Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Bring me that horizon!"

I'm not sure why the critics lashed back so hard at the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel. I suspect it's a kind of aversion to $200 million dollar summer blockbusters, or to blockbuster sequels, or to having to see Johnny Depp play the same character twice.

I can certainly see why the first Pirates movie was a surprise. By all indications, it should have been abysmal, and the consensus seems to be that Depp snuck in and stole or saved the film as everyone else tried diligently to make a terrible movie. I never really agreed that this is what happened. I think the film was always about Jack Sparrow, and that Will Turner and his conventional romantic motivation was always there as a familiar foil for Jack's madness and so that audiences could identify with something if Jack came off unsympathetically.

I think the performance was just a surprise, and it was a surprise that a movie based on a theme park ride could turn out so strong, especially when Disney had been so dismal otherwise.

I think it's a fair criticism that the rhythm of plot twists and double-crosses probably isn't as fresh this time, and a plot involving another supernatural pirate ship seems kind of redundant, though the Davy Jones crew is exceptionally well-designed.

But I still thought the movie was dazzling. The success of the first film freed the sequels, not just in regards to the production budget, but to celebrate Jack in all of his greedy, selfish, cowardly splendor. The film's whole storyline is about Jack trying to welsh on a debt and throwing everyone else into horrible peril, and getting plenty of peripheral characters horribly killed.

I'm not too sure why everyone is so up in arms about the ending. Obviously, it leaves you wanting more, but it's no more contrived than the ends of the first two "Lord of the Rings" movies or "The Empire Strikes Back."

I think the cannibal island scene was overly prolonged because it didn't advance the plot very much, and the film would have done better to flesh out the relationship between Jack and Davy Jones, and to generally better establish Jones. The reasoning behind the contents and the significance of the Dead Man's Chest is really sketchily drawn, and it should have been given more time. This is a major new character's primary motivation, not just a MacGuffin to justify the action like the Rabbit's Foot in "M:I3." We need to know more about this character, other than that his girlfriend messed him over a few hundred years ago. For example, why does he have a squid for a head?

Compared to the Geoffrey Rush's virtuoso scene establishing Barbossa and his crew in Pirates 1 ("You better start believin' in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You're in one."), Davy gets the short shrift. This makes it hard for Nighy, who is a fine actor working behind lots of CGI calamari, to ever really establish the character. It seems like there should be a LOTR-style extended version of the movie to balance this out, so I guess I disagree with those who say that the film is overlong. I did not think that the set pieces were excessive, but a bit more thematic and plot development would have been appreciated. There are points where it almost seems like they cut whole scenes and replaced then with expository monologues.

That said, Stellan Skaarsgard had his work cut out for him trying to play pathos opposite Orlando Bloom, who kind of reads blank. Bloom was well-cast as Legolas, because his blankness came across as the otherworldliness of the elves in "Rings," and he worked in "Elizabethtown," because his demeanor seemed appropriate for someone who had been shocked by sudden and tremendous loss. As a romantic lead, though, he is leaden, and he's not a great foil for these father-son themes. Paired with Liam Neeson, in "Kingdom of Heaven," and Skaarsgard in this, Orlando just falls flat, and the heroic efforts of his estimable co-stars can't revive the scenes. But his stiffness does work opposite Depp as Sparrow, so he's the right guy for this part though the Bootstrap Bill story thread seems wrong for this movie.

I didn't feel that the movie was terribly overlong or excessive on the set pieces. In fact, compared to the emptiness of Superman and the mess that was X-Men 3, I thought this was superlative.

And, in fact there seems to even be a rather interesting theme about the fluidity of morality, or, emphasized with a joke where one character guesses that man's primary preoccupation is the "dichotomy of good and evil." The bad men in these movies always turn out to be a bit more honorable, and the good guys turn out to be a bit more treacherous than anyone expects. The villains have that scenery chewing snarl, but at the same time, they have tragic qualities that makes them identifiable.

Verbinski and his writers have the courage not to make the heroes totally identifiable and the villains not totally reprehensible, even though the conventional wisdom seems to be that such ambiguity would disasterously confuse a mainstream audience. By allowing that extra complexity, they permit the characters to provide ballast for the set pieces. This keeps the set pieces from looking like something out of a video game. "Pirates" does right what "King Kong" did right, and what the "Star Wars" and "Matrix" sequels did wrong.

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