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Monday, May 20

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The Spiderwick Chronicles

It's a new month, so it must be time for another fantasy-adventure aimed at children and/or young adults. This is the universe that Harry Potter, Narnia and Lord of the Rings have ushered in, and when a great deal of money and a high-profile cast is thrown at these projects, we get cold, uninspired disasters like The Golden Compass. But the makers of The Spiderwick Chronicles apparently had a radically different idea: focus on a solid script, and hire a team of less recognizable actors who actually add something to their characters. And perhaps don't worry so much about franchise potential, instead concentrating on making one solid, well-crafted excitingly original work for the ages. Spiderwick achieves nearly all of these goals with a spirit of fun and adventure (and, yes, even a bit of life-or-death peril) that puts far more expensive and sweeping epics to shame.

I've never read the series of books (from authors Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black) that this film was based on, but it's my understanding that the five-part series has been condensed into this jam-packed work. Without going to deep into the surprisingly complex plot, the general premise is that there is a largely invisible world living just outside the visual realm of humans. It's a world filled with goblins, ogres, fairies, sprites, hobgoblins and brownies. Many years ago, a scientist named Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) found a means to see and interact with and chronicle all of the secrets of this other world. He created a scrap book/field guide to these creatures and their powers and abilities, but when it was discovered that he had set down these secrets in a book, he disappeared, leaving the book behind for decades. Descendents of Spiderwick arrive at his rundown house to live there, and almost immediately things turn bizarre. Freddie Highmore plays twins Jared (the spirited troublemaker) and Simon (the dutiful son to mom Mary Louise Parker). The twins' older sister (Sarah Bolger) is also on hand to act as disciplinarian when mom goes to work. Jared finds the field guide and, despite a note attached the cover warning him not to, he opens it. All hell breaks loose.

It took me a little while to realize it, but the entire film takes place in about 24 hours, which isn't terribly important, but it does explain why the story never stops moving. As much as there are three screenwriters credited with Spiderwick, one in particular caught my eye: John Sayles. Sayles has been writing genre films for decades now, but much of his more recent work has either gone unproduced or he's worked behind the scenes polishing things up and not getting credit for it. So for long-time Sayles fans, it's great to see his name attached to a film like this, knowing that he had a lot to do with the crafting of this tale. Inspired casting isn't limited to the human cast. Martin Short voices the ILM-realized the "house brownie" Thimbletack (who looks like a cross between a rat and a man); Seth Rogan lends his pipes to the revenge-driven hobgoblin Hogsqueal; and Nick Nolte (who also appears in the film briefly) is the voice of the ultimate evil ogre Mulgarath, who wants the field guide for himself and will kill anyone to get it.

Director Mark Waters (The House of Yes, Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven) has dabbled with fantasy before in films like Freaky Friday and Just Like Heaven. He handles this material admirably, not putting too much emphasis on the special effects and remembering that this is the story of a family in crisis (a broken one, since we find out early that the kids' father has left Mom and is preparing to marry another woman). There's an emotional component to Spiderwick that I haven't found in even the better fantasy films of late. This is not to say that Waters skimps on the "wow" factor. The creatures in this film are across-the-board hideous to look at (that's a good thing), and I was even impressed by the "twin" effect of Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland). After about 10 minutes, I thought I was looking at two separate actors, which is as much a credit to Highmore's skills as an actor as any special effects creation.

As much as the books may have been written for smaller children, this movie has seen the story and the threat level grow up a bit. The goblin attacks on the kids are ferocious, and death is a very real danger in this tale. When these little bastards bite, they draw blood. Although the film is rated PG, parents familiar with the books should keep that in mind. But overall, this is a film is a blast. I loved exploring and learning about this world and its rules probably as much as Arthur Spiderwick did when he was writing his discoveries down. I'll admit, I was surprised how much I admired this film, but when I look at the talent that went into making it, I guess I shouldn't have been. These are storytellers who know how to make an action-packed adventures story feel like small, personal filmmaking. I'm always impressed by this rare gift, and the resulting movie is thoroughly entertaining, bordering on spiritually fulfilling.

