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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Beowulf & Grendel: A Love Story?

If I were to say "I went to see Beowulf and Grendel tonight, and it was weird," many might find that to be a tautology, or redundant, or tautologically redundant. When I further add that it was a Canadian-UK-Icelandic co-production, the mead hall would surely ring with a resounding chorus of "DUH!" And yet, it was not weird in the ways that you might think it would be

Uh . . . spoilers? No, really. In addition to the 1500-year-old spoilers, there are spoilers for this specific adaptation below.

Superficially, it's a pretty straight in-period (for Lasnerian values of "period," and with something passed down orally for who knows how long before being committed to text, that's pretty damned Lasnerian) retelling in modern English. Geats? Check. Danes? Check. Monster? You betcha. Mommy Monster? Indeed. Plus, there's mead, there's meat, there's smelly fur and no silverware. Men are men and women know that Martha Stewart knows jack about hand-cut prosciutto.

Quite a sensible deviation from the poem is axing the second act entirely. No one wants to watch Beowulf become some kind of reject from a Springsteen song, old, fat, and hardly welcome even at his local. No one cares about the dragon, anonymous balladeer, and sequels are dangerous territory. So I'm nodding my head emphatically with the decision to live up to the title: This is about Beowulf & Grendel (and Grendel's Dam, but chycks were rarely seen above the title in 500 AD).

And I suppose you've got to have a love story? I don't know. I think probably if your movie-going crowd is up for a bit of fur-clad Icelandic enjoyment of a Friday night, they can probably do without the hooters. If not they're welcome to freak freely over Wealhtheow and her legendery "hospitality."

But if you do have to cave and introduce a romantic foil into the mix, why make her a vaguely punk pagan with a North American accent who is orphaned, made a whore in her parentless state, then driven out because some old fucker dies in her bed? (Talk about Every!Woman, 500 AD edition.) And if she MUST be a vaguely punk pagan, etc., etc., do you really have to have her be pathetically grateful that Grendel covers her with a blanket after he stops by for a bit of inexplicable, nonconsensual sex (and, as it happens, super-protamine-powered sex)? And if she must be pathetically grateful for the postboink blanket, does she then have to have a continued soft spot for Grendel because they share a kid? Ok, to be fair, Grendel's other fine qualities include "never [taking her] again" and "keeping away the Danes who who would fuck [her] and slit [her] throat." (I kind of wish I was making that up, even though it [the kid part] is not actually as bad as it sounds.)

The other big addition to the cast of thousands is "Father Brendan," an epileptic (at best, bug-fucking crazy, at worst) Christian Celt who stumbles around warning the Danes that their gods won't protect them. He's less problematic than Selma (punk-pagan mother and Grendel apologist), and the more explicit mixture of mainstream Norse paganism (it's unclear what kind of paganism it is that Selma practices) has its interesting moments. For example, at the end as the Geats sail away into the not-to-be-filmed sequel, the balladeer among them adds in the detail that Grendel is descended from Cain, leading to some amusing "How's that? Who shot whose brother in the what now?" from others in the crew.

Also interesting, if kind of a cop out, is the fact that Brendan attributes the fact that he survives several of Grendel's more murderous walkabouts to the Big G, but they kill off another disabled-to-the-point-of-shamanistic-goodness wandering Crazy!Christian just to show that the REAL reason Grendel has no interest in Brendan is that Brendan has never wronged him. I suppose it's ballsy and unusual to suggest that all the religious options are equally bogus and empty, but that is undermined by the overarching message that all the violence is about personal vendettas ans foolish violation of the region-wide pact of mutual nonaggression.

