November 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the forth film in the series based on J.K. Rowling's books, but the first to get it absolutely right. I enjoyed the first three films, and rated each highly. The first two had charm, and real human heart. The third was a visual sensation, and a generally wiser adaptation. Goblet of Fire is all of these things — but where the first two were occasionally cloying this one is sincere, where the third was pragmatic and drab this one takes the necessary beats to marvel at its own invention and find flashes of vibrant colour in the most dark and foreboding of settings.
If Prisoner of Azkaban can be credited with turning Hogwarts into a cohesive world, than Goblet of Fire must surely be credited with turning Hogwarts into a cohesive community. Where before the trio essentially existed in isolation, with other characters popping up now and again to fulfil their given moment of exposition or plot, now everyone is everywhere. Snape barely says a word in this film, as an example, but he is seemingly always peering over Harry's shoulders. Ginny Weasley is Neville's dance partner, but she also fills Harry's slot when Ron and him have a falling-out, and alternatively consoles or admonishes her siblings with each moment of bruised ego. Harry helps and is helped by Cedric Diggory, the Hogwarts champion, who is dating Cho Chang; the same girl Harry has a crush on. The weaving of the subplots between each other helps unify the whole. It also saves time. When a character is needed for one, they can be recalled with a sort of shorthand because they have already been established in another capacity.
As an adaptation, this is also the best yet. More has probably been lost from this book than from any of the others. But I didn't feel than anything essential was missing, nor did I feel like the alterations rubbed against the grain. The first film would have been better off with the dragon left out and the potions challenge at the end left in. The second film would have been perfect if it has ended with them all leaving the Chamber. The third film would have highly benefited from making the connection between the Marauder's Map and its creator; and between Harry's Patronus and his dad. By contrast, Goblet of Fire trims plot instead of character. The emotions of the book came through with perfect clarity, so it was all too easy to forgive when the details didn't. I missed Dobby giving Harry the gillyweed, but I don't think his absence hurts the movie; indeed having Neville do it credibly threads the plotlines even tighter. The conspiracy behind the tournament is substantially streamlined, but then it's really enough just to know there's a conspiracy in the first place.
This condensation — even of the big set pieces like the three tasks — gives the characters room to breathe. When a strange new man with a fake eye and a fake leg hobbles into the room, it is Ron who rightly provides the exposition as to who the hell he is even though Hermione is the one with all of the books. Since Ron's dad and this stranger both have worked at the Ministry it makes more sense that he would know. When Harry and him get in a fight, it is mined for the humour inherent of the scene but without disregarding the pain felt when lasting friendships start to sour. Amos Diggory is recognized as a blustering fool, blind behind the abounding pride he holds for his son. But that doesn't make his aching sorrow any less searing at the end.
Michael Gambon fails again to fulfil the expectations for Dumbledore that Richard Harris created in embodying the headmaster in the first two films. But while I recognize that this isn't nearly the definitive take on the character, I admire the way it plays into the tale being crafted. Having Dumbledore nearly as mystified and confused as our title character makes the stakes all the higher as the film charges along toward its finale. He nails the physical presence Dumbledore should have if coming up just a hair short on the emotional presence. Still, in a lesser film this would be a showcase performance.
Our other returning players are as pitch-perfect as can be expected, and Brendan Gleason as Moody is a revelation. He's not a perfect reflection of my mental image of the character, but he captures exactly the manic and unpredictable energy and even menace that Moody has to possess. Afshan Azad and Shefali Chowdhury as the Patil twins makes the most of their small screen time, brilliantly realizing their utter disgust at dates that turn out to be entirely less than satisfactory. David Tennant as Barty Crouch the junior has eyes and a tongue that are more disturbing than perhaps anything else in the film. Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort doesn't bring all the menace I'd imbued in the character while reading the books, but neither does he let the film crumble into the anti-climactic. His Voldemort doesn't chew scenery like I might have desired; his menace is lethal, simple, and direct.
The younger returning cast is the biggest area of improvement. Rupert turns Ron from a series of elastic faces into a character with real bitterness and sorrow behind the humour. Emma as Hermione trades in girl power for fragile optimism, in a take that has never been so courageously emotionally exposed. Dan has banished any traces of stiffness from his portrayal of Harry, bouncing effortlessly from moments human to moments heroic. Among the secondary schoolchildren there are some genuine surprises as well. The Phelps twins finally got a handle on the mischievous essence of Fred and George last time around; this time they attack the characters with fearless swagger. Bonnie Wright as Ginny steps up to her expanded role with confident articulacy, slick dance moves, and a sense of comic-timing nearly that of the Phelpses. Finally, Matthew Lewis turns Neville Longbottom from a lovable loser into a character with real tragedy and true courage. They, along with newcomers Katie Leung and Clémence Poésy, provide much of the wild and uncontained joy of Newell's Hogwarts.
The fourth time is the charm for Steve Kloves, who finally turns in a screenplay I can enjoy without reservation. Mike Newell as director brings Harry Potter's world some much needed joy. Roger Pratt's cinematography is spot on, pitch perfect; bringing the colour, light, and composition from his Chamber of Secrets photography and marrying it with the evocative motion of Michael Seresin's work on Prisoner of Azkaban. All of these elements come together for a smooth and grandiose ride, heads and shoulders above its predecessors. ()


November 07, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck.

I desperately admired Good Night, and Good Luck. for its purpose and its conviction. The things the movie has to say are more relevant now than ever, and they desperately need saying. Murrow's time was dominated by a culture of fear driven by the threat of communism. Our time is dominated by a culture of fear driven by the threat of terrorism. The threat is the same, and all too real.
Secondary to the message is the craft. This film looks and feels like it was made in the era portrayed; indeed many of the key figures — McCarthy chief among them — are portrayed with actual footage from the era. The soundtrack, dominated by an onscreen studio singer, comments on the going goings-on much like the stage performances of Bob Fosse's film adaptation of Cabaret. The believability of this world is otherwise absolute.
Still, it is not a perfect film. Unlike the charismatic and emotionally gripping All the President's Men, this one engaged me almost solely on an intellectual level. Throughout too much of the film, the immediacy of the threat is kept at bay. At one point, the ridicule against one of the CBS journalists (Don Hollenbeck) accused of being a communist gets so bad he commits suicide. Boy, now that's interesting!, I thought to myself; but alas, the character gets only a handful of lines before he offs himself and only the most minimal exposure as to what he was up against.
The Robert Downey Jr./Patricia Clarkson subplot was undoubtedly aimed at humanizing the film, but this effort largely falls flat. They're likable enough, and sometimes the source of some cut understated humour. But I can't really relate to their situation and so my capacity to invest emotionally is limited.
At the end of the screening I attended, an elderly man seated in the row in front of me leaned over to his wife and complained, "It was a documentary." That it feels like one explains both the film's power and its shortcomings. ()



Jarhead is surprising not so much for its commentary as its lack of commentary. Neither a pro-war movie nor an anti-war movie, it would be more appropriately categorized as a barely-war movie. It takes a while to get to the Gulf War, and even once it does, the most we see of battles is the jet fighters blasting by overhead. There are a couple altercations with the enemy, but unlike Midway or Saving Private Ryan we get nothing for the history books — or even for that matter, the nightly news.
This is just as well, because the film wouldn't stand out as a war movie. The lack of a clear political message or goal leaves it free to explore characters that embody the full spectrum of philosophies, temperaments, personalities, and ideas. Some characters, like Anthony Swofford — also the man whose memoirs the film is adapted from — want nothing more than to get out and go home. Others, like Fowler, Troy, and Staff Sgt. Sykes, live to be Marines. Neither viewpoint is elevated about the other; we spent enough time with these characters to judge them by other means.
Fowler, played by Evan Jones, is the typical stupid, blood-thirty war nut. But Troy and Sykes, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx, are complicated and introspective. Swofford, soured on the military, is the one who nearly lowers himself to savage action. Troy, who lied about his criminal past he so wanted to join up, is the one who reigns him in. Sykes proves to be a true hard ass in some scenes, but in others he appears fatherly if not likable. He is the smartest kind of leader, one who takes the time to know his men well enough to understand their individual limits and how to use the others shore up weaknesses.
The presence of sex in the film dominates in many large and small ways. Much of the lingo is sexually-oriented. When they go to war, they are denied sex for long periods at a time. Their girlfriends and even wives back home stray and move on. After one scene, I came away not only never being able to view The Deer Hunter the same way again, but also understand through the myriad of sexual and emotional tensions that being a serviceman creates. It was at once amusing, heartbreaking, and enlightening.
Mendes's attention to the mundane little details is pitch-perfect. His more artistic flourishes are hit-and-miss. The way he uses the igniting of the oil wells to turn the stark desert into a hellish landscape is inspired. So too is the use of music to alternatively support and counter the mood of the action on screen. On the other hand, Swofford's hallucinations feel out of place in a movie so otherwise grounded in reality. The connections drawn with the war movies of the era of Vietnam felt forced and off.
Still, the total effect is something new and unique. At one point Troy declares, "Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit." Jarhead captures the truth of that statement with illuminating clarity. ()


November 03, 2005

Pieces of April

Never can I recall being so furious at a movie as I was near the climax of Pieces of April. It was right before April's disapproving family were about to go up to her apartment. Bobby, April's boyfriend, comes flying at the car, bloodied and beaten from a run in with Tyrone — the new incarnation of April's drug-dealing ex-boyfriend Eddie. He goes up to send her down. They take off. Were I not in a public theatre, I would have screamed at the television. There are movies for disappointment and misunderstanding, but they need to be structured differently. Had this been the end of the story, I would have left the theatre betrayed. I still feel like the plot twist exploited the audience, but fortunately the movie finds its way to the right ending in the end.
April's dying mother Joy is in the bathroom when she hears another mother yelling at her young daughter, then watches as she storms out. The girl, in the stall, makes sorrowful eye contact with Joy before quietly pulling herself together and leaving the bathroom. It is a low-key moment, but it comes very close to justifying the plot point at the heart of my fury. Joy, having desperately disappointed April as April had so often disappointed her, the moment of eye contact with this total stranger finally allows her to relate to and connect with her black sheep offspring. So she and her pot-rolling son take off in the bitch seats of two other patrons' motorcycles. It is a moment typical of this movie — where the quirky details for a change feel true, right, and natural instead of tacked on and deliberate.
The film begins with an April that is hopeless, lifeless, and aimless. It ends with an April that is optimistic, resourceful, and connected. The main reason having the family take off was such a big slap in the face was because we watched this girl over the time it takes a turkey to cook grow, change, and aspire for that which all parents and children should share. She had earned that happiness and the movie had crafted no obvious reasons to deny her that. I never watched "Dawson's Creek" and was underwhelmed by her performance in Batman Begins. But here she has a real likable vulnerability about her. It's a performance that is affecting with its openness.
When her previously unused stove turns out not to work at all, she scours the building looking for someone to lend her theirs. One couple she meets, Evette and Eugene, begin by laughing at her and end up rooting for her. Their world has a warmth and safety to it, recalling the feeling a child has when under the roof of his protective elders. They introduce her to the heart and soul of true Thanksgiving cooking, but soon need their stove back for their own Thanksgiving bird. Her back-up stove doesn't pan out when its owner, a vegan with a door plastered with bumper stickers for liberal causes, decides she wouldn't be able to stand the smell of flesh cooking. The bird's next home, in the apartment of a character representing Sean Hayes at his most unusual, only lasts an hour and costs fairly literally an arm and a leg. The dinner's saviour finally comes with an apartment of Chinese whose English is limited but whose generosity extends beyond cultural boundaries.
With each, the film recognizes the inherent humour but looks beyond to find the humanity. Like the population of a Wes Anderson film, all the characters seem half a notch off-kilter. But writer/director Peter Hedges is able to make the off-kilter relatable nearly effortlessly. Anderson's characters are caricatures. Hedges's are living and breathing human beings.
Yes April's sister was irritating, and yes the grandmother had nothing really to do. Bobby's storyline was probably a distraction, and that plot twist at the climax pissed me off. But once the film gets back on track, the final moments are captured poignantly through pitch-perfect music and the sheer emotion of April's brother's camera lens. Finally, with those few still frames, the film gives me the only thing I was really asking from it. ()