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Friday, May 25, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (***)


May 25, 2007


Last year, I wrote of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: "Over the top, mateys. Over the top. I don't like seeing quite so many loud clanging things in my movies, not even my summer blockbusters. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a model of restraint compared to this sequel."

But here now is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, which makes in turn makes Dead Man's Chest seem like a model of restraint.   Every complaint about Dead Man's Chest applies even moreso here.  The words "too much" are not enough to describe the excess.  As for being over the top, At World's End is so far from the top that they've completely lost sight of the top. At best, the top is a speck of dirt somewhere far below. 

At World's End is three hours of non-stop action and total fucking absurdity where the characters spend the precious few moments in between swordfighting, leaping, swinging, falling and more swordfighting making bargains with each other and then betraying each other ten minutes later. The configurations of the allegiances in the movie shift and move constantly until your head spins from the whirlwind. And then there is an actual whirlwind, and then a whirlpool. And whatever else the movie decides to throw at you, which is everything they can think of and that's before the giant woman turns into a million crabs.

Sounds like I'm complaining, but this time, I'm actually not.  After Dead Man's Chest I abandoned all hope for this franchise to return to the relatively lean and mean storytelling of Curse of the Black Pearl.  In approaching At World's End, I decided to take the advice Eric Cartman gave to Butters about what to do when two girls start lezzing out: "Just go with it." It was the best advice I could have followed because, surprisingly, I had a really good time, which is I suppose my own kind of reversal and double cross.

It's next to impossible to summarize the plot of the movie without a treasure map but I will say that as it happened I followed all of it without much trouble. Promptly forgot it by the time I hit the rest room afterwards because my brain needed the space back to remember things like my full name, my shoe size, and the names of my friends and family. But I did understand the plot of the movie. I might even be able to pass a test on it as long as it's multiple choice and there are no essay questions.

Actually, a lot of it is coming back to me now:

I liked how the opening in Singapore where Elizabeth Swann and Captain Barbosa visiting Sao Feng echoed the Jabba the Hutt scenes in Return of the Jedi . I liked how Elizabeth was forcibly disarmed, the comedy of their pirate friends below looking up Elizabeth 's skirt and their launching swords through the floor into her and Barbosa's hands.

Naturally, every man in the movie desired Elizabeth. That comes from Princess Leia syndrome, being the only girl in the franchise.  Of course in Star Wars, the only guys who wanted Leia were Han Solo, her brother, and a disgusting giant slug on Tattooine. Between Will, Jack, Norrington, Beckett, and Sao Feng, Elizabeth Swann turned out to have far better choices.

Now that I'm deep in making Star Wars comparisons, one of the pleasures of the Pirates franchise is that they've taken the place of Star Wars as the new big fun adventure movies of the 21st century.  And Pirates lovingly apes the Star Wars archetypes.  We have Will (Luke) and Elizabeth (Leia), lovers instead of brother and sister, Jack (Han Solo) and Gibbs (Chewbacca), the fat pirate and the one eyed pirate are C-3PO and R2-D2, Davey Jones serves as a stand in as both Jabba the Hutt for Jack and Darth Vader for Will, Will is chasing after saving his father from damnation like Luke, Lord Beckett is the Emperor, the Pirates are the Rebel Alliance, the East India Trading Company the Empire, and Barbosa is a form of Lando for Jack with the Black Pearl as the Millennium Falcon, the vessel our heroes use to take us to far-flung, exotic places where they get into endless fine messes that's just one damn thing after another.

I liked how the East India Trading Company gained control over Davey Jones thanks to Lord Beckett coming into possession of Jones's heart at the end of the last movie.  I liked how Beckett used the Flying Dutchman as a weapon to exterminate the pirates.

I liked the waterfall in the middle of nowhere that lead Barbosa, Elizabeth, Will, and company to Davey Jones' Locker. I liked Jack's line to Tia Dalma: "You add an agreeable bit of macabre to any delirium."

I liked the back story between Davey Jones and Tia Dalma.  I figured out right away that she was really Calypso by the Law of Economy of Characters (only two women in the movie and Calypso wasn't Elizabeth.)  I liked how Davey Jones's betrayal of Calypso echoed Elizabeth's betrayal of Jack in Dead Man's Chest.

I liked the Mexican stand off between Jack, Will, Barbosa, and Elizabeth, and how alliances were hastily forged purely out of immediate convenience. And I liked the double crosses and betrayals.  Which ones?  Take your pick.  There's like a dozen.

I liked the sea of dead souls abandoned by Davey Jones and Elizabeth meeting her father there.

I liked rocking the Black Pearl upside down so that sunset became sunrise.

I was sad to see the Kraken was dead on a beach, but then the Kraken already had its movie.

I liked Sao Feng making Elizabeth Swann captain and how she chose to remain with her Singapore pirates instead of leaving with Admiral Norrington.  That's every Asian man's fantasy right there.

I liked the visual of Shipwreck Cove (and the dialogue about how uncreative pirates are at naming things.)   I also dug the reveal of the Pirate Lords' Nine Pieces of Eight, the joke about how it sounds cooler than "the nine pieces of whatever they happened to have lying around," and how Barbosa's Piece of Eight was the one-eyed pirate's wooden eye. Little details like how the one-eyed pirate spent three movies trying to keep that eye safe paid off with a cool reveal.

It was cool that Calypso showed us Davey Jones' human form and I'm glad that Bill Nighy got to have his real face on screen if even for a few moments so the audience got to see the man beneath all of the CGI tentacles.

I liked the vote for the Pirate King and Jack's surprise vote:  "Elizabeth Swann. Curious, isn't it?"   Also Jack's line when his father Keith Richards showed him his mom:  "She looks great." I think for all of the hype and anticipation of his appearance, Keith Richards was just kind of there. He blended in with the scenery but didn't really have as much impact as expected.

I liked the parley and negotiation (and side switching and betrayal) on the wisp of sand island in between the pirate fleet and the East Indian Trading Company fleet.  The Pirates franchise has always been fantastic at finding white sand island locations surrounded by crystal blue waters that are dazzling to the eye.

I liked the ridiculous proposal and marriage of Will and Elizabeth in the middle of the ridiculous battle with fish monsters and British Navy troops in the middle of a maelstrom. I like that Will became the one who stabbed Davey Jones' heart and replaced him as Captain of the Flying Dutchman (I had figured Barbosa would get that job).

I liked the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman teaming up to destroy the East India Trading Company flagship. I also liked how the other 8 ships in the pirate fleet stayed out of the fight altogether and just cheered when it was over.

I liked that Will and Elizabeth finally got their wedding night (because if she had to wait ten years for Will to return, she'd have been forced to end up as a 30 year old virgin). The bonus scene after the credits was a nice capper, showing Will returning "ten years later" to an Elizabeth who hadn't aged a day and their ten year old son. Good to see those two crazy kids got their happily ever after.

And I liked the set up for the fourth Pirates movie and the Fountain of Youth. Wait, did I like that? I thought this was the last one. Aw, who cares. I'll show up if they make one.  By if I mean when.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Spider-Man 3 (**)



Spider-Man 3 contains the best superhero action I've ever seen in a motion picture.  Sam Raimi and his effects team have outdone themselves.  When Spider-Man fights the New Goblin or Sandman or Venom, the quality of the comic book-style action is far beyond what's in the previous films and for that matter, any other comic book movie thus far.  The camera swings around with Spider-Man, gets us as close to him as possible, and we feel his movements, his agility, his strength and stamina, and the mortal danger he's constantly in.  And yet the fights are comprehensible, not just a series of close ups and jump cuts.  

The CGI used to bring the Sandman to life, extreme close ups of every particle of sand pulling back to reveal the fluidity of movement of a creature composed of and able to manipulate sand, was jaw dropping.  As were the effects used to bring to eerie life the black, oily, alien symbiote that possesses Peter Parker and Eddie Brock.  For living comic book action, Spider-Man 3 is top of the line.  Watching Spider-Man's first fight with the Goblin, gunning web bullets at his pumpkin bombs, and his rescue of Gwen Stacy from a crane gone awry was pure comic book geek joy.

The rest of Spider-Man 3 is bloated, off-putting mess that goes off the rails completely by the third act.  The nice word for Spider-Man 3 is "ambitious." But it's far more accurate to say the movie is "out of control" and "all over the fucking place." One example is in the final fight scene where all we in the audience care about is how Spider-Man and the Goblin are gonna beat Sandman and Venom, while the movie cuts to a completely unnecessary jokey scene with a kid cheating J. Jonah Jameson out of $100 for a camera without film.

A bunch of new characters are introduced who make various degrees of impact, not all of them successful. Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy is useless. She has no personality and no function in the story except to be rescued and then become a device Peter uses to make Mary Jane jealous. Her father Captain Stacy has nothing to do besides break some bad news to the Parkers about who killed Uncle Ben. 

Sandman and Venom were hardly criminal masterminds, more in vein with the evil-for-evil's sake Green Goblin than with the brilliant and charming scientist corrupted by technology Dr. Octopus was. As amazing as the visual effects were, the Sandman was a disappointment as a character, a monosyllabic brute just out for money for his sick daughter. Eddie Brock being an opportunistic dick and a threat to Peter would have been more effective were Peter not behaving as an even bigger son of a bitch than Brock was. We waited the whole movie to see Venom and when he finally arrived, he was underwhelming. It's disappointing to say the least that the movie took every opportunity possible to show Topher Grace wearing goofy Halloween fangs rather than Venom's fearsome visage. Venom and Daredevil have one thing in common: they don't like loud noises, man. That shit hurts their ears.

Beyond the sheer excess of the movie, the biggest crime is that Spider-Man 3 – "Now with More Singing! More Dancing!" – recklessly squanders just about all of the good will I had for those characters. When Spider-Man 2 ended, I loved Peter Parker. I loved Mary Jane Watson. I loved them finally being together, willing to make their love work despite the mortal dangers always lurking just outside Peter's apartment window. By the end of Spider-Man 3, I couldn't have given a crap for either of them. I'm not even sure how much of a crap they give for each other.

This is a mean-spirited movie at its core, with its loveable, good-hearted characters putting each other through as much hateful, emotional pain as they could cram into 2 hours and 10 minutes. And those 2 hours and 10 minutes felt like 3 hours of Peter embracing his inner asshole and inner Travolta concurrently while a confused and lonely Mary Jane lashes out foolishly at him. Oh good!  The Peter-MJ-Harry love triangle is back.  We sure didn't get enough of that in the first movie.

I was never quite clear whether the movie was implying that Peter was already an asshole before the alien symbiote became his secret flatmate or whether the proximity to the symbiote was what brought his negative aspects out. It sure seemed like he was already a dick before the symbiote made sweet alien love to him and dressed him up in his new black skins.  When Spider-Man received the key to the city (thankfully Macy Gray didn't show up to this party) the way he egged Gwen Stacy on to replicate the famous upside-down kiss with MJ in the rain was more than mean enough. When Evil Peter shows up, complete with the same bangs in the eyes Peter Petrelli has on Heroes, and pulls shit like dirty swing dancing Gwen Stacy right in front of MJ, it becomes hard to fathom how this can be forgivable. Evil Peter was played for laughs, but I found the entire presentation offputting and unpleasant. "I don't want to watch this shit" offputting and unpleasant. Also, just too much dancing.

It turns out to be long-suffering Harry Osborn who is the real hero of Spider-Man 3. The Peter-Harry friendship and rivalry is the best aspect of the movie. Harry's scenes where he was an amnesiac learning how to paint, cook, and enjoy the creepy portrait of his father in his study were goofy fun. The two fights scenes the Goblin had with Spider-Man were the action highlights, with real emotional stakes as these lifelong best friends let loose their resentments and had at it. Harry teaming up with Peter and making the big Han Solo rescue was great and I liked the Goblin's tactics in how to fight an enormous sand monster: launch missiles at it. Missiles never fail. I also liked the weird scene with Harry's butler that started, "I've seen a lot of strange things in this house..."   Hilariously awful. Why didn't he give that exact same speech to Harry at the start of Spider-Man 2?  What was up with Harry's funeral? I saw Peter, Aunt May, MJ, his butler, but who where the black people in attendance? Why were Gwen Stacy and Captain Stacy there?  They didn't even know Harry. 

Spider-Man 3's New York is a dangerous place with all of those murderous super villains roaming around but its population seems mostly comprised of hot chicks and supermodels. Every scene not held in a main character's residence was crammed with hot chicks. Hot chicks were everywhere, on the street, in bars and restaurants and even standing around in J. Jonah Jameson's office in the Daily Bugle. I've never seen anything quite like that.

There is so much shit going on in Spider-Man 3 that a lot is left dangling by the end. Venom was destroyed but Dr. Curt Conners still has a sample of it in his lab. Sandman suddenly sees the error of his criminal ways and has an emotional heart to heart with Peter.   You know, if they'd only had that tearful talk a couple of days earlier, it'd have saved everyone a lot of killing and webbing taxis to skyscrapers.  Peter is totally cool with him becoming dust in the wind despite the fact Sandman knows his secret identity.   Sandman also knows Peter is a big crybaby.  Did Sandman ever get the money he stole to his sick daughter? Does anyone care?

Everyone still alive is worse off then they were before. None of the main players are heroic by the end, except Harry, and his reward is a dirt nap. Missing from the final scenes was Mary Jane's line from the trailer: "We've all done terrible things to each other, but we have to learn to forgive each other or everything we ever stood for will mean nothing." Maybe the line wasn't necessary but I think it would have helped. There is a lot to forgive, maybe too much. What's next for Peter and MJ? They going to audition for Dancing With The Stars?

The end of the movie reminded me of a line from The Simpsons:

Homer: "Marge, I'm confused. Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?"

Marge: "It's an ending. That's enough."