In skimming the text of the ballad itself this morning, I'm reminded that Grendel really brings the petty in the original. I'm not used to thinking of him that way, as John Gardner's novel Grendel is my more recent exposure to the character, and it's been a long while since I've read that. (As an aside, if anyone sees Goldenthal's opera based on the novel being mounted anywhere that isn't HellA, lemme know. I'm in serious opera withdrawl.) But I have to admit, Grendel pretty seriously brings the petty (I mean, getting rampagey because the Danes have beer and you don't? Understandable, maybe, but killing 200 in response seems the teensiest bit twitchy) in the poem, giving the filmmakers a task to make him more sympathetic.

To unstack the deck against Grendel, the filmmakers introduce two additional plot elements and deploy a manly man ethos with garnish of "ethnic conflicts are hopeless." First of all, Grendel is not nearly as monstrous as the ballad makes him out to be---he's a "troll." In this case, being a troll involves being hairy (starting in early childhood), very muscular, and having wookie legs from the knee down. There are also some spurious facial prosthetics that had me worried that they were going in a Clan of the Cave Bear direction (i.e., Neanderthals vs. Cro Magnon in a stone cave death match), in which case I would definitely have had to slap some bitches. As it is, Grendel has only some kind of rudimentary grunting language (which Selma, conveniently, speaks fluently), which stands in for Beowulf's determination (in the original poem) to fight the bare handed so as not to give himself a cultural advantage over the uncultured savage.

Leaving aside the general interethnic human-troll conflict for a moment, the filmmakers have also given Grendel a very specific beef with the Danes. As a goat-bearded, angelically blonde troll child, Grendel witnessed his father's death at the hands of Hrothgar and his men (we later learn that they hunted him down for the heinous crime of "crossing [their] path and taking a fish"---for some reason, Beowulf does not deliver the much-needed slap up Hrothgar's head when this information is provided long after they are hip deep in the skulls an innards of friends). Thus, Grendel's issue with Hrothgar is not the superiority of his mead and his endless supply of knock-knock jokes, but the fact that Hrothgar pulled a double-stupid by killing Grendel's sire and NOT killing Grendel when he had the chance. Then to make sure that the story retains its eternal struggle feel, Grendel's child with Selma is introduced (quite literally) 10 minutes before the end of the film, and Beowulf mercifully decides not to kill him. Proving that there's just no getting chycks, Selma tells Beowulf he's clearly learned nothing from Hrothgar. Sorry, dear, next time I'll hack your love child to pieces, 'kay?

Personally, I wouldn't have resorted to such substantive plot changes in spelunking for sympathy for Grendel. For me, the fact that they did is complicated by the opportunities within the text that they didn't handle so well. I don't mind that they literally humanized Grendel by making his species at least near-human, and I'm sympathetic to the point made by the Reader reviewer that this saves the filmmakers from a cash-flow problem and saves us all from CGI on the cheap.

But the cultural/acultural or civilized/savage dichotomy is such a natural element of the text to work with in illuminating why Grendel might do what he does (or why what he does is set down through oral and eventually written history in the way it is), and they really waffle there. They have baby-goat Grendel hack off his father's head, which, I think is meant to be a whacky cultural misunderstanding; that is., the idea of decapitation is appalling to the Western audience---particularly at the moment---but it turns out that this is Grendel's death ritual. It is his way of mourning and venerating his father, but it's also serves as his Inigo Montoya scars---Grendel is not going to be anyone's Hamlet.

But the filmmakers seem to be at a loss regarding Grendular exposition. We hear a lot about him from Selma, and personally, I wish we hadn't. I suppose when one is used to drunk Danes showing up and forcing a fuck, a troll showing up for the same purpose at least stands out from the background (plus, the blanket of "he's just misunderstood, my love can fix him"), but ew. When we see Grendel in expository scenes, we end up as frustrated as he. He has a tendency to bash himself bloody: Is this training for the ultimate confrontation with Hrothgar? Is it frustration with himself because he keeps forgetting to kill Hrothgar (when you dispense with the idea that Hrothgar's throne is protected by the big G, you do have a problem of Hamlet-y proportions there)? Is it because he really wants to direct?

