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movies / May 21, 2011
By Eileen Jones

So if you’re interested in what a director does, or doesn’t do, go see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It’s a great film education watching Rob Marshall, the director replacing Gore Verbinski, wreck the Pirates franchise in one go. Because so many key elements are carried over from Verbinski’s insanely successful first three films—same star Johnny Depp, same writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, same producer Jerry Bruckheimer, same cinematographer Dariusz Walski, same composer Hans Zimmer, same costume designer Penny Rose, and so on—you can more readily identify the factor that’s making this Pirates movie slow and boring and leaden and lifeless. Say a lot of things against Gore Verbinski’s Pirates movies if you like—a lot of people do, especially about the second and third ones—that they’re too loud and frenetic and confusing and cluttered and crazy and have everything thrown into them including the kitchen sink. But the point is, they’re not slow, boring, leaden, and lifeless.

It’s a marvel how Rob Marshall can’t direct action scenes, can’t convey what’s cool about wonderful locations, can’t get lively performances out of actors, can’t get any rhythm going in bantering dialogue, can’t figure out where to put the camera to give you a decent angle on anything, can’t…well, the list goes on and on. Who’s bright idea was it to hire the guy who directed Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine? Why is it certain people can fail horribly in Hollywood and go right on getting lucrative offers? Are they so much better at sucking up to producers and studio executives than the other suck-ups? Do they have exclusive access to unlimited amounts of the greatest cocaine in the world?

But we’ll save these questions for the long winter evenings. The gist of the thing is, this is a rotten movie. It isn’t 100% rotten, because there are things about the Pirates world that are beautiful on film, and it’s hard to mess them up: big ships sailing, and torches at night, and sword-fights, and interiors by lantern-light, and water in all its depth and shimmer and flow. Plus this new film has mermaids, and there are underwater CGI shots of mermaids swimming upward that are pretty sensational, and a great mermaid-attack scene when it turns out they have teeth like piranhas and a taste for sailor-flesh.


But otherwise, it’s shocking how pallid, muted, droopy, and dutiful everything has become.

Jack Sparrow is almost unrecognizable here, he’s been so regularized. He’s hardly a trickster character at all anymore, and that was his whole fascination, a welcome challenge to morons who believe that characters ought to “develop” in predictable “character arcs” that follow the logic of dreadful pop psychology and three-act screenplay structures. Here’s critic Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle making the moron argument about Jack Sparrow:

“Captain Jack isn’t really a character. He is a condition. He can never have a strong emotion or a strong need. He can never change. Other characters must deal with him as a monolith, and if he ever were to alter or deepen, the audience would practically consider it a breach of contract.

So it’s a bit of a problem to find Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack at the center of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.’ If you want to burden your movie from the outset, give it a protagonist who can’t grow, can’t change, can’t feel and wants nothing.”

This is a series of stupid claims about what makes a good character, too many to counter here. But I’ll take on one claim that’s simply, straightforwardly untrue: the Jack Sparrow character has plenty of emotions and needs. But the thing is, emotions and needs change all the time, as most of us know to our sorrow. The first three Pirates films dealt admirably with that  torturing fact of life. In the first Pirates, Jack’s fixed need was his ship the Black Pearl, but his immediate needs in recovering the Pearl shifted constantly, and he shifted ground nimbly in accordance with them while less-nimble characters looked on in shock.

In Pirates 2, everyone’s needs and desires come unmoored, the other characters get pirate-ized and all start acting like Jack, and Jack starts acting like Jack-cubed, incessantly shifting and changing, unable to fix on what they want for more than a day at a time. That’s why so many people called the sequel an incoherent mess, though it’s not. It makes total sense. The movie’s explicitly about not knowing what you want and all the chaos that results, which is why it had the whole plot-line about the compass that doesn’t point north, it points to what you want most. Only suddenly “it isn’t working,” it’s swiveling around without not pointing at anything, it’s pointing at confusing things you’re not supposed to want but maybe you do, etc.


