Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

 The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (3.5/5)

The original Pirates of the Caribbean had the element of surprise on its side.  No one suspected that a film based on an antiquated attraction at Disney World would foster much entertainment value, and certainly no one thought it would become such a cultural juggernaut that it would spawn three sequels and catapult Johnny Depp to the top of the Hollywood A-list food chain, making him an international star.  I had been a Depp fan since childhood and had enjoyed his status as an idiosyncratic outsider, content to play dress up with his friends, and when I first saw a preview for Pirates of the Caribbean, I must admit that my eyes rolled and asked myself, what the hell is Depp thinking?  And then the movie came out.  Not only was the film filled with clever conceits, thanks in part to a screenplay that felt like the intricate work of an old fashioned clockmaker, but Depp turned in a surprisingly rousing performance as the effete, possibly insane pirate, Jack Sparrow.  Here was a multi-million dollar film and in the center stood a character fueled by pure id, stabbing other characters in the back in a moments notice while never letting the audience in on whether he does so out of a sense of self preservation or as part of a grander, more heroic scheme.  If there is a Falstaff for the 21st century, then his name is Jack Sparrow.

And then the sequels happened.  Weighted down by their ever expanding mythology, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End limped through their expanding running time while dragging along enough subplots for at least five more films.  At the beginning of the first film we are concerned with Depp’s attempts to reclaim his ship and the romance between Will and Elizabeth, but by the end of the third movie a major plot point pivoted around the unrequited love of Calypso, a tertiary character who would have been mostly forgettable if she weren’t played by the immensely talented Naomie Harris.  Where The Curse of the Black Pearl’s tight plotting and clearly established supernatural rules made it seem shorter than its two hours and fifteen minutes, the two sequels felt much, much longer than their already bloated running times.  I understand that the filmmakers were trying to give us a bang for our buck, but they also needed to learn how to leave the audience wanting more.

It is with these widely held critiques in mind that the filmmakers went into the fourth Pirates movie, On Stranger Tides.  And there are several elements that tell us that the movie is attempting to swing all the way back around to the original film in hopes of bottling a little of the magic that made the first film a runaway success.  First, Will and Elizabeth have been jettisoned from the film.  This is good news because these two characters seemed unnecessary in the last two movies, and it increasingly felt as if the actors had merely wandered onto the set because they had nowhere else to go.  Second, the film is only tenuously connected to the byzantine mythology of the last few films.  Sure, characters like Captain Barbossa show up, but it is not necessary to be intimately familiar with the details of his curse, death and resurrection from the other three films.  Both of these choices allow the film to focus on what really matters: the character of Jack Sparrow.

So, does the film actually accomplish what it set out to do?  Is On Stranger Tides a return to form?  In a word, no.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good time, and the film bodes well for the inevitable sequels coming our way.  Plenty of film critics have taken On Stranger Tides to task for not living up to the promises of the first film, and while their complaints are not without merit, I strongly believe the movie largely delivers. 

On Stranger Tides follows multiple entities as they each lie, steal and cheat in order to make their way to the elusive Fountain of Youth, first discovered and then re-lost by Ponce De Leon nearly two centuries previous.  The entries into this mad, mad chase are the Spanish government, a coldly calculating participant, the British government, lead by former pirate Barbossa, the cutthroat Blackbeard, and of course Jack Sparrow himself.  After a rousing opening escape from the clutches of the British, Jack finds himself tracking down rumors of another Jack Sparrow who’s gathering a crew in London.  The Jack Sparrow impersonator happens to be an old flame, Angelica, in costume, a play on Jack’s effeminate mannerisms as well as the plethora of Jack Sparrow wannabes that walk the street on Halloween.  A nun who broke her vow of chastity to Jack, Angelica doesn’t quite trust the pirate, but she needs the map to the Fountain of Youth, which happens to be in Jack Sparrow’s possession. 

