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Under Water
by Greg Muskewitz

Earlier this summer I made comments about Disney’s quick-to-capitalize attitude on their television-cum-movie franchise of Lizzie McGuire. When a (free to the public) popular TV show caps its episode limit, what better to do than turn a profit with a product charge? Last year Disney introduced the first of three initial movies based on Disneyland attractions, The Country Bears. Although I didn’t see it, the movie was negatively received and it was not a financial success. The third, due out around Thanksgiving, is The Haunted Mansion; judging from the previews before Pirates, it looks as though Eddie Murphy has reduced the mansion to a bit player after his starring schtick. Sailing along …

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Under Water
Verbinski’s direction seems to sway whichever possible way will get the most reaction at any given moment.

Earlier this summer I made comments about Disney’s quick-to-capitalize attitude on their television-cum-movie franchise of Lizzie McGuire. When a (free to the public) popular TV show caps its episode limit, what better to do than turn a profit with a product charge? Last year Disney introduced the first of three initial movies based on Disneyland attractions, The Country Bears. Although I didn’t see it, the movie was negatively received and it was not a financial success. The third, due out around Thanksgiving, is The Haunted Mansion; judging from the previews before Pirates, it looks as though Eddie Murphy has reduced the mansion to a bit player after his starring schtick. Sailing along …

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me. Or maybe not: at sea, a young freckled girl spies a destroyed vessel and a young boy floating along, baring a pirate’s imprimatur. He’s saved and she hides the jewelry. Years later, the now freckle-less Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) is about to set in motion a chain of events that precipitate the ride, er, adventure to follow. The patrician Swann is saved from drowning by bumbling pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who is just ashore, and his good deed is to go punished when his identity is discovered. No matter — her bibelot’s contact with water has conjured the mystical Black Pearl, a cursed pirate ship that briefly docks and plunders, kidnapping the girl under the impression that she is the offspring of the pirate who put an anathema on them. When Capt. Sparrow discovers that the real offspring is Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the boy Elizabeth saved, he agrees to assist the apprentice blacksmith in the quest to save the strumpet-in-distress.

A considerable hybrid of true swashbuckling pirate films, Caribbean is a typically Disney-fied product obsequiously bending to find appeal across the map — tongue-in-cheek humor, extended action sequences, explosive visual effects, hunky male leads, second-string support from a tough but beautiful woman. (The occasional bone is thrown to the ride: Depp tells a group of jailed brethren wooing the key-guarding dog, “You can keep doing that all day, but he will never move.”) Gore Verbinski’s direction seems to sway whichever possible way will get the most reaction at any given moment. It’s a movie of whim, meaning there can and will be passages of compelling entertainment, but also more of the laborious, hit-or-miss dartboard variety of whatever goes, goes. Verbinski again, following in the footsteps of The Ring, cloaks the movie in a thick blue, helping to cast darkness of the decent but non-scary effects. (My own approval of his direction in the last film was likely the case that his remake remained mostly faithful to Hideo Nakata’s directorial path.) The action tends to be a bit hazy, although what little swordplay there is, there are some nice moments of dodging in and out of the moonlight, revealing the true identity of the rogue pirates. (Another nice detail: Depp and Bloom sneaking away undetected underwater by using a rowboat overhead to hold an air pocket.) Still, the visuals lack the impact of something less routine and more creative as in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the pace of action and choreography cannot hold a dagger to the recent energy and dexterity of Le Bossu.

Depp and Geoffrey Rush prove to be the most memorable, both dueling as pirates with different ideals. The former plays it with quirky humor, perhaps a mix of drunken oblivion and the inability to walk straight after a lifetime at sea, and the latter goes straight for the wicked grandiose of villainy. They’re fun. Bloom is passable, though he isn’t so much of a hunk without his elven guise, and likewise, Knightley fares better when there’s more of her and less pretense and effects; but all the same, it falls down the basic path of mild entertainment. The movie overextends its welcome, sloshing on and on towards the end with plenty of scenes serving as candidates to be excised by way of plank. What more can be said about a movie that’s inspiration stems from a ride? Before I’m made to walk the plank, I’ll choose the Disneyland version any day.

Swimming Pool. Perhaps my director of the moment, the ever-increasing showcaser of talented actresses, François Ozon crosses into English-language territory (predominantly spoken with some French) with his two favorite actresses, Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier. Rampling is Sarah Morton, English author of a potboiler investigation series with Inspector Dorwell (sample title, “Dorwell Wears a Kilt”) who is presently suffering from writer’s block and feels neglected by her publisher. (“Awards are like hemorrhoids: sooner or later every asshole gets one.”) To remedy her predicament, her publisher offers his flat in the south of France for peace, respite and inspiration, and her work takes off from the get-go. Sooner than she prefers, the tarp of the estate’s pool is torn off — physically and metaphorically — when the publisher’s sexually aggressive daughter Julie unexpected shows up with an entourage of a new man every night. Cranky and uptight, Sarah balks and the two femmes initially square off in the battleground. But then her writer’s instinct kicks in and Sarah has discovered a new source of inspiration, with the psychological aspect displaying how far it can lead and what happens when it is dried up.