In Pirates 3, Jack himself is fragmenting, fighting with himself, determined only on not-dying after his appalling afterlife experience in Davy Jones’ Locker. But death is crowding everybody; even the undead Davy Jones and crew aren’t safe from a more final extinction. All our characters are driven into piracy because piracy has been redefined as anyone not slaving for the East India Tea Company–a great synecdoche for what’s happening to us right now in what we laughingly call “real life,” by the way. And pirates are being driven “off the map,” so the characters are all fighting and clawing at each other trying to survive. Only in the final extremity, when imminent, ultimate death “focuses the mind” like Samuel Johnson said it would, does each main character recovers his or her primary desire and destiny.

A great wildness the first three Pirates had, a raging inventiveness, not the usual three-act plod at all. In that they were inheritors of the great genre films, the ones that get heated and crazy and risk incoherence—slapstick comedy, film noir, Hong Kong martial arts films. Now that Gore Verbinski’s also directed Rango, we’re confirmed in knowing he’s got the right stuff, and look forward with interest to his upcoming Tonto-dominated Lone Ranger movie.

Pirates 4 seemed headed toward something potentially wild, by taking on Jack Sparrow’s dangerous feelings for a woman, Angelica (Penelope Cruz). He might actually be able to love her because she’s his exact counterpoint, so exact that when he kisses her, he’s kissing himself—“Something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. Promising idea. But like many promising ideas, they’re Marshallized and come to nothing.

Just to give you an idea of Marshall’s capacity for ruining everything, the zombie pirates in this film are boring. Zombie pirates!

Several things in the script might have been alchemized into gold, but stay lead in Marshall’s hands. For example, the early bit about down-and-out Jack Sparrow in London, shadowed by the rumors of another, prosperous Jack Sparrow in London who’s buying a ship and hiring a crew. He confronts this other Jack, declaring, “You stole me, I’m here to recover meself,” and squares off against what seems to be, in dim light, his own doppelganger. But Jesus, the shot choices! Vague long shots, a short uninspired sword-fight played out in conveniently-disguising shadow, then—running out of any ideas at all—the quick reveal of who’s pretending to be Jack. It’s like Any Film Student USA was asked to step in and try his best. All the humor and uncanniness that were possible remain that—possible—but never to be realized, because Rob Marshall doesn’t know where to put the damn camera.

It’s that way with everything. A tired literal-mindedness pervades the whole movie, an earnest endeavor to make sure the not-bright audience is keeping up with the not-much that’s happening. Again, Mick LaSalle, going for some sort of cretin prize in film reviewing, gets everything wrong by praising this very quality:

“If you see the movie, watch Depp and Cruz in their scenes together and note the difference. Unlike Depp, Cruz listens. Her focus is complete. And she finds an emotional through line, amid the tangle of the story, to give wholeness to the woman she plays. Angelica (Cruz) wants to find the Fountain of Youth. She wants it not for herself, but for her father, Blackbeard the Pirate (Ian McShane), who is not a very nice person. So her motivation is love, with the complication that she might be in love with Captain Jack, as well. But her loyalty is to her father. That’s what Cruz plays – every moment she is onscreen.

Blackbeard’s loyalty is to himself. Single-minded and ruthless – something McShane can play as well as anybody – he wants the Fountain for the usual reason. He doesn’t want to die. So that’s what McShane plays.”

Yeah, what could be better than an actor who locates one completely obvious motivation in his or her character and plays it relentlessly for two hours, like a kid at a piano banging on the same note until you scream? But LaSalle’s blather does explain what makes Cruz and McShane so boring in their parts. Not their fault—McShane’s good, generally, and Cruz is good in Spanish movies, at least—no, this is Marshall’s work.

