18 November 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros 2005)

When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was originally released, fans were surprised by the size of the tome. It should be no surprise to those fans that in just over two and a half hours of run-time there is a lot of text that just didn't make it into the film. Rest assured though, not one page of script was wasted in this movie.

We find Harry Potter at the Weasley's house as they set off for the Quiddich world cup. Unfortunately, Lord Voldemort's followers, the Death Eaters disrupt the festivities and that attack sets the mood for the rest of the movie. Even the exciting announcement of the Tri-Wizard Tournaments to be held at Hogwarts is tainted by anxieties over the possible return of Voldemort and when the Goblet of Fire provides an unprecedented fourth name -- Harry Potter of course -- things can only get worse.

Each of J.K. Rowling's Potter books has been progressively darker than those which preceeded it; the films seem to amplify the darkness in sometimes unexpected ways. Goblet of Fire is the darkest so far, earning its PG-13 rating for some very tense and scary violence. There are some bright spots here, though, mostly in the form of teen dating.

Visually, Goblet of Fire is stunning. The visual effects are well-integrated and well-used with a few exceptions, none of which was jarring enough to break the action or the illusion. The sets are similar to those used in the Prisoner of Azkaban, perhaps because a large part of the action takes place outside the school on the grounds of Hogwarts, used extensively for the first time in the third film. Make-up crews for Goblet of Fire deserve a nod, too -- especially for "Mad-eye" Moody's creepy yet comical artificial eye.

There is a nervous energy to this film, and it really isn't suitable for young children or anyone who is easily scared when their favourite characters are threatened. For those who have been waiting, Mike Newell's direction fits perfectly with this script and its adolescent stars.


Buy Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (paperback book)
Buy the Harry Potter Collection (6 DVDs)


Tithe (Simon Pulse, 2004)

Teen fiction can be a tough market, but Holly Black seems to have cracked it with Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale.

Sixteen year old Kaye has been living a rough life on the road with her mom's rock band. Her unconventional life gets even weirder though after she returns to her childhood home and finds she can perform magic and talk with faeries that she had long ago convinced herself were imaginary friends.

Kaye soon finds herself deeply immersed in the world of the faeries, caught between two feuding faerie kingdoms, and forced to play an important role. Only her best friend's brother seems willing to help but there is little he can do as a mere mortal.

The book has enough violence and gore to satisfy teen fans of vampire fiction and similar genres, plus the usual teen dating dilemmas, but it is in creating the faerie world where Black really excels. The feuding faeries are played one against the other in intrigue out of a political potboiler keeping the reader guessing to the end.


Buy Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale
in paperback.

06 November 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Brothers 2005)

When I was a poor kid, I really identified with the Charlie and The Chocolate Factory book by Roald Dahl. Living in that ramshackle hut with all of his family and never complaining. The idea of him dividing scintillas of the Wonka bar over the year between one birthday and the next struck a chord. It was many years before I learned that there was a film version of this book. It came out in 1971, full of psychedelic colors and weird ideas; it seemed like that chocolate was easier to digest with a hit of LSD. Nevertheless, I liked that movie a lot.
When I heard that Tim Burton was going to tackle this story, I thought: Great! I am a big fan of Tim Burton and his capability of using childlike eyes to spy a world fit for adults (even adults who see the world through Goth lenses). But then I had a horrible flashback. I remembered a world overrun by talking apes; stupid plotlines a rapper turned rapper: Planet of the Apes. Batman was his kingmaker film but Planet of the Apes proved that he could wreck one of my favorites by remaking it. Well, Planet of the Apes was a fluke. Burton's version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory captures the spirit of the book and only strays a ways to tell the story, do it in less than two hours and satisfy Burton’s need to use his films as psychotherapy.
For the uninitiated: Willy Wonka is a reclusive chocolatier who shut the doors to his factory years back. All that comes out the Wonka gates are Wonka bars of all varieties to the joy of children everywhere. Then, one day, he puts out a call: there are five golden tickets in his chocolate bars. The bearer and one guardian are allowed access. Four annoying brats procure tickets. Plus, poor Charlie.
I always liked the Wonka factory for the sheer stupidity of it. Most factories have conveyor belts and ovens. Willy Wonka’s factory is a magical place with dwarven Oompa Loompas, nut cracking squirrels, purple inducing candy and problematic teleporters. It’s a dangerous place for children: full of ironic justice and just desserts. I was thinking: “sure you can shut out the world, but how do you explain the squirrels and rivers of chocolate to those food inspectors?”
In the shadow of the Michael Jackson trial, Willy Wonka with the velvet clothing and Prince Valiant haircut rings creepy. Seeing Wonka usher in a number of children and ply them with chocolate actually felt uncomfortable: like a parable of the Michael Jackson case. Of course, that isn’t the case, it’s just a sad case of bad timing. Put that out of your head and you can fully enjoy the magical tale of Charlie’s journey through Wonka’s factory. It’s full of touches: equally sarcastic and colorful. This movie is more entertaining than the 1971 musical; and closer to the book.

This movie comes is available on DVD


Jarhead (Universal 2005)

Like the book, the movie Jarhead follows the enlistment of Anthony Swofford into the US Marine Corps during the late 1980s. He goes through grueling basic training and is then assigned to train as a scout-sniper: elite marksmen who are trained to take out targets with devastating accuracy. It must have been a downtime for the US military. In 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the world was at peace. What a crappy time for a marine. As luck would have it, long time allies, Saddam Hussein and Iraq were tricked into invading Kuwait. The world cried foul and a coalition of nations positioned troops in Saudi Arabia. Diplomats pushed Iraq to withdraw from its tiny neighbor and the troops waited: some of them waited for upwards of 175 days. It is said that warfare is long periods of boredom interrupted by terror. Swofford’s platoon had to endure just that. Stationed in the dessert, they drilled and fought boredom by talking; guessing when their loved ones would cheat on them; masturbating; and talking about masturbation. The monotony drives Swofford to the edge. He was trained to be this surgical tool: to assassinate key targets from a mile away and instead he drills with his fellow jarheads. Finally the war comes. They move into Kuwait to kick some Iraqi ass. They do get shelled by the Iraqis who promptly retreat. At one point they’re shelled by airborne tank killers—US tank killers. They find evidence of collateral damage; and the Iraqi sabotage of the Kuwaiti oil fields. Do they engage the Iraqis and put all of their training to the test? I won’t spoil the story for you, but sufficed to say: this was a war fought from the air. It was a one-sided war. America was braced for massive casualties but lost more troops to accidents and friendly fire than they did to the Iraqi forces.
Jarhead has so many levels that it brings something new to this well traveled territory. Full Metal Jacket explored this same territory in a 1960s setting. The terror of Saving Private Ryan is almost the opposite of Jarhead. According to cinema, we know how ludicrous the military is: everything from Stripes to Catch 22 to Private Benjamin has taught us that. Jarhead doesn’t move into parody territory, but it does carry an undercurrent of sarcasm: e.g. when a drill sergeant is slapping Swofford in the back of the head and asking Swofford why he’s in the military, Swofford replies, “Sir! I got lost on the way to college! Sir!”
Swofford: the author of Jarhead is the central character of Jarhead. He’s well played by Jake Gyllenhaal who turns in a solid performance as a man who would rather be anywhere else but he needs to earn money for college. The mess of his family is described in a short montage: a depressed mother; an institutionalized sister; a father who managed to never leave Vietnam behind. Swofford is simultaneously eager to snipe his first kills; and repulsed by the disregard for human life that is common in war and in the military.
Swofford’s platoon is made up of losers, rejects, psychopaths and unskilled men who needed the work. Swofford’s spotter, Troy, is played by Peter Sarsgaard: who fills out the role as Swofford’s foil. The supporting cast is rounded out by Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes, leader of his squad. Some of the troops want out. Some who love the marines are about to get tossed. Sykes is the exception: he’s happy where he is and the marines aren’t about to throw him out.
In Vietnam, soldiers were thrown into the fray, mowed down and spat on when they came home. By the time of the first Gulf War, military reconnaissance had become so evolved that air strikes scrubbed out the enemy and troops were sent to mop up. The US military is so good at killing and so good at surviving enemy fire that the majority of their casualties come from friendly fire. The soldiers—especially the marines— are left with this sense of pent-up rage that can’t be satisfied on the battlefield. They’re so effective at warfare that they come home victorious to cheering crowds. Whether it’s a hated Vietnam vet; or a Jarhead who’s getting accolades for surviving boredom—both of them came home feeling they got something they didn’t deserve.

The book, Jarhead is available for sale