Top 5 & 5: Best and Worst of the Harry Potter Movies

18 07 2011

With the Harry Potter film series finally coming to an end, it seems right to look back at this decade-long adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s work and what was done right and what was done wrong. So, here are my top-5 best and top-5 worst things of the Harry Potter film series.

Best #5: The Consistency

Every major (aka big budget) film series, aside from perhaps “The Lord of the Rings”, has at least one stinker. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Alien, Terminator, The Godfather, etc. all have a black sheep of the family. It is almost inevitable that something will eventually miss and with the size and scale of the Harry Potter franchise it would make sense for them to suffer the same fate. Yet eight movies later, between four different directors, and I don’t think there is a single Harry Potter movie you could call legitimately bad. There are definite standouts among the series but even the less well received movies were still at the very least good, despite their flaws. Each movie, like the books, has their place in the story and if you want to relive the whole experience there shouldn’t be anything stopping you from enjoying every one which can’t be said for a lot of other series.

 

Worst #5: Quidditch?

Quidditch is a big part of the Harry Potter universe, so it caught me by surprise when it was left out almost entirely of “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. Now, I love that movie and in fact it may be my favorite of the series but that was a huge part of the book. It was Wood’s last year at Hogwarts and he had never won the Cup and it was also a big moment for Harry as well. In addition it caused one of my favorite parts of the book to be left out (the distraught nature of Harry, Ron, and Wood over McGonagall stripping his Firebolt), and a new part to be added it (the horrible freeze-frame ending of Harry riding the Firebolt for the first time). Now like I said, I loved this film, but that was a glaring omission that I would have loved seen come to life.

 

Best #4: Developing the Child Actors.

I do not envy the pressure that the Director and Casting Director had to go through when casting Harry, Ron, and Hermoine. They had to get three extremely young actors to not only be the face of what may be the biggest book series in the world (at least at that time), but they also needed people who could act. If we’re honest, the kids did just an adequate job in the first couple movie, those were carried by the supporting actors/actresses and the storytelling. Yet, believe it or not, they bloomed into actors capable of holding their own in huge pictures aside legends of the craft. Rupert Grint was always a side-kick so he’s a little more of a question mark but Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe really came into their own in these last two pictures in particular. The fact that the staff there were able to pick these future talents at such an early age and then helped them develop into what they are today is exceptional and without that the later, darker, films would have definitely fallen flat.

 

Worst #4: That It Wasn’t A TV Show

We’re living in an age of big-budget television. HBO and AMC have been producing some of the highest-quality television programs perhaps ever and have been giving out the budgets to make them happen. We all have little scenes or lines that didn’t make the film’s cut, or minor characters we liked that didn’t get developed just because the film-makers couldn’t fit it all in. If Harry Potter was a TV show and gave a season per book, almost every scene could have been included. Heck, perhaps more could have been added. The budget may have gotten a little tight in the later seasons but Harry Potter was never really about anything that you would need expensive effects for, it was about the characters and the world which, once established could have been the base for everything else.

 

Best #3: The Artistic Design

If there is one area the films succeed beyond any other it is in creating the world. This is established from the great sets and costumes which gave life to what is a fantasy series despite being so close to the real world as well. The great sense of culture and uniqueness of it all gave every audience member something wonderful to look at and truly immersed the viewer more than the actors or dialogue could have.

 

Worst #3: The Flying Wizards

Flying with magic was something of a throwaway in the final book. They mentioned how Voldemort could do it and it was never really expanded upon it beyond the mention of this new crazy power he had. This is how he separated himself. He was Voldemort, he didn’t need some lousy broom to fly him around he could do it himself. Heck Dumbledore couldn’t even do it as far as we know as Hagrid mentioned that sometimes he used the Thestrals. Now in the movies though, everyone can fly. The cool magical abilities of Brooms and flying creatures lessens because apparently its some spell you can just learn fairly easily now. Why do they even play Quidditch on brooms if this is the case. This is a minor thing but something that really bugged me in the later movies none-the-less.

 

Best #2: The Supporting Cast

“Harry Potter” is filled with many great characters and a great amount of credit has to be given to those who brought together the incredible supporting cast. Almost every big British actor and actress appear at some time or another. Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fienes, Imelda Staunton, Alan Rickman, and Jim Broadbent all brought great performances among others and without such a wonderful cast many of the exceptional characters Rowling created would have been left disappointing.

 

Worst #2: Not Changing Enough

Lets be honest for a minute, the Harry Potter series has a ridiculous amount of plot holes. This is a world where time-travel, invisibility, liquid luck, shape-shifting, and truth serum exist quite commonly. The films would have been an excellent way to alter some of these plot holes. Make these amazing things that could so easily help our heroes in many situations rarer or alter their source or something to make them more logical. The time-turner for example is really neat in the small setting of “The Prisoner of Azkaban” but it becomes ridiculous in the larger scope of things. The directors should have taken a larger role in not just adapting the books to screen but making a movie based on the book, which is a distinct difference. A very easy example would be from the first book where one of the major guards to what is perhaps the most valuable object in the world is a plant that any 11 year old who payed attention in Herbology could have gotten around. It doesn’t make sense. So cut that scene and keep in the potion one or even change it to a brand new situation where Hermoine’s cleverness and eager-reading habits help the group in a more sensible and believable way. “Harry Potter” is filled with these moments and a small reworking of what happens could have been a great way to fix some parts and give the audience something new.

 

Best #1: The Spirit of the Books

The best thing that every director did was keeping the major themes and tone alive in each movie. Every movie felt like they should and that is in large part to the directors understanding what was happening and why. “The Philospher’s Stone” was adventurous, “The Chamber of Secrets” dark and creepy, and so on. Stuff was left out which was regrettable and certain things were not as many imagined, but nevertheless the core aspects of each book remained intact making each movie feel like the book which is why they succeeded so well.

 

Worst #1: It Was Done So Well.

The worst aspect of the Harry Potter film franchise is that it is was done with such care and in such quality. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson will (for the foreseeable future) always be viewed as Harry, Ron, and Hermoine; the movie Hogwarts will be in our heads when reading the books and the costumes and individual sets the same. Why is this bad you ask… because although the movies weren’t perfect they were close enough that even in this time of reboots there won’t be another adaptation tried in a long time. Combine this with the fact that J.K. Rowling has no immediate plans to make any more books and that’s it. After almost fifteen years, seven books, and eight movies Harry Potter has finally come to an end. Its just a little sad for the millions who have grown up with these books, so what now. Well, I guess all there really isn’t anything else to do than bring out my copy of “The Philosopher’s Stone” and relive it all again.





English Language Wednesday: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

6 07 2011

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is the John Huston directed film based upon the 1928 novel of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart as Fred Dobbs and Tim Holt as Bob Curtin, two down-on-their-luck Americans in Mexico just trying to scrape by. After coming into a little money the decide it is their time to strike it rich and with the help of an old prospector, Howard (Huston’s father, Walter Huston), they decide to go hunting for gold. The trio ride up to the Sierra Madre Mountains and not before long strike it rich.  Paranoia and distrust start to creep in as their fortune grows and the question of whether their relationship, and themselves, can survive the trip off the mountain begins to set in. John Huston successfully navigates several genres in this unusual Western and gets fantastic performances from all three leads.

“Can you help a fellow American down on his luck?”

One of the best aspects of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is how well it changes atmosphere and how effectively John Huston sets it up. The film begins as a standard adventure film but about half way through he veers it into a psychological drama and Humphrey Bogart gives one of, if not his best performance on screen. The whole film balances harsh violence, humor, weariness, insanity, and a little bit of sentimentalism with the utmost ease. This makes for a well-paced, always intriguing movie that will let you know where its going but never how far. John Huston’s timeless classic is without a doubt one of the more diverse of the age in this respect.

“I know what gold does to men’s souls.”

Spending so much time with only three characters could become dull if not for some fantastic performances. Although the least prominent of the three, Curtin may be the most important. Tim Holt plays this straight character with courage and a serene attitude in face of the madness before him. He is without a doubt the third wheel compared to the two larger than life characters he accompanies but is nonetheless essential. Howard was always a little off and Dobbs has a drastic character arc making the viewers association with the cool-headed Curtin all that more important. When we see him ready to commit murder himself it becomes all that more apparent the effect of their new found fortune. Compared to Curtin, we see the gold effect his two comrades in completely opposite ways. Howard is, more or less, indifferent and without the standout performance by Walter Huston the viewer may not buy it but we see many sides of him making Howard an exceptionally interesting man on his own. Dobbs on the other hand falls victim to the riches that befall him. The story is really about him and Director John Huston knows that, every step of the way he sets it up so that Dobbs eventual downfall is all that more tragic. I don’t think it would have had the magnitude it did if Humphrey Bogart had not been the one cast for in the second half of the film he truly carries it.

John Huston is a legendary director and here he may have created his best work. The performances are exceptional, the story is compelling, and the atmosphere and cinematography help accentuate the rest of the excellent production. There is no such thing as a movie that appeals to everyone but “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” gives that statement perhaps the biggest run for its money as it touches on so many different genres so effectively.

Score: 99/100





New Release Tuesday: Transformers – Dark of the Moon (2011)

5 07 2011

There comes a time when you always hope against inevitability. You know what will happen yet there are rumblings of hope, giving you reason to believe there could be a chance things unfold otherwise. Such is the case of Michael Bay’s new blockbuster. Sure the second movie was bad, and the reviews have been terrible but most say it was at least an improvement on the previous film. Perhaps most of it will be tolerable and I’ll be able to enjoy some good action. Alas, reality has to come crashing down eventually and I got to view it in the form of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”. It would be unfair to call it a trainwreck but the whole production is so uninspiring that it makes me start to lose faith in American filmmaking altogether. The plot revolves once again around Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf), fresh out of college and he… you know what, no. I’m not even going to bother with whatever the series of events that occurs in this film could be called. I think it is better for all of us if we just move on.

“You die!”

Yes, that is actually a line in the film which brings us to the first deficiency, and I’ll be sure to rush through them as there are many. The dialogue is very stale, every character seems to just repeat the same lines in every movie, and during action scenes everyone is reduced to monosyllabic words to give some interaction between the characters and the many explosions that take place around them. The themes are identical to the previous movies in the series and each character is still fighting for the same thing whether it be respect or freedom or honor. Michael Bay’s cinematographic style is officially stale for me now, he repeats so many shots that the intent and purpose of those shots have lost all meaning. He has become so predictable that it feels as though we are now just going through same steps before the action begins again. Yes, Michael Bay films are all about action but the sections in between have no excuse for being this dry. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and their decisions are so illogical at times that you end up hating all of them. Finally the worst part of this film has to be in the editing. Several sequences end abruptly and aren’t revisited before quickly moving onto a new area, far too many characters are used and intertwined with no practical purpose, and the ending is non-existent. This area almost becomes laughable at the end.

“You have 21 minutes… “

I chose the above quote to define this section as there is only about 21 minutes of good cinema here, and I use that term very loosely. Alan Tudyk is easily the best member of the cast, he is hilarious and if this movie was about him I think it may have been OK. The newcomer, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is incredibly sexy and very good when she is being her flirtatious British, or is it Australian, self yet the serious moments were… well, it is obvious she’s never acted before. Nevertheless she more than replaces Megan Fox in my opinion. Finally there are some great action sequences mostly involving the new giant, mechanical worm.

“Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” is better than “Revenge of the Fallen”, but being slightly better than a disaster still isn’t good. It is an infuriating, migraine inducing mess that has some redeeming qualities, but they are so few and far between that the production cannot be kept afloat. This has been but a nutshell review because there are so many thing wrong that I would have to dissect it scene by scene and I have no inclination to ever watch this movie again. The few bright spots barely keep the movie running at it’s elongated time and seem more like the gasps of air one takes as he trying to survive drowning in white-water rapids. I’m sure there will be another Transformers movie with the money it is currently bringing in so hopefully I will remember my lesson and miss it or at least only view while extremely inebriated.

Score: 45/100





Comedy Monday: The Great Dictator (1940)

4 07 2011

In Charlie Chaplin’s next feature film after “Modern Times” he collaborates once again with the spunky Paulette Goddard whom he had since married. This time around Chaplin moves on from the depression to World War II in which he plays two roles: Adenoid Hynkel the dictator of Tomainia, and a Jewish barber. The plot appropriately focuses on the two characters switching back and forth throughout the film. This is a large departure from Chaplin’s previous work that would focus on just one character, this results in two stories that get half the screen time and consequently aren’t as developed. In addition, even though many comedic scenes work several are also just off despite being very Chaplin in nature. With “Modern Times” he made a small commentary on the depression and “The Great Dictator” allows Chaplin to take it even farther, creating a movie in which the comedy comes second to what is being depicted and this isn’t a bad thing. I found Chaplin’s two previous films “City Lights” and “Modern Times” both to be near perfect, unfortunately the same cannot be said of “The Great Dictator”. It is funny and interesting but a little too underdeveloped and inconsistent to be put with Chaplin’s best.

“We’ve just discovered the most wonderful, the most marvelous poisinous gas. It will kill everybody.”

The film starts with a great scene taking place in 1918 during WWI. This whole opening is one of the comedic highlights of the film. From the Big Bertha cannon to the fantastic escape flight it is Chaplin at his finest. It isn’t the high point of the film but is a great opening to set the movie up, after that though some parts work out great and other overstay their welcome or were just off the mark creating a good yet inconsistent comedy.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor.”

“The Great Dictator” shows a move to providing a commentary or purpose beyond the laughter. Strangely enough the two best scenes in the film come from this source. The first of which is this fantastic scene where after a discussion about world domination Hynkel plays with a balloon globe. It is light and funny but most importantly poetic in that the second he grasps it, the globe pops. The other really has no humor at all, and that is the final speech. Near the end the barber gets confused for the Dictator and after accidentally declaring war on another country he is asked to give a speech. What he comes up with is a passionate plea advocating the morals and values of what it is to be human, which hits even harder with the 1940 release and what was happening at the time. This moment is, without a doubt, one of the greatest screen speeches as well as one of the greatest endings to a film.

Overall, “The Great Dictator” does not live up the impeccable standards that Chaplin set for himself. Nevertheless it has enough humor to keep the story going and has perhaps the most going on outside of the comedy of any Chaplin film. Definitely not his best work but something that should be watched and will be greatly appreciated by all.

 

Score: 85/100

 





Escapist Friday: The Terminator (1984)

1 07 2011

The early ’80s were a great time for blockbuster movies, perhaps the best time. With films like “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, adventure movies were unique, occasionally dark, and just an overall thrill-ride. “The Terminator” continued this tradition of iconic lines and frantic action in one of the most pure sci-fi films ever made. The plot revolves around three individuals: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a young women who will mother a future freedom-fighter; Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Cyborg sent back in time to kill her before that can happen; and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), the man from the future attempting to protect her. After the premise is very effectively set up, James Cameron directs “The Terminator” into an elaborate chase movie with high speeds and big explosions. In a sense, “The Terminator” may be the best science-fiction movie ever made. No, it isn’t better than “Star Wars”, or “2001: A Space Odyssey” or a number of others judged on the qualities of the film medium, but it has everything you could possibly want from the genre including killer robots, time travel, lasers, a post-apocalyptic world, explosions, and a little nudity didn’t hurt either. In fact all we need are some spaceships before hitting science-fiction bingo. The best part about “The Terminator” may be how well it manages all those elements, it would be very easy to lose focus or overwhelm the viewer, yet Cameron manages them exceptionally well into a streamlined experience than starts at a more timid pace but evolves into a high-flying action film.

“Are you saying it’s from the future?”

Atmosphere is perhaps the most important part to any science fiction film. The Director is changing the reality that we know so he or she must make the world believable, and James Cameron does an excellent job in this regard. The film splits it’s setting between the apocalyptic future where Kyle Reese is from and a Sarah Connor’s modern day (~1984). The future is predictably grim; full of ruins, misty wasteland, and an ongoing war between robots and the last of man. While it is effective in it’s own right, the future really helps to compliment the present day scenes. Aside from a couple minutes at the beginning, the whole film takes place at night so when we switch between the future and the present it feels much more seamless. The grim atmosphere carries over to Sarah’s world making her situation feel all that more dire. Another bit of credit needs to be given for Cameron avoiding, for the most part, the distinct ’80’s tinge that seems to infect many movies of the decade. Let’s be honest, the ’80s were a very distinct period in recent cultural history and most movies set in the present day 1980’s have a distinct feel. Most of that has to do with the music including synth-heavy scores and pop song infused scenes. “The Terminator” does have these moments but they are constructed exceptionally well, injecting them realistically into scenes as part of plot devices. This hampers the ’80s stamp, which although I don’t mind that much, can really put a distinct mark on a movie that can even be distracting now that we’ve moved so far past that time in history.

“Come with me if you want to live”

At it’s core, “The Terminator” is an action movie. It is full of gunfights and chases and explosions. Although many of these scenes highlight the film, I also found several close combat scenes poorly edited. Given the restrictions of the technology at the time I can understand how hard some of these scenes would have been to produce, nevertheless they are far removed from today’s standards and look quite shoddy in retrospect. Luckily, that cannot be said of the rest of the film. The explosions and chases are top notch and creates enormous amounts of tension.

“The Terminator” can only be described as a classic. It has several iconic lines and scenes as well as spawning a huge franchise that, while it has fallen since the second movie, is a enormous achievement in the science-fiction genre. It also holds up very well today, almost 30 years later, making it still and incredibly enjoyable film.

Score: 89/100





New Release Tuesday: Super 8 (2011)

20 06 2011

“Super 8” is the third and most recent film from lens-flare enthusiast J.J. Abrams. Although we do see that trademark a couple times, “Super  8” is a drastic change of form compared to his other two, high-octane films (“Star Trek” and “Mission Impossible 3”) and such a change has never suited another director better. The plot revolves around Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a thirteen year old boy who, the summer after losing his mother, is helping his friends complete a gory zombie film for a local competition. While filming they are witness to a mysterious and explosive train crash which brings in the military and sets off an odd series of events. Joe and his friends work to finish the movie while investigating what really happened, all while navigating their interpersonal feelings. Abrams uses an excellent touch to weave all his strands together throughout the movie and allows them to all come together at the end creating a fantastic summer movie and one of the best using kids as leads.

“We’re going to find our kids.”

Movies revolving around young actors are a big gamble. There are few good enough at that point in their careers to produce the range and depth required to carry a movie. Sometimes it turns out adequately (the early Harry Potter films, ET) and sometimes it helps destroy the movie (The Phantom Menace), Super 8 is one of the rare examples where the young cast actually makes the movie. Several are ‘types’ among the child cast but they perform the roles well, and what keeps it from getting stale though, is the excellent writing of Abrams. He must clearly remember what it is like to be a kid making a movie because every one of them comes off as very believable. Sure, many of them only serve one purpose in film, but the dialogue and their interactions make these single-purpose-characters feeling fully formed. Joel Courtney plays the lead admirably and I think credit once again goes to Abrams for creating such a realistic character. I’m sure most of Joel’s work was quite easy for him being at that age but it must be noted that he rises to the occasion multiple times when a dramatic turn was required. The star of the film though is without a doubt Elle Fanning. I thought she was fantastic in one of my favorite films of 2010, “Somewhere”, and she once again shows that she may just be the best actress of her age.

“Production Value!”

It is easy to see why the keyword in most reviews of this film has been “nostalgia” and with good reason. “Super 8” invokes a feel of a time when summer movies were simpler. When it was more about telling a story. At the turn of the century when “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” came out, filmmakers realized that audiences now demanded more of a movie in terms of style and plot. This has resulted in them becoming more and more complex and produced some fantastic results like last years “Inception”, but when a movie like “Super 8” comes along it is a very refreshing change of pace.

Although it isn’t the best film I’ve seen in theaters in the last couple of years, it could very well be the most enjoyable experience. Between the warming feel of the movie, the great kids, and purely enjoyable ride of it all “Super 8” is the must-see movie so far this summer and one I’m sure that will be among the best at year’s end.

Score: 91/100





Comedy Monday: Our Hospitality (1923)

20 06 2011

With the playoffs over, my slight hiatus is done. Starting off is this early silent Buster Keaton film.

“Our Hospitality” starts off in 1810, where the McKay and Canfield families have a bitter feud. One night the two patriarchs of the families clash resulting in both of their deaths, McKay’s wife decides she wants her son, Willie, to live without any knowledge of this rivalry, so she sends him off to live with her sister in New York. Twenty years pass and Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) has grown up just as his mother intended until one day he receives a letter, it tells Willie that he has come into possession of his father’s estate. So, he decides to go and claim it and meets a beautiful woman on train there. Little does he know this is Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), and although they both care for each other quite a bit, Willie now needs to deal with her family who are adamantly trying to kill him. The story of lovers from rival families is far from new, but luckily “Our Hospitality” has a lot more going for it. It has several terrific scenes and great physical comedy. In the moments between where directors Keaton and Blystone allow the story to unfold it is handled very delicately giving this film the boost it needs due to its occasional unevenness.

One of the standout elements of “Our Hospitality” has to be in it’s set pieces, and by that I mean the smaller details placed in scenes and single locations where events unfold. The first is most highly attributed to the attention to detail. The New York set is based off an early painting and it is fascinating to see it compared to what we know now of the city. A bike that Willie McKay rides early on is an exact replica of the time, as is the train they ride. All of this gave me not only a sense of authenticity that would pay dividends later, but allowed it to be a fascinating film to be introduced to before the real events started to take place. Of the event pieces there are two that stand out; one would be the train sequence and the other is of course the infamous waterfall scene. The train allows for many scenes of comedy and really works to help the movie pick up steam (no pun intended). It builds from there up to the climactic waterfall in which the authenticity of the movie becomes extremely effective. Now, while also being funny, this scene is also quite tense and despite being mild for today’s standards it is filmed in such a way that you actually believe Keaton is at the top of a waterfall, giving this key scene in impact it definitely needs. “Our Hospitality” builds to that moment and it does not disappoint, drawing on everything that came before and creating one of the best scenes in comedic history.    

The only real downfall of the film is in the beginning. With a silent film, it is hard to give the audience the necessary backstory without it feeling slow and overwhelming. Such is the case here. In the beginning the audience is bombarded with information so that we are playing catch-up to an extent until Willie receives the letter and things cool down. The film is fairly short so the fast pace of the beginning works as a double edged sword; we move past the uneven parts quicker, but they become more uneven due to it. Like I said, once Willie McKay leaves New York the movie takes off and is incredibly enjoyable the rest of the way, yet even after this point the comedic bits are not always as consistent as a later Chaplin film would be for example. It should be noted that the high parts of this movie are as good as any silent comedy out there.

“Our Hospitality” is a great film. It starts off just alright but grows into something incredible. It has iconic scenes, a fantastic soundtrack, and great bits of comedy. If you’re a fan of silent films or old physical comedies you would be doing a disservice to yourself to miss this early one.

Score: 90/100