Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a faithful and adequate rendering of the first half or so of J.K. Rowling's faithful and adequate final book. Yeah, I'm a big Harry Potter fan, have read all the books and seen all the movies. Having read the final installment, which I found fulfilling if a little uninspiring, I was worried that it would be hard to make an involving movie of its stripped-down, existential story, so unlike each of the other Potter books.

I mean, to be faithful, most of the film would feature Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and friends living in a magical charm-bubble in the English countryside, figuring things out, trying to maneuver against the ultimate evil attack of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and the Death Eaters without a lot of actual room to maneuver.

Can we really do that? Make a two-and-a-half hour movie of stands of brush blowing in the wind on the naked heath? I simultaneously wished for it and dreaded it, but put my trust in stalwart director Yates.

Yates has been the most expressionistic of the Potter interpreters, and it has served him and the audience well. One problem with this latest one is that we've seen it all before. There are few new wonders to be spotted or angles taken, it's consolidation time. And it feels a bit forced and underwhelming.

One has to focus on the kids in the countryside. And it's not all boring. In fact, it's all put together right. But some things that have bothered others about the previous films started to bug me in this one.

Dobby the former house elf (voice by Toby Jones) is a major character. He was shown using better effects previously, however, and his major storyline here suffers for it. He was always bordering on being the official Jar Jar Binks of this franchise--annoying, poorly rendered, weird and borderline offensive to somebody, surely--except for the fact that Dobby as a CGI character interacting with humans was previously integrated more successfully, even became kind of likable. I didn't like Dobby much here, and with a big dose.

And it's the second Yates film to be a bit too shorthand with the plot. Characters pop up in the right place, but mostly just to swell crowds. Some intricate plot developments hinge on whether you read a headline that snipped by the camera like Forrest Gump's feather. As things build and come together in the plot, you think, well, I'd know better what's going on if I'd read the book. Oh, yeah, I already did. Maybe if I read it again. I probably will anyway. But opportunities to tease out some elements, themes, characters and images which could have unified this story more, and tied it more strongly symbolically and emotionally to the previous films are sadly missed.

Still, I'm a fan. And the major story, among Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) on the moors, works and builds from the previous films effectively. The film stops in the right place, too, so much so that everybody groans, then laughs at themselves as they recognize a well-timed cliffhanger.

This review will stop no one from seeing this movie, and that's certainly not its goal. But you know how some people (not me) were greatly disappointed with the final couple of Dragon Tattoo movies, feeling they were kind of rote or anti-climactic? I felt that way about this film. (I feel a bit that way about the book it's based on, too.) It's my least favorite movie of the series so far. And yet, I will pony up for the last Yates film and keep hoping it's the best finale ever. Hey, what's up in Narnia?

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Review: 127 Hours (2010)

Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is an exuberant one-man horror show, featuring a don't-miss starring performance from veteran James Franco (Milk, Pineapple Express) as a gung ho biker/hiker, Aron Ralston, who makes a very big mistake when he neglects to make his whereabouts known to anyone during a Utah hike which goes from sunny and bright to devastating. The views of the Utah landscapes are truly striking, priceless.

I haven't read Ralston's memoir (Between a Rock and a Hard Place) upon which this movie is based, though I do remember the media coverage of it at the time. What I knew, or what I thought I knew from that didn't prepare me for the totality of the film's dramatic story, however. Using a main narrative, along with video snippets reportedly based on Ralston's own video diary of his trip, and flashbacks, hallucinations and dreams, the film never gets boring, but is often harrowing.

James Franco as Ralston is so much the focus of the film that I was almost surprised, reviewing the cast list, to see so many names, but there is notable support from Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara as two somewhat-similar daredevils Ralston meets along the way and from Treat Williams as Ralston's father.

The music by A.R. Rahman and others captures a wild rhythm of the outdoor hotshot, bridges emotional gaps, and works both with and in counterpoint to the film's events to become nearly another character during all that time we are alone with Franco's Ralston.

There have been reports of people fainting during this film, and I don't doubt them. I myself was surprised at how squeamish I felt during certain points of the film, obviously, during the first moments Ralston realizes he's trapped, to when he finally executes the daring and desperate plan which saves his life.

One rub here is that most anybody who has heard any synopsis of the plot, which is hard to avoid, knows that these key moments are coming. That doesn't spoil the story, or how it's depicted, but it does put the crowd in competition with the storytellers a bit. In terms of suspense or surprise, it's an interesting audience dance.

Are we there for the horrifying elements, which are indeed horrific? Is this just a tale for pain voyeurs? Is that the movie's reason for being? Maybe all of these things are true to some extent, but the film's journey is rather rich and deep, allaying, justifying, or maybe simply enfolding those issues. Locked into a regular horror gimmick, it embraces it, delivers on it and surpasses it, dazzlingly.

Because at its heart, and in its assured execution, it's a very simple story. Like more films from just this year than I'd care to mention here, it's a trippy, bone-rattling stare at mortality. But it's one of the better and more involving ones.

127 Hours is big, brassy, exploitative and realistic at the same time. It felt a bit truncated to me, given its rhythm and narrative strategy, but maybe test audiences couldn't sit still a second longer. A few times, it seems to stretch. Despite minor reservations, it's a story very much worth spending time on, told just this way. And yes, James Franco is a movie star.

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Review: It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

Anna Boden's and Ryan Fleck's It's Kind of a Funny Story, based on the book by Ned Vizzini (which I read after seeing the movie), is an interesting, positive mental-health comedy/drama which doesn't trip itself up too bad trying very hard to avoid mental-health movie traps.

The film's main character is a smart, funny and unfortunately suicidally depressed teen named Craig (Keir Gilchrist, excellent) who's quite luckily smart enough to know when he's in trouble. Instead of acting out his serious depressive episode in any harmful ways, he checks himself into the local hospital.

What he doesn't quite understand is that once you're in the door, you get to stay awhile. Overwhelmed with his feelings one night, he feels better the next day, as expected, but it's too late to un-commit himself, so he's in for a few days at least. Another thing he didn't know beforehand is that the teen mental health ward is being renovated, so teens and adults are being housed together in the regular unit. So there is no inmate so disturbed or diminished that he will not have to look at them, and interact on some level.

One of the first people he meets is Bobby (Zach Galafianakis, very good), a trusty who shows him around and spends a lot of his time talking with Craig about a lot of things. Bobby has been around the block, he's got the hospital wired and he has a family he's disconnected from. His future, however, is up in the air.

Another major character at the hospital is Noelle (Emma Roberts, very good), a girl with some obvious and hidden scars. A couple of friends visit Craig in the hospital and figure large in his regular life, Aaron (Thomas Mann, good), who brings sounds of the outside world, and Nia (Zoe Kravitz, good), Aaron's girlfriend. Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan are standouts as Craig's parents, inside the narrative and in some dream sequences, as well.

Vizzini's book was written immediately after his own stay in a similar mental hospital. That it's hard to tell which parts, developments and characters might be more memoir than fiction is a tribute to it.

The book is a bit more tone-even than the movie, but if you love it when a film made from a book is quite faithful to its source material, this one's for you. Most of the action and dialogue in the film are taken straight from the book, with some rearranging and added scenes and lines, but not much.

Some ambiguous twists at the end fit in pretty well, but also seem just slightly off-kilter, more of a response to other cinematic renderings of people in mental institutions than necessarily just a fitting ending for this film.

On the other hand, I couldn't think of a better ending, upon reflection. I think this movie succeeds in general, but couldn't quite endorse it with four stars. It's realistic, kind of funny, maybe a bit too easy in places, but high-quality work and a really involving movie experience. Whether or not you've ever encountered similar depression or treatment for it, there's a very positive message here for you, and delivered well, not in so sickly sweet or manipulative a way that you'll feel like rejecting it offhand.

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Review: Skyline (2010)

From the directing team which brought us Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (a personal favorite of mine, really underrated sci-fi film) The Brothers Strause's Skyline is a respectable, if sometimes boring outing of flimsy humans vs. giant Cloverfield/Guillermo Del Toro-looking cyborg-zombie-Godzilla-octopus aliens and their gorgeous blue light.

