It's summertime, the time of strongly-airconditioned moviegoing, and thus Ticket Stubs:

* While honeymooning in the Berkshires (awwwww), Nat and I took in two silent era classics at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington -- I'll send you to his review, and just add that I think there's a place for live orchestration in modern films too...wouldn't it be cool to watch The Godfather or Chinatown or even Back to the Future with a live score? And for god's sake that is not a reason to bring these films to Broadway. By the way, if you ever get a chance to see the 1922 Grandma's Boy, watch out for the Attack of the Kittens! (A+)

* Pirates of the Caribbean 2 -- I dub thee, The Empirate Strikes Back! A little darker, a little moodier, with more characters, more conflict, eye-popping visuals and a giant cliffhanger? Yup, that sounds like an inadvertent homage to The Greatest Sequel of All Time. Except with pirates, and not in space. I was delightfully overtaken by the first movie -- the power of low expectations at work again. Considering it's based on a theme park ride, it's even more amazing now that the second film has built up these characters and their surrounding lore in such a winning way. Johnny Depp once again provides the wonky center to an overstuffed plot as Capt. Jack Sparrow, the unrepentant (or is he?) pirate rogue in trouble with an evil pirate honcho, in this case the nearly unrecognizable Bill Nighy as Davy "Octopussy" Jones. The romance once again falls by the wayside as Keira and Orlando merely try to keep up with Jack, trailing the jaded Commodore and new baddie Tom Hollander (who appeared opposite Keira in another film of late) in their wake. Intriguing little plot threads are introduced, but flit past without enough time to take root -- what is the deal with Will's dad? Is Elizabeth in love with Will or the pirate life? To whom do those boots belong? The ride would have been smoother with less plot told more slowly, but then, what kind of amusement park ride would that be?

Once the film found its stride in some cleverly goofy action sequences, I was hooked -- sure, it could have used a 40-minute trim, but I said the same thing about King Kong and I wasn't bored or grossed out for a minute here. The special effects were truly awesome, delightful and at the same time a little distracting since I could not stop tallying how much they must have cost to pull off ("That guy is made out of coral!"). It's not just that one or two characters had splendid effects, every single one did, down to the last barnacle and beribboned ponytail. LOTR and TV shows like Lost ushered in an age of carefully deployed fx to embellish a minimal shooting set; here we get both blazing fx and old-school locations, extras, and set pieces. Aside from Pirates 3, I don't know if we'll see many more movies with this kind of deep-pocketed lavishness -- Disney bet the farm on this movie, and despite its success I think it's more of a high-water mark (ha!) than a signpost to future blockbusters. In fact, my recommendation for the third installment would be to chop 15% out of the fx budget, and pick the best 6 out of 10 sequences, instead of spending enough to make them all look good (not that I didn't appreciate that, since Chronicles of Narnia really suffered from selective cheapy-tude), because it turns out there really is too much of a good thing. After all, Empire clocked in at 124 minutes and left us desperately wanting more. And look how that turned out. Avast! (A-)

* Strangers With Candy -- Either you get the Sedaris family, or you just don't. If you don't, do not see this movie. I went with two gals who'd never seen the Comedy Central show it's based on, and they fared OK, but that's not wholeheartedly recommended either. It's the story of 46-year-old Jerri Blank, who returns to high school after 30 years in jail for drug-fueled mayhem, and burns down the Science Fair while rocking out to Indonesian gamelan music. Along the way, she and her nerd posse fend off the closeted Christian science teacher (played with aplomb and rage by Stephen Colbert), her stepmother's "meat man," and learn absolutely no life lessons. She is a foulmouthed sex maniac with abominable table manners ("Next time you stick a hand in my chow space, you're pullin' back a bloody stump") and a lipstick-stained overbite. Love it! Extra points for Principal Onyx Blackman's fearless sauna scene, complete with salt scrub, burning eucalyptus oil, and a black Speedo. (B)

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