“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

 

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

I am probably the last person on this earth who would associate Angelina Jolie with a Disney film, let alone one made for children. Then again, I have never seen Jolie in another movie like her recent film, “MALEFICENT”.

Despite some adult themes found in this new film, I honestly believe that “MALEFICENT” is basically a movie for children. It is not just based upon Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, but also the Disney Studios’ 1959 animated adaptation, “SLEEPING BEAUTY”. Only this film is told with a twist. Some would say with a feminist twist. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay features the story’s main villainess, the evil and vindictive fairy, Maleficent, as the movie’s main protagonist. The film begins with Maleficent as a young and powerful fairy who serves as the main protector of a fairy realm called Moors that borders a human kingdom ruled by ruthless monarch named King Henry, who covets it. Maleficent befriends a young boy named Stefan, who works as a kitchen servant for the king.

The years pass as Maleficent and Stefan’s friendship grows to something close to a romance. But King Henry’s latest attempt to invade Moors leads him to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage and his kingdom to the man able to kill Maleficent. Ambitious and longing to rise above his station, Stefan sets out to collect the bounty on his old friend. Unable to kill her because of their friendship, Stefan drugs Maleficent and burns her wings off with iron (a substance lethal to fairies) and presents the latter to King Henry as proof of her death. Stefan eventually marries King Henry’s daughter, Princess Leila, and eventually assumes the throne following his father-in-law’s death. When Maleficent learns about the birth of Stefan and Leila’s infant daughter, Aurora, she appears uninvited at the christening and places a curse on the infant princess. On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep. After Stefan is forced by Maleficent to beg for his daughter, she alters the curse with the addition that it can be broken by true love’s kiss. Stefan arranges for Aurora to be raised by three pixie fairies – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. And despite her initial dislike of Aurora, Maleficent begins to secretly care about the girl, when the neglectful pixie fairies fail to take properly care of her.

There is a good number of elements for “MALEFICENT” that I found very admirable. I believe it is one of the more visually stunning films I have seen in recent years. A great deal of credit has to go to Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman’s production designs. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing medieval life . . . at least in a fantasy world. Dean Semler’s photography of parts of rural England, which served as King Stefan’s realm, added to the movie’s visual style. But the work from the special effects team, especially for creation of the fairy realm and other sequences that featured magic, truly enhanced the movie’s visual style. I also have to add a word about Anna B. Sheppard’s costume designs for the film. I could wax lyrical on how beautiful they looked. But there are times when I believe that images can speak louder than words:

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I will not claim that Sheppard’s costumes are an accurate reflection of medieval fashion. But . . . hey! I cannot deny that I found them beautiful.

As for the plot for “MALEFICENT”, I cannot deny that it proved to be something of a conundrum for me. Woolverton’s screenplay and Robert Stromberg’s direction clearly seemed to hint that it is basically a movie for children. The dialogue, the movie’s style of humor and especially its use of the three fairy sisters as the movie’s comic relief practically screams “Kiddie Film” to me. And yet . . . Woolverton’s screenplay also featured elements that seemed to indicate a movie with strong adult themes. The most obvious element proved to be the theft of Maleficent’s wings. Unless I am mistaken, the entire scene struck me as a metaphor for rape. Think about it. Stefan drugs Maleficent (a stand-in for any rape drug) to knock her unconscious. Using iron – an indication of violence – he physically violates her by burning off her wings. The relationship that develops between Maleficent and Aurora not only proved to be unexpected, but is given a feminist twist. Aside from Maleficent’s relationship with her aide Diaval, a raven whom she had saved by transforming him into a human; the male-female relationships in this movie proved to be either ineffective or disastrous. Even the use of “True Love’s Kiss” had a twist I had failed to foresee . . . until several minutes before it actually occurred.

There have been other productions – both television and film – that mixed elements of children’s stories and adult themes. ABC Television’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” seemed to use a great deal of adult themes in its twist on fairy tales. Yet, the series continues to maintain some semblance of childlike morality in its portrayal of magic. J.K. Rowling’s “HARRY POTTER” literary (and film adaptations) series becomes increasingly ambiguous as the saga progresses. And aside from the first film, George Lucas’ “STAR WARS” film saga strikes me as a case study of moral ambiguity with touches of humor and characterizations for children. But these science-fiction/fantasy sagas seem capable of balancing humor and storytelling for children with adult themes.

I cannot say the same about “MALEFICENT”. The movie’s childish humor – courtesy of the three fairy sisters – struck me as heavy-handed and not at all funny. I also believe the movie’s 97-minute running time made it difficult for Woolverton’s script to maintain that balance between children and adult themes. More importantly, the movie’s running time forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the story forward at a unnecessarily fast pace, especially during the movie’s last half hour. Other aspects of the plot – Maleficent’s background, her relationships with both Stefan and Diaval, and especially her developing relationship with Aurora. But there are two aspects that struck me as rushed – namely Aurora’s relationship with the fairy sisters (which barely seemed to exist) and the last half hour in which the sleeping curse is played out. I cannot help but wonder if Disney’s penchant for cinematic penny-pinching forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the movie’s climatic act.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Angelina Jolie was outstanding as the movie’s protagonist, the fairy Maleficent. Being the top-notch actress that she is, Jolie effortlessly captured every nuance of Maleficent’s character – both the good and the bad. I have been a great admirer of Sharlto Copley in the past – with the exception of his villainous turn in the 2013 sci-fi movie, “ELYSIUM”. Thankfully, his complex portrayal of this movie’s villain, King Stefan, reminded me of his skill at portraying complex roles. At first, Elle Fanning seemed to be stuck with a role that struck me very sweet, kind . . . and boring. Fortunately for her, the Princess Aurora character became more interesting in the movie’s second half and Fanning got the chance to show off her acting chops – especially in the scene in which Aurora confronts Maleficent about the curse.

The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Riley as Maleficent’s confidant Diaval, Kenneth Cranham as King Henry and Hannah New as Queen Leila. I have been longtime fans of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. But I have to be honest – I was not that impressed by their portrayals of the three fairy sisters. It was quite obvious to me that Staunton, Manville and Temple did their best to make the three sisters – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit – interesting. Nor can I accuse them of bad acting. They were obviously giving it their all. There are times when external forces have a way of affecting an actor or actress’ performance, whether due to bad direction or bad writing. In the case of the three actresses who portrayed Aurora’s fairy guardians, I suspect their performances were sabotaged by Linda Woolverton’s writing. The screenwriter’s sense of humor struck me as subtle as a stampeding buffalo. I also believe that her screenplay may have hampered Brenton Thwaites’ performance as Prince Philip. How can I put it? Thwaites gave a bland and boring performance, because he was forced to portrayed a bland and boring character. The 1959 animated version of the prince had more zing than this latest version. And I blame Woolverton’s screenplay, not the actor.

Do not get me wrong. I rather liked “MALEFICENT”. I found it to be a visually stunning film with some strong moral ambiguity in its plot and in some of the major characters, and a solid cast led by outstanding performances from Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley. I also enjoyed the feminist twist on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale. But due to some flawed characterizations and a failure to balance both the children and adult theme in its plot, I can honestly say that I did not love “MALEFICENT”.

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

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“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

There have been a great deal of movies, plays and television productions about four of the five former Cambridge University students who became spies for the Soviet Union. One of the more recent productions turned out to be BBC’s four-part television miniseries called “CAMBRIDGE SPIES”

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” followed the lives of these four men between the years of 1934 and 1951, when two of them defected to the Soviet Union for good. The fifth man, John Caincross, merely served as a supporting character in this production. The more famous four include the following:

*Anthony Blunt
*Guy Burgess
*Harold “Kim” Philby
*Donald Maclean

The story begins somewhere in the early-to-mid 1930s with our four protagonists serving as instructors or students at Cambridge University. During their time at Cambridge, all four men openly express their radical views in various incidents that include defending a female Jewish student from harassment by elitist and pro-Fascist students like the one portrayed by actor Simon Woods, and supporting a temporary strike by the mess hall waiters. During this time, both Blunt and Burgess have already been recruited by the Soviet Union’s KGB. And the two set out to recruit the other two – Philby and Maclean. By the end of the 1930s, the quartet have ceased expressing their radical views out in the open and go out of their ways to show their support of both the British establishment and any support of the Fascist regimes in other parts of Europe. When World War II breaks out, all four have become fully employed with either MI-5 or MI-6 and full time moles for the KBG.

When “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” first hit the television sets in Britain, there were a good deal of negative reaction – mainly from the right – toward a production that portrayed the Cambridge Five (or Four) in a sympathetic light. Others also pointed out that the miniseries failed to give a completely accurate of the four men’s lives. I had no problem with the miniseries’ sympathetic portrayal of the four men. After all, this is their story. Since the story is told from their point of view, it would not make sense to portray them as one-dimensional villains. And despite the sympathetic portrayal, the personal flaws of all four are revealed in the story. The criticisms of historical inaccuracy are correct. Why is that a surprise? Since when has historical fiction of any kind – a movie, television production, play, novel or even a painting – has been historically accurate. In fact, historical accuracy is pretty rare in fiction. As I have pointed out in numerous past articles, the story always comes first – even if historical facts get in the way.

There are some aspects of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” I found a bit off putting. I wish the story had ended with “Kim” Philby’s defection in 1963, instead of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess’ defection in 1951. I feel that an ending in the early 1960s could have given the production more of a final note. Also during 1963, Burgess died from complication of alcoholism. And less than a year later, Blunt finally confessed to British authorities of being a KGB mole. Another aspect of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” that struck me as unpleasant was the anti-American sentiment that seemed to taint the production. I am aware that many left-wing Europeans like the main characters harbored a deep dislike of Americans. In fact, this sentiment has remained firmly intact even to this day. But I noticed that the script seemed to be filled with ugly generalizations about Americans that are rarely, if never, defended by American characters such as Melinda Marling Maclean and James Jesus Angleton. There is one scene between Maclean and his future wife Melinda in which the former explained why he disliked Americans to the latter:

Donald: I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?

I am not claiming that Maclean’s criticisms of America – back then and today – were off. My problem is that he had also described what was wrong with Britain then and now – including its citizens’ mispronunciation and mutilation of good English words. And the script never allowed Melinda to point this out. Or perhaps this was screenwriter Peter Moffat’s way of stating that even those with liberal or radical views can be diehard bigots toward a certain group. I also learned that Moffat created certain scenes to make his protagonists look even more sympathetic. The worst, in my opinion, was the sequence that featured Kim Philby’s decision on whether or not to kill the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the KGB’s orders. I found this scene completely unnecessary and rather amateurish, if I must be brutally frank.

However, the virtues in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” outweighed the flaws. Moffat, along with director Tim Fywell and the movie’s cast and crew did a stupendous job in re-creating Britain, parts of Europe and the United States during the twenty-year period between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the miniseries’ production in Episode Two that covered the four protagonists’ incursion into Britain’s diplomatic and intelligent services during the late 1930s. Production designer Mike Gunn, along with cinematographer David Higgs re-created Great Britain during this period with great detail. Charlotte Walter had the difficult task of providing the cast with costumes for a period that spans nearly twenty years. I cannot say that I found her costumes particularly exceptional, but I have to give her kudos for being accurate or nearly accurate with the period’s fashions.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with most of the production’s sympathetic portrayals of the four leads. After all, they are human. Portraying them as one-note villains because of their political beliefs and actions, strikes me as bad storytelling. I can honestly say that “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” is not the product of bad storytelling. I feel that it was an excellent production that led me to investigate further into the true lives of these men. Also, one has to remember that the four men – Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean – were human beings with their own set of virtue and flaws. Some of their flaws and beliefs led them to make an incredibly bad decision – namely spy on their country on behalf of another. Some accused the production of glamorizing four men who had betrayed their country. That is an accusation I cannot agree. All four men came from privileged backgrounds. It is only natural that the miniseries would express the glamour of their origins.

Mind you, the series could have revealed more of the suffering that Britain’s working-class experienced that led the four men into becoming radicals. But what “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” truly excelled was the emotional consequences that they experienced for betraying their country. The miniseries was packed with scenes that included Philby’s aborted romance with Litzi Friedmann and his growing cold-blooded actions against anyone who was a threat to his identity; Burgess’ increasing inability to repress his distaste against the British establishment, their American allies and his alcoholism; and Maclean’s insecurities and struggling marriage with American Melinda Marling. Of the four, Blunt seemed to be the only one holding up under the pressures of being a Soviet mole . . . except when dealing with Burgess’ embarrassing outbursts and Maclean’s insecurities. No wonder he was happy for Philby to handle the two when he finally resigned from MI-5 to work as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures on behalf of the Royal Family. One could complain about the miniseries’ historical inaccuracy. But I can never agree that their careers as moles for the KBG were glamorized.

The miniseries featured some solid performances from the likes of James Fox as British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Anthony Andrews as King George VI, Patrick Kennedy as Julian Bell, Benedict Cumberbatch as a young British journalist in Spain, Lisa Dillon as Litzi Friedmann and Simon Woods as the bigoted Cambridge student Charlie Givens. I have mixed feelings about John Light’s performance as CIA agent James Angleton. I thought he did a good job in capturing Angleton’s intensity and intelligence. However, his Angleton still came off as the typical cliched American male found in most British productions – gauche and loud. There were two supporting performances that really impressed me. One came from Imelda Staunton, who gave a witty performance as Blunt’s distant cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). The other supporting performance that impressed me was Anna-Louise Plowman, who superbly portrayed Donald Maclean’s witty and passionate American wife Melinda Marling.

However, our four leads did the real work in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” and carried the miniseries beautifully. Toby Stephens did an excellent job in conveying Kim Philby’s emotional journey from the womanizing, yet naive university radical who slowly becomes a cold-blooded, yet weary Cold War spy. Samuel West gave a sophisticated, yet tough performance as the cool-headed Anthony Blunt. Tom Hollander had garnered most of the praise for his vibrant performance as the emotional and unreliable Guy Burgess. However, there were times I found his performance a little too showy for my tastes. Personally, I feel that the most interesting performance came from Rupert Penry-Jones as the youngest of the four moles, Donald Maclean. Penry-Jones did such a superb job in portraying Maclean’s insecure and emotional nature, there were times I wondered how the man managed to be such a successful mole for over a decade.

Yes, “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” has its flaws. Even some of the best movie and television productions have flaws. And after viewing the miniseries, I cannot agree with this view that the actions of the four traitors – Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean – were glamorized. But it is a first-rate production with a detailed glimpse of European politics and diplomacy from the 1930s to 1951. Thanks to a well-written script by Peter Moffat; an excellent cast led by Toby Stephens, Samuel West, Tom Hollander and Rupert Penry-Jones; and first-rate direction by Tim Fywell; “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” proved to be one of the best dramas about the Cambridge KGB moles I have seen on the big or small screens.

FRANCHISE RANKING: The “HARRY POTTER” Movies

Below is my ranking of the eight movies in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise, based upon J.K. Rowling novels:

FRANCHISE RANKING: The “HARRY POTTER” Movies

1. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) – During his third year at Hogswarts, Harry becomes acquainted with creatures called the dementors and a past mystery regarding his parents and an escaped prisoner by the name of Sirius Black. Alfonso Cuarón directed.

2. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I” (2010) – In this first half adaptation of Rowling’s final novel, Harry and his friends begin their search of the Horcruxes, objects that contain parts of Lord Voldemort’s soul. They are also forced to evade the evil wizard’s forces as the latter assume control of the wizarding world. David Yates directed.

3. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007) – David Yates directed his first HARRY POTTER movie in which Harry Potter and his friends deal with the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge. They also become acquainted with the Order of the Phoenix, an old organization revived to deal with the new threat of Lord Voldemort.

4. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) – Harry Potter returns to Hogswarts for his second year, when the school is beset by a strange monster with a link to the school’s Chamber of Secrets. Directed by Chris Columbus.

5. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone” (2001) – Harry Potter is introduced into the world of magic for the first time as he enters the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Chris Columbus directed.

6. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009) – During Harry’s sixth year at Hogswarts, he is assigned to discovered the deep secret of the new Potions teacher and stumbles across a mysterious Potions book labeled the property of the Half-Blood Prince. Romance also fills the air. David Yates directed.

7. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II” (2011) – In this continuation of “THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART I”, the three heroes, along with the staff and students of Hogswarts have their final confrontation with Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Directed by David Yates.

8. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005) – Harry is manipulated into participating in the Triwizard Tournament as a last minute contestant. Mike Newell directed.

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

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“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

Due to the success of the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, the BBC aired a two-part sequel called “RETURN TO CRANFORD” (also known as the “CRANFORD CHRISTMAS SPECIAL”), some two years later. Like the original miniseries, it was adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis. 

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” was based on material from Elizabeth Gaskell’s two novellas and a short story – “Cranford”,“The Mooreland Cottage”, and “The Cage at Cranford”, were all published between 1849 and 1863. Also, themes from“My Lady Ludlow”“Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”, and “The Last Generation in England” were included to provide continuity with the first miniseries. The new miniseries took place between August and December 1844. The citizens of Cranford find themselves facing major changes in their society, as the railroad continues to be constructed near the edge of town. In fact, I was surprised to learn that a great deal of the story surrounding the new railroad was not in any of Gaskell’s novellas and short story. Only the storylines featuring about Mrs. Jameson’s (Barbara Flynn) cousin, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) and Captain Brown (Jim Carter), Miss Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) Parisian “cage” for her pet cockatoo, and a magician named Signor Brunoni (Tim Curry) putting on a show came from Gaskell’s works.

I have to be frank. It did not bother me that most of the material featured in the miniseries did not come from any of Gaskell’s novellas and short stories. Thanks to some decent writing by Heidi Thomas, I believe that it all worked out fine. Unlike the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, the screenplay for “RETURN TO CRANFORD” seemed tighter and more focused. In fact, I noticed that the majority of major storylines featured in the miniseries have ties to the main story about the railroad’s construction. Because of this, “RETURN TO CRANFORD” avoided the episodic style of storytelling that I believe marred “CRANFORD”. My favorite storyline featured the budding romance between two newcomers to the town of Cranford – William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston), the Eton-educated son of a salt baron (Jonathan Pryce) and Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker), the daughter of a less-affluent widow (Lesley Sharp). Mr. Buxton wants William to marry his ward, the Brussels-educated Erminia (Michelle Dockery). But neither are interested in each other. And Peggy has to deal with her ambitious and greedy brother, Edward (Matthew McNulty), who dislikes William. What I liked best about“RETURN TO CRANFORD” was that most of the storylines were tied to the new rail line being constructed near Cranford – even the William/Peggy romance.

As much as I hate to admit it, “RETURN TO CRANFORD” had its problems. Another storyline featured the problematic pregnancy suffered by Miss Matty’s maid, Martha Hearne (Claudie Blakley). The problem arose, due to the lack of doctors in Cranford. And I found this confusing. The 2007 miniseries ended with two doctors residing in the town – the recently married Dr. Frank Harrison and longtime resident Dr. Morgan. A year later, both no longer resided in Cranford and Heidi Thomas’ script never revealed their whereabouts or fate. Thomas’ real misstep featured the death of LadyLudlow (Francesca Annis) and the arrival of her ne’er-do-well son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear). The latter’s attempt to cheat young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) out of the money he had inherited from the late Mr. Carter was a poorly conceived and written storyline. And despite the built-up, it failed to have any real impact upon the Harry Gregson character, due to its vague ending. As much as I found Signor Brunoni’s Christmas show rather charming, I thought it also reeked of a sentimentality that made my teeth hurt. Especially when Miss Matty’s reunion with Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) and his daughter entered the picture.

The production design for “RETURN TO CRANFORD” was top notch as ever. And Alison Beard’s supervision of the costumes proved to be just as first-rate as Jenny Beavan’s work in the 2007 miniseries. The cast continued its first-rate work from the previous miniseries – especially Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns, Imelda Staunton as town gossip Octavia Poole, Francesca Annis as the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, Emma Fielding as her assistant Laurentia Galindo, Alex Etel as Harry Gregson, Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Forrester, Jim Carter as Mr. Brown, Alex Jennings as the Reverend Hutton and Barbara Flynn as the pretentious Mrs. Jamieson. But the newcomers that impressed were Tom Huddleston as William Buxton, Jonathan Pryce as the tyrannical Mr. Buxton, Jodie Whittaker as Peggy Bell, Celia Imrie as the earthy Lady Glemire and Tim Curry as the warm-hearted magician Signor Brunoni.

For a while, I had been reluctant to watch “RETURN TO CRANFORD”. Because it was a sequel to the 2007 miniseries, I figured that it could never be as good as “CRANFORD”. I was wrong. I do not know if I would consider it better than the first miniseries. But the latter is certainly not better than the sequel. And ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” does have one major advantage . . . namely Heidi Thomas’ screenplay turned out to be more tightly written, due to her decision not to use much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s material. Personally, I find that rather ironic.

“HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I” (2010) Review

“HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I” (2010) Review

I have been a major fan of J.K. Rowling’s ”HARRY POTTER” novels as much as the next person. But I would have never become a fan if it had not been for the movie adaptations of the novels. Mind you, I have not harbored a high opinion of all the movie adaptations. It has been a mixed bag for me over the past nine years. Of the seven movies that were made, I have a high opinion of at least four of them. And the most recent movie – ”HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I” – happened to be one of them. 

I never thought I would think highly of ”HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I”. When I had heard that Warner Brothers planned to split Rowling’s seventh novel into two movies, I did not think it was a good idea. And I felt it was an attempt by the studio to get as much profit from Rowling’s saga as much as possible. Being a steady fan of the franchise, I went ahead and saw . . . and thanked my lucky stars that the movie had not been shot in the 3-D process. Not only did I develop a high opinion of ”HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I”, I fell in love with it. Considering the number of complaints I have heard about the movie, I suspect that many would be surprised by my opinion. But I did. I fell in love with that movie. And considering the detailed nature of Rowling’s novel, the decision to make two movies from it may have done justice to Steve Kloves’ screenplay.

Directed by David Yates, ”HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I” told the story of Harry Potter and his two close friends – Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger – and their efforts to elude Lord Voldemort and his Deatheasters throughout Britain, after the latter assumed control of the wizarding world following Albus Dumbledore’s death in ”HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE”. Not only did Harry, Ron and Hermione do their best to elude Voldemort and the Deatheaters; they had to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes – objects or receptacles in which Voldemort had hidden parts of his soul for the purposes of attaining immortality. Harry had destroyed Voldemort’s school diary in ”CHAMBER OF SECRETS”. And before the start of ”HALF-BLOOD PRINCE”, Professor Dumbledore had destroyed another – Marvolo Gaunt’s ring. There remained five horcruxes for the trio to find and destroy. But as fugitives within Britain’s wizarding world, their task proved to be difficult.

As I had stated earlier, I ended up falling in love with ”THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I”. But this feeling did not blind me to its flaws. And it had a few. One, what happened to Dean Thomas? For the first time in the saga’s history, he had a bigger role. At least in the novel. He failed to make an appearance in this adaptation. Mind you, his lack of presence did not harm the story. But it would have been nice for Harry, Ron and Hermione to encounter at least one fellow Hogswarts student (other than Luna) during their adventures. And poor Dean Thomas had been sadly underused since the first movie. Two, I wish that director David Yates and editor Mark Day had chopped some of the scenes featuring the Trio’s ”Winter of Discontent”. I could understand that the three friends would endure a great deal of despair over their situation and the state of the wizarding world. However . . . was it really that necessary to endure so many shots of Harry, Ron and Hermione staring into space, looking depressed? These scenes nearly bogged down the movie’s middle section. The Dursleys barely made a presence in this movie. Worse, Kloves had decided to delete Harry and Dudley’s goodwill good-bye. Who became the new owner of Sirius Black’s home, Number 12 Grimmauld Place, following his death? Since ”THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE” movie failed to clear the issue, I had hoped this movie would. It never did. I had also hoped that ”THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I” would clear reveal the identities of the two other horcruxes that were revealed in the sixth novel – Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup and Rowena Ravenclaw’s Diadem. The only thing that Kloves’ script did was mention that the Trio did not know about the cup, the diadem and two other horcruxes.

Despite these annoyances, I still love ”THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I”. The only HARRY POTTER movie that I love more is 2004’s ”HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN”. There had been complaints of the movie’s dark tone. Personally, this did not bother me one bit. In fact, I reveled in the story’s darkness. Other HARRY POTTER have ended on a dark note. But the story’s dark tone was not only well handled in Rowling’s novel, but also in Kloves’ script. Why? Because it suited the story. Aside from the ”Winter of Discontent” sequence, the rest of the pacing for ”THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I” was well handled by Yates and Kloves. The movie also featured some outstanding sequences. Among my favorite were the following:

*Lord Voldemort’s murder of Charity Burbage at the Malfoy Manor.

*The Order of the Phoenix escort Harry to the Weasleys’ home, the Burrows.

*Harry, Ron and Hermione’s escape from Bill and Fleur’s wedding at the Burrows to London.

*The attack upon the Trio by two Death Eaters at a London café.

*The Trio steal Salazar Slytherin’s locket from Dolores Umbridge at the Ministry of Magic.

*Ron’s departure from Harry and Hermione, following a vicious quarrel between him and Harry.

*Harry and Hermione’s narrow escape from Godric’s Hollow.

*Ron’s reunion with Harry and Hermione and his destruction of Salazar Slytherin’s locket (a horcrux).

*Xenophilius Lovegood’s (and Hermione’s) narration of Peverell brothers and the Deathly Hallows.

*Dobby’s rescue of the Trio, Luna Lovegood and Mr. Ollivander from the Malfoy Manor.

Of the above scenes, at least three of them stood out for me. One of those scenes was the quarrel that broke out between Harry and Ron during the ”Winter of Discontent”. I found it ugly, brutal and emotional, thanks to the performances of the three leads. They really made this scene worked and for the first time; it occurred to me that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson had really grown in their skills as actors. Hell, in this scene, they gave the best performances in the movie. Another scene that really stood out was Xenophilius Lovegood’s narration of the bleak tale regarding the Peverell brothers and the three Deathly Hallows (the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Cloak of Invisibility). What made this sequence unique was that it was shown via some visually stunning animations designed and directed by Ben Hibon. But the one scene that really impressed me was the Ministry of Magic sequence that featured the Trio’s retrieval of Salazar Slytherin’s locket from the odious Dolores Umbridge (now head of the Muggle-Born Registration Commission). From the moment that Harry, Ron and Hermione used Polyjuice Potion to transform into three workers from the Ministry of Magic (Sophie Thompson, David O’Hara and Steffan Rhodri), until their escape via apparition; the entire scene was a fabulous ride filled with tension, humor, chaos and adventure. I would rate it as one of the best sequences in the entire saga.

I had already commented on the marvel of the three leads’ performances. For once, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson were the ones to give the most outstanding performances; instead of a supporting cast member. But there were other excellent performances. One came from Tom Felton, who continued his ambiguous portrayal of Hogswarts student Draco Malfoy that began in ”THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE”. Another came from Ralph Fiennes, who gave a better performance as Lord Voldemort – especially in the opening sequence at Malfoy Manor – than he did in both ”THE GOBLET OF FIRE” and”THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”. In fact, I could say the same about Helena Bonham-Carter, who seemed less over-the-top and a lot scarier than she was in her previous appearances. Rhys Ifan was deliciously entertaining as Luna Lovegood’s equally eccentric father, Xenophilius. And I have to give kudos to Sophie Thompson, David O’Hara and Steffan Rhodri did a great job in conveying their adolescent characters (Hermione, Harry and Ron) through body language – especially since the three leads added their voices. And in his few scenes, Alan Rickman was his usual superb self as the enigmatic Severus Snape. A good example of how ambiguous he could be can be seen in the sequence featuring the death of an old friend of Snape’s – Charity Burbage. All you have to do is look at Rickman’s eyes and face.

Considering that this tale has no choice but to end happily in ”THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part II”, I could assume that”Part I” might prove to be the darkest movie in the HARRY POTTER. On the other hand, Yates and Kloves might prove me wrong. But despite a few flaws, I believe that ”HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – Part I” is one of the best movies in the franchise. I have not truly enjoyed a HARRY POTTER this much since ”THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN”. And I can thank director David Yates, screenwriter Steve Kloves; and the three leads – Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. Excellent job, guys. Excellent job.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1995) Review

Below is my review of the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility”

 

”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1995) Review

The year 1995 saw the beginning of an onslaught of Britain and the United States’ love affair with British author, Jane Austen. A love affair that has not abated after fourteen (14) years. In 1995, the BBC aired Andrew Davies’ miniseries adaptation of Austen’s most famous novel, ”Pride and Prejudice”. And later that year, Hollywood released its adaptation of another Austen,”Sense and Sensibility” – which I had just recently watched.
Directed by Ang Lee, ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”, starred Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay), Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. The story centered around Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Winslet), two daughters of Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) by his second wife (Gemma Jones). They have a younger sister, Margaret (Emilie François), and an older half-brother named John (James Fleet). When their father dies, the family estate passes to John, and the Dashwood women are left in reduced circumstances. The story follows the Dashwood sisters to their new home, a cottage on a distant relative’s property (Robert Hardy), where they experience both romance and heartbreak. The contrast between the quiet and sensible Elinor and the extroverted and occasionally impetuous Marianne is eventually resolved as each sister finds love and lasting happiness. This leads some to believe that the story’s title described how Elinor and Marianne find a balance between sense and sensibility in life and love.

Producer Lindsay Doran made an excellent choice in selecting Lee to direct the film. First of all, he drew some excellent performances from his cast – especially from Thompson, Winslet, and Rickman. Lee also effectively drew film goers back into Regency England without allowing the film to resemble some kind of stiff painting or a museum piece. Although he initially had trouble with dealing with Western-style of film making – especially in dealing with British cast members who questioned his direction and made suggestions regarding shots. He could be rather authoritarian with the cast, especially with Hugh Grant. The actor ended up calling him ”the Brute” behind his back. But he and the cast eventually got used to each other. Lee was also responsible for insisting that Thompson play the oldest Dashwood sister. And he Lee ordered Winslet to read poetry and novels from the late 18th century and early 19th century in order to get her to connect to Marianne’s romantic nature. And to give the movie its emotional core, he asked both Thompson and Winslet to room together during production. The two actresses remain close friends to this day.

Not only was Lee ably assisted by his superb cast, but also by crew members such as costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, production designer Luciana Arrighi, set decorator Ian Whittaker, art directors Philip Elton and Andrew Sanders; and cinematographer Michael Coulter, whose photography beautifully captured the English countryside in all of its glory. I especially have to give kudos to Coulter’s photography and Arrighi’s production design for a beautiful re-creation of Regency London. I also enjoyed composer Patrick Doyle’s score for the film. His use of John Dowland’s song, “Weep You No More Sad Fountains” as Marianne’s own theme song struck me as very impressive. But I have to especially give kudos to Emma Thompson for her marvelous adaptation of Austen’s novel. It may not have adhered exactly to the novel, but I found it well written, lively and paced just right.

With the exception of two performances, I felt more than impressed with the cast. When Ang Lee had signed on as the movie’s director, he immediately suggested that Emma Thompson portray the oldest Dashwood sister, Elinor. Thompson considered herself too old for the role, considering that Elinor was at least 19-20 years old in the novel. But Lee suggested that she increase Elinor’s age to 27 in the screenplay, which would also make her distress at being a spinster easier for contemporary audiences to understand. Frankly, I feel that Lee made a good choice. Emma Thompson gave a superb performance as Elinor Dashwood, whose practical mind led her to act as the family’s de facto leader, following her father’s death. She also brilliantly conveyed Elinor’s emotional nature behind a mask of reticence via her eyes and various expressions. Kate Winslet had no need to be subtle as the more openly emotional Marianne Dashwood. Winslet was at least 20 years old when she filmed ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY’. Yet, even at that tender age, Winslet proved that she had the talent and acting chops to portray the very complex Marianne. I found it ironic that although her character was not what I would describe as subtle. And yet, Winslet managed to convey all aspects of Marianne’s personality – romantic, willful, emotional and sometimes a bit self-involved.

I found Alan Rickman impressive as one of the Dashwoods’ new neighbors, the quiet and dependable Colonel Christopher Brandon. I enjoyed the subtle manner in which Rickman expressed Brandon’s reluctance in expressing his love for Marianne, due to her feelings for another man. That other man proved to Greg Wise, who gave a surprisingly effective performance as the dashing, yet rakish Edward Willoughby. Wise has never struck me as an exceptional actor, but I must admit that I consider Willoughby to be one of his two best performances. The movie’s supporting cast also included Robert Hardy and the late Elizabeth Spriggs, who gave amusing performances as Sir John Middleton, the Dashwoods’ cousin and benefactor; and Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law. Gemma Jones was excellent as the emotional and sometimes girlish mother of the Dashwood sisters. I was also impressed by Harriet Walter, who portrayed the sisters’ shrewish sister-in-law, Fanny Dashwood. And Hugh Laurie gave a hilarious performance as the sardonic and long-suffering Mr. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’ other son-in-law. And I must say that Imogen Stubbs also impressed me by her subtle performance as the cunning and manipulative Lucy Steele, who seemed to have a claim for the same man that Elinor Dashwood longs for.

Speaking of Elinor Dashwood’s love, I finally come to the two performances that had failed to impress me. One of them belonged to Hugh Grant. He portrayed Edward Ferrars, one of Fanny Dashwood’s brothers that happened to be in love with Elinor and is claimed by the manipulative Lucy Steele as her fiancé. Remember his charming, yet modest performance in the hit 1994 comedy, ”FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL”? Well, his Edward Ferrars turned out to be an early 19th century version of his ”FOUR WEDDINGS” role. Grant simply gave the same performance, but with more stuttering and less charm. What had been fresh and original in 1994, ended up as old news a year later in ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Another performance that did nothing for me belonged to Imelda Staunton. She portrayed Charlotte Jennings Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’ daughter and Mr. Palmer’s wife. I realize that she was supposed to be an annoying character, but one could say the same about Sir John and Mrs. Middleton. But whereas I found Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs’ performances amusing, Staunton’s slightly over-the-top portrayal of Charlotte Palmer ended up irritating the hell out of me.

I understand that Andrew Davies had produced his own version of the Austen novel, last year. Since I have yet to see it, I cannot compare it to the 1995 version, directed by Ang Lee. I do know that I am more than impressed with this particular version. It came as no surprise to me that it earned seven (7) Academy Award nominations and won one (1) for Thompson’s Adapted Screenplay. ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” is one movie I could watch over again without ever getting tired of it.

“HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX” (2007) Review

“HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX” (2007) Review

I usually try to avoid reading reviews of movies I am interested in seeing in the near future. Instead of relying on the opinions of others, I prefer to form my own opinions. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I could not help but read several reviews and opinions on the fifth cinematic release from the HARRY POTTER franchise – namely “THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”. Mind you, the story was never my favorite HARRY POTTER novel, but after the near travesty (okay, perhaps that description is a bit exaggerated) . . . after the slight disappointment of 2005’s “GOBLET OF FIRE”, I could not help but wonder this particular movie would fare. After all, the novel was longer than even the fourth entry. Fortunately, my fears proved groundless and “THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX” has become my second favorite HARRY POTTER movie.

Before I begin to wax lyrical over the movie, I need to point out what I consider to be flaws in the movie. My sister had informed me that the producers of the HARRY POTTER movies had originally intended Mike Newell – director of “GOBLET OF FIRE” – to helm the fifth movie. Somehow those plans fell through (thank the Lord above) and they found themselves scrambling for a new director before production was scheduled to begin. They eventually settled upon UK television director, David Yates. I must say that for his first theatrical production, Yates did an excellent job. But there is one aspect in which his years in television did the movie a disservice was the pacing. Quite frankly, I found the pacing a bit rushed. The movie felt more like it had a running time of at least 100 or 110 minutes, instead of a movie over two hours long.
I also had a few other problems with the movie. One of them happened to be Evanna Lynch, who portrayed the eccentric Hogswart student – Luna Lovegood. Before I receive accusations of sacrilege, please hear me out. Ms. Lynch physically captured the essence of Luna perfectly. And although she managed to convey Luna’s offbeat persona in a competent manner, there seemed to be something missing from her portrayal in the movie. Then it occurred to me that there were times when the movie Luna seemed to be devoid of any emotion. She came off as too serene. And as I recalled, the literary Luna was capable of expressing more emotion – including anger at Hermoine’s dismissive attitude toward her. And Luna was not the only character I had problems with. Characters like Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), Percy Weasley (Chris Rankin in a non-speaking role), Nymphadora Tonks (Natalia Tena) and the Blacks’ house-elf Kreacher, barely seemed to exist. Lupin’s biggest moment came when he tried to prevent Harry from chasing after the murderous Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham-Carter)

One last problem I had with the movie was the lack of closure on a few plot points. We never learned the consequences of Harry’s discovery that Umbridge had used veritaserum on Cho Chang in order to coerce her into exposing “Dumbledore’s Army” and Harry’s lessons. I never understood why Kreacher even made an appearance in the movie, considering he did not seem to have an impact upon the story. The movie failed to bring some closure or allow Harry to discuss with Sirius and Remus about Snape’s memories of the bullying James Potter. And what happened to Lucius Malfoy after Sirus (or Remus – I forgot whom) managed to defeat him? The movie never revealed his fate.

Despite the above flaws, I enjoyed “ORDER OF THE PHOENIX” very much. It still managed to be a more than satisfying summer movie. The original novel happened to be the largest in the entire series. Yet, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg managed to pare it down to the novel’s main narrative. I suspect many HP fans would have preferred an exact adaptation of the novel. Thankfully, Goldenberg spared the movie going audience of what could have been a long and excruciating period in the movie theater. To this day, I still believe that “THE SORCERER’S STONE” and “CHAMBER OF SECRETS” could have faced a little more editing. And some of the changes made to the story – Neville Longbottom’s discovery of the Room of Requirement (instead of Dobby the house elf); no visit to the St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries (along with no repeat appearance of Gilderoy Lockhart and Neville’s parents); Neville’s own revelation of his parents’ fate to Harry (instead of the discovery being made at St. Mungo); and Cho Chang’s exposure of the Dumbledore Army (instead of Marietta Edgecombe committing the deed) – did not hurt the story at all. However, I am certain many fans would disagree. What made “ORDER OF THE PHOENIX” work for me was the combination of a mystery regarding Harry’s connection to Voldemort and the growing fascist state at Hogswarts that also reflected within the wizarding world under Cornelius Fudge (Tom Hardy). I have to commend both Yates and Goldenberg for skillfully weaving these two elements within the movie’s plot.

The movie also benefitted from excellent acting by the cast. In fact, I found this to be a great relief after suffering from the hammy acting found in the previous entry – “GOBLET OF FIRE”. Both Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) were top-notched as usual. And so was Matthew Lewis as the likeable, yet clumsy Neville Longbottom. I especially must commend Radcliffe for conveying Harry’s angst over Cedric Diggory’s death in the last story and frustration at being ignored by Dumbledore. And I want to sink to my knees and give thanks to the spirits above and David Yates for preventing Emma Watson (Hermoine Granger), Michael Gambon (Dumbledore), Ralph Finnes (Voldemort), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy) and also James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley) from repeating their over-the-top performances in “GOBLET”. Oh, such a relief! On the other hand, Helena Bonham-Carter’s portrayal of the insane Bellatrix Lastrange did seem over-the-top. But considering that the literary Bellatrix was equally hammy, I had no problems with this. By the way, I must applaud Imelda Staunton for her delicious portrayal of “Miss Hitler in Pink” herself, namely the ladylike, yet poisonous Dolores Umbridge; a Ministry undersecretary who became the new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. In the novel, she is described as being toadlike, yet Ms. Staunton is obviously a more attractive-looking woman. But despite this, she managed to capture Umbridge’s insidious and bigoted evil beautifully.

However, the movie’s piece-de-resistance – at least for me – happened to be the battle that took place inside the the Ministry of Magic. I must confess that the literary version of the battle usually left me slightly confused. I guess I simply found it difficult to visualize what took place. But Yates’ direction not only clarified the entire battle for me, it left me feeling thrilled beyond measure. In my opinion, the battle has catapulted in what I now feel is probably the best sequence ever shown in any of the films so far. It was simply superb. Yet, there are other little golden moments in the film that I managed to enjoy:

-the Dumbledore Army’s Defense Against the Dark Arts lessons

-Ron stands up to Seamus for Harry

-Filch’s attempts to get inside the Room of Requirement

-Ginny’s jealous glances at Harry and Cho

-Dean Thomas’ (Alfred Enoch, who had more lines in this movie than the last two combined) argument with Umbridge

-Hermoine’s handling of Gwarp (different from the novel)

-the fact that both Ron and Ginny helped Neville and Luna escape from Draco and the Inquisitor’s Squad (I could be wrong that Ginny helped; if so, please inform me)

-Harry and the Order of the Phoenix’s trip to London via broomsticks

And one of my personal favorite moments in the movie turned out to be Fred and George’s torment of Umbridge before making their escape from Hogswarts. Classic moment.

Although “ORDER OF THE PHOENIX” possess have some flaws that prevent it from becoming my favorite HARRY POTTER movie so far (“PRISONER OF AZKABAN” still holds this title in my heart), I must admit that it reassured me that the movie franchise had not declined following the slightly disappointing “GOBLET OF FIRE”. nds.