Little Miss Sunshine

In theaters.

Seven-year-old Olive Hoover is the only person in her small extended family with any joie de vivre. You could conclude, cynically, that life simply hasn’t had a chance to beat her down the way it has her harried mother, desperate father, seething brother, suicidal uncle and combative grandfather, but that kind of darkness is exactly what Little Miss Sunshine gently pushes away. One only has to take a look at sweet little Olive’s name to figure out what she represents.

Yet despite the fact that the heroine’s name is an exhortation and the moral of the story comes via Proust (really), Little Miss Sunshine is sweetly understated, never preachy or saccharine. The cast is simply too talented to let the movie become cloying.

Sylvia

The San Francisco Ballet at the New York State Theater on Friday, July 28.

The word nymph typically invokes wispy, nature-loving little sprites, the sort of girls whom a stiff breeze might topple. We forget that in classical mythology, the nymphs of Artemis (Diana to the Romans) were mighty huntresses, defiantly independent and fiercely draconian (peeping Toms were subject to the death penalty) — nothing wispy about them.

Choreographer Mark Morris gets that right. It’s one of the few elements of his Sylvia that I will unreservedly praise, but setting that aside for now, his nymphs in Sylvia aren’t remotely pixie-ish, and that works. The titular Sylvia is particularly commanding. As played by Vanessa Zahorian, Sylvia is beautiful and womanly but not the delicate waif we see in so many ballets. Her movements, her physical presence, sometimes seem more traditionally masculine than feminine, not in the steps but in her stance and bearing. Morris’ choreography makes it clear that Sylvia is no one’s distressed damsel.

Project Runway

Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Three episodes into the third season.

Project Runway is the best reality program on television.

I hate it when people make statements like that. I mean, I could no more watch all the reality shows on TV than I could all the sitcoms or all the cop shows, so making a definitive statement about Project Runway’s universal superiority is rather silly, and I know it. But I don’t care. I will become what I hate. Project Runway is the best reality program on television. Period.

On Project Runway, 15 designers at various stages in the careers compete for a chance to show a collection at New York’s Fashion Week. In each episode, host Heidi Klum presents them with a challenge, and they have a limited time and budget to create a garment to meet that challenge. Many reality shows present competitions, of course, but behind all the reality conventions, underneath the sometimes manufactured conflict, Project Runway isn’t about competition; it’s about the creative process, and as such, it’s inherently engrossing.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

In theaters.

The sequel was never going to be as much fun as the original. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie succeeded because its charm was so unexpected: the wildly goofy story, the boisterous score and, of course, Johnny Depp's wonderfully weird performance, sneaking a cult-movie sensibility into a studio extravaganza. The sheer surprise of finding that much giddy joy in what appeared to be a by-the-numbers action movie made Pirates of the Caribbean charming.

How could the sequel hope to duplicate that, to again surprise us when the memory of the first surprise is what brought us to the theater in the first place? The makers of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest attempt to compensate for the lack of surprise by offering more — more pirates, more Depp, more action, more supernatural silliness — but their eagerness to please strains the movie's appeal. Subplots for every character weigh the story down. The set pieces feel contrived rather than organic, with director Gore Verbinski virtually shrieking, "Look at this! Isn't this cool?" Even some of Depp's loopy behavior feels like pandering now that his Captain Jack Sparrow is no longer a risk, no longer original.

Prep

By Curtis Sittenfeld. Published in 2005.

Am I ever going to get to the point where I can read about the torments of adolescence without suffering flashbacks? I couldn’t ever make it through more than 10 pages of Curtis Sittenfeld’s story of a hyper-self-conscious teenage girl without having to set the book aside for a while, to remind myself that I’m 26 now and should be past this stuff.

Prep, Sittenfeld’s debut novel, has its faults. The plot meanders lazily, and Sittenfeld sometimes relies too heavily on stereotypes when sketching minor characters. That said, her portrait of the neurotic loner as a young woman is so spot-on, so well-observed, so fully realized, that it makes the book's flaws look utterly inconsequential.