Monday, September 27, 2010


by Mark Pezzula

Whatever your personal feelings about the phenomenon that is Harry Potter, there's no denying that the films have etched a place in popular film culture, both critically and with fans. I can't name one other film franchise in cinema history that has juggled directors while keeping the same cast (whose main members started the series as children and now finish it as young adults) and only increased in quality. No matter how the final film (split into two parts) ends, it's safe to say the Harry Potter franchise has been a tremendous achievement on all accounts.

The first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is released on November 19, 2010. From now until then I will be doing a retrospective of each film in the franchise. Enjoy.


 Directed by Christopher Columbus

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs 

Not ten minutes into the first Harry Potter sequel we're introduced to the series's very own Jar Jar Binks: Dobby the House Elf. Attempting to convince Harry not to go back to Hogwarts, Dobby's not only a poorly rendered CG creation (looking like a watery rat compared with The Fellowship of the Ring's fully rendered and breathtakingly real Gollum) but also a ridiculously grating presence. As Dobby prances around Harry's room (where Harry is confined by the Dursley's - Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousin) and inflicts physical pain on himself after every mistake, one would not be blamed for thinking the makers of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were about to make some pretty damning choices for the all-important sophomore film. Survive Dobby's few minutes on-screen, though, and you'll find that the first Potter sequel is charming and, in every way, better than its predecessor, albeit it comes with that films same shortcomings.

Harry returns for his second year at Hogwarts already aware that something sinister awaits, thanks to Dobby's warning. Before his adventure begins, however, he (and we) are introduced to that pack of magical, love-able, and crazy gingers: the Weasley's. After being rescued (in a flying car) from his prison at the Dursley's by Ron and Ron's twin brothers Fred and George, Harry hides away at The Weasley's poorly kept but wondrous abode for the rest of the summer. These early scenes contain some great work from the cast, especially Julie Walters and Mark Williams as mom (Molly) and pop (Arthur) Weasley, respectively. It also features lighthearted direction from Columbus, who obviously revels in portraying the Weasley's as a tight-knit, happy-go-lucky family who, while over-reliant on wizardry to perform every day tasks, really love each other in a grounded way. The Weasley's are everything Harry has ever wanted from a family but never got the chance to receive.

In film number two we're introduced to two new major characters: Gilderoy Lockheart (Kenneth Branagh) and Lucius Malfoy (a sinister (is there any other?) Jason Isaacs). With the casting of these two British Behemoth's, the Chamber of Secrets continues the precedent set forth by the Sorcerer's Stone: that good actors matter. The vain and empty-headed but charming Lockheart is made even more grand and pompous by Branagh's scenery-munching (not a knock) performance. Isaacs is predictably cold and calculating but nonetheless fitting as the hated Lucious.

In both cases, each performance is memorable and fun, and make the film's rigid text following easier to swallow, as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets makes the same mistake as its predecessor in that it sticks so closely to the book that there's little room for tangents, let alone for any new ideas to be explored. While this most likely pleases die-hard fans of the book, its frustrating for those of us who had hoped for a film that soloed a tad more than the first film. The rigidness not only makes the film at some points difficult to sit through but also ups the running time with scenes that simply pay lip-service to the book and serve no purpose in the film's overall narrative (for example: the Professor Sprout's Herbology class scene). Also, like the first film, the last act contains a barrage of exposition and plot-explanation, although that's more due to Rowling's over-reliance on such things in her books than Steve Kloves's screenplay.

Luckily, everything that was good in the first film is amplified to greatness in the Chamber of Secrets. Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, while not completely comfortable in their defining roles quite yet, are exceptionally better as the trio of friends in this film. And, although Richard Harris speaks barely above a whisper in his scenes as Albus Dumbledore (who passed away a few days before the release of the film), he projects majesty, wisdom, and a grandfatherly kindness that one would expect from a textbook reading of the character.

Columbus's handling of the special effects is also more than a few notches above his work on the Sorcerer's Stone. While Dobby is ugly and practically incomplete as a CG character, other special effects creatures, such as the Basilisk, are executed smoothly (for the most part). Columbus also steps up his directing game in parts of the film. Harry's battle with the Basilisk towards the end of the film is reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen's early work - from a special-effects standpoint, at least. While his directorial style is still mainly "point and shoot" on the Chamber of Secrets, the action beats feel less staged and more organic than in the first film. Perhaps it's because Harry confronts Voldemort in his corporeal form (a form that will not show up again until the fourth film), but the danger in the sequel feels more eminent than in Sorcerer's Stone. I credit Columbus with that feeling.

While Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets doesn't always successfully overcome its shortcomings, it does work harder at making you forget about them than its predecessor. It's a better film than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but it's also a solid stand-alone fantasy film. Future installments practically eliminate the casual movie-goer by making each film a straight continuation of what came before. But Potter novices could walk into the Chamber of Secrets and not miss a beat. Regardless of whether you're a HP newbie or you've got your own sorting hat and have pledged your allegiance to Ravenclaw 4 Life, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets stands up as a fine fantasy film and a worthy adaptation.


I've decided to start a new section of TEFB called "TEFB TRAILERS." Each week we'll bring you a few new trailers to check out, mostly ones that interest us the most or look to be films worth spending your money on.

The impetus behind this section is the trailer you'll see linked to below: The Coen Brothers' new film True Grit. Yes, that True Grit. Based on the information gathered thus far, it's more of a straight adaptation of Charles Portis's 1968 novel of the same name than the 1969 John Wayne version (which, sadly, I have not seen - I know, I know).

The trailer discloses its roots within the first thirty seconds, and spends the rest of its minute and fifteen seconds highlighting gorgeous scenery, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn,  Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin as...I Don't Know and No Idea, respectively. I've decided to go into the film half-blind, and forgo watching the original film or reading the novel before I see it.

True Grit comes after your daddy's killers this Christmas.

Watch the trailer (from Apple Trailers) here


by DashV

Parents rejoice! A film that celebrates you!

I know, I know. Jay didn't like this movie. He didn't like the camera it was shot with. He didn't like the gags, he didn't like the story. Mark didn't like it either. Didn't find it funny. Didn't like the camera choice.

Well I have just two words.

Eff Them.

Maybe it's because Jay and Mark had me ready to be dissappointed by this film before I dropped it into my Netflix queue. Maybe it's because I watched it on Blu-Ray on my 42 inch TV. Maybe it's because I've been married and lived through alot of the stereotypical mundane marraige cruft this movie relies on for it's humour for 10 years, but I found Steve Carell and Tina Fey to be hillarious throughout the film.

I found myself easily able to latch on to the husband and wife still in love but very much stuck in the work->kids->sleep day to day grind.

Picture quality wise it's one of the best looking Blu-Rays I've seen. The color, contrast, and framing seemed spot on throughout. I didn't see any problems with the night scenes that they mentioned in their reviews. Perhaps the issues they witnessed were specific to the theater they watched it in.

The action was decent enough for an action comedy and included a car chase unlike any I'd ever before seen.

For me my only complaint was toward the end one scene in particular which takes place in a strip joint seemed drag on while simultaneously being not at all funny. I still found myself laughing because I was embarrased for the filmmakers that (that one particular scene) came out as bad as it did.

But that one slow scene does not a bad movie make!

If you are married with children and looking for a good movie to watch while curled up with your significant other on the couch. Definately drop this into your queue! Just make sure the young-ins are in bed as the afore mentioned strip club scene may be too much for them.

I give it a 7.5 out of 10.

You can view the trailer here:

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Directed by Ben Affleck

Starring Ben Affleck, John Hamm, Rebecca Hall

For quite awhile after winning a Best Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting it seemed as if Ben Affleck was doomed to be remembered not for that accomplishment, but for his string of bad performances in even worse films. While friend and fellow Academy Award winner Mat Damon went on to prove time and time again he had serious acting chops, Affleck struggled to do basically anything except become the butt of pop-culture jokes ("Bennifer", anyone?) and squander all the good will (pun most definitely intended) earned from the little naked gold statue.

Then came Gone Baby Gone, one of the best films of 2007 which just so happened to be directed by the former Mr. Jennifer Lopez. Filled with fantastic performances and location shooting that made the film a staggering sense of authenticity, Gone Baby Gone introduced us to the reinvented Ben Affleck: one hell of a great director.

Three years later Affleck has returned with The Town, this time pulling double duty both behind and in front of the camera. Like Gone Baby Gone, it's based on a novel and takes place in Boston, Massachusetts. Also like Gone Baby Gone, it features some great acting with a supporting cast that could have come straight from the streets of Charlestown (the Boston neighborhood the film takes place in) themselves. One final similarity it shares with the director's previous film is that, while he's perfectly mediocre as an actor, Affleck is a very talented filmmaker.

