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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.

SEABISCUIT Adapted from Laura Hillebrand's bestseller, this tells the story of the underdog racehorse whose remarkable success during the 1930s inspired an entire nation. But just as importantly, it also relates the very human story of three individuals -- Seabiscuit's owner (Jeff Bridges), trainer (Chris Cooper) and jockey (Tobey Maguire) -- with the inner fortitude to overcome extreme handicaps, and on top of that further provides a glimpse of a country reeling from the Depression and its attempts to right itself. That's a tall order for one movie to fill, and if the picture occasionally seems to have bitten off more than it can chew, it's a forgivable sin, since writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) does a decent job of getting us involved in the plights of its characters, regardless of what's happening in the world around them. "My horse is too small, my jockey's too big, my trainer's too old, and I'm too stupid to know the difference!" cracks Bridges' millionaire to the press, and indeed, it's a peculiar grouping -- the odd couple squared. But it's in the very eccentricities of the characters where the movie derives most of its power. The filmmaking in itself is rather conventional -- lots of burnished shots by cinematographer John Schwartzman, a score (by Randy Newman) that's swathed in uplifting Americana strains, plenty of scripted homilies about can-do Yankee perseverance -- yet the players themselves have a hungry determination that transcends their foibles and makes their exploits all the more inspiring.

SPY KIDS 3-D: GAME OVER The law of diminishing returns clearly applies to this third entry in writer-director Robert Rodriguez's family-oriented franchise. The 2001 original was deservedly a critical and commercial smash, while last year's follow-up wasn't half-bad as far as first sequels go. But Rodriguez's well has run dry for this latest adventure, as he places all his faith in the 3-D effects that are meant to complement the film but instead overwhelm it. Truth be told, watching this overwrought picture's frenzied special effects through the 3-D goggles eventually leads to a punishing migraine; on top of that, the left eyepiece was so darkly tinted that I felt like someone had squirted motor oil into my eye. Beyond the 3-D aspect, this is simply a poorly scripted adventure yarn, with young Juni (Daryl Sabara) forced to enter a "virtual reality" game in order to save his sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) and vanquish the game's mad inventor (hammy Sylvester Stallone). Despite some occasionally interesting graphics, the game itself doesn't seem very exciting (or comprehensible, for that matter), and the action frequently breaks for characters to deliver strained monologues about the importance of family. Speaking of family, Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, so appealing as the Spy Parents in the first film, have been reduced to nothing more than late-inning cameos. And what's the point of casting Salma Hayek in a 3-D flick and not using the technology to showcase her attributes? I mean her lips, of course; what were you thinking? 1/2


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