PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
Throw a rock at the annual slate of summer movies and you'll hit one with state-of-the-art CGI effects, but finding one with imaginative effects can be an exercise in futility.
Naturally, this has much to do with summers being traditionally sequel-heavy; the visuals in X2: X-Men United, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines are all well and fine, but they don't really provide us with any new visual thrills. (Arguments can be made, I guess, for The Matrix Reloaded being a technological improvement over its predecessor, but even die-hard fans have to admit that the effects don't have the surprise of the 1999 original.) And CGI is now so omnipresent in action fare that, in an amazingly short period of time, we've all become connoisseurs of the art form, and incredibly hard to please; aside from the fact that it's achingly dull, Ang Lee's Hulk bombed because the audience consensus was that the titular CGI creature looked like a grumpy hunk of green Play-Doh. With at least one megahit-wannabe opening every week, the mass audience for summer movies - this summer, at least - appears to be becoming more discerning; they want something different from the pro forma blockbuster they saw last week, and the one they'll see next week.
Enter Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which might be just what audiences are looking for. It helps that the movie is wholly entertaining and unexpectedly smart, but what really sets Pirates apart from its cinematic rivals is its ingenious spate of visual treats, courtesy of the film's wizardly CGI team and director Gore Verbinski. The marauding villains of the piece (led by a hilariously malevolent Geoffrey Rush), you see, have been placed under a curse. Though, by day, they appear as gamily human as any run-of-the-mill swashbucklers, in actuality they're walking, talking, "Arrrrgg!"-ing skeletons, whose true visages can only be seen under the light of the moon. In order to restore their humanity, the pirates must reclaim a gold medallion worn by the son of the man who cursed them; this quest leads to several battle sequences between the undead pirates and their human adversaries, and the results are akin to what you'd see if Ray Harryhausen and the Jason & The Argonauts team had access to producer Jerry Bruckheimer and a $125-million budget. We've witnessed swordfights between men and skeletal men in other works of Pirates' genre, but Verbinski and company up the ante by having their nemeses engage in warfare while slipping in and out of the moonlight, so the evil buccaneers appear as humans one minute, skeletons the next, and the result is altogether mind-blowing. It might be the movies' most imaginative use of visual effects - scary and funny in equal measure - since the creation of Gollum.
The visuals alone would make Pirates worth a visit, but unlike The Matrix Reloaded, for instance, the good time doesn't end when the action set-pieces do. For this you can thank Mr. Verbinski for his kinetically exuberant staging, the team of Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and Jay Wolpert for their tart, clever script, and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley for investing their romantic leads with humor and pathos; in the sort of roles that usually define the term "thankless," they're stunningly beautiful and emotionally engaging. And we should all thank Johnny Depp, just for joining the party. As the demented pirate Jack Sparrow, whom Depp plays as a man barely recovering from drunkenness or heatstroke, or more likely both, Depp owns the movie. His every mush-mouthed utterance and crooked leer comes as a gift; this is the first time this wonderful actor's gonzo eccentricities have been put to the service of a Hollywood action comedy, yet he never treats it as slumming. It's obvious that Depp - an "underground" talent for far too long - is having the time of his life, and it seems that the mass audience is jumping on his wavelength.
Just about everything in Pirates, from the performers to the production design, crackles with wit and finesse, and considering its theme-park origins, isn't that a surprise? (You can't exactly say the same about last summer's The Country Bears.) But 2003 has been the year that Disney has continually defied expectations: Finding Nemo, beyond being yet another marvelous Pixar release, is on track to break The Lion King's record as history's highest-grossing animated film, and this spring's Holes was the studio's most rewarding and artistically impressive live-action work in what felt like decades. With the buoyant and giddy Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney's winning streak hasn't waned a bit; it's the perfect tonic for audiences exhausted by an unusually "same ol', same ol'" summer.
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN
Whereas Disney shows unexpected savvy in taking a ridiculously self-serving notion - "Hey! Let's turn our rides into movies!" - and creating something exciting out of it, the Warner Bros. presentation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen begs the question: Must everything be turned into a hollow action spectacle? Based on the graphic novels of Alan Moore, Stephen Norrington's film features an enticing conceit: that a group of 19th Century literary characters (Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, et cetera) would band together as a team of pseudo-superheroes to combat evil and, occasionally, one another. The notion is certainly beguiling, and friends of mine who've read the novels swear by their brilliance. Yet there's very little about this League to suggest greatness, or even basic competence. You feel the missed opportunities piling up in scene after scene, mostly because the material keeps hinting at a darker side that - this being a Summer Blockbuster with a PG-13 rating - is never allowed to emerge.
Everything about the movie feels depressingly bland and rote, from Sean Connery's burly implacability to the unimaginative costuming - Captain Nemo's outfit is a howl - to the "shocking" twists in the characters' allegiances. Any traces of the source material's originality are lost in what I'm assuming was the studio's desire to jump-start another Batman-esque action franchise, but what's the point of homogenizing something as blazingly weird as Alan Moore's concept? Did Warner Bros. think kids were frothing at the mouths for the cinematic exploits of figures they've probably never heard of? ("I wanna be Allan Quatermain!" "No fair! You were last time!") The only possible audience for this work would seem to be teens or adults with a literary bent, so why didn't they just go that route, as Hollywood did with Moore's From Hell series, and make League an adult entertainment? The quest for the almighty Summer Blockbuster Dollar, of course. Now the movie's gonna tank, and adventurous source material has once again been ruined for everybody.