Of course, there are a plethora of double and triple crosses that occur throughout the film.  Like a good magician, the film does a lot with just a little slight of hand.  Angelica can not exactly be trusted (or can she?), and Jack winds up in the forced servitude of the pirate Blackbeard, played with suave menace by Ian McShane.  Concerned about a prophecy about his impending death, Blackbeard is also searching out the Fountain of Youth, but in order to actually use the fountain, he must procure a tear drop from a mermaid.  In the world of the Pirates movies, mermaids are vicious creatures who put on a doe eyed veneer in order to, like the sirens, lure men to their death.  The mermaid segment is particularly well executed.  The director, Rob Marshall, uses beautiful underwater shots of the small boats that have gone out to lure the mermaids, while ratcheting up the tension.  We know from the reactions of the sailors that the mermaids are dangerous and they could strike at any moment, creating an air pregnant with tension. 
With the inclusion of the mermaids, however, comes one of the film’s failings, an unnecessary subplot that often tries the audience’s patience.  A young missionary character who has been captured by Blackbeard is dropped like a cannonball into the middle of the film for no particular reason.  We are told who he is thanks to some leaden exposition by Angelica, and when they do finally capture a mermaid, her and the missionary start making googly eyes at one another.  The mermaid and the missionary seem like they’re replacements for Will and Elizabeth, but unlike those two characters the audience has little investment in this couple.  The movie has a few other flaws as well.  The filmmakers regularly break the show not tell rule.  Captain Barbossa, for example, explains to Jack about how he lost the ship, The Black Pearl, to Blackbeard, telling him that Blackbeard’s magic turned the ship against its own men, its ropes cutting down the Pearl’s crew.  While he told this story, I couldn’t help but think, that would have been cool to actually see, but thanks for sharing anyway Barbossa. 

But despite these flaws, On Stranger Tides is a film whose desire to please is evident.  All the main actors do a fantastic job, even if McShane is elbowed out of much of the film by some unnecessary subplots.  There are also some great twists throughout the movie.  I won’t spoil them for you here, but let us just say that not everyone is searching for the Fountain of Youth for eternal life.  So even when the movie stumbles, it still entertains.  On Stranger Tides is not the return to form it so desperately wants to be, but it is a nice indicator that if we are going to get at least two more of these Pirates movies, then at the very least they will serve as good summer diversions. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Violent Femmes - Hallowed Ground

Violent Femmes – Hallowed Ground (5/5)

There are few bands who have released debut albums as fully formed as the Violent Femmes’s eponymous release.  In the decades since its first appearance in 1983, Violent Femmes has become somewhat iconic, and the album seems to constantly spawn a new life for itself with each new generation of listeners thanks to the way in which it delves into seemingly universal themes of alienation, anxiety, and frustration (or at least universal to every wave of American teenagers from the 1950s onward).  And while it is possible to place the Violent Femmes’s sound within a historical context, mostly as a precursor to “alternative” music along with their peers R.E.M., the unique arrangement of their influences, a strange mash up of punk, folk, and jazz, has confounded any potential imitators, making their original debut sound just as energetic and new today as it did nearly thirty years ago. 

In fact, the Femmes’s debut cast such a long shadow that each subsequent released couldn’t really escape it.  The conundrum of a successful first album can be heard in the Violent Femme’s second LP, Hallowed Ground.  For a second album, plenty of bands choose to make an inferior copy of the first, often by digging up some b-sides and calling it a day.  But for Hallowed Ground the Violent Femmes delved deep into their well of influences and offered up an album that, while clearly the work of the same three musicians, subsumes plenty of unexpected genres.  The Femmes delved into country, bluegrass and folk for some eerily Christian themed songs.  The lead singer, Gordan Gano, was raised by a devout Baptist minister, and he apparently held onto his faith despite the conflicted nature of Hallowed Ground’s songs.  The other two members of the Violent Femmes, Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo, were atheists at the time the group recorded Hallowed Ground, and at first were uncomfortable with the religious nature of the second album.  The album itself is tonally conflicted, not only swerving from one genre to another, but also swinging back and forth from religious condemnation to spiritual euphoria.

In the end, Ritchi and DeLorenzo had little to fear from this batch of songs.  This is not the music of a blindly following zealot, but of a man who feels disgust for religion even as he seemingly holds it firmly to his chest.  The first track off the album, “Country Death Song,” tells a Southern Gothic style narrative of a man who murders his entire family before hanging himself in his barn.  Told from the point of view of the husband and father, the protagonist whispers religious aphorisms to his daughters before plunging them down a well, telling them “Kiss your mother good night and remember that God saves” and later, “You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven.”  The songs often touch upon bible-black topics like death, destruction and apocalypse, a subject that would have taken on new resonance during the cold war where potential nuclear destruction seemed to linger in everyone’s thoughts.  Tellingly, several songs, like “I Hear the Rain” and “It’s Gonna Rain,” invoke the story of Noah and the flooding of the earth.  But the centerpiece of the entire album must be the title track, which brings these themes of nuclear holocaust out from subtext.  The song begins with a spoken word invocation in the style of the King James Bible and plays with such atomic imagery as “Everyone's tryin’ to decide/where to go when there’s no place to hide/I follow the bombs as they’re coming down” and “Burn up the clouds block out the sun.”  A rising and falling piano melody leads us through the track, all the way to the end where it devolves into in a three way instrumental ruckus.  In fact several songs kick up a row in their later half, a strong disagreement between guitar, bass, and drums that perhaps signifies the conflicted nature of the album itself.

