Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Carrie Fisher

"If my life wasn't funny, it would just be true and that is unacceptable.

As the internet rightly celebrates the life of Carrie Fisher, I felt inspired to do some writing about her as well and her legacy as the woman most certainly was more than just Princess Leia. She had a long and varied career, both as an actress and also as a writer in her own right. Unapologetically brash and bold, Carrie Fisher blazed her own trail while facing life with a self-deprecating sense of humor one can only admire. 

I should probably get Star Wars out of the way first, since they were the films she was best known for. Over the course of four films, Fisher tackled the role of Princess Leia Organa with a fierce strength that made the role iconic. Never the damsel in distress and not one to hesitate to pick up a blaster gun and get shit done herself, all with easily the most ridiculous hairstyle no less, Leia was a fantastic character portrayed wonderfully by Fisher. She continued the role through the subsequent three films, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens. As we catch up with Leia again in the latest film, it is perhaps the most poignant rendition of the character we have seen. She is now a General in the Rebellion forces, her love, Han Solo, has left to go galavanting around the galaxy again with his "walking carpet" Wookie, Chewbacca, and she has lost her only son to the Dark Side of the Force. Having seemingly lost everything, she continues to stand tall and continue pushing forward against seemingly insurmountable odds. If ever there was a role model for the age we live in, it's General Leia Organa. By all reports, Fisher was proud of her work as Leia and said that of all the characters to be typecasted as, that one was not bad. 

She continued to work regularly, with memorable turns as Jake Blues' spurned girlfriend in The Blues Brothers, Tom Hanks' wife in Joe Dante's criminally underrated dark screwball comedy The Burbs and as Meg Ryan's matchmaking best friend in When Harry Met Sally. She never quite matched the blockbuster status of the Star Wars saga, but she continued to work steadily as an actress beyond that. 

However, as the years marched on she began to work more and more behind the camera as a writer, becoming a highly sought after script doctor known for helping save troubled productions with contributions to films as varied as Hook, Sister Act, The River Wild, Coyote Ugly, and many others. She also wrote the scene for her cameo appearance in Scream 3, where her character not only admits to her likeness to Carrie Fisher, but suggests Fisher slept with George Lucas to get the part of Princess Leia. Needless to say it was one of the funniest parts of the so-so sequel.

She was also an accomplished novelist and writer, with several novels under her belt including the semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge, inspired by her relationship with her mother, Hollywood celebrity Debbie Reynolds (although Debbie always insisted, "It's not about us."). She also wrote the screenplay for the screen adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols. She also wrote three memoirs, Wishful Drinking, Shockaholic, and The Princess Diarist, where she reveals her life with a sort of self deprecating humor and candor that can only be admired. Unflinchingly honest about her bouts with alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness were admirable in her steadfast devotion to removing the stigma of mental health issues. All are worth checking out. She also did Wishful Drinking as a one woman show, which was recorded and aired on HBO. It's worth seeing, if only for the sequence where she relates the scandal of her parent's divorce and the ongoing aftermath from that leading to her helping her daughter determine if she and her would be boyfriend, a son of one of Fisher's father Eddie Fisher's exes children, are in fact related. At one point she pulls out a flow chart and takes us through all of it step by step and it is hysterical. 

I was saddened to hear of Carrie Fisher's passing yesterday. Not just because she played Princess Leia in Star Wars, but because I knew about so much of her other work. Her accomplishments as a writer are equally, if not more, impressive. Her work with de-stigmatizing Mental Health issues and both her humor and candor as she shared the issues she had personally struggled with in the process were an inspiration for many. I have seen so many posts on social media only mentioning Leia and while that is cool and everything and certainly something Carrie was proud of, even if she gently mocked it, there was so much more to her than just Leia. Her life wasn't an easy one, but the fact that she approached it with an unending sense of humor and biting wit should be enough to give everyone more strength. 

Edit: As I was writing this, I saw the news that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, has now passed away too. The two may have had their issues, but they were always close and even wound up living next door to each other. The fact that they both died within a day of each other almost makes sense, in a weird way. I'll have to think up some sort of tribute to Debbie as well as a separate post as I enjoyed much of her work as well. But for now, my thoughts and prayers are with their family, who have lost a mother, a sister and a grandmother all in the span of 24 hours. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I was intrigued by Passengers when I first read the synopsis for it on the annual Black List, a list of the best yet unproduced screenplays that is released each year. I was thrilled to hear it was finally getting made. But then a curious thing happened, the trailers were covering up a significant plot point in the film. It's an important plot detail that I will be including in my summary below, so if you want to go into the film knowing as little as possible, by all means go. It's a terrific and suspenseful sci-fi thrill ride with a nice dose of romance on the side. For those that want to know a little more first, by all means read ahead.

Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt) is a mechanical engineer traveling on the galactic spaceship Aurora on it's way to an uninhabited planet as a colonist along with 5000 other people. As the ship travels through an asteroid belt, it triggers a malfunction and Jim's suspended animation pod turns off, waking him up. He is shocked to not only find himself the only person awake on a giant spaceship but that he was woken up 90 years too early, meaning he will effectively spend the entirety of his life on the ship completely alone, except for the android bartender, Arthur (played by Michael Shannon). Furthermore, as a passenger on the ship and not a member of the crew, he has no access to the command controls of the ship to try put himself back in stasis or get help. As he spends more and more time alone, his sanity begins to slip until he discovers the pod of Aurora Lane (played by Jennifer Lawrence). He looks her up on the ship's computer and learns about her, reads her writings (she's an author) and slowly falls for her. He begins to think about waking her up so he didn't have to be alone. He's knows it's wrong and wrestles with his conscience until the sheer loneliness makes him cave and he does it. Disoriented, he initially leads her to believe that her pod malfunctioned too, part of the growing number of malfunctions on the ship. But it's only a matter of time before she finds out. In the meantime, the two begin to bond and develop feelings for one another. But as the problems on the ship grow to become critical, it becomes clear the two are going to have to work together to fix the ship and ensure it reaches it's destination. 

The main point of contention for people with this film is going to be the fact that Jim deliberately wakes up Aurora, rather than both of them waking up by accident as the trailers lead you to believe. And I will concede, it is a total dick move. He is essentially robbing her of the life she chose without her consent. At the same time, you can see why he did it. He spends an entire year on the ship completely alone and comes damn close to killing himself. It's not an excuse, I know, but it does show why he does it and that he probably wasn't in the head space to make a good decision, even if he does wrestle with it for quite some time beforehand. I know some people are going to hate this movie on those grounds alone and that's fine. I totally get it. The hero of all your films have to be 100% likeable all the time and can't have any flaws or make any mistakes. But I actually liked the movie more for it. Jim is flawed. He makes a selfish decision. He doesn't wake her up because she's important, like the ship's designer or a crew member or something. He does it because after looking her up on the ship's computer and reading her writing he fell for her. It's that plain and simple. And her blind rage at him when she finds out (because of course she finds out) is completely justified. 

