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.
And so this is Sundance. Sort of.
There's no snow. No crowds. No film crews. The locals promise that a storm will hit Friday, and while it'd be clever to argue they're a day off -- that the real storm arrives Thursday in the form of Robert Redford's film festival cum schmoozefest (running through Jan. 30) -- they're not.
There's nobody stinkin' here.
There aren't even any films -- stinkin' or otherwise -- until 7:30 p.m. Thursday when the Thanksgiving-themed ensemble drama "What's Cooking?" (with outward-bound "ER" star Julianna Margulies) unspools at Sundance's opening-night gala premiere event in nearby Salt Lake City.
So how best to kill the hours (days?) waiting for something Sundance-ian to happen? (Or for the NC-17 branded "American Psycho" to premiere on Friday night -- whichever comes first?)
Here's what you do: You walk the streets (well, street), count the Southwestern restaurants and seek answers to this thing called our nation's leading film festival:
SO, HOW MANY REPORTERS DOES IT TAKE TO COVER ONE OF THESE THINGS ANYWAY? According to Sundance rep R.J. Millard, more than 700. At least that's how many media types have been credentialed. But don't think that means no room at the (figurative) inn. Scores of other brave, non-paperworked types show up here, too, in search of hot stars, hot directors, hot films -- and just maybe, free food.
WHAT ARE THE FRINGE BENEFITS OF BEING A SUNDANCE-ANOINTED FILMMAKER? Kind of the same as being a fan at the ballpark on give-away day. Based on sneak peeks at the goodie bags being prepped at the Shadow Ridge Lodge (local festival headquarters) on Wednesday afternoon, each movie type is to receive one free Sundance TV shirt and one free Sundance baseball cap. Don't wear it all in one place.
HAVE YOU SEEN ROBERT REDFORD YET? Nope. But his restaurant, Zoom, located on Main Street (the main drag of Park City) is hiding in plain sight. At Zoom, you can dine on pasta, grilled things and cookies. It's not cheap, but it's not expensive. According to utah.citysearch.com, the restaurant is named after zoom lenses, lest you think Mr. Redford has a thing for old 1970s PBS kids' shows.
HAS SUNDANCE GONE TOO COMMERCIAL? No. The Main Street gift shop -- stocked with the aforementioned Sundance TV shirts and baseball caps -- does not open before the festival does.
WHY ISN'T THERE ANY SNOW? Because it rained on Tuesday, and as a local businessman says, Park City is enduring a "mid-January heat wave."
HOW WARM IS IT? A couple was spotted walking down Main Street ... with matching ice-cream cones.
SO, WHAT'S TODAY'S NEW "BLAIR WITCH PROJECT"? "The Convent." It premieres Friday night (or actually first thing Saturday morning) as part of Sundance's Park City at Midnight program. For the uninitiated, that's the same slot that "The Blair Witch Project" got last year en route to becoming a Top 10 box-office grosser. "The Convent" star Joanna Canton, speaking by phone in Los Angeles today, said she understands the "Blair Witch" connections, even if her flick really isn't like that flick. ("It's more like 'Evil Dead' meets 'Fright Night.'") "The Convent" is about spooky things going on down at, yes, a convent. Adrienne Barbeau (of "Maude" and "Swamp Thing" fame) ups the flick's cool factor (and further distinguishes it from "Blair Witch"). But what if audiences insist on piling on "Blair Witch"-style buzz on "The Convent"? Says Canton: "I don't think anyone would mind that."
HOW MUCH DOES SUNDANCE CHAMPION THE UN-CHAMPIONED? According to today's edition of the local newspaper, the Park Record, only 45 Sundance 2000 filmmakers are Sundance virgins. That represents far fewer than half of the more than 170 features, docs and shorts that will be screened here.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU LEARN BY READING THE LOCAL PAPER? That the Office of Capital Management and Budget will discuss the local transit center at Thursday's City Council meeting. (Tickets still available.)
HEY, WHAT'S UP WITH CHARLIE SHEEN? His career, apparently. A Hollywood manager (not Sheen's) swore to us today that "Rated X," the upcoming HBO biopic about the brothers who made the infamous porno flick "Behind the Green Door," will be the oft-troubled Sheen's comeback vehicle. No word on what'll do for his co-star and oft-overlooked brother, Emilio Estevez. "Rated X" premieres here on Tuesday.
WHAT CAN'T YOU DO IN PARK CITY? Hand out fliers, ask for doubles at nightclubs, walk more than 30 steps without dialing up someone on your cell phone.