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What Happens in Vegas…

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I have no idea what little kids will make of the new animated feature Surf’s Up—another of those “hand-hold” movies aimed at both children and the grown-ups who protect them and shell out for their popcorn. It’s a “mockumentary”—a parody of something like the surfing doc Step Into Liquid, only with penguins. It’s all shot with hand-held cameras. No, what I mean is, it’s all “shot” with “hand-held” “cameras.” It alternates “contemporary” surfing “footage” with “historical” surfing “footage” and “talking-head” “interviews.” The directors, Ash Brannon and Chris Buck (who wrote the script along with Don Rhymer and Christopher Jenkins), nail all the current competition-doc clichés. The “camera crew” follows teenage penguin Cody Maverick (with the voice of Shia LaBeouf) as he runs away from Antarctica to the “high-octane” world of Hawaiian penguin surfing—where he falls in with Sheboygan surfer Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). Don’t worry, parents, only you—and not your 5-year-old—will get that the chicken’s stoned out of his gourd.

Kids will certainly appreciate the life lessons—“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” “Winning isn’t everything,” etc. And they’ll love all that surfing, which is astounding—and hilarious, if you can appreciate that the sight here of a penguin sailing through a scary-colossal “pipe” has more verisimilitude than the computer-generated head of Kate Bosworth on top of someone else’s body in the go-for-it female surfer picture Blue Crush. Kids will also enjoy the motormouth otter surf promoter Reggie Belafonte, although he’s even funnier if you imagine James Woods by himself in a little room babbling into the microphone. Ditto sexy gentoo-penguin lifeguard Lani Aliikai, who’s much sexier if you replace her in your mind with her vocalist, Zooey Deschanel. Best of all is the washed-up champion surfer who tries to instruct Cody in Zen and the art of surfboard carving—his belligerence escalating with the younger penguin’s every juvenile challenge. His scenes are to die for, but the death will be sweeter if you know that the irritable “Big Z” has the same inflections as Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski, and that this might be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Jeff Bridges again in his most celebrated performance. In short, the kids won’t know how terrific Surf’s Up is.

Timothy Spall plays the title character in Adrian Shergold’s engrossing Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, in which he looks like a cross between a giant rat (which he plays, more or less, in the Harry Potter films) and Charles Laughton’s doleful Quasimodo. It’s 1932, and Pierrepoint (pronounced “Peer-point”) has always wanted his late dad’s job—executing men and women in the name of the Crown. He turns out to be a natural at judging the precise length of rope that will snap their second and third vertebrae most efficiently (and, in a manner of speaking, most humanely) without ripping off their heads (as was done recently in Iraq, home of less conscientious hangmen).

Pierrepoint—who really existed—doesn’t want to know the crimes of those he hangs; he only wants to know their height and weight. And he doesn’t regard hangings as occasions for hanging out; he finishes off the condemned swiftly. (He aims to beat his dad’s average time of thirteen seconds from holding cell to trapdoor.) Afterward, he cleans their bodies with tenderness and care. They have paid the ultimate price for their crimes, he says, puffing ruminatively on a cigar. Now they are innocent.

Pierrepoint believes he can remain detached from what he does. The movie’s message is that he can’t, which we realize in the first fifteen minutes (Spall’s features are plainly stricken) but which takes Pierrepoint 75 more. That makes the payoff, however emotional, relatively small. But Pierrepoint is worth seeing for Shergold’s attention to process and for all the ghoulish details. Who knew General Montgomery himself tapped Pierrepoint to hang a slew of Nuremberg-condemned Nazis to show the world how civilized societies kill people? It’s also fascinating to watch Spall tiptoeing around his proper English wife (the wonderful Juliet Stevenson), who counts the money but won’t hear a word about what her husband does for it. Alcoholics Anonymous members are fond of saying, “Denial is not a river in Egypt”—but it might be a river in England.

Ocean’s 13
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Warner Bros. PG-13.

Surf’s Up
Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck. Sony. PG.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman
Directed by Adrian Shergold. Lionsgate. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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