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.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

If you’ve stumbled onto this website by accident and have somehow been unable to pick up on the obvious, we here at the Cavalcade love a bad movie.  In fact, we meet every month to just rip a movie apart for four hours.  It’s surprisingly cathartic.  In 2009, when director Michael Bay unleashed the cinematic equivalent of the baby from Eraserhead (1977) known as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (RotF), we started chomping at the bit for the third installment.  The third movie in any Sci-Fi/Fantasy series is always the worst and considering just how awful RotF was, DotM would probably be the worst movie since Ed Wood conned his way onto a film set.  So you can imagine our surprise when we report that DotM is actually….good?

Years have past since the events of RotF and the Autobots and Sam (Shia Labeouf) are busy trying to make their way in the world.   However, since something has to happen or there is no movie (and even worse, no merchandising rights) the Decepticons start playing their old tricks again, revealing a secret withheld from the Autobots.  As it turns out, the entire space race was actually to find a crashed Autobot ship on the moon; as opposed to the betterment of mankind (and the crushing of Communism).  This sets off a chain of events that could legitimately end world.  I cannot go into further details for fear of revealing spoilers as there is so much plot in this movie.

If you’ve just finished laughing hysterically, I will say it again: there is an actual plot in a Transformers movie directed by Michael Bay.  I would not have believed it had I not seen it myself; but I did and I do.  Granted, it is a “We have to prevent DOOM!” plot, but it is solid. A leads to B, which in turn leads to C-as opposed to RotF: wherein A lead to B lead to HIDEOUS RACISM and testicle jokes.  It is almost as if Bay and the writers watched RotF, made notes as to where they went wrong and did the exact opposite for DotM.  This includes keeping the story moving forward at all times, explaining what the hell is going on, presenting the Transformers as actual characters, balancing the action and the talking, and cutting any and all superfluous characters.

This leads into an even scarier admission: I even enjoyed the humans in this film.  Whereas in the previous installments everyone was basically a caricature, here they are characters.  Sam Witwicky is dealing with trying to get his first job out of college, and speaking as someone looking for work in this economy, I can identify with this character.  Bay gives every character on screen something real to do that advances the story, even the previously annoying Wheelie and Brains.

Make no mistake: this is still a Michael Bay film.  There are more than enough explosions, boobs, slow motion, low angles, and military advertising for the film to meet Mr. Bay’s demands that “everything be awesome!”  However, he also decided to make his most solid picture since The Rock (1996), and for that we reluctantly thank him for making a movie that we will only be able to make fun of half as much as we had hoped.

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.

Thor

It should come as little shock to anyone who visits this site that the staff here are nerdlings (not to be confused with zerglings) to the nth degree. As such, it surprises one even less that several of us are not only avid comic book readers, but more specifically fans of the Marvel comics version of Thor, Norse God of Thunder. We've sat through two Hulks (one terrible, one kinda fun), two Iron Man films (both good, first one better), and a lot of trailers; but finally, ladies and gentlemen...It's Hammer Time!

I had to say it at least once. I won't do it again. Promise.

The picture starts off following a team of storm chasing astrophysicists headed by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who at the age of 29 is finally looking over the age of 18), the film, and the team, quickly run into Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Quite literally. With a car. Not the most auspicious introduction, certainly. Quickly, however, the story rewinds back a few hundred years to develop the backstory of Odin's (Anthony Hopkins) defense of the nine realms (of which Earth is one) against the threat of the Frost Giants. The narration continues on about how it will be his future heir's duty, either Thor or his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), to hold the line. It's here where we're reminded yet again that Hopkins is a member of that elite cadre of actors of whom we wouldn't mind listening to a reading of the Sears catalogue.

As time passes, Thor is chosen as heir to the throne, (much to the consternation of Loki) though he is still brash and headstrong. Eventually he leads an ill-fated expedition into the heart of the Frost Giant kingdom, kicking ass and taking names like any storm god should, but threatening the tenuous truce that has lasted the last few centuries. Odin gets ticked, and rightfully so, booting Thor from Asgard to Midgard (Earth for those less up on their Viking nomenclature). It's here where the film turns into more of a romantic comedy, but still maintains its charm, providing a timely break from all the Magic talk and immortals. It's these elements that help cement what is essentially a high fantasy film into a relatable reality, which is a key quality for a superhero flick.

Speaking of which, as this is being integrated into the grand "Marvel Avengers film plan", there are a lot of references to the Hulk and Iron Man films, as well as a nod to the Captain America picture slated for later this year. All of this is done with much the same style and technique that the original comics did years ago, and never bogs down the film. Indeed, when a giant armored weapon of godly distruction is sent to New Mexico and the first response by a government agent is "Is this another one of Stark's?" only to be followed by "Who knows? He never tells me anything." is a nice light touch, keeping the film universe alive.

All told, Thor is a rollicking good adventure flick. It takes just the right amount of time to develop its characters enough so that when the requisite effects-laden battles begin, you actually care about the results even though you know exactly what they'll be. Additionally, the film is fun enough that when it comes home on Blu-Ray or DVD, you can still have a blast with a superhero-themed Cavalcade crew.

Tron: Legacy

Disney’s 1982 cult phenom TRON addressed a very important question for its time: what was man’s place in the growing world of computers? Nearly thirty years later, TRON: Legacy had a very different question to answer: How do you make a sequel relevant when a chunk of the movie-watching audience wasn’t even alive (this reviewer included) when the first one came out? The answer, apparently, was very simple:

Make it pretty and add a healthy dose of daddy issues and existential angst.

During the prologue, Sam Flynn(Garrett Hedlund) lost his father. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), hero of the first TRON, didn’t die. He just never came home after leaving one night to work at the Arcade. This, of course, leaves our hero with a substantial chip on his shoulder. His resentment over his father’s abandonment manifests in leading a mediocre life while engaging in yearly pranks against the company in which he’d inherited a major stake. A mysterious page sent to substitute-father-figure Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) kicks off Sam’s journey into the digital wonderland known as The Grid.

The Grid is a darker place now, ruled by fascist CLU (Jeff Bridges again) with an assist from mouthpiece Jarvis (a disturbingly bald James Frain) and enforcer Rinzler (Anis Cheurfa). It’s not all bad, though, as most of the vinyl-clad inhabitants look like they belong in Lady Gaga music videos. After getting a bit over his head, Sam’s rescued by the awesomely adorable Quorra (Olivia Wilde).  She takes him to the Fortress of Zen where The Flynn abides.

The Flynn explains a great number of things while setting up the background for CLU’s daddy issues and subsequent rise to power. The movie stalls a bit there, stumbling over the weight of its philosophical questions,but soon ramps up again for the inevitable showdowns. Highlights of the final act of the film include a delightful run-in with Castor (Michael Sheen), nightclub owner and Ziggy Stardust-wannabe, and a cameo by the film’s composers-the  electronica duo Daft Punk.

Visually stunning, TRON: Legacy was gorgeous in theaters and fantastic on Blu-ray. For those who tend to overthink these things, it serves as a great conversational topic at parties (Holocaust metaphor vs. Milton’sParadise Lost). Otherwise, it’s just a lot of fun, true to the original while bringing in a more modern, self-centered sensibility.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The

At the start of  Jon Turteltaub's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, legend tells us (in Ian McShane’s uncredited dulcet tones) that there was a great Sorcerer’s War back in the day.  The good guys were led by Merlin (of course).  He had three apprentices: Veronica (Monica Belucci), Balthazar (Nicholas Cage), and Horvath (Alfred Molina). For plotty reasons, Horvath betrays his comrades and joins with Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige).  It’s the Borg Queen, so why resist?  Besides, all she wants to do is raise the dead and unleash untold horrors upon mankind.

What’s sexier than world domination?

Through a bit of luck and sacrifice, Morgana is imprisoned inside the body of Veronica and a dying Merlin sends Balthazar on the quest for the Prime Merlinian (not to be confused with the Prime Meridian, though that’s what I kept hearing).  A montage shows his centuries’ long search, testing children all over the world.  Then, we leave Balthazar be and focus on the movie’s hero.

Now, imagine you’re ten years-old and on a school trip.  Imagine that you’ve been trying to impress the cute girl in your class for ages.  You finally give her one of those: “Do you want to be my girlfriend: ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” type of letters.  Before you get a response, it’s blown off into the street and, finally, into creepy-looking shop where you run into a crazy man.  The man then hands you an awesome ring and tells you you’re a sorcerer.  That’d be pretty cool, right?  Either that or it’d be grounds for years of therapy.  Unfortunately for Dave (Jake Cherry), it’s the latter after a magical battle royale between old frenemies Balthazar and Horvath leaves him looking like he’d wet himself during a nervous breakdown.

And we fast-forward ten years (to the day) to an older Dave (Jay Baruchel) waking up, grabbing the obligatory nerd breakfast of Mountain Dew, and getting lectured by his friend and roommate about not participating in life.  Friends really need to stop giving these lectures in movies.  People tend to get hurt.  Lucky for Dave, this is a Disney movie.  Otherwise, he’d be totally screwed.  As it would happen, he runs into the girl he’d adored when he was ten, Becky (Teresa Palmer), and decides to give it another go.  Again, it’s Disney.  This is entirely plausible.  Then, Balthazar catches up with him and tells him that he's taking Dave on as his apprentice as they try to save the world from Horvath and Morgana.

Some highlights of the rest of the very Disney movie include Nicholas Cage finally embracing the insanity that actually makes him fun to watch and Alfred Molina chewing up every scene he’s in like it’s delicious candy.  Oh, did I mention the neat Tesla Coil effects?  There are Tesla Coils!  There’s also a nice homage to the original “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” short from Disney’s Fantasia.

Disney’s lucky that my inner child and I are the best of friends and that we’re both easily amused.  Otherwise, I might have started on a tirade about how the three female roles boil down to simple stereotypes: bitch, damsel in distress, and self-sacrificing beauty who just wants to be normal.  Or I could have gone into how the more interesting characters didn’t get as much screen time as they deserved.  As it was, I enjoyed it for the fluff it was and try not to think about how awesome it could have been.

Queens Blade Vol 1: Single Step

Fan Service: a vaguely defined term primarily used for anime and manga to refer to artificial or self-aware sensory elements that would operate to please a regular or target audience, material that is designed to amuse or excite the audience with sexually derived content. Excessive content is usually considered gratuitous regardless of its justification in relation to the narrative in which it takes place.

Any gratuitous content included in some form of entertainment primarily to please a core group of fans is fan service. The typical, but not only, variety of fan service is racy or sexual content used to titillate the viewer, such as nudity or other forms of eye candy.

The lengthy definition from Wikipedia placed above can and will tell you everything you need to know about the anime series to be discussed here today. It would also be wrong...albeit only technically. But I may be getting ahead of myself a bit.

The fantasy series takes place in a land where women from all over compete in the Queen’s Blade tournament, a competition of Strength and Beauty, to determine the next Queen.  All flourishes aside, the main plot is focused on girls in ever-more creatively designed outfits (that strictly conform to the rules of fantasy armor: The less it covers, the more it protects), fighting each other and frequently slashing off bits and pieces of each other’s armor in titillating ways.

Or to put it even more simply: It’s Boobs and Swords.

This is why this isn’t technically “fan service.” Fan service is a sideline distraction from the main goal of the story. Here, all the breast shots, panty shots, and other bits are the whole point. That said, it’s actually a mildly amusing show, with the plot taken straight out of a fighting game. Actually, the entire series is based on a series of game books, and was later translated to consoles as exactly that.

If you ever try to convince someone that either the sword and sorcery genre, or anime in general for that matter, are not the domain of immature adolescents and perverts, you would do well to stay far, far away from this series. However, the fight sequences are enjoyable, and I always enjoy being reminded of just how downright odd the Japanese culture can be. Seeing a bunch of ninjas melt and transform into a giant frog demon that’s several stories high is weird enough, seeing it caress another ninja’s breast with its several meter long tongue is downright bizarre.

All this after the previous episode featured a demon who lactated acid when squeezed by the hands that grew out of her hair.

This is the part where I’m compelled to tell you that this is not Hentai. This isn’t porn. Even further, it somehow got rated TV-14-and let me tell you: 14-year-old me is pleased as punch.

Haunted World of El Superbeasto, The

If you’ve seen any of Rob Zombie’s films and music videos, you have a good idea of what Zombie enjoys: violence, cars, the 70s, wrestling, monsters, and tits....Not necessarily in that order, mind you.  So, it should come as no surprise that when Zombie decided to make a feature length cartoon titled The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, it would have all of those things.  But, you know, in cartoon form.

Based on the comic book of the same name (which I own…SHAME!), El Superbeasto (Tom Papa) is a luchador (Mexican wrestler)/celebrity who only wants a nice plate of buffalo wings and the sweet, sweet ass of Velvet Von Black (Rosario Dawson).  Unfortunately, Von Black is the key to Dr. Satan’s (Paul Giamatti) plan to obtain world domination through the “sudsy powers” of HELL!  So, ‘Beasto recruits the help of his sister/international super spy Suzi X (she’s hot, she’s blonde, AND she has a squeaky voice. You guessed it: Sheri Moon Zombie).  What follows can only be described as "madcap", “For Mature Audiences Only,” and … "gooey".

Part of what makes this film a lot of fun is that it’s done in the style of the old Looney Tunes.  There’s an extended title sequence featuring single frames of art behind the titles and cast.  There are multiple cameos of horror film icons like Jack Torrance, Michael Myers, The Devils Rejects crew, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon among others in the same fashion of celebrity cameos in old Bugs Bunny and Tiny Toons cartoons.

And what was missing from those old Warner Bros. cartoons?  Gratuitous female nudity!  The film is strange because it’s not presented like an adult Japanese animated film, or even a Ralph Bakshi film.  It’s not presented as a pornographic film.  It’s a silly Scooby Doo-esque cartoon with full frontal nudity and butt hair...Lots of butt hair.

Providing music and a running commentary throughout the entire film is Chris Hardwick’s comedy band, Hard ‘n Phirm.  The songs elevate the film in that they make fun of it, including an extended indictment of a parody of the prom scene in Carrie (1976) .

Zombie’s animated epic runs only about 80 minutes but, oddly, it’s a long 80 minutes.  There are long stretches where jokes do not hit, and sight gags are few and far between.  However, if you liked Ren & Stimpy, you’re probably going to enjoy the trip into the “Haunted World.”

Oh, and if nothing else, there’s also a million Nazi zombies.