What's not to like?

Sure it's cheesy to the nth, but if it's going to be cheesy, that's exactly how cheesy it ought to be.

Skyline's aliens don't make any bones about it. As in "V" or Independence Day, they quickly dominate the skyline. Beacons or tractor beams of blue light slurp up people starting from the brain and saving more incidental parts for last.

But there's a simple secret to avoiding those beams: don't look. However, this is not a spoiler, not looking at the beams is no guarantee of anything as the attack widens and spreads. This leads to one of the singularly worst lines in action movie history: "What are you gonna do when all the blinds fall down? It's not exactly like we have a lot more bedsheets!"

Lack of clean bedding aside, the film itself is a pretty clean hit. The people are mildly interesting to boring to stupid, as one might expect from a lot of Angelenos and their weekend guests.

When the people we get to see under attack aren't brooding, fighting or changing their minds every five minutes, their acting portrayals are pretty good. They don't let the fact that their characters are completely replaceable and useless keep them from taking it all seriously.

Eric Balfour is the lead human, and he's pretty good, sort of a hipster Errol Flynn in hell. Unfortunately, he's also the chief brooder, which undercuts his credibility a bit. Fortunately, character credibility is not the most necessary quality for this movie.

Skyline. Is it the greatest alien invasion film ever made? Not by a longshot. Is it fun, mostly suspenseful, funny, cheesy, campy and brutal? Yes. And that is, at least, good. The music is terrible.

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Review: Due Date (2010)

Todd Phillips's Due Date is funny, likable, intensely unlikable, silly, crass, stupid, disgusting, boring, moving, charming and totally inconsequential. If you miss it, don't worry, if you see it, you'll probably laugh.

Robert Downey, Jr., plays Peter Highman, an L.A. architect headed home for the birth of his first child. (It doesn't really matter that he's an architect. Architectural aplomb is not detected nor referred to much.) A Knight and Day-style baggage switch with Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galafianakis) at the airport leads to security questions and confusion, but those are resolved enough to get Highman on his plane.

And Tremblay. Galafianakis's Tremblay is a completely clueless character, headed to L.A. Nurse Betty-style to be an actor on his favorite t.v. show, that modern classic "Two and a Half Men." He's so clueless that some casual conversation with his new acquaintance pre-flight disturbs the other passengers and crew enough to get both Highman and Tremblay kicked off the plane and added to the no-fly list.

Now both are stranded, Highman without any money or i.d. Tremblay manages to rent a car and offers Highman a ride. At this point, or any subsequent point, we in the audience know that Highman should ditch troublemaker Tremblay immediately and run for the hills, but then again it's a buddy picture, and we haven't seen some of their scenes together we know from the previews, so of course we know they'll be stuck together a while longer.

Indeed, much of Downey's dialogue, when he lets up on insulting Tremblay, is devoted to explaining to various people they meet along the way exactly why he is stuck with Tremblay, and how much he would like this not to be the case. But Tremblay does not have similar qualms about Highman. Tremblay has lost his parents and has his father's ashes in a coffee can, Grown Ups-style, and despite frequent abuse from Highman, Tremblay develops a genuine affection for and attachment to Highman.

This is believable. And Downey and Galafianakis do have a good buddy chemistry overall, though events of the film frequently strain and threaten to topple it. And not always for laughs. Sometimes the picture just does not seem to have any direction. That tends to cut into the laughs rather than leading to much over-the-top, Hangover-style outrageousness.

There are funny and touching moments, and the film is pretty entertaining all the way through, with rough patches. Perhaps it was made too fast. Perhaps it was made with too little script, or directorial vision. While the flaws aren't fatal to enjoying the film, they do lend the audience a bit of the feeling Highman has toward Tremblay. Like, sometimes, "let's get this over with."

Juliette Lewis is pretty darn good and funny as a Craigslist friend of Tremblay's. Jamie Foxx plays a friend of Highman and his wife who rescues our buddies at an opportune moment. His character is mostly a device, however, and as such adds only necessary plot developments, and not much humor. Danny McBride is funnier as a patriotic Western Union employee who helps prove the point that just because Tremblay likes Highman, that won't prevent the storm of problems Tremblay attracts from flinging slings and arrows at Highman. The coffee scene is spoiled in the trailers, and by every other similar coffee scene we've ever seen. It has perfect timing, spoiled laughs.

If you're a big Galafianakis or Downey fan, you've probably already seen it. It's kind of fun. It kind of lacks tone and unifying ideas. It seems largely improvised, and perhaps with too little connection between the improvisations. It's not inoffensive, it just doesn't mean much, whether it's being gentle or frankly off-putting. Some more good writing or better care with the characters probably would have made it better. But it's mostly funny. It also adds more weight to the actors' dictum, sometimes attributed to W.C. Fields, "Never work with children or animals."

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Review: Morning Glory (2010)

Roger Michell's Morning Glory, with script by Aline Brosh McKenna, is a sweet, sunny confection with an okay story about perseverance and determination, a really nice eye for detail and (mostly) whistling past graveyards of cliché, and strong performances from Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, John Pankow, Patrick Wilson and Matt Malloy.

McAdams is great as Becky Fuller, a hard-working producer for a local morning show in New Jersey. This is close to her childhood dream of working for the "Today Show," and word that the top producer is leaving creates a reasonable expectation that she might be moving up and closer to her personal career goals.

That doesn't quite pan out, leaving her a bit devastated and definitely looking for work. There's little moral support from her mom (Patti D'Arbanville), but she doesn't lose heart. She takes her inspiration from within, from her late father and his encouragement, from her own skills and talents and her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of network television.

The news chief for "IBS" (surely the greatest fake-TV-network acronym in movie history), Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum, funny, intimidating), sees something in her, however (and the price is probably right), so he puts her in charge of reviving the network's long-running morning show, "Daybreak," hosted by Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton, great) and Paul McVee (Ty Burrell, deadpan and pretty funny), which is in the ratings basement.

Becky doesn't really go in with a plan. Indeed, when she arrives, all she knows is that things aren't working, but she's been preparing for this job for her whole life, and she's going to succeed, whatever the obstacles. She has some weaknesses, too, however--including her encyclopedic knowledge of network television and a tendency to remind veteran talent of her youth and lack of experience in the network bigtime by telling them on first meetings exactly how long she's been a fan.

One of her first decisions is to attempt to corral Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford, perfect for the part and in the part), a sort of curmudgeonly, semi-retired Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather character still under contract with IBS, but not really doing much work on the air, to co-host her revitalized "Daybreak." So she makes him an offer he can't refuse. Of course, there are still a lot of things he can refuse.

If Morning Glory were to be pigeonholed and analyzed strictly as a romantic comedy, the romance might have to be pinpointed as between Fuller and Pomeroy. McAdams and Ford have a feisty and entertaining chemistry which takes up much of the film, leaving less space for the romance which does take place between Fuller and Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson, very good), a fellow IBS news producer. Luckily, both relationships develop believably and with a great deal of simpatico.

The movie is full of little "silent movie" moments--when a few shots, actions, reactions, expressions bounce off of one another sharply without the need for dialogue to understand the flow. In fact, I'd say this is one of the defining features of the film, what keeps it moving intellectually and cinematically. And they don't just occur between major characters, but often give the spotlight, and more character development to minor characters as well. John Pankow as a fellow "Daybreak" producer and Matt Malloy as Ernie the weatherman are particular standouts. This movie is full of skilled, joyful filmmaking that looks and feels easier that it possibly could have been.

Morning Glory is light, but not without seriousness, a romantic comedy, media commentary and character study without getting bogged down with too many genre chestnuts, or boring, obligatory plot. It's funny, breezy, surprising, fairly realistic and a good time all around. It's Harrison Ford's best in years and further cements McAdams's movie stardom.

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Review: Megamind (2010)

Megamind isn't the best Will Ferrell movie of the year so far (The Other Guys is), but it is the best animated one. And it's a pretty good reversal of the usual superhero movie plot (and more specifically, the usual Superman plot) where the villain actually wins some and gets to rule the day.

Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) is a blue person who, along with Metro Man (voice of Brad Pitt), escaped the destruction of their sector of outer space in crafts resembling Superman's Krypton escape pod. Both, also like Superman, landed on Earth and grew up among its residents outside of Metro City. Metro Man, a hero-without-even-trying, does everything right and is conventionally handsome and popular.

Megamind, on the other hand, grows bitter over his rejection by his peers because of his intelligence, unique look and misguided, failed efforts to win them over. He just can't seem to help having his good efforts backfire. Finally, instead of continuing to try to steal the spotlight from Metro Man, Megamind realizes that his true path in life is to oppose the chosen hero and everything good he or anyone else may stand for. Thus is evil born from schoolyard realities and frustrations.

A quite interesting side story of fascism vs. freedom runs through the tale, but gets pretty short shrift. It works on the top level of the story and its developments, rather than on the character level where most of the action takes place, with Megamind, his sidekick, Minion (voiced by the excellent, very funny David Cross) (can we retire the name "Minion" already?), hard-charging Roxanne Ritchi (voice of Tina Fey, perfect), Metro Man's sort-of Lois Lane, and Hal, her cameraman-with-a-crush, who becomes known as "Tighten" (voiced well by Jonah Hill). But the questions of why Metro City needs a hero, a villain, huge totalitarian architecture, etc., are more interesting than fully explored in the film. Granted, it's sort of a useful comment just to have these larger questions ignored, a lot like we do in our own American politics these days.

The film is smart and funny, though. Little and big jokes with ace timing go off like firecrackers at regular intervals, keeping the film moving divertingly even as it skims the surface of a good deal of exploitable plot and parody material. Megamind himself is patently ridiculous, mispronouncing simple words--including "Metro City" as "Metrocity," to rhyme with "atrocity"--and the script and Ferrell's voicing are wonderfully silly enough to pull it off together.

Megamind's real troubles start when he does something no one ever expected him to do: he neutralizes Metro Man and takes over Metro City. Sadly, a life of regularly foiled crimes and prison time have left him bereft of actual contingency plans to implement following such a victory. He exults, then despairs, spends a lot of time in disguises trying to figure out his possible place in the life of the regular folks of Metro City, then hatches the brilliant but shortsighted plan of making a new Metro Man-class hero to fight against, to make things more like they were "before."

The fetishism of evil and self-sabotage Megamind displays, both consciously and not, uses some more grown-up themes than one might expect from a PG kids movie. On the other hand, they're instantly relatable to kids, as well, really to anyone who's ever seen or experienced any part of any kind of bullying. It doesn't go too far over the top, in fact it's handled humorously and mostly successfully, and its resolution makes sense.

There is a level of (admittedly cartoon) violence which is funny and appropriate to the story, but perhaps not to a PG rating, which is what this film was given. It probably should have been PG-13. But maybe kids as young as nine or ten, or younger depending on their level of media maturity, would not be bothered by it. I can say I witnessed young children at the screening I attended being bothered by it, and heard them on the way out of the theater complaining that it was too scary.

Megamind is visually smart, character-smart and wry, it's fun and action-packed and it makes good use of its 3-D format. The vocal performances are all quite outstanding. As a superhero, animation and comedy fan, I was very entertained for most of the time. It's not quite as good or bright as this year's similar Despicable Me (still playing in San Diego, and perhaps near you), but still, kudos all around. I'd watch it again.

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Pence leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for October

Rep. Mike Pence (IN) led October voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

October 2010

#1 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 20.3%
#2 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 18.4%
#3 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 17.7%
#4 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 16.5%
#5 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 7.6%
#6 - Other ... 7%
#7 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 5.7%
#8 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 3.8%
#9 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 1.9%
#10 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... .6%
#10 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... .6%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 0%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%

158 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

Sen. / Gov.-Elect Sam Brownback (KS) and Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) have joined the poll starting this month, so we'll see how they do.

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

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