The Spiderwick Chronicles


Who says kids don't listen?

Who says kids don’t listen?

(2008) Fantasy (Paramount) Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Martin Short (voice), Seth Rogan (voice), Andrew McCarthy, Jordy Benattar, Tod Fennell, Mariah Inger, Jeremy Lavalley, Lise Durocher-Viens, Ron Perlman (voice), Tyler Patrick Jones, Kyle Switzer, Stefanie Broos. Directed by Mark Waters

Young adult fantasy novels have fared poorly when given the cinematic treatment by various Hollywood entities, some worse than others. While studios are obviously eager to find the next Harry Potter or the next Katniss Everdeen, sometimes in an effort to make a franchise they overlook the simple solution of telling a good story well.

The Grace family has taken their share of blows lately. Mother Helen (Parker) has packed up and moved from New York City into “the middle of nowhere” to a decrepit estate she has inherited from her Aunt Lucinda (Plowright), who has been taken to a sanitarium after a suicide attempt. Her children are handling their situation differently. Mallory (Bolger), the oldest, clearly is behind her mother. She’s obsessed with fencing (the kind with swords, not pickets) and carries her sword with her nearly everywhere she goes. Younger brother Simon (Highmore) has become decidedly non-confrontational (perhaps in response to conflicts between his parents) and instead focuses on his love for animals.

It is Simon’s twin Jared (Highmore again) who is having the toughest time. Already burdened with anger control issues, he feels betrayed by his mother and is anxious to live with his father (McCarthy) instead. He lashes out at his siblings and mother, who tries very hard to be understanding but is obviously close to cracking herself.

It all starts with Jared hearing noises in the wall, banging on them with a broom. Eventually, Mallory accidentally uncovers a dumbwaiter, hidden in the walls behind plaster. In the dumbwaiter are trinkets, including some small items that have disappeared, such as Mallory’s fencing medals and Helen’s car keys, as well as a curious looking key with an old-fashioned letter “S” fashioned into it. Jared is blamed for this (it seems he is usually blamed for any mischief that occurs) and decides to see what is at the other end of the dumbwaiter.

He discovers the dusty old laboratory of his great grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), who disappeared years ago. Using the strange key to open up a trunk he finds in the room, he finds a hard-bound book that has been sealed with wax accompanied by a note warning the finder not to read the book upon peril of their lives. Of course, that only whets the boy’s curiosity and of course like any idiot Hollywood boy he opens it up and reads it.

What he finds is Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, with copious notes about magical creatures – fairies, trolls, goblins, griffons and ogres, to name a few – as well as means of performing all manners of magic. Unfortunately, the opening of the book has set into motion events that put the lives of the Grace family, as well as all the magical creatures in the book, in mortal danger. Young Jared will have to summon all the courage he can find to survive the perils of the Fantastical World.

A surprisingly solid cast for what is intended to be the first of series of movies which, I’m sure, Paramount was hoping to be successful along the lines of the Harry Potter novels. Children’s fantasy movies, however, have fared less than stellar other than the Potter and Narnia books – see The Golden Compass, The Last Mimzy and Eragon if you haven’t already.

Getting Highmore is a good first step. He’s done exceedingly well in such movies as Finding Neverland and August Rush. This isn’t, sadly, one of his better performances – I think it was a bit much to ask him to take two differing roles. He does OK with Jared, but Simon becomes washed-out and forgettable. The producers would have been better served to get another young actor to take the Simon role. Bolger is decent enough as the sister and Parker does some good work as the much put-upon mother.

Plowright nearly steals the movie as Aunt Lucinda; she is simply so much better than the rest of the cast. Strathairn is one of my favorite actors, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here. Even so, he makes the role of Arthur Spiderwick living and breathing.

As for the voice actors, Martin Short is decent as the brownie Thimbletack, but it is Rogan who is so much more entertaining as the easily distracted hobgoblin Hogsqueal. Nolte gets brief on-screen time as the shape-shifting Mulgarath but it is mostly his rumbling voice that we hear throughout.

As solid as the cast is, the talent behind the camera is impressive as well. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have, among others, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to their credits. Legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey and Emily) is responsible for the creepy atmosphere and gorgeous vistas. Oscar-winning composer James Horner has supplied some memorable theme music over the years, although his score doesn’t really hold up as well in this instance. Some Jim Dandy special effects here, mostly from ILM and Tippett Studios (Phil Tippett himself worked for ILM back in the Star Wars days). That’s a good thing, since the movie relies heavily on special effects.

The supporting performances are certainly worth noting. Some of the special effects are magnificent, although not groundbreaking. The creatures (particularly Hogsqueal) are all given a certain amount of individuality and come off realistically and holistically. The story is a little different from most children’s fantasies going on at the moment, although for God’s sake can’t the kids in these stories have two actual parents present? Ye Gods!

The kid actors can be kinda grating. Jared is not an easy character to like and at times, you wonder if everyone involved wouldn’t be much happier if Mulgarath would only eat him.  Occasionally, the effects work actually overwhelms the action. There are some instances in which the children are being chased by various nasty varmints and quite frankly, couldn’t possibly get away given the speed of the creatures and the distance behind the kids they are. After the third instance of this, you really begin to notice it.

It is very enjoyable for the whole family (except as delineated above). Sometimes, kid’s fantasy movies seem a bit too sanitized; this is most assuredly not that. The peril seems real and life-threatening, and while the effects aren’t eye-popping, they nevertheless are enjoyable. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a modern setting with all the viscera intact and you won’t be far from the mark here.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive cast, impressive effects. Refreshingly original as recent young adult franchise novels go. The creatures, although frightening, are plenty imaginative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jared is intensely unlikable. Some of the physics don’t work.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the creatures are much scarier than the PG rating would indicate. There are also plenty of instances of kids in peril, and some of the thematic content is on the mature side.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Nickelodeon branded film has been released in the IMAX format.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are interviews with the book’s authors, as well as comparisons between the book’s illustrations and the creatures as they appeared in the film. These appear on both DVD and Blu-Ray editions.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $162.8M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Eye in the Sky

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Deliver Us From Evil


Eric Bana is impressed by Edgar Ramirez' iMDB page.

Eric Bana is impressed by Edgar Ramirez’ iMDB page.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Screen Gems) Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris, Joel McHale, Chris Coy, Dorian Missick, Mike Houston, Lulu Wilson, Olivia Horton, Scott Johnsen, Daniel Sauli, Antoinette LaVecchia, Aidan Gemme, Jenna Gavigan, Skylar Toddings, Sebastian LaCause, Steve Hamm, Sean Nelson, Tijuana Nicks, Lolita Foster. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Usually when you hear things that go bump in the night it’s a sign that it’s time to move. In horror movies, most people who hear such things tend to go looking around for what’s causing those noises and that’s never a good idea.

Ralph Sarchie (Bana) is an NYPD detective stationed in the Bronx. His partner Butler (McHale) is an adrenaline junkie who relies on his partner’s “radar” to figure out when real bad stuff is going down. Ralph, a lapsed Catholic,  thinks of himself as having a “hard hand” as a cop and he has the scars to prove it. He’s a family man too, with his wife Jen (Munn) pregnant with their second child – adorable moppet Christina (Wilson) is their first. However, as of late he hasn’t exactly been present at home.

The truth is Ralph is beginning to crack a little. Finding dead babies in dumpsters doesn’t do a lot to maintain your faith in humanity. When he arrives on a scene where a disturbed mother (Horton) throws her infant into the lion pit at the Bronx Zoo, he has an odd confrontation with a painter who turns out to be an Iraq War vet named Santino (Harris) who had a strange and frightening encounter in the Middle East.

Taking an interest in the case is Father Mendoza (Ramirez), an unorthodox Jesuit priest (which is something of an oxymoron) who has seen true evil in his time. He knows that what Ralph is facing isn’t run of the mill evil perpetrated by deranged or amoral men, but something more primordial and far-reaching. Ralph is skeptical of this at first, but when his daughter starts hearing scratching noises under her floorboards and her stuffed animals begin to menace her, the pragmatic cop begins to realize that he might be in way over his head.

Derrickson, who also helmed the horror hit Sinister has got the creepiness factor down. He orchestrates an excruciating terror that begins early on and never lets you out of its grip for the remainder of the movie. A good horror film requires the proper atmosphere to work properly and Derrickson supplies that.

Bana is a very underrated actor, one who has done impressive work in films like Munich but has never really crossed over into superstar territory. He probably won’t with his work here, but it’s very capable which is a standard with Bana. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn in a bad performance even in films that are not very good.

There is a real Ralph Sarchie and this is based on some of the cases that he has been involved with. As with most horror movies that use real life events as a springboard, this takes an awful lot of liberties with Sarchie’s story (he wrote a book with Lisa Collier Cool entitled Beware the Night). There are elements of a lot of different cases in this single case and the character of Father Mendoza is an amalgam of a couple of different Catholic clerics. Take the “based on a true story” thing with a grain of salt; true stories are rarely as exciting as they are portrayed to be on the big screen.

This is equal parts police procedural and gross-out supernatural scare film. Some of the scares are legit here, and there’s plenty of squirm-inducing images. Cat lovers, be forewarned – there are some scenes that you will find quite disturbing and there are a couple of gruesome murders shown in detail onscreen. While there’s nothing here that is particularly standard-setting, neither do the make-up and special effects disgrace themselves either.

This movie is a bit of a metaphor for the overall summer season; while it has a lot of elements that could have made it a great film, it goes the safe route in a lot of ways and ends up being just a solid, entertaining film. I will say the climactic exorcism scene is pretty nifty, but it lacks the sheer on the edge of your seat tension that the similar scene in The Exorcist possessed (no pun intended). From my point of view, this is solid but unremarkable horror entertainment for the summer months.

REASONS TO GO: Bana always delivers and Ramirez is an interesting priest. Some legitimate scares and uninterrupted creepy vibe.

REASONS TO STAY: The usual horror movie cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, a good deal of violence that is generally bloody and gory, salty language and yes, terror. It’s a horror film after all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ralph Sarchie role was originally offered to Mark Wahlberg who declined. Eventually Bana accepted the part.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Inside

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Tammy

Psychosis


Charisma Carpenter having deep thoughts.

Charisma Carpenter having deep thoughts.

(2010) Horror (EntertainmentOne) Charisma Carpenter, Paul Sculfor, Ricci Harnett, Justin Hawkins, Ty Glaser, Bernard Kay, Richard Raynesford, Sean Chapman, Katrena Rochell, Tom Gaughan, Darren Bransford, Slaine Kelly, Josh Myers, Sarah Briggs, Alexander Ellis, Eileen Pollock, Sybille Gebhardt, Axelle Carolyn, Raven Isis Holt. Directed by Reg Traviss

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Let’s face it: the sooner we admit we don’t understand everything and that the world can’t always be easily explained, the better off we’ll be. There are things we don’t get, and perhaps we never will. The human mind, for example, might just be foremost among them.

Susan Golden (Carpenter) is an author who had a nervous breakdown not long ago but has left the care of her doctor and has been pronounced fit to rejoin society. She’s eager to resume her writing career but has hit a massive case of writer’s block. So what does she do? She and her husband David (Sculfor) find a spooky Victorian mansion in Middleofnowhereshire, England.

Soon she’s hearing noises and seeing a phantom soccer-playing kid on the lawn. The locals think she’s batty and to make things worse, David has become bored with her and is gallivanting around with pretty much any woman in town who’s willing – and there are apparently plenty that are.

She’s also seeing visions of horrific murders happening to people around her that come horrifyingly true. So what’s going on? Is there something sinister going on, maybe even supernatural? After all, there’s an entire prologue in which a group of tree-hugging hippies thousands of miles away get slaughtered by a serial killer in a seemingly random and unrelated incident. Or, has Susan lost it again, only this time with a homicidal edge to her madness? And of course there’s always option number three – Susan is being manipulated by someone with wicked intentions.

I remember Carpenter from the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV shows and she had so much promise. Beautiful and an accomplished actress, the world appeared to be her oyster. Sadly, things haven’t turned out the way I expected. She mostly appears in essentially cameo roles that trade in on her Buffy name value, and occasionally turns up in things like this.

She appears to be just going through the motions here. I’m not sure whether she thinks that “former mental patient” means “emotionally shut off” but I have to tell you – she just doesn’t give the audience much to get behind as plucky heroines go. However, she doesn’t have a terrible amount of support from the rest of the cast either. You wonder if someone sprinkled Valium on all the food from craft services.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some moments with decent scares. The slasher film prologue is actually quite good – I kind of wished they’d followed that road but instead they chose to go the moody psychological horror route and while there is nothing wrong with the latter genre, they just don’t do it as well in this instance.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fairly decent scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prologue looks like it came from an entirely different movie. Wooden acting and stale plot lines.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sexuality and nudity, some gore and violence and a lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a remake of the horror short Dreamhouse which was released as a feature along with two other shorts and a linking story as Screamtime in 1986.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Innocents

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Day 2 of Six Days of Darkness 2013!