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Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-poster-1Before I begin my review, I feel the need to come to the defense of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious). Despite what Internet message boards and detractors may have you believe, it was never the man’s intention to insert his name into the title of his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Warner Brothers claimed copyright ownership over the title of The Butler. The MPAA mediates title discrepancies in cases where one movie could clearly be confused for another. However, Warner Brothers’ claims a 1915 silent short film in their vault by the same name. Is anyone in the year 2013 really going to pay a ticket for the Butler and reasonably expect a silent short that’s almost 100 years old? Rather than pay a financial settlement, The Weinstein Company decided to alter the original title, adding the director’s name. This isn’t The Butler. Now it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. So before I get into the thick of my review, I’d like to absolve Daniels of Tyler Perry-levels of hubris. You’ll excuse me for just referring to it as The Butler throughout the duration of this review, not to be confused with a 1915 short film.

From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, one man served them all and his name is Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). He was a White House butler for over 30 years, even attending a state dinner at the behest of Nancy Reagan. Cecil grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation and moved up the ranks in high-class service. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), wishes her husband would worry more about his own home than the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), have very different views of their father. Louis feels like dear old dad is too close to the men of power, and Louis is going to do what he can on the frontlines of change.

105174_galI’m sure everyone had good intentions with this movie, but I walked away with the overwhelming impression that The Butler was too heavy-handed, too corny, and too mishandled with its plot construction for it to be the effective drama all desired. I also know that my opinion is of a minority, but that has never bothered me as a critic. Let’s start with the biggest handicap the film has going, and that’s the fact that its central character, the titular butler, is too opaque for a biopic. Early on, Cecil rises through the ranks of black service workers because of his skill, and that skill is none other than “having a room feel empty with [him] inside it.” I’m not downplaying the man’s dedication, or the culture he grew up in that preferred their black workers to be silent, but here is a movie where the man’s claim to fame is that he served eight presidents but he was in the background for all that history. I wasn’t expecting Cecil to lean over and go, “Mr. President, that Voting Rights Act might be a good idea, and I’ll help ya with it.” He is just sort of there. I was expecting him to have some larger significance, especially in his own life, but here’s the kicker: by the end of the movie, you’re left with the impression that all of his years of service were for naught. Cecil comes to the realization that his son, who he has sparred with for decades, was right and he was wrong. Is this the intended point? My colleague Ben Bailey will argue this is Daniels’ subversive intent, to undermine the tenets of typical biopics, to fashion an anti-biopic. I am not as convinced.

The problem is that Cecil is a passive character, which makes him the least interesting character in his own story. He served eight presidents, yes, but what else can you say about him as presented? What greater insights into life, himself, or politics does he have during those years with seven different presidential administrations? I cannot tell. I was thoroughly astounded that Cecil, as a character, was boring. I suspect this is why screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) chose to split Cecil’s story with his son, Louis. Here is a character on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, getting chased by mobs, beaten, sprayed with firehouses. Here is an active character that wants to make a difference. He also happens to be mostly fictional.

While the film opens with the phrase “inspired by a true story” you should be wary. Upon further inspection, very little is as it happened. I think all true stories, when adapted to the confines of a two-hour film narrative, are going to have to be modified, and pure fidelity to the truth should not get in the way of telling a good story, within reason. I don’t have an issue with Louis being fictional, but it points to the larger problem with the biopic of such an opaque man. The real-life Cecil, Eugene Allen, had one son who went to Vietnam and married a former Black Panther. Strong splits the difference, supplying two sons with different paths. Because of his invention, this means Louis has the benefit of being present at a plethora of famous Civil Rights events, like the Woolworth counter sit-in, the Freedom Rider bus burning, and the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Seriously, he’s in the same motel room with MLK in Memphis. With the exception of the Woolworth sit-in, the Civil Rights events feel like minor pit stops, barely spending any time to develop. It ends up feeling like a facile Forrest Gump-like trip through the greatest hits of the Civil Rights movement.

This narrative expediency also translates to the supporting characters in The Butler. Beyond Cecil, Louis, and Gloria, there aren’t any characters that last more than one or two scenes. Cecil’s White House co-workers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games), provide amiable comic relief but little else to the narrative. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) has an affair with Gloria and then is never seen again. That affair, by the way, is also never referenced again nor does it have any further ramifications with the relationship between Cecil and Gloria. So then what was the point? There is a litany of famous faces playing real people, but they’re all in and out before you know it. The actors portraying the presidents are more an entertaining diversion than anything of real substance. Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) as Reagan gets the closest in the physical resemblance game, though I strongly doubt Reagan, as presented in the film, sat down and openly admitted he was wrong to his African-American service workers. John Cusack (The Raven) as Nixon is a hoot. The movie speeds right through the Ford and Carter administrations, so I’ll play my own game of casting (Ford: Dan Akroyd; Carter: Billy Bob Thornton). The presidents, like the clear majority of supporting players, don’t stick around long enough to leave an impression. It’s as if our prior knowledge of these famous faces is meant to serve as characterization. Beyond the immediate Gaines family, you don’t feel like you’re getting to know anyone.

105665_galThen you bring in Daniels as director and the man has not shown much of a penchant for, let’s call, subtlety. This is, after all, the same man who directed Nicole Kidman in the ways of urinating upon Zac Efron. A coherent tone has often been elusive in Daniels’ films, which veer into wild, loud, sometimes clashing melodrama. The most clashing thing in The Butler are the matching 1970s and 80s fashion that will burn your eyes. He tones down his wilder sensibilities but The Butler is an especially earnest movie; but overly earnest without earned drama usually begets a corny movie, and that’s what much of The Butler unfortunately feels like. The significance of the Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the ordinary men and women, and children, fighting for equality cannot be overstated. These were serious heroes combating serious hate. I expect a serious movie, yes, but one that isn’t so transparent about its Staid Seriousness. The Butler is very respectful to history (fictional additions aside) but too often relies on the historical context to do the heavy lifting. It also hurts when the film is so predictable. At one point, I thought to myself, “I bet Cecil’s other son gets shipped to Vietnam and probably dies.” Mere seconds after this thought, young Charlie Gaines says he’s going to Vietnam. I’ll leave it to you to discover his eventual fate.

Daniels’ true power as a director is his skill with actors. The man nurtured Mo’Nique into an Academy Award-winning actress. From top to bottom, no actor in this film delivers a bad performance, which is a real accomplishment considering its stable of speaking roles. Whitaker (Repo Men) is the anchor of the movie and he puts his all into a character that gives him little to work with. He brings a quiet strength and dignity to Cecil, able to draw you in even as he’s presented so passively and ultimately perhaps in the wrong. Winfrey hasn’t been acting onscreen since 1998’s Beloved. Gloria is an underwritten part but she does the most with it and I’d like to see more of Oprah the actress more often. Another highlight is Oyelowo (Jack Reacher) as the defiant son fighting for what he believes is right. I want to also single out former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia as Louis’ girlfriend and eventual Black Power participant, Carol. She’s got real potential as an actress and if she gets the right role she could breakout and surprise people.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (just one last time for feeling) is an earnest, emotional, but ultimately unsatisfying picture and it’s mostly because of its title figure. The figure of Cecil Gaines is not the kind of man that the entire perspective of the Civil Rights movement can be hung onto as an allegory. He’s treated as background of his own story. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight the life of a man who grew up on a cotton plantation, worked in the White House, and who lived long enough to see an African-American be president, well then tell me that story. But they don’t. I think Daniels and Strong knew the limitations of their central figure, which is why the son’s role was invented to provide a more active perspective outside the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, I really don’t know what the message is, because the one I’m left with is that Cecil Gaines realizes late in life how wrong he was, not just with his son, but his faith in the office of the presidency. I doubt the majority of filmgoers are going to walk away with this message. While well acted and with a sharp eye for period details, The Butler is earnest without having earned your emotions.

Nate’s Grade: C

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011)

While not the best film in a series spanning ten years, part two of the final chapter of Harry Potter is a solid, satisfying close that’s fittingly grandiose but also sneakily emotional at points. The plot finally gets simplified once all those silly magic items are found, and what we have is a war at the Hogwarts School of Magic between good vs. evil. The action sequences are the best in the film’s series and some very dark events take place, including the deaths of many characters, some children, though too many critical deaths occur off camera. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) faces off against Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) for the fate of the world, and after the protracted, wearisome setup of Part One, it’s a relief to say that the final film moves like it’s on fire. There’s very little downtime and a great pull of urgency to the flick. So what if Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), Harry’s best pals since the start, are completely forgotten and useless in the movie’s final hour. The focus is all on Harry and his messianic sacrifices. Alan Rickman shines again, showing a depth of emotions not available to Snape until the character’s final revelations. In fact, there needed to be more Rickman, but I can lay this same charge with every film. I wish the resolution, spanning forward 19 years, would have slowed down a bit and accept the paternal/maternal changing-of-the-guard as the emotional payoff billions of people have been waiting for. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two is a thrilling, gratifying capper to a series that, while to me was never as magical as the Potter die-hards have claimed, was, over eight movies and almost 20 hours, an enchanting franchise that stayed consistent in quality and entertainment. Here’s to you, Potter. Now maybe I can finally stop hearing people badgering me about how the books were better.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

When author J. K. Rowling dropped off her last 700-page tome in the Harry Potter series, the world went into a state of mourning, right after ravishing every page of The Deathly Hallows. There would be no more literary adventures. You can expect that same sense of longing for the studio suits over at Warner Brothers considering the Harry Potter franchise has grossed over five billion worldwide. The bounty was about to be over, especially with one last book to adapt into an eventual overly long movie. Then the suits came across a genius strategy: split the last book into two separate movies. Filmed simultaneously over a year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be released in two parts eight months apart. I understand that it’s hard to say goodbye to the boy wizard that charmed millions, and tow movies almost guarantee that nothing will be left out in the adaptation process. It also ensures that Warner Brothers will have two movies that make giant piles of money instead of one. Deathly Hallows: Part One plays its part setting up the finale, but judging from what we’re given, this series conclusion could have effortlessly been condensed to one overly long film instead of two.

Picking up shortly after the events of Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best pals, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are on the run. Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is determined to be the one to slay the boy wizard. Voldermort and his influence have taken over many facets of the magic world’s infrastructure, and they are all after Harry. Harry learned that his snake-faced nemesis has broken his soul into pieces and hidden them inside magical items known as horcruxes. Unless these horucruxes are destroyed, Voldermort will never be able to truly die. Harry and company has to hunt down those accursed horcruxes while being hounded by evil forces determined to kill them all.

For a solid hour I felt like I was watching the second best Harry Potter film; Alfonso Cuaran’s Prisoner of Azkaban still stands as the artistic highpoint. Watching the characters on the run and constantly in peril spurs your protective feelings. We’ve seen them grow up, vanquish evil and hormones, and now they seem to be in serious danger and you feel real tension. I stopped to realize how much I actually cared for these characters and how concerned I was. There is a somber sense of finality, and I enjoyed characters and events colliding back together for one big finish. It truly feels like everything is coming to a titanic close, and the film manages to be the most emotionally satisfying of the series. That’s likely because it’s building off six films of character growth and goodwill. But it’s also due to the fact that Deathly Hallows spends the most time examining the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The series has followed a very lockstep plot formula and now it’s been stripped away. The kids are removed from the school setting so we get to spend plenty of time alone with the trio. In fact, it’s a bit too much time. We spend an interminable amount of time with these kids lost in the woods, waiting for something important to happen. While we wait we have the trio address fears, anxieties, and emotional hang-ups, which turns Part One into the most insular, reflective movie in the entire series. While this makes the movie rich with feeling before we come to the finish line, it also makes the film somewhat boring because these kids aren’t that deep.

Luckily, Deathly Hallows Part One presents some of the more exciting action sequences and tense mood yet for a franchise mostly built upon investigation and Hardy Boys stuff (with extra magic!). The Harry Potter world has always been more interesting to me the darker it got, and now the series has now firmly converted to the dark side (as far as PG-13 fantasies go). The opening shows each of the three kids being left alone, including Hermione protecting her Muggle parents by wiping away their memory of their daughter. Tough stuff. Then we transition to a floating Hogwarts teacher held prisoner by Voldermort and his legion of Death Eater followers. She’s struck dead and we see a tear roll down her bloodied face right before Voldy’s pet snake eats her. Parents be warned, this is no longer kid’s stuff. Death comes to several supporting characters and there’s plenty of spooky stuff that adds up to a gloomy atmosphere. The infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is a thrilling sequence. Harry and pals disguise themselves as Ministry workers to locate a horcrux from Dolores Umbridge (I cheered at the sight of Imelda Staunton back in pink). The scene is tense and lays out the stakes and important characters to fear. It also produces some potent drama as Ron is disguised as a Ministry member whose innocent wife is being interrogated. The moment culminates in a genuinely exciting chase sequence that got me excited for what was ahead. What I failed to realize is that there was not much more ahead.

With all that extra attention spent on character, I can also say that Part One has some definite issues with its stagnating narrative. Having never read the books (get over it, Potter nation), I go in blind every time short for the mega-spoilers that I can’t help but learn thanks to all the Potter readers inhabiting my circle of friends and family. I can tell you if something doesn’t make sense because I don’t have the background knowledge of the books to fill me in. There was plenty in Deathly Hallows that made little sense. The adaptation introduces the titular deathly hallows, which ends up being another three super special magic items. There’s a nicely Gothic animated sequence to try and explain the three hallowed items, but it all adds up to a fairy tale that makes little traction. The narrative has already shaped up into a portentous scavenger hunt. Harry and friends are after the remaining horcruxes containing the soul of Mr. Snarly Face. The entire 145 minutes of Part One is spent destroying a single horcrux, leaving 3 or 4 remaining. Now they add three more magic items to find and it all compounds my feelings of fatigue. Did I mention they also have to find a magic sword? How many magical items are these kids going to be responsible to find and how many am I expected to care about?

I left the theater with many questions about what the hell the deathly hallows were, why they mattered, and all sorts of other storylines too. I could not follow all the new characters they threw so late into the game, especially some old wand maker and his connection to wand thievery. And when the hell did everyone gain the ability to teleport at will? Why don’t they teleport all the time then, especially out of danger or when they’re chased through the woods? My friend (an avid Potter reader) had to deal with a litany of stupid questions, likely treating me as a parent would a child asking about where the sun goes when it becomes night.

Also, the film is intended to be a prelude for an epic finale but it mishandles its own sense of climax at several turns. I’ll refrain from heavy spoilers, but one of the most interesting characters, played by an actor I adore, is killed off screen. Off freaking screen! Some other character comes back and says, “Oh yeah, he’s gone,” and then everyone looks glum and goes about their business. It happened so matter-of-factly and anticlimactically that I never made the connection. So later in the film when it’s confirmed that this character is in fact dead, I felt pretty thick. The last chapter of Harry Potter is destined to be a combined 5 hours, and you’re telling me they couldn’t fit in a fight scene that lets this character go out with style? I suppose somebody thought it was more dramatic to just mention a character death offhand. Following this logic, I can’t wait for the grandiose finale where Harry Potter just walks back into a room and says, “Oh, by the way, I just killed Voldermort. So who wants to get a bite to eat?” The emotional climax of the film involves the death of a supporting character I have yet to see onscreen for 8 years. How am I supposed to feel for a character that hasn’t been seen for so long? The ending is sad, sure, but it would have been more effective if: a) I knew what significance the character had in the narrative, and b) it didn’t look like Harry was clutching a rubber doll to his chest. We spend too much time with new characters that end up having minor worth or come across as one-offs. The movie would have benefited from some of the deathly exposition that clogged the first two film’s storylines. As the movie comes to a close it should be clearing things up instead of polluting the narrative with more names and faces.

Director David Yates has been captain of the Potter helm since 2007’s Order of the Phoenix, and he seems to have found a unifying visual balance for the series. The film’s tone has gotten heavier and having a singular director take the series to an end looks to be a godsend. Despite a lengthy slog in the middle, Yates keeps the pacing fairly tight and tense. The visuals and special effects are just as luminous as ever. The true treat for me is watching all these splendid British actors assembled: Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Jason Isaacs on Team Evil, and Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans, Julie Waters, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon on Team Good. Then there are new additions like glass-jawed David O’Hara (Wanted) and the great Peter Mullan (Young Adam) making strong yet short appearances. I don’t really care why all these talented thespians are together but I’ll enjoy them all the same.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is the beginning of the end, literally a prelude for the finale coming to theaters in summer 2011. The film manages to be exciting and dramatic and equally boring and confusing, especially for someone who has willfully refused to read the books. Spending more time with the teen actors has its pluses and minuses, chief minus being that while they wait for stuff to happen so do we. The manufactured end point for the movie feels far from satisfying, but the film manages to effectively whet the appetite for the follow-up. As the Harry Potter series comes to a close it’s hard not to get nostalgic and apologetic, but I resist this urge. Looking back, many of the Potter films have been fine pieces of entertainment but also too long, misshapen, and too slavish to making a book on tape. Part One of Deathly Hallows still falls victim to some of these faults, but the accumulated goodwill of the series and actors makes a 145-minute prologue easily bearable.

Nate’s Grade: B

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Director Tim Burton seems like the perfect candidate to take on the imagery of author Lewis Carroll. I would argue that, short of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland is the most reproduced piece of literature in modern history. It’s going to take a keen vision to make these old characters interesting (the macabre American McGee video game sure felt like it could have been born from the mind of Tim Burton). Unfortunately, Burton and some 3-D wizardry are not enough to compensate for a story that only works in one dimension.

Alice (Mia Wasikoswki) is now a teenager girl who can barely remember her jaunt to Wonderland in her youth. She’s assigned to marry a simpering lord because in Victorian England that’s how women took care of their futures. Alice is more interested in taking over her dead father’s trading company. So when the time comes for her lord to ask for her hand in marriage, Alice stammers, says she needs some air, and chases after what looks like a rabbit with a pocket watch. She falls down a rabbit hole and winds up back in Wonderland, however it’s really known as Underland. It’s been 13 years since Alice visited this magical world, and in the meantime the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has ruled as a tyrant quite fond of removing the bond between head and neck. Her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), was deposed and lives in exile. The (W)underland residents live in hope that an Alice will return and free them as an old prophecy foretells. She’ll have to rely on old friends, like the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to fulfill her destiny, and, why not, slay the Red Queen’s fearsome dragon, the Jabberwocky.

You would think that the combination of Burton, Depp, Lewis Carroll, and 3-D would produce an irrefutable masterpiece, at least from a visual and entertainment standpoint. I’m compelled to argue that the finished results are pretty much a mixed bag. The world of (W)underland seems fairly drab. Sure it was some big stuff and some weird stuff but from a color standpoint everything comes across as washed out, like Burton took one look and said, “Bright colors equate happiness. We can’t have that.” I understand the world wanting to convey a dispirited mood, but this isn’t any regular Burton film, this is Alice in Wonderland and we need a sense of, wait for it, wonder. Instead, we get an overwhelming feeling of drabness. Now, full disclosure, I didn’t catch the 3-D version of this movie for two reasons: 1) my wife’s head was hurting and she couldn’t take 90 minutes wearing nose-pinching, eye-hurting glasses that play with her depth of field, and 2) the 3-D shows were all sold out. I could tell which elements where intended to pop in a 3-D environment, namely the Hare always throwing objects as a calling card and the materialization of the Cheshire Cat. The tone isn’t too dark to scare the Disney families but at the same time there’s a bit more menace to the proceedings. The Red Queen’s bulbous, disproportionate head makes for an eye-catching visual that doesn’t get stale. (W)underland is a more hostile world but at the same time it’s not too threatening. Pretty much all the villains have some moment of redemption that makes them less threatening. The weirdest motif in the movie is eye gouging, which happens twice thanks to the same diminutive character.

Having said that, this is a visual decision that I could live with if the story engaged my senses more. Alice is now an older 19-year-old girl that has to defend (W)underland by fighting a dragon and suiting up in armor. She has to accept her destiny and be THE Alice and save the kingdom. The mystery of whether Alice is the one true Alice, look no further than the title, folks. He doesn’t remember anything from her first encounter in (W)underland and yet she has no sense of awe or curiosity. Also, why now do the residents of (W)unerland seek out Alice to rescue them? They never thought about reaching out in the 13 years the Red Queen has been ruling?

The plot is a fairly pedestrian “hero’s quest” that ends in a fairly pedestrian battle sequence where the armies of good and evil clash in CGI combat. The problem is that the original Alice in Wonderland source material really didn’t have much of a plot to it; it was really more a satire of the times, which featured Alice essentially going from one oddball to the other. The appeal was more the language than the story. It’s not the easiest piece of literature to adapt, to find a through line for a plot, so I guess making it about a hero’s destiny seems like the easiest, laziest path. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) assembles all the memorable characters but gives them little else to do, other than act mad. You may start to feel Alice’s sense of frustration after a while. Because of the threadbare story, you know exactly where the movie is going to be headed (wow, unintentional pun). In some ways this movie functions as a sequel and in some ways this movie functions as a remake, meaning that the plot is pretty much stuck trying to decide where to go next in a standard fantasy narrative device.

And then there’s the dance scene. Oh, the dance scene. How do I approach this gingerly? The climax that’s established is not Alice slaying the dragon, accepting her destiny, and (W)underland triumphing over the Red Queen’s tyranny. The climax is Depp break-dancing. You read that right, though the residents refer to his crazy legs movement as “futterwackin,” which sounds suspiciously naughty. It’s a moment so goofy, so tonally inappropriate that it shatters the entire notion of suspension of disbelief. It rips you out of the movie and all for a cheap laugh. It’s bizarre. I acknowledge that, given the fantasy framework, that the ending ought to stay in touch with the fantastical setting. But break-dancing? Would The Wizard of Oz have ended better if the Tin Man and the Scarecrow started break-dancing? At least the Tin Man could effectively perform the Robot. It’s a real-world artifact that has no place in the world of fantasy.

Depp is usually such a valued performer, digging deep into his character and reveling in their eccentricities. He’s the strangest and most exciting character actor that has become a box-office star. But that doesn’t mean he’s immune from giving a rare bad performance. While nowhere near as off-putting as his Willy Wonka, Depp’s Hatter is more distraction than anything. He comes across like a figure grappling with post-traumatic stress, causing him to mutter incomprehensibly in a Scottish brogue. He’s tiresome after a while. Carter (Sweeny Todd) can be pretty shrill, playing the same overwrought note time and again, but she still manages to give the best performance in the movie. Hathaway just sort of acts flighty and raises her arms, waltzing around like she’s trying to imitate Depp’s Jack Sparrow. She’s entirely wasted. Stephen Fry (V for Vendetta) is a delight as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, and our heroine, Wasikowska (HBO’s In Treatment) has a striking Grecian presence, even if her performance is more dour than it needs to be given the fanciful environment.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp usually make for an unbeatable creative team, but I think Disney was the key figure in this arrangement. Alice in Wonderland wants to thrill without getting too scary, wants to delight without getting too original, and wants to dazzle without getting too weird. Burton’s visual inventiveness manages to make the movie entrancing at times and bewildering when the rest of the movie fails to live up to those fleeting moments. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the real-world Victorian scenes more than many of the ones in (W)udnerland. The film is just too disjointed and uneven to fully embrace, regardless of the 3-D upgrade. There are moments that I adored and moments that I could have lived without — like the break-dancing finale. The finished product isn’t a terrible night out at the movies, and there are plenty of enjoyable elements to savor. However, Alice plays like a familiar fantasy that takes Lewis Carroll’s creatures and rearranged them into a watered-down Lord of the Rings hybrid.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Not every film franchise gets to a sixth installment, although Police Academy and Friday the Thirteenth managed to. After over twelve hours of storytelling, is it even possible for non-fans to enter the Harry Potter world (only an idiot would begin a film series at number six)? I am a willful Muggle to this universe. I am content to wait for the movies, and it drives the readers nuts. “The books are so much better,” they all say. Then they tell me what was left out of the movies, and honestly it’s usually a good thing. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince echoes the increasing darkness of the later books by author J.K. Rowling, but now I can finally walk out of a Potter film and know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the book must have been superior. Half-Blood Prince is a film adaptation that spends too much time in all the wrong places.

Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes, seen only for literally a split-second) is back with a vengeance, and his followers, Death Eaters, are branching out and attacking the Muggle world as well. Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has asked Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) for help in recruiting a former Hogwarts professor. Horace Slughorn (Jim Boradbent) used to be an esteemed potions professor, and one of his bright students was none other than a young Voldermort (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Fienne’s real-life nephew). Dumbledore and Harry explore liquid memories that belong to the Dark Lord in hopes of learning how to defeat him. In the meantime, the kids are under attack not by Voldermort but by hormones. Harry’s friend, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are secretly in love but neither has the heart to say something. Ron uses his star Quidditch status to “snog” with the eager Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), who’s infatuated with Ron. This infuriates Hermione and she seeks comfort in a studly student herself. Harry is starting to feel his heart go pitter-patter for Ron’s sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), which requires Harry to be very delicate in negotiating the “Can I snog your little sister?” portion of male friendship. Oh yeah, and apparently Harry is also using a potions textbook that used to belong to some whiz kid known as the Half-Blood Prince.

The further I get away from Half-Blood Prince the more certain I am that it is the least involving film of the series. The plot is somewhat nebulous and unclear, and so much of the story is dominated by boring teenage romance. I understand that Hogwarts is swimming in hormones, but these kids spend the whole time making shifty doe-eyes at each other than doing anything substantial. That makes for a boring romance, and when the movie is dominated by this stuff for two hours it doesn’t make the movie too engaging. I understand that the Ron/Hermione courtship has been setup for some time, but it takes forever to move even incrementally closer to that coupledom. The Harry/Ginny material is lacking at best. She’s such an empty presence and they do so little with her character that I have no idea what would warrant Harry’s affections. There is no spark, no heat, no sexual tension, and no interest. I was actually relieved when Half-Blood Prince drops practically every storyline with twenty minutes left. Seriously, these plotlines aren’t resolved or capped or even addressed, they just don’t exist once Harry learns the word “horacrux.” And let’s talk about that subject just for a moment. Dumbledore lures Professor Slughorn back to Hogwarts so Harry can learn Voldermort’s secret of eternal life, a secret that Dumbledore already knows because he’s been taking leaves to locate and destroy Voldy’s horacruxes. I felt detached and disenchanted throughout Half-Blood Prince.

There are other plot holes and irregularities, and I wonder if writer Steve Kloves (who took the fifth movie off) is merely serving up 153 minutes of plodding prologue for the big finish. The drama is becoming more static and the supporting characters of previous installments reappear and do little but stand with hands in their pockets; they have nothing to do. The flashbacks to Voldermort as a child reveal relatively nothing new; only indicating her was a creepy kid. The two action sequences squeezed in are not from the book, meaning Kloves was trying to add some excitement to what is a rather sleepwalking storyline. The action sequences mean little; the opening attack on London’s Millennium bridge offers some nice sights but little consequence, and the destruction of the Weasely house comes across like Kloves was grasping for greater conflict. Too much of his film is the young love foibles with the occasional sideways glance at Draco (Tom Felton) brooding in the shadows. The ending, with its notable death, still strikes an emotional cord but it also comes across as rushed and without depth and resolve.

What is the significance of the Half-Blood Prince in this adaptation? The mysterious figure was good in potions class and his old textbook helps Harry in class. That is it! The late reveal of the identity of the Half-Blood Prince is so incidental and off-the-cuff, that the actor practically has to say, “Hey, remember that whole Prince thing like an hour ago? That’s me. Yep. So see ya.” It’s such an indifferent plotline handled with such indifference. I had to ask my Potter-versed wife why Rowling would even bother naming the book after such a minor, irrelevant plot footnote. Kloves’ adaptation feels lost and mostly like filler.

So why does a slower, less coherent, less interesting Harry Potter rank better than the first two films? Because director David Yates takes an artistic step forward and this addition has style to spare. Returning to the Potter director’s chair, Yates has a stronger feel for the world and creates striking film compositions with the added help of noir cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Across the Universe) and the foreboding production design by Stuart Craig. The sets have a grand Gothic appeal and help compensate in tone for what is lacking in the screenplay. The opening bridge attack allows for soaring flights through London and then into the magic world, and it’s a great opening visual rush. The memory flashbacks have splendid visual artistry to them as we watch inky brush strokes coalesce into solidified images. It’s a fantastic special effect and it is welcomed every time. This isn’t one of the more special effects heavy installments but the effects are as good as ever especially when seen through Delbonnel’s lens.

It’s interesting to have watched the three main actors grow up in their roles, which also gives them the ability to revert to autopilot when the movie lags. In the Half-Blood Prince, the trio burrows back into previous acting episodes. Radcliffe gets talked to a lot so much of his acting in this jaunt seems to involve intense bouts of nodding. He does have one sequence of exaggerated comedy when he swallows a luck potion, and the actor feels delightfully unrestrained. Grint gets the most screen time he’s had in ages and continues to dial up the daffy humor. As I stated with my review of Order of the Phoenix, I think Watson began as the best actor of the trio and is now on a fast-paced downward slide. Her character gets to experience jealousy and heartache, and Watson shows some ability to convey mixed emotion. The most interesting actor of all the kids is Felton, who I found to be surprisingly empathetic. He’s tortured over his fate, a mission given to him by the Dark Lord. He’s torn apart by moral indecision and a sense of duty. That’s way more interesting than watching Ron and Hermione try to make each other jealous. Why didn’t Kloves devote more time to the anguish of Draco? That’s where the drama is. There just isn’t much room for character growth and acting in the rest of Half-Blood Prince. The best acting award goes to Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Hot Fuzz). He conveys the regret of Slughorn with every manner and gesture. His sad, poignant confession is oddly the emotional highlight in a movie that includes a momentous death later.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince feels like a half-hearted adaptation, with way too much time spent on tepid teen romance. This is the most visually arresting Potter film next to 2004’s Prisoner of Azkaban, but it just fumbles the storytelling. The sixth film is too often boring and inconsequential. Too much of the film feels like it was purely made for the die-hard Potterheads, and if any Muggles have questions of clarity they are required to seek out a friend to ask. This is just sloppy writing. It feels like everyone is just busying themselves before the sprint to the big finale. We’re just about at the end of the long winding road that is Harry Potter, though I’m sure the fact that the producers are splitting the final book into two movies likely will not mean that the individual movies can finally have a two-hour running time. Half-Blood Prince would have greatly benefited by being shorter, more precise, and more significant; the 16-year-old romantic squabbles seem so slight in the backdrop of Voldermort and his army on the rise. I’ll give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but this is not a Potter venture I’ll likely return to again. It just doesn’t measure up when it comes to movie magic.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Famed musician/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s tale of murderous barbers, cannibalism, and poisoned hearts first debuted on Broadway in 1979. Sondheim has been very protective of his material when it comes to film rights, but it wasn’t until the combination of visionary director Tim Burton and acclaimed actor Johnny Depp that Sondheim allowed his revered musical to be made into a movie. The result is faithful production that expands the scope of the musical while maintaining an intimate, chamber-music feel. Sweeney Todd flirts with being a masterwork but settles for being incredibly damn entertaining.

Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London after 15 years in prison on a flase charge. Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, suitably creepy) wanted Barker’s wife for his own and conspired to have the barber sent away. Now under the auspices of Sweeney Todd, Barker has come back to seek his wife and daughter. He sadly learns that his wife is dead and his teenaged daughter, Johanna (Laura Michelle Kelly), is the ward of the Judge. Sweeney reopens his barber business above a flagging pie shop run by the eccentric Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Sweeney plots his revenge against the Judge and his henchman, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall, suitable rat-like). Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who traveled with Sweeney back to London, has set his sights on Johanna and intends to run away with her as soon as she can escape the Judge. Meanwhile, a rival barber named Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) recognizes Sweeney from the old days and wants his silence paid for. It’s not too long before things get dicey, throats get cut, and people get turned into meat pies.

People unaware of the Sondheim musical are going to be in for a big shock. The film is about 80 percent sung, and the singing never rises to big, show-offery numbers of crescendo power vocals; the songs are more in the variety of speaking and vocals frequently overlap. The movie has greater clarity to the lyrics, and for the first time I as able to actually decipher Joanna’s words in the song “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Fans of traditional musicals, the kind that feature songs centered on female deer or large corn exporting states, may be aghast at how adult and violent the musical is. It’s just as much a grand horror movie as it is a musical. No doubt people are not generally accustomed to soaring medleys set to gashed throats and spurting blood. Sweeney Todd is captivating tale where almost all the characters are villains in some sense, and yet you do build sympathies even after innocents are killed and baked into flaky desserts.

Unlike other recent big screen versions of popular Broadway song-and-dance shows, Sweeney Todd is not simply the stage version transported to a bigger stage. This is a movie, through and through, and a perfect marriage. Burton is the perfect visionary to filter the twisted sensibilities of Sondheim’s masterpiece onto the silver screen. As a director, his work has been artistically backsliding since the start of this decade, but Sweeney Todd puts a firm stop to that. The technical aspects of Sweeney Todd are brought to life with great care and imagination. The Gothic sets are gorgeous and the costumes and cinematography are fitfully drab and dour, like everyone is living in a silent movie devoid of color; it takes a lot of hard work to create a near monochromatic playing field for the actors. And so when the blood does splash, and oh does it splash, the film pops with vivid color. Sondheim’s playful lyrics and rapturous music has never sounded better; it practically swoons.

The movie opens up the play in ways that a staged performance never could. Instead of keeping a distance from the bloodletting, usually something symbolic or as graphic as coloring a red line across a victim’s neck, Burton thrusts the audience right into Sweeney’s shop. The blood sprays in bright geysers and the violence is fully realized, fully felt, even if it’s never terribly realistic. The full weight of Sweeney’s vengeance and eventual destructive madness can be felt when the audience is witness to its wrath, and that includes the graphic murders. The medium of film ups the horror elements and transforms Sweeney Todd into a stronger work by amplifying the tension. The last scene with Mrs. Lovett is far more haunting than anything that could have been achieved on a stage. Burton also adds lots of dark humor thanks to his open visual palate, like during the song “By the Sea” where Mrs. Lovett fantasizes about her and Sweeney cozying up together in different scenarios. The film transports the viewer to the different pretend locales all the while Depp remains gruff and indifferent. He maintains the same curmudgeon from fantasy postcard after fantasy postcard. It’s the cheeriest segment in a grimly perverse musical that could rival Hamlet for dead bodies.

In an effort to slice a three-hour musical to a manageable two-hour movie, screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator) has pruned the story down to the essentials, namely everything that impacts Sweeney’s ultimate pursuit of vengeance. Johanna and Anthony, the hopeful lovers, have been pared down the most. Their only scenes now revolve around intruding upon Sweeney or helping him meet his venomous goals. The lecherous songs the Judge sings to himself about his lust for Johanna has also been cut (my wife was severely disappointed by this cut, saying, “You’ve got the Rick, come on!”). The most notable omission is the opening medley “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that serves as a Greek chorus-like overview of the sordid tale ahead. The song provides a lot of back-story and exposition that can be more easily covered by Burton fashioning visual flashbacks of Sweeney’s former life. The ballad and other absent songs are still used instrumentally throughout the film. Logan has also turned Toby (Ed Sanders), Pirelli’s assistant, into a much younger character, turning him into an urchin boy with fresh memories of life in a workhouse. I’m not entirely sure Toby’s protective song to Mrs. Lovett “Not While I’m Around” becomes an ode to puppy love and loses some believability. Also, normally Toby is played as a man-child who isn’t entirely whole in his mental faculties; however, the movie version turns him into a plucky Oliver extra. It seems less devastating and tragic.

But what about the singing? Depp won’t be knocking down doors on Broadway anytime soon but he delivers a very satisfying baritone that, while lacking in power or refinement, delivers in spades with emotion. His singing is full of great texture. His song “My Friends,” an ode to being reunited with his razors, is full of brio and nuanced longing, but he really shows his talent when Sweeney loses it. He’s a man obsessed with vengeance and when it escapes his grasp he snarls with scary intensity. When he launches into “Epiphany,” where he determines the whole human race is fit to have their throats slit, he barks at strangers on the street and howls at the sky, smiling at his glistening razors in hand. What can be forgotten with musicals is that there is so much more to a performance than simply an adept ability to sing the right notes. With Sweeney, Depp spins an incredibly rich performance that plumbs the dark recesses of a man whose only purpose is vengeance. In the end, when he’s saturated in blood and the full reality of his actions is upon him, Depp goes from remorse to psychosis to horror to acceptance in, like, a minute flat. Seeing such a classic Broadway character done justice by an actor of Depp’s immense talent is thrilling and a bit of a relief to Sweeney fans.

Carter has the weakest, thinnest voice of the cast. Mrs. Lovett is a larger than life figure that has been played on Broadway by the likes of Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone. The role is usually played more boisterous, more comically broad. It’s a juicy part and full of brash bravado. Carter stumbles through “The Worst Pies in London” and she seems to step all over her lines, rushing through and losing the comedic flavor. But like I said before, a performance is so much more than singing, and it is here where Carter imbues great complexity to her role. Her unrequited love for Sweeney consumes her and her relationship with Toby places her in an awkward predicament. Carter flashes a wealth of emotions through the power of her eyes. It’s a battle between maternal and sexual urges. Stylistically she resembles a rag doll someone tossed in the trash but it all works.

It’s refreshing and exhilarating to see a perfect marriage of material and artistry. Burton has transported Sweeney Todd into a faithful and jubilantly dark movie that doesn’t shy away from the grotesque. It’s a stirring, wonderfully Gothic rendition of Sondheim’s masterpiece. Sweeney Todd is blissful, spirited entertainment that’s not exactly for the squeamish, but this is one musical that can simultaneously touch the heart while turning the stomach.

Nate’s Grade: A

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

The most interesting aspect for me about the ongoing Harry Potter big screen adaptations are how each new director handles the material. Christopher Columbus got the ball rolling with his autumnal and slavishly loyal films, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Then Alfonso Curaon made the series feel magically its own for the first time with Prisoner of Azkaban. Mike Newell made The Goblet of Fire feel like a teen romantic comedy. Now it’s David Yates’ turn to be at the Potter helm. Yates has little to his resume beyond assorted TV movies, but his direction must have impressed the Potter brass. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix feels somewhat like setup to more important events yet to come, but with Yates and new screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, this new entry feels up to the entertainment challenge of its forebears.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering his fifth year of education at Hogwarts School of Magic. The Ministry of Magic is trying to silence Harry’s claims that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has arisen anew. They’ve installed one of their own, Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. But she’s not interested in teaching the students actual magic. The Ministry feels it’s best for the Hogwarts youth to just have a theoretical knowledge, so they’re distributed out of date and censored textbooks. Umbridge gathers greater power and eventually has the run of Hogwarts, forcing Harry and his friends, like longtime buds Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), to practice their own protection spells in hiding. Umbridge and the Ministry are convinced Harry and Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) are trying to unseat their leadership. In actuality, they’re just trying to warn people about a war that is on the horizon.

The fifth movie is also the most grownup in tone and temperament yet. Harry is in a very different place and feeling alienated from the important people he cares about. The Ministry of Magic is turning the public against him by making everyone believe that Harry is a liar. Order of the Phoenix explores a lot of psychology and doesn’t have anywhere near the humor of previous installments, especially 2005’s heavily comedic Goblet of Fire. I think this is a step in the right direction. Harry’s mortal enemy has been resurrected, his schoolmate has been murdered, and you can’t really go back to zippy Quidditch matches and silly spells that make people hurl slugs. The Harry Potter universe has gotten darker and more serious and Order of the Phoenix reflects this. Harry warns his peers during a training session that death is a real consequence of what they’re about to face, and that bad things will indeed happen to good people.

Order of the Phoenix is structured into two dominant storylines: Umbridge and the school repression, and Voldermort’s attempts to infiltrate Harry’s mind. Voldermort is handled as a murky puzzle, mostly in a succession of quick flashes and nightmares, and this results in the storyline feeling more like a fuzzy memory. I found the Umbridge character to be far more interesting and even far more menacing than He Who Must Not Be Named. The combination of political suppression of the truth, fear mongering and paranoia, torture interrogations, trampling over civil rights, and teaching students censorship in the name of safety is a fascinating correlation with our own modern society. The book may have been released in 2003, and written by an English woman, but the political repression feels alive and relevant today. While I appreciated the well-crafted peeks to the nasally-challenged Dark Lord, I found Harry raging against the system trying to keep him mum to be the real meat of Order of the Phoenix. I lost some interest once Umbridge had been vanquished.

Harry Potter advocates of all stripes and sizes constantly ask me why I have little interest in sitting down and reading the actual novels, why I’m content to wait the extra time for the movies. The answer is two-fold: 1) I’m lazy, and 2) I think the slimmed down screenplays may boil the essence of J.K. Rowling’s verbose books and present a better and more focused story. In all honesty, I don’t really care about who wins a Quidditch game, or how someone helps a magical creature that is of no consequence to the story. Rowling’s massive tomes seem so overstuffed, and I repeat that I am passing this judgment never having read one book, that I don’t mind all the superfluous subplots and characters that are trimmed and/or eliminated in the path of economic storytelling. The essential essence of the story and all the really important elements will be included, any the quibbling of what gets tossed aside is often enough to confirm for me that I don’t need to read the books to see what I’m missing. Then again, this entire paragraph may do nothing but prove that I am willfully ignorant or just plain wrong. Oh well. Two more movies to go and two more books not to open.

Yates brings in the shortest Harry Potter movie to date at 2 hours and 18 minutes long, but the hastened pace sometimes causes the film to stumble or lack clarity. There’s a death late in the film (while I’m sure the entire world knows the person’s identity I will refrain from spoiling) and I had no idea what had just taken place. The death is abrupt, and the person just sort of leans back and disappears into some gate that is never given context. The whole scene is meant to be defining drama but if I hadn’t known ahead of time what was supposed to happen then I would have been scratching my Muggle head. The prophecy that the bad guys want so badly seems rather unimportant, so the ending scuffle over this little glowing ball seems like much ado about nothing. Most of the new characters, like Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, don’t feel well incorporated into the overall story. But the worst part of the hasty pace is the fact that when we finally get an all-out wizard battle between good and evil that it ends far too quickly. The Order and Voldermort’s Death Eaters are going at it with colorful attacks jettisoned around the room, but this exciting bite of action turns out to be little more than a morsel. After the wizard-on-wizard combat, Order of the Phoenix goes back to a pretty predictable finish with little in payoff. And was Hagrid’s giant goofy brother really necessary to include?

The adults have always been impeccably cast in the Potter flicks, and real star of the fifth film is Staunton (Vera Drake). Umbridge is a juicy role and Staunton brilliantly plays this fascist little school marm in Pepto pink. She has this exquisite stuttering giggle, and her ever-smiling, cherubic face quivers like there are strings attached. Staunton makes even the most innocent “excuse me” sound like it’s dripping in poison. She’s so peppy and seemingly wholesome but in the same moment is There’s one scene between Umbridge and Professor Snape (the irreplaceably awesome Alan Rickman) where he can’t stand her presence and adds an extra dose of snarl in his annoyed replies; this woman has found a way to make Alan Rickman even more awesome. Order of the Phoenix is at its best when Staunton is stalking the corridors and enforcing her brand of control. I’ll miss her dearly.

I think I need to reverse my stance on the child actors of this profitable series. With the first movies, it seemed like Watson was the real star as the studious and nitpicky Hermoine. It also appeared that Grint would never escape the trappings of squealing cowardly relief. Radcliffe seemed to suit the material but felt overly wooden and I predicted he would never be anything but a blah actor. I now must rescind my earlier predictions. Watson has become more grating as the films progress, She outshined her fellow actors when they were 11, but now that she’s a teenager and working the same limited, yet extremely huffy, acting range, turning her character into more of an annoyance than an ally. Radcliffe, on the other hand, is nicely growing into his role and expressing deeper emotions and anxiety as the weight of his Harry’s name and destiny weighs on him. I think Radcliffe will have a career outside the boy wizard; he was strikingly funny on an episode of HBO’s Extras that sent up his youthful image. I don’t think we’ll ever hear much from Grint and Watson again once the end credits roll on movie seven.

After five movies, I think we pretty much know what we’re going to get with the Harry Potter series. The stories are getting more mature and serious, and this means that the films need more attention to adaptation and weeding out the nonessential elements. I think the fans that are still grumbling about the books being butchered have missed the point (they’re also still fuming over the “new” Dumbledore, even though Gambon has been in 3 movies now). Order of the Phoenix was the longest book but has been turned into the shortest movie, and it still resonates as an exciting and emotionally engrossing fantasy now taking definite and irrevocable steps toward something dark and meaningful. Yates is scheduled to direct the next Potter chapter,The Half-Blood Prince, and even though I won’t have a new director’s style to analyze, I look forward to more adventures with these characters. Just don’t tell me to read the books.

Nate’s Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

I’m really liking how much more mature this series gets as it goes. I’m also enjoying the fact that they’ve had two talented directors in a row with, surprise, artistic vision. Harry Potter 4 isn’t the best film as far as plot is concerned (if they needed Potter’s blood could they not have done this at any time?). It is, however, the best as far as character, turning near every scene into an awkward coming of age moment. The movie is far more comical than the rest; seriously, nearly every scene has some comedic underpinning. The emergence of the Dark Lord (a nasally-challenged Ralph Fiennes) is creepy, and the series gets better as its outlook gets darker.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

I’m a big fan of the late Douglas Adams’ series, so going in I had a slate of expectations but also a working knowledge of this kooky universe. I really don’t think this film will work for anyone but the fans. The movie isn’t even structured like a screenplay, it has more of the novel’s loose loopy feel. Some things work wonderful, like the Vogons, giant marvelous looking puppets made by Jim Henson’s studio. The cast is mostly excellent (Alan Rickman steals the show as the voice of Marvin, a very depressed robot). The animated guide entries in the Hitchhiker’s book are colorful, stylistic, and witty. Somethings, however, don’t work at all. The additions to the story, an increased romantic angle between our lead Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Trillian (Zooey Descehanel) as well as a flat happy ending that rewrites all the opening danger. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy occasionally serves up some juicy bits of wacky humor or visual fantasy (John Malkovich’s bit part is weird) but unless you were a fan of the book series, you’re really not going to be able to follow along or have any interest in keeping up.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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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