In another apparently pointless scene, he's bowling for skulls with skulls. I think we all know that I have a much greater than average capacity to appreciate that visual---and me and my viscera did a sick little happy dance during it---but dude, wtf? Most of your audience is going to received that as pretty persuasive evidence that Grendel is without culture, without morality, and there's no reasoning with him. I couldn't figure out why the scene was there at all, particularly given the central role that Grendel's father's disembodied head plays in driving the action (uh, not in a Futurama way, but that would be cool, too).

On the flipside of these weird scenes that show Grendel on the culture fence, Beowulf seems to think that Grendel has, not just an ethos, but an ethos that Beowulf understands and shares: Don't fuck with me, and I won't fuck with you. Throughout the film, Beowulf sets himself apart from both his own men and the Danes by persistently trying to understand Grendel's actions. He notes that, troll he may be, he adheres to the manly code---he doesn't kill women and children (though Hrothgar notes they'll die anyway without their men, and Selma is an ambulatory reminder of the grim fate to which Patches and Poor Violet are doomed in this story), he leaves the crazy priest alone, and he has no taste for Geat flesh until the Geats insist on scentmarking his 'hood and smashing up dear old dad.

Perhaps this is my baggage, courtesy of current events and my current dissertational ethnicity obsession, but during these conversations, there's a strong **cough**solution to 'ethnic conflict' in the middle east and elsewhere**cough vibe. It's appallingly simplistic and wrong headed in a number of ways. And even if one takes this policy at face value, I feel certain that the 200 slaughtered Danes might be a bit miffed and like an explanation as to why Hrothgar is still boozing and queening it up (again, without the literal Deux Ex Machina of the one, true God). In any case, I guess I'm just doomed by my internal reproductive organs to have a certain distaste for the vicious cycle of such a manly moral code.

But even my pretty hard core dissatisfaction with some of the plot elements and much of the apparent philosophical orientation of the film, there's a lot that's good and enjoyable in the film. After my last outing with Gerard Butler, I was extremely wary, but he's an excellent Beowulf. Everything about him sets him apart as a leader of men. In fact, I'd argue that they didn't need to go to the trouble of making him cleaner and giving him a more "Jesus-y" look as the film goes on. On body language alone, he stands out.

In contrast to Grendel, most of the plot changes they decided on for Beowulf are to the good. In the poem, the Danes are subjects of the Geats and Beowulf's arrival has a bit of "noblesse oblige" to it. Here, the class and power differentials are levelled. In fact, there's a scene before Beowulf arrives in Daneland in which Beowulf's king wishes that he was as beloved as Hrothgar. This makes Beowulf a more accessible, if highly skilled and charismatic, regular guy and less of the supernatural hero. (Of course, it's worth mentioning that Selma's entire storyline hinges on the future being predestined, which kind of undermines the suspense of a more human Beowulf.)

That social levelling also allows the audience to view the fact that the times, they are a-changin' through Beowulf's eyes. As a future leader of his people, you get the sense that all the interethnic shennigans weigh upon him, and he sees some pretty bad shit on the horizon. A more equal relationshp with Hrothgar also allows Hrothgar to challenge Beowulf's take on the Danes' conversion to Christianity. Beowulf says the "swim" out of fear, but Hrothgar points out that at least they're still swimming.

Stellan Skarsgaard is also a highly appealing Hrothgar. On the one hand, he's a sad old drunk who can't cope with his own troll problems. On the other hand, he became a sad old drunk out of genuine grief for the lost and multilayered guilt (over killing Grendel's sire in the first place and his own "weakness" [or mercy, as Beowulf points out] in not killing the child when he had a chance) regarding his role in it all. He rises to the occasion from time to time, but ultimately, his simple-minded foreign policy is the undoing of the Danes. (Yes, let's pause and reflect that Beowulf's Machiavelli and Sun Tzu for Dummies approach represents unprecedented nuance.)

