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The pasteurized cheese factor of 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies

Who can't love a holiday at your neighborhood theater?

So let me put in a good word, sight unseen, for something no one could possibly expect me to --"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," the fifth installment of the terminally cynical film series that was never an actual movie in the first place.

I'd go even farther than that: anyone who has been to Disney World or Disneyland is likely not to think much of "POTC" as a theme park ride either. Making a film out of a substandard park amusement was a virtual confession that the most nihilistic possible commercialism had finally overtaken the place of actual cinematic imagination.

That was the empty inspiration of Gore Verbinski's original in 2003. It's, in fact, the whole point of the series.

These aren't movies any more than a plastic-wrapped slice of Velveeta is real cheese. They're pasteurized megaplex movie fodder--things for family crowds that are loosed by national holidays and who need a place to go for two hours.

So the "POTC" films are rides to be taken inside a movie theater rather than a theme park. And, as theme park rides can so often be, they can be excruciatingly fake and boring.

But here's the thing: give a 7-year old a slice of Velveeta and he won't give a hoot that it's not brie or cheddar or Stilton or Roquefort. He'll probably love it--or, the very least, accept it happily as something he should chew and taste and swallow.

Nor is he wrong.

It's by no means rare to see movies that aren't really movies in any strict sense of the word. Michael Bay's "Transformer" cinematic products are huge, deafening toys, but they're also anti-movies. They're megaplex bullies that clobber any desire you might have to enjoy a real movie.

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" products, on the other hand, are ridiculously expensive bits of digital improv. And that's where the charm--and the talent--of one actor came to define the whole series.

Johnny Depp, as Captain Jack Sparrow, is hardly the only actor in the "POTC" casts, but he's the only one who matters. Geoffrey Rush and Javier Bardem, no less, are in the new one along with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley for fleeting old time's sake. That's authentic acting horsepower.

But who cares? What Depp did the first time around and established as the whole point of the series was to bring a marvelously ingenious and funny caricature of a living rock hero to the screen. Captain Jack was Depp's effetely riotous caricature of the Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards, the man whose decades of compromising his bloodstream haven't, somewhat remarkably, stopped him from making it to the age of 73.

As Depp has played him from the beginning, Captain Jack's stagger is his swagger. It's a rollicking performance about decades of pop music stardom at its most nihilistic and privileged. He is personifying the essential, throwaway nihilistic improv spirit of the zillion dollar movie itself.

"Keef" so loved it right from the beginning that he has appeared a couple of times in the movies as Captain Jack's Dad.

And now something new in the Caribbean Pirate universe--another commanding British Invasion rock superstar to do a cameo. Would you believe Paul McCartney playing a jail guard in the newest film? They wanted him so badly that they filmed his big set piece after almost everything else was in the can.

Now let's get real here: "Keef's" stagger/swagger and eloquently slurred speech are very different from Paul's persona which is to be the ever-inspired, all-business heart of the Beatles. (The reigning Jail Guard of rock 'n' roll? Well maybe.)

Paul is one of the greatest composers rock will ever have. But he's also one of its most hard-headed businessmen and, when he wants to be, most cheerful charmers.

I had the good luck to interview him -- or to be accurate, to be one of 15 or so critics sitting at a table throwing questions at him for 45 minutes when he was trying to convince the world that "Give My Regards to Broad Street" was a movie. He was as charming as any celebrity I have ever encountered, a man so at home with monstrous international fame that he was, in life, infinitely more interesting than any idiot movie could be.

That's quite true about Paul now in his mid-70's, but it's hard to resist curiosity about what joke they've reserved for him in the new "Pirates" movie, even if the two directors in charge of it were Norwegian.

No, it's not a real movie or anything close. But if everyone's doing their jobs, it may seem like a pretty good expensive set of variations and jokes on the subject of pirate movies.

Kids have to grow up a little to appreciate brie and Roquefort, you know? For a while, though, Velveeta suffices nicely.

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