The film has its share of secrets, which it keeps safely locked up, particularly the ending and the necessity to re-examine and re-evaluate all that came before it. Ozon has long showed an interest in his characters’ psychology, especially how it pertains to their sexuality. Females have come to dominate his films (exclusively Rampling in Under the Sand, the cast of his last, tendentiously titled 8 Women) and Ozon has become a darker French version of Pedro Almodóvar, but the trick of Swimming Pool relates specifically to the shifting and ambiguous identity of his two characters. The method of storytelling is revelatory and relevant to the palpable extent of what we observe from Sarah’s character. Fantasy and reality are at work together, and at the film’s opening when Sarah is blatantly identified on a metro, she tells the woman, “You must have mistaken me with someone else. I’m not the person you think I am.”

As the conflict between Sarah and Julie arouses intensification (hints of sexual jealousy are dropped), the older woman comes around to adopting the younger’s psychology and actions are done with the intention of their effect. Ozon approaches the film as an antithesis, or a slick blender, to conventional film noir through the vivid colors, extensive sunlight, not to mention the nude tan of Sagnier. The obvious dimensions are still there — smoke-filled rooms, shaded blinds, etc. What’s unexpected is the generosity of humor and levity, Rampling’s stiff dancing to techno music, her sexual awakening, her decided competitiveness against Sagnier. The two actresses take a lot of risks and rightfully so — Ozon is responsible for Rampling’s career revival (Sand) and Sagnier’s discovery (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 8 Women), and both do not disappoint for him or for the film. Much has been made of the nudity seeing as how both actresses bare quite a lot of flesh, and both look stunning for their respective ages. Rampling’s and Sagnier’s talent is unquestionably there from the start, and as time quickly tells, Ozon’s judgment in the capability of their chemistry is right on.

Likewise, he continues his intriguing examination not only psychologically, but the impact of closed-in locales. Generally, such might seem restrictive (a big issue in Burning Rocks), but his evolving maturity as a writer as well as a director, and his reliance on his own scripts have proved to be vast in space and taut. Ozon also proves, like German filmmaker Tom Tykwer did last year with Heaven, that the bid to expand beyond one’s native tongue does not automatically result in American/commercial selling out — backed further in the decision of both to retain their foreign counterpart crew. Even though the film lacks a definitive resolution, it provocatively satisfies in the same way Lynch’s Mulholland Drive did. (Similarly, Ozon triggers Lynchian touches with his use of dwarf Mireille Mossé.) And in leaving it open-ended, he grants room for much interpretation and discussion; it can be staggeringly sexy and complicated at the same time. Seemingly (water being another Ozon motif), the pool appears to be more boundless than the sea.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Back at sea, anachronisms run abound in this salmagundi teaming of literary “heroes” in fin de siècle Europe to battle a cryptic villain known only as The Fantom (“How operatic”) from generating a world war with his “alternative” technology. The rogue’s gallery consists of Allan Quartermain (“King Solomon’s Mines”), Captain Nemo (“20,000 Leagues under the Sea”), Tom Sawyer (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”), Rick Skinner (a rift on “The Invisible Man”), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (self-explanatory), Mina Harker (“Dracula”) and Dorian Gray (“The Picture of Dorian Gray”). In theory the idea sounds great, leading me to want to search out Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel (also responsible for From Hell’s source material — with brief reference here), but in execution it’s a mess. Director Stephen Norrington (Blade) fails to convincingly propound the concept by disallowing the viewer to buy into the factitious reasons all of these foreign characters and mythos are being thrown together. From there the abundant use of computer animation and special effects rouse as an avocation from further explanation or development of the plot. It remains in comic form until the end, or at least the way the sloppiest of comics translate to the screen, heavily dependent on the diversity of abilities, the need for one’s powers to upstage those of the previous, and so forth. Neither is it a help that the entire cast peruse about on autopilot. Though I think the assortment of characters has potential for true adventure, the way they are manipulated against each other serves as too much of a conflict. There are striking visuals — the transmogrification of Hyde back to Jekyll or vise-versa, the immersion of the Nautilus — but they are used to dictate the story instead of assist. Then as well, there are any number of sloppy examples, the flip-flopping effects of the invisible guy, the gaping continuity errors, excessively edited action sequences, the trend of dark scenes to cover up poor CGI (as seen recently in Pirates, Hulk, minimally in T3). When all is said and done, this minor league defeats itself with dilettantism.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=764
originally posted: 07/12/03 01:57:30
last updated: 01/05/04 22:50:07
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