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New releases: <i>Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, Tropic Thunder</i>
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

The 2005 screen version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was based on the first novel in Ann Brashares’ best-selling series, but the word is that The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 combines the events from the remaining three books in the franchise. One reason is probably because the studio felt that audience interest wouldn’t extend past a second installment. Another might be that the four stars of the first film have kept busy with other projects and may not particularly wish to keep returning to the same well. And the third reason is that who wants to eventually see 30something actresses still playing college-age kids? (It brings to mind the third and final film in the Porky’s series, wherein high school boys were suddenly having to contend with receding hairlines.) A solid follow-up to the solid original, Sisterhood 2 might feel a bit more scattershot than its predecessor, but its engaging characters, entertaining situations and emotional reach should help it find approval with those who grooved to the rhythms of the first picture. Set three years later, it finds the best-laid summer plans of the four friends -- brainy Carmen (America Ferrera), introspective Bridget (Blake Lively), rebellious Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) and shy Lena (Alexis Bledel) -- blown to smithereens as each ends up doing her own thing rather than hanging out as a group. Thus, Carmen heads to Vermont to work in theater (check out a funny Kyle MacLachlan as the pompous director), Bridget travels to Turkey for an archaeological dig before heading to her grandmother’s house in the South to solve some family mysteries, Tibby remains in New York to work on her film and worry about possibly being pregnant, and Lena, heartbroken after being dumped by her Greek lover, finds new romance at the Rhode Island School of Design. Problems are worked out in an orderly manner, tears are shed in sincere fashion, and everyone is eventually reunited in sunny Greece, with nary a single ABBA-mangling peasant in sight.

Tropic Thunder

The opening salvo of Tropic Thunder reps perhaps the funniest 10 minutes I’ve encountered in a movie theater this year. But the best news is that the movie manages to keep the laughs hurtling forward for its entire running time, no small feat in an era in which many comedies lose steam by the final reel. Ben Stiller, whose fingers are all over this picture (as star, director, co-writer and co-producer), does himself proud by successfully orchestrating the diverse elements that make up this ambitious picture, from a roster of A-list actors (some in supporting roles) to a decidedly non-PC screenplay that touches upon clashing acting methods, venal movie moguls, and the correct way in which to play a mentally challenged character (tip: don’t go “full retard” if you want a shot at the Oscar). Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a macho action star whose one attempt at an awards-bait title, the resounding flop Simple Jack, has largely derailed his career. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comedian known for vulgar blockbusters. And Robert Downey, Jr. essays the role of Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award-winning actor celebrated for his Method approach to acting. All three, plus rap star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and screen newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), are in Vietnam shooting the war movie to end all war movies. But on-set mishaps and temperamental actors immediately put the film behind schedule, and the grizzled technical advisor (Nick Nolte) suggests to the director (Steve Coogan) that the pampered stars should be taken to a rough spot of the jungle where, away from the rest of the cast and crew, they’ll buckle up and get the movie made. Stiller is funnier here than he’s been in some time, and he’s especially blessed to have surrounded himself with such a knockout cast. Black has some riotous moments as a drug fiend struggling with his dependency, while Matthew McConaughey, freed from inane rom-coms opposite Kate Hudson, is appealing as Speedman’s lively agent. The cast even includes Tom Cruise, who’s clearly having fun as a bald, bad-tempered studio boss with no morals whatsoever (it’s like rewatching Cruise’s Magnolia character, only this time with a laugh track). Yet the acting honors easily go to Downey. His Kirk Lazarus is so dedicated to his craft that he undergoes surgery to have his skin darkened so he can play an African-African character in the Vietnam War opus. Being a Method actor means that he talks “black” even when the cameras aren’t rolling, an affectation that really annoys Chino, the cast’s authentic African-American. Downey is an absolute riot in this role, and between this and Iron Man, I’d say he’s having a helluva summer.