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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 14, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Pirates, Gentlemen, Capers, and Miniature Golf

Pirate movies are usually pretty lousy. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that pirates are the bad guys, so either the movie has to lie and make them "nice pirates" or you start rooting for the pirates to lose.

Or maybe it's just that most pirate movies are made by idiots. That's always possible.

The good news is that for the first time since Captain Blood introduced the world to Errol Flynn, we have a wonderful pirate movie. But judging from the lines at the box office -- for the late showings on Wednesday and Monday, for pete's sake! -- everybody already knows that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is every bit as thrilling and fun and smart as (or maybe smarter than) Raiders of the Lost Ark seemed when it first came out.

When you remember that this movie was somehow "adapted" from the second most boring ride at Disneyland, it makes its excellence all the more surprising.

Of course, because Disney is now making oodles of money by adapting a mind-numbingly dull ride, can the It's a Small World movie be far behind?

One of the things making money for Pirates may be the fact that you have to see it twice just to catch half the things that Johnny Depp says in his wonderfully creepy drunken-English-fop accent. But missing some of his mumbles and asides doesn't hurt the pleasure of the movie.

The excellence of this movie began -- as it always does -- by having the right script written. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio came up with a clever story with interesting characters.

For instance, instead of being nothing but a pretty girl and a macho icon, the characters played by Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are actually kind of like real people. Well, OK, within limits -- but remember that in adventure movies dominated by the villain and the rake, the good-hearted love-interest couple are usually as deep as paper dolls.

And style counts. When the rival pirate leaders, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) say something that's supposed to be witty, it actually is clever. This sort of thing is beyond the reach of most film writers.

In a story like this, fantasy is actually quite hard to manage well. Once you allow that Aztec gold can carry a curse that turns a bunch of pirates into immortal zombies when seen by moonlight, pretty much anything is possible. But the writers kept the magic under control and concentrated on the personal relationships and the goals and needs of the characters.

From Johnny Depp's entrance, sailing into port on a sinking ship, to his dance on a quivering blade in the execution scene, he brings a kind of lazy flair to the part that I don't think any other actor in Hollywood could match. For sheer eccentricity, Johnny Depp's career goal seems to be to make Nicholas Cage look like an ordinary guy -- but in this movie his utterly earnest weirdness makes him one of the most likeable, funny, but still dangerous characters to grace an adventure movie in a long time.

And guess what! Even when he's not blonded up and given elf ears, Orlando Bloom has what it takes to play the Luke Skywalker part and make us actually care. So for him, at least, there clearly is a career after Lord of the Rings.

I know a lot of people won't agree with me, but I think Pirates of the Caribbean fulfils the same role toward pirate movies that Lawrence Kasdan's brilliant Silverado played toward westerns: It is a loving summary of the entire genre, making it unnecessary ever to make any more.

Of course, Silverado wasn't a monster hit like Pirates, but it lives on as the ultimate, final, complete western, with all the iconic roles played by the best actors ever to fill the roles. (I know, Unforgiven was made after Silverado, but it was an anti-western, a debunking of the genre rather than a celebration of it.)

The only thing working against Pirates being the ultimate pirate movie is that there's only one other pirate movie that's any good. So maybe it will have to fulfil a different role in the history of film: The beginning of a spate of really good pirate movies.

Yeah, in my dreams.

But it's possible, right? And in the meantime, I can see Pirates of the Caribbean about six more times.

*

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a first rate cast of talented and attractive actors. Too bad it's one of the worst movies of the year.

They spent money on this thing. It has some visual appeal. It has Sean Connery in the lead, and even though Suart Townsend and Peta Wilson and Shane West aren't household names, they are good actors who are having decent careers.

They probably thought this movie was their big break.

And Sean Connery is on record as saying that he turned down The Matrix -- twice -- and the first Harry Potter movie, and so he wasn't going to turn this one down.

Too bad, Mr. Connery. You should have stuck with your streak.

In fact, Connery's performance is the bellwether of this movie. He's phoning it in -- and Connery never phones it in. But it's clear that he's horribly embarrassed to have to say these lines, but that he doesn't have the respect for this movie even to deliver them mockingly, which would have helped.

The premise is silly enough -- a whole bunch of fictional characters from the 1800s are gathered together to save Britain (and the world) from the horrors of a world war being plotted by a pathetically obvious and inept villain.

It's a good comic-book premise: Dorian Gray, Tom Sawyer, Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Mina Harker (one of Dracula's surviving victims, now a vampire herself), all join forces against evil in a period superhero comic.

And comix-based movies have been doing really well in the past decades, from Christopher Reeve's first Superman to Michael Keaton's Batman to Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man.

But what made those movies work so well was the way they concentrated on turning the superhero into a believable human being. Spider-Man did it better than any of its predecessors.

Even X-Men thrives on its ability to get us to care about these "talented" people with impossible gifts.

By contrast, LXG makes almost no effort to make these people interesting. For one thing, they arrive with one strike against them: To the degree that the audience recognizes them at all, the audience knows they are fictional characters. So extra work was needed to make them real.

If the script had taken as much time as was taken in, say, X-Men to introduce the characters, there might have been some hope.

Instead, the characters are brought onto the screen and immediately forced to strut around, snapping at each other in extremely non-clever dialogue, each one saying snide things about someone else's powers or "problems."

The miracle is how well the actors do despite being crippled by having to say these lines. Stuart Townsend has some of the magnetism of Frank Langella in his prime; Peta Wilson has some of the arrogant flair of Julianne Moore's performance in An Ideal Husband. Shane West is plain likeable. Hope they survive to act another day, in a better film.

On top of the bad characterization, however, the movie gets even worse. Everything depends on things like tanks and machine guns being introduced far too early. There are ludicrous howlers like having Captain Nemo's Nautilus, a huge vessel, come right up to a dock in the Thames River and then sail to Paris. Then, to save time, it sails from Paris (right, they turned it around in the Seine) to Venice -- in an era when trains could do the trip far faster than any ship today could get from the English Channel, all the way around Spain and through the Mediterranean to Venice.

I mean, it's so dumb they couldn't even put up a map with dotted lines like the Indiana Jones movies could, because then it would be obvious even to the geographically-challenged American audience that this was just stupid.

But the crowning blow was having this huge vessel sail down the canals of Venice. Yeah, and a 747 can land in my back yard.

And the villain -- my wife and I just laughed. How can you care whether the good guys defeat a bad guy who is so dumb that right from the start, he comes personally into battle, just so he can watch his forces get defeated quite easily, even by old coots and bloodsucking women?

Well, I can only give you a partial review -- we gave up and walked out. But I believe there's no way it could have gotten better, because it had already touched absolute badness. (Yes, it's even worse than Dumb and Dumberer.)

So if you find yourself unable to get into a showing of Pirates because it's completely sold out, don't go to LXG. Buy expensive popcorn and candy and sit in the lobby watching people go into and out of showings of Pirates. The plot will be better and the characters will be much more believable.

*

Our bonus last Wednesday, when we couldn't get into Pirates on its opening night, was that we took the opportunity to go see a late showing of The Italian Job. We kept hearing good things about it, and now that I've seen it, I'm happy to report: They're all true.

Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and Edward Norton are superbly believable and attractive as a bunch of thieves who turn double crossing into an art form. The capers (there are four, counting double-crosses and last-minute adaptations) are wonderful fun and exhilarating to watch.

And any movie that can make a star out of that ugly little British car that can only be driven by toy people gets extra points.

Every now and then you've got to give your movie money to a film that isn't hyped to death and that puts its money and effort into being smart and fun.

Of course, it's been out long enough that by the time you read this, it will probably be gone from the theaters. But that's OK -- it'll work on the small screen, because it doesn't depend on big special effects, it depends on writing and acting and directing, and that can be shrunk down to TV size and still be worth watching.

*

A few months ago, my wife and daughter went to Celebration Station for the first time. They let another child go ahead of them in the line for the go-carts -- only to see the engine of that vehicle erupt in flames soon after it started.

Well, accidents can happen anywhere, right? So when our daughter asked to go miniature golfing on Monday night, we had no qualms about going. Nothing on the mini-golf course was going to combust, right?

Right. Of course, there was the hole where the ball got eaten instead of going down the little tube.

And the fact that on all the holes near the freeway, the weight of all those trucks had apparently tilted the ground so that everything sloped that direction.

And the holes with missing tee-off mats -- invariably the ones on a steep incline, so you couldn't get the ball to hold still long enough to hit it.

But we didn't come looking for perfection, just a little fun together as a family.

Still ... couldn't somebody wash the handles of the golf clubs at least once a year? There was so much grime on the handles I wondered if it could be scraped off and used as an alternative fuel source, or maybe as fertilizer for growing mushrooms.

And then we bought tokens and went inside to play.

There are precious few games that are actually fun. Instead, most of them are designed to allow you, by spending five dollars, to earn enough tickets to pay for a fifty-cent prize. Skee-Ball is fun, and so I didn't feel like I was wasting my money. But apart from that I couldn't find a single other thing to do that was actually intrinsically entertaining.

Even when I went upstairs in search of pinball or air hockey, all I could find was a Batman pinball machine that was so decrepit the ball would hang on flat surfaces; the right-hand paddle was crippled so you couldn't get enough force behind the ball to go all the way up a ramp; and the electronics were shot so that the scores didn't show up on the screen.

In other words, unlike other "family fun centers" we've been to in other places, Greensboro's own Celebration Station doesn't seem to bother with maintenance and cleaning that I would have thought would be the bare minimum to keep it the kind of place where parents would want to bring their children.

So ... it's back to croquet on the lawn. No tickets for winning, but the handles on the mallets are clean.


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