Saturday, July 15, 2006

Arrr, What a Mess!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The only reason I decided to check out Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (** out of ****) tonight is that I was trying to keep up my one-movie-a-week quota, and I had missed this past weekened, what with work and The Scarlet Pimpernel keeping me busy. That and a film that I actually did want to see---Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly---wasn't playing in any nearby New Jersey theater. (This weekend Linklater's film is scheduled to come to Montgomery Cinemas; perhaps I should consider making the long trip.)

I missed the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie in theaters, but when I watched it on DVD recently, I felt that, even with an ending that allows Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to sail away and thus leave it open for further adventures, The Curse of the Black Pearl could probably stand alone just fine by itself. But money, of course, is power, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer decided to spare no expense on the special effects in this second money-grab go-round. Sea creature pirates, a giant octopus, and other CGI effects populate Dead Man's Chest, but the sad effect is that, this time around, the hardware outdoes the humanity, as so happens with many a big-budget action "epic." Individual sequences dazzle, of course---a three-way swordfight that somehow develops into a three-way chase sequence on an island is a well-coordinated wow, for instance. But by the end, as the film ends with a cliffhanger promising more---this film and the third film were shot back-to-back---initial mild interest may give way to mere indifference. How will they rescue a main character in the third film? Frankly, who cares?

The Curse of the Black Pearl may have been rather bloated itself, but at least it had a sense of fun, some fine swashbuckling, and that terrifically funny performance from Johnny Depp, which works so well just because it's so damn unexpected. A pirate as a drunken drag queen type? Who would have thought of it? The danger for Depp was that his mannerisms would perhaps become old-hat and tiresome in the sequel, but miraculously he manages to be just as irresistably watchable in Dead Man's Chest---perhaps even more so, because his gloriously mannered performance actually provide some genuine moments of relief amid its noisy, bombastic special-effects spectacle.

Depp's still funny in this one, and this sequel works well enough when it recalls some of the genuine pleasures of the original. But those pleasures are fleeting in this film: Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski have basically turned this into the usual blockbuster thrill ride, sacrificing narrative coherence for the sake of increasingly meaningless thrills. After a while, honestly, I just got bored, for the most part.

A few years ago, the Wachowski Brothers saw the huge success of their film The Matrix and decided to try to turn it into a franchise by extending its mythology to two more films. The Matrix Reloaded and ...Revolutions certainly raked in the cash, but the artistic returns were arguably diminishing, as each film got progressively heavier and more bombastic and pretentious. These filmmakers and producers seem to think that trying to outdo themselves in the special-effects and action department is the way to give audiences more bang for the buck. Soullessness is the result instead. Parts of Dead Man's Chest are boring in the same way that most of The Matrix Revolutions was boring: a lot of nonstop noisy action for very little purpose, and barely a hint of emotion or intellect to support it. There's no vision in those films, really: only the desire to make more money. (Well, I guess the case is a little more complicated in the case of the Matrix sequels, especially Reloaded, which had its moments of brilliance.)

Thank goodness I was able to see it for free at Megamovies. Why support such blatantly capitalistic cinematic efforts monetarily?

Oh, but I better watch what I say. I may end up having to eat those words next summer if I actually decide to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Hypocrisy? Well, maybe. Consider it me trying to get into some kind of film-critic-like swing of things, seeing things that interest me alongside things that may not. If you are devoted to your favorite art, you take the good with the bad. And Dead Man's Chest, though not awful, was kinda on the bad side.

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