Sunday, June 10, 2012

Let’s Review a Movie: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

It’s time to take another look at the fourth film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  Upon its initial release I thought it was pretty good.  So does it still hold up?  Let’s find out.

First off I think my major problem with this film is that it lacks a feeling of being epic.  Not that it had to be a big battle for the seas like At World’s End was, but what I mean is that the movie is very small right from the opening scenes.  For the opening scenes in the other films we had Elizabeth singing a creepy rendition of “A Pirate’s Life For Me” as we slowly pulled in on her surrounded by a thick fog.  The tone is set immediately.  We are being brought into a world that is ominous and creepy.  The second film showed rain pouring down on Will and Elizabeth’s wedding day.  Beckett’s forces swarm over everything, letting us know that the world of the last movie is changing.  In the third film we open with Beckett having an iron grip over everything and everyone.  People are being hanged in droves and the world we have come to love and see change now seems to be ending for good, and yet through the song we feel there is still hope.  With On Stranger Tides we open on a fishing boat and an old guy gets taken to the characters that are going to have about fifteen minutes of screen time total.  This does not say brave new world with all new adventures for our heroes to me, this says the scope of drama has shrunk.  The movie also appears small in the production choices being made, in the way shots are framed, in the way action moves, and in the stakes.

For one thing this time the team working on the movie seemed determined to pillage things from the other movies.  Like Jack’s gunshot when Teague shoots the solider in London.  While I don’t think everything in the other two sequels worked at least there they worked to build on what was already established, like reusing some quotable lines in new ways and expanded a story that was already self-contained; at the same time though they brought in new elements.  We got new villains with different motivations than Barbossa but they were still complex.  We got to see that character’s actions had consequences and we got to see characters and their relationships change.  Here there is some of that with Jack and Barbossa which I’ll get to later, but for the most part the filmmakers seemed to think it was more important to stuff in things from the other films just because their popular rather than building something new and cool to stand beside the cool stuff the franchise already has.   

The first place I noticed this was with the music.  I said in my last review that I didn’t care for the music in this installment and I still don’t.   I still do like the “Jolly Sailor Bold” song, but even that one didn’t stand out enough for me to gets its name right in the last review.  For the rest of the musical landscape much of it seemed to be used just because it was popular in the other films.  Don’t reuse the theme for Barbossa’s skeleton crew from the first because all it is, is a reminder of the better film I could be watching.  The “He’s a Pirate” theme is normally used during action scenes, but here it was used when Jack leaves the court room, why?  This isn’t thrilling, it’s not leading up to a big fight scene don’t use it just because you think you should. 

Speaking of fights I find the fight scenes here are awkward and hard to follow.  The strikes don’t really look like they’re hitting anything much of the time.  Unlike in the first films where there were a lot of long shots inter cut in the fight scenes.  Having everything closer in makes it hard to follow the action.  For instance I had no idea what was going on in Jack and Angelica’s escape from the English guards because there wasn’t a clear shot of what she was swinging at to release the trap door.  Also them fighting in the rafters is yet another thing taken from a better film in the franchise.  I didn’t like watching Jack escaping from the palace, before he gets outside, because I thought the editing on the scene was clumsy.  Jack hits the guards, I think, one slips on a napkin falls out the window, and Jack gets on the chandelier, but the pacing doesn’t feel right.  It doesn’t feel like it gets more intense as each new thing happens.  It just feels like the movie is going through the motions and frankly I find that boring. Also there are very few long shots of ships or locations, probably to mask the fact this wasn’t shot in the Caribbean.  The Queen Anne’s Revenge does look very nice in the night shots though; and I do like that we see Jack’s eyes and teeth in close up as he sits in the judge’s robes in London.

