Monthly Archives: July 2006
America loves its pirates, plain and simple. We as a nation are infatuated with the characters and the high-seas adventure of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. We?re starving for more, and when the first in a two-part sequel was released it only became one of the biggest movies of all time. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has shattered box-office records, rolling up $100 million in two days and a record $135 million weekend gross, easily surpassing former champ Spider-Man‘s supposedly invincible $118 weekend tally. America loves its pirates more than Spiderman, Star Wars, and who knows, maybe even Jesus. After all, Dead Man’s Chest did just kick out The Passion of the Christ from the top ten all-time grossers. Mel Gibson sure has a lot of grief at this moment.
Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is a wanted man on the high seas. The East India Company, whose emissary now controls the Caribbean town of Port Royal, is after Jack and his special compass. But Captain Jack has bigger fish to fry. Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), ruler of the seas, wants what was promised to him: Jack’s soul. Jack made a bargain with the sea creature and now his time is running out. He must assemble a crew and track down the whereabouts of a buried chest. Inside this chest is the still-beating heart of Davey Jones, and he who controls the heart controls Jones, and thus the seas. That is why the East India Company is so interested in Jack. They’ve made an arrangement with groomis interuptis Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who had his wedding hijacked and his bride (Keira Knightley) locked away. If he can retrieve Jack’s compass, then he and Elizabeth will be pardoned for aiding and abetting a known pirate. Will and Elizabeth each set off to find Jack Sparrow and to gain their freedom.
The filmmakers have taken notes in the school of sequels from The Empire Strikes Back. Like the second Star Wars chapter, we’re left with the heroes separated and licking their wounds, evil appears to have the upper hand, and the lives of some beloved characters are left in doubt. Just as long as there’s no Ewoks, Disney has guaranteed my place in line on opening day 2007 for Pirates 3.
It?s hard to fully judge this Pirates sequel because it’s part one of a two-part story. I’m holding out my final say, especially if this movie just turns out to be an expensive 150-minute teaser trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean 3. I can?t fully judge many story and character arcs because we don?t know where movie #3 will carry them. Maybe it’ll end up being like the middling Matrix sequels, where subplots and characters were dropped as if the Wachowski brothers had screenwriting butterfingers (it’s a film critic’s unwritten duty to deride the Matrix sequels at any chance). At least this movie ends with a jolt that I did not see coming.
Most surprisingly, Dead Man’s Chest suffers little from the creative deadlock of sequels. Dead Man’s Chest is more a sci-fi monster fantasy than a swashbuckler. The supernatural edge has swallowed the series whole. Take for example Jack’s broken compass. What once was an oddity befitting its owner is now seen as another element of magic. Some of the interest seems lost if things are simply explained away as being magical. The story, unlike the Matrix sequels (See: above), expands and enriches its universe. Some leftovers from the first film made me cringe. I thought we were headed for a bad track, where the movie uses the audience’s memory as a cheap storytelling device. Familiar characters might pop up every which way, smiling, and saying, “Hey ho, remember me?” Miraculously, the leftovers are integrated so well with the new tale that they really do matter and don’t come across as cheap shortcuts. Norrington (Jack Davenport) and the two comic relief cursed pirates are all smartly woven back into the troupe, and each impacts the story in a non-obtrusive manner. Even the undead monkey is used well.
I made it a point to keep my expectations in check for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It would be naive to think that you could catch lightning in a bottle again. Yes, now with audience expectation we lose the originality and unpredictability that made the first Pirates adventure so joyously delicious. And yet I found myself getting riled up just the same and being whisked away by spirited entertainment. My expectations may have been tempered for Dead Man’s Chest but I still greatly enjoyed the ride. It seems that my opinion sharply differs from my overly negative critical colleagues; my own sister said Pirates 2 was one of the worst movies she’s ever seen. That seems a bit rash. She hasn’t even seen any Uwe Boll movies.
