Monthly Archives: November 2010

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt 1

harry potter deathly hallows pt1It all started with a juvenile fiction novel about a teen boy with hidden magical powers and a grand wizarding destiny that he finds by leaving his non-magical “muggle” family and attending an English boarding school with a magical twist, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. That book was published in 1997 with the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and a film version followed in November, 2001. Since then the seven Harry Potter books that document his years of study at Hogwarts and ultimate showdown with arch-enemy Voldemort have become a world-wide phenomenon, and the seven films to date have created a series unlike any other in the history of Hollywood, a cinematic storyline that spans a decade and has created millions of fanatical fans.

Which is why the first installment of the two-parter Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows proves to be such a disappointment. The book is the weakest in the series, even as it resolves the final conflict between the Dark Lord and the boy wizard who is The Chosen One.
Prior to Deathly Hallows pt 1, one of the best things about the Harry Potter films was that they worked as standalone movies, entertaining, exciting and with stories that let Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) overcome challenges and mature as a courageous young man with a destiny. If you’d seen the previous films in the series, the story worked even better as you could share the adolescent journey of Potter and his pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) as the epic tale of good vs. evil progressed.
If you’re a Potter fan, you’ve already seen the film and probably found it a delightful opportunity to catch up with not just Harry, Ron and Hermione, but the Weasley family, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) and hiss at evildoers Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), the over-the-top Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). If you’re just looking for an entertaining film, I suggest you skip Deathly Hallows, part 1. Maybe when part 2 is released in Summer, 2011, the two will add up to one good (albeit ridiculously long) last entry in the Potter series, but as it is, this is the most forgettable, most disappointing film of the series.

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Review: Faster

faster one sheetDwayne “The Rock” Johnson has successfully transitioned from a pro wrestler to an actor with some decent films to his credit, including The Rundown, a remake of Walking Tall and Get Smart, along with, inevitably, some real clunkers, including the oddly off-the-mark remake of Race to Witch Mountain and the ghastly Tooth Fairy. Johnson is solid in Faster, and it’s a pleasure to see him back in top form.

Faster is a throwback to the action films of the 1970’s, from the production color schemes to the film stock and camera angles utilized by cinematographer Michael Grady. If you’re not familiar with classics like Shaft, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Enter the Dragon and the original Walking Tall, however, you might find yourself a bit confused by the unrelentingly serious and aggressive feel of the film. There are no humorous interludes, not much of a love interest, just a story of revenge.
Johnson plays “Driver”, a tough-as-nails hoodlum who we first meet on the day he’s being released from a maximum security prison after ten years of incarceration. During his exit interview with the warden (Tom Berenger), he only wants one question answered: which door leads to the exit? Upon release he runs a few miles into town because there’s no-one at the prison gates to meet him. From his first minutes of freedom, he’s focused on tracking down the crooks who double-crossed his gang, killing his much-loved kid brother and leaving him bleeding to death.
The genre formula has a policeman as the antagonist, trying to track down and capture the criminal, and Billy Bob Thornton plays this role, one he’s played in countless films. He’s a highly imperfect slob of a cop, though his relationship with Driver proves surprisingly complex as their cat-and-mouse game defines the tension of the film.
I really enjoyed Faster and found it a throwback to the classic action films of my childhood, tough and exciting. If you’ve been weaned on the modern crop of cop dramas, you might find it rather dark, but if films like Bullit, The French Connection or Dirty Harry are your idea of a satisfying action adventure, then you’ll find Faster a solid, enjoyable movie.

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Review: The Next Three Days

the next three days one sheetDespite advertising to the contrary, The Next Three Days isn’t anywhere near as much about convicted murderer Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) as it is about her obsessed husband John (Russell Crowe), who is convinced of her innocence and is willing to do anything – including break her out of jail – to restore their idyllic life together. It’s a darn good action thriller too, though a bit slow in the first half. Once John’s plan starts to unfold, however, it’s an effective fast-paced film.

The film opens three years in the past, with John and Lara a happily married couple, doting on their three year old son Luke (played at three by twins Tyler and Toby Green, then at six by Ty Simpkins). They’re in love, passionate towards each other and seem to have a good life together. Then Lara finds a blood stain on the back of her jacket just as Pittsburgh police crash through the door and arrest her for the murder of her boss. The damning evidence? The two fought the previous day at work, the blood stain matches, and a witness places her at the scene of the murder.
There are glitches in the storyline, including a ridiculously unprofessional attorney (Daniel Stern) and a scene where junior college literature professor John successfully takes on a room full of hardened criminals, but there wasn’t anything that lost me as the film proceeded to its satisfyingly ambiguous ending.
If you’re a fan of pulse-pounding thrillers, The Next Three Days is a good choice, with the second half an amazingly long alternating cut between their escape efforts and the police, notably Detective Quinn (Jason Beghe), unravelling the clues to try and catch them. Like all good action films, the story doesn’t proceed quite as you expect either, so pay attention.

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Review: Skyline

skyline one sheetRarely do I see a film that has already garnered as much negative publicity as Skyline. Reviews have had titles like Skyline is galactically awful to Skyline: A recipe for disaster to Skyline not even good enough for cable TV and Skyline: Trapped in a Bad Movie, With No Hope of Escape. The titles are amusing, but, really, is Skyline quite that bad?

Actually, no it’s not.
Skyline still has fundamental flaws, a cast of mediocre actors playing to stereotypes, and a startlingly unsatisfying and bizarre ending, so it’s by no means a great movie or even a great sci-fi horror film. Still, after classic sci-fi films like War of the Worlds posit aliens that can be defeated by the common cold or the more recent Independence Day suggests that a computer virus can bring down an über-advanced alien vessel, I appreciated the Brothers Strause attempt to create an essentially indestructible and terrifying alien life form.
The film opens with a scene of blue energy bolts shooting into LA and emitting a hypnotic ray that causes people to walk blindly into the light, just to be sucked up into the sky and thence into the bowels of a strange, alien vessel. Flash back 15 hours to Brooklyn couple Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson) landing in LA to visit celebrity special effects wizard Terry (Donald Faison) and his girlfriend Candice (Brittany Daniel) and you have the basic setup. Oh, and in the midst of everything, Elaine tells Jarrod she’s pregnant.
Skyline isn’t a great film, and I haven’t even talked about the ending, but it was entertaining and had a number of fascinating ideas, notably when one of the characters compares the bright hypnotic light and people subsequently rising into the sky to the Biblical “Rapture”. That’s the kind of path I wish the film would have taken, but still, it’s nowhere near as bad as you may have been led to believe.

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Review: Unstoppable

unstoppable one sheetAfter directing films like Deja Vu, Spy Game, Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide, it’s clear that Tony Scott knows the formula for an exciting action film. His pacing prowess is the heart of the new thriller Unstoppable, a film that has so many plot holes that it resembles a block of Swiss cheese. Scott has cast Denzel Washington in quite a few of his films, including The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Deja Vu, Man on Fire and Crimson Tide, so it’s no surprise to find Denzel in the lead role of Unstoppable.

Unstoppable, we’re told, is “inspired by true events” and is based on a 2001 incident where a CSX freight train with thousands of gallons of highly flammable molten phenol shot down 70 miles of track in Ohio without anyone on board. The emergency air brake system was disconnected and it hit speeds in excess of 45mph before it was finally slowed down enough that an engineer was able to leap on board and stop it.
Tony Scott’s version of the story is set in a noisy, dirty, blue-collar Pennsylvania and it’s a classic buddy film with grizzled 28 year railroad veteran Frank Barnes (Denzel) and brand-new conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) driving a freight train that ends up being hit by the runaway train. They uncouple the destroyed train cars then catch up to the runaway and slow it down before it hits a highly populated area and causes untold damage.
Add to the cast tough-as-nails dispatcher Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), crass, greedy corporate manager Gavin (Kevin Dunn) and Federal Railroad Administration government overseer Scott Warner (Victor Gojcaj), and you have all the elements required for a compelling drama. Unfortunately, Unstoppable was predictable, every character was tediously one-dimensional, and Denzel walked thru his role without demonstrating any acting whatsoever, as he’s done in his last few movies.
If you like Tony Scott’s signature shaky vérité-style cinematography and don’t mind an excruciatingly predictable storyline rife with unresolved threads, you still might enjoy Unstoppable. Certainly the audience I shared the theater with seemed to really enjoy the thrilling chase that comprises the majority of the film. If you prefer a coherent story and actors who vanish in their roles, then you’ll want to stay far, far away from this movie.

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Review: 127 Hours

127 hours one sheetLiving in Boulder, Colorado, I know my share of adrenaline junkies, people who are not just extreme athletes, but get involved with dangerous sports for the thrill, the rush. Getting hurt is the badge of honor. It’s easy to wonder what motivates these people and one of the things I most enjoyed about the gripping, lyrical 127 Hoursis that it’s just as much a film about the self-indulgent culture that created an Aron Ralston as it is about him being trapped in a slot canyon and having to make the shocking survival decision to cut off his arm with a pocket knife.

Director Danny Boyle is recently famous for the splendid Slumdog Millionaire, but he’s been directing films for quite a while, and his cool professionalism shows in this very well assembled movie with stunning David Lean-style long shots and a surprisingly non-claustrophobic structure. As Ralston (well played by James Franco) begins to hallucinate days into his ordeal, the film slowly begins to unravel too, with flashbacks, flash forwards and other narrative devices that help us understand what’s going through his head.
As Ralston begins to realize that he’s going to die stuck half-way down a tiny canyon, his life begins to flash before his eyes, poignant and funny vignettes of a life spent self-absorbed. Ralston comes to recognize that he’s spent his entire life pushing people away, a path that seems destined to lead to his death: he’s mountaineering in the remote Blue John Canyon but has deliberately not told a single soul – even the charming Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn) who he bumped into earlier on his trek – where he’s heading.
I found 127 Hours a surprisingly moving film and while I spent much of the movie dreading the scene where Ralston severs his arm, it was handled in a dramatic, almost frenetic fashion and was the only logical – albeit difficult – solution to his being trapped. A film worth seeing for both its extraordinary production values and the thoughtful story and epiphany of a mountaineer who represents much that’s wrong with our selfish, contemporary culture.

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