Dual Roles Blogathon: The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

Introduction

This is my contribution for the Dual Roles Blogathon.

Reception: Here and Elsewhere

Roger Ebert gave this film 3.5/4 stars. He provided great pull-quote material but not without a caveat:

“The Spiderwick Chronicles is a terrific entertainment for the whole family, except those below a certain age, who are likely to be scared out of their wits. What is that age? I dunno; they’re your kids.”

Clearly that sentiment was truncated for the DVD release. He is correct in that it is likely a more 1980s PG than a 2008 PG. However, it is quite good and has an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is rather high for a family fantasy.

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In 2008 this film was nominated for 10 BAM Awards (tied for the most) in large part due to its technical prowess of it, but it was also in my top 10 and thus a Best Picture nominee for that year. It won the award for Best Sound Editing.

The lead actor, Freddie Highmore of the dual roles, was nominated for Best Performance by a Child Actor as it was called then, and likely would have won were it not for Will Poulter’s stunning debut which did not require the affectation of dual roles. Highmore won the year before in a comparatively stronger performance in August Rush.

The Team

The film is an amalgamated adaptation of a number of books in the series. The team in front of and behind the camera is impressive. Director Mark Waters, just coming off his remake of Freaky Friday, which was a big hit in every sense; but the names behind the scenes of The Spiderwick Chronicles get bigger. James Horner provided the scoring, Michael Kahn, whom usually cuts Spielberg’s films was editor, and Caleb Deschanel, the noted multi-Oscar nominee, was the cinematographer. So the team was in place to deliver this story as well as possible.

Spiderwick Chronicles

Flanking Highmore was Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker as his mother, Joan Plowright as Aunt Lucinda, David Strathairn as Arthur Spiderwick, and Nick Nolte as Mulgarath.
Freddie Highmore

Highmore has become better known in his early adulthood as Norman Bates on Bates Motel, which will have upcoming its 5th and final season. However, his transition from young actor to adult actor has been, albeit not well-publicized, fairly smooth and persistent.

in 2010, at age 18, he appeared in Toast, which earned a bit of notice on my site and at the BAM Awards. In 2011 he was in the lackluster The Art of Getting By and in 2013 Bates started up. This year he featured in a BBC mini-series called Close to the Enemy an indie called The Journey, and his most outstanding work on Bates Motel to date.

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Even becoming a working actor after being one of the biggest young stars of your day is quite a feat.

As for The Spiderwick Chronicles, dual roles is not something that young actors normally do for pragmatic reasons first and foremost. Young actors, due to union and legal regulations, work fewer hours on set. Minors also have schooling requirements if they’re not working a summer shoot. To put a young actor in two major roles is a logistical hardship more so than merely having a young lead or ensemble, which is the reason why you see so many “high school” shows populated by actors in their 20s and even 30s.

So there’s a tribute to Highmore in that they found him capable of playing these twins, rather than finding twins to play the roles, and also in making scheduling a bit more of a headache as a trade-off for a better end product.

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If you then consider that this is was Highmore working with his non-regional American dialect for a 3rd film and this time while playing two characters, it’s even more impressive. Clearly, when playing two characters, even when one if far more involved in the plot than the other, it’s still twice as much work and the actor has to work two characters through their arc while also differentiating their mannerisms, physicality, and demeanor.

This is established almost right away. Jared, the character who carries most of the action in this film, gets into a spat with his older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger). Highmore is intense and angry and seeking to engage her physically. Wanting help from his twin, Jared says:

“Simon, get her!”
“I’m a pacifist.”

Spiderwick Chronicles

The response is a throwaway wherein Highmore makes no eye contact with his alter ego. This instantly makes an impression about how to set the twins apart. They are not the dress alike, inseparable brand. Jared is more the everyman, who is angrier about the move, and in general; Simon is more studious and uptight.
Jared is the doubter at first of anything magical going on, but is also more adventurous and finds the book, uses the dumbwaiter. His character is not only introduced in a fit or anger but it is intimated he had anger management issues in the past.

Simon doubts Jared’s story´at first. When he’s taken by ogres Jared’s on a journey whether he wants to be or not having started the ball rolling by reading the book and taking it outside of the protective circle around their house.

