Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Reviewed by Michelle Welker Scott

Throughout the past five episodes of the Harry Potter series, the young wizarding student has battled evil in the form of basilisks, abusive family members, giant spiders, corrupt authority figures, and – most importantly – He Who Shall Not Be Named.

But in each of these movies, Harry has been an innocent. He’s dispensed his share of violence, of course, and he’s been forced to make many tough decisions, but through it all, he’s maintained a sort of blamelessness. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, however, Harry becomes less of a victim and more of an instigator. And like Adam and Eve, Harry learns that sometimes good and evil are so closely intertwined that it can be impossible for us mortals to know the difference. If the entire Harry Potter series embodies a coming of age story, The Half-Blood Prince is the pinnacle of Harry’s journey into adulthood.

Not everyone would call this movie a success.

The plot winds around more than the hallways at the Ministry of Magic; even the well-initiated can get lost. But in all fairness, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was a book with a story line so labyrinthine that it could hardly be encompassed by a movie. Even so, the film falls short. Despite the fact that this is one of the better directed pictures of the series (surpassed only by Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), it is still less than a success.
Yet, the movie has its moments.

The humor here is wonderful, revolving around those episodes of teenage angst that plague, or have plagued, all of us. Love is in the air. There are giddy crushes and love triangles; secret admirers and jealousy. Hogwarts is one festering bed of hormones, yet there is nothing lurid or prurient about these encounters; the movie maintains a very sweet and innocent tone. Another bright spot is that director David Yates took great pains to let the teenagers act like, well, teenagers. In this movie, Hogwarts seems more like your local high school and less like the stuffy, too-good-to-be-true, British boarding school. It’s a more real Hogwarts. One that you or your offspring might actually attend.

The most wrenching scene comes when Harry must accompany the headmaster, Dumbledore, on his quest to find a horcrux (an object of dark magic). Before setting off on the journey, Harry swears that he will do whatever the headmaster asks of him, no matter how terrible, and when put to the test, Harry fulfills his obligation.

But his actions come at a great personal cost. In one of the finest bits of acting that the Harry Potter movies have to offer, Harry coaxes, bullies, and eventually forces his beloved teacher to drink every drop of a vile potion in order for the two of them to access the horcrux. It’s a gruesome scene. Perhaps too ghastly for younger viewers. But the book never shied way from depicting the terrible power of evil, and – to its credit – neither does the movie.

The ending will come as a surprise, or not, depending on how well you know the series. Unfortunately, like the rest of the movie, the final scene suffers from an overload of images. Instead of reacting to what is happening on the screen, the audience is scratching its head and asking, ‘huh?’

The Half-Blood Prince is a movie rife with controversy. Devotes of the books argue that the movie takes too many liberties and leaves out too many details. Movie viewers who are unfamiliar with J. K. Rowling’s original series find it confusing and clumsy. But, despite its faults, the book’s spirit still shines through.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Julie and Julia


That’s it … that’s what good cooking is all about, along with fearlessness, and that’s what Julie learned from Julia, among many other things, as Julie cooked her way through Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) and blogged her way through a personal challenge: to do everyone of Child’s 524 recipes in 365 days, along with her government job and a husband who loves her cooking.

The story comes to light when her blog is discovered by New York Times’ food critic, Amada Hesser, August, 2003, and the rest is history.

The story is delightful, and I found the film wonderfully entertaining with plenty of good laughs and the sheer delight of good cooking, though this is NOT a film about cooking. This is a story about two strong, creative women, and the men who love them.

Technically, it’s a fine film: well-scripted and well-acted, with well-chosen music to highlight Paris in the late Fifties and the Queens in the early Nineties.

It was obvious that the actors were enjoying one another and feeling the intensity of story – Julia and Paul in McCarthy-era Paris and Julie and Eric felt in their tiny Queens second-floor apartment above a pizzeria.

I appreciated the references to Senator McCarthy, as Paul Child was “called home” at one point, hoping for a promotion, only to be grilled by a trio of lawyers with a stack of papers on a bare table in a windowless room. In that sad and twisted era (also shown well by Julia’s wealthy Pasadena father who loved McCarthy), Paul Child was just one more suspected Commie-pinko rat who might even be H o m o s e x u a l … what with so many Americans flirting with fascism these days (yes, that’s what the far right is all about), this sub-text story within the story helps us think a bit about such things, without any “preaching” or “moralizing.” Just tell the story, and Nora Ephron’s film does that very well.

Cleared of all charges and sent back to Paris, the film continues about Julia’s efforts, along with her Parisian teachers and friends, to publish a French cookbook for American women who “are servantless” – “Is that a word?” Julia muses; “Well, it is now!

Several reviews have panned Amy Adams (Julie Powell), suggesting that she's overwhelmed by the bright light of Streep’s incomparable acting. NOT AT ALL! Ms. Adams more than holds her own.

I love Meryl Streep, and though I sometimes feel her acting to be, not only overwhelming in its power, but sometimes over the top as well, there was none of that here. Streep captures the essence of Child and holds her energy in check, creating a wonderfully nuanced portrait of a rather simple and boisterous person, tall and witty, slightly out of place in the Fifties and Sixties.

Adams, on the other hand, captures Julie Powell’s Nineties life exceedingly well, bringing to the role her slightly sweet, slightly sour, slightly ironic, personality. Don’t let appearances fool you – her character's not to be trifled with.

And for once, we have a film that shows good marriages – sure, the stresses and strains of life make for powerful drama and even humor, and, yes, many a marriage does go on the rocks. But a film like this helps us all understand that goodness and kindness go a long way, and that, even today, it’s possible to have a good marriage, making room for one another in a slightly self-indulgent era of delayed adolescence, encouraging one another to explore interests and dreams, and sometimes just putting up with one another. Yet, in truth, the contemporary marriage failed; Ms. Powell had an affair and the marriage has sense ended. Yet the film's message remains; it's possible to pull off a marriage, but one has to do so as Julia cooked, with lots of and fearlessness, and who cares if something falls on the floor - pick it up and continue; you're the only one who has to know.

The respective husbands, Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) and Eric Powell (Chris Messina) bring off their roles superbly – they are decent men.

Hats off to Nora Ephron for bringing this part of the story home – no preaching, no moral heavy-handedness … just a good story revolving some very decent people who know how to love and support one another.

And is it true? The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? I suspect it's true for all of us.

So put away the margarine (a terrible invention against body and soul) and bring out the butter (and I recommend Plugra). Near the end of the film, Julie and Eric visit the Smithsonian where Julia’s kitchen is on permanent display, and by a portrait of Julia, Julie leaves a package of first-rate butter.

This is a film worth seeing, right now.

Enjoy it’s lip-smacking delight, as Paul and Julia enjoyed their first meal in Paris, and then go home and start cooking!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra

After so many years, and all those TV cartoons, we finally have a real Joe movie.

Saw it with my son at Paramount - he's a Joe fan, and website manager, so he was invited to a special screening in the Executive Screening Room at Paramount - about 25 folks sitting comfortably in big red leather chairs ... and he invited his Pop to go along - a pretty good deal.

I loved it, but my son's review is worth the read - click HERE for it.

He critiques it from a fan-boy's point of view, and then the movie itself.

Enjoy the review, and enjoy the movie.