Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ★★★½

2017 movie viewings, #105 and 106. As regular readers know, last week I decided to watch all five Pirates of the Caribbean films for the very first time, as part of my habit this year of watching a bunch of mediocre but visually dense films in order to justify the large-screen HDTV I received last Christmas, and a new cellphone that will let me stream 1080p movie files to it. As I mentioned yesterday, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie that generated an enormous amount of goodwill from an audience initially wary of its amusement-park-ride origins and Jerry Bruckheimer involvement; but that goodwill was squandered almost immediately with the next two installments, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, being reviewed together today since they were written and produced at the same time by the same group of people, as a way of Disney hedging its bets, making these essentially one giant uninterrupted six-hour movie.

And indeed, these were the films where we first started to see Gore Verbinski's limitations as a director, after an early career where he could almost do no wrong (including the first Pirates movie, the massive J-horror hit The Ring, and the cultishly loved children's film Mousehunt); for here, tasked with taking a billion-dollar franchise and ensuring that it keeps delivering another billion dollars every summer, Verbinski fell back on his past as a veteran director of music videos and TV commercials*, and decided to take what was already a super-sized movie and crank everything up to super-DUPER-sized, doubling down on the action, the effects, the number of plot twists, and even the total number of characters we're now in charge of keeping track of.

[*And an interesting little piece of trivia: Among the many award-winning commercials Verbinski directed, he was the creator of the frogs who croak out, "Bud...weis...er," a television staple during the 1990s.]

As anyone who's watched these movies knows, though, Verbinski's attempt at "upselling" the franchise results in just a frenetic mess, with a byzantine plot that stops making sense about halfway through, an ever-expanding cast that eventually becomes one big frilly-shirt-wearing blur, and computer effects that eventually culminate in a literal whirlpool of epileptic mayhem. (Also, as is common in movies when too many characters are stuffed onto the screen, the cast of pirates here eventually becomes a version of the Keystone Cops, forced into bumbling pratfall shenanigans in which 20 people deliver punchlines all at the same time.)

But perhaps the most heartbreaking crime of all that Verbinski commits here is of overexposing Johnny Depp's once legitimately brilliant glam-rock interpretation of pirate Jack Sparrow, which to remind you only works in the first movie because he's used sparingly, a comic foil used to spice up scenes but who rarely gets in the way of the main swashbuckling romantic adventure story between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. But much like Fonzie or Urkel, Sparrow's spastic tics proved so ceaselessly popular among audiences that he's now been upgraded to the main character here in the sequels, which immediately makes him overstay his welcome; because let's face it, a little of Depp's swishing, slurring bravado goes a long way, while a lot of it tends to make audience members frown and say, "Wait, remind me why I liked this so much in the first place?"

All of these sins can be seen in even more naked form in the first big project Verbinski did after this franchise, his ill-fated adaptation of The Lone Ranger which turned into one of those fabled cautionary tales about corporate hubris; and it's no surprise, I think, that he's only made one more movie in the five years since that, the supposedly batshit horror film A Cure for Wellness which audiences greeted with an indifferent shrug. I'm going to be curious to see what happens with the Pirates franchise starting with film 4, On Stranger Tides, the first to not be directed by Verbinski, which most people agree is where the series really goes off the rails for the first time (but with a script that was based on a novel by one of my all-time favorite authors, Tim Powers, leaving me conflicted over how I should feel about it); but certainly when it comes to movies 2 and 3, caution and low expectations are advised, films that aren't exactly worthless but are definitely a big step down from the creative high Verbinski and co. gave us in movie 1.

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