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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST (PG-13) Most of the elements that turned the original Pirates of the Caribbean into a surprise hit are in place here, retooled in a more lavish, frenetic Indiana Jones-ish manner that invites us to slam-gaze through an array of exotic locations, head-hunting cannibals, voodoo priestesses, swordfights, bad teeth, brawls, lots of swashbuckling pirates and, of course, zombies, zombies, zombies. This sequel achieves an admirable fusion of adventure, romance and horror that's similar to but not quite as effortless as the brew cooked up by the first film, with fabulous special effects but a story that comes off less like a crisply shaped narrative and more like an assortment of North by Northwest-inspired wild, wild goose chases in which various friends and foes collide while scurrying after a series of red herrings and holy grails. As with the summer's other recent blockbuster, Superman Returns, Pirates is too long by at least a half-hour and takes its sweet time getting going, but once that final hour kicks in, the movie takes off and doesn't look back. The stunts and battles of Pirates get bigger and better, finally achieving serious forward momentum, and the movie's impact finally catches up with its inflated budget. Stars Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hollander and Jonathan Price. 3.5 stars

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (PG-13) The off-kilter yet pleasantly homespun America on display in this good-natured collaboration between Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor isn't really a story so much as a series of riffs, routines and odd ends that add up to considerably more than the sum of their parts. Then again, you might also say that the film's collection of small moments, tall tales and off-the-cuff anecdotes is nothing but story. Like so many Altman movies, this one is a wash of detail without concrete beginnings or ends, covering everything from love and death to sugar rushes and shoplifting. A Prairie Home Companion takes place on the set and behind the scenes of a long-running radio variety show in the process of broadcasting its final program. The show's musical guests, comedians and commentators compose a sort of family, both on stage and off, and Altman flits between observing their public performances and the backstage feuds, flings and foibles. The comparisons to Nashville are unavoidable, with A Prairie Home Companion playing like a scaled-down, less ambitious version of that 1975 Altman masterpiece crossed with the more recent and frivolous The Company. The ensemble cast seems to be having a great time together (the chemistry between Harrelson and Reilly is particularly inspired), the overlapping dialogue is quintessential Altman, and most of it plays out in a way that's as effortlessly natural as it is enjoyable. Stars Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Virginia Madsen, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly and Lindsay Lohan. 4 stars

STRANGERS WITH CANDY (R) Jerri Blank, the anti-heroine of Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy, was a fortysomething former junkie, sex worker and high-school dropout starting life over where she left off: as a freshman. Alas, the big-screen "origin story" will disappoint the show's admirers and befuddle everyone else. Jerri (co-creator Amy Sedaris) returns home after a lengthy stint in the big house to discover her beloved father (Dan Hedaya) in a coma. When a doctor notices that Jerri's presence makes her dad more responsive, she moves back in and re-enrolls at Flatpoint High, hoping to make her father proud. The TV show's bright, deadpan tone caused viewers to breeze right through its hit-and-miss humor, but on film it proves to be underlit, arbitrary and at times agonizing. Sedaris' oversized mugging and awkward body language seem better suited for kabuki theater than a movie comedy. Stars Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert. 2 stars —Curt Holman

SUPERMAN RETURNS (PG-13) What to do with a ridiculously old-fashioned icon in these jaded, post-postmodern times? Why, make him an even more iconic icon, of course. Superman Returns is classy pop art that pushes every heroic anachronism and narrative inconsistency of the Superman mythos to its outer limits, then steps back and dares us to deny it. Taking up pretty much right after 1980's Superman II, Superman Returns meticulously recreates the spirit and particulars of Richard Donner's first two Superman outings, with our hero (a slightly wooden Brandon Routh) back in action after a prolonged absence — only to discover former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, also wooden) hooked up with another man, and perpetual arch-enemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, putting a slightly more sinister spin on Gene Hackman's version) waiting in the wings. There's certainly fun to be had here, but Superman Returns takes such a reverential approach to its famous hero that he sometimes seems like an insect in amber, and consequently the film floats as often as it soars (it doesn't help that the pacing of this 2 1/2-hour opus is a bit dodgy, particularly in the beginning). But when the movie does get down to business, all is forgiven, with spectacular special effects sequences and elegant cinematic poetry that lifts Superman Returns several notches above standard popcorn fare. As superhero movies go, Superman Returns isn't quite the success story of Batman Begins (although both films reinvent the wheel by getting back to basics), but it makes a solid case for the continued relevance of Superman and his franchise. Also stars stars Parker Posey, James Marsden, Frank Langella and Eva Marie Saint. 3.5 stars

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