Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Movie Review: "Boogie Nights" by David Pretty

Hey, Porn Stars!

I saw Boogie Nights in theaters in 1997 and upon first viewing I thought it had some issues.  Not in the same way that say, Doom has issues, but issues nonetheless.  I recently revisited the film on Netflix after nearly fifteen years (yikes!) and I'm still convinced that the movie is a tad over-rated.

Here's the theatrical trailer to get you warmed up:

If the film has any weaknesses, it isn't in the stellar cast.  In an amazing continuous shot that would make Scorsese proud, we're introduced in quick succession to the main characters.  First up is Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner, a prototypical 70's-era smut peddler and wannabe auteur.  Arguably, this is one of the best performances in Reynold's storied career.  His take on Jack Horner is instinctive, matter of fact and completely self-assured.   

Accompanying him is the classically-dubbed, veteran porn vixen Amber Waves played expertly by the truly incredible Juliane Moore.  If I'm not totally mistaken this was the first time I ever saw Moore in a film and my initial crush on her persists to this day.

The pair arrive in style at the Hott Trax disco nightclub where a quiet, unassuming, industrious, and um...well-hung dreamer named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) toils away washing dishes while making mad money on the side exploiting his prodigious...talents.  Eddie's reputation proceeds him and Jack soon offers him a new position with his budding production company.  Well, actually several new positions... 

After fleeing from his perpetually drunk and verbally abusive mother, Eddie attends a decadent pool party where he (and the audience) meet the rest of Jack's not-as-dysfunctional-as-you-might-expect extended family.  Amongst them is William H. Macy as the eternally cuckolded Assistant Director "Little" Bill, Don Cheadle as the Country n' Western obsessed, socially awkward Buck, Heather Graham in a star-making turn as Rollergirl, John C. Reilly as the Han Solo look-alike Reed and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the pining boom operator Scotty.

After a couple of Reed's "rockin'" margaritas, Eddie is inspired to re-christen himself with the penultimate porn handle.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson gives us a clever cinematic moment as the name appears in neon lights on screen, presumably the same way it appears in Eddie's imagination.  Eddie Adams is dead.  Long live Dirk Diggler.

In Dirk's porn debut he's paired up with Amber.  Their first stilted scene together is note perfect and replete with wooden acting and tin-eared dialogue.  Despite the cold impassive stare of an unblinking camera lens and the presence of a curious crew who want to see if Dirk can "rise to the occasion", our hero performs above and beyond the call of duty, exhausting a can of film and Ms. Waves in the process.

Accolades and a slew of additional appearances soon follow.  In a nod to the bizarre 70's phenomenon of "artistic", story-based porn flicks, Dirk and Reed come up with the character of  Brock Landers for a series of "private dick" pictures.  The fake trailer Anderson designed for the film is as deliriously funny as the Beastie Boy's video for "Sabotage".

Soon Dirk has amassed all the wealth and material possessions that he's ever yearned for.  During a housewarming party he proudly leads Amber though his swingin' bachelor pad and giddily inventories the features and benefits of every new (but now hopelessly dated-looking) designer item.   The scene is so sincerely performed by Wahlberg that it's easy to miss the sadness and emptiness inherent in the subtext.

It's here that the film reaches a turning point.  It ceases to be a naturally flowing story and becomes one of the most clunky, mechanical examples of deus ex machina plotting I've ever seen in a film.  Up to this point, the artificial world created by Jack Horner seems almost idyllic.  Except for one overdose during the pool party scene, the first half of the movie makes life in the porn industry seem like a dream job.  Everyone gets along.  Nothing seems seedy or exploitative.  Hell, the characters don't even swear unless they're on camera.

It's as if the happy, blissfully magical decade of the Seventies had cast a protective aura of goodwill around the characters, only to be torn asunder by the evil and torrid 80's.  Amber suddenly develops a coke habit.  In a moment of dysfunctional maternal bonding, she compels her ersatz son Dirk to try it with her.  Jack has a prescient meeting with a new producer who assures him that film is dead and home video is the future.  Jack's hubris is such that he vows never to shoot a skin flick on video because "if it looks like shit, and sounds like shit, it must be shit".   

The inflexible script keeps raining down a merciless and arbitrary stream of misery on the characters.  There's a jarring suicide.  Dirk and Reed are forced to do bone-headed interviews defending their industry against charges of violence and exploitation, as if such things never existed in porn prior to the 80's.  The suave producer that bankrolls Jack's pictures is suddenly revealed to be be a pervert.  Professional jealousies rear their ugly heads when young, up and coming (?) talent begins to emerge.

Indeed, the script seems to ensure that just as soon as the characters finish singing Old Ange Sign at midnight on December 31'st 1979, nothing good will ever happen to them again.  Need more examples?  Dirk breaks from Jack in a drug-fueled rage and embarks on a disastrous (although admittedly hilarious) singing career.  Video does indeed cripple Jack's film production and he's forced to pimp Rollergirl out to random creeps on the street.  Amber can't get custody of her son because of her line of work.  Buck is crushed when his request for a small business loan is refused after his adult film career is exposed.  Which makes me wonder, does he think that there's only one bank in all of California? 

In doing this I assume that director Paul Thomas Anderson is telling us that all the happiness and contentment in the first half of the film is illusory and that the porn industry attracts damaged souls who try to convince themselves that their professions are legitimate.  They hide their self-shame and emptiness by indulging in contagious vices that inevitably infect everyone around them.  Pity that the film's ending completely and totally contradicts this.

It's real a shame that the script and story are so transparently fake since there are so many great things going on in this film.  I've already praised the cast, but Anderson's deft use of continuous shots and inventive cinematography is superb.  The constantly moving camera really helps to convey a slightly intoxicated, Bacchanalian feeling.  Also, the wardrobe, hair, and set design are period perfect, although sometimes it looks a bit put-on, like a racier version of That 70's Show

The film is redeemed somewhat by an incredibly tense denouement, inspired by the real-life misadventures of legendary porn actor John Holmes.  After falling on hard times, Dirk and Reed agree to a hair-brained scheme to bilk a crazed drug dealer out of $5000.00 dollars.  The resulting scene plays out like a short film by Quentin Tarantino.  The inappropriately-attired pusher, played to batshit-insane perfection by Alfred Molina, indiscriminately waves guns around and grooves to "classic" 80's tunes while his mountainous bodyguard always seem just a second away from discovering that the drugs are fake.  Add in a super-twitchy partner and a mute Asian boy-toy with a penchant for setting off an endless stream of firecrackers and you've got yourself a memorable, surreal, and  insufferably suspenseful climax.

Nevertheless, because of the film's arbitrary plotting and lack of real insight into the industry I have to give Boogie Nights a mixed review.  I still recommend it as a primer on acting and casting, but I just wish that the script was as honest as the film's clarion personalities.

Tilt: down.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Movie Review: "Doom" by David Pretty

Good Day, All You Imps and Hellknights!

First off, must confess that I'm a fan of the Doom brand.  I flirted with older iterations of the game but really enjoyed Doom III on ye olde X-Box.  Hells, I even bought me the board game

A film adaptation of Doom seemed like a fairly compelling idea to me.  Casting Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in the role of "Sarge" made sense.  At the very least I thought that the film-makers could have some fun doing a scary, hyper-violent redux of Aliens, especially where it concerned the cool, multitudinous and icky nature of Doom's monsters.  I've met and fought this rogues gallery, both in virtual form and on a cardboard battleground, and I'm here to tell ya that they're a nasty bunch of vile hell-spawn that you don't mind mowing down with aplomb.

So, as you might guess, a Doom movie didn't need to be particularly complicated.  Just cast a bunch of neckless actors, arm them to the teeth and then send them into a scary, cool-looking Mars base and then have them run n' gun endless waves of diabolic McNasties.  So, did the producers of the movie pick up on how much of a no-brainer this premise was and just go with it?  Nope.  They fucked this one up something royal.

But before we put the dead Trite up on the examining table for an autopsy, here's the trailer for this shit heap:

Yeah, all that stuff about the "human genome" discovery?  Total horseshit, by the way.  But, I'll get to that later.

The film begins with a nice touch: the angry red surface of Mars standing in for Earth in the Universal logo.  After that we get a flashy but otherwise useless preamble featuring running, screaming scientists being frantically dragged to, doom.  Then we get to meet our would-be protagonists, and let me tell ya, there's never been a more charming, stable and competent bunch.

  • First off we have the virtually mute smart gunner "Destroyer", barely portrayed by Deobia Oparei.  He's totally laconic but since he struts around carrying the equivalent of a gunboat weapon strapped to his hip, the old "walk softly and carry a big stick" approach probably comes quite natural to him.
  • Ben Daniels plays Goat, the team's veteran officer and resident religious nut.  When he isn't mowing down enemies, Goat enjoys ritualistic self abuse, quoting bible passages, long walks on the beach and sunny days.
  • Then we have Sergeant Duke, portrayed by Raz Adoti.  At least I can relate to Duke since his interests (video games and boobs) aren't totally antisocial.   When we first see him he's playing a hand-held video game unit that's as big as a shoebox.  TECHNOLOGY PREDICTION FAIL!  
  • As if there aren't enough dysfunctional mutants in this retarded squad, we also have Richard Brake as Corporal Dean Portman.  Just as an aside, Brake makes Steve Buscemi look like Ryan Phillippe.  He's a craven, greasy, shifty, drug-pushing dirtbag; and those are some of his better qualities.
  • Naturally we've gotta have a wet-behind-the-ears rook in the picture and the script lazily trowels this old chestnut up in the form of "The Kid" (I shit you not) played by Al Weaver.  As if it's bad enough that this twerp routinely craps his space pants whenever danger is afoot, he's also strung out on happy pills courtesy of scumbag "team-mate" Portman.
  • In classic dumbass Hollywood fashion, we have a Chinese dude playing a Japanese character with Yao Chin as Katsuhiko "Mac" Takahashi.  Initially the script tries to set Mac up like some kind of ice-cold bad-ass but just as soon as opposition shows up, he packs it in like Mandingo.  
  • As I let slip before, Dwayne Johnson plays "Sarge", who we assume is the film's stable protagonist because, well, he must have gotten to be the leader of this chickenshit squad somehow.  Well, I suppose they could have said the same thing about Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now...          
  • Karl Urban plays the group's sharpshooter, Reaper.  Naturally, he's also damaged goods, having suffered through a traumatic incident on Mars which resulted in the death of  his parents.  Urban interprets this back-story by treating us to the twitchiest and sweatiest performance in cinema history.  
Seriously, how are we supposed to take these guys seriously as an elite fighting unit when they have more mental issues then the average sorority?  Jesus.

Speaking of performances, the film really set a new standard for the term "one-note".  Karl Urban perspires and flinches a lot.  Dwayne Johnson yells at everything, and not even convincingly.  Rosamund Pike (who plays Reaper's scientist sister Samantha) spends the entire film saucer-eyed and slack jawed.  Dexter Fletcher as the technician/human Segway "Pinky" constantly looks as if he's smelling something awful.  I guess it could have been what The Rock was cooking that day on-set or it could have been the script, take yer pick.
Anyhoo, these clowns suit up in equipment left over after a Starship Troopers fire sale, and then beam over to Mars via a handy device called the Ark; a script convenience which ensures that getting back and forth to Earth is about as challenging as getting the mail.  

No sooner do these chuckle-heads arrive at Moon Base Marz and they're already doing supremely stupid shit.  Like sticking their noggins into overhead air ducts, running around in isolated packs and wandering around aimlessly in creepy aqueducts (which in itself seems kind of a weird thing to have in an advanced futuristic research facility).

Soon the cliches start piling up faster then the casualties.  We get false scares.  Timely equipment failures occur during tense moments.  People wander off alone.  The soundtrack steals liberally from John Carpenter's The Thing and several other infinitely superior films.

All the while the camera is sliding around like Chow Yun Fat in a John Woo movie, presumably so attention deficit disorder types don't get distracted when a gust of wind in their living room moves the drapes incrementally.  Too bad that no-one told the producers of the film that there's nothing more boring then trying to watch underwritten characters spout inept dialogue and be puppeteered through a story completely devoid of surprises.

Actually, that's not fair; the script does offer up something resembling a twist, but it makes precious little sense.  When it happens you don't get the impression that it emerged naturally out of what came before it but  more likely because that's just where the dart so happened to land.

Essentially The Rock, er..."Sarge" starts to go batshit insane.  Out of the blue.  For no apparent reason.  Suddenly he's towing the company line about "protecting the facility" and begins indiscriminately whacking innocents.  Um, okay...why?  When his sudden turn towards megalomania is interrupted by a Hellknight attack, even the screenwriters can't resist commenting on just how arbitrary and stupid this all is by having him screaml: "But...but I'm not supposed to die!" as he gets dragged off.

Then director Andrzej Bartkowiak (try saying that five times real quick) makes the single dumbest mistake in this cinematic abortion: he actually gives us a "first person shooter" sequence.  It may have looked good on paper, but on film it plays out like video from a now-defunct Universal Studios ride fused with a mad dash through a cheap carnival fun-house.  The film ends as creatively bankrupt as it began: with some gratuitous punchy-punchy and some incongruous wire work.

The film does manage to reference a few things related to the original video game, presumably so they could legally stamp the word Doom on the promotional material.  Sarge stumbles across the ubiquitous B.F.G. (that's Bio-Force Gun, BTW), the Stan Winston creature designs are pretty decent looking and the production design is solid.  A-a-a-a-a-a-d that's where the similarities end.  

Indeed the film's gravest sin is casually dispensing with the whole reason for the threat in the first place.  In the original video game, the scientists have stumbled across a gate to hell and the creatures in the film are it's demonic denizen who are now running rampant in our own realm.  They aren't supposed to be a bunch of mutated eggheads who may or may not be evil just because an extra 10% of their brains have been unlocked.  Horseshit. 

Man, what a royal cock-up this is.  At the risk of sounding like a glutton for punishment it almost seems as if huge tracts of the film are missing.  Indeed, there's precious little reason given for the initial threat, and even less motivation for the character's actions.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna see if Doom III is backwards compatible on my Xbox 360.       

        Tilt: down.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Movie Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II" by David Pretty

Howdy, Muggles in Mourning!

Honestly, when this film series kicked off a decade ago I could scarcely conceive that it would ever end.  With each new entry in the film series I could hardly contain my excitement.  I remember one time at work blathering on about how I was going to go see Order of the Phoenix on release day which prompted my then-boss to lament: "Harry Potter?  Jesus, isn't that kid dead yet?"

It seemed as if there was always an entry in the series either in the works, freshly released to video, in pre-production or rampantly breaking box-office records while packing bodies into theaters.  I took it for granted Harry Potter would always be in the zeitgeist of pop culture.  But here we are, a full ten years since the release of Philosopher's Stone and we're witnessing the Hogwart's Senior Class experience a graduation they'll never forget.

It's also rather inconceivable to me that at one point the film's producers were having second thoughts about paying the salaries demanded by some of the principal actors.  As if that was ever a possibility; just try to picture this series without the complete participation of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson or Rupert Grint.  All three of them have come to physically embody these characters, trumping the mental picture that J.K. Rowling's economic descriptions have provided.  I challenge anyone to watch the following trailer and supplant any other actors in the pivotal roles of Harry, Hermione or Ron.  It can't be done.    

So, in this final segment, the kids have stopped running and are now taking the fight directly to the forces of darkness, led by a fully-revived and uber-pissed Lord Voldemort.  They do so by tracking down and destroying the last of the Horcruxes, magical artifacts which house a portion of the Dark Lord's essence.  What was originally supposed to serve as a series of spiritual life preservers for He Who Cannot be Named  now seems to be serving as his mystical Achilles Heel.  As each Horcrux is destroyed, Voldemort becomes increasingly vulnerable.

Our heroic triumvirate soon learn that one of the artifacts, the Cup of Helga Hufflepuff, has been stolen by Voldemort ally Beatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham-Carter) and is being interred in the impenetrable goblin bank Gringott's under maximum security.  This first portion of the film features the wildest wild mine card ride since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and then proceeds to play out like a fantasy version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

After this the film segues from heist flick to war movie.  The magical training camp Hogwarts is under lock-down and Severus Snape (Alan Richman), the man responsible for the death of the school's beloved former headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), is now in charge.  He rules the school with an iron wand and threatens the students with severe punishment if they chose to aid Harry as rumors of his return begin circulate.  This is a particularly jarring sequence for fans to witness Hogwarts turned into a regimented, lifeless, monochromatic detention camp.   

Harry's re-appearance amongst the student body instantly incites rebellion.  Enraged by what e views as an act of open defiance, Vodemort leads a massive army in an siege against the school.  Needless to say, all hell (and big-budget pyrotechnics) soon breaks loose.

This inevitable "final confrontation" does it's best to impress.  The senior faculty wizards including Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) use their magical arts to set up a protective bubble around the school.  It's creation (and subsequent destruction) makes for one of the film's most thrilling scenes.  It's only trumped by an insane frontal assault on the castle which features hundreds of evil wizards charging across the bridge entrance to Hogwarts (which begs the question, wouldn't a broom-borne aerial assault have been wiser?)

After a  spectacular clash with a horde of animated stone guardians and an explosive lure provided by our favorite nebbish wizard Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), we're witness to a spectacular clash within the walls of the hallowed school itself.  And naturally, there's the final face off between Harry and Voldemort but to reveal any more about the plot or the visuals would be unfair.  Just suffice to say that once this sucker gets going, the film has all the propulsive power of a runaway Knight Bus.

The performances from our troika of heroes is stellar.  Daniel Radcliffe has really become quite adept at his craft and the scenes one might be tempted to play with bombast are tempered by his quiet, understated approach.  This is particularly evidenced in the scene where Harry makes an executive decision about the fate of the Elder Wand.  His bearing is that of a grizzled war veteran who'll do anything he can to ensure that history never repeats itself.

Emma Watson doesn't get as much to do but she's afforded a few nice character nods.  I love that during their frantic escape from Gringott's she still has the presence of mind to be enraged over the cruel treatment of an imprisoned dragon.  Although the increasingly intimate scenes she's asked to share with Rupert Grint must have been awkward, her handling of the Hermione/Ron relationship is both genuine and sincere.  We've waited so long for them to get together that we can't help but cheer.

Of all the three main characters, I feel as if Rupert Grint gets shortchanged the most.  He does get to show his emotional range somewhat when tragedy befalls the Weasely family.  He also expertly completes his character's arc from eternal 'fraidy cat to a competent combat sorcerer.  Still, I can't help but chuckle when Rupert shows shades of his frantic former self in the pyrotechnic conflagration with Malfoy in the Room of Requirement as well as against Voldemort's pet python Nagini during the final throw down.

Of the secondary players, Alan Rickman may seem too low-key here for some people but I believe the plot revelations puts his performance during the entire series into perspective.  I think his approach is absolutely perfect, since Snape is practically dead inside at this stage in the game.  When a Pensieve flashback reveals more about his relationship with Harry's parents, the character's supremely tragic nature becomes apparent.  It's an eerily prescient performance and one has to wonder if Rickman was privy to some of Rowling's trade secrets right from the start.

I'm also pleased to see the delightfully cranky Maggie Smith return As Minerva McGonagall for a few precious scenes.  I couldn't help but share her child-like glee as she brought the castle's stone guardians to life.  "I always wanted to cast that spell," she giddily confesses to Molly Weasley as the knights leap off the walls and march towards the front line.                  

They also manage to get Michael "Dumbledore" Gambon back in an Obi-Wan Kenobi/Architect from The Matrix capacity.  In his preciously short screen time he manages to encompass an incredible range of emotions: weariness, trepidation, sorrow and guilt.  You get the sense that he's made a supreme sacrifice that still may prove to be foolhardy.  Above all, you get the impression that his conscience is still in turmoil over  the burden his plan has placed on Harry.  It's an incredibly heartfelt showing and is sure to reduce fans to a blithering mess.

Steps have clearly been taken to ensure that the film's special effects are especially effective.  The physical sets and real locations blend seamlessly with the CGI, adding a tremendous amount of  authenticity to the picture.  Yates's action sequences are appropriately chaotic and don't seem to suffer as much from his obsession with Band of Brother's-style combat photography which plagued Part I.

I can criticize the lack of character development here, but, honestly, this entire film is designed to be one big-assed, epic story climax.  We've had seven previous films to enjoy the quiet moments of dialogue, but knowing that this is the last film ever (and Part I was so substantial in comparison), you can't help but feel a bit hollow when the final credits roll.

If the film can be slighted at it's because it could never live up to the spectacle generated by the greatest magic of all: the reader's imagination.  Compared to how all of us visualized the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, seeing one version of it etched into celluloid makes it come across as workmanlike, disjointed and underwhelming.  Sure, the story beats are all there, but there's no chance to dwell on the revelations, be saddened by the casualties or be dazzled by the wonder.  Sadly, there still hasn't been a scene which eclipsed Harry's magical griffon ride in Prisoner of Azkaban, which is still, in my humble opinion, the penultimate Potter flick.        

Having picked a few nits, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II is still a rousing and more than adequate finale to the series.  I'm particularly pleased that the film-makers found a way to do justice to the "19 years later" epilogue that caps the book.  It really gives the viewer a sense of how many stories can still be told in the Potterverse.  If she ever gets strapped for cash (which is about as likely as the Queen taking up a paper route), J.K. Rowling can always tackle Hogwarts: The Next Generation.

And frankly I'd probably be standing towards the front of the line for my copy of the book and, subsequently, my inevitable movie ticket.

    Tilt: down.



Monday, July 18, 2011

Movie Review: "Harry Potter" Review-A-Palooza by David Pretty

Greetings, all you Hufflepuffians, Slytherites, Ravenclaw-ers and Griffindorians!

In honor of the release of Deathly Hallows Part II in theaters, I've taken it upon myself to view and then review every one of the Potter pictures to date. So grab your invisible cloaks and hop on your broomsticks, wizards and witches, it's gonna be an epic journey!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone                 Release Date:  November 16, 2001

I can certainly understand J.K. Rowling's trepidations in turning her brainchild over to greed-motivated Hollywood-types but the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone really takes protectionism to extremes. The picture is so slavishly devoted to trying to capture all the nuances of the original novel's mise-en-scène that it could be interpreted as alternately dull and confusing for those first venturing into her world.

There's a smattering of scenes that could easily have been excised just because they don't serve the story in the least. The film is also somewhat restrained by the stylistically vacant direction of Chris Columbus. For such a visual tale, many of his set-ups are workmanlike and shot like a made for T.V. movie.

Having said that, the producers get a few thing dead-on. The cast is uniformly amazing and the kids have actually supplanted my mental image for the characters whenever I revisit the books. Their performances are pretty "embryonic" at this stage, but you can certainly sense a ridiculous amount of potential.

Alan Rickman, although flawlessly cast, seems like he's sleepwalking a bit. On the other hand Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane are both a blast to watch and the late, great Richard Harris makes for a dignified and authoritative Dumbledore.

The sets, costumes, props and effects are all generally solid but the CGI is pretty weak, especially in the Quidditch and Troll scenes.

All told, the film seems half-baked and too much a slave to the original source material. Anyone looking to venture into the colorful world of Hogwarts would be much better served reading the original book, especially for Rowling's delightful language. But like Harry's magical abilities, you get the impression that the films are destined to get better and better at their craft.

 Tilt: up.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets                     Release date: November 15, 2002

Chamber of Secrets sees a noticeable improvement over its predecessor thanks to one important element: confidence. The cast, and especially the kids, seem considerably more self-assured in their roles. 

We're also treated to a few stellar additions to the roster, notably the ultra-smarmy Kenneth Branagh as media whore Gilderoy Lockhart and Jason Isaacs bringing a real sense of menace to the proceedings as Draco's nefarious father Lucius Malfoy. 

Seeing an improvement across the board, Chris Columbus finally decides to move the camera around a little bit, crafting a film with considerably more visual flair. Mercifully, the CGI has also improved by leaps and bounds, with the character of Dobby as realistic a creation as Gollum from Lord of the Rings

The only main criticism I can level at Chamber of Secrets is that it's still guilty of the same obsession with cramming in as many colorful tidbits from the original book to the detriment of diving the plot ahead. The story itself is also not the strongest of the series and we have to wait for Prisoner of Azkaban to get into the really meaty stuff.  Still, a marked improvement over Philosopher's Stone and its course bodes well for future entries.    

P.S. The producers of the film series get a major demerit for throwing over renowned artist Drew Struzan's amazing poster art from the first film for Chamber's terrible-looking Photoshopped abomination and all that followed.  For shame!

    Tilt: up.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban                          Release Date: June 4, 2004

Finally the Potter flicks get a director who realizes that film is a visual medium. Alfonso Cuaron was the perfect match for Rowling's books if only due to the sheer artistry he brings to the screen. For the first time ever the geography around Hog... (read more) Finally the Potter flicks get a director who realizes that film is a visual medium! 

Alfonso Cuaron was the perfect match for Rowling's books if only due to the sheer artistry he brought to the screen.  For the first time ever the geography around Hogwarts seems so real and immersive the audience actually begins to feel like one of the students. 

The director of such sexually aware films as Y tu mamá también also can't help but inject some cheeky subtext in the film which sees Harry secretly practicing magic under the bedcovers and Professor Lupin's thinly-veiled reason for being dismissed because parents wouldn't want their children to be taught by "someone like him." 

There are moments in the film that actually inspire wonder in the audience. Buckbeak and Harry's flight above the lake belongs in the same pantheon as Lois and Clark's cruise over Metropolis in Superman. Cuaron is also blessed with helming the most tightly-plotted of all the Potter books and Prisoner of Azkaban is rife with great revelations and intriguing plot twists. 

We also get a few tremendous additions to the cast including Emma Thompson as the dotty Sybil Trelawney, Gary Oldman as the motivationally mysterious Sirius Black and David Thewlis' sympathetic turn as the unfortunately named Professor Lupin. 

On a bittersweet note, the role of Dumbledore passed to Michael Gambon since Richard Harris died in 2002. Wisely, Gambon took a bold new approach to the part, moving away from Harris' quiet, authoritative, dignified portrayal to something considerably livelier and more mischievous. 

Finally, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are now in firm possession of their roles and really seem to be having fun with the film's more mature themes. I believe this is the best of the Potter film adaptations and each subsequent viewing never fails to reveal more of its magic. 

        Tilt: up. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire                              Release date:  November 18, 2005

It's with "Goblet of Fire" that the efforts of directors to adapt the books become increasingly difficult. At a whopping six hundred and thirty six pages, "GOF" feels alternately protracted and rushed. It's really noticeable in the way the charact... (read more) It's with Goblet of Fire that the efforts of directors to adapt the books become increasingly more Herculean. At a whopping six hundred and thirty six pages, Goblet often feels alternately truncated and rushed. 

It's really noticeable in the way the character of Cedric Diggory is handled. We have ample time to get to know and like him in the book but here the producers barely have enough screen time to characterize him as Harry's annoying foil.  In his defense, director Mike Newell had a lot of ground to cover but managed to make time for some fun, quiet, introspective moments. 

Radcliffe, Watson and Grint are in fine form here, really running with the scenes that are rife with teen angst and comedy. The "Who's-Who Roster of Modern Cinema's Best Actors to Appear in a Potter Flick" continues to grow as Robbie Coltrane is added to the cast as "Mad Eye" Moody.  David Tennant comes on board as well as Barty Crouch Jr. but I find his performance a bit too "Snidely Whiplash" to take seriously.  This is counterbalanced with the first appearance of Ralph Fiennes as the re-incarnated Voldemort and he drips menace for every precious second of screen time he's given. 

There's plenty of spectacle here as well, with Harry's "fight or flight" battle with a dragon being one of the film's best set pieces.  Goblet of Fire isn't as tight as some of the other film entries but it does depict a few major plot points in the saga and gives us plenty of character development to keep us entertained. 

    Tilt: up.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix                 Release date:   July 11, 2007 

New director David Yates brings the appropriate amount of character exploration and dark gravitas to his adaptation of Order of the Phoenix. Above all, the film benefits tremendously from the presence of Imelda Staunton as Delores Umbridge, perhaps the most reviled character in the Potter-verse and one of the greatest cinema villains ever.  Indeed, the cast reads like a "who's who" of my favorite actors and the kids are continuing to come into their own quite nicely.  

To pare the film down to a sane running time, huge elements of the book had to be jettisoned, sometimes requiring a bit of creative patchwork storytelling. Some of the losses are quite painful, however.  For example, it's a minor crime that Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley doesn't get an opportunity to bolster is confidence on the Quidditch pitch, but since it doesn't serve the main plot, the reason it was dropped is pretty obvious.   

Taken altogether, it's an unfairly maligned entry in the series that does it's best adapting the longest and densest of the Potter novels by getting right to the heart of Harry's character arc.  

Tilt: down.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince                             Release date: 15 July 2009

Although not a longer book than "Goblet of Fire" or "Order of the Phoenix", "Half-Blood Prince" is one of the denser tomes from J.K. Rowling's beloved series. As such, this one seems very truncated, almost like a "Cliff's Notes" version of of the or... read more Although not a longer book than Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince is one of the denser tomes from J.K. Rowling's beloved series. As such, this one also feels pretty truncated, almost like a "Cliff's Notes" version of of the original novel. Half way through the film, it starts to fly around in all directions. 

Over the course of a 600-page book, the story has ample opportunity to flow and evolve naturally but with a movie that's only two-and-a-half hours long, suddenly everything seems a bit random and staccato. Gone are the reasonably adaptable and succinct stories like Prisoner of Azkaban and director David Yates is forced to contend with increasingly dense and dark material. 

Anyone expecting the freshly-scrubbed whimsy of the first two films will be sorely disappointed.  With one more book to adapt the producers are getting into the 11'th inning and some heavy stuff transpires here. Ultimately, this is what allows the film to succeed, despite it's occasional convolutions. 

The kids are all increasingly fantastic. Daniel Radcliffe gets some great scenes, particularly while under the intoxicating effects of a luck potion. Rupert Grint continues to prove he's got impeccable comedic timing and Emma Watson brings increasing amounts of heart and soul to the role of Hermione. 

Tom Felton's emerging villain Draco Malfoy must be mentioned and you really get the sense that his dastardly deeds in the previous films were mainly the result of self-loathing.  Now, when his hand is forced, he's truly conflicted and generates a lot of pathos amongst the viewer. Also Alan Rickman gets more time to shine, which automatically translates in 20% more awesome for the film. Evanna Lynch's burgeoning role is also welcome, since her Luna Lovegood is pure spacey genius. 

Of all the minor characters, the one that really shows the most change is Michael Gambon's Dumbledore. He is completely altered by the dire events in Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix and comes across as distressingly sober and a touch frightened by what's to come. This weighs very heavily on the mind of the audience since we know that if Dumbledore is worried then some bad shit is definitely imminent!

I continue to be relieved that the franchise is in Yates's capable hands and he keeps striking an appropriate tone for these latter films. He knows he's getting into deep waters and gives credence to the dark scenes when appropriate but also punches up opportunities for humor to let us off the hook. 

In fact, when I first heard that Half-Blood Prince was the "funniest" of the recent movies and I was afraid they were going to undercut the drama. Having seen it several times now I can say that, despite some moments of genuine levity, the tone is spot-on.  Best still, Yates gives us a full-bodied visual style and composes some great shots like Harry's arrival at the Weasley homestead and Harry and Dumbledore's creepy spelunking venture. 

Some may gripe that the pitch-battle ending of the book was pared down, but I think this would have seriously compromised the "surgical strike" nature of the attack and also overshadowed the very shocking personal confrontation amongst the major players. Although the film's dense plotting is kind of an albatross around it's neck, I also believe that this will increase it's repeat viewing appeal in the long run. 

 Tilt: down.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1           Release date: November 18, 2010

Fans of this series will appreciate the time director David Yeats is allotted in adapting the final book of the "Harry Potter" cycle. It could be argued that "Order of the Phoenix" and "Goblet of Fire" were no less worthy of the "divide and conquer... read mFans of this series will appreciate the time director David Yeats is allotted in adapting the final book of the Harry Potter cycle. It could be argued that Order of the Phoenix and Goblet of Fire were no less deserving of the "divide and conquer" strategy.  In fact, it may be sacrilege, but I think the entire saga might have been better rendered as an ambitious seven-season series on AMC. 

My main problem with Deathly Hollows Part I is the same issue I had with the first half of the book from which it's based: the story line sustained over the 150 minute run time is hardly what I'd describe as "propulsive".  People who don't know a Muggle from a Mudblood will likely be in for a rough go of it. As someone who's ravenously consumed the original books and doesn't mind routinely revisiting the previous installments on Blu-Ray, I'm quite happy with the results.

In this adaptation the Hogwart's patriarch Dumbledore can no longer help his young allies and the forces of darkness led by a fully-reconstituted Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) are usurping control over the Ministry of Magic.  They're also trying to snuff out Harry, still the only one to have survived a confrontation with the Dark Lord. Our beloved triumvirate including the The Boy Who Lived himself (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are forced underground to try and keep Harry from being perforated.  All the while, the trio is attempting to secure and destroy the Horcurxes, in which Vodemort has interred fragments of his own soul for safekeeping.

Large tracts of screen time then follow involving strategy sessions, trekking and hiding in the wilderness, cloak and dagger subterfuge, seeking answers to secrets, playing out discord amongst the heroes, and attempts to navigate periodically around clunky patches of mystery and lore. There's a lot going on here and sometimes it's spellbinding (like when the polymorphed kids infiltrate the Ministry of Magicl in disguise) and sometimes it's painfully turgid (the seemingly-endless monochromatic camping trip springs to mind).

Some mysterious side-steps come our way but they're piled on with baffling frequency and ultimately we're just asked to file them away for the REAL conclusion in Part II. We're told that mysterious gifts, odd symbols, the sudden emergence of Luna Lovegood's father, a strange old acquaintance of Dumbledore's and the Deathly Hollows themselves all have relevance, but since we're getting only half the story here, none of it really pays off.

Still, there are plenty of things to admire. Director David Yates continues to make mature and distinctive marks on the franchise. While his visual eye usually seems to stylistically fall somewhere between Alfonso Cuaron's Azkaban and Mike Newell's Goblet, he does make a few miss-steps. The worst is probably the unfortunate choice to shoot some of the pursuit scenes with an over-reliance on Saving Private Ryan-style combat photography, Slap-Chop editing, audio bombast and extreme close ups, all of which give the viewer the impression that Michael Bay did some second unit work.

He more than makes up for it, though, by giving us plenty of low-key, almost throwaway character touches, some well-timed moments of humor and an almost cinema-verite approach to wielding his camera. He also deserves praise for having enough faith in his audience to slow the film down to a crawl to simulate the difficulty, frustration and isolation that our heroes experience as they fail to locate the Horcruxes.

The villains also finally get a chance to shine. Ralph Fiennes is genuinely sinister and repellent as Voldemort. Although nearly anonymous under pounds of makeup, he still paints a masterful portrait of degenerate evil just with body language and superb line delivery. The woefully underused Helena Bonham-Carter also steals every scene she's in as Bellatrix Lestrange. Whenever she's onscreen it's impossible not to watch her slinky petulance or completely convincing turns to barking lunacy.

Fans of the series will also geek out watching the story come full-circle and familiar faces like Frances de la Tour as Olympe Maxime, John Hurt as Ollivander, Clemence Poesy as Fleur Delacour, Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge and Dobby as, um...Dobby all re-emerge in some capacity.

And, of course, I can't close this out without stressing how effortlessly the charismatic troika of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint carry this film. Daniel commands real gravitas now, Rupert's "Aw-shucks" grin is always contagious and Emma is now the master of the most potent spell of all: the hairy eyeball.  

The Deathly Hallows Part I is a tough road to hoe. It's job setting up the story's spectacular finale is a bit thankless but it exceeds expectations and seems committed in it's quest to be something sunstantial all by itself. 

Tilt: up.

Coming soon: a review for the final Harry Potter film:  Deathly Hallows Part II!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Movie Review: "Mazes and Monsters" by David Pretty

Greetings, Slayers of Internet Trolls!

Hoo boy, where to begin?  Speaking of beginnings, who could possibly have seen past Tom Hanks's whiny, dead-eyed portrayal of crazed LARP-er Robbie Wheeling in this stinker and predicted a future that was rife with Oscar wins and choice projects.  It's a wacky world, folks!

This flick is a pure guilty pleasure for me.  I just love it to death.  It's the perfect embodiment of undiluted 80's kitch: the clothes, the hair, the dreadful "Love Theme".  Hey, whatever happened to the "Love Theme" in movies anyway?  I'm waiting for Judd Apatow to notice it's absence.

Above all, I love the treatment of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons as psychological nitroglycerin.  "We have to find a player that wont flunk out or freak out", the head-dress obsessed Maze Controller J.J. (Chris Makepeace) says at one point.

At first, Robbie adamantly refuses to play "Mazes and Monsters" ever again ("Come on, just one campaign!") but his latent interest in nerd queen Kate (Wendy Crewson) causes him to overlook his past obsession with the game.  Little do the other group members know, Robbie is seriously damaged goods, coming from a miserable home life from which his older brother Hall has already fled, never to return.  It's not long before Robbie starts to turn into his game character, which no-one seems to notice until, he too, vanishes from his dorm room at Grant University.

He comes up for air briefly after stabbing a mugger in the streets of New York City (after an unintentionally funny fantasy/hallucination sequence in which Robbie sees his would-be assailant as Kermit the Frog on anabolic steroids).  He calls Kate from a payphone and what follows is a scene that I'm sure Hanks would love to excise from his resume:


Mercifully (?), the Fellowship manages to prevent Robbie from swan diving off the World Trade Center (!).  We then flash forward to a re-union months later and the friends discover, to their horror, that Robbie has permanently lapsed into the game.

So what do these so-called friends do?  Why, they proceed to unravel months of hypothetical therapy and enable his psychotic state by traipsing off into the forest with him while "in character".  Priceless stuff.

Yes, the performances are godawful.   Yes, the dialogue is laughably inept ("That was really stupid, J.J, jumping into the pit without using your sonar first.  Really stupid!").  And yes, it did a decade's worth of harm to the hobby of role-playing games.  In fact, I even seem to remember watching the finale with my parents and then undergoing a rigorous post-credits Q&A about my own mental state.

But I love this piece of crap so much that I actually bought it on DVD.  Hmmmmm, maybe RPG's did damage my grasp on reality after all...

"Inside is the kingdom of the evil Voracians, led by the powerful Ak-Oga.  They are believed to guard a tremendous treasure, but you must brave terrible danger.  Shall ye enter?"


  Tilt: W-A-A-A-A-A-A-Y  the fuck up.