prisoners-posterReligious symbolism clashes with the harsh brutalities of a world bent in two by purely evil forces in the drama Prisoners which seeks to frighten, disturb, and wring us out emotionally. The redeeming qualities, however, unleash some terrific acting performances and unsettling suspense throughout a 2 1/2 hour runtime that manages to fly.

Two missing six-year-old girls from two different suburban families (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) – (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) are the center of an investigation led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).  There is only one clear suspect to Keller Dover (Jackman), and that is a mentally challenged, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whom Keller believes abducted the girls in his RV.  Loki, however, can’t find any substantial evidence to support Jones as his man.

A spiraling investigation leads Loki and Keller to desperation in their own ways.  As each day passes, the girls are certainly closer to death if they aren’t already.

Directed with a great deal of feeling by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners resists the route of typical revenge actioners and actually heads up the drama in very realistic, albeit overwrought, fashion.  The premise manages to carry the film for quite a while leading to a satisfying and physically draining conclusion that answers nearly every question the audience can throw at it.  While the film lends itself to being picked apart due to the nature of an unfolding mystery, the picture is held together so well by alarmingly good performances for thinly drawn characters that have little range on paper, yet bloom onscreen.

Jackman is the angry autocratic father.  Gyllenhaal is the determined investigator.  Bello is the weeping wife.  None of the characters have lives outside of their predicament.  Yet the acting is so very good that I failed to notice it much until further reflection.

This is obviously the kind of film gunning for awards attention, and for the most part it deserves it.  Jackman and Gyllenhaal especially deliver strong performances worthy of consideration.  The film as a whole could be a little tighter, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was glued to the screen the entire time, even when I wanted to look away.  Prisoners is a mostly fascinating drama that delivers a strong hit to the gut.

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Now You See Me

now_you_see_me_ver3_xlgIt seems like it has been a long time since audiences were given a good movie about magic. Not since Nolan’s The Prestige or Berger’s The Illusionist  in 2006 has there been any that come close to being a success. But like those two movie gems, there is something special about magic movies when they hit their mark. They create the awe and wonderment that Hollywood cinema was built on, and this movie does nothing to interfere with that belief.

Now You See Me is the latest project of director Louis Leterrier, known more for his action movies (Transporter 1 and 2, Clash of the Titans) than anything else. A great cast has been assembled including starring roles for Mark Ruffalo, playing FBI agent Dylan Rhodes, Morgan Freeman as magician whistleblower Thaddeus Bradley, and the four horseman magician team of Michael Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco). Throw in supporting roles from Michael Caine as a millionaire businessman and Melanie Laurent as Interpol agent turned Ruffalo’s muse, and you have maybe the most star-studded cast of any summer flick. The plot centers around four street magicians who come together to create an act under the name of The Four Horseman. Instead of just wowing audiences with their illusions, they decide that each performance will end with them robbing someone out of copious amounts of cash. Both Ruffalo and Freeman’s characters are hot on their trails for completely different reasons– one to put them in prison, the other to expose their tricks to the public. As straight forward as it sounds, the twists and turns of this movie are abundant and constantly keep the audience on the edge of their seat.

You know a movie is awesome when Morgan Freeman can wear a sweet hat and purple blazer

You know a movie is awesome when Morgan Freeman gets to wear a sweet hat and purple blazer

This movie is incredibly entertaining and a delight to watch. You will be hard-pressed to find another movie this summer that integrates comedy and suspense so well. Even though the method of each trick is explained by Freeman’s character shortly after it happens, the audience will still have many questions to mull over throughout the entirety. In fact, there is almost an Ocean series-type feel after each reveal. The back and forth between the affable Harrelson and smug, arrogant Eisenberg is extremely enjoyable, while the role of Ruffalo as a surly detective really shines. One of the really interesting aspects of this movie is the moral ambiguity of basically every character. Who is the hero and who is the villain? It is a very intriguing technique that only enhances the thrill of the movie. The negatives of this movie are two-fold. First, the supposed romantic relationship between Ruffalo and Laurent seems a little forced and bogs down the pace at times. It may be a necessary plot device, but their onscreen chemistry leaves a little to be desired. Second would be the overall filmmaking seems a little second class at times. Don’t get me wrong, the script holds up very well, but Leterrier’s use of lens flares and shaky camera during chases can be a little much to handle. However, neither of these aspects are enough to really detract very much from the project as a whole.

I think the vast majority of moviegoers will leave this movie with a great sense of satisfaction. The premise of this film is fantastic, and one of the few genre movies that gives an ending that does not fail the exquisite build-up. Even though this movie is a pure summer popcorn-flick indeed, the refreshing and original ideas are sure to delight and amaze. This is one film that should not have to beg you to “look closely”.

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OblivionMovie-Critics are calling Oblivion a mixed bag of sparse sci-fi plot threads strung together loosely and liberally.  They’re right.  I expected as much.  After all, what ground could the post-apocalyptic thriller have left to cover?  A future decades ahead.  Earth laid to waste.  Little to no survivors.  Futuristic machinery patrolling a ravaged globe.  Human technicians assigned to operate and repair the machines.

That’s the premise of Oblivion, which I suspect will mirror the upcoming thrillers After Earth and Elysium to some degree.  From The Matrix to 2001 to Moon to Wall-E to I, Robot and on and on, I could compare Director Joseph Kosinski’s film to many a science-fiction pictures of past.  That doesn’t hinder his film at all.  I anticipated I would spot similarities.  The film’s title even suggests where the story is headed.  Yet Kosinski’s canvas opens with mystery and intrigue that leads to grand places and ideas, even if they’ve all been mined before.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Reacher Harper, a pilot in the futuristic Earth, and one of the few survivors from an alien invasion led by Scavengers.  The Scavengers took out half of the moon causing vast planetary natural disasters, and humanity responded with nuclear warfare.  In the end, the aliens left, but Earth became a devastated habitat full of nuclear radiation.  Humans moved to a space station while Earth regenerates its ability to sustain life for a large population.

Huddled clans of Scavengers still roam the grounds.  Thus an army of government-produced drones monitor and control enemy activity.  But sometimes the drones are shot down or malfunction.  Harper, a drone repairman, keeps the drones up and running.  Outside of his job, he lives above the clouds in a technically advanced floating home base with his girlfriend and assistant, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors his movement on the ground level.  She also communicates with the command base from which she receives orders including Harper’s daily itinerary.

During a routine maintenance scout, Harper finds a radio beacon activated by Scavengers.  Questions abound.  What or who are they calling?  When they attempt to capture the leery pilot, Harper must investigate what little he knows about the Scavengers, what they might be planning, and how they might be tied to his dreams about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he does not know but seems to remember.

oblivion-searchFurther developments lead the narrative into even bigger territory, and most of what is offered has been recycled but not necessarily for the worse.  Kosinski’s film is set apart from its film-brethren by its visual landscape.  This is an amazing movie to look at.  I’m shocked this film wasn’t converted and released in 3D.  I admire a director and studio not following the herd for an extra buck.  Lush nature is contrasted with the decay of nuked civilization, and giant hydrocopter versus computerized war drone battles couldn’t be composed any better.

The story eventually introduces a colony of humans led by the great Morgan Freeman, but unfortunately, much of the supporting human characters are underused.  Cruise leads the show, and proves ever-capable, but if Oblivion falls under the weight of its grand ambition, it’s because the script misses the underlying human factor.  The film focuses less on humanity’s impact, and more on the impact to the Harper character who must come to terms with the painful reality of his place and identity in a devastated world.

The plot doesn’t exactly move at a fast clip either.  Oblvion, while featuring some stellar visuals and action, meanders more often than drives.  Harper investigates location after location.  He returns to home base and discusses his findings with Victoria again and again.  The movie reaches the halfway-marker before really diving into some meaty ‘events.’  There’s a lot of eye candy throughout the film’s entirety, but this movie needed to pick a destination and operate via a concrete route.  This is where the film borrows heavily from other films and that’s okay.  But choose some key check points in the story along the way.

Kosinski’s Oblivion is still a film to admire in many respects.  Despite insanely good visuals, I really felt like the film didn’t have the feel of a studio product.  It felt like the objective of a filmmaker brought up under some great sci-fi movies who set out to pave his own from used parts.  He doesn’t deliver slam-bang-pow-wow entertainment.  He gives us a thoughtful action film supported by a magnificent production design and visuals that will last long after the story fades from memory.

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Obama’s Amercia 2016

Remember those pictures that were so popular back in the 1990s called Hollusions? The first time you walked up to one, all you saw was a field of dots sprayed on a piece of paper, like snow on a TV screen. You had to learn to focus (or rather not focus) your eyes in the proper way. It took patience. The first time, it could take an hour of looking, but suddenly, you would see the dots arrange themselves into a holographic image. Some of them were beautiful, some were a little bit scary, but once you learned to see them, it was hard to imagine how you ever missed them, and hard to be patient with those who still couldn’t see the picture.

That’s what it was like for me to observe Barack Obama’s candidacy, then his presidency, asking the tough questions, and finally to see this excellent film made by Dinesh D’Souza. Obama was a phenomenon in 2008. Watching one of his rallies was like watching a Michael Jackson performance. You saw male and female, young and old, black, white and all others. A huge crowd of people from many walks of life, all united in, not the support, but the worship of one man. A man who, like Jackson, was “black” but … not really; his skin not very dark, his features resembling those of his white mother, and not one drop of slave blood in him. Rather, he reflected his international background, projecting a mix of ethnic groups. His platform was equally nondescript, one of “hope” and “change,” with no concrete positions expressed until after he was in power. He was a blank canvas, upon which the naïve projected whatever they desired.

Can you see it?

However, many have been puzzled by Obama since 2008, as there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to his actions. His actions cannot be explained by the usual differences between Republicans and Democrats. You might recall that, when the congressional vote was nearing on Obama’s universal health care plan, Democratic voters were calling their Congressmen in large numbers, begging them not to pass the bill. Obama had enough close allies to push it through, however. Around the same time, Obama was in the middle east, apologizing to America’s enemies. He had no problem using force in Libya to depose a dictator who was no threat to America, yet he does nothing to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. When his actions in Libya led to the murder of an ambassador and several other Americans, he again apologized to radical Islamists for the First Amendment. He blocks efforts to drill for America’s life blood on American soil, yet encourages such drilling in South America. Seeing all this, millions of us can’t help but ask “Does he want  America to fail?”

D’Souza covers the way in which Obama was lauded by millions, not as a good candidate for a job, but as a messiah. Millions stamped themselves with

A drawing from The post gives no indication of being satirical or facetious.

his “O” icon. Paintings were done of him resembling the traditional Jesus. Classrooms full of children were required to sing songs in his honor. Crowds of people were on TV, literally weeping for joy when he was elected. I want to be clear about something: D’Souza does not spend this film bashing Obama. He simply covers some truly embarrassing behavior of real Americans from the past several years.

I’m thankful for D’Souza. He grew up in India, and, just as it took a child to point out that the emperor was naked in the famous tale, it seems to take a newcomer to America to say the things that some of us just can’t, however true they may be. D’Souza points out the fact that Barak Obama is the first President in American history to be elected primarily because of the color of his skin, and is brave enough to say that no white (or Indian) man would ever have been ushered into the White House after just four unremarkable years in the Senate.

But what’s really impressive about Obama’s America 2016 is the depth of the journalism. D’Souza has put enormous effort into digging up Obama’s past, traveling around the world and interviewing everyone from his extended family in Kenya, to those he knew in Indonesia,  to people who worked with him on the campaign trail. Using Obama’s two autobiographies as a guide, D’Souza pries his way into Obama’s head to see what makes him tick.

Does Obama want America to fail? D’Souza unearths a straightforward answer to this question; one that, after the care and thoroughness of his search of Obama’s past, is very hard to argue with. Most of the way through, I suspected that this was actually a pro-Obama film. D’Souza remains objective in his explanation of the emotional journey of Obama, and you really do start to feel with Obama. And with all the adorable footage of Kenyan children in Obama shirts, you can see how people fell so madly in love with Obama. But the last 15 minutes of this film give you the mental equivalent of finally seeing those dots arrange themselves into a picture. It becomes clear why Obama does the things he does, and it is genuinely scary.

Obama’s America 2016 is available to rent at Redboxes across the nation, and you need to see it before you vote.

Can you see the picture yet?


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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

David Fincher closes out of his Facebook to take on a remake of the Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, based on the first installment of a trilogy of novels.  I sat through this film, encompassed by the calculated grim atmosphere, taken in by the stylish cinematography, and ultimately slapped around by the incessant violence.  Ignore the snowy landscapes.  Dragon Tattoo is utterly and completely the anti-Christmas film of the season as it so proudly advertises.

Daniel Craig plays investigative journalist, Mikael, undergoing a major setback in his career that has him crawling out from an under a lawsuit.  As an escape for Mikael, he accepts an invitation to a Swedish island from aging Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to unearth a 40-year-old missing person case—Harriet Vagner (Henrik’s niece), a young girl who was abducted and likely murdered—her body was never found.  Mikael leaves his boss and lover (Robin Wright) back at the office to isolate himself in a tiny house on the island where he studies old photographs and police investigation reports, while also conducting interviews of the family members scattered within close radius on the island.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is introduced as an intelligent, and mightily troubled 24-year-old woman working as a private investigator.  Her life has been and continues to be flooded with trauma.  She undergoes sexual abuse from an overseeing guardian responsible for withholding her monetary earnings, and generally is mistreated by all the men that occupy her life.  She’s cold, quiet, pierced, tattooed, gothic-looking, bisexual, and every adjective that might make a 65-year-old white businessman uncomfortable.  Midway into the film, she partners with Mikael, both professionally and otherwise, to piece together the puzzle of the long-missing Harriet.

David Fincher, an auteur when it comes to such material, displays a deft hand for sinking audiences into uncomfortable darkness.  Zodiac, Seven, The Game, and others have become his bread and butter, so it’s no surprise that he’s drawn to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  This is almost certainly his darkest film yet.  What holds him back from greatness here is the source novel which screenwriter Steven Zaillian attempts to translate over a very, very long 2 hour and 40 minute runtime.  If the mystery were as engulfing as it ought to be, the film might not be as tough of a sit, but the film meanders before sinking its teeth in, and treads water for 30 minutes after the film climaxes.  While Fincher often had me enraptured in the film’s most piercing and horrific sequences, the whole is missing a few pieces.

Both Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig commit to their roles completely, especially Mara.  She’s uncomfortable and intoxicating in the role.  Craig has a cool confidence that exudes James Bond (go figure), and offsets his internal desperation.  However, their teaming happens much later in the film than I was anticipating.  And their sexual affair threw me for a loop.  Not because Craig is about twice her age, but because the spark between the two is missing.  There’s no chemistry, there’s no heat, and even less plausibility.  The character of Lisbeth wields her sexuality like a weapon, but there’s little buildup between her and Mikael.

It must also be noted that the film unleashes some of the most shocking scenes ever filmed.  Fincher’s eye never shies away from the graphic nature of the story.  Nothing goes implied here.  It’s all onscreen.  I’m guessing the novel did the same.  Anyone interested in seeing this film needs to be prepared for some horrific depictions of torture and rape.  It’s blood-curdling, and stomach-twisting.  The scenes emphasize the horror endured by Lisbeth and that has shattered here trust in men, until Mikael offers her a first brushing of kindness that draws her to him.

Where does that leave me with this film?  I walked out of the screening without the slightest guess as to how I responded to it.  I know it’s certainly not in line with Fincher’s best work.  The chemistry between the leads was also lacking, or simply not amped up enough.  No amount of onscreen intimacy can generate chemistry.  However, the performances were right.  The mood of the film carried me through.  The cinematography captured the ugliest corners of this cold world.  The film’s ending left me wondering where the characters go next.  I cringed, I looked away, but I was also pulverized by this film.  And I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  I’m certain that’s what Fincher wanted.  I won’t ‘recommend’ this film to anyone.  It’s impossible to enjoy, there is only enduring.  But overall, the film does exactly what it’s designed to do in a compelling way.

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The Village

These days, mentioning the name M. Night Shyamalan while in line at the cineplex is a good way to get a punch in the mouth. Over the last five years, the man named after an orbital phase has become synonymous with insulting, navel-gazing movies like The Last Air Bender, The Happening, and of course, the unforgivable Lady in the Water. People especially hate him because the worse his movies get, the more in love with himself he seems to fall. The reason producers keep giving him chances has to be that his first few films were true masterpieces. Critics and Audiences alike called The Sixth Sense (1999) one of the best movies ever made. Unbreakable (2000) was less impressive, but definitely fit the mold of “both new and good.”  By the time Signs  was released in 2002, Shyamalan had his own genre.

And then, in between these gems and Shyamalan’s crimes against humanity, there was … this. The Village (2004) occupies an odd spot in history; Shyamalan’s pivot-point between greatness and sucking. Some loved it. Some hated it. It definitely isn’t your conventional movie, but then Shyamalan was always anything but conventional. On which side of the fence does it fall? Is it more like Shyamalan at his best, or his worst? Let’s find out.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

It must be acknowledged that the biggest selling point in the way this film was marketed turned out to be a total sham. A village full of apparently colonial people lives isolated from the rest of the world, oppressed by the fear of “Those We Don’t Speak of,” creatures that lurk in the forest around them. Good ominous beginning. As you might expect, there is a twist toward the end. But while the twist in The Sixth Sense  made us re-think everything that happened in the movie, and increased our enjoyment of the story, the twist in The Village  is a massive let down: the creatures are fake. Yep. That’s it. They spend 1:45 scaring you with these things, only to tell you what anyone over 5 knew walking into the theatre: that they are people in costumes. From this, and the dialogue that follows, it’s not hard to figure out the other twist: that this is actually happening present day, and the town elders have attempted to create a utopian world by isolating themselves from the rest of civilization, using the creatures to scare villagers from exploring beyond the village outskirts.

So this one must be a turd, right? Not so fast. I first saw The Village when it was newly made and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Some months later I found I was dying to see it again, so  I rented it. Obviously, I knew the twist, but I still was caught up in the story and the passion that the actors put into it. A young Bryce Dallas Howard and Jaquin Phoenix light up the screen as the primal couple, who only slowly begin to realize their love for each other. The older members of the cast include a number of actors who have had more glorious rolls, such as Sigourney Weaver, former slayer of aliens, now cast as a humble, devoted house wife, and Brendan Gleeson, who reveled in badassery in Braveheart, Gangs of New York, and  28 Days Later, now confined to a small roll as a man too old to do much more than smoke a pipe. You might think these post-stars would be a little bitter, but what they bring to the screen reminds us that there are truly “no small parts; only small actors.”

This film probably repulsed a lot of viewers on a first viewing just because of the obvious gaff discussed above, but it merits a second and third viewing. As I watched it a second time, I came to understand that the gaff doesn’t harm the film because it isn’t a film about monsters. It’s a film about the community on screen and the people in it. The power of the movie comes home as boys tease each other with dares and girls dream about boys. We are drawn deeper in as their utopian society is suddenly, unexpectedly shattered by the crime of murder. And, despite suspension of belief, we are on the edge of our seats as a young, frightened, and blind girl (Howard) is forced to trek alone through the forbidden wood to save the boy she loves. And of course, even after the “twist,” there are some scary surprises waiting in the wood.

As good as the cast is, they might be outperformed by the score. Composer James Newton relied mostly on the solos of violinist Hillary Hahn to enhance the picture. It serves well to reflect the isolation that the characters feel in many scenes. This is one of the few movies that is worth checking out just for the soundtrack. The music excites, builds tension, and carries emotion just as well as what we see. A great deal of effort was also put into the costumes and the set design, both for authenticity and beauty, and it makes for a lot of sumptuous visuals. And I have to say, Shayamalan’s directing was still pretty good at this point. One scene in particular comes to mind, in which Those They Don’t Speak of attack the village (below). The boy on the watchtower sounds the alarm, and there are several minutes of people scrambling to gather the children, get inside, and get into their hiding places. This can’t have been an easy scene to pull off, with the amount of fast activity that had to be captured, the number of child actors, and the number of plot points that have to be hinted at, but Shayamalan did it brilliantly. Not only is the story told, but it’s a truly beautiful scene. Even on a second viewing, when I knew there was no real danger, I was caught up in it. When the rubber meets the road, Shayamalan really can do it — when he’s not jerking us around, that is.

Even as early as Signs, some of Shyamalan’s annoying habits were beginning to come to light. He loved to have something really important happen, such as an alien attacking someone, at point A, and, for no reason, point the camera squarely at point B. Or else, force us to look through some distorting piece of scenery, or look at a poor reflection. There’s a lot to be said for not showing too much, especially if you want to build suspense or scare the audience, but in order to do those two things, you also have to make us feel with the characters. For example, in Signs, when the main family has retreated to the basement, an alien hand reaches through the coal chute and grabs Morgan. A scuffle ensues as Grant and Merrill try to pull him to safety. Shyamalan chooses this moment to wave the camera around incoherently, showing us nothing. The characters see what’s happening! Why the hell shouldn’t we? The next morning, Morgan is again grabbed by an alien. This time, for the first time in the movie, we get a really good look at one of these things. Merrill then kills the alien with a bat. And then Shyamalan treats us to one more bad reflection, in an over-turned tv, of the alien’s chest rising as it struggles to breath. What is the point of this? We’ve already seen the alien!

The Village takes this a step further. Some of the most crucial scenes are interrupted by completely meaningless things. For example, near the end, when one of Those They Don’t Speak of (who seem to get mentioned a lot) chases Howard’s character, Ivy, we see the creature lunge at her from behind a tree. She runs. Then, for no reason, we see an empty rocking chair in front of a grove of trees. Then we see the creature chasing Ivy. Then we see a close up of a weather vane, over looking a hilltop. Then we see Ivy running. Just when it looks like something’s about to happen, we see another grove of trees. What is the point of this? These cut away shots don’t even match the main scene, or each other; they were obviously shot on different days, in different weather at different times of the year, and they serve no purpose whatsoever.

Of course, Shyamalan went on to commit atrocities like Lady in the Water (2006), where we almost never see anything except as a distorted reflection. All in all though, The Village is well worth checking out. It’s not without its faults by any means, but when the dust settles, what you have is a series of great scenes, beautifully shot and beautifully acted, perfectly capturing the emotion of the moment, all with a haunting score playing in the back ground. Much like in Van Helsing, the power of the performances smooths over the imperfections in the plot.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

The final bout between good and evil in J.K. Rowling’s majestic universe comes to a close after eight films.  With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 there isn’t much need for an in-depth criticism on the final movie (or half-movie).  Rather I am provided a welcome opportunity to reflect on the series as one of the most impressive accomplishments committed to film.

Few literary adaptations could translate so well into eight thrilling motion pictures.  Rowling’s pages have not only given youngsters a hunger for reading, but cinematic magic has also applied sight and sound to that text over the course of 10 years—and to universal acclaim.  Audiences love these books and they love these movies.

As a capper to Harry Potter, Deathly Hallows Part 2 is of course bittersweet.  Harry, Ron and Hermione continue their search for the remaining horcruxes that contain pieces of the dark Lord Voldemort’s soul, pieces that make him immortal.  Hogwarts is under the iron fist of betrayer Severus Snape until Harry returns to defend Hogwarts and prepare for his final confrontation with Voldemort.  Secrets are revealed.  Lives are lost.  A looming doubt about Harry’s fate (for those who haven’t read the novel) hangs over two hours.

The last entry falls under the direction of David Yates once again.  Having helmed half of the installments of the series, he has proven ever-capable.  Chris Columbus brought the innocence and sense of discovery to The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets.  Alfonso Cuaron brought a refreshing angst and eccentricity to The Prisoner of Azkaban.  Mike Newell allowed for a sharp transition to the gloom of the series with The Goblet of Fire.  Yates has since handled the darkest corners of the Harry Potter universe as the fun and games have been exchanged for Harry’s personal endeavor to save both the world of magic and the world of humans.

Since 2001, the films have remained remarkably consistent even as the actors have aged a great deal and the tone of the story has evolved.  Deathly Hallows Part 2 continues the tradition of solid craftsmanship.  Sure, it hurts the film that it is really only half of a film.  In fact, I made the mistake of not revisiting Deathly Hallows Part 1 before jumping into Part 2.  For those on the fence about needing a refresher beforehand, I strongly recommend it.  Yates has split one 4-hour-plus movie into two parts and he doesn’t leave us any footnotes along the way.  As a standalone installment, Part 2 really hurts without watching Part 1 along with it.  The tension and rising action have to be brought in the pockets of audiences and applied from the get-go.  While that may not be a fair criticism of the movie as it is intended as part of a larger story arc, it is worth noting.

In terms of ending the saga, the film does a perfectly satisfactory job.  The actors are on their game.  The special effects and action sequences are grandiose, and yet interestingly punctuated by several extended moments of quiet.  I may have expected more of a thrilling showdown between Harry and Voldemort, but the buildup has been over seven previous films so I can understand that anticipation may have gotten the best of me.  What I enjoyed most about this final entry were the surprises along the way and the tender moments among the notable characters of the series that earn their last minutes in the spotlight.

I would say I’ve enjoyed other chapters from this saga more than Deathly Hallows Part 2, but as a sendoff to the Harry Potter universe, the film is again very well-made and audiences are going to love it and will likely still be hungry for more.  The hint of future installments of J.K. Rowling’s world have been set.  Even if they never come to fruition, at least her accomplished works are ready and available to young readers.  As for the future of Harry Potter, I’m willing to bet on a return of sorts for a new generation ready for magic.

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Super 8

Call it an ode to the Spielberg days of past.  Label it an homage to 70s and 80s blockbusters.  Compare it to E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the the Third Kind.  Whatever you do, remember Super 8 as more than just a nod to great movies—Super 8 is a great movie.  Oh, and if you haven’t seen it—do see it—get up and go now!  Is that ‘critical’ enough?

Yes, I flat out loved this undeniably fresh tribute to the glory days of cinema.  Producer Steven Spielberg and Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) have ditched mayhem-induced F/X filmmaking and have instead decided to tread sacred waters: “storytelling” that utilizes F/X-filled mayhem at no expense to character development.  This is a pure bred science-fiction spectacle, and it’s impossible not to at least sink your teeth into the wonderful nostalgia.

Luckily Super 8 is more than just a plate of nostalgic reflection on old school sci-fi.  Abrams has unleashed a pet project of his centering on a group of elementary youngsters in 1979 Lillian, Ohio.  Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is trying to make a movie with his pals—a zombie outbreak short film they would like to enter into a local competition.  The boys find their sole actress and illegal chauffeur in Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning).  Joel is instantly taken with her.  Shooting the picture at a train station in the evening, the kids become engulfed in something far more terrifying than a phony zombie apocalypse.  They are caught in the middle of a disastrous train crash instigated by a mad truck driver who turns out to be the students’ science teacher.

The kids are shocked, scared, and chased off the scene by military troops.  Joel has seen more than he fully realizes.  Something escaped the rubble… something that perhaps should not have escaped.  Joel and his cohorts know a great mystery and conspiracy is taking over their small town, but how will they find out what it is, and more importantly, who will believe them?

A handful of people begin to disappear.  Pets are fleeing to the next county.  The military start to dig about the town.  Several pieces of machinery seem to get snatched away.  Electricity fades in and out.  Joel’s father Deputy Jackson Lamb takes on the burden of watching over Lillian as the sheriff has gone missing.  Little time passes before Jackson becomes as cautious and curious as his son about the sinister activity and conspiracy overtaking his home.

Abrams fills each frame with such a fond love and affection for the wonder of movies.  Super 8 overflows with memorable scenes and lovable characters that make the mystery and suspense of the plot all the more interesting.  Never once did I feel the film’s urgency to cut to action and special effects in case things became too plodding.  The reality is that Super 8 is edited to near-perfection.  The scenes have been constructed tightly and crisply.  The tension abounds and the scares thrill.  The dialogue never seeks to simply advance the plot, but instead works to penetrate and reveal the characters.  A ready supply of humor and authenticity shines through every frame as each of the young actors carry the movie.

And what about these young actors?  They would give most A-list stars a run for their money, particularly Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney.  These two happen to be dynamite actors—convincing, convicting, believable, and consistently on their game.  The film offered me a sweet little reminder that children can be just as brilliant of actors when they are the right actors under the proper direction rather than just cute faces.

As a science-fiction mystery, the film couldn’t be more entertaining.  If one is quick to dismiss this as a high-profile director’s attempt to simply replicate an idol’s bread-and-butter style of filmmaking, then so what?  Everyone sits around and complains: “They just don’t make them like they used to.”  Abrams has stepped up where other directors have shied away and delivered a movie that audiences can get wrapped up in and fall in love with.  Sure, Super 8 has obvious similarities to E.T. and several other films, but I can’t fault Abrams for wanting to rekindle a dying flame.  With this feature he has brought a heavy dose of spirit and magic back to cinema without beating audiences over the head with repetitive bass-booming action and special effects.  He kindly reminds us that is never what it’s been about.  Cinema has always been about telling good stories and utilizing the best possible resources at hand to do so.  Abrams effectively demonstrates that the soul is not lost from a megawatt blockbuster, at least not while he’s making movies.  Rather than a monster showcase giving up all details (a monster that is slowly but surely revealed), Spielberg and Abrams have us consider looking up at the sky in wonder as they do the same.  If you are going to see one movie this season, make it Super 8.




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