May 18, 2011 6:37 pm

Film releases: May 19

Antonia Quirke reviews ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ and ‘Fire in Babylon’

Johnny Depp was such a knockout in his early outings as the pirate Jack Sparrow – elaborately tottering across 18th-century streets in his beaded dreadlocks and then inexplicably lunging forwards as though hoping to catch an invisible sovereign chucked from a window. It was like watching someone walking in the gestures of some master puppeteer.

 
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN
 Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in ‘Pirates of
the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’

Depp has said he originally only took what has become his most defining and lucrative part to please his small children, and in the first two films you really could feel him stylising each move for sly humour. Never was an actor a more amused and amusing model for the term pirate. But, crucially, Jack Sparrow then said very little. He was the film’s special treat and its magical moral centre – the movie’s ultimate court of appeal. To be in the audience then was really something: how we loved his voice (the hilarity that erupted when Depp opened his mouth to say “Shut it” or “Ta”). How we gasped when Sparrow was clapped in irons, like some degraded king.

The primary mistake of the tedious fourth film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, is that Sparrow is brought firmly centre stage. He runs the film and has pages of lines and – like the exciting lover with whom you’ve just gone on a disastrous minibreak – turns out to have nothing really interesting going on beyond being bananas. The story this time involves mermaids, and Penélope Cruz – here playing a pirate’s daughter out for revenge because Sparrow “used her and left her”. Another big problem: giving Sparrow an explicitly erotic background. Depp is lusted after by his fans, sure, but still remains a strangely sexless actor. Always occupying that funny space between a character actor and a star, Depp has often been cast as boy-men (Edward Scissorhands; Ed Wood; Willy Wonka) and it’s hard to imagine him in a properly rude clinch with anyone, even Cruz, here four months pregnant in real life and luscious beyond belief. When Depp looks down at her heaving bosom (she does things for a low cut white blouse that velvet does for an armchair) you suspect the most he’d really like to do is pinch her cheek. Albeit quite hard.

As usual, the roll call of supporting Brit actors gives the rest of the film the air of a first night party at the Dirty Duck in Stratford: Roger Allam, Anton Lesser, Richard Griffiths, Judi Dench. And as usual, the film is – all too briefly – at its best in mocked-up London dockside taverns with everyone rolling around with rum and bad teeth. “Cling to your souls, men, as mermaids be given to take the rest to the bone!” Some kind of helpless magic does descend during dialogue like this. Still, this mega-franchise has now jumped the shark. I dread the inevitable next instalment.  

 

 
Curtly Ambrose of the West Indies
 Curtly Ambrose is featured
in ‘Fire in Babylon’

Fire in Babylon is a magnificent documentary about Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards and his mighty West Indian team. The film spans the Clive Lloyd era of the mid-1970s to the late-1980s and the emergence of a team that included Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding and Colin Croft. It’s incredibly moving – they were up against such prejudice – and no one could watch this without being struck by the intensity of the way these men played. Here they recall those times with striking charm and wit. These are happy men.

Viv Richards appears several times, charismatic like any arrogant genius, still very, very handsome and still giving off the crackle that white culture is simply unbelievable to him. That he is literally stupefied by it. He recalls being told that at Lords he could be expected to be treated like “an honorary white man” and puffs out his cheeks and rolls his eyes, projecting: “Can you imagine?” This disdain – no, this scorn – makes him quite frightening. Richards is the character the documentary is always trying to get back to – but, cleverly, we are rationed him. There’s a real suspense built in to watching him. We don’t know what he’s going to say next.

A simple still of Richards in his prime is the incarnation of this whole story. The way he stood when he went in to bat tells you everything you need to know about the confidence of that team.  

 

An independent film and US hit, Win Win stars Paul Giamatti as a down-at-heel New Jersey lawyer and school wrestling coach who fosters a sporty juvenile delinquent. So many American Indie films, like the director’s earlier hit the Station Agent, are enjoyable-enough sonatas played on ever so slightly the wrong note. Although there are times when Win Win feels a bit self-consciously whimsical, it rings much truer than most. And even when it’s not being true, it’s occasionally as funny as Juno, which is good enough for me.  

 

Loud and lurid, the British cop-killer thriller Blitz features a murderer so disgustingly cruel that Jason Statham can kill him cruelly with a perfect conscience. Mark Rylance appears for the first 15 minutes before being beaten to death with a hammer. How can we sleep for grief that we don’t have more films – even bad ones – starring Rylance? 

 

He is our finest actor by a mile (see Angels and Insects for starters) which is a title that seems to have been heaped on the 35-year-old Benedict Cumberbatch, lead in Third Star, another British effort, about a young man dying of cancer. Cumberbatch always seems to act as though he already has the letters OBE after his name. There is a supremely confident and yet strangely opaque personality that comes off him.  

 

The Great White Silence is a sparkling restoration of Herbert Ponting’s footage of Scott’s 1910 polar expedition with a new score that sounds very like it has been put together by the 1970s German prog-electronic outfit Tangerine Dream, ie six synthesisers, a bottle of strong cough syrup and a beautiful strange silt creeping across the mind. Dig it, me captains.

 

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