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Judy (2019)

The real reason to watch Judy is the triumphant, blazing return of Renee Zellweger as the talent we’ve known her to be as an actress. She’s faded from the spotlight over the last decade, gotten a controversial face lift, and spent over a year prepping to play the role of the legendary Judy Garland during a 1969 British tour, what would prove to be the last months of her life. Zellweger disappears into the character, astonishingly recreating the mannerisms, posture, and vocal cadences of the famous Old Hollywood Wizard of Oz star. She’s tremendous and while clearly troubled and weathered, the film takes a remarkably sympathetic approach to its subject. Garland’s present-day alcoholism, pill popping, and narcissism can trace their roots to her young days as a teenage studio star where the powers that be, namely studio honcho Louis B. Mayer, would bully her, harass her, and molest her. The exploitation mechanisms of Old Hollywood made me wish that Judy was a more unconventional biopic, blending the past and present into a daring, metaphorical journey over the rainbow of a woman in the spotlight her entire life. Instead, we’re watching Garland stumble onto the stage, struggle to sleep and perform, and live a sad existence where she can be reminded, just every so often, the impact she can have, like a sweet impromptu home visit with a gay couple that is a miracle of tiny kindnesses. There’s not much plot here as the film, too, stumbles and shambles to its finale, with very little attention given to the supporting characters. Her whirlwind romance with a younger man (Finn Wittrock) fails to ignite much insight, and he’s named Mickey, so I was confusing him as an adult Mickey Rooney, who appears onscreen in flashbacks and was Judy’s first love (she asked if they were dating and Rooney said he would have to check with Mayer — every woman’s dream). Watching the movie made me feel like there was a stronger version of this story begging to be told. Regardless, Judy is a well made if conventional biopic with a real razzle-dazzle performance from Zelwegger, who stunned me with her final singing number and the longing, remorseful, melancholy emotions she was able to dredge. Judy will be best remembered for her performance alone and that’s perfectly right.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.

Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.

With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.

The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.

There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.

The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.

There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.

The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.

With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Book of Eli (2010)

Where did the Hughes brothers go? Albert and Allen Hughes have four movies to their names, one of them a documentary about pimps, and their last flick was 2001’s From Hell. I know that Jack the Ripper thriller underperformed at the box office, starring a pre-Pirates Johnny Depp, but was it enough to throw these guys in movie jail for nine years? The Hughes brothers are talented filmmakers, first evidenced by their debut feature Menace II Society, which they wrote and directed when they were only twenty years old. I actually really liked From Hell. I get that it isn’t anywhere as complex as the source material from famous comics scribe Alan Moore, but the movie was slick, stylish, twisty and twisted and satisfying (although, Heather Graham has the worst accent in the history of movies). Where have these brothers been all this time? Nine years later, the Hughes brothers take a whack at the popular genre of the moment –Apocalyptic Cinema. The Book of Eli kind of comes across like a Hollywood version of The Road. It’s all about duplicating the look, without getting too bleak, and failing to replicate the sense of humanity in desperation. Why worry about that when you can have explosions?

It’s been 30 years since the sun scorched the Earth. Food is scarce. Gangs roam the highways. The law is a forgotten concept. Eli (Denzel Washington) is a loner heading westerly and trying to make out a meager existence. He takes the boots off a dead man, hunts emaciated cats for food, and looks for a safe shelter from the blistering sun. He struts into a dusty town looking for clean water. The town is under the rule of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man in search of a very specific book for his own purposes. It just so happens that Eli is in possession of this book. Eli refuses to hand over his property, speaking about his mission to transport the book to where it belongs. Carnegie sends his thugs out to kill Eli and retrieve the book. Helping Eli is Solara (Mila Kunis), a teenage prostitute who feels Eli has answers that nobody else has.

What we have here is a post-apocalyptic Western. Denzel is the lone drifter that comes into a town besieged by lawlessness or a corrupt agency of power. He even has a fight in a saloon that doubles as a whorehouse. He takes on an unlikely younger apprentice and enforces his own moral code through a series of shootouts. It just so happens that in Eli, he also has a giant machete and knows kung-fu. This is pretty strict genre stuff, mixing in apocalyptic elements for some extra flavor. The Hughes brothers give everything an ashy grimy gloss, making the most of desolate locations they shot in New Mexico (“When you need some place that looks like the end of the world, film New Mexico!”). The sparse locations and desaturated cinematography do well in establishing an unforgiving reality of the landscape.

The Hughes brothers certainly have a sense of style when it comes to the camera lens, yet they don’t approach being too self-conscious with their visuals. There’s an extended fight sequence that plays entirely in silhouette. There isn’t an overabundance of special effects in the film to clutter up the bangs and booms. There is one shootout outside a home (with Michael Gambon no less) that mimics some of the unblinking camerawork of Children of Men, swinging from side to side throughout the escalating firefight. It’s a fun visual motif that thrusts the viewer in the middle of the action. Otherwise, the action is all fairly standard stuff. It?s entertaining to watch Denzel take out a bushel of bad guys time and again, but what does that add up to with such a worn out story and half-hearted characterization? The script by Gary Whitta is heavy on apocalyptic mood and light on details. Cue more ass kicking.

Washington is stoic, almost Eastwood-like in his grit. He’s an easy antihero to root for, the reluctant avenger that manages to slice and dice his way through trouble. I won?t say this movie forces Washington to stretch his reserve of acting muscles, but it is undeniably pleasing to watch him perform his own fighting stunts. Oldman hasn’t gotten an opportunity to play a scenery-chewing villain in quite a while. Let’s face it; Evil Oldman will always overrule Good Oldman. This man was created to play sociopaths that have no ability to control the volume of their voice. This man needs a chance to bellow once every movie. Kunis proved she was a capable actress in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but her role is fairly limited here to sidekick. She stares with her dark eyes and gets to hold a gun. That’s about it. The Hughes brothers have populated their post-apocalyptic world with familiar faces. Tom Waits is a merchant, Ray Stevenson (HBO’s Rome) as the Number One Henchman, Jennifer Beals as the blind mother to Solaris, and Gambon as a well-armed homeowner with an appetite for human flesh. That?s a good stable of actors to fill out a bunch of stock roles. It certainly makes The Book of Eli more entertaining.

The religious element doesn’t dominate the film but it does serve as food for thought. You see the book of Eli’s in high demand is actually he King James Bible (my wife bemoans the prominence of the KJ, contending it is a poor translation). But you see, this isn’t any bible wrapped in leather with a metallic locked binding (all this for a Bible?); this is the LAST BIBLE ON EARTH. That is why Carnegie craves it. In the 30 years since the vague apocalyptic event, apparently mankind rounded up all the Bibles and burnt them, perhaps to express their displeasure with God. Eli operates on the premise that Denzel has the only Bible in the known world, which just seems downright silly. My wife is in seminary studying to be a pastor, so our position may be uncommon, but we have like 15 Bibles in various languages and translations from Greek to Hebrew to English to Latin. Did people search through every habitable dwelling, every library, and every hotel drawer? There have to be hidden Bibles out there. Even in this extreme setting, it seems to strain credibility to think that mankind is left with one copy of the most widely published book in the history of the world.

Ignoring this fact, the religious element remains nebulous even though the film chronicles the journey of the Christian text. God is referred briefly but mostly the talk steers around the ideas of “faith” and “fate” and “the right path.” Eli feels he has been chosen for a special mission, and so he trudges west with his eyes on the prize. Carnegie wants to use the Bible as a “weapon” to pervert people’s faith into giving him more power. He wants to abuse religion as a motivational force to expand the reach of his control. Here’s the thing though, Carnegie has control over a town already and rules by fear. This seems to be working fine for him. So he wants to rule by love instead, using the Bible to spread the Gospel of discipleship? It’s somewhat unclear what exactly Carnegie plans to use the text for especially considering that most of the remaining population is illiterate anyway. He could just as easily hold up any book (The Da Vinci Code is shown, why not that one? It even has “code” in the title) and proclaim it the Word of God. It’s not like these people, struggling just to eat and find water, are going to question the power structure.

Not content with being a competent genre film, The Book of Eli ends on one of those ghastly twist endings that forces you to rethink everything that came before it. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but this twist certainly leads a charge toward building a counterargument toward disproving it. I won?t get into particulars but it seems unlikely that Denzel would be as good a shot as he was if the twist holds up.

The Book of Eli has its share of thrills and some interesting visual style, but there isn’t anything here you haven?t seen in hundreds of other post-apocalyptic movies. The dusty landscapes, the biker gangs, the aviator goggles, the cryptic threats, the necessity for leather as a fashion statement. This isn’t a bad movie by any means; it’s just another entry in a cluttered genre that, with our renewed fascination of the end times, is only getting more cluttered. Washington and the assortment of actors put in fine work but it’s ultimately the story that lets them down. This is a by-the-books genre flick with a touch more style courtesy of the Hughes brothers and a touch more gravitas courtesy of Mr. Washington. My advice to the human race: stock up on Bibles. Apparently, in the post-apocalyptic future, they will be more valuable than gold. Invest now while you still can. I got 15 of them and will entertain all offers.

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-

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.

[I]Order of the Phoenix[/I] 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

Layer Cake (2005)

Layer Cake may be the least intimidating name ever for a crime movie. It conjures images of bridal showers, cooking shows, and birthday parties. It does not necessarily bring to mind thoughts of gangsters, assassins, drug trafficking, and the seamy underbelly of London’s criminal underground. Unless you’re watching some really awesome cooking show I don’t know about. The “layer cake” in question refers to the hierarchy of criminals. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Matthew Vaughn, who produced Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. This time it’s Vaughn sitting in the director’s chair and the results are exceptionally entertaining. Layer Cake is a cinematic treat.

Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) plays our untitled lead, referred to in the end credits as “XXXX.” He’s a cocaine dealer but not a gangster by any means. He wants to make his money, not step on any important toes, and then walk away on top and without any gaping holes in his body. Craig is summoned by his boss Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) and given two missions, whether he wants to accept them or not. The first is to relocate the missing daughter of a very powerful friend of Jimmy’s. The second, and far more dangerous job, is to secure a package of millions of stolen ecstasy pills and make a profit. Complicating matters is the angry Serbian mob that the pills were stolen from. They’ve dispatched a deadly assassin known as Dragan to track down their stolen drugs and kill anyone involved. Craig is left to juggle the investigation, find a buyer, stay ahead of Serbian hitmen, get some time in with a hot new girl, and all the while keeping his higher-ups content enough not to kill him themselves.

Layer Cake should be the film that makes Craig the star he so rightfully deserves to be. This man is a modern day Steve McQueen with those piercing blue eyes, cheekbones that could cut glass, and the casual swagger of coolness. Craig grabs the audience from his opening narration as he explains the ins and outs of his business. We may never see Craig sweat but he still expresses a remarkable slow burn of fear so effectively through those baby blues. He’s in over his head and the audience feels his frustrations. In an interesting character twist, when Craig does resort to killing, he’s actually tormented and haunted by his actions.

As with most British gangster flicks, there are a batch of colorful characters that leave their mark. Dragan (Dragan Micanovic) is a wonderfully enigmatic ghost of an assassin always one step ahead of Craig and the audience. Morty (George Harris) and Gene (Colm Meaney) add heart and bluster as Craig’s trusted right hand men. But the actor who steals the whole film with a malevolent glee is Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). He plays Eddie Temple, the man behind the men behind the scenes. Gambon delivers the harshest of speeches with a velvety pragmatic calm. We don’t know what runs deeper with Eddie, his tan or his scheming.

Sienna Miller plays the thankless love interest to Craig. She’s pretty, sure, but there isn’t much acting ability on display in Layer Cake beside some smoldering glances. We never really know what Craig sees in her besides being another cute blonde to choose over. Miller isn’t alone in the “underwritten character department.” Layer Cake is crammed with secondary characters that pop in and out when it’s necessary. It’s not too annoying but it does mess around with an audience?s ability to follow along coherently.

Layer Cake is not one of the slick, whack-a-mole ventures Ritchie has given us (pre-Madonna). No sir, this is a brooding, serious and nearly terrifying look at the old adage “crime doesn’t pay.” Very few crime centered films express the day-to-day anxiety of just being a criminal. Jimmy reminds Craig that he’ll never be able to walk away because he?s too good an earner for his higher-ups. In Layer Cake, you can get killed for being too greedy, being too careless, being too good at your job, and even just being in the wrong place. Eddie sums it up best whilst describing Faust: “Man sells his soul to the devil. It all ends in tears. These things always do.”

Vaughn has a polished visual sensibility that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer. He keeps the camera fluid and steady with a minimal amount of cuts. A nifty opening scene involves an imaginary drug store (stocked with pot, cocaine, and the like) melting into a real drug store (one hour photo, impulse items at the register). When the tension does mount Vaughn knows just how to turn the screws. A late sequence involving a chase between the SWAT team and our batch of criminals had me on the edge of my seat. For a first time director, Vaughn also has great patience. He doesn’t rush his storyline and he doesn’t suffocate his movie with visual flourishes. He also has a great deal of faith in his audience’s intelligence. This isn’t as lively as Snatch or Lock, Stock, but that’s because Vaughn’s film is also much more serious and dangerous.

This is an intricate and gripping film but it might be a little too complex for its own good. Twists and double-crosses are expected in this genre, but writer J.J. Connolly has so many characters running around and so many hidden agendas that it’s nearly impossible to keep track. Some of the subplots and back stories add very little like the inexplicable “Crazy Larry” flashbacks. I left the theater still confused about plot points but refreshingly satisfied nonetheless.

Layer Cake is the most thoroughly exhilarating time I’ve had at a theater this year. This pulpy daylight-noir caper is full of memorable hoods, plenty of twists and turns, and a star making performance by the steely-eyed wonder that is Daniel Craig (rumored to be the next 007, though in my heart I’ll always root for Clive Owen). Fans of Ritchie’s frenetic gangster flicks should be entertained. Anyone looking for a clever and exciting potboiler that treats violence and crime seriously should start lining up immediately. If you’re suffering from the cinematic wasteland that 2005 has shaped up to be so far, then have yourself a generous helping of Layer Cake and thank the Brits.

Nate’s Grade: A

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+

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tim Burton’s latest is a ravishing world of intrigue and brooding awe. The action is note-for-note in Washington Irving’s classic revamped into a Burton Murder She Wrote episode. Sleepy Hollow has plenty of mystery to its credit as well as suspense and fantastic staging. The sets and mood will draw the viewer into a luscious world of cinematic delight. Beautiful to watch, and Burton scores again, though it lacks the depth his other movies had. And what the hell is with Walken’s teeth?

Nate’s Grade: B

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