Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Surely You Can't Be Sirius

Year: 2004
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Run Time: 2 hours 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the point where the series begins to settle in for the long haul. It’s still self-contained and epic-lite, not yet reaching the dark depths of the following entries, but the series first finds its personality in the chapters of this, the third book.

Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the franchise, is directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the man behind Gravity, my second favorite film of 2013 and one of the most perfect sci-fi thrillers ever created. Needles to say, he is a deeply idiosyncratic director capable of tremendously great things. Azkaban is not one of them, but it’s a damn sight better than the profoundly impersonal Chris Columbus’ Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, which feel like dusty museum pieces. Azkaban may have inherited many of their laws, but at the very least it crackles with much-needed life.

And great ties.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in case you have been buried in soft peat for the past 18 years out of reach of a library, tells the story of thirteen-year-old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). When he returns to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his third year, he discovers that a violent escapee from the wizard prison Azkaban – Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) – has him in his sights. As a result, the school is being guarded by the dementors, a race of hooded, soul-sucking creatures that feed on happy memories and who affect Harry tremendously thanks to the atrocities in his past.

To help defend himself from the dementors, Harry takes extra lessons with the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), with whom he develops and instant rapport. As the year wears on, Harry – along with his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), must battle the dementors, discover the truth about Sirius Black, and fight to save the life of Buckbeak the hippogriff – a favored companion of their friend Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) – after it nearly gores their rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) for being a douche with hair like a cantaloupe dropped from a skyscraper.

The mid-2000's were a hard time to be a teenager.

The jump in quality between Columbus and Cuarón is immediately apparent from the opening scene – which is the best in the series thus far - and continues until the very end, enveloping the film in a warm, loving embrace. The difference in the aesthetic and production design is legitimately staggering. 

The magical world of Hogwarts dusts itself off to become a nuanced, living, breathing organism that acts as an additional, fully fleshed out character. Included in the castle’s thorough redesign is a clock tower, a beautiful spindly bridge that could only be held up by magic, and a Stonehenge-like structure that connects the passage from the castle to the grounds. With these additions, Hogwarts becomes more open and fluid (not to mention unbelievably pretty), lending it a sense of unified geography instead of the previous films’ disjointed Rolodex of medieval-looking university broom cupboards.

The costume design is also similarly unstifled. Variations are provided in the black Hogwarts uniforms and the film introduces street clothes to the characters’ wardrobe, allowing them to switch up the color scheme and spruce up the one-note drabness of the previous, more book-reliant entries.

On top of all of this, Cuarón introduces some stylistic fillips that do wonders fleshing out the vast world around the miniscule scope of Harry’s school adventures with his friends. The film’s transitions are effortless, showing the castle in bustling action (my personal favorite touch being the use of the Whomping Willow to depict the passage of the seasons), allowing the film to sprint along at a spritely pace.

It’s a real breath of fresh air following the interminable Chamber of Secrets.

I could go on and on about how the film displays increased facility with framing, containing more singularly striking images than the other two films combined, or how the inclusion of a  “toil and trouble” musical motif introduces a cheerily baroque, almost medieval tone, but I must remember that my esteem for Azkaban is largely hyperinflated in comparison to its immediate predecessors. As a matter of fact, Azkaban has a tendency to get bogged down by almost the exact same problems, though they are fewer in number.

First and foremost, the plot, while more limber and fast-paced thanks to some well-executed excision, is a little too thin on the ground, cutting out important details. And I don’t mean “wah, wah, they cut out the reveal that Crookshanks is part kneazle, I’m a nerd, kick me.” I mean, “The third act is based almost entirely on a series of revelations that hinge upon information we weren’t actually given.” Yes, it’s true that most of the modern world has read the Harry Potter books. But that’s no excuse to lazily leave half your character moments scattered on the cutting room floor like they’re so many intern corpses.

Prisoner of Azkaban is likewise weighed down by an uncommonly shaggy cast. The child actors neither match their highest highs nor their lowest lows, trapped in an unremarkable limbo, but the adult cast buries its shiniest gems too deep into the third act. Beginning with Mark Williams’ unfocused turn as Arthur Weasley, the torch of mediocrity is carried beyond the prologue by David Thewlis’ stop-and-go performance. Their acting is about as patchy as their robes. In addition, Michael Gambon (replacing the late Richard Harris as Headmaster Dumbledore) has yet to settle into the ethereal otherness of the role, and Potter mainstays Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman are unceremoniously stacked in a disused corner.

The newcomer trio of Emma Thompson (as the flighty Divination professor Sibyl Trelawny), Gary Oldman (as the shattered, hollow Sirius Black), and Timothy Spall (as the sniveling, smarmy Peter Pettigrew) are all unforgivably incredible, but their best work comes after a Lord of the Rings-length slog through bare adequacy. Thanks to the hard-earned efforts of a solid cast at their most mediocre, the film’s emotional beats feel cold and perfunctory.

Like a Goosebumps book in the freezer.

The film slightly makes up for these deficits with an omnipresent puckish sense of humor. But sometimes it slips too far into kiddie territory, most notably with a Jamaican shrunken head that talks, which will make you want to fill your ears with cement.

The last bastion of quality in Prisoner of Azkaban is the special effects, which are without qualification the best of the series up to this point. Maybe the extra year gap between 2002’s Chamber of Secrets and Azkaban allowed CGI technology to catch up with the series’ ambition, or maybe the FX crew simply cared more. Who knows. 

They grew a smidge too self-indulgent when they made the decision to digitally animate a dog instead of doing the blisteringly easy thing and picking one up from the pound, but the rendering of the creatures – Buckbeak in particular – is superb, largely free of the alienating side-effect of looking like the monsters are occupying some dimension that’s next door to ours. They even figured out how to make Hagrid work, allowing him to share frame with other actors, rather than sit up all on his lonesome in claustrophobic low angle close-up shots.

The only rough patch is the (SPOILERS – oh, who am I kidding) werewolf, but that’s more the fault of a goofy design than shoddy animation.

Am I a man, or am I a muppet?

So there you have it. Prisoner of Azkaban is unmistakably the best early Harry Potter movie, but it’s still an early Harry Potter movie. There’s a lot more to chew on in a much more manageable time frame, recommending this film far more than the others in the original three, more child-oriented Potters. It’s not Cuarón’s best work, but it’s still Cuaróns work, and that counts for a lot.

TL;DR: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is emotionally thin but aesthetically ebullient.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1357
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Columbus, 2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Columbus, 2002)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuarón, 2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009)

Monday, June 29, 2015

I Can't Bear It

Year: 2015
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Mark Wahlberg, Amanda Seyfried
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The most striking thing about Ted 2 is the fact that it’s actually marginally better than the original Ted. It’s not like that was actually a high bar to clear, and it doesn’t exactly do the film any justice, but it does put the film in the unique and infinitesimally miniscule pantheon of comedy sequels that improve upon their predecessors.

That’s realty not saying much.

Ted 2 opens with perhaps the most unlikely plot twist of all: Seth MacFarlane getting married. Yes, the toked-up, foul-mouthed, magically sentient teddy bear Ted (MacFarlane, who also directs and writes and may or may not have provided some of the sperm) is getting hitched, to his airhead cashier girlfriend Tami-Lyn (Jessica Barth). A year later, when they decide to adopt a kid to save their marriage (a paralyzingly stupid decision that is not once played as a joke, which worries me), it comes to light that Ted is not viewed as a person, but as property by the state of Massachusetts.

He quickly loses his job, his money, and even his marriage when it is annulled by the state. Together with his best friend John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) - who is still reeling from his offscreen divorce with Mila Kunis – and their lawyer Sam (Amanda Seyfried), a 26-year-old who is working pro bono because it’s her first case, they must prove Ted’s personhood to the court and save his family.

Unfortunately, the deeply weird and covetous Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) has returned and has teamed up with Hasbro executive Tom Jessup (John Carroll Lynch, AKA freaking Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story: Freak Show) to steal Ted back, vivisect him, and mass produce a new line of living teddy bears.

Could you imagine? A world of cloned MacFarlanes running around? That’s straight outta Lovecraft, right there.

So let’s get down to brass tacks. Is Ted 2 funny? The answer to that is a dissertation-worthy quandary, but I’ll attempt to simplify it here: Yes and no.

When the humor in Ted 2 is Yes, it is spot-on terrific. If you’re open to the sort of vulgar profanities that are MacFarlane’s major export, there’s a lot to like. There are four lines that are eye-poppingly funny no matter how you slice in (delivered – in descending order of brilliance – by Wahlberg, Barth, a featured extra, and MacFarlane), four or five laugh-out-loud funny setpieces, a couple decent running gags, and a solid array of the previous film’s Clerks-type conversational that rounds out the pack.

But when Ted 2’s humor is No, it instantly and incurably derails the production. On top of the excessive Family Guy overspill (useless non sequitur cutaways, inexplicable musical numbers, and regurgitated pop culture references abound, though there’s thankfully not too much of the show’s excessive violence or over-the-top, anti-comedic pacing), the film stages an overabundance of messy slapstick (sometimes quite literally), reheated Ted 1 gags, and – oh – unadulterated bigotry.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Seth MacFarlane from Ted 2, it’s that he thinks gay people are terrifying. And that’s he quite possibly never met a black/Asian/transgender/Portuguese person. And that he might not even be aware that Latinos are real. Also, he thinks domestic abuse is hilarious. 

It’s every kind of racist, transphobic, homophobic, reductive waste that spends an entire two hours discussing the topic of personhood but labors to make sure that the only lines given to a black female are exclusively about her being stereotypically black. It’s hateful, damaging, and ugly. And while it’s not as ubiquitously present as some of his other “edgy” work, the film’s faux-progressive subject matter throws each of these moments into sharp relief.

Also he makes a “fifty shades of bear” joke. That’s not even a pun!

There is exactly one good thing about Ted 2 aside from its occasional spurts of comedy the core performers are pretty uniformly terrific: Jessica Barth is the film’s secret weapon, giving depth to a character so one note that her sheet music could be written on a Post-It, and everybody else fares more or less equally well. Amanda Seyfried brings a necessary moral center to the proceedings, Mark Wahlberg is astoundingly adept at navigating tricky comic timing, and I can even grudgingly admit that Seth MacFarlane can deliver a line when he’s in the mood.

Some of the cameos are weak (and it should come as no surprise that returning actor Sam Jones is wooden as a post, considering his track record), but for the most part, everybody in the film feels like they belong in this universe, for better or for worse, even the bit parts (AKA anybody who isn’t white or pretty). The only disappointment is Giovanni Ribisi, who doesn’t turn in a bad performance so much as one that can’t match the effervescent oddness that rendered him the best part of the original film.

I'm sorry, man. I loved you as Phoebe's brother in Friends. And as That One Guy in Every Movie.

So that just leaves us with the odds and ends (which, frankly, is what most of the plot is composed of). The conflict wraps up too fast and fails to reach the inexplicably high stakes of the first film, the camerawork sometimes resorts to sloppy reality TV-esque handheld that kills the pacing of an otherwise slickly edited movie, and the Seth MacFarlane original song “Mean Old Moon” is surprisingly pretty, but hyperbolically useless and self-indulgent from a narrative perspective.

Once again the CGI used to create Ted is flawless, so much so that you forget that he’s not actually a real thing. So congrats to the visual effects crew for putting together the most effortlessly valuable portion of the movie, for which they will get the lowest amount of credit. Hollywood is weird. Stay in school, kids.

Oh, and Ted 2 attempts to wrap things up in a soppy emotional climax that it in no way earns. So, at the end, what I have to say is this: Ted 2 should be half an hour shorter and Seth MacFarlane needs to take a course in basic human empathy, but other than that (and we can’t underestimate the profound hugeness of that “that”), it’s pretty OK in my book.

TL;DR: Ted 2 is doltish and frequently offensive, but glimmers with occasionally pristine humor.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1076

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Thinking Outside The Box

Year: 2010
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Thanks to Sergio’s ineffable commitment to attempting to make me a more culturally fluent person, I have finally seen a David O. Russell film. My firm resistance has been plied by a series of ice cream cones, not far enough to get me to watch Silver Linings Playbook, but with enough resolve to get me in front of the director’s 2010 effort, the “based on a true story” boxing flick, The Fighter.

Or, should I say, “boring” flick. Zing! OK, the fact that I actually liked the film diminishes the effect of this joke, but I had it locked and loaded and I couldn’t resist.

The film tells the true story of the rise of boxing champ Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a down-on-his-luck boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts. He is tired of being a stepping stone for other, better boxers and longs to emerge from under the shadow of his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a careless tweaker who is still coasting on his knockout of Sugar Ray Leonard over a decade ago.

When Mickey gets together with the sexy, supportive bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), who encourages him to pursue training away from his current coach – Dicky – and his current manager – his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) – he struggles to choose between escaping his overbearing family who he believes might be crushing his last chance for a championship or staying with the people who have always loved him and stood by his side, albeit in their strange disjointed way.

I know which side I’d choose, but only because I honestly believe that Amy Adams could kick Christian Bale’s ass.

Usually, one’s enjoyment of this type of movie is entirely contingent on one’s appreciation of the sport at the center of it all. The reason for this is, with the exception of the modern masterpiece Cool Runnings, the vast majority of athletic competition films devote themselves to a pornishly detailed depiction of the intricacies of the game.

Yes, there are plots and characters, but they can only conjure fleeting emotions before being dragged back by the inevitable tide of dudes in shorts chucking balls at each other. It’s all very hetero-masculine and it’s utterly exhausting if you can’t muster enthusiasm for dudes in shorts chucking balls at each other.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of these films are terrific. And some of them are Space Jam. But I am not a part of their loud, nacho-swilling demographic. I bring this up because The Fighter spectacularly avoids these pitfalls, focusing almost exclusively on family drama and character study.

If you love sports and family dramas, you are a beautiful person and I envy your worldliness.

What is most surprising about The Fighter is that, sandwiched between the drama and the punching is a not inconsiderable vein of humor. This is largely provided by Micky’s mother and his sisters, a gaggle of loudmouthed Bostonians with hair like an SNL sketch about suburban moms. Without this, The Fighter would be a much flatter, more dour film. But as it stands, the humor elevates the film completely, allowing one to easily forget about its uninspiring technique, which only once aspires to do something new with the filmmaking tools at its disposal.

The moment I’m referring to is a doozy though, underscoring a frantic Dicky with the pounding of Micky’s boxing bag while he trains alone at a session that was supposed to be with the two of them. Beyond that, the filmmakers don’t attempt anything particularly ambitious (save for one moment that flirts with emphatic musicality and is soundly rejected), generally letting the dialogue and performances speak for themselves.

Luckily for everyone, this turns out to be enough. The Fighter is helmed by a quartet of admirable actors giving varied, but equally stable and committed performances. The best is probably Bale, who is up to his favorite trick of completely altering his body and wrecking his physique to inhabit Dicky’s body physically. But he doesn’t just stop there and coast, thankfully. His Dicky comes alive in a mélange of tics and infinitely shifting emotions, performed with the grace and precision of a master ballerina.

The other three performers don’t go the whole hog like Bale, but they show admirable verisimilitude in their willingness to perform in unflattering conditions, drenched in summer sweat, a picture of grubby “real America.” Melissa Leo shines as the film’s tonal switchboard, effortlessly balancing and rerouting the drama and humor in perfect proportions, Amy Adams plays against type, reveling in a character that’s rough-and-tumble, fiery, and aggressively loyal, and Mark Wahlberg is Mark Wahlberg.


Wahlberg turns in an utterly adequate performance, as he rarely fails to do when allowed to use his native accent, but he just can’t compete with the high caliber talent that outshines his more fundamental acting style.

So that’s The Fighter in a nutshell. A sports film with unusual tendencies, solid talent, and unremarkable atmosphere. It doesn’t stand out amidst the roar of Oscarbait cinema, but neither does it sink into the much. It’s uniquely fun for a film of its stock (there’s a little nerd pun for ya, you’re welcome), and it’s worth a look, as long as you’re a fan of Amy Adams and punching.

TL;DR: The Fighter is a remarkably funny and rewarding sports film.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 906

Saturday, June 27, 2015

False Evidence Appearing Real

Year: 2014
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Rick Garcia
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Once you get past the initial disappointment that Nightcrawler is not an X-Men spin-off, you’ll find that it’s a remarkably excellent film, teleportation or no teleportation.

I wouldn't mind having the ability to teleport away from that hair.

Nightcrawler is about the scariest things that go bump in the night: freelance news agents. When Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers that he can trawl around Los Angeles in the middle of the night with a camcorder taping grisly crimes and sell the footage to news stations at a massive profit, he jumps at the opportunity. He’s career-driven, well-spoken, ambitious, and totally insane, which makes him pretty much perfect for the job.

Soon he finds himself an employee/navigator: Rick Garcia (Rick Garcia), a young, hungry man with nothing to lose. Together, they rise to prominence and Lou strikes up a relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), a news director at the lowest rated station in LA who is willing to pay top dollar to outdo her competitors. This includes ignoring the moral implications of Lou’s methods, which involve trespassing, obstructing police, and ignoring wailing victims in pursuit of the perfect shot. Their relationship is based on about 50 percent blackmail and 50 percent creepy carnage fetish.

They got a real healthy thing going on, those two.

Nightcrawler is a brooding and slow-paced exercise, plumbing the depths of the dark shadows and empty spaces of the city. It’s more mood piece than traditionally structured narrative, excellent for anybody who wants to take a quick wallow in the gritty underbelly of modern media. For those to whom that isn’t exactly an enticing prospect, the film also kicks up the slow boil to provide a bubbling, frothing, overflowing burst of supreme thriller action in the third act. But where it excels in the first two thirds are in the quiet, the contemplative, and the beautifully macabre.

This tone could not have been achieved without three things: The first is the slick cinematography by Robert Elswit, who must be an indescribably evil man considering his intimate, delicate kinship with darkness itself. His camera embraces the night, making shadows come to glistening life and even swathing the daylight scenes in cloying, omnipresent black. The second of these is the score by James Newton Howard (also the man behind last year’s “The Hanging Tree,” from Mockingjay – Part 1), which provides a beautiful, percussive, almost fantastical counterpoint to the gruesome nature of Lou’s subjects. The keening, soaring, indelible orchestration pulls the sweaty, ill-begotten excitement straight out of Bloom’s mind and converts it directly into music. It’s the sonic equivalent of the sick satisfaction of picking off a scab.

The third and final tentpole of Nightcrawler is Gyllenhaal himself, who is absurdly fantastic, trading out his movie star charisma to become a pale, sickly speck of a man who still manages to maintain that same sort of magnetic pull. His mannerisms, soft-spoken and almost prim, lend dreadful clarity to his amoral actions. Actually, he’s rather like Sheldon Cooper come sour, come to think of it. Gyllenhaal inhabits the role mentally and physically, more completely than I think anyone, including himself, could have imagined.

And yet Eddie Redmayne won for this.

In addition to being a nail-biting thriller welded onto a gloomy slow-boiler, Nightcrawler is a film where the subtext is almost more prominent than the text itself. It’s an unflinching look at how exactly the news (and, by extent, the media) shapes our reality. It’s no coincidence that Lou opens the film attempting to sell illicit scrap metal. He treats humans the same way, impassively collecting and packaging them like so much waste, creating a story that fits his own imaginary narrative rather than the one that life has laid out for him.

The excellent cinematography also endeavors to drive this point home, depicting its grisly subjects largely through the viewfinder of Lou’s camera rather than his own eyes. His own world – the world of news media – is profoundly separate from reality, and in the gulf of that separation lies the film’s true darkness.

Yes, Nightcrawler might be a little ponderous and a bit too keenly repetitive in its opening scenes, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most profoundly effective (and affecting) thrillers of the decade so far.

Take a wallow on the dark side, why don’t ya?

TL;DR: Nightcrawler is a dark, devilish mood piece driven by an astoundingly dark turn from an unexpected actor.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 765

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Do You Believe In Magic?

Year: 2002
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Run Time: 2 hours 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a very tough movie to sort out. Between being slightly better than the source novel and slightly worse than The Sorcerer’s Stone, despite being a tad better in the exact places where that film was weak, we’ve got a bit of a mess on our hands, reviewing-wise. But never fear! I’m no stranger to messes. I did successfully (and handsomely) review Grizzly II: The Concert, after all.

There comes a point in the course of a horror blog career that simple challenges like murky inferiorities cease to scare you, as long as everything in the frame is visible 99% of the time. But I digress.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in case you have just come back from the dead and missed the period between 1997 and 2011, tells the story of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), a polite twelve-year-old boy with the charming quirk of being a wizard with magical powers. Even though a mysterious house elf named Dobby (Toby Jones) arrives with a warning not to go back to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he doesn’t listen because Hogwarts is the only place he feels like he belongs.

However, Dobby’s warning comes true when vicious attacks leave various students Petrified in the name of the Heir of Salazar Slytherin (a Hogwarts founder and owner of the most obviously wicked name ever written). Rumors abound that the mythical Chamber of Secrets has been opened by Harry, setting Slytherin’s monster loose on the grounds. Harry and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), however, suspect the culprit to be their rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton).

This relatively simple plot zips by with all the vigor of a speeding turtle, making you feel every last minute of its hideously distended 2.7 hours.

You could die while watching this movie, reincarnate, grow up, and learn to speak English again, all in time for the finale.

For once, let’s begin with the good, shall we? I mean, if you ignore that previous statement. Which you may well have done, because we all know you only skim these things. 

Chamber of Secrets improves upon its predecessor in this all-important way: It doesn’t let the book get the better of its narrative. This film takes much more license with the source material, streamlining, embellishing, and sometimes even improving it. Several key action sequences are expanded and rendered quite a bit more exciting, whether it be the off-road course of Harry’s fateful Quidditch match, an extended adventure through the titular Chamber, Harry and Ron’s cross-country trip in a flying Ford Anglia, or even Dobby smashing a pudding at the Dursleys’ house. I know, right?

It is hampered somewhat by the unenviable task of interpreting the single weakest ending of the series and its small army of deus ex machina, but compare to Stone, it is a stunning achievement in self-contained storytelling.

The other area where Chamber of Secrets is undeniably superior is its aesthetic, which finds in Chris Columbus a surer hand than he managed to provide before. Several shots even manage to evoke a theme, if you can beieeve that. The opening shot is a stunning evocation of the dull sameness of the Muggle world, and one moment finds Kenneth Branagh’s egotistical Professor Lockhart posing with a painting of himself posing with a painting of himself in a hilarious nesting doll of self-congratulation.

The production design is likewise deftly improved, with additions to the castle rendering it more tactile and earthy. It’s far more believable that humans might inhabit this location, no matter how magical they may be. And the new locations (especially the Weasley family home – The Burrow) are depicted with utmost care and grace.

Loose observation: Nobody at Hogwarts seems to care if students’ lives are endangered, as long as it’s in the scheduled curriculum.

Ah, but here’s where we slip inevitably into mediocrity. The child performances all slip down a peg save for Emma Watson – who alone of the young cast is a marked improvement – and Bonnie Wright (as Ginny Weasley), who imbues her role with a kind of stony determination that would come to define the character. But as for the boys, they're all over the place.

As their voices drop, their performances slip. Maybe they just noticed girls and found themselves far too distracted for anything as subtle as a major motion picture. At any rate, Radcliffe finds himself very taken with Stooge-like overreactions and Felton spits out his dialogue like sunflower seeds, spraying the whole place with fleshy shrapnel. Rupert Grint settles into a strong position when he is called upon to be the comic relief, but otherwise happily whiles away the hours by placing untoward emphasis on random, inappropriate vowels.

By far the best child performance of the entire film is Shirley Henderson who, as a matter of fact, isn’t a child at all, but a fully grown woman who must have access to a lifetime supply of Maybelline. Her performance as Moaning Myrtle is gloopily self-indulgent and fun, swinging over the top and right back around again. The rest of the adults once again fill out an astonishingly solid supporting cast, with new additions Kenneth Branagh (all inflated bravado and squirrely Britishisms) and Jason Isaacs (a picture of well-heeled malice as Lucius Malfoy) proving a perfect match for Harry Potter’s cheerfully epic universe.

Also, he's uncomfortably handsome.

And now, alas, for the truly, admirably bad. The film, insofar as it exists as its own distinct narrative entity, does drop a few conspicuous balls along the way. It completely neglects to set up several important plot points (most notably Lockhart’s self-aggrandizing book collection) and, in one peculiar instance, has two entire characters appear out of the blue as if they’d been there the whole time.

Likewsie, the special effects, while mostly satisfactory, have several uncomfortable rough patches. For every improved Quidditch green screen or fairly seamless flying car moment, there are the hideous Lego monstrosities masquerading as pixies or a set of hideously amateurish paintings that replace the magical moving ones when they think we’re not looking. And while nothing approaches the film-tearing inadequacy of the cabin in the sea scene from Stone, there is one prominently visible moment where the actors are dawdling at the edge of the frame, clearly waiting for their cue.

Toss in a horrific tone that’s waiting desperately in the wings but never called into action and a couple scenes so stiff they have toe tags, and you can’t help but feels the glamor and appeal begin to deflate dejectedly. It’s not a terrible film. In many instances, it is a totally fine, effective one. But it’s a film that goes on for song long that the negatives stretch on into infinity outweighing nearly all the positives at one point or another.

It’s always watchable, but for long stretches it is deathly dull, a descriptor that belongs nowhere near the hallowed grounds of Hogwarts. For better or for worse, I’m ready to move on to Cuarón.

TL;DR: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is both a slight improvement and a slight decline from its predecessor.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1222
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Columbus, 2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Columbus, 2002)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuarón, 2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Fright Flashback: Bear Sequels

Welcome back to Fright Flashback, where every week until the end of summer we will visit an older horror film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to an upcoming new release. This week we are anticipating Ted 2, a followup to the largely un-unpleasant talking bear movie with Seth MacFarlane. In celebration, we'll be revisiting Grizzly II: The Concert, the fabled sequel to the 70's classic Grizzly, which might not technically exist.

Year: 1983
Director: André Szöts
Cast: Steve Inwood, Deborah Raffin, John Rhys-Davies
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Grizzly II: The Concert (AKA any combination of Predator, Concert, or Grizzly) just might be the strangest film I've ever had the sick pleasure of unearthing. As if being a B-horror picture about an out-of-control grizzly mama attacking a national park which is hosting a massive New Wave concert wasn't enough, the film had to go ahead and never get finished. The executive producer disappeared with the funds before the animatronic bear effects could be worked out and thus Grizzly II (which according to the impossibly vague nature of legend, was either filmed in 1983, 1985, or 1987) entered the apocryphal netherworld which holds an unfair amount of irresistible magnetism over the horror fandom.

It might have totally been forgotten had a dodgy workprint of the film not resurfaced in 2007. It's a mostly finished cut of the film that uses an entire Michael Jackson album as temp music, includes a good half dozen full musical performances (several of which are performed by the mildly notorious British one hit wonder girl group Toto Coelo - performing every song but their one hit wonder), features *$&%ing Laura Dern, Charlie Sheen, and George Clooney as horny campers, and only contains about three shots of an actual bear. 

Oh, and the final scene collapses into a complicated mash of half-cut dailies, in which people repeat actions three times in a row, the director audibly shouts "Cut!," and a bear hunter is impaled on a spike, comes back to life, then runs around a bit before getting impaled on the spike again. Naturally, the pop culturally-concentrated, utterly bonkers Grizzly II: The Concert is the perfect candidate for hardcore cult adoration.

For those with a sick interest in following this whole mess, the entire workprint is available online here.

For those who don't find short short/neon fanny pack-clad rock stars to be enticing, feel free to skip the film and follow me directly into the fray.

The plot, insofar as Grizzly II has one (and in fact it - startlingly - has several) goes as follows. A poacher kills the cub of a vicious grizzly bear who goes on a rampage in a national park some 40 miles from the site of a massive "rock" concert headed by Charlie (Dick Anthony Williams), sponsored by money grubbing park owner Eileene Draygon (Louise Fletcher), whose name sounds like she belongs better in a Game of Thrones episode, and defended by Nick Hollister (Steve Inwood), the security manager and perpetrator of the world's most intense Grizzly Adams beard.

Nick's daughter Chrissie (Deborah Foreman of April Fool's Day) is also on hand to fall in love with a "ruggedly" handsome "rock" star and generally be of no use to the plot. She doesn't even get eaten. She just kind of vanishes three-quarters of the way through the film. 

Nick becomes obsessed with defending the concert from the rampaging bear for obvious reasons, but Draygon refuses to let him ruin the show (and her chance to obtain status and political influence - she has invited the local senator), so she forces him to deal with it on his own. He enlists the help of Samantha Owens (Deborah Raffin), the park's director of bear management, which is apparently a thing, and Bouchard (John Rhys-Davies AKA freaking Sallah from Indiana Jones and Gimli from Lord of the Rings, what the hell), a French-Canadian lunatic who dresses and talks like a Native American because he hates bears because one of them killed his family. Or something.

But how could you hate a cuddly face like this?

Grizzly II is bad. Obviously. But it's bad in such a strange way that it's rendered totally distinct. Sure, it's got your usual B-movie crap like a giant puppet bear paw smacking dudes around, the forest cycling between day and night about every one and a half scenes, and the usual bad dialogue and terrible acting (especially from Rhys-Davies, who really should know better). But there's also an ineffable, almost whimsical quality to the bulk of the film's badness.

Grizzly II is a film in which a group of poachers can't figure out their character names and end up calling each other "Drew" for a whole scene.

Grizzly II is a film in which the Bear POV shots depict the bear breathing (like Darth Vader, inexplicably) and roaring simultaneously.

Grizzly II is a film in which the bear hunter Bouchard is introduced in two consecutive scenes, each of which contradicts the other.

Grizzly II is a film which sees fit to have said bear hunter sing a full, improvised song which ends in him hoarsely grunting the words "HA! HA! HA!"

Grizzly II is a film in which, during an ongoing performance by the rock star (whose name I never could quite make out), cuts to that very same rock star lifting a barbell backstage and screaming, then cuts back to him still singing the song.

It's pure crap, but it's about as inimitably enjoyable as pure crap can be. It's not quite as engaging as the bad-good movies that I truly love, like The Room or the Friday the 13th sequels, and it's not a movie you should watch under any circumstances. But if someone is holding a gun to your head, it's entirely possible to have a good time sitting through this.

Also, George Clooney and Laura Dern get busy in a sleeping bag, so there's that.

Everything that isn't admirably atrocious in Grizzly II is equally inexplicable, whether it's the Rasta wanderer known only as Dealer, a broken lamp causing a forest fire politely in the background, or Bouchard's introduction, in which he lifts a tree across a road for no reason. And everything that isn't that is so egregiously 80's that it might as well have come from an entirely different universe from our own.

Characters quietly do calisthenics to "Beat It," discuss their peanut diets, parade about in checkered bleached hair, and perform entire musical numbers in glittering suits of armor. It's almost like a teen culture documentary with some bits about bears attached.

Only bearly.

The genuine best thing about Grizzly II is that its surprisingly committed to attempting something truly significant in its character moments. These are spread infinitely thinly among the poorly shot, underlit bear attacks and the full blown, cheesy musical numbers that are wanly displayed with no affectation at all, but they are patently present. Every single thematic thread shrivels and dies an unceremonious death, of course, but in the process, it introduces ideas about preserving the environment, human nature, and learning that we have influence over others that might lead them down a negative path if we're not careful.

It's trying, and that's commendable enough. And, honestly, if that final scene ever made it into an actual useable form, there could be a truly exciting action setpiece buried in there, as rampant fireworks explode over a bear battle full of bloody impalements and crashing construction equipment.

At the end of the day Grizzly II: The Concert is still a woefully terrible movie. But during the course of its 97 minutes (which should really be cut down to 80, but I think we're beyond minor considerations like that at this point), it's a magnetically strange curiosity and an extremely special example of the lost apocrypha of film history.

TL;DR: Grizzly II: The Concert is a beautiful, terrible, wild ride through the back channels of 80's cinema.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1335

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Looking For The Magic

Year: 2001
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Run Time: 2 hours 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

As both a self-respecting movie blogger and a human born in the mid-90's, there has been a glaringly egregious gap in my review history: the largest cultural phenomenon of the millennium, the Harry Potter franchise. Now, I hadn't rewatched any of these films or reread any of the books since the release of the final entry in the franchise in 2011, so it is from a relatively fresh, newly adult perspective that I approach these films, making this marathon - I hope - all the more interesting.

I will always carry a deep and abiding love for Harry Potter in my heart. How could I not? His presence has defined my entire living memory. But I'm going to attempt to come at these films on their own terms, separate from my inner child's feelings on the matter. And let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the cold, hard truth behind beloved childhood films like a double dose of Chris Columbus.

It's really not fair to subject children to this kind of torment.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, in case you are a baby who has not yet learned to read, is about one Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), an eleven-year-old boy in the care of his despicable aunt and uncle, who discovers that he is a wizard and is summarily carted off to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy. There he learns that he is the only known person to have survived an attack by the dark wizard Lord Voldemort (played for the time being and without distinction by Richard Bremmer), who killed his parents when he was a baby.

During his first year at Hogwarts, Harry befriends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), a boy from a low income wizarding family, and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), a somewhat bossy girl who excels at schoolwork. In between their lessons, they discover that Hogwarts is currently the hiding place of the philosopher's sorcerer's stone, a legendary MacGuffin that creates the Elixir of Life and which Voldemort desperately wants. They suspect that their wicked potions professor Snape (Alan Rickman) is plotting to nick the stone from the school, right under the nose of the wise and powerful headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris).

Also, why did publishers think that American brains would melt upon seeing the word "philosopher"? That's not an unheard of term over here. It's not like pretentious undergraduates are tramping around signing up for sorcery majors. We get it, guys. And actually, Nicolas Flamel was an alchemist, so screw all y'all.

The Sorcerer's Stone is different from the book. That is fine. I don't mind my cinema being different from literature. They're two different mediums for a reason. I'm just telling you all this so when I complain, it won't feel like useless nerd rage.

While the film cuts large swaths away from the book's plot left and right, it ironically completely fails to trim the fat. The end result is a story that zooms from beat to beat with a machine gun clatter, often dawdling pointlessly for twelve seconds at a time on unjustifiable plot points like the birth of Norbert the dragon (whereupon he is immediately shipped offscreen and hardly mentioned again), a transfiguration lesson (which is merely an excuse to repeat an effect we've already seen before), and the introduction of the Hogwarts ghosts (perhaps the most shameless and irritating fan pandering, because they instantly vanish from the film and they have the gall to not even include Peeves).

In their blind fury to slam every possible moment from the book into the audience's eyes, Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves forget that they're supposedly making a self-contained narrative film. Imagine, if you will, that a movie is an intricate wedding cake, holding itself elegantly in delicious harmony. The Sorcerer's Stone is more like a pile of jagged fondant shrapnel with a dozen mismatched figurines jammed in at odd angles.

Metaphors are hard. Segues are harder.

There is some really wonderful stuff in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I'll close with that, so I leave you all with the feeling that maybe I'm not a grouchy old codger. For the time being, let's continue complaining.

There is a moment, and it is very early in the film, where the technical side of things goes completely off the deep end. It does not stay here for long, but the effect lingers for a great deal of time as it wades back to more navigable waters. I speak of the "cabin in the sea" scene, in which, for no apparent reason, the 180 degree rule as well as all laws of continuity editing and location geography are shot in the head and dumped into shallow graves. The camera goes haywire, jumping back and forth like a deranged chipmunk and never adequately displaying the scene to any degree.

Aside from that brief patch of gibbering insanity, the film is otherwise technically sound (including some early 2000's CGI that comes off a bit blocky, but is hardly distracting and it's still better than Jupiter Ascending), though it does tend to feel a little stuffy and stagebound, lacking the expansive open-world feel of the later sequels.

Masterpiece Potter, if you will.

Here's where my mood begins to improve. The performances, largely culled from the highest grade talent available across Britain, are remarkably superb for a children's film. Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith are the perfect choices for their respective characters, taking the film seriously and bestowing their roles with a profound sense of gravity. Richard Harris with his wheezy otherworldliness, Robbie Coltrane with his rugged good cheer, and Warwick Davis with his being Warwick Davis all round out the adult cast quite nicely.

The only liability in the acting is the children, which is naturally to be expected. Radcliffe does a fine job, though he utterly fails to convince when he is supposed to be feeling pain in his scar. Intimate understanding of pain like that doesn't happen until puberty. And Rupert Grint has some natural comedic talent, though he doesn't get so many opportunities to show it off this time around. Emma Watson is the weakest link thus far, but her overly-recited lines don't contradict her character so it's not distracting in any way.

All in all, things could be a lot worse on the kids' end and it's almost impossible to be better on the adults' end (*cough cough Michael Gambon cough*).

Yay! I was mostly nice for two whole paragraphs!

Alright, now that that's out of our systems, it's time for the effusive fan praise. First off, John Williams' score and especially the iconic "Hedwig's Theme" is just superb, capturing the magic and wonder of this new world with a soaring heart. It's not so overdone as some of his more recent scores, utilizing a minimalist melody and orchestration to capture an unforgettable whimsical tone. Its use in the film isn't always perfect, and it's overplayed at some points making some minor scenes self-consciously epic-sounding (Harry's going to the broom cupboard, not to war), but the score itself is an undeniable masterwork.

The other unimpeachable aspect of the film is its production design. The layout of Hogwarts castle has not yet reached its zenith, but the interiors are uniformly cluttered, lived-in, and supernaturally in tune with the mystery and majesty of the wizarding world. 

It is not Harry Potter in its best form, but it lays a solid groundwork for the truly wonderful things to follow. Really, it's a fine film to begin a franchise with. But only (and here's the clinches), only if you've already read the book. You need that handicap in order to decipher the incomprehensible mass of plot that the film vomits up in its middle half. But other than that, hey, good job.

TL;DR: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a decent enough beginning to the franchise, but leaves the door wide open for future improvement.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1346
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Columbus, 2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Columbus, 2002)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuarón, 2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009)