Monthly Archives: November 2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

If you don’t know about Harry Potter at this point you must be living under a stone, perhaps a Sorcerer’s stone. The little tyke with glasses and a lightning scar has become a sensation across the seas and of course a big budget movie was merely just a matter of time. The imagination of author J.K. Rowling is bustling with a complex world that has given her acclaim from children and parents all over, not to mention made her filthy rich. The movie is a meticulously faithful adaptation but this is both its strength and its weakness.

The story of Harry Potter is a long and complicated one, full of numerous funny names as well. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is an orphan living with his nasty aunt (Fiona Shaw) and uncle (Riachard Griffiths) who force Harry to live under the stairs. Harry is informed one night by a gigantic and bearded figure named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) that both Harry’s parents were magically inclined and he is to gather his own education at Hogwarts School of Magic. On his way there, after picking up supplies in a special place I have forgotten totally the name of, Harry meets and befriends the aloof Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and the Type-A studious Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Once there Harry picks up a rival in Draco Malfoy, a cold glare from Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), a good scare from a poor CGI three headed guard dog, and a mastery in the art of broomstick flying. The school sessions are a barrage of characters and minute plot points that readers will just be grinning that have been included.Through later revelations it is divulged that Harry’s parents were killed by the powerful wizard Lord Voldermort. It seems that old Voldy for whatever reason decided not to kill Harry. Thus because of this Harry has worldwide fame as the boy who lived against Voldermort. It seems as well that this evil wizard is trying to achieve immortality by using the advantages of the hidden Sorcerer’s stone. It’s up to Harry and his friends to stop this from happening.

Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) wrestled this franchise away from such directorial heavyweights like Spielberg, and it’s clear to see why he was selected. Rowling ordered the movie adaptation to be completely faithful to her book, and Columbus is a director with no remarkable visual flair or distinct vision. Everything that is occurring is so faithful to the book that it has no individual flavor or distance. It’s directing with your hands tied, which is fine for most people. With this project he seems like he is basically a go-between with Rowling and the studio suits. Basically it should be Rowling’s name for the director’s credit because she’s the one with the vision being translated.

Large portions of this film need to carried by the acting of several of its young stars and it’s quite a 120 million dollar weight. For the most part the child actors in Harry Potter deliver. Emma Watson is the standout as Hermione, with her extra energy and enthusiasm in every step and every smile simply winning over the audience in spades. The only real detraction acting wise in the entire film is, unfortunately, the star. Daniel Radcliffe plays Harry in a very stiff manor and spends most of the film looking overly subdued. After you experience more time with the other characters in the film one realizes how frightfully dull the character of Harry Potter really is. Any of the characters would be more exciting to watch than Harry. As characters go, he’s about as interesting or entertaining as stereo instructions.

Harry Potter contains an all-star all British cast for the fanciful faculty of Hogwarts. Everyone seems so meticulously cast that they were born to play these roles. Richard Harris becomes a gentle grandfatherly figure as the headmaster. Robbie Coltrane is a large and lovable figure that the audience can rely on again and again. Richard Griffiths is so over-the-top in a very entertaining light. Alan Rickman owns every scene he is in with such a snarling and full-of-life presence. He is perfect, as is most of the adult casting.

The most exciting moment of the film occurs during a match of Quidditch, which is basically like rugby in the sky. Two teams on broomsticks whiz and zoom around one another in a fierce aerial competition. At this moment Columbus can declare himself the true director. The entire sequence is done that it perks the viewer’s imagination and also provides great moments of excitement. Seeing the scene itself was a testament to the wizardry of special effects.

