‘Joshua’: Ill-Omened, By Kurt Loder

Where's Satan when you really need him? Also: Billy Connolly shines in the zombie-com, 'Fido.'

With its menace-y premise and buckets of dark gothic portent, director George Ratliff’s “Joshua” seems to promise a lot. But the movie wears us out before it finally pays off; and because of a key casting weakness, the payoff, when it finally comes, doesn’t seem worth the slog we’ve endured to arrive at it. Some viewers may also find the film generically disorienting. The story is clearly derived from “The Bad Seed,” a 1956 film about a murderous 10-year-old (played with enduring creepiness by Patty McCormack, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance). Those unfamiliar with that picture, however, may think — for a while, at least — that they’re watching yet another “Omen” remake. If only “Joshua” were that much devilish fun.

Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell, of the underrated “Matchstick Men” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) and his wife, Abby (Vera Farmiga, of “The Departed”), are a wealthy New York couple living in a luxe apartment overlooking Central Park. Their little boy, Joshua (movie first-timer Jacob Kogan), seems like a model kid: polite, brainy, plays the piano. But when mom and dad bring home a new baby sister one day, and begin focusing all their attention on her, Joshua grows darkly resentful. As parents and in-laws gather ’round the tot to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” the little lad pointedly throws up all over the floor. Actually, I thought this was entirely understandable. Much worse things follow, however.

How do you know you have a troubled child? Does he have the deadpan demeanor of a wind-up ominoso doll? That’s often a giveaway, in other, more enjoyable movies, at least. Or maybe he says things like, “Do you ever feel weird, Dad?” Or slashes open a beloved teddy bear to perform an Egyptian mummification ritual. These are pretty vivid warning signs, not that daddy Brad pays them much mind. Soon, weird noises are emanating from the attic above the Cairns’ apartment (adding further genre confusion). And the new baby keeps waking up in the middle of the night, for some odd reason, and before long is crying and shrieking around the clock. This eventually drives Abby over the edge (mental illness runs in her family), and it very quickly starts driving us nuts, too — the infant tumult is so incessant, we begin to feel like we’re suffering through it in real time.

After Abby is carted off to the bin, Brad’s mother (Celia Westin) steps in to deal with the kids; Abby’s brother, Ned (genial Dallas Roberts, of “The L Word”), pitches in, too. Neither of them twigs to what’s really going on, though. And while Brad finally does get the picture (after making a dreadful discovery), by that time it’s far too late to matter.

Due to the strictures of the old Hollywood Production Code, which was still in force in the 1950s, the makers of “The Bad Seed” were forced to tack on a dumb, morally reassuring denouement at the end of their movie. This nearly wrecked the picture. Director Ratliff has wisely reverted to an approximation of the original ending of the book on which that movie was based, which was bluntly unreassuring. So why isn’t Ratliff’s movie scarier? Maybe because, even though it clocks in at less than two hours, it still finds time to meander. Why must we join Brad for a game of racquetball at his sports club? And what’s the point of the scenes in his stock-trading office (where Michael McKean puts in an appearance as Brad’s boss, to little purpose)? It feels like the director just wants to get us out of the Cairns’ dark, claustrophobic apartment — and also give us a break from little Joshua, perhaps. This, unfortunately, was a wise strategy.

In “The Bad Seed,” Patty McCormack was such a steely-eyed, smiley little horror that we couldn’t wait to see what awful thing she’d do next. But McCormack, at age 10, already had three years of professional acting behind her, and she had an eerie, unmistakable talent. Jacob Kogan has only one TV-show credit, and he seems unable to project anything beyond a gloomy inexpressiveness that in a few scenes borders on autism. The director may have to take some of the responsibility for this performance; and there’s no reason Kogan can’t grow into a better actor in the future. Right now, though, he can’t anchor this movie with the evil flair it requires, and which might have made it worth seeing.

“Fido”: The Undead Life

Don’t want to let this one slip by. “Fido” is a zombie comedy, but it bears no resemblance to “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s a sweeter movie, slower-paced, and not as uproarious as “Shaun” (mainly because there’s no attempt to satirize zombie-movie conventions); but it has an amusing premise, and it’s beautifully filmed (in the saturated primary colors of 1950s-style Technicolor), and it features a performance by the veteran Scottish actor Billy Connolly that’s a small marvel of comic resourcefulness.

The movie is set in the aftermath of the “zombie wars” that followed Earth’s encounter with a cloud of intergalactic “space dust.” (Whatever.) Now, in the suburb of Willard, a sun-glazed cheeriness straight out of the ’50s reigns, and a big company called ZomCom has tamed a herd of zombies (with remote-controlled collars) to work as gardeners, janitors and domestic servants. One of these is purchased by a family called the Robinsons — staunch dad Bill (Dylan Baker), apple-pie-baking mom Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) and standard-issue kid Timmy (K’Sun Ray). Bill’s a zombie-phobe, so he’s not happy about the arrival of this undead servant (played by Connolly). Helen and Timmy feel otherwise. Timmy names the lovably icky-looking new arrival Fido, and Helen starts eyeing him as considerably more attractive than her cold-fish husband. (“I wish I had known you before you died,” she says.)

Complications are provided by a playboy neighbor (Tim Blake Nelson), who’s purchased a hot zombie girlfriend for himself, and by the suspicious, clench-jawed ZomCom security chief, Mr. Bottoms (Henry Czerny). There are also a couple of neighborhood bullies, and a mean old lady who goads Fido into chewing off her arm, thus turning her into a bloodthirsty granny and setting off a new zombie plague.

There are some funny plot sidelights. (Nobody trusts old people, because they may die at any moment and turn into zombies if not collared quickly enough.) And the director, Andrew Currie, deploys some subtle visual quotes from David Lynch’s twisted-’50s classic, “Blue Velvet” (ultra-colorful flowers against a bright white picket fence; a sidewalk-level shot of a leafy tree canopy overhead). But the movie belongs to Connolly. As a lumbering zombie, he’s severely restricted in body language and facial response — his only communicative resource is an occasional “Arghh.” And yet, working with nothing but his expert comic timing, he manages to suggest the human warmth and the romantic yearning that have survived Fido’s death. There’s more to the movie than Connolly’s performance, but it’s his performance that makes it worth seeing.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Joshua” and “Fido”.

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[This story was originally published at 10:59 am E.T. on 07.06.2007]