Sunday, July 09, 2006

Avast Behind!

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Beware ye who read on - here there be spoilers.

"Jack's back" the campaign touted, and with good reason. Depp's Jack Sparrow was a major reason the pirate movie finally shed decades of bad reputation (Cutthroat Island literally sank its parent company) and sailed off with millions of the public's booty.

But there were other reasons, too, and they're more or less all here, too. Top of the list are writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. These guys are MASSIVELY important to the Pirates saga, and to modern Hollywood movies. Their peculiar mix of honest character, fast-moving story and knowing irony has informed some of the best recent blockbusters.

Top of the list - Shrek. Oddly, this saga's closest relative in some ways. The POTC films are 'Pirate movies' in the same way the Shrek films are 'fairy stories'. They have all the elements - even cliches - of the genre, but are perpetually subversive and knowing. (Playing a pirate as a rock-star is absolutely akin to Shrek playing a Lord/ruler as a dictatorial movie studio head.)

They did similar, but more subtle, work on the first Banderas Zorro flick, Small Soldiers and, far more so, Disney's Aladdin. These guys rock my kasbah.

Also pretty explosive is Jerry 'blow it up!' Bruckheimer, on board as producer to make sure there's no shortage of set-pieces. But there's another side to Bruckheimer that people rarely appreciate - character. All his wham-bam flicks - Crimson Tide, Bad Boys, Beverly Hills Cop, The Rock, Armageddon, Con Air, Top Gun - are really tuned in to what motivates people.

Yes, they're big. Yes they're overcooked (in the most entertaining way). But he knows how to marry movie stars to characters with clear arcs, wants and desires. How appropriate, then, that he produce these Disney movies with two of their better writers. Disney's animated movies, at best, always make the 'gotta' very clear. ("I want more than this life", "I want to walk on land", "I want to be king someday".)

Then we have the director - Gore Verbinski. A strange cove indeed, with a fascinatingly erratic CV: he scared the crap out of me with his Ring remake, did broad slapstick in Mousehunt, and lensed one of the weirdest 'nearly brilliant' mis-fires of recent history with The Mexican.

Now he does big comic action and FX. Really bloody well.

Yes, Knightley and Bloom are 1-D performers. Don't mind that too much, really - they're the Luke and Leia of their saga, and Hamill was as flat as...well, as Knightley's chest. They work as functional chess-pieces, with positions and back-stories that do their job for the bigger plot. They'll do.

Still, all this is pretty much as film one, and I'm meant to be talking about film two.

Which adequately makes Point Number One: if you like the first movie, you'll like this. If you didn't, you won't. Don't even bother.

Mark Kermode, a reviewer I always enjoy (for bonus points he also introduced my uni class to The Exorcist), hated film one, and he hates this. He says this wasn't inevitable - that he goes in with an open mind.

Big deal! It has the same cast, director, writers, producer, and it's doing all it can to be a direct relative to the first film audiences flocked to. At what point was he likely to enjoy it?!

Ugh - never mind.

Bad stuff first, then.

The Empire Strikes Back. Anyone see this at the time? I didn't. I saw it as a kid knowing, vaguely, that it was an episode in the middle of a saga. I let it all slide past and loved it. It's still my favourite of the series.

But watch it back and it's really, really odd structurally. The main characters are split up early on and never ruinited. Han Solo and his gang spend the bulk of the film trying to fix an engine. Luke spends the same bulk training to be a Jedi in a swamp. At the end, Solo is captured, Luke's found a father and lost a hand, and Leia's attractions are moving towards the roguishly sexy side of the Force. That's it.

Seriously - isn't that a weird way to structure a blockbuster? Imagine if James Bond spent an entire film trying to get his Aston Martin running. Or if Indiana Jones spent the whole flick taking bullwhip lessons and target practice. It's strange, no?

Not if it's the middle of a trilogy, probably.

And Pirates 2 wears its Star Wars influence sewn to its eye-patch. By the end of Dead Man's Chest - SUPER SPOILER ALERT - Will's found his father, Elizabeth's got a crush on the rogue, and Jack's encased in carbonite...well, sort of. And the saga also finds its bad-guy-turning-better-Lando-Calrissian character in its final shots.

The ways that we get to these conclusions are massively entertaining. Monster attacks, tricks and double-crosses, terrific jokes, and plenty of swash and buckle. Oh, and some more cross-dressing. It's all performed as it should be, directed well, realised in photography, score and design with aplomb.

And yet it's all a little bit...I dunno...inconsequential?

All the fuss doesn't actually climax. As a second act, this is probably the way it should be. And yet...and does mean that we've done an awful lot and achieved very little.

I have problems with the first swordfight in the first film between Will and Jack because I'm not on anybody's side. It's hard to feel exhilarated when everybody HAS to win. Well, film two has another - brilliantly rendered - swordfight, this time between Jack, Will and Norrington. And, again, I want all three of them to win.

So it's BIG, but it ain't POWERFUL.

Much better are the fights against the Kracken. Now that sucker is big, and we DO want to beat it. The odds against are huge. And oh yes, that battle works.

