Movies

'Pirates' Points Up A Thing About Popcorn Movies And Prestige Directors

Touchy proposition: For the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie (with Ian McShane as Blackbeard), Disney brought in director Rob Marshall — whose 2002 film Chicago won the Best Picture Oscar — after Gore Verbinski left the franchise. i i

Touchy proposition: For the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie (with Ian McShane as Blackbeard), Disney brought in director Rob Marshall — whose 2002 film Chicago won the Best Picture Oscar — after Gore Verbinski left the franchise. Walt Disney Co. hide caption

itoggle caption Walt Disney Co.
Touchy proposition: For the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie (with Ian McShane as Blackbeard), Disney brought in director Rob Marshall — whose 2002 film Chicago won the Best Picture Oscar — after Gore Verbinski left the franchise.

Touchy proposition: For the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie (with Ian McShane as Blackbeard), Disney brought in director Rob Marshall — whose 2002 film Chicago won the Best Picture Oscar — after Gore Verbinski left the franchise.

Walt Disney Co.

Some of Hollywood's less Botoxed eyebrows shot skyward at the 2009 announcement that Disney would hand the fourth entry in its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to director Rob Marshall. Best known for the Oscar-winning musical Chicago (as well as the Oscar-grubbing musical Nine), Marshall didn't exactly seem like the eye-patches-and-giant-squids type. (Though if nothing else, the former theater choreographer has brought plenty of fancy footwork to the franchise.)

Disney wasn't the only studio to place a recent bet on a director-project combination that sounded like peanut butter-and-tuna. In an effort to make people take Thor seriously, Marvel and Paramount tapped Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh. But while slumming in lowbrow material is almost a rite of passage for great actors — my favorite: Orson Welles in 1986's animated Transformers movie — the directors who can bridge the gap between high and low art in a crowd-pleasing way are few and far between. When highbrow artistes run up against the appetites of the average popcorn-muncher, the results generally range from disastrous to, well, a step or two above disastrous.

The biggest train wrecks occur when fragile auteurs trust movie studios to respect their artistic vision. When he adapted Frank Herbert's novel Dune — an epic about resource wars on a desert planet, and a story of Game of Thrones-level complexity — David Lynch put together a three-hour-plus marathon capturing every political intricacy and character nuance. When presented with that cut, the producers laughed and told him to come back with a two-hour version.

The transition did not go smoothly – Lynch ended up having to relay vast swaths of plot in voiceover, while characters stared solemnly at the camera with their best "I am thinking" faces. It was just as funny as it sounds — and it didn't help that a shirtless Sting strutted through the movie like a greased-up peacock, accompanied by the camp strains of soft-rock gods Toto.

Even more transfixing to watch: the directorial dive into the lowbrow as career-destroying kamikaze mission. Charlie Chaplin spent seven years after the release of his classic The Great Dictator fending off tabloid-trumpeted paternity suits and accusations of Communist sympathies. This did not put Chaplin in a particularly good mood, of course, and his next film, 1947's Monsieur Verdoux, abandoned the highbrow social commentary of his Little Tramp films in favor of a dime-store-novel plot. Chaplin plays a sociopath who seduces elderly widows and then murders them for their money. Naturally, the film is a comedy.

But it's a comedy that eventually becomes a bile-spewing rant against women, love and the military-industrial complex. It's a fascinating thing to watch today, if only to see just how hard Chaplin worked to distort his squeaky-clean iconic image. But it effectively ended his career.

Every once in a while, a high-end filmmaker does manage to squeak through a mainstream project with his vision more or less intact. On the set of Popeye, Robert Altman reportedly came close to fistfights with super-producer Robert Evans on multiple occasions. But his stubbornness resulted in what's unmistakably a true Altman film: I'm pretty sure Popeye is the only cartoon-inspired musical where you'll find overlapping naturalistic dialogue, wide shots in which random extras get the same amount of focus as the protagonists, and songs where sexual innuendo is less subtext than text. (Olive Oyl's ode to Bluto is titled "He's Large.")

Strangely enough, letting Altman stick to his guns paid off for the studio: Popeye was a minor hit. (Though the fact that the film featured the first big-screen leading performance from a rubber-faced young sitcom star named Robin Williams probably helped).

In fact when distinctive directorial visions actually survive all the way to the summer-blockbuster screen, the results can really pay off. For Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan suppressed his artistic impulses and delivered a relatively straightforward superhero picture. But when he was let loose to create the superhero noir The Dark Knight — a war-on-terrorism allegory that was barely about Batman — the box-office gross was more than double the earlier film's take.

The billion-dollar Batman payoff looks to have convinced studios that unconventional directorial choices are a good idea, although they may not truly have internalized that not-interfering-with-the-vision part. Thor is fun, but there's nothing particularly Branagh-y about it.

Maybe Marshall would have fared better if he'd brought some actual show-stopping musical numbers into the Pirates franchise. Johnny Depp hasn't always been the most convincing dancer on-screen — but Penelope Cruz could probably teach him a thing or two.

Raj Ranade writes about movies for the Lexington Ace Weekly.

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