Three Movie Reviews
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was one of those that I saw mostly because 1) I was not necessarily averse to it and 2) my friends really, really wanted to see it so I ended up getting dragged along. And I was glad that I did because the movie was more entertaining than I expected from a Disney movie about pirates.
Bobby and I tend to be impatient when a movie comes out that we want to see, and so we were first in line (literally) on the night that Dead Man's Chest opened. Now before I go any further with my review, it is my belief that the second movie in the trilogy is inherently going to be the most difficult to make and probably the least liked as a result. The first movie in a series rides high on the energy created by its novelty; for example, the unexpected delight that I felt for Captain Jack Sparrow's character in Curse of the Black Pearl will never again be replicable by this movie series. Why? Because Jack Sparrow--and the movie's other selling points--are no longer novel. At the same time, a second-in-the-trilogy movie lacks the resolution and closure of the final movie. The second movie is usually the one where I feel most like I've been left hanging...and unsatisfactorily at that. So, lacking both novelty and closure, the second movie in a trilogy has the unfortunate difficulty of trying to overcome both to be an entertaining film in its own right.
I think that Dead Man's Chest did a commendable job of this.
I have seen buzz along the lines of DMC being inferior to CotBP...and I will agree. I had much more fun at my first viewing of CotBP than I did at my first viewing of DMC. But much of this was because I walked into the theater with low expectations when I saw CotBP. On the contrary, walking into the theater for DMC, I expected to be wowed.
Bobby and I--due to our unfortunate mishap with the Nickelback concert--ended up seeing DMC twice. I enjoyed it much more the second time, when I was aware already of the plot and felt less like I needed to pay strict attention to the story or chance missing something. The plotline is relatively complex for a movie aimed at a general audience, and I have heard some criticism to this effect, but I did not find the storyline so complex that I could not enjoy myself. The characters were notable, the chemistry between them palpable, and the humor pervasive without being too stupidly farsical. For a movie rated PG-13, I thought that Davy Jones and the crew of The Flying Dutchmen were appreciably scary...yet even then, the villains had a depth rarely seen in this sort of movie. Even as Davy Jones is deplorable, he is sympathetic, and I think this series as a whole proves the effectiveness of characters that are not black and white but rather shades of gray, even in a movie like this that is meant to be entertaining rather than particularly profound. (I suggest that the action genre, in particular, take note of this fact.)
I am not much for action scenes, and I will be the first to admit it. During CotBP, though, I found myself entranced by the swordplay. (Part of this, I will admit, is a very strong aversion to firearms and action scenes based almost solely around gunfire.) I did not find the action scenes in this movie quite as compelling, but again, I went in to DMC with a different standard in mind than the first time I watched CotBP. In addition to that, the suspense was well done; in the end, as the three characters fight over the chest, I found myself wondering who I wanted to have it the most. (I decided that Will Turner won out for me because I felt so badly for his poor father Bootstraps, cursing himself to an eternity on The Flying Dutchman to--he thought--save his son's soul. Next was Jack Sparrow. The Commodore--however more I liked him this time than in CotBP--could go float for all that I cared.)
This is a fun movie; I did not go into it expecting profound statements about the human condition or to be enlightened or even moved emotionally. It is a great movie to lose yourself in for two hours, just for the fun and silly humor of it. And it did its job also: Walking out of the theater, one of the first words to pass Bobby's lips were, "I can't wait for the third one now!" and I had to agree.
I give Dead Man's Chest three-and-a-half Keebler E.L. Fudge "Elves Exist" cookies out of four.
The Lady in the Water
Being something of connoisseurs of the fantasy and horror/suspense genres, Bobby and I generally find ourselves eagerly anticipating M. Night Shyamalan's movies. I will admit to being one of the legions bowled over by The Sixth Sense, and I have seen each of his movies loyally since (except for Unbreakable, mainly because I did not realize until recently that it was even one of his movies). Signs remains one of Bobby's favorite movies and is watched perennially in the House of Felagund; The Village was a bit of a disappointment. By the time The Village came out, most of us were on to M. Night's modus operandus of the "trick ending" and I think that too many were watching for it. In truth, I remember very little of The Village except for the ending; The Sixth Sense and Signs, by comparison, stand out in my memory for the movie as a whole rather than the cleverness of how they ended.
I went in to The Lady in the Water hoping that it would not be another repeat of The Village. It was Judgment Day for M. Night for me; I figure that everyone is allowed a flub, and if he made The Village his flub, then I would continue to name myself a fan of his movies.
