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Column Fri May 20 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The First Grader & Bill Cunningham New York

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I own a thesaurus too, my fellow critics; and I know how to use it. But I'm going to leave it on the shelf for my review of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean installment for the simple reason that if I actually make the effort to walk the 30-or-so feet from my office to the bookshelf where my thesaurus sits, I will officially have expended more energy on that task than most people involved in the making of On Stranger Tides did making this movie. I can't remember the last time so many hundreds of people worked so hard on a movie for such mediocre results. It's as if the goal was to be stupendously average. While I am not using my thesaurus for this review, I am selecting my words carefully. On Stranger Tides is average beyond compare. It is not horrible, gut-wrenching, painful, god-awful or a plague upon humanity. It is simply a textbook example of putting in the maximum effort for the absolute minimum in entertainment.

I'm going to repeat a statement I made about a year ago regarding 3D, converted or otherwise. The greatest, universal issue I (and millions of others) have with 3D is that it makes the world (and the movie) a darker place, literally. It kills a hefty percentage of the light reaching your eyes. So, if you are going to set 75 percent of your film in relative darkness (I'm talking to you, Priest), 3D is virtually useless. With On Stranger Tides, which was shot in 3D, the sequences set during daylight hours or just well lit look stupendous. But much of the film takes place in reduced lighting situations, and the result is, well, shite. I'm not here to debate the merits of 3D, just to say that if you studios are going to continue giving us 3D movies, at least give us something to look at. End sidebar.

For reasons I can't quite explain, On Stranger Tides had the struggling energy of a National Treasure movie rather than a Pirates of the Caribbean entry. Thank you, Jerry Bruckheimer. I guess. The action set pieces felt especially artificial in terms of stunts and production design. And as much as this film was supposed to be starting anew with its stand-alone storyline, it sure did seem like a part whenever a familiar old face showed up on screen. Keith Richards is on screen about a minute longer than he was in the previous film, Kevin McNally's Gibbs is the sole remaining Black Pearl crew member along for this ride, and Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa returns, this time working for the king's navy... at least until he's not.

If you can ignore all of the false starts, useless sideplots, and the unsatisfying ending (including an after-credits tag), the plot to On Stranger Tides is remarkably simple: everybody wants to get to the Fountain of Youth first. A couple of the characters, including Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, know the way, so the race is on. I will admit, on paper, I like the idea of Ian McShane shouting and sneering his way through this film as Blackbeard, with his faithful sidekick Scrumm (Stephen Graham, who plays Al Capone on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"). I was even pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard's daughter Angelica (anyone complaining about not being able to understand her English through her accent needs to get the shit out of their ears). Cruz seems to be the only one actually having fun at being dangerous.

As much as I think introducing psychotic, man-eating mermaids into the Pirates universe is a great and noble idea, saddling the main mermaid character, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), in a subplot involving a possible romance with a young clergyman (Sam Claflin) kills any form of momentum the film might generate in its back half. But my biggest problem with On Stranger Tides, believe it or not, is Depp himself. I'm not talking about his performance--some people say Sparrow seems less wobbly or Depp's accents goes in and out; I didn't notice it -- I'm talking about how he's featured in the film. He's taken on the role of hero, and it doesn't work. Even the potentially devious tricks he plays on those who dare to trust him don't pan out. He's being too nice a guy here, and it drains the fun from the movie.

And does Jack Sparrow really need a love interest? I've always enjoyed the fact that Sparrow has kind of a bi-curious vibe to him (he does wear a lot of lace), but to have him in full flirtation mode seems desperate and creepy. If I'm reading between the lines correctly, he deflowered Angelica when she was underage. Remember that, parents, when you pile the kids into the mini-van this weekend to see this movie. And I'm not saying that Depp and Cruz don't make a handsome couple, but neither character benefits from them being in a hostile romance.

It seems too easy to fully blame new director Rob Marshall (stepping in for Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three installments). I'm not exactly sure what Marshall's credentials are (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine) to let anyone think he could handle an action-oriented piece of this scale. But his involvement seemingly brings nothing visually inventive or anything exceptional to the performances or pacing of this work. I truly hope if they make two more of these back to back, Marshall isn't the one behind the camera. Here's hoping Bruckheimer & Co. go the Harry Potter (or dare I say, the Twilight) route and get a different creative force as director for each of the films. A boy can dream.

I'm not really that broken up about the fact that the Pirates of the Caribbean films have officially gone from bad to worse. I was not a person who was biting their nails down to nubs in anticipation of On Stranger Tides. Still, when you bring in a new director, one does get curious how the tides will turn, doesn't one? The mystery is revealed; everyone stay home this weekend and sort your sock drawers instead of seeing this one.

The First Grader

Sometimes a sweet and simple story about overcoming decades of injustice is all you need to brighten your day. The setting of The First Grader is 1993 Kenya, when the government announced that it was offering free primary schooling to all. Hundreds of children show up at the remote school where Jane (Naomie Harris, of 28 Day Later, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3, Miami Vice) teaches in a one-room classroom built for maybe 40 students. Among the throng attempting to register for school is 80-something-year-old Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who takes the government at its word that "all" may attend school. He wants to learn to read, a privilege he was denied when he was younger because he belonged to a revolutionary group in the 1950s intent on driving out the then-ruling British from his nation, and he spent many years in jail being tortured.

After much resistance from the school leadership, Jane decides to allow Maruge to sit in her class. In order to read, he must first learn to write; in order to write, he was first learn to hold a pencil. It's a grueling process getting Maruge up to speed with the group of primary schoolers that surround him. The old man progresses nicely, although small post-traumatic triggers still haunt him, but he realizes he must overcome these flashes if he wants to remain around children and not be considered a threat.

As expected, eventually the world outside finds out what Maruge is up to, and soon parents, the press, and the school board insist that Maruge leave the school. Jane tries to preserve Maruge's place at the school by hiring him as a teacher's assistant, but that isn't quiet enough to ease those who are uncomfortable with Maruge's presence at the school. But as the press coverage on Maruge's plight begins to swing in his favor (and Jane agrees to teach him after hours), politicians turn Maruge into the face of improvement in Kenya, while the school board essentially pushes Jane out of her job for going behind their back in teaching the old man.

As directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, and PBS's "Bleak House" miniseries) and scripted by Ann Peacock (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Nights in Rodanthe), The First Grader is the kind of no-frills storytelling a tale like this requires. There is no trumped-up conflict or overwritten scenes meant to heighten the drama. The actors are allowed to simply tell the story, say the words, and let the natural beauty of this redemptive tale take shape. Harris is a gifted actress and a bit of a chameleon, and she shines without having a halo placed on her head. Jane's decisions don't always make sense, and her stubbornness creates as many problems as it solves. I'm just happy to see Harris in such a stellar lead role.

Based on a true story, The First Grader doesn't offer too many surprises, but it doesn't suffer because of that. When Jane is transferred hundreds of miles away from her school and her husband, is there ever any doubt she'll return to her tiny school room in the middle of nowhere? The reason Maruge wants to read is because he's received an official-looking letter that he wants to be able to read himself. Again, is there any doubt that in a film that props him up to be representative of a society trying to become a more just place that the letter will be anything but good news? None of this takes away from the film, but for those liking a few more surprises, you might be a little let down. The First Grader is an uplifting story told in a classic manner, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Bill Cunningham New York

It's tough to believe that one of the most influential and best-read figures on the New York fashion scene is not a designer, nor does he write for a fashion magazine. A man well into his 80s, Bill Cunningham documents with his camera what on-the-street New Yorkers are wearing day to day for a weekly photo essay in The New York Times' Style section. He's not a paparazzi, tracking down celebrities, although his secondary job for the Times is photographing society events, but only those he decides are worthy of his time and might result in the most interesting fashion statements from those in attendance.

Directed by Richard Press, Bill Cunningham New York is a fascinating profile of a man whose entire life seems to be devoted to tracking the ever-changing world of dresses, shoes, and accessories. Cunningham pedals around on his rickety Schwinn bike to certain hot spots around Manhattan, looking for citizens of the city who are catch his eye. During the course of this film, he is forced out of one of the few remaining "artists apartments" above Carnegie Hall, where he has lived for decades, every room of which is devoted to his craft.

Although it's addressed directly, Cunningham seems uncertain as to weather he's gay or straight, or whether he's truly ever been in love, and I don't think he's being coy. Based on what little information is conveyed about Bill's childhood, it seems clear that he fell in love with fashion at a young age, and that is the only true love of his life. Somehow he comes across as a man who is both fortunate to have many friends and is desperately lonely when he isn't doing his job. On a certain level, Cunningham is clearly uncomfortable that there's even a film being made about him, but he's so agreeable, he doesn't have it in him to say no to this moderate invasion of privacy.

There's a great film slowly being released around the country now called Page One, concerning the importance and changing face of The New York Times. Bill Cunningham New York is a great sidebar to that film about one of the paper's true fixtures, the man who holds his camera in one hand and his tethered flash in the other. Sure, such fashion icons as Anna Wintour (an old friend of Bill's) and Michael Kors make appearances throughout the film, but this film isn't about them. The film thrives because of Cunningham's homespun dignity, work ethic, and passion for fashion. That being said, you don't have to appreciate fashion to be charmed by the infectious spirit of Bill Cunningham.

Bill Cunningham New York opens today at the Music Box Theatre. On Friday, May 20, director Richard Press and producer Philip Gefter will be doing Q&As to talk about the film after select screenings.

EE / May 22, 2011 9:12 PM

I was a big Pirates fan but even I stopped enjoying it after they announced a fourth film with no Orland or Keira. Intrigued as to how it still has so many followers and fans worldwide, especially more than Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.

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