Posts Tagged ‘Penelope Cruz’

With any substantial body of work there comes a point when new additions to it struggle to match up to the aggregate presence of all that has gone before: what I sometimes call the ‘Bank Holiday Bond’ phenomena, where each new James Bond film is forced to compete not just with individual previous films, but the collective memory of the rest of the series. It doesn’t just happen with series and franchises, but anything with consistent style and sensibility.

If you were to watch Parallel Mothers with the credits removed and the sound turned off, there’s a pretty good chance – assuming you know your world cinema – that you’d be able to guess exactly what you were dealing with. The setting is photogenic, Spanish, mostly urban, with fabulous interior décor; the cast is predominantly female, with a leading role for Penelope Cruz; not a very great deal seems to happen in terms of conventional action, though this doesn’t stop everyone clearly having an emotional time of it. Yes, it’s a Pedro Almodovar movie – and Almodovar’s reputation has reached the point where anything other than a supremely accomplished film inevitably feels like a bit of a disappointment.

Cruz plays Janis, a successful photographer living in Madrid. After taking some pictures of Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist, she asks for his help: some of the men from her home village were killed in one of the purges at the very beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The families have located the site of the mass grave and are seeking professional assistance in having the remains excavated.

Quite apart from all this, Janis and Arturo hit it off on a personal level – without dwelling too much on the details of los pajaros y las abejas, Janis falls pregnant. Unfortunately, Arturo is unwilling to commit, but this does not concern Janis overly. Down at the maternity hospital she makes the acquaintance of Ana, a teenage girl also having her first child, albeit in rather less agreeable circumstances. The two women become friends, giving birth at almost exactly the same time, and having very similar experiences – both infants are whisked off for observation just after delivery.

Eventually, however, they both take their children home, staying in touch: Janis has to contend with a less than impressive au pair, while Ana’s mother seems more concerned with her acting career than her daughter and granddaughter. But then Arturo, who is visiting, openly wonders why Janis’ daughter doesn’t resemble either of them that closely. Janis reluctantly has a test done in secret, and learns the disquieting truth – there has been a mix-up at the hospital and the child she is raising is not her own…

So, for the most part it seems to stick pretty closely to the sort of thing you’d expect of an Almodovar film – the director works his usual minor miracle by making a film mostly comprised of people having conversations in cafes and apartments, and yet still manages to keep things engrossing. There’s a sense in which most of the story takes place on a very intimate and human level, and yet Almodovar finds a way to elevate the emotions to an almost operatic pitch without tilting the whole thing over into camp. As it is, the narrative skips back and forth between conventional drama and melodrama with the greatest elegance.

Mixed in with it this time, however, is something else, and perhaps essentially Spanish. To my regret, I know very little about the details of the Civil War in Spain; my understanding is that the whole subject remains sensitive and little-discussed in Spain itself. The conflict is still within living memory, and something the country has yet to fully come to terms with. Certainly this is the first Almodovar film to address the topic, even obliquely: and even here it initially seems like the plotline about the excavation of a war grave is just a plot device.

It is not, but it takes a long time for this to become apparent. The film as a whole is about the idea of family – not just the people close to us, and those we choose to live with, but the people from whom we have emerged and those whom we will leave in our place. The uncertainty that Cruz’s character feels about her great-grandfather’s fate in the war is echoed in the question-mark over the whereabouts of her true daughter and the nature of her relationship with the child she is raising.

To be honest, it feels like a combination of soap opera plotting with an act of historical witness, a slightly peculiar combination which Almodovar never quite manages to integrate with complete successful: the sequences concerning the war and the dig feel like bookends on a rather more typical Almodovar drama, one which doesn’t quite resolve entirely satisfyingly as a result.

Nevertheless, it’s still an engaging and moving story (I should say this film marked the first time I and my old friend Olinka went to the cinema together in about two and a half years, and she was characteristically scornful of the realism of some of the post-natal sequences). It’s certainly a brilliant showcase for the talent of Penelope Cruz, who gets the chance to develop a fully-rounded characterisation and dominate the film – completely believable even when possibly acting a little irrationally, this is the kind of performance that cries out for recognition, and it is no surprise at all she is in the running for an Oscar this year. Almodovar still manages to find space for impressive contributions from Milana Smit and Aijana Sanchez-Gijon as well.

Does it quite live up to the standard of the best of Almodovar’s earlier films? Perhaps not; it’s not as utterly satisfying and rewarding as a film like – to choose an example – Talk to Her. But in that case we’re talking about an exceptional film, a classic. You can praise a film for being brilliant, but it’s unfair to criticise one for not reaching that standard. This is a very good film by any conventional standard.

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Whether or not you feel the last few weeks have seen a bit of a drought when it comes to interesting and worthwhile filmgoing experiences is, of course, a matter of taste, but there are signs of an upturn of sorts (although again, you may find your mileage varying). You do not often find films like Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (title Espanol: Dolor y Gloria) turning up in UK multiplex cinemas, but here it is – is it simply because of the director’s formidable reputation, acquired through decades of quality work? Or is there honestly not much else around to occupy that particular screen? One would like to think the former.

Yes, I know: you wait nearly ten years for an Almodóvar film to be reviewed and then two turn up in the same week. What can I say? The first thing that makes Pain and Glory a slightly odd fit for the typical multiplex is, obviously, that it is in Spanish, the second is that it is also really an art house movie. It features a couple of famous performers, but it doesn’t fit easily into any particular genre and is arguably not the most accessible of films, on a number of levels. I won’t say the film is one long in-joke, not least because it isn’t actually a comedy, but a degree of familiarity with Pedro Almodóvar’s life and works will probably help you to appreciate where the film is coming from.

Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mello, the world’s most famous Spanish film director, who as the film opens has not made a movie for some time, primarily for health reasons (or so he says). His rather listless existence receives a jolt when he is informed that one of his films from thirty years ago is to be revived, and presented to a new audience by the lead actor (Asier Etxeandia) – to whom Mello hasn’t spoken since it was finished, following a big row between the two.

(Already there are multiple layers of self-referentiality and irony going on here for the in-the-know – it is fairly clear who the character of the world’s most famous Spanish film director is based on, and the plot is likewise informed by the fact that Banderas and Almodóvar had a major falling out when the actor – who Almodóvar discovered – went off to make English-language movies, and didn’t work together for twenty years afterwards.)

Well, one thing leads to another and Salvador finds himself reconnecting with all manner of people from his past, from artistic collaborators to his first real boyfriend (Leonardo Sbaraglia). He also picks up a bit of a drug habit, which seems to lead to his having vivid dreams about his youth half a century earlier, and the fraught relationship between his parents (his mother is played by Penelope Cruz, another actor with a long track record of working with this director). But is this all just a sign of a slightly sick man settling into a premature decline? Or can Mello find a way to get himself out of this slump?

It quickly becomes apparent that Pain and Glory has little of the colour and vibrancy that many of Almodóvar’s most famous films are distinguished by. This is a sober, restrained piece of work, both introspective and retrospective – it’s very hard not to interpret it as the director looking back on his life and career, with appearances from other actors who he has worked with in the past – Cecilia Roth, from All About My Mother, has a small cameo, for instance. It almost seems to have a valedictory quality, which is surely a bit premature given that Almodóvar is not yet 70.

However, the film retains much of the clever playfulness and subtlety of his best-known films, not to mention his fondness for outrageously implausible plotting. Almodóvar is never afraid of using a credibility-strangling coincidence to move one of his scripts along, and this happens here in a couple of places too. The trick is that you become so invested in the characters and their situations that you suspend your disbelief, and this does happen here as usual – it’s curious to think that Anglophone audiences tend to think of Antonio Banderas as either a light comedian or (more bizarrely) an action hero. Perhaps Almodóvar’s imprecations that he would waste his talent in Hollywood had some truth to them, for here he gives a very strong and rounded dramatic performance, in what can’t have been especially easy circumstances (he is essentially embodying the writer-director of the film).

