Sunday, May 22, 2011

Drink Up Me Hearties Yo Ho: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

In 2003, when Walt Disney Pictures and producer Jerry Bruckheimer released Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, they had the element of surprise on their side. They had a hugely enjoyable crowd-pleaser, and a pirate film, no less, based on a theme park ride, an idea that then (and now) sounds improbable. Yet the film worked with its big rollicking set pieces, it’s playful treatment of the iconography of swashbuckling (Errol Flynn might have fit right in), and its lilting off-kilter star-turn from Johnny Depp as the instant breakout hit character Captain Jack Sparrow.

As a drunken, improvisatory scoundrel who loves being a pirate more than anything other than his own cleverness, Depp’s mumbling, mascara-wearing, stumbling swordsman was an unlikely hero. Hindsight, however, makes it all seem so inevitable. Depp can be a charming actor and in the film he’s given an infinitely charming character that he not only inhabits but also seems to have emerged fully created from deep within himself. He’s the secret genius amongst all of the characters, able to play people off of each other to achieve his goals while trying (or seemingly trying) to avoid doing the hard work. All he wants to do is to captain his beloved ship and he effortlessly steals away the show in the process, even if he’s actually a bit of a supporting character to the overarching damsel/hero romance between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

The pure charm and excitement (not to mention the surprise) was dampened with a second feature, Dead Man’s Chest. With the sequel Disney via Verbinski attempted an expansion of the mythos of the first film that tried to retroactively turn that film into a trilogy starter. It’s nothing more than two-and-a-half hours of exposition with a few sequences of fun thrown in for good measure. It is, however, a booming, cluttered messy film of impressive, immersive design that is occasionally very enjoyable. It successfully moves the first film away from a standalone plot and puts it in a larger universe of details and characters engaged in and rebelling against various interconnected curses and codes.

By the time the trilogy ended with At World’s End, I enjoyed diving into the complicated, overextended, multilayered plotting. At three hours, the film is no quick, breezy blockbuster but Verbinski uses its heft to find voluminous weirdness almost hallucinatory in their meticulously odd construction. (There’s a lengthy sequence involving a topsy-turvy trip into Davy Jones’s Locker of all things, not to mention the climax that kicks off when a voodoo giant bursts into a river of crabs). Some find it tiresome; I find it exhilaratingly dense in its commitment to seeing just how odd a summer tent-pole release can get, how light on its feet a film can be while lumbering around with so many subplots and side characters.

After some time off, Disney has Depp back for more time as Captain Jack. By this point, he’s the clear backbone of the series. In this new film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, he’s just about all that remains of the old mythos. The scene-stealer has become the focus. Most of the ensemble accrued over the course of three films has been stripped away. (Say goodbye to Bloom, Knightley, Stellan Skarsgård, and others). This is a simpler film, the simplest of all these Pirates, but it has some of the old pleasures without being nearly as bizarre or intricate. The biggest pleasure of these movies has been their denseness; this one's biggest flaw is it's relatively straightforward nature. It’s comparatively thin and, by the end, a bit anticlimactic; it’s eventful, but less epic in scope. Part of the fun of the bloat has been lost in the new focus on leanness, but I still found just enough to enjoy.

When Johnny Depp makes his entrance, I realized yet again what fun it is to see him as Jack Sparrow. I had forgotten how enjoyable he is to watch, the charmer, scamp, wobbly drunk and perpetual schemer. He commands the screen with ease. Here he’s positioned as the star of the show; he’s playing second fiddle to no one. What works, however, is the way he’s pulled into a plot that both could and couldn’t go on without him. In an opening sequence in London, he impersonates a judge, flees, is caught, and ends up in front of babbling fool King George (Richard Griffiths) who implores him to help his privateer (none other than Sparrow’s long-time rival, Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa) beat the Spanish to the Fountain of Youth.

This race to the fountain will be going on without Sparrow, but so many of the principal players seem to think he knows the way that he ends up accidentally helping out. But that’s Sparrow for you. He has a way of playing all sides against each other in a way that seems like he’d rather be anywhere else than amongst such intricate scheming. By not seeming to care (actually, he just might not care) he wriggles his way out of each situation, usually with the upper hand.

Captain Jack won’t help Barbossa and instead strikes off on his own and gets tricked into working aboard Blackbeard’s ship. This glowering baddie (played growly by Ian McShane) and his fiery long-lost daughter (Penélope Cruz) are foils for Jack’s half-planned bumbling. The daughter, especially, has it out for Jack, but mostly because years earlier she was all set to become a nun until she had an affair with him. On Blackbeard’s ship is also a captive missionary (Sam Claflin), just because there needs to be someone younger around to fall for a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who gets captured to provide a tear with which to activate the magic of the fountain’s water.

So, the whole thing’s a race (though a fairly rudderless one) and a somewhat overcomplicated quest. Gone are the elaborate curses and multitude of side characters from the first three Pirates. Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who’ve actually scripted all four of these things) are trying something new, plotwise. It more or less worked for me, although some of the action beats fall flat (swordplay isn't always edited for clarity or even impact) and the whole thing feels a little overstretched. But the cast is fully on board with the loud fantasy of it all and the proceedings don’t swallow them up. (Rush even does a fantastic bit of acting that involves readjusting his balance after he loses a bit of weight from one leg).

Speaking of new, the director this time around is Rob Marshall. He’s no Verbinski, but he handles the spectacle well. His 2002 film Chicago is, despite what Oscar might say, no Best Picture, but fun enough I suppose. This success had the unfortunate effect of causing him to think that he should be making Very Important Movies. His hollow Memoirs of a Geisha and god-awful Nine are a one-two punch in which he pushed his filmmaking to the limits of insufferableness and beyond. Here he finds his inner showman and stages the swordplay and effects with a degree of competency he has heretofore never displayed. (No, not even in the Academy Award winning Chicago).

Of course, that’s because Marshall is swallowed up in the machine. Bruckheimer and Disney are making product and while someone like Verbinski (take another look at this year’s Rango and you can see the kind of distinct vision he can have) could in some ways assert his own identity as a filmmaker, Marshall is just a cog. No one would let him mess this up too badly. There’s a sense that this movie could almost have churned itself out. But not quite. There’s a small wit and the occasional nice visual staging going on (the 3D is even used strikingly at times) and the action beats arrive on time. Some, like the series of escapes at the film’s opening and, later, a ship’s bewitched rigging tangling up mutineers, are done with a likable, unexpected, flourish.

The movie’s not great (I doubt the series will ever be as good as the original, and not just for lack of surprise) but it’s fun. Definitely not for those already tired of the series or cynical about this one’s very existence, it’s at least not too insistent about your approval. It’s sufficiently good-natured (relaxed, even) and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying a film I was fully prepared to find unnecessary. Every buckle gets swashed (leaving lots of dangling plot lines for future installments) with a degree of energy that can make for a pleasant night at the movies.

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