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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Date with the Nicest Pirate in the World: PotC II, Dead Man's Chest

Back in January, it looked like we might be in Vegas when Dead Man's Chest came out. I immediately informed M and his brother that I was NOT seeing it with them, because I was not going to have a movie about which I was very excited fall victim to their movie-going karma. I can't recall ALL the movies they've seen together, but it starts with the original Transformers, and I'm pretty sure it includes Spawn, so you can see my point. As it happens, things got much worse than seeing it with the movie killers.

Spoilers follow.

Seeing it opening night was a no go. We don't, in general, do that with things that are likely to be completely packed and anyway, we had tickets to Side Show. The next day was The Folk and Roots Festival, and then M was in Vegas, then we were off to our Hippy House Party, and so on. Monday night was recovery night, which left last night---11 DAYS after it opened---as the first opportunity we had to see it. That's just wrong.

It's worth noting what a spoilerphobe I am. When Buffy was still running, particularly near the end, M would often hear an agitated wailing from the living room if a promo happened to come on and I couldn't get to the remote. He would dutifully run in and slay the dragon, because he's a very good boy. I also don't read book jackets or movie reviews until after I've read/seen them. Trailers are very much on the line, but they're unavoidable.

With a BIG movie like Pirates, spoilerphobia isn't a huge problem. Unless you're waiting 11 days to see it and you start hearing things like "mixed reviews" and "critics hate it." I'm enough of a smug, self-satisfied snot that I'm not unduly influenced by others' opinions, so I've got no problem liking things that others don't like. On the flip side, I'm not great at generating love for really stinky things, just because they happen to be part of a phenomenon that I've loved. So, in short, I WORRY.

After seeing it, it seemed pretty evident that criticisms were going to center around a fairly typical issue: emphasis of effects over story. I'll go ahead and grant that the text suffers somewhat in this, even though I must follow that up with my spouse's astute comment that you have to cut this slack, because it is almost literally The Empire Strikes Back (everyone has their separate things to do and we wind up with Jack Sparrow frozen in carbonite). That said, the plot is not terribly well set up, and they don't deal with some of the heavy lifting too well: Davy Jones allowing Jack to bargain for his own soul by providing 100 is not an especially clever way to leave Will behind on the Dutchman, leaving the others free to sail about.

The kraken and the "black spot," are especially badly handled. It's difficult to build up dread of the kraken when we don't understand its standing orders, how it knows how to carry them out, or its relationship to Davy Jones. I do think that this is a glaring instance of plot being sacrificed to the visual--- Gore Verbinski seemed intent on getting his money's worth out of the sequence of the Dutchman's crew being whipped as they turned the capstan-thingy to slam the water and call the kraken. That device makes no sense in tandem with the phlebotenum of the "spot."

All along I kept thinking that it was following Jack and his hairy palms, not the Pearl, and wondered when this might become relevant. As Jack rows away from the Pearl under attack, I thought they were going the "wacky misunderstanding" route---that Jack had actually made a decision to sacrifice himself for Will, Elizabeth, the crew, and---perhaps most of all---the Pearl, but that Elizabeth mistook this for his typical concern for his own hide. Thus, him showing up on the deck of the Pearl in a heroic pose was a let down (and believe you me, it hurts to describe Johnny Depp in a heroic, muscular-thigh-emphasizing pose as a let down).

Finally, my professional side needs to register a protest regarding the indigenes who want to make Jack their god by eating him up. I'm not sure what confused Yanomamo refugees are doing so far from Brazil and Venezuela or why they're sporting a handfull of elements from the Torres Straits circa 1904, but they should cut it out. I've got a hard enough time dispelling essentialist stereotypes without summer blockbusters. Also, their jewelry seems to be derived from a much more varied biosphere than is likely on a small Caribbean island. I'm just saying what everyone is thinking, ok?

More than some fumbles in terms of moving characters around the landscape of the film (and I certainly appreciate that that's quite a task in this period and geographical setting---it reminds me of Stargate episodes, actually, when I practically need Brian Blessed's "FRESH HORSES" board to keep track of where Teal'c is and how he winds up on the same ship as the rest of SG-1), there are some unfortunate expository problems. Dead Man's Chest takes for granted that we know our three main characters very well already, but it also assumes that the newly introduced characters can hitch a ride on their ample coattails. In some cases that works---Bootstrap Bill, after all, is more or less incarnate aspects of Will as he exists and Will as he might be.

But having displaced the Flying Dutchman from the Cape of Good Hope entirely and, for some reason, associated it with Davy Jones himself was even more bewildering without Cliff's Notes. In this case, maybe some of the fault does lie in my stars, not in the script, though. During the Jack/Boostrap Bill scene, I was trying to remember what I knew of Bill and whether or not Davy had come up in the first movie. By the time they were on to deferring judgment, 100 years before the mast, and the kraken, I was lost and unsure whether the captain of the Dutchman and Davy were one and the same or not. Likewise, despite my boundless empathy for the idea that Jack Sparrow has the capacity to stir extremely strong feelings, I didn't get whether Davy had a policy beef (once word gets out that you've gone soft, people start disobeying and it's nothing but work, work, work, all the time) with the good Captain or if it was something personal.

It also seemed as though they'd planted a weird potential plot seed in having Jack say that the Dutchman already has a captain, but I guess I was just seeing potential storyline in an insufficiently edited script. On a related note, M and I had differing opinions on the issue of the compass, and these could not be resolved with the information provided. M felt that the compass didn't work for Jack because his heart's desire, so to speak, is the Pearl itself. Thus, whenever he tried using it on board, it was simply responding, "You're soaking in it, bitch!" Tia Dalma's statements, if we can trust her, indicate that Jack is drunkenly staggering around a kind of moral crossroads, though, and his interactions with Elizabeth suggest that Dead Man's Chest has some of those moments that are shifting the die in midair. On the gripping hand, the inseparability of Jack and the Pearl would explain Elizabeth's wonky compass moment on the island in a way that allows for something more interesting than a simple love triangle among Elizabeth, Will, and Jack to be going on if she's really longing for a pirate's life for she.

My final beef with the text is the dialogue. It certainly lacked the consistent sparkle of the first movie, and most of the nods to the adult audience were too self-conscious (e.g., Jack's joke that his eyesight is still fine, despite the hairy palms). I do wonder, though, if there simply wasn't enough dialogue, as the movie is so visually oriented and focused on action. For me, that's not meant as a complaint, necessarily---this movie is much more explicitly an homage to Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood, and I'm down with the elements related to that (e.g., less dialogue overall and putting much of it in the mouths of exposition characters, like Gibbs). But it does mean that there are longer dry spells between the great, cutting dialogue and the clunkers reverberate for longer periods of time.

But although I've expended a fair amount of ink acknowledging the script problems, I can't say that I think it was as bad as many of the reviews have made it out to be. There are definite positives in characterization: The reintroduction of Norrington, for example, makes the landscape more interesting in a number of ways as he represents yet another view of morality, ambition, and class consciousness. And I'm as surprised as anyone to find that Will is turning out to be more interesting than any fresh-faced romantic lead in this kind of movie has any right to be. I can't tell if the casting director is a prophet and knew that Orlando Bloom was the ideal choice to play someone whose unwavering moral code can be really REALLY annoying and damnably inconvenient to more practical folks like Jack (and, as it seems, Elizabeth!) or if having cast Bloom made that character direction a natural choice. I'm seeing a lot of evidence of "Why would Will want to save Jack?" discussion on the intarwebs, and I have to say that Bloom did a shit hot job conveying Will's internal struggles in that last scene.

I always enjoy Jonathan Pryce, but I also have to give a nod to the ground they covered with him in a fairly limited role, here. I like the idea that he's hopelessly old guard and not especially admirable in a number of ways. His willingness to treat Will as disposable is a nice shorthand for his disdain for scabby proles, even supposedly honest ones, and the fact that he ultimately cleaves to Beckett for little reason other than an instinctive attraction to the upper class actually reminded me of the sole interesting thread in Conrad's Lord Jim. And his willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for Elizabeth, which could have come off as saccharine and typical patriarchy, is enriched by her emphatically making the inverse decision from a pretty dark place within her.

In terms of the new characters on the scene, Tia Dalma was both funnier and less painful than I thought she might be from the trailers. I was intrigued by Lord Beckett early on and would have liked to receive his newsletter if he had not been largely lost in more confusing plot elements later on. I've got quite the fascination with class politics in colonial contexts, so I'm willing to give that storyline a lot of latitude to play out, but expositing that through the hard-working, honest captain didn't especially work well.

It's particularly a disappointment that Bellamy's ship is such a plot cul de sac, because I think that some good gender issues, as well as some of Elizabeth's most interesting screen time, are spent there. I like the lack of sentimentality she evinces in using her own wedding dress (cf, Will's drippy dress sniffing [also? clothing sniffing is never not creepy]) to play on the sailors' superstitions and, for the most part, the ease with which she navigates the cliched man's world. That said, although I'm willing to cut Keira Knightley some breaks with regard to acting chops (she is, after all, still a freaking embryo), most of what was intriguing about Elizabeth in this film were the facts of things that happened to her, rather than the process. The mutual near-seduction scene on board the Pearl fell extremely flat from her side, though Johnny was giving it his all. Ahem. I need a moment.

I've covered some Davy issues above, but I've got a few more notes. I LOVE Bill Nighy and have to resist the temptation to assign everyone I know required Bill Nighy viewing. Therefore, I had a love-hate relationship with the Davy design. The CGI on his face was quite awesome where it could have been painful. Early on, I felt like we got a lot of facial emotion and body language that was very definitely Nighy, but that tapered off. Ultimately, though, my beef is that Davy as a villain is so much more one dimensional and plot devicey than was Barbarossa. I'm not saying that this was an Underworld waste of Bill Nighy, but more Nighy would've been good, and I although I appreciate the Waldorf and Statler asides by Pintel and Ragetti, I'd like to know more about his story.

As for this film as a supposedly empty visual extravaganza, even if I thought that were true (which I don't---it's rattles around a bit, especially compared with the first one, but I have seen the visually empty extravaganza and it has Lucas written all over it), one must admit that it's quite the Buffy!Bot of an empty visual extravaganza. The crew of the Dutchman has some excellently creepy and chilling folks and they fit nicely alongside more classically creepy Disney looks that give nods toward things like the Haunted Mansion, as well as the original PotC ride, of course. I think my kraken plot problems biased me against it and/or my childhood freakout fear from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may have interfered with my visual kraken love. Alternatively, maybe I'm just a sucker for up-close, character-driven magic. The kraken was good, but I was not blown away.

Some critics have mentioned that the emphasis on physical comedy is also a symptom of too much love for the visual to the point of neglect of the narrative. I'll admit that I can frequently be quite the physical comedy whore, but I don't think I'm overly forgiving about near total reliance on it. I can just as easily be turned off by those who rely exclusive on grotesque facial expressions (Jim Carrey, I'd be looking at you if you didn't make me vomit and want to claw your rubber face off). I think that the physical comedy was used pretty well overall and it fits naturally with a more definite move in the direction of '30s high-seas adventure movies. I'd also go further and say that, in some instances, it was used quite cleverly to allow for simultaneous character experience when it would not have otherwise been possible.

I'm surprised that I had this much to say about the movie (even if no one else is surprised by me having much to say [or at least thinking I do]). I walked out prepared to be satisfied with the fact that I laughed a lot and enjoyed most of the visuals, even if the plot and dialogue were unsatisfying. I'm pleased to find it a more filling meal than it seemed at first.

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Blogger tigtog said...

I Agree wth This POst and wOUld liKe to recieve yr NewSLetTer.

Seriously, thanks for the insight that this is nearly exactly The Empire Fights Back. I think they're setting up both Keira and Orlando for some pretty huge developments in #3, and hope that they both pull it off.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

Yeah, the ESB epiphany was a big one for me, too. I think there are still innate plot and dialogue problems, but that analogy reconciled me to the idea that some of my more serious objections don't really apply to the second movie in a trilogy.

1:32 PM  

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