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Spider-man III (***)
      Shrek the Third (***)
      Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (***)

Reviews by Rick Norwood

The three summer blockbuster threequels are not as bad as the reviewers would have you believe. They are, to praise them with faint damns, the best genre films so far in 2007. (The only better movies in the first half of 2007 are the family film Bridge to Terabithia and the historical drama 300.)

So, three stars each for Spider-man 3, Shrek the Third, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The bad news is that none of these is as good as the second film in the series, which in turn was not as good as the first. To find a film trilogy that actually improved in the third film, you need to go back to The Return of the King, and before that to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

All three films have first rate acting, cinematography, animation, and special effects. It is in the story department that they fail. None of them tells a satisfying story, though for three very different reasons.

Principal Cast
Tobey Maguire -- Spider-Man/Peter Parker
Kirsten Dunst -- Mary Jane Watson
James Franco -- New Goblin/Harry Osborn
Thomas Haden Church -- Sandman/Flint Marko
Topher Grace -- Venom/Eddie Brock
Bryce Dallas Howard -- Gwen Stacy
Rosemary Harris -- May Parker
J.K. Simmons -- J. Jonah Jameson
James Cromwell -- Captain Stacy
Theresa Russell -- Emma Marko
Dylan Baker -- Dr. Curt Connors
Bill Nunn -- Joseph 'Robbie' Robertson
Bruce Campbell -- Maître d'
Elizabeth Banks -- Miss Brant
Cliff Robertson -- Uncle Ben Parker
Spider-Man 3 Spider-man III, (***)
directed by Sam Raimi
written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, and Alvin Sargent, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

This movie had the potential for being the best Spider-man movie ever. But Sam Raimi just couldn't resist ladling in too many helpings of Christian and patriotic imagery. When the crowd cheers for Spider-man, we start to feel a surge of emotion. The American flag kills that. It is too much, too unnecessary, and too unrelated to Spider-man's triumph. He's not saving America, he's just saving his best girl. And Spider-man did not need to be clinging to a cross when he tears off his black uniform. He's not acting as a Christian here. For all we know, he's Jewish.

Worse, both of these symbols recall earlier superhero films, in which the same symbols were used to good effect. In Superman II, the Man of Steel was restoring America when he returned the American flag to the White House. In Daredevil, the cross Daredevil clings to is a reminder of his Christian upbringing. In Spider-man, both symbols are painfully out of place.

The redemption of Harry Osborn would have made a satisfying climax. When Raimi adds the forgiveness of the brutal murderer Sandman to the mix, "I've made some mistakes, too. Go and sin no more.", instead of responding emotionally, we sense we are in the presence of hypocrisy, that this is not an event that grows out of the character of Peter Parker, but is a cynical attempt to use our most personal and powerful emotions to sell us popcorn.

There is a great film somewhere inside Spider-man III, crying to get out. It is too bad that market forces mitigate against a director's cut that is twenty minutes shorter than the original release.

Principal Cast
Mike Myers -- Shrek
Eddie Murphy -- Donkey
Cameron Diaz -- Princess Fiona
Antonio Banderas -- Puss in Boots
Julie Andrews -- Queen Lillian
John Cleese -- King Harold
Rupert Everett -- Prince Charming
Eric Idle -- Merlin
Justin Timberlake -- Artie
Shrek the Third Shrek the Third, (***)
directed by Chris Miller, Raman Hui (co-director)
written by Andrew Adamson, Howard Gould, Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, J. David Stem, David N. Weiss, and Jon Zack, based characters created by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger S.H. Schulman, Cody Cameron, Chris Miller, and Conrad Vernon, and a book by William Steig.

In the weakest of the summer blockbusters, the problem is too many writers and not enough story. Prince Charming, even backed up by all the other fairy tale villains, is not a strong enough bad guy to build any credible suspense. The much praised bra-burning brigade comes to nothing, plotwise. And at the climax, essentially Shrek says "Boo" and everybody falls all over themselves to turn over a new leaf. The greatest menace in the film is dirty diapers, and as a father of five I can testify that changing diapers is just part of the routine of taking care of a baby, not the horrible, disgusting experience that Hollywood invariably makes it out to be. If you missed this one, you didn't miss much.

Principal Cast
Johnny Depp -- Jack Sparrow
Geoffrey Rush -- Barbossa
Orlando Bloom -- Will Turner
Keira Knightley -- Elizabeth Swann
Jack Davenport -- Norrington
Bill Nighy -- Davy Jones
Jonathan Pryce -- Governor Weatherby Swann
Lee Arenberg -- Pintel
Mackenzie Crook -- Ragetti
Kevin R. McNally -- Gibbs
David Bailie -- Cotton
Stellan Skarsgård -- 'Bootstrap' Bill Turner
Tom Hollander -- Lord Cutler Beckett
Naomie Harris -- Tia Dalma
Martin Klebba -- Marty
Ratings are based on Rick's four star system.
One star - the commercials are more entertaining than the viewing.
Two stars - watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars - good solid entertainment.
Four stars - you never dreamed viewing could be this good.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (***)
directed by Gore Verbinski
written by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, and Jay Wolpert

There is a lot to like here, much that is exciting, beautiful, clever, and touching. The trouble is that there is too much that is confusing, time wasting, pointless, and muddled. It is not that I doubt director's Gore Verbinski's assurance that if you watch the trilogy through often enough, it all makes perfect sense. I believe him. I just don't think it is worth the time and trouble it would take to figure it all out. It was his job to give us enough clues so we could following the action the first time. I often complain when lazy film reviewers criticize a film for making the audience think. Thinking is fun. David Lynch's Dune, for example, baffled some critics, but my pre-teen daughters were able to follow the story with no trouble at all. But if Shrek has too little plot, Pirates has too much plot.

The film starts with a chilling, touching scene. But then we get a long exposition that is singularly unhelpful in telling us what has gone before or what we should be looking forward to in the story to come. Even worse, the characters we left at the end of the second film are in the Far East trying to get a ship. The question that kept bothering me was: if they didn't have a ship, how did they get to the Far East?

Ah, well, this is probably the best of the three blockbusters, and I'll certainly want to see it again. There are some terrific action sequences that Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. would die for. Be sure to stay for the credit cookie, which is essential to the enjoyment of the film.

Copyright © 2007 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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