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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL It's long been established that movies based on video games are a dismal lot, so the odds are automatically against a film that engages in the even more desperate ploy of being based on a theme park attraction. Yet this take-off of Disney's popular park feature proves to be one of the brightest of the summer blockbusters, with appealing characters, a sturdy screenplay, and plenty of derring-do. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, known as the Antichrist in cineaste circles (Armageddon, Con Air, and on and on and on), bypassed his usual stable of hacks and tapped versatile Gore Verbinski (MouseHunt, The Mexican) to man the ship; aided by the scripters of Shrek and The Mask of Zorro, he provides notable visual panache to this rollicking yarn about an eccentric pirate (Johnny Depp) and a stalwart blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) who attempt to rescue a governor's daughter (Keira Knightley) from the clutches of a band of supernaturally affected pirates. More heavily plotted than one might expect, this 135-minute epic might test the patience of younger audience members but wears its length well for older viewers. Bloom and Knightley are suitably striking, while Geoffrey Rush adds the proper degree of hammy menace as the captain of the cursed pirate crew. Still, this movie wouldn't be half as memorable were it not for the patently bizarre turn by Depp, who transforms a conventional anti-hero into a fey, garrulous scoundrel whose antics constantly keep the other characters (and us) wondering what he'll do next.


CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE One's enjoyment of Charlie's Angels will likely determine that same viewer's tolerance of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. This follow-up to that 2000 hit isn't so much a sequel as an extension -- if movies weren't so time- and cost-consuming, it'd be easy to picture a new Angels flick hitting the multiplexes on a weekly basis (in that respect, it emulates the 70s TV series on which it's based). Like its big-screen predecessor, this new T&Angels adventure features countless scenes that serve as nothing more than mini-vanity projects for its three lovely leads (Cameron Diaz as giggly party girl Natalie, Drew Barrymore as street-smart riot grrl Dylan, and Lucy Liu as sophisticated smart girl Alex), reams of smarmy double entendres that are sure to elicit as many groans as giggles, and several stunt-heavy, death-defying feats that are simply absurd beyond reason. But so what? Indefensible as it may be on a hoity-toity level, this works more often than not because of the infectious atmosphere generated by its leading ladies as well as returning director McG. I've never been a fan of Demi Moore, so her much ballyhooed "comeback" in this picture (as a former Angel gone bad) means nothing to me, and the unfortunate reliance on smutty humor brings it perilously close to Austin Powers territory. But let's face it: When our heroines are disguised as welders at one point, who doesn't want to hear Irene Cara's Flashdance... What A Feeling playing in the background? 1/2

HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE When The Matrix Reloaded opened, much of the talk centered around the highway chase sequence that lasts a full 15 minutes. But that set piece is mere child's play when compared to the climactic chase that closes Hollywood Homicide: This one lasts a full three hours. Or so it seems. Truth be told, I can't pinpoint exactly how long this interminable sequence goes on, because during that portion of this dreadful action-comedy, my brain was so numb that even a lobotomy would have seemed like a welcome diversion. Charitable moviegoers -- and I use "charitable" to the extent that Mother Teresa comparisons are in order -- might describe this disaster as the perfect popcorn picture, but even that's provided you like your bag filled with burnt pieces and unpopped kernels. Harrison Ford (tired and bored) and Josh Hartnett (bland and boring) play the usual mismatched cops -- one's old and cranky, the other young and sensitive -- who spend as much time pursuing outside interests (real estate and acting, respectively) as they do investigating the slayings of four rappers. Writer-director Ron Shelton, a long way from the career high point of Bull Durham, has crammed this picture with the sort of forced comedy generally found in bad Nora Ephron movies, while the action sequences prove to be clumsily staged and rarely exciting. Hartnett is a Next Big Thing who deserves to become a Where Are They Now?; as for Ford, there's simply no way to defend his sell-out choices anymore.

HULK With a fan base that rivals those of other Green Party members (Kermit, Gumby, Shrek), it's only fitting that Marvel's not-so-jolly green giant gets his own movie. Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the recent batch, as the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon team of director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus have created a film that unwittingly condescends toward the comic book medium even as it's trying to elevate it to another plateau. The effortless affinity that exists between hero and reader has been lost on the pair; wanting to create something more "meaningful" than a mere popcorn flick, they've decided to add import to their assignment by making a movie that's as much about family dysfunction and harnessing one's untapped potential as it is about a guy who turns into a monster. That's all well and good, but in trying to come up with something of substance, they've largely left out the sharp sense of humor and gee-whiz level of excitement that have ignited the best of superhero cinema, not grasping that these aren't hindrances on the road to respectability but the very things that drive the journey. The CGI-created Hulk looks fine in close-up but fake in the distant shots, while dull Eric Bana, as his alter ego, is a human flatline. Lee's visual scheme, which often provides the cinematic equivalent of a comic's splashy color panels, is fun, but these are about the only moments that make us feel like we're actually flipping through a comic book rather than lumbering through an arid college textbook.

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