To read my interview with Spiderwick Chronicles director Mark Waters at Ain't It Cool News.

Jumper

If I learned any lessons from this hipster superhero movie Jumper, it's that discovering that you have the ability to teleport apparently turns you into a raging douchebag. If the story itself sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it's essentially just a boiled-down version of an original tale ripped out of an X-Men comic book. A kid's power manifests itself in his teen years, and he spends his life either stealing what he needs to survive or avoiding those who see him as a genetic abomination and want him dead. Hayden Christensen plays the anomaly David Rice, who has a near-death experience in high school (Max Thieriot plays David as a teenager) that triggers his teleportation power. While his schoolmates all think he's dead, David takes advantage of his newfound gift to pop in and out of bank vaults and take as much cash as he can. OK, so he doesn't exactly do any hero-ing. What he does instead is make himself very rich and a great seducer of women. He hops around the world picking up ladies, while all the while pining over his childhood crush, Millie (who grows up to be Rachel Bilson).

One of the many things that doesn't quite make sense in the plot of Jumper is that David decides the best time to finally reunite with Millie mere minutes after an attempt on his life is made by Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), a man clearly intent on tracking him down to kill him. So what better way to lay low than go visit an old flame and woo her with a trip to Rome, where he is attacked once again. During a conflict in the Coliseum, Rice meets another "jumper" named Griffin (Jaime Bell), who's an even bigger douchebag than him. Griffin's one redeeming quality is that his sole mission in life is to kill "paladins" (those would be the folks that want to kill jumper; at this point, I might join their ranks).

Christensen and Bell spend the whole movie dancing around each other seeing who can be the biggest dick, and there is absolutely nothing compelling about either one of them. Jumper isn't so much a movie as it is a sketch of one, and a rough one at that. When David sneaks Millie into the catacombs of the Coliseum after hours, the most she can muster is, "This is amazing." People, once and for all: the word "amazing" has been rendered meaningless by unoriginal writers. Not. Everything. Is. Amazing. The thing that truly surprised me was how weak the direction is here, and it occurred to me that I'm not convinced Doug Liman is a good director. When he's given a good script (Swingers, Go, The Bourne Identity), he seems capable; when he's given subpar, he doesn't elevate the material. The Jumper script is co-written by David Goyer (Dark City, Batman Begins, the Blade trilogy), who is normally a reliable scribe, but something went horribly wrong here. Either the source material novel by Steven Gould is crap, or Goyer just wasn't inspired by it.

I've heard this is actually the first part of a trilogy; the ending certainly sets up another film involving David and his estranged mother (a blah extended cameo by Diane Lane). If so, I'm hoping things improve greatly in the next two parts. They need to, because you have to try real hard to make Samuel L. Jackson boring in a villain role. I wasn't just disappointed by Jumper; I actively and fervently disliked it.

George Romero's Diary of the Dead

First off, enough with this bullshit about Diary of the Dead being Cloverfield with zombies. It just isn't. George Romero's latest and most radically different zombie tale is not meant to be found footage; it's meant to be the equivalent of a finished, edited, even scored student film (entitled "The Death of Death" if you must know) chronicling the early days of a zombie rising and takeover. In other words, Romero is starting from square one, and he's curious how young people (in this case, a group of student filmmakers and actors) would react as it dawned on them that the world is essentially doomed. In Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, people turned to the radio and television for updates and speculation. Here, they go to cell phones and the Internet, where people post thousands of homemade videos of zombies attacking and being killed. And of course, people would want to document as much as they could with camcorders.

Romero relies on a group of largely unknown actors to tell his story, which certainly sells the believability factor (what there is) and keeps us guessing as to who survives to see the end of this film (if anyone). As a straight-up zombie picture, Diary of the Dead is a worthy Romero effort. It spooked me consistently and the ways in which zombies and the living are killed or maimed are pretty spectacular, thanks to makeup guru Gregory Nicotero and his crew. There's a sequence set inside an abandoned hospital that truly freaked me out, and the weapon of choice for the professor who tags along with the group of students as they drive to safety is inspired. Thankfully, Romero doesn't skimp on the violence. Romero also hasn't lost his gift for politicizing the zombie phenomenon. He still takes swings at the military, as well as police brutality, government cover-ups, the lack of response after Hurricane Katrina, anti-immigration pundits and the media.

