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Film Reviews: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Beaver

** Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger TidesDirected by Rob Marshall. Written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. With Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush. (PG-13)

They don't say “The fourth time's the charm” for a reason. With little but Johnny Depp's daffy Captain Jack Sparrow to propel it along, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is supposed to launch a new trilogy but plays like a half-hearted coda to what was once an imaginatively designed, no-holds-barred throwback to Disney's live-action past. It's the shortest entry in the series, but feels like the longest.

On Stranger Tides starts off well enough with one of Captain Jack's wacky prison escapes and then sets him off on a race to find the Fountain of Youth as a prisoner on a pirate ship commanded by Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter (Penélope Cruz) and manned by a zombie crew. Sparrow's old foe Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is now sailing for the British crown, and Spain appears to have gotten the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María out of dry dock. McShane makes a great addition, Cruz less so, and the new juveniles, Sam Claflin and Astrid Bergès-Frisby (he's a missionary, she's a mermaid) actually make one miss Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

On Stranger Tides was filmed in 3-D, with the state-of-the-art technology one expects from Disney, and if you've ever wanted to know what it feels like to ride in a horse-drawn paddy wagon I'd advise you to eat lightly. 3-D still has problems capturing rapid movements — a serious problem in an action film — and a good deal of the movie takes place on nights with a sliver of moon, which the glasses dim. (To save money, most of the movie was shot on land.) Combine that with the absence of some really show-stopping sea monster and the film actually looks rinky-dink, even with its $200 million budget.


*** Cave of Forgotten DreamsDirected by Werner Herzog. (NR)

The oldest known cave paintings in the world are not in Lascaux; they're in Chauvet, a cave in the south of France that was discovered in 1994. It contains paintings more than 30,000 years old, made over a 5,000-year period, as well as the fossilized remains of cave bears and wooly mammoths. Few have been allowed into these caves, but Werner Herzog managed to talk his way in last spring, as part of a four-person crew. As usual, Herzog revels in the obstacles: They could only film in the caves for four hours a day and were required to stay on a metal walkway, mounting 3-D cameras on sticks to get closer to the walls.

A 3-D movie about a 2-D subject is not as perverse as it seems, since many of the paintings are on curving walls; the immersive effect is remarkable, and the calcite crystals take on a multidimensional sparkle. In the animals' multiple legs Herzog sees motion, an ancient predecessor of cinema. “These images are memories of long-forgotten dreams,” says Herzog, ever the cultural imperialist — for these may not be dreams at all, but records, like photographs, or wishes, like prayers. “We are locked in history — they were not,” and again, how do you know that, Werner? In between visits Herzog interviews his usual singleminded obsessives in his inimitable fashion, baiting them to make fools of themselves, but few even nibble. Instead, it's Herzog who bears the brunt of audience scorn (at the press screening I attended, anyway) in a postscript about albino alligators that shows a filmmaker who has long descended into self-parody.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is being exhibited flat in Connecticut, is best when Herzog shuts up and lets the paintings speak for themselves, in lengthy, entrancing segments set to Ernst Reijseger's cello that recall Hiroshi Teshigahara's close-up examinations of architectural details in Antonio Gaudi. Time stops, and the lines between past and present are finally open.


***1/2 IncendiesWritten and directed by Denis Villeneuve, based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad. With Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette. (R)

After the death of her highly assimilated mother, a Canadian woman (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) journeys to her homeland to find the father and half-brother she and her twin brother (Maxim Gaudette) never knew in Incendies, a drama from the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve that earned a deserving Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film this year. The country is unnamed, although it is clearly Lebanon. This necessitates some strenuous use of the passive voice and vague references to “an enemy invasion,” but has the benefit of removing associations the audience might have with the country's history. The strife is civil, and what Mother did during the war turns out to be a complicated issue.

Cut in with Jeanne's travels are flashbacks to her mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal of Paradise Now), cast out of her Christian home for bearing the child of a refugee (read “Palestinian”) and radicalized on an urban college campus. Jeanne thinks she's searching for her mother's past, but really, she's searching for herself, and when her brother fears she's gotten in too deep he hops on a plane and joins her, which is just as well in a Muslim country, where it takes men to talk to men.

Villeneuve has made a cooler-headed version of those Atom Egoyan melodramas about a child of immigrants uncovering his ancestors' ethnic trauma, although the long-buried secret is a lulu and Nawal's ultimate act of forgiveness is as passive-aggressive as one could get. But the political setting — in which pictures of Mary are taped to machine guns — is novel and the use of songs from Radiohead's Amnesiac powerful indeed. Beautifully made, Incendies is a galvanizing film that lives up to its title.


**1/2 The BeaverDirected by Jodie Foster. Written by Kyle Killen. With Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence. (PG-13)

The Beaver is only nominally about a toy company executive (Mel Gibson) who communicates through a hand puppet that speaks with a Cockney accent. It is mostly about his older son (an excellent Anton Yelchin), struggling with the onset of the mental illness that has taken his father and killed his grandfather. Porter is a senior in high school and bound for Brown, but he's also a loner who writes papers for his classmates like no other; a true ghostwriter, he can mimic his client's voice. And he truly wants to disappear. He charts his similarities to his father on Post-its, and the map of the cross-country summer trip he's planning hides the hole he's made from banging his head into the wall.

Those hoping for the high-concept quirk of Lars and the Real Girl should look elsewhere. The Beaver is grim and unsparing in its depiction of depression in both its onset and death grip. But it also requires that we believe that an ugly beaver-themed woodworking kit could be the hit of the Christmas toy season, and that a cheerleader captain/valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence) could also be a repressed graffiti artist. The film evokes the movie cliché of the mentally ill man as truthteller, but then abandons that when the puppet takes over, barely skirting evil-ventriloquist-dummy territory. The sudden conclusion that one's genetic inheritance can be overcome with good parenting likewise alludes to a screenplay that has been pulled this way and that. (Perhaps the writer really did disappear.)

Unavoidably, Gibson brings his off-screen baggage with him, and the impossibility of separating the sad-eyed drunk on screen from the angrier one off keeps us removed from his part of the story. Similarly, Jodie Foster is at once his defender in the press, the actor who plays his wife and his director, one who permits two-take Mel to hold the puppet out of focus (but then anamorphic wide-screen was not the best way to go here). Foster remains a perceptive director of family dynamics, but like her character, a rollercoaster engineer, there are perhaps a few too many ups and downs here.

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