So we're pretty much at the top of the hill now, ready to coast our way through the rest of the summer. There are a handful of potential hits to go–most notably Anchorman 2: Now With Racecars and Motherfuckin' Snakes On A Motherfuckin' Plane–but as far as Hollywood is concerned, their biggest horses are off and racing. The movies that are going to make the most money this summer have already staked out their multiplex territory, and they're not budging until Labor Day at the earliest.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the game of assertion and retraction going on among the industry pundits, and one of the most entertaining pastimes of the summer has been following the sniping between David Poland and Jeffrey Wells, both of whom would probably dispute being dubbed "industry pundits," even though they spend as much time reporting (and debating) "the numbers" as they do acting as critics or trendspotters. Anyway, Wells came out early for Superman Returns, which he found grand and relevant, while Poland found it plodding and needlessly sober. Poland was more turned on by Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, which he thought was thrilling and fun, while Wells found it a soulless amusement park ride. Needless to say, they've both been reporting the box office returns and Rotten Tomatoes scores with a pronounced partisan tone. When Poland initially underreported the Superman numbers, Wells jumped on him; and Wells has been flooding his site with snippets of negative Pirates reviews by heavyweight critics.

But give Wells credit. He knows when he's backed the wrong pony, and in recent days, he's been coming to terms with the merely okay Superman performance and the massive Pirates booty. Because it looks like Pirates is going to rule the summer. It was the first movie I've been to this year where I sat in a sold-out auditorium–so sold out that I had to buy a ticket to Nacho Libre and then sneak in to Pirates and sit in the front. Behind me, before the movie started, I heard a kid talking with his dad about who played what character inthe first movie., and rehashing a lot of the plot These folks were primed.

And the audience seemed to like the movie. And I think I did too.

I say "I think," because this blockbuster project is encouraging a bit more detachment when I watch movies these days. As I keep saying–too much, I'm sure–I'm not really reviewing these blockbusters so much as looking at how they fit into the mass media landscape of '06, which means I may be more inclined to be charitable to what's on the screen than my colleagues have been. But at the same time, when I see a movie as packed with action and plot and wit and visual imagination as Pirates, I have to wonder what my colleagues would rather be doing with their time. Do they all have buses to catch?

I mean, I understand the complaints. The movie does presume that the audience remembers every character–major and minor–from episode one, and that we've all been anxious to find out what happens to them. But you know, judging by that kid who sat behind me, there must be a lot of people who really do. We live in a DVD culture, and having just spent 12 hours on the road with my kids last week–DVD player running non-stop in the backseat–I can vouch for the fact that people watch things over and over.

The other major complaint is that the movie is too long, and … well, it is long. It's got one of those "branching" plots, where each new road opens up two more roads that our heroes are going to have to follow so that can do what they have to do. And not to spoil anything, but the movie ends on a cliffhanger, which means that our heroes wind up about half-a-dozen branches away from where they're supposed to be. But at the same time, there's not a lot of wasted action–not like in the first film, where the heroes went to the endpoint, then left for no real reason, then had to go back again. Everything that happens in this new Pirates at least moves the story along.

As to the question of whether director Gore Verbinski is an artist or a hack, the jury's still out. Over the course of his career, Verbinski's shown a facility for image-making, yet a persistent clumsiness about consistency and tone. Much of the new Pirates is too dark and gamy for what should be a family-friendly adventure, and while the big action set-pieces are conceived ingeniously–with lots of gears tripping other gears–some of the individual pieces within those pieces get mishandled. Like, Verbinski will shoot a swordfight that goes in some very interesting and funny directions, but the swordfight itself will be indifferently shot and ugly to watch.

But I never felt exhausted by Pirates, even though I confess I didn't care about the character's moral choices (which amounted to an inner debate over whether Captain Jack will be "chaotic evil" or "chaotic good," to misuse some D&D; lingo). It was a well-constructed spectacle, with pieces that fit together in crazy ways. It gives its audience an entertainment experience that they're increasingly getting used to. It's practically an extended commercial for the DVD.

****

The real question–which I won't even try to answer right now–is whether it's okay to like a slick, shallow movie like Pirates without trying to make some extraordinary claims for its visual style (which I cannot) or for its hidden thematic depths (which I could try to do, as regards its apparent master-plot about the remaking of the world into a place of commerce … but which I shall not). I think what this blockbuster project of mine is building to is a defense of the necessity of frivolous, decadent, pop artifacts. I'm only going to do a couple more of these–note that I've changed the title from "week" to "part"–because there are only a couple more movies I'm all that interested in, and I've got another vacation trip coming up in a couple of weeks. But I'm working on a final, end-of-summer post that I hope makes sense of everything. And I mean everything.

****

The movies may be in static mode, but the pre-show entertainment sure isn't. I saw three new commercials this week: an odd, football-fans-only spot for Nike, a delightful new animated spot about what goes on inside a Coke machine, and some damn Fanta thing. Tons of new trailers too, including the latest Snakes On A Plane. (And again, if you've been following Jeffrey Wells this summer, what is up with his obsessing over the marketing plans and release of SOAP? I think "enjoy the fright" is a pretty clever tagline, personally.) My theater full of kids was kind of thrown by the snakes, and then again by the unexpectedly scary trailers for Lady In The Water and, of all things, Transformers. Myself, I was more unsettled by The Nativity Story (can someone maybe make a Jesus movie that doesn't just fetishize one piece of his life story?) and The Guardian (how sad is it that at this late date, Andrew Davis still has to reach back to The Fugitive for his "from the director of" credit?).

Oh, and going back to last week: I guess I should say something about the Spider-Man 3 teaser, huh? Pretty awesome, I'd say. Everyone's talking about the black Spidey suit, but my favorite snippet was Sandman crashing down the street. Hurry on, next summer.

And one more flashback note. I'm just now, years too late, getting around to watching Alias, since TNT is showing the first season in order. Watching the first episode a couple of days ago, I was struck all the more by how auteur-y M:I:III actually was. The movie's practically a remake of that debut Alias ep. Freaky.

Next week: Probably nothing. Resting up for Shyamalan's Lady. (Lord, let there a crazy plot twist. I ask this in Catherine Hardwicke's name. Amen.)

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