A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 518 – Dinoshark

Dinoshark – July 31st, 2011

Last year for Shark Week we bought a bunch of horrible shark movies and had a grand time watching them and laughing our asses off. And we were surprised by at least one – Spring Break Shark Attack – and got just what we expected from another – Sharks in Venice. This year we thought we’d do it again with a new batch of shark movies. After all, Sharktopus wasn’t available when we did the last Shark Week and how could we pass that up? So tonight we embark on a new week of sharky goodness. We’ve got made for tv cheese like tonight’s movie. We’ve got a movie that terrified me as a kid. We’ve got a major theatrical release. And we’ve got Sharktopus. So we know we’re in for a good time.

Sadly, I don’t know if anything can ever top Sharks in Venice. It’s sort of a golden standard for us now. There was something so unapologetic about its ridiculousness. Granted, this movie comes close. I first saw it while flipping channels and I knew at once that we had to own it. Like several other monster movies we own, the concept is that a prehistoric monster got trapped in some ice and was released when the ice broke off a glacier or ice berg and melted in the ocean. Here we have a bunch of little baby dinosharks. Three years after the itty baby dinosharks go swimming off into the ocean we rejoin the movie to find that at least one has grown up big and strong enough to take out a small sailing vessel off the coast of Alaska and chow down on the sailor who was sailing it. Obviously a lone sailor isn’t going to be enough and it’s no fun setting a shark attack movie in Alaska. So the dinoshark heads for warmer waters, ending up off the coast of Mexico.

Let me be frank, here: I do not give a damn about any character in this movie. I’m pretty sure I’m at least supposed to care about the two leads, but I don’t. I barely remember their names an hour after the movie ended. Back when we watched Spring Break Shark Attack we figured we’d be getting a lot of people in bathing suits getting chomped on. That movie ended up having a whole message and plot and there were characters to care about at least a little and we were shocked. This movie? This movie delivers what we expected: People in bathing suits getting chomped. That right there is the movie’s purpose. Introduce monster, let monster loose on vacationers, blood in the water. The trick is coming up with a conceit for it that distinguishes it a tiny bit from any other movie that uses the same formula. Here, we’ve got the dinoshark.

And let’s talk about the dinoshark! Because it is hilariously awful. Like, imagine something hilariously bad, then assume it’s even more ridiculous. At work I have this great book called Paleosharks and there’s some pretty bizarre stuff in there. But none of them are like this. Through the latter half of the movie the characters seem to be referring to the creature as a pleiosaur. Which is funny, since that’s not a real thing. Then again, neither is the creature in the movie, which is basically a shark with crocodile skin and the head of a t-rex pasted onto its body. To its credit, it was the sight of the dinoshark itself that convinced me that this was a movie we needed to buy. So, mission accomplished there, I suppose. It’s just a good indication of what you’re getting into with this movie: Do not take it seriously or you will be so very disappointed.

The main characters – what I can remember of them – are Trace and Carol. Trace is from the area but only just returned to run a scuba diving boat for tourists while the friend who owns the boat is away. Carol teaches marine science at a local marine center but isn’t from the area. Together they hunt dinosharks! Sure, there’s some attempts at character development: There’s Carol’s creepy suitor who tries to get her to give up her science career to run the social activities at his resort. Trace talks about his father being in the military and how he couldn’t do it himself. But ultimately these things don’t matter in the least to the movie. These people aren’t so much characters as stick figures. The acting isn’t great, but I’ve seen worse. The thing is, there’s just no acting to be done here. Trace yells at the local cops, with whom he has some history, but then the dinoshark shows up to prove he’s not lying about it and the whole background there is a moot point. His father’s military background? Matters not one bit since another character entirely ends up going and getting a bazooka from his friends at a local army base. You’d think that would be a good chance to have something from Trace’s past matter, but nah. Who cares?

It’s similar for Carol through the rest of the movie. She maunders on about how she had no friends when she came to the area and all, but it doesn’t figure into anything. The only thing that matters at all is that in addition to her science background she also coaches a ladies’ water polo team. Who will of course get attacked. Like I said, the character backgrounds do not matter in the least. Carol’s only a scientist so they can have an excuse for someone to ID the thing that’s eating people left and right. That someone ends up being none other than Roger Corman himself, whom Andy IDed right away. I love it. It’s hilarious to see him on screen doing pseudoscience.

Really, the movie isn’t about the characters. And it’s not about what the monster is. Dinoshark, crocoshark, sharkosaurus, who cares? It’s a huge shark that leaps out of the water to snatch parasailers out of their harnesses. It lies in wait under floating hats from previous victims, apparently using the hat as a lure to catch another meal. It eats half of one victim, leaving her face recognizable just to mess with the rest of the humans. Cause it’s all about upping the terror quotient in a movie like this. And every computer generated moment of the dinoshark made me laugh in delight. This is not a big budget blockbuster. This is a made for television shark attack movie. And it is precisely the way I wanted to start my Shark Week.

July 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Dinoshark

July 312011

Dinoshark

Last year when the Discovery Channel did their annual Shark Week Amanda and I thought it would be amusing to collect a bunch of shark movies and watch them all in a week. It was an awful lot of fun and we saw some really hilariously bad movies, but there were movies that we didn’t have at the time and movies that have come out since which we felt we needed to add to our collection. Indeed SciFi seems to be specializing in low budget horror movies – many of which involve sharks in some way. So this year we’re delighted to host another week of cheesy shark movies. We seem to have inadvertently become connoisseurs of the cheesy shark genre. After the delightfully bad Sharks in Venice and the surprisingly good Spring Break Shark Attack we realized that there’s just an appeal to this low-budget sub-genre that speaks to us for some reason. So here we go again!

