Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cutthroat Island and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

I had been meaning to do this for a long time but kept putting it off.  I’m sure this exact comparison was done to death years ago when Pirates came out.  But it’s a new day and the results were more surprising than I had anticipated.  Like would you believe that Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow is actually still entertaining and not a totally annoying ass wipe?  Whoda thunk it? 
(Note: I’ve got nothing but love for Johnny.  He’s been great in some cool movies.  It’s just that sometimes I don’t understand his career, Pirates notwithstanding)

Cutthroat Island is up first.  The story is simple: there are three pieces to a map that shows where buried treasure is.  Geena Davis (A League of Their Own, The Fly) plays the pirate Morgan and she along with her villainous uncle Dawg (Frank Langella (Dracula (1979), The Ninth Gate)) go after the hidden cache.

Let’s start with the negatives.  Geena Davis is not very good in this.  When she’s doing stunts and fighting dudes she’s actually ok but every line of dialogue that’s delivered is fucking atrocious.  And I’m really not exaggerating here folks.  When Davis has to interact with other characters and converse or make a speech it’s one of the worst acting performances I’ve seen in a major production.  And it’s not so bad it’s funny.  I felt sorry for her because everyone else around her was doing just fine.  It seemed like Davis was genuinely trying but just couldn’t cut it.

Dawg is too clean looking.  He should’ve had scars, rotten teeth, scraggily hair, filthy skin, etc.  He doesn’t look enough like a bad guy.  Langella was a good choice though and he seems like he’s having fun with the role.  He’s an intimidating guy with a great voice.  I just wish that they had matched his appearance with his badass attitude.

And that’s really it.  I don’t have any other major issues with the film.

Now the positives.  One of the best things this movie has going for it is that the story moves.  There aren’t superfluous subplots or extended intro/epilogue scenes to derail it.  We’re given a very short scene to show us who Morgan is and how she operates before we’re thrown into the plot proper.  After that it’s all about finding the pieces of the map and the treasure.  The love story between Morgan and Shaw (Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket, The Dark Knight Rises)) is extremely underplayed which works well.

The action sequences are done pretty well too.  There are essentially three big scenes.  The first is when Morgan and Shaw escape Port Royal.  They fight off the English guards and eventually go on a rampaging carriage ride destroying everything in their way.  A war ship even fires on them exploding buildings and turning the town to rubble.  There’s also an incredible stunt where Morgan crashes through a window, rolls down the roof and into a seated position onto the aforementioned oncoming carriage.  Goddamn.  However, IMDB says this was made up of two separate shots, one of Davis coming through the window and one of Davis pretending to land on the carriage.  You know what though?  It kind of doesn’t matter.  It’s one shot in slow motion.  The camera doesn’t cut away and it looks seamless as shit.  A jaw dropping scene is a jaw dropping scene.  And one last thing on this stunt, even if it was two shots it was done for real in total.  I’ll take that over a CGI stunt any day.

The second big action scene involves destroying yet another town where buildings also eventually get blown up. 

The third is a high seas finale starting with a huge ship battle and concluding with the confrontation between Morgan and Dawg.  All good stuff and all of it is what you would expect to see in a pirate movie.

The director is Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) and his films tend to be really fun.  This is no exception.  Overall it was better than I remembered.  Harlin casting his wife as the lead was definitely a mistake.  There’s no dancing around that one.  But I’m not sure why this thing bombed.  Cutthroat lost somewhere around $90 or $100 million.  That’s fucking insane.  It put Carolco Pictures (Terminator 2, Total Recall, First Blood, Basic Instinct) out of business.  Was the public not ready for a pirate movie?  Did people think it was really that terrible?  Was it caught in a weird area where it was too violent for young kids but too family adventure-ish for teens and adults?  I dunno.  I like it though.  I think it’s a pretty fucking cool film.

Pirates of the Caribbean on the other hand grossed over $100 million eight years later.  But I’ll tell you what, this was not as good as I remembered.

The plot for this one is more complicated:  pirates stole this ancient Aztec gold that has a curse associated with it.  The pirates didn’t realize it though until they spent the gold.  Now they need to collect all of the pieces and also shed a pirate’s blood to lift the curse.  This apparently takes them at least eight years to do.  Now Jack Sparrow was the captain of the cursed crew before they mutinied and took the gold.  So he’s looking for revenge.  On top of all this there’s a love story between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Ringses)) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method, Domino)).  Ok, this is getting kind of messy and a bit confusing.  Let’s come back to the story and get some other bits out of the way first.

Acting wise everyone does fine but Geoffrey Rush (Shine, House on Haunted Hill) as Barbossa and Johnny Depp are definitely the standouts.  They both got really into their roles and their enthusiasm rubs off.  Just about everyone else is pretty bland (Bloom) and/or cheesy (Knightley).

The look of this thing is awesome though.  The pirates are grimy and fucking filthy, the environments are dingy and lived in and the Black Pearl and how it’s shot is fucking cool.  The muted colors lend a grittiness to the production and it works because pirates are, you know, kinda dirty.

You can actually follow the action which is great because films were starting to fuck that up around this time.  All of it is executed just ok.  Probably the best sequence is when the cursed pirates pillage Port Royal.  They destroy the place pretty well and seem to enjoy their work.  The big end fight isn’t that exciting really.  I can’t tell what’s going on with the English navy vs. the skeleton pirates fight and the Barbossa Sparrow sword fight comes off too stiff.

Oh and the CGI is barely acceptable most of the time.  There are moments when it looks quite bad but because a lot of the film takes place at night and in dark caves it isn’t as noticeably terrible.

Getting back to the story, I don’t totally get it.  It takes the cursed pirates at least eight years to gather up all the missing pieces of Aztec gold but why would it take that long?  These guys are immortal right?  They don’t need food, water or sleep so what’s the hold up?  Ok maybe some of the gold they traded away went off to some corner of the world.  Even still, the Black Pearl is apparently the fastest ship on the planet (because it’s cursed also somehow) so that should help.  Alright this isn’t really a big deal in the scheme of things but it just sounded kinda odd to me.  However in relation to those (at least) eight years what was Jack Sparrow doing?  We find out that he was only marooned on an island for three days which means he had ten years (Barbossa tells us) to find the Black Pearl and/or use his compass to go steal the treasure from the Isla de Muerta.  If Sparrow stayed in the Caribbean for all that time (which seems likely as he’s out for revenge) I find it hard to believe that he never saw the Pearl for a decade and encountered his ex-crew.

Now with this whole spilling blood thing, it has to be the blood of a pirate?  Well what the hell constitutes a pirate?  And if you take a piece of gold from the chest you’re instantly slapped with the curse?  How much blood needs to be spilled for each piece of gold?  So there’s no curse as long as all of the gold is in the chest with some pirate’s blood but as soon as you remove one piece the curse starts all over again?  You know how you can see the moon during the day sometimes?  Well does that constitute moonlight meaning you should see these pirates as skeletons even in daylight?  Why does Barbossa die when the curse is lifted after he gets shot?  Do all of his sustained injuries from when he was cursed catch up with him after the fact?  If that’s the case then how come his entire crew doesn’t drop dead when they become mortal again?  Jack Sparrow got stabbed through the chest during the sword fight with Barbossa but Jack was part of the cursed during that particular time so he didn’t die.  But shouldn’t he die from that stabbing now the he’s mortal again too like Barbossa’s shot catching up with him?

The very end of the film gets sloppy and corny.  Everything miraculously falls into place.  Jack Sparrow gets away and rejoins his crew on the Black Pearl because he’s the main character and comic relief.  They can’t kill him off, have him in jail or become a non-pirate.  Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann get together because they’re supposed to be love and spend the rest of their lives together.  The other dude that vies for Elizabeth’s heart, who’s also a real hardass, let’s Sparrow and Turner go because…just because.  And Elizabeth’s father seems more accepting of the relationship between his daughter and Will.  The filmmakers had to force everything into a happy ending scenario even though it makes no sense.  I mean Sparrow is just allowed to flee no problem, Elizabeth and Will become an item, Will becomes a pirate because he realizes that’s what he was born to be or some shit like that, the douche in the love triangle walks away a happy loser, Elizabeth’s father now believes that piracy can be an appropriate course of action, no one is arrested, punished or hanged.  Happy trails into the sunset.  It’s just too much engineering to get the characters into the position you want at the end of the movie.  No actions have any consequences, everyone is suddenly understanding and love reigns supreme.  The end.  That’s fuckin’ horseshit man.

Here’s how it really should’ve gone down.  Jack and Will are hanged, Elizabeth is forced to marry the hardass and the father launches a crusade against pirates.  Maybe that’s a little grim but hey, it would’ve been unformulaic.

I’d like to say a few words about Gore Verbinski if I could.  He’s done a pretty interesting array of pictures including slapstick comedy, horror, adventure, drama and animation.  His movies are always beautiful to look at even if the story’s not totally there.  They’re filled with plenty of cheese which is a shame because for some unfounded reason I think he’s smarter than that.  I’m interested in checking out Verbinski’s take on a western with The Lone Ranger.  He seems to be sharing Johnny Depp with Tim Burton these days (don’t really get that trend).  If Gore’s next couple of movies don’t pan out then I guess my he’s-smarter-than-he-lets-on theory goes out the window.  Oh well, wouldn’t be the first time.

Ok so now let’s take a look at how these films compare to each other.  As for cinematography I guess I’ll give it to Pirates.  I like the grittier darker look.  Cutthroat isn’t bad looking but it seems like in order to save money a lot of the movie was shot during the day and there’s even a part where they do the ol’ day for night gag.  I got nothin’ against daylight I just think Pirates looks better.

Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush make a pretty good tag team.  Geena Davis and Frank Langella aren’t at their best unfortunately.  Although, Langella’s Dawg is probably the most badass character between the four.  I mean he crushes a huge spider in his bare hand until blood oozes out.  Plus the sword that he uses to fight with is serrated which looks pretty crazy.  I like the supporting crew of Cutthroat’s Stan Shaw (The Monster Squad, Rising Sun) and Rex Linn (Cliffhanger, Breakdown) better than whoever the fuck was in Pirates.

Action goes to Cutthroat.  The fights are better choreographed and the stunt work is cooler.

Cutthroat’s story is way better.  It gets right to the point without some convoluted bullshit or forced love triangle getting in the way.

And did anyone else notice that the title to Pirates is incorrect?  The Black Pearl isn’t the one handing out the curse, it’s the gold.  It should really read “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Aztec Gold”.  I think I like Cutthroat’s title better anyway, sounds nasty.  The poster is also better.  Drew Struzan’s the fucking man, man.  Pirates looks more like a direct to video cover. 

The real problem I have with Pirates is that it’s too stiff.  I know that sounds really fucking stupid because Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush are awfully wacky and it’s a goddamn pirate movie.  But it feels too much like they had to hit certain beats and had to force the story into weird positions in order to satisfy a wide audience.

Cutthroat flows naturally and actually makes sense.  It’s all about the pieces of the map and what Morgan has to do to find those pieces and use them to locate the treasure.  Everything stems from that.  She gets Shaw because she needs one of the maps translated, she gets into a huge bar fight because she’s looking for a piece of the map that her uncle holds, she fights with Dawg because he wants the map pieces as well as the treasure.  There aren’t any side trips or extra crap to muddle the basic premise.

I also like how Cutthroat has the pirate spirit and is true to that spirit.  In Pirates the word “pirate” (or a variation) is said like five million times (trust me, I counted).  It’s like they wanted to constantly remind the audience that you’re not only watching a pirate movie but also that the reason why these people are acting in an indecent way is because they’re outlaws or bad people.  It’s a disclaimer.  They’re only doing this because they’re pirates.  Like there’s a scene where Elizabeth and Jack get drunk by drinking rum together.  They’re dancing and singing and having a good time but the next morning the movie has to take that all back by denouncing rum as a “vile drink that turns even the most respectable men into complete scoundrels”.  I guess the filmmakers couldn’t resist putting the classic pirate juice in a pirate picture but since this was aimed for families they couldn’t advocate getting sauced on alcohol.  This is such a weird thing to have happen in the movie and it stood out to me the first time I saw it.  Really it shouldn’t have been in there at all if Disney was that concerned (or they could’ve released the picture under Touchstone which they created so they could put out edgy PG-13 and R rated films).  And then there’s all the fighting.  The bad guys are undead so whenever someone fights them it’s ok to beat, stab and slash away.  No blood will be spilled and no one will really get hurt in the end.  The main villain has to die, sure, but beyond that the mortal deaths must be kept to an absolute minimum.  In Cutthroat a lot of people die for real.  There isn’t a ton of blood in the movie (it’s also PG-13 like Pirates) but at least deaths do occur to living people and it’s not all pretend with skeleton pirates.    

Anyway Pirates is ok with piracy as long as it’s the good natured Jack Sparrow kind of stuff.  No murdering people or pillaging or anything.  I mean I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this because the conclusion to the Disneyland attraction that the movie is based on is that crime doesn’t pay.  That’s why the pirates are all in jail cells and fighting amongst themselves at the end.  Although, that message got muddied when they added Jack Sparrow to the final scene in 2006 making it seem like he outsmarted everyone and avoided punished.  

With Cutthroat Morgan drinks rum with no problem, she kills people with no problem, she destroys towns with no problem, she threatens people with knives and guns with no problem, etc.  The pirates in Cutthroat are comfortable with who they are and make no apologies for their actions.  I dig that way more than a film that’s attempting to walk a tight rope on a subject that they’re uneasy with.

My goodness this got a little long winded.  To wrap it up I like Cutthroat better.  For all the shit I slung at Pirates I don’t think it’s a bad movie but things didn’t go down the way I remember.  I guess if you just don’t think about it Pirates is a fun great movie.  But you know that’s hard for me to do.  Both films have the quintessential pirate shit like sword fights, a ship battle, drinking, coarse behavior, etc.  There’s a monkey sidekick in both except in one it’s a good guy and the other it’s a bad guy.  One has ghosts and magic and the other doesn’t.  Why the fuck did one tank and the other do unbelievably well?  It’s hard to say.  It’s not like Cutthroat isn’t cheesy but for some reason audiences really didn’t like it. 

When it comes down to it I guess I go for the non-supernatural shit.  That’s just personal taste.  Cutthroat Island is more in line with how I would want my pirate movie to go.  So this one’s no bad dawg.  It’s a pretty good dawg actually.     

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read; the thing with the pirate blood, though: they just needed the blood of the pirates who took the gold from the chest, and Will has the blood of his father (according to the magic of the gold); note when jack takes gold he has to cut himself to help lift the curse. And also, Barbossa was injured after the curse lifted, I suppose because he had a bullet lodged in his heart...