Orphan


Orphan

Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrmann share a mother-daughter moment.

(Warner Brothers) Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrmann, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Aryana Engineer. Directed by Jaume Collett-Serra

How simple the love of a child. We take it for granted that our children are innocent and loving. Those who have the courage to adopt are bringing an unknown factor into their lives. There’s a presumption of good in every child, but not all children are good. Some, in fact, are very, very bad.

Kate (Farmiga) and John (Sarsgaard) Coleman have been through the wringer. Kate, although sober now, has had bouts with the bottle and the bottle generally won. While she was drunk her son Daniel (Bennett) nearly drowned, putting a serious strain on their marriage. Their daughter Max (Engineer) is deaf and while precocious and cute can be a handful.

They tried to have a third child by way of patching up their differences, but the child died stillborn. Despite having a whole lot of baggage to unpack in their marriage, they decide to adopt because nothing solves marital problems like adding another kid to the mix.

They head down to the local orphanage and are immediately smitten with Esther (Fuhrmann), a real charmer who is also a talented painter. She speaks in heavily accented English and at times clearly is unsure of the right words to use, but she is nearly perfect in many ways.

Of course, nothing and nobody are perfect and Esther is certainly not. She has quite a temper which sometimes leads her to all sorts of mischief. She also is a possessive sort and she has locked her radar on John, who is the understanding parent of the decade. Kate, not so much – she begins to get suspicious when people start having “accidents” around Esther, nearly all of whom pissed her off in some way. She tries to get people to see what she’s seeing, but most dismiss it as the hysteria of a woman who is a few centavos shy of a peso.

However, as is invariably true in horror movies, when people fail to listen to the Cassandra-like character, things go very, very badly for them. Kate realizes that her unheeded warnings could end up in utter tragedy for her family. Will she be able to protect them from such a little angel?

Collett-Serra previously directed the very flawed House of Wax remake and while this is a little less flawed, it nonetheless doesn’t establish him as a horror movie talent quite yet. Killer kids are not a particularly new contrivance (see The Bad Seed and The Good Son) so if you’re going to do a movie about them, you need something a little bit different to set your film apart from the others.

In this case, there is a doozy of a twist in the last reel that left me thinking that this movie wasn’t so bad after all. Unfortunately, it takes a real long time to get there. Collett-Serra directs this at a snail’s pace, with an enormous amount of exposition without enough pay-off to justify it. He relies too much on a jumpy musical score to set up false scares and other clichés of the genre rather than establishing a really creepy mood. The sad thing is, he’s capable of just that – the last ten minutes of the movie prove it.

Sarsgaard and Farmiga are both capable actors who give their roles some depth. Sarsgaard’s John is a supposed to be essentially a saint and a bit bland; Sarsgaard makes him believable and elevates the role with a better performance than was written.

Fuhrmann does a first-rate job as the homicidal pre-teen. The problem with having a child actor carry too much of a movie is that there are very few capable of doing it. Over the past several years there have been several phenomenal child actresses that have emerged – Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin to name two – and Fuhrmann may well join that list. Hopefully she’ll get some meaty roles from her performance here.

Orphan isn’t a terrible movie; it’s just a lazy one. It tries to set its mood up by standard Scary Movie 101 means rather than trying to develop it through performance and good writing. The results are a movie that doesn’t feel terrifying so much as bland, and despite some decent performances and a pretty good ending, don’t rise above the clichés of the genre to make a much better movie than what we got.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some truly frightening moments. Sarsgaard gives a terrific performance and Fuhrmann is awesome as the malicious child. The twist at the end is interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many hoary horror film clichés (the screeching violins to signify a false scare etc.) and a little too much stretching of believability.

FAMILY VALUES: While this isn’t gore-heavy, there are some scenes of sudden and horrifying violence, some sexuality and some really disturbing content. Not suitable for the young or the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken by the receptionist at the Saarne Institute is Estonian.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Elf


Elf

Buddy and Santa must work together to save Christmas in Central Park.

