Friday, December 2, 2011

The 3:10 to High Noon

It has been almost sixty years since Hollywood gave audiences High Noon-- the film that became the defining mold to the western genre. While directors and writers have spent years trying to reinvent the wheel, High Noon remains the quintessential western that all others follow in the footsteps of. High Noon effectively struck every note that has become cliché to western movies, but did so with such style and grace that the films that followed in its wake could not seem to help but try to take a shot at the formula. The classical western has faded in its popularity over the years, but recent Hollywood attempts to revive the dusty west still echo back to High Noon's classic mold.

According to Roger Ebert, "The Western in its glory days was often a morality play, a story about humanist values penetrating the lawless anarchy of the frontier"  (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070906/REVIEWS/709060305). A classic western must at least in some manner illustrate this definition. Consider 2007's 3:10 to Yuma (a remake of a 1957 film of the same name) in which a down on his luck rancher undertakes the dangerous mission of escorting an outlaw to the train station. The story is so simple that it might have been rewritten any number of ways to accommodate the modern audience's fading interest in morality tales and westerns in general. Fortunately, the 2007 movie remains faithful to the spirit of the original film, which followed closely on the heels of High Noon.

Generally speaking, with exceptions of course, westerns require certain stock characters. These characters usually fall into the following categories: a pure-hearted hero of ordinary origins, the town barmaid, an antagonist of disreputable background, brainless lawmen, mercenaries, and one thoroughly good woman. The hero of High Noon is Marshall Will Kane, closely mirrored by 3:10 to Yuma's protagonist Dan Evans. The major difference between Gary Cooper's character Marshal Kane in High Noon and Christian Bale's Dan of 3:10 to Yuma is that the latter borders on mercenary but as the story shifts, so does he. What starts as a mission to save his ranch and earn back the respect of his family becomes a quest to be the agent of justice no matter the cost. In the process he saves his ranch and earns the respect of his family anyway.

Dis-similarly, Gary Cooper's Kane never alters his character. He is from the beginning determined to carry out his duties and remains resolute to the very end. The similarity between Dan and Kane is that before the film's inevitable shootout, both characters are completely abandoned by everyone, including lawmen and friends. Despite the certain outcome of going alone against a gang of lawless gunslingers, both men see their duties through while the other "good men" flee. Kane is driven by a sense of duty that the whole town (including his newlywed wife) tells him he does not have to bear. Dan is motivated by getting back on his feet financially and fulfilling his obligation to provide for his family. Both men are tested and forced to realize what they are truly made of. Both men stand firm even when the temptation to walk away seems practical, even reasonable.

The respective villains of High Noon and 3:10 are less similar to each other, but create the same moral dilemma for the protagonist. Frank Miller of High Noon and Ben Wade of 3:10 are both escaped notorious outlaws with a certain skill for evading justice. Between the two, Ben Wade is a far more interesting antagonist because he seems to exist to stir the waters whether by violence, indifference, or occasional kindness just for the sake of surprising himself. But just as Marshal Kane is an unyielding pure heart, his nemesis Miller must be equally constant in his evil. Wade does not shift so much in his character as much as he simply explores less visited sides to himself. Miller persists in his quest for vengeance without the slightest intention of faltering. Wade never truly ceases being the villain despite his charming attempts to manipulate the audience into liking him. Miller never tries to be liked; he cares about satisfaction. In the finale of both films, the hero is in a life-threatening character-testing moral dilemma created by the villains therein. Wade and Miller both have fiercely loyal gangs with no moral conscience that compound the danger that the heroes must face alone. It could be said that in each film, the heroes and villains mirror each other in their fortitude or in their growth.

Going back to Roger Ebert's quote about westerns being a morality play, both High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma effectively strike the proper note according to Ebert. High Noon laid the groundwork for the classic structure, and 3:10 to Yuma adhered to the established mode. 3:10 to Yuma may have rattled the cage in its more complex portrayal of the two main characters at odds with one another, but at its heart it is a strong tribute to classic westerns like High Noon in which evil will not triumph as long as good men do not stand by and do nothing.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Revisiting The Lion King

  The Lion King is aptly titled, because it is the crown of Disney animation's already stunning record. When this visionary take on a Shakespearean tragedy became a worldwide hit in 1994, I did not have the privilege of seeing it in the theater because I was actually in Africa at the time. Once my grandmother sent us the VHS however, it was played more times than I can count. Shortly thereafter, my family acquired the cassette tape soundtrack and our car was filled with melodious Alan Menken songs. Now, twelve years later, The Lion King makes its comeback to theaters in 3-D, DVD, and Blu-Ray, with just as much grandeur as its debut in 1994.

    Some things that were so sweet in childhood are not nearly as impressive in adulthood, but this is certainly not the case with The Lion King. The characters are every bit as charming or chilling, the songs still catchy, and the score still inspiring and appropriately majestic. When "the Lion King" was released in 1994, I was far too young to appreciate the things that strike me now in adulthood. For example, over the years I have developed an inclination for movie music composed by Hans Zimmer. I had no idea until more recently that he was the master behind the gorgeous score of The Lion King. Apparently my love of Zimmer goes further back than I realized. And I must add that the opening sequence "The Circle of Life" recaptures the wonder and magic of Africa that I have missed so much in the last few years since moving to the USA. Watching the gorgeously animated images of various East African animals and especially the shot of elephants walking through the morning mist in front of Mount Kilimanjaro was strangely emotional, because I used to be able to see that same mountain from my house. Very few films have ever adequately captured that enchantment, but "The Lion King" hits the mark bull's-eye.

     On a less personal note, as an adult it strikes me that the story of The Lion King, although cushioned in peppy tunes and lovable characters, is actually an extremely heavy plot. The fact that animals are used somehow makes it a little easier to bear, but at its heart we have a story about a child who is deceived into carrying the weight of his father's accidental death, forsaking his birthright to hide from the truth that would set him free. The themes woven into what is largely marketed as a children's or family feature are far above the usual overtones that run throughout other cartoons. Instead the writers reach deeper, hitting strongly spiritual and psychological notes.

