Sky High (B). After the creeps and shocks of The Skeleton Key and Grizzly Man, I was more than ready for some light-hearted family fare. I figured good old Kurt Russell (Escape from New York) would deliver, and I was right. In the vein of The Incredibles, this movie is about a family in which the mom and dad (Kelly Preston, For Love of the Game; Russell) just happen to be superheroes. And not just any superheroes: Jetstream (who can fly) and The Commander (who has super strength) are two of the most famous superheroes around. This would probably be tough on any kid, but for their 14-year-old son Will, it’s a particularly heavy burden to bear—because he doesn’t seem to have any superpowers of his own. Nevertheless, he gets sent off to Sky High, a high school for children of superheroes, where he promptly gets placed in the “sidekick” track instead of the “hero” track. The observations about the cliqueishness of high school are both smart and amusing, and the messages (don’t let newfound popularity go to your head, never forget who your real friends are) are no less wholesome for being a little timeworn. A soundtrack full of remade 80’s tunes doesn’t hurt either. Good clean fun for the whole family.
Grizzly Man (B). Another documentary, this movie is about the life and death of a man named Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell became something of a celebrity (even appearing on David Letterman) because for 13 years in a row he spent the summer living near–very near–and filming wild grizzly bears in Alaska. He collected over 100 hours of video footage before he and his girlfriend Amy were killed by a bear in fall 2003. In this film, documentarian Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) intersperses Treadwell’s own footage with Herzog’s interviews with the people who knew Treadwell best, including his own parents. It’s undoubtedly an interesting movie, and some of Treadwell’s footage of the bears is pretty amazing, but I also found it sad, disturbing, and a little exploitative. Treadwell became a bear fanatic only after a near-fatal period of alcoholism and drug abuse, and in the extensive video footage he shot of himself he really comes across as mentally ill. It’s a tough one to grade — a well-made movie that nevertheless left a sour taste in my mouth.
Red Eye (C). Don’t let Wes Craven’s attachment to this movie sway you into thinking this might turn out to be some scare fest movie. This movie isn’t scary! This movie isn’t particularly good, but neither is it particularly bad, it’s best described as painstakingly predictable. The movie starts off with Rachel McAdams (The Notebook), a Miami hotel manager of sorts, stuck at our very own DFW airport due to flight delay. She meets Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Batman Begins) in line and strikes up a conversation that soon leads to more conversation at a Tex-Mex restaurant. (Let me tell you, having been stuck just recently at DFW airport for 12 hours, I can assure you that there is no Tex-Mex restaurant, Chili’s doesn’t count.) I digress; so anyway, they finally board the plane only for her to find out that he’s not what he seems . . . surprise, surprise. She must follow his orders or her dad will die. The movie progresses and attempts suspense in places where the outcome is already noticeable. I give Wes Craven credit for trying something a little more subtle, but in the end this movie was just a tad worse than average.
The Skeleton Key (C+). Faithful readers of The Movie Court know that I very seldom go to horror movies (I leave those for Nick at Nite). I have an overactive imagination and a low threshold for being startled. In other words, scary movies freak me out. But the pickings were slim, and I thought, “Hey, it’s PG-13, how scary can it be?” And I guess I was right, although there’s no way on earth I’d let a young teenager see this movie. Kate Hudson plays a hospice worker who accepts a job as the live-in caretaker for a creepy stroke victim (John Hurt) who lives in a creepy old house in the Louisiana swamps with his creepy wife Violet (Gena Rowlands). There’s a creepy old attic full of creepy old stuff, and there’s hoodoo (magic, not to be confused with voodoo, the religion) galore. I was on pins and needles a lot of the time, but I guess it wasn’t really all that scary. Now, where did I put that nightlight….
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (B). Recalling that this movie was well-reviewed and seeing that it was playing at the dollar theater, I decided it was time to get in touch with the 16-year-old girl within. Actually, it’s a pretty good movie, if a bit manipulative at times. Four best friends are going their separate ways for the summer for the first time in their lives, and shortly before they split up they find a seemingly magical pair of jeans that fits each of them perfectly. So they agree to mail the pants to each other on a weekly basis. But the movie actually rotates among the four more a little more quickly than that. In turn we see shy, withdrawn Lena come out of her shell on a beautiful Greek island (and with a hunky Greek); brassy Bridget sets her sights on a college-aged coach at a soccer camp in Mexico; Carmen goes to South Carolina to visit her dad, who walked out when she was ten; and acerbic Tibby stays home to work in a retail store and work on her movie, a self-proclaimed “suckumentary.” I think the movie kind of went off the rails at the end, but overall not a bad coming-of-age flick.
Broken Flowers (B-). Despite the critical acclaim, I can’t go higher than a B- on this movie. Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, a character with some resemblance to his character in Lost in Translation. Johnston, however, is more emotionally shut down and apathetic — indeed, he’s virtually catatonic. We meet him as the latest in a long line of girlfriends is breaking up with him, and he barely tries to stop her. He is sort of jolted out of his state of inertia when he receives an anonymous letter, purportly from an ex-girlfriend, warning him that he has a 19-year-old son who is out there looking for him. At the urging of his friend Winston, Johnston narrows the list of possible authors to five and sets out to visit each of them to try to figure out which one sent the letter. This yields some juicy parts to several actresses of a certain age (Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange), and the vignettes are interesting. But somehow, the movie just didn’t entirely work for me. I think part of my problem was the way Johnston’s character is written — he is so completely inert that it is very difficult to imagine him (1) having a girlfriend (much less a whole bunch of them) and (2) caring enough about the possibility that he has a son to go on a long uncomfortable journey over it.
