Saturday, July 30, 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Review

Alfonso Cuaron was as close as the Harry Potter franchise came to a visionary director. I can't imagine why they didn't keep him on for the rest of the movies. Cuaron swathes the film in a new, richly gothic atmosphere & finally gets more gritty performances out of the child cast. In the adult cast, Gary Oldman as the titular escaped convict Sirius Black & David Thewlis as the new Defense against the Dark Arts professor, are excellent as Harry's damaged, morally ambiguous mentors. 

Cuaron's directing, Michael Seresin's cinematography & John Williams' Danny Elfman-esque (I could probably get shot for saying that) score lend a sense of weight & momentum right from the outset. Cuaron's Dementors are thrilling creations, far superior to the ones in Order of the Phoenix. Cuaron nails his tone, & sets the scene for the finale, with an early shot of a bluebird leading the camera around early morning Hogwarts scenery before being chomped by the Whomping Willow.

Harry's breakaway flight on Buckbeak the Hippogriff is one of the series' most stirring & poetic scenes in the series; a rare happy moment for Harry & a triumph of visual effects. The sets are exceptional, even by Harry Potter standards, Hogwarts and surroundings have never looked more stylishly gloomy, the werewolves are cool & tragic, the magic bus is a blast and the nifty time travel plot is smartly executed. Prisoner of Azkaban has no detractors. Easily one of the best in the series. 

Interesting to note that Mexican born Cuaron's presence ushers in the first non-white Hogwarts students, even if they are confined to the background.

Oscar noms: Original Score (John Williams), Visual Effects.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Review

Kenneth Branagh is good fun as preening, phony adventure writer Gilderoy Lockhart, the new 'Defense against the Dark Arts' professor. 

Unfairly regarded as an inferior retread of Sorcerer's Stone,  Chamber of Secrets still suffers from over-acting by the youngsters & a syrupy boarding school ending, but features some great set pieces, including the flying car, the whomping willow, a forest full of giant spiders (stealing from Tolkien & upping the ante) & an intense finale in the Chamber of Secrets featuring another giant beastie (Salazar Slytherin's Basilisk) & the 'memory' of Tom Riddle, who became Lord Voldemort. It is notable that JK Rowling introduces Voldemort's first horcrux as early as the second novel, already setting us up for the final showdown.

Chamber of Secrets also carries a strong social message in the story of Dobby the (somewhat annoying) elf. Dobby is a fairly impressive feat of CGI but, no doubt, overshadowed by the same year's introduction of Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Shirley Henderson is also good, mad fun as Moaning Myrtle, the unstable ghost of the second floor girls' bathroom. 

Oscar noms: None

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer / Philosopher's Stone - Review

It took me years to warm up to the Harry Potter series, but I finally did & have done some catching up:

As an introduction to the magical Hogwarts universe, Sorcerer's Stone, is a beautiful piece of work. Its saccharine boarding school adventure ending & the awful acting from the child set, however, make it harder to take seriously. But with impeccable sets (Diagon Alley is a marvel), a haunting first shot of Hogwarts - oh how it will be destroyed in the years to come & John Williams' classic score, there is plenty for grown up cinema-goers to appreciate. 

Unfortunately, the visual effects are dubious - while the invisibility cloak is still something to write home about, "Fluffy", & the rest of the special effects guarding the Sorcerer's Stone, look a bit clunky. Especially considering this was made the same year as Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring  & AI: Artificial Intelligence.  

Script-wise, it is notable that JK Rowling had Harry talking to snakes right from the outset; as with Chamber of Secrets, its impressive how well planned & plotted her series was. It is also a nice showcase for Rowling's deft touch with surreal logic (a villain's face implanted on the back of a blithering idiot's head).         

At least the adult cast is excellent as ever. Maggie Smith is slick, if underused, as McGonnagall & Richard Harris makes a gentle & touching Dumbledore (although I will confess I prefer Michael Gambon's take), but the standouts are Robbie Coltrane as lovable Hagrid and the always-impressive Alan Rickman (can you imagine anyone else in the role) iconic as ambiguous Severus Snape.

Oscar nominations: Original Score, Costume Design (meh), Art Direction / Set Decoration

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Somewhere - Review

Sofia Coppolla’s fourth film is the second from her own screenplay and, while it shares Lost in Translation’s DNA – a bored, semi-famous movie star (Johnny Marco, played by Stephen Dorff) hangs around a hotel (in this case, hotels) pondering his place in life while doing not much with a younger woman (this time, his daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning) – it is very much its own film, with its own concerns and, regrettably,  its own flaws.

Coppolla's direction is perfectly controlled, but her script lets her down. Through the pace of the editing, the composition of her shots and the general lack of her usual hipster cool soundtrack, Coppola manages to richly express her characters. The problem is that her characters are not much fun to watch - Dorff's Johnny Marco is a frustratingly hollow man, while the talented Fanning's Cleo is vague and underwritten.

The opening shot explains everything that is at once brilliant and frustrating about Coppola's latest exploration of celebrity alienation - a stationary shot of Johnny Marco's black Ferrari drives in and out of shot as he circles an abandoned racetrack - over & over & over & over & over & over & over again. Not at an exceptional speed, and with no one watching or cheering him on.

As a methaphor for Johnny's life, the opening shot could not be more effective; a fancy sports car, but no joy whatsoever. Just when you think Coppola can't possibly make you watch Johnny going around the track any more, she does. A few more times. It's powerful film making; as frustrating to watch as it must be to be Johnny, but making a film so committed to the boredom of its lead character has an obvious pitfall; it can be difficult to enjoy. And that is where Coppola's script & characters fails to provide the payoff needed to make the journey worthwhile.

Coppola's pacing traces the (minimal) development of Johnny and Cleo's relationship, but her technique is more intriguing than the actual characters.

Before Cleo arrives, scenes are shot in long, exhaustive takes with only diegetic (in-scene) music, and not Coppola's usually hipster cool music at that. While Johnny's life does not lack event, it certainly lacks emotional engagement, and so does the film, which is a beautiful illustration, but at times a difficult one to sit through. But that is Johnny's life.

Once Cleo arrives, the pace gradually picks up and the not much that happens takes on a somewhat lighter, less claustrophobic tone. In my opinion, though, the scene chronicling a game of Wii tennis takes it one step too far, but perhaps others may find it refreshing.

It's only once Johnny & Cleo have finally started to grow comfortable around each other - minus much  talking, mind you - & decide to spend a last day together before Cleo goes to Summer camp, that Coppola allows the editing & soundtrack to flow, setting a sweetly joyful montage of father / daughter poolside bonding to The Strokes' smashing I'll Try Anything Once.

But the surfacing of Johnny's feelings lead only to a solitary, self-loathing breakdown which is powerfully written and performed, but somehow feels forced an inorganic. And after hours of hanging around looking smart, shy & laid back cool, Fanning's Cleo is also allowed an out-of-the-blue, although justified, emotional catharsis, to which Johnny responds with a blank stare and awkward muttering.

When Johnny bids Cleo farewell, he is only able to express any kind of love for her when drowned out by the roar of a helicopter. Although a beautiful expression of Johnny's inertia, it is hard to care, after so much time, about a bored, self-indulgent movie star who makes no effort to enjoy his life, know himself or contribute anything of value to his daughter, even when she is begging for just one of her parents to make her a priority.

After Cleo is gone, Johnny's purposelessly mopey ways threaten to overtaken again. A shot of  Dorff's head slowly being cut out of frame as he floats lethargically on a li-lo was apparently unplanned, but is nevertheless pure perfection.

The enigmatic final reel, set to Phoenix's stirring Love Like a Sunset Part II, effectively revisits the Ferrari metaphor, but by this point, the journey taken with Johnny to get there feels exhausting rather than enriching. It is a poetic coda to a dry & measured film.

Friday, July 22, 2011

63rd Primetime Emmy Nominations

Outstanding Drama Series
 Boardwalk Empire
Friday Night Lights
Game of Thrones
The Good Wife
Mad Men

Outstanding Comedy Series
Big Bang Theory
Modern Family
The Office
Parks and Recreation
30 Rock

Outstanding TV Miniseries or Movie
Cinema Verite
Downton Abbey
The Kennedys
Mildred Pierce
The Pillars of the Earth
Too Big To Fail

Outstanding Actress in a Drama
Kathy Bates, Harry’s Law
Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
Mireille Enos, The Killing
Mariska Hargitay, Law and Order: SVU
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men

Outstanding Actor in a Drama
Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire
Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
John Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House
Timothy Olyphant, Justified

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Laura Linney, The Big C
Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly
Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Louis C.K., Louie
Steve Carrell, The Office
Johnny Galecki, The Big Bang Theory
Matt LeBlanc, Episodes
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Polanski's Carnage - Preview

Based on the Tony-nominated play, God of Carnage, Roman Polanski's Carnage replaces the play's excellent cast (Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis & Jeff Daniels) with a new, equally intriguing cast of Kate Winslet, John C Reilly, Jodi Foster & Christoph Waltz. A very eclectic set of actors with very little in common besides the 4 Oscars between them (2 belong to Foster, none to Reilly).

The story roughly concerns two sets of parents who get together to talk after their sons are involved in a schoolyard brawl. The witty script is set entirely inside a single New York apartment. Needless to say, Polanski did not shoot in New York, as the warrant for his arrest was not overruled by his Oscar, but it will be interesting to see what he and his cast bring to the table. Foster seems a touch too intense for comedy, but we shall see.


TIME's Top 25 Animated Films

25. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
24. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
23. Yellow Submarine (1968)
22. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (2008)
21. Kung Fu Panda (2008)
20. Paprika (2007)
19. Tangled (2010)
18. The Lion King (1994)
17. Akira (1988)
16. Happy Feet (2006)

15. Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
14. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
13. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
12. Toy Story (1995)
11. Toy Story 3 (2010)
10. The Little Mermaid (1989)
9. Finding Nemo (2003)
8. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
7. Up (2009)
6. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
5. Spirited Away (2001)
4. Dumbo (1941)
3. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979)
2. WALL-E (2008)
1. Pinocchio (1940)

'Best of' lists are always doomed to be controversial, but I find this one particularly odd. While it includes a bunch of good but not great animations - Happy Feet, Horton Hears a Who, Tangled - it omits any number of classics - Ratatouille, The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, Watership Down, 101 Dalmations - & choosesThe Little Mermaid over Beauty and the Beast & Aladdin!

But it's nice to see a Top 5 that includes Dumbo, Wall-E & Pinocchio. 

Jason Reitman's Young Adult & Labor Day

Jason Reitman has very quickly become Hollywood gold, with 3 great, biting films proving he has much more to offer than his father's surname (his father is Ivan Reitman, once legendary director of Stripes Ghostbusters, recently director of, um, My Super Ex-Girlfriend & No Strings Attached).

Reitman teamed up with Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter, Diablo Cody, to direct Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron as a divorced fiction writer returning to her small home town to rekindle a romance with her now-married ex boyfriend, played by Patrick Wilson.

Any resemblance to Never Been Kissed may or may not be intentional. It will be interesting to see what Diablo Cody dishes up next (after camping up sexy teen horror in Jennifer's Body & turning Toni Collette into everyone's favourite schizofrenic American mom on Dreamworks TV's United States of Tara), but with Reitman & Theron on board, there is no reason to believe it will be anything less than great.

Wasting no time, Reitman has already cast Kate Winslet & Josh Brolin for his next feature, an adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel, Labor Day. The novel follows bored, horny teenager Henry and his depressed, divorced mother, Adele, who allow a mysterious convict, Frank, to take them hostage in their own home & learn important life lessons, like how to throw a baseball, how to make a perfect piecrust, how to handle jealousy & betrayal & still put loved ones before yourself and that true love is worth waiting for.

Just a touch of Eastwood's A Perfect World. Reitman's last novel adaptation was Up in the Air, so add this one to your watch list.

Stephen Daldry's Fourth

British director Stephen Daldry has had a good run so far - 3 films (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader), 3 Best Director Oscar nominations & two Best Actress winners (Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet) - heavily aided by make up & complex, arguably supporting, literary roles.

Now Daldry is trying his hand at adapting Jonathan Safran Foer's inventive 9/11 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

The big trick with Extremely Loud is pulling off the lead character, Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old amateur inventor, jewelry designer, astrophysicist, tambourine player and pacifist trying to find the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father who died in the 9/11 attacks. 

Daldry worked wonders with Jamie Bell in Billy Elliott, so he should be the right man to direct 12-year old Jeopardy! Kid's Week winner, Thomas Horn, as Oskar. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks plays Oskar's doomed father & Sandra Bullock wastes no time cashing in on her Oscar to play Oskar's grieving mother, although the really interesting parts are Oskar's odd, misfit grandparents, whose tragic story is told in flashbacks.   

Not sure who's playing who yet, but Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffery Wright, Max Von Sydow & James Gandolfini fill out the supporting cast.

The novel is highly stylised, so it will be interesting to see what Eric Roth does with the screenplay, but Daldry's instincts in adapting tricky novels have served him well so far.

Bullock and Daldry on set