The Films of Gore Verbinski
The Ring (October 1/02)
Like this summer's Signs, The Ring relies more on gloom and doom to provoke fear in audiences; you won't find any oh-it-was-just-the-cat moments here. And while it's not quite as scary as Signs, The Ring is still pretty darn creepy. The film, which follows Naomi Watts' Rachel as she learns of a tape that kills viewers one week after watching it and subsequently sets out to figure out where it came from, works best as a mystery, as Watt's intrepid character tracks down clues and interviews possible witnesses as to the various images contained within the tape. It's kind of like a supernatural Law and Order, except the stakes are much higher for Rachel than they generally tend to be for Jerry Orbach and his fellow detectives. And while there are a number of extremely suspenseful moments (the opening stands out) and genuinely unnerving images (that infamous tape doesn't contain an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, you know), it's that mystery that propels the narrative forward and keeps the viewer interested. Though some of the clues contained within the tape seem a little too convenient, such as the lighthouse that Rachel almost immediately identifies, this is certainly an interesting riddle and keeps the film moving along nicely. But the real question is, considering the movie's being marketed as a horrifying experience, does it live up to that promise? It does, but not quite to the extent that it surely wanted to. While there's no questioning that The Ring is far scarier than any of the recent so-called horror flicks to hit theaters (stuff like Jason X and the Scream trilogy), the film does tend to over-explain the ghostly goings on. Scare wise, the first hour is far more effective than the second for precisely that reason; as we begin to learn about the various bizarre images on the tape, the mystery around them begins to fade. The reflection of a little girl with long black hair covering her face is disturbing, but once we learn who she was and what happened to her, the fright factor is diminished. Still, there are a number of stand-alone sequences that excel in producing thrills, such as Rachel's bizarre experience with a horse onboard a ferry. It helps that Watts has created a character that's compelling enough to warrant us rooting for her. Her Rachel is no helpless heroine, and unlike the majority of female characters in horror flicks, this is someone who actively works to prevent her own demise. Likewise, the young actor playing her son (David Dorfman) is extremely effective and though his preternatural ability to see things he really shouldn't be able to is perhaps too reminiscent of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, he is nonetheless a suitably creepy addition to the story. It's interesting that The Ring opens and closes with fantastically scary and suspenseful sequences, with the middle devoted to the sleuthwork of Watts' character. It provides viewers with the best of both worlds; a horror flick that contains a good dose of disconcerting images and a suspense/thriller with an involving mystery at it's core. And it's a good thing for that, too, because the movie almost immediately asks for a huge leap of faith after Rachel watches the tape - even though she's already learned that two people have died exactly a week after viewing it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
The Weather Man (October 27/05)
If nothing else, you've got to admire director Gore Verbinski for taking on a project like The Weather Man. Hot off a couple of enormous hits, the filmmaker surely had his pick of some of the hottest screenplays in Hollywood. Instead, he chose The Weather Man - a decidedly unconventional, far-from-mainstream effort with limited box office potential. And though the movie's not always entirely successful, it's somewhat refreshing to see a big Hollywood production adopt a thoroughly independent sensibility. Steve Conrad's off-kilter screenplay eschews plot in favor of character development, resulting in a film that's essentially a series of vignettes revolving around weather man Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage). It's clear right from the outset that Spritz is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, due to a fractured relationship with his wife (Hope Davis) and kids (Gemmenne de la Peña and Nicholas Hoult), the fact that his father (Michael Caine) has cancer, and the stress relating to his job (it seems like he has something thrown at him on a daily basis). Verbinski - along with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael - infuses The Weather Man with a straight-forward, matter-of-fact sense of style that borders on bland, which actually turns out to be an appropriate fit for Spritz's everyman vibe. Likewise, the film's focus remains squarely on Spritz's escapades - though there are a few unusual digressions (including the relationship between Spritz's son and a shady counselor). But really, whether or not The Weather Man succeeds or fails depends entirely on Cage. The character of Dave Spritz, in tone and spirit, has a lot in common with some of the more oddball folks Cage tackled early in his career, and the actor does an effective job of stepping into the shoes of this insecure, self-conscious figure. It's a role that requires a fair amount of subtlety from Cage, who avoids a cliched portrayal and deftly turns Spritz into someone that's believable and intriguing. In terms of the supporting cast, Caine is the obvious standout - though Davis and Hoult effectively hold their own opposite Cage. Despite The Weather Man's various positive attributes, the movie generally remains curiously inert. This is partly due to the episodic nature of Conrad's screenplay, which is often intriguing but occasionally aimless. Having said that, the film does pick up substantially towards the end - adopting a melancholy vibe that's surprisingly moving (this is particularly true of a sequence in which Spritz and his father have a heart-to-heart conversation). Ultimately, it's the film's lack of emotional resonance that prevents it from becoming more than just a showcase for some admittedly impressive performances. And while The Weather Man is entertaining enough, given the level of talent both in front of and behind the camera, the movie can't help but come off as something of a disappointment.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (July 3/06)
The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, 2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl, was a sporadically entertaining but mostly interminable mess that somehow became such a global phenomenon that a sequel became inevitable. The result, Dead Man's Chest, is an unpleasant, distinctly overlong piece of dreck that's certainly a strong contender for worst movie of the year. As the film opens, Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) are forced to put their wedding on hold after they're arrested for their exploits with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in the original film. Following their expected escape, Will and Elizabeth find themselves once again caught up in Jack's adventures - this time revolving around his feud with the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). There are exactly two effective sequences within Dead's Man Chest - Will and company's attempted escape from a dangling basket made out of bones and a sword fight atop a giant paddle wheel - with the rest of the film devoted almost exclusively to dimly-lit action set-pieces and incredibly poor attempts at humor. There's a lot going on within Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's screenplay, but the lack of momentum becomes increasingly problematic as the movie progresses (ie there's absolutely nothing propelling any of this forward). As such, Elliott and Rossio throw in one needless sequence after another - with Naomie Harris' role as a voodoo guru a particularly egregious example of this - to the extent that the film's 150 minute running time (!) quickly becomes absolutely unbearable. The cast is comprised almost entirely of returning faces, and though the majority of these people try their best to inject some life into this mess, they're simply lost underneath the relentless noise and spectacle - something that's true even of Depp. His Jack Sparrow - a one-note character virtually since the moment he first sauntered onto the screen in Curse of the Black Pearl - comes off as a repetitive and thoroughly grating figure, and there's no denying that the novelty of watching Depp channel Keith Richards has long-since worn off. Faring far worse is Nighy, who's been assigned the thankless task of transforming an entirely objectionable character into a compelling figure (one can't help but wonder who exactly thought it was a good idea to bury a performer as naturally charismatic as Nighy under computer-generated tentacles). The bottom line is that if Dead Man's Chest is any indication, viewers should probably start making plans now to avoid next year's final installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Given the extent to which Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End relentlessly spins its wheels throughout its ridiculously and oppressively overlong running time, there's ultimately little doubt that this bloated trilogy would've fared far better had it been compressed into a single movie. And while it's entirely likely that fans of the series will find something here to embrace, it's just as clear that filmmaker Gore Verbinski - along with screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio - isn't looking to convert detractors with this entirely needless installment. The story picks up almost immediately following the events of Dead Man's Chest, with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) embarking on mission to rescue Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow from the afterlife. As expected, there's a pervading sense of tedium and needlessness to most aspects of At World's End - with the film's obvious low-point the interminable stretch set in Sparrow's netherworld (it just seems to go on forever). Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's impossibly complicated screenplay certainly plays a key role in the film's overt failure; it's clear that repeat viewings are required in order to comfortably follow the storyline, though it hardly seems likely that anybody will have the stones to sit through this mess more than once.
The Lone Ranger (July 4/13)
With its 149 minute running time, The Lone Ranger should, by all rights, come off as an interminable, bloated mess along the lines of Gore Verbinski's last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End. But the film, which details the origins of the title character (Armie Hammer's John Reid) and Tonto's (Johnny Depp) legendary partnership, has been infused with a fun and refreshingly old-school vibe that is, for the most part, impossible to resist, with Verbinski's classical sensibilities standing in sharp contrast to the jittery, nigh incoherent feel of most contemporary blockbusters. Screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio have crafted an epic storyline that admittedly does tend to meander, with the padded-out atmosphere reflected primarily in the inclusion of amusing yet needless asides and subplots (eg Reid and Tonto visit a brothel, soldiers await the arrival of a notorious criminal, etc). There's little doubt, however, that the palpable chemistry between Hammer and Depp, both of whom deliver engaging, charismatic performances, goes a long way towards keeping things interesting throughout, and it's worth noting that, as a result, the viewer's attention only seriously flags when the characters are separated in the buildup to the movie's frenetic third act. (That third act, by the way, remains an obvious highlight within the proceedings, as Verbinski, armed with Hans Zimmer's William Tell Overture-infused score, offers up a final half hour that's far more thrilling and engrossing than one might've expected.) It's ultimately clear that the only thing standing in the way of The Lone Ranger's unqualified success is its severe overlength, which is a shame, really, given its proliferation of positive attributes and appealingly traditional execution.