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NANCY DREW Unless I miss my call, Nancy Drew is the sort of kids' movie that will be treated with kid gloves by most critics, who will at worst dismiss it as a mere mediocrity. Don't you believe it. Nancy Drew is a glorious achievement of the so-bad-it's-brilliantly-bad variety -- I won't go so far as to state it's Battlefield Earth for the Clearasil crowd, but it's clearly a turkey no matter how it's sliced up. Author Carolyn Keene's teen heroine has endured in print as an old-school sleuth, but the makers of this featherbrained film, assuming (perhaps correctly) that setting this any earlier than, oh, 2004 would spell disaster at the box office, have updated it to function as a here-and-now preppy piece, as clueless about its deficiencies as Clueless (its obvious role model) was savvy about its milieu. Emma Roberts, portraying Nancy as something of a pill, quickly grates as her precocious character moves (along with dad Tate Donovan) from her comfy little hometown of River Heights to a spooky Los Angeles mansion, whereupon she immediately begins investigating the death of a famous actress who passed away decades earlier. Between its portrayal of a faded Hollywood as awash in corruption and decay and its casting of Laura Harring as the murdered starlet, this often feels like a demented attempt to make a kid-friendly version of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. -- if only this one had also included a freaky white-haired cowboy to bump off the multitude of insufferable characters. And speaking of insufferable, the top honor in that category goes to Spencer Breslin wannabe Josh Flitter, a mini-Lou Costello who contributes more ham than the deli section in any given supermarket.  *

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN The Return of the King aside, isn't it accepted -- in fact, isn't it pretty much gospel -- that the third picture in any given trilogy is when the series has totally lost it, when the filmmakers have been completely replaced by pimps and profiteers? So how is it possible that Ocean's Thirteen has emerged as the best of this star-studded franchise? True, all three films have basically been an excuse for director Steven Soderbergh and his high-voltage friends to take paid vacations in trendy, plush locales under the pretense of making motion pictures -- if life was fair, then resort timeshares would have been handed out with movie tickets so that audiences could also join in the festivities. But Ocean's Thirteen is the first of the trio to truly feel like there's something at stake in its convoluted, house-of-cards plotline. Male-on-male love (platonically speaking, of course) has always been the driving force in this series, and this one milks that sense of camaraderie for all it's worth. When one of their own (Elliott Gould) gets swindled by a venal casino owner named Willy Bank (Al Pacino), it's up to the gang fronted by dapper Danny Ocean (George Clooney) to set matters straight. Because there are so many characters competing for attention, there will always be casualties when it comes to screen time. Yet because this is the most briskly paced of the three, and because the revenge angle provides its protagonists with a strong rooting interest, it's hard to get bogged down in the flaws. I wasn't a fan of the previous two pictures in this series, but Ocean's Thirteen qualifies as the first to even approach a winning hand.  ***

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END This 168-minute chapter is overblown, overstuffed and over-the-top. It's also entertaining and sometimes even exciting, which right there marks it as an improvement over last summer's hot-and-cold Dead Man's Chest. In most respects, it's the sort of summer movie which forces critics to denounce summer movies, relying too heavily on bombast and bullying tactics (both copyrighted trademarks of producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And yet there's no denying that the picture contains a good measure of whimsy (usually MIA in pre-sold blockbusters) and a great deal of plot (ditto), indicating that director Gore Verbinski and scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are at least making an effort to earn their paychecks. To attempt to relay all the plot details would probably only lead to reader confusion, so suffice it to say that Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) still fears the tentacled Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) still hopes to free his tortured father (Stellan Skarsgard) from Davy Jones' grip, and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) turns into a kick-ass riot grrrl in much the same manner as Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi. All of the series' regulars are sent off in satisfying (and even surprising) ways, and at its best, the movie exhibits a real affection for the sort of fantasy-tinged material that kept Ray Harryhausen employed back in the day. It's an adequate summertime distraction, though nothing about it begs for a repeat viewing.  ***


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