Taking the week off because I’m in Disney World hanging out with pirates and eating Dole Whips.
No loud parties while I’m gone!
This week’s League of Extraordinary Bloggers assignment is simple, but difficult. Inspired by summer blockbuster season, Brian asks, “What are your Top Ten Movies?”
I’m always nervous about making these kinds of lists. My Top Two rarely change (though I do swap them back and forth and I’ve recently redefined how I think of one of them), but the rest of the list is hugely dependent on a) my ability to remember all the movies I love and b) my feelings about those movies at the exact moment I’m making the list.
So, with the major caveat that this is my list for right this very second, here we go. I’ll look forward to reading the rest of the League’s answers so that I can kick myself for not thinking of some of their movies. I’m already trying to figure out if Breakfast Club or The Lost Boys should depose any of the films on this list.
10. Dr. No
It’s really tough to pick a favorite James Bond movie. I narrowed it down to this one and Casino Royale, but From Russia With Love, Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, and The Living Daylights were also tempting. In the end, I went with Dr. No because it’s the first. When I watch it, I’m not just thrilling to Sean Connery, Jack Lord (my favorite Felix), and Ursula Andress in the tropics; I’m thrilling to the knowledge that I’m going to watch the rest of the series as soon as I finish it.
9. Night of the Demon
For my full thoughts on this horror masterpiece, check out the guest post I wrote on That F’ing Monkey. The short version is that it’s an awesome mash-up between horror (both supernatural and psychological) and film noir by one of the masters of both genres.
8. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Contains just about everything I want in an adventure movie. Undersea adventure, a lost civilization, weird technology, an eccentric billionaire, a stunning femme fatale, a jungle girl, Mike Mignola designs, a giant submarine, a diverse ensemble of complicated adventurers, and humor that works no matter how many times I watch it.
7. Pirates of the Caribbean (the initial trilogy)
I’m cheating by cramming three movies into one entry. I know that. I’m going to do it again later in the list, but that trilogy was at least always a trilogy and it stopped when the story was complete. I can’t say that about the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. The Curse of the Black Pearl is a standalone film that became part of a trilogy when it turned out to be successful. And when the trilogy ended, the series continued. It feels haphazard to just pick the first three movies in a four (so far) movie series and try to make one entry out of them.
And yet, those three movies are undeniably a complete story. The fourth one starts something new and doesn’t get to hold onto the coattails of the first three, but I’m counting the saga of Elizabeth Swann and Jack Turner as a single tale.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Much like what happened with another popular series from my childhood, I’ve recently accepted that I’m not an Indiana Jones fan; I’m a Raiders of the Lost Ark fan. I do like those other movies, even Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, but I don’t love them like I do Raiders. All of them have one element or another that I don’t care for, but I love pretty much everything about that first one.
5. Love Actually
It really is just about perfect. The only stories that don’t completely work for me are Laura Linney’s and Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson’s, but only because they’re painful. They’re also completely honest and vital to exploring the film’s central theme, so I’m really not dinging it for including them. And otherwise, it has some of my favorite actors playing my favorite kinds of characters that they play in a funny, heart-warming, Christmas movie with a great soundtrack. And it makes me cry. That, it turns out, is an easy way to get on my Top Five.
4. Finding Neverland
Another movie that makes me cry. I explained why a couple of years ago and why at one point I had this in my Number One spot. It could easily be there again. It probably wouldn’t take anything more than my watching it more recently than some of these others. Most of these rankings are dependent on how recently I’ve seen or thought about each individual film.
3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
I haven’t written much about The Lord of the Rings, either the novels or the films. I don’t know why that is; the films are some of my favorites because of how well they communicate the novels’ most powerful themes. Much more than just Good vs Evil, Lord of the Rings is about faithfulness, redemption, friendship, loyalty, overcoming prejudice, fighting for justice, and seeing the value of the unvalued. It’s that last theme – particularly in the scene where the entire nation of Gondor bows before four, small, humble Hobbits – that makes me blubber every time I watch it.
I’ve written about this a couple of times: once in trying to pick a favorite character and again just gushing about the whole movie. It’s a heart-wrenching, exciting, hilarioius, absolutely captivating film.
