Monday, November 28, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

We don't have time to sit in the Gryffindor home room by the fire and talk about the day's classes. Not in this movie. Just as soon as you mount your broomstick, you're flying to catch up to the plot, which has winged its way past you like a golden snitch.

I can't imagine that anyone in the theatre who hadn't read the book could keep up with the maddening pace Goblet of Fire presents. Faced with 700 pages of Hogwarts classes, Snape snubs, Ron and Harry's fight, Hermione's championing for Dobbys, and more, screenwriter Steven Kloves has chosen wisely to concentrate on the Tri-Wizard Tournament, the focus of the fourth book. Goblet is as much about coming of age as fighting evil for our young heroes, and so they also find themselves at the Hogwarts Ball, a dance, and the task of finding a date for this dance. And, as far as our teenagers are concerned, the latter may be worse than the three deadly tasks assigned in the Tri-Wizard tourney.

Harry finds himself nominated by the Goblet of Fire for the tournament even though he's underage and didn't apply. Worse, most of the school doesn't believe him when he protests, including best friend Ron Weasley. All of these points are covered, swiftly, by the movie so that we can get to the best of the movie: the three tasks.

In the end, we discover that Hogwarts is a darker place, no longer a safe place. Harry is a target, more and more, as well as a conduit to the thoughts of the Dark Lord, Lord Voldemort, whom we meet for the first time. It's a time we won't forget, a terrifying time, even for those sitting safely in their theatre seats. Ralph Fiennes is unrecognizable as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but brilliant, coercing, evil. This fourth installment is the scariest, the darkest episode of all in the Harry Potter series. And probably the best.

Goblet of Fire is spectacular from beginning to end, from the outrageous Quidditch tournament in the beginning to the last task in the maze at the end. The special effects are a triumph, and are 100% better than those in The Prisoner of Azkaban. If there's a complaint at all, it's that we see little of our favorite characters. But take a look at the pages and pages of credits and you'll see why: there are no less than 30 recognizable characters! But when the Weasley twins get more screen time than their brother Ron, and Neville Longbottom more time than Draco Malfoy....well, we're in a snit about that. But Kloves and director Mike Newell chose to concentrate on the tournament and a few of the events leading up to it, and that means leaving out a dozen or so of our favorites, or giving Snape only two lines, etc.

When Hermione asks fearfully of Harry, "Everything's going to change, isn't it?" he replies strongly and assuredly, "Yes." Everything will change for these young men and women as they grow up, as they face the fears of adulthood and wizardry. And every prepubescent teenager watching this movie will nod right along, because they know it's true.

Harry Potter just keeps getting stronger. Thumb's up.

Monday, November 14, 2005


My high school history teacher, Mr. Davis, looked like Boris Karloff with a crewcut. I remember that about him and something else: His favorite saying was, "Use of profanity is proof of a poor vocabulary." I'm betting Mr. Davis was never in the military.

We first meet Swoff (Swofford, the original writer of this autobiographical story) at his first Marine command, and his environment is in-your-face, violent, real. He's had more education than a lot of these jarheads, but it does him no good here, gives him no respite. The point is not lost on us that the staff sergeant (played with cool intelligence by Jamie Foxx) finds Swoff reading Camus' The Stranger in the head. Gyllenhaal's Swoff is the stranger here, looking for his own spiritual path, and can't figure out how he got himself into this mess.

Many of us make choices based on what we left behind. In some brilliant but quick flashbacks, we discover he's running as fast as he can from a crazy mother and a too-intense military father. The military, as it has done so well throughout history, takes the single man, tears him down, teaches him how to react and what to say, and then rebuilds him into the Marine image. That is, if the process doesn't break him. And we watch as Swoff learns how to live, how to survive, and how to speak their obscene-laced language. He becomes a Marine, good and bad and all that infers.

The acting is superb, and because you actually believe these men can fight, you're training right along with them in the mud in basic and in the desert during Desert Storm. Gyllenhaal breaks out of his nice-kid-with-the-doe-eyes roles, and gives us a good foundation for the story as it washes over him. Foxx is electric, and your eyes are instantly on him when he comes into the scene. Peter Sarsgaard's Marine is level-headed, insane, angry -- he gives a career-making performance.

Jarhead is jarring and intense in some scenes, but halting and boring in others, particularly in places (like Saudi Arabia) where we're meant to be bored because THEY were. For the viewer, it's at once entertaining and fascinating, but for all of those moments, we're treated to moments of slow motion. All of which, Swoff would argue, is because it's true.

Is this an anti-war movie? Is this merely a documentary? No to both questions. It just is. In many ways it's heartbreaking, because we have to do this to young men to get them ready for war. To make them machines that self-automate in times of crisis. And, as Swoff reminds us at the end, who never forget their training, never forget they're Marines.

Hoo-rah. Thumb's up.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Bewitched - A Reviewer Who's Bothered & Bewildered

You can't replace Elizabeth Montgomery. You can't replace Agnes Moorehead. And you can't replace Dick York, even though they already tried that.

The new Bewitched movie, starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell recognizes that, and tries to soothe our fears. They show us footage from the original, constantly referring to Montgomery as "Samantha," because, let's face it, she owned the part. They even give us pieces of the show that they think we want, including an Uncle Arthur (played deftly but too long by Steve Carell, he of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"), Aunt Clara (played too stupidly, if you can believe that, by Carole Shelley), and the delicious Shirley MacLaine as Endora-slash-Iris, an actress who may or may not be a witch.

And to this eclectic soup, throw in Michael Caine as Kidman's father. Caine has been in every movie released this year, and, as usual, he adds a lot to any script. His character is fun although his story really goes nowhere, a raconteur warlock who meddles just a bit too much into his daughter's life. But who can blame him as the young Isabel, a real witch, is drawn to real human life but can't fend for herself? One of the funniest bits is when she swipes a tarot card as a credit card. She's really trying to give up the easy witch life and live a "normal" life. Apparently normal means becoming a television actress cast as Samantha opposite Will Ferrell's Darrin.

So we also get the beautiful Nicole Kidman as Samantha. Nicole channels Marilyn Monroe in voice and innocence, an interesting choice. But it's a choice that allows us to believe she'd fall for the stupid antics of Will's Jack, a lying egotistical actor who's trying to salvage a dying movie career by resurrecting this '60's comedy. Bewitched gives us several scenes of just Will being Will which are quite funny. However, this move lengthens the movie as do the inclusions of Aunt Clara, Uncle Arthur, and even next door neighbor Gladys Kravitz.

In the end, although this remake is long due to everything they thought we'd want stuffed into this package, it's a funny movie with clever and watchable people. Bewitched fans will certainly recognize their favorite characters. But if they're hoping for Montgomery and York, they can't get that. Settle for a mildly funny romp that allows Kidman, Ferrell and a rather lengthy cast to be themselves.

Okay, okay. Let's stop the b.s. and be honest: This is not a great film and it's even a stretch to say it's a good film. But I liked it in spite of its faults. Mostly I like the actors in these roles, and unabashedly I have to say, that's about it for this movie. Thumb's up, just barely.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Fever Pitch - Low and Outside

I really wanted to catch Fever Pitch. I missed it in the theatres, so I got the DVD and sat down eagerly to watch the story of a baseball fan whose fanaticism interferes with his relationship.

Unfortunately, this is a ball rather than a strike. A foul ball. A knuckleball, in fact. You get the baseball metaphor. This is a mildly fun film that could've been so much more.

I totally identified with the fanaticism part. Everything doesn't stop in my life when baseball season starts, but it's certainly pushed to the back of the bus. I finally had to give up my Shakespeare subscription because it interfered with baseball games too many times. I breathe a sigh of relief that I can get my schedule back to normal at the conclusion of the season, after I do a little mourning that our season ended too soon.

So I was ready to accept Jimmy Fallon's fan who really wants to make it with Drew Barrymore. However, I was severely disappointed.

There are some fun moments. Like when Drew announces that her company is sending her to Paris for the weekend, and she is inviting her new love! Her enthusiasm is infectious, but as Jimmy hugs her, he's glancing furiously over her shoulder at his Red Sox calendar. This is a crucial time of the season. They need me.

Only that scene falls a little flat because the director plays it too seriously. There's no cut, no great double-take. If you take a look at the ads that got you into the theatre, this scene is much funnier because it's cut better.

The best part of Fever Pitch is Drew Barrymore, caught up in her work but trying to make this new relationship work. The worst part, unfortunately, is Jimmy Fallon, in his first movie, who although has some comedic timing from his time on SNL doesn't really work up to the level of his co-star. His character lacks the charisma, or even the personality, to convince us that Drew would even be attracted to him from Moment #1.

We realize the producers and director had to suddenly change their script when the Boston Red Sox, out of nowhere, won the pennant race and then the World Series. The two stars luckily happened to be at the game when this happened and were rushed out onto the field to get their photos taken. But the directors would have us believe that the season ended when the Red Sox won against the Yankees instead of the St. Louis Cardinals. Oh, well, maybe to the diehard Red Sox fans, that's really true. But to the rest of us, the ending doesn't ring true when a man who lives for baseball agrees to sell his season tickets to be with a woman who isn't sure she wants to spend her life with a boy who never grew up. I mean, I wouldn't.

But then, I'm waiting for spring training to begin. I'm also waiting for a baseball fan movie that gets it right.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

And then Charlton Heston spoke to the Burning Bush...

I'm reading a lot currently about the history of the Jewish people. It's all relatively new to me, although some things sound familiar. I have to admit that most of what I know about Judeo/Christian history came from the movies.

In my household, Cecil B. DeMille was God, at least to my father. The only time Dad would leave home, if it wasn't for work or to obtain tools, would be to go to a Bible epic at the local theatre. Actually, for the big Events, we would drive over to San Diego and go to the Capri Theatre (is it there any more?), and do it right. Long movie, complete with intermission, popcorn, maybe even a program. And Biblical characters yelling at us in Panavision stereo.

I remember The Ten Commandments, directed and produced by DeMille in 1956, which was truly "The Greatest Event in Motion Picture History," and if it didn't live up to the billing, at least it changed the film industry forever. The parting of the Red Sea was an event that seemed to change people's lives when they watched the film. The Ten Commandments starred Charlton Heston as Moses, and Yul Brynner as Rameses, and if it didn't make stars out of them (they were already established by then), it certainly cemented them as huge moneymakers.

But did you know that DeMille directed his first Ten Commandments in 1923? The film starred Theodore Roberts as Moses, Charles de Rochefort as Ramses....I know, I know....who's heard of those guys? I'm sure when DeMille re-did the movie 33 years later, he was pleased that he could show the Red Sea parting.

However, I'm not sure why Cecil got the reputation as producing only Bible epics. Very few of his movies pertained to that genre: The Ten Commandments (twice), Samson and Delilah (1949, another favorite of Dad's), and The King of Kings (1927).

He revolutionized entertainment as we know it, always bringing us the big spectacle, no matter what the subject matter. The Buccaneer (another Yul Brynner vehicle) was an incredible feast of costumes and sea battles. Don't forget that in the latter part of his career he produced sci fi spectacles War of the Worlds (1953, uncredited executive producer) and When Worlds Collide (1951). But my personal favorite is The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), with Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, and Jimmy Stewart as the clown hiding from the authorities. I understand Betty especially had a tough time with the role, learning the high-wire, and put herself at risk just for this picture. You can just imagine DeMille screaming at her, "Higher, higher!" Ooh, to be an elephant tick on the wall.

Oh, and I also can't forget Cleopatra, which, while not terribly historically accurate, showed us the charm and ability of a young Claudette Colbert. You have to admit, DeMille knew women and how to show them on film. As he once said, he thought Americans were only interested in money and sex. He seemed to capture both in his spectacles.

They sure don't make 'em like that any more. Cecil B. DeMille made over 50 films, directing and producing, and left an indelible mark upon American and European cinema.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I never caught Eternal Sunshine in the theatre, as I had hoped to, but I was able to view this little treasure on DVD recently.

The movie is "little" by most means. It has a steadicam look about it. The special effects aren't CGI but mostly camera tricks, a low-budget approach to put a little whimsy into the movie. But director/writer Charlie Kaufman chose wisely to pick the best actors he could, and he wins big with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, plus all of the actors in lesser roles, particularly Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst.

We first meet Jim Carrey as Joel, a real nebbish of a character. He's shy and lonely, he sort of knows he wants a relationship with a woman, any woman, but can't make it happen. Kate Winslet's Clementine won't let that stand in her way, and forces herself past his force field to get to the real Joel. Quickly it becomes a full-blown love affair, and in many ways Clem becomes Joel's best side. She is his actualizer, and he reflects her goodness. For all of us who have been in relationships of opposites, this is one of those, and it works.

But for some reason Clem pulls out of the relationship. Everything goes sour. Clem and then Joel decide to erase each other from their memories to escape the pain and that freezing inability to go on with their lives.

Something remarkable, however, happens at this point. We get to enter Joel's mind and watch him during the procedure. We're able to watch what's happen inwardly and while observing, become Joel and experience his pain. He begins to find ways of eluding the memory erasures even though he ordered the procedure. He discovers what he had to begin with with Clem, what they shared, and finds himself returning to those memories so that he can experience them one more time before the final loss.

This is a love story. It's a heart-wrenching one, and this small film takes us along on this precious journey. The film weaves in and out of surreal dreamscape and real procedure, and it's no wonder we become a bit confused between the two.

I found myself wondering about the ramifications of erasing a memory, and Kaufman's illumination of the Kirsten Dunst character's story hints that we are doomed to repeat our same mistakes, even in love ("those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it"). This is the kind of movie that keeps you thinking many hours after it's over, wondering what could have been, what might have been had we been able to change something about our memories, what is it about relationships that tie us up, make us happy and make us miserable?

Jim Carrey is amazing as a man who lives inside himself. He's got that sardonic wit that usually puts himself in the center as victim. Yet we can read his face and understand what he's experiencing. And Kate Winslet is truly exceptional; this film is the best thing she's done in her career.

Admittedly, Eternal Sunshine is a bit hard to understand -- e.g., we're not sure when Clem underwent the procedure, where we are chronologically most of the time -- but that doesn't seem to matter. We're in this ride, holding on to our memories for dear life.

Thumb's up, way up, for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Doom - Between The Rock and a Hard Place

The 2005 movie Doom picks up where the popular computer game left off: Marines storming a space station to find out what went wrong. And, of course, to kill as many moving bodies as possible to rack up a really neat score.

As I told a friend of mine before entering the movie theatre: It's based on a video game. How good could it be?

The movie tries hard to develop a plot and bring to the screen all the things prepubescent guys would want to see on the screen. Well, except for one thing: there's only one woman in the entire movie, and she's fully clothed. She (actress Rosamund Pike), of course, is the rocket scientist (well, really a geneticist) who has to figure out what happened with this virus and why these monsters are appearing all over the station. Unfortunately, the audience has figured out all of that before she or any of the Marines do.

There are so many idiotic things in this movie that they're all hard to cover. Marines without helmets....what were they thinking??? No way of ensuring light throughout the cavernous station. HUGE guns that seem larger than the Marines themselves but offer very little firepower. Unfortunate errors in science ("human beings have 23 chromosomes" when they have 46 chromosomes arranged in 23 pairs).

But we're not here for the science, right? We have lowered our expectations, remember. And for the most part, we're not sorry we came.

The Rock plays Sarge, "Semper Fi" tattooed on his back, not your usual hard-crusted Marine sergeant, a gentler sort who won't take insubordination from his men but will give them a little latitude. After all, these Marines are individuals -- another problem with realism -- and if you can get past the fact that this motley bunch would never make it past training, you can enjoy the different characters we get in this bunch. Not the usual stereotypical gung-ho guys, that's for sure. A drug addict, a devout (make that fanatical) Christian, the new Kid, and a guy with a past (Karl Urban).

Karl of Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Riddick is imminently watchable here, and deserves better fare, out of the action genre and into more of a challenge. The Rock is coming along nicely in the acting department; he was offered Urban's Grimm but chose Sarge, a more interesting character. It was a wise choice.

For most of the film, we're yawning a bit as we wait for the steel doors to open and stun us with the creatures. We get some small moments of tension, and for that we're grateful. But if you Doom fans can wait until the final 20 minutes, you'll be rewarded with electric kinetic movement, pseudo-actual footage from the game as we hunt looking over the barrel of a gun, and a battle during the final showdown that shows our stars to their best advantage.

Thumb's up for Doom, a movie that delivers more than it promised.