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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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter: Ultimate Emo Boy!

(Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes, David Thewlis. Directed by David Yates

Being a teenager is hard enough without additional burdens. There’s the rampaging flood of hormones that makes a life-or-death situation of any emotional trauma. There’s the constant war between childish comforts and the call of growing up. Throw on top of that the responsibility of being The Chosen One and well, it sucks to be Harry Potter.

After the fallout of the events of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry (Radcliffe) has become a bit of a celebrity. The tabloids have gone so far as to wonder out loud if he isn’t The Chosen One, the wizard meant to end the threat of Valdemort (Fiennes) once and for all. For Valdemort’s part, his Deatheaters are no longer acting covertly but openly causing damage in both the Wizarding and Muggle worlds.

Dumbledore (Gambon) is increasingly spending time with Harry, preparing him for the battle to come. He takes young Harry on a mission to find Horace Slughorn (Broadbent), a bon vivant and former Potions teacher at Hogwarts. The idea is not just to offer him a job, but to bring him close to Dumbledore. Slughorn has a memory of young Tom Riddle (Frank Dillane) that may prove to be crucial in defeating the Dark Lord once and for all, but it is a memory that Slughorn is reluctant to pass on; you see, the contents of that memory may also ruin Slughorn forever.

In the meantime, Harry and his friends Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) are struggling with the adolescent hormones big time. Ron is the target of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), while Hermione has her eye on Dean Thomas (Alfie Enoch) and Harry himself has come under the scrutiny of Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Things can be very tangled up at that age.

In the meantime, the Dark Lord has an infiltrator at Hogwarts – Draco Malfoy (Felton). He is being protected by Professor Snape (Rickman), the former Deatheater who has been pressed into service by Draco’s mother Narcissa (Helen McCrory) and the evil Bellatrix Lestrange (Bonham Carter). What Malfoy’s mission is – and what he is doing with the cabinet in the Room of Requirement – is also central to Harry’s fate and the fate of the Wizarding world.

This is a much darker Potter than any of the other films in the franchise, and you definitely get a sense that the confrontation that has been building since the first movie is almost upon us. While the Wizarding world intrudes on our own world much more in this movie (London’s famed Millennium Bridge is destroyed in a fit of spite by the Deatheaters), the movie is Hogwarts-centric. However, you get less of a sense of it as a school as much as you do of the place of it. Harry is not attending classes so much as brooding in the hallways. We see much more of the social interactions between the students than we do instructions in the art of magic, and that’s a good thing.

Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have turned out to be solid, first-class actors who hold their own with world class talents like Rickman and Smith. Wright has also turned out nicely, making the romance between Ginny and Harry one of the sweetest things in the movie and nicely authentic. Watching Ron and Hermione turn towards each other is much more like watching your sister kiss your brother.

The effects are magnificent and the story is compelling. So why didn’t I like this movie more? Much of the middle part of the movie seems directly aimed at pleasing the legions of Potter obsessives who demand that the books be faithfully followed to a literal “T”. Characters literally make cameo appearances – Wormtail (Spall) appears merely to open a door without saying a word, then disappear from the film entirely. That kind of thing proves to be distracting.

The craft that went into the making of this movie is extraordinary. Kudos must go to the special effects and art direction crews; this is a world that is well-lived in and fleshed out and much of the credit must go to J.K. Rowling. She has created a world so detailed in her books that the movie crews have a great template to work with. The sequence in the underground cavern in which Dumbledore displays some of the powerful magic he is capable of is extremely well-done, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff, spectacle at its finest.

This is a solidly made movie that while not up to the standards of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, is still certainly worth seeing. I suspect that you will probably like it more than I did – for some reason, it didn’t draw me in the way other Potter movies have. Perhaps it is the dark, foreboding tone of the movie that makes the Wizarding world much less attractive to be in, unlike the first movies when it was a delightful place.

If there is light, then there must also be its absence as well, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince peers into that aspect firmly. This is not meant to be a movie for small children, but a movie for putting aside childish things. Harry Potter is growing up, and perhaps I’m not ready for that but as with all children, they grow up whether we want them to or not.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular special effects sequences and art direction make this a feast for the eyes. Well-acted and the romance between Ginny and Harry is extremely sweet and believable. Michael Gambon does some of his finest work of his career.

REASONS TO STAY: The tone is exceedingly dark and foreboding. There is a lot of unnecessary business that while pandering to the Potter extremists, proves to be distracting to the rest of us.

FAMILY VALUES: There are many frightening images and incidents that may be too intense for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.K. Rowling makes a cameo appearance as the subject on the cover of a gardening magazine that Dumbledore picks up in Slughorn’s flat.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The documentary J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life (which aired on U.S. cable) depicts the last year of the writing of the final book in the Harry Potter series during which the author revisits her past; there is also a series of “One Minute Drills” in which the cast are given sixty seconds to describe their character’s history, personality and other personal details  before time runs out. Finally, there is a sneak peak of the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure theme park opening in the Spring of 2010 in Orlando, Florida.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Armored

MirrorMask


MirrorMask

You should never play charades with wooden penguins.

(Goldwyn) Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon, Dora Bryan, Stephen Fry, Simon Harvey, Robert Llewellyn, Eryl Maynard. Directed by Dave McKean

Some of the most amazing graphic novels ever have sprung from the fertile imaginations of writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. Now, the two are teaming up for a movie of unparalleled visual sense.

Helena (Leonidas) has always dreamed of running away from the circus. Her mother (McKee) and father (Brydon) run a Cirque du Soleil-esque traveling show that manages to make ends meet – just – but it isn’t the life Helena really wants. She is an imaginative girl, who spends every moment she has drawing fantastic images of strange creatures inhabiting a vast city. Her teenage impulses for doing her own thing often bump up against her parents need for her help in the overwhelming job of The Show Must Go On. After a particularly nasty argument with her mother (are there any fights worse than those between mother and daughter?) she ends with the nasty wish that she would be the death of her mother.

A little later on, her mother collapses and Helena’s world is turned upside down. Without her mother’s vital contributions, from taking tickets to her role in the show, the upcoming tour is in jeopardy. The family has never been flush to begin with, and their dwindling savings are setting off alarm bells. While her father is sticking fingers in all sorts of dykes, trying to keep the business from going under, Helena visits her mother, who pops in and out of consciousness. At length, she is told that her mother is going to have a critical operation. Helena goes to sleep, feeling betrayed.

When she wakes, she is in a place that is familiar yet unfamiliar. She meets up with a juggler/con man named Valentine (Barry), but they are interrupted by the onset of shadows, which turns the other performers into crumbling dust. As they escape, Helena realizes that the place she is in is the city she has drawn. Before she can catch her breath, she is whisked away to the palace by a palace guard that travels on stilted legs. While on her way to the palace she realizes that she can see her bedroom through certain windows and, to her shock, herself in it.

A pompous prime minister (Brydon again) who, like all the citizens wears an elaborate mask, informs her that she resembles a young girl who passed herself off as a princess of the dark side of the city, but this young girl had abused the hospitality of the white queen (McKee) and had stolen a charm. Now the white queen sleeps without waking, the balance between the light and the dark has been thrown out of whack and the city on both sides is beginning to fall apart. What is worse is that the spoiled princess has assumed Helena’s place in the real world. Helena must recover the MirrorMask and restore balance to the city and return the princess to the Dark Queen (McKee) and not incidentally, return herself to the real world.

The filmmakers have been forthcoming about being inspired by the world of Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth and the inspiration comes through markedly – in fact, Henson’s creature shop built many of the creatures that inhabit the City. Those who are familiar with McKean’s art will not find the imagery unfamiliar, particularly in the gothic nature of the city and its inhabitants, who sometimes look like a collage of images rather than a single solid idea.

 This is one of the most visually impressive movies I’ve seen, with stunning creations around every corner. The settings recall Victorian England as well as Wiemar Republic Germany with a hint of the worlds of Maurice Sendak and, of course, Jim Henson. This is the sort of movie you’ll want to see several times as there’s no way you can catch all the detail in a single sitting.

The English cast does a solid job but they mostly play second fiddle to the images and sets. The problem here is mainly a pedestrian story, which relies overly much on familiar concepts explored in Labyrinth and Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman whose story it rips off virtually note for note.

Still, one can forgive the “must save mom” maudlin-ness since the real reason for this movie’s existence is to excite your sense of wonder, and it does that in spades. There are times the surreal aspects of the visuals hop on the Dali highway and take off willy-nilly, but since I like Dali it doesn’t phase me much, but those who find surreality acceptable only in small doses, be warned that the dosage here is overwhelming.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling, imaginative visuals that are a feast for the eyes and food for the brain. You’ll want to see this more than once but even then you won’t be able to capture everything you see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit pedestrian and the plot creeps into the maudlin periodically.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images might be too unsettling for younger, more impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: When Helena reaches for the book “The Complete History of Everything” in the library, the book directly beside it is entitled “Muppets in Space” with the title written in the Farscape font. Both are allusions to the Jim Henson Studios, which produced the film Muppets in Space and also the TV show Farscape.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is footage from a Q&A session McKean and Gaiman did about the film at the 2005 San Diego Comicon, as well as an intriguing feature called Day 16 which shows an entire day of filming in time lapse photography.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian