A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 513 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – July 26th, 2011

Now, here we have the first true adaptation of the Potter books. I’ve been looking forward to this one for several reasons, not the least of which is because it’s the first movie to take the books and look beyond the literal descriptions from the pages and create its own world based on the world of the books. But I do have some problems with it too. In short, it makes a much better movie to review than the first two. And thank goodness. A full week of reviewing the books as moving illustrations would get frustrating. This is a movie review blog, not a book review blog. And much as I like reading, I don’t enjoy writing book reviews for movies. It seems silly, really.

The third movie had a change in directors, from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuaron. And I honestly think this was a good thing overall. For one, while Columbus made very pretty movies that were very much the books made real, he never departed far from them. Cuaron did some editing and some worldbuilding of his own. I like that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Movies and books aren’t the same medium and what works in one medium isn’t necessarily the best way to go for another medium. In the case of the Potter stories, there is an epic amount of worldbuilding done in the prose of the books. And that simply makes for an overstuffed movie. There has to be a way to pare it down and still have the story work. And for the most part, I think that was done here. And I’m so glad it was done in time for this story.

A few months ago the assistant director where I work came to me and asked me for a recommendation. There’s a book club meeting where I work, intended for adults but reading all children’s books. Most of what they’d chosen were so-called classics. Older stuff that might well be excellent, but is hardly what kids today are reading and aren’t really indicative of what children’s literature is today. So she wanted to pick a Harry Potter book and wanted my opinion on which one would be best. I told her, without hesitation, Book 3. The first one is likely to have already been read by many adults. The second is fluff. And starting with the fourth they’re huge tomes that start to get incredibly dark and interdependent. Apparently she asked several other people the same question and got the same answer and reasoning from them all. Book 3 is where things start to get dark and there’s lots to discuss. As such, it’s my favorite of the books and so far it’s my favorite of the movies.

The story isn’t really the same sort of “Voldemort tries to return” plot as the first two and the fourth. It’s more setting the stage for later events, but it’s a good story on its own as well. It follows Harry’s third year at school as he learns that a notorious killer, Sirius Black, has escaped from prison and is likely on his way to Hogwarts to kill Harry. He meets the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor (the position being somewhat like the drummer for Spinal Tap), Remus Lupin and learns a new spell from him, the Patronus charm, which will protect him against the Dementors – the wizarding prison’s sinister and spectral guards. He obtains a magical map that shows every nook and cranny at Hogwarts, passwords to secret passages, and the positions of everyone in the building. The Marauder’s Map is one of my favorite magical items in the stories and the movie version of it is wonderfully done. Andy and I purchased a version of it when we went to see the movie exhibit in Boston a few years ago. And by the end of all of this we have time travel, secret identities and Harry learns that he has a godfather who does not, in fact, wish him harm.

Back when these movies were still being made I remember wondering who they would get for the character of Sirius Black. He’s supposed to be somewhat disheveled and desperate and I always pictured him with Rufus Sewell’s face. I was a little doubtful when I heard that Gary Oldman had been cast, but from the first view of him in his wanted poster, laughing/screaming hysterically, I knew it was right. Sirius is one of my favorite characters, so I really wanted to see him done right and Oldman certainly does a good job here. I’m not quite as taken with David Thewlis as Remus Lupin (easily even with Sirius when it comes to my favorites) but it’s mostly his mustache that throws me off. Thewlis’ performance is spot on. I just want him to shave.

Really, though, the performances are all well done here. I continue to be impressed by the casting for these movies. The performances are wonderful, including Emma Thompson as the ditzy Divinations professor, Trelawney. And they are essential for the movie to work. What’s also essential is that the world feel truly realized. And this is where I feel this movie breaks away from the first two. The sets for Hogwarts here feel expanded and gorgeous. Sure, there’s no mention of a giant clock or a covered footbridge in the books, but personally, I feel that the additions here work spectacularly. They’re beautiful set pieces and they feel like organic parts of the school. I especially like the clock. Sure, it’s a bit on the obvious side, but aside from it being in a variety of scenes, it’s never pointed out explicitly by any character. And time plays such a huge part in the climax of this movie that it all works out well for me. There’s nothing cheesy like obvious shots of the clock face showing us when certain events are happening. It’s just an omnipresent thing in the background, always there, looming. I don’t ask for subtlety in these movies, so that works for me.

What doesn’t work as much for me are some omissions that I’m not sure of the reason for. Now, this might seem minor to some, but it frustrates me that there’s no outright mention of who Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are. Yes, there are implications, with the moon for Lupin, and I think they actually do refer to Peter Pettigrew as Wormtail, and you see the stag and Harry thinks it’s his father. But I recall it being a key point in the book that the Marauder’s Map was made by Lupin, Black, Potter and Pettigrew. That this is when you realized that the four of them were friends and connected and animagi. There’s a moment when Snap catches Harry with the map and Lupin interrupts them, asking if Snape really thinks one of the men who made the map gave it to Harry. And that’s not really here. The moment is, but not the meaning. And I always liked the meaning and it’s just frustrating to lose it. It wouldn’t have taken a whole lot of exposition, especially since Harry does have a little heart-to-heart with Lupin after the climax. There are a few little omissions like that, where it’s not necessarily a horrible loss, but it makes things not quite as deep in a story where I prize the depth.

Fortunately the rest of the movie is just so well put together that I don’t really mind overmuch that it’s missing some bits and pieces. It has a great tone to it and the mood feels right. It just comes together so well for me and I love seeing everything come together when the time travel enters into it. It’s a major plot point for the movie and it could have been so messy but it’s not. My one complaint about it is that they introduce what Andy termed Chekhov’s Candy and then never fire it later on. A pity, really, when everything else fits together so perfectly and feels so well planned. It was fun watching this again and it reminded me just how much I love these stories and this world.

