May 26, 2007

Pirates Of The Caribbean 3: At World's End (5/26/07)

Lettergrade: B

I know I'm in the minority on this, but I'm one of the few who thought that Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest, was a better, more dynamic movie than the first one. I've been crankier and more cynical toward big summer blockbusters over the last couple years, but have found both Dead Man's Chest and this new one, Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End, to be imaginative and terribly exciting. Like its two predecessors, At World's End is pretty damn long with some remarkably dense plotting. Fortunately, it's also quite entertaining.

The story is a direct continuation of the events of Dead Man's Chest. If you haven't seen it, you won't know what the hell is going on in this one. Even if you have, you might be at a loss at times to explain what exactly is happening. This is a movie where pretty much each character has his / her own objective, and is constantly telling vague partial-truths, making side-deals with enemies (and then deals upon those deals), and double crossing everyone else. I have spent a good deal of time talking with Laura about who was trying to do what to whom during which part of the film over the last couple days, and I'm still not convinced I have it all figured out.

The spoiler-free synopsis is that East India Trading Company sales-rep Lord Cutler Beckett -- the evil asshole who set the events of part 2 in motion by busting up Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley's wedding -- continues to round up and eradicate pirate-kind from the face of the earth. Thanks to the climax of Dead Man's Chest, he now has the disembodied heart of Davy Jones, and can make Jones (voiced by a scenery gnawing Bill Nighy) and his ship of damned-sailors-mutated-into-supernatural-sea-life help him do it. Meanwhile, Knightley, Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush (as Captain Barbosa, who died in the first movie) stage an expedition to rescue Johnny Depp from Davy Jones' Locker (which is sort of like Hell / Purgatory / Utah). Assuming they are successful and make it back to the Land of the Living, they then must find a way to save their people from extermination and kick the collective ass of the East India Trading Company. A good deal of the pleasure of watching this movie comes from seeing how the characters and plot threads from Dead Man's Chest payoff, so I won't divulge much more.

The remarkable thing is that somehow the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks have managed to capture more of the feeling of the classic Star Wars movies than the new Star Wars movies did. The big difference is that Pirates gives Han Solo and Boba Fett more attention than Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, which I certainly won't complain about.

Two key things, however, have somewhat hurt all three movies in the series for me: The first is that the screenplays are written as if every single character is memorable and vitally important. I saw part 2 with my friend Tom, who leaned over to me part way through and asked who the hell some of the people in the movie are and if we, the audience, are supposed to know them. Although I had the benefit of having watched part 1 again recently, I had a bit of trouble recalling who everyone was myself.

The second drag is flair for excess. At World's End is nearly 3 hours, and much like parts 1 and 2 there are sequences that are a bit more bulky than they probably need to be. I was sort of hoping that there would be something in part 3 that would explain why we needed the 25 minute sequence on Cannibal Island in part 2, but nope. The filmmakers seem to be staunch believers in the more-is-more philosophy of filmmaking, which I suppose is fine is you have the time and money, but I really do believe that there's a diminishing returns theory that comes into play when movies get this lengthy. You don't enjoy the end as much because you're so wiped out from the middle. More often than not, I feel it is more effective to pace things on the modest side and let the audience walk away wanting more. But then, no one's paying me to make these things, so maybe I should keep my yap shut.

The movie was directed by Gore Verbinski, who in addition to making the other two pictures, was responsible for Mousehunt, The Mexican, The Ring, and those commercials from years back featuring alcoholic frogs who promote Budweiser products. While he undeniably has great skill for staging elaborate scenes and getting pretty images on film, I'm still not convinced he has the best story sense. All the films mentioned above (as well as Pirates of the Caribbean 1: The Curse of the Black Pearl) have really suffered from the same overindulgence issues that I think have harmed these last two movies.

When it comes down to it, though, it's hard to deny how well-made these things are, and how pleasurable they are to watch. At its heart, At World's End is a classic Hollywood spectacle; an amazing achievement in set design, visual effects artistry, elaborate staging, and popcorn moviemaking. Pacing issues aside, it's rare for a movie to try to do something so elaborate these days, and to pull it off as well as it is done here.

May 18, 2007

Shrek The Third (05/18/07)

Lettergrade: D

Shrek The Third has some good laughs, but the thinness of the plot combined with a relative lack of ambition sort of makes the whole thing feel like a direct to video sequel.

In this one, Shrek's father-in-law dies early in the movie, meaning that Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are the new rulers of 'Far, Far Away.' Shrek doesn't want the title or the responsibility, and sets out to find Fiona's distant cousin Arthur, a nerdish high school kid voiced by Justin Timberlake, to take crown instead. As he is leaving on his quest, Fiona tells Shrek she's pregnant, leading to a ton of anxiety on Shrek's part about whether or not he'll be an adequate father. Meanwhile, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), disgraced after the events of Shrek 2, plots to take over 'Far, Far Away' in Shrek's absence.

While part 2 advanced the characters from the first picture considerably and mixed them all up in an inventive plotline, there's not much surprising about what transpires in this one. The basic dilemma, once again, is that Shrek feels he cannot fit in or achieve a certain task because he's an ogre. While there's a nice sentiment in there about believing in yourself and pushing forward all the same, it's pretty much the same note hit upon by the previous two movies. How fucking insecure is this guy that he needs to be reassured of his self-worth in every movie? Again, it has some good jokes and it is not a bad movie by any stretch, but I doubt that any children will experience a blinding flood of enlightenment or inspiration while in the theater.

I didn't like the first Shrek very much. The back-story on it is that Jeffrey Katzenberg was the #2 Disney who was unceremoniously fired around the time The Lion King came out in 1994. In retaliation, he got together with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen and formed Dreamworks SKG. Katzenberg would essentially run Dreamworks Animation and most of its pictures would bear his executive signature.

At time it came out in 2001, the first Shrek appeared to be a thinly veiled "fuck you" to Katzenberg's former bosses. Prince Farquaad (fuckwad?), voiced by John Lithgow, was even reported to have many of the same quirks and mannerisms as then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. If so, I don't know how a reasonable person can fail to see it as a remarkably petty multimillion dollar vendetta project.

Shrek The First took a lot of the old Disney pictures to task for being sappy and somewhat irrelevant (which is fine), but then delivered a really saccharine Disney-style ending itself. Then there were the modern songs and all the pop culture references, which felt like blatant youth-appeal corporate-synergy cross-promotional bullshit, robbing the movie of any potential class or timelessness.

Shrek The Third tones all this down considerably, but perhaps it is telling of the series that once the novelty of the vocal talent starts to wear off and you peel away the garish soundtrack, what's left, while pleasant, isn't really all that interesting.

May 4, 2007

Spider-Man 3 (05/04/07)

Lettergrade: F

Wow, what a pile of shit. I thought the first Spider-Man was kinda okay bordering on generic. The second was something of an improvement: It was quite decent and well-made, despite having a couple minor issues. This one... I just don't know what the hell happened. So much of it is so awkward and messy. There are way too many characters and plot-lines knocking around, and the story threads are introduced and revisited pretty much at random. Sitting here now, I'm trying to think through the movie chronologically and I simply cannot do so. I can't recall what happened when, to whom, and why. Such behavior would be somewhat acceptable if the movie had a strong heart and an over-all thematic point. Since it has neither of those things, the picture lumbers from scene to scene, feeling painfully long at 140 minutes.

Allow me to elaborate on what exactly goes on in this movie: As the picture starts, things are going atypically well for Spider-Man / Peter Parker. The general public likes him, and he's about to propose to Mary Jane.

Enter James Franco (as Harry Osborne), who I will insist is a strong, nuanced actor despite there being no evidence of that here. You may remember that he's the son of Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin from the first movie. At the end of the second movie, Harry vows revenge after discovering that Peter is Spider-Man and might have killed his father. As 3 starts, it's unclear how much time has passed between this revelation and now, to say nothing of what exactly Harry's plan is. Harry's main form of revenge seems to be sending larger floral arrangements to Mary Jane than Peter can afford. There is a scene very early in the picture where Franco casually walks out of a retro-futuristic steam room while Green Goblin equipment stands by. Perhaps he's subjected himself to the same performance enhancing gas that made his father go insane in the first movie? If so, there's no real explanation for why Franco himself doesn't have similar psychotic episodes, but what the hell.

Anyway, while all this is going on some futuristic space goo lands, and attaches itself to the back of Peter's motorcycle. What the fuck is it? Who knows. We won't see it again for an hour, so you can sort of forget about it for a while.

Then Flint Marko (played by Lowell from Wings) breaks out of prison. He visits his daughter who's apparently sick or something. Later, he falls into a completely unexplained top-secret science experiment that's happening in a field in the middle of nowhere. Why Flint happens to be out in that field is also completely unexplained. Anyway, from that point on he's part man, part sand - or the "Sandman" - and decides to use his newfound power to remain inarticulate and rob banks occasionally.

Eventually, the black goo from way earlier in the movie takes over Peter and turns him into Dark Spider-Man, much like the bad Kryptonite did to Superman in Superman III... except no Richard Prior. After a painful section of the film where Peter somewhat resembles an Emo-ed out Adoplh Hitler, Spider-Man rips the black suit off, and it lands on Topher Grace (a rival photographer at the Daily Bugle), turning him into Venom, yet another under-nourished villain.

Still with me? There's a lot of soap opera and bad laugher as the movie proceeds and all these plot lines begin to interweave. Most critically, however, a central thrust is missing that at least made the second picture move forward in a reasonably exciting way. In that movie, Doc Ock builds a large fusion doo-hickey that might destroy the city if it is not stopped. Nothing of the sort happens in this one: No ticking time-bomb, no impending doom, nothing. Just a ton of vaguely drawn characters who are introduced and occasionally revisited, but never given much to do. Harry has amnesia for most of the movie, and Peter begins a vague, non-defined flirtation with Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard) that never amounts to anything. It's all just maddeningly aimless.

My solution to this unholy clusterfuck would simply be to remove Sandman from the movie altogether. Although his inclusion supplied the movie with its one good scene (the one where Sandman tries to pull himself together for the first time), it pissed me off that they retroactively shoehorned him into the storyline of first movie... suggesting he actually killed Uncle Ben while Peter was wrestling the Macho Man Randy Savage. Making the space goo / Dark Spidey / Venom storyline front and center might at least allow the movie to proceed in a direct line toward its conclusion. And we are told that Sandman has turned to crime to buy medicine for his sick daughter. Well, we see him knock over an armored car and several banks during the flick... how goddamn sick is this kid?

In any case, I must say that I don't know if I can take many more comic book / super-hero movies. I thought last summer's Superman Returns was labored and painful, and I'm rarely interested in the genré anymore apart from the occasional X-Men movie or something like Ang Lee's Hulk, which I _did_ like despite the fact that the general public hated it passionately.

As with all movies, utter realism isn't as important to me as a concept that at least makes me think. During Spider-Man 3, I was mostly thinking about what I wanted to eat after the movie was over, and how I could most efficiently get my laundry done before work on Monday. Perhaps that's what Sam Raimi wanted me to be thinking about, but more likely than not, I would guess that he started making the movie without having a clear idea of what he wanted to do with it.