1. Star Wars
I’ve written about this one most recently, which may explain why it’s at Number One for now. It’s been slowly moving down the list over the years, but that’s because – similar to Pirates and Lord of the Rings – I insisted on making one entry of the entire saga. Now that I’ve pruned my affection down to just the first film, Star Wars zooms back to the top again. Though it doesn’t make me cry, there really is no other movie I love more or is as influential on my life.
I’m still catching up to the rest of the League of Extraordinary Bloggers, so here’s what I would do with the following assignment:
You are a big shot Hollywood movie producer with an unlimited budget. You need to assemble the ultimate ensemble cast for a movie that is sure to fill every movie theater seat around the world. Who do you hire and what kind of film are you going to make?
First, I’d buy my way into the head seat at the Pirates of the Caribbean table and hire Brad Bird to write and direct the next sequel with the following input from me. It would be called Pirates of the Caribbean: The Lost Colony and would have Jack Sparrow team up with my 17th century version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to find out what happened to the lost colony on Roanoke. (I know that Alan Moore already created a 17th century LXG, but mine’s designed to be more commercial than Captain Owe-much and Amber St Clair. I totally stole my villains from his version though. And mine wouldn’t actually be called the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; it’s just a collection of famous fictional characters from a particular period in history.)
Joining Captain Jack Sparrow would be the Three Musketeers, played by their 1993 versions: Oliver Platt, Charlie Sheen, and Kiefer Sutherland. Platt’s always awesome, but Sheen and Sutherland are especially interesting to audiences right now (though for very different reasons).
Then we’d have Viggo Mortensen reprising his role as Captain Alatriste (which I still can’t find in the US, dadgummit).
And Emma Stone as a sarcastic version of Hector Prynne from The Scarlet Letter.
Joining her would be a trio of Salem witches played by Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror), Molly Quinn (Castle), and Gabriella Wilde (last year’s Three Musketeers).
So those are our good guys. What they learn is that the Roanoke colony disappeared as part of a scheme by Shakespeare’s Prospero from The Tempest, played by Ian McKellen.
And of course Prospero is in partnership with supernatural forces led by the air spirit, Ariel (Devon Aoki).
Now…wouldn’t you want to see that?
The rest of the LXB came up with some awesome movies that I’d want to see too.
It sure was pretty, but the story made no damn sense beyond the general outline of the plot. All form; no substance.
46. Season of the Witch
I really wanted to like this movie; partly because I wanted to see a spooky story about a lone warrior taking on the medieval church, but also because I wanted to like Nicholas Cage in a movie again. I can’t talk about why I disliked this without going into spoilers, so I’ll just say that I wasn’t at all pleased with either the major plot twist or the way the climax was executed in general. There’s some nice mood in this movie, but it supports nothing.
45. Killer Elite
It’s partially disguised by the device of having an antagonist who’s not entirely a bad guy, but there’s no hiding that it’s filled with cliché after action-movie cliché, starting with the former assassin who’s new, peaceful life is threatened when he’s forced to perform One Last Job. So many actors that I like – especially Yvonne Strahovski – wasted.
44. Tower Heist
There were a couple of hilarious moments that weren’t spoiled in the trailer, so that’s good. I even liked a lot of the characters; especially the ones played by Michael Peña and Matthew Broderick. But the hitch in the heist was lame and led to an unbelievable and unsatisfying conclusion. And though Eddie Murphy was funnier than he’s been in a live-action film in years, this wasn’t the role to spotlight his comeback. He’s playing essentially the same function that Jamie Foxx did in Horrible Bosses, but Foxx was funnier. Way funnier.
43. Your Highness
So unfunny. The only redeeming quality is Natalie Portman’s butt.
Not anything like Taken, which is what it wanted you to think it was. Characters do things for no good reason and January Jones’ performance is unwatchable. Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger are fun to watch together though and it sure was nice to see Aidan Quinn again, even in something like this.
41. The Ides of March
Great performances, but the movie’s only message seems to be that Politics Suck. I already knew that.
I feel guilty about putting Hugo behind Cowboys & Aliens, but let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Hugo presented itself as a steampunk story with a central mystery about an automaton and a secret key. That’s the movie that I went to see, but it’s not the movie that Hugo is. Hugo is a love letter to the history of cinema; a concept I can get behind, but not while I’m waiting for mystic doors to open and reveal an awesome world of clockworks and magic. I’m interested in seeing this again and re-evaluating it for what it is, but until then I’m stuck with disappointment.
