Like most odysseys, Good Hair begins with a single question. "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?" the little girl asks of her celebrity pop. And armed with that query, Chris Rock sets off to make a movie that turns out to be both fascinating and funny. Along with director Jeff Stilson, Rock uses his documentary to examine the complex relationship that African-American women -- and many men (Prince is the target of a well-timed jibe) -- have with their hair. And for a movie that runs just over 90 minutes, the pair cover an extraordinary amount of ground. Interviewing both celebrities and ordinary citizens alike, Rock manages to engage participants in discussions on the dangers of hair relaxers (aka "creamy crack"), the high cost of weaves, the distribution of the wealth earned by hair products created specifically for blacks (Asians and caucasians benefit the most), the idiocy of straightening the hair of little girls (some as young as three), and, tying it all together, the cultural significance of hairstyles for black women and the drive among many to blend in (i.e. look more white) by any means necessary. On top of all this, Rock also manages to squeeze in a trip to India, home to the vast majority of hair purchased by African-American women (the hair is usually collected at temples where locks are shorn as a religious sacrifice, although one disturbing interlude finds a sleazy man discussing how hair is sometimes cut off women while they sleep). Good Hair is such a marvelous movie for most of its running time -- and Rock proves to be such a good guide, both affable and eager to learn -- that it's a shame several missteps are taken toward the end. One bit finds Rock trying to sell -- to no avail -- bags of black women's hair, a silly stunt that smacks of Michael Moore grandstanding. The movie's climactic set piece revolves around a gaudy show in which various oddballs compete for the honor of being deemed the best hairstylist by a panel of supercilious judges -- an amusing sequence that's nevertheless too trite to anchor the home stretch. And, most jarringly, Rock unwisely chooses to end the picture with a rude remark by Ice-T, an insulting selection considering the movie is packed with choice quotes by the (female) likes of Maya Angelou and Tracie Thoms. On balance, though, Good Hair stands as an informative and entertaining documentary, and one that's pulled off with no small measure of style.
Superheroes are known for showing up on the scene just in the nick of time, but in the case of Astro Boy and his big-screen debut, it's clear that his arrival comes when it's too late to really matter. The star of both comics and television as well as an early model for anime, Astro Boy has been around for well over a half-century, finding immediate success in his Japanese homeland before marching on to international acceptance. A big-budget animated extravaganza from Hollywood was probably a predetermined fate, but turning up at a time when slick superhero sagas are often the rule rather than the exception -- even in the toon field (The Incredibles, Bolt) -- limits the film's ability to stand out from the pack. In a futuristic city that hovers well above a largely forgotten Earth, the brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) is so attached to his young son Toby (Freddie Highmore) that, after the boy is accidentally killed, the grief-stricken scientist elects to revive him in a manner that mixes elements of both Frankenstein and Pinocchio. Tenma places Toby's memories in an advanced robot powered by a celestial power source, but he soon realizes he hasn't exactly created (in Geppetto's words) "a real boy." But while Tenma ends up shunning Toby, the opportunistic General Stone (Donald Sutherland) realizes he can use the lad for his own nefarious schemes. Astro Boy is full of incident, and it picks up steam when its title character lands on Earth's surface and falls in with a Fagin-like scoundrel (Nathan Lane) and his young charges. Yet attempts at profundity (themes of societal prejudice are emphasized) yield erratic results, and while the film is visually attractive and the vocal performers are well chosen, at the end of the day there's little to really distinguish this from similar family films about a young outcast who combats loneliness before meeting other colorful characters. Just dub this one Where the Mild Things Are.