For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Monday, July 18, 2011

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hollows - Part 2


The funny thing about the decade long Harry Potter film series is that each new installment has -- despite many directorial changes -- achieved a consistent level of goodness. But that's just the thing; each one is reasonably good without ever being truly great. The exception may be 2003's enchanting "The Prisoner of Azkaban" -- the Alfonso Cuaron helmed episode with enough surprises (Sirius Black isn't evil? Scabbers is Peter Pettigrew! Hermoine got hot!) and artistic creativity to convince us the celluloid itself was magic. That one stands out above the rest. Still, "Harry Potter", unlike its more mature and self-serious lit-based cousin "Lord of the Rings", has never been able to break into the upper echelon of contemporary cinematic fantasy. The final chapter in this gargantuan wiz-kid oeuvre, "Deathly Hollows - Part 2", runs in the same crowd as its predecessors; it's good. The law of averages would say that these eight merely good films would make for a merely good whole. So how come the Harry Potter film series is so much more than that? How come it's great?

I wish I could say it's simply due to the greatness of its source material -- author J.K. Rowling's infectiously imaginative Potter chronicles have become de facto required reading among young and old alike. But great books don't always translate to great films (two recent examples: Peter Jackson's scatterbrained take on "The Lovely Bones" and Mark Romenek's tragically inert "Never Let Me Go"... double ecchh!) And considering that attempts by studios to harness Potter magic by adapting other enduring kid-lit phenoms like "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Lemony Snickets" into cash raking empires have fallen fatally dead, the question remains: what makes the bespectacled wizard so special?

I think in Potter's case, as opposed to, say, Narnia, its relative modernity is actually one of its finer qualities. (Narnia, from 1949, seemed dug from a dusty vault of grandparent's fantasies). The first HP book was published in 1997; the first film premiered in 2001. The books and films provided a parallel universe, and Harry himself provided a voice, for millions of people who learned on September 11th, 2001 that the real world was a dark place, and the subsequent decade proved that it could get even darker. Over 7 books, Harry not only grew up (as kids tend to do) in an uncertain world, but he faced evil head on, and in a realm that was so alien yet weirdly familiar -- that it latched on to the collective imaginations of young kids, and young souls alike, who could feel right at home and light-years away with every new Potter escapade. Harry's journey became vicariously ours. I'm sure for some; they could not truly grow up and take on life's prickly challenges until Harry did.

And in "Deathly Hollows -- Part 2" he does with admirable bravery. The story picks up where "Part 1" left off with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals, the precocious Hermoine and the rustic Ron, searching for Holcruxes -- the objects that contain pieces of evil Lord Voldemort's soul. Their quest leads them back to Hogwarts, their wizard academy, where a final showdown between Voldemort's Death-Eaters and Harry's posse -- respectfully named Dumbledore's Army -- will take place.

The prolonged final battle is a dizzying smorgasbord of spells, curses and enchantments. Hogwarts is reduced to rubble as the body count rises and the casualties of war are laid out in the Great Hall for loved ones to come and grieve. Many of the deceased, tragically, hold the faces of familiar friends from stories past; even in Potter's world of bed knobs and broomsticks, war is a terrible thing. To be honest, the Battle of Hogwarts is the fiery, destructive action spectacle I expected, but not the one I dreamt of. Even in "glorious" 3-D it's never the tremendous set piece it ought to be.

Although I'm not too bummed because it's really the more character-based aspects of "Deathly Hollows -- Part 2" that make it worth our time. The film is essentially a long, gratifying farewell to all those minor characters we loved, or even loved to hate, at one time or another along the journey. One scene in which Professor McGonagall (played by the matronly Maggie Smith) draws her wand in a bravura display of witchery against a Hogwarts foe will have you cheering, praying, and ultimately exclaiming the most unlikely of phrases: Professor McGonagall kicks ass! The awkwardly lanky mouth-breather Neville Longbottom steps up in scene after scene as an extreme underdog turned probable Medal of Honor recipient. Helena Bonham-Carter hogs every frame as the manic Bellatrix Lestrange, the satan-ess in black leather with rotting teeth. (Someone should put a leash on her). Mesmerizing career-long villain Alan Rickman again makes Professor Snape at once alluring and fiendishly confounding; when the truth behind his actions is finally revealed you may wipe away a few tears at what you wish you only knew all along. Harry feels the same way.

And even though Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson) finally make that love connection we've been waiting eight movies for (the books' numerous puppy-loves always seemed like more of a nuisance to the filmmakers than an opportunity), this final chapter is really about our favorite teenager messiah with spherical glasses, jet black hair and green eyes -- "the boy who lived" now set to face his destiny in the inevitable confrontation with Lord Voldemort (expert ham Ralph Fiennes) who's like the three-way offspring of Adolf Hitler, the devil and a Burmese python. It's quite a destiny to be sure.

But that's the reason we've read and watched Harry all these years: if anyone can take down evil that vile, it's Harry Potter. And with the news of terrorist Osama Bin Laden's demise coming only a few months before this film's release, it feels like a pregnant conclusion that -- in our world where culture and pop-culture often go hand-in-hand -- evil can indeed be triumphed over. Harry has taught us that, and more: courage, tolerance, friendship and love are what conquer wickedness in the end. Harry's wizard world is rumination on the better angels of humanity itself. Even more, consider the fact that through an entire decade, and eight feature films, we've continued to watch Radcliffe, Watson and Grint grow up before our very eyes; it's revolutionary. Guided by an entire generation of exceptional British performers, the "Harry Potter" franchise is an unqualified cinematic achievement that can go down as -- to quote Tony The Tiger -- more than good, truly great.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Horrible Bosses


There's a whole lot to like about "Horrible Bosses": Jennifer Aniston as a gutter-mouthed, sex-starved nympho-dentist; Kevin Spacey in a viperous performance of corporate sadism; and, maybe most of all, Colin Farrell with a hideous comb over. Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day play the vocational doormats that conspire to terminate each of their respective employers. For tips on effective rub-outs they go to a shady hood-rat named Mother****er Jones (a magnificently leery-eyed Jamie Fox) who advices them to kill each other's bosses -- thereby extinguishing motive and cutting any ties to the crime.

It's funny how well Hitchcock's "Stranger's On A Train" conceit translates to a broad and brazenly risque modern comedy about workplace hell and the three stooges who'd rather commit murder than find new jobs. (In this economy, it's almost understandable). The fact that the trio of titular bosses is so cartoonishly evil (in Aniston's case I think it's a naughty cartoon) and the performances are so bravely disgusting, greatly strengthens the film's appeal. Aniston -- spitting Penthouse vulgarity with shocking abandon -- plays Dr. Harris like Rachel Green gone terrifyingly, and tantalizingly, bad. The film never explains why she's so desperate to bed her hygienist Dale (Charlie Day of "It's Always Sunny" fame), but never the less he's a cowering puppy in the face of her abusive sex-goddess persona. It's galvanizing, and more than a little scary, to watch Aniston in such a provocative role.

Kevin Spacey, as Bateman's cruel, self-promoting (literally) executive, is no stranger to the ways of cinema fiendishness. (Kaiser Soze, John Doe... anybody?) Here he's not so much pure unadulterated evil as that smug douche you just wanna strangle the life out of; he's equally good at both. Colin Farrell got the short end of things with his role as a spoiled punk who takes over his father's construction company and subsequently torments his subordinate, Kurt (Sudeikis). In one scene he talks about tainting a town's water to save a buck and in another he does blow off a stripper's backside. I would have liked to see more of him.

In fact, I would have liked to see more of all the "bosses". But they get sidelined. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day are as funny as you might expect, but they can't shake their archetypal personalities. Bateman's all tense, stoic insecurity. Sudeikis and Day -- who have only recently made the leap to the big screen -- play the arrogant wiseass and kind-hearted creepo, respectively, we've come to love on our living room flat screens; but neither will be getting a leading role anytime soon. The film ultimately becomes a saga of obedient white boobs learning that crime is harder than it looks. It has serviceable and moronically amusing results, yet it still feels like something more devious was on the menu, especially considering what marvelously off-kilter monsters Aniston and company make. Although it does leave room for, arguably, the film's best moments -- ones involving Jamie Fox's pseudo-intimidations and inner-city histrionics. His Mother****er Jones is a delightful riff on the stereotype that just because a guy's black and looks and acts tough means he must be an expert on crime. "Horrible Bosses" could have used more of that clever cultural lampooning, but for now, I guess the senseless misadventures of white wannabe hit men will have to suffice.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Transformers: Dark Of The Moon


It's hard to think of a more self-conscious director than Michael Bay. His latest is the new Transformers flick, "Dark Of The Moon", and starting with its swirling delirium of a prologue -- a revisionist historical montage in which the 1969 moon landing is rewritten as a secret extra-terrestrial salvage expedition -- the movie pummels the viewer with aestheticized energy. This is a movie on a high; this is cinematic Four Locos. The camera is almost constantly in motion and when it's not the angle is jarringly canted or the background is stuffed to capacity with eye-catching visual cotton candy. Actors scream NASA jargon dialogue and stare at monitors as an adrenalized score pumps from the speakers and the editor shreds the film into incoherent ribbons. It seems, from the very beginning, that Bay is terrified of boring his audience, for even a moment.

As we segue into the present and Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf) is aroused from slumber by his "world-class hottie" girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whitely who's taken over for a cumbersome Megan Fox), a close-up of the pants-less and thonged blonde bombshell accompanied by wall-to-wall pop music almost completely subjugates the point of the scene: Witwicky has a new girlfriend, but is frustratingly unemployed. Yet all Bay asks of his audience is that they enjoy the exchange like they would a music video -- viscerally and thoughtlessly. Bay is like the anti-Terrence Malick. Malick, whose new opus "Tree Of Life" hit theaters only a month ago, is so comfortable in his own vision and artistic impulses that he challenges audiences to be patient and try to understand him. The result can be frustrating and exhausting at times yet there is SO much to be gained by trusting a true artist. Bay labors to keep us entertained moment to moment because without constant stimulation, he's afraid he'll lose us for good. The sad part is, his films are even more exhausting and they still lack the intellectual reward a genius like Malick so poetically gifts us.

I fear Bay's directorial paranoia arises from two possible places: a mistrust of the story he is communicating or a general lack of anything to communicate. It might be both. The story is the conclusion of the war between the Autobots -- a bunch of alien sports cars and trucks who metallically morph into awesome fighting robots -- and the Decepticons. The Decepticons are like evil Autobots with beastly razor-sharp snarls and eerie red eyes. The humans are caught in the middle. The lunar landing reveals a secret weapon named Sentinel Prime -- the former leader of the Autobots who's now an old-timey but all-powerful mechanized castaway. Both sides want him. Two hours of frenzied build up leads to a prolonged demolition of the Chicago skyline as the two sides make war -- turning the Windy City into their cataclysmic playground. (The metropolitan destruction on display would make even Roland Emmerich proud).

If I'm being honest, Bay doesn't so much mistrust his story as completely disregard it. Spectacle is all that's on his mind; it's all he cares about. In that regard, "Dark Of The Moon" pretty much accomplishes what it aspires to. To call it a complete folly would be missing the point. Skyscrapers get torn in half and tip over as their occupants slide passed cubicles on their way through glass panes and out windows. Transformers rip up pavement as they claw across eight lane highways, flipping and smashing vehicles in their path. Chicago becomes a windstorm of 3-D debris and carnage. If I said the film 's F/X offerings weren't impressive, I would be lying. Add a few amusing bit parts (like Frances McDormand as an all-business CIA suit; John Torturro reprising his role of Seymour Simmons, the egotistical war-profiteer; John Malkovich as Witwicky's ludicrously anal new boss; and Ken Jeong ("The Hangover") as a bureaucratic traitor with hilariously bouncy dexterity) and "Dark Of The Moon" is more than watchable. Even Labeouf displays some of the "Louis Stevens" charm that made him famous in the first place.

The problem, again, is Michael Bay. He's not merely self-concious; he's also self-indulgent. The combination kills his film. With a 2 1/2 hour run-time and a relentless final battle sequence to top it off, Bay just about squanders all the film's better qualities with sheer megalomaniacal delight. He can't see the forest for the trees. Were it only 90 minutes with a clear narrative (not a head spinning one that feels like both too much and not enough), "Dark Of The Moon" might have been, dare I say it, a good movie.

We could have, maybe then, forgiven the fact that the director still has nothing to communicate -- nothing about human nature, society, spirituality... nothing. In the form it's in, "Dark Of The Moon" starts to make us wonder: how can a movie that feels like so much really be so little after all? The chance that Michael Bay will one day shock everyone and make a film with a tight, interesting story gets smaller with every effort. The director has again made an exhausting summer blockbuster that, ironically, sells its soul to be anything but.