Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Unlike its predecessors, the fourth installment of the surprisingly successful piratical franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, was inspired by a book. From what I have been able to glean from its Wikipedia page, Tim Powers’ 1987 novel On Stranger Tides appears to have only a few elements in common with the movie that took its name: the Fountain of Youth, daughter issues, Blackbeard, and pirates.

What? Hollywood taking a book, scuttling what doesn’t work for them, and going where they want with it? Outrageous!

All right, who am I kidding? They do it all of the time.

To say that I had high hopes for this movie would be a lie. I’m not expecting Oscar-bait, I just want entertainment. I don’t expect preaching or under-utilizing a fantastic actor. I suppose I ought to explain by going into the typically convoluted plot.

When last we saw Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), he was on a dingy bound for the Fountain of Youth. Now, he’s impersonating a judge in order to free his favorite first mate, Gibbs (Kevin McNally). Things don’t go as planned (assuming he ever plans anything) and he is brought before England’s King George II (Richard Griffiths).  His orders? Find the Fountain of Youth before the Spanish. This reunites Jack with his old nemesis, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a state-sanctioned privateer who is sporting a stylish peg leg. Jack declines and escapes only to run into Angelica (Penélope Cruise), an old flame and apparent daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane).

Jack ends up on Blackbeard’s ship where we meet boring missionary Philip Swift (Sam Claflin). Blackbeard is a formidable pirate captain with a magic sword that makes a ship’s ropes turn into, for lack of a better word, tentacles. Honestly, I think that was a silly gimmick. He seems like the kind of guy who could do that just with a well-placed glare (if he needed to do that at all!). Hell, the guy is played by Ian McShane. That man is a god among men who makes you feel all freaked out and melty at the same time when he says that he’s a bad man (maybe that’s just me). It’s a damn shame that they gave him so little to work with. It’s a freakin’ crime against nature!

Speaking of crimes against nature, I get that Disney felt it necessary to include a love plot. Did they have to pick random missionary guy as their male romantic lead? He preached, got shirtless, and bored me to tears. I didn’t even remember that his character had a name until I looked it up. When I actually want your romantic lead to die, you’ve failed. I did appreciate the sexy mermaid Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), though, and look forward to seeing her grace other films. So, there’s a win.

All in all, as fun as it was, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides lacked energy and the sparkle that made the other films so fun. I hope, if they plan to continue the franchise, that they take a break, think about what made the first three so fun, and try to make a movie worthy of their legacy.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

You’re still with me? Good. I was afraid I’d lost you all after the complicated plot twists of the last film.  Those paths of prose are windy indeed and one is liable to get lost if one isn’t careful. Fortunately, they leave out a few little breadcrumbs of coherency so you can follow along in the right direction. At any rate, we’re back for another swashbuckling adventure in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. No, the world doesn’t end. It’s not a movie about any sort of apocalypse. It’s about voyaging to the ends of the world in search of truth, justice. . .oh, who am I kidding? Where’s the rum?

At the end of the last movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) had received a kiss of death and a one way ticket to Davy Jones’ Locker through a dubiously consensual act of vore, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) had made a promise he intended to keep, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) was filled with guilt over her part in Jack’s death, Norrington (Jack Davenport) betrayed them all, and Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) brought Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) back from the dead so they could rescue Jack. Yeah. It’s complicated. This seems to be a trend with these films.

In any event, the plot is more complex and more convoluted this time around. Everyone wants something. For Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), it’s complete control of the waves and, by extension, the world. This runs against everything that pirates and their ilk stand for: life, happiness, and freedom.  This calls for gathering all of the nine Pirate Lords together in order to have a violent staff meeting to decide where to go from here. Fortunately, this side-trip into piratical diplomacy ends up introducing us to Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) and Jack Sparrow’s father, Captain Teague (Keith Richards).

There are more magical elements,  a goddess imprisoned in a fleshy body, and at least one unfortunate death by deep-throated tentacle. There are sea battles and inspirational speeches. There’s a quick wedding, a sudden death, and fulfilled destinies. Sure, it gets a little bit crazy, but that’s what I signed on for when I went to see it.

In writing these reviews, I’ve realized that I’m in the minority as I am one of the few in my circle who actually enjoyed these movies. Sure, they’re on a sliding scale of quality. The best was the first, the second was just a stepping stone to get us to the third. Still, though, I love them anyway. They’re not Oscar-worthy, but they’re fun for an afternoon of popcorn and laughter on the high seas.

One last note, though, before you go. Just remember: Calypso, the sea goddess, doesn't have a raging case of crabs - she is a raging case of crabs. Food for thought.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

When a film studio and a movie love each other very much (and by love, we mean the movie makes a huge wad of cash for the studio so it’s more like the love between a prostitute and a pimp, but I digress), they get together and make what we call a franchise. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a resounding success. So much so that Disney signed on to make more of them. They had a fun challenge: making a trilogy out of thin air. This is where things get interesting.

The second film is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The chest in question: actually a box. The dead man? I guess that’s connected to the mythology about where dead sailors, pirates, and seamen (get your minds out of the gutter) go. Davy Jones’ Locker (which should not be confused with the lockers that nerds get shoved into at school).

We start the film with a typical Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) entrance and find out that he’s in search of a unique key that opens a special chest. After a quick verbal tango with his skeptical crew, the movie continues and we find out from a surprisingly not dead Bootstrap Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgård) that our rum-soaked pirate made a deal to be Captain of the Black Pearl. His time as captain is up and the one who holds his debt is coming to collect.

Jack’s first thought? “Run away!”

Pirate.

