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THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES Another movie season, another attempt to jump-start a film franchise aimed at family audiences. Yet The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, is one of the better adaptations in this field, which has taken some severe body blows lately with the dismal failures of the cluttered The Golden Compass and the dreadful The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Smoothly directed by Mark Waters, the miracle worker responsible for Lindsay Lohan's two best performances (Freaky Friday and Mean Girls), Spiderwick displays a lighter touch than other fantasy films of this nature, meaning that its thrills are all the more unexpected – and effective. Freddie Highmore, the talented young star of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, essays the roles of twin brothers Jared (troublemaker) and Simon (bookworm), who, along with mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), take up residence in an ancestral home that harbors some interesting inhabitants. And living in the woods beyond the house are a murderous ogre (voiced by, of all people, Nick Nolte) and his goblin minions, all hell-bent on obtaining a book (presently in Jared's possession) that would wreak havoc both on our world and the one inhabited by fairies and other mystical creatures. The CGI characters (including ones voiced by Martin Short and Seth Rogen) are sure to delight the kids, but for older viewers, they represent the least memorable aspects of this movie; far more affecting (and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's earliest blockbusters) are the sequences that center on the relationships between the Graces – all struggling to cope with Helen's impending divorce – and how the notion of family directly plays into their interactions with the fantasy world in their backyard. ***
VANTAGE POINT Imagine the TV hit 24 crossed with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, and you'll get some idea of what to expect from Vantage Point, a dizzying thriller that relates the same catastrophic event from several different POVs. In Salamanca, Spain, U.S. President Ashton (William Hurt), on the verge of making a speech concerning the War on Terror, becomes the target of an assassination attempt, and various occurrences that take place immediately before and after the shooting are filtered through the actions of several participants and witnesses. Chief among these characters are Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), who stopped an assassin's bullet during a prior attempt on the president's life; Barnes' fellow bodyguard, Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox); Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), an American tourist who catches some startling images with his camcorder; and Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), a TV producer whose own newsreel footage might help Barnes crack the case. By splintering the material in such a fashion, writer Barry Levy has added some snap, crackle and pop to what would otherwise be a routine action film had it been presented in chronological order. Even so, director Pete Travis can't keep the momentum going for the entire 90 minutes, with the final act marred by a ludicrous plot twist as well as an endless car chase that drains away much of the narrative tension. **1/2
OPENS FRIDAY, MARCH 14:
DOOMSDAY: Rhona Mitra, Malcolm McDowell.
FUNNY GAMES: Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt.
HORTON HEARS A WHO!: Animated; voices of Jim Carrey, Steve Carell.
NEVER BACK DOWN: Sean Faris, Djimon Hounsou.