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Shirley Henderson

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After Happiness, Regret.


This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around. No time for dancing, or lovey dovey — I ain’t got time for that now.” Ten years after 9/11, and twelve years after we last followed their…exploits, the collection of lost souls and tragic deviants that populated the pitch-black comedy Happiness have returned, sadder and wiser, in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, an episodic, intermittently successful meditation on guilt and forgiveness. And, if nothing else, it’s safe to say the decade since we saw them last has not been kind to them, or their respective quests for contentment.

For all its bleakness, misanthropy, and inordinately dicey subject matter — pedophiles, obscene phone callers, suicides, and whatnot —Happiness, I am sure some of my fellow social misfits out there will agree, was a very, very funny film. It’s sort of a high-wire suspension act over a moral and existential abyss, and all the more hilarious because it constantly flirts with disaster. (If you haven’t seen it, the entire movie is on Youtube for some reason.) Alas, somewhere along the way — probably 9/11, it seems — the bottom seems to have finally dropped out of Solondz’s world. And now, rather than just trying to be happy, the damaged, compromised characters of the first film are sifting through the wreckage of their lives, trying to either pick up the pieces or bury them somewhere they can’t be found.

As a result, Life During Wartime is a subtler and more muted affair, and one that, unfortunately, is nowhere near as viscerally engaging as its predecessor. If the first film made the case that everybody, even the sick and twisted among us, are looking for happiness in their own way, Wartime suggests that everybody, no matter how reprehensible, also needs forgiveness, and finds forgiveness equally hard to grant. Arguably, Solondz is making the same argument as last time — In both films, basic human needs trump moral and political considerations. (In the end, terrorists, like pedophiles, are people too.) But Wartime has neither the manic good cheer nor the jet-black satirical zest of the first installment, and the laughs are definitely fewer and farther-between. I appreciated the film by the end, but it’s also overly didactic at times and, at times, quite frankly, a bit of a slog.

If you do decide to see Life During Wartime, I would highly recommend watching Happiness again beforehand. Having not seen the first film in a decade or so, I only realized after the fact — like, when writing this review — that the opening scene in Wartime deliberately echoes the pre-title vignette from the earlier movie. Except now, Jon Lovitz’s character is dead (but returns here nonetheless as Paul Reubens), Jane Adams’ Joy has become even more ethereal and bird-like in the guise of Shirley Henderson, and she’s somehow ended up with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s obscene phone caller, Allen — now recombinated as Michael Kenneth Williams (Yep, Omar comin’) — whom she met as part of her job rehabilitating criminals. (Much like how she ended up with Jared Harris’ sketchy Russian emigre in the first film.)

Things, we soon discover, are not well between Joy and Allen on the domestic front, prompting the former to go visit her older sister Trish (once Cynthia Stevenson, now Allison Janney) in Florida. But Trish has her own problems: Trying to get back into the dating scene — she just wants to find a nice, normal Jewish guy, not unlike her new beau Harvey (Michael Lerner) — Trish finds that her younger children are starting to ask uncomfortable questions about the deeds of their dead father (once Dylan Baker)…who is not really dead, physically-speaking.

Rather, he’s been serving a decade-long stint for rape and pedophilia, during which he’s filled out and been weighed down by guilt enough to transmogrify into the consistently haunted Ciaran Hinds. Free once more, Bill wants to reconnect with the son (Chris Marquette) he sinned against all those years ago. But, as you might expect, that might make for a rather touchy father-and-son reunion…

In following the various characters from Happiness as they interrogate or shrink away from their ghosts, Life during Wartime hangs together less well than the original movie, and feels much more choppy and episodic. At one point, Joy goes out to California to see her other sister Helen (Once Lara Flynn Boyle, now Ally Sheedy), and, while it’s not a bad scene per se, it sorta feels thrown in just so the middle sister didn’t get entirely neglected. (Spoiler: She ended up with Keanu, who honestly doesn’t seem too happy either.) Then again, episodic can be good too — In a brief turn as a self-proclaimed “monster” in need of a good-time-man at the local watering hole, the inimitable Charlotte Rampling just about walks away with the movie.

Still, while I appreciated elements of Life During Wartime, I never really felt fully engaged by the movie, and can’t really recommend it, overall. As the miserable folks on-screen kept circling back to the same questions of guilt and forgiveness, the movie came to seem less like a cinematic experience and more just a filmmaker’s position statement, a dry academic treatise of sorts. And while there are moments of humor here and there — Lerner’s grown son (Rich Pecci) gets in a few good laughs in particular — none really compare to the often absurd, occasionally stunning shenanigans of the first film.

Life During Wartime‘s biggest draw in the end is that it allows us, a la The Godfather III or Before Sunset, to catch up with memorable characters we shared some moments with a long while ago. And, given that they inhabit a world created by Todd Solondz, I guess it’s no surprise that, in the end, living only left them sad.

Age and its Discontents.

Another slew of new arrivals in the summer trailer bin:

  • With a little help from his friends (Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Mary-Louise Parker), Bruce Willis eases out of retirement from the Company in the trailer for Robert Schwentke’s Red (formerly a Warren Ellis comic, apparently), also with Julian Glover and Karl Urban. Eh, could be fun.

  • Todd Solondz offers up another misanthropic and probably-funny smorgasbord of quirky, highly damaged people in the trailer for his Life During Wartime, with Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ciaran Hinds, Paul Reubens, Michael K. Williams, Ally Sheedy, and Charlotte Rampling.

  • For the sake of completion, the trailer for Paul Weitz’s Little Fockers, a.k.a. Meet the Parents 3, with Ben Stiller, Teri Polo, Robert DeNiro, Blythe Danner, Barbara Streisand, Jessica Alba, Laura Dern, and Harvey Keitel. Didn’t see the last one, won’t be seeing this one…particularly after that hard-to-watch Sustengo lameness.

2006 (Finally) in Film.

Well, there are still a number of flicks I haven’t yet seen — David Lynch’s Inland Empire, for example, which I hope to hit up this weekend. But as the Oscar nods were announced today, and as the few remaining forlorn Christmas trees are finally being picked up off the sidewalk, now seems the last appropriate time to crank out my much belated end-of-2006 film list (originally put off to give me time to make up for my New Zealand sojourn.) To be honest, I might’ve written this list a few weeks earlier, had it not happened that I ended up seeing the best film of 2005 in mid-January of last year, thus rendering the 2005 list almost immediately obsolescent. But, we’ll get to that — As it stands, 2006 was a decent year in movies (in fact a better year in film than it was in life, the midterms notwithstanding), with a crop of memorable genre flicks and a few surprisingly worthy comebacks. And, for what it’s worth, I thought the best film released in 2006 was…

Top 20 Films of 2006

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005]

1. United 93: A movie I originally had no interest in seeing, Paul Greengrass’s harrowing docudrama of the fourth flight on September 11 captured the visceral shock of that dark day without once veering into exploitation or sentimentality (the latter the curse of Oliver Stone’s much inferior World Trade Center.) While 9/11 films of the future might offer more perspective on the origins and politics of those horrible hours, it’s hard to imagine a more gripping or humane film emerging anytime soon about the day’s immediate events. A tragic triumph, United 93 is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking.

[1.] The New World (2005): A movie which seemed to divide audiences strongly, Terence Malick’s The New World was, to my mind, a masterpiece. I found it transporting in ways films seldom are these days, and Jamestown a much richer canvas for Malick’s unique gifts than, say, Guadalcanal. As the director’s best reimagining yet of the fall of Eden, The New World marvelously captured the stark beauty and sublime strangeness of two worlds — be they empires, enemies, or lovers — colliding, before any middle ground can be established. For its languid images of Virginia woodlands as much as moments like Wes Studi awestruck by the rigid dominion over nature inherent in English gardens, The New World goes down as a much-overlooked cinematic marvel, and (sorry, Syriana) the best film of 2005.

2. Letters from Iwo Jima: Having thought less of Flags of our Fathers and the woeful Million Dollar Baby than most people, I was almost completely thrown by the dismal grandeur and relentless gloom of Eastwood’s work here. To some extent the Unforgiven of war movies, Iwo Jima is a bleakly rendered siege film that trafficks in few of the usual tropes of the genre. (Don’t worry — I suspect we’ll get those in spades in two months in 300.) Instead of glorious Alamo-style platitudes, we’re left only with the sight of young men — all avowed enemies of America, no less — swallowed up and crushed in the maelstrom of modern combat. From Ken Watanabe’s commanding performance as a captain going down with the ship to Eastwood’s melancholy score, Letters works to reveal one fundamental, haunting truth: Tyrants may be toppled, nations may be liberated, and Pvt. Ryans may be saved, but even “good wars” are ultimately Hell on earth for those expected to do the fighting.

3. Children of Men: In the weeks since I first saw this film, my irritation with the last fifteen minutes or so has diminished, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men has emerged for what it is — one of the most resonant “near-future” dystopias to come down the pike in a very long while, perhaps since (the still significantly better) Brazil. Crammed with excellent performances by Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, Children is perhaps a loosely-connected grab bag of contemporary anxieties and afflictions (terrorism, detainment camps, pharmaceutical ads, celebrity culture). But it’s assuredly an effective one, with some of the most memorable and naturalistic combat footage seen in several years to boot. I just wished they’d called that ship something else…

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: True, the frighteningly talented Sasha Baron Cohen spends a lot of time in this movie shooting fish in a barrel, and I wish he’d spent a little more time eviscerating subtler flaws in the American character than just knuckle-dragging racists and fratboy sexists. Still, the journeys of Borat Sagdiyev through the Bible Buckle and beyond made for far and away the funniest movie of the year. Verry nice.

5. The Prestige: I originally had this in Children of Men‘s spot, as there are few films I enjoyed as much this year as Christopher Nolan’s sinister sleight-of hand. But, even after bouncing Children up for degree of difficulty, that should take nothing away from The Prestige, a seamlessly made genre film about the rivalries and perils of turn-of-the-century prestidigitation. (There seems to be a back-and-forth between fans of this film and The Illusionist, which I sorta saw on a plane in December. Without sound (which, obviously, is no way to see a movie), Illusionist seemed like an implausible love story set to a tempo of anguished Paul Giamatti reaction shots. In any case, I prefer my magic shows dark and with a twist.) Throw in extended cameos by David Bowie and Andy Serkis — both of which help to mitigate the Johansson factor — and The Prestige was the purest cinematic treat this year for the fanboy nation. Christian Bale in particular does top-notch work here, and I’m very much looking forward to he and Nolan’s run-in with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

6. The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky’s elegiac ode to mortality and devotion was perhaps the most unfairly maligned movie of the year. (In a perfect world, roughly half of the extravagant praise going to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth would have been lavished on this film.) Clearly a heartfelt and deeply personal labor of love, The Fountain — admittedly clunky in his first half hour — was a visually memorable tone poem that reminds us that all things — perhaps especially the most beautiful — are finite, so treasure them while you can.

7. The Queen: A movie I shied away from when it first came out, The Queen is a canny look at contemporary politics anchored by Helen Mirren’s sterling performance as the fastidious, reserved, and ever-so-slightly downcast monarch in question. (Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair is no slouch either.) In fact, The Queen is the type of movie I wish we saw more often: a small, tightly focused film about a very specific moment in recent history. Indeed, between this and United 93, 2006 proved to be a good year for smart and affecting depictions of the very recent past — let’s hope the trend continues through the rest of the oughts.

8. Inside Man: The needless Jodie Foster subplot notwithstanding, Spike Lee’s Inside Man was a fun, expertly-made crime procedural, as good in its own way as the much more heavily-touted Departed. It was also, without wearing it on its sleeve, the film Crash should have been — a savvy look at contemporary race relations that showed there are many more varied and interesting interactions between people of different ethnicities than simply “crashing” into each other. (But perhaps that’s how y’all roll over in car-culture LA.) At any rate, Inside Man is a rousing New York-centric cops-and-robbers pic in the manner of Dog Day Afternoon or The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three, and it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable movie experiences of the year.

9. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Speaking of enjoyable New York-centric movie experiences, Dave Chappelle and Michel Gondry’s block party last year felt like a breath of pure spring air after a long, cold, lonely winter — time to kick off the sweaters and parkas and get to groovin’ with your neighbors. With performances by some of the most innovative and inspired players in current hip-hop (Kanye, Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, Erykah Badu), and presided over by the impish, unsinkable Chappelle, Block Party was one of the best concert films in recent memory, and simply more fun than you can shake a stick at.

10. Casino Royale: Bond is back! Thanks to Daniel Craig’s portrayal of 007 as a blunt, glitched-up human being rather than a Casanova Superspy, and a script that eschewed the UV laser pens and time-release exploding cufflinks of Bonds past for more hard-boiled and gritty fodder, Casino Royale felt straight from the pen of Ian Fleming, and newer and more exciting than any 007 movie in decades.

11. The Departed: A very good movie brimming over with quality acting (notably Damon and Di Caprio) and support work — from Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, and others — Scorsese’s The Departed also felt a bit too derivative of its splendid source material, Infernal Affairs, to merit the top ten. And then there’s the Jack problem: An egregiously over-the-top Nicholson chews so much scenery here that it’s a wonder there’s any of downtown Boston left standing. But, despite these flaws, The Departed is well worth seeing, and if it finally gets Scorsese his Best Director Oscar (despite Greengrass deserving it), it won’t be too much of an outrage.

[11.] Toto The Hero (1991): Also sidelined out of this top twenty on account of its release date, Jaco Von Dormael’s Toto the Hero — Terry Gilliam’s choice of screening for an IFC Movie Night early in October — is definitely one for the Netflix queue, particularly if you’re a fan of Gilliam’s oeuvre. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age/going-of-age tale that includes thoughts of envy, murder, incest, and despair, all the while remaining somehow whimsical and fantastical at its core. (And, trust me: As with Ary Borroso’s “Brazil“, you’ll be left humming Charles Trenet’s “Boum” to yourself long after the movie is over.)

12. Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: I guess this is where I should be writing something brief and scintillating about Michael Winterbottom’s metanarrative version of Laurence Sterne’s famous novel, one which gives Steve Coogan — and the less well-known Rob Brydon — a superlative chance to work their unique brand of comedic mojo. But I’m growing distracted and Berk has that pleading “I-want-to-go-out, are-you-done-yet” look and Kevin’s still only on Number 12 of a list that, for all intent and purposes, is three weeks late and will be read by all of eight people anyway. (But don’t tell him that — In fact, I shouldn’t even talk about him behind his back.) So, perhaps we’ll come back to this later…it’s definitely a review worth writing (again), if I could just figure out how to start.

13. Miami Vice: Michael Mann’s moody reimagining of the TV show that made him famous isn’t necessarily his best work, but it was one of the more unique and absorbing movies of the summer, and one that lingers in the memory long after much of the year’s fluffier and more traditional films have evaporated. Dr. Johnson (and Hunter Thompson) once wrote that “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I guess that’s what Crockett and Tubbs are going for with the nightclubs and needle boats.

14. CSA: The Confederate States of America: I wish I were in the land of cotton…or have we been there all along? Kevin Wilmott’s alternate history of a victorious Confederate America is a savvy and hilarious send-up of history documentaries and a sharp-witted, sharp-elbowed piece of satire with truths to tell about the shadow of slavery in our past. With any luck, CSA will rise again on the DVD circuit.

15. The Science of Sleep: Not as good or as universally applicable as his Eternal Sunshine (the best film of 2004), Michel Gondry’s dreamlike, unabashedly romantic The Science of Sleep is still a worthy inquiry into matters of the (broken) heart. What is it about new love that is so intoxicating? And why do the significant others in our mind continue to haunt us so, even when they bear such little relation to the people they initially represented? Science doesn’t answer these crucial questions (how can it?), but it does acutely diagnose the condition. When it comes to relationships, Sleep suggests, all we have to do — sometimes all we can do, despite ourselves — is dream.

16. Rocky Balboa: Rocky! Rocky! Rocky! I’m as surprised as anyone that Sly’s sixth outing as Philadelphia’s prized pugilist made the top twenty. But, as formulaic as it is, Rocky Balboa delivered the goods like a Ivan Drago right cross. Ultimately not quite as enjoyable as Bond’s return to the service, Rocky Balboa still made for a commendable final round for the Italian Stallion. And, if nothing else, he went down fighting.

17. Pan’s Labyrinth: A fantasy-horror flick occurring simultaneously within a Spanish Civil War film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth ultimately felt to me like less than the sum of its parts. But if the plaudits it’s receiving help to mainstream other genre movies in critics’ eyes in the future, I’m all for it. It’s an ok movie, no doubt, but if you’re looking for to see one quality supernatural-historical tale of twentieth-century Spain, rent del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone instead.

18. Little Miss Sunshine: Another film which I think is being way overpraised, Little Miss Sunshine is still a moderately enjoyable evening at the movies. It felt overscripted and television-ish to me, and I wish it was as way over yonder in the minor key as it pretends to be, but Sunshine is nevertheless a cute little IFC-style family film, and one that does have a pretty funny payoff at the end.

19. The Last King of Scotland: I just wrote on this one yesterday, so my impressions haven’t changed much. Still, Forrest Whitaker’s jovial and fearsome Idi Amin, and an almost-equally-good performance by James McAvoy as the dissolute young Scot who unwittingly becomes his minion, makes The Last King of Scotland worth seeing, if you can bear its grisly third act.

20. Thank You for Smoking: It showed flashes of promise, and it was all there on paper, in the form of Chris Buckley’s book. But Smoking, alas, never really lives up to its potential. What Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire, to my mind. But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda. Still, pleasant enough, if you don’t consider the opportunity cost.

Most Disappointing: All the King’s Men, X3: The Last Stand — Both, unfortunately, terrible.

Worth a Rental: A Scanner Darkly, Brick, Cache, Cars, Curse of the Golden Flower, Glory Road, The History Boys, Marie Antoinette, Match Point (2005), V for Vendetta, Why We Fight

Don’t Bother: Bobby, Crash (2005), The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Mission: Impossible: III, Night Watch (2004), Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Men’s Chest, Poseidon, Scoop, Superman Returns, The Wicker Man, World Trade Center

Best Actor: Clive Owen, Children of Men; Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen; Q’Orianka Kilcher, The New World
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed; Michael Caine, Children of Men/The Prestige
Best Supporting Actress: Pam Farris, Children of Men; Vera Farmiga, The Departed; Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth

Unseen: Apocalypto, Babel, Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, Clerks II, The Descent, The Devil Wears Prada, Dreamgirls, Fast Food Nation, Hollywoodland, An Inconvenient Truth, Infamous, Inland Empire, Jackass Number Two, Jet Li’s Fearless, Lassie, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, The Notorious Betty Page, A Prairie Home Companion, The Pursuit of Happyness, Running With Scissors, Sherrybaby, Shortbus, Stranger than Fiction, Tideland, Venus, Volver, Wordplay

2007: The list isn’t looking all that great, to be honest. But, perhaps we’ll find some gems in here…: 300, 3:10 To Yuma, Beowulf, Black Snake Moan, The Bourne Ultimatum, FF2, The Golden Age: Elizabeth II, The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hot Fuzz, I Am Legend, Live Free or Die Hard, Ocean’s Thirteen, PotC3, The Simpsons Movie, Smokin’ Aces, Spiderman 3, Stardust, The Transformers, Zodiac.

Coogan’s Bluff.

I’ve never read Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (and was surprised to discover that this pre-mo fellow Sterne apparently beat out overhyped authors like David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers to the sprawling po-mo novel by, oh, two hundred years.) So, to be honest, I’ve no clue as to whether Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story succeeds as an adaptation (or Adaptation) of Sterne’s tome or not. I do know that this Shandy, while not as engaging as Winterbottom and Coogan’s 24 Hour Party People, is a breezy, detour-ridden romp through the life (well, birth) of Tristram Shandy, the business of filmmaking, and the public persona of the inimitable Steve Coogan.

After some discussion of the evocative shade of actor Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon)’s teeth, Tristam Shandy (Steve Coogan), a la 24HPP, emerges from his manor to introduce himself to us, the audience. He then proceeds to tell his life story — but wait, first we need to talk about his father, Walter Shandy (Steve Coogan), and the strange circumstances attending Tristram’s conception and birth. But, before we finish that digression, we meet Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan), who, while playing both Walter and Tristram Shandy in a film version of Tristram Shandy, must navigate among his visiting girlfriend Jenny (Kelly MacDonald), his possible new girlfriend Jenny (Naomie Harris), his long-suffering director (Jeremy Northam) and screenwriter (Ian Hart), and his co-star and erstwhile rival, Rob Brydon…who, as it turns out, can do a mean Steve Coogan impression.

Meta enough for ya? (If not, you can throw in Gillian Anderson, Shirley Henderson, and Stephen Fry as Gillian Anderson, Shirley Henderson, and Stephen Fry respectively. And also skulking about the set are Shaun of the Dead‘s Dylan Moran, Extras‘ Ashley Jensen, Dirty Pretty Things‘ Benedict Wong, and even Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams), as the resident historical consultant/martinet.) Well, if it all sounds like two hours of breaking-the-fourth-wall head games and inside baseball, it sorta is. Still, this cock and bull story is also consistently funny, particularly if you find Steve Coogan’s dry not-so-self-effacing wit amusing. And, when you get right down to it, there just aren’t that many eighteenth-century literary adaptations out there that offer up chance circumcisions, Al Pacino jokes, and the sight of a grown man being lowered upside-down into a styrofoam womb.

Thick & Thin.

In the trailer bin, Steve Coogan breaks the fourth wall (again) — and gets his Scully on — in the trailer for Michael Winterbottom’s Tristam Shandy: A Cock-&-Bull Story, and Christian Bale gets uber-skinny (again) with Steve Zahn for Werner Herzog’s Vietnam movie Rescue Dawn.

Power, Corruption, and Lies.

From the Age of Consent to the Age of Revolution comes this spiffy new trailer for Sofia Coppola’s biopic of that monument of ’80’s excess, Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, and Asia Argento. Somehow, I don’t think the real Marie Antoinette had much love for (the) New Order.

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.]

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