     As a Christian viewer, Simba's conversation with his deceased father was particularly moving as Mufasa declares with sterling conviction, "You have forgotten who you are and so forgotten me. Look inside yourself; you are more than what you have become!" His father's words are far from edifying, but they call Simba to take his place, be who he was meant to be, and stop running. In facing his past, Simba not only learns the freeing truth about his father's death, he liberates an entire kingdom from the tyrannical rule of the evil Scar. As a child Simba could not have understood how his decisions would affect so many, and when confronted with the ramifications of his choices as an adult, he is initially content to continue thinking like a child. His kingdom is starving, his own subjects are suffering and dying, and yet Simba attempts to hide behind his newfound "Hakuna Matata" lifestyle as long as he can rather than face the past. When the struggle is over and the deceiver Scar has been overthrown, Simba humbly but bravely ascends the mountain and takes his place as king, now empowered with the truth and the freedom therein. The symbolism of the lions is another thought thread in itself.

    In exploring the character of Scar, it is safe to say that Scar is possibly one of the most chilling villains Disney has ever brought to the screen. While past miscreants may have squabbled for a throne or tried to eliminate competition for unspoken beauty contests, Scar's depravity reaches a certain level rarely seen in animation. It is clear that as the antagonist, he will not be stopped by anyone or anything standing in his path to power, which makes the Hitler and Nazi reminiscent imagery of "Be Prepared" especially brilliant in its usage. He would not only kill his own brother and nephew, but as soon as his reign is threatened, he turns on his own henchmen (the hyenas) that have led the coup to place him on the throne. The Lion King might be loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the murderous Claudius who marries his lately murdered brother’s wife has more heart than Scar. Simba graciously allows Scar the chance to flee and live with his disgrace, but Scar spits in the face of mercy. 

    Going back to the things that made The Lion King one of the most loved movies of all time, it stands to reason that the team behind the creation wove in a balance of child-friendly characters and tunes with quality script and artistry for more mature viewers, making the film timeless. The dynamic duo of Timon and Pumbaa, the terrible trio of Hyenas, the majestic artistry of the distinctly African terrain, or the climactic moment when Simba climbs Pride Rock to claim the throne under the crescendo of glorious music are unforgettable pieces that come together beautifully to form a true masterpiece. The Lion King succeeds supremely as excellent entertainment, a work of art, and one of the finest examples of what animated movies can be. 


Friday, September 9, 2011

Portrait of a Hero: Boromir

Portrait of a Hero: Boromir

Hero. 1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave
deeds and noble qualities. 2.  a man distinguished by exceptional courage,
nobility, fortitude, etc .
    
     To the category of hero as defined by dictionary.com, I would like to nominate Boromir of Gondor from The Lord of the Rings. When the vast majority of people who have knowledge of the Lord of the Rings movies (and no history with the books) are asked who the heroes of the story are, Boromir is rarely mentioned. Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, or any number of other characters may be hailed as such, but not Boromir. If a character were described by the characteristics listed under the definition of a hero, adding to it "one who gives his life for his friends, a soldier who dies in service of his country," there would be no dispute about the person's heroism, yet Boromir is still not often counted among Middle Earth's heroes. Upon closer inspection of the character however, it should be noted that Boromir of Gondor is worthy of the title of hero. Although his usefulness may have been brief due to his untimely death in The Fellowship of the Ring, the fact remains that he is indeed a hero, and an unsung one at that.

     Unfortunately for the mighty man of Gondor, Boromir is most remembered for his moment of weakness. The great soldier is certainly ambitious and strong-willed, and perhaps short-tempered, but he is also driven by a sense of duty and patriotism. In the extended version of The Return of the King, the audience learns that it was never Boromir's desire to pursue the Ring of Power-- he did so on orders from his power-mongering father. In so many minutes it is also revealed that Boromir endeavored to restore Gondor to its former glory, and was therefore bound by a sense of loyalty and honor to protect the realm he had labored to repair. Faced with the greatest vessel of evil Middle Earth has ever seen, Boromir succumbs to a temptation for just a moment and attempts to seize the ring from Frodo, deceived by the idea that this would be the answer to protecting all that Boromir had striven to build. This brief lapse then unjustly becomes his defining moment.
   
     Mere seconds after his threats against Frodo, the mighty man breaks down in tears at what he has done, but audiences forget this. Earlier in the story, he viciously fights a multitude of raging goblins, and literally carries a friend out of the Mines of Moria when the other is overwhelmed with panic and grief. He charges into a host of sordid orcs that vastly outnumber him with courage and vigor to defend his friends, ultimately giving his life for them, yet he is still not counted among the heroes. The fact that he continues to defend small, weaker comrades, even as arrows are jutting out of his punctured chest is overlooked and forgotten. Weakened by many blows and on his knees before a filthy leader of a squalid horde, he straightens to meet his end rather than cowering before his inevitable demise. With his dying breath he restates his allegiance to the future king of Gondor, and passes from Middle Earth with warrior's honors.
   
  Boromir was flawed, as all characters are. Although he succumbed to a moment of weakness, almost all the characters of the story are tempted by the ring at some point. Despite his lapse, he finished strong. He was temporarily overcome by the suppressed desire to defend his people once and for all against innumerable odds, but he admits his fault to his friend and the heir to the throne. Some of his actions reflected moments of weakness, but other actions reflected sterling heroism. And while a few moments of strength do not make a hero, Boromir constantly put himself in harm's way and proved himself an otherwise selfless warrior and loving brother. For this, Boromir remains to this author, the portrait of an overlooked and unsung but still wholly worthy hero.    

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Captain "Middle of the Road" America

Yes this is a review of Captain America. And as a disclaimer I will add that I have no history with the famed superhero, so I will accept no responsibility for making a comment that would be considered irreverent. I review the movie, not the literature, entity, or culture of Captain America.

The stereotypical unlikely hero of this story is Steve Rogers; a skinny, scrawny young man with no admirable physique, but pure ideals and a heart for justice. Steve is in a sense, an embodiment of the American way of liberty and justice for all. He longs to fight against the evil powers of oppression of World War II and be counted among the men who defend freedom. Thanks to cutting edge science, the mad dreams of Dr. Abraham Erskine, and Steve's willingness to be a guinea pig, Steve is transformed in a matter of minutes from a determined runt to a muscular model of a soldier. Being a humble man, he doesn't shove his paperwork stamped "phyically unfit" in the face of the recruiters when he emerges as a supersolider.

Captain America is as a comicbook movie, neither great nor loathsome. It hits squarely in the middle in almost all ways. The plot is predictable, the light love story expected, and the overblown action is typical (though admittedly entertaining) for a movie of its genre. I believe I have said before that this particular genre does not necessarily require good acting, so if it is present it may be counted as a bonus, as was the case with Iron Man. Chris Evans faithfully presents the character of Steve Rogers as a sterling, incorruptible force for good, without being stupidly angelic. Rogers is a down to earth sort of boy next next door, and extremely likable even before his transformation into Captain America. He's polite, patriotic, kind, but strong and determined. Other than Rogers himself, the most memorable character is Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, someday the father of Iron Man's Tony Stark, with a similarly sarcastic nature and preference for scantily-clad women, but women in general do just as well.

Hugo Weaving is an interesting actor to say the least, but his role as the Red Skull villain of this movie is mediocre by no fault of his own, which means the parties to blame must be, at the risk of sounding unpatriotic, the writers. Don't misunderstand me, it was preposterously ambitious to have a Nazi villain whose plots surpass Der Fuhrer himself. The laws of comic books require that the villain be the absolute antithesis of the hero, and if you're searching for such an archetype, you can hardly do better than a Nazi. Since Steve is the apotheosis of goodness and virtue, the Nazi by default must be the epitome of depravity, evil, and abnormality. He accomplishes this by not having a real face, which is hardly unexpected in a comic book movie. Steve on the other hand has no selfish ambitions, is not to be dissuaded by his diminutive size, and does not take advantage of the British agent who clearly takes an interest. He is like the idealistic Superman, but not so untouchable and impersonal. For the most part he is a fairly solid hero, though not particularly complex. However, not having a hero with inner demons and deep dark tortuous secrets is refreshing, really.

It is this lack of complexity and excess of cliche that brings Captain America somewhere stranded between Spider-man and Iron Man; above a completely lighthearted origin story, but not quite original enough to stand out as a paragon of the genre. All the same, that is not to say that Captain America is unenjoyable; it is certainly very good. The lead character is the definitive good guy, the WWII setting is unique, and it's packed full of fast-paced action and a few sweet reflective moments. As a superhero origin movie it may not go down in the genre's history as a specimen of their finest, but it makes for a great popcorn flick and some nostalgic patriotism.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two

"It All Ends Here"

     Such is the tagline for the final movie installment of the Harry Potter movie franchise. An unforgettable cinematic journey that began in 2001 has now reached a bittersweet but satisfying end ten magical years later. Tears have been shed, roads have been traveled, lives have been lost, and the great battle between good and evil is finally coming to the ultimate climax that has been building for seven movies. Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort will face off at last, but the conflict has escalated to stakes far greater than personal grievances-- the future of the entire wizarding world hinges on the outcome of this final definitive showdown.

     The Deathly Hallows Part Two picks up where Part One left off, with possibly mere moments in between. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have just barely dried the tears from their eyes before they must turn their faces to the next task and continue the horcrux hunt. With very little to go on, the trio set off again on another impossibly risky quest, just hoping they find what they are looking for. Their adventures will take them from the soothing seaside to the dark and damp vaults of Gringotts, and eventually all the way back to the hallowed halls of Hogwarts.

     The simpler more fantastic times of The Sorcerer’s Stone were so long ago they barely seem to be part of the same timeline anymore, but after ten years of growing and changing, The Deathly Hallows Part Two is an appropriate contrast to the earlier years of Harry Potter, thoroughly showing how much has changed in the characters and their world. This monumental finale tastefully manages to conjure an impressive mixture of amazement and tender sweetness into the ubiquitous solemnity of the film’s general aura. Moments of extreme intensity are relieved by well-timed comic relief, without distracting from the severity of the situations at hand. The few moments that are not laden with mortal peril are used wisely to secure the copious emotions of the moment and effectively build to the grand battle scenes.

     The Deathly Hallows Part 2 is by far the most action-packed movie of the saga, but by no means overwhelming the main points of the story. In true wartime fashion, the characters (and by extension the audience) are barely given ample time to truly understand the losses they have felt, let alone grieve over them. Although the character casualties are relatively high for a story of its kind, the deaths seen onscreen are mostly villains which carries a certain balance of pros and cons. It is positive to the degree that it sells the triumphs and victories over the evil forces (one particularly intense scene featuring a horde of snatchers and a bridge comes to mind), bringing with it the satisfaction of seeing tormenters and ne'er-do-wells get their long-belated due. Indeed the villains are disintegrated, vaporized, frozen in mid-air and then wrenched out of high heights, fall in crumbling structures, and decapitated.

     It is very mildly negative in the way that none of the casualties from Harry's side of the war are given the kind of emotional sendoff that we experienced in the case of Dobby, Dumbledore, Sirius, or even Cedric (though admittedly this would have been difficult to pull off and might have completely ruined the pacing). (Spoiler Warning) The exception to this is Snape's heart-wrenching death scene. When the camera takes us into the great hall where the valiant fallen have been lain, there are but a few seconds to process the gravity of the losses before the story must move on. Exiting the theater it was clear that some of the non-readers were unsure of which Weasley twin had fallen in battle, since the subject's face is not clearly shown and his name is only briefly mentioned, though it is clear that the one of the twins now lay lifeless on the stone floor with the remaining Weasleys mourning him.

     The numerous action and battle scenes are the most excellent to ever be seen in a Harry Potter movie, from the grand dragon escape from the vaults of Gringotts to the battle of Hogwarts to the final confrontation, everyone receives ample use of their wands. What is especially noteworthy about the action of the film is how each sequence manages to be entirely unique and not repeat itself in terms of method. The intensity of escaping Gringotts on a dragon is entirely different from the inferno in the Room of Requirement, which is in turn different from the Battle of Hogwarts and the last duel between Harry and Voldemort and the cut shots in between of other characters in individual conflicts.

     Each battle or action scene is executed with effective intensity and passion. The dark side’s legion of Death Eaters, mass of unruly giants (and not the loving half-breeds like Hagrid), as well as massive spiders of the dark forest (previously seen in The Chamber of Secrets), as well as Dementors (first seen in The Prisoner of Azkaban) and the werewolf who claims the life of a minor character from a previous film are the steel backbone of the action. Not only because they are the antagonists and “the dark side”, but because they fight without even a convoluted moral center, and are therefore appropriately formidable.

     While there are many performances of The Deathly Hallows Part Two worthy of mention, there are undeniable standouts among the fantastic cast. Although each of the main characters of the trio all turn in pristine performances, they are most definitely upstaged by the supporting cast that boasts some of British cinema’s finest veterans. The characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione are firmly established by this point and so their development is fairly complete (see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One review), with some strong moments thrown in, such as Harry’s reaction to Snape’s demise and his subsequent realization of what he must do to end the conflict once and for all.

     The minor supporting cast delivers its own set of pungent and memorable moments, the best nominations of which are Warwick Davis as Griphook, and the always fabulous Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy. While Griphook may not feature as a particularly important character, Davis captures the goblin’s conniving and treacherous nature with absolute perfection. The goblin does not speak; he seethes his lines, each word as pointy and sharp as the goblin’s own teeth, dripping with imminent treachery.

     Too much good cannot be said of Lucius Malfoy’s peerless portrayal by Jason Isaacs. Once an aristocratic Death Eater and leader of the underground supporters of Lord Voldemort, Lucius is now an unrewarded diminished servant of the Dark Lord who has been dealt more than he bargained for when he chose his side. The demoted state of the Malfoy family is most apparent when Lord Voldemort himself asks Lucius with absolute disgust “How do you live with yourself?” The man who was once instrumental in the sinister plans of The Chamber of Secrets now cowers before the power he has pledged allegiance to, and eventually flees in terror, having finally comprehended the cost of his alliances. Before caving to cowardice, his own son will share in his disgrace and taste loss when he watches one of his friends die in a malicious blaze. 

     Turning to the major supporting cast, Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall finally gets her moment of glory, stepping into the foreground of the conflict after eight movies. At long last, the straight-laced Professor exhibits the strength and power that we have known was there all along. Fearlessly, McGonagall duels Snape and seizes control of Hogwarts in preparation for the impending attack. So seamless is Smith’s depiction that her lines ease from commanding to comical, never damaging the respect that her presence commands. 


     As the deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, McGonagall has always possessed a natural and incontestable authority that now shines forth when she summons an army of stone statues to defend the school. In the past, the staff of Hogwarts referred to the Dark Lord as “You-know-who”, but no more. “His name is Voldemort! You might as well use it; he’s going to try to kill you either way” McGonagall declares with sterling conviction. In the face of impossible odds, McGonagall steps forward in leading the battle of Hogwarts, displaying leadership and might in the hour of greatest need.

     If anyone in the entire Harry Potter franchise deserves an Oscar, it is undoubtedly Alan Rickman. The character of Severus Snape in the hands of Alan Rickman has become the most mysterious and complex personality of all eight movies. As a character that has been present all along, Snape proves why in spite of being abrasive, antagonistic, and shady in his alliances, there was always a lingering feeling that he should be cheered for. The revelation of his back-story and history with a certain Potter family member is one of the most emotional arcs of the entire story, particularly a scene in which he appears at Godric’s Hollow shortly after James and Lily Potter have been murdered. The range of emotion Snape displays throughout the film is spectacular, from paralyzing grief to restrained horror to tender resolve, all shown immaculately.

     In the moments leading up to Snape’s dramatic end, there is a clear but restrained fear in his eyes. As Voldemort speaks, Snape is aware of where the conversation is leading, but his hesitant manner suggests that he hopes his continued act will hold to the end. To his credit, he is never exposed to Voldemort as a traitor, but maintains his courage to the last minute, taking all the secrets of his true alliance with him to the grave. The emotion swells in his final scene as he lay looking at Harry with no more anger or hatred, allowing Harry to harvest Snape’s memories and taking in one last look at Harry’s eyes. By use of archive footage from the previous movies as well as a few additional scenes, every loose end about Snape is tied up neatly and completely, letting him die an unsung and misunderstood hero. At long last Snape’s greatest secrets are exposed, perhaps the most compelling of which is that he was truly good all along.

     Lord Voldemort may have been a lingering presence and threat ever since The Sorcerer’s Stone, but Ralph Fiennes appropriately gets the most screen time in this final installment. Fiennes first appeared in The Goblet of Fire, but he has never owned his role so wholly and devotedly as he does here. Voldemort has always been dangerous, but here at the end of the grand saga, he rises to ultimate villain status through his sheer evil, stifled insecurities, and barely suppressed madness.

     Although Voldemort believes himself to be the rightful ruler of the magical world (or the whole world), he does not appreciate opposition and at times seems almost overcome with insecurity at the idea that he does not have a unanimous following. After he extends an invitation to Harry to meet in the Dark Forest for an unconditional surrender, he paces slowly as if emotionally wounded by this snub, murmuring “I thought he’d come…” A few seconds later when Harry arrives, Voldemort’s elation is only apparent in the depth of expression in his eyes.

     Ralph Fiennes exhibits the madness and chaotic evil of the Dark Lord with impeccable precision and chilling villainy. The Dark Lord’s mental instability is clearest when he deems himself victorious over Harry. He practically dances into Hogwarts laughing and proclaiming triumphantly that Harry Potter is dead with maniacal glee. Clearly he expects to have diminished all resistance, but when Neville Longbottom stands up to him, he can barely contain his fury. So he steps back, bites his lip and then responds condescendingly "I'm sure we all want to hear what you have to say." Each time that a horcrux is destroyed, Voldemort’s rage heightens, pushing him ever closer to the brink of insanity, but never quite tipping over the edge. The effect itself is mesmerizing and… maddening.


     As a whole, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two does extremely well as a fantasy movie, with more moments that approach movie greatness than the few somewhat weaker moments and condensed explanations. In one especially impressive sequence, witches and wizards stand in the courtyard of Hogwarts casting protective spells skyward, forming a shield around the school. Music soaring, special effects perfect, and emotion peaking, this particular scene stands out as an example of one of the finest moments of the film. In another extremely pungent scene, Harry walks with Dumbledore in a celestial train station where he encounters a skinned and twitching fetus of the Dark Lord.


     An example of weaker moments would be Harry and Voldemort’s final faceoff when the pair topples off a cliff, fly around unsteadily, and their faces meld momentarily before they skid to a halt in the school’s ruins. Because it is unclear what the purpose of this effect is, it comes across confusing and unimpressive. The rest of what should be the most defining fight of the saga between Harry and Voldemort is only acceptable, but not particularly memorable. Furthermore the long-anticipated demise of Bellatrix Lestrange may be appropriately swift, but there is barely enough time to register who Bellatrix has been fighting before Molly Weasley steps in to take the fight away from her daughter. On a minor side note, Julie Walters' delivery of the now famous line "Not my daughter you b****" was flawless. Elsewhere, when Harry is saying goodbye to Ron and Hermoine to go and face his own death, it seemed that emotion was lacking. Hermoine tearfully embraces Harry, while Ron does not even shake hands with this best friend. And finally, the Harry and Ginny romance has never truly hit the mark. This is partially a fault of the writers for not developing Ginny's character enough, but they also did not put enough of her in earlier movies to weave her through the story as a significant character. Ron and Hermoine have had eight movies of tension, nervousness, and jealousy. Without even a smidgeon of these elements except a few isolated moments in The Half Blood Prince, Harry and Ginny's involvement feels somewhat empty, even shallow.

     Changes in casting, directors, and crew in the course of eight movies would spell certain doom for a lesser franchise, but Harry Potter used the differences in each movie to its advantage, bringing a diversity of vision and creativity instead of sticking to formula. The combined efforts from the leads and an excellent supporting cast, tasteful but marvelous use of special effects, and a perfect balance of magic and reality make Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two the crown of the beautiful saga. The losses, the victories, and the long road of wonder and terror now at an end bring eight movies of outstanding quality to a satisfying, definitive, and happy finale. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review: Pirates of the Caribean On Stranger Tides

     Removing Kiera Knightley from a Pirates of the Caribbean script is only beneficial if she is not replaced by Penelope Cruz. But alas, this was in fact the case. And I may add it did nothing to help the story at all. The idea that Pirates of the Caribbean The Curse of the Black Pearl was nominated for five Academy Awards in 2004 is hard to believe when one weighs the sequels in its wake. At first, the absence of Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley as the romantic plot vehicle seems to be a promising departure from the dreadful sequels Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, but instead the audience is dealt more of the same, barely packaged differently.

     As previously mentioned, the female lead is played by Penelope Cruz, taking the painfully convenient role of Blackbeard's daughter but serving no real purpose other than eye candy (which is maximally utilized). The idealistic and uneducated in the ways of the world demi-hero is played by an unknown whose name I have not bothered to look up. Even less may be said of the mermaids, the zombies (whose presence is barely even acknowledged), and all other newcomers to the story. The only exception is Ian McShane as Blackbeard who is possibly the most perfect depiction of the infamous scalawag ever to be seen onscreen.

     The biggest disappointments here are Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, and Rob Marshall. Depp is not doing himself any favors by continuing to reprise the role of Captain Jack Sparrow. Sparrow may always have another trick up his sleeve, but his vices are no longer surprising as he does all the same things he always does from ridiculous swordfights to theatrical escapes, but fails to pull any new rabbits out of the hat. Geoffrey Rush on the other hand tries to take a different angle to Captain Barbossa, but falls flat by overdoing pirate stereotypes right down to a recently acquired peg leg. For a director whose most recognizable credits include Chicago and Nine, it is a mystery why anyone thought Rob Marshall was a good idea to direct a Pirates movie. Innuendos abound in dialogue as well as imagery, and even a few fight scenes have a certain energy to them that seem likely to be found in one of Marshall's signature pieces.

     In the end, another sequel fails to live up to its first predecessor, but still lacks the courage to wrap up in any definitive way, just in case they make enough money to justify a part five. Or maybe the minds behind this fiasco are well aware that ideas for original movies are thin on the ground these days, so leaving the possibility open for a sequel seems reasonable, even responsible. But it will not do any good in the end if they keep producing things like this.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Goodbye Harry

(This was written on Thursday July 14th, but not immediately published)

It is no secret that I can get very involved in my entertainment choices, be it film or book. Tonight Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 will be released and the illustrious saga will be at a bittersweet end. Tonight Potter fans world over will see the most anticipated movie of the year, and tonight at midnight I will bid goodbye to the eight movies that have punctuated my teenage and adult life.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released, I did not have the opportunity to see it until The Chamber of Secrets was already out. But when I saw The Sorcerer's Stone I knew I had come upon something unique and my initiation into the Harry Potter fandom was born. From that point onward, I went to theaters, read books, read reviews, wrote reviews, and eventually made my way to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter where I gleefully drank butterbeer, shopped at Honeydukes, and wandered through Hogwarts Castle. With the passing years and adding the DVDs to the collection and the books to the shelf, I began to simultaneously dread and yet excitedly anticipate the end. The end was inevitable, but having felt by this point that I had grown up with Ron, Harry, and Hermoine, inside I knew there would be a sad goodbye, no matter how the story ended.

The Deathly Hallows hit the shelves, and I procured a copy. My life proved too busy to devote too many evening hours to reading, so I listened to Stephen Fry's audio books while I was at work. I laughed, I wept, and when the last chapter closed, the feelings of satisfaction, relief, and emptiness all lingered. I comforted myself that I still had the rest of the movies to look forward to, yet now I face that end as well and I find that foreknowledge of what is to come from reading the books has only moderately prepared me for the end.

Before I enter the theater and take in the last installment of the franchise that has made cinematic history and spanned over ten years of my life, I would like to say goodbye properly. From the childlike wonder at the curious world of The Sorceror's Stone, to the mortal peril of The Goblet of Fire, to the losses and heartbreak of The Order of the Phoenix, to the drama of The Half-Blood Prince, to the many battles of The Deathly Hallows, and everything in between, I would like to say I will miss the hallowed halls of Hogwarts and growing up with such complex and quirky characters. I will miss all the adventures we have had, the mysteries we have solved, and the lessons we learned along the way, but you can be sure that I will be revisiting these memories often. Thank you to Harry, Ron, Hermoine, Neville, Luna, Ginny, Fred, George, Dumbledore, Snape, McGonagall, Mad-Eye, Sirius, Remus, Tonks, Hagrid, Draco, Dobby, Kreacher, Kingsley, Hedwig, Arthur, Molly, and the staff of Hogwarts for reminding me that even if the road is long, good will always triumph over evil, true friends are worth risking your life for, evil is sometimes dressed in pink, and you are never too old to have some magic in your life.

I bid you all a very fond farewell.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: Unknown

This was an easy review to write. I saw this movie because I like Liam Neeson most of the time and he is on my list of older men not to ever mess with. Also on that list is Clint Eastwood because I saw Gran Torino, and Jackie Chan because he is Jackie Chan. Back on topic however, I'll cut to the chase on this review instead of my signature wordy reviews that evaluate every actor in the cast as well as music, camera angles and so on and so forth.

If you have seen The Bourne Identity, you have seen this movie.

That was easy enough. And honestly that's all there is to say about it. Liam Neeson predictably kicks butt, January Jones was clearly medicated at the time of filming, and Frank Langella is (spoiler warning!) not a good guy. If you haven't seen The Bourne Identity, watch that instead of this. Terrible movie? No, but so painfully mediocre it's simply not worth saying more about. You're welcome.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Hits and Misses of Actor Replacement

     Occasionally it so happens that when sequels or series are made, that a character must be portrayed by an actor other than the original choice. This history of replacement has seen a diverse pattern of successes and failures, such as the following. 

Albus Dumbledore
In the grand Harry Potter series, Richard Harris owned Albus Dumbledore. Harris exuded the grace and wisdom that his character demanded, carrying off the presence and power of a regal wizard without even a half-effort. Following his death after only two movies, another actor had to be cast to take up the mantle of the memorable mentor figure. The choice was British film veteran Michael Gambon. Gambon took the character of Dumbledore in an entirely new direction, giving the Hogwarts Headmaster a personality that was trustworthy, personable, and grounded, but quirky in a manner more consistent with the books. HIT!



Clarice Starling
When Jodie Foster took the role of Clarice Starling for The Silence of the Lambs, it was hard to believe that anyone could ever fill her petite shoes after the now legendary chemistry with Anthony Hopkins. Anthony Hopkins returned for the sequel Hannibal, Jodie Foster did not. The character was portrayed by Julianne Moore instead. Julianne Moore was not Jodie Foster, but it worked in her favor not to imitate her predecessor when her scenes with Anthony Hopkins proved every bit as electrifying. HIT!






Rachel Dawes
Bruce Wayne does not have a reputation of picking particularly level-headed women as love interests, so the character of Rachel Dawes was a breath of fresh air to the Batman franchise when she debuted in Batman Begins. The character was written specifically for Katie Holmes, and when she could not reprise her role in The Dark Knight, Maggie Gyllenhaal filled in. Gyllenhaal's Rachel just didn't cut it, and the character fell flat, failing to be convincing in her most important moment. MISS!



James Bond
 On second thought I'll leave this one alone because the character has been played by so many actors and has seen its fair share of hits and misses. For the record, I maintain that Daniel Craig is a HIT.


Jack Ryan
Tom Clancy¹s classic American hero has eased in and out of action movies of the 90's like our very own James Bond, his shoes being filled by no less than three popular actors. The Hunt for Red October saw a young Alec Baldwin holding his own opposite the ever-incomparable Sean Connery. The Hunt for Red October went on to become a classic, but Alec Baldwin did not go on to become the golden boy. The next string of Jack Ryan movies were carried by action hero Harrison Ford, who brought Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and other such intrigue and adrenaline flicks to the big screen. As Ford aged however, Jack Ryan's popularity began to fade and it was decided that someone younger and more popular was needed to reboot interest in Clancy's hero. Ben Affleck was cast for The Sum of All Fears and we haven't heard from Jack Ryan since.
Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford: HIT.
Harrison Ford to Ben Affleck: MISS.





Col. Rhodes "Rhodey"

Forever doomed to be seen as Tony Stark/Iron Man's sidekick, Rhodey still has an important part to play in Tony Stark's life. While Iron Man 2 had disappointments throughout the overrated sequel, the greatest letdown was replacing Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle. Don Cheadle is a fine actor, but he was miscast in the role as Rhodey, and the rapport between Rhodey and Tony that fueled the dialogue of the first Iron Man film was painfully absent. MISS!



Review: Tangled

Disney has an unparalleled record for successfully reimagining fairy tales and literature and twisting them into shorter, usually somewhat lighter versions of their original forms, throwing in arbitrary musical numbers and animals with unnatural friendliness and understanding of their human companions. Disney's newest submission to the fairy tale extreme makeover is the classic tale of Rapunzel, retold in trendy 3D but complete with the usual doses of singing, dancing, young complicated romance, and strange animals.

The fact that this particular tale was released in 3D as an option is of no appeal to me personally, as I still view the 3D trend as an overrated gimmick to boost the number of theater-goers and weasel a few more dollars out of the customers. That is not to say that the film was done sloppily, merely that the addition of the 3D neither added nor subtracted from the experience altogether. Now that's out of the way, the review can begin.

"Rapunzel" is a popular enough tale that any retelling of it would need to be new and inventive, and Disney accomplished this quite well. For starters, Rapunzel's hair is not just immeasurably long, but magical with healing powers that are released through a song. Why? This is going to sound ridiculous, but it's really not that bad onscreen. Because a magical flower was used to heal her mother during childbirth and the plant's healing properties were transferred to the child. Hence Rapunzel's upbringing by the witch is not part of an obscure bargain (as in the original Grimm tale), but as a result of kidnapping. Predictably, the witch longs to be her younger self and uses the power of Rapunzel's hair to restore her youth. Rapunzel herself is completely unaware of how she is being used by the wench whom she knows as her mother. Another difference to the old tale is that Rapunzel, not her suitor, is royalty.

The three characters that this retelling concerns itself with are Rapunzel, Mother Gothel, and Flynn. Rapunzel is a lively young woman who entertains herself with art and song day in and day out with none for her companion but a silent though expressive chameleon named Pascal. Unlike some of her princess predecessors, Rapunzel is not particularly rebellious (no matter how justifiable it might seem) and has bundles of energy and spunk. She falls somewhere between the sheltered but opinionated Ariel (from The Little Mermaid) and the sweetness and loyalty of say, Belle (of Beauty and the Beast). Despite her being a blonde, Rapunzel is well aware of the world outside her tower and longs to see it, but remains obedient to the wishes of her unreasonable "mother." Even when she finally ventures outside the tower, she experiences extreme (albeit comical) mood swings ranging from despairing guilt to jubilant glee over defying her mother's wishes.

Mother Gothel is the kidnapping youth-loving witch who looks like Cher. For the most part she doesn't seem all that formidable, and come to think of it, I don't recall seeing her even use magic other than the mystical song that releases the flower power (which sounds so much worse when I say it that way). As a villain, Gothel is not particularly precarious, mostly just annoying, working manipulative "mother knows best" and "because I love you" angles as her greatest power. But she is a woman scorned and we all know what they say about that.

Flynn on the other hand brings an interesting life to the film. Flynn is easily one of the most unique heroes Disney has ever produced for a fairy tale remake. Unlike Prince Philip, Prince Charming, or even Prince Eric who all fit the perfect mold of having little or no character and almost no purpose other than to be one for the heroine to fall in love with, Flynn is a bit of a rascal. He's a self-important cad and thief who is initially motivated strictly by personal gain, trying more than once to talk Rapunzel out of her quest. Predictably, he changes his mind along the way, but he never loses his cad-like qualities or sarcastic cocked eye-brow attitude. In the climax, Flynn proves himself willing to put aside his self-centered ways and make a sacrifice for the girl he comes to love.

All in all, this is not a typical fairy tale retelling, and that's a compliment. The quirky characters and creative changes from the source material make for an entertaining and enjoyable if predictable Disney movie experience, complete with singing, dancing, and well-timed comic relief.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In Honor of the Great Cliches

     After a recent viewing of the unimpressive and highly predictable Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, it struck me that surely no one besides Prince Dastan was surprised that the king’s brother Nizam was the villain. Indeed, if Ben Kingsley were your uncle, and your father was a king who was mysteriously murdered, wouldn’t uncle Ben be the first person you’d suspect? It doesn’t matter how nice he seems. He’s the king’s brother, he stands to gain the most from the king’s murder, and he’s Ben Kingsley, which 9 times out of 10 has to mean villainy. Clearly, Prince Dastan needed to see The Lion King or read Hamlet. Prince of Persia abounded in adventure cliches, including the prophetic but feisty woman who knows everything and can really kick butt even though she looks like she wouldn’t want to break a nail. Or in this case smudge her tan. It doesn't seem to matter how much the woman might want to kill the protagonist, she never succeeds, and always ends up turning that bloodlust into a different kind of passion.

The predictable clichés of The Prince of Persia inspired me to evaluate the clichés that abound in movie entertainment, not just the adventure genre. Call it what you will, but here are the great clichés that you know if you've seen them once, you've seen them a thousand times.

1. The Genius Child-- I would posit that any role played by Abigail Breslin fits this category, but she's not the only one. Dakota Fanning seems to have had this one a few times, McCauley Culkin, and so on. Kids are smart and I'm not denying that since I used to be one such child (a know-it-all), but even those young moldable minds have limits and are not nearly as common as Hollywood would have us believe. I believe in prodigies as shown in August Rush or Searching for Bobby Fisher, but those films also portray how rare these types are while others don't
blink twice at children who have a thorough knowledge of legislation, psychology, computer hacking, or life in general.

2. The Evil Clergyman- This is not to say that every single clergyman who appears onscreen is a ridiculous legalist, a disgusting pedophile, or a radical crusader, but Hollywood has not been kind to priests and pastors in general. If not evil, then at the very least weak is standard.

3. The Wise Homeless Guy- although this particular cliché is not nearly as common anymore, it has been around for a long time. Apparently living on the streets as a homeless bum turns one into a philosopher and a life counselor.


4. Walking Away from a Grand Explosion- Thanks to a song performed by Andy Sandberg, Will Farrell, and JJ Abrams, we have the song "Cool Guys Don't Look at Explosions" to prove the point. Click here to see the montage of movies that have used this gimmick. But think about it, if there's an explosion, whoever is responsible will callously walk away, never even flinching at the exploding inferno.

5. "Grew up on a farm," "Dad was in the military," or similar excuses given to explain why a petite cute lady or supermodel is an expert in the handling of massive firearms. I grew up in Africa but I don't slay wild beasts or know a variety of weaponry. My parents are missionaries, but I'm not a theologian.

6. The Romantic Monologue- Personally I like monologues and blocks of one-sided dialogue, but they rarely deliver in a romantic scenario. It's not to say it never works, but it is a little worn out. The "you were right" speech, the "it's always been you" speech, and so on and so forth. They've all been done in a variety of settings. But even people that aren't familiar with the origins of, for example, "You complete me" and "You had me at 'hello'" (both are from Jerry Maguire by the way) have heard those lines, not the long speech that led up to them. True that a movie composed entirely of memorable one-liners would be nothing short of disastrous, but the theatrical monologue that wins back the love interest-- it's been done more than a few times.

7. The Crazy Christian- It goes hand in hand with the evil clergyman cliché. This one tends to be a neighbor who is usually a middle-aged judgmental woman who shuns all delights of life and calls everything sin, condemning her neighbors to hell for things like going to the prom. Every now and then you'll even get the extremist who doles out "holy" justice in some twisted perversion of basic moral convictions. They also usually have deep southern accents, and have no concept of basic fashion post-1950.

8. The Kick-Butt Woman- Thank you Lara Croft. At least Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame had some experience in the field of hard living. This one usually does tend to be more of the action/adventure genre, where realism is not of foremost concern anyway, which is probably why movies keep getting away with this cliché. Seriously though, even Angelina Jolie (the go-to woman for this type of role) can only take down so many war-trained bulky men in hand-to-hand combat before it becomes... ridiculous. Prince of Persia tried this one too as did the unfortunate Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and plenty of others. 

9. The Jerk Fiancé/Significant Other-- This stock character is likely to be found in a movie with a love story because it creates conflict. But you have to wonder what the character who will inevitably ditch this person ever saw in them in the first place.

10. The Big Secret Hideout that No One Knew About- It's in the mountains, in the forest, in the bottom of a lake, or deep within a cave. How could no one know about it? The villain couldn't have built it all by himself. People had to build it, and they couldn't all have become the henchmen of the villain who commissioned the order. Unless the villain had a small country at his command who are loyal to a vow of absolute secrecy, it's unlikely he just happened to have henchmen that had the skills to build a fortress. If the villain killed all the workers, someone would have noticed that too. Someone somewhere knows about it.

There's a reason that these have lasted as long as they have-- these things became clichés because they were bankable gimmicks. That is why this note is called "In Honor of the Great Clichés." These particular ten have been used and used again, and are guaranteed to still be milked continuously-- but it makes me appreciate creativity. With the summer movie season just around the corner and plenty of comic book movies and adventure flicks on the way, it's safe to assume that the great cliches will be alive and well.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Review: True Grit

This year's surprising Oscar nominee True Grit is a remake of an old John Wayne classic of the same name, unseen by me. Last time a western was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it was Brokeback Mountain, also unseen by me, unless you count No Country For Old Men, which I don't. Granted, the Western is not the most frequented genre and there seem to be maybe one or two Westerns each year, which makes the likelihood of one being recognized by the Academy exceptionally narrow. Yet somehow this uncharacteristic submission by the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan managed to grab the attention critics as well as audiences, earning praise even from loyalists of the original film.

The original John Wayne version of the now famous film won the Duke an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. Meaning no disrespect to the Duke, I find it hard to believe that even John Wayne could have done a better job with Rooster Cogburn than Jeff Bridges has done in the remake-- a performance which earned him an Academy nomination, but no gold (that honor went to worthy opponent Colin Firth for The King's Speech). That is not to say however, that Jeff Bridges did not carry off the role in superb style or was in any way undeserving of the honor of being considered for the best performance of the year.

Bridges brings Cogburn to life with such pristine realism, one can almost smell him. Bridges portrays Cogburn with perfect dramatic and comedic timing, owning every word that slurs. He always seems to be in varying stages of intoxication or at the very least coming out of a hangover, but clearly is not without his moments of contemplation and revelation. While he starts out as merely a calloused mercenary marshal, his closing scenes reveal a deeper heart than concern for just monetary gain. Furthermore, even in his moments of seemingly drunken staggering, he effectively communicates that he is not a man to be toyed with, and has very little moral center preventing him from shooting first and asking questions later-- which he does a few times. Yet for all his lack of sobriety and seemingly careless behavior, you can’t help but care about Rooster Cogburn as he begins to care more about Mattie and her personal mission.

Part of what makes True Grit a compelling story despite its slow narrative pace is the unlikely combination of characters thrown together and rolling unsteadily along like a broken wheel. Central to the story is fourteen year old Mattie Ross, who is determined to find her father’s killer and bring him to justice. She is feisty, outspoken, reckless, and naïve in her perceptions of the world. Relatively unknown young actress Hailee Steinfeld gives Mattie Ross a controlled but passionate center that brings both emotion and humor to this trail story. Emotion because it is her drive to find her father's killer that births the story, humor because of the stark contrast she is to both Marshal Cogburn and the ranger LeBoeuf. Mattie is obviously an earthy young woman with a simple black and white understanding of right and wrong-- a view which means that Mattie has no qualms whatsoever about shooting her father's killer if she ever finds him. Because her personal quest is (in her view) in the name of justice that failed to be carried out, she never falters or stops to wonder about the implications of killing a man. While her purpose was actually to track down Chaney and bring him to trial, she proves that she is prepared to take matters into her own hands if the situation demands it.

The only other character given significant screen time is Matt Damon's LeBoeuf, who serves more or less as comic relief. Not that anyone would want to push him too far, as he is a decent shot, but his general purpose here is to be the character who seems to exit the film several times, but keeps coming back to lend a hand or a laugh. The character is a little out of the ordinary for Matt Damon, but as a supporting character he lightens the mood of the scenes he has, and plays well off of Mattie and especialy Cogburn. 

True Grit is by no means a shootout type of western. In terms of plot and writing it is straightforward and relatively unvarying. In this tone of storytelling, screenplay and music play in like unseen characters. Although this tale is set in the old west where saloons are plenty, social rules are blurry, and justice is a romantic dream, there is a shocking lack of grammatical blunders and conjunctions. In the entire film, even murderers utter less than a handful of words like "ain't." Every character speaks in precise tones, making most of them sound like former members of the Georgia aristocracy.  For example, a character is bitten by a rattlesnake. The expected dialogue would be along the lines of "I just been bit!" with a few profanities directed at the snake. Instead, the character declares "I have been bit." On a similar note, when Cogburn and Mattie meet a travelling medicine man wearing a dead bear and carrying a corpse, he asks politely (though with a hint of insanity in his wild eyes) "Are you in need of medical attention?"

In a story centered on travel and living off the land, one somewhat expects sweeping views of the land and memorable music to accentuate the journey of the characters across the rich American terrain. Not so here. Rather, camera shots are fairly stationary with few angles and no celebration of the scenery. As regards the music, the old hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" runs as a theme throughout most of the film; a curious but appropriate choice. The music and cinematography complement one another and carefully construct a subtle atmosphere around the story that simply works.
In conclusion I find it appropriate to define the word grit. The word grit is synonymous with resolution, fortitude, and courage. In the early stages of the movie Mattie enlists the services of Marshal Cogburn because he has a reputation of having true grit. Cogburn appears to be no more than a washed-up fat old drunk, but by the movie's end, he has proved that he still has grit, and Mattie discovers she has a fair bit of her own. The trail is not easy, the journey is exhausting, but their own true grit pushes them through.