Nic and Nora Go Witchy-Washy

The most unsettling news of the current summer cinema is the grim report that Ron Howard’s rich, rewarding, critically embraced and artistically sound Cinderella Man, the best film of 2005 up to now, has turned into a box-office bummer, while Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a stupid, brain-dead movie for morons, has raked in the loot like a carnival barker promising free porno slides. No wonder so few real filmmakers have the heart or the courage to make serious movies anymore. Why work hard to improve the general mediocrity of the arts when the market responds better to mindless comedies and budget-blasting action comics? Garbage is everywhere, especially in the summer, and each week dumps more. Last week, we got the bloated, pretentious and incomprehensible Batman Begins. This week, we get another labored rehash of another lousy TV sitcom. Frankly, in my opinion, the public is getting what it deserves.

In a saner time, I wouldn’t be caught dead trapped in a theater seat staring at a piece of junk like Bewitched. But hey, this one’s got the names of people I respect and admire plastered all over it like pit stops on vaudeville trunks. When pros like Nicole Kidman, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine show up in a movie written and directed by somebody as savvy and lucid as Nora Ephron, attention must be paid. And then Bewitched crawls its way across the screen like road kill on its last gasp, and you begin to wonder why Hollywood has such a low suicide rate.

I guess I can’t blame Nora Ephron. To be a player in the movie business today, high ideals have become punch lines. And it’s not like Ms. Ephron doesn’t know how to write beneath her standards. Remember Michael, the nauseating 1996 bomb with John Travolta as a womanizing, chain-smoking, crotch-scratching, beer-guzzling archangel with body odor? But even if she’s doing it for the same money everybody else is in it for, Bewitched is a sloppy mess. I’m sorry, but is it wrong to expect more from a talent that was big enough to write and direct such treasures as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle? In this fatiguing time warp of bad television, you will find none of the focused cleverness or clear analysis of the human condition that has distinguished Ms. Ephron’s best work in the past. And it’s obvious that she knows it.

Bewitched was popular boob-tube escapism back in the days of Sputnik and Francis the Talking Mule. The only thing about that old ossified sitcom that doesn’t endanger the I.Q. is the enchanting way Elizabeth Montgomery caused havoc in the neighborhood just by twitching her nose. Nicole Kidman does the same thing, but after the first three twitches, the effect wears thin. Three thousand times more, and you’re checking the battery on your Timex.

Let’s face it: A remake of anything this bad is folly, even by Hollywood standards. So instead of reviving Bewitched, Ms. Ephron decided to make a movie about other people trying to revive Bewitched on TV, honoring the dumb talisman people in television always live by, that everything old is new again. And so Samantha, the old Elizabeth Montgomery part, is now played by an unknown Valley Girl named Isabel (Nicole Kidman), who is secretly a real witch trying to reinvent herself by being mortal. (Her idea of shopping-mall normalcy is pushing a cart through Bed, Bath & Beyond.) And in the role of her bewitched and long-suffering husband Darrin, the victim of her endless spells, we get the ubiquitous Will Ferrell as Jack, a ham actor whose movie career is on such a downward slide that you can forget about hotel clerks; he couldn’t get arrested for throwing a telephone at a hotel owner! Isabel can’t act, but Jack tells her no experience is necessary. This may be the only inadvertently funny moment in the movie, because Mr. Ferrell can’t act either, and watching him say, “If I can act, anyone can act,” I wonder if Ms. Ephron isn’t pulling off a fast ball so sly that it sails right over Mr. Ferrell’s home plate. I mean, when smart people make a movie this bad, you think about these things.

Rounding out the cast of the TV series, Shirley MacLaine plays Samantha’s bitchy, flame-haired mother Endora, the old Agnes Moorehead part. In real life, Isabel has no mother, but Michael Caine plays her father, a crafty and oversexed old warlock who dispenses advice from boxes of frozen fish sticks and cans of peas in supermarket aisles, dressed as the Jolly Green Giant. The supporting cast includes Kristin Chenoweth, Jason Schwartzman and Heather Burns. They all seem to have been directed by trans-Atlantic cable.

For a very long time, the movie drags itself with a clubfoot through Isabel’s problems on the set in the movie-within-the-movie, trying to conceal her sorcery. Jack is so obnoxious that he stalks onto the set barking, “Make me 20 cappuccinos-bring me the best one!” Blunted and overshadowed by Jack’s humongous ego and the shrinking size of her own role, Isabel turns to her dotty Aunt Clara (Carole Shelley), who falls down the chimney with a purse full of stolen doorknobs and puts a hex on Jack so he’ll behave in the role of Darrin.

Are you still with me? After what seems like weeks of colossal tedium, Isabel unleashes her magic powers, Jack goes ballistic, and the plot switches to another gear. This gives Will Ferrell an opportunity to prove that he’s not as bland as his detractors think by acting like a golden retriever on speed. He jumps. He runs around in circles. He high-fives everybody in spitting distance. He sings off-key and says unspeakable stuff like, “Oh, my chocolate-covered strawberry-let’s make love in a hot-air balloon!” (It’s hard to know where to wag a finger for a line like that; the script was co-written by Ms. Ephron’s sister Delia.)

Mr. Ferrell is embarrassing, but he’s not alone. Despite Ms. Kidman’s beauty and talent, she’s no stranger to crap. (Think The Stepford Wives.) When she hops on her broom and soars away, silhouetted against the moon like the Flying Nun, he screeches: “Are you real? Are you human? Am I gonna get pregnant?” (Now there’s a nifty, money-making idea for Ms. Ephron’s next movie: The Flying Nun! Why hasn’t anyone thought of it before?) You can’t believe things can get this numbingly stupid, but they do-and then they get worse. Mr. Ferrell does a clumsy tap dance, takes part in a reckless car chase through Hollywood traffic, and I won’t even go into his nude romp on Conan O’Brien. There’s a long, boring sequence with a bad Paul Lynde impersonator named Steve Carell, who is soon to star in the feature-film version of the TV series Get Smart. We are looking into the eyes of the future, and I’m going blind from what I see.

Bewitched is a disaster so low in energy that it jumpstarts its own engine every 10 minutes. When all else fails, cue Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Witchcraft.” Here is a bum idea, lousy from the green light on-and as much as I love Nora Ephron, she didn’t find the magic to improve it. The sorry result is campy, contrived and sweaty with desperation, and I wouldn’t sit through it again at gunpoint.

Birds Can Swim!

For an experience so fresh, challenging, informative and hypnotic that it defies description, don’t miss March of the Penguins. The subject of this addictive documentary is an unbelievable annual convention of fascinating creatures that look like paunchy drunks in tuxedos in the frozen wastes of the cruel, uninhabitable regions of Antarctica. These penguins are birds the size of small people that swim instead of fly. They are so rare that you can’t even find them in zoos, yet every year thousands of them gather in one place, doing what comes naturally. Yes, every winter these stalwart souls assemble for a punishing adventure that has been taking place for millennia, climbing out of their deep blue ocean homes and setting off for a mating ritual on ice to a romantic wilderness where it is 58 degrees below zero in the sunshine at high noon. Working entirely on instinct, they follow their inner compasses on a long and dangerous journey that will cost many of them their lives, marching single file through blinding blizzards and howling gales, victimized by predators like seagulls and polar bears, in an attempt to assure the survival of their species. Positively awesome.

This is the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen, and filmmaker Luc Jacquet and his camera crew spent 14 months in the cruelest conditions on the planet, getting all of the odd, endearing facts of this bitter endurance test down on film for the first time in history. Heroically directed by Mr. Jacquet and warmly, humorously narrated by Morgan Freeman, the result is the kind of cinematic triumph that achieves what all documentaries should aim for: exploring and illuminating a subject with humanity, insight and drama, while following an arc that keeps the viewer entranced, informed and royally entertained.

The imagery is so powerful that it’s a kind of art. You follow these courageous and determined critters with your mouth agape: marching in a single line at first, like shrouded Druids in hooded black capes silhouetted against the bleak, white wilderness. Wobbling from side to side with hunched shoulders, they look silly and awkward, and when their feet give out they glide on their bellies, sliding across the ice like toboggans. It’s a harsh and unforgiving journey, but eventually they’re joined by others, until thousands of kissing cousins all end up in the same exact place where they were born. Penguins are monogamous, and their curious courtship rituals are often hilarious. Then the new husbands and wives burst into a singing ritual that sounds like a taxicab symphony.

But this is not a society where the males have all the fun and then leave. New fathers are left to protect and also hatch the eggs in their kangaroo pouches while the mothers retrace their march back to the sea for food and energy. For two months of starvation, the males wait, alone in the deadly winter, for the females to shuffle back across the ice with full stomachs to nourish them and their chicks. Females who die on the return route, or males who run out of the food supplies that their bodies produce, lose their newly hatched babies to the elements and to hungry killer seals. Then, the homecoming, where thousands of penguins search for their mates in the enormous crowd, relying on individual sounds that only their families can recognize. I tell you, the reunion scene will have you dissolved in tears. Then, amazingly, nine months of ritual end and the families all part company. The Antarctic winter ends in December, and for the next three months the penguins waddle contentedly back to the sea without so much as a goodbye kiss. In March, the whole saga begins all over again with a brand-new cast.

You rub your eyes through March of the Penguins, and you still can’t believe what you’re seeing. Mr. Jacquet, a biology student who had never held a camera in his life when he first traveled to the polar icecap, spent four years researching this project, and the sweat paid off. Documenting the amazing odyssey of a creature who treks across hundreds of miles of hell in the blizzards of oblivion just to lay one egg, he has provided a fascinating insight into a species about which we know little that is loving, compassionate and unforgettable.