7/11/06 Edition

PIRATES Set Sail Again
Andy Reviews The Eagerly Awaited Sequel
Plus: Criterions for July, Milius' ROUGH RIDERS, and More!

Like a cold summer beverage, a trip to the beach on a hot summer’s day, or an oasis in the middle of a mediocre summer season that’s seen a needless “Omen” remake and a “Superman” on anti-depressants, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST (***½) serves up a much-needed slice of high seas escapism.

Overlong and flawed, director Gore Verbinski’s sequel is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable romp, fueled by several knockout action sequences and colorful characters most obviously lead by Johnny Depp’s eternally sauced pirate Jack Sparrow. The film is confident, big, bold and plenty of fun -- an element many of this summer’s blockbusters have completely lacked.

It’s tough to criticize a script that actually tries to do too much, but original writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio here attempt to develop several plot strands and weave a dozen returning characters throughout this 150-minute follow-up to the 2003 smash hit. The result is a story that’s both cluttered and padded, but the good news is that the duo’s dialogue is still often as sharp as a scalawag’s knife and the sprawling premise enables not just Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to reprise their roles from the original, but also give other supporting characters (like Jack Davenport’s agreeably disgraced Colonel Norrington and a pair of Captain Barbossa’s minions played by Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook) an opportunity to get involved with the story.
Speaking of which, “Dead Man’s Chest” finds newly-arrived British bureaucrat Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) sentencing poor Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) and her fiancee Will Turner (Bloom) to prison for their involvement with Depp’s Captain Sparrow. Unfortunately, while Will is let go under a directive to retrieve Sparrow’s broken compass, o’l Jack has his own problems -- namely a debt to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) himself, who comes calling out of the depths of the ocean with a crew of damned sailors, each mutating into a sea creature while serving out their sentences. Among them is Will’s father “Bootstrap” Turner (Stellan Skarsgard), who attempts to save his son while Sparrow waivers between helping out his friends and seizing Davy Jones’ chest for his own personal gain. If that weren’t enough, the movie also includes an escape from a tribe of restless natives, the arrival of Jones’ oceanic beast the Kraken, and a dizzying, sensational finale on a tropical island that’s both brilliantly edited and choreographed.

“Dead Man’s Chest” is slow to get going and does suffer from occasional repetition: the ILM special effects are more than impressive (particularly the animation of Davy Jones and his crew), but I wanted to see the Kraken do more than wrap its tentacles around vessels and slam into crew members over and over. The running plot of Davy Jones’ lost love is amusing but under-nourished, with a good amount of pay-off intended to occur in the third film, which is due out next summer.

Still, if you’re going to end on a cliffhanger, “Dead Man’s Chest” is the way to do it: use the opportunity to spring a last-minute surprise on the audience and in such a way that it promises something we haven't seen before. It ends this installment on a rousing high note that other movies with open endings (like the “Lord of the Rings” films and “Back to the Future Part II”) have failed to match, with the entire audience I was sitting with cheering at the surprise re-appearance of a character from its predecessor.

Visually “Dead Man’s Chest” is graced by superb cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and production design from Tim Burton alumnus Rick Heinrichs, as well as a rousing Hans Zimmer score. Reprising all of the themes from its predecessor in a thankfully more orchestral environment, Zimmer’s music is loud and over-the-top but works splendidly in the film, with several themes lingering in the memory long after the credits have rolled (especially his jaunty Sparrow motif and the central “Pirates” march, which I’m guessing he and not Klaus Badelt composed as the original composer receives no credit at all here).

With Depp’s kooky, unpredictable central performance continuing to hold the film together, “Dead Man’s Chest” is a stylish, savvy sequel that offers more than enough pirate plunder to overcome its various deficiencies. Arrr once again, me mateys, Sparrow saves the day! (PG-13).

New On DVD From Criterion

Criterion’s diverse line-up of July DVDs offers a Pressburger-Powell classic, a 1978 documentary from Barbet Schroeder, and a recent film from Edward Yang that was widely embraced by audiences and critics alike.

The esteemed Archers’ 1944 A CANTERBURY TALE (***½, 124 mins.) is an offbeat, poetic piece that’s more Chaucer in spirit than story -- Powell and Pressburger’s script follows an American sergeant (John Sweet, a real-life soldier), a young British woman (Sheila Sim), and a gruff English sergeant (Peter Gibbs) through various adventures in the almost-ethereal English countryside prior to D-Day. The trio attempt to solve a bizarre mystery involving a “glue man” who has been tormenting local girls, but “A Canterbury Tale” is far more about the journey than the destination, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography preserving the idyllic Kent locales and ranking as some of Powell and Pressburger’s finest, low-key work in the process.

Criterion’s double-disc DVD edition offers running commentary from author Ian Christie as well as unnecessary footage shot for the U.S. version with Kim Hunter as Sweet’s wife; a new high-definition transfer; an interview with Sheila Sim; a 2001 documentary about Sgt. Sweet by Nick Burton and Eddie McMillan; David Thompson’s enjoyable travelogue “A Canterbury Tale”; a 1942 Humphrey Jennings documentary “Listen to Britain” and a similarly-titled 2001 museum piece by artist Victor Burgin. Fine liner notes from Sweet, Graham Fuller and Peter von Bagh round out another immense package that’s a must for all Archers aficionados.

Barbet Schroeder’s 1978 documentary KOKO: A TALKING GORILLA (***, 80 mins.), shot by Nestor Almendros, follows Stanford’s Dr. Penny Patterson as she attempts to teach sign language to a primate on loan from the San Fransisco Zoo. Schroeder’s piece is a notch better than a solid PBS documentary, giving the viewer the appropriate “you are there” kind of feel, and raises all sorts of ethical questions about the rights of Koko at the same time it illustrates the capacity of her to communicate. Certainly the work of Dr. Patterson and the awareness that Koko has raised through their foundation has furthered the importance of conservation and the survival of these beautiful animals, with Koko herself celebrating her 35th birthday just last week!

Criterion’s DVD is somewhat light on supplements, offering only an interview with Schroeder, a full-screen remastered transfer supervised by the director, and liner notes from Gary Indiana and Marguerite Duras. It would have been interesting to read comments from Dr. Patterson, but with so many other documentaries available about Koko and copious information available on their website (www.koko.org), perhaps the need for supplements along those lines was lessened.

Finally, Taiwan filmmaker Edward Yang’s YI YI (***½, 2000, 173 mins.) is a beautifully-rendered tale of a middle class Taipei family’s trials and tribulations, following various members of a modern clan through assorted hardships and life-changing moments. Criterion’s deluxe, single-DVD edition includes commentary from Yang and critic-author Tony Rayns; a new interview with Rayns about the “New Taiwan Cinema movement”; an essay from Kent Jones, notes from the director, and a remastered 1.85 (16:9) transfer with 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo. Highly recommended!

New From Anchor Bay

The three latest MASTERS OF HORROR DVDs from Anchor Bay prove to be, on balance at least, a general improvement on the previous entries in the horror cable-DVD anthology series.

John Landis’ outrageous “Deer Woman” (57 mins., 2005) is one such effort, with disgruntled cop Brian Benben sent to investigate a series of brutal murders -- the victims of which were all last seen with an alluring Native American woman (Cinthia Moura) who may indeed know more than she’s letting on.

Landis scripted this effort with his son, Max, and brought long-time friend and colleague Peter Bernstein along to score the episode as well. “Deer Woman” isn’t trying to be high art -- it delivers exactly what the filmmaker intended, which is an outrageous, almost E.C.-like story told with humor and plenty of gore. Benben’s dry delivery gives the story some much-needed levity as well, thereby making it easily one of the better “Masters of Horror” episodes to date.

Filmmaker Lucky McKee’s “Sick Girl” (60 mins., 2005) may come across as a mix of “Creepshow” and “Mimic,” with entomologist Angela Bettis falling for a quirky, quiet girl (Erin Brown, apparently also an “erotic scream queen” named Misty Mundae) at the same time she receives a new insect as a gift...and an agenda of its own.

A few completely over-the-top effects at the end save the somewhat prolonged episode -- something that cannot be said for Joe Dante’s disappointing effort “Homecoming” (2005, 59 mins.), an obvious and heavy-handed diatribe against the Bush administration with a collection of slain soldiers rising from the grave...in time to participate in the November elections!

Despite its bleeding heart politics (in more ways than one), the central concept of “Homecoming” sounds like it might be fun, but writer Sam Hamm (adapting a Dale Bailey story) and Dante lay the sarcasm on thick, resulting in a show that never quite fulfills its potential. A few gags do work, and Dante fans will enjoy seeing some of his “company” favorites (like Robert Picardo) together again, despite the episode’s shortcomings.

All three “Masters of Horror” DVDs are packed with extras, including commentaries, copious interviews, DVD-ROM goodies including the episodes’ respective scripts, 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Likely worth a rental instead of a purchase, though that’s still a step up from some of the weaker MOH entries that Anchor Bay first issued on DVD earlier this year.

Also new to the label’s eclectic library are a superb Special Edition -- in that glossy “Steelbook” packaging DVD fans have grown to love, especially overseas -- of director Geoff Murphy’s 1985 New Zealand drama THE QUIET EARTH (**½, 91 mins., R). The late Bruno Lawrence stars here as a scientist who believes he may be the last person on the planet after waking up to find himself the only living being, though he eventually meets a pair of others (Alison Routledge, Peter Smith) on the suddenly barren landscape that Earth has become.

Bill Baer, Lawrence and producer Sam Pillsbury scripted this adaptation of Craig Harrison’s novel, which works best in its introductory half-hour, with Lawrence in the company of he and he alone. When the two supporting characters are introduced, most of the picture’s magic dissipates until Murphy and the writers end with a memorable, open-ended conclusion -- the image of which was stunningly used on the film’s original poster artwork (and recycled here on the DVD’s case, albeit with new, overly-stylized graphics).

Anchor Bay’s DVD sports commentary from Sam Pillsbury, the original trailer, eight pages of liner notes, and a satisfying 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital sound. A mixed bag with a great performance from Lawrence, still worth a recommendation for its fans.

Finally, Anchor Bay has also dusted off the Tom Selleck 1992 box-office flop FOLKS! (*½, 108 mins., PG-13), a supposed “comedy” that tried to bridge the gap between Alzheimer's and belly laughs.

This re-teaming of writer Robert Klane, director Ted Kotcheff, and producer Victor Drai tried desperately to recapture the chemistry that made “Weekend at Bernie’s” a smash hit, but “Folks!” failed because its premise was simply inane (and offensive) from the get-go: Selleck plays a stock broker whose mother (Anne Jackson) becomes ill, forcing him to take care of his increasingly senile father (Don Ameche). Would-be hilarity fails to follow after Ameche burns down their Florida home and both parents suggest that Selleck instigate a few “accidents” that would ease the burden of him needing to take care of them.

“Folks!” does have a couple of laughs along the lines of “Bernie’s,” but its message -- even if it’s bizarrely “well intentioned” -- is nearly impossible to accept, especially if you’ve ever lived through a relative who has suffered from the disease.

Anchor Bay’s DVD preserves this Cecchi Gori-Penta Pictures production in 16:9 (1.85) widescreen with 2.0 Dolby Surround, the original trailer and TV spots. Even “Weekend at Bernie’s 2" was funnier than this!

Warner Home Video Capsules

DOCTOR WHO: Genesis of the Daleks (1975, 142 mins) and Revelation of the Daleks (1985, 89 mins.): Recently issued to coincide with the debut of the new “Dr. Who” on the Sci-Fi Channel (and its likewise new DVD release) come these BBC Video compilations, spotlighting two of the better-known story cycles from the long-running British sci-fi series. Terry Nation’s “Genesis of the Daleks” offers one of the more acclaimed tales from the mid ‘70s Tom Baker era (I always freaked out when I was a child at the opening to the Baker shows, with the theme music and Baker’s giant head flying around during the opening credits!), while the shorter “Revelation of the Daleks” dates from the not-quite-as-fondly remembered Colin Baker mid ‘80s years. Extras on these two sets are in abundance, including commentaries on both shows; respective Making Of documentaries; deleted scenes on “Revelation”; behind-the-scenes featurettes; even a 1976 “Dr. Who Annual” (on the “Genesis” disc, in PC-ROM format) and more. Even more, “Revelation of the Daleks” includes the option of hearing the music (with its incidental scoring by Roger Limb) on an isolated audio track! Superbly produced and highly recommended for Dr. Who fans, with the supplements being just as much fun as the shows themselves.

THE SACKETTS (1979, 193 mins., Warner): Epic 1979 TV western mini-series with Sam Elliott, Tom Selleck, and Jeff Osterhage as three members of the Sackett clan, trying to make a name for themselves in New Mexico territory. The performances of Selleck, Elliott, and a cast filled with veterans (Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, Jack Elam, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickins among them) makes this somewhat slow-moving ride well worth the journey, though John Vernon’s menace borders on comical and the somewhat modest budget does become evident here and there. Still worth a view for sagebrush aficionados, with Warner’s double-disc DVD set offering a retrospective featurette with Jeff Osterhage and writer Jim Byrnes, who adapted a pair of Louis L’Amour novels for this NBC production. The full-screen transfer and mono sound are both fine, the latter containing a score by “Knots Landing” composer Jerrod Immel.

THE ROUGH RIDERS (1997, 184 mins., Warner): John Milius directed and co-wrote (with Hugh Wilson) this superb, two-part TNT mini-series following the adventures of Teddy Roosevelt (Tom Berenger) and the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Numerous familiar faces from past Milius works (Gary Busey, William Katt, Brad Johnson, Brian Keith), a rousing score by Peter Bernstein (with a main theme contributed by father Elmer), and an amiable script that deftly balances history with Milius’ machismo action makes for a highly satisfying production that Warner has perfectly brought to DVD. A commentary with Milius and producer William J. MacDonald is offered on the supplemental side, while the full-screen transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital surround mix are both top-notch. Highly recommended!

PINKY AND THE BRAIN: Volume 1 (471 mins., Warner)
ANIMANIACS: Volume 1 (550 mins., Warner): One of my lasting memories about freshman year in college was driving from Ithaca to Elmira, New York, and being forced to listen to the 25-minute “Animaniacs” soundtrack -- repeatedly -- for the 90-minute or so ride...BOTH ways! (No wonder I transferred out of there a few months later!).

At any rate, I only mention that anecdote because, on July 25th, both “Animaniacs” and its spin-off “Pinky and the Brain” make their proper box-set debuts on DVD. Each set offers roughly 500 minutes of Warner TV animation from the mid ‘90s, in a pair of series produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment that tried (and more or less succeeded) in recapturing some of the manic energy and in-jokes from the golden days of the Looney Tunes era (“Animaniacs” in particular).

If you’re a fan of either series, these two respective box sets are great fun indeed, with Warner’s full-screen transfers and 5.1/2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks being highly satisfying. Extras, meanwhile, range from voice artist interviews (on “Pinky”) to even a goofy chat with Animaniac pals “via satellite” on the “Animanics” release. Packaging is on-par with the Looney Tunes “Golden Age” sets and comes strongly recommended for fans of either show, though you can’t blame me if I never want to hear the “Animaniacs” theme again!

NEXT TIME: New Releases From Tartan, Sony and More! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!

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