Desperate Times Call For Desperate Magic: A Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt 1.  is a good film–a solid film, giving a good arc and screentime to all three of the main characters, and a host of others. There’s plenty of action, but this film also takes time to develop the story and the characters.  I stood in line at the Yukon Cinema for two hours to get in to the first showing (-10 C)–so my standards had to go up for how good this film had to be.  And I felt like, in the end, it was worth it.

You know the premise: Harry Potter and team are on the run from Voldemort.  Nowhere is safe.  Harry is out to find as many pieces of Voldemort’s soul as he can and destroy them.  We aren’t at Hogwarts anymore.  But the lessons, it seems, still go on–and the grades are worth more.

Some small spoilers follow—but nothing major.  Read later after you’ve seen the movie.  It’s just me talking about the really cool character arcs–but I do a bit of telling what characters do.


I was pleased at how much this film is about Hermoine.  The opening sequence has her erasing the memories of her from her parents’ minds, and also from every picture in the house.  She has, in effect, erased her existence in the Muggle world.  The film highlights the extreme displacement the kids feel by not being in Hogwarts, and you feel it too.  The camera shots from above the various geographies, rotate just slightly, giving you the feeling of being lost.  And these students are lost, very lost.  They are on the run, and no place is safe.  Hermoine guides them through past memories of her childhood, and the movie plays out as a backwards rendition of those memories she has erased.  Each place they disparate to, or jump to, is a place she alone remembers from her past.  When she is tortured in the film, we realize how much she has always been in potential danger at Hogwarts, especially because she is Muggle born.  While Draco Malfoy always carried the racism and bigotry into Hogwarts, because he was a child–he had no power to enforce that bigotry, and we assumed that it would be knocked out of him.  Hogwarts has obviously failed a few times to instill responsible and compassion in its students.  Voldemort carries this much farther.  On a purity spree, he is trying to subjugate the world of Muggles under wizardry control.  Hermoine represents muggles on the run, Muggles fighting back.  She even helps save another Muggle-born woman who has been stripped of her wand in a courtroom scene straight from the Inquisition.  We know that the imperative for the wizards getting back in control of Voldemort is to save mankind, not just themselves.  And we realize that the last six books were about Hogwarts, a school that taught morality and self-control to people who had great, destructive and constructive powers.  Hogwarts is what stands between wizards and witches taking over the world–young wizards’ and witches’ education is paramount to our safety.

Ron has a great arc as well, as his whole family is left fighting against Voldemort while he and Harry and Hermoine are trying to find the horcruxes.  Every day he listens to the radio to see if his family is okay.  And every day they don’t find a horcrux is another day that he isn’t doing something to stop the war.  He feels guilty that he’s “doing nothing” and doubly guilty because he gets to be with the woman he loves all the time.  This turns in him, and with the help of an evil horcrux which amplifies those feelings of betraying his family, it causes him to rage against his friends, and make a big decision.  It’s a huge move for a major character.  We know part of is the horcrux, but part of it stems from six books of Ron Weasley being seen as less than all of his siblings, and standing in the shadows of Harry Potter.  He now has to play the hero–and while he wants to so badly, there’s a fear that it’s always just “playing” and that this playing is actually taking away from a larger duty he owes his family back home.  His arc represents, to me at least, the wizarding families and the freedom they are likely to lose if Voldemort wins, and the sacrifices they make to keep people safe.

Harry, though frustrated as a leader, has a lot of moments to make good and bad decisions as he goes.  I like that he learns that his friends are doing the best they can.  They are counting on him to know what he’s doing–and sometimes he does and sometimes he’s just an 18 year old who is figuring things out as he goes.  I like that he’s learning to be a leader here under trying circumstances and there are moments in the film that he shows how good of a leader he can be.  We know the final film will explore even more of Harry’s character, and Dumbledore’s.  I wonder how much they’ll bring out the relationship between Grindewald and Dumbledore.  I’m very excited to see how Harry reaches what he has to reach in the next film.

Even though this film deviates from its normal Hogwarts school year–I was pleased to see that the way the earlier films marked the passing of time was kept in this one: holidays.  So even though you are on the run, Harry, you still mark time the same.

Deathly Hallows does have some overtones of Lord of the Rings, as Harry searches for multiple objects, so that he can destroy them.  The scene interrogating Creature about a locket gave me Gollum, Frodo, Samwise feelings all over the place.  And the dream sequences of seeing Voldemort closing in on various people acted like Sauron’s eye in reverse.

And then come to the middle of the film, I was surprised and charmed to find such a finely animated film inside.  When the story of the “Three Brothers” is read aloud by Hermoine, the film indulges in a beautiful moment of cinema.  I was entranced. The short segment is worth its own short film status–and I would definitely be interested in seeing a film like this made from the stories in Beetle the Bard.  If this was the director’s way of seeing if we’re interested in seeing that film–let me be the first to say, yes.