We start out this year with a movie that Amanda insisted we buy after seeing it advertised on SciFi. She simply fell in love with the monster – which is a shark’s body with a T-Rex head stuck on it. You can’t deny the appeal of that as a concept for a movie monster, but you have to have a special kind of love for cheese for that to be reason enough to actually buy a movie.

This film is a strictly by the numbers shark attack movie that never deviates from the tropes that make up the genre. It has a amiable and well meaning lug who works ferrying tourists out to dive spots in a boat he rents from a friend. He has a buddy on the police force and a rival who is now the local captain of police. When Trace gets into town he looks up another pal of his who owns a bar with his sister and a hot biologist with a masters degree who now coaches an all girls water polo team. A local business maven and slimeball has been trying to convince Carol to have her team participate in a game as part of a festival and regatta of some kind. A game that is to be held in an estuary just off the open ocean – and we all know just what that means.

I’ll be honest – I stopped caring about the characters in this movie almost immediately. I just wanted to see some people eaten by a dinoshark. Thankfully, the movie feels much the same way. Any time it begins to get bogged down with talk about the characters and their relationships with each other it cuts away to some random innocent person who you just know is about to get chomped. For a made-for-TV movie I will also say that I was impressed by the gore on display. The actual attacks are all filmed in extreme close up through clouds of blood, but we get to see the after effects a couple times. Dismembered corpses and floating limbs.

I had a lot of fun simply enjoying the pure cheese of this movie. The digital sharks. The many bikinied victims. And then along came my favorite thing in the entire movie. A scientist friend of Carol’s looked awfully familiar to me and darned if it wasn’t Roger Corman himself! I was already enjoying the cheesy fun of this movie, but to have the schlockmaster himself in a major supporting role raised it to an altogether greater level of fun for me.

Don’t look to this movie for originality. It’s a film about a prehistoric shark thing freed from a glacier that swims down to Mexico to eat tourists, after all. Don’t expect great acting or character drama. Don’t expect cutting edge special effects. Instead go into this movie expecting a hilarious shark thing with the face of a T-Rex that destroys a helicopter and eats a parasailor right out of his harness. That’s the kind of movie this is, and it’s exactly the movie Amanda and I had been looking forward to.

July 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 517 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1 – July 30th, 2011

This review is going to be difficult. First of all, it’s coming at the end of a full week of Harry Potter. And I’m kind of on overload. It started showing up in my dreams the other night and while that was pretty cool, I think it’s indicative of just how overstuffed my brain is with this particular world. Second, I couldn’t really get it done on the 30th when we watched the movie and then before I worked on it on the 31st, we went to see the second part in the theater. So I’m coming at this review tempted to talk about both of them together but we didn’t watch part 2 for the project. We don’t own it yet. And I want to be able to review this movie as much on its own merits as possible. I just don’t think it’s going to be easy.

I remember very clearly when I read the book this movie is based on. We’d pre-ordered it and it was being released on a day I was off. If you’ve ever wondered if librarians get to read the books early, the answer in the case of the Potter books is no. My boss, who does all the purchasing for the department had to sign a number of forms and send them in and practically promise on pain of death to keep the books under wraps until they were released. I believe she was allowed to open them the day before and the cataloguing department staff were allowed to open the front and back covers to put bookplates and barcodes on the endpapers but they weren’t allowed to open them any further. And then the books were wheeled into the children’s room on a cart covered in a blanket to avoid anyone seeing them through the windows. My own personal copy arrived early the next morning and I read it cover to cover in one sitting and cried much of the way through the latter half.

The thing is, to get to that latter portion? You have to get through the camping. There’s a running gag in MST3K stemming from the episode Lost Continent, where the characters spend an inordinate amount of time rock climbing. Then there’s another episode, Hercules Against the Moon Men where there’s an interminable sand storm. Camping? Is this movie’s rock climbing and sandstorm rolled into one. Harry’s not back at Hogwarts this time around, which is a major departure for the series. Instead, he, Ron and Hermione are going to hunt down the horcruxes that Voldemort has stored pieces of his soul in and they are going to destroy them. That’s pretty much the plot here, along with some fighting and battle scenes to remind us that there’s a war going on. Harry and his friends head off after an attack on the Burrow during a wedding that one has to strain to believe is actually being celebrated in such a fashion at such a time. And they end up roughing it in the woods after spending some time at the old Black house. While camping they talk. And talk. And fight. And talk. And camp.

I remembered the camping taking up a huge part of the book. I remember feeling like there must be something more interesting going on elsewhere. I remember thinking that after the opening of the story one would think the pace would keep up. And the movie does get bogged down like the book did. The opening? Well, the opening is fantastic. It is perhaps the best opening of any of the movies. The Dursleys pack up and leave their home, leaving Harry alone there to wander the empty house and peer inside the cupboard he used to live in. And Hermione packs her things and uses magic to make her parents forget she ever existed. For the record, Hermione erasing herself from her parents’ life was when I started crying while watching this movie. That is one killer of a scene and the movie twisted the knife perfectly by fading her out of a collection of family photographs, one by one before sending Hermione walking down the street alone, with only her purse and her wand. Brutal. Then Hermione, Ron, Mad Eye and a bunch of other Order of the Phoenix members show up at Harry’s house and disguise themselves as him so they can confuse the Death Eaters and get Harry to safety. And there are casualties (though I do have to complain that J.K. Rowling is not really great about handling character deaths – she needs to check out Melanie Rawn for some tips if she’s going to be bloodthirsty). It’s a good, heart-thumping opener, full of magic and painful decisions and high stakes. And then there’s a wedding and the camping.

Now, let’s talk about the camping. Because, see, I understand why it’s in there at least in part. There’s a whole lot of character interaction for Harry, Ron and Hermione and it ends up strengthening all three of them by the end. It gives Harry time to think about the horcruxes and how he’s going to handle them. But it’s also a very long amount of time spent in a tent in the woods with only the three main characters to talk to. I’m fairly sure it was truncated heavily for the movie, with only the necessary moments kept in. I quite liked the scratchy radio they listened to for information on the Order and the war and the endless litany of names of the missing is simply haunting, especially knowing that the three of them are so far removed by necessity. But still, it drags. And there’s little getting around it because important things happen in the woods. Realistically, I know other things happened. I know Ron, Harry and Hermione broke into the Ministry before the camping. I know there was some good worldbuilding showing the oppressive regime of the new Minister of Magic. I know other things happened! I know they went to see Luna Lovegood’s father and learned about the Deathly Hallows from a book of wizarding fairy tales! But all I can really think of is the camping.

By the time we reach the final climax for this part of the movie I felt like I’d spent hours in the woods. The final battle, with Bellatrix and the Malfoys and our heroes, was more than welcome because it meant something was happening. I applaud the decision to split this story into two parts, because it definitely has enough story for well over four hours of screen time, but it’s to this movie’s detriment that all the camping has to happen first. It did its best! There’s clearly a lot of work done here to keep things moving and keep us interested. It’s just that the movie is working with a story that has a lot of its exposition and character arcs happening during the camping scenes. And with the timeline of the events in the story it’s not like that could be broken up and spread out over the two parts to keep the pace up. It’s not that this is a bad movie. It’s really quite good in many ways, including the performances of the three leads. I will say that having seen the second part? It was well worth every minute of camping to get to the battle at Hogwarts. I’m very much looking forward to the second part being released on DVD because I am very much looking forward to reviewing it. It’s been a wonderful week full of magic. Pity it has to end, but I’ve got to say, I think it ended well.

July 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

July 30, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

It’s difficult to review this as a stand-alone movie because it really isn’t one in any sense. I think I probably would have felt cheated if I had gone to see this in the theaters – it is not even really half of a movie – it’s all the plot exposition and boring bits from the Deathly Hallows book presented as a feature film, but with none of the resolution. I can understand the thinking that split this movie in two, but it leaves this segment as a sort of orphan child, split off from anything which would have made it a coherent whole. I feel somewhat bad reviewing it in this form because it feels so very incomplete.

Plot-wise there’s quite a lot that goes on in this half of the Deathly Hallows. It’s clear from the very start that dark things are afoot and that the death of Albus Dumbledore at the end of the previous movie has left nothing to stop the rise to power once again of Voldemort and all his dark followers. Hermione, to protect her muggle parents, wipes their memories and leaves them alone. Harry, meanwhile, is on the edge of his seventeenth birthday and is left alone in the home of the Dursleys. The charms that have protected him as a child living with family will soon end, so the Order of the Phoenix show up on his doorstep to whisk him away to a new hiding place. They are pursued by death eaters led by Voldemort who is obsessed with killing Harry, but he is able to escape – at the cost of his trusty owl Hedwig and with casualties in the Order as well.

In his first attempt on Harry’s life in this movie Voldemort takes Lucious Malfoy’s wand, figuring that because it does not share a core with Harry’s it will be a better weapon. It doesn’t work. Voldemort now believes that the reason he is unable to defeat Harry is that his wand has insufficient power. He sets out to find a wand of ultimate power, and dispatches his death eaters to wreak havoc at the wedding of Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacort. It is this, the destruction at the wedding of a friend, that convinces Harry that he needs to set out on his own to destroy the remaining horcruxes in which Voldemort has hidden his soul. Of course Ron and Hermione insist on tagging along and it’s a good thing they do because Harry’s going to need his friends with him.

Hermione has brought along a bottomless bag in which she has every possible thing they could need on their adventures from polyjuice potion to a magical tardis-tent. Without her Harry would have been sunk pretty quickly. As it is he and the other two are able to infiltrate the ministry of magic, which is fully in the grip of Voldemort’s despotic reign now, and steal back the locket that is the horcrux Dumbledore and Harry went after at the end of the last book. It’s pretty thrilling stuff, and it also shows how dark the wizarding world has gotten.

From there, though, things get a bit monotonous. The big problem this movie has is that Harry, Ron and Hermione really don’t have any idea what they’re doing. They get this one horcrux but don’t know how to destroy it. The locket corrupts them, sending Ron off in a huff, which makes things pretty bleak for Harry and Hermione. Through a bit of intervention from a mysterious benefactor (who has a patronus that looks like a doe – as Harry’s mother did) leads Harry to Goderick Griffendor’s sword in a frozen pond. They destroy the locket, but it brings them no closer to knowing what the remaining horcruxes are nor how to find them. There is a lot of bleak trudging around the English countryside listening to a radio broadcast that is a litany of names of the dead or disappeared. There’s a lot of camping in the woods or by lakes. There’s a lot of infighting between the three friends who are all at the end of their ropes.

We learn some about the Elder Wand, an artifact of rare power that Voldemort is desperately seeking in the hopes that it will allow him to defeat Harry Potter. After consulting with Luna Lovegood’s father about the Deathly Hallows (with a nicely animated fairy tale narrated by Hermione) the three friends are finally captured by snatchers in the woods and brought to Bellatrix Lastrange at the Malfoy estate. There they find Luna Lovegood, Olivander the wand shop owner, and Griphook the goblin from Gringots. Bellatrix flies into a rage when she sees the sword of Griffendor is with them and becomes convinced that they’ve been inside her vault at Gringots – torturing Hermione to find out what else they got there. They only barely escape with the help of Dobby the Free Elf, who gives his life to save theirs.