The film was directed by Morten Tyldum from a script by Jon Spaights. The film gives us a unique take on a desert island scenario, with a largely limited cast that is mostly focused on our two main characters for much of the run time. But the film has enough drama and story to keep the film interesting with just the two characters, along with the android Arthur. Jon Spaights manages to create a unique vision of the distant future that also feels tangible and possible. The technological advances seen in the film seem plausible even if there are some more out there elements such as the shipboard swimming pool, which even proves to be nearly fatal for one of the characters when the ship suddenly loses it's artificial gravity and the water (and swimmer) no longer remain in the pool. Still, because the setting of the story seems real, it makes the plight of our main characters that much more palpable as well. The effects work is well done throughout the film as is the production design. The main "public" areas of the ship are clearly based on cruise liners (the passengers would spend roughly four months aboard the ship before their arrival at their destination) but given a futuristic upgrade as well.  

The performances in the film are strong considering that the bulk of the film falls on the shoulders of the two lead actors. Chris Pratt does a great job as Jim, show his progression as a character quite well throughout the ordeal as he first realizes he's alone on the ship, his initial panic and desperation, moving into acceptance as he begins to take ownership of the surroundings, enjoying the more luxurious areas of the ship he otherwise wouldn't have had access to. But the thrill wears off as loneliness sets in and Pratt does a great job showing the growing desperation Jim feels and his struggle as well as his deep need to someone to be with. Jennifer Lawrence does well with what she has, but her part isn't quite as well developed as Pratt's character, although she does have some great moments of her own. She and Chris Pratt do share some decent chemistry as well, which helps make the second act of the film work, even as we as the audience are waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

Overall, Passengers is an interesting blending of survival drama, romance and thriller all into one film and it for the most part worked for me. At times the film could be predictable but it still kept my interest throughout. Other people have called the film slow, but I felt it kept a good pace throughout, even though the very end of the film seemed a bit rushed. It's not perfect, but it had a little bit more depth to it than people might think. The moral conflict at the center of it was a nice touch when the filmmakers could have so easily taken the easy way out and I appreciated that. It's not a perfect film, but it was one that entertained me, intrigued me and left me thinking about it for some time afterwards. So, there is that at least. 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

When I first heard that they were making a film detailing the events preceding the first Star Wars film, I was simultaneously intrigued and perplexed since the original film essentially spoils the outcome of the film. But yet, there was a chance to spin a unique chapter of the Star Wars saga and much to much surprise they really managed to pull it off. 

Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) is a rebel fighter rescued from captivity by the Rebel Alliance for a specific mission. The Rebel Alliance wishes to create a partnership with rogue rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (played by Forest Whitaker) and since Jyn has a history with Saw (he rescued her as a child when her mother was killed and her father Galen (played by Mads Mikkelson) was captured by the Empire) they think she may help him be more receptive to the message if delivered by a friendly face. Partnering her with Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Empire droid K2SO (played by Alan Tudyk), they are given the assignment of contacting Saw as well as retrieve a holographic message that Saw is said to be in possession of from a defecting Empire pilot in regards to a new Empire weapon, the Death Star.  Once there, Jyn first encounters blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (played by Donnie Yen), whose connection to The Force helps him compensate for his lack of sight. They also encounter his mercenary friend Baze Malbus (played by Jiang Wen), a close friend of Chirrut. They eventually make it to the hideout of Saw Gerrera, who recognizes Jyn and plays the message from her father for her. He tells of the new Empire weapon, one capable of destroying entire planets. Galen was forced to build it and he agreed because it allowed him to build in a secret fault in the weapon that if hit in the right spot would destroy the entire thing. When presenting this information to the Rebel Alliance, they feel they have been defeated. Not ones to quit, Jyn, Cassian and their new friends Chirrut and Baze set off on a new mission: Steal the plans for the Death Star by any means necessary.

Rogue One is a welcome break from the main storyline that has run through the series thus far and in the process has opened up the universe of the series in new and interesting ways. By making the story a far more of an ensemble cast we are able to be exposed to a greater scope of the rebellion and it's different factions and how it operates. Director Gareth Edwards, as well as screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz really drive home the sacrifices and moral ambiguity that can come from war, much more so than the previous films that for the most part operated strictly within the either wholly white or wholly black. Unlike previous entries, our heroes this time out, especially Jyn and Cassian, aren't afraid to get their hands a little dirty even if they are doing it for the greater good. 

The performances are strong overall from a diverse cast. Felicity Jones leads the film as Jyn and gives a great performance portraying a character who has been a rebel all her life ever since her family was torn apart by the Empire when she was still a child. Diego Luna is someone I have been a fan of ever since I saw him in Y Tu Mama Tambien back in 2003 and it's great to see him tackling the role of Cassian, who as an Intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance and at times feels his conflicting morals getting the better of him. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are great as best bud warriors Chirrut and Baze (even though I am not entirely convinced they are "just friends"). The surprise of the film for me though was Alan Tudyk as K2SO, who provided plenty of much needed comic relief throughout the film as a droid whose chief malfunction was just saying whatever was on it's mind with little regard for others. He also reminded me at times of Alan Rickman's performance as Marvin, the depressed robot from the underrated Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There are also a few surprise appearances in the film that I won't dream of spoiling but were a lot of fun to see again. 

Rogue One proves to be a welcome respite from the main "Skywalker" storyline of the usual films and in the process expands and grows the universe of the galaxy a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. I also have to appreciate the fact that the film fixes the biggest nagging plot hole of the entire series so efficiently and perfectly. Well done there, filmmakers. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

After five years away from the magical world J.K Rowling created (although did any of us really leave?), we are reintroduced with a new and unique look into the universe Rowling created with the spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This film takes place long before the Harry Potter series and moves the action to 1926 New York. I was on board with this film the minute I heard the premise. Rowling's Wizarding world in the Roaring 20's? Instead of "You're a wizard, Harry" it'd be "You're a wizard, ol' sport"? I was in. I was so in. 

Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) has stopped over in New York for a brief stop-over. Carrying with him a large suitcase filled with many magical creatures, he his looking for something in the city of New York. He soon crosses paths with Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler), a factory worker and aspiring baker when Newt chases a Niffler that escaped from his suitcase into the bank Jacob is visiting (a Niffler is a cute little creature attracted to precious metals and jewels and likes to steal and hoard them while simultaneously stealing every scene he's in). Jacob gets caught up in the chaos caused by Newt trying to corral the Niffler and is therefore exposed to the Magical world. In the confusion, Newt's case gets mixed up with Jacob's case that held samples of his baked goods. Newt winds up getting picked up by Tina Goldstein (played by Katherine Waterston) a witch working for the Magical Congress of the United States (otherwise known as MACUSA) and is brought in for the crime of letting a magical creature loose in New York. When her superiors brush her off because of more concerning matters, Newt realizes his case has been switched and the two head off to find Jacob, who has opened Newt's case, causing several creatures to escape. So, it falls to Newt, Jacob, Tina and Tina's sister, Queenie (played by Alison Sudol) to capture the escaped creatures. Meanwhile, MACUSA Auror Percival Graves (played by Colin Farrell) is chasing a particularly nasty creature that the MACUSA believes came from Newt's case, but actually seems to be linked to an anti-Witchcraft activist Mary Lou Barebone (played by Samantha Morton) and her adopted son, Credence (played by Ezra Miller).

There is a lot to love about this film. David Yates once again returns to direct and brings the Wizarding world of New York wonderfully to life, as well as circa 1926 New York in general. J.K Rowling herself wrote the script for the film and crafts a whole new tale for us to enjoy. The film introduces us to a hero very different from Harry Potter. Newt Scamander is a much more introverted character who finds solace in the magical creatures he studies. He intends to write a book, debunking the long held beliefs that these characters are somehow dangerous. Yates and his talented crew bring Newt's world vividly to life, as Newt shows Jacob the contents of his suitcase, which through the use of magic has an interior that is a literal zoo that they can climb right into. Each of the fantastic beasts of the title are rendered with great skill and imagination, seeming both very real and unlike anything I had seen before. The film does also have some dark moments to it as well, such as the plotline with Mary Lou and Credence and their anti-witchcraft movement (which is curious since the existence of witches and wizards is strictly hidden from the rest of humanity with no exceptions, so clearly most people must think she's a crackpot). There is also the underlying threat of Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard that feels like magical folk should rule over the non-magic rather than hide in the shadows.

The acting was great all around in this film. Eddie Redmayne was positively endearing as Newt, creating such a wonderful and relatable character. The friendship he forges with Jacob is great and one of the emotional cores of the film. I loved seeing the non-magical Jacob's reactions to the Wizarding World and Dan Fogler portrayed it beautifully. Now, movies like this usually have a romance element to it, but I was not expecting it to come in the form of Jacob and Tina's sister Queenie, but it was there from the moment the two characters meet and both Fogler and Alison Sudol have great chemistry together so it was clear from that moment where they were going and I loved it. It gave me the feels, for sure. I also really liked Katherine Waterston as Tina. She is a fiercely independent woman, trying to do well at her job, despite some set backs (she used to be an Auror, but was busted down to the wand permit office). She tries to do what she thinks the right thing each, but finds those ideas challenged when she meets and spends time with Newt. 

Overall, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a triumphant return to the wonderful Wizarding World J.K Rowling created and shows us a new and intriguing side of it, with a nice dose of that great Rowling sense of humor. It's thrilling to see what the Magical world is like in America as opposed to Great Britain (although we have Newt Scamander to remind us of the British side of things), as well as seeing how it was in the past. This is supposed to be the first of five total films and if the next ones are anything like this one, I say bring them on!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

And now, finally, here we come at the final chapter of the cinematic saga of Harry Potter. Well, final until Warner Bros. finally gets around to making Harry Potter and Cursed Child, because we all know that's coming eventually. Anyway, the series comes to a rousing and emotional conclusion as J.K Rowling goes full George R.R Martin on our beloved characters. 

Part 2 more or less picks up right where the first part left off, with Harry mourning the death of Dobby the house Elf, who had just begun to worm his way into my heart by trying to drop a chandelier on Bellatrix LeStrange (played by Helena Bonham Carter) towards the end of the previous film. After gathering himself, Harry, Ron (played by Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (played by Emma Watson) set out to recover the remaining Horcruxes. The first one is located in Bellatrix's vault in the goblin controlled Gringotts bank. Hermoine winds up having to pose as Bellatrix with Ron also in disguise and Harry hiding under his invisibility cloak. They manage to access the vault and recover the Horcrux, but the alarm is raised and have to escape with the aid of a conveniently placed dragon.  The clue to the last remaining Horcrux leads them back to Hogwarts, leading them to the final showdown with Voldemort and his followers and Harry and the teachers, students and his friends at the school. 

For the final outing, the film moves at a brisk and thrilling pace from beginning to end. With all the set up out of the way, David Yates and Screenwriter Steve Kloves are able to properly focus on the battle of Hogwarts. In the process, there are also a few potent revelations about potions teacher Severus Snape (played by Alan Rickman) that were especially poignant, perhaps even more so due to Rickman's passing earlier this year. The action beats are incredibly strong in this film, and there are many. One particularly notable one is an extended scene of Harry, Ron and Hermoine running through the chaos of battle, throwing spells left and right to ward of attacks with nary a thought, made all the more impressive with the fact that the things they are warding off or firing at are things they encountered and fought all through their years at Hogwarts and are now able to face and fight off without a second thought or moment's pause. There is also a cool sequence in the school's Room of Requirement where they have to find the last Horcrux and it also is an extended throwback to memorable items from earlier installments, including the Cornish Pixies Gilderoy Lockhart unleashed on his class in the second film. 

As always, the acting is wonderful here, with so many emotionally potent moments. I have to call out Alan Rickman as Snape. Now, I've been a fan of Alan Rickman's ever since I saw Die Hard as a wee one and then shortly after saw him steal the show in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. When it was announced he would be playing Snape, I couldn't think of anyone better. And it all pays off here as Snape's deepest secrets are revealed and Rickman gives a beautiful performance. I won't dare spoil it for those who haven't seen it, but I've always found it deeply moving. Maggie Smith, who has also been a wonderful addition to the series in her uniquely Maggie Smith way gets some great moments here, especially as she faces off against Snape in the Great Hall and then prepares the school to defend itself. Then, finally there is Julie Walters as Molly Weasley. She hasn't always had the most to do in the series beyond being the doting but strict when needed mother, but she gets one of the most memorable moments in the film when she sees her daughter Ginny dueling with Bellatrix and steps in, announcing, "Not my daughter, you bitch!" It was a moment straight from the book and one I couldn't wait to see on screen. It goes without saying that Julie Walters did not disappoint.

So, that ends the official look back at the Harry Potter series. I hadn't revisited these in full in quite a long time and the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as well as the fifteenth anniversary of the first film provided the perfect excuse to revisit them from beginning to end. I was a fan of the series ever since I first read the books way back when they first came out after my cousin Sarah got me into them and I was hooked ever since. I saw each of the movies in the theater and marveled as they matured as they went along, going from fun but family friendly films to something was genuinely and legitimately good cinema. I loved how the vision of Hogwarts grew and deepened as the series went on and how each incoming director put their own unique touches on the series. The Harry Potter films remain one of the most significant and well made series of films, self contained with one mostly continuous casts in film history. The fact that this is able to continue in another form with Fantastic Beasts and it's inevitable sequels is certainly something I am looking forward to.   

Monday, November 21, 2016

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

And now we finally find ourselves at the beginning of the end of the Harry Potter saga. With so much pertinent plot in the source novel, adapting it into a single film proved to be impossible and the decision was made to split the film into two parts, released nine months apart. 

After the death of Albus Dumbledore, Voldemort and the Death Eaters have increased their attacks of the Wizarding world as well as the world at large. Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe) is rescued from the Dursley home by several of Dumbledore's followers, including Ron (played by Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (played by Emma Watson). To try and avoid any followers, several of them ingest Polyjuice potion to transform into duplicates of Harry. This turns out to be a good idea as upon leaving the Dursley residence, they are immediately set upon by a hoard of Death Eaters intent on taking out Harry and his supporters. There are a couple tragic casualties before the remaining ones arrive at the magically protected Weasley house. Upon learning that the Ministry of Magic has fallen, Harry, Ron and Hermoine set out on their own to find the remaining Horcruxes, items that contain pieces of Voldemort's soul and their destruction being the key to killing him once and for all. It is an arduous journey that will not only test them against their enemies but their friendship as well.

This film is where the series really and truly breaks free of the formula that had served the series well up until this point. As such, this entry feels like a huge breath of fresh air which goes nice with the growing tension the film has as the world around Harry grows increasingly darker and scarier. David Yates and Steve Kloves, along with the producers, made the wise choice of rather than cutting down the film to make it into two parts. This allows the characters some time to react and absorb the events that are happening. There are little moments, such as Harry stopping to look in the little cupboard under the stairs that was his room in the first film, bringing things full circle in a way. It also allows for little character moments, like Harry and Hermoine dancing to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "O Children" to relieve the tension they are both feeling. It the moments like these that enrichen the film and make it that more meaningful of a film.

It's interesting to arrive at this film and realize just how much Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have grown as actors over the ten year course of this saga. All three have to carry the bulk of the film and they do so incredibly well. Radcliffe makes his best turn as Harry, who is able to show Harry's inner turmoil and burden so well. Harry isn't quite sure how to deal with everyone looking to him and also doesn't want anyone else to die for him. Rupert Grint likewise shines as Ron, whose own inner turmoil and anxieties begins to boil over, causing him to lash out at his friends. Emma Watson does well, showing Hermoine as the cool head that her friends can rely on, with her beaded bag (with a handy expansion charm making it bigger on the inside, how very Time Lord of her) packed with every possible thing they could need in their travels including books, changes of clothes, medicines and potions and even a tent. 

Overall, as the beginning of the end of the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is able to break new ground and find a fresh take on the series for it's final outings. Even if other teen lit series took the same trend of breaking the final film into two parts, I genuinely feel this one was done with the best narrative intentions in mind rather than as a cheap cash grab. By allowing the story room to breathe, it made it all the more poignant and meaningful. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

For the sixth film, the series took a slightly lighter tone for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, otherwise known as the one where everyone's hormones went into overdrive. As the last Harry Potter film before the two part finale, it also went to some surprisingly dark places, especially towards the end of the film. 

As Harry is getting ready to enter his sixth year at Hogwarts, he is recruited by Dumbledore (played by Michael Gambon) to help him recruit a former Potions teacher, Horace Slughorn (played by Jim Broadbent), to return to teach at Hogwarts. Once they are successful, Dumbledore reveals to Harry why it was so important that Slughorn return. Slughorn contains a vital memory that is the key to how Voldemort was able to survive death and return. Dumbledore needs to know what that is so they can defeat the Dark Lord once and for all and thinks Harry will be the key in retrieving that knowledge from a very hesitant Slughorn. Meanwhile, life continues on at Hogwarts as our characters continue to grow and mature and begin to start pairing off with one another and with this being a school of magic, love potions get involved. Harry also finds an old Potions textbook that is inscribed as belonging to the Half Blood Prince. Harry and Hermoine (played by Emma Watson) find the book quite intriguing, especially since the notes in the book are allowing Harry to excel in Potions class for the first time, much to the chagrin of the studious Hermoine. There is also the ever increasing threat of Voldemort as he recruits more followers, inching ever closer to that inevitable final confrontation.  

David Yates returned as director for this film and seems to have a firmer grasp on the material with this outing as well. It also helps that we have Steve Kloves back writing the screenplay after sitting out the previous film. This entry has always been an interesting one to me because for large chunks of the film, it's actually pretty damn funny, from the early interactions between Dumbledore and Slughorn to Ron Weasley (played by Rupert Grint) on a love potion and Daniel Radcliffe showing his prowess for comedy with his time on a "Liquid Luck" potion in a last ditch attempt to get the needed info from Slughorn. But Yates and Kloves manage to balance the lighter elements with the darker ones, including the entire last quarter of the film, as well as a subplot with a tormented Draco Malfoy (played by Tom Felton), who has a secret mission of his own on behalf of Voldemort. 

As always, the acting is great all around and this entry is no exception. Michael Gambon continues to make for an intriguing and interesting Albus Dumbledore. I haven't really delved into Gambon's portrayal of the Hogwarts headmaster and I suppose this would be a good place to do so. What I liked so much about Gambon's portrayal was that behind the old wise wizard, you got the sense that there was some darkness in his past, some regrets and Gambon was able to make that shine through in his performance. Also, with this film being the first to come out since J.K Rowling outed Dumbledore as gay, I noticed that Gambon's performance became ever so slightly campier, which I adored to be honest. I also have to single out Tom Felton this time around. For the bulk of the series he was always the stereotypical antagonist for Harry, Ron and Hermoine and wasn't given much to work with beyond that (although he quietly stole damn near every scene he was in in the second film). However, he has a few more meatier moments in the film as you get the sense of the inner turmoil of the character as his antagonized relationship with Harry comes to a head, as well as the mission he's on for Voldemort doesn't seem to be something Malfoy is 100% on board with.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is another strong entry in the series and is a solid adaptation of the source novel, while also standing on it's own. It's one that I have always enjoyed since I first saw it in the theatre when it came out. It also nicely leads everything into the two part finale as the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort draws ever closer.  

Friday, November 18, 2016

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has the curious distinction of being one of my favorite Harry Potter films based on my least favorite of the Harry Potter novels. Much of this has to do with how the novel was adapted as well as the performance of Daniel Radcliffe in this film. 

The fifth film picks up with Harry Potter (played by Daniel Radcliffe) still coping with the death of Cedric Diggory and the resurrection of Voldemort (played by Ralph Fiennes). After warding off a surprise attack by two dementors, Harry receives notice that he is expelled from Hogwarts for performing underage magic outside of school. However, after some quick intervention from Dumbledore (played by Michael Gambon), Harry is able to return to school. There he discovers that Delores Umbridge (played by Imelda Staunton) has been appointed to the post of Defense of the Dark Arts teacher. A former Ministry of Magic employee, she continuously talks down Harry's warnings that Voldemort's returning while also undermining the curriculum of the class with a focus on giving the students the knowledge needed to pass standardized tests with no practical learning know-how (boy, does that sound familiar). She also begins to use her Ministry connections to wrestle control of the school, leading many of the students to seek out Harry to teach them some of the practical defense spells that they are not learning in class. Meanwhile, Harry also discovers he has a growing mental link with Voldemort, leading him to another inevitable confrontation with the Dark Lord. 

David Yates takes the directorial reins with this film and would continue with the remainder of the series. He does a decent job adapting the source novel with Michael Goldenberg as screenwriter. They keep the story focused well, drawing out the significant plot threads and developing them well within the medium of film. There were whole sections in the book where Harry was frankly being a bit of a pill that gave me a headache as a reader and it was nice to see that was largely dropped in favor of a focus on Harry and Umbridge butting heads and Harry teaching the other students defensive spells he knew in secret. Nicholas Hooper picked up scoring duties on this outing and did a fantastic job creating new themes for this entry with very little reliance on the classic Potter themes, even leaving me thinking I should download the score at the end of the film. Even though I am a film score aficionado, its not every day that I think that. 

The acting is strong as always with this outing. Daniel Radcliffe stretches himself a bit more with the tormented Harry, but also finds some purpose in the new role of teacher to his fellow students and blossoms in the role, even taking on some characteristics of a teacher he admired, Remus Lupin (played by David Thewlis), which was apparently Radcliffe's idea. Then there is Imelda Staunton, giving life to without question the most hated person in the entire Harry Potter series with Delores Unbridge. Constantly clad in pink, she asserts her power over the entire school while her approach to teaching simply for students to pass tests and nothing more is nauseatingly ill-equipped. Fred and George Weasley's final revenge on her remains one of the series' high points.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a turning point in the series. It was the first one directed by David Yates, who would remain the director for the remainder of the series. The series also continues to grow darker as it moves forward ever more towards it's inevitable conclusion and the film handled that transition well, while also working in a bit of humor. It's interesting that one of my favorite Potter films would be based on my least favorite of the books though. I wasn't expecting that, to be honest.  

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

 As we move into the fourth entry in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the series continues to grow and mature, but also find new challenges for our characters, especially Harry as he finds himself roped into a wizarding competition he really wanted no part of. 

As we begin this film, we join  Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe), Hermoine (played by Emma Watson) and Ron (played by Rupert Grint) as they attend the Quidditch World Cup along with Ron's Dad Arthur (played by Mark Williams) and Ron's brothers Fred and George (played by James and Oliver Phelps). The fun doesn't last as the games are attacked by the Death Eaters, Voldemort's followers, causing chaos and marching around in robes and hats like an even creepier version of the Ku Klux Klan (if such a thing were possible). Harry witnesses one of them, Barty Crouch Jr. (played by David Tennant) causing the sky to be marked with the dark mark, the sign of the Death Eaters, marking the beginning of the return of Voldemort. As the kids return to school, they find out that the school will be host to guests from two other wizarding schools, Durmstrang from Bulgaria and Beauxbatons from France. They are there to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament with one wizard from each school to compete in the year long series of events. Anyone interested in competing is to place their name in the cup and then three will be chosen to compete. The three competitors wind up being Cedric Diggory (played by Robert Pattinson) from Hogwarts, Viktor Krum (played by Stanislav Ianevski), and Fleur Delacour (played by Clemence Poesy). Much to everyone's surprise, a fourth name is ejected from the cup: Harry Potter. Despite there obviously being something afoot, Dumbledore (played by Michael Gambon) and the other teachers decide to let Potter compete and see how the events plays out, to let whoever put his name in the cup reveal themselves.

For the fourth entry in the series, the director's chair passed to Mike Newell, who took cue's from the previous film while adding his own flair to the series. The plotlines of the series continue to get darker and the film gets a desaturated color scheme to match. There is also a continuing maturity to the film, once again showing the films growing along with their characters. Steve Kloves had to jettison a lot of J.K Rowling's narrative in order to fit one two and a half hour film, but manages to keep enough to create a satisfying narrative the keeps a strong pace throughout the film from the beginning all the way to the climax of the film. Patrick Doyle picks up the scoring duties from John Williams and holds his own nicely, mixing his own themes in with John Williams' main Potter theme. 

The acting continues to be great, with all the familiar faces doing quite well. We also get some new faces mixing in starting with Brendan Gleeson as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher Alastor "Mad Eye" Moody, a former Auror (someone who chases dark wizards and witches) and it is immediately clear the years have taken their toll. We also have Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter, a gossip journalist covering the Tri-Wizard tournament and exploits Harry as a source of constant, and frequently exaggerated, headlines. Then we have Frances de la Tour as Beauxbaton's headmistress Madame Olympe Maxime, who becomes a bit of a love interest for Hagrid (played by Robbie Coltrane). Finally, we have a pre-Doctor Who David Tennant showing up as Voldemort right hand Barty Crouch Jr. and he gives a suitably deranged performance that is a million miles away from the affable Doctor.    

Overall, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is another step in the maturation of the series as the overall series starts to grow darker as it goes along, while also finding ways to keep things fresh, exciting and inventive. While it's not my favorite in the series, it certainly ranks up there as one of the best in the series. Then again I love them all, so how can I possibly really be objective?  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

There are a number of reasons why both the novel and film versions of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the series. This entry explores the past of Harry's parents and their friends and how it connects to the present in some very interesting and rather surprising ways. 

As the film opens, Harry Potter (played by Daniel Radcliffe) is once again staying with his Aunt Petunia (played by Fiona Shaw), Uncle Vernon (played by Richard Griffiths), and cousin Dudley (played by Harry Melling). They are visited by Vernon's sister, Marge (played by Pam Ferris), a vile and verbally abusive woman. Harry soon has his breaking point with the woman and his anger gets the better of him, accidentally causing Marge to inflate like a large balloon and literally float out the window. Harry then flees the Dursley's house and one quick trip on a triple decker bus specially for wizards, Harry is back in the wizarding world where he quickly discovers that Sirius Black (played by Gary Oldman), convicted Voldemort ally, has escaped from wizard prison Azkaban and is likely headed right for Harry himself at Hogwarts. Meanwhile, all sorts of changes have taken place for the new year, including new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (played by David Thewlis) and Hagrid (played by Robbie Coltrane) has been given his own class as well. Harry is reunited with his friends Ron (played by Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (played by Emma Watson) as the three begin to uncover who Sirius Black is and how he figures into Harry and Harry's parents pasts. 

For the third film, Alfonso Cuaron took over directing duties and infuses the film with his own sense of style and in the process giving the series a breath of fresh air. The entire production design gets a fresh turn as certain aspects of Hogwarts get a new interpretation and design. We also get to see the nearby Wizard village Hogsmeade for the first time as the students take a trip there as a break from school. Cuaron does a great job bringing some fantastic and memorable moments to life, such as Harry's ride on the Knight Bus, the bus specifically for witches and Wizards that whizzes around London so fast it doesn't even register to non-magic folk. There is also Harry's ride on a Hippogriff, courtesy of Hagrid that is equally magical. Then there is the inflating of Aunt Marge at the beginning of the film that is wonderfully realized and quite funny. Also, I love how the story unfolds for this entry, and I suppose most of that credit goes to J.K Rowling, but without spoiling anything for those who haven't seen the film or read the book, the film does have a few nifty twists in store. 

The acting is great with Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson continuing to grow as actors and as always surrounded by some of the best British actors around. Michael Gambon steps in as Dumbledore after the passing of Richard Harris, giving the character his own unique spin and if I'm being completely honest, I have always preferred Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore to Harris' (although Harris was great too, just in different ways). David Thewlis makes his first appearance in the series as Remus Lupin. There is a special bond that develops between Lupin and Harry as Lupin teaches Harry how to ward off the nasty Dementors, guards of the Azkaban prison that have taken temporary residence as the school on the chance that escaped prisoner Sirius Black shows up. It's that bond and the way that it is acted that really seals why Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the series. 

Overall, this film was a giant leap forward for the Harry Potter series and set the tone that would be carried out throughout the remainder of the series. Alfonso Cuaron infused his entry with a great deal of imagination and style while at the same time letting the series grow up a little. Along with some very fine acting and a great story, it's easy to see why this entry stands out for me.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Released just one year after the first film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets builds on what came before as we move into Harry's second year at the Wizardry boarding school Hogwarts. With some new faces joining the returning cast, this film does a fine job expanding the universe established in the first film while conjuring up some fun and thrilling new adventures. 

As the film opens, Harry Potter (played by Daniel Radcliffe) is back living with his relatives, Uncle Vernon (played by Richard Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (played by Fiona Shaw) when he is visited by a house elf named Dobby who warns Harry that he mustn't return to Hogwarts for his life is in danger. After Harry refuses, Dobby intentionally ruins Uncle Vernon's social gathering, causing Uncle Vernon to swear that Harry will never return to Hogwarts. It's not long though before Harry is rescued by Ron (played by Rupert Grint) and his twin brothers Fred and George (played by James and Oliver Phelps) in their Dad's flying Ford Anglia car and taken back to the Weasley family home. There he is greeted by their mother Molly (played by Julie Walters), irate that the boys took the car, and father Arthur (played by Mark Williams), whose first instinct is to ask how the trip went (typical Dad response). After a quick trip for school supplies, where Ron and Harry are reunited with Hermoine (played by Emma Watson), it's time to head back to Hogwarts where they are greeted by all the familiar teachers and staff along with some new faces including the narcissistic new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart (played by Kenneth Branagh) and Ron's younger sister Ginny (played by Bonnie Wright). Soon enough, the trio of young heroes also find themselves drawn into a new and dangerous mystery that threatens the students of Hogwarts as students start turning up petrified and ominous messages warn of the opening of the fabled Chamber of Secrets.

Chris Columbus returned to direct the second film working from a script from Steve Kloves. No longer burdened with establishing the school or the wizarding world, they hit the ground running with a far more well paced film. At the same time, they do a great job realizing the wizarding world of J.K Rowling's source novel such as showing us what a wizarding family is like with the Weasleys. In many ways it's not too different, but in other ways it is, like Arthur Weasley quizzing Harry about non-magical folks artifacts such as the use of a Rubber Duck. Likewise, seeing such memorable sequences as the adventures in the flying Ford Anglia are well directed and suitably thrilling. John Williams returns to score the film as well, bringing the same fantastic themes he brought to the film as well as building on them and creating all new ones. 

The acting in this one is dependably good given the seasoned actors we have. In the second outing, you can see how much Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have grown, not just physically but in their acting skills from the previous film (sadly, the Harry Potter series would become the fantasy film equivalent of Boyhood, with all the kids' adolescence captured on film for all time). Kenneth Branagh joins the cast for this film as the self-obsessed wizard Gilderoy Lockhart and it is clear he is having a blast in the role and the fun is contagious. From the moment he introduces himself to his class, walking past a picture of himself painting a self portrait, I am cracking up every single time. This film also expands the role of Harry Potter's rival, Draco Malfoy (played by Tom Felton), who manages to quietly steal several scenes, including quite possibly the best improvised line in the series, "Reading? I didn't know you could read."  

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is one of my favorites of the series, with solid direction and writing, solid acting and good pace (despite this film actually being the longest in the series, clocking in at two hours and forty minutes). It has plenty of great fun within it even if this entry is a bit darker that the previous film and the series would get even darker from here. There is plenty to enjoy with this one, even if it does have the icky scene with all the spiders. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The Harry Potter novels by J.K Rowling captured the nation's attention like almost none other. Kids and Adults alike were immediately taken with Rowling's tale of the goings on at a magical boarding school for Witches and Wizards, and the three students at the center of it. It was inevitable that a film version would come out and when it did, it was almost as good as the books that inspired it. 

Harry Potter (played by Daniel Radcliffe) was orphaned as an infant and placed into the care of his Uncle Vernon (played by Richard Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (played by Fiona Shaw) along with his cousin, the spoiled brat Dudley (played by Harry Melling). He has been relegated to living in the cupboard under the stairs and is expected to wait on the other members of the family. All this changes when on his Eleventh birthday he is visited by the giant Hagrid (played by Robbie Coltrane), who informs Harry that he is in fact a wizard and is accepted to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft of Wizardry. Enthusiastically leaving with Hagrid, Harry finds himself in a world unlike any he imagined. He also finds out more about his past, specifically that his parents died protecting him from a dark and evil Wizard named Voldemort, who was soon thereafter defeated. He also makes two new friends, Ron Weasley (played by Rupert Grint) and Hermoine Granger (played by Emma Watson). The three begin to notice some strange goings on around the school and discover that maybe Voldemort is not as dead as everyone thought and may be trying to retrieve a magical object known as the Sorcerer's Stone to return completely to life. The three then set out to try and find the stone first and stop him from getting it.

Director Chris Columbus and Screenwriter Steve Kloves did a fantastic job adapting the novel to the big screen. It doesn't include everything from the novel, but it does a great job capturing the spirit of the novel and as a fan of the books, I have no real complaints. The film does have the burden of setting up the Wizarding world, the school, and the characters. As such the film does take awhile to get going narratively speaking. But with such a lush production design and a parade of fantastic British acting talent that includes the likes of Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, John Hurt, Ronnie Coltrane and countless others it's hard to complain. Likewise, the acting in the film is quite good and it's clear the actors are having a ball in their roles. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson all three make the perfect Harry, Ron and Hermione and turn in strong performances, especially for such young actors that carry the bulk of the film. It probably helped that they were surrounded by such seasoned pros. Among them, I have to single out Alan Rickman who is clearly relishing the role of Potions Master Severus Snape. I just love his performance in this and there is a scene of his in this film that I adore. It's such a throwaway scene in the scheme of things. Towards the end of the film, he catches Harry, Ron and Hermoine plotting and sneaks up on them warning them that "People will think you're...up to something." It's all in Rickman's delivery of that line and is one I have referenced countless times with one of my friends. It's such a small moment, but it has provided me countless amounts of amusement.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a fantastic adaptation of the novel by J.K Rowling and does a great job of capturing the essence of the novel with style and humor, along with a talented production crew and equally talented group of actors. As someone who has been a fan of Harry Potter since the novels first came out here in the U.S, I have always loved this movie. It was a great start to a series of films that are still going strong today, with the forthcoming prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which the release of inspired me to revisit the Potter films. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

After a 10 year hiatus as director, Mel Gibson once again steps behind the camera to bring us a very unique and moving tale from the Pacific battlefields of World War II. A tale of courage and bravery that is both touching and at times quite harrowing, this ranks with Saving Private Ryan as one of the best war movies ever made.

Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) finds himself at a crossroads at the dawn of World War II. He feels a need to serve and do his part, but yet his faith has forbidden him from taking a life no matter the circumstances. His father (played by Hugo Weaving) is a World War I vet who saw all his friends killed in combat and the result has left him a hollow alcoholic of a man. The last thing he wants is for either of his sons to go through the same thing. When Desmond does enlist and his beliefs are revealed, his fellow soldiers think him a coward, trying to hide behind his beliefs to avoid combat. He has a long struggle through training as his Drill Instructor, Sgt. Howell (played by Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (played by Sam Worthington) try to get him to quit. Through it all he perseveres and is allowed to go ahead and train to be an Army Medic He ships out with his unit to the battle of Okinawa in Japan, specifically the taking of the titular Hacksaw Ridge which more resembles hell itself. Throughout the fights in trying to take the ridge, Doss shows unbelievable courage as he dodges the chaos to try and get his injured fellow soldiers to safety. 

Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of Desmond Doss' actions in World War II and is an impressive and moving film. Mel Gibson once again shows his talents for behind the camera. He manages to balance the harsh and horrifying violence of the battle scenes with the more dramatic scenes in the film when Doss is at home contemplating enlisting because he doesn't feel it's right he stay behind while everyone else fights for him and the romantic scenes as Doss courts his girlfriend, Dorothy Schutte (played by Theresa Palmer). He also handles the themes of Doss' faith quite well so that the film never seems preachy, but rather something that direct's Doss' life and how he acts. The film even manages to work in a little bit of humor in the right places, which I welcomed given how intense and grim it got at times.

The acting in the film is across the board great. More than anything, this is Andrew Garfield's movie as we are with Doss almost every step of the way, from his early scenes through training to the climactic scene where he decides to stay behind when the remainders of his unit fall back to rescue his fallen comrades single handedly. His performance is fantastic in the film. There are a few scenes that are a little over-dramatic, but for the most part it's a great performance. It's nice to see Vince Vaughn in a dramatic role again as Sgt. Howell, whose initial doubts about Doss soften over time as he sees how committed he is to stay. Teresa Palmer is also good as Doss' girlfriend Dorothy and has some decent chemistry with Andrew Garfield. They share a few cute scenes even before Doss ships out for basic training. 

Overall, Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson's best film since Braveheart. It's a very well directed tale of a very unique chapter in the history of World War II and was one I was not familiar with. The story was well told and was deeply affecting. It will be interesting to see where it lands come awards season, but I thought it was a great, if intense and at times very violent film. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Doctor Strange

When I walked into the theatre to see Doctor Strange, I had very little familiarity with the character or the history of the comics. I intentionally did not read up on them prior to the film because I wanted to judge the film on it's own merits, rather than compare it to the film's source material. As such, the film is easily one of the most visually stunning films I've seen in a long time.

Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a very gifted surgeon, but also egotistical and tries to only take on patients that offer him a challenge. One night while on his way to a charity event, Stephen is in a devastating car wreck that leaves his hands severely and perhaps irreparably damaged. After he is unable to find suitable treatment through Western Medicine, he heads east to Nepal to find the Kamar-Taj on a lead from a man who had a miraculous recovery from severe paralysis. Once there, he seeks out the Kamar-Taj with little success until he meets Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes Stephen to meet The Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton). There, under the tutelage of both The Ancient One and Mordo, he begins to learn the art of sorcery. Using the same dedication he applied to medicine, Stephen begins to excel in the art once he begins to let go of his ego. While initially training with the sole purpose of regaining full use of his hands, Stephen finds himself drawn into a fight between the members of Kamar-Taj and the dark Sorcerer Kaecilius (played by Mads Mikkelson), who seeks to unleash the Dark Dimension where time does not pass and one can live forever. 

The film was directed by Scott Derrickson from a script that he wrote along with C. Robert Cargill. The film he created is a visual marvel from beginning to end. I saw it in IMAX 3-D and I have to say it was worth it just for the eye candy alone. The Sorcerers are able to create a dimension on top of ours called the Mirror Dimension that allows them to manipulate their environment in any number of ways while ours remains unaffected. This is used many times throughout the film as landscapes and buildings move, change and are manipulated in all kinds of dazzling and kaleidoscopic ways. However, as amazing as the visuals are, the film itself does follow a fairly predictable storyline. It is basically the standard issue Hero's journey storyline and in many ways very reminiscent of the the first Iron Man movie. That said, the film does have it's clever flourishes to make everything feel a bit fresh. I appreciated the fact that Stephen Strange and his co-worker Christine Palmer (played by Rachel McAdams) were former lovers and now just friends. It's a unique twist to the usual love interest relationship and her reaction to Stephen's new Sorcery world were pretty priceless. Like much of Marvel's films, it also finds a nice balance between seriousness and humor to make an overall quite entertaining film. While I criticize the more derivative parts of the plot, I concede that they are done with flair, humor and as a fellow fiction writer I doubt I could've done better. 

The casting for the film is top notch, with Benedict Cumberbatch leading as Stephen Strange. He portrays Strange's emotional journey from a surgeon at the top of his game to a devastated man who has lost everything to someone who not only learns how to become a better man, but also gain a new life he never could have dreamed of. Chiwetel Ejiofor does well as Mondo, who has studied under the Ancient One for a long time, but also has a rigid idea of what can and cannot be done in the natural world of sorcery that causes him and Strange to butt heads at times. Mads Mikkelson brings more layers to the role of Kaecilius than one would expect for a villain and his actions do actually make sense to a degree. It's refreshing to have a villain that isn't just a one note mustache twirler, but actually has reasons behind his actions. 

Then finally, there is Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. This was a casting choice that caused a fair amount of controversy as it was seen as another example of Hollywood whitewashing characters. While I agree with the complaints and they are valid, the situation with this character is a bit more complicated. The character in the comic books was a far more stereotypical Asian caricature and not unlike Shane Black's approach to The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, the filmmakers were trying to sidestep any sort of offensive Asian characterization by changing the race of the character completely, making the Ancient One of Celtic origin and casting Tilda Swinton in the role. Is it a bit of a cop out? Yes. Could there have been a way to still cast an Asian actor in the role without being problematic? Yes, but then we get into the whole "White Man travels East to learn the secrets of the universe from the Asians" trope that is equally problematic and was another reason why they changed the character completely to avoid said trope. In this film, the Kamar-Taj are a global wide group of Sorcerers from many different cultures and the Ancient One just so happens to be of Celtic origin. That said, Tilda does a magnificent job in the role and gives the role a certain unique depth and fierceness to it that Swinton excels at.  

 Overall, Doctor Strange is a visual feast with some of the most dazzling effects I have seen in a long time. The film may follow the same heroes journey plot line we've seen many times before, but through some well placed humor, great performances and some nice narrative flourishes, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill gave it a nice polish. It's worth seeing in 3-D on the biggest screen possible and as with all Marvel movies, make sure you stay through the credits.      

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Essentials

There is a new series on YouTube, well relatively new anyway, hosted by Tamara Lynn Chambers called "Tamara's Never Seen" that I have been enjoying quite a bit. Initially, I was surprised at some of the films I considered essential films she had never seen. The idea that someone had never seen Jurassic Park, The Secret of NIMH, The Terminator or The Goonies just seemed...impossible. But yet she hadn't and that's okay. Then I got to thinking about what would I consider "The Essentials," to borrow an ongoing series from my beloved Turner Classic Movies network. What are the films I think anyone looking to expand their cinematic viewings should see to provide a foundation of solid film appreciation? Deciding to focus on just American film for the moment, because I need to narrow this down somehow, here are at least some films that I consider to be essential viewing, with brief explanations as to why. It is by no means complete, but it's a solid start, with a mix of classic and contemporary films from all different kinds of genres. In fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg and likely the first of several lists like this.

This is, for me, the perfect movie. It has everything in it, mystery, intrigue, romance. It has some of the most quotable dialogue (and often misquoted too). Iconic performances by both Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a WWII film that has the distinction of being made while the war was still going on, which only adds a certain authenticity to the film. I wouldn't change a frame of it. It's a true masterpiece. 

Almost Famous
This is another film that I consider to be damn near perfection. The film tells the story of a teenage boy, William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit), getting a chance to go on tour with an up and coming rock band to write an article for Rolling Stone and the misadventures he experiences along the way, including his first taste of romance with groupie Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson), who only has eyes for the band's lead guitarist (played by Billy Crudup). The film was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, based on his own experiences as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone, which adds an authenticity and honesty to the story that it would otherwise be lacking. It also has a killer soundtrack, with choice cuts from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Elton John, among others. 

North by Northwest
This is a quintessential Hitchcock film, with iconic action sequences, an exquisitely witty script and Cary Grant at his most effortlessly charming. Grant plays a New York advertising executive who is mistaken for a spy, leading him on a chase across the country to try and get rid of the bad guys on his tail, made all the more complicated when he's framed for murder. This is easily one of the most entertaining movies I've seen and is fantastic from beginning to end.

The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II
I'm cheating and lumping these two in together. While the first film very much stands on it's own, the second film enhances and enriches the first film so much that it genuinely is the second part of the story. This sprawling tale of the Corleone crime family was brought to life by director Francis Ford Coppola with exquisite detail and rich characters. Almost operatic in scope, these films have a grandeur that you just don't find anymore. With a fantastic cast that includes Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall, these two films are true American classics. 

Steven Spielberg's first major film remains one of his absolute best. The film tells the story of a small coastal resort town in New England terrorized by a Great White Shark and the three men who wind up going out to try and stop it. Spielberg masterfully generates suspense more from what he doesn't show us than what he does, although it didn't help that the mechanical shark they used rarely worked. Despite the production troubles, he managed to create a bonafide classic that basically invented the summer blockbuster as we know it today. 

The Black Stallion
This film is easily one of the most beautiful I have ever seen with some genuinely breathtaking cinematography. The film tells the story of a young boy, Alec, (played by Kelly Reno) who after surviving a shipwreck finds himself stranded on a deserted island with a beautiful Black Arabian Stallion. The two form an unbreakable bond that continues when they are rescued and return to the boy's home together. There Alec meets a retired horse trainer named Henry (played by Mickey Rooney) and two decide to train the Stallion to become a champion race horse. The film itself is wonderfully acted and has solid direction from Carroll Ballard, creating a rich and gorgeous film. 

Some Like it Hot
Without a doubt one of the funniest films I have ever seen. Two struggling musicians, Joe and Jerry (played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), in 1929 Chicago wind up witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and need to get out of town quick. They dress in drag and join an all women's band, led by singer/ukulele player Sugar Kane (played by Marilyn Monroe), on it's way to Florida. Once there, Joe sets out to try and seduce Sugar, posing as a playboy millionaire while Jerry finds himself fending off the affections of a legit millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (played by Joe E. Brown). With great comedic turns by both the leads and a great performance by Marilyn Monroe, this one is a true classic that never stops being funny. Besides, it has a fantastic final scene. 

Leon: The Professional
In the pantheon of '90's action movies, this one is unique. Director Luc Besson, who also wrote the script, manages to balance heartpounding, explosive action sequences with a tender and moving story. Mathilda (played by Natalie Portman, in her first film role no less), comes home to find her family has been murdered by a corrupt DEA agent (played by Gary Oldman) and takes shelter with her reclusive neighbor, Leon (played by Jean Reno). It turns out Leon works as a "Cleaner" a.k.a an assassin. A unique friendship develops between the two as Leon agrees to not only protect the young girl, but also begin training her in his trade. Anchored by three fantastic performances by Portman, Reno and Oldman and stylish direction by Besson makes this without a doubt the director's masterpiece.  

Back to the Future
I know what you're thinking, Nate how is it possible that someone hasn't seen something like Back to the Future? Well, believe it or not, there are people out there who have not. But they do need to fix this oversight as soon as possible. The film centers on teenager Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox), who accidentally travels back in time to 1955 courtesy of his quirky inventor friend Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) and his retro-fitted Delorean time machine. In short order, he meets both his parents and manages to screw up their first meeting and therefore jeopardize his own existence. So, not only does he have to try and find a way back to the present, but also needs to ensure his parents fall in love in the first place. In short, this really is another one of those perfect movies. It has everything, comedy, romance, and adventure. It is also insanely detailed with plenty of sight gags that viewers will never catch the first time through and therefore rewards rewatching. While you're at it, check out Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III. They're not quite as good as the first, but all together make for a thoroughly solid trilogy.  

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 
I had to include at least one Western on this list and I figured it might as well be one of the most influential. The film tells the tale of three men, Blondie (played by Clint Eastwood), Tuco (played by Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (played by Lee Van Cleef) searching for a hidden cache of Confederate Gold during the Civil War. Filled with memorable scenes and three iconic central performances make this a memorable film. The film is directed with style and a tongue in cheek flair by Sergio Leone backed by an iconic Ennio Morricone score. The film is considered part of the Dollars Trilogy that includes A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, but aside from all three being directed Sergio Leone, scored by Ennio Morricone, and starring Clint Eastwood, the films have no real connection at all. That said, all three are well worth checking out. 

Smokey and the Bandit
Among my more haughty cinephiles this is going to be a controversial choice, but it's my list and if you don't like it too damn bad. Go make your own list. While Smokey and the Bandit wouldn't be considered high art by any means, it is one of the most shamelessly and consistently entertaining films I've ever seen. And at the end of the day, isn't that why we go to the movies? The film is simple in it's plotting, with Bandit (played by Burt Reynolds) and his friend Snowman (played by Jerry Reed) being bet $80,000 they can't bring back 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Georgia in 14 hours. They accept the bet and come up with a novel plan. Bandit, in his flashy new Trans Am will speed along ahead of the Semi Snowman is driving to attract the attention of various police (a.k.a Smokies, because the hats they wear make them look like Smokey the Bear) away from the truck carrying the beer. The reason is because in 1977, when the film was made, Coors was not licensed to be transported past Texas so therefore they are committing the crime of bootlegging. Along the way, Bandit picks up runaway bride Carrie (played by Sally Field) and as a result they wind up with her would be father in law Buford T. Justice (played by Jackie Gleason) and her would be husband, Junior (played by Mike Henry) in hot pursuit, along with countless other police officers along the way. The movie has a great, playful sense of humor, a number of genuinely impressive car stunts and a great cast who all seem to be having a blast, especially Jackie Gleason who damn near steals the show. It's a film that has never failed to entertain me. The film was followed by two sequels, but neither quite managed to recapture the spirit of the first.   

I really wanted to include a Wes Anderson film on my list and decided to go with his second film, Rushmore. They're all good, but I feel like this is a good movie to start with and is my personal favorite of his films, so I suppose I am biased. 

Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman) is an eccentric and ambitious high school senior who attends the prestigious Texas private school, Rushmore. He is the founder of the majority of clubs at the school (as shown in a fantastic montage set to "Making Time" by Creation) and puts on elaborate school plays, based on films such as Serpico and Apocalypse Now. When local industrialist Herman Blume (played by Bill Murray) speaks at the school, Max is immediately taken with him and the two become fast, if unlikely, friends. Things take a turn when they both develop a crush on the school's new elementary school teacher, Miss Cross (played by Olivia Williams) and become rivals for her affections. 

The cast is perfect, with Bill Murray giving a great performance as Herman Blume, a lost man whose wife is cheating on him and who despises his two bratty kids. He sees a certain kindred spirit in Max and is impressed by the little lad. Their friendship, with all it's ups and downs, is one of the main reasons I loved the film so much. Similarly, Jason Schwartzman has the harder role of the two. In the wrong hands, Max could have been an incredibly unlikeable character, starting off the film with a massive ego. Max is taken down a few pegs and learns some humility over the course of the film. Schwartzman manages to portray this all quite well. There is a very unique style to Wes Anderson's films and this is where it really began. I love how he tells his stories and the unique visual style he brings to every shot as he does. Add to that a unique score by Mark Mothersbaugh as well as some wonderful deep cut songs from the likes of The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Cat Stevens and it becomes a film not quite like one I had ever seen before and such a fantastic breath of fresh air. 

So, yeah, there we go. Twelve movies I feel are excellent and well worth seeking out. I deliberately went for a mix of classic and contemporary films, while also avoiding the obvious, like Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz or assorted other solid gold classics everyone knows. This really is just the tip of the iceberg and like I said before, I will likely make follow up lists periodically because there are so many more where this came from. But this is a healthy start at least.