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Ahoy Matey! PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sails strong

Plus: THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and DVD Round-Up

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

From the immortal opening of the idiotic Kristy McNichol epic "The Pirate Movie," to Roman Polanski's disastrous "Pirates" and the waterlogged Geena Davis effort "Cutthroat Island," it's been a long while since we've had a pirate movie that delivered the bounty of entertainment that its genre promised.

But, ahoy there movie-lubbers, here comes PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (***1/2 of four), a robust, grandly entertaining swashbuckler that single-handedly rights the wrongs of those previous, ersatz pirate adventures, and comes up aces with the summer's most entertaining night at the movies.

In a deft comic performance that fits comfortably alongside his work on "Sleepy Hollow" in particular, Johnny Depp plays Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate who washes into the colony of Port Royal in a memorable opening scene. Sparrow is a sauced old salt who seems like he's constantly on the verge of blacking out, yet his instincts serve him well once the cursed sailors of the Black Pearl drop in uninvited on the townsfolk -- including Governor Jonathan Pryce and lovely daughter Keira Knightley.

She holds a prized possession of the pirates -- a gold coin belonging to Cortez himself -- that she picked up as a child from blacksmith Orlando Bloom, who harbors a crush on the young lady of nobility. When Knightley is kidnapped by the pirates, she meets with Captain Geoffrey Rush and learns of the Black Pearl sailors' curse -- that when the moon shines full and bright, the men turn into skeletons (shiver me timbers!) who can't be killed, at least not until all the Cortez coins are reassembled and the blood of their late crewman Bootstrap Jack's son (Bloom) is spilled. To the rescue go Depp and Bloom, who assemble the former's motley crew in an attempt at saving Knightley and stopping Rush and Co.'s collection of dead (sea)men.

At just over 140 minutes, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is an epic action-adventure in the old-fashioned Errol Flynn tradition. It's based on the famous Disney ride (with a few "scenes" from the attraction itself amusingly worked into the story), and manages to do what few live-action Disney films have in the past: come up with a story that truly attracts viewers of all ages, while paying proper respect to its roots in an unpretentious and unsentimental manner.

For that, one has to credit producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has made a marvelous fantasy film for Disney with the slick sheen and visceral presentation of his typical action efforts. PIRATES begins with a creepy, classic opening sequence -- with a young girl singing the o'l pirate tune in a dense oceanic fog -- and never lets up in its entertainment value. The action scenes are stunning, the special effects marvelous, and the performances all right on the mark. Pryce is gently amusing in a parental role that avoids the typical stereotype, while Rush pushes the right buttons as the heavy, and Bloom and Knightley make for appealing young leads. Depp, meanwhile, is sensational in a role that veers from hero to villain and comic foil, and never misses a beat in Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's smart, amusing script, which only becomes convoluted in its explanation of the Black Pearl's curse.

The widescreen cinematography of Dariusz Wolski compliments the action, as does the pounding, thunderous score of Klaus Badelt, Hans Zimmer and friends. Although Alan Silvestri was announced as the film's composer, he apparently quit after arguing with the filmmakers over the direction of the score. After listening to the final soundtrack (credited to Badelt, "produced" by Zimmer, with a half-dozen composers receiving "Additional Music" credit), it's my guess that Silvestri exited after the film was extensively temp-tracked with "Gladiator" and other Media Ventures cues (and likely told them if they wanted that sound, to go and hire them). The final soundtrack does sound awfully familiar, yet it works so well in the movie -- as sort of the "quintessential Zimmer/Badelt/Gregson-Williams/Powell/et al film score" -- that it's hard to argue with the results.

Confidently steering this ship is director Gore Verbinski, who -- after last fall's surprisingly good "The Ring" -- continues to show a remarkable ability to work in a wide pallet of genres. The picture is long, but I found it refreshing to see a full-bodied epic hold the attention of the entire audience at the showing I attended, including plenty of kids and their parents. While most movies flare out at 90 minutes in these days of impatient audiences, it's gratifying to see a real blockbuster provide over two hours of entertainment for its hard-paying viewers.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN seemed like a promising project from the start, but given the curse of previous pirate movies, I wasn't holding my breath. Happily, it's the summer's most consistently entertaining blockbuster, evoking the spirit of classic swashbucklers with modern effects and technical prowess. A treasure trove of fun in a sea of recent disappointments, it's the one summer movie you'll still be watching years from now. Arrrr, me mateys, go and see it! (PG-13)


THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (**1/2): Entertaining enough comic-book fantasy isn't nearly as bad as the reviews would lead you to believe, though a better script would have made this adventure truly extraordinary.

In 1899, Sean Connery's Allan Quartermain leads a team of classic literary figures -- Captain Nemo, Tom Sawyer, Mina Harker, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, and Dorian Gray -- against an evil mastermind dubbed "The Phantom" who wants to engage nations around the globe in a worldwide war.

Stephen Norrington ("Blade") helmed this adaptation of the Alan Moore-Kevin O'Neill graphic novel (and reportedly nearly came to blows with Connery during the shoot), which certainly looks good and boasts a fine cast. Connery ably fills the matinee hero bill as Quartermain, and the supporting cast does what they can with the screenplay, which neatly toys with classic heroes and villains: Tom Sawyer (Shane West) is an American agent; Dr. Jekyll's alter-ego Mr. Hyde is as much of a hulk as Ang Lee's version, while Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) is a slick conniver and Peta Wilson's Mina Harker a butt- kicking vampiress who should have been further developed in James Robinson's script.
 
The movie boasts several well-directed set pieces, a blaring (but effective) score by Trevor Jones, and the requisite derring-do, which alone makes it a whole lot better than Connery's last stab at similar material ("The Avengers," anyone?).

The trouble comes in the screenplay, which works adequately as a story but suffers from thin characterizations and leaden dialogue that's never as humorous or interesting as it ought to be. If you've got Connery, a big budget, and an innovative concept for a "super hero" film, you should at the least have some decent one-liners to compliment the action.

As it turns out, there's no such luck on that front, and yet I enjoyed THE LEAGUE for what it is: a straightforward, good-looking genre effort with intriguing ideas. Viewers who have had their fill of comic book films will likely be worn out by the movie (which seems to be the case with most critics), but if you're hungry for more, it provides sufficient thrills and a decent time. (PG-13)


Cops & Robbers on DVD

DARK BLUE. 118 mins., 2002, R, MGM. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Kurt Russell, Brendan Gleeson, Scott Speedman, Ving Rhames, Michael Michele, Lolita Davidovich. COMPOSER: Terence Blanchard. SCRIPT: David Ayer from a story by James Ellroy. DIRECTOR: Ron Shelton. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary; three featurettes; original trailer. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, Full-Screen formats, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Corruption in the L.A. Police Department in the days leading up to the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent riots serve as the basis for this well-acted though obvious police thriller.

Giving one of his best performances, Kurt Russell plays an undercover cop who's in his own job too deep to realize the extent of his corrupt boss (Brendan Gleeson). "Felicity" co-star Scott Speedman plays Russell's new, young partner, who Russell schools in the ins-and-outs of rigging murder investigations, targeting innocent victims, and playing a renegade cop with nobody to answer to. Ving Rhames is the decent cop trying to bring them down, while the impending riots threaten to burn L.A. to the ground.

Ron Shelton directed this compelling character study/police drama, which fizzled out at the box-office as fast as Shelton's last few films (this summer's flop "Hollywood Homicide" and the forgettable boxing drama "Play It to the Bone"). The filmmaker, though, didn't write the movie, which in this case is a plus: the taut script by David Ayer is based on a story by James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), and has the gritty atmosphere and characters you'd anticipate from an Ellroy tale. The performances are all excellent, but the trouble is the predictability of the story, and the presence of a few, needless supporting players who detract from the central power of the picture.

MGM's fine Special Edition DVD offers a strong 2.35 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include a commentary track with the director and three featurettes that divulge the various aspects of the production, in mostly fluffy detail.
 


NARC. 105 mins., 2003, R, Paramount. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Busta Rhymes, Chi McBride. COMPOSER: Cliff Martinez. SCRIPT- DIRECTION: Joe Carnahan. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by the director and editor; three featurettes; trailer. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Jason Patric plays a somewhat burned-out undercover agent assigned to a case involving completely burned-out NARC Ray Liotta. Liotta's partner -- he claims -- was killed in the line of duty, but as Patric uncovers, Liotta has gone further over the edge than even Patric has gone, losing all touch with right and wrong.

NARC garnered strong reviews during its theatrical release last winter, though this "indie" film was actually co-produced by Tom Cruise. Liotta was also one of the producers of Joe Carnahan's well-written script, which works because of the forceful performances of the two leads.

Compared to "Dark Blue," there's more grit and grime in NARC, which adds to the realism though it does, admittedly, make the picture difficult to sit through at times. This is an unrelenting crime thriller with a predictably bloody outcome, though if you're looking for a well-made little film with strong characterizations and atmosphere, NARC is still worth a view.

Paramount's DVD offers a good commentary track with Carnahan and film editor John Gilroy, which discusses the low-budget shoot, the story's origins, and the themes of the picture. It's a better than average DVD discussion, with the two being fairly candid about the movie and its production. Three separate featurettes examine the making of the film, while another segment sports "French Connection" auteur William Friedkin praising the picture. The 1.85 transfer looks solid and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound effective, sporting a typically moody score by Cliff Martinez.


Guilty Pleasure DVD Pick of the Week

GREASE 2. 114 mins., 1982, PG, Paramount. ANDY'S RATING: Too ashamed to admit. CAST: Maxwell Caulfield, Michelle Pfeiffer, Adrian Zmed, Lorna Luft, Didi Conn, Eve Arden, Tab Hunter, Connie Stevens, Dody Goodman, Sid Caesar. COMPOSER: Louis St. John, etc. SCRIPT: Ken Finkleman. DIRECTOR: Patricia Birch. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Stereo.

Anyone who regularly reads the Aisle Seat knows of my love for "Lifeforce," "Dreamcatcher," and other bad movies that enter the realm of solid entertainment.

While I grew up in the days when "Grease 2" was released, I never actually saw the movie until Paramount's DVD was released a couple of weeks ago. Going into it, I knew the movie had a reputation as being an all-time turkey, but after watching it -- and the original '77 hit a few months back on disc -- I have to say it's actually a good deal of fun.

An energetic, wacky teen musical with a few catchy tunes (though obviously not of the "classic" pop quality of the original's soundtrack), Patricia Birch's inauspicious directorial debut is not one of the worst movies of all-time as its rep would lead you to believe. Sure, it's silly, corny, and star Maxwell Caulfield will never be mistaken for John Travolta, but in its own small way GREASE 2 manages to be nearly as entertaining as the original film.

The "plot" places Caulfield as Olivia Newton-John's cousin, newly arrived at Rydell High in 1961. In a reverse of its predecessor's plot, the straight-arrow Caulfield falls for Pink Lady member Michelle Pfeiffer, who spent years trying to live this one down (the movie she should have been worried about was actually "Wolf"). Tuneful though forgettable songs ensue, as Caulfield dons an alter-ego -- a mysterious motorcycle bandit -- in an effort to woo the otherwise uninterested Pfeiffer.

Birch's choreography is often effective, the performances energetic enough, and the movie filled with an upbeat attitude that's tough to dislike. I mean, the original film offered as flimsy a plot, albeit with better songs and performers. In its own, "roadshow company" kind of way, GREASE 2 offers ample nostalgic fun for musical lovers, and the DVD release should net the picture a few more fans thanks to its widescreen presentation.

The original Panavision aspect ratio is here preserved in full 2.35 Widescreen, and basically looks great. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is also fine -- the original mix was over-processed in the first place (with an echo effect likely used to cover for the cast's weak vocals), so whatever faults there are sonically are not due to the DVD's mix. No extras are included, but the sheer fact that you can now enjoy the movie letterboxed at long last should be more than enough incentive for GREASE 2 fans to gobble this one up -- and quick!


Also New on DVD

THE REAL CANCUN. 97 mins., 2003, R, New Line. ANDY'S RATING: *. COMPOSER: Michael Suby. DIRECTOR: Rick de Oliveira. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes, Cast Interviews, Premiere Footage, Trailer, TV Spots. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Years from now, someone, somewhere will look back on the reality TV craze of the early 21st century and just wonder what the hell it was all about. And, if they have more access to today's feature films than TV, the box-office bomb THE REAL CANCUN will likely be a chief representative of the genre. Hopefully, by that point, it will offer more entertainment for unintended laughs than it does right now.

Produced by the same folks who bring us MTV's "The Real World," THE REAL CANCUN claims to show us what happens when a motley assortment of college-age kids fly south for the annual rite of passage known as Spring Break. So, we have the requisite collection of model wannabes, bodybuilders, and aspiring actresses -- all of whom look like they're actors -- along with one "nerdy" kid who may just be corrupted by the sexual and alcoholic temptations of the situation.

Aside from the obvious adult content the movie's R rating allows (though there's little provocative or erotic about it), THE REAL CANCUN pretty much resembles a typical reality TV show, though it's actually much, much worse than, say, "The Real World." The picture is haphazardly assembled and edited, making it nearly impossible to tell one individual from another, and whatever "deal" they happen to be in at the group's posh seaside complex. Many of the movie's participants look identical as well, further compounding the problem, and there are few laughs to be found anywhere.

As I said, perhaps 20 years from now someone will take a look at this movie and have a few laughs at the expense of the styles, trends, and attitudes exhibited by the cast of THE REAL CANCUN. Can you imagine this being made in the late '70s with disco freaks and punk wannabes sharing the same house? Sounds a lot more fun than this, doesn't it?

New Line's DVD offers a colorful 1.85 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack -- the beach looks so inviting that you'd wish the cameras would focus in on the surroundings and leave the participants behind. Extras include a few deleted scenes, cast interviews and premiere party footage, which seems a bit more honest than the film itself does.


Anchor Bay Round-Up

WINTER KILLS (**1/2, 97 mins., 1979, R): William Richert's troubled 1979 filming of Richard Condon's novel sports an all-star cast in a political assassination tale that's more interesting for what happened off-screen than what ended up on it.

Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor (in a one-scene cameo) are just some of the stars who pop up in this black comic thriller, a tale of a JFK-like assassination plot and its subsequent cover up. The film is interesting but difficult to get into, sporting a fine score by Maurice Jarre and cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, both of which keep you watching despite the story's wildly uneven tone. Off-screen, the movie's checkered production history included a budget that ran out several times, a studio that didn't understand the movie, and a producer who was murdered during production!

All of these issues are addressed in Anchor Bay's 2-disc DVD edition, which is highlighted by Richert's commentary and a 40-minute documentary on the movie's making (and unmaking). Trailers and shorter featurettes include Bridges and Richert reminiscing about the shoot, still galleries, and the original script in DVD ROM format.

I would have liked more info on the movie's original release (which apparently was re-edited by the studio), plus some alternate scenes, but the resulting package -- sporting an OK 16:9 transfer with sometimes coarse mono sound -- should be more than enough to please fans of this curio.


MANHUNTER: RESTORED DIRECTOR'S CUT (***1/2, 124 mins., 1986, R): So you're thinking, why do we need yet another DVD for Michael Mann's terrific 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon"? Well, if you saw the so-called "Director's Cut" in Anchor Bay's deluxe 2-DVD edition a couple of years ago, you know how awful the transfer was. This new, single- disc release offers an uneven but overall superior presentation of the longer cut of the film, along with a new commentary from Mann.

The longer version of the movie still offers restored scenes in a less than pristine, grainy condition, but at least admits it up front and is, all things considered, the best presentation of the film yet on video.

Anchor Bay's DVD also includes a deleted scenes still gallery, production photos, the original trailer, and a DVD ROM of the original script. On the downside, the stereo mix is only in 2.0, missing the power and presence of the 2-DVD edition's 5.1 mix.


ROAD GAMES (***, 101 mins., 1981, R): Remember when Richard Franklin was once all the rage? This 1981 Aussie thriller put the director from Down Under on the map, at least for a while.
 
Stacy Keach essays a motorist who gets caught up in the "Duel"-like games of a serial killer who drives a van. Jamie Lee Curtis plays a hitchhiker who comes along for the ride in what amounts to an extended cameo.

The movie's original 2.35 widescreen dimensions have been preserved in this solid Anchor Bay DVD, which offers a commentary with Franklin and a new featurette sporting interviews with Keach and the director. The original trailer, storyboard and poster/still galleries round out the disc, which also offers Everett de Roche's original script as a DVD ROM extra.


THE ANGEL COLLECTION: Angel (**, 1983), Avenging Angel (**1/2, 1984), and Angel III: The Final Chapter (*1/2, 1988): Remember "student by day, hooker at night" or whatever the original tag line was?

Yup, it's New World Pictures exploitation fun that began with Donna "Jaws 2" Wilkes essaying Angel in the 1983 original. The more athletic -- and appealing -- Betsy Russell took over in the superior 1984 follow-up, "Avenging Angel," before Mitzy Kapture took over in the third (and least entertaining) entry "Angel III: The Final Chapter."

Anchor Bay's three-disc box set offers liner notes, trailers, and 16:9 transfers for each "Angel" installment. A few deleted scenes are included for the original film, while the first sequel offers poster and still galleries.

If you're looking for solid B-thrills from the '80s, look no further!


NEXT TIME: More summer-time views and reviews. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and I'll catch you then!


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