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Emma Thompson

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Riddle in the Dark.

In anticipation of the HP & The Half-Blood Prince trailer, which should be on later tonight, USA Today scores two stills from the forthcoming sixth Potter film, including this one of young Tom Riddle looking Omen-ish. (Conveniently, he’s played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Ralph Fiennes’ nephew.)

Update: “I can make things move without touching them. I can make bad things happen to people who are mean to me. I can speak to snakes too. They find me, whisper things…And here it is. (Link sent via Raza.)

Legend of the Fall.


In Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend, Will Smith wanders the streets of New York City, his only companion his trusty, loyal, and free-spirited canine sidekick. To stave off the despair and dementia that lurks behind interminable loneliness, he dotes on his dog and immerses himself in routine: He watches as many movies as possible, indulges in his music collection, broadcasts his continued existence into the ether, and throws himself into his work, a solitary investigation marked by repetition and feelings of futility, one whose fruits he knows will more than likely go unused and unread. To all of this, I say: Who the hell wants to sit through a movie about the last year and change of grad school? And couldn’t they find a sheltie to play l’il Berk? (As for yours truly, I’d have gone Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Bettany — maybe Michael Cera for the flashbacks — but, hey, Will Smith works too.)

Seriously, though, when I first heard word they were doing another take on Richard Matheson’s eerie 1954 novella, and that word was penned by hackmeister Akiva Goldsman and read “We’re blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge!“, I figured this would be a big budget stinker, along the lines of Alex Proyas’ version of I, Robot. And yet, while a action blockbuster has been grafted onto the basic story (and it’s moved from suburban California to the heart of Metropolis), Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend is surprisingly true to the grim feel of the novella. In short, Legend is a much quieter and more melancholy film than I ever expected. And, while it definitely has some problems, it’s probably my favorite big budget blockbuster of the year, with the possible exception of The Bourne Ultimatum. True, Lawrence’s take on Constantine in 2005 turned out better than I figured as well. Still, I’m actually quite surprised by how moody and haunting this film turned out to be. (And, give credit where it’s due. Like Paul Haggis and In the Valley of Elah, I’m forced to concede that Goldsman might not always be the kiss of death.)

I am Legend begins innocuously enough with a sports report — It looks like the Yankees and Cubs in the World Series, although LA has an outside shot at a pennant too. But, in the near future, it ain’t just the ball players injecting experimental serums anymore. As a doctor (Emma Thompson) on the news informs us, scientists have altered the measles to work as the ultimate body-cleansing virus, in effect working as a cure for cancer. (A Cure for Cancer! This follows the baseball scores?) Cut to New York City, three years later. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, nothing beside remains…except one man (Will Smith) and his dog (Abbey), chasing down a herd of deer through the empty steel corridors of a desiccated Manhattan. (Sorta like Llewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, except now that country is everywhere, and the deermeat is worth more than the bag of money.) Clearly, something has gone Horribly Wrong. As we come to discover, that heralded cure backfired in dismal fashion, killing 90% of the Earth’s population immediately and turning the rest, a la the rage virus in 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, into violent, depraved monsters with a taste for blood and a susceptibility to sunlight. This Last Man on Earth is one Robert Neville, an army scientist (blessedly immune to the disease) who spends his days in a Jamesian manse on Washington Square, working on a cure to beat back the infection, and his nights just trying to stay alive. (Put simply, “scientific atrocity, he’s the survivor.”) But, even with Samantha, his German shepherd, by his side, the loneliness and omnipresent danger are taking their toll. And as he succumbs deeper into hopelessness — and the creatures show signs of learning — his coping strategies begin to shift. Forget the cure…Maybe it’s time just to chase these Crazy Baldheads out of town

Now, as I said, I am Legend does have it share of problems. The movie becomes more of a conventional actioner as it moves along, and the last act in particular feels weaker than the rest of the film. Looking exactly like the cave-dwellers in Neil Marshall’s The Descent, the CGI creatures have an ill-favored and badly-rendered look, and the more you see of them the less scary they become. Also, in complete counterpoint to what Dr. Neville tells us about the infecteds’ “social deevolution,” they eventually seem to get behind a Lurtz/Solomon Grundy of sorts. But his presence or authority is never really explained — he’s just a tacked-on Big Bad. I had trouble believing that somebody could’ve heard of Damien Marley but not his father Bob. (And, since you’re seemingly geared to the teeth, Dr. Neville, may I make some suggestions? 1) Infrared scope. 2) Night-Vision goggles.)

All that being said, for most of I am Legend‘s run it’s a surprisingly rich and nuanced film. Will Smith is invariably an appealing presence, but he doesn’t rely on his easy charisma or “Aw, hell no!” bluster much here. His performance is tinged with melancholy, and he does some great work in some really awful moments. Also, I feared going in that the canine companion bit would come across as a gimmick, just a cute creature for Smith to bounce off expository monologues. But Sam isn’t just Wilson the Volleyball — she’s a living, breathing character of her own. (Nor is she Lassie — she doesn’t seem preternaturally smart, and occasionally does dumb dog things, which seemed all too realistic.) And then there’s New York after the Fall, which in itself is a sort of character in the film. In shot after shot (somewhat akin to, but less showy than, the opening Times Square sequence of Vanilla Sky), Lawrence captures the eeriness of this great city laid low. Other than the aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge, “Ground Zero,” as Neville now calls it, hasn’t been destroyed or ravaged. It’s just empty, an overgrown, city-sized echo chamber for his pangs of isolation. (And as the Marley song goes, “It hurts to be alone.”) But, hey, even in a desolate New York City, with vampires lurking in the dark places, there are still plenty of fun ways to pass the time, and particularly if you have a good dog by your side.

Dumbledore’s Army.

Alert the Ministry: The new trailer for David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is now online, albeit not in the best format. Looks…ok, although I’d be surprised if it lives up to Newell’s Goblet of Fire (or even Cuaron’s Prisoner, since Order may have been my least favorite book in the series thus far.) Update: It’s now available in Quicktime — go here instead.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

The Union of the Snake


is on the climb…which means trouble ahead for Harry and Hogwarts in the surprisingly satisfying Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I said of Alfonse Cuaron’s Azkaban that it was probably the ablest representation of the Rowling books we were going to get on film, but you know what? I was dead wrong. Mike Newell’s dark and delectable Goblet is brimming over with energy and suspense, and, to my surprise, it’s probably the best Potter film so far. (And this is coming from someone who actually preferred Book III to Book IV on paper.)

I assume most of y’all out there already know the story, but in a nutshell, Harry’s fourth year at England’s premiere Magickal Boarding School is one marked by three novel, terrifying, and wholly inscrutable challenges: (1) The Tri-Wizard Tournament (held every few years against rival academies Beauxbatons and Durmstrang); (2) the possible return of You-Know-Who (as announced by the sight of His Mark at the Quidditch World Cup); and (3) girls. Yes, on top of their usual troubles with magical enchantments and strange goings-on, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have hit those awkward middle school years, when a brief conversation with Cho Chang (Katie Leung), a waltz with Parvati Patel (Shefali Chowdhury), a bath with Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), or a date with Victor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) becomes as nerve-rattling as facing down a wayward basilisk. Nevertheless, the Yule Ball is only the least of Harry’s worries, as — for some reason and in defiance of all the usual protocols — he’s been picked as a fourth entrant in the highly dangerous TriWizard Tournament…and, even with the aid of new Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody (a superb Brendan Gleeson), it’ll take all the wits and combined resources of our teenage trio (well, and Neville) for Harry to make it through intact.

To their credit, Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves have done an excellent job scaling down the dense 700-page novel into a sleek two-and-a-half-hour film. Goblet moves at such a brisk clip that rarely did I find myself (as I did in Azkaban) enumerating the remaining plot points to be explained. [For what it’s worth, the House Elf subplot is gone, Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson, note-perfect) has basically one-and-a-half scenes, and the other TriWizard contestants — particularly poor Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy) — get somewhat short shrift.] In fact, even Harry’s usual nemeses — Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and the scions of Slytherin — are for the most part pushed to the background here (although fans of those Schoolboys in Disgrace, the Weasley twins, will be happy to know that they get considerable screen time, and Ginny’s always lurking around too.)

Whatsmore, we’re definitely in PG-13 land this time. [Warning: Here there be spoilers, particularly for non-book-readers] Goblet is a film filled with unsettling images from its opening moments, from the floating Death Head above the World Cup to the highly creepy Pensieve flashback of Karkaroff’s plea hearing (Given recent events involving torture and secret prisons, I found this scene — and the contraption they were keeping Karkaroff in — particularly perturbing.) So it’s a testament to Newell’s vision that the scene everyone’s waiting for in Goblet of Fire, the big climax, is the creepiest one of all. The wretched, fetal You-Know-Who was disturbing enough, but once Voldemort emerges in all his twisted glory (looking a bit like the head vampire in Blade 2), Ralph Fiennes ratchets up the freak to eleven and almost runs away with the film. As I went to sleep last night after the midnight show, it was Fiennes’ crisp, lithe, and serpentine Voldemort (and his band of Klannish Death Eaters) that stuck in my head, exactly as it should be.

[As a tangent, and I’m probably thinking about this too much, but now I really like the shaggy haired dos of all our protagonists in context of the film — I don’t think it’s just a nod to Kinks/Pink Floyd-ish boarding house visions or a post-Anakin fad. There’s method to Newell’s madness…As Stephanie Zacharek also points out, he’s deliberately invoking the 70’s as the uncertain, transitional adolescence after the heyday of the Sixties, as well as the cultural moment just before Thatcherism and the Tory revival. Everything’s going to change, indeed.]

Death, Revenge, Love, and Slyders.

Some short thoughts on recent DVDs witnessed…

Dead Man: Many cinephiles whose opinions I trust have told me to check out Jim Jarmusch’s stuff, so I figured a good place to start would be this black-and-white western featuring Johnny Depp and a slew of my favorite character actors. Alas, I found Dead Man to be slow, scattershot, and for the most part uninvolving. Depp is William Blake, a fellow who is forced to flee the frontier town run by an industrialist strongman (the late, great Robert Mitchum) after an unfortunate love-triangle mix-up, and who, despite being unrelated to the English poet and mystic of the same name, nevertheless encounters enough shamanist mysticism in the wilderness to make even Oliver Stone blush. Blake’s tour guide on his increasingly bizarre escapades outside “civilization” is an Indian named Nobody (Gary Fisher), who speaks in riddle-like profundities (and, occasionally, passages from Blake) in the manner of filmed Native Americans since time immemorial.

Basically, I thought Dead Man was kinda goofy. It never established much of a rhythm or a narrative, and as an episodic travelogue, it’s hit and miss. Billy Bob Thornton as a lonely trapper and Alfred Molina as a priest peddling smallpox blankets probably make the most indelible impressions, but other quality actors (particularly John Hurt and Gabriel Byrne) needed more to do. Frankly, I just don’t think I got it. Why does long-winded, cold-blooded killer Michael Wincott sleep with a teddy bear? Why is frontiersman Iggy Pop dressed like a Willa Cather heroine? (Presumably, the answer for Jarmusch fans is “Why Not?” I suppose I could just as easily question David Lynch’s dwarves or the Coens’ similar non-sequiturs.) Perhaps I went in with abnormal expectations, but I found Dead Man‘s “funny” parts stiff and the “profound” parts stilted. I’ll definitely get around to the rest of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, but, sadly, this counts as a strike against him.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: Mike Hodges’ reinvention of Get Carter was also a disappointment. It strives mightily to be a somber, Unforgiven-like tale of unfulfilling revenge and redemption denied, but turns out instead as a slow, plodding affair that feels a bit like Eyes Wide Shut, in that a great director’s once-pioneering vision now sadly comes off as somewhat stale and antiquated.

The movie throws you in in media res, with pretty-boy n’er-do-well Davy Graham (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) dealing to and scamming the London glitterati while his brother Will (Owen) seems to have taken a page from Matt Foley and is now, literally, living in a van down by the river. Very shortly, horrible, droogie-like things are done to Davy by none other than Malcolm McDowell, resulting in the former’s suicide, and lean, mean wildman Will blows back into town to settle the score. The rest of the film consists of Owen slowly seething (to impressive effect) while his former mates and enemies cringe, cower, and — like us — await the inevitable denouement. It eventually happens, but lordy does it take awhile to get there. Jamie Foreman (soon to be Bill Sykes in Polanski’s Oliver Twist) deserves marks as the Graham boys’ flawed and frantic lieutenant, but otherwise there’s not much to go on here. If you want to see Hodges direct Owen, rent Croupier instead.

Love Actually: Oof, where do I start? Ok, I knew going in that this probably wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. But a good friend of mine had it sitting on his TV, he recommended it as “like Sliding Doors” (which, much like Next Stop Wonderland, was a romantic comedy that I really enjoyed), and it had a bunch of actors I like (Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Emma Thompson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and much of Team Hitchhikers: Martin Freeman, Alan Rickman, and Bill Nighy.) But, as many of you probably already know, Love Actually is, actually, godawful dreck, a schmaltzfest of grotesque proportions. I was complaining about the occasionally saccharine taste of In Good Company only yesterday, but Love Actually makes that film look like Requiem for a Dream.

The film follows multiple couples in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and is set in an alternate universe where no love goes unrequited (among the beautiful, of course), at least without a wink and a kiss. In fact, in this Fairie-England, where Hugh Grant (doing his pre-About a Boy faux-self-effacing schtick) is the new Prime Minister, it’s even considered somehow romantic to make an unabashed play at your best friend’s wife. Look, I know I’m a cynical sort, but my heart warms to certain well-made fare. But this…um, not so much. From a wholly implausible joint press conference (Billy Bob Thornton cameos as a prez who combines the worst of Clinton and Dubya), to Grant cavorting around 10 Downing Street a la Risky Business, to Liam Neeson constantly interacting-cute with his Padawan stepson, to Colin Firth venturing to 19th century Portugal, to the, um, musical numbers, this film all too often made me want to claw my eyes out. Most of the time, I was hoping I’d see more of Bill Nighy, the movie’s saving grace, as an aging rocker trying to make one, last improbable comeback with a sellout remix of The Troggs’ “Love is All Around.” But, by the end, even that storyline gets smothered in sugary sweetness. For the love, actually, of Pete, stay away from this lousy film.

Harold & Kumar go to White Castle: White Castle…hmmm, those are some fine little burgers, particularly in quantity. I haven’t had a 12-pack of Slyders in a dog’s age. In fact, I think there’s a Castle a couple of blocks over at 125th and 7th. Man, how awesome would that be right now? I…I, uh…oh yeah, Harold & Kumar, right. Yeah, that was pretty a funny movie.

Admittedly, Harold & Kumar is for the most part a check-your-brain-at-the-door kinda film. For all of its clever 21st century savvy about 80’s-movies racial tropes, H & K is still ultimately a lowest-common-denominator college comedy. Yet, while some of the vignettes definitely fall flat, I found Harold & Kumar just enough of a variation on the age-old After Hours road-trip formula to be really amusing. John Cho and Kal Penn are both charismatic and engaging as our wayward, famished, and thoroughly stoned protagonists, and Neil Patrick Harris earns special plaudits for showing up as himself (albeit more-than-slightly tweaked) and just going for it. All in all, I highly doubt H & K is everybody’s bag, but — despite the gross-out gags and retro thinking — it is at times a rather intelligent dumb movie.

2004 in Film.

Happy New Year, everyone. Inauspiciously for 2005, it looks like I’m starting the year a day late on the end-of-2004 movie roundup…but better late than never. As you probably already guessed, this year’s film list will be the first in four years without a Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptation in the #1 spot (although I’m still keeping it warm for The Hobbit in 2008.) Nevertheless, my top choice this year was an easy one, and those of y’all who come ’round here often can probably figure it out.

Top 20 Films of 2004:
[2000/2001/2002/2003]

1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The one true classic of 2004, Eternal Sunshine has only grown in my estimation since its initial release in March. (David Edelstein’s take on it as one of Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell‘s remarriage comedies is well worth reading.) A heartfelt examination of love, loss, and memory, Eternal Sunshine was also a strikingly adult take on romance and relationships, the kind you usually don’t get from Hollywood. With great performances from a caged Jim Carrey and an electric Kate Winslet, the film managed to be both an earnest, passionate love story and a wistful paean to those person-shaped holes we all carry in our hearts and memories. Along with Annie Hall and High Fidelity, it goes down as one of my all-time favorite films about the mysteries of love. (Why even bother? We need the eggs.)

2) Garden State. Writer-director Zach Braff’s “anti-Graduate” debut was a small but touching ode to home that, along with reviving Natalie Portman as an actress and offering the best soundtrack of the year, delivered exactly what it promised. A bit hokey at times, sure, but Garden State wore its heart on its sleeve and, for the most part, got away with it. It was a witty and eloquent voyage to the Jersey burbs and a testament to the proposition that as Paul Weller put it, it’s never too late to make a brand new start.

3) The Incredibles. Pixar has been delivering well-constructed eye-popping wonders since Toy Story, and The Incredibles is the best of the lot. I figured it might be awhile before a movie topped Spiderman 2 as a sheer comic book spectacle, but, as it turned out, The Incredibles did it only a few months later. One of the best comic book films ever made, The Incredibles was two hours of unmitigated fanboy fun. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably also the best Fantastic Four film we’re ever going to see.

4) Sideways. Like a fine 1961 Cheval Blanc, Alexander Payne’s elegiac toast to California wine country and the regrets and indignities of middle-age has a tendency to linger in the senses. Paul Giamatti must tire of playing depressive, barely sociable losers, but he’s great at it here…Sideways isn’t as funny as Election, but it is a memorable trip.

5) Spiderman 2. A definite improvement on the first adventure of your friendly neighborhood wallcraller, Spiderman 2 was a perfectly made summer film that stayed true to the spirit of Peter Parker. Along with X2, this is the gold standard for comic book-to-film adaptations right now…let’s hope Batman Begins is up to snuff.

6) Shaun of the Dead. Although it lost its footing shambling to its conclusion, Shaun of the Dead was great fun for the first two-thirds of its run, and it’s now probably my favorite zombie movie (everyone should have one.) A much-needed dry British humor fix to tide us over until Hitchhiker’s Guide.

7) The Aviator. A bit on the long side, Scorsese’s life of Howard Hughes is most fun when it stays away from the airfields and lounges about Old Hollywood. Two very clean thumbs up.

8) The Assassination of Richard Nixon. A dark, unflinching 90-minute descent into violent futility. I originally had this before The Aviator, then figured the degree of difficulty on Scorsese’s flick was much, much higher. Nevertheless, this funereal biopic for non-billionaire crazies, while grim and not much fun, was well-made and well-performed, and I expect it’ll stay with me for awhile.

9) The Bourne Supremacy. Perhaps a bit too much like its predecessor, Bourne II was still a better Bond than anything we’ve seen in the past 20 years. Paul Greengrass’ shakicam work here bodes well for Rorshach in The Watchmen.

10) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban. It’d be hard to make a better film of Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts than Alfonso Cuaron did here — Azkhaban managed to capture the dry wit and subversive spirit of the books that’s so missing in the Chris Columbus movies. That being said, Azkaban also made it clear that much of the fun of Rowling’s tomes is uncapturable on film. What was great fun to read on the page ended up seeming like Back to the Future II on the screen. With that in mind, Year 6 begins on 7/16.

11) Ocean’s 12. Two swollen hours of Soderberghian glamour and inside baseball. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I found it an agreeable improvement on Ocean’s 11. (Don Cheadle’s accent is still terrible, tho’.)

12) Touching the Void. Snap! Aigh! Crunch! Aigh! It’d be hard to forget anything as memorable as Shattered Femur Theater. Well worth seeing, if you can stand the pain.

13) Fahrenheit 9/11. Hmmm…perhaps this should be higher. I definitely left the theater in an angry froth (not that it takes much)…unfortunately, apparently so did all the freepers.

14) My Architect. An excellent documentary on Louis Kahn, brilliant architect and terrible family man. Alas, it’s also a less-excellent documentary on Kahn’s son, and his Oprah-like quest for self-acceptance.

15) Kinsey. Take that, red staters.

16) Hero. A memorable meditation on love, power, and kick-ass kung-fu, until its train-wreck derailing in the last half-hour.

17) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As I said yesterday, Aquatic was a jaunty Wes Anderson joyride that nevertheless gets a little lost in its terminal cuteness. When you care more about the leaving-behind of Cody the three-legged dog than you do the death of a major character, there’s a problem.

18) I Heart Huckabees. Huckabees had its heart in the right place, and made for a decently appealing night at the movies…but it also had a terminal-cute problem.

19) Collateral. If the movie had maintained the promise of its first hour throughout, Michael Mann’s Collateral would have been a top ten contender. Alas, it all falls apart once Tom Cruise goes bugnut psycho in da club.

20) Kill Bill, Vol. 2. There was probably one really good movie somewhere in the two Kill Bills. The second half was closer to it than the first.

Not Seen: Bad Education, Before Sunset, Finding Neverland, Friday Night Lights, Harold and Kumar, Hotel Rwanda, Maria Full of Grace, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Spanglish

Worst Movies of the Year: Van Helsing, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Village, Code 46, Closer, Alexander, 21 Grams (2003)

Biggest Disappointment: The Ladykillers

Ho-Hum: Team America: World Police, The Alamo, House of Flying Daggers, Troy, King Arthur, Anchorman, Blade: Trinity, Shrek 2

Worth a Rental: Mean Girls, The Manchurian Candidate,
Hellboy, The Machinist, City of God (2003)

Best Actor: Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine; Paul Giamatti, Sideways; Sean Penn, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine.

Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Virginia Madsen, Sideways.

2005: On paper, it’s looking like a better year for film, fanboy and otherwise, than 2004. The slate includes Star Wars Episode III, Batman Begins, The Chronicles of Narnia, All the King’s Men, PJ’s King Kong, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, Polanski’s Oliver Twist, Malick’s The New World, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Constantine, Sin City, Fantastic Four, and my own most-anticipated project, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So here’s to the new year!

Prisoner of the Medium?


During my cable outage, I caught the long-awaited Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban last weekend, and as hoped, Alfonso Cuaron’s version of Hogwarts far outshines the staid and two-dimensional previous outings by Chris Columbus. Unlike Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban contains tons of small witty flourishes (the bus conductor, housekeeping, and the bald assistant, to name just a few in the first twenty minutes) that finally bring both magic and realism to Harry’s world. For once, Hogwarts seems like an actual boarding school where kids live, work, play, and goof around eating animal-noise chocolates, rather than just the largest blue-screen-equipped castle in the British Isles. And, unlike the first two, this movie feels cinematic – the camera swoops, cranes, and dollys like a camera should. Heck, even Quidditch was exciting this time.

But, despite the directorial skill on display here, Prisoner eventually runs aground on the inherent unfilmability of the source material. Rowling’s books are joys to read partly because they’re so episodic and incident-driven. But what works wonders in writing seems long and needlessly expository on film. For example, the scene where Wormtail is unmasked in the Shrieking Shack, great on the page, didn’t resonate at all here, even in spite of the prodigious talents of Spall, Thewlis, Oldman, Rickman, and the kids. (Although I’ll go ahead and say it – Gary Oldman seemed like a good idea as Sirius Black, but he’s miscast. He played it entirely too crazy at first, and never really warmed to Harry thereafter.) As a book the denouement of Prisoner was intriguing, but as a film, it feels like twenty-five minutes of a Back to the Future 2 retread. And, since certain crucial details from the book are missing (such as the origins of the Marauder’s Map), the movie paradoxically feels both too long and too abbreviated.

Not to end on so dour a note, there’s a lot to like here. Michael Gambon’s wry Dumbledore is a considerable improvement over the late Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane finally looks appropriately huge as Hagrid, the Dementors are both creepy and un-Nazgulish, and all the adults acquit themselves well, particularly Emma Thompson as Trelawney. Plus, the kids have grown into the roles and, while they still can’t emote very well, they can churn out exposition like the best of ’em. Who knows? Perhaps I’m becoming muggle-hearted, but I spent much of the last ninety minutes of Cuaron’s otherwise splendid Prisoner of Azkaban counting off the remaining plot points that had to be explained. Still, given that Goblet of Fire is twice as long and is being headed by Mike Newell, who’s never made a movie that’s impressed me very much, this may just be the closest we get to capturing the spirit and magic of Harry Potter on film. Until then, I’ll be waiting for Book VI.

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