Sunday, May 27, 2007

Review of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is the first movie of the 2007 summer season that I can honestly say I left the theater completely satisfied after seeing it. This, despite the dizzying Byzantine labyrinth of sub-stories and political schemes and double-crossing backstabs you have to navigate through in watching this movie.

The first advice I can give about going to see At World's End is to go to the restroom before the movie starts... and buy a small or medium drink at the concession stand, not large. Clocking in at very nearly three hours, this movie is a bladder-buster. But if you go away for even a few minutes during any part of the movie, you are assured to miss some critical bit of story or plot device. This isn’t like any of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings where you could go "answer the call of nature" during some lengthy oration by Gandalf and still "get" the rest of the movie. No, if you leave for whatever reason... nay, even turn your head to look at your huneybunch for too long... you'll miss stuff in At World's End.

The second advice I can give about watching Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is to go into the movie with at least a cursory knowledge of how World War I started. In case you don’t know, it all went screwy in 1914 because of a myriad of treaties and alliances between all the big nations and empires on the European continent so that when Gavrilo Princip fired his one tiny gun, it obliged all the countries to start shooting at each other. That's what happens in At World's End: a maddening number of intrigue and unlikely partnerships and competing motivations that slowly become obvious to everyone involved. By then it's far too late: everything is headed toward one hella cacophonous collision on the high seas. And when it does... man I haven't seen a climax that cool in a new movie in a way long time!

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End picks up the story some time after the last installment Dead Man's Chest. In an opening scene at Port Royal that could be seen by many to be a metaphor for what's going on in modern America, the right to free speech and Habeas Corpus have been suspended by Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who begins to execute anyone suspected of being sympathetic to pirates (that all of this takes place near the present-day location of Guantanamo makes it even more ironic). Beckett, now in possession of the heart of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), is already using Jones and the Flying Dutchman to enforce his will across the oceans. The sway that Beckett has over Jones is reinforced when it's learned that Beckett made Jones kill the Kraken.

Meanwhile Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and the rest of the Black Pearl crew are in Singapore, hoping to convince Sao Feng (Chow Yun Fat), the Pirate Lord of the South China Sea, to lend them the map to World's End. Sao Feng isn't feeling too charitable, considering that Elizabeth's betrothed beau Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) was caught trying to steal the thing. During an ambush by the British Royal Navy, Sao Feng agrees to loan Elizabeth the map, along with his best ship, for the journey to World's End. Elizabeth, Barbossa, Gibbs (Kevin McNally) and the rest of the crew – including the mysterious voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) and the undead monkey – set off to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow.

Taking the story to far-off Singapore should have been the first clue as to the breadth of this third chapter in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. At World's End is epic on an obscene scale. We see Port Royal and Singapore, and the twilight realm of the frozen Arctic (which was one of my favorite scenes of the movie) and quite a number of other places including the pirate bastion called Shipwreck Cove, where the Brethren Court – the nine pirate lords throughout the world – meet. Where The Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man's Chest took place in the Caribbean and Atlantic, At World's End spans the entire globe and beyond.

But then Elizabeth and her crew go over the literal World's End (guess the world is flat after all) and we get to see Davy Jones' Locker: the place where those who owe a debt to Jones go to pay it off. It's at this point that I totally forgot this movie was directed by Gore Verbinski and it became, instead, a film by Terry Gilliam. I thought that even before reading reviews from other people who thought the same thing, too. Here we finally get to see Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, in maybe his best portrayal of the character yet). Davy Jones' Locker is a vast desert wasteland that wrecks havoc with one's sanity (just like a Gilliam movie is apt to do to the viewer). Quite a bit of revelation about Sparrow in this part: maybe more than we ever cared to know, even. Sparrow is rescued and just as important, the Black Pearl is recovered (I'm trying hard not to "spoil" too much of the details here) and after Sparrow figures out the World's End map, our heroes are back in the realm of the living.

And from that point on... I need to re-watch At World's End again, because this story was incredibly dense for a summer popcorn flick. There are still some things I'm not quite sure of (such as the importance of the people singing Hoist the Colors on their way to the gallows at the beginning of the movie). This is definitely a movie to watch and re-watch many times when it comes out on DVD in order to "get" everything that's going on. But slight confusion aside, I cannot but admit that I had a blast with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. It makes watching the first two again something you're going to want to do, because very small details in those suddenly take on huge significance (the locket that Tia Dalma has f'rinstance, which I speculated about when I watched the DVD of Dead Man's Chest back in January). All the big dangling storylines get resolved in At World's End... usually after we come to find out that there was much more to the tale than what we’d previously known. We learn a staggering amount of stuff about this fictional world, especially when the Brethren Court meets (which I enjoyed a lot). Speaking of which, Keith Richards is a lot of fun to watch as Captain Teague Sparrow: the keeper of the Pirate Law and the father of Captain Jack.

I think Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is the third installment in a movie series that Return of the Jedi could have and should have been. Because if this is going to be the last film in a series for awhile or ever at all, then everything should be poured into the story so far as the setting and geography and lore of the movie's "universe" goes. The only new things we really saw in Return of the Jedi were Jabba's Palace and a forest filled with pint-sized Wookiees. At World's End is painted with a much broader brush that doesn't leave us feeling wanting at the conclusion of the movie.

About the ending: yeah, I wasn't expecting that for an ending, either. I had always envisioned Will and Elizabeth to be married by Captain Sparrow on the deck of the Black Pearl after Davy Jones and Beckett had been taken care of, "and they lived happily ever after". If you've seen the movie, you know that this does not happen. That what does happen was something we never anticipated. But, it's starting to grow on me. The producers of the movie were bold enough to break with tradition and I think it's going to make At World's End that much more endearing with time.

The visual effects in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End are amazing. I was mighty impressed at how good Industrial Light and Magic had become with the CGI in Dead Man's Chest. In At World's End, they surpassed that even. So many shots in this movie that I have to wonder how they were done. You might be hearing some talk about that last scene with Cutler Beckett: that was definitely a fun one to watch.

I feel like I'm only able to give a half-hearted review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End because I really need to see this again, if not two more times, to feel like I can fully appreciate all the nuances and angles of this movie. Maybe I'll write some more thoughts about it when that happens.

But in the meantime, I've spent each Saturday of the past four weeks watching a new summer movie (Spider-Man 3 twice and Shrek the Third last week). I had a good time with Spider-Man 3 in spite of its many problems and didn't think very much at all about "Dreck the Third". With Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, I can finally see that there may be some promise yet at the movies this summer.

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