I note that Penelope Cruz has managed to wangle herself the ‘with the special collaboration of’ credit on this movie, which I’m guessing is the Spanish version of ‘special guest star’ and indicates the actor is doing the director a favour by turning up. Well, her charm and ability are undiminished and she is also caught up in the artifice of the film’s structure – towards the end the distinction between the film’s flashback sequences and its present day setting is knowingly collapsed, raising the possibility that Cruz is not just playing the Almodóvar-substitute’s mother, but playing herself playing that role – but this is not dwelt upon unduly.

If our thesis is correct, and Pain and Glory is really an introspective film about Pedro Almodóvar considering his own life and the key moments and relationships within it, do we learn much? Well, it does seem that the director is feeling his age a bit, but also that he has lost none of his warmth and compassion, nor his willingness to be open about some of the more intimate elements of his life – if the film is to be interpreted in these terms, the suggestion is that he may not have had the easiest of relationships with his parents, for instance. However, you could certainly argue that the film is arguing that it is through human contact that life acquires genuine significance – it is through recollecting his own first real romance, and before that the initial awakening of his sexual desire, that Salvador begins to find the answers to his own problems and sets out on the path to a kind of redemption.

This is a film about getting older and considering the choices you have made along the way, but it is also an ultimately humane and optimistic one. It is a more measured Almodóvar than has perhaps been the case sometimes in the past, but the director’s skill is still fully in evidence. This is a fine and often moving drama.

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I occasionally make a wistful observation hereabouts concerning all the apparently great film directors and classic movies which I have yet to properly come to grips with – it wasn’t all that long ago that I’d never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, for instance – and that small aspirational part of my brain (the bit that lies when I fill in questionnaires about my taste in books and films) should by rights feel good, as I can announce that another of the big names of world cinema can be crossed off the list – finally, I have caught up with a Pedro Almodóvar movie.

Well, I should qualify this by saying that Almodóvar is enjoying a fairly high UK profile at present, mainly because he has a new movie out – he’s still an arthouse darling rather than properly mainstream, of course, and so the new film is nowhere near as inescapable as Tarantino’s recent offering turned out to be – and I’m guessing that the revival of his 1999 movie Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) is connected to this. Still, if there’s one thing better than finally catching up with a film by one of the world’s great directors, I suppose it must be watching two of his films in the space of a couple of days.


It initially seems like the mother in All About My Mother is going to turn out to be Manuela (Cecilia Roth), for as the film begins she is living with her teenage son in Madrid. She is a nurse, but still has fond memories of her youth when she was an amateur actress. But then – and this is when summarising the plot gets a bit tricky, for there is clearly intended to be a big shock early on, the thing which launches the story proper – events conspire to put her life onto a different track. She finds herself returning to Barcelona, where she lived when she was younger, in search of her son’s father, whom she hasn’t seen since before he was born.

Up until this point it has been clear that this is a film made with great skill and subtlety, but now something new enters the mix and makes it especially distinctive. Manuela can’t find her ex, but bumps into an old friend named Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute whom she happens to rescue from being beaten by a client. As if this wasn’t a bold enough narrative step in all sorts of ways, Manuela’s attempts to continue her search see her getting involved in the lives of various other equally eye-opening characters – an on-the-way-up Penelope Cruz plays Rosa, a naïve young nun who has managed to end up pregnant by the father of Manuela’s child (who is, needless to say, another transsexual prostitute, this one with HIV). When Manuela stumbles into a job without really looking for one, it is as the personal assistant to an ageing lesbian actress (Marisa Paredes) involved in a somewhat fraught relationship with a much younger woman who is a drug addict (Candela Pena). Life gets complicated even without finding the object of her search.

As you can perhaps see, there is no actual shortage of candidates for the title role in this film – which appears to be an allusion to All About Eve, a film which two of the characters are watching while the actual title card comes up – and what makes the issue even more ambiguous is Almodóvar’s closing dedication for the movie, which is to ‘all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother’ – a fairly broad cross-section there.

That said, one thing the film is notably short of is unambiguously male main characters (there are a few minor male parts which make a significant contribution to the story), and you could certainly view it as an attempt to cover all the bases and include all aspects of both femininity and maternity, one way or another: under this reading, the whole film is a kind of extended meditation on the nature of motherhood and womanhood, one of considerable generosity and compassion. This is one of those very non-judgemental, essentially optimistic films we see all too rarely.

The other thing that makes the film so striking is something that I’ve alluded to already – overall, it has a warmth and naturalism to it that is very engaging, especially when coupled to the artful subtlety of the script. This does feel like a film set in some close analogue of the real world, with interesting things to say about it, and Manuela herself is a fully convincing character, brought well to life by Cecilia Roth. However, most of the rest of the characters are slightly outlandish, to say the least – any one of them would be the wacky or off-kilter supporting role in a more conventional film, and to have them all together here in the same film – sometimes in the same scene – is an interesting choice by the director. Then again, Almodóvar isn’t afraid to make this film a genuine melodrama, loading it with outrageously emotive moments, vastly improbable coincidences, implausible plot twists, and much more along the same lines.

His real trick is to do so without turning the film into something which functions only as an outrageous piece of over-the-top camp. There are elements of the story which probably don’t hold up under close scrutiny, certainly not as a piece of conventional drama – but such is the skill of the director and performers that the film remains genuinely engrossing and moving on those terms. It packs a genuine emotional punch in its key moments, despite everything I’ve mentioned; only at the very end does it seem to come a bit unravelled, with relatively little sense of closure.

This comes too late to genuinely impact on what is, by any standard, an extremely well-written and performed movie, which manages to touch on some quite profound subject matter without being unnecessarily didactic or profound. It is true that the truly remarkably subtle and intelligent movie promised by some elements of the opening sequence never quite materialises (a scene in which we see Manuela playing a role is closely paired with one where she finds herself in essentially the same situation for real), but there is a huge amount to enjoy and think about here regardless; this is an engrossing and rewarding film, clearly made for an intelligent and mature audience.

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We have clearly reached that point in the year when the major players are starting to bring out their big films, and the etiquette of this situation (influenced, naturally, by enlightened self-interest) means that there’s only likely to be one substantial release in any given week. If, like my regular co-cinema-goer Olinka, you are not the kind of person who enjoys everyday stories of photonic blasts and cats with unusual faculties, this can leave you short of things to go and see, down the local multiplex at least.

So it was that we reconvened for this week’s trip at our local sort-of-an-art-house cinema, to check out Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (título en español: Todos lo Saben). I’d seen a couple of Farhadi’s earlier movies and was fairly sure this would be a worthwhile investment of time, while the fact the promotional blurb for the film indicated it contained elements from the thriller genre meant it would probably be up Olinka’s alley. Vamanos!

Few directors working in the world today are quite as feted as Asghar Farhadi, whose achievements are all the more remarkable given his background is in Iran, not noted as one of the world’s great film-making nations. For his last few films he has opted to work more internationally, and Everybody Knows continues this trend, being set in Spain and made in Spanish. The themes are universal, though.

As the film begins a large extended family are gathering for a wedding in a small town somewhere in rural Spain. Laura (Penelope Cruz) has just flown in from Argentina with her two children; her wealthy husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) has been unable to accompany her. The reunion with her parents, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and so on is a happy one, as is another meeting with her old and close friend Paco (Javier Bardem). It seems like there is a strong chance of a very good time being had by all.

This proves not to be the case when Laura’s teenage daughter (Carla Campra), who shows some signs of being a spirited wild child, disappears in the evening following the wedding. To Laura’s horror, she receives a ransom demand by text, along with the instruction not to tell the police – but, rather to her bemusement, the same message is sent to Paco and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). What’s going on? Is all quite as it seems?

As usual with Farhadi, the mechanics of the actual plot are basically just a framework around which the director can build an exploration of characters and relationships. Soon enough things long unspoken of are bubbling unpleasantly to the surface, tensions within the family are rising, and apparently strong relationships are placed under severe strain…

So, when the film was finished we emerged from the auditorium and headed back into the city centre and our respective bus stops. Olinka was showing signs, I could tell, of not being entirely satisfied.

‘What have we just watched?’

I wasn’t sure if this was a trick question or not.

‘No, really, what have I just spent two hours of my life watching?’

‘You didn’t like it.’

‘I just found it really frustrating. Was it supposed to be a drama, or a psychological thriller, or what?’

‘Well, I suppose there were elements of a thriller to it, but what you have to remember with Farhadi is that the mechanics of the actual plot are basically just a framework around which the director-‘

‘You’ve already said that.’


‘The thing is, if that was a thriller, it was really slow and lacking in incident, and if it was a drama, it was psychologically simplistic, with no real depth to it and no real message.’

‘I’m sorry you didn’t like it…’

‘Oh, no, there were things I enjoyed about it.’

‘Like what?’

‘I liked the decor in the houses – the furniture, and the wallpaper, and the little trinkets they had everywhere.’

‘Oh. Well, I suppose that’s something.’

Not having Olinka’s ability to multitask, I cannot speak with much authority about the quality of the interior design in Everybody Knows, but I can kind of see where she’s coming from in her criticism of the film. The basic structure of the piece – a group of people come together, only for an unexpected event to expose the underlying tensions between them – is the same as that in other Farhadi films like About Elly…, which I suppose could leave the director open to accusations that he’s simply repeating himself.

Certainly, this is a meaty, actor’s drama, which may explain why he has managed to attract two of the biggest names in Spanish cinema to headline the movie. It almost goes without saying that Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are both extremely good in this film, giving excellent and intelligent performances – this is the kind of story where you see many facets of the characters, and it really demands performers of this kind of calibre.

Of course, a potential downside of this kind of structure is that it does take a while for the story to unfold – there’s a long first act establishing all the characters and their various relationships (I must confess to never being 100% sure about exactly how everyone was related to each other), setting the table before the rest of the plot proceeds to kick it over. The issue, if indeed it is an issue, is that the table-kicking-over happens at an equally leisurely pace.

There was some subdued muttering from Olinka along the lines of ‘what are these people doing?’ when the main characters responded to the kidnap of a girl by, well, standing around and talking a lot. I didn’t personally have as much of an issue with this, but as the film went on I did find the succession of lengthy scenes with characters sitting or standing around articulating their personal baggage or talking about their unfinished emotional business to be a little bit draining (full disclosure: I think I dozed off at one point (blame jet lag from the Manhattan trip), and was a bit startled by the sudden appearance of a character who’d previously been in Argentina).

The drama of the piece is, shall we say, sliced quite thick, and the only thing that keeps me from describing Everybody Knows as a ripe old melodrama is the fact that it is just a bit too well-written and well-performed for this to be entirely fair. The lack of conventional closure to the story will probably just annoy some viewers, though, not without reason. In the end this isn’t really a thriller and shows no signs of wanting to be – but if you enjoy chunky character-based dramas that take their time to unfold their story, the quality of the performances and script mean this will probably be a fairly satisfying experience for you.

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It’s nice to see older folk developing a taste for travel far from their usual stamping grounds, although this usually takes the form of extended holidays. What’s slightly unusual about the ongoing Tour Grande du Woody Allen is that the celebrated director appears to be working all the way: having already made a number of films in London, Paris and Barcelona, Allen has now pitched up in Rome.

He claims this is simply due to the fact that he can only get funding for his films in Europe now, his American box office just not being strong enough – to be perfectly honest, I’m prepared to believe this, given the rather ropey quality of the recent Allen films I’ve seen. That said, I’m aware that Midnight in Paris was apparently something of a return to form – unfortunately I skipped seeing it in favour of Real Steel, which was probably a mistake. Nevertheless, the considerable success of Midnight has at least ensured that To Rome with Love (a lousy title apparently imposed on Allen) has secured a UK release beyond the confines of the arthouse. But does it warrant it?

Well, this film is a distinctly mixed bag, in tone if not in quality. The tendency towards multiple parallel plotlines which has distinguished many recent Allen movies has reached its logical conclusion, as this is a portmanteau film composed of four different stories which don’t intersect (and the intercutting between them seems a little disingenuous given they clearly occur in vastly different timeframes).

Most similar to recent Allen films is the story of Jesse Eisenberg’s character, who’s an architect living in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). When they are visited by Gerwig’s best friend, an implausible free spirit played by Ellen Page, Eisenberg finds himself contending with an intense attraction to Page despite his existing relationship with Gerwig (this would have struck more of a chord with me had the roles of the two women been reversed – i.e. I’m developing a tendresse for Greta Gerwig – but there’s no accounting for taste). The story is coloured by a peculiar conceit where Alec Baldwin appears as a Greek chorus-like character who comments sourly on scenes and debates characters’ actions with them – but it’s made clear he’s not just a dramatic device but a character in his own right. What is clear is that, perhaps self-evidently, Jesse Eisenberg is uniquely well-placed amongst young performers to channel the spirit of Allen himself.

Elsewhere, Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play young newlyweds in Rome for their honeymoon. Through a series of quirks, Tiberi finds himself having to pass off a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) as his new bride in front of his snooty family, while Mastronardi ends up being romanced by a famous movie star. This section is basically played as gentle farce, quite charmingly sexy in places, and also rather improbable – but engaging and funny all the same.

In perhaps the weakest segment, Roberto Benigni plays a middle-aged clerk who wakes up one day to discover he has inexplicably become a massive celebrity, his every doing now the subject of intense public and media interest. (This bit and the one with the newlyweds is actually performed in subtitled Italian, by the way.) Once again, it’s quite funny, but utterly insubstantial, and it quite clearly couldn’t support a whole movie on its own. Unlike the rest of the film, this part clearly has a message in mind, about the nature of celebrity: it’s not an especially profound one, but neither is it the one most mainstream films might choose to deliver.

However, best of all is a story starring Allen himself as the world’s least visionary avante-garde opera director, in the city to meet his daughters’ future in-laws. To his surprise he discovers that her future father-in-law (Fabio Armilliato) has an astounding singing voice – but only while he’s singing in the shower. The preposterous tale of how Allen sets about exploiting his fabulous discovery despite this trifling inconvenience is told deadpan: it’s utterly silly, but made irresistible by the presence of Allen himself, in his first appearance in one of his own films for ages. He’s as twitchy and neurotic and miserable as ever, and the talent for endless, off-hand one-liners is still there, such as when he frets about his son-in-law’s socialist politics: ‘I could never be a Communist – I can’t even share a bathroom!’ And many, many more. This is the strand of the film you’re always eager to get back to, almost solely due to Allen’s presence in it, and one wonders how much of the weakness in his recent movies is due to his decision to stay behind the camera.

As a whole the film is very entertaining and consistently funny, much moreso than any other recent Allen movie I’ve seen. It’s also flimsy, incredibly whimsical and frothy, with its origins as a marketing ploy for the Rome Tourist Board quite obvious. If you’re not a fan of Woody Allen already, then this is probably not the film to convert you to the cause: but if you’ve been waiting for him to produce another properly funny film, or indeed give another great comic performance himself, then To Rome with Love may be what you’ve been waiting for.

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Hello, and welcome to what promises to be a new and possibly very regular feature entitled Oh God, Not Another One. Our first subject for appraisal is Rob Marshall’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the latest iteration of Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer’s sea-going cash-cow. This installment has what I expect you’d call added interest in that it’s possibly the first film to be based on both a theme-park ride and an award-nominated fantasy novel (Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides, obviously enough).

Actually, I don’t want to diss the Pirates franchise too much, as while none of the films in this series have particularly (oh dear) floated my boat, they do represent a significant achievement. Not too long ago the pirate movie had a terrible reputation, mainly due to massively expensive flops like Polanski’s Pirates and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island – the received wisdom was that you were more likely to make a profit by putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff than by doing this kind of film. I suppose the Pirates series must have redeemed the genre a little, but it’s interesting that there don’t seem to have been any attempts to cash in on their popularity. They do operate in a very specific niche indeed, after all.

As you could probably have guessed, this movie is not really set in the Caribbean and features no actual piracy, although if we’re talking crimes it is quite murderously long. This time it all kicks off with Jack Sparrow (Sir Ian McKellen – no, only joking, it’s still Johnny Depp) arriving in London, drawn by rumours of an impostor recruiting a crew in his name. Apprehended by the authorities he’s dragged before the king (Richard Griffiths, briefly) and informed that the dastardly Spanish have learned of the existence of the Fountain of Youth, and they’d quite like him to help the British get there first. The King has already persuaded Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to help – who knows, maybe he’s doing a little light speech-therapy on the side.

