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The power of investigation
It's incredible what good writing can do. The screenplay for "Spotlight" (written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer) takes several characters, a trying investigation that got deeper and deeper as the months progressed, and have managed to compact it down into a very compelling 128 minutes (and the film feels shorter than that, another good sign). Honestly, McCarthy (as a director), his crew, and the cast didn't need to do a whole lot else to punch things up. This is straightforward storytelling about an important piece of investigative journalism, and rarely does it make any mistakes.
Given how many people are involved in this (I'm even reluctant to declare one person the "main character"), I'll have to summarize the plot without giving names. A new chief editor has been hired at the Boston Globe, and he's looking for a way to get readership up. He commissions the four person "Spotlight" team of the Globe to investigate reports of a priest molesting children in the Boston area (even though the team doesn't take requests). The team accepts the commission, but as they dig deeper, they find the case involves way more priests, victims, and even lawyers than originally imagined.
Given how labyrinth things get, one might think the script would try to shortchange events or dumb down certain scenes. But thankfully, McCarthy and Singer are smarter than that. They assume that we, the audience, are intelligent people, and that we will be able to follow everything on the screen. The amount of detail to the plot is heavy (and may require a second viewing, or subtitles), but as long as you stay alert, it can be followed. When the film ended, I had both a greater appreciation for all of the work the Boston Globe put into investigating this story, and I sought out more information for myself about the case. To me, that's a sign that I was really involved in the plot.
The cast? Home runs all around. What a relief to see Michael Keaton get a good role that's not Batman or references his Batman past. Liev Schreiber is incredibly convincing as the soft spoken, but determined new editor who wants this story told. For Mark Ruffalo, one of his best roles yet. The same goes for Rachel McAdams. Stanley Tucci? Hey, what else can you expect but excellence from him. There are several other names I know I've left out, but rest assured that every performance is very convincing. These are smart people in action; you understand why they make every decision that they do. Again, what a relief that this film assumes that we are an intelligent audience, and will watch smart choices on the screen.
I have heard a few people comment that the Catholic church doesn't seem like a big threat in this film. I have to disagree. The Catholic church is a force in this film, but not in an obvious way. The dirty work has already been done. The crimes have been committed, the paper trails have been eliminated, and now it is up to the Spotlight team to put the vast pieces together and write an all-encompassing article about the church's actions. When people involved with the church tell these reporters "don't do this," I think it's more out of their knowledge of how much their (formerly) private world is going to be rocked, not so much a threat of violence.
The one thing this screenplay may be short on is character development. This is a film that is more interested in following the events of the investigation that deeply knowing the people involved. But that is an okay tact to go with, as it allows for the storytelling to be very straightforward. And, if you listen closely, there are a few clues peppered throughout that subtly indication what makes each person tick.
We've had some great movies about investigation in the past. "Ciziten Kane" on the fiction side, and "The Insider" on the non-fiction side, for example. Add "Spotlight" to that list. It's smart about its characters and their decisions, it assumes we are smart and will understand a detailed plot, and it leaves a thought provoking impression at the end. My interest has been very piqued in these events, and between that and the terrific screenplay, I'm not sure how much else I can do to compliment this film.
Toy Story (1995)
20 years later, it still rocks!
What more can be said? 20 years ago, Pixar released "Toy Story," and the rest is animation history. Computer animation has since become the dominant form of animation. Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, and Universal (and maybe some other companies I have forgotten) have created their own computer animation studios to rival Pixar. Pixar themselves would continue to push just how far animation could go, both in animation quality and in storytelling ambition.
So one may wonder, 20 years after this all got started, is the one that started it all still excellent by today's standards? The answer is an emphatic YES.
The story is fairly well known by now, but I'll repeat it anyway for those who are unfamiliar. This "Toy Story" centers around the toy cowboy Woody (wonderfully voiced by Tom Hanks). Woody is the favorite toy of the young boy Andy (John Morris), who has several other toys, including Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (the late Jim Varney), and Hamm the Piggy Bank (John Ratzenberg, whose consistent appearances in Pixar films has become a running gag of sorts - and was acknowledged as such in "Cars"). The film starts on Andy's birthday party, a time when all of his toys get nervous, because Andy might get a toy that he likes more than the others. Sure enough, he's received the latest "cool" toy, spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, an inspired choice). This results in Woody being demoted to "second best," something he doesn't take well at all. Woody attempts to push Buzz out of the way so he can get back to being Andy's favorite toy, but through a series of mistakes (and misadventures), he winds up making both he and Buzz separated from their owner Andy. Worse, they end up in the possession of their neighbor, Sid (Erik von Detten), who prefers to blow up his toys instead of play with them. Now Woody and Buzz have to make peace and work together if they are to return to Andy (oh, and did I mention that Andy is moving away soon?).
The premise is simple enough, but it's in the execution where things get very inspired. Take, for example, how the toys attempt to learn what presents Andy is receiving. They send several Army Men Toy Soldiers down for a "Code Red" mission, and how these soldiers pull this off always puts a smile on my face. I still remember being inspired by watching the soldiers move that radio into that small leafy plant on the bottom floor (I was seven when I first saw this). I was so inspired, in fact, that a year later, I was "teaching" my toys how to hide in the Christmas tree during Christmas. Director John Lasseter and the Pixar team have deeply considered how a world of toys would work. How would a toy feel about getting relegated to "second best" when a new toy comes around? And it's pretty fun to see how the toys have to consistently make sure the "human world" never knows about their awareness.
And the strength of this script goes beyond its consideration of a world of toys. Its tight and to the point. There are no wasted moments in the film's (short) 81-minute runtime. Pixar is not satisfied with simply showing what computer animation can do. They are interested in guiding along through a story that provides laughs, thrills, an occasional scare, and something valuable to learn at the end.
Obviously, the quality of computer animation has improved greatly since this film first came out (watch how they animate a dog here, and compare it to how Pixar would animate Sullivan's fur in "Monster's Inc.", for example). But let's remember, at the time, this was considered to be massively advanced animation. Many adult critics wondered if kids would realize just how big of a breakthrough this was in the history of animation, but I can reassure them, I may have been only 7 years old, but even I realized an entirely computer animated film was a very big deal indeed! Looking back now, I do think we should consider some of the things the animators did in this film that further emphasized what computer animation should be going for. Gene Siskel pointed out that you could see a reflection off of Buzz's helmet (and even stated, as a compliment, "They didn't have to do that!"). The toys, the settings, everything was beautifully rendered and still looks good today. Even if one just reduced this picture to its visual qualities (inadvisable), they would still come out quite satisfied.
Today officially marks the 20 year anniversary of when I saw this film (December 22nd, 1995), and it's high time I got to writing a review of it. "Toy Story" absolutely changed movies, and that is not a hyperbole. It's popularity made others realize the financial potential in computer animation. It's quality made everyone realize just what computer animation could (and should) pull off, both in visuals and storytelling. Pixar themselves would start a very long winning streak of highly acclaimed pictures, with many seemingly getting even more glowing reviews then the picture before it (heck we've gotten two great "Toy Story" sequels to boot). That this film still holds up even though many envelope pushing animated pictures have been released since is impressive indeed.
20 years later, "Toy Story" still rocks!
The Dictator (2012)
Funny in the first twenty minutes. Too bad the next hour wasn't as good.
Look, "Borat" was a funny film. I've rarely laughed harder in a theater. Writer/actor Sacha Baron Cohen seamless mixed outrageous gags with sharp satire of American culture. However, it seems that the success of that picture may have gotten to his head a little. "Bruno," while sometimes funny, seemed to focus more on shocking the audience than making them laugh. I was hoping his latest picture, "The Dictator," would be a return to form. Unfortunately, I left feeling underwhelmed.
Don't get me wrong, the first twenty minutes, I thought it was a good show. We are introduced to Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), the incredibly conceited ruler of Wadiya (a nation who's borders oddly resemble Eritrea's). He hires celebrities to sleep with him, he stages his own Olympics (where he wins every event), he freely has people executed when they get in his way, and he lives in a palace that celebrates all things Aladeen. There are plenty of good jokes to be found early on, including a brief "dedication" to the late Kim Jong- Il, Aladeen inspecting a nuclear missile, and a cameo by Megan Fox (playing herself).
Then the plot kicks in; Wadiya will be attacked by NATO if Aladeen doesn't speak to the United Nations. His right hand man Tamir (Ben Kinsgley) encourages him to make the trip. Reluctantly, Aladeen packs his bags and heads over to New York. Shortly after his arrival, he is ambushed by a man working for Tamir (John C. Reilly in another cameo). Aladeen escapes, but not after his beard is removed and he is rendered "unrecognizeable" to everyone else (more on this later). Now he has to make it on his own in New York City while trying to reclaim his identity as the Admiral General.
I won't too much further in the plot, but suffice to say, it's when the film turns into a fish out of water comedy that the picture starts to suffer. Cohen takes lots of risks in trying to come up with humor; you can't deny he's got guts. Unfortunately, he once again resorts too much to just shocking the audience instead of making us laugh.
