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REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead
Man’s Chest

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There’s only one fair measure of a pirate movie: does it make you want to be a pirate? And Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest may do that. But you’re just as likely to stagger out of the theater with a different occupational ambition: film editor. By Poseidon’s beard, this movie is long. And somewhere in the vague recesses of memory, one recalls that the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, long since dubbed a classic if the costumed hordes at last night’s opening are to be believed, was not exactly swashbuckling trim itself.

    Still, that first film had a charm that Dead Man’s Chest finds in somewhat shorter supply. Some of Pirates 1‘s appeal probably came from low expectations, but the rest was pure Johnny Depp. And indeed, it’s delightful to see that oddball mincing across the deck again; oddly, though, the filmmakers seem not to have realized how much the original Pirates rested on him. Where they might have shifted the story to focus on Depp, they instead spin out an extremely twisty yarn — a whole sweater, really — with about the same focus as the first film. Dead Man’s Chest follows its swarthy company into conflict with Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a squid-faced revenant from the bottom of the sea. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) meets his late father. Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) contends with the encroaching grasp of the East India Company. A dozen other subplots wriggle like tentacles. Disposable characters and plotlines impinge on Johnny Depp time. Where are those scissors?

     Credit to Disney: they’ve made the mental editing game harder than usual. Even the most unnecessary elements are rendered with love and wit (though not brevity). Depp remains hysterical, have no fear, and Davy Jones’s army of sea-ghouls is wonderfully realized: they’re shambling accretions of kelp, shell, and fish parts. One, split open by the swing of a cutlass, spills a flood of kippers onto the heaving deck. Inspired moments like that would surely be tough to leave out. But pure entertainment must be cut without mercy, or it drags, and Dead Man’s Chest drags. That’s a shame. We are a few doubloons short of a treasure. — Peter Smith

REVIEW: A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly

Given the arresting sci-fi provenance of the other major filmmakers who’ve tackled the work of Philip K. Dick — a formidable list that includes Steven Spielberg (Minority Report), Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall), and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) — it’s a tad ironic that Richard Linklater, he of the low budgets and slapdash visual sense, has come the closest to approximating the author’s singularly cynical-paranoid worldview. At the same time, that makes perfect sense: Linklater, whose abiding interest is the human animal, is the director least likely to be distracted by shiny techno-trinkets.

     Like virtually all of Dick’s work, A Scanner Darkly is set in the near future and involves various mind-bending speculative ideas, which Linklater duly incorporates into his adaptation; the most striking example here is something called a "scramble suit," which disguises the wearer’s identity by projecting a constantly shifting Cubist collage of alternate identities onto its surface. But the characters are all junkies (or undercover cops posing as junkies), addicted to a brain-shriveling drug known as Substance D. The film is often perfectly content to dawdle and even zone, observing their addled behavior and reveling in the uniquely convoluted cadences of their speech. It’s almost a shame that Linklater had already used the title Dazed and Confused.

    Of course, what gives A Scanner Darkly its requisite sense of the surreal is the use of Bob Sabiston’s pioneering form of computer-rotoscoped animation, which Linklater first employed in Waking Life. Thus the cast — Keanu Reeves, as identity-damaged narc Bob Arctor; Winona Ryder, persuasively burned-out as his dealer; and Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, chewing the digital scenery as his perpetually stoned friends — shimmer and jitter across the screen, caught in an uneasy limbo between the mundane and the hallucinatory. While this is apropos thematically, it becomes somewhat monotonous from a strictly visual standpoint; a hundred minutes is a long time to forgo any sense of fine detail, which is more or less what Sabiston’s technique accomplishes. (At least in Waking Life the style changed every few minutes.) And while Scanner the movie is remarkably faithful to Scanner the novel, the book’s labyrinthine narrative doesn’t quite survive the necessary compressions and abridgements. In the end, Scanner feels like what it is: a distant approximation of something else. But at least the emphasis is on tone rather than tech. — Mike
D’Angelo

REVIEW: Heading South
Heading SouthLaurent
Cantet may be cinema’s bard of working-class ennui, but as a
deep thinker on matters of race and gender he’s shockingly daft. Heading
South
, his take on first-world/third-world relations in
the 1970s, is so jaw-droppingly misguided that it makes his stellar Human
Resources
(2000) and Time Out (2001) seem like
lucky aberrations. This is among the biggest stink bombs dropped
by major directors in recent memory.

    Things start off promisingly enough, with a scene in a
Haitian airport that’s jarring for its juxtaposition of desperation and formality. Heading
South
quickly heads south, however, when it shifts focus to a gaggle of
wealthy, middle-aged, white women vacationers partaking of that country’s poor,
disenfranchised, sexually available — and, not incidentally, black — young
men. Among them is Brenda (Karen Young), an emotionally vulnerable American divorcée
vying for the favors of Legba (Methony Cesar) with the French Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a bitter schoolteacher and old hand at the sex-tourism game.
Things end badly when Legba’s devotion sways from his wealthy foreign suitors
to a domestic ex-girlfriend with dangerous alliances.

    This collision of sex and privilege is fertile ground, but Cantet is undone by a penchant for melodrama
and a condescending over-identification with his protagonists. His obvious fondness
for Haiti is both patronizing and politically naive (the corruption and bloodshed
he shows are lazily decontextualized), while his female characters are romanticized
to the point of being let off the hook. The result is an airless, blithely academic,
and (probably) inadvertent argument for a type of social imperialism that passed
its sell-by date decades ago. The whole thing makes you want to run and hide
your head in the sand, but Cantet already has that covered. — Mark
Holcomb
REVIEW: Guernsey
GuernseyWith
its heavy-duty arthouse style that will, with good reason, provoke
the adjective "Antonioniesque," director Nanouk Leopold’s
somber Guernsey will probably intimidate many viewers.
I’d suggest patience: This story, about an aid worker whose life
is thrown into subdued disarray after the suicide of a co-worker,
is a lot more compelling than its film festival
imprimatur would suggest.

    At first, watching the somber, often expressionless Anna
(Maria Kraakman) go through the routines of her life — and what a life,
given that her commute is between Egypt and her home in Holland — brings
to mind the travails of many a stone-faced art-film protagonist. But Leopold’s
spare camerawork (she prefers long shots, taking in the architectural
precision of Anna’s environment) does not equal spare narrative or characterization.
The director, aided immeasurably by Kraakman’s performance, brings an uncommon
inner life to Anna’s world.

    Indeed, the strain of empty routine in Anna’s life has
been built into the very aesthetic of this film; those angular, architectural
spaces aren’t just pretty pictures, they’re a kind of post-modern trap for these
characters. When Anna painfully gives in to an acquaintance’s advances, we understand
her complicated reasons why, even though the camera keeps her at a distance.
Indeed, that is the odd magic of Guernsey‘s otherwise unintrusive style.
By the time this compact exercise in minimalism reaches its conclusion, you’ll
find yourself moved in ways you never expected. — Bilge Ebiri
REVIEW: Beowulf and Grendel
Beowulf and GrendelWhile
the great warrior Beowulf is the hero of the epic poem which
bears his name — that old warhorse of high school English
class — it’s his nemesis, the monster/ent/troll/fallen-man/whatever
Grendel, who captures the imaginations of modern artists. There’s
always been something pathetic about this misunderstood, brutal
outcast lurking in his lair, taunting civilization — possibly
because the Danish warriors featured in the poem itself come
off as a bunch of over-aggressive louts to modern readers. Grendel
is the original victim of bullies. Or at least, that’s how we
like to imagine him today.

    Little changes with director Sturla Gunnarsson’s gritty,
atmospheric treatment of this very old story. While Gunnarsson and screenwriter
Andrew Rai Berzins don’t try particularly hard to revise the myth (Beowulf is
still the hero here), they make sure to give us a Grendel we can understand,
opening with a scene from the supposed villain’s childhood, where he witnesses
his father being killed by the soldiers of King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard).
And they’ve also given Grendel a human connection, in the form of a clairvoyant
woman (Sarah Polley) who protects the brute. That effectively charges
this story with more immediacy and pathos. As the title suggests, it’s
not a film about the quest for a monster, but about the confrontation between
two iconic figures, each with his own mythology. The result is an at times predictable
adventure tale that’s been given a breath of new life. — Bilge Ebiri
DATE DVD: Tales from the Gimli Hospital
Tales from the Gimli HospitalIf
you’re angling for a hot film snob (if, indeed, there is such
a thing, outside of Sofia Coppola and Gael Garcia Bernal),
the video store is probably a source of great anxiety. That’s
why you should read David Kamp and Lawrence Levi’s very handy
crib-sheet The Film Snob’s Dictionary, which is basically "Art
Films for Dummies." As a bit of a superior cineaste myself, I should
first complain about this trifling collection’s obvious defects
(hey, they’re asking for it), beginning with its complete omission
of cinema from at least two continents (Africa and South
America) and their blind spot concerning comedy
(they appreciate that James Agee liked Chaplin and the Marx brothers,
but they don’t seem to laugh at much themselves). But as a
dating aid, the book could be extremely useful. There are plenty
of tips for date DVDs that will highlight your unexpected sense
of cinema (and
advice on a few too-obvious titles you should avoid), but I’d
go for Toronto oddball Guy Maddin’s 1988 debut Tales from
the Gimli Hospital
. As the authors note, it’s “the
rollicking story of two smallpox-quarantined lunkheads, filmed
in black and white.” It’s also the kind of art film that leaves snobs and newbies
equally baffled, so, with any luck, you may discover
that your pretentious crush is as much a poseur as you are — and
you can go see Pirates of the Caribbean 2 the next
night, without regrets. — Logan Hill

   

©2006 Nerve.com.