Many of the criticisms of the film focus on the acting, and as much as I enjoyed the hell out of Diary of the Dead, I can't disagree that most of the acting is pretty bad. When you go with a cast of unknowns, this is a risk you run. And were the rest of the film not so strong, the piss-poor acting might have sunk this ship. It may be too close to call for some, and you may give up early. But have faith that Romero does deliver the zombified goods when it comes to blood and guts. And please don't think that George has completely given up featuring a few famous folks in the mix; be sure to listen carefully to the random "voices of reason" that come sporadically throughout the film from the TV or radio or Internet. A handful of them might sound very familiar. The film's final act is set in a mansion, and some of the goings on there seem a little too outrageous even for a film about the living dead, but by that point, I was fully on board. Diary of the Dead has its flaws, but Romero has simply set the bar so high with his other walking-corpse movies that it may feel like this one falls short. Make no mistake: It's still a solid work of horror from an unqualified master.

Definitely, Maybe

Of all the films opening this holiday weekend, this one was the most surprising. What I'd assumed was going to be an empty-headed, silly comedy about a man and his difficulties with three women is actually charming, level-headed and (mostly) in the realm of believability. Framed as a story being told by a dad to his daughter about how her soon-to-be-divorced parents met and fell in love, Definitely, Maybe struck a strange and wonderful chord in me. This isn't a film about any type of magical, mystical interventions or wild coincidences or tremendously embarrassing and very public displays of affection. This is a fairly simple story about 15 years in one man's love life.

I've always kind of found Ryan Reynolds funny, even when he's trying too hard, but here, he's dialed back. He's not trying to be wacky or overly charming. His Will Hayes is just a normal, highly motivated guy who moves from Wisconsin to New York City in 1992 to work on the presidential campaign for Bill Clinton. He has a sweetie back home (Elizabeth Banks), who senses that this move will end their college love affair, and she's right. Will nurses his broken heart by hanging out with another woman working in the campaign office (the naturally radiant and sweet Isla Fisher). He also has a passionate love affair with a journalist (Rachel Weisz). Clearly the man doesn't need help from anyone meeting beautiful women. Will isn't any kind of playboy; he's not dating all three women (or even two) at the same time. There's just a very natural and unforced progression from one to the next (sometimes doubling back to one who left the picture for a while). One of the things the movie does beautifully is capture the way old friends actually do run into each other in New York. I lived their for a time at around the same time this film takes place, and I can't tell you the number of people I'd meet at a party one night, I'd run into six months later in a completely unexpected location dozens of blocks away. That doesn't happen in Chicago or any other place I've lived, but it's those by-chance encounters that can often change the direction of our lives.

Most of Definitely, Maybe is told in flashback. Will has resisted telling his young daughter Maya (Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin) about how he and her mother met, and turns it into a long story featuring these three women. Will changes the names of the women, and it's Maya's job is to figure out which one is her mother. It sounds contrived, I know, but for some reason it works. The mystery isn't nearly as interesting as the journey anyway. The other interesting aspect to the film is that there are no villains. Will is a genuinely nice guy whose only youthful vices were smoking and the occasional bender. And all three women have unique and wonderful qualities, although I think it's pretty clear who we're supposed to like just a little bit more than the others.

The only scenes I didn't think worked were those involving a cantankerous old writer character played by Kevin Kline. He's dating Rachel Weisz when we first meet her, but even after they break up, he still pops up to grind the plot to a halt. There were probably ways around including his character, but he's barely in the film enough to even come close to wrecking it.

