sequel

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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After Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I was very concerned that this very talky, complex book would be ruined like the last film.  Shining beacon of hope:  Screenwriter Steve Kloves is back! And it makes all the difference in the world.  Kloves really gets JK Rowling’s books and distills the important bits while taking liberties with specific moments to summarize sweeping chapters with no loss of meaning.  Bless him, I may love this installment even more than The Prisoner of Azkaban.  At no point did this movie waste any of its 153 minutes, and the time flew by, marked only by the less-seasoned bladders of my companions.

Director David Yates and Production Designer Stuart Craig take us to new locations, or make previously briefly glimpsed locations new and real and tangible.  At more than one point in my two-dimensional, non-IMAX showing, I could only describe Potter’s world in this film as very three-dimensional.  The sets and props as always are gorgeous and detailed and solid.  Building on Chris Columbus’ brilliant casting and core designs from the first two films, this sixth film of Rowling’s series is rich in texture and realism.  I theorize that so many new locations were developed for this in part because they were already being realized for the theme park, due to open within the year.  Either way, wow.  I’ve always wanted a peek at Arthur Weasley’s Muggle collection and gleeee!  I’ll see it again in 3-D IMAX and I can save myself a plane ticket to Orlando (not!).

Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) gets more screen time than he has since the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Rickman uses every bit of it to project his unfathomable eyes at us and turn the ladies squiffy against their wills.  Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has grown up and his performance shows it — he’s finally got more to do than sneer his Aryan pride onto our leads.  And oh, Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn.  So sublimely funny and weak and avaricious — and funny!  This is the funniest of the series, and also the most affecting.  Fans of the books, curious about That Scene, will, I think, not be disappointed in Klove’s interpretation.

Our trio of leads of course has also grown up  – Hermione (Emma Watson) pulls an Annette Funicello and turns in her best acting to date, while Ron (Rupert Grint) channels Alan Tudyk’s unique and delicate style of broad humor.  You’ll see what I mean.  Because of course, you’re going, right?  Why are you still at the computer?

Harry and Dumbledore’s oft-glossed relationship in previous films finally gets to stretch its legs a bit more here.  So much has to be summarized by their scenes, so it’s lucky we have Daniel Radcliffe and Michael Gambon to pour their hearts into it.  After so many years together, the whole cast (not just the leads) has grown together into a tight machine, and while their on-set world is miles away from their on-screen one, you feel the ensemble making Rowling’s world real for us.

Merlin’s pants, what a fine motion picture!  It delivers so much, has so much humor and pathos and kindness and evil and delicious costumes and sets, you might forget about the props, special effects, or the painting-like shots; not just for Huge Moments, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes Hogwarts and beyond into a marvel.  I seriously cannot think of one thing I would want different.  This was a fantastic adaptation of an excellent book, and well worth your time and money.

MPAA Rating  PG
Release date 7/15/09
Time in minutes  153
Director  David Yates
Studio Warner Brothers

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

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The first Night at the Museum movie benefited from low expectations: Ben Stiller in a kids movie with tons of effects? Greater men than him have been felled by lesser beasts. It could have been direly stupid, but instead, it was really charming fun. A sequel? They couldn’t possibly take a recipe for condescending disaster and make it work again, could they? They could and they did! Battle of the Smithsonian has a ridiculously incredibly cast of superstar faces you know and trust for solid, sensible comedy. The museum setting squeezes a little interesting factoids in there to help the kids appreciate the mash-ups of characters, and the script is just fun. It’s really fun. It’s funny.

Stiller’s character has left his museum guarding world behind for a creepy and hollowly successful career. The false cheer of the opening scenes are dreadfully sad. Soon he finds out his old nocturnambulist friends are in trouble, so he sweeps in, and after a night of mayhem and historical hilarity, well, you know. It’s a comedy and it’s first and foremost for kids, but it’s not stupid. It’s witty and a little snarky, a little dry, and there’s plenty of pure silly. Remember laughing your elementary school butt off at the kooky broad characters of Maxwell Smart, Inspector Clouseau, Mel Brooks’ movies? Remember how after you grew up, you saw all the other stuff that was funny but flew over your four-foot high head? Well, this movie is like that.

Sequels always have to be bigger than their predecessor — going from a fusty, backward Museum of Natural History diorama fetish to the museum geeks’ Caligula orgy of nerdliness that is the Smithsonian complex — ooooh. So we have wax figures and big animals, but we also art and the aeronautics museum. The National Air & Space room we pass through by day forecasts many but not all of the delights of the upcoming evening. Battle of the Smithsonian can cut right to the sunset chase and wastes little time in getting to what we’re here for.

Hank Azaria chomps the scenery in a role so perilously close to Too Much that you instinctively, pre-emptively cringe — but this man has been in character comedy for over twenty years. You’re safe with Hank. One new face in particular was Alain Chabat, a French Algerian actor I have never seen before but whose Napoleon I loved. Amy Adams redefines spunk and sexy confidence as Amelia Earhart, a woman who makes you ashamed to begrudgingly punch a time clock just to make ends meet. Still of course wisely gets out of the way of the movie and is the befudled, solution-eluding straight man to his enormous, expanded supporting cast of comedy whiz kids.

Director Shawn Levy takes the Museum helm again. Looking him up, I realized he also directed two other movies that dripped “don’t expect too much” in their previews and still somehow delivered a better time than they deserved to. Not great — but better than they should have been. Those films were Big Fat Liar and the Pink Panther remake. I know what you’re thinking. Bear with me. First, Levy knows how to compensate for a stinky script with a strong cast. Second, he doesn’t direct the script the way it was apparently written. In the cases of these two earlier movies, this is a blessing. With the Museum franchise, he has much better (but still spotty) writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon of Reno 911 fame. The chemistry is good with this tri0 — Levy casts and directs around any awkward script moments, and Garant and Lennon draw great characters. Win! Smithsonian wants to be frothy, but it can’t help having a little more heart and soul than you’d expect or even require. Give it a chance, it’s a fun show.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/22/09
Time in minutes 105
Director Shawn Levy
Studio Twentieth-Century Fox

Terminator Salvation

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I will not apologize for giving this movie a strong Matinee with Snacks rating. I came out of it all pumped and gleeful and satisfied, and if anyone wants much more than that from a Terminator movie, well, it also has some freaking great sequences and effects.

When I think of director McG, I think of the Charlie’s Angels movies and the pilot of the beloved TV show Chuck (PS watch it!). Action with a hearty dose of sexy and laugher, a little tinge of Michael Bay overthetoptitude, without going overboard. In Terminator; Salvation, McG exhibits a much more sophisticated, dark, and hard-core sensibility. This is the movie 1980’s James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven would have been afraid to make because it’s too dark and fervent (yet miraculously, PG-13). At different times I was reminded, possibly on purpose, of Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, and I Am Legend (well, the good first part).

It’s 2018. John Connor (previously played by Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, Thomas Dekker, and briefly Michael Edwards: told you we had seen older John!) is now about 33 (hm…age of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion) and he’s the de facto icon of the Resistance, fighting Skynet’s self-aware network of malevolent killing machines. So, we know he met the Arnold Schwartzenegger model (T-800) and the groovy morphing T-1000 when he was a teenager, but that model is not yet in use during the time of this movie. If you can get past that vexing discontinuity (we’ll forgive all forgetfulness of T3’s 20-something John and the foxy T-X), you will have no problem with this movie. Christian Bale is intense-screaming mode, violent and impatient and furiously focused. Rarely do off-camera antics float into view when watching a movie, but you can pretty easily visualize Mr. Intensity jumping all over a crew member if he had to sustain this level of vein-popping energy for so much of filming. He’s got to have an ulcer the size of Los Angeles.

Salvation concerns itself with keeping the timeline on track: If Kyle Reese (1984’s Michael Biehn) dies, Furlong and Bale and Stahl never get born. It’s taken as read that this would be immeasurably disastrous since Connor is the salvation (get it?) of the human race — but, spoiler alert, we don’t get to see that in this movie. If Connor wasn’t forearmed with this knowledge, he would have screwed his own pooch but good. Fate, destiny, saving the future to preserve the past, which saves the future, etc. I’m glad to live in a time when this narrative trope is actually so common — saves a lot of time. Imagine Groucho Marx explaining this to his fans.

This story shares focus (It takes too much, I think) with a more interesting storyline, which isn’t Connor wrestling with his destiny. It’s the story of Sam Worthington’s ex — well, late — convict Marcus Wright. He plays a role so pivotal and so much more fate-y and salvationey and redemptiveish than Connor that Bale’s screaming exhortations fade into the apocalyptic background. With this unexpected (though preview-spoiled) psychological terpsichore of irony and redemption, we also get some serious woo-hoo summer movie action, complete with big, solid score, crazy awesome camera work, and exciting sound design. If you get the right seat in the theatre (you really must see this in the theatre), you may explode with the viscerality of it all.

We get a few fan morsels tossed at us with equal aplomb as Star Trek’s integrated moments — winks from the earlier movies that tip the cap without ruining the moment. My favorite was a nod to1984 and the 1984 Macintosh ad, which was too evocative not to be an homage. Very McG. The machines in this movie are improbably stealthy and stationed in strange places, but the ass-kickeryness of it all forgives these minor shrugs. A scene in a lake starts out epic and ends up a little silly, but it felt necessary to keep things hopping.

I wanted to see it again, and did! This may be the first movie since Tropic Thunder where I wanted to ride it again: it’s hard-core, relentless, and surprisingly bloodless. It’s pretty scary and the photography is sometimes so immediate that I would not take anyone too young to it, but I would definitely go with all my friends. It’s a worthy cap to the franchise; like Star Trek, a reboot to be proud of (and end the series on!) rather than a franchise over-extender. Unlike Star Trek’s rosy, lovey-dovey adventure with a dash of comedy, Terminator Salvation is all business, and all enjoyable.

This may sound a little familiar but it’s as true now as it was then: Please, Warner Brothers, don’t succumb to the temptation to push this perfectly restored old classic into the molten steel. Again. And you other studios: this was an exception that proves the rule. Prequels of old franchises are to be discouraged. This is an anomaly in the space-movie continuum.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/21/09
Time in minutes 130
Director McG
Studio Warner Brothers

Angels and Demons

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I actually enjoyed this prequel novel better than its more famous companion, The DaVinci Code. Angels and Demons the film makes good use of the lessons learned from treading on the Catholic Church’s toes last time, and almost completely defangs the author’s voice and intent. As directed by Ron Howard, who is solid and competent, but not flashy, this made this film ever so slightly forgettable. Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon is a little more diplomatic, a little more muzzled, his feelings about organized religion softened. Angels & Demons suffers from these traits and, like all novel to film adaptations, from a mass over-simplification: the story of tracking the historical Illuminati through the glorious art and architecture of Rome is reduced to a five-pointed timed puzzle game. The stakes are high, the foes are obvious, and Langdon’s knowledge as usual indispensably encyclopedic. That said, it’s still fun to see real live historical treasures, secret doors, coded watermarks, and flamboyant crimes.

The score is almost more bombastic than that in Star Trek, if that’s possible. The locations are amazing, the sculpture and building works stunningly and lovingly shot. Whatever you believe about Dan Brown’s conspiracies, screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, and Howard, really make this ancient city feel like a warren of secrets and beauty and ancient, lost knowledge. Langdon is an academic, a man who studies the symbols of others’ deeply held beliefs, and as a result, he lacks the faith of the followers he studies. He has seen the patterns and commonalities in all the world’s religions and cultures, and by seeing backstage, it’s harder for him to be as awestruck as a follower needs to be. This is such an interesting perspective and character that it’s a shame to “waste” him on a puzzle procedural racing against time (isn’t that Jack Bauer’s job?). Hanks’ natural likeability and solid rational persona make Langdon a guy who can believe can call up all these arcane interpretations.

What always frustrates me about these kinds of movies is the studios bending backward to avoid offending the religious, but no one spares the same courtesy for the sciences. The past eight years is especially egregious, but it’s always been sport to belittle the academics (see: recorded history) with no concerns of “offense.” This screenplay echoes some of the recent regime’s attitudes. Brown does not shy away from any historical, factual dark stains on the histories of religion or of science (though it’s clear that Brown share’s Langdon’s love of empricism over knowledge-suppressed empire-building), and while Science has no trouble acknowledging its failings, we still have to handle Religion with kid gloves.

Why is this relevant as well as irksome? The shadow organizations targeted as the bad guys in the movie, the Illuminati, were academics driven underground by religious persecution (see also: founding of the USA), claiming heresy. The Illuminati were enshrined on American money longer than the mid-20th century In God We Trust, but still Science and Academia is a villain who has to be spanked. Langdon would probably be in the Illuminati (as originally formed at least) if he could, yet he has to hunt them down as the enemy now. To be fair, they are doing some pretty despicable things in this movie, but that is beside the point. It would have been an interesting place to go in that character’s head, but I had to be contented with a fun, visually spectacular ride. It’s enjoyable, toothless, and a disposable smartypants hero movie. These are rare enough that they deserve attention.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/15/09
Time in minutes 138
Director Ron Howard
Studio Columbia Pictures

Star Trek

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If you have just come out from under your rock, here is the 11th Star Trek movie, more accurately Star Trek Zero, a full-on reboot and reinterpretation of the four-decade cult phenomenon. Star Trek Nemesis (10) broke the rule of only even-numbered Star Trek movies are any good, and this Star Trek (inconveniently titled the same as the phenomenon and franchise) breaks the rules of canon altogether. Technically 0 is an even number, so they fixed that, anyway. Now: STOP. You couldn’t go out on a better note. Don’t make any more, no matter how tempting it is. You saw what happened last time and to much…better franchises. Let’s face it, even crazed Star Trek fans can acknowledge that sometimes the whole universe can be a little corny or heavily metaphorical, even in its best, delicious moments. The Trek world is about hope and cooperation and integrity and all that hero stuff can get…well, stale. Kind of. So they add some humor and wonderful characters and kick out five separate television series and eleven movies. This movie, however, can only go so dark without totally betraying the whole Roddenberry code of conduct. But if you’re gonna do it, do it the way director J. J. Abrams did it, with a big ol’ 9/11 event.

I don’t mean to say that Abrams’ vision would infuriate fans — I am sure you have seen press to support the extreme opposite. Unlike another franchise beginning with the word “Star,” this film is both slavishly faithful to the core characterization of the original series cast, and narratively mature. And there’s kind of a twist, but no spoilers here! Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman miraculously recover from their previous life being unable to write a watchable movie, and plop in little gifts to the fans (just check out Lt. Olsen’s combat suit color) without getting all wakka wakka wakka about it. The references and winks are organic and fit without rippling the scene or story, but they give you a little giggle or a little heart swelling. The little sentimental flourishes are tossed in but not belabored. A little interspecies canoodling here, a little verbal tic there. I sat next to a 12 year-old who was not familiar with the Trek world and she gave it 10 out of 10. So it’s not just for fans (I’m looking at you, Watchmen!).

Majel Barrett gives us one last computer performance before her passing last December. I’ve been more of a Next Generation girl than an original Trek person, but you gotta have a little section reserved in your heart for the goofy earnestness and alchemy of the originators. The new cast brings in the dynamic without being impersonators.

That said, I spent the whole movie giggling at Dr. McCoy — he was funny and cantankerous, clever and warm. Who was that guy — wait, not — Karl Urban!? Pathfinder and Doom Karl Urban? No, whew, it’s Lord of the Rings Karl Urban. He was my favorite of the entire cast, even with a gleeful Simon Pegg being wildly underused as Scotty. Zach Quinto makes a surprisingly wonderful Mr. Spock. Sure, he kind of had the look of Leonard Nimoy, but his Sylar role on Heroes made me doubt his abilities (that’s probably Heroes’ fault). He balances Spock’s dual natures and captures his physical affect and presence just right. Zoe Saldana is a sexy, smart Uhura, talented and given a real job the way we wish the networks would have done back then, instead of just being a leggy receptionist. You’ve come a long way baby, but your Bluetooth looks a little painful.

I have not liked Chris Pine (Kirk; you might know him from such films as Just My Luck) since I saw that he was cast, and I am sorry to report that he never grew on me. It did impact my enjoyment of the film at large. I totally get that he was really giving us the backstory that Shatner finished in his turn at the role, and that it was purposeful, but here’s the thing — I didn’t much like Kirk. I know, pillory me, but there it is. So Pine is perfect, I guess. But he vexed me and I couldn’t get past it. I’m sure I am alone, but considering that he’s the lead, it made it hard to surrender to the movie.

While the lighting and camera style of the film (kind of like A.I. was in spots) looked super cool in preview money shots, the whole movie being shot with lens flare and glaring backlighting and weird trippy color-focusing light play, was weird. The bright/blurry lights often obscured faces and action, upstaged the dialogue, and generally rendered everything overly heaven-dreamy, and too much and too often. The camera angles were fun and cool and everything was very modern and exciting visually, but wow, the flare and glare was my dominant impression of the movie. Michael Giacchino, the subdued and emotive composer for Abrams’ TV show Lost, went kookoo bananas with an operatic, epic orchestral score! Most of the time the onscreen action was keeping up with the music, but sometimes it was a little GLORIA!

Once the travails of getting everyone into place are dealt with, and McCoy gets to start being funny, the movie takes off. It’s only a little spoilery to say that the non-canon events in this movie have a convenient and tidy meta-physical explanation, even when it’s not all that probable. Who’s spoiling anything — if you’re at all interested in this movie you’ve probably seen it at least twice already.

It’s a good origin story, a good foundation for new adventures, and a gift for the fans that’s a fun ride and looks mostly fabulous. Please, Paramount, don’t succumb to the temptation to drive this perfectly restored old classic over the cliff. Again. And you other studios: this was an exception that proves the rule. Prequels of old franchises are to be discouraged. This is an anomaly in the space-movie continuum.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/8/09
Time in minutes 127
Director J. J. Abrams
Studio Paramount Pictures

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X-Files: I Want To Believe

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Full disclosure: I watched the X-Files television series until the first movie came out. I was so disgusted with the transparent clumsiness of the story (so much more forgivable on TV) that I stopped watching the show. Curiosity and a cautious sort of press buzz (“it’s a stand-alone episodes even non-fans can love!”) drew me back in. I am not so dishonorable as to spoil any plot points, since the few surprises are nearly all the pleasure this film affords. However, I will say that it does feel like an episode, padded out to 104 minutes (that’s a full extra hour) with unnecessary scenes of walking, driving, helicoptering, and reiterating circular and uninteresting arguments. So no, I didn’t so much like it.

We meet Scully and Mulder again in real time, ten years since we last saw them. To say they are jaded about their FBI experiences is no understatement. They are called in — well, Mulder is — ostensibly to provide the unique experience and talents developed from the X-Files heyday. However, despite basically being in the same room as the investigators and their targets, Mulder does nothing that hasn’t already been done by the regulars and contributes nothing but doleful monologues to the proceedings. It’s like having H & R Block in to review your completed 1040 EZ forms.

The story adheres to the show’s tradition of stand-alone episodes, without involving conspiracy, aliens, bees, black oil, Cigarette Smoking Man, or any plot devices that require the audience to have see the show before (unless they want to understand the relationship the leads have). The fun of Mulder and Scully’s dynamic on the show was Mulder’s credulousness and Scully’s scientific skepticism, coupled with his implied atheism and her Catholicism. It made for a fun give and take when they were confronted with demons, space invaders, faith healers, circus freaks, lunatics, and government conspiracies.

Here, despite a conservative hospital, a disgraced clergyman, and Mulder’s natural tendency to believe in the paranormal until proved normal, X-Files 2 does not wrestle with faith or tenacity of beliefs so much as fling pebbles at these concepts from across the schoolyard. Scully spends a lot of time insisting on keeping her life as it is now (which is also unclear) and not regressing to those dark days working with Mulder. To someone who didn’t see how they left it at the end of the show, she seems to be fully engaged in that life anyway.

Billy Connolly is wasted in an interesting role, reduced to resolution-free bickering and an irritating lack of arc for someone who merits his own movie, rather than facilitating this one. Callum Keith Rennie (Battlestar Galactica) appears, entertaining my companion and I as we attribute all his behavior to the fact that he is a Cylon. Actually, such a plot device would have been more X-Filesy and more entertaining and less silly than what actually occurs, which is more like a gag cut from Futurama. Perhaps I have said too much.

The X-Files were special when they were on the air, new and dark, thoughtful and complex, with lots of luxurious faith versus credulousness conversations and scary bits. The then-new possibilities of topics and long story arcs on television were exciting novelties back in the days when studios would never believe audiences would have such long memories or ardent fandom. Unfortunately for this movie, television evolved well past this degree of silliness and spoon feeding (see also: Space: Above and Beyond), leaving our beloved old friends in the vault. I wanted to believe it would be a fun movie, but my companion put it best: “This was definitely time spent.”

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/25/08
Time in minutes 105
Director Chris Carter
Studio 20th Century Fox

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The Dark Knight

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Wow, what an experience! The movie starts hard core with a crime in progress, a common every-day cinema crime. All the rules are being broken again and again, making what was a workaday heist into a peek into the madness behind the perpetrator’s madness. The Joker’s paradigm is eschew predictability, and the Dark Knight movie then follows suit.

It seemed to me that this movie had flirted with an R-rating (for Joker-on-victim violence) but was reined in for the profitable PG-13 teen set. Two scenes featuring the painted sociopath which could have verged on torture porn had they not been so (thankfully) santitized. Why mention it? Much ballyhoo has surrounded this, the late Heath Ledger’s last performance, and rightly so. What makes the rating relevant is that the almost-R shows us how unhinged this Joker is, how reckless with life, mercy, honor, any form of rules. I regret director Christopher Nolan had to constrain such a delicious beast for the sake of box office dollars. Not that this film is hurting for them — despite our eagerness to see this as soon as possible, it still took 5 days to get a ticket. Hopefully the (already pre-ordered) Blu-Ray will have the director’s Chaotic Evil cut.

Nolan’s last reinvention of this storied franchise brought the cinematic path of the Caped Crusader back to the dark brooding alleys and rooftops he was always meant to haunt. This one introduces the burdens of Bruce Wayne’s underground activities, the futility of saving a public that still vilifies you regardless of your saving deeds, and addresses some kind of mob/money plot confusion. Be not fooled, this movie may circle D.A. Harvey Dent, and may toy with Wayne’s weariness and loneliness, but this story belongs heart and soul to Ledger’s Joker. No disrespect to star Christian Bale, but even an interesting and tormented hero disappears under the glare of such a fantastically realized character.

Ledger’s voice-overs in the early teaser trailers recalled the PG-13-friendly Jack Nicholson’s turn at bat (a bridge from the pastel 60’s to the darker 1989) with his mealy pronouncements and kooky japery. In context, however, Ledger’s venomous and alarmingly cogent murmur is its own beast, circling his victims invisibly. To compare Nicholson and Ledger is ridiculous, everything here is different. But Ledger’s Joker, while truly anarchic, sociopathic, is also more solid, more real, more possible — and therefore more terrifying than whimsical. It is a great, hypnotic performance, aided by the story laying itself bare to him like a volunteer for sacrifice, making him more powerful, more ahead of the game, not just some scarred guy mugging for attention. That is, once you clear the jumble mob-Hong Kong business and get down to the nitty gritty. No distracting or artificial motives or backstories muddle his waters. You can see all the way down into the bottomless depths of his naked wickedness. He is just a force of nature, and we’re all swept up by it. (I know, hyperbole much? But it’s what makes the movie really stick with you, not the crazy vehicles or the new suit.)

James Newton Howard (with Hans Zimmer contributing) repeats the slow burn score from last time, but with a terrific intense crazy-theme for the Joker. It’s such a simple, spare score but one that supports rather than distracts. Some of the regular folk in the movie are pretty colossally stupid, falling into bad guy traps like lemmings on a steep slope. With a smarter populace, Gotham City wouldn’t have gotten into half the mess it’s in now (or elected patently evil-looking Nestor Carbonell as mayor) so probably it can’t be helped. Our leads are smart and that’s what we need.

Replacing Katie Holmes with superior, and age-appropriate, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel was a good choice, especially because her character has to do more heavy lifting in the story and needs to have the full range of adult emotion at hand. Besides the clumsy mob story line, my only real complain is the over-the-top gravel filter on Christian Bale’s voice box when he’s in the suit. It’s all well and good for mysterious and/or dramatic one-liners like “I’m watching you,” but for extended conversation it’s a bit much. It’s a strong movie, Ledger’s delicious menace overriding any of my minor quibbles to keep th rating at Full Price Feature. It’s also a strong farewell to the barely tapped reservoir of Ledger’s potential work. Definitely see it, if you didn’t beat me to it already.

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Epilogue: Thanks to Michael Uslan for recommending I see this in IMAX. Better sound, simply gorgeous and epic and worth the $16 admission to see it a second time.
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MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/18/08
Time in minutes 152
Director Christopher Nolan
Studio Warner Brothers

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Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

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The short version:  Prince Caspian (the movie) is gorgeous and a total snore.  All the best effects houses worked on the computer and practical effects.  The locations are in the stunning environments of the Czech Republic, Poland, and New Zealand.  Every dollar of that budget is on that screen, trembling to blow your mind.  Aslan looks more real than ever.  Only the centaurs suffer from a discomfiting uncanny valley effect to their gait – quite a feat considering there are no real-life centaurs to compare them to.  Caspian himself is a perfect fantasy novel prince.  He’s handsome, confident, vulnerable, delicate, smoldering, flawed, blameless, with lush hair and a lusher accent.  All this beauty in the service of another empty Spectacular Spectacular makes me weep for the craftsmen.

Interpreting novels soaked in metaphor and symbolism and allegory is hard enough (see The Golden Compass, or better yet, just read it), but the screenwriters chose to whitewash C.S. Lewis’ Christian-themed epic by eliminating much of the plot and character stuff that makes a story a story.  Instead, the film focuses on a series of foregone-conclusion battle or chase scenes.  It’s great to see the locations, the meticulously crafted sets and props and costumes and effects.  It’s lovely to the point of distraction – crystalline blue rivers trickling like dreams through dense primeval forests, bearing handsome people squinting purposefully into the golden sun.  But this Chronicle of Narnia has excised the element that makes these books the classics that they are – heart and faith – in favor of empty, bloodless action and grandeur.

None of the actors are at fault.  Our original 4 leads (Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, and Anna Popplewell) still hold their characters’ base qualities despite being little more than rooks and knights in a huge territorial battle that does not involve them.  Warwick Davis, nearly invisible under makeup in the Harry Potter movies, gets one of the few developed characters in the movie (Nikabrik), followed by Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin. Sergio Castellitto (Miraz) does some fine chewing of his delectable scenery as the evil Telmarine usurping Caspian’s throne.

The music is nice, I suppose – I didn’t notice it one way or another until the very end when – DISNEY PLEASE STOP DOING THIS! – a horrible contemporary pop song begins playing over the end action.  I have no idea why Disney thinks this is something anyone wants ruining movie after movie, particularly those set in a time and place very removed from our own.  The mood is ruined, the songs are terrible, and it just stains the whole already strained proceedings.  After eliminating much of the story and therefore failing to engage us, the least you can do, Disney, is not chase us out of the theatre on a crappy song.  That long list of names at the end did some great work but we can’t bear to stay in the room to respect their craftwork.

Catch it on HBO, but be sure you see it in high-definition.  I’m telling you, this movie is stunning to look at.
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/15/08
Time in minutes 140
Director Andrew Adamson
Studio Walt Disney Productions

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Diary of the Dead

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George Romero. George George George. You created a mini-genre out of what was at the time an oddity: a monster movie (specifically zombies, for their unique properties) which also was a statement about modern day life. Countless follow-ups by you and others continued this trend and made Zombie Movies an event worth collecting friends for. You wrote the rulebook. You were a pioneer. Sure, Land of the Dead was a little dorky, but it was a hoot and a half. This Diary of the Dead of yours is just rewarmed leftovers from the past 13 years of filmmaking (from To Die For, as my sage companion noted, through Cloverfield).

One of the most tragic things about Diary of the Dead is the moments that are flashes of inspiration. It’s like someone sat down with a compendium of the lore and said, “Ok, what hasn’t been done?” and then did it. Our band of survivors being the cast of a student-grade mummy film? Awesome. A zombie dispatched at the same time its victim suicides with a scythe? Sweet. Um…there were a few others but I already can’t remember. My point is, the humor is always there, lurking under the surface, in any zombie movie, but here it’s used for evil rather than for good.

Our filmmakers are shooting a mummy movie (the original proto-zombie, yes George we know it was you who invented the modern-day zombie) and the world goes hooey. Nothing new there, of course. The MESSAGE is that the cameraman doesn’t stop filming, even when fleeing, even when seeing things that would make a sane person respond by perhaps fainting or screaming. The camera is passed between participants — even participants who yelled at cinematographer #1 to stop filming already — to get better coverage..

“But wait,” you might interrupt at this point. “You freaking LOVED Cloverfield. That’s the same thing.” And for the record, I enjoyed Blair Witch as well. For one thing, the latter two films used the cameras as if the character were really using the camera — dropping it, running with it, addressing it directly, sneaking around with it, dropping their camera hand to show the ground or their leg at a moment when a character would do that. The characters are filming in Cloverfield because they think there should be a record of this event, and also to remain emotionally detached from their terror, and out of Gen X-Y habit, perhaps as well. Later it’s their only connection to “not here.” In Blair Witch, of course, they were specifically documenting what happened to them in the woods, so it was more of an obligation to record everything even when it was a burden. Diary of the Dead is a hackneyed attempt to hijack that convention with none of the justification and all of the moralizing.

Also wrong with DotD: There are forced interviews and unaccountable hostilities among the players that are unclear. And then there are the horrible horrible characters who say terrible terrible dialogue just past the ability for us to mock them. There’s even an older, weary pseudo-statesman professor, British of course, whose dialogue literally smacks of narration no matter what he says. It hurts to watch. My companion recalled Gus Van Sant’s culturally prescient 1995 film To Die For, where Nicole Kidman’s character had a pathological need to be on television in order to exist (I am paraphrasing) and every meta-narrative since then has been more and more diluted from that message. See also: the reality-TV boom.

Diary of the Dead, even for zombie diehards like my little group (we watched Shadow: Dead Riot, for pete’s sake), was not very good at all. I mourn. The rating is Catch the Network Premiere for the few bits that were fun and creative, but it will never be on network television, so…

MPAA Rating R-strong horror violence and gore, pervasive language
Release date 2/15/08
Time in minutes 95
Director George Romero
Studio Dimension Films

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Hairspray

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I love love love the Broadway soundtrack to Hairspray.  So much, in fact, that I went without dinner and still bounced a check in order to own it, it’s so infectious and cheerful and fun.  Marc Shaiman’s music (South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, Down With Love) can capture a feeling in a bottle like no one else in the business today.  Even with Harvey Fierstein croaking out the notes for Edna Turnblad, it’s a delish disc.  When they announced the casting of John Travolta in the role (originated in the 1988 movie by legendary drag queen Divine), I was more than a little nervous.  Mr. Travolta has rarely been a pleaser for me.  The rest of the cast (and the score) drew me in and tickled me pink, but John had me clutching my companion in ecstasy.  As in the original film, Edna being played by a man is done with nary a wink.  Travolta even moves like a woman, a common lack in other comedy drag.  Pairing an established hoofer/crooner like Travolta with an equally skilled one like Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction) is priceless.

But I digress.  Hairspray is really the story of Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) and the segregated dance world of 1962 Baltimore.  Blonsky is plump, sweet, firey, charming, funny, and has some serious moves.  Her opening solo is simultaneously a warm sincere monologue and a huge production number starring one person.  Blonsky and director Adam Shankman (ignore his filmography) successfully give us what appears to be so hard to convey on the big screen:  that full-to-bursting feeling of joy that inspires musicals but rarely inhabits them.  At no point did anyone breaking into song in a scene feel telegraphed or artificial, it was just right in that world.  Shankman has broken the code and made the movie musical accessible to detractors again.  (Full disclosure: I am so not one of those detractors!)  The original film was only one chromosome way from being a musical anyway, but unlike say, The Producers, Hairspray’s songs demand to be sung and there’s no extraneous or gratuitous blather.  Also unlike the Producers musical movie, Hairspray doesn’t feel weird and flat.

Plenty of numbers are shot in small spaces (in a house, a bus, a hallway) and feel intimate, but not cramped.  The difference is the minimalist shots – just straight on with few cuts, giving us the ramping energy and build up without annoying us with unnecessary close-ups or inserts.  The scenes explode with energy and emotion and the yummiest costumes since I don’t know when.  Rita Ryack is my new movie costume hero.  I love that era and she makes it sing, scene after scene.  The movie never feels overblown or exaggerated, just a view of a world of high energy people doing what they do naturally, like your theatre friends at a bar.  Even the extras have great little things to do.  Watch for at least 3 very special low-key cameos. Hairspray feels like a bunch of friends putting on a great show, not a craven bid to cash in on a stage sensation.

James Marsden plays Corny Collins, a cartoonish TV host with an eponymous teen dance show, the focus of Tracy’s life.  Now, I have never previously warmed up to him as an actor (see: X-Men, Superman Returns) but I could not take my eyes off him any time he was onscreen – he’s got the vibe, the moves, the pipes, and he is hilarious.  Go James!  I’m sorry I accused you of sleeping your way into the role of Cyclops.

Zac Efron has a big following from his stint with High School Musical, but acquits himself as more than just a real life Tiger Beat sensation in 2007 by playing a Teen Beat sensation of 1962 with unwinking, sweet sincerity.  OK, he winks, but he’s not winking at the camera.

All the casting is perfect, melding the actors’ personae and filmography and make it look as if they were just being driven to this film over the course of their careers.  Elijah Kelly (Seaweed), Brittany Snow (Amber) and Taylor Parks (Lil’ Inez) should burst into the public consciousness with their performances along with their famous co-stars.

As the cherry on the delicious, fattening sundae, my dancer friend confirmed that the dancing is indeed quite awesome.  Shankman has a lot of choreography in his background, but this takes the cake.  Hairspray is a frothy musical about the deep topics of hate due to race, weight, or background, and of course it centers it on following your dream and your heart.  It couldn’t be more positive if it had an extra proton, and it’s hilarious and beautifully done.  Please, see it on the big screen.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 7/20/07
Time in minutes 107
Director Adam Shankman
Studio New Line Cinema