PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END ***
Thirty-three minutes. Yes, it takes 33 minutes into the 168-minute Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End before Johnny Depp even makes an appearance. Considering he’s this franchise’s MVP, that’s a dicey move on the part of the filmmakers; then again, everything about this second sequel operates with a go-for-broke mentality. Pirates 3 is overblown, overstuffed and over-the-top. It’s also entertaining and sometimes even exciting, which right there marks it as an improvement over last summer’s Dead Man’s Chest. In most respects, it’s the sort of summer movie which forces critics to denounce summer movies, relying too heavily on bombast and bullying tactics (both copyrighted trademarks of producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And yet there’s no denying that the picture contains a good measure of whimsy (usually MIA in pre-sold blockbusters) and a great deal of plot (ditto). In fact, there are enough plotlines in this one movie to fill an entire season of Lost or 24, evidence that director Gore Verbinski and scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are at least making an effort to earn their paychecks. Opening with a sequence that feels like an homage (rip-off?) to the start of Return of the Jedi (with Chow Yun-Fat instead of Jabba the Hutt), the film establishes that it’s a dark period for the Rebel Alliance -- excuse me, for the pirates who roam the seas, as the indestructible Flying Dutchman is now under the command of the East India Company and is being ordered to wipe out any pirate ship it encounters. (Don’t look to me to explain any of the backstory; go rent the first two films.) Teaming up with their former enemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) head off to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), the only man who’s able to help them put an end to this new age of eradication. The only problem is that Sparrow’s apparently dead, trapped for eternity in Davy Jones’ Locker. To attempt to relay more plot details would probably only lead to reader confusion, so suffice it to say that Sparrow still fears the tentacled Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), Will still hopes to free his tortured father (Stellan Skarsgard) from Davy Jones’ grip, and Elizabeth turns into a kick-ass riot grrrl in much the same manner as Carrie Fisher’s Leia in Return of the Jedi. All of the series’ regulars are sent off in satisfying (and even surprising) ways, and at its best, the movie exhibits a real affection for the sort of fantasy-tinged material that kept Ray Harryhausen employed back in the day. As for Keith Richards’ heavily hyped turn as Sparrow’s dad -- well, let’s just say that the Rolling Stone probably spent more time tuning his guitar before any given concert than he did filming his two paltry scenes for this film. There are basically two types of good summer movies: the ones that are accomplished enough to withstand multiple viewings over the years (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Men In Black) and the ones that offer momentary popcorn thrills but are ultimately so shallow that they can’t hold up under the scrutiny of repeat screenings (Top Gun, Independence Day, Gladiator). Pirates 3 clearly falls into the latter camp: It’s a fine summertime distraction, but woe to the viewer who elects to revisit it somewhere down the line.
Knocked Up ***
Like the Farrelly Brothers’ breakout hit There’s Something About Mary, director Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin was unique in that it managed to successfully mix raunch with romance. Most films that attempt this feat usually err on the side of vulgarity (think American Pie), but just as Mary gave us charming people nicely played by Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller -- his affection for her was palpable -- Virgin crafted a disarming love story between Steve Carell’s title character and Catherine Keener’s single mom. Interestingly, this relationship was only amplified by the raucous goings-on surrounding it, as the hijinks of Carell’s buddies brought the romance into sharper relief. Knocked Up, which reunites Apatow with Virgin co-star Seth Rogen, attempts a similar balancing act, only it falls a tad short of attaining the same success as its predecessor. There’s a sweet love story on view here as well, only because it’s more rushed and not allowed to unfold at a natural clip, it ultimately plays second string to the picture’s comedy quota. Fortunately, on that front, the movie’s an unqualified hit: It’s doubtful another film will be released this summer -- maybe even this year -- that offers as many theater-rumbling belly laughs as this one. Rogen plays Ben Stone, who, true to his last name, is a slacker who enjoys smoking reefer and hanging out with his equally unambitious roommates. One night at a trendy nightclub, he meets Alison (Katherine Heigl), who’s out celebrating the fact that she has just been promoted to an on-air position at E! Entertainment Television. One drink leads to another, and before morning arrives, the pair will have engaged in a one-night stand. At least that was the game plan; instead, Alison learns a few weeks later that she’s pregnant, and she decides that she and Ben (with whom she has nothing in common) should attempt to make their relationship work for the sake of the baby.
Mr. Brooks **1/2
Forget A Tale of Two Cities. What we have here is a tale of two halves, one superior, the other execrable. Assembling three actors whose careers have seen better decades -- Kevin Costner, William Hurt and Demi Moore -- director Bruce A. Evans has crafted an initially intriguing thriller about a beloved philanthropist (Costner) who occasionally moonlights as a serial killer whenever the voice inside his head (personified in the flesh by Hurt) urges him to go hack somebody up. The detective (Moore) who’s been on his trail for years feels that she’s getting close to breaking the case, thanks to the presence of an eyewitness (Dane Cook) who might turn out to be as certifiable as Mr. Brooks himself. The film’s first half is powerful stuff, thanks to the unique setup (presenting Mr. Brooks’ alter ego as a physical manifestation shouldn’t work, but it does), Evans’ moody direction and exquisitely matched performances by Costner and Hurt. It’s a shame, then, to see the second part go to hell, as the screenplay by Evans and Raynold Gideon gets out of too many narrative jams by relying on whopping coincidences.
Nothing less than depression set in when Ashley Judd went from being an extraordinary indie actress (Ruby In Paradise, Smoke) to a dull studio-hack heroine (Double Jeopardy, Twisted), so it’s gratifying to once again see her tackling offbeat roles. And in Bug, she has one of her most memorable parts yet; she plays Agnes, a lonely waitress who’s introduced by a coworker (Lynn Collins) to Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a quiet man who right off the bat assures Agnes that he’s not an axe murderer. Clearly, though, there’s something off about this brooding guy, but Agnes enjoys his company so much that she invites him to stay with her. This irks her thuggish ex-con ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr., about as menacing as a French poodle), yet even his threats seem irrelevant once Peter begins to complain about the insect infestation in her apartment. William Friedkin is still best known as the director of The Exorcist, but his work on this low-budget effort has more in common with the little-seen 1988 drama Rampage than with any of his slick studio pictures. Working from Tracy Letts’ screenplay (itself based on the latter’s Off-Broadway play), Friedkin maximizes the claustrophobic feel of the intimate surroundings while drawing suitably anguished performances from Judd and Shannon.
Shrek the Third***
Mike Myers may well be the star of the Shrek franchise, but he’s hardly the one whose character most vividly remains in the minds of moviegoers. For the 2001 original, Eddie Murphy earned the lion’s share of the positive notices for his vigorous vocal work as the obnoxious donkey sidekick (even if it was just a reworking of his vigorous vocal work as the obnoxious dragon sidekick in Mulan). And for the 2004 sequel, it was clearly Antonio Banderas as the debonair Puss In Boots who emerged as the cat’s meow. In Shrek the Third, both the donkey and the kitty have largely been neutered, and the film’s makers didn’t bother to introduce any compelling new characters to pick up the slack (Justin Timberlake’s Arthur and Eric Idle’s Merlin certainly don’t cut it). The result is a step down from the first two flicks in the series, though the drop isn’t nearly as precipitous as its detractors will insist. Shrek (which somehow beat Monsters, Inc. for the first Best Animated Feature Oscar ever handed out) and Shrek 2 (which stands as the third all-time top moneymaker) were amusing enough, although the impersonal style of animation, rapid succession of instantly dated pop culture references and fondness for scatological humor always left me a little cold. Shrek the Third brings the exact same ingredients to the table, only what’s offered feels more like leftovers.
28 Weeks Later***
What is it about the zombie flick that brings out the social critic in filmmakers? George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead subtly touched upon racism, while his Dawn of the Dead was a glorious exploration of mindless consumerism. Decades later, Danny Boyle used 28 Days Later to examine the unchecked spread of SARS, Anthrax and, given the time and the film’s English setting, even mad cow disease. Now, here’s Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) tackling the sequel (Boyle remains as an executive producer). He’s made a zombie yarn that also serves as a condemnation of American military might in Iraq. Yet let’s put aside the sociopolitical context for a minute: Taken strictly as a full-throttle horror film, 28 Weeks Later delivers the goods. Set (as the title implies) months after the original film, this finds the virus still affecting folks throughout the British Isles. But efforts at containment eventually succeed (i.e. “Mission accomplished”), and slowly the survivors start over in a self-contained city, all under the eye of the U.S. military. Naturally, a security breach occurs, the zombies start overrunning the city, and the American troops begin indiscriminately killing everyone in sight, whether they’re zombies (read: insurgents) or humans (read: innocent Iraqi civilians). Moviegoers can take or leave the message beneath the mayhem, but what’s on the surface for everyone to enjoy is an expertly crafted terror tale that’s heavy on the jolts and morally complicated when it comes to several of its characters.
The legendary Katharine Hepburn was occasionally too brittle for my taste, but watching Georgia Rule, it’s hard to picture anyone else in the role of Georgia, a family matriarch who runs her household the way a drill instructor lords over greenhorn recruits. It would have been a tailor-made role for Hepburn 30 years ago, since she would have brought to the part the necessary balance of outward rigidity and inward serenity. Instead, it’s Jane Fonda who awkwardly fills the role, and, on the heels of her disastrous return to the screen in Monster-In-Law, it’s clear that the career resuscitation isn’t going exactly as planned. Fonda’s Georgia is a one-note shrew, and one of this schizophrenic movie’s greatest failings is that it never acknowledges that it’s this woman’s puritanical behavior which started the chain reaction partly leading to the miserable circumstances that plague her daughter Lilly (Felicity Huffman) and her granddaughter Rachel (Lindsey Lohan).
The appeal of Spider-Man has always reached far beyond the comic book crowd: He’s become an icon of enormous proportions, a larger-than-life figure who, in the superhero genre, is matched perhaps only by Superman and Batman. With this in mind, director Sam Raimi and his scripters have fashioned three Spider-Man flicks that have all managed to remain true to the spirit -- if not always the letter -- of the comic series. None have reached the giddy heights of, say, 1978’s Superman or 2005’s Batman Begins, but they have all achieved what they set out to do: provide solid entertainment for the summer movie crowd. On the domestic front, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) find themselves struggling with relationship woes, while on the battlefields of NYC, Spider-Man must face off against the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Venom (Topher Grace), a resurgent Green Goblin (James Franco), and his own dark impulses. ç
With so many spandex hijinks going on, it’s a wonder that the movie isn’t wall to wall with pounding action. But with a generous running time of 140 minutes, Raimi is able to occasionally slow down the pace and allow more introspective moments to take center stage.
Hot Fuzz ***
The team that brought us Shaun of the Dead -- writer-director Edgar Wright, writer-star Simon Pegg and costar Nick Frost -- now take a shot or 12 at the police procedural with Hot Fuzz, a funny if distressingly overlong comedy that also manages to evoke memories of The Wicker Man, Plague of the Zombies and other spooky yarns centering on eccentric villagers inhabiting the less-traveled paths of the British Isles. Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a dynamic, by-the-book cop who’s so efficient at nailing the bad guys that his three superiors (cameos by familiar English actors) ship him off to the remote hamlet of Sandford so he won’t keep embarrassing the rest of the London force. Upon arriving in Sandford, he realizes that his commanding officer (Jim Broadbent) is a flake and his peers are morons, although he does strike up a friendship with Danny Butterman (Frost), a well-meaning cop who finds spiritual guidance in the movies Bad Boys II and Point Break. But a string of accidents convinces Angel that some dark secret exists in Sandford, and he enlists the bumbling Butterman to help him get to the bottom of the mystery.
One of the weakest adaptations yet of a Philip K. Dick story (“The Golden Man”), Next is most notable for how it shunts the vibrant, 46-year-old Julianne Moore off to the sides while it gives 43-year-old Nicolas Cage a noticeably younger love interest in 25-year-old Jessica Biel, basically filling the same function as she did in last year’s The Illusionist, which is serving as girlfriend-pawn to a magician hoping to keep her out of harm’s way. Cage’s Cris Johnson actually uses his Vegas “magic man” act to cover up the fact that he can see two minutes into his own future and therefore shape his destiny to his liking. Cris considers his gift a curse, but FBI agent Callie Ferris (Moore) believes it can help her locate a Eurotrash terrorist outfit plotting to destroy Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb. Into the mix walks Liz Cooper (Biel), a teacher who’s been frequently appearing in Cris’ visions and who might hold the key to... well, something; the movie never bothers to elaborate.
For the most part, Hollywood has grown so inept at staging whodunits that it’s a blessing to come across a film like Fracture, which lets audiences know from the outset that he-done-it. The “he” in question is wealthy engineer Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), who has just exacted his revenge on his cheating wife (Embeth Davidtz) by firing a bullet into her brain. With the identity of the villain in place, Fracture can then borrow a page from the Columbo playbook, by following the protagonist as he tries to piece together the details of the crime. But the lawman in this picture is a far cry from Peter Falk’s lovably rumbled detective. In a role that Richard Gere might have played in past years (indeed, Fracture director Gregory Hoblit previously oversaw Gere in a similar part in 1996’s Primal Fear), recent Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) portrays Willy Beachum, a hotshot attorney who’s used to winning and who agrees to prosecute Ted because, hey, the man has already signed a confession, right? But in his arrogance, Willy has underestimated Ted, and it’s a disastrous move that might end up costing him his burgeoning career.
Meet The Robinsons *1/2
Imagine The Incredibles made by profiteers and that’s pretty much Meet the Robinsons in a nutshell -- it’s not surprising that, like Chicken Little (to name but one dud), this is Disney operating without the safety net of John Lasseter and his Pixar team. This obnoxious film focuses on obnoxious Lewis, an orphan whose contraptions are coveted by an obnoxious villain.
Blades of Glory **
Will Ferrell’s Chazz Michael Michaels, a coarse sex addict who’s also an unlikely skating champion, mines the same comic territory as most Ferrell performances ranging from Talladega Nights to Anchorman and beyond. Since Ferrell is only playing variations on a theme, it’s costar Jon Heder (of Napoleon Dynamite fame) who provides most of the modest chuckles.
Positioned as the Ultimate Fanboy Movie, this adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel is indeed ferocious enough to satisfy basement-dwellers with its gore, violence and chest-pounding machismo while savvy enough to downplay the homoeroticism that will ever-so-subtly cause heretofore unexplained stirrings in the loins of these same armchair warriors. ç