Friday, November 25, 2005

"Goblet" of Moulah vs. "Line" of Cash: Sizzlin' box office, O.K. movies


directed by Mike Newell
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson

What is the *point* of the Harry Potter movies? I mean from an artistic point of view, not commercial; the commercial rationale is a no-brainer. But having seen the latest installment of the film franchise, I’ve resigned myself to the rather dispiriting conclusion that a Harry Potter movie, almost by definition, can neither stand on its own merits as a film nor do justice to the book.

I think a big part of the problem is endemic to J.K. Rowling’s brand of magic, which is peculiarly hard to translate into film. Magic transfers to the big screen fairly smoothly in the case of a journey-adventure or straight-up battle, as in “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars.” (What is the Force, after all, if not a kind of magic?) It’s only an amplification, so to speak, of patterns and actions already familiar to audiences raised on history and hero-quests. But in Rowling’s world, it’s the magic of the everyday, the quotidien, that dominates a fixed, mostly *domestic* environment. It has to look natural, like a lived-in house (or in this case, school), with moments of wonder—not a CGI factory for kids. And that’s just hard to do, no matter who’s at the helm.

Not that “Goblet of Fire” is a bad flick. It’s actually pretty good, and may in fact be the best HP adaptation so far. I wasn’t as taken with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Prisoner of Azkaban” as most critics, though I acknowledge it represented an advance from Chris Columbus’ slavishly literal-minded transcription of books 1 and 2. Number Four represents a further step forward, towards the deepening emotional darkness that permeates the later part of the series. And though it’s the longest of the movies (which it had to be, considering the book was over 700 pages), clocking in at around 2 1/2 hours, it’s also the most streamlined. Screenwriter Steven Kloves, who’s adapted all of the movies, isn’t shy about trimming the fat from this narrative, and most of his excisions are smart ones. Gone are the nattering house-elves—the weakest part of Rowling’s narrative anyway—and the tiresome Dursleys. Gone is the subplot involving shifty Ludo Bagman, although the Weasley twins’ propensity for gambling survives in modified form. Gone, too, is any semblance of exposition: we are dropped right in medias res of every major event, which keeps things moving, all right, but sometimes feels too abrupt. The Quidditch World Cup, for instance, is truncated just as it seems to be starting (not that I really missed it, since Quidditch is one thing none of the movies has managed to get right), and before we know it, delegations from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang (two rival schools to Harry’s school, Hogwarts) arrive without a bit of preamble.

Apart from this occasional tendency to choppiness, the pacing is good, and the mood fluctuates appropriately between excitement and dread. Director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Mona Lisa Smile”) has a nice touch for comedy, which he puts to perfect use in capturing the school’s social dynamics and our heroes’ awakening hormones. (The movie earns its PG-13 rating as much from an innuendo-filled scene in a bathroom as it does from the violence of Harry’s confrontation with his arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort.) But Newell also handles the action quite competently: the story is built around the three tasks of the prestigious Triwizard Tournament (in which Harry, of course, competes), and though many of the details are altered from the book, they’re still nail-biters. The last one, in fact—a dimly lit hedge maze—is a helluva lot creepier than Rowling’s version. And the final descent into darkness, while it doesn’t match the devastating impact of the scene in the book, is still far more intense than anything seen in the previous films. Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry, may never be England’s next great thespian, but he’s matured a good deal—and by the end of the movie certainly looks like he’s been put through the wringer. All the kids, incidentally, are growing like weeds, and Emma Watson glows incandescently at Hermione’s crowning moment—the Yule ball, of course, which has to be the best part of “Goblet of Fire.”

As always, there are several new additions to the cast. The new students—competitors and potential love interest(s)—don't make much of an impression, with the exception of the tall, apple-cheeked Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory, Harry’s chief rival. The new adults fare somewhat better: Brendan Gleeson exudes menace, benevolence, and a touch of madness, as befitting the new Defense of Dark Arts teacher, Alistair Moody, while Miranda Richardson is a hoot as scribbler Rita Skeeter, Poison Pen of the wizarding world, even if she never gets the comeuppance she earned in the book. Last but by no means least is Ralph Fiennes as the resurrected Voldemort. How does he do as the most feared wizard in the world? Okay, I guess. His main problem is he looks too much like Ralph Fiennes (sans hair and nose), and not enough like a snake. I expected better, for Fiennes can certainly play evil: just watch “Schindler’s List,” or even “Red Dragon.” Still, I hope they keep him around for the rest of the series.

It’ll be interesting to see how the three remaining movies unfold, particularly the next one. I’m wondering whether I’ll like it better, considering that Book 5 wasn’t one of my favorites. I’ve noticed that generally the *less* I like a book, the more likely I am to enjoy the movie. Perhaps it’s because I’m more easily satisfied; perhaps there’s just less to be lost. Either way, it makes no earthly difference whether *I* think there’s any chance the next Harry Potter movie will be any good: the fans will still turn out like ravening wolves. And ya know what? I’ll probably be in line right behind them. Hope springs eternal in the Potterhead’s breast.

RATING: ** 1/3

Also saw:


directed by James Mangold
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Ginnifer Goodwin, others

I really don’t have a lot to say about this movie. Yes, it feels very much like “Ray,” redux, except that it’s also a billowy, (soap) operatic love story that focuses on Johnny Cash’s obsessive pursuit of his muse and on-stage partner, June Carter. This fixation starts to feel a little too constricting as the movie goes on, but there’s no denying that real sparks fly between the two stars. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, channeling all his natural intensity into both the flash and the darkness of the Man in Black. Plus he does all the vocals, too, as well as the guitar work, even though he’d never played a guitar before taking on the role. But the real revelation here is Reese Witherspoon. She’s such a gifted comic actress (a side she also shows via June’s stage persona) that it’s easy to forget she has dramatic chops as well. This performance shows them in full force: never have her eyes conveyed such layers of sorrow, weariness, and conflicting emotions. Best of all, the girl can really sing—and more importantly, sing *country*. (Reese grew up in Tennessee, so maybe it’s in her blood in a way that it isn’t for Phoenix.) Phoenix, solo, can really tear up the stage—literally and figuratively—but it’s his duets with Reese that truly burn a ring of fire.

RATING: ** 1/3

My reviews of "Shopgirl" and "Capote" are also finally up: see entries, below, for Nov. 13 and Nov. 6.

Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!


Blogger JavierAG said...

Well, I did see a clear "message" in this film. At first it seemed like a lot of heavy-handed plot machination, but as the second task approached I was delighted that the movie had found its theme (friendship vs. personal glory) and went on from there.

1:46 AM  

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