Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2011

Certified copy

Big-screen 'Pirates' have gone from charming diversion to downright nuisance

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Kevin McNally, Sam Claflin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey and Stephen Graham
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 17 minutes
(out of four)

Enough was enough. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise died a natural death - that is, with the closing chapter of a trilogy that had a beginning and an end. Gore Verbinski moved on to better things (Rango), Dick Cook was fired as Disney chairman, and the sour taste left by the bloated, incomprehensible mess that was At World's End seemed to signal the conclusion of the series. At least for the foreseeable future.

I'm a bit fuzzy on the ensuing behind-the-scenes narrative, but I think it went something like this: In response to Depp's reticence to continue his signature character without the involvement of either Cook or Verbinski (who, it must be mentioned again, had moved on to development of the utterly magnificent Rango), four shadowy men in overcoats hand-delivered four identical stainless-steel briefcases filled with approximately $50 million in non-consecutive one-hundred-dollar bills to Depp's chateau in France (I assume wherever he lives in France is a chateau; that's what they have there, right?). This, naturally, put all of his reservations to rest.

But with Verbinski unavailable (ahem, once again: Rango), the studio was still without a director. One especially clever and highly paid executive offered this: "Hey, what about that hack who completely bombed out with Memoirs of a Geisha and that utterly atrocious Fellini musical? What's his name, Rob Marshall? Hey, you don't think he'd be interested in taking over the fourth installment of a big-budget action franchise, do you?"

As luck would have it, he was! And so it began. And that, more or less, is how we got the lifeless assembly-line product that is Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

When I say "product," I mean it's basically the late-night infomercial of movies. We apathetically drop our eight bucks on the ticket counter - even more, if you're one of those suckers who paid extra for 3D - and when we finally see the movie, we realize we (as in, moviegoers, Hollywood, Disney, all of us) didn't really need this cheap piece of crap after all, and we're never going to watch it again. In other words, it's kind of like when you ordered the Slap Chop.

I will give On Stranger Tides credit for one good idea, though. That one good idea is this: Constructing a storyline that makes sense. This is a stroke of genius, really, and I'm surprised no one had ever thought of it before. But this movie gives us exactly that - a cohesive story, and a simple one. Three disparate entities (Blackbeard! Barbosa! Mysterious Spaniards!) are in a race to the Fountain of Youth.

And that's it. Simple enough to keep the film concentrated on what has actually worked for the series - Depp's indelible Jack Sparrow creation, creatively complex action sequences, enjoyable corny repartee, etc. Unfortunately, none of those elements work this time around. Rather, the whole movie seems to be a bad impression of the other movies.

That's a common symptom when a franchise gets past the point of its own relevance but keeps going anyway. It even happened to Indiana Jones. Studios want moneymakers like Pirates to keep going as long as they possibly can, and the typical way to achieve that end is through pure replication. But that inevitably grows stale quickly, and filmmakers, writers and even actors end up essentially on auto-pilot, and it shows.

The lack of motivation and inspiration is palpable this time around. Marshall has never been a good director - his basic ideas on how to shoot and incorporate his dramatic elements is bafflingly incompetent at times - and here with his first action movie, he proves himself woefully out of his element. In a patented Jack Sparrow Escape Sequence (TM) early in the film, the staging, cutting and logistics of the scene are so awkward and so deliberate, you can practically see the stage directions written on screen.

And how about those sets, Rob? You've got a huge budget and what seems to be some pretty decent production design, and yet you don't seem to have any clue what to do with it. As far as you're concerned, it's mere background, ultimately irrelevant.

Oh, and I didn't even mention the self-gratifying 3D shots - "Whoa! Blackbeard's sword is pointing right in my face!" - that are so obvious (even in 2D) as to border on self-parody. Which, now that I think of it, is a perfect encapsulation of the film as a whole.

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