Picks and Pans Main: Screen

updated 07/21/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/21/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Pirates of the Caribbean The Curse of the Black Pearl

Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley

When did Johnny Depp become Marlon Brando? Though the younger star is still no match in girth for the onetime Godfather, Depp (see page 67) is fast becoming Brando's equal when it comes to giving enjoyably eccentric, borderline-hammy performances. In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp—for no apparent reason—wears more eyeliner than Michael Jackson, speaks and moves with decided feyness and braids his greasy beard into two plaits that hang fetchingly from his chin. This amusingly bizarro turn seems to emanate from a wacky wavelength to which one suspects only Depp and Brando are attuned.

Hardy and high-spirited, Pirates is certainly a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum better than The Country Bears, last year's awful attempt by Disney to prop up an aging theme-park attraction with a same-name movie. Pirates is an action-adventure tale of buccaneers, stolen treasure, a captured maiden (Knightley) and a curse that turns a group of scurvy cutthroats into fearsome skeletons in the moonlight—giving a whole new meaning to the term skeleton crew. Director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) makes this fleet fun for the first half, but Pirates wears out its welcome with a few too many plot twists and battles in its bloated two-hour-plus running time. As the story's young romantic duo, Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) and Bloom (The Lord of the Rings) prove an appealing, if slightly stiff, pair. (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: Swashes along merrily before buckling under its own weight

Swimming Pool
Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier
Critic's Choice

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In a summer in which most movies have grabbed for the eyes with explosions, stunts and special effects, Swimming Pool takes direct aim at a viewer's brain. Not since Memento (2000) has there been a film that so successfully keeps you guessing about what's really going on right up until the final scene and then leaves you scratching your head afterward figuring out what it all means.

In Pool an uptight English mystery writer (Rampling) loosens up while on vacation in Provence. She finds inspiration for her next novel and, possibly, discovers a murder. Director-cowriter Francois Ozon (8 Women), who last worked with Rampling in the excellent Under the Sand (2000), has made an admirably creative movie about the creative process. Plus, Pool can claim eye appeal aplenty, boasting a scenic setting, shapely costar Sagnier lounging poolside in a bikini or less, and a fiercely magnificent Rampling, who makes wrinkles seem sexily leonine. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Take the plunge

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Shane West

If to no one else, this galumphing action thriller will at least be a boon to librarians attempting to persuade print-phobic adolescents to pick up an actual novel. "Care to bone up on what Allan Quartermain did before the film?" they can query, handing over H. Rider Haggard's 1885 adventure classic, King Solomon's Mines.

Quartermain (Connery)—not to be confused with General Hospital's doctor of the same name—is one of six 19th-century literary stalwarts brought together in 1899 in England to stop a power-hungry madman from starting a world war. The idea, based on a graphic novel, is a smart one, but the execution is an unwieldy mixing of the past with modern-day action movie clichés. Think Wild Wild West (1999). Even a sardonic Connery, huffing and puffing manfully through fight scenes, can't save this one. (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: Less than Extraordinary

I Capture the Castle
Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas, Bill Nighy

In this modest but charming British romantic drama set in 1936, our heroine learns early that love often goes unrequited. "It's like some hideous party game," observes 17-year-old Cassandra (Garai), "where nobody gets the prize they want." Certainly not here. Though a cute servant boy adores her, Cassandra is drawn to Simon (Thomas), a wealthy Yankee who recently inherited the crumbling castle in the English countryside where she and her impoverished bohemian family live. He, in turn, is sweet on her older sister Rose (Byrne), who may or may not have her eye on Simon's cranky younger bro Neil (Blucas).

Based on a 1948 novel by Dodie Smith (who also wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians), Castle features fiercely accomplished performances from Garai and Nighy. She radiates intelligence and has a kind of prettiness that only slowly creeps up on you. As her hapless dad, Nighy nails a man beyond sorrow's reach. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: A Castle worth visiting

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