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More than equals its predecessor.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest does the right thing as a sequel: It maintains the same carefree spirit of the original and creates an even more fitting story to the whole Pirates lore. After narrowly escaping the gallows--with the help of his friends Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley)--and reclaiming his cursed Black Pearl, it still seems Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has a few more fish to fry. More specifically the barnacle-encrusted undead on board the ghostly Flying Dutchman, lead by Mr. Octopus Face himself, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Jack apparently owes a blood debt to the inky captain and if he can't find a way out of it--namely locating the secret contents of Jones' famed locker--Sparrow will be doomed to eternal damnation and servitude in the afterlife (insert Jack Sparrow's face of disgust here). Making matters worse, Sparrow's problems manage to interfere with the wedding plans of Will and Elizabeth, who are forced to join Jack on yet another one of his misadventures.
Depp's Oscar-nominated performance as Captain Jack is still a marvel in slovenly pirate behavior, with his slurred speech, swaying swagger and slack, waving arms. But whether channeling famed Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards or not, it's the duality of the character that continues to intrigue us. He is a lusty, fearless man with a deeply defiant and somewhat sneaky streak but whose delicate features, long, dread locked hair, Kohl-rimmed eyes and almost girly mannerisms give him a subtly effeminate air that belies his macho antics. This time around, young Brits Knightley and Bloom have a little more to do, with Elizabeth's growing attraction to Jack and Will's reunion with his father, Bill "Bootstrap" Turner (Stellan Skarsgård), who's soul is stuck on the Flying Dutchman. And Nighy (Love Actually) once again makes his mark as an effective villain, infusing his rather quirky acting ticks--the laconic delivery, the laid-back attitude--which shines through all the special effects make-up. Let's just say, Nighy certainly rivals Depp in the arrogant rock star stance, even if he has tentacles for a face.
The other thing Dead Man's Chest does right is make things bigger and better. From a hair-raising sword fight on top of a spinning water wheel to the way Davy Jones and his crew look--all water logged and crustacean-like--the film's production value is simply amazing. Returning producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski make sure the action sequences, the sets, the costumes, the make-up and the special effects give the audience a familiarity to the original while also taking them on a whole new adventure. And if you are a fan of the Disney park attraction (the one at Disneyland, not Disney World), the elements that got missed in the first one--the creepy bayou, the beating heart in the treasure chest--are in this sequel. Dead Man's Chest does lag a bit from time to time, especially in heating up the Jack, Elizabeth and Will love triangle. But that's OK. We enjoy watching their banter, as much as we do the rest of it. And for those who'll want more adventure after the movie ends, Dead Man's Chest gives us a promise the third installment will be just as much pirate fun.
'Furious' will have hearts racing
As expected, it doesn't take long for ''The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" to hit the gas.
As the film opens, we meet Sean (Lucas Black), the new kid at a Southern high school who's harboring a need for speed. After Sean ruffles the feathers of a resident jock (Zachery Ty Bryan), a scantily clad girl suggests, ''Why don't you boys let the cars do the talking?" And so the adrenaline rush begins.
''Lost in Translation" with a driver's license, the third installment of the popular franchise takes its car chases and souped-up engines to the Far East. Fans of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker will miss the tough-talking duo, but the mean streets of Japan deliver some action-packed goods.
Of course, don't expect more than a load of eye candy and the regular rumbles. The flashy drama begins when Sean is shipped to Tokyo to avoid jail time and live with his strict, military officer dad (Brian Goodman).
Making nice with the tough crowd, the American befriends Twinkie (Bow Wow), an army brat with a car that looks like it came straight out of ''Pimp My Ride." It isn't long before Sean is taking test drives with a new set of wheels, not to mention getting on the bad side of the mafia-affiliated DK (Brian Tee) and falling for his girl, Neela (Nathalie Kelley).
Directed by Justin Lin (''Better Luck Tomorrow"), ''The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" is injected with testosterone and saturated in masculinity. Branded a gaijin (Japanese for foreigner), Sean tries to master the driving skill of drifting while trying to impress his crush and settle the score with DK and his crew. What's the best way to solve the world's problems? Racing, of course.
Sure, it's not the wittiest, smartest or most memorable piece of cinema. But the film delivers everything it promised: loud music, loud cars and a whole lot of glitz.
American Dreamz (2006)
Fortunately when the movie does remember to be funny, it's very, very funny.
There's so much going on in "American Dreamz" that it's no wonder it sometimes forgets to be funny. You'd lose focus, too, if you had to execute parodies of reality TV, terrorism, the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, western consumerism, and "American Idol," all in one film. Fortunately, when the movie does remember to be funny, it's very, very funny.
Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) is the host and sole judge on "American Dreamz," a hugely popular "Idol"-esque TV show about to begin a new season. But Tweed, bored, barbaric and British, wants to shake things up this year. He orders his staff to ensure that an Arab and a Jew are among the competitors, and when the president of the United States says he wants to appear as a guest judge for the finale, well, that should be good for a laugh, too.
The president is Joseph Staton (Dennis Quaid), a recently re-elected Bible-thumper who does whatever his chief of staff Sutter (Willem Dafoe, in a Cheney/Rove bald cap) tells him. But Staton, experiencing something of a mid-term mid-life crisis, has actually started reading the newspapers and thinking for himself. In fact, he's so ensconced in the world of current affairs and book-learning that he hasn't appeared in public in several weeks, leading to rumors he's had a nervous breakdown, and prompting Sutter's efforts to get him on "American Dreamz." Meanwhile, the early front-runner in this year's "Dreamz" is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a perky-as-punch Ohio blonde who can turn on the charm in public as easily as she can turn on the connivery in private. In that respect, she is the soulmate of Martin Tweed, and the two find kinship in their duplicitous black-heartedness. This distresses Sally's boyfriend William (Chris Klein), a semi-wounded Army volunteer whom she's dating solely because it looks good on TV to have a boyfriend who fought in Iraq.
But what about the Arab and Jew Martin requested? The Jew gets shortchanged (as do a lot of the film's story elements), but the Arab is front and center. He's Omer (Sam Golzari), a bumbling but sweet former terrorist-in-training who was exiled by his Iraqi handlers to live with his cousins in America. Omer was never cut out for terrorism anyway; he prefers singing and dancing. Nonetheless, when his handlers tell him to use his "Dreamz" appearance -- and the presence of the U.S. president as a guest judge -- to further the cause, he has no choice but to obey.
Yes, writer/director Paul Weitz has his hands full here, and "American Dreamz" isn't as accomplished or smooth as his "American Pie," "About a Boy" and "In Good Company." (It's better than his Chris Rock misfire "Down to Earth," though.) While it's never boring, some scenes do feel like they ought to be funnier, or at least end more succinctly.
It's also a shame to see so many great characters and subplots underused. Omer's Americanized Iraqi cousins, led by the great Shohreh Aghdashloo; John Cho and Judy Greer as Martin's assistants; "SNL's" Seth Meyers as Sally's snaky agent; Jennifer Coolidge as her opportunistic mother; Marcia Gay Harden as the First Lady -- any of these roles could have been enhanced. There's a line between memorable supporting characters who serve their purpose and then disappear, and great supporting characters who make us feel like their scenes were deleted. This film crosses that line.
But it's the most outrightly satirical thing Weitz has done, and he demonstrates a real knack for it. The scenes mocking "American Idol" are hilariously accurate, from the types of contestants (the black diva, the prettified white boy, the wannabe rocker), to the drippy songs they choose, to the audience's fanatic devotion.
Hugh Grant is never better than when he's onstage as Martin Tweed, a perfectly unctuous TV airhead. He's not as charming in the offstage scenes as we like our Hugh Grants to be, but what can you do? He's working with Mandy Moore, for crying out loud.
Which brings me to an important point. The film is being marketed to Mandy Moore's demographic, but that audience will not enjoy it. They won't appreciate the multi-layered satire at work. The preview audience I saw it with often didn't even realize the jokes WERE jokes, let alone how funny they were. Besides, Moore's character is a scheming vixen, not the sweetheart her fans are used to.
Curiously, the one truly sincere character in the whole thing is President Staton, played with fiendish glee by Dennis Quaid. Staton may be an uncharitable send-up of our real-life commander in chief, but at least he's honest. You see in his arc (he's the only character who has one) a hint of what has made Weitz's previous films so winning: that layer of heart underneath the comedy that drives the whole thing home.
Grade: B- 6/10
Scary Movie 4 (2006)
"By keeping the parody and humour so tightly focused, they've generated more laughter than any other movies this year.. so far.
The Scary Movie parody wagon has been rolling since 2000, when the Wayans Brothers pooled their considerable comedic talents and came up with a kitchen sink flick that riffed on mainly horror movies with just a little Matrix thrown in. The second Scary Movie, also from the brothers Wayan, riffed on The Exorcist, The Legend of Hell House, Poltergeist, Little Shop of Horrors, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, and Hannibal. Non-horror targets included Dirty Harry, Charlie's Angels, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and again, The Matrix.
A couple of years passed, and the directorial torch was passed to Airplane! genius-with-a-joke David Zucker for Scary Movie 3. Without Wayans, the genre widened a bit to add even more non-horror movie spoofs and much more current films. It was a box-office hit, so of course you knew what was coming
Scary Movie 4, with all the core regulars back in action, makes fun of War of the Worlds, The Grudge, The Village, Saw and Saw II, Million Dollar Baby, and Brokeback Mountain. With a better through-line connecting all the stories than its predecessor, Scary Movie 4 is a refreshing (albeit rank) addition to the series. Anna Faris and Regina Hall are back as the clueless Cindy Campbell, and the sex-crazed Brenda Meeks, respectively.
When Cindy takes a job as the caretaker of an elderly woman (Cloris Leachman), she runs into some scary ghosts with a grudge. But things start looking up when she meets her handsome new neighbor, Tom Ryan (Craig Bierko). Unfortunately, Tom is distracted by troubles of his own namely a bitter ex-wife, two clingy kids, and, oh yeah: An alien invasion, sparked by the ground-breaking appearance of the "iPods". When Tom, his family, and Cindy are forced to flee and find a way to beat the huge, deadly alien-machines, they take a few side-trips.
One such trip takes Cindy and her best friend Brenda into The Village, a place where time stands still and the resident blind girl (Carmen Electra) can't find the outhouse. Returnees from Scary Movie 3 include Charlie Sheen (spoofing Bill Pullman The Grudge; turnabout is fair play, so Bill Pullman is also in Scary Movie 4), Simon Rex, Leslie Neilsen as our Commander in Chief, and Anthony Anderson and Kevin Hart who've changed their Eight Mile tune to the Brokeback Mountain hoe-down/get down.
I was impressed not only by the logical knitting of the story lines (only Brokeback Mountain is forced to fit, but it's okay as a flashback), but by the attention to detail. The sets and set design, especially for The Grudge and Saw, are flawless and even the costumes are perfectly fitted to the characters for each skit.
The only bet they really missed was a zombie movie spoof (when Brenda returns from the dead The Ring curse killed her in Scary Movie 3 it's just glossed over).
Despite too much scatological humor (just a personal bias of mine), Scary Movie 4 is a laugh-out-loud funny, well-directed and well-acted comedy that's a perfect kick-off to the summer popcorn season. To say much more would spoil the surprises, so all I'll say is: If you like the Scary Movie franchise, be sure and catch this one on the big screen.
16 Blocks (2006)
Willis at his best
Lethal Weapon" series director Richard Donner and wisecracking action-movie icon Bruce Willis shift down from the high-octane crime film spectacles that made their reputations for a thriller steeped in mortality and redemption. And lots of guns.
Willis plays NYPD burnout Jack Mosley, a detective shuffling through his job with equal parts apathy and inebriation. At the end of a long night shift, he's handed the "nothing job" of escorting small-time loser Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from lock-up to courthouse.
The loquacious Eddie actually is the star witness in a grand jury indictment against a corrupt cop that, apparently, could reverberate all the way up the chain of command. And sleepwalking Jack is the patsy in a conspiracy of fatal witness tampering led by his patronizing former partner (David Morse), a coolly duplicitous cop with a Mephistophelian air.
It's hardly a new story and Richard Wenk's script doesn't add much to the redemptive drama as Jack is roused from his moral coma and takes on what seems like the entire police force to get his man to the court alive by his 118-minute deadline.
The lean plotting, however, discards the cute twists and physics-defying superhuman feats that pepper so many American action films for a more down-to-earth drama. The real-time countdown provides tension and momentum and the physical repercussions of each violent collision gives it a semblance of credibility.
Willis is a long way from "Die Hard" here, playing the very vulnerable Jack with desperate determination and a panic barely held in check. And if Willis and Def lack buddy-bonding chemistry, they also discard the cliché of comic friction.
"16 Blocks" never quite transcends its origins as a high-concept action thriller, but the clean professionalism of Donner's direction, the low-key turn by Willis and the street-level heroics make it a satisfying piece of genre film-making.
Those looking for another "Lethal Weapon" franchise from Donner won't find it: There's no room left for a sequel here, just an ending that feels satisfying and right.
While "16 Blocks" may not last much past the month, it stands above much of what we've been offered this season. Hiding among all the uniforms and bullets, it turns out, is an actors' movie, and two actors more than capable of hitting their marks.