Tony & Malcolm Debate the Movies

Pirates of the Caribbean

Tony:  It’s worth noting to begin with that I was more of a fan of Johnny Depp in his up-and-coming and indie days than as an international megastar. I’ve never really liked the Jack Sparrow character, with very little of him going a very long way. That said, I actually enjoyed “On Stranger Tides” more than the last couple of sailings. The last couple of movies seemed to be trying overly hard to thrill with wild effects and over-the-top characters, at the expense of simple storytelling.  Now we still have somewhat larger-than-life characters, but in service of a story rather than feeling like the story existed to bring them to screen.

The story itself is really quite simple in structure, with three groups on a parallel quest for the same elusive location. There isn’t an over-abundance of double, triple, and quadruple-crossing that only serves to make plot developments seem arbitrary. Instead, the action and character motivations are really quite straightforward.

Malcolm: I agree. The plot actually made sense this time, as opposed to the most recent installment (“At World’s End,” 2007) which was just a confusing mess. That one was like a committee just threw a bunch of ideas at a wall, then nobody bothered to edit them down. This was after I was pleasantly surprised by the first two films. Even though, like the others, the run time is too long, at least it was always headed in a coherent direction.

Tony:  Two of my favorite moments in the movie are driven by cameo performances. One is a repeat appearance by Keith Richards as Jack Sparrow’s father (who I think plays the part better than Depp – although Depp is essentially just channeling Richards to begin with). In what might be the single best line of the movie, he gestures to his own well-worn face in answer to Jack’s question about finding the fountain of youth, “Does it look like I found the fountain of youth?” The other is an even briefer appearance by Judi Dench as a “society lady” (according to the credits) who happens to be passing in a carriage at exactly the wrong (or right?) moment. A dozen years ago, she famously won an Oscar for a very abbreviated portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in “Shakespeare in Love” and here she steals her one scene despite being given almost nothing to work with.

I liked it more for who wasn’t in it: Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. I don’t really mind either of them overall, but Depp/Sparrow was the reason there were sequels in the first place. They got rid of the fresh, pale faces – and replaced them with a couple of more obscure fresh, pale faces, then turn that subplot into something a bit sinister, which I liked.
Overall, it’s a very swarthy movie, with Penelope Cruz taking over the lead female role and Ian McShane of “Deadwood” playing Blackbeard. And a whole host of Spaniards, a group who’ve been conspicuously missing, play a role. They’re pretty minor, but it’s pretty delicious when it’s revealed what they were up to. I don’t want to give anything away, but it also plays with ideas of religion in ways that I thought were pretty clever for a film whose main focus was swordfights and mayhem.

I’m more of a Depp/Sparrow fan than Tony is, but oddly, I found him a little disappointing this time around. Having more of the movie about him was nice, but he actually seemed a little less over-the-top this time, less raunchy and effeminate. To make a bad joke, I thought the tides could have been far stranger. But that could just be because he didn’t have Knightley and Bloom playing straight-man for him. Really, these films are pretty silly, and are measured by entertainment value. So I’ll say about this what I said about the first two – really enjoyed seeing it on the big screen once, but don’t ever need to see it again.

Tony: The choice of Rob Marshall as director isn’t an obvious one, any more than Kenneth Branagh was for the recent “Thor.” But in each case, a non-genre director seems to have brought the core story to the forefront in a way that works more than might be expected. I’d still recommend “Thor” over “Pirates…” but a much more fanatical audience clearly seemed to be appreciating Marshall’s work at our screening.

Tony: Note – Stick around to the very end of the credits.

“Even the Rain”

Directed by Icíar Bollaín
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

Opens at Tower Theatre (2508 Landpark Drive) on Friday, May 20

The latest Spanish-language film from pint-sized Mexican crossover heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal is one of those film-within-a-film setups. It’s also politically didactic – and “Even the Rain” falls into some of the pitfalls that can come with both conceits.

Bernal and costar Costa (Luis Tosar) are part of a film crew working on a movie about Columbus. They travel to Bolivia to film is because the country is seen as being friendly to business ventures, with low regulations. But once there, they cast a fierce young Indian man in a key role. The man, it turns out, it also a community leader, and sucks the pair into the Bolivian water crisis – which, in turn, serves as a means of replaying themes of race and colonialism in the modern world.

From approximately the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, Bolivia was roiled in a dispute over water privatization involving foreign companies. Eventually, by taking to the streets, destroying property and essentially making it impossible for them to operate, the people physically threw these companies out of the country – one of the most effective uses of street power in recent history.

Three things save this film. For one thing, the mountains of Bolivia are beautiful. Two, Bernal, a gifted actor, sells it, even with the dialog gets a little wooden and preachy – which they often do, and the subtitles/translations don’t help them seem more natural.

Third, there’s the interesting take on religion – specifically the complex role of the Catholic Church in the Latin world. On the one hand, it provided much of the rationale behind the most brutal, in terms of total lives lost, conquest in the history of mankind. On the other, it was individual priests who first stood up to the slaughter and exploitation they saw in the New World. Not a perfect film, but certainly a thought-provoking one.

Winter in Wartime
Directed by Martin Koolhoven

Review by Tony Sheppard

“Winter in Wartime” is fairly simple, low-budget Dutch movie about a boy growing up in a Nazi-occupied small town in the Netherlands during WWII. As the son of the mayor, he lives a good life, given the circumstances, but is disappointed by his father’s apparent friendliness with the Germans. The Germans are depicted as a dominant occupying force, but not as overtly evil as in some movies. He’s also surrounded by locals of assorted ages who are involved in the resistance, and his world is changed enormously when he finds himself involved in the harboring of a crashed Royal Air Force pilot.

This is more of an effective character study and coming of age movie than it is a historical drama about the war on a grander scale. It focuses on one boy as he comes to better understand adult relationships and adult motivations in coping with the world amidst unfortunate circumstances. Along the way, he learns that good and bad aren’t always easily recognized or dichotomous. 

If there’s a current parallel at all, it might be in the harboring of a fugitive during wartime, under the noses of those looking for him. The release
of “Winter in Wartime” was delayed in the Sacramento market, and I actually watched it several weeks ago, prior to the killing of Osama bin Laden. But that event reminded me both of this movie and, amidst all of the outrage at how he had eluded capture for so long, of the fact that the FBI took five years to find domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph in the relatively accessible mountains of North Carolina. Finding people is far easier in theory, and from the comfort of an armchair, than it is in practice.

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