Writer-director Adam Brooks is probably best known for being the screenwriter of such films as French Kiss (featuring Kline in a much better role), the second Bridget Jones movie and The Invisible Circus, which he also directed. Definitely, Maybe is his first truly great work as a director and one of his finest screenplays as well. He displays a confidence in his very normal characters, but doesn't mistake "normal" for ordinary. We're not just rooting for Will to connect with one true love; we want everyone in the film to be happy, and that's a tougher assignment. And as much as we're pretty sure we know where Will's life will go next once the film is over, there are a couple characters whose fate (at least as far as love is concerned) seems less certain. This is one of the few films in recent years that actually deserves to open on Valentine's Day. And for every man who is convinced he's going to be dragged to Definitely, Maybe over the weekend, don't fret; you'll enjoy it just as much as your companion.

The Business of Being Born

Other than her performance in John Waters' original film version of Hairspray, Ricki Lake's impact on my life has been pretty much non-existent. So when director Abby Epstein's slightly terrifying and highly informative documentary (Lake is executive producer and an active, in-front-of-the-camera participant) about the way the medical profession treats women giving birth dropped in my mailbox recently, I was reluctant to embrace this film. But the numbers speak for themselves. The United States has the second-highest rate of infant deaths during birth of any industrialized nation. The rate of mothers dying during birth is also disproportionately high. Not coincidentally, the rate of cesarean sections (which used to be considered a surgery only brought into play during the birth process when the child's life was in danger) in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years; some women even plan on having a C-section combined with a tummy tuck to reduce the physical effects of the pregnancy on their bodies. They also plan labor inducement to time their giving birth around their schedules. They call this "designer birth." And while every civilized (and many "uncivilized") nation of the world embrace the use of midwives and at-home births (with significantly reduced infant or mother deaths), the medical profession has demonized midwives to the point where nearly all births in the U.S. are done in hospitals.

When you see these facts and statistics, you can't help but be curious how things got to this point. Lake points the finger squarely at the medical profession, specifically doctors who would rather get home for dinner or not pull an all-nighter with patients in labor for hours. Even the position most women are in during birth (on their back, legs open wide) is more about what keeps the doctor comfortable than what is better for the birthing process. Doctors push inducement drugs and evasive surgeries rather than abide by the mothers' wishes for natural childbirth. When medical experts discuss what these drugs do to the women and children, it will sicken and scare you.

Clearly both Lake (who had two children, one in a hospital and one at home) and director Epstein (who actually gets pregnant and has a premature birth during the making of this film) are coming from a biased place. And you may think that Lake, being rich and famous, can more afford a safe home birth. But it is revealed that midwives cost about one-third to one-quarter what a hospital birth costs. But the research and facts speak volumes more than any expert presented in the film. For me, the most eye-opening portion of the film is the discussion of midwives, who I'd always envisioned as akin to gypsy women and old hippies who bring clean towels and knitting materials to kill time during labor. Turns out these women come fully armed with nurse's training and bags full of everything needed for a healthy delivery. They are also smart enough to know when a trip to the hospital is actually needed. The midwives in this film, at least, don't seem territorial about where the delivery takes place as much as they are concerned with the best location for the healthiest birth. This varies a great deal from some of the younger doctors interviewed, many of whom discourage home birthing although they've never actually seen one or met a midwife.

Although I don't have any children, nearly every friend I have does and all of them gave birth in a hospital. I'm almost scared to tell them about this film because I don't want them to think they somehow endangered their children's lives by taking them to the hospital. As far as I'm concerned, the target audience for this film is people considering having children or pregnant women contemplating but nervous about home birthing. Epstein has constructed a wonderful film that shames doctors for telling women that they don't know how to give birth properly or treat a pregnancy like an illness that needs to be gotten thought as quickly and painlessly as possible; and she celebrates the pure, undrugged, wildly painful and emotionally fulfilling right that it is childbirth. This is a film that will probably have you in tears at a couple points; it's also extremely graphic thanks to footage of about six to eight births (including Lake's second child). There's more than a hint of manipulation going on here, but it's backed up with good science and rock-solid facts and research. All documentaries should be informative, but there's no crime in making them touch your heart as well.

