Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Yo-ho-ho.  A cash cow for Disney.  Arguably the most lucrative and popular financially viable franchise sets sail… again four years following the last outing.  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides marks the third sequel, and there may be more yet to come.  Why would actors Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally, and Johnny Depp want back in?  Probably for the same reason series regulars Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom jumped ship.  The series has ran its course and claimed plenty of booty, but there are still air pockets of gold left to mine.  What life could be left in the franchise?  Only the scarcest of signs actually.

Depp is back in full form playing the iconic swashbuckler we all adore.  Capt. Jack Sparrow is again a wanted man when he is ordered by the King of England to reunite with Barbossa (Rush) on an expedition to discover and secure the Fountain of Youth.  Rumors have been spreading that Jack is assembling a crew in secret to embark on his own journey.  Sparrow becomes puzzled by the talk and comes to realize an ex-lover has been impersonating him.  Her name is Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and she’s found herself first-mate and daughter to Blackbeard (Ian McShane), a sorcerer of a pirate aboard a ship with supernatural power.  Sparrow is duped into joining Angelica and Blackbeard, while Barbossa and his Englishmen as well as enemy Spaniards trail close behind.  Along the way, Jack must play for multiple sides—remaining under the watchful eye of Blackbeard while secretly keeping the English under little speculation.

In all honesty, franchise writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio bring little to the table as far as the scale of the journey goes.  The film delivers most of its goods within the first 30 minutes as our scurvy hero dodges English capture through a series of elaborate escapes and classic Jack Sparrow antics.  Once he meets up with Angelica and hits the seas with Blackbeard, On Stranger Tides loses its stride and becomes an increasingly long lull of weak plot threads.  The actual quest for the Fountain of Youth is such a disappointment.  I felt as though none of the characters had a genuine interest or drive in finding it.  There’s some talk of Blackbeard wanting to find it to potentially save his soul, however, it’s never a pressing matter.  Barbossa cares none for it.  He wants revenge on a particular foe.  Angelica seems to be after it for her father’s sake, but since he doesn’t care so much, why should we?  I really don’t think the writers thought this one out.

Making matters worse is the fact that nothing particularly memorable or exciting happens throughout the film.  The different groups of treasure hunters encounter a horde of deadly mermaids, but that’s about all the film has to offer audiences that could be considered new or remotely memorable.

This sequel has been directed by Rob Marshall (Nine, Chicago).  I will commend him on tightening up the story and presenting a much more simple and logical narrative than Gore Verbinski’s last venture At World’s End.  However, as disappointing as many audiences found the two-part sequels from 2006 and 2007, I can’t imagine them finding a more refurbished product with On Stranger Tides.  ‘Stranger’ this film is not, and if the last two predecessors had anything going for them—it was that they were at least simultaneously odd and interesting, while also boasting several impressive and memorable effects-filled action sequences.  The previous chapters were way ahead of On Stranger Tides in terms of creativity, and when they failed, they did so grandly.  This chapter storms in and teeters out with little more than a sigh.

Despite the film’s many shortcomings, I can’t fault Depp.  He delivers as always, and the Sparrow character still entertains in high fashion.  Unfortunately his movies aren’t keeping up with him, and while On Stranger Tides will undoubtedly make less than any of the previous Pirates, there will still be plenty of coin to lap up—warranting audiences another sequel.  My suggestion?  Ditch Marshall.  Bring back the strangeness, the surprise, and the suspense.  Savvy?

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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)


G-ForceIf Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of such bombastic cinema travesties like Bad Boys, Con Air, and Pearl Harbor, were to attach his name to a movie for kids about talking guinea pigs, what would it look like?  Would it still have all the familiar Bruckheimer tropes we know and love?  Would Michael Bay direct it?  These are trying questions for trying times indeed, and strangely, the answer to most of these would be a resounding “Yes.”  It has everything we might expect given the pedigree of the individuals involved:

Car chases…check.

Giant destructive robots…check.

A world in peril…check.

A clock counting down to doomsday…check.

Explosions, explosions, and more explosions…check.

But equally strange is the fact that G-Force somehow works, and works quite well.  The film opens in the middle of a top-secret operation a’la True Lies in which the band of super-rodents, codenamed G-Force, are infiltrating the residence of a technology billionaire Leonard Saber (Bill Nighy) in order to steal top-secret information from his computer.  Information which could determine…bum bum BUM… the fate of the free world.  The little animal wonders, equipped with the latest in miniature spy technology and Happy Meal-Ready names like Blaster (Tracy Jordan), Speckles (Nicolas Cage), and Hurley (Jon Favreau), are actually the product of a government experiment to study and harness the power of human-animal communication.  But when the mission goes awry, the government shuts down the operation and their leader Ben (Zach Galifianakis) is left empty-handed while the fate of the world (something about orbital space junk and the power of magnets…it really doesn’t matter) hangs in the balance.

G-Force Poster

It's clever...because it's a guinea pig. Get it?

Who will get to the bottom of things and stop the destruction of planet earth?  Why, none other than G-Force of course! The talking guinea pigs take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of the conspiracy with plenty of pint-sized gadgets and gizmos from their genius bearded buddy Ben.  Along the way they meet up with a several action-figure-ready talking animals who help them out and teach valuable lessons about teamwork, sacrifice, and the power of friendship.  There’s a car chase and some robot fights thrown in for good measure too, just to keep things interesting.  And for what it is, it works just fine.  I didn’t start watching a movie about talking superhero rodents expecting Citizen Kane or Shawshank Redemption.

Criticizing a movie like G-Force is somewhat moot, since the film is aimed squarely at a target audience who buys Zhu Zhu Pets.  But unlike some of its peers like Shrek, G-Force thankfully never plays to the lowest common denominator of toilet humor and cheap pop culture references.  Like the Disney adventure Bolt from a few years ago, it’s silly enough to be fun, but doesn’t play its audience for fools either.  And unlike other Bruckheimer explode-fests, Michael Bay actually didn’t direct this one.  And that is most certainly a good thing.


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Rating: 3.0/5 (1 vote cast)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

I love a good time-travel story.  From the Terminator films, Back to the Future series, and ripping yarns like the 2000  film Frequency, there is something alluring and exciting about the past and future colliding.  Even the recent Star Trek reboot found a few wormholes.  Time travel will always come across in film as a tricky contradicting device full of paradoxes.  In Prince of Persia, the film bases its premise on the possibility that time travel and its power may fall into the wrong hands (as all films of this sort do), but it presents time travel in a limited arrangement.

The plot introduces the Persian empire at the height of its power.  Its king is paraded through the streets where he comes across a defiant young boy who seeks to protect another young man from punishment as a result of thievery.  In fact, it feels very similar to a live-action version of Disney’s Aladdin.  This protective boy, Dastan, stirs up the king’s heart, and the orphaned boy is taken into the royal family as a young prince.  Later on he grows up to become the adult Jake Gyllenhaal, bulked up with flowing dark hair and bronzed skin attributed to multiple trips to the tanning salon.  He is a trained warrior, and trusted commander in the nation’s army.  Dastan’s royal brothers are set to capture the peaceful city of  Almut.  Though Dastan’s skills as a fighter are commendable among his siblings, they feel he is not ready for such a massive attack.  To prove himself worthy, Dastan scaffolds the wall of Almut and lays siege to the city, leading a small band of soldiers to victory before the royal brothers arrive.  Dastan becomes a hero, and as such, takes a handsome dagger from Almut—one with mystical powers. 

During a celebration, the ceremony is interrupted when a prestigious cloak, laced with an acidic poison, is offered to the king and kills him very quickly.  Dastan, having been asked to offer the cloak before the ceremony, appears to be the traitor with the intent of taking the throne.  Quickly afoot from his own people, Dastan escapes with a princess of Almut, Tamina (Gemma Arterton) captured shortly following the attack.  Tamina’s sole interest is in protecting the dagger Dastan carries and returning it, as it has the power to rewind a minute (or roughly so) in time.  It soon becomes apparent to Dastan that someone, most likely his eldest brother, must have been after the dagger for its power.  The story eventually expands the power of the dagger in revealing an underground stone ruled by the gods that can ultimately lead to a total reversal of history and mankind’s complete destruction.  What else is new?

Caught in this storm of chaos, Dastan seeks out his uncle (Ben Kingsley), the only man he can trust to clear his name and restore order in the kingdom, as well as return the dagger to safety.

Regarding the dagger and its power, I love how the story has found a way to eliminate the paradox of time travel.  The dagger holds a button on it, that if pressed with the proper sand in it (dopey, I know), simply rewinds time back about a minute.  Only the holder of the dagger knows that any change has taken place.  So in essence, there really isn’t any traveling in time—time is simply rewinding itself, and this is the limit of the dagger.  I like the premise, and the limited power there.  But of course the premise takes things to a new level once man’s history is revealed.  The gods apparently had wiped out all of humanity but one young girl who pleaded to live and was granted her survival.  She was given this dagger of power and it has been kept in secret… blah, blah, blah.  The narrative makes a huge leap to potential world annihalation, and once this happens, the story gets incredibly sloppy and stitched together, when it could have stuck to this dagger’s original limit of power.  I’m sure that would have been more enjoyable.

Prince of Persia is based on a video game series I haven’t played, nor ever will I’m sure.  And of course, this coulda-shoulda-woulda blockbuster film from Producer Jerry Bruckheimer (hoping so desperately to turn this into a Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) delivers a very expensive product.  You can see it onscreen, even if a few of the digital shots look a little hammy.  With a lot opportunity here, the film turns to silliness to try and exact the charm of that Johnny Depp adventure.  The problem is that Gyllenhaal is no Depp.  And as much leaping and jumping around as Gyllenhaal’s stuntmen do, as muscle-bound as the actor has become, it doesn’t bring natural charisma or wit to his performance as a side effect. 

