Previously on Harry Potter: Big bad Voldemort steals the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's grave while Harry mourns the loss of his wee elf friend Dobby and begins his search for the remaining Horcruxes.
If that recap leaves you with hazy memories of last year's Deathly Hallows - Part 1 you may want to pop in the DVD before taking on the Harry Potter franchise's grand finale Deathly Hallows - Part 2. The eighth film in the series doesn't pull any punches demanding your knowledge of the saga's previous events and crescendoing off a foundation of character and connection built over a decade of cinematic excursions. That's not a fault -- Deathly Hallows - Part 2 serves hardcore fans and dedicated patrons of the franchise alike bouncing elegantly back and forth between explosive action and emotional conclusions. At this point that's what matters.
Whereas Deathly Hallows - Part 1 took Harry Hermione and Ron on a gritty race through the real world Part 2 brings the trio back to their home base Hogwarts School of Magic and Child Death where their colleagues and professors find themselves defending it against the empowered Voldemort and his band of Death Eaters. Similarly to Transformers: Dark of the Moon Deathly Hallows - Part 2 spends most of its run time following various established characters as they navigate the epic battle. Unlike the clunky erratic action of TF3 director David Yates manages to execute the sequences in Potter with bravado making sure we give a damn every time Potter discovers a secret from the past blows a Death Eater out a window or glances upon one of his closest friends lying dead on the floor.
For all its otherworldliness Potter is and always has been a human story one that puts its characters before spectacle. But when Yates and his team of FX wizards do unleash their bag of spells on the screen they do it with a very BIG bang. Deathly Hallows - Part 2's scope is on par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy bringing everything from trolls to spiders to animate statues into the wizards' massive assault. The franchise hasn't seen action on this scale before but Yates never misses a beat or opportunity to dazzle with visual eye candy. Turning the crumbling of Hogwarts castle into a riveting poignant experience -- true magic.
Once again Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson Rupert Grint and a cast of veteran British thespians deliver the necessary gravitas to anchor Potter's fantastical elements in reality. With everything finally on the line in Deathly Hallows - Part 2 each performance is at its best and Radcliffe steps up to the plate to make his final showdown with Voldemort one to remember. He spends most of the movie covered in dirt encrusted blood on his face and a harrowing sense of death behind his eyes. Heavy material but Radcliffe pulls it off.
Few franchises have the chance that Harry Potter has been fortunate enough to receive to follow the same familiar faces through years of ever-complicating story. Thankfully Deathly Hallows - Part 2 doesn't squander the opportunity. The saga swells with a triumphant final act one that never forgets why people love the movies in the first place. The adventure the awe the comedy the thrills the people the places the things -- those are the elements that make Harry Potter grand and they return in perfect form once more to say good-bye.
If you had told me a few months ago that I’d be one of the few people defending Your Highness, I’d have... almost no reaction whatsoever. I thought the first Red Band trailer for the Danny McBride-starring, David Gordon Green-directed R-rated fantasy-stoner-comedy looked funny enough, but it also looked like the best bits may have all been crammed into that overly long trailer. I was lukewarm on the whole thing, maintaining an optimistic look forward but really not getting my hopes too high. So, had you told me I’d be one of the few defending it, my only surprise wouldn’t be that the movie needed defending but that so few would be taking up its banner. After all, a fantasy-stoner-comedy featuring Danny McBride, Justin Theroux, James Franco and Natalie Portman can’t be so bad as to actually piss people off, can it?
Well, as the 26% Rotten Tomatoes score shows, apparently it can. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack a week to set the scene.
Every now and then, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, gets very excited about an upcoming film and decides to put on a special event for it. Most of the time this means preparing a novelty meal and drink menu for the movie, but sometimes it means putting on a bit of a show and hosting a Q&A with the filmmakers. So last week, the Drafthouse put together an epic fantasy triple feature programmed by the minds behind Your Highness. The night started with Albert Pyun’s 1982 flick The Sword and the Sorcerer, which fed into Your Highness, which was followed up by Peter Yates’ Krull (a personal childhood favorite). David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Justin Theroux were on hand to talk a bit between the movies, about why they chose to show these two films, what they meant to them growing up and how they influenced Your Highness.
It was a fun time and yet another reason I love the Alamo Drafthouse, but if I’m being perfectly honest, what Green, McBride and Theroux had to say about the other two fantasy films didn’t really impress me. Why? Because their love for Sword and the Sorcerer and Krull was the same love the 240-plus people in the audience had: a nostalgia-tinted view at a time in their lives when movies like those not only represented movie magic, but they were kind of taboo and risky to watch as a kid (well, not Krull; that movie’s tame). There were no deep revelations as to what made those movies great. It was the same “I was a kid and these movies had big, burly men with preposterous weapons fighting over who got to sleep with a scantily clad woman. IT WAS AMAZING!”
And there’s a reason that there was no deep revelation on their end. It’s because movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer aren’t actually that great. Sure, as a kid you love the boobs and the violence and the fantasy set pieces, but as an adult you can look past those and see that the acting is dreadful, the production design is goofy and the plot is abysmal. Don’t get it twisted, I’m a big fan of Krull. I wore out a VHS tape of it as a kid, and as an adult I have a framed UK quad poster of it hanging in my living room. I even happened to watch it with my wife a week before the Drafthouse event was even announced. But even I can admit it’s a boring movie with a charisma-less lead and a really, really stupid story (but man does it have a tremendous score and cinematography, and the Widow of the Web sequence still gives me the willies).
Now, I’m not saying that people today should grade Your Highness on a curve because the fantasy flicks of yesteryear are, in actuality, not very good movies, but I’m a little surprised that people are seriously annoyed by the movie -- that they paint its badness with a broad stroke, completely overlooking some seriously impressive elements of it. Even if there isn’t a single joke in the movie that makes you laugh, how can you not dig on the fantasy elements? The hand-snake battle in the pit is an inspired bit of writing and something I’ve never seen before in a movie. The three mothers given to the evil wizard are far more interesting than most bad-guy henchmen of any genre. Toby Jones’ genitalia-less squire, the minotaur, the merging of the two moons -- all of that stuff is surprisingly rad and more creative than I’d ever expect from a movie like this.
Of course, you can argue that Your Highness is a comedy first and a fantasy adventure second, and I wouldn’t dispute that argument, but I think the latter elements are so strong that they buoy the movie enough to prevent it from ever sinking into worthless territory. And yet the film’s haters gloss over those things with a dismissive, “Really, David Gordon Green, this is what you’re doing these days? Have you fallen this far?” reaction Well, if an indie director convincing a major studio to spend $50 million on a fantasy-stoner-comedy full of profanity and Minotaur penis is considered a step backwards, I’m baffled as to how one defines career success in Hollywood.
Yeah, I thought giving a handjob to a weird puppet creature-pedophile wasn’t very funny, and Danny McBride still isn’t my first choice to lead feature films, but you know what? That weird puppet creature-pedophile looked pretty awesome, and McBride was surrounded by the likes of Natalie Portman (as the sexiest ranger ever, I might add), James Franco, Justin Theroux, Toby Jones, Rasmus Hardiker and Damian Lewis. For everything in Your Highness that doesn’t work, there’s enough in there that’s at least worth talking about. That’s what defines the beloved fantasy movies of the ‘80s. As a whole, they’re far from flawless, but the mixture of their imperfections with their swing-for-the-fences commitment is what made them awesome. And if claiming a Minotaur penis as a trophy in a fantasy-stoner-comedy made by a major movie studio isn’t swinging-for-the-fences commitment, I don’t know what is.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan follows J.M. Barrie's story almost to the letter. A girl on the brink of womanhood Wendy Darling (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) loves telling her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) stories of dastardly pirates as they sit in their nursery under the watchful eye of their St. Bernard Nana. Her 19th-century Londoner parents however believe the time has come for the young girl to grow up especially her father. Then a cheeky wild-haired boy named Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) flies through the nursery window one night with his trusted yet jealousy-prone fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) telling Wendy he can take her to a place full of adventure where no one ever has to grow up. She readily accepts the offer and with a few happy thoughts some fairy dust and her two brothers in tow she flies off to Neverland. (Not the ranch…the real place.) Once there Wendy encounters mermaids Indians and the Lost Boys (who refer to her as "mother") and gets the whole pirate experience in Peter's ongoing feud with arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs). But Wendy soon becomes conflicted because on the one hand she likes hangin' with hottie Peter but on the other she misses her mother. She decides it's probably best to go back and grow up but in her hurry to leave she ends up in Hook's clutches. A rescue ensues. Swords clash ticking crocodiles are fed and fairies are saved as our clever fly boy zooms Wendy and company back to London on a giant pirate ship. But does he stay and grow up himself? Hell no he's a Toys 'R Us kid forever!
All the kid actors in Peter Pan are highly watchable and appealing with angelic faces peaches-and-cream complexions and pouty cherry lips. This is the first time Peter is being played by a real-life boy a fact much hyped by the filmmakers and 12-year-old Sumpter (Frailty) does his best to live up to the expectations. (He's soon to be swoon-worthy material for sure.) He's got a mischievous gleam in his eye and a great sly smile but he really lights up when he's looking into Wendy's adorable face. Hurd-Wood the first-time actress who plays the spirited girl earned her role after a long and involved casting process it's well deserved; she fits the typical English-girl profile perfectly and gets the hang of her craft quickly infusing the character with a natural cheerful energy. It's also refreshing to see the young actors play up Wendy and Peter's feelings of first love which prior films always hinted at but never fully realized. Isaacs in a dual role as the firm-but-loving Mr. Darling and the frightening comical lonely charming needy reprehensible Captain Hook draws on his experience at playing exquisitely awful baddies (The Patriot Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and really sinks his claws into Hook. In a stand out supporting role French actress Sagnier (Swimming Pool) is really fantastic as the vivacious non-speaking Tinkerbell portraying the fairy's conflicted emotions with a silent-film over-the-top technique.
Director/writer P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) and his team try to distinguish their film from the other Peter Pans of the world by using all the technical and special effects wizardry at their disposal. Hogan says his Peter Pan is the way its author Barrie intended to be when he wrote it as a play over a 100 years ago--full of fantasy and wonder. In a way he's right and production designer Roger Ford and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar take his vision and run with it giving audiences a very lush Neverland with waterfalls fluffy pink clouds crystal-blue waters and a gorgeous fairy world. But despite the bells and whistles there really isn't anything original and different in this Pan. Even its look at the dark side of Neverland has been done in Steven Spielberg's 1991 semi-sequel Hook which showed the dangers of Neverland. In this version lives really are at stake and the pirates are not cute and fun. Even the mermaids are mysterious and malevolent with scary faces and murderous intentions a far cry from the beautiful if somewhat mean-spirited creatures of the 1953 classic Disney animated adaptation another inescapable influence on the audience. When the crocodile draws near for example tick-tocking away the croc's signature tune from the Disney film comes immediately to mind. People may love those Disney films for those cutesy catchy songs but Peter Pan really is a good story. Heck it's a great story. But it's just been done.