At the Movies With Stephen Hunter

The third
The third "Pirates of the Caribbean" sails into theaters this weekend. (Stephen Vaughan - Walt Disney Pictures)
Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Movie Critic
Friday, May 25, 2007; 12:30 PM

Washington Post film critic and 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hunter was online Friday, May 25 at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss Pirates of the Caribbean and the official kick-off of the summer movie season. If you're in search of a popcorn cruncher or a quality indie film this Memorial Day weekend, Hunter will provide guidance about what to see and what to skip.

A transcript follows.


Virginia: I was amazed at most critics' reaction to the second "Pirates": they contended that it was fluff and pandering for dollars. Actually, amid the fluff, "Pirates" is a compendium of the great existential questions, with a host of literary allusions. The writers toy with this. Go back and listen to it. "Pirates" could be included in a Great Books discussion.

Stephen Hunter: Good question.


Annapolis, Md.: Dear Mr. Hunter,

I very much enjoy reading your movie reviews and admire your writing style. Your sense of humor makes it so much fun to read your reviews. But I wish you did not reveal so many plot details, as I feel you have done once again in this "Pirates 3" review.

I once e-mailed you to tell you the same thing about a different movie review, and you wrote back a "you're right, I'm sorry" response. I don't want to be a big complainer but I wish you would stop with the spoilers.

Thank you for considering my request.

Stephen Hunter: Difficult issue, about which I have no general policy. Since I'm a story-oriented critic, sometimes it's difficult to discuss issues without defining them. At the same time, I TRY not to give away anything that hasn't been given away in first half, in TV commercials, or that isn't obvious from the set-up of the movie. My editors are aware of this tendency of mine and read carefully for spoilers. When the movie IS the twist (a la "The Sixth Sense") obviously you would be a jerk to give it away. But otherwise, interpretations vary as to what is and isn't a spoiler. I can only say: I am human, I work in good faith and if I ruin a movie for you, I am sorry.


Fairfax, Va.: I saw this last night and thought Keira Knightley was great. Do you think this is definitely the last one or will there be another a few years down the road?

Stephen Hunter: Given the cash return on this one, yes I think there'll be another one, though with an amusing cast of second-tier analogues to this cast. Hmm, that would be Robert Downey Jr. as Jack Sparrow, Ernest Borgnine as Captain Barbossa, Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Swan, and Justin Timberlake as whomever it was Orlando Bloom played. Can't wait, can you?


McLean, Va.: Stephen:

Do you have a compilation of all of your reviews that one can purchase? I enjoy reading your reviews more than the movies sometimes.

Any advice on somone interested in being a critic or writer like you?


Stephen Hunter: I've actually published two compliations, if only barely. Hire a private detective and possibly you'll be able to locate them. One was called "Violent Screen," and the other "Now Playing at the Valencia." Bantam and Simon and Schuster.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. Hunter: Good to see you back on line! Any news about another "Swagger movie"? Are you still hanging out with the stars, or was that a one-timer?

Stephen Hunter: Probably a one timer. The movie did okay, and when foreign and DVD are added in, there may be a profit. But Hollywood isn't interested in honorable performances, it's interested in hits, because that's what all the fun stuff starts and it keeps everyone involved employable for a few more years. I had fun but I'm not moving out there in hopes of becoming part of Mark Wahlberg's entourage.


Savage Md.: What do you mean, the movie is the twist?!!

Stephen Hunter: I mean if the whole movie builds to a twist, and it doesn't work, the evening is lost. On the other hand, if the twist really delivers ("The Crying Game") you're lit up for weeks.


Del Ray, Va.: Every summer I feel like the tourist on the bus in "Speed" who says- "We`re at the airport. I already seen the airport." Is Hollywood so dominated by box office bottom line corporate culture and fear of originality that all they can think of are sequels and remakes? And such bloated sequels and remakes! Sometimes more is not better, more is just... more.

Stephen Hunter: I agree with you, but the summer bbs are here to stay, so the best policy is to somehow make peace with them, lower your expectations, and never go on a weekend evening when the kids take the plexes over. Not that I don't love kids. But you can still find good films if you read your local film critics and are willing to drive a bit. You have to be a proactive filmviewer to have the most provocative cinemalife. And there's always TCM.


