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Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to visit the editing room and take a look at about forty-five minutes worth of footage from one of this summer’s most anticipated films, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2: DEAD MAN’S CHEST. I wrote about that experience here, and at the time, I was very optimistic about the film.

That’s a little dangerous, though. I’ve been fooled before. Remember my visit to the editing room for TOMB RAIDER? I sure do. And I also remember my reaction to the finished film. See a bit of a disparity there? It’s possible to take 20 or 30 minutes of a film out of context and show them to someone, and you might be able to make that film look like the greatest movie ever. But then when you see things in context, suddenly you get a better picture of what you’re seeing, and suddenly, that 20 or 30 minutes doesn’t look so good. It’s embarrassing, and it’s one of the trickiest parts of agreeing to take an early peek at a part of a film. You can find yourself hung out to dry easily.

Thankfully, that’s not the case here. PIRATES 2 is one of the best summer entertainments I’ve seen in a while, and it manages to improve on the first film in every way. It’s smart, it’s funny, it plays out on an epic scale while still putting character first, and it builds to a conclusion that will have audiences twisting in agony as they have to wait for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3: AT WORLD’S END next summer. Basically, it’s everything fans of the first film hope it will be, but it’s also good enough to win over people who were unconvinced by that first movie.

I’m going to try to tread lightly about spoilers for this one, because I would have hated to have had some of the film’s surprises ruined for me.

Basically, this follows a bit of the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK formula, where our main characters are all sent in different directions to do different things that eventually bring them all back together, along with a hearty dose of illicit romance, backstabbing, and supernatural tomfoolery. If you’re using the EMPIRE model, then I guess Orlando Bloom is the closest thing to Luke Skywalker. He’s got the slightest of the roles this time, but he makes the most of the screen time he does have. Thanks to the dark magic of Davy Jones, Will Turner is reunited with his father, Bootstrap Bill Turner, who was only referred to in dialogue in the first film.

Stellan Skarsgaard plays Boostrap Bill with a sort of grim resignation, a man cursed who doesn’t want his son to make his same mistakes. Bootstrap was thrown overboard to drown by his crewmates, but he was suffering from the same curse as them, so he couldn’t die. He was bound, held in place, alive but alone at the bottom of the sea. And he couldn’t take it. He begged Davy Jones to take him, to make him part of the crew of the Flying Dutchman, and that’s exactly what happened.

That’s what happened to everyone aboard the Dutchman, and they’re all kept alive by the mercy of Davy Jones. The longer they live as part of his crew, the more they become one with the sea, so everyone of Davy’s crew is crazy and mutated and unique. One of the unsung heroes of this film appears to be Crash McCreery, a designer and production artist whose work has always blown me away. He’s got a wicked imagination, and if you keep your eyes open and look at all the pirates in all the Davy Jones scenes, you’re going to see some crazy stuff. Even if you hate the rest of the movie (and I can’t imagine you would), the Davy Jones sequences are masterfully staged sequences of imagination, great horror movie mood pieces. There’s a wager that takes place between Will, Davy Jones, and Bootstrap Bill that is all about character, and in that moment, I really wasn’t thinking about “Wow, that’s really great ILM special effects make-up work, with remarkable texture mapping and a pretty ballsy lighting set-up, and I’m impressed by the way the performance capture paid off, particularly in the way his eyes and his mouth work.” All of that is true, but what I was thinking was about the characters... about the stakes for Will... the chance for Bootstrap to do something good. It’s involving, and it transcends just being good special effects.

Bill Nighy plays Davy Jones, and as soon as you see the first sequence in which he appears, you’ll see how fully-realized and iconic a movie monster he is. I think he’ll terrify kids, but in the way they like to be terrified. They’ll scream at points, and they’ll want more of it. Nighy seems to have embraced the potential of performance capture fully, and he’s really helped create a showcase for what’s possible if an actor is in the hands of the right artists. It’s a perfect marriage of performance and effects, and it’s impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. It doesn’t matter if he’s in a violent rainstorm or harsh daylight... Davy Jones looks real to me. Absolutely real, and Nighy hits every note right in the same way that Depp does.

I’m not a big Kiera Knightley fan, but she’s got a good role here. Elizabeth, after all, was the first character we saw in the first film, and in many ways, she’s the lead of the entire trilogy. She was infatuated with pirates, with the romantic notion of them. In her heart, she sort of wanted to be a pirate. Her realization in the first film that real pirates are scary and dishonorable and to be feared was sort of the point of the film. In this movie, Elizabeth has to confront something ugly about herself, the realization that she might be a pirate at heart... that she might not be a good person when all is said and done. Ironic, since she spends most of the movie trying to convince Jack Sparrow that he is more than just a pirate... that he is, in fact, a good man underneath.

Oh, excuse me. That’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Let’s answer the big question: is Johnny Depp as much fun this time as he was in the original? Is it still fresh? The answer is an unreserved yes. Again, the EMPIRE model applies. Remember how cool Han Solo was in STAR WARS the first time you saw it? And then remember how much cooler he seemed when EMPIRE came out? This is that big a jump, and you can tell right away when they manage to come up with an introduction that is just as fun as the way Captain Jack was introduced in the first film. Depp’s marked in this film, cursed and on the run, doing anything he can to save his own skin. It’s a great dilemma to give him, and Depp really rises to the occasion.

I’d run, too, if someone was using The Kraken to track me. Davy Jones can command the beast using a summoning device onboard the Dutchman, and he does so on three separate and spectacular occasions. Again, though... as great as these sea monster attacks are, they each do something very different for the story and to the characters. That last Kraken attack ends up being the most emotion sequence in either this film or the first one. Everyone finally shows their hand, and for a moment, everyone gets a look at everyone else’s true face. It’s pretty great, and it changes the rules for part three next summer.

You’ve got to give it up for the supporting cast. Jack Davenport tears it up as former Commodore James Norrington, the guy who was destroyed emotionally when Elizabeth chose Will Turner over him, and when he was sent after Captain Jack Sparrow and failed to find him, his career was destroyed as well. He’s a wreck when he shows up in this film, and then he goes all Lando on everyone. It’s a nice role, and he makes the most of it. Lee Arenberg and MacKenzie Crook make a nice comedy team through most of this, the sort of R2D2/C3PO combo. Kevin McNally is Chewbacca to Captain Jack’s Han Solo, a big bear of a guy who always has his back and who helps keep the ship on the water. Jonathan Pryce is good, but barely in the film. Tom Hollander makes for a slimy villain as Lord Cutler Beckett, playing it just right, never overselling it. Naomie Harris is pretty great and strange as Tia Dalma, the fortune-teller who they go to visit early on. Everyone plays it just right, and the script gives them something to do, a rarity in blockbusters of this size.

I just plain like Gore Verbinski as a filmmaker, and I think every time out, he seems to be getting more confident, more daring. This reminds me of the crazy pre-PG-13 days of the MPAA, when stuff like POLTERGEIST or RAIDERS was getting a PG. He maintains a pretty rough and tumble dark adventure tone for the entire film, from the opening scenes at a nightmarish prison for pirates all the way to the final scene in the home of Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris). He’s managed to work in some more of the imagery from the classic “Pirates” ride in a few clever nods, and he keeps the film rolling forward in a way that feels a little like a Disney ride felt when you were a kid and you went on them. There’s definitely an episodic nature to much of this script, and in a few places, transitions are played down to the point of haiku. Still not quite sure how Johnny Depp ends up with the natives and how he knows their language, but that’s fine. The entire sequence works so well and is so funny and thrilling that you won’t care about one or two little gloss-overs. The second half of the film works better than the first half, and it feels like the difference is as simple as set-up and pay-off. PIRATES 2 expends a fair bit of shoe leather getting where it’s going, but once it gets up a head of steam, there’s no stopping it.

The film ends with two pretty big shocks to the system, and you should avoid reading anything about them or how they play out. Suffice it to say, it’s all about how well those two events pay off in next summer’s final chapter of the trilogy. The gauntlet’s been thrown down now, and it’s a pretty big cliffhanger on a couple of fronts. I loved the ending, and if you’ll stay all the way through the credits, you’ll get a surprise just like you did in the first film. It’s a great one, too.

Hans Zimmer’s score is pretty damn rousing, and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is candy in all the right ways. In many ways, this feels to me like a sort of summation of everything that Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott have written so far. As writers on ALADDIN, SMALL SOLDIERS, both of the ZORRO films, TREASURE PLANET, and THE ROAD TO EL DORADO, they’ve had plenty of experience warming up for these films. The first PIRATES was co-written with Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, both writers who worked on the movie before Ted and Terry came aboard. This time, they were the only writers on the film, and the same thing’s true of the final one next year. This movie really does do everything they’ve done before, but with a grace that only comes from experience. They’ve given Verbinksi a hell of a blueprint, and he seems to have responded to what they wrote, almost like he’s answering a dare.

So, yeah... I think I sort of loved this movie. And considering how I was of mixed opinion on the first one, that’s a pretty nice feeling. I’m ready for next year already, and I’m willing to be you will be, too, as soon as you get a look on July 7th.

Right now, I’m off to work on this week’s DVD column, some more DVD reviews, and my reaction to a little indie movie I saw called SUPERMAN RETURNS. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

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