Okay the visuals and music are still meh, what else?  How about the characters?  Well new comer Angelica is interesting because she is very much a contradiction.  She is a very self-sufficient individual and yet is also seeking the comfort of a parental figure.  I like that, but I think it could have been developed a bit better.  For instance how does she know that Blackbeard is her father?  Why does he believe that she is his daughter?  Why is having a father so important to her the she forgoes all good sense to stick by him?  This is really rather frustrating.  We know that Blackbeard is a bad man and to have Angelica constantly defending him and trusting him despite all that she witnesses him do makes her come off as naive and a bit of an idiot.  This especially true when we take into account her past relationship with Jack.  She is a woman who was loved and then left by a man she loved deeply, that should make her wary to trust anyone.  In fact we see that with Jack in that she doesn’t trust him even though she still loves him.  She press-gangs him into service aboard her father’s ship, she bribes him to make her help him with the Black Pearl in a bottle, and tries to go to Ponce de Leon’s ship herself instead of him because she doesn’t think he will come back.  She’s a good character but with a bit more development she could have been a great character.

Moving on to other characters Blackbeard is still the worst villain in the franchise bar none.  I still think he is just a moustache twirling cackling bad guy and that makes him really boring.  He’s not sympathetic and I don’t care for that in the least.  Davy Jones is sympathetic, Barbossa is sympathetic, heck even Beckett’s actions are least somewhat understandable since, as Ted and Terry put it, he’s a man who at the end of the day just wants to sell more goods.  A guy who is evil just for the sake of being evil isn’t very interesting I find.  Although I will admit his line that if he doesn’t kill a man every now and then they forget who is, is funny.  But this still makes the attempts to give him some kind of saving grace at the fountain annoying to me, specifically Jack’s line of your father saved you maybe he’ll get redemption.  No, he drank the chalice he thought had the tear in it to save his own skin.  Angelica only lived because Jack lied about which was which. 

Speaking of Jack I said the first time around that Jack earned his spot back as one of my favourite Disney characters and he still gets to keep it.  He is helping people for more than just saving his own skin, that honest streak is back even if it’s a bit more subtle.  I really like that we get to see him not be captain of a ship here but instead a crewmember and learn that he is an experienced one.  The way he responds to being thrown out of his hammock and doing labour with Scrum lets us see that he is an experienced sailor.   I enjoy his sense of honour and duty to the Pearl when he tells Barbossa, “if that ship be sunk proper you be sunk with her.”  After all Jack did go down with his ship.  His relationship with Angelica is fun and interesting, and it’s good that it wasn’t the deep triumph over all love that Will and Elizabeth’s was.  He’ll always love her but knows better than to be with her.

I still think that less is more with Jack though.  He is a cool character and cool things should be used sparling.  I like the last third of film the most because we switch back and forth between lots of different characters and I thought that made the film more fun and interesting.  However it also showcased a lack of new cast members here.  I like Gibbs, but I do miss the rest of the crew of the Pearl, and there isn’t really anything good replacing them.  Gibbs gets an expanded roll and is awesome at it, but Scrum doesn’t hold a candle to Ragetti and Pintel.  Serena certainly isn’t the feisty and mysterious presence like Tia Dalma was, and the cabin boy is only interesting because I keep thinking back to a documentary of Blackbeard I watched once where they made reference that the cabin boy might be a girl and I wondered if they would leave any hint of that here.  Groves and Gilette are fun, but then they get killed a la Norrington in the last film and that takes away from the awesomeness of them.

The lack of supporting characters is really disappointing because Jack needs someone to play off of, that’s why he and Will worked so well together in the first film.  Thankfully though Barbossa still works wonderfully here at that where they are in scenes together.  Both of them on Ponce de Leon’s ship and getting the chalices back from the Spanish are good stuff.  Barbossa himself is great here too.  He is still a cutthroat, but like Jack in the third film his encounter with Blackbeard has changed him.  With him there’s one thing that I liked that was part of the early films and re-used here: Barbossa fighting in a cave from Black Pearl, because we see how much slower he is now with the crutch than he was there.  He has been wounded by Blackbeard.  Not just physically, but emotionally.  Then the crutch is destroyed and Barbossa continues to fight on despite that and overcomes that limitation.  When he gets to the Queen Anne’s Revenge he is walking straight and true without the crutch; both his physical crutch and his emotional crutch with needing to focus his life on Blackbeard and his need for revenge to the point of throwing in his lot with King George to get what he needs.  He no longer needs that for he is master of his own fate again.  I really like that when he stabs Blackbeard he’s says it’s for the Pearl, he does care about that ship just as much as Jack does.

