Movies: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"
Movies:  "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

Sit ye down, lads and lassies, and let me tell you about some real pirate movies.  They were made when Hollywood knew how to buckle a swash -- and they had stars like Douglas Fairbanks (“The Black Pirate,” 1926), Errol Flynn (“Captain Blood,” 1935) and Burt Lancaster (“The Crimson Pirate,” 1952).   So what if they didn’t have 3-D, surround sound and computer animation?  They had lusty men of iron aboard staunch ships of wood -- even if those ship were usually anchored on Hollywood sound stages.  

All of which brings me to this summer’s big pirate picture, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” starring the elfin Johnny Depp and the sultry Penelope Cruz.  

This is the fourth in the franchise based on a ride at Disney World -- and the first to be directed by Rob Marshall, who took over for originator Gore Verbinsky after the folks at Disney decided the tired series needed some new blood.  Marshall is best known for his work on “Chicago,” and for some recent failures, including “Nine” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” 


I’m not sure why Disney thought he could stand in for Verbinsky, who gave us one of cinema’s greatest entrances in the first “Pirates” movie, as Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow arrives in port with his ship sinking beneath him, but still steps delicately onto dry land: truly a  Buster Keaton move.


But Marshall did bring some changes -- dropping some of the series’ treacly secondary characters, played by Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, and a stand-alone story, not dependent on previous Jack Sparrow adventures.  


What we have here is a three-way race for the Fountain of Youth (apparently relocated from Florida to Hawaii), with Sparrow aboard the tatty ship of the dastardly pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) along with the woman Sparrow once wronged, Angelica (Penelope Cruz).  Also seeking the fabled fountain is a British privateer, led by former pirate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) along with a flotilla of disposable Spanish sailors.


But to claim the prize, the various crews have to brave a vicious onslaught of... mermaids.  You heard me.  It seems that those gentle Disney creatures are really a pack of fanged, fish-tailed predators, even though they look marvelous.  One of them is played by Aussie supermodel Gemma Ward, another by Spanish-born Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who wins the heart of Philip (Sam Claflin), our Orlando Bloom replacement, an improbable missionary aboard Blackbeard’s vessel. 


And so the story charts its predictable course from one set-piece action trope to another, with an ending that actually extends beyond the final credits (please stay seated through the interminable list of animators).  There are a few, very few, unexpected moments, including an amusing bit with a cream puff at the start of the movie and the brief appearances of Dame Judi Dench, as a woman in a coach that Jack momentarily occupies, and Rolling Stone Keith Richards back for about one minute as Jack’s reprobate father.  If you’ve seen the preview, you’ve seen his entire screen time.


With “On Stranger Tides,” the summer blockbuster cycle moves into its predictable pattern.  It’s rated PG-13 for some Disney World violence.  I say it’s more “meh” than “aarh,” and give it a C.

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