Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

At the end of The Goblet of Fire, Hermione remarks, "everything's going to change now, isn't it?" Truer words were never spoken. After the shocking ending of the last film, The Order of the Phoenix takes an extremely serious turn.

The entire world of Harry Potter feels very different this time. The wizarding world is still exactly the same as it always was, but it feels much more grounded. Before, Harry Potter was a fictional universe with entirely different rules from reality, only seeking to be the same as our world through the genuineness of its characters. Now, new director David Yates takes the series in a different direction by approaching the story from a very real-world angle and adding the more unrealistic layers of magic on top like icing on a cake.

The re-working of the universe works, and it's not so different that it's not immediately recognizable. All the characters are better-written and acted here than they ever have been before. Ron seems to have finally gotten past being stereotyped as "the one who's afraid of everything," and has become a brave, fierce friend. Hermione has recovered from her bout of overemotional panic from last year, and is back to her brilliant and sharp-witted self from years 1-3.

Gary Oldman puts in a brilliant performance as Sirius Black. We haven't gotten to know him much at all in the films, but here he makes us feel the familial connection between Harry and Sirius within minutes.

Dark-Arts-teacher-of-the-year and villain of the film, Dolores Umbridge, is somewhere between entertaining, frustrating, and horrifying. She's as stubborn and bigoted as the Dursleys, as senseless and bureaucratic as the most evil politician, and as heartless as any dark wizard. She really does an amazing job of making you hate her.

New student Luna Lovegood is a total joy to watch. She has little-to-nothing to do with the overall plot, but she's so funny that it doesn't really matter.

Perhaps most striking of all is Helena Bonham-Carter's performance as Bellatrix Lestrange. She's the very definition of demented, and totally captivating.

The visual effects are mostly excellent, partially because they (for the most part) merely enhance the visual action, rather than dominating it as previous films did. Grawp the giant unfortunately looks a bit cartoonish, but he's not around long enough for it to be a serious problem.

The visual style of The Order of the Phoenix is rather desaturated. The Prisoner of Azkaban was similarly devoid of bright color, but somehow still felt vivid. Order of the Phoenix doesn't quite manage to do that, however. It seems to be somewhat more detail-focused, with less dramatic flourish. Still, though, there's something to be said for creating a realistic Hogwarts; it makes the drama feel all the more real.

The music here is very good in certain ways, but doesn't make use of strong themes. The main theme of the series ("Hedwig's Theme") is barely heard at all. The music perfectly supports the on-screen drama, but that's all it does. It doesn't stand out in any particular way. Whereas some of the themes from the first four were breathtaking and worthy of being listened to separately from the movies, the music here is so subdued that it's not really worth listening to on its own. Of notable exception is the theme for the Order of the Phoenix itself, but that's literally one track out of the eighteen on the soundtrack.

One of the best things about this movie are the wizard battles. For the first time, we get actual wizard battles. We've always heard hints about the great war against Voldemort in the past, but never quite knew what that might have looked like. We learned a little about dueling in The Chamber of Secrets and The Goblet of Fire, but this is the first time that we really see fully-trained wizards in all-out battle—fighting alongside our teenage heroes, who've become rather skilled themselves. It's great to finally have what can really be called a fight scene in Harry Potter.

The one-on-one duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore is beyond jaw-dropping. It's clever, imaginative, and epic.

Overall, this is a very good movie. It's got its problems, but none of them make the film anything less than great.


Monday, July 2, 2007


If you didn't immediately think "AWESOME!" when you heard there was a Transformers live-action film coming out, you are either a girl, a fool, or a pessimist. In the case of the latter one, you have no business watching cartoons anyway, so shut up and leave. Now.

On a faraway planet named Cybertron, life exists not as anything biological or organic, but as something mechanical; what we might call "robotic", but much more complex. These robotic life-forms have the ability to "transform" between two forms: a humanoid robot mode and an alternate vehicle mode (anything from a car to a jet fighter). Two factions of "transformers" exist: the Autobots, who favor peace, and the evil Decepticons, who favor destruction. The Decepticons (inevitably) turn against the Autobots, and a civil war breaks out. This war lasts many eons, but finally reaches the point where the entire planet, both in resources and population, is nearly exhausted. The battle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons eventually reaches Earth, where the two factions discover Earth's massive natural resources, which would enable one side or the other to win the war.
And so begins "the Great War"; a long struggle between the forces of the Autobots and the Decepticons, with humanity caught in-between.

One particularly interesting and unique part of the Transformers saga is the fact that the transformers really have no reason to protect humanity. Humans are like ants to the towering, powerful, and technologically advanced Cybertronians. If they so choose, the transformers can easily squash the forces of mankind and take the planet's resources for themselves (and therefore win their ages-old conflict). However, the Autobots' leader—the wise, moral, and powerful Optimus Prime—states that "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," thus the Autobots therefore side with humanity, even if it means potentially losing their war. The Decepticons, meanwhile, have no care for humanity, and will gladly kill or manipulate mankind for their own purposes. The Decepticons already outnumber and outgun the Autobots, so the decision of the Autobots to protect humanity is somewhere between a brave, moral move and a death sentence. This kind of heroism (and the conflict against the Decepticons' evil) is what makes the characters in Transformers great despite their lack of real depth.

The film stays mostly true to the original "feel" of the series. Staples of the animated series, such as the human characters and the Autobot HQ are gone (or at least altered), but the basics are the same. Aside from the (mildly deep) moral conflict, however, the Transformers film is rather devoid of any sort of moral message, focusing on action, incredible special effects, and humor. When I say "incredible special effects", I mean INCREDIBLE. This movie is like watching Jurassic Park with machines.

Steve Jablonsky's musical score is absolutely wonderful, with memorable themes and a kind of sweeping orchestral power that's rarely heard in modern cinema outside of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. On rare occasions, rock music breaks in, giving a much needed break of fun (notably during a very fun chase scene).
    This film is really a live-action “upgrading” of a cartoon. It has a somewhat cartoony feel, with giant robots walking around and acting like humans. The amazing visual effects make the transformers' incredible mobility totally believable, but the situations and dialogue are somewhat Saturday morning-esque. If you walk into the film expecting a sci-fi Saving Private Ryan, quickly slap yourself and pretend you’re eight years old again. The film’s plot and dialogue is not realistic in the least; it's just an amazingly cool cartoon. While it's true that real-life combatants don't face each other one-on-one, spouting lines such as “It’s just you and me… One shall stand, one shall fall,” the heroes of Saturday morning cartoons certainly do. While these situations and lines may seem unrealistic, they serve as a kind of animated poetry, translating the overarching moral issues and character motivations into a simple, visual format.
    Transformers may not impress those who don't appreciate the “fun” feel of cartoons, and it will certainly not impress cynics or pessimists. To fully enjoy the film, one must suspend their reliance on the rigid ways of the world, and see the film for what it truly is:

    Photorealistic giant robots smashing things.

    In all honestly, while the humor may hold the interest of those uninterested in the spectacular action or the sheer coolness of transforming robots, any viewer can likely decide whether or not they will enjoy the film just by deciding if the above quote appeals to them.

    At the same time, there are plenty of problems in the film. The budget was a bit low for such an undertaking, and the only way to make the Transformers look real was to severely limit their screentime. This means that the plot does not truly begin to revolve around the bots themselves until halfway into the movie, and even then they remain strangely off-camera.

    What we get instead is divided between government drama, military action, and silliness involving the character of Sam Witwicky.
    The government story isn't terrible, but it's definitely a little pointless and silly. The military action is, in large part, pretty great. Sam's story is loosely connected to the transformers' tale, but most of it revolves around his desperate struggles to find a hot girlfriend. Sam is moderately relatable, but he comes off as extremely shallow for most of the film. He feels rather pointless and shoved in.

    The "female love interest" of the movie is Mikaela Banes, played poorly (or perhaps perfectly?) by Megan Fox. It's obvious that Mikaela only exists in the movie to be the hot chick; there's no reason for her character to exist whatsoever. She's seemingly even more shallow than Sam, less likable, and entirely useless.

    Finally, there's a certain amount of infantile humor in Transformers that's just inexcusable. Have you ever wanted to see a giant robot urinate oil on a guy? Do you love masturbation jokes? Then you'll love this. Also, get out of my sight. You make me sick.
    Some of the humor isn't offensive; it's just bad. One scene involves the Autobots "comically" hiding from Sam's parents in the Witwickys' backyard. It's not funny, and it likely only drew special effects money away from other scenes that could have further developed the Autobot characters.

    There are a ton of problems with Transformers. And yet, for all its flaws, the bits we get with the transformers themselves are so glorious and jaw-dropping that they make the entire movie enjoyable by extension.
    Transformers might not technically be a great film, but it is, ultimately, a very fun one.


    (written 5/7/07, rewritten 7/1/11)

    Friday, June 15, 2007

    Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

    It sucked worse than the first.
    I actually saw this film for free, and still somehow felt like I wasted my money.