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Parallel Mothers (2021)

There is little else like a Pedro Almodóvar movie. The famed Spanish writer/director has been making movies since the 1980s and across an eclectic array of tones and genres. He can make a sexual farce, an unsettling thriller, a moving character-based drama, or a movie with elements of all three in harmony. Almodóvar has found ways to take some of the strangest story elements and make them feel real. Watch a movie like 2002’s Talk to Her, which he won his only (!) Oscar for, or 2011’s The Skin I Live In, or 2006’s Volver, and marvel at how seamlessly Almodóvar can combine any element, any genre, any twist, and turn it into genuine emotional pathos. He’s a witty man but rarely is he flippant, especially as he matured throughout the 1990s. He genuinely cares about his characters and treats their dramas as serious business no matter the content. Parallel Mothers is another example of Almodóvar, even in his seventies, operating at the top of his unique artistic capabilities. This is definitely one of the best movies of 2021. Find it when you can, dear reader.

Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are both recent mothers in Madrid; Janis is pushing 40 and planned on having her first child, and Ana is in her late teens and her pregnancy was an accident. They share a hospital room, bond over their ordeal, and exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Months later, both women are acclimating to the growing demands of motherhood, except for a gnawing doubt that has taken hold of Janis. Her boyfriend and the reported father of her baby, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), believes he is not the baby’s father and wants a DNA test. Janis is outraged, but the more she begins to think about it, the more she cannot let this nagging doubt go.

Parallel Mothers is an unpredictable drama that also has a surprising heft to it when it comes to emotional substance. When I read the premise of this movie, I erroneously thought it was going to be a two-hander of a story about two different mothers, one older and one younger, connecting over their new babies and sharing their experiences, hopes, and fears about raising a child at their respective ages. That is a fraction of the movie, but Almodóvar’s deft storytelling is refreshingly nuanced and unexpected. There were several turns in the movie where I audibly said, “Ohhhhh,” or, “Did not see that coming.” Instead of resting on his plot turns, Almodóvar makes sure that the aftermath is given its due time. I really appreciated that; here is a writer who knows throwing sensational elements or twists is not as important as focusing on how they affect the characters and narrative. When Janis begins to doubt whether her child is hers, that’s when Almodóvar is just getting started. There are several twists that are so well staged and developed, and each one brings added intensity and another chance to revise everything we know. I loved watching the movie because I genuinely could not anticipate where things would go next, and each additional turn was organic, meaningful, and would compound the guilt or fears of the main characters. It might seem like a soap opera when you distill all these outrageous elements to their essence, but Almodóvar has always excelled at taking the outrageous and making it sincere.

The movie explores motherhood but also generational connections and understanding the past to better understand the present. Janis and Ana have different though distant relationships to their mothers. For Janis, her mother died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 when she was only five years old. She was raised by her grandmother and has no picture of her biological father (the only thing she knows about him is that he was a Venezuelan drug dealer). By having a child, a goal she’s wanted to do for some time before 40, it allows her a chance of bringing her father’s genetics back into the world, to potentially see what he may look like, to bring back life that has been absent. It’s such a beautiful idea, and also articulated in 2009’s Away We Go to poignant effect. For Janis, having a child is a way for her to reconnect with her past, her parents she’s never known, and honor her grandmother. For Ana, her own mother left her when she was younger to purse her acting career, and now that she’s having a baby history is repeating as she’s once again leaving to tour with a theater show. Janis thought she knew who the father of her baby was, and insists she was only intimate with Arturo, but this ends up being another point of connection between the two mothers. Ana is unsure whom the father is of her child, though hopeful it’s a select person she had feelings for at the time. These babies mean different things for each woman but they both love them completely, no matter what devastation happens later. These beloved children are means of connecting to their past.

Another aspect that Almodóvar includes strengthened this movie as great for me, and initially it seemed like an odd fit until the thematic richness becomes realized. Before she was pregnant, Janis was determined to secure an exhumation of what is believed to be a mass grave in a small rural village from the Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco’s regime. Using modern technology and careful attendants, they can uncover this crime of the past and provide closure and dignity to generations of family members still left with unanswered questions. The movie returns to this storyline again late, as if Almodóvar is putting a fine point on bringing home his message of reckoning with our past and the importance of uncovering painful truths. Janis and Arturo return to this small village and interview descendants about what they can remember about their departed loved ones, the men whose remains may be found. It’s such a sincere expression of empathy and generosity, and the short snippets of interviews allow the movie to broaden its scope, adding different mothers and daughters to the sphere and creating even more spokes of human connection. What Janis is doing is a legitimate kindness, an act she hopes to better understand her own history and family ties to the worst that her country had to offer under Franco. One villager recounts how her grandfather had to dig his own grave, then was sent home for the night, only to be reclaimed and never return the next day. “Why didn’t he run if given the chance?” Janis asks. The descendant relates he couldn’t be without his wife and daughter, even for a night, even if it meant his certain doom.

Cruz has never been better than when she’s collaborated with Almodóvar (2006’s Volver was her first Oscar nomination). She goes through some emotional wringers here, the details of which I will not spoil, but it is an understatement to say that Janis is presented with a very complicated scenario. Each scene, especially in the second half once Almodóvar’s box of twists has been unpacked, has so much conflicted emotion for Cruz to cycle through on her face, swallowing guilt and hope and desire and dread. She’s fully deserving of another Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking work with the messiest of material. Smit (The Girl in the Mirror) is a screen partner equal to the challenge but her character is more in the dark by narrative necessity.

I’m loath to reveal too much more when it comes to the potent central drama of Parallel Mothers, because it’s so well developed and so well performed that you should really experience it for yourself. Knowing ahead of time the added complexities won’t ruin the movie, but I had more appreciation for how Almodóvar was so nimbly able to keep upending my expectations and my sense of understanding as it pertained to the two mothers. It’s a delicate drama, nourishing with empathy and also heart-rending in the dread of what Janis may choose to do next. Thank you, filmmakers of the world, for lifting the 2021 year in cinema for me. Parallel Mothers is one of the best films you’ll see this year and an affecting examination on reconciliation.

Nate’s Grade: A

Vanilla Sky (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 14, 2001:

Talk about a film’s back story. Tom Cruise signed on to do a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) which was directed by Alejandro Amenabar. During the filming the romance between Cruise and Penelope Cruz (no relation) got a little hotter than expected onscreen and broke up his long-standing marriage to Nicole Kidman. At the time she was finishing filming The Others which is the second film by Amenabar. This, by the way, is much more interesting than Vanilla Sky unfortunately.

Cameron Crowe’s remake starts off promising enough with Tom Cruise running around an empty Times Square like a Twilight Zone episode. Afterwards the film begins to create a story that collapses under its own weight. David (Cruise) is a rich boy in control of a publishing empire inherited through his dear old deceased dad. He has the time to throw huge parties where even Spielberg hugs him, and even have crazy sex with crazy Cameron Diaz, whom he tells his best friend (Jason Lee) is his “f*** buddy.” David begins to see a softer side of life with the entrance of bouncy and lively Sophia (Cruz) and contemplates that he might be really falling in love for the first time. But this happiness doesn’t last long as jealous Diaz picks up David in her car then speeds it off a bridge killing her. Then things get sticky including David’s disfiguration, his attempts to regain that one night of budding love and a supposed murder that he committed.

Crowe is in over his head with this territory. His knack for wonderful exchanges of dialogue and the perfect song to place over a scene are intact, but cannot help him with this mess. Vanilla Sky is an awkward mish-mash of science fiction. The film’s protagonist is standoffish for an audience and many of the story’s so-called resolutions toward the end are more perfunctory than functional. The ending as a whole is dissatisfying and unimaginative. By the time the wonderful Tilda Swinton shows up you’ll likely either be asleep or ready to press the eject button yelling “cop out!”

Seeing Vanilla Sky has made me want to hunt for Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos and see what all the hype was about, because if it is anything like its glossy American counterpart then I have no idea why world audiences went wild for it.

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Movies have long resorted to being interactive puzzles, inviting audiences to unravel the mystery and hunt for clues as detectives. That’s essentially what Vanilla Sky is at its best, a messy mishmash of a movie that aims a little too high and pins its hopes with a generally unlikeable lead. This psychodrama is meant for dissection, not in a dreamy, obtuse way that David Lynch films invite but more in a canny re-calibration of pop-culture homages and fantasies. The big twist of the movie is that David (Tom Cruise), a rich publishing scion recovering from a savage accident, has elected to live in a simulation, a lucid dream that has been his home for the last hundred-plus years (how kind of the multiple generations of knob-turners to keep things operating). Other stories have followed a similar Twilight Zone-esque twist on the same territory, including the beloved “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror (that’s right, spoilers, spoilers all around for older sci-fi). Writer/director Cameron Crowe has stated there are over 400 pop-culture connections and references to be had with this movie. The movie is wall-to-wall cultivated jams, as expected from a Crowe picture, but the homages and recreations go beyond simply placing a piece of music to a scene or name dropping an artist. The visual language of the movie is intended to be deconstructed, built upon twentieth-century album covers, music, movies, and plenty more. It’s a dense artistic gamble and, ultimately, I question who is even going to care enough to dive into this movie? Who is going to want to watch Vanilla Sky as a detective?

This American remake of a 1997 Spanish movie was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of Crowe’s career as a major director of studio movies for adults. Crowe had just experienced the apex of his career with 2000’s luminescent Almost Famous, a warm hug of a movie, and he had won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It makes sense to try for something big, reunite with his Jerry Maguire star, and go outside his comfort zone with a wide artistic berth of freedom. The 2001 movie just did not work, though not strictly because of Crowe’s game efforts. This is not a miscalculated folly, an artist flying too close to the sun and getting burnt by their arrogance. I think the major flaw comes down to pinning the mystery on the recovery of the romantic and social life of a disagreeable lead character. Early on, David is established as rich, careless, and smug. He keeps his responsibilities as fleeting as his relationships with women. When his on-again-off-again paramour, Julie (Cameron Diaz), drives off a bridge with David inside, part of you might be thinking he deserves what he got for being so callously indifferent with other people. That’s harsh, I realize, but people will not like David, and this is amplified by the general public’s diastase for Cruise himself. Therefore, watching a movie where he tries to overcome him disfigurement and disability and stop being a jerk to everyone in his life is not a journey that invites the viewer to come aboard. He’s just not that interesting as our centerpiece. What’s happening to him can prove interesting, especially as the movie plays with our mind, but at no point will the extended pity party for poor rich David feel compelling as its own drama.

This is the problem with movies that are built around Big Twists: limited replay value. After you know the super twist, very often these movies fail to justify another two-hour investment. Take for instance 1997’s The Game, the forgotten David Fincher movie. It’s a thriller where Michael Douglas is on the run and doesn’t know who is responsible for chasing him. Then the movie says, “Surprise, it’s [blank],” and then it ends. Not every twist unlocks a new and exciting prism of how to view the preceding hours, like a Sixth Sense or Fight Club. Most movies built upon a big reveal as their conclusion tend to deflate immediately. There’s no real reason to watch The Game a second time if you already know what is happening. There’s no real reason to watch 2003’s Identity again once you know all the ridiculous secrets. There’s no real reason to watch Vanilla Sky once you know the explanation for all the strange little hiccups along David’s fraying mental state.

Look, tons of movies are built around extended mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Knives Out, but the pleasure goes beyond simply solving of the puzzle. It’s the characters, the red herrings, the inspectors or detectives or chief solver of mystery. There is more there for entertainment. With Vanilla Sky, what we’re left with is a lackluster romance of a former pretty boy moping over his slightly adjusted privilege. It’s not like David’s character arc is illuminating or insightful. It’s not like we’re watching the battle over his soul here. He’s just kind of an affable jerk, and then David becomes a scarred jerk, and then he decides to wake up and be a jerk in real life. Progress?

There is a discussion to be had about how much of the movie is a dream, or where real life ends and the dream begins, and apparently even Crowe has determined there are six general interpretations, from the movie’s true and when Tech Support (Noah Taylor) says he switches over is when the dream occurs, to the unfulfilling “it was all a dream” interpretation. I suppose this could be fun for others but again I don’t think there are enough enjoyable components in the movie to incentivize the debate.

In some ways, this is one of Cruise’s most vain-free performances, yet there is an undercurrent that only seems even more vain. First the obvious; he plays a womanizer who also wears a mask for half of the movie to cover his scarred Phantom of the Opera visage. There’s a lack of vanity playing an annoying, arrogant, unpleasant person, something Cruise has done before and quite well, especially in his extraordinary Oscar-nominated turn in 1999’s Magnolia. He’s even played characters with physical disabilities before, like 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. However, this “lack of vanity” really plays out as a vain attempt to be even more impressive as a respected thespian. The movie was positioned for a mid-December release, and with Crowe and Cruise on board, it seemed like a legitimate awards contender, until that is it opened wide. While Cruise’s performance is fine, his time under the mask doesn’t proverbially unmask his character for our better consumption.

Vanilla Sky is mostly known as the big American debut of Penelope Cruz. She was already a muse for Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and known well in the indie circuit, but from here she became Hollywood’s newest It Girl, only to be stranded in mediocre studio movie after mediocre studio movie (Does anyone remember Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?). It wasn’t until Almodóvar’s 2006 film Volver that studio execs seemed to finally understand how best to utilize her great talent. She won an Oscar for 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona and was nominated the following year for the musical Nine. She recently reunited with Almodóvar for 2021’s Parallel Mothers and again is wowing audiences. From early on, she definitely has a spark, an effervescence to her performance in Vanilla Sky. She’s also fighting against being forcibly elbowed into the swampy Manic Pixie Dream Girl category, a term that was originally coined for Crowe’s follow-up film, 2005’s Elizabethtown. Crowe loves writing women under these quirky conditions, however, the movie is told from a flawed male dream perspective, so it also makes sense if its portrayal of David’s idyllic dream woman happens to flatten her down.

It’s true that the story behind the scenes of Vanilla Sky proves more intriguing than the film itself. Cruise and Nicole Kidman were the Hollywood power couple. The ensuing tabloid feeding frenzy over their breakup and Cruise/Cruz relationship outlived the legacy of Vanilla Sky. This was the most ambitious and experimental movie in Crowe’s tenure as a writer/director, and he would never again return to science-fiction as a genre, keeping to the familiar lane of prestige dramas declining in prestige with each new film. My original review in the closing weeks of 2001 was pretty minimal in analysis. I knew this movie didn’t quite work then and it still doesn’t work now. If you’re eager for a dissertation-level analysis on its pop-culture fantasia, then God’s speed to you and your infinite free time.

Re-View Grade: C

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Take my opinion with all the caution you need when I say this: I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie mysteries. Sacrilege, I know, but I just don’t find enjoyment from a mystery that is too convoluted, oblique, dense, and purposely unable to be solved until the clever detective explains everything. That’s not a mystery that engages an audience; it’s a problem that is followed by an intermediate period of downtime. Murder on the Orient Express is a remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning film, this time with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as Christie’s brilliant Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The original film’s appeal wasn’t the story (see above) but in spending time with the colorful suspects played by many older actors decades removed from their Hollywood peak. It was scenery chewing of a first order. The 2017 Orient Express has some slick production design and requisite big name actors but that’s about it. There are a few alterations here and there but the big moments are the same as is the ending, which means it’s another mystery primarily of obfuscation. I just don’t find these fun to watch. I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t really involved. It failed to provide ways for me to connect, to put the clues and pieces together, and confused volume with development. The new actors feel wasted, especially Judi Dench. I was most fascinated by Branagh’s extensive mustache that seems to have grown its own mustache. If you’re a fan of Poirot, Christie, or the original film, there will probably be enough in this new edition to at least tide you over. I wasn’t too sad to get off this train by the end.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Counselor (2013)

counselor-2The magnitude of author Cormac McCarthy’s involvement should not go understated in discussions over The Counselor. The acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author has written modern classics often exploring the darker side of humanity. McCarthy’s first screenplay must have seemed like a hot commodity for all of Hollywood. It attracted director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and a score of A-list actors. The anticipation was that McCarthy could match the brilliance of his prose. The Counselor, a dreary and lackluster thriller in every conceivable way, proves that McCarthy still has an uphill learning curve when it comes to serviceable screenwriting.

The titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seems to have a nice life. He’s just proposed to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and their sex life is vigorous. Then an old client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), invites the Counselor in on a shady drug transportation deal. The allure of easy money is too much for the Counselor to resist. Naturally, things do not go according to plan. A Mexican cartel intercepts the transport truck, bodies pile up, and the stakes get very personal for the Counselor.

Cameron-Diaz-and-Penelope-Cruz-in-The-Counselor-2013-Movie-Image1To be blunt, if McCarthy had submitted this script under a different name, it never would have made its way to the big screen. This is the award-winning author’s first screenplay and it shows. The pacing is shockingly slack, with the film rarely having any sense of life onscreen. I’m not a slave to the standard three-act structure of Hollywood screenwriting, but you need to produce something that keeps pushing the film forward, heading to a finale that seemed inevitable. McCarthy’s script is bogged down with pointless scene after pointless scene, little arias that get away from him, indulging his characters to monologue at length about philosophical nonsense. There are lengthy conversations about diamond shapes, the very nature of existence, and all sorts of Matrix Reloaded-like lingual excesses. These characters talk round and round; it feels like there aren’t even other characters in the room. Their lengthy, pretentious conversations also do little to push the narrative along or reveal essential bits of character. You get to hear one crime kingpin talk about his favorite poet. Great, but what can you say about him beyond the fact that he’s well read? Every character in this movie, from top to bottom, is a vapid space. Some of them have interesting aspects/quirks, like owning cheetahs or masturbating on car windshields, but not one character can be described as interesting. Beyond the terms “ruthless,” “pragmatic,” and “naïve,” I cannot even fathom a way to describe anyone in this film. They don’t even really work as plot devices because that would imply causality. When you couple the void of characterization with ponderous, rambling dialogue, then you’re already sabotaging your entertainment chances.

The plotting is muddled beyond all comprehension. I like to consider myself a pretty sharp moviegoer, but I was left scratching my head far too often. With a paucity of characterization and some idle pacing, I was confused as to what exactly was going on, sometimes even just at a literal level. What was this plan? How do all the players fit in? Why are the betrayers acting as they do? Who works for whom? Why should I be shocked about revealing the identity of a betrayer when it was made all too obvious in a previous scene (note: this is so directly transparent that it cannot count as foreshadowing)? Why does the appearance of a DVD signify finality after a previous phone conversation already did the same thing? And most of all why should I care? Watching this movie is like traveling through a long, impenetrable fog. There are serious, ongoing clarity issues, which make those florid digressions and overall pointless character nattering to be even more maddening. There are well known actors that come in just for single scenes, and then those scenes amount to little to nothing on the overall bearing of the plot. The Counselor doesn’t feel like a fully formed story; it feels like a collection of 30 scenes served as disposable sides for actors during preliminary auditions.

Even worse, for a film about drug deals gone badly, murder, and Cameron Diaz masturbating on a windshield, The Counselor is deathly boring. I grew restless before the halfway mark and just kept hoping beyond all evidence that the film was going to find some direction and pick up the intrigue. It did not. The film’s essential story structure, criminals getting in over their heads and paying a price, is a familiar one. This structure can work to marvelous results both grand (Goodfellas) and small (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead). Hell, even McCarthy’s own novel lead to the brilliant, Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men. Look at how the Coen brothers approach the macho, nihilistic material as opposed to its author. They created a sense of all-consuming dread with efficiency, elegance, and their characteristic macabre sense of humor. Watching The Counselor, it’s like the turgid knockoff of a McCarthy novel. When I got home I felt like I had to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. Tarantino is given to long indulgences of elaborate dialogue as well, but he makes his characters interesting, with personalities that grab you and stand out, and listening to his dialogue is a pleasure unto itself.

McCarthy’s brand of ruthless killing has its peculiar intrigue, but again it only functions as morbidly fascinating little asides. The use of tripwire is given high priority by the killers onscreen, decapitating a speeding motorcyclist and cutting into the jugular with another character. It’s a strange, harrowing, and gruesome manner of death, but is it at all practical? I know I’m treading dangerous waters bringing the concept of reality to a murky film, but what killer decides to set up a wire approximately neck high across a road? It seems likely that another car would travel that same road in the hours of buildup. It also seems highly lucky to adjust the wire to the exact height to cut into the neck. I’m no professional killer but it seems like a lot of setup and guesswork. I have to imagine there are far easier ways to kill a speeding cyclist or a man walking along the street. Attention professional hit men of the movies: stop making your job more difficult than it has to be. Nobody is awarding you a ribbon for Most Inventive Kill.

new-images-arrive-online-for-the-counselor-141250-a-1374829476-470-75There are plenty of pretty faces in this movie, genuine acting talent, and to strand them with precious little characterization is an outrage. Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is a little too sly to play naïve, and his later actions lack a necessary sense of desperation to sell his emotional plummet. Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is so effortlessly sensual but is put on the sidelines early and stuck in the damsel-in-distress box. Brad Pitt (World War Z) is the slick snake charmer we’ve seen plenty of times before. But the worst lot goes to Diaz (Bad Teacher). She’s supposed to be mysterious and threatening as Reiner’s sexually adventurous girlfriend but Diaz plays things so stone-faced serious. This poor woman is given the most unerotic, bizarre sex scene in modern history to enact, and I don’t know whether to applaud or pity her. Sure she gets to uncork some meaty monologues about Malkina’s trenchant world perspective, but this is the movie that will be defined by Diaz humping a windshield. At least the movie plays this out somewhat realistically, with Reiner more horrified than aroused. What did that outrageous scene add up to? Also, Penelope Cruz plays a “Laura” and Cameron Diaz a “Malkina”?

I know it’s a petty thing but it really irritated me how often people refer to Fassbender’s character as “Counselor.” The end credits do reveal this to be his name. If you thought it got irksome hearing Leonardo DiCaprio say “ole sport” after every other sentence in The Great Gatsby, then enjoy the repetitive declaration of Fassbender’s lone job title. “What do you think, Counselor? I don’t know, Counselor. I’d think things over, Counselor.” Do people really refer to somebody by this title as their name, and so frequently? He also doesn’t seem to be a competent lawyer at all.

The Counselor is such an unforgivably boring slog, languid and rudderless when it should be thrilling and complex. The characters are nonexistent, the plotting is muddled and confusing, the dialogue often laborious and roundabout, and the overall film is too meandering to properly engage an audience. Even talented people can produce bad movies, and here is further proof. With this cast, with this crew, there is no excuse for The Counselor to be overwhelmingly stilted and tedious. I cannot fathom what attracted the talent to this film beyond the cache of working on “Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay.” If the results of The Counselor are any indication, I don’t know if we’ll be seeing too many McCarthy screenplays in the future, or at least McCarthy scripts that haven’t been vetted by other writers who better understand the contours of the medium. His florid arias and abstract, directionless plotting can be forgiven on the page but not on the screen. Scott doesn’t help matters, taking great care to film the luxury of the lifestyles on screen. What we’re left with is a tepid movie about bad people meeting bad ends, with little entry for an audience to care or even find entertainment. The art direction is given more care than the characters. In the weeks leading up to its release, The Counselor adopted a tagline from a quote by Laura: “Have you been bad?” It was turned into the Twitter hashtag promoting the film. Well, Counselor, you’ve been very bad.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

The public reaction to the two previous Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End, were decidedly mixed, though that didn’t stop them each from earning a bazillion dollars. Fans didn’t care for the darker tone, the confusing interlocking of the story, and especially the bloated running times. It feels like Disney’s uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer must have taken notes from the sequel backlash and they amounted to: “Less of everything.” Welcome to less plot, less character, less involvement, and far less entertainment. Welcome to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

It’s been a few years since the non-world-ending events of At World’s End, and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been in London putting a new crew together. Except, it’s a Sparrow imposter. Turns out it’s Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former lover of Jack’s who woud still like to settle some scores. She and her father, the feared pirate captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), force Sparrow to lead them to the Fountain of Youth. Apparently, Jack at one point had the map. King George II (a delightfully hammy Richard Griffiths in one of the film’s best scenes) is in a race against the Spanish crown. The English monarch hires Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Sparrow’s occasional enemy and ally, to find the fountain as well. It’s a race to see who can benefit from eternal youth first because, apparently, no one can share a source of water. Second grade teachers nationwide are very disappointed, Disney.

The entire enterprise just lies there on the screen, devoid of all energy or danger. The entire picture is just so shockingly inert, lazy, phoned in from every angle, missing any resonance of magic. Rob Marshall was the wrong man to be tapped as the new director of this series. Marshall has a fine eye for visuals, but the man couldn’t stage an action sequence to save his life. The Oscar-nominated director of musicals like Chicago and Nine stages his action sequences like dance sequences, which on paper don’t sound too far off. That’s until you realize action needs to incorporate story, location, build in tension, create organic obstacles, and be easy to follow. The action sequences in On Stranger Tides aren’t outlandish enough. It’s all so dull, a sword fight here a sword fight there. Short of a mermaid attack sequence, there’s no excitement to be found onscreen. That is disastrous for a franchise that has built a reputation for its anarchic, wild action and storylines. Marshall’s action angles and editing don’t communicate urgency. There’s no mood to these set pieces. The editing feels like it’s always catching up, always too late, needing a myriad of trims. Action cinema has been lambasted when it’s hyper edited and the audience cannot see what is happening; On Stranger Tides is not edited enough. One of the reasons these half-baked action sequences can never get going is because they always seem to be starting and stopping with the lackadaisical editing, always a step behind. The shots linger when they shouldn’t. The ingredients are there for a tasty meal but the chef (Marshall, screenwriters) doesn’t know what to do. The musical score by Hans Zimmer tries very hard to compensate and rattle the audience, compelling them to think what is transpiring on screen is exhilarating. It is not, and the music is just loud and annoying.

One of the chief criticisms of the two Pirates sequels were that they were overstuffed with storylines, characters, setups, and were just far too convoluted and confusing for their own good. So with On Stranger Tides we get a simplified, pared down one-off movie. Much of the film is just characters walking in circles and, likewise, talking in circles. Motivations are flimsy. The dialogue is stilted; Sparrow’s malapropisms and one-liners feeling sloppy (“I agree with the missionary’s position,” he quips. Groan). The entire premise is to get to the Fountain of Youth, and then they get there and, well, very little happens. The characters will talk about little, walk a few feet, talk about little more, and this process repeats. Barbossa should be an interesting foil, going from fop to pirate by film’s end, and yet his every appearance in the movie feels like when the next-door neighbor appears on a TV sitcom. It’s an intrusion meant to remind you that you, the audience, like this character, even if they don’t serve any point in the story. The plot lacks any twists and turns, ultimately having every competing force converge on the Fountain of Youth at exactly the same time for a slapdash climax that involves more lackluster sword fighting, just like all the other sequences. On Stranger Tides is a full half-hour shorter than the third movie, and yet it still feels like an eternity at two hours and seventeen minutes because it spends so much time doing so little.

At least the other three Pirates movies found clever ways to mingle their sci-fi mythology into an old-fashioned Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure. With On Stranger Tides, the sci-fi fantasy elements are just as underdeveloped as the characters. The Fountain of Youth is another of those magic do-hickeys that involve gathering magic tokens and blah blah blah, mermaid tears, silver chalices. Hey, if you wanted to drink up some mermaid tears, have them watch 2009’s Oscar-winning best documentary, The Cove. That ought to do it (a scene driving the mermaids into nets oddly reminded me of The Cove). Blackbeard and Angelica have a Jack Sparrow voodoo doll, which is highly effective, and yet this plot device is nearly forgotten for the entire film. There is no clever application of this unique device. Blackbeard has a magic sword that makes ships come alive. Why? How? It’s just another magical Macguffin, like Jack’s compass. Man-eating mermaid temptresses is an interesting idea, and a great way to squeeze in a lot of obfuscated nudity in a Disney film for teen boys who have not discovered the Internet. Too bad the mermaids are confined to one scene, albeit the highpoint of an otherwise bad film. Their feeding frenzy is the only moment in the film that channels that high-flying sense of verve that made the original so memorable. Don’t even get me started on the fishy romance presented between the captive mermaid (played with all the acting capability of a French perfume model) and a missionary (Sam Claflin). The whole experience feels like a shambled, draggy, inarticulate rip-off of Last Crusade, complete with a climactic drink from a magic chalice. I appreciate Marshall’s emphasis on practical special effects but if these are the results then bring back the previous sequels’ CGI vomitorium. This franchise feels like every ounce of energy and danger has been squeezed out of it.

So does that means that this Pirates venture is more character-based now that it has jettisoned side characters and complex plots? Fat chance. The problem is that Jack Sparrow is not a good lead protagonist. He’s not meant to be a classic good guy. He’s a libertine, somebody who makes selfish choices but will revert to do something proper when his conscience nags him enough. Sparrow is more of the dashing rogue at best. Does anyone remember how he was going to trick doomed men into signing their souls to Davy Jones? He also needs a foil, a striaghtman to bounce off of. I almost miss the wooden performance of Orlando Bloom. Without a do-gooding striaghtman, Jack Sparrow plays like a man adrift, searching for his groove. Unfortunately, Sparrow never finds it in this vehicle, which just asks him to go through motions and mannerisms. Blackbeard makes for one very bland villain. McShane (TV’s Deadwood) can glower and chew scenery with the best of them, but his baddie never seems too menacing. He burns one guy alive and threatens to kill his own daughter in order to keep Jack in line. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t even compare after the previous films included a monstrous ship captain who would readily slice prisoners’ throats and a British bureaucrat who hanged an eight-year-old before the freaking opening credits. Blackbeard, in contrast, just comes off like a crusty old man in need of a shave.

The film’s biggest addition was bringing in Jack’s former flame Angelica, a woman he robbed of her virtue and personally betrayed. But is there any tension? No, because Jack and Angelica don’t have any old feelings for one another they rehash (oh how I was even pleading for a trope like that), and the characters don’t really feel any antagonism either. Sure they will parry and threaten one another, but it’s so devoid of danger or tension or interest. This is no screwball romance. They feel like a couple that can’t be bothered working up any notable feelings toward one another. Therefore, all their shared scenes, and there are many, sink the film’s flow. Their bickering should bring some sparks. She should be exciting; she’s the daughter of a notorious pirate, she was going to be a nun until Jack Sparrow came sailing into her life. She should be sore. She should be angry. She should be a lot of things that ultimately the character is not. Cruz (Nine, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) doesn’t come across as an equal or love interest, she just feels like an annoying sidekick, harping on “Yack.” At one point, Jack tells her, “If you had a sister and a dog, I would take the dog.” When she’s got a personality like this, I’d agree.

Depp (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd) is obviously a comic gift and his Sparrow character will go down in the ages as one of the most universally beloved figures in cinema history. Everyone adores this character, a loveable scoundrel. But that doesn’t mean the screenwriters can just strand him in a crummy story with nothing to do. Depp will always be enjoyable when he puts on his Captain Jack eye liner and does that funky, swishy walk of his, but even he feels like he’s phoning this one in. He realizes that his character is trapped in a sodden adventure that offers little to do as a character and an actor.

I never thought I would say this, but On Stranger Tides makes me positively reevaluate the other Pirates sequels (I admit to being one of the few critics who liked Dead Man’s Chest a good deal). If this is what a simplified Pirates of the Caribbean film gets you, bring me back the messy, maddening plots of the previous films. Bring me back the scope, the danger, the clever mingling of genre elements, the adventure, the sizzle, the anarchy, and bring me back director Gore Verbinsky. Marshall has no feel for this material or how best to serve story. I never expected a movie with this kind of budget to be so lifeless. It all just sits there on screen, expecting the pieces to come together through ardent wishful thinking. On Stranger Tides suffers not because it strips away some of the excess and convolution that plagued the other films, it suffers because it gives no reason for its existence. It does not enrich the characters, the Pirates universe, or provide a rip-roaring story. Obviously, the film exists to line the coffers of Disney. It may earn plenty of booty this summer, but this is no way to rejuvenate a sinking franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C

Nine (2009)

Filled with beautiful stars, beautiful Italian scenery, and beautiful cinematography, Nine has some significant sure-fire flash, but it’s missing the dazzle (or is it razzle?). The movie based on the 1980s Broadway musical based upon the Fellini movie, 8 1/2, is a pretty hollow enterprise. It’s all about writer’s block, and unless you’re the Coen brothers this is not a very interesting conflict to watch on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, a famous Italian director feeling overwhelmed by the impending start of his ninth movie, a movie he hasn’t written a script for yet. He tries to find inspiration from his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his muse/lead actress (Nicole Kidman), his dead mother (Sophia Loren), a magazine journalist (Kate Hudson), and just about anybody else. The film is structured much like director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, where the song-and-dance numbers are little mental asides inside the characters’ minds. So most actresses get one big number and then it’s arevaderche. Day-Lewis is good but his character is hard to emphasize with, especially as he bounces from woman to woman, whining about the duress of creativity while anybody minus a Y chromosome (and who isn’t Judi Dench) throw themselves at the guy. Despite the lackluster story and characters, Nine still could have succeeded from its musical numbers. Too bad then that the songs are instantly forgettable. Seriously, if you put a gun to my head mere minutes after I heard these tunes I wouldn’t be able to hum a bar. The dancing is lively, and Cruz and Cotillard prove to be infinitely and tantalizingly flexible, but the songs are truly unimpressive. I never would have guessed that in a movie filled with so many Oscar-winners that Fergie would be the highpoint. She plays a lustful figure of Day-Lewis’ youth, and her number exudes a vivacious sensuality. The playful choreography incorporates sand on the stage, which makes for several great images and dance moves. The song is also by far the catchiest, “Be Italian,” and the only thing worth remembering. The trouble for Nine is that there’s another hour left after this peak. I’m astounded that people thought, at one time, that Nine was going to be a serious awards contender. This has the “parts” of an awards movie but no vision or verve to assemble them.

Nate’s Grade: C

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Talk about a film’s back story. Tom Cruise signed on to do a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) which was directed by Alejandro Amenabar. During the filming the romance between Cruise and Penelope Cruz (no relation) got a little hotter than expected onscreen and broke up his long-standing marriage to Nicole Kidman. At the time she was finishing filming The Others which is the second film by Amenabar. This, by the way, is much more interesting than Vanilla Sky unfortunately.

Cameron Crowe’s remake starts off promising enough with Tom Cruise running around an empty Times Square like a Twilight Zone episode. Afterwards the film begins to create a story that collapses under its own weight. David (Cruise) is a rich boy in control of a publishing empire inherited through his dear old deceased dad. He has the time to throw huge parties where even Spielberg hugs him, and even have crazy sex with crazy Cameron Diaz, whom he tells his best friend (Jason Lee) is his “f*** buddy.” David begins to see a softer side of life with the entrance of bouncy and lively Sophia (Cruz) and contemplates that he might be really falling in love for the first time. But this happiness doesn’t last long as jealous Diaz picks up David in her car then speeds it off a bridge killing her. Then things get sticky including David’s disfiguration, his attempts to regain that one night of budding love and a supposed murder that he committed.

Crowe is in over his head with this territory. His knack for wonderful exchanges of dialogue and the perfect song to place over a scene are intact, but cannot help him with this mess. Vanilla Sky is an awkward mish-mash of science fiction. The film’s protagonist is standoffish for an audience and many of the story’s so-called resolutions toward the end are more perfunctory than functional. The ending as a whole is dissatisfying and unimaginative. By the time the wonderful Tilda Swinton shows up you’ll likely either be asleep or ready to press the eject button yelling “cop out!”

Seeing Vanilla Sky has made me want to hunt for Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos and see what all the hype was about, because if it is anything like its glossy American counterpart then I have no idea why world audiences went wild for it.

Nate’s Grade: C

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)

John Madden you sly dog. I don’t know how you do it but somehow you manage to get an accredited actress to take off her clothes for you. In your film Shakespeare in Love it was Gwyneth Paltrow going topless (which she also won an Oscar for), and thank God you didn’t get Dame Judi Dench to try it out with the previous film Mrs. Brown. And now with the horrifically titled Captain Corelli’s Mandolin you have coaxed the beautiful Penelope Cruz into baring her breasts as well, no doubt in hopes of winning some of that coveted Oscar gold. And although I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to see the lovely Cruz minus a stitch above the waist, frankly, Corelli ain’t no Shakespeare.

We open on an island on the offshoot of Greece in the start of the 1940s. The waters are blue, the sand is white, the people are happily ethnic, and it’s basically a postcard. The island is overpopulated with idyllic beauties and friendly people and then evil evil war had to come and steal the innocence. Cruz plays a woman who has a first name that I have no clue of or remotely how to pronounce it, but I am certain it began with a P. Cruz is studying to be a doctor under the tutelage of her wise old customed father (John Hurt). She’s engaged to be wed to hunky fisherman Mandras (Christian Bale) until the war threatens their peaceful isolated world. Mandras feels the patriotic urge to go to war and thwart the advancing Italians and Cruz pines for his safe return writing letter after letter with no answer to only fear the worst.

As the war continues the Italians do advance further and take occupation of the Greek island. Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage) is amongst the divisions assembled to this Mediterranean isle. He is agreed to stay in Cruz’s home and, as always, begins to develop feelings for Cruz. She feels some as well but is torn on what her actions should be. Corelli, it turns out, is far more a singer than a fighter. He has a battalion of men he dubs his “opera” and they break into frequent song and an overall zeal for life. They run around drinking and singing on the beaches complete with topless women making this Italian occupation seem like summer camp.

The good times don’t last of course and the war rages closer and closer. Soon the Italian army surrenders and then the Germans come in to retake occupation of the Greek island. Corelli must decide to go home or help fight amongst the guerrillas and native people to keep their beautiful land away from Nazi hands.

Penelope Cruz seems to be heavily pushed on me by Hollywood. They keep casting her in movies and telling me I like her, when in fact, I have seen nothing of hers to prove so. She is too mute at times and the emotions that we should see tearing her up are simply dampened by her staring downcast or biting her lip.

Cage is an Italian-American, and yet his Italian accent is atrociously comical. His performance is like the Joker doing an Italian accent. He also kisses like he is trying to swallow poor Penelope’s tiny head. Somehow beyond my reasoning the talented Christian Bale got in this movie. He’s about as convincing as a Greek as Laurence Olivier was as a Moor. The rest of the cast is filled with Greek people portraying Greek people.

The love story of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a mishmash of un-involving war violence and a cloying romance that never gets into the proper gear. There are elements of guilt and affection, but they aren’t transcendent of any reality. The first time Corelli tells Cruz he loves her they have sex in a field that very moment. There is not enough groundwork laid to produce a decent romance. So the supposed “smolder” between Cruz and Cage is thematically unbelievable, and kind of a bit creepy.

Corelli suffers from A.I. syndrome in that it desperately needed to end twenty minutes earlier than it did. The fact that Cage survives a machine gun execution because a SINGLE PERSON stood in front of him is bad, but it gets even worse for the inhabitants of the Greek island. Some get hung by their own people, some get shot in the face from Germans, and then everyone must suffer after the war by having an earthquake level half of their town. This stretch of film goes from pointless to comically absurd. It’s like Madden fell asleep in his director’s chair and someone thought, “Well, let’s model the last act of the film after a Universal tram ride. Hey, can we have Jaws pop out of the water at some point?” Corelli has failed as a romance and during its end stretch it completely fails as any kind of cogent drama.

The direction is adequate by Madden but the script just doesn’t cut the mustard. In the end they rely on the old Hollywood principal of Nazis being pure evil, so much so they might as well have mustaches to twirl. I thought at one moment they were going to tie Cruz to a railroad track and would have preferred it if they had. This is a film caught between romance and war, and it does a disservice to both. The war is a naive afterthought and the romance lacks any credibility. The scenery sure looks nice though. In the end, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a film desperately out of tune.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Blow (2001)

The tale of Blow follows a kid named George Jung (Johnny Depp) as he travels to the sunshiny coasts of California. Here he finds everyone with a David Cassidy haircut and an insatiable appetite for pot. He strikes a small scale dealing business with some help from a flamboyant hair dresser (Paul Rubens) and rocket in riches. They eventually discover the powers of cocaine, a.k.a. blow to the uninitiated, and set it loose upon 1970s America. Jung becomes the top trafficker of cocaine and practically single-handily leads to its explosion. And of course, these good times can’t last as Jung’s life falls apart as the 80s go.

Blow is too stylistically similar to earlier 70s epics of violence and music like Boogie Nights and Goodfellas. The same moves and looks are evident, even the same overall tone, but it is missing all of the feel. Blow moves along and feels like something is missing as it continues to ape the flavor of those earlier excellent films. There’s a distinct feeling while viewing that you aren’t viewing something complete. The sense of loss permeates the screen with Blow.

Depp uses a subtle acting approach making Jung one real mellow dude man. One can never feel a connection for any of the characters because the plot is not interested in the characters and only a masochistic orchestra of bad events that happens to Depp. You feel unattached to the characters as a whole, but you do manage to feel a level of sympathy for Jung. His mother is a card to watch, and it seems history repeats itself when it comes to family squabbles.

Penelope Cruz plays one spoiled hell-cat of a drug lord’s girl, who later becomes Depp’s wife. Cruz’s character is possibly the most horrible love interest I have ever seen on film. She shrieks about money and wealth, acts apathetic to their innocent daughter, and single-handily gets Depp busted a few times without guilt. Upon deeper reflection she seems (if she happened not to actually exist, which she does) like a cheap foil to make the audience sympathy sway dramatically to our “tryin’ to do good” flawed hero in Jung. It almost seems insulting.

Ray Liotta (who was IN Goodfellas by the way) gets the pleasure of aging through the years with makeup, which basically consists of slapping gray and more skin to his neck. It’s rather humorous that Liotta is playing Depp’s father in the flick when in reality they are roughly the same age. Though I guess it’s better for Liotta to age after seeing Depp’s character age drastically and gain twenty pounds all in his neck. Older Depp looks like a zombie Ludwig von Beethoven.

Blow is written and directed by Ted Demme and is based on the memoirs of Jung while in prison. It is fairly entertaining in its own right but you can’t help but feel you’ve seen it all before and better. Still, with this lackluster year as it is Blow is a decent pic to sit down and chew through a box of overpriced popcorn. Any movie with Franka Potente (my titular hero in Run Lola Run) and Paul Ruebens is worth the price of admission.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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