A frabjous day – the sunshine
is singing love songs to the buttercups, a thing I was wistfully hoping
for a week or two ago, and the car-sized mud pit in my driveway is
drying out. By my reckoning Spring officially began at 8:30 last night
on my way home, when the first bug hit my windshield.
Other things to celebrate: a couple of small, quiet
movies to enjoy before the bloated, clamorous summer season begins next
month with the blockbuster titles I always swear I'm going to pass up,
but always go see anyway.
First up is “Nim's Island,” which could be just a
ho-hum kids' flick, but is actually a pretty charming fantasy in the
manner of “Second Hand Lions,” which I also liked a lot.
If you were wondering what happened to Abigail
Breslin, the talented kid who did the bumps and grinds in “Little Miss
Sunshine,” here she is playing Nim, an 11-year-old who lives on an
uncharted Pacific Island with her pet sea lion, her pet pelican, her
pet lizard and her pet dad. (There's also a tame volcano that erupts on
Dad (Gerard Butler) is a marine biologist, and after
Nim's mom is swallowed by a whale (I think I mentioned it's a
fantasy?), he and the kid move to this Bali Hai paradise where Dad
builds a tree house worthy of the Swiss family Robinson, complete with
generators for the appliances and satellite uplinks for the computers
and cell phones.
Dad and his sailboat get blown out to sea, and when
lonely Nim discovers she's not quite as self-sufficient as she thought,
she emails Alex Rover, the hero of her favorite adventure novels, for
This is where things really take off, because the
person she connects with is Alexandra Rover, the author of said novels,
a pale, wispy agoraphobe who hasn't been outside her San Francisco
house in 18 months. Alexandra is played by Jodie Foster, whose dithery
qualities work amusingly well for a character who projects her own
fantasies into heroic narratives while hoping the postman won't ring
Gerard Butler also plays the fictional Alex Rover,
an Indiana Jones clone who gooses his creator to actually leave
her house and travel to the South Pacific to give Nim a hand. “You're
not real!” she screams at him. “I am to you!” he yells back, as she
tries to get a suitcase full of canned Progresso soups through airport
The ensuing brouhaha includes Dad trying to repair
his boat as the sharks circle, and an invasion by a tacky cruise ship;
but the real fun is watching the wary dance of interpersonal dynamics
between Nim and the Mom-type female who finally gets shipwrecked on the
island. It's all good for some sincere laughs, and a pleasant afternoon.
Did I say two small, quiet movies? The second one,
“The Ruins,” fits the criteria only in a relative way. You've guessed
it's a horror movie, where a bunch of attractive, near-naked
twenty-somethings on vacation in Mexico fall afoul of Terrible Things
at some unknown Mayan pyramid. The surprising thing about the movie is
that it takes its time telling the story, and is short on the frantic
pacing, the noisy sound track, and the eye-boggling special effects
that are de rigeur for the genre these days.
You're probably thinking, “He used two French terms
in the last sentence, so he's gonna slam it.” And I am, but not before
I say that Scott Smith's screenplay (based on his book) has a good ear
for the vacuous banter of some modern wealthy young people, and a good
sense of build as the banter grows to bickering and then to hysteria.
Carter Smith's direction – I don't know if he's
related to the writer – spares time for some lovely, lingering
full-screen shots of gorgeous landscapes (it was filmed in Queensland,
Australia, which makes a pretty dandy Yucatán), and also time for the
audience, as well as the victims, to realize the pickle they're in. The
lack of splashy CGI monsters doesn't dilute the horror of the field
surgery the kids undergo, and I didn't watch every bit of that part,
because grisly stuff just makes me queasy.
No, the reason the movie doesn't work is that
it's hysterically funny -- not in the affectionate way that
made the first “Tremors” such a gas, but inadvertently, as if the
filmmakers didn't notice it themselves until it was in the can, and
then coughed loudly to cover it up.
And now I'm going to spoil it for you, because it's
right there on the poster as you go into the theater, if you look
closely. Yep, the Terrible Things are the icky, man-eating vines that
grow all over the pyramid.
We all know stories where vegetable matter is
tremendously scary: e.g. “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood, which may
be a remote ancestor of this movie. But here the offensive tendrils
have suspicious-looking five-pointed leaves, and they grow at a visible
rate, so they are obviously a sicko hybrid of Cannabis and Kudzu. When
the vines latch onto a victim they burrow in and make him go crazy, so
what we have is actually a modern cautionary tale along the lines of
“Reefer Madness.” Far healthier to stay on the beach, kids, with Corona
and tequila shooters.
But there is worse, and funnier, to come. The vines
have pretty red flowers that imitate noises, such as ring tones, or
couples in flagrante, causing one jealous babe to turn the dialogue
quite blue with obscene, if baseless, accusations against her
Why didn't anybody at the studio notice that they
had resurrected Audrey Two, and that the whole story was a skewed
version of “Little Shop of Horrors”? The only other interp is that they
knew all along and they were playing us for patsies, hoping we'd never
notice. There are huge holes in the plot, but they fade into
insignificance next to these two blunders. If it were a less bloody
movie they might have passed as a clever references. And a few songs
might have helped...