Among the other challenges present to Highmore in this film is that he has to interact with a CG counterpart on more than a few occasions. There is also a scene wherein Jared and Simon are fighting each other which required Highmore to play both sides of the fight opposite stand-ins and doubles, it’s a demanding piece of physicality that cuts well.

After Jared brings Simon back to safety, literally dragging him, his leg injury (prosthetic make-up time added to logistics to consider – time in the make-up chair is time on the clock for a young actor) makes him most useful at the house. This allows for fewer scenes where Highmore would have to shoot two sides if he went with them to try and fight Aunt Lucinda.

While we’re far removed from the silent film days where there were Hollywood legends of directors literally willing to traumatize young actors to get them to produce real tears on film, crying scenes are still very demanding on an actor of any age. Highmore as a youth had these scenes as one of his calling cards and in this film there is a point where each of his characters is pushed to tears. For Jared it’s when he learns the truth his father won’t tell him about their parents separation that their dad has been too chicken to say to him himself.

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Toward the end there are scenes where the two characters collaborate such as when Jared summons the Griffin and Simon settles him down. Simon is teary in the cage when captured and also toward the end I believe. Here is the former scene for an example of Highmore as his own scene partner:

Below is another example of his work, this time in a climactic scene. Please do not watch it if you’ve not yet seen the movie. Scroll past.

 

There was less fanfare for this film than say The Parent Trap, as that was Lohan’s breakout and a remake, but this film is not too well remembered, and it should be in part because Highmore shines throughout.

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Children in Films Blogathon: A Revisionist Look at the Juvenile Award

When I learned of the Child Actor Blogathon at Comet Over Hollywood, I had two ideas for it almost right away: the Jackie Searl spotlight and this one. Not too long ago I argued for why the Juvenile Award should be re-instated. In this post I will follow up on that notion to augment my case. It’s one thing to quickly cite who won while it was around and state it never should have left, it’s quite another to show you who would have had they never gotten rid of it. Now I have decided to illustrate that in three ways, including some omissions found when it was instated (it’ll make more sense when we get there, trust me). First, I will list the young actors who since the end of the award (after 1961) were nominated for an Academy Award.

These actors obviously, had there still been a Juvenile Award, would have won that. While on occasion they were awarded the prize, more often than not they didn’t have a realistic chance. Regardless, their nomination was deemed prize enough it would seem, but I disagree and as you will see there have been plenty of instances where the Juvenile award could have been handed out either in addition to or in place of the nomination.

Based on Academy Award nominations from 1961-Present:

Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Fox Searchlight)

2012 Quvenzhané Wallis Beasts of the Southern Wild
2010 Hailee Steinfeld True Grit
2007 Saoirse Ronan Atonement
2006 Abigail Breslin Little Miss Sunshine
2002 Keisha Castle-Hughes Whale Rider
1999 Haley Joel Osment The Sixth Sense
1993 Anna Paquin The Piano
1979 Justin Henry Kramer vs. Kramer
1977 Quinn Cummings The Goodbye Girl
1976 Jodie Foster Taxi Driver
1973 Tatum O’ Neal Paper Moon
1968 Jack Wild Oliver!
1962 Patty Duke The Miracle Worker
Mary Badham To Kill a Mockingbird

Personal Selections

Super 8 (2011, Paramount)

In 1996, when I was 15 and the young actors of the day where my contemporaries, I started making my own award lists. Being young myself at the time I wanted to recognize young actors where most awards excluded them more often than not. These selections reflect those that were my among my BAM award selections that were eligible and the Academy bypassed. Prior to 1996, I thought of significant performances that were worthy of noting and would’ve had a strong case for the Juvenile Award had it been around.

2012 Rick Lens Kauwboy

This one is highly unlikely as Kauwboy wasn’t shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film prize. However, the fact that it was the official selection for The Netherlands did make it eligible.

My young actress choice last year, Sophie Nélisse, was a year off from the Oscar calendar but also a strong possibility for Monsieur Lazhar.

2011 Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Riley Giffiths Zach Mills, Gabe Basso Super 8

It figures that both the best young ensemble, and perhaps individual performance, of the past 25 years got overlooked. So they are all honored here.

2009 Bill Milner Is Anybody There?

2008 Bill Milner and Will Poulter Son of Rambow

A slight wrinkle here from my original selection. Since the Academy set precedent of awarding tandems, why not do so here as well?

2005 Dakota Fanning War of the Worlds

2004 Freddie Highmore Finding Neverland

My 2004 winner was one where I was awarding a film from 2003, due to my stand on release dates, which is different than the Academy’s. Having said that I then had to factor in both my nominees and who the Academy would be more likely to pick and decided if they chose anyone it would have been Highmore.

2003 Jeremy Sumpter Peter Pan

2001 Haley Joel Osment Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

2000 Haley Joel Osment Pay It Forward

1998 Vinicius de Oliveira Central Station

1997 Joseph Ashton The Education of Little Tree

Here’s another interesting case: my winner was in a TV film which the Academy would never honor. Then two more nominees were either shifted due to my interpretation of release date rules and one erroneously in my revisionist phase. That leaves two eligible: Dominic Zamprogna in The Boy’s Club and Joseph Ashton in The Education of Little Tree. Some people besides me actually saw the latter so I’d put that one up as a winner.

1996 Michelle Trachtenberg Harriet the Spy
Lucas Black Sling Blade

Michelle was my actual winner in 1996. Sling Blade in my awards was shifted to 1997 due to its release date. It being an Oscar nominated film make it a more likely retrospective candidate.

My Girl (1991, Columbia Pictures)

This section marks personal selections prior to my picking extemporaneous year-end awards.

1994 Elijah Wood The War

I recall watching E! and hearing there was some buzz being stirred by the cast/studio for Elijah. I knew it would never happen, but it was deserved buzz.

1992 Maxime Collin Leolo

I have since expunged them but for a time I did backtrack BAM Award to back before they started. Some of these picks reflect those findings.

1991 Anna Chlumsky My Girl

1990 Macaulay Culkin Home Alone

Say what you will, but you know if the award was around that this would have happened.

1988 Pelle Hvengaard Pelle the Conqueror

1987 Christian Bale Empire of the Sun

1986 River Phoenix Stand by Me

1983 Bertil Guve Fanny and Alexander

1982 Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

1979 Ricky Schroeder The Champ
David Bennent The Tin Drum

1972 Nell Potts The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Who Should Have Gotten One But Didn’t

No Greater Glory (1934, Columbia Pictures)

I honestly almost scrapped this section. However, looking back through young nominees I noticed the discrepancy that some young nominees did not get a Juvenile Award while there was one. So I figured while I was at it I’d list a few notable performances that didn’t get recognized. Those that “didn’t need one” since they were nominated as in their respective categories against adult competition have denoted those with an asterisk.

1956 Patty McCormack The Bad Seed*
1953 Brandon deWilde Shane*
1952 Georges Poujouly Forbidden Games
1941 Roddy McDowall How Green Was My Valley
1936 Freddie Bartholomew Little Lord Fauntleroy
1934 George Breakston No Greater Glory
1931 Jackie Cooper Skippy*

BAM Award Winners: Best Performance by a Child Actor 1996-2010

While the diversification of the Young Actor categories began in 2010 with a split created between Lead and Supporting Roles each category was unisex until the following year. So aside from semantical changes there have been quite literal changes to this category through the years. This post chronicles the years in which there was only one category where young leads, regardless of gender, could hope to get in. To view the nominees you can follow the hyperlinks in each individual year.

2010 Kodi Smit-McPhee Let Me In

2009 Bill Milner Is Anybody There?

2008 Will Poulter Son of Rambow

2007 Freddie Highmore August Rush

2006 Abigail Breslin Little Miss Sunshine

2005 Dakota Fanning War of the Worlds

2004 Ivan Dobronravov The Return

2003 Jeremy Sumpter Peter Pan

Peter Pan (2003, Universal)

2002 Haley Joel Osment Edges of the Lord

2001 Haley Joel Osment Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

2000 Haley Joel Osment Pay it Forward

1999 Haley Joel Osment The Sixth Sense

1998 Vinicius de Oliveira Central Station (Central do Brasil)

Central Station (1998, Sony Pictures Classics)

1997 Jena Malone Bastard Out of Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina (1996, Showtime)

1996 Michelle Trachtenberg Harriet the Spy

BAM Award Winners: Young Actors

From 19962009 I had been satisfied with having but one category in which to honor the talented youths on film. This was one of the only places to honor them alongside their counterparts who are of age. In 2011, and perhaps more so in 2012, the nominating process became more difficult than ever as the talent pool seemed to be, if not the deepest ever, then one of them. Suddenly, I realized that I would have been eliminating people based on the size of their role and not on the quality of their performance. People like Janina Fautz in The White Ribbon and Billy Unger in You Again would be shutout of the nominating process. One of the benefits of creating your own awards is the ability to improvise.

Looking at the films and performances I’d seen I was able to create two new categories: I was able to make unisex categories for lead and supporting performances and one for ensemble work by youths, which seemed equally overdue. The goal in the 2011 awards was parity, meaning male and female lead and supporting categories and ensemble. This was achieved.

These categories have always been of great importance to me, not just because I was 15 when I started picking these awards but because youth performers are and have been greatly overlooked and under-appreciated and deserve some recognition. Especially when you consider that the Academy used to have a Juvenile Award and stopped awarding it.

UPDATE 2012: To venture even further away from negative connotations, I have decided to rename this post to remove the ‘child actor’ moniker, which to some can be seen as a slight. It’s a symbolic and semantical gesture, but no less significant for that. The group of categories and individual category names will be adjusted as necessary in the 2012 awards. Previous year will retain the same verbiage, but this post and future winners will not.

UPDATE 2013: To give each of the Youth Categories their due and for browsing convenience this post will act as a jump station to the new posts created for each of five youth categories, plus an additional post for the 1996-2009 winners.

Best Youth Ensemble

Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Leading Role

Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Leading Role

Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Supporting Role

Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Supporting Role

Best Performance by a Child Actor 1996-2010

Review- The Art of Getting By

Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By (Fox Searchlight)

When I first saw a trailer for The Art of Getting By my initial reaction was that Freddie Highmore is back with a vengeance. This film, and the previously reviewed Toast, definitely bear that out. Highmore does some pretty difficult work in this film as he’s asked to make a character likable who is not very likable at a distance and who a lesser actor may make detestable.

However, the film establishes his philosophy on life and why he approaches it the way he does right off the bat through voice-over. The voice-over is used sparingly afterward but the “We’re going to die, so what’s the point?” attitude is not hard to wrap one’s head around it’s just that he takes it to an extreme level. However, I have no qualms with it because part of cinema is about living vicariously through others.

Of course, what does snap him out of that in part is a girl played by Emma Roberts. Hers is a task that’s also not very easy because in this film she plays perhaps the most enigmatic female lead I’ve seen since Emily Blunt in Wild Target. I believe I have cracked her as her behavior does seem strange and I think a lot of her subconscious motivation is that she really is a carbon copy of her mother but she fears admitting it and thus a lot of the irrational behavior you’ll see form her is explained.

While George (Highmore) is getting to know and like Sally (Roberts) the tension at home starts to bubble to the surface and he also is forced to come to grips with his slacking off at school and either make his work up or he’ll be expelled. Slowly and perceptibly he starts to change and the straw breaks the camel’s back you know he’ll make it up. A lot of the unexpected comes in his relationship.

What this film does well is that it manages intertwine several uncertain outcomes towards the end such that your focus isn’t entirely on one so even though things, to an extent, work out as expected there’s still that tension about which will be resolved when and how. One thing it keeps you waiting on is to see his one art project. It should also be noted that due to Sally’s enigmatic nature what she does at the end is by no means a sure thing.

While much of what you need resolved to have what can typically be considered a full filmic experience does get resolved there are a few things that are left open to interpretation. This openness was something I realized afterward where some events were viewed differently by myself and a friend.

For the most part this film does a fine job of carving out its universe and establishing who these people are and how their world functions. What never did jibe was the drinking. The leads are portraying high school seniors, eighteen-year-olds, yet they seem to be able to get alcohol by simply buying it (18 obviously being underage in New York City). This isn’t a prudish complaint, kids drink, if that factors in the story; fine. However, something as incongruous as getting served in a bar is something that cannot go unmentioned in the dialogue.

