Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Redux)

I’ve been looking for a personal project for a while. By chance, I happened to replace my knackered Pirates of the Caribbean set and started thinking about Disney’s live action output in the past decade.  Most of it follows the Pirates formula, but it has some interesting anomalies and talking points. Whilst I have reviewed some of them before, I read them back and cringed myself to death, resurrected and decided to do something about it. From today, my focus is going to be 100% Disney as I’m going to be reviewing the Pirates films, the National Treasures, Tron Legacy, John Carter, The Muppets and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. There will be unrelated reviews inbetween however. I couldn’t think of anything clever as an umbrella topic to group them all under, so it’s my Live Action Disney-a-thon (or LADathon for shortsies). It’s also been ten years to the day since this film was released. Think of that. You’re old.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) (Redux)

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I suppose in this climate of making a movie of practically anything with a famous name (Battleship, The Lego Movie, Toilet Duck: The Motion Picture etc) it’s not too much of a stretch, but it still strikes me as odd that somebody (or rather many somebodies) invested heavily in a film based off a clunky theme park ride featuring barely mobile animatronic pirates. Having said that, when it comes to film, I’m a firm believer in the notion that there is no such thing as a bad idea, just bad execution. I believe that Curse of the Black Pearl is proof of that. It’s an unapologetically fun film with plenty of swashbuckling action. But you already know that.

“You didn’t beat me. You ignored the rules of engagement. In a fair fight, I’d kill you.”

“That’s not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it?”

The plot follows lowly blacksmith and swordmaker Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and his secret love for the Governor’s daughter, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). After a while, the crew of the legendary and feared Black Pearl, led by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) pillage Port Royal and kidnap Elizabeth. It’s up to Will and imprisoned, eccentric pirate and former Black Pearl Captain, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to save her. Rewatching the film, I was struck by just how tight the screenplay is. There are no pointless scenes, everything that is set up pays off at some point and the dialogue hits the balance between functional exposition and playful banter throughout. Yeah, I know. All films of this ilk should have a script like that. The sad fact is the majority of them don’t- the sequels to this very film being prime examples. The script is clever, witty and is just plain satisfying. The duo of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, previously known best for writing Shrek, the criminally underrated The Road to El Dorado and Disney’s own Aladdin, manage to inject the then stale pirate genre with some much needed fun and adventure.

It’s strange that I still rate this film despite it having two of the most wooden leads in recent memory. Both Knightley and Bloom act like recent lobotomy cases, dialogue dripping from their mouths with barely any inflection or feeling. Whilst most of the jokes are given to Depp, any humour that the script affords Will and Elizabeth is killed stone dead by the delivery. Check out the bit where Sparrow has assembled a ragtag bunch of pirates to chase The Black Pearl. Will says “Well, you’ve proved they’re mad!”. It’s not the best one-liner, granted- but the way Bloom hits the line is like he’s never heard a joke before. Another actor could have sold it better. Same with my most hated line in the whole film: Elizabeth’s “You like pain?… (she strikes a pirate with an oar) try wearing a corset!”. Not only is it a god-awful line, the delivery stinks. Ugh. On the better acting side of things. Depp is obviously the scene-stealer and his performance in Black Pearl has stood the test of time and shitty sequels. The man knows his way around a gag. Often overlooked is Geoffrey Rush who is clearly having a whale of a time as Barbossa. He’s not cartoonishly evil, but he has his moments. He also handles the all-important wit with skill. Similarly, Jack Davenport is a fantastic straight man and is often ignored in favour of Depp’s peacocking by most people.

Above all else, Curse of the Black Pearl is FUN. Remember when blockbusters were fun? It has proper swashbuckling action, great swordfights and special effects that still hold up for the most part. I will always love the moonlight reveal of Barbossa’s literal skeleton crew. The final swordfight between Barbossa and Sparrow as they move through piles of gold and shafts of moonlight is fantastic. I will never tire of Jack and Elizabeth being stranded on an island, leading to the famous “why is the rum gone?” line. There are some fantastic character beats in this bit and it elevates the film significantly.

There are so many things about Black Pearl that I find refreshing. The fact that none of the characters are fucking idiots and capable of independent thought is a major one. For instance, Jack only agrees to help Will after learning his surname and asking some not-so-subtle questions about his father. In most films this’d be presented as a big reveal later on, but not here. Will confronts Sparrow on the way there and we’re done and dusted. I also really like the motivation of Barbossa and his crew. They’re not out-and-out evil. They’re bad people alright, but no worse than Sparrow himself. All they want is their terrible curse to be lifted so they can finally enjoy food, drink and “pleasurable company” again. That sounds downright reasonable to me.

Most refreshing of all is the risk that Disney took with this. It was their first PG-13 film, starring an actor known for cult hits not big blockbusters, based off an intellectual property they had knocking around in the shed and given the full support of Disney’s marketing arm. A mere decade later and the landscape has completely changed. Last year’s John Carter (review coming soon) was a risk, but Disney had no real faith in it, didn’t market it properly and it bombed. This year’s Lone Ranger looks to suffer the same fate, despite them cranking up the obnoxious advertising dial a few notches. As you know, the Pirates gamble paid off and launched an entire franchise that’s not done yet (work is underway on a fifth film). I just like it when studios think outside of the box and are rewarded for it.

“Where’s Elizabeth?”

“She’s safe, just like I promised. She’s all set to marry Norrington, just like she promised. And you get to die for her, just like you promised. So we’re all men of our word really… except for, of course, Elizabeth, who is in fact, a woman.”

It may get unfairly tarred with the same brush as the rest of the series, but Curse of the Black Pearl is a hugely enjoyable film and one of the best examples of being fun for the whole family. It’s bloody brilliant, savvy?

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The Dark Knight (Redux)

“Interesting” sidenote on this one. The Dark Knight was the first film I attempted to review. I emerged from the cinema completely shellshocked and felt compelled to write about what I’d just witnessed.  So I did. On MySpace. Took me a while to realise this was akin to yelling “Fire!” as the Titanic went down, but I realised I liked writing about stuff I loved ( a revelation to me, a no-brainer for everyone else) so here we are, in this grotty little corner. All because of Batman.

The Dark Knight (2008) (Redux)

How does one say anything about The Dark Knight without their voice immediately becoming lost amongst the hyperbolic masses? It’s a tough thing to do. If you’re anything like me (and I hope for your sake you’re not) the more something is trumpeted about, the less likely you are to bother with it. That’s largely irrelevant here however, as statistically, you’ve seen the film multiple times, own it on a shiny disc and have been working on your terrible Batman/Joker impressions ever since 2008. To the five people who haven’t been living in a Batcave these past four years, let me try and explain what makes The Dark Knight so extraordinary.

“Do you wanna know how I got these scars?”

The thing to understand is that The Dark Knight was always going to be big, but just how big it turned out to be surprised everyone. Elements started coming together before release (thanks in part to a revolutionary viral marketing campaign), before things started snowballing right up until release date. For starters, Batman Begins had introduced and won a lot of people over to the Nolanverse and its new, gritty take on The Caped Crusader, so naturally these people wanted more. Secondly, instead of facing secondary, lower-level villains like Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow, ol’ Bats would be squaring off against his most famous adversary, The Joker. Thirdly came an element that nobody could have foreseen- the tragic death of Heath Ledger mere months before the film was due to come out. This undeniably pushed knowledge of the film beyond the reach of even the most ambitious marketing drive. Amongst the grief and sad head-shakings about a life cut short, a morbid curiosity about Ledger’s last completed role started to rise- a phenomenon that also helped Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. People were champing at the bit to see this film and luckily, it turned out to be an astounding piece of work. If Batman Begins was all about laying solid foundations, The Dark Knight was about escalation, or, as The Joker himself so aptly puts it: “aggressive expansion”.

With the criminal stranglehold on Gotham City loosened by the tireless work of Batman (Christian Bale) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), regular street thugs are running scared from the Batsignal. However, when an unpredictable goon in clown make-up shows up calling himself “The Joker” (Heath Ledger), the gangs turn to him to get rid of their bat problem. Meanwhile, a new hope for Gotham emerges in the shape of the new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who Bruce Wayne hopes will turn into the reason to hang up the cape and cowl. Things are slightly more complicated as Dent is dating Wayne’s old flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). This is about as good as it gets for not only comic book adaptations, but films in general. The plot is slick, tight, compelling and immersive, treating the audience like they’ve got a brain in their head (still a rarity in blockbuster filmmaking). Take away the costumed sillies and you’ve got yourself a damn fine thriller in its own right. The cast, once again, are fantastic, with the possible exception of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who seems to be holding back her acting talent seen in things like Secretary for another artsy-type film. This is pure speculation of course and she’s certainly not bad, I just can’t shake the feeling she’s not as into it as everyone else. As I said in my Batman Begins review, I would have liked Katie Holmes to have reprised her role, especially as the emotional pay-offs for the Rachel Dawes character are in this one.

The smack-in-the-face obvious stand-out is Heath Ledger’s Joker, who gives the film a manic energy and a genuine menace. For the first time on-screen, The Joker is scary. This is a far cry from Nicholson’s portrayal, who came across as a wacky uncle, rather than the demented psychopath we’re presented with here. You can never quite get a handle on Ledger’s Joker. He’s unsettling, sinister and devious but amusing and incredibly entertaining at the same time. He also gets most of the best lines, with some of my favourite moments of the film being his insane diatribes, such as his conflicting stories about how he got his trademark scars to goading a policeman about how many of his friends he’s killed. Ledger deservedly won the Oscar for this portrayal. Oh- and to all the people who said he won it “just because he died”, fuck you- it’s all there on screen. It’s truly a powerhouse performance and one I never get sick of seeing.

As for the rest of the film, it’s astounding. The writing is great and the score is especially awesome (with the usually happy-to-rest-on-his-laurels Hans Zimmer re-teaming with James Newton Howard to build on the amazing work they did on the Batman Begins soundtrack.) With such an emphasis on story and dialogue, you’d think the ball would be dropped by adding in some generic action beats. However, the action manages to be jaw-dropping whilst keeping it realistic. There’s the famous chase through the streets of Gotham which introduces the cool-as-hell Batpod and culminates in a huge 18-wheeler being flipped. You will believe a truck can fly. The opening bank heist is incredibly well done too. It sets up the film beautifully.

My favourite scene that doesn’t feature gravity-defying vehicles is the interrogation scene where Batman and The Joker have a nice little sit-down before it all goes to hell. To me, this defines The Dark Knight as a whole. In the wrong hands, this scene could have been infamous, up there with the “nuking the fridge” bit in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as it’s basically a man in unconvincing clown make-up taunting a gravelly-voiced knob in fetish gear armour with silly little bat ears. However, in practice it’s an uneasy, shocking scene that reminds me of a similar bit in L.A. Confidential where Russell Crowe’s Bud White loses his rag with a detainee. The scene is so good, I’m trying my utmost to not quit this review, jam the Blu-ray in the player and lose myself in it all over again. It honestly gets better every time I see it.

I was trying to think about any problems I had with the film and the only one I have is the dialogue given to the cop driving the armoured truck. He seems to think he’s in a standard jokey action adventure, rather than one of the bleakest populist films in recent memory. Lines like “I didn’t sign up for this!” seem really out of place. This reaches a nadir when the Joker orders his men to “rack ’em up”- shoot metal cables into the path of a police helicopter to take it down. The cables do the job and we cut back to out piggly friend who says “That’s not good!”, followed by more heli-destruction and another cut back to Sgt. Snout: “OK, that is not good!”. I can’t help thinking: “Your colleagues/friends are almost certainly dead, or at the very least seriously injured AND you’ve lost your air support in one fell swoop. You’re being hounded by a psychopath and his cronies with shitloads of weaponry and all you can do is spout shit action phrases?!”. It’s a nitpick, sure, but it really does bug me and it’s especially noticeable when surrounded by so much awesome.

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

In my not-at-all humble opinion, The Dark Knight is not only the best comic book adaptation but one of the best films in the last ten years. It’s one of those films that will be an eternal favourite, something I pop on when I want to be reminded of how good films can be. It’s not just the film you deserve, it’s the film you need.

Batman Begins (Redux)

When looking at the daily stats on this blog, I’m always fascinated by the old reviews of mine that pop up. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor always manages a few hits, for instance. Thing is, I went back and re-read some of my earlier reviews and was shocked at how short and poorly written they were. They were superficial and made no attempt at getting down to the filmic nitty-gritty. So, I decided to do a redux review of some of them, so I can have a better representation of my current thoughts available. Plus, it’s an opportunity to revisit some great films. Rather than do a George Lucas i.e. replacing the original and burning the negatives, I thought I’d do a separate one. Also, I originally did this for The People’s Movies, where the archive of my stuff can be found here.

Batman Begins (2005) (Redux)

 

As great as the genre-defining hallmark The Dark Knight is, I think it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have been half as good without having the solid foundation of Batman Begins to build on. Until 2005, the (live-action) Batman adaptations were some of the best examples of wasted potential. Previous directors never really “got” Batman. He wasn’t a Gothic, limsy-wristed tragic poem of a man, stalking an Art Deco hellhole, nor was he a family-friendly, camp, action figure peddler who inhabited a headache-inducing neon nightmare. Christopher Nolan had a healthy respect for what made the comics great and, more importantly, knew that the most interesting way to get the audience to connect with the character was to get under the cowl and into the mind of the Bat.

“You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent.”

In case 1) you haven’t seen it or 2) can’t decipher that cryptic-as-fuck title, Batman Begins is, unsurprisingly, about Batman beginning, exploring the origins of the Dark Knight and giving the series the reboot it so sorely needed. After his rich and powerful parents are shot and killed by a opportunistic mugger, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is recruited to the League of Shadows by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), a group of ninja assassins who believe it is their duty to purge the decadent and corrupt elements of society. Rejecting their judge, jury and executioner mentality, Wayne returns to Gotham City and uses his company’s money and technology to dole out vigilante justice as Batman. Gotham is a shadow of its former self with widespread corruption, mostly leading back to powerful mob boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). There’s also a new threat in the form of Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) a creepy psychopharmacologist (that’s a real thing, I didn’t just lean on the keyboard) who experiments on his patients and has shady dealings with Falcone. Batman vows to end the Gotham’s decay with the help of rare good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), tech genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), tenacious assistant D.A. and childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine).

Batman Begins is a refreshingly realistic and smart take on the Batman mythos. It chops and changes some of the most memorable comic stories like The Man Who Falls and The Long Halloween and manages to bring these various elements together into a solid, cohesive narrative. Yes, it is kind of silly to have a real, psychological take on what basically boils down to a nutter in a rubber bat costume, but you won’t question it for a second when you watch it. The cast are uniformly great. I feel Katie Holmes has been unfairly maligned as Rachel Dawes and it’s a shame she didn’t get to reprise the role in The Dark Knight as I think she would have silenced her critics. Stand-out of the film for me is Cillian Murphy who gives an unsettling, uncanny performance as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, a man who possesses a stare that could melt Kevlar. Dude’s scary before he pulls the burlap hood over his head.

I’m hugely thankful for Nolan and David S. Goyer not messing up the Wayne’s deaths. In Burton’s Batman, they were shot by the man who would later turn into the Joker, a lazy attempt to add a personal stake in defeating the villain (see also: Spider-Man 3). What Burton (and Raimi) failed to realise is by doing that, you completely invalidate the reason why these heroes continue doing what they do. Once Keaton’s Batman defeated the Joker, why did he continue fighting crime? To have the culprit be just a random mugger means that Batman isn’t just seeking vengeance. He’s fighting something a lot more conceptual than that. Nolan understood this and to implicate that it may have even partly been Bruce’s father’s fault for not acting is a masterstroke. Batman is all about the guilt.

There’s something very scientific and methodical in Nolan’s approach. Everything that is iconic to Batman is explained in a satisfactory and believable way. For example, Batman’s gadgets are Waynetech’s abandoned military contracts, deemed too expensive for use. The new Batmobile, the Tumbler, exemplifies the new Nolanverse. It’s functional, realistic, anti-camp (unlike previous flimsier models) and undeniably kick-ass. My only real problem is with the origin of the Bat signal, where Batman leaves the unconscious Falcone lashed to a huge spotlight, creating a rudimentary bat shadow in the sky. I just can’t stop thinking about the heat those things pump out and the fact that Falcone would be sizzling like a cheap steak by the time the police cut him down.

“Bats frighten me. It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”

Until rewatching it for this review, my opinion had always been that Batman Begins was very good, but The Dark Knight was the one that knocked it out of the park. Whilst I still believe that The Dark Knight is the superior film, it’s by a lot smaller margin than I originally thought. Batman Begins is a truly fantastic film. It’s the New Hope to TDK’s Empire Strikes Back and I don’t say that lightly.