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The penguins are the real heroes

By Lady Liberty
web posted August 8, 2005

The movie pickings were somewhat slim for the weekend of August 5-7. The only big opening was that of The Dukes of Hazzard. Given that I didn't like the TV series, I couldn't imagine I'd have much appreciation for seeing the same thing in an even longer format. I have a feeling my decision was the right one when I saw that People magazine gave it a rating of 1/2 star. That's 1/2, as in even less than one. The reviewer also called it a contender for the worst movie of the year. As much as she all too often hates mainstream movies, I've never seen even her come out quite that bluntly in her condemnation of a film!

In fairness, I'll tell you that I stood in the concession line on Friday night with a 30-something man who'd just seen The Dukes of Hazzard, and who raved about it. He told me it was fun, and that it "honored the original series." He said the car chases and jumps were just fantastic, and that he enjoyed the film immensely. On the other hand, he also confessed that he still lived with his parents. I think I'll stick with the People review...

I point this out not just to steer you in the right direction where The Dukes of Hazzard is concerned (the right direction in this case being any direction that's 180 degrees away from a theatre showing the film) but to explain how it is that I ended up seeing one of the movies that I did buy a ticket for, and that's

Sky High

** 1/2 out of ****

Sky HighLet's see: I don't much like kids' movies. I don't care for silly movies, either. Given those facts, perhaps it was particularly brave of me to get a ticket to see Sky High. Either that, or particularly stupid. As it turned out, whatever the reason I ended up seeing Sky High, I'm glad I did.

Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) is the 14 year-old son of the two greatest superheroes who ever lived. His father, Steve (Kurt Russell) is universally known and loved as The Commander, a super strong superhero. His mother, the beautiful Josie (Kelly Preston), is the famous Jetstream, capable of flying at supersonic speed. Will knows he's got an imposing legacy to live up to. The problem: Will has no superpowers. None. Zero. Nada. Will's neighbor and longtime best friend is the sweet red-headed Layla (Danielle Panabaker). She does have a power, but is too self-effacing and gentle to take much advantage of it.

Layla doesn't really care — she thinks comparing or showing off powers is divisive — but Will is worried sick on his first day of school at Sky High. The school, established to train superheroes and their sidekicks, is his parents' alma matter. His father especially exerts a subtle pressure on Will to do well by reminding him of the family legacy. It doesn't help that Ron Wilson, Sky High Bus Driver (Kevin Heffernan) makes no secret of his hero worship for the boy he obviously believes to be the ultimate combination of the greatest superheroes ever. Once arriving at the school, Will's worries are borne out when he manifests no power whatsoever and is ultimately classified as a sidekick by the obnoxious Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell).

Will's final humiliation occurs when he has to see the school nurse (Cloris Leachman) and he's told that it's possible he'll never come into his powers. But his innate niceness and optimism at least lets him establish friendships with some other students relegated to sidekick status: Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels), Magenta (Kelly Vitz), and Zach (Nicholas Braun) join Will and Layla at the "loser" table in the cafeteria. All of the students put their best face on their lot, and even begin to enjoy their sidekick classes under the tutelage of Mr. Boy (Dave Foley) who was once the sidekick to a great superhero himself. But no optimistic attitude can possibly overcome the sheer malevolence toward Will of the brooding Warren Peace (Steven Strait).

When Warren attacks Will without provocation, the fear and anger Will experiences finally cause his powers to bloom. Like his father, Will is super strong. Things continue to go Will's way when Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the beautiful student body president, falls for him. But there's much more to almost everything than meets the eye, and it remains to be seen if Will can juggle a topsy-turvy personal life with the need to help fight his enemies: Warren Peace, Lash (Jake Sandvig), Speed (Will Harris), and the ultimate villain of them all whose plans could bring down everything Will and his parents stand for.

Sky High is campy from its opening scenes to the end credits. The special effects are really good when they need to be, but some deliberately bad effects (you're going to snicker at the flying school bus) are wonderful contributions to the overall campiness of the film. The script is clever and silly all at once (one throw-away laugh to watch for involves an English lesson sidekicks are given), and the director steers the actors along a very fine line between taking themselves too seriously and over-the-top silliness without a stumble. Look for some inspired casting as well (Dave Foley and Lynda Carter are especially good choices).

