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.
This smart remake/update of a 70 year-old play and movie may not win any Oscars but it turns out to be as gorgeously entertaining as its title indicates. Based on the play and 1939 movie of the same name that skewered upper society women of the era writer/director Diane English has kept the bones intact but updated it all to include women of various places in life. Women who are still trying to find love and happiness and above all else female friendship. In their world life seems to revolve around Tanya (Debi Mazar) the gossipy manicurist at the Saks Fifth Avenue Beauty Salon who spills the beans to magazine editor Sylvie (Annette Bening) that her best friend Mary’s (Meg Ryan) Wall Street tycoon husband has been catting around with voluptuous perfume “spritzer girl” Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes). Deciding in tandem with Mary’s other pals--the housewife Edie (Debra Messing) and writer Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith)--to tell Mary Sylvie sparks an incident that sets off fireworks in all their lives with betrayals career crises pregnancy retreats revenge and forgiveness all figuring into the male-less proceedings. The Women’s entire ensemble cast is pure pleasure and it’s exclusively made up of some of the best comedic actresses around. Even all the extras are women but then that’s sort of the joke of the whole premise. Estrogen flows freely in this group led by Meg Ryan as the victimized wife and mother whose husband plays around on her and whose own father fires her from her job. Talk about a tough week! With money lines like her declaration of sexual prowess “I can suck the nails out of a board ” Ryan has some of her best moments in recent years playing nicely off co-star Bening. As Mary’s best friend she’s the workaholic but aging editor of a women’s magazine that’s on the edge of change she can’t seem to keep up with. Bening beautifully reflects the quandary of a career woman who has to watch her back at every moment. Messing and Pinkett Smith round out the fearsome foursome and each gets some choice comic material to play particularly Messing’s histrionics as the pregnant Edie. Suffice to say the inevitable but riotously funny delivery scene is well worth waiting for. Mendes plays the vamp bit for all it’s worth stunning in all her cunning. Mazar though is a bit too laid back as the manicurist with all the secrets. Cloris Leachman delivers some prize one-liners as Mary’s loyal housekeeper and Tilly Scott Peterson is very funny as the Uta the nanny. Carrie Fisher as a gossip columnist and Bette Midler as a tough-talking Hollywood agent make the most of their brief screen time as well but it’s English's Murphy Brown star Candice Bergen who steals the show as Mary’s wise but plastic surgery-addicted mother. A post face-lift scene with Bergen counseling Ryan is priceless stuff. Writer/director Diane English says she spent 14 frustrating years trying to bring this sassy update of Claire Booth Luce’s creation to the screen. Timing is everything and now with female bonding films all the rage The Women circa 2008 could be just the ticket. Certainly it’s strength is the comic savvy of English who spent several seasons on Murphy Brown honing her skills. It pays off here with a talented cast delivering her snappy lines with expert comic timing. Sure even updated as it is The Women still has the creakiness of a vehicle that peaked in 1939 but for whatever reason the old-fashioned craftsmanship still works even in an era where women have gone on to achievements not dreamed about when Luce wrote the play. As a director English is all about protecting her script and it’s the tight pacing of one amusing sequence after another that makes this little trifle sail by right down to the final sight gag. See it.
At least Bewitched has the smarts to reinvent itself contemporizing rather than going for a straight remake. First we meet Isabel (Nicole Kidman) a naïve good-natured witch who wants to give up her supernatural powers to lead a "normal" life--much to the chagrin of her warlock father Nigel (Michael Caine). He doesn't believe she can do it. Neither do we. Then on the other side of town we meet Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) a nearly washed-up actor who's done one too many bad films. To get back on track he decides to do an updated version of the beloved 1960s sitcom Bewitched. As the mere-mortal Darrin Wyatt would be the star of the show not the actress cast as Samantha. In order for that to happen a nobody must play the witch. Lo and behold Jack runs into Isabel who can manipulate her dainty nose in just the right wriggle. He persuades her to take the part while she sees Jack as the quintessential mortal man with whom she can settle down and lead the normal life she so desires. Think it'll work out? (Cue the Bewitched theme song).
We all know Kidman can play complicated and romantic and Ferrell can do comedy. But in Bewitched they each try to do something beyond those skill sets. Unfortunately they can't quite pull it off. Kidman of course is a consummate actress. She can take on just about any character and make it her own including the slightly ditzy eternally cute Isabel. And so she taps into her inner witch once again (like she did in Practical Magic). But trying to remake comedies (like The Stepford Wives) especially something as balls-out as Bewitched doesn't really suit the Oscar winner all that well. And in Ferrell's case he hilariously handles all of Bewitched's improvisational comedic moments as expected. But watching him try to be a romantic leading man is a bit cringe-worthy. I mean if you can make smooching on Nicole Kidman look uncomfortable you certainly aren't doing the job. As far as the rest of the cast everyone is pretty much wasted in one form or another. Caine as Isabel's debonair roué of a father and Shirley MacLaine as the diva-esque actress who plays Bewitched's wonderful Endora have a couple of bright moments but don't get nearly enough to do. The same goes for Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) as Jack's unctuous agent and Kristin Chenoweth (from the Broadway musical Wicked) as Isabel's spirited neighbor. Even Steve Carrell (TV's The Office) as the irascible Uncle Arthur can't offer the right spontaneity. What a shame.
One of Bewitched's saving graces however is writer-director Nora Ephron. She knows romantic comedies having helmed such hits as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail as well as writing the quintessential romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…. Bewitched is right up her alley and she fluffs it up like a pro. Yet overall the film is just too darn silly for its own good. Maybe Bewitched suffers from the whole TV-turned-film phenomena in general. The idea of taking such classic TV favorites and adapting them into feature films continues to prove there isn't a shred of originality left in the studio system. But sometimes the concept works (Starsky & Hutch is one that comes to mind). Fans like me are curious as to how filmmakers will rework the material and are especially interested in who they decide to cast to play those beloved icons. We end up giving each one of these big-screen treatment iterations a chance--and are usually disappointed. Bewitched is no exception. Besides being only mildly entertaining to diehard fans Bewitched's inside jokes will most likely go over the heads of those who can't tell Samantha Darrin Endora Aunt Clara Uncle Arthur or Mrs. Kravitz from the characters on I Dream of Jeannie. Probably best just to own the sitcom's DVD collection instead.
Based on the A.J. Quinnell novel of the same name the story is set in Mexico City where kidnappings have become a business causing panic among the wealthier citizens and making bodyguards a necessity. John Creasy (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA operative/assassin whose past has turned him into a shell of a man comes to the city to visit his old friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken)--and ends up reluctantly taking a job as a bodyguard to nine-year-old Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning) the precocious daughter of Mexican industrialist Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell). For Creasy it just a means to an end and he has little interest in getting to know Pita even though the little girl continually pesters him with personal questions. She eventually gets through however chipping away at Creasy's seemingly impenetrable exterior and opening up his wounded heart. Then just as the two bond bam! Pita is kidnapped. Although seriously wounded during the kidnapping Creasy's inner Fire has been released healing him just enough so that he can track down and kill anyone involved in with or around the kidnapping. As Creasy says "Revenge is a meal best served cold."
Washington puts in a yet another multifaceted tortured performance as ex-assassin Creasy who has a suicidal disposition and drinks excessively to help wipe out bad memories. Luckily for him Creasy is saved somewhat from a fate worse than death when he lets Pita in his heart. Here we see the easygoing Washington we know and love as he and Fanning (I Am Sam) display some genuine chemistry. Not surprising with a pixie face and infectious charm like hers. Yet when the kick-ass Washington emerges--a part the actor dishes out with chilling accuracy--the film suddenly asks you to really suspend your disbelief. Creasy is in a serious world of hurt after the abduction but because he's all fired up he becomes superhuman. That means all he has to do is slap on some gauze bandages so he come out guns a-blazin' as well as periodically soak himself in pools to--what let the blood flow out of his open wounds? Please. Maybe the film should be called Man on Fire Whose Bleeding Gunshot Wounds Won't Stop Him.
Director Tony Scott (Spy Game Top Gun) does an excellent job setting the scenes such as Creasy and Pita bonding or Creasy inflicting his particular methods of torture on his enemies and though he may not be quite as talented as his brother Ridley (Matchstick Men) he does have a specialty--he's all about the action. Man on Fire is at times very much an adrenaline ride especially when Creasy is on the warpath with fast cuts and documentary-style camerawork. Shooting entirely on location in Mexico City the director succinctly captures the city's pollution traffic and cacophony that bombards its citizens heightening the sense of panic and pandemonium at every turn. (One wonders why any wealthy person in their right mind would let their kids live there if there's a likelihood they could get kidnapped--but that's besides the point.) It's the film's plodding underwritten story that fails to keep up with the pace. Creasy has to go through a myriad of corrupt cops and corrupt lawyers (is anyone here not corrupt?) to get to the main kidnapper known only as "the Voice." To do so Creasy elicits the help of a sympathetic newspaper reporter (Rachel Ticotin) and the city's seemingly one honest cop (Giancarlo Giannini) to get information all while still bleeding from his wounds. Enough already. About two-plus hours later we finally get to the end and it's pretty anticlimactic.