The Lion in Winter (1968)
  • Directed by: Anthony Harvey.
  • Written by: James Goldman. Based on The Lion in Winter by James Goldman.
  • Starring: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton, Jane Merrow.
  • Rated: PG.

The Lion in Winter is more of a talkie than a movie. James Goldman adapted the screenplay from his own play, a successful 1966 Broadway production. It is quite apparent in director Anthony Harvey’s shooting. Harvey would make an excellent stage director, as he produces satisfactory and often transcendent performances, but he’s a mediocre film director. Despite the sheer scale of the film’s settings, Harvey’s film is exemplary of many ’60s movies that are photographed with muted palettes rendering the screen dull but not dark. There is a fair share of interesting shots, but this is a film that places sound above sight.

The Lion in Winter promotional posterGoldman’s script is a doozy, to say the least. Seven royal figures have converged upon the castle of Chinon to debate the heir to the throne of England, and they hurl savage wit at each other by way of greetings. Deceit and ulterior motives are not expected for inclusion in the games, they’re required. The Lion in Winter is labyrinthine, a tangled web in which we follow a character’s expectations through to his tactics, only to realize that the tables have turned in the time it took us to wash up for the first course. Radical shifts in tone are delivered with effortless rapid fire. We are enthralled as we see verbal sparring matches leading to physical altercations followed by breakdowns and revelations. Inevitably each character admits defeat until they are given a meager gift to work with and strengthen their resolve. This is a mean, vicious cycle for a mean, vicious movie.

The film depends not on plot but a healthy dose of circumstance and several tons of character. Goldman and Harvey have created a situation with a good deal of dramatic stakes. They have set their cage up neatly, plopped their characters in the middle of it, and watched as they turn on each other. There are no artificial plot twists, unless you count game-changing admissions, nor does it feature a climax, unless you count a duel that is meant to be pathetic. The characters are rich enough and their motivations twisty enough to fuel two and a quarter hours of medieval intrigue. It is engaging and entertaining from start to finish and filled with marvels big and small.

King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has summoned his family from the far reaches of Europe for a Christmas court, where they are to make a treaty with France and dole out three coveted assets: the land, the girl, and, of course, the crown. In attendance are sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), a fierce military general who seeks all three objects of desire; Geoffrey (John Castle), the overlooked middle child who proves a dangerously cunning snake; Johnny (Nigel Terry), the uncouth youngest son who hasn’t a brain in his head but has daddy’s affection. Also among the guests are the newly minted King Phillip II (Timothy Dalton), who refuses to allow France to waver in the face of England’s might; Henry’s mistress Alais (Jane Merrow), who’s Phillip’s sister and is the distraught ‘girl’ up for grabs - and Queen Eleanor of Aquitane (Katharine Hepburn), who has been released from her de facto imprisonment for the occasion and may be the only one who can truly hold her own against the King.

These are seven phenomenal performers acting at the top of their craft. Peter O’Toole brings an engaging duality to Henry, moving from fierce displays of force to bemused jests with ease. After shouting at the King of France, Dalton answers him quietly and calmly. O’Toole relaxes and tells him he’s not very good at royal negotiations: “when I bellow, bellow back!” His part is one any actor would grab in an instant. “There’s a legend of a King called Lear, with whom I have a lot in common. Both of us have three kingdoms and three children we adore, and both of us are old, but there it ends,” Henry says. How wrong he is. Through the course of the movie, we see that he, too, is disappointed by his children, and falls into anger and madness and says things he regrets as well. Never mind, of course, that the film takes place in 1183 and that Shakespeare didn’t start writing Lear until 1603.

And what of Hepburn? If O’Toole has two faces, she must have at least five. Hepburn the victim, Hepburn the bully, Hepburn the general, Hepburn the confidante, Hepburn the matriarch. This is a grand, majestic flourish of a performance. We realize we’re not just watching a great actor, but a movie star, and one that deserves that title. These two actors repartee make the film tick. They make for vicious lovers and adoring haters. “What shall we hang first, the holly or each other?” says the King by way of greeting, but they spend plenty of time affectionately reminiscing together. I don’t know if I’ll ever forget the strange and beautiful moment near the end when the two are huddled together in the dungeon looking for jungle animals in the dark.

It is a small crime that Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton were not nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Both play characters who Henry scrutinizes and evaluates as tough and weak, respectively. In the course of a single scene, their attributes have been switched. John Castle is just as good as forgotten middle child Geoffrey, who uses his intellect and cunning to compensate for sheer weakness. He is the first to begin plotting for the crown, but is revealed a coward in the finale. Nigel Terry plays youngest son Johnny, a character that is great for comic relief and whose blundering nature leads him to misery. Poor Jane Merrow is the weakest-willed character; she spends most of the film begging more important decision makers not to decide her fate and always seems to be the last to know everything.

