Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Written by El Fangorio

Thanks to the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, these days pretty much any children’s book can be made into a film franchise so long as it contains a wizard, a dragon, or an ogre. The Spiderwick Chronicles series of books, written by Holly Black and illustrated by Tony Diterlizzi, tells the adventures of the three Grace siblings, twins Jared and Simon, and their older sister Mallory, after they move into the mysterious Spiderwick Mansion and discover a world of faeries, goblins, and other magical beasties. Condensing the five novels into one story, the film does a great job of keeping it simple enough for those unfamiliar with the series without disappointing the fans. Most importantly, it’s one of those rare instances where a genre film keeps its fantasy rooted in reality so that the viewer can understand what’s going on without having to be enrolled in wizard school. The film is further aided by the work of its talented young cast, some stellar voice acting, and a bevy of impressive creature effects.

Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) has dedicated his life to studying the secret world around us, something he discovered by accident. Invisible to the naked eye, this realm is populated by creatures that live amongst us either as friend or foe, preserving peace or creating chaos. All of his discoveries are kept in a large tome called Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. In it are highly detailed records of how each species came to be, where it lives, and what its various strengths and weaknesses are. Spiderwick soon learns the danger of recording all their secrets when the evil ogre Mulgarath learns of the book and seeks it as a means to conquer and destroy. Arthur decides to protect himself and the book by hiding it and placing a magic protective barrier around the house. Not knowing of the book and the dangerous world around her, his six year-old daughter Lucinda is attacked by one of the invisible creatures hoping to use her to find the book. Arthur is able to save the child but not before a legion of fairies step in to aid him by whisking him away safely to their world, leaving Lucinda fatherless and with one hell of a story for the police.

Cut to present day as Helen Grace (Mary Louise-Parker), along with her three children, twins Jared and Simon (both played by Freddy Highmore) and their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), has moved into the creepy Spiderwick Estate after Aunt Lucinda has given it to her. We learn that Lucinda (now 86) has been in a psychiatric hospital ever since her encounter with the invisible world, presumably since nobody would believe her story.

Later that night, Jared hears something moving in the walls. He breaks into the wall and discovers a hidden dumbwaiter that leads to a secret room. It’s Arthur’s study and locked away in a trunk is the field guide. There is a warning on the book from great-great uncle Arthur saying to never open it. Of course Jared ignores the warning and stays up all night reading about the unseen world around him. One of the creatures he reads about, a ‘brownie,’ sounds like the one he may have heard rustling in the walls. He learns that they are appeased by honey and after finding out what “appease” means by his smarter half Simon, Jared sets out to find the creature by sitting up all night in the secret room.

He awakens to ThimbleTack who tells him all about the book and it’s importance. He explains that magical creatures are invisible but can reveal themselves at will. He also tells him of the protective barrier around the house and gives him a stone with a hole in it that allows one to see these fantastic creatures. He warns him though that since he opened the book, that there will be others coming to find it. Per usual, nobody believes Jared about the book he found. It isn’t until Simon is snatched away by Mulgrath’s goblins that Jared is able to convince his sister that there is an unseen battle going on that needs their help.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a good example of what you get when the right creative team takes on the right material. Because the market is so saturated with fantasy films for children, lesser-known works such as this are going to need a little extra help in front of and behind the cameras in order to compete with the more popular films being made. It’s not that Spiderwick isn’t a solid story but let’s face it, it isn’t the first time we’ve seen children battling ogres. In fact, it isn’t even the first time we’ve seen the lead actor battling foul creatures invisible to the naked eye.

Easily the hardest-working kid in showbiz right now, Freddy Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, The Golden Compass) has been through this before and you’d be forgiven for skipping this film thinking you’ve already seen it as it’s almost the same premise as his earlier Arthur and the Invisibles. But whereas that film was animated, Spiderwick is a live-action film and for my money, a far superior one. There is a more palpable sense of awe and wonder when watching real humans react to their fictional surroundings than watching their animated counterparts doing the same. It’s also worth noting that Highmore plays dual roles in this film, playing both of the twins, and does an excellent job when you consider the only physical difference between the two is a haircut.

Rounding out the rest of the family is actress Sarah Bolger who plays Mallory Grace. As with British actor Highmore, this actress also has a thick foreign accent (Irish in her case) off camera though you would never know it to watch her here. She has some nice dialogue to work with here (due to John Sayles’ tweaking of the screenplay) being the sarcastic teenage sister, and her delivery is quite good. Unfortunately, Helen Grace could have been played by anybody so Louise-Parker's acting chops are hardly given a workout here but this is fine since we rarely see her character in the film anyways. In fact, most of the action takes place while she’s sleeping or at work. The rest of the Spiderwick clan amount to little more than cameos with Joan Plowright as Aunt Lucinda and ‘80s teen-film staple Andrew McCarthy as the recently split Mr. Grace.

The rest of the film is populated with CGI characters with perfectly cast actors providing their voices. Martin Short plays ThimbleTack, the gentle Brownie that turns into a hot-tempered ‘Boggart’ when he doesn’t get his honey, and his penchant for playing overtly stressed-out characters is no different here. Also playing one of the good guys is Seth Rogan as Hogsqueal the Hobgoblin. Typical of anything he does, Hogsqueal is hilarious as the pig/bat/monkey fusion with serious attention deficit disorders. The bad guys are just as impressive with Nick Nolte playing the evil Mulgrath and Ron Pearlman in an uncredited role, voicing the henchman Redcap, leader of the goblins.

As with most genre films of today, this one places its main title sequence at the end of the film. This is always a hindrance when you end up spending the entire time trying to figure out “who’s playing that voice?” but in this case it’s a testament to the technical crew when you end up being impressed by what you see without knowing (ahead of time) that some huge names are responsible. In this case, we have the recently accomplished director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday (2003)), cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Passion), and special creature effects by Phil Tippet (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back). These are some pretty impressive credentials and their work on Spiderwick sets it apart from the rest of the children’s films being made right now. The film is shot beautifully and the creatures look awesome, especially Mulgrath once he shows his real face (they don’t cater to the easily frightened with this guy). It also helps that Nickelodeon Movies produced this film, meaning kids can say “hell” and mass amounts of phlegmy substances will be flown.

All of this makes for a great Blu-Ray viewing experience as pretty much anything that relies on CGI effects is going to be infinitely better when viewed in high definition. Needless to say, Spiderwick’s Blu-ray is a definite improvement over its SD release. Deschanel’s striking photography compliments the digital effects on display and both are rendered beautifully in HD. He doesn’t fill the screen with overtly saturated colors instead relying on a natural palette, making it harder to toss it all off as being “done by a computer”. Black levels are pitch perfect (Mulgrath’s crow comes to mind) and there isn’t a single grain to be found. If there is anything to complain about, it might be that it suffers the same fate as most HD transfers in that it’s got an overall darkness that is most likely the result of the studio wanting to make sure the consumer doesn’t confuse intentional film grain as film noise. This is unfortunately a practice that will continue until everyone realizes that HD doesn’t mean “without grain.”

Its audio, here in Dolby 5.1 TrueHD is a little on the soft side at times. I would assume this is because it’s a children’s film though I hardly doubt they kept that in mind when creating Mulgrath so why can’t his scenes be equally as powerful in this department? The rest of the film sounds fine and the score by James Horner is nicely enhanced, though it does sound an awful lot like his Something Wicked This Way Comes (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

The Spiderwick Chronicles comes with a plethora of supplemental features though I will never understand the process behind splitting up over an hours worth of footage over seven parts, especially now that everyone knows the sham. You can’t list a making-of feature with a running time of 18 minutes and expect people to be impressed. Instead, break it up into three six-minute featurettes and you give the impression of there being more than there really is. But here we have at least an hour’s worth of extras and, trust me, a 75-minute documentary on the making of Spiderwick would have been more than enough justification to go the old route. It is worth noting that all of the special features are presented here in HD.

First off is “Spiderwick: It’s All True!” which is little more than a six-minute intro by the director. As with the rest of the initial supplements, the information given is as if this magic really exists. Mark Waters tells us that he’s a firm believer in all of this and that you should be too. He asks us to protect ourselves with the tools from the film so that we can watch the rest of the features without worrying about Mulgrath and Co. coming to get us. Kind of cute (a word I rarely use).

Next is the seven-minute “It’s a Spiderwick World” which further blurs the line between fantasy and reality with author and illustrator of The Spiderwick Chronicles informing us of the origin of the series. Apparently they received a letter from the Grace children themselves, though the kids’ real names have been changed here (to protect them from ogres and inevitable asylums). The letter described the story of discovering the Field Guide and their venture into the unseen world around them. Black decided to put this all in story form, while her partner Diterlizzi came up with the impressive illustrations that make up the Field Guide used in the series of books. To be honest, this was a little too much for me to chew on and made me want to back away slowly from the couple. Still, kids are sure to eat this up and I sort of wish I wasn’t so old and cynical to enjoy the ruse.

“Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide” is a cool way to see the pages of the book, their beautiful illustrations, and the helpful info used to describe each species. It’s obviously inspired by the popular Gnomes book from the ‘70s. Like the film itself, it’s kept simple and a good way to brush up on the creatures and the various protections used to ward them off. Exclusive to the HD release is a “Virtual Field Guide” option that allows you to access the book during key scenes of the film. For example, when Hogsqueal enters the scene for the first time, a little icon appears where if you access it with the remote, you will be taken to his section within the book.

The remaining three featurettes are production-based with nobody claiming that’s it’s all true. These are lengthier pieces ranging from 15 to 20 minutes in length. You get some nice on-set interviews with the cast in “Spiderwick: Meet the Clan”. Again, it’s hard to believe that these American characters are played by heavy-accented foreigners but then again who hasn’t walked around on St Patty’s Day pretending to be a Leprechaun? I imagine it’s just the reverse for them. It also includes some fun footage of Rogan working on the voice of Hogsqueal. “The Making of Spiderwick” is just that as it details everything from production design to props to stuntwork. Interviews with key players behind the cameras are here. Finally, “The Magic of Spiderwick” focuses on the key players in post-production including Phil Tippet and his company of animators. There is also some nice footage of the different forms that Mulgrath took before deciding to go ‘the scary route’. Also included are three deleted scenes (character scenes, no extra monsters) and the film’s theatrical teaser and trailer.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is an easy recommendation, both as a film and as a Blu-ray. With so many densely storied fantasy films on the market, it’s easy to forget to how successful they can be when kept simple. Now that I’ve seen it, I totally regret not catching it in the theater, let alone in Imax. Again, it’s not a coincidence that practically everyone involved, from in front of the camera to behind, is some of the best working today. It’s a perfect mix of talent from the past (Deschanel, Tippet, Short) and present (Walker, Highmore, Rogan) coming together to make a pretty perfect film. My only gripe is that being a conglomerate of all of the books in the series, this inevitably means that this Spiderwick film will be the only Spiderwick film to come. Alas, I would have loved to see more.


Written by El Fangorio

Okay, this is what happens to the discerning viewer within the first 20 minutes of watching 1979’s King of the Gypsies:

Ethnic music starts to play. Sounds Italian. You may even say to yourself, “Kind of sounds like The Godfather.” Credits start to roll. Sterling Hayden (“Love that guy. Can’t be playing a gypsy though”), Shelley Winters (“Fat and awesome”), Susan Sarandon (“She’ll make a good bug-eyed gypsy”), Judd Hirsch (“No shit? I wish he was my shrink!”), Brooke Shields (“Dude. Some major star power going on here”), Annette O’Toole (“Another natural beauty of the ‘70s. Keep ‘em coming”), Annie Potts (“Ghostbusters!”), and introducing Eric Roberts (“I thought Star80 was his first”).

Fade-in to a gypsy camp during the 1950s while Eric Roberts’ heavy Brooklyn-accented voice-over describes the life of the gypsy. He says it’s great being a gypsy. You’re immune to a lot of laws because you have no birth certificate, therefore you don’t exist in the system. The world is pretty much yours for the taking. You’ll never know an honest day’s work and still live a rich man’s life.

A car bursts into the camp, causing quite the commotion. Out steps the self-proclaimed ‘King and Queen of the Gypsies’ played by…Sterling Hayden and Shelley Winters. He’s got a spray-painted dark beard that resembles burnt cat hair, while she sports long black locks and smokes a Sherlock Holmes pipe. This lily-white Colonel Sanders type is supposed to be King of the Gypsies? Is that a red flag I see?

The leaders of this camp approach the couple. More familiar faces as he’s from Godfather II and his wife is that creepy subway lady from Jacob’s Ladder. The two leaders bicker over the arranged marriage of their two children. Sterling and Winters’ son, Groffo, is to marry this couple’s daughter, Rose, but she does not want to marry him. A promise is a promise though. They will let the elders decide.

Cut to a gypsy bash later that night where the elders decide that the children do not need to get married. They also demand that the King needs to stop calling himself as such and haul ass back to New York where he belongs. The King resents being “fucked like a three-dollar whore” and drives off but not before kidnapping their daughter and running over a few gypsies in the process. Probably not the best way to handle public relations with future in-laws but gypsies are crazy.

The rest of the credits roll: Music by David Grisman (“Never heard of him”), edited by Paul Hirsch (“De Palma’s boy. Very cool”), Director of Photography Sven Nykvist (“Hoorah! I know I’m happy”), produced by Dino De Laurentiis (“Uh-Oh”), and directed by Frank Pierson (“Who is he?”). Better check the IMDB.

It is at the IMDB that you will learn the track record of Mr. Frank Pierson. Let’s see, he makes his first feature film in 1969, The Looking Glass War. It must have bombed because he doesn’t make another film until 1976, the remake of A Star is Born starring Barbara Streisand’s wardrobe, which despite being one of the biggest turkeys known to man, still made a katrillion-jillion dollars thanks to her fanbase alone. The film gods give Pierson one more chance and send him Dino. It is here, with King of the Gypsies, that you will notice his filmography ends, not to pick up again for another seven years (kind of like bad credit), where it will be limited to only TV work. Needless to say, this is red flag #12 and it’s only the prologue.

The arranged couple grows up to be Judd Hirsch and Susan Sarandon, who in turn have two children, David and Tita. These kids learn from an early age, the virtues of gypsy life, which is to lie, cheat, and steal anything that isn’t nailed to the floor. Sarandon (alternating between various accents) is the breadmaker in the family, usually conning the rich out of their money with her fortune telling. The father is a raging alcoholic that beats the kids for trying to attend school.

Soon little David is in on the act, accompanying his mother to a high-end jeweler where they put on a production involving the kid pissing on the floor and distracting officials long enough for him to swallow a big diamond. Cut to a close-up of the kid’s pooper sitting on a rusty saucepan, his hand scratching his butt cheek the entire time. A high-pitched fart is heard, followed by a plinking sound as the diamond shoots out of his ass.

It is now official: the King of the Gypsies, both literally and figuratively, is going to be a shitter.

But unlike most bad movies, Dino’s films are usually a blast to watch. For not only does the DEG logo come with the promise of high production values and star power galore, most importantly it comes with trash. His King Kong, Orca, Flash Gordon, White Buffalo are all shameless rip-offs of more famous films and King of the G’s is no different with its sprawling tale, covering three generations of a strong ethnic family and their struggle to retain power over all others. There are marriage montages, baptism montages, and crime montages. In other words, it’s a big fat Godfather rip-off.

We get one more incarnation of David at the age of nine, running away from the sordid drama of gypsy life and hitting the streets, before Eric Roberts enters the role. Though he is estranged from his family and their people, he still relies on scams to make a living (walking into traffic in the hopes of getting hit, feigning a spill at a supermarket). When he’s not on the make, he’s partying with the upper elite as “everyone wants to make it with a gypsy.” I assume so long as they don’t smell like one and they look like a young Eric Roberts. (Gypsies don’t have computers, right? Just making sure).

Finally, he decides to go legit and finds work as a singing waiter. It is here in the story that the family locates him in the hopes of seeing him return and taking up the role of King of the Gypsies. Grandfather has died and left the role of king to David. Sibling Tita has grown into the beautiful Brooke Shields (here wearing the worst black wig this side of October 31st) but she is still the victim of her father’s abuse. She has been sold, as is the gypsy tradition, to be married. Worse yet, she hates her future husband, as he is fat and ugly. Will David take up the crown and use his power to stop this arrangement? Will his father, already scorned for being passed over as the next king, let David stand in his way to make a buck from this marriage?

It’s interesting that few viewers point out how bad this film is. In fact, most fans seem to recollect this one with nothing but fond memories. Of course most of these people list the shot of Sarandon’s tits as the highlight of the film. Scary stuff considering said scene is the result of Hirsch’s character ripping open her blouse and forcing their grown adult son onto her, the whole time yelling “fuck her. Go on fuck her!” Classy.

I will agree that Eric Roberts (here looking even prettier than his famous sister) does a good job in the film. In later years, his straight-to-video roles would rarely allow him to display some of the raw emotion that landed him his next role in Star80. There is even some eerie foreshadowing to that film when, later on, we see his character brandishing a shotgun, his face splattered with blood. As for the rest of the cast, all have done much better work on other projects.

Fans will be doing a gypsy jig when they get their grubby thieving hands on Legend Films’ recent release. Taken from the vaults over at Paramount, the 1.78 anamorphic transfer does a great job at preserving an otherwise beautiful looking film. Nykvist’s tendencies to use natural lighting and soft-focus can make for a difficult transfer but not here as the results are excellent. There are a few moments of heavy grain but that was probably intentional as these are mostly during low-lit exterior scenes. We are given one sound option, that being its original mono audio track. Subtitles would have been beneficial as many of the actors sound like a cross between French vamp and Brooklyn vampire. Once again, Legend Films wisely uses the film’s original artwork for the DVD case. There are no other extras, not even a trailer so it may not warrant an actual purchase.

I say Dino De Laurent-it, and if that fails, steal it!