For an example, at one point, Aladeen is desperate to find a beard. So he cuts off the head of a dead man. Apparently, this film thinks they have come up with a "money gag," as the head is shown repeatedly as a puppet operated by Aladeen's hand. The problem is, it's not very funny. Frankly, it's a little unsettling. And I can't think of anything it's satirizing.
Further, the screenplay is all over the map. Is the film trying to be a satire on dictatorships? A story about one man's challenge to find love? There are plot contrivances too. Why is a man who was supposed to be executed by Aladeen now helping him to return to power? Why is a far-left woman falling head-over-heels with Aladeen when he continues to be very insulting toward's everyone? And why can't she recognize it IS Aladeen without the beard?
(That woman, by the way, is Zoey, and she's played by Anna Farris. Needless to say, it's not a well-written role.)
"The Dictator," in short, needs several re-writes. Especially with it's plot. Yes, even outrageous comedies like these sometimes need a concise plot (look at "A Fish Called Wanda," for example). And then, try to carry what worked early on into the rest of the picture. Honestly, if it wasn't for the first twenty minutes, I might have the theater in a very sour mood. As it was, I still left deeply underwhelmed. I can only hope that Sacha Baron Cohen will review his screenplay and his jokes more carefully next time.
Long, but worth watching
Spanning from his days as a student in South Africa to his assassination in India, "Gandhi" recounts several events of the man's life. In South Africa, Gandhi (played terrifically by Ben Kingsley) fights against discrimination laws against Indians, but instructs his followers to fight non-violently. This will set a precedent for his return to India, where he travels the country, observes the state of the people, and takes on the discriminatory British laws one by one. Time and time again, the British authorities try to bring him down, but Gandhi continually growing support from his people make it harder to suppress his demands. However, when India's independence is increasingly becoming a reality, so is the fact that India could partition into two nations because of religious differences, something Gandhi fiercely opposes and has trouble trying to control.
Of all the compliments and accolades that have gone to this movie, the most seem to be directed at Ben Kingsley, and for good reason. He is incredibly convincing as Gandhi, showing the great gravitas the man could hold when he was leading demonstrations of thousands. He also shows how committed Gandhi was to his views. Take, for example, the moment when a his friend Walker (Martin Sheen) comments to him, "You're an ambitious man," and Gandhi replies, "I hope not." His response, though not forceful, still hits an odd nerve, as you wonder how someone who wants equality for his people in such a segregated state could not consider himself "ambitious." And yet, that response makes the rest of his actions in the movie make that much more sense. Though he is deeply committed to equality (and later, independence), he also believes it's an inherent right, not something you're born without. It's kind of surprising that Kingsley's track record after this film has been rather erratic, although he did have good turns in "Schindler's List" and "Shutter Island."
Director Richard Attenborough wastes as few details as possible about Gandhi's life (there's even a title card early in the picture that acknowledges that not all of his life could be compressed into one movie). This, for the most part, is a good choice, since you're allowed to gradually see and understand how Gandhi got India to break away from Great Britain, and, eventually, struggled to keep it one nation. For the first 140 minutes or so, the film is pretty well paced, although it's reverential attitude towards Gandhi did make me wonder if there was something more complex behind his character. The last 40 minutes, while they make the movie drag, do at least challenge Gandhi's notions, as he is forced to confront the fact that his intelligent speeches and periods of long fasting will not be enough to alleviate a long religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus (which lead to the creation of Pakistan). Notice how, when Gandhi claims to be a man of all faiths, a Hindu, not a Muslim, later assassinated him.
Though I think some trimming of the time could have helped, this is nonetheless a good looking and well acted epic and also intelligently addresses some issues that still affect us today. Do tyrants always fall? Or are the people who stand against them bound to fall as well? For me, that seemed to be the question the film posed at the end.
Though only a prelude, this film has plenty of merit
Reviewing "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" is like reviewing "Gone With the Wind" after Scarlett O'Hara declares she will never go hungry again. On one hand, you know you've seen a very good first half. On the other hand, the latter had an intermission that was just a few minutes long, and the intermission to the former with be eight months (seven as of this writing).
Despite this obvious drawback, "HP7: Part 1" still holds up. As long as you know that the story will not resolve itself by the end (for some odd reason, a lot of "critics" didn't seem to be aware of this), you will be treated to a character driven epic that takes its time, is to-the-point, and features three strong performances from the well-rounded trio that is Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson.
In a brilliant and heartbreaking opening scene, the new Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy) tries in vain to establish confidence in the wizarding community. Meanwhile, Harry watches out of his window as the Dursleys evacuate #4 Privet Drive. At the reconstructed Burrow, Ron Weasley watches the sunset with concern. And as for Hermione Granger, she is eliminating her parents' memories of her to ensure they cannot reveal her whereabouts or be concerned about her. It's a terrific opening; perfectly acted, well edited, and amazing enough, you will not find it in the book.
Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson own the screen from beginning to end without needing support from veteran adults. Though their body language was sometimes underplayed for various scenes, they still manage to convey their characters' deep emotions and conflicts. I especially enjoyed the relationship between Radcliffe and Watson. As many of commented, the dance between them in the tent (again, a great scene you will not find in the book) is a highlight of both their relationship and this movie. Watch how they play it. The dance isn't done for romantic purposes; it's two close friends trying to find solace in an immensely difficult time.
I've been waiting for Grint to get more meat to his role after film #4. Wish granted. He gets into why Ron can be both caring and selfish. Watch how he has to convince Harry early in the film not to search for the Horcruxes on his own, and then contrast it to when he lashes out at Harry for not having a plan to find them.
It's a strong film for writer Steven Kloves too. While "Half- Blood Prince" meandered, here he has constructed a focused script. Impressively enough, he manages to inject more humor into this film than what was in the book (the scene with the seven Harry's is a good example), but for the most part, he keeps an appropriately serious and sometimes retrospective tone.
As for David Yates, this is his best "Potter" film yet, and he's getting more sophisticated. The evacuation of Harry Potter early in the film proves he can do action, and I loved how he interpreted Ron's worst fears after he opened locket Horcrux. Some have said that he paced the middle section too turgidly, but I digress. He's taking his time developing the relationships between the main three. Plus, if it weren't for this section, you wouldn't feel the satisfaction that will come with part 2. It's this long trial that truly tests the characters' emotional mettle and ultimately makes them determine that this mission is worth it. Finally, just when I thought that basilisk from "The Chamber of Secrets" was scary enough, Yates made me jump out of my seat with what he did with Nagini!
In the art department, Stuart Craig doesn't have Hogwarts at his disposal, but I still enjoyed he designs to the Ministry of Magic (one scene looked inspired by "Brazil"), Mr. Lovegood's house, and the Malfoy Manor. The film score by Alexandre Desplat wasn't as great as I hoped (you might miss his only usage of Hedwig's Theme in the beginning), but he still has some inspired moments, including "Obliviate," "The Ministry of Magic," and "Godric's Hollow." Eduardo Serra turns out to be a great choice to replace Bruno Delbonnel with the cinematography. I loved his wide shots as the trio hiked around England. Finally, the choice to animate "The Tale of the Three Brothers" was very inspired.
Admitted, there are small quibbles. A lot of characters get introduced in the first 20 minutes, some for exposition alone. Ron's reasoning for returning to Harry and Hermione isn't entirely convincing (although I did get a kick when he sheepishly raised the damaged locket to Hermione like it was some sort of wedding present). The mirror shard Harry has is an unexplained plot hole (only book readers will know why he has it). And, of course, this is only one half of a story (to be expected).
It was my impression, prior to watching this film, that the "Harry Potter" movies were at their strongest when they WEREN'T constantly loyal to their books. This is why I enjoyed films 3, 4, and 5, so much; they felt very much like their own tales and didn't feel like they had to be accountable to the novels. It is ironic, therefore, that this film holds very strong and is simultaneously close to the book. Perhaps Warner Bros. knew what they were doing after all splitting "Part 7" in two. Had it been one installment, character development would have been sacrificed and the film probably would have turned into an overlong treasure hunt. Instead, the story is allowed to breathe and gain significance. While this may only be a prelude, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" still ranks high on the best of the "Harry Potter" films. I hope Warner Bros. will hold special screenings in July that will allow us to see both parts back to back, as I think that will give this conclusion it's biggest punch.
The Social Network (2010)
A good movie, but let's not get ahead of ourselves
Let me establish this first: I am a recent college graduate. I have a Facebook account, but I only check it about once per week. Whether or not this put me at a disadvantage before watching this movie, I'm not sure.
Actually, it probably didn't, since this movie is not about how Facebook influences our social lives. It is only about its founders, and the controversy that surrounded its inception. The protagonist is Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a clearly socially-inadequate student who is dumped by his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) after an argument where he corrects her speech one too many times. Angry, Zuckerberg goes on a drunken rant on his computer, creating a "face mash" where students can compare the "hotness" of different people. When he wakes up, he finds himself in trouble since his "face mash" crashed the Harvard system. But it also attracts the attention of some well-to-do student athletes (Arnie Hammer playing two roles, and Max Minghella), who want his help in creating a social networking system. A few days later, Zuckerberg hatches up a website, "The Facebook", with his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). This is intended to be a social networking site. As usage spreads, Zuckerberg's former contacts accuse him of theft. His friendship with Eduardo also becomes strained, especially when a Napster head named Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) proposes ideas to make The Facebook bigger than ever.
"The Social Network" is an ironic rise and fall tale, one of those "Citizen Kane" type of stories where the protagonist gains money and wealth because of a great idea, but loses his friends and humanity in the process. It certainly has the right actors for the job. Jesse Einsenberg is appropriately off-putting as Zuckerberg, showing a good mix of social ignorance balanced with over-intelligence. He's not afraid to portray him as a jerk. Andrew Garfield draws more sympathy as Eduardo, the friend who fears the path Zuckerberg is going. And Justin Timberlake gets to dominate many scenes as the manipulate Parker. Who knew the lead from N'Sync had a career as an actor ahead of him?
Just as with his earlier films, David Fincher takes a near-Kubrickian approach to the story. He stays emotionally distant from the characters while infusing a bit of his own style, from the sharp cinematography to the precise editing. You can tell he was being meticulous with the material. Likewise, writer Aaron Sorkin delivers a story about how a great idea in a flawed head can lead to some messy results.
I like this film as a story on the origin of Facebook, but I wouldn't call it the next "Citizen Kane" or say it's "generation defining." First off, if it was to represent a generation, then I think it would have addressed the issue of how so many people's social lives are being affected by socializing on the Internet. But the film does not go there. It sticks with only the origins of Facebook.
I also did not find Mark Zuckerberg to be a tragic hero like Charles Foster Kane. When watching "Citizen Kane," I felt Orson Welles brought a great deal of complexity to the character, and when the ending shot came, I was heartbroken for his life. I felt no such sympathy for Zuckerberg. In part because of Fincher's emotional distance, Eisenberg's performance, and Sorkin's script, I perceived the guy as a jerk from the beginning. The sympathetic last five minutes did not match up with my previous view of him.
If the creators intended Zuckerberg to be ambiguous, I'm not sure they succeeded. When the last shot came, I felt it was a too obvious reference to the final shot of "Citizen Kane." Not only did I find Erica Albright too underdeveloped for her appearance at the end to pack a sudden punch, in the realm of great David Fincher supporting females, I don't find her as memorable as, say, Marla Singer from "Fight Club."
But that's probably more me responding to the claims that this is an "instant classic." Do I recommend "The Social Network"? In short, yes. It's still a well-constructed and involving story, and I was always interested for its two hours. But I will only call it a good movie, not a great one.
Good atmosphere, great cinematography, and some fine performances overcome narrative troubles
The problem Steven Kloves had when he adapted "The Half-Blood Prince" was that the source novel doesn't contain a naturally cinematic story. You're not quite sure what everything is building up to. What is "The Half-Blood Prince" about? Voldemort's secret? That mysterious potions book? Ron making a fool of himself in romance?
Alas, it seems Kloves had to make a compromise between various elements, instead of crafting out a strong narrative like he did with parts three and four. Thus, you've got some scenes that work much better than others. Watching Ron mess around with Lavender, while an effective running gag in the book because you knew oh-so-well that Ron should have NEVER done that, feels too inserted in this movie because Lavender's annoying personality has come into the story rather suddenly (though I will give Jessie Cave credit for playing the role with great gusto). Quidditch, while enjoyable to watch early on, now feels too perfunctory. There are several jarring scene transitions, a problem the movies haven't had since "The Chamber of Secrets," because the various elements of comedy and dark mystery don't feel well-blended together.
However, past the inconsistencies, many elements do work. It's Harry and Dumbledore's work towards unlocking Voldemort's secret that works best. As far as acting goes, Radcliffe continues to show good dramatic range, and even elicits some laughs when he takes a "liquid luck" potion ("Hi!"). Michael Gambon has also accommodated himself well into the role of Albus Dumbledore. In his interactions with Harry, he seemed more like a surrogate grandfather at times, and I also greatly enjoyed watching him become a man of action as he created a firestorm to ward of the creatures of the cave in the climax.
Every "Harry Potter" movie seems to have benefited from new casting. This time, Jim Broadbent is a delight to watch as Horace Slughorn, bringing a perfect amount extroverted attitude to the role along with dark regret. Most of the "regulars" are pretty solid; we have come to expect nothing less from Alan Rickman as Snape, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, or Emma Watson as Hermione. I do wish Rupert Grint had more to work with than just being an insecure, hopeless romantic (the next installment should afford him an opportunity to show some range). Finally, I must compliment Tom Felton for bringing an extra dimension to Draco Malfoy, revealing that he may not be able to stomach an evil act as originally anticipated. I have always found Felton to be the most consistent of the "young" actors in the Harry Potter series; he has been terrific as Malfoy.
The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is nothing short of exceptional. Despite working with many murky tones (such as brown and faded green), he still manages to create countless images that are worth a million bucks each. He also perfectly sets up the atmosphere of the film. While Hogwarts is not the repressive place it was in installment five, it is clearly not the homely location it was in installment one. Looking back at the entire series, it's hard to believe that the visual interpretation of Hogwarts has morphed so much.
Credit must also be given to director David Yates for not wavering from the darkening tone. Like with "The Order of the Phoenix," he makes "The Half Blood Prince" very character driven. Since this story is mostly a setup to the finale, it's smart that he ensures we still remain with Harry and his companions on an emotional level, since not much will be achieved (in terms of forwarding the plot) by film's end. That's not to say he's only capable of quiet moments; in fact, the scenes with the most action or tension are frequently the best in the film.
Many have complained that the last forty minutes of the movie are the weakest because they deviate from the book so much. Hogwash. They're the most focused, and made me forgive most of the film's earlier flaws. I've already mentioned how great Harry was under the influence of Felix Felicis. Watch also how Jim Broadbent starts letting down his defenses and reveals himself to be a deeply regretful man. The last interaction between him and Harry is somewhat heartbreaking. And the scene in the cave, my goodness, if you're nerves weren't tingling then you are a hard person to thrill! The lighting, the score by Nicholas Hooper, the disorienting editing... it was almost exactly how I imagined it in the book. And then you have a tense encounter between Malfoy and Dumbledore in Hogwarts, followed by a devastating denouement that left me feeling (appropriately) drained.
Any last tidbits I'm missing? Well, let's see, there's Bonnie Wright getting far more screen time as Ginny, although I thought she was just okay. You've also got Nicholas Hooper returning for the film score (he also did number 5), and while it doesn't draw a lot of attention to itself, it's still subtly effective. And I guess if there's a consistent theme in this movie, it's "trust." How much faith do you put in your friends and mentors? Do you obey their orders no matter what? It's a question Harry must wrestle with in his relationship with Dumbledore, as well as with his obedience to Dumbledore's last (and questionable) request.
Overall, "The Half-Blood Prince" mostly works, though it's a good thing we're about to begin the finale here. With the setup being mostly complete, it's now time for the payoff. That the entire cast, as well as so many crew members, have devoted the last 10 years to this franchise is very remarkable, and the results have been mostly positive. Now, let's hope David Yates can steer the tale of Harry Potter to a triumphant conclusion...
A little overdone, but it still works
Some have called this "Speed" on a train, and I think the comparison is apt. The plot's simple: a 30+ car train goes loose when it's conductor (Ethan Suplee) gets off and tries to turn a rail switch. The train's running on full throttle and gaining speed, so it's barreling through numerous crossings and towns at 70 MPH. The rail control center, led by Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), struggles to come up with ways to stop the train (things are complicated when that train's company intervenes with their own ideas). When the train passes by rail workers Frank Barnes and Will Colson (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine), they decide to speed their train backwards and try to slow down the runaway locomotive.
The film's second half is arguably better than the first. The first half is mostly rail control trying to make sense of the situation and trying different (and unsuccessful) ways to stop the runaway train. The second half is where director Tony Scott and actors Washington and Pine pull out all of the thrills, including a white knuckle turn around a sharp curve while Pine tries to apply manual brakes. Both Washington and Pine bring a lot of credibility to their roles, emphasizing their workmanlike backgrounds and having some fun interacting with each other.
Scott has a tendency to overcook the style of the film, swooping the camera around too often and shaking it a little too much. A simpler style of shot selection would have sufficed. But he still manages to get the adrenaline going, and in fact makes "Unstoppable" exceed "Speed" in a couple of ways. First off, while both stories are prone to human error, the human errors in "Unstoppable" feel more, well, human. You understand why mistakes are getting made through the mis-communications and conflicting desires. Too often in "Speed," the mistakes left me shaking my head why anyone could be so dumb. Also, I got the impression after watching "Speed" that more damage was done and more lives were lost trying to save the bus. I had no such impressions while watching "Unstoppable"; I knew that train had to be stopped and it had to be stopped now! "Unstoppable" isn't one of the year's best thrillers, but it does work, and it sure as heck beats out most of the thrillers we got this summer. You want Tony Scott to pump up the action with respected actors Denzel Washington and Chris Pine in tow? You're going to get it.
An underrated installment that thankfully maintains an appropriately dark tone
It's more than just Voldemort that Harry's going against now. It's the fact that he's fifteen. What I'm surprised not many others have pointed out is that Harry's actions, feelings, and self-"justifications" are very much in line with how some fifteen-year-old boys act. He thinks he's alone, no one wants to help him (it doesn't help that many students now distrust him), he's not confiding in his friends, and he thinks the world's out to get him. Well, he's half right. People are out to get him, use him, and ultimately bring him down. But what he needs to learn is that friends are at his side, that there are allies to trust in dark times. Unfortunately for him, growing up is going to get in the way of discerning dreams from reality.
If Mike Newell planted seeds of tragedy in "The Goblet of Fire," then new director David Yates is planting seeds of hopelessness. Immediately, Harry is reminded that he has no parents, he faces expulsion from Hogwarts for trying to protect his cousin from Dementors, and he's angry at his friends for not informing him of new developments over the summer. Dark doesn't even begin to describe the tone of "The Order of the Phoenix." Hogwarts no longer looks like an accommodating place. It's serious and joyless, hope is lost, spirits can be broken, and authorities have an iron hand.
David Yates may not have created an "enjoyable" installment, but he's still created a worthwhile one. What separates this from its predecessors is that this time, magic alone will not solve the problem. The only way Harry is going to get Voldemort out of his head is when he realizes that his friends are on his side, and that he's ultimately very different from Voldemort.
Of all of the "Harry Potter" stories, the may be the most Harry-centered. I loved how well Daniel Radcliffe juggled his external and internal problems. When he snaps back at classmates who accuse him of being a liar, you can feel his pulsating anger. Or when Voldemort forces him to horrific things, and you can feel the fear Harry has in his belief that he's becoming a bad person. If there were any doubts about Daniel Radcliffe taking on the role of Harry Potter, they were surely gone by this installment.
Some performers get to shine. Gary Oldman brings fatherlike-credibility to Sirius Black, and when he tries to reassure Harry that he's not a bad person, I truly felt like a father was talking to a son. Michael Gambon also brings more delicacy and vulnerability to Albus Dumbledore. Matthew Lewis gets more time as Neville Longbottom, and like Harry, he also has an old enemy he must eventually encounter. I enjoyed watching his expanded performance. Other regulars like Emma Watson as Hermione, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, don't get as much screen time as you'd like them to, but they still make the most out of their roles.
New casting once again helps "Harry Potter." Evanna Lynch brings a great balance of quirkiness and honesty to Luna Lovegood, the marked-out student that Harry forms a bond with. Helena Bonham-Carter is appropriately mad as Bellatrix Lestrange. And Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge, man, I had to fight an impulse to slap her when she hypocritically said "I really hate children." Well done Imelda!
The best part of the film would have to be the climax in the Ministry of Magic. We get more terrific setwork by Stuart Craig (who beautifully constructs the clean-cut but foreboding corridors of the Ministry as well as the endless halls of glass spheres in the Hall of Prophecies), and there is a terrific duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort, the teacher vs. the pupil. This leads to arguably the best shot so far in the series, where Voldemort destroys the glass windows of the Ministry and bathes in his takedown, arms spread out in triumph. If there is an indelible shot that defines the return of Lord Voldemort, that's the one.
This is followed by yet another terrific scene, one where Voldemort attempts to posses Harry again (compliments to Mark Day for the terrific editing). It is here that Harry finally comes to his senses (with some help from Dumbledore), realizes that he and Voldemort are more different than alike, and understands that there is strength to him knowing love and friendship. Many people hated the following line he said to Voldemort, "And I feel sorry for you," but I found it to be very moving. It showed that just as Harry could care for his friends, he could also show remorse towards his enemies, a trait Voldemort can never imagine.
This is the only "Potter" film to be written by Michael Goldenberg, and he writes a tight and serious script. It doesn't have the sense of humor that Kloves could put into his "Potter" screenplays, but "The Order of the Phoenix" does benefit from a straightforward and no-nonsense tone. David Yates was an interesting choice for a director, seeing as his only experience was in British TV films. While his inexperience occasionally shows, he wisely puts his faith in his actors and the characters they inhibit.
To those who were disappointed that the longest "Harry Potter" book got turned into the shortest film, my advice to you is the same I gave for "The Goblet of Fire." Accept this film as a loose adaptation and appreciate it for what it is. The book was well over 800 pages long; even a 3-hour cut wouldn't have gotten even half of the material! As it stands, "The Order of the Phoenix" is integral to the grand scheme of Harry Potter growing up. It's not easy being fifteen and having to deal with a dark wizard who wants you to feel alone and isolated, and this film terrifically sells the point.
Loose adaptation, but still a very fine film
It took me a while to like this film. Five years and four viewings to be exact. When I first saw the film, like many other "Harry Potter" fans, I held it very accountable to its source material, so, naturally, the film did not hold up in my view. However, thanks to a few years of time and a push from a couple of friends who felt they considered this the best of the "Harry Potter" films, I decided to give "The Goblet of Fire" a clean slate and rewatch it. Lo and behold, I was surprised how much better the film played out.
I do want to establish first, however, that this is a loose adaptation. Do not expect the same experience you had with the book. There are no Dursleys, no mention of "Weasleys Wizard Wheezes" (although Fred and George do get more screen time here than they did in the previous three films combined, which James and Oliver Phelps use with mischievous glee), no Ludo Bagman, and no house-elves. I'm not saying these cuts have hurt the film (unlike some other reviewers), I'm simply saying that anyone who has only read the book or maybe held the film extremely accountable to the book should step back and accept that some changes are inevitable in the transition from book to film.
That being said, if you're willing to take the film for what it is, you may find yourself quite impressed with the results. Mike Newell, taking over from Alfonso Cuaron, does more than indicate something wicked is coming. Something wicked is HERE, hovering over Harry and his world like a black cloud. Klansman-like Death Eaters (Voldemort's supporters) are attacking citizens. A muggle caretaker is murdered by Lord Voldemort. And Harry is forced to compete in the Triwizard Tournament, a dangerous series of tasks designed for students far more advanced and mature than he.
When thinking about what makes "The Goblet of Fire" work as a whole, I keep on thinking of what Dumbledore says near the end: "Soon we must all face the choice, between what is right, and what is easy." The tragedy of this story is, arguably, that too often, those above Harry choose the latter over the former. Despite all warnings, the Triwizard Tournament is continued, no one acknowledges Voldemort's potential return, and Harry is thrust into the thick of events despite his young age. What is lost at the end is more than just Cedric Diggory. I think what director Mike Newell and writer Steve Kloves try to emphasize is that the illusion of security, the belief that terrible events can be avoided, has been broken. Harry is starting to leave his childhood behind, and take on the adult responsibility of fending off an older, superior foe. By emphasizing the tragedy of the story and how that impacts Harry as he grows up, both Newell and Kloves demonstrate a good understanding of the darker emotional subtext.
It's not all doom and gloom though. Romance becomes an important subplot for the first time in Harry's life. We feel Harry's awkwardness as he asks a girl out for a new school dance (the Yule Ball). We also get to laugh as Ron handles his insecurities around women by acting like a prat (for lack of a better word). These scenes further strengthen the emotional subtext of the film, and put the onus squarely on the characters.
I think this is the first time Daniel Radcliffe truly holds his own as Harry Potter. He draws out the desperation Harry feels when he wants out of the tournament, and his reaction after his encounter with Lord Voldemort in the graveyard is near- perfect. Speaking of Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes expertly displays his calculated evil. Rupert Grint is used for more than comic relief, as he develops jealousy toward Harry after the actions of the Goblet of Fire. Likewise, Emma Watson continues to hold her own as Hermione. The other major supporting character, Dumbledore, is sometimes played with heart by Michael Gambon, but I did find him abrasive at times.
Fresh talent once again benefits a "Harry Potter" film. Along with Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson and Brendan Gleeson join the party as the gossip-whore Rita Skeeter and the clearly unstable Mad-Eye Moody (respectively). I wished we could have seen more of Tom Felton and Alan Rickman as Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape, but then again, they are not integral to the plot.
I'd also like to credit the film's composer, Patrick Doyle. One of my friends commented that, during the opening overture, you hear "Hedwig's Theme" in a minor key. It's ironic he'd say this, because "Hedwig's Theme" was composed in a minor key, the key of E minor. But because he opens with it in C minor, it sounds more ominous. Some other great themes he composes include "Harry in Winter," "The Hogwarts March," and "The Hogwarts Hymn."
Even when separating the film from the book, are there some weaknesses? In short, yes. Some of the action scenes, such as the Harry's standoff with a dragon, go on too long. Some plot questions aren't resolved, such as how Barty Crouch Jr. got out of Azkaban and what became of Ron and Hermione's relationship after the Yule Ball. I have already mentioned Michael Gambon as Dumbledore.
Still, those are small in comparison to the many positive traits this film holds. Newell keeps the story character-centered, and the cast continues to hold there own. The story serves as both a good tragedy and good coming-of-age tale. I also forgot to mention how funny the film can be, particularly with the buildup to the Yule Ball, but unfortunately, I'm bordering the 1,000 word limit. I'll admit I'm kind of surprised how differently I feel about this film now compared to my initial reaction, but when looking at it more closely, I find myself liking it more and more.