Archive for the Movies Category

Despite deviations, ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’ still has magic touch

Posted in Books, Fantasy/sci-fi, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

With so many critical plot points omitted from the cinematic version of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” I’m relieved the last book in the series will be made into two movies. The adventure and mischief we expect from Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger are lacking this time around. But the sixth installment in the Harry Potter film franchise is still a force to be reckoned with, brimming with infectious humor, temperamental teen romance and the tale of two boys on very separate paths. And Radcliffe, the linchpin upon whose shoulders this eight-part series rests, has grown as an actor, demonstrating his comic chops to hysterical effect in the Liquid Luck sequence.

The grown-up Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) doesn’t appear in “Half-Blood Prince,” but his sinister presence is felt throughout most of the 2 ½ hours, from the dark, narrow, sinuous corridors in Diagon Alley and even Hogwarts to the overall air of menace hanging over the world; even the muggles have noticed the difference in the atmosphere. The two actors who portray the Dark Lord in his youth—Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane—are aptly cast, both in appearance and demeanor. Fiennes-Tiffin, the adult Fiennes’ nephew, is downright chilling when he tells Dumbledore he can make people hurt. In retrospect, as we watch Dumbledore reveal memories of Tom Riddle to Harry through his Pensieve, we wonder why no one saw early on the warning signs of his moral corruption and hunger for power at all costs.

The movie begins with death and destruction being meted out by three Death Eaters who hurtle from place to place in swirling jets of black smoke. The scenes involving them are dark and monochromatic, like much of director David Yates’ grim vision for the movie. Against this ominous landscape—sunlight is scarce in this production—“Half-Blood Prince” focuses, for the first time, on the personal lives of its adolescent main characters to such a degree you start to wonder if all the adults have been stuffed into a Vanishing Cabinet. We don’t even get the chance to mock and laugh at the predictable absurdity of the Dursleys, as they are entirely absent from this movie.

The agonies and the ecstasies of young love become a central plot, with the added peril of magic. It’s Hermione’s turn to feel the sting of jealousy (remember in “Goblet of Fire,” when she attracted the attentions of a certain world-renowned Quidditch player, much to Ron’s irritation?). After a Quidditch victory—what is it about these Hogwarts girls and their susceptibility to airborne athletes?—Ron’s public snogging session with Lavender Brown causes a devastated Hermione to rush out of the Gryffindor common room. Emma Watson shows she can handle the dramatic moments just as well as she can the more comedic ones. In another scene, Rupert Grint elicits a lot of laughter when Ron accidentally consumes a powerful love potion and waxes poetic about the beauty of the moon and a girl he’s never even met. Meanwhile, a sweet romance grows slowly and quietly between Harry and Ron’s younger sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), who looks a great deal like Lily Potter must have in her teen years.

“Half-Blood Prince” does not concentrate solely on the affairs of the heart, though. The movie also illustrates the extraordinary growth that teens must go through and the hard decisions they are forced to make—often at too young of an age—in the storyline of Harry’s longtime nemesis, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Unlike Harry, Draco has grown up in the lap of luxury, with the love and adoration of both his parents. He’s a spoiled brat who has gotten away with abusing and bullying other kids because his parents have always protected him from harm—until now.

With his dad in Azkaban (for you Muggles unfamiliar with HP, that’s a wizard prison) and his family in disgrace, no one can protect Draco from Voldemort. He’s in a precarious position, with a horrifying deed to perform at which he has little chance of succeeding. Instead of being surrounded by his entourage—you almost miss the slavish and superbly stupid Crabbe and Goyle—we catch glimpses of him alone, always nattily dressed in a slim-fitting black suit while wandering the school hallways or lurking in the Room of Requirement. For perhaps the first time in the history of Harry Potter, Draco deserves our sympathy. You realize how being a chosen one has alienated him from everyone else, even his closest friends, whereas Harry’s destiny has only drawn Ron and Hermione closer to him.

To emphasize the sharp divide between him and the rest of his classmates, a clever shot shows Ron and Lavender snogging on a staircase, only to pan to Felton standing on a balcony, staring off into the night, looking lost and forlorn. The scenes where Draco’s crying spills into the night have nothing to do with unrequited love or a failed romance but they are heartrending nonetheless. Felton, who in the past has overacted and literally spit out his lines, particularly the insults he snarls at Harry, demonstrates restraint in his performance and is far more effective as a tortured, brooding Draco. He doesn’t speak much either, but his lean, pale face says enough. He’s one of the few people who looks pensive after Dumbledore’s first-day speech about a former student at the school who made all the wrong choices.

The time spent on the budding teen romances and Draco’s development as a character in great turmoil comes at the expense of other developments. With the exception of a lesson by Professor Horace Slughorn (the wonderful Jim Broadbent)—really, can any school year at Hogwarts commence without the addition of a new teacher?—“Half-Blood Prince” doesn’t spend any time in the classroom. We see Professors McGonnall (Maggie Smith, in an unfortunate wardrobe consisting of lots of pointy details) and Snape (the delightfully acerbic Alan Rickman) roaming the school grounds, but neither of them do any actual teaching onscreen. That Rickman, who can inject more sarcasm into one syllable than most people can hope to fit in a sentence, doesn’t have much screen time in “Half-Blood Prince,” is a waste of formidable talent. He’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of Hogwarts, in spite of his venom often being directed at Harry.

Dumbledore fans will rejoice at the elevated interaction between Harry and the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. A more somber, businesslike Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is preparing Harry for his eventual confrontation with Voldemort, trying to arm him with knowledge about the Dark Lord’s weaknesses and past. His plan includes Harry retrieving a memory from Slughorn about a conversation he once had with a sixth-year Tom Riddle. I’ve always lamented the loss of the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and “Half-Blood Prince” makes his absence more painfully obvious. Although Gambon is a fine actor, he doesn’t capture Dumbledore’s essence. Gambon’s too authoritative, too energetic, too fierce; the Dumbledore from the books and Harris’ performances in the first two movies is more refined and quietly commanding.

Jessie Cave is hilarious as the obsessively possessive Lavender. As the well-built but annoyingly arrogant Cormac McLaggen—Ron’s rival at the Quidditch tryouts—Freddie Stroma provides comic relief whenever he leers at the mortified Hermione. Evanna Lynch, as the loony and lovable Luna Lovegood, is always a bewitching distraction. Helena Bonham Carter has a raucous time as the crazed Bellatrix Lestrange, cackling as she wreaks havoc within and without Hogwarts’ walls. Dave Legeno doesn’t have any lines as Fenrir Greyback, but he manages to convey malevolence with a single glance.

There are pivotal scenes in the book missing from the movie: The Quidditch match won by Ginny playing Seeker and the spontaneous kiss she shares with Harry later in the common room; Dumbledore more fully explaining his theory about Voldemort’s Horcruxes to Harry; the engagement between Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour—and Mrs. Weasley’s initial opposition to it. Little attention is even paid to the object inspiring the title: The old, worn textbook with handwritten notes and corrections scribbled all over its pages, turning Harry into a Potions wunderkind and making him one of Slughorn’s favorites. There are some pointless scenes in the movie that don’t exist in the book: Harry reading a paper at a coffeehouse where he meets and flirts with a pretty waitress; the fight at the Burrow that ends with Bellatrix setting the house on fire. The ending is perhaps the weakest part of the movie, lacking the battle scene at the school (one can’t help but think the students needed the practice of more dueling, given what’s to come in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”).

“Half-Blood Prince” lacks the smooth pacing of “Order of the Phoenix” and the narrative flair of “Prisoner of Azkaban,” even though quite a few of the scenes are wondrous to behold (the London bridge twisting and falling, the lake within a seaside cave). More emotionally charged and visually enthralling than usual, “Half-Blood Prince” does an admirable job of whetting our appetite for parts one and two of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Those of us who are avid Harry Potter fans will rush to see them even if a Death Eater is standing in our way.

Where are all the women—on the big screen?

Posted in Fashion, Movies, Sex and the City with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

Bring on the next “Sex and the City” movie. If “Obsessed” or “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” are my only options at the movie theater when I want to revel in the female experience, I’d rather spend time with Carrie Bradshaw, even if she isn’t leading the single in the city lifestyle anymore. When I did the online equivalent of yawning at news of a sequel two months ago, I didn’t know that, much like the dating dry spells Miranda has on the “Sex and the City” TV series, there would be a drought at the theaters of perceptive, engaging movies made about and for women. Carrie and her friends at least provide the opportunity for intelligent discourse on the challenges and rewards of being a modern woman.

Other films have tried to copy the “SATC” formula for success and failed miserably, whether on an emotional, intellectual or commercial level. Earlier this spring I decided to see “Confessions of a Shopaholic“—I was initially attracted because of the fashion montages promised by the title—but it’s a silly concoction of cinematic fluff better served up to young women who haven’t actually entered the workforce (read what I think about it here).

As for “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”—is Charles Dickens rolling in his grave at the abusive play on his words?—not even the well-tanned brawn of Matthew McConaughey could entice me to pay money for “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” The trailer song alone—“Pictures of You” by The Last Goodnight (not to be confused with The Cure’s superior but different song by the same name)—makes me want to throw a stiletto heel at the TV screen.

“Obsessed” has less comedic moments, but I wouldn’t call it a real drama either. In the movie, a gorgeous woman (Ali Larter of “Heroes”) stalks a married man from work and eventually gets in a knock-down -drag-out catfight with his equally gorgeous wife (Beyonce Knowles). It’s a cross between “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “Fatal Attraction,” and the premise of beautiful women physically competing for the love of one man puts this realm in the realm of deranged male fantasy.

Management,” starring Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn and Woody Harrelson, opened last weekend. According to the Movie Insider Web site, “A traveling saleswoman sells cheap art to small companies and motels. She has a fling with an aimless, underachieving assistant motel manager at one of her stops, and he pursues her all over the U.S.” The genres it’s listed under? Comedy and romance. Only in Hollywood is a stalker considered the protagonist of a romantic comedy.

If we aren’t being presented with silly or superficial films about women, we’re offered cinematic fare lacking in any sort of meaningful female presence. I recently saw “The Departed” and “We Own the Night,” two male-centric movies that, if they feature women at all, bestow upon them only the most insubstantial of roles—typically that of a girlfriend or wife who has very few lines and almost none of any import. They are by no means the exception. So many of the movies on top 100 lists—or any reputable list, for that matter—focus so much on the story of men from a male perspective that women are relegated to minimal screen time or, in the worst case scenario, they don’t appear to exist at all in whatever landscape the director has created. With the frequent dearth of women in movies, an alien species might assume men spring entirely from the loins of other men. It’s an inane trend, given that women make up more than half of the U.S. population.

As much as this irks me, I don’t abhor movies meant to appeal mostly to a male audience. I saw both “Star Trek” and “X-Man Origins: Wolverine” on their opening weekends with my boyfriend without any coercion from him. I love action, adventure, fantasy and/or science fiction movies, all of which are intended mostly for men. And women like me are part of the reason why these movies do so much better at the box office. Women are more willing to compromise. How many women saw “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” last summer? How many men, do you think, went to see the “SATC” movie, either by themselves or accompanied by their significant other?

Which brings me back to my original complaint. Since the release of “Sex and the City: The Movie,” we’ve had few choices that really appeal to those of us who seek a versatile handbag as well as gender equality. Women need to start taking control of their purse strings when it comes to movies, and maybe then we’ll have more box office power.

Hollywood hooch: The drink of champions

Posted in Battlestar Galactica, Movies, TV shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

Hollywood is holding out on us. Like everything else in la-la land, where even a bartender can come home to an apartment furnished by Pottery Barn, the liquor they drink on the big screen is better than ours, maybe even magical. This special liquor is also available to those on the small screen. Homer Simpson summed it up best when he said, “Homer no function beer good without.” Alcohol, often the bane of a productive existence for working-class America, is the elixir of modern-day life for movie and television stars, at least while they’re in character.

There are two groups of alcohol, and I’m not talking about wine and beer. There’s the kind you and I drink—the kind that, when drunk in excess, makes you slur your words, fall down, repeat the same story over and over again until all your friends walk away, pick bad bed partners, sing at the Christmas office party when you’ve never been able to hold a note in your life, make out with your boss at the Christmas office party when you’re both married and attempt feats of strength that only lead to UDBs (unidentified drunken injuries). And then there’s the kind you drink if you’re on TV or in movies—the kind that lets you slur your words but snap back into sobriety at a moment’s notice, operate heavy machinery without harm to yourself and others, charm everyone around you with your wit and intelligence, stumble upon beautiful bed partners, crack murder cases, solve complicated mysteries and essentially save the world. Really, in what aisle at Jewel can I find that liquor?

Nicolas Cage is the latest to join the pantheon of I-Drink-And-Somehow-Accomplish-Great-Things in “Knowing,” an Alexas Proyas flick about the future of Earth and the human race. Cage plays MIT professor/single dad John Koestler, who, still devastated over his wife’s death, ends every night by consuming massive amounts of hooch. When his son discovers in a time capsule a sheet of numbers, all of which seem random but are actually predictions of global disasters for the last 50 years, does Koestler stop drinking while trying to decipher it? No, he drinks more! In fact, the liquor appears to aid him in his intellectual quest for the truth, since he manages to decode the numbers and figure out the last few chilling messages while quite inebriated. (On a side note, I loved how Cage’s character held back in front of his son—he sips, albeit frequently, from his wine glass while they dine—but breaks out the hard stuff once the boy’s asleep.)

The days of Alex Stemberg-like morning afters—remember that 1986 movie starring Jane Fonda as a woman who wakes up with a hangover and no recollection of how she ended up in bed with a dead man?—are over. Now we have Holly Hunter on “Saving Grace,” playing a man-hungry detective who comes home drunk every night from the bar and still manages to get up the next day without fail, ready to tackle cases the next day. And, if she hasn’t brought a man with her, sometimes the intoxicated Grace lights a cigarette and lays out the crime scene photos on her living room floor while blasting hard-core music. The alcohol makes her “smarter.” On the grim “Battlestar Galactica,” a riveting TV series about the plight of the human race in the future, the two highest ranking military leaders suck down liquor like the ship they’re on sucks down fuel. (I have to give Adama and Tigh a pass on this, though, since the situation they’re in—the near extinction of the human race amid constant threats from an A.I. race—would make even the purest of souls pick up a draught or two.)

Drinking while succeeding—it’s a sweet fantasy, but ludicrous nonetheless. Let’s be honest: We all love liquor, but how many of us are at our professional best while drunk? Not many. Just like bourbon bottles come with warning labels, so too should movies and TV shows featuring this pastime as a daily occurrence: What you see here on the screen is not the truth. Not even close to the truth. If you get too drunk, you will walk into things and hurt yourself. You will fall down. You cannot leap across buildings; don’t even try to leap across puddles or potholes in the street outside the bar. You will most get in a stupid fight with your partner/spouse and end up alone and miserable, with only your puke beside you in bed for company.

This conspiracy is unfair. If Hollywood producers can’t give us this magical liquor proffered only to celebrities in their line of duty, we shouldn’t have to be taunted by these movies and TV shows depicting the achievements of the highest functioning drunks we’ll ever see. (And if anyone from Hollywood is reading this, I have an idea for a movie. It’s a remake of “Field of Dreams,” only this time the setting is the south suburbs of Chicago and the Kevin Costner character is trying to build a bar inside a library. Or maybe it’s a library inside a bar. The new slogan? If you drink it, the answers will come …)

Addictions to love and shopping: A stale cinematic formula

Posted in Fashion, Movies, Shopping with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

Give me “Moonstruck.” Give me “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” I’d even take “The Cutting Edge” (hey, it’s got the Pamchenko going for it).

But as far as romantic comedies go, “Confessions of a Shopaholic”—based on the series of best-selling books by Sophie Kinsella—is an excruciatingly painful exercise in female fantasy. Isla Fisher’s Rebecca Bloomwood will resonate with women like myself who crave high-fashion clothing and accessories. Poor Becky’s full-time hobby is so out of control she has run up nearly $20,000 in credit-card bills. And yes, I can relate to reaching for the plastic instead of cutting up the cards, bringing them to the local junkyard and watching as they’re crushed into oblivion. An extreme measure? Not for shopaholics.

But I found my willingness to suspend my belief gravely tested when Becky is so obsessed with shopping that she risks missing an interview for her dream job at the fashion magazine Alette. I found it further tested when she finagles a job at Successful Saving and writes a hugely popular column on frugality using—what else?—fashion metaphors. Why do I consider Becky’s career trajectory so absurd? Because I’m in a job search mode myself, and penning winning propositions while drunk to land a second interview after the first one failed abysmally just doesn’t happen. To anyone outside of Hollywood’s play pen, that is.

The real romance in “Confessions of a Shopaholic” is not between Becky and her boss, the dashing British editor Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy). It’s between Becky and her newest acquisition. Her ever-burgeoning relationship quickly hits a snag: The Evil Debt Collector, played by a properly unctuous Robert Stanton. The silly cat-and-mouse game between Becky and Stanton’s Derek Smeath reminds me of the battle between Ferris Bueller and Principal Rooney, but you grow tired of her preposterous yet nearly always successful machinations to avoid him and accept responsibility for her actions.

I prefer my romantic comedies to be witty and charming, with some sort of metamorphosis, whether physical, mental or emotional, at the heart of the story. “Confessions of a Shopaholic” falls woefully short on all counts, and it’s not even really fun to watch. Its glossy veneer eventually cracks under the strain of Becky’s frequently garish wardrobe. Label lust doesn’t automatically translate into style.

I’ve read many reviews extolling the comedic talent and physical virtues of Fisher, who’s beguiling to a degree with her oh-so-earnest, wide-eyed pouts, but I am oddly disturbed by the sight of such a childlike face atop such a curvy body. I guess that’s why she appeals to the male set. The same phenomenon must happen a lot with Scarlett Johansson, who plays Anna in “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

But whereas Becky doesn’t mean to hurt anyone—really, wouldn’t any fashion addict pick buying a new outfit for a TV show appearance over buying a bridesmaid’s dress for your best friend’s wedding??—Scarlett’s Anna is, well, yearning to be a scarlet woman. (It’s interesting how even in the reviews that pan “He’s Just Not That Into You” for its supposedly misogynist portrayal of women, no one condemns Anna for actively pursuing a married man.)

“He’s Just Not That Into You,” a better page-to-screen adaptation in the romantic comedy genre—I won’t call it a chick flick, because I consider the term derogatory—is based on a book by two “Sex and the City” writers, Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. I was mildly surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie, from the opening sequence where Ginnifer Goodwin narrates that women’s acceptance of cruelty in boyfriends and husbands stems from a childhood incident. A little boy insults a little girl on a playground, and the girl runs crying to her mother, who tells her the boy was mean because he likes her. Flash forward to the present, where in various scenarios a woman’s girlfriends explain a man’s bad behavior by saying essentially the same thing.

There’s truth in those vignettes. Not that men who treat women poorly are masking their true feelings of love and adoration—if that were truly the message of this movie, I would call it misogynistic—but that women tend to look at their significant other as a long-term investment and are therefore often reluctant to let go when the relationship starts sinking or has been seriously problematic from the beginning. That women are especially guilty of coddling their heartbroken friends with bonbon-like compliments when they should be serving up cold slices of reality. That women like to believe in the exception rather than the rule.

Goodwin’s character, Gigi, is a Carrie Bradshaw on steroids in terms of being an emotional basket case and treating every man like he’s Mr. Big. She doesn’t know how to censor her thoughts or emotions, she jumps years ahead in a relationship after half a date gone OK, and she stalks men who express minimal interest in her. You can feel all the women in the audience wince when she once again demonstrates her lack of pride and tries to wrest an honest response from a man. And when Gigi finally succeeds, when she finally gets her man and she is recounting the moment when everything clicked for them, you see how easily perception redefines our histories as a couple.

The women in “He’s Just Not That Into You” aren’t farcical like Becky Bloomwood. They’re flawed and messy, yes, but they’re real. They spend more time on finding love and working on their relationships than I like to see in a movie theater or real life, but society is greatly responsible for female absorption in the ultimate commitment.

Another “He’s Just Not That Into You” character, Jennifer Aniston’s Beth, wants to be married and breaks up with her boyfriend of seven years because he won’t marry her. One agonizing scene is during a speech at the dinner party the night before her younger sister’s wedding, when a cousin refers to Beth as the older model still available. The humiliation Beth experiences as a single woman past her 20s is very relevant—it’s what made “Sex and the City” so relevant and successful with women of all ages.

Still, I’m not the biggest romantic comedy fan (I would have never watched Sarah Jessica Parker’s TV series if it had been named “Dating and the City” or “Looking for Love in the City”). The cinematic fare I enjoy most doesn’t go by names like “Serendipity,” “Sweet Home Alabama” or, my all-time nonfavorite, “You’ve Got Mail.” I plan to see “Coraline” this weekend and it wouldn’t shock me if the richest roles for actresses are in a stop-motion animated movie aimed at young girls, long before society warps our self-esteem and informs us our life should revolve around the Next Man or the Next Big Purchase or the Next Mr. Right.