39. Cowboys & Aliens
Some of my favorite fimmakers got together and hacked out this SyFy original movie. The low point in several people’s careers. And yet, they’re all people I love.
38. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
I’ve already talked about this one at length, but the gist of my complaint is that it’s cartoonish and doesn’t follow through on the themes or characterizations from the first three films. What saves it is Penélope Cruz’ complicated character and its just being a Pirates of the Caribbean movie with all the jungle/island/sea adventure that comes with that (even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense).
On Robot 6 last week, I posted some thoughts about letting the audience control artistic output. I used a bunch of quotes from famous writers to show why it’s a bad idea, including an example from Sam Raimi about adding Venom to Spider-Man 3 in spite of Raimi’s not really liking Venom very much. I’d like to add a couple of more examples to the pile.
As was pointed out to me a long time ago, Ocean’s 12 was a failed experiment at a different take on the Ocean’s 11 concept. Audiences reacted badly – and justifiably so – so in retaliation Soderbergh just remade Ocean’s 11 and called it Ocean’s 13. Which is pretty funny, but it doesn’t make Ocean’s 13 something that I’d ever want to watch again.
That also seems to be what’s going on with On Stranger Tides. Fans and critics were pretty vocal about not liking At World’s End and that distaste has colored the entire trilogy. In response, the makers of On Stranger Tides have created the Pirates movie that audiences said they wanted. And while some are pretty satisfied with the result, the movie has some big problems.
It starts out okay. Pretty good, actually. I was all ready for a movie about the new, relatively selfless Jack Sparrow and for a while it looks like that’s what Stranger Tides offers. Johnny Depp’s still awesome in the role and the character is still a fun one (if over-reliant on his signature moves and catch phrases). The opening scenes in which Jack has to rescue Gibbs from prison and ends up having to rescue himself from King George’s guard-filled palace are mostly awesome. Without having to explain it, the movie presents Jack as the same kind of character as Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes: always fifteen steps ahead of everyone else so that things appear to just fall into place for him.
There was one bit in that opening sequence though that was all wrong and rang the chimes of doom for the rest of the film. Jack rushes by a surprised guard who then gives chase. Jack manages to get away for a moment and as the guard runs past Jack’s hiding place, he inexplicably sets Jack’s sword and pistol on a table. I suppose you could argue that the guard thought he could chase faster without them, but it’s awfully convenient and of course Jack picks them up. I wish it was the only over-coincidental bit of the movie, but the story’s filled with those moments. Jack’s escapes get more ludicrous, people have superpowers for no reason, and absolutely everyone knows how to find the Fountain of Youth and what to do with it when they get there (except Jack who’s presumably been searching for it longer than anyone else).
The movie is very silly and cartoony, but that might have been forgivable had it actually done what it was supposed to do: continue the story of Captain Jack Sparrow. When last we left Jack, he’d become a kinder pirate and we do see that reflected in On Stranger Tides. But that’s what he grew into in the last trilogy. For his story to be worth continuing, he needs to go somewhere new.
The journey promised by At World’s End is Jack’s quest for immortality. He died in Dead Man’s Chest and was terrified of repeating the experience. It drove everything he did in At World’s End and made sense of his quest for the Fountain of Youth. But as Stranger Tides opens, Jack’s pretty much given up the quest and has to be pulled back into it. There’s no personal urgency to his finding it. Instead, he fills a role much like he did in the original trilogy: running around making things more interesting for the characters who actually have story arcs. Excuse me: the character who has a story arc. Because there’s only one.
Something that On Stranger Tides does have in common with its predecessors is that the actual main character is the female lead, in this case Angelica Malon (Penélope Cruz). She has a very good reason for wanting to find the Fountain of Youth: Her father, Blackbeard has been prophesied for death (a second time, since the movie takes place after his historical death) and Angelica wants to give him more time to repent so that his soul might be saved. She even brings a missionary on the trip in an attempt to reach her dad, but the movie’s never sure what to do with the priest other than throw him into a half-hearted romance with a mermaid who is herself nothing more than an element of the quest. Even Blackbeard – as cool as Ian McShane plays him – is a MacGuffin whose only purpose is to drive Angelica’s story.
