Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Abandon all hope.

Abandon all hope.

(2010) Horror (FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Bruce Gleeson, Edwina Richard, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen, David Tocci, Lance Drisdale, Nicholas Bell, Libby Gott, James Mackay, Emilia Burns, Trudy Hellier, Terry Kenwick, Guillermo del Toro, Dylan Young (voice), Lisa N. Edwards, Kim Ross. Directed by Troy Nixey

Occasionally as children we see a movie that moves us in such a way that it inspires us to take our lives in a direction that might seem unexpected upon the surface. For Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, that movie was the 1973 TV scarefest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in which a troubled young woman moves in a creepy old house and begins to hear voices, see figures scurrying in the shadows and can’t get anyone to believe her that there are creatures living in the house. He was so taken by this movie that he resolved to make these sorts of movies when he grew up. Once he became an in-demand director, remaking the movie that started it all for him became a priority.

Strangely, when the opportunity came to make the movie, he didn’t direct it. Instead, he turned the reigns over to second-time director Nixey. Del Toro also changed the young woman into a little girl and set her and her family loose in a crazy creepy Australian mansion.

Little Sally Hurst (Madison) is shuttled by her somewhat distant mother to live with her father, Alex (Pearce) who is in the midst of renovating a sprawling Rhode Island mansion for a client which would then be sold at an immense profit. Sally is sullen and not at all happy about things, particularly since Alex is completely absorbed by the project which if he can’t pull off would mean financial ruin. It is then his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) who spends the most time with Sally. Sally, who doesn’t like Kim, makes her dissatisfaction known.

Unknown to all three of them, renowned wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (McDonald) disappeared from the house years earlier. When Sally discovers a hidden ash pit in the basement, she releases a tribe of fairy creatures who turn out to be quite malevolent. They torment Sally and when she tries to explain that the awful things going on to her father, he doesn’t believe her. At first, neither does Kim; in fact, the only person who does is the caretaker, Harris (Thompson) who only wants the three of them to leave.

Eventually the creatures make their hideous plans known to Sally and despite the disbelief of her father, she manages to get Kim to come around. However, can they stand up against a race of creatures that is immeasurably old and have all of time on their side?

Del Toro has a history of putting children in the lead of his horror movies (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth) and so it’s no surprise that he does so again here. It’s quite natural for adults to disbelieve the wild stories children sometimes tell. However, it then becomes harder to put children in jeopardy, particularly in an American major studio production. Studios are a bit squeamish about that, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. For the most part, we never get a sense that Sally is in any real danger; the creatures, which look like Gollum with anorexia, aren’t really all that scary.

The movie was slapped with an R rating, precisely because the child had the appearance of being endangered but don’t let that fool you; this is definitely more of a PG-13 experience. Pearce and Holmes do a decent job, but they’re not really the focus here; Sally is and while Bailee Madison is a competent child actor, she never really was one that I cared for too much. She’s always seemed a bit insufferable in her performances and Sally certainly is that.

Nixey and del Toro are experts at creating a mood and with the marvelous location and truly creep-worthy sets definitely accomplish the task but again, the lack of feeling of imminent jeopardy kind of wastes all that effort. This is one of those movies that’s all atmosphere and essentially no payoff. It’s surprising because normally del Toro is such a reliable writer. Maybe if he’d made this one independently in Mexico, this might have been a better film. Or maybe if he left the lead character as a troubled young woman instead of a grumpy little girl. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly praiseworthy either.

WHY RENT THIS: Definitely the right location for a haunted house movie. Solid performances by Pearce and Holmes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Converting Sally to a child was a tactical error. Lacks a sense of dread or jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: Horror violence and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the TV movie that this is based on, Sally was the name of Alex’s wife, not daughter. Here, Alex’s girlfriend is named Kim – and Sally was played by Kim Darby in the original.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gallery of concept art here.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Killer

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)


Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

(2007) Drama (Disney/Walden) Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Kate Butler, Devon Wood, Emma Fenton, Grace Brannigan, Latham Gaines, Judy McIntosh, Patricia Aldersley, Lauren Clinton, Isabelle Rose Kircher, Cameron Wakefield, Elliott Lawless, Carly Owen, Jen Wolfe. Directed by Gabor Csupo

Sometimes a great friend comes along when we least expect it. Someone who broadens our horizons, turns our perspectives upside down and makes us look at the world differently. Sadly, sometimes great friends also leave us when we most need them.

Jesse (Hutcherson) doesn’t have the most ideal home life. Sometimes, he feels like the invisible boy. His dad (Patrick) and mom (Butler) dote on his little sister May Belle (Madison) and all his other little sisters. They have way too much on their minds though to spare much of a thought for him – money is tight and that alone is enough to get him bullied by Janice Avery (Clinton), a large sadistic girl.

There’s a new girl in class though – Leslie Burke (Robb). Jesse has always taken solace that he’s the fastest kid in school, but Leslie beats him in a race, netting him further grief from his tormentors. On the bus ride home, he discovers that Leslie lives next door. Irritated with her victory, he rebuffs her attempts to make friends.

Eventually she wins him over, especially when she expresses her admiration for his drawings in the notebook he carries around with him at all times. She tells him about her love for fantasy stories. Together they go exploring the woods near their home, crossing the creek on a fallen log. They find an abandoned treehouse and a broken down old truck near it. They decide that this is their castle and this is the world of Terabithia, populated by gnomes, trolls and all manner of fearsome beasts. They are the King and Queen of their little world which comes to life in their imagination.

Leslie has had a rough time of it, moving from place to place and having trouble making or keeping friends. Even though her parents are wealthy and loving, Leslie has been a lonely little girl. Jesse is really the first and best friend she’s ever had, so Leslie’s parents embrace him as one of their own. Leslie discovers that Janice has had an even tougher time of it. She is the victim of abuse from her father. Leslie befriends her, a turning point in Janice’s life.

Leslie isn’t the only one noticing Jesse’s talents. Ms. Edmunds (Deschanel), the music teacher Jesse has a secret crush on, invites him on a trip to the art museum. Although he tells his mom where they are going, she is half asleep and he takes her mumbled response for approval for his trip. He has the opportunity to take Leslie along but at the last moment he doesn’t, wanting the experience all for himself. Spending the day at an art museum on a stormy day seems like absolute heaven to him.

However, his trip to the art museum will have unintended but devastating consequences as tragedy will strike very close to him. Jesse’s life will never be the same afterwards.

The movie is based on the award-winning children’s book by Katherine Paterson which is in turn based on the real life experiences of her son David (who wrote the screenplay for the movie). Perhaps that is why the kids seem realistic to me and their relationship organic and natural. Robb who has also turned out impressive performances in Race to Witch Mountain and later in Soul Surfer is a lustrous beauty even at this age who seems almost angelic. Hutcherson who has gone on to star in the Hunger Games movies, shows some solid acting chops. While he doesn’t have Robb’s screen charisma, he is nonetheless more than adequate for the role.

Disney marketed this as a straight up fantasy movie which it isn’t really at all, although there are certainly digital creature effects thanks to WETA (which are better than average, by the way). This is a coming of age drama essentially with elements of fantasy which are meant to highlight the imagination of the children – we see what they see. Some people who saw the movie left disappointing, expecting something along the lines of a Harry Potter movies. There are also those who went into the film expecting another disappointing young adult fantasy movie and emerged pleasantly surprised.

There is a great deal of depth to this movie and it deals with a lot of things that kids deal with – bullying, economic hardship, fitting in, loneliness, imagination, feeling left out, and loss. Some of these things can be difficult for parents to help their kids with and in fact the parents in this movie don’t have all the answers. Just like most of us.

Still, I highly recommend this for not only pre-teen kids but their parents as well. There are some terrific opportunities for dialogue between parents and children to be opened up here. Not only that, this is as satisfying a movie for adults as it’s going to be for their kids. Highly recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly candid and insightful. Pulls no punches. Terrific performances from Hutcherson and Robb, with Deschanel her usual solid self.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fantasy sequences can be a bit cliche.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are depictions of bullying and peril as well as a few mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be cinematographer Michael Chapman’s final film as he retired after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video for the song “Keep Your Mind Wide Open” from cast member Robb, as well as a discussion about the book by cast members, educators and most insightful of all, author Katherine Paterson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137.6M on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Need for Speed

Parental Guidance


No matter how much they stretch, they can't make the kid any taller.

No matter how much they stretch, they can’t make the kid any taller.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Gedde Watanabe, Jennifer Crystal Foley, Rhoda Griffis, Tony Hawk, Steve Levy, Christine Lakin. Directed by Andy Fickman

Spare the rod and spoil the child is how the saying went. Parenting has changed a lot since then. These days, we’re about making sure our little tykes have enough self-esteem to carry them through the painful years of growing up. Self-discipline? Courtesy for others? Those are concepts as outdated as powdered wigs.

Artie Decker (Crystal) has a good life. He’s the voice of the Fresno Grizzlies, is married to Diane (Midler) who has supported him throughout his career. Their only daughter, Alice (Tomei) lives in Atlanta with her husband Phil (Scott), a programmer who’s created software that essentially controls the home with voice commands, and their three children. Artie and Diane rarely get to see their grandkids and Artie sorta likes it that way.

However, things turn upside down in a hurray as they tend to do. Artie is fired by the Grizzlies who are looking for a less “old school” announcer. Then Phil, whose product is up for an award, wants to take Alice with him for a little vacation in Hilton Head. The other grandparents who usually babysit aren’t available. Desperate for the first vacation they’ve had in five years, Alice asks her parents to come by and take care of the kids. Diane is ecstatic. Phil, not so much.

From here it gets pretty predictable; you’ve got blossoming Harper (Madison) who is practicing the violin for a future spot in her favorite philharmonic – but first she’s got to get a spot in the Atlanta Youth Symphony which is far from a sure thing and she’s stressing about it like a Republican at a Greenpeace convention. Turner (Rush) has a stammer and this gets him picked on like nobody’s business in middle school. Finally there’s little Barker (Breitkopf) who is a five-year-old terror who doesn’t like being told what to do but can be bribed into doing it.

Phil and Alice have raised these kids in a touchy feely new age kind of parenting style in which “use your words” has replaced time outs, t-ball games have replaced outs and scores with eventual hits and ties and self-esteem has replaced responsibility and consequences. You can tell the writers tend to place more faith in old school methods.

The outcome is pretty much pre-determined; Grandma and Grandpa are going to mess up (particularly Grandpa who is pretty much an oaf) but eventually, they are going to get these poor messed-up kids from being neurotic and borderline head cases into healthy and well-adjusted in the space of a weekend. It’s wonderful how a game of kick-the-can in the rain can wash away all of a kid’s issues.

Not wanting to get involved overly much in the political correctness of it, you really aren’t going to remember what parenting lessons, if any, are passed down here. Mostly you’re going to remember Billy Crystal and you’re going to remember just how good he was at shtick. It’s been ten years since he’s done a lead role in a live-action movie (I looked it up on iMDB – his last significant role in a movie that wasn’t an animated feature was 2002’s Analyze That. To me, that’s a waste of an amazing talent; when he’s on, Crystal is one of the funniest men alive – still. He’s pushing 60 and playing a grandparent but the man still can string together a gaggle of zingers to keep audiences of any age in stitches. He doesn’t do it often enough here though.

The divine miss M is given the indignity of dancing on a stripper pole (relax, she’s teaching a class) that harkens back to her days as one of the bawdiest performers in show business, and one of the most fun. She mostly kvetches here – see how all the Yiddishisms are creeping into my review which should give you an idea of how the rhythms of this movie go – but she does get to sing a couple of songs including a duet with Crystal on the 50s standard “Book of Love” which is charming.

Tomei is one of those actresses who can be memorable at any given moment but she seems a little lost here, although she gets a father-daughter scene with Crystal which works nicely. I think the material is a little bit beneath her but hey, it’s a paycheck.

The acting here is pretty much at ham level. SO much is overplayed that you find yourself rolling your eyes in a lot of places. Also, the humor is pretty low-brow; crotch shots for Crystal who responds by vomiting on a kid, urinating at the X-Games and plenty of caca to go around. If your aiming at an audience of 5-year-olds, this is the way to go.

I wish I could have loved this movie and despite an overabundance of sentiment, I might still have loved it if it simply didn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. There are plenty of wonderful statements to make about the joys and pitfalls of parenting – and grandparenting – but the filmmakers chose to make none of them. Instead what we have is kind of an embarrassing mess that is saved only by Crystal’s riffing and if you don’t find that palatable, you are really going to hate this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Billy Crystal does a bang-up job.

REASONS TO STAY: Schmaltzy. Relies on toilet humor far too much. Lots and lots of overacting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mildly rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Crystal has hosted the Oscars nine times, second only to Bob Hope who hosted the ceremony 18 times.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100. The reviews have been pretty bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Next Door

MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL LOVERS: Artie is the radio announcer for the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team, the San Francisco Giants AAA affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Artie broadcasts a game from Chukchansi Park, the actual stadium the Grizzlies play in – although he talks about the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes as a potential opponent when in fact the Quakes play in the California League, not the PCL.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mystic River