Friday, March 22, 2013

Film Friday: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Ok, so why am I reviewing this film? Am I going to tell you that this film is actually a hidden gem? Hardly. Have I found some moment of deep meaning within it? Nope. What I have found, however, is a film with some really interesting elements that just get horribly misused because the film lacks focus. That makes this film worth discussing.

Pirates of the Caribbean. Hmm. What can we say about Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise? Well, the first film was actually quite brilliant. What appeared to be nothing more than another lazy summer blockbuster provided one of the tightest and most original stories in years. It included amazing effects, great sets, tremendous writing with moments of intense cleverness, and fantastic acting. It was such a strong movie that it spawned a franchise that has run much longer than the sequels deserve.

Then came Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest. Nothing about this film worked and it proved irredeemable except as a gateway to the third film, Pirates of the Caribbean III: At World’s End, which came close to recapturing the glory of the first film except for one giant caveat: At World’s End’s story was tight and interesting and original, the acting was good, and the visuals were fantastic, but every single scene in that film ran one line of dialog too long. For whatever reason, the filmmakers tried to throw a moment of comedy at the end of each scene, like Lucas did with Anakin in Phantom Menace ("oopsies"), and in the process turned brilliant scenes stupid. Moreover, they stupidly handed over the last forty minutes to the special effects nerds and told them to bore people to death. Lop off the CGI ending and the pointless attempts at humor, and this would have been a truly inspired film. In fact, I’m so sure of this that I keep meaning to one day edit the movie myself to achieve this.
With that backdrop, we now come to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Based on the strength of I and III, I wanted to like this film, but that really wasn’t possible. Indeed, the first time through, the film simply makes no sense. The characters go from one location to another for no apparent reason except to give the appearance of motion before meeting for the ending. Elements gets tossed into the film in ways which seem meaningless. For example, the Spanish get introduced seemingly out of the blue and then they vanish. They do reappear near the end, but they don’t really add anything to the plot before they disappear again. Geoffrey Rush is brought back as Barbossa (a huge plus as he makes these films) but then he gets sequestered from the plot. And so on.

The dialog too felt like nonsense. It felt formless and like the actors were reading to the scene rather than speaking from their characters. The only character who had any consistent definition was Blackbeard (Ian McShane). The sets felt unoriginal as well, and the stirring visuals were missing this time. Also, there just didn’t seem to be much originality in the story.
Upon further viewing, I began to notice something interesting. Within the film, there are all the elements for a great film. You have Barbossa, who is just a joy to watch. You have the confrontational relationship between the missionary and Blackbeard, which is quite deep, quite philosophical and quite interesting. They also have theological debates wrapped up tightly in single lines of dialog. The relationship between the missionary and the mermaid is interesting too on many levels, as is the relationship between Penelope Cruz and her father Blackbeard, which is complex and nuanced and ultimately comes down to an impossible choice of whether a daughter should sacrifice herself to save the life of her father, even if he is evil. The Spanish are interesting too. They were the world’s superpower of the era and seeing them interact (or not interact) with the other characters provides a fascinating perspective. It’s a bit like watching characters fight with each other as the US Army does its thing in the background.

So that all sounds pretty good, but then there’s the catch. Despite the presence of some smart elements, the film fails to employ them properly. Indeed, the film doesn’t seem to have any idea how to use them at all. It’s like this film was created by asking five or six very bright writers to come up with plots, and then a moron was asked to condense their plots and form them into one film. And in the end, you could literally toss out 90% of the film without changing the plot. That’s horrible writing. Consider this:
The film never bothers to explain the nature of the relationship between the missionary and Blackbeard or why Blackbeard tolerates him. Why should Blackbeard even keep this disrespectful man alive, much less let him roam freely? The film doesn’t tell us, nor does it really present this as something to consider. What is the point to Barbossa? He could have been removed entirely from the film without anyone noticing as all he really does is travel to the end of the film and then give Blackbeard a wound he could have gotten from anyone (or even touching a poisonous plant). Why are the Spanish in this film? Yes, they are presented as the reason the British enter the race to find the fountain of youth, but why even bother with this plot contrivance? It would have made more sense to race Barbossa against Depp or perhaps Barbossa and Depp against the Spanish or Blackbeard. Tossing in the British added nothing and made the Spanish seem pointless, especially as they serve no purpose in the film – even at the ending, when they destroy the fountain of youth, they fail to do so, which makes them meaningless to the plot as the other characters could have taken their time getting there. In effect, the way the Spanish are treated in this film would be like making a bar fight movie where the US Marine Corps swoops into the bar, searches it and leaves again. That may make for an interesting moment in the film, but it adds nothing to the story itself.
The only bit of intelligence which does develop meaning on screen is the relationship between Cruz and Blackbeard, but therein lie several problems. First, this means that the main emotional impact of the film is between characters who are new to the story. This devalues Barbossa and Depp, who are the main characters. Secondly, the film is so obsessed with making sure that Depp gets to ham it up in each scene that the emotional impact is constantly being undermined by the juggling clown dancing across the screen. Third, this subplot has no relationship to most of the film. Indeed, the need for Cruz to save her father doesn’t even arise until the final minutes of the film and little before that hinted that this would be the point to the film.

In effect, what you get in On Stranger Tides is a film that includes many excellent elements, but none of which get fleshed out, none of which get tied into the film and none of which are necessary for the plot. Even the title is meaningless as it gives no sense of what the movie is about. Compare this to the prior films, which were driven by very specific storylines that arose quickly, motivated each of the characters toward confrontation, and drove the film relentlessly toward a conclusion. Nothing like that can be found here – this is just some stuff that happens until it ends.

It fascinates me that in an age of manufactured films where art gives way to formula that someone could have gotten the formula so wrong in this instance. It makes me wonder what they were thinking?

43 comments:

shawn said...

I liked Pirates 1-3, clearly the first is the best, but I enjoyed 2 and 3 as well. This one was overstuffed with too much going on and none of it was particularly interesting.

"Nothing like that can be found here – this is just some stuff that happens until it ends." As accurate a discription of the film as can be had. Good job sir.

ScottDS said...

I tend to lump the second and third films together as one jumbled mess... too long and too complicated. This one I labeled as, "Only slightly less incoherent than the last one." :-)

This film is actually "inspired by" a pre-existing novel, 1987's On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, hence the title. The novel involves Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth, and I'm sure that's the extent of it's influence on the film.

Another odd thing is that they made a big deal about writing Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley's characters out of the story in order to focus more on Depp and the other adults... so what do they do here? They introduce a brand-new young couple instead. The missionary was an interesting character but it's all much ado about nothing.

I don't know if it's a matter of giving people the most bang for their buck or what, but I'll never understand why these films - THESE FILMS! - need to be so damn narratively complicated.

And stop picking on the special effects nerds - it's been made abundantly clear in recent days that they aren't exactly getting a piece of this pie. :-D

Tennessee Jed said...

I watched the original and it was pretty good, although a bit self-indulgent. The second one was pretty bad, but self indulgent. By that time, I had lost interest. Watched the 3rd mainly to see Keith Richards (he was terrific, of course.) By the time this one came out, I had gone, gone, gone; done moved on! That said, your premises SEEM pretty solid, I just can't verify them, and based on my own experience, and your comments, see no reason to watch this. As an example, time better spent could easily include wathing Jeremy Brett in "The Sign of Four" or Ian Cumberbatch's season 2 of Sherlock to remind myself what a good production can do with a good story. ;)

ScottDS said...

Jed -

That would be Benedict Cumberbatch, and I wholeheartedly agree with you about Sherlock. I was aware of its existence and then one night a few months ago, I decided to watch the first episode on Amazon Prime and within five minutes, I was texting my friend, "You need to see this!" :-)

tryanmax said...

Scott, I see competing specifications behind the complicated narrative. That is, it was probably decided early that the story must contain certain mutually-exclusive elements, meaning the only way to accomodate them all would be to intertwine multiple narratives involving way to many people.

Let me give you the most obvious example. Every movie needs a love interest. That's cinematic doctrine. But in order to be PC, the movie needs a strong female lead, which Hollywood has defined as an asexual man-hater. So, instead of mining the sexual tension b/w Capt. Jack and Angelica for material, it goes ignored except for use in punch-lines. Instead we get the missionary and the mermaid (which sounds like it could be a very touching fable on its own) who's story never feels more than shoehorned in; the "mermaid's tear" could be substituted for any number of things. Imagine how much more streamlined the narrative would be if they simply eliminated those two characters and the MacGuffin which justifies them.

Now, here's a thought experiment: just how many MacGuffins are there in PotC:OST?

rlaWTX said...

I'm not that interested in JDepp - pretty much since 21 Jump Street... (near heresy among my friends). I finally saw the first one on TV. Haven't seen the others. Obviously, I will survive this neglect.

I must admit, however, that upon seeing the trailer to the Loan Ranger last week, I am intrigued and will probably go see it.

Anonymous said...

I, too, really liked the first 'Pirates' movie. Good characters, reasonably good story, great skeleton pirates, and well-timed references to the ride.

'Dead Man's Chest:' Um...what else can be said besides "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!" Seriously, this thing was Robert Louis Stevenson (Gibbs sings the song) meets H.P. Lovecraft (tell me Davy Jones isn't a scaled-down Cthulhu). A tough sell with a million subplots that went absolutely nowhere. Moving on...

'At World's End' was better, but not by much. It still had WAAAAAY too many subplots, characters, details, and 'what the heck is going on here?' moments.

'On Stranger Tides'...I really want to like this one, but, as Andrew said, it's unfocused. Unnecessary jokes and action scenes. (Did we really need Jack swinging on chandeliers in King George's room? Or fighting on roof beams with Angelica?) They were so worried about the series' tropes that they missed out on some of the series' better characters. (Starting with Keith Richards' cameo. By the way, why is he suddenly running a pub in London?)

Andrew, if I remember correctly, the reason Blackbeard keeps Philip (the clergyman) alive is because his daughter wants him too. Seems small, but this should actually make their relationship even complex. But the writers didn't bother. Swing and a miss.

Toss in that Angelica was once training to be a nun (until a night with Jack) who still respects the faith in the middle of the world of pirates and you have what should have been a far more complex character. But they didn't bother with that, either. Strike two.

continued...

Tennessee Jed said...

of course, Scott. I must have been thinking of "Benedict" Fleming, evil twin of Ian Cumberbatch who together secretly wrote the Bond stories.

Anonymous said...

Then you have Philip and Syrena. Unlike most men of the cloth portrayed on film, Philip sticks to his faith, challenges Blackbeard (as Andrew noted), and doesn't end up a malcontent or a hypocrite. (Wait, is this actually a Hollywood movie?) Syrena's role is too small, especially given the reason they need her. And with the way mermaids are portrayed in this movie, she actually has a chance for a character arc after Philip shows kindness towards her. (Their Gospel-referencing exchange at the end could go either way- is she honest or tricking him?) Strikeout!

Then we have the Spanish. Unlike Blackbeard or Jack, who are looking for the Fountain for reasons of greed, they're motivated by faith alone to destroy what they see as an abomination. What a great foil they could've been for the other characters. Three-run homer for the opponents.

And the underused Barbossa...oh! And he's swindling the king in order to use the power of the crown just to get revenge on Blackbeard. The lost character opportunities!

You know, I'm just going to call this game and order the filmmakers to forfeit for lack of vision and foresight.

-Rustbelt

Anonymous said...

Ah, hit the wrong button and blogger ate my original post. Forgot to mention something.

The filmmakers did take one pretty big risk. The portrayal of the mermaids in this decidedly non-Disney. (Including 'Peter Pan.") This one clearly took mermaid stories back to the old sailor yarns of them sinking ships. Stories of mermaid cannibalism are out there, though they seem to be pretty obscure. These are definitely the second-nastiest mermaids I've seen on film. ("Dagon" (2001) is still the titleholder.) I can only imagine what the kids in the audiences- especially the girls- felt when they saw that scene.

-Rustbelt

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Thanks! I think it's very accurate. And I really did enjoy 1 and 3 (2 not so much). I think the first is truly inspired and I think the 3 is sooooo close. Like I mention, I would love to edit out the things that shouldn't be in there and I think you could create a truly top notch movie -- very simple changes.

This one however... blech. This one never comes together. Maybe as a series of 2-3 short films, but that's about it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The second film to me makes some huge mistakes. Maybe I'll review it at some point. The biggest mistake is not including Barbossa -- a mistake all but repeated here since he's barely involved in the story except as a quasi narrator.

I was under the impression Bloom and Knightly left, but either way, it's interesting that they were replaced by similar types of characters.

The effects nerds killed the third. The reason you think it's an incoherent mess is because they handed off the resolution of the film to the effects nerds and let them run "wild" for 30+ minutes. I timed it once, but don't recall how long the ending was, but I know it was above 30 minutes of pure effects. Totally... totally... boring.

You're an Apple guy, aren't you? I hear that Apple has good editing software, is that true?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You won't miss anything if you skip this one.

Keith Richards was awesome in the third film. What a great scene and what a great character. LOL!

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

There's Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere - those are the big boys. Apple's editing software is iMovie, which is part of the iLife suite. It's easy enough to use - I edited my montage and old home movies on it. It can't do everything but it'll work in a pinch. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I get the feeling the entire movie is a MacGuffin.

You raise an interesting point about the mermaid and the missionary. It could well be that they just injected different things into the film to fit the different formulas and the result was a narrative mess. I find it strange how many thing got put into this movie, but ultimately weren't more than tangential to the story -- the English, the Spanish, Barbossa, the Keith Richards cameo, Sparrow breaking his friend out of prison, Cruz impersonating Sparrow, the mermaid, the missionary, the missing Black Pearl. Each of those things is presented as consequential to the film, but really isn't more than filler.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Excellent. When my laptop dies, if I can't find a replacement without Windows 8, I'm going Apple.

Maybe I'll finally take some time and edit these films. I really think the third film would be great. The second could be better.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I'm surprised your friends allow this? :P

I like a lot of what Depp has done, but of late he's becoming much more of a caricature of himself. That's too bad because he really was a good actor at one point.

BIG MO said...

My first thought when hearing there was a new Pirates movie was "huh?" That though repeatedly came up when I watched this mess. It felt like the final season of a TV show that remained on the air 2 or 3 seasons too long.

The only thing I like about On Stranger Tides is the cool six-inch-tall Jack Sparrow figure based on his appearance in this movie that I picked up for seven bucks at Target. (it’s this one: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41nVW9ZqN6L.jpg )

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, That's true. That is why he kept the missionary alive. But it wasn't explored. It was basically a one-off mention you had to infer from her telling her father one time to let him live and then the story moved on. This is what I mean by there being real intelligence in this film, but it's not used or followed-up upon. This is the sort of motivation which makes characters deep and interesting and makes relationships complex. So it was really smart to include this. BUT they never did anything with it except the one quick mention. This is the sort of thing that should have been explored and used as a stepping stone to test the relationship. Instead, it gets mentioned and then ignored.

Ditto on the missionary and the mermaid. That was a story with real potential, but they failed to exploit it. It's like someone wrote a great story there and then someone came along and plucked out the big moments and jammed those into this other film about Blackbeard.

The Spanish and Barbossa are the same. It's like they had these great story ideas... someone wrote out an excellent story for them... and then someone just took the highlights and jammed them into this movie. Barbossa in particular becomes little more than an after-the-fact narrator, whereas his story should be one of the ones driving the film.

Totally agree about the unneeded jokes and actions. There was no point for the entire London sequence, for example.

Yeah, this film struck out, which is ironic given that they had so many smart elements. This film seems to have had a ton of potential, but achieved none of it.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I agree about the mermaids and I think the whole series actually takes risks, but struggles with those risks too. Think about the skeleton pirates in the original. That's a really cool idea, but is not at all kids friendly. The whole series is full of things like that where they use the nastier legends rather than the kiddie-friendly legend. The mermaids are an example of that. So it is a risk to include those.

I suspect the inclusion of those things was the reason the filmmakers keep jamming in unneeded humor, in an attempt to "soften" the horror aspects of the film so that people laugh enough that they don't realize the film was basically a quasi-story about pirates.

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, that's a good way to put it too. Much of this film feels like a television show that has been on the air too long. The main characters are tired. They are going through the motions, often as caricatures of themselves. The jokes feel used. And the whole thing has the air of people doing something because they need to, not because they want to.

The exception, of course, is Blackbeard who really drives this movie. His story is solid, his character feels fresh, and McShane revels in the role.

Alex said...

True story: This franchise began way back as a movie version of the excellent computer game "The Secret of Monkey Island." I have only seen the first one (pretty good) and the second one (barely tolerable), so I am highly unqualified to speak about On Stranger Tides. However, Andrew, I beleive your assessment of it works for the series as a whole: some very good elements (actors, characters, sets, situations) with writing that almost-but-not-quite pulls it all together. How disappointing, considering the talent involved.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Alex. I wasn't aware of the Secret Monkey connection. It's interesting how these things happen, isn't it?

I think that's right that each of these films has had great elements but pulling them all together has been the problem. In fact, what's interesting to me is that when it comes to writing the elements, these are some of the best movies out there. It's just in trying to squeeze them all into the film itself where things go wrong. It makes me think they have a team of talented writers and the problem is the team leader.

T-Rav said...

I haven't seen this one, largely because I thought At World's End should have been the end of the series. It seemed to me that the main story (or at least, what was intended to be the main story) was the romance between Bloom's and Knightley's characters; then Jack Sparrow ended up stealing the show pretty much, because duh. But still, I felt the way the third movie wound up was a logical endpoint to the series, and tacking on anything after that was a shameless grab for dollars. And I don't like shameless grabs for dollars.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Get used to more shameless grabs for dollars because they're already planning the next one and apparently another beyond that is being contemplated as well.

K said...

Is this the one where Keira Knightly removes an arsenal from her undergarments, to the amazement of Captain Barbossa? Besides the octopus head guy that's about all I remember from the sequels.

Well that and the strange appearance of the East India Trading company (which never operated in the Caribbean) because capitalists suk.

AndrewPrice said...

K, No, that's the third one. This is the one with Blackbeard and Penelope Cruz and the Fountain of Youth.

K said...

Wow. They made FOUR of them things?

.. and before anyone draws any false conclusions from my post, the reason I remembered that scene was my wife laughing hysterically and digging me in the ribs with her elbow during it.

Kit said...

I think you are right, though I did enjoy the movie a lot.

The mermaid song was creepy. LINK

The mermaid attack scene was probably the best in the movie, maybe one of the best moments in the series as a whole. They were sexy*, alluring, eerie, and scary as all hell.
Watch it yourself: LINK
That shot at the 2min mark where it goes beneath the water to show their long fins gives me the willies. I don't quite know why, it just freaks me out.

*Not "hot&sexy" sexy but real sexy.

Kit said...

By the way, anyone read the book its based on? On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers? Amazon Link

Its on my to-read list for this summer.

AndrewPrice said...

K, Yep, they made four.

The scene where she removed the arsenal is one of the ones that should be edited out of the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I think the mermaid scene was well done, but definitely not the best in the series. Nothing beats the appearance of Keith Richards in the third film. :)

Anonymous said...

I saw the first movie and I really loved it, they captured magic in a bottle. So I didn't bother to see the sequels as I knew they would try to re-capture that magic and fail, most likely painfully.

So I have great memories of the first and I suffer from blissful ignorance when it comes to the sequels.

If only I had of done the same thing for the Star Wars prequels...

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, They actually went a very different way on the 2/3 films and I give them a lot of credit for that. I figured it would just be a copy of the first as well, but it really wasn't.

Unfortunately, 2 is lacking in many ways and 3 has some flaws that are frustrating because there's such a good movie stuck inside the movie they show you and the flaws keep that movie from coming out.

Anonymous said...

I'll take your word on that Andrew. Also part of the reason I didn't watch the sequels was that I was sick of Johnny Depp. I really liked him since 21 Jump Street (I was a kid), but he really could act and didn't go down the normal Hollywood trail.

But over time he did repeat himself and in my mind, he like a lot of other acting 'legends' starting playing Johnny Depp playing a character instead of just playing the character. I just don't really like that, plus he was obviously cashing in, again I don't mind that but he was being treated like a great 'actor' but he was doing crappy movies for a check while still being called a great 'actor'.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I have to agree about Depp. I liked him a lot and if you'd asked me 10 years ago I probably would have said he's the best actor out there. But then he started playing a caricature of himself over and over in each of his films. I think the film that really struck me just how "wrong" things had gone with him was the Willy Wonka remake and then his horrible character in Alice in Wonderland. Pointless, predictable and Depp playing Depp playing the character.

Kit said...

" think the mermaid scene was well done, but definitely not the best in the series. Nothing beats the appearance of Keith Richards in the third film. :)"

I meant "among" the best.

--------------

I think I was the only person in my family who did not enjoy Alice.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I didn't enjoy Alice at all. It was tedious and, frankly, stupid. Bad acting, poor direction, poor writing.

Kit said...

Andrew,

This College Humor sketch sums up Tim Burton since 1989. (Warning: Profanity)
LINK

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That was awesome... and 100% accurate.

Kit said...

Mhm.

obiwan2009 said...

I would say that The First Pirates movie was a real kicker to me. It was a movie that I was entertained by despite going in expecting a movie based off a ride, like a movie based off a video game, to not be that great. Perhaps the one thing that got e going there was my then high school buddies' recommendation that I would get entertained by it, and I was.

That being said, I sort of wished the Bloom/Knightley story got finished up with the first one and they went on with a New Story like "Stranger Tides" as a sequel. IMO, Dead Man's Chest and World's End felt like a heavy retread of the first movie's story, with the exception of making two main characters and a father come back from the dead, and introducing you to Sparrow's Dad, it just felt very "recycled" to me.

I had some enjoyment with the New Stranger Tides, like the fact that Phillip was some guy who was just having a shred of decency in him for the badly treated Mermaid, but still, the ending I was like, really, it's like telling the truth is the most lethal, and redundant weapon Johnny Depp has in all of these movies!

AndrewPrice said...

obiwan, The second and third films didn't feel recycled to me, they just felt mishandled -- the second much worse than the third.

On Stranger Tides, like I say in the review, I think there is a lot of potential there, but it doesn't get realized.

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