Monthly Archives: June 2004

Torque (2004)

You want to know how bad Torque was? Until I began typing this article, I had completely forgotten I had even seen it. I suppose the film was an attempt to grab the attention and dollars of young, car-obsessed males who made The Fast and the Furious a hit. Somebody should have told that to director Joseph Kahn. A veteran of music videos, Kahn was more interested in making a collage of visually alluring shots than telling a story; not that Torque’s story would have excelled in other hands. This was a fast-forwarded video game populated with bland actors, bright colors and shiny bikes, which mean it’s only suited for moviegoers post-lobotomy.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Napoleon Dynamite was an audience smash at the 2004 Sundance film festival. Fox Searchlight jumped at the chance to distribute a film written and directed by Mormons, starring a Mormon, and set in film-friendly Idaho. MTV Films, the people behind alternating good movies (Better Luck Tomorrow, Election) and atrocious movies (Crossroads, Joe’’s Apartment, an upcoming film actually based on Avril Lavigne’’s ““Sk8r Boi”” song), came aboard and basically said, “Look, we really like the movie, and we want to help bring it to a wider, MTV-influenced audience.” And thus, Napoleon Dynamite seems to have become the summer biggest must-see film for sk8r bois and sk8r grrrls nationwide.

Napoleon Dynamite (John Heder) is an Idaho teen that marches to the beat of his own drum. He lives with his Dune Buggy riding grandmother and 31-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who surfs the Web talking to women. When their grandma gets injured, Uncle Rico (John Gries), stuck in the 80s in fashion and mind, takes up shop in the Dynamite home and coerces Kip to hustle money from neighbors. Meanwhile, Napoleon befriends Deb (Tina Majorino), an otherwise normal girl with a sideways ponytail, and Pedro (Efren Ramirez, who was actually in Kazaam!), the new kid at school. Together, they try and get Pedro elected to class president, but standing in their way is the mighty shadow of Summer (Haylie Duff), the most popular girl in school. Oh yeah, there’’s also a llama.

First time director, Jared Hess, and first time cinematographer, Munn Powell, orchestrate shots very statically, with little, simple camera movements and many centered angles. The style is reminiscent of the films of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse), or, more precisely, Wes Anderson. This shooting technique makes the characters stand out even more, almost popping out at you behind flat backgrounds like some Magic Eye picture. Hess easily communicates the tedium of Idaho with his direction. Can anyone name any other film that takes place entirely in Idaho? (Please note that My Own Private Idaho takes place in Portland and Seattle, mostly).

The star of the show is, of course, Heder. His wickedly funny deadpan delivery helps to create a truly memorable character. He achieves a geek Zen and, judging from the incredible amount of kids under-14 that appeared both times I saw this film, is most likely the greatest film realization of a dork. It’s grand dork cinema, a genre long ignored after the collapse of the mighty Revenge of the Nerds franchise. So while Napoleon isn’’t exactly relatable (llamas, Dune Buggy grannies and all), the right audience will see reflections of themselves. You’’ll be quoting from Napoleon all summer.

Napoleon Dynamite is going to be an acquired taste. It’s filled to the brim with stone-faced absurdities and doesn’’t let up. If you’’re not pulled in with the bizarre antics of bizarre characters in the first 10 minutes, then you may as well leave because otherwise it will feel like the film is wearing you down with its “indie weirdness.” Napoleon Dynamite seems to skirt the sublimely skewed world of Wes Anderson, but Napoleon lacks the deep humanity of Anderson’s films. What the audience is left with is a sugary, sticky icing but little substance beneath, and, depending on your sweet tooth, it’’ll either be overpowering and a colossal disappointment or it’’ll taste just right for the occasion. Alright, I’’m done with baking analogies for the year.

Some will find a certain condescension against the characters. Napoleon Dynamite doesn’’t outright look down upon its characters, but it does give them enough room to paint themselves fools. Uncle Rico is really the film’s antagonist, yet he’s too buffoonish to be threatening. It’’s a fine line for a film to have condescension toward its characters, but Napoleon Dynamite ultimately leaves with a bemused appreciation for its characters. The film presents the “good” characters as unusual but lovable and ready for growth (Kip, Pedro, and of course Napoleon), but the “bad” characters (Summer, Uncle Rico) aren’’t demonized. In essence, Napoleon Dynamite is the best example of a film that makes an audience laugh at and with its characters simultaneously.

Napoleon Dynamite is assuredly an odd duck. Some will cheer; others will want to head out the door after a few minutes. It’’s hard to say which reaction an individual will have. If you have a geek-enriched history populated with unicorns, Dungeons and Dragons, and/or social ostracism, then you may be more inclined to admire Napoleon Dynamite. I laughed out loud throughout the film and found it to be an enjoyable diversion, and I went the whole review without one Jimmy Walker reference.

Nate’s Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

The first two film adaptations were huge hits, but were derided by some as being too loyal to the books that it stifled the creativity. Now, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is out and it’s the first film to deviate from the books. How will Potter nation take the news?

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering his third year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is also getting older, getting angrier, and learning more and more about his parents. He’s on alert that the murderer, Sirius Black (played the fabulous Gary Oldman), has escaped from Azkaban prison and is out to get Harry. Black had a hand in the deaths of Harry’s parents, and now it seems he’s looking to finish what he started as a follower of Lord Voldemort. Harry relies on his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and a kindly new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher named Lupin (David Thewlis) to conquer his fears, his burgeoning hormones, and to face Black when the time comes.

