Sunday, November 28, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One
Directed By: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter

First things first: I've never read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Therefore, I go into each film without any expectations and I can leave the theatre never feeling disappointed. However, because I'm unfamiliar with the books, I found this latest film a little hard to follow, compared to the others.

Peter Jackson managed to make all three of his The Lord of the Rings films a cohesive story. They followed one thread and worked well, both together and as individual, stand-alone films. I find that this has never been the case with the Harry Potter franchise. Granted, there are a lot of films that the screenwriters have to struggle to string together, yet for someone like me who has never read the books, it can be alienating. Each Harry Potter film has had a new director and, as a result, has a different tone and atmosphere than its predecessor, which I also think is the root cause of some of its issues. I think it makes them feel like jagged vignettes that don't quite fit together as a whole.

All that being said, Deathly Hallows is the best film in the franchise since Alfonso Cuaron directed the third instalment, The Prisoner of Azkaban. For the first time since this series first started back in 2000, I felt like things were finally starting to get interesting. It just unfortunately took six films to reach this point. After a whole lot of anti-climaxes and false starts, things are being set up for a final duel between Harry and Voldemort. The plot of Deathly Hallows is essentially all the exposition stuff that needs to get out of the way before the final film this July. We have Harry preparing to face Voldemort. We have Hermione and Ron getting closer to revealing their feelings for one another. We have Voldemort getting his hands on the (apparently very important) wand that was in Dumbledore's possession (help me out here, Potter fans. I forget what the combination of the wand, cloak of invisibility and ...that other thing ...meant). Anyway, Voldemort now has that wand and, from what I gather, that's a very, very bad thing.

Visually, the film is fantastic. The kids are no longer at Hogwarts (thank god for small miracles was about time the series broke away from its formulaic plotting). It was nice seeing the three leads away from school and their friends and teachers. As a result, their travels take them to some dark and visually stunning areas of England, where Dickensian villains in plaid pants and ponytails lurk in the shadows. It was a refreshing change.

The reason this film works so well, is the acting. By far, it's the strongest film in terms of acting for this franchise. We finally see (and hear!) more of Voldemort (played by the incomparable Ralph Fiennes). I mean, here's this fantastic villain and he barely registers any screen time. Only Rowling would relegate a great bad guy like this to the background for the sake of a bunch of children and their uninteresting Hogwarts teachers. Fiennes is perfect in an early scene where he's meeting with other evil minions (including Helena Bonham Carter's Belatrix and Jason Isaac's Lucius Malfoy). He's all slitherly, creepy perfection. Even Isaac's small role as Lucius is excellent. If nothing else, this series has never been short of brilliant veteran British actors. The same can be said for Alan Rickman, reduced to a small role in this film, but still, as always, reliably wonderful. Another wonderful casting choice was David O'Hara (he of crazy Stephen in Braveheart) as the man Harry inhabits to enter the Ministry of Magic. This might not make any sense, but once you see the scene, you will know what I mean. O'Hara perfectly captured the posture and mannerisms of Harry/Daniel Radcliffe to the point where I wish Harry would stay in his body for the duration of the film. It was a wonderful, entertaining role.

Most surprising, however, are two of the three leads. I've usually been pretty hard on Emma Watson in past films (she being the Queen of Runaway Eyebrow Acting). Watching Deathly Hallows, however, I wondered if she'd taken acting lessons. She seems to have matured as an actress, going for subtlety over exaggerated reactions. She's reigned in those eyebrows and blossomed into a solid young actress. Rupert Grint has finally been allowed to move on from his previous role of comedic sidekick. He's actually given dramatic scenes and he's more than up to the task. Out of the entire series, Ron is my favourite character (and it's not just because I'm a sucker for redheads). I always thought Grint seemed like he had a good performance in him, but was never given the chance to shine. He was more than up to the task in Deathly Hallows. My problem is with Daniel Radcliffe as Harry. I find his performance uneven and far too forced. He doesn't have the natural charm and charisma of Grint or the fiery subtlety of Watson. He's nowhere near as atrocious as the actress who plays Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), but he's definitely the weakest link of the three leads.

Overall, it's an entertaining film and, as I said earlier, the strongest instalment since The Prisoner of Azkaban. In an uneven series (with formulaic plotting, unexplained plot scenarios and the most anti-climactic death scenes of main characters I've ever seen on film), Deathly Hallows promises the series will go out with a bang. Although it's essentially only half a film, the final cliffhanger scene even had me intrigued. Perfect? No. A solid set-up vehicle for the final film? Yes.


Monday, November 22, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 16


This one wasn't as tough as I expected, given the love I have for Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot. 

A few runners-up:
(1) "I am big! It's the pictures that got small."
(Sunset Blvd.)
(2) "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
(A Streetcar Named Desire)
(3) "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"
(4) The "patron saint of mediocrity" speech.
(5) "You keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."
(The Godfather Part II)

It all comes back, though, to the final scene (the final few seconds, to be exact) of Some Like It Hot. You've got Jack Lemmon, one of the masters of exaggerated facial reactions, dressed as a woman. On a speedboat. With a millionaire named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Osgood is the one who utters the famous line: "Well, nobody's perfect."

Lemmon plays Jerry, a man on the run with his friend, Joe (Tony Curtis), after the two witness a mob murder. Lemmon's Jerry soon becomes Daphne, as the two friends decide to disguise themselves as women as a ruse to throw off the mobsters. While Curtis is off flirting with Marilyn Monroe's Sugar, Lemmon's subplot in the film involves being wooed (and proposed to) by Osgood. The two develop a charming bond (thanks in large part to the great chemistry between Lemmon and Brown), all of which culminates in a simple exchange at the very end of the film when "Daphne" reveals she's really a man.

Jerry: "Osgood, I'm gonna level with you. We can't get married at all."
Osgood: "Why not?"
Jerry: "Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde."
Osgood: "Doesn't matter."
Jerry: "I smoke! I smoke all the time!"
Osgood: "I don't care."
Jerry: "Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player."
Osgood: "I forgive you."
Jerry: "I can never have children!"
Osgood: "We can adopt some."
Jerry: "But you don't understand, Osgood!"
*Jerry pulls off wig*
Jerry: "I'm a man!"
Osgood: "Well, nobody's perfect."

Why I Love This Quote: It's arguably one of the best fade-out lines in film history. Both actors are perfect in this scene, especially with Lemmon's growing exasperation as he gently tries to break his engagement to Brown without revealing the fact that he's a man. Brown's nonchalance and unconditional love is unwavering with each new shocking revelation. What is so incredible about the scene (and the Daphne/Osgood relationship, in general) is the suggestion that Jerry (as Daphne) was happy in his new role as a woman. This is evident in the scenes where Daphne is being wooed by her rich millionaire. Jerry, as Daphne, is thoroughly enjoying the attention. A later conversation between Jerry and Joe reveals that Jerry has accepted Osgood's marriage proposal and is smitten with his new beau and his big, shiny diamond ring. When Joe asks him why he'd want to marry a man, Jerry responds: "For security!" A movie that started out about two men evading gangsters turned into something much more interesting: Jerry embracing his new feminine way of life.

Interesting trivia: Co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond wrote the line the night before the scene was shot.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Movie Review: 127 Hours

127 Hours (2010)
Starring: James Franco
Written and Directed By: Danny Boyle

It's a rare Hollywood movie that will (1) only feature one main character and (2) manage to make that one main character interesting enough to sustain viewer interest for the entire two hour running time.

The reason 127 Hours works so well is thanks to the partnership of actor and director: James Franco and Danny Boyle.

Hot off last year's Oscar win for Best Director (Slumdog Millionaire), Boyle looks at the true story of Aron Ralston (Franco) and his (mis)adventure in the summer of 2003. Backpacking alone across an isolated canyon in Utah, Ralston makes the near-fatal error of jumping across a boulder wedged in between the canyon's crevice. As Ralston falls, so does the boulder, pinning his right hand between the boulder and the canyon wall.

The film has been much-talked about since its debut on the film festival circuit in the past few months. The main reason for all the talk? The now infamous arm-cutting scene (complete with broken bones and bloody tendons). Although that scene is definitely not for the squeamish, the film is so much more than a violent act of desperation. It is, essentially, an ode to survival and the endurance of the human spirit.

Like all of Boyle's films, the visuals are compelling. All the oranges, yellows and blues practically make you feel as though you are right there with Ralston, in the light and shadow of Utah's canyons. However, even more interesting than the aesthetics, is how Boyle chose to structure the story of Ralston's lonely hours trapped in the canyon. Boyle utilizes the technology Ralston carried with him (he takes pictures of his mangled hand and videotapes a running commentary of each day of his misfortune), which allows the viewer to actually hear Ralston voice his misery and fading optimism. His dehydration and desperation result in interesting flashbacks, as well as hallucinations in which Ralston imagines his loved ones are with him in the canyon. This is arguably one of Boyle's greatest and most challenging films.

James Franco is one of the most interesting young actors to come out of Hollywood in years. He has moved well past his earlier career days in the cheesy Spider-Man films and has since built a solid resume of small indie films and challenging roles. Franco makes Ralston a charming and surprisingly sensitive anti-hero. His seemingly selfish behaviour in not informing family or friends that he'd be taking off alone into dangerous territory is played off as a genuine mistake made by an adventurous spirit. Watching Franco go from optimism to almost complete defeat is wonderful to watch. I'm a sucker for a great performance, especially one that requires the actor to relate to the audience all on their own, just them and the camera. It's through Franco's performance that the audience truly understands his will to survive, his realization of his desire for a child of his own and his genuine repentance over not telling his mother often enough how much he loves her. But, the truly great thing about Franco's performance is that he doesn't actually need to say the words at all. He's able to convey those feelings through body language and facial expressions.

While there is a strong supporting cast (including Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Clemence Poesy and Treat Williams), it all comes back to Franco.

In an otherwise mostly weak movie season, 127 Hours is a breath of fresh simply for being an incredibly well-made and well-acted film. For just under two hours, you are guaranteed a tense, gripping an emotional film experience.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 15


I love Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp or Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.

I also love a lot of characters from recent films that aren't necessarily deemed classics: Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation or Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds.

But, in the end, it all comes back to Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.

There's no way to make this sound cool, so I'm just going to put it out there: I'm an Indy fangirl. Tried and true. What can I say, I'm a sucker for history-loving archaeologists who wear fedoras, carry a whip and can balance his brain with brawn.

Harrison Ford may not be the world's greatest actor. Like Kevin Costner or Bill Paxton, he's one of those regular joe's you love simply for being reliable and likeable.

But, Harrison Ford was born to play Indiana Jones.

At the age of six my parents showed me Raiders of the Lost Ark. The experience pretty much solidified my love of film (yes, at that young an age). It pretty much captured everything a person could want in a film: action, excitement, romance, comedy and a strong script. Unlike your typical, generic action film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (and, later, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) went above and beyond what one might expect in a film of the action genre. I wanted to be Indiana Jones and I actually credit the films with inspiring my love for history.

Under the guidance of director Steven Spielberg, Ford made Indy a brave, loyal and charming protagonist: one of those good guys who is impossible to dislike. Ford's chemistry with co-stars Karen Allen, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies makes it all the better.

The trilogy and 2008 sequel was a throwback to the western serials of the 1930s: those weekly adventures that would end on a cliffhanger. Raiders and Crusade are both perfect homages to those films (Temple of Doom and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls to a much lesser extent).

Indiana Jones is everything you could want in an action figure. They just don't make those heroes like they used too.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 14


It's rare to find a sequel to a film that either equals or surpasses the excellence of its predecessor.

Fans of The Godfather films are usually divided into two camps: (1) Those who cite the original one as the crowning achievement of the series or (2) those who believe that the sequel, simply titled The Godfather: Part II, is greater than the original due largely to the presence of Robert DeNiro and his role as young Vito Corleone.

The Godfather: Part II is my favourite film sequel. It continues the Corleone saga with a well-structured and tightly wound script. It boasts some of the trilogy's greatest scenes and proves that sequels don't always suck. Instead of appearing as a cash grab or an attempt to capitalize on the success of the first film, The Godfather: Part II is a legitimate and engrossing continuation of a dark and fascinating family drama. Gangsters never looked or sounded so badass. Forget The Sopranos: who could be scarier than Don Vito and Michael Corleone? They would crush Tony Soprano with their thumbs and those classy suits.

That being said, The Godfather: Part II is not my favourite film of the trilogy. My heart still belongs to the first film, but I'll save that debate for another day.

All in all, The Godfather: Part II is likely the most flawless film sequel you will ever come across (which makes the uneven The Godfather: Part III all the more tragic because it ruined what would have been the rarest of occurrences in the world of cinema: a perfect trilogy).

I believe the reason The Godfather: Part II makes such a great sequel is because it was made in the days before overkill. Back in the day when, for the most part, films were made for film fans. Back in the day when sequels weren't churned out year by year, with no apparent purpose or any evident effort. The fact that The Godfather: Part II is just as solid and well-made as its predecessor speaks volumes to that fact.

Sure, T2: Judgement Day was a great sequel that improved on the first film. Ditto The Dark Knight the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Some might even argue that The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trumps The Fellowship of the Ring.

But they aren't on the same level as The Godfather: Part II.