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.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
Based on the prize-winning novel by Zoe Heller Notes on a Scandal is a case study in obsessive relationships. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins a London secondary school as the new art teacher fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) who rules her young charges with an iron fist senses a kindred spirit—and perhaps salvation to her lonely existence. But as Barbara notes in her acerbic diary she is not the only one drawn to the luminous Sheba. She soon begins an illicit affair with one of her high school students (Andrew Simpson) and Barbara suddenly becomes the keeper of Sheba’s secret. Barbara could expose Sheba to both her husband (Bill Nighy) and the world but instead Barbara manipulates it for her own nefarious and selfish reasons. And in playing this dangerously compulsive game Barbara’s own secrets come tumbling to the fore exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives. Dench and Blanchett give tour-de-force performances yet again. Blanchett’s natural effervescence provides the beacon for all the wanted—and unwanted—attention Sheba receives but it’s her fragile emotional state that draws you in. Played like a wounded butterfly Sheba is too weak to either stave off a dalliance with the young gent—played with convincing lustfulness by newcomer Simpson—or tell the stifling Barbara to bugger off despite the consequences. Then there’s Dench as Barbara representing the opposite end of the spectrum as Notes’ driving force. She’s a bull dog whose withering glares stop her students in their tracks and cutting remarks slice her fellow colleagues to bits all punctuated by her caustic running commentary. Still when Barbara turns madly obsessive with her soft underbelly eventually exposed she crumbles with the best of them. And the best part of Notes is watching these two brilliant actress go toe-to-toe for the first time on film. The underrated Nighy also does a fine job ditching his Pirates of the Caribbean’s tentacles to play Sheba’s down-to-earth yet hapless husband. A top-notch cast all around. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to crafting intimate pro-actor dramas having helmed such films as Stage Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Iris. He understands where to move the camera to best frame his players as they pour their hearts out on screen. And with Notes on a Scandal Eyre knows that besides his two leading ladies the real star of the film is playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber’s superb adaptation of Heller’s introspective novel. Voice-over narration is always a tricky film device but for Notes on a Scandal it’s absolutely essential and Marber faithfully captures the inner-workings of Barbara’s skewed thoughts which she fervently writes down in her diary in such delectable ways. Then he entwines the twisty events around these two women. Much like his other work including the exquisite Closer Marber hands in another true gem. Combined with all this is another haunting pulse-pounding score from Philip Glass (The Hours) who sets the tone so perfectly. Notes on a Scandal is definitely one for the Academy Awards’ books.
The tragic opera tells the story of a disfigured musical genius (Gerald Butler) who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera waging a reign of terror over its occupants [cue the organ music]. Think The Elephant Man meets The Hunchback of Notre Dame--except this particular "monster" has some serious sex appeal. I mean honestly his only "disfigurement" is some scarring on one side of his face which he covers with a rather classy mask. No big whoop. But I digress. When he falls desperately in love with the lovely ingénue Christine (Emmy Rossum) who has lived in the opera house for most of her life the Phantom devotes himself to molding the young soprano into a star exerting a strange sense of control over her as he nurtures her extraordinary talents. But when Christine falls for the dashing Raoul (Patrick Wilson) all hell breaks loose as the Phantom's growing jealousies threatens to tear everyone apart [OK now it's really time to cue the organ music].
Fans will no doubt be happy their favorite musical has finally made it to the big screen but the musical's original stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman have been replaced in the movie version by hot young actors. This is a very wise decision considering the film's rather longwinded nature. In other words even though the Phantom performers keep singing and singing and then sing some more at least they are appealing to watch (and they did do all their own singing). Butler (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) is particularly effective as the Phantom all brooding mysterious and far more intriguing a suitor than pretty boy Raoul played blandly by Wilson (HBO's Angels in America). With her alabaster skin and long luscious locks Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow) also does a nice job as Christine. But she is unfortunately limited to only a few range of emotions--either all doe-eyed and somber over her Phantom doe-eyed and gushy over Raoul or just plain doe-eyed. As for the supporting players Minnie Driver nearly steals the show as the Italian soprano diva La Carlotta. As the only breath of fresh air in the musty opera house you definitely crave more of her.
It's taken about 15 years to bring Webber's smash hit to the big screen. Apparently after winning every known theater award for Phantom the legendary producer-composer approached director Joel Schumacher in 1988 to do the movie after being impressed by Schumacher's work on The Lost Boys. Hmmm The Lost Boys to Phantom of the Opera--I'm still trying to tie that one together. Anyway Webber had to postpone production for personal reasons and then Schumacher was busy doing such films as Tigerland and Phone Booth. Finally the time was ripe to make Phantom coming on the heels of the musical movie boom started by Moulin Rouge and Chicago. Schumacher certainly incorporates all the right elements from the young and talented cast to the opulent sets and magnificent costumes. The problem is the material: Phantom really isn't all that compelling of a story. Sure the stage production was and still is a theatrical event especially as the Phantom moves on catwalks all over the theater and the impressive chandelier comes crashing down on the stage. But for the film adaptation there needs to be something more than just grand posturing set pieces and operatic music. Maybe a little more dialogue? A sex scene? Anything?
Love means never having to say you're sorry; it's a many splendored thing; it's all you need. But in tennis love means zero; it means you lose. Or does it? For Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) a British pro tennis player seeded near the bottom of the world tennis ranks love actually inspires him. After scoring a wild card to play in the prestigious Wimbledon tournament he meets and falls for the rising and highly competitive American tennis star Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) fueling a winning streak he hasn't had since he began his career. For Lizzie however the love thing doesn't necessarily work out as well. Her feelings for Peter become a distraction throwing her off her game. Hmmm. Can these two crazy kids keep it together long enough so Peter can fulfill his lifelong dream of winning the men's singles title even if it means his muse might have to sacrifice her first Wimbledon title?
Kirsten Dunst may be what draws you in but Paul Bettany is the reason you don't walk out. The British actor who made an impression with American audiences playing the oh-so-witty Chaucer in A Knight's Tale and then wowed them in Oscar winners such as A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander doesn't disappoint in his first lead role. Bettany's Peter embodies all that charm we've come to love and expect in our British actors--although thankfully not as floppy as Hugh Grant--he stumbles about and apologizes profusely. It's so cute. And he makes a pretty darn believable tennis player to boot (one would hope so after the intense training session the actors apparently had to go through to prepare for the movie). Unfortunately Dunst does not fare as well. Her Lizzie is appealing and she adequately handles the tennis stuff--but she ultimately fails to connect with her male lead making their relationship seem forced. Their beginning sparks are fun but when there's suppose to be a real flame igniting between them you're left scratching your head wondering just when where and why they fell in love so hard so fast. Yep that's a big red flag.
I've said sports movies usually work (see the Mr. 3000 review). To clarify: That is team sports. Sport movies where the action revolves around a single competitor are harder to pull off. It's just not as exciting watching an underdog struggle with himself in order to win. Luckily director Richard Loncraine (HBO's My House in Umbria) seems to know this fact. Even though Peter takes Centre Court (that's the British way of spelling it) Loncraine tries to at least create a more complete picture giving us a glimpse into the world of tennis as well as delving into the traditions of Wimbledon and how the Brits feel about the prestigious tournament where British champions are few and far between. Loncraine also utilizes real-life tennis pros such as John McEnroe and Chris Evert who appear as announcers to liven up the proceedings. Even the action on the court with close-up shots of the ball whizzing over the net gets the blood pumping a little--wish there was a lot more of that. But then of course one could just turn on the TV and watch the real Wimbledon instead watching a silly run-of-the-mill romantic comedy set there.