Herald Journal Columns
July 21, 2003 Herald Journal
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Pirates of the Caribbean - now in theaters


"Pirates of the Caribbean" is a fun ride. Literally.

It's a theme ride that premiered at a Disneyland park in California. I haven't been on it ­ which is not surprising since I get queasy on the ferris wheel at the county fair ­ but all accounts say it's one of the best.

"Pirates of the Caribbean ­ The Curse of the Black Pearl" is also a fun ride (talking about the movie now). It's packed full of action and a twisting, turning plotline, and, even though it left me a bit unsatisfied, it's good summer fun.

The plot is driven by a pretty straightforward romance, which is good, because the rest of the plot is as convoluted as a secret treasure map. This turns what could have been a really great 90 minute pirate film into a pretty good 143 minute pirate film.

My main complaint, which will seem trivial to most readers, stems from having had too much theatre and film training.

What's a good pirate film without great sword fights? But, the swordplay sequences in this film are completely unconvincing to me, relying far too heavily on editing instead of solid fight choreography.

It seems that the days of such believable fights as one can see in "The Princess Bride" or "Swashbuckler," or the old Errol Flynn movies, are gone.

Perhaps the actors simply don't have the time to take the necessary stage combat training, or maybe directors are too enamored with the effects that can be achieved through editing; but from the first exchange of blows, I was no longer able to accept the "reality" of the film.

Fortunately, there are other factors that redeem "Pirates of the Caribbean," not the least of which is fantastic performances by two accomplished actors.

I gain more admiration for Johnny Depp ("Blow," "Chocolat," "Sleepy Hollow") with each new film. Here is an actor who is willing to take risks.

Had Depp played the role of the pirate Jack Sparrow straight, as the classic swaggering noble savage who effortlessly swings from crows nest to fo'castle, this film would have failed miserably. But, instead, Depp has created a pirate hero (using the term very loosely) unlike any before, and certainly unlike anything in a Disney film.

Reports say Depp patterned his character after Keith Richards, the flamboyant bad boy guitarist from The Rolling Stones, and that he came to blows with the Disney producers more than once over his characterization.

For instance, he won the fight when he showed up for the first day of shooting with mascara around his eyes, which, when combined with his tipsy sashaying movements, give an impression something like a macho drag queen who has been out in the sun too long.

He lost the argument over his teeth. Depp actually had his dentist implant gold caps on most of them. When the producers thought it was way over the top, Depp conceded a few gold teeth.

Even though I still haven't quite figured out if Depp's Jack Sparrow is a good guy or bad guy, I couldn't help but like him.

(Warning: there's a small "spoiler" in the next paragraph.)

Geoffrey Rush ("Quills," "The Banger Sisters," "Shine"), who is also one of the more versatile and talented actors out there, really does get "out there" as Barbossa, the mutinous captain of the cursed pirate ship, The Black Pearl.

He portrays this otherwise stock character with great depth and nuance, providing one of the other elements that helps to elevate an otherwise mediocre story. He and his crew are so disgusting, so ruthless, so downright ugly, that they are fascinating.

And then we discover that, due to the curse, they are actually a bit, well, dead. In some marvelous filmmaking, we see them revealed as flesh dripping skeletons each time they step into the moonlight.

That's the other element that saves this movie ­ some fine filmaking. Director Gore Verbinski ("The Ring," "The Mexican," "Mouse Hunt") does his best with the often confusing story.

With the help of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who helped refine the modern gothic film look in "Dark City" and "The Crow," and production designer Brian Morris ("The Hunger," "The Road to Wellville"), Verbinski treats us to a seemingly unending series of beautiful, highly detailed scenes.

See "Pirates of the Caribbean" for the fine performances and beautiful visuals, and don't get too worried if you can't keep up with where they're going and why they're going there.

It's been reported that this is Disney's first PG-13 film, and I would agree that some of the images, mostly involving the undead pirates, could be disturbing for smaller kids.

Enjoy the ride, but have plenty of popcorn along ­ it's a long one!

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