Will there be a good movie this year? Do we have to wait till November for Hollywood to unveil the niche prestige items that it saves for Oscar consideration? Is every movie till then doomed to be aimed at the all-important 8-year-old-girl-to-14-year-old-boy demographic?
Actually, there are a couple of terrific films out there: there if you live in New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco. You lucky folks can catch 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Romanian abortion drama, and The Band's Visit, a drily delightful comedy about an Egyptian military orchestra stranded in an Israeli desert town. If you, reader, are stranded in a city not playing these fine movies, you're obliged to see one of the films opening in several thousand theaters, and to play a guessing game based on name recognition and advertising.
Jumper pits two veteran Jedi knights Hayden Christensen, aka young Darth Vader, and Samuel L. Jackson, aka the black guy who didn't have enough to do in that Star Wars trilogy against each other in a world-hopping fantasy from director Doug Liman. It's about a teen, David, who falls into an ice hole and, on emerging, discovers he has the ability to teleport himself instantly anywhere. He uses this gift to rob banks and live the impossibly good life: hanging from the minute hand of Big Ben in London, snacking atop the Sphinx in Egypt, slipping into the Coliseum after visiting hours, then back to his posh Manhattan pad before midnight. A few years into his transformation, David learns that his power comes with a price: he's stuck in a war between other teleporters (including Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell) and their pursuers (mainly Jackson).
In this battle of the amoral and the fanatical, there's little rooting interest. In fact, Jumper is so lame undernourished in its characterizations, stillborn in its action scenes that it inevitably leads the idled mind to wondering how this movie got past the pitch stage. Perhaps Liman was the key. He graduated from Swingers and Go, two of the sauciest comedies of the '90s, to the high-octane The Bourne Identity, which made Matt Damon an action star, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which brought Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together, with seismic repercussions. So I'm tempted to give Liman a pass here except that Jumper is so freakin' awful. Christensen is a leaden slab, whose charisma deprivation made me long for David to be teleported back to his high-school years, when he was played by the much more attractive Max Thieriot. The only kind words I can muster are for Diane Lane, as David's mother: not that she has much to do in the movie, but that, after a stint looking soaked and bedraggled in Untraceable, she's back to being beautiful again.
The eight-year-olds catch a break this weekend. The movie made for them, The Spiderwick Chronicles, is a decent entertainment not up there with the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings sagas, but a notch above The Golden Compass and Narnia. The five-novel series on which it's based is sort of Narnia-lite. The children's passage to fantasyland is a steamer trunk instead of a wardrobe, but the enchanted garden has similar pleasures and threats.
Moving with his family into an old, dark house, troubled preteen Jared (Freddie Highmore, of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) finds a land of fairies and monsters. Into this otherworld he drags his twin brother Simon (also Highmore) and older, skeptical sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger, such a sweetheart in In America). Like most heroes of boy fiction, Jared can be trusted to disobey whatever solemn order he is given by the house-and-garden forces such as "Don't take the book away!" but if he wasn't such a stubborn cuss, the movie wouldn't be able to display the rush of amazing creatures after him.
Some of these may give a scary jolt to the very young; the film mixes lots of horror-movie tremors into its kid-movie sentiment. But it's a pleasing melange under the direction of Mark Waters, who, after Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, is becoming the go-to auteur of traumatized youth. Sentiment finally comes to the fore at the end, with one of the dearest death scenes you're likely to see in a movie for any age group. It makes Spiderwick a film worth creeping toward.
There. That should keep the kids occupied till Iron Man and Indiana Jones knock down the multiplex doors in May.