For another example of crippling obviousness, look at the sad mess of an opening action scene, which is being wrongheadedly praised in some quarters. Jack is the prisoner of King George II (Richard Griffin doing well as a corpulent pig-royal). He’s manacled to a gilt chair, facing the king, surrounded by guards, etc. We get close shots of Jack looking around the room, picking out the various objects he can throw and windows he can jump out of and so on, just to make it clear to the meanest intelligence that Jack Sparrow is planning his escape, and to insure that no one will be surprised by any detail of what happens one minute later.


This the kind of remedial Pirates of the Caribbean that many critics had requested. As Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly confesses,

“In the past I would have said — I have said, quite often — that I wish that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies would cut down on the ghoulishly hyperkinetic CGI and nonsensical plotting. Well, be careful what you wish for. On Stranger Tides has little in the way of jousting skeletons, acid-trip desert dream sequences, or over-the-top plot twists. And frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever longed more for excessive CGI and nonsense. Basically the entire film consists of Jack traveling aboard the run-down death ship of the 
 sinister pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), all to reach the island that houses the legendary [Fountain of Youth]. Meanwhile, the peg-legged Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), working for King George, heads for the same destination. Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), who has taken over from Gore Verbinski, On Stranger Tides is so straightforward yet plodding that it puts the old back in old-fashioned entertainment.”

So all the fast and frantic qualities of the Verbinski Pirates are gone, killed by the slow set. Now we get the doddering version. Pirates of the Caribbean for Dummies. Everything explained. Long walks through the jungle during which nothing happens. Jack Sparrow is asked by Captain Barbosa what his escape plan is, and Jack Sparrow explains that does not have a plan, so he will improvise. Then he does so. And so the long evening wears on.





Add your own

  • 1. Doctor Memory  |  May 21st, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Speaking of leaden and lifeless, when the best comments on this site are those improved by the eXiled censor, maybe it’s time for comment idiots to reassess your own craft.

  • 2. John Figler  |  May 21st, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    OK, you made the second and third parts looks like almost maybe worth seeing.

    I tried. They are still the crap they were first time I saw them, I couldn’t even finish the third awake. Don’t you ever try your it’s beautiful on it’s chaotic way trick again. All those metaphors were plain obvious the first time I saw them on the screen, didn’t bought them back then, not buying them now.

    Then you say something vaguely resembling a compliment to Pe… Who is positively the most dumb, plain, single dimensional actress Spanish cinema has ever produced, let alone exported. She was not good in Spanish movies, which I have suffered until the end of the neighborhood cinemas allowed me not to continue suffering, and she has not improved going to Hollywood.

    So, I’m leaving it for good… and I want my donation back!

  • 3. Ciniconoclasta  |  May 21st, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks for the article; I was no way going to watch it (likewise i never watched 2nd and 3rd), but something here reminds me of the novel On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers; one of the best novels about XXVII Century pirates (not for kids, by the way): Quest for the Fountain of Youth, Zombie Pirates… Hell, even the title of the film!
    Quick check on IMDB shows no trace of Tim Powers among writing credits…
    A case of serendipitous polygenesis? in Hollywood? Yeah Right…

  • 4. Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden  |  May 21st, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    The world came to an end today, its demise on time, under budget, and just like those Crusader dicks predicted.

    I am the only survivor. As part of my reinvigorated world-tour, I plan to attend every showing of Pirates of the Caribou at every venue in América del Norte. After that, me and my posse are hattin’ up for Branson.

    En route, we’ll make a modest (€10?) donation to Exiled. Or look around for Penelope Cruz –

    القرف وكلوا والنباح على القمر ، والمتسكعون الصليبية.

  • 5. captain america  |  May 21st, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    what are you driving at?

  • 6. Matt  |  May 21st, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Will she ever review a movie that she likes? Yeah we get it… you’re too good for modern Holywood. Write a fucking positive review for once in your life.

  • 7. Bob Steele  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 1:26 am

    I liked the movie a lot. But who was the snapper?

  • 8. fajensen  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 3:14 am

    Why is it certain people can fail horribly in Hollywood and go right on getting lucrative offers?

    Because it is like that Everywhere: The bigger the failure, the more lucrative and cushy the next job/failure will be!

  • 9. Quelldrogo  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 5:21 am

    I love Eileen’s reviews. She’s about the only movie reviewer I trust these days. MovieBob is a close second, but I only agree with him about 70% of the time.

    @Matt, don’t be a chudnugget. She liked Rango!

  • 10. Down and Out of Sài Gòn  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Ciniconoclasta: Disney bought the rights for the novel from Tim Powers. That’s how intellectually bankrupt Hollywood is. In the old days, when you bought the rights for a novel, you tried to adapt it to the screen. Now it’s used as a repository of spare ideas for scriptwriters to rummage through.

    Which is a bit of a shame, because “On Stranger Tides” is a superb novel from a superb writer. It should never have been tacked on to the franchise, but taken as is. It’s got one of the nicest endings to a novel. Well, at least it is extra cash in Powers’s pocket. And maybe they’ll reprint some of his other books.

  • 11. Don  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Wreck the series? Hopefully you are just playing down to the inane American audience here. Kinda hard to wreck a travesty.

  • 12. Strelnikov  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    She will when you can spell Hollywood.

  • 13. CensusLouie  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    I dunno, the most amazing part of the 3rd Pirates movie was how technically there was a lot of loud noises and action on the screen, but it still managed to put you fast asleep.

  • 14. Harry Reems  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    When Pirates of the Condom surpass it’ll get my vote. Until then, Depp and Cruz should just sit in the loge, holding hands.

  • 15. captain america  |  May 22nd, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    @13 couldn’t have said it better myself. one of the only movies i’ve ever walked out on. just awful.

  • 16. Ciniconoclasta  |  May 23rd, 2011 at 2:13 am

    @ Down and Out of Sài Gòn:
    Thanks for the update.
    Fully agree, the novel is an all-time favorite, and it deserves a well-done adaptation, not being part of this franchise… I’m glad at least it meant cash for Tim Powers, as you mention…

  • 17. David R  |  May 23rd, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Just want to second the comment from John #2 — Penelope Cruz is a complete disaster. Maybe *especially* in Spanish. Almodovar be damned. Her delivery has all the nuance of a concrete slab.

    Eileen, sorry, but someone has fed you misinformation. Or your Spanish isn’t great.

  • 18. RobertD  |  May 25th, 2011 at 12:07 am

    @ 6. Matt

    I can think of eight positive reviews from Eileen off the top of my head:

    No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit, Inglourious Basterds, Red Cliff, The Informant and Rango.

    Oh, and one of those Harold and Kumar movies, which makes nine.

    Granted, four of those nine are Coen Brothers movies. But then there’s not much of worth at the movies outside of the Coens these days. Apart from maybe Tarantino. If Django Unchained can live up to the potential of the subject matter, then it might be worth getting excited about.

    Not really sure why I can remember Eileen’s reviews with photographic clarity, but it’s sort of disturbing.

  • 19. Ishmael  |  May 25th, 2011 at 3:23 am

    Well, Ms.Jones, I waded through your three pages of sturm-und-drang lament over the trivialization of the POTC franchise. I believe there’s one small item worthy of mention you missed:


    So it AIN’T “War & Peace”. It ain’t EVEN a DECENT pirate movie, much less an exceptional one like Rafael Sabatini’s “Captain Blood”. CB actually HAS believable characters with GENUINE motivations, a crackling narrative and exceptional dialog. So, pick any dialog from any of the FOUR POTC films and compare them with just this one exchange between Dr. Peter Blood and his housekeeper:

    Mrs. Barlow: You would think of geraniums when every other able-bodied man is out fighting!
    Dr. Peter Blood: Hmm. It’s out of favor I seem to be with you, my vinegary virgin.
    Mrs. Barlow: Half the town is saying you’re a Papist.
    Dr. Peter Blood: Why? Because I’ve the sense to sleep this night instead of rushing to my ruin in a hopeless attempt to put this Duke of Monmouth on the throne? He’d be even worse than King James. Make haste with that cloak there, my pretty one.
    Mrs. Barlow: And the other half of the town that defends you claims that you’re just a coward.
    Dr. Peter Blood: Mrs. Barlow, me darlin’, you can tell ’em if you like that I’ve been most everywhere that fighting was in evidence: I fought for the French against the Spanish and the Spanish against the French… and I learned me seamanship in the Dutch navy. And having had adventure enough in six years to last me six lives, I came here. Hung up the sword and picked up the lancet; became a man of peace and not of war… a healer, not a slayer. And that I’m going to be as long as I’m on top of the sod and not under it.

  • 20. Aaron  |  May 25th, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    And it’s not like it would be hard in any case to be better than modern “Holywood”. I’ve scraped dogshit off my shoes that was better than modern “Holywood”. Maybe when they can find some people who know how to tell a fucking story, we’ll start seeing some good movie reviews. Until then it’s either a) reviewers like Eileen “John Dolan” Jones who are honest, or b) reviewers who are too cowardly to tell the truth because they’re afraid it will cost them something, though I’m fucked if I know what. A cushy sinecure maybe, and who can blame them? But in the meantime, those are your choices, so if you don’t like to hear that shit is shit, you’ve got plenty of other options to choose from.

  • 21. Aaron  |  May 25th, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    “Blah blah the franchise sucks anyway”: Yeah, but it used to be amusing, at least to people who’ve the wit to realize that their tastes in entertainment don’t say a whole lot about who they actually are or what they’re worth — people who use terms like “middlebrow”, of course, are invited to return to their brie and Chateau Whatever, and leave the rest of us the fuck alone.

  • 22. oneoflokis  |  May 25th, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Actually, Eileen, though I normally hate your reviews, which I usually encounter on Alternet, from the first paragraph of your Stranger Tides review I immediately felt I knew exactly what you meant, and chimed instinctively with it. This time, instead of being pretentious, you told us clearly why the first three movies of the franchise worked for you. (And for me.)

    I think you have more than a slight something saying how the movies recapture some of the manicness of old comedy movies. (Ie, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack is more Marx Brothers, rather than resembling the often tediously noble heroes of 50s pirate movies!)

    I liked what you had to say about shifting character motives, too. Most of all, I too liked the way in which the first three movies explored the archetype of the Trickster; a particular preoccupation of mine, and as the screenwriters’ commentary on the DVD of the first movie remarks, *is not often seen in (modern) hollywood movies*; instead, in American pop culture, it is usually confined to..

  • 23. oneoflokis  |  May 25th, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    .. (old) cartoon shorts (Bugs Bunny, Pepe Le Pew, etc.) Or – and this is my own observation – he is otherwise turned into a demon, like the Joker in the Batman movie franchise! Which I really don’t think is very helpful, so we need more sympathetic Trickster heroes like Jack Sparrow. The only thing that gives me pause about the character, Eileen, is that for a classic Trickster he’s curiously almost sexless in a strange kind of way; “more Michael Jackson than Keith Richards”, as I recall some other reviewer saying! Have you any comments you wish to make on that? (Perhaps it’s that he presents himself as a Lothario, but is never seen in any *successful* romances! I have yet to see his chemistry with Penelope Cruz though. (Who I liked in “Gothika”.))

    No, I haven’t yet seen the movie (in UK). I still intend to, and look forward to seeing it. As Ms Jones says, surely no movie with brilliantly-executed &edgy CGI mermaids can be all bad! Shame about uninspiring zombie pirates though! (One thing which Eileen forgot

  • 24. oneoflokis  |  May 25th, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    to mention or explore in greater detail is that apparently the mermaids aren’t just movie monsters; they are instead more ambivalent characters, like Jack himself. Doesn’t one of these sea-nymphs have a romance with one of the supporting characters, I forget which? I like the theme of ambivalence; if Marshall messes it up, more fool him! I do believe that more contemporary movies would benefit from a lighter touch rather than a heavier one (again in my mind, the awfully turgid, equally laboured &obvious later Chris Nolan rears his head!)

    So maybe this Marshall’s plan isn’t America’s greatest gift to the world! But like you Eileen, I will defend the Verbinski oeuvre. (The first Pirates even got a positive thumbs-up from the World Socialist Web Site,, which is notorious for hating *all* popular movies – they’re haters to rival all others!)

    As for some commenters’ remarks here that “it’s only a Disney movie/based on a ride”, I must say I am inclined to dismiss those comments as irrelevant or over-..

  • 25. oneoflokis  |  May 25th, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    ..dismissive. The Walt Disney company continued producing ever-improving, wittier and more innovative traditional cartoon features throughout the 90s right into the 2000s until it sold out to Pixar and the CGI cartoon. But I hear (again, I forget the title &exact details) that it is planning to make a comeback in the traditionally animated hand-drawn cartoon genre a year or two from now: I shall be looking out for it. Likewise; about “the ride”: surely *anything* can act as inspiration for a movie, short story, novel or other piece of art. I can think of several classical operas/ballets based on *children’s toys*: The Nutcracker, Tales of Hoffman, Coppelia..

    As for what the commenters above had to say about the subsuming of the Tim Powers novels for ideas (sure I heard something about this) I agree, that is sad. But, if the Powers books portray more *adult* (ie, non-Disney) pirate fantasy; and if all this investment in pirate movies (which are expensive) keeps the genre popular,maybe some other company can..

  • 26. oneoflokis  |  May 25th, 2011 at 3:29 pm back the rights to Power’s books, and, seeing as not many of the ideas appear to have been used, make their own, adult supernatural pirate movie, to appeal to those who don’t like Disney rides??

    (Sorry this came out all in bits btw: I did it from a mobile phone! First time Eileen’s inspired me to respond on here!)

  • 27. Magpie  |  May 26th, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    The less for me from the Pirates movies is that sometimes you make a good movie by accident.

    The first one was good. The rest were utter drek. They tried to recreate what they did the first time, and couldn’t come close. Because they don’t know what they did. It was an accident.

  • 28. franc black  |  May 30th, 2011 at 9:53 am


    Took the kiddies and really enjoyed it. The Zen-like Jack Sparrow is getting better with each movie. Penelope was great eye candy. The sets, costumes, makeup were all very fun, especially in 3D.

  • 29. CensusLouie  |  May 31st, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Jesus christ, is oneoflokis a joke?

    As for the guy bashing “dumb Americans”, 2/3rds of this turd’s box office revenue has been from foreign markets.

    Which is most likely another reason for the dumbing down of movies in the past 15 years. With over half of their revenue coming from foreign markets, studios are absolutely TERRIFIED of releasing anything with a coherent story, thinking that non-English speakers will be unable to follow anything that isn’t 100% shiny lights and loud explosions.

    Which is totally wrong, of course. But that’s how things work in the heads of executives.

  • 30. vapor  |  February 5th, 2012 at 9:22 am

    I agree on what you say. Although there is a lot of shitty directors over there. An infamous example is the idiot who “directed” transformers, a film that could be worth if directed (and written) by someone with a bit of talent.

  • 31. vanessa walker  |  September 23rd, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    I would like to see how it all bagin for Jack Sparrow how he became captil of the black pearl and how davie jone became the way he did , because thourght all of the moves they talk about it but it would be nice to how it was from the begining so please think about it

    Thank ,You
    Ms. Vanessa Walker

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