The film opens today for a four-day run (Friday-Monday) at the Music Box Theatre. The movie plays each day at 2pm only, with Lake and Epstein appearing in person at the February 16 and 17 showings. Go to the Music Box's website for more information and to purchase tickets early.

2007 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films

Can I just say how much Magnolia Pictures kicks ass for doing this? Mere weeks after the Academy Award nominations are announced, they compile the five nominees in both the Animated Short Films (total running time: 90 minutes) and the Live Action Short Films (137 minutes) categories as two separate programs for you to enjoy and help make your party or office Oscar pool that much more enjoyable. Imagine the thrill of making your predictions after actually having seen the nominees. That puts you several steps ahead of most Academy voters. The two programs are opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and I'm going to have to insist that you do your homework and check out these rarely screened gems.

I think my favorite in the Animated program is the UK/Poland stop-motion co-production Peter & the Wolf, a slightly updated version of the classic story set to Prokofiev's music (the film is otherwise silent). One of the most interesting and original is I Met the Walrus, which uses an audio recording of 14-year-old Jerry Levitan interviewing John Lennon sometime in the 1970s. It's 100 percent authentic; the kid somehow snuck into Lennon's hotel room and convinced him to do the interview. What we see is an intricate and trippy interpretation of Lennon's words. Most disturbing of the bunch is Canada's Madame Tutli-Putli, a Gothic tale about a sad, lonely woman on a train who is assaulted by strange and awful visions. I'm not sure I understood it, but it made me uneasy, and that's good enough for me. Russia's My Love is quite different from the other four. The look is that of an oil painting brought to life; you can actually see the brushstrokes at times. It's a fluid and lovely looking period piece about a young man in love with two very different women. Somehow, the weirdest animated short also manages to be the least interesting. France's Even Pigeons Go To Heaven (Meme les pigeons vont au paradis) is an odd tale about a corrupt priest who attempts to sell an elderly man a machine that guarantees him a trip to heaven. Although there's a great twist ending that goes a long way toward redeeming this otherwise slight work.

On the live action side of things, at least three of these films I could have easily watched as feature-length movies. The best of the bunch in terms of acting and story is the emotional punch from Denmark, At Night, about three women in the cancer ward of a hospital who become friends with much hesitation. In the past, I've spoken with overflowing enthusiasm about Danish cinema, and this short exemplifies what I have loved about it over the years. It defies the conventions of standard dramatic storytelling. This is one of the most original takes on the "disease movie" genre that I've ever seen, and it's only 40 minutes long. I also liked the UK entry The Tonto Woman, which is actually set in the old American West, and involves the relationship between a charming cattle thief and a woman living alone in the desert after being held captive by Mojave Indians for 11 years and carrying their brand on her chin. This is a wonderfully authentic piece that draws you in because you have no clue where it's headed. France's The Mozart of Pickpockets is a humorous work about a pair of common criminals who meet a young deaf boy and see their luck with thievery change for the better almost immediately. The shortest two entries are the utterly obnoxious Italian effort The Substitute about a verbally abusive substitute teacher, and the Belgium-made movie Tanghi Argentini, concerning a man who wants to learn the tango to impress a woman he meets online. This one sneaks a clever ending in just as you begin to think this is a fairly conventional story, and it's the film's saving grace.

Having been on the jury for the Short Films competition for three (nonconsecutive) years for the Chicago Film Festival, I have a great affinity for all shorts. You almost never get a chance to see them, and even when you do (say, at a film festival), most people don't make the time for them. But seeing the ones in competition for this city's festival and the films nominated for the 2007 Academy Awards, I can say without doubt that the selection process for the Oscars is about as random as it gets. I could easily substitute four to six better films I judged last year in place of a couple of the selections in each Oscar category. And I say that taking nothing away from these largely enjoyable nominated works. If I had one big complaint about the two programs in general, it would be that I also want to see the four nominated films for Best Documentary Short. Ah well, that's just me being greedy. As I said in the beginning, this is required viewing as far as I'm concerned. If these programs land in your town, do your duty as citizen moviegoers of America and check them out.

Le Doulos

My absolute, without question favorite French director of crime dramas is Jean-Pierre Melville, whose films Army of Shadows, Le cercle rouge, Le Samourai and Bob le fambeur would make just about one of the coolest mini-film festival of all time. If you threw in the recently restored and now reissued Le Doulos, that would just about make said festival perfect. Although smaller in scope than some of his other works, 1962's Le Doulos is no less a great story about Maurice (Serge Reggiani), who was recently released from prison and goes immediately to kill a friend he then robs. Maurice is shot by a police officer as he attempts to escape, but he manages to get away and lands in a girlfriend's apartment. Soon, fellow criminal Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) arrives to plan their next caper, but when Maurice is arrested, he immediately believes Silien is a police informant and vows to kill him.

The story for this relatively small-scale noirish thriller is devilishly clever and loaded with tension. The black-and-white photography is crisp and filled with some of the darkest shadows on screen. There aren't any truly likable characters on hand, but Belmondo's good looks and brutish charm with the ladies makes him the most fun to observe. The double- and triple-crosses are fantastically scripted by Melville (from the novel by Pierre Lesou), the dames are gorgeous, stool pigeons are dealt with, and cigarettes are smoked constantly. Although less well known than some of Melville's other works, Le Doulos is just as dangerous and nerve fraying as the others. Trust me, you will eat the atmosphere up with a fork and a shot of whiskey and love every second of it. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Step Up 2 the Streets

In my earlier review of Jumper, I chastised the writing for using the word "amazing" inappropriately. I should have held me tongue. This sequel to the equally vapid Step Up drops the word on us like today is the last day it's allowed to be used. I wish I could say that that is the worst of Step Up 2's crimes against cinema. Alas.

What bothers me most about these "kids from the street" films (and no, I'm not just talking about black kids or Latino kids; a lot of the kids in this film are whiter than white) is that they don't even bother writing decent dialog. You know what? Forget dialog. These movies don't even feature a normal conversation between two characters. Every line is either a put down, a one liner, or a comment about how great ("amazing") another person's dance moves are or how bad. What underscores the poor writing is the even worse acting. Most of these performers aren't even actor;s they're dancers pretending to act. And while you can't help but admire their originality and athleticism as dancers, I cringed whenever something resembling an emotion is expressed. Waiving your arms around while getting in someone's face isn't acting; it's flailing. And rather than actually have an argument, one character or another storms out of the room in a huff, because that's what real people always do, right?

Briana Evigan plays Andie, a tough as nails hottie who dances in a crew of street dancers known as the 410. When her legal guardian (of course, Andie's mother is dead) threatens to send her from the mean streets of Baltimore where they live to the less mean streets of Texas, Andie flips. At a club that night, she runs into an old friend, Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum, reprising his role from the original film in a cameo), who convinces her guardian to let her stay if Andie enrolls in the same fine arts prep school where Tyler made his mark. Why Andie's friends flip out when they find out she's doing whatever is necessary to stay with them in Baltimore is a little unclear, but they do. So Andie forms her own dance crew of her fellow classmates to challenge the 410 at the upcoming big dance-off known only as The Streets. If you are rolling on the floor laughing right now or are preparing to scroll away as fast as possible from this review, I know exactly how your feel.

Nearly every word in this film is spoken at some degree of elevated volume, which is probably the result of the soundtrack music blaring so loud that you can barely hear the dialog (on this point, I'm not actually complaining). But let's be honest, people going to see this movie aren't going to bathe in the deep character development or lather in the expertly crafted plot twists and turns. They're going to watch synchronized booty shaking and listen to the latest hip-hop tunes, both of which are supplied in ample quantities. If your standards are as impossibly low as your expectations that this film is any good, maybe you'll clap a little at the end of Step Up 2 the Streets. That's the most I can offer you if you have your heart set on seeing this.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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