Combustible Celluloid
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With: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Aryana Engineer, Rosemary Dunsmore
Written by: David Leslie Johnson, based on a story by Alex Mace
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language
Language: English, American Sign Language, with English subtitles
Running Time: 123
Date: 07/21/2009

Orphan (2009)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Creepy Kid

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When watching the new Orphan, it's hard not to think of earlier "evil children" movies like Alice Sweet Alice (1976), The Bad Seed (1956), The Omen (1976 and 2006), and Village of the Damned (1960 and 1995). And it would be nice to think that Orphan brought something new to the genre, but the only thing it adds is more running time: it clocks in at 123 minutes, to be exact. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) tries to play with genre conventions, but it's a pathetic attempt. For example, he uses the old medicine cabinet mirror trick, and the first time we see it, nothing happens, but the second time we see it, something happens. It's equally dull, and now takes twice as long. The movie begins by introducing us to the Coleman family: mother Kate (Vera Farmiga) is a recovering alcoholic and father John (Peter Sarsgaard) once had an affair. Their oldest son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) loves video games and playing in his treehouse, and their younger daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) was born deaf. The family was supposed to have a third child, Jessica, who died in the womb. To make up for that loss, the Colemans decide to adopt, and their attentions settle on the talented Russian immigrant Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). Esther is kind of creepy, and wears ribbons on her wrists and neck that she refuses to take off, but otherwise she seems nice. She begins subtly manipulating the family, turning them against one another and making Kate look irresponsible. She also has a slightly unorthodox way of dispatching playground bullies. Before long her sinister plan comes to reveal itself. It's actually less of an "evil children" plot and rather more like a remake of Joseph Ruben's classic The Stepfather (1987) -- a remake of which is scheduled for later this year -- with a murderous orphan girl substituted for the murderous stepfather. The difference is that the screenwriter Donald E. Westlake and Ruben gave the earlier movie a kind of playful darkness and a much snappier pace. Orphan uses its extra time to drag out the scares and tack on ever-dumber endings. But on the plus side, it is blessed with the exemplary actors Farmiga and Sarsgaard who give their very best to the thin material, and occasionally create the illusion of depth. Likewise, the 12 year-old Fuhrman deserves praise for her creepy performance. Other great character actors round things out: CCH Pounder co-stars as a nun, Karel Roden appears briefly as a foreign doctor, and Margo Martindale is the family shrink.

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