Tag Archives: 2008

Way late review: The Spiderwick Chronicles

Pleasant surprises come when expectations are low. Movies aimed at kids today are a mixed bag. Pixar has a solid record of rising above the fray. Then there are atrocities like The Smurfs. Some might blame the bad films on trying to turn questionable source material into cinematic gold. If that’s the case, I hear the Harry Potter books are pretty good. The films? That’s a tougher call. Enter The Spiderwick Chronicles, a film I originally mistook for a Harry Potter wannabe. My mistake.

Twins Jared and Simon move to a spooky old house, previously owned by their great uncle Arthur Spiderwick, with their older sister, Mallory and mother. Jared is upset about the move and angry with his mom. He blames her for breaking up the family while Simon, Mallory and mom know the truth. Dad ran off with another woman. Before there is any time to settle into the home strange happenings occur which lead Jared to discover Arthur Spiderwick’s book. The tome details Arthur’s findings of magical creatures all around him, some good and some evil, like the ogre Mulgarath. If the book falls into Mulgarath’s hands it’s game over. And that sets the stage for the rest of the movie which includes some fairly intense chase scenes, jump scares, and even a little blood drawn – a bit surprising for a modern children’s PG movie. The story moves along at a quick pace with good enough computer animation and child actors who aren’t annoying.

There is just the right amount of comedy relief provided in the form of Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen) a friendly bird eating hobgoblin and Thimbletack (Martin Short) an odd, small creature who turns into a nasty little green monster when he gets upset. The humor from both the animated characters comes in the natural rhythm of the film, though one could argue that the end of the final showdown is anti-climatic with its comedic result. My kids loved it. I think the lightheartedness provided a needed break from the edge of the seat intensity.

Spiderwick Chronicles is a fun action packed kids fantasy movie. The plot is relatively simple which enables a fast paced story set in a magical world full of adventure and danger. And the danger feels refreshingly real as there are consequences and scares as a result. Add some well timed laughs and it all adds up to an entertaining family film.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Redbelt

Life can be strange, both the real and the fantasy portrayed on the screen. Fact is often stranger than fiction yet how is it that fiction can seem so unlikely? Redbelt is one of those films that pushes believability to its limits as conniving individuals weave together a scheme which relies on intricate details playing out just so. Thankfully the film is in the steady hands of writer and director David Mamet and a solid cast.

Michael Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Jiu Jitsu black belt. He is a man of principle and runs his school strictly on those principles which means he barely makes any money. No matter, Terry is more concerned with maintaining his integrity. His wife, however, is not. She worries about how they’re going to live while Terry’s business can barely make rent and her own business (clothes) struggles to keep them out of the red.

After one of the roughest martial arts classes I’ve ever witnessed finishes with police officer Joe Collins (Max Martini) nearly passing out in a choke hold by another student, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) enters in from the rain rattled. She’s smashed into Terry’s truck. She is all nerves which leads her to grab officer Collins’ gun and accidentally fire it when she mistakes the off duty cop’s motion towards her as threatening. And just like that the plot thickens.

One event leads to another in mostly believable ways to the point where Terry finds himself working with a famous action movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) on the set of the star’s next film. If it sounds a bit convoluted, it kind of is, but the pace is so quick it’s forgivable.

Behind the scenes, there are plans to get a compelling mixed martial arts competition going. The promoters aren’t thrilled with the prospects. I imagine it’s what today’s heavyweight boxing promoters feel like. The money men would love to get Terry in the ring. He’s known to be one of the best but refuses to fight in competitions because there is no honor in fighting competitively. Again, the principled man finds himself walking away from money.

A more unwieldy chain of events takes place that leads Terry into the ring. He’s fighting to win money not for himself or his wife but for the widow of officer Collins, who committed suicide at least partially due to the mess his sensei unknowingly got him into. The final twist just before the bout may push the plausibility factor. No matter, the setup for the final fight and the ending are worth it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor commands every moment on the screen. Mamet’s dialog is as crisp as always. In fact, the dialog often feels as though it’s human beings speaking and not uber smart beings that only appear to be human. This is a problem I’ve found some of Mamet’s other screenplays have suffered from. The story could stand one or two less hard to believe connected events that turn into one well orchestrated con. But when the pacing is so fast and the acting so strong the faults become slight.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Nursery University

I’m glad I’m not a parent living in New York City. As Nursery University shows us, there are a lot of parents living in NYC who have lost their minds, and it’s all over enrolling their child into the perfect nursery school.

The documentary follows several families in New York City wading through the treacherous waters that are procuring a preschool for your soon to be toddler. Each family comes at it from a slightly different perspective and situation. By the end, it is clear – they’re all lost in the mire. The filmmaker (Marc H. Simon) does his best to maintain composure. While it would be easy to make the subject matter feel like a Christopher Guest mockumentary (think Best in Show), Simon refrains and lets the characters represent themselves on screen – warts and all.

The odds of getting into a nursery school of any standing are slim. For every open spot there can be over a hundred applicants. Making matters worse is the sticker shock. Numbers are thrown around early in the film that made me wonder if we were talking about college. It was not unusual to pay $20,000 and up for nursery school. Some were as high as $50,000 per year. Nursery school. This is the place where kids go to drool on one another and maybe learn to hold a crayon, right?

Even parents who did not grow up wealthy and in this hyper competitive setting of schooling for tikes have bought into the lie which says your child is ruined if she does not get into the right nursery school. In fact, one consultant (yes, they have consultants for getting into nursery schools in NYC!) made reference to a child getting into the right preschool, which leads to the right kindergarten, grade school, high school, university and eventually lands them a plush job at Goldman Sachs. Remove the first piece to that long chain of schooling and the child never achieves success as a prestigious mover of digits from one electronic account to the other. The documentary captures the insanity of this thinking quite well. Where it falls short is thinking this topic has 90 minutes of entertainment value. Because it aims to be fair and not mock the easily mockable, the second half of the film feels stretched thin. Some of the subjects are fairly likable, none are truly abhorrent, and therefore none are entertaining enough to hold interest for a feature length film. Their plight is not one we can empathize with. We’re left with watching the absurd attempt to turn into suspense about whether Johnny gets into the $30,000 per nursery or the $40,000 nursery.

Tackling a topic that seems surreal to everyone outside of it should be an easy win. It’s unfortunate that the narcissism on display never goes completely overboard to the point where it’s so sad it’s funny. And that is likely the result of a director who holds back on highlighting the truly ridiculous nature of his subject matter and the subjects themselves. Being fair to those who’ve let you film part of their lives is admirable, yet two rather famous documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog prove it’s possible for directors to walk the line between fair and exploitative for great results. Nursery University walks too closely to the safe side and ends up giving an informative and somewhat entertaining film.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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