Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: I recently rewatched all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies recently because I don’t think I’d seen any of them all the way through, or even for more than five or ten minutes at a time, since their respective theatrical releases in 2003, 2006, and 2007. At the time, those sequels were notable for me kinda sorta identifying with alleged audience dissatisfaction (which is to say intense internet commenter dissatisfaction combined with mild critical dislike; for some reason, these factors often combine to form “everybody hated this movie” several times per year, even/especially in cases where it seems demonstrably untrue). I can’t say I’m in step with my fellow nerds and/or critics in hating the Star Wars prequels (kinda loved ’em!), the Matrix sequels (pretty much fine with ’em!), or the dismissed Marvel sequels like Iron Man 2 (in many ways superior to the original!) and Spider-Man 3 (moments of brilliance!). However, when people dismissed the Pirates continuations after the fact, I was kind of like, yeah, I get that. I didn’t hate either Dead Man’s Chest or At World’s End but I couldn’t really argue against any of the claims made against them (too long; too bloated; too convoluted; not as fun as the first time around).
Two things happened during the second proper viewings. One: I had almost the exact same gut reaction that I had when I saw them all theatrically, which is that all of them, even the first one, are by some measures too long and convoluted given what they eventually accomplish, but all of them, even the sequels, have some great moments as well as gorgeous designs. And then, two: I realized these movies are sort of like the Matrix sequels and, weirdly if you’re most people, this made me sympathize with the productions a bit more. I’ve always felt that a major reason for the disappointment in the Matrix sequels was the fact that they “only” continued the story from the first film, rather than re-blowing everyone’s minds somehow. Much of what is cool about The Matrix—sleek designs, well-executed action sequences, sci-fi trippiness—is present in The Matrix Reloaded; so, too, are many of the first the movie’s weaknesses (clumsy dialogue; stiff speechifying; let’s just say Laurence Fishburne in general).
Similarly, Dead Man’s Chest continues the story from the first movie: elaborate action and adventure; offbeat comedy from Johnny Depp; and plentiful double-crosses, switches, and reversal. It doesn’t find some new way to make everyone in the audience feel exactly the same sense of surprise and delight they felt during the first movie, because that is damn near impossible with a sequel (even the best ones, I’d say, only very rarely manage this). The even more-derided third installments The Matrix Revolutions and At World’s End, which mostly suffered from backlash to their predecessors just as their predecessors benefitted from goodwill toward the originals, find interesting endings to their stories, but their conclusive natures (at least for most of the characters), again, speak more to stories that are already in progress, rather than electrifying the audience with new beginnings. People get cranky about third parts. Apparently a ton of Star Wars fans kind of think Return of the Jedi sucks. Madness, I tell you.
That doesn’t make the Pirates sequels just as good, of course; in both franchises, the filmmakers are perhaps guilty of assuming that their previous film’s status as a big hit indicates no need for (or ability to make) improvement in any area except perhaps increasing the budget and/or running time. I’d add that the Matrix movies tell a more thematically interesting and pleasurably knotty sci-fi story than the epic saga of pirates and semi-pirates trying to out-pirate each other. But I admire what Gore Verbinski—who’s proven himself an adept genre-hopper of a studio director—and his writers tried to do, even if it all felt a bit like three or four too many laps around a beautifully designed track.
Which leaves me with mixed feelings toward the prospect of this fourth Pirates adventure. On one hand, a fresh start with Depp’s Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbosa at the center is pretty much what I was hoping for since about halfway through At World’s End; a more stand-alone adventure is certainly a welcome direction for this series, and though I like Verbinski, I understand that he should be freed from the obligation to continue making $200 million pirate movies near-exclusively. Yet I’d feel a lot more secure about this movie’s ability to entertain me if it weren’t directed by Rob Marshall, whose command of Chicago, Nine, and Memoirs of a Geisha apparently somehow convinced Disney that he was the man for a crackling action-adventure-comedy with supernatural overtones. If everything happens on a soundstage inside Jack Sparrow’s head, so help me…
Midnight in Paris: On the occasion of Woody Allen’s fortieth-or-so feature film, which is receiving decent reviews (which is to say great relative to the last decade or so of Woody Allen reviews) from its Cannes premiere, please allow me the crassness of breaking down his filmography thusly: The best ones are, in no particular order, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Everyone Says I Love You, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Hannah and Her Sisters. [Hassenger you miserable bastard, you forgot Love and Death. —Ed.] The other really strong ones are Take the Money and Run, Sleeper, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, and Sweet and Lowdown. Among the worst are The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Celebrity, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex [You’re so fucking fired, that movie is hilarious. This is Mrs. Bencours, one of my patients. SHE THINKS SHE’S A SHEEP! -Ed.]. Anything Else is pretty weak, too, although Woody himself is hilarious in it as an old crank.
The rest are in the middle, in the range of quite good to somewhat over and/or underrated. Save for the aforementioned worst-of candidates, everything else from the past dozen years or so falls into this category: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point both garnered hyperbolic praise (though I half-like the former and quite like the latter), while I couldn’t tell you why a lot of people seem to outright despise Scoop, Melinda and Melinda, or Cassandra’s Dream (especially Scoop! It’s a trifle, but a sweet and very entertaining one). Last year’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger managed to be simultaneously over and under; many people dismissed it and a passionate few embraced it, calling it his best in years. Allen is now at the age where anything he does risks being called his best/worst in years, perhaps simply because there are a lot of years there.
There are six proper Woody Allen movies I haven’t seen: Interiors; Stardust Memories; A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy; September; Another Woman; and Shadows and Fog. Even with those stragglers (why did I save most of the serious ones for the end?), this means I’ve seen over thirty movies he’s directed, which probably makes him the director whose work I’ve seen the most by pure volume, unless you count those guys who direct hundreds of sitcom episodes. Which means that at this point, Allen has more or less earned a lifetime pass. Actually, he had probably earned a lifetime pass circa the mid-90s, which explains some of the bottom-drawer scripts he made into actual movies years later. I’m pretty much willing to give a lifetime pass out to any director who makes more than thirty movies total and at least three really good ones. Only twenty-one and three left to go, Brett Ratner!