The story doesn’t help Gyllenhaal’s cause.  Pirates was silly, yes, but the characters carried the plot.  Once Prince of Persia evolves into a history lesson on the gods’ wiping out humanity, and their intent on doing so again if the dagger is misused, I felt the story crumbling in on itself, as if I could see the writers in the background trying to staple ideas together.  Ultimately, the film gets too big, too silly, and too careless for any of its original ambitions to prevail, and the filmmakers should have realized that a mammoth production wouldn’t sell itself.  Pirates of the Caribbean certainly didn’t.  Bruckheimer had his ace in the hole after all was said and done—Johnny Depp making an icon out of Jack Sparrow.  Unfortunately he failed to repeat that process.  While Persia still isn’t quite the mess that the third Pirates film became, it’s still about as silly and unpolished.  As a marginally enjoyable big-budget diversion, I found this film to be watchable, but I can’t heartily recommend it.

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Rating: 3.4/5 (5 votes cast)

Glory Road

GR posterHistory has often shown us the power of sports to inflame people’s passions and sway their opinions. Hollywood, of course, wouldn’t miss a chance to cash-in on this fact. One such attempt is Glory Road.

The movie is a good illustration, however, of just how hard it is for movies to do what sports do. They rarely do anything to challenge our views, but rather reinforce our comfort in what we already assume. Ironically, they have a habit of acting as if they are saying something revolutionary. Consider, for instance, the end of Remember the Titans, from Jerry Bruckheimer, also the producer of Glory Road. The end of the film jumps to several years later, at a funeral, when the narrator, Sheryl Yoast, says “They say it can’t work, black and white. But when they do, we remember the Titans.” I found myself wondering “Just who are ‘they’?”

Glory Road sets the same mood as Titans, starting off at about the same time (mid-sixties) when schools, and therefore sports, were generally segregated. Josh Lucas of Secondhand Lions becomes a white Denzel Washington as Texas Western’s head basketball coach. What do you call a white man surrounded by five black men?

Frustrated with the lack of good players who want to play for TW, Lucas’ Don Haskins combs the ghettos and recruits seven black players for the team. This gives rise to the film’s first really cheesy line: “I don’t see color; I see skill and I see quick.” In the predictable spirit of Titans, for the most part, all black schools and black basketball teams seem to disappear, so the unsympathetic characters are all white (although they meet one team with a few black players midway through the movie). They win consistently, until the black players, angry over a graffiti incident, refuse to pass to the white ones, resulting in the season’s only loss. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, Haskins decides to play only black players in the national championship game, and they go on to narrowly beat the all-white Kentucky team. So the question becomes, is Bruckheimer trying to convey the message that he was in Titans that the discipline brought on by working through racial tension builds strength, or is he simply saying that black guys play basketball better than white guys?

Either way, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. It’s never been any secret that competitive basketball became widely black as skill began to show through prejudice, and then became almost exclusively black when television took over and skill took a backseat to image. Ironically, the film has to establish a mentor-student relationship. Consequently, there are a few scenes of Haskins schooling black players on the court.


Let’s look at some of Hollywood’s other efforts to cross-breed sports and race. In 1992, The Mighty Ducks was released. A hot shot attorney (Emilio Estevez) is caught driving drunk and has to do the community service of coaching a washed-up athletic team from a poor district. In the tradition of Hollywood happy endings, he turns the team around completely and they win the league championship. At the championship, they meet the team that haunts Estevez’s memory – his childhood team, sponsored by a wealthy district. The players on this team are all essentially identical to one another, forming a single character more than a team of individuals. The Ducks, conversely, represent a schmorgasboard of cultures and personalities and provide the colorful characters that every movie needs (and that sports teams tend to suppress for unity).

It was no accident, of course, that Disney chose the sport of hockey as a setting for this story. It was the only sport where the “bad” team could be all white with any credibility. Once hockey was used up, Little Giants and The Big Green couldn’t present quite the same hegemony. I always looked forward to a similar movie about basketball. It figures that when one finally came, it would be set in the sixties.

I’ve been around the block enough that I’m comfortable saying a lot of black people will not find Glory Road particularly inspiring. Average black people have often complained  that the most athletic members of their culture hog the spotlight, leading their young men away from solid careers in a hopeless bid for stardom.                                                              Coach C poster

To round out my perspective I rented another basketball movie, Coach Carter, which addresses exactly that concern. Quite different from Road’s images of grandeur and triumph, Coach Carter ends with crushing defeat – on the court. But the epilogue shows success in much more important areas. Coach Carter is also more fun, because the team has a token white guy.

Here’s an idea for a basketball movie that would follow the standard formula, and would be a lot more fun. Start with a black coach in a ghetto neighborhood. Have him get pegged as an “Oreo,” or otherwise ostracized from the community. So he has to put his team together from neighborhoods outside his own. Naturally, this would involve including some white, Asian, and Hispanic members. Throw a few women onto the team just to shake things up. When his team goes up against a district full of all black, all male teams, no one would expect them to win – but hey, it’s a movie! Now you just need to figure out a way for the fate of the universe to hang on the championship game, and you’re set.

Can a basketball game really change the world? If it does, count on Hollywood to pretend they got there first. Perhaps the line from the Texas Western assistant coach rings true: “This is just proof that knuckle heads come in all shapes, sizes and colors.”

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Rating: 3.0/5 (1 vote cast)