Saturday, January 13, 2007

Nick's Fave Films of '06: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Another glorious year of the cinema cycle has come and gone. And while I don't spend a huge amount of time at the multiplex, I did manage to catch a few pictures that piqued my interest. Since I avoid most of the summer films and obvious oscarbaiters, the list is short and perhaps odd. Nevertheless, I thought the follow flicks were standouts on a number of levels, and the first installment on this list has already found its way into the distinguished annals of my dvd collection, and shaken the floorboards of my little apartment with its five discrete channels of Dolby Digital surround-sound:

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
Directed by Gore Verbinski,
Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

A film of better-than-average but decidedly mixed critical reaction, Dead Man's Chest is a glorious resurrection of the fun-for-fun's-sake B-film that hollywood has, tragically, all but stopped making.

Nowadays, the monster movie, the jungle epic, and a journey under-the-sea or to the center of the earth are all but impossible to find, unsullied some agonizing bit of hollywood moralizing or hamfisted political subtext hitched onto the back like a Ferarri forced to tow a tornado-alley trailer stocked with a family of twelve. The subsequent void of genuinely fun stories has been filled only sporadically and with limited success by the likes of Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, but has also given rise to all manner of counterfeits. Not the smallest offender of which are the new Star Wars films. An 'action-adventure' trilogy so crammed with pop-myth psychobabble so philosophically half-baked, that the attention they recieve as works of modern myth is frankly disconcerting. (ie, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes. Now, I absolutely must kill you, because you are absolutely evil.") Oi...

Dead Man's Chest is not only miles ahead of most of its action-adventure contemporaries, but also leagues better than the first installment, which I couldn't bring myself to enjoy no matter how many chances I gave it. 'Chest' mercifully lacks the tedium and tag-team written tonal schizophrenia of "Curse of the Black Pearl" To wit, "I'm whimsical 70's era disney. Now I'm horror. Now I'm action. Now I'm a dull period romance. How bout a long, pointless, tensionless fight scene with invincible monsters?" In one scene the film is breezy and comical. In the next, pirates are murdering innocents who are boarding themselves up in houses, and we're unambiguously in horror territory. So which is it? Who knows? I do. It's a dissonant mess.

Dead Man's Chest benefits tremendously from a tighter narrative and tonal focus, thanks to the fact that Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio alone wrote the script this time around. Keeping what was good with the original, and excising the stuff that wasn't. Which is to say, everything that was already written by a different screenwriter before they came on board. DMC Scratches the sort of itch that ordinarily makes me waltz to my dvd collection and pull out 'Robot Monster' or 'Monster that Challenged the World' or some variant thereof. Every baroque-detail gilded frame of scabby monsters and tropical islands is a feast for the eyes and imagination. Davy Jones as played by Bill Nighy is an unparalleled synthesis of performance, direction, and astonishing digital fx work, and one of the most interesting villains to grace the screen in years. Depp reprises his role as Jack Sparrow in a role that alternates between conniving and pure physical comedy, and even Keira Knightley manages to burn holes in the screen, playing as sultry a role as I never knew she had in her.

In short, Dead Man's Chest is a rare beast. Pure giant-octopus-and-voodoo laden schlock with no lofty pretentions or obligatory hollywood moralizing shoehorned in about the environment, dangers of technology, or any dream sequence in which anyone learns the value of family over a wall street career. At no point was there a meeting in this film's production in which anyone said "So what are we gonna do for the third act scene where everyone has to stop in the middle of the action and talk about what they've learned?" And if they said so, they were soundly and deservedly flogged. Hollywood is usually at it's most embarassingly incompetent when its films step behind the pulpit and clear their throats. Let the funmakers deliver the fun, which is exactly what Verbinski and company did here in spades. That's not to say the film is narratively unsubstantial; there's still a lot going on here for the attentive viewer. But unlike most of it's peers, DMC's themes never get in the way of the storytelling.

I will grant that everyone's standards of a 'fun for funs sake' movie will vary, and I've learned it's a matter of the thorniest contention, (I once even refused starting a relationship with a girl who, while in discussion of such things, launched into a spirited defense of 'Armageddon'...) but this one fit my bill perfectly. Best seen in the theater or on a big ol' widescreen tv. (those of you with them have my envy. ;)

Get the popcorn, crank the surround, dim the lights, and enjoy. At least until 'World's End' comes along this summer.


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