Angelica is a complicated character though. Her obsession with saving her father trumps everything else, making her do and agree to some pretty heinous things. But Cruz is beautiful, charming, and injured and I wanted to like her. I didn’t excuse or forgive her for her actions, but I wanted to. That put me in an interesting predicament and is pretty cool.
The movie tries to bring her and Jack together in a meaningful way in order to give Jack’s story some weight, but it fails. To start with, it’s the old, They Were Lovers Way Back When Even Though Jack’s Never Mentioned Her Before ploy. I’d have been okay with that as long as there was some chemistry between the characters to make me believe they really were lovers way back when, but there’s not. If there were, the film wouldn’t need the long-lost lovers back-story. We’d just believe that Jack does what he does for love of Angelica. Instead, in the absence of presenting any real passion between the two characters, the film asks its audience to settle for being told that it exists. That doesn’t work.
On Stranger Tides was written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the two guys who wrote the original trilogy, so it’s not like Disney hired a bunch of new guys who didn’t know what they were doing to take over. Maybe it really was a case of trying to give the audience what it said it wanted and failing as a result. Whatever the reason, I hope that Pirates 5 manages to put the series back on track and turn On Stranger Tides into an unfortunate speedbump. There are elements in On Stranger Tides that suggest that could be the case and I really am interested in learning more about Angelica. I just don’t want another film like this one.
My theory that Elizabeth Swann is the central character of the first Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy gets into some trouble in At World’s End, but it holds together. The reason it gets into trouble is because At World’s End is very much about all three of the lead characters: Elizabeth, Will, and Jack. We’ve been examining motivations in these articles and how the characters change and grow. All three make some monumental decisions in At World’s End that result in my liking the film even more than I did before.
Let’s start with Jack. Though he was unrepentantly selfish all though The Curse of the Black Pearl, he learned to act selflessly by the end of Dead Man’s Chest. In retrospect, we can see him wrestling with that all through the second film. We’re never told exactly why the compass doesn’t work for him in that movie. What’s he torn between? Obviously, saving his hide from the kraken is a huge motivation, but what’s the other choice that the compass is pointing to? What else does he want?
We could make a decent case that it’s Elizabeth, but knowing the specific object isn’t important. From a broad perspective, Jack is waffling between two desires: selfishness and selflessness. That becomes clear at the end of Dead Man’s Chest and he makes the right decision. It’s not necessary to know the particular thing that represented selflessness for him.
In At World’s End, Jack is lamenting that decision. He says so when we first see him in Davy Jones’ Locker, arguing with himself. One of the Jacks wants to be lenient to another Jack who deserves punishment. A third Jack berates the first, declaring that that kind of thinking is what got them all killed in the first place. The rest of the film has Jack continuing to struggle with that. Picking up on the theme of choices and paths from Black Pearl, Jack’s chosen the path of Selflessness and is now suffering for it. The big question for him in the movie is whether or not he’ll back up and choose the other option.
The way that struggle is played out is through Jack’s fear of death. Having experienced it once, he has no desire to go through it again and spends the rest of the movie trying to manipulate his way onto The Flying Dutchman where he can kill Davy Jones and replace him as the immortal ferryman of souls. Of course, by the end, he willingly gives up that desire in order to save Will. He’s chosen Selflessness, and the suffering that goes with it. That’s a hell of a character arc.
Meanwhile, Will seemed to be going nowhere in Dead Man’s Chest. His motivation in Black Pearl was to save a loved one; namely Elizabeth. His goal in Dead Man’s Chest hadn’t changed. He was still all about saving those he loves, though that was expanded to include his dad. However, At World’s End presents him with an interesting choice by making him choose between those two people. Suddenly Will is back in the story.
We shouldn’t take his choosing of Elizabeth too lightly. Bootstrap Bill needs Will much more than Elizabeth does, because she’s become quite self-sufficient over the course of the trilogy. Also, Will’s relationship with Elizabeth has become very rocky as a result of Elizabeth’s choices. The smart, safe choice is for Will to continue trying to save his dad, but that’s not what he does. He picks Elizabeth and asks her to marry him on the spot. I understand why a lot of people don’t care for Will – he spends all of Dead Man’s Chest and two-thirds of At World’s End not being very likeable – but he won me back when – against all reason – he chose a girl over biological family. It’s not as impressive as Jack’s transformation (after all, it’s the choice everyone makes when they fall in love), but it’s a decent character arc.
Elizabeth’s half of the love story is more powerful. Having chosen a life of adventure over safety in Black Pearl and having followed that path to a frightening place at the end of Dead Man’s Chest, Elizabeth – like Jack – is lamenting that decision at the beginning of At World’s End. She’s gone too far, been seduced by the Dark Side, and now she wants to take it back. If they can bring Jack back to life, she thinks she has a shot at doing that.
Oddly enough, it sort of works. A realistic story would force Elizabeth to realize that once you go down a path like that, there’s no turning around. But Elizabeth doesn’t live in a realistic world. She lives in a world of roguishly charming pirates, sea monsters, and ocean goddesses. She’s successful in rescuing Jack and returning to a state of relative innocence.
The word “relative” is important because of course she’s not washed completely clean. Jack never does completely forgive her and she can’t “take back” what she did. But she’s able to come to terms with what she did and have some peace about it, which is a kind of return to innocence.
Once she’s done that, she’s able to move down the path again, but with a proper sense of balance. Having that, she achieves more than any adventurous, pirate-loving person could hope for by becoming the Pirate King herself and leading the nine Pirate Lords and their men into battle against the entire East India Trading Company. Which she then gives up for Will.
The fanboy in me hates that. He’d much rather see a whole series of movies about Elizabeth Swann the Pirate King than know that she wound up on a deserted coast waiting for her man to come home once every ten years. But there’s some touching nobility in that sacrifice that overpowers the fanboy. It’s not very feminist, but it’s awfully human and romantic. She and Will were both willing to make sacrifices for each other: he gave up his dad and she gave up her life of adventure.
Of course, Will didn’t actually end up having to give up his dad at all, but it’s impossible to call the situation unfair. It’s unilaterally tragic. Will wanted to be with Elizabeth more than he wanted to save his dad. That he can’t have it that way isn’t a blessing. If anything, Elizabeth is in the better spot because as her son grows older, she’ll have the option of taking him on all sorts of adventures. But neither she nor Will is getting what they wanted when they chose each other over their other desires. It’s a heartbreaking situation. Or would be if we liked Will more.
As much as I like At World’s End, it’s certainly got some serious flaws. Will’s not being as cool as he could be is only part of them. There are a lot of confusing red herrings for one thing (whether or not Elizabeth is Calypso, all of Will and Jack’s double-crossing, etc.), but the final battle between the pirates and the East India Trading Company also fails in a big way to live up to its promise.
One of the high points of the movie is when Elizabeth rallies the pirates to war with a speech, inspiring them to raise their colors as the music swells. It’s extremely anti-climactic then when the Black Pearl faces the Flying Dutchman in an undeclared clash of champions to determine the winner of the entire battle. It doesn’t feel anti-climactic at the time, because it’s a great contest, but once it’s over and the weather clears, it makes no sense at all for Cutler Beckett to sail his ship alone to meet the Pearl. Flying Dutchman or no Flying Dutchman.
Here’s the thing though. What Cutler Beckett does or doesn’t do isn’t important. The story’s not about him. He’s not even the real antagonist. He’s there to keep the characters moving, but they’re not actually fighting him. The same goes for Davy Jones. Jack and Elizabeth’s antagonists are their own selfishness; Will’s is his father. Everything else is a distraction to drive the plot. Seen that way, it’s much less offensive that the filmmakers chose a shorthand method of finishing off the Cutler Beckett thread. The real story was about Elizabeth’s being in the position to inspire a nation of pirates, not what the pirates did or didn’t do with that inspiration.
And in the end, I still believe this was Elizabeth’s story. All three characters have their big, defining moments in At World’s End, but Elizabeth is the only one who consistently moves forward through all three films. That each of them also opens and closes on her is telling in a huge way as well.
The question is: where’s the series to go without her? Fortunately, Jack hasn’t been as unchanging as I originally remembered. He’s had a story too and that’s what continues in On Stranger Tides. Or should have.
But that’s another article.