Thursday, May 06, 2010

Penny Thoughts: April 30-May 6

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) ****
Director: Chris Columbus
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Toby Jones, Julie Walters, Bonnie Wright, Mark Williams, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Robbie Coltrane, Kenneth Branagh, Matthew Lewis, David Bradley, Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Shirley Henderson

I have a theory that the second films in most successful franchises are usually the best of the series. Some examples could be, “The Empire Strikes Back”, “The Godfather, Part II”, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”, “From Russia With Love”, “Spider-Man 2”, “The Dark Knight”, etc. Of course, this is no hardened rule, but I would also feel that “Harry Potter and the Chamber Secrets” would fit in with these examples. The introductions of the first film are behind it, and the fact that the novels would become too long to fully realize in a reasonable running time had yet to become a problem for the filmmakers. With the first film firmly establishing the Harry Potter universe, its rules and cinematic language, the filmmakers relaxed into their strongest mystery with Lord Voldemort’s second attempt to return from the dead. On top of that there are still great surprises and wonderments to be discovered in the world of magic for both the audience and the characters.

Presumed Innocent (1990) ***
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Frank Pierson, Alan J. Pakula, Scott Turow (novel)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Brian Denehey, Raul Julia, Bonnie Bedelia, Greta Scacchi, Paul Winfield, John Spencer, Joe Grifasi, Tom Mardirosian, Bradley Whitford

It’s always interesting to go back and see a movie that disappointed the first time to see what you think years later. “Pressumed Innocent” had big buzz when it was released in 1990, but seemed to underwhelm, most likely due to the novel’s popularity and the fact that the audience knew the identity of the killer from the opening moments. I had not, however read the book, and so was unimpressed that I was able to decipher what had gone down fairly early on as well. Looking at it now, it stands up surprisingly well, and I wonder whether my suspicions of the killer’s identity had more to do with casting or some sort of over heard knowledge, because the filmmakers do a good job keeping the outcome a secret until the very end. Sure the suspicions are there, but two suspects are possible right up till the final confession. It’s in that final confession where I found the only major flaw of the movie this time around. The confession is about six minutes long, but as all the evidence has been presented by the time it starts, once the perpetrator begins the confession, you instantly know how it went down. But you still have to sit through the six minutes of explanation.

Another problem I had with the movie in 1990 was the casting of Bonnie Bedelia as the accused’s wife. At the time, I thought her performance was flat and lacked the dynamics the character required. Today Bedelia’s performance seems quite nuanced and right on pitch for what the role requires. Any weaknesses in the role are due more to weaknesses in the script rather than in Bedelia’s performance. Another performance I did not notice the first time around was the brilliant portrayal of the judge by veteran actor Paul Winfield, truly inspired.

The Core (2003) **
Director: Jon Amiel
Writers: Cooper Layne, John Rogers
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo, Tchéky Karyo, DJ Qualls, Richard Jenkins, Alfre Woodard, Bruce Greenwood

I’ll confess a certain affection for this attempt at a good disaster flick. The filmmakers opted to cast talent above star power and have assembled a fine crew of B-list stars (save for Hilary Swank from the A-list), who all put their hearts into this rather clunky script. Like so many disaster flicks before, the world is going to end if a group of scientists don’t enlist their brains and heroism in a plot that will have them risking life and limb for all humanity and getting knocked off in numerical order in the process. You could call the character order of death and the exact timing of each death from the moment their mission to drill to the Earth’s core and set off a nuclear blast to “jump start” the planet begins. It’s an earnest telling of this old cinematic story, but the cliché dialogue and plotting never allow it to take off and be the thrilling disaster flick the quality of “The Towering Inferno” or even the recent “2012”. The script is over the top, but the production values aren’t. It all just needs a little more umph!

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) ***
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

My initial thoughts are that this film has gotten much of its praise due to the fact that it was Heath Ledger’s final film. Not that it isn’t good. It is not, however, one of the greater works of Ledger or director Terry Gilliam for that matter. Gilliam graciously removed his contractually required credit “a Terry Gilliam film” and replaced it with “a film from Heath Ledger and friends”, and he did a good job of finding a way to finish the movie when his leads died midway through production. But this is really Gilliam lite. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Gilliam can be a difficult filmmaker, both on the set and in the viewing. Gilliam claimed this film was inspired by a need to just have a fun time making a movie. Despite the unforeseen circumstance of Ledger’s death, it seems as if they did have a fun time. The casting of Tom Waits as the devil is more than a stroke of genius.

The Blind Side (2009) ***
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writers: John Lee Hancock, Michael Lewis (book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game”)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Jae Head, Lily Collins, Ray McKinnon, Kim Dickens, Kathy Bates

“The Blind Side” is everything it promises to be. After seeing it, I do feel Sandra Bullock’s awards season attention was deserved. Perhaps the bravest thing she does in her performance is never going for the emotional cheap shot. She keeps her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy at an emotional distance, which makes her job as an actress more difficult, but probably serves the character more accurately. It was one of the best features of the film for me. And I think what proves Bullock is the Oscar caliber actress she now must tout to promote all her roles is that she remains as charming and funny here without the cheap emotional tricks that would normally fill the arsenal of an actress coming from the romantic comedy background of hers. Not to mention that I could never knock a movie that holds the greatest linebacker to ever play the game in such high regard. Go Giants! Sorry, Theismann.

Y Tu Mamá También (2001) ****
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Carlos Cuarón
Starring: Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Maribel Verdú

I finally got around to one of the movies, which dominated critics’ best of the decade lists that I had yet to see. This movie was everything I expected and something I didn’t. It has a carefree quality about it that so accurately depicts its adolescent subjects. That’s not to say these young people don’t have cares, but their ups and downs are given perspective by Cuarón that allows the audience to reflect on those days of adolescence when friendship was all that mattered and no thoughts of adulthood to come had any relevance. Of course, sex is all that’s on these kids’ minds, and with the help of an adult who has more perspective than she deserves, they come of age in a way all the rest of us could only dream of. Only a few hints of the hardships of adulthood to come are suggested by the isolated narration accompanying their journey.

1 comment:

Alan Bacchus said...

I concur. Chamber of Secrets is actually my favourite of the Potter films