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Saying Goodbye to Harry Potter, and to Childhood


By  Eming Piansay, Commentary

Writing about the latest Harry Potter film feels, strangely, like writing an obituary.
The analogy came to me earlier this week when I took my place in the long processional of fans who lined up outside a movie theater in downtown San Francisco to catch a sneak preview of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two.” The event felt less like a film screening and more like a viewing of a body at a funeral. And in sense, that’s what it was.

 

Once settled in our seats, I heard the friend sitting next to me whisper under her breath, demanding the movie to start. I leaned into her ear and said, “You shouldn’t be too excited for it to start. Once this is over… it’s over.”

Her grumbles turned into a whimper.

The crowd itself was chipper, loud and lively. Strangers asked each other if they were big Harry Potter fans. Some happily confirmed, while others shrugged sheepishly. But after the lights finally dimmed and the clamor from the audience that had erupted in the tetris fell into utter silence, it almost felt like I was at Sunday mass. Which wouldn’t have been so far fetched, since many people seemed to think the lightning bolts drawn onto many people’s foreheads – a symbol of the diehard Potter fan – were there for Ash Wednesday.

It is very rare that movies are able to capture the love that their paper bound counterparts developed, but fortunately for the Potter franchise the movies refined over time like aged wine. Sure, there are details that get left out or unexplored that may leave the biggest of Potter-fiends irked. However, the story and characters are preserved as best as they can be and despite the earlier films, it is safe to say The Deathly Hallows has done the Harry Potter franchise justice.

While over the years the book and film series has garnered an audience diverse in age, race and religious affiliation, the tale carries a certain weight for the young person who has literally grown up with it. As someone who is from that aforementioned generation, the final film installment of Harry Potter is a kind of benchmark: I’ve been watching and waiting for these films for literally half of my life; and for it all to be over now? Well, it’s jarring to say the least.

The encompassing idea of what Harry Potter means for today’s generation of youth is what comic books were to people who are now probably in their 40’s, 50’s and beyond; people like my own father, who probably saw books as a portal into their adolescent imagination, a world of creative possibility. I imagine this may be what it felt like for people who were born around the time of the first NASA space shuttle launch, when they heard the program was shutting down; or when die-hard Star Wars fans in the late 70’s and early 80’s learned that Return of the Jedi was the final installment of the trilogy (not counting the additional episodes released in the late 90’s of course.) There’s an affinity that is developed, an appreciation for something that represents a chunk of your history and culture that leaves a strange void and a self-loathing question of sorts: What do I have to look forward to now?

As my friend and I were herded out of the theatre after the movie, we asked ourselves that very question, clinging to what was left of our “childhood” with notions of re-living the Harry Potter saga via unofficial Harry Potter book and movie clubs as a way to keep our imaginations afloat.

By the time I arrived at my apartment around 11pm, instead of doing my normal activities like watching a movie online or doing some late-night work, I pulled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from my bookshelf and flipped the front cover open to the inscribed page that my grandfather had written on, dated 1999.

I cradled the book close to me and slid down on my bedroom floor and made myself cozy.

Now, I have a lot of comfortable spaces to sit in my apartment. Why I decided to sit on the floor against my bedroom door is beyond me. I suspect it may have to do with my memories of first reading in 1999, staying up until midnight as my parents poked their head into my room demanding I get some sleep. I didn’t want my parents telling me to go to sleep while I was lost in the halls of Hogwarts. Although I no longer need to worry about parents barging into my room, the feeling of entering a fantasy world uninterrupted is something I still treasure, and I can only hope that feeling carries over en route to the jaded, harsh world of adulthood, which as J.K. Rowling illustrates, can be one ugly battle after another.

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‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Stays Afloat With Depp


By Jonathan Smalls, Film Critic

Pirates of the Carribean has been a massively profitable franchise for Disney, and it looks like they have no plans to stop now. The latest in the series, On Stranger Tides is a weak installment after much the strength of the early episodes, but it leaves teasers for ( you guessed it! ) more Pirates of the Carribean movies.

The film franchise has managed to successfully revived the pirate / naval adventure genre with its popularity, but the issue is now that we are too accustomed to its formula. What initially was a welcome world of wacky hijinks, and surprises on the high seas has turned into routine trips from points A to B to treasure with a few explosions,
and dramatic falls mixed in. Writers Terry Rossio, and Ted Elliott manage to inject some entertainment value into this latest film, but not enough to call it an entertaining film. In fact audiences may find difficulty in remaining invested in the story, because the good guys always get a happy ending, and there are no consequences for any
thing.

When there is no investment from the audience, no amount of mythology, and special effects from Jerry Bruckheimer, and Rob Marshall will engage an audience. Sure, every thing looks great, but who cares when there is no thing interesting on screen? The producer, and director need to do more to ensure that the audience never beats the movie to that next punch line, that next daring escape. Once we do, we tune out.

Johnny Depp is as eccentric as ever with four films as the same character under his belt. The adventures of captain Jack Sparrow drive the series more than any thing of its other elements, and he delivers his familiar mix of caricature, and gravity. He falls prey to the same issue though: yes, we know that Jack Sparrow will get away, get the
gold, survive a dangerous situation. There is some cuteness in seeing how it all goes down, but it is only worth our time within the frame work of a larger, more engaging plot.

Yes, I am still stuck on the poor writing. Their desire to produce some thing was greater than their desire to produce some thing good, and it crippled the rest of the production.

The exception to this is the Blackbeard subplot with Ian McShane. McShane manages to keep all of his scenes interesting, and sinister. Gemma Ward also gets an interesting moment as the queen of the mermaids, and the few scenes with Spaniards have interesting moments, but these are not enough to keep Pirates afloat.

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The Top Ten Hindi Films of 2010


1. Guzaarish

Even though Hrithik Roshan long ago proved his mettle at playing underdogs with disabilities (Koi Mil Gaya, Krrish), Guzaarish, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s soaring drama, takes Roshan to a new level, literally. Roshan’s quadriplegic former magician Ethan Mascarenhas contemplates mortality while untangling unresolved feelings for his devoted, silenty-suffering, and very married nurse Sofia (Aishwarya Rai). Set in Goa, the movie even goes as far as giving Ethan a Christ-like persona (the hair, flashbacks to a stage trick where Ethan rises and is suspended in midair above a stupefied audience). Bhansali’s fondness for dark interiors that foreshadow gloom, a gimmick that paid off in Black and Khamoshi: The Musical) prove again his mastery over desi Gothic. With a great soundtrack, courtesy of filmmaker Bhansali himself, the immensely successful previous pairings of Roshan opposite Rai (Dhoom 2 and Jodhaa Akbar) was substantiated again to be an extremely appealing proposition.

2. Peepli [Live]

Freshmen filmmakers Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui, with support from producer Aamir Khan, transformed this unpretentious entry into a chronicle of the collision between two emerging Indias—one country forging ahead into the new century without glancing backwards, and the other a sometimes-stumbling agrarian behemoth that threatens to leave behind those who don’t make the income cut. The result is a bawdy black comedy featuring a cast of relative unknowns who gelled together wonderfully. The topic of farmer suicides gets dragged into sharp focus after one family decides to put out one of their own for suicide in order to collect a tidy sum in government assistance for the surviving family members. The race to film the event live by every possible media crew imaginable would be preposterous if it only weren’t so plausible. Bravo to Rizvi and Farooqui for doing so well with their very first film. Speaking of Khan’s current can-do-anything standing in Hindi films and near universal name recognition, be sure to buy tickets for an upcoming event where Khan will walk on water without props.

3. Rakht Charitra

Ramgopal Varma’s congenitally violent re-tracing of real-life events from South Indian regional politics proved to be an incredibly powerful movie. Seldom has this much protracted gore been channeled into one Indian film. Varma’s film, very loosely based on the life of gangster-turned-politican Paritala Ravi (played very well by Vivek Oberoi, with good support from Shatrughan Sinha as the legendary actor/politician N.T. Rama Rao), raised eyebrows in some circles. There were threats of a boycott against theaters screening the film. The first installment was released in October. By press time, the second installment of this two-part work had not been released. No matter, the filmmaker behind such audacious underworld forays as Satya and Sarkar proved again that by focusing on only directing, and leaving the production responsibilities to others, minor celluloid miracles can still happen. Warning: Prepare yourself. Rakht is extremely graphic and highly unsettling.

4. Udaan

In a year of sensational directing debuts, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan inexplicably failed to ping on the movie-going radar—which is a downright shame. Motwane’s stunning directorial arrival, with this fantastic movie, became India’s official entry to Cannes for 2010. Watching 21-year old newcomer Rajat Bharmecha dissolve under the skin of the agitated 17-year old Rohan with jaw-dropping precision was a remarkable feat. Kicked out of boarding school where he has spent most of his life, Rohan returns home to live with a cold distant father (Ronit Roy aces his role as Daddy Dearest) and a younger step-brother Rohan never knew of. Using the heavily industrial eastern Indian city of Jamshedpur as a hard-driving backdrop also proved an apt metaphor for the mechanical motions that Rohan’s father insists his two boys live by, often by force. Like Francois Truffault’s 1959 opus The 400 Blows, Udaan also silently celebrates the unbreakable bond between childhood friends while creating a tender, lump-in-your-throat reaffirmation of the universal sanctity of childhood.

5. Karthik Calling Karthik

In yet another commendable debut, Vijay Lalwani directing the underrated Farhan Akhtar was a cause célèbre indeed. The best thrillers, especially techie thrillers, convolute the most ubiquitous gadgets or the most mundane phobias into well-etched life or death psychological scenarios. Lalwani offers up Akhtar in the title role as a painfully average Mumbai office worker who, almost on a whim, buys a new phone for his home. The arrival of the new phone soon takes a macabre turn as Karthik starts getting mysterious phone calls from someone sounding just like, well, Karthik himself. Utilizing simple camera work, Lalwani milks maximum suspense from each ominous call Karthik gets. Accessorized by a repetitive motions that make up Karthik’s daily routine—a flashing neon street sign that blinks at what seems like precisely timed intervals, the daily teasing Karthik is subjected to in the office—Lalwani succeeds in drawing the viewer into ever smaller concentric circles that make up Karthik’s relentless claustrophobia. Karthik was a call well worth taking.

6. Raajneeti

Prakash Jha’s movies put to task topical, sometimes political themes. His 2003 entry Apaharan dwelled on institutionalized political kidnappings in Bihar. With Rajneeti, Jha invoked the time-tested outline of the Hindu epic Mahabharata to devise a politically-charged contemporary drama. With an all-star cast featuring Ajay Devgn, Nana Patekar, Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif, Rajneeti was not without its detractors. Indian censors initially refused to grant a screening license on grounds that Kaif’s role as a widow resembled the life of current Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi too closely. Undeterred, Jha went ahead with the release after making minor edits. Even though the story is too messy to sort out all at once, the best news is the acting by Devgn and Kaif. Concluding with a drawn out, nihilistic ending that remains true to the story’s source material, Jha’s work took in huge box office hauls just about everywhere it was screened.

7. Aakrosh

Director Priyadarshan intelligently packages a crime thriller plotline that borrows liberally from contemporary headlines about so-called “honor killings.” While the root premise follows the 1988 Hollywood entry Mississippi Burning, Aakrosh translates well into an Indian context, especially by focusing on the specter of lingering feudalism in parts of rural India. Smartly filmed in the former Portugese colony of Diu off of the Gujarat coast, in addition to providing a first rate good-cop/bad-cop playoff between the two male leads (played by Ajay Devgn and Akshaye Khanna), Aakrosh also ropes in one of the vilest villains in recent film memory. Paresh Rawal, as the head village constable Ajatashatru, is an unmitigated bigot with sharp derogatory verbal barbs that perfectly caricature both religious and caste-based prejudices. Like a ready-to-strike snake who sneaks under the lowest of rodent-control fences, he outsmarts almost every trap set for him. Even with a borrowed thematic outline, this re-dressing works as it was meant to.

8. Dabangg

Tongue-in-cheek about every stereotype about policemen in rural India(down to the Ray Ban sunglasses), this Salman Khan vehicle kept punching away. Co-starring newcomer Sonakshi Sinha (the daughter of veteran actor Shatrughan Sinha), Dabangg unleashed a series of shrewdly and sometimes crudely staged cops-and-robbers chases, on foot and sometimes on rooftops, all shouldered by Salman Khan’s latent comical talents. The popular Dabangg soundtrack, offering up tunes by Sajid-Wajid and Lalit Pandit, also exemplified the strong resurgence of Sufi influences in cinematic music. Sinha stands her own ground opposite Salman Khan, with decent help from both Vinod Khanna and Dimple Kapadia. With a nearly $50 million worldwide gross, Dabangg became the second highest Hindi language movie of all time, behind only the 2009 release 3 Idiots. Lest this highly successful formula for box-office alchemy gets lost in the shuffle, Dabangg 2 is already in the works.

9. Jhootha Hi Sahi

After the highly successful Dostana, which will soon have a Dostana 2 progeny, John Abraham has the distinction of being a heartthrob for both straight and gay audiences. Even without a drop-trouser moment, Abraham has the gay-friendly bromance thing down to a science. Though not as overtly gay-centric as Dostana, Jhootha Hi Sahi is an approachable romantic comedy. Abraham plays Siddharth, a spectacled, sweater-wearing bookseller in London, whose uninteresting romantic life gets a freakish turn when his cell phone number inadvertently gets crossed with a suicide hot line number. Siddharth’s friends form a free-spirited band of Gen-X hatchlings that includes characters from India, Pakistan, and even Japan. Refreshingly, the script does not shy away from tossing in all-male couplings from the romantic goings on. With the casting of Pakhi as the female lead, director Abbas Tyrewalla’s film became the rare big budget Hindi movie where the female lead is also the story writer. Zooming in on London in a playful party mood and one or two catchy tunes from an A.R. Rahman score, Jhootha Hi Sahi may serve well at your next party event.

10. Aisha

Appreciable retakes of classics are always a welcome sight. Co-produced by veteran actor Anil Kapoor, Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha has daughter Sonam Kapoor in the title role of a story that re-traces Jane Austen’s Emma. Under the watchful gaze of her well-meaning neighbor (Abhay Deol), and undeterred by her dismally low success rate, 20-something New Delhi spinster Aisha (Sonam Kapoor) embodies a ditzy New Delhi matchmaking socialite who is so busy matching everyone else up and parading around in expensive threads that she utterly misses overtures from her own would-be paramour—and she would not be the first single gal to search high and low while overlooking the handsome stranger right under her nose.

Happy Movie-Going in 2011!

(Editor’s Note: Two movies releasing in December could have made it to the above list: Lagaan Director Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se, a movie based on the Chittagong uprising of 1930, and Farah Khan’s action comedy Tees Mar Khan.)

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Cruise and Diaz Reunite for Fun-Filled “Knight and Day”


By Jonathan Smalls, Film Critic

Two celebrities reunite on the silver screen for the first time since the 2001 movie Vanilla Sky. From the perspective of a New England resident, Knight & Day can be a fairly fun, and entertaining game of “Where in the World Are Tom Cruise, and Cameron Diaz?” For the rest of the country, the film may not be quite so engaging, but it is still an action-filled, light-hearted romp through a James Bond world of espionage, counterintelligence, and violence.

