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Pirates Of The Caribbean back for fourth go-’round, Morgan Spurlock’s selling out

by Mark Burger

The box-office timbers are sure to be shaken, never mind shivered, by Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides , the latest — but not necessarily the last — in the bigbudget franchise from Walt Disney Studios and the never-shy producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who knows just about as much about packaging blockbusters as anyone in Hollywood.

Never mind the big-buck bombast Bruckheimer brings to the table, for it’s Johnny Depp, without whom the film simply wouldn’t be possible, serving up yet another fabulous feast as Captain Jack Sparrow, the woozy and wacky swashbuckler on a perennial collision course with trouble. How he gets out of trouble is only half as delightful as how he gets into it. This is the fourth film in the series, yet Depp still plays his role with palpable relish.

Lest one forget, Depp earned his first Oscar nomination for the first Pirates, and the success of the film catapulted him to the front ranks of box-office superstars.

This time, he’s in search of the Fountain of Youth, accompanied by old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz), the fiery daughter of no less than Blackbeard himself (Ian McShane). In pursuit is Captain Jack’s old sparring partner, Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who since last seen has lost a leg and gone “legit” (sort of) as a captain in His Majesty’s Navy. It was Blackbeard who claimed the leg, and Barbossa is bent on claiming revenge.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom aren’t missed, having opted out of this installment, and it’s a refreshing turn to give Captain Jack a love interest in Angelica. Cruz is both game and attractive, and she probably possesses the best teeth of any pirate in cinema history, but even her pleasing repartee with Depp can’t protect her from being bowled over by his, McShane’s and Rush’s varying degrees of demented (and admittedly amusing) hamminess. How any scenery was left after they got through tearing into it is anybody’s guess.

Kevin R. McNally returns as Gibbs, the gruff first mate whose loyalties to Captain Jack and Barbossa usually get him into trouble, and Keith Richards — that old rock ‘n’ roll buccaneer himself — reappears briefly as Captain Jack’s father, who earns one of the film’s biggest laughs with a quip about the

Fountain of Youth. Even Judi Dench pops up in a brief cameo.

In following Ponce de Leon’s path to the Fountain, Captain Jack and company must contend with mermaids and mutinies, high falls and pratfalls, swashbuckling shenanigans and myriad special effects. From time to time, the story (such as it is) is dwarfed by the presentation — a common affliction in today’s high-concept filmmaking — but the filmmakers cannot be excused of being lazy.

Rob Marshall assumes the directorial reigns from Gore Verbinski (who helmed the first three Pirates), and it’s a seamless transition. Marshall acclimates himself to this milieu with no fuss or interruption.

Things are going rather swimmingly until the various interested parties converge at their destination, at which point On Stranger Tides follows the exact pattern of its predecessors by considerably overstaying its welcome. Bigger may be better, and in the Jerry Bruckheimer universe it’s a foundation, but bigger can sometimes be detrimental to the overall effect. Too much of a good thing can quickly turn into too much of a bad thing.

Now, On Stranger Tides isn’t bad by any stretch, and on the whole it’s probably among the best of the series, but it’s overlong and overstuffed. Still, it’s impossible to argue with the success of what has become one of Disney’s most unexpectedly lucrative franchises, and the studio certainly hasn’t skimped in giving the audience what it has come to enjoy and to expect.

And, yes, the door is left wide open for another journey. One need only stick around after the end credits to get the hint. Like everything else in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, it isn’t subtle.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold , which opens Friday, is the latest documentary from award-winner Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame), a light-hearted but trenchant indictment of advertising and product placement, not only in feature films but in everyday life.

This may seem an easy target for Spurlock to tackle — and it is — but in pointing out the obvious, the film and its maker emphasize just how much we as Americans take such promotion for granted, if for no other reason than the sheer abundance of it in our daily lives. We’re so used to it, we don’t even notice it anymore.

Or do we? Spurlock mocks the practice and the process while also embracing them. The film’s official title is Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, as its main sponsor is the beverage company POM Wonderful, known for its popular pomegranate juices. (After Super Size Me, it was hardly likely to be a fast-food restaurant.)

There are some laughs to be had as Spurlock pitches varying companies on his ideas, ranging from the inspired to the inane, for placing their products in his movie. In a very real sense, Spurlock is pitching himself to them, much as he pitches himself to the audience within the context of the film.

He is, of course, the star of his own documentary. For some viewers, he may well come off as overly glib and self-satisfied — and the same could also be said about documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who also tends to put himself front and center in his movies. (Some people don’t like Moore, either.)

Thus, if you find Spurlock an engaging personality, you’ll buy into it. If not, you may take your business elsewhere. After all, he’s selling himself — and that’s precisely the point of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

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