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Sunday, Apr 6, 2008


Gods don’t get more flawed than Charlton Heston. He was a Hollywood he-man that actually found time for invention and experimentation, a gun-toting political conservative who had, at one time, made a life changing career choice championing speculative films that dealt with decidedly liberal issues. By the time Michael Moore mocked him in his Oscar winning diatribe Bowling for Columbine, the public was well aware of his blemishes. Age and a rumored case of Alzheimers solidified such a state. But for most he will forever be remembered as the bringer of the Ten Commandments, a direct pipeline to the Almighty forged out of celluloid and some amazing Midwestern looks.


Heston, who died of undisclosed causes on 5 April at age 84, was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Illinois. After an early move to Michigan, childhood became a literal boy’s adventure tale. Outdoorsy and idealized, the only flaw featured was the failure of his parents’ marriage when he was ten. His mother quickly remarried, and the new family relocated to Wilmette outside Chicago. While attending New Trier High School, Carter caught the acting bug, which resulted in a drama scholarship to Northwestern University. From there, he married his college sweetheart, a communications student named Lydia Marie Clarke. That union would last 64 years. After service in the US Air Force, he headed to New York, the natural place for any budding performer to try and cut their thespian teeth.


Working for a time as a model, Carter and his wife struggled. They had a son Frazier, and adopted a daughter, Holly. Taking his mother’s maiden name and his stepfather’s surname, he became Charlton Heston, and it wasn’t long before he was gaining supporting parts onstage and additional work in the fledging medium of television. Like most struggling actors in the late ‘40s/ early ‘50s, he appeared regularly on anthology dramas such as Studio One. As luck would have it, his work in a production of Wuthering Heights earned the interest of Hollywood producer Hal Wallis. While Dark City marked his professional debut, it was his turn as circus manager Brad Braden in the much maligned 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show On Earth that made him a known name.


Modern critics have unjustly marginalized this relic from the studio system’s struggles, pointing to its lack of artistic merit and its melodramatic leanings. But it marked an important part of Heston’s career, since it would be the first time he worked with the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. Four years later, the famed filmmaker and producer of epics would remember the young man who held together his big top ballyhoo when taking on the Old Testament story of Moses. By then, Heston had appeared in films such as Ruby Gentry, The Naked Jungle, and several subpar Westerns. Yet it would be his turn as God’s instrument on Earth that began the mammoth Heston myth. It would be a role of a lifetime, and an image he could never really live down.


One has to admire what the actor accomplished in the otherwise corny religious spectacle. He is required to be both noble and naïve, driven by a power beyond his comprehension but still able to draw on an inner individual strength to guide his hand. The moments of sacred majesty are all the more real thanks to Heston’s achieved awe, and there is something seductive and sexy about his chemistry with co-star Yvonne DeCarlo. While the rest of the A-list (mis)cast saunter around like celebrity chickens with their cameo heads cut off, the man from Illinois keeps everything somber and sacrosanct. It’s one of the main reasons he could never shake the spiritual aura surrounding the part.


And yet, he continued to try. While still appearing regularly on television, he consistently chose interesting and engaging projects. He took the lead as a Mexican narcotics official in Orson Welles final masterpiece, Touch of Evil and costarred alongside Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s The Big Country. Yet it was his next film that would seal his fate as a film star as big as the stories he appeared in. Winning 11 Oscars, including one for his starring role, Ben Hur remains a brilliant old school Tinsel Town treat. Overblown and bloated with gaudy grandeur, it was clear what director Wyler was up to. With the man’s most recognizable superstar, he was out to out-DeMille DeMille. He literally succeeded.


But if Heston was already carrying a career cross thanks to Commandments, Hur sealed his filmic fate. It soon seemed that every larger than life project needed his uncommon good looks and cloud of confidence. It was evident in El Cid, Diamond Head, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Agony and the Ecstasy. Yet by 1965, something had happened to Heston’s inviolable veneer. Instead of being part of the considered cool of the peace and love generation, he was viewed as an earnest member of the Establishment. Nothing was further from the truth - at least, not then. He had marched with Dr. King in 1963, and worked for JFK. He opposed the war in Vietnam, and petitioned Congress to change handgun laws after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Apparently, all things, including basic belief systems, must pass.


It would be the switch to science fiction, however, that literally reinvented Charlton Heston. As a potent allegory for race in America, his turn in Rod Serling’s adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes brought him back to box office prominence. As Colonel George Taylor, stranded astronaut in a universe where primates stood as the evolved species, his measured machismo kept the otherwise outlandish premise in check. He would go on to further explore the genre with The Omega Man, a reworking of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Radically different from the book, and seen today as an obvious attempt at showcasing Heston as a glorified humanity salvaging guiding light, the movie does suffer from some specious scripting. But there’s no denying that, before there was a Will Smith, the 47 year old made a fine last man on Earth.


In 1972, Heston got a chance to play one of his favorite Shakespearean roles. He directed himself as Marc Anthony in a forgotten version of Anthony and Cleopatra. It would be one of only three turns behind the camera for the enigmatic actor. The next year, the last of his speculative trilogy arrived with the fabulous future shock schlock known as Soylent Green. As a cop trying to cope with a hugely overpopulated planet, this combination of environmental tirade and hoary whodunit offered Heston at his most hammy. It was also the film that finally reduced his status to crusty and campy. For the next decade, he would appear in cheeky comedies (The Three Musketeers), star studded disaster duds (Airport ‘75, Earthquake), and the occasional return to form (Two-Minute Warning).


Something strange happened to Heston during the ‘80s, however. All the goodwill and support for social causes he carried from the 1960s seemed to wither and die under a caustic conservative ideology that saw him supporting Ronald Reagan, opposing Affirmative Action, and changing his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. He quit the performance union Actor’s Equity over their stance on the Broadway bound Miss Saigon (the group demanded an Asian play the part originated by Caucasian Jonathan Pryce) and argued that CNN was undermining the first President Bush’s strategy in the first Gulf War. Yet it was his five year stint as President of the NRA that truly tested his continued credibility.


An avid collector, the gun advocate made the now infamous “cold dead hands” speech in 2000. It would soon become the main thrust of Moore’s controversial Columbine ambush. Vilified by the media, and the subject of some rather sour revisionist history, Heston was seen as an out of touch old coot who lived by a doctrine long dead in post-modern America. Even when, in 2002, he announced that he had the initial stage symptoms of Alzheimers, the criticism never let up. His 2003 resignation from the organization found him repeating his famous stance, and while finally off the public stage, the divided sympathies of the actor remained. Even up until his death many continued to undermine his work onscreen, countering that it represented the efforts of a philosophically suspect personality.


But Heston was more than his stances. He wasn’t just the sum total of his position on abortion (pro-life, naturally) or his battle with prostate cancer (which he conquered in 1998). Anyone witnessing the magnificence of Moses as he admonishes Pharaoh to “let his people go”, or snickered over the oft-quoted quip “take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape” understands the impact of Heston’s presence. He was indicative of the Eisenhower era male, yet someone seemed in step with the progressive. He was a man’s man metering out social sensibility with a set square jaw and a secret sensitive side. Sometimes histrionic, frequently hamstrung by a project’s proposed scope, he still managed to leave his undeniable imprint. He was a force, an undaunted despot, and a symbolic statue of every manufactured male.


He remains pure bravado and musk, eloquent and elusive, as powerful as he was passive. The glint in his steely eyes matched the magic his profile produced on celluloid, while his words frequently confounded even the most ardent of supporters. He was a true industry icon, one of the last remnants of a system that used to make stars, not actors. His last film appearance, listed on IMDb, is for the unknown Italian film My Father, Rua Alguem 5555. In it, he plays notorious Nazi concentration camp butcher, Dr. Josef Mengele. It’s endemic of the chances this actor always took. It is also illustrative of the legacy he leaves behind - precarious, challenging, and never quite predicable. Sort of describes an incomplete deity, doesn’t it. Heston will always be such an incomplete idol.