There are moments that seem to stretch the credibility of the story. It’s been said before that it’s not the impossible that bugs you but the improbable, and this holds true for Dead Man’s Chest. I’m able to believe Davey Jones and his creepy crawly crew, but I’m not able to believe that Elizabeth Swan could single-handedly best them all at once in sword fighting. The movie becomes dangerously close to eye-rolls in parts, but generally steers clear of moments that rip you out of the story. Of course a Pirates film would be nothing without Johnny Depp. He’s the main reason the first film was so memorably embraceable and entertaining. It?s not every day someone gets nominated for a Best Actor Oscar playing an addled, swishy comic pirate. He’s truly the star and has been one of our finest actors long before he had any box-office clout. He’s created a character so beloved that he’s crossed over into the cultural lexicon. How many Jack Sparrow outfits do you see come Halloween? I had a friend directing a high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and every young actor wanted to audition as Captain Jack interpreting Shakespeare. Come to think of it, Jack Sparrow would certainly liven up some of the bard’s dusty works.
Depp is still hilarious and likeable even when he’s being a scoundrel. We simply love this character; I love this character. The unpredictable nature of Jack feels squeezed dry by the demands for familiarity with sequels, but Depp finds new ways to enthrall in Dead Man’s Chest. Some people are going to be uncomfortable with Jack being more dastardly, willing to trade others’ lives to save his own hide. I think desperation is an interesting place to put this character. Besides he has his big hero moments as well.
New dimensions are added to the other characters. Knightley gets to be shrewd and try her hand at pragmatic treachery. It eats her up inside at the end and Knightley, a nice comedic actress, allows us to see the rough seas of guilt within her. Bloom will always be Bloom, meaning he’ll be handsome, British, and seemingly too little for grownup movie stuff. Will is given a whole new set of daddy issues when he actually gets to spend time with dear departed dad (Stellan Skarsgard). Best of the rest (“the rest” being everyone other than Depp) is an unrecognizable Nighy, who saunters his deck with the fiery air of a preacher. Nighy manages to make Davey Jones even more interesting. Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) makes her presence felt as a witchy woman responsible for Jack’s compass.
The action sequences are gigantic and well constructed. They expand with organic complications and a lively, graceful sense of humor. An already fun sword fight atop a watermill wheel gets even more pleasing when the giant wheel breaks free and the fight continues. Three characters climb inside and out, all vying for a key that keeps changing hands thanks to gravity. A human-sized fruit-kabob tied to Jack has a wonderful payoff for something that seemed completely random. The special effects are gorgeous. You can practically taste the slime and sea salt from the creatures. Davey Jones is a fantastic design and I’m dying to know how they did his tentacle beard. Whether it be motion capture, CGI, or puppetry (was someone billed in the credits for “operating” Bill Nighy? Does that sound like a fluffer?), it’s all dazzling to behold. The Kraken is ferocious and so well designed that it’s destined to give an entire nation?s children nightmares for weeks. Coupled with the equally super expensive Superman Returns, it seems that nowadays if you want special effects that will retain their wow-factor, it helps to have a $200 million dollar budget. Director Gore Verbinsky has a terrific eye for shot compositions; I am convinced that if you give this man good material then he will give you popcorn gold. If you give him bad material, well, then you get shiny but pointless stuff like The Weather Man.
I know this movie, at its center, is empty. It’s grand throwaway entertainment, a true popcorn romp, but yes, when you get down to it the film has little to it. It’s an explosion for the eyes and has some great characters and action choreography, but Dead Man’s Chest is nothing more than very pricey, very tasty cotton candy.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest feels less like a rehash and more like the start of an exciting new voyage. It’s darker, bigger in scale, scarier, louder, brasher, but still barrels of fun. Time will tell whether the back-to-back sequels will support enough intrigue to cover two very long, very expensive action movies. But Dead Man’s Chest has the key Pirates ingredients returning: clever screenwriting duo Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, and, naturally, the irreplaceable Johnny Depp. An early eye gouging might set the icky tone, but this is one sequel that compares favorably to its source. We’re left in a very Empire Strikes Back position, but not after running out of breath keeping up with the many treasures of Dead Man’s Chest. Nothing will recapture the magic of the 2003 original but this is one summer sequel that delivers without letdown. Then again, after Pirates 3, it could all be for naught. See you in 2007!
Nate?s Grade: B+*
*Final grade pending the outcome of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.
