4/20/2014

KEVIN SORBO CREATES A BIG BANG PERFORMANCE IN GOD'S NOT DEAD

year: 2014
rating: **1/2
In GOD’S NOT DEAD, Kevin Sorbo plays Professor Radisson, a college philosophy teacher who politely demands that his students write this movie’s title on paper before venturing further into his contemptuously biased course… So one kid winds up scribbling “god” with a small g, and wouldn’t it be humorous if Sorbo’s character asked if this referred to Hercules?

Well there’s another student who decides not to write down anything, and Josh Wheaton, played by a subtle yet effective Shane Harper, isn’t giving in… Despite the class being an important one, he'll put his future on the line and argue against the anti-God stance… And the prof takes him up on it… An understatement…

For what seems like the rest of the semester, young Wheaton is given the chance to argue the existence of God over the Big Bang Theory… Which is fine enough within a Christian movie, and the young actor in lecture mode, starting out like a flushed novice before getting more comfortable "on stage," is effective… But what’s completely unrealistic is there’s no longer any philosophy class at all... The entire semester becomes Wheaton addressing the students while Radisson looks on with a cocky grin: How on Earth does he hand out grades?

In the antagonist role, Sorbo’s performance is surprisingly good and, in the personality department, to use a collegiate term, highly persuasive – and he’s not the only 90’s TV hero in the mix… Also on board is SUPERMAN Dean Cain as a jerky businessman... like the other "villains," including a strict Muslim father, he's far from Christian… Especially Cain's girlfriend, an Internet reporter who loathes DUCK DYNASTY and then, after finding out she has cancer, begins to question her own non-belief. 

While the ending, taking place at a Christian rock band's concert, is corny and predictably propagandist, and Radisson's fate provides a much too easy out (while tying loose ends with a side-character pastor), our two persistent leads – the Christian student and the Atheist teacher – make GOD’S NOT DEAD an entertaining debate… for either side.

4/18/2014

JOHNNY DEPP AND REBECCA HALL IN TRANSCENDENCE

year: 2014 rating: *1/2
It should come as no surprise that a mindtrip experience would begin in Berkeley, California… And with a mellow Jorma Kaukonen acoustic track chiming from a record player into a lovely garden, one wouldn’t expect TRANSCENDENCE to be so modern and technological…

Even Johnny Depp’s brilliant Dr. Will Caster seems above such trivial matters as The Internet… With a voice sounding like a slightly buzzed Walter Cronkite impersonating an upper-class British snob, Depp is not only a guest star but doesn’t seem all there. Even when alive and kicking, before becoming part of a computer creation involving reanimated brainwaves, the Depp role could have been played by anyone… 

And speaking of wasted casting, let’s breeze past filler roles including Morgan Freeman as a doubting scientist and Cillian Murphy as an FBI Agent… The real lead is Rebecca Hall as Caster’s wife Evelyn, who, carrying her late husband’s brain and voice via computer, sets up a gigantic research station in a town so small there’s hardly room for one horse.

Got Jorma?
All the work misleads us into thinking something nefarious will happen… For it seems that Caster, whose flickering image appears anywhere his wife roams within the white-walled underground compound, isn’t exactly himself: he could very well be a monstrous computer taking over the world! Which sounds like a potentially decent sci-fi thriller… But after a rushed military attack we’re left with a preachy message that could have been titled AN INCONVENIENT MATRIX...

But at least Jorma’s meditative Genesis is spun once again. If anything else, TRANSCENDENCE serves as an outlet for the Jefferson Airplane (and Hot Tuna) guitarist to be heard as a solo act in a big budget mainstream film... Although this particular white rabbit leads us absolutely nowhere.

4/16/2014

KAREN GILLAN & BRENTON THWAITES IN OCULUS

year: 2014
rating: **1/2
Horror film starlets, often known as scream queens, are naïve, shrill victims until, after enough punishment, they get a second wind and turn the tables on their aggressors… 

But Karen Gillan’s Kaylie Russell is, from the beginning, assertive and actively intent on stopping her adversary… At least in the present time.

To say Kaylie and her brother Tim grew up in a dysfunctional family is an understatement... Since we’re given all the information up front, it’s not a spoiler exactly: dad killed mom after mom had gone toothless and berserk... Sporadic flashbacks of the younger siblings eventually coincide with the main story, where Kaylie, who still owns the house where really bad things occurred, is dead set on facing and exposing her foe, which, in this particular case, is a mirror: all to prove her parents weren’t so crazy after all. 

Billed as a horror flick, OCULUS is really a paranormal mystery/suspense… The mystery involving an investigative Kaylie and her reluctant brother figuring out just how much power that antique mirror – able to hypnotize and then slowly kill humans, animals and plants  – still has inside the house… And the suspense is always palpable, making the audience ready for the next sudden chill: ranging from glimpses of an ominous wraith to screaming hallway chases... 

But it’s not all terrifying... There are bits of dark humor, mostly centered on Kaylie’s determination: she’s so stubborn, strong-willed and even cruel you can’t help but to laugh. And, countered by her passive brother played by Brenton Thwaites, whose somewhat limp performance pales to sis, this is really her show... Through thick and thin, she alone keeps us entertained… 

Too bad the frightful moments are few and far between. And when the demonic presence is finally revealed, appearing outside the mirror image, it has a few friends along, taking away from what could have been a much more contained, and thus way scarier, mindtrip rollercoaster ride. 

4/15/2014

IVAN REITMAN DIRECTS KEVIN COSTNER IN DRAFT DAY

year: 2014 rating: **
Kevin Costner returns in one of several "comeback" vehicles… 

Not long ago he was a slowburn action hero in THREE DAYS TO KILL, and now he only has one day, that’s right, DRAFT DAY, where Costner’s brooding Sonny Weaver Jr., the Cleveland Brown’s general draft manager and son of the recently-departed beloved ex-coach, has to make an extremely important decision…

Although you’d never know Junior has anything on the line, at least not during the talky first half as director Ivan Reitman – in revitalizing the split-screen device by having characters invade the frame of the neighboring square – centers more on glossy aesthetic than moving the story along.

Weaver's peripheral romance with Jennifer Garner’s executive lawyer, Ali, is dull and pointless, as are the conversations with his opinionated mother (played by Cult Film Freak’s favorite actress, Ellen Burstyn). In the lead, Costner remains in the kind of mellow mode he’s gotten away with in the past, and now just seems lethargic, hardly commanding the screen at all.

But Kevin and sport's fans alike, have patience: behind the meetings and phone-calls there's an actual plot unraveling, which, surprisingly, is more like Clint Eastwood’s TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE than MONEYBALL: when a lucrative quarterback seems the all too perfect candidate to save The Browns, not only is there a light at the end of the tunnel, but an actual tunnel is formed…

Thus DRAFT DAY gets somewhat intriguing: as the minutes tick down to the televised event the film's named after, we learn more and more about the desired QB’s Achilles’ heel (which only Weaver can spot), adding a mysterious element to a story that’s all talk and no play otherwise.

4/14/2014

REB BROWN AS CAPTAIN AMERICA 1979 TV MOVIE DOUBLE FEATURE

year: 1979 part one: *** part two: **
With a super cool motorcycle, patented uniform, and the boomerang shield, Captain America reigns: more of a bionic Evel Knievel than the traipsing comic book icon... But first he’s Steve Rogers, a budding artist fresh out of the Marines, cruising the coast in a groovy fan for leisure, but the bad guys want him dead and the good guys want him… super!

Reb Brown’s a big guy to begin with, so the transformation is nothing like the original, which morphs a skinny wimp into a muscular stud. And Brown’s performance is surprisingly monotone given energetic turns in BIG WEDNESDAY, UNCOMMON VALOR and especially CAGE. At a certain point you'd think he needs coffee more than a shield... The iconic weapon which is made of cheap plastic because, according to Brown himself in a personal interview, they couldn't use anything heavy for the motorcycle riding scenes.

In the patriotic red, white & blue uniform, Reb looks the part, and this TV movie builds up the plot… about a Militant’s threat to detonate a neutron bomb… and takes forty five minutes for our hero to assume his identity and then kick in gear. The best scenes occur during the latter part of the second act: involving Cap riding that motorcycle around, dodging bullets and beating up thugs. Then, when the ante is upped, and Steve Forrest takes the villainous forefront from thug Lance LeGault, things get a bit too heavy-handed although it's always cool whenever Captain America puts his foot down. 

The follow-up, DEATH TOO SOON, starts off with some neat action – Captain America completely out of the bag without any explanations – but a majority of the film flags beneath a thick plot involving Christopher Lee spreading an age-accelerating gas, and then extorting the government into paying him for the antidote. There are just a few action scenes where Captain America and his motorcycle go to work – but alas, not much work’s to be done: just a lotta talk about world domination.

Heather Menzies, the ingénue from the first, is replaced by Connie Selleca, while Len Berman returns as the scientist who’d granted the powers (handed down by Steve’s father, the original Captain America). And yes, this is extraordinarily dated – with music even CHiPs would consider corny… but it’s simple fun: like how a child’s mind registers a comic book rather than a grownup’s progressed interpretation.

4/09/2014

BAGFUL OF THE ORIGINAL CAST STAR TREK MOVIE FRANCHISE

ORIGINAL STAR TREK CINEMA
The original STAR TREK television series is a miraculous enigma, being that is only lasted three seasons and grew more popular throughout the years, spawning countless spinoffs and a reboot, making TREK perhaps the greatest cult franchise of all time... 

A decade after the original groundbreaking series flatlined, and for more than a decade that followed, Trekkies got a handful of films with the original cast... some better than others but all entertaining in their own right... Although the MOTION PICTURE wasn't initially meant to revitalize TREK onto the big screen...  

"Gene Roddenberry gave me a two-page outline titled ROBOT'S RETURN and asked if I could expand it," author Alan Dean Foster, who also adapted the STAR TREK cartoon into LOG BOOKS years before, wrote in a Cult Film Freak interview. "I developed a long treatment I called IN THY IMAGE. This was to be the opening episode of the new, revived network series. They then decided they wanted to open with a two-hour movie for TV, and I again expanded and revised the treatment, which subsequently became the basis for the film..."

This collected bagful of reviews, covering all six STAR TREK original-cast movies, were taken from individual archives, each written in various stages... And now they can only be found here, so let's go where many have gone before, taking a glimpse at the TREK MOVIE universe, one by one... 

year: 1979 rating: **
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE: Veteran director Robert Wise brings to the big screen the beloved characters from the classic '60s sci-fi TV show that, although it didn't last very long, snowballed into an even larger cult following throughout the '70s, enough to merit (thanks to STAR WARS, which made outer space bankable) a motion picture: too bad it had to be this one...

William Shatner, as Captain James T. Kirk, returns to the Enterprise with a solemn bitterness, as does McCoy, with a fake beard and even grumpier than his boss... And finally Spock, duller than even a Vulcan should be... As they set out to intercept a giant mysterious cloud destined to blow up earth.

A boring side-story involves the new young Enterprise commander, played by an otherwise talented Stephen Collins, and a sexy bald woman as grumpy as the rest of the cast... especially when she becomes a robot, or something possibly non-human.

Most of the film has the crew standing on the bridge, gazing out in awed-wonderment at all the expensive, and impressive, special effects: the only thing somewhat worthwhile. But the eye-candy gets stale quick since there's nothing "solid" to chase it with, and we're finally led to a limp twist ending that tries hard for Kubrick inspired wonderment but ends up pretentiously stale.

If this were a condensed forty-five minute episode of the original series, it'd still be a throwaway, lacking the mysteriously brainy chess match that made the show so endearing, interesting, and fun. Kirk, having no chance at outsmarting this particularly formidable "alien,” must simply learn about it... so where's the challenge?

1982 rating: ****
STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN: What probably makes KHAN the fan favorite of the STAR TREK films, featuring the cast of the original television series, is not only the villain, played wonderfully by Ricardo Montalban... returning from a beloved episode titled THE SPACE SEEDS... but the fact there's a real challenge for Captain Kirk.

An important aspect of any key Trek plot is how Kirk and crew... as one mind and body with various traits all serving a single frame... has to overcome an impending element out to destroy them. There's no attempt to save the human race or an over-done sense of awe like the first movie, but rather, a head-to-head grapple based on pure vengeance that doesn't neglect the mental element, essential to the franchise.

There's a perfect mix of brain and brawn, and a side-story involving Chekov and his new Captain, played by Paul Winfield, adds a nifty peripheral factor. The only drawback is the far-fetched "Genesis" project, and while it's extremely important to the plot, for some reason, with all the fun of watching Kirk and Khan as loggerheads, doesn't mean much in the end.

year: 1984 rating: ***1/2
STAR TREK: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK: It’s said that every other original cast TREK movie is good, beginning with WRATH OF KHAN. So with that rock-skipping theory in place, the only decent Trek flicks are two, four and six... Not true!

Part three, while merely serving as a wedge between two and four, has some terrifically intense moments: like the crew "stealing" the Enterprise from dry-dock; or a Vulcan, having lined up three people, walking behind each, choosing which to kill. Meanwhile, the lack of Spock throughout most of the film gives other characters a chance to shine a bit...

Sulu beating up a six foot bully soldier is a hoot and McCoy, moved to second-banana, gets particularly more attention as he channels Spock's personality, turning him into a punch-drunk "spaced-out" loon (what Spock would become in part four). And Christopher Lloyd, as a menacing rogue Klingon, is almost too perfectly cast and somewhat dated today... Sure he overacts... but it's Star Trek!

Plot has the crew out to find Spock's body that was left in a coffin on a revived planet, all the while battling the nefarious Lloyd. The "Genesis" concept, introduced in part two, is a bit far-fetched even for sci-fi... But seeing this sublime invention destroy itself lends more believability to the entire concept.

Directed by Leonard Nimoy, this outing, although ultimately filler, is pretty entertaining, and at times borrows from the Star Wars universe: like when McCoy's looking for illegal transport in a Cantina full of strange-looking aliens, or Lloyd's pet monster-hell-dog, seeming right out of Jabba's palace.

The last twenty minutes, showing in detail the Vulcan ritual in bringing Spock back to life, is long-winded and suited for hardcore Trekkies only. And yet, despite the flaws, this is a decent enough entry that blows the every-other theory to smithereens.

year: 1986 rating: ****
STAR TREK: THE VOYAGE HOME: The concept of humpback whales saving the planet is hokey and, at times, environmentally preachy, but one of the great things about part four is the entire cast getting their own special time on screen, filling out their abilities like in no other Trek film.

Our story begins with an odd spaceship resembling a giant link-sausage carrying an illuminating fooz-ball, trying to read the ocean to make contact with what Kirk and Spock realize are extinct humpback whales. So the crew must go back in time (by circling the sun... not an easy feat) to the 20th century/mid-1980's to find the whales and bring them home before the vessel blows up earth.

The crew takes to the streets of modern day San Fransisco and not only must find the whales, but a container in which to hold the “beasties” (as Scotty describes them), and something nuclear to fix the Klingon ship inherited from the previous film.

"This... is... Culture, Spock."
In this thoroughly involving journey we really get to know the side-characters: Scotty trying to communicate with a computer by speaking into the mouse is hilarious; Sulu knows his stuff as a helicopter pilot; and Chekov is given a nail-biting mission. On the forefront, William Shatner's acting is less contrived, his speech not as halting, and HOME is possibly his best performance in all the Trek films.

The moments where Kirk plays off Spock, punchy from having been resurrected in the last outing, are hilarious. And Catherine Hicks, as an idealistic, uptight and beautiful whale researcher, is a terrific addition – and we get to see Kirk's famous ability with the ladies at a more mature, genuine level.

The highly progressed 23rd Century humans dealing with 20th century chumps is not only fun but downright insightful: kind of how Spock sees advanced humans in the 23rd century, giving the crew a Vulcan-like perception into our very own "primitive" society. And a fantastic pre-climax, rescuing a dying Chekov from a hospital, is suspenseful and humorous – especially as McCoy critiques our "medieval" surgical methods.

So while WRATH is, technically, the best of the series, VOYAGE HOME is personal favorite and the peak of the franchise.

1989 rating: ***
STAR TREK: THE FINAL FRONTIER and THE MOTION PICTURE have something in common: Both are thoroughly maligned and, upon initial viewing, lack the adventurous elements that make the other Trek theatricals worthwhile… And yet they also attempt to be more low-key and cerebral like the classic, groundbreaking television series, and FRONTIER is, for the most part, a far superior episode than its predecessor…

There are several problems, most having to do with uneven, awkward direction by William Shatner, who doesn’t allow the story to flow like his co-star Leonard Nimoy did for SEARCH FOR SPOCK and especially VOYAGE HOME... Also, the budget seems much lower this time around... Then again, this adds to the nostalgic value, bringing us back to basics. 

The lackluster opening desert sequence, establishing the film’s troubled antagonist Sybock, a Vulcan in search of God, is bland and overwrought... And then we change location to Yosemite, where an overweight Kirk climbs a mountain with ease before falling to his near-death and, at the very last minute, rescued by a hovering Spock, seems straight out of a space age Road Runner cartoon… And then... get this... Kirk, Spock and McCoy attempt to sing Row, Row, and Row Your Boat around a campfire… These moments are downright cringe-worthy and feel nothing like science-fiction...

But the ball gets rolling once Sybock takes over the Enterprise to reach this “final frontier” to literally meet his maker, and the ragtag crew has to work together, as captives on their own vessel… This following a fun, horse-riding siege on a primitive planet, where the gang initially meet the rogue Vulcan… And in that role, character-actor Laurence Luckinbill delivers an antagonist both formidable and sympathetic.

Through all the ups and downs, it's the last act that really matters, a mind-trip conclusion at the brink of the galaxy where, once again, Captain Kirk has to make a decision that can make and break everything, providing enough suspense and camaraderie that not even the "merrily" return of Row, Row, Row Your Boat can diminish.


1991 rating: **1/2
STAR TREK: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY: Not a terrible movie, but seemed too much like NEXT GENERATION in its 90's squeaky-clean-TV special-effects, while a much too obvious modern commentary on politics, bringing the viewer out of the 23rd Century... like Spock mentioning Richard Nixon... is downright distracting... 

Meanwhile, The Klingons quote Shakespeare (hence the title) and their benign planet way-too-obviously represents the just-fallen Soviet Union... This feels like STAR TREK invading C-SPAN, or vice versa...

Other distractions include Sulu as the captain of his own ship, something Takei wanted for many years; a pointlessly intrusive cameo by Christian Slater; and the feeling that the original cast are simply going through the motions: COUNTRY is more of a courtroom drama than a mission of any kind... A bridge too far... Standard orbit, and nothing more...

But not entirely shabby either... There are moments of suspense and good performances... After all, you've got Christopher Plummer on board and they brought back KHAN director Nicholas Meyer to close the book on the original STAR TREK movie franchise.

4/06/2014

COMPLETE BAGFUL OF REVIEWS FROM THE HARRY POTTER FRANCHISE

year: 2001 rating: ****
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE: Who would ever think timeworn clichés like broomsticks and magic wands would work for a popular modern fantasy franchise, but it all seems brand new.

Based on the first Potter novel by J.K. Rowling, here’s a movie that takes you to another world, which is still part of this one. Harry, as an infant, is left with his abusive aunt and uncle and by eleven years old – aided by their fat spoiled son – he’s treated like a spectacle-wearing male Cinderella.

But his lot lies beyond this particular suburban hell since, being branded with a scar on his forehead, he’s very important. For we learn that a really bad character… whose name is not to be spoken (although it is several times)… had killed Harry’s wizardly parents but couldn’t kill him.

Well that’s the backstory, placed nicely within the linear introducing our put-upon hero. But it’s when a train-bound Harry, joined by underdog Ron Weasley and a brainy girl Hermione, go to a castle called Hogwarts to become wizards, that the movie takes charge.

Actually, wait... Scenes involving Harry and big-bearded caretaker Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) shopping for essential "school gear" in a mystical outdoor mall is when the initial spell takes over. Reminiscent of Luke Skywalker going from his dull farmland into Mos Eisley, we’re catapulted into a strange new setting with the protagonist.

So by now, most people have seen this movie, but for those afraid that anything this popular must be overrated, it isn’t. The child actors are good to great: Daniel Radcliffe displays the right amount of awe for the audience to share in the unfolding odyssey and Rupert Grint, as the sidekick, provides far more than filler...

But it’s Emma Watson who, as a know-it-all that really knows it all (having studied spells much needed as the film veers into dangerous territory), is reminiscent of the British child actors of the sixties and seventies, seeming like an adult shrunk into a kid’s body.

The first half, as the trio learn the ins and outs of the giant castle Hogwarts… full of murky, mazy surprises (including a big mean troll and a broom-riding outdoor sport)... exceeds the fledgling mid-section, where the character’s get a bit lost in exposition. But once we realize their goal: to get that titular stone before a mysterious bad guy does, things pick back up.

Director Chris Columbus wields the right amount of Spielberg-inspired gliding camera to give the feel we, like the characters, are being welcomed to this mystical setting as insightful newcomers. And John William’s score, although reminiscent of that far away galaxy, provides a dreamy, magical vibe keeping everything in place.

year: 2002 rating: *1/2
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS: Just as bad as the first movie is good, this, the second in the Potter series – although creatively providing the main villain’s backstory – feels like a bad sequel.

New characters like Kenneth Branagh as a charlatan wizard who can’t live up to his ego-driven fame, or Malfoy’s father, an Arian sorcerer who wants to rid of all “Mudbloods” (wizards with muggle i.e. lamen's blood, providing a banal class envy storyline), prance around like part of a stage play, and there’s simply too much dialogue explaining what happened or what’s about to happen, and not much adventure.

The titular Chamber of Secrets holds a power to kill all Mudbloods, and that includes Hermione, incapacitated throughout most of the film. In one part involving a giant spider, one of the only scenes worthwhile, Ron turns to Harry and says, “Where’s Hermione when you need her?”

That’s a great question. Without the best child actor of the lot present, the two boys don’t have that spark needed to carry things through. And a computer animated slave elf named Dobble, the Jar Jar Binks of the series, doesn't help matters, while a car that flies Harry and Weasley around takes the viewer out of the fantasy element right quick.

There's a whole lot of magic here, though few spells actually work… But worst of all, this CHAMBER is boring and a downer to boot.

year: 2004 rating: ***
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN: Things get back on track after the lackluster second movie. Harry finally leaves his abusive home life, which seemed kind of forced to begin with, and is picked up by a speeding bus, providing some action to kick things into gear.

Much of the storyline, after he returns to Hogwarts, is a bit confusing… but eventually, during the imperative third act, as he and Hermione go back in time to relive events from the first half, it all makes perfect sense.

Gary Oldman plays a seemingly sinister convict, escaped from Azkaban for turning in Harry’s parents to Voldemort, with the right amount of frantic fervor. David Thewlis is a new professor with a secret of his own: but both characters aren’t what they seem, and like any of the Potter films, each scene, and every bit of dialogue, brings a new piece to the ongoing jigsaw... so pay attention.

Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, provides far more energy than the ailing icon. And Daniel Radcliffe really shows his stuff here, growing into a fine young actor while Rupert Grint becomes less of a relevant sidekick... Emma Watson wedges into the secondary position with finesse, and Hagrid’s flying pet Buckbeak is a far better computer animated mascot than the last film’s horribly annoying elf.

All and all a good film, making one yearn for the next outing yet feeling like a solitary story on its own.

year: 2005 rating: ****
HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE: The best so far of the Potter films. Unlike parts two and three, it doesn’t seek an 11th hour plot while divulging exposition about things happening or about to happen or what could be happening till it’s happening, but there’s an interesting mainline throughout: the Tri-Wizard Tournament, consisting of three students from various locations, and at first – since the starting age is seventeen – this doesn’t include Harry Potter.

Until the Goblet of Fire, which spouts out the selected contestants, chooses the fourteen-year-old. The rest of the film consists of Harry surviving three dangerous tasks including fighting a dragon; staying underwater for an hour against some nasty-looking mermaids; and running through a mysterious hedge maze (without Jack Nicholson wielding an ax).

While Hagrid is thrust into a silly romance, Harry’s burly mentor role is taken over by Brenden Gleeson as Alastor “Mad Eye" Moody, a former bounty hunter type who’s a formidable, but ultimately resourceful, new teacher at the school.

The mentoring between Mad Eye and Harry takes most of the peripheral from even the faithful sidekicks Ron Weasley, who whines and squeaks his way through another outing, and Hermione, seeming even more uptight (and thus, intense) than ever.

But the real significance is the introduction of Valdemort himself (Ralph Fiennes) – appearing after Harry plummets from the final maze into a fog shrouded cemetery, thus witnessing his vile aggressor’s ominous, stage-like diatribe perhaps a bit too lengthy… Then again, since previously appearing in various shapes and sizes with little to say, he has plenty of time to make up for.

GOBLET also includes the death of a side-character and ends with our heroes glancing into an unclear future that, with a tangible evil now placed in the forefront, is of much greater risk and significance.

year: 2007 rating: **
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX: "Hermione," Harry says at one point, "it's not that simple." An understatement!

Well the film starts pretty good with an attack by those vicious Death Eaters... in the suburbs. Then we learn Harry's been expelled for practicing magic in the presence of a Muggle. It's here, through a courtroom scene as our put-upon hero faces expulsion, we're introduced to the Order of the Phoenix, a fascist group of tyrannical political types wanting to turn Hogwarts into their own structured school, and not believing that Voldemort has returned.

But old Stocking Face isn't the main antagonist here. An uptight and darkly efficient underling of the Order's chief, Delores Umbridge, prancing like a finicky church lady born from the depths of hell, takes that position.

With a snide giggle and a heart of stone, Umbridge attempts to keep Harry and friends from forming a secret student army against Voldemort, which is a more involving premise than it turns out to be.

There's a montage of the young wizards training, but nothing really comes of it. All leading to the climax taking place in the maze-like "Department of Mysteries," visually resembling a music video more than an important battle... And the very end, within one conversation, Harry learns from Dumbledore what could have been stated in the beginning of the next film, making this not only bland, boring, and much too complicated, but a waste of time.

year: 2009 rating: ***1/2
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: Edgy darkness abounds as the Harry Potter series nears an end, and we learn the ways to finally rid of Voldemort (for the last two films) and it probably won’t be easy.

The cinematography is liken to a fantasy rendition of THE GODFATHER, cast in darkness and shadows, murky moods permeating a suspenseful, cerebral odyssey.

Harry has become a pop icon of sorts, and before he can hook up with a beautiful "Muggle" groupie, he’s taken by good old Dumbledore to meet our newest special guest: Jim Broadbent as a reclusive Professor Slughorn, holding key memories of former Hogwarts student Tom Riddle.

The entire film plays like a moody mystery/thriller, spending little time with spells, games and camaraderie between the kids: although there’s some light shed on Ron Weasley, who’s unintentionally stolen the hearts of both a love-struck chippie and his good pal Hermione.

But the entire movie truly belongs to Harry: dogging the heels of Slughorn and a grownup Malfoy: the latter in-cahoots with the Dark Lord. And while the third act’s finale is more flash than substance, we finally experience Dumbledore and Harry banding together, reminiscent of Bilbo and Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT.

This, the beginning of the end, is a successful bridge leading to an unknown future.

year: 2010 rating: *1/2
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1: These are dark times, and this is pretty dark film, the first of two parts wrapping up the Harry Potter series. And gone is the safety of Hogwarts as Harry seeks those essential elements to takes pieces out of Voldemort soul – and most of the film is setting up for the next, and last, adventure…

There are only a few good action scenes, and the characters spout so much exposition you’ll need a court typist to dictate everything...

The very beginning loses a couple important characters in a flying broom attack so hard to see, a lot of the punch is lost. Add a lot of whining by a jealous Ron, as Harry and Hermione discover a subliminal love on a long journey through a seemingly endless desert.

The best scene involves a story told by Hermione, reading from BEEDLE THE BARD, a book left to her from Dumbledore: the story is shown in a fantastically gloomy animation (much like Lucy Lieu’s backstory in KILL BILL) – here we learn about the Elder wand and of course, the Deathly Hallows, encompassing three items that, when combined, will mean the end of Harry and just about everything. 

And although Harry takes the death of Dobble, the Elfin Jar Jar Binks, very seriously, this reviewer felt a gigantic sigh of relief upon the horrendously annoying creature’s demise… Thankfully, part 2 peels away all the superfluous junk and thins down into a neat plot: a light a the end of the tunnel, though still quite a long tunnel…

year: 2011 rating: ***
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2: The three main characters are in search of the last “horcrux” to finally get rid of Voldemort… But with everything else aside, if there is any kind of noticeable arc throughout the series, it’s how much Daniel Radcliffe grew as an actor: in the first film, Emma Watson’s Hermione stole the show while the two boys, though natural, seemed a bit overwhelmed… Yet this point Radcliffe delivers lines like a stage actor, and a good one at that… It’s his ride…

The best scenes have the characters going from each location, riding a dragon or thinking up ways to find the key to kill the dark villain… Then they finally return to Hogwarts, which is now a really dark place.

Alas, the movie hits a wall the further in we get to the final answer: during long, brooding scenes with deceased characters, the cinematography, basking in white glow, tries too hard to mirror the ambiguous 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ENDING and is a little too much… especially for young viewers, or old impatient ones. 

Leading to a final standoff, which includes Harry joined by several of his ragtag friends, that’s too rushed and resulting in a tacked-on conclusion showing the main characters twenty years in the future, looking pretty almost exactly the same… Anyone ever attend a 20-year high school reunion?

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