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Tuesday, November 12

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Normally, the idea of a sequel to a film no one on the planet expected to be both excellent and successful in the first place would be met with a great deal of skepticism. But a follow-up to the film that finally made Johnny Depp the mega-salaried movie star most people knew he should have been for years is much welcome in a summer that has yet to find a movie that everyone seems to agree kicks ass. Dead Man's Chest is the kick-ass, balls-out actioner we have all been crying for. Bigger is better, and this film has more spectacular stunts, some of the most incredible CGI effects ever created, and an actual complex, multi-storied plot that picks up right where we left off with the last film three years ago.

Several months after Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) set the pirate Jack Sparrow (Depp) free from his captors/executioners at the end of the Curse of the Black Pearl, the pair are arrested and imprisoned for their misdeeds. But holding them turns out to be a means for Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) to blackmail Will into tracking down the long-departed Capt. Sparrow and acquiring his magic compass. If Will refuses, he is told by Beckett, he and Elizabeth will be executed above the protests of Lizzie's father, Gov. Swann (Jonathan Pryce, who sadly is given very little to do in this film but fret). The first of much good news about Dead Man's Chest is that Will and Elizabeth are actually given interesting storylines this time around and are not simply used as props to act around and react to Depp's wildly loopy Sparrow. In fact, the three main characters each get their own storyline to commandeer, but ultimately each is after the same thing.

Sparrow discovers (or more to the point, he remembers) that he owes a blood debt to the seemingly immortal Davey Jones (the unrecognizable Bill Nighy), who captains the often-submerged but still very dangerous ship, The Flying Dutchman. Jack has no desire to spend the rest of his life and the afterlife in the service of Jones and his crew, so he barters a deal with Jones to trade 100 souls for his own. Among Jones' crew is Will's father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), who was only mentioned in the first film. Elizabeth manages to escape her captors, pose as a man, and get aboard a ship run by the East India Trading Company (history buffs take note). Although they may not always know it, all three main characters as well as Lord Beckett are after a key in Jones' possession which opens his locker (you know, Davy Jones' Locker) containing his still-beating heart. Whomever controls the heart, controls Jones and his formidable crew.

And let's talk about the amazing special effects extravaganza that is Jones' crew. Apparently not able to die and because they spend so much of their time under the water, ready to pop out and plunder ships on the surface, each member of the Dutchman's crew has taken on characteristics of different sea creatures. The head of Jones himself is almost entirely squid with moving and fully functional tentacles. Bootstrap Bill has a starfish covering one side of his face. Others have pieces of the ship embedded in their bodies. I could watch this entire film again just to stare at the craftsmanship and detail given to the look of these characters. Most times you can't tell where the makeup ends and where the CGI begins; that's assuming there is an makeup. It's that good. It's also really gross. Hee hee.

Another addition to the proceedings that I really dug was Naomie Harris (28 Days Later and the upcoming Miami Vice) as the voodoo priestess Tia Dalma, who advises the good guys on various aspects of their quest for Jones' locker. I suspect her role will be enhanced in next year's Pirates sequel, World's End (they shot 2 and 3 back to back). One of the better returning characters is Elizabeth's ex-fiancée James Norrington (Jack Davenport), who has fallen on hard times since he allowed Sparrow to escape in the last film. He proves to be far more effective and devious as an unemployed former commodore than he did with the title.

As with Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man's Chest lets the action do most of its talking. There are some unbelievably elaborate stunt events here that defy description or logic. The sequence involving some of the characters fighting in a water wheel rolling through the jungle is particularly spectacular and damn hilarious.

But Johnny Depp remains our focal point as always. When he is on screen, the film is as good as it gets. What I liked about his portrayal this go-round is that he hasn't softened; if anything, he's gotten more ruthless. At one point, he willingly plots the death of Will Turner because it keeps him out of trouble. He lies without regard for consequence and, when he's caught in a lie, he doesn't even bother to lie about why he lied in the first place. Returning director Gore Verbinski refuses to let this series get stale and goes out of his way at times to keep things moving and kinetic, despite the film's two-and-a-half-hour running time.

Dead Man's Chest is not only better than the first film, it's better than any action film I've seen this season or this year. Character development isn't at the center of this endeavor (as it is in, say, Superman Returns), but it's not entirely disregarded either. Let's face it folks: this is the one you've been crying for this summer. And for once, we get a sequel worthy of the original and another to get excited about. By the way, Dead Man's Chest has one of the greatest cliffhanger endings of all time, and make sure to stay through the end credits for a little surprise. Gentlemen, your women will be unable to resist both Depp and Bloom in one movie, so you might as well go with it.

A Scanner Darkly

Sometimes a science fiction film doesn't have to look or feel like science fiction. Sometimes it can be something so gloriously unlike the thing it is that you abandon the conventions of science fiction and just let yourself get lost in the splendor of the experience. A Scanner Darkly is just such a blessed event.

I'm not much of a science fiction reader, I'll admit. So my only exposure to the works of Philip K. Dick has been the films adapted from his novels and short stories. Obviously films like Blade Runner, Minority Report and even Total Recall are well worth repeated viewings, while Imposter and Paycheck should have been aborted before shooting started. For the first time, however, the appeal of Dick's work finally makes sense to me with A Scanner Darkly. And all it took was writer-director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Sunrise/Sunset) and his team of wonderful animators (many of whom worked on Linklater's Waking Life) to make Dick's dark and twitchy vision finally make it to the big screen with such conviction.

Keanu Reeves hits exactly the right note — between stoner and authority figure — playing Bob Arctor, an undercover cop in the "near future" working on busting a drug ring in Orange County, California. He's so deep undercover that his coworkers don't even know what he looks like thanks to fantastically realized full-body suits that constantly shift faces and clothes so that it's impossible to tell whether the person inside is either male or female. This effect would be nowhere near as dazzling and awesome if Linklater had chosen to go with traditional special effects. The animation brings the entire screen to life, sometimes nightmarishly. In one opening sequence, an acquaintance of Reeves named Freck (Rory Cochrane) believes there are bugs crawling under his skin and we see it in all its nasty glory. This phenomenon and many other hallucinations come courtesy of a new drug that has surpassed all others on the street, one that has you addicted from the first time you take it and one that eventually does serious brain damage to long-term users. Bob Arctor is just such a person.

The story of A Scanner Darkly is loose and free-floating. Sometime we're not even sure what's 100 percent real and what's drug-induced visions. I'm pretty sure that a whole host of paranoid tweekers revolve around Arctor, including James Barris (magnificently played by Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and the lovely Donna (Winona Ryder), who hates to be touched, which must suck for boyfriend Bob. For a film that is entirely animated (using the interpolated rotoscoping process, by which Linklater shoots his film on digital video, edits it like regular film and hands the finished product over to his animators to overlay their magic on top), A Scanner Darkly is heavy on discussion, contemplation and druggie speak. And I'm not complaining. The film doesn't rely on its visuals, despite being a highly visual experience. Linklater gives our minds as well as our eyes something to feast upon.

This is not to say the film isn't on the confusing side at times, especially for those of us unfamiliar with the source material. Still, the confusion is eventually resolved, and the movie not only wraps up most of its storylines intelligently, but it throws in a few genuine surprises just to expand our brain that much more. More a living, breathing comic book/graphic novel than a standard animated film, A Scanner Darkly is a twisted and smartly realized take on that police-state future that all potheads fear. Cameras are everywhere, watching everything, and the police want nothing more than to shut down your supply. I particularly liked the scenes between Arctor and the police scientists who are looking for evidence that he has started suffering brain damage from his undercover drug use. We assume these sequences are legit encounters, but... well, nothing is quite what it seems here. This is one of the year's best, folks. Hop to!

Strangers with Candy

Although I've enjoyed the work of humorist Amy Sedaris for years on late night talk shows, I never really got into her Comedy Central series "Strangers With Candy." And after seeing the screamingly funny feature film "prequel" to the series, I see the error of my ways. Netflix, here I come!

If there's a way for a character to be both charming and foul at the same time, Sedaris' Jerri Blank is such a creature. A 47-year-old, misshapen former junkie-whore recently out of the slammer, Jerri returns to her hometown after a 32-year absence to find her father (Dan Hedaya) has slipped into a coma. Jerry decides that picking up her life where she left off decades earlier will somehow revive her father and better her own life. So it's back to high school for Jerri, where she meets all of the characters familiar to fans of the TV show.

I was blissfully ignorant going into Strangers that recent presidential roaster Stephen Colbert was one of the creators, writers and co-stars of the series (as Jerri's closeted science teacher Mr. Noblet), so I was tickled pink to see him doing a variation of the self-obsessed persona he adapted for the "Daily Show" and his own "Colbert Report." Colbert's tortured lover is the school's art teacher Mr. Jellineck (Paul Dinello, another show creator/writer and the film's director). The movie's plot concerning Jerri and her fellow outcast students trying to win the school science fair is hardly worth mentioning. It's simply an excuse to let Jerri mangle the English language as she passes down a lifetime of ill-gotten knowledge to the other students. What is worth mentioning is the scene-stealing Greg Hollmon as Principal Onyx Blackman, who strangely enough is a black man.

Strangers with Candy also gives celebrity fans of the show a chance to show their love by making a mixed bag of cameos. Probably the best among them is Matthew Broderick as Roger Beekman, a former student and science fair winner brought in by a nasty bunch of students to help "guide" their project and beat out Jerri and her friends. But appearances by the likes of Ian Holm, Allison Janney, Sarah Jessica Parker, and recent Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman(!) only add to the fun and sickness of it all.

Sedaris seems like one of those performers who is just on the verge of hitting it big, which may not necessarily be a good thing. Her brand of stanky humor would be completely out of place on network television or in mainstream Hollywood films. The fact that it took Strangers with Candy two years on the shelf to finally get a release makes my case for me. But as long as she keeps producing quality gross-out bashes like this one, she'll always have at least one person willing to seek out her work.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

If you followed my explicit instruction from a couple of weeks ago and went to see Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, you may have asked yourself as you walked from the theatre "What can I do to help reduce global warming?" Well, strangely enough in the 1990s, a group of engineers and car manufacturers actually did develop a consumer product that would have revolutionized car emissions issues forever. But unless you lived in California, you probably had almost no exposure to electric car technology, and this extraordinary film from first-time feature director Chris Paine explains exactly how this groundbreaking technology was literally crushed out of existence by a combination of pressures from oil companies, big auto, state and federal government and a healthy dose of consumer skepticism and apathy.

As narrated by Martin Sheen, this film walks us step by step through the creation of the modern electric car, which was spearheaded by General Motors (whose EV line was the most popular) and its then-chairman Roger Smith... as in Roger & Me Roger Smith. For a fleeting moment, I thought Michael Moore may have been harsh on good-old Roger, but the film soon begins to detail the counter-productive efforts that GM and other auto makers made to sabotage zero-emissions laws put into place in California. Essentially, the state said that if car dealers wanted to sell cars in California, 10 percent of all cars sold had to have no emissions. This was a bold and much-needed step toward environmental protection in the notoriously polluted state. By simply waiting out the deadline, filing class action suits against the state, and claiming that consumers were not willing to buy these short-range, plug-in vehicles, the car companies forced state legislators to kill the law.

But the film doesn't stop there. In fact, there were long waiting lists for these electric cars thanks in large part to celebrity endorsements from the likes of Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks and many others interviewed in the movie. Former GM employees who worked in EV sales and marketing talk extensively about how the parent company burned them at every turn in trying to sell more cars. Actually the cars were not sold but only leased, which seemed mysterious until EV was shut down and all the cars were recalled and ultimately crushed and shredded. Grassroots groups tried to stop GM and others from this car genocide to no avail. Strangely enough, the Bush administration and the oil companies are currently backing hydrogen fuel cell technology, which is decades away from even being used let alone being an inexpensive alternative to combustion engines.

Perhaps even moreso than the Gore documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? paints a fairly bright picture for the future of economic automotive technology, naming the plug-in hybrid car as the next step in reducing America's oil addiction. It also serves as a link between current hybrid cars and the extensive battery works that were the basis for electric cars. Yes, this is yet another documentary that will probably piss you off and add just a little more fuel to your spiteful feelings toward the current administration, but the film presents its facts in a more light-hearted, only slightly cynical manner that doesn't leave you outright depressed and scared. It covers a lot of the same global warming ground that An Inconvenient Truth does, but leaves us hopeful that Americans will get on the ball and avert a major environmental crisis.

Islam: What the West Needs to Know

In recent years, we've been inundated with documentaries that feel more like one-sided propaganda meant to sway our opinions (and our votes). But the new film Islam: What the West Needs to Know is an entirely different kind of monster. And I'm not sure what scared me more: the "facts" set forth in this film or the fact that it's actually being released today in Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. As a straight documentary, the film is rather flat, relying almost entirely on a small group of scholarly talking heads and some narrated passages from the Koran. But the film makes up for its bland presentation by setting forth some alarmingly one-sided views on the nature, origins and practice of Islam around the world.

What I'd thought would be a balanced approach to the subject of Islam and practicing Muslims is, in fact, a film that actually attacks political leaders of the United States and the UK (including George W. Bush, Tony Blair and other familiar faces) who have portrayed the majority of the world's Muslim community as law-abiding and Islam as a "peaceful" religion. The educated men interviewed for this film (many of whom are Jewish) say the these leaders are wrong and that Islam from its birth is a religion built on fear and terror, dating back to the warlord approach to leadership used by Mohammad himself. And today's Muslims, according to this film, use violence, beheadings, and other terrorist tactics against all non-practitioners of the Islam religion.

I'm not saying the film doesn't make its case. There are undeniably passages throughout the Koran that talk about killing non-believers and about dying in the fight to establish Islam as the world's only religion (essentially the thought behind suicide bombers going to Paradise). And I'll admit, that 95 minutes of relentless case-making is enough to make you question your beliefs about anything. But the film lacks a dissenting voice, or even a practicing Muslim to make the case that these other pundits are exaggerating their beliefs. Perhaps they're not, but since there's no one in this movie to tell me different, I approach anything they say the way I would anyone with a very clear agenda.

Believe me, no one was more surprised than I that I wasn't 100 percent behind a film attacking the current administration. But to attack an entire religion seems almost unreal. It felt like some black-market offering that you'd find on a white supremacist web site. I should have known when the distributor contacted me directly rather than going through a local marketing firm that something weird was up. Nobody wants to touch this potentially offensive work, which is why I'm shocked to say that if you want to see for yourself an example of free speech in all its glory, Islam: What the West Needs to Know is opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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