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Sunday, Apr 6, 2008


Splatter offers its own unique brand of cinematic satisfaction. When done correctly, within the context of a tightly scripted narrative, it looses most of its geek show sensation. In turn, it forms the basis for some ballistic shivers, an all guts and no glory groove on our most primal of fears. Thanks to the so-called ‘torture porn’ genre however (blamed for everything from the death of movie macabre to the demoralization of society), blood has gotten a bad name. Film snobs now view gore as a motion picture pariah, the equivalent of toilet humor in comedy or the disease of the week in drama. The latest foreign fright film, Inside, may just change that onerous opinion.


It’s been five months since a car accident took Sarah’s husband, and while the external scars have healed, the internal pain is very, very real. Still, the couple’s unborn child remains safely in her womb, and with Christmas just around the corner, things are looking up. The doctors are ready to deliver and it should be a happy time for the former photo journalist. But instead, she is swept up in memories of the past and an unending depression - that is, until a mysterious woman shows up at her house. Unable to recognize who she is, Sarah calls the police. The threat grows real. Sarah is all alone. Without warning, the slaughter begins.


Wow! The French have really figured this out. Looking over the landscape of horror this past decade, these particular European proponents of terror have delivered some devastating turns. From Haute Tension to Ils, France has forged a new wave of nastiness that has redefined the genres and styles of their continental countrymen. Inside (new to DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Company and their Dimension Extreme label) is no different. Like watching the ultimate collaboration between Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (with some nauseating originality thrown in for good measure) this sluice-filled sensation is one of the sickest, most gratifying gross out efforts in quite a while. But this isn’t just gore for the sake of shock. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have combined the visceral nature of childbirth with the mandates of the slasher film to forge a brilliant, ballsy bloodbath.

There is a clear connection to the joys of motherhood and the physical brutality of the process on display here. Both Sarah and the woman after her baby are desperate to hold onto the life such procreation provides. Death is then suspended right alongside, illustrating in the same personally intrusive manner a stunning juxtaposition. While Inside is not the first film to explore the link between parenthood and dread, biology and the blood-soaked, Bustillo and Maury have made the logical leap into Grand Guignol glorification - and the results are as repugnant as they are dazzling. Fans of films featuring a certain Mr. Voorhees while wonder why Hollywood has been so ‘anemic’ when it comes to this kind of iconic terror tale. The answer is literally splashed across the screen.


We gratuity-loving gorehounds really do need to rejoice. This is the kind of film where faces are blown off, limbs are pierced and prodded, and bodies are violated with an imaginative mayhem one associates with a Savini or a Bottin. The link to the previously mentioned Italian maestros is also obvious, especially in how Inside‘s filmmakers add arterial spray to the most stylized or mundane situation. The use of a single setting is also crucial to the film’s success. Instead of moving us around the Paris suburb, turning the craven cat and mouse into some sort of failed action adventure, Bustillo and Maury keep the killing to one house - actually, one internal hallway from bedroom to living room. Such a logistical limit really ratchets up the tension while remaining totally rational and real.


And the acting definitely needs to be mentioned. Alysson Paradis has the kind of dour, dejected expression that has us hating her almost immediately. While we understand her post-accident misery, it grows grating…that is, until the slashing. It’s a genius move by Bustillo (who helmed the screenplay). By lulling us into a sense of complacency, by making us almost hate our heroine, it turns the slice and dice into something meaningful. The violence elevates our emotional responses, changing and challenging our perspective. By the third act, when Sarah has suffered beyond all rational means, we get the impression of a battle well fought, a victim about to be victorious. It’s the ultimate conquest. Yet as with all slasher films, that’s not the final beat.


On the other end of the performance spectrum is Béatrice Dalle, who becomes an instant classic movie monster with her turn as ‘the woman’ (she is listed as La Femme in the credits). Unrelenting in her pursuit, heartless in the way she meters out jagged blade justice, she’s reminiscent of Lucy Butler, the memorable psycho from the Chris Carter series Millennium. But Dalle is much more maniacal. With a gap-toothed smile that seems to symbolize the bubbling dementia in her mind, she toys with Sarah, saving her most disturbing murder moves for the ancillary bystanders who come to her rescue. Even better, when given the chance to end the pain, to stop the suffering of all involved, she drags it out, hoping to instill the kind of torment in her prey that she’s felt ever since…sorry, no spoilers here.


All of this was planned out purposefully by Bustillo and Maury. In the only substantive bonus of the DVD, the duo speak openly about trying to find a property that would address old school horror ideals while bringing forward a new sense of fright. The omnipresent offal was merely a means of achieving a very tasty and terrifying ends. It is also clear that the artistic ambitions the directors tried to achieve required a great deal of technical expertise. The behind the scenes footage included as part of the Q&A indicates as much. Together, the vision matches with the mechanics to produce a satisfying scarefest.


Indeed, horror geeks waiting for the next great gore flick will literally foam over Inside. It provides a level of vileness that few recent films have even tried to achieve while adding enough aesthetic support to keep everything from overflowing into offensiveness. It is not a movie for the squeamish. Even fans of the funkiest splatter rampages will see something here unexpected and disturbing. Let’s hope that Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury don’t wind up taking the same path to Tinsel Town talentlessness as Ils‘s David Moreau and Xavier Palud. Their remake of The Eye was painful to say the least. Inside‘s creative team deserves much, much better. Their film is a claret covered sensation.



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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


For the weekend beginning 4 April, here are the films in focus:


Shine a Light [rating: 7]


Shine a Light does deliver in a way few concert films can - especially given the timeless talents on display.


Who, exactly, are the Rolling Stones circa 2008? Considering that it’s been 45 plus years since Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones played ballsy blues badboys to the Beatles scrubbed and sanitized pop laureates, one has to challenge where a group of aging 60-plus-year-olds fit within the modern mainstream music scheme. Granted, they are legends, myths making noise long after many thought them relevant. True, it takes an intense amount of chutzpah to step on stage and endlessly recreate your greatest hits from three decades past while hoping to work in a few of your current composition. It’s a concept that’s bested other icons - David Bowie, for one - and yet the artists formerly known as the greatest rock and roll band of all time continue to soldier on. read full review…


Leatherheads [rating: 6]


You’ve got to give Clooney credit for trying, especially when most of Leatherheads is a jaunty, jazz age dream.


The media just loves to fawn over George Clooney. With his combination of classic Hollywood charisma and contemporary self-effacing nerve, he tends to enhance, and sometimes overwhelm, the projects he touches. From his early, ineffectual work in films like One Fine Day, to the critical acclaim accompanying his turns with the Coens, he’s a student of the old studio system as well as a jester in his own idiosyncratic kingdom of considered cool. But what’s most fascinating about this man’s career is not his rise to mainstream prominence. Instead, his unique turns behind the camera - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck - indicate an artist willing to bend tradition in order to place his own unique stamp on cinema. His latest effort, the attempted screwball comedy Leatherheads, is no different. read full review…


Nim’s Island [rating: 6]


Nim’s Island is all too insular, lost in its own unique universe somewhere between Swiss Family Robinson and Joe vs. the Volcano.


It’s becoming painfully obvious that modern moviemakers know nothing about making a true family film. Not just a movie aimed at a certain unsullied demographic, but an effort that sparks the imagination of anyone from ages eight to eighty. The latest attempt at finding the right formula is the undeniably uneven Nim’s Island. As a work of whimsy and wonder, it offers too many unexplainable elements. We never fully grasp the reality - or unreality - of the situations we see. On the other hand, there are parts and performances here that illustrate the direction such a project could take, especially when not guided by studio pressures or focus group interference. read full review…


Under the Same Moon [rating: 5]


Maudlin and melodramatic when it doesn’t need to be, but insightful and engaging when it counts, Under the Same Moon represents both the best and worst of the revelatory road trip narrative.


The story of America’s immigrant past has been well documented by the motion picture. From the boat trips across the ocean to Ellis Island and the accompanying acclamation, our heritage has made for some memorable film. Yet it seems strange that the current migrant situation, dealing with undocumented workers and border crossing illegals gets short shrift. Part of the problem is politics. No one is eager to foist the problems of an already marginalized population on an uncaring and unforgiving public. The other issue is creative. Few artists have attempted to capture this element of the immigrant experience. While it stereotypes several of the circumstances surrounding a Mexican mother and son’s day-to-day struggles, La Misma Luna - in English, Under the Same Moon - does a decent job of showcasing their specific plight. read full review…


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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


The story of America’s immigrant past has been well documented by the motion picture. From the boat trips across the ocean to Ellis Island and the accompanying acclamation, our heritage has made for some memorable film. Yet it seems strange that the current migrant situation, dealing with undocumented workers and border crossing illegals gets short shrift. Part of the problem is politics. No one is eager to foist the problems of an already marginalized population on an uncaring and unforgiving public. The other issue is creative. Few artists have attempted to capture this element of the immigrant experience. While it stereotypes several of the circumstances surrounding a Mexican mother and son’s day-to-day struggles, La Misma Luna - in English, Under the Same Moon - does a decent job of showcasing their specific plight.


When his grandmother dies, little Carlitos is determined to be reunited with his mother, Rosario. The only problem is, she’s across the border in Los Angeles, working a pair of jobs to earn enough money to bring her son over. Of course, she’s an illegal, and is afraid to ruffle feathers less she finds herself deported. While her best friend Alicia wants her to marry a man with a green card (or better yet, an actual citizen), Rosario hopes that she can work things out without lowering her personal standards. Still, a local security guard named Enrique manages to catch her eye. Meanwhile, Carlitos tries to get local ‘coyote’ Dona Carmen to get him across. Instead, he gets smuggled by a couple of well-meaning but bumbling Americans. Thus begins a journey cross country to find the only family he has left.


Maudlin and melodramatic when it doesn’t need to be, but insightful and engaging when it counts, Under the Same Moon represents both the best and worst of the revelatory road trip narrative. Director Patricia Riggen mines this material for as many colorful characters and recognizable circumstances as possible, yet just when she needs to rise above the familiar formulas, the clichés undercut our sympathy. We need to identify with these people, to be considerate of their needs and attentive to their dreams - especially since many of the plot points put unfortunate individuals in horrible predicaments. But since Riggen resorts to obvious emotional tugs, we spend more time rolling our eyes than wiping them.


The biggest foul committed by Under the Same Moon though is asking us to believe that a little boy of incredibly limited means and resources could manage to make it from Texas to California without raising a single suspicion. Instead, screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos provides a series of chary coincidences - dim bulb border patrols, easy to breach impound fencing, paternalistic strangers - that help keep the journey from jerking to a halt. We never completely believe in these manipulations, just as we don’t feel the terror when Carlitos is literally sold to a pedophile so a dope fiend can get a fix. It all feels scripted and control by forces outside of reality. While Riggen manages some moments of true authenticity, they are few and far between.


Thankfully, the acting tends to overcome these particular problems, especially when it comes to our main characters. While her problems are practically Herculean, Kate Del Castillo delivers a nicely nuanced turn as Rosario. She seems ridiculously obsessed with ethos - she’s pretty enough to be anyone’s border bride without lowering herself - but when push comes to shove, there’s a fire in her eyes that keeps us interested. Similarly, Adrian Alonso avoids many of the child performer mistakes, delivering an organic, unforced portrait of Carlitos’ little boy lost. Though there are times when Riggen gets him mugging for extra pathos, he has a naturalistic quality that keeps things from going too far overboard.


In fact, if one had to balance the effectiveness of the leads with the storyline they’re stuck in, Under the Same Moon stands as a draw. It doesn’t find the easy gravitas a tale like this could legitimately generate, yet at the same time, we feel compelled to follow things through to the end. Rosario’s determination, matched by her son’s own spirit, provides enough of a catalyst to carry us beyond the problems and the pigeonholing. For every event that feels lifted directly out of Villalobos’ laptop, there’s a scene that resonates as powerful and commanding. It all makes Under the Same Moon a difficult film to embrace. It also makes it a hard movie to ignore.


As a result, Riggen simply piles on the predicaments. There’s a wistful quality to the backdrops, an attempt to showcase the issues surrounding illegal immigration through out of the way places and underground avenues. Carlitos ends up in several places that look like leftovers from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, illustrating that many a migrant exists far outside the center of society. Had the story centered on these fascinating fringe elements, Under the Same Moon would be amazing. Instead, it asks us to accept a lot without making good on its myriad of promises. On one level, it’s great to see the contemporary experience of these misplaced and marginalized people expressed so. Then again, such a compelling story should have been much, much better.