McLean, Va.: Stephen,

You wrote that director Gore Verbinski could have made more of the interplay between Jack and his father, played by Keith Richards. How does Richards come across on the silver screen? As addled and "foppish" as Depp?

Stephen Hunter: I was disappointed in his appearance. It lasts all of 2 minutes and is almost completely energy-free. I know he's not a histronic guy to begin with, but I was expecting more than a guy just, you know, STANDING there. Great mascara, though.


Falls Church, Va.: Excellent article about recognizing summer blockbusters, but I have to ask: Do you really look like that?

Stephen Hunter: Well . . . actually I'm far uglier. The squiggily rubber Davy Jones face in "Pirates" with the tentacles, barnacles and goobers--that's modeled on me.


Morristown, N.J.: Mr. Hunter:

I must say that bad reviews aside, watching Johnny Depp prance around the screen for three hours playing a drunken, foppish pirate is my idea of hell. More importantly, any buzz on the Coen Brothers' new film, "No Country for Old Men"?

Now these guys are movie-makers!!

Stephen Hunter: I too look forward to "No country" and yes, they are movie makers who at least always try to do something original. I'm a big "Hudsucker Proxy" guy, I could watch "Fargo" right now, and I still love "Blood Simple."


China Beijing: I like Jack very much. He is so charming. Every time he can survive frome the disaster. I don't know how can he do this. Just show my respect to a pirate.

Stephen Hunter: I like Jack too. He gives what could be nothing but ponderous spectacle a light touch at the center.


Anonymous: Hi Stephen,

Not so much a question as praise. I read the first of your film review compliations, and I thought it was outstanding. Also, you gave good advice to a friend of mine about writing -- write every day.

What books are you working on now?

I guess that is a question.

OK, a second question -- did you hate "Spider-Man 3" as much as everyone else?

Stephen Hunter: I am happy to report that after reviewing the first two Spidermen, I was able to beg off the third. Thus my happier mood these days. As for books, I'll be publishing "The 47th Samurai" in September (can't believe I've been on line for 35 minutes and haven't mentioned THAT yet; have to make up for it in the next 25!) and right now I'm trying to find a new project. Hmmm, "The Sniper Who Tracked Down the Serial Killer Who Was Working for Big Oil," how does that sound?


District of Columbia: Stephen,

I had to laugh when I read your response to the spoiler guy, because reading a review actually spoiled the twist in "The Sixth Sense" for me, even though the reviewer (possibly you!) didn't technically give away the twist. Just knowing the basic set-up, and then that there was some mind-blowing twist to it, it was obvious what the twist was. I don't say that to be critical or make you feel bad, but to demonstrate what a difficult position you're in with that kind of movie that's all about the surprise. It's hard to write anything meaningful about it without spoiling.

Stephen Hunter: Very smart comment. Indeed, I may have been the one, because I remember what a hard review that was to write. And if you acknowledge that there IS a twist, that's almost as bad as acknowledging what it is. But otherwise you're writing a review about a morose psychologist working with a creepy kid. So what to do? I will confess I gave the twist away to my wife, who has yet to forgive me. I know that when my eyes are closing in the Drunk Newspaper Guy's Death House, she'll say, "Why did you tell me what Haley Joel Osment said to Bruce Willis?" Next stop, on that crime alone, hell!


Washington, D.C.:"And there's always TCM."

I don't know who you are, but I love you! I love TCM (my TV practically stays on that channel)...I like AMC a 'lil bit, they were better 8-10 years ago.

Stephen Hunter: We have a lot in common! We both love me! But AMC is really disappointing these days, though I was surprised to see they showed "The Bravados" last night. That's rather elderly for them; they seem to stick to commercial mediocrities from the 70s!


Silver Spring, Md.: I miss the late '80s/early '90s, when directors like Cameron and Verhoeven were making all-out action movies that weren't watered down to PG-13. Do I have anything to look forward to this summer?

(I had a few guilty pleasure high hopes for a new "Die Hard" until I saw it was by the guy that directd "Underworld," one of the worst movies ever...)

Stephen Hunter: I share your enthusiasm for grown-up thrillers, and am always disappointed in the PG-13s. Best hope for us decadents would seem to be the forementioned "No Country for Old Men," which is based on an ultra-violent book where the killer whacks people with a compressed-air powered cattle gun. He's played in the movie by Javier Bardeem, I think, so that looks promising.


Yojimbo v. Sanjuro: Which do you like better ?

Stephen Hunter: I LOVE the final sword thing between Toshiro and Tatsuya in SANJURO--nukitsuke, I believe it's called-- and have in fact studied it in ultra-slow mo. Toshiro actually does draw AFTER Tatsuya but with his left hand so his distance to target it shorter. Anyhow, that said, I still think Yojimbo is the better movie, a judgment amplified by the fact (as you would certainly know) it was remade time after time and without it, Clint Eastwood would be the Trivia answer that no one ever gets right.


Caro, Mich.: Mr. Hunter:

Been a fan for years. Got hooked by "The Master Sniper," landed by "The Day Before Midnight," and I'm out of euphemisms for my experience with "Point of Impact." Suffice it to say that PoI ruined the next several books I read because they couldn't meet my elevated expectations. To bring this thing around to the subject of movies, why the long delay between publication of PoI and the release of "Sniper"?

Stephen Hunter: Sixteen screenwriters, two studios, seven directors, four producers, five or six stars. In other words, Hollywood operating quite normally. Thanks for kind words.


Greencastle, Ind.: You don't need a private detective to find your books -- has "Violent Screen" from nine to twelve dollars, and "Now Playing" can be had for under a buck!

Shipping and handling extra, of course.

You're welcome.

Stephen Hunter: Under a buck! It's good to know where I fit in on the food chain. thanks for info!


Rosslyn, Va.: Not a question, just a comment, that "The Lives of Others" has shot right to the top of my all-time favorite movies. Powerful, moving and wonderful. Everyone should see this film!

Stephen Hunter: Since there was no question, I don't have to answer but will share your sentiments with the other seven people.


Art Movie Lover, Va.: I tell everyone that you're my favorite movie writer, but I always have to add the caveat, "even though I often disagree with his final assessment of a film's worth."

A case in point: admit it -- although you gave "Zodiac" a lukewarm-to-negative review, you're still thinking about it months later, aren't you?

I am.

Because that movie is ... oh, what's the word? ... GREAT.

But this gets at a larger issue. You also didn't like "The Thin Red Line" because, if I recall, you said there's only a small good movie within a much larger, sprawling thingy you couldn't quite grasp.

And then you mentioned Andrei Tarkovsky's brilliant "Stalker," casting it aside with a chuckle, and saying it's a big bore.

It's moments like those in your writing -- and as you can tell, I remember these things! -- that make me question your judgment.

But that's OK, because I love reading every word you write. Thanks for your excellent work.

Stephen Hunter: You are the best kind of reader and i appreciate your passion. But if you look at those three movies, you'll see what they have in common: they're long, their photography is somewhat "elevated" and they see film as a medium to penetrate philisophical issues. I suspect you have a more abstract mind than mind and are more comfortable than I am with certain kinds of inquiries. What you should do is understand my weaknesses: whatever I am, I've never pretended to be all-knowing, -seeing and -explaining. Rare among film crits, I will confess that sometimes I just don't get it. But I'd like to believe I can still be helpful because you can adjust your taste to mine, know which films you will like that I will not, and get a good sense of choice from it. thanks for writing!


Oakton, Va.: Maybe you don't pay for the movies you see, but I do. I will not see the latest "Pirates" movie since they ripped me off with half a story last year.

Stephen Hunter: Interesting point. No, we don't pay for movies. Hmm, does that affect our judgment? Possibly--because going to movies is a job requirement, not an investment in time and money. When something is bad, we think it's funny that something so groteque got made, but we don't feel the sting of lost bucks and time. And now that going to movies has become so bloody expensive, you should be very careful in what you see. My best advice is to read at least six reviews--it's now possible with the websites Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes so that you get a cross section of views. You should research before you make your investment.


Washington, D.C.: Your new crush is Keira Knightley?!

What happened to Zhang Ziyi?

Stephen Hunter: I see . . . the three of us . . . in a little arts and crafts bungalow . . . in Idaho . . . Ziyi cleans the rifles and Keira the pistols and somehow we are all so very, very happy together. And folks, I think I'll leave you with that image. Thanks for the q's and possibly I can be pursuaded to do this again.


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