Even with the good stuff with Barbossa and Jack there are several things plot wise and generally that I don’t care for in this movie.  For example why does King George give a thumbs up to Barbossa?  There’s bending history a little bit for the sake of atmosphere in your film, all sea legends are true in this world after all, and then there’s just being stupid.

The whole fortnight timeline doesn’t work at all.  At first I thought it worked because they were traveling from the Caribbean to Florida and that could be done in a two week window, but no they started travel from London, England as the stupid location tags so helpfully reminded me.  A quick Google searched turned up that the travel time between London and the USA by ship at that time was approximately two months.  Even if we say that Blackbeard’s ship can travel faster than others Barbossa and the Spanish arrive at Whitecap Bay at pretty much the same time and they are using regular sailing ships so that doesn’t fly.  Now the island judging by the vegetation and the poisonous frogs (should I count it as a mistake that Barbossa mixed up frogs and toads?) is a bit further south than Florida but the point still stands.  Also it was my understanding that the quartermaster made the prophecy and then Angelica ran into Jack in London.  Why else would she capture him?  She said her father needed the fountain to save his life and to get to the fountain they need Jack.  Certainly traveling to London and getting people to join the crew had to take longer than a week.

I still don’t get the whole Serena and Phillip relationship.  I don’t get why they are so interested in each other or what the whole relationship really has to do with anything thematically speaking.  I still think it has some connection as an Adam and Eve thing with Serena pulling Phillip down to the depths at the end, a manifestation of his fall into temptation, but I don’t get his words before of being lost in the winds and tides before finding her.  Was he having a crisis of faith?  Did he think his life was wasted as a man of the cloth?  What is that conversation about?  What is the point of this character or Serena apart for being a plot device for the tear?  The one thing I do like about Phillip though is the connection of faith between him and Angelica.  Where Angelica, having said she was in a convent and ready to take her vows, doesn’t want Phillip killed when Blackbeard attacks the ship he is on because she fears for Blackbeard’s soul.  In fact that would probably have made a better opening scene.  We see Blackbeard attacking a ship, Phillip being spared, maybe keep Angelica in shadow so we have some mystery at play before we cut to Spain.

I still think the Spanish were a waste in this film.  The theme music they got when Jack and Barbossa escape their camp is good, but I don’t think their twist at the end of wanting to destroy the fountain, not use for their own gain was a great moment for the movie, I just found it anti-climactic.  That’s what I mean by no stakes.  We barely see the Spanish and when we do it’s not to have some big fight or some political thing with England, it’s to destroy the fountain and leave.  As Jack says Barbossa’s crew and Blackbeard’s crew don’t have a reason to fight each other outside of the fact their captains are having a fight so that makes the end battle less interesting because no one outside of Jack, Barbossa, Angelica, and Blackbeard really have good reasons to be doing what they’re doing.          

So to conclude it’s certainly not a bad film, ultimately I think it’s just okay.  My idea that we might have a reverse Star Trek pattern for the franchise here is holding up in my opinion.  The first one is awesome the third one is good and the second and this one are both meh.  I don’t think the Phillip Serena characters or their relationship work at all.  I think Jack and Angelica work well as an ex-couple I just wish she had been given more development.  Barbossa is awesome, Gibbs is awesome, and Jack is great.  I like that they are growing and yet many core traits remain intact.  Blackbeard is boring and the look of film and the music is lacking.  But having said all that I like that just like the first film we close up most things here, but allow for the possibility of some more stories later.   This film wasn’t as well received as the first trilogy and I can see why, it certainly has its flaws, but if they do make another one down the road I’ll still go to see because as a whole the franchise holds up well.   

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