It can’t just ALL be about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. There have to be other fantasy-driven stories grounded in reality that are just as exciting. And so there is: The Spiderwick Chronicles a series of short books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black which tells us about the magical creatures who live around us but who remain invisible so we humans won’t freak out. Probably a wise choice for most but there are a few who want to see the creatures. One such person is Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) a turn-of-the-century naturalist who has witnessed the likes of sprites goblins hobgoblins ogres and trolls at work. He has documented their secrets and habits in his Field Guide--a book that if placed in the wrong hands could make some fantastical beast maliciously omnipotent. Jump ahead some 80 years when we meet Spiderwick’s descendents the Grace family who have moved into his dilapidated house in the woods. Newly divorced mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) has uprooted her kids--teenage Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both Freddie Highmore)--to start a new life with Jared being the one protesting the loudest. That is until he finds Spiderwick’s field guide and quite literally opens Pandora’s box giving evil ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) who has desperately wanted the book since its inception the window of opportunity he’s been waiting for. The Grace kids have to band together--with a few otherworldly allies of course--to protect the book at all costs. Although Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) struggles at times with the American accent the young British lad continues to prove his worthiness in the acting department--and joins the ranks of playing twins onscreen that dates back to Patty Duke on The Patty Duke Show (yes they were just cousins but they were identical cousins). Highmore does a nice job distinguishing between the two boys but he seems to have the most fun playing Jared. And rightly so since Jared is the true hero of the story. He is deeply wounded by his parents’ divorce blaming his mother for it all but in discovering this magical and dangerous world that goes way beyond his personal problems he quickly snaps to it. Bolger (In America) too takes her clichéd older-sister-who-knows-everything role and freshens it up adding a fierce determination to protect her family--with an expressive face that makes her very watchable. The adult cast isn’t nearly as important but they all fit in nicely especially Joan Plowright as Great Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick’s 80-something daughter who saw her father taken away by sylphs the keepers of the faeries’ secrets when she was 6 and has been trying to explain it ever since. Then there are the voices of some of the creatures the Graces meet including Martin Short as the ever-faithful house brownie Thimbletack; Seth Rogen as the hobgoblin Hogsqueal a piggish and friendly fellow whose spit in the eye gives you the Sight; and Nolte as the horrible villainous Mulgarath. OK all those who believe in faeries raise your hand! The Spiderwick Chronicles is just the kind of story that gets an imaginative kid to run out to the garden to start looking for sprites and director Mark Waters inherently understands this. Better known for his comedies such as Mean Girls and Freaky Friday Waters nonetheless grabs hold of the Spiderwick’s mythology and firmly plants it in reality with normal modern kids encountering a whole magical realm. Taking from the illustrations of co-author Tony DiTerlizzi Waters also gives us new versions of magical creatures we’ve read about for ages. Goblins for example look like giant frogs and act like attack dogs in this film as opposed to the more civilized view of them in the Harry Potter books--and goblins in Spiderwick can be killed by tomato sauce which melts them. Nice touch. Trolls too aren’t great big lumbering fellows but more dinosaur-like in Spiderwick. And let’s just say ogre Mulgarath looks nothing like Shrek but more so a devilish creature with yellow eyes and great big horns. Spiderwick is indeed scary at times maybe too scary for the younger kids but the action sequences and chase scenes are thrilling enough to keep everyone else’s attention.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
A dead body with a smashed-in face and cut-off hands is uncovered at a Montreal construction site. The local authorities are all over it but police inspector Hugo Leclair (Tcheky Karyo) thinks it might be bigger than just a random murder and decides to bring in his good friend Special Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) an FBI profiler who relies on her intuition rather than conventional crime-solving techniques. She proves it by immediately lying in the victim's grave to get a "sense" of what happened to him. (Wow we've never seen that before.) The Montreal detectives on the case Paquette (Olivier Martinez) and Duval (Jean-Hugues Anglade) are skeptical of her ways especially Paquette who thinks she's just plain nuts (we're with ya Paquette) and resents her involvement. The investigative team catches a lucky break when witness James Costa (Ethan Hawke) pops up claiming he stumbled upon the killer mid-murder (but not in time to save the victim) and can identify him. With Costa's help Illeana gets a clearer picture of her "profile " discovering he is a chameleon-like serial killer who "life-jacks" his victims assuming their lives and identities. At first she's hot on his tracks but the usually detached Illeana is thrown for a loop when an unexpected attraction develops between her and James. She suddenly feels like she is losing her touch; and surrounded by what could be a bevy of potential suspects things get chillingly personal.
Jolie has done this before sort of in the 1999 The Bone Collector in which she played a homicide detective who works with a quadriplegic partner to catch a serial killer so inhabiting Agent Scott is not new territory for her. Neither is acting in the steamy love scene she gets to share with Hawke which as we all know is something Jolie can do well. What is surprising for a movie of this type however is the fact the uptight emotionless FBI profiler actually gets to have sex which brings out Scott's more human qualities. The ultra-smooth Hawke whom we haven't seen since his Oscar-nominated turn in the 2001 Training Day also does some intriguing things with his character who may or may not be the bad guy (see below). The rest of the cast however falls into conventional psycho thriller compartments--the good cop (Anglade) the bad cop (Martinez) the concerned confidante (Karyo) and the person who provides key information about the serial killer's background (his mother played by Gena Rowlands)--without shedding anything new on the proceedings.
If you've seen one big-budget psychological serial killer movie you've seen them all. You know that the one guy they want you to think is the killer really isn't. You know that the other more unlikely guy probably is. You know somehow the hero--a smart cop FBI agent etc.--will eventually find his or her life in mortal danger. And finally you know the killer rarely dies on the first attempt; he always comes back. What you hope is that at some point the filmmaker will throw a wrench in the works. Something you couldn't predict even if given all the clues. Taking Lives director D.J. Caruso tries his best to do this. Through his camerawork he sets up Illeana's hyper-sensitive skills of observation as she notices everything around her only to see those skills fail on her later--and aided by composer Phillip Glass' haunting musical score the film reaches the predictable high points fulfilling its thriller quota. Montreal also provides a change of pace from the usual grimy Big Apple or other such gritty American locales prominently feature in such films. But what keeps Taking Lives in the running is its curveball at the end. If you don't mind wading through the rest of the movie's obviousness the wait is worth it.