As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
Cradle 2 the Grave isn't going to be known as one of those action flicks that thrills you but also has a surprisingly interesting story to back it up. Still Cradle has enough credible plot points to keep things moving until the next fight sequence. The action begins with Tony Fait (Earl "DMX" Simmons) and his fiercely devoted crew--including the stunning Daria (Gabrielle Union) and comic relief Tommy (Anthony Anderson)--pulling off a complex jewelry heist and snagging a valuable cache of black diamonds. These diamonds aren't what they appear to be but are actually something much more powerful--and deadly. Su (Jet Li) working for the Taiwanese government as a secret agent must retrieve them before its too late. Fait would be happy to hand over the stones for the right price but word of their value has hit the street and they are stolen by a powerful crime lord (Chi McBride). Su and the crimelord end up being the least of Fait's problems however when Su's ex-partner Ling (Mark Dacascos) now a ruthless arms dealer enters the picture. He and his treacherous woman (Kelly Hu) will stop at nothing to get those black baubles including kidnapping Fait's daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd). OK things just got personal. Fait Su and company have to work together to fight off the onslaught of nasties exact revenge stop possible world destruction and get back the only thing Fait cares about in the world--his daughter.
Is it me or is Jet Li just too damn cool for words? The whole martial arts arena has certainly been stepped up with the Jackie Chan's and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's of the world but Li brings back that calm yet deadly demeanor the late Bruce Lee made so popular. Granted Li hasn't had the same success in the U.S. as Chan--save for maybe his American debut performance in the smokin' Romeo Must Die. But he sure is impressive on-screen kicking the bejesus outta someone without blinking an eye no matter what the asinine plot line. Hip-hop singer DMX who also appeared in Romeo Must Die (along with Anderson) holds his own as a tough nut über-thief but he finds a little difficulty emoting when the time comes. The hilarious Anderson and the oh-so-alluring Union are quickly becoming the "It" black actors (him: Kangaroo Jack Barbershop; her: Deliver Us From Eva the upcoming Bad Boys 2) while the forever-irritating Tom Arnold pops up as a demolition surplus dealer (but make sure to stay all the way through the credits to watch a hilarious exchange between him and Anderson). Hurd does an nice turn as the feisty Vanessa who is fairly resourceful for a kidnapped 10-year-old. It's easy to see the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Enough with all the superfluous plot lines and acting analysis--let's get down to real reason the movie exists. Action. High octane fist-flyin' action and as a self-proclaimed action junkie--and newly transformed martial arts fan--Cradle certainly doesn't disappoint. Director/cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak who worked with Li and DMX on Romeo Must Die knows how to frame the martial arts sequences while using the pounding hip-hop soundtrack and urban locale to full effect. One of the more fast-paced sequences has Fait outrunning police cars on a three-wheel ATV eventually jumping the bike from rooftop to rooftop while Su in another location is fighting off a dozen guys in a boxing pit including an aggressive midget who would like to smash Su's face in but ends becoming a device to fend off the rest. All while DMX is belting out a jammin' song. Great stuff. Of course you wait for the ultimate showdown between Su and his nemesis Ling and when it comes it's a jaw-clencher. The film is just a purely mindless roller-coaster ride.
Surfers wipe out big time as hacked up body parts keep washing up in this kooky over-the-top spoof. Drag diva Charles Busch plays police Capt. Monica Stark hot on the trail of a serial killer. Her chief suspect is sweet Chicklet a plucky bobbysoxer who wants to surf with the beach boys. What psychosexual trauma in Chicklet's childhood subconscious is causing her personality to fracture into that of a toxic vixen?
Lauren Ambrose ("Can't Hardly Wait") comically pinballs from one goofball genre cliché to another as she plays the squeaky clean Chicklet and split personalities such as a black girl from the streets and a villainous femme fatale. In a droll nuanced performance Busch lampoons the tough-but sensitive woman cop with a secret past. Other cast members -- "Dharma and Greg's" Thomas Gibson as a rhyming hep cat Matt Keeslar as a sinister Swede -- revel in rampant parodies mock bad acting and faux innocence infused with a twisted gay sensibility.
Robert Lee King's adaptation of Busch's Off Broadway play is awash in kitsch giddy homoeroticism and bold colors. Not unlike John Waters' "Serial Mom" or a twisted take on "Pleasantville " this savvy satire of Americana features fun sequences of beefcake wrestling dance contests at a Hawaiian luau trashy shock-value gruesome appendages and cheesy special effects as sound stage surfers ride the waves before a filmed backdrop.