The Witch


Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

(2015) Horror (A24) Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry (voice), Sarah Stephens, Jeff Smith, Ron G. Young, Derek Herd, Brooklyn Herd, Viv Moore, Madlen Sopadzhiyan. Directed by Robert Eggers

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to make an exception; if you haven’t seen The Witch and are wondering if you should, the answer is yes you should. Don’t read another word – just go and see the movie and come back here and read this when you do. The less you know about what’s going to happen to you, the better.

There; I’m assuming most of you reading from here on out have already seen it, have no desire to see it or are choosing to ignore my warning. That’s on you then. The Witch is set on a farm on the edge of a dark sinister wood in New England in the year of our lord 1630 – and I’m not kidding when I say the year of our lord. For farmer William (Ineson) and his pious wife Katherine (Dickie), the Lord is ever present and watching over their every move, their every thought. Banished from the settlement because of some unspecified disagreement in terms of religious dogma – I got the sense that William and his family thought the Puritans were far too loose and relaxed about the worship of God and baby Jesus – they are forced to try and make it on their own with a few goats including an ornery ebony-hued one they call Black Philip – and crops of corn and whatever else they can grow.

But the crops are failing. The goat’s milk has turned to blood and worse yet the baby has disappeared literally right from under the nose of teen and eldest child Thomasin (Taylor-Joy).  Katherine is inconsolable and William stoically makes the best of things, taking son Caleb (Scrimshaw) hunting in the woods, or ordering the twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) about. The twins speak to each other in a secret language only they understand and constantly annoy Thomasin, whom they won’t listen to. But then something else happens in the woods, something dark and sinister and the family begins to turn on itself, their faith tested to the breaking point. Here, on the edge of darkness, they will look into the abyss with trepidation.

I won’t say the horror film has been undergoing a renaissance in the last few years because clearly the overall quality of horror movies tends to be been there-done that to a large extreme, but there have been several movies that have come out that have really invigorated the genre. This is the latest, having won raves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and only now getting released. It’s very much worth the wait, folks.

First-time feature director Eggers makes some impressive accomplishments, conjuring forth the world of the early colonial days and 17th century New England, from the English speech patterns down to the rude farming implements, the primitive living conditions and the homespun costumes. More importantly, he builds a creepy atmosphere that begins with unsettling events and moves into things far more sinister. The family dynamic changes as we watch with suspicion being dropped from one family member to another as accusations of witchcraft and deals with the devil begin to fly.

The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is top-notch. In fact, this may very well be the most beautifully shot horror film in history, which is saying a lot. The unsettling musical score by Mark Korven further enhances the mood particularly as the movie spirals deeper into its story. He utilizes a lot of unusual instrumentation, from Eastern European folk instruments to the hurdy-gurdy.

The actors are largely unknown, but there are some solid performances here. Anya Taylor-Joy is remarkable here, with an innocence about her that cracks from time to time; her expression in the very final scene simply takes the movie up another notch. Ineson is gruff and gritty as a farmer who knows he is incompetent at just about everything but chopping wood and his family is suffering from his inability. Dickie has the shrill look of a religious fanatic, neck veins bulging and eyes bugging out. She looks like someone who is wound far too tight and Katherine is definitely that. Finally, young Harvey Scrimshaw shows some incredible depth as young Caleb; hopefully he’ll appear in some big budget event films because he so has game for that kind of thing.

This is the first movie of the year that I think has a good chance to end up on my end of the year top ten list. It’s scary as all get out and has subtexts of religious intolerance, suspicion and family ties strained by adversity. It’s smart, well thought out and doesn’t waste an instant of it’s 90 minute running time. So yes, go out and see it if you already haven’t. Every horror film fan should be flocking to this one for sure.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully atmospheric. Really captures the feel of the era. A beautifully layered script. Some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to build which may frustrate the impatient sorts.
FAMILY VALUES: Creepy atmosphere, some graphic nudity and violence as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were plans to use more of Black Philip (the goat) but because the animal proved to be not as well-trained as the filmmakers would have liked, those plans had to be scrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Last Rites of Joe May

Walt Before Mickey


“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

(2015) Biographical Drama (Voltage) Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder, Jodie Sweetin, Armando Gutierrez, David Henrie, Taylor Gray, Ayla Kell, Owen Teague, Hunter Gomez, Sheena Colette, Jeremy Palko, Kate Katzman, Tamela D’Amico, Arthur L. Bernstein, Amber Sym, Beatrice Taveras, Conor Dubin, Timothy Neil Williams, Donn Lamkin, George Licari, Briana Colman, Maralee Thompson. Directed by Khoa Le

The name of Walt Disney is one of the most beloved and best-known names in the history of mankind. Nearly everywhere you go on God’s green Earth, everyone knows his wonderful animated features, his theme parks, his movie company and of course the mouse that started it all. Few people know, however, that before that great success that grew into a multi-billion dollar company that it is  today, Walt went through some lean times.

Disney (Nicholas) grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri where he felt a certain amount of affinity for animals – and also an affinity for drawing pictures on the side of the barn, something that irritated his father Elias (Lamkin) no end. When his father grew ill, the family had to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.

When the First World War broke out, Walt was too young to enlist like his brother Roy (Heder) did but he did manage to drive for an ambulance corps and was sent overseas anyway, continuing to draw whenever he could. When he came back home, his brother had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles to recover. Walt, having been laid off from an advertising company, decided that animated films were the wave of the future. He started his own company, Laff-o-Gram Pictures along with artist Ub Iwerks (Gutierrez) whom he met at the ad agency.

Adding other local artists like Friz Freleng (Gray), Rudy Ising (Henrie) and Fred Harman (Williams), Walt proved to be a better animator than he was a businessman and after realizing that the amount he was charging had only covered cost, his company eventually went bankrupt. Selling a camera Iwerks gave him to use, he bought a train ticket out west and convinced his brother Roy to stake him and start a new company, Disney Brothers Animation which was eventually changed to Walt Disney Pictures. Walt would bring over many of his cronies from Kansas City to work for him; he also agreed to hire women to do the inking and painting because they worked for less. One of those ink and paint girls was named Lillian Bounds (Katzman) who would eventually become Mrs. Walt Disney.

At first Disney tasted success as his live action/animated hybrids, the Alice cartoons, sold well. However the underhanded distributor (Dubin) sent over his brother-in-law George (Licari) to sow seeds of discontent among the troops and drive Disney’s business into the ground, putting Disney in a position where all the characters that Disney had come up with – including the popular Oswald the Rabbit – would become the property of the distributor. Walt was up against the wall, but he had one last shot – a plucky mouse who would become the world’s most famous cartoon character.

This is a production shot in the Orlando area for the most part and with Central Floridian talent in front of and behind the camera. Clearly this is a labor of love and if sometimes the filmmakers seem to be a little star-struck by Walt, I suppose that it’s understandable especially considering what Walt meant (and continues to mean) to the economy of the region.

Based on a book written by Timothy S. Susanin and vetted by the Disney family (Walt’s daughter Diane wrote the book’s forward), the film looks hard at Disney’s struggles with bankruptcy and poverty. Despite his best intentions, his first business failed, leading to eviction from his home and seizure of his possessions. A homeless Walt resorts to eating garbage. Nicholas captures Disney’s despair and his guilt feelings for having failed his employees.

And, to his credit, Nicholas also shows one of Disney’s less savory side; he was something of a tyrant to work for, firing one employee for sleeping on the job despite forcing him to work brutal hours. We don’t get a sense of Disney’s love for children or how that was developed – certainly by the time the first silent Mickey Mouse cartoons came out he was writing for the younger set – and the movie would have benefitted from giving the viewer more of a sense of that affection he had for kids. It certainly would be a driving force in the rest of his career.

Although Heder, Sweetin and Nicholas do well in their roles, much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Some of the acting is stiff and the line readings more suitable for community theater. Not knocking community theater, mind you, but those expecting more should be forewarned as to what to expect. I have to admit that some of the dialogue sounded like it was being read rather than being said.

It should also be noted that this is a first feature for much of the cast and crew; a little leeway is recommended when viewing this. While much of the technical end is professional, some of the creative side is a bit rockier. One gets a sense of a cast and crew doing their best but flailing a little bit. I don’t doubt that they’ll get better with more experience.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of setting the period correctly for both the Kansas City and Los Angeles settings. They also do something that is unusual in the film business when creating period movies; they get the rhythms of language, culture and everyday life right. You may well feel like you’re getting a glimpse of American life in the 1920s. Main Street USA indeed.

I can only give this a mild recommendation because, at the end of the day, movies should live up to certain standards and even as you recognize the effort, you can only judge the results. I will say that you learn a great deal about Walt Disney that you may not have known before. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the legend, this is a good place to start. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco as well. Nonetheless, the movie truly captures Walt Disney’s determination to make his own dreams come true. In doing so, he would make many new dreams for millions upon millions of children from then to now.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about Disney’s early business failures. Nicely creates early 20th century setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and often amateurish. Sometimes treats Walt as more icon than human being.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words scattered here and there, some adult themes and period smoking (and a lot of it).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: American Idol finalist Julie Zorrilla sings the song “Just a Wish” over the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Mr. Banks
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The End of the Tour

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)


Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Tilly Vosburgh, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden, Bradley Hall, Hilton McRae, Sam Phillips, Victor McGuire, Jody Haise, Pauline Whitaker, Belinda Low, Leonard Szepietowski, Harry Peacock, Mark Wingett, Dorian Lough, Jon Gunn, Richard Dixon, John Neville, Lillian Price. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

In Victorian England, women didn’t generally have very many choices and those that did usually got them because they were stronger and more aggressive than most. Perhaps that’s why most Victorian heroines remain role models for women even today.

Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is an educated, forthright young lady who loves the rural Dorset that she grew up in. She also loves horseback riding and it is during one of her rides that she encounters neighboring shepherd Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a quiet man of good character. He falls hard for the impetuous young Bathsheba (who hates her given name by the way) and impulsively asks her to marry him, promising to buy her a piano if she does. She declines, telling him that she would want a man who could tame her and the quiet Gabriel never could. Shortly after that Gabriel loses his flock in a particularly devastating way and must sell his land in order to pay his debts. He sets out to find employment. In his travels he comes upon a barn fire and with the farm manager and owner both missing, takes charge and puts the fire out. When the owner returns and thanks him, he asks for a job. The owner turns out to be…Bathsheba.

In the meantime she had suffered a reversal of fortune of her own; no longer poor, she had inherited her uncle’s farm and was determined to make it successful. After firing her corrupt and useless manager (McGuire) she sets about managing her farm with the aid of Liddy (Barden), her assistant and Gabriel’s able stewardship it begins to turn a profit.

She also gets the notice of William Boldwood (Sheen), a neighboring farmer and the wealthiest man in the district. Lonely and socially awkward, he had been engaged once only to be jilted. Now mistakenly thinking that Ms. Everdene is interested in him romantically, he pursues her doggedly with his own offer of marriage and as a wedding gift, a piano. By this time however, she has a piano of her own and declines, valuing her independence too much.

But not for long. Into her life comes soldier Frank Troy (Sturridge), a dashing young man who dazzles her with his swordplay and ardor. Completely head over heels, she marries the military man even though Gabriel counsels her not to and loses his job because of it, only returning to work because the sheep are dying from a disease that only he knows how to cure.

It soon becomes evident that Troy has no interest in farming and less in Bathsheba. He prefers to gamble their profits away, and his ardor is reserved for Fanny Robbin (Temple) whom he had once intended to marry and had been left standing at the altar when she went to the wrong church. She is now pregnant with his child. All of these events are priming the players for tragedy and for Bathsheba Everdene, a choice – which man truly is the one for her?

