Monday, February 25, 2008

The Fantasy of "Spiderwick Chronicles" Charms

*** out of ****

"The Spiderwick Chronicles" is another book-to-screen outing, but unlike the rest, this one stands out. Fatigued after all of the fantasy novel adaptations from last year alone, high-profile films such as "The Golden Compass," "The Seeker: The Dark is Rising" and "Stardust" were all shunned by audiences. With rushed starts, abrupt stops and confusion all around, "Spiderwick" shakes things up by letting the viewers take a breath without skimping on the CGI warfare.

Rated PG, "Spiderwick" does have some genuinely scary moments, but this is one that the whole family can enjoy.

Based on the five-part, best-selling kids' series, the film is a faithful adaptation which combines all of the books into one presentation.

The story starts with Helen Grace (Mary Louise-Parker) moving the family to the dilapidated Spiderwick Estate after her divorce. The estate was inherited from her great-great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). Oldest daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger), who enjoys fencing, and her bookish, pacifist brother Simon (Freddy Highmore) are supportive of their distraught mother and the move. Simon's identical twin, Jared, (also played by Freddy Highmore) isn't as supportive. Adventurous, curious and headstrong, Jared is upset with his mother and would rather live with his father.

The action starts quickly when Jared finds Arthur's secret laboratory and discovers a strange old book. The book, which has a "do not open" note attached, turns out to be a field guide of the magical world around the estate and the secrets of the mysterious creatures in the surrounding woods. Jared soon becomes a believer after he meets Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a small, hamster-like man who was Arthur's assistant.

Simon also becomes aware of this mystical world with strange occurrences, though Mallory and their mom are not yet convinced. The twins learn that the evil shape-shifting ogre leader, Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), will stop at nothing to retrieve the book to become even more deadly. Mallory and mom soon become believers when the house is attacked by frog-like goblins.

Unlike most fantasy films, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" doesn't hold back -- goblins not only chase the kids, but also claw and stab to the point of cuts and bruises. With many evil and hideous creatures, there are also helpful ones such as the hog-looking Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen), and flower-like fairies who help with the fight in an action-packed CGI sequence.

Known from his Lindsay Lohan hits "Freaky Friday" and "Mean Girls," director Mark Waters enters new territory and is just as successful. Waters has stunning and majestic imagery filled with CGI creatures and live-action actors intertwining beautifully making this one a must to see in the theaters -- or IMAX, where it also is being shown.

Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles wrote the welcoming screenplay from Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's novels. It leaves no confusion and a longer exposition to create character depth, adding a much bigger impact when it comes time for the final result.

"Weeds" star Mary Louise-Parker takes the backseat playing the caring-but-unaware mom.

The real star of "Spiderwick" is the young and very talented British actor Freddie Highmore ("Finding Neverland," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") who sports a decent American accent. Highmore, who acts both roles, amazingly creates two very separate characters as if they were played by different performers.

The animation department deserves recognition for the stunning visuals, as do Short and Rogen for being the friendly and likeable voices of their unique characters.

Working as a stand-alone film, with a nicely closed ending, "Spiderwick" isn't the next "Harry Potter" or "Narnia," but there is still so much adventure and fun, you would want to go back for another round.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It is the time of year when stars shine bright and the paparazzi line up at Hollywood's Kodak Theater while moviegoers sit in front of the small screen (TV), equally anticipating whose name will be read from the envelope and receive the golden statue at this year's 80th Annual Academy Awards ceremony.

Jon Stewart will host Hollywood's biggest award event, which is broadcasting live at 8 p.m. Feb 24. on ABC. There may be less glitz and glam due to the writers' strike, but the show must go on. If the strike is resolved, though, the red carpet may be as crowded as ever.

As the votes of the Academy members are being tallied, it is a year of many predictable nominees, but, as always, there will surely be some surprises. The Academy, which consists of over 6,500 individuals from every field of entertainment, will decide the nominees' fates on award night.

2007 has been a fantastic year for cinema, which is evident in the strong list of nominees. But for those who still are baffled about who will win, here is a guide to nominees that will help in one of the most competitive years in recent memory.

Best Picture
"Atonement," "Juno," "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood"
The Best Picture category is one of the most coveted, and most of these films have a decent shot at having its name read on award night.

The frontrunner in this category is "No Country for Old Men," a story of a Texan who stumbles upon drugs and money with a killer in pursuit. In pursuit of "Men" is "There Will Be Blood," which could be a possible upset. The dark horse in this race is audience favorite "Juno," which tells the story of a pregnant teenager. The older members of the Academy, though, are less likely to embrace it.

Will win: "No Country for Old Men"
Should win: "No Country for Old Men"

Best Actor
George Clooney ("Michael Clayton"), Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood"), Johnny Depp ("Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), Tommy Lee Jones ("In the Valley of Elah") and Viggo Mortensen ("Eastern Promises")

As a mad oil tycoon in "There Will Be Blood," Day-Lewis is so phenomenal, Clooney recently said that he has given up hopes of winning. While the win shouldn't be surprising, the nominations for this category certainly were.

Viggo Mortensen shocked audiences in a nude fighting scene as a ruthless London gangster, as Jones moved us as a patriotic father searching for his son who disappeared after returning from Iraq.
If there's any competition, it's going to come from Clooney as a smart attorney or from Depp as a murderous singing barber, but don't expect any upsets here.

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), Julie Christie ("Away from Her"), Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"), Laura Linney ("The Savages") and Ellen Page ("Juno")

Best Actress is a three-way race that's sure to surprise. Christie brilliantly plays an Alzheimer patient, while Page seems to instinctively act the role as a smart-aleck pregnant teenager. Cotillard plays a memorable role as the late French singer Edith Piaf in a musical biography. All with an equal shot at winning, judging by precursor awards, Christie seems to have an edge over Page and Cotillard.
Will win: Julie Christie
Should win: Ellen Page

Best Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"), Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men), Phillip Seymour Hoffman ("Charlie Wilson's War"), Hal Holbrook ("Into the Wild") and Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton")

If you thought I sounded sure that Day-Lewis will win Best Actor, then consider me 100 percent for Javier Bardem winning here. Playing the violent villain in "No Country," Bardem, who acted so naturally, gives us a character that should be remembered for some time.

Will win: Javier Bardem
Should win: Javier Bardem

Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There"), Ruby Dee ("American Gangster"), Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement"), Amy Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone") and Tilda Swinton ("Michael Clayton")

Two actresses have a 50/50 shot at winning the statue here. One contender is Blanchett for playing, of all things, Bob Dylan, in the quirky biopic. The other is Broadway's Amy Ryan as a trash-talking Bostonian, grieving after the disappearance of her young daughter.

In a category that is more kind to newcomers, Ryan has won key precursors and has a more conventional role. However, Blanchett is an Oscar favorite, being nominated in two categories.

Blanchett has a slight edge as a seasoned actress, though Ryan could swoop in for the prize.

Nominated in a blink-it-or-you-miss-it role, Dee could spoil the night, as she won in a big upset at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in a film that was once to be a frontrunner.

Will win: Cate Blanchett
Should win: Amy Ryan

In other top categories, brothers Ethan and Joel Coen should grab Best Director for "No Country for Old Men."

Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" can fly in for the win in a visually fantastic film.

While "Juno" may not win in its other three categories, at least it should find an award as the Best Original Screenplay: Former dancer and first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody deserves the win for her witty and smart dialogue.

The Best Adapted Screenplay category has a far less clearer picture of who the winner could be. Once a front runner, being left behind in other major categories, "Atonement" could find itself winning this nomination for the screenplay by Christopher Hampton, but the Coen Brothers can sneak in with "Old Men."

For every nominee there is always one that didn't make the cut. The biggest snubs went to "Talk to Me," "Zodiac," "The Simpsons Movie," "Crazy Love," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," "A Mighty Heart" and "Waitress." These films didn't receive a single nomination.

Cate Blanchett stole the spot in the Best Actress category that belonged to Angelina Jolie for her amazing portrayal as Marianne Pearl, the wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl in "A Mighty Heart."

Ryan Gosling should have received his second Oscar nomination for the comedy "Lars and the Real Girl," starring as a delusional that falls in love with a mannequin.

In the supporting categories, "Juno" should have dominated with Award-worthy performances by Jennifer Garner, J.K. Simmons, and Allison Janney.

David Fincher was robbed a spot as Best Director for the true-crime mystery "Zodiac" as well as a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. Pie-comedy "Waitress" should have cooked up a nomination for Best Original Screenplay in a film written, directed, and acted by the late Adrienne Shelley.

The last and maybe biggest snubs come from smaller categories. "Crazy Love," an interesting and wild love story, should have received a nomination for Best Documentary. In the animated category, "The Simpsons Movie" got replaced by the mediocre-at-best "Surf's Up."

In a year of fantastic achievements in film, we'll have to wait another 10 days to find out who will go home with a golden statues in hand.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

'Over Her Dead Body' gets some laughs

**1/2 out of ****

While heaven isn't the most desirable place to be on your wedding day, the main character in "Over Her Dead Body" would definitely say it's hell.

Eva Longoria Parker, who plays the wickedly hilarious Gabrielle Solis on the hit comedy "Desperate Housewives," doesn't need to stretch far to play her ghostly role in this romantic comedy. "Over Her Dead Body" is quite charming on its own silly terms and is much better than you might expect.

The film begins with Kate (Longoria Parker), a "bridezilla," shouting commands at her wedding staff minutes before the guests arrive. "Knocked Up's" Paul Rudd plays the groom, Henry, a friendly, laid-back veterinarian.

Running around to inspect the final touches, Kate blows up when she finds that the angel ice sculpture is missing its wings. After a heated argument with the sculptor (Stephen Root), a mishap occurs and the angel falls over and, with an ironic splat, sends her to the heavens above.

Fast-forward a year later and Henry still thinks about Kate, not moving on with his love life. Henry's sister, Chloe (Lindsay Sloane), takes him to her psychic friend, Ashley (Lake Bell), who has been told to say that Kate wants him to move on.

To Chloe's joy the plan succeeds. Henry does move on -- with Ashley. Chloe isn't the only one upset. Kate is, too! Like two peas in a pod, Henry and Ashley hit it off. But Kate's ghost, only visible to Ashley, is hell-bent on destroying their relationship. Accordingly, Kate is stuck in limbo and can pass through the Pearly Gates only after she completes unfinished business, which she believes is to protect Henry.

While the audience quickly discovers what she must really do to finally pass on, we still have fun watching Kate as she tries to figure it out for herself in this comical, supernatural love triangle.

Amusing as it might be, "Over Her Dead Body" (originally titled "Ghost Bitch" and "How I Met My Boyfriend's Dead Fiancee") falls victim to the standard plot formula of its genre -- boy meets girl, loses girl, gains girl back.

Writer Jeff Lowell ("John Tucker Must Die") points out some witty observations with laugh-out loud moments that are too sporadic, turning the film's status to lifeless in between.

A twist involving Dan (Jason Biggs), Ashley's gay business partner, towards the end is very surprising, but too ridiculous and unbelievable to be clever. To be noted, Lowell is taking double duties, making his debut as director.

Longoria Parker, dressed in white throughout the film, is hilarious, but at times needs to take it down a notch making some moments obnoxious.

Lake Bell ("Boston Legal") gets the job done well and shines in a few scenes.

Biggs flails around in a slapstick role and is quite funny while doing it. However, Rudd acts as if he is the one passing on. The main problem with Rudd is he never appears to be the type of person to marry snobby perfectionist Kate and the on-screen chemistry never comes through.

With its many high points and some flaws, "Over Her Dead Body" never fully comes alive.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Cops Fight Cyber Killer in "Untraceable"

** out of ****
Diane Lane dukes it out with a Web site and all its watchers in the new cop thriller "Untraceable."

Director Gregory Hoblit, who had the great Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling fighting it out in the straight-laced "Fracture" last year, utilizes the same no-twist plot principle. This is an undeniably energetic film, but too often has the viewer being able to guess what will happen from scene to scene.

Lane gives a marvelous performance as Jennifer Marsh. Widowed with an 8-year-old daughter, Annie (Perla Haney-Jardine), Marsh works the night shift, alongside her friend Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks), as a cop in a Cyber-crime division.

The events start to unfold when a Web site,, starts streaming live. The site features people in contraptions that could have been stolen from the set of "Saw," providing live video of the person's eventual bleeding, frying, or acidic doom. The gimmick is that the more viewers the site gets, the quicker the person dies, thus making the visitors accomplices to murder as well as the killer (Joseph Cross), who is revealed way too early to prolong the suspense.

The problem? The Web site is somehow untraceable, confirmed by the cyber unit's computer lingo that only one with a Ph.D. in computer technology could understand. But, as the killer's body count grows, it is not long before Griffin and Jennifer, who are closing in on the killer's identity, may become the next victims in front of the Web cam.

"Untraceable" tries to comment on our violence-induced culture and asks would you visit such a site? But then again, curiosity killed the cat, literally, as the first victim of the site is a cat, before the viral-video killer moves up the food chain.

Hoblit ("Primal Fear," "Hart's War") directs with style and some impressive shots that go wider, straying away from the typical jump-shot angle tricks.

The highly talented Diane Lane gives us an intrepid performance while Hanks is an admirable co-star.

Previously starring in "Fracture," Billy Burke makes an entrance later in the film as Detective Eric Box and does a meaningful job. On the opposite end, Cross overacts unnecessarily with a menacing blank stare, as if we forget he is the mastermind killer.

Is "Untraceable" unwatchable? No. If you miss it in the theatre and are looking for a decent thrill with a satisfying ending, "Untraceable" should show up on your radar as a rainy day rental.