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Friday
May202011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I’m a Pirates of the Caribbean apologist. Viewers and critics alike have berated the second and third entries in the franchise, but I defend them on the grounds that they shouldn’t be taken seriously and are simply good, stupid fun. I won’t be doing that for On Stranger Tides. This fourth installment is nothing more than an obvious cash grab, a slapdash resurgence of a franchise that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Those who hated At World’s End are suddenly going to have fond memories of it after watching this.

The movie begins with a familiar face. Gibbs (Kevin McNally) is on trial, though for what I haven’t the slightest clue. He is about to receive his sentencing when suddenly, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) randomly appears in full judge garb, sentencing him to life in prison. Before he knows it, Jack has ditched the outfit and joined him in the carriage that is transporting him off to jail. Jack informs him he has a plan and to just sit tight for a while. Of course, that plan never comes into fruition and next thing they know, they are confronted by the British armed forces. Before much of anything happens, Jack escapes and runs into Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who has been impersonating Jack in another plot point that is never really explained. It turns out she is, but not really (but maybe), the daughter of the famed Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Next thing he knows, Jack is on Blackbeard’s ship and they’re on their way to find the Fountain of Youth.

Like its predecessors, On Stranger Tides doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There are zombified slave people, mermaids that evidently don’t like man-made light, but flock to it nonetheless, and a scene where Jack runs into an old friend who is able to fire a gun and save his life despite being, as far as I could tell, an apparition. Also like the previous movies (particularly the third one), it’s not always clear who is good and who is bad. It never establishes anyone to root for, so you end up rooting for no one.

Although those problems have been a consistency since the second film, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End made up for it with over-the-top action. You were bombarded with so much excitement that you wound up forgetting that you really had no idea what was going on. The ridiculousness was part of its charm. I think back to the end of the third film where multiple ships were circling around a whirlpool in the middle of the ocean, firing cannons at each other while characters swung to and fro and battled each other on top of the ships’ masts. For some reason, On Stranger Tides decides to scale back its action to a large degree. Nowhere will you find the outrageousness of the previous films. Rather, you’ll see little more than your generic on-land swordfights that usually end up going nowhere due to the film’s apparent desire to ensure that very few people, especially the main characters, are actually harmed.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is convoluted, confusing and overstuffed. The funny thing is that at two hours and eight minutes, it’s the shortest Pirates movie yet, but it feels like the longest. It meanders about, introducing new characters that are poorly developed and throwing them in subplots that are uninteresting and, like the human/mermaid romance, very silly. It forces its humor, the actors don’t seem to be into it and it more or less ends up where it began. Even the reliable Depp as the ever amusing Jack Sparrow seems like he’s floating through this, though that could be due to the witless script that gives him nothing funny to say.

The final nail in the coffin comes from the obligatory 3D, which is more useless here than ever before thanks to the overwhelming darkness that pervades the film. This is the darkest movie to utilize the format since Sanctum and, thanks to the tinted glasses, it’s difficult to see much of anything. When you can see, the effect isn’t noticeable. When it is noticeable, it’s nauseating and off-putting. Given all its blunders, there’s really no reason to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It’s hard to imagine even die-hard fans of the franchise will be able to find enjoyment in this.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides receives 1.5/5

Friday
Dec172010

The King's Speech

When December approaches, critics begin to put together their best of the year lists. I personally start early to ensure that I’ll have it done by my own set deadline. But just as I’ve become comfortable with my list, a new movie is screened that puts a kink in my plans. It sets me back, but I’m happy to oblige for a film that is truly worthy. The King’s Speech is this year’s setback.

The film takes place in the mid-30’s and follows the rise of King George VI (Colin Firth) as King of England after the death of his father. At a troubled time in world history, during the ascension of the Nazi threat, King George VI is forced to take to the airwaves and deliver necessary wartime speeches, but there’s a problem. He has a terrible speech impediment that is enhanced when he reads. Wishing to help, his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), seeks out the help of local speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who makes it his goal to work with the new monarch and help him become the voice of England.

The King’s Speech is masterful, a rousing drama that is as captivating in the first frame as it is the last. I hesitate to label it a British period piece because I fear readers may immediately write it off as a bore, but don’t be fooled. This is as good a movie as has been released all year. It features dazzling cinematography, a wonderful screenplay that flows with the greatest of ease and three central performances that are all, in their own way, worthy of accolades. This is a multi-Oscar contender and whatever it wins, it deserves.

The eye-catching shot composition is the first thing you’ll notice as you sit through this wonderful movie. As some incredibly smart people once told me, every shot should tell a story and in that regard, The King’s Speech tells many great ones. The contrast between backgrounds that rest behind certain characters tells much about them. In one early scene, King George VI sits on a couch that is pushed against a wall that is seemingly old, dilapidated and unpleasant on the eye. Its decaying outer skin, however, is the only part you can see. You can’t see the steadfast support beams dutifully holding up the building. Just like that wall, people look at the new king and see only what he has on the outside, bumbling articulation and excessive anxiety. They don’t see the strong, passionate man underneath. It’s a striking metaphor and the movie is filled with them.

If there’s one complaint I can levy towards many films these days, it is for their superfluous nature, throwing scenes in where they are not needed. The King’s Speech avoids this issue entirely. Its pacing is pitch perfect and its nearly two hour long runtime goes by in the blink of an eye. While the scenes not involving the witty back and forth between King George VI and Lionel are less interesting by comparison, they’re still wholly compelling. Not a single one feels unnecessary or out of place.

Of course, even the greatest films have small problems, but any that existed in this one went under my radar until the very end. To say why would be spoiling it (though this is based on real events so you should know it already), so let’s just say that the fact that the country was about to head off to war seemed less important to the characters than the king’s diction, which caused some strange discomfort inside me.

But this story isn’t about the war; it's about the courage and determination of King George VI. It’s hard to fault it for picking a focus and staying on it because every facet of The King’s Speech is meticulously crafted. From the funniest of jokes to the soberest of drama, this is an all around marvelous movie. It may be set in the 30's, but it doesn't get bogged down in old timey rhetoric and even if you are someone who has yet to enjoy a period piece, I guarantee you’ll enjoy this one.

The King’s Speech receives 5/5

Friday
Dec032010

The Warrior's Way

The Warrior’s Way wastes no time in getting to the bloodshed. No more than a minute or two into the film, a decent number of bodies are lying on the ground bleeding out. With a certain humorous tone to it thanks to some witty onscreen text, it seemed like The Warrior’s Way was about to prove itself as a stupid, fun, bloody, action packed adventure that wasn’t going to take itself seriously. But then something happened. Taking a wrong turn somewhere, it skipped the bloody fun and kept the stupid.

South Korean actor Jang Dong-gun plays Yang, our warrior hero. A long time ago, Yang joined a warrior clan with the desire to become the greatest swordsman ever. To do so, he must eliminate all forces in an opposing clan. When we meet him, he has only one target left, a little baby princess. After seeing the life in her eyes, he decides that killing her would be wrong, so he spares her and flees to a run-down village where he meets Lynne, played by Kate Bosworth. He eventually comes to love the place and the people and wishes only to live a normal life, but his decision has made him number one on his clan’s death list and it’s only a matter of time before they find him.

The Warrior’s Way is a movie that needs no story. It needs no character development. It needs no distinct look. It doesn’t even need to be what one would consider good. All it needs is to be fun. Unfortunately, it can’t even live up to that paltry standard. Much like Ninja Assassin, which was released around the same time last year, The Warrior’s Way too often gets bogged down in melodramatic nonsense. We don’t care about the character's pasts. We don't care about what pains they've gone through. We don’t care about a budding romantic relationship. But both movies include all of them and more. However, Ninja Assassin at least managed to deliver some satisfying action complete with some grotesquely bloody violence. The Warrior’s Way doesn’t. In retrospect, Ninja Assassin is looking pretty good.

Once it gets past the admittedly cool opening, it does little more than sit around and provide boring exposition. When the action finally comes around near the end, it’s a slap in the face for those who have waited patiently hoping for a decent payoff. Yang is a master swordsman, so all of his kills happen quickly, most in the blink of an eye. If they aren’t clouded in a dust storm or shown as silhouettes on a wall, you may catch a glimpse of what’s going on, but it’s a one-sided affair. Yang is so quick that his victims never fight back, or even have a chance to. You aren’t watching battles so much as you are massacres.

There are only two true fights in The Warrior’s Way, neither of which are particularly interesting. One occurs between Lynne and her arch-nemesis, Colonel, played by Danny Huston, but its significance is missing is because his character exists for unspecified reasons. It's never explained who he is, where he came from or why he is tormening the village, so you won’t care what happens. The other is the big climax that should remain unspoiled, but I must warn you not to expect much from this either due to its general brevity and poor choreography.

The acting in the film is stilted, the dialogue is inconsequential and nothing is done with the otherwise appropriate cartoony/comic book-esque visual style. Thankfully, The Warrior's Way only runs around an hour and a half, so the torturous experience doesn’t last long, but if you decide to see it, it will feel much longer. One can bet on that.

The Warrior’s Way receives 1/5