Reviews of movies, music, books and more by David Goody.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Film: Pirates Of The Caribbean Dead Man's Chest

I blame Star Wars, I really do. Every since the George Lucas cash cow redefined Hollywood's view of how you make money in this game the idea of a movie trilogy has acquired some sort of divine status. Any film that rakes in a decent haul at the box office doesn't provoke thoughts of a single sequel, but two sequels. These are not cheap cash ins. No, these are the artist being able to complete their vision with adequate breathing space.

This of course is all cobblers. And on the heels of The Lord Of The Rings, The Matrix, X-Men, Underworld and others not even worthy of breath comes the second film in the Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy. Filmed back to back with part three this allows Gore Verbinski, the auteur behind films such as Mousehunt, to complete his grand vision for this tale that was based on a Disney theme park ride. All that said the first film looked like a train wreck from a distance and proved to be a highly enjoyable piece of matinee fun, so maybe lightning will strike twice.

The film opens with the wedding of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) being knocked somewhat off schedule by them both being arrested under threat of the death penalty for allowing Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to escape the clutches of those flat footed British soldiers. It's a reversal of fortune that recalls such glorious sequels as Ghostbusters 2. Before Will and Liz are swinging from a gallows, Will is offered a way to save them both that involves him heading out to sea and finding Jack and before you know it swash is being buckled and main-braces are being spliced.

The film doesn't so much have a plot as a tenuous chronology that links various CGI heavy set-pieces, many of which repeat themselves in various guises throughout the film. Whilst these are executed in a perfectly competent fashion they are far from memorable and none of them stand out as a good action sequence should, like the government lobby in the Matrix. The sword play is executed without any style, often being closer to a pub brawl fought by ballerinas scared of a scratch rather than either the mesmeric samurai work of Crouching Tiger or the brutal rage you would expect of scurvy sea dogs.

The cast all reprise their roles from the first film, generally with diminishing returns. Depp is still amusing but the added screen time of his character, now pushed firmly centre stage leaves him mugging all too often to cover a barren script, whilst the attempts to make him a good guy are clear evidence that the Disney corporation wants everyone to be a role model, even a pirate with no morals. The exceptions to the "not as funny as last time" rule are Mackenzie Crook's one eyed pirate who has found good and studies his bible carefully, despite being illiterate and Orlando Bloom who couldn't have been much worse last time round.

The enemy this time round is Davy Jones, played by an unrecognizable Bill Nighy under a mass of CGi tentacles. He and his crew look like fish theme Orcs that were rejected from the initial design stages of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and whose principle purpose is to sell action figures. They are neither scary nor amusing, just clearly a computer construct. One is left wistfully remember Geoffrey Rush ghost pirate crew of the original who thankfully were human enough most of the time to actually deliver performances.

The film also suffers from character creep with too many of the original films characters returning for cameos as well as new people arriving. Any sane editor would have hacked the film down to 90 minutes rather than the needless 150 it runs. The film is flat enough that you could randomly remove half it's length and improve it by making sure that it doesn't outstay the welcome of it's charms.

Whilst the film briefly gathers real momentum for a spell two thirds of the way through the ending, stolen straight from Empire Strikes Back, is unsatisfactory, confirming the clear feeling that the film was always going nowhere fast. If you are prepared to be patient the film's good humored banter should suffice for pantomime style fun, but less would have been so much more.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Book: Columbia Road by Matt Whyman

A book written by an internet agony uncle should probably contain two main ingredients, high technology and relationship issues. Columbia Road has both. The basic set up is that a mismatched group of tenants are unable to cover their recently inflated rent. Instead of turfing them out on the street their landlord offers them a deal. Have webcams installed to make the house a 24 hour show home for his other properties and they can stay rent free. But soon they find they have given up more than they think.

Whyman is a very immediate writer, working with short chapters and keen to throw in a cute turn of phrase to keep his readers attention. His background in writing short, light hearted insightful articles makes Columbia Road an enjoyable page turner, but the broad characters leave little room for any deep empathy.

DVD: Walk The Line

Enough already with the childhood trauma. It is becoming a painfully banal Hollywood truism that any issues that arise later in a person life can be explained by something bad that happened to them as a child. It's like an understanding of psychology based on reading a single paragraph of a Sigmund Freud book. And like the boy who cried wolf, when there is a film that might justify use of an explanation like that, you are so tired of hearing it you don't believe.

As such we have Walk The Line, the biopic of Johnny Cash. If you have seen Ray you know the plot. Brother dies as a child, no decent Father figure, marries childhood sweetheart, becomes famous musician, starts taking drugs, cheats on wife, finds new love, quits drugs and everything ends happily ever after. Thus seems to be the life of any musician according to Hollywood.

What is damning is not that we have seen this type of thing before, but that the film tells you no more about Johnny Cash and his music than Ray did, despite the latter film being about a completely different person. All we learn about his music is that he wrote Folsom Prison Blues after watching a film and he invented his musical style on the spot when Sam Philips told him his gospel was as dull as Dido slowly painting a wall Magnolia. The film is almost entirely disinterested in his music. It's as if being a great musician is of now interest to an audience, but being a bastard and a junkie is.

Despite the cliched plot and absence of insight the lead performances have be justifiable acclaimed. Both River Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon bring their characters to life and give them more depth and empathy than the script deserves. It is the acting equivalent for feeding 5000 with a fish and a slice of bread. And while the ever-so happy ending rings false, with Cash acting the bad man but being portrayed an angel, the acting and the music carry the film through. Just don't expect to learn about the man inside.