20 May 2011

Andy's Friday Five: Pirates of the Caribbean

Today, with the release of the fourth PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film ON STRANGER TIDES, there has been a few disses on the franchise from plenty of bloggers I care quite a deal about. It would seem the universal agreement is that the sequels got worse, with DEAD MAN'S CHEST being "okay' to AT WORLD'S END being called an "abomination", and I can't exactly understand why. Yes, I will agree that sometimes the plot did get a bit bloated, and the running time was mirrored the frenzied script, and sometimes editing could have improved somewhat, but the PIRATES movies also should be commended for their many accomplishes. I don't look at the trilogy and see a series where each consecutive movie is worse than the one before that, or that the sequels share the inevitable 'they suck compared to the original' curse. Nah, each PIRATES movie is something special, something marvelously and meticulously realized through superb scriptwork, production, acting, music...basically the whole shebang.

So what today's Friday Five is going to be is not so much a argument against peoples opinions about the sequels, but merely five elements about the sequels alone that I think are worthy of praise and shouldn't be considered rubbish. Feel free to counter my points, a lively discussion on the manner would be great, and peoples feelings on the sequels are diverse enough that we just might get some super interesting comments below (hopefully). Anyway, onto today's Friday Five:

DEAD MAN'S CHEST and AT WORLD'S END: Worth Recognition

5. Writing - Too bloated! Too many things happening! Why is he/she doing that? Wait, when did that happen? Instead of noting confusion or the loads of plots and subplots thrown into the mix of a two-film story, perhaps we should applaud Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio for crafting two summer blockbusters that dared to be intelligent, to push their characters and to, what's the phrase, throw everything in but the kitchen sink (?). Looking at the script, I would give the writing duo frakkin' Oscars for their achievement with the two movies. Most significantly, the characters - by God, it's beautiful to think about what they did. Each one of 'em has their own specific motivation, and they act based on that motivation. Often, and I say this generally, but doesn't it seem that characters sometime act against who they are because it serves the writers plot direction? Here, the characters dictate the plot. If it wasn't for the choices of Will or Elizabeth or Jack's manipulation of events, AT WORLD'S END really wouldn't have ended that way. So I applaud Elliot and Rossio for giving each character their moments to shine and giving each and every one of them their own choices and motivations that propel that plot. Additionally, the plot itself is worthy of applause. They were faced with the seemingly impossible task of bringing these core characters back together again after drifting apart at the end of BLACK PEARL, and they found a way to connect them all into the narrative. Bloody fantastic work. It's almost as if they planned the whole thing from BLACK PEARL! And yes, I know they didn't, but still, what they accomplish with plot, characters, cliffhangers, twists, action scenes, etc. - it's amazing. These are smart movies, and they are fun movies, and that's a difficult thing to balance. Thanks to Elliot and Rossio for the brilliant script, and Verbinski's direction and the editing team, DEAD MAN'S CHEST and AT WORLD'S END are beautiful examples of what sequels should be, what the writers should strive to achieve, and how to keep a perfect balance of the comedy, action, drama, plot, etc.

4. Editing - Personally, DEAD MAN'S CHEST is superb. I finished a rewatch of the trilogy a little over a month ago, and looking at the first sequel, the editing is spot-on. It's flawless. No single shot outstays its welcome, and thanks to Verbinski's Nolan-esque visual style (seriously, I would call Verbinski and Nolan the best in the business - next to you, Spielberg), each shot smoothly cuts to the next - it's just beautiful. Let's take action scenes, just for a quick example. It takes a talented eye to film action gorgeously, and Verbinski accomplishes this. Regarding DEAD MAN'S CHEST, let's look at the bar fight in Tortuga and the last thirty minutes, with the three-way Jack/Will/Norrington fight mixed with Elizabeth vs. Davvy's gang: excellent cinematography and excellent editing. Now, I can't boast that I have the vocabulary to succinctly give the praise I wish to, but it all boils down to this: as mentioned, these scripts are loaded with material that needs to be covered in a two and a half hour film - action, characters, plot, etc. - and I look at these sequels and I am floored by how smoothly they play all the way through with multiple viewings.

DEAD MAN'S CHEST is a crowning achievement, with all these elements working together harmoniously - each character, even the smaller ones, are given appropriate screentime, the action scenes are filmed and cut at a relentless pace that pulls the viewer in and refuses to let go, and the hefty plot is brilliantly tied into the action thanks to writers Elliot & Rossio making plot scenes smooth sailing instead of being insufferable.

AT WORLD'S END has a few problems in the editing department, I admit. It does feel too long, it does feel like a lot is happening and we really should cut to the chase (which is more a script problem then editing, because about every scene in WORLD'S END is valuable to either character or plot, so exercising one or more would be detrimental to the narrative and figuring out who is doing what and why, etc), but that film also deserves its share of accolades. Sorry to bring up fight scenes again, but the last thirty minutes are a triumph. Verbinski was tasked with cobbling together about, what, a dozen (?) storylines in a twenty minute action piece? And hell, he does it with style. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment AT WORLD'S END can boast is geography. There are plenty of films where characters are going all over the place, and I ain't got the faintest idea where they are - be it just talkie scenes, where the talk is being held, or who is where and when during the big battle. No such problems here. The two ships locked in combat, with hundreds of digital characters battling and explosions going everywhere, the geography nevertheless wasn't muddled and everything flowed just perfectly.

Next time you're watching DEAD MAN'S CHEST in particular, just pay specific attention to the editing. When I watch it, I see the art of editing. When I see AT WORLD'S END, I see editing that could have been improved, but still works far better than it should with so many chess pieces on the board.

3. Digital Effects - Ladies and gentlemen, Davvy Jones was freakin' right there on the screen, I kid you not. That wasn't digital effects, that was the studios summoning whatever dark spirits they saw fit to bring Jones back from his undersea prison of the dead. The work on these creatures is nothing short of extraordinary. Thanks to the success of Gollum in the LOTR trilogy, work on completely digital characters have advanced to such a degree that Davvy Jones is quite possibly the most realistic looking - or at least most amazingly rendered - bucket of pixels I have ever seen. Screw AVATAR and their nine foot tall Blue Man, Davvy Jones is complete and utter gorgeousness personified! Y'know, from a digital standpoint, otherwise, not so pretty. And the Kraken - yikes, just as beautiful! The insanity that is the AT WORLD'S END battle royale - hundreds of digital characters fighting in a raining environment: a digital goldmine. Arguments for the bloatedness of characters or doing too much for too long aside, how can one not marvel at the accomplishments of digital effects here? Or is it one of those cases where the market has become over saturated with digital characters all over the place that the sequels just are sorta 'meh' in that regard?

2. Characters & Mythology - Like any franchise that hopes to grow, DEAD MAN'S CHEST and AT WORLD'S END expand the mythology to a greater extent than BLACK PEARL, and the characters are pushed in multiple directions. All this for the better. BLACK PEARL was a simple story with two characters in love and a manipulative pirate who wants revenge. With the sequels, these ain't the same characters we knew before. Will falls deeper into the world of piracy, Elizabeth gains her own inner strength and unfortunate love triangle (sorta), and Jack is faced with his own mortality...begrudgingly. And we also get Norrington as a ruined man trying to gain his own form of redemption. In addition to the characters, the writers give us a God bound in a human body, a sea creature, and a corrupt heartbroken manthing who runs away from death. The writers and producers could have easily repeated the formula that made BLACK PEARL such a success, without really expanding the characters of the world they live in, just doing another, 'Hey, Elizabeth's in trouble again!' type thing. The characters could have very well remained stagnate, with good ol' Jack being the only one providing us with a character we could latch onto. Luckily, we got a trilogy with very real, very clear growth, and I love them for it.

1. Fun - CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL is quintessential fun. I can throw that gorgeous thing in the DVD player anytime of the year and I'll be a happy camper. Same goes with DEAD MAN'S CHEST. Loads and loads of fun inherent in that flick. C'mon, how could you not love the Jack/Will/Norrington threeway battle on the island? It's brilliant fun! And the giant wheel! And Jack negotiating with Davvy! And the two goofy pirates being all goofy like again! And Jack with cannibals! Tasked with providing resolution to lingering plot threads, AT WORLD'S END still has plenty of fun, but less of it. The final film of the Will/Jack/Elizabeth trilogy is a more serious adventure, with lots at stake and not even the presence of a couple dozen hallucinatory Jack Sparrows could infuse the same amount of fun as the last two. But that's okay, it's still a highly enjoyable movie. All three are, and that's amazing. To boast that you've successfully written and directed a trilogy with the same cast, writers and director is one thing, but to have all three films maintain the same style, the same sass and sense of wonder and excitement - well, now that's just one of the most amazing accomplishments a franchise can have.

So there you have it. I dig the sequels, and my order of loving them corresponds with the order they were released. Yes, sometimes the sequels didn't jell as well as the original, specifically AT WORLD'S END I'm thinking, but simultaneously, there's plenty to love and applaud. Instead of looking at the negatives, though, let's take a small gander at the positives. Anywhoozles, I'll probably be seeing ON STRANGER TIDES at some point this birthday weekend, and I hope it is halfway decent. To be honest, I'm not really looking forward to the mermaids...

Next week, the '[year] in film' Friday Five will continue with either the year 2000 or 1991. Haven't decided yet. Cheers!

1 comment:

Groggy Dundee said...

Good article. Agree with some points, disagree with others.

I think the sequels were bloated, though plotting per se wasn't necessarily the problem. The cannibal island scene of Dead Man's Chest could have bee scrapped completely - it's extremely long, unfunny and uninteresting, and adds little to the story. Plus the scenes with Tom Hollander and Jonathan Pryce in Port Royal seem to be from another movie.

At World's End had bad pacing problems. The Davy Jones' locker scenes went on too long and were ridiculous to the extreme, and the build-up to the final battle was a bit overdone. The inconsistent tone, going from mass executions to wacky monkey battles at the drop of the hat, bugged me too. There's also a lack of dramatic economy with Chow Yun-Fat's pointless character and poor use of Norrington and Governor Swann.

I did enjoy At World's End despite its flaws. You won't get me to say much good about Dead Man's Chest, I'm afraid. I'll still being seeing the new flick but I'm skeptical.