The Lion in Winter is a film about affection. In the end, the girl, the land, and the crown are unimportant. The characters frequently ask each other if they are loved. This is what they are fighting for. Alais and Eleanor crave Henry’s affections and the children crave their parents’. The most remarkable thing about this film is that none of them get the girl, the land, or the crown. But some of them do get affection, in some shape or another. That is enough for them. That is enough. ☆☆☆☆

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
  • Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
  • Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Based on characters created by Bob Kane.
  • Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ben Mendelsohn, Tom Conti, Matthew Modine, Nestor Carbonell, Aiden Gillen, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Joey King.
  • Rated: PG-13.

Batman Begins was only half of a superhero movie. It featured a mob boss played by Tom Wilkinson and a machine meant to destroy the city in the climax, but my, at the time it was unequaled in depth and darkness. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was - and is - the most complex of comic book heroes.The film took time to examine him, justify him, and condemn him with visual flair and storytelling bravado. The Dark Knight upped the ante: it was bleak, thrilling, and chaotic. The film transcended its loose categorization as a “superhero film”. It was about two monsters locked in a deadly duel, a world in which everyone is a piece on an upside down chess board.

The Dark Knight Rises promotional posterThe third film in Christopher Nolan’s exalted Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, exchanges frenzied chess for all-out war. This is fundamentally wrong. Whereas the first two films were marked by a twisted realism, or at least represented an interpretation of Gotham meant to mirror our own world, the images hurled across the screen are ridiculous. Nolan’s answer to the Batwing is a flying tank straight out of Blade Runner, or perhaps Avatar. The film’s MacGuffin is nothing short of a nuclear bomb. I saw a crack that the film should be entitled James Bond Rises. I laughed, but I found a great many more parallels between a stereotypical 007 film and The Dark Knight Rises - notably one of Batman’s love interests who, you guessed it, turns out to be a villain (gasp!)

The threequel begins eight years after The Dark Knight left off. This proves to be an unwise move, as Batman Begins flowed almost directly into The Dark Knight. This gave them a sense of continuity and made them feel like two parts of one whole, similar to The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. It’s ironic, then, that the reviled The Godfather: Part III bears many similarities to The Dark Knight Rises. A jump in time, a protagonist past his prime sinking into his own despair, and a glut of less interesting new characters.

Following The Dark Knight’s formula, there is a prologue setting up the villain’s escapades. The action and special effects are audacious as usual. Close attention has been paid to making as many of the effects as possible grounded in realism. Sadly, Nolan seems to be trying to do outdo himself in every way, losing this gritty verisimilitude in his storytelling. You’ll remember that the previous film opened with the Joker’s terrifying bank heist, featuring a memorable cameo by William Fichtner. It’s noteworthy, then, that this film opens with a rescue operation aboard a CIA plane featuring a cheesy cameo by Aiden Gillen. Regardless, my jaw was dropped.

The film finds Bruce Wayne a (supposedly cuckoo) reclusive billionaire à la Howard Hughes. His business has been decimated by an unwise investment in a project meant to provide clean energy to the entire city. Unfortunately, if it falls into the wrong hands (SPOILER: it does) it could be used as a nuclear bomb (SPOILER: it is.) These early scenes show us what happens in a post-noir noir Batman world. The Dent Act has peeled the mob up from the streets, which left me disappointed not to see a middle-aged character actor with a New York accent as this film’s featured mobster, but ah well.

There are four major new characters, which means the cast is exactly half freshmen and half seniors. Bane (Tom Hardy) is a menacing if weakly conceived nemesis severely hindered by some banal dialogue and a muzzle rendering him incomprehensible. John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an orphan cop who identifies with Batman but, as Nolan would have it, is ultimately a better individual than he is. A less than interesting character is saved entirely by Gordon-Levitt’s natural talents. Bruce Wayne also has two love interests: the mysterious burglar Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who isn’t given nearly enough screen time to develop the duo’s relationship but makes up for it by delivering her lines with a dynamic mixture of sensuality and gravitas; and Miranda Tate, a throwaway character presented a Wayne Foundation board member who becomes pivotal. The latter is played by Marion Cotillard, a fine actress stuck in the role of a plot device.

The returning ensemble, reprised by the fine trio of legendary actors Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, is similarly constrained. Oldman has two scenes in which he’s able to show off his abilities, though one isn’t given enough weight and the other is painfully unsubtle. Freeman is humdrum and utterly lacking in humor or color, though that’s more to the lazy script’s fault, not his. For his part, Caine appears in only the first fifteen minutes and the last five.

