We sail into the Sargasso Sea of summer, where movie sequels trawl for box-office kelp. But then, off to Paris!
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Having taken in way over two billion, even more than Donald Trump spends on hairspray, the Pirates of the Caribbean series doesn’t need (but demands) the extra loot of No. 4, On Stranger Tides. I enjoyed slabs of the last one, At World’s End. The effects-driven mania was so insanely wasteful that it was like a rich, happy moron’s rebuke to every critic with taste. Also, I figured that was the last big cruise.
But no, the party splurges on, as a bonus for loyal multitudes. Though more focused than the last two, there is again a stretching of story by vast expenditure. Again the atmosphere of congested murk helps to both display the effects and disguise their seam lines. It all pivots, of course, on Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow. Looking about as rigged-up as any sailing ship, Depp is like a mincing jester from some private, campy version of Pirates of Penzance. He preens in the role, chews its tasty morsels, spits out lines that pass (in context) for wit and irony.
Sparrow goes looking for his lost ship and for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. His rivals are ugly Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and ugly Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose gorgeous daughter (Penélope Cruz) is clearly a genetic wild card. The story’s best oomph is an oceanic surge of sexy, hissing mermaids, including the stunning Gemma Ward and lovely, superbly named Astrid Berges-Frisbey.
Special effects arrive like tsunamis, and there is a strained attempt to carry moral cargo with a hunky but noble missionary (Sam Claflin), lines about redemptive sacrifice, and a Spanish admiral who scorns the fountain as a pagan affront to his Catholicism. Little of that will register with the sub-18 demographic or with people who simply like to wear 3-D glasses (the realism comes not only from extra depth, but the added blur during action scenes).
Although diverting, Rob Marshall’s movie remains the bloated symptom of cultural limits. In the May 26 New York Review of Books, Nathaniel Rich looks back at the risk-loving films of the early ’70s and closes with a delicate dirge: “The blockbuster franchise is still alive, but teetering...the only players in Hollywood who are granted real freedom to experiment are the technicians. They’ve been making great strides, as anyone who has seen Avatar can attest. The images are becoming three-dimensional, the special effects are more staggering than ever, and the sound is uncannily crisp. Something is missing.”
Midnight in Paris
Getting out of “his city,” New York, has been good for Woody Allen. He used Britain sharply in Match Point. Spiced by Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Spain gave Allen’s wit a sexier charge in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Now Paris is the city of his fancy, in Midnight in Paris. The French capital puts a beautiful foundation under the soufflé pleasures of the story, an amusing sprint of pensées and frissons about nostalgia.
Gil (Owen Wilson) has come to Paris, head crammed with fantasies of being a novelist, sick of being “a Hollywood hack who never gave literature a real shot” (painter Gene Kelly was such a cliché in An American in Paris). Along with him, like pretty baggage, is fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). She wants an A-list life in Malibu and can’t fathom Gil’s desire to walk around Paris, preferably in the rain. The cartoon element of the movie is in making Inez a shallow, shopping materialist with an arch-Republican dad who sneers at the French (don’t many Republicans love Paris?). When Inez snarks about “the mystique of this corny city,” we want to put her on a cattle car to Siberia.
Allen has contrived one of his best surrogates in Gil, using the vanilla appeal of Owen Wilson, a genial blond who is almost the Doris Day of dudes. Wilson’s charming innocence suits Gil’s addiction to Paris and what it means to art, books, movies, and lovers. In a beautifully managed conceit, much like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen has Gil stroll and taxi right into his preferred Paris of the 1920s. There he finds a beauty (Marion Cotillard) who responds with a mind-trip of her own.
Paris preens as the most civilized of damsels. The film opens with about 30 shots of landmarks, and Darius Khondji’s photography remains a thrilled tourist. And we get Gil’s dazzled, gawky, grateful responses to suave Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Huddleston) and his flippy Zelda (Alison Pill), and to absurdly macho Ernest Hemingway (look-alike Corey Stoll), plain-talker Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, perfect), vain Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and surreal but perplexed Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van).
These are fond snapshots of artists being pickled for lasting fame, but still accessible. The movie name-drops with a blithe bounce, and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, France’s wow First Lady, plays a museum guide irritated by a pedant. The humor, though not stuffy, is mainly for Allen’s New Yorker audience, who can chuckle at the bookish gags and savor the Cole Porter songs. The ending is romantic without dumbing-down the aura of whimsical celebration. This delectable American salute to Paris is the best since Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004).
How swell it must be to act opposite Keira Knightley, except that she makes the other actors seem expendable. Those eyes, that skin, those lips, that pearly briskness of Brit-ness! Dominic Cooper was swamped by Keira in The Duchess. She broke Matthew Macfadyen’s snooty crust in Pride & Prejudice. James McAvoy held his own in Atonement, mainly because he had a terrific war sequence.
Her star again sparkles in Last Night as Joanna, Manhattan freelance writer and mildly bored wife of Michael, who cooks construction deals. Poor Sam Worthington is stuck playing Michael. Minus the blue skin of Avatar, he is blue in another way: manly, smart, handsome, but dull. He flips into a hotel fling with his associate Laura (Eva Mendes, who has boudoir lips but is no Keira). Suspicious Joanna frets into some side-action involving alcohol, Manhattan restaurants, a sweet dog, and prolonged toying with the potential for sex.