Overall, the film far exceeded my expectations, in that it brought out threads that resonated with the first six films, and managed to find humor in the darkest book of the HP series.  It also gave such meaty character building parts to Ron, Hermoine and Harry–just when you thought you knew them, now you see them grow again. This is the perfect culmination movie.


Kudos to the folks at the Yukon Cinemas for decorating the theatre, keeping peace, for filming the line, and asking us trivia questions for prizes.  Thank you for threatening any person who had cellphone nonsense during the movie with immediate expulsion.  Please do this for every movie!  🙂  I’m very proud of our how well Yukon Theatre did with the massive crowds, and regulating traffic.  And they were all dressed in Hogwarts robes!  Priceless.

Inception: the Idea trumps Character (movie review)

Help! My characters have no life. Oh wait, maybe they just need to wake up.

Inceptionis a solid movie, full of complications, a lot of thrill, and most importantly, some good ideas.  While it also has a couple of interesting characters in DiCaprio and Murphy, the rest of the cast fulfills their positions dutifully, easy to interchange and forget.   It’s a caper film–with the majority of the movie about the caper.  It uses a Matrix-like idea as a vehicle to achieve its goals.  The idea is central, the science fiction secondary; but like good science fiction–the idea is enough to carry the movie.

I liked the movie, enough to see it again if the time comes to rent it on DVD or if a friend wants to see it; but I found the inconsistencies in the premise took away from the caper.  How do they share freakin dreams!  Plug yourself in and something determines whose consciousness you’re going to share?  Doesn’t matter, the movie says— we’ll just tell you.  How do they determine who will dream and who will share?  Doesn’t matter, the movie says, watch what we can do with a special effect.

There’s enough infodump in the first twenty minutes to choke a horse, disguised as dialogue, interspersed with scenes of cities running amok and riots in the streets.  The riots are there to make sure the ideas go down easier.  “Just a spoonful of riot, makes the infodump go down…”  Take a note: this is NOT how to do an infodump.  We learn absolutely nothing about the characters in the first twenty minutes…only that a Molly means betrayal.   Nope, we need to explain the premise….

Now, once I got past that we were rushing through the “technical” issues to get to the action (I could almost hear the movie tell me–who cares about whether or not this makes sense? We’ve got a cool thing to show you), I enjoyed the movie.  But I didn’t really care about DiCaprio’s character– or empathize with his loss.  Normally Ellen Page is fantastic (LOVED JUNO!) but any actress could have pulled off that role, it required so little.  In some ways she, Michael Caine, and all the other actors are wasted to serve the idea….

Jeffery Overstreet has the same concerns in part one of his review of Inception.  And says them better.  It wasn’t so much a bad movie–as a rushed one, one that engaged your brain but not your heart–even when it was trying so desperately to do so.  And the ethics involved in changing someone’s mind so illegally made DiCaprio not a very sympathetic character.

Now, back to that idea.

The BEST thing about Inception, and why everyone should see it, is about how you put an idea into someone’s head.  The discussion about how you make someone believe that it was their original idea, as opposed to yours, is insightful–and will make everyone talk.  The whole work to get Cillian Murphy to think this is his own idea is downright fun.  And everyone in Marketing should see this.  Or maybe they shouldn’t!  (What might have been more interesting, but not as fun, would have been a philosophical film based on the premise–you know, in the same way that Sophie’s World merely used the least amount of plot to play with an idea.)

There is NO insight on dreaming in here.  Dreams, while they can be detailed, are murky and inconsistent.  They’re rarely realistic and may involve someone who looks like they are a walking shark carrying a tuba….  And as Overstreet admits too– other filmmakers have handled the surreality of dreaming SO much better.  That dreams can be invaded by someone–so casually–with no idea how to operate in someone else’s dream — is really lame.  As if the writer (and I like Christopher Nolan) just needed to get past some hurdles here…. to make a cool graphically conceived movie.  Also, the biggest clue that you’re in a dream is that you cannot read the same text twice.  It appears and changes as you’re reading it, rendering the opening premise illogical….

SPOILER:  And this is the third “dreamy” film–or film which contains reality based on your own thoughts–to include a suicidal woman.   What Dreams May Come, Solaris and this movie all have this as a premise…  that women can’t handle their own thoughts and will take their lives, causing their husbands, every one, to come rescue them.  And all three films end with that rescue leading to a kind of pseudo-paradise that the audience recognizes as delusion.  (What Dreams May Come is worthy of its own review.  A movie which ranks as one of my all time worst movies ever. But the ending delusion is supposed to be Heaven, so I can’t really argue with that.)

So, I found the movie a bit flat–even as the action was all revved up….  Caring about the characters, to me, was essential to enjoying the intensity of the film.  If I can’t care, then I can’t care about the intense situations you put the characters into.  Solaris made me care about the main two characters in their hyper-reality film; What Dreams May Come suffered from the same overblown concept with lack of character interest.   Inception forgets that narrative relies not just on amazingly cool logos, but on believable pathos too.

Is There No Wonder in Wonderland? A Review of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

What do you want when you get down the rabbit hole?  Burton begs this question in his version of Alice in Wonderland.  Folks will probably enjoy the visuals–they are delightful to watch.  But in this age of CGI, there’s not as much fanfare left for special effects.  It’s coming down quickly to who tells a good story, and I want to examine Burton’s story here.

What I like about the story of Alice in Burton’s Wonderland is that we get a detailed look at Alice’s life before the rabbit hole–especially her cloying debutante-shuffling world, where so little was expected from women, and so much was expected from their cooperation.  I like the summer dance on the lawn, the hordes who like to watch when she’s proposed to.  I like Alice.  I liked that narrative so much that I was expecting more of it when we got to Wonderland and it wasn’t there, not immediately anyway.    When I realized that Wonderland was reflecting her own re-vision of a forced duty, then it got more interesting–but that time in Wonderland feels off.

Two things happened when she got into Wonderland.  I got confused, and Wonderland was reduced to a strip of land between two kingdoms.  The premise of this movie is that Alice has been here before.  In fact, she has recurring nightmares throughout her childhood and young adulthood, and yet nothing in Wonderland sparks her memory?  Even a memory of the dream?  I don’t buy it.  If I was haunted by something, I would start recognizing people and things.  She acts like she’s never even SEEN the place.  Why doesn’t anyone try to jar her memory when they pull out the Calendria?  (When we do see her previous journey in montages it looks vaguely like the same plot…and boring)

This plot seems very focused on the end of the movie.   It’s like one big long foreshadowing.  She has to fight the Jabberwocky–everyone tells her this.  All the beautiful weird dialogue of Lewis Carroll is gone, pared away to focus on an ending that’s so inevitable we might as well have just skipped to the end.  All the characters are focussed on Alice.  This is so unlike Carroll’s version where everyone was focussed on themselves.  Alice was merely observant.  Here she does only what we expect her to do; she goes through the motions of the Eat Me/Drink Me sequence, a moment with the Mad Hatter, a second with the Cheshire cat.  She’s not even curious anymore.  Where’s Alice–Carroll’s Alice?  

Wonderland really takes on the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, two queens that duked it out after Henry VIII died.  I didn’t buy the petty rivalry of sisters.  What’s there to fight over?  Two courts, fully intact.  The flashback involving the Jabberwocky smoking a White Queen party—well, there weren’t any consequences.  The White Queen had a new castle, attendants, and enough white to choke the Arctic.  I didn’t get the queens at all.  There’s no reason for them to be upset, and in fact, the White Queen seems devoid of any will to fight–she has to be saved.  Her court resembled the starchy-white English party Alice just left.  And we hated that.  

Remakes where characters revisit their original stories can be good.  Hook is an excellent version of the grown up Peter Pan visiting Never Never Land.  The script was brilliant.  Burton’s Wonderland has very little wonder left–even for the characters involved.  

Yes, Carroll’s original story is obtuse and playful–it isn’t easily figured out.  But Burton scrapped the multiplicity of places in Wonderland, the depth of odd characters, and Alice’s curiosity in favor of a plot.  If you’re going to put all your money on a plot, it better work.  This one is so muddly in the middle, I just waited for there to be a reason for Alice to do something….until we see her realize that everyone is telling her what to do–in both worlds, and then she goes and does something else.  But it’s not enough.  She hurries through the epilogue in the world’s longest/shortest “I need a moment to think.” 

I liked Burton’s rescuing of Alice’s real world experiences—though she doesn’t talk about them much in Wonderland any more.  I like the ending, I like the beginning, but her time in Wonderland plays like nobody wants to be distracted by wonder anymore–they want the big battle.  Carroll’s Wonderland was about the wandering, about the figuring things out, about the wonder— but this one had few choices for Alice, a lot of inevitably and no wonder.

The Wolfman: A Waning Version of the Original

The Wolfman,(2010) directed by Joe Johnston, starring Benicio Del Toro, is a remake of The Wolfman, (1941) directed by George Waggner, and starring Lon Chaney, Jr.  You know that.  My biggest question through the movie is WHY REMAKE IT?

The first half hour is a snoozer, merely a recap of the film you’ve already seen.  In fact, the writers so depend on you knowing the characters from the 1941 movie that hardly anyone is allowed screentime to develop as NEW characters.  Who is Lawrence Talbot in this version?  We don’t know.  He’s cast in such dark and moody lighting, such gothic teasery, that we don’t get a sense of Lawrence as a person.  They make the BIG SIN of Bad Movies–let the actors only talk about the Plot. So, every line, every snippet of dialogue is there to give us Backstory, Context, Tell Us Things We Should Know–but no one is allowed to actually talk about anything else.  No one asks anyone to pass the salt.  There’s no time.  We must talk, and talk quickly, about the plot.

To the movie’s credit there are three new twists thrown in:

* * *SPOILERS * * *

1.  Lawrence Talbot is an American Actor, starring in Hamlet in London. This is cool. I don’t mind there being some Shakespearian allusions in the movie!  Yay!  And Lawrence Talbot and Hamlet have some similarities— they’ve seen the truth about their fathers; they have seen their mothers ravaged by other men; they were gone for most of their adult life and are brought back for a funeral; they are in a quandary about what to do; their girlfriends think they are insane; they must kill their “fathers”.  Brilliant idea to show these similarities.  But where Shakespeare’s play develops characters, Johnston’s movie superimposes limp characters onto established patterns.  Not only is Del Toro’s Talbot hoping you think of Chaney’s Talbot, but he’s hoping you think of Hamlet–except Hamlet was clever, Hamlet PLAYED insane, Hamlet had a plan…  Talbot in this film has no plan.  He’s a victim of the werewolf, a victim of his Father, and ultimately a victim of the town.  The Comparison to Hamlet is an attempt to ride on Shakespeare’s coattails and give this film some depth it doesn’t earn.

IF they had started the movie on stage with Benicio Del Toro, playing Hamlet, going backstage to hear that his sister-in-law had written to him to come to the Family Manse, there’s been a murder–and he had to go back onstage—that would have been interesting.  It would have been SCENE.  We could have seen Talbot as an actor, as a person….  BEFORE he goes home to Goth House.

2.  Anthony Hopkins is HIMSELF a Werewolf. Cool.  In fact, I think both men are sexy as werewolves and the battle scene is beautifully done and fun to watch.  In fact, I’m sure that battle scene is worth the whole movie to some.  By making the dad a werewolf too, you add a great deal to the idea that Fathers make their Sons into monsters when they are monsters.  And I kind of liked this aspect of the movie.  It should add a depth to becoming a monster–abusive parents create abusive children, etc.  But that’s not really explored.  The Dad is completely heartless in that he’s finally decided to embrace his inner Werewolf and just kill at random.  He has no reason and no regret.  And so, we don’t care about him.  He’s one-dimensional and speaks from the script. And neither man can stop himself from killing once he’s a werewolf….  so why bother with morality at all?

3.  Lawrence Talbot was sent to a mental institution. VERY cool.  I like this.  It’s logical.  He sees his father kill his mother and goes a little bonkers.  And then they send him to America where those who are a little bonkers will fit in.  One scene.  That’s all the movie gives this beautiful, but underdeveloped, idea… so Talbot is dunked in icy water and given injections, and we get a flashback.  That’s it.  And, the second major transformation happens here…which is fun to watch.  But the addition of this backstory is sewn on with big thread and doesn’t really match the rest of the movie.  It isn’t utilized.

Some inconsistencies in this movie made this remake more confusing and tiresome.

A.  Why wasn’t Lawrence killed when he saw his father eating his mother? None of the other werewolves have stopped to save a child…. Lawrence should be dead, or he should have never seen that incident.

B.  Sometimes the moon comes through a cloud and changes you AT ONCE, and sometimes, you get to walk around outside or inside as a human being until you’ve finished your dialogue, and then you get to transform into the werewolf.  There’s no clear rule about transformation. Bad.

C.  What is the purpose of the Inspector or Gwen now? They are Wasted characters because they’re not given any screen time to really develop.  In 1941, Lawrence Talbot was a normal man, flirting with a beautiful girl, come back to run the estate of his family.  When he is bitten, that first “normal” life is taken from him.

Watch this here and see the development of character in a 1940’s way (and, wow, is Lon Chaney Jr. a hunk of a guy)

In 2010, Lawrence Talbot is already doom and gloom, and his bite is just further nightmare.  Nothing is normal in this new Talbot’s life.  The girl he’s flirting with now–that’s his dead brother’s fiance.  His father?  A werewolf who killed his own wife.  There ain’t a happy moment in this film–and therefore, without that happier beginning, there is no tragedy.

This was the HEART of the 1941 film. That a good man could be destroyed by a bite from a werewolf.  It has been ripped out of the chest of this story to make way for a kind of pre-ordained House of Usher doom….

So I come back to my first response:  WHY remake such a classic film?  To get neat special effects in and to get more gory.   There are some scary moments in the film, but twice we are blatantly tricked, making us feel like fools:  Samson the dog scare us at quiet moments.  (Oops!  Not a werewolf…shucks.  Gotcha anyway!)

There’s lots of killing, lots of killing, and it’s so random, that after awhile, it all becomes white noise.  Six people, ten people, there’s no challenge to the werewolf.  THEY ALL have silver bullets, but not one of them can shoot straight?  Yeah, right.

Bottom Line: Beautifully filmed and with stellar special effects, the Wolf Man gives us nothing else new and tarnishes what was good about the original. If you’re interested in seeing the classic, follow the Youtube connection above to see the whole film.

Avatar: A Second Chance to Get It Right

In my last post, I reacted to critics who were convinced there was a racist motif in play in Avatar.  But I’d like to talk about what Avatar is all about: Second Chances.

The movie is riddled with “seconds”— a twin who takes over for his brother when his brother is killed, a man who has his legs taken away from him getting a second chance at walking, Sully who has a second chance at being useful to the Na’vi, humankind getting a second chance to be at peace with a Planet.  

Cameron in his acceptance speech for the Golden Globes says as much:

“‘Avatar’ asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And if you have to go four and a half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that’s the wonder of cinema right there, that’s the magic,” Cameron said.

I was moved by the essay on Sully that I read over at the Respectable Negro Tribe blog

Jake Sully is emasculated in a literal sense because of a combination of physical injury, financial inadequacy and family tragedy. Not only is Jake Sully a Marine who cannot walk or fight, but more tragically he knows that there is a cure for his injury, but cannot afford it. Further, Jake’s closest relative, his twin brother, has been killed in a meaningless act of violence that Jake could not prevent, and now Jake is now forced to step forward into a position that he does not feel he is smart enough to handle.

He gets that second shot, for his brother, for himself, and in a representative way, for humans.  When he is at the tree with the glowing strands, he asks the ancients to link up with him, look into his past.  He’s trying to warn Erya that his kind are bloodthirsty, and that they would destroy the planet if given the chance.  “We killed our Mother,” he tells the planet.  And the planet steps up to save itself.  

One wonders what our story would have been like if we would have had a more respectful way of listening to our planet.  Is Climate Change the consequences of not listening?  

This is the stronger message of Avatar.  Not who saves who, but of having a second chance to save things at all….

PUSH is surprisingly good, an Indie film for Heroes watchers

3300601976_4c9f34aab4Imagine if Sophia Coppola, of Lost in Translation, had directed a sci-fi thriller and you can imagine the quirky,smart, place- layered PUSH, a movie now available on DVD.  

PUSH is set in Hong Kong, which is hugely in its favor, and allows the nature of Hong Kong to decide scene shots and plot development.  Hong Kong is more than a setting choice, though.  The director lets Hong Kong seep into this film, with a colorful multi-racial cast, while crowds crowd the scenes.  The movie is about people with psychic abilities running from the government, which wants to bottle and control them.  It’s like the X-Men without costumes or hero complexes.  They are truly ordinary people who are lost among the crowds of humans living in the cities.  Some can “push” a thought into your mind, some can move objects, some can see the future, some can sniff out the past, some can make you think one thing looks like another.  But there are only a limited number of things a psychic can be in this movie.  And having powers do not make them invincible.  

It’s a seek-and-find/chase movie, but the characters have strong motivations of their own.  I found the first three scenes a bit hard to follow at first.  Listen carefully to the opening credits of the film when Dakota Fanning narrates a huge info-dump.  This will set up the whole movie.  I usually HATE info-dumps, but in this case, you are hitting the ground running, and you need this info.  This is not an easy film to watch, but it is rewarding.  If you can make it past the first three or four scenes without turning it off because you have too many questions–then your questions will be answered as you go.

Characters who might have been cyphers in a bad movie, actually have pasts—which is nice.  I felt as if all the characters had met in a previous movie somewhere and so they knew each other, had past interactions.  They didn’t get scripted for this movie only…. and with any luck, there will be a PUSH 2.

There are clever moments in this movie, choices made by characters who are reacting to the choices of others.  It feels as if the characters are making up the plot as it happens instead of a heavy-handed writer.  The last third of the film is incredibly clever, one choice after the next, and it gave it a Heist-plot feel, where the Oceans Eleven crew are going to do a caper.  Yes, these are people who have superpowers but they are being followed and are in danger from other characters with better superpowers.  Superpowers in this film doesn’t equal wealth or control.  And that’s refreshing.  In Hong Kong there are no Reed Richards, super millionaires, who live off their powers, and these powered-people are not heroes, really.  They are trying to survive, and help each other.  

Now I want to get back to that directorial choice to set this in Hong Kong. In an online interview, McGuigan talks about Hong Kong, about heroes-genre films and what he wanted to do with that kind of film:

And then I thought about the whole genre aspect of it and, you know, we’re up against big movies because of The Dark Knights and I call it the Tin Man, but what’s it called? Iron Man? (laughs) You know, those were great movies and I thought to myself that the only reason I would do a film like this would be if I could do it the way I want to do it. An important part of my decision making was to have a strong point of view of how I was going to shoot it. Decision making, i.e., do I want to do this movie? And I said, this is the way I would want to do it which was all kind of handheld and use a place like Hong Kong to its full advantage. And, also, it’s the first time I’ve actually worked in a country or a city that I was actually in that country and that city. It’s like that film logic where you say, “Well, this looks like New York” and you’re in the middle of…it could be anywhere, in Scotland or something, just because it makes more sense financially, but it was actually great that they wanted to shoot it in Hong Kong.

…Usually what happens is that when you make a movie, you see a street scene and you walk and you see the street and you take a picture because you’re on location. And then you go, “Okay, we’ll put in our own people. We’ll take everybody off the street and we’ll populate it with our own people.” You can’t really do that inHong Kong. I mean, one, we can’t afford that amount of extras and two, it’s not as interesting. So, we basically had to let Hong Kong dictate how we worked which was nice and essentially how I like to work, but sometimes you don’t want people to muck with the camera, you don’t want people to look in the camera, so the idea was we had these hidden cameras and then what we would do is we would shoot a master shot and then we would punch in if we had to or felt we needed to, and then we would populate it with our people afterwards. So, it was a bit of both but for the big shots, and that’s why it looks quite an expensive movie because we were smart enough to use the location and we were fortunate enough to be able to use the location because we weren’t shooting Hong Kongfor New York. (laughs)

Doing it his way, he layers in slower scenes, develops character, layers it with music.  This film is visually beautiful, with fewer special-effects to carry the superpowers or carry the plot.  The plot, thank God, is carried by interesting characters.  Paul McGuigan is a smart director–creating an indie film out of the Heroes-genre.  While it’s been compared to Heroes and X-Men, Push limits itself to “reported” psychic phenomena, from a time before WW2 when there were experiments done with psychics, and follows a natural progression forward in governmental experimentation.  It also limits its story to the characters involved, though intimating a larger backdrop of plots and world organizations and other pushers, movers, shifters, etc.  But it was the crowded city streets, the alienness of Hong Kong for the American actors, the purposeful pitting of an Asian gang against the American government/ american powers, and the quirky indie film quality that kept pulling me back visually into this movie.  

It could have been Jumpers-rehash, or any number of bad government vs. heroes films, but McGuigan seemed to want to paint something different, something fresh.  I was surprised and pleased with Push and I think you will be too.  Go rent it.

Wolverine: You can’t hurt him, so you can’t hurt us

x-men-origins-wolverine-20090212020925195While Wolverine looked promising, it was a confusing mess of action with never a moment of tension. The problem was established early–in the credits–and this hindered us from caring about the characters.

If you make your characters indestructible, then you eliminate us from caring. It was the problem with Superman many years ago–he had no real vulnerability. So the writers rewrote him. Here with Wolverine and Sabertooth, they are given nearly immortal status at the beginning of the film. They don’t age slowly–they just don’t age once they hit their thirties. And they go through the Civil War, WW1, WW2, and the Vietnam War all in about ten minutes of screen time. They are always frontline, get shot at over and over, get hit, but never get hurt. There is no danger for these guys. None. That is established up front. So why would there be any tension in the film?

The film goes on to try and make Wolverine truly indestructible by giving him admantium bones. But since he was already invulnerable (yeah, he could get slightly bruised in a fight with his brother), the admantium claws gave him no discernible advantage. Ah, yes, in fights with Sabertooth, Sabe’s face was a bit more pained–but he was still walking tall after the fights. Spare me the argument that they can heal. 1) An ability to heal that quickly means there are no consequences. No consequences eliminate plot and choice–both essential to story. 2) Wolverine never healed that quickly in the comics. The point of Wolverine’s healing ability was to protect him in the long run, but he got beat up bad in the comics. Often, it would take him days and weeks to heal. And that’s good—it made him vulnerable, but gave him a slight advantage in the ICU. It made me care. But in this film, immediate healing meant that two shadows were boxing each other. I thought–so what?

The fights were scripted so that either Wolvie or his opponent should fall down so there could be a bit of dialogue, or a change of scene. If Sabertooth met up with any other character, that character was toast. It was just a matter of time. Because Sabertooth was established as indestructible.  Worse yet, I am now not sure what Sabertooth is really responsible for–since his main kill comes back to life.  The body count might have been high–but a viewer can’t care if the bodies spring back to life or never had much life to begin with.

Working against it too–the movie was a prequel. And if the survival of the main characters is the plot of a prequel, you’ve doomed yourself. The plot of a prequel needs to be another mystery–because their survival is assured. Here, we were told that we were going to learn the mystery of Wolverine’s origins–but there was no central goal for the main character, no puzzle to solve; just event after event happening to the main characters. No choices, no consequences, no mystery.

I was looking forward to Cyclops, to Gambit, Blob, etc. These characters were used more for the trailer than the movie. This movie had no arc, no plot, and characters who needed to wade through two hours of special effects to return them to X-Men 1, where they began.

To Watch or not to Watch: a review of the Watchmen

watchmen-poster-groupMy title refers not to whether or not you should watch the film, but about the dilemma of the characters–to watch over others or not.

You should see the film. It’s good to understand the gritty basics of superheroes and why they do what they do, and what kinds of mortals these heroes be.

I’ve bought the book, but I haven’t done more than skim it to see how close it comes to the movie.  I think the movie is faithful to the book.  But for those who haven’t read the book–like me–here’s the skinny on the movie:

The movie explores a history of superheroes in America–as if they really existed. The opening credits are brilliant.  All the moments of American history have as a background these groups of superheroes–mostly non-superpowered costumed vigilantes.  We won Vietnam, Nixon has won a third term as President, it is 1985.  We are in a cold war, but Andy Warhol is painting Night Owl not Marilyn Monroe.

Someone is killing off costumed superheroes who have retired.  Since an Act of Congress, superhero groups and persons have been outlawed or disbanded.  One of the superheroes has become a megamillionaire trying to create green energy; others have just retired without revealing who they were.  The threat of nuclear war is ever present.  One hero has superpowers, Dr. Manhattan, created in an accident (like all good heroes), and he is approaching godhood, barely concerned with humanity, but seeking to help find a way to help the world find an energy solution too.  He is the reason the Russians don’t attack–they are frightened of his nuclear abilities.

These heroes have mixed pasts.  They are more vigilantes, no longer asked to keep vigil.  There is no strong moral code guiding them.  Except for Night Owl, very few of them know what a moral code is.  For Rorschach, whose mask constantly changes shape–a fascinating thing to watch–humanity is disgusting, all the baser natures breeding and leaving nothing of value.  For him, he doesn’t care about humanity–they are all criminals waiting to happen.  When he searches the streets to find answers to who killed the Comedian (who dies in the first few minutes of both the film and the trailer), he beats people up to get his answers.

The movie is more complex than a whodunnit.  And this is what I love about the story.  It will complicate your ideas of justice.  And heroes.  And what responsibility is taken up when you take up a costume and “crimefighting,” and what kind of person needs to have that role, and what person doesn’t need to have it.

The movie shows us heroes who want to do something to help the world, but are filled so much with their own problems that they just don’t have the teamwork, the focus–they aren’t even on the same page.  You thought the Fantastic Four squabbled, but this is chaos.  It’s gritty real, though, at what a “real” group of heroes would be doing–all idealism, but with their own agendas.

If you liked Dark Knight, you will enjoy Watchmen.  It makes you think about vigilantism–what decisions you are allowed to make on behalf of others, and what decisions you shouldn’t make on behalf of others–even to keep them safe.

The movie is also visually stunning.  The sequences on Mars, the blue Dr. Manhattan, the fighting sequences–we’ve come a long way through the Matrix and out again.

The movie isn’t perfect.  I’ve never seen a worse Nixon–he looks plastic, as if he is wearing a mask himself; there are poor choices in music–Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah” during a sex scene; the sex scene itself seems a bit long.  But these are small things in a long movie that, overall, satisfies.

It has a lot of gratuitous violence–but I think the violence says a lot about these heroes.  They’ve become numb to it, to the choices they make regarding other people.  The world is something to clean up and guard.  Silk Sepctre II says that the law that disbanded superheroes was the best thing to ever happen to her–she never wanted to be a superhero.  Her mother, the first Silk Spectre, made her.  She hated the clothes. And the responsibility.

The end will keep you talking for weeks.  I promise you.  It is no easy ending and the movie leaves you wrestling with decisions.  Go see it.  Justice isn’t an easy topic.  Our conversation afterwards at Tim Horton’s involved youth who tag buildings with graffiti, but it could have been anything we were upset about.  To what ends does vigilantism aspire?  How far would you work outside of “the law” to get “justice”?  It sparks a lot of difficult conversations.  I’m sure I came across like an idiot–but i tend to let myself talk to see what I might say.  Cause only when I’ve said it, do I get to evaluate whether or not I believe it.

So, go see the movie and see what you start talking about afterwards.

The City of Ember: Clever Assignments For Everyone

Doon and Lina looking worriedThe City of Ember is a great fun family film, full of clever, unlockable mysteries. It comes with a map, all torn up and faded; it comes with a “ticking clock”–the fear that the city will wind up in the dark; and plenty of menacing obstacles. The ending leaves you wishing to be back in the more colorful Ember, but the movie enjoys itself and the city while it is there.

City of Ember is strongest when it is working within its world. Jeanne DuPrau is an excellent world-builder, trying to make a city buried beneath the earth believable. What would you do to make a nuclear bunker livable and expandable? The city is quirky and interesting and what I’d expect from a city slowly running down. Ramshackle, apartmental narrow English-looking cobblestone streets. No bad fumes down there–one would assume, with no cars–but then no oxygen either. True, the whole idea that the air and water are replenished–and yet not infected by radiation–is hard to swallow. But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief.

Opening sequence: I was getting ready for an infodump–but this is brilliantly constructed. If you’re gonna have to have an infodump, make it interesting. Tolkien does it with the history of the Ring in Lord of the Rings, and here, DuPrau talks about the Countdown box with the papers on how to Exit Ember. The directing on this scene focuses in on the hands of each successive mayor as they pass the box to each other in a line. So we set up our story’s inner problem, as soon as that line of succession is interrupted. Ember, like every other constructed engine, will fall apart. The city will go dark. The food will run out. And without the instructions, no one will escape. It’s up to two plucky teens to figure out how to escape.  It was a great way to start the movie/story.

I found the world so interesting–that unfortunately, I was disappointed when they escaped.  So let’s talk about the world of Ember.

High school graduation is not about living your dreams, but about getting an assignment to start working on keeping Ember going.  What a great idea!  Who needs years to find themselves?  Or following pursuits where there is no market?  (Where is the art down there?)  Lina wants to be a messenger; Doon wants to fix the engine, but on Assignment Day, they draw their jobs out of a hat (no more School Counselors with their aptitude tests!).  We start this movie with two people wanting something so badly, and they don’t get what they want!  Fantastic.

We see the city falling apart and the parents tell the kids not to worry about it.  This is the part that you feel resonating in today’s society.  There are several things we can do to make society work better and we better encourage our kids to work on them…or maybe we can do them.  Anyway, the city is falling apart–the kids join in the maintenance of Ember, but also want to fix Ember.

I was delighted by the cleverness of the plotting and worldbuilding in Ember, all the nooks and crannies we get to uncover.  In the movie, yes, we don’t get to spend enough time with Lina nor Doon’s past and their characters….so this is a plot-driven movie, as movies are wont to become.  But I still enjoy Lina and Doon.

Once their drive to exit Ember kicks in, though, they are consumed with that idea and we lose who they are.  They could be any two kids leaving the city.  It would have been nice to see more of heir characters shine through in their escapes–what they worry about, what they accidentally do.   But this is a MOVIE problem, not a story problem, likely.  The movie gadgets and Indiana-Jones style thrills take over to get the kids out of Ember.  And I liked the hidden “magic” inside the city–as if the city had been just a half-turn away from showing all its secrets.

Truly, I would have liked to have seen a whole movie about Ember BEFORE everything breaks down…but the plot moves them out of this nifty created world into, eventually, our own boring world with sunrises and prairies and mountains. Ahhh…landscapes.  They are nice.  But Lina and Doon, um, escaped the plot too, or forgot that they have no way of surviving on the surface.   The movie reminds me of a great carnival ride—a lot of action and joy and cleverness in the construction, and a sad sigh at the end when it’s over and the world has been “lost” and you have to exit the ride.  Not the sigh of characters you don’t want to leave–but the sigh that the cool part of the plot and story are gone.  For a discussion about movies that end with a “healed earth” as a trope, even when it’s looking more and more unlikely that the earth will just heal itself, click here.

I hear there are two sequels in books.  Both of them take place in a post-apocalyptic/new Earth in the US… but it is the idea of that buried, constructed city that sparks imagination.  If you’ve ever built a treehouse, ever put a sheet over tables and chairs as a fort in the living room, or marked up a cardboard moving box as a house–City of Ember appeals to you as the coolest underground fort can.  I hear that The Prophet of Yonwood is a prequel–and that will be cool to see how they built the city of Ember. I think DuPrau is hinting at some larger themes here and I like how she’s doing that.  We are all on Assignment Day–but we don’t have to draw ours out of a hat–but we need to pick them soon and get busy.

Rent the movie, enjoy the ride!  Or Read the Book, enjoy the characters!  Choose your assignment, fix the world!  That ought to cover it.

The Science Fiction Western Musical You Might Have Missed

It was 2001, and a lot was going on in the world, so you might have missed this movie. I bought American Astronaut because I heard great reviews. It was a Sundance Festival Official Selection, and in Toronto as well. It’s won numerous awards. Black and white, some great cinematography moments. See the trailer here.

But for a sample of this bizarre movie, check out this Youtube moment:

As a movie, it’s stunning visually in an episodic way. Film noir-like, each scene seems to have been thought of as a separate selection–as if in a university film class– and so they don’t all weave together well. The plot is hard to follow–until a moment in the bar when the plot is explained–but afterwards, every moment that you believe you will identify with this story and these characters, you are shoved out into the cold on your own. I did get through the whole thing, but wished there was more time spent on Venus–the focus of the mission–and in the showdown between Curtis and Hess–the focus of the movie.

You can’t say the dialogue is bad, only that it is weird. My friends and I laughed a lot. You have to experience it for yourselves, though I can’t recommend it. Entertainment Weekly says, “Imagine a Laurel and Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dali.” And that sums it up. It’s surreal.

If you are looking for a coherent plot, you won’t find it. Sympathetic, understandable characters, nope. Believable motivations, or a world with certain rules–nope.

But you will find a dance contest on an asteroid, a locomotive and barn in space, a planet full of Victorian women, and that great dance scene in the men’s bathroom…and great camera angles and solid cinematography. Good music–yep, it’s fun.

I think that my friends will probably make me pay for many years to come for subjecting them to the film…but I told them it gave us good bonding time. Like going through a car wreck, with a good soundtrack.