UPDATE: Having just seen the third film, I’m somewhat conflicted. Many items from Dead Man’s Chest have little payoff in the third film, At World’s End. So while I wouldn’t grade Dead Man’s Chest any higher after seeing where it concludes, I still find it to be too fun to rate any lower. Its final grade stands.
Writer/director/twist-abuser M. Night Shyamalan must have been smarting from the cool reception to his last high-concept thriller, 2004’s The Village. Shyamalan has built a reputation for smart, eerie, complex movies, as well as forced twists and endings that leave the films in shambles. He went back to basics. Lady in Water started as an ongoing story he told his kids at bedtime. His kids participated in the creation of the story. If we didn’t learn from last year’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl, movies where children helped shape the story should be left as bedtime stories. Lady in Water is further proof of this.
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the fix-it man at an apartment complex. Someone?s been swimming in the pool late at night and clogging up the filter. The unexpected culprit is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a waif of a girl. She says she is a “narf,” a sea nymph who’s crossed from her world, the Blue World, to ours. Her purpose is to plant the seed of change by finding a special individual. When her mission is complete a giant eagle will carry her back to her world. Cleveland accepts being her guardian and protector and assists her on her quest. He mingles with the apartment complex’s eclectic residents, trying to figure out who fits what role to help Story. There is one hairy problem. A scrunt, a wolf-like beast with twigs and long grass for fur, is after Story. An evil monkey creature is overseeing the whole weird affair.
Early on, Lady in Water was advertised as “a bedtime story by M. Night Shyamalan,” and just like your typical bedtime story, the thing feels entirely made up on the spot. The story sounds like a little kid making up a book report: “There’s this grass wolf, see, and it’s after this sea lady, and there’s these evil monkeys that oversee everything, and an eagle carries her away when she’s done, but she’s like the unknown Queen of the sea ladies, and she has helpers but can’t say who they are, and they all have special abilities, except some of them can only do stuff, and no one can see her leave.” What? Was Dio an unaccredited co-writer for this? Lady in Water feels like Shyamalan is haphazardly throwing spontaneous obstacles and rules into his story, hoping something sticks when it just muddies up the story.
Naturally, there are many unanswered questions brought about by the supernatural subject matter. Why is it an eagle that plucks Story away to safety when she?s fulfilled her mission? Wasn’t part of the schism between man and the Blue World because man moved to land? Wouldn’t something aquatic make more sense to rescue her? What about the entirely unnecessary evil monkey judge? Why is it even there? Why does it just sit there idly if the scrunt breaks the rules (and if the scrunt is a rule-breaker then why not just bust inside Cleveland’s home and eat the chick)? For that matter, if the monkey judge is so evil then why does it even respect the rules? Why don?t the evil monkey judges side with the already evil scrunts? Why do the scrunts hate the narfs so? Who established these systems of rules for narf contact and scrunt hunting? Do the monkey judges allow the narfs to get killed as long as it’s during the right time? Is it like a boxing match (“Touch gloves, to your corners, and no biting after the bell”)? And of course everyone believes this tripe. Shyamalan could fall back on the excuse that his tale is a bedtime story and not meant for extensive examination. Sure, not everything needs to be explained but that doesn’t mean Shyamalan can get away with being lazy.
There’s no finesse in the writing. Shyamalan seems to have taken his frustration with the dwindling critical reception of his works hard. The movie critic character, Mr. Farber (a droll Bob Balaban) is one of two items, either the embodiment of his ire, a figure out of touch with human emotion and the public’s trust, or Shyamalan making a preemptive strike. The critic complains there are no more original stories left in Hollywood; well, Mr. Smarty Pants, what do you think of a tale of narfs and scrunts? The problem is that the film critic is not unlikable, just cynical, and despite how dismissive Shyamalan may wish to be, the critic’s complaints and observations about the film industry are solid. In Lady in Water, characters do speak their feelings so casually. People explain back-stories and motivations like it was written on foreheads. The critic character is so inconsequential as well, so the notion that Shyamalan spends so much energy on him makes it feel like a score being settled.
