Sunday, May 27, 2007

Three-quelitis' Latest Victim: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Not long ago, I said I hated the Jerry Bruckheimer approach to filmmaking, and now, having seen the second sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl entitled POTC: At World's End, I can emphatically reiterate this sentiment.

The movie embodies so many of the things that I hate about a Bruckheimer production, from the eyeball-searing special effects to the overbearing music score to the ludicrous dialogue, this time taking the form of clumsy "inspirational" speeches delivered by a truly uncharismatic actor (Keira Knightley). If I had heard her say "our enemies" one more time I swear I would have thrown something at the projector.

I write this review as someone who genuinely enjoyed the first POTC movie and even its sequel, Dead Man's Chest. Both of those films, the first much more than the second, had a sense of fun driving them. The beauty of the first film really hit me upon repeat viewings: it had all the proper ingredients of a good action adventure movie: an engaging plot, a truly despicable villian, a charismatic lead character, and a plucky, beautiful heroine. Of course, the key ingredient, without which everything else is useless, is a well-woven narrative. The movie fails in this respect, and everything else comes tumbling down. It's a chop-suey of iconic visuals that have no real emotional impact, mainly because they feel like parts from different movies thrown together.

The opening scene, where several people, including a young boy, are hanged for aiding pirates, with its somber lighting and grim music score, is a potentially powerful scene...that belongs in another movie, not one that's supposed to be fun. Clearly, the intent is to establish the villain, Cutler Beckett, as a badass, a fearsome adversary, but in truth and in fact it just does not have the desired effect. From start to finish, he is incurably bland. The sad thing is that this is not the only scene that feels sorely out of place in this film, because in a lot of ways the movie does not even seem to know what it is, with its mishmash of jokes, murder, mayhem and bad "Braveheart" speeches. If Keira Knightley's condition for coming back to the series was that the writers churn out these prosaic "we must fight" speeches for her, then I frankly hope her clout in Hollywood diminishes greatly over the next few years.

I won't even go into the specifics of the chaotic plot, other than there seems to be some kind of ham-handed allegory as to how corporate capitalism, as represented by the East India Trading Company, is bad, while independent, free enterprise as represented by the pirates, is good, or something like that. Everything else is a hopeless mess.

The film does have its redeeming moments, such as all of Johnny Depp's screentime. Although his sashaying drunkard does get old at some point, it's still head and shoulders more enjoyable than most other things in the film. Geoffrey Rush, who played the campy pirate villain to perfection in the first movie is here considerably less menacing but nonetheless a welcome addition to a mostly uninspired cast. He does his fair share of scenery chewing, and is easily the most "piratey" of the bunch.

Although done to excess, the digital effects are still topnotch. The last act was good for the most part though they really tended to go overboard (no pun intended). Still, on the top of visual effects achievements, one of my biggest, and I mean literally BIGGEST pet peeves was how the writers killed the Kraken, the gigantic squid that dragged the Black Pearl and Captain Jack into Davy Jones' locker at the end of the second film, OFF CAMERA. The once fearsome beast shows up here only as an enormous carcass washed up on land. What an anticlamactic end to such a magnificent movie monster. I don't know if they were trying to save money on the effects they would need to animate it or were just too unimaginative to think of how else it could have been killed (they had a sea goddess, for crying out loud, who could probably have dispatched it easily). The climactic whirlpool scene was indeed breathtaking, although the classic Bruckheimer overkill pops up again and again.

The biggest problem with this movie was that it didn't keep things simple, the way the first one did. As with its box-office rival, Spider-Man 3, its makers tried to cram too many things into one movie, and when one thinks about it there were just so many narrative dead-ends that the film could certainly have done without, particularly the proliferation of double-crossing.

Well, the box-office verdict is mostly in, and it appears that this installment of POTC, largely expected to smash Spider-Man 3's opening weekend record, fell short. While I wasn't too thrilled with Spider-Man 3, this is still good news to me because for all its flaws, Spider-Man 3 was still better than this piece of crap. At least that movie's beating heart was the story itself, rather than a prosaic, ill-conceived story device created so Orlando Bloom could utter hideous lines like "it's always belonged to you."

With apparently all three of the 2007 summer's big threequels being huge disappointments, I hope Hollywood learns a very important lesson about market saturation...

...ah, who are we kidding?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The End of an Era

Last Thursday, I picked up issue #13 of Ultimates 2, which marks Mark Millar's and Bryan Hitch's final issue on the series before they pass the baton on to a new creative team.

Since it first launched in January of 2002, The Ultimates has come to redefine comics as readers know them, as most vividly exemplified in Marvel's recent Civil War event. Grim and gritty comics may have had their heyday in the 1980s with Frank Miller and Alan Moore leading the way, but it was only with Hitch's 21st century take on Marvel's Avengers that comics achieved such remarkable verisimilitude. Comics had a real world feel and a "widescreen" scope. Thus was Millar's and Hitch's legacy to the world of illustrated storytelling clearly etched into history.

It's been 26 issues of mayhem, wall-to-wall action interspersed with scathing political commentary, presented in some of the most stunning artwork ever seen in a mainstream comic book publication, and as the curtain falls on one of the most visually arresting creative collaborations of all time I cannot help but feel a little empty inside.

Issue #13 wraps up Millar's "Grand Theft America" storyline, which has a number of the world's Eastern powers such as Russia, China and Middle Eastern nations such as Syria conspiring to overthrow America, the "new Roman Empire" by throwing together their own assemblage of superhumans. This politically-charged scenario, which has the coalition's team known as "The Liberators" violently taking over both Manhattan and Washington D.C. in a lightning strike by issue #9, ends with an extremely violent confrontation between Asgardian half-brothers Thor and Loki (who worked with the Liberators) and their assembled forces.

That Millar and Hitch wrap up their tenure on the most successful 21st century reimagining of some of the comic world's most recognizable superheroes to date is saddening, but what is more disappointing is how they seem to drift away, at the eleventh hour, from the controversial realpolitik approach that has made this book so memorable, towards more conventional superheroics. Thor is revealed to be an actual god and not the lunatic he was set up as in the first five issues of Ultimates Vol. 2. The Ultimates break away from the U.S. government and are funded by Tony Stark instead. Sound familiar? Yes, it sounds a lot like Millar is trying to make the series a lot more like its mainstream counterpart, the Avengers, who themselves have gone in the other direction, with one half of the team becoming civil servants and the other half going underground.

Millar's change in direction, whether intentional or not, seems to perfectly accommodate succeeding writer Jeph Loeb, who is not exactly the left winger Millar was.

Still, at least all plot points are tied up quite neatly, with nothing left to the imagination, and at least, even after all the set-up for the next creative team has been established, Millar and Hitch manage to sneak in at least one nicely dark scene as one of the team members, the lone traitor in their ranks, is murdered in cold blood. This is a character whose mainstream counterpart features quite prominently in the Avengers titles, and so the death is a nice way of asserting the independence of the Ultimate universe from the Marvel universe proper.

I don't know what Millar's and Hitch's next project is, but if, as Millar once boasted, they can make Superman as interesting as they've made Captain America and company, I'd definitely start reading the Man of Steel books quite regularly.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

When Studio Executives, and Not Filmmakers, Make Movies.

I hate the Jerry Bruckheimer approach to making movies. With a few exceptions, the man has been responsible for some of the trashiest movies of our time. He is the man whose movies exemplify the phrase style over substance, and in many instances his movies don't have either of these two, but try to pass of bombast, thundering music, slow motion photography and repeated use of orange-tinted lighting as style. As much as I enjoyed it, I think last year's Pirates of the Caribbean sequel was made very much in this vein, with some rather mindless action sequences and a reed-thin plot holding everything together.

Which is why I found myself genuinely saddened by what happened in Spider-Man 3, even after I read about it breaking box-office records. It struck me, even though I enjoyed it, that the people behind the movie were taking the Bruckheimer route.

What made the Spider-Man series special for me was that it eschewed the traditional action-movie formula and went for character and story development above all else, with the action set-pieces being more incidental than instrumental to Peter Parker's journey from boy to hero. It was very much the case with the first movie and even more so in the second. Sam Raimi and his screenwriters proved that you could make Jerry Bruckheimer and George Lucas money without going for all-out action sequences or a million digital effects shots. Raimi's weapon of choice as always the strength of his characters and the actors who played them, and the human drama that took place between them; the action was never center-stage. It's not an easy balancing act to achieve; last year Bryan Singer tried aping the Raimi formula with his attempted Superman revival and flopped spectacularly, whatever Warner Brothers execs may claim.

Unfortunately, it seems that Raimi's weapons were very much blunted for the third (and, potentially his final) installment of the series. For this, we have to thank Avi Arad and the suits at Sony.

I once wrote in this blog that Arad was a genius and the next Bruckheimer. I now basically recant on the former and while I'm still standing pat on the latter, I have to say that is not a good thing at all.

Looking back at the entire slate of Marvel films that have hit screens since Blade knocked Saving Private Ryan off the top of the box-office charts in 1998, I have to say that the only true standout, quality films they have produced are the first two X-Men movies and the first two Spider-Man movies. All four of these movies were brilliant in that they effectively crossed over from fanboy fare into films that everybody could appreciate, and they definitely (especially the two Spider-Man films) transcended the whole "comic book movie" stigma. While Avi Arad's name is attached to all of these movies in one fashion or another, he should not dare take credit for their artistic integrity. Credit for that should go to Bryan Singer for his vision of Marvel's merry mutants and Sam Raimi for his masterful rendition of everyone's favorite web-slinger. These movies were great because the directors prevailed over the studio execs in the most important creative choices.

Arad has been rather public, almost to the point of gloating about how he strong-armed Raimi into shoehorning Venom into the second Spider-Man sequel. Having seen the movie twice, I can say for certain that this was a huge mistake.

The Spider-Man movies have followed a very definite, deliberate trajectory since the first film, as exemplified, I would say, by Peter Parker's relationships with both Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn. These are the most important threads running through all three movies.That, and the lessons Peter learns about his power as Spider-Man and his responsibility to the people of New York City. This particular installment was meant to be a movie about forgiveness. This was exemplified by the story of Sandman.

Throwing Venom into the mix, however, just made things that much more convoluted, and if the story feels bloated and overlong, it's simply because the way the entire series was designed, it simply was not meant to accommodate the rather one-dimensional Eddie Brock. All of Raimi's villains of choice have been conflicted men corrupted by power, in stark contrast to Brock, who is a corrupt man who is corrupted even more by power. He does not belong in Raimi's universe, no matter how much aplomb Topher Grace invested in his portrayal.

I don't know how much money Sony threw at Sam Raimi or how many of their executives got down on their knees to get him to tell the press that he had learned to like Venom even after his initial vehement dislike, but from the way Spider-Man 3 played out it distinctly feels to me like he was lying through his teeth. Venom just did not belong in the story. Maybe, just maybe, the black suit did, but not Venom.


Sure, Venom may have served a useful story purpose by bringing out dark (dork?) Peter and providing a device through which Harry Osborn was finally killed off, but that could have been done in another manner, if the writers were creative enough.


Here's how the story could have played out without Venom:

Peter is harassed by Harry, who gets the bump on his head.

His relationship with Mary Jane is strained because of how full of himself he becomes (which happened even without the black suit)

Enter Sandman (hehe), Uncle Ben's real killer, whom Spider-Man defeats and believes dead.

Harry reenters the picture and schemes against Peter. Mary Jane leaves Peter upon Harry's threat, just like in the movie.

Sandman's daughter dies of the sickness (which she really has) which is ailing her.

Meanwhile, Sandman reassembles himself and, in a rage, kidnaps Mary Jane to get back at Spider-Man (don't ask me how he knows to kidnap her, I'm sure they could have thought of something).

No matter how distraught he is, Peter peels himself away from Harry, goes up against the extremely powerful Sandman and is having a hard time beating him.

Harry finds out (perhaps not through the butler, a rather clumsy device) that Peter didn't really kill his father and decides to help Peter out, even though his experimental goblin formula is highly unstable and causing his body to rapidly deteriorate.

The two of them team up, and using a combination of Spidey's skill and Harry's Goblin-tech, they are able to subdue the Sandman to the point where he is helpless, but Harry's "New Goblin" formula ends up killing him...JUST LIKE IT DID IN THE COMICS.

Peter is in a position to kill Sandman, who, now helpless, gets to tell Peter his sad story, and Peter ends up forgiving him, just like what actually happened. Sandman is either carted off to jail or slips away in the sewage system, I don't know.

Peter and MJ bury Harry, then get back together.

The movie, with a few tweaks, could have worked just fine had it played out this way and would have been much closer in spirit to its two predecessors. Not only that, it would have been a lot shorter to boot.

Arad may be patting himself on the back with the new sequel's record-breaking box-office, but by shoving something down the throat of his one remaining creative genius, Sam Raimi, he basically diluted the quality of what, in my opinion, could have been the best comic-book based film series of all time.

I still enjoyed Spider-Man 3, Arad's and Sony's tampering notwithstanding, but in my humble opinion it could have been so much more...had it focused on less.

I can only hope that the upcoming Iron Man is made more like the first two Spider-Man movies, because it strikes me that if Sony makes any more Spider-Man movies, they will try to ape the formula of this third one more than that of the first two.

Filmmaking, really, should be left to the filmmakers and not to their paymasters.