet voice or have woodland creatures following her around. Instead the tomboy grew up on construction sites with her widower dad (John Schneider) a plumber who guided Syd as best he could. But now the time has come for the gorgeous freshman to head to Southern Atlantic University to pledge her late mom’s once-dignified sorority where she meets this story’s version of the Wicked Queen: the vain and evil Rachel (Sara Paxton) president of the sorority. Let’s just say Sydney does not fit in and Rachel sends the soon-to-be fairest of them all to the curb. Luckily there’s a condemned frat house right next door with seven very socially challenged guys--each with a familiar "Dwarf"-like quality. They take Sydney in and soon with the help of one love-struck frat boy named Tyler Prince (Matthew Long) she and the seven doofuses campaign to take over the student government—and push out the Greek system that has ruled for too long. Tween sensation Amanda Bynes knows exactly where her bread is buttered. With star vehicles such as What a Girl Wants She's the Man and now Sydney White the comic actress keeps playing slightly different versions of the same character: a pretty if goofy and klutzy young woman whose vivaciousness usually changes everything for the better. And whether her fluff movies grate or not you can’t fault Bynes who clearly knows what works for her. Paxton (Aquamarine) is perfectly predictable as the mean girl as is Long as the Prince. But the seven guys playing the nerds do a nice job of reinventing their dwarfishness be it sneeziness sleepiness bashfulness dopeyness—you know the rest. The only dork who didn’t quite mesh with his inner-“Dwarf” was the one called Spanky (Samm Levine) who is more horny than “Happy.” I guess in the fairytale there really isn’t a Lusty dwarf even though you’d think at some point at least one of them must have had a few untoward thoughts about Snow White. They were little but still men. We’ve seen countless Cinderella redos but for a modern retelling of the classic fairy Snow White Sydney White isn’t half-bad--there it’s been said. It's got all the trappings of a college comedy but some of it works. Don’t however give credit to director Joe Nussbaum whose only other movies include the dud Sleepover and the direct-to-DVD American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile. He pretty much directs by the numbers. No it’s first-time screenwriter Chad Creasey who is the clever one. For example the poisoned apple is translated into a virus sent to Sydney’s Mac laptop. And when the dorky seven march in a line past Rachel and her crew holding picket signs one of the guys says “Hi ho!” For a film as pedestrian as Sydney White laughing out loud even once means something. It’s certainly not going to wow anyone besides girls ages 8-14 but Sydney White will make the perfect third in the Amanda Bynes comedy DVD set.
Monster chronicles a year in the life of one Aileen Wournos for whom the description "downtrodden" is an understatement of the 'nth degree. Wournos is infamous for being the first recognized female serial killer in recent U.S. history and was executed in 2002 for killing seven men between 1989-90 (self-defense she said). Unwanted unloved and largely abandoned by her family in her early teens Wournos became a drifter turning to prostitution along Florida's highways first for acceptance then for sustenance. As this movie tells it with a lifelong history of receiving only abuse and contempt at the hands of nearly every male with whom she came into contact it's clear the very least little thing could push her already unstable mental state right over the edge. That little thing came in the form of one Selby Wall. Wall (a lesbian) comes on to Wournos (not one) at a bar one night with a few kind words: "You're so beautiful you must have men falling all over you " at which point you wonder what planet she's on. An awkwardly fumbling sex scene or two later and off they go on a bizarrely codependent road to ruin that takes them on the run--Wall from her conservative family Wournos from the law as she discovers after one particularly brutal encounter that killing men for their money is quicker easier safer and more profitable than screwing them for it.
Much is being made about Charlize Theron's transformation into Wournos and with good reason. To say she looks like a cross between Jon Voight and William H. Macy is being too hard--on the guys. With her baby blues turned into bottomless brown pools; baby face into pocked sagging jowls; even white teeth into grayish tombstones; and flaxen bob into dishwater blonde '70s-era feathered crop Theron so wholly transforms from bombshell Hollywood star to white-trash hooker it's a more frightening sight than Paris Hilton's night-vision humpathon. Well OK not that frightening. It isn't just Theron's looks that are Wournos from head to toe however; it's as if Theron was channeling the killer her performance (barring a few instances of exaggeration) is that eerie. On some level you're always conscious you're watching Charlize Theron model-turned-actress underneath all the makeup and one wonders if the entire film would have worked better starring a complete unknown . But by the time the credits roll even if you've never heard of or seen Wournos before you'll feel like you knew her personally after watching Theron swagger cuss fight and kill her way through the Sunshine State. In a weird yet rewarding casting choice Christina Ricci effortlessly embraces her role as the lonely and innocent yet ultimately whiny and manipulative galpal Wall.
Had Theron's performance and ungodly appearance not packed such a wallop this movie about a year in the life of a serial killer could have come and gone--truth be told it's an unredeeming look at the tragic end of a completely wasted life from the viewpoint of the loser who wasted it. From the victimizing encounters Wournos has with almost every male she runs across to the calculating machinations of her treacherous girlfriend director Patty Jenkins practically screams "Poor me!" for Wournos from the grave. Though the movie's title refers to the main character it might as well apply to everyone else as the killer comes off more sympathetic than most of her hapless victims who didn't deserve to die just for picking her up on the highway. Opinions about cause and effect aside the moviemaking itself is not up to par. Very little is given to explain Wournos' character other than a few flashback scenes that seem more cursory than anything and are punctuated with a distracting voiceover that tries to replace missing pieces of story--such as why for chrissakes Selby is so attracted to Aileen. For a movie in which the lesbian factor is so important Jenkins ultimately lacks the courage to "go there " pulling back on the whole sex thing and spending far too much time on a weak love story that never really makes much sense.