Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

May 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp and Ian McShane in 'POTC: On Stranger Tides'

Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

Directed by Rob Marshall

Starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane

A soulless cash grab if there ever was one. I suppose it was inevitable that there would be an attempt at a second trilogy of POTC films and it was inevitable that they would focus on Captain Jack Sparrow, seeing as how he was the franchise’s most indelible character. However, when you go to the lengths the original sequels did, in which the climax of all climaxes is literally at the end of the world, where is there to go but down? That’s precisely where On Stranger Tides goes.

The first problem is with director Rob Marshall, who doesn’t have the eye for action and adventure. His cinematography is shockingly flat compared to the flare displayed by Gore Verbinski and his team. I suppose it’s adequate for a summer blockbuster, but it simply lacks the energy or crispness of Verbinski’s efforts. Adding insult to injury are the cartoonish and sluggish performances from the actors, which may or may not be attributable to Marshall’s direction. Chicago might have been an awards darling way back when, but if you re-watched it, you’d see some performances that were self-conscious and theatrical, even for a musical- and from good actors!

There’s a self-referential vibe going on with Stranger Tides in which many of the actors seem know they’re in a movie to sell a product and not to act so they either go way over the top to the point of being horrible- Penelope Cruz, I’m looking at you, with your mangling of English pronunciation and the screen presence of a third-string community theater actress. Or they phone it in with nary a hint of their original effusiveness- I am of course, referring to Captain Jack himself, Johnny Depp.

In this outing Depp’s Sparrow doesn’t seem drunk so much as sleepy, like he’d rather be somewhere else. The only time he regains his old spark is in his brief scene with Keith Richards as his father. Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa and Ian McShane as Blackbeard seem like they’re the only ones having fun, playing their characters with the right amount of gusto without ever going cartoonish. These guys might be old and unsightly, but I would have rather seen films based around them.

Sam Clafin replaces Orlando Bloom as the requisite young hot male, a priest with six-pack abs, and Astrid Berges-Frisby replaces Keira Knightley as a mermaid. People make fun of Orlando Bloom’s pretty boy image, but the guy had presence. He felt different, he has a flare for comedy and timing and really made an impression. Clafin just looks like a model they pulled out of a catalogue to fill a void. They offer nothing of note to the story and are simply there to be eye candy.

The pace is plodding and clunky, with lots of time devoted to people sitting around on ships waiting to get somewhere. Not exactly adventure movie heaven. The plot is superfluous and overwrought. Something about a mermaid’s tear activating the fountain of youth. It’s a MacGuffin of a plot.

All in all, On Stranger Tides is precisely what we feared most in an unnecessary sequel. Soulless, uninspired retreads of a formerly successful formula that hits all the requisite notes, but can’t seem to give us a real reason to care. A paycheck film for all involved. What a shameful end to a wonderful franchise.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro give Tobey Maguire's hitchhiker the ride of his life in 'Fear and Loathing'

Adapted for the screen by Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni

With credit to Tod Davies and Alex Cox for an earlier script version

All based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson

Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro

Directed by Terry Gilliam

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” has a long history of trying to get to the screen, with many a famous film maker being beaten down by its complexities. Everyone from Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando to Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi had attempted to make the film. Bill Murray came closest by doing a different kind of adaptation of the novel, called “Where the Buffalo Roam”, directed by Art Linson and with a broader, more traditional story arch. Finally, John Cusack was on the cusp of getting the movie green lit by Thompson himself with British director Alex Cox at the helm, but when Cox and Hunter had creative differences, Thompson did a sudden about face and insisted Johnny Depp do the movie or nobody at all. Gilliam was brought into the fold at that point and this definitive version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was born.

This version of “Fear and Loathing” seems to split most viewers, many of whom fault the film for no linear plot line, strange performances and non-sensical scenes of extreme inebriation. No message, no moral to the story, no discernible purpose to the proceedings. Absolutely no standard film tropes to latch onto. Perhaps some or many of these people don’t have an appreciation for the stream of conscious writings of Hunter S. Thompson, nor Terry Gilliam’s stream of conscious film making style, which is highly improvisational and fluid. Sure, he has sets and crews and there’s a script, but the man shoots a lot of his stuff on the fly, with minimal set ups, just going and going- Check out the documentary Lost in La Mancha to see what I’m talking about. With this in mind. it should make total sense that a Terry Gilliam directed adaptation of a drug fueled memoir by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson would have a haphazard nature to it.

Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro are nothing short of brilliant as these drugged out wanderers. Depp is Hunter S. Thompson aka “Raoul Duke”, ostensibly on assignment to cover a race, but basically just getting high and wandering around, destroying his hotel rooms, muttering his narration and dialogue through teeth that are permanently gripped around Thompson’s signature quellazaire (cigarette extender), as he hides beneath yellow tinted Aviator sun glasses and fishing cap, covering up Thompson’s famously bald head, which the very young Depp sports rather convincingly for the role. Del Toro is his compatriot and lawyer, Dr. Gonzo, a man who functions as Duke’s advisor, but is basically in cahoots with him in their goal of ingesting as many narcotics as possible, just because. Del Toro gained 40 pounds for his role as Dr. Gonzo and it shows, as he lugs around massive arms that look like squished playdoh and a gut that hangs marvelously. Gilliam also throws in a litany of cameos and brief appearances by some big name actors- Tobey Maguire as a freaked out albino hitch hiker, Gary Busey as an understanding highway patrolman, Christopher Meloni as a flamboyant hotel concierge, Ellen Burstyn as a very put upon waitress, Christina Ricci as a hippie Dr. Gonzo picks up and drags around for a while, on top of a whole host of other fabulous actors in cameo-size roles (including blink and you’ll miss them appearances by Penn Jillette, Verne Troyer, sometime-actor and full time ‘Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea, amongst a few other lesser knowns).

Fear and Loathing is an exaggerated but fairly honest look at what a bender is like- No beginning, intense middle and a sudden, depressing, boring ending in which nothing is achieved and people go on with their first sober day in a long time, on to other journeys, other obligations and the rest of their lives.

Fear and Loathing is about a moment in time. Yes, fueled by drugs, but still just a moment. A blip in a long existence that is intense and makes the rest of life seem bland and pointless, but even in a film like this, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Or in this case, on the high way leading out of a long weekend of fear and loathing in Las Vegas.

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