Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pack a cutless, and a lunch

By now you've no doubt heard the critical wails regarding the running time of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
(more on that later, unfortunately), and while that certainly detracts from enjoying this swashbuckler, this is still a movie you need to see in theaters. Even if you didn't like or see the first one, you must give 'Dead Man's Chest' a chance just for the opportunity to see the new benchmark of digital effects. The achievements on display here are of the caliber which will cause George Lucas to cough and leave the theater early. Literally amazing, and you don't find yourself saying that very often in this CGI world we live in.

The effects are so good that casual viewers will not even realize they're looking at something which took hundreds of silicon hours to create. Director Gore Verbinski has so much confidence in his effects that he fills scenes with extreme close-ups of his digital creations, just so geeks like me can scrutinize every gill, looking for a pixel, and finding none. You have to wonder what the early stages of this film was like, explaining to production designers that the main adversaries were men resembling sharks, mollusks and other invertebrae, and that said characters would be played straight, with no camp value.

Although Verbinski's story-telling techniques need to be questioned, his creative efforts cannot. Davy Jones' ship just drips with eye candy in every corner. The idea of this supernatural pirate is that he offers drowning and near-death sailors a chance: die or pledge 100 years of service to this octopus-faced monstrosity. In exchange for cheating death, Jones and his crew start to meld with the sea, gradually becoming more amphibian than man. There's a great scene where we meet a Jones partner who has actually become a part of the vessel, acting as some kind of candle-holding gargoyle, and it's just magical when he painfully tries to interact with Orlando Bloom. What excites me most about Davy Jones and Co. is that this is just the tip of the iceberg, in regards to the sequel. We never really see what kinds of powers he and his crew have, and we get glimpses of some really messed up crewmembers, such as one guy who appeared to be about 80% shrimp.

Unfortunately, Davey Jones can't save this movie. I've always felt that an action movie shouldn't feel long unless it's adhering to respected source material (i.e. Lord of the Rings), and that's on display here. What we have is a simple story (everyone wants the chest) trying to be much more significant than it is. As a result, 'Dead Man's Chest' is insanely talky and in turn suffers from 'Phantom Menace syndrome,' whereby there's so much exposition to get through that by necessity there are a series of 'meeting' scenes which weigh down the movie. What's worse, all of the characters play these scenes like it's a critical part in a bad 'ER' episode, so the music and their voices are all screaming 'YOU BETTER LISTEN!!'

One of the problems I had with the first one was that the characters were given one note of emotion they had to adhere to. Bloom's character is 100% steadfast, Depp is Depp (but it strangely seems to work even better than the original) and Keira Knightly seemed to get her motivation from this creature, she never thinks to stop shouting at the camera or take that sneer off her face.

It's undoubtedly flawed, but sometimes enjoyable in its vices. Much has been said about the needless cannibal escape scene, but I see it as necessary, since so much of the film is people talking on a ship, you need a good land action scene early, even if it does add another half hour.

One thing to watch for: there's a great device in the first Toratuga (sp?) scene which is directly lifted from the Disneyland ride. Even though I haven't ridden it since 1989 (it was down for repairs last time I was there, goddammit), I instantly recognized it. See if you can catch it.

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