This is the fourth filmed version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel (the first released exactly 100 years ago in a silent version). In many ways, it captures the rural life that Hardy so loved (and through him, his characters) better than any of them. Certainly cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures the loveliness of the Dorset countryside in vista after vista; silky mist-shrouded mornings, blazing colorful sunsets, bucolic woods and fields.

Vinterberg (The Hunt) is best known as a co-founder of the influential but spare Dogme 95 movement in filmmaking and he would seem an odd choice for a lush classic of such epic sweep as Hardy but he keeps much of the movie simple. The country life that he depicts here seems almost heavenly; one could long for a lifestyle of washing sheep and harvesting grain, walking the country at dusk and singing with the farmhands at supper by candlelight. It is definitely enticing to those of us beset by the fast pace and cold technology of modern life.

Mulligan, Oscar nominated ] for An Education, has done the most brilliant work of her career thus far here. She captures the spirited nature of Bathsheba Everdene but also her vulnerabilities without making her seem too modern, although in many ways Bathsheba belongs more to the 21st century than the 19th, even back when Hardy wrote her – so much so that Suzanne Collins filched her surname for her spunky lead character in The Hunger Games. That Bathsheba chooses the dashing soldier over the security of William Boldwood and the bedrock but unspectacular love of Gabriel Oak is a lament that many guys, unable to compete with the cute and the popular in high school, can understand.

Schoenaerts is a Belgian hunk who has all kinds of upside. He reminds me a bit of Viggo Mortensen and has that charisma necessary to be the leading man in a big budget movie and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find him on the Hollywood A-list before too long. Sheen has continued his exemplary work of recent years and makes the haunted farmer Boldwood flesh and blood, as opposed to the kind of creepy pervert that Peter Finch portrayed him as in the 1967 version.

While it’s possible this could be contending for awards come Oscar time, it’s unlikely given the early summer release date. It’s quite possible that an autumn re-release might put Mulligan, Christensen and even Vinterberg up for Oscar consideration but even if not, this is a film worthy of attention even beyond the film buff and older audiences. I have to admit that it is a smart move to use this as refreshing counterprogramming to the big blockbusters that will be filling up the multiplex screens this time of year. Those who prefer their movies less loud and teen-centric should keep their radar out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: Really gives a sense of the beauty of rustic life. Mulligan is a strong lead. Classic story.
REASONS TO STAY: Adds little to previous film versions of the novel.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mulligan suffered a concussion when she was thrown from a horse. Nobody realized she was injured until she fell to her knees during the next scene to be filmed. Schoenaerts thought she was acting and continued his lines; it was only when she slumped over that anyone realized that there was something wrong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wuthering Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Child 44

Winter in the Blood


Chaske Spencer gazes out over the infinite prairie.

Chaske Spencer gazes out over the infinite prairie.

(2013) Drama (Ranchwater) Chaske Spencer, David Morse, Gary Farmer, Julia Jones, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Lily Gladstone, Richard Ray Whitman, David Cale, Casey Camp-Horinek, Alex Escaravega, Joseph Grady, Saginaw Grant, Yancey Hawley, Kendra Mylnechuk, Michael Spears, William Otis Wheeler-Nicholson, Ken White. Directed by Alex and Andrew Smith

Florida Film Festival 2014

When it comes to the Native population, America has a lot to answer for. In attempting to obliterate their culture and drive them into squalid reservations, we have demoralized and demonized an entire people, yet they have endured. It hasn’t always been easy.

In the Fort Belknap reservation in northern Montana in the late ’60s/early ’70s, Virgil First Raise (Spencer) awakens from a drunken stupor to find out that his wife Agnes (Jones) has left him and taken his prized rifle, one of the last remaining gifts from his late father (Whitman) who died when Virgil was a boy, passed out in a ditch in the freezing cold.

That and the death of his older brother Mose (Hawley) have haunted Virgil throughout his life. As he goes to town to retrieve not his wife so much but his beloved rifle, he encounters the Airplane Man (Morse), a manic Canadian con artist who may or may not be real. He is being chased by a couple of men in suits who don’t seem particularly interested in arresting him so much as trapping him.

Virgil seeks to stem the pain through alcohol and random sexual encounters. His mother (Camp-Horinek) is getting hitched to Lame Bull (Farmer) which Virgil isn’t too thrilled by. He doesn’t think too highly of Lame Bull although his potential stepfather seems to be a decent sort. Still, Virgil has his own demons to wrestle with and at present, they are handily beating him. Can he overcome his past and come to grips with his present?

Based on the novel by native writer James Welch, this is a sobering and unflinching look at the results of our native American policies and how they have turned a proud people into a group without hope. The northern Montana landscape (where the novel is set and where this was filmed) is sometimes bleak but has a beauty all its own.

Spencer, best known as Sam Uley the leader of the werewolf gang in the Twilight franchise, is crazy good here. Virgil is basically a decent sort who wants to get his life together but just can’t get past the pains and traumas of his past. His mother and an elderly friend to his father named Yellow Calf (Grant) that he visits from time to time both understand him more than he understands himself, and there are those who would give him surcease but at this point in his life he just wants numbness. It’s a heart-rending and incendiary performance.

The rest of the cast also does well including a nearly unrecognizable David Morse but this is Spencer’s show. Because much of the movie takes place in a kind of surreal manner (Welch is well-known for having mystical elements in his stories), there is a sense of unreality to the proceedings. While that isn’t a bad thing of itself, the lines are often blurred and the movie comes off in places like a lost episode of Twin Peaks which also isn’t a bad thing of itself. However, some filmgoers might find that unsettling. Personally I wish the movie were a little more seamless in that regard.

I found myself completely immersed in the film, with a splendid soundtrack framing the action nicely and a timeless quality (I was surprised to find out the movie was set nearly 40 years ago after I had already seen it – look carefully and you’ll notice the truth of it) that made me feel that things have not changed so much for the Native American so much as plateaued. This isn’t always an easy movie to watch but it is a movie well worth the effort to go see it.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting performance by Spencer. Outstanding cinematography. Nice soundtrack.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed in places. Hunter S. Thompson-surreal atmosphere might be off-putting for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, some sexuality, a little violence and some depiction of drunken behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was provided by the Austin-based country blues-rock band the Heartless Bastards.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A River Runs Through It

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Chef

Holiday Inn


Holidays are inn.

Holidays are inn.

(1942) Holiday (Paramount) Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, Walter Abel, Louise Beavers, Irving Bacon, Leon Belasco, Marek Windheim, James Bell, John Gallaudet, Shelby Bacon, Joan Arnold, Edward Arnold Jr., Loretta Barnett, Irving Berlin, Ruth Clifford, Muriel Barr, Jane Novak, Lora Lee, Teala Loring. Directed by Mark Sandrich

hollynquill-2013

Although not strictly a Christmas movie (Christmas was but one of several holiday sequences filmed for the movie), it continues to be remembered as one and of course the presence of the timeless Christmas classic song “White Christmas” – which would win an Oscar for Best Song that year – guarantees this film a place in the annals of Christmas films.

The lightweight plot concerns a song and dance trio comprised of Jim Hardy (Crosby), Ted Hanover (Astaire) and Lila Dixon (Dale). Jim and Lila are preparing to leave the act get married and retire to a farm in Connecticut but Lila has second thoughts and instead leaves Jim for Ted in order to continue dancing. Jim is heartbroken and follows through with his decision to leave show business for farming.

Farming turns out to be easier said than done and Jim decides to turn his farm into an inn that is only open on holidays. In order to attract crowds, he hits upon the idea to present entertainment themed around each holiday. Wanna-be entertainer Linda Mason (Reynolds) manages to get a try-out and becomes a featured attraction and as the crowds begin to pour in, Ted and Lila are contracted by Jim’s agent Danny (Abel) to work at the Inn.

However, it’s no longer Ted and Lila – she’s left Ted for a Texas oil millionaire. Ted, looking for a partner, decides to come by the inn and is struck by Linda’s talent and beauty but Jim has fallen for Linda too and goes to extreme lengths to keep Ted from her. However when Linda discovers what Jim’s up to, especially when Ted arranges for a studio honcho to sign him and Linda, she leaves Jim and takes up with Ted, intending to marry him.

Once again Jim is devastated but even more so. His maid Mamie (Beavers) urges him to go to Hollywood and fight for the woman he loves. Jim resolves to do just that but is it too late?

The plot is paper thin and the story is incredibly dated. Modern audiences may groan at some of the twists and turns and there’s no doubt that the movie is definitely a product of its times. There is an enormous charm about it however and you really can’t go wrong with Crosby crooning and Astaire dancing up a storm. Those are the kinds of elements that can elevate any sort of movie.

There is a scene in which the performers put on blackface and perform in an idiom which today is considered racially offensive. Some networks such as AMC who air the movie from time to time will cut that sequence out. Most of the DVD versions do have it in the original form with the offending scene intact and Turner Classic Movies, who have a policy not to edit or alter their classic movies in any way, does air the movie in its original form. Those who are offended by such depictions should be aware that it is there however.

That aside this is a movie that remains a heartwarming classic. Some families make it an annual tradition to view this on Christmas day if for no other reason than to hear Crosby crooning the classic “White Christmas” the way it was first seen by the general public (he would go on to sing the song in two other movies). While generally I wouldn’t rate a movie as dated as this one this highly, the flaws of the film are overcome by its stars and by the Irving Berlin songs that elevate this above B-movie fare.

WHY RENT THIS: Timeless Irving Berlin songs. Cute plot. Astaire and Crosby.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some smoking if that kind of thing bothers you.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The popular hotel chain took its name from this movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The commentary is not only by film historian Ken Barnes but also includes some archival comments from Crosby and Astaire.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Broadway Melody of You Name It

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Aftermath (2012) (Poklosie)


You can't beat Ireneusz Czop's performance with a stick.

You can’t beat Ireneusz Czop’s performance with a stick.

(2012) Drama (Menemsha) Ireneusz Czop, Maciej Stuhr, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Danuta Szarflarska, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Zuzana Fialova, Wojciech Brzezinski, Danuta Borsuk, Andrzej Mastalerz, Anita Podderbniak, Magdalena Gnatowska, Ryszard Roncziewski, Zbigniew Konopka, Elzbieta Romanowska, Lech Dyblik, Jaroslaw Gruda, Zbigniew Kasprzyk, Robert Rogalski, Maria Garbowska. Directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski

We really don’t know what darkness lurks in the hearts of our neighbors. Even in the nicest, most bucolic towns there can be absolute horrors beyond imagining. Some people will go to the most extreme of measures to keep those secrets hidden.

Franck Kalina (Czop) has flown to Poland from Chicago. His destination is a pretty remote one; to get there he has to take a plane, a train, a bus and then walk the rest of the way. He is there to visit his brother Jozef (Stuhr) who runs the family farm.

Franck has been in America nearly 20 years and has been estranged from his brother at least for that long but when Jozef’s wife Jola shows up at his door with their kids and without explanation, he returns to the land of his birth to get to the bottom of things. There he finds Jozef has been essentially ostracized by the town. Why? Because he’s unearthing old Jewish tombstones that were repurposed by the Nazis during World War II as flagstones, pavement and other uses. He can’t really explain why he’s doing it other than it seems right; there’s nobody left to look after them.

Franck soon becomes embroiled in the controversy as the incidents escalate from rocks thrown through windows to anti-Semitic graffiti on their barn to physical violence directed against Jozef and his dog. Only the retiring village priest (Mastalerz) and a kindly medic (Fialova) seem to have any sympathy for them at all. Franck’s dogged determination to discover what the reason is for all the hatred over stones for people nobody can remember leads to a shocking discovery.

This movie took nearly a decade to secure the financing to make it to the screen. The movie is inspired by a real incident in the village of Jedwabne during the Second World War. The controversial non-fiction book Neighbors by Princeton scholar Jan Gross (which was denounced as anti-Polish and inflammatory) about the subject inspired the filmmakers to make Aftermath. Even now the events are a sore subject with the Polish people; even reviews of the film in American newspaper have inspired some passionate posts both pro and con; some look at the filmmakers as brave men who have become the first Poles to directly acknowledge the events in Jedwabne and in other places like it in the Arts. Others have condemned it as furthering vicious slander against the Polish people.

This is an incredibly moving film which is on one level the bond between two very different brothers. Franck is taciturn and confrontational but at the same time he didn’t have the decency to return home for the funeral for his parents. Jozef is stubborn and unforgiving but has a curious soft spot for the underdog. Both men, surprisingly, are what I’d call environmental anti-Semites. They habitually refer to Jews as “Yids” and often say things that convey their low opinion of Jews in general and Polish Jews in particular. Franck even intimates that the troubles Poles have getting decent jobs in the U.S.is due to Jewish interference.

They do make the unlikeliest of righteous men but yet they are. It works making them so un-heroic in many ways. These aren’t American action heroes who use their fists to get themselves out of sticky situations; they get beat up and they often seem to go out of their way to avoid conflict but who can blame them – at every turn they are attacked verbally and physically by the townspeople and the new rector (Radziwilowicz) arrived to replace the retiring priest for some odd reason is stirring the town up to do so.

Czop and Stuhr deliver raw, honest performances that depict the brothers as deeply divided and unsure how to bridge the gulf between them until this common cause unites them. They are dogged more than brilliant and stubborn more than compassionate. Perhaps the problem that some conservative Poles have with the film is that none of the Poles in the movie come off as good guys.

This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart. It tackles the issues of hatred, greed and suspicion in the real world and it does so in a real world way. While I saw this movie at the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival, there are no living Jews in the movie until the final scene – and yet the ghosts of the Jewish dead in the Holocaust hang heavy over the film itself. This is the kind of movie that will leave you speechless and is much worth seeking out if you can find it (the official website has a list of theaters playing the movie if you want to click on the picture above and find out if it’s playing near you). It is another contender in what is turning out to be a very strong year for independent films as one of the best of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Czop and Stuhr deliver powerful performances. Raw and emotional.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing images and thematic content. There’s also a little bit of violence and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Received the Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival for excellence in depiction of the Holocaust.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Attack

Man of Steel


I believe I can flyyyyyy...

I believe I can flyyyyyy…

(2013) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer, Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline, Richard Zetrone, Mackenzie Gray, Samantha Jo, Christina Wren. Directed by Zack Snyder 

 

Look! It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! It’s a flying guy in blue tights! Superman is an iconic figure not only in pop culture but it can be argued in American literature as well. He represents the American ideal – powerful, invulnerable and unstoppable but just and fair as well. He was our self-image, America in the post-war years. One strong man against the world.

But times have changed and Supes has fallen out of style in favor of  the darker superheroes, particularly Batman. The optimism and idealism of Superman seemed to be something of an anachronism when the successful superheroes were brooding damaged men who faced demons who ravaged their souls. They may have superpowers but they have crappy lives just like us.

Resurrecting Superman in a film form was a daunting task. Superman Returns back in 2006 was considered a failure, unable to make back its pretty steep production and marketing costs at the box office. The studio assigned Zack Snyder, maker of 300 and Watchmen to take the reins of the property and hired Christopher Nolan who made the Batman franchise one of the most profitable for Warner Brothers as an executive producer (and co-writer of the script along with David Goyer). The execs at DC Comics and Warner Brothers were fully aware that while they’d had success with Batman, none of their other comic book properties had taken off yet and with Marvel essentially printing money with every film release, DC knew that they need to get in on that action and have a superhero hit that doesn’t have Batman in it.

Krypton is dying. Jor-El (Crowe) knows it as does his friend Zod (Shannon), general of Krypton’s military. The dithering High Council of Krypton doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of their situation so Zod acts by attempting a coup. In the chaos, Jor-El steals the Codex, a genetic directory of Krypton and downloads it, sending his infant son – the first naturally born Kryptonian in centuries – in a rocket headed for an obscure system orbiting an unimportant star. Zod is sent to the Phantom Zone along with his followers, chief of whom is Faora (Traue), after the coup fails leaving Jor-El murdered by Zod. Lara (Zurer), Jor-El’s wife and mother of the infant Kal-El (now rocketing to Earth) can only wait helplessly for her world to end, which it does in spectacular fashion.

The infant lands in Kansas and is raised by farmers Jonathan (Costner) and Martha (Lane) Kent. Realizing quickly that this boy is not only from somewhere else, he is possessed of great powers – x-ray vision, super hearing, heat vision, super strength and the ability to fly. Pa counsels young Clark (which is what they renamed Kal-El) to hide his powers from a world that was clearly not ready for them and although it involves a lot of soul-searching, loneliness and turning the other cheek, Clark complies.

Now grown to manhood Clark (Cavill) wanders around, doing odd jobs and flying below the radar. His father, who passed away some years before, would definitely approve but Clark is haunted by questions of who he really is and where he comes from. The only clue he has is a black object, with a stylized “S” on it.

Clark’s wanderings take him to the arctic where the government has found an ancient craft buried under the ice that has been there about 20,000 years. Reporter Lois Lane (Adams) has successfully sued for access, much to the chagrin of Colonel Hardy (Meloni) who is the military commander on the project, and Dr. Hamilton (Schiff), the scientific chief. Lois spies Clark walking in the Arctic ice apparently in jeans and a t-shirt in the frigid weather. Intrigued, she follows him and finds a recently melted hole (heat vision comes in handy). A protective robot attacks Lois but Clark saves her and delivers her to a place near the base where she can be attended to. In the meantime Clark discovers a keyhole which his object fits into. This brings out a holographic projection of his father who tries to explain to him who he is and what his hopes are for him.

It also sets off a beacon which brings back Zod looking for the codex and revenge. Having escaped the Phantom Zone during the destruction of Krypton, they make a beeline for some of Krypton’s abandoned deep space military outposts and are well-armed with advanced weapons and ships, and have all the powers that Kal-El possesses. Can Superman save the day?

The movie has been (depending on the source) decried or embraced as dark, and that’s absolutely true. How you’re going to react to it depends entirely how tied in you are to the Superman mythology; this is certainly no cream puff Clark. He kicks ass (more on that later) but this isn’t your father’s Superman, or your grandfather’s. This is a reinvention of the character for modern sensibilities, for better or for worse. I suspect older audiences are going to have a harder time reconciling this Superman with the one they grew up with than younger audiences are.

Cavill is given the ball in this movie and he runs with it. Superman is by nature a polite, gentle soul who happens to have the ability to throw a tanker truck like you and I would toss a Frisbee. Cavill captures that side of him. Peter Parker in another film was told with great power comes great responsibility but what if you have the powers of a God? How much more responsible do you have to be? The answer is exponentially more. It is a difficult thing to determine what is just and what is not when you literally have unlimited powers and that’s really the crux of Man of Steel.

Of course, there’s a whole lot of stuff getting blowed up real good.  The last 45 minutes of this more than 2 1/2 hour film are of big battles in Smallville and Metropolis to the point that I wondered “Who’s going to clean this mess up?” as the skyline of the latter undergoes a radical transformation. While the battles are pretty thrilling, there isn’t a whole lot of variety to them and they get old fast. These are definitely scenes that could have been trimmed.

It’s very easy to get caught in the trap of comparing Man of Steel to those that preceded it. I was going to write that the chemistry between this Lois and Clark isn’t as profound as that between Margo Kidder and the late Christopher Reeve (which is true) until I realized that I’m not here to review Superman: The Movie; that’s a whole different film experience than this. It isn’t fair to either film to compare them, even though the story is pretty similar (more so to Superman 2). In any case, if you go to the multiplex expecting something like the 1978 classic, you’re going to leave the theater disappointed.

The filmmakers have gone on record that they hope to use this as a jumping off point to create a shared DC Universe in much the way Marvel has created a shared film universe. Already there is a sequel to Man of Steel on the way and talk is it will be followed soon after by a Justice League film. I hope so. The DC Comics tradition is rich and has some amazing stories to draw on. Man of Steel isn’t a groundbreaking film by any means but it is an entertaining one and the box office numbers indicate that there are a lot of other people who think so as well. I look forward to see what comes of it.

REASONS TO GO: Good performances top to bottom. Epic scope befitting an icon.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Fight sequences repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, destruction and mayhem on a mass scale as well as some brief language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cavill had become notorious for having other actors selected ahead of him for franchise roles, including Daniel Craig for Bond, Christian Bale for Batman, Robert Pattinson for Edward Cullen and Brandon Routh for Superman Returns before finally breaking through.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; critics are very divided over this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Beneath the Darkness

Martha Marcy May Marlene


Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sarah Paulson and Elizabeth Olsen contemplate a world without the Oprah show.

(2011) Thriller (Fox Searchlight)  Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbett, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson, Adam Thompson, Allen McCullough, Gregg Burton, Diana Masi. Directed by Sean Durkin

The mind is a terribly fragile and easily manipulated thing. If you tell it something with enough conviction and enough reputation, it will largely believe anything. Someone with enough will and skill can turn a group of people into their own personal marionettes.

Lucy (Paulson) gets a phone call one afternoon from her sister Martha (Olsen) who hasn’t spoken to her in two years. Martha seems a bit skittish and somewhat confused; Lucy offers to pick her up, a three hour drive each way. She brings her sister home to a beautiful, sleek lake cottage (and I use the term “cottage” advisedly; it could easily sleep ten) where her husband Ted (Dancy) waits to meet Martha for the first time. Martha’s behavior is a bit odd, but nothing too out of the ordinary at first.

The weird things begin to happen. While Lucy and Ted are having sex, Martha crawls into bed with them, seemingly oblivious to their need for privacy and intimacy. Martha seems to place no value whatsoever on possessions and has developed skills in cleaning and gardening that she never had before. She also has the look and feel of a puppy who’s been kicked by her owner too many times.

What we know that Lucy doesn’t is that Martha has been in a cult for the last two years. Introduced into it by her friend Zoe (Krause), the cult looks more like a commune at first, a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York where all possessions are shared as is the workload. It is presided over by Patrick (Hawkes), a mild guitar-playing sort. Patrick takes one look at Martha and proclaims her name is Marcy May from then on out and that’s what everyone calls her. Martha doesn’t seem to mind. She is intrigued by Patrick’s philosophy of being self-sufficient.

Except they’re not. The farm is in desperate need of things they aren’t yet able to provide for themselves, so it becomes part of the routine for members of the cult to go to neighboring homes and steal things. This leads to an unexpected and brutal conclusion after which Marcy May makes the decision to flee and return to being Martha again.

At home, Martha is still haunted by her experiences. Little things – a pebble skittering across the driveway, the splash from jumping into the lake – bring her right back into memories of the cult. She becomes paranoid, certain that the cult is after her and is out to bring her back to the farm. How much of her paranoia is real, and how much is the result of a traumatized mind?

Part of what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene (the Marlene is a reference to the name all of the cult’s women adopt when answering the phone) work is the chilling realism of it. Patrick takes control of the women by changing their names just slightly enough that it doesn’t seem like a bad thing and slowly but surely strips them of their own will. Of course, sex is a big part of that.

In a chilling scene, we are made to realize that Patrick himself “initiates” the women into the family by drugging them and raping them. Afterwards, the women are convinced by their “sisters” that not only was it not rape, that it was not just consensual, but it was a purification that they desperately needed and wanted. So indoctrinated is Martha/Marcy May that she assists in preparing and drugging a new member for Patrick.

Women are not allowed to eat until the men have finished; when a hungry Martha absently pops something into her mouth while preparing a meal, she is smacked upside the head and not gently. Even away from the cult, Martha is seen to be mouthing the platitudes that Patrick repeated to her. It truly is chilling.

At opposite ends of the spectrum we have Olsen – yes, sister to the Olsen twins – who plays Martha like a wounded bird; hopelessly naive in some ways, worldly in others and just barely holding it together. It is a performance that if it doesn’t merit Oscar consideration, should at least be leading to some bigger, more visible roles for Olsen who proves herself  to be a fearless actress.

Hawkes, so impressive in Winter’s Bone last year, proves that his Oscar nomination for that film was no fluke. His Patrick is mesmerizing; never overtly evil except in a couple of places, menacing without appearing to be. He’s the kind of guy that inspires trust and only too late do you find that you are ensnared in his web.

Paulson and Dancy play a very self-absorbed couple who fail to see all the warning signs that Martha’s trauma and seek out professional help for the girl. Dancy’s Ted in particular is more worried about his own comforts than he is about the well-being of his sister-in-law. They are both shallow and materialistic and are thrown into a complete quandary by the arrival of someone who is neither.

The tension here sneaks up on you. It’s evident from the beginning that something bad is going on, and it just gets worse and worse while you wait for the other shoe to drop. By the time it does, you haven’t noticed just how much the level of tension has been wound up on you. That’s good filmmaking. What doesn’t work as well is the switching of timelines between Marcy May and Martha, which is I think meant to convey the confusion going on in her mind but winds up confusing the audience as well. That could have been handled better and is the main reason I didn’t give the movie a higher rating; I still suspect I undervalued it a bit.

The movie does build towards a climax which is deliberately ambiguous. I left the theater with a creepy feeling that was unsettling, like you’d looked into the home movies of someone involved in a tragedy and the movie doesn’t make it plain what the fate of Martha and her sister were although it suggests that it doesn’t end well. While this doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Winter’s Bone, it leaves you with a good ration of something to think about. You feel like you’ve been through the wringer after watching it and quite frankly, not everyone wants to go through that at the movies. Those not looking for mindless entertainment would be well-advised to seek this out.

REASONS TO GO: Durkin establishes a tense mood from the get-go and only ratchets it up throughout, slowly and subtly until you’re a nervous wreck as a viewer. Some intense performances, particularly from Olsen.

REASONS TO STAY: Hard to follow at times and an ending that is disturbing as it is ambiguous.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing scenes of sudden violence, rape and sex. There are a few bad words and some nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Martha was the only one that the filmmakers auditioned. Durkin wanted an unknown actress for the role and after Olsen auditioned twice, she was cast two weeks before filming started.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of movie that you’ll want to see at home.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Piranha 3D

Disgrace


Disgrace

An awkward silence ensues after John Malkovich asks Jessica Haines for a loan.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney, Paula Arundelli, Fiona Press, Antoinette Engel, David Dennis, Michael Richard, Natalie Becker, Charles Tertiens. Directed by Steve Jacobs

The consequences of our actions are utterly and completely our own – at least, most of the time. When we perform actions that beget disastrous consequences, then we fall into disgrace.

David Lurie (Malkovich) is a professor of Romantic literature at a university in Capetown, South Africa. He is an arrogant man who teaches poetry without really understanding it. Middle aged, he is divorced and estranged from his family, and spends much of his time taking up with black prostitutes. When he engages in an affair with a mixed race student (Engel) of his, he is found out and brought before a disciplinary board.

However, he refuses to defend himself for, by his lights, following his natural instincts. Given no other option, the board dismisses Lurie, which surprises and shocks him – he fully expected to escape sanction of any kind. His career ruined, he finds sanctuary on his daughter’s farm.

Lucy (Haines) is a lesbian who grows organic crops and takes care of dogs in a rugged part of the country. She is assisted by Petrus (Ebouaney), who does most of the heavy lifting and whom David develops an immediate distrust for. He tells Lucy he doesn’t think she’s safe on the farm with Petrus around.

In the meantime, he helps out the local vet with performing euthanasia on dogs. It’s the only job he can really get. He is actually beginning to put his life back together – until something horrible happens, something that will test his limits as much as anything else in his life to that point had.

Aussie filmmaker Jacobs has taken an award-winning novel from South African writer J.M. Coetzee and turned it into a stark, unyielding look at hubris. The landscapes here are soulless and colorless, from the muted colors of the university to the desolation of the countryside of the Eastern Cape.

Lurie is much like that, only reversed – his desolation is on the inside. Outwardly, he can quote the flowery poetry of Byron, whom he most identifies with – but inwardly he doesn’t understand it, is incapable of it. Or, if he is capable, chooses not to because of his own hubris.

Malkovich does a stellar job as Lurie. While his Afrikaner accent has a tendency to slip now and again, he captures the essence of Lurie in his granite façade, his opinionated stare. This is not a very nice man, and bad things happen to him, much of which is of his own device. Haines does a pretty good job in support of Malkovich. She manages to stand up beside him without being overpowered by him. That’s no easy task, as many actors can attest.

Although I’m not familiar with the source material, I understand that Coetzee’s original work was taken as a political allegory about the status of the white male in the changing South African society. I don’t get that as much from the movie, which seems to be more of a morality play about hubris and pride. There are allusions to Biblical wrath of God type of stuff happening to David Lurie, although unlike Job he brought many of his troubles on himself and in doing so, brought them upon others.

There is a lot going on in this movie and nearly all of it is under the surface. That does make for a pretty solid workout in the mental gym, which is not what the general moviegoing public is necessarily after. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly sure if I caught the nuances I needed to; they may have been more subtle than I’m used to, or else I just missed them entirely. In any case, this is a very solid movie that is going to provoke some thought and maybe even a little debate. What’s it all about? Probably not what I think it is; but I’m probably not wrong either.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful performance by Malkovich is framed by a stark cinematic shell. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence is sudden and ferocious and might put off some.

FAMILY VALUES: The film went unrated, but there were some scenes of sudden and terrifying violence, including a rape. There is also some very adult themes as well as some very adult language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Steve Jacobs is married to Anna Maria Monticelli, who adapted the J.M. Coetzee novel into a screenplay.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.1M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie just about broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Bang Bang Club

Charlotte’s Web (2006)


Charlotte's Web

Some loves were just never meant to be.

(2006) Family (Paramount) Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), John Cleese (voice), Oprah Winfrey (voice), Cedric the Entertainer (voice), Robert Redford (voice), Kathy Bates (voice), Reba McEntire (voice), Dominic Scott Kay (voice), Kevin Anderson, Sam Shepard, Gary Basaraba.  Directed by Gary Winick

The truth of the matter is that as much as I was looking forward to seeing this star-studded live action version of the E.B. White children’s novel, Da Queen had even more anticipation than I. There was, therefore, no question that we would be seeing it as soon as it was possible to see it in the theater, and eventually buying the DVD for it as well. Still, the cynic in me wondered; was it possible that the filmmakers could take a beloved novel and completely mess it up?

The plot is simple enough. Fern Arable (Fanning) saves a runt pig from being put down by her farmer dad (Anderson) and raises the pig, whom she calls Wilbur, herself. The two are inseparable, the pig even joining Fern at school. Eventually, the pig grows as baby pigs will, and Fern’s parents put their collective feet down. They send the pig across the road to Uncle Homer’s farm. Kind-hearted Homer Zuckerman (Basaraba) installs the pig in a large, comfortable barn and there Wilbur (Kay) meets the animals of the farm.

There’s unctuous Samuel the Sheep (Cleese), prissy Gussy the Goose (Winfrey), down-to-earth Golly the Goose (Cedric), wry Bitsy the Cow (Bates), neurotic Ike the Horse (Redford) and devious Templeton the Rat (Buscemi). However, Wilbur’s best friend of all is Charlotte A. Cavatica (Roberts), spider.

However, all is not idyllic in the barn. The other animals are aware of what happens to spring pigs on Zuckerman’s farm. They become summer bacon. Alarmed, Wilbur turns to his friends for help, and he finds it in the most unlikely of places – in the miraculous webs of Charlotte.

Most of my generation grew up reading the book and seeing the animated version of it, voiced by Debbie Reynolds (Charlotte), Henry Gibson (Wilbur) and Paul Lynde (Templeton). Quite frankly, it was one of my favorite books and I read it and re-read it regularly, and I’m sure there are a lot of people – a whole lot – that could say the same. I think I speak for the majority of us when I say that most of us who love the book would not take too kindly to having it messed with unnecessarily.

Thankfully, director Winick doesn’t. In fact, if recollection serves me correctly (and Da Queen bears this one out), I think this new version is if anything even more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Winick also takes the movie out of the depression era that the book was set in and makes it a bit more timeless, setting it somewhere in the late 20th century, but cleverly doesn’t give too many clues as to when the story is taking place. Rather, he puts the action in a rural setting that is nearly archetypal, so perfect as to be almost too good to be true, and as a result we feel comfortable in this world.

The problems I have with the movie are three-fold. The first is that some of the voice actors – not all, just some – come off rather flat. My favorite moments from the movie tended to come during exclusive live action sequences, as when Fern confronts her father about Wilbur’s fate, or Henry Fussy’s (Julian O’Donnell) awkward courting of Fern. Considering how much this movie and the story relies on the animals, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Second is Charlotte herself. She’s CG, and quite frankly, they do a little too good a job with her. Strangely, they give her almost human eyes rather than the multi-faceted insect eyes that spiders actually have. Rather than humanizing her, it makes Charlotte seem kind of creepy if you ask me. There were times during the movie that I half-expected Charlotte to pounce on some poor unsuspecting critter and eat it alive. Sorry, spiders aren’t cute and cuddly creatures and quite frankly, they should have kept away from close-ups of Charlotte. I’m sure some of the younger kids might have been freaked out a little bit.

The most glaring problem I had with the movie, however, is Wilbur. Child actor Kay doesn’t have the emotional depth to really make Wilbur live, as Henry Gibson did thirty years ago. I know that Wilbur is supposed to be a child, but quite frankly he’s also supposed to be “some pig,” among other things and Kay never makes Wilbur seem anything more than whiny and out-of-sorts.

Still, the good outweighs the bad in the movie. The live actors do a tremendous job and make up for some of the surprising star flops. Shepard’s narration is spot-on; he’s the perfect guy for the job. Winick also captures the mood and the charm of the novel nicely, which is really what you’re looking for most. The animated version stands up even today as a timeless classic; I don’t know necessarily if this version will get the same sort of distinction, but something tells me it will not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and nearly perfect family fare at the right time of the year. Take a break from the big-budget CG animated features and check this out with your kids. It will give you, at the very least, a chance to revisit something beloved from your own childhood.

WHY RENT THIS: The live action version is more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Fanning is terrific in her role as Fern.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The child actor voicing Wilbur isn’t up to the task, sadly – but then many of the voice actors seem curiously flat. CG verion of Charlotte is creepy enough to freak out the smaller tykes.

FAMILY VALUES: Pretty much suitable for the entire family, although younger children might have problems with the realistic CG version of Charlotte.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The two crows, Elwyn and Brooks, are a tribute to the name of the original book’s author E.B. White, whose initials stood for Elwyn Brooks.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are a pair of music videos, as well as a featurette that focuses on what happened to the more than 40 piglets that played Wilbur after shooting wrapped.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $144.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: African Cats