Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Walt Disney Pictures). Elvis Mitchell says aye-aye to this "hip slice of summer ham"; the action comedy—based on a Disney theme park ride—stars an especially "game—and gamy" Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp. "Rush chews the scenery like so much Dentyne," but most critics reserve their praise for Depp's "truly piratical" scene-stealing. The former Don Juan DeMarco mixes some Keith Richards and a little Cher ("in her 'Gypsy, Tramps and Thieves' period") for a "totally fey, past androgynous" look and a "faintly English, slightly swish and drunkenly slurred" accent. Rick Groen of the Toronto Globe and Mail envisions Depp atop "the winning float in a Gay Pride parade—the Caribbean pirate as limp-wristed lush." But the New York Post's Lou Lumenick dislikes the film's "punishing length," and L.A Weekly's Scott Foundas arghs that the sword fights have "no forward thrust, no death-defying grandeur." And Kenneth Turan dismisses the film as a "veritable checklist of lumpy pirate clichés" including "talking parrots and references to Davey Jones' locker." (Read David Edelstein's Slate review.) (Buy tickets to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.)
The Effect of Living Backwards, by Heidi Julavits (Putnam). In a much-hyped article in the Believer magazine, Julavits called for a book culture that would encourage experimentation; some critics find this Alice in Wonderland-inspired novel, about two sisters on a hijacked plane, entirely too experimental. The plot, filled with "sly, intertextual nods" and looking-glass images, is "nothing more than an intellectual exercise," explains the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Jean Dubail, and the characters—"just a bunch of weirdos"—act with "impenetrable motives." But the Village Voice's Jessica Winter empathizes with the weirdos, including the "lonely, awkward" Lorrie Moore-ish protagonist who's prone to "compulsive witticisms." Taylor Antrim also enjoys the sisters' "savage and funny" relationship and praises the author's "unrelenting creative detail." Those details bog down Newsday's Stephanie Zacharek, however: "What happens when a book is filled with so much microscopic looking that … we find ourselves marveling … that a writer would spend any time at all reflecting on the special properties of scalp gunk?" (BuyThe Effect of Living Backwards.)
Banzai(Fox). Fox's parody of a Japanese game show—simultaneously "the freshest idea in summer reality programming" and "an idiot's oasis," hails the Denver Post's Joanne Ostrow—is "hardly what you would call ethnically or culturally sensitive." Segments such as the Old Lady Wheelchair Chicken Challenge ("wheelchair-bound ladies play chicken") and a soccer shootout between a one-legged kicker and a one-armed goalie are presided over by a "maniacal host with the stereotypical Japanese accent." But in the Salt Lake Tribune, Vince Horiuchi belly-laughs that the "equal-opportunity offensiveness" is part of the charm; plus, the half-hour show is over "before you realize you might be insulted." "I'm ashamed for laughing at it," confesses theNew York Post's Linda Stasi, "but I can't help it."
The Probable Future, by Alice Hoffman (Doubleday). "Could be an episode of Oprah: Good Witches Who Love the Wrong Men," explains the Oregonian's Susan Wickstrom, who nevertheless finds Hoffman's prose "often lovely" and her frequent descriptions of nature "spellbinding." On the horticultural tip, the New York Times' Janet Maslin disagrees: The "overgrown ivy of Ms. Hoffman's prose can make this a smothering experience." The author's 16th novel—about three generations of women with supernatural powers—leaves "no thread untied," says Janice P. Nimura; whether giddy love-struck adults or adolescents struggling with puberty, the characters "take their bows in happy pairs," but Nimura is happy to traverse this "familiar Hoffman territory," where "sweetness" is "balanced by deft touches of the gothic." The Hartford Courant's Susan Dunne also finds Probable a good read, though she calls the book devoid of "surprise, suspense and unexpected character development." And Catherine Newton in the Dallas Star Telegram finds sifting through "so many, many, many bee references," just plain "annoying." (Buy The Probable Future.)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen(20th Century Fox). "Extraordinary is the very last adjective that comes to mind" to describe this "yawningly second-rate" adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel about a team of crime-fighting superheroes pulled from fin-de-siècle British fiction. "In a way, LXG is extraordinary," offers the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington, who emphasizes the film's many "soporific" explosions: "It's an extraordinary waste of time and an astounding piece of incoherent storytelling." Historical inconsistencies abound, including an inexplicable appearance by Tom Sawyer and a "scene involving a high-speed automobile." Drawing attention to the "playful intelligence and rakish wit" of the source material, the L.A. Times' Manohla Dargis decides that "Comic books aren't giving movies a bad name—it's the reverse." But she passes up the chance to play the scold; despite the artistic disappointments of Daredevil and The Hulk, this latest example "seems too inconsequential to worry over for long." (Buy tickets to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)