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SPRINGTIME DIVERSIONS

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 cue.)
    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 help.
    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 her doorbell.
    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 security.
    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 boyfriend.
    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...