181-184: Harry Potter Marathon, Part 2


And here we are at the other end of our Harry Potter marathon and I must say that it hasn’t been the chore I was expecting it to be. Watching these movies in order in a short amount of time is really beneficial for someone like me… someone who hasn’t read the books. It keeps fresh the enormous amount of details that need to be remembered to make sense of it all and adds to the appreciation of this movie series.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

From now on the proverbial excrement hits the fan. At the end of Goblet of Fire we were witness to the resurrection of Voldemort and now the race begins to save the world from his clutches. With a new director at the helm, David Yates, who would go on to direct all the remaining movies, the series takes on a much more dire tone. Gone are the whimsical elements from the story up to make room for more teenage angst, ever more perilous adventures and dark secrets revealed. At Hogwarts the situation is worsened by the arrival of Dolores Umbridge, a spy for the Ministry played wonderfully by Imelda Staunton, who turns the school into something that more resembles a prison. Harry, meanwhile, tries to convince the world that Voldemort has indeed returned, but nobody wants to believe him. Even his friends start to doubt him. His inability to convince anyone and the doubts about his own role in the whole scheme of things start to take their toll on Harry. Thankfully Daniel Radcliffe is able to shoulder this burden and give Harry enough depth to make these trials believable. The character Harry Potter seems to be in capable hands.The film ends with a spectacular sequence inside the Ministry of Magic with wall-to-wall visual effects and another riveting confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. I had my problems with Order of the Phoenix, but they are outweighed by the enjoyment of so many of the other elements.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This is the point where I started to lose interest when the movies were first released. To be honest, I felt left out, because so many of the concepts in this movie were foreign to me. Much in Half-Blood Prince seemed only enjoyable when you actually had read the book. But now, with all five preceding movies still fresh in my head, I must admit that I was wrong. The puzzle pieces fell into place more easily now. You just have to really pay attention to ever detail, because everything comes back in some way, shape or form. In Half-Blood Prince a new element is introduced: the Horcrux, an object infused with part of someones soul. It turns out Voldemort has hidden several of these Horcruxes and Harry (together with Dumbledore) vows to retrieve all of them and destroy them, in order to weaken Voldemort to the point where he can be killed. This provides a framework for the rest of the movies with several encounters revolving around these objects. But that’s not all. Draco Malfoy is chosen as the sacrificial lamb to do Voldemort’s bidding, the Weasley home is attacked by Bellatrix Lestrange, Sirius Black’s niece or killer, and a very important character is killed at the end of the movie. All very dramatic stuff. That is why the casting of Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn is so important to this movie. He is the perfect combination of lighthearted and dramatic. His acting is a breath of fresh air in the often quite heavy atmosphere of the Harry Potter world. Imelda Staunton had the same task in Order of the Phoenix, providing comic relief. All in all I really liked Half-Blood Prince, mostly because of the intense dramatic moments.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

And so the ending begins. Battle lines are being drawn, sides are taken. Harry, Hermione and Ron are on the run from the Death Eaters, who have taken over the Ministry and attacked the wedding between Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour. From that point on the story of Part 1 becomes a road movie about our three heroes trying to make sense of the whole mess. Ron becomes more and more angry at Harry for not doing enough to safe the wizarding world, Hermione is trying real hard to solve all the riddles that are thrown at them and Harry is hard to work to find the remaining Horcruxes without getting himself killed. If you are expecting a rollicking adventure movie this time around you are in for a surprise. While there are certainly moments where the story picks up the pace, the majority of Part 1 takes on a very subdued tone. A quiet before the storm, if you will. Once again, watching Part 1 in the theater was a boring and confounding experience for me. I hardly knew what a Horcrux or a Death Eater were, so you can imagine that this time around I liked Part 1 a lot more. I started to feel a lot of empathy for these kids who are thrust into this otherworldly adventure that is way beyond their years. No child or teen should be made to carry this burden. One of the most endearing moments comes when Harry asks Hermione to dance at one of the worst moments possible and for a few minutes they forget everything that is happening around them to enjoy the moment as they should have if the circumstances were different. Although the movie as a whole may not be the most exciting adventure of them all, I think this installment has a lot of heart and in that regard is a good setup to what is to come next.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

And what comes next is the culmination of everything that transpired prior to Part 2. Voldemort has acquired the tools and the army to once and for all to take over the wizarding world. Everything comes to a spectacular close with Harry and his friends trying to discover the last Horcruxes, the Order of the Phoenix taking back Hogwarts and ultimately Harry preparing himself for his all important duel with Voldemort. As with every installment of the Harry Potter series. A lot of ground has to be covered before we get to where we are going. It is understandable that they split Deathly Hallows into two parts. If the book is half as dense as the movies, than that is one hell of a book to get through. Together these movies take up nearly four and a half hours of your time and not a lot of it is wasted on frivolous nonsense.

This is Harry Potter’s Return of the Jedi. This is the moment everything comes together and the big finale kicks off. Thinking back to the first movies in the series I didn’t think these kids could have acted their way out of a paper bag when the story would become more dramatic, but they have grown… a lot. Radcliffe still isn’t the best actor ever, but he holds his own across from a powerhouse like Ralph Fiennes. I could get behind what he was going through and that is a lot more than I expected. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are still his trusty sidekicks and though there is a lot of frowning and scowling going on they carry the weight of everything their characters went through on their shoulders.

I really liked the way Deathly Hallows worked out. A lot of the loose ends were tied up neatly, even though Rowling needed a sizable flashback to do so. There were some surprises in there, but I got the feeling that there was so much information to be conveyed that the movie moved just a little too fast through it all. Maybe I have to watch it again sometime to get every last detail of the story (or maybe just read the books). One huge gripe I have with the concept of the Room of Requirement. In Order of the Phoenix it was nice, but since then it feels as a way of dealing with dead ends in the plot and having people move in and out of Hogwarts undetected. It got a little tiring to see it pop up again and again as a deus ex machina. Other than that I really liked Deathly Hallows, Part 2.

The Sum Total

Well, has this marathon changed my perception of the Harry Potter series? Absolutely. As I said at the beginning, I had seen all these movies (minus one) before, but never fully appreciated the arc Harry Potter goes through during these movies. It is actually a great story about somebody who has to carry an enormous burden before he is in any way capable of doing that and the way he copes with that responsibility. Next to the story that is engaging and fun there is the enormous technical achievement of these movies. Producer David Heyman managed to produce eight (!) major blockbuster movies in about twelve years or so. These movies have beautiful scenery, fantastic art direction and spectacular visual effects, all of them produced on an extremely tight schedule. Like the Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter movies deserve an honorary Oscar or something for the sheer audacity of attempting this undertaking. And on top of that Heyman got the original cast to stick around when everybody was saying they could never pull that off.

It was a good decision to do this marathon, because it opened my eyes a little to what other people are so wildly enthusiastic about. It still isn’t Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but it has certainly made me curious and what do you know maybe I will read the books one day.


099: Robin Hood

This is the nineteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Robin Hood is a mistake and should be stricken from Scott’s record. This is by no means the movie that people wanted to see when thinking about Robin Hood and his Merry Men. In good Ridley Scott style there are a lot of muted colors, gory fight sequences and a lot of characters to keep track of, but Robin Hood feels like Universal Pictures took the screenplay from Gladiator, threw it in Scott’s lap and shouted, “Make us another one of these!”

Scott wanted to make a movie that explained to us where Robin of the Hood came from, what he did before he arrived in Sherwood Forest, why he wanted wealth to be distributed more equally. That is all well and good, but it is also very uninteresting. We start our journey in France where King Richard is laying siege to one last castle before heading home. Among his men is an archer name Robin Longstride, a honorable man who returns to England after King Richard dies in battle. He confronts corruption in his homeland by challenging the selfish King John. If you think this will all lead to the quintessential scenes where Robin steals money from the rich and gives that to the poor, then you are sorely mistaken.

This is everything but that. Scott, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, are not really interested in telling the stories that we all know and love. The funny, merry stories that can alleviate the heart, while instilling a notion of equality in the viewer. There is no reason whatsoever why Robin Hood should be featured in the title, none at all. Adding to this sentiment is a certain amount of fatigue when it comes to gritty historical drama. From Scott we have already gotten the excellent large-scale dramas Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, and to be honest we have seen all these battle-scenes, story-beats and compositions before. This is all nothing new. Maybe if another director had made this with another protagonist, this could have been a fairly good movie. Now not so much.

The casting of Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride (his fifth collaboration with Scott) doesn’t really help the case for Robin Hood. While always good in whatever he does, Crowe does go into Maximus-mode much of the movie. Even down to his hairdo. It is time for Mr. Scott and Mr. Crowe to part ways for the time being. As always, the entire cast is fine. Scott knows how to direct his cast in a way that makes them all look good. With actors like Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac and Danny Huston in the cast it is of course not really that hard to get good performances.

While Robin Hood looks beautiful as always, the distinct feeling that Scott made this movie on autopilot creeps all through the movie. The same ominous forests, the same muddy battlefields, the same castles and cityscapes. It all feels like we have seen in before exactly like that. There is enough here to be gawked at, but it is never surprising at all.

In 1977 Scott wanted to make the period drama Tristan and Isolde, but after seeing Star Wars he said, “Why make a medieval period drama when this is what people want to see?” He should have asked himself this question again before making Robin Hood. Why make another medieval action drama, when the audience wants to see another Ridley Scott science fiction movie. Let’s hope Scott has had enough of this type of movie for a while and that he focuses on bringing us what we want for a change.

> IMDb

069: Despicable Me

In my memory Despicable Me was a minor entry in the ever expanding world of animated movies. It struck me as a movie full of low-brow comedy and lesser animation. Well, sometimes your memory can play tricks on you, because Despicable Me is an excellent movie and watching it again brought back everything I liked about it.

I think I got messed up in the head because of the time it was released. It came hot on the heels of brilliant movies like Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, and the animation looked a lot like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with its bright colors and exaggerated character models and surroundings. I guess my brain just couldn’t handle any more great animation at that moment.

In Despicable Me everything revolves around Gru, a mastermind in villainy, although his practices have stooped to the level of pestering children and not, say, stealing the Egyptian pyramids and replacing them with inflatable ones. That questionable honor goes to Vector, the next great super-villain in town. Gru can’t stand this, obviously, and he devices a diabolical plan to… steal the Moon. For this he needs a shrink ray that happens to be in the possession of Vector. Gru needs to find a way to enter Vector not-so-secret lair and steal the shrink ray. Three orphaned girls selling cookies seem to be the perfect ruse, but then something strange happens: Gru starts to have paternal feelings for the girls. Feelings that could bring the whole operation to a shrieking halt.

There you have it, the basic plot for Despicable Me. There was even more that I didn’t even mention. There are the hoards of ‘evil’ minions who stomp around Gru’s lab. They are actually quite violent toward each other and absolutely hilarious in the process. And then there is Gru’s mother (Julie Andrews), who instilled an enormous feeling of inadequacy in Gru, something he could never be able to overcome. And there is the orphanage run by an evil woman (Kristen Wiig). As you see, there is a lot going on in Despicable Me, but directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud manage to direct a logical path through all the mayhem and create a lot of heartwarming moments along the way. Center stage is reserved for Steve Carell, who as Gru goes out of his way to create one of his funniest characters ever. His voice is unmistakably Carell, but the faux Eastern Europe accent makes Gru into a caricature of himself, just as a super villain ought to be. But he also creates enough tender sides to Gru to make us root for him and his transformation into a loving father for his ‘daughters’. Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett and Kristen Wiig take on supporting roles.

All the vibrant colors and breathtaking action sequences are a sight to behold, but those would be for nought if there wouldn’t be a heart in the story. Luckily Despicable Me has that in spades. Take for instance the scene where Gru reluctantly reads a bedtime story to the girls. This scene is handled with such tenderness. It is not used for cheap laughs, but to build Gru into a multi-dimensional character instead of the two-dimensional villain he chooses to be at the beginning of the movie. I am so glad I decided to revisit Despicable Me. If only because my kids are now in love with the minions.

> IMDb

064: Parked

At first glance Parked looks like a good drama about midlife crises and drug abuse. Colm Meaney is, after all, always a dependable actor. He plays Fred, whose life has taken a turn for the worse. He is homeless and lives in his car in a parking lot somewhere along the Irish coast. You couldn’t tell it from the way he looks, because he makes sure he always looks his best. When Cathal (Colin Morgan) parks his little yellow car near Fred’s car Fred finds a new reason to live. The friendship between the two homeless men invigorates them, but then Cathal’s earlier life comes crashing into Fred’s world with devastating results.

There’s a lot to like about Parked. The two main actors, Meaney and Morgan, are excellent. They really sell the desperation and the friendship. However unusual it may seem at first. Parked starts to become very predictable once Cathal’s past shows up. You know deep inside that there is no escape possible for Cathal and it is to Parked’s detriment that director Darragh Byrne didn’t play a little more with our expectation. There is nothing that will surprise you while watching this movie.

Parked is shot in the most somber manner possible. With grey clouds in the sky and the constant threat of rain and other miserable circumstances on the horizon (often literally) there is not much to marvel at except the performances from the cast. If there is one thing that we learn from watching Parked then it is that being homeless and doing drugs don’t go together well in Ireland. You’re better off watching this at home on demand or something like that.

> IMDb

062: Louder Than a Bomb

I am one of those people who cry at the movies… just as long as the movie I am watching has emotional content that is truly convincing. Combine that aspect with beautiful poetry and life stories that are severely heartbreaking and you get Louder Than a Bomb, a documentary of epic proportions. And when I say epic proportions, I don’t mean a long running time or grand vistas and such. I mean a documentary that will rock you to your core.

Louder Than a Bomb is an annual contest in which teams from Chicago high schools compete by writing and reciting poetry. We follow four teams from different parts of Chicago and focus on individual poets on those teams. On the Oak Park High School team there’s Nova Venerable, a young woman who helps her mother to care for her disabled brother. On the Whitney Young Magnet High School there’s Nate Marshall, a young man whose parents were addicts. Among the talented kids from Northside College Prep we find Adam Gottlieb, a kid who doesn’t have the troubled past that some of the other kids have, but who has a very large talent for reciting poetry. The last contender we follow is not so much an individual, but the entire team known as the Steinmenauts from Steinmets High School. This is also the only team where we get a more up-close look at the coaches.

Not everybody can win. That’s the nature of a contest. So you can expect some disappointment and tears in Louder Than a Bomb, but this documentary is not about that. This is all about the beauty of poetry and the power of the spoken word in general. If you are expecting these kids to recite poems like “Roses are red, violets are blue” then you are sorely mistaken. The poems these kids write and recite are extremely insightful and heartbreaking. When Nova takes the stage and recites her poem about her brother I dare you not to well up. This is her way to deal with these enormously conflicting emotions inside her. On the flip-side we have Adam, who speaks his words with such a natural feeling for theatricality and word wizardry that you can’t help but be enthralled by his performance. Between these forces of nature you have Nate who performs his poems with a smile and a tear, like a classic jester. These three poets are clearly head and shoulders above their teammates.

The Steinmenauts are truly a team and a tempestuous group to say the least. They squabble amongst each other and perform the best as a group. Individually there are some really interesting people on this team that give a powerful performance, but it is when they get up on stage as a group that they blow everybody away. Their four man piece is astonishing. I won’t spoil who wins the tournament, but I will say that it will keep you riveted to your chair. This is powerful stuff and should be shown to every kid to explain that words are truly mightier than the sword.

> IMDb

030: 13 Assassins

Takashi Miike is one of those directors who just can’t stop making movies. This is a man who has made dozens of movies in his still fairly young career (he started in 1991). I have seen a few of his movies and most of those through the festival circuit. That is because most of his projects don’t even reach western shores.

One movie that luckily made it through our borders is 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), Miike’s remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 action movie The Thirteen Assassins. I have not seen the original, so I can not judge the remake on that comparison. So I have to judge Miike’s 13 Assassins on its own merits and, boy, is it awesome.

This is by far my favorite Takashi Miike movie. This is a beautiful look at what it was like to be a samurai in Japan at the end of the feudal era. Miike examines what makes a samurai a true servant and the sense of duty that goes along with that. These guys were absolutely convinced that laying down their lives for their master is the most honorable thing to do. And you feel it when the eponymous assassins lay down their lives. I guess that was not such a big spoiler.

The movie starts out really patient. There is hardly any sword fighting in the first half of the movie. You have to really pay attention to what people are saying to figure out who is who and where they fall in the complex shogun hierarchy. I was glad this was understood on Miike’s part, because he put some title cards in the movie to help you, the audience, along. After this initial period you really have the feeling that you know these people and you can keep track of most of them in battle.

This is something that is crucial when the second half kicks off where Miike pulls out all the stops and launches the audiences into some of the most extravagant fighting sequences I have ever seen. The scale of the climactic battle is enormous. We run over rooftops and through alleys, shoot arrows and fight with swords, and the enemies keep on coming. Peppered throughout are some amazing set pieces that showcase the relentless preparation these samurai had to undertake to fulfill their duty. One of these is an amazing fight where the protagonist keeps on fighting his enemies while constantly picking up new swords to keep hacking into the oncoming hordes. Stunning sequence.

I recommend that everybody who is even remotely interested in this period and who loves samurai movies like Seven Samurai to seek out this gem. I guarantee you will LOVE this one.

> IMDb

026: Hesher

David Michôd managed to direct a movie last year by the name Animal Kingdom, a gritty Australia crime thriller that ended up on my top 10 list for 2011. Animal Kingdom was a very grounded examination of life in a criminal family and the toll it takes on the life of a young guy. In Hesher – a movie he wrote, but did not direct – there is also a young boy at the center, but this time the movie is a lot less grounded.

T.J. has just lost his mother. He lives with his grieving father and fairly clueless grandmother in a rundown part of town, trying to hold everything together. One day, he hides in an empty house and meets Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a long-haired, tattooed, smoking, porn watching s.o.b. Hesher is mad at T.J. for blowing his cover and proceeds to infiltrate T.J.’s life at the most inappropriate times. He causes all kinds of trouble and tends to ‘help’ T.J. is not so fortunate fashions. Is he imaginary? Is he real? Who knows?

Sometimes a movie tries too hard. Hesher is one of those movies. It tries so hard to be edgy with coarse language, loud music and generally appalling behavior. It is obvious why someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt would choose a role like this. He has always been a great actor, but he has always played the straight guy. The one who knows what’s best. Hesher is anything but that. He is an animal. When he thinks of doing something he just does it and thinks afterward. He is a person you would not want in your life. Period. Gordon-Levitt needed this role to flesh out his resume.

It is completely beyond me why T.J.’s family lets Hesher come to the house under the guise of being a friend. He just shows up without a backstory (one of the questionable parts of the story) and leaves when the opportunity arrives. T.J.’s father, played admirably by Rainn Wilson, corrects Hesher’s language now and then but never turns him toward the door, something I would have done ages ago, grieving or not. And then there is Natalie Portman, also clearly looking to be contrarian and not really needed here. She is just in the movie to give T.J. someone to stalk and to be Hesher’s subject of his obnoxious behavior.

You can see why Hesher was made. I’m sure on paper it looked really intriguing and edgy, but on the (small) screen it just doesn’t add up. As I’ve said before, Hesher tries way too hard and just doesn’t make much sense.

> IMDb