If the legendary Scottish Loch Ness monster exists Water Horse imagines how he may have come to be. Based on the book by Dick King-Smith and set during WWII it all starts when Angus (Alex Etel)--a young Scottish lad living with his housekeeper mother (Emily Watson) on an estate while his father fights in the war--finds an enchanted egg by the shores of the local lake. Thinking it another crustacean he takes it home but soon finds himself face-to-face with an amazing creature: the mythical "water horse" of Scottish lore whom Angus calls “Crusoe.” As Angus becomes attached to his new friend the young boy does everything he can to keep Crusoe a secret even as the animal grows abnormally large over a short period of time. With the help of a handyman (Ben Chaplin) Angus soon has to put Crusoe into the lake so he can live comfortably. But outside influences conspire to expose Crusoe--even threaten his life--and Angus risks everything to help his friend. Young Etel expertly carries Water Horse on his small shoulders proving his stellar performance in Danny Boyle’s Millions wasn’t a fluke. He never goes over the top or tries to play it with too much sweetness and light. Instead Etel is a complete natural convincingly interacting with a green-screened creature and most importantly conveys all the right emotions to get the audience just as wrapped up in the sea monster’s plight as he is. The rest of the cast however is a bit misplaced. Watson is mostly wasted as the mother hardened by war who can’t bring herself to tell her young son the truth about his father. The Oscar-nominated actress is simply too good for something this childish. Meanwhile Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) doesn’t really connect with his character a soldier who returns home after being wounded only to wander the country working aimless jobs. The only adult actor who stands out is veteran Brit Brian Cox. As the film’s narrator he plays an old pub patron who tells the true story of Crusoe after two American tourists spy the now-infamous “photo” of the Loch Ness monster. It’s the constant twinkle in his eyes that gets you. Director Jay Russell has a key into family fare having helmed films such as My Dog Skip and Tuck Everlasting so there is an ease to his direction in Water Horse. He guides his young star to deliver an unaffected performance and handles the special effects with a sure hand. Crusoe is awfully cute when he’s a youngster flopping around and making a mess of things. Then when he’s full grown he is quite impressive. The moment Angus faces his fear of water climbs on Crusoe’s back and lets the creature take him for a deep-diving swim in the lake we are hooked by the exhilaration of it. Unfortunately there is also a level of predictability to Water Horse especially when it comes time for Crusoe to escape the lake into open waters before he is killed by the local militia. Not too hard to figure how it all ends up.
In Barrow Alaska there comes a time each winter when sunlight fades out and darkness rolls in like an unwelcome visitor—for a month. Many people abandon the small town without hesitation while those who stay brace themselves for a storm of inhumane relentless frigidity and a test of sanity. But this year one group keeps the town warm—with blood—for its 30 days of night. The town’s two remaining law enforcers Eben (Josh Hartnett) and Stella (Melissa George) are forewarned by a strange drifter (Ben Foster) that “something’s comin’ ” but before they can even finish scoffing the sun has set and the vampires have descended or ascended upon Barrow for blood and recruitment. With only himself and Stella to keep the few living well alive Eben is forced to go on the defensive for the full 30 days. But as he soon learns these vamps are a smart breed with a perpetual case of the munchies. Just when you think Josh Hartnett has finally chosen the right role to suit his dark features and limited range—he decides not to play a vampire. Still 30 Days' constant darkness and overall chaos would seem to accentuate his positives by drowning out his negatives much the way Sin City spun and sold his small role but that’s not quite so. It turns out he’s capable of the quickie action or momentary drama but the scenes in which he is to save the er night—well it’s a good thing the Hartnett-as-Superman rumor was just that. As Hartnett’s partner in non-crime/estranged lover George (Turistas) manages to create some tension without resorting to shrieking or the drama-school histrionics we’ve come to expect from supporting actresses in horrors. Also successful is the ever-versatile Ray Winstone (The Departed) playing a grizzly outsider-turned-insider who joins the anti-vampire crusade. In a role surprisingly tiny considering his current rate of ascension in the industry Foster (3:10 to Yuma) is the best and creepiest this movie has to offer. And in the vampire corner is Danny Huston (The Number 23) who is horrifying as hell on first look only to de-emphasize that appearance by crowing and chatting instead of simply chugging blood. On the first day of night the vampires will seem scary; by the 30th day they’ll seem more like zombies—unless that’s just you projecting onto them. Director David Slade whose previous feature (the indie Hard Candy) could not have been more different from this one will initially win over horror-philes with 30 Days. After all it starts off on a high note with an almost apocalyptic aura to the impending darkness and its consequences. The story is set up adequately and the scares to come are alluded to without getting too greedy. And Slade doesn’t let us down immediately following sundown with jolting flashes of the beasts readying to overtake the small town. But once he gives them faces and personalities it doesn’t take long for the suspense to die—and die some more. That’s almost midway in after which point it becomes clear that the movie will consist only of a heavily abridged countdown to that 30th night and predictable bloodshed. As Slade nears the film’s climax 30 Days nears videogame-like music and machismo before its slightly more compelling conclusion is reached. On a brighter note the lightless Alaskan town—although obviously not totally pitch black for the movie’s sake—does look positively bleak especially when the cinematography takes to the skies.
Lily (Loren Horsley) is a frumpy little weirdo working at a fast food joint who everyone makes fun of. But she may have met her soul mate in Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) a sarcastic constantly annoyed slacker. At a costume party where she comes as a shark and he as an eagle she wows him with her video game skills. They start dating but Jarrod becomes obsessed with fighting an old high school bully. His crusade tears them apart while Lily is stuck watching Jarrod’s train wreck of a life. The whole movie feels like a bad rip off of Napoleon Dynamite. It’s the idea of seeing weird characters in otherwise banal situations only it really is just weird and banal. These slackers don't say clever things. They just complain. The climactic fight pays off in a somewhat funny way but since the characters are so repulsive it's hard to muster any excitement. On the other hand the actors do their jobs well. It's not their fault they've been asked to play boring annoying losers. Horsley does her best to bring sympathy to Lily. She offers a loyal loving partner who just gets screwed by a loser guy. But she's so good at playing pathetic it overpowers anything else so you really don't care if she hooks up with him or not. Clement goes all out. His random outbursts seem to come from a real place though they are still utterly random. Perhaps with more inventive material these two could really do something. Jarrod’s family is filled with supporting actors who fill in other oddball traits making Jarrod's behavior a definite inherited condition. They're even a little more sympathetic than Jarrod because they at least know Jarrod is messing up his only chance for a good relationship. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by slacker characters who have profound observations about the world. New Zealand writer/director Taika Cohen is trying to emulate the oddball tone of a Napoleon Dynamite combined with the slacker attitudes of a Clerks but none of those films’ endearments or wry social commentary come through in Eagle vs. Shark. On top of it the film looks like a school project. Maybe it’s trendy for indie films to adapt this style but sometimes it draws more attention to the incompetence of the filmmakers. Cohen thinks he's clever and revels in his creation lingering on moments that just don't play. But honestly you won’t want to pay to spend 90 minutes with these people.