July 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

July 26, 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I haven’t watched all the Potter films yet. As of the writing of this review I’ve only seen the first five. This is by far my favorite of the ones I’ve seen though, and it has always been my favorite of the books. Alfonso Cuaron does something wonderful with this movie – he takes a Harry Potter book and rather than trying to simply capture all the most memorable moments on film he adapts it into something more cinematic, more cohesive, and altogether more watchable.

Plotwise this is where the Harry Potter series starts to morph from being a series of children’s books to something cooler and darker. The series grew up with its audience, really, and I appreciate that. In his third year at Hogwarts Harry is in almost constant peril. Right at the start of the movie, when he runs away from the unbearable Dursleys, he is menaced by a mysterious black dog that seems to be hunting him. He is rescued by the arrival of the night bus and whisked off to the Leaky Cauldron where he is warned by Ron’s father Arthur that a madman has escaped from the infamous wizarding prison of Azkaban – the first person ever to escape from there – and is bent on hunting down Harry Potter.

Things get even worse when the supernatural guards of Azkaban, the terrifying dementors, show up on the Hogwarts Express and start haunting the school, supposedly in their determination to re-capture the nefarious Sirius Black. Luckily, Harry has a new ally in the school this year – the mysterious and tortured Professor Lupin. Lupin takes it upon himself to try and teach harry how to defend himself from the dementors. At the same time there’s the seemingly empty-headed Professor Trelawney teaching divination who generally spouts complete nonsense, but sometimes seems to offer up real prognostications which do not bode well for Harry.

Part of the Harry Potter paradigm is that there are mysteries in the books, with clues throughout that hint at what’s really going on, but this book and this movie doe the best job with this. There are so many different mysteries going on simultaneously here and they all blend together so effortlessly. Why is the thing Lupin fears most in the world a full moon? Why is Serious Black so bent on breaking into Hogwarts in spite of the dementors and all the security of the castle? Just how many courses is Hermione taking? Who is Peter Pettigrew, and why, if he was killed trying to protect Harry’s parents, does Harry’s map show him as alive and in the corridors of Hogwarts?

The answers are all tied into the past, into a quartet of best friends at Hogwarts back when Harry’s father was there. Really this is some of the best world building in the series for me because everything in the later books is rooted in the events at Hogwarts when Harry’s parents were there.

It’s odd: I find it difficult to separate this movie from the book. I know that Amanda finds it frustrating that some things from the book that are integral to the plot are glossed over in the movie. As an example – she is irritated that although Messrs Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are mentioned in the movie it is never explicitly stated just who they are. For me, though, this movie is more a companion piece to the movie. That’s part of why it works so well, really. It is an interpretation of the book and not just a straight rote recital.

Which brings me to what Cuaron has done to make this work so well as a movie. He’s given it a wonderfully cinematic feel. He uses visual imagery to help tell the story in ways that Chris Columbus never did. For example there’s the enormous clock tower prominently featured which highlights the importance of time in the story. This is also re-inforced by the quirky and fun transitions through the seasons which are introduced through sort of vignettes with the whomping willow (which also act to keep that dangerous tree front of mind since it comes into play as we approach the finale of the movie.)

And oh, the climax of this movie! All the secrets are revealed and the truth comes out, and then there’s an extra twenty minutes of adventure as everything gets sorted out by Harry and Hermione. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how much I love a well written and self contained time loop – and this fits perfectly into that. It’s just so much fun to watch it play out no matter how many times I see it.

As usual for the Potter franchise we get fantastic new actors bringing the characters from the books to life. Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney is perfect of course, and I enjoy David Thewlis as Lupin, but for me there’s one thing that sticks out above all others: Crazy Gary Oldman! My God is he the most perfect casting ever. I only wish that he had a bigger part in the rest of the series because he’s just so much fun to watch.

This whole movie is just fun to watch. I think that’s what makes it so great. The earlier movies are pretty and introduce the world. The later movies are dark and powerful. This is the middle movie that is just pure cool. I’d watch it again any time.

July 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 512 – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – July 25th, 2011

It’s only day two of Potter week and I’m already feeling nostalgic about the whole thing. I have a stack of books from work – new ones – that I fully intend to read on my vacation and yet I find myself considering the dusty Harry Potter books in the living room bookshelves. I think to myself “It won’t take long to read them! You got through the last one in four hours! You can whip through them while Andy’s at work and be that much better prepared for the movies!” But the truth of the matter is that I’ve got other things I need and want to do with my days and other books I haven’t already read several times over. I can only imagine how I’m going to feel when I’m done with the week and we’ve been to see the last of the movies in the theater.

To be honest, I’ve always felt that the second book was a rather weak follow-up to the first one. It’s got some great stuff in it, but it almost feels disjointed from the rest of the stories. The first story introduces the hero and the villain and some people on both sides. It lays down the foundation for the entire world everything is set in and sets up the whole concept of Voldemort and his quest for power. The third movie really sets a lot of the later events in motion, with Sirius Black and the introduction of the Marauders’ Map. But the second one, while giving some valuable information on Voldemort’s past and some of the history of Hogwarts, has always felt to me as if it stands somewhat alone. This is as true of the movie as it is of the book. I don’t see how it could not, without adding a whole bunch of things that aren’t in it.

Unfortunately, this movie also suffers from having my least favorite opening scenes. I truly detest the whole subplot with Dobby trying to “protect” Harry by keeping him away from Hogwarts or trying to make him go home. The whole opening, where Dobby the house elf makes mischief and frames Harry for it? It’s excruciating. I could cope with it in the book because it’s written out. Something about it played out on screen just pings my embarrassment squick something fierce and I had to ask Andy to turn the volume down during the cringe-worthy bits. It occurs to me that a whole lot of Harry’s life is a “cruel to be kind” scenario, and that really must suck for him.

What this movie does have going for it is even more fantastic casting. In particular, the casting of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Gilderoy Lockheart, is one of the most inspired bits of casting I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Branagh is perfect for the part and every scene he’s in is fantastic thanks to his performance as the ridiculously egotistical professor. Of course all the main cast are back from the first movie, and the castle is as gorgeous as ever. It’s a beautiful visual representation of the book and I especially love the details in the pipes under the school. That is what I find to be this movie’s strength: It shows things that really reinforce the whole idea that Hogwarts is very old and very full of secrets and space no one has seen in hundreds and hundreds of years. Hogwarts has always felt to me to be a truly wondrous place and its depth is very much apparent here. And since the entire climax takes place in the titular Chamber of Secrets, it’s only fitting that it should be well represented. If it hadn’t been that would have been a true pity for the movie.

The story here revolves around the mythical Heir of Slytherin who has apparently opened the Chamber of Secrets, releasing some sort of monster that is attacking students at the school. The entire movie is a series of events that go as follows: Someone gets attacked, Harry is one of the first on the scene after it happens, professors arrive and it Looks Very Bad for Harry. Then Harry and his friends try to figure out who’s really responsible and fail to figure it out before someone else is attacked. Lather, rinse, repeat. Of course, along the way there’s plenty of action and adventure. Harry figures out that he can speak a language called Parseltongue, which means he can communicate with snakes. He and Ron learn that there’s a giant spider named Aragog living in the Forbidden Forest. And then there’s the ever important Voldemort background.

There’s a bit of flashback where we meet Tom Riddle and see him in school as a young man. Now, in the context of this movie that’s important because Riddle preserved a bit of himself in a diary so that he could resurrect himself later on through the life force of another person. And Riddle later became Voldemort. The backstory is nice and gives a bit of depth to the whole thing, but it also impresses upon me how much of a standalone this is. I mean, look at Riddle’s diary and the version of him that’s coming through. This isn’t quite the same as the Voldemort we saw in the first movie or the one we’ll see later on. He’s a fragment. Granted, the diary was put in place by one of his followers, so one would assume that the later Voldemort is aware of what’s happening. Still, the movie doesn’t really set him up as being the same person. It’s setting him up to be the potential for the same person.

I’m afraid I don’t have a whole lot more to say about this movie. It’s difficult for me to review it without this being a review of the book instead because this movie does what the first one did which is to take the book and present it on screen as faithfully and slavishly as possible. On one hand that’s a comforting thing to see. All the things one loved about the books are right there on the screen. On the other hand, it’s not bringing anything new to the table except visuals that we all had in our heads when reading the books. I suppose for someone who wanted to bypass the books entirely this would be perfect. Watch the movies and for the first two you’re all set in a few hours. If you’re like me, however, you want the change in medium to bring something a little more. I’m not talking a situation like The Dark is Rising, here, but I would have gladly sacrificed a little bit of the accuracy for a glimpse of something new at Hogwarts that I hadn’t even dreamed. Fortunately, tomorrow the movie is a bit more of a departure. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say.

July 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

July 25, 2011

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

In many ways the second Harry Potter movie, like the book, feels like a re-do of the first. There’s a particular formula to the first few books, a sort of rhythm that becomes apparent. Harry starts out living in misery with his aunt, uncle and cousin. He’s whisked away to Hogwarts for the start of a new term. Some new characters are introduced (like a new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher.) There is a quidditch game. There is rivalry with Slytherin house. There’s a mystery of some sort at the school which only the trio of Ron, Hermione and Harry can unravel. There is a final confrontation with Voldemort. Over the course of seven books this formula slowly evolves as Jo becomes a better storyteller, but way back here with the second movie it’s still very much in force.

That having been said, however, I do enjoy the mystery at the heart of this movie better than that in the first movie. It has more twists and red herrings. It is a more organic part of the story. Most importantly, for a movie, it has a more cinematic feel. Since the world has already been introduced a lot less time can be spent establishing it and more can be spent just playing in it.

This movie starts to introduce some of the concepts at the heart of the conflict in the Potter universe. There are the prejudices of the “pure blood” wizards for example. The notion of “mud bloods.” The titular Chamber of Secrets is an ancient ancient trap devised by Salazar Slytherin, one of the four founders of Hogwarts. He felt that wizards of impure blood had no place in the school and had hidden a deadly monster to be used by his eventual heir to rid the school of all such Mud Bloods. It becomes clear, as Harry’s second year goes on, that the chamber has been opened by somebody and that the beast is being released to menace the school. Harry and his friends must discover what the beast is, where the chamber of secrets is hidden and who has opened it before somebody is killed and the school is shut down.

The best thing in this entire movie, however, is Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, the self obsessed new defense against the dark arts professor. One of the great strengths of this series is the amazing talent that the franchise attracts. When I first heard about him being cast I couldn’t quite picture it, but I need not have worried. Branagh wonderfully captures Lockhart’s smarm and narcissism.

As with the first movie this film is full of beautiful production design that brings the world of Harry Potter to life. I love seeing the Weasley home particularly with its run down but pleasant feel. It’s a pity that they don’t show Harry de-gnoming the garden, but as with the first movie Chris Columbus has made an effort to film the book as faithfully as possible so its understandable that some scenes must be missing.

I really thought I’d have more to say here. As with the first movie this one does a nice job of bringing the adventures of Harry Potter to the screen but it doesn’t really so much adapt the book as simply attempt to film it. The distinction between these different approaches becomes apparent when you view tomorrow’s movie, which marks a real turning point for the franchise.

July 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 511 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – July 24th, 2011

Ahh, it is time for Potter week! This is something we’d been puzzling over a bit, actually, because there isn’t a single Harry Potter movie under two hours long and on nights when I work until 9 p.m. that’s just not the best of ideas. We try to keep our 9 p.m. nights to hour and a half movies or close to it. With seven Potter movies on DVD and all of them at or above two hours and twenty minutes long, well, when were we going to watch them? We didn’t want to break them up, so we had to find a week when I wasn’t working. Fortunately, I’m on vacation for the next two weeks! Next week is Shark Week, and we have Plans for that. But before we get to the sharks, we’ve got some wizards to watch.

We begin at the beginning with the start of Harry’s story. And I have to say, I am fond of the Potter books. I have a fondness for them that goes beyond being a librarian who loves seeing kids get excited about reading. But let’s start there. The last of the Potter movies came out not long ago and do you know how many Harry Potter books we had left on our shelves as of my last day of work before this vacation? None. Not a single copy of any of the seven main books in the series. Tales of Beedle the Bard? Gone. The Quidditch and Fantastical Beasts books Rowling put out for charity? Wiped out. The books are gone and the movies are gone and this is years and years after the book series ended. There is something amazingly compelling about the world of Harry Potter and it has persisted in amazing ways.

Personally, I didn’t get into the books until I was out of college. A few of my friends had read them and claimed they were loads of fun, but it took me a while to get to them. It was almost an overhype situation, but I dealt with it by avoiding the entire thing until one day at a book store when we grabbed all of the currently released books and I whipped through them in record time. I never got much into the fandom, which seemed huge and intimidating. It still is. But I highly recommend reading How Harry Potter Became The Boy Who Lived Forever by Lev Grossman for a fascinating little piece on the phenomenon of fandom, specifically Harry Potter. I think what makes these stories so easy for people to climb into and want to stay in for so long is that what Rowling did so well was worldbuilding. I can name flaw after flaw in the plotting and storytelling. To be honest, by mid-book 5 I wasn’t too pleased with a lot of what was going on and I’m still in denial about some events in the last book. But the world itself is amazingly well drawn. And what this movie does so well is to take that world and put it on screen.

There is a richness to the world on display in this movie. Hogwarts School has been around for over a thousand years and the Wizarding world that young Harry Potter finds himself a part of has been around for even longer. And with the details put into the locations, such as the school and the magical shopping district of Diagon Alley, it truly feels as though they’ve been there forever. Andy and I had a chance to see a traveling exhibit of costumes and props from the movies a little while back and the detail on everything – from posters and signs on the Gryffindor common room notice board to toys and games, all things you never see close up in the movies – was amazing. And it shows in the movie here. It’s a brilliantly rich way to introduce the world and draw viewers into the story.

Not that the story itself isn’t compelling. It follows in the grand tradition of many stories where children find they can do magic. Harry Potter, orphaned as a baby and left with his odious aunt, uncle and cousin, finds out that he’s been accepted to a school for student witches and wizards. Once at school he meets new friends (Ron and Hermione), makes a few enemies (Draco and Professor Snape) and gets himself in a whole mess of trouble while also managing to have a wonderful time at his amazing new school where the staircases move and the paintings talk and there are ghosts floating around the great hall. Harry finds out that his parents were killed by an evil wizard named Voldemort and that he somehow managed to deflect Voldemort’s spell (as a baby), killing him and leaving Harry with a lightning bold shaped scar on his forehead. He’s been famous his whole life without knowing it.

There are loads more details but the important part for the story is that Voldemort didn’t really die and he’s trying to regain a corporeal form and Harry and his friends are the only ones who can stop him. Now, leaving aside the ridiculousness of Headmaster Dumbledore leaving the school when he surely knew damn well that rotten things were afoot, and three first year students getting through all of the tests and traps set up by the school’s professors to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone (which Voldemort needs), things go fairly well. The plot here isn’t the movie’s fault because, you see, the movie isn’t trying to be an adaptation of the book. It’s trying to put the book on screen, page by page, line by line. And in that it succeeds admirably.

Part of what makes the movie a success is the detailed sets and set dressing I already mentioned. And part of it is the casting, which is nothing short of amazing. I love every single casting decision made for this movie. Yes, even the Weasley twins who ended up lanky instead of stocky. It all makes the world thoroughly convincing, which helps shore up the story’s shortcomings. And really, I’d already forgiven the shortcomings in the book because it’s just plain fun to read. It doesn’t have to be great cinema in order to be entertaining because the story is fun and the sort of thing that makes every ten year old who reads it wait anxiously for their eleventh birthday even if they know that no owl will be arriving with a letter from Hogwarts. It’s not the story that’s the point for me. It’s the world. And this movie introduces the world and the people in it so magnificently that I find it very difficult to fault it for anything.

July 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

July 24, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

We’ve wanted to review all of our Harry Potter movies for come time now, but there’s a problem: they’re too long. Under normal circumstances Amanda gets out of work at nine PM two nights a week, which doesn’t leave us much time to watch long movies on those nights. There isn’t one of these films that is under two hours long, and most of them are considerably longer, which made it nearly impossible for us to review them all in a series as they should be watched. This week, however, Amanda is on vacation. So Potter it is. Seven Harry Potter movies in seven days (and we’ll probably go see the last one in theaters when we’re done.)

Up until this movie came out in theaters I did a pretty good job of avoiding Harry Potter. I had heard of the books of course, but as often happens with things that are insanely popular I found myself disinclined to get caught up in the fervor. I didn’t read any of the books until well after the third one had come out. My recollection is that, once I finally did pick them up, I couldn’t put them down. I think I got the first one through a book club I was a member of, and when I was done reading it Amanda and I went into town and bought the other two and read all three of them in a single weekend. It’s not surprising that I ended up loving the books – they’re exactly the kind of book that I always enjoyed as a child. Tales of magic and adventure just around the corner from our humdrum lives.

The first book is not the best in the series. It’s very tentative and Jo hasn’t really found her voice yet. I’ve often said that the opening chapters with Harry and the Dursleys reminds me very much of Roal Dahl in tone with the progressively more outlandish attempts that Harry’s uncle makes to escape from the letters. The mystery at the heart of the book which the intrepid trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione find themselves investigating – that of the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) stone – is not as well constructed and the world doesn’t have as epic a feel as in later books. But that’s not really the appeal of the book to me. The first book is all about introducing the characters and the world of Harry Potter.

The movie is very much the same. It’s not the best in the series. It spends so much time being meticulously faithful to the source material that it doesn’t work perfectly as a film. It feels as though it is attempting to get every word on every page into a single movie, and that although much of the book is full of fantastic imagery the genre of film doesn’t necessarily work in the same way that a book does. A good example is the text around the edge of the mirror of Erised. Now when reading the book it’s a simple matter to figure out for yourself what that text says, and therefore what the mirror does. On film it’s only there for a couple seconds as the camera pans across it, so there’s no chance for the same joy of discovery. Of course superfans will point out that Norbert’s part in the film is very much curtailed and Peeves is missing entirely, but you take my point – just putting everything that’s in the book up on the screen isn’t going to necessarily make a great movie.

I would argue that this is not a great movie. What it is, however, is a glimpse into a great world. A couple years ago Amanda and I went to a traveling museum exhibit that held a wealth of costumes and pieces of set dressing from the movies, and it was astonishing the level of detail that went into these pieces. Practically everything in the wizarding world from the wands and tomes to the clothes and toys was hand crafted for the screen with a common goal: to bring the world of the books to life. My favorite piece on exhibit was a quidditch board game complete with tiny figurines to represent the players and a box that resembles a quidditch pitch. You don’t actually see it in the movie – it’s just something in Ron and Harry’s room at Hogwarts – but these grea t pieces of set dressing fill every frame of the movie, making Hogwarts a real place for the first time.

The casting too is brilliant. Robbie Coltrane IS Hagrid. Nobody but Alan Rickman could have done as well as Severus Snape. All the ancillary characters from the Weasleys to Seamus, Neville to Oliver, Lee to Dean are perfectly cast. And of course there are the core trio of Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson. Sure Hermione doesn’t have her signature buck teeth (which she magicked away during book four) but otherwise these are the characters exactly as they are described on the page, and it’s kind of magical just to see them come to life like this.

This movie is not just a movie. That’s the key to understanding it. It’s part of a massive media empire that reaches from books to games to toys and figures and candy. Amanda an I, for example, have a very large collection of the WotC Harry Potter trading card game cards. (We pull them out every once in a while to build and try out new decks. It’s sad that the cards have all been out of print for several years now.) There’s even a theme park now, which some day I would very much like to attend. The movies themselves are an incredible accomplishment – filmed almost non-stop over the course of ten years. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see anything on this scale ever again.

So what if this movie isn’t perfect? So what if it’s too long and too full of itself? So what if the confrontation at the end between Harry Potter and Voldemort makes no sense? That’s not important. This is Harry F**ing Potter!

July 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 510 – Inglorious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds – July 23rd, 2011

We went to see the new Captain America movie yesterday afternoon and after we got home we looked through our movie list for something suitable. Obviously we’d already watched the 1990 Cap movie and I wanted something long. We’ve got a fair number of movies over two hours that we just never feel up to when we get home from work on week days. This one popped out at me, what with it being set during World War II, much like the new Cap movie. Except this one is decidedly less superheroic and more incredibly obviously Tarantino. Granted, since it is Tarantino, there are some comic-y aspects. But that’s the least of its issues.

Back when this movie came out I remember reading a review of it that I found fascinating. All of the marketing for the movie played up Brad Pitt’s role and showcased the whole “killin’ Nazis!” aspect as if the Basterds were the point of the movie. As if it was two and a half hours of a squad of American soldiers kicking Nazi ass in the woods. And there is a bit of that, yes, and the Basterds are in a good deal of the movie. But what the movie actually is, is a tale of righteous revenge. And we all should know by now how I feel about righteous revenge. It’s a not uncommon theme for Tarantino, so I wasn’t at all surprised to see it as a theme here. But I was surprised that the plot that has the most righteous revenge was barely a hint in the marketing. It’s the heart and core of the movie and the Basterds almost fuck it up.

Really, this movie feels incredibly disjointed. It’s presented in chapters, for one, which immediately makes it episodic. And it has two focal storylines that eventually come together, but not until well into the movie. First there’s Shoshanna’s story. Only after we watch a Nazi officer with the nickname “the Jew Hunter” have her family killed while they hide under the floorboards of a neighbor’s house – a scene that takes a good long time – do we get introduced to the Basterds in the next chapter. Now, while the Basterds are far more what I expect from Tarantino, there is a certain Tarantino quality to the beginning of Shoshanna’s story, such as the switch to English from French based on a fairly flimsy excuse. It just struck me as so convenient and ridiculous and tongue-in-cheek in a thoroughly bizarre way. So we meet Shoshanna and we meet Col. Landa (the Nazi officer who killed her family) and then we’re whisked away to meet the Basterds.

Now, the Basterds are thoroughly Tarantino. A squad of Jewish-American soldiers who hunt Nazis and scalp them? Yeah, that’s Tarantino. And to an extent the Basterds are an example of righteous vengeance on their own. At least two of them were originally from Germany and have returned as American soldiers. The whole idea of this squad and their nicknames – shown to us as comic-book style titles for the couple we get backgrounds for – is exactly what I expected when I heard Tarantino was doing a World War II movie. They’re a team of bad-asses who do bad-ass shit. They’re over the top and they’re apparently unstoppable and they scare the crap out of the Nazis and infuriate Hitler by their very existence. And that’s all well and good, and the ads would have you believe that the movie is entirely made up of this team of bad-asses doing said bad-ass shit. The thing is, it’s not. There’s a single scene of them being bad-asses and that’s really it for the squad as a whole. Individuals from the group get to do stuff later on, but what surprised me about the movie is how it treats the Basterds.

The thing is, the heart of the movie is, as I said, Shoshanna’s story. We meet up with her later on, a few years after the massacre of her family. She’s moved to Paris and somehow obtained a cinema. And she has apparently been living her life quietly until now. Until a young German soldier approaches her and hands her the perfect means to an end she likely never thought she could get. He has a crush on her, you see. And he’s a war hero with a film made about him. And combine those two and you have a gala premier for the film, hosted at Shoshanna’s cinema, with the entire Nazi high command – Hitler included – invited. Of course she will want to do something with this situation. And in any other movie, by any other director, this would have been the A plot. The marketed plot. The story of a woman who has lost everything and who has a chance to do what the entire Allied forces tried and failed to do throughout the war. For me, this is the A plot. Shoshanna, in hiding as Emmanuelle, is a wonderful figure, carefully putting into place everything she needs and sacrificing what she has not just for revenge, but for the good of all the people Hitler has yet to kill. But this is Tarantino. And we have to deal with his Basterds.

It becomes apparent when the British army appears on screen, planning an operation meant to do pretty much precisely what Shoshanna is planning but with less intelligence about the location and the people and more fiddly details, that things might well go wrong. Shoshanna has things well in hand, with a store room full of highly flammable film stock and every reason to be present in the cinema and the knowledge of how to keep everyone inside long enough to kill them. But the Brits have come up with a plan to infiltrate the premier with one of their men and a couple of others along with a double agent from Germany, plant some bombs and blow the place up themselves. Really, given the number of obstacles in their way, it seems destined to fail. And after a rather tense scene in a bar, where the three intended infiltrators meet up with an SS officer and we end up with a thoroughly Tarantino Mexican standoff, it’s clear that the Basterds are way out of their element.

Things only get worse at the premier, with Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine speaking Italian with a ridiculous Tennessee accent. The tension here for me wasn’t so much about Shoshanna against the Nazis or the Basterds against the Nazis. It was about whether the Basterds would fuck everything up so badly that someone would try to leave the theater early, alerting everyone that they’d been locked in before Shoshanna or her lover, Marcel, had a chance to light the place up. Every line they say, every move they make, every action, every look, it’s all nervewracking because they are so not spies. They’re bludgeons, not rapiers. They’re not trained to go in and do espionage work. I struggle to even begin to understand why they’d even be the ones called in to help with this. Couldn’t someone better be found? I mean, look at Operation Mincemeat! That’s a real operation carried off during World War II. And it worked. And here I’m expected to believe that no one better could be found for this mission.

It’s such a strange way of marrying these two plots. The Basterds are a great team of bogeymen for the Nazis and they’re clearly very good at what they do. But they come very close to ruining everything Shoshanna had set up. And they do end up keeping her from killing off the man who killed her family. If they’d stayed out of it all then Landa would have been in that cinema, not off making deals with the Americans to get himself out of the war. And Landa himself is an odd character, embracing his title early on, then claiming to dislike it later. Who on Earth is he? What is his motivation? I could never quite see it, possibly because he is a different character depending on which plotline he’s taking part in at the time. It simply feels as though Tarantino had two ideas for a World War II movie, both involving over-the-top revenge that never actually happened but don’t you wish it did, but couldn’t quite decide between them and decided to stick them together. I can’t fault the writing in each individual scene. The bit in the bar is amazingly tense and the writing is superb from the beginning of the scene to the end. But in the overall context of the whole movie it’s far messier. The parts are good, but they don’t necessarily make a good whole. It’s all very strange. I wish I could like it more. Maybe if it had been two separate movies I would have.

July 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inglourious Basterds

July 23, 2011

Inglourious Basterds

After watching the new Captain America movie Amanda and I decided we’d like to continue the theme of fantasy films involving Americans defeating Nazis. This movie came to mind because that is exactly what this film is all about. It may appear to be more of a historical action/drama and less of a superhero film than Captain America, but the truth is that Basterds is every bit as fantastic as any comic book movie. It just hides it better. I recall when we watched Quentin’s half of the Grindhous movie – Deathproof – that I described it as a movie that spent a lot of time denigrating and depicting violence done to women, which made both myself and my wife very uncomfortable. This movie, on the other hand, spends a lot of time denigrating and depicting violence done to Nazis, which is something it’s much easier to get behind.

Amanda and I discussed this movie a little before we began our reviews and we agreed that it is somewhat strangely divided within itself. There are actually two main plot lines here that somewhat intersect in the conclusion but which have little do do with each other. One plot is about Shosanna, the last survivor of a Jewish family that has been wiped out by Nazis in occupied France and her plan for vengeance. The other plot is about a group of Jewish American terrorists behind enemy lines bent on causing fear and confusion in the German ranks. In the end, as the climax approaches, it becomes more and more apparent that the little terrorist squad, the Basterds, are the biggest impediment in Shosanna’s competent and well laid plans.

In every way this is clearly a Quentin Tarantino movie. It is full of long scenes that are simply people talking to each-other. Scenes filled with menace and tension where people attempt to appear as though they are civil and friendly. It also is filled with tonal references to the kinds of movie Tarantino enjoys, especially spaghetti westerns. There are several familiar bits of Ennio Morricone music (some of which Tarantino used in Kill Bill as well) in the sound track for example. Indeed the whole film has a sort of reverence for cinema and films, another Tarantino hallmark.

The movie has a very episodic nature to itself, being divided into distinct chapters. I think that contributes to the feeling that this is two different movies doing war with each other. We get powerful, intense scenes such as the prologue (which is fully twenty minutes long) which introduces us to the devilishly intelligent and ever so pleasant “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa. He has been tasked with finding and eliminating any Jews who are hiding in France after the start of the German occupation, and he does so with a completely ruthless efficiency. I’m glad the movie starts out with him because he is the only character in common between the two halves of the film, and because the absolutely stunning performance delivered by Christoph Waltz is the best thing in the whole movie.

After this scene we are introduced to the Inglourious Basterds themselves. They are led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt with a heavy southern drawl, and they are a kind of gruesome comic relief and release valve for all the tension created by the scenes with Landa in them. This movie works in kind of waves – building up a great head of tension, showing us Nazis being heartless and cruel – then releasing that tension by having the Bastards kill some Nazis in the most brutal ways possible. It’s an odd sort of rhythm.

