Harry_Potter_004_PosterWith the fourth film, we find an expanded universe.  Harry and the Weasley family are off to watch the Quidditch World Cup. This is really the first view the films have given us of Quidditch beyond being a school sport. Much like an international football, people wear the colors and logos of their favorite teams.

While celebrating the game in their camp (the tents look small, but like Doctor Who’s TARDIS are much bigger inside), the fans are attacked by Death Eaters.  Returning to Hogwarts, Harry is beset by nightmares of Voldemort trying to return.  He also meets the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, “Mad Eye” Moody.  Moody lost one of his eyes, and instead of an eyepatch, he has a rather “twitchy” false eye.  Moody was an Auror (kind of a soldier/police officer of the wizard world). Now he is a paranoid and rough guy.

This is set against the backdrop of the Tri-Wizard Tournament.  This event brings together the three Wizarding Schools Durmstrang, Beauxbatons and Hogwarts.  There is a champion chosen from each school who then compete in tasks of great risk.

Initially, three students are chosen from the magical Tri-Wizard Cup…but this time, a fourth name flies forward…Harry Potter.  This causes great controversy, as Harry is too young to participate. It also causes friction between Harry and Ron.

The Goblet of Fire brings in a new Director, Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings & a Funeral, and Enchanted April).  The films were following the books, introducing elements like young romance.  Newell is a strong director, though the film feels more like it is trying to fit into a franchise mold, rather than the previous films more director fueled identity.  This is not a bad thing, tonal changes make sense between these films, and just as with the books, much of the audience was growing up with the stories.

Visually, the film is strong.  They have found more of a balance between what is necessary for the story and experiencing the wonderful magical world, so to speak.  This film leaves out the somewhat large subplot of the S.P.E.W. organization Hermione creates in her attempt to set House Elves free.  This turns out to be a wise move that allows the film to feel more focused.

It is a bit disappointing that they leave some of the Sirius Black moments out of the film, as we never get the opportunity to see Harry and his Godfather’s bond. The child actors in the films are starting to grow into their roles, but this marks a turn for Harry in which he becomes, at times, irritatingly whiny.

The effects are quite good.  There is a rather spectacular chase through the air involving Harry and a Dragon. The CGI is a continual improvement for the series.

The Goblet of Fire is largely fun, with some decent twists and turns. It is not quite as strong as the previous film. but does provide plenty of entertainment value.

Harry_Potter_003_PosterContinuing to steamroll on, the third film introduces the concept of the wizard prison Azkaban.  It appears to be the only prison, and it is a place you do not want to go.  The wizarding community is on edge, because of the notorious killer, Sirius Black has escaped.  He is infamous among good wizards of his betrayal of his friends James and Lily Potter.

The kids meet their new Professor for the Defense Against the Dark Arts.  Professor Remus Lupin is another mysterious character who appears to harbor a dark secret (but magically, was born with the last name that gives it away).  He, however, seems very kind and Harry learns that Lupin was close to his parents.

The film also brings in two important plot devices.  One is a cloak of invisibility (which will figure greatly later in the series) and the other is the Marauder’s Map.  The map shows everyone who exists in the school and where they are.  When Harry notices a person on the map believed to be dead, it kicks off a mission to determine what is going on.

A large focus of the story is Lupin teaching the kids to conjure a defensive spell known as a Patronis.  The Patronis allows defense against mystical creatures and in this film, that is primarily the Dementors.  Looking like a grim reaper, the Dementor is an Azkaban guard.  They can literally suck the joy and will to live from your body, leaving the victim in torment.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron uncover information hinting that Black may not be who everyone claims he is. The story culminates in Harry and Hermione pulling a magical stunt to pull off some rescues and save the day.

Columbus stepped away as director for this film Warner Brothers brought in Alfonso Cuarón. This turns out to have been a good choice, as instead of being dedicated to forcing the novel into a couple of hours, he (and screenwriter Steve Kloves) focus on the tone of the story.  Azkaban represented a turn towards darker themes in the books, and the film matches that.

Gary Oldman and David Thewlis are welcome additions to the cast, with Oldman turning in a manic performance, reflecting the decade or so of imprisonment. But the biggest change occurred because between Chamber of Secrets and this film, Richard Harris passed away. Harris was just about 70 when the first film was being made, and he did seem quite fragile in the first two films.  This played into the warmness of Dumbledore found in the books.  He was replaced by Michael Gambon (Ian McKellen was offered the role, but turned it down on the reasons that he thought it would be risky trying to play another iconic character after playing Gandalf and felt it inappropriate to take over for Harris who had considered McKellen a “dreadful” actor). Gambon’s approach to Dumbledore is very different from Harris.  His Albus is a bit tougher and sterner. This gets tempered out as the series progresses. Part of this difference is likely due to Gambon never reading the books.

The visuals of the film stand out in this film, with far better CGI than the previous films.

After two decent films, the Prisoner of Azkaban represents a step up for the franchise.

Harry_Potter_002_PosterThe first film was a huge success, and so a follow-up was certain.  When the film opens, his guardians, the Dursleys, have given Harry an actual bedroom.  But they also put bars on the window. A strange creature calling himself Dobby (and reveals himself to be a house elf) tries to convince Harry to not go to his second year at Hogwarts. But when the Weasley boys show up with a flying car, they break Harry out and get on their way.  But after Ron and Harry are blocked from the magical platform to get to the train for Hogwarts, they take the flying car.

Once at Hogwarts, the Harry, Ron and Hermione discover a mystery in the past of Hogwarts.  The school is full of passages and hidden rooms.  They discover cryptic references to the Chamber of Secrets and a past for Hagrid.

Like the first film, this one tries to cram in as much from the book as possible.  It also unravels more about the past of Lord Voldemort. The film introduces Gilderoy Lockhart (played with flamboyant revelry by Kenneth Branagh).  Lockhart gives insight into the world of the celebrity wizard.  He is beloved for his books detailing his exploits fighting evil wizards, fantastic beasts and all around heroism.  And yet, there is something about him…he seems…rather inept.

Certain characters offer a window into some of the darker aspects of the Wizarding community.  Specifically the concept of the House Elf.  What we find in the film is that the world of wizards has pretty much enslaved elves.  The elves are abused and cower before their masters.  There may be wizards who treat their house elves well.  But this is never really shown in the films or the books. In the books, Hogwarts uses house elves, though the movies shy away from this.

The visuals are improved in this film, and Columbus is clearly enamored with the world of Harry Potter, as he tries to fill the screen with as many visual queues from the books as possible.

Again, it is the adult cast that shines.  Chamber of secrets will certainly charm many fans of the franchise and will likely entertain general audiences as well.  It’s die-hard faithfulness to the source can still get in the way of this film, but overall, it makes for an enjoyable watch.

Harry_Potter_001_PosterEvery so often there is a major phenomenon. And for the late 1990’s?  That was Harry Potter.  In a series of seven books, J.K. Rowling broke records with a tale of a young boy wizard.  Kids were showing up to midnight release parties for the latest books and dressing up as the characters for conventions.

A movie was pretty much inevitable.  They brought in Chris Columbus, writer of youth favorites like the Goonies and Gremlims and director of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire.  He, screenwriter Steve Kloves, and Rowling worked to craft a film that “captured the magic” of the books.

Young Harry Potter has grown up with his aunt, uncle, and cousin unaware of a big secret about himself.  The Dursleys shower love on their son Dudley, all the while with holding any decent treatment of Harry.  They keep him in a compartment under the stairs, rather than a proper bedroom. On his eleventh Birthday he is greeted by Hagrid, a giant of a man and a representative of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  You see, Harry’s parents were wizards, and he has the gene.

Harry discovers that, in fact, he is a famous wizard. When he was a baby, an evil wizard, so evil in fact he is only referred to As He Who Walks Behind the Rows-wait, He Who Must Not Be Named– was trying to take over the wizarding world and enslave the non-magical world. There was a prophesy about young Harry, and He Who Must Not Be Named (Actual Name; Voldemort) was determined to prevent it from coming to pass by killing Harry and his parents.  While he was successful in killing Harry’s parents, when he attempted to kill Harry, the spell rebounded and killed Voldemort and leaving Harry with a lightning bolt scar.

Harry is brought to Hogwarts, where he makes friends with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and also makes some enemies, primarily in fellow student Draco Malfoy. Malfoy’s family were actually Death Eaters (members of Voldemort’s cult).  They are strict and cruel aristocratic types.  Ron comes from a large wizarding family and Hermione is actually of non-magical lineage (some cruelly call her a Mudblood).

The Sorcerer’s Stone follows Harry’s first year as he solves a mystery in which there seems to be a unique magical object that the headmaster is hiding.  Between Harry, Hermione and Ron’s quest, we see Harry learning about the differences (both good and bad) to be found in the world of witches and wizards.  He gets guidance from the kind hearted Headmaster Dumbledore and faces adverse treatment from Professor Snape.

The cast in the film is what really stands out in the film.  While the kids are not heavily impressive (which is understandable, most of them are in their first or second role), every adult role seems carefully chosen. Richard Harris is terrific as the soft spoken Dumbledore. Maggie Smith is excellent as good but stern Professor McGonagall.  The late Alan Rickman is terrific in the role of the grim and tough Professor Snape, the potions professor who aspires to teach the Defense Against the Dark Arts Class.  But even small roles, such as the ghost Nearly Headless Nick are given to established talent like John Cleese.

The visual effects are all over the place.  There is a sequence in which Harry is on the shoulders of a troll, and it is an embarrassingly low budget looking like video game scene.  This might not seem fair, but this came out the same year as the Fellowship of the Ring, and it is hard to ignore that the Sorcerer’s Stone can fall so short.  Most of the effects are certainly good, but these big moments falling short of the weakest effects in the Lord of the Rings hurts the film.

The movie makes a tremendous effort to bring the books to vibrant life onscreen. And in a general sense, it does pull that off.  The movie really does bring the world of witches and wizards to life. The use of spells, the moving pictures, the castle ghosts. In fact, it sometimes feels like they were so dedicated to filling in as much information from the book that they forgot the story is more important.  Certainly, the plot is there from the book. But the attention to detail actually can get distracting.

Fans of the book are ultimately going to be satisfied.  It is a fun movie for those of us that enjoyed the books.  But it never really comes to a point where it can stand on it’s own without the books.

gods_of_egypt_poster.jpgOkay, the title there is a little unfair. The cast is not all white or European.  You have Chadwick Boseman and Elodie Yung for example.  But still, our core heroes and central gods are pretty white.  So, the title stays.

Set in a world where the gods are real and rule Egypt directly while walking among the people, Gods of Egypt is focused on young Bek and his beloved Zaya.  While Zaya favors the gods and sees them as good, Bek is more skeptical.

On the day Osiris passes his crown to son Horus as the new king, Set betrays Osiris and kills him, stealing Horus’ eyes and casting him out of the temple.  When Zaya is killed, Bek steals one of Horus’ eyes and seeks out Horus.  He gives Horus the one eye and makes a deal to help Horus get revenge on Set in return for bringing Zaya back from the dead.

There is a race of time, as Zaya will soon have to pay tribute to enter the afterlife, and she has nothing to give.  They enlist help from Hathor (goddess of love) and Thoth (god of wisdom).  At a pivotal moment, it is revealed that it is not possible for Horus to uphold his end of the deal.  From there on out, it becomes a struggle to defeat Set and his master plan.

Visionary director Alex Proyas returns after “Seven Years in Exile” for his Nick Cage vehicle Knowing. I confess to having a limited knowledge of Egyptian mythology, so casting aside, this all may be terribly accurate…but I am guessing that it is not the case.  Nothing in the film feels terribly authentic (for example, the golden armor or the cosmic machines) and while the general design sense is kind of cool looking, there are things that just are awkward. The gods are slightly larger than the humans, and it just looks weird. The film tries to be more dramatic than it manages, and it’s big moments tend to fall flat.

Gods of Egypt simply never gels, and honestly, the visual highlights simply cannot save it.

Perecy_Jackson_Sea_of_Monsters_PosterSea of Monsters leaves behind a lot of the characters from the original.  And several of the actors.  Lerman, Daddario and Jackson are back. Replacing Pierce Brosnan in the role of centaur Chiron is Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  This is actually a decent fit, as Head is capable of both intensity and scholarly attitude.

Opening with the story of how four children were running to Camp Halfblood long ago, all but one making it.  Thalia, daughter of Zeus sacrifices herself.  Zeus causes her to grow into a tree that creates a barrier that protects the camp.

Decades later, Percy is a minor celebrity for saving Olympus, but he is facing competition from Ares’ daughter Clarisse. She has been racking up quest, while Percy has…well, he saved Olympus. Everyone is surprised by the arrival of Tyson, who claims to be a child of Poseidon. He is not, however, half human, rather he is half dryad, which results in him being a cyclops.

The camp is startled when a large mechanical bull breaks through the barrier and starts to tear up the camp. Percy and friends discover that the Thalia Tree has been poisoned.  They decide it calls for a quest to find the Golden Fleece, which could heal the tree. Clarisse strikes out on her own, while Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and Tyson go on the run.

What they also find is that they are in competition with Luke yet again. This time, he seeks to resurrect his grandfather Kronos and bring about the destruction of the world. So, the stakes are not high or anything. The kids encounter sea monsters, cyclops and oracles as they seek to stop the end of the world.

There are some things that this film does better than the last.  We only meet a couple of gods, but Stanley Tucci has droll fun with Mr. D (“D” for Dionysus).  He is cursed by Zeus to be unable to consume wine (cause, he is, among other things, the god of wine making, so…ironic!).  When he pours wine, it becomes water.  He tells Chiron, “You know, the Christians have a guy who can do that in reverse.  Now that’s a god!” This film suggests there are more than just the Greek Pantheon of Gods, but it is unclear how it all works out, and the film is unconcerned by it.

Nathan Fillion appears as Hermes in a rather fun performance that plays to his charms.  The story’s updates to classical characters are far more effective this time around.  The Gray sisters (prophetic witches who share a single eye), are reckless cab drivers. Polyphemus the cyclops…well, he is a cyclops.  But he lives under an amusement park.  And Hermes runs a UPS/Fed Ex style delivery service.

The film tries to build tension with Annabeth unable to trust Tyson because he is a cyclops.  But Tyson is such a sweet kid, it is a hard sell.  The film also tries to give a feel like everyone rallies behind Percy.  And they do, but it is entirely unconvincing as to why Clarisse so quickly abandons her chip.

The cgi in the film ranges from middling to video game cut scene level.

Sea of Monsters is not a terrible follow up, and it does do some things better than the first. But what we have is something mildly enjoyable if you are bored one evening and usnure of what to do with your night.

Percy_Jackson_Lightning_Thief_PosterStudios are always on the hunt for their franchises.  And Harry Potter had everyone convinced they knew the formula. And so 20th Century Fox brought in Chris Columbus, director of the first two Harry Potter films to adapt the Percy Jackson and the Olympians by young author Rick Riordan.

Percy Jackson has lived his life with his mother and a terrible step-father.  His only solace is swimming and his friend Grover. He struggles with dyslexia and is easily distracted.  One day on a school trip he makes a rather startling discovery.  He is the son of Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea. Grover turns out to be a satyr and his protector and takes Percy and his mother to a place where Percy will be safe.  See, it turns out that everyone in Mythdom believes Percy has stolen Zeus’ lightning bolt.  And so everyone is trying to get it from him to start a war.

A minotaur interferes with their attempt to reach Camp Halfblood.  While Percy and Grover make it, his mother is taken by Hades.  Along with Grover and Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, Percy goes on a quest to free his mother from Hades.

The film draws from various Greek stories, bringing Percy against the Hydra, Medusa, and the underworld.  It is filled pretty richly with creatures of myths like Centaurs and furies.

The first two Harry Potter films were faithful to the source to the point of near detriments, but on the other hand the casting of the instructors was downright inspired. Now, I have not read the books, so I am not sure how closely the films follow their inspirations.  But while the cast is good, there are really no…”That person now defines how I would see them in any incarnation”.  Again, the cast is good.  You have Sean Bean, Joe Pantoliano, Uma Thurman, Catherine Keener, Rosario Dawson, and Pierce Brosnan in your supporting cast. And really, Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson and Alexandra Daddario connect well as a team.

A lot of the creature designs are pretty good.  Some, are hampered by being very obvious digital monsters.  And honestly, the film makes the same flaw in their choice for Medusa as the Clash of the Titans remake…she is to seductive looking.

However, there are some inspired moments, for example, the hydra begins as five men who combine into the beast.

The Lightning Thief has an interesting enough idea at it’s core that I did find the film to be fairly entertaining.  Not a classic or must see, of course, but it is certainly passable light entertainment.

Eragon_Posterin 2001 we got the two biggest film franchises of the new century.  Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter proved the appetite was there for fantasy films.  And so everyone was trying to get the next major franchise, snapping up young adult fantasy novels.  One of those was Christopher Paolini’s Eragon.

Eragon is a young farm boy in a land that used to be protected by the Dragon Riders.  The dragons were wiped out, but there is a prophesy of an egg yet to hatch. Eragon discovers the egg and upon hatching the baby dragon hatches.  He and his dragon Saphira find themselves hunted by the evil King Galbatorix, who desires Saphira for himself. Or he wants to destroy her.  Whatever is necessary to keep his power. With the evil Wizard Durza, he has kept the princess Arya prisoner.

Eragon is trained by the secretive Brom as they prepare to take on Galbatorix and his minions.

While the books were modestly popular, this did not translate into success for the film.  And frankly, it is not much different from Dragonheart ten years earlier.  The film fails at offering all it’s twists.  Brom’s secret is pretty obvious, so it is not a surprise when it is revealed.

The film also takes poor shortcuts.  The Dragon seems to grow to adulthood in a matter of days. The effects are decent enough, but the film makes the choice of allowing us to hear the psychic connection between Eragon and Saphira…and it just does not work as effectively as simply having the dragon speak as they did with Dragonheart.

Eragon just never feels like anything beyond a want to be fantasy epic.  And it really feels like a direct to video knockoff, in spite of a cast that includes Rachel Weisz, John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons.

Thor_the_Conqueror_PosterThe prophesied ruler of the land has weaker language skills than the Hulk and has no idea what a woman is.

Thor’s parents are killed when he is an infant and he is raised by an old man likes to narrate day to day. In spite of his talkative nature.  He fights his fathers rival, gets the girl and…well…

This is a Conan knockoff that never quite rises to the level of “Epic”.  It has awful dialog, for starters.  The old man, clearly not an old man at all, does not converse as much as he goes on grand story exposition.  And in spite of being raised by the talkative old man, Thor can barely string sentences together.

The effects, as such as they are, are pretty abysmal.  In one scene, Thor is having a fever dream and is tormented by demons that look like bad paper mache masks.  This is an ideal film for, say Mystery Science Theater 3000, but not so much for watching on it’s own.

 

Conquest_PosterYoung Ilias is given a magic bow and sent on a quest.  After saving a girl named “Girl Ilias Saves From Snake” from being bitten by a snake, he runs into Mace, a guy who has no friends. How do I know this? Because Ilias asks Mace his name and Mace tells him that his enemies call him Mace. Ilias asks what his friends call him and he answers back that he has no friends.  He is a tortured soul, the man called Mace.

Mace tells Ilias they can totally hang out if he shows him how to use Ilias’ magic bow.  They discover a tribe of meek people, the people of Girl Ilias Saves From Snake. The people are enslaved by the evil Ocron.  Ocron is noticeably evil due to her big metal mask, incredibly affectionate snake and her penchant for being topless. Okay, I don’t know that the last one is really tied to her being evil, but you sure don’t miss it either. She also has a bunch of Sasquatch like creatures who eat people. That kind of sucks.

Mace and Ilias decide they must destroy Ocron, but she has anticipated this due to dreams of a man with Ilias’ bow killing her. She calls on Zora, the spirit that resides in a white wolf, but looks suspiciously lizard-like to help her vanquish Ilias.

Conquest is from director Lucio Fulci, an Italian director mainly known for his horror works. The film is not particularly well acted (both in the dubbed voices or original performances).  The story is also so simplistic as to sometimes seems like there is no actual plot.  Waitaminute…

And yet, something about it kept me watching.  Mace is kind of hilarious in his “I have no friends but the animals” ways.  The completely arbitrary magic bow that can shoot laser arrows. The bad costume for Zora.  The film hits that point of hilariousness.