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Date: 27 January, 2004

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'Much has been made of Keith Richards' - sorry, Johnny Depp's - inspired performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, and rightly so, but there are several other exceptional performances here.'



Steve Couch reviews his choice of the best film releases on DVD. To buy a DVD, and raise money for Christian Aid projects, simply click on its title or picture.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
I can't say I held out a lot of hope for this before its cinema release in the summer. We've seen films based on books and comic strips, kids TV programmes and even computer games, but a theme park ride?

From such origins, surely even the bottom of the barrel would be an achievement. This couldn't possibly be any good could it?

Oh yes it could. This is a wonderful film. A family action adventure movie that rattles along, taking the audience with it for the duration of the ride.

The cast, led by the excellent Johnny Depp, includes a generous smattering of faces familiar to British TV audiences (including Jack Davenport from 'This Life' and 'Coupling' and Mackenzie 'Gareth' Crook from 'The Office') and the performances achieve the right balance between conviction and the knowledge that this is meant to be fun.

The fight scenes are marvellously choreographed, and the effects - most notably the ones concerning the cursed pirates - are convincing and spectacular. Best of all and against all the odds, there is a plot ('Charlie's Angels' eat your heart out).

Much has been made of Keith Richards' - sorry, Johnny Depp's - inspired performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, and rightly so, but there are several other exceptional performances here. Geoffrey Rush gives depth to Sparrow's nemesis Captain Barbosa, while also playing with the conventions of the pirate genre, resulting in a character who could have stepped from the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Convincing

Keira Knightly shines as the free spirited Elizabeth, Orlando Bloom works well as a foil to Depp, excelling at the action and becoming more convincing as the film goes on, and Jonathan Pryce clearly enjoys himself as Governor Swann, Elizabeth's not entirely heroic father.

The extras are worth the admission price too. The most enjoyable of the three commentaries is probably the one where Jack Davenport and Keira Knightly send themselves up, along with many of their colleagues and half of the film.

The second disc features a generous selection of documentaries, video diaries and deleted scenes. The overall impression of the extras is that this is a film which everybody had as good a time making as the audience have watching it.

The material about the real pirates of the Caribbean was perhaps a little thin, but is a decent enough start for newcomers to the subject.

Anyone looking for more detail probably already knew they were looking in the wrong place. As with the film itself, the extras put the emphasis on entertainment rather than education, and are good enough at that to make any complaints a little unfair.

Despite scenes showing characters walking on the ocean bed, this is a film of Depp rather than a film of depth, but it's none the worse for that. A cheerfully enthusiastic romp of a film, which achieves everything it sets out to do. Break out the popcorn, put your brain on pause and enjoy yourself for a couple of hours.

Other Current Releases

The Office Series 2
After the surprise success of the first series, writers Stephen Marchant and Ricky Gervais set about the task of killing their golden goose before the eggs had the chance to go off.

This two disc set provides all the episodes from the final series, plus a limited selection of out-takes and deleted scenes, some of which are every bit as good as anything that made it onto our TV screens.

Whereas the first series introduced David Brent as the most egotistical, least self-knowing boss ever to grace the airwaves, this time around we are invited to watch as both his world and his job spiral out of control and down the drain.

The addition of new staff members from the Swindon office gives fresh fuel to the favourite comic devices of the first series. Tim has a new love interest, although once again, Gareth labours under the illusion that he's in with a chance himself.

A wheelchair bound woman acts as a comic time-bomb from her first appearance - we know that David Brent is going to say or do something horrifically inappropriate, we just don't know what or when.

Most significant of all, David's new boss Neil turns out to be everything that David wants to be and thinks he already is. David's ego and sheer ineptitude at his job puts the two men on a collision course, and the result is excruciating even for anyone who has never crashed and burned in a job.

There is plenty of strong language and course humour, so this won't be everyone's cup of tea. For those who don't mind those factors, the interplay between the carefully crafted characters makes this a sophisticated comedy gem that gets funnier with each viewing.

Frasier Season 1
'No stupid characters and no stupid jokes': the secret of Frasier's success as revealed by executive producer David Lee in the commentary track to the pilot episode (sadly, the only one of the 24 episodes here to receive commentary treatment).

Lee, along with his fellow producer/writer Peter Casey reveals some of the other 'rules' of sitcoms that they set about breaking - longer scenes than normal allowed the actors to have more lines and more room to develop their performances; no unnecessary establishing shots and no musical cues; and a willingness to sustain long gaps between punchlines to give the show more emotional weight than most sitcoms.

From the word go, Frasier was a show that trusted the intelligence of its' audience. Put like that, it's amazing that it ever got commissioned.

Although the extras are sparse - just one episode with a commentary, a 'Making Of' documentary and a round-up of celebrity callers - the material that we get does add to the enjoyment of the episodes.

And it's the episodes which provide the real reason for buying this set: crisply written and acted, this is character driven comedy at its best. Excellent value, a DVD that will sustain repeated viewing. But there is still no explanation about what tossed salad and scrambled eggs have to do with anything.

The Man Who Sued God
An Australian-set film that was never going to be a major box office smash, but which probably deserved a larger audience than it got over here. Billy Connolly is Steve Myers, a one time lawyer scratching out a living catching fish.

The film starts with the destruction of his boat by lightning, and the refusal of the insurance company to pay up for an 'Act of God'. This drives Myers to sue God, or rather to sue the churches, as God's representatives on Earth. From that decision the rest of the plot flows naturally, and nothing that follows seems forced, although court room events in final courtroom showdown may raise some eyebrows.

But God and the church isn't the real target of this entertaining comedy - the archest of barbs are reserved for the insurance companies and the lawyers (hardly the most difficult of satirical targets).

There is a succession of clergymen (along with a cynical rabbi) who range from the bumblingly inept to the admirably intelligent and sincere. At one point Connolly's character offers the opinion that God would probably be on his side of the legal battle, and the filmmakers (not to mention numerous Biblical figures - Amos to name just one) seem to agree with him.

This is the kind of film that Ealing studios used to churn out way back when (although I don't recall quite this level of expletives in 'The Man In The White Suit' or 'Passport to Pimlico': who would have expected that from Billy Connolly?).

There are no extras, which is a shame, but this is an enjoyable, well-made film which holds the attention and has something to say, even if its' targets are the most obvious of sitting ducks. Worth watching, but possibly one to rent rather than to buy.