In a tired and cliched story, professional bank robber Doug MacRay struggles to get out of his dangerous career and into the arms of new sweetheart Claire Keesey (the lovely Rebecca Hall). That she also happens to have been MacRay and his gang's hostage during a bank robbery that takes place at the beginning of the film is the only twist that keeps The Town's screenplay from being any other "one last job and I'm out because I'm really a softy at heart" film. That she doesn't realize who her beau is adds a layer of intensity to the film's two hours and five minutes (will she find out!? Won't she!?), but other than that aspect there won't be a single surprise in store for you, if you've seen enough movies.

What will surprise you, however, is just how fine-tuned and tight the film is overall, and how well Affleck has crafted what is one of the best moves of the year (again). MacRay's story may have been told many times before, but Affleck gets miracle performances out of his actors, and populates the film with a convincing array of extras and townies, giving Charlestown a sense of place and the film a layer of realness. Affleck has a gift for convincing you that these people actually exist and could be walking around the streets of Boston at this very moment.

Another surprise is how great of an action director Affleck is. There are two sprawling action set-pieces in the film, and he handles them like a seasoned pro. Many have compared the film's climactic shootout to Heat's never-been-topped gun fight, and while The Town's cops vs. robbers bullet battle certainly doesn't up the anti, it's still remarkably well shot, directed, and edited. Audience members who have been thirsting for street gun-play will find that chunk of the film quenching.

That he's merely a decent actor doesn't harm The Town much, even though Affleck has to carry the film on his shoulders. He's fine in the role, if not particularly memorable. The real performances to savor come from Jeremy Rennar, Rebecca Hall, and Blake Lively. As MacRay's ill-tempered and increasingly dangerous James Coughlin, Rennar plays Pesci to Affleck's De Niro.  He may be short and compact in stature, but Rennar infuses Coughlin with a fiery energy that makes him scary and threatening. Rebecca Hall plays vulnerable and wounded extremely well, so much so that it's hard not to dislike MacRay for manipulating her the way he does. Blake Lively is the biggest revelation here, however. As MacRay's on and again/off again (mostly off again) flame Krista (who is also James's sister), Lively does an award worthy job. If I didn't have IMDB handy to see that she was born in southern California, I would swear Affleck plucked her straight from the streets of Charlestown. That she's only 23 is even more shocking. Krista is a sad byproduct of Charlestown's criminal culture. How Lively imbued herself with that I have no idea. But she does. And it works.

The only casting misfire (besides Affleck, although that's not so much a misfire as it is simply choosing a better actor) is John Hamm as FBI agent Adam Frawley. By no means a bad actor, Hamm simply has one of the wonkier small to big screen transitions I've seen in awhile. Perhaps it's because he's so closely identified with Mad Men's Don Draper that makes Hamm seem like he permanently exists in a previous time period. Or perhaps he just doesn't have what it takes to play determined and tough law enforcement. Whatever it is, Hamm's performance seems to come from some other film and, while it doesn't ruin the film, it's certainly distracting.

It's great to see that The Town is not Affleck's sophomore slump and is, in fact, quite a good film. I don't think it will be looked at, in time, as a better film than Gone Baby Gone (the handling of that film's headlong dive into murky morality makes it more important and more enjoyable than The Town), but it will definitely be looked at as the project that solidified Ben Affleck's status as a filmmaker to look forward to.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Whatever your personal feelings about the phenomenon that is Harry Potter, there's no denying that the films have etched a place in popular film culture, both critically and with fans. I can't name one other film franchise in cinema history that has juggled directors while keeping the same cast (whose main members started the series as children and now finish it as young adults) and only increased in quality. No matter how the final film (split into two parts) ends, it's safe to say the Harry Potter franchise has been a tremendous achievement on all accounts.

The first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is released on November 19, 2010. From now until then I will be doing a retrospective of each film in the franchise. Enjoy. 


Directed by Christopher Columbus

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris

*NOTE: a little background on my experience with Harry Potter: when the books first came out I was just entering college. Of course, at the time, I thought they were kiddie stories. I paid no attention to them. The first film came and went, and I cared not, occupied with Lord of the Rings instead.  One evening, in 2002, while staying in the guestroom at the house of my girlfriend at the time, I happened to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on the bookshelf. Thinking I was tired and I needed something to put me to sleep, I decided to start reading it. An hour and a half later I was done. And I was hooked. I read the next two books back to back. Not that night, but soon afterward. I wasn't wrong, the books certainly are aimed at kids. The first few, anyway. But, like any good story aimed at whatever demographic, anyone can pick it up and immediately identify with it. And it's well written. Unlike, say, other books aimed at teens and pre-teens (I'm lookin' at you, Twilight). So I became a Potter fan on that evening in 2002 and the rest, as they say, is history.*

When Warner Bros. chose Christopher Columbus as the director of the first installment of the much beloved children's book-series it seemed like an odd choice. After all, the director's last film was the critically destroyed and commercially abysmal Bicentennial Man, and Columbus had never directed a straight up fantasy film before - unlike, say, his stiffest competition: author JK Rowling's director-of-choice Terry Gilliam. Looking back, however, it's not that difficult to see why Columbus won the gig. He made a name for himself directing films that rely heavily on the experiences of pre-adolescents:  Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone and its sequel, even Mrs. Doubtfire and Stepmom involved preteens and/or teenagers thrust into situations involving world disruption predicated by parental upheaval, something Harry Potter deals with directly: the death of his parents is the primary catalyst of the happenings in the first book.

With Columbus directing, Steve Kloves (screenwriter of Wonder Boys) writing (with Rowling herself guiding and dropping clues about what would happen in future installments of the book), Oscar winner John Seale handling cinematography, John Williams creating the score, and a cast that, while starring three unknowns, was rounded out by a bevy of British heavyweights (including Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, John Cleese, Maggie Smith, and Robbie Coltrane), it was clear that WB wanted to make a quality franchise out of the Potter series. While the Lord of the Rings films went on to eclipse the HP films from a cultural standpoint (and deservedly so), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was Warner Bros. statement that Hobbits and orcs would only dominate the box office for so long, and that the franchise of the decade would belong to wizards and witches. It as a shaky start, though, for the film franchise based on the books about The Boy Who Lived.

While Columbus was probably the right decision, because he's certainly familiar with working with kids, his direction is too workmanlike to elevate Sorcerer's Stone above its impressive but simple (simply impressive?) source material. JK Rowling is simply a better writer than Columbus is director, and although the first Harry Potter book stumbles in places, its charms far outweigh its flaws. The film version maintains (most of) the books charming aspects, but doesn't improve on anything else. It also doesn't help that Columbus doesn't take chances as a director. He simply sets up a master, shoots. Sets up a close-up. Shoots. Sets up a medium-shot. Shoots. His mundane process results in a perfectly fine but otherwise uninspiring two and a half hour film. He also bungles many of the effects-heavy sequences - the Quidditch matches especially. While watching the film recently, I was struck by how painful the CG is on the eyes in this film. Fluffy, Hagrid's cerebus-esque pet, is horrifically rendered, and doesn't hold a candle to, say, Fellowship of the Ring's Balrog. (The "troll" scene is particularly terrible. Compare this to Fellowship of the Ring's cave troll battle).

Another aspect of the film that would make for its undoing is the script's slavish devotion to the source material. Steve Kloves is a good writer, and while he keeps the screenplay moving there are no surprises, especially for those who have read Rowling's book. Even those unfamiliar with the Potter universe will find the film variably predictable.

So what makes Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone a good and ultimately re-watchable movie, then? Just about everything else. While casting three unknown children - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) to carry an adaptation of one of the most popular books of all time may have seemed like a risk at the time, it turned out to be a the right one. While Radcliffe is stiff in parts and Columbus (and his editor) cuts around a lot of his performance, he projects the right balance of carefree happy-go-lucky 11 year old boy and wounded, angry pre-adolescent that Harry is in the book. He has terrific chemistry with Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley, the goofy but loveable ginger who becomes Harry's best friend. And Emma Watson particularly does a great job as Hermione Granger, a too smart for her britches young lady who keeps Harry on Ron on track when their inner average-young-boys take over. The previously mentioned British supporting cast impresses as well. Richard Harris is Albus Dumbledore incarnate. Alan Rickman is menacing as Severus Snape. I could go on and write a separate blog about how great the rest of the cast is. They're all fun to watch.

