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.
Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.
Invincible is Rudy and The Rookie all rolled into one. Set in the mid-‘70s Mark Wahlberg stars as the real-life Vince Papale a blue-collar Philadelphian down on his luck after his wife leaves him. His only solace is playing football with his cronies and rooting for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles who are in a real rut. Newly hired head coach the legendary Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) decides to infuse some new blood into the team by holding open tryouts. All of Vince’s friends think he’d be perfect and urge him to go for it. He does makes it and is soon playing with some of his idols much to their chagrin. I mean who is this punk anyway? Sure he’s got some excellent instincts but can he really be a NFL player with no experience? Yes in fact he can proving to all those regular Joes out there you can live the dream. Yeah yeah. Unfortunately none of the actors really add anything either. Wahlberg is definitely a natural to play this kind of role having already done so in Rock Star. At least in Invincible he gets to show off some of his athletic abilities rather than just his bare chest in black leather pants. But the performance is run of the mill. As is Kinnear who as Vermeil takes on the headaches of turning a losing team into winners all while his supportive wife sweetly reassures him he’s doing the very best he can. Seen it. To their credit some of the supporting actors—including Kirk Acevedo (The New World) Michael Kelly (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Rispoli (Mr. 3000)—paint a convincing picture of genuine camaraderie between local Philadelphians. And Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year-Old Virgin) rounds things out as Vince’s cute love interest (and eventual real-life wife) who knows a few things about football by golly. You’d think Invincible would be a no-brainer feel-good kind of sports flick. It’s based on a real-life person has that whole underdog thing going for it and it’s football. What could go wrong with that? Nothing really besides the fact it’s been done about a hundred times over—and has now been left in the hands of newbies. First-time director Ericson Core a former cinematographer and writer Brad Gann are clearly green doing things by the play book line for line. It’s scary helming a feature film for a big studio like Disney who had such sport hits like The Rookie and Remember the Titans. Perhaps Core wanted to go more out on a limb but was reigned in. Who knows? The football scenes are definitely the highlight and Core handles the action well. I mean you do want Papale to prove himself the natural athlete he truly is and make all his homies proud. But the rest of it is just blah.
Maybe it’s Accepted’s whole getting-into-college experience that grabs you. Most people have gone through it at one point or another--and for those high school seniors who are about to go through it Accepted should ring true for them too. The film revolves around Bartleby “B” Gaines (Justin Long) who has been rejected again and again from the colleges he’s applied to. It’s very frustrating especially with his parents breathing down his neck. So what does the clever B do? Simple: Open his own university the esteemed South Harmon Institute of Technology (of course the acronym is not missed). Juggling the balls delicately in the air B and his other college-less friends forge ahead with maintaining a fake functioning university. But it may take more than just sleight of hand to keep the very free-forum South Harmon going which has now gained quite a name for itself in the short time its been open. A lot more. Long has been turning in hilarious performances as awkward but lovable goofballs in comedies such as Dodgeball and Galaxy Quest--and is probably most recognizable right now as the Mac guy who makes fun of the Dell guy in those Apple computer ads. But the affable actor finally gets his big shot at full-fledged goofball-hood successfully carrying Accepted on his own. As B you quickly warm up to his easygoing yet quietly sarcastic style a method he told Entertainment Weekly he developed under the tutelage of fellow Frat Packer Vince Vaughn. Of course in Accepted Long has some help too. There’s some strong supporting bits especially from comedian and The Daily Show regular Lewis Black as Uncle Ben the university’s neurotic “we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore” make-believe dean. Good stuff. Rounding out the colorful cast is cute-as-a-button Blake Lively (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) playing the girl-next-door B adores who defects to SHI...well you get the picture. You have to admit college-based comedies are usually mindless fun and Accepted is no exception. The premise alone lends itself to all kinds of mishaps and guffaws especially when B and the gang turn a deserted former mental institution into an institution of higher learning. In his directorial debut Steve Pink--best known for co-writing comedies such as High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank--understands this and hits most of the right beats. But unfortunately Accepted can’t keep up its inimitable momentum--as B fights for the school’s unique curriculum as well as its right to exist at all--becoming Revenge of the Nerds meets Animal House meets Old School meets...I could go on forever. Maybe in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker Accepted could have been taken to its own higher level instead of lapsing into standard underdog territory.