Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Rob Marshall, 138 mins (12A)
Win Win, Tom McCarthy, 106 mins (15)

Hold fast mates! It's 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Voyage to the Bottom of the Barrel'

Having watched the latest in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I'm feeling well and truly hornswoggled.

That's pirate speak, forsooth, for cheated. While accustomed to diminishing returns from the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, I was led to expect a fresh wind in the sails of this fourth instalment. Instead, I sat in the dark with the growing suspicion that the nice woman in the foyer had sneakily passed me the black spot.

I was certainly curious about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. For a start, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom's anaemic couple had been left in the harbour, to be replaced by two tantalising pirates: Penelope Cruz's sultry Angelica, as fleet-footed and fluid with the truth as Sparrow himself, and with a score to settle with her former lover; and the notorious Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane, he of the truly frightening, coal-black eyes, whose Al Swearingen in Deadwood is the best villain ever seen on television. With a new director at the helm, the prospect was of a different dynamic for Johnny Depp's Cap'* Jack.

Instead, Cruz and, particularly, McShane are lost in the same old maritime mishmash, a surfeit of characters and plot that deadens the senses. Sparrow is embroiled in a race to find the fountain of youth, which involves not just Blackbeard and Angelica, but also Jack's old enemy Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the Spanish, the British, a missionary (newcomer Sam Claflin, even blander than Bloom) and a mermaid. No one's to be trusted, and we can barely keep up with whose ship we're on and who, apart from Sparrow, we should root for.

Another, galling add-on is the 3D: I didn't register one moment of three-dimensional wonderment, only the awareness that my eyes were more comfortable if I took the specs off.

Depp still delights as the prancing pirate, but only intermittently, as if he has lost his compass now that the franchise's original director, Gore Verbinski, has jumped ship. It seems that the success of his replacement, Rob Marshall, with Chicago, was an aberration; as with Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine, all his flurry doesn't make the blood race, but clot.

There's already talk of a fifth in the series. Just bring me the plank, now, and be done with it.

The pressure of paying the bills may not seem as exciting as the quest for eternal youth, but I'd take Win Win over Pirates any time. This is one of those beautifully observed and absorbing comedies, about nothing and everything, which make American independent cinema invaluable.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a Jersey lawyer who specialises in advising elderly people in managing their care and estates. It's a modest practice with good intentions, the result being that the father of two is facing financial ruin. While he keeps the truth from his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), the stress manifests itself in panic attacks.

Then, against character, Mike grabs an opportunity to get back into the black. Taking on the legal guardianship of a client with dementia, Leo (Burt Young), the lawyer pockets the fee but neglects Leo's desire to remain at home, instead installing him in a care facility.

The moral lapse takes an extra twist when Leo's 16-year-old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) arrives in town, hoping to stay with gramps. Mike convinces Jackie to take the boy in. While the family adjusts to the enigmatic youth in their home, Mike discovers that Kyle is a hugely talented wrestler – and sees a saviour for the inept schoolboy wrestling team that he happens to manage.

Will Mike benefit twice over from his duplicity? Or will his conscience give? An atypical "sports movie" doubles as a morality tale, about maintaining your integrity when the going gets tough.

Writer/director Tom McCarthy's previous two films, The Station Agent and The Visitor, displayed a striking empathy for both the everyman and the fish out of water, and a knack for combining wit with pathos. Many of these characters are in pain, including Kyle, his estranged, addictive mother and Mike's newly separated best friend, while Mike himself is a decent man marinating in guilt; but we're allowed to laugh at, and with, them.

Giamatti is the glue, as ever. He's jowly, bug-eyed and balding (Mike is described, from his own wrestling days, as "an angry little ferret") and I could watch him all day.

Also Showing: 22/05/2011

Julia's Eyes (114 mins, 15)

In the deliciously creepy tradition of Spanish gothic horror that includes The Others and The Orphanage, this concerns a woman who is slowly losing her sight through a degenerative disease, while a psychopath lurks in the shadows that descend around her. As in The Orphanage, Belé* Rueda proves a feisty and indomitable heroine, determined to find her tormentor while she can still follow the clues.

Vidal Sassoon: The Movie (90 mins, PG)

The tale of the Cockney pauper who became the world's first superstar hairdresser is worth telling: Sassoon's determination to turn scissoring into art played a key role in the Sixties fashion revolution. But while the sprightly 81-year-old is an engaging presence, the endless hagiography (one disciple compares him to Einstein) leaves the film itself in dire need of a snip.

The Great White Silence (106 mins, U)

Herbert Ponting's restored, first-hand account of Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, a century ago, is wondrous. Ponting's amazing eye captures both the beauty of a frozen world and a human tragedy in the making.

Film Choice

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