Spider-Man: Far From Home
Toy Story 4
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Notable for its, then unknown, cast of movie stars--Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane and (golly) Tom Cruise--The Outsiders must go down as a well-intentioned folly. Francis Ford Coppola's attempt to transform S.E. Hinton's syrupy teen novel into nostalgia infused pop-poetry only buckles under its faithfulness to the sentimentality of the author's saccharine prose--a book about male camaraderie clearly written by a young girl with a lot of feminine feelings.
The funny thing about the decade long Harry Potter film series is that each new installment has -- despite many directorial changes -- achieved a consistent level of goodness. But that's just the thing, each one is reasonably good without ever being truly great. The exception may be 2003's enchanting "The Prisoner of Azkaban" -- the Alfonso Cuaron helmed episode with enough surprises (Sirius Black isn't evil? Scabbers is Peter Pettigrew! Hermoine got hot!) and artistic creativity to convince us the celluloid itself was magic. That one stands out above the rest. Still, "Harry Potter", unlike its more mature and self-serious lit-based cousin "Lord of the Rings", has never been able to break into the upper echelon of contemporary cinematic fantasy. The final chapter in this gargantuan wiz-kid oeuvre, "Deathly Hollows - Part 2", runs in the same crowd as its predecessors; it's good. The law of averages would say that these eight merely good films would make for a merely good whole. So how come the Harry Potter film series is so much more than that? How come it's great?
I wish I could say it's simply due to the greatness of its source material -- author J.K. Rowling's infectiously imaginative Potter chronicles have become de facto required reading among young and old alike. But great books don't always translate to great films (two recent examples: Peter Jackson's scatterbrained take on "The Lovely Bones" and Mark Romenek's tragically inert "Never Let Me Go"... double ecchh!) And considering that attempts by studios to harness Potter magic by adapting other enduring kid-lit phenoms like "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Lemony Snickets" into cash raking empires have fallen fatally dead, the question remains: what makes the bespectacled wizard so special?
I think in Potter's case, as opposed to, say, Narnia, its relative modernity is actually one of its finer qualities. (Narnia, from 1949, seemed dug from a dusty vault of grandparent's fantasies). The first HP book was published in 1997; the first film premiered in 2001. The books and films provided a parallel universe, and Harry himself provided a voice, for millions of people who learned on September 11th, 2001 that the real world was a dark place, and the subsequent decade proved that it could get even darker. Over 7 books, Harry not only grew up (as kids tend to do) in an uncertain world, but he faced evil head on, and in a realm that was so alien yet weirdly familiar -- that it latched on to the collective imaginations of young kids, and young souls alike, who could feel right at home and lightyears away with every new Potter escapade. Harry's journey became vicariously ours. I'm sure for some, they could not truly grow up and take on life's prickly challenges until Harry did.
And in "Deathly Hollows -- Part 2" he does with admirable bravery. The story picks up where "Part 1" left off with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals, the precocious Hermoine and the rustic Ron, searching for Holcruxes -- the objects that contain pieces of evil Lord Voldemort's soul. Their quest leads them back to Hogwarts, their wizard academy, where a final showdown between Voldemort's Death-Eaters and Harry's posse -- respectfully named Dumbledore's Army -- will take place.
The prolonged final battle is a dizzying smorgasbord of spells, curses and enchantments. Hogwarts is reduced to rubble as the body count rises and the casualties of war are laid out in the Great Hall for loved ones to come and grieve. Many of the deceased, tragically, hold the faces of familiar friends from stories past; even in Potter's world of bedknobs and broomsticks, war is a terrible thing. To be honest, the Battle of Hogwarts is the fiery, destructive action spectacle I expected, but not the one I dreamt of. Even in "glorious" 3-D it's never the tremendous set-piece it ought to be.
Although I'm not too bummed about it because it's really the more character-based aspects of "Deathly Hollows -- Part 2" that make it worth our time. The film is essentially a long, gratifying farewell to all those minor characters we loved, or even loved to hated, at one time or another along the journey. One scene where Professor Moganogal (played by the matronly Maggie Smith) draws her wand in a bravura display of witchery against a Hogwarts foe will have you cheering, praying, and ultimately exclaiming the most unlikely of phrases: Professor Moganogal kicks ass! The awkwardly lanky mouth-breather Neville Longbottom steps up in scene after scene as an extreme underdog turned probable Medal of Honor recipient. Helena Bonham-Carter hogs every frame as the manic Bellatrix Lestrange, the satan-ess in black leather with rotting teeth. (Someone should put a leash on her). Mesmerizing career-long villain Alan Rickman again makes Professor Snape at once alluring and fiendishly confounding; when the truth behind his actions is finally revealed you may wipe away a few tears at what you wish you only knew all along. Harry feels the same way.
And even though Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson) finally make that love connection we've been waiting eight movies for (the books' numerous puppy-loves always seemed like more of a nuisance to the filmmakers than an opportunity), this final chapter is really about our favorite teenager messiah with spherical glasses, jet black hair and green eyes -- "the boy who lived" now set to face his destiny in the inevitable confrontation with Lord Voldemort (expert ham Ralph Fiennes) who's like the three-way offspring of Adolf Hitler, the devil and a burmese python. It's quite a destiny to be sure.
But that's the reason we've read and watched Harry all these years: if anyone can take down evil that vile, it's Harry Potter. And with the news of terrorist Osama Bin Laden's demise coming only a few months before this film's release, it feels like a pregnant conclusion that -- in our world where culture and pop-culture often go hand-in-hand -- evil can indeed be triumphed over. Harry has taught that, and more: courage, tolerance, friendship and love are what conquer wickedness in the end. Harry's wizard world is a rumination on the better angels of humanity itself. Even more, consider the fact that through an entire decade, and eight feature films, we've continued to watch Radcliffe, Watson and Grint grow up before our very eyes; it's revolutionary. Guided by an entire generation of exceptional British performers, the "Harry Potter" franchise is an unqualified cinematic achievement that can go down as -- to quote Tony The Tiger -- more than good, truly great.
Well acted, but without a sense for the morbidity of its conceit or the desperation that would cause a person to pursue such a vocation, the film devolves into a chick-flick; it's as sticky as the blood and brain splattered floors Blunt and Adams squeamishly mop up.
Before "X-Men: First Class", the X-Men film franchise had almost entirely deflated. After director Bryan Singer left the series in 2003, the resulting entries, Last Stand and Origins Wolverine, were middling at best. Fox Studios has done the smart thing with the story's overly treaded ground (in fact, it's the same thing I do when a piece of writing just isn't working): They scrapped it! And started over from the beginning. They've brought in a new director, Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), a new tone, a new era, and an almost entirely new crop of mutant warriors. Luckily, the two who've made a return are, in my opinion, the best: Magneto and Professor X. And, being a prequel and all, we get to follow these two ideological nemeses from childhood to friendship to an even more action-packed falling out than Anakin and Obi-Wan.
I have to admit, when I first saw a pint-sized Magneto (then named Erik Lehnsherr) walking the wet dirt road to Auschwitz and an even punier Charles Xavier stalking his kitchen for a midnight snack, I thought I was doomed to endure an X-Men version of the Muppet Babies. But the adult counterparts replace these miniature genetic wunderkinds rather quickly. And in fact, the depiction of their youths is the easily the most important element to defining their characters. The teeny psychic Charles takes in a homeless, blue skinned shape-shifter named Raven (soon to be Mystique) out of the kindness of his ten-year-old British heart. Erik, at the same time, watches his mother get shot down by a Josef Mengele wannabe-type Nazi scientist, who takes an interest in Erik's ability to magnetize himself to all things metallic. From the get-go, we know why Xavier dedicates his later life to geniality and understanding, just as we know why Magneto dedicates his to anger and retribution.
By the time they're adults, Charles (James McAvoy) has become a geneticist at Oxford working to figure out the science behind his own altered existence. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is on a global vendetta to eradicate all remaining traces of Nazi-dom, including the murderous Angel of Death who killed his mother -- a guy named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Since the two protagonists are only in their twenties, Vaughn and his screenwriters have a whole new (far out) milieu to work with. Charles eloquently hits on Oxford coeds with hilariously rehearsed Greg-Bradyisms like, "I think that mutation is pretty... groovy." And by the time he links up with Erik, the overarching conflict becomes the fight to stop global Cold War annihilation. Scenes in eccentrically over-decorated debriefing halls reminded me of Kubrick ("There's no fighting in here! This is the war room!"). And the subtitle, Super Secret Covert Base, made me think of Dr. Evil's underground volcano lair.
Despite the film's Holocaust portrayal (which was a little exploitative for my taste) and its ever-present ruminations on "being different", its tone is playfully close to those aforementioned films. Inside jokes about Xavier's hair and cameos by previous X-Men participators made "First Class" a lively semi-goof on its own mythology. Then Xavier starts recruiting mutants for a secret CIA program and a new "class" of adolescents shows off their powers in sequences of hilariously destructive frat-kid behavior. Other pluses: A fantastic cast that has Oscar nominees McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence (as Raven) shining in roles balancing sprightliness and private contemplation. The film's acting trophy, however, goes to Michael Fassbender whose wrathful trance of a performance is so tactile it's warming.
"X-Men: First Class" moves at a splendidly energetic and enjoyable pace, but I can't help feeling like there's probably a better movie in there somewhere -- one with less characters, less banal and redundant dialogue about feeling like a freak (all the series' insightful themes are rendered effectively idiot-proof); and more discourse between Charles and Erik's polarizing viewpoints regarding the better and worse angels of our nature. As I've always seen the two characters as a representation of peoples' inclination to treat others as less than human (both in the small and the extreme). Charles believes in the possibility of redemption. But Erik was on the front lines during humanity's darkest hour and is not necessarily wrong for considering the world's cold treatment of what it doesn't understand. More than any previous installment "X-Men: First Class" needs to ask: Which side are you on?
The title of "Super 8", director J.J. Abrams new CGI summer extravaganza, is actually a cute ironic joke. In an age where a person can make a video on their cell phone, it's funny to think that, not too long ago, folks actually had to load 8 mm film into a hand-winded Bolex camera, or some other kind of clunky apparatus, in order to film something. The fact that the title of Abrams' film is Super 8, and the whole thing appears to be shot with an IMAX camera and then doodled on relentlessly with computer images; is a darling allusion to the concept that movies are a magical medium on any format as long as the magic is made by the most essential special effect in the world: Imagination.
It's all the more fitting that the film is about a Goonies-like gang of prepubescent auteurs trying to shoot the awesomest mutant zombie flick ever. The writer/director, who's as bossy as David Lean, is Charles (Riley Griffiths) and even though he's got the home-made light kit, the boom mike, the make up designer and the necessary will power to make a great film; he's gonna need "production values" if he wants to win a local film festival. His wish is granted when a midnight shoot at a train station turns into a most epic train derailment and explosive calamity. But what seems like an accident at first -- turns out to be a covert government operation involving the transportation of one of the CIA's best-kept secrets.
While happily immersed in the wonder of the supernatural, "Super 8" is sure to keep at least one toe in the real world at all times. The film's protagonist is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a sweet kid grieving his mother's death and dealing with the growing distance it's caused between him and his father, Deputy Jack (Kyle Chandler). One of the cleverest things about the movie is its self-knowingness. Charles' astutely realizes that without a wife for his zombie-hunting, detective main character, the audience won't give-a-hoot if some flesh-hungry, undead creature devours him. Abrams shrewdly takes his own advice and casts Elle Fanning (Somewhere) as Alice -- she joins the gang to play the wife, but becomes more tween love interest than anything else. Just in case we didn't care about Joe Lamb (or that special locket his mother used to wear), a recently deceased parental and a burgeoning puppy love are there to ensure our sympathies.
Though, I do wish we were a little more invested in Joe Lamb. It would have made the film's syrupy sweet final moments even sweeter. But "Super 8" has a lot of other things on its mind. Steven Spielberg -- a man who famously shot super 8 war films as a wee lad -- produces and J.J. Abrams is obviously smitten with his phenomenal cohort. Everything from kids on bikes taking on a whole occupation force of shady government stooges to a mysterious monster kept out of frame and out of sight until the last thrill-filled minutes, made me think of old Spielberg and his immeasurable impact on the industry. Yet the way Spielberg has the ability to make fantasy so palpable you can reach out from your seat and touch it, alas, remains merely an aspiration for J.J. Abrams.
But the beauty of Abrams' work in "Super 8" is that emulation is not only the name of the game, but also the heart of it all. Homage to George A. Romero and his fear-the-government, Cold War shtick, run rampant, both as a part of the kids' hilarious, "shoe-string", grind house wannabe; and as a part of the film's narrative fabric -- when amoral military phantoms quarantine their small Ohio town. Yet, somehow, Abrams' film comes off as neither parody nor pretentious pastiche, but a product of passion, and as the crashes thud and tears flow with an extra dose of loving exuberance, we can't help but be carried away by it. And that's the whole point: The kids have found themselves running amok in the big-budget, high octane movie of their wildest cinematic dreams. J.J. Abrams was once just like them and he remembers what it was like to be a kid dreaming of what he could do with a large crew and a studio budget. He may have since switched from super 8 to IMAX, but he hasn't forgotten that imagination is still the most magical resource there is.