Saturday, May 21, 2011

Buying back in to Pirates

If you're like me, you were charmed and delighted by the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, then hated the next two to varying degrees. (For the record, the second one is the worst. The third recovers slightly, but not nearly enough.)

Logically, the fourth movie in the series -- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, releasing today -- should represent even more creative bankruptcy and a desperate grab for the remaining possible dollars the franchise can scare up.

Unless ...

Unless there's enough of a pause in the production schedule of the movies that the fourth kind of seems like a reboot, rather than just your typical fourth installment.

The second and the third, after all, were made at the same time, and they made a kajillion dollars at the box office. Given their success, you'd figure Disney would have had Johnny Depp back out on a boat within a week of the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Or maybe even within a week of Dead Man's Chest's massive opening weekend.

But they didn't, content (at least for the time being) with having a trilogy on their hands. Such a quaint notion. Of course it couldn't last.

After a reasonable period (almost like after a spouse dies), you started to hear rumblings that Depp might be willing to get back out there for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean. Then one day you're seeing trailers for it.

It's odd for me to be taking this critical perspective on the series, because really, the delay between the third and fourth Pirates wasn't much longer than industry standard. The first movie came out (and charmed our socks off) in 2003, then Gore Verbinski and his team went hard on production to churn out two sub-par sequels that were released a year apart, in 2006 and 2007. So essentially, the gap between the third and the fourth movie is only one year longer than the gap between the first and second movies. Hardly enough time for us to have forgotten about Captain Jack Sparrow et al.

But the psychological difference is enormous. The big difference in the cinematic landscape between then and now -- though you could argue about exactly when this started -- is that fewer and fewer franchises are considering it an obstacle that it's been five, ten, even 15 years since the last movie in the series. It's almost like we, as a moviegoing public, have collectively given Hollywood permission to tack on as many fourth and fifth installments to series as it wants to tack on. Whereas in the past, we might have been offended by this presumptuousness and demonstrated our ill humor by refusing to buy tickets, now it seems we just want the comfort of familiarity and brand recognition. Even when you're starting to see crooked numbers on the ends of these movie titles (though most of them, like Pirates, cleverly withhold the number from the title to help diminish your sense of the absurdity of it all). Like I said, you could argue that this has always been Hollywood's MO, but I'd counter that it has gotten all the more ridiculous in the past half decade.

So when it was clear that everyone involved in the Pirates movies went home, caught their breath, lay on a beach on the French Riviera for a few months, and then decided to make a Pirates 4, something about that seems to legitimize the process, doesn't it? Funnily enough, this is something you can argue both ways. If you're negatively disposed toward their intentions, you could say that the series was over and done, tied up with a bow, and they ripped the bow off because they just couldn't stand not to make more money on this brand. If you're positively disposed, you'd say that they were not on automatic pilot toward a fourth movie, even though the box office totals nearly demanded it, and only grudgingly did they wade back into the waters, possibly only because they had a really good script and a really good story to tell. (The truth, which I won't bother to look up right now, is probably that Depp originally said he wasn't interested and then ultimately changed his mind.)

But I think there's another reason why some skeptical fans, including myself, are keeping an open mind toward the newest Pirates. Namely, the movie seems to have trimmed some of the excess fat. In this case, the excess fat is probably the two thinnest and most beautiful people in the cast: Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom.

Now, I don't remember a whole lot about what happens in the last two Pirates movies -- in fact, so aimless were the events of Dead Man's Chest that I couldn't even remember what happened after I'd shut off the DVD. But I do remember feeling cumulatively fatigued about the melodramatic ups and downs of the relationship between Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley). It was as if those characters worked for the original movie, then they couldn't figure out what to do with them for the sequels. But their presence was considered key to putting asses in the seats, so they were around, collecting new adventures and wearing our patience thin. I don't think it was the fault of the actors, mind you, who are both quite appealing. I just think there was a general narrative sense that they had overstayed their welcome.

And they're gone from Pirates 4. Again, this could be a case of both actors refusing to participate in further Pirates movies, either being happy with the bow that had been tied on the series, or as unhappy with those movies as I was, and not wanting to sully their names further by making another one. I'm again not bothering to look it up. But the landmark realization here, even if it was happened upon by accident, is that Captain Jack Sparrow is where this series' bread is buttered. Bring Sparrow back, surround him with some promisingly cast newcomers (Penelope Cruz), and return just a face or two among the minor characters (Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa), and you'll have the makings for a fourth Pirates. Heck, you might have the makings for a fifth and a sixth as well.

And more than anything, this movie just looks fun -- fun like the ride that inspired the series in the first place. I can't say for sure that this sense of fun was missing from the trailers of the second and third Pirates, but I feel like it probably was. The set pieces look clever and cheeky, and everyone seems to be having a damn good time.

I think I'm also interested in the controls of the ship being handed over to a new director, Rob Marshall of Chicago fame. Marshall has clearly proven his ability to make a movie that functions as spectacle, and I welcome what he might bring to this movie (and the others that seem sure to follow). I'm a huge Chicago fan, though I guess that's Marshall's only unqualified success -- Nine was only so-so, and I did not see Memoirs of a Geisha. Now, I don't really want Depp and Cruz to break out into song, but I'm not really expecting that to happen. This is not to say Verbinski is a hack -- I really enjoyed his latest movie, Rango, also starring Depp. But three Pirates movies was probably enough for him.

So yeah, here I am, pondering seeing the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie in the theater this weekend. Even though I saw neither of the previous two Pirates movies in the theater, and ended up hating them when I did see them.

Hollywood is a strange place sometimes. I mean, who would have thought that the fifth Fast and the Furious would be the one people seemed to like best?

I guess it's just proof that the quality of a movie is all about who you've got on board for this particular installment, not the baggage carried in by all the movies that might have come before it. What I can't decide is whether it's a good thing that movies have a chance to peak in quality very late in the timeline of their particular franchise. On the one hand, if it's a good movie, it's worth having around in the world. On the other hand, it'll just encourage more studios to send more franchises off into further and further chapters.

Especially when Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides makes at least $80 million this weekend. And possibly more like $100 million.


Travis McClain said...

I had the same initial thoughts, several months ago. Jettisoning Bloom and Knightley was really almost mandatory at this point in the series. Their burdensome arc had well run its course, punctuated by a post-credits tag at the end of At World's End.

Yet, despite being the obvious place to start with revitalizing the series, it was risky. Every woman I have talked to has been upset at their absence, declaring how much they hate when a movie series changes characters. Women were clearly a major part of the Pirates audience, and I tip my hat to Disney for being gutsy enough to risk alienating them. (Or being gutsy enough to take their box office dollars for granted, depending on your perspective.)

This is the shortest of the four films (a minute less than the first), and that too bodes well for it. The second and third films are the very definition of self-indulgence and bloat in film-making.

I don't expect On Stranger Tides to be a great film. I expect it to be a fun, escapist romp. My standards at this point in the series are the lowest they've been since before I saw the first film back in 2003 when it took me by surprise. If this fourth film avoids the nonsense of taking itself seriously and trying to create some kind of fictitious universe, and instead just shows us likable characters having outrageous adventures in gorgeous locations, then I'll leave satisfied.

Besides, how can one bet against being entertained by Ian McShane as Blackbeard?

(Though I confess I've become alarmed that Penelope Cruz has been all but absent from the marketing campaign.)

Vancetastic said...

All good points, Travis. I hadn't considered the female perspective on Bloom and Knightley. I suppose that in fact the romantic element of the series did speak to them. I guess whatever romance will exist between Depp and Cruz will be more along the lines of Depp's character's humor, nothing serious. At least, I hope that's the case or else this film will be a real failure.

Good point as well on the length. Get us in and out of there. The moment you start checking your watch in a Pirates movie, the movie has failed.

I too am a McShane fan. Then again, who isn't? Just don't see Scoop.

Travis McClain said...

"The moment you start checking your watch in a Pirates movie, the movie has failed."

I was checking my watch early in the last two. By the time At World's End had concluded, I hadn't finished watching a movie. I had endured a grueling trek through time itself. The weirdest part is, I can't even point to any one part of either of the two sequels that I particularly disliked. It was simply the congregation of excess that became fatiguing.

Monty Burns said...

I recently read that Depp admits he had no idea what was going on while making the second and third movies. They made them together, apparently very haphazardly, and even the star and director didn't seem to know for sure what the point of any given scene is. That is very apparent while watching. It's just a mash up of scenes and characters. I couldn't tell you anything about either movie, except I remember a quasi-romance between Depp and Knightly that just felt weird and icky.,55610/

Monty Burns said...

also, McShayne fucking owns anything he is in, but from what I have read, he seems underused here, and blends in with Rush and Keith Richards as dirty-looking glowerers.

Vancetastic said...


Love this: "It was simply the congregation of excess that became fatiguing." Yes.


That is a great story and it explains so much. However, it does make me think about how movies in general might possibly be described this way, since they are always shot out of sequence, and frequently all the actors haven't seen the most current version of the script, so they may not always know exactly what's going on. (Though, usually THE DIRECTOR should know what's going on.) Of course, the problem is compounded when you are filming two movies at the same time. Yeah, you save on money, but you sacrifice logic. Too bad the public couldn't punish them for it by withholding their money.

By the way, I think it's hilarious that On Stranger Tides made dead in the middle of the two figures I'd predicted. I predicted either $80 million or $100 million and it made $90 million. (Pats self on back.)

Travis McClain said...

I finally saw this yesterday with my wife and a friend, and I felt it was pretty much what I wanted it to be. It was actually coherent and moved at a brisk pace, never wallowing in itself like the last two films. There's still plenty of fantasy elements, but I felt like this was a more organic/less artificial film than its recent predecessors. I didn't feel like every shot was completed with a computer this time.

Some may deride the Syrena/Philip relationship as nothing more than a cheap substitute for the absent Elizabeth/Will romance, and I don't deny that obviously that subplot was created to satisfy the audience that responded well to the previous romance. But I felt like this was fresher and devoid of all the burdensome baggage that needed to go. I liked these new characters, and I like that I didn't feel like I was forced to endure another complicated, grand love story. Their relationship is much simpler, and therefore more likable.

There are some places that I feel were weak. For instance, the first half hour was almost tedious. I can appreciate that they didn't want to bore us with 30 minutes of exposition, but every conversation in the opening of the film that establishes the plot quickly devolves into a duel or chase (or both). It smacks of desperation, as though they were afraid if we didn't see Johnny Depp swinging across the screen eight minutes into the movie we'd all walk out of the theater.

Also, shame on Hans Zimmer for being so lazy this time. He relies almost exclusively on the previous themes, not bothering to introduce anything interesting or new. The music is rescued from being entirely mundane by some killer guitar performances by Rodrigo y Gabriela.

My wife and I are in disagreement about some things, too. For instance, while I praise the film for having a straight-forward story this time, she felt it was too simple. I could go for more story, but I'm just grateful there wasn't much effort to push on us any kind of Universe Building.

In fact, there are lots of back story elements suggested throughout On Stranger Tides and I tip my hat to all involved for not making the attempt to put the back story on the screen as one film and draw out this story into a pair or even trilogy. What I really wanted was something self-contained, and I'm sure it took considerable restraint for the writers, Bruckheimer, Disney, Marshall, et al. to content themselves with this standalone film.

It's not as thoroughly fun as was The Curse of the Black Pearl, but that film had the benefit of being the first. On Stranger Tides has taken a pounding by critics, but I think that at least some of that stems from not just Series Fatigue, but Franchise Fatigue. Critics are generally suspicious and disdainful of sequels, and for better or worse the release calendar is dominated by sequels, or movies that are clearly going to have sequels.

I don't think it's fair to punish On Stranger Tides because someone hated the last two (or maybe even all three) Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and certainly not because they're sick of Transformers, X-Men, Batman, Harry Potter, Twilight, Hangover, Toy Story, etc.

I left the last two Pirates movies feeling fatigued. I left On Stranger Tides feeling entertained. I don't know that there's a better endorsement of an escapist adventure sequel than that.