You might have gotten the impression that I'm not entirely happy with the gender politics in this version. Truthfully, I wish they'd just left the chycks out of things entirely. Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir (why, yes, that was a cut and paste, why do you ask?) is---visually impressive---as Wealhtheow, but she's got precious little to do. One gets the feeling that her scene with Selma was inserted to give her more screen time, but like Grendel's expository scenes, it's disjointed and pointless. Grendel's dam is practically a nonentity (in fact, she's credited as the Sea Hag and looks like a female Wraith from Stargate: Atlantis). I think that Sarah Polley is actively bad (or, rather, passively bad---she is unnervingly affectless throughout the movie), but I could be convinced that the director simply had no idea why Selma was there at all, resulting a hopelessly botched performance.

But however problematic the women are, the rest of the supporting cast is quite good. Breca (Rory McCann) and Unferth (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) met my 15-year-old mental pictures of them perfectly. Tony Curran, who is given very little to do right up until the point that he completely dooms himself, really pulls out the stops in that scene as Hondscioh.

There are also directorial kudos to be given, even if I personally might give more pinches on balance. Certainly the Icelandic landscape is stunning, and Sturla Gunnarsson makes the most of it. There are also some artfully placed shots that play around with perspective to good advantage---Beowulf's silhouetted figure appears literally larger than life as he stands and dwarfs a building in the background. Grendel, for as massive as he is, often has a childlike lightness to his movements. And (you knew I'd have to comment), the movie gives great severed head and highly realistic severed head reaction to the laws of physics. SHUT UP, IT'S IMPORTANT.

The Telecommuniculturey executive summary: Weird (but not Bergman weird, M would have me note), but compelling in some ways. Worth a rental, at least.

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Friday, July 21, 2006


This entry has only a dubious place on a cultural blog, but it's partly a follow-up to my Grand Day Out with my nerdlinger nephew. To complicate things further, I'm going to screw up at least half of this story, because the interesting half is not mine, it's the lovely A's.

The lovely A has an uncle by marriage who is most decidedly a Character. He has a passion for collecting all kinds of things (e.g., ceramic insulators from railways) and will no doubt turn up as a small-town amazing story some day. But he's also downright Victorian about maintaining an organized collection of his personal correspondence.

This worked to A's advantage during college. She was taking a Tolstoy class from Edward Wasiolek who declared on the first day, "War and Peace is not a 'good book.' Pride and Prejudice is a 'good book,' but one simply does not mention it in the same breath as War and Peace." Through a series of Dickensian coincidences she learned that her uncle had, at some point, corresponded with Wasiolek. I can't recall why, but I have my theory that he's working through every phonebook in the US backwards, because the man gets around, correspondently speaking.

The pretext for the correspondence is not particularly important; the content's the thing. In a letter, Wasiolek revealed that, in his opinion, War and Peace was not the greatest novel ever written. In fact, his pick for greatest novel was not even by Tolstoy (no, I don't remember what it was). A never did get to leverage this information in any meaningful way, but there's still a certain satsifcation that comes with being able to sit in class and fix a model of pomposity with a stare that says, "I know you read V. C. Andrews in the dead of night, bitch."

For J, the equally lovely mother of the lovely A, the uncle's OCD about his correspondence didn't work out so well. She received an urgent phone call in the middle of the night (she lives in Reading, England, he, I believe, in Louisville, KY) from him. He was quite agitated and, naturally, she thought there was some kind of family emergency. There was, he insisted: For some reason (he suspected a fiendish plot), he simply could not find his copies of several letters that he had written to her in the early 1960s. Obviously the only solution to this problem was for her to forward the originals immediately. When she apologetically revealed that it was unlikely in the extreme that she no longer had them . . . well, it wasn't pretty.

The physical letter has all but died in my lifetime, and it's one of those things that I should have appreciated more during the death-rattle phase. I liked writing letters, and I loved receiving them. When my sister went away to college, I would write to her in my sporadic, 10-year-old way. Some weeks she might get three letters from me. Other times, a month might pass and she'd find that all her letters went unanswered. In retrospect that was an early sign of my hopeless sloth with regard to writing. She was always quick to tell me how not only she but everyone in her suite laughed uproariously at my funny letters, but even praise from the big kids couldn't get my pen consistently moving.

Around the same time, I was fascinated with the UK (thank you, Duran Duran and Wham! for opening my eyes to the world beyond the midwest), and my friend G and I signed up to get British pen pals. Mine was named Simone, and although I recall her lettters being remarkably dull, it was still a thrill to pull the mail down from the slot and see a neat, oddly sized envelope with the blue "par avion" sticker next to my name.

Of course, there were always notes to write in school. Whether anything worthy of being committed to paper was going on or not, one had an obligation. Through the end of grammar school and much of high school, I found myself frequently on the short end of the note stick. D, my geographically convenient "best friend" showed a remarkable resistance to any instruction in the use of the English language and she had little to say, and here was I, honor bound by the arcane codes of the pre-adolescent to be sure that the highest volume of notes flew back and forth between us.

G, in contrast, was a great note-exchange partner. She was frequently good for a collaborative short story that we'd shunt back and forth before we lost interest. Even when we weren't working on the great American novel (starring us and as many of the Taylors as we could cram in), we'd talk about music, videos, books, movies, and so on. The downside to correspondence with G was her mood swings. She had an intuitive grasp of the complex rules for preteen friendships and a draconian system for determining who was on or off the friend list on a given day. I lived to see many of my literary children dramatically shredded before my very eyes as part of the shunning, something for which I am deeply grateful in retrospect.

Overlapping with the tail end of the G Letters was my correspondence with D. I believe I still have---somewhere in one of my sealed boxes of stuff from before I became Me---the spiral notebook, bulging with additional materials, containing our story of Dr. Ditto and the Denizens of the Happyvale Home for the Hopelessly Helpless, a masterwork constructed over more than 2 years, but sadly never completed. The material from that period was much weirder than the Mary Sue stuff penned alongside G. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it was also much raunchier, at least by teenage standards. D claimed to have had extensive and strange sexual experiences pretty early on. To this day, I couldn't tell you how much of it was real and how much bullshit. She was an odd character.

In high school, the usual note conduits continued, although the pace of exchange between pairs changed imperceptibly over time. One "highlight," if you can call it that, during high school was the development of the rebus notes that my friend B and I used to exchange on Fridays. Given that I have a black hole in my brain where artistic ability should be, I can't imagine why this was fun for me, but I have quite fond memories of it.

By the end of high school, my darker, more serious notes were primarily reserved for M (no, really), who was one of my most important "chosen" high school friends (as opposed to those who were predestined friends by geography). Oh, we were very deep and angst-filled indeed. Our ideal situation would have been to have tortured romances with guys who were friends with one another. We tried hard to make that happen, but we were hampered by the fact that the die for my tortured romance had been cast long before then, and all his friends were---well---losers, many of them of the dangerous-in-an-uninteresting-way kind. But amidst the relationship and angst dross, there was good stuff in that correspondence.

We were both groping our way toward something resembling musical taste and examining why that was necessary at such a late date. My excuse was two older sisters who came of age in the '70s and parents who missed The Sixties entirely. End result: My options were Roger Whittaker or the Bee Gees, Helen Reddy or Shaun Cassidy. That ain't no way to treat a lady, let me tell you. M was the second child of two Irish immigrants and to stereotype rampantly for a moment, if you couldn't cry into your beer over it or bash in someone's head to the driving beat, it wasn't really music. So M and I discovered the Beatles (via The White Album, the only way to go) together along with the Stones (as well as The Chieftains, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Peter Gabriel, and a host of others).

