Harry Potter Retrospective Part V: David Yates & the Phoenix Ordering Half-Deathly Hallows

So, we have reached the end of our retrospective. As I mentioned last time, this final examination of the last four films in the Harry Potter franchise was going to be truncated. As one could tell by how sporadic these updates were, other activities took up my time and distracted me from doing this regularly. So, I decided to pack all of the continued analysis into one article. There is at least an appropriate reasoning for connecting all of these beyond the obvious franchise umbrella. All of these films were directed by David Yates, who also returned to the franchise with the prequel series Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (which you can read my review of in that link). Yates’s previous career was mostly limited to British television before he directed Order of the Phoenix. Yet, he managed to take the influence from the work Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron & Mike Newell did with the first half of the franchise and formed the aesthetic of that would close the series… which mostly involved muted colors.

That’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s probably the lasting element that carried over as far as style is concerned. Many a Harry Potter fan has attempted to justify the timeline of the books (which take place throughout the 90s, hence explaining why no one has cell phones) as the same era in the films. Yet, while hints of modernism existed in the earlier four films, Yate’s introduction firmly trounced that the moment Dudley starts scoffing against Harry in his mid-2000s era British chav wear. The sleek modern touch Yates brought appropriately places the oncoming threat of Voldemort into a landscape us Muggle viewers can fret about. Yet, he still doesn’t forget the fantastical world we grew to love. There’s still plenty of wonder and magic to be found, but the bleak circumstances make it those flourishes all the more magic. But let’s stop talking vague.

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Harry Potter And the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

While Goblet of Fire mainly focused on the society of the wizarding world crumbling apart under the surface, Order of the Phoenix is about Harry and his adopted family coming closer together. By this point, most of the story takes place outside of any classroom. We’ve moved to the corridors and crevices outside the realm of possibility, allowing people like Sirius Black and the Weasley family to feel even closer to Harry than ever before in the dark recesses of The Order. Harry helps save Mr. Weasley’s life and Sirius confides in Harry his utmost desire to give the boy a proper home. Harry forms a resistance group to fight off the threat no one in government is willing to admit. These bonds tighten here so they can be broken apart by outside forces and emotional destroy the audience emotionally.

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Such outside forces include the best of the Potterverse’s secondary antagonists Professor Dolores Umbridge. Played to cheeky passive aggressive majesty by Imelda Staunton, Umbridge represents everything that’s wrong with the Ministry of the Potterverse. She’s a snake in a pink facade. Behind her cheeky smile and exuberant attitude is a vicious racist attitude of old trying to suppress any sort of rebellion. Right from the moment where she punishes Harry, we know this woman’s cheeky attitude is a ruse to keep control. We also get a glimpse into the cold, titled decour of the Ministry of Magic for the first time, giving us a sleek modern visage of bureaucracy that rules over this world with iron clad precision. It’s the perfect reasoning for Harry to start Dumbledore’s Army, an action that shows just how down hill the rule of the Wizarding World has gone and promotes Harry to an actual place of action as the “Chosen One.”

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Still, these forces destroying the world aren’t as effective as the forces destroying the family Harry has built. The death of Sirius Black shouldn’t be nearly as brutal as it feels. We’ve only seen this character maybe thirty minutes of screentime, but Gary Oldman pulls out the right balance of headstrong dedication and warm compassion to make every word feel organic. When he assures Harry that he can stay with him, there’s not a shred of dishonesty there. It’s a warm small emotional moment that’s broken by Bellatrix in brutal fashion. Yates also gives Oldman a quiet ghostly exit that literally sucks out the sound. It’s the perfect emotional climax to unravel the delusion that things are alright in the Wizarding World. The thing that shatters any hope Harry had of having a normal home, leading to one of the more impressive duels in the series thanks to David Yates’ fight choreography. Truly, Order of the Phoneix takes the context of the book and adds much more engrossing emotional heart tugging to it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Pissed Off Centaurs

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Harry Potter And the Half Blood Prince (2009)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is filler. Order of the Phoenix already firmly set us up to have Harry and his friends are tasked to fight off against Voldemort. That the entire Wizarding World would have to face off against him. Yet, we need to have another year long school story that’s barely even a story here just to get to the one moment that was so memorable it became a meme: Snape Kills Dumbledore. To be fair, the book this is based on was full of plenty of filler and even then the moment in question is well handled, mainly thanks to Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon‘s performances & Yates’ green tinted look that gives the film an extended sense of corpse shades dread. Still, this doesn’t make up for being treated to a lot more of the flighty teenage drama here, mainly with Hermione and Ron being confrontational over their love life pursuits. This isn’t like the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire, which felt like a genuine empass of awkward teenage hormones. This just seemed like some sitcomish wackiness that feels excruciating for two and a half hours.

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Meanwhile, Harry sort of hunts down this titular “Half Blood Prince” mystery, but unlike the development that happens in the book, Harry just sort of uses it as a plot device to get on Professor Slughorn’s good side. Despite the best efforts of Daniel Radcliffe and Jim Broadbent in these moments, it doesn’t really amount to much of anything engaging. Just more set up for implied drug use via potions. So, when Snape makes his grand reveal… you’ve pretty much forgotten that Half Blood Prince was even involved in this plot. Oh, and Harry also starts his most baffling development in the timeline of these stories: his romance with Ginny. Ginny was never a character that seemed interesting enough to focus on at all past her brief plot relevance in Chamber of Secrets and here, the romance falls about as flat as it does in the books. Radcliffe has more chemistry with that waitress in the opening scene than he ever does with Bonnie Wright in the entire series.

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Honestly, the saving grace that keeps this tolerable beyond Dumbledore’s death is the actual lead up and how it manages to spotlight a rather underdeveloped character: Draco Malfoy. Draco prior to this wasn’t much more than sniveling pure blood Hitler youth, casting no doubts about his family’s ties to the Dark Lord. Yet here, there’s a worry about his grave task that makes him dimensional. A moment or two of palpable fear that makes his actions have weight and give Tom Felton more range to work with. It’s not a lot, but it’s the best string this has to swing on. Half Blood Prince is in such polar opposite to the powerful swings of Order of the Phoenix. While the latter took the source material to new heights of emotion and wizard dueling, Half Blood Prince guts the emotional context and boils it down to little.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Blackened Hands

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Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Now, if Half Blood Prince was filler, clearly this first half of the final chapter for the Harry Potter universe would obviously be wasteful, right? Every other time we’ve seen people split these final chapters up, it always feels unnecessary. Well, while Deathly Hallows Part 1 does seem long in the tooth, there’s at least a bit more reasoning to give this finale some breathing room. For one, the opening flying fight sequence. We get all of these characters together, only to see them turn into the literal title character of the franchise and split off to be chased by Death Eaters. It’s a vital way of setting up the stakes and a commentary on the guilt Harry feels at every turn as people are hurt in his name, something that will be extremely important come the climax of the next film.

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Yet, while we’re also highlighting the darkness inherent in this finale, there’s also plenty of quiet character moments that actually mean something. Whether it’s some of the humor of our trio sneaking into The Ministry of Magic or Harry & Hermione having their little dance to Nick Cave in the tent, we see these friends truly embracing each other’s company before things irrevocably change for all of them. Unfortunately, we do have to devote so much unnecessary time to a rift between Ron and Hermione & Harry that diverges so much time from more scenes like the dance. It’s another problem of adaptation, but this one more in keeping a useless storythread for the sake of filler. It’s not as confounding as the filler in Half Blood Prince, but still does mark this as a chapter that could have merely added an extra hour and change to the actual finale rather than totally justify the need for separation.

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Then again, the joy of Deathly Hallows Part 1 is that just as it starts to lose you, another tasty morsel comes in to satisfy. Probably the best example is the climactic animated sequence of the titular myth within the universe. It’s elegant and macabre in a way that sells the high stakes nature of all three items. It gives these magical objects far more powerful origins and destructive conviction. Same goes for the punctuation mark that is the finale, in which Harry, Ron and Hermione are saved at the last second by Dobby, only to see him die so suddenly. On the one hand, this is definitely less impactful than the book version given the amount of time we had with Dobby. Yet, by having him return here, he serves as a brief portal to the past, plugged by the shattering onslaught of modern change. Dobby’s death isn’t an empty one story wise. It gives us an appropriate cliffhanger moment of shocking sorrow we didn’t expect, allowing us to potentially be set up for the oncoming fest of feelings.

Rating 3 out of 5 Horcruxes

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Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Finales are tough. Once one gets past that fact that we have an ending, the expectations for it soar until they’re too close to the sun. Thus, setting up more than a fair share of disappointment. Filmwise, the second part of Deathly Hallows doesn’t suffer from lack of trying. We get a pretty full look into our larger recurring characters and their fates. Harry, Hermione and Ron get their fair share of moments, as do the likes of Snape, Lupin, McGonagall, Mrs. Weasely, Neville Longbottom and even Sirius Black & Dumbledore from beyond the grave. The trouble is, the true lack of development that was woven into the books plagues their attempted reveals in Deathly Hallows Part 2 cinematically. People like Tonks or Fred Weasley don’t have nearly the impact they’re striving for on an emotional level. They just sort of add up to Harry’s guilt that builds up to the climactic battle with Voldemort.

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However, even with most of its bountiful cast, Deathly Hallows Part 2 still manages to strike far more of a balance than anyone would have expected. The emotional highs and horrified lows our characters go through emotionally are incredibly well realized. There are too many to count but the main ones to highlight are Snape’s death, the Gringott’s dragon escape and Harry’s finale battle with Voldemort. Snape’s finale shows off Alan Rickman’s true range as an actor, emphasizing just how committed he was to seeing Snape to fruition. The dragon escape is a rousing way to start the film that immediately sets into motion the theme of escaping oppression. The finale not only allows Harry to earn his status as a Chosen One figure, but doing it on the terms of having his friends help. The deconstruction the The Chosen One trope in the Potter series always seemed to be an underrated aspect of the series. Harry isn’t a singular perfect being, but more of a leader able to recognize the talents of others.

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Even during his one-on-one battle with Voldemort, Harry knows he can’t actually accomplish this on his own. The entire series has been built on the strength of friendship. What friends do to help each other as things look their darkest. “Help will always been given at Hogwarts to those who deserve it,” Dumbledore says to Harry during his near death experience. A moment of realization that anyone who truly earns the friendships they’ve had will be able to find guidance from those closest. And that’s not just Hermione and Ron. Everyone from the rising hero of Neville Longbottom to the fallen anti-hero of Snape gave Harry the help necessary to defeat Voldemort. That even from the seemingly useless or lost souls can we find strength. Hogwarts may have been a school littered with perils and chaos, but it was able to bring people together of varying backgrounds who were united by a curiosity for magic.  The type of unity that gave Harry, Hermione and Ron the adventures of a lifetime and the chance to raise families of their own. And even if the three of them were poorly CG-ed to look older during the epilogue, that message still rings ever true.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Tears Into a Pensive

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Well, thanks for being so patient, folks. It’s been a long journey and we’re finally out of it. Happy Holidays and may… the magic be with you? Eh, I tried.

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part IV: Gobbling Up Fire

With their fourth year, the awkward stages of puberty are hitting Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwarts students pretty hard. Sweaty nightmare fueled sleeps, having to go to school dances and dealing with magical hate groups are on their trail, as is the case with most teens. Of course, nothing complicates matters most than something like a Tri-Wizard Tournament, a massive globe trotting competition that pits hormonal teen against hormonal teen in radical examples of putting children in danger. Yes, if Dementors and werwolf teachers weren’t enough, Hogwarts is pitting children against merpeople, dragons and each other all at the same time.

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The Tri-Wizard Tournament is obviously a means to an end in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This isn’t too outside the realm of Potter, given how every plot so far has eventually circled back to a big mystery. While expanding the scope of the universe, it also serves as a backdrop for the standard Harry Potter mystery. Not a bad backdrop, especially with its own not-so-subtle commentary on the distraction of sports from major issues that are right under our noses. As everyone is distracted by spectacle, Harry comes to the realization that not everything is fine under the surface of competition. Right from the start of traveling from the Portkey to the Quidditch World Cup that’s interrupted by Death Eaters, we get a larger sense of Wizard World culture’s darker underbelly. It’s even more apparent in the fallout, particularly with the Death Eaters being brushed to the side as quickly as possibly by the Ministry and replaced with the sensationalist journalism of Rita Skeeter. It removes another layer of this universe, showing a more psychological manipulation that’s taken over, especially with these children who are put on a pedestal as large as the Tri-Wizard Tournament.

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The trouble is that we really don’t get much about these kids participating in the tournament beyond Harry. Sure, we get Harry’s exposition motivated interactions with Cedric Diggory. We get Hermione having some kind of side relationship with Krum. We have Ron’s schoolboy fascination with Fleur Delacour. However, none of that really amounts to much of anything. Getting these things from the perspective of our trio is obviously a major aspect of the entire series. Yet, Goblet of Fire also wants us to feel invested in at least a few of these people, particularly Cedric. The entire ending’s emotional tug hinges on us feeling for Cedric and having the feeling of that death wash over everyone else. Yet, given Cedric’s only role in the film is that of an expositor and he’s played pre-Twilight block of wood Robert Patterson, there’s not much to go on. We’re told more about how we should feel with Cedric than anything, rather that having actual emotional investment in him. Still, this is all despite the best efforts of people like Jeff Rawle as his father giving his all during the reveal of Cedric’s death.

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Yet, it still falls on deaf ears when The Goblet of Fire is far more focused on our three leads. Here, the element of puberty becomes much more firmly planted between Harry, Hermione and Ron. They’re all focused on trying to get with members of the opposite sex out of some social obligation rather than genuine desire. The best moments here are when Ron and Harry awkwardly try to deal with the social pressures of asking a girl to the Yule Ball. It’s a great example of the type of relatable awkward tension that makes Harry Potter as a franchise endearing. In the middle of a film filled racing against fanciful dragons, swimming with merpeople and traveling through mazes made of dark vines, the most engaging scenes are the ones that feature these kids awkwardly stumbling around a school dance. This is especially the case for how it shakes up the dynamic between Hermione, Harry and Ron, splitting things off in a believable sense for a bunch of burgeoning pubescent folks conflicting with each other. It even further develops the increasing chemistry between Ron and Hermione in a more believable way than even J.K Rowling has been willing to admit as of recent. I just wish it would be surrounded by more compelling side character arcs… especially with a Cho Chen. Seriously, who cares about Cho Chen?

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But the Tri Wizard Tournament is at least a bit more intriguing in its bait and switch element. The more conflicting issue of this comes in the form of Mad Eye Moody. None of the problems have to do with Brendan Gleeson, who provides that perfect crabby bitterness needed for the part. No, the bigger problem that drives this particularly disappointing version of “Harry Potter the chosen one gets dragged along a track by somebody” trope that this series loves to do is driven by this Moody being Barty “Doctor Who Numero 10” Crouchy Jr in disguise. Sure, this provides a glimpse into the witch trials that went on, but it pretty severely damages Moody as a character from here on in filmwise. Whatever we do see from here on in is oddly less developed that this disguise who mostly spends his time hiding Polyjuice Potion behind a booze joke that connects the dots far more easily. Also, how could no one in Hogwarts not immediately investigate a teacher who turns students into rodents and putting them inside other students’ pants? That’s psychologically damage on levels beyond comprehension.

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Of course, we’ve been down this road with Hogwarts before. A road that leads to this Tri Wizard Tournament’s sad end and the rebirth of Voldemort. The sort of main reason for this one to exist is building up to his reappearance and it’s the honestly one of the better moments in the entire series. Mike Newell‘s gradual shift from the Tri-Wizard Celebration to this dismal cemetary sequence emphasizes the seedy under world of the wizarding world this entire film was building up to. The Klan-esque dedication to Voldemort shows something Harry didn’t really fathom in reference to discrimination. Even if it’s with obvious reveals of Lucius Malfoy being a Death Eater, it allows Harry to get a full grasp of how vast this has spread.

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Of course, the centerpiece of all this is Ralph Fiennes’ first appearance as Voldemort. Fully encompassing the snake like slithering through his movements that mirrors his make up, Fiennes has all the confidence and intimidation of a freshly reborn cult leader. The raspy intimidation makes him the perfect embodiment of everything slithering under this barely human form. The fact that Harry manages to “defeat him” via convenient ghosts is unfortunately a side effect of adaptation problems with the entire series. Yet, the impact of worry that still permeates is firmly there as Harry returns with Cedric’s body. That worry of the unknown prospect of Voldemort returning chills even Dumbledore, who our heroes cling to as the prime example of knowledge in adversity.

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The final scene of our heroes realizing nothing will be the same rings even truer in a modern context. Given the last week or so, Harry Potter‘s attempts to call out racism and adversity is something we need far more of. To see our heroes realize that sacrifice is imminent and that they’ll have each other to get through it shows a true sense of maturity for these young men and woman. Goblet of Fire is a turning point for Potter, even if it’s one that would have to face some filler material in the oncoming chapters. Still, the thematic drive of dealing with adversity will ring ever truer and make Potter something far more timeless than franchises of its ilk.

One final note: I do plan on finishing this Harry Potter series up soon, but unfortunately in a more truncated form. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrives in theaters this weekend, so I can’t complete four full analyses of the remaining films in that time. But you’ll see something to wrap all this up soon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Dragon Eggs

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part III: Azkabound

In which the Harry Potter franchise hits a major turn. At this point, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were hitting puberty, just the right age to start genuinely developing their characters as people. The perfect age for a story as full of darker themes and situations as Prisoner of Azkaban. As the characters grew, their sense of discovery became tempered by the darker shade of the events around them. But these kids are only starting to mature and they’re already accustomed to giant creatures chasing them, conspiracy and death at every corner. Of course, it would only get worse as Hogwarts proved itself to be the most unsafe school in the history of fiction with every passing year.

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Seriously, Hogwarts is about as big a health risk as jumping off a bridge. The Harry Potter main setting does about as much damage to its students physically as it does psychologically. None of the staff apparently gets a background check (especially for the Defense Against the Dark Arts class). There’s no real night time security except for an old janitor, his cat & grim reaper looking ghosts that apparently can’t be controlled. The children are given reality altering time travel tools simply to be over stimulated by classes. This is some reckless shit that would get any private school shut down in a second. The last bit with the Time Turner is one of the bigger universe breaking aspects. A device that is explained away in the books but never in any subsequent film. It’s an eyesore continuity wise, but not enough to ruin this world too harshly… especially since no one here cares too much about danger.

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No, danger is of no concern at Hogwarts. For Harry Potter it’s just business as usual. Even with a new version of Dumbledore in place. Michael Gambon – taking over for the late Richard Harris – steps into the role quite well. While being slightly more active in how he carries himself, Gambon still keeps that slightly mischievous spirit with more of a skip in his step that provides Hogwarts with that unpredictable… let’s call it “charm” that’s simultaneously more intimidating and more human than Harris’ version. Speaking of Hogwarts staff, there’s also a new staff member in the form of Professor Trelawney, with her oddly prescient predictions. Emma Thompson has a sort of Doc Brown-style controlled madness to the part, perfectly balancing enough restraint to hone her eccentricities. Plus, it’s nice to see Hermione so doubtful of a teacher.

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Our familiar trio progresses along the near-lethal corridors with grace. Harry Potter himself has clearly hit his pubescent rebellious stage, starting right from Aunt Marge. This opener is a perfect example of new director Alfonso Cuaron‘s ability to balance a darker concept with a playful tone, as the disturbing notion of a woman being blown out to balloon portions and rising out the door is treated for oddly delightful comedic effect. Through Harry’s sarcastic reactions and defiant attitude towards his aunt, we see that Harry is starting to be his own man, not just one of many faceless students at Hogwarts. It’s Harry’s first ascension into being more than a vague legend, but an actual dimensional person willing to stand up for himself rather than scrape by. The stakes are higher and the innocence begins to fall by the wayside.

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This rubs off on Ron and Hermione quite nicely. All three were purposefully seen wearing their school robes far less than the other two films, showing more of a sense of personality and defiance. There’s Hermione’s pink hoodie that gives her less rigidity, Harry’s darker track suit that visually mirrors his personal isolation and Ron’s goofy hand-me-down sweaters that emphasize his detached upbringing. Harry Potter works as well as it does usually because these three are the rock that allows us to relate to these otherworldly surroundings, something Cuaron recognized and evolved from Chris Columbus’ smaller films. Even with the way this story was structured, there’s a bit more of a looseness to the characters while raising the stakes higher and higher. As Ron and Hermione hint at a potential love connection, Buckbeak makes his grave mistake that becomes integral to the plot. That constant tide between finding yourself and snapping back to the awful reality right in front of you fuels the directions this series will continue on.

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Given what’s going on during his third year, Harry Potter and his friends have every right to be fearful of their surroundings. An escaped killer who ends up being his godfather on the loose; a teacher who turns out to be a werewolf; Ron’s rat turns out to be the guy who… ratted Harry’s father out in disguise. Get it? Cause he’s a… rodent. Anyway, it’s a stressful time for that school, full of all sorts of well realized new threats that put the previous ones to shame. There’s a great contrast just in the transitional moments, where the Whomping Willow – a threat that nearly got out heroes killed last term – is mainly an indicator of the seasons changing while The Dementors roam around every inch of Hogwarts. The Dementors themselves are one of JK Rowling’s most disturbing creatures. Grim Reaper-style specters that roam looking for souls to suck out and keep the bodies alive as husks. Their actions are metaphors for the regrets people leave behind, allowing them to wallow in their past as husks of what they could be, just like Harry does with the prospect of being with his parents. Something he can never do, but seeks so badly as a child.

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Yet, the joy of every Harry Potter story is Harry growing accustomed to his savior role while keeping loyal friends around. There’s the mainstays of Hagrid, Hermione and Ron who go to great lengths to help him despite their own problems, but there are newcomers who give Harry solace and keep him on his toes. There’s Remus Lupin, who teaches him the inner strength of his Patroneous while constantly imploring him to use more careful reason. David Thewlis has the right mixture of authority and regret that makes him an effective surrogate uncle for Harry. He’s willing to let Harry discover his abilities, but wants to keep him somewhat in line. Of course, that serves as an ironic indication given his true nature as an uncontrollable lycanthrope.

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That irony is hinted at a few times. First, the dog Harry sees near start. While more specifically identified as a certain person later, this is the first hint at transformation that will later blow Scabbers out of proportion. This continues during the Riddikulus scene, one of the better examples of how playfully dangerous the Potterverse could be. Each child attempting to make the scary something silly shows this delightful comedic energy that was rarely seen in the series before or since. Using the silliness to deflate a serious threat. The imagery even manages to hold up thanks to a blend of practical and CG effects work, particularly with the giant jack in the box. It gives us insight into the various side characters of the Potterverse while providing a solid sense of levity and mystery to for the main plot. The type of playfulness that eases us into the darkness of this universe… and Alan Rickman in a terrible dress.

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Of course, on the grounds but hidden from plain sight is a crucial character for Harry to confront: Sirius Black. For most of the Azkaban, he’s a mythical side character relegated by his murderous reputation. One that Harry obviously takes personally. He’s part of the lore Harry has heard about with his parents, but unspecified enough for Harry to treat as this vessel to discovery and revenge. It’s a powerful emotional state for a youth, one that changes on a dime once Black reveals his true intentions. Gary Oldman has often been pigeonholed into maniacal roles, but as Sirius in Azkahban he shows off so many more facets of his personality. One of the more beautiful moments in the entire series is Black seeing Hogwarts again for the first time in ages. There’s an optimism there that’s clouded in regret and tragedy, especially from the perspective of one aware of what will happen shortly.

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Harry Potter tends to work best as it shows true progression for its leads. As a film, Azkahban is a true turning point. Not only are the kids dealing with much more mature situations, but the film slowly starts to shave or contort elements stylistically. The Whomping Willow is no longer a scary domineering figure but a neutral force of nature. John Williams’ usual whimsical score is much more nuanced and eerie here, indicating a first loss of innocence. Scabbers has become a hideous agent of evil from Harry’s past Peter Pettigrew (briefly played with ratty characteristics by Timothy Spall). These kids are aware their environment isn’t as trustworthy as each other. They’re the ones who save Buckbeak and Sirius without the help of adults. If anything, the adults here usually make things worse. You just have to use your magic map or clear wit or… time travel necklace. All the essentials.

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Alfonso Cuaron’s direction does such an incredible job of selling the scope of this world with some of his more private intimate scenes. Namely, the scenes of Harry flying on Buckbeak. For an isolated moment, in the middle of all this danger, Harry has an escape. A true awareness of how isolated one can feel in this vast environment and how that can be alright every once in awhile. This is a moment for Harry to be a person and soak up the brief moment of serenity he shares with this magical creature. This helps make the moments of true confrontation play out immensely well. Cuaron plays on the scrappiness of these children starting to fend for themselves. Even to the point of a finale time loop, that sense of isolation feeds into Harry’s self preservation skills. Hermione and Ron can’t help him and his parents won’t be much more beyond a heartfelt memory. Even if this whole thing ends with the child like glee of Harry on a new toy, danger still lurks around every corner to corrupt all of this. But we’ll get to that… whenever we reach for a goblet to drink from.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Animatronic Toads

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Retrospective Review #14: Tango & Cash a.k.a Cocaine and Hubris

This series doesn’t usually focus on one film at a time, but I often make exceptions for ones I can extensively write about. Tango and Cash is one I could write about for ages. This 1989 action buddy comedy feels so indicative of its time, like a cocaine and hubris fueled destruction of a movie, one where the producers had a multitude of ideas for action or comedy sequences and figured “fuck it, we can do that. We’re GODS!” That’s only appropriate, given the fact that this was one of the final films released in the 1980s (along with Steven Spielberg’s Always on December 22nd 1989), as it has all the big signifiers of egotistical jackassery that made the decade so uniquely brazen: vanity shots for its stars, an over the top villain, set pieces that often make little to no sense, several familiar character actors randomly shoved in and perhaps one of the most insane uses of a car explosion ever put to film. But… does that make Tango and Cash a bad movie or the best movie?

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Warner Bros

Well, one thing that’s for certain is that it’s a badly made movie, but I’m not surprised given some of the insane production problems. Credited director Andrey Konchalovskeiy was fired for trying to give the film a more serious tone, original director of photography/future director Barry Sonnenfeld was fired by Stallone for not lighting things right and famous edit doctor Stuart Baird came in to completely reedit the film after a disastrous first cut. This messy production shows off in this monster of a final version, as the scenes feel less like a cohesive whole and more like a serial style multi-part adventure where each set piece is made up on the fly. Most of the dialogue between the titular partners is made of one liners, feeling like a horrible mutation of the Shane Black style that had just become popular at the time. One liners about everything from getting raped in prison to having sex with the other’s sister to implications of assault towards witnesses at their own murder trial! Tango and Cash takes the concept of “cops who don’t play by the rules” to new levels, yet they’re still the most celebrated cops in LA. The dynamic doesn’t really work as well when both are pretty unorthodox despite Tango being painted as more of a by the book type at times. You know there’s a lack of consistency there when at one point a Tango puts a grenade in a person’s mouth as part of a “good cop, worse cop” routine… and it didn’t seem out of character at all.

tango-and-cash-drag

Warner Bros.

The chemistry between Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell in Tango and Cash feels like the typical buddy-cop narrative, but the heights it goes to morph it into something stranger than that. As the exploits of the titular characters are revealed further, they almost seem like superheroes more than they do actual cops. Their superhero physiques aside – which Russell makes fun of not too long before the two share a shower scene that extensively shows off their rears and chests – the two have enough familiar resources to feel like costumed crusaders. They survive massive explosions in small places, have protection from the local chief of police despite being vigilantes after they escape from prison, get gadgets from their own personal Lucious Fox (one of which is an armored vehicle) and even change into elaborate costumes prepared at the last minute. Well, Russell does at least in the form of a scene where he’s in drag, which somehow manages to crossover into Bugs Bunny territory of silliness. The fact that producer Jon Peters’ other film Batman came out this same year doesn’t feel like a coincidence. Several of these set pieces feel like something Warner Bros rejected from his initial pitches for Batman.

tango-and-cash-gun

Warner Bros

Batman co-star Jack Palance even appears here as our lead villain, who plays a Joker and/or Riddler style game of deception to frame Stallone and Russell after all the times they’ve foiled his plans to run a major drug ring through LA. He even disappears into the shadows at one point and has an elaborate maze set up built into his bar to show off the simple metaphor of “being trapped like rats in a maze.” Hell, the scenes of Tango and Cash in prison feel like a precursor to the Arkham Asylum games as the two leads fight over the top prisoners that literally lower them into a vat by a rope. None of this is helped by one of them being B-movie legend Robert Z’Dar, who might as well be a Batman villain given his iconic chin. Yet, the whole time, Tango and Cash feel no sort of real fear or turmoil about the situation at hand.

tango-and-cash-guns

Warner Bros

There’s so much to say about the Tango and Cash, but the central thing is what manages to keep this insane concept together: Stallone and Russell. Despite both being nominated for Razzie Awards (which have more sins to make up for than either of those leads) for their performances, their actions manage to keep this struggling lopsided mess from tumbling into total chaos based on sheer charisma alone. Despite the insanity of their back and forth or the mind numbing weirdness of the plot they’re going on about, the two of them give some sort of grounding to these characters. It’s not too much mind you, in a film where they drive a monster truck through bellowing flames. Yet, there are a few moments where actual humanity, like when they have an actual conversation about Cash’s relationship with Tango’s sister or Cash showing remorse for his dead assistant warden buddy. It’s nothing too concrete, but it’s just enough to keep this from going off the rails… but that implies that the film had rails to begin with.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Random Shower Scenes

tango_and_cash_poster

Other Works:

Retrospective Reviews #13: Once More With Hot Ninja Feeling

Summer Movie season has come and it’s time to get some prep done. Here are a few films I’ve watched in anticipation of their upcoming follow ups. The most interesting factor is that this the anticipation line-up is all over the place, ranging from a new franchise entry to a cult comedy to a subdued musical. And who says that all the movies coming out are all the same?

05/08/16: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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Paramount Pictures

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the last franchise I expected to live on as long as it has. Starting out in comics as a darkly satiric take on the grim Frank Miller’s version of Daredevil, it became a money making juggernaut in the late 80s and early 90s that many dismissed as a fad that would fade into obscurity. Yet, there have been multiple incarnations of the Turtles in their three decades of existence. So, to commemorate the 30th anniversary, Paramount produced the first live action cinematic adaptation of the concept since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III killed any chance of another sequel with people in turtle suits playing Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo & Raphael. Now we’ve got motion capture versions of those turtles and their master Splinter – along with Johnny Knoxville of all people voicing Leonardo and Tony Shalhoub as the rat sensei – who didn’t have to be constrained by a living person in a mechanical suit. Honestly, aside from some lesser facial designs, this stab at the Heroes in a Half Shell is pretty on point in terms of their personalities, with Raph’s loner angst, Leo’s excessive need to lead, Mikey’s constant wisecracks and Donny’s extensive tech head wizardry all intact. That brotherly back and forth is still kept in tact in this incarnation, particularly during some energetic and lively action scenes that made me question if Battle Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebesman actually helmed them or if the second unit/special effects team did more of the leg work.

So, it’s a shame that the rather wooden performance from Megan Fox and some needless reshoot changes to the Shredder character had to bog things down. The weird origin story change that circles both Megan Fox’s April O’Neal and William Fichtner’s Not Shredder  Eric Sacks have to be connected to the Turtles in a “Joker-Killed-The-Waynes-Batman-1989” fashion feels underplayed, depleted of any sort of thematic tension when a bland Asian guy in the shadows is The Shredder instead of Fitchner. There’s also plenty of non-Turtles related jokes that feel more sitcomish than cinematically funny, mainly from previously known funny people like Taran Killam and Whoopi Goldberg. Clearly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is such a massively mixed bag, mirroring Will Arnett’s own uneven record for jokes within the film. For every fun interaction between the brothers there’s a scene of Splinter learning Ninjutsu via a book he found in the sewers. Yet, what’s established here isn’t unsalvageable for a sequel, despite what many a Michael Bay over-hating internet fanboy may say. We’ll just have to wait until Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows comes out this summer to see how that turns out.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Mikey Innuendos

05/09/2016: Hot Rod (Re-Watch)

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Paramount Pictures

Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone are masters of short form comedy. Their Saturday Night Live Digital Shorts helped reinvigorate interest in SNL for the youths of the new millennium. Shorts like “Dear Sister”, “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box” blew the internet up when they were released through catchy, lively and masterfully timed pieces of comedy that people devoured gleefully. Personally, the more enjoyable short films were always the more subversive and surreal entries like “Jack Sparrow”, “Stumblin'” or “Great Day” were the ones that stuck out as the more daring examples of experimental comedy that the trio could pull off. Somewhere in the middle lies their first feature film effort Hot Rod, a play on coming of age romps of the 80s that prides itself on taking a “save the rec center with a fundraiser” style story and morphing it into a depraved tale of a young man’s deep seeded issues with his lack of a positive male role model. It’s something he carries into his would-be leadership role of his gang, which members Bill Hader, Danny McBride & Taccone, who just want to hang out and be their own weird selves with their fellow oddball on their way to the top… of being associated with a local daredevil.

The darker elements of Samberg truly come to light in the spiteful interaction at the heart of Hot Rod, which is when he misconstrues the concept of kicking his stepfather Ian McShane’s ass with earning true respect in a darkly gut busting twist on a father/son arc. Samberg’s oblivious self centered idiot archetype can get a bit grating at points, especially after Samberg showed far more shades on projects like Brooklyn Nine Nine or Jesse and Celeste Forever. It doesn’t help that he often plays off of Isla Fisher, who isn’t even given much interesting subversive material for her love interest role. Yet, there’s a clear dedication to the absurdist goofy gags that was key to the Digital Shorts that made Lonely Island so successful. When a triumphant musical montage occurs, it turns into a riot. When two characters reconcile, it turns into a remixed beat. When there’s a triumph, Ebenezer Scrooge gives everyone a giant goose. Each ridiculous moment has a huge commitment from most of the actors involved, making each bizarre escalation worth watching. Lets hope their long delayed cinematic follow up Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping lives up to the dedication while furthering their comedic surrealism.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Faulty Ramps

05/14/16: Once 

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Summit Entertainment

This one is anticipation for a more low key summer release. Director John Carney’s Sing Street is currently in limited release, but I had never seen the film that sort of became his big breakout Once. Both of those films and the American film Carney made in between Begin Again are all musically themed, with Once mainly deriving its sound from Irish folk music. Fittingly enough for the style, the film is rather small scale and limited in its scope. Centering on two musicians who find inspiration in each other, they slowly grow to have a wonderful bond that is punctuated by the soundtrack. The script was apparently written around the songs of stars/real life musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, resulting in one of the better examples of a modern untraditional musical. Each number is performed with a refreshing sense of authenticity that contrasts the cute Irish mumbling of their normal conversations. The raw talent and beautiful belting mirrors the type of bombast in Gene Kelly musicals, but through the guise of performing as a key way of unleashing their emotions through their talents.

Each of the songs has this endearing sense of earnestness, whether it be a bitter improvised ditty like “Broken Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” or the emotionally heart wrenching Oscar winner “Falling Slowly.” Like any good musical, one gets lost in the power of the performance, but the lack of flash and down to earth nature of both the musical style and the performers gives the songs – and by extension their relationship – a genuine connection to even the least musically inclined. Yet, the connection between Hansard and Irglová still manages to be endearing outside of the songs, as their interactions show so much interpersonal conflict without saying too much. John Carney’s camerawork is also very minimalist, allowing the performers to belt out or merely stare at each other for the desired effect. It’s visual storytelling through patient attention to how people interact and how inspiration comes to artists. Once is the type of low-fi story that doesn’t require flash to engage. Instead, it allows people to speak honestly and proudly without the veil of flash. Tender, raw and gushing with pride.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Broken Hoovers

Retrospective Reviews #12: Does Whatever A Spider-Man Does

This summer’s Captain America: Civil War will feature a great many characters. Captain America and Iron Man will face off directly, with Ant-Man, Black Widow, War Machine, Vision, Black Panther, and Scarlet Witch caught up in the heated battle. But we’ve seen them in Marvel Cinematic Universe movies before. Someone we haven’t seen in that mix is a hero we’ve ironically seen multiple times on the big screen: Spider-Man. The web crawling Peter Parker’s MCU debut will be brought to life by Tom Holland, the third (and youngest) man to wear the blue and red spandex & crawl around New York City. But before getting involved in a war amongst heroes or whatever the hell Andrew Garfield became tangled in during his limited run as Peter Parker, there was Tobey Maguire bringing the character to life under the direction of insane horror film veteran Sam Raimi. Before we see where Parker will be now, let’s see how he was back in the days when superhero movies were just making their comeback.

04/23/16: Spider-Man (Re-Watch)

spider-man-2002

Sony Pictures

Spider-Man is the Superman: The Movie of its time. Taking an auteur known for genre filmmaking and applying his aesthetics to the broad strokes of a beloved comic book character, the original 2002 film pretty much created the blueprint for how do to a modern superhero origin story on film. Sure, this would yield mixed results when applied by lesser filmmakers, including those who would attempt to reboot the character a decade later for Sony. Yet, despite some elements that feel very much of its time like Green Goblins’ Power Rangers suit or the random appearance by Macy Gray, the core facets of the mythology are left intact, taking the time to develop Peter Parker’s nerdiness through familiar yet endearing actions. He’s not really the quipping Spider-Man of the comics – he’s honestly at his worst when he attempts to be – but Tobey Maguire still manages to create such a likable earnestness to him that’s on level with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman. The supporting cast ranges from the sublimely well suited Kirsten Dunst, Cliff Robertson or Rosemary Harris to the all out mad scenery chewing of Willem Dafoe as Norman Osbourne’s Green Goblin. The aforementioned mentioned plastic toy suit aside, Dafoe’s gnashing voice and bombastic physicality elicits the right amount of menace and hilarious overacting that has made Dafe such a treasure, putting him in line with Jack Nicholson’s Joker or Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor as an almost kabuki theater level madcap insanity. The action built around these characters by Sam Raimi is at its best when Peter is on his own, either working out his skills or simply swinging around trying to save others. Once we get to the Goblin heavy elements, the early 2000s CG shows & over edited fight scenes show their ware and tear. Yet, the rough element don’t outweigh the sincerity Raimi and crew have for the character & gave mainstream audiences a fun if occasionally laughable introduction to the character onscreen.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 “HEARTS, OSB0RNE! FIRST WE ATTACK HIS HEARTS!”

04/25/16: Spider-Man 2 (Re-Watch)

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Sony Pictures

Sam Raimi is a filmmaker who knows how to up the ante with a sequel. Following the ground work of his first Spider-Man film, Raimi decides to contrast the wondrous sense of discovery with a harsher crash of reality that weighs down on our hero as he realizes what it means to juggle being a superhero with real life responsibilities. Much of it hinges on the flaws of the characters getting in their own way, whether it be Peter Parker’s progressive lack of confidence and time management hurting both his normal life & powers or Doctor Octavius’ lust for scientific progression being what corrupts him under the influence of the arms. The psychosomatic nature of his powers leaving him can be a bit inconsistent at times, but the emotional consistency of Peter struggling with his life and even considering a world where he doesn’t have to be New York’s protector manages to ground the webslinger. He’s more than just the dork from the first film, evolving him into a young man looking for purpose and realizing how crucial the resolve & gumption of Peter Parker is to the heroics Spider-Man, which Tobey Maguire displays with relatable frustration and optimistic resolve that shows how Spider-Man appreciates the people of New York and how grateful they can be to him. Spider-Man 2 doesn’t forget about the side characters either, giving Kirsten Dunst a more engaging forward progression as MJ, Alfred Molina a tragically flawed take on Doc Ock and Rosemary Harris one of the endearingly heartbreaking moments to bring home Parker’s resolve. Even J.K. Simmons’ J Jonah Jameson has a few moments of genuine doubt… before his brilliant comic ego settles back in. If anyone suffers, it’s James Franco’s Harry Osbourne, who goes on a much more one dimensional sort of bitter display of rage for the death of his father that finally culminates towards the end, but only leaves things open for… what’ll happen next. It helps that these more impressive moments of character growth are surrounded by some of the best action sequences in superhero history. Sam Raimi’s extreme camera work was already shown to work perfectly for Spider-Man’s webslinging, but he completely tops himself with moments like the train sequence or Doc Ock’s transformation that feels like it was ripped straight from an Evil Dead entry. Despite the mistakes Sony would later make with the character, Spider-Man 2 is still a crowning achievement in crowd pleasing entertainment that actually cares about its characters.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Doc Ock Arms

05/02/16: Spider-Man 3 (Re-Watch)

spider-man-3

Sony Pictures

Following up Spider-Man 2 isn’t an easy feat for anyone. It doesn’t help that Sam Raimi was ordered to shoehorn in a popular villain by producer Avi Arad that he wasn’t even that big a fan of. The results are clearly muddled and lackluster, but not for the reasons people often complain about. The biggest sins of Spider-Man 3 on a more public scale tend to be related to Peter’s cheesy actions while under the influence of the black suit, particularly his fancy dance moves. That honestly isn’t that out of the question for a dork like Peter Parker to think something that silly would be edgy. The issue is that the actual progression of Peter from this dancing cool cat to beater of his girlfriend is so rushed, much like the rest of the film’s several plot lines. Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman has a decent enough motivation, but disappears for a solid thirty minute chunk of the movie before returning in any form to make his motives feel that investing. Harry Osbourne’s amnesia stunts any meaningful development for his character for most of the first and second act, feeling like an exercise in time wasting and James Franco face making. Even the Peter/MJ relationship has strong moments that are destroyed by a contrived lack of communication. Seriously, so much of this plot would be resolved if people had the common sense to talk to each other, which was sort of the progression after Spider-Man 2. At any time, Peter could tell MJ about his initial fight with Harry, Mary Jane telling Peter about her losing the Broadway play, Mary Jane telling Peter – the incredibly experience superhero crime fighter – that the inexperienced Harry was holding her basically at gun point to say things, Harry’s butler telling him that convenient exposition about his father YEARS ago. Any of that would easily lead to a resolve of these problems that seem more petty and moronic than anything else in execution. This lack of decent progression is what destroys so much of Topher Grace’s potential as Venom, leaving his creepy storyline of following a non-character version of Gwen Stacy to wither on the vine as all these other things happen. Yet, with all of these problems, there are glimmers of a solid Spider-Man movie to be found. The action sequences are still top notch, moments of comedy (mainly centered around J.K. Simmons and Bruce Campbell) are still uproarious and the effects work on Sandman manages to hold up wonderfully despite nine years having past. Even some of the resolves to these bigger moments feel wonderfully executed. The bigger problem is just that this story doesn’t deserve to have them. Spider-Man 3 is clearly a mixed and disappointing note to end this trilogy on… but I’ll still watch it over Amazing Spider-Man 2 any day.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 James Franco Faces… seriously, look at these faces!

Retrospective Reviews #11: Purify Yourself In The Purple Rain

Purple Rain isn’t a great film in the traditional sense. The plot’s messy and the characterization fluctuates as wildly as the tone. Obviously, this came around at the earliest height of MTV, so much of it is built around the blueprint stages of the music video. Basically, think of Purple Rain as the origin point for narrative long form videos, alongside contemporary Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. It’s basically a concert film with a rather loose plot tethering scenes together. Yet, while that plot isn’t necessarily complex or as revolutionary as Prince‘s back up band named after that word, Purple Rain aims more for brief crucial moments of heightened emotion more than it ever does a consistent plot. Sort of like an elaborate feature length music video.

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Warner Bros

The coherence of Purple Rain‘s plot is secondary to the emotional context of its main character Prince “The Kid.” Through visual short hand, we get the basic troubled youth situation he’s in. He’s pressured into compromising his ego for the sake of commerce, his band and his lady love. He’s in a rivalry with competing musician/over the top cartoon Morris Day. His father (played with surprisingly nuanced menace by Clarence Williams III) as been beating his wife senseless. All of these thing clearly weight heavily on The Kid and are slowly break him down as a person and change him ultimately as an artist. One willing to compromise and find some kind of connection with others. Of course, this plot seems kind of unconvincing when his songs throughout are all Prince songs. Even the songs performed by Day or the Apollonia 6 could easily fit in with Prince’s style at the time, even if they’re sung by a much different talents.

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Warner Bros

Of course, the inconsistencies of the plot of Purple Rain aren’t what ultimately matter. That plot is an extension/excuse to see Prince perform. As an actor, he’s often quite over the top, bordering on silly whenever he attempts to fight off his more intense father. Yet, Prince has this affable aura to him that grounds his stage persona. It makes the seemingly alien creature that was Prince seem human. The practical jokes, the untapped aggression, the passionate sexuality. It puts a person behind the man we see perform one of the best albums of the 1980s. Still, the main events here are the performances and boy do they live up to the reputation Prince made for himself. Director Albert Magnoli had previously worked as Prince’s manager, so his previous career had the exact same goal that these concert scenes executed perfectly: selling Prince’s image. The image of a small package pouring every single oozing drop of energy into every performance, most of which were shot live to glorious results. Every song has its own thematic energy to it. The opening “Let’s Go Crazy” number serves as an energetic showcase for the behind the scenes action of the First Avenue Club. “Darling Nikki” has the bitter sexual contempt of a man jealous of rivaling interests. The titular song has the regretful tempo of a man realizing his boyish insecurities are feeble ones.

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Warner Bros

All the performances push the narrative along far more convincingly than the plot does, picking up the slack in the way an album ratchets up stylistically. It’s honestly a shame that “When The Doves Cry” is merely used as a montage since it has so much potential for a grand Prince performance. If it was half as exciting as any of the other live numbers showcased here, it’d be an incredibly vibrant cinematic one. Seeing these numbers on a big screen (as I was able to for this viewing) give off the closest possible vibe of seeing Prince live, especially for someone like myself who never got the chance to before the tragic events that happened this past Thursday. Purple Rain is the best case scenario for the concept of a full length feature music video, one with an extraneous plot and characters who barely seem to fit into the same film. Yet, it never loses sight of its central purpose for existing: the vibrant image and unrelenting energy of its star. Prince was never the best actor, but his veracious ability to be a performer more than makes up for any sort of short comings. The final number has Prince declaring that “Baby, I’m A Star.” A presumptuous claim, but one Prince could easily make without a word against it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Prince Motorcycles

purple-rain-poster

Retrospective Reviews #10: Deep In The Heart of Texas Chainsaw

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise really isn’t one that seems to merit a franchise. The 1974 film was groundbreaking at the time, providing audiences with an authentic sense of terror that hadn’t felt since Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both were partially based on real life serial killer Ed Gein, but take that inspiration to very different story, one that feels rather finite. Yet, we got three sequels and a couple remake/reboots/reinterpretations over the last forty or so years. We’ll explore most of them today, give or take The Beginning or Texas Chainsaw 3D.

04/5/16: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Re-Watch)

texas-chain-saw-massacre

Bryaston Pictures

If Halloween introduced the formula for the slasher film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre served as the initial rough outline. One covered in stain marks, grease and the occasional blood soaked feather. Much of the praise for the 1974 film came from how authentic it felt, which shows in the grungy macabre detail of the sets and naturalistically trashy use of lighting. All of the environments feel lived in, allowing us to explore them with these relatively normal young road trippers traveling through Texas. It’s an appropriately dingy aesthetic that feels like exploitative journalistic reporting of the time, showing off the destructive detail that lies at the heartland of an America gone crazy. The detail of the environment allows us to fill in the blanks when things become horrific yet oddly free of gore later on. It’s all pretty damn impressive… and a shame it has to be showcased through some pretty unremarkable main characters. With our main group of road trippers, we’re not really allowed to grow attached to most of them, with the possible exception of expert screamer Marilyn Burns during the climax. Everyone else in that VMW is pretty much a non entity, either there to get us from Point A to Point B or whine endlessly in the case of the wheelchair bound Franklin. It’s a real shame that we spend roughly half the film with these soulless vessels, yet our villainous Sawyer clan manages to feel far more dimensional. Seriously, this backwards warped family has more of an actual cohesive unit in the iconically chaotic dinner table scene than the others do in the first half of the film. We get a sense of each person’s role in the Sawyer family, from Jim Siedow’s abusive father to Nubbins’ weaselly motivator to Leatherface picking up the slack as the labor/muscle/homemaker, all of whom worship the ground their beloved decrepit grandpa walks on. This all feeds into the believability of this crazed family existing somewhere off in the backwoods of Texas… just a shame some realistically bland leads had to drive us there.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Meat Hammers

04/5/16: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Re-Watch)

texas-chainsaw-massacre-2

Cannon Films

So, after a rather grounded horror exploration of the Texas backwoods, how could one possibly follow it up? Well, for Tobe Hooper, you take 12 years, make one of the most iconic ghost films of all time… and then turn the second film into a carnival ride that feels like it’s constantly on the verge of breaking apart. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a crazed geek show of a movie, completely abandoning the subtle gore and grounded terror of the original in favor of brazen budget spectacle with all the insanity of a rickety roller coaster being held together by Elmer’s glue and duct tape. Given the film was made through Cannon Films, the carnival barkers of films studios in the 1970s-80s, this is no surprise. Yet, what separates it from that studio’s intense schlock output of over the top action films starring Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson is director Tobe Hooper’s vision. Hooper emphasizes far more on the black humor that can be seen under the grime of the original film, going full hog as he spits in the face of expectation and convention by throwing the Sawyer family into disturbed set pieces of gore and confused depraved sexuality that culminates in a literal chainsaw duel. Much of that insanity comes from the members portraying the Sawyer clan, such as Jim Siedow’s returning abusive father with a crazed cannibalistic capitalist edge, Bill Johnson’s turn as Leatherface that has a warped awkward burgeoning sexuality and Bill Moseley stealing every damn scene he’s in as the manically demented former Vietnam vet Chop Top. Their bizarre trinity tries to contend with the tactile yet terrified lead Caroline Williams and the vengeance seeking madness of a chainsaw wielding sheriff Dennis Hopper. It all may be profoundly out of touch with the original… but it’s honestly all the better for it. Removing it from the shackles of the first film’s iconic moments – with the possible exception of the Grandpa sledgehammer scene that’s pretty similar to the original – allows for less direct comparison and more creativity within the concept. I just wish some of the other sequels had realized this.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Dented Plates

04/06/16: Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

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New Line Cinema

After the lesser reception of the second entry, New Line Cinema picked up the rights to the franchise and decided to go for a bigger budgeted take on the more grounded horror of the original film. Or at least, that’s what I could assess in between the muddy cinematography and bouts of boredom. Leatherface is the type of franchise continuation that turned the horror genre stale, emphasizing on elements that made the original work without adding much of anything truly new. The same premise of people on a road trip encountering the Sawyers, running through the woods, getting captured and trying to escape this bizarre family is all there, but with none of the nuance to make me feel invested. The woods elements are especially infuriating, given that a solid third of the film is set there and barely anything can be seen thanks to the extremely dark and incompetent cinematography that muddles the attempted scenes of gore. The film’s infamous issues with the MPAA over said gore baffles me in retrospect, given there’s so little of it abound even in the unrated cut I saw. Yet, the structure of the film still feels incredibly choppy, considering most of the death scenes and character moments are rather rushed and unearned, particularly with this film’s half assed attempt at giving our female lead a Ripley style arc into badassery. The few intriguing moments come from the rather brazen performances of horror favorite Ken Foree as one of the more competent non-Sawyers of the franchise and relative unknown Viggo Mortensen as the one interesting member of the Sawyer clan. Everyone else in the family has rather generic quirks that have little to them, including Leatherface’s bizarre fascination with a Speak N Spell. None of this is enough to excuse this dull excuse for a follow up. Short of 2013’s excruciating Texas Chainsaw 3D, it’s pretty much the low point of the series.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Severed Ears

04/06/16: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation

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New Line Cinema

I’m not sure what this was. Tobe Hooper’s co-writer on the first film Kim Henkel at some point wanted to make something similar to the original film, clearly copying the basic concept with a group of teens coming across the Sawyer (or “Slaughter” for this film) clan in the backwoods of Texas. From there, things seem to really go awry, but it’s not an awry with a consistent creative vision like the one Hooper had in the second film. The awry here is just with basic moments of plot structure, editing or set pieces that makes this a rambling incoherence of a film sort of tough to watch. Even so, the weird ambition of adding more emphasis on Leatherface’s transsexuality, a gag about malfunctioning body cast tech and a conspiracy thriller plot about the “Slaughter” family’s past makes it instantaneously more watchable than the previous entry. Well, that and obviously seeing Renee Zellwegger fumble through a “meek to badass” arc or Matthew McConaughey channeling everything from his Dazed and Confused role to a Tusken Raider from Star Wars with his performance. It’s a bizarre mess, but not even a very memorable one.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Female Faces for Leatherface

04/09/16: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) (Re-Watch)

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Platinum Dunes

Starting a bad trend isn’t always commendable. This 2003 remake of the 1974 film was the first of many attempts by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes to take classic horror properties and rework them with a sleek modern vision. This is obviously in steep contrast to the original film’s grimy look, despite both being shot by cinematographer Daniel Pearl. On the one hand, it’s probably for the best that the film decided not to replicate the iconic grit of the original, instead evoking the decrepit nature of this environment more with the set design and simple yet effective ratty clothing. Yet, the choppy editing and look of someone like a Leatherface clash with the visceral look of the sets or other costumes. One can’t believe for a second that any of Leatherfaces’ masks aren’t rubber, which is sort of key in the fear. Leatherface is pretty generic as a monster here, including having the first bland backstory added to an iconic monster with his face deformity that clumsily explains his iconic mask. The better characters are ones with more left to the imagination such as R. Lee Ermey’s Sheriff Hoyt, who owns some of the most intense moments in the film. The same can’t be said for the leads, who – aside from maybe Jessica Biel – are pretty one note like the leads of the original. For a remake of a revered classic, this one at least goes for more invention and crazy gags that make it more watchable than the dreadfully forgettable Platinum Dunes remakes like A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Weed Piñatas

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part II: Chambered Plot Points

Welcome back to the Harry Potter Retrospective. Obviously, it’s been awhile since our last excursion into the world of Potter, but I plan on making up for lost time over the next month or so. In the meantime, let’s focus on Potter’s second adventure. After a successful launch of the series, director Chris Colombus returns to Hogwarts for Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, an entry that both opens up the world building of the Potter universe and is incredibly repetitive in terms of what it takes from its predecessor. This is an issue inherent in the source material, given that the basic structure of the novel of the same name follows the beats of Sorcerer’s Stone to a tee. Still, the devotion that Colombus’ previous film had to its novel is exactly what hinders this one. With Sorcerer’s Stone, the use of elaborate set pieces gave us a larger window into the Potterverse. Here, that same structure is used, but the window is often foggy for the sake of set up via either repetition or for an admittedly well staged yet ultimately overbearing special effects set piece. So, the encroaching darkness that dominates the tone of this story does set up that thematic drive for future films, but also depletes the film of much surprise given its similarities to Sorcerer’s Stone structurally. It’s a bit of a conundrum for Chamber of Secrets, feeling like needed exposition with less sugar to help us swallow.

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Warner Bros

One of the better examples of this is the opening car sequence, which manages to use the audience’s expectations from the first film to hilarious subversion. The entire sequence hinges on how much the audiences are ready to see Harry go back to Hogwarts in the typical fashion, even if the Durselys have set up hinderances to keep him from leaving or even getting word via owls. So… let’s completely subvert expectations by having a junky 20th century car crash through railings. The subversion manages to continue through some well timed moments of slapstick humor to initially indicate how off Hogwarts and the magical world in general is at this point. It’s the best way of initially introducing that unease before things become far more sinister as the mystery plot unravels. Still, even with this darker dressing (sometimes dressing covered in blood), the plot still resembles Sorcerer’s Stone‘s structure beat-for-beat. Dobby’s entrance intruding on the Durselys is this film’s Hogwarts letters, the Tom Riddle mystery its Nicolas Flamel, Aragog its Fluffy and the more obvious connections like the Quidditch game or the ending vague philosophy speechifying by Dumbledore. Chamber of Secrets gives its tremendous supporting cast far less to do, from a brief sneer from Alan Rickman to the clearly sick Richard Harris‘ limited lectures in what would end up being one of his final performances after his death a few months before the film’s release. It’s a shame when the strongest returning supporting performance is Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, who spends most of the film banished for contrived purposes so that the cast can literally slow clap the film to its end credits.

harry-potter-basilisk

Warner Bros

So yeah, there’s an obvious formula in Chamber of Secrets. Of course, future Harry Potter films will obviously have elements that recur or familiar threads. I’ll obviously address those later. That’s not to say that some of these recurring elements aren’t done with some new flair here. I’d argue the Qudditch match scene here is a decent improvement over the one in Sorcerer’s Stone, mainly in terms of focusing on Harry and Malfoy’s own conflict rather than Harry attempting to get through the game. Introducing Tom Riddle here gives more of an authentic face to the threat of Voldemort than the poorly plastered CG face on the back of Quirrell’s head in Sorcerer’s Stone. The Defense Against the Dark Arts gag is firmly established here, in which the teacher who takes the position ends up being uncovered as something more sinister and disposed of in a fitting fashion. Kenneth Branagh takes Ian Hart’s place for this entry, showing off his usual bombast with enough ego to support his ultimate selfish turn. In terms of new elements, the biggest are probably the lovable and insanely large Weasley family that starts its evolution as Harry’s surrogate family in the world of magic, from the motherly Julie “Molly Weasley” Walters to his future love insterest Bonnie “Ginny Weasley” Wright. There’s also the concept of Mudbloods, which feeds into the prejudices of the rather Aryan inspired Malfoy clan (including newcomer to the franchise Jason Isaacs that gives his co-star Rickman a run for his money in terms of still iciness) and Hermione’s drive to strive in the world of magic, as a way of proving that prejudice wrong.

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Warner Bros

That head strong motivation manages to create a genuine reason for splitting up our trio of Harry, Hermione & Ron. It’s their literal sophomore slump, often trying and failing to live up to the expectations set out for them as they get deeper into this mystery. Hermione goes in over her head trying to use magic against it, Ron continues to disappoint in his magic studies and behavior with elements like the car & Harry becomes so enraptured in the mystery of Tom Riddle to see the clear danger in front of him. Yet, it still follows the basic beats that enables Harry to directly face a threat on his own from Sorcerer’s Stone, which gives this genuine reason less impact thanks to predictability. It can be somewhat tiring at points to lead us from set piece to set piece, but the effects work and little nooks and crannies of the universe discovered along the way are pretty damn entertaining. The mixture of CG & practical work on monsters like Aragog and the Basilisk are still astonishing. Even Dobby still feels like a living breathing creature for 2002 level special effects, though Toby Jones‘ delicate voice work adds a huge amount of sympathy. This culminates quite well with the ultimate sock reveal that gives Dobby freedom, though it’s a shame that the House Elf Liberation Subplot would ultimately go to the wayside for the films, leaving Dobby to languish until he would be needed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

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Warner Bros

There’s a lot to fault Chamber of Secrets for. It’s repetitive reputation proceeds it. Yet, it’s not at all a slog to get through. There are fun character beats, the cast returning & new is still entertaining to watch develop and the tone of the rather grim climax manages to keep the ominous potential of films to come afterward intact, even giving Harry more to do than the one for the previous film. Even some of the moments it repeats are improved, but that’s still not enough to make the general actions of Chamber of Secrets stand out that much. It’s pretty much necessary set up with fun set pieces to help the medicine go down. Yet, it’s not without triumphant moments. As cliche as the slow clap finale is, the return of of Hagrid still brings a smile to my cold cynical heart even after over a decade. It shows that the schmaltz of Chris Columbus could still be utilized well, but at the same time was overstaying its welcome and Warner Bros wisely saw fit to change up the director’s chair for a darker auteur. Until then, let’s wait to see how those planted Mandrake scenes sprout and scream in our ears for next time (which will be sooner rather than later) for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Basilisk Fangs

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Retrospective Reviews #9: Batman Reanimated

After my massive disappointment with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I figured it was time to look back at some older Batman productions. Specifically animated ones that were more consistent and had a better grasp on their aims rather than the ambitiously moronic vision of Zack Snyder.

3/26/16: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Re-Watch)

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Warner Bros

Batman: The Animated Series was my first exposure to the character and probably my favorite overall incarnation of the property. Sure, I enjoy the entire Nolan trilogy and the Tim Burton films hold a place in my heart, but the 1990s animated series managed to do something few other film versions of The Dark Knight could; balance a genuine respect for the character with a consistent sense of humor and style. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm gave The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm and his team the chance to both tell an engrossing modern story for the character and give a unique take on his early years. No, it’s not the typical “parents died, slowly realizing he can become a vigilante” storyline as much as one where Bruce is already aware he wants to fight crime while masked yet finds a plausible way out. With a genuine romance that could bury his purpose before it starts yet a constant tugging need to uphold the promise he kept to his parents. The modern tale seems reminiscent of something like Batman: The Long Halloween, but flawlessly connects with the flashbacks and showcases more of The Caped Crusader’s detective skills than any other feature length take on the character. The style showcased reminds one of the neo noir timelessness of Burton’s version of Batman, but allows for a more nuanced sense of scope and expression that live action can’t quite capture with every image. The voice acting fits the gravitas wonderfully, whether it be Kevin Conroy getting to show the full range of Bruce Wayne, Mark Hamill continuing to ooze the perfect type of slimy giddiness he usually does for The Joker or Dana Delaney expressing the perfect mixture of knowing regret & firm wherewithal. For an age where theatrical animation from major studios was right in the middle of a true Disney plagiarizing ghetto, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm takes its subjects and world seriously and with the style & substance of a three dimensional live action thriller.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Abandoned World’s Fairs

3/26/16: The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest

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Warner Bros

In 1996, Bruce Timm followed Batman: The Animated Series with the obvious second DC property Superman: The Animated Series. This sixty minute production is technically a three part episode of that show that marked a crossover between both shows, though at the time Batman: The Animated Series went through a major style redesign to match the Blue Boy Scout’s show and became The New Batman Adventures, which is probably the biggest issue I could honestly have with this special. It particularly stings with the new look of The Joker, which weirdly resembles the titular character of another WB show of that era Freakazoid! with black eyes and white irises that are quite jarring. Regardless, the characters are consistent with the previous series in terms of behavior and tone. What works about this version is that there’s obviously an adversarial relationship between Superman and Batman, but its not so one sided. It has different layers, including the love triangle between Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne and Superman that actually makes for fun conflict while never wasting Lois or overemphasizing either hero. Plus, there’s an intriguing sense of conflict even between Lex Luthor and Joker, who have clashing yet believable motivations that would intertwine them. Still, Joker’s final fate being on a rather ambiguous note feels disingenuous, given his extreme likelihood of returning. One of their confrontations also leads to the film’s best comedic moment between Harley Quinn and Mercy Graves, two of the characters created for both series that would end up being integrated into the DC Universe proper. That alone shows the impact of this series, one that will hopefully not mirror the choices made in certain other recent adaptations.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Kryptonite Statues

3/29/16: Batman: Year One

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Warner Bros

The recent rash of DC animated films don’t have any real connection to the earlier mentioned attempts at the DC animated universe Bruce Timm created. Sure, Timm is a credited producer on most of them, but they share no real continuity with his stabs at the characters from the 1990s-2000s. Instead, these versions attempt to adapt specific stories or runs from the comics, many of which I can admit I’m not as familiar with. Batman: Year One, however, is one story I’m rather familiar with. Released in 1987 as a three part story written by comic book legend turned crazy kook Frank Miller tells the story of Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham & first year as Batman as well as James Gordon’s move to Gotham with his pregnant wife Barbara. The story Miller crafted contrasted Batman’s return to his crime infested hometown with Gordon’s introduction to this same crime infested area from the perspective of the police. Both have a sense of temptation, either for Bruce to give in to his occasional desires to stop fighting crime or Gordon’s attraction to Essen. These moments make them human and – more importantly – set up the bond between the two of them that culminates in their partnership as that slowly incriminate the organized crime of Gotham throughout the story. Ben McKenzie and Bryan Cranston display all of this vocally, showing the anxiety and determination they have as characters. Visually, this is one of the more impressive examples of the DC animated films, given that it so closely resembles Dave Mazzucchelli’s cinematic art style quite well. Still, the film fails to translate something pretty vital, even when directly lifting time after time from the page; an authentic sense of grit. The color palette and animation is rather smooth and elegant, which looks good in terms of a direct-to-video animated film, but sacrifices the genuine grit on display in the original book. Still, a solid adaptation of the character and one of the better films in the recent DC Animated Canon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Flaming Trays