The length of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone clocks in around two hours and thirty minutes, which might seem like an eternity to small children if they weren’t so overly obsessed with the book series. The film is structured more like a novel than a screenplay (again with the induced restrictions), so instead of a usual three-act system it has moments that drag and moments that seem to go on endlessly (like the final near obstacle course the three kids must go through). The entire first hour or more is set-up explaining all of the characters and the world they inhabit, then they just sneak in a mention to the Sorcerer’s stone toward the end and introduce our titular story line. Hopefully, with the set-up out of the way now, the next movie will be a tad shorter.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon that is already breaking box-office records and parents’ bank accounts. The first four books have been optioned by Warner Bros. so expect to see an armada of kids dressed up in Halloween costumes around Thanksgiving for the next few years. Harry Potter is a fairly light-hearted but entertaining venture that I wouldn’t mind revisiting and reacquainting every now and then like an old friend.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

The Coen brothers dark, twisty entry to the world of film noir looks mind-blowing with its black and white lensing. And the story is great too. Billy Bob Thronton plays a barber who gives new definition to the word passive. One day a customer lets him in on an up-and-coming financial project and if Thronton were to provide some dough then surely he would rake it in. As with most film noir, the normal man is thus pulled into the web of intrigue and crime. The ball gets rolling after Thornton blackmails his wife’s tryst (James Gandolfini), who also happens to be her boss and his friend. Things get far more complicated from there and nothing seems to go right as Thornton makes one bad decision after another. The Man Who Wasn’t There is an engaging and smart drama with game bits of comedy strewn at key moments. The Coen brothers are a pair not very easily topped when it comes to excellence in films, and this latest entry is a wonderful addition to their resume.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Monster’s Inc. (2001)

Pixar are the animation titans who have been delivering first-rate pictures under the Disney banner for the last five/six years. The placement of their name is like a seal of quality, unlike the placement of the Disney name. Monsters Inc. is the latest and it’s crammed full of humorous jokes and lively imagination that can propel it forward despite the bad score by Randy Newman.

Monsters Inc. is a corporation in a monster universe that trains its workers to enter the bedrooms of sleeping children and derive scares for resources. Their monster world is powered by the screams of children and it seems times are getting tougher. Children are becoming harder to scare (blame CNN) and it seems an energy crisis is looming. The pressure is on for the big blue bear that is James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman). Sully is close to achieving the all-time scare record with the aid of his assistant Mike (Billy Crystal), a small one-eyed green guy. But their scare colleague Randall (Steve Buscemi), a bad tempered purple reptile, is nipping at Sully’s heels.

The clever twist of Monsters Inc. is that these frightful creatures, some with spikes and some as many eyes as Elizabeth Taylor ex-husbands, are as afraid of children as they are of them. Reportedly their touch is toxic and possibly fatal. A single sock getting stuck to one unfortunate monster on his return causes an entire decontamination unit to spring forward. The joke is both alarmingly timely but also a great visual gag as all the different shaped monsters fit into their suits.

One night Sully accidentally lets a small toddler enter their world. He fears what the ramifications of this outbreak might be and struggles to keep her presence under wraps with the help of Mike, but Boo (as Sully dubs her later) is more than an adorable handful. The pair get into a mess of trouble and constantly trying to keep Boo clear of contact.

John Goodman provides a great performance as the sweet and cuddly Sully. His demeanor is one that warms him to the audience. Crystal provides some good laughs and walks a very fine line of going overboard into his usual borsch belt humor. Buscemi has the menacing voice that gives Randall life. The real star is Boo, whose actual voice was provided by one of the animator’s own kids. Every coo, every laugh, every word she says is full of such glee that it’s uncontrollably cute. She’s almost an overpowering force of cuteness.

Late into the story it tries to go for something below the surface by having Sully see the consequences of his profession. His attachment to Boo is a bit far-fetched in the great speed it occurs and the groan-worthy happy ending is a miscue that could have been ripe with possibilities.

The animation of Monsters Inc. is nothing short of flawless. Something Pixar does better than any studio is fluidity of movement. At times during Shrek the characters are a tad stiff or blocky in their movements, but with ‘Monsters Inc.’ every gesture, every wavering hair on Sully, it’s all wonderfully fluid. Pixar are marvels at what they can do with computers and Monsters Inc. is another impressive chink on their already impressive belt.