Meanwhile, in the Shosanna plot, she has escaped from Landa and hidden herself in Paris, where she now manages a cinema. A young Nazi sniper, who has just starred in a movie based on his exploits, falls for her and thinks he can win her with their shared love for movies. He convinces Joseph Gobbels, the director of the movie based on him and real life historical figure and Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich, to premier the new film at Shosanna’s theater.

Here Melanie Laurent displays some amazing acting of her own as the hunted and desperate Shosanna. She encounters the heartless bastard who gunned down her family (he offers her strudel) and meets Gobbels. Ultimately she concocts a plan: she will burn down her theater on the night of the premier, killing every high ranking Nazi officer in attendance. Unfortunately for her, the allies have come up with the same plan, and the team they choose to carry it out are the Basterds. Now the Basterds may be great at killing Nazis and sewing fear, but they are not very good undercover operatives. They are, ultimately, the unknown factor that could spoil everything.

Another noteworthy thing about the movie is its multi-lingual nature. It involves dialog in French, German, English and Italian (all of which languages apparently the character of Hans Landa is fluent in.) It’s not often that you see a movie, even a World War II drama, that shows so many people speaking in their native tongue. Especially in a Hollywood picture.

In spite of its uneven pacing and conflicting plots I find that I really do enjoy this movie. Because it has some amazing performances in it. Because it does a great job of building up tension and then using that tension to drive the bloody vengeance that is the key to the film. And because it is every bit as much an escapist fantasy film as Captain America – not terribly concerned with historical accuracy but delivering a thrill that a strictly accurate portrayal couldn’t serve up.

July 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 509 – Newsies

Newsies – July 22nd, 2011

Several years back, when Christian Bale was announced as the new Batman, I remember being immediately excited. I stated at the time that I thought he was an excellent choice and I was looking forward to seeing him in the role. And, at the time, Andy looked at me and wondered where he should know Christian Bale from. My incredulous reply was “NEWSIES!” Which didn’t really help him, because he had never seen it. I, on the other hand, had it memorized and had entertained a brief early teen crush on Bale based solely on his performance in it. I stand by my 12 year old self on this one. Bale was a cutie even at 17/18 and he dances in this!

Given my antipathy towards both Disney and musicals, one might wonder just how in hell I came to watch this movie so many times that I know it by heart. One would have to know my family’s history with cable for that. We didn’t have cable when I was younger. Most of my friends and classmates did, but we didn’t. For the most part, while I knew that in theory there were many things to watch that I was missing, I was content with what we had on broadcast television. And then my family spent two weeks renting a house on Cape Cod one summer. And this house had cable. And on A&E, for two hours every evening – just at the right time for dinner – The Avengers was on. Two hours of Steed and Emma or Steed and Tara(raboomdiay) that we hadn’t seen in ages because no broadcast channels were airing the show and the episodes we could buy on tape were limited. We lasted about four days when we got home. The cable guy was called in before the week was out. My mother had him lock out MTV and VH1 and subscribed to Disney as a “wholesome” channel for myself and my brother. Of course, she never changed the default code on the remote so I unlocked MTV whenever I was home on my own, but I did watch the Disney channel every so often as well. And they played this movie over and over and over and over and over.

Eventually I taped it off tv so I could watch it whenever. Inexplicably my brother also enjoyed it enough not to complain when I put it in. We’d sit and watch it and I’d make jokes about it (I was a born riffer) and make him laugh and somewhere along the line I memorized every line, every song, every stage direction. Everything. It was hard-pressed not to sing along with it watching it now, but I thought Andy would likely look at me funny. I’m sure he was laughing at me when I couldn’t help but mouth the words. Really, I should have been watching this with a couple of friends from college who love it like I do, so we’d have outnumbered him and been able to sing along. I mentioned on facebook that I was watching it and immediately one friend posted “I’M DA KING OF NEW YAWWWK” and we discussed the upcoming stage musical opening in September (why yes, I will be going). So what I’m saying here is that this movie is full of nostalgia for me.

Oh, it’s not perfect. I have to wonder what the impetus was for this movie, to be honest. It’s the story of the Newsies strike in 1899, which was a real thing that happened and was part of the whole labor reform movement in the US. And I find early labor reform really fascinating. So I’m all for a story about children organizing a strike to demand fair treatment. But what an odd choice for Disney to make a movie about. For children. I mean, it’s about kids, but it’s about a period in US history that’s rarely touched on. I mean, who covers the Spanish American War and its domestic consequences in depth at the age at which this movie is targeted? The late 1800s and early 1900s aren’t really a time period that gets a lot of kids movies made about it. Apparently it was originally conceived as a drama without musical numbers. And yet here we are, watching Christian Bale and David Moscow leap and kick and tap their way through Seize the Day, King of New York and several others. It’s a truly bizarre combination that to this day I can’t quite wrap my head around. No wonder it was a theatrical flop.

Despite all that, however, there is something about this movie that I find irresistible. I’m not sure what it is, specifically, that draws me to it because if all I wanted was to see Bale dancing I could just watch clips of this movie set to songs by Lady Gaga (yes, this is a thing, and it is wonderful) but that’s just not as satisfying. I do like the story, which follows Bale as Jack “Cowboy” Kelly and new friend David Jacobs (played by David Moscow) as they urge their fellow newspaper-selling peers to strike in protest of a price increase they can’t pass on to their customers. Jack’s an orphan with a history he’d like to forget about, sings about going to Santa Fe and is generally considered the best of the best by his peers (except the kids from Brooklyn, who have their own leader) where David gets into newspaper selling at the beginning of the movie to help out his family while his father is recovering from a work injury. With David’s smarts and Jack’s charisma and connections they manage to rally all the newsies in the city.