The Commitments (B). This movie has been sitting in my collection, unwatched, for a long time. This afternoon, after our tennis match got rained out, my cousin Diane and I gave it a spin. It was good, but not as good as I remembered. The plot is strongly reminiscent of that modern-day classic That Thing You Do!. Out-of-work Irishman Jimmy Rabbitte dreams of managing a soul/R&B band in modern-day Dublin. He puts an ad in the paper seeking musicians, and against all odds a quality band—The Commitments—emerges from the chaos. But centrifugal forces go to work almost immediately: the sax player really wants to play jazz, the lead singer is a monstrous buffoon, and the trumpeter is bedding all of the female back-up singers. Can the band hold together long enough to catch their big break for stardom? Take a look and find out.
Days of Thunder. I continue to plumb the depths of Nicole Kidman’s oeuvre, and I pray that I have now hit the bottom. This earthbound remake of Top Gun is absolutely terrible. Tom Cruise plays Cole Trickle, whose name alone should have led to an immediate lifetime ban from NASCAR. But no, in the alternate universe inhabited by this movie, a goofily named maverick from the left coast can take NASCAR by storm, at least if he’s backed by the engineering wizardry of cornpone-spouting crew chief Harry Hogge (played with unseemly enthusiasm by Robert Duvall). A fiery car crash puts Cole in the tender care of a female neurologist played by Kidman (who was no more than 22 when this thing was filmed). He quickly takes the good doctor’s breath away, but problems loom when Cole tries to get back into the danger zone. Can he overcome his loss of nerve, sponsorship, and girlfriend, beat the cocky iceman who has replaced him as NASCAR’s darling, and win the Daytona 500? Your tolerance for pain will have to be very, very high if you want to find out. Even NK’s ethereal beauty is compromised by her massive mane of permed red hair. Movie grade: F. Nicole grade: C.
Kung Fu Hustle (B+). I am not a big fan of martial-arts movies (especially ones that are apologies for tyranny like Hero), but the reviews made this one seem different from the pack. So I caught it down at the dollar theater and got much more than my money’s worth. Ebert wrote that it is like a cross between Jackie Chan and Bugs Bunny, which is about right. I would also compare it to the great John Carpenter-Kurt Russell collaboration Big Trouble in Little China. Basically, Hustle is kung fu played for laughs, with increasingly over-the-top antics and special effects as it goes on. The dreaded Axe Gang, which is a vast horde of black-suited and top-hatted martial artists, menaces the residents of the aptly named slum of Pig Sty. The Gang gets more than it bargains for, however, as Pig Sty turns out to harbor a surprisingly high number of anonymous kung-fu masters of its own. So the Gang recruits bigger and badder assassins, who only draw out even more and better good-guy kung-fu masters, etc., etc. I was amused the whole time, and laughed out loud more than once. Check it out.
Gene Wilder freaked me out when I was a kid. I still wake up in the middle of the night screaming to high heaven when I think about the boat ride he took on the chocolate river singing that creepy song, “There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing, or which way the river’s flowing. Is it raining? is it snowing? is a hurricane a-blowing? Bah! Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of hell a-glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing? YES! The danger must be growing, for the rowers are still rowing and they’re certainly not showing any signs that they are slowing! STOP THE BOAT!” Okay. . . just typing that out gave me the chills. Anyway, in the 2005 version, I think that Johnny Depp tried his damndest to recreate the weirdness exhibited by Wilder but managed to overact to such a degree that his attempt seemed hollow. Personally, I am a big fan of Depp and think he is one of the better actors out there today; however, his portrayal of Wonka was a bit much. What I did like about this version were the amazing special effects (a little better than what was available in 1971) and that the ending was more true to the book (I never liked the ending of the original because it left too many unanswered questions). I would recommend going to see this on the IMAX where you could be blown away by the special effects or renting it in a few months when it comes out on DVD. Maybe my expectations were a little high because of the past work of Depp and Tim Burton (who directed Big Fish and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, two of the greatest movies ever made). Oh well . . . I’ve learned to live with disappointment.
A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary, by Anonymous (Metropolitan Books 2005). I bought this book based on a favorable review in Entertainment Weekly and finished it in two, maybe three sittings. It is the diary of a German woman who was living in Berlin when the city fell to the Soviets in April 1945. She was a journalist, thirty years old at the time, and for roughly eight weeks she kept a journal of the experience of wartime, defeat, and conquest. First there are the air-raid sirens, the hours spent hiding in the basement while Russian bombs drop, and the omnipresent hunger from extended malnourishment. Then the city falls to the Red Army, and its soldiers loot and plunder by day and drink and prey upon the city’s female population by night. Gradually, some semblance of order is restored, and the author takes her place among the forced-labor brigades organized by the conquerers. The author’s clear, dispassionate prose only makes the events seem even more chilling. An excellent, phenomenal book.