Thursday, November 3, 2011

On DVD/Blu-ray: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale," "Atrocious," "Lucky"

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
137 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

Yo-ho-ho-hum and minus the rum, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is the fourth "Pirates" sequel after a four-year wait. It should be noted that this is the shortest of the four at 137 minutes. Absurdly, that's thirty-two minutes shorter than the last. The numbers don't end there. Where there are dollar signs, there's a brand, a franchise, and a product for Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer. Just because a tentpole makes millions of dollars at the box-office doesn't mean it's high in quality or worth seeing. Treading on such thin ice, the "Pirates" subtitle should've been called "On Familiar Tides" as this rudderless entry walks the plank. 

Johnny Depp gives it the old college try, repeating his swishy, wonky Captain Jack Sparrow as a comic drunk. Jack is still Jack, but this time he's on a search for the Fountain of Youth. After crossing paths with his impostor that turns out to be his feisty old flame, Angelica (a spicy Penélope Cruz), everyone seems to desire the Fountain of Youth. The Spanish want it. And having survived the sinking of the Black Pearl, Jack's frenemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is commissioned by the lispy, pudgy King George II (Richard Griffiths) with the same goal. Angelica still feels betrayed by Jack after all these years, and she turns out to be the daughter of the fearsome Blackbeard (Ian McShane, joining the pirates with the most eye-liner). Naturally, he also seeks some years before his prophesied death from a one-legged man, but Blackbeard acquires the tear of a mermaid. Sure, why not? 

The story—call it what you will—is leaner and more streamlined than the previous ones, but still makes little sense. Even at 2 hours and 8 minutes, it still manages to feel long-winded and butt-numbing. The good news first: Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom are wisely thrown overboard, so to speak. But instead, unfortunately, a dead-weight romance exists between young missionary Philip (Sam Claflin) and kidnapped mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" no longer has the first movie's charmingly amusing discovery of Depp's character, the creepy-crawly effects of the second, or the endless too-muchness of the last. This one has some fun ideas but never uses them to their fullest potential. Arbitrarily, the crewmen aboard Blackbeard's ship are zombies, but why have them if they aren't going to eat anyone's brains? The mermaids that appear to be aquatic supermodels are at least vicious when they let out their sharp fangs and tear some seamen apart like those fishies in "Piranha 3D." And early on, there are two cameos: Keith Richards returns again for some quick exposition as Jack's aging father, and Dame Judi Dench pops up for ten seconds to say "Is that it?" as a randy high-society lady. 

The ship sailed for Gore Verbinski, who progressively disregarded narrative coherence and must have had his fill, because he's replaced by director Rob Marshall. He does show his strengths with staging some of the acrobatic chase set-pieces, especially one off the top where Jack swings from King George's chandeliers, falls from a rope outside of a window, and straddles between two moving carriages. Offered in both dimensions (because what isn't in useless 3-D anymore?), the 2-D version even suffers during the underlit nighttime scenes. Even as summer spectacle, "POTC: OST" gives little bang for your buck when you feel you've endured, rather than enjoyed, the show. This entry could've benefited from a drink of the Fountain of Youth itself because frankly dear, the wind has already gone out of this franchise's sails. Here's hoping the fourth "Pirates" is Captain Jack's swan song, or else, arrrgh! 

Atrocious (2011)
75 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

This day and age, the horror subgenre of "found footage" films is nothing new, dating back to 1980's "Cannibal Holocaust" and back on the rise after 1999's benchmark-setting "The Blair Witch Project." It's such a bankable concept of cinéma vérité that achieving genuine chills for any entry seems easy enough to pull off. But given all the direct-to-DVD "knockbusters" piggy-backing on the popularity of high-quality creepshows, it's hard to decipher which is an Identikit cash-in and what has its own identity. Despite its too-easy tipoff of a title, the Spanish import "Atrocious" performs to a pretty effective end. 

On March 30, 2010, the Quintanilla family was found dead in their old vacation home near Stiges, Spain. Teenage Cristian (Cristian Valencia) and his younger sister, July (Clara Moraleda), aspired to investigate urban legends. The latest legend the siblings are researching is that of a ghostly girl named Melinda who disappeared seventy years earlier in the Garraf woods next to the house. Arriving to the mansion, Cristian and July are curious about the property's hedge maze behind a locked gate. Their parents forbid them to enter, but kids never listen. Feeling out the labyrinth in the daylight with their two camcorders, Cristian wisely marks the stone structures along the pathway so they don't become lost. They find a well, an altar, and on their way out, spot the back of a woman's head on camera. Legend has it that if one loses his or her way in the maze, the ghost of Melinda will appear and show you the way, but she's not exactly friendly; atrocious is more the word. 

Helming his first feature, writer-director Fernando Barreda Luna has found a lingeringly creepy location in that three-story house and shrub-bordered maze. Taking a good while to peak, "Atrocious" seasons the jittery, do-it-yourself camera work with nerve-rattling anxiety and a pall of doom in its second half. When Cristian and July chase after their madre Debora (Chus Pereiro), who's in a panic over youngest son Jose (Sergi Martin) nowhere to be found, their POV, night-vision race through the labyrinth is as unpredictable as it is shiver-inducing. One nighttime shot of a figure is fumbled (unless you have the power of a rewind and pause button), but we wait and wait for something to pop out onto the path. Ultimately, Luna knows that not seeing the unknown is our worst fear. 

Being yet another "found footage" exercise, "Atrocious" follows suit of faltering in the same areas as its cousins. Placed in peril, would a character really hold onto that camera for dear life? Probably not, but then there'd be little to no footage. Also, it's kind of redundant to criticize these kind of movies for leaving us in midair, like this one faithfully does, since all of them purport to be raw footage that has to end somewhere. The surprise payoff isn't without questions but it's chilling enough. This dirt-cheap effort is no "Blair Witch Project," but really, what is? As long as the "found footage" glut refuses to die, here's hoping independent filmmakers make more quality scare machines like "Atrocious" and less of those like "Abnormal Activity" and "Paranormal Entity."

Lucky (2011)
103 min., rated R.
Grade: C

At first glance, the premise of a serial killer winning a lottery would seem like an irresistibly strange corker for a "Fargo"-type black comedy. Directed by Gil Cates Jr. from a script by Kent Sublette (the story co-credited to the director), "Lucky" is an ineffective black comedy. Ben Keller (Colin Hanks) is a mild-mannered legal clerk at an accounting company, and moonlighting as a serial killer, that wins the Iowa state lottery and becomes a millionaire. Thing is, his winning ticket belonged to one of his blonde victims. His childhood crush, Lucy (Ari Graynor), a ditzy, gold-digging receptionist at the same office, suddenly becomes all-smiles and shows interest when she hears of his new million. After two months of dating, Ben and Lucy marry, but once his impulse to kill is triggered on their honeymoon, she covers up his murder so she doesn't lose the money. But then the bodies start to pile up. 

"Lucky" is one of those in-between movies that never gets a handle on its tone. It's not funny enough or dark enough. To receive credit as a black comedy, it would've needed to step further with its mordant premise. The characters are never interesting enough either: Ben and Lucy are just annoying, two-dimensional nutsos. Even if it's rare to predict where it's navigating, the story has a few surprises but ultimately frustrates. 

Making a "twisted peeping tom" believable first in 2006's "Alone with Her," Hanks is never more than a weird sadsack. The filmmakers might've wanted to create a sympathetic serial killer, much like Dexter Morgan on TV's "Dexter," but it doesn't work. Graynor really rips into the role of Lucy with goofy, fearlessly broad abandon. Though gamely performed, Lucy is such a grating, scheming character that you begin to root on Ben to get her. Ann-Margret is of little to no use as Ben's meddling mother, who may or may not know of her beloved son's problem. No such luck for "Lucky." 

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