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DEAD MAN'S CHEST: Another subtle performance from Johnny Depp.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
dir. Gore Verbinski

The first Pirates of the Caribbean film rose from the ashes of low expectations, dragged up from its dubious theme-park origins by a subversive and hilariously twisted performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. What should have been un film stupide turned into one of the few surprises of 2003.

Now comes the midsection of the trilogy, which picks up shortly after the first film ended. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest finds nearly everyone involved in the original installment back on the high seas, this time in an attempt, whether they realize it or not, to save Captain Jack's soul from the squiddy clutches of one Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). It's the expected romp: swords are clashed, cannons are fired, and many a quip is unsheathed. But what's missing this go-around is the genuine surprise of the first film.

So much of Dead Man's Chest is a reaction to the original's success that all the originality has been ironed out of the franchise. Capt. Jack remains a truly weird invention, but now everyone around him is trying desperately to keep up, and what's left is a film so amped up it flirts with being cartoonish. By the time Capt. Jack pole-vaults over a canyon, only to plummet a thousand feet through a handful of suspension bridges, only to land square on his back without garnering a scratch, you expect Wile E. Coyote to fire off another missive to ACME. Over-long and over-produced, the film's booms are big, the performances decent, and the ending the requisite cliffhanger, but the overall effort is uninspired. Which is bad news, since part three is just one year away. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Road to Guantánamo
dir. Michael Winterbottom

With regard to genre, subject matter, and the crucial ability to sustain a viewer's interest, director Michael Winterbottom has long been the opposite of consistent. Perhaps you enjoyed the Factory Records–inspired 24 Hour Party People—but then you probably cringed through the insufferable rock 'n' roll sex study 9 Songs. Winterbottom's oeuvre also includes meta literary adaptations (Tristram Shandy), wanton formalist experiments (I Want You), and sci-fi weirdness (Code 46). He has a knack for visuals and for being erratic. For a number of years, that was pretty much all you could say.

In his political dramas, however, Winterbottom has hit upon a vein of moral outrage that can't be undermined by compulsive postmodern antics. The 2002 film In This World, about human trafficking, was amazing because its scenario performed an essentially documentary function. Even if these particular traumas didn't happen to these particular people, the horror endemic to human smuggling—the cruelty of heat and claustrophobia and potentially fatal neglect—is real.

In Road to Guantánamo, Winterbottom's newest film, the line between documentary and fiction gets even hazier. The story is based on the on-screen testimony of three British men, known as the Tipton Three, who were nabbed in Afghanistan and held without charge at Guantánamo Bay for over a year. Their story is complicated and confusing (and involves being tricked into jihad by an imam who speaks loftily of humanitarian work in the land of the Taliban), but never mind. The film's real substance is its straightforward illustration of Rumsfeld-approved torture tactics at Guantánamo Bay. These sequences are not for the queasy—it's one thing to read a torture directive quoted in a newspaper, quite another to see it enacted in living color—but this brand of horror is purposeful, timely, and important. ANNIE WAGNER

A Scanner Darkly
dir. Richard Linklater

What is the core truth of this film based on a Philip K. Dick short story of the same name? That those who are making us sick are selling us the cure. Capitalism is not progressive; it does not move from a lower condition to a higher and better one, but is circular. By purchasing the commodity of labor, it manufactures commodities that will be consumed by those who must sell their labor as a commodity to buy commodities. The whole business is sinister. And before you can do anything about it, before you can challenge a system whose logic is at work not only in formal markets (the health-care sector) but also in informal markets (the underground drug trade), it's too late—the system has got you hooked for good.

That is the substance of A Scanner Darkly, a film made by a director, Richard Linklater, who believes in his own importance, who believes he has the imagination to navigate a massive work of pop art toward a simple but devastating truth. But the only devastating thing you will find in this film, and others he has made, has to do with disappointment rather than revelation. (The film's conclusions are identical to the ones reached by Solyent Green in 1973.) I don't care for the cinema, the suburban existentialism, of Linklater.

It took nearly 50,000 hours to animate A Scanner Darkly: 500 hours for every minute that transformed real actors (Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson) into animated ones. And that, in the end, is the best thing about the movie. The content is weak, but the feat is amazing. Don't watch this movie for any other reason than to see the mass expenditure of labor. CHARLES MUDEDE

Strangers with Candy
dir. Paul Dinello

There are three ways to turn a TV show into a movie, but only two of them actually exist. The first is to fuck it up spectacularly and waste everyone's time. (Bewitched,anyone?) A second method is to expand the show beyond its original medium, using cinema's unique strengths and qualities to craft something new and transcendent. Don't get all excited—this has literally never happened. The final option is to make an enjoyable if unremarkable extended episode with a few big-screen bells and whistles and enough winky in-jokes to keep the fans happy. Strangers with Candy sits comfortably in this third slot, and—since option two is essentially fictional—I'm happy to consider it a rousing success.

A prequel to the three seasons of grotesque, unparalleled genius that aired on Comedy Central in the late 1990s, Strangers with Candy finds Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), ex-junkie-prostitute, released from prison at age 46. She heads home to find her daddy in a grief-induced coma, and decides (in an unabashedly strained plot contrivance) to return to high school, win the science fair, and rouse him with a blast of fatherly pride.

Much is familiar in the SWC universe. Mr. Jellineck (Paul Dinello) still pines for Mr. Noblet (Stephen Colbert). Principal Blackman still stares in effigy from every surface. Jerri, as always, is still "moist as a snack cake down there." But the pointlessly A-list supporting cast, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Philip Seymour Hoffman, contributes nothing; and the jokes lack some of the original's unbridled, surreal bite. Even Jerri herself seems strangely glossed: her lumpy, legendary, bottom-only fat suit seemingly lipo-ed for the big screen.

That said, who gives a care? The SWC team is magical. I would TiVo a tampon commercial by Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello. I would pay to watch Amy Sedaris floss her teeth. So an extra 97 minutes of an adequately hilarious Strangers with Candy episode? I'm not complaining. LINDY WEST

The Gang's All Here
dir. Busby Berkeley

Often spoofed but never equaled, the output of director/choreographer Busby Berkeley still stands out for its dumbfounding use of color and shading, breathless pre-Steadicam swoops, and, above all, the groupings of leggy women that only becomes geometrically coherent when glimpsed directly overhead from a reasonable height—the third moon of Jupiter, say. Eye-popping and pleasurably exhausting in similar measures, his films carry the same compulsive zing of an ice-cream headache.

The Gang's All Here, Berkeley's rarely seen 1943 soldier-on-leave love triangle, is, it must be said, not the gentlest introduction to the director's work, with a plot and lead performances that fail to register above the general din. Such faults ultimately pale, however, before the fruit-bewigged force of nature that is Carmen Miranda, here handily trumping both Chico Marx and Perfect Strangers' Balki for sheer ethnic malapropisms per minute. Her presence, combined with a number of set pieces showing the director at his most berserk (Neon hula hoops! A chorus sung by severed heads!), results in a film that blows past mere kitsch into some strange sort of Technicolor Benadryl fugue. I mean, really, a nightclub teeming with real live monkeys is delightful/horrifying enough, but when the chorus line starts waving around six-foot-tall plaster bananas? Blinking is no longer an option. Buy war bonds.

Northwest Film Forum will keep things hopping with next week's presentation of Berkeley's relatively restrained 1933 masterpiece (as choreographer only) 42nd Street, in which a scene-stealing Ginger Rogers proves perfectly capable of holding her own minus Fred. More intriguing still is the following week's Kaleidoscope Eyes: Songs for Busby Berkeley, a retrospective medley of the director's best sequences with a new score composed and performed live by Stranger Genius recipient Chris Jeffries. Live monkeys not guaranteed, sadly. ANDREW WRIGHT

 

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