Sparrow is not that interested until he tracks down his lookalike. It all turns out to be part of a plan by his old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who’s also after the Fountain as she believes supernatural longevity is necessary if her father is to find redemption. As he is Blackbeard, infamous sorcerer-pirate and the most feared man alive (funny how his name name never came up in the previous three movies – hey ho), she may have a point. So off everyone sets in various vessels in search of a list of plot coupons they will need to use the power of the Fountain, the first item in question being a tear shed by a mermaid…

By the time a film series hits part four things are usually looking pretty grim, as I mentioned when discussing Fast Five. That said, my expectations for this movie were a little higher than they might have been. I’ve always found the Pirates movies fairly mechanical and uninvolving, but redeemed by Johnny Depp’s heroically off-the-wall performances and Hans Zimmer’s ebullient score. This time around, with the departure of Keira Knightley to be a serious actress, and Orlando Bloom to… er… I’ll get back to you on that one, the omens seemed to suggest we’d be getting a lot more of the good stuff.

Depp’s performance is this movie’s sole reason for existence, and – to be fair to him – the great man definitely seems to break a sweat in his attempts to justify his enormous paycheck. You would have thought that all the eye-rolling and twitching and slightly fey running about would seem a bit mechanical and overfamiliar by now, but it’s still remarkably fresh and funny, even when Depp’s given some rather corny old jokes to deliver.

That said, the film does seem to meander along very much like Sparrow himself: every other character’s involvement seems to be better motivated than his. The script also doesn’t seem certain exactly who he is – the first film suggested that Depp’s performance is just that, a facade put on by Sparrow himself to make others underestimate him. There are hints of that here – in one scene he surreptitiously organises the elements of a ridiculously complex escape plan without anyone around him noticing, while other moments see the mask dropping and him showing genuine emotion – but at others he seems to be just who he appears to be, a sort of zen-master of drunken serendipity.

The film-makers themselves seem to have been a little concerned that you could have too much of a good thing, and that people who went to the others in order to see Keira K and Landy Bloom would want something along those lines in this one too. To this end, they have smuggled an equally vapid and uninvolving romance into this one, between characters played by Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey. I say smuggled because neither of these guys is really a major character or shows up until well into the film. And they’re not really introduced as people of significance, but gradually they start having more and more lines, until there are whole scenes just about them. This is actually quite confusing, not to mention annoying. Very much like their predecessors in the roles of ‘crossed young lovers’, the moments of their physical entanglement put one ineluctably in mind of furniture being stacked, though younger people who are still unsure of the correct use of their brain cells may find this whole subplot less irksome.

Someone actually says in this film, ‘it’s about the journey rather than the destination’ and this is a wise thought to bear in mind should you go to see it. Certainly the climax is slightly misjudged – I was left with a definite sense of ‘oh, is it finished now?’ – and the events leading up to it are not quite as memorable or as cleverly-plotted as in some of the earlier films. One gets a sense of inspiration running dry and the scriptwriters desperately groping about for new nautically-flavoured fantasy elements to include – this time around there are mermaids, and some zombies, and a voodoo pirate ship, but none of it’s as visually striking as before. Ian McShane is okay as the bad guy, as is Cruz as the love interest, but still, but still…

I should say that I did enjoy this film and laugh a lot throughout it – it’s certainly better than At World’s End, and not far off Dead Man’s Chest in quality, either – but perhaps that’s my problem with this whole series. I enjoy the dark fantasy elements of these movies very much, and the production values are excellent – but every time the film starts to generate any kind of atmosphere, along comes a performance that’s either crushingly bland or incredibly knowing and arch, and suddenly it feels like I’m watching a different kind of film entirely.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides passed the time pleasantly enough, but its strongest elements – Depp’s comedy performance and the fantastical atmosphere – constantly seemed to be pulling it in opposite directions, so it never really seemed to gel as a cohesive film. I should say this was basically exactly how I felt after watching all the others, so this movie is really very much business as usual. ‘This isn’t over!’ somebody shouts at Johnny Depp at one point, and on the strength of this film I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were right.

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