Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I own a thesaurus too, my fellow critics; and I know how to use it. But I'm going to leave it on the shelf for my review of the fourth PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN installment for the simple reason that if I actually make the effort to walk the 30-or-so feet from my office to the bookshelf where my thesaurus sits, I will officially have expended more energy on that task than most people involved in the making of ON STRANGER TIDES did making this movie. I can't remember the last time so many hundreds of people worked so hard on a movie for such mediocre results. It's as if the collective goal was to be stupendously average. While I am not using my thesaurus for this review, I am selecting my words carefully. ON STRANGER TIDES is "average" beyond compare. It is not horrible, gut-wrenching, painful, god-awful or a plague upon humanity. It is simply a textbook example of putting in the maximum effort for the absolute minimum in entertainment.
I'm going to repeat a statement I made about a year ago regarding 3D, converted or otherwise. The greatest, universal issue I (and millions of others) have with 3D is that it makes the world (and the movie) a darker place, literally. It kills a hefty percentage of the light reaching your eyes. So, if you are going to set 75 percent of your film in relative darkness (I'm talking to you, PRIEST), 3D is virtually useless. With ON STRANGER TIDES, which was shot in 3D, the sequences set during daylight hours or just well lit look stupendous. But much of the film takes place in reduced lighting situations, and the result is, well, shite. I'm not here to debate the merits of 3D, just to say that if you studios are going to continue giving us 3D movies, at least give us something to look at. End sidebar.
For reasons I can't quite explain, ON STRANGER TIDES had the struggling energy of a NATIONAL TREASURE movie rather than a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN entry. Thank you, Jerry Bruckheimer. I guess. The action set pieces felt especially artificial in terms of stunts and production design. And as much as this film was supposed to be starting anew with its stand-alone storyline, it sure did seem like a part whenever a familiar old face showed up on screen. Keith Richards is on screen about a minute longer than he was in the previous film, Kevin McNally's Gibbs is the sole remaining Black Pearl crew member along for this ride, and Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa returns, this time working for the king's navy... at least until he's not.
If you can ignore all of the false starts, useless sideplots, and the unsatisfying ending (including an after-credits tag), the plot to ON STRANGER TIDES is remarkably simple: everybody wants to get to the Fountain of Youth first. A couple of the characters, including Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, know the way, so the race is on. I will admit, on paper, I like the idea of Ian McShane shouting and sneering his way through this film as Blackbeard, with his faithful sidekick Scrumm (Stephen Graham, who plays Al Capone on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"). I was even pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard's daughter Angelica (anyone complaining about not being able to understand her English through her accent needs to get the shit out of their ears). Cruz seems to be the only one actually having fun at being dangerous.
As much as I think introducing psychotic, man-eating mermaids into the Pirates universe is a great and noble idea, saddling the main mermaid character, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), in a subplot involving a possible romance with a young clergyman (Sam Claflin) kills any form of momentum the film might generate in its back half. But my biggest problem with ON STRANGER TIDES, believe it or not, is Depp himself. I'm not talking about his performance--some people say Sparrow seems less wobbly or Depp's accents goes in and out; I didn't notice it--I'm talking about how he's featured in the film. He's taken on the role of hero, and it doesn't work. Even the potentially devious tricks he plays on those who dare to trust him don't pan out. He's being too nice a guy here, and it drains the fun from the movie.
And does Jack Sparrow really need a love interest? I've always enjoyed the fact that Sparrow has kind of a bi-curious vibe to him (he does wear a lot of lace), but to have him in full flirtation mode seems desperate and creepy. If I'm reading between the lines correctly, he deflowered Angelica when she was underage. Remember that, parents, when you pile the kids into the mini-van this weekend to see this movie. And I'm not saying that Depp and Cruz don't make a handsome couple, but neither character benefits from them being in a hostile romance.
It seems too easy to fully blame new director Rob Marshall (stepping in for Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three installments). I'm not exactly sure what Marshall's credentials are (CHICAGO, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, NINE) to let anyone think he could handle an action-oriented piece of this scale. But his involvement seemingly brings nothing visually inventive or anything exceptional to the performances or pacing of this work. I truly hope if they make two more of these back to back, Marshall isn't the one behind the camera. Here's hoping Bruckheimer & Co. go the HARRY POTTER (or dare I say, the TWILIGHT) route and get a different creative force as director for each of the films. A boy can dream.
I'm not really that broken up about the fact that the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films have officially gone from bad to worse. I was not a person who was biting his nails down to nubs in anticipation of ON STRANGER TIDES. Still, when you bring in a new director, one does get curious how the tides will turn, doesn't one? The mystery is revealed. I will admit to being genuinely confused as the bile and rancor that this film has inspired in so many critics. It's like they've been waiting all year to find a big-budget film they can unload their pent-up frustrations upon, and this one seemed to fit the bill. Make no mistake, the movie is very bad; but you have to have a certain amount of passion for even the films you hate immensely, and ON STRANGER TIDES simply didn't stir those kind of feelings in me. My advice, everyone stay home this weekend and sort your sock drawers instead of seeing this one. That sounds far more exciting that this movie.
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