Despite a few unfortunate enigmas in the storytelling I believe that this film effectively created a narrative of the modern slacker and how he is snapped out of it and finds things to live for. The larger (or smaller) the world grows the more we can feel isolated at times so an occasional reminder about what makes it worth it is welcome.

7/10

Review- Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

In seeing Toast a very fundamental question occurred to me because this film gave me the answer more purely than most do. The question being: “Why do we go to the movies?” The answer: “For the unexpected.” I never expected from Toast one of the most surpassingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while.

This is just one of the many surprises this film has in store. Granted I knew next to nothing about this film going in but even taking that into account there are some wonderful surprises in store. This film is about the upbringing of famed British chef/personality Nigel Slater. What you get, however, is something more intimate and vibrant than appearances would have you believe.

Aside from a scene of surpassing beauty which is one of the great instant tear-jerkers ever, which features a wonderful selection of source music there is also within this film a great montage and a creative display of the passage of time. Throughout there are some wonderfully lit shots and creative camera angles which are used to great effect.

To not give too much away I will not describe the above scene in too much detail to keep the surprise fresh. It is the kind of scene, however, that many can make effective but few can make that effective. Moreover, it is followed up by a scene rendered emotional that few can make work. This film manages to make the simple act of eating toast an emotional experience.

Of course, a lot of this should not be considered a surprise when you note it’s Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot (stage and screen), who brought Nigel Slater’s story from memoir to script. Not only do you have in Hall a man who can depict children truthfully (or their perspective on things) but also one who has rendered dramas in this socio-economic milieu before and can weave a character discovering one’s sexuality into a plot without making it the film’s sole focus.

While being tremendously moving at times this film also balances itself with a good dose of comedy. Comedy is also inherent to a narrative wherein a protagonist develops a love for food and cooking despite frequently having an abnormal relationship with it, whether eating bad canned food or using it to seek attention or affection. Yet even the comedy is always met with high stakes. As funny as it can be at times you realize things are serious because of who his competition is.

This film is made even stronger by having a small but incredibly able cast. First and foremost is Oliver Kennedy who plays Young Nigel and carries the film for two acts before being aged. He was found through a long and slightly unorthodox search, which tested personality and instinct more than honed acting chops and it truly paid off. A natural, diamond in the rough was found. Typically when you have a character portrayed at two different ages you see him younger for less screen time. That is not the case here, however, Freddie Highmore’s section, where Nigel is 16 and has been in his current living situation for some time is no less compelling. Furthermore, it’s where he gets to follow through on his lifelong interest. Highmore was, of course, one of the biggest child actors of his time and is yet another one making a wonderful transition to more adult roles.

If you’ve not yet gotten an indication of how good this film is take this as a hint: I am only now mentioning Helena Bonham Carter’s involvement as Mrs. Potter, the cleaning woman who sidles into the home. She is both funny and dastardly and at times a sympathetic figure but always a bit immature and misguided, even while being so complex she manages to be an effective antagonist. Then you have the curmudgeonly father Ken Stott who is equal parts hilarious and infuriating.

This film was presented at my local theatre through the From Britain With Love series which is showcasing six British independent films in art houses across the US. This particular screening was accompanied by a post-screening Q & A where director S.J. Clarkson took questions not only from audience-members at Lincoln Center in New York but had some relayed to her from the web. My question, whether by relay or repetition, did make it through to her. It was this: Did Freddie Highmore and Oliver Kennedy compare notes on playing the same character at different ages? The answer was a similar one to Tom Hanks’ approach to playing Forrest Gump in as much as Highmore merely imitated Kennedy’s accent.

Amongst many other things this film made me rethink my aversion, in certain instances, to lens-spiking. Towards the end of each section the actor playing Nigel knowingly spikes the lens. However, on further thought considering it’s narrated by a disembodied older version of Nigel, it’s his perception and he knows he’s talking to us, it doesn’t bother me as much. We as an audience through the voice-over acknowledge that the story is being told to us in hindsight and that there’s some filtering and artifice involved.

Toast is a moving film in every sense of the word and one that I’d gladly see again. I’ve said it a lot recently but it’s not less true here, that it’s one the best films I’ve seen this year thus far and I can see it standing tall at the end of the year.

10/10