But there are also genuine gospel songs on the album, freed from any winking irony or tangled doubt.  And yet Hallowed Ground still feels like a Violent Femmes album through and through.  In part that’s because the songs are still written by the same three players who made their debut album such a classic and still include Gano’s recognizable bratty vocals and a one of the greatest series of bass lines in rock in roll.  In a sense Hallowed Ground allows us to reread the Violent Femmes’s eponymous album, forcing us to take a step back and reassess the psychosexual frustration that permeated those songs.  Instead of reading the first album as the ranting of a bored and randy kid, we might instead interpret those songs as the result of a teenager whose body was telling him something completely opposed to his upbringing.  And it is this difference between nature and religion that results in the dark night of the soul style questioning in Hallowed Ground.  Ultimately it’s because Gano’s religion is sufficiently suffused with doubt that no matter what your background, from agnostic to Episcopalian, there’s plenty in these songs that should resonate.  After all, no matter one’s ideological or religious grounding, if we do not struggle with at least some misgivings, then we have given ourselves up to someone else’s beliefs, not our own.   

Sunday, February 05, 2012

About that Before Watcmen announcement...

This Wednesday the comic book loving world gave a collective sigh of inevitability when DC Comics threatened us with the release of a series of prequel comics to the beloved Alan Moore comic book The Watchmen. There's not a single comic-loving individual who didn't react strongly to the idea that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's immaculate vision might be sullied at the hands of a company more interested in a quick cash grab than in the artistic legacy of one of its most heralded accomplishments. Hell, even DC Comics seem aware of the firestorm they might set off, describing the new series, Before Watchmen, as both "highly anticipated" and "controversial," as if to say, "yeah, maybe we're pissing all over Moore's work, but what are you going to do, not read the series?" This statement would then be followed by a cigar chomping executive releasing a belly-shaking laugh.

Voices across the internet have reacted in a variety of manner, and there are some obvious objections to Before Watchmen. Over at NPR they ruminated on how prequels might ruin the cultural capital that The Watchmen has built for not only itself but for comics as a medium. Others have, understandably, treated the original book as sacrosanct, suggesting that no one should ever mess with Moore's artistic vision (most notably, Moore himself falls into this latter camp). But I would like to discuss two things: first, the idea of prequels and second, the idea of artistic fidelity.

Prequels are a tricky proposition in any medium. On the one hand, we should probably be thankful that we are only getting prequels and not actual sequels to The Watchmen, which ended on a wonderfully unsettled note. But of course prequel stories come with built in problems of their own. The most obvious problem is that we already know what will happen. A great writer can use this to his or her advantage. Greek tragedies, for example, got plenty of mileage out of the fact that the audience knew things were going to end poorly for the characters on stage. But for whatever reason, from the Star Wars prequels to that Wolverine movie, prequels have been unable to take advantage the audience's prescient like knowledge. Instead, these prequels have played out like the opening of Indiana Jone and the Last Crusade, showing us where every little personality trait and quirk came from over the course of a single story.

The Watchmen is as fully realized a fantasy world as Narnia, Middle Earth, Neverland, Utopia, Oz, and even DC Comics own world of superheroes. But in order to fashion a world that seems real and lived in, you have to allow for some unknowns. The author Michael Chabon writes that when reading Tolkien, like most of us, he was always intrigued by those blank places on the map, places named but where characters never actually visited. I'm of the mind that those blank places make a fantasy world feel huge and lived in, because whatever is going on with our heroes and their quest, we know that there are a million other stories that are not being told. This is why one of my favorite details about the original Star Wars movies was the inclusion of ancillary characters like Wedge Antilles, the pilot that seemed to always be around for the major battles, but who never had more than a few lines in each film. We knew that this character must have had some incredible adventures over the course of those three films, but we also knew that we were only seeing snippets of them.

