Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Disappointing

I left the midnight showing of ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ disappointed. Few critics consider any Harry Potter movie a masterpiece, but I enjoy every one. Understandably, significant scenes in the books must be altered or deleted in the film version. However, the changes made in this movie make the film far more tedious than the methodical but intriguing sixth book. The film’s portrayals of some aspects of the story are spot on, but the film fails to build up to a satisfying climax.

The movie begins with a poignant shot of the young wizard Harry Potter being photographed by journalists after the traumatic death of his godfather Sirius Black. Further successfully sinister shots of graying sky ensue as black wisps soar through a skull-shaped cloud.

Unfortunately, this dark mood is never matched during the rest of the film. A sense of danger is never developed, and personal conflicts are far less acutely depicted than the outstanding special effects. Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe) has even less personality than usual, and his love story with Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) is ridiculous and unrealistic, even for a story about wizards. Instead of teenage sexual tension and a likeable, bold heroine, we get a vixen who is suddenly in love with Harry because … the script said so. Ginny whispers lines as though she is some sort of teenage temptress, yet there is no chemistry there.

Hermione (Emma Watson) is yet again made to look very much like a stereotypical girl, weeping over her good friend Ron’s (Rupert Grint) apparent rejection of her amorous affections (while she is emotional but far more plucky and resilient in the books). Much more interesting than Ron, Hermione, Harry, and Ginny are the two other love interests, Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Cormack McLaggen (Freddie Stroma). Brown’s infatuation with Ron is amusingly over the top, but Stroma’s brief role as the boorish Cormack pursuing Hermione is absolutely hysterical.

Michael Gambon’s caring portrayal of headmaster Dumbeldore is gently moving, and Jim Broadbent is excellent as Slughorn, giving depth to Harry’s well-intended but batty and deeply flawed potions teacher. As Professor Snape, Alan Rickman is as always subtle, but his portrayal differs a bit from the book, arguably giving less impact to the character's ultimate role in the story. The death-eater and werewolf Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno) makes an appearance and looks fantastically threatening. Unfortunately, he is not given a single line or action to convey any aspect of his depraved nature. The character of Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has vastly improved from his previous sniveling incarnations. In nearly every scene Felton and cinematographers convey his isolation, and he is as pitiable and dangerous as any terrified adolescent criminal.

Other highlights of the film include flashbacks about the evil Voldemort, known in the past as Tom Riddle. The two actors who portray him not only greatly resemble each other, but are spot on in their depictions of snakelike evil. The youngest Tom’s (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin) subtle expression of delight at a display of power is chilling. The older Tom (Frank Dillane) possesses a sinister intelligence and serpentine manner.

‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ was probably the most difficult of the series to adapt because of its lack of a driving plotline, and the movie is thematically unfocused and at best uneven. Though I’ve read the books, I was frequently confused. There is much potential here, but little payoff.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bruno: Terrifying, Hilarious, and Thought-Provoking

Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Borat' is so loved because it satirizes American culture at its worst and allows audiences in on the jokes of the outrageous main character. But why is its crudeness so hilarious? After seeing 'Bruno', in certain ways more explicit than 'Borat', I understood the appeal more. For one, Bruno's insanity makes people angry and thus unguarded. On top of that, the cringe inducing crudeness appeals to our id, our most extreme selves.

'Bruno' is essentially about a narcissistic, fame-seeking, ignorant, homosexual Austrian. He gets banned from the fashion world of his hometown, dumped by his boyfriend, and moves to L.A., a supposedly far less superficial scene. From there, he fails at pretty much everything - auditions, interviews, and even adoption. However, by his side is Bruno's ever faithful and adoring assistant's assistant - Lutz. Their relationship is a hilarious (and ultimately touching) spin on a sappy romance and is concluded in a ridiculously hilarious scene at a wrestling ring.

I actually felt more comfortable in 'Bruno' than in 'Borat' - not because of the gratuitous (and I mean gratuitous) nudity, bizarre sexual escapades, and numerous cases of disturbing sexual harassment - but because it came across as slightly less mean spirited. Perhaps this is why it received worse reviews; it seems to have revealed less about the ugly American than 'Borat'. Still, 'Bruno' covers a fair amount of ground critiquing celebrity adoption "fads," token peace-promoting songs, and most of all, homophobia.

When Bruno offends unsuspecting citizens, from swingers to Ron Paul, their reactions are often of homophobia. It is certainly understandable why most of these victims would be angry, but they often equate Bruno's insanity to his homosexuality, talking about how they don't want any "queer shit." It is reminiscent of people who hurl racial slurs only if they become furious at someone of another race, though race has absolutely nothing to do with the offense.

On top of that, 'Bruno' proves that heterosexual culture can be as scary as and more aggressive than the perceived homosexual culture. 'Bruno' throws in the face the most preposterous stereotypes anyone could have about the "homosexual lifestyle" that so many fear, hopefully making viewers realize their own stereotypes and fears.

'Bruno' is recommended, though be prepared to cover your eyes and bust a gut laughing.

Bloodcurdling Baddies

Here is a list of film villains who actually scared me. Some creep me out. Some vastly amuse me. These ones were just plain scary. (In alphabetical order by movie.)

The Joker, played by Heath Ledger, in 'The Dark Knight'

Always amused, the nightmarishly hideous Joker can't be scared, only briefly disappointed. He bounces back with resounding resilience. We've all seen mad dogs before in cinema, but such an unbridled portrayal of self-awareness and incoherence has rarely been seen in Hollywood. The Joker is most in his element when his feral nature is unleashed to delight in pain and corruption.

Young Gangster, played by Paul Bettany, in 'Gangster No. 1'

The detached, viciously sadistic Gangster is a demonic figure who bears Paul Bettany's symmetrical, pale face. His vulnerability (glimpsed on very rare occasions) displays that he is not quite a demon, but rather a fellow human being, thus inspiring further fear instead of sympathy.

Chad, played by Aaron Eckhart, in 'In the Company of Men'

At first, this psychopathic
businessman seems to deeply hate women. This is sickening. It is gradually revealed that he loathes people in general. This is very frightening. Then it is shown that he doesn't really hate anybody. His feelings don't run that deep. This final realization is chilling.

Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, in 'No Country for Old Men'

"That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with! It can't be reasoned with! It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!" That quote is about a murderous robot, but it almost perfectly describes Anton. Add a touch of fatalistic humor and ability to feel pain and that's him.

Capitán Vidal, played by Sergi López, in 'Pan's Labyrinth'

At one point, Vidal says to a servant, "You must think I'm a monster." That was when I realized that he doesn't see himself the way the audience does. In his mind, he's a dutiful, brave soldier. To the main characters, including a little girl, he is a grave danger, who brutally tortures and murders his perceived enemies.

Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, in 'The Shining'

Mr. Torrence isn't a psycho from the beginning. He is a good guy working through his own share of demons. By the end of the film he is driven mad by isolation, or rather the evil influences of a hotel. To wife: "I said, I'm not gonna hurt ya. I'm just gonna bash your brains in. I'm gonna bash 'em right the !@#$ in!" Rude, yes. Worse yet - he means it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fargo: These boots are made for walkin' . . .

'Fargo' begins with white, emptiness, and cold. A car emerges from the bleak swirl of snow heading towards a bar in Fargo, North Dakota. 'Fargo' begins and ends with starkness.

The story is about a pathetic used-car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, who devises a "foolproof" scheme to gather the money needed to pay off his debts. He is cheating his customers and expects to get back on the right path after making a business deal that will hopefully get him out of possible bankruptcy. Lundegaard arranges his own wife's kidnapping, so he can share the ransom money (to be paid by her rich father) with the kidnappers. Unfortunately, almost everything that possibly could go wrong does, and does so horrifically.

This is where Marge Gunderson, Chief of Police, enters. She is generous, considerate, sharp as a tack, and in her second trimester of pregnancy. However, she does not let morning sickness and food cravings slow her down in her pursuit of the truth. We get to see all sides of the story from Marge's investigation, to Jerry's sweaty guilt, to the two kidnappers' twisted mission.

The absurdity of life is what the directors were getting at. 'Fargo' is a hard movie to categorize: it could be a black (very black) comedy or even a thriller. The quirky Minnesota accents and strangely lifelike little touches lend it humor, though there are no real jokes or classic comic gags. The entire film is rather distanced from the story and the characters, who have realistically pointless, stupid, and funny conversations.

The other side of the movie is gruesome and dark. Murders arise unexpectedly, and the violence is generally quick but grim. The violence, language (the f-word occurs an uncountable amount of times), and sexuality are what give 'Fargo' its deserved R rating.

The acting is excellent and profoundly understated. Characters are neither stylized nor implausibly smart and are quite believable. Frances McDormand plays the intrepid Marge Gunderson, one of the strangest detectives ever to grace the screen. She is considerate and intelligent, though not impossibly so. It is wonderful to see such a great role model, nearly flawless in her funny way, chase down the killers. McDormand gives warmth to her role and makes Gunderson a thoroughly lovable character.

Loser Jerry Lundegaard is played deftly by William H. Macy. We identify with his excruciating financial problems, and almost feel sorry for him. What keeps him from being completely pitiable is his stupidity and selfishness. On the selfish side, he is willing to put his wife in danger for money, and on the stupid side, he doesn't believe her life is in danger. Macy is not afraid to be the nervous, squealing pig that Lundegaard is.

The two kidnappers are Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, respectively. Showalter is the crude and talkative "funny looking" little guy, who is greedy and foolish beyond belief. Grimsrud is the quiet hulk with ice in his veins. He is the silent psychopath who seems completely detached from the world and any emotions (well, unless it comes to soap operas). Together, the two really get on each others' nerves and provide some of the funniest scenes.

'Fargo' is one of the strangest and best movies I have ever seen. The cinematography, acting, and plot come together to make a brilliant movie. Its unremarkable aspect is what makes it so remarkable. Don't ask why the directors put something in. This movie breaks almost every single convention without blinking an eye. There are ironic contrasts and similarities, between the dramatic music and what is occurring on screen, and the blank landscape and the characters. The violence is somehow graphic and genuine, though not much is usually shown: 'Fargo' is an offbeat and dour masterpiece.

Master and Commander (movie)

Below decks are dim, crowded, and dirty. When water and cold air chill sailors to the bone, there is nowhere to seek warmth and comfort. The most fascinating happening on the boat, apart from the evening drinking and singing revelries, is the doctor's meticulous attempts to replace part of a man's skull with a coin. Occasionally, an enemy ship will engage in battle; then the thrills and action will be accompanied by blood and fatalities.

Welcome aboard the Surprise, a British navy ship during the Napoleonic Wars. Peter Weir (Gallipoli, The Truman Show) gives a grim and realistic picture of early 19th century battles and ship life. Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential, The Insider) plays "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, captain of the Surprise. After attacked by a greater French ship, the Acheron, Aubrey is determined to find and defeat the "Phantom Boat", as it is at first dubbed. However, Aubrey's determination leads to near obsession as he peruses the Acheron (which is also following him) no matter what the odds are.

The sails on the sailing ships are grimy, but still beautiful as they billow in the breeze. The movie itself is gritty but magnificent, and the sets and costumes are all created with exquisite care. Sailors are fairly grubby, the food is unappetizing, and light is faint when lanterns are its only source. The ships themselves are gorgeous, though tiny when compared to the number of men who serve on them.

The scenery is absolutely stunning, even though most of the shots involve simply a ship or two surrounding by water, miles and miles of water. There are a few detours to the Galapagos Islands, which are filmed just as breathtakingly as the other scenes.

Acting is first rate. Crowe is excellent, of course, as the dogged and resolute Captain Jack Aubrey, popular leader of the Surprise. The surgeon, played by Paul Bettany (Dogville, A Beautiful Mind), is another interesting character. He is an intellectual who questions the accepted British hierarchy and sailor superstitions, and is enthralled by natural science. Other characters include a young boy, Max Pirkis, in his first movie role, and an indecisive midshipman, played by Lee Ingleby. Most characters are not elaborated, but they are all believable and serve for some poignant moments.

Dialogue is wonderful, literate, though it could be considered corny at times. The violence can be very grisly, especially in the aftermath of fighting, though the battles themselves are mercifully swift and blurred.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is supported by rousing music. Despite its gore and realism, the movie is entertaining and stirring. Highly recommended, though the queasy may cringe at scenes. Fans of sea tales and adventures of any sort should not miss this.

Minor Quibble: With the extensive attention to every detail in this movie, I wish they could have made the captain and the doctor look like they were actually playing stringed instruments. It could have been worse.

Girl With a Pearl Earring (movie)

The shimmering city of Delft leaps from the pages of Tracy Chevalier's delicately descriptive novel onto the screen in the film 'Girl With a Pearl Earring'. 17th century Holland is recreated with breathtaking splendor. From the folds of the dresses to the attitudes of the day, the film stays in character and does not add Hollywood gimmicks to modernize the tale. Servants are servile and illiterate, though not necessarily unintelligent. The titular teenage maid does not have an insolent attitude.

Scarlett Johansson plays the young Griet, the daughter of a former tile painter who is sent across town to serve the Vermeer household. Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth), a painter, is drawn to Griet's quiet loveliness. Though few words pass between them, their mutual eye for aesthetics develops into strong attraction and deep appreciation. Her pure complexion also attracts Vermeer's vulgar patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) and the young butcher Pieter (Cillian Murphy).

Each frame is a painting within itself, supported by a charming score (though some have called the music obnoxious). Though every scene is beautiful, Griet's position is not romanticized; her arduous labor is evident throughout the movie. Instead of altering the story to conform to a 95 minute film, sections of the story are simply deleted or unexplained. Particularly the character of Tanneke is underdeveloped, compared to the book character.

The acting is dramatic yet understated. Expressions are affectively portrayed without losing subtlety. Johansson expressively displays the young, almost timid side of Griet. Colin Firth is an attractive Vermeer; he has natural and exciting reactions. Tom Wilkinson is surprisingly low key as Van Ruijven, compared to the character in the novel; however, he still manages to be repulsive. Essie Davis's performance is also a standout as Vermeer's insecure wife, Catharina.

'Girl With a Pearl Earring' establishes its setting in an unforgettable light, and the story has enough magic to satisfy the patient viewer.

Pan's Labyrinth: Both Hopeful and Haunting

The lullaby of the piece says it all: Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is painfully poignant. Every aspect is beautiful, from its poetic dialogue to its rich cinematography.

A tense and frightening story, Pan's Labyrinth is set after the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a little girl with an intuitive imagination who moves to a military outpost in the middle of the woods. Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is carrying the child of Ofelia's step-father, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López). There, Ofelia meets the strong servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who is secretly supplying rebels hiding in the forest. Ofelia is also meets more inscrutable and unusual creatures, which lead her deep into an old labyrinth. At the center, she meets a faun, a being which smells like earth and who tells her that she is a long lost princess of an underground kingdom. To reclaim her place, he assigns her three tasks.

Most of the film focuses on the "real world", leaving the existence of Ofelia's fantasy world up to the viewer. This reality involves an exceedingly brutal step-father, an ill mother, and the cruelty of war. The Faun's, or Pan's, world mirrors the terror Ofelia senses, though rarely sees. We, however, do see the depravity of Captain Vidal, who tortures and mercilessly murders, all in a day's work. Mercedes' courage in the face of the captain reflects Ofelia's bravery while encountering a spine-chilling monster in one task. For once, this movie monster is terrifying in its hideousness. Almost as frightening as the war itself.

Ofelia is played by the wide-eyed Baquero, who reacts sometimes minimally but always honestly. Mercedes is ridiculously likable in her quiet heroism. Vidal is so obviously a monster, especially because he views himself as a noble soldier who does his job. At one point he notes that others must think he is a monster. It is a strange thing to realize that he does not see himself as a brute. Pan himself (Doug Jones) is an ambiguous creature. To both Ofelia and the audience, he is threatening and comforting.

The creatures and sets are gorgeous and twisted creations. It is a rare fantasy/war movie that succeeds in distressing, emotionally engaging, and uplifting the viewer. Some have said that the conclusion is bleak, while others find it transcendent. This film is not perfect, and be warned that it can be difficult to take. However, I highly recommend it, as Pan's Labyrinth is one of the most beautiful and powerful movies I have seen.

Million Dollar Baby: Reminiscent of Another Era

Clint Eastwood's `Million Dollar Baby' is about a gruff, macho boxing trainer who trains an enthusiastic young woman. Its description belies the fact that it is an unusually subtle and moving film.

Less ambitious than Eastwood's previous movie `Mystic River', `Million Dollar Baby' centers on Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an irritable boxing trainer who runs a gym with Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer known as "Scrap-Iron", who also works as a janitor. Their life is somewhat stagnant until Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) interrupts their world. She is a southern girl who visits the gym every moment she is not waitressing. Maggie wants nothing but to be trained by Frankie. As convention has it, he at first refuses, due to her sex and age, but eventually gives in.

Yet the film is far from conventional. It does not have a catchy moral message or one-liners. Morgan Freeman's beautiful narration is both poetic and natural, as is all the dialogue. The characters, who could easily have been uninteresting stereotypes, are well drawn and portrayed with restraint. Eastwood's acting pales slightly in comparison to Freeman and Swank, but he fits his role perfectly. Frankie is hardened and quietly tormented, but he searches for assurance and tenderness.

Freeman is also superbly cast as Eddie, whose eye was knocked sightless in his final fight. He is witty and genuine; he cannot stand watching people fall short of their potential. Eddie is more than a saintly sidekick; he has an edge that allows him to view the world realistically.

Maggie is perhaps one of the kindest, most sincere characters in cinema. Swank is unquestioningly believable as an earnest girl driven by a desire to box. She is honest and strong-minded and does not box for the violence (unlike some of her opponents, including a particularly scary boxer played by Lucia Rijker). However, like the other characters in this film, Maggie is alone.

Maggie and Frankie find glory in her boxing career. It is not because she is uncommonly talented; it is because she strives for success and because the two of them find satisfaction meeting the other's expectations. More importantly, Maggie and Frankie find each other, and their relationship is far less cliché than it sounds.

A few moments are predictable and exaggerated, including Maggie's redneck family. But overall, `Million Dollar Baby' is poignantly humanistic and timeless.

Michael Clayton: Searching for Grace

This is a story of Michael Clayton (George Clooney) a legal "janitor" who suffers a crisis of conscience when a manic-depressive friend and lawyer, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), does the same. While the plot is a typical corporate thriller which banks in occasionally on the audience's suspension of disbelief, it is far more realistic and well crafted than most films of its genre.

George Clooney gives an intense performance, perhaps the best of his I've seen, as the titular Michael Clayton. His boyish, aging face conveys both competence and weariness. He is especially convincing in the miraculous, quiet moments of grace which occur both in a field and a taxi. As Arthur, Tom Wilkinson's English accent occasionally slips through. This does not prevent his portrayal as a passionate, intelligent man searching for morality, high on a chemical imbalance, from resonating. Tilda Swinton as executive Karen Crowder seems perhaps too calculated, but because Karen's intimate moments may be as fake as the calm face she presents to the world, Swinton's acting works perfectly. Acting is believable all around, including Denis O'Hare as a panicked, aggressive client and Sydney Pollack as Michael's efficient, realist boss.

Robert Elswit cinematography is fantastically dark, subtle, and poetic. James Newton Howard's score is also touching, involving throbbing beats and lovely moments of clarity. Tony Gilroy's script is a little overly symbolic, but otherwise incredible. The corporate and legal worlds, Arthur's manic depression, and Michael's psychology and relation with his son are deeply authentic.

This film is engrossing but not full of blockbuster trademarks. It also does not say anything original about the sins of the city, major corporations, and law firms, but what it does say it does in a novel manner. It is a tale of banal evil and redemption, a very common, but a very necessary, message indeed.