Friday, July 20, 2007

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

It almost seems a little pointless reviewing this
film. After all, if you haven't already seen the first
four Harry Potter films then you almost certainly
aren't going to go and see this one, and, indeed,
you'd be foolish to do so as it would make little or
no sense to you. If, however, you have seen the first
four films, then you're going to go and see this
regardless of what any review says because you're most
likely a Harry Potter fan (like me). Indeed, I'd go as
far as to suggest you've probably already read the
book upon which this film is based, so you know
exactly what's going to happen anyway.

Indeed, the main purposes of any review of a Harry
Potter film seem to be to let fans of the books know
which bits have been left out, and to say if the
people playing the new characters are any good.

The most glaring omission is the visit to St Mungo's,
which means that Neville's backstory must be told in
another way, and so it makes far less of a real impact
upon us. We're also left with very little information
about the origins of the prophecy, and how they relate
to professor Trelawny, which is a shame. Both Luna and
Tonks have much smaller roles in the movie too, which
is understandable as the focus would naturally have to
be on our main trio of heroes, but it also robs us of
some of the novel's highlights.

Of the new additions to the cast, it's Imelda Staunton
as Dolores Umbridge, the Ministry of Magic appointed
Defence Against the Dark Arts mistress, who gets the
most screentime. She is suitably horrid, and every bit
as sadistic and evil as she was in the book. Other new
additions include, as mentioned above, Luna, who is
excellent but underused, and Tonks, who is just as
cool as she is in the books, but sadly hardly present
in the film at all. Helena Bonham-Carter also finally
makes the cast of a Harry Potter film (it was kind of
inevitable...still waiting for Richard E. Grant and
Bill Nighy to make their debuts) as Sirius Black's
deranged Death Eater cousin, Bellatrix Lestrange.
She's good, as is everyone else. The established cast
also put in first rate performances, and all the
younger members of the cast (those playing the
students) prove that if you spend that much of your
time working with the creme de la creme of the British
acting elite then something is bound to rub off.

My only real criticism of Order of the Phoenix would
be the same problem I have with the book - it really
has no real plot. It serves two main purposes,
firstly, it gives us pause to consider what effect the
events of the first four films/books have had on
Harry, and secondly, it sets things up for the last
two books, where everything finally comes to a head.
As such, in and of itself, it's rather unsatisfying,
but, of course, more than any of the rest of the
films/books, this is part of a much larger story, and
should be seen as thus.

Ultimately, this is an excellent film, the spectacular
special effects never overshadow the most important
element of Order of the Phoenix - the growing and
deepening bond between our three main heroes, Harry,
Ron and Hermione. This film is far more about
character development than it is about magic and the
fight between good and evil, and, for me, it's all the
more better for it.

Production has already begun on the sixth film, Harry
Potter and the Half Blood Prince, with the same
director as this film, which is a good sign. With the
final chapter of this saga due to be released in book
form at midnight tonight, Harry Potter fever is at an
all time high. However, don't let talk of
"over-hyping" and rampant commercialism (neither of
which I can see any real evidence of anyway) put you
off. Harry Potter is popular for one reason and one
reason only - it's really very good.

Rating: 9/10

Friday, July 13, 2007

Movie Review: Die Hard 4.0

John McClane is back! He's older and wiser now, and so, of course, realises that even if you are being hunted by terrorists and shot at from every angle - that's simply no reason for bad language.

Seriously, I'm baffled by the decision to go for a PG-13 rating for this film, and thankful that in this country they got a 15 rating, enabling them to retain McClane's trademark catchphrase (you know the one, the one that ITV has been dubbing over as "Yipee-ki-yay Kemosabe" for years). That said, I have to admit that I'd rather have the film relatively swear word free, rather than find myself watching it on ITV in a few years and having to suffer hearing someone called a "gal dang melonfarmer."

However, the lack of a wee swearie or two hardly makes this film family friendly, with a whole multitude of violent and painful deaths filling the movie from start to finish. Why our society is ok with our young teens seeing acts of gratuitous violence, but doesn't want them to hear a few bad words, I'll never understand.

The language is nor the only thing that's different about the UK version of this film, it has also received a name change on its way across the atlantic. Billed in the US as "Live Free or Die Hard", it's received the simpler and less imaginitive title of "Die Hard 4.0" over here. One suspects that this has something to do with not wanting to produce multiple language versions of the poster artwork for the international release. Once again Hollywood seems to fail to understand that we do not speak a different language in this country. This attitude is what often leads to us having to wait for all the foreign language dubs and subs to be done on a movie before it's released in the UK, a policy which has sometimes lead to a film not receiving a theatrical release here in the UK until after the DVD release in the USA. And yet they wonder why there is such a big problem with pirate DVDs here?? I know I've mentioned this before here, but isn't it time that Hollywood got its act together and started releasing films over here at the same time as the US? If they were serious about fighting piracy they would.

Okay, so, time to get off my high horse and get back to the subject of the film! Is it any good, you ask? Well, actually, yes, it's great fun. That is, assuming you like your action movies larger than life, full of giant explosions and preposterous set pieces and you're happy to leave your brain at the door on the way in. Rest assured, you can happily give your brain the night off if you go and see this movie as whenever anything gets a bit technical or complicated, McClane is there for you, scratching his head and asking people to explain everything in words of one syllable just in case you've never heard of the internet or computers or something.

The main purpose of the plot in this movie is to lead you from one giant explosion to the next while firing off as many rounds of ammunition as is humanly possible. At one point, McClane takes out a helicopter by essentially firing a car at it and you think to yourself, "That is by far the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen" me, you'll be revising that opinion by the end of the movie (probably during the "truck vs fighter plane" sequence).

Solid performances are delivered by everyone involved. Willis is, as ever, brilliant in the role he was made to play, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Justin Long also shine as McClane's chip-off-the-old-block daughter and his new hacker side kick respectively. Kevin Smith pops up in his now obligatory cameo role, and if like me you're a Kevin Smith fan, you'll enjoy it. I'm sure these cameos must really grate on those people that can't stand him though. Heh. What this film does lack is a really memorable villain, Timothy Olyphant is no Alan Rickman and the film suffers for it.

So far, in the year of the threequel, Die Hard is proving that four is the magic number.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, July 06, 2007

Star Wars & Me - Part 2

I used to have a picture of Jar Jar Binks up in my living room. There, I've admitted it. I'm not sure if I'm wholly ashamed of that fact or not, but, returning to the subject of Star Wars influence and impact on my life, it would be simply wrong of me to cover the Prequel ere without confessing that deep, dark secret.

However, I'm getting ahead of myself here. In the run up to next weekends Star Wars Celebration Europe I thought it might be interesting to talk about my experiences of Lucas' return to the Saga. As I discussed in part one, the Original Trilogy had a very profound and far reaching effect on my youth, and in many ways the Prequel Trilogy has formed something of a backdrop to my adult life as well.

It's hard to know exactly where to start with a discussion of the Prequels. My Star Wars fanatic sister had made sure that I knew from an early age that the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, was in fact episode four, and that Lucas intended to make three films set before it and three films set after it. I know that Mr Lucas has more recently claimed that the plan was always to only make six films, and that he'd never said he had plans to make episodes seven, eight and nine...but....well... I've watched interviews with him where he's not only said that he was planning nine films, but that the entire saga could possibly be twelve. So, like many of my generation, I'm sure, I spent much time contemplating what events might transpire in these as yet unmade films.

I think it's unlikely we'll ever see Lucas himself produce Episodes 7-9. For one thing, the time period they would likely have originally been planned to take place in has been thoroughly covered by the many novels, comics and video games that have been released over the last thirty years. It's not impossible that Lucas might come out and declare that none of that is canon and make three films that flatly contradict it all, but I'm sure he makes a lot of money from the sales of those "Expanded Universe" products, and I can't see him shooting the goose that lays the golden egg. I've often imagined the sequel trilogy as charting the fall of the New Republic, Luke's eventual turn to the Dark Side and the establishment of a new Sith Order opposed by the last remaining Jedi, Leia Organa. Thus demonstrating the cyclical and somewhat futile nature of history. But, you know, that would be kind of dark.

Speculation about the Prequel Trilogy, however, was always a little more fun. After all, where this was concerned, we actually had some clues to work on. We knew that the Clone Wars were likely to take place at some point during the films, though we had no idea what they were, other than that a Jedi such as Obi-Wan was able to attain the rank of General during them. We also knew that at some point during the Prequels Anakin would turn on his master Obi-Wan and embrace the dark side of the Force. We also knew that the final showdown between the two woudl take place beside a pool of lava, and that Obi-Wan would ultimately emerge victorious, and that Anakin would be left hideously disfigured. Lastly, we knew that at some point Anakin would father twins, but we didn't know who their mother would be (although we suspected that Luke would be taken from her at birth while Leia would stay with her for a short time).

That's all anyone had to go on for about fifteen years, but even with such a small amount of information, the early internet was still full of websites, newsgroups and forums dedicated to discussing exactly what was going to happen in episodes 1-3 and 7-9. Of course, it was all wild speculation and nothing else, and then...

...and then, in the wake of the huge success of the release of the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy in cinemas worldwide, George Lucas finally did what so many Star Wars fans had by now given up almost all hope of him ever doing...

...he announced the continuation of the Star Wars Saga on the big screen.

More specifically, he announced that production had started on Star Wars: Episode I. At that time it had no subtitle, that was it, he kept everyone guessing about the title for a long time.

Eventually, the first trailer was released on the internet, and I can remember patiently sitting for hours while my dial-up connection slowly downloaded the trailer. Ever so slowly the first new shots of a Star Wars film to be seen since the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi played across my PC's monitor. It looked amazing. This was going to be the greatest film ever. It was going to have been worth the wait.

My first inkling that this assumption may not have been entirely correct came when the title was finally announced - The Phantom Menace. I was convinced it was a joke. I thought it was a play one words, as in "The Fandom Menace" but I guess I was wrong. The title's grown on me since.

Soon after, the Duel of the Fates video was released, and it wasn't long before my then fiance and I knew every line of dialogue in that video off by heart. Now, when my then fiance and now ex first got together, she had never seen a single Star Wars film. I had the joy of introducing her to the Original Trilogy (in their Special Edition forms), which she instantly fell in love with. She had willingly joined me in my Star Wars fandom and we were both incredibly excited about the new film.

I deliberately tried to avoid any and all plot spoilers in the run up to the film's release, and given that I was such a heavy internet user (and active on a few Star Wars forums back then too) that was no mean feat. Thus, I was a little disappointed when a casual glance at the back of the soundtrack CD, released a few weeks before the film hit cinemas, resulted me reading the track title "The Funeral of Qui-Gon Jinn." Doh!

It was the summer of 1999, I had a good job, I was engaged to be married, traveling the world doing good, and there was a new Star Wars at the cinema. Life was good. Was it the greatest film ever? Well, no, I guess not. It was very good, but a little heavy on the politics, a little heavy on the annoying gungan and a little light on the Han Solo front. In the Original Trilogy, the Jedi's rampant idealism had been counterbalanced by Solo's world weary cynicism. There was none of that here, and the film suffered for it.

Reading a lot of people's views on The Phantom Menace today you'd be forgiven for thinking that's it's two hours of Jar Jar Binks in boring senate meetings about midichlorians. To be fair, the senate meetings, Jar Jar's antics and the mention of midichlorians are a very small part of what is, on the whole, a thrilling action/adventure movie. The podrace and the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsabre duel are two of the high points of the entire six film saga. It has a strong cast, with Liam Neeson particularly standing out as Qui-Gon, whose presence is sorely missed from episodes 2 and 3. Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor are both fine actors on fine form here and, yes, indeed, Jake Lloyd is actually very good as the young Anakin Skywalker. The script, at times, lacks much of the wit of Original Trilogy and there are a few jarring cuts in the film which the DVD release later revealed were due to the removal of several scenes. I can't help but feel that had those scenes remained the film would have flowed more smoothly and I'm hoping that a future DVD (or perhaps BlueRay or HD) release will see these scenes fully restored to the film. Yes, Jar Jar got to be a little too much at times but...small children loved him, and my then fiance loved him too (that's why we had his picture up in our living room), she even carried around a Jar Jar back pack everywhere she went for quite some time. So, I don't hate Jar Jar, in fact, I'm rather fond of him. He reminds me of that simple, happy summer, when Star Wars was back in the cinema at long last (and I saw it four times).

The Original Trilogy had inspired such groundbreaking, classic PC games as Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, X-Wing and TIE Fighter, so when The Phantom Menace was released, LucasArts knew they'd set themselves up with a very high benchmark to meet. The official game of the film was a fairly uninspiring if fun platform affair, certainly not the type of game to almost take over your life, as the previous games I mentioned did. However, all was not lost, as there followed the extremely unimaginitively titled Episode I: Racer. I suspect that the guys at LucasArts had poured so much of their collective genius into making this game that they simply had none left when it was time to choose a title. I remember installing the game with eager anticipation, loading it up, navigating through the menu screens, clicking on "play" and being met by nothing but grey fog and what I assumed were the sounds of a pod race. A quick bit of online research later and I broke the sad news to my dad - he needed a new graphics card. My dad, bless him, splashed out on a brand new top of the range card, and before I knew it I was off racing across the deserts of Tatooine, across Malastare, Ando Prime, and the rest of the Galactic Podracing Circuit. This game was pretty much perfect, easily the best racing game I've ever played. Not only were the controls and the game play superb, but there was a veritable smorgasbord of tracks and pods to choose from, as well as a seemingly endless supply of upgrades which could be purchased with your race winnings. My only real complaint about the game being that the final few special races (unlocked by winning every other race) finally proved too hard for me. Still, if you've never played it, then hunt this one down in the bargain bins or on eBay. I seem to recall in needs a patch to run on XP, but don't let that put you off.

Now we move on to Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The summer of 2002, with my Podracer alarm clock firmly consigned to the dustbin (due to its providing the single most unpleasant way to be woken up in the morning), I was now a much oldr and wiser man, not only married, but also the father of one small but perfectly formed little boy, Zak (Han, Luke and Anakin having been rejected as names by his mother - although she would have happily called a girl Padme!?!).

I was, obviously, very busy with other things at the time, and Attack of the Clones kind of snuck up on me, and I only managed to see it once at the cinema. I remember being blown away when I first saw, and hugely disappointed when I later returned to it on DVD. It has some amazing parts, such as the introduction of the Kaminoans and the cloning facility, and Jango Fett was a very welcome addition to Star Wars universe. However, a lot of the action falls a little flat on further viewings due to either a complete lack of dialogue (the big end battle) or some appalling dialogue (the speeder chase at the beginning). The biggest problem with this film however, is Hayden Christensen's wooden performance. While I completely understand that he was trying to play a troubled character who was trying to keep his very powerful emotions in check, he instead comes across as an uncharismatic, whiny bore. The few times that he does let himself go, and truly emotes, he really shines (for example, when he confess to Padme about his slaughter of the Tusken Raiders). However, it's in the romance that his performance really falters, and it's just impossible to buy any kind of connection between Anakin and Padme. I've heard since that Christensen and Portman loathed each other, and if this is the case then it's a real shame as it really hurts the movie. I can't help but think that it would have been much more in keeping with the feel of Star Wars to have them fall in love while fighting side by side in the Clone Wars, rather than have them in such a stiff, formal situation light years away from the action.

All that aside, Star Wars films are a lot like pizza, when they're good, they're great, but when they're bad...well...they're still pretty good. This film still has some excellent moments, such as the showdown between Jango Fett and Mace Windu, or the ultimate fanboy moment - Yoda vs Count Dooku. Some people hate Yoda's fight scene in this movie and think it's laughable. Those people are idiots. It's damn cool. Yoda rocks!

My wife didn't enjoy Attack of the Clones, however. Hayden's acting was just too wooden, and she thought Yoda's fight scene was silly. She was falling out of love with Star Wars. It was no longer the care free summer of '99, things had started to turn sour at the church where I worked, which then dominated just about every part of our lives. Just as the victory celebrations at the end of Attack of the Clones are tempered with Yoda's warnings of impending doom, so things had started to go very wrong in my own life, and I was ultimately to find myself entering my own dark times, just as that galaxy far, far away was.

So we skip forward a bit to 2005, the Saga was reaching a close, and it's darkest moment, and my life was mirroring it in many ways. 2004 had seen me quit the church where I'd been working for five years as I discovered that my boss, the pastor there, was every bit as corrupt and morally bankrupt as Chancellor Palpatine. That had cost me a lot, my job, my house, the band I was bass player in and most of my friends. Then in 2005 it began to become clear that it was, ultimately, going to cost me my marriage as well. We were heading to the London Expo when she told me she was leaving me and while we ultimately decided to try and work things out for the sake of our now two children, it was clearly the beginning of the end. It may sound completely absurd, but it became most clear to me that we really weren't going to be able to work it out when, having pre-booked tickets for the opening night of Revenge of the Sith, she announced to me just before we were about to leave for the cinema that she didn't want to go and that my dad could have her ticket instead. Her love for Star Wars was well and truly dead, and with it yet another thing that we shared was gone. It took us another year to finally agree that it was over.

Still, you don't want to hear about that dark time in my life, not when there's still the final chapter in the Saga to talk about!

So, what of Revenge of the Sith? Was it any good? Of course it was! By far the best of the prequel trilogy, and probably the third best film in the entire Saga. Action, adventure, excitement, this film had it all. Incredibly dark at times, thankfully, and only slightly marred by Hayden's still quite wooden acting (oh, and that awful "Nooooooooooo" from Darth Vader at the end...ugh.... ). At last, here were those moments we'd been speculating about for all those years. General Kenobi fighting in the Clone Wars. Anakin... Obi-Wan... A river of lava... The finest lightsaber fight in the Saga. The twins are born (and generate the oddest, most pointless continuity error... how does Leia remember her mother?). Vader and Tarkin oversee the construction of the first dreaded Death Star and C3P0 and R2D2 find themselves on the Tantive IV under the command of Captain Antilles. The circle is complete! Now George Lucas is the master!

Obi-Wan Kenobi delivers a young boy to his aunt and uncle on Tatooine and...despite everything that's going horribly wrong in my life...I have a new hope. I start working on a comic called "Young Gods' and...well...if you want to know what that led to, then you'll have to go back to the first post on this blog, and keep reading...

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Movie Review: Shrek The Third

I think a return of my regular movie reviews is way overdue, and so from now on I'm going to make an effort to post reviews of all the movies that I see. To add a little variety I'm going to aim to review films I watch on TV (either broadcast or on DVD) as well as films I see at the cinema.

So, let's get the ball rolling with Dreamworks latest CGI animated offering, starring the vocal talents of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz - Shrek The Third.

The law of diminishing returns, in regards to movie sequels, has never been truer than with the Shrek series. The first film was a work of genius, with a sharp and witty script (many of the best parts improvised by Myers and Murphy during recording) and groundbreaking computer generated animation. In my opinion, Shrek was the first CGI film that wasn't made by Pixar which was actually any good. It was a huge hit with both parents and children, and, having a five year old and a three year old myself, I've watched it more times now than I'd care to mention - but it hasn't lost its charm.

The second film was more of the same, although the script was slightly less sharp, it managed to avoid the feeling of just treading over old ground by adding new characters, such as the excellent Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), and a fairly amusing plot (although this lacked the simple, iconic brilliance of the original).

And so we come to this, the third installment, and, I'm afraid the well is running dry. The spark is gone from the Donkey/Shrek relationship, and Shrek and Fiona's "baby" issues prove that fairy tales really do need to end at "and they all lived happily ever after." Justin Timberlake is okay as Arthur (yet another character added to an already bloated cast), but is given precious little to do as the writers struggle to decide if he or Shrek should be the main focus of the story. Eric Idle is introduced to little effect, the producers committing the cardinal sin of forgetting that an ex-Python is only funny if you give him something funny to say or do.

There are amusing moments here and there, but they're too few and far between to really make this movie worthwhile. If you're going to make a sequel - please do it because you have a story to tell, not just to make money (which this film will no doubt do).

Hopefully this will be Shrek's final cinematic outing, and the producers won't return to the well a fourth time, to find that it's well and truly run dry.

Rating: 4/10