The film lacks the heart of a Toy Story but doesn’t lack in imagination. The whole concept is very inventive and reconfirming of the suspicion we all had as kids. A sequence late into the film where Randall chases Sully and Mike through a vast area with thousands of doors on rails is the true highlight. This scene is awe inspiring and a head rush by the majestic care put into it and the comic payoffs it has. It’s a chase scene that’s worth following.

Monsters Inc. is funny enough and creative enough to be well worth a viewing. It lacks the subtext and human emotion of the two Toy Storys, but is still entertaining in its own right. My grandma described it as the movie “with the talking M&M.”

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Deep End (2001)

In the vast wasteland the summer has become of mediocrity and sub-mediocrity, go to your local art house. There you may very well see The Deep End, a dramatic thriller that burrows itself into the audience’s mind. The film is an absolute breath of fresh air in the stagnant summer finally winding down.

Tilda Swinton plays a normal mother living on the banks of Lake Tahoe. Her days usually consist of trying to ship her kids to school on time and handle the duties of the home in the long stretches her Naval officer husband is gone. She’s juggling responsibilities and chores when her first strike of maternal protection occurs. Her 17 year-old son is, to her great surprise, in a relationship with a sleazy man in his 30s. She discovered this when her son got into a serious car accident while this paramour was traveling with. The scene of the crash is replayed in flashbacks for Swinton as a motivational jump-start for her protection and love.

She tells the man she doesn’t want him seeing her son any longer, but of course he refuses to desist… unless the price is right. This revelation sends her son to a late night confrontation at home that ends in the accidental death of the sleaze. Mom sees her son rush back into the house in the middle of the night and decides to go out and investigate. On her stroll to her horror she finds the dead body of her son’s lover. From that moment on something in her clicks and she clumsily tries to hide the body and any evidence that could incriminate her own brood.

Just when she believes her headaches are over a dark and handsome stranger (Goran Visnjic) visits her one day. He has within his possession a videotape of her son having explicit sex with the dead lover. He threatens to turn the tape into the police and thus destroy the peace Swinton has created. The video can be hers, but she must pay him and his unseen partner the sum of $50,000.

Tilda Swinton is best known as the gender-swapping title figure in Orlando based upon Virginia’s Woolfe’s story. The Scottish actress has a wonderfully pallid face and soulful eyes that express every moment the determination and fear she wrestles with. Swinton gives a remarkable performance of pure emotion. She is a mother determined to protect her son and family at every cost, no matter the means. She is constantly in over her head but refuses to relent. Swinton’s portrayal is a woman running on maternal instinct and she herself is the very gravity that makes The Deep End as great as it is.

Goran Visnjic currently plays a Croatian doc on E.R. but has a provocative presence in this flick. He’s got the smoldering good looks and his character opens up more and more as the tale progresses to strip away pretensions layer by layer.

The Deep End is directed, written, and produced by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, with only one other film to their credit all the way back in 1993. They inject their story with great moments of character and suspense but also have a terrific visual eye to create mood. The cinematography is lush and hypnotic with certain moments of exquisite beauty. Even the music adds to the feeling of the film unlike so many other accompanying scores. Every component of ‘The Deep End’ is just clicking.

The Deep End is a luminously tight thriller with remarkable performances. They story has a few implausible moments but outweighs them with heapings of great dramatic depth. Swinton better be one of the first choice on everyone’s lips when the name of Oscar rolls about, because I doubt I’ll see a performance more elegant and wonderful as hers this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Ghost World (2001)

Thora Birch. Mmmhmm. I mean, an excellent showcase for the outsider in all of us, brilliantly tweaking our society and culture while fostering surprisingly poignant, deeply funny characters and situations as they interact with a world they barely understand and don’t wish to. And it’s got Thora Birch.

Nate’s Grade: A

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