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