Or: Captain Jack Sparrow vs. morality… and subplots
Well I’m all for a few jolly hours spent watching pirates being pirates. Unfortunately in recent years the Pirates franchise has offered us a law of rapidly diminishing returns. Yes fun stuff did happen and we did indeed get to watch, but empty kinetics increasingly drowned out the last vestiges of story and the enjoyably pantomime characters ended up all at sea.
In fairness, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio et al have gone some way towards making amends for the disappointment of the previous two films with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Their plot is stronger, at least in the first half. The best of the film’s action set pieces in London is really well thought through. Jack and the gang get some well-chosen cheesy lines and their screenplay allows Geoffrey Rush to have such fun in the first act, as Barbossa plays the role of a newly powdered and bewigged privateer, that he steals every scene he’s in.
Sadly the movie ends up hitting the rocks because they can’t navigate around the central, fundamental truth of the Pirates series: you just can’t give Jack Sparrow depth. Don’t get me wrong, we love Jack and we love Johnny Depp’s intentionally flighty and flyweight incarnation. But it’s a performance designed beautifully around the pleasures of the surface. For all his hilariously fey physicality and semi-addled diction, Jack is the unchanging rock that anchors the vessel of the plot to the seabed and keeps it honest. And by honest I mean light as air. He’s a light rock, you see? Work with me…
On Stranger Tides tries simultaneously to give Jack moral and romantic depth by partnering him with an old flame to whom he ‘done wrong’ and yet apparently never actually slept with (we can hear the Disney corporate typewriter clattering away behind the scenes most strongly here). Simultaneously, however, it acknowledges the impossibility of the task by inventing a tedious subplot involving a captured priest who falls for a mermaid and whose pure love causes her to shed the tear the pirates need to perform a ritual at the Fountain of Youth.
Jack could never be capable of pure love or selfless feeling, so why force the story down these blind alleys? It’s not like he is going to change – and nor do we want him to – so why waste time, narrative energy and plot coherence pretending that he might? What’s more, crime of crimes the presence of Angelica on Blackbeard’s ship completely undercuts the great Ian McShane’s attempts to imbue that iconic character with any real menace. Furthermore another subplot involving Barbossa’s quest for revenge against Blackbeard combines with the mermaid story to rob Captain Jack of much importance at the film’s climax.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, like its predecessors, is still caught between the structures of a straightforward heroic adventure and an ensemble narrative. This time it might have got away with it if some of those ensemble subplots hadn’t been doomed to inadequacy from the get go.
Here’s a bit of fun for budding movie bloggers. I am going to ask for the occasional contribution from out there in actual people land. No prize other than micro fame for getting published on the blog, but hey students you can still put it on your CV, right? In the future it would be nice to be able to offer prizes and so forth but right now we are young (“heartache to heartache we stand…” sorry) and innocent and uncorrupted by money and goods and chattels.
The idea is that when movies come out that I can’t get around to or really don’t want to see it would be nice to get a review up on the site for the education and general enlightenment of us all. This week, I am soliciting reviews for: The Beaver, Fast Five and Water for Elephants. If you have seen any of those and have a tale to tell write in and I’ll post the best of each if they are half way decent.
1. Maximum 500 words please.
2. No illustrations – I’ll find images if needed.
3. Avoid all the cursing and the naughty words please.
4. Deadline is next Friday (May 27th) midnight.
5. Use your review to make a clear argument about the movie. Don’t give us a plot synopsis, make your case clearly why we should or shouldn’t go see it and try and focus on why things work or don’t in screenwriting terms. Character development, story and plot structure, dialogue and so forth are more important than how cool the explosions are.
6. By submitting an entry you agree for your work to be published on this blog under your name, but without payment of any kind. You also agree to allow me to edit the material as necessary.
7. Send your submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks and good luck!
OK so we went to see Hesher the other day full of indie hope and indie cheer. On a personal note I was hoping that it would be my Summer bolster against the worst effects of this year’s blockbusterdom: “Breathe, Jules, breathe… remember Hesher.”
Sadly and although the film has its moments of interest, although there are some solid performances to be found (at least in flashes), it falls into the trap of reifying quirk at the expense of story coherence. It does this by recasting the old indie fallback trope of the magic pixie (Natalie Portman in Garden State etc.) in the new guise of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s very random metalhead sociopathic angel.
Hesher is the story of a broken, grieving family ‘cured’ by their interactions with an eccentric, implausible and basically unknowable outsider and frankly the been there, done that police were knocking at the door well before the midpoint.
There is so much in the way of indie eating-the-cake-and-assuming-you-will-still-have-it-afterwards-ness in this overly familiar idea that it pulls the whole movie off track and condemns it to being an exercise in waiting for the next Hesher intervention rather than for the other characters to take charge of their destinies.
The figure of Hesher is little more than a device to allow the script to do whatever random stuff the writers want rather than what their characters need. He’s simply a plot convenience and it gets old fast. At the end, when Hesher takes grandma for a walk in her coffin in ‘significant’ slow motion I kept imagining I was in a rough cut screening with students: “Tell me you got a take of that at normal speed…”
This is Garden State for closet pyromaniacs. This is what happens when your stick figure tattoos metaphorically match the wallpaper.
This is, I’m sad to say, a mess.