But...we never see beyond the Kracken's tentacles and massive maw. Nor do we actually kill it. Saving for movie three, no doubt. As we're saving the defeat of the East India Company (this film's Evil Empire; headed up by Tom Hollander as Cutler Beckett, who, like the Emperor, only gets to sit and boss people around this time). As we're saving the defeat of Davy Jones, presumably.

The thing is, everything you get is great. The plot has been derided as being 'too complicated' or 'non existent' (CAN you be both?), which makes about as much sense to me as the people who say they weren't able to follow the ONE AND ONLY TWIST in Mission: Impossible (One).

If you go back and watch Pirates 1, it has a lot of layers. Everything feeds into something else. Will's history is tied to Jack's mutiny, which is tied to Barbosa, who is tied to the Aztec gold, which is tied to Elizabeth. Even the small stuff matters - the crappy compass, the gun with one shot.

The second film is, once again, more of the same. Everyone has their own agenda. All the little stuff matters. Even that last post-credits scene in the first film matters. You actually do have to pay a little attention. Maybe you're not used to doing this with big films - one bad guy and one objective is easier, right?

Right. But it also results in films like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. So let's give complexity its moment, shall we?

Also, thanks to the writers' cunning self-referential style, you can run exposition as an audience recap. As in the first film, the dumb double-act of Pintel and Ragetti (fat bloke and wooden eye) turn to each other and ask "So, what's going on?" And it's actually FUNNIER this time, watching as they try to make sense of three men sword-fighting over the same treasure chest. (The contents of which, by the way, makes the film's subtitle insanely, wonderfully literal.)

Also lambasted are the set-pieces. Not for being what they are, but for making Pirates 2, ironically, little more than a theme park ride. Again, if that's what you're seeing, you're missing something.

The final scene makes you realise what these films are really about. It's not a big, explosive sequence. It's a character walking into a room.

In that moment, the series is more like Buffy at its best. In knowing that a CHARACTER will affect people and events far more than any incident could, Pirates 2 shows its real cards - it's about the gang. Of course it is, otherwise the jokes wouldn't be working.

Check out, for example, Norrington's return. Last seen chasing Jack and losing Elizabeth, he's now a Tortuga drunk, sleeping out with the pigs. Now, think back to the first film - Gibbs is seen, at first, working for the fleet (he's the one who warns young Elizabeth about pirates when she's still a little girl); later, he's a pirate himself, a Tortuga drunk, sleeping with the pigs.

Gotta love that symmetry. Even the minor characters are getting their beats - and Norrington's line that he's living the same story, just a chapter behind, is sheer poetry.

To conclude, then - I'm bloody loving this series. If you weren't, though, you still won't. Dead Man's Chest has more flaws, more good jokes, but less originality, than Curse of the Black Pearl. As a series fan, it'll have you gasping repeatedly. (Go back and watch the first film before heading to the cinema, there's a lot of detail points to pick up that mean WAY more if you have.)

Oh, and Jack's entrance? While not as great as his arrival aboard a sinking ship in film one, it IS funny and surprising.

"Not as great, but still funny and surprising." Actually, that sums this whole thing up pretty well.


Additional: If you have Pirates 1 on DVD, there's a deleted scene showing the pirate town of Tortuga - made up of various rampaging extras looking a lot like the original Pirates theme-park ride. (Including one guy being dunked in a well.) This one shot, removed from the first movie, appears in Pirates 2.

Oh yes, I noticed. Bonus points for me! Gaaaarrrrr!


Additional additional, July 12th. Seen the film a second time and there's SO much to pick up on with another pass. Mostly cute or clever things, or background details, but there's one story point I think I'm the first to notice. So I post now, and await the judgement of history.

Davy Jones had, on his organ (fnar), a musical box/locket. A silver heart. The same design was around the keyhole on his chest.

BUT - we saw a third heart, silver, same design, same size as Jones' the home of the voodoo priestess Tia Dalma.

Could Tia be the woman Jones fell in love with? The woman he cut his heart out for? It might explain her actions at both the start and end of the film. (Alternatively, less spectacularly, it could just mean that she gave him the magic to do what he did in the first place...)

Everyone, by now, is talking about the pair of feet the monkey runs to in Tia's hut early on. But this...this is something we'll have to wait a year to get an answer on. Book early to avoid disappointment!


At Wed Jul 12, 08:20:00 pm, Blogger China Blue said...

I really enjoyed the first one - I think I'll go see this, too. My attention to detail won't be as good as yours, though, but never mind!

Looking forward to seeing Keef as Jack Sparrow's dad in the next one...

Did Mark Kermode actually teach you uni class?

At Wed Jul 12, 08:52:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

He did a couple of lectures, that's all. Back then seeing The Exorcist was a big deal, cos it wasn't available on video. (Hmm, must do that BBFC post I've been thinking about.)

I think he was in a band with some of my other tutors for a while or something. I've blooted much of that time out... :-)

He's an entertaining and intelligent critic - but there's clearly a gap in his popular entertainment sense if he hates the origin Star Wars movies AND the Pirates flicks.


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