The Lady in the Water was something different than his earlier work. Whereas his movies tended to be heavy on the horror elements, when I emerged from the theater after seeing TLinW, I had to name it more of a fantasy movie than horror or suspense. Yes, there were horror elements in it, but they were relatively mild compared to, say, the gruesome ghosts of The Sixth Sense or the mysterious beasts of The Village. Instead, the movie was based around a story regarded as a myth--based, in fact, on a bedtime story M. Night had made up for his children--where sea nymphs brave great peril to take messages to the human world above. And I am a sucker for fantasy stories that mix modern life with mythological elements. Some of my favorite fantasy stories use this tactic, the sort of stories that have me walking around in a dreamy happiness for a week.
My father-in-law said something profound after the movie was over. As we sat waiting for the theater to clear to leave our seats, we talked back and forth about what we'd thought of the movie. "I liked it," he said. "It made me think that I could believe in Santa Claus." We all laughed, but the point was true, and I think this is the basis also of my love for the sorts of stories where myths wind up being reality: I spend much of my day between the fantasy realms of Middle-earth (Tolkien) and the Midhavens (my own), and coming into the real world is often a cruel awakening. We do not live in such a place, where heroes and magic are guaranteed protectors from evil. We wake every morning, wondering, Will today be the next 9/11? The next Madrid? London?
To believe even for a few hours in a mythological world becoming part of ours and enabling some sort of positive change--however small--is a welcome and oft-needed escape from a world where war and terrorism and oppression seem inevitable. I find very few reasons these days to believe in the methods that we really have to motivate change for the better; perhaps that is why the idea of being saved by sea nymphs or pagodas or the mythological being du jour so appeals to me.
TLitW did have some things in common with the rest of M. Night's work. For one, it involved the usual motley cast of characters. His characters are one of the strengths of his work, I think: diverse and flawed but not so eccentric as to be unbelievable, something that is not seen too often in the horror and suspense movies that make it to the big screen and often center on a combination of plot and shock-value. There was also the continued notion that that which remains just out of sight is far more frightening than a maggoty corpse, for example, or a big hairy spider springing out and catching us at unawares. This is a philosophy with which I happen to agree on a number of levels. (Perhaps the most practical being that none of us share the same fears, so to show a shadow and let your audience's imaginations fill in the rest is far more effective than pandering to the common fears of a few and leaving the rest underwhelmed.) We caught glimpses of the monster but it mostly remained out of sight and able to appear at any moment, dashing across the periphery of the characters' vision, rising without warning from the shadows.
My main complaint with TLitW was that it felt a bit too plotted, too deliberate for me: a place for everyone and everyone in his place. Every character was there for a reason, his quirks all had a purpose, and it wasn't too hard to guess who would take what roll in solving the mystery. I realize that this is made part of the premise of the movie: that people possessing the gifts needed to aid the sea nymphs would be drawn to the water from which they would emerge, but nonetheless, this did make for a storyline that felt rather linear and predictable.
But all in all, I found the movie innovative, entertaining, and hopeful, and The Lady in the Water now competes with The Sixth Sense for which will hold first place in my heart of all of M. Night's movies. I give it three-and-a-quarter E.L. Fudge "Elves Exist" cookies out of four.
Before I begin to review this movie, let me say that I have never seen the original Miami Vice television program...not a single episode. Being a fan of '80s music, the soundtrack is far more familiar to me; I can pretty much guarantee that I have at least one song from the television show on my iPod at any given time.
Let me also say that I don't generally like action movies. In fact, it is one of the two genres that I tend to unequivocally avoid, the other being chick-flick romances, situated at the opposite extreme.
So how, then, did I end up seeing this movie? Well, a few months ago, I wanted badly to see Brokeback Mountain but I didn't have anyone to go with me. Jenni was going to come visit Baltimore and we were going to see it together, but that was the weekend that my grandmother died. Feeling sorry for me, perhaps, Bobby agreed to go with me so long as I checked the hallway before he left the theater to make sure that none of his hockey teammates were anywhere around.
Because he was so nice to indulge me in my grief, I made the agreement that I would go see any movie that he wanted to see regardless of how dumb I thought that it looked and would not complain about it. (This was before I had caught wind of Snakes on a Plane. I might have drawn the line at that, but fortunately, Bobby shares my opinion of that foolish tripe.)
He picked Miami Vice, being a fan of the old show.
So I went.
I even went with the hopes that it would be a good movie, and I really tried to give it a fair chance. One of my complaints about action movies is their use of cookie-cutter characters and their attempt to achieve some sort of profundity by 1) devising plotlines so intricate and convoluted that one needs a graphical organizer to remember which Foreign Dude belongs to which Evil Ringleader and who works for whom in secret and who has betrayed whom or has some old allegiance just waiting to be rekindled and 2) long stretches of gunfighting that I suppose is supposed to be exciting. Sometimes, they substitute car-chasing for gunfighting; an ambitious few have attempted to combine the two with laughable results.
Bobby liked the movie. At first, I was willing to footnote my disappointment with the fact that I had never seen the show, but the more I thought about it, the more adamant I became that I shouldn't need to see a show that was popular twenty years ago in order to understand the movie. Movies are not released only for the diehard fans of a show; they should entertain said fans and also introduce newbies to the allure that brought those familiar with the original to the theater based on the name alone. The characters were utterly without personality, even an appreciable "cool guy" disdain common to the genre. I refuse to be impressed by their ability to talk themselves out of trouble alone because any moron with a pad and pencil and enough time can script that. Even I can script that and I think that anyone who has read a number of my stories will admit that I'm not too clever on the plot side of things.
The storyline was the typical convoluted action-movie fare where I spent much of the movie trying to remember which Latino guy belonged to whom and who was supposed to be good and who was supposed to be bad. There is a difference, I think, between an intricate and clever plot and a plot that is intricate solely for the sake of intricacy, as though needing a database for all of the major characters, drug lords, and random henchman imparts some sort of aura of intelligence that the movie cannot produce on its merits alone. It is a fine line, I admit, to creating a plotline that is complicated and clever enough to engage one's audience and keep them guessing and creating a plotline that is so complicated that halfway through, much of the audience has given up on understanding what is going on and settles in for the explosions and car chases alone. It's a fine line, yes...and Miami Vice completely tumbles onto the wrong side of it.
I am not fond of devising rules for fiction, but there is one that I feel is generally a good thing in the majority of stories: Do not bite off more characters than you can chew in a two-hour movie, taking into account that at least an hour of said movie must be devoted to mindless gunfighting, car-chasing, and boat-driving.
Also, simply having two characters fall into bed together and engage in some kissing so noisy that I cringed like I was watching a competitive eater tuck into his fortieth Nathan's hotdog with lip-smacking aplomb does not mean that you have convincingly showed that those characters love each other and that we will have an automatic "OMG!" response when one is called upon to save the other from Certain Doom and Possible Annihilation.
And gunfights...okay, I am going to rant for a moment about gunfights. Why? Because I hate them. You do not hear me use the h-word a lot, but I will saythat guns and gunfights have certainly earned the right to it. First of all, I am not impressed simply because a guy can hold a gun in a threatening manner. Ah, yes, that old action-movie pose that is supposed to trigger the automatic thought, "Oh! He must be impressive or scary!" No. If I run next door into my boss's office, elbows locked, wearing a solemn scowl, and wielding my stapler, he is going to laugh at me. Granted, yes, a gun is more dangerous than a stapler, but it doesn't take courage, competence, or importance to stand like that clutching a metal object.
Nor does it take any of the above to shoot someone. Pulling a trigger is not an aggressive action. It is the action of a coward who doesn't have the balls to do the trick with a sword or a knife or even a big, unweildy club. To quote one of Bobby's favorite bands (since I am so thoroughly ragging his movie), 311: Guns are for pussies.
That said, too many directors, producers, and scriptwriters operate under the delusion that gunfights are somehow exciting. No. Watching grown men hide behind cars and piles of tires and poke out and fire guns at each other for a mind-numbing fifteen minutes straight is not exciting. And if I want to watch tumbling manuevers, I'll put on a tape of Mary Lou Retton and skip Colin Farrell rolling about in the dirt in what I suppose is supposed to be an impressive manner.
And okay, I realize that I harbor an unusual amount of vitriol towards firearms. But even so, I refuse to believe that ten cops and ten bad guys can line up Revolutionary War style (plus and few cars and other interesting objects to use as shields) and every single bad guy gets killed while the cops manage to dodge and roll everything fired their way. Either bad guys intrinsically have bad aim or Neo escaped from The Matrix and has taken to dressing up like Colin Farrell for kicks. A few movies have taken to killing off a few token cops for effect (and after 9/11, I suppose that the "OMG! First-responders being killed!" reaction is supposed to take the place of creating legitimate emotion, which of course takes characterization, which of course takes away from the allotted time for gunfighting) but the point remains that fifteen minutes of watching idiots point guns and dart between shadows in order to achieve a conclusion that we all saw coming from the opening sequence is not my idea of entertaining.
Is that popping sound the relentless gunfire or the sound of my brain cells committing suicide?
Sorry, Bobby, to so thoroughly trash your movie, but I had so much more fun at Brokeback Mountain, and I am forced to give Miami Vice a dismal one E.L. Fudge "Elves Exist" cookie out of four. And unless my eyes deceive me, there's a bite missing out of it.