Bane works quickly, somehow demolishing half of Gotham and allowing the citizens to govern their own city - kind of. Bane still has a large amount of authority, but he allows vandalism, theft, and murder to run rampant. Mock tribunals of the wealthy are held by Cillian Murphy’s Jonathan Crane (remember him?) with only two possible sentences: death, or death by exile. If anyone should try to escape, or if the US government should interfere, he’ll use the Wayne Foundation’s nuclear bomb to destroy Gotham. For good measure, he’s broken Batman’s back and sent him to the inescapable South American prison where he was supposedly raised. And here Batman stays for two thirds of the film.

The first half of the film is a web of plot holes and loose ends. I laughed at several lines that weren’t supposed to be funny. At one point, Catwoman meets with Batman in a subway tunnel and demands she take him to Bane. They walk ten feet into another tunnel and BLAM! there’s Bane. Another time, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character revealed he had guessed Batman’s secret identity because Bruce Wayne’s face reveals pain and so does Batman’s. What? The film is also somewhat confusing to boot - Nolan introduces Bane, Catwoman, and Ben Mendelsohn’s corporate tycoon John Daggett (an easter egg name for all those who love Batman: The Animated Series) and then rather quickly reveals they’re all related. The societal issues the film tries to tackle give way to the two biggest themes: incoherency and inexplicability.

The second half of the film is an action blockbuster that slowly gives way to The Avengers’ formula mixed with The Lord of the Rings epic battle sequences, Gotham style. At one point, Bane and Batman engage in fisticuffs in the middle of all out war. Call me a traditionalist, but I can’t see this as the same world inhabited by the Joker, Harvey Dent, and the largely forgotten Rachel Dawes. The big twist is surprising and rewarding for fans of the comic books, but emotionally limp, and the finale is simply ludicrous. A sense of déjà vu pervades the film, as well - didn’t we see a citywide annihilation device and a prison break in Batman Begins? What’s more, any emotional heft Nolan could’ve added is wasted. The only two major characters to die are the ones we naturally care about the least. An ending that sunny does not belong in the bleak Nolanverse.

The thing most disappointing about The Dark Knight Rises is that Nolan does not realize what makes his titular character so magnetic. Batman is a vigilante, a detective, a man, a monster, an outsider, an enigma. Batman is not a general of war, nor a pilot of futuristic flying contraptions, nor a deactivator of doomsday devices. Most of all, Batman is not a superhero. I repeat: Batman is not a superhero. ☆☆

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
  • Directed by: Peter Jackson.
  • Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson. Based on The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien.
  • Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis, Lawrence Makoare, Marton Csokas.
  • Rated: PG-13.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an expedition so outrageous, so audacious, so fantastical that its very existence seems remarkable. How could an adaptation of popular literature be so enthralling? How could J. R. R. Tolkien’s “unfilmable” saga be both faithful and alive with new breath? How could epic fantasy succeed on film when the large majority of fantasies lived and died solely on the page? The series bears a cohesive continuity, most assuredly as the result of a year and a half of joint filming for the entire trilogy. The director, writers, cast, and key personal all remained throughout the eight-year enterprise. It was a Hollywood blockbuster, in the most ironic sense of the phrase.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring promotional posterThe secret to The Lord of the Rings' success is its focus: epic in scope and scale, but intimate in characters and emotions. Director Peter Jackson takes the time to paint vivid, human characters, even though only a few of them are actual humans. For the special effects junkie, this is counterbalanced by a sense of wonder and extraordinary battle sequences, cinematography, and production design. Many say The Return of the King is the best of the series, but I’ve always preferred the first. Though stamped with a definitive “to be continued”, the film is a classic bildungsroman for young Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood).

The prologue, which precedes the tale, is narrated by the rich voice of Cate Blanchett, who plays the Elf Lady Galadriel in the film. We are given an overview of the history of the evil Sauron, who battled the entirety of Middle-Earth and secretly formed the One Ring of Power. “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them…” we are told. We are shown, accompanied by sweeping cinematography and a knock-out score by Howard Shore, the defeat of Sauron. The Ring eventually falls into the hands of the iconic villain Gollum (a stop-motion performance by Andy Serkis), who is heavily featured in later installments but treated with a ‘less is more’ philosophy here, and taken by, of all people, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm).

And so our saga starts. Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) is a kindly, wise wizard visiting the Shire, a marvelous place full of Hobbit holes, streams, grass, and a large amount of large, plump creatures - not to mention the pigs. The Fellowship of the Ring is especially great in its sense of place in relation to emotion. When Gandalf, who picks up Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew, for a short ride, rolls through the Shire, I started crying. It feels like home. Later, the Weathertop campsite feels dangerous and deadly; the Elven city of Rivendell is stately and serene; the Dwarven mines of Moria are vast and fearsome; the Elven woods of Lothlórien are ethereal and mystical.

Gandalf has come to oversee the fireworks for Bilbo’s one hundred and eleventh birthday party. The Fellowship of the Ring is well-paced, at times exploding with action and intrigue and other times deliberate. Jackson takes the time to let us waft in McKellen and Holm’s performances. Here are two (dare I say it?) elderly British character actors at the top of their game. There’s really no acting like British acting: it’s at once big, risky, and filled with subtlety. The whole cast rings of truth. We also meet the four young Hobbit protagonists: Frodo, who is “still in love with the Shire” but may have some of Bilbo’s affinity for adventure in him yet; Samwise “Sam” Gamgee (Sean Astin), the blubbery gardener with a heart of gold; and our comic relief, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who enter the story by stealing Gandalf’s largest firework and accidentally setting it loose. But Bilbo surprises them all by secretly slipping on his One Ring, which grants temporary invisibility, and embarking on his last adventure before settling down. Frodo is left their home, Bag End - and the One Ring. In one of the many memorable lines of the film, Gandalf instructs Frodo to “keep it secret - keep it safe.”

That is easier said than done. The dreaded servants of Sauron, the Nine Wringwraiths, who appear as dark figures whose faces are shrouded among thick black robes and whose voices are worse than nails scraping a chalkboard, are hunting Frodo. He must quickly escape alongside his three Hobbit friends to the Elven home of Rivendell. Where the early scenes in the Shire were marked by comfort and expansive camera work, here the path is treacherous and dangerous. Look how the film’s lighting becomes darker and darker still, so that when we reach the Inn of the Prancing Pony, we find ourselves wary of what little light is shed.

On the quartet’s journey to Rivendell they meet two important figures in the Rings mythopoeia: Strider/Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler). There are numerous smart alterations to Tolkien’s text, with tweaks to these two characters chiefly among them. Forgive me if you have no desire to discuss the differences between book and film, but it is crucial to my understanding of both. Most of the changes are for pacing or clarity, and in doing so, the tone differs slightly. Tolkien jaunts and Jackson jolts. The greatest characterization changes are in Aragorn and Arwen. In the novel, Aragorn is the heir to the throne of the kingdom of Gondor  waiting for the right time to reclaim his birthright. Here he has chosen a life of solitude and, it seems, penance and must discover that he is the only one who can lead Middle-Earth to victory. Arwen is a minor character in the books, whose role is taken mainly by the Elf lord Glorfindel. The film highlights the couple’s love and romantic obstacles. Gandalf, too, bears slight changes. He is the slightest bit kinder (he entertains the children of the Shire with premature fireworks, whereas in the book he refuses them), more humble (no more comments slyly proclaiming himself the most intelligent and powerful individual in the room), and wiser (it is now Gimli, not Gandalf, who would pass through the mines of Moria.)

In Rivendell, they are met by the Elf lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and a council of dignitaries from across the land. Frodo and Sam enter the beautiful city ready to return to the wavering grass of the Shire and leave members of the eponymous Fellowship of the Ring, destined to bring the Ring to Sauron’s kingdom. There they must destroy it in the fires of the hilariously named and gravely uttered Mount Doom, where it was forged. As the members embark on their perilous journey, their personalities begin to show. Aragorn is loyal and resilient, while Boromir (Sean Bean) is almost too ambitious. Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom) strike up a startling friendship that paves the way for great comic moments in the sequels yet to come.

Exceptionally well-written, acted designed, and scored, it is easy to forget Peter Jackson while watching. The Fellowship of the Ring is excellently paced and seems to handle all emotions and states with equal vigor. Gandalf’s rival and ex-mentor Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) treachery could have come from the editing room floor of The Godfather; the catatonic state of mourning the Fellowship faces in the Elven woods of Lothlórien would be at home in The Descendants. Jackson never shies away from emotion but avoids sentimentalizing his saga. From epic beginning to heart-wrenching finale, The Fellowship of the Ring is believable, beautiful, and breathtaking.

There are many fans of the trilogy drawn almost exclusively to the magnificent battles. This may be why Fellowship frequently ranks lower than the two sequels, which contain a multitude of “this ends now” confrontations in The Return of the King and the most invigorating action sequence in the history of cinema in The Two Towers. The first film has two smaller-scale battles within the confines of the mines of Moria and the brief prologue to supplement the climax. But even what blood and gore fanatics might call meager confrontations are exhilarating and awesome, in both senses of the word. Have visual effects, fight choreography, coordination of extras, and cinematography ever united before to barrage the senses in a more artistic fashion? The key words are ‘artistic fashion’. A great many recent enterprises have attempted to copy The Lord of the Rings' organized chaos, but few have come close to equaling it. Jackson and his writers stress that, yes, there are swords and battles and orcs and blood, but they serve a purpose. Each arrow could very well be a piercing line of dialogue in a Shakespearean production.