The Stones led us to exploit the foolishly open-ended voting process by which the prom theme was decided upon. We simply nominated "Paint it Black" on the forms helpfully provided in each of the Senior homerooms. It not only won by a landslide, but I think only one other person nominated something else. (An extremely dull, humorless individual with the initials KR, if memory serves, who once wrote a review of Ferris Bueller's Day Off criticizing it for its implausible plot.) I can't remember what it was, but it's possible that those foolish enough to attend Senior Prom wound up with a Anne Murray theme. The Before Me boxes remain sealed tight indefinitely, but I wonder how much of the M Files survived various purges.

I have in my possession one letter that I wrote the night before I left for college. It's addressed to the guy I was dating at the time, a fact that galls me beyond the telling of it. I never mailed it. I never even put it into an envelope. I guess I should maybe give myself some credit for recognizing that it should never have been addressed to him. It's the one piece of writing of my own that I have actually reread and managed to suppress the urge to tear it to shreds, burn the shreds, and bury the ashes at a crossroads. That's kind of odd, because in many ways it is the epitome of everything I hate about my own writing---pretentious sounding, bordering on melodramatic, etc. I guess I've saved it because I've built up a personal myth about how I really became Me the moment I set foot on U of C's campus, and that letter represents the crucial liminal moment. Maybe that's how A's uncle feels about every letter he's ever written.

It's hard to believe, but I was still writing letters up through much of college. The lovely A returned to England most summers, so phone calls weren't really feasible (and neither of us was much for talking on the phone anyway), so we wrote back and forth. Those letters I keep more accessible, being 9/10 joy and very little pain, and everytime I take them out, I laugh just as hard as I did the first time. But there were also college letters from my boyfriend, who lived in California and, over my first, horrible, interminable summer home, had gone to Spain. I think some or all of those survived the end of the relationship, which is remarkable, given my slash-and-burn policy, but destruction would have given the end a false sense of emotional impact that things just really didn't have by the drawn-out end.

Other things I've saved include the odd card or thank you note: One from my aunt for my college graduation in which she acknowledged that, despite being 20 minutes from my natal home, the distance to Hyde Park was incalculable; one from my little brother, thanking me for his wedding gift, which began: "6*** S. K**** [our childhood address] was created to test the faithful . . . ." But in general, I've lost most of my sentimentality about preserving every little thing I've received.

I don't know when I last wrote a real letter. Sadly, the closest I've probably come in recent years is sympathy cards. People tell me I'm good at sympathy cards. Statistically, I suppose we all have to be good at something, and that sounds about right for me. Oh, and on a much more cheerful note (heh, note), I've just remembered that somewhere in my office there should be a notebook with a letter I wrote to my brother the night after his accident, when we didn't know whether or not he'd wake up again.

Believe it or not, this entry started out as a story that, to me anyway, is funny. I guess I'll wrap things up with that part. Yesterday, I received a standard 9 x 12 envelope addressed in childish printing to yours truly. Inside was an oddly sized piece of stationery wrapped around a slip of paper that had obviously been trimmed down from a regular 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. It was---kind of---a thank you note from my nephew C for taking him to the Field Museum. I reproduce the note in its entirety, wholly without permission:

Hi Aunt [Matilda]!

I've wrote this letter for two reasons. One, I wanted to thank you for taking me to the museum of natural history! It was very fun! Two I wanted to argue against [two scratch outs] Paeleontologists (sic). I watched a video made in 2003. It said that big Theropods never lived at the same time as big Sauropods. for the exeption (sic) of theropod Giganotosauras and sauropod Argentinosuarus. But, Allosaurus is a big Theropod right? It's almost as big as T-rex. And Allosaurus lived long massive sauropods such as Apatosaurus, Brachiosaurus, and [scratch out, but please note that he embraces the serial comma, bless his buttons] Barosauras!

P.S. the grey numbers on the timeline [the slip of paper is a timeline of species] mean million years ago.

Kind of makes me feel like I ought to rise to the task of tending to and preserving such a correspondence.

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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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