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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

(Three Stars)
U.S.: Rob Marshall, 2011


Johnny Depp isn’t acting at full pressure in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides — the fourth in the lucrative comedy pirate movie series inspired by the great Disneyland theme park ride. But then, how may actors do? (By the way, if you’ve never visited Disneyland and taken that ride, you should. )

In his fourth go-round as Captain Jack Sparrow, the fey buccaneer, scourge of the seven seas and all the mascara shops in Hollywood, Depp might be accused of not trying too hard, of stepping back and letting director Rob Marshall’s production team (a monster one), and the CGI experts, and the rest of the cast (newcomers Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane as well as old salts Geoffrey Rush and Kevin McNally), and especially composer Hans Zimmer (more thunderously present here than any pirate or sea movie composer since Erich Wolfgang Korngold) do most of the work.

In a way, that’s a fair complaint. Depp is coasting a little, even though, with designated lovers Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley having sailed off into the sunset, Jack is now both this “Pirates of the Caribbean’s” main leading man/romantic interest (with Cruz) and, as always, its scene-stealing comical/piratical character star.

Who could blame him though? The “Pirate“ series may be at its height of its production expertise here, it may look better than ever, and it may have recaptured some of the initial light, breezy touch. But, script wise, it’s clearly running out of planks to walk. Not enough to hurt the movie financially — but enough to justify at least some of the fussilade of amusing critical blasts the picture has generated. (Audiences will like the show better.)

The movie’s central plot device is, not surprisingly for a Hollywood film, the Fountain of Youth — coveted by the decadently plump King George of England (played by Richard Griffiths), coveted also by King Ferdinand of Spain (Sebastian Armesto), and subject of a three-cornered chase by the roguish, gravel-faced Barbossa (Rush), sailing for King George; a seagoing Spaniard (Oscar Jaenada), sailing for Ferdinand; and the bottomlessly black-hearted, most evil possible pirate, Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane, sailing for himself.

Captain Jack has been shanghaied aboard Blackbeard’s ship, which he promptly incites to mutiny, and which also carries a zombie crew and the flashing-eyed temptress Angelica, Jack’s old flame and maybe Blackbeard’s daughter — played not by that other Anjelica, Depp’s recent unhappily-cast costar Ms. Jolie, but by the estimable Ms. Cruz. Also mixed up in all this is Jack’s longtime doormat, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally), plus angel-eyed clergyman Philip (Sam Claflin) and the even more angelic-faced mermaid of Phil’s dreams, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), both doing secondary romantic duty, in the absence of Orlando B. and Keira K.

The Fountain itself, located (do we smell another ride here?) in a jungle landscape full of steep cliffs, tangled green foliage and rushing rivers, and in caverns and ruins that might have been drawn by Piranesi, requires a lot of stuff to unlock its secrets, including chalices and mermaid’s tears. (Syrena’s less teary, more predatory sisters, by the way, can turn into shark-like vampire-mermaids who attack pirates and sailors at will.) And eventually, we make the scene that Ponce de Leon couldn’t.

That’s a lot of characters and a lot of exposition, all devised by the series’ constant screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and repeated by their characters so lucidly and often that you‘ll never forget them. There’s also a lot of slashing swordfights, sea-going adventuring, rum-soaked escapades, and dives off cliffs, plus dashing romancing and swishbuckling antics by Jack. Jack’s designated godfather and role model, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, shows up again as Captain Teague; we still await the appearance of Mick Jagger as Edward Morgan, Charlie Watts as Francis Drake and Ronnie Wood as Long John Silver.

But one thing, this “Pirates” does have, despite its chaotic swordfights, is narrative clarity. If you don’t make unreasonable demands on it, it’s fun.

Rob Marshall, who’s taken over directorial duties from Gore Verbinski (last seen cavorting with Depp in their spoof Leone-ish western cartoon Rango), is a variable director, sometimes even inside the same movie. (Marshall didn’t win what would have been a dubious Oscar for Chicago.) But he’s brought along his production designer, John Myhre, and the whole film — despite an unusual number of scenes drenched in darkness (the oceans at night, the caverns) — has the rich luscious gleam of Hollywood rampant.

As for the acting, the actors all seem to be having fun with their lines and parts, and it’s an inordinately deep and talented cast. (Have you ever seen McNally in Poldark?) The key to the tone is Depp, and even if he may be getting too used to this part, and even a little tired of it, he still can give Jack the right airy lift and playfulness. Cruz is also the kind of pirate lass to make you dream of doubloons and triploons, and McShane a suitable dastard of a bastard.

Actors don’t always have to be play at their highest levels of creativity and invention, though it’s nice when they do. I took a peek the other night at a scene or two of Depp’s Hunter Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s movie of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I was amazed at how much the actor was able to transform himself into a man so original and eccentric, and so unlike himself. (Ditto for Benicio Del Toro as that film‘s “Dr. Gonzo,” the “Samoan attorney.”) It’s obvious Depp could do more than Jack on screen, master far more complex actor‘s challenges — but he wouldn’t necessarily please and delight audiences as much.

Twenty or thirty years from now, the Depp of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Dead Man will be more appreciated than he is now. But Captain Jack Sparrow will still be entertaining movie audiences, even if, by then, they’ve become nostalgia buffs. They’ll probably still like this new “Pirates,” or part of it, even if, like me, those same audiences forget most of it fairly soon after enjoying it, and leaving it.

See it in 2D, by the way. That may eventually become a mantra.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”

  1. Jill Kennedy says:

    I’m stunned that a movie without much story can last 2 1/2 hours – that’s 3 hours with extended trailers and ads. It’s nuts.

    Here’s a funny review from a Finnish film reviewer who is attempting to write in English. He seems to like “In Alien Tide” and really seems to LOVE Johnny Depp.

  2. Zadoc Paet says:

    I got dragged to go see this. Please save your time and money. The rapture is tomorrow, and you don’t want to waste your last day on Earth with this trash. But feel free to let me know what you think…
    Poll: Is ‘Pirates 4’ really as bad as all the reviews say?


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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~ David Simon