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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


It’s becoming painfully obvious that modern moviemakers know nothing about making a true family film. Not just a movie aimed at a certain unsullied demographic, but an effort that sparks the imagination of anyone from ages eight to eighty. The latest attempt at finding the right formula is the undeniably uneven Nim’s Island. As a work of whimsy and wonder, it offers too many unexplainable elements. We never fully grasp the reality - or unreality - of the situations we see. On the other hand, there are parts and performances here that illustrate the direction such a project could take, especially when not guided by studio pressures or focus group interference.


On a magical South Pacific atoll, Nim Rusoe and her oceanographer father Jack lead an idealized, tranquil life. Keeping in touch with civilization via satellite phones, the Internet, and a monthly supply boat, he studies plankton/protozoa while she plays with her animal pals. Nim is also a voracious reader, and her favorite book series centers on a macho adventurer named Alex Rover. One day, an email arrives asking for information on a local volcano. It appears to be from Rover himself. Nim responds, but doesn’t know that she’s really ‘talking’ to Alexandra Rover, author of the wildly successful tomes. Living in San Francisco as a literal hermit, the agoraphobic scribe wants to avoid the real world as much as possible. But when Jack goes missing at sea, and a cruise ship arrives, Nim grows nervous. She asks for Alex Rover’s help. Thus begins a journey of self-discovery for both our anxious author and the little girl she is determined to save.


There are two amazing elements to Nim’s Island, a pair of performers that literally lift the movie out of its ditzy doldrums every time they threaten to overwhelm the spectacle. As an Oscar nominee for her work in Little Miss Sunshine, Abigail Breslin does her best to infuse the quixotic nature of the narrative with fun and familiarity. As a character who literally talks to sea lions and lizards, who can craft a tasty treat out of vegetables and meal worms, who easily survives monsoons but panics the minute she sees other humans, it’s a hard act to sell. Our spunky little lead is supposed to be viewed as heroic and helpless, capable on the outside but frightfully needy within. Breslin brings all this to her work, and it’s one of the reasons we connect with the otherwise cracked events playing out.


The other shining star is two time Academy award winner Jodie Foster. Following up her magnificent turn in last year’s The Brave One, this comic about-face verifies why she remains one of our best modern actresses. Sure, her skittish psycho routine seems a bit forced at first, but that’s just because we don’t truly understand Alexandra Rover’s plight. Foster finds the right beats so often, building a character of such subtle complexity that we forgive the blatant slapstick and pratfall foolishness. By the last act, when the danger turns from imaginary to very, very real, Foster’s face illustrates all we need to know. While some may consider it over the top, this is one performance that perfectly matches the tone attempted here.


Unfortunately, novice filmmakers Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin confuse crazy quilt culturalism with fantasy, Apparently, juxtaposing Englishmen, Americans, Aussies, Islanders, and any other eccentric ethnicity one can muster is supposed to signify something otherworldly. All it really does is mandate a set of subtitles. Similarly, there’s a reliance on cartoonish imagery and obvious CGI (especially a pelican named Galileo) that breaks the magical mood the pair strives for. Sometimes, they get things just right. The opening credits that explain what happens to Nim’s mother are novel and well done. But the entire cruise ship episode stinks of a poorly produced pilot for a Downunder sitcom. When combined with the scattered script, which sees too many leaps in logic, even for an imaginary adventure, we get the distinct impression that there is a better version of this material to be had. Nothing Flackett or Levin do inspires the kind of recognition that will make little girls want to be Nim.


Indeed, the identification factor is the primary problem that ultimately undermines Nim’s Island. We don’t mind being whisked off to places unknown, interacting with individuals totally unlike ourselves, as long as we see a little authenticity in their actions. Even the wildest, most outlandish feats will fly just as long as we feel connected to what the characters are doing. But Nim’s Island is all too insular, lost in its own unique universe somewhere between Swiss Family Robinson and Joe vs. the Volcano. As a book (by Wendy Orr), one envisions a pleasant, pulpy page turner. As a film, some of it succeeds. The rest renders the pleasantries only passable.



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