Pineapple Express opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle

It seems strange to appraise the “history” of the stoner comedy, a subgenre whose alpha is also its archetype: the Cheech & Chong films of the 1970s and ’80s. Within the lineage that follows are amusing but not groundbreaking entries such as How High and Half-Baked. However, it takes a sharp auteur to blend hilarity with a cinematic aesthetic to create a cult classic on the level of, say, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.

No marriage on the summer movie release schedule seemed more unlikely than hitching a Judd Apatow production with renowned indie director David Gordon Green, graduate of N.C. School of the Arts and creator of such idiosyncratic dramas as George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow. However, what at first blush appeared quite unholy turns out to be a match made in movie heaven.

The principal miracle of Pineapple Express is that Green manages to sustain, even elevate, the Apatow oeuvre without compromising the director’s distinctive filmmaking style. Superbad scribes Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg may have written the screenplay, but it is Green’s coterie who call the shots behind the camera, including longtime cinematographer Tim Orr. Moreover, Green’s improvisational narrative execution fits well with Rogan and Apatow’s collaborative, ad-libbed style.

The happy, hilarious result is a contemporary comedy steeped in a palpable 1970s vibe. Grainy, washed-out film stock, use of widescreen and playful scene transitions contribute an eclectic visual flair that must traverse a mash-up of buddy films, violent actioners and black comedy. Indeed, Green acknowledges the heavy influence of two films: The Gravy Train, a 1974 Terrence Malick-penned buddy pic, and Tango and Cash.

When Dale Denton (Rogan), an indolent, perpetually stoned process server, witnesses a murder committed by a crooked cop (Rosie Perez) and the city’s most notorious drug lord (Gary Cole), Dale turns to Saul (James Franco), his well-baked dealer, for help. The two stoners go on the lam, pursued by henchmen who identify them using a roach of the titular rare strain of weedwhich only Saul sellsthat Dale dropped at the scene of the crime. Along the way, each begins to recognize their failed reality and lost dreams: Dale is a thirtysomething, indolent process server, presently dating an 18-year-old high school senior (Amber Heard), who one day wants to host a drive-time talk radio show; Saul once dreamt of becoming a civil engineer “designing septic tanks for playgrounds.”

To say Franco is the film’s scene-stealer would be a gross understatement. Those weary of the young actor’s stolid movie roles forget his Freaks and Geeks origins. Here, Franco plays Saul like a combination of Eric Stoltz’s pusher in Pulp Fiction and Brad Pitt’s stoned-out Floyd in True Romance. The only other cast member capable of purloining the spotlight is Danny McBride (Green’s All the Real Girls, as well as Jody Hill’s The Foot Fist Way) as Red, Saul’s duplicitous, oddball friend, who prompts the most bizarre brawl this side of Borat. And, there is no moment on film this year funnier and more strangely exhilarating than when Red and Dale, armed to the hilt, speed to Saul’s rescue aboard a yellow Daewoo blasting Public Enemy’s “Lost at Birth.”

Everything in Pineapple Express is full-blown, including violence on par with a Tarantino flick that occasionally jars the audience away from the humor at hand. And, the film’s overextended action finale comes close to confusing satire with homage, the same fault found near tail end of Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz. Still, this is not only Green’s most accessible (and, yes, mainstream) film to date; it is also his most technically proficient and joyous. It also demonstrates that even the silliest, albeit clever papwhen wrested away from the Adam McKays and Dennis Dugans of the worldcan yield artistic integrity in the hands of a real filmmaker looking for the right time to catch a buzz. Neil Morris

Encounters at the End of the World opens Friday in select theaters

With his Antarctica travelogue, Encounters at the End of the World, we see something like the beatification of Werner Herzog. The great eccentric has managed to live so long, to generate such a legend about himself, that he’s become a walking brand identity. He’s celebrated for famous fiction films such as Aguirre, Wrath of God and cult faves like Even Dwarves Started Small. But in the autumn of his career, he’s become just as celebrated for his documentaries: Lessons of Darkness, Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Grizzly Man among them.

