Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, or "Or how a change in directors can’t utterly change the feel of a series… for the worse."

(Another good review from Nick Michael. Check it out, show it some love!)

So… Cap’n Jack Sparrow is back.

We all knew it was coming. For years Disney has been tempting the flock and baiting the fanboys with news that Rob Marshall would be taking the helm over from Gore Verbinski (a strange choice/transition to me). Sure, Ted Elliot would still get writing credit and perennial fan favorites Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush (not to mention Kevin McNally as Gibbs) would return, but… well… the spark is gone.

The original Pirates movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl was a neat, self-contained adventure.  There were two pirate captains at war with each other, jockeying for position by moving pawns across the sea. These pawns were, of course, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, as well as the undead pirate crew and His Majesty’s Navy (featuring the oddly funny Pintel/Raghetti and Mullroy/Murtogg comedic duos, respectively). Within the bounds of magical realism established in the attack on Port Royale (which created the impetus driving the story forward for much of our cast), a willing suspension of disbelief is maintained both with levity and horror given to us through both dialogue and special effects.

With the second and third films, basically made as one (and, as such, should probably be presented as one as well), the crew had to follow the demand to ‘kick it up a notch’ as it were. With the skeletal undead pirates already been and done, the up that was kicked had to become undead SEA MONSTER pirates. And, yes, okay… suspension of disbelief began to stretch a bit here… but they were trying to keep it all together and contained. Sure, they sail beyond their namesake ‘Caribbean’ to ports in Asia and beyond, but the new elements, locations and characters are all introduced with style and panache. Even Keith Richards as Jack’s father Teague (whom, before snippets of On Stranger Tides came out, we all thought to be the analog for the dread pirate Blackbeard) is given suitable menace and gravitas in his scenes thanks to the combination of both acting AND cinematography (something his character lacks in the fourth movie).

The point I’m trying to make, as I’ve gone on and on a bit, is that there is consistent tone and method throughout the first three films and I’d like to attribute it to Verbinski and his crew that seems to be absent in On Stranger Tides with Marshall. Sure, they make the attempt in Pirates 4, in that everything pretty much looks the same, but the feel of about everything is just… off… and far enough to cross the threshold from ‘Great’(Black Pearl) to ‘Goodish’ (Pirates 2/3) to the present ‘Meh.’

Two very important facts hold On Stranger Tides down: major story arcs do not serve their purpose to keep us interested and the little things that made the previous movies fun are absent or replaced by subpar Jonny-come-latelys.

Jack and Barbossa are in a race with Blackbeard (and occasionally the Spanish Armada, more on that later) to find the Fountain of Youth (the map to which was part of subplots galore from the previous movie).  Seems there’s a prophecy of doom on his part, yadda yadda yadda. Penelope Cruz is Blackbeard’s daughter and Jack Sparrow’s love interest. There’s a young couple in moral/mortal peril. Et cetera, et cetera, it’s all very rote… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it forces us to absorb quite a bit about the new cast with very little time or artful device.

For example, Penelope’s dread pirate Angelica is introduced in a swordfight half with Jack, half with British redcoats. It’s obvious from trailer #1 she was going to be Jack’s foil/love, but everything that could have made her interesting is a matter of tell, not show. Her time in a nunnery, her fall into debauchery and piracy thanks to Jack’s intervention, all things that could have been given to us on screen via a prologue chapter (such as Young Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan’s opener in the first movie). Instead it’s boring dialogue from her own mouth or Jack’s (and a prologue chapter with superfluous Spaniards).

Then there’s the missionary Swift and mermaid Syrena, obvious replacements for youthful star-crossed lovers from the previous trilogy, Will and Elizabeth, who are introduced and used rather sparingly. They’re but bit players filling main character shoes and aren’t given enough screen time to allow their arcs to mature naturally. Instead, they are pushed out of the way by Jack’s story, and their respective falls from grace and redemptions feel pasted on as an afterthought, leaving plot holes that can only be filled by a fifth movie.
So, for as far as major story arcs, you can see we already have trouble.

Then we have the detail work.

Previously, in the background there were plenty of interesting characters to pad the scene transitions. The aforementioned Pintel and Raghetti went from goofy, but still menacing, villains to on-again/off-again allies/enemies. They were a fun comedic duo who added levity and continuity to the crew (as there’s only so many one-liners and tall tales that Gibbs can tell before you’re bored with him). They are strangely absent in On Stranger Tides, assumed lost with the Pearl along with Barbossa’s leg. Instead Stephen Graham is thrust into the role as the only crewman to care about. Apologies to Graham, but he can’t cut it. And, instead of being menacing, Tide’s Keith Richards cameo has lost all his grit and is just an exposition pusher. Sure he filled that role in World’s End, but it feels less effective here… no shrunken heads or out of nowhere violence. Sure, he still shoots a man, but in an arguably valiant act as opposed to the much more interesting punitive strike from his World’s End scene. It sucks the life out of the character’s image and presence.

The Spanish? They’re supposedly interesting enough to helm the prologue chapter, but only deserve a brief shot mid-movie and a convenient climax re-insertion. I mean, seriously, how many factions do you need? Granted previous Pirates movies could be just as convoluted, faction-wise (particularly in World’s End when the entirety of the pirate lords were in attendance towards the climax), but when you can’t even fit them in save for a brief shot every hour or so? They’re certainly no East India Trading Company.

And finally, the magic is all over the place and loses its luster when it’s thrown at the camera left and right. Blackbeard’s magic sword, the zombies (really, why DIDN’T Blackbeard just make the whole crew zombies?) and voodoo, the fountain’s chalices, mermaids on dry land with spiderman-esque capture webs, the “corpse” of Ponce d’Leon, an armada of ships in bottles, Barbossa’s bottle of poison-arrow frogs (which, I admit, isn’t magical… but is introduced late and used late for a cheap climax device). To me, it was like they took every possible sea related magical cliché and threw them in a blender. At least, in the previous films, there was consistency… pretty much one magical theme at a time. Here? Anything goes.

The devil’s in the details and too many of said details were poorly used and hurt the film.

Now… I feel I’ve done the film a disservice. Overall, Pirates 4 is a pretty decent early summer blockbuster. It’s certainly well above previous summer fair (*cough*Transformers 1/2*cough*) and I did enjoy it, for the most part. It’s just… well, when you set a bar high in your mind and it isn’t met, you feel hollow and disappointed. It’s like watching the Phantom Menace again… as if innocence has be lost and crass commercialism wins out over style and panache. Hum, ah well.

Still… if you haven’t seen it in theaters, you could do much worse (I hear there’s another Tyler Perry film out and about), though you could do much better (such as with Hangover 2). So if you’re in the mood for a fairly easy to digest adventure that suffers quite a bit from the transition from Verbinski to Marshall, I say go for it. Or wait for DVD. Either way’s fine.

Nick Michael

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