The Fellowship of the Ring is a near-perfect fantasy. Seasoned veterans like Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee steal scenes just by standing in them, though we realize Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are the true anchors. Camera and computer fuse flawlessly to imagine a jaw-dropping fantastical world. The film is but a piece of a three (now five) part puzzle, yet it stands on its own. Both action and emotion are subject to epic conversion rates. When we watch, we are awash in a flurry of characters and emotions. Hope and fear. Awe and terror. Comfort and agony. For three meager hours, we are transported to Middle-Earth and have the chance to be kings and sorcerers and elves. We stop playing make-believe far too early in our lives, I think. With movies like this, we get to again, for a little while, at least. ☆☆☆☆

Brave (2012)
  • Directed by: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman.
  • Written by: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, and Irene Mecchi. Story by Brenda Chapman.
  • Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Sally Kinghorn, Eilidh Fraser, Steven Cree, Callum O’Neill, John Ratzenberger, Steve Purcell, Patrick Doyle.
  • Rated: PG.

Ranking and rating films is a conundrum. Many critics - almost all of them - have expressed their dislike of certain rating systems. I used to use the “school” grading system, rating films on a scale from A to F, but I realized just how arbitrary this system was and switched to the star rating system. Someone who was awarded Cs their entire life could think a B a successful rating, but for me, a B is middling at best. It is widely agreed that the star rating system - the four star rating system, that is - is the best system for categorizing films, if only because it was made primarily for use in movies and everyone who seriously reads criticism knows what the scale means. Four stars is excellent, three and a half great, three good, two and a half middling, two poor, one and a half awful, one and below abominable. But it is imperfect, and a few critics have abolished use of a rating system altogether. After all, it only invites people to look at the star rating and bypass the review itself. I try to prevent this by putting the rating at the bottom of my review. If people are going to skip what I write, they’re welcome to, but I’m going to make them scroll (aren’t I such an evil cinephile?) My resolve with a rating system has been tested numerous times, but I quickly realize that apart from appearing elitist by foregoing ratings, I would be a hypocrite. When someone tells me they enjoyed a movie, I like to engage in discussion with them, but I can’t help asking what they would grade it.

Brave promotional posterFilms like Brave are the most difficult to rate. Pixar’s latest film is a rip-roaring fairy tale that kids, especially girls, are sure to love. Its heroine, Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is strong and likable. There’s much humor to be found and a little action to ensure young boys are kept attentive, if not enthralled. I found myself thinking that if Brave came from Disney or DreamWorks, we would all be signalling a shift change in animation quality. But no, Brave comes from Pixar, and we have come to expect nothing less than masterpieces from their films.

Merida is a teenage tomboy princess with fiery red hair. She’s bullied into angsty submission by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who could write a long self-help book on how princesses don’t act. More than anything, Merida yearns for the days when she is allowed the freedom to leave the castle for a short period to climb waterfalls, shoot targets, and perform other such nefarious acts of teenage rebellion. Their relationship wasn’t always so strained. In the virtuoso prologue, we see a young Merida’s birthday picnic. The two are playing hide and seek, and the Hagrid-sized King Fergus (Billy Connolly) gives Merida her first bow and arrow. Merida runs off into the woods to find her arrow and sees mysterious will-o’-the-wisps! This is a moment so magical, and the expression on Merida’s face is so beautiful, that you can’t help but love the prologue. Merida retrieves her arrow and returns to the picnic - only to find a bear biting off King Fergus’s leg!

Pixar does well with small children, which feature as prominent protagonists in A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Up. Save for perhaps Violet in The Incredibles, it is untested and unsure when it comes to teenagers. A great film might’ve been made with similar epic sensibilities to Finding Nemo or Up with Merida as a small child, but Brave resorts to using Merida as a cliché. All of Pixar’s previous films have been marked by a sense of wonder and sparkling originality. In animation, old men could not be box office heroes, families of superheroes were cheesy, fish were only interesting characters if accompanied by mermaids, monsters were the villains, and toys stayed immobile when their owners left the room.

Brave is neither wondrous nor original. Whereas the deep blue ocean of Finding Nemo is vast and mysterious, the floating house of Up is wistful and adventurous, and the slick super-powered world of The Incredibles is the last word in high-octane comic book stylings, Brave is set disappointingly within the real world. The animation is quite possibly the best Pixar has ever done, and some shots of the Scottish highlands are breathtaking - but unlike Pixar’s previous ventures, we never want to live there. Most of the characters aren’t taken seriously, which lessens the reality of the world, and I was aware that we were watching Merida ride through the same castle and forest over and over again. The world of Brave seems to falter outside the borders of King Fergus’s kingdom, and in fantasy worlds the maps must be expansive and involving.

I may be the only one, but I also have issues with the half-fantasy Brave presents. It seems that witches, magic, and will-o’-the-wisps existed in Scotland centuries ago. I am completely fine with this; fantasy is an engrossing genre that can provide both profound literary or cinematic depth as well as escapism. There’s a reason most books considered modern classics are fantasies. But the reason The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are so successful is because they are primarily fantasies, and not pretending to be anything else. The film contains fantasy elements, but is will-o’-the-wisps the extent of magical creepy crawlies at the scriptwriters’ disposal? Is there only one witch, or are there more? I would’ve loved to see an all-out fantasy, but Brave seems reluctant to embrace more magic.

It is churlish to say that the film isn’t entertaining. It is funny and heartwarming. Queen Elinor (and a tag-along King Fergus) have arranged for the three clan leaders to bring their eldest born to the castle to compete in a competition for Merida’s hand of marriage. Naturally, the suitors are all doofuses, and naturally, Merida opposes the very idea of the marriage. After making a grand show of defeating the trio in archery, she tears a family tapestry depicting the royal family and rides off into the woods. There she wanders upon a small cabin and meets - a witch. The witch is voiced by the wonderful Julie Walters, but the character is not the least bit malevolent. Perhaps my affinity for the Bard’s Macbeth and Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves had me expecting too much, but the film needed the narrative push from an antagonist. Here the witch is presented as an innocent woodcarver who dabbles in magical dealings.

And so a surprised Merida has a bear on her hands, and the duo must escape the castle and live in the wilderness together. It is quite funny to see Queen Elinor the Bear attempt to remain regal and dignified even whilst slobbering down a fish beside a river. I am a teenage male, and I recognize that I’m not the perfect person to relate to Brave's mother-daughter bonding themes, but I can certainly admire them. I knew Brave was a success, in this respect, at least, when tears started glistening in my own mother’s eyes beside me.

The duo journey to the witch’s hovel, only to find the witch has left for a woodcarving festival, which only serves to further remove her from the story. Thankfully, she’s left a kindly message for “the lass with the red hair” explaining the teensy tidbit she forgot about the spell: if they can’t “mend the bond torn by pride” within two days, Elinor will remain a bear forever. Naturally Merida and Elinor begin to understand each other and move towards reconciliation. They repair both their relationship and the relationship between the four clans, which was tested by Merida’s obstinacy and is nicely tied to an ancient legend of the kingdom. The “a-ha!” moment when we realize the identity of the bear that bit off King Fergus’s leg is frightening and chilling.

Brave is an often funny film. Billy Connolly’s King Fergus is amusing, at least for a little while, and the film is much benefited by the addition of royal triplets who seem intent on causing as many precocious hijinks as humanly possible. The three suitors (voiced by Kevin McKidd, Steven Cree, and Callum O’Neill) are well-used, though their fathers (voiced by Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, and Robbie Coltrane) are more caricatured. The script is short on wit, instead relying on physical comedy, which, like the suitors’ archery, is hit or miss. Anything involving the triplets or the bear version of Queen Elinor is fun to watch, but there are a couple of jokes about farting and belching that seem designed to awaken the lowest common denominator in the theater. I knew Brave was employing cheap humor when Maudie the maid (Sally Kinghorn and Eilidh Fraser) runs screaming into a wall, stops, shakes her head, and continues running… and screaming.

Much has been said about Merida being the first female Pixar protagonist, as well as her merits as Pixar’s first female protagonist. She is well-voiced by Kelly Macdonald and is certainly dimensional enough to watch and like. But Merida’s affinity for archery and challenging gender roles seems like a cop-out at times. Of course it isn’t wrong for Merida to like archery or to want to do anything that a boy can, though this has been covered in many, many movies before it. It makes a statement, and it may be the first time some young moviegoers experience the statement. But a more interesting narrative might deal with Merida as a girl with a different kind of strength, one that transcends physical abilities.

The inescapable fact is that Brave is remarkably conventional. A princess. A witch. A spell gone wrong. All of the plot elements are nicely tied up to avoid loose ends or ambiguity. All of the characters are happy. I expect kids will like it, parents will tolerate it, and in a few years, we may even be heading out for a sequel. Brave is not a bad film. But Pixar has done better, and Pixar can do better. ☆☆½

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (2011)
  • Directed by: David Yates.
  • Written by: Steve Kloves. Based on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling. 
  • Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, Warwick Davis, Helena Bonham Carter, Kelly Macdonald, Ciarán Hinds, John Hurt, Evanna Lynch, Bonnie Wright, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory, David Thewlis, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman.
  • Rated: PG-13.

When the Internet took wands to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for failing to nominate the last and greatest Potter enterprise, I knew it hardly mattered. Chiefly because the Oscars don’t mean much of anything, but also because to hundreds of millions worldwide, Harry Potter is and always will be the Best Picture. I should warn you I’m both the most qualified and least qualified critic to review this film you’ll read, as I’m hopelessly obsessed with the Harry Potter phenomenon. By my last count, I’ve delved into Harry’s literary world eighteen times, thank you very much. As a child, I hated reading. Why would I want to devote time that could be spent killing battle droids and Sith lords to struggling over a book my teachers assigned concerning a group of anthropomorphic animals and forced morals? In the summer before first grade, my parents read to me a chapter - or due to incessant begging, often two or three chapters - of Harry Potter every night before bed.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 promotional posterIt was enchanting, enthralling, thrilling, touching, tangible, mystifying, relatable, and escapist. James W. Thomas, an English teacher and author of the great companion book Repotting Harry Potter, cannily observed “The Potter story seems to speak uniquely to the child in the adult and the adult in the child.” Children will admire the action, the familiar yet fresh take on school, the parallels to bullying and satire of teachers, and the relatable leads. But there is a sense of importance and stakes, of great beauty and poignant moments; the plotting is at times Dickensian, the role call of characters and their relations Tolkienesque; and, of course, J. K. Rowling has stated her underlying theme is death. For adults, the Potter experience evokes the wistful innocence of dressing up in a wizard costume and pretending to turn your siblings into frogs with your magic spatula. Thus is the universal power of the Potter franchise.

Being an  über-fan is both the bane and balm of my cinematic Potter experience. The experience of a new Potter film in both the lead-up and viewing is much richer. When I see a character onscreen, I am instantly aware of myriad other scenes and lines that couldn’t make it into the movie. Comprehension is never an issue for me. But the little telling details that don’t quite match up with the book’s version irk me. Potterphiles hold their source material very sacred indeed, so why wouldn’t the filmmakers have Harry repair his own wand before destroying the Elder Wand? But, for the most part, I have escaped the curse that has befallen most of my friends. (Geddit? Curse? Never mind.) Harry’s eye color and the omission of this scene or that don’t affect me too much. These films are adaptations, and they are marvelous adaptations, true to the spirit and world of their literary counterparts. The books make the movies richer, and the movies, I think, make the books richer too. Is it possible to imagine anyone but Alan Rickman as Snape, Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge? Can anyone read the books without some elements of Stuart Craig’s magnificent production design sneak in? In this way, the books and films are complementary to one another. The books give the movies depth and the movies give the books a fresh spin.

And now, the bulk of my love letter is complete. Onward to the point of this review: the film itself. The final Potter is epic in scale and played out emotionally with operatic vigor. As viewers will recall, the last two chapters set up the vile Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) secret failsafes, the Horcruxes, objects of value in which pieces of his soul are hidden. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are on a mission to track down the remaining Horcruxes, taking them from Gringotts Bank to the hamlet of Hogsmeade to the cavernous Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Remember way back in Philosopher’s Stone when Gringotts was a place of wonder and mysteries, when Hogwarts was a well-lit safe haven? Well, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson still portray our three leads, but they are no longer plucky and precocious, wearing grave faces and delivering their lines with urgency. Gringotts is still a bank, but it has lost its wonder in favor of terror and its last mysteries are about to be plumbed. Hogwarts is still a school, but its many balustrades and secret passages have been readied for war; its fires have been extinguished in favor of lighting-by-curses.

As this is the final installment in the series, the film is unusually light on new characters. We meet Dumbledore’s gruff brother Aberforth (Ciarán Hinds) and the ethereal ghost of Ravenclaw Tower, the Grey Lady (Kelly Macdonald), whose past is connected to the Horcruxes. They are both game, Maconald especially so, but the real pleasure here is the roll call, or rather “role” call, of Potter characters past. Most of the denizens of Hogwarts, good and evil, who remain alive (and a few deceased gatecrashers, like Michael Gambon and Gary Oldman) have returned.  Ralph Fiennes, playing the Dark Lord with a sinister whisper and bloodcurdling battle cry, is aided by Helena Bonham Carter’s vicious vixen Bellatrix, Tom Felton’s ex-bully and reluctant Death Eater Draco Malfoy, and his frail and defeated parents, played by Jason Isaacs and Helen McCrory. Alan Rickman returns as Snape, now Hogwarts’ ominous new Headmaster, if only to demonstrate his ability to say his lines as slowly as possible whilst still holding our attention.

But not to fear, for the teachers of Hogwarts are here! The irascible and immovable Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and the diminutive Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis, also playing the guileful goblin Griphook) lead the school in battle. A great number of prestigious Brits also have cameos with the distinct purpose of saying “look who showed up to the party!” I did wish that Jim Broadbent, Robbie Coltrane, Natalia Tena, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, and Mark Williams had more to do, but I suppose its all in the spirit of the proceedings. Yes, I realize I just spent two paragraphs on the supporting cast. If you’re ever confronted with an endless list of characters and MacGuffins, you know you’re inside a Harry Potter film.

The young performers were wisely cast so many years ago. They give their characters enough depth and feeling that we never find ourselves waiting for the next scene involving a member of the supporting cast, though I suspect their performances work largely due to a great deal of nostalgia and goodwill built up over the last fifteen years. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson have matured into great young actors, and I am excited to see what paths their careers will take them. Tom Felton and Bonnie Wright, who plays Harry’s love interest, Ginny, are also rising stars. Rupert Grint and Matthew Lewis (schlub Neville, who gets a lot more screen time and a heroic character arc) are pleasing performers, but have never carried any real depth or gravitas. Evanna Lynch returns as Luna Lovegood, Harry’s sometimes strange, sometimes profound Ravenclaw friend. Her performance is a wonderful mixture of acting and being, though I’m not so sure how much of a career she’ll have outside of Luna.

The film is thrilling and well-paced. The Gringotts sequence is great fun; I enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s performance (playing Emma Watson playing Hermione playing Bellatrix) as well as a thrilling ride on the Gringotts carts. Scenes with Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters are dark and brooding. An early scene shows Voldemort, in his wrath, to have killed all present save the three Malfoys, which doesn’t make much sense as he supposedly thinks them unworthy of the title “swine”, but it’s a nice effect. Once we get to Hogwarts and battle breaks out, we are witnessing a full-on visual and auditory feast. Old faces return to battle it out at midnight, to conjure force fields and destroy bridges. Alexandre Desplat’s score is electrifying when necessary, poignant and polished when it gets the chance to be. As always, Maggie Smith has a great number of fun one-liners, and as always, the cinematography is magnificent. We fly through the castle, over turrets, across wooden catwalks, and even, in one particularly deft CG shot, follow a crack at the hilt of Voldemort’s Elder Wand to the tip. David Yates’ direction does not possess the innate sense of wonder that Chris Columbus held, nor the moody visual flair Alfonso Cuarón perfected, nor the very British sense of humor kept my Mike Newell. His world doesn’t linger on any of these elements too much, but keeps them all in good taste - the wonder, the visual excitement, the humor, a touch of darkness and romance here and there. But most importantly, Yates, with help from veteran Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves, is able to directly challenge J. K. Rowling’s characters and voice onto the screen.

The battle is tonally different from the book, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the book, I found the battle to be almost joyous. There is much humor for such a dark event, and there are so many callbacks to great scenes and characters, that we reach an unchallenged euphoria. The movie simplifies this to a darker fantasy battle, but it may be the best fantasy battle outside of Helm’s Deep you’ll ever see. While I’m at quibbles, two changes infuriated me: the location of Snape’s death scene, which held great significance to his character history in the book, but has been thrown aside; and the climactic final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, which takes place not in the beloved Great Hall but in the less-resonant courtyard, without the verbal exchange between the archrivals nor the presence of Harry’s friends and supporters. Thankfully, neither change infuriated me enough to make a real difference.

The most beautiful scene in the film and the series is Snape’s memory sequence. Every snarl, every expression that has passed over Alan Rickman’s face over the last eight films has been painfully, tragically justified. The memories from the books are interwoven with flashbacks to the events of The Philosopher’s Stone, Snape’s time at Hogwarts with Harry’s parents, and a wrenching walk through the Potter house the night Voldemort came knocking. I cherished the brief scene in which juvenile versions of Snape and Lily lay beneath a tree together and eventually follows “helicopter” seeds blowing in the wind. I was reminded of another tree with significance to childhood, in Forrest Gump. Lo and behold, a few scenes later, the camera follows grains of wheat blowing through the sky.

It has been almost a full year since the great Harry Potter series finally ended. No more books, no more movies. The world has changed much in this year and it will continue to change. Roger Ebert observed that movies don’t change, but the people who watch them do. Presidents and Prime Ministers will fall and rise. Wars will be started and peaces shall be forged. We shall exalt some and later shun them. Such is our world. But I have a feeling that Harry is not for our age, but for a great many ages to come. I doubt humans will ever stop loving and hating, saving and dying, teaching and learning. No matter the crisis, I think I’ll be able to turn to Harry Potter for comfort and guidance. J. K. Rowling has said “Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.” Well said, Jo. Well said. ☆☆☆½