Another aspect of Sorcerer's Stone that makes it worth revisiting is John Williams's fantastic score. The film's theme stands up with his best work, and is easily his most memorable since Jurassic Park (and, personally, I don't think he's come close to his Potter theme since). I'm not sure what it is about the film, but his work on the film is invigorating, and, as a whole, will eventually be remembered alongside such classics as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

At the end of the day, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a hefty, lumbering, yet somehow engaging film that kick-started a film franchise like no other in the history of cinema (hyperbole not intended - it's true). Without the casting of the film and Columbus's basic outline on how these films should be, we wouldn't have gotten the sequels that followed - two of them most assuredly cinema classics. It's delightful to go back and watch this first installment and to witness the ground work being forged for the future installments. Those of us that have spent a decade growing up with the films can look back on this first one with both a glint of nostalgia in the eye and also the assurance that we were right when we realized, those many years ago, that Harry Potter was the real deal when it came to fantasy/adventure, and not just some children's tale.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Starring Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey

Machete is the type of film that Robert Rodriguez has been directing (and producing, for that matter) for years. Films brimming with ideas and characters and mayhem but, despite all that, lacking surprise and any sort of narrative cohesion. His directing skills peaked with the bonkers From Dusk 'til Dawn, and that film owes more to Quentin Tarantino's deft screenplay than Rodriguez's talent behind the camera. Ever since that film solidified not only his career but George Clooney's star power as well, Rodriguez has churned out strong starting/lame finishing film after film and, although Machete is his best movie since From Dusk 'til Dawn, it still continues the director's puzzling streak of exciting but unsatisfying films.

The best parts of Machete happen within the first forty-five minutes, and to be quite honest the film is worth the $10 -$15 and change the multiplexes charge you in this day and age. Danny Trejo (you'd know him if you saw him) is Machete - a Mexican Federale betrayed by a corrupt legal system and left for dead by drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). After taking residence illegally in Texas, Machete is recruited by the mysterious Booth (the scene stealing Jeff Fahey) to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro). When Machete is betrayed by Booth, he teams up with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Sartana (a deadly-flat Jessica Alba) to uncover why he was set up. Along the way people are sliced, diced, decapitated, de-armed, de-faced, crucified, cut-up, cut-down and, in one poor bad soul's case, de-eyed with a stiletto heel to the ocular socket.

One of Machete's problems is that there's more to the film than need be; in addition to the A plot described above there's a few other threads the movie bounces to that drain the film of energy, especially when it crosses into the third act. Much like Rodriguez's underrated (but still very flawed) Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Machete is bogged down by too many characters with not enough to do. Some of these characters work (Cheech Marin as a former Federale turned Priest, Michelle Rodriguez as immigrant smuggler/part time revolutionary Luz) while most don't. Lindsey Lohan is especially wasted as Booth's drugged out, computer porn-star daughter April, whose final act should be rousing and provocative, but is instead eye-roll inducing. Don Johnson has a cameo as ultra-racist lawman Lieutenant Stillman, and while he's fun to watch onscreen, his character never quite gets the comeuppance he deserves.

Still, there's much fun to be had with this ode to grind house films of old (when Alba isn't sucking that fun away with her non-acting). Danny Trejo says more with his pock-marked face than any words any screenwriter could give him. (It's a shame his scenes are either balanced out or cut-into entirely by Alba - it's almost as if Rodriguez didn't trust Trejo to the carry the film on his own. Believe me, RR, he's more than capable.) Seagal is appropriately awful as a samurai drug kingpin, and while DeNiro seems sort of lost in the whole affair his last moments are a hoot. It's Jeff Fahey's performance, though, that makes Machete rise above its disappointments to become almost greatness at points. When Fahey busts into a house full of drug dealers and takes each one of them down with the ease of 5 trained assassins, you will believe he is a hard-ass villain worthy of the invincible Machete's wrath. Anyone who's watched the last few seasons of Lost knows what a tremendous asset Fahey was to the production, and with his blue-knife eyes and greasy mullet, he casts an outstanding presence in Machete.

In addition to the cast members that actually work, the film has the bonkers feel of the last third of From Dusk 'til Dawn going for it in parts (although the final battle is way too broad), and Rodriguez knows how creative to get with the kills and how many buckets of blood should be dumped on screen. If anything, Machete does have a number of crowd cheering moments. It's just a shame most of those moments come too early in the film.

 For a movie that never really should have been (it started out as a faux-trailer for the film Grindhouse),  Machete surprisingly works, overall. It's recommendable enough - the great moments are truly great. But the film itself deflates fast, and with too many characters and a thick plot seems longer than it actually is. Machete could have been Rodriguez's first great film in a long while. Instead, it's merely a collection of great moments in a decent film.