Friday, July 13, 2007

Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix

By Reymundo Salao

I am not a Harry Potter fan. I've never read a Harry Potter book, numero uno: because the Harry Potter fandom kinda sickened me (specifically, the ignorant yuppies that jump into the bandwagon & claim they’re such Potter geeks too), and numero dos: I hated the first two Harry Potter movies. Now, If you think that's enough reason to make me UN-qualified to critique this new Harry Potter movie, then you are most welcome to stop reading now.

The bad news: My friends who've read the book didn’t enjoy the film. They think it was executed with a mediocre touch. The good news: I LOVED this new Harry Potter movie! It has a very engaging teen storyline about bullies, first kisses, dead parent issues, and student rebellion against autocracy

One could imagine the immense pressure it must have been for director David Yates to take on a film franchise of one of the most popular, most watched over fiction series of modern time. The slightest mistake or failure to make it excellent could upset an entire legion of fans. But Yates didn’t mess up. He simply picks up where the other directors left off and just did what he thinks is best for the franchise. He delivers without falter, nor selling out. Just like the original mood of the book by J.K. Rowling from which it is based on, Yates takes the franchise to a new level, giving it a mature and dark tone.

Don’t bring your children to this movie. No, there's no offensive violence or sexuality. But kids will definitely find this movie awfully boring. Harry Potter has crossed over from its magical surprise, and dispenses with the "Oohhs and Ahhs" of visual eye candy magic. The movie assumes the audience to think "Sure, it's magic... so what?" it doesn’t dilly-dally, and jumps to just the bare storyline. Children will give you a headache complaining how boring it is. But perhaps a more mature audience would love it.

I am told that HARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is the longest & densest of the Harry Potter books. That may be one reason why its movie adaptation literally skips some aspects of the book and focuses on the storyline. On the downside, there are areas in the story that are confusing and not given adequate explanation. A non-Harry Potter fan like me have found myself asking questions of Who and Why to a companion who has read the book. And they tell me that indeed the movie lacked the effort for non-Potter fans to grasp the story entirely. In addition to this matter, the beginning of the movie also has a seemingly missing void in between this movie and the last one. Even though if one has watched the last movie (Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire) one may be wondering who the new characters were, or what has transpired in-between this movie and the one before it.

The one area of complaint about this movie is its lack of visual inventiveness. There was nothing visually new, but what can you expect from a franchise movie on its fourth sequel (fifth film)? I must guess that after 4 movies of Ooohhh and Aaahhh, maybe this one needed a change of pace, in which understandably, many found unexpectedly boring and devoid of balance. In my opinion, what was new was a more interesting depth in Harry's character, and in almost many of the characters. We see a vengeful Neville Longbottom, a more sympathetic Severus Snape, a more headstrong McGonagall, and a Dumbledore showing his rebellious side. Many of the important side-characters are given brief but ample time. We see Remus Lupin and Alastor Moody in tiny but unignorable roles, and Emma Thompson as Sybil Trelawney gives a short moment to shine as a pitiful teacher who has dimmed out her worth at Hogwarts. The franchise’s cast is all grown up now, the cast that used to be cute has now become a beautiful cast of young actors and actresses.

New villains are most deliciously welcome to make Potter and his friends' lives more miserable. Helena Bonham Carter's performance as Bellatrix Lestrange is truly fitting with her already insane image; her moments were brief but definitely applaudable. And of course, Imelda Staunton is precious as Dolores Umbridge as she brings to life one of the most hated villains I've seen on film for a long time. But then again, it might be due to the fact that the character of Dolores Umbridge clearly represents each and every self-righteous, autocratic teacher I’ve ever encountered. Having gone through unpleasant Elementary and High School experiences, meeting teachers like this is equal to what was actually normal.

HARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is a refreshing tale of mystery, intrigue, and the angst of teen spirit. It may not be your eye candy Harry Potter movie filled with sparks and flashes of CGI creatures and overlong screentime for special effects. This Harry Potter chapter is more character-driven, and I loved it. I’m glad the world of Harry Potter has grown up. We would not want to be stuck in its Disney-like childish image, because the real magic is not all the sparks, but its characters.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Live Free or Diehard [DIEHARD 4.0]

by Reymundo Salao

The first DIEHARD movie was a landmark in action movies. It makes the adult all-action movie genre bigger and more intense, filling it with all the stunts, explosions, bodycount, as well as a powerful storyline, gripping suspense, the most colorful characters, brilliant dialogues and even the funniest black humor. DIEHARD was THE perfect action film. And of course, such a feat can not be easily repeated. Yet, ever since, their efforts for the sequels have been just substantial. Part 4 may not come as close to the original one. But it sure does put up a fight to be a good enough sequel to come as close to the original.

This film is entitled “LIVE FREE OR DIEHARD” in other countries. Being a sequel, it would be expected to victimize itself with comparison to the original movie. But opposite to what sequel skeptics would always point out, Diehard 4.0 is not a mere copy of the original movie. It is, however, a good movie that utilizes the "hero vs cyber-terrorist" template used in such films as "Swordfish" and "The Net". On the other hand, the storyline of Diehard 4.0 was actually based upon a 1997 article "A Farewell to Arms" written for Wired magazine by John Carlin." The screenplay was written by Mark Bomback on this article he'd read. Composer Marco Beltrami injects some of the musical themes from the original Diehard movie, and was able to add his own formula that comfortably fits the Diehard aura. His music was okay, but not outstanding.

Looking back at the first movie, the casting has made an excellent choice picking Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy Gennaro MClane, John MClane's daughter, whose look indeed have such a resemblance to the little kid that played the same role on the first movie. Of course, Bruce Willis did a great job breathing life back to the two-decade old protagonist of this franchise. He only proves that John McClane is not too old to rock as a not-so-indestructible bad-ass hero. Maggie Q as the ass-kicking villainess Mai Lihn is stunning to look at, a walking eye candy. And Timothy Olyphant did a forgettable, yet satisfactory performance as the villain Thomas Gabriel. Outspoken (Star Wars) geek and spunky film director Kevin Smith, who directed Dogma, Jay & Silent Bob Strikes Back, Mallrats and Clerks, makes an applaudable but brief appearance as a hacker who calls himself Warlock. Justin Long who’s always played nerdy roles in movies like Dodgeball, Waiting, Herbie Fully Loaded, and Jeepers Creepers, does well as McClane's semi-partner in this movie.

The editing was flawed as some eagle-eye audiences could catch the inconsistency of the audio dialogue to the visual conversation in some of the scenes. This may be so because of the production company's last minute move to make the movie PG-13 instead of Rated R just like the previous Diehard movies. This is so the company can suck in more millions to its box-office sales. Nevertheless, the toning down of this movie's violence does not appear to ruin how good this movie is.

The movie does not run out of good humor also. There is always something to laugh at. There are a couple of semi-hidden jokes that reference to the previous Diehard movies. The mere mention of "Agent Johnson" may serve as a referential joke for Diehard diehards to laugh at. On the other hand, one may notice that there really isn’t much storyline in this movie. The storyline actually revolves around the character of the villain. The villain here is a vengeful programmer who was ignored and crucified by the government that he wanted to serve. But because this is a Diehard sequel, the focus is more on the consequences of the villain's road to vindication. In other words, the movie dispenses with going deep into the set-up story-telling and jumps into the action. After all, this is the movie that doesn’t seek to contest movies like Hotel Rwanda or Syrianna; it's a Diehard movie, dammit!

Len Wiseman is best known for directing the 2 UNDERWORLD movies. And although, his familiarity with heart-pounding action delivers the Diehard action goodies, he lacks the brilliant wit and the quirks that made the original Diehard special. I'm talking about scenes from the original like the Chinese guy stealing a candy bar before the gun slaughter, the scene with the SWAT guys clumsily being hurt by rose thorns as they "stealthily" seize the building. These are minor quirky scenes that made the original movie special because it gave each and every character personality; each and every scene mean so much. Len Wiseman delivers, even with the humor and the action in it, but merely with a satisfactory passing grade. One thumbs up would suffice.

What sets Diehard from other supermacho action movies is that John McClane bleeds. Sure, he kills all the bad guys, but he does it, number one: in a clumsy, insane way, or number two: he looks like half-dead human swiss cheese of injuries, looking like he demands to be taken to the hospital's ICU ward. You’ve gotta snicker and applaud a hero who admits he feels like a big pile of punching bag made out of crap and at the same time, cheer at himself for having annihilated all the bad guys. You cant easily turn your back to a hero as charming as that. Most especially with the subplot of John McClane for Diehards 3 and 4 where McClane's character suffers from some problematic stress and a bad divorce, it makes this protagonist more of a semi-tragic hero that gets much of fan sympathy. Everybody loves a hero who does the right thing even though he's down on the gutter and he knows that there really is no hero trophy waiting for him. Despite its minor shortcomings, Diehard 4.0 kicks ass.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


by Reymundo Salao

What began more than 2 decades ago as a cartoon that marketed a line of toys, has become a phenomenal multimedia franchise and spawned an army of fans. Many of them have already grown up to become fathers of a younger generation that will eventually become transformers fans themselves. Now, that this live-action film adaptation of the TRANSFORMERS saga is out on the silver screen, the life of this franchise has become all the more immortal.

Having only minor changes from the original cartoon storyline (the original cartoon that was launched in 1984 being taken as the canon for all the Transformers storyline that was later adapted into comic books and video games), the TRANSFORMERS movie is about the war between two groups of robots from the planet Cybertron; The heroic Autobots and the treacherous Decepticons. This war erupted when the Decepticons wanted to seize control of the AllSpark, an enigmatic cube that has said to have been the source of life of the Planet Cybertron. This war has reached Earth and here, the Decepticons who have no regard for human life will kill and annihilate just to obtain the AllSpark's power, while the heroic Autobots must come and not only stop the Decepticons, but also protect humankind as well.

The movie immediately starts with an action sequence, reminding you to strap your senses on coz it really is a visual overdose trip. From the mood-setting jumpstart, the film introduces you to the nerdy teenage protagonist who comes into contact with an Autobot; Bumblebee. The story progresses with a well-balanced editing that goes back on forth from the kid's story to the goings-on in the military force that is curiously investigating a series of Decepticon attacks. And whenever the Transformers in full robot mode are revealed, I am once again that 8 year old kid who adored these robot heroes. I noticed that everybody else watching the movie was also in awe. Some may idolize the charming Bumblebee, others like me cheer an "All hail Optimus Prime" most especially in that one scene (perhaps the only scene with a serious intelligent moment) when Prime talks about the human race being a race that still needs to evolve from our primitive, self-destructive, violent nature. I.E: We humans need to grow up!

TRANSFORMERS is intense with its eye candy aspect that it will give your eyeballs diabetes. Making sure, it does not fall short with being a mere piece of eye candy, it is backed up with an excellent script, simple but effective storyline, and excellent acting. There is enough charm for the characters, producer Steven Spielberg has even managed to give the movie its Spielberg touch as the characters of the kid, Sam Witwicky makes a sort of "ET" friendship with the Autobot Bumblebee.

Michael Bay is considered a reliable director when it comes to visually stimulating movies. His movies are often overly yet unoriginally stylistic but definitely pleasing to the eyes. His visuals often show stark colors, and rarely (perhaps never) utilizes a filtered look. Everything always looks so crystal clear. His style is very much of commercial quality and does the job, staying true to his signature of being a purely eye candy "commercial" director. Always perfect for action and sci-fi movies, Michael Bay's style can mirror George Lucas' Star Wars prequels. That is why Michael Bay is perfect for a TRANSFORMERS adaptation.

Let's be honest, even though I adored the Transformers as a kid, you cannot deny that there isn’t much of a storyline to work with Transformers. Up from the start, Transformers is a big eye candy commercial for toys, and with the movies, it is now a big eye candy commercial for automobiles (notice that they’re featuring the similar brand of cars?). It's the Transformers; it's escapist fantastic fun.

This movie is perfect project for Michael Bay's style. In a Michael Bay movie, you come for the visual treat; you come to have your eyes fattened up. From dizzying stunts, to gorgeous casting, Michael Bay delivers the goods, insuring it to have its commercial success.

The minimal downsides to this project is that Michael Bay's overly stylistic style sometimes cushions and minimizes the impact of some of the film's great scenes. Many Transformer duels are denied of having a fully outstanding impact because either of Bay's "stylistic shaky" cinematography or "dizzying camera shots" often deprive the audience of seeing in its full grandeur many of the robot duels. Also a downside is the film's lack of clear storytelling, something that the visuals make you disregard. With the visuals actually turning off your brain, you will only realize that there are some unanswered questions and unclear consistency after you’ve seen the film a week later.

Purists may also be disappointed by the character designs that did not mirror the original look of the Transformer robots. I also have agreed with this opinion initially, but once the movie begins, you forget all the geek protestations about the robot designs, it doesn’t matter too much anymore whether Optimus Prime looked different from the original design. What matters is that the movie was able to turn you into a kid once again, applauding at the fun-filled adventure and the positively-buzzing action.

It was a good thing that I wasn’t able to submit the first draft of my film review for this movie last week. Because it really is the kind of movie that would have you zombified, grinning with two thumbs up, salivating to watch it again. I know I was, and it took me a week to see the two sides of the coin. If you haven’t seen this yet, you should probably jump in line, missing it will make you regret not seeing it in the silver screen. TRANSFORMERS is definitely MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE.