Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Stephen Graham, Gemma Ward, Judi Dench, Kevin McNally, Richard Griffiths, Keith Richards

Director: Rob Marshall

Writer(s): Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio

Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski

Original Score: Hans Zimmer

Running Time: 137 Mins.

For those of you who had bid farewell to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise…more fool you, for as much of a critical dud the third film (and to a lesser extent the second) was it was still that years biggest money-maker and a producer wouldn’t let a little thing like a critical slating get in his way. So it transpires that here we have the fourth installment of said franchise, many presumed the chance was being taken to strip away the clogged up and mess of a narrative that plagued parts 2 and 3, meaning less characters, more of the interesting characters and a more streamlined stand-alone plot that allowed for some great action set pieces, enjoyable characters and some macabre humour. All this was expected especially in the face of the film sourcing it’s plot from a novel, On Stranger Tides, concerning the hunt for the fabled Fountain of Youth (mentioned at the close of part 3).

So the pieces were in place, fat was trimmed from the cast including Knightley and Bloom, while Depp himself promised a return to the heyday of Curse of the Black Pearl, mermaids and zombies were added to the mix and most excitingly Ian McShane was cast as Blackbeard, the pirate all pirates fear. Shame then that all of this is squandered in the face of a film that had promised so much and delivers very little. The main issue here is scripting, Elliott and Rossio return using Tim Powers novel as a starting point, however what could have been a thrilling race to the fountain of youth is given the flabbiest treatment possible, three parties race to the fountain, the spanish who could quite easily have been dropped altogether, the king’s men led by a turn-coat Barbossa and Blackbeard who, it has been prophesised will die in two weeks by a man with a peg-leg (also Barbossa). Add to this the fact that the fountain can’t simply be drunk from, the competitors must retrieve a mermaid’s tear (!!!) and two chalices.

If this sounds convoluted, it is, though that’s not the problem, the problem is the apparent need to have so many characters, so many scenarios, so many relationships that none are afforded the time to grow. Some ideas are great, others awful, I’ll start with the good (out of good-will for the franchise). Blackbeard, a great character, fantastic introduction, and a perfect coup of casting in McShane, thing is he is totally wasted after the introduction, there’s the idea he may be into voodoo and has zombie crew members but none of it rivals Davy Jones or the cursed crew of the Pearl, it is here that budget cuts become apparent. In trying to up the fantasy element stakes film by film the best we have here is a ship controlled by its captain’s sword, a neat trick and used well once but from then on it is never used again, dropped in favour of yet another plot strand and yet more half-baked ideas.

Another sub-plot (if you can even class it as such) is that of the missionary and the mermaid, again a strand that could have been spun out into many interesting directions but is once more squandered in a handful of scenes, we learn little of each character and the character development is nigh on non-existent, not because of the actors but once again with the script that rushes to jump into the next mim-scenario adding nothing but more muddied waters to the overall plot-thrust. Speaking of mermaids, they provide the one standout action scene, re-imagined as devilish creatures  they ambush Blackbeard’s crew at his behest and are truly menacing, something which makes a love story with one all the more improbable and complex…but this film isn’t concerned by that!

So the action scenes are plentiful as ever and romp along at a pace that helps ease the overlong running time (again), Barbossa is good fun and hams it up as well as ever while Depp steps out of the shadows as something of a hero, a nice little twist in the tail, I for one think he is in his stride with the character though many bemoan he is phoning it in I simply cannot see it, as for Cruz she wasn’t nearly as irritating as expected, though is also given little to do bar act as a love interest. While I’m talking about shadows it would seem an appropriate time to mention how the fact that 80% of the film happens at night or in a very dark place makes watching it in 3D incomprehensible, despite belong shot utilising 3D cameras there really is no call for it when all you’re going to do it poke a sword out of the screen every so often, new director Rob Marshall (of Chicago and Nine fame) brings little flair to proceedings and clearly hasn’t the panache to imagine a world in 3D as James Cameron et al. do.

So while it lacks Gore Verbinski more macabre leanings, this would seem to be the least of the franchises issues, a real jolt is needed if the audiences are expected to continue flocking in their droves. For the little goodwill I have for watching the same mess of events re-enacted while adding yet another fantastical and pointless element is running thinner by the film, yes there will likely be worse films this summer and no it’s not a total disaster (that would make it easy to write off), and at times it shows a great deal of promise but as was suggested last time they really do need to trim the fat!

VERDICT

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides had the potential to be a streamlined, fun adventure that recaptured the spirit of the franchise at its best. Sadly it flounders amidst a mess of plotting that bungles something that really should have been idiot proof, the magic is there but only in the briefest of flashes with anything good being frittered away as soon as it’s introduced in favour of the next half-baked idea.

Starring (the voices of): Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant, Bill Nighy, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Ned Beatty, Ray Winstone

Director: Gore Verbinski

Writer(s): John Logan, Gore Verbinski, James Ward Byrkit

Cinematography: John Bell

Original Score: Hans Zimmer

Running Time: 107 Mins.

Rango marks itself out as something of an anomaly, first and foremost it is by no means a “kids” film, despite what the distributors would have us believe, never pandering to cutesy visuals (more on then later) or (modern) pop culture references. Make no mistake however that it IS packed to the brim with references that not one child will understand let alone or appreciate as much as a film such as this is deserving of, in fact Rango proves to be a marvel on so many levels it really is hard to know where to start with the full plethora of joys only fully appreciated upon multiple viewings and if this isn’t a cinema hit (which it surely will be given Depp’s involvement) it deserves to go down in the echelons of film history with such great oddities as The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I do not name check the latter of those two idly, for it is a film that is literally given its own visual joke and a very, very funny one at that, this occurs in the film’s opening ten minutes. Thankfully thick and fast as the nods to cinema come they are interwoven into a plot that embraces that all too often neglected genre, the western while tipping its narrative hat too Chinatown specifically…so you see where I’m going with the “not for kids” tag. It is not other films that get borrowed from with admiration but also the western as a genre in general there is even an appearance by The Man With No Name (brilliantly voiced by Timothy Olyphant), the story is told straight though there is comedy (and lots of it) something which is helped no end by characters you can believe in despite being a menagerie of creatures from chameleons to snakes by way of moles and cats amongst others.

Brought to life with two key ingredients, inspired voice acting and quite literally the most sumptuous and visually stunning film to hit screens (dare I say) ever! As I said before these are not cutesy moles they are bling, smelly lookin’, nasty little creatures who will do anything to steal the films macguffin (water). But the moles are just the start, each and every character has their own look that is so detailed and unique I would dread to think how long this film has been in production, this kind of intricacy comes not from a flash in the pan idea. I want to single out Depp as the star of the show, and he is figuratively speaking, but everyone plays their part to the same level of excellence with Nighy standing out as one hell of a scary snake “gun for hire” rattlesnake Jake.

Kudos though to Depp for finding yet another fresh take on a character inside him, Rango is just plain funny but you will likely find that all important heart in there too rooting for him every step of the way despite his (many) mistakes! Amidst the fantastic characters and enough film references to make any film-lover weak at the knees are two elements that help raise the bar just that bit higher…the action set pieces and some of the funniest, and on the knuckle, lines to have ever come from an animated characters mouth! The key sequence in terms of action must be the moles ascending on Rango and his posse on the back of bats, the Apocalypse Now references will be lost on anyone under the age of 18 (or older even) but the beauty here is that between the sumptuous visuals and quirky humour (Verbinski did give us Pirates of the Caribbean after all) there is something for everyone, even if adults will be a little more spoilt!

Ultimately Rango proves to be somEthing of a shock, I use to adore Depp but was tiring of his quirks a tad however here he gives us a character who is without a doubt of the Depp eccentricities yet he is subtle and rounded enough to be mOre than just a mere cipher or quirk as he was as the Hatter or in the risible and later Pirates films. So to bring me full circle there were two things marking Rango out as an anomaly, the second which I have yet to mention is the lack of 3D. I can safely say that the visuals here best anything 3D can ever possibly give us, bright, detailed and enriched with every other type of depth you could want, emotional, artistic and yes visual depth that only a 2D image can provide in all its vibrant colour palette…quite simply a joy.

VERDICT

Rango is unique amongst films, not in a quirky, trying too hard way but in a genuinely outstanding in every sense way. extremely funny, beautifully made and presented and displaying an amazing amount of heart with a genuine feel of a film made for film-lovers by film-lovers… it doesn’t get any better than this.

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell, Steven Berkoff

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmark

Writer(s): Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, Christopher McQuarrie, Julian Fellowes

Cinematography: John Seale

Original Score: James Newton Howard

Running Time: 103 mins.

This year has seen a strong boost in “Movie Star” driven Hollywood films, that is to say those films that hark back (or try to) to the Golden Age of film-making where people paid their hard-earned pennies to watch a production that was sold on glamourous actors such as Spencer Tracey, Audrey Hepburn, Clark Gable, to name but a few. So much was the draw of these stars that plot really didn’t matter all that much meaning all too often the plot was nigh-on inconsequential lacking much in the way of depth and leaving a clear path for some good old fashioned star-power to take centre stage.

With Salt, The American, Knight and Day and now The Tourist 2010 has seen those kind of shoe-string plotted “romps” through pretty locales with even prettier people populating them, problem is in this day and age audiences seem to be unable to sustain interest unless there are endless explosions, giant robots, mythical creatures or boy-wizards. Can an old school vehicle compete? On the basis of returns from The American, Knight and Day and Salt the answer is seemingly not quite cutting muster, hardly flops these are films that seemed unable to inspire audiences and The Tourist is unlikely to change this trend.

It is refreshing to see a film aimed not at a teen/early twenties age demographic, the locale, Venice, the glamour, Jolie, the bumbling yet ridiculously handsome leading man, Depp, and the simple plot? Not quite there. With his first English language film Donnersmark (who last helmed the award winning The Lives of Others) handles the gorgeous sights well, lingering on the ridiculously glamourous Jolie and pacing the action very well, making for a bright and breezy film. Sadly that is all it is, which means it cannot take that step beyond the surface sheen, though arguably it never seems to strive to be anything more other than in some rather tired plot twists late in the game. One of which I guessed from the other and the other a little more surprising.

Twists, however, are a funny thing. Some films are built upon them building up to the big reveal while others seem not to know what to do and pull the rug from under you with little to know effect other than that of surprise, to make a film seem cleverer than it really is! Make no mistake The Tourist is far from clever, and though the through line of the film’s love story (for it is a love story first and foremost) is built around some clever ideas of identity they are never fully formed or studied at enough depth. This means when the twists come they are a bit out of left-field and will leave you wondering why as much as anything.

The story utilises eleents of spy films and gangster films but not really in a coherent way, and with any event played for frothy fun rather than any sense of seriousness it all feels like a big budget panto romp around beautiful locales, though at Christmas time what is more apt. A lack of chemistry between leads and a handful of supporting turns by “dastardly villains” can be overlooked at this time of year for those in search of something that is delightfully fun with no substance.

VERDICT

Intelligent, full of depth and full of nuanced performances are some thing The Tourist cannot claim to be. If however you are after something that is light, frothy and starring some beautiful people in gorgeous locales generally having fun, this is for you, old school “movie star” entertainment that won’t trouble your brain but it will entertain if only until you leave the cinema.

 

Starring: Johnny Depp. Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Crispin Glover, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee

Director: Tim Burton

Writer(s): Linda Woolverton, Lewis Carroll (novel)

Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski

Original Score: Danny Elfman

Running Time: 108 Mins.

If there is something as certain as death and taxes it is director Tim Burton’s ability to make each and every one of his films visually arresting, in fact regardless of plot, characterisation or anything else you are guaranteed a visual feast, the most potent of chewing gum for the eyes, there really are few film-makers with the consistency of style as Burton and this is undoubtedly why he is credited as one of the very few remaining real “auteurs”. He has turned his hand to remakes and retellings of classic stories before of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being the most apparent, and it is a fair assumption that his take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland shares many of that films attributes.

So with this in mind we have,the visual flourishes? Check. A central role for Johnny Depp at his eccentric best? (or worst, dependent on your view of the man’s eccentricities) Check. a rather darker retelling than that which we are accustomed too? Check. And one which claims to hark back to the original source material…hmm, not quite, you see this is neither remake nor reimagining, more a kind of sequel, what Hook was to Peter Pan is probably the best comparison, though it is one that is relevant in context only thankfully given that film’s…problems!

Just as the visuals are always present and correct and suitably stunning and inventive so too is the all too often fact that any inventiveness is surface sheen cannot hide a shallow or weakly plotted story, one that allows characters to have little beyond their eccentricities, and forsakes actual pacing in favour of gothic stylings and set design, a standard that Burton has become accustomed to fitting more and more in the last ten years, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, all luscious to the eye but nothing for the brain, no meat beyond the skin.

Which begs the question, does Alice in Wonderland fit this mould, or has Burton broken from the visual rut to give us something of substance? Well, to be honest it flirts with both sides to my argument, there really is no doubt that visuals are first and foremost to Alice in Wonderland, how could they not be? The title says it all, Wonderland, and in his vision of such a place the standard Burton darkness is evident, toothy creatures, tangled trees, heads bobbing in a moat and Johnny Depp at his most eccentric, but somehow it all just seems to fit so fantastically and in Wonderland the plot stems from the visuals. Of course it helps that this is the best use of 3D yet, quite frankly putting Avatar to some shame in its forestry and flying creatures, and is likely the best argument FOR 3D yet, something exemplified in the Cheshire Cat’s floating head, the March Hare tossing teacups and the smoke from the Caterpillars hookah feeling like it is filling the cinema auditorium, for once I felt immersed in the world as Cameron claimed was his intention with the vastly over-rated and over-done Avatar!

But enough of the 3D debate, Alice in Wonderland‘s strengths stem beyond this, and the characters are all rounded enough to make you care for them in their quest to save Wonderland (or Underland as they dub it), mixing motion capture techniques (Tweedles Dum and Dee) with pure CGI  creations (The Hare, Bloodhound) and some that retain their vocal’s facial features (the Caterpillar), while others are simply the actors with exaggerated features and, as expected, great make up (The Mad Hatter and The Queen of Hearts). You could watch the film on repeat and simply admire the vast amount of imagination that has gone into each of the characters designs, surface gloss maybe but by god is there a lot of it!

Though that is really to do the film and those populating it a disservice, while many characters get only a few scenes they are still uniformly great and credit is due to the casting director, each voice is a perfect fit for the chosen character, Paul Whitehouse, Barbara Windsor, Timothy Spall, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, all put their heart and soul into whom they are tasked with bringing to life. Special mention is reserved for Stephen Fry’s Cheshire cat and Matt Lucas as the Dum twins, helped by thier ingenious physical presence the vocals are second-to-none and the only criticism I would have is that I would gladly sit through a whole film of the Cheshire Cat if only to hear Fry’s voice tallied up with some of the best use of CGI character yet!

Sadly, and inevitably, there are flaws, once again plot comes second to seemingly everything else but if you don’t find yourself enveloped in the menagerie of the cast and the wacky humour are sparky dialogue you have to be as mad as the hatter! Shot through with a crazy exuberance each scene is tinged with a totally weird sense of fun, and as good as newcomer Wasikowska is as Alice she is simply the eyes through which we see Wonderland. Something which means the somewhat jarring framing device highlights, clear attempts have been made to provide a moral of sorts, it is a Disney financed film after all, but they seem at odds with the bulk of the action.

The cherry on the cake however is Depp, channeling some kind of schizophrenic Scotsman with over-sized green eyes, his Hatter is not simply some raving loony but is, naturally, upgraded to the hero of the story full of a tragic pathos that undercuts the madness. He is not far short of a romantic interest for Alice, thankfully the film falls short of allowing this to be fully formed and instead rests on the “value of friendship”, but really this kind of message matters not a jot when a film is this infectiously and enjoyably manic, just like the Hatter himself!

VERDICT

Alice in Wonderland is practically the ultimate Tim Burton film, take everything you know of the man’s films and crank them up by 100% then add in a third dimension, there are the usual flaws but the positives far outweigh them, Fry’s Cheshire Cat, Johnny Depp’s Hatter, the Tweedle twins, the Jbberwocky battle, the brilliantly zany humour…I could go on…but that would just be madness!

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Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

Director: Terry Gilliam

Writer(s): Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown

Cinematography: Nicola Pecorini

Original Score: Jeff Danna, Mychael Danna

Running Time: 122 Mins.

Terry Gilliam is a visionary when it comes to film, a true auteur with an undeniable signature, which means that the likelihood is you will either love or hate his output and it is also the very reason he struggles to find the budgets needed to fulfill his visions. His ideas are big, his plots fantastical, fairytales of the post-modern era replete with all manner of creatures, eccentric characters and astounding imagery but often overlooked for these reasons is the heart to be found within, deeply personal and often very moving; this is the reason that I for one am very much of the side of his fandom.

True, Gilliam’s last efforts were chalk and cheese, The Brothers Grimm was very much tethered by studio interference into the director’s vision while Tideland felt a little too rampant for its own good, a comeback if you will to the studio interference that came before. So where does the infamous The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus sit? And is it deserving of more than just the “Heath Ledger’s last film” tag many have labelled it with.

As with all Gilliam’s tales I could not begin to explain the plot here and now, suffice to say it involves a travelling show caught in another era yet peddling its wares in modern day London, the troupe inhabiting this show are as eclectic as you would expect and each actor relishes their role, Troyer as Percy and Plummer as Parnassus are both stand-outs injecting the eccentricities with depth and heart, but kudos to everyone else for standing their ground amongst such a group of larger than life characters.

Entering this world comes Ledger, found hanging from beneath a bridge, he is saved and thrust headfirst into the wager Parnassus has going with Mr. Nick (the great Tom Waits) for the soul of his daughter. Despite being complex to explain, the plot really isn’t rocket science and it is great to see a film that not only has visual style in spades but has a plot that both works and compliments Gilliam’s style so well.

Ledger’s death whilst seemingly a curse on the production is covered exceptionally well by Law, Depp and Farrell, all great and full of pathos for their deceased friend and colleague. That the scenes work so well in context (as Tony enters the Imaginarium) is testament to Gilliam’s storytelling skills with the storytelling device never jarring or feeling forced.

But as ever it is in the visuals and scope that prove to be the film’s strength, and in a wealth of comedic touches that prove Gilliam will forever be a Python. Humour really is a key to keeping you hooked and while it is true some of the more surreal touches won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you can approach with an open mind and prepared to enjoy something far and beyond the usual Hollywood fare you will be richly rewarded.

VERDICT

A wildly imaginative return to form for Gilliam, with material that plays to the ex-Pythons great strengths of visual flourish and thoughtful yet fantastical fairytales The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus rises from its tragic setback and proves a fitting farewell to Ledger…and friends!

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Yesterday it was announced at the Disney Expo. that Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is to be called On Stranger Tides, I immediately searched for a book of the same name figuring the title was just too strange to have appeared out of nowhere and discovered this…

In 1988, a book by Tim Powers called On Stranger Tides was published. It’s a fantasy book that won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 1988 and was also nominated for The World Fantasy award.

Nobody online knew. Is there a connection between the title of Pirates 4 and this book? I contacted Tim Powers’ literary agent and asked him if the new Pirates 4 has anything to do with Tim Powers’ novel of the same name because nobody knows if it’s a coincidence or not. While he wouldn’t officially comment on it, he did tell me this:

Cool! So will the movie follow the plot of the book or simply borrow elements from it? I haven’t read the book  but I’ll try and pick up a copy today. I know it involves the Fountain of Youth and the Fountain of Youth was mentioned at the end of the 3rd Pirates movie. Here’s the synopsis from Wikipedia:

“The book follows the exploits of John “Jack Shandy” Chandagnac, who travels to the new world after the death of his puppeteer father to confront his uncle, who apparently has made off with the family inheritance. During the voyage, he gets to know a woman named Beth Hurwood and her father, an Oxford professor. Before they arrive, their ship is waylaid by pirates and, with the help of the professor and his assistant, the captain is killed and Chandagnac is forced to join the pirate crew. The reader discovers a sinister plot being concocted by the professor involving his dead wife, his living daughter and Blackbeard. Chandagnac, now known as “Jack Shandy”, must put a stop to these plans and save Beth Hurwood.”

Sounds like fun. I guess Jack Sparrow is replacing the character of Jack Shandy. So will we see the famous Blackbeard confront Captain Jack Sparrow? I can’t remember if Blackbeard is ever mentioned in the Pirates series at all but it would be cool to see Jack and Blackbeard in the same movie. This would seem to indicate, if true, that Blackbeard will be the villain, casting suggestions on the baclk of a postcard please!Or on this post if it’s easier!

 

I’ve suspected it for a while, but Terry Gilliam has now officially confirmed that Johnny Depp won’t be returning for a second go at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote when the long-gestating production finally begins filming again next year.

“I can now honestly say that I’m not working with Johnny on Don Quixote,” Gilliam told The Independent.  “He’s booked himself up on a lot of other films.”

Depp’s slate does have a roadblocked look to it, with Pirates Of The Caribbean 4, The Lone Rangerand Dark Shadows all scheduled to begin filming in 2010, or soon after, although Gilliam had hoped he’d find a way to reprise his role as a marketing executive transported back to the 17th century. Sadly that hasn’t proved possible.

“I want to shoot Don Quixote next year,” said GIlliam. “He [Depp] said he’s not available and we have both agreed that I’m going to die soon, so it would be nice to get this film under my belt.”

As the director told us at Comic-Con, he’s full steam ahead with his second attempt to film Cervantes’ classic tale: “We’ve written it and we’re out there hunting actors and money as we speak.”