(New Line) Will Ferrell, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Tay, Faizon Love, Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris, Michael Lerner, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Artie Lang. Directed by Jon Favreau

Not everyone can be an elf. These small creatures are industrious, cheerful and limber, making them the perfect workforce for Santa. Nearly all of them, anyway.

Buddy (Ferrell) is an elf who isn’t an elf. He’s a human, an orphaned baby who crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas and hitched a ride all the way to the North Pole. Santa (Asner), unwilling to send him back to the orphanage, leaves him in the charge of Papa Elf (Newhart) who wanted a family of his own but never had the time to go get one.

As time goes by, it becomes very apparent that Ferrell doesn’t fit into the elfin world – literally. He’s big and clumsy compared to the other elves and while his heart is in the right place, he just doesn’t have the skills. Finally, Santa takes pity on him and tells him where he can find his birth father – in New York City. Unfortunately, Buddy’s birth mother had passed away some time before.

Said birth father, Walter (Caan) is a hard man, a publisher of children’s books who doesn’t have any child in him, unless he happened to eat one at lunch. He greets the possibility of an out-of-wedlock son in a green tunic and yellow tights with all the enthusiasm of an agoraphobic forced to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

Once Buddy name-drops his birth mother’s name, Walter realizes that there might be something to the whacko’s story and hustles him down to the family doctor for the world’s fastest genetic test and in no-time, is welcomed to the family by Walter’s saint of a wife Emily (Steenburgen) and plucky son Michael (Tay).

Of course, Buddy gets into trouble, working in the mail room at Walter’s publishing house and at Gimbel’s, a department store that used to be the chief rival of Macy’s but has been closed for quite awhile, even before this movie was made. There, he meets Jovie (Deschanel), a cute-as-a-button seasonal worker who likes to sing in the shower and might be a match made in Macy’s for the love-struck Buddy – or would have been if it hadn’t been at Gimbel’s.

The movie serves notice that it’s going to be irreverent from the opening, when Elves are shown fleeing an unfortunate fire in the Keebler tree, and it is throughout – Dinklage makes an impressive cameo as the world’s nastiest-tempered children’s book author, whom Walter is courting in a last-ditch effort to save his job at the publishing firm.

Favreau, who would go on to direct Iron Man, has a deft comedic touch and a good understanding of special effects. Many of the effects that have to do with Buddy towering over the elves are done with an old camera trick called forced perspective, where Ferrell stands closer to the camera to appear larger than those in the background.

He has also assembled an impressive cast, led by Ferrell who is at his best here. Ferrell can be an amiable sort when he isn’t dumbing down (as he does in Step-Brothers) and he plays Buddy with a lot of heart and a sweet tooth the size of Mt. Everest. The supporting cast is magnificent as well. Getting to see veterans like Asner, Newhart and Caan together is always a treat, and Steenburgen adds a touch of class.

Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses and she does shine here to a certain extent, although there are times that she is just so darn hip and cool that it overwhelms her cuteness and makes it seem like she’s in another indie film instead of a major studio family event movie. That can be mildly distracting at times, as well as the bashing over our heads of the fish out of water thing with Buddy in New York. I realize he’s supposed to be naïve, but there’s a difference between naïve and outright stupid and it crosses the line of stupid every so often.

Still, these are essentially minor complaints and this is a marvelous Christmas holiday movie. It’s funny enough to rival Saturday Night Live in some places, and charming enough to fill you full of holiday cheer. That’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving, don’t you think?

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet-natured film. Indie darling Deschanel slums on a major studio release and nearly steals it. Any movie that has Newhart, Asner and Caan in it is worth seeing regardless of the subject. Dinklage’s cameo is hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is dumb in some places. Deschanel is so cool and hip she’s almost in a different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Definitely a kid favorite.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the names on Santa’s nice list that he shows to Michael are members of the film crew.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD comes in an Infinifilm version, with regular opportunities to stop the movie and watch a feature pertaining to what is onscreen. Da Queen and I love Infinifilm. The Blu-Ray comes with something similar. There are some games and such on the DVD which are oddly missing on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues