Monday, May 22, 2017

"A Pirate's Life For Me" Retrospective: Part 1.

Drink up me hearties, for this Memorial Day, that scurvy scoundrel Jack Sparrow be back for one more plunderous and thunderous adventure, as those savvy scallywags Disney and Bruckheimer take the helm for the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film. ARRR!!!
 And talk about a property that's more successful than it had any right to be. As we all know, the Pirates of the Caribbean series is based on the hugely popular ride of the same name within all the Disney theme parks. The film series originally began near the end of Michael Eisner's tenure, at a time when other attraction based films such as The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion became epic failures, and many would be forgiven for thinking this series would follow the same path. Instead, the original film was embraced by the general public and critics, and soon spawned what is now one of Disney's flagship live-action franchises, that is still so popular today, its fifth entry will probably make gangbusters at the box office whether or not it's any good. Hopefully that doesn't mean it takes that fact for granted. And once again, I'll be leaving my thoughts on every entry in the series leading up to the (supposed) finale to the franchise, here and in a follow-up with some rapid fire thoughts laid out on each entry.

So keep a weather eye open, mates, and proceed at your own risk. These be the last friendly words ye'll hear...

The Curse of the Black Pearl:
By all accounts this movie absolutely shouldn't have worked, but leave it to Disney and mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer to go above and beyond their material, managing to craft a pure swashbuckling popcorn thrill ride for teens and action fans, all the while wrapping those elements up with genuinely good story and great characters.

In spite of the excess within its successors, Black Pearl was very fortunate to retain a sense of simplicity that didn't drag the film down. A thoroughly enjoyable ride in the mold of the old Errol Flynn epics, the story of revenge, romance, and ghostly haunts is kept to its basics that allows the film a breezy flow between new plot points and set-pieces, moving quickly and leanly in spite of a lengthy near two-and-a-half hour running time, even if that simplicity and rush can sometimes be as much a detriment as a strength. But Gore Verbinski keeps the plot beats engaging with his precision and playfulness behind the camera, delivering on action that feels at once joyous and genuinely violent, that brings a fresh new energy to the well worn pirate mold, even managing to create a great ghost story with the titular ship's undead crew, brought to life by ghastly CGI overlapping, which I mean in the best possible way.

But all that flash needs good characters and actors to bring this tale to life, realized by an eclectic batch of classical and comical talents, such as Orlando Bloom as the main audience surrogate Will Turner, the young heritage-torn blacksmith infatuated by the lovely Elizabeth Swann - played by a then up and coming Keira Knightley, as well as Geoffrey Rush as the scenery-chewing, devilish, and malicious main villain Barbossa. But the movie ultimately belongs to Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, that turned the actor into an overnight superstar akin to Sigourney Weaver with Aliens. His is a performance of an anachronistic nature, more designed to resemble a boozy rock star than a traditional pirate, but also oddly feeling at home in the swashbuckling world, gracing the film with genuine unpredictability and swagger, as the audience is always left second-guessing the intent of his decisions, often giving a reliably absurd hilarity to the proceedings. It isn't always polished, and can definitely be exhausting, but none of that takes away from what pure fun this movie is. It's everything you could ever want out of a proper popcorn flick.

****1/2 / *****

Dead Man's Chest:
Having seen the pleasantly surprising outcome of Black Pearl's release, it didn't take Disney or Bruckheimer long to get their newly popular franchise back off the ground with new entries. The studio decided on giving their latest hit two follow-up films, shot back to back, and re-recruiting director Gore Verbinski. The first of these concluding entries proved an especially mixed bag, with the film having lost some of its magic and its charm since the first go, but was the end result really that bad?

Not quite, but despite a darker tone and bigger action, the film can suffer from examples of "bigger = better" sequelization where the film loses sight of its characters. Truth be told, my problem is not that it loses sight of those characters, but that it either needed to trim some of them out, cut down on filler and give them the allotted screentime of bigger set-pieces, and streamline some of their plot threads. Earliest indication of said filler can be found on an extended series of set-pieces on an island of cannibals that, while fun to watch in its own right, goes on for twice as long as necessary. It also speaks to a slight, if not crucially damaging issue of tonal balance, especially when shoehorning bumbling comic relief Pintel and Ragetti back in, a duo hilarious enough in brief tangents in the first film, but here largely only exist to serve the movie equivalent of jingling keys in front of a baby.

As much as I cared for the romance between Will and Elizabeth in the previous entry, and as hard as they are trying with their performances, their plot thread of their interrupted marriage and the series of events separating them, is without doubt the least interesting thread, simply because it's only going through the motions and building up to contrivance. Elizabeth certainly has more that can be done with her character than Will does (which I'll address in the third entry), but I also find it kind of funny that this young woman, so fascinated and so entranced by pirate culture and piracy to the point she could have become one herself, wants little more than an existence as a housewife at the movie's beginning, at least until the actual plot kicks in and the movie almost forgets about that side element.

But after that, I still quite thoroughly enjoy the film. If not always breezy and a bit preoccupied with excess fat, the same gleefully absurdist, but still violent staging of the action is in full swing the second time out, sometimes possessing a bit of an Indiana Jones charm to the set-pieces, even if more reminiscent of Temple of Doom than Raiders. If still sometimes a detriment, the added scale and greater sense of exploration gives Verbinski opportunities for even more creativity and wow factor in his visuals, including the attacks of the fierce and slimy Kraken, and the attacks from the undead crew of the Flying Dutchman, that gives Barbossa's moonlit skeletons a run for their money. But some of the more inspired touches are often those of smaller, but no less effective simplicity, including a smash-'em-up bar brawl in Tortuga, a suspenseful game of Liar's Dice, and three characters performing the mother of all circus acts on a giant spinning wheel mowing through the jungle.

Depp's Jack Sparrow may have lost some of his unpredictability, but Depp's commitment to the role is still infectiously entertaining, expanding on backstory and garnering more enjoyment of his signature crassness and egotism, while also wringing some deeper feelings of introspection out of his selfish demeanor, and whether he truly cares about the people sailing with him. But if there's anything worth watching Dead Man's Chest for, then it's for the supporting players who make the movie. Some of my favorite scene-stealers include Tom Hollander as classy yet psychologically vicious Cutler Beckett, the returning Jack Davenport as a deeply bitter and drunken James Norrington, and Naomie Harris as the mysterious and sensuous Tia Dalma. But the high point of the film is without doubt Bill Nighy's Davy Jones, an unforgiving and (quite literally) heartless husk of man with a void of emotion, and let's not forget the absolutely fantastic motion-capture work supplied by ILM, which to this day holds up so well that it could be mistaken for prosthetics, as some critics did during its initial release (it more than earns its place alongside the likes of Gollum, Caesar, and Neytiri).

And the cliffhanger ending is great. That's how you do it, Desolation of Smaug.

The result is not perfect, or even a film with a lot of balance, but it's a film whose merits are still able to outweigh the bad, even if some of its faults could have, and should have been taken as warning signs for the future.

***1/2 / *****

That concludes part 1 of the Pirates movies. If ye be brave or fool enough to face the pirate's curse, join me back on Wednesday for the next two entries...

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