Of course the movie needs a villain and we get two good figures: There’s Joseph Pulitzer, played by Robert Duvall – the man who, in the movie, introduced the price hike that spurs the strike. And there’s Warden Snyder, who runs a juvenile detention hall where he stiffs the kids their meals and pockets the money that should be spent on their care. Snyder is after Jack since Jack escaped from the hall several years back. He goes to Pulitzer and identifies Jack as an escaped criminal, giving the city cause to send in the police to break up the strike. Of course you know that the newsies will prevail here. Regardless of any actual historical events this movie wouldn’t be getting a negative ending. It’s certainly going to be triumphant and involve singing and dancing because that’s how it works. But before it does there are threats and betrayals and people get beaten up and the reporter who’s been helping the newsies gets reassigned and just when you think it’s all going wrong the newsies print their own newspaper and distribute it to all the working kids in New York. Who are, of course, literate.

Not that I’m complaining about widespread literacy! But I highly suspect that this movie is embroidering the truth just a bit in terms of how many dock workers and laundry girls could read. One would expect the newsies to, but not necessarily everyone else. Still, it makes for a good crowd and a good feeling at the end, seeing all these child laborers standing up for their rights. This isn’t a movie that’s trying for verisimilitude. It’s trying to give a little bit of a history lesson, dressed up with song and dance. And some cute male leads. The acting isn’t fantastic and the script is somewhat predictable. But the songs are catchy (I’ve had King of New York in my head since watching it) and the dancing is fun to watch and really, it is a time period and subject I’m interested in. I still think it was an odd choice for Disney to make a movie for but it’s become a favorite of mine. And judging by the response I got from every friend I mentioned it to online, I’m not alone.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Newsies

July 22, 2011

Newsies

Now here’s a movie that I probably never would have watched if it were not for our project. I know Amanda has an abiding love for the movie, but it’s not really one that I had any interest in seeing. Indeed this film has been somewhat of a running gag between us ever since Batman Begins came out. I was trying to remember where I had seen Christian Bale before and Amanda declared – as though it were obvious to any simpleton – “He’s in Newsies!” So, yeah, Christian Bale is that guy from Newsies – a movie I had never seen until we watched it for our movie-a-day project.

As with several of the movies that Amanda has introduced to our collection to balance out the fact that a very large majority of the films were purchased by myself without her input I am clearly not the target demographic for this movie. What I find unusual, however, is that Amanda fell so very much in love with this movie in the first place. Before we started this project she often said that she was not a fan of musicals, and she has never been a fan of Disney either. (We’ve both been somewhat surprised to discover just how many musicals we own, given her supposed dislike for them.) But here this film is – a Disney musical – an it’s one she’s been really looking forward to having me watch for a long time.

I fully understand exactly what the appeal of this movie was for Amanda. It’s full of cute boys dancing and being cool and she saw it for the first time when she was twelve or thirteen years old. It is, as she points out to me, a very strange film in that it is a historical drama about the newspaper boy strike of 1899 but presented as a musical full of teen heart-throb type guys for young girls. I found it even more strange to see Ann Margret – the Kitten With a Whip – as a burlesque dancer. How does that fit into this movie?

After a brief voice-over introducing us to the historical period we join the young boys who will be our heroes in a orphinarium. There’s a kid with an eye patch, a kid who fancies himself a ladies man, a kid with a crutch (called “Crutchy”) who is doing his very best Eddie Deezen impersonation, and our hero Jack ‘Cowboy’ Kelly. They are newsboys. Every day they get up at five in the morning, half an hour before they went to bed, and go out onto the streets of New York City to hawk papers for a penny a piece. They pay fifty cents for every hundred ‘papes’ they buy, so there’s the potential to make fifty cents profit per hundred – if they can sell them all. Sure their lot is not great, but it’s no “Hard Knock Life.” In fact they seem pretty happy with their lot, singing and dancing and tricking the rubes in the street into buying their papers.

Jack teams up with a couple new kids, a fellow named David and his precocious little brother, and decides to show them the ropes. (His reasoning being that David’s kid brother would be an asset to work with because of his age and David clearly has a good head on his shoulders.) No sooner have the three of them become friends, however, with Jack being invited to have dinner with David’s impoverished family and singing afterwards about how he dreams of an escape from his own lonely life, than the megalomaniacal newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer decides to increase his profits by forcing the newsies to pay 60 cents for every hundred papers instead of fifty cents. Oh no!

The newsies will not stand for this – being forced to pay an extra ten cents threatens to destroy their livelihood – so they decide to strike. All the newspaper selling underaged children of New York band together to insist that this injustice be corrected. Of course things do not go smoothly. They have to crack down on scabs attempting to sell papers in their stead and a mob of older kinds hired as strike busters. They have a lot of trouble getting the word out about their strike because of course the papers themselves don’t print stories about them. (As a sympathetic newsman points out – if it’s not in the papers it didn’t happen.) There’s friction in the ranks as they have to convince all the kids in other boroughs to join them – such as the tough slingshot wielding guys from Brooklyn. There’s a corrupt warden who is hunting for Jack because Jack has escaped from his state-sponsored refuge for wayward boys. And there’s Joseph Pulitzer ranting and raving and attempting to corrupt jack into joining his side.

As an aside – Robert Duvall’s wild-eyed and generally insane portrayal of Pulitzer is one of the stranger things in this movie. I have to wonder just what inspired him to deliver this performance. Was it an attempt to inject some levity into the primary villain? Was he trying to live up to the evil villains of the Disney animated films (who do tend to chew a little scenery?) Whatever the case, it’s very strange to have a historical figure depicted as such a raving lunatic.

Still, I suppose it makes sense. This isn’t a movie about historical accuracy. It’s a movie about scrappy kids joining together and proving that they can stand up to corrupt adults. It’s about performing big synchronized dance numbers in the streets of nineteenth century New York. It’s about Christian Bale singing with a hilarious accent and floppy hair.

The movie has an undeniable charm. I am not the target audience (being the wrong gender and about three decades too old) but I can understand why the mention of this movie makes just about every one of Amanda’s friends swoon. Who doesn’t like a story of children winning out against the unfairness foisted upon them by adults? And clearly it helps if they’re dreamy.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments