60 posts categorized "fantasy"


'Batman v Superman' -- Superheroes, superbattle, superboredom

Why can't these guys just get along? (Courtesy: Warner Bros.)

Look, up on the screen, it’s Superman and Batman!

On second thought, don’t bother.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the umpteenth Batman or Superman big screen adventure, is straight out of the What Else Can We Contrive to Make Big Bucks Department.

Two DC Comics superheroes battling and rolling around in the mud with the ferocity of teeth-clinched, squabbling presidential candidates?  At first I didn’t get it all.  After a little research, it seems that the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have gone at it before in the comic book pages.

A lot of times, in fact.  But now that I get it, I don’t want it.

Ben Affleck, who can act despite some poor project choices (Gigli, Jersey Girl), does all he can for a guy trapped behind a Batman mask and limited to a seething guttural growl most of the time.  Batman to Superman: “Tell me, do you bleed?  You will.”

British actor Henry Cavill, back in the cape and with a big S on his chest after Man of Steel, has the chiseled facial features commonly associated with Superman.  Cavill’s lack of even a trace of facial flexibility, however, makes me think of him more as The Man of Rock.

This film’s two best actors, Amy Adams (American Hustle) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), do all they can to make the most of their screen time.  In a film where digital set pieces dominate, though, Lois Lane (Adams) and a young Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) are used merely as brief buffers to move things along to the next mega-rumble in the cement jungles of Metropolis and Gotham City.    

Honestly, I even cringe a little at the title.  Batman v Superman?  Are we to believe this is some kind of legal battle before the Supreme Court?  Nope, just a little clever title trickery from our friends in Hollywood, who, by the way, would like very much for you to spend your money and one tick over two and a-half hours of your life watching Batman and Superman throw each other through walls in the rain.

Zack Snyder (300), back in the Superguy director’s chair after Man of Steel three years ago, does an OK job of stringing together explosive special-effects set pieces.  But’s that’s all we’ve got here, except for a little monster mashing that’s been done often and better in other fight-to-the-finish extravaganzas like the Transformers franchise.

I’m thinking the best battles may have occurred in the writer’s room.  Hard to believe, I know, but there may have been one.  Chris Terrio, an Academy Award winner for his Argo script, which starred Affleck in 2012, and Davis S. Goyer, who penned Man of Steel and other Batman flicks, are credited as screenwriters here.

If you’re hoping for even a trace of character depth, plot development or more than a smattering of dialogue to explain what the fuss is all about, don’t bother looking in this sky or lighting up the Bat Signal.

Call this one Batman v Superman:  Yawn of Justice.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (violent action, some sensuality)

151 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  1½ (out of 4)


Serkis goes 'Ape,' Franco not so much

Monkey see, monkey do a major banana pile of damage in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Like perhaps you, my first thought when I heard about a resurrection prequel to the "Planet of the Apes" cinematic library was something like, "Take your stinking paws off a new 'Apes' script, you damed dirty bottom-line profit guys."

All of that changed for me when it began to become apparent that the performance capture work in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is equal, if not superior to, James Cameron's sci-fi space adventure "Avatar" (2009).

Set in modern-day San Francisco, "Rise" predates the Charlton Heston "Planet of the Apes" primate-dominant sci-fi series of 1968 to '73 and Tim Burton's 2001 re-boot starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter.

Scripted by the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver ("Eye for an Eye," "The Relic"), the new adventure goes ape with man toying with the human mind and, as you can guess, screwing everything up.

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) thinks he's discovered a brain-restoring drug that will end the horror of Alzheimer's, which his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from.  Things go bad at the lab, though.  A dog-and-pony show for investors yields one dead prize chimp and a scrubbed cure for damaged human brain cells.

Without giving too much away, let's just say that Will takes his work home in the form of a baby chimp and continues his work in secret.  If movie scientists could somehow pay attention to what other movie scientists learned before, Will could have screened last year's "Splice" and saved himself -- and perhaps all mankind -- some major grief.

The baby chimp, inheriting "bright-eyes" smarts from his mama, is named Caesar and is portrayed in stunning motion-capture glory by great Brit Andy Serkis, the most amazing actor you probably have never seen.

Not his face, anyway.  In a motion-capture performance, the actor wears a suit covered with electrodes to monitor every body movement.  They are attached to the face as well, then the computer wizards electronically add the character's image around the human actor's performance.

When it's done right, as Serkis has done as Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as the title character in "King Kong" (2005) and especially here, the process is quite spectacular.

The old "Planet of the Apes" films had significant things to say about big issues (man destroying his home planet, for instance).  The ape suits, however, took away from the impact of the story.

What director Rupert Wyatt ("The Escapist") and senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri (a four-time Oscar winner) do here is make great use of film making technology that has finally caught up to the visual needs of the story.

From this aisle seat, the only drawback is Franco as Will.  He was a dud as co-host of the Academy Awards earlier this year and Franco (an Oscar nominee for "127 Hours") is about as non-interesting here.  

I liked Freida Pinto OK as Caroline, the love-interest primatologist.  And Lithgow is fine as the mentally withering dad.

But Franco.  I don't know.  He seems to be slow-walking through this one.

Overall, however, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" lives up to the title.  And once you see the ending of this film, you'll likely have second thoughts about ever wanting to face a monkey on the Golden Gate Bridge.


'Smurfs' up!

If you're about 5, which I am give or take a half-century or so, "The Smurfs" frolic across a movie screen in eye-popping 3-D like Snow White's blue-tinted Dwarfs on holiday in a far, far away place called New York City.

Those slightly older than that might detect more than a little similarity to the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" franchise.

It's refreshing that this big-screen re-tooling of the TV cartoon "Smurfs" of the 1980s is aimed at kids.  Even though human adults co-mingle with the magically transformed Smurfs in a modern day Big Apple, there's no attempt at dual-aged comic appeal.  You know, jokes that appeal to the target kiddies and others aimed at kids' parents, who generally tag along to movies like this.

The story is simple enough.  In an attempt to avoid peril at the hands of evil  wizard Gargamel (talented Hank Azaria with a shaved head and prosthetic buck teeth), a six pack of tiny Smurfs are sucked through a magic portal and deposited in a stream in Central Park, New York, Earth.

Gargamel and his hissing cat Azrael soon show up as well, and the race is on.  But Papa Smurf (voiced with serious wisdom and wit by the ageless Jonathan Winters) and Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) manage, quite by accident, to land in the apartment occupied by a nervous ad exec (Neil Patrick Harris) and his good natured wife named -- what else -- Grace (Jayma Mays).

There's not really anywhere to go in a family comedy featuring main character a little over seven inches tall that the Chipmunks haven't already ventured, of course.  But director Raja Gosnell ("Scooby-Doo," "Beverly Hills Chihuahua") and a handful of screenwriters keep the mayhem coming.

The little blue dudes and one, only one little blue lady (Smurfette, voiced by Katy Perry), are adequately computer-generated and in 3-D (in select theaters).

Harris ("How I Met Your Mother" on TV), proving versatile enough for almost any show biz situation, fully commits to his plight of playing second fiddle to a handful of little blue, well, handfuls.

"The Smurfs" turns out to be fun for the entire family, whether you're a kid or a parent watching your child giggle at the silliness.

But what do I know?  I'm this many (holding up four fingers and a thumb), give or take a half-century or so.


'Harry' goes out with a bang-up finale

Now an adult, Harry Potter prepares for the ultimate battle with Lord Voldemort not as a child but as Mr. Wizard in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2."

Harry's still quick to hop a broomstick for a quick escape when danger zeros in, as it often does in the eighth and final cinematic outing for the phenomenally successful witchcraft-and-wizard novels from J.K. Rowling.

A bit of disclosure:  I was keenly anxious to see what all the "Harry Potter" fuss was about when the first novel, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," delivered three young wizards-to-be to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in November of troubled 2001.

The original was captivating fun because everything was brand new.

It was as if Rowling and director Chris Columbus were opening up a cinematic theme park and inviting children of all ages to embrace the mirth and myth of the dark arts.  For good, of course, as far as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and gal-pal Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) were concerned.

My interest waned more with each increasingly dreary episode through the years, however.

Now, 10 years after it all began cinematically, Harry and his dark lord nemesis Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) face off in what can best be described as a wandfight at the Deathly Hallows corral.  One will die, then live.  The other will live, then die.

If you've been to the movies more than three or four times in your life, I'm thinking you can figure out how this thing's going to turn out.  The good news is that the outcome i's not the important factor in "Deathly Hallows -- Part 2."

British director David Yates, who has called the shots on the final four "Potter" yarns, saves the best of the best for the final episode.  Or should I say the final half episode, since "Deathly Hallows -- Part I" set the stage for the grand finale last November?

Anyone who visits this space on a regular basis knows that I'm not generally fond of sequels.  This one, however, rocks the movie house.

Full of action, the parting shot erupts into a wild battle extravaganza with an extremely plus-sized hissing snake, giants who knock human-sized wizards and wizardettes aside as if they are croquet balls headed for a wicket and fireballs.  Lots of fireballs.

Fiennes manages to do some real acting behind his smashed-in nose as hissing, snake-like Voldemort.

Let's go ahead and put Fiennes, a two-time Oscar nominee ("Schindler's List," "The English Patient"), at least in the running for a supporting Academy Award nomination.  He turns in the best altered-schnoz performance since Jack Nicholson's in "Chinatown" (1974). 

I also like this performance by Radcliffe.  Grim and determined to out-wand evil Lord Voldemort, the boy who matured in front of all of us on movie screens over a decade treats the final outing as grand drama.

At one key moment, Harry asks "Is this all happening in my head?"

Of course it is, Harry/Radcliffe.  You've been in your head and ours for 10 years. 


'Transforming' monsters and movies

I'm sitting here wondering what the word "movie" even means these days.

It used to be much easier to discern.  A feature film was a combination of story, acting, direction, sound and some special effects (if necessary) that would occasionally erupt into something magical on screen.

"Transformers:  Dark of the Moon" is proof positive that eruptions still fill movie screens.  In fact, the grandly exploding fireballs and weapons of asinine destruction seem to increase in scope and intensity with each new weekend, especially in the summertime, when students and fan boys swarm to the latest barrage of pyrotechnics.

I thought I'd seen every source of material possible when the movie franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean" launched from a theme park ride.  There no longer appeared to be a need for a novel or a screenplay, or much acting, come to think of it.  Mugging into the camera became the name of the game.

But the theme park cinematic springboard was nothing compared to what's going on with the "Transformers" franchise, which is rattling the walls of your neighborhood cineplex as we communicate.

The "Transformers" series, you see, is inspired by clicky, clacky cars and trucks that can be maneuvered like kindergarten-level Rubik's Cubes into mechanical good aliens (Autobots) and very bad hombre aliens (Decepticons) that like to duke it out on Planet Earth.

The first two violence-riddled flicks were extremely successful at the box office, as I'm sure No. 3 will be as well.  Young movie-goers and aging fan boys have bought into the hype and often cheer as one giant former Chevy beats a former 18-wheeler into a bleeding pile of twisted metal.

Pardon me for coming from the position of a cynical old grouch film critic on this.  But I liked it better when kids played with toy Transformers (I prefer the term Go-bots) instead of movie studios toying with impressionable movie-goers and, perhaps (Just my theory) attempting to convince movie-goers that real plot development, accomplished acting and the like are Old School and thus something no longer of value.

We can accuse or thank producer/director Michael Bay for that, especially since he's called the shots on all three "Transformers" flicks.

Bay has no concept of when to cut an expensive special-effects laden scene.  So they drag on in the very definition of repetition for what appears to be forever, but turns out to be just an ungodly 155 minutes.

Mechanical space-alien blood flows freely in "Transformers:  Dark of the Moon."  And, guess what, it's red like ours.  I don't really grasp that concept.  I thought they would bleed oil, or maybe transmission fluid.  But I'm sure that's just something I missed in story exposition.  Oh, I forgot.  There isn't any (OK, there's a little).

The Transformers leave quite a mess behind as what appear to be generally American made cars and trucks morph into gear-grinding warring foes.  Despite their advanced technology, the Autobons and Decepticons battle with giant swords more than you might expect.

Shia LaBeouf is back for the third paycheck, excuse me, starring role as Sam Witwicky, friend of the good Go-bots.

Megan Fox, however, has been banished from the fold for, according to published reports, saying some unkind things about her director.  So in slinks Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly, Sam's new girlfriend.  Actually, she holds her own with the sparse dialogue in her first feature film and likely will return if she doesn't bad mouth Mr. Bay.

Sitting through more than two hours and a-half of clanking heavy metal like this, I tend to look for something positive; an oasis in a desert of destruction as it were.

That can be found in the scenery-chewing performances by excellent veteran actors John Malkovich ("Burn After Reading"), Frances McDormand (a Best Actress Oscar winner for "Fargo") and John Turturro ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?").  Somehow, Turturro has managed to brighten all three "Transformers" as an eccentric human element.

A movie like this must be judged not as a literary work turned into a motion picture, but for what it is.

I have no problem with that.  My lament is this:  "What is it?"


No ring of honor, but 'Green Lantern's' fun

In essence, the challenge for the main character in "Green Lantern" is exactly the same as the task for the filmmakers.

The degree of success for both depend chiefly on the imagination.  Imagine it well enough and it will happen.  If the anointed G. Lantern needs a chainsaw, for instance, he need only imagine one and it appears.

A winning comic book-to-big screen transformation, however, might not be so easily accessed.

The ability to make it happen is pivotal in a movie year when the long-vaulted and stashed away comic book character is the second superhero, of sorts, to go green.

Seth Rogen donned a black mask (oddly enough) as "The Green Hornet" back in January.  Now comes Ryan Reynolds, People magazine's reigning "sexiest man alive" as flaky-yet-fearless test pilot Hal Jordan.

Jordan, as any self-respecting action comic book fan knows, has a date with a mysterious, green-glowing ring brought to Earth by a dying member of the Green Lantern Corps.

"Green Lantern," scripted by a gaggle of writers, is directed with some pizazz by established filmmaker Martin Campbell.  Campbell has called the shots on a varied cinematic menagerie; two James Bond adventures (the "Casino Royale" remake, "GoldenEye"), a "Zorro" flick and edgy Mel Gibson in "Edge of Darkness."

Campbell doesn't elevate a comic book romp into near-Shakespeare as Kenneth Branagh did recently with "Thor," a twist admired from this aisle seat.

Instead,,"Green Lantern" lights up as a rather goofball slant on superherodom.  On a very busy day where Hal crashes a jet in a test pilot dogfight and arrives very tardy for a birthday party, he's abruptly whisked away in a green cloud to the scene of a recent alien ship crash site where the dying Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) is in a bit of a rush to pass on the ring.

Even though it gets somber at times -- there is, after all the reverent oath -- "Green Lantern" is mostly about being an escapism frolic that hits on enough entertainment cylinders most of the time.

Hal, being the first Earthling to join the forces that protect the universe (many looking like they just stepped out of the "Star Wars" bar), is, shall we say, a reluctant hero.  This will all come down to a battle of wills between the Green Lanterns and Parallax, literally a dark cloud of destruction that builds on fear and might just pay Earth a destructive visit.

The special-effects, which are primarily computer-generated (right down to the Green Lantern suit and mask), are top notch throughout.  Reynolds ("Buried," "The Proposal") is steady enough as Hal, and Blake Lively, who had more to do in "The Town," holds her own as Lois Lane.  Excuse me, as  Carol Ferris.

Comic book thrillers like this must, by definition, have someone to overact and chew the scenery.  In this case it's Tim Robbins as pompous Senator Hammond.  Peter Sarsgaard comes close to overdoing it as Hector, the senator's son.  But as Hector's involvement in the plot escalates, Sarsgaard wisely tones down his actions.

Bottom line, "Green Lantern" is a lively enough thrill ride around the universe.

Speaking of a thrill ride around the universe, though, a question:  If veteran Green Lantern-er Abin Sur requires a space ship to zip around the galaxies (and eventually crash-land in an Earth swamp), how is new recruit Hal Jordan able to soar solo without so much as a pair of goggles?

Enlighten me, oh mystic Green Lantern.  


Raiders of the lost art

I believe it's a film critic's duty to dive a little deeper into a movie than just to say, "Yeah, I liked it" or "It stunk".

For the most part, I did like "Super 8," the genre hybrid with equal parts sci-fi creature feature and a gushing valentine to kids stricken by the gnawing bug to make movies at a tender age.

I would not be fulfilling my obligation, however, if I didn't point out that writer-director J.J. Abrams, who called the shots on the "Star Trek" reboot prequel in 2009, grew up as a kid filmmaker.

And know this:  The near-legendary Steven Spielberg ("Jaws," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"), who also cut his cinematic teeth shooting 8mm flicks as a kid, is not only Abrams' champion and mentor.  Spielberg serves as a producer on "Super 8."  As noted in the press notes for the film, as such Spielberg and Abrams -- mentor and adoring (near-worshiping) protege -- spent countless hours sharing an editing room.

And, as it turns out, their creative force behind "Super 8" is joined at the hip.

Never mind that probably 90 percent of the target audience for this heartfelt coming-of-age teen adventure probably has no clue what Super 8 was.  Abrams and Spielberg know, and they force feed their loving memories of youth long past to audiences perhaps more interested in what's making a wrecked train boxcar shake and rumble than young artistes loading up an 8mm camera to make a zombie movie.

Anyone who knows Spielberg's impressive film library will be able to spot elements of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" all over "Super 8," and a little "E.T." as well.  

Abrams was a kid of 11 when Spielberg's "Close Encounters" hit movie screens in 1977.  Take a look at that one and you'll see Spielberg's stamp all over this one.  The "We're not alone" feel grows slowly as inanimate objects begin to move around.  The plot reaches a fever pitch as "Super 8" casts its heavy-handed spell.

Lonely, moody teen Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) is mourning the sudden death of his mother when events beyond his involvement in a neighborhood film project begin to turn tiny Lillian, Ohio into a madhouse in the summer of 1979.

There's the aforementioned train wreck.  And, as often happens on a movie set (even a neighborhood one), Joe is falling for the leading lady, a feisty tomboy beauty named Alice.  Elle Fanning, who was very good as a pampered actor's daughter in "Somewhere," is even better here.

When Alice is asked to cry during a scene in the zombie movie, Fanning doesn't just amaze her teen colleagues, she brings a respectful stillness to a movie audience in the dark that is rarely perpetuated by one so young.

"Super 8" goes off the deep end a little when it comes to the surprise in the boxcar.  Remind yourself that Abrams produced the bouncy-cam thriller "Cloverfield" in 2008, though, and you'll have a better understanding of what drives this one.

This is a film rich in subplots, such as a feud between Joe's dad (Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights"), a deputy sheriff, and Elle's father (Ron Eldard of "Black Hawk Down"), who's often at odds with the law.

The mother lode of riches comes from Spielberg's influence, however.  As the tension mounts, we get to see into a few houses of this Ohio steel town.  But not all of them.

The camera never takes us to the house where Richard Dreyfuss, or someone channeling his performance in "Close Encounters," is going crazy forging a model of Devils Tower, Wyoming out of mashed potatoes.


The new 'X-Men' has class, 'First Class'

Back before sequelitis hit epidemic proportions in Hollywood in the 1980s with the "Halloween," "Lethal Weapon" and "Indiana Jones" franchises, it was pretty much one-and-done for most big-budget movie stories.

Today's audiences, quite familiar with sequels, are witnessing the next step in prolonging bottom-line profit for tent-pole (blockbuster) flicks:  prequels.

The "Star Trek" and "Batman" franchises pulled off the out-with-the-old (tired stories, highly paid actors)-in-with-the-new (fresh stories, rising stars not yet demanding top dollar) re-tooling well enough.

Now comes the "X-Men" reboot, which I must tell you, is more fun and better conceived than most.

Gone are Patrick Stewart as telepath Charles Xavier/Professor X and Ian McKellen as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto, of course.  Three treks around the mutant trail were enough for them, or for the filmmakers.  (See above about star salaries.)

James McAvoy (Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto) head the cast in "X-Men:  First Class," an ambitious, well-mounted origin sci-fi adventure sure to please comic book and franchise movie fans with equal fist-pumping approval.

That's because "First Class" lives up to its subtitle all the way.  The ensemble cast of mutants, beginning with McAvoy ( "The Last King of Scotland," "Atonement") and Fassbender ("Inglourious Basterds," "300") and continuing with Jennifer Lawrence (an Oscar nominee for "Winter's Bone") as shape-shifting Raven/Mystique and Kevin Bacon ("Frost/Nixon") as one bad mutated World War II Nazi, is about as first class as a prequel can hope to be.

Without giving too much of the plot away, let's just say that it unfolds mostly in the 1960s, a time of racial (and mutant) prejudice and Cold War unease.

Director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Kick-Ass") and a handful of writers (including Vaughn and previous "X-Men" director Bryan Singer) weave the emergence of mutants into known human culture and the growing Cuban Missile Crisis seamlessly.

As I've written many times in this space, filmmakers taking on projects that require outlandish special effects are limited only by their levels of imagination in this age of computer-generated visual magic.

Like most -- no, make that all -- big-budget productions that pre-order eye-popping effects (an anchor chain cutting a luxury yacht in half, for instance) then try to form the story around the bedazzlement, this "X-Men" overdoes it a little.

Overall, though, this origin adventure should keep audience members on the edge of their seats.  McAvoy, the Scottish rising star, is quite playful at first as a twentysomething Charles Xavier of privilege.

Flip that coin over and German actor  Fassbender is equally effective as Erik Lehnsherr, the metal-bender who will, before this adventure concludes, be called Eric and reply, "I prefer Magneto."

I prefer "X-Men: First Class" to many of the prequels that have come down the cinematic pipeline.
"First Class" is at the head of the 21st century reboot class from this aisle seat.


'Pirates' of the all-too-familiaran

Most comedy-slanted adventure-thrill movies are like theme park amusement rides.

The good ones are exhilarating the first time, exciting and fun the second time around and decreasingly OK each time after that.

In the case of Disney's cash-cow franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean" featuring the wobbly swagger of Johnny Depp as 
amusingly narcissistic pirate-with-a-heart-of-ghostly-booty Capt. Jack Sparrow, it is exactly like that.

That's because, as almost everyone on the planet is aware, "Pirates of the Caribbean" reversed the usual movie trend.

Instead of a popular movie re-tooled as an amusement park theme ride ("Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye," for instance), "Pirates of the Caribbean" launched as a popular theme park ride and then made the jump to movie screens with Depp out front in 2003.

"Pirates of the Caribbean:  The Curse of the Black Pearl" defied the odds (Really?  A movie out of an amusement ride?) and swashbuckled its way to exhilarating status, not to mention financial treasure.

Movie treasure tends to not remain buried for long, though.  So "Pirates" set sail with sequels in 2005 (subtitled "Dead Man's Chest") and 2007 ("At World's End").

The key word in the title of the 2007 model was "world."  No one said "At Franchise's End."

So this weekend the masses will no doubt line up for "Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides," the latest variance on a fading theme.  On as I prefer to put it adding a snake's hiss, the third s-s-s-s-s-s-sequel.

If "On Stranger Tides" came out of the moviemaking chute first, it would have been -- if not quite exhilarating -- plenty good as a comedy-adventure thrill ride.  

Depp, of course, owns the Capt. Jack Sparrow character so well that when his familiar face is slowly revealed hiding under a judge's wig, the audience greets him with anticipation and glee, as if he's a long-lost weird uncle returning home with expensive gifts.

"Pirates 4" is all about a race to find the Fountain of Youth.  Exceptional actor Ian McShane (Al Swearengen in the "Deadwood" TV series) joins the cast as legendary pirate Blackbeard and is, as you might expect, outstanding.

Penélope Cruz, an Academy Award winner (supporting) for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," cuts a wide acting swath as Blackbeard's daughter Angelica.  Cruz replaces the departed  Keira Knightley, and is not exactly anyone's definition of a helpless ingénue.

There's no lack of action, or cool pirates costumes or, of course, Depp mugging into the camera.  The beautiful but bloodthirsty mermaids are a welcome addition, actually.

And new director Rob Marshall (Oscar nominated for the musical "Chicago") keeps things sailing along at a decent pace despite the film's overlong voyage of two hours and 21 minutes.

The highly touted 3-D element, though, is not worth the cinematic E-ticket premium price.  All you'll get is a sword or two that appear to be thrust right at your nose.

"Pirates" also sails this time without Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and, more importantly, director Gore Verbinski, who called shots on the first three adventures.

And, oddly enough, the fourth time around is actually based on something other than a theme park ride.  This screenplay, once again written by "Pirates" regulars Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, incorporates Tim Powers' 1987 novel  "On Stranger Tides."

Once the screenwriters throw the usual "Pirates" suspects (Capt. Sparrow, et all) into the mix, however, the subtitle should read:  "On Familiar Rides."


The Norse god-man who fell to Earth

"Thor" rumbles to the screen sporting hunky rising star Chris Hemsworth from Australia, Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman and Mjolnir, a battle hammer flung down to New Mexico from a Norse mythology god heavens above.

Director Kenneth Branagh is the guy who really puts the fantasy-drama hammer down, though.   Despite the impressive pedigree of the actors, Branagh, the Academy Award-nominated star and director of "Henry V" in 1989, brings at least the feeling of Shakespearian weight and importance to what in reality is a popcorn fantasy action-hero flick born from a Marvel Comics book launched in 1962.

"Thor," like his Marvel cousin "Superman," goes for some somber seriousness in between moments of action-on-steroids.  "The X-Men," "Fantastic Four" and especially "Iron Man" franchises appear in it solely for fun (and, of course, profit) in their bombastic cinematic incarnations.

With a script by a trio of writers and a story by former "Thor" comic scribe J. Michael Straczynski, Branagh tailors "Thor" as Shakespearian by way of Norse mythology:  Hopkins blurts his lines regally, yet with a bluster as Odin, the king of Asgard.  He's war weary, aged and battle-scarred.

In fact, Odin sports an eye patch sort of like Rooster Cogburn's in "True Grit." It's more John Wayne than Jeff Bridges, though.

The classic story pits brother against brother.  And, wouldn't you know it, the king is ripe for assassination.  That's Shakespearian enough to put Branagh in his filmmaking comfort zone.  And the Irish born filmmaker/actor doesn't let us down.  

For those of you who haven't been grabbing every "Thor" comic book to hit the racks since the early '60s, know that Thor (Hemsworth) gets on his royal daddy's bad side on the very day he's supposed to take over the throne.  Brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) may have a little to do with stirring up the Frost Giants across the Rainbow Bridge.

Thor is banished to Earth, where, without his powers, he must fall for a fetching young research scientist (Portman) and eat an entire box of Pop Tarts before even going to a local New Mexico diner for breakfast.

"Thor" is magnificently staged by production designer Bo Welch ("Men in Black"), an Oscar nominee four times over.  It loses a bit of its larger-than-life fantasy voyage buoyancy due to the unnecessary 3-D, which was retro-fitted into a film hardly in need of a plastic-glasses gimmick.

This is an engaging story, even if you're not a comic book-to-big screen fanboy.  That's the best news.

Serious movie lovers will appreciate the way Portman, just off-pointe after completing production on "Black Swan" (her Best Actress Oscar winner), brings a nice balance of science nerd and eligible female.  Even a dedicated scientist can't help noticing how well a pair of earthly jeans hang on a fallen Norse god, apparently.

Hemsworth, who played Kirk in the 2009 "Star Trek" do-over, gets to display a little acting range as he mingles with the Earth-bound humans and gets in a shouting match or two with Papa Odin (Hopkins).

Much of the time, though, it's hammer time for Hemsworth.  He slings it well in a special-effects comic book action flick that'll thrill, grab the heart and even remind some of what a comic book designed by Shakespeare might look like on a movie screen.

To see, or not to see.  That's not the question.

Go.  Eat overpriced movie snacks.  Enjoy some intelligent silliness for a change.