189-193: Bruges, Cliffhanger, Trouble, Chernobyl, Instead

in-bruges

189: In Bruges

In Bruges looked like just another action movie to me. Even the involvement of one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, wasn’t enough to get me to watch it. But during the years following its initial release more and more people came out of the woodwork to confess their mistake in dismissing In Bruges in the manner I did. I decided to give in and give In Bruges a chance and what do you know… it is brilliant. So incredibly not what I was expecting. Central to the story are two British criminals who are sent to Bruges in Belgium to lay low for a while after a tragic accident. There they have to wait for their boss to call with instructions. What seems to be a regular crime story with two thugs spending time in one of the most dreamy cities in Europe turns into an existential fight for survival and redemption. There are a lot of great performances in In Bruges. Colin Farrell is brilliant as the petty criminal who acts more like a bored child than a professional hitman and Brendan Gleeson is masterful as ever as the hardened criminal who is trying to keep everything together somehow. Their chemistry starts to build throughout the movie to culminate in a sequence that is truly harrowing. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I loved it. See it.

cliffhanger

190: Cliffhanger

It was a Saturday night, I was tired, so I went and stood in front of my DVD cabinet to find a movie that wouldn’t challenge me one bit. The result was Cliffhanger, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) I had not seen in fifteen years or so. And with good reason, because this movie turned out to be even more dumb than I remembered. The screenplay is so incredibly full of holes and implausibilities that it took all the fun of the action out of it for me. I think the whole reason why I (and many with me) look back fondly on Cliffhanger is the opening sequence, which is as horrendously suspenseful as ever. If you have anything resembling vertigo I urge you to skip the opening sequence and pick up what happened there from the rest of the movie (that shouldn’t be too hard). When the screenplay turns out to be so incredibly dumb, is there still something to be enjoyed in Cliffhanger? Sure, the action is decent throughout the movie, the acting is deliciously over the top and the scenery is beautiful (actually shot in Italy, not Colorado). Cliffhanger is a clear example of just about every action movie made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: big brutish heroes taking on mindless groups of evil doers with lots of explosions and extravagant stunts. It’s just that sometimes one movie hits it out of the park and the other takes a walk. And yes I am talking about Die Hard being the slugger, not Cliffhanger.

trouble-with-the-curve

191: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a sports movie of the most common denominator. And I so wanted this to be another Moneyball, a smart look at the business of baseball and what goes on behind the scenes of my favorite sport. But what I got was a melodramatic mess about an old baseball scout (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t want to accept he is losing his grip on his job and his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) who wants to be close to her dad if only he wasn’t such an insufferable asshole. Trouble with the Curve is in fact the polar opposite of Moneyball. It goes out of its way to tell us that the new baseball (as seen in Moneyball and now used around the league) is much worse than the old school way of finding talent. Therefore everybody who has anything to do with computers and spreadsheets is presented as oafish and all the old guard is portrayed as lovable and eccentric. In addition to this incessant polarization the screenplay takes a turn for the worse when a telegraphed red herring from the first act is used to finish the movie in the cheapest way possible. During that first act of Trouble with the Curve I thought I was dealing with a movie that understood baseball, but it turned out it didn’t know anything about it at all. I guess I’ll have to grab my copy of Moneyball and erase Trouble with the Curve from my baseball loving brain.

chernobyl-diaries

192: Chernobyl Diaries

As far as useless found footage movies go Chernobyl Diaries is right up there with the worst of them. We are witness to a group of young people traveling around Europe and ending up in the Ukraine to participate in a tour of the area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the most horrendous accident involving nuclear materials. Their focus is Pripyat, a village where everybody had to drop what they were doing to escape the evil that was spouting from the reactor. Now, supposedly, the radiation levels are low enough to go wandering around the village (which they aren’t by the way in real life). Of course their visit isn’t without peril, because when they want to leave the village they discover they are not alone, something has been left behind. Chernobyl Diaries comes from the brain of Oren Peli, who also fathered the Paranormal Activity series. As with so many other found footage crap movies, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t think it’s necessary to actually convincingly tell us a story that could be called found footage. The camera angles are all circumstantial and in no way believable like the pioneers (e.g. The Blair Witch Project) were. Let’s hope Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t spawn a load of sequels as Paranormal Activity did and still does. That would be truly disastrous.

you-instead

193: You Instead (Tonight You’re Mine)

Having been to quite a few music festivals in my younger days (wow, I sound old) I can get behind the vibe of You Instead (or Tonight You’re Mine, I’m not sure which is the right title), David Mackenzie’s latest feature. He actually filmed the movie at a music festival and that lends it a tremendous amount of goodwill. Goodwill that is much needed, since the screenplay is nearly devoid of anything interesting. It is a love story about two musicians, one British and one American, who are handcuffed to each other by some mysterious festival patron. They will have to spend the rest of the weekend, their gigs and day-to-day activities chained to each other. Of course something beautiful blooms between the two of them and everything will be all right in the end. You see, nothing special. The charm of You Instead comes from the images and situations Mackenzie chooses. The drunk, muddy, stoned get-together around a campfire, the sweaty tents filled with thumping music and those quiet mornings when you try to think of a reason why you drank so much the night before (believe me, I’ve been there). This was actually the only reason why I continued watching You Instead… nostalgia. At least You Instead has a lot more life to it than Mackenzie’s last feature Perfect Sense, which I found excruciatingly boring and completely forgettable.

181-184: Harry Potter Marathon, Part 2

harry-potter-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.

108: Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans has a lot to live up to… and not in a good way. Its predecessor, Clash of the Titans, is infamous for being the first movie that used 3D to an effect that ruined the movie for a lot of people. While that could certainly be true (I didn’t see it in 3D), the movie itself also wasn’t really good. It was boring, long, and generally just a movie version of a bad video game. It was therefore a big surprise that Warner Bros. went ahead with a sequel so quick after the failure of the first film. Now, after having seen Wrath of the Titans, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by it, but I must admit that again I did not see it in 3D.

In Wrath of the Titans we pick up the story ten years after where we ended the last time. Perseus (Sam Worthington) now lives somewhere in a small village with his son, minding his own business. He certainly has no interest in following his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) in his footsteps. Not after what happened in the first movie with the Kraken and all. But, of course, this is not going to last. Perseus’ half-brother Ares (Édgar Ramírez), the God of War, has struck a deal with Hades (Ralph Fiennes) to capture Zeus and use him to free Kronos, the father of Hades, Zeus and Poseidon (Danny Huston), who they managed to imprison in a gigantic underground prison called Tartarus. Now it is up to Perseus to find a way to free his father and safe the Earth once again from some devastating threat.

It is apparent from the start that director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) got the memo from the studio that Wrath should be less boring than Clash, directed by Louis Leterrier. There was lots of action in Clash, but it was just not exciting. Fighting a bunch of giant scorpions should not have been boring, but it was. All we wanted was a clash of the titans and not more babble between gods about how hard life is for them. In Wrath all the exposition has been toned done a lot and replaced with a rather streamlined plot. That leaves a lot of room for some great action sequences beginning with the trashing of Perseus’ village by a fearsome chimera. We are off to a good start here.

Then we are off on our adventure. Perseus and Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) set out to find Poseidon’s demigod son Agenor (Toby Kebbell), for he is the one who can find the way to Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), who can forge a spear that can kill Kronos. Phew, are you still following me? Wrath of the Titans moves fast and doesn’t stand still for nobody. If you lose track of who’s who and what’s what, you are on your own. That’s refreshing, because Clash did the opposite. Before we know it we are knee-deep into the labyrinth of Tartarus, where the minotaur awaits the heroes. The labyrinth itself also is a formidable foe, with walls constantly moving back and forth and entire hallways moving around. It’s pretty spectacular. And then the endgame begins with the gigantic Kronos breaking free, surfacing and wreaking havoc on the world. It is always a sight to behold when something this big can be seen on the big screen. Kronos is made of lava and the animators made sure every drop of it was animated in a correct manner. This thing is gorgeous and scary at the same time.

I loved the way Ares was used here. He is this jealous prick who wants nothing more than to destroy the Earth in exchange for the ability to remain immortal, because humans don’t believe in their gods anymore. And when humans don’t believe in their gods anymore, they seize to exist. Ares is a hothead, he isn’t God of War for nothing, and seeks the most extreme solution to his impending doom: sacrificing his father. While Ares is unwavering in his quest for immortality, it is Hades who starts to have doubts about what he is doing to his brothers and the world. As the story progresses he changes and in an effects-heavy movie like this I was surprised that Fiennes managed to get these nuances across. Amidst all the mayhem and visual carnage there was actually a story being told here with religious tones and all. Nice.

I know Wrath of the Titans is still a pulpy action movie that shouldn’t be this entertaining given its pedegree, but it is. I wholeheartedly recommend that anybody who loves sword-and-sandal fighting, big monsters and great actors check this out. Skip the starter, go right to the entrée.

> IMDb