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View from the Couch

Definitely, Maybe, The Spiderwick Chronicles, more

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DVD extras include audio commentary by film historian Jim Kitses, a 1967 TV interview with Mann, a 1931 interview with Huston, and a new interview with Mann's daughter, Nina Mann. The set also includes a paperback of Niven Busch's original novel.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (2008). Another movie year, another of numerous attempts 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 as of late with the dismal failures of the overreaching 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 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 residing 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 are sure to delight the kids, but for older viewers, they represent the least memorable aspect of this movie; far more affecting 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.

Extras in the two-disc Field Guide Edition include discussions of the film's fantasy world and its inhabitants, a table of contents accessing facts about the various creatures, a featurette on the film's visual effects, and four deleted scenes.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

10,000 B.C. (2008). Approaching 10,000 B.C., it's reasonable to wonder if it will turn out to be one of those long-time-ago movies in which the characters will grunt and growl their way through the entire film. Instead, it proves to be one chatty affair, with the majority of the players communicating via perfectly enunciated English. There would be no harm, no foul in this approach if these folks had anything worth saying, but this turns out to be so crammed with dull and insipid dialogue that it's a shame auditoriums showing this didn't come equipped with "mute" buttons next to the seat cupholders (fortunately, home viewers have that option). Playing like a cross between Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and the fanboy fave 300, this empty-headed spectacle centers on a young man named D'Leh (Steven Strait), whose bland, pretty-boy countenance makes him a precursor to Malibu Ken (if surfboards had been around in 10,000 B.C., you can bet D'Leh would have been out searching for the perfect wave). D'Leh passes the time by flirting with Evolet (blank slate Camilla Belle), whose heavy eye mascara never gets smeared even after she's been shedding copious tears (who knew Maybelline existed this far back?). At any rate, Evolet gets snatched by marauders, and it's up to D'Leh to rescue her. During the course of the adventure, he befriends a tribal leader (Joel Virgel), bonds with a cuddly CGI saber-toothed tiger, and takes advice from a sagacious blind man who's brought up on a slab from beneath the earth, where he has spent countless years cooped up in cramped quarters with nothing to keep him entertained. After spending two hours in a darkened room watching 10,000 B.C., I could relate.

DVD extras include an alternate ending and 10 minutes of deleted scenes.

Movie: *1/2

Extras: *1/2

XANADU (1980). For about 50 years, the musical was one of Hollywood's most reliable genres, from Busby Berkeley and Astaire-Rogers in the 1930s through Saturday Night Fever and Grease in the 1970s. But it took only a handful of megabombs to kill off the genre, which has only recently showed signs of renewed life thanks to the likes of Chicago and Hairspray. Among the Hall of Fame turkeys were Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Can't Stop the Music, The Apple and this ghastly achievement that has nevertheless spawned a smash Broadway adaptation as well as legions of devoted groupies. The fans are welcome to this one: Managing to trumpet the worst excesses of both the '70s disco craze and the burgeoning '80s New Wave scene, this calamity stars Olivia Newton-John as Kira, a heavenly muse sent to inspire struggling artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) to realize his dream of becoming a success. It's strictly a hands-off assignment, meaning complications ensue when Kira falls in love with the guy. Pop star Newton-John received a unanimous drubbing for her one-note performance (thereby killing any chance of a successful film career), but truthfully, co-star Beck is even worse. The tragedy is that this curdled kitsch marked the final big-screen outing for the legendary Gene Kelly: The man who delighted us with Singin' In the Rain and On the Town (among others) certainly deserved better. Thankfully, director Robert Greenwald's career survived this, as he's now one of our preeminent helmers of honest and informative movies railing against the anti-American right-wing agenda (e.g. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties).


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