Saturday, December 29, 2007

Oh Wow! An Update! Cam's Worst of 2007!

Hey there you few, who still bother wandering over to this neglected avenue of cyberspace. It hasn't been a great year for my blog, other than an unexpected mention on CBS news online, but I'm aiming to get her back on track. This upcoming semester will hopefully allow me more time to write, and hopefully get quoted again somewhere legit. I do strongly appreciate all you Gerard Butler webmasters who quoted my article on the now aborted Escape From New York project, though. Recognition always helps to grease the creative wheels and y'all were no exception to that rule.

But let's get to it! So, this was not a spectacular year for movies. There were a lot of films that failed to meet audience expectations (Shrek The Third, Pirates 3, Spider-Man 3), and many that dwelled in mediocrity (Pathfinder, Shooter, Ghost Rider). These types of films haven't made my list, as they are either too blandly forgettable or lamely underwhelming to earn the sort of hatred that earns a place on my "Worst Of" list. Rather, I'm focussing on the movie-going experiences that left me angry and frustrated. The movies that provided hours of ranting conversations with friends over how truly awful and insulting they were. Films that don't deserve to be called films.

Before we begin I have to mention that I didn't see a number of the truly dreadful offerings to be ejected from the bowels of Hollywood this year. So, don't be expecting my thoughts on junk like Norbit, I Know Who Killed Me, Epic Movie, Good Luck Chuck or I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry. Haven't seen them. Plus, how much fun is it to put them on a list when they seem to have been made for that very purpose. As well, I also have yet to see a couple of the truly dismal disappointments like Rob Zombie's Halloween or Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, and thus can't provide any insight there. No, this list focuses on five films which I went into with an open-mind and was ejected from the theatre/couch bitter and resentful. Without any more long-winded adieu, here comes the pain.

5) Transformers
A couple months before its release it had all the appearances of the most awe-inspiring, badass spectacle of the summer. I lined up for an hour to see it, psyched for a couple of hours of the type of action-packed wonder that only Hollywood can produce. Instead I was force-fed a cynical, wit-starved, behemoth of ugliness which joins fellow inductees Godzilla and Armageddon in underlining the worst that crass commercial filmmaking can create.

It's not only the insultingly lousy storyline and one-note characters that torment me however; it's the lack of joy and wonder. Every event in the film is perfunctory and uninspired. From endlessly dull fight scenes to lowest-common denominator comedy, Transformers left me feeling pissed off and a bit sad. Do people realize how much they are being ripped off with junk like this? Blockbusters were once marriages of wonderful storytelling and effects. Now, they are bombastic CG-reels that strip away the humanity of the whole experience. Films like this lead me to wonder if robots are behind the camera as well...

4) Wild Hogs
What happens if you make a comedy without a single laugh? Does it become a fascinating portrait of actors valiantly struggling with horrific material, or at least an intriguing train wreck? Turns out in this case the answer is neither. Wild Hogs is the most uncomfortable film experience of the year, a dead zone of audience pandering, ineptly staged hilarity, and forced performances that makes one's skin crawl.

It takes really bad talent to strip away the collective onscreen charisma of John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, Tim Allen and William H. Macy, but director Walt Becker manages the near impossible. Each actor, with special attention on Travolta, is something of an unlikable parody of their usual personas, and the effect is off-putting to say the least. There were lots of terrible comedies this year, but only this one had me frequently glancing at the countdown timer on the DVD player in exhausted frustration.

3) War
I would love to meet the rocket scientist who came up with the brilliant notion of creating an action movie around a feuding Jet Li and Jason Statham in which the two never really duke it out. Instead said genius attempted to wow the audience with an extremely tired mob story coupled with a laughably pathetic twist ending.

War is the rare instance of a modern action movie not understanding its own selling point. At least Transformers had giant robots. So, instead of an empty kinetic thrill, we get a curiously plodding cop/gangster drama with unimaginative martial arts scenes and frantic pursuits thrown in. The car "chase" in particular is hilarious in how poorly it is staged and edited. Statham, a once bright rising star in the action universe, is boring and one-dimensional and Li is just plain wasted. I never thought I'd grow nostalgic for The Transporter or Cradle 2 The Grave, but here we are.

2) Hannibal Rising
This was almost number one! Only through serious soul-searching did I come to the final decision to push this toothless cannibal thriller down to second place. It is amazing how badly this production manages to render one of the most fascinating on-screen villains of all time boring. Credit must go to young Gaspard Ulliel who is either a terrible actor or an extra who wandered onto the wrong set. He takes Anthony Hopkins quiet menace and turns it into whiny, emo foppishness.

The screenplay doesn't do Ulliel any favours, it must be said, as Hannibal's revenge quest in never anything other than campy. Rhys Ifans, as the chief villain, is often hilariously over-the-top and a stunning contrast to Ulliel's one-note flatness. Despite a promising Ulliel-free opening, we are treated to a dull two hours punctuated by bad laughs. I particularly enjoyed Hannibal's first encounter with his infamous restraining mask, as well as Gong Li's immortal line: "Memories are like a knife. They can hurt you." Indeed, and so can films like this on your resume.

1) The Number 23
I actually went into this one by coincidence. We couldn't get into the advance showing of Shooter, and Zodiac wasn't going to start for another hour, so this was our punishment. I think Jim Carrey is the tops. I've liked almost everything he's done. This one, however, was a truly stunning horror of a film in which every decision made was evidently wrong.

It's rare to see thrillers this poorly scripted and nonsensical not go straight-to-DVD, but I suppose with a pedigree like The Number 23 that wasn't going to happen. Instead, audiences were painfully exposed to a tired looking Carrey going through the motions of a plot that not even Gaspard Ulliel could take seriously. From the bizarre film-noir pieces, to the idiot ending, The Number 23 managed to create a vacuum of poor writing. The Angel of Death dog was a nice capper. I truly believe that a good film could be made on the basis of the number 23 numerological theory, but this film ain't it. With what is left, it is a failure on every conceivable level, and without a doubt the stupidest and most regrettable film-going experience of the year.

So, there it is.

I'll put together my "Best Of" list in the very near future, as soon as I see Juno. Hope you all enjoyed the list... Even the Transformers apologists.

Have a happy New Years!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Film Review: EASTERN PROMISES - Russian See It!

The title of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg's new film Eastern Promises may not sound very familiar to you. In fact, it may very likely sound like something you would go out of your way not to watch. There is a bland, generic sound to the title that is at complete odds with the exciting, challenging and hypnotic work lurking beneath. Yes, folks, we have us a winner and I've been appointed (Never mind by who!) to tell you that you owe it to yourselves to mark this one down on your "To See" lists. And hey, you get to see Aragorn in ways never before imagined (although perhaps fantasized by some...).

Eastern Promises follows a damaged midwife named Anna (the most luminous Naomi Watts), as she attempts to piece together the truth regarding a young girl's death. The girl, track-marked and filthy, dies in childbirth, leaving a healthy baby girl and a diary behind. She soon finds herself inside the Russian restaurant of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a seemingly friendly old man, who is overly eager to take the diary off Anna's hands and provide her with a proper translation. Little to her knowing, Semyon is an extremely dangerous mob kingpin, and soon she finds herself involved not only with him, but also his disturbed son Kirill (Seymour Cassel) and stoic, quiet driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). What follows brings dark secrets to light and incidents occur that alter the future of both Anna's family (Made up of her mother and Russian immigrant Uncle), and Semyon's.

I was not someone who was over the moon for Cronenberg's previous critical darling A History Of Violence. I felt that film strayed into Bizzaro-land half way through and never really ended on a satisfying note. Evidently, many disagree. Regardless, Eastern Promises is a completely satisfying cinematic experience. Cronenberg (left)has taken a familiar genre and crafted something personal and stunningly elegant. To be sure, Promises is often stomach-churningly violent, with graphic bodily dismemberment and stabbings, but it is also beautiful to look at. Its dark hues and artistically seedy environments breathe their atmosphere onto the audience. We don't sit by as passive watchers, we feel this world. The credit for this has to go to Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who obviously weren't content to just tell a great story (written by Steven Knight) and ignore the visual details.

The tone of the film is also greatly refreshing. It isn't a very long film, but Cronenberg is in no real hurry. Now, maybe I'm alone, but I've found myself increasingly more impressed by films that just take their time and let us spend time with the characters. Eastern Promises does this nicely, and we find ourselves as unwittingly pulled into the violent Russian underworld as Naomi Watt's character. It's seductive really, and a tribute to Cronenberg's faith in his story to just let the events happen without forcing the story ahead.

It's so refreshing to see a movie that tells not only a fascinating story, but fills it with brilliantly accomplished performances. In my last review, for Jodie Foster's The Brave One, I cited her and Terrence Howard's acting over the somewhat generic story. None of that here, thank you. Viggo Mortensen gives a performance that, God willing, should easily place him on the award ballots at the end of the year. His mob driver, Nikolai, is a man of few words who says more through bodily gestures and looks than we initially realize. Mortensen also gives his character a frightening capacity for sudden violence that is stunning. There is a four minute fight scene in a Russian bath where he battles two armed thugs, wearing nothing but a body-ful of tattoos. Many actors would look uncomfortable or get giggles for fighting with their, er, hobbits, on full display, but Mortensen makes it scary and animalistic. He is also brilliantly strong in his scenes with each of the supporting actors. His scenes with Watts, in particular, are captivating in how they communicate the character's buried sensitivity and yearning for this damaged soul who symbolizes a glimmer of purity outside of the abyss he has become entangled in. Frankly, I'll be writing many a letter if Mortensen doesn't get an Oscar nod in the New Year. That's right! Many!

Also insanely award-worthy is Armin Mueller-Stahl. His sternly vicious mob boss Semyon is the most masterfully handled portrayal of this type since Marlon Brando stuffed his mouth full of cotton. Mueller-Stahl (right) wonderfully mixes silent menace and grandfatherly friendliness to create a character we could almost love... If he wasn't such a complete bastard. And while Cassel's and Mortensen's characters handle all the ugly stuff on-screen, it's Mueller-Stahl who disgusts us the most. He's a sick man in a never-ending struggle to maintain his dignity and reputation. He is disappointed beyond belief in his son, but realizes that he is all that is left to carry on his mantle. Mueller-Stahl makes us feel this man's pain and we understand why characters cling to this man's side. Semyon may be a monster, but he is a comforting paternal presence who truly understands what he is doing. It truly is dazzling work.

Naomi Watts is typically strong... Though I'm not sure if she has ever given anything less than A-quality efforts. She will likely be overlooked here, as her character is the entry point for the audience and thus lacks the eccentric flourishes of the other characters. Still, it's another triumph for an actress who is often taken for granted.

Also easy to look past is Vincent Cassel. Cassel (below right) has become such a master of playing sleazy dirtbags that we almost fail to recognize what he brings to this film. His character is the weakest of the central characters, and the one who realizes how lost he is in this world. It's all he knows, yet he is a loose cannon with little hope of ever being able to properly take his father's place. In several scenes, Cassel lets the bravado of the character crack apart and reveal the insecurity and deranged anger within. He's both frightening and pitiful, and Kirill is another worthy addition to the actor's rogues gallery of villains.

It's important to mention that Eastern Promises isn't as idea-packed as some of Cronenberg's previous works. Rather, it's a brilliant genre film as well as an incisive character piece. It gives all the thrills that come with the mobster flick territory, but manages to touch us a little deeper. It's a melancholy gem that is ambiguous and immersive. It's also one of the strongest films of the year.

My only complaint is that I wanted to spend more time with these people. Even if they are bloody and bare-ass naked.

4.5 out of 5

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Film Review: THE BRAVE ONE - Jodie's Got A Gun.

What is it about Jodie Foster? She projects fierce intelligence so effortlessly that she can instantly convince me of anything, even if it's something moronic in a film well below her talents. The woman could dress up like a Teletubby and spout nuclear physics and I would never for a second doubt that she was telling anything less than God's honest truth. This plucky inner "Mensa-ness" has carried her well through films brilliant (Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver), wonderfully fun (Maverick, Inside Man, Panic Room) and hideously hacky (Flightplan) without ever compromising her appeal and star power. Now, that's the sign of a movie star people.

Dame Foster brings her A-game once more, this time to Neil Jordan's urban vigilante film The Brave One. 'tis the story of a lovably oddball New York radio host (Foster) whose world is shattered when she and her fiance (Naveen Andrews) are viciously attacked by a group of young thugs. She lives, he doesn't, and soon she's getting a serious case of the Bronson's. She buys an illegal handgun and starts baiting criminals to attack her so she can take them out gunslinger style. Soon, her mysterious attacks draw the attention of a morose police officer (Terrence Howard) who, while investigating the case, finds himself entangled with her. Their friendship becomes an interesting study in mutual admiration and curiosity, with a slight hint of romantic yearning. It's the type of nuanced adult relationship we rarely see these days, and it elevates the film from its base B-movie roots.

The Brave One is a film that succeeds in spite of some apparent shortcomings entirely due to Foster and Howard's performances. The material in itself is powerful, but it too often falters in the logic department to be a true contender. Neil Jordan, an inspired director, seems to be unsure of how to steer this Hollywood idea film into being the type of that transcends its genre, like Spike Lee did with Inside Man. He is merely content to let his two leads do the heavy lifting and put some charge into a standard story. With that said, it's a nice looking film, with beautifully captured night shots and some haunting uses of light filtering through windows to better emphasize the heightened state of the film.

The screenplay, by scribes' Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor, and Cynthia Mort, makes decent use of the time-honored themes of the genre, without seeming too ridiculous or phony. Only two major sections seemed wrong-headed. These being when Foster, following a vicious attack in a scuzzy N.Y. area, goes wandering through the city's dregs in search of a handgun. Sure she's determined, but this is a woman so traumatized by her attack that she can't even leave her house without shaking. It rings false, but it isn't a deal-breaker. The other section that is questionable is the ending. It's a little too Hollywood happy-happy for me, not to mention unlikely. I severely doubt that events would transpire in such a way so as to allow the characters to resolve the story as they do. Still, it provides a certain catharsis and is at least mildly acceptable without being insulting. Some viewers may also be leery of the number of psychotic criminals who pop up when necessary, but I was willing to allow the writers' this particular flight of fancy in the name of Foster's character development.

Speaking of Foster, why isn't she the highest paid star in Hollywood? No offense to actresses like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman (Who is the closest to a modern day Grace Kelly we have.), or Angelina Jolie, but none of them display the sheer intensity and power that Miss Jodie does in every one of her films. I can't recall a single movie where she seemed to be phoning it in... Here again she delivers another ace performance that manages to stay with the viewer well after the story's convolutions are forgotten. It's the type of role worthy of an Oscar if only the film were stronger. She's badass and we accept it. Hell, we believe she could kick the ass of any thug in town! That we deem this likely is further testament to Foster's abilities to project her character's inner strength onto the audience. I'm now fully convinced she could beat the stuffing out of the three actresses mentioned above and still have enough energy to drop Dwight Yoakum with a sledge-hammer again ala Panic Room.

Terrence Howard, a naturally intense actor, continues to search for that post-Hustle & Flow defining role that will permanently enter him into the upper pantheon of great actors. He hasn't found it here, but his hunger is palpable. His sharp intelligence is a perfect counterpart to Foster's and the two work beautifully together. If only the writing had been a bit better we may have had a relationship as memorable as the whole Starling/Lecter shebang. As it stands though, Howard lends a smouldering rage to his character that better emphasizes the character's internal sadness. We want Jodie to get away, and yet we can't help empathizing with Howard. It takes a strong actor to make a part like this shine, and Terrence Howard shows us once again why his talent is unlikely to disappear from movies for a long time.

The other actor worthy of praise is Nicky Katt (Pictured right... This was the only pic I could find...), playing Howard's partner. He is the perfect sidekick: funny, resourceful, and able to be a pillar of strength for his partner's weaknesses. Katt (Sin City, World Trade Center) is the true revelation here. His performance, in little screen-time, manages to communicate his character's violent past and redemption in body language and punchy buts of dialogue. People will go into this film for the two stars above the film's title, but should pay special attention to Katt. This film shows great promise for a potential star on the rise.

So, the final question is: Is The Brave One worth my $10 bucks? To which I reply: Yes, it's the type of mainstream Hollywood "big idea" thriller that manages to be both entertaining and provocative. It won't top many year-end lists, but the actors' alone place this one in the "Solid" category. It isn't great, it ain't bad, it's solid. And with the way Hollywood is running these days that ain't too much of a negative.

It's also better than Shoot 'Em Up, if that helps.

3.5 out of 5

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Film Review - THE SIMPSONS MOVIE: A Franchise Savior or Much Apu About Nothing?

A lot of intense questions hung over the head of 20th Century Fox's The Simpsons Movie. Would the film restore the glory of the franchise after multiple years of lousy output? Would the translation from TV to film work? Would the returning vintage-era writers (Creator Matt Groening, producer James L. Brooks and 9 more!) mine comic gold once again, delivering something that would have us in the gales of laughter that the entire season 5 did? Would Lenny and Carl finally have their big show-stopping love scene? Well, the answers are simple now: A no, a mild yes, a no... And a (regretful) no again. But let's get to the real nitty gritty here and dissect this sucker like Larry Drake in Dr. Giggles!

But first, lemme run through the story (This really won't take long. Thank God.). The film opens like most episodes do, with a seemingly random event. In this case, the Simpson family attends church, where Grandpa becomes a conduit for a message from God. The warning is garbled at best and mostly ignored by the blissfully ignorant townsfolk. Following this, Homer and Bart have a daring contest that ends with Bart handcuffed naked to a telephone pole, and Homer adopting a hilariously drawn pig. Bart, feeling unloved and questioning Homer's fatherly abilities, begins to ponder finding a more stable paternal figure in neighbor Flanders. All this is interrupted when Homer dumps a large amount of pig dung in recent environmental protection recipient Lake Springfield, thus causing massive pollution in Springfield. Meanwhile, opportunistic (and nefarious) EPA head Russ Cargill (Voiced by Albert Brooks) has Springfield enclosed in a massive dome to prevent the pollution from affecting the rest of the country. Following threats of mob violence from the town, the Simpson family escapes the dome and heads to Alaska, where they learn lessons and must decide whether to return to Springfield to set matters right and thwart Cargill's grim plans.
Hmm. That wasn't as brief as I expected. Well, live and learn.

Anyways, I covered my opinions on the current state of the show in a previous entry (Storm the archives for that stuff.), so I'm not gonna go into too much depth regarding that whole ball of wax. Rather, I'm simply going to state that The Simpson's Movie is a fairly grand improvement on anything featured in the last 7 or so years. But, with that said, it also suffers badly in comparison to every episode within the first decade (Except that wretched Coyote/Hallucination episode - Detailed in my previous entry.). Instead, the film falls squarely in the middle, never really daring to be anything other than an amusing diversion. And with a pedigree like this, that is a bit of a disappointment.

I laughed in The Simpsons Movie. A fair deal, in fact. The first half hour is a wonderful series of random "Simpson-esque" moments that lead from chortle to chuckle. Bart's naked skateboard odyssey across Springfield is a hilarious run with a shockingly funny capper. Individual moments with Ralph, Moe, Krusty, etc get laughs simply through familiarity. Unfortunately, however, once the storyline kicks in the laughs begin to fade. The doming of Springfield, leading into the Alaska material feels like the sorts of stunts that the show went crazy over once flagging inspiration began to kick in. The Simpsons in Brazil, London, Canada, Japan, and so on, times fifty. The Alaska stuff is cute, but has very little effect on the story at large. It's throwaway stuff that unforgivably takes us away from the rich supporting cast that has been the real strength behind the franchise. Instead we get Homer screwing over the family and having to learn a lesson. Virgin territory, I proclaim thee! Oh, and just for fun, we get another horrific existential scene that is a complete rip-off of that God forsaken coyote episode. Needless to say, annoyed disbelief led to simmering rage. In fairness, I will mention that the closing scenes are entertaining, although the action scenes are more perfunctory than necessary... And not overly enthralling.

So, what makes this film (slightly) worth your ten bucks? Well, the jokes are constant, with most getting great reactions from the audience. The voice acting by series regulars Dan Castellaneta (Homer, Grandpa, Krusty, et al.), Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardly Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria (Apu, Wiggum, Moe), Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Smithers, Skinner and many more) and company are dead-on and never falter (Although I suppose they've had almost 2 decades worth of practice by now...). Albert Brooks, one of the most frequent guest stars on the show, has some great scenes here too. As I said in my Pirates 3 review, familiarity goes a long way, and there's something comforting about spending a couple hours with this family in a cool theatre. Director David Silverman has served up a nice looking movie, with plenty of groovy CG moments that give the whole thing a little more depth and richness.

But the film still does feel a bit small when compared with previous attempts at TV-to-movie translations. Both South Park and Beavis & Butt-Head (Neither of whose shows came close to comparing to vintage Simpsons episodes!) did so much more with the form. They both, South Park in particular, dared themselves to aim higher than they ever could on television. They weren't content to simply toss off a extra-length episode. The creative minds behind The Simpsons Movie were, it seems, and so we can be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed when the curtains close. The experience reminded me of seeing Jetsons: The Movie back in 1990. The material is the same, only longer and with a few bells and whistles (Though The Simpsons is infinitely funnier).

Whether or not you are disappointed with this film will really depend on your view of the franchise's strengths and weaknesses. I missed the more obscure and witty film references that were hallmarks of the best episodes. Their targets here, Titanic, Independence Day and Night Of The Living Dead among them, felt too safe and generic. The post-modern material on the other hand, with jokes about the Fox network and the film's very existence, is strong and could have been further emphasized. As well, I can't argue enough over the exclusion of the supporting cast. Further use of them would have benefitted the film hugely. I could happily done without the overabundance of "homages" to classic episodes, as they felt more like desperate attempts to get laughs from proven material (Like in Bean!).

The film ends with the hint of a sequel. Let's hope next time we get something a little more courageous and unsafe. And let's dispense with junky titles like this one and find something cleverer. Bonus points if they call it "The Simpsons: Curious (Yellow)"

3 out of 5

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I have never read a Harry Potter novel. Not a single one. I've never even flipped through one in a bookstore or library. This fact has drawn gasps from a legion of Potter-philes or whatever they call themselves, and yet I don't see this reality changing. With that said, however, I've greatly enjoyed each instalment in the film franchise and found myself eagerly skipping into the theatre to see this latest adventure The Order Of The Phoenix.

Now, before I dive in, my earlier declaration is both a warning and a promise regarding the content of this review. Most of the critiques I've read spend most of the time detailing how well the film echoes the book. I will not be going into this. I'll be focussing on how the film works, and how it fits with its predecessors. So, no, I won't be complaining about the excising of any Pockolumps or Hing-dinglers or whatever from the original text. This review is for those who have simply seen the movies (Once or twice as opposed to exhaustively) and wanna know if this one is any good.

H'Okay, moving on. Potter 5 opens with young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) saving himself and his piggish cousin from a pair of Dementors in his hometown in England. This is a no-no, and soon he is up on charges of unlawful use of magic from the Ministry of Magic, who refute the young wizard's insistence that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. This development brings his uncle Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) into the picture, in the process revealing the titular order, a small army united to battle Voldemort. Discovering that friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ronald Weasley (Rupert Grint) are also included leads Harry to feel seriously alone. When he goes before the Ministry he is saved by mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) at the last minute, although the Ministry quickly installs their own Dolores Jane Umbridge (Imelda Staunton - left with Smith and Emma Thompson) as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hoggwarts. Umbridge quickly takes over the school, revealing her own inner-fascist in the process, and is soon tormenting the students and teachers alike while suppressing the use of magic within the school. In the meantime, Harry, suffering nightmarish visions brought on by Voldemort, secretly bands together a collective group of students together to form an army to battle the dark lord. The film climaxes with the collective storming the Ministry of Magic's headquarters in search of an invaluable prophecy, and Voldemort making another important appearance.

Yeesh. Attempting to paraphrase the plot of this film in a paragraph is rough, and I'm sure any Potter die hard who's gotten this far is shaking with anger over my slipshod summarizing. Let's just say that a lot happens in The Order Of The Phoenix, and my little recount is mere lip service to the greater themes of the actual film.

Okay, now that the messiness is behind us, how is the actual movie? Well, it's absolutely delightful... Until the third act. New director David Yates, while not the auteur that Alfonso Cuaron (Prisoner Of Azkaban) or Mike Newell (Goblet Of Fire) are, is extremely good in handling the material surrounding the day-to-day adventures at Hoggwarts. These passages can often drag a film down, as with Goblet Of Fire and Philosopher's Stone, which both felt over-stuffed and meandering. Yates and new writer Michael Goldenberg gives these scenes a light touch that makes them extremely entertaining and endlessly absorbing. In particular, Miss Umbridge's hostile takeover of Hoggwarts is perhaps the juiciest, and most fun, middle section of perhaps any of the films.

If the film had ended with this section I would have been applauding and announcing it as the greatest Potter film yet. Unfortunately, however, the third act of the film is a fairly uninteresting lump of nonsense. The battle within the Ministry of Magic, where Harry and Co. battle an army of armoured dudes led by the evil Lucius Malfroy (Jason Isaacs) is visually unspectacular and choppy. The bad guys have no real identity and so the battle has little dramatic weight. We never really feel any of the children is truly in danger. I also have to say that, for me, a little wand-fighting goes a loooooong way. The climax features far too many scenes of people knocking each other off their feet with blasts of light, only to have them get up with little or no injury. I've always been a tad confused by these scenes through all the films, as the wands seem to do little more that knock people over or stun them. When one key character is apparently killed during the battle, we don't really understand why, as there is no build-up and little pay-off.

Similarly, Voldemort's big final appearance is as dull as his reveal in Goblet Of Fire. He hisses a lot and makes a lot of vague threats/taunts about coming to the dark side, Harry being too weak, killing all his loved ones, etc. It's like a lesser version of the Darth Vader/Luke battle in The Empire Strikes Back. Frankly, Voldemort (Right) is far more interesting when he is silent. There is a scene that is repeated throughout the film of him standing at a train station in a black suit that is mesmerizingly spooky. Ralph Fiennes gives him a sinister physicality and the briefness of the scene makes it far more frightening. Once he shows up delivering platitudes and threats he becomes a second-tier monster. I'm crossing my fingers that he sticks to the sidelines in the next film.

One other area that the film stumbles is in the effects department. I've always found the film's somewhat hit-and-miss in their CG and Order Of The Phoenix is no exception. The smaller stuff all looks great, Hoggwarts continues to amaze and the world itself is flawless. But whenever there is a big effects moment the results are often hokey. There is an ogre/giant character that looks about as realistic as Shrek. By having him stand next to human characters, his lacklustre rendering is only further emphasized. This is also the case in an important moment featuring centaurs. The final battle scenes are also iffy, with a whole lot of blurring. I also feel I should mention that almost every scene featuring characters flying on brooms fail to even meet the realism of the speeder bike chase from Return Of The Jedi (Made 24 years ago!!!). To be fair however, the dragon-horse things look pretty nifty.

The actors continue to do wonderful jobs, never faltering, and always fully inhabiting their characters. Sadly, Watson and Grint (Right) are sidelined as Harry takes centre stage, although both actors continue to charm. Daniel Radcliffe definitely seems to be growing as an actor, and meets every challenge here admirably. The real joy for me, though, is the Hoggwarts teachers. As in each instalment, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, etc. continue to endlessly entertain and inject a mature (yet playful) energy that really elevates this franchise to something brilliant. Most of all however, hat off to Imelda Staunton who creates the most boo-able villain of the summer. Her Miss Umbridge, like the demonic bastard sister of Kathy Bates Annie in Misery, is so cheerfully hateful that she blows the generic Voldemort clear off the screen. She steals every scene she's in and, if the Academy were more open-minded, would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. I didn't think anyone could top Kenneth Branaugh's Professor Lockhart in Chamber Of Secrets, but Staunton does. Gary Oldman, as Sirius Black is also a joy to watch. Oldman, often prone to playing unapproachable nut jobs projects a real sense of warmth here that is more than welcome. I also have to give special notice to Helena Bonham Carter. Her Bellatrix Lestrange, who is given a crackerjack introduction, is somewhat underdeveloped here but Bonham Carter (Channelling the bride of Frankenstein???) never fails to go gleefully over the top. Also, young Evanna Lynch, as Harry's odd classmate Luna Lovegood gives a truly winning performance and manages to find some real moments of truth that are the most moving moments in the film.

So, I suppose the inevitable question is where does The Order Of The Phoenix place amongst the other films? Unfortunately I have to place it at the bottom of list due to the wildly unsuccessful third act. Like Spider-Man 3, there is a lot of great stuff that get's hampered down by a number of weaknesses. It is important to mention, however, that like the James Bond films, even a lesser Potter film is still far more entertaining than the average blockbuster. These films have a consistency that is refreshing given the fallibility of film franchises these days, and for maybe the first time ever I walked out of a Potter movie eager for the next one. In a summer that has been dominated by impersonal mediocrity, this trip to Hoggwarts feels like a breath of fresh air. Let's just hope that next time the results are a little better.

3.5 out of 5

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Film Review: TRANSFORMERS: These Robots Agonize

Transformers is a very bad movie. It's the sort of film where you are bombarded with "fun" until you become exhausted and angry. On top of all that it's destined to be a smash and lead to more soulless hack-job sequels. Many will give Transformers a free pass due to the effects and nostalgia factor... I am not one of them.

The "story" at the empty core of Transformers is so laughably terrible that I was amazed the audience didn't feel downright insulted. It's as if writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman sat around deciding how many ways they could call the audience stupid. It seems that the evil Decepticons have landed on Earth and are attempting to find the magic cube which is the source of their power... or something. They trace it to young Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf - right with Fox), who's great ancestor discovered the frozen body of Decepticon leader Megatron and had a secret code imprinted onto his reading glasses. The Decepticons need this code to find said cube and then rule Earth. Meanwhile, Sam has bought a Camaro (who is secretly the Autobot Bumblebee) and is pining for vapid popular girl Mikaela Barnes (Megan Fox). The two are brought together when Sam is traced through his eBay account (where he is attempting to sell the all important glasses) and becomes caught in the middle of a battle between the Decepticons and the Autobots. The uninteresting subplots detail the Secretary of Defence (Jon Voight - in an embarrassing performance) attempting to figure all this nonsense out with the aid of an unconvincing hacker (Rachael Taylor). Also, two generic army guys (Josh Duhamel & Tyrese Gibson - left) battle robots in the desert and yell variations on "Bring It!" repeatedly. It all wraps up with a staggeringly dull battle in the city where we can't really tell what is going on, and don't much care.

When this movie ended I said to my friend that it seemed like it was written by a 12-year old. I realize now that this is an insult to 12-year olds. This is the type of film that could be written by a young kid with ADD who's been force-fed Red Bulls. Scenes merely happen for no real reason, the story is nonsensical, the characters tissue-paper thin, and the humour as blunt as a fat guy in a clown suit hitting you in the back of the head with a baseball bat. But gee, those robots look nifty, huh?

Now, many people hate on director Michael Bay (Below-left). I am not one of them. I consider The Rock to be one of the best action films of the past decade, and thought The Island was actually pretty cool. I didn't even hate Pearl Harbour! The only stumbling blocks I've had with him were over the migraine inducing Armageddon and the dull Bad Boys II. So, I didn't walk into this one with Bay hatred burning in my heart. But, wow! He has outdone even Armageddon in joyless noise and excess here. The battle scenes are without grace or cleverness. The camera cuts and angles make it near impossible to be able to comprehend what is happening to whom. The final battle between Autobot leader Optimus Prime and Megatron is among the worst special effects battles in recent memory. It makes the city destruction scenes in 1998's Godzilla (A film this commerc... I mean movie reminded me of repeatedly) seem like milestones of brilliant action staging. What's amazing is that the comedy scenes (as painful as they often are) are preferable to the robot combat. With a few exceptions (Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson manage to score a couple times), the jokes are obvious, unsubtle and frequently cringe-inducing, but at least we can follow them. Although a brain-damaged orangutan probably could too... But despite the very best the writers could come up with, even the humor quickly becomes annoying. There is an endless scene where the Autobots stumble around Sam's yard that is a comedy dead-zone. There's something about Optimus Prime saying "My bad!" that just made me die a little inside. Also, the "masturbation" conversation set-piece is truly awful. Frankly, the quality of the comedy is best exemplified in the scene where one the Autobots "pees" on agent John Turturro. Admittedly, Bay makes all this look glossy, but there are only so many ways to pretty up a manure pile.

The actors may have well just not shown up. Aside from LaBeouf, who is actually quite good and shows enough promise to allow me to hope that this will one day be a mere smudge on a decent resume, the various performers here are up shit creek... er shit Bay without a paddle. Megan Fox (Right) coasts through on looks and a Maxim-style wardrobe, Jon Voight (Below left, with Turturro) manages to make his work in Anaconda look dignified, and John Turturro appears to think he is in a Coen brothers comedy. Josh Duhamel, Rachael Taylor and Tyrese Gibson give extremely convincing performances as department store mannequins. Gibson, a decent actor, has so little to do that I felt embarrassed for him. Duhamel, the most well-rounded of the three, due to the fact we are told he has a wife and child (Who are occasionally cut to during scenes of chaos), would be credited as Soldier #4 in a better movie.

And now the Transformers themselves... Well, the special effects guys at ILM mostly succeed... Even if they have no dramatic weight or presence. Strangely, for the most part, they are shot in murky night shots which make them look dull and lacking in majesty. The first transformation of Bumblebee, a moment that should be awe-inducing, is fumbled by Bay, and is instead a mere afterthought. Only Optimus Prime manages to have a certain grandeur that is impressive when he isn't moving too fast. The main villain, Megatron, is introduced so late that he has little impact. Appropriately, Megatron is voiced by The Matrix's Hugo Weaving, who is at least used to working in an artificial environment devoid of emotion and joy. The rest of the crew are pretty much disposable, with little difference between them. Special notice goes to the Decepticon Frenzy who is like the lovechild of Jar Jar Binks and Short Circuit's Johnny 5 with down-syndrome. He wears on you very quickly and yet gets perhaps the most screen time of any of the robots. What it all comes down to is that if you have seen the trailer you've seen the best the film has to offer. The rest is a slim picking of blur and indistinct detail.

If you had told me in May that Transformers would be the worst flick I'd see this summer I wouldn't have believed you, but here we are. It's a failure on almost every possible story-telling level and makes the stuffed-to-the-gills Pirates 3 look like a model of filmmaking restraint. The audience's positive response left me somewhat saddened by the fact that it is further proof that maybe Hollywood isn't incorrect in underestimating the intelligence of the average movie-goer. A lot of people gave Spider-Man 3 flack for being too strange and all-over-the-map. At least that one tried to do something different and wasn't content to aim for the cheap seats. Transformers is the WWE of summer movies. More than meets the eye indeed.

1.5 out of 5