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.
There are two ways to judge Dan Rush's directorial debut Everything Must Go. You can look at the film itself and/or you can grade star Will Ferrell’s performance. To explain my rating I would give the actual film 4 stars while Ferrell’s performance earns a solid 5. Since they go hand in hand the average represents my rating: 4.5 stars.
The film follows Ferrell as a recovering alcoholic who relapses
after losing his job. He comes home to find that his wife has left him and
put all of his stuff on their front lawn prompting his decision to live on his yard. But local laws prohibit that (and some
neighbors don’t approve) so he is forced to turn the whole thing into a yard sale within
five days. If you can spot the metaphor between the things on the lawn
and his troubles congrats! You’ve cleared Metaphors 101. We’ll cover
similes next week. Anyway living on the lawn causes Ferrell to look
back and ponder over his life decisions. Helping him along the way is
newcomer Christopher Wallace (Biggie’s son) the precocious child that
helps teach him a lesson. Again a more overused cliche couldn’t be
found but it’s done right and Wallace is a joy to watch on screen.
Rebecca Hall as the pregnant neighbor who befriends Ferrell while he's camping on the lawn is a pleasant surprise as well holding her own against the star's incredible energy.
On Ferrell’s performance: It's by no means revolutionary for the craft of acting but is a breakout turn for the funny man. A more traditional dramatic actor could’ve lazily walked through the script and come out fine on the other end but Ferrell's portrayal is stark raw and real. You know the Will Ferrell scream? Imagine someone doing that not because it's funny but because it's their only means of expressing emotion. That’s what he does in this movie. He took the energy he employs in his comedies to reach new manic heights and channeled it into the darkest corners of the human psyche. The closest thing we can compare it to is Stranger Than Fiction since it's his only other dramatic role worthy of note (in that it's something most people know about and can compare to) but that film had a strong narrative hook that took care of all the whimsy so Ferrell could just be “normal.” Everything Must Go doesn’t have the benefit of that hook so Ferrell jumps headfirst into the pits of human emotion. I highly doubt it’ll garner him any award nominations but it was pleasing to see that he can actually act. And in hindsight it makes the crazy Ferrell that much funnier.
Onto the actual film: a fairly standard black comedy and that is by no means an insult. Standard can be good as long as it’s handled well and director Rush treads through the narrative carefully. The story jumps around a bit as the characters get the inspiration they need to move on to the next plot point awfully quickly but that affords cinematographer Michael Barrett more time to capture the beautiful South West landscape. Though there isn’t anything amazing about the film it is solid movie executed really well. A refreshing change of pace for Ferrell and a delightfully dark change of mood in the doldrums of the summer blockbuster.