And the movie abruptly ends. I suppose I can understand that the film makers didn’t want to lose any of this plot exposition, and they didn’t want to make a five hour movie, but the result is that almost nothing happens in this film. By the end of it things are not much different than they were at the start. Harry, Ron and Hermione have managed to destroy only one of the remaining five horcruxes, don’t know what or where the remaining four are, and have learned a little about the nature of the elder wand. I honestly think that you could go to see the eighth movie – the second half of Deathly Hallows, without seeing this one and you wouldn’t feel you had missed much. All of the big action, all of the plot resolution, and a good deal of the horcrux hunting takes place in the last movie. This movie is filler. It’s nice to have it there so that the climax doesn’t feel rushed or too stuffed with exposition, but it’s not really a film of its own. I’m glad I didn’t see it in the theater both because I would have felt kind of empty afterwards and because I would have had to wait nine months for the real meat of this story.

July 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 516 – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – July 29th, 2011

After the fifth movie I was feeling very anxious about carrying on with the Potter films. The same thing happened to me with the books but I pressed on because, well, I enjoyed the world, as I’ve said, and I wanted to know what would happen. The thing is, it’s been ages and ages since I last read anything beyond book four and while I recall the overall plots and character arcs, many of the specifics just haven’t stuck. So I really wasn’t sure what this movie would hold for me. Given how dark and grim the last one was and knowing what happens at the end of the sixth story, I feared that the tone would simply continue and I would be in for another couple of horribly depressing hours. Thank goodness that was not the case.

The trouble with this story is that there’s a crapload of stuff going on, but it feels like a step back. After all, the last book was full of such unspeakable nastiness and ended with a full out battle in the Ministry and a major character’s death. And then there’s Harry, back at school, leading quidditch try-outs and going to classes. The thing is, I stand by my statement that the fourth story is his last hurrah. Because there is nothing really normal about Harry’s sixth year at Hogwarts. Sure, he’s going to classes and flying on his broomstick and having relationship woes, but he’s also been asked by Dumbledore to subtly interrogate Professor Slughorn, the new potions master. He’s still having visions from Voldemort. So on the surface, it’s all back to normal. But just underneath the surface it’s not back to normal at all and it never will be.

So there’s a lot of ground to cover here. This story has to give Harry another year at Hogwarts while also keeping the tension from the last story going. That’s a difficult balance. Also difficult is that it feels as though there’s not a really specific and concrete plot in this. Draco is a vague sort of villain, tasked with a job he’s not quite up to and getting into some shady stuff but nothing outright threatening for the majority of the movie. Dumbledore tasks Harry with finding out about Slughorn’s memories of Tom Riddle but that’s not quite the major plot either. And then there are the relationship plots, with Ron and Hermione both finding other people to date to make each other miserable. Many little threads, but they don’t really weave together to form as solid a story as I might like.

One trouble here, for me, is that the decision was made to emphasize the interpersonal relationships between Harry, Hermione and Ron. And I like that decision for many reasons, not the least of which is that it allowed the three characters some fantastic moments of interaction that they really did need in order to show how far they’ve come as people and as friends. But it also means that along with the necessary plot arcs for Slughorn and Draco (and Snape – whom I’ll get to) it makes for a fairly stuffed movie. And therefore something had to give. Alas, that something is the plot arc that the title of the story refers to.

My one big criticism of this movie is that anyone who hasn’t read the books will be utterly flummoxed as to the title. Why title the story for something that’s such a minor plot point? Not even a plot point. A line and a book that figures into maybe twenty minutes, total, spread out. At two and a half hours the movie is certainly already stuffed to the brim with material, so I understand why something had to give. But really, I recall it being so much more of a big deal in the book. I recall more memories and more delving into the past and more of Harry being fascinated by the potions textbook he ends up with, full of notes that make his potions fantastic and formerly owned by someone calling themselves The Half-Blood Prince. But in the movie Harry makes one fantastic potion, which gets him the necessary Macguffin potion for later, then uses one spell from the book which freaks him and his friends out enough that they agree to hide the book where even they can’t find it. Hermione wonders who the Half-Blood Prince is, but can’t find anything in the library and that’s that until Snape drops his much-reduced bombshell later on. It is so lacking in impact and really, it should figure in more. I’m sure of it.

Because Snape’s arc has been so diminished there’s a lot less to go on for his attitude towards Harry. Fewer revelations. Which makes the subplot with Snape teaching Harry occlumency somewhat lessened. I can only wonder about the lack of background for him and how James and Lily and the rest figure in together, because that all felt very important to me when I was reading. And I thought it was important for Harry’s development as a character. But it’s just not here and I’m left wondering if I managed to inflate it in my own mind. I don’t think I did, but I can’t be sure without rereading. What’s really curious to me about all of this is that even with all I just ranted about, this is still a very enjoyable movie to watch. I had fun through the whole thing, even the inevitable end. I knew it was coming and I thought it was well done. I thought the whole thing was well done, really, aside from the aforementioned arc being so truncated.

I’m going to assume that a large part of what makes it fun to watch is that while Harry clearly has a lot on his plate and is under enormous pressure, he does have his friends. He has enemies, certainly, and Hogwarts isn’t the safe haven it once was – not precisely. But he also has allies and resources. And he’s allowed to use some of them in this story. This movie manages to take both the grim reality of the war that is pressing down on Harry and his world and the fact that Harry is still a teenager who’s in school and combine them into a movie that’s fun to watch. It helps that there are some wonderful performances. Jim Broadbent is fantastic as Slughorn – a part that cannot have been an easy one as he is supposed to be both sympathetic and an obstacle at the same time. Both Snape and Draco have some excellent moments and there is a magnificent scene at the end for Harry and Dumbledore that I thought both actors excelled in. All three of the main trio – Harry, Hermione and Ron – have some truly wonderful scenes together. So that makes it a pleasure to watch instead of a chore.

Really, I do think this is a wonderfully done movie. It was put together well and performed well and the movie as a single piece doesn’t really suffer from the loss of the Half-Blood Prince background. The thing is, while the movie can stand on its own without it, I feel like the world as a whole ends up feeling less complete. It doesn’t make this movie make less sense, but I fear it will change how things are explained in the very end. Which we’ll be going to see on Sunday. So I suppose I’ll find out then if my fears are warranted.

July 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

July 29, 2011

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

After the unremitting darkness of Order of the Phoenix I was not much looking forward to this movie. I was beginning to feel Pottered out and I wasn’t ready for a whole lot more depressing drama. I need not have feared though: this movie is an entirely different sort of beast and it’s much more fun to watch. This was a tremendous relief.

There are parts of this book that are a little muddy. There are basically three different plots going on simultaneously and although they all do come together in the end it isn’t perfect or seamless. This is amplified in the movie because there is so much that has to be truncated and glossed over just to make the movie fit into a reasonable time bracket, which means that several important plot points don’t make much sense because the groundwork to explain them isn’t part of the movie.

The movie starts out with Harry being brought to the Weasley home by Dumbledore, but the first plot point deals not with Harry, but with Draco Malfoy, his long time rival. Draco has been chosen by Voldemort for a task that his mother wishes were not his responsibility. She turns to Snape – who is not entirely trusted by the death eaters, but is still a follower of Voldemort – to protect her son. Bellatrix Lestrange does not trust Snape at all, and forces him to swear an unbreakable vow that he will defend Draco, and that if Draco is unable to complete his task Snape will in his place. That’s the darkest and most ominous of the three plots.

Then there’s plot number two – which involves Dumbledore and his attempts to discover something about Voldemort’s past – a memory of Tom Riddle while he was still a student at Hogwarts. Dumbledore convinces the glory-seeking Horace Slughorn to return to Hogwarts as the new potions master and tasks Harry with getting close to Slughorn. Tom Riddle’s secret, which Dumbledore is so desperate to uncover, is somehow involved with Slughorn.

Then there’s the plot from which this movie (and book) gets its name. The mystery of the half-blood prince. Harry comes across a old and battered potions book full of tweaks and adjustments to the advanced potions he’s learning as a sixth year student which make him an absolute master of the craft as long as he follows them. These annotations are, apparently, the work of somebody who called himself “The Half-Blood Prince” but nobody knows who this person could be.

I got the impression as I watched this movie that the producers would have jettisoned the spellbook altogether if it were not for the title of the film. It’s hardly involved in the final product we get to watch, and the big reveal of who actually WAS the half-blood prince feels almost tacked on. It completely lacks the importance it has in the book. Indeed in the books the identity of the half-blood prince is very much tied into the whole Draco plot and helps to provide a different perspective on most of what happens in that thread. There is also a lot in the book that ties the half-blood prince to Harry’s mother Lilly – which is laying groundwork for the end of the series in Deathly Hallows part 2 – so it’s kind of disappointing that it’s missing here.

What surprised me as we watched this movie though was how enjoyable it actually turns out to be. In my review for Goblet of Fire I said that my favorite parts of the movie were the more intimate and personal moments and not the big glitzy action scenes. This movie takes that notion and runs with it. Quite aside from the Draco plot and the half-blood prince plot and the Slughorn plot this movie is about Harry and Ron and Hermione and their friendship – and the hints of romance that have started to work their way in. This results in a great deal of romance and humor and snogging and jealousy which acts both to provide some levity to the movie and to make the characters more human and enjoyable. I found myself having a great deal of fun with this movie because in spite of all the grim things going on throughout it the real core of the movie is about friendship and love and all the things worth fighting for that were mentioned at the end of Order of the Phoenix.

There was also something else about the movie that I didn’t realize until quite near the end: it features an altogether much more enjoyable soundtrack than the previous films. I do like the work of John Williams, and his scores are great for big summer movie blockbusters, but after a while his sound gets a little “samey.” You hear hints of Indiana Jones and Star Wars and Superman in everything he does and it’s a little jarring for me. This movie features a much more organic score by Nicholas Hooper which felt, to me at least, much more appropriate to the action we were seeing on screen. It did what a great score often does: it provided emotional background for the events on the screen without calling attention to itself. I think this contributed to my enjoyment of the movie as a whole.

And I did enjoy this movie. I had a wonderful time with it. It features some dark events, and it shows how the wizarding world is starting to fall into Voldemort’s power, but it also has a lot of genuinely tender humor. Jim Broadbent (who I will never forgive for stealing Ian Mckellen’s Oscar) makes a fantastic Slughorn – so obsessed with holding court for his prize students so that he can claim to have known them once. The movie does an admirable job of not letting the darkness that is a part of it make it a depressing slog like yesterday’s movie. Indeed I’d have to say that my initial impression after seeing this for the first time was that it was my favorite Potter movie since Prisoner of Azkaban. Now I feel ready for the big two-movie cinematic conclusion to the series. We’re watching Deathly Hallows part 1 on the 30th and then plan to go see part 2 in the theaters on the 31st. Harry’s birthday.

July 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 515 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – July 28th, 2011

This movie is where I stopped watching. I made it through the fourth movie and I enjoyed it, but when this movie came out I couldn’t help but think of the book this one is based on. And it is my least favorite of the entire series. The idea of watching all the things I detested so much made live on screen just didn’t appeal. So I avoided it. And therefore I avoided the rest of the movies because I hadn’t seen this one yet. Now I will have seen it and I won’t have any excuse not to watch the others. But oh, oh it is not pleasant for me.

It’s unfortunate really, because this movie does a truly excellent job with a few things I was really looking forward to seeing. It just also does a truly excellent job with the things I wanted to skip over. But since we can’t skip scenes I had to watch every single excruciating moment that made me cringe while reading the book. It’s a frustrating situation and while I can’t really lay it at the movie’s feet, and I don’t deny that much of it is necessary at least to a degree, there is a part of me that wishes it was a little more toned down. Call me a wimp. Go ahead. But I have some issues with the maturity level of this story and I’m not talking about Harry and Cho smooching.

I realize this is more an issue with the book than with the movie, but it’s relevant to the movie as well: This whole series suffers from its conceit. Oh, I enjoy the whole seven books for seven years of Harry’s life concept. The problem is that this and a few other children’s/young adult series I can think of raise the maturity level of their content along with the maturity of their main characters. And for anyone who started reading the books or started watching the movies at the beginning and stuck with them all the way through, then that is a wonderful journey. But I can attest to the fact that these stories – books and movies – are marketed to young children. And for the first couple of stories, that’s totally cool. But a child in, say, third grade, who picks up the first book in June when school gets out might be asking me for the seventh book before school starts up again in September of the same year. And the movies are the same way, only even more so.

One of the most common searches we get on this blog is for people looking for the differences between the book and the movie version of a particular story. And I knew that was going to happen. When people don’t want to read the books, for whatever reason, they watch the movie when they can find it. That’s just the way it goes. And a child who isn’t really up to working their way through the epic tomes of books four, five, six and seven in the Potter series might well find it a lot easier to simply grab the movie. Often times parents don’t bat an eye at grabbing this movie or the next one for their fairly young children. They’re for kids, after all! They make Lego sets for them! And oh, oh do they get very dark, very fast. I’m not just talking about killing off characters. I’m talking about discussion of torture. I’m talking about torture on screen. And you don’t even have to make it to the end and meet Bellatrix Lestrange for that, though knowing that she tortured Neville’s parents until they were no longer mentally functional people is pretty dark. But no, all you have to do is meet Dolores Umbridge.

Things I hate about this story: Dolores Umbridge. Dolores Umbridge. Dolores Umbridge. Dolores Umbridge’s vile quills. Her decrees and rules and inquisitions are pretty hateful too, but it’s the quill that gets me. Umbridge is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor in this story. Of course there’s a new one. What, you thought they’d keep Barty Crouch Jr. and his polyjuice flask around? In this chapter of Harry’s life we basically get to see him stripped of every support he thought he had. Dementors come after him at home, he’s almost expelled from Hogwarts for casting the Patronus charm to get rid of them and for some reason Dumbledore spends most of the story totally avoiding him. The Daily Prophet is reporting that he and Dumbledore are both either liars or lunatics or both and people at school are starting to believe it. And Harry has Angst. It’s a lot more prominent in the book, and I’ve got to say I was pleased to see it handled fairly well in the movie. But still, Harry’s fifth year is all about how much he can be beaten down by the world around him. It is vicious. There’s no quidditch, all the adults he trusts are being secretive, he’s having horrifying dreams from Voldemort’s perspective and then there’s Umbridge, who seems bent on destroying everything wonderful about Hogwarts.

It’s pretty clear in the book that Umbridge is the sort of evil that smothers you softly, with a perfumed pillow, but the movie does her so excellently that she makes me shudder. This is something I struggled with, watching it. After all, I despise Umbridge and every moment she has in the story. You’re supposed to. She’s never a sympathetic character. She even makes you feel a little sympathy towards Snape, of all people (though this story does have the beginnings of Snape’s redemption arc, so that fits) because she’s just so unreasonably odious. This is her purpose in the story. This is her point. She exists to take away the refuge Harry and his friends had, so while Voldemort is threatening them from the outside, they have nowhere to turn to on the inside. And like I said, the movie does her well. I just hate her with every fiber of my being. Perhaps it’s because I’ve met people like her in real life. Whatever the reason, it’s a testament to how well this movie portrays her that watching her made me uncomfortable. This is especially the case when she punishes Harry by making him write lines with a special quill that uses the blood of the writer to write with, while magically carving the lines they write on their hands.

And there is no recourse and there is no fixing it and she rules the school for a large chunk of the movie. It’s hideous. Harry and his friends do have some wonderful scenes where they’re training other kids, and I do enjoy the Dumbledore’s Army scenes quite a lot, but there’s something so desperate and horribly necessary about it all. So it’s not that I think the movie did it poorly, it’s that I think the movie did it extremely well and I wish it hadn’t. On the other hand, I actually like the climax in the Ministry of Magic. I think the battle scene, where Harry and his friends have left the school to go and find Sirius, thanks to Harry’s odd dreams from Voldemort, was gorgeously done. The smoky trails of the Death Eaters, the spells and wand work and the sets. All beautiful. I loved Tonks and I loved Kingsley and I loved it all. And when it came to the character death that I knew and dreaded, I honestly felt like it was well handled. It felt almost cheap in the book (a theme I will return to eventually, though perhaps not until the second of the Deathly Hallows movies comes out on DVD) but in the movie the actions involved felt like they made sense.

Really, it’s a case of the movie doing everything fairly well. One of my favorite scenes got truncated quite a bit, which was a shame. Really, Fred and George’s rebellion against Umbridge is far more satisfying when they face off with her when things look utterly dire for them, but for the full effect they would have needed Peeves, whom I don’t really miss at all in any of the stories but this one. But everything else feels right. It feels like it should. It’s just that it is so very dark. And it is so very grim. And it is so very hopeless through so much of the story. And that’s maintained from the book. It’s one of the few times when I really wish an adaptation wasn’t as spot on as it is.

July 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

July 28, 2011

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I had seen this movie once before (although Amanda had not) but I had somewhat glossed over just how unbelievably DARK this film is. I remember being upset with the book because it was so full of painful teenaged angst as Harry becomes isolated from everybody else even his friends and even Dumbledore, who has supported him throughout the series (although he does have a tendency to disappear just when things get tough.) Somehow, though, my recollections were that the movie was less bleak and painful. To some extent this is true. Even so, it is really tough going to get through this movie.

Harry’s fifth year at Hogwarts is a time when pretty much nothing goes right for him from the start to the end. In part this is because of the dark forces at work in the world, the Crabbes and Goyles and Malfoys who are hurrying to gather under the dark lord’s banner now that he is returned. That would be danger enough certainly. For the majority of the movie though the real trouble comes not from the danger created by Voldemort, but from the willful ignorance of most of the people who are in power in the wizarding world.

It’s clear from the very start how dire things are for Harry. He is attacked by dementors while he’s with his unbearable cousin Dudley (who is an annoying chain-wearing chav in this film.) He defends himself using his patronus charm, but this action gets him into trouble with the ministry of magic. It is ruled that this goes against the prohibition on the underaged use of magic and Harry is expelled from Hogwarts. It is only through the intervention of Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix that Harry is even allowed to attend Hogwarts at all.

The Order of the Phoenix is a tight knit group who are dedicated to defeating Voldemort this time around as they were the last. They include Sirius, Lupin, Arthur Weasley, Moody and Tonks. It is explained that Harry’s parents Lilly and James were once members of the Order (explaining why Voldemort sought them out to kill them) as were Neville Longbottom’s parents. Even as we see these conspirators coming together to defend Harry they insist that he must stay on the side-lines.

Meanwhile, Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic and big head honcho, is refusing to believe that Voldemort has returned at all. Instead he is convinced that Voldemort is rabble-rousing in an attempt to gather political power of his own and that Harry is a pawn and a liar. He has a lot of people willing to believe him in this matter as well. They’d rather believe that Harry is lying than that Voldemort has returned.

Fudge uses his political muscle to put one of his sycophants into Hogwarts as the new defense against the dark arts teacher, and she, Dolores Umbridge, proceeds to take all the fun out of Hogwarts. She insists that as he-who-must-not-be-named has NOT returned there is no real danger for which these children must be prepared, and refuses to teach them any practical magic to help them in the event of a death eater attack.

There are a couple things I do really enjoy in this movie. One is a new cast member – Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood. She’s so absolutely perfect in the role – exactly as I imagined her in the book. She effortlessly steals every scene she’s in with her vapid not-altogether-there but also somehow in-the-know air. The other thing I enjoy about this movie is seeing Harry as a leader. In response to Umbridge’s repressive regime Harry and his friends form Dumbledore’s Army – which is a gathering of students interested in learning practical magic to better defend themselves. The scenes of Harry training his friends are by far the best parts of the movie. In large part because the rest of the movie is so unremittingly depressing that these small victories are all the more thrilling.

This is a brutal, dark and upsetting movie. Things start out bad for Harry and they get worse. He is tortured, ostracized, denigrated and vilified. Hogwarts is transformed from a refuge to a prison and everything he enjoys is denied to him. And in the end, although he does vindicate himself in the eyes of the ministry and prove that Voldemort has indeed returned it is at a dear price. It’s a difficult movie to watch.

July 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 514 – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – July 27th, 2011

This is the last Harry Potter movie I had seen prior to this project. I have some reasons I’ll go into in tomorrow’s review but suffice it to say that beyond here the series gets dark and I have some issues with the stories themselves. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have some problems with this story too, but it’s not unpleasant to watch. It’s just a little nonsensical, which is really an issue with the book itself. I realize that this is a common theme in my Potter reviews, but I think it’s somewhat inescapable.

The thing is, I love the world that J.K. Rowling built. I love the world, I love the details, I love the characters and I love the general story. But the series follows a character as he grows up over the course of seven years and the first two books had this very young character facing off with one of the most powerful wizards in the world they exist in. So eventually he’s going to have to grow up. Rowling set up some very high stakes right from the beginning and up until the fourth story she did okay keeping things somewhat even with Harry’s abilities. But then the fourth book hits and it seemed like she really needed to advance things a lot very fast. And she had a lot of story to tell and a lot of world to build very quickly.

I feel that this story is really Harry’s last chance to be a true student. From the end of this story on it is clear that Things Are Very Grim and Harry is thrust right into the middle of it all. And while the plot of this story seems thoroughly bizarre in many ways, it’s relatively lighthearted, especially in comparison to tomorrow’s story. So while Harry is set in the spotlight against his will, until the climax of the movie it’s very clear that his direct competition is within his peer group. It’s Harry’s last hurrah, really. Which is all well and good, but sort of sad as well, and ends up having the effect of feeling somewhat uneven when it comes to the stakes for the battles ahead.

After the events of the last story things seem somewhat low key, really. Harry’s got a godfather out there who has to hide since the whole world thinks he’s a serial killer, but he’s not, so that’s cool. Voldemort hasn’t been seen in a whole movie and there’s no longer one of his followers hanging out in the Gryffindor dormitory. So of course it’s time for Hogwarts to host a huge inter-school competition with two other European wizarding schools, right? Of course it is! Now, if I’m going to be charitable, I can blame Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge for this. He turns out to be swimming laps in the river of denial later on, so let’s just run with that explanation instead of assuming that Dumbledore is a total sadist out to get Harry killed. Because that seems to me to be the other option here.

Anyhow, the competition at hand is the Tri-Wizard Tournament and it is apparently a traditionally grueling competition wherein students have been killed in the past. The judges decree that only students over the age of 17 can enter their names for consideration, so obviously Harry (age 14 in this one) will be competing. I mean, it was a foregone conclusion. You can’t introduce something like the Tri-Wizard Tournament and go on about how dangerous it is and not have your main character take part. Ridiculous? Yes. But this is the story the movie was given and to make it make any more sense would have required some fancy gymnastics so off we go, with Harry and Cedric Diggory from Hogwarts, Fleur Delacour from Beauxbatons and Viktor Krum from Durmstrang all competing.

There are a variety of events in the competition, from facing off against dragons to a huge hedgemaze. The tasks require some fancy spell work and knowledge of the magical world, so Harry has to depend on his friends. But the drama here comes from a lot of the people around him assuming that he put his own name in somehow, despite being too young. He’s been put in danger and he doesn’t want to be there. Now, I recall this being somewhat lighter in the book. Perhaps it wasn’t really, or it wasn’t intended to be, but what I really like about this movie is how it uses the visuals of the tournament itself and the school and the whole environment to create a tone of peril. Yes, Harry is facing off against other students, but there’s a clear feeling here that he is well out of his depth. That something deeper is going on. And I like that. In my opinion it’s a great example of the benefit a visual medium can bring to a story like this.

By the end of the movie, when Harry is in the hedgemaze, it doesn’t feel as though he’s in a student competition anymore. It feels as though he has been pulled into something truly sinister, which of course he has been. But the movie communicates it well. Sure, there’s also the somewhat fluffy bit mid-movie where all the kids have to learn how to dance and there’s a Yule Ball and Harry utterly fails at the whole asking a girl out thing and Hermione wears a frilly dress (book-to-movie quibble: it should have been blue) and nothing terribly meaningful happens. But the rest of the movie does what I consider to be a fairly decent balancing act between the darker elements of Harry hearing about Death Eaters – followers of Lord Voldemort – and the lighter elements of him and his friends in classes and the tournament.

One major shift from the book to the movie is the beginning. If you look at the series of books on a shelf you can immediately see when someone gave J.K. Rowling the go-ahead to just write and write and write and damn the traditional page limits for children’s lit. This story in book form is a brick, largely owing to the beginning, which involves the Weasleys taking Harry to the Quidditch World Cup. Now, I love this bit for the worldbuilding it does and the introduction of several magical creatures and a number of characters who show up later. There’s a whole subplot with money that turns out to be fake and the twins betting on the game that’s totally cut out here. In fact, there’s a lot cut out. The entire Cup takes up a very small amount of time, basically showing the characters we need to see, giving us a glimpse of the culture surrounding the game, and then introducing the Death Eaters as a dangerous group. That’s all that’s really necessary and I applaud the movie for paring it down. It’s fun in the book, but it would have made the movie disjointed and interminable.

All things considered, I really do enjoy this movie. It has issues, but like its predecessors, those issues are issues I have with the story itself, and any larger departures would have drawn some serious fan ire. There’s some excellent work done in this movie to make it more even in its tone and to draw the story from the lighter works of the beginning of the series to the much darker themes later on. Once again the casting is superb, and I have to give some special credit to the costume department here for taking a minor character – Rita Skeeter – much of whose plot was taken out, and making her outfits speak so obviously to her true nature. I don’t mind what’s been taken out for precisely that sort of reason. The details that have been removed were often there in the book to create a richer world, but with the visuals afforded by a film that world is already rich enough.

July 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

July 27, 2011

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I realize that this movie is an important turning point. The first two movies involve attempts by Voldemort to return from the half-life to which he has been banished. The third movie is a bit of a detour, explaining in more detail about Harry’s father and his friends and hinting about the dark times during the dark lord’s last ascendancy. This, the fourth installment in the Potter series, is all about moving the grand plot arc forward. It has to conclude with Voldemort’s eventual resurrection (I hope that’s not really a spoiler to anybody reading this review) but the circuitous and convoluted route it takes to reach that goal weakens it somewhat for me.

Before Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts begins he goes with Hermione and Ron’s whole family to see the quidditch world cup. It’s a thrilling and fun look at the wizarding world and how nice it can be when things are peaceful. It’s glorious and exciting and the pinnacle of what is good about the Potter-verse. Then a bunch of Death Eaters show up and ruin everything, burning tents and spreading terror and shooting the dark mark high into the sky.

The faculty of Hogwarts naturally decide, under the circumstances, to hold a terrifyingly dangerous wizarding competition on the campus. The Tri-Wizard Tournament is, as the name suggests, a battle of wits between three wizards from three different schools who are all assigned multiple perilous tasks. It is made very clear to us us that students have been KILLED in this competition in the past. (So why does anybody think this is a good idea?)

Then things go a little pear shaped. Admission into this exclusive competition is handled by a magical burning cup (yeah, the Goblet of Fire) which is supposed to select one young wizard from each of the three competing schools. This device is also supposed not to accept any nominations for any wizards under the age of seventeen. So how, then doe Harry Potter end up getting nominated as a second wizard from Hogwarts? Clearly something is amiss.

Harry gets an awful lot of help in the Tri-Wizard Tournament from the irascible and slightly insane new defense against the dark arts teacher. I have always loved the character of “Madeye” Moody. His catch phrase (which is not featured in the movies for some reason) was also mine while I was still working at Blockbuster, where theft was a never ending problem. “Constant vigilance!” Of course in the end of the movie it’s revealed that this character you’ve come to really quite like is not all that he appears. I still find that a little disorienting.

I don’t want to mince words here: the primary plot of this movie is completely non-sensical. It always irritates me when a bad guys nefarious scheme seems to rely as much on luck as on intricate manipulations. The whole purpose of having Harry in the tournament is to get him to Voldemort using the trophy – the Tri-Wizard Cup. It’s a ludicrous plan with far too many ways that it could have gone wrong and it makes Voldemort as a villian seem a little less menacing.

On the other hand I quite like some of the side plots featured in the film. Especially the preparations for the yule ball with Harry and Ron trying to get up the courage to invite some poor girls to attend with them. There are moments that are evocative of my own awkward teenage years, although they’re much less painful here and are played for laughs. I feel a little bad for the Patel sisters, but even so the dynamics of these kids dealing with dating and teenaged angst are fun to watch.

Part of what’s so enjoyable about these movies is seeing these young actors growing up and becoming more and more adept at their craft. Even if this movie is a muddle and a confusing mess it still does manage to have a lot of great scenes for the people playing the lead roles. I almost wish it didn’t try so hard to be an action adventure film with an extended chase across the rooftops of Hogwarts between Harry and an irate dragon – the smaller character drama moments are so much better.

July 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment