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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007


You’re gonna hear a lot of talk in the next few days about The Simpsons Movie - and not all of it will focus on the film itself. Some of it will center on Fox’s failed strategy to keep the movie away from critics, and the clandestine, last minute appeals that saw the press finally viewing the finished product the night before it officially opened. Others will question the legitimacy of an effort that flaunts the fact that, as an audience, you are paying for the privilege of seeing something that the boob tube provides for free. Heck, Homer even makes a joke about it. There will be a few who frown on the lax language issue, their favorite family using the mildest of profanities to express some of their concerns. And a couple may complain about the abomination which is animated genitalia.


Well, you can tell all these wannabe experts and misguided moral watchdogs to eat your ever lovin’ shorts. After 18 years on the air and nearly 400 amazing episodes, The Simpsons Movie delivers the entertainment equivalent of a 90 minute greatest hits package. Jam packed with jokes, insider references, unique cameos and characters, and just a smidgen of sentiment and heart, this is the kind of stone cold genius creation old school fans have been longing for and demanding since around Season Four. Indeed, the most striking thing about this luminous bit of social satire is how fully realized and completely linear it is. Most episodes of the series, especially in the last few years, are tangential, vignette oriented, and elliptical. A weird event will trigger another oddball happenstance before the whole things blows back and up in Homer’s fat face. Here, we begin with a basic storyline, and the jokes grow organically and effortlessly from its finely honed foundation.


It all begins with that current crisis du jour – our volatile environment. In typical surreal Simpsons fashion, Homer adopts a pig. When he can’t figure out what to do with his new pet’s “leavings” (to quote wife Marge), he decides to dump an entire silo full of feces in local Lake Springfield. Coincidentally, daughter Lisa has been protesting the continued polluting of this body of water (with the help of her new Irish boy buddy Colin), and the town has placed a moratorium on further befouling, afraid of a horrible natural disaster. Of course, our favorite bald buffoon doesn’t listen to them, and soon, things are at a crisis point. The EPA – under the direction of Chairman Russ Cargill (a hilarious Albert Brooks) and President Schwarzenegger – finally comes up with a plan. It will dome the town, trapping everyone inside forever. Then when things get too bad, they’ll bomb the city. In the meantime, Springfield has driven the Simpsons away, and they begin life anew in Alaska. Yet, even with all the hard feelings, the family can’t resist the urge to return and help save their threatened town.


And just to keep things frisky, there are a couple of clever subplots involving Barts’ growing affection for the Flanders, Grandpa’s religious hissy fit, and Homer’s interaction with the native Inuit peoples of America’s 49th State. Yet instead of distracting us from the main plotline, these asides help us appreciate the level of intelligence and wit the show’s creators carry over into the film. They even add in a very touching moment where Marge speaks from her heart. To any fan of the wonderful voice acting the cast produces on a weekly basis, this heart-rendering reading by Julie Kavner will all but unhinge you. It’s very, very powerful. The rest of the actors are also uniformly excellent, managing to make us care about the outcome of certain situations that, within a cinematic fantasy paradigm aimed directly at the PG-13 demographic, are more or less predetermined from the start. In fact, the script (credited to 15 of the show’s most inspired scribes) does a great job of poking fun at the whole doomsday action adventure genre.


It wouldn’t be The Simpsons without the goofy asides and borderline crude cracks, and leave it to the brains behind the scenes to keep things as imbecilic as possible. Homer doesn’t suddenly grow smarter, or stumble onto the truth after several sincere conversations. Instead, he remains regressive and childlike, amiably screwing things up with a sense of wide-eyed wonder that’s a sidesplitting joy to behold. Similarly, both Bart and Lisa are toned down here, each one getting a solid sequence of their own before giving in to the needs of the narrative. There will be a decided outcry from fringe favoring fans about the lack of extended scenes of Apu, Krusty, Principal Skinner, Mrs. Crabapple, and many others. Indeed, aside from Kent Brockman and the brazen bumpkin Cletus, the rest of Springfield’s citizenry are reduced to perfectly honed cameos – introduced and exploited as needed and necessary. The family members are the real focus.


Are there things here that don’t work? Not really. Hans Zimmer’s score barely stands out above the comedic din, his mundane music cues doing very little until the final confrontation with fate. Similarly, the animation takes a bit of getting used to at first. Fans familiar with Futurama will instantly appreciate the combination of 3D CGI and standard pen an ink cartooning. But it’s still odd to see the Simpsons home swallowed up, Poltergeist style, or a massive deep focus mob containing possibly every character ever conceived for the show. And of course, the continuity police will be up in arms over how Marge and Homer’s marriage has, once again, been reimagined into a familiar formal setting (they eloped, as all true Simpsons savants remember). Yet none of this really matters. In fact, any quibbles over content or approach are incredibly minor when compared to how effortlessly this movie delivers its many, many delights.


On par with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in the way in which a beloved TV series can be broadened and deepened by the cinematic experience, The Simpsons Movie is a major triumph – and that’s saying a lot considering its stance as a creative enterprise overflowing with consistent genius. The direction (by David Silverman) has a decided artistic bent, several shots announcing their compositional and framing freshness with major impact (this happens frequently during the last act). The Inuit dream sequence is especially impressive, riffing on symbolic ideas fans will remember from past character interactions with the cosmic. Perhaps the best thing this fine film does however is treat its audience with intelligence and respect. It doesn’t try to cheapen our yellow-tinged icons by making them into a sloppy, saccharine example of kid vid corniness. All The Simpsons Movie emotion is earned honestly, and all its humor is unforced and very, very funny.


So let them all talk. It may not be a return to the glory days of phenomenon formation, when the series finally found the courage to take the show outside the boundaries of your typical animated TV experience, but The Simpsons Movie argues that there’s plenty of life left in this clever collection of characters. Whether Fox decides to keep renewing the series, or simply allowing film to fill in the future blanks, one thing is certain – The Simpsons remain one of the classic comic creations ever. Their big screen debut may have taken over a decade to arrive, but it was well worth the wait. Here’s hoping one family member’s statement over the closing credits comes to fruition - the sooner, the better.


(PS: Make sure you stay until the very end – the writers have some extra rib-ticklers as a reward for those who don’t just jump up and leave.)


 



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Wednesday, Jul 18, 2007


No one in Hollywood ever went broke underestimating the entertainment taste of the American public. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is proof of such a sentiment. Geared directly toward the lowest common denominator, with occasional side treks into PC-lite pronouncements of tolerance and acceptance, this is comedy as callous homophobia, a movie constantly having to apologize to the audience for its crass, crude approach to its poorly chosen subject matter. In a current social climate where same sex marriage has been bandied about as a powerful political and pundit tool, to treat the issue as the basis for a frat house level of funny business is disturbing. But then to watch as the plot purposefully backtracks in order to make amends for such lampoon-based insensitivity is disingenuous at best.


You see, this gay marriage movie isn’t really ready to deal with the overriding disputes that arise whenever civil rights and civil unions become part of the human dialogue. Indeed, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry wants to avoid the conversation all together. That’s probably because the premise is so preposterous – more on this in a moment – the film realized it couldn’t make a solid, sincere satire out of the whole comedians as a couple scenario. So the script – written by Oscar winners Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, along with Barry Farno – more or less balks, piling on the overt stereotypes and statements of support in an attempt to keep the easily fooled fanbase at bay. There will be people who love this film and never once think about exactly what they are laughing at. And as long as the creators can keep such up cinematic stealth, everyone will feel vindicated.


But there are holes the size of Christian bigotry all throughout this scattershot story. In order to guarantee that his kids receive his fireman’s pension, decent dude Larry Valentine (an acceptable Kevin James) asks his best friend and noted man whore Chuck Levine (an old looking Adam Sandler) for a favor. Seems if they can establish a believable domestic partnership, the benefits will inure to Chuck, who will gladly turn them over to Larry’s motherless wee ones. All they have to do is convince the City of New York and its crafty, cartoonish investigator (a weirdly arch Steve Buscemi). Calling in the services of sexy attorney Alex Donough (a very good Jessica Biel), the boys hope to bamboozle everyone. Unfortunately, Chuck’s uncontrollable heterosexuality has him lusting after the lawyer, and their ruse, in general, is causing a lot of complicated feelings among their friends and co-workers. If they tell the truth, however, they are looking at long stints in jail for fraud.


The first major fallacy this movie manipulates is that Larry is such a grief-stricken lunkhead (his wife has been dead three years) that his far too clever central casting children - one’s a whiz, the other is a Broadway loving wuss – would be the last thing on his mind. In essence, what I Now Pronounce You wants us to believe is that our heartbroken hero wouldn’t have immediately looked into securing their future. Instead, he has moped around to the point where his application time limits have run out. Even more perplexing is the solution – pretending to be gay. No one is suggesting that Sandler or James are playing geniuses, but even the most feeble minded of village idiots would have thought this plan out a little more thoroughly. Okay, so they fool the city. The government approves their partnership and Chuck is now the appointed beneficiary. They can’t go back to their regular lives now, can they? The first time Sandler’s sex addicted lothario bags another collection of Hooter’s Girls, the jig will be up.


Even worse, the narrative never understands this. Instead, the storyline just keeps stumbling along, waiting for the inevitable moment when an ending will be required. It drifts over into toilet humor (the guys save an obese man from a burning building, and he repays Sandler in particular by farting in his face), high drama (lots of close calls on fire calls) goofy ‘girl power’ montages (Sandler and Biel go ‘shopping’ as a Cyndi Lauper standard bops in the background), and sequences of insincere soap boxing. When confronted by a group of Pro-God gay bashers, Chuck decides to take matters into his own hands…make that fists. He punches the preacher out. Similarly, when asked to an AIDS awareness ball, we anticipate the moment when either lead lets loose with an ersatz hilarious harangue about homosexuals in general. Instead, the script lets the gay party members do it themselves, expressing the kind of archetypal swishery that your average ‘Amurican’ thinks constitutes queer behavior.


Yet perhaps the biggest humor as hate crime committed comes at the expense of usually reliable actor Ving Rhames. Initially viewed by his fellow firefighters as an angry serial killer type, Chuck and Larry’s union brings out the Minnelli in the man, and before you know it, the African American icon once known as Marcellus Wallace is wishing those hillbilly rapists would make a return. He goes from tough to touchy, mincing like a Food Channel chef preparing a delicate bisque. All of this is supposed to play as liberating and empowering, but when a butt naked Rhames is wiggling his ass in an extended “don’t drop the soap’ shower gag, it’s all too much. He, and the character of Biel’s out and proud brother played with far too much ‘fabulousness’ by Nick Swardson, are merely distractions, means of easy laughs at the expense of several decades of prejudice and perception. Instead of concentrating on the relationship between James and Sandler, how the cad makes the depressed dad appreciate his kids while the family man forces the man skank into appreciating the notion of commitment, we wind up with malapropisms about the male anatomy.


And then we come to the finale. As part of some Tinsel Town mandate regarding all hot button issues, our heroes status as a gay couple is challenged in a courtroom setting – in this case, a hearing in front of the City Council. As Buscemi tries everything he can to con a confession out of his witnesses, we can literally observe the moment when the screenplay shifts over from white pages to last minute rewritten colored ones. It’s as if director Dennis Dugan (who helmed Sandler’s Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy) realized at that instant that the narrative was indeed painting itself into a corner that no normal contrivance could free it from. So what did these highly paid hacks come up with? Why, that standard of any ‘issue’ movie – the self-righteous, sanctimonious speech. And just to make sure we got it, several other characters are allowed to wax poetic to save their pals’ kiesters. While the movie tries to mess up the formulaic follow through that usually results after such overdone oration, we’ve long since given up hope of anything original or novel happening here.


Last year, A&E released a lovely little TV movie about same sex marriage and strange political bedfellows entitled Wedding Wars. It featured James Brolin as a pandering politician and John Stamos as a gay activist helping to plan the Governor’s daughter’s nuptials. While it suffered from some pie in the sky fantasizing about a world where homosexual rights would eventually be respected (if not implemented), it was funnier, more emotional, and far more convincing than this flailing, forced farce.  I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is not as hilarious as it thinks it is, profound as it pretends to be, or tolerant as it intends. Yet none of this will matter to the throngs who only think of film as a way to waste two hours. For them, this crackerjack comedy will allow them to remain bigoted and have a belly laugh or two.  And Hollywood scores another monetary hash mark in the category of knowing audience underestimation. 


 


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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007


When Hairspray is good, it’s fantastic. It radiates an energy and a joy that’s beyond infectious. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that the pleasure one derives from the first fifteen minutes of this movie should be made illegal, it’s so superbly addictive. On the other hand, when Hairspray is only mediocre, it’s…aw heck, who cares! In fact, whatever minor flaws this movie may have (and they’re barely recognizable against the sunshine daze) are frivolous in comparison to the triumph taking shape before our eyes. Fans of the John Waters original – more a celebration of youth and dance than race and social commentary – have worried that the Broadway version of the ‘60s Baltimore spree would forget what made the prince of puke’s PG perfection so much fun. Instead, this amazing musical has found its own level of exhilaration, and the delights are palpable indeed.


With some minor changes here and there, the story has basically stayed the same. Tubby Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) lives with her joke shop owning father (Christopher Walken) and laundress mother (John Travolta). She hates school, and along with best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), she rushes home every day to catch the locally produced dance extravaganza, The Corny Collins Show. Among the series regulars are The Council, a group of talented teens that are supposed to symbolize clean cut American values. But under the surface, Station Manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer) is forwarding two private agendas. The first, and least noxious, is her daughter Amber’s future career. The other, more loathsome design, is the continued segregation of on-air programming. African Americans in the area only get one day a month on Corny’s show, and substitute host (and record shop owner) Motormouth Mabel (Queen Latifah) barely tolerates such treatment.


Anyway, Tracy’s dream is to be part of the show’s elusive clique, but her audition is nixed by Ms. Van Tussle. A stint in detention along with Motormouth’s son Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) improves the plump gal’s hoofing skills. Before you know it, she’s part of the Council, wooing the male star of the show (a teen idol wannabe named Link – Zac Efron) and getting into hot water over her views on integration. With the Miss Hairspray crown up for grabs, Amber’s mother will do anything to see that her child wins, and she comes up with several subversive plots to guarantee victory. But Tracy’s indomitable spirit, along with Mabel’s desire to stand up for her people lead to a march on the station, and an arrest warrant for our heroine. Naturally, it all comes down to the night of the big pageant. If Tracy shows up, she’ll be arrested. If she doesn’t Amber, will win the crown – much to the chagrin of almost everyone involved.


Bubbling over with entertainment effervescence and a wealth of award wining performances, Hairspray is the perfect example of cinematic synchronicity – flawless casting, amazing material, brilliant production design, stellar songs and directorial magic all rolled up into one big wad of motion picture cotton candy. Far more effective than Dreamgirls or Chicago, what has been accomplished here is nothing short of a miracle. For many, the last great example of this kind of effortless exuberance was Frank Oz’s adaptation of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s smash Little Shop of Horrors. There, as here, the combination of motion picture parts produced a movie musical engine that purred like a well creamed kitten…with just enough quirk to keep things safely off the sappy side. Hairspray mimics that sort of success, selling its unapologetic philosophies with expertly tempered heart and soul.


Major kudos must go to whomever decided to hire this remarkable company. Every performer here is faultless, adding to the overall feeling of comedy and camaraderie. Even the two main villains – Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle - are more to be laughed at then feared. Their stances are so outrageous and their sense of self so ludicrous that their eventual tumble is bound to be a treat. Of course, what makes this even better is Michelle Pfieffer’s return – after a five year absence – to big screen prominence as Velma. She’s an aged ice queen so accurately archetyped that all she’s missing is the dangle of a cigarette and a coarse, cancerous croak to turn her into the ghoul that’s hiding inside. Even though we had to wait for the actress’s return from self-imposed exile, it was well worth it.


Similarly, Queen Latifah shows that the Oscar nod for Chicago was no fluke. In Hairspray, she finds the ideal combination of groove and grace, making her both a viable disc jockey and voice of reason. She’s matched by James Marsden, who finally gets a chance to crawl out of Cyclops’ shades and deliver a knock ‘em dead turn as the eternally preening Corny Collins. Throughout the course of this toe-tapping, smile mapping spectacle, brilliant supporting performances by Zach Efron, Elijah Kelley, Amanda Bynes, and Allison Janney really help to flesh out the fabulousness. Of course, the biggest kudos will be saved for formidable newcomer Nikki Blonsky. A portly little fireplug, this is one plus size gal who can swing and sway. She belts out her songs with steadfast determination, and moves her body with undeniable agility. As the glue required to hold all the cheerfulness and mirth together, she’s great.


And then there is John Travolta. From the moment that a musical version of John Water’s nostalgic knock-off was announced, the main question on everyone lips was who would – or possible could/dare – replace Divine. That magically effete phenom, that late great drag dime store diva left some mighty big shoes (and other garments) to fill as sheltered mouse mother Edna Turnblad. On the Great White Way, the solution was simple – another larger than life gay performer, Harvey Firestein. But movies require superstars, and for a while, an unusual collection of actors was considered. But once you see Travolta inside the fascinating fat suit and utilizing what has to be one of the most bizarrely authentic Baltimore accents ever, you’ll realize that his was more than stunt casting. This is a fully realized performance, an acting tour de force that requires and earns your unbridled attention. Sure, he can sing and dance like a dream – we’ve always known that about him. But there is a depth to what Travolta does here, an unnerving authenticity that makes us forget the façade and see the fragile female inside. It’s a stunning, award worthy piece of work.


But perhaps the biggest shock overall is the surprisingly solid direction from the otherwise average Adam Shankman. Known previously for such uninspired, generic dogs as The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Hairspray makes it appear as if the filmmaker has been holding back all along. Case in point – the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore!” As Tracy’s sonic celebration of her city, Shankman wisely opens up the number, taking us up and down the streets and shops of her neighborhood. But then, he adds little visual gags and some hilarious physical comedy along the way. By the time Tracy is riding the garbage truck to school, our hearts are in our throats. As a former choreographer, Shankman “gets” movement. Unlike other helmers of recent song and dance cinema, Hairspray is a movie that understands staging without relying on MTV like variables to save its strategies.


Which brings us to the final facet of the film – Marc Shaiman’s ‘60s suggesting songs. One of the most interesting aspects of his score is how important context really is. When heard outside their setting, when played as mere souvenirs of the show, lyrical larks like “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs”, “Big, Blond and Beautiful”, and “(You’re) Timeless To Me” really have a hard time resonating. They need setting, circumstance, and perspective to play properly. Here, Shankman gives the composer just that, and what sounds trite and cloying outside the silver screen comes alive with undeniable potency. You’ll be snapping along with “The Nicest Kids in Town” and clapping along with “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. Even the more dramatic numbers – the racial call to arms “I Know Where I’ve Been” – echo more effectively thanks to the film.


Indeed, Hairspray stands as one of 2007’s great films. It dares to reach for the stratosphere and manages to move far beyond said stars. It’s intoxicating and invigorating, jumpstarting your long dead belief in the art of the movie picture while systematically saving the summer from such standard operating ordinariness as sequels and remakes. Of course, purists will palpitate over the a few missing numbers (got to add new material to get the Academy’s attention) and there will be the naysayers who can’t cotton to a musical made outside the defining era of 1930 – 1950. But this is one time when you can easily believe the hype. Hairspray is one brazen bouffant of a film. It’s very high and oh so mighty. 


 


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Friday, Jul 13, 2007


Call it geek chic or designer dorkiness, but nerds have become quite the pop culture cause celeb. Perhaps it has something to do with our growing tech savvy demographic, or the PC pronouncements against being cliquish, bullying or superior. Indeed, in a world where everyone is considered equal, smarts offset by social awkwardness is one of the few ways to significantly stand out. Thanks in large part to the cult phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite and its quintessential quote heavy narrative, the uber dweeb has spread his and/or her entertainment possibilities worldwide. Even far off and secluded New Zealand has come up with their own cinematic celebration of the communal outsider. Unfortunately, while quite engaging, the enigmatically named Eagle vs. Shark forgets a couple of the key rules for navigating the weirdo waters.


Our story centers around two misguided losers. Lily works at a greasy spoon burger joint, her attempts to fit in constantly thwarted by the blond hair and buxom set. But everyday, around noon, she stops pouting and perks up. You see, Jarrod from down the local media palace enjoys taking his lunch at Lily’s place of employment, and she’s desperate to catch his eye. Naturally, he’s oblivious. However, an invitation to his animal costume party provides our heroine her in. Over the course of the affair, the two fall for each other as only the insular and sheltered can – over a Mortal Combat like video game – and before we know it, they are off on an adventure to Jarrod’s hometown. Seems Mr. Misfit has been training to get revenge on the bully who picked on him all throughout high school. Thanks to Lily – and her brother’s available car – the couple can kill two confrontations with one trip. The first being Jarrod’s tormentor. The second is his dramatically dysfunctional family.


All of this might sound like fodder for some sort of hilarious comedy of mis-manners, but the truth is far more telling. Eagle vs. Shark is more interested in whimsy than wit, and when it comes to milking its characters for a little goofball charm, we are stuck with mostly peculiarities vs. personalities. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Movies that comprehend the difference between bringing dimension and merely mocking its principles usually end up winning the quirkiness war. But in the case of Eagle vs. Shark, the people behind the production just don’t know when to quit. Unlike our leads, who seem purposefully oblique and ambiguous, the rest of the surrounding support is overwritten to the point of near distraction. It’s as if the script (touted as workshopped at the exclusive Sundance Director’s and Screenwriter’s Labs) was purposefully fused over to add more than the average daily requirement of eccentricities.


Oddly enough, it’s not a novice mistake. Writer/director Taika Cohen was nominated in 2005 for a Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar (for his love in a pub Two Cars, One Night) and even though Eagle vs. Shark is his first feature, he’s someone assured of his style and overall approach. He’s also a filmmaker that wears his influences obviously and proudly. Michel Gondry gets a visual shout out via some slyly compelling stop motion sequences, and Jared Hess’s flat plane symmetry is present in abundance. You can even see snatches of the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson among the frequent flights of originality. Granted, all of this works in Cohen’s favor, fostering an optical richness and filmic texture that is hard to deny. Doubt its occupants, but we can sense – and sometimes smell - the environment these outcasts exist in.


This doesn’t mean however that Cohen gets everything right. There are a couple of minor missteps in Eagle vs. Shark, elements both internal and external that prevent us from completely enjoying the joke. On the inside is actor Jermaine Clement. One of two leads in the highly publicized HBO Summer series Flight of the Conchords, this part-Maori performer is very irritating as Jarrod. It’s not just his behavior - a good way to describe him would be as a glorified gasbag – it’s his entire tact. Jarrod has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He is jealous, petty, spiteful, arrogant, deluded, dull, and incapable of any real human emotion. And the sad thing is, Cohen never once tries to redeem him. As a matter of fact, this is another instance where you can feel the filmmaker pushing the material further and further into the extreme. When Jarrod finally faces his bully, the joke may be rather obvious, but the follow-up is borderline cruel.


Which leads to the other outer element. If Napoleon Dynamite is indeed part of Cohen’s blueprint for this project, he forgot to take into account one of Jared Hess’ greatest gifts – comedic context. All the characters in the 2004 title are not desperate or disposable. No, part of the joy in said film was the fact that Napoleon and his family/friends were blissfully unaware of their loser status. They never once acted like the dregs of humanity’s pecking order. In fact, they stood proud and defiant in the face of constant rejection and ridicule. In Eagle vs. Shark, everyone is sour and dour, ready to wallow in enormous vats of self-pity for the sake of their own selfish designs. Kip and Napoleon fight because they believe each is better than the other. Jarrod lives like a lox in his dead brother’s shadow, convinced he can never be as good as him. Naturally, his equally depressed family only aids and abets his misery.


By this point you must be wondering, is there any reason to visit this frequently funny pity party. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes – and her name is Loren Horsley. With a face always screwed up like she’s afraid to breath, and an accent so thick its like listening to the countryside speak, her Lily is a light in what is sometimes a very dark and disturbed arena. True, she herself is a mess of issues, but she’s also hopelessly optimistic, and when cheerfulness won’t do, she perseveres with the best of them. Her role is key to whatever success Eagle vs. Shark generates, mostly because we find ourselves identifying with and rooting for her happiness. Even when we see that the ultimate end may be as part of Jarrod’s jaundiced existence, we still have hope that Lily is the one that can turn him around. While it’s rare for a single performer or performance to save an entire movie, Ms. Horsley does so – with a little help from a few of the stalwart supporting cast.


And again, she’s enough to get us over some of the film’s more problematic gaffs. In fact, in the battle between the Eagle (Jarrod’s favorite animal) and Shark (Lily’s power creature), the Discovery Channel’s favorite man eater wins every time. This is really a chick flick redesign of the Napoleon Dynamite formula, a movie that many will find far more satisfying and deep than the mannered adventures of Pedro’s mop topped campaign manager. But sometimes, the wrong tone can completely undermine a well meaning movie, and in conjunction with an aggravating male lead, Taika Cohen may have found a real recipe for rejection. But thanks to a delicate little flower who believes herself to be a ‘dangerous person’, there is more to love than loathe about this New Zealand zaniness. And feebs of the world will have a new geek goddess to worship.


 


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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007


In a recent piece for Entertainment Weekly, bestselling author (and frequent contributor to the media mag) Stephen King made an interesting point about the entire Harry Potter series. When the final book is released later this month (July 2007), it will represent a nearly 10 year journey for the readers who first fell in love with the orphaned boy wizard and his outsized adventures. He suggests that an eight year old who was drawn into the world of Hogwarts and Quidditch, the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Prisoner of Azkaban will now be close to 18. They will have passed through grade school and may have even graduated. All now possess a world view radicalized by the onset of puberty and dating. While he admits that they should still be affected about the way creator J. K. Rowling ends the journey, he wonders if they haven’t moved beyond the emotions they associate with the character and his cohorts.


This may explain why the latest film in the ongoing cinematic interpretation of the novels – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – is so different from the other installments. There is something very intriguing going on here, a fascinating grown up subtext that suggests, as its fanbase has aged, so has the entire Potter mythology. Indeed, it’s time to stop dreaming and get down to the business at hand. Initially, such a shift is far more compelling than all the prophesying and enchantment. Almost like an espionage thriller from World War II, rebellion is in the air, both metaphorically and magically. And our hero Harry is at the center of an unpopular socio-political position. For those who’ve forgotten the previous narrative, the now notorious student tried to save a classmate from wicked Lord Valdemort’s deadly designs, and his failure has filled him with guilt. In the meantime, the Ministry of Magic (how very 1984) is downplaying the rumors of the Dark Lord’s return, and is setting up a behind the scenes plot to silence Harry once and for all.


Thus one walks, woozy and a tad paranormal punchdrunk, into this evocative entertainment, a movie meant to move away from the spectacle oriented elements of the series and into the emotional and interpersonal heft that transforms eye candy into epics. Trying to maneuver three major plotpoints at once – the ongoing battle with Voldemort, Harry’s decision to gather up a wizard’s army, and a newfound restrictive reign of terror at Hogwarts thanks to the arrival of Dark Arts instructor, the sweetly sinister Delores Umbridge – may seem like an impossible task, and many fans have worried how the longest book in the series would manage to make its multifaceted points. Even more disconcerting, longtime series screenwriter Steve Kloves (he did the adaptation on the previous four films) is not involved this time around. Indeed, both director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenburg are new to the Rowling realm.


As stated before, Harry is under close scrutiny by the Ministry. When he wards off an attack using a banned spell (he is not old enough to employ it), a witch’s witch hunt ensues. At a hearing before the board, our hero is defended by his loyal friend and Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore. Yet all this does is make the bureaucracy bitter. They bring in Umbridge to lay down order – and, some fear, pave the way for Voldemort’s eventual take over – turning her particularly important class into an ineffectual routine of rote memorization. Angered that they aren’t learning how to defend themselves, Harry is convince by longtime best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to start teaching the others. Soon, a ragtag group of recruits are using a secret room to prepare for battle. As Harry is haunted by dreams of the Dark Lord, a confrontation between all three – the boy, the beast, and the battleaxe – looms large.


For full blown Potter heads, there is no need to worry about the infusion of new creative forces.  While some of the subtlety and depth from Phoenix’s fleshed out pages may be missing, this fifth installment is still immensely entertaining. Beginning with a bang and ending on an incredible display of martial magic, Yates is a director who understands cinematic shorthand. He gets lots of information across in clever newspaper montages, using the iconic Daily Prophet as a means of supplying backstory and subtext. Similarly, minor flashbacks for the previous films fill in informational blanks that a 129 minute movie can’t possibly afford to confront. Granted, anyone coming into this movie blind, without an inkling about what’s going on or where we are in the Potter paradigm will be wildly confused. Like walking into the middle of a play’s third act, number five is not the place to start your Muggle modification.


But if you’re invested in the whole wizard universe, Order of the Phoenix should provide untold personal pleasures. Aside from seeing your favorite characters again (Gary Oldman’s emblematic Sirius Black, Julie Walters’ jovial Mrs. Weasley), new recruits to the storyline also shine. For her part, Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly depraved as Death Eater Bellatrix Lastrange, and Evanna Lynch is defiantly ditzy as slightly loony loner girl Luna Lovegood. But the real secondary star here – after Daniel Radcliff’s dazzling turn as our Harry – is Imelda Staunton as the devilish Delores Umrbidge. Playing the part of underhanded villainess perfectly, she exudes a kind of pent up paranoia and dictatorial derangement. In her office outfitted with live kitten commemorate plates (tacky and terrifying), her preference for pink hides a soul as black as pitch. With the help of her Inquisition Squad – nothing subtle about this amoral administrator – she begins to undermine everything Dumbledore has done. Before long, she’s managed to turn Hogwarts into a stifling center of cold conformity.


Naturally, we demand a massive comeuppance, and one of the many joys in this thoroughly engaging film is watching Yates and Goldenburg build to her possible retribution. Following the continued quest to discover the truth about Voldemort and the title organization’s preparations for the eventual showdown, this is a movie that makes us aware of its intricacies, and asks us to pay close attention to what is going on. Of course, it helps to have read the four previous books (or at the very least, seen the other films), and yet Yates never allows things to tumble completely out of control. Those pining for all the meat in Rowling’s writing will probably be disappointed – its impossible to condense almost 800 pages into a little over 130 – but if they accept the film on its own terms, they will find a great deal to enjoy.


So will those just slightly outside the fervent fanbase. Yates has fun with his visuals here, rendering the familiar spaces of Hogwarts and the newer locales (like a Ministry mausoleum filled with crystal ball prophecies) into stunning cinematic backdrops. He also plays within the genre, referencing Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which is ironic, considering that the ex-pat Python was the first director approached about helming the Potter franchise) and drops a foray into Lord of the Rings territory (as when Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid shares a ‘secret’ with Harry and Hermione). And King is partially right – this is a darker, more demanding Potter plot. Kids who’ve just been introduced to the wizard’s wonderstuff might not be ready to take on such adult material. Death and evil are in the air after all, and Harry’s fate definitely hangs in the balance.


While one might question the viability of the franchise once Rowling releases the last Potter tome (imagine how films six and seven will play out once all the beans are finally spilled), five finds the series settling in quite nicely. There will be complaints from completists, and without a foundation of familiarity with the serialized narratives basics, one could become instantly lost. But for full fledged fantasy that doesn’t skimp on the imagination or the intrigue, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a brave, exciting entertainment. It makes the impending end of the series all the sadder.



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