Michael Angarano (who was very, very good as the tag-along Sid in The Lords of Dogtown) is perfect as the confused but anxious-to-please Will. Danielle Panabaker exhibits a maturity beyond her years to give Layla exactly the calm acceptance and decency her character requires. The other cast members are also quite good, including Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston. Cloris Leachman is a hoot — her delivery is brilliant. The "losers" are as earnest as can be, and come across exactly as the screenplay requires. I was particularly struck, however, by Steven Strait who is making his major movie debut in Sky High. He's got the onscreen charisma and the looks to be a leading man, and it looks to me like the talent is there as well. With a little more development, he's going to be able to give actors like Orlando Bloom a run for their money.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Sky High is rated PG for "action violence and some mild language." I don't believe the movie is suitable for the littlest children, but I didn't see any significant problems for kids of about age 6 and up. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Sky High, though, will be that the parents of those 6 and up kids are going to enjoy themselves, too. I spent much of the movie bemused; at its high points, Sky High is exciting, touching, funny, and filled with value lessons as well. I'm still a little surprised to be saying this, but I'd recommend Sky High for virtually everyone.

March of the Penguins

*** 1/2 out of ****

March of the PenguinsI'm almost embarrassed to say that, though I enjoy documentaries, I rarely take the time to watch them these days despite having the ready availability of many such films via my handy dandy cable TV connection. To actually pay to see a documentary is, for me, unheard of. I made an exception for March of the Penguins, however, due both to a particularly slow weekend for new movie releases as well as the critical acclaim that's been heaped upon it to date. I cannot express how grateful I am that I did. March of the Penguins is an unforgettable experience!

March of the Penguins documents the extraordinary life cycle of Antarctica's emperor penguins. These birds are big (3-4 feet tall and as much as 90 pounds), and the obstacles they face to continue their species are even bigger. The birds, graceful as anything you've ever seen underwater, are comically ungainly on land. But when it's time to breed, the birds not only beach themselves but proceed to march some 70 miles inland. They select mates and breed once they reach their isolated rookery, and then must nurture their fragile eggs through the most horrific winters on earth.

The females lose about half their body weight to produce their eggs, and they must quickly leave the rookery to get back to the sea where they can feed and replenish their energy. That leaves the males — who have already fasted for the two months it takes the females to lay eggs — to keep the eggs warm for another two months or so. That they somehow manage to fast for about four months even as they keep the eggs warm in temperatures reaching 80 below zero and winds of up to 150 miles per hour is astounding. It's no less miraculous that the females make it back to the rookery, find their families just after hatching, and regurgitate food for their hungry chicks.

Death is, under such circumstances, inevitable. Some of the penguins die during their long march inland; some chicks are lost during the transfer from female to male when only a few unprotected moments is enough to freeze the delicate eggs. Some females don't make it back to the sea after having fasted for so long. Those who do make it into the water are prey for orcas and sea leopards. Meanwhile, some fathers don't survive the harsh winters; of those chicks that make it to hatching, some freeze in the many harsh storms and others fall prey to predators. In fact, the survival of the species at all is almost as surprising as is the cycle that continues it!

The educational aspect of March of the Penguins almost goes without saying. Our knowledge of emperor penguins is fairly recent, and certainly our study of them is quite new. But what will keep you watching is the truly breathtaking cinematography. The long lines of penguins headed for the rookery would be unbelievable if you weren't seeing it for yourself, and their waddle is both amusing and a surprising testament to their apparent courage. At the rookery, photographers were able to capture some of the most intimate moments of the emperor's life cycle in extraordinary detail. You can see the texture of the adult penguins' oily feathers; you can watch their slitted eyes gleam as they engage in a surprisingly sweet and gentle courtship. Footage of the egg transfer from male to female is well documented; the newborn chicks are shown in vivid and detailed close-up with their round black eyes, their chubby-cheeked faces, and their pear-shaped downy bodies.

Intersperse this spectacular footage with scenes of the ice from above and below the sea level, swirls of blowing snow, a low sun barely lighting a naked horizon, and film of the penguins' underwater antics, and you've got a visual treat that's virtually unsurpassed. The narration of March of the Penguins is provided by award-winning actor Morgan Freeman. His performance is, unsurprisingly, very good. The script with which he had to work is perfect for the movie; sure, it's educational, but it's also entertaining. The music, too, meshes beautifully with the production.

Everything the critics have raved about is here and then some. March of the Penguins is funny, suspenseful, touching, and immeasurably sad in turns. Taken as a whole, it's just terrific on a variety of levels, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

FAMILY SUITABILTY: March of the Penguins is rated G for all audiences. I disagree with that rating. Nature isn't deliberately cruel, of course, but she is never-the-less unforgiving under a variety of circumstances. Small children aren't going to react well when deaths are discussed or even detailed on screen; I frankly didn't react too well myself to scenes of grieving penguin parents or tiny frozen bodies on the barren ice. But older children and certainly teens and adults should all find something of value to take away from the experience, not least of which will be a newfound respect for the ability of life and love to overcome even the highest odds.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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