Meanwhile, back on the island, Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth’s (Keira Knightley) wedding has been interrupted by men with guns. Both bride and groom are under arrest for assisting in the escape of Captain Jack Sparrow. Their jailer, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), offers Will a deal: get Jack’s compass and free himself and his ladylove. Of course he takes the deal and goes off on that madcap quest. After a futile escape attempt, Elizabeth ends up taking off after him in order to ensure their freedom.

With me so far? That’s great. I’d explain the rest of the movie, but it gets complicated. To make it easy on you, I’ll just say that as long as you keep the character’s end goals in mind, you’ll be able to keep up. I will warn you that there are tentacles, cannibals, eunuch jokes, ridiculous sword fights, more tentacles (not in a hentai way), and some awesome scene chewing. Captain Tentacle-Face himself, Davy Jones, is played by the ever awesome Bill Nighy. They also introduce the enigmatic, creepy-hot Tia Dalma as played by possible-future-Bond-Girl Naomie Harris.

It may not be as great a movie as the first, but I still love watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. As long as I’m entertained, it’s all good. Your nautical mileage may vary.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Picture this: You’re a Disney movie executive sitting behind your huge desk, just trying to finish up the last couple of meetings for the day before tee time and some guy comes in. He pitches you an idea about doing a movie based off of one of the many Disney park rides. Think about the bump in attendance that the parks would get as a result of the movie’s success! It sounds brilliant and unprecedented! Why not give it a shot? It’d at least get the guy to go away.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how we got the made-for-TV classic Disney’s Tower of Terror. It starred Steve Guttenburg and Kirsten Dunst. No, you probably didn’t see it. You should be glad you didn’t. I did.

Fortunately, it was forgettable stepping stones like that which bring us past the other ride-to-movie crap Disney did (Mission to MarsThe Country Bears, and The Haunted Mansion) and straight to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. To be honest, The Haunted Mansion was released a few months after Pirates, but we’re not going to talk about that movie. It’s better that way.

The prologue happens. There’s a little Elizabeth, a gruff sailor (Kevin McNally), little girl’s dad (Jonathan Pryce), and Captain Stick-Up-His-Ass Norrington (Jack Davenport). They encounter a burned ship and little Will Turner with a mysterious coin around his neck. The girl promises to take care of the boy and then promptly steals his coin once he passes out. Apparently, taking care of someone involves the theft of their valuables. Good to know!

Theoretically, the main plot of the movie is centered around the romance between the prologue's girl and the boy. Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), is now a lovely young lady and daughter of the island’s governor and Will (Orlando Bloom), is now an enterprising young man who’s apprenticed to a drunken blacksmith. Sure, it’s a cute story. Boy from the wrong side of the tracks in love with a rich girl who’s also got newly-promoted Commodore Stick-Up-His-Ass Norrington chasing her tail.

In reality, though, it’s all about the two scene-stealing pirates: Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his former mutinous first mate Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). After his grand entrance, the audience finds out that Jack is currently shipless and looking for a replacement. Barbossa, on the other hand, has Jack’s former ship and a nasty case of semi-undead from coming into contact with cursed gold and loose women.

Remember that coin Elizabeth stole? Yep. It was cursed. The coin gets rubbed the wrong way and summons the pirates to bring on the plot. There’s swash to be buckled, ships to be acquired, curses to break, and adventure to be had. Though not a work of cinematic greatness, it’s a great deal of fun to watch. For the record, this movie spawned the new pirate renaissance and inspired the swagger of many a would-be pirate captain. It may also be the reason why the rum is gone.

Nightmare on Elm St.

When most people think of writer/director Wes Craven, they think of the "big" movies: Swamp Thing (1982)Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)Music of the Heart (1999), you know ...the hits.  But, gentle reader, today I'd like to talk about one of his lesser known works: A Nightmare on Elm Street.

“If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all!”

Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is the daughter of one of the many couples from Elm Street that burned a suspected child-murderer named Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) alive.  Little did those civic-minded suburbanites realize that they’d unwittingly unleashed something much worse.  Now able to enter a victim’s dream and make any injury a reality, Fred has decided to exact terrible, bloody revenge on the children of his murderers.

The film’s greatest strength is Craven’s ability to blur the line between what the audience perceives as a dream, and reality.  Characters get up, walk around, perform normal activities only to realize too late that they’ve fallen asleep.  Craven cleverly gives the clues to audience members that are paying close attention such as the Shakespeare recitation in Nancy’s English class.  Before Nancy falls asleep, the student is reciting from Julius Caesar.  Once asleep, the passage changes to Hamlet. Craven’s biggest trick is the entire ending sequence.  Note how, after Nancy goes to sleep to find Fred and pull him out of the nightmare, she never wakes up!  Pay strict attention to position of Nancy’s blanket and the dream-like atmosphere of the end and you’ll see what I mean.

The film’s second greatest strength is Robert Englund.  Bucking the trend of silent, masked stalkers, Craven decided to create an actual character and cast a great character actor.  Even though the lighting is poor and he’s covered in the pizza-face make-up, one can still see Englund embuing Fred with a  real personality and malevolence.  Though in this first installment, Krueger is not the “star,” it comes as no surprise that his screen time increased with each succeeding film, to the character’s detriment, unfortunately.

Admittedly, most of the effects are a little dated at this point. However, Craven still delivers some of the most iconic death scenes of the slasher genre.  Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) anti-gravity agony is particularly disturbing.  And then there’s whatever Fred did to Johnny Depp .  Nobody knows.  All we know is he got sucked down into his mattress and a geyser of 300 gallons of blood erupted 30 seconds later.

I’d be remiss if I did not give composer Charles Bernstein credit for managing to make an 80s synthesizer sound creepy.  At four years old, this was the first horror movie I ever saw, and I didn't watch another one until I was fourteen!  Watching the film as I’m writing, it still gives me the creeps.   Thank you, Wes Craven, for creating a new mythology that lasted seven more films and a remake.