What?s more irritating is how self-involved the movie comes across. The whole purpose of Story’s venture to our world is to inspire a gifted writer, a writer whose work will be seen as unchecked genius that will cause great change throughout the world. Nations will renounce war, men and women will greet each other as brother and sister, and the world will be a profoundly better place to live, all thanks to one artistic genius that changed the world. And who plays this artistic genius lying in wait? M. Night Shyamalan. In conjunction with the critic character, perhaps Shyamalan is proclaiming that his movies will stand the test of time, despite what those fuddy-duddies at their typewriters say. Lady in Water is either an intense example of artistic insecurity or an unflappable, monstrous ego.
Shyamalan is too gifted a filmmaker to make outright bad movies. However, he is prone to making very misguided choices. The addition of the monkey judge just mucks things up and more unanswerable questions. Are the monkeys like the regional overseer? Is there a tri-state office run by a giraffe with twigs on its head? Shyamalan’s plot is too formless and relies on some garish ethnic stereotypes, like the nattering Jewess and the screechy, rail-thin Korean teen. His sense of direction takes a back seat to his writing. Many moments are filmed out of focus, or the camera bounces around trying to capture whoever?s talking, always seemingly just out of reach. His visual aesthetic feels noticeably simpler. There’s a certain unapologetic yearning in Lady in Water to be a Steven Spielberg film, from the John Williams-like score, to the assembly of characters wanting to believe again, to the heaping helping of schmaltz. Lady in Water is proficiently crafted (special thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle) but the movie is an unmistakable artistic misfire.
Giamatti is a dependable sad sack, and he deploys an array of stutters and tics to convey how damaged Cleveland Heep is. He’s good but then he always is, no matter how stupendously awful his material may be (he did survive Big Momma’s House). Howard is one of the more beguiling and intriguing young actors in the movies right now. She bewitched me in The Village, but in Lady in Water she befuddled me. It’s hard acting as a made-up creature. Howard relies on lots of vacant, supposedly, ethereal staring. She comes across as less supernatural and more like a club kid on ecstasy.
Lady in Water is not an unmitigated disaster but it’s definitely not good by any stretch of the imagination. M. Night Shyamalan seems to fray with every new movie, and Lady in Water is by far the man?s most ridiculous and self-involved flick. He’s too great of a talent to write off, even during his misfires, but we can’t be expected to iron out his narrative kinks every time. Shyamalan’s films generally center on broken people looking for their place in the universe and finding a grander plan for their pain. Hopefully, after the birth pain of Lady in Water, Shyamalan can find his place in the artistic landscape and spare us more half-baked bedtime stories.
Nate’s Grade: C-
One part fantasy, one part incisive satire on the fashion industry, The Devil Wears Prada, on paper, may not be more than another formulaic entry where a young innocent gets caught up in the temptations of power and influence. I know little about the fashion industry other than what I can gleam from TV’s insanely watchable Project Runway and even I was charmed. Andrea (Anne Hathaway) is an idealistic journalism student paying the bills working as the assistant to Runway magazine’s ferocious editor in chief, Miranda (Meryl Streep). Andrea’s plain style of dress draws sneers and snickers from her rail-thin, nose-raising colleagues, and some smart snark from Miranda, who always seems to eviscerate people without raising the timber of her voice. The movie is typical with its rise-and-fall power structure, but even though it may be lightweight, The Devil Wears Prada is lots of fluffy fun, and all signs of life point to Streep. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that you’ll get a worthy Streep performance, but she’s totally unleashed in The Devil Wears Prada. Every time she sweeps into a scene she commands attention and steals the movie. We’re all just living in this woman’s world on borrowed time, and she knows it. Streep is in grand comedic form, dominating the movie with glares; just an inching of her facial expression can cause titters. It’s a juicy role and, mark my words, the most Oscar-nominated actress in history is going to get another nom for this performance. Hathaway proves to hold her own as well beyond those dark doe-eyes and cherry stem lips. The movie starts to drag in a third act trip to Paris, and Andrea’s empathy seems to get a bit out of tune (she feels worse about being better at her job than a co-worker than missing her boyfriend’s birthday). The Devil Wears Prada is an enjoyable, easily digestible piece of high-gloss fluff elevated by Streep’s dominating turn as a fashion lioness.
Nate’s Grade: B