Skip to main content

You don't see us, now you do, but only if we want you to.


The Spiderwick Chronicles
(2008)

Just as there is currently a glut of “young adult” novels bombarding cinema screens, many of them doomed to stall on an initial installment, so the success of Harry Potter ensured that every studio wished to try its hand at young fantasy adaptations. The Hunger Games’ success at least meant that Twilight did not represent a flash-in-the-pan for the former sub-genre, but nothing, as yet, has inherited the mantle of the Hogwarts’ spellcaster (Percy Jackson has stumbled to a second outing, but to the surprise of many). 

The Spiderwick Chronicles adapts (as far as I can tell) plot elements from the first three of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s children’s books (there are five, which have been followed by a Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series). Predictably, there’s a large chunk of mythology and backstory to inform the viewer of, mostly involving the discoveries of Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, the great-great uncle of the protagonists) and his field guide to fairies, the possession of which would represent an object of great power for the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte). Twins Jared and Simon (Freddie Highmore) and sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), who have just moved into the Spiderwick estate with their mother (Mary-Louise Parker), must prevent the book from falling into the ogre’s hands.

Karey Kirkpatrick has adapted a number of children’s novels, including The Little Vampire and Charlotte’s Web. While David Berenbaum’s CV is less impressive, the other credited writer is none other than the laudable John Sayles (who has his own link with Strathairn, 1999’s Limbo). Director Mark Waters (brother of the more scabrous Daniel) rises to the challenge of an effects-heavy adventure film admirably (for the most part). His calling cards were “when she still had so much promise” Lindsay Lohan films Freaky Friday and Mean Girls. Given how good many of the effects are, it’s ironic that Waters comes unstuck with something as basic as Highmore sharing the screen (but not eyeline) with Highmore.

Nevertheless, the creatures are unanimously well-rendered, and Waters does a fine job in building up the tension as the magically-protected Spiderwick house comes under assault from a welter of goblins. The potentially confusing principles and rules of this world (who and how the fairie kingdom can be seen, for example) are established without fuss. Elsewhere, Waters knows to balance scares with laughs (the Martin Short-voiced Thimbletack’s honey-addiction is the only thing that can control his temper).

In some respects, this resembles a family-friendly Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Except, crucially, it has a vibrancy that the Guillermo Del Toro-produced film lacks. There’s a strong sense of a hidden and mysterious world, particularly in the opening stages, that creates a sense of anticipation and wonder far stronger than the rather mechanically-executed Harry Potter films.

While the performers are all competent, the choice of Freddie Highmore for the lead(s) brings with it a fair amount of baggage. Highmore is certainly a capable actor, and he draws easily identifiable distinctions between the twins, but he also has an intensity that can be creepy or unsettling when a more moderate approach is called for. Jared’s temper tantrums verge on demonic possession as depicted by Freddie; Haley Joel Osment showed a similar difficulty transitioning to teenage roles. You need to identify with Jared, ultimately, rather than dismiss him as a psychotic little shit (however, he certainly sells an extraordinarily Oedipal moment at a late stage; strong stuff for a kids’ movie). As such, I can’t think of more suitable casting than Highmore as Norman in the forthcoming Bates Motel TV series.

The other “human” actors are all fine; Bolger is especially spirited as the fencing-student big sister, while both Strathairn and Joan Plowright make a strong impression during their limited screen time (in connection with these characters, the film seems to deliver a curiously reactionary message regarding the natural order of aging and death). Unfortunately, this is another film blighted by the inane presence of oafish Seth Rogen. Credit to his agent, the pudding-faced actor has amassed a fair collection of voice roles. But he’s no less irritating for not being able to see him, just aesthetically less harmful.

Spiderwick’s worth a look, despite my reservations concerning the lead. This is a family film that isn’t afraid to scare the little ones, and one that provokes, rather than stems, the imagination. A bit of a shame it didn’t warrant any follow-ups. No doubt there will be a reboot in a few years’ time.  

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …