Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate trilogy for me ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate trilogy for me

I believe I have previously mentioned Wordplayer.com, the website run by big-shot Hollywood screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott. If you can get through to it (it's a little paranoid about Malaysian IP addresses), it's an invaluable resource, hosting a terrific series of columns on screenwriting as well as an active forum community of very smart folks. Well, when I first found it their shots weren't that big; they'd had credits on a few modestly successful films, but they were mostly struggling through the trenches like any other working screenwriter. And then we heard that their new movie was coming out, based on a Disneyland ride, which both Rossio and Elliott claimed was the best experience they'd ever had working on a film. For the first time in their careers, the final film accurately represented the script and story that they'd painstakingly crafted (a rare occurrence in Hollywood), and thus they were prouder of it than anything they'd ever done. This, above all, was what had me looking forward to the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie - and from then on, film history was made.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
My rating:

I watched this twice in cinemas, but my recent DVD rewatch of it was my first viewing since it first came out. I remember loving it, and I agree when most people say it's the best of the three. But I think I'm only now realizing how great it is. This movie is packed to the gills with entertainment; every third line of dialogue is either a joke, plot-related exposition, a plot-related setup for a later payoff, or an allusion to something that won't be made clear until a second viewing. (Or third, or fourth, et cetera.) Often it's two or three of these at once. And it's also a deliciously twisty plot, in which every character is thinking a step ahead of everyone else, trying to exploit the way the central MacGuffin of the Aztec coins work for every angle and loophole they can think of. And it's an action-packed, swashbuckling revival of a genre that hasn't been seen in ages. It's a brilliantly clever film that doesn't require smarts to enjoy - but if you're willing to pay close attention, the rewards are awesome.

And speaking of brilliant, there is of course Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp's swishy, swaggering, guylinered, seemingly-perpetually drunk, inept-and-ingenious-in-equal-measure pirate has to be one of the most inspired performances of the decade and possibly of all time. But as fun as he was, I enjoyed watching Geoffrey Rush every bit as much; if Sparrow is a postmodern take of pirate-as-rockstar (or rockstar-as-pirate), then Rush's Barbossa is classic movie pirate all the way right down to the "Arr!" (Yes, he actually says "Arr!") Depp and Rush chew so much scenery between them that it's a wonder we have any attention left to pay to anyone else, but there's also Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom to play the requisite straight man (and girl); Knightley fares better than Bloom, who's a little out of his depth. Still, Will Turner the noble romantic hero and his lady love Elizabeth belong in a movie that's as much an homage to classic pirate tropes as it is a modern update of them.

But there's smart writing, terrific performances, and also great action scenes, orchestrated in all their old-fashioned swashbuckling glory by Gore Verbinski. His previous movie was the remake of The Ring, the only good Hollywood remake of Asian horror; here he proves equally adept at light-hearted action-adventure. Critics were quick to rave about how Depp's performance "single-handedly" elevated the film, but honestly, they're fulla shit. There's just so much more it has to offer: the awesome undead-pirate effects, the genuine affection for the old-fashioned pirate movie genre, the pitch-perfect blend of action and comedy, and most of all Rossio's and Elliott's terrific screenplay. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a summer blockbuster need not be dumb and hollow, and that it can in fact be a genuinely great film if it's not. Even if it's based on a theme park ride.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)
My rating:

After enjoying The Curse of the Black Pearl so much, I was of course hugely anticipating its sequel. And I pretty much agree with everyone that it's not as good as its predecessor, and that its plot got too confusing. Complex plotting was one of Black Pearl's great strengths, but Rossio and Elliott go overboard with it here, giving every character their own agenda and having them work at cross-purposes with everyone else in pursuit of not one, but three Macguffins (the key to Davy Jones' chest, the chest itself, and the Letters of Marque). I remember the exact moment the plot lost me: when Elizabeth, whose arrest and death sentence drove Will's quest to enlist Jack's help in freeing her, escaped on her own - no, not escaped, but persuaded Beckett to let her go. I don't know what threat Beckett posed anymore after that. I don't know why she and Will couldn't just skedaddle off into the Blue, happily ever after.

Yet as you can probably tell from my rating, I still enjoyed it. The cannibal island sequence is hilarious Looney Tunes-style slapstick (although the whole segment is completely irrelevant to the plot); the Flying Dutchman is awesomely cool (although its fish-mutated crew seem like a knockoff of Black Pearl's skeletal pirates, with less personality); Davy Jones is one of the most seamless CGI characters ever created (although I thought he should've been scarier, instead of another snarky villain-type like Barbossa was); the Kraken was absolutely terrifying (although I don't know why Davy Jones needs it if he can just teleport across the sea, as shown); and I totally loved the three-way swordfight on the giant wheel (unconditionally!). As you can tell, I'm making lots of excuses for this movie's weaknesses. I can't help it. It is relentless at trying to entertain you, and that's an impressive thing.

But it doesn't succeed at it as well as Black Pearl does, with the former film's seemingly-effortless wit, ingenuity and panache. It tries too hard with visual spectacle and constant callbacks to Black Pearl's dialogue that aren't as funny the second time. Clearly, the less-than-ideal circumstances under which it was made are to blame: Dead Man's Chest and At World's End were filmed back-to-back, on a rushed schedule while the scripts were still being written (and re-re-re-written). Verbinski thought up many of the ideas and setpieces and gave Rossio and Elliott the task of somehow weaving them all together into a (somewhat) coherent story. Depp himself "contributed" to the writing, and who's gonna say no to the superstar actor who "single-handedly" made the first movie a success? With so many cooks brewing this broth, it's a wonder the final product still turned out this good - and that's because each of these cooks are damn good filmmakers in their own right.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
My rating:

I will swear up and down that the third Pirates of the Caribbean film was great, a return to form, and better than the second if still not at the level of the first. But I doubt many people will agree. It's the lowest-rated of the series on RottenTomatoes, and while Dead Man's Chest's reviews were ambivalent, this one's were positively scathing. But they were wrong. ('Cos only my opinion is right and true and 100% objective, it is.) Sure, the over-complicated plot continues here. Sure, Chow Yun-Fat was sadly underused. Sure, the off-screen disposal of the Kraken, one of the coolest parts of the last film, is proof positive that the filmmakers (it's no longer fair just to finger Rossio and Elliott for the storyline) wrote themselves into a corner. Sure, it probably goes on a little too long. But what every film critic missed is that this film's aim is to create a living, breathing mythology. And it is an utterly cool mythology.

These movies do not take place in the real world. Port Royal and Tortuga were real places, and the East India Trading Company a real thing, but that's as far as its nods to reality get. This is a world in which there's a goddess of the sea, and she was wooed and loved by the captain of the Flying Dutchman, the ship charged with ferrying the souls of those who died at sea to the afterlife. But a goddess does not love as a mortal does, and the captain, feeling betrayed, in turn betrayed her to a Brethren of pirates who bound her in human form so that they may possess mastery of the oceans. And thus the captain and her crew abandoned their Charonic duty, and grew monstrous in both form and spirit. The pirates meanwhile, composed of Pirate Lords and a Pirate King, traded those titles amongst each other via treachery and back-stabbing, for such is the nature of pirates; they detest authority, but they like titles. Until somehow, one Captain Jack Sparrow - who, when we first saw him, barely even has a ship to command - became a Pirate Lord, as did one Hector Barbossa - who, when we first saw him, was an undead walking skeleton.

And by the movie's end, a Pirate King has once again been appointed - and she is the wife of the Flying Dutchman's new captain, who has returned its crew to its sacred mission, and who tragically can only meet his beloved for one day every ten years. And the sea goddess is once again free, and what this portends for those who ply the oceans, no one knows - but somewhere in her dark clutches is the soul of the lover who betrayed her, bound to the cruelest punishments a goddess can devise. This. Is. All. Cool. How could anyone not think so? It's worldbuilding and mythmaking at its most captivating, the kind of setting that people would dream of either living and adventuring in, or of creating new stories in - perhaps achieving the former with the latter. This is a rare and precious accomplishment, maybe even unprecedented in film. And it does this while still working its butt off to entertain; Jack Sparrow's personal hell in Davy Jones' Locker, the boat-tipping scene, Keith Richards' cameo, the ship-to-ship duel in the maelstrom, the wedding-in-the-heat-of-battle. It's criminal how all of this went unappreciated. Criminal, I says.


So yeah, I really like this franchise, even the two sequels that no one else likes. The vast majority of opinions, professional and amateur, tend to entirely miss the point about what these movies are going for - especially those who think it's all about Jack Sparrow. I don't expect everyone to like them as much as I do, but lazy reviews are lazy. I'll be the first to admit they're not perfect either, and I certainly won't rush to defend their many flaws. Yet I do think, as I mentioned earlier, that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has made its mark on film history. Dead Man's Chest made over $1 billion worldwide and is the 4th highest-grossing movie of all time - but even that aside, I believe there'll come a time when the empty-headed snarks of "typical dumb summer CGI wankfest" will fade into obscurity and a critical re-evaluation will bring their accomplishments to light. And I'm already looking forward to the fourth installment, and getting my knives out for the critics who have already savaged it. I do appreciate Pirates of the Caribbean on a deeper level than them - and yes, that does make me a better person. So there.


McGarmott said...

I had declared during class in film school that At World's End was probably one of the most intelligent films to have come out that year, at least at that point. My producing tutor immediately demanded that I explain myself, as he had previously thought more highly of me.

It's still my favourite of the three films.

k0k s3n w4i said...

McGarmott: One of the most intelligent films of 2007? The year of No Country for Old Men, La Vie en Rose, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, Juno and Ratatouille? I nearly said 300 but I then realised that the reason it was good was because it was went far and beyond dumb.

As a lover of fantasies and pirates, I have never considered the Pirates of the Caribbean films - with the exception of the first one - to be good entries in either genres. To me, they have become far more fantastic than piratey (arrr!). I was previously rather fond of Dead man's Chest and At World's End, but that fondness evaporated after I rewatched them recently.

TMBF: The fourth film is in my opinion the worst of the four. I had very high hopes for it because they had finally gotten rid of Orlando Bloom and William Turner, and brought on Ian McShane as Blackbeard (one of my favourite buccaneers of all time). The screenplay, I felt, was the biggest let-down.

"And I'm already looking forward to the fourth installment, and getting my knives out for the critics who have already savaged it. I do appreciate Pirates of the Caribbean on a deeper level than them - and yes, that does make me a better person. So there."

Ah, ready to defend a film before you have even seen it, critic? I was reluctant to be so confident, even if I too was greatly looking forward to seeing it - considering that it's the first PotC film to be helmed by someone other than Gore Verbinski.

McGarmott said...

Film Preference Map --

No Country for Old Men - I hated that so many people loved it. Brilliant my ass!
La Vie en Rose - Sound design and lead acting were brilliant, but otherwise pointless.
There Will Be Blood - Liked it, didn't love it.
Michael Clayton - Bo-ring. (Except for Clooney tearing Swinton a new one. That was wow.)
Juno - So. Freaking. Overhyped.
Ratatouille - One of the most awesome movies of that year.

k0k s3n w4i said...

Well, it subjective opinions versus subjective opinions. No Country For Old Men completely sucked me in. Maybe it just didn't do it for you... but you're discounting what a lot others (including me) apparently saw in it. Why should you hate something just because it's popular?

There Will Be Blood is one of my favourite films too. I quote it at my girlfriend all the time.

Juno is overhyped, agreed, but so was The Dark Knight - it doesn't mean it's not good. I found it to be an awesome date movie, and I enjoyed how it approached the question of teen pregnancy. It helped that I am already in love with Ellen Page before it.

I enjoyed all of the above films immensely. At World's End, on the other hand, was mostly forgettable with a few awesome bits in it - and some parts frankly annoyed me. Overall, it felt more like a product than a work of art. I don't like it when films treat me like a consumer. Also, as a voracious consumer of fantasy novels, At World's End seemed like a patchwork to me with a lot of cool elements I've seen before elsewhere - and were better executed I daresay. On a totally subjective level, I felt it completely broke my suspension of disbelief when it threw a sea goddess into the mix. I can't really explain why. I just had a bad fantasy nerd reaction to it.