MOVIE REVIEW – ‘PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES’

Before I get into discussing On Stranger Tides, let me just state for the record that I have never cared about any of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I’ve never been  caught up in the worldwide hype; never been enamored of Johnny Depp’s drunken Keith Richards-as-a-pirate shtick;  never been emotionally invested in the romance between Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom; and hell, after the first movie, I’ve never been very clear on what exactly any of the characters are doing or what they’re after. The third film, At World’s End, had so many curses, compasses, dream sequences, and double and triple-crosses amongst the characters, that it became laughable.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with making epic pirate films; a good tale of skullduggery and adventure on the high seas should be epic. What they shouldn’t be, is pretentious, plodding, and overly convoluted to the point of incoherence. The Disney execs, realizing this, set out to scrape the barnacles off the hull of their quickly sinking ship by slashing the budget, scaling down the CGI, and stripping the story down to focus more on character. The result is a PoC movie that, despite being instantly forgettable, is more coherent and entertaining  than its predecessors.

Clocking it at 137 minutes;  On Stranger Tides is the leanest and meanest of the Pirates films, which says a lot about how overstuffed and ostentatious the other installments truly were. The main thrust of the film  finds Johnny Depp’s  now-iconic Captain Jack Sparrow and a number of other characters including Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and a detachment of  the Spanish Navy, searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth. In order to unlock the secrets of the Fountain, they need a map, two silver chalices (last seen with the Fountain’s discoverer, Ponce De Leon), and the magical tear of a captured Mermaid. Yes, really.

It becomes obvious right away that new franchise helmer  Rob Marshall  (Chicago, Nine)doesn’t shoot action as well as Verbinski, but there are some fun scenes, like Jack’s clever and frenetic escape from the heart of King George’s palace to a rousing carriage chase on the streets of London, and a terrific set piece where Blackbeard’s crew  are first enraptured, then assaulted by beautiful but vicious mermaids. Marshall does do quite well reproducing the scope and cinematography of the previous films, despite the reduced budget and lack of CGI monsters.

The sets and costumes are particularly excellent, especially Blackbeard’s  monstrous and ornate ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge.   And speaking of Blackbeard,  Deadwood’s Ian McShane cuts a menacing  figure as “The pirate all pirates fear”, employing zombified buccaneers as crew, and using his enchanted cutlass to command  the ship’s rigging to come to life and ensnare  mutinous sailors in its ropes. Sadly, the menace of Blackbeard is never truly realized, and ultimately the character is wasted in a climactic sequence that is essentially a rip off of the last ten minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The absolute low point in Stranger Tides is an utterly superfluous love story between Philip (Sam Claflin),a Bible-toting man of faith,  and the captured Mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The flow of the movie comes to a grinding halt whenever we are forced to watch these two vapid,  low-rent replacements for Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley befoul the screen with their overwhelming dullness. It’s a pandering, clumsy attempt at a star-crossed romance shoehorned into the script to appeal to the female quotient in the audience looking for their fix of cheap, bodice-ripping Harlequin storytelling. The time wasted on these bores would’ve been better spent on the relationship between Jack and Angelica –  a romantic story that actually showed some spark in the early goings, but was brushed away in favor of the aforementioned 18th century Splash nonsense and silly sequences of Jack hopping on palm trees, dropping coconuts on Spanish sailors’ heads.

And what about Mr. Depp?  Does his  fourth turn as Jack Sparrow crackle, or is he just collecting another seven-figure Disney paycheck? How does Jack Sparrow function as a protagonist without Bloom and Knightley around to bounce off of? Well, Depp isn’t visibly phoning it in here, but it’s clear to anyone who has seen the Curse of the Black Pearl, that the shine is wearing off for him. The film also doesn’t suffer from the absence of Knightley and Bloom at all, thanks in most part to Geoffrey Rush nearly stealing the show with his performance as the always enjoyable salty scaliwag, Captain Barbossa. Rush chews the scenery here masterfully, both as a foil and as an ally to Jack Sparrow. His character’s arc is the most interesting one in the film, and has the most satisfying resolution.

I read recently that the character of Jack Sparrow is  the closest thing the current movie-going generation has to an icon like Indiana Jones.  If that’s true, I smell a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the winds. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise isn’t a bloated, barnacle-covered corpse washed up on the shores of Tortuga Bay just yet, but that time is rapidly approaching.

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FIRST IMAGE OF TOM HARDY AS BANE REVEALED

The Dark Knight had some of the best viral marketing in movie history, and now it looks as if that mysterious stuff is going to continue with the final Christopher Nolan Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Warner Bros. opened the official website at thedarkknightrises.com, and if you head there, you’ll see a pixellated image of a figure. The code was cracked earlier today by some fans, and here is the image in all its glory (click image for hi-res version):

It’s our first glimpse of Tom Hardy as Bane, and it seems as if Nolan is going for a real “maniacal caged animal” look  for the character. I’m sure we’re in store for a lot more of these enigmatic images and viral tomfoolery for the next year. The Dark Knight Rises opens in June, 2012.

‘THE MUPPETS’ POSTER SHOWS OFF CREEPY KERMIT LEGS

Disney released the first teaser poster for their upcoming cinematic Muppets re-launch today, and well, it’s kinda…creepy? Call me a purist, but I feel the Muppets function better as characters when you only see them from the waist up. All previous attempts to make Muppets ambulatory have come across as a little odd at best, and downright terrifying at worst (except the dude-in-a-suit Sweetums, of course). Kermit’s appendages are so long and eerie, it conjures up the haunting imagery of The Slender Man urban legend. That’s the last association you want made with Jim Henson’s beloved felt creations, believe me. The Muppets is written and directed by Jason Segel and is in theaters on November 23.

9 GOOD THINGS ABOUT THE ‘FANTASTIC FOUR’ MOVIES

A while back, I wrote an article titled Top Ten Good Things About The Star Wars Prequels in which I  attempted to disprove the notion that the universally loathed Episodes I-III had absolutely no redeeming qualities. It was fairly well-received, so I began to think about other much-maligned movie franchises that might make for suitable sequels to the piece.  A friend suggested that I should try mining the dank, black coal caves of the two painfully mediocre Fantastic Four films for some valuable cinematic gems. Now, most Marvel Comics fans agree that Fantastic Four (2005) and the slightly better Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) leave a lot to be desired (many will tell you, quite bluntly, that they outright suck giant rhino balls). These duds feature unimaginative direction by Tim Story, a lack of epic scope, weak action scenes, a lousy latex Thing costume, the infamous “Galactus Cloud”, and a horribly mis-cast Julian McMahon as a weaselly business tycoon version of Dr. Doom. Yet, despite all of these shortcomings, I managed to dig up a few things – 9 to be precise – that will make you feel like you haven’t completely wasted precious hours of your life watching them. So, without further ado, LaserCola.com presents:

9 Good Things About The Fantastic Four Movies!

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TV REVIEW – ‘SMALLVILLE’ FINALE (SPOILERS)

In 2001, The WB Network aired the pilot episode of Smallville, a TV series that set out to explore the teenage years of Clark Kent before he took up the mantle of Earth’s greatest superhero. The show started off innocuously enough, following the Buffy template by substituting the “demon/vampire of the week” with a “Kryptonite Freak of the week” (usually teenagers at Smallville high with a mutation caused years earlier by the kryptonite meteor shower that occurred  during baby Kal-El’s crash-landing). Later, once Clark began to learn of his Kryptonian heritage, the series managed to escape its “Clark and the Scooby Gang solve mysteries” formula and developed into a fairly compelling show.

Then came the endless pining over Lana, copious amounts of “Peach Pit”-esque teen drama at The Talon coffee house, the tedious back-and-forth Lex/Clark interactions, Chloe’s magical laptop/cellphone (which allowed her to access government satellites and open any security door), the loss of the terrific John Schneider as Pa Kent, the move to college, the repeated “T&A” episodes where the female cast members became possessed or brainwashed by mystical artifacts and were compelled to act and dress like complete sluts, the addition of various members of the “Justice League” (dudes in multi-colored hoodies), the departure of Michael Rosenbaum as the show’s long-time primary antagonist, and  yet another transition to the offices of the Daily Planet in Metropolis.

Yet despite these glaring flaws, Smallville inexplicably endured — maintaining a small, but loyal following who wouldn’t be dissuaded, hungrily devouring their weekly fix of gooey Kryptonian cheese for a good five seasons longer than this show had any right to run. Somewhere around the 8th or 9th season (I stopped watching regularly somewhere in the college years) Smallville decided to start jamming its runtime with oodles of DC Comics characters in an effort to stay fresh and appease fanboys longing for the show to break it’s hallowed “no tights, no flights” rule. Over the past few seasons, the show has seen iterations of Zatanna, The Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Cyborg, Martian Manhunter, Doomsday, Braniac, Zod, Booster Gold, Silver Banshee, Blue Beetle, Hawkman, Star Girl, Dr. Fate, Supergirl, Bizarro, Black Canary, and yes, even Krypto the Superdog.   Ten long years and oodles of DC comic cameos later, Smallville is finally –perhaps mercifully — over.

The two-hour finale encapsulates everything that is wrong with the series —  endless 90210 / Dawson’s Creek-influenced angst, introspection, and navel gazing; weak action scenes;  cheesy special effects; anticlimactic resolutions to crises; wooden delivery of stilted dialog;  and nonsensical, overly convoluted plot threads. We are treated to the juxtaposition of Lois and Clark’s impending nuptials with the imminent destruction of Earth by the planet Apokolips, which is hurtling through space on a direct collision course in order to extinguish all life. Yes, that’s right, Smallville turned the entire planet of Apokolips, with its long and storied history in the pages of DC Comics, into nothing more than a giant projectile thrown at the Earth like a kid chucking a rock at a rusty old car window.

What made things even worse was the trademark Smallville feet-dragging, “dramatic build-up to a short and disappointing climax”routine. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but if I was Clark and I saw a gigantic, flame-spewing death world blotting out the sun and causing massive earthquakes, I would immediately stop everything, throw on the Superman costume, fly up to Apokolips, and start punching things. However, since this is Smallville, Clark felt the need to stand around looking angsty in the Daily Planet office listening to the radio with dozens of terrified people, investigate a cell-phone video message left by Tess (Lex’s sister…or his clone…or something equally dumb),  share a nauseatingly long and talky goodbye with Lois, fly to the ruins of the Luthor mansion for an even  longer and more pointless conversation with a resurrected Lex Luthor, and have a lame, anti-climactic fight with Darkseid (in the body of Lionel Luthor, Lex’s father…don’t even ask).

Finally, after all of that nonsense, we are treated to a scene where Clark goes into some kind of Kryptonian dream-state and sees old clips from the show’s history in some crystals, talks to the ghost of John Schneider, and is then given the blue and red tights by the disembodied voice of Jor-El.  This long-awaited, iconic moment that fans had been waiting ten years for falls completely flat, and sadly, is even somewhat laughable. The classic duds turn out to be a leftover costume from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, and Tom Welling — who repeatedly stated that he would never put on the costume –holds true to his word, as we only see close-ups of his head. All full-body shots are rendered in CGI that’s on par with a Syfy Channel original movie. Clark, now revealed to the world as Superman, rescues Air Force One (in a callback to the original 1978 Donner film), and in a hugely un-satisfying moment, simply pushes Apokolips back into space with no resistance. Now, with a limited TV budget, obviously we weren’t going to be treated to epic fight scenes of Superman battling hordes of Darkseid’s Para-Demons, his son Kalibak, or even the Female Furies, but for the Master of the Omega Effect and Lord of the Anti-Life Equation to put up absolutely no fight whatsoever is simply weak.

The Smallville finale actually does end on a high note, but that’s probably due to the soaring, classic John Williams Superman music that underscores the show’s last five minutes more than anything else. In this sequence, we are treated to a flash-forward seven years in the future where Perry White is Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen is snapping photos, Lois is hunting down stories, and Clark is a mild-mannered reporter waiting to leap into action to save the world as the Man of Steel. The final image of the series sees Welling running towards the camera, and pulling his shirt open to reveal the iconic “S” shield as John Williams epic score swells up. It’s a moment that goes a long way to make one forget about the terrible missteps this once-promising series took…but it doesn’t go far enough.