To fill in the blank areas in The Watchmen books would only make the universe seem smaller and less unruly. Besides, the original book already does a fine job of fleshing out these characters. What more do we need to know? I guess these comics could elaborate on what Ozymandias's weird bio-engineered tiger thought of his master's solution to nuclear war.

The next issue I have with Before Watchmen is a little trickier. One of the announced authors of the series, J. Michael Straczynski, notes that Moore himself built a career of appropriating the work of others, whether he was working on Swamp Thing or playing in the world of Victorian literature in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. So what's good for the Moore is good for the Straczynski? Besides, even The Watchmen was based, in part, on characters from Charleton Comics, which DC had bought just prior to when Moore embarked on writing the Watchmen series. And even I have to admit that DC managed to wrangle some impressive talent to write this series. I'm more than a little curious about what a Rorschach series written by Brian Azzarello or a Minutemen series written by Darwyne Cooke will read like.

First, I would answer that characters like Batman, Superman, and Swamp Thing (all of which Moore has worked with) were designed from the beginning to continue as long as people want to read stories about these characters. So they're a different breed than Night Owl or even Allan Quatermain and Sherlock Holmes. Just like Moore, Sir Author Conan Doyle became famously incensed when the French author and Doyle contemporary Maurice Leblanc put Holmes into one of his Arsene Lupin stories. So what's the difference between Leblanc stealing Holmes and Moore stealing Holmes? In a world where appropriation has now become established as a legitimately creative act, can we really blame the authors of Before Watchmen?

A cop out answer would be that Doyle was still around when Leblanc borrowed his creation, just as Moore is around to see his characters taken from him. Although I have decried DC's decision from the beginning, I don't necessarily think that it is unfair to borrow Moore's work. Unlike Moore himself, who famously hates on any sort of film adaptation of his work, I have always approached movies like V for Vendetta and The Watchmen with a certain amount of curiosity. Of course, none of these films have ever been successful adaptations, but that doesn't mean there will never be a successful adaptation of an Alan Moore comic. Instead, I think that the single biggest issue that will prevent a great appropriation of Moore's work is fidelity to the source material.

I know that the common reaction to any adaptation is to claim that if only the artist were faithful to the "original" vision, then maybe the end results will achieve the same kind of greatness. This was the mantra when The Watchmen movies was about to arrive. And that film was far more faithful to its source than any expected. It was also a slog and a bore. There are plenty of problems with The Watchmen film, and its slavish devotion to the source material is one of those problems. The director, Zack Snyer, who isn't a terribly smart fellow, didn't realize that what works in a comic book doesn't work on film. Conversely, Moore hasn't been terribly devoted to immaculately recreating the vision of the authors who he is taking from. Instead, he uses the work of others as a jumping off point to go in whatever direction he wants.

What scares me the most about Before Watchmen is that the original book has become so sacrosanct that the artists will do little than ape Moore and collect a paycheck. There might be someone out there who could do something interesting with The Watchmen characters, who could put their own spin on that universe. But judging from what I've seen of DC's decision, I doubt this will be the case. Maybe in fifty years or more, a young upstart will take Ozymandias, Rorschach, Night Owl and the rest and create something truly fantastic and unique with those characters. But until then, we should probably leave Moore's creation alone.

I must admit that my favorite part of any news story about an Alan Moore adaptation is the inevitable quote from Moore himself. And of course he doesn't disappoint in this regard. Reached for comment, Moore stated, “I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago.” This little jab, although wonderful in its curmudgeonly execution, isn't true exactly. Much of the comic book world has moved on from the cynical brand of deconstruction popular in the 80s and 90s. This is evident when books like Kick Ass unsuccessfully attempt to return to the well dug by artists of the 80s and 90s, and that book in particular has served as the nadir of deconstructionist trend, lacking the craftsmanship and wit found in a book like The Watchmen. Instead, some of the most interesting work in the world of comic books (specifically those of the superhero variety) have come from authors who, instead of running away from the unserious nature of comic books, have embraced the absurdist stories of the silver age. Authors like Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns have done a fine job of finally breaking away from the deathly seriousness of the 80s and 90s. Since a good deal of the comic book community has moved on from the influence of The Watchmen, it seems like an unnecessary retreat to return to that time and place. But, I suppose it could be worse. A lot worse: