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.
After a particularly rough jamming session Metallica frontman James Hetfield warns his bandmates that he's in a "shitty mood " which basically means he's about to become one extremely uncooperative guy. Metallica formed by Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich in 1981 have been through their share of problems in the past two decades and it's not surprising to see them bickering like an old married couple. But as the film reveals their issues are far more complex than some matrimonial spat and the group is ready to shell out $40 00 a month to Phil Towle a therapist and performance enhancement coach to help them work through their differences and hopefully St. Anger--Metallica's first studio album in six years. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster documents this two-year struggle which begins when Hetfield checks himself into rehab to sober up and leaves the band in limbo for almost a year. They eventually regroup and after a few more clashes record arguably their finest album since 1984's Ride the Lightening. This documentary covers everything about the band including Ulrich's public bout with Napster that resulted in a fan backlash the group's struggle to replace bassist Cliff Burton who was killed in a 1986 bus crash in Copenhagen and how to get rid of the increasingly controlling Towle once they've been "cured."
Hetfield and Ulrich share the spotlight in this documentary which ironically is also the root of Metallica's problem--the constant tug of war between the two members for control of the group. Take Hetfield's post-rehab return to the studio: In order to keep his sobriety in check the singer must stick to a regimented schedule which includes limiting work hours from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily. This irks Ulrich who says Hetfield's demands are just a manipulative way of asserting his power over the group. But it's interesting to see how the presence of cameras as well as Towle affects the two's interaction. Rather than lash out at one another they express their anger politely. "I'm not enjoying being in the room with you playing " an annoyed Hetfield passively tells Ulrich after a hot disagreement over a tune. The underlying issue for Ulrich however becomes clear when he discusses former guitarist Dave Mustaine who joined the band in '82 and was booted a year later. Ulrich laments that he and Hetfield use to be close even declaring their love for one another after some 42 beers--until Mustaine came between them. Flying under the radar in this film is guitarist Kirk Hammett who prides himself on being the ego-less member of the band.
Documakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky use their no-nonsense approach to filmmaking to deliver a straightforward documentary devoid of the usual narration and artistic cinematic effects and whittle away 715 days worth of footage into a 135-minute film. Although it's a bit on the long side it works nonetheless thanks to the documentary's participants who put themselves out there emotionally for the world to see. And while the filmmakers detail the inspiration behind various songs from St. Anger the charm lies more in their personal trials and tribulations than their creative ones. But will Metallica's attempt to bare their souls win back the fans they lost because of Ulrich's attack on Napster? On May 3 2000 Ulrich showed up at Napster's headquarters with the screen names of 350 000 users who had downloaded their songs and demanded each be removed from the online song-swapping aid. But in their fight to bring an end to Napster Ulrich and the band alienated fans who were quick to point out that Metallica benefited from the circulation of bootleg copies of their albums early in their career. Looking back Ulrich comments the Napster thing made him "the most hated f***ing ass in the history of rock 'n' roll " but doesn't elaborate beyond that. Berlinger and Sinofsky then show Ulrich making a cool $5 million off his oil-on-canvas paintings through Christie's which makes the drummer's Napster fight look so damn petty. Even more interesting than the auction's bottom line is Ulrich's reasoning for selling the work that adorned the walls of his home for years: To wipe the slate clean.
Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) are throwing a summer barbecue at which their lone prodigy Frank (Nick Stahl) is proudly showing off his summer romance. Ruth vehemently disapproves: Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is an older single mother of two who is not quite divorced from the dark abusive Richard Strout (William Mapother) whose family runs their town of Camden Maine. For Frank Natalie is someone to keep the pipes greased before he heads off to study architecture at graduate school in the fall. Maybe. Frank is thinking of getting serious with Natalie and ditching school if Natalie would have him but there's that not quite ex-husband to deal with. The not quite ex-husband ends up killing Frank (this is supposed to be a plot twist but is the only action in the first two hours of the movie) which leads to much soul searching for Matt and Ruth--the raison d'etre of the movie.
With all due respect to Spacek who's been receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for her turn it's really Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty Wilde The Patriot) who gives the most outstanding astonishing performance in this film. Matt's stilted missteps at each and every turn are so human so real you empathize with the pain he's feeling while you cringe at his every inappropriate action. An Academy win for Wilkinson seems more than merited though likely won't happen. Marisa Tomei is as good as she's ever been in the role of Frank's lover Natalie. The emotional tug-of-war in her relationship with Nick is clear on her face and the distress of never getting Ruth's approval is deafening. Spacek has a hard time claiming even the second-best performance of the film but she is compelling as Ruth the kind-hearted high school teacher who's become more closed and unforgiving than she ever imagined. You can see Spacek shutting down as her world crumbles around her. William Mapother and Nick Stahl do fine jobs with their (relatively) limited characters especially Mapother who is sufficiently creepy and desperate as Natalie's husband.
An actor turned director Todd Field wastes the fine performances in his debut film. Field seemingly likes to impart significance in the mundane moments of real life which works only sporadically. Field's direction is similar to Matt's reaction to his son's death: all of his actions seem stiff and mannered and when he does do something appropriate it's a complete accident. Worse Field leaves no room for character development only letting the characters descend further and further into despair ultimately turning the film into an art house Death Wish. (With apologies to Charles Bronson.) Given the supposed strength of the Maine proletariat it would have nice to see Matt and Ruth Fowler struggle against their evil inclinations before giving in so completely. Under Field's helming the film flounders at inopportune moments rendering the story utterly meaningless.