PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST
I know a bunch of you bought tickets for it this past weekend, so allow me to ask: Did anyone else find Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest a little, you know, incoherent? A degree of senselessness, of course, has to come with the territory, but while I'm positive that I didn't nod off during Gore Verbinski's opus - the booming soundtrack and relentless, CGI-enhanced action won't let you - I'm not sure I ever quite understood it. There seemed to be a whole lot of plot in Dead Man's Chest but none of it meant anything or was revealed with an urgency that might make it mean anything; at some point, I simply gave up trying to figure the damned thing out, and just waited for Davy Jones and the rest of his barnacled baddies to show up again.
Visual wonders have become so commonplace in Hollywood blockbusters that, if you see enough movies, you all but give up hoping to be wowed by special effects. The personages of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his monstrous crew, however, certainly rate a "wow." Jones - Dead Man's Chest's seafaring über-villain - appears to have a squid permanently attached to his face, and its writhing tentacles and pulsating suckers are astonishing; accentuated by Nighy's insidious, hissing creepiness, Jones is a spellbinding, nauseating figure. (It's entirely possible that Jones' dialogue details the film's plot in full, but the audience is so hypnotized by his appearance that we're not listening to it.)
One of Jones' evil allies is modeled on a hammerhead shark (the actor transmogrified for the effect appears to have half a head), one resembles a blowfish, and on and on; Verbinski and company may have completely disregarded elements such as story and logic and character for their Pirates sequel, but they're by no means short on visual inspiration. The gruesome make-up, outsize effects, and random moments of comedic slapstick - the best being a three-way swordfight atop an enormous, rolling wagon wheel - show the filmmakers actually are upping the ante for this continuation, although perhaps not in a way some audiences will like.
Johnny Depp's Captain Jack provides expected amusement, but there's no surprise left in the performance, and the characters played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley aren't enriched in any noticeable way - it's easy to forget they're even around. Where the original Pirates was insouciant and agreeable, this sequel feels heavy-spirited and over-produced; it keeps ladling on story ideas while never giving us reason to care about them. Those effects are staggeringly good, though, and in the end, they manage to make this epic-sized Hollywood blockbuster reasonably diverting. But only just. Pirates 3 may well prove marvelous, but in order for it to be, Verbinski and company must navigate the fine line between wowing us with effects and overwhelming us with effects.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA
Meryl Streep is so continually excellent that discussing her greatness would be tedious if she didn't keep finding so many unexpected ways to be excellent. In The Devil Wears Prada, Streep plays fashion mogul Miranda Priestly, the definitive boss from hell - demanding, unreasonable, stingy with praise but generous with sarcasm. Miranda is one of those juicy, bitch-on-wheels roles that performers adore, and Streep delivers her vicious judgments and harangues with all the authoritative wit we'd hope for. But who could have guessed that Streep, in her genius, would make Miranda this quiet?
Through the course of the entire film, Streep barely raises her voice above a murmur. Miranda's underlings, who can't seem to complete the simple task of just doing what she asks for, aren't worth getting indignant about, and when she chides her employees - especially her new assistant, Andy (Anne Hathaway) - Miranda does it in exquisitely insinuating fashion; in low, measured tones, Miranda explains their incompetence, registers her displeasure, and turns them into weepy wrecks not by shouting, but by gently stressing how completely they've disappointed her. Yet Streep is clever enough to turn this nightmare conception into something both truthful and hysterical. People with no sense of humor are generally (and unwittingly) the funniest people alive; Streep knows this, and finds innumerable ways to make Miranda's brow-beating hatefulness a source of pure pleasure.
Would that the movie were as inspired as its star. But while Streep is magnificent, and Hathaway and Stanley Tucci, as a sardonic designer, more than hold their own, The Devil Wears Prada itself isn't much fun. The story is your standard pap about how big business corrupts and how the "little people" are the ones who truly have soul, which I would have had an easier time believing if Andy's salt-of-the-earth boyfriend, played by Adrian Grenier, weren't such a drip. The jokes are predictable and Andy's stumbling blocks even more so - a charmless Simon Baker is stuck in the pedestrian romantic-rival role - and for a movie about fashion, David Frankel's film looks remarkably ugly; the outfits on display may, indeed, be ravishing, but the dreary cinematography doesn't do them any favors. I didn't much care for The Devil Wears Prada, but with Meryl Streep on board, it would be ridiculous to argue people out of seeing it - a performance this spectacular makes complaints about Prada itself feel irrelevant.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
As most audiences are aware, Davis Guggenheim's documentary An Inconvenient Truth details the effects of global warming through one of Al Gore's lectures and slide shows on the subject, yet what's fascinating about the film is how little it preaches to the converted. Unlike, say, Michael Moore, Gore doesn't assume that the viewer thinks exactly as he does - his presentation has actually been designed for those who think global warming is a hoax. As he displays his charts and graphs and warns of the Earth's impending peril, Gore (a tremendously involving speaker here) isn't seeking affirmation so much as he is legitimately trying to educate and elucidate; he could almost be asking for disagreement about the effects - and even existence - of global warming so the naysayers' opinions could be thoroughly demolished through scientific fact.
I, for one, would have preferred less of Gore's convincing. An Inconvenient Truth is a terrific achievement - brisk, informative, and scary as hell. But while the statistics and graphs shown are, indeed, terrifying, the sameness of the presentation begins to be wearying; after 40 minutes, I was ready for Gore to reveal what could be done to reverse this trend, but he continued to debunk the naysayers for another 40 minutes. (Finally, almost as an afterthought, Gore offers tips for reducing pollutants and how individuals can help minimize the global-warming crisis, and then the credits roll.) An Inconvenient Truth is smart and forceful and needs to be seen, yet I wish the "What next?" element hadn't been given such short shrift; I'm all for 90-minute movies, but this may be that rare cinematic work that demanded a running length twice as long.