Monday, July 30, 2012

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris and Julie Walters

The Harry Potter franchise recently ended after the seven books were transformed into eight movies. Sorcerer's Stone (also known as Philosopher's Stone) was the first entry. It did well at the box office, grossing $975 million worldwide, and was the most successful entry until the final installment in the series beat it in 2011. The eight films grossed $7.7 billion worldwide, so they are enormously popular.

Due to the popularity of the franchise, I'm going to assume that you have read J. K. Rowling's books, seen the movies, or both, so this review will contain spoilers. If you have never entered the world of Harry Potter, stop reading now.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was directed by Chris Columbus, who was responsible for Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Home Alone movies. The tone of this first Harry Potter movie is quite similar to those three, relying on whimsy and comedy rather than drama. That matches the tone of the book, so it is not a criticism. If you had read the first book, like me, you were probably looking forward to seeing the world of Harry Potter portrayed on the big screen. The adapted screenplay by Steve Kloves didn't disappoint.

There's a lot to like about Sorcerer's Stone; the sets are vast, the important story elements are present, and the majority of the young actors do a good job. It's a tricky business casting children who have to develop over the course of a decade, but I don't find myself disliking any of the choices. It's great to see Hogwarts, the Hogwarts Express, Gringotts, Diagon Alley, and Quidditch brought to life.

Sorcerer's Stone starts slowly and might seem overly long, but it's necessary to introduce the characters and the worlds they inhabit. I could imagine some people viewing this first installment and giving up on the franchise, but that would be a mistake. This is a vast story which starts off as a charming fantasy before quickly becoming much darker in tone. In a way, it mirrors childhood. We are initially fascinated with the world until we mature and realize that it does have plenty of problems. As the series progresses, the films grow more serious as the threat of evil increases.

Some of the best moments include Harry first learning about the existence of Hogwarts, his initial flying lesson, and seeing the teachers demonstrate some of the spells that the children will learn. The main characters are fully realized and know a lot about them by the end of the movie.

Sorcerer's Stone is a good blend of fantasy and action, with the final part of the film containing the most dramatic sequences as our three heroes try to recover the Philosopher's Stone. The music used in the movie is excellent, and the main theme itself suggests a magical setting. There are a lot of important themes in the series and I think it's generally a good example for children. The importance of friendship is one of the major messages and it all begins with the relationships between Harry, Ron and Hermione.

The Harry Potter franchise isn't just for children. I'm 50 and I have worked my way through the books and the eight movies several times. The adults in the story are played by some of the finest British character actors. Can you imagine anyone other than Alan Rickman as Snape? Dumbledore was played by Richard Harris in this movie and the sequel, and I think I prefer his version to Michael Gambon's portrayal, although Gambon's version did work for the more serious tone present in the other movies.

There's a whole generation of people who grew up loving Star Wars, but here's a franchise for the next generation. Sorcerer's Stone is funny and lighthearted compared to later entries in the franchise, but don't let that deter you from watching all eight movies. The adequate acting improves considerably as the children age throughout the series.

Overall score 4/5

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Safe House

Safe House (2012)
Action, Crime, Mystery, 115 minutes
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Robert Patrick

I almost went to see Safe House in the theater, and barely resisted the urge to blind-buy the Blu-ray, and I'm glad that I waited. After borrowing the movie from a friend, I know that I saved myself $20.

It's not that Safe House is terrible, it's just formulaic, mediocre, and badly-written.

The basic story is built around Matt Weston (Reynolds), who looks after a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. The job involves a lot of sitting around, but he springs into action when he learns that Tobin Frost (Washington), a rogue CIA agent, has been captured, and will be delivered into his custody. When a recovery team, led by Agent Kiefer (Patrick), is attacked and defeated, Weston is left to bring Frost in himself.

Weston is ambitious and wants to work at a more high profile location, but he's young and unproven in the eyes of his bosses. We are shown how he is regarded during an exchange involving his superiors, Barlow (Gleeson) and Linklater (Farmiga), at HQ.

Imagine you were given the chance to write the screenplay. How would you make it stand out from previous entries in the genre? We have seen this subject handled well in the Bourne series, and reasonably well in Salt. Safe House doesn't belong in the same class.

What's wrong with the movie? The excellent cast is virtually ignored. Instead of establishing the characters and giving them depth, we are given very little background information. The front cover promises an adrenaline rush, and that's all that we are given. If you love action movies and don't care about the plot, Safe House delivers. But if you want to know why these events are occurring, it's not exactly an important part of the mix. There's a lot of gunfire, but meaningful dialogue is at a minimum.

If I had the pleasure of directing actors like Washington, Farmiga and Gleeson, I would make use of their abilities. Washington doesn't put a foot wrong, he's just given nothing to work with. Farmiga's screen time is extremely limited, but remember how effective she was in a similar role in The Departed? Gleeson is one of a kind and excelled in movies such as In Bruges and The Guard, but his character has no depth in Safe House. I see this as a wasted opportunity.

In the Bourne movies, we see how Jason Bourne meets his girlfriend, and how that relationship becomes meaningful. When she is threatened, we feel his pain and we react. Weston's girlfriend in Safe House may as well have been a cardboard cutout, and as a result, we feel nothing when he examines their relationship.

Safe House focuses on the action element. You'll see shootouts, car chases, explosions and people running. You might even understand why all this is happening, even though it's just a by-the-numbers screenplay. The movie grossed over $200 million and you won't scream for your money back, but I wouldn't bother buying the Blu-ray unless you are an action junkie. I love the cast, but against my expectations, I'm severely disappointed by the end result. Watch Bourne again instead, or watch Anton Corbijn's, The American, as that actually has some fresh ideas.

Overall score 3/5

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Brave (Theatrical Review)

Brave (2012)
Animation, Action, Adventure, 93 minutes
Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell
Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters

Pixar has produced some of the best animated films ever made, and even the worst offerings are better than the work of most rival studios. However, after seeing trailers for Brave, I found myself wondering whether it would live up to my expectations. People running into walls or being hit in the groin are usually there to get a few cheap laughs and I expect more from a Pixar movie.

I shouldn't have worried.

Brave is aimed at a younger audience than Pixar's best work like Ratatouille and Up. Although it does contain deeper themes, such as conflict between mother and daughter, and dealing with society's expectations, the story is easy to follow. There were quite a few small children present in the theater when I saw the movie and I could hear them laughing and curiously asking questions about the characters. It also worked for me, and I'm by no means a small child.

A few of the action scenes and some of the scenes set in the dark forest might worry very young children, but I don't think there's anything frightening enough to stop anyone seeing Brave.

Those who were complaining that Pixar hasn't featured a female protagonist finally have a reason to celebrate; Merida (Macdonald) is featured heavily throughout, and she's a princess, although not in the traditional Disney style. You will hear a couple of songs, and there is a witch in the story, but Brave is not simply rehashing the formula exhausted in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Instead, Merida is like a tougher version of Rapunzel from Tangled.

Brave is a coming-of-age tale set in ancient Scotland. The main clan-leaders all have sons, and Merida is expected to marry one of them. Unfortunately, she doesn't feel ready for marriage and wants time to discover how she feels about adult pursuits. All she really wants to do is enjoy her childhood, ride her horse, and practice her archery. This is essentially a story about a girl trying to change her fate.

Some of the supporting characters are funny. Her potential suitors are an interesting bunch of misfits, and they supply a few laughs early in the story. Merida's three younger brothers appear regularly and are used in very inventive ways.

Be prepared to hear Scottish accents throughout the movie. It reminded me somewhat of How to Train Your Dragon in that respect. I didn't find myself rooting for Merida as strongly as I rooted for Remy in Ratatouille because the outcome never really felt in doubt. Although Merida faces considerable peril, I never suspected that things would end badly.

The voice acting was particularly good. Merida's father (Connolly) stole a lot of scenes and was the source of much of the humor. Kelly Macdonald did well as Merida and kept her likable, even though some of her actions were misguided. I also noticed how effective Patrick Doyle's score was. Unlike most Pixar movies, Brave is full of action, and the music enhanced those sequences considerably.

The opening five minutes provided some of the strongest scenes in the movie as we were able to see Merida as a small girl and the relationship she had with her parents. Other magical moments included her encounter with will o' the wisps in the forest. Both of these elements reminded me of Studio Ghibli works, but Brave couldn't maintain that high standard for the whole movie.

What we are left with is an enjoyable 90 minutes with plenty of laughs. There's less substance than that found in the best Pixar movies, but it's still a worthy addition and I will buy the Blu-ray when it is released. The overall look of the animation does match Pixar's excellent standards and it's hard to imagine it looking any better. Be prepared for a few cheap laughs, but don't miss it in theaters. I saw the 3D version and I don't think it added anything to the experience, so stick to the 2D version if you want to save a few bucks.

I was pleasantly surprised by the full movie after being disappointed by the rather formulaic trailers. I should also mention that La Luna, the latest short from Pixar, airs immediately before Brave. That's well worth your time too.

Overall score 4/5

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