Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, A Scanner Darkly, Inherit the Wind

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is perhaps too long, but you can't complain that you don't get a lot of bang for your buck--although reports that it's one of those cases of tedious nonstop action are exaggerated. It's well-paced. Amazing special effects, occasionally great cinematography, and some fresh and inventive action--that was the real highlight for me. It reminded me of Peter Jackson's King Kong in some ways, though that film had more heart, more magic. Dead Man's Chest is also something of a cliffhanger, which made my audience groan deliciously. If you loved the first one like I did, you'll enjoy this, even if it's not quite as good as the first one--but how could it be? It's more of the same, whereas the first one was a surprise.

The recipe goes something like this: a swashbuckling action story spiced up with historical romance and a bit of dark fantasy, all told in a thoroughly comic vein with an excellent cast. After years of too-serious superhero blockbusters, the Pirates movies are a real relief. The cast, by the way, is largely British (the Lucas formula?)--except the Kentucky-born Depp and the Swedish Stellan Skarsgard playing Bloom's father under a lot of make-up. Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) is enjoyable as a voodoo fortune teller, and Tom Hollander (who played Mr. Collins in another recent Keira Knightly movie, Pride and Prejudice), Jack Davenport (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Jonathan Pryce and, of course, Bill Nighy also shine. I especially enjoyed Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg (say, an American! with a history of tv work on shows like Angel and the Star Trek franchise) as a couple of pirates who get a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern treatment in this story. Knightly is excellent again, as is, of course, Johnny Depp. I noticed that Orlando Bloom gave a more masculine performance in this picture than in previous parts--it's a fine peformance, but he growls a bit more in his lines. I wonder if he was responding to the assholes who've been accusing the lad (esp. in Troy) of being insufficiently butch and who apparently never considered that his original brand of masculinity might have been part of his incredible popularity. Lastly, if you can wait out the interminable credits, there's a fun little punchline involving a minor (4-legged) supporting character.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

A Scanner Darkly, based on a Philip K. Dick novel I couldn't get through, is thematically rich, but the plotting fails to flesh out those themes in a fully satisfying way. I felt like it was spinning its wheels for a good hour, say after the first 15 minutes. The best twists come in the last 20 minutes. The animation is beautiful, though for good reason it's less spectacular than it was in the less narrative, more cerebral Waking Life--with the exception of the "scramble suit," a Science Fiction idea with a lot of philosophical and symbolic mileage. The animation is also transparent enough that you can guage the original filmed performances, which are quite good. It's inspired casting, a group of actors who all work very convincingly in that mellow California drug subculture kind of way. Keanu Reeves (who makes a surprisingly sexy cartoon!) and Winona Ryder may be limited actors (as stars early in their careers, they were tested more than most), but here they're at their best, and Woody Harrelson (a reliably excellent comedic actor) and Robert Downey (one of the finest of his generation, with considerable range in and beyond comedy) are ideally employed. The DVD commentary from Linklater should be fascinating, as are the interviews I've read so far.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

I don't have time to give Inherit the Wind as long a review as I'd like, but I'll gloss over some highlights. I rented the film because its story of the Scopes Monkey Trial is so timely, what with the recent shameful efforts to get "intelligent design" taught in schools in parts of the U.S. I've been warming up to Spencer Tracy over the last couple years, in roles such as Father of the Bride, and I thought he was excellent here, in a courtroom drama that must be one of the watermarks of the genre, with surprising twists and turns I've never seen before. I was surprised by some of the casting, though--Dick York as the high school teacher? Harry Morgan seems a good choice to play a judge, but I'm used to seeing him play less conservative characters. Most intriguingly, Gene Kelly plays a cynical newspaperman (inspired by H.L.Mencken). Gene Kelly! In black and white, not Technicolor! And employing that megawatt smile for cynical pruposes! Shocking! We've inadvertently fashioned a Gene Kelly film festival lately, and while we were watching Summer Stock, Red remarked, "That Gene Kelly is a real 'Make-Lemonade' kind of guy." Perfect! Could you sum up his career in two more apt words? So it was refreshing to see him play against type here, even if the script is problematic.

According to Wikipedia, and I've no idea how reliable it is in this instance, the play originally used the trial (which was a minor footnote in history) as a way to critique McCarthyism and argue for intellectual freedom--Brady representing McCarthy, which is an odd choice since Brady's real-life analogue would be William Jennings Bryant. Kelly-as-Mencken's barbed commentary on the trial is clearly a way to air the filmmakers' criticisms, but at the end Tracy is defined as a comforting middleground embracing religion and science at the same time, while Kelly's character is suddenly maligned as representing not reason, not skepticism, not humanism (a positive belief, after all), but nihilism. That works as an indictment of Mencken (from what I know), but not so well for Kelly's character. Kelly gets to rebut this a bit, thankfully, but it's clear who walks away with and who without a halo. Stanley Kramer's (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) well-known tendency towards didacticism is a problem, and he lays it on pretty thick against the creationists. The film opens with Leslie Uggams singing "Give Me That Old Time Religion" as the creationist pinheads set out to arrest the high school teacher--irony you could teach to 5th graders. Worse yet, the song comes up over and over again in the story, in case you missed the point the first time. (Then there's little touches like the sweat that constantly breaks out on creationist Brady's bald head.) Still, according the the Wikipedia article, Kramer actually moderated the original drama, made it fairer and les blunt all around. It makes me wonder if the film has done more harm than good by portraying Christians as bigots when the real target was McCarthy. As it is, the story plays right into the hands of today's Christian conservatives who want to see themselves as martyrs under attack from a mean secular culture. What a mess! It would seem the best way to read the film is as a drama that means to stand against anti-intellectualism. But Arthur Miller, this is not. More like your typical pseudo-intellectual Oscar film.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.



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