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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Historians at the Army Center for Military History in Washington
struggled for words to describe what happened. It was October 30, 1944.
Members of the segregated Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat
Team, "cold, wet, weary and battle-scarred," rescued 211 Texas National
Guardsmen who were surrounded by German forces in the foggy, wooded
Vosges Mountains near Bruyeres, France. The First Battalion, 141st
Infantry Regiment had been cut off from food, ammunition,
communications and hope for a week. The 442nd, comprised of Nisei (a
person born in America of parents who emigrated from Japan) from Hawaii
and the West Coast of the United States was ordered in when two other
battalions of the 141st had been repelled repeatedly by the enemy.
After three days of devastating battle, nearly half the
Japanese-American troops were dead or wounded and the "Lost Battalion"
was still trapped.
"Then, something happened in the 442nd," according to the military historians. "By ones and twos, almost spontaneously and without orders, the men got to their feet and, with a kind of universal anger, moved toward the enemy position. Bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued as the Americans fought from one fortified position to the next. Finally, the enemy broke in disorder." It is this story that is at the heart of "Only the Brave," Writer/Director Lane Nishikawa's very personal film of uncommon courage, misguided prejudice and family love now playing at the Hawaii International Film Festival. It is Nishikawa's final film in a trilogy ("Sound of a Voice," 2003; "Forgotten Valor," 2001) dealing with the experience of Japanese-Americans in the Second World War. The multi-talented auteur, who has performed in a number of films but is best known as a stage actor and director, had four uncles and other extended family members who served in the 442nd or the earlier 100th Infantry Battalion (formed as the Hawaiian Provisional Battalion).
Instead of taking the wide-angle battle scene approach of a Wolfgang Peterson ("Troy"), Ridley Scott ("Kingdom of Heaven"), Oliver Stone ("Alexander') or even Steven Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan"), Nishikawa has narrowed his focus to the points of view of his own small "band of brothers." Included in that number are Sergeant Jimmy Takata, played with grace and wisdom by the director, Glenn "Tak" Takase (Jason Scott Lee), Richard "Doc" Naganuma (Ken Narasaki), Steve "Zaki" Senzaki (Mark Dacascos), Yukio "Yuk" Nakajo (Yugi Okumoto) and Richard "Hilo" Imamura (Garett Sato). These are men who cannot see beyond their own 30mm eyes, the trees, darkness and fog that surround them, and the flares of machine guns and bursts of grenades that pound relentlessly. "Up close and personal" sounds a little trite, but that's what we get. Nishikawa shows us war just the way a soldier sees war.
He also shows us, through flashbacks, the personal side of the war on the home front. "Doc" Naganuma's wife and baby awaiting his return in an internment camp where 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry (70,000 of whom were native-born United States citizens) sat out the war in conditions not much better than POWs. Mary Takata's (Tamlyn Tomita) struggle to reach her shell-shock husband after the peace. The mothers and fathers, wives and children whose one consolation was that their soldier-loved ones were among friends. (The dialogue is realistically grounded in the Pidgin English common to Hawaii-born people, and the banter between the soldiers sounds like something you would hear among a group of guys having a beer after work in a Wahiawa, Hawaii tavern.) The film is not without its flaws, some of them a function of the production's limited budget. It is in desperate need of a stronger score, powerfully executed with a more dynamic sound design. I saw a digital projection that needed sophisticated color correction; that can come when film prints are ultimately struck. I wish Nishikawa could re-shoot some of his early battle scenes. They are stiff and dated in their appearance as opposed to his footage later in the film when he had a stronger sense of self-confidence in getting the camera off its tripod and moving with it in a more documentary style. Watching your own dailies can be a major growing experience.
But it is a powerful and sensitive piece of work that should be seen by far more than just the California school kids who use the director's earlier films as part of their history curriculum.
Those of us who live in Hawaii understand the context of this film. Our neighbors include survivors of the 100th/442 RCB, their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. In Hawaii, where the war began for America, these men are revered. School kids can tell you of their exploits. Senator Daniel K. Inouye is recognized as much for his Congressional Medal of Honor as for his 46 years in the Congress. Sergeant Inouye was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions in the "Lost Battalion" campaign, lost ten pounds and gained a battlefield commission. Later, back in Italy, his heroism earned him one of 20 Medals of Honor conferred on 100/442 soldiers.
There should be no more respected a group of senior citizens in America than the veterans of the "Purple Heart Battalion." In eight major campaigns, they were also awarded seven Presidential Unit Citations and 18,143 individual decorations (no, that is not a typographical error; 18,143 individual medals), including 52 Distinguished Service Crosses. In that number, of course, were 9,486 Purple Hearts, for that was the total of the injuries they suffered in combat.
This is not the first film focused on the 100th/442 RCB. Van Johnson starred in 1951's "Go For Broke," a filmed titled after the motto of the battalion. In it he played Lt. Mike Grayson, who trained a Nisei platoon. The black and white film was heavily focused on Grayson, who loses his prejudices when he sees how the Japanese Americans fight in combat.
In one of the most imaginative pieces of film-making I have seen in
years, Mora Mi-OK Stephens emerges as a writing and directing talent of
brave and considerable potential, stretching the envelope of cinema
verite style to bring rich new depth of meaning to the term
In some respects, "Conventioneers" is a traditionally structured story of lust and love between polar opposites. What makes it different is that Stephens set it right in the middle of the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan. Critical narrative scenes were staged in the flow of the actual anti-war, anti-Bush marches and demonstrations that surrounded Madison Square Garden. One whole sub-plot plays out on the floor of Convention, using an under-employed but solidly credible New York actor whose "day job" found him signing the President's acceptance speech for the deaf.
And, just as you are beginning to think this whole idea is just a clever gimmick, let me assure you that a fully-involving story unfolds with such immediacy that you would swear real people were being filmed by hidden cameras everywhere they went. The intimacy and truth is heightened by skillfully improvised dialogue by actors who have been thoroughly rehearsed by their young director. Stephens wrote the screenplay with her producer, Joel Viertel, who also takes a well deserved credit as editor. Stephens made the decision to shoot many of the dialogue scenes with multiple cameras to give herself and Viertel a wide variety of cutting options that are difficult to achieve with a traditional one-camera approach to an improvised scene. It is relatively easy to duplicate a performance of scripted dialogue when you move the camera to a new angle or focal length. It is almost impossible when the actors are ad libbing around a central idea.
Lea Jones (Woodwyn Koons) is a liberal Democrat who lives with her playwright fiancé in suburban New Haven, but is in the city as an organizer of protest activities surrounding the GOP convention. She loathes George W. Bush and everything he stands for, including the war in Iraq and conservative Republican ideologies. David Massey (Matthew Mabe) is a straight-laced, blazer-and-rep-tie-wearing Republican delegate from Texas. He spends a lot of time on the phone with his wife, but finds time to call his college chum Lea to let her know he is in town. When they get together for lunch, political sparks fly, as they discover that the gulf between his conservatism and her liberality will probably preclude a renewal of their friendship. But when they meet to share apologies, other sparks fly. Opposites do attract.
When she isn't meeting furtively with Massey, Lea is working to convince former classmate Dylan Murtaugh (Alek Friedman) to briefly set aside his new role as Daddy and Breadwinner and join her protest committee. Dylan is a sign-language interpreter with little time for anything but work and domestic duties. He hatches a plan to interpret the Bush speech for the hearing impaired, then stage a personal protest of the President's war policies. When you see actor/interpreter Friedman on the floor of the convention (and also playing the role of Alek), the daring reality of this film really hits home.
Koons brings a warmth, openness and vulnerability to her character who is passionate about her political beliefs, but worried about what to do when the campaign is over and she has to return to Connecticut and her somewhat dull betrothed. Mabe slides convincingly from a eager, somewhat righteous young conservative, to a confused, conflicted and eventually tormented guy trying to find a new life. They don't hand you an instruction manual when you remain celibate through college, then go home and marry your high school sweetheart. His closing scene will send you reeling.
In a sense, the concept of this film is so daring that I seriously doubt a more experienced writer/director would attempt it. Mora Mi-OK Stephens, who is not long out of the graduate film program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, was so young and so eager to make this movie that she didn't know it would be a logistical nightmare, a creative impossibility and a legal nightmare. She didn't know it couldn't be done, so she just went out and did it. I hope she will always view her career in those terms. If she does, she will make a lot of powerful films.
Like Rod Steiger's pained and enraged portrayal of Sol Nazerman in "The
Pawnbroker," Choi Min-shik's performance in the 2003 film "Oldboy" is
so indelibly stamped in my mind that I shall never forget it. So, I was
understandably attracted to "Crying Fist" ("Jumeogi Unda"), knowing
that he shared top billing in another presentation from the Hawaii
International Film Festival. Choi's turn as a middle aged failure of a
con man, whose only claim to fame is an amateur boxing title in his
youth, again proves his power as an actor. The performance does not,
however, pack the strength to overcome a sappy, melodramatic ending
that ruins what might have been a more satisfying work.
Gang Tae-shik (Choi) is so pathetically down on his luck that he has taken to the world's most brutal form of street performance. For the equivalent of about $10, frustrated men, serial bullies and guys just looking to take out their aggression and anger on someone, can strap on a pair of gloves and pound away on Gang for one full minute. Gang will defend himself but not fight back. Labeled "the human punching bag," he lets women whale away on him for two minutes. He longs for a serious boxing comeback, a chance to regain his dignity and maybe win back his estranged wife and son.
Yoo Sang-hwan (Ryu Seung-beom) has acute anger management and drug abuse issues; he is regularly beating people up on the street and getting arrested. He gets introduced to boxing in a juvenile lock-up, where a tough old trainer convinces him that a boxing career might pull him out of the gutter of his life. He is years younger than Gang, but no less interesting or well-developed a character. Ryu, brother of Writer/Director Ryu Seung-wan, is highly effective in the role.
Inevitably, Gang and Yoo fight each other in an amateur match that could change each of their lives or accomplish nothing.
Interestingly, the characters never meet until their bout, so you have a film with parallel story lines and two protagonists, both underdogs. Who do you cheer for and why? Curious. (Actually, Korean boxing fans don't cheer, so the fight scenes are eerily and sometimes frighteningly quiet, with the only sounds coming from gloves striking human flesh, the grunts and groans of the fighters, and the admonitions of their trainers. Curious.) The fight scenes are not the best I've ever seen filmed, but they are very realistic and appropriate in the context of these boxers being amateurs. Choi and Ryu clearly took some serious hits during production. There are not a lot of pulled punches.
I found the third act unnecessarily melodramatic, but if you don't mind that kind of emotional string-pulling, you may find "Crying Fist" very much to your liking. But be warned, it is a brutal, bloody film, just as boxing is a brutal and bloody sport.
Again and again the revelations in Jessica Sanders' documentary brought
audible gasps from the Hawaii International Film Festival audience.
Here, in stark images and gut wrenching narrative, were the stories of
men imprisoned, sometimes for 20 years and more, because of erroneous
victim identification, sloppy or corrupt police work and over-zealous
prosecutors. Here, in footage as raw as reality, is proof positive that
much of the American judicial system is more righteous than just, and
almost incapable of even saying to a guy, "I'm sorry," before dumping
him on the streets, penniless.
"After Innocence" shows us the maddening frustration of convicts who fight to re-open their cases on the basis of DNA evidence, and then what becomes of them if and when that evidence exonerates them. It is a deeply disturbing picture. It also shows you the dedicated work of not-for-profit organizations such as The Innocence Project that are overwhelmed in their attempts to help. It is clear that there are literally thousands of wrongfully imprisoned people in America, most of them with little hope of ever being vindicated.
Sanders' film focuses on seven men, including a police officer, an army sergeant and a young father, all released, plus a man in Florida still behind bars over three years after irrefutable DNA evidence cleared him of rape. Some of them had been in solitary confinement on death row, frequently for decades, for crimes they did not commit. Eight years after being exonerated, the now-graying dad has been unable to get his conviction expunged from official records, making it almost impossible for him to find meaningful, full-time employment. Despite being absolved of any involvement in the crimes for which he was imprisoned, he is still treated as an ex-con.
"DNA is God's signature," says one man, imprisoned for well over 20 years. "And God doesn't lie." Unfortunately, our governmental systems don't always tell the truth.
Jessica Sanders was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2002 short documentary, "Sing." It was released in theaters and aired nationally on Public Television. "After Innocence" will also have a theatrical release and is scheduled to air on Showtime early in 2006. Eventually it will be released on DVD. It has the power to ignite a firestorm of protest over our failed judicial system and to be a catalyst for important change. Ms. Sanders, who sees herself as a filmmaker, not a journalist, is currently working on the screenplay for a dramatic film. When "After Innocence" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival she indicated she wants to continue to use film "as a way to give people a voice that don't necessarily have that means." She doesn't have a new documentary project in the works right now, but one can hope that she will continue to demonstrate her enormous talent in this field.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The loss of innocence can be a frightening experience, especially for
ten-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), who discovers that another boy is
being held captive in a deep hole next to an abandon farmhouse. Not only is
it frightening to see a child your own age shackled, hungry and thirsty,
living in filth, but when Michele realizes his own father may be a
kidnapper, he hardly knows what to do.
That is the basis for Director Gabriele Salvatores' wonderful film from the best selling Italian novel, `Io non ho paura.' The film, shot almost entirely from the perspective of a youngster, was Italy's entry in this year's Academy Awards. Writer Niccolo Ammaniti first created the story, set among the rolling wheat fields of Calabria (the toe of the boot in extreme southwest Italy), as a screenplay. But he found a publisher who was interested in it as a book before he found a producer, so the novel was born. Later, he authored the screenplay from which Salvatores worked.
First, this is a story of secrets; in this case, the secrets kids keep from their parents, that parents keep from their children, that youngsters keep from each other. Michele's father Pino (a pitch-perfect performance from Dino Abbrescia), a cocky, domineering bantam of a character, is routinely away from his tiny rural village for mysterious and extended periods of time. But he always returns with small presents for the boy and his little sister. On this homecoming, he is full of secrets, which he shares with his wife Anna (a frightened, high-strung and convincing Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), and rough-hewn new friends who are always gathering conspiratorially around the family television. When Michele first finds the imprisoned Filippo (Mattia DiPierro), he keeps the discovery a secret, bringing the boy food and water, seemingly waiting for the right time to tell his parents. But soon, it becomes apparent that his parents are somehow involved. He tells a friend, who immediately betrays him, and soon the young prisoner and his potential savior find themselves in serious peril.
Salvatores, whose `Mediterraneo' won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1992, cast `I'm Not Scared' from a pool of local children who had never acted before. In the main, he achieved a remarkable sense of realism from their performances, first by choosing kids with personalities and life experiences compatible with their characters, then shooting the film in sequence, only revealing the story to his performers a day at a time. The film is set in 1978, a time of an alarming number of kidnappings of children from wealthy, northern Italian families, by ransom-hungry people in the south. But it is much more a film of betrayal than it is of kidnapping, betrayal leading to the utter loss of innocence.
Veteran character actor Rip Torn is the only reason I was able to get
through this 'dumb and dumber' Ben Stiller 'comedy.' Torn appears at
the beginning of the second act as wheelchair-bound Patches O'Houlihan,
former world champion Dodgeball player, enlisted to coach a rag-tag
team of neophytes, intent on winning a big Las Vegas tournament. When
O'Houlihan begins throwing plumber's wrenches at the out-of-shape
players as a training exercise, the laughs are huge and genuine.
Unfortunately, the screenplay can't sustain the hilarity, and the movie
dissolves into as routine an underdog sports flick as you have ever
seen. The 'bad news bears' on a Dodgeball court.
Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) is the lovable but inept operator of a small neighborhood gym. He is threatened with annihilation by White Goodman (Stiller), the egomaniacal but insecure CEO of a state-of-the-art health and fitness empire, with a location just across the street. Can Peter and his quirky band of misfit members find a way to raise $50-thousand in 30 days, or will Average Joe's Gym fall to the wrecker's ball and become a parking garage for Globo Gym's members? The answer is in winning the $50-thousand prize in a Dodgeball tourney.
This is the first feature from 29-year-old writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber. How he got his screenplay before Stiller and his band of co-producers is unknown to me, and how he managed to write a deal that allowed him to direct is more of a mystery. But he lived through it, and will probably become the next Tom Shadyak (whose directorial debut was 'Ace Ventura, Pet Detective'). Technically, his coverage was pitifully weak, which didn't help the comedy. But he got to work with enough veterans of this kind of low humor that he will be stronger on the inevitable 'Dodgeball 2.' From a critical standpoint, I think this is Stiller's fourth comedy turkey this year, but he must be pleasing someone; 'Along Came Polly' and 'Starsky and Hutch' both made money, as will this; only 'Envy' tanked.
Sometimes I think writing drek such as 'Dodgeball' may be easier than writing about it. It certainly is more lucrative.
I laughed. I cried. I felt my heart ache with pain and jump for joy.
And I had a very real sense that in time, this 'serious comedy' from
director Steven Spielberg and everyman actor Tom Hanks will be viewed
as an American classic. No, it is not seamless. Yes, it is a stretch.
Without question it is sweet and charming on a level that will put some
people in a diabetic coma. But most folks will find it true and real
and utterly wonderful.
Viktor Navorski (Hanks) is common man on a heart-felt personal mission. He has arrived in New York's Kennedy International Airport from his home in Eastern Europe full of purpose and excitement. But his timing couldn't be worse. While he has been in transit, war has broken out in his beloved Krakozhia; rebels have toppled the government. And even though he is thousands of miles away, Viktor is caught in the conflict. His passport is from a government that no longer exists; his visa is invalid; he cannot enter the United States, nor can he return home. Both he and ambitious international terminal security officer Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) are flummoxed by the snarled protocols and labyrinth bureaucracy that they now face, so Viktor takes up residence in the terminal itself while things are being worked out. Days turn into weeks and weeks into months as the good-hearted Krakozhian finds ways to make money, learn English, befriend the JFK staff and fall in love.
I certainly will not be the first or the last critic to call this a Capra-esque fable; it is exactly that, but in the most contemporary and sophisticated of terms. In some ways, the picture almost seems as if it is Spielberg's tribute to the legendary filmmaker. Frank Capra, an Italian immigrant, won three Academy Awards as the director of the American dream. Thematically, his best films demonstrated a basic faith in the essential goodness of the common man. And he told stories where honesty and justice triumphed over selfishness, deceit and institutional lack of caring. His classic films ('It's a Wonderful Life,' 'It Happened One Night,' 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' 'You Can't Take it With You,' etc.) look dated now, in style and technique. These are different times. We aren't so naïve. We are, in fact, a lot more crass and cynical. But Frank Capra gave depression-era and post-World War II filmgoers a sense of hope and optimism; and he was proud when people could leave one of his films feeling good.
In 'The Terminal,' Steven Spielberg has given us a common man who faces a cross-section of every-day Americans and wins their hearts with a selfless act of diplomacy that disarms even his nemesis, the security chief. If you have some notion that this film is going to be sappy and irrelevant, be aware that there are scenes that crackle with Homeland Security paranoia; with the genuine pain of Flight Attendant Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Zones), seven years into a self-destructive affair with an emotionally abusive married man; with people torn between self-interest and goodness.
This is a mature screenplay with rich, fully developed and utterly believable secondary characters, who, in a lesser work, would be nothing but caricatures. Chi McBride is Joe Mulroy, a baggage handler who runs poker nights where the prizes come from the lost luggage department; Diego Luna is Enrique Cruz, a food-service worker who bribes Viktor with meals to get him to play matchmaker with a beautiful INS agent (Zoë Saldana). And 85-year-old Kumar Pallana is Indian janitor Gupta Rajan, whose tragic past has left him a bitter old man. You care about all of them because they are so real and so funny.
One of the stars of this wonderful film is the three-story airline terminal set that was constructed in a Palmdale, California airplane hanger. Real airport security issues would have made impossible any notion of shooting the film in an actual airport, so the JFK mockup was created with the help of the kind of retailers that occupy every major terminal. No one paid product-placement fees to appear in the film, but instead built fully-functioning stores, including food-court restaurants that actually cranked out meals.
I have made friends with the people of JFK's International Terminal Lounge. I will be going back to visit again. I think there are truths there that I haven't even begun to imagine.
This may be one of those movies that no one likes but the people; the
public screening I attended had the audience in stitches, including my
80-year-old mother-in-law, who pronounced it, 'cute.' But the Frank Oz
remake of, 'The Stepford Wives,' may also bomb at the box office, not
only of its own failings (and there are many), but of the negative
publicity the production has received for months.
In the re-imagining of the creepy 1975 original, Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) comes to Stepford, Connecticut with her husband (Matthew Broderick) and children, only to find a community of wives, led by real estate agent Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), who seem to be Barbie Doll realizations of 1950's-style female servitude. They are picture-perfect, sexually voracious, robotic re-creations of the wives of Stepford men. The first film, from a script by the legendary screenwriter William Goldman, targeted devious husbands; the new film, written by Paul Rudnick, satirizes overachieving, workaholic wives. The first film sought to be a psychological thriller; the re-make seeks to be a comedy. And in all fairness, there are some funny scenes and some good lines. But overall, the film falls short on comedic bite, and leaves most of the best one-liners to secondary characters. Bette Midler is amusing as a rebellious, Betty Friedan-esque writer (Bobby Markowitz), who is as amazed as Joanna by the behavior of the dollbots. They team up with another Stepford newcomer, Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), a very catty, 'girlfriend,' whose gay lover has found acceptance in the diabolical Stepford Men's Club, headed by Wellington's husband Mike (Christopher Walken). Together, they're going to get to the bottom of things.
Kidman and Walken are said to have both had problems with the script, Walken reportedly engaging in shouting matches with Oz in the director's office. Ego-charged bickering on the set, coupled with the director's perfectionism, apparently put the project behind schedule. Kidman has said she took the role when Producer Scott Rudin convinced her it would be a very light workout in comparison to her Oscar-winning turn in 'The Hours,' which had required that she work about three weeks. 'Scott said to me, 'Do this movie, and it will feel like summer camp,' Kidman told the Ladies Home Journal. Instead, it turned into a marathon she had not experienced since Stanley Kubrick's, 'Eyes Wide Shut.' When 'Stepford' production went over schedule, Kidman had to drop out of the thriller, 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith,' with Brad Pitt. When 'Stepford' finally wrapped, she went to work on Sidney Pollock's, 'The Interpreter,' then had all sorts of scheduling problems when Oz needed her back for re-shoots. As production dragged on, Midler found herself splitting her time between the film's shooting demands and the necessity of rehearsing for her huge 'Kiss My Brass' concert tour that had long been scheduled.
Director Frank Oz has made about seven comedies since his days as Jim Henson's strong right arm at the Muppets factory, and one pretty taut thriller. His 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,' with Steven Martin, Michael Caine and Glenne Headly, is a comedy classic, and the Rudnick-penned, 'In and Out,' with Kevin Klein, was wonderful. Recognized for providing the classic voice for Yoda in the 'Star Wars' films, and for his performances for years as Miss Piggy, Fonzie Bear, Bert, Grover, and the Cookie Monster, all from the Muppets menagerie, Oz is known as a genuinely nice person. But this is his second round of difficulties with actors. In his excellent thriller, 'The Score,' notoriously difficult Marlon Brando refused to take direction from Oz, forcing the British-born director to use co-star Robert DeNiro as an intermediary.
Is 'The Stepford Wives' worth seeing? Maybe, but it will require some effort on your part. Here's my suggestion. Put together a group of your brightest, funniest, most outgoing friends and go to the movie. As the picture starts drawing to a close (the beginning of the ballroom scene will be your cue), leave the theater, repair to the nearest venue for adult beverages, and write your own ending. Even your dullest pals will come up with something better than what the nervous Paramount executives forced on Oz and his dispirited cast.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has taken the images conjured by J.K. Rowling's
magical words and created from her book, 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner
of Azkaban,' a film rife with visual symbolism and alive with inventive
images beyond those established by the first two films in the series.
Cuarón, a native of Mexico City and the acclaimed director of the
completely compelling, frequently hilarious and sexually explicit
coming-of-age film, 'Y tu mamá también,' was seen by many as an odd
choice to follow heartland American Chris Columbus into the Harry
Potter director's chair. The selection has resulted in a film darker
and more mature than its predecessors, just as was the book, but it is
also as approachable for young people as Cuarón's other internationally
heralded work, 'A Little Princess.'
It is late in the summer. Harry (a decidedly more assertive Daniel Radcliffe, making his third appearance in the leading role) is at the Dursleys in Privet Drive, preparing for his third year at Hogwart's, when an obnoxious relative demeans his father's memory, causing Harry to lose his temper. As a result, Harry violates the rules of student witches and wizards, causing the offending aunt to inflate as a dirigible and float away into the night sky on an stream of invectives. It is a delightful opening to a film with far more serious issues to explore and frightening obstacles to overcome. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), imprisoned at Azkaban for complicity in the murder of Harry's parents, has escaped, and is looking for Harry. The soul-stealing prison guards called 'Dementors' (Latin for mind-removers) are searching for Black everywhere, but when he and Harry meet, there are revelations which change everything.
The symbolism in the film is fascinating. Rowling is responsible for a lot of it, but Cuarón has used symbolism as a visual tool to alert the audience to impending danger and to keep tensions high. Traditionally, black-feathered birds such as ravens, crows, and vultures all have negative images associated with them; they are usually used to represent carnage, bloodshed and battle; they are thought of in terms of scavengers, messengers of the dead, and evil. Crows abound in this film, but Cuarón has extended their traditional roles, turning them into symbols of the Dementors, which fly around menacingly in black garments with feather-like hems. Even when the Dementors are out of sight (they are not allowed on the grounds of Hogwart's School) you can feel their presence in the crows.
Rowling's most obvious use of symbolism is in the name she gives the escaped prisoner Sirius Black. Sirius is a star in the constellation Canis Majoris (in mythology, Canis Majoris is one of Orion's hunting dogs; the Greater Dog), the brightest star in the sky. So, Sirius is also called the Dog Star, and everyone knows that the dog is distinguished above all other inferior animals for intelligence, docility, and attachment to man. Would she give such a name, with all its implications, to a villainous character? Not likely. But she would give it to a wizard who could change into a dog.
Among the new visual images are animal ghosts which wander the halls of Hogwart's Castle and the film's realization of Buckbeak the Hippogriff, like Sirius, falsely accused and condemned. Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and all of the established characters return. Led by Harry, all the students have matured considerably, as you would expect of 13-year-olds; they are more independent and self assured, more emotionally developed and far less childlike in their reactions and bearing. Michael Gambon is new and effective as Aldus Dumbledore, following the death of Richard Harris. Emma Thompson is wonderfully wacky as Divination Professor Sybil Treelawney; who leaps from the pages of the book and onto the screen as if Rowling had written the character specifically for Thompson. Also new is Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Remus Lupin (David Thewles), who comes to Harry's aid in ways that might befit his Latin name. Remus was the brother of the founder of Rome. In mythology, he was nursed by a she-wolf; Lupin means wolf-like (wolf is Canis Lupis).
The unheralded thread of creative continuity in this marvelous series, as it moves from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuarón to incoming director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, now in production) is Screenwriter Steve Kloves. He and the producers have been true to Rowling's works and to Harry's fans, in ways that have always enhanced, not diminished, the author's incredible achievement.
For someone who never saw the original 'Shrek,' rest assured, its
sequel holds all the humor, warmth and enchantment of the original. But
for me and my favorite 12-year-old, veterans of the fire-breathing
dragon battles and the defeat of the evil Lord Farquaad of Duloc,
'Shrek 2' didn't quite measure up, not because there is anything wrong
with it, but because we had already seen its magic. I guess we were
looking for 'Shrek 2's' creators to find ways to top the imaginative,
charismatic appeal of the first, and we were left a little wanting.
A lot of us lined up at the box office in 2001 to meet the irresistible and reclusive green ogre, his chatterbox sidekick, 'Donkey,' and Princess Fiona.
It made back $47.3 million of its $60 million budget it its first weekend, then went on to earn $455.1 million on first-run tickets sales alone.
This time out, Shrek (the voice of Mike Myers) and his princess bride (Cameron Diaz) return from their honeymoon and set off with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) to visit Fiona's parents, the King (John Cleese) and Queen (Julie Andrews) of the Kingdom of Far, Far Away. Fiona desperately wants her mother and father's blessing on her marriage. Unfortunately, Shrek is not what Dad had in mind for his daughter's future or the future of the kingdom, so villains appear in the form of a devious fairy godmother (Jennifer Saunders), plus her conceited and not-so-charming son, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett). Shrek and Fiona are aided in their new struggles by a feline warrior known as Puss In Boots (nicely realized by Antonio Bandaras).
As in the original, 'Shrek 2' has charms for all kids, but my pre-teen screening partner thought it was a bit more juvenile. I tend to agree, but it still has all sorts of sly stuff targeted at adults. The town outside the castle gates is a parody of Hollywood, rich in detail that moms and dads will appreciate; the gates themselves look just like the fabled entrance to Paramount Studios. Murphy's performance is not lacking in laughs, but I had the sense that his own comedic creativity was in tighter reign than before.
As a filmmaker, I was blown away by the lighting. Yes, modern CG animation employs digital program techniques that 'light' scenes. I know 'A' list cinematographers and gaffers who would give anything to achieve in live action motion pictures the lighting I saw in this animated film. My only two notes to the animators: motion control is your friend, not an affront to your talent, and knees and ankles should be just as believable torsos and hands.
It is the rare sequel that can top the original. This is primarily a fact and function of story, not technique or performance. Films in a series ('Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings' come right to mind) have a better chance of matching or topping their initial outings because the stories have been plotted and finessed well in advance. Shrek is a wonderful franchise; if Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks can keep the top creators together, they may be able to extend this to a 'Shrek 3' or even 'Shrek 4.' But they better have stories worth telling and magic, large magic, to reveal that no one has seen before.