Kingsman: The Golden Circle (****) – Viva Las Vegan


Kingsman: The Golden Circle – 2017

Director Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman
Starring  Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal, Hanna Alström, Edward Holcroft, Bruce Greenwood, Emma Watson, Sophie Cookson

So the question about the sequel is what you can do to surprise your audience. The first time I heard that Firth was going to be reprising his role as Harry (Firth) in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, my heart sank a little. Having him come back is ridiculous enough on its face. We now know that no one is really permanently gone if the groundswell wants them back. That it couldn’t have been at least kept a secret made the whole movie melodramatic, no matter what happens. Imagine how different The Empire Strikes Back would be if we went back to Ben in the promotional materials. Luke’s development would not be expected at all.

That’s the way I saw Eggsy (Edgerton) before watching this film. Fortunately, Matthew Vaughn starts the second Kingsman film with the mindset on further pushing Eggsy’s learning curve. The events that conspire to leave Eggsy and Merlin (Strong) together are a nice beginning for those who enjoyed seeing how they survived the first story. In the first act, we see Eggsy has stayed with the Princess. That is even more of a surprise for those who expected him to be coming home to Roxy (Cookson). It’s a strong Moneypenny on steroids feeling, seeing the smoldering Cookson in her conservative Kingsman uniform. It is even worse when we think now it likely will never happen.

The antagonist this time is an entertaining (for her) Moore as Poppy, a drug kingpin. Moore is way less shrill than I am used to seeing her, but then, she knows she’s not in contention for an Oscar here. Her plan seems kind of silly. I can’t say there aren’t more than a few people who would agree with the President (Greenwood) hanging back a beat or two. For the second time in a row, I can’t wait to see the plan work.

There is an occasion for the Kingsman to head to the US and visit their cousins, The Statesmen, lead by Bridges, Tatum, Pascal and Berry. I can’t say that the Statesmen add anything substantial to the mix, other than Pascal with his lasso.

The economy of characters dictates with the introduction of so many new characters, it is necessary to get rid of some others. This will be a tough sell for many, especially given the return of Harry and the presence of an Alpha Gel making no one truly being gone.

I enjoyed this film, even if it, surprisingly seems less violent than the original. It’s still one of the most violent films of the year, but it’s quite a comedown.

There is another more potentially more offensive scene regarding a tracking device placement. I cannot speak to this other than to say I would not like to have the same thing happen to me. Comparing this to the “If you save the world” statement of the Princess in the first film is to compare apples to oranges in the Garden of Eden. The mystery to me is that a film maker like Vaughn would have a need to go for shock at this stage in his career. There is so much more to enjoy in this film than a scene of that nature.

In a more refreshing sense, Elton John makes his best movie appearance ever. I say this only knowing about 4 films that he’s been in and never watching in him more than in this film. Every scene he’s in is not one you’d expect of one of his status.

There is no dip in quality or effort in this film. If you enjoyed the first one and can willingly suspend disbelief when it comes to characters that come and go, you should have no problems here. Vaughn’s sense of humor, understanding of visual flair and development of character is still on point here. I do think it would be interesting to see if he can curb his riskier tendencies to input juvenile references for a point. That may just land him a Marvel or Star Wars film. That would be a sight to see.

(**** out of *****)


Beauty and the Beast: Old and new it stands out of time…

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Beauty and the Beast – 2017, 1991

Directors: Bill Condon (2017) and Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise (1991)
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017) and Linda Woolverton (1991) based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (2017) and Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti (1991)

Disney has been remaking their animated classics for so long now, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I think it may have started with 101 Dalmatians but in all honesty most of them are not good enough for me to go back and research. Over the last few years, the most notable have been their attempts to put women on the screen as real life princesses or (in Angelina Jolie’s case) should have beens. The one that everyone will talk about and remember has just arrived.

Everyone’s real hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger (no one wants to imagine she really married the doof who shall not be named) is now as likely and deservedly remembered as Belle. Although not being considered a singer before being cast in this musical, Emma Watson creates her own version of the role that Paige O’Hara mastered a generation ago.

The question of whether the movie update is necessary is immaterial at this point. A more pointed question would involve a contemplation on whether or not live action should include as much if not more animation than the original animated film. I am not going to discuss that either, though. I am really just here to celebrate both films, since, miracle of miracles, they both turned out to be pretty great.

To do this, I am just going to discuss the elements of each film that stand out more for me than the other. At this point, can we really review a film that everyone will see and love…except for those who insist on pointing out flaws. Well, I will try, but it will all feel like quibbling when I throw criticism to the side and just say it is a classic despite them.

First thing is first. What parts of the new film are not as good?

  1. The first time we see Belle’s village: For a second, I got a sickening feeling. Everything seems so close and claustrophobic, it felt like I was watching the recent redo of The Smurfs. There is no feeling of span in the town and it feels like Belle is walking in a really tight circle. The empty bookstore feels bigger than the whole confines of the village.
  2. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts can’t be beat: It is a personal preference, as McGregor and Thompson do well in the same roles. To McGregor’s credit, he just moved forward with his much less distinctive voice and personality. While it isn’t as memorable, it works. Orbach completely mastered the role, though, making Lumiere seem older and more virile at once. Thompson is a blander version of a character one would normally consider to be quite bland. No one ever made us sit down, make ourselves comfortable and have some tea like Lansbury.
  3. The ballroom scene. Especially true after the remastered version of the original pumped it up about 200%, there is just no beating the myriad colors and sweeping grandeur of the original. It’s one of the great animated scenes in cinematic history.
  4. I just wish they would not have cast Stanley Tucci. It’s so tiring to see him in every movie, even when they give him bad teeth to inhabit.

So what was made better in the new film? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

  1. LeFou: Gad is an inspired casting choice. His nuanced performance works in every way possible. The original was barely a placeholder for Gaston, to the point where I wondered why he was even included in such a large musical number. This time around, the character is fully fleshed out, an improvement in every way. The only time it doesn’t fit is when the residual lines from the original make it necessary to have him be somewhat illiterate and ill-informed. It is quite likely the LeFou has read most of the same books as Belle.
  2. Maurice: Good Lord I hated Belle’s dad in the original. I would have thrown him in the loony bin or old folks home right off the bat if I had to listen to his babbling. Totally moronic and typical Disney Dad, with his head in the clouds while missing every possible thing on the ground. He even thinks she should hook up with Gaston. Kline presents a slightly preoccupied, but deeply saddened man. He is completely aware of his daughter and he wants to protect her from the horrors he’s experienced, while showing her the beauty he sees in life. It’s completely understandable how they could be related in this version of the tale. She enjoys the same things he does, with her own spin. Incredible that Disney finally gets a Dad right, for once.
  3. The night-time trip to Paris: This adds a completely new dimension to Belle, her father and heretofore absent mother. This scene has a great song (How Does a Moment Last Forever) and in its inclusion, we allow a moment of true bonding between Belle and the Beast. This is the kind of scene upon which romances are built and it makes what follows all the more meaningful.
  4. Letting Belle get plastered by the snowball: It was always a little weak to have Beast hoisted by his own petard in the original.

To delve any deeper, you really have to just accept the differences between these two as just trades for each medium. Human Again (from the restored version) is traded for Evermore. The wardrobe is now an opera singer instead of a maid. My eldest noticed that Philippe was a different sort of horse. The library is remarkable either way. Gaston is as delightfully deplorable now as he was in animated form. Alan Menken is a treasure. I don’t know how he keeps drawing classics from this well.

It would be unfair to not recognize Watson’s achievement. Paige O’Hara has created, in all truth, the best Disney Princess. Instantly memorable for her pluck and her voice, all other Princesses have yet to reach the bar she set. Watson wisely avoids the pitfall of trying to match O’Hara’s voice and instead applies her own spin on the character. The songs and her performance are equally good and entirely different. I found myself hearing her voice in my head for songs that I have heard for a quarter century with O’Hara’s. She’s elevated the live action princess role that Amy Adams created so effortlessly and placed her own stamp on cinematic history, between this and Potter.

Dan Stevens is a little old, even for a 27-year-old Watson, but the role works, especially if one considers the time passing under a spell. It’s close enough and not yet creepy. His voice in Evermore is remarkable and nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Celebrate these films. They are gifts to humanity. There have always been beauties who were drawn to beasts that they had to learn to understand. There have always been beasts who are society’s winners that smart girls know to avoid, too. This film has brought hope to many a bookworm girl and boy that they will someday meet and learn to accept one another. And grow. Everyone wants to feel like they can do that.

Both films (***** out of *****)

This Is the End of all the snacks


This is the End – 2013

Written and Directed by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Starring Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, Paul Rudd, Aziz Ansari

This is exactly the movie that you thought it would be.  It’s a movie where everyone gets to play a version of themselves that they want us to see.  They better get it right, because there’s not much one can do to top the end of the world.  In a cast as big as this one, it’s an interesting choice to have Baruchel at the lead.  This is good for the film.  If it’s gotta be someone, why not the one who seems to have the least to offer?

In the first act, everyone is at a party at James Franco’s new house.  Jay is in from out-of-town, visiting Seth.  He did not want to go to the party, but Seth cajoles him into going.  We get to see everyone acting like an exaggerated version of their public image.  Except for Rihanna.  I think they may have undershot that one.  We see plenty of Michael Cera…they definitely overshot that one.  Then all hell breaks loose from  the underworld.

No one who sees this film will be unaware of what to expect.  People who like to get wasted watch the world turn into a wasteland.  Nothing I write here will change your mind one way or the other.  Either you liked Superbad, Pineapple Express, etc,, or you didn’t.  Personally, I was happy to see a lot of Craig Robinson, and I liked that they went with Baruchel.  The rest of it, is really just a bunch of stuff I think would happen if people who liked comedy and getting high made a comedy about getting high during the apocalypse.

Some of it is funny, some is laborious.  None of this is any more groundbreaking than, say, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.  There is plenty of self-depreciation and moments that could be conceived as funnier had the principal actors not spent much of their careers doing the same thing in most of their other films.

“You can’t stop, drop and open up shop alone?” says Rogen, laying next to his buddy, Jay, on the first post-rapture sleepover.  So they spend the rest of the film together.  If you like the company, you’ll like the movie.


The Bling Ring: Crime in the Google age.


The Bling Ring – 2013

Written & Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Georgia Rock, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann

The most striking thing about The Bling Ring is the ease with which the kids were able to move in and out of the lives of the rich and famous.  In a time when Hollywood reaction to paparazzi bounces between compulsion and revulsion, no one seemed to notice a group of college kids going into and out of the side door, sometimes using the key under the mat.  It reminded me in part of when a group of my friends used to wander out at night on sleepovers.  We would wander around the neighborhoods, occasionally seeing someone else having a party that we were not part of, but that was it.  Little did we know how much trouble we all could have been in.

We did not live anywhere near the money and opulence as the kids in the bling ring.  We never had the audacity to violate someone’s private residence or property.  We had a fear of getting caught.  We had no occasion or want to do drugs.  That is an important difference between what gets you to have Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter make a film about you and a sentence of working 40+ hours a week for the rest of your life.

The gap between the opportunity of this story and the execution is significant.  The story told is more a series of images of people obsessed with image.  The painting of the kids is that of school as a last option.  Some of the parents are flakes, some are barely there.  None of these kids ever seem to spend a night at home, you know, sleeping.  And their parents seem so surprised when their kids get booked.  Out of this is an attempt at gray humor.  I say gray because it’s not sharp enough to be black humor.  There is blatant attempt to play Watson’s character off as some sort of humorous kook.  It’s such a failure, it makes me question her range.

It’s amazing that these kids could, with a modicum of intelligence and the ability to use Google, boldly invade the lives of so many within the TMZ culture.  None of these people are interesting enough to know, and thankfully, because of Coppola, we don’t have to waste our time getting to know them.  The cinematography is drab, and very wiggly, almost like someone is holding a huge camera for a very long time and getting a bit shaky in the process.  I think this might be a style thing.  It’s not enjoyable either way.  The best thing she got is this:

This is the only thing I will remember from this movie.
This is the only thing I will remember from this movie.

If you want the story painted in the broadest strokes possible, this will do.  If you want more, I recommend Google.  When I used it, I found these pictures for the real perps of this crime.  While none of them were gross, not one of the ring looked anywhere close to their cinematic doppelgangers.

The real bling ring. No models in sight.

(** out of *****)

The perks of being a wallflower can take you by surprise


The perks of being a wallflower – 2012

Writer and Director Stephen Chbosky
Starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Nona Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Lynskey, Zane Holtz, Paul Rudd, Joan Cusack, Tom Savini

Everyone’s journey begin’s with a single step, even if that step is taken within a daze.  For Charlie Kelmeckis (Lerman), the first walk through the halls of the biggest period of his life are rife with feelings of isolation and remorse.  This is something I can relate to.  I spent my freshman year wondering what a fresh start at another high school might do for me.  Soon enough, Charlie finds a friend in the rebellious and flamboyant Patrick (Miller).  Within minutes, he is introduced to Patrick’s step-sister, Sam (Watson).  Just like that, the daze is lifted, just a bit, and his course is set, as far as he can see.

The thing about high school, for a lot of people: this is the most open you will be in your life.  New experiences collide freely with your limited past and create a fertile ground for the possibility of who you just might become.  Charlie is quite literally an open, unwritten book.  He devours every word presented to him by his engaging advanced literature teacher, Mr. Anderson (Rudd).  Indeed, he considers him the first friend he acquired in High School.  As the words and experiences come pouring in, he begins to learn about his new friends, and, to a lesser extent, their friends.  Sam and Patrick, as seniors, are a bit further down this road than is Charlie, but they do not chastise his inexperience.  They bring him into the fold, like a friend they are proud to have.

In this way, The perks of being a wallflower resonates.  Having friends across borders is an important experience, and one can see that it has a profound affect on Charlie.  He is reeling, we think, from the suicide of his best friend the previous May.  This is something that is all too familiar to many kids of high school age.  For Charlie, though, there is something more.  Lerman, impressive in many of his previous ventures, including 3:10 to Yuma, Percy Jackson… and The Three Musketeers, has the appearance of profound innocence.  He captures the feeling of sadness and amazement at once…as well as the trance of one who has prepared to move on from a traumatic event.  It is a difficult feeling to capture, and he nailed it.

As Patrick, Miller is almost as successful.  His comfort with who he is feels natural enough, and there is a certain authenticity to his ability to withstand the nickname “Nothing” with aplomb.  His friendship with Charlie feels real, too, for the most part.  Growing up with a few persons of his caliber, it takes performance like Millers for one to have an appreciation for the courage that it took to be unique, or, at the very least, comfortable with yourself.

Watson’s performance as Sam is a mixed bag.  In a way, she is the perfect person to play the role, in that many people who grew up watching the Harry Potter films developed an unrequited crush upon who she was to them.  In the same way, Charlie has an idealized version of Sam.  She is way above him, and Watson’s ethereal grace does nothing to diminish this.  That she is kind does not hurt, either.

The problem with Miller and Watson’s roles is not as much in their performance, but, rather, the script.  At some points, they are clear thinking, kind-hearted and forward thinking.  Within a couple of frames, however, Chbosky has them imbibing with spirits and drugs of one sort or another, with no clear consequences.  This is a lie that threatens to derail all the things going right with the film, which involves an exploration of the darkness that one can envelop one in what can be the brightest time of their lives.

Many of the experiences that happen in this film have happened in the lives of kids in America, myself included.  Mae Whitman’s girlfriend in the way, in particular, rings true.  Factoring in hallucinogens tends to quickly exacerbate  the highs and the lows.  Having not read the book, one cannot speak with authority why this is omitted.  They sure spent enough useless time at The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Even I wasted one evening going through one of those horrid live performances.  My then girlfriend was innocent enough to admit she’d never seen it before, much to our dismay.  But like everything in life, one must just endure.

If they had cut at least 3/4 of the Rocky Horror fluff out, they could have given the substance use the gravity it deserved.  That Chbosky ignores this relationship is to the detriment of the message of the film, but it does not take away from the power of the last half-hour.   In that time, we see many changes, and things go from bad, to better, and good to worse.  What happens will be left for you to explore.  I exploded in tears at one point, and confused the hell out of  myself, as well everyone near me.  The way things had gone earlier, I really could not have expected it.  Looking back, though, everything makes sense, for the most part.  Feeling a profound connection to Charlie, I realized he is made of stuff that we all contain.  We really shouldn’t contain it, though, through blocked memories, drugs, alcohol or other walls.

(**** out of *****)

My Week With Marilyn is good, if you buy the story

My Week With Marilyn – 2011

Directed by Simon Curtis
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Williams, Judi Dench, Eddie Redmayne, Dominic Cooper, Dougray Scott, Toby Jones, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond
Screenplay by Adrian Hodges based on the books by Colin Clark

When I was in 5th Grade, this kid name Jim Kennedy moved onto my block.  He was unkempt, kind of smelly, and not all that bright, but he was someone to hang around with, so, we became friendly acquaintances.   Invariably, as boys do in 5th Grade, we talked about girls that we liked.  Mostly at that age that’s as far as it goes, but Jim, who was a year older than me, presumably took it a bit farther.  He told me, with all the confidence in the world, that he had acquired and kept a girlfriend the previous summer while on a trip up north in Canada.  I was fascinated and somewhat jealous that someone so obviously sloppy and without any sort of hygiene had gone to the extremes he had.

Jim’s family life was such that within 8 months, he had moved on.  Curiously, in the house next door to Jim, another boy, David Lieske moved in.  He and was nicer, more presentable and cleaner than was Jim, and we became better friends.  Our conversations about girls went to the point where we discovered that we liked the same girl at school.  This was a bummer for me, because as with Jim, I found that the previous summer, David Lieske had spent some vacation time in Canada.  While there, he also had acquired and kept a girlfriend.

It wasn’t until I had gone with my family to Canada that I conceived the idea that perhaps all they had really done is go to Butchart Gardens, The Empress Hotel and perhaps the wax museum.

Watching My Week with Marilyn gives me the same sort of feeling.  Sure, one can conceive that a young Colin Clark may well have served as the 3rd Assistant Director to “Larry” Olivier’s attempt at becoming a movie star.  One even might find believable that he experienced some unique events during that time.  The first part of the film is filled with events like this.  In particular the scenes early in filming when Olivier (played with an easy brilliance by Branagh) and Sybil Thorndike (by the world’s best actress, Dench) find varying ways to pass the time.  Olivier moves from genius to insanity while Thorndike takes time to show everyone how lucky they all are.

Even better, when Monroe (played with forlorn grace by Williams) is messing up in every way possible, Thorndike gently makes herself the one who needs help.  She then convinces Marilyn to help her out by practicing her line readings.  We also get to see wonderful examples of the “communist” side of filmmaking: unions.  There is a scene involving the placement of a prop chair which is amusingly ridiculous.

The film starts to go awry the moment that Clark’s character seemingly catches Monroe’s eye.  As it was, Clark had started a nice romance with the wardrobe girl, played in an accessible and beautiful Emma Watson.  Just when things seem to be heading in the right direction, Monroe’s husband, Arthur Miller heads back to New York to be with his kids.  Or perhaps to be away from Monroe and her drug fueled eccentricities.  Either way, now she has free time on her hands.  Who better to spend this free time than with our young protagonist?

Monroe is played with an appropriate amount of mystery by Williams.  This is intended to give in to viewers desire to see her with an air of intrigue that it is quite possible she lacked in her real life.  Olivier, it  is claimed by his wife, Vivien Leigh, in a moment of candor seemingly common only to our protagonist, lusted after Monroe.  So strong was his ardor that she flew her over to be in this movie.  Her role, in the place of his wife, who had played it countless times on stage.  The name of the film (or play) is really not that important. Like many movies Marilyn was in, it’s not that good.  Ormond’s winsome, but older version of Leigh is played with a wan sadness.  Their marriage, cordial as it is, stands weakly on its last legs.  They won’t make it past an astonishing 20 years.

As Clark, Redmayne is blameless to all the films shortcomings.  He plays it straight, with an proper amount of reverence and astonishment.  After all, it is not he who is making the astonishing claims of a week in the life, intertwined with the most famous woman in the world.  He, along with all the players in the film, play their parts quite believably.  It’s just that, with the tattered legacy of Marilyn Monroe, this tale feels a little too tall to be true.  Even if it were true, a true gentleman would leave her in peace by showing more respect than this.

Much of the last part of the film centers around on Monroe’s obsession with having someone “on her side.”  It makes an all to clear delineation that she wasn’t so wise as to what it meant to have someone on her side.  Redmayne’s Clark is honest with her, up to a point, but eventually he just becomes another sycophant.  She is tired, drugged and a little desperate.  She is not that girlfriend from Canada for me.  Not attractive at all.  Just sadly beautiful.

(*** out of *****)

Cool Papa E’s Complete Harry Potter Movie Series Reviews

Having spent the first 2 movies avoiding Harry Potter, I was intrigued by the choice of director to finally watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  That movie, with its time-turner, Buckbeak and the incredible Gary Oldman, impressed me enough to give the rest of the series a chance.  Still, I kept the series at arm’s length, not able to get caught up in the mania that surrounds both the movies and the books.  Given this, I feel I am in a unique position to check the movies from strictly a film point of view.  Anyone who tells you that the book is always better than the movie is either a snob, or has not ever read a novelization.  I simply don’t buy the premise.  It is comparing two entirely different mediums.  You might as well be comparing a poem to a song.  The resemblance is there, but its only a reflection, or, better still, a ghostly image moving in a portrait.

The criteria I use to evaluate each movie will be somewhat simple: special effects, richness of characters, complexity of story, reliance on cliche and overall entertainment value.  With no background (or ball and chain) to compare it to the books, one is free to watch the movies and leave them where they are.  One does not have to agonize on how they cut out half the story here, or left that character underdeveloped.  Not tied to that, I will try to view these movies in the most objective way possible.  The screenplay adapters of all the movies but The Order of The Phoenix is Steve Kloves, with Michael Goldberg filling in with only minor differences in character development.

Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Directed by Chris Columbus

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters

Characters Introduced – This is, of course, the first time we see Harry, along with his friends Hermione and Ron.  Harry is an open book, literally.  You know everything he knows about himself.  Every other major adult character seems to know more about him than he does.  Daniel Radcliffe plays Harry as an open innocent.  Afraid, but still walking forward, due to a sense of obligation to parents he never knew.  Speaking of obligation, Hermione is played to perfection by Emma Watson.  Someone who knows her potential and has no doubts about her ability to meet it, despite her muggle parentage.   Ronald Weasley, however, is essentially played, for better or worse, as a pre-drug version of Shaggy.  His constant mugging and making bad choices are an easy source of cheap laughs.  Too cheap, with its overall dragging effect on the pace of the story.

Hagrid is really just a large source of exposition in this story.  Though I have never been a fan of Robbie Coltrane, he does more than enough with the character to make him worth sticking around.  As Snape, Alan Rickman proves to be the most inspired choice of the movie in established character actors.  His scenes are priceless, scary and never wasted.  Maggie Smith is quite effective as the kind of teacher that would make any student wonder if they are in the right school.  Richard Harris lends his stature quite effectively to the character of Dumbledore, as perhaps the biggest mystery of all.

Special Effects – Compared to what is to come, the special effects here are passable, if somewhat comical.  The off-color look of whatever character being front of the blue is something out of the original Superman movie.  The animated characters, Fluffy and the Troll look okay, except for the grey tint.  It is the kind of thing that makes you cringe looking at them now, but back in 2001, they were a bit better than average.  Columbus has never been one known for his prowess with digital or even generic special effects.  It is a long way from Home Alone 2 to Hogwarts.

Story – This one is, in a way, most crucial, but also the one with the most leeway.  He has to be lost, found and make his way to Hogwarts Academy, make new friends, new enemies and see the shadows creep in on both his potential and his past.  All of these things are handled with competency, and sometimes cleverly.  Voldemort’s introduction is clever, but somewhat goofy.

Cliche – There are no real killers here, aside from the decently played Uncle, Aunt and Cousin.  Lo, the poor orphan, indeed.

Overall – (*** out of *****)

Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Directed by Chris Columbus

Starring afore-mentioned above and Introducing Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs and Bonnie Wright

Characters Development / Characters Introduced – Radcliffe’s Harry has a lot going on here…and not much of consequence at all.  Harry, Hermoine and, by default, Ron, play sleuths here, just like Scooby Doo.  The result is more character development for Hermoine, who is quickly showing to be a driving force for the series.  Harry, showing a little bit less of his perplexed look from the first film, is growing into a de-facto leader.

Lucius Malfoy is a delicious introduction to the story.  Superbly acted by Jason Isaacs, Lucius supplies the sense of indignant dread that the almost comical portrayal of his son, Draco.  Looking at the father, you take the son a bit more seriously.  As Gilderoy Lockhart, Kenneth Branagh is given a throwaway character, and his performance is so hokey, it almost throws the Potter world into parody.  At least Bonnie Wright comes into her own as a minor character in the series.

Special Effects – Like the first movie, the special effects are good, but hardly something worthy of the work of say, Peter Jackson.

I suppose this look is intentional...

Some characters, like the Phoenix, Fawkes, and the Basilisk seem to be something out of Jumanji.  The scenes with Aragog are about on par with Arachnaphobia, but nowhere near Shelob’s lair.

Story – This is a somewhat by the numbers affair.  So many clues spew forth, you expect the Mystery Machine to show up at any time.  Speaking of the Mystery Machine…

Cliche – Ron’s mugging is really becoming a standard move.  Every other scene, he has that stupid clueless look, and all the other scenes, he spends his time looking for food.  We have a young Shaggy, pre-drug phase, in the works.  The only question at this point, is where is Scooby.  To complete the circle of bad cartoon caricatures, Draco Malfoy goes between toothless menace and goofball loser in a clunky, unconvincing way.  Add that to that the poorly written Lockhart and you have the worst movie of the series.

Overall (** out of *****)

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Starring all of the above and Introducing Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall and Emma Thompson

Characters Development / Characters Introduced – This movie is the giant leap forward.  Harry is incredibly assured.  Hermoine is bending time to achieve more throughout the days.  Ron…still an idiot.  Gambon takes over for the recently deceased Richard Harris, and he adds an assurance to the role which will serve the rest of the series well.  Emma Thompson’s talent is wasted on a minor character, but Timothy Spall works magic as the rat that betrayed so many.

Gary Oldman, richly textured as ever, is only the second best new character in the movie.  As Professor Lupin, David Thewles adds a more human element to the role of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.  His guidance works well

The majestically proud Buckbeak in chains.

with Harry’s newfound assurance, and moves the story forward better than any point earlier.

Special Effects – This movie got everything right, so naturally, the effects are flawless.  The Hippogriff, Buckbeak and the Dementors are seamless with the action.  This movie puts Harry Potter on the movie history map.

Story – Dropped are the stupid mystery themes.  Instead you have real movement forward with Sirius Black, Lupin and the central trio (at least Harry and Hermoine).  Harry comes to terms with more of his past, and new allies are revealed.  Cuarón is a master storyteller.

Cliche – Ron creeps ever closer to Shaggy territory.  Buckbeak, to be put to death because of Draco Malfoy’s impudence?  Cliche, thy name is Draco

Overall (****1/2 out of *****)

Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire (2006)

Directed by Mike Newell

Starring all the above and Introducing Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson and Robert Pattison

Characters Development / Characters Introduced – Gleeson is as good as you’d expect portraying Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, this year’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.  Ralph Fiennes has played bad guys so often, his turn as Voldemort gives you the willies just imagining it…which is pretty much what you have to do, as his scenes are pretty sparse.  Miranda Richardson is sufficiently annoying as a news reporter.  Robert Pattison gives a game performance as the nearly perfect and completely doomed Cedric Diggory.

Harry is thrust into the limelight in this one, after being surprisingly picked to compete in the Triwizard Tournament.  Hermoine and Ron are given precious little to do, aside from play footsies with other young wizards at the big dance.  This is an uptick for Ron, as for some strange reason, he is acting as if Hermoine is not worth getting on his hands and knees for .  That said, Hermoine finds a little romance on the side, but not so much she can’t give Harry a bit of help in getting through the tournament.  Harry finds more help along the way, but really, his fate here is a foregone conclusion, as in the end, he was always meant to face down Voldemort.

Special Effects – There is nothing here on the level of Azkaban, but still, not really a step back.

Story – Concentrating more on Harry’s tie with Voldemort and leaving the mysteries as more of a means to an end, we are allowed to see Harry’s descent into near madness, as he is faced with the insanity of the real world refusing to believe that the nameless one survives.  You begin to see that any help Harry can get on this journey is not going to serve him through to completion, and Harry gets his first real brush with death in the angelic Cedric Diggory.

Cliche – No adults believe Harry because it is…inconvenient to the plot.  Cedric Diggory is truly too beautiful to live.  Ron is nearly completely Shaggy at this point.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Directed by David Yates

Starring the above and Introducing Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter

Characters Development / Characters Introduced – This is the movie where Harry is frustrated beyond the point of reason.  Dumbledore helps with gentle pushes here and there.  Hermoine does everything she can.  Ron acts like an idiot, and gets a fan, inexplicably.  The kids are all becoming self-reliant, but strangely, a lot of them act like spells are a new concept.

Of the newbies, Staunton excels as Dolores Umbridge.  Her performance is filled with passive-aggressive hatred, and it really feels good the way she abuses our heroes.  Helena Bonham Carter, well, acts like she always does: demented.  She doesn’t really add much.

Special Effects – Nothing here detracts from the story, and the scene between the Order of The Phoenix and the Death Eaters in the Department of Ministries is breathtaking at times.  At this point, the effects are somewhat good enough to take for granted.

Story – This one is the point where children become wizards and witches, for better or worse.  To get there, many adults have to seem to be helpless, and ignore obvious signs, but oh well.

Cliche – Ron is at full Shaggy now, with only Neville Longbottom competing with him for most inept.  Throwaway characters abound, in the death of Sirius Black, if only to have an ally pass into the great beyond so Harry keeps on understanding that Voldemort really means it.  And these Voldemort losses are piling up, too.  With seemingly no effect, either.

(**** out of *****)

Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince (2009)

Directed by David Yates

Starring all the above and Introducing Jim Broadbent

Characters Development / Characters Introduced –

Harry has picked up a few friends in his journey to manhood.  Among them, Luna Lovegood, an outcast herself that Harry Befriends in an earlier film.  Their development reflects on his ability to lead, if only by noticing others that most dismiss.  Draco Malfoy, losing his father, Lucius to Azkaban in the earlier film, now is forced to step up, and conveniently, Severus Snape is somehow duped into protecting his development past the threshold.  Draco’s character is given a slight boost here, but it is still hard to sense anything but schoolyard bully with the character.  Snape, more expertly handled by Rickman, if not better written, shows a path of not necessarily evil intent.  Hard to do, and Rickman does it well.  Dumbledore still pushes Harry alone, with nothing but half-truths and Obi-Wan rhetoric.

Special Effects – Magnificent at times, especially in the cave where Dumbledore drinks the potion.  The effects are far from being a distraction at this point.

Story – Full speed ahead.  All of the elements of the movie story are coming into place.  This movie has the most movement in explaining the nature of the Horcruxes that keep allowing Voldemort to come back again and again.  We find how many there might be, at a seemingly great cost to Harry.  One could almost cram the material of the other 5 films into 2 (Azkaban and the rest) and then move right on into this one.

Cliche – Like Diggory and Black, Dumbledore’s death is a seeming harbinger of many more in the last movie, because you cannot get through to a happy ending without one’s pound of flesh.  Ron will never amount to more than a punchline, for some stupid reason linked like a ball and chain to the brilliance that is Hermoine.  As for Snape, given that he is bound to be evil in the beginning of the book, might he really just be a nice guy?  Yeah.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 – 2010

Directed by David Yates

Starring all the above and Introducing Rhys Ifans and Bill Nighy

Characters Development / Characters Introduced – Xenophilius Lovegood, Lunas father plays the proprietor and editor of The Quibbler.  Rufus Scrimgeor, the new, albeit temporary Minister for Magic.  At this point, Harry, Ron and Hermoine are spending a good part of their time running and mystery solving.  It is alternatingly jarring and dreadfully slow, and the effect is understandably hard on their characters.  Ron’s back and forth, brought on mostly by the possession of the Horcrux Locket, is more believable than some of the rows that have been forced upon the duo.  The effects of being left alone with Hermoine is never brought to a tawdry place, and that is to be commended, if it is on the unbelievable side.  Then again, its similarly unbelievable that he would leave his burgeoning love, Ginny Weasley, at home.

Special Effects – Can’t really say there is anything that memorable.  The fight of the seven Harry’s is so fast and jarring, it is gone before you know it.  I guess the standout for me would be at Bathilda Bagshot’s house.  Any time you see a snake evolve out of an old lady it is a cause for alarm.  Overall, however, the fights are very brief, I think, to be able to keep the kids in the room.

Story – Entirely the most confusing storyline for those who have not read the books.  Those who just saw the movies might find it almost impossible to figure out, if not paying attention to every single moment.  What you do get, appropriately, is an overwhelming sense of dread, so much so, that it seems, after seeing the book split into two movies, that the first half, was cropped at the right place, even if it left you hanging.

Cliche – At this point, too many people have died off-screen to accuse them of pandering.  This movie is intense, if shortened.  The most clichéd moment, perhaps, was the presentation of the Malfoys of having totally lost their nerve.  Bullying seems to have been their limit of comfort.

(***1/2 out of *****)

And for my full review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 1, click here.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2 – 2011

Directed by David Yates

Starring all the above and Introducing no one new, really, but we see a lot of characters in a whole new way.

Characters Development / Characters Introduced – Where to start?  I think that this episode is a grand reward for any of those who are a fan of the underdog.  Neville comes literally out of nowhere to kick a large amount of tail.  Malfoy and his family literally turn away from the fray when it gets too intense.  The most development, of course is set for Snape and Harry, for reasons revealed in the vile of tears and in King’s Cross.

Special Effects – Yates saved the best for last.  Among the many highlights are the dragon under Gringot’s, the reproducing items in the vault, Dumbledore’s sister in the picture and the fight in the Room of Requirement.  Slight negatives for the still odd-looking giants.  The rest is so amazing, and often times subtly so, it can be overlooked.

Story – This is where it all ends, so every thing needs to come together.  That it does.  The Horcruxes unfold neatly, as does that little scar on Harry’s head.  So many lives lost, yet everyone is still able to justify carrying on.  A particularly chilling effect is the voice of Voldemort overhead, bargaining with those who, in the end, know it is a line of bull.  They give it the amount of credence that any reasonable person would.  The 19 years later epilogue is appropriately brief and respectful.  It leaves a good feeling, and that’s what we are looking for.

Cliche – One of the biggest is the charge by Ron, but it also was just as awesome as Han Solo’s.  Another would have been any sort of lengthy wand showdown.  This did not happen.  I credit the first to Rowling’s ingenuity of killing off Harry without a fight,and the second to writer Steve Kloves and Yates, for editing the poorly written book version into something…different.  In this case, different is good.

(***** out of *****)

And for my full review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2, click here.