Thursday, May 19, 2011

Live action films: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has a great deal in common with its predecessor: a delightful performance by Johnny Depp, a tale of pirates mixed with supernatural weirdness, various groups at cross purposes with shifting alliances, and almost all of the same characters back for more. And yet, it's clear almost from the get-go that some things have changed.

Very near the start of this movie, there's a brief scene in which pirates are being tortured in cages and we see one get his eye plucked out by ravenous crow. It's gruesome stuff. Next up we see Jack Sparrow make his first appearance in this movie, popping out of a floating coffin. The specter of death continues to hang over the entire movie in a way that it didn't over Curse of the Black Pearl, despite that movie being full of walking skeletons.

This time out, Will and Elizabeth are being charged for their act of helping Jack escape the gallows at the end of Curse of the Black Pearl. The East India Trading Company tells Will he'll only be pardoned if he tracks down Sparrow and brings back his magic compass. Jack, meanwhile, is on the hunt for a key that will unlock a chest that contains the heart of the legendary Davy Jones. Why? Jack made a (really stupid) deal with Jones that if the Jones raised his ship after it sank and let him captain it for ten years, he would then serve on Jones' ship (the Flying Dutchman) for 100 years. Now he wants to find Jones' estranged heart and use it as leverage to blackmail his way out of the pact.

How is this "disguise" fooling anybody?

Elizabeth escapes her prison and pursues too, hiding amongst a group of sailors who are too stupid to realize she is a woman, despite knowing that a woman is hiding among them and despite the fact that she completely looks and sounds like a woman at all times.

We get a ton of new characters thrown at us too. There's Tom Hollander as fussy East Indian Trading Company bad guy Cutler Becket and David Schofield as his chief enforcer, Mercer, who I think is supposed to be coldly terrifying, but doesn't get to do much of consequence. Stellan SkarsgÄrd surfaces as Bootstrap Bill, Will's estranged father, and this solid actor gets to mostly sit around with a starfish glued to his face while looking sad.

The adorably weird Tia Dalma.

More fun is Naomie Harris as the mysterious Tia Dalma, a weird woman with some sort of connection to the supernatural who gets a couple of scenes consulting the principals about their troubles. She talks in odd rhythms and rolls her eyes wildly and seems to be having a grand time. Plus, despite a weird black ooze dripping from her mouth, somehow managed to make her character pretty sexy.

Davy Jones(ZUH)!

Most fun of all the new additions, though, is Bill Nighy (and some computers) as the villainous pirate grim reaper Davy Jones. Jones is a wonderfully imaginative creation, a pirate with squid for a head (its tentacles suggesting a beard), a massive lobster claw for one hand, and covered in barnacles. Despite all the inhuman, CGI weirdness painting over him, Nighy's performance still shines through and it really what makes Jones so memorable. His movements are erratic and full of little sudden tics. He adds an extra syllable to any sentence that ends in a consonant. And staring out of that inhuman face are utterly human eyes that can, without a word spoken, convey the deepest longing or the fiercest anger.

While I'm quite fond of Davy Jones' look, I can't say the same for the design of his crewmen. They're so full of tiny, busy, scraggly detail that I find them - much like modern film incarnation of the Transformers - hard to even look at. Conceptually, they're so similar to Jones. The result, though, is miles off the mark.

Davy Jones, mournful musician.

My favorite moment in Dead Man's Chest is a brief scene of Davy Jones, alone in his chambers in the Flying Dutchman, playing a macabre tune on a massive pipe organ, playing the keys not with his hands, but with his flowing beard of tentacles. It's a completely kooky, pulpy, oddball scene and I love it for all its joyful weirdness.


Not everything about Dead Man's Chest quite lives up to its predecessor, though. The tone is wildly uneven - some scenes lean too far to the gruesome (like that literally eye-popping opener) while at other times the comedy tips a bit too far into cartoonish slapstick. The story is also a lot less focused. For the first outing we had a central protagonist in Elizabeth, with Will and Jack's supporting stories working in tandem with hers. This time all three function as separate protagonists. Plus we've got two lead villains with completely separate motivations. It's not incomprehensible, but it does get a little muddy at times.

Still, the performances and that mix of swashbuckling action and supernatural threats adds up to another enjoyable ride, if not quite as satisfying or as sure as the first outing. I give Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest 7 out of 10 mice.

Does anyone else think the filmmakers may have been using Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as their model on how to build the second movie of a trilogy? Let's look at the similarities: Both take the roguish supporting character that everyone liked best from the first movie (Han Solo and Jack Sparrow) and elevate them to the role of co-protagonist. Both send the co-protagonists on separate journeys. Both take the three stars and kind of sow the seeds of a love-triangle amongst them. Both give the other male lead the surprise return of a sinful father they'd like to redeem. Both end with the loveable rogue seemingly lost to a dreadful end and the other good guys planning a desperate, dangerous rescue.

I think they meant to do that, don't you?

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