One of the world’s last macho men of action and exploration, in the Livingstone/ Teddy Roosevelt/ Hemingway mold, he’s famous for his exploits on six continents that involved walking across Europe, pulling a gun on Klaus Kinski in South America and surviving an accidental shooting in North America (Los Angeles, where he also rescued Joaquin Phoenix from the wreckage of a car accident). Now well into his 60s, Herzog jumped at the invitation of the National Science Foundation to make a film about the work being done in Antarctica.

There is a whiff of celebrity journalism at work here, like Papa H. on assignment in Africa for Life magazine. But, perhaps in anticipation of the criticism, Herzog tells us that he “left no doubt [he] would not come up with another movie about penguins.” Instead, he describes some half-serious dissembling about humans wearing masks, ants owning slaves and why chimps don’t ride goats.

Aware of his own daunting reputation, Herzog is canny enough to acknowledge he’s almost literally parachuting into his subject: The film begins with him on a cargo plane bound for McMurdo Station, the base camp for American operations on the continent, which looks like a mining town on the moon. He discoverssurprise!that many of the continent’s residents are agreeable and inquisitive eccentrics. One employee, a “philosopher/ forklift driver,” acknowledges that the base is occupied by “full-time travelers and part-time workers … [and] professional dreamers.”

Herzog’s crew makes forays out of McMurdo to visit scientists doing field work on live volcanos, neutrinos, iceberg dynamism and, yes, adorable (and “insane”) penguins. Peter Zeitlinger’s camerawork, executed under grueling conditions, yields the quality one would expect from the Discovery Channel (one of the film’s backers). Throughout, Herzog’s brilliant camera subjects warm up to him and deliver fervent explanations of their work.

Still, one is aware of Herzog the nutty explorer, and his voiceover delivery exploits his Teutonic accent as a charmingly self-conscious effect. This isn’t really criticism, for Encounters is a perfectly gorgeous, thoughtful movie by anyone’s standards. It simply has a workaday feel to it, as if Herzog edited his travel footage quickly and moved on to another project. What makes the film a minor effort by Herzog’s hefty standards is that it lacks the reciprocal madness between filmmaker and subject, an enabling partnership that characterized his work with Kinski and, more recently, with Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell, the near-lunatic who lived and died among Alaska’s bears. But, minor Herzog is far more adventure than most of us will have in our entire lives. David Fellerath

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 opens Friday throughout the Triangle

A magical pair of thrift store blue jeans continues to strengthen the bonds between four childhood friends, whose trials and tribulations were first filmed in 2005. In this sequel, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, their sisterhood skips ahead a couple of summers and is tested by the inevitable fracture occasioned by their freshman year of college.

All of them must have had killer SAT scores and wealthy families in order to land in their respective exclusive schools. Blonde soccer bombshell Bridget (Blake Lively) is at Brown, and departs for an archeological dig in Turkey, where she inappropriately frolics with skeletal remains until clued in that they were people, too! Lena (Alexis Bledel, looking like Wednesday Addams) has somehow gotten into the Rhode Island School of Design with a skimpy portfolio of pencil sketches of her rustic (but intellectual) Greek boyfriend, Kostas. Aspiring filmmaker Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) chooses NYU, where she sulks after class in the iconic East Village Two Boots Video Store. And finally, Carmen (America Ferrera), toils backstage at the Yale School of Drama, where she plots her course to appear on stage in the major Shakespearean role she feels she deserves.

The novels by Ann Brashares are beloved because of the girls’ realistically messy lives and their stuttering attempts to negotiate adolescent upsets. In Sisterhood 2, this boils down to finding the perfect boyfriend. Yes, it’s a fantasy you may chide. But, the first film had the more realistic conflict of Carmen’s tantrums over her father’s remarriage, and grumpy Tibby’s reluctant friendship with a spunky ‘tween. In Sisterhood 2, even the video-game geek has six-pack abs. Oh, please! And, a similarly hard-bodied demigod posing in the life class at RISD for Lena? In my art school days, the desperate, gray-skinned models were pathetic, not crush-worthy.

There is a built-in audience for this film, the girls and moms who applaud the young adult-girl power message. Tamblyn and Ferrera are fresh and make you care about their characters. But, Sisterhood 2 is just a pallid souvenir of a cherished book series and the much better first film. Laura Boyes