Oh Oh It’s Magic PT 7 uh PT 2 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, 2011)

Harry_Potter_008_PosterTen years of film-making culminates with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.  After managing to destroy a couple of the Horacruxes and escaping the clutches of Bellatrix Lestrange, the trio realizes they need to return to Hogwarts.  But this is not so simple.  Snape is now Headmaster, Dementors patrol the grounds and Death Eaters are on the watch for Harry Potter.

They find themselves seeking the help of Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth. They were never aware of a brother, and he seems embittered towards his brother.  In the Trio’s absence, Neville Longbottom has rallied their fellow students to be ready for war against Voldemort.  Harry realizes what the final Horacruxes are.  He seeks one, while Hermione and Ron work on a plan to destroy the other. There is a large battle at the school, which Voldemort brings a halt to.  He promises to let everyone go if they only turn over Harry Potter.

But Harry realizes he must face Voldemort on his own.  This leads to a rather touching moment with our three heroes as it is clear, this may be the last time they ever see each other.

Part two, while a logical progression from the dark part one, is far more exciting and even fun.  The drama is more hopeful. The funny thing is, taken as a whole, both films work quite well. Part one feels less oppressive when directly followed up by part two (as opposed to the theatrical releases which were several months apart).

Part two brings the series to a close with a sense of hope and optimism.  There are many moments that are thoughtful next to the exciting battles. And yet, even split among two films, you feel like we don’t get enough of some of those favorite characters (such as Remus and Tonks). I enjoy the series and feel this film brings it all to a close quite nicely.

Oh Oh It’s Magic! PT 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007)

Harry_Potter_005_PosterThe film opens with a rather heartbroken Harry Potter, haunted by the death of Cedric Diggory and the rise of Voldemort.  The Ministry of Magic has worked very hard to portray Harry and Dumbledore as crackpots. Confronted by cousin Dudley and his friends, Harry becomes angry with Dudley and pulls his wand on him.  This is a nicely acted scene, as the moment Dudley sees the wand, his expression goes from cocky to scared (while his friends all laugh, having no idea Harry is a wizard).

The skies go dark and Harry finds he and Dudley under an attack from Dementors. Harry fights off the Dementors, but this results in his being expelled from Hogwarts for being an underage wizard using spells off campus. Harry must face a brief hearing to address if he will be punished.  Dumbledore prevents this from being permanent.

Harry is also frustrated by the fact that nobody has been in contact with him.  He discovers that Dumbledore has brought together several people to form the Order of the Phoenix.  It includes Lupin, the Weasleys, Sirius Black, Mad-Eye Moody and shockingly to Harry, Professor Snape.

Once back at Hogwarts, the kids are introduced to the new professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts.  Delores Umbridge is really there as an eye for the Ministry of Magic, which does not trust Dumbledore.  She does not teach the children spells. Instead, she focuses on books, arguing the children will never need to put such things into action.

Umbridge slowly takes over the school, enforcing ridiculous and endless rules.  She forces out Dumbledore, inspiring Harry to bring together like-minded students to prepare to fight Voldemort.

this is the heart of the film, as Harry and his friends strive to prepare for the coming battle.  But Harry also struggles with nightmarish visions, some of which turn out to be true. This causes him to believe Sirius is in great danger, causing Harry and a few members of his class to set out to save Sirius by breaking into the Ministry of Magic’s archives department.  This leads to an all-out battle royale.

Order of the Phoenix is notable as being the only Harry Potter Film without a Steve Kloves screenplay. And in some ways, this film feels the least connected.  It also suffers from issues like setups not being addressed.  It never explains the Dementor attack.

Certainly, we can assume it  was due to Voldemort or even the Ministry of Magic…but while the event is questioned, it is never answered.

Still, this is a generally good film within the franchise, even if we only get glimpses of characters like Sirius Black (blunting his overall impact). The introduction of Bellatrix LeStrange (played with gleeful delirium by Helena Bonham Carter) and Luna Lovegood (who, in some ways is a sweetly natured reflection of LeStrange) are welcome.  Imelda Staunton makes Delores Umbridge gloriously hateable.

The film also introduces one of my favorite characters from the books, Tonks.  She is kind of what I figure a young and modern witch or wizard would be like (for example, using magic change hair color and styles).

This film brings on David Yates as director and visionary for the rest of the series (under the watch of Rowling and Kloves). Primarily a television director, Yates acquits himself quite well in this big budget picture.

Oh Oh It’s Magic! PT 4 (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2005)

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.

Oh Oh It’s Magic! PT 3 (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004)

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.

Future Love Pt 1 (The Fifth Element, 1997)

Fifth_Element_PosterWelcome to the Future.  It is run down and grimy.  And Bruce Willis lives there. And a mysterious object is hurtling towards Earth…a planet…an evil planet.  The Government is trying to destroy it, but a religious order is pushing for an alternate plan…

Using the DNA from an alien life form that is said to be the greatest warrior in the universe, military scientists end up with a beautiful young woman.  She escapes and finds herself in the flying cab of Korben Dallas.  He does not want any trouble, but when the woman (named Leeloo) begs for his help, he finds he cannot just turn a blind eye.  This of course, forces Dallas into helping Leeloo along with Priest Cornelius. Hot on their trail are alien creatures working for a deviant business man named Zorg.  They must find a set of stones that were stolen and use them in conjunction with Leeloo to stop the evil planet.

Luc Besson’s the Fifth Element is a richly beautiful action film.  It is filled with colorful costumes, vibrant lifeforms and entertaining characters set against an a crazy backdrop of tall buildings, exotic spaceships and flying cars. The costume design is almost amusing in it’s weird fashion sense and impracticality.  McDonald’s workers have sexy uniforms for goodness sakes.  But Besson has a real eye for detail, with the designs being important.

The characters are, largely, archetypes…and Dallas is basically that “Bruce Willis Guy” that we saw throughout the 80’s and 90’s.  World weary, tough and sarcastic.  But Besson puts that to good use.  Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo falls into that “Child-Like Super Hero Girl” Trope.  You know, can barely speak, innocent and super powerful.  This is, admittedly a painfully over used trope…but Jovovich gives one of her stronger performances here, making Leeloo like an exuberant child as she is absorbing knowledge and working through the mission.

Gary Oldman’s Zorg is a strange duck, but Oldman is very entertaining.  Surprisingly, the real standout though?  Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod. Rhod is a flamboyant television host who is clearly modeled after Prince.  Tucker pretty obviously had a lot of fun with this role.

The Fifth Element is a fun Sci-Fi amusement park ride.  The plot is very simple, overall.  The evil planet is evil because…well, it is (and it can make phone calls).  And Leeloo is good, because…well, she is.  And yet, the film is an entertaining visual rush.

Rage Against the Machine (The Dark Knight Rises,2012)

Batman_dark_knight_rises_posterIt was becoming clear that Nolan was planning to form a trilogy.  The Dark Knight ended with Batman on the run, taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death.  It suggested Batman would be hiding in the shadows in his fight against crime. There were no real casting controversies this time.  Generally, people seemed okay with announcements of Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway.

After the Dark Knight, people seemed to trust the team making these films.  So there was much anticipation when the Dark Knight Rises arrived four years later.

And right from the start?  The film kicks off with a nice little plane hijacking by the villain Bane.  This Bane appears to be a pretty brilliant criminal and Occupy Terrorist.  And yet?  The terrific setup from the Dark Knight is not used at all.  The film picks up eight years later with Bruce Wayne having retired Batman.  The police did their job, so Bruce retired the persona shortly after the events of the Dark Knight.  Apparently, no weird bad guys appeared after the Joker.  Wayne is in rough shape, physically speaking.   The years as Batman took a real toll.  He catches Selina Kyle busting into his safe during a party,  Kyle is a morally ambiguous character.  She is a thief of course, but she is not entirely without conscience.

Commissioner Gordon is deemed a hero, but this is eating away at him…and he keeps a letter on himself at all times confessing what really happened to Harvey Dent.  This certainly could have been a real damning situation.  Admittedly, I felt it would have been better to bring Two Face back as the central villain, out to humiliate and expose (and destroy) Gordon and the Batman.

Bane starts to wreak havoc on Gotham’s social and financial districts.  Forcing Batman out of retirement and into a confrontation, Bane breaks Batman’s back and  tosses him in  hole.  Ultimately Bruce Wayne must climb to the top to get free.  The film is a bit on the nose.

It turns out that Bane is teamed up with another villain, who is revealed to have ties from the first film.  And their plan just makes no sense.  They trap the entire police force underground and plan to blow up a bomb.

What makes the Dark Knight Rises so disappointing as a followup is that it is incredibly sloppy in it’s storytelling.  How and why things occur are not fully thought out.  The film is full of exciting sequences…but they don’t bring the film together.  The film is heavily focused on being a “last Bruce Wayne” story for the Nolan version.  But the villains activities don’t really have a satisfying connecting moment.  There is, technically, an “Ah HA!” moment.  But it still leaves a lot of Bane’s overly elaborate scheming kind of pointless.

As a follow up to the Dark Knight (and Batman Begins) this is a well cast movie full of plot-holes to the point of Swiss Cheese.  Catwoman is a fun character, and Hathaway’s performance is great, without drawing on earlier film versions.  Freeman, Cain and Oldman are great in their roles, vital to the enjoyment of this film.  As a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he is always welcome, and his tenacious cop  Blake (in spite of a “groaner” of a name reveal at the end) is likable…he is also pretty obvious the out of they wanted to make a fourth film without Bale, as the Bale Batman seems to have run it’s course.  That Bat Voice starts to grate on a viewer, especially after three movies.

I wish Nolan’s series could have ended on a higher note, but that was not meant to be.  We have a movie with some fine performances, some good action scenes and a rather hard to buy into massive plan by villains even taking into account this is a movie about a guy dressed as a bat.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Knight (the Dark Knight, 2008)

batman-the-dark-knight-posterThe recasting of Rachel Dawes with Maggie Gyllenhaal might have been the biggest casting controversy if not for the announcement of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Oh, the internet exploded.  And then the movie came out and made a lot of people eat crow.  The late Heath Ledger gave one of the best takes on the Joker.  An anarchist who just wants to watch the world burn, The Joker starts out appearing like he is trying to take over the mob, only for them to be shocked as he proves he does not care about their goals at all.

The Dark Knight improves on the action scenes, showing how much Nolan learned.  The story is mostly quite strong.  They introduce the heroic Harvey Dent, a new DA with no fear of the mob…causing Bruce Wayne to question if Batman will be necessary any more.  Of course, Dent is doomed to be twisted into a brutal caricature of justice.

The Dark Knight is full of twists and turns, as well as challenging questions in regards to spying and information gathering.  How far do you go to stop someone?  Admittedly, the film tries to have it both ways, allowing Batman to go to far, but for it to be a one time deal.

The film also struggles a bit with exactly what it wants to do with Two Face…and it really squanders an opportunity that could have played into the next film.  While the Joker story line seems so carefully plotted, the Two Face story line just feels rushed.  But in the end, the overall film ties together nicely.

As noted, Ledger’s Joker borders on brilliant.  The performance is downright unnerving, helped by musical queues that make it feel all the more disturbing.  The returning cast are all excellent, and Gyllenhaal holds her own (as pretty much the only woman of consequence in the film) with heavyweights like Oldman, Freeman and Caine.

Nolan has shown Great vision for Batman, and only improved on Batman Begins.  It is an intense and  exhilarating ride of a film.

When I Was a Kid (Batman Begins, 2005)

Batman-Begins-posterIt took until 2005 for Batman to return to the big screen.  From the start, we knew this was going to be a more serious take on the character than the previous films.  They were starting over and taking their inspiration from Batman: Year One.  Warner Brothers brought in Christopher Nolan (director of Following and Memento) to craft a Batman for the modern movie age.  They started to announce their cast and people started to get excited.  Christian Bale. Gary Oldman.  Liam Neeson.  Literally the most controversial casting choice was Katie Holmes…and that was more after the film was released.

Batman Begins is a refreshing take on the character.  It followed closely the stories such as Year One.  And instead of going with villains we had already seen, they opted for two that had not been used in film before.  Ra’s Al Ghul was a longstanding comic book Bat Nemesis who ruled over the elite league of assassins.

Young Bruce Wayne struggles to come to terms with the death of his parents at the hands of low level thug Joe Chill.  He plots to kill Chill, but is convinced by Rachel Dawes (Holmes) to not give into the revenge.  So Bruce drops off the grid and wanders the planet  getting into scrapes and apparently lots of prisons…until he meet Ducard, the mysterious emissary to Ra’s Al Ghul.  After training with the league of assassins, Bruce discovers that the League has plans to erase Gotham off the map, believing it is beyond saving.

When Bruce returns to Gotham, he decides that he needs to use his training to combat the decay of the mob and other criminal activity.  The film also focuses on Detective Jim Gordon and his attempts to deal with corruption inside and outside his force.  As Batman, Bruce Wayne realizes he has an ally.  Of course, the League of Assassins has no intention of giving up their plan.

Nolan was not known for being an action film director prior to this, and it shows.  Sometimes things are to tightly framed making the action hard to follow.  There are great action sequences, but there are times where they are not as easy to follow.

The story is not hard to follow, and unlike previous Batman films, the multiple villains  does not ruin the pacing.  And how the villains are tied together makes sense.  Nolan and his time understand how to intertwine the elements of a tale.

The film is also nearly perfectly cast.  Bale sells the notion of a man with a singular purpose.  Michael Caine’s Alfred is a new and unique take on the character in film and television.  He is a bit rougher and has a military background.  You can see he was hired as much for his strength as his support.  He can be tough, wise and gentle when it is called for.

And then there is Gary Oldman’s Detective Gordon.  He is struggling to try and keep things together, but not out of incompetence, but simply because Gotham is falling apart and the seems, and at times, he seems alone in trying to stem the tide.  It is great to see the movies finally elevate his presence.  He is a far more important to the Bat Mythos than Burton or Schumacher ever seemed to realize.

As Ducard, Neeson brings an self righteous arrogance that sees him in a role of dangerous judge and jury.  Lucius Fox is played by Morgan Freeman in one of those Freeman roles where he is wise and underestimated.   Cillian Murphy’s psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane is creepy, even before he dons his Scarecrow mask.  Holmes is the weakest link.  It is not that she is terrible, but she is out of her depth with the rest of the cast.

Gotham is no longer a hyper stylized city with crazy architecture.  Instead, it is a rundown city, with a recognizable look that could be the streets of a large metropolis.  It is very effective.

Batman Begin’s is a solid start to a new series of films.  It is the path I wish Bryan Singer had followed with Superman.  We are introduced to an exciting world with much potential (as hinted in the final moments of the film).

What a Scrooge Part 5 (A Christmas Carol, 2009)

a-christmas-carol-poster-2009Truth be told, I was not anticipating much with this film.  It was motion capture and seemed like a vanity project for Carrey to show off.

And yet, the motion capture was not as distracting as I expected.  The character designs had an old storybook look.

And yes, it is an opportunity for Carrey to show off, but this film works in his favor.  Carrey provides the voice of Scrooge and all three Ghosts.  The film has some of the most imaginative takes on the ghosts, as only animation allows.

The Ghost of Christmas Present has a flame for a head, symbolic of the birth of hope (at least to me) to be mined from the past.  While the Ghost of Christmas Present appears very much like other incarnations in his wreath crown and red robe, Carrey plays him with a wicked glee.  This is a powerful component of the Ghost that can often be missed.  He enjoys sticking it to Scrooge by using his own words against him.  The best adaptions of the story remember this.

Marley is spot on.  He is downright horrifying, as is fitting to the story.  If your Marley is not fear inducing, you are getting it all wrong.  And here, Marley’s arrival is intense.

The performances are all effective.  Oldman’s Marley is grim, angry and desperate.  His Bob Cratchit kindly and gentle.  Colin Firth brings warmth and joy to Fred.  But Carrey?  He shines as Scrooge.  He brings the right amount of fear and bitterness to Scrooge.  His ghosts echo his voice ever so slightly, as if each ghost has a direct link to Scrooge.

Post conversion Scrooge hits all the right notes.  He is giddy, joyful and full of hope.  There is a glint of childish mischievousness in him as he plays off the expectations of those around him and then surprises them.

The one sore spot for me is that there two absurd and over the top effects sequences.  The first has Scrooge rocketing through the sky after extinguishing the ghost of Christmas Past.  The second is where Scrooge shrinks and grows while trying to outrun the horses of the Ghost of Christmas Future.

But overall, writer/director Robert Zemeckis and his cast seem to understand the story, and put together a pretty effective version of the tale.  They get the horror element, the scary aspect of the story, but also the hope and redemption.  I was pleasantly surprised with this one.

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