THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES * * * *
Cert PG, 96 mins
With Eragon and Dark Is Rising having crashed and burned, the Narnia sequel delayed and The Golden Compass getting off to a shaky start, it seemed there would never be a children's fantasy adventure to rival the Potter series.
However, this Mark Waters-directed adaptation of Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi's series, does the job in style.
Her marriage fallen apart, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) relocates from New York with twin sons Simon and Jared (both played by the excellent Freddie Highmore) and teenage daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger) to the rural gothic home of their long-since institutionalised 86-year-old Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright).
Though none of the kids are happy with the move, it's Jared who, blaming mum for the break-up, resents things most. And it's inevitably he who gets the blame when things start to go missing and Mallory wakes up to find her hair knotted to the bedstand.
However, as he soon discovers, the culprit is actually Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), the Brownie (who transforms into a stroppy Boggart when he gets angry, calmed only by guzzling honey). He lives in the secret study of Jared's great-great grandfather, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) and is charged with protecting the Field Guide to the secrets of the faerie world.
Unfortunately, Jared's already found the book, ignored the warning note, and read it. Thereby placing his entire family and all the faerie creatures in mortal danger from evil ogre Mulgareth (Nick Nolte) and his toad-like goblins who will stop at nothing to get the tome and with it the power to rule the world.
Once things kick off, the film positively rattles along, delivering breathless action and stunning CGI effects yet never shortchanging the narrative, characters or emotional depth. There's perhaps a little too much Americanised humour about Thimbletack and bird-eating hobgoblin Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), but that's the only misstep.
The screenplay keeps a scary dark edge (Nolte's human form appearance reeks of menace) while also mining parent-child issues, building to a terrific tomato sauce bombs showdown between the goblins and the beleaguered Grace family. Highmore effortlessly gives life to the twins' disparate personalities, Bolger injects sword-fencing Mallory with just the right feistiness. Strathairn's a suitably distracted spirit world anthropologist and Plow-right provides a touching last act lesson in underplayed grace and twinkle.
A classic in the making, this is a magical film for kids from eight to 80, the only downside is that, having condensed the five original Spiderwick books into a self-contained film that affords no sequel set-up ending, it's hard to see how it can become the franchise it so rightly deserves.
DR. SEUSS' HORTON HEARS A WHO! * *
Cert U, 86 mins
Whatever your feelings about The Cat In The Hat (gratingly awful) and How The Grinch Stole Christmas (rather good), the former raked in $100m and the latter more than double that, proving there's big box office for adaptations of Dr Seuss' books.
Delivering the year's most successful opening weekend, this latest doesn't buck the trend. Eschewing live action in favour of CGI animation, the better to capture the quirky visuals, it looks fabulous with vivid colours and wild leaps of the imagination. But, it also runs into the problem of turning a very thin story into a big screen size movie.
A fable about belief, intolerance, individuality and the importance of imagination, the nuts and bolts involve Horton the elephant (Jim Carrey in his second Seuss) facing mockery from the other jungle animals, notably blinkered fundamentalist Kangaroo (a sardonic Carol Burnett), when he declares that a speck of dust nestling on a head of clover contains a microscopic world he's vowed to protect from danger.
Likewise, the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) is tagged as a 'booby' by the council and his fellow citizens when he warns their world is in great danger but that there's this giant elephant with a plan to save them.
To pad out the running time, there's a lot of frenzied repetitive action, dollops of cartoon violence and, for no apparent reason, a Pokemon-style sequence with the original Seuss drawings.
The other problems lie with the knowing humour to keep the grown ups happy and Carrey's improvisational American comedy brashness. When he's playing to the original he's fine, bringing a gentle, quizzical innocence, but when he's saying things like 'you take care of that meatball, sir, and leave the freakin' out to me', you can feel the charm draining away.
A visual treat (not least the sight of an ape firing bananas from his armpits) it will indisputably keep the kids entertained, but, as with the sadly underused vulture villain Vlad, it should and could have been far more fun than it is.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA * *
Cert 15, 138 mins
An object lesson in why some books should never be turned into films, Mike Newell and screenwriter Ronald Harwood's adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez's epic romance singularly fails to translate page to screen.
Literally faithful to the novel, it spans several decades, opening in 1879 Cartagena and then flashing back 50 years to the moment when young telegraph clerk Florentino (Unax Ugalde) first catches sight of Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the daughter of a socially ambitious self-made entrepreneur (John Leguizamo).
Lovestruck, he swears eternal devotion but when her father learns of the unsuitable relationship, he carts her off to the country and Florentino goes home to mum (Fernanda Montenegro).
Suffice to say that when they next meet, she says her passion's cooled and eventually marries physician Juvenal (Benjamin Bratt) while the now adult Florentino (Javier Bardem) discovers sex, gets to take charge of his uncle's (Hector Elizondo) shipping company and numbs his pain by bedding 622 women while waiting to approach his beloved once more.
However, while Marquez avoids the potential for melodrama, Newell opens the floodgates, reducing the novel's civil war and cholera epidemics to set dressing, and turning the whole thing into some art house sex comedy.
Often yawningly slow, the wildly uneven tone leaves the excellent Bardem uncertain whether he's supposed to be playing the humour or the angst, while Elizondo and Montenegro ham it up, Bratt's resolutely stiff and an accent-mangling Leguizamo is, quite frankly, just incomprehensible.
Still, Mezzogiorno gives an engaging performance, even if it's impossible to buy her as a 72 year-old when she looks a good 40 years younger than Bardem.
The final act does finally tap into a haunting romantic melancholy, but for the most this story of heat and passion is just bloodlessly dull.
THE ORPHANAGE * * * *
Cert 15, 106 mins, subtitled
Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth was a highpoint, but the fast few years have seen Spanish cinema on a considerable roll with the likes of Only Human, Princesas and The Night of the Sunflowers.
Along with the upcoming [Rec], this spooky psychological ghost story, directed by Toro protégé Juan Antonio Bayona, is up there with the very best.
Having persuaded husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), to buy the abandoned rural orphanage where she grew up, Laura (Belen Rueda) plans to turn it into a centre for children with mental disabilities. She also hopes the setting will prove beneficial for their chronically ill young son Simon who remains una-ware that he's both adopted and HIV positive.
The mood's quickly set with the arrival of a creepy old woman claiming to be a social worker and Simon's tales of his invisible new playmates and their games of hide and seek. The chills set in with a vengeance when, on open day, Simon, who's now learned the truth about himself, disappears and Laura has an encounter with a young boy wearing a bag over his head.
As weeks pass and the police can find no trace of Simon, much to her husband's scepticism, an increasingly unstable Laura brings in a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) whose commentary as she wanders around in a spirit-trance lowers the temperature even further.
Taking his cue from Henry James, Bayona keeps things deliberately ambiguous so you're never quite certain how much is 'real' and how much the product of Laura's state of mind. Cranking up themes of maternal love, guilt and redemption, there's some very specific references to Peter Pan, Wendy and The Lost Boys as the orphanage's dark secrets are gradually revealed and the film builds to its both frightening yet profoundly moving denouement. See it before the blundering Hollywood remake.
STEP UP 2: THE STREETS * *
Cert PG, 97 mins
Troubled street dance kid goes to elite dance school where they become romantically involved with classically trained dancer with whom they pair up, bringing confrontation with their old life but also leading to a spectacular routine that tears down prejudices.
Sound familiar? That's because it was the plot to the original and unexpectedly good Step Up. Now it's recycled, virtually note for note, for the sequel, merely switching the gender roles around.
Troubled kid is now Andie (Briana Evigan), a member of a street dance gang, who (guided by a role-reprising cameo from Channing Tatum) agrees to attend the Maryland School of the Arts rather than ship out to relatives in Texas.
In the blue corner, there's Chase (Robert Hoffman), overshadowed younger brother of Blake (Will Kemp), the sniffy uptight school director who looks down his nose at Andie's street dance moves.
Throw in a clash with her old crew, a bunch of fellow hot-footed school misfits, and the impending annual Streets dance contest and you can pretty much guess the rest.
Devoid of inspiration and imagination, it simply plods from cliche A to cliche B and, save for the rain-soaked dance battle finalé, doesn't even have any especially dazzling choreography. Dimly lit, ineptly directed, poorly written and drearily acted, it positively makes you yearn for High School Musical 3.
MEET THE SPARTANS *
Cert 12A, 83 mins
Did you see Date Movie? Did you see Epic Movie? If you thought they were funny, you'll be rolling in the aisles at this equally witless scene-by-scene parody of 300.
Aside from incessantly sending up the original's homoeroticism, like the party bore who insists on telling the same joke over and over, whenever it thinks it's stumbled on something amusing, it repeats it ad infinitum.
I swear the scene when Leonidas (Sean Maguire) pushes people into the pit lasted half the entire movie. And yes, there's the Spartans skipping along to I Will Survive. Twice.
Populated by such will-work-for-food names as Carmen Electra and Kevin Sorbo, like its predecessors it also throws in random, equally mirthless references to other movies and pop-culture figures. There's a bit of Bond, some Spider-Man 3, Happy Feet, Shrek, American Idol, Rambo and passé digs at Britney, Hilton and Lohan featuring some the world's worst non-lookalikes.
And, to add insult to injury, the directors frequently insist on explaining the gag, suggesting they think their audiences are all morons.
Cheap, crude and witless. It'll doubtless take a fortune.