The writing in Knight & Day is actually pretty smart. It is nothing new, amazing, or mind blowing; anyone, who has watched a kids show about Hannah Montana will understand the idea of a mysterious character, leading a double life, and never being fully understood. In that sense, casting Tom Cruise as a supercompetent spy with excellent manners is not unusual, but within the character interactions there is an awful lot of room for interesting exchanges. Take for instance the restaurant scene where Cruise kicks a waiter, and says, “Sorry, thought you were making a move.” Although the premise is tried, and true, the story never becomes fully boring, because of the quality of the writing, and the performances of the actors. My only complaint is with the use of unconsciousness as a plot device; people knock each other out just to move the plot along several times, and it is always feels unnecessary.

The reason why this film is similar to “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” is the extent of the globe trotting, but it is especially so, because many of its scenes were filmed in Massachusetts. ( Can you identify the different areas of Boston where scenes were shot? hint: three, distinct neighborhoods ) Director James Mangold of 3:10 to Yuma is able to capture an appropriate mood for all of the scenes in the process. Sure, there are explosions. Sure, people die. Sure, lots of people die quite unpleasantly, but he still manages to keep the tone of the movie light. He remembers that no one cares about the bad guys, unless the story plays them up, and as such we can focus on enjoying watching Cruise, and Diaz play off of each other.

For their part, the characters are actually very one dimensional. Bad guys are bad guys. Good guys are good guys. There is not much room to question morality. Cruise plays Roy Miller across from Diaz as June Havens. There is no real depth to their interaction, the ending is never in question, but they do plenty of cute things, and are entertaining to watch. Some critics have suggested that Cruise, and Diaz are too old to appeal to the audience for this type of film, but they seem to be well positioned for their characters. One would much prefer to see an aged, and experienced superspy to some high schooler, and his costar needs to match. In terms of marketing it may not have been the best idea, but in terms of realism the casting works.

Peter Saarsgard brings his darkness, and depth to another character. Despite the lightheartedness of the film, Saarsgard contrasts well as a villain, because villains are supposed to be dark, and sinister with unclear intentions. The remaining members of the supporting cast fulfill their roles properly. Another standout would be Marc Blucas, who makes the most of his screen time, and keeps it fun.

The film is called Knight & Day. The knight is pretty readily apparent, but one wonders where Day enters the title. What would have been better: the Light Knight? Who knows? There is no reason to dwell on any thing with Knight & Day. It is fun to watch, get a few chuckles, and then enjoy the rest of your day.

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WeekEnd Movie Review: ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ Merits Greatness?


By Jonathan Smalls, Film Critic

HARTFORD — If Hollywood were a meritocracy, things would be very different.

A number of celebrities would no longer be celebrities, and there would probably be fewer film releases once we cut out all of the disappointing fluff because this utopian Hollywood would release only enthralling, high quality product. Even in the strict standards of this fantasy, however, Brooklyn’s Finest would still be a great film.

Remember Training Day, or Tears of the Sun? Of course you can; those were some great productions. You remember Shooter, or King Arthur? Those movies are pretty forgettable, so no one can blame you, if not, but all of these films were directed by Antoine Fuqua. His direction is talented, and brings out the best in a story, but is easily crippled by poor writing, or a bad premise.

With writer Michael C Martin, however, he is able to turn Brooklyn’s Finest into a very intimate, personal, and revealing experience. The focus of the story is less on the events, and more on the participants in these events.

The motivation for each of the lead characters is no thing new. Ethan Hawke is a dedicated, and desperate family man, who is not above breaking the law to take care of his own a la the Shield.

Richard Gere is a burnt out officer, who is one week from retirement, and just keeps phoning in police work each shift. Don Cheadle becomes an officer, whose years spent undercover have all but killed any chance of salvaging his marriage, life, and sanity.

The story starts in a familiar place, and the overall plot is even slightly predictable, but the story telling its self what makes this film great.

Ensemble stories are tricky, but they offer the greatest opportunity to really engage an audience. The characters can be completely different and still maintain some kind of connection, enabling members of the audience to hate one protagonist, but love another. Michael C Martin takes full advantage of this by contemporaneously telling the seemingly unrelated stories of three
cops with different circumstances. Although this could have easily turned into a messy and confusing affair, he manages to tell the stories at the same time, keep them separate, and distinct, and still tie them together in a final twist reminiscent of a Shakespeare in the Tragedy of Macbeth.

The cast is unusually strong in this piece; every one has ample opportunity to display their talent, because it depends so much on the ensemble. Richard Gere has taken a turn away from his Pretty Woman days as the romantic lead when he puts on the uniform of Eddie Dugan. Ethan Hawke is entirely committed to Sal Procida, and we buy every moment of it, and Don Cheadle as Clarence Butler stands in stark contrast to Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda. Their performances are fantastic. They are the engine, which drives this movie.

Supporting them are more giants of the silver screen like Wesley Snipes, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Will Patton. Top to bottom the actors are fully invested in their characters, and convincing.

Brooklyn’s Finest is a confluence of talent; writing, acting, and production play their parts. There is no strong, or weak link in this movie. Martin is able to use our previous experiences with police dramas to establish his characters without belaboring the point, so the camera spends more time with making us empathize with them.

Hidden within this story is a lesson in temperance, and virtue, but think about that after the credits. You need to keep your ears open, because this film is rife with funny and poignant dialogue, which you can easily miss. But even so, it is well worth a second look.

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WeekEnd Movie Review: ‘Daybreakers’


By Jonathan Smalls, Film Critic

If you have questions about seeing Daybreakers in theatres, let me put them to rest. There is little need to spend $10 to see it, or even to await the DVD release, because this film will almost certainly be ubiquitous on network television.

The premise to the film is that a race of vampires has taken over the Earth, that they now farm humans for sustenance, and there is a subculture of a small, but determined, human resistance. If that plot summary sounds at all similar, you deserve a prize. If not, substitute “machines” for “vampires”, and then Daybreakers is no different from the Matrix.

A full viewing reveals enough differences to avoid a plagiarism suit, but there is not much reason to watch Daybreakers years after seeing the Matrix, unless you thought that the Matrix was good, but wish that it had starred Ethan Hawke.

Further similarities abound. At least Writers Peter, and Michael Spierig at least had sense enough not to be known as the Spierig Brothers. They also only wrote, and directed Daybreakers, which is totally different from writing, and producing the Matrix like the Wachowski brothers. Unfortunately that is not enough to keep the story in Daybreakers from being a pale imitation of its greater predecessor.

Although the writing leaves much to be desired, the directing is actually not bad. The Spierigs find do well to draw some character out of their actors. There are also some very beautiful frames in the ninety-eight minute run, so if they really want to be in show business, they should focus on direction.
The performances are not bad. Edward Dalton is a similarly stolid character to Neo, but Ethan Hawke emotes much better, and his character never feels wooden, or unbelievable. There is never much opportunity to connect with his character, however, so without any sympathy for the main character the Spierig Brothers (oops, I just said it) relegate Daybreakers to being an entertaining sequence of events
rather than a tale of human triumph over evil, or whatever else they intended.

Willem Dafoe as Elvis, and Sam Neill as Charles Bromley flesh out their characters pretty well. Although their characters are very different, and on opposite sides of the effort to either help humans, or farm them, each actor does his part exceptionally well. Sam Neill does well as the single minded entrepreneur, and Dafoe responds as the wizened advisor to the point where they take all of the best scenes to Dafoe is the
angel on his right shoulder, Neill is the devil on his left, and Hawke serves more as the liason between them.

Despite my criticism Daybreakers is actually not a bad movie. It will not win any awards for originality, but it still does pretty well. It focuses well on its strongest performers, and presents a reasonably enjoyable story for you to find in the bargain bin at the video store, or to find it on the boob tube.

Watch movie trailer here

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