The best decision the Harry Potter producers made for this chapter of the series was in getting a new director. Alfonso Cuaron finally infuses the Potter series with a sense of visual life. Instead of Chris Columbus’’ stubborn admiration of his fake opulent world, Cuaron keeps things fluid with a constantly roving camera and long takes. For the first time in the series, you can argue that this Harry Potter film looks and feels like its own actual movie. Gone is Columbus’ annoying penchant for displaying everything in close-ups. The film also benefits from some new realistic exteriors and dressed-down attire, ditching the school uniforms. There’s also a new cinematographer, so instead of Columbus’ dull amber glow, the series takes a gratifying turn toward the menacing, with an emphasis on dreary blacks and silvers.

The best improvement of all, however, was in getting away from the apparent slavish loyalty to the books. The third book is the longest of the three but the third film is the shortest; 15 minutes shorter than Sorcerer’’s Stone, and 25 minutes shorter than Chamber of Secrets. Thank God. At the rate they were going I thought the next book, Goblet of Fire (700-some pages), was going to be like 9 hours.

So, under Cuaron’’s guidance, Prisoner of Azkaban eschews the unnecessary plot elements and details fans will grumble over but moviegoers couldn’t care less over (Quidditch?). Cuaron’’s film may be heavy with exposition, but it never talks down to its audience. The result is a movie trying to be a movie and not trying to cram in as many details of the world as possible so fans won’t have their feathers ruffled.

The young actors of Hogwarts have definitely been struck by puberty, and it has done their acting a world of good. Radcliffe will never be an exceptional actor but here he presents new and interesting dimensions to Harry demonstrating his arrogance and tempestuous anger. Tom Felton, who plays the snarky blonde-haired Draco Malfoy, appears to be maturing into a ganglier Macaulay Culkin. The one actor that truly seems to have a bright future, though, is Emma Watson. You cannot help but love her whenever she’s on screen and she seems to be developing into a fine actress.

The most notable addition to the adult staff in the film is Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Hogwarts’ headmaster, Dumbledore. Gambon turns the character from a kind-hearted grandfather type to more of an aging hippie – but it works. Emma Thomson also appears as some sort of psychic professor, teaching students to read tea leaves; however, her entire role seems superfluous unless it impacts future installments (I have not read a single book). Once again, Alan Rickman rules all and needs to get more time in these movies. I don’t know how, but it needs to happen. Thewlis is the most welcomed addition in his pivotal role as Professor Lupin and delivers some of the more dramatic scenes of the film with radiance and ease. He creates a lovely father-son relationship with Harry that supplies Azkaban with a nice sense of compassion. Oldman is similarly great but unfortunately he shows up so late into the film that he seems terribly underused. There is a scene late into the film, where Thewlis, Oldman, Rickman, and the great character actor Timothy Spall share a scene. I never thought it would be a children’’s fantasy series that would finally unite all these talented British stage actors but I’m thankful for it nonetheless.

Prisoner of Azkaban is the darkest tale yet, and Harry Potter works best when things get scary. The nightmarish element design creates a wonderful sense of dread, and Cuaron deftly handles his young characters dealing with rage and death and, scariest of all, budding hormones. There’s even a sly nod to Cuaron’’s steamy coming-of-age film, Y Tu Mama Tambien (it involves a three-way hug between our trio of kids).

he effects of the film are beautiful and greatly add to the entertainment value of the film. The Dementors, cloaked flying guards of Azkaban prison, are terrifying to look at, and their leitmotif of chilling the air when they are near makes for some great visuals and ominous moments. I got actual goosebumps the first time they arrived on-screen, and then when I saw this film a second time, fully knowing the story, my skin still crawled when they arrived. Perhaps the greatest addition to Harry Potter‘s special effects bestiary is the Hippogriff, which resembles a combination between an eagle and a horse. It is a gorgeous creation and worlds better looking than the three-headed dog from the original film. It also provides one of the more breath-taking moments of the film, when Harry goes soaring across a lake on the back of the Hippogriff.

Having said all this, yes Prisoner of Azkaban is the most exciting and visually alluring film of the series, also its darkest, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the central storyline. Most people will love it, especially fans of the books, but after walking out of the theater I could not help but wonder if the film had a climax at all? It really kind of didn’t. There was no sense of real story momentum and the middle had some definite moments of drag. The last act of Prisoner of Azkaban is exactly like Back to the Future Part 2: time-travel, correcting the future, not running into your past selves. This is not a good comparison. So while the characters are getting more interesting as they get older, this plot doesn’t really hold up very well. It almost feels like a preface of whatever events will come in the fourth film.

Prisoner of Azkaban is an interesting watch. I am told it deviates the most from the book and it manages to generate a considerably darker and scarier atmosphere than its predecessors. For my money, any changes are good, as films are about ADAPTATION and not copying, so dispensing with subplots and details is A-Ok with me. But how will the die-hards react? I’m sure you’ll hear plenty of grumbling all over, but Cuaron has injected needed life into this series and presented an idea of what it can grow to be. So, while I think Prisoner of Azkaban has a superior visual sense, pacing, and adaptation; I also feel the story may be the weakest we have been told. I can only imagine what the outcry will be among the fan base when Goblet of Fire is released November 2005 as one film.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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