It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.
Sailing to the end of the world escaping Davy Jones’ Locker betraying your fellow shipmates forming alliances and/or crossing swords with either dead crustaceans or British government baddies is just another day in the life of these pirates whose convoluted interactions with one another rival any soap opera. The players have all returned: Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) now a expert pirate herself; steadfast Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) estranged from his love Elizabeth and on a mission to save his father Bootstrap (Stellan Skarsgard); Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) risen from the dead to lead the Black Pearl; Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) the evil head of the East India Trading Company who has control of the Flying Dutchman as well as the inky Davy Jones (Bill Nighy); Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) the mystic who may be a little more powerful than we think. And a few new faces too namely Capt. Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) a cunning Chinese pirate. And then there’s Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) who since being rescued by his mates from the depths of hell has some great dead man’s tales to tell—as well as a few debts to pay. As the Pirates of the Caribbean get ready for their final titanic battle all their lives and fortunes--and the entire future of the freedom-loving pirate way—hang in the balance. Everyone does a nice job further developing their characters in this third installment. As the young lovers Knightley’s Elizabeth has gone from being a pampered—albeit feisty—lass to a full-fledged ass-kicking pirate (even if she has clean teeth) while Bloom’s Will once green at the whole hero thing turns into a true leader. Rush as the new and improved Barbossa isn’t nearly as menacing in human form as he was undead but his sparring with Captain Jack over who’s the rightful captain of the Black Pearl makes for some hilarious scenes. Nighy even gets to display a somewhat softer side to Davy Jones as we learn more about the octopus head’s backstory. Hollander (Pride & Prejudice) appropriately oozes villainy while Chow makes a nice addition as the grizzled Chinese pirate lord. Last but not least is Mr. Depp. Thankfully his Jack Sparrow isn’t as cartoonish as he was in Dead Man's Chest. In fact watching him interact with a whole pirate ship full of Jack Sparrow clones is quite something. But with a mixture of pirate swagger sexuality and effeminate mannerisms Jack never really changes—and that’s fine by us. And yes Keith Richards makes a well-placed cameo. That guy was born to play a pirate. Two hours and 45 minutes folks—that’s what you’re in for with At World's End. Even if you are a pirate fan that’s a lot of time yo-ho-ho-ing out at sea. Maybe director Gore Verbinski wanted to make four POTC movies but instead he’s forced to tie up all the loose ends—of which there seems to be an endless supply—in the third installment. At one point just to further things along Verbinski stages a long scene of exposition backstabbing and deal making by cutting between characters pacing around on their respective ships. We get it. Everyone has an agenda and no one can be trusted. To its credit however At World's End still manages to keep your attention with its amazing visuals. The production value and special effects on this trilogy rivals another famous trilogy involving a place called Middle Earth. In At World's End we have: the crowded waterways of Singapore and opulent den of Sao Feng; Shipwreck Cove where an important pirate summit is held; watching how the Black Pearl makes its way from a dry flat sea bed to the ocean AND the way to get from Davy Jones’ Locker back to the world of the living; and of course the final climactic battle at sea. The movie’s long but definitely worth its weight in gold doubloons giving just a whiff of possibility to a fourth one.
The time is the 18th century and with authentic settings steeped in a dense mass of fog Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl succeeds as a predatory period piece. In the Caribbean Sea Pirate Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has just led a mutiny against the Black Pearl's captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) assailed the colonial town of Port Royal and kidnapped the Governor's daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Barbossa's motives are simple: a cursed treasure has doomed him and his crew to live eternally as the "undead " human by day living skeletons by night and the only way to lift this curse is to return the last missing piece of the plundered treasure and spill the blood of its possessor. It so happens that Elizabeth is wearing that very piece around her neck--a gold skull-embossed doubloon she took from her childhood friend Will (Orlando Bloom) whom her father rescued from a sinking pirate ship as a boy. Will promptly sets out to save her from Barbossa and finds an unlikely ally in Jack the bumbling and untrustworthy sea captain who just wants his ship back. But since these ghastly Pirates of the Caribbean can't be killed again sending them to Davy Jones's locker proves to be the challenge of a lifetime for Will and Jack.
It is a delight to see Depp in a new film (his last big feature was the 2001 historical horror thriller From Hell) and Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Jack Sparrow is tailor-made for the former 21 Jump Street teen idol. The most intriguing thing about Depp's Jack Sparrow is the duality the actor gives the character: On the one hand Jack is this lusty fearless man with a deeply defiant streak. On the other his delicate features long dreadlocked hair kohl-rimmed eyes and almost girly mannerisms give Jack a subtly effeminate air that belies his macho antics. Depp who has said he equates 18th century pirates with modern-day rock stars used Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as inspiration for the role and it comes across clearly in his slurred speech swaying swagger and slack waving arms. He obviously had fun and in the process created a rich multifaceted character; in fact Depp's performance here is so riveting that when Jack does not appear in a scene the film almost drags. The movie's co-stars also do a wonderful job with the material but their performances pale in comparison to Depp's. As the old wily Barbossa Rush brings an air of authenticity to the role of a weathered sea captain. The young Knightley who made her big-screen debut in the sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham is enchanting as Elizabeth--a sharp-witted damsel in distress who knows how to hold her own--and the 18-year-old actress also holds her own alongside such an experienced cast. Bloom however is a bit bland as Elizabeth's devoted friend Will.
After his successful horror thriller The Ring director Gore Verbinski gives this supernatural adventure pic less terror and more humor. Inspired by the Disney theme park attraction of the same name and produced by explosion maestro Jerry Bruckheimer Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean unfolds a terrific tale which when combined with superb performances from Depp and the cast and genuine-looking sets makes for a great moviegoing experience. Verbinski pays close attention to detail here especially when it comes down to the costumes hair and makeup and does so by avoiding the usual buccaneer clichés such as eye patches hook hands and peg legs; with their deplorable hygiene and silver-capped teeth the pirates look undeniably real. Take for instance a scene in which Jack is speaking up close to a commodore: The navy officer slightly shrinks back after getting a whiff of his breath and we can understand why. The most challenging scenes for the director however had to be the fight sequences involving the pirates who turn into skeletons when exposed to moonlight. The characters switch back and forth from human forms to carcasses depending on their exposure to night light and Verbinski achieves this visual effect convincingly. But although beautifully executed the elaborate ship-to-ship battle waged between the Black Pearl and the Interceptor is too time-consuming and with the movie coming in at 133 minutes that could have been whittled down.