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Fun with Franchises: Final Thoughts on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

All right… we’ve watched the film, talked about it, had fun with it, and then we went and listed our favorite images from the film yesterday. Now all that’s left is to finish up with what we actually thought about the film as a whole.

This is our space to go over what we liked and didn’t like about each film we watch for Fun with Franchises. We talk about specific things as we get to them during the articles, and we’ll mention our general thoughts during them, but we don’t really ever get to sit and do broad strokes during the articles. So this is why we do these Final Thoughts. We get to take a step back and talk about the films as a whole, rather than discussing specific scenes or images. We’ll talk about how we felt about the film, how we liked it as a film, how we liked it as a member of its franchise, and where we think it falls within that franchise.

Again, it’s not very complicated, but it is a place to find out what we actually thought about certain movies, since, while we’re having fun with them in the articles, it may get difficult to tell sometimes. Because we’ll just rip things to shreds for fun, even if we love them.

So here are our final thoughts on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides:Final Thoughts on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides:

Colin:

That was a bit of a disappointment. I don’t know what I was expecting.

Well, no. I do know what I was expecting. I went into At World’s End with a pretty strong feeling that it would be at least worse than Dead Man’s Chest, which I’d already enjoyed a LOT less than Curse of the Black Pearl. As it turned out, the third movie was better than the second, and although it still wasn’t as good as the first, it made me a lot more optimistic for the fourth film than I would have been otherwise. I figured that it’d be worse than the third, but even that wasn’t a bad thing. We’d end up with two really great movies and two merely good movies.

As far as I’m concerned, we ended up with two really great movies, one merely good one, and one movie that might as well have been left unmade. I guess I’ll work my way through the details and then figure out somewhere at the end where I stand on this film’s existence.

Jack isn’t bad, although he’s rarely been this uninteresting. I’m really not versed in screenwriting the way Mike is, so I needed him to pinpoint it for me, but the moments of, “What about you?” and the constant tracking shots on Depp make the dialogue and the character a lot less fun. Mike had a comment in one of the articles that I was struck by (This is how I learn about movies. Also, watching them.) where he suggested that they leave the camera still and let the actors do what they’re being paid to do. And seriously — yes. A still shot done on a mediocre camera where Depp’s acting well is going to be ten times better than a moving shot on an amazing camera where he’s doing nothing. And speaking of shots…

This movie looked bad. Some movies don’t look good, but this one was frustrating for how bad it looked at times. I was particularly annoyed by how much of the film was shot in the dark, since the picture looked horrible. Maybe it was a product of them shooting in digital 3D, but the crispness of the shots in the first three movies was gone.

I had to make the comparison between Black Pearl and Stranger Tides and how their villain conversation scenes went. In many ways, they were similar. Our protagonist, captive on a hostile pirate ship, speaks with the captain in his candlelit cabin at night. With Elizabeth and Barbossa, the flickering light danced on everything. Keira’s skin was warmly lit, and there were shadows that Barbossa got to walk in and out of. There was also a lot of movement in the scene — Barbossa told the story theatrically, circling like a shark. That was my introduction to Geoffrey Rush ten years ago, and it was great. Compare that with our conversation with Ian McShane as Black Beard. The cabin is lit by candles, but the light doesn’t really dance around, and the whole room ends up a muddy, brown color with very little contrast. McShane is all sort of brown. The room is all sort of brown. Everything is all very brown. No burgundy dress or Granny Smith apple. It was mostly shot-reverse shot, with Blackbeard at his desk (yawn) and Jack standing in front of it (super yawn). No chance of a shot like Beckett pointing his pistol at Jack across the Endeavour’s chart room. We reach the height of our shot complexity when Penelope Cruz arrives and suddenly there are three people to cut to.

As Mike pointed out, they gave up plenty of shots here and there that they could have used. The ones that made me crazy were all the shots that were ALMOST framed by an arch, but the tops had been cut off. You have to give me the full arch. There was at least one occasion where they started with a shot of the full arch and immediately started tracking so that the rest of it was cut off. Just…show me action through an arch. Shots can be stationary, especially when there’s good framing. And my other pet peeve was how they shot the Queen Anne’s Revenge. First, it’s almost always at night, so the digital looks pretty poor and we get bad images. We get plenty of shots of the deck, but who cares? And then a lot of the exterior shots are 1) moving 2) almost never looking down on the ship, but instead looking up or straight on 3) rarely ever full shots of the ship. Part of the ship will be cut off, or the weirdly placed sails will obscure much of the hull’s shape. As a result, we get almost no clean shots of the ship from an aerial, stationary position during daylight or dusk. And a lot of the best shots from the three previous films had two or more of those conditions.

Why were the Spanish in this movie? Blackbeard going after the Fountain of Youth was a complete externality, since he was told by his zombie quartermaster (ZQ?) that a one-legged man would kill him. So, getting past how ridiculous that is, we should point out that the Fountain of Youth was pegged (pun ridiculously intended) as the next goal at the end of the third film. Therefore, Barbossa and Jack were both headed for this spot before we even started the film, and that all fell through, apparently. They started out in the Caribbean, needing to go to Florida and somehow both ended up in London. Assuming Tortuga’s somewhere in the center of the Caribbean, that’d be about 200 miles from southern Florida, and yet both of them end up in London, 4500 miles away. Okay.

Then, TOTALLY by chance, a Spanish guy turns up in a net and arbitrarily sends the Spanish looking for the Fountain of Youth at PRECISELY the same time that Blackbeard’s going for completely unrelated reasons. Sound like bullshit yet? Then, the English somehow hear about the Spanish (but know nothing about Blackbeard?) fast enough that they can dispatch a ship and stay in the game. Am I the only one who noticed that the Spanish — who left much earlier, had the head start of however long it’d take for word to get back to London, and who have the natural advantage of being way farther southwest than England — are then seen passing Barbossa’s ship from behind, going faster? Ultimately, they’re making us abandon all logic to accept the Spaniards in this movie, when it could have just been about Blackbeard going after the Fountain and England wanting to stop him. That keeps it simpler and sort of makes sense. You can make the claim that the Spanish provide a third group of players that sort of complicate things and make the plot more interesting (and you’d be wrong), but that’s nothing that couldn’t be done with a more compelling villain and interesting characters.

In Curse of the Black Pearl, it was Barbossa and the cursed pirates as primary villains, with the Royal Navy running interference. In Dead Man’s Chest, it was the EITC and Davy Jones as a complicating factor. In At World’s End, it was the EITC with Davy Jones, and Sao Feng and his shifty Asian dudes provided confusion and plot twists with their kung-fu treachery. All of these villainous groups got good screen time and got some development. Maybe not enough. But not NONE. I have no idea why there were Spanish folk in this movie, other than for Richard Griffiths to seethe at. Or how Black Beard bottles ships, why his top men were all “zombified” randomly, how one of the zombies is a clairvoyant, and how none of this is addressed even once. These are some of those things that foreign audiences will buy without question, which is why this movie did $800 million overseas and only $240 million at home. 

Richard Griffiths and Judi Dench were my two high points for this movie. Every face Griffiths made was pure gold, and Judi got some neck action from Depp. You should all know how much we love Dame Judi. I lost my shit.

McShane’s character was poorly developed. I would’ve liked a more intense and well-executed Russian roulette scene, or at least something that more successfully called into question his feelings for his daughter. Beyond that, he’s just a guy who’s afraid of dying, and pretty ruthless. Even his fear of death isn’t particularly pertinent. He’s calm the whole time, rather than snarling and yelling like Barbossa used to. They give him the ship, which doesn’t really get explained or used. They have the ship blow fire, which isn’t explained or really used for much of anything. In the end, he can either let his daughter die to save himself, or sacrifice himself to save her — and the actual outcome adds nothing new to the story, especially if Cruz is coming back. Wouldn’t it have better if Cruz had mixed up what the tear does, and Depp knew? So that when he sets it up for Blackbeard to die, Cruz would think Blackbeard had chosen to do that? And then he dies before anything can be said, so even though Depp knows he was trying to kill his daughter and save himself, Cruz thinks the opposite, and potentially follows in his footsteps as a result. They could have used her so much better.

How about the fact that it’s a pirate movie primarily done on land? Not one naval battle or cool maneuver. Barbossa got to yell like 3 orders on deck, total.

Man, do I hate that religious guy. Not an appropriate replacement for Orlando Bloom, and I consider most living things to be adequate replacements for Orlando Bloom.

I still have more to talk about, but I’m gonna sorta stop here. After this.

This is the Depp and Rush show. When neither of them are on screen, I’m just not interested. That’s just what it is. The writing and the visuals just aren’t there, so I have to rely on their sheer forces of personality to get me through the movie — which they do. But when your franchise has been reduced to two guys being cool onscreen, it’s either time to switch up a lot of things or quit while you’re still marginally ahead. It’ll just be the bad last movie. Or, it would have been, but now there’s a fifth movie slated for 2016. They’re changing a lot of stuff, so maybe it won’t suck completely. I’m not getting my hopes up.

I wish this movie hadn’t been made. Just leave it a trilogy, and we’d all like those three. And it’s not even like I hated this movie. It’s just nowhere near the other three. You’ve gotten to a point where you’re only going to be taking away from how great the franchise was.

My Final Thoughts:

What is this movie?

There are a lot of questions I have about this movie.

First — were they trying? Because it seems like they just slapped a product up there on the screen for the sole purposes of making money. They certainly weren’t trying to reboot the franchise in any meaningful way. It seems like they were just treading water because they didn’t know what story they wanted to tell. This film doesn’t lead to anything, it’s just a standalone tale. It’s almost like Quantum of Solace, in that it basically just follows where the last one left off and allows us to then move on to other things. (Only shittier.)

They had this Fountain of Youth story, so they must have figured they’d run with that. And then they had to have opened up the handbook, looking for famous pirates. Blackbead — check. And then they needed something for Barbossa to do — they must have just Frankenstein’d this plot together. That’s the only way it makes sense.

The real problem with it isn’t necessarily the barebones of it all. It’s how they chose to tell it and what they chose to show. Because opening with Jack trying to spring Gibbs in London — fine. Getting caught and then that chase scene — fine. Getting press-ganged on the Revenge — not so fine. Because it’s just not that interesting for Jack to be the one there. It’s okay when it’s Keira Knightley, but Jack needs to be getting into mischief and shit. So we’re stuck with these unnecessary scenes with Blackbeard leading the charge, and the fucking mermaids, which serve no purpose to the plot whatsoever.

And then there’s that dumbass religious guy, who really should have been killed when they pretended to kill him (and not just cause he’s religious). And not to mention the Spanish, who are literally only there to destroy the Fountain and serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever.

But, the basic plot — Jack is going to the Fountain, Blackbeard wants Jack to lead him to the Fountain, Barbossa wants Blackbeard — I’m down with that. Though don’t make it because of some stupid prophecy. Make it because Blackbeard wants eternal life. And stop with the fucking zombies, too. This franchise throws in way too much supernatural shit for no purpose.

This film doesn’t get good until we find out Barbossa’s true motivations. Until then it sort of meanders along. Or, actually — this film doesn’t get good until Jack and Barbossa share the screen together on Ponce de Leon’s ship. From that point on, this film works. And it really illustrates the things that work in this franchise (Jack and Barbossa) as opposed to the things that don’t (CGI, mermaids, stupid love stories). Once we hear Barbossa tell that story about his leg and losing the Pearl, we all collectively went, “Man… why couldn’t we have more of that?

And then there’s the issue of this film looking as bad as it does. They slashed the budget to $250 million, not $60 million. There’s no reason why so much of this film should take place in dimly lit locations and not on ships at sea. They only spent $140 million on that first movie, and that looked way better than this does. All the scenes on the Revenge clearly look like they’re being shot on a soundstage the way Titanic was. I know they gave you less money, but where the fuck did it all go? Did you really need to light dimly so as to not show how small your sets were? And even without that — how do you not take advantage of all the shot choices you had? There were so many wasted opportunities (as Colin said) for images. It’s disgusting.

So little about this film works, and a lot of the stuff that happens is so predictable that you wonder if they were just on autopilot when they wrote this. What surprises me the most is how badly they want to keep fucking up the Sparrow character. Him delivering exposition, him showing obvious signs of planning an escape, him having feelings for a woman — this isn’t him. This doesn’t work.

This film is a failure on so many levels. The script seems rushed, and Rob Marshall was not the right choice for director. So many times did he do the wrong thing with the camera when he should have done nothing at all, and so few times did he just put the camera wide and let the landscape do the talking. The plot was way too complicated (which is really saying something, considering At World’s End exists), and would have greatly benefitted from fewer characters (no Spanish, no mermaids as major romantic subplots), and some tightening up of the plot.

But — at this point — this is easily the worst film of the franchise, and all we can do is wait until they make the next one to see if they learn from their mistakes or become content to just rake in the cash without even trying. They still have my money, but I’m sorely disappointed by this finished product, especially when they could have done so much more with so much less.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow — is nothing, since this is our last franchise for this season of Fun with Franchises. Don’t worry, it’ll be back. We just wanted to get